Science Is Badass!

A semi-regular blog started by Tim Barribeau, of all the science news he can't find a buyer for. Now growing in contributors to make the internet more awesome.

Fickle female fish? Or just plain clever?

Fickleness is an odd thing. Why change your mind for no good reason? Well, if you are a fish, and picking a mate, predators may well be that reason. Choosing a mate is hard enough, especially when you have to invest a lot in reproduction and females often invest the lion’s share in reproduction (perhaps a topic for another day, but if you are interested look up Bateman’s principle). But imagine a choice in a variable environment. If you are struggling here, think about your own life… we don’t make decisions easily and everything is wrought with contingency. ‘I want to wear my shiny new acrylic sweater, but what if it gets too hot? Or I end up too close to a heater and combust?’ These are trials of modern life, and actually, just life in general. Animals are also faced with contingency. Case in point, ‘who to mate with?’ is a vital question but one that could change depending on circumstances. In the hight of the Jersey Shore craze, hooking up with ‘The Situation’ might seem like a good idea, but maybe not sound so hot in the days, months, or years after. Similarly, fish make choices of shacking up based on local pressures. Bierbach (pdf) and colleagues found that female mollies will change their choice of mates from the showy males with impressive displays and dreamy eyes to the wimpy, inconspicuous, males when predators abound. So hooray for the underdog! Dorks win at last!


When times are good, or risk is low, females want the bestest-showyest males around. When times are tough they want the males which are least likely to get them killed. See, having an elaborate display, flashy colors, or obscenely expensive cars, all make you a bit of a target for predators, and the female who choses one of these showy males could 1) risk getting caught up in that mess, and 2) having kiddies that act like their daddy and also find themselves in ‘sticky situations’. So, is this revenge of the nerds? Well, not so much. While Bierbach and co. found this switch in behavior in naive mollies, experienced mollies were a whole different story. They just plain didn’t give a shit. Badasses. The authors suggest that females who’ve grown up in the mean streets of Mexico’s waterways know how to handle themselves. An alternative explanation (which is mine, all mine) is that knowledgable female mollies that are on the prowl  think that any male that managed to grow up to be so impressive, and showy, and dreamy, WITHOUT already having his ass handed to him by a predator has probably got something going for him, because if not – he’d be dead.

So the wimpy males are left in the cold anyway. Well, probably, but there is a glimmer of hope (my baseless speculation). If showy males are really more likely to be eaten, perhaps the wimps get a statistical shot at getting laid. Even if their odds of mating are low compared to their show-off counterparts, their odds of dying are even lower. So perhaps they live to be a wimpy second choice for a disappointed mollie another day.

Oh, and one more cool thing about this paper, it was the result of a field course! Good work students!

REF: Bierbach et al. 2011. Predator-induced changes of female mating preferences: innate and experiential effects. BMC Evolutionary Biology 11:190 doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-190

Beetles invented the screw-nut system. Apply for intellectual property damages.

So, you think you’re so clever with your lame old ball-and-socket joints? Beat this, weevils have evolved a sophisticated joint which joins their legs to their bodies with a screw-nut locking device. They have a screw-like ending to the leg end, and a nut-like socket that matches the thread on their screw legs, and it locks in place. This lets them nom away without having to work at keeping their bodies supported (they are totally stable when the legs are locked).


Screws, nuts, beetles. Win.

Source: van de Kamp (2011) A Biological Screw in a Beetle’s Leg. Science. 333,



An Ant Drinking From A Water Droplet

Man, surface tension is a bitch at that scale. It’s like trying to drink Mercury.

[via BoingBoing]

Space Porn: 21 Lutetia

21 Lutetia is an asteroid that’s around 100km wide, and spends most of its time kickin’ around the Asteroid Belt. On July 10, the ESA probe Rosetta performed a flyby, making it the largest asteroid we’ve done so with. The probe passed it at a distance of 3160 km, traveling 15km/s. These amazing photos (and the rendered video above) are what it gathered.

Continue reading Space Porn: 21 Lutetia

Robins Can See Magnetic Fields

This is entirely too freaking cool. It’s fairly well accepted that one of the reasons birds are able to accurately migrate repeatedly is due to their ability to sens magnetic fields. According to this research, for species like the European Robin, this manifests as an augmentation to their vision, but only over the right eye. It appears as banding, indicating the Earth’s magnetic field.

The ability is tied directly to their right eye, and requires both large amounts of light, and clear vision to activate. When vision through the right eye was obscured, the Robins would fly randomly, but if the left eye was blocked, they would fly directly north.

Some other bird types detect magnetic fields in other ways, through small crystals of magnetite in their beak.

Man, I wonder what it would take to hack this into the human body…

Quantum Entanglement Holds Together DNA?

Oh my stars and garters, this is utterly beyond my pay grade. I barely understand quantum entanglement, and now they’re arguing that it might be the fundamental force holding together DNA? I have no possible basis on analysing that statement. So I’ll leave it without commentary, as an interesting paper for those who care about such things.

[via Warren Ellis]

First Alien Planet Photographed

See that little yellow dot above and to the left of that sun? The star is 1RSX J160929.1-210524, and the dot is around 8 times the size of Jupiter. It’s a planet. And the first one to be directly photographed. Not only is it rather large, but it’s damned far from the star, some 300 AU (1 AU=distance from Earth to the Sun).

It’s the first visible light photograph of an extrasolar planet. It was spotted in 2008, but it took until now to confirm that it was indeed another planet.

That’s so freaking cool!

[via Space]

Texas Court Denies Creationist Masters’ Program

Meet the Institute for Creation Research Graduate School, standard purveyors of mistruths and blatant deception under the guise of Biblical creationism and creation science. 6000 year old Earth types of thing. They were attempting to get accredited so they could offer an officially acknowledged MS program.

The institute moved from California to Texas, and applied to offer the degree, which involved a number of scientists checking over their program. Their response was hardly surprising:

“[M]uch of the course content was outside the realm of science and lacked potential to help students understand the nature of science and the history and nature of the natural world.”

Thus, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board denied the ICR the authority to offer the degree, which the ICR appealed. The original ruling has now been upheld by a Texas Federal court. Texas? Who would have thought! Go the lone star state!

Said the Judge:

“Plaintiff is entirely unable to file a complaint which is not overly verbose, disjointed, incoherent, maundering, and full of irrelevant information.”


Molting Spider Crab

This is why I don’t eat crustaceans — because they utterly terrify me.

[via BoingBoing]

The Wonderful World Of Shark Heart Parasites

Don’t you love weird critters? This is Simonchelys parasitica, or a pugnose eel. Two of these were found in the heart of a recently dead shortfin mako. They were discovered during necropsy of the 900 lbs behemoth, and had drilled into the lumen of the heart. They think the eels took advantage of the wounded shark, and burrowed in to feast on its heart while it was still alive, gorging on its blood until the fish eventually died.

They would have had to dig through the flesh of the still living shark to do so.

This is why the oceans scare me.

[via Reddit]