Archive for August, 2011

Eco-labelled fish may be unsustainably fished, or the wrong species

By Ed Yong | August 22, 2011 12:00 pm

The Chilean seabass is no stranger to being mislabelled. It bears little relation to the various fish that are also known as basses, and it’s more properly referred to as the Patagonian toothfish (a name that is presumably more difficult to market). But the confusion doesn’t end there. While the toothfish is the target for illegal and unsustainable fishing operations, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has certified one fishery as being sustainable. It’s found around the island of South Georgia near the tip of South America.

But some products marked as certified toothfish don’t come from this fishery. Some aren’t even toothfish at all.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Fishing, Genetics

I've got your missing links right here (20 August 2011)

By Ed Yong | August 21, 2011 12:00 pm

Because of the Peru trip, I had limited time to read/aggregate this week so this selection of links is a bit truncated and unsorted. Normal service to resume next week.

Top picks

Wow. How Carl Zimmer inspired two scientists (&many more) in their scientific lives.

Guy sees Fibonacci sequence in trees, sets up experiments, develops more efficient arrangement for solar panels. He’s 13. Sadly debunked.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s profile of Svante Paabo in the New Yorker is absolutely masterful. Great piece of long-form writing.

There have been chemists long before there have been chemists. By Deborah Blum

“Zoologically improbable and/or terrifying to small children.” T-shirt please of this, the best museum sign ever.

O HAI! I CAN HAZ CONZURVAYSHUN?? Cool selection of portraits from massive camera trap study

“I’ve a big problem w/ studies built around something that only purportedly exists.” PalMD on a lamentable “biofield therapy” paper in Cancer.


Best wedding photos ever

Wow. How Carl Zimmer inspired two scientists (&many more) in their scientific lives.

Cancer – it’s really much more complicated than anyone had imagined

Why is it so hard to kill a cockroach with your shoe?

The Selfish Gene: The Musical.

Gut bacteria may be the missing piece that explains the connection between diet and cancer risk, says The Scientist. Not a lot of evidence at the moment, but a worthy concept.

Preggers plesiosaurs – great long take by Brian Switek on a wonderful fossil

First patent approved for iPS stem cells. Shouldn’t restrict any not-for-profit research

In which Maryn McKenna warns us of yet another way in which we’re all going to die because of bacteria (+ good comments)

Letter to Nature says Homo sapiens is inaccurate. The petition to rename us as Homo dumbass begins here

“There’s always the eensy-weensy possibility that you might save all of humanity.”

Fish masquerades as a piece of coral

‘Flawed’ infant death papers, involving unethical organ harvesting, still not retracted

Due to climate change, wildlife flees for the hills

New Allegations Leveled Against Polar Bear Scientist

Living fossil eel discovered in Palau.”Hasn’t been anything comparable to this since the coelacanth was discovered”

Black Death study lets rats off the hook

This illusion will destroy your brain, says Phil Plait and he might be right

Science graffiti. The last one is particularly great.

What would you do if a male silverback gorilla charged at you, seemingly rubbing his nipples?

Great newspaper lede

Evolve your own design for a new lamp – and then 3D print it

Social networks to meet Home Secretary to discuss restrictions. Twitter gives them the finger. Good on them.

“At last, the field of genomics has something to offer Cheech and Chong.”

Aliens might take greenhouse emissions as reason to destroy humanity. They can have Rick Perry first

Great. Just great. Quackery killing cancer patients AND rhinos.

Photographer infiltrates Fukushima nuclear plant

Mathematics, Cities, and Brains: What Can A Highway Engineer Learn From A Neuroscientist?

104 rescued frogs die in captivity. Problem: that’s half the estimated size of the wild population

Don’t believe the hype. Human pheromones may not even exist, let alone influence sexual attraction:

Wow! Mabus has been arrested! The point when he started spamming the local police department was probably the clincher.

Meet Commander Shepherd. Great profile of Jennifer Hale, ubiquitous voice actress behind Shepherd & many other computer game characters


The Amazon rainforest from the air

By Ed Yong | August 20, 2011 8:46 am

I’ve just come back from a week in Peru, doing some reporting for a piece I’m writing for Wired UK. I’ll have more on that closer to the point of publication. For the moment, here are some photos of the Peruvian Amazon and nearby mountains, taken from the air.



Finches die earlier if they’re paired with highly strung partners

By Ed Yong | August 17, 2011 9:00 am

A stressful early life can have long-lasting consequences, not just for you but for your partner. Pat Monaghan from the University of Glasgow found that zebra finches are more sensitive to stress as adults if they had unusually high levels of stress hormones as chicks. To no one’s surprise, they also died at a younger age. But it came as more of a shock that these tightly wound finches passed the consequences of their early hardships to their partners. They too died earlier even if their early days had been stress-free.

A wide variety of animals react to stressful conditions by become physiologically more jumpy. Their bodies flood with stress hormones at slight provocations, and they take longer to return to normal. In the short term, these changes help animals to survive through difficult times. But they can also be harmful in the long term. Not only can they shorten an individual’s life, but they can turn it into an undesirable partner.

Many studies have found that individuals across many different species are less likely to secure mates when they grow up if they have stressful upbringings. This might be because they are less physically attractive but, based on his study, Monaghan thinks that it could also be that such individuals pose a health hazard to their mates.

Read More

Whales sucked before they sieved

By Ed Yong | August 16, 2011 7:00 pm

The blue whale – the largest living animal on the planet – can eat half a million calories in a single titanic gulp. It accelerates to high speeds and lunges into a swarm of tiny krill. It opens the world’s biggest mouth, which expands like a balloon to swallow up to 110 tonnes of water. The mouth closes, and the tongue pushes the water against bristly plates called baleen, which filter out the krill.

The blue whale’s skull is specially adapted to allow it to engulf large volumes of water. If you push against your chin, nothing happens because the two halves of your lower jaw are firmly fused together at the front. That’s not the case for the blue whale. The joint between its lower jaws – the mandibular symphysis – is particularly loose and elastic, allowing the jaw to flex and expand with the incoming tide of water and krill.

This elastic joint is a defining trait of all whales that sieve their food from the water, including the blue, humpback and right whales. Not all of them are lunge-feeders. The right and bowhead whales swim through schools of plankton with jaws open, while gray whales suck up mud from the seafloor. But all of them rely on the elastic joint that allows them to open their mouths as wide as possible. It was an important innovation that allowed this group – the mysticetes, or baleen whales – to hunt the smallest of prey in the largest of volumes. It allowed them to evolve into the largest animals this planet has ever seen.

But that wasn’t always the case. Ancient whales had the same fused jaws found in toothed whales like sperm whale and dolphins (and, for that matter, humans). Now, Erich Fitzgerald from Museum Victoria in Melbourne has found a fossil that bridges the gap between this standard set-up and the flexible jaws of titans.

Read More

Scientists engineer suicide bomber bacteria to kill other bacteria

By Ed Yong | August 16, 2011 9:00 am

In a lab in Singapore, scientists are designing and breeding suicide bombers. If their efforts pan out, they will be applauded rather than jailed, for their targets are neither humans nor buildings. They’re bacteria.

Nazanin Saeidi and Choon Kit Wong have found a new way of killing Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an opportunistic species that thrives wherever humans are weak. It commonly infects hospital patients whose immune systems have taken a hit. It targets any tissue it can get a foothold on – lungs, bladders, guts – and it often causes fatal infections. To seek and destroy this threat, Saiedi and Wong have used the common lab bacterium Escherichia coli as a sacrificial pawn.

Read More

The threatening vibes of whip spiders (Warning: NSFA)

By Ed Yong | August 15, 2011 9:00 am

If any group of animals looks like a nightmare made real, it’s the whip spiders. Also known as whip scorpions, these creatures look like flattened versions of true spiders, and they’re close relatives of their namesakes. Their front pair of legs has been transformed into long ‘whips’, which they flail ahead of their bodies to search of prey. Anything unfortunate enough to make contact gets grabbed by the whip spider’s massive pincers, each twice as long as the animal itself and tipped in fiendish spikes.

Read More

I've got your missing links right here (13 August 2011)

By Ed Yong | August 13, 2011 12:00 pm

Top picks

Spoiler warning: spoilers don’t spoil experiences, by Jonah Lehrer

Should you have the right to be “forgotten” online? In Europe, lawsuits & talk of regulations

The science of yodelling. Pure joy by Jennifer Ouellette. I’d quote a bit, but it’s just golden throughout.

Why do people confess to crimes they haven’t committed. A must-read trio of articles

Five things you really don’t want hacked. A great piece by Veronique Greenwood

Placebo brain surgery – it’s not exactly brain surgery, but is it necessary? A great piece by Anna Katsnelson.

Susan Greenfield has been at it again, suggesting links between the internet and autism. Martin Robbins looks at what she said versus what she says she said Carl Zimmer starts a meme. And the Neuroskeptic proves that Susan Greenfield causes autism

How do you do a clinical trial of scorpion antivenom? With great, great difficulty

Bradley Voytek on “the craziest, most unethical study I’ve ever seen

Xu Xing has discovered around 30 dinosaur species but hadn’t even heard of dinos when he was assigned to the palaeontology department.

What field do blind mathematicians tend to work in? Geometry.

Sharp Alexis Madrigal analysis on why Facebook and Google’s concept of real names is revolutionary

“I want a scepticism that queries rather than condemns” Nice piece by Suzanne Moore

Erika Check Hayden looks at Rosie Redfield’s open attempts to disprove arseniclife.

How people in science see each other. Wonderful.

How autism fundraising organisations make adults on the spectrum invisible

Small male squid cockblocks flashier males by sneaking in and placing his giant sperm near the female’s mouth. No, really

A Colorful Way to Watch Evolution in Nebraska’s Sand Dunes – Hillary Rosner on Hopi Hoekstra’s wonderful research.

On London’s riots, Vaughan Bell has an excellent piece on riot psychology and why crowd behaviour is a complex area that’s surprisingly poorly researched, and Tom Stafford writes about why  the Daily Mail is so threatened by attempts to explain the British looting. Also worth reading are James Meek’s take on London: “This isn’t mixing. It’s the ingredients for something… laid out side by side & not being mixed” And some much-needed humour from the Daily Mash (A gigantic number of policemen on London streets does seem to prevent riots, it emerged last night), the Photoshopped Looter blog, and this from near my neck of the woods: “One youth arrested on suspicion of carrying a balaclava; his parents have been informed”

Read More


Five years old!

By Ed Yong | August 12, 2011 7:01 pm

Here’s a brief note to commemorate the fact that Not Exactly Rocket Science is five years old today!  Once again, thanks to my wife, my science writer colleagues and all of you for giving me the motivation and support to carry on writing.

And by coincidence, I’m flying off to Peru for my first field-reporting assignment. More on that later.


(Image from camflam)


The world’s biggest market (and it’s underground)

By Ed Yong | August 12, 2011 9:00 am

It is very easy to find the world’s most extensive marketplace – just find your nearest forest, field or garden, and look underground.

The planet’s land plants are engaged in an ancient alliance with the so-called “AM fungi” that grow into their roots. One plant might be colonised by many fungi, and a single fungus could connect up to many plants. The fungi harvest nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen from the soil and channel them to their hosts.  In return, the plants provide the fungi with the sugars and carbohydrates they need to grow.

This symbiotic partnership covers the planet in green. It’s common to 80 percent of land plants, and is credited with driving the evolution of this group some 470 million years ago. Now, Toby Kiers from Vrije University in Amsterdam has found that plants and fungi have maintained their grand alliance by setting up a strong market economy.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cooperation, Ecology, Fungi, Plants, Select

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Not Exactly Rocket Science

Dive into the awe-inspiring, beautiful and quirky world of science news with award-winning writer Ed Yong. No previous experience required.

See More

Collapse bottom bar