Tag Archives: Nature

Scientists Reexamine Why Zebra Stripes Mysteriously Repel Flies

WIRED

While biologists still aren’t exactly sure how it works, a new study closes in on why the insects that pester Savannah animals zig when anything zags.

ABOUT 30 MILES north of the equator, in central Kenya, Kaia Tombak and her colleagues stood beside a plexiglass box. Tombak, who studies the evolution of animals’ social behavior, was dressed for the power of the Savannah sun in a light, long-sleeved shirt and pants. A gang of flies buzzed nearby, and Tombak wondered whether she’d be better off wearing stripes.

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Sorry, Prey. Black Widows Have Surprisingly Good Memory

WIRED

Despite having tiny arthropod brains, spiders in a new experiment showed some complex cognitive calculations.

BLACK WIDOWS MUST despise Clint Sergi. While working on his PhD in biology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Sergi spent his time designing little challenges for spiders—which often involved rewarding them with tasty dead crickets, or confounding them by stealing the crickets away. “The big question that motivated the work was just wanting to know what is going on inside the minds of animals,” he says.

Biologists already know spider brains aren’t like human brains. Their sensory world is geared for life in webs and dark corners. “Humans are very visual animals,” says Sergi. “These web-building spiders have almost no vision. They have eyes, but they’re mostly good for sensing light and motion.” Instead, he says, a black widow’s perception comes mainly from vibrations, kind of like hearing. “Their legs are sort of like ears that pick up the vibrations through the web.”

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The Brutal Reason Some Primates are Born a Weird Color

WIRED

When species have babies with conspicuous fur, it can attract good attention—or bad. A new theory could explain why.

THE FIRST THING you might notice about the Delacour’s langur is its color. It’s got a jet black torso, limbs, and head, with a shaggy white butt sandwiched in the middle. (These monkeys—Trachypithecus delacouri if you want to get technical—quite literally look like Oreos.) But that’s just how the adults look. The babies are a different story: They’re orange.

This is their distinct “natal coat,” which fades after a few months. Babies from dozens of other primate species also have fur that’s a different color from that of adults. “One of the big questions has always been why—why would they have distinct coats?” asks Ted Stankowich, an evolutionary ecologist and Director of the Mammal Lab at California State University Long Beach.

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Why Some Animals Can Tell More from Less

WIRED

Researchers find that densely packed neurons play an outsize role in quantitative skill—calling into question old assumptions about evolution.

AT AN UPSTATE New York zoo in 2012, an olive baboon sat with her baby at a table opposite a mesh screen and a curious grad student who was holding some peanuts. In one hand, the student had three peanuts. In the other, eight. The mother baboon could see both hands through the mesh, and she chose the one with eight. The student noted the correct choice. But she also noticed the baby, who followed along and interfered by reaching to make choices itself.

“It was clear that the baby understood what the theme was,” says Jessica Cantlon, who studies the evolution of cognition at Carnegie Mellon and led that Seneca Park Zoo study. In a second version of the test, her team found that even tiny baboon infants, at less than a year old, chose the bigger quantity on their own. The team concluded that both adult baboons and their babies could, in a sense, count.

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Climate-Driven Extinction Made Mammals’ Teeth Less Weird

WIRED

Fossils show how species diversity—and dental diversity—suddenly collapsed 30 million years ago, suggesting a link between climate, diet, and survival.

DORIEN DE VRIES always asks for permission before flying across the world to touch someone else’s teeth. Some of the owners are anxious. Their teeth are fragile—irreplaceable. But de Vries, a paleontologist, sets their minds at ease. She knows how to be extra careful. “It’s exactly the same as dentists’,” she says of the gooey paste she uses to capture the tooth topography. “It sets really quickly and you can peel it off.” She casts the molds and then 3D-scans the replica teeth into digital immortality.

Well, maybe not exactly like a dentist. The teeth De Vries is working with are up to 56 million years old—they once belonged to the mammals of the late Eocene, Oligocene, and Miocene Epochs and are now preserved in museum and university collections.

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Dolphins Eavesdrop on Each Other to Avoid Awkward Run-Ins

WIRED

The new finding underscores the complexity of marine mammals’ social life and cognition. It may also help save the snoopy cetaceans.

YOU’D THINK IT would be easier to spy on a Risso’s dolphin. The species frequents nearly every coast in the world. Their bulging heads and streaky gray and white patterning make them some of the most recognizable creatures in the ocean. And as with other cetaceans, they travel in groups and constantly chitchat: Clicks, buzzes, and whistles help them make sense of their underwater existence. Their social world is a sonic one.

“They’re a very vocal species,” says Charlotte Curé, a bioacoustics expert. “Sound is very important for them.”

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The Race to Put Silk in Nearly Everything

WIRED

The fiber has been considered a “miracle material” for anything from body parts to food. Has the revolution finally arrived?

ALI ALWATTARI STILL remembers the day he met the goats. It was mid-May, 19 years ago, in Quebec. The sun was lighting up the old maple sugar farm—and small huts where the goats were living. Alwattari, a materials scientist, had spent his career tinkering with chemistry equipment for Procter & Gamble, developing fibers used in Pampers and Swiffers. But the startup Nexia Biotechnologies was aiming to use an entirely different kind of polymer producer—and it was gazing back at him with its rectangular pupils.

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The Coelacanth May Live for a Century. That’s Not Great News

WIRED

Scale markings reveal that this weird fish’s lifespan is double what scientists first estimated. That also means they’re closer to extinction than we thought.

AFRICAN COELACANTHS ARE very old. Fossil evidence dates their genesis to around 400 million years ago, and scientists thought they were extinct until 1938, when museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer noticed a live one in a fisher’s net.

Found off the southeastern coast of Africa, coelacanths also live a long time—scientists have suspected about 50 years. But proving that lifespan has been tough. (Coelacanths are endangered and accustomed to deep waters, so scientists can’t just stick their babies in a tank and start a timer.) Now a French research team examining their scales with polarized light has determined that they can likely live much, much longer. “We were taken aback,” says Bruno Ernande, a marine ecologist who led the study. The new estimated lifespan, he says, “was almost a century.”

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The Sneaky, Lying Flower That Pretends to Be a Rotting Beetle

WIRED

Aristolochia microstoma finds love by smelling like death. Coffin flies can’t resist.

IT WAS THE butterflies that tipped them off. Thomas Rupp, a PhD student in ecology at the Paris-Lodron University of Salzburg, was walking through a mountain forest with his teammates near Athens, Greece, when he saw them: the insects that, when in caterpillar form, feed on a special kind of plant called Aristolochia microstoma. “Wherever I saw this butterfly flying,” Rupp says, “I knew that there must be some Aristolochia plants around.”

Rupp crouched down to find the plant’s unusual flowers lying hidden among rocks and leaves. They are a dark merlot red, and they look like an inflated bulb connected to a narrow tube tipped by a small pore called a stoma. The whole thing looks a lot like the entry to an intestinal tract. It’s not. It’s even weirder.

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The Long, Strange Life of the World’s Oldest Naked Mole Rat

WIRED

These death-defying rodents do not age normally. Will their weird biology help extend human life spans, or are those ambitions a dead end?

JOE HAS LOOKED old since the day he was born, back in 1982. He’s pink and squinty and wrinkly. His teeth are weird: His incisors sit outside his lips to keep the dirt out of his mouth as he digs tunnels for his tube-shaped body.

“He looks remarkably the same,” says Rochelle Buffenstein, a comparative biologist who has studied naked mole rats since the 1980s when she was doing her doctoral work in Cape Town, South Africa. That’s where she met Joe. (He doesn’t have an official name, so we’re going with Joe.) A few years later, Buffenstein was starting her own research on vitamin D metabolism in mole rats because they spend all their time in dark tunnels, away from the sun. She moved to Johannesburg with a few subjects to begin her work, leaving Joe behind. He was eventually shipped off to the Cincinnati Zoo. But he and Buffenstein would soon reunite.

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