Man’s Best Friends Don’t Share Our Fear Of Snakes

By Christie Wilcox | April 30, 2018 8:00 pm
Dogs' lack of fear might explain why they're so at risk of life-threatening snakebites. Photo Credit: Nantawit Chuchue/Shutterstock

Dogs’ lack of fear might explain why they’re so at risk of life-threatening snakebites. Photo Credit: Nantawit Chuchue/Shutterstock

If you feel your stomach flutter uncomfortably at the mere image of a slithering serpent, you’re not alone. It’s thought that snakes make about half of us anxious, and 2-3% of people are Ophidiophobic—that is, they’re deeply afraid of snakes. Such fear is thought to have deep roots; over the course of our evolutionary history, snakes are thought to have had such an influence on our risk of dying that we’ve evolved an innate fear of them, which has even influenced our visual acuity—an idea known as the Snake Detection Hypothesis.

Whether we all really share an innate terror of snakes is still somewhat controversial, but the case is much clearer in dogs: our beloved canine companions simply aren’t afraid of snakes, and that’s probably part of the reason so dang many of them wind up in veterinary ERs for envenomations. Read More

With Parasites, Nothing is Sacred: Study Finds Lungworms Alter How Their Host Toads Poop

By Christie Wilcox | April 28, 2018 8:00 am
Researchers from the University of Sydney had to get creative to see how a toad lungworm alters its host's behavior. Photo Credit: Patt Finnerty

Researchers from the University of Sydney had to get creative to see how a toad lungworm alters its host’s behavior. Photo Credit: Patt Finnerty

Parasites are nature’s master puppeteers. Jewel wasps can make cockroaches into docile, edible nannies for their young with just a sting, for example. Some nematodes convince the insects they infect to commit watery suicide because their larvae are aquatic. It’s even thought that Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that usually infects rats and cats, can alter our brains when we accidentally host them instead, subtly altering our personalities and maybe even making us more likely to commit suicide.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that scientists recently discovered lungworms alter the behavior of their cane toad hosts to ensure things are most comfortable for them. But what is surprising, or at least a little unnerving, is what they actually do: the worms makes their hosts poop differently.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Ecology, More Science, select, Top Posts

Drone Spies Crocodile Eating Dead Whale Alongside Tiger Sharks, Much To The Sharks’ Dismay

By Christie Wilcox | April 25, 2018 5:55 pm

Last fall, a tour company in Australia stumbled upon a rare find: a dead whale. But what they had spotted turned out to be even rarer than that, as the video footage captured both sharks and a large saltwater crocodile tearing at the carcass—something no one had ever seen before.

It was an exciting enough observation to catch the attention of Austin Gallagher, chief scientist and CEO of Beneath the Waves. “I saw the post online on Facebook,” he told me, where it had already gone somewhat viral.

Gallagher, a shark expert, admitted to having a ‘closet interest’ in scavenging ecology in particular, so when he saw the video, he got really excited. He quickly reached out to the charter company and the drone pilot to learn more, and worked with them and a couple of his scientific colleagues to write up the observation, which was recently published in Journal of Ethology. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Ecology, More Science, select, Top Posts

Let’s Ditch the Boring Bunny! The Scientific Case for the Easter Echidna or Pasch Platypus

By Christie Wilcox | March 31, 2018 7:00 pm
How can a bunny bring eggs?! Photo Credit: geralt

How can a bunny bring eggs?! Photo Credit: geralt

It’s time to have a serious talk about the Easter Bunny.

I know, the long ears and twitchy nose are super cute. But it makes no sense for them to bring eggs for Easter.

As members of the family Leporidae—which includes all hares and rabbits—bunnies bear live young. In fact, having lots of squirming babies is one of their most quintessential traits. We don’t have the saying “breed like rabbits” for no reason.

They’re so prolific that over 2,000 years ago, Aristotle suggested they can do something few animals can: conceive while pregnant. It’s known as superfetation or superconception, and it’s a rare feat mostly performed mostly by some fish species. In 2010, researchers demonstrated that European brown hares are not only capable of it, it’s one way they increase the number of offspring they have each season.

But while that’s impressive and all, they don’t lay eggs, and being productive is hardly enough to warrant the Easter bunny’s reign as the paschal mascot, especially when it actually makes them kind of a problem.

European rabbits have found their way to the US and Australia and bred like bunnies do to become serious invasive pests. It’s thought that there are billions of these animals now living on other continents, eating their way through resources that native species need to survive. They can cause so much damage that their impacts linger decades after the last invasive rabbit has been removed.

And bunnies aren’t even an Easter thing in some places. In Switzerland, easter eggs are brought by a cuckoo—which, given their habit of leaving their eggs in other birds’ nests, seems pretty appropriate. So I say we ditch the bunny, and go with one of the egg-laying mammals which are more logically suited to the role of seasonal egg-bearer.

I’m talking, of course, about one of the species in the order Monotremata.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts

Orchid Mooch Steals Nutrients From Mushroom And Uses It To Fake Out Fly Pollinators

By Christie Wilcox | March 29, 2018 8:00 am

It comes as no surprise to regular readers of mine that I have a special place in my heart for parasites. I have waxed poetic about their global dominion, but usually, I focus on the animal kingdom’s most malicious moochers. Today, though, is all about plant parasites. Specifically, this lovely orchid:

Meet Gastrodia pubilabiata, a plant that survives in the most un-planty way. That lack of green isn’t because it’s dying—it doesn’t photosynthesize. Instead, it’s what’s known as a mycoheterotroph: it relies on fungi for food. But according to a new paper in Ecologythis particular species doesn’t just suck the life from its mushroom hosts. Instead of offering nectar or other rewards for its pollinators, it uses the smell of the fungi rotting corpses to draw the flies that transport its reproductive dust.  Read More

Dual-Venomed Assassin Bugs Store Their Chemical Arms Separately

By Christie Wilcox | March 21, 2018 8:00 am
A well-fed assassin bug in the lab at the University of Queensland. Photo Credit: Christie Wilcox

A well-fed assassin bug in the lab at the University of Queensland. Photo Credit: Christie Wilcox

In one of his journal entries from his time aboard The Beagle, Charles Darwin told of a “great black bug” and how it boldly sucked blood from his finger through its large mouthpart. The creature was likely Triatoma infestans, a kissing bug—one of the almost 7,000 species of assassin bug that are now described. Like its kin, it’s armed with an ominous looking proboscis which it uses to slurp up its meals.

But the kissing bug is one of only a few assassin bugs with vampiric tastes. Most are much more murderous, preferring to use potent venoms to paralyze a their prey so they can liquify them from the inside out, then suck their soupified meal through their needle-like mouths.

It was that behavior which intrigued Andrew Walker, a molecular entomologist and postdoctoral fellow in the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at The University of Queensland. He and his colleagues were curious what the paralyze then liquify-and-slurp venom looked like. “We wanted to see if assassin bugs had venom that was similar in composition to other venomous animals due to convergent evolution, or if the different feeding physiology would result in a different composition,” he said. And when their research began, essentially no one has looked at their venoms—”almost nothing was known about them.”

But what they found was much more surprising: the animals are equipped with two different venoms, which are made and stored in distinct compartments—a first for any venomous animal. Read More

Squid Lovers Switch Sex Positions In Response To Partner’s Signals

By Christie Wilcox | February 14, 2018 8:00 am
This squid is a learning lover. Photo Credit: harum.koh/Wikimedia Commons

This squid listens when he makes love. Photo Credit: harum.koh/Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to interesting cephalopod sex lives, squid seem to have drawn the short straw. Argonauts, their cousins, keep things interesting with swimming, detachable penises. Giant Pacific Octopus mating involves several hours of rough, squishy grabbing action that would make Toshio Maeda blush. But squid just get a quick hello, a few colorful flashes, and second or two of perfunctory sperm delivery—or so it would seem. A new study suggests that for all they lack in kink, bigfin reef squid do have engaging sex lives. As explained in a new paper in The Biological Bulletin, these randy cephalopods take direction well, switching up their sexual position at a female’s behest to improve their odds of successfully mating. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, More Science, select, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Cephalopod, Mating, Sex, Squid

Another Reason To Save Snakes: They Disperse Seeds (Probably)

By Christie Wilcox | February 9, 2018 8:00 am
Rattlesnakes may do more for ecosystems than we ever imagined. Photo Credit: Mr James Kelley/Shuttersotck

Rattlesnakes may do more for ecosystems than we ever imagined. Photo Credit: Mr James Kelley/Shuttersotck

We’re about a month away from the 60th annual rattlesnake roundup in Sweetwater Texas. The event proudly calls itself the world’s largest—and for good reason. Last year, nearly 8,000 lbs of snakes were killed in this barbaric slaughterfest. But there are so many reasons why this all-out assault on Texas’ reptiles is a terrible idea. Rattlesnakes have complex social lives, can live for decades, and are essential to their native ecosystems. As predators, they help keep populations of mice and other small animals in check, which may ultimately help protect us from disease. And, of course, they help disperse seeds, altering the floral landscapes they slither through.

Wait—what was that last one?

If seed dispersal sounds less like something a snake does and more the purview of mammals and birds, that’s because until now, snakes weren’t thought of as seed dispersers—mostly because, well, they generally don’t eat plants or fruits (at least not willingly). And their smooth scaly skin doesn’t exactly give much for burs to stick to. But a new study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B suggests that rattlesnakes in the southwestern US may be acting as ecosystem engineers by spreading seeds.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Ecology, More Science, select, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Seed Dispersal, Snakes

Backpackers, Don’t Listen To Slate: Science Does Support Stream Water Treatment

By Christie Wilcox | February 8, 2018 8:00 am
The risk might be low, but the alternative is maybe months of debilitating diarrhea. It's your choice. Photo Credit: Timothy Epp/Shutterstock

The risk might be low, but the alternative is maybe months of debilitating diarrhea. It’s your choice. Photo Credit: Timothy Epp/Shutterstock

While we like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, there’s no doubt that human beings are actually quite awful at assessing risk. So I can understand why Ethan Linck thought to contextualize the risk of drinking from backcountry streams with data. “Life is triage, a constant series of negotiations between risks of varying severity,” he wrote. “And how we talk about those risks matters.”

Yes, it does—which is exactly why his piece in Slate last week was so damaging. It was anything but a careful, scientific evaluation of the risks. Wes Siler over at Outside Magazine already pointed out a myriad of issues with the article, but I want to zero in on the actual data, because Linck claimed to be looking at the matter scientifically. Instead, he cherry-picked sources to argue against doing one of the simplest things you can do to protect yourself from some truly awful diseases when you’re backpacking: treating your water. Read More

In Memoriam: Conversations with my Grandpa

By Christie Wilcox | January 25, 2018 2:00 pm
Ralph Bianchi, 1928-2018.

Ralph Bianchi, 1928-2018.

For several months, my grandfather—Ralph Bianchi—has been battling stage four kidney cancer. On Monday, that battle ended when he passed peacefully in his sleep. While you can read his obituary in today’s Boston Globe, a few hundred words cannot wholly capture his legacy. Ralph Bianchi was an engineer and pioneer who dedicated his career to cleaning up the messes of others. 

I wrote the following post in June of 2010, when an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform led to the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry—topping even the infamous Exxon Valdez spill. I’m reposting it today in honor of my grandfather and the decades he dedicated to battling oil spills. 

I’ll miss you, grandpa.  


Oil supplies the United States with approximately 40% of its energy needs. Billions upon billions of gallons are pumped out of our wells, brought in from other countries, and shipped around to refineries all over the states. 1.3 million gallons of petroleum are spilled into U.S. waters from vessels and pipelines in a typical year. Yes, it would be great if we never spilled a drop of oil. No matter how hard we may try, though, the fact is that nobody is perfect, and oil spills are an inevitable consequence of our widespread use of oil. The question is, once the oil is out there, how do we clean it up?

Nowehere is this issue more glaring than in the Gulf of Mexico right now, where 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil are spewing out of the remains of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig every day. The spill has enraged an entire nation. But perhaps my grandfather put it best, when I asked him what he thought about how BP and the US is responding to the spill.

“They’re friggin’ idiots.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts
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