Archive for September, 2010

A fossil penguin gets its colours

By Ed Yong | September 30, 2010 2:00 pm

All Almost all modern penguins wear a suit of black feathers, but prehistoric members of the group didn’t go for the dinner jacket look. A newly discovered penguin, known as Inkayacu, was dressed in grey and reddish-brown hues.

Inkayacu paracasensis is named after the Quechua words for “water king” and the Paracas National Park where it was discovered by Julia Clarke from the University of Texas. Clarke’s team are no strangers to giant fossil penguins. In 2007, they unveiled two extinct species: Perudyptes, about the size of the modern king penguin; and Icadyptes, which was larger than any living species and had an unusually long, spear-like beak. Like Icadyptes, Inkayacu also swam off the coast of ancient Peru, had a long beak, and was one of the largest penguins in history. It weighed around twice as much as the heaviest of today’s penguins – the emperor.

In many ways, Inkayacu is no more significant a find that Icadyptes was three years ago. It is neither the oldest nor the largest penguin fossil, it doesn’t hail from a new part of the world, and it provides few clues about the group’s evolution. However, it does have one stand-out feature that probably secured its unveiling in the pages of Science – its feathers.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Animals, Birds, Palaeontology

Women make safer financial decisions when faced with sexual stereotypes

By Ed Yong | September 29, 2010 9:00 am


The world of business is brutal and competitive. To succeed, people often need to take high risks with big payoffs. Risk-taking attitudes are often conflated with masculinity. The language used to describe such behaviour is riddled with phrases like “testosterone-charged” and “cowboys”. Women are seen as being more risk averse, a belief epitomised by a spate of articles asking if the financial crisis might have unfolded differently had women been in charge.

Many studies have indeed found that women tend to be more averse to risks and losses than men – they prefer options with higher certainty, and they prefer to avoid losses rather than acquire gains. But according to Priyanka Carr and Claude Steele, this apparent gender difference isn’t the basis for sexual stereotypes, it’s the result of them.

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Squirrels masturbate to avoid sexually transmitted infections

By Ed Yong | September 28, 2010 6:47 pm

ground squirrels

There’s a famous picture that has probably been burned into the retinas of anyone who spends a lot of time on the internet. It’s a squirrel, standing up, with a surprisingly huge pair of testicles dangling beneath him. That’s a Cape ground squirrel and the image isn’t a fake. Males have a scrotum that’s 20% of their body length (excluding the tail) and their penis is more than twice as long.

These mighty genitals suggest that sex, and sperm in particular, is a serious business for Cape ground squirrels. To get the best odds of fathering the next generation, they need to ensure that it’s their sperm that fertilises the female’s eggs and not those of rivals. So they make a lot of it; hence, the oversized testicles.

With sperm being so important, it’s odd that some Cape ground squirrels regularly waste theirs. Yet that’s exactly what Jane Waterman saw while studying wild squirrels in Namibia. Some of them would masturbate, apparently squandering their precious sperm. What does squirrel masturbation look like? Apparently, it’s rather acrobatic. I’ll let Waterman describe it herself:

“An oral masturbation was recorded when a male sat with head lowered and an erect penis in his mouth, being stimulated with both mouth (fellatio) and forepaws (masturbation), while the lower torso moved forward and backwards in thrusting motions, finally culminating in an apparent ejaculation, after which the male appeared to consume the ejaculate.”

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Genetic flip produces two plants for the price of one

By Ed Yong | September 28, 2010 5:00 pm


On the western coast of America, a combination of cool fog and salty sea spray keeps the soil moist all year round. In these wet conditions, you’ll find an unassuming plant called the yellow monkeyflower. Drive further inland, and the climate changes considerably. It’s hotter and drier, and every summer brings a harsh drought. But here too, the yellow monkeyflower blooms but its lifespan is shorter and its leaves are less luscious. Despite their different habitats and lifestyles, both groups of monkeyflowers are members of the same species. But that might eventually change.

David Lowry from Duke University discovered the secret of the monkeyflower’s dual identities lies in a flipped chunk of DNA. A large chunk of the plant’s genome, containing around 360 genes, has been flipped upside-down, effectively giving it two genomes for the price of one.

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Every time you reach for something, there’s a squabbling match in your brain

By Ed Yong | September 27, 2010 3:00 pm


Even the simplest of actions can arise from hidden competition. Imagine reaching for a cup. There are many ways of doing this, depending on where the cup is, whether you’re right- or left-handed, whether the handle is turned towards you, and so on.  Your brain works through all of these possibilities at the same time, and they compete against one another until one wins out. Only after this neural battle does your arm start to move.

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I've got your missing links right here (25th September 2010)

By Ed Yong | September 25, 2010 12:00 pm

“And then that just led to this very weird erotism moment when people were practically hugging each other while eating these live insects.” A fascinating NYT piece on eating insects, which John Rennie expands upon. Read the water-bug bit in particular. “Tt posed a problem that none of the other edible insects that night did: I would have to eat it in at least two bites.”

British science still threatens to die the death of a thousand cuts. Tom Chivers sums things up in the Telegraph and Ben Goldacre has a spot-on analysis of why this brain drain could be much worse than any before.

A Nobel prize-winner Linda Buck has retracted two studies. The circumstances are fascinating and you should read Ivan Oransky’s post for the full story. But special mention should go to the New York Times for showing us how responsible journalism should be done. Look at this headline: Nobel Laureate Retracts Two Papers Unrelated to Her Prize. Brilliant. The first five words raise an obvious question that are then answered by the last four words.

People rarely have any idea of how funding decisions are made. This superb piece from Nature News should help – it’s a first-hand account of a funding meeting at the American Cancer Society.

Kosmoceratops and Utahceratops – two cool new horned dinosaurs. And you’ve gotta love the Guardian’s headline.

Headline of the week. How to get rid of invasive tree snakes: bomb them with parachuted, poisonous mice.

Maryn McKenna on Invader Vim: another bad new resistance factor and another city stigmatized!

Criminal science was not always CSI-style teamwork – Deborah Blum on the early days of forensic science

More after the jump

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Links, Uncategorized

Should science journalists take sides?

By Ed Yong | September 23, 2010 4:20 pm

choose 1 red pill or blue pill

Tonight I took part in a debate at the Royal Institution of Great Britain entitled “Should science journalists takes sides?” The event was chaired by Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre and panellists included myself, Mark Henderson from the Times, Ceri Thomas from BBC’s Today programme and Steve Rayner, the Director of the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society. This is a slightly extended version of what I said during my five minutes of the debate.

The title of this debate opens itself up to multiple interpretations: whose ‘side’ are we talking about? It is clear to me that science journalists should not take the side of any particular scientist, of a specific idea, or even of science itself. But it is imperative that we take the side of truth. That may seem obvious but many of the strictures of traditional journalism are incompatible with even that simple goal.

The problem comes from a desire to be objective or neutral. This is what Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, famously calls the View from Nowhere. You’re detached from the proceedings that you report on. You don’t take sides. You watch from afar. The problem is that reality doesn’t work like that and a commitment to the view from nowhere has many problems.

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The liver’s genetic conveyor

By Ed Yong | September 23, 2010 9:00 am


Our chromosomes are like socks: you want to have a pair of them, nothing more and nothing less. We have 23 pairs of chromosomes per cell, and there are great costs to exceeding this ideal number. Having odd numbers of certain chromosomes leads to genetic disorders like Down syndrome, while babies with three of every chromosome – triploids – tend to be lost to miscarriage or die within months. But having extra chromosomes isn’t always bad. In our liver, it’s positively encouraged.

Cells with extra chromosomes are known as polyploids and they’re a common feature in all mammalian livers. Some have four copies of each chromosome; others have eight, even sixteen. Now, Andrew Duncan from the Oregon Health and Science University has found that liver cells can cycle through chromosome numbers with surprising ease, frequently increasing and reducing their counts.

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One jump from gorillas to humans – the origin of malaria

By Ed Yong | September 22, 2010 1:00 pm


Several million years ago, Plasmodium falciparum – the parasite that causes most cases of human malaria – jumped into humans from other apes. We’ve known as much for decades but for all this time, we’ve pinned the blame on the wrong species. A new study reveals that malaria is not, as previously thought, a disease that came from chimpanzees; instead it’s an unwanted gift from gorillas.

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A possible icy start for life

By Ed Yong | September 21, 2010 11:00 am


The origin of life is surely one of the most important questions in biology. How did inanimate molecules give rise to the “endless forms most beautiful” that we see today, and where did this event happen?  Some of the most popular theories suggest that life began in a hellish setting, in rocky undersea vents that churn out superheated water from deep within the earth. But a new paper suggests an alternative backdrop, and one that seems like the polar opposite (pun intended) of the hot vents –ice.

Like the vents, frozen fields of ice seem like counter-intuitive locations for the origin of life – they’re hardly a hospitable environment today. But according to James Attwater form the University of Cambridge, ice has the right properties to fuel the rise of “replicator” molecules, which can make copies of themselves, change and evolve.

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MORE ABOUT: ice, life, RNA world

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