Ants have been farming for far longer than humans have existed. They discovered fungus farming around fifty or sixty million years ago in the wet rainforests of South America, and have continued tending their underground fungus gardens through countless years as the planet changed and changed, and changed again. Much more recently — just a few years ago — I wrote about the fungus-farming ants (called “attine ants”), trying to imagine how they might view human agriculture. Our imaginary attine author closed with the hope that studying humans might help the attines understand their own history, “such as how the transition from primitive to advanced agriculture occured in our own ancestors”, and now a study by a group of humans has shed light on that very question. Continue reading
I enjoyed Born Anxious more than I expected to but less than I hoped. Written by Daniel Keating, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, it synthesizes over a decade of research on how stress affects the course of our lives. Keating presents an interesting and convincing case that experiences early in life — or even in previous generations — can set biological switches that have wide-ranging consequences, affecting health, social well-being, and professional success. Continue reading
It’s probably not a surprise that humans aren’t the only animals with a sense of numbers. While they’re probably not actually counting, a variety of species seem to be able to tell the number of objects in a group; they can distinguish between groups with greater or fewer objects and react with surprise when the number changes unexpectedly. However, a recent study suggests that this numerical understanding may go deeper than we’ve previously thought. Continue reading
My latest story on Beacon is about how cats and other animals manage to always land on their feet. It turns out to be a pretty impressive maneuver, and geckos have evolved and entirely different trick to accomplish the same thing:
There’s no need to go far afield to find wonders of the natural world; sometimes it just takes a shift of perspective to notice how they abound in our homes and neighborhoods. Cats, for example, are exquisite animals, with an uncanny ability to take a fall harmlessly by righting themselves in midair. Several years ago, my cat slipped off a sixth-storey ledge, falling something like 20 meters onto hard concrete. She was limping for a few weeks, but her knee healed and there’s no sign of the injury left. How cats manage such a feat is a question which has occupied scientists for over a century; it’s been the subject of in-depth studies in physics, physiology, and even robotics. While some of the details are still unclear, the essential picture is that cats (almost) always land on their feet thanks to an impressive spine-flexing twist maneuver which turns them upright in midair.
Unfortunately, I’ve been too busy to attend to Inspiring Science this week. Rather than putting out a rushed post, I decided to republish this piece which I originally wrote for Accumulating Glitches last year. I hope you like it!
Some spiders get eaten by their mates, and male salmon famously fight to the death for access to females, but we generally don’t think of reproduction being quite as risky for mammals. We may prance and pose or jockey for attention, and mating might even be quite painful, but it’s usually not lethal. Among mammals, “live to mate another day” seems to be the guiding principle. Exceptions to this rule are found in the dasyurids and didelphids, groups of small carnivorous marsupial species living in Australia and South America, respectively. “These species experience extreme sexual behaviour,” said Dr. Diana Fisher of the University of Queensland. Males and females mate with multiple partners and matings can go on for many hours. Afterwards, the males all die. Continue reading
Everyone knows sugar-rich, fatty foods are unhealthy, but we keep eating them. The diet industry is booming, but so are waistlines. In the UK, 1 out of 5 adults is obese; in the US, the figure is 1 of every 3 adults. Why don’t we eat better? Are we just too weak-willed? Maybe not. The picture emerging from recent research into the neurobiology of eating tells a different story, in which our evolutionary history and changing environment have created a dangerous new relationship with our food. Continue reading