- Published on Friday, 25 July 2014 15:29
While their skins are thick, there are plenty of things that piss elephants off. People with spears, arrows and bullets are top on the list but insect stingers are not far off. Now a couple of papers are revealing that elephants speak to one another to communicate which sorts of threats are near them. They make specific sounds when near bees and specific ones when near people. Yet what is far more amazing is that they make different sounds around different sorts of people. Near tribes that traditionally threaten them, they made one sound while around tribes that are usually peaceful towards them, they made another. They even differentiated between men, women and children, almost as if using words. It is mind-blowing stuff, read on in my articles in Nature and The Economist.
Image courtesy of Peter Wredge.
Not so bitter pill
- Published on Tuesday, 15 July 2014 14:25
Since insulin's crucial discovery nearly a century ago, countless diabetes patients have had to inject themselves with the life-saving medicine but this is not fun. Needles hurt and the pain often leads patients who need the drug to not take it as often as they should. Now scientists are reporting a new development towards a less painful tactic... an insulin pill. The new technique depends upon packaging insulin inside tiny sacs made of fats and then wrapping these sacs in layers of highly protective molecules called polyelectrolytes. They figured that this combination would keep insulin safe from highly damaging stomach acids that have prevented an insulin pill from ever being made before. It worked but this technique also kept insulin from ever getting absorbed by the body. To help work around this problem the researchers tried adding folic acid, which readily pulls fats across intestinal cell membranes. It is really remarkable what they managed. Read on in my article in The Economist.
- Published on Saturday, 05 July 2014 14:54
That all bumblebees buzz is well known. Slightly less well known is that some species use their buzz to get at food by rattling pollen loose with vibrations and that some species buzz as a threat, literally telling others to buzz off. What nobody has known is whether these buzzes are different, so a team took a look and found out that, yes, they are. However, in doing so they discovered something far more interesting. Different bumblebee species buzz quite differently when trying to knock pollen loose from flowers. This suggests that the frequency and amplitude of a buzz for each bee species is quite specific to the flowers that they depend upon, functioning like a highly evolved mouthpart that allows them (and only them) to get at the badly needed nectar. We had no idea that this lock and key system even existed. Read on in my article in The Economist.
Image courtesy of Alvesgaspar.
Time is not money
- Published on Sunday, 29 June 2014 13:41
As much as we may love having lots of it, money is often associated with bad behaviour. This has led many psychologists to run experiments revealing that people subconciously view money itself as corrupt and that people are more likely to cheat and lie when presented with money (and the more money they are shown the stronger the unethical effects). Now a team is demonstrating that a way to potentially reduce the negative psychological effects of money is to instead get people to focus on another resource that is equally as ubiquitous in our daily lives... time. Across four experiments, a team examined whether shifting focus onto time salvaged a person's ethics. Indeed, it did. Read on in my article in The Economist.
The value of money laundering
- Published on Friday, 25 April 2014 09:52
Every year currency that is deemed unfit for further circulation is replaced by central banks. This results in the printing of nearly 150 billion new banknotes worldwide at a cost of nearly $10 billion. As if this wasn't already bad enough, central banks must also deal with the environmental challenge of annually destroying some 150,000 tonnes of these unfit notes. It is all a monumental nuisance but one that a new technique for cleaning money could soon make a lot less expensive. A team of physicists and chemists knew that the most common reason for a banknote being taken out of circulation was due to soiling from exposure to an oily substance found on our hands known as sebum. They figured that if a mechanism could be developed that would efficiently and cheaply remove sebum, they'd have a valuable product. So that is precisely what they invented. Read on in my article in The Economist.
Thyme to touch
- Published on Sunday, 01 June 2014 13:48
Infants are well known to be sensitive to ancestrally recurrent dangers and show fears that they could never have learned through experience around creatures like snakes. Yet the degree to which they are born aware of other hazards has not been explored much. Now a team has conducted an experiment studying whether infants possess behavioural strategies that reduce their exposure to the hazards posed by plants. While there are many plants with contact poisons and microscopic (but harmful) barbs, there are no known plant features that reliably signal which ones are dangerous, making trial-and-error experimentation a costly proposition. In spite of this, plant defenses can easily be avoided by simply not touching them at all until advised by friends or family that they are safe to touch. With this in mind, a team predicted that infants would show a reluctance to reach out and touch plants relative to other kinds of objects. This is precisely what they found. An innate fear of snakes, seems obvious. Who would have thought we would have an innate fear of parsley! Read on in my article in The Economist.
Image courtesy of Tharish.
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.