Morsels for the mind – 2/8/2013

3 August 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

“Monogamy is a problem.” Well, it is for evolutionary biologists when hypotheses compete, and this week there were two: paternal protection versus layabout lovers. It was a topic that garnered great coverage by Seth Borenstein, Carl Zimmer, Josh Howgego, and Kit Opie (who also authored one of the two papers in the primary literature).

Here among the cats. No words needed to capture the magnificence of lions. Stunning.

Tigers’ tremendous travels. Searching for mates takes big cats all over the place. And that’s not a good thing.

Rights of passage. Atlantic right whale mating grounds may have been identified.

Getting older every day. Other animals show signs of ageing too. Each in their own way.

Newly discovered lemur is unbearably cute. That is all.

“A map of the cat sir?” A wonderful piece by Christina Agapakis on the incomparable Richard Feynman and his take on biology.

Mews of the day. What are cats telling us? We probably don’t know.

Ruff guide to language. How does learn words.

Berry nice. Wolves bring back bears’ berries.

Back-scratching bears. Best. Thing. Ever. So said everyone.

Bulging biceps. That’s what female kangaroos find attractive. Speaking of finding things attractive…

No so fond of the fans. It turns out that peahens aren’t so into a peacock’s fanning tail. Instead peahens like leggy lovers –focusing on his legs and the base of his tail. This got great coverage by Greg Miller, Susan Milius, Victoria Gill, and Robin Anne Smith.

On thin ice. The impact of melting ice floes on baby harp seals. A rocky road ahead.

You won’t like him after he’s had a couple. Seagulls get “drunk” on flying ants.

Marvellously macabre. Beautiful butcher birds.

What the flock? Pigeon hierarchy changes when they take flight.

Good mates. Female friends makes for more male mating (for finches).

What’s going on up there? How birds get it on.

Sweet tooths. Alligators and crocodiles like their fruit. Up to 50% of all croc & gator species engage in frugivory.

Spot the difference. Predators invoke larger fin eyespots and smaller eyes in damselfish.

Rays of hope. Manta taxonomy and its implications for science and conservation.

Little shell-riasers. Hermit crabs get 3D-printed shells. And they’re divine.

Daily commute. Everyday zooplankton migrate up and down the water column. Amazing stuff by Sara Mynott.

No tears. Nobody is crying over the extirpation of the Guinea worm. For good reason.


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

To boldly go. Spiders have unique personalities. Some are bold.

On the ball. Leafhoppers make poo-repellent buckyballs to keep themselves clean. Ed Yong cuts through the crap to deliver another cool story.

Singularly smart. For simple tasks, individual ants beat the groupthink of the colony.

Picking pickiness. Butterflies chose the specialist lifestyle. Or not. It depends. Another excellent post by Sedeer el-Showk.

The eyes have it. Gnats are a nasty vector for pinkeye. Frighteningly fascinating stuff by the always wonderful Rebecca Kreston.

Hitchin’ a ride. A parasitic wasp rides a damselfly.

Seen in a different light. Bees see UV light. We don’t. Nice musing on what is seen and not seen.

“At the..end of this..remote isle lives one of the most obscure insects in the world.” Lovely story by Jennifer Frazer of a flea relation that thrives against the odds.

It’s complicated. It’s important to consider the multiple causes contributing to bee colony collapse disorder. Important subject covered by Paige Brown, and Alex Wild.


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

“We’re set up for catastrophe.” We ignore plant diseases at our peril. Ed Yong masterfully stitches together farming ants, modern agriculture, crop domestication and plant pathology in one brilliant piece. Read of the week.

Naked lady smut. Not what you’re thinking. It’s important (as per Ed Yong’s piece above). John Platt uncovers a timely tale.

Orange you glad there’s genetic modification? A simply spectacular treatment of the GMO discussions as it relates to saving the orange crop from a devastating disease. Amy Harmon’s phenomenal talents as a journalist are in full play here – dealing with a sensitive topic in a balanced manner, completely infused with the best science.

“There’s a romantic notion of environmentalism…and then there’s actual environmentalism.” Amy Maxmen does a wonderful job of covering the science and the very human-scale problem of generating and deploying GM crops. A beautiful complement to Amy Harmon’s piece above.

Keep off the grass. We should forgo having lawns.

A good angle on life. How plants do geometry.


Fossil finds – organisms of times past – dinosaurs and beyond

“The way of the dinosaur is survival through the luck of circumstance.” Brian Switek sets us straight on dinosaurs reign on this planet, and their “extinction”. Fantastic.

A matter of time. We are closer in time to Tyrannosaurus rex than Tyrannosaurus rex was to Stegosaurus. Yes, really. (This is an oldie, but goodie post by Brian Switek).

Curious critter. Early ant is either 30M years too soon, or a case of convergent evolution. Cool story.

Mistaken identity. There once was a dinosaur that wasn’t. It was a croc.

No criminal intent. Using crime mapping technology to understand at tyrannosaur distribution.

Mammoth undertaking. Sir Ian Wilmut weighs in on de-extincting perished pachyderms.

Milking it for what it’s worth. The dairy revolution in human evolution.

Sacrificial sedation. Mummy of teenage Inca reveals she was drugged and intoxicated before being offered to gods.


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

Food and drug administration. One bacterium does both jobs for slime mold.

Light switch. Bacterial bioluminescence waxes and wains with water temperature.

All aboard! Marine nematode is a “party bus” for microbes. Holly Bik reveals a microbiome that’s better than most of ours.

All’s well that ends well? Faecal transplants are hugely promising, but they need a new name.

Having a blast. Herpes virus shoots its genome into host cells with remarkable force.

Thinking outside the box. Pandoraviruses give cause to rethink “life” as we know it.

Alien invaders. Apicomplexan parasites are far out.

Going viral. The threat of MERS. Excellent backgrounder by high schooler (!!) Julia Paoli.

Preying on the poor. The connection between poverty, virus infection, and cancer.

Not just a bad dream. “Nightmare” bacteria may be worse than thought.

Microbial menace. Gut bacteria may be one reason why the drugs don’t work.

Bugs versus bugs. Marine microbes make anti-MRSA antibiotic.

Sparkling accident. Double fermentation gave rise to wonderful bubbly!


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

Leaving a mark. Epigenetic marks and the making and retrieval of memories.

BLAST from the past. Wonderfully told history of the quest for really ancient DNA.

Good sequence of events. Migrating DNA barcoding from the lab to the classroom.

Lying in wait. The incredible potential of cryptic mutations.

“Like Steinbeck without the turtle.” Fantastic consideration of the nature of cDNA, and its implications, by Maggie Koerth-Baker.

This is what stress looks like. Well, at the molecular level anyway.

Some like it hot. Nanodiamonds map the temperature changes inside cells.

Everybody gets the blues. And if you’re a worm, when you do, you die. They glow before the go.

A real shot in the arm. Yes, vaccines do work. (As if more proof is needed!)

A matter of taste. How does browning improve food flavour? Science!


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

Exceptional eruptions. Volcanoes as seen from space.

“You sew the holes in the fabric of this world.” Excellent piece by Brandon Keim on restoring urban habitats.


Star attractions – the final frontier, space

That’ll B the day. Homing in on the “B-modes” spawned during the first seconds of the universe.

Tremendous tug. Saturn’s gravity creates icy Enceladus’s gargantuan geysers. It’s simply stupendous.

Like ships that pass in the night. Two Saturnian moons.

Little missed sunshine. NASA’s IRIS takes in all of the sun’s light, and it’s awesome! Rebecca Rosen illuminates.

Oh but they’re so spaced out. Remarkable views of the Earth and it’s neighbours from beyond the confines of Earth.

Dust in the wind. When it’s a stellar wind blowing celestial dust, star births are stifled.

A dense idea. Would Saturn float in water? Nope. But don’t let that prevent you from having a fun romp through the science with Rhett Allain.

Explosive find. Tracking Martian volcanic activity.

Belting it out. Van Allen belts are particle accelerators. Spectacular.

Round it goes? Icy dirtball Quaor is likely ellipsoid.

To infinity…and beyond! We have already begun flying to the stars. George Musser brilliantly describes how.

Hitchhikers’ guide to the exoplanets. Our minds can travel there, even if our bodies cannot.

Sometimes the romance runs thin. The thing about space travel is that the human body is sometime pretty icky.

Spectacular sprites. Nature’s fireworks.


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

“It’s a story we share with labradoodles & meteorites, stones & running brooks.” An ode to the journey taken by atoms in the cosmos. Lovely writing by Matthew Francis. Speaking of which:

“We must ask questions and not worry about being perceived as stupid.” Matthew Francis considers the nature of inquiry, neutrinos, the universe, expertise, and the progress of science. Brilliant.

Here be monsters. Great musing by David Bressan on Darwin, variation under nature, and Bigfoot.

Enlightening the darkness. Mario Livio considers the night sky. Awesome.

Wait a minute! Light arrested in action for 60 seconds. Jacob Aron illuminates us on this amazing research.

Zero inflation? Perhaps the universe is not expanding, just gaining mass everywhere. Hmm.

Feeling gravity’s pull. The forces at play when matter falls into a black hole. Wonderful explainer by high schooler (!!) Arvind Raju.

No laughing gas. Helium may make amusingly squeaky voices, but its disappearance is nothing to joke about.

Quantum leap. Birgitta Whaley explores the manifestation of quantum physics in biological phenomena.

Extremely filling. Curious crinkling curves fantastically fill 2-D spaces.

Up and atom? Our atomic complexity undermines chances for teleportation. Drat!

There’s chemistry to be found in every relationship. Even divorce.


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

Thanks for the memories. False associations implanted in mouse brains using optogenetics. This story was nicely brought to mind by Alok Jha, Melissa Hogenboom, Chris Palmer, and Jonathan Webb.

Making the Mickey. Understanding how mouse perception of the world is shaped, using sensory maps.

Making sense of scents. Genes involved in discriminating odours sniffed out.

Eat to the beat. Might listening to your body’s natural rhythms, especially your heartbeat, help lose weight?

By the numbers. What is the relationship between material auto-antibodies and autism? Emily Willingham sorts it out.

“Science, autism, life. So much uncertainty, so much yet to find out, but we know how to best pursue that knowledge, and in the meantime we live the best lives we can.” Simply beautiful two-part series (one, two) on the relationship between a parent, their autistic child, and science.

“You put on your scientist hat & detach.” On Romanian orphans, science & ethics. Absolutely brilliant writing by Virginia Hughes. Speaking of which:

“Saying goodbye to Opa.” How do kids understand death? Yet another poignant piece by Virginia Hughes.

Qualified compassion. We may regulate the amount of empathy we chose to show others.

The killing moon? Are more murders committed during a full moon? Spoiler: nope. Because science.

Taking the edge off. Fish are less terrified of a robotic predator when they’ve had some alcohol.

Happy campers. Folks tweet more positively when they’re outside their “home zone”.

Between friends. Human, but not pet, companionship, enhances human longevity. Why?

Sounds of silence. Wonderful meditation on silent meditation, by Tim Parks.


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

All atwitter. The daily and monthly cycle of tweeting.

Coming up next…Algorithms attempt to predict what your next tweet will be.

Getting ‘round. Seen from above, humans seems to be moving stuff all over the Earth’s surface.

Step right up. Intergalactic travel bureau gets folks on board the science express. Cool idea.

Know thyself. Putting oneself under the microscope, and everything else for that matter, for science. Alok Jha has a go.

‘Ome alone. Support for microbiome research is scattered – it needs a home.

Getting the word out. Why scientists simply must embrace social media. Fantastically compelling piece by Christie Wilcox.! Wonderful “spidernaut” travels to space and thereby creates a super learning opportunity for kids.

“One does not simply MENTION dinosaurs.” Wonderful lessons gleaned by sharing science with middle schoolers.

Reaching an understanding. Extracting meaning from big data.

“It’s not just bad ethics, it’s bad science.” Canada’s shameful legacy of experiments on its First Nations peoples. Important issue, perfectly covered by Rachel Nuwer, and especially Brian Owens.

One person’s junk is another’s treasure. Excellent defence of better junk food. David Despain brings science to an important public health topic.

Up in the air. Wonderful tale of a human-powered helicopter.

Taking note. Jane Austen will replace Charles Darwin on the UK’s £10 banknote. It’s an important change. Maria Konnikova once again shows herself as one of the very best writers out there.

What’s in a name? Is it acceptable to call scientists boffins, geeks or nerds? Hmm…

“This term ‘anti-science’ is not only facile but it is..too often applied close down debate.” Alice Bell on keeping this discourse around science open and civil.

“How do we know what to believe?” Excellent backgrounder on peer review by Tania Brown.

Get the balance right? If you love what you do, how relevant is the concept of “work-life balance”? Superb post by Terry McGlynn.

“You don’t have wonder. Wonder has you.” Great writing by Steve Paulson, on wonder, marvels, monsters, and the birth of science.

“I became a scientist because I wanted to unravel the universe.” Poetic reflection on volcanoes and sunbeams.

“Science is truly stranger and more beautiful than any children’s fiction.” A parent shares science with their child. The outcome is wonderful.


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