- Published on Wednesday, 26 February 2014 07:51
Sharks have a reputation for being rather dumb. When they attack surfers, it is claimed that this is a matter of mistaken identity and that they really think they are attacking turtles. With swimmers in the waves, the argument is made that they think they are attacking seals. Yet a new study is throwing these arguments into doubt by revealing that sharks not only can spot which way a human is facing but prefer to stay out of a human's visual range if at all possible. The new work suggests that sharks are capable of comprehending human body orientation and raises intriguing questions about whether attacks on humans really are cases of mistaken identity or overt ambushes. Read on in my article in The Economist.
Photo courtesy of Albert Kok.
Psychology of super villains
- Published on Wednesday, 12 February 2014 11:35
Dishonesty and creativity have something in common: they both involve breaking rules. With this in mind, a team speculated that dishonesty may lead to creativity and established a study to find out. Over the course of five experiments, participants had the opportunity to behave dishonestly, and thus earn undeserved money by over-reporting their performance on different tasks. After each of these activities, they completed an exercise designed to measure creativity. Rather remarkably, the team found that those who cheated in the initial task were more likely to be creative. This proved true even when the researchers accounted for individual differences in the participants' creative abilities before the experiment even started. Was this because the participants who cheated felt more unconstrained by rules than their law-abiding associates? Read on in my article in The Economist.
- Published on Saturday, 01 February 2014 11:56
In recent years there have been three big papers outling dinosaur growth rates and what maximum dinosaur sizes would have been based upon bone growth analysis. Two of these papers were in Nature and came with significant fanfare. Now a study that simply tried to replicate what these original three were doing is proving that the numbers don't add up. Whether there was fraud involved or just very poor handling of data, remains to be determined but either way, this is not good for the field of palaeontology. Read on in my article in The Economist.
- Published on Monday, 20 January 2014 12:58
That there are temperature and humidity gradients along mountains which create microclimates is well known. Indeed, biologists who study alpine ecosystems are often utterly unsuprised to find entirely different species dwelling just ten meters above others. The tall trees of rainforests, in theory, should create similar microclimates, but they have never been studied in this way. Now a team is revealing that such microclimates do exist and, more importantly, that they shift with altitude. Read on here.
Photo courtesy of Ales Kocourek.
Learning from lemurs
- Published on Monday, 30 December 2013 13:20
To learn language, infants must do more than tune in to the sounds of their native tongue, they must also discover how these sounds are linked to meaning. Recent work has demonstrated that infants do this by entering a state of in-depth processing when they hear human vocalisations. More specifically, when they were presented with numerous images of dinosaurs and fish which were accompanied by either differing tonal beeps that were correlated to the differing groups (dinosaurs vs fish), differing human sounds (also correlated), or no audio at all, the infants demonstrated that they were able to discriminate between dinosaurs and fish only when they had been associated with differing human sounds. The results revealed that hearing human vocals confered an adaptive advantage by aiding infants in the fundamental cognitive process of categorisation. Intriguing as the find is, it leaves open a key developmental question: What is the developmental origin of this link?
Some have argued that the link is specific to human vocalisations from the start while others have argued that it derives from a broader template that initially also encompasses the vocalisations of non-human primates. Now a team is addressing this matter directly by running the dinosaur/fish category experiment again, but this time with a new auditory signal - lemur calls. Remarkably, children at the ages of 3 and 4 months learn to build the categories dinosaurs and fish when these images are supported by lemur screams just as effectively as when they hear human vocalisations. Read on in my article in The Economist.
Photo courtesy of IParjan.
Where teeth came from
- Published on Friday, 10 January 2014 13:05
Which came first the mouth full of teeth or protective armor? It sounds like a bad chicken and egg joke but it is one that palaeontologists take rather seriously. For years the guess was that the first bones were teeth used for hunting and that the protective exoskeletons covering early fish followed, but now a study is revealing that the truth is the other way around. The new work focuses on a group of ancient jawless animals known as conodonts that died out during the late Triassic. These eel-like creatures lacked skeletons but had bits in their mouths that were hard, readily fossilised and were comprised of tissues that look like dentine and enamel. Since the teeth of fish, dogs, dinosaurs and people are made of these materials, the assumption has long been that teeth evolved in conodonts and that the exoskeletal armor that covered the first fish later developed from them. Apparently this is all wrong... Read on in my article in Nature.
The sound of morality
- Published on Friday, 20 December 2013 12:19
During the US presidential campaign, Mr Obama came under public scrutiny when Mitt Romney, criticised him for having eaten dog as a child in Indonesia. In a quick counter attack, Mr Obama pointed out that Mr Romney put his dog in a crate fastened to the roof of his car while embarking on a 12 hour drive from Massachusetts to Canada. Many expressed moral outrage at both Mr Obama and Mr Romney. But the nature of the condemnation may have been quite different. Eating dogs and harming dogs are thought to elicit two very different emotions: anger and disgust. They are easy enough to tease apart when seen, but we know precious little about how they affect the way we make moral judgements.
Anger is theorised to underlie reactions to crimes against people, such as battery and unfairness, and disgust is theorised to underlie reactions to crimes against nature, such as sexual transgressions and cannibalism. To date, however, it has not been shown that inducing these two emotions has divergent effects.Keen to take a look at this, a team designed an experiment that used icky and annoying sounds to elicit anger and disgust in participants and then asked them to consider moral vignettes. Read on in my article here.