Morsels for the mind – 26/7/2013

26 July 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!


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

Super shrew! If there was one beastie that captured attention this week, it was a remarkable shrew. No need for backup here, this critter has massive vertebrae that can carry the weight of the world. Great coverage by Becky Crew, Rich Johnston, Kelly Servick, and Melissa Hogenboom.

Cool for cats. Cheetahs don’t overheat when they sprint.

Meow mix. Of cats, science, mythology, and more cats. Purr-fectly blended.

You want to go where everybody knows your name. So do dolphins. Each has a signature whistle that functions as its name. That’s the game of the name, if you will.

On the right track. Amazing piece by Philip Hoare on the decimation and reappearance of North Atlantic right whales.

Performing under pressure. How whales keep blood flowing at great depths.

Song stylists. Male bats can be crooners. Singing songs for the lady bats.

Call of the wild. New app identifies species on the basis of their calls. Speaking of animal calls:

Caller ID. Individual wolf identities revealed by their calls. Small sample size but sounding good. Speaking of small samples sizes:

Hey hue! Small study suggests that dogs can discriminate colour better than thought.

Quite a mouthful. A modern-day, sabretooth…opossum.

Gee whiz! Mouse urine smells of emotion – glee and futility.

Toilet tales. A history of creatures lurking in the bowl. Moral: look before you sit.

Data dump. Faeces provide evidence for impact of elephant diet on rhino diet.

All in the family? Is sibling inbreeding the only way to save the Sumatran rhino from extinction? Maybe.

Living on the edge. Human activity is pushing other primates to the periphery. Literally.

Pet peeve. Web-based videos of an endangered animal don’t necessarily educate. More likely to create a desire to have it as a pet.

Catastrophic cashmere. Making the cloth threatens rare big cat and native ungulates.

Unnatural selection. The conflict one feels when taking sides in nature doing its thing. In this case, jays versus a quail fledgling. A wonderful reflection by Chris Clarke.

Mapping a mystery. Geography of a wildlife disaster. Great collaborative work by Nadia Drake and Greg Miller.

Disturbing dophin deaths. High mortality calls for greater resources to solve mysterious occurrence.

Raccoons are freaky. ‘Nuff said.

Sun worshippers? The sunbathing habits of our fine feathered friends.

This doesn’t suck. How the remora evolved its super sucker.

A good grasp of the situation. Guppies use genital claws to hold on during sex. A case of claws and effects.

Successful celibacy. How bdelloid rotifers get by without sex.

Getting a head in life. Planaria just regrow one. It can help when they’ve lost their head.

Look! There’s a dinosaur outside! Brian Switek takes a look at modern-day dinosaurs.

No sweat? How much can a person perspire before they run dry?


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

Speedy swarm. Caterpillars gather to gather speed. Mind-boggling science, beautifully explained by Aatish Bhatia.

Holding on with all their mite. It’s hitchhiking mites! They are truly riding things out.

Size matters. How the rhino beetle got its horn.

Matter of taste. For a butterfly, it’s in her feet.

Bringing home the bacon. Sometimes it’s to remove a screwworm infestation in your scalp. Yum. Deliciously disgusting stuff courtesy of Rebecca Kreston.

Nothing civil about it. Pests and disease were strategically deployed during the US Civil War.

Hungry for grub? What’s stopping us from eating insects?


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

Bad buzzness. Plants prefer return customers when it comes to pollination. And if they lose even one species, there’s a low return on investment.

Baobabs are beautiful. And they are also in trouble.

Beating the heat. What plants do when temperatures rise.

Surprising signals. Plant cells use same signalling molecule that animals use.

Taking a meal in the garden. The dining habits of carnivorous plants.

What goes around comes around. Why crop rotation works.

Root of the matter. Plant action underground.

Lasting impression. How 1976 drought left its mark on forests.

It’s a gas! How chemistry puts a ripe banana in your groceries.

Oil’s well that ends well? Might the oil palm genome help in making it a more sustainable crop? Maybe, maybe not. But first use of genome shows how it could help improve yield.

Seeing red. Photosynthesis observed around the world using infrared..FROM SPACE!


Fossil finds – organisms of times past – dinosaurs and beyond

Butting heads over heads butting. New evidence suggests that some dinosaurs used their skulls as weapons, but some folks are not so convinced.

What do dinosaurs wear? Their teeth!

Never ending story. Veg-eating dinosaurs replaced teeth at an amazing rate during their lifetimes. Sometimes as quick as every 14 days.

Quite a tail to tell. Complete, articulated hadrosaur tail has just one thing missing – the rest of the hadrosaur.

Reality bites. Sabretooth left a nasty mark in a hominid skull.

Big mouth strikes again. Comparing sabretoothed cats with sabretoothed marsupials.

Mammoth undertaking. Did sabretooth cats bring down giant pachyderms?

A bone to pick. Steve Mirsky ponders the troubles of becoming a good fossil in this great piece from 1998.


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

A fascination with smut. Darwin, a suffragette, citizen science, an app, and a plant disease, masterfully woven together by Rose Eveleth.

All packed up. Bacteria hunt as a swarming mob.

Bugs will tear us apart again. Gut microbes prevent species from hybridising.

Land ho! Fungi may have taken to terrestrial living much earlier than previously thought.

Preposterous pathogens. Absurdly large viruses, Pandoraviruses, are making people think outside of the box. They are living life large. Literally.

Beloved bugs. Staying healthy involves embracing our microbiome.

A losing battle? The number of antibiotics to which bacteria have resistance continues to grow.

A beastly problem? Is antibiotic use on livestock fuelling a human health disaster?


Molecular machinery – the toils of the macromolecules of life – nucleic acids and proteins (and others)

X factor. The “female” sex chromosome helps sperm do their stuff.

Weimaraner wiring. Breed-specific mutation gives rise to canine neural disorders.

Better living through chemistry. Chemicals alone reprogram stem cells.

Beauty is more than skin deep. The horrible beauty of medical photography.

A bright spot. Light might be used to improve cancer therapy delivery.

“We’re doing it wrong.” There’s, er, a slight problem when it comes to assembly of genome sequence data.

Code comfort? Might DNA be the best medium to store data in the event of an apocalypse?


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

The view from on high. Sun glint and “gravity waves” are just some of the awesome features one can see from above.

Long hot summer just passed me by? If only. Some hypotheses to explain what’s up with the heat & humidity.

Something in the way it moves. Exploring plate tectonics on the Earth..and beyond!

A little respect. The Volcanic Explosivity Index is a thing. And it needs adjusting to give small eruptions their due.


Star attractions – the final frontier, space

Everything in perspective. Earth and its Moon are mere specks in space when viewed from Saturn. It’s a humbling selfy.

Out for a spin. Lovely lenticular spiral galaxy.

That’s cool. Infant planetary system has snow.

It’s foxy! A nebula like the Firefox logo. Natural, cosmic advertising.

Black holed sun. Amazing coronal “hole” near the solar pole.

Hot stuff. Just how close is “too close” to the Sun?

The space between us. Joe Hanson does a wonderful job explaining distances in our Solar System.

On the flip side. Think you know the face of moon? Think again.

Is there anybody out there? Lone Signal aims to connect with smart aliens. Yes, really!

We are stardust. Or images of stardust. Beautiful portraits constructed using Hubble photos.

The final frontier. Using Lagrange points to explore the cosmos.


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

Time out. What would elimination of a leap second do? Lots. Great time piece by Dava Sobel.

Wasted lives. Floating reefs of plastic refuse are creating entirely new ocean ecosystems.

Reef or madness? Tourists are literally loving coral ecosystems to death.

Pressure paradox.  Curious crystal actually expands when put under stress.

Mews of the day. Millions of Schrödinger’s “kittens” made from entangled photons.

A whole other dimension. The stranger, deeper side of nature’s building blocks.

Flipping out. Neutrino “flavour” flipped.

Sound and vision. Jennifer Ouellette muses on music and subatomic particles.

Good way to B. Ripples from the Big Bang leave behind B-mode polarisation.

“Send all available rescue vehicles, there’s a wave of molasses!” Ferris Jabr tells a remarkable story of a cooking ingredient, physics, and a city-wide disaster.

Revelling in radicals. Thomas Blunt and the discovery of free radicals.

Gravity of the situation. And 20 things you may not have known about it.

Getting sucked in. A cloud of gas does battle with a supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy.

Let’s split! Astounding division of magnetic fluid.

Just a little attractive. Magnetism observed inside a single molecule.

Light at the end of the tunnel? The challenges of hunting for dark matter.

Lightening up? Is dark matter lighter than we thought? Intriguing possibility.


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

Doggie see, doggie do. Dogs are amazing imitators. They just need to know when to do it. It’s called deferred imitation.

The way we were. Other apes seem to have autobiographical memory too. It can last for years, and be recalled in a Proustian fashion.

“I myself become the wounded person.” Whitman, Darwin and empathy. A brilliant piece by Eric Johnson.

The curious moonlight. If you were sleepless in Seattle, it may have been a full moon. It’s a sleep wrecker. This was discovered using old data by co-authors who “thought of it after a drink in a local bar one evening at full moon”. Awesome.

Waisting the night away. Increased girth could be due to decreased sleep.

Child’s play. Swapping body size with a kid does make everything seem bigger.

Try not to think of a polar bear. Of Dostoevsky & self control. Wonderful homage to Daniel Wegner, by Maria Konnikova.

Muggy minds? Is there a reason why the heat and humidity make us less productive? You betcha.

Think pink? Boys, girls, and colour preference – what’s going on? Jordan Gaines does a great job of covering a subject that is far from black and white.

Against all odds. The gambling mind of the extrovert. Fascinating insight by Tom Stafford.

Forget what you know about amnesia. It is probably wrong.

A turn for the worse. Nocebo, the evil opposite of placebo, can worry you sick.

Writing by numbers. How forensic linguistics finds author’s trends, and thereby outed JK Rowling’s latest. Virginia Hughes delivers a real page turner.

Learning curve. As machines get smarter, they learn to learn like we learn.

War! What is it good for? Our species may be violent, but not necessarily warmongering. So says analysis of modern hunter-gatherers.

“Health inequity and globalisation are intertwined like coils of rope.” Tania Browne reflects on a timely health issue. These reflections question some of the Western world’s most fundamental beliefs.

Making sense without scents. Words create odours when you have anosmia. Heart-wrenching reflection by Rebecca Steinitz.


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

Piecing it together. Research on tidewater glaciers illustrates how science is like a jigsaw puzzle. Wonderfully assembled by Sarah Boon.

Science solidarity. Was a time when science was more politically charged. Have we lost that edge?

Larger legacy. Considering a bigger picture of Rosalind Franklin on the occasion of the 93rd anniversary of her birth.

Ever wonder how some science communicators get so much accomplished? Rose Eveleth’s secrets are revealed.

“The sad fact is that nobody outside of scientists cares about basic research.” How to tackle that grim reality? Some great thoughts by Lisa Willemse.

“Being a scientist and a feminist is a win-win situation.” Thought-provoking reflections, plus some good comments, and others that will make your head explode.

Buy the numbers? Spurious data are all too often reported as fact.

“If an academic can talk to a colleague or a friend, they already know why and how to tweet.” The whys and wherefores of academic twitter use.

“A narrative playground for science.” Paige Brown on the awesome power of science fiction.

Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh. The importance of humour in communicating science.

Invincible? Hardly! Science shows Wolverine’s weakness. And Kyle Hill shows his great skill at conveying science through pop culture.

“Idealism takes many shapes. A stone wall is one of them.” Gorgeous piece on the taming and re-wilding of Nature, and the relationship between science writing and nature writing, by Kim Moynahan.

Ferocious argument? Not at all. How to teach the T. rex “nontroversy” regarding its position as predator versus scavenger.

Branching out. Rethinking the teaching of the tree of life. Larry Moran considers chopping the tree. Interesting comments, including a useful one by Jonathan Eisen.

Write on! Great advice on keeping a research journal that is distinct from a lab notebook.

Accelerated artistry. The latest artist’s tool? A particle accelerator. Yes, really.

“One of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see in a war zone.” Genius, poignant piece by Kyle Smith. Read of the week.


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