Pygmy mole crickets leap from water with spring-loaded oars on their legs

By Ed Yong | December 3, 2012 11:00 am

When Malcolm Burrows first heard the sound of a pygmy mole cricket leaping from water, he was enjoying a sandwich. Burrows, a zoologist from the University of Cambridge, was visiting Cape Town and had snuck out the back of the local zoology department to eat his lunch by a pond. “I heard sporadic thwacking noises coming from the water,” he says. “When I looked more closely I could see small black insects jumping repeatedly from the water and heading towards the bank.”

They were pygmy mole crickets, a group of tiny insects just a few millimetres long. Despite their name, they’re more grasshoppers than crickets, and are some of the most primitive members of this group. They’re found on every continent except Antarctica.

Pygmy mole crickets cannot fly, but they can certainly jump. Burrows collected some of the individuals from the pond, and took them back to the lab to film them with high-speed cameras. When they take off, they often spin head-over-tail, but what they lack in elegance they make up for in distance. They can jump over 1.4 metres, more than 280 times their own body length.

Doing this on land is one thing, but as Burrows saw at the pond, these insects can also jump from water. This ability serves them well—they live in burrows near to fresh water, which frequently flood. Their leaps send them back to terra firma, saving their lives.

Burrows found that these insects jump from water in a completely new way. Animals like pond-skaters and the basilisk lizard can walk on water by relying on surface tension—the tendency of the surface of water to resist an external force. But the mole cricket extends its hind legs so quickly that they break right through the surface.

As the legs move through the water, three pairs of flat paddles and two pairs of long spurs flare out from each one. These structures have a concave shape, much like an oar. As they flare out, they increase the surface area of the mole cricket’s leg by around 2.4 times, allowing it to push down on a much larger volume of water. And once the legs are fully extended, the paddles retract to reduce the drag on the airborne insect. From water, the mole crickets can only jump for 3 centimetres or so. That’s pathetic compared to their land-based attempts, but still more than 5 times their body length, and enough to save them from drowning.

When Burrows shone ultraviolet light onto the paddles, they glowed with a bright blue colour at their bases. That’s the signature of resilin, an incredibly elastic protein that powers the jumps and wingbeats of many insects. Its presence on the mole cricket suggests that the paddles and spurs are spring-loaded.

“It just shows what amazing things can be found close to where we live and work,” says Burrows. “Instead of spending time exploring the more exotic parts of South Africa, I spent most of my visit there essentially looking outside my back door.”

Reference: Burrows & Sutton. 2012. Pygmy mole crickets jump from water. Current Biology 22: R990

All photos and video by Malcolm Burrows

I’ve got your missing links right here (1 December 2012)

By Ed Yong | December 1, 2012 12:00 pm

Top picks

This slow-motion video of a cheetah running is the most incredible thing I’ve seen all…. Well, it’s incredible. Note how freakishly steady the head is! And focus on one foot – watch how much distance the animal covers between the foot lifting off and coming down again! And do NOT miss the end, where you see how it looks in real-time.

The closest planet to the sun has loads of ice! Amazing news about Mercury!

Human Evolution [Is Going Through] an Exciting New Phase – excellent piece by Brandon Keim

Stunningly good read about a man’s journey from earache to brain tumour to coma, and the ensuing end-of-life court battle.

The Lying Disease: Why do some people fake cancer online? An incredible piece on “Munchausen’s by Internet”.

Every single sentence in Time’s description of the Higgs boson is wrong.

The man whose brain ignores one half of his world

Top photo: the one on the right is a sponge; the one on the left is a frogfish. Just astounding

Great interview at TheAtlantic with Uri Simonsohn “the data vigilante” who has exposed fraud in psychology

This is how Pompeii died, and it’s not quite how most people think. Great piece by Dana Hunter.

Beautiful photo series of the sublime slime mould Dictyostelium, by Alex Wild

How do porcupines mate? The standard punchline is correct, but doesn’t even begin to cover it

Bugs! Antarctica! Lake! Life abounds in really very extreme conditions.

Two years with cancer – XKCD

A Tale of Two Scales: Big Rhinos and Giant Rhinos; a lovely evocative post from John Hutchinson

Experiments that run longer than the life of the researcher! (With Richard Lenski, who is still alive and still awesome)



Jack Gilbert will take ALL of your sh*t. Just send it to him in the post. Interesting project to crowdsource 10k gut microbiomes from around the US

Every wondered what the time is in Antarctica? It’s more complicated than you might think

Crocodile head scales result from cracking

An RCT of (false)-balanced reporting on the autism-vaccine story on beliefs about vaccines

Is everything we eat associated with cancer – study uses cookbooks to review the gigantic mess that is nutritional epidemiology.

Fantastic critique of the NYT’s oversold “immortal jellyfish” story, by Paul Raeburn.

This is not a Rubik’s cube

Solid response from SciCurious to bizarre, ill-advised idea of getting a PhD to BECOME a science writer

The Integrative Palaeontologist – what promises to be a great new blog about dinosaurs

Journal retracts fraudster’s papers, then publishes NEW paper from same guy that cites retracted papers & hides

Lovely bit of unfolding natural history: a tale of whelks and unfortunate clams

Italian team take picture of DNA with electron microscope

Siamese fighting fish gulp air to keep on fighting

Can we predict what proportion of scientific studies will replicate? One project’s gonna try

Ignore the lamentable Susan Greenfield & watch Daphne Bavelier on video games improving cognition

NASA backpedals on misreported claim about Mars findings.

Report on Diederik Stapel – psychology fraudster – blames the absence of a critical scientific culture at academic institutions. Meanwhile, Stapel is so sorry and ashamed that he’s writing a book about it

Does the world seem steadier if you’re a chicken?

New species of skinny, bug-eyed snake discovered in Ecuador

Fear Factor: Spider silk reduces plant damage

Amazon deforestation drops to record low

10,000 Hrs of Practice Won’t Make You An Expert: 10 Facts That Really Aren’t Facts

Barrel roll! A blue whale’s size doesn’t stop it performing underwater acrobatics to attack prey

Some… “scientists” claimed to have sequenced Bigfoot DNA. Next: chupacabra FMRI!

SciCurious is starting a guest-post series, for scientists who want to try their hand at science writing

On the need for robot ethics: “Your driverless car is about to hit a bus; should it veer off a bridge?”

Scientists say they can track early human movements over 7,000 years ago by analysing molecules in ancient poo.

SpaceX founder unveils plan to send 80,000 people to Mars. Which reminds me of this.

New fossil reveals hangingfly that might have hid among Jurassic ginkgo trees

Brain’s ‘reading centres’ are culturally universal

Should scientists, particularly climate scientists, be bolder in public? By Alice Bell

Stressing out really does make severe depression worse

Wonderful, compassionate article by Vaughan Bell on the many varied ways people grieve

Can a scientific fraudster be rehabilitated? Why would we even bother?

From Charles Darwin’s pigeons to moon rock, London’s Natural History Museum celebrates its most prized items.

Great NYT interactive on the extent to which rising seas will submerge U.S. cities

Living cells enclosed in nanopyramids, interacting with others in neighbouring pyramids

Ten Amazon cities doubled in population in last 10yrs, swallowing the rainforest

No, smallpox virus has NOT been detected in 300-year-old Siberian mummy… just gene fragments

Faked research is endemic in China.” Shi-Min Fang [exposed] 1000+ cases of science fraud

“This “scientist as monk” meme is hurtful and deserves to die a flaming death.”

The new coronavirus that emerged in Mideast before the hajj & then seemed to disappear has now sickened an entire family



Jaw meet floor: Gorgeous images from National Geographic Photo Contest. Some days, I feel like this sealion

The first law of thermodynamics is…

One for the editors. Note: irony.

The Philosopher Shaming Tumblr is great. Twitter will give me CONSTANT opportunities to use this one.

NOM Chomsky

The Nile from space

‘I Am A Brand,’ Pathetic Man Says

170-foot trampoline installed in Russian forest. Some bears are gonna be pretty confused…

“With Apple’s new “Letters”, we can write words like “cease” and “desist”.”

Work hard, kids: After his Nobel win, Niels Bohr was given a perpetual beer supply, piped into his house

Incredible Time-Lapse Video Shows Stars and Clouds Over Volcanic Island

Brilliant blue tree tarantula w/ yellow banding



Massive congratulations to Suzi Gage and David Colquhoun for winning the first UK Science Blog Prize.

The big news in journalism this week is the publication of the Leveson report. Here’s a take from Emily Bell arguing why it’s already irrelevant, and another good take from the Economist. And the Daily Mash: “The thing where everyone gets their news has promised to find out what a ‘Leveson’ is.”

Syria cut itself off from the internet, killed cell service-not good.

Pentagon: autonomous robots won’t be allowed to kill you, but they can spy on you and hack you. YAYSES!

Onion’s ‘sexy’ North Korea story fools Chinese media

1st answer is AMAZING: If every US state declared war against each other, which would win?

Amazing economics article from XKCD

How a fake press release on a Google acquisition fooled the media

Astonishing, depressing photo of an ant-like queue of people on the side of Everest. And the perspective of Ralf Dujmovits, who took the photo.

A new blog on science journalism from for great young journalists, in advance of next year’s conference in Helsinki

Well played, humanity. Buying coffee for the next person in line – Pay-it-forward in action!

How Google put work into Spanner—the story of the world’s largest database

“What is needed is the bravery to construct a horrible journalistic sentence which is nonetheless precise”

When everyone is a publisher, everyone can be sued – the Economist on Twitter

Macy’s parade: ‘Shredded police papers in confetti.’ Shredded *horizontally*?!?

Why does Superman wear red underwear over his costume? Actually interesting

These professors who cracked an ancient 250-year-old code and found a secret society




Spaun, the simulated brain that performs simple tasks

By Ed Yong | November 30, 2012 9:00 am

There have been many attempts to create a virtual brain, by simulating massive networks of neurons. But brains aren’t just piles of neurons. They also do things. They perceive. They reason. They solve tasks. Enter Spaun – the first brain simulation that actually shows simple behaviour, from recognising and copying a number, to solving simple reasoning problems.

It simulates 2.5 million virtual neurons, including the electricity that course through them, and the signalling chemicals that pass between them. It’s almost as accurate as the average humans at 8 separate tasks and, rather delightfully, reproduces many of our strange quirks – like the tendency to remember items at the start and end of a list.

I’ve written about Spaun for Nature News. Head over there for more


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Neuroscience and psychology

We’re back… but comments have changed.

By Ed Yong | November 29, 2012 3:59 pm

The good news: the blogs are back online, and speeds are back to normal. Thanks for your patience.

The bad news: the comment system has now changed so that you can only comment after you have created an account and signed in. This overwrites my old comment policy of being able to comment freely once your first comment is approved.

For the record, I found out about this change on Monday and I’m not happy about it. If you feel the same, just bear with me – I’ll have an update in a week or so. Or feel free to voice your views by… erm… registering and leaving a comment, or sending me an email.

In the meantime, plenty of cool science coming up…



DNA Lego bricks produce nano-sculptures

By Ed Yong | November 29, 2012 1:17 pm

For tens of thousands of years, humans have created sculptures by carving pieces from a solid block. They have chipped away at stone, metal, wood and ceramics, creating art by subtracting material. Now, a group of scientists from Harvard University have figured out how to do the same thing with DNA.

First, Yonggang Ke builds a solid block of DNA from individual Lego-like bricks. Each one is a single strand of the famous double helix that folds into a U-shape, designed to interlock with four neighbours. You can see what happens in the diagram below, which visualises the strands as two-hole Lego bricks. Together, hundreds of them can anneal into a solid block. And because each brick has a unique sequences, it only sticks to certain neighbours, and occupies a set position in the block.

This means that Ke can create different shapes by leaving out specific bricks from the full set, like a sculptor removing bits of stone from a block. Starting with a thousand-brick block, he carved out 102 different shapes, with complex features like cavities, tunnels, and embossed symbols. Each one is just 25 nanometres wide in any direction, roughly the size of the smallest viruses.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Art and Culture, Genetics, Select

Bear with us…

By Ed Yong | November 28, 2012 4:29 pm

You may have noticed that Discover has had a redesign. This has been accompanied by a migration to new servers, which means that the site is currently loading slowly, if at all, and that comments aren’t working yet.

Apologies for the inconvenience. If you have any complaints, please leave a comme… never mind.



Enter the hyperparasites – wasps that lay eggs in wasps that lay eggs in caterpillars

By Ed Yong | November 27, 2012 5:00 pm

(Left by Nina Fatouros, centre by Hans Smid, right by Harald Süpfle)

A very hungry caterpillar munches on a cabbage leaf and sets off an alarm. The plant releases chemicals into the air, signalling that it is under attack. This alarm is intercepted by a wasp, which stings the caterpillar and implants it with eggs. When they hatch, the larval wasps devour their host from the inside, eventually bursting out to spin cocoons and transform into adults. The cabbage (and those around it) are saved, and the wasp—known as a parasitoid because of its fatal body-snatching habits—raises the next generation.

But that’s not the whole story.

Some parasitic wasps are “hyperparasitoids”—they target other parasitoid wasps. And they also track the cabbage’s alarm chemicals, so they can find infected caterpillars. When they do, they lay their eggs on any wasp grubs or pupae that they find. Their young devour the young of the other would-be parasites, in a tiered stack of body-snatching. It’s like a cross between the films Alien and Inception.

Read More

Will we ever… make a safe cigarette?

By Ed Yong | November 26, 2012 9:00 am

Here’s the 13th piece from my BBC column

There’s an old saying among people who work in public health: Tobacco is the only legal product that, when used as intended, will kill you. Decades of research have thoroughly documented the health problems that result from inhaling tobacco smoke – more than a dozen different types of cancer, heart disease, stroke, emphysema and other respiratory diseases, among others. Are these risks an inevitable part of smoking? Or is there a way of creating safe cigarettes without any of these hazards?

“I think it’s very unlikely,” says Stephen Hecht from the University of Minnesota Cancer Center, who studies tobacco carcinogens – substances that cause cancer. Tobacco smoke is a complex cocktail of at least 4,000 chemicals including at least 70 known carcinogens. No one has made a “cigarette that is significantly decreased in all of these [chemicals] and is still something people would want to smoke, even though the industry has worked on this for around 50 years,” says Hecht. “There’s no indication that it’s possible.”

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Medicine & health

I've got your missing links right here (24 November 2012)

By Ed Yong | November 24, 2012 12:00 pm

Top picks

One woman’s craving for sleep led to the discovery of a mystery sleep-inducing chemical. This is an amazing piece. Virginia Hughes is science writing royalty.

Attack of the mutant pupfish: a spectacularly written feature by Hillary Rosner on a bold approach to conservation—hybridising species to save them

Excellent longread on a 50-year quest to find cases of “laughing death” (kuru), which led to the discovery of prions

Animal vision evolved 700 million years ago. This is a *beautifully* written post by Lucas Brouwers. Highly recommend

Where is your mind?” Tom Stafford on the fine line between cultural & neural networks

Don’t miss Charles Seife’s investigation into how drug company money is influencing scientists.

Nature takes a hard look at its own sexism & commits to do better. Massive kudos to them for this

If you’re 27 or younger, you’ve never experienced a month when the global temperature was colder than the 20thC average

Yet more evidence of Retraction Watch’s continuing effect on scientific integrity. Congrats to Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus

Check out Gaia Vince’s radio series on the anthropocene.

NatGeo GIFs: it’s like wonder on a loop.

Feather by feather, scientists reconstruct primitive wing of Archaeopterx, a prehistoric bird. By Carolyn Johnson

The story of the portable beetle, with handles that termites can hold, as told by Matthew Cobb the style of Kipling. And then, a follow-up story on a handled wasp!

Hunt for life under Antarctic ice heats up. This is a marvellous quote: “This is the very pinnacle of the science I’ve been doing since the turn of the millennium. Now guess if I’m excited.”

Mankind isn’t a gender-neutral term. Let’s use humanity instead, argues Annaleen Newitz. Lovely piece on etymology

Vaccines: because it’s great when babies don’t sh*t themselves to death. A hard-hitting chart.

Mind-blowing Jennifer Frazer post: Zombified bacteria are a thing.

Troubled bonobo facility reinstates controversial researcher, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. Great coverage from Kate Wong.



Coming soon: Africa, a new 6-part Attenborough series.

British physicist jailed for smuggling 2kg of cocaine into Argentina, says he was duped by bikini model

It’s the final stretch for Ethan Perlstein’s attempt to crowdfund his research on meth addiction. And here’s more cool crowd-funded science, on beetles that dupe super-organisms

DNA has been around for billions of yrs — but that doesn’t mean scientists can’t make it better.

Where did it go? Scientists ‘undiscover’ Pacific island

Bats adjust squeaks to focus sonar

DROPBATS! Ancient tree-wombat behaved like a koala

Counting white animals against a white backdrop from a helicopter, over 100,000s of sq.kms, is actually pretty tricky”

It is frankly amazing that the guy behind the “Things I Learned as a Field Biologist” blog is even alive.

Self-filling water bottle that condenses water from the air, modelled on namib desert beetle

Here’s a campaign to stop animal rights groups who are targeting firms that transport animals for medical research

Carin Bondar launches a new web series on animal sex

‘Lonesome George has relatives’

Bora Zivkovic on expertise. I love the point about the difference between a good writer and a seductive writer.

Oliver Morton on the Martian organic molecules scientists have already found and studied

In case you need to sort gorilla sperm from human sperm… Jennifer Ouellette on telling one sperm from another

Physicist Paul Davies is back with his ideas about cancer. Except they’re hogwash. See these rebuttals from Genotripe (“…article offers no new insight & crucially, no actual evidence.”) and PZ Myers.

Google engineer turns vacuum cleaner into dirt-cheap book scanner

Nutrition recession: Families struggle to eat healthily amid rising food bills and shrinking budgets

Gamers prove equal to surgeons in operating robotic surgery tools. But they keep dragon-punching my spleen.

Excellent post by Melanie Tannenbaum on the psychology of the Petraeus affair – much better than the usual tripe in this vein.

Why being able to hold your booze might not be a good thing, but could lead to targeted interventions

Man CT scans and 3D prints own skull, makes art of forensic facial reconstruction

To horn or to sneak? It’s all about balls. Tom Houslay on beetle sex lives.

Winter to be cold, say Met Office to press, with tremendous weariness

The science of the moustache

Gorillas & humans last shared a common ancestor 10m yrs ago— how do we know that? Nice explainer

“It is quite usual that an amputated penis is tossed out of an open window, where it may be captured by a duck.”

The cost of basic lab equipment is absurd. Can 3D-printing help?

First randomised controlled trial to show spinal cord regeneration in dogs

Nice campaign from Parkinson’s UK – fund research by sponsoring a C. elegans worm for £5/mth

Great website on the incredible Burgess Shale by the Royal Ontario Museum

JNK Nature paper has 3 corrections and counting… Very rich comment thread

BBC makes absurd decision to axe the great popular science radio show, Naked Scientists

On this story on apes and midlife crises, virtually *every* outside comment I’ve seen about this ape-midlife-crisis story has been skeptical & critical

Breast Checking mitt loses fight to prove credibility

‘Super-Jupiter’ Dwarfs Solar System’s Largest Planet. Jupitest?

How birds are used to monitor pollution. They’re like canaries in the coa… wait.

Science isn’t necessarily hard, nor scientists necessarily clever, and both tropes are unhelpful.

Which Bond villain schemes might actually have made economic sense?

Fascinating paper: how the Mian of Papua New Guinea use rivers to represent space & time how education is changing it

This is a thing? DESTROY ALL TICKS. Evidence mounting that tick bites cause unusual allergy to meat

Relocating rattlesnakes as conservation tool for homeowners?

A teacher’s perspective on the study on neuromyths held by teachers

Skeleton might be Richard III; DNA results delayed from December to January. So… winter of discontent?



Picture taken at London’s Natural History Museum. “We are evolving.” Charles approves.

XKCD on heatmaps

In which Dean Burnett single-handedly fixes the British economy

“They have pictures on the boxes that mean science.” Humans buying any sh*t with ‘immune system’ written on it

Beautiful Chinese leopard wins wildlife camera-trap photo prize

“Using your brains to think of an idea? That’s the old model.” The Onion on social media “gurus

WTFs from textbooks.

Excited frog is excited.

Robot spider seeks missing legs

Spiders from Mars! (made of dry ice)

“Irrational hatred of fruit” and other hidden motivations of video game characters

Second cutest book ever! ZooBorns has new book of dangerously adorable baby animals.

Gaze in wonder at Professor Walter Lewins’ best chalk lines.

No fair, I wanna ride a capybara.

Mechanical Arthropods and Insects Made from Watch Parts and Light Bulbs

Oh HAI, baby mantis!

Public shaming.



On dead pigeon’s leg, an unbreakable code

Writer/journalist and scientist are among kids’ dream jobs, proving again that kids are morons 😉

Della Thomas has an interesting post and survey on self-promotion via Twitter. Here’s my simple guide

Are Japan’s ninjas heading for extinction? Or are they just hiding?

The John McAfee story is unbelizeable

The next generation of touchscreen tech or the emperor’s cumbersome new clothes?

Freelancers, find a home for your science story, by reading what editors want

What does war sound like now?

How many times should the government rebuild at-risk areas? The “retreat” quote is chilling.

Here are 10 golden rules of Twitter

A Q&A about MATTER, the new long-form science publishing initiative

Portraits of politicians made from collages of bits of pornography.

Lord McAlpine plans to Sue 10k Twitter Users

Dystopic, awful read on a possible future for Twitter

This is a shocking example of men who hate strong women. Also: terribly written. Skip to the letter at end


Neurons can silence each other without any direct connections

By Ed Yong | November 23, 2012 9:00 am

The chatter in your brain largely depends on special junctions called synapses – meeting places between two neurons, through which they transmit chemical signals or electric currents.

But neurons don’t always need synapses to communicate—some in the antennae of a fly can influence one another without any direct connections. The electric field produced by one can silence its neighbour, like two individuals standing side by side and whispering “Sssssshhhh” at each other.

This phenomenon, known as ephaptic coupling, has been discussed for a long time but it’s always been a bit obscure and arcane. There are very few examples of it, and none where this indirect silencing actually affects an animal’s behaviour. Su has changed that – his study shows that ephaptic coupling affects a fly’s or mosquito’s sense of smell. That knowledge might be useful for protecting crops from hungry insects, or people from disease-carrying ones.

I’ve written about this story for The Scientist, so head over there for more details.

Image by Martin Hauser

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Neuroscience and psychology

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