Morsels For The Mind – 06/12/2013

8 December 2013 by Malcolm Campbell, posted in Malcolm's linkfest

Every day we provide you with #SixIncredibleThingsBeforeBreakfast to nibble away at. Here you can fill your brain with the most intellectually stimulating “amuse bouches” from the past week – a veritable smorgasbord for the cranium. They’re all here for you to load up your plate – this week’s “Morsels for the mind”.  Enjoy!

If you do nothing else, make sure to check out the “Reads / views / listens of the week”.


Feather, fur & fin – birds, beasts, fishes, and the things they do

One of the high notes of the week in biology, was also a low note. A cool koala story, reported beautifully by several writers:

Ace of bass. How koalas hit super-low notes. Brian Owens 
gets to the bottom of it.

Hitting all the low notes. How koalas sing bass in their love calls. Andy Coghlan
 gets down to it.

Moans, groans & tones. How koala mating calls hit the super-bass notes. Victoria Gill’s take on the koala low notes.

How low can you go? Koalas have a special organ that enables bass bellows. Ed Yong
’s take on the koala low notes.

The sole purpose of this organ is to create an alluring one-two of burps & snores turned up to 11.” Henry Nicholls
’s take on the koala low notes.

No stomach for it. How being stomachless shaped the platypus genome – and that of many fish. Ed Yong reports on a beautiful example of comparative genomics. Amazing story.
 Read of the week.

Gutless wonders. Commonalities in the way that some fish & all monotremes deal with no stomach. Charles Choi
 takes a look.

Points lost. Could Asian elephants lose their tusks? Fascinating example of ongoing evolution, nicely reported by Sekar Sandhya

Other primates were horrified by discombobulated Margaret Thatcher also.

Problematic primate promiscuity. Some female choices challenged anthropology. Superb piece by Eric Johnson
. Read of the week.

No guts, no gory? Great intelligent take on viral, exploding whale video, by Joe Hanson

What the * %^ is that smell?! The makings of dog gas. Great fun and science, courtesy of Julie Hecht.

Leader of the pack? Wolves more attentive to humans than dogs when observing food-finding cues. Companion Animal Psychology does another great job in explaining interesting canine behaviour research.

It's in their blood. Dog breeds have different haematological traits. Fascinating.

Racey garments. Racehorses could benefit from sports bras. Yes, really.

The mane event. For lions, pride gets in the way of becoming once & future king. Douglas Main
 explores some intereting animal behaviour.

Here Kitty. Cats can hear you, they just choose to ignore you. Now experimentally proven, as Rachel Nuwer

What's new? Pussycats! New species emerge in South America, reports Rachel Nuwer

Cool, for cats. A device to video chat with your animal companions. T.C. Nguyen
 on the latest technology.

Gaining a foothold? Challenges of black-footed ferret conservation. Super story by Elizabeth Shogren

A breasted development. Mouse milk programs memory skills of pups. Ed Yong
 on another example of maternal influence.

The checks in the male. New contraceptive approach tested in guy mice. Interesting biology and its application, beautifully explained by Sci Curious

Science takes flight. Things learned from 6 amazing birds.

That's sweet! Hummingbirds use fructose for fuelCool research by departmental colleague Ken Welch!

It’s in the best interests of turkey farmers to ensure the relative happiness of their turkeys.” Indeed. Jason Goldman
 carves out a great story.

Grasping at straws? How birds cling to branches during sleep. A contested hypothesis. Alexis Madrigal
 on a biological curiousity.

Stick together. Crocodiles seem to use sticks to lure prey. Darren Naish on a potentially remarkable example of tool use.

Making snaking. Amazing innovations in snakes' genomes. Elizabeth Pennisi

Getting the point. Adaptable horned lizards. Liz Langley

 shares the wild and the wonderful.

Remarkable reptile. Terrific tuatara. Mary Bates 
continues her series on curious critters.

A nested development. Turtle sex determined in the nest. Elizabeth Preston
 does her usual outstanding job of explaining some remarkable biology.

Amazing aim. Archer fish biophysics. This is a simply brilliant piece by Aatish Bhatia. There’s so much to recommend about this piece – a genius mind at work, explaining things perfectly.
 Read of the week.

Head case. Solving the mystery of the seahorse's curious head. Cool find, reported by Liz Langley

“Come fly with me.” Squid follow Sinatra's request. Craig McClain
 on flying cephalopods.

Everything's groovy. Grooves are the secret to octopus's sucker success. Katherine Harmon Courage
 brings on more cephalopod goodness.

The old razzle dazzle. How dazzling works as camouflage. Intriguing stuff, nicely reported by Stephanie Pappas

In some cases..biggest risk in cross-species friendships isn’t getting eaten. It’s emotional loss.” Thought-provoking post by Laurie Weegler

Listen up. This is the sound of poachers repeatedly shooting one of the 96 elephants slaughtered every day. It must stop.

A bone to pick. Is legalising trade of endangered animal parts for TCM likely to help conservation? Nope.

A meaty matter. Humans are becoming more carnivorous & that's something to beef about. Hannah Hoag explains.

Have sharks been saved from overfishing? Um, not so much. Important analysis by David Shiffman

"Eating shark products won't cure cancer any more than me eating Michael Jordan would make me better at basketball." Super quote from David Shiffman in great piece by Douglas Main on sharks getting cancer (they do).

Preying on plastic. Of fish eating synthetic polymers, & scientific blind luck. Great research blogging by Chelsea Rochman

Haters of the lost ark. I'm with Bug Girl: If someone fancied themselves a modern Noah, I'd call animal welfare.

The effect was revolting & unforgettable to my young eyes.” Quote from a phenomenal piece by Ed Yong on a zombifying parasite. Genius, must read post. 
Read of the week.


Bugs’ life – insects and other things that creep, crawl and otherwise delight

A peeling choice. Fruit flies prefer oranges. Joseph Bennington Castro

 reveals how we know this.

The itsy bitsy spider. Was friendly. Even if it was a black widow. Great Q&A with Catherine Scott by Chris Buddle


Walloping websnappers! Amazing arachnids brought to you by Chris Buddle

Here comes the bride. Some spiders spin a "bridal veil". Catherine Scott
 on some fascinating arachnid behaviour.

Taking sides. Insects' remarkable sex positions.

Buzz kill. Aphid can eat tobacco by detoxifying nicotine. Sedeer El-Showk
 explains an amazing evolutionary innovation.

The colour of money. Feed them pigments & silkworms make silk to dye for. Francie Diep
 shades in the details.

Petal power. Mantis lures prey by posing as orchid. Amazing story, reported by Charles Choi

The world is full of astonishing things. This is one. Amazing photography of Nicky Bay. View of the week.


Fossil finds – organisms of times past – palaeontology, archaeology, anthropology, history and the like

Twin beaks? Why flightless animals also have beaks. Travis Park
 digs into the past, and comes up with the goods.

Big eaters. Cockroaches likely dined on dinosaur droppings. Danielle Elliot
 took a look.

A long wait. “Fig wasp” lived tens of millions years before figs. Intriguing.

Ironing out the tough spots? Might iron have preserved dinosaur macromolecules, like DNA? Hmm.  

What's that? You'd like to see all the coverage of the whole ancient DNA, human evolution story? Well, here you go then...

It's complicated. Determining connections between ancient hominins is tricksy. That's not a bad thing, as John Hawks beautifully explains.

They got around. Denisovan DNA showing up in the darnedest of places. Gemma Tarlach
’s take on the ancient DNA story.

All in the family? Mystery hominin lineage suggested by 400k yr old DNA. Ewen Callaway ‘s take.

“Now we have to rethink the whole story.” 400k yr old human DNA baffles. Carl Zimmer
’s take.

Oh what a tangled tree we weave. Human family tree tangled by 400k yr old DNA. Paul Rincon
’s take.

“What we find is unexpected & confusing.” Our wonderfully interwoven family tree. Ian Sample
’s take.

A bone to pick. DNA from human fossil raises questions about our evolution.

Home improvement? Did Neanderthals engage in cave makeover? Intriguing hypothesis reported by Colin Schultz

Diggin' their scene. What do palaeontologists reallydo? Excellent insights via Russell Garwood.


Beautiful botanicals – wonders of the photosynthesising world – that is, mainly plants

Did avocado seeds evolve to be grown in jars on windowsills? No, they tell about extinction. Brilliant video by Joe Hanson
. View of the week.

It's genes all the way down. Epigenetics & gene expression are important, but code runs the show. So say the clones.

Berry nice. Bee pollination boosts strawberry quality, Erik Stokstad reports.

Figuring it out. How wasps pollinate figs. Sarah Shailes
 reports on some interesting biology.

Orange you glad you ate your carrots? Veggies make hue more attractive. Becky Lang

Phenomenal flora. Fossil points to poppies' past.  Joseph Stromberg
 looks into it.

Disrupting the space thyme continuum? NASA to grow plants on the moon. by Breanna Draxler

The moon is abloom? Maybe. Relatively soon. With turnips, cress & basil, as Paul Marks reports.

Berry nice. Iridescent berries inspire fabrics that change colour when stretched. Amazing technology based on equally amazing biology, nicely reported by Laura Poppick.


Microscopic marvels – smaller than the eye can see, but big in action – bacteria, fungi and viruses

At first, the manure was just harmlessly foaming. Only later on did things get lethal.” Sarah Zhang’s piece grabs you right from the first sentence.

Perfected partner. The making of a symbiotic fungus.

Electric company. Microbe uses neighbour's electricity to make methane.

Dynamic duel. Fungal foes fight it out, as Susan Milius reveals.

Coronavirus caravan? Camels confirmed as carriers of MERS virus. Kai Kupferschmidt
 on the shifting sands of a disease’s origins.

Microbes make us. Fun animation about our microbiomes by Benjamin Arthur, brought to us courtesy of Glendon Mellow


Molecular machinery – the toils of the macromolecules of life – nucleic acids and proteins (and others) – from molecules to cells to organs to organisms (including genetics & genomics)

The broader implications..could be paradigm shifting & unprecedented.” Quote from an amazing post by Virginia Hughes on inheritance of fear. Astonishing find, superb reporting. Read of the week.

Scents & sensibility. Inheritance of feared odour sensitivity. Ewen Callaway
 reports on a fascinating find.

This week, the evolution / genetics story of the week started with a beautifully written, provocative piece by David Dobbs entitled “Die, Selfish Gene, Die”, which took aim at Richard Dawkins’s “Selfish Gene” meme. This proved a somewhat controversial piece, generally hailed by non-experts, and generally panned by experts in the field of evolutionary biology and population genetics. The following links should allow you to piece together the story…

Even as one animal becomes the other, as Jekyll becomes Hyde, its genome stays unchanged.” Quote by David Dobbs from a thought-provoking piece on the power of gene expression in evolution. Read of the week.

Everything in its place. Importance of qualitative genetics in understanding quantitative genetics, by PZ Myers
. Read of the week.

David Dobbs & PZ Myers posts on population genetics are important reminders that phenotype is a product of genotype & environment & the interaction between the two. But it’s important also to remember that qualitative (Mendelian) genetics is not wrong, just incomplete / imperfect. Just as an emoticon is an imperfect / incomplete representation of a human face, so too is qualitative genetics an imperfect / incomplete representation of the role of genetics in traits. Both require greater detail & nuance, but both are useful representations of simple concepts that can be built upon to provide a fuller picture of what is. Other writers followed up along these lines.  See some of the following links…

A Selfish Gene to rule them all, and in the interwebs bind them. A scientific exchange in three parts...(See trio of tweets that follow)

The mellowship of the thing. David Dobbs clarifies “Die, Selfish Gene, Die” story. Read of the week.

The two towers. Jerry Coyne delivers a double wallop contra David_Dobbs. Part 1 Part 2 

 Read of the week.

The return of the king. Richard Dawkins weighs in on "Die, Selfish Gene, Die". Brilliant.

 Read of the week.

There’s a reason it’s called ‘genetics,’ & not ‘expressionetics.’” Spot on quote from a superb piece by Razib Khan critiquing David_Dobbs's piece this week in Aeon Magazine. Read of the week.

Despite these critiques, David Dobbs has done a superb job of bringing genetics discourse to the fore this week, & has done so with exemplary tact, even-handedness, & diplomacy. An example of this can be found in his retort to criticisms that have been raised. All told, what he's accomplished has been an impressive feat.

 The best thing about David Dobbs's Selfish Gene piece is the discourse it has created about genetics. See threads involving David Dobbs and Emily Willingham, Graham Coop, Aylwyn Scally, or Karen James. That's where some of the gold lies.

The shape of things to come. Amazing advances in the field of structural biology, enthusiastically conveyed by Stephen Curry

Good eats. Almost everything you eat contains DNA. But that's nothing to worry about says Merlin Crossley


All in sequence? What might your genome sequence say to you, & about others? Excellent long read, with outstanding storytelling, by Virginia Hughes


Earth, wind and fire – planet shaping – geology, meteorology, oceanography, the environment & climate

The vast blue of our blue planet is so easy to forget when you live on land.” Quote from a wonderful piece by Helen Czerski about physics fieldwork at sea. Great read.

A concrete & steel sarcophagus, a symbol of one of humankind’s most powerful tools gone awry.” Quote from a brilliant piece by Kyle Hill on what happens when nuclear energy is done wrong. Read of the week.

Round they go. Amazing ice disks in ponds.


Star attractions – the final frontier, space

Twisting the night away. Dancing black holes merge. Jacob Aron

 on an astonishing occurrence.

Cosmic curiosity. Mysterious light echo. Phil Plait

Impetuous youth. Supernova's age makes for dramatic flare.

Tremendous trio. Three exoplanets directly imaged. Phil Plait gives you a tour.

To tackle the problem, Elvis adapted a tool used to study another cosmic puzzle: the Drake equation.” Quote by Jacob Aron, on something you never imagined Elvis would do - ID valuable asteroids.

Light entertainment. Astonishing stars. Melissa Hogenboom
 on a celestial happening.

Hot stuff. How to cook a comet.

Happening hexagon. Curious Saturnian feature. Jason Major on a remarkable mark on a planet’s face.
 Speaking of which:

Spectacular Saturnian spot. An amazing storm. Great read by Emily Lakdawalla.

Shaping up. Saturn's hexagonal storm. Amazing images, brought to you by Phil Plait.

Smooth operator. Explaining Titan's good complexion.

This is planet Earth. From the ISS to you. Astonishing timelapse videos. Rebecca Rosen has gathered them all together for you.


Forces of nature – big-ticket items – cosmology, mathematics, computation, chemistry, physics, ecology & evolution

A wrench in the works? Is our planet a broken machine that can be fixed? Superb, thought provoking piece by Annalee Newitz, where she uses plight of monarch butterfly to perfectly illustrate interconnectivity on our planet. 
 I don't agree with eveything in Annalee Newitz's brilliant piece on “Earth is a machine”, but it's a must read. Read of the week.

"That which we call life is impossible without & inseparable from what we regard as inanimate." Quote from a wonderful musing by Ferris Jabr on the challenge of defining life. Read of the week.

Galactic incinerator or cosmic vault? What do black holes do with information? Kate Becker
 gets into it.

Disorderly conduct. Entropy & the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Nice explainer by Alok Jha

Ghosts in the machine. Ghostly subatomic particles, neutrinos, observed using IceCube detector. Alok Jha

Long distance voyagers. Neutrinos from beyond our solar system have been detected.

A matter of matter. Higgs boson likely gives mass to leptons. Amazing particle physics find, reports Jon Butterworth

Terrifically tiny. The spectacularly small world of nanotechnology. Nice gallery compiled by Rachael Stubbins.

Dynamic droplet dance! Because physics.

How soon is now? Algorithm accurately predicts premature births. Martin Angler
 delivers some intriguing stats.


Matters of mind – how we, and other animals, perceive our world and our place in it

Got a mind for the mind? Check out this month’s NeuroPod, hosted by Kerri Smith. It features the Society for Neuroscience Meeting BINGO with Ian Sample & Mo Costandi. Listen of the week.

Of different minds? Are male & female brains wired differently? Ian Sample looks into what proved to be a highly controversial paper. See the next links for the follow up.

Bad connections? Differences in way male & female brains are wired? Not so fast. says Matthew Thomas

Same old, same old. Attempt to support tired stereotypes with new data. Superb critique of the paper on the purported differences between male and females brains by Tom Stafford

Those are some pretty wiring diagrams...shame about the way they interpreted them.” Quote from Christian Jarrett's excellent critique of research on differences between female & male brains.

Inside job. To see sex differences in brain wiring, need to carefully analyse scans. Neuro Skeptic
 provides a good critique of the methods used in the study.

List lovers. Why our brains adore it when things are itemised. As usual, simply spectacular writing by Maria Konnikova
. Read of the week.

Not buying it? The hype and reality of “neuromarketing”. Awesome critique by Pete Etchells


Tic talk. Your brain has two clocks. Emily Reas

Facing facts. Does Jesus turn the other cheek because neuroscience? Fascinating hypothesis by Christian Jarrett

Eating humble pie. We're not as smart, or as funny, as we think we are. Bummer. Tom Stafford sets us straight.


Behind the scenes – the workings of the museum – discovery and communication

Talk amongst yourselves. Academic bloggers seem mostly to blog for each other as research by Pat Thomson & Inger Mewburn

Such great heights. Superb reflection on Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man”, by David Deutsch.

Who do we think we are? Google has some ideas about scientists. And they aren't so nice, as Phil Plait reveals.

The work of raising awareness of & eliminating sexual harassment has not stopped.” Important discussion, by Kathleen Raven

Fact in fiction. “Lab literature” highlights challenges of grad student - supervisor partnership. Steve Caplan talks about his own writing, and other examples of “lab lit”.

Freedom of choice? Challenges of selecting a PhD thesis topic. Heather Yoeli
 on how it can unfold.

Beyond the ivory tower. There aregood careers for PhDs outside academe. Janet Stemwedel

Conservationists will have to jettison their idealised notions of nature, parks, & wilderness.” Quote from a thought-provoking piece by Robert Krulwich
 on the value of nature. Literally.

Up side of the down side. Why increased retractions are largely a positive thing. Super analysis.

Getting the word out. How social media can transform scientific debate. Dorothy Bishop tracks the “female/male brain” discussion.

Endlessly interrogating my intellectual worth was akin to weighing myself 3 times a day...pointless.” Quote from a wonderful piece by Hope Jahren, on getting over the imposter syndrome in academia. Read of the week.

Reporters & editors need each other, but this..relationship can sometimes be rocky.” Quote from a great piece by Matt Shipman, featuring Laura Helmuth & Jessica Morrison, on the business of science communication.

Stick it on their wall or pass it round their labs, it probably wouldn't do any harm.” Quote from a great piece by Chris Tyler on what scientists should know about policy.

Glad tidings! You’re sure to enjoy Kate Whittington's seasonally festive, interactive, natural history sketchbook.


Leave a Reply

8 − four =