NERS Review of the Year Part 1 – the “They did what now?” edition

By Ed Yong | December 23, 2010 8:30 am

This is the first of a series looking back on the last year of stories. In previous years, I’ve compiled a typical Top 20 list, but this time, I’ve decided to try something more fun, collecting posts according to theme (like this) or topic. Let me know what you think.

Science isn’t just about the ground-breaking discoveries and quirky results – it’s also about how you get there. These techniques are a mix of fun, dangerous, unorthodox and bxreathtaking. They’re a reminder that science is a process, rather than a destination.

12) Giving a fly a laser wax

The title is self-explanatory. The penis of the humble fruit fly Drosophila is armed an array of wince-inducing hooks and spines. To work out what these did, Michal Polak and Arash Rashed removed them with a laser. The first beam cuts close, the second beam cuts closer. The laser-shave revealed that the spines are biological Velcro, helping males to clasp onto females from the inside so that they can’t be easily dislodged. (Study reveals sexual tactics of male flies by shaving their genitals with a laser)

11) A trip to a haunted house

It’s not obvious how taking a brain-damaged woman to a haunted house would get past an ethics committee. But this trip wasn’t an act of sadism – it was part of several tests that showed how a woman called SM feels no fear. She has been held at knifepoint, handled live snakes and spiders, and sat through reels of upsetting footage without a tinge of fear or panic. And all because a pair of almond-shaped structures in her brain – amygdalae – have been destroyed. (Meet the woman without fear)

10) Tracking whales with tourist photos

Humpback whales have unique spots on their tails, much like human fingerprints. Using these spots, the Antarctic Humpback Whale Catalogue, has been collecting photos from scientists, naturalists and tourists to track the movements of the world’s humpbacks. The catalogue shows that one female – spotted in 1999 near Brazil and in 2001 near Madagascar – had made the longest voyage of any mammal. Her colossal trek spanned almost 10,000 km and took her a quarter of the way round the world. (Across an ocean, round a continent – the epic 10,000km voyage of a humpback whale)

9) Data-mining the diaries of trigger-happy explorers

The great naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace shot his way round the Malay Archipelago, studying orang-utans by pumping them full of shot. His records, and those of other European naturalist-explorers allowed modern scientists to reconstruct the history of the Bornean orangutan since the 19th century. They reveal a 6-fold drop in numbers, and the disappearance of the animal from routes where it was previously common. (Expedition records show severe orangutan decline)

8 ) The world’s strangest wine-tasting

The beautiful Solomon’s lily recruits flies as pollinators. To work out how, Johannes Stokl bottled some of the lily’s scent, broke it down into its chemical components, and wafted each individually past a fruit fly. The fly had been immobilised and electrodes were connected to its antennae to record its reactions. (Wine-scented flower draws in fruit flies with yeasty tones)

7) Encouraging a slime mould to devour Tokyo

Surely this is a rite of passage for every Japanese scientist? Thankfully, “Tokyo” was represented by oat flakes arranged in the positions of major local towns. Slime moulds have no brain and they grow with no plan, yet they produced a web of slimy tubes that looked a lot like Tokyo’s actual railway network. The mould’s abilities are a wonder of self-optimisation. With no forward-planning or guiding intelligence, they can duplicate the best efforts of human town planners. (Slime mould attacks simulates Tokyo rail network)

6) The persistence award: 52 years of weekly recordings

That’s dedication for you. In 1952, French scientists set up a “cave laboratory” to study the life of an endangered, blind salamander called the olm. The team have been feeding and protecting the animals and since 1958, they’ve documented their lives on a weekly basis! Not only is this the only successful olm breeding programme in the world, it shows that this bizarre animal can live past 100, and we still don’t know how it does it. (The olm: the blind cave salamander that lives to 100)

5) Studying a mutant half-hen, half-cockerel chicken

Sometimes, discoveries are only possible thanks to the insights provided by very rare mutant animals. The chicken on the right is one: it’s called a gynandromorphy; one half is male and the other half is female. It tells us that birds determine sex in a very different way to mammals. When we develop, our sex chromosomes (X and Y) affect the hormones that pump out of our genitals, and it’s these that set our bodies as male or female. In birds, every single cell has a male or female identity! This post is very dear to my heart – as a result of it, I unwittingly set up a collaboration between a biologist and a chicken farmer (Studying a mutant half-hen, half-cockerel chicken)

4) Antagonise the spitting cobra

No, that’s not a horrendous euphemism. Bruce Young really did provoke spitting cobras in order to study how they so accurately aim their venom at the eyes. Thankfully, he did it with a face-shield. He found that the cobra predicts the position of its target 200 milliseconds later and shoots at where the eyes are going to be. Best sentence in the paper: “To maximize consistency, the last author served as a target for all trials.” (How spitting cobras shoot for the eyes)

3) Dressing crayfish as knights and colouring their pee

No, really. Fiona Berry and Thomas Breithaupt organised blind speed-dates between crayfish, by taping their eyes and injecting them with fluorescent dye that made their urine green. The study found that female urine is a potent aphrodisiac, but having lured a male in with her alluring wee, she plays hard to get to test his strength.  (Crayfish females lure males with urine, but then play hard to get)

2) Sequencing DNA after thousands of years

It’s a really charmed time to be a geneticist, when extinction and several thousands of years can’t stop ancient genes from revealing their secrets. The sequencing of ancient DNA is an immense achievement. This year gave us the full genome of a man called Inuk, who had been dead for 4,000 years. His DNA, preserved in frozen tissues, revealed much about his body and even his origins. Even better, Charlotte Oskam sequenced DNA from fossil eggshells belonging to extinct species like elephant birds and moas, some of which were 19,000 years old. (DNA from the largest bird ever sequenced from fossil eggshells; Meet Inuk – full genome of ancient human tells us about his hair, eyes, skin, teeth, ancestry and earwax)

1) Colouring dinosaurs

The colours of feathers depend partly on microscopic structures called melanosomes. Dinosaur feathers were no exception and two teams have used melanosomes to work out what two species– Sinosauropteryx and Anchiornis – actually looked like. Later, another team did the same for a fossil penguin. In a year with no shortage of technical achievements, this was the one that truly made my jaw drop. It was something that I just never thought would be possible (and it led to a bit of a catfight between the two teams). (The renaissance of technicolour dinosaurs continues (and the gloves come off…); What colours were dinosaur feathers?)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Year in review

Comments (2)

  1. I believe I’ve linked to eleven of your articles this year.

    These include: (1) (2) Both articles about dinosaur colours. (3) February article about clean smells, darkness, and human behaviour. (4) April article about pigeons solving the Monty Hall problem. (5) April article about seeing photographs of sneezing. (6) May article about Nectocaris. (6) June article about bacteria fighting each other up our noses. (7) July article about robins seeing magnetic fields. (8) August article about virulent bacteria being blamed on amoeba. (9) November article about squidworm. (10) December article about fearless woman. (11) December article about chimps playing with sticks.

    It stands to reason that those are the best articles you’ve written this year, otherwise I wouldn’t have linked to them.

  2. natselrox

    That slime mould story reminded of this wonderful example of similarity between artificial and evolved networks in the arterial supply of dog intestine. Dawkins explains in this old video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUkL2bLFiOU (watch from 7:45 onwards…)

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