Caterpillar with poison breath
- Published on Thursday, 17 April 2014 09:37
Tobacco is nasty stuff for a reason. Natural selection shaped tobacco plants such that they have numerous pesticide chemicals inside their tissues that harm or kill insects that try and feed on them yet researchers have now identified one insect that hijacks tobacco’s own defense system and uses nicotine against predators. The insect in question is the hornworm caterpillar. These caterpillars eat vast amounts of tobacco and have led researchers to wonder what they do with all of the toxins that they are consuming. The answer... they blow it out as a cloud of foul-smelling gas. Read on in my article in The Economist.
Image courtesy of Daniel Schwen.
Not so dumb jock
- Published on Thursday, 10 April 2014 08:59
It is well known that student-athletes underperform academically. What is not so well known is why. Many have suggested that this is because student-athletes lack motivation in academic endeavours but a new study is arguing that the real reason is down to a psychological phenomenon known as pluralistic ignorance where individuals make false assumptions about the beliefs of their peers.
The team behind the new work found that when student-athletes were asked about their attitudes towards academic achievement while filling out a questionnaire on their own, their attitudes were far more positive than when they were asked to fill in these questionnaires at desks in a quiet hall filled with their team members. Initially, the researchers assumed it was just the difference between having teens and early twenty-somethings solo vs in large groups, but when they re-ran the experiment with ROTC (student military), university dance groups and the orchestra members the effect vanished. There was something about having student-athletes near their team mates that was altering their opinions of academia. When the researchers looked closer, they found that athletes believed their peers did not value academic success. In order to fit in, they were conforming to this perceived (but false) social norm. This undermined their academic performance and simultaneously reinforced the (false) social norm for the rest of their team. The full paper on all of this can be found here.
Life in the labyrinth
- Published on Tuesday, 01 April 2014 10:06
A 1392 meters below sea level, Lukina Jama–Trojama is one of the deepest cave systems in the world and considered extraordinary for its vertical shape and long pits. Now scientists have discovered a magnificent new species of snail living near the cave's bottom. The new species is both tiny and fragile, with a beautifully shaped dome-like shell that is as clear as crystal. Only one living specimen was found during a recent expedition, so we know little at this stage other than the fact that this snail species seems to be perfectly adapted to subterranean life. Read on in my article in The Economist.
Skewed by comfort
- Published on Tuesday, 01 April 2014 08:39
Wild mice prefer to live at temperatures of 30-31°C but because such temperatures are not particularly pleasant for lab technicians to endure (and cause mice to drink and thus pee more) they are often kept at 20-26°C. All evidence suggests that mice are able to live perfectly well and maintain normal body temperatures under such conditions, but a team wondered if there might be side effects, particularly with regards to mice being analysed for responses to diseases. Keen to take a look at this, a group of researchers compared tumor formation, growth rate, and metastasis in several common mouse groups at 22-23°C and 30-31°C. What they found will blow your mind. Read on in my article in The Economist.
Photo courtesy of Aaron Logan.
- Published on Thursday, 20 March 2014 10:00
No animal in the world has a penis as long (in relation to its body size) as the barnacle and there is a reason, once settled, they can't move. To have sex with one another, barnacles have to have good reach. However, it also helps to land near other barnacles when they are free swimming larva. To manage this, researchers have long thought that barnacles depend entirely upon chemical cues, but a new study has made the surprising discovery that vision is actually very important.
Hardly known for their hand/eye coordination or for even having eyes, barnacles do have a pair of compound eyes that appear during their migration phase of life. Nobody has known what purpose these eyes served and so a team decided to explore the matter by presenting juvenile barnacles with different stimuli. In one situation, the juveniles were presented with adult barnacles in water that was stripped of all chemical cues. Remarkably, the juveniles found the adults with no trouble. Further exploration revealed that the larva actually have colour vision and had a preference for settling on red surfaces. Fascinated, the researchers took a closer look at adult barnacles and found that their shells emit a faint red fluorescence. They argue that while chemical signalling cannot be ignored, colour and vision are clearly playing a major part in the lives of barnacles. The pull paper on this can be found in Experimental Biology here.
Getting some skin
- Published on Tuesday, 25 March 2014 08:22
Dinosaurs are best known from their bones but skeletons are often not all that remains of the ancient beasts. While once considered rare oddities, skin impressions are increasingly being recognised during excavations and brought back to museums for preservation. Now a team is revealing that, like fingerprints, the details found in these impressions can help identify dinosaurs. Read on in my article in The Economist.
- Published on Saturday, 15 March 2014 08:28
The symbiotic relationship between acacia plants and aggressive ants is the stuff of biological legend. The acacia provides the ants with food and shelter in the form of hollow thorns and the ants provide a defense by swarming and biting any animal that dares to try and munch on the acacia's leaves. Indeed, so well known is this relationship that nobody really thought there was anything more to it, but that turns out to not be true. The ants, a new study reveals, function as something of a living immune system for the acacia and provide the plant with antibiotic-producing fungi that ward off diseases. Read on in my article in The Economist.
Image courtesy of Ryan Somma.