Archive for November, 2011

How tiny wasps cope with being smaller than amoebas

By Ed Yong | November 30, 2011 9:30 am

Thrips are tiny insects, typically just a millimetre in length. Some are barely half that size. If that’s how big the adults are, imagine how small a thrips’ egg must be. Now, consider that there are insects that lay their eggs inside the egg of a thrips.

That’s one of them in the image above – the wasp, Megaphragma mymaripenne. It’s pictured next to a Paramecium and an amoeba at the same scale. Even though both these creatures are made up of a single cell, the wasp – complete with eyes, brain, wings, muscles, guts and genitals – is actually smaller. At just 200 micrometres (a fifth of a millimetre), this wasp is the third smallest insect alive* and a miracle of miniaturisation.

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Turtle embryos can speed up their development to hatch together with their siblings

By Ed Yong | November 29, 2011 7:00 pm

A clutch of a dozen turtle eggs lies buried in the bank of Australia’s Murray River. For the embryos inside, timing is everything. In a few days, they will all hatch together, finding safety in numbers in their vulnerable first moments. But such synchrony isn’t easy. To achieve it, the embryonic turtles need to coordinate the pace of their development, keeping in time with one another even before they experience the outside world.

Although all the eggs were laid at the same time, in the same nest, they experience radically different environments. Those at the top of the nest, buried in warmer sun-soaked soil, can be up to six degrees Celsius warmer than those at the bottom. That’s a problem because the embryos develop at different rates depending on how hot they are. Given the gradient of warmth in the nest, the topmost turtles should hatch well before their siblings at the bottom.

That’s not what happens. Ricky-John Spencer from the University of Western Sydney has found that the Murray River turtles can tell whether their clutch-mates are more or less advanced, and shift the pace of their own development accordingly. If their peers are racing ahead, they can play catch-up.

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Infants prefer a nasty moose if it punishes an unhelpful elephant

By Ed Yong | November 28, 2011 3:00 pm

If you saw someone punching a stranger in the street, you might think poorly of them. But if you found out that the stranger had slept with the assailant’s partner, had kicked a kitten, or was Justin Bieber, you might think differently about the situation. You might even applaud the punch-thrower.

When we make moral judgments, we do so subtly and selectively. We recognise that explicitly antisocial acts can seem appropriate in the right circumstances. We know that the enemy of our enemy can be our friend. Now, Kiley Hamlin from the University of British Columbia has shown that this capacity for finer social appraisals dates back to infancy – we develop it somewhere between our fifth and eighth months of life.

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I've got your missing links right here (26 November 2011)

By Ed Yong | November 26, 2011 12:00 pm

Top picks

An amazing three-part feature from Daniel Engber on why the focus on mice and rats in lab research is a problem. Also: naked mole rats

Deborah Blum explains what pepper spray is and why it categorically isn’t just a “food product”. Meanwhile, Rebecca Rosen has a great piece on the regrets of pepper spray’s inventor and other people who created weapons

A killer icicle – a “brincle” – reaches down and kills life on the Antarctic ocean floor. Incredible stuff.

A must-read piece on the strange, tangled history of chronic fatigue syndrome research, by David Tuller at the Virology blog.

By day, he was a corporate sales exec; by night, he led a paramilitary vigilante squad that targeted Ponzi operators

An excellent takedown from Neurobonkers of a scaremongering newspaper health story about a fake health scare.

In response the latest set of hacked climate emails, Damian Carrington argues that the failure to catch climate email hacker is the real scandal, while Leo Hickman is looking for clues. Meanwhile, a detailed response from Phil Jones regarding specific quotes from the emails.

That land-walking octopus explained by Katharine Harmon (who has clearly been paid to cover up the imminent invasion)

Ann Finkbeiner’s science metaphors series is just wonderful. Here’s the latest on degeneracy

Superb Lucas Brouwers post on the origins of a frog-killing fungus

We are all connected: a beautiful short video from the WWF showing the humans and other animals juxtaposed in split-screen, shot for shot.

In which Jennifer Ouellette finds significance (and beauty) in insignificance

Awesome. Rebecca Skloot talks with David Dobbs about structure, storytelling and more in the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Great Steve Silberman piece on Susan Kare, the iconic icon-designer who gave computing a human face

A great Carl Zimmer piece about whether teaching is a uniquely human behaviour

David Dobbs: “I call on science writers everywhere, writing about behavioral genetics: Do Better.”

Great Sally Adee post on the neuroscience of The Knowledge: the brutal test that London cabbies must endure

“You won’t find those fecal pellets in Happy Feet Two” – Thomas Hayden on diving for krill

How a baby turtle reaches the sea. Lovely Al Dove piece, featuring Robo-turtle and Blake

“Dear Professor, I think my husband may be a Neanderthal” Great Ian Sample story on Svante Paabo’s mailbag

How the Arab Spring is affecting ancient Egypt and the archaeologists who study it, by Jo Marchant

Kat Arney dissects the nonsense of ‘antineoplastons’ while the people behind it threaten a blogger’s family.

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Burgling beetle targets plants with the heaviest security

By Ed Yong | November 24, 2011 9:30 am

Heavy locks, imposing gates and motion-sensing lights can help to fortify your home and safeguard your belongings against thieves. On the other hand, they can also advertise the fact that you have stuff worth stealing. Extra security can be a double-edged sword.

This is as true for plants defending their tissues as it is for humans defending their homes. Maize plants, like many others, protect themselves with poisons. They pump their roots with highly toxic insecticides called BXDs, which deters hungry mandibles. But these toxins don’t come free. The plant needs energy to act as its own pharmacist, so it distributes the poison to the areas that deserve the greatest fortification – its crown roots.

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Spiders coat their silk with an ant-repellent

By Ed Yong | November 23, 2011 9:30 am

Spider webs are great at catching flying insects, but they’re an inviting target for walking ones. The spider sits pretty in the middle of its home, surrounded by the pre-packaged morsels of the insects it has caught. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet, and ants should easily be able to raid it. Ants are excellent predators, they hunt in large numbers, and they can negotiate their way along the non-stick parts of the web. And yet, there are very few reports of ants successfully pillaging spider webs. Why?

Shichang Zhang has found one possible answer: some spiders lace their silk with an ant-repelling chemical. Their sticky webs, which so effectively trap some insects, can also deter others.

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Insects trade bacteria by drinking from the same plant

By Ed Yong | November 22, 2011 7:00 pm

Many insects suck the juices of plants, much to the dismay of gardeners and farmers. But plants are more than just a source of food; they’re also a source of bugs for bugs. Ayelet Caspi-Fluger from the Newe-Ya’ar Research Center has found that sap-sucking whiteflies can transfer bacteria into the plants they feed from, and these bacteria can then be picked up by other whiteflies. By plunging their straws into the same jug, the whiteflies can pass beneficial microbes to one another.

Insects carry a wide variety of bacteria inside their tissues, which help them digest their food and even grant them superpowers. These passengers are passed on from mother to youngsters, and across sexual partners. But they must also have ways of jumping across the species barrier, for closely related bacteria are often found in distantly related insects. Plants are an obvious route, but until now, no one has clearly shown that they can channel bacteria from one insect to another. Caspi-Fluger is the first.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Bacteria, Insects, Plants

Microraptor – the four-winged dinosaur that ate birds

By Ed Yong | November 21, 2011 3:00 pm

We now know that birds evolved from small, feathered dinosaurs. It’s easy to think that since birds are still around today, they must have come after their dinosaur* cousins, but that’s not true. In the Cretaceous period, dinosaurs were still around while their descendants flitted through the skies. And some dinosaurs made meals of their flighty relatives. Jingmai O’Connor from the Chinese Academy of Sciences has uncovered the remains of a small dinosaur called Microraptor that has the bones of small bird in its gut.

O’Connor analysed the fossil with Xing Xu, a Chinese scientist who has made a career from discovering beautiful feathered dinosaurs. Microraptor is one of his most important finds. This tiny animal, about the size of a pigeon, had four wings, with long feathers on both of its legs as well as its arms. It was, at the very least, a very competent glider, if not a true flier.

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I've got your missing links right here (19 November 2011)

By Ed Yong | November 19, 2011 12:00 pm

I’m travelling for a bit so this week’s selection is a bit truncated. Also, I have limited internet access so if there are broken links you’ll have to fix them yourself.

Top picks

Fantastic stuff: Carin Bondar hands HD flip cameras to field biologists, edits them & shoots her own presenter segments to create these great videos of science in action

Excellent piece from John Rennie about people who quibble over the causes of climate disasters

Which is more unethical: doing medical research on chimps, or stopping it? Great piece in the New York Times. Meanwhile, Brandon Keim has a great piece on the life of retired lab chimps.

A woman’s stirring beat-by-beat account of how social media saved her husband’s life in Kyrgyzstan

A stunningly beautiful post about a psychiatric interview, by Shara Yuirkiewicz

Behold The Crux: Discover’s new group-blog about big ideas in science. Here are two examples by top writers. “Life during wartime: can mental illness be a rational response?” by Vaughan Bell. And “If food can overrule genes, can it mess with evolution?” by John Rennie. However, check out this thorough fisking from Tara Smith who slams one of the posts on the HPV vaccine.

Nature is also the 99%.

I LOVE THIS. An artist is creating an illuminated manuscript version of Origin of the Species

Incredible. A 1994 paper in which a doctor reinvents calculus and names it after herself

Carl Zimmer describes Svante Paabo’s remarkable work on Neanderthals

Megan Garber reminds us that, when it comes to the Future of News, all this has happened before and all this will happen again

Over your lifetime, your heart will beat 3 billion times. Here’s the story of one of those beats, by Alok Jha, Kevin Fong and others.

A great piece on the future of genome studies, by Misha Angrist. “Kids with serious undiagnosed conditions do not give a sh*t” about things ethicists agonise over.

Be sure to check out Emily Willingham’s new blog Double X Science, which aims to “bring science to the woman in you.” Good read for both genders.


Brain cell genomes show their individuality

Europe Bans X-Ray Body Scanners Used at U.S. Airports – concerns over “small number of cancer cases”

Are orangutans in Indonesian Borneo doomed to extinction?

NASA is actually accepting applications to be an astronaut

Suicide is “one of the most under-researched areas in all of psychiatry.”

Moth’s True Colors Shine After 47 Million Years

Brains scans used to make animation of female orgasm

The Latest on the Great Magnetic Cow Smackdown

Lutetia, the asteroid that may have witnessed the birth of the Earth

Very cool. Leonardo’s Formula Explains Why Trees Don’t Splinter

A very nice explainer on graphic cigarette packets

On freelancing. This is brilliant. AND UNTRUE.

Related to my GM-mosquito piece in Slate, here’s a really good interview with Luke Alphey, who released some GM-mozzies in the Caymans.

BBC drop climate change episode of Frozen Planet for marketing overseas, says the Telegraph. However, the BBC clarifies the reason for the choice.

What an hour of deep-sea vent life looks like in 2 mins, w/ TONS of sea spiders

Judy Mikovits is being sued by her former employer. The XMRV-CFS story just rolls on.

You know, real scientists actually *test* their hypotheses, rather than endlessly generating them.

Sloppy, risible science: my rant on the new paper on the Pill and prostate cancer

Woah! Optogenetics in monkeys!

Malaria preserved in amber

“NASA says the sun doesn’t have enough energy to hurl a fireball 93 million miles to destroy Earth.” Goody.

From BBC Lab UK, a nationwide morality test

This is the best link you’ll read this week about spiders, presents, sex and pretending to be dead.

“What good is green technology if it’s based on minerals whose extraction is so, well, ungreen?”

Animal-spotting app lets you be a conservationist with your iPhone

A collection of famous sufferers of debilitating tropical diseases.


Evil gannet will consume your soul.

Unfortunate headlines #3512

Amazing photo of a caterpillar emerging from a translucent egg

This sh*t is OLD.

RSPCA’s Young Photographer of the year award

Roulette is your best bet [for making money]– 20x as good as lotteries, and 160x as good as premium bonds…”

“The trouble with video games isn’t the violence. It’s that the characters are dicks”

A Matchmaking Service to Unite Scientists and Citizen Volunteers

A prize-winning essay on the nocebo effect, by Penny Sarchet.

What blinds 270k people every year? This infographic tells all.

Brain scans indicate… less than you think they do.

The Neuroskeptic on the new study showing more brain cells in autism


Great feature on the Winklevii : two people who really really hate losing but are great at it

The plagiarizing authors who don’t even exist!

Boring conference in danger of being too interesting

Blogging a paper causes a spike in downloads equivalent to 3 years worth of abstract views in some cases

14 Punctuation Marks That You Never Knew Existed. Viva l’interrobang.

The story behind Lauren Gravitz’s story on a Nobel winner’s effort to treat his cancer w/ cells he studied


Some like it hot (if they’re riddled with parasites)

By Ed Yong | November 17, 2011 9:30 am

A stickleback is heading for a warm bath. While its peers prefer to swim in lukewarm water at around 16 degrees Celsius, this individual likes it hotter. That’s not because of a personal preference – instead, it is being steered by a parasite. A tapeworm has lodged in its guts, and it needs warmer temperatures to grow as large as possible. The stickleback becomes little more than a living car that drives the worm to the heated pools that it prefers. Read More


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