Science online, back online edition

Suck it, tigers. Photo by Billtacular.

I didn’t do a linkfest last week, what with having other things on my mind, so this list may be longer than average. You should read them all.

  • Converging … on poison! Both bird’s foot trefoil and the burnet moth caterpillars that eat it have independently evolved the ability to synthesize two cyanide-based toxins.
  • Not what you want to read the week you defend your Ph.D. A guy who anticipated two previous economic bubbles thinks that the next one to burst could be higher education.
  • Born free, but do they want to stay free? Whether animals are happier in the wild depends on what kind of life they could have in captivity.
  • Better offense and better defense. How “natural” resistance to HIV infection works, on a cellular level.
  • “Third gender” ≠ “gay.” The many ways modern cultures grapple with human sexual diversity shed light on the “gay” non-caveman.
  • Also less cute, in my opinion. When you consider their respective ecological roles, tigers are less important than warblers.
  • Unhappy anniversary. A year after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, we still don’t know what effects the oil and chemical dispersants may have on sea life—but there are plenty of reasons to worry.
  • Your wardrobe, under the microscope. Anthropological consideration of why women (and men) wear high heels, as well as why those heels might be black.
  • Shakespeare, evolution, and Kubrick’s Space Odyssey: brilliant. Brutish, aggressive chimpanzees have long been the assumed model for earlier humans—but more peaceful bonobos might be closer to the truth.
  • Might as well give up on drug development right now. Masturbation (or, rather, orgasm) has been found to relieve restless leg syndrome.

Science online, oily coral edition

Photo by ucumari.
  • Is anyone really surprised? Biologists working with NOAA have found the first clear evidence that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is damaging coral reefs. (Deep Sea News)
  • Drink the corn liquor, let the Ritalin be. Could Ritalin help fight cocaine addiction? (Neurotic Physiology)
  • Trade-offs are a bitch. Adaptation for swimming and seal-hunting has made the polar bear’s skull structurally weaker than those of its closest relatives. (Not Exactly Rocket Science)
  • Admixture is fun! Razib Khan examines genetic studies of major human ethnic groups. (Gene Expression)
  • Gotta get funded to do the science. Over at dechronization, Rich Glor lays out tips on writing a doctoral dissertation improvement grant. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 Part 5)
  • Scientific support for the siesta. A daytime nap can improve memory performance. (BrainBlogger)
  • Hint, hint. Submissions for the Open Lab 2010 collection of online science writing close at the end of the month. (The Thoughtful Animal)
  • This just in. Eating fewer calories than you burn results in weight loss—even when most of those calories are in Twinkies. (Weighty Matters)
  • Because you can’t develop Seasonal Affective Disorder if your brain is too small. Lemur species that live in habitats with greater seasonal changes have larger brains. (NeuroDojo)
  • Paging Dr. Pangloss. Psychologists are surprised to discover that the sight of cooked meat makes men less aggressive. They will no doubt also be surprised to find that it makes men ask for a fork and A-1 Sauce, too. (AOL News, McGill University press release)
  • Science is impossible. But that’s okay. Really. (We, Beasties)

Science online, mysterious extra vertebrae edition

Wow. Lots of links this week. I’m using Google Reader again, so evidently getting better at aggregation and/or wasting valuable dissertation-completion time.

Sundews catch insects on their sticky leaves, potentially putting them in competition with web-spinning spiders. Photo by petrichor.
  • Shape up, Dad. Female rats are more prone to develop diabetes if their fathers were obese—through an inherited metabolic disorder. (Neurotic Physiology)
  • Also useful for studying how lizards rebel against their creators. To study how lizards communicate, build a robotic lizard. No, really. (The Thoughtful Animal)
  • Sounds like the basis for a very strange odd-couple sitcom. Can a spider and a plant be competitors? Maybe, if the plant is carnivorous. (It Takes 30)
  • A species in the genus Rosa by any other taxonomic identifier … Rod Page contemplates the importance of taxonomic names to biological research, and how to handle them in modern data structures. (iPhylo)
  • Nobody could’ve predicted. BP’s cost-cutting and rapid corporate expansion probably contributed to a corporate culture prone to accidents. (ProPublica)
  • One more way in which sloths are weird. Almost all mammals—giraffes included—have seven vertebrae in their necks. But sloths have up to 10. A new developmental study suggests how those extra vertebrae evolved. (NY Times, h/t Mike the Mad Biologist)
  • Every little bit helps. A new study suggests that, without modern conservation efforts, the ongoing extinction crisis would be even worse. (Southern Fried Science)
  • Um. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose? Placebos are used all the time in pharmaceutical research, but very few published studies actually report what the placebo was made of. (Helen Jacques)
  • The salmon of doubt. The inaugural article in the Journal of Unusual and Serendipitous Results casts doubt on interpretation of functional MRI readings—when its authors find brain activity in a dead fish. (Byte Size Biology)
  • But it looks so cool when Don Draper does it. Dave Munger ponders the ultimate effectiveness of smoking bans and warnings. (SEED Magazine)
  • “Aspergirls” is one catchy neologism. Steve Silberman continues his exploration of human experience on the Autism spectrum with comedienne Rudy Simone—and opens an ongoing conversation with her at The Well. (NeuroTribes)

More sloth weirdness on video: they can swim! But the water’s a dangerous place, as David Attenborough will tell you.

Science online, counting chlorophylls edition

Photo by Jonathan Cohen.
  • It’s the hot new pigment this season. A just-discovered form of chlorophyll allows the algae that produce it to photosynthesize using infrared light. (Wired Science)
  • One, two, three … many? Studies of monkeys, babies, and chickens suggest that the ability to count small numbers is innate, and separate from the ability to count larger numbers. (The Thoughtful Animal)
  • Can you hear me now? On the Galapagos islands, marine iguanas listen for the alarm calls of mockingbirds to know if a predator is approaching. (The Thoughtful Animal)
  • Crocodile tears from the Adaptationist Programme. Crying confers fitness advantages by eliciting empathetic responses. Or something like that. (NPR)
  • Long-term forecast: 60% chance of dueling results. Remember all that oil in the Gulf of Mexico that hadn’t magically disappeared? Analysis of DNA microbial DNA sampled in that oil plume just found lots of oil-eating bacteria. (Deep Sea News, Wired Science, NPR; original peer-reviewed article in Science [$a])
  • Climate’s changing, with or without you. As temperatures warm throughout the Mojave Desert, Joshua tree, my favorite woody monocot, may disappear from 90% of its present range. (Voltage Gate)
  • 10-mm frogs. Discovered living inside pitcher plants. (io9, Wired Science; species description in Zootaxa [PDF])

I start another semester as Teaching Assistant for Mammalogy next week, so here’s David Attenborough discussing mammalian dentition, with reference to an ancient omnivore I’d never heard about up to now.

Science online, older than we thought edition

A little brown bat covered with the white nose fungus. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Northeast Region.
  • First Ginsu salesman still millions of years away, though. Newly discovered bones bear scratch marks that could have been made by flaked stone cutting tools 3.4 million years ago—more than 800 thousand years earlier than previous evidence of such toolmaking by human ancestors. (Greg Laden’s Blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science)
  • I thought they said it had all magically disappeared? As much as 70% of the oil spilled by the now-plugged Deepwater Horizon well is still out there, somewhere. In fact, it’s probably suspended in the deep ocean, where microbes expected to break down oil may take months to finish it off. (Deep Sea News, Wired Science)
  • Thesis, antithesis. Synthesis! Razib Khan describes how R.A. Fisher united Mendelian genetics and quantitative trait theory into a single mathematical model. (Gene Expression)
  • Really? Life doesn’t look a day over 640 million. New 650-million-year-old fossils may be the oldest examples of animal life. (Science Daily, Highly Allochthonous)
  • Being pecked to death never looked so unpleasant. Stress analysis of terror bird skulls suggest they killed prey by repeatedly stabbing it with the dagger-like tip of their beaks. (Not Exactly Rocket Science)
  • Is there an HVAC engineer in the house? We might be able to save bats from white-nose syndrome by heating their hibernation caves. (Wild Muse)

And now, via Ed Yong and BoingBoing, Humbolt penguins chasing a butterfly:

Science online, relentlessly negative edition

Would you be less afraid of the big, bad wolf if we paid you? Photo by Eric Bégin.
  • Can’t say “mission accomplished” just yet. Wednesday was day 100 of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The hole has been more-or-less plugged for a while now, and surface oil is disappearing, but we’ll probably be watching the effects of this mess for years to come. Might as well have a Gulf Spill cocktail while you wait.
  • Can’t buy their love. Offering ranchers compensation for livestock lost to wolves doesn’t improve their opinion of wolves. (Conservation Maven)
  • Can’t make them shut up. Disrupting quorum sensing, or “communcation” between bacteria, is a promising new approach to treating infections. Except that—surprise!—bacteria evolve resistance to QS disruption. (Lab Rat)
  • Can’t expect them to be constrained by mere facts. The one little bit of actual science underlying claims that New Zealand was originally settled by Celts —the age of rat bones found on the islands—turns out not to be so accurate. (The Atavism)
  • Can’t afford not to plan ahead. Ecologists should start planning for the end of cheap oil, and its many unpleasant consequences. (Conservation Magazine)
  • Can’t be worse than the status quo … or can it? The “tragedy of the peer-review commons” could be resolved by compensating reviewers, either with credit towards their own submissions, or just plain ol’ money. (Jabberwocky Ecology)
  • Can’t hurt to try. Eliminating soot pollution—which leaves the atmosphere much more quickly than carbon dioxide—could cut the effects of global warming in half within less than two decades. (Wired Science)

Can’t be bothered to care for your larvae? Trick an elaisome-hunting ant, or a sex-crazed bee, into picking it up.

Science online, hermit crab hand-me-down edition

Got anything in a size 6? Photo by Vanessa Pike-Russell.
  • Gushing no more? No, the oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico is not going to release a giant, world-killing methane bubble. Reality is bad enough. BP spent the week putting a new cap in place over the well, and … it seems to be working. Which still leaves an enormous cleanup to complete, and begs the question of why they weren’t prepared to do that 88 days ago. As always, Dr. M. at Deep Sea News is your one stop shop for oil spill news.
  • More kinds of herbivores = less plant damage. Organic farms support more evenly distributed communities of plant-eating critters, which turns out to be good for the plants. (The EEB & flow)
  • Of course, then they’re stuck with last year’s model. When they find an empty shell that’s too big for them, hermit crabs wait for a larger crab to come along and claim it, so they can occupy the cast-off shell. (
  • Any evidence of recent vuvuzela-induced selection? A mutant form of a single gene is associated with temperature-dependent hearing loss. (Code for Life)
  • How to get MSNBC to notice a paper about protein structures: Claim you’re answering an age-old philosophical riddle that you’re not, actually. (MSNBC)

Which came first, the silly scientific hype, or the flimsy excuse to run a Muppet video? Trick question; they’re the same thing.

Science online, not so pristine anymore edition

I’ll start with the online science meta-news: The ScienceBlogs PepsiCo saga achieved a preliminary resolution yesterday, when Science Blogs pulled the PepsiCo blog. Many SBers who left in protest, however, are apparently not returning, including Brian Switek (of Laelaps) and Rebecca Skloot. Skullsinthestars has taken on the public service of tracking departing SBers, which include some of the biggest names on the site. Carl Zimmer compiles his own list, and adds some scathing remarks. David Dobbs gave his reasons for not returning, Martin Robbins of the Lay Scientist neatly summed up the issues of reader trust and respect for individual writers underlying the fracas, and Curtis Brainard weighed in at the Columbia Journalism Review. No word yet on coverage by On the Media, but I’m still hoping.

Say it ain’t so, Glacier National Park. Photo by jby.

Meanwhile, in actual science news:

  • Still gushing. As of today (Friday), it’s been 81 days since BP broke the Gulf. Yet another projection of long-term surface dispersal of the oil suggests the U.S. east coast is in trouble. At Deep Sea News, Dr. M rounds up the latest news and Allie Wilkinson flies over the slick with the Coast Guard. Meanwhile ProPublica digs into BP’s horrendous safety record and foot-dragging on compensation and cooperation with scientists.
  • Missed this earlier. BlagHag reports on Portland and Evolution 2010.
  • I’m confused. What about spinach? A new study of bone structure suggests Neanderthals were totally pumped, with “Popeye-like forearms,” possibly because of a highly carnivorous diet. (Discovery News)
  • Well, it doesn’t look its age. New fossils reveal that multicellular life is at least 2.1 billion years old, more than three times as old as previously thought. (ScienceDaily)
  • This just makes me sad. Environmental pollutants, including pesticides, are extensive at national parks—with particularly bad levels at Glacier and Sequoia. (Conservation Maven)
  • It works for cpDNA, anyway. A new method for extraction and amplification of DNA from plant tissue may make life simpler for lab rats like me. (Uncommon Ground)
  • Cichlids do it wherever they can. Since colonizing a volcanic crater lake in Nicaragua—as little as a century ago—a population of Midas cichlid fish has evolved into two distinct forms, with marked dietary differences. (NeuroDojo)
  • Dudes should not wear corsets. Because they may cause you to grow a bone in your penis. Really. (scicurious)

And, as a video-based closing thought, here’s footage of a cuckoo chick evicting the other eggs—and chicks!—in its adoptive nest. The initial, um, cuckholding is captured here

Science online, Portland-bound edition

Just two days after I get back to Moscow from that Santa Barbara, I’m off again to Portland, for Evolution 2010. As in previous years, I’ll try to post daily notes about cool talks I see at the meeting, and maybe some photos of Portland, where the weather is allegedly going to be warm and sunny. In the meantime, here’s what’s been going on in the science blogosphere this week:

Never again? Photo by Vern and Skeet.
  • Still gushing. Earlier this week, BP removed the containment cap on the Gulf of Mexico oil gusher following a mishap with an underwater robot, but it’s back for now. Internal documents suggest that, early on in the disaster, BP knew a lot more oil was flowing than they told the federal government. Hydrology experts are considering how existing flow control structures might be able to use the Mississippi River itself to protect coastal wetlands from oil.
  • Reconsider that sashimi. An environmentalist group is petitioning to protect bluefin tuna, which spawn in the Gulf of Mexico, under the Endangered Species Act. (NY Times)
  • Meanwhile, in even longer-running fossil fuel disasters. In Pennsylvania coal country, underground mine fires burn unchecked. (SEED Magazine)
  • Walk like a man. A newly-discovered fossil of Australopithecus afarensis—the same species as “Lucy”—has a ribcage more like a human’s than an ape’s, suggesting that it stood upright. (A Primate of Modern Aspect)
  • Why did the moose cross the road? Larger mammals with broader home ranges and lower reproductive rates are at greater risk of becoming roadkill. (Conservation Maven)
  • No word about preference for rock’n’roll, though. Attitudes about sex are better predictors of attitudes about drug use and religion than “abstract political ideologies.” (Blag Hag)
  • Wait, there’s software to do that? You never know when the Methods section of an otherwise obscure paper is going to turn up something useful. (NeuroDojo)

And now, a video of aggregating ladybugs.

Science online, southward bound edition

I’ll take the high road, you take the low road … Photo by gwgs.
  • Still gushing. The Deepwater Horizon well is still not contained. Wednesday BP agreed to set aside $20 billion for an independent reparations fund.
  • Got ’em coming and going. Even if they escape being soaked in oil themselves, seabirds are at considerable risk of eating oil-soaked prey. (Deep Sea News)
  • Me, I just turn left by default. Given a choice between a southern route and a northern route of equal length, people will choose the southern route—apparently because it feels easier. (Wired Science)
  • Who doesn’t want a view of the park? The conservation benefits of protected land can be offset if nearby real estate becomes popular. (Conservation Maven)
  • This is why I’m not a neurologist. Remember all those papers based on fMRI brain scans? Yeah, apparently we’ve only just discovered what fMRI scans actually mean. (Neurotopia)
  • Looking for an open alternative to MatLab? Try Python. (U+003F)
  • What is “forty-two,” Alex? IBM’s next advance in artificial intelligence centers on teaching a supercomputer to answer “Jeopardy” questions. (NY Times)

This week’s video from BBCEarth: David Attenborough says “boo” to a sloth.