Monday, November 30, 2015

This Animal Looks Like a Penis With Teeth... But It's Even Stranger Than That

This is a naked mole rat.

Yes, this is arguably the freakiest-looking animal on Earth.
Photo by Roman Klementschitz at Wikimedia Commons.

Naked mole rats are rodents that live in underground tunnels under East African savannas and grasslands. There's nothing all that strange about that... but how they have adapted to this lifestyle is unique... and, quite frankly, amazing.

For one thing, to cope with the low oxygen levels of the subterranean environment, naked mole rats have very low metabolisms and breathing rates. One of the biggest uses of metabolic engines in mammals is to produce our own body heat. These little guys have cut this big expenditure by being what may be the only ectothermic mammals on the planet. Ectotherms are animals like most fish, amphibians and reptiles that get most of their body heat from their environment, rather than making it themselves. Because naked mole rats want to exchange heat with their environment, they want to eliminate insulation... giving them their hairless and fatless bodies. Now when they bask in the sun at their tunnel entrances or huddle with their family they can take in all that warmth without anything getting in the way.

There are some benefits to having low metabolisms and not using much oxygen: Naked mole rats live for nearly 30 years (compared to 1-3 years in regular rats). Oxygen creates free radicals, highly reactive chemicals that cause damage to DNA, leading to a wide range of diseases. Naked mole rats don't just use less oxygen, but they have special proteins that are resistant to these damaging chemicals. They also produce a specialized super-sugar that has essentially eliminated cancer in this long-living species. What's more, these elderly rodents have managed to avoid dementia and osteoporosis, traits we hope to learn more about through ongoing research.

Naked mole rats have also developed some unique sensory traits. Living with your entire extended family in underground burrows means that you live in high levels of carbon dioxide and walls saturated in pee. These little guys don't even have any body hair to protect their pink skin from all that burning ammonia. Their solution: get rid of pain. These guys have no pain receptors for noxious chemicals like acids or capsaicin (the stuff that makes hot peppers hot). Furthermore, they are lacking a specific neurotransmitter, called substance P, that other mammals use to send many pain signals. Since naked mole rats have less need for sensation in their skin, they have developed brains that have repurposed about 30% of the sematosensory cortex (the part of the brain that interprets touch sensations) to their digging teeth!

Perhaps the strangest quality of all for these animals is their behavior. Naked mole rats are one of only two known mammals that are eusocial (the other being the Damaraland mole rat). Eusociality is a social organization common among bees, wasps, ants and termites, in which the colony has castes that include queens, workers and soldiers. Among naked mole rats, there is a single queen in the colony that mates with a few dominant males; workers that dig the tunnels, gather food, and care for the young; and soldiers that protect the colony from predators. Workers and soldiers are all reproductively sterile with undeveloped gonads and low hormone levels. However, if the queen dies, one of the non-reproducing females will go through puberty and take on her role as the new queen.

Now that you know that naked mole rats are so much more than just a "freaky thing", enjoy this naked mole rat rap (or maybe even a whole episode of Disney's Kim Possible, which features Rufus, the naked mole rat):

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Science Life 2

The life of a scientist is increasingly stressful. Sometimes it helps to relieve stress in song:

“Bad Habits” by Nathaniel Krefman (Parody of “Magic” by B.o.B. featuring Rivers Cuomo):

“Eight Days a Week” by the UC-Berkeley Molecular and Cell Biology Department (Parody of “Eight Days a Week” by The Beatles):

“The Tale of a Post Doc” by James Clark at Aerospace Medicine at King’s College London (Parody of "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen):

Vote for your favorite in the comments section below. If you would like to see more music videos on the life of a scientist, check out The Science Life. And if you feel so inspired, make a video of your own, upload it on YouTube and send me a link to include in a future post!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Animal Mass Suicide and the Lemming Conspiracy

Ticked off Norway lemming doesn't like gossip!
Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Frode Inge Helland
We all know the story: Every few years, millions of lemmings, driven by a deep-seated urge, run and leap off a cliff only to be dashed on the rocks below and eventually drowned in the raging sea. Stupid lemmings. It’s a story with staying power: short, not-so-sweet, and to the rocky point.

But it is a LIE.

And who, you may ask, would tell us such a horrendous fabrication? Walt Disney! Well, technically not Walt Disney himself…

Today I am revisiting an article I wrote in the early days of The Scorpion and the Frog, explaining animal mass suicide and the role of Disney in creating one of the greatest animal behavior hoaxes of all time. You can read the article in it's entirety here.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Caught in My Web: The Intelligence and Creativity of Crows, Octopuses, Monkeys, Fish and Dogs

Image by Luc Viatour at Wikimedia.
For this edition of Caught in My Web, we marvel at animal intelligence.

1. Joshua Klein talks about crow intelligence and their potential for training in this fun TED talk.

2. Jason Goldman at io9 explains an amazing discovery that Atlantic cod can also innovate to solve problems.

3. Sarah Williams at Science explains research out of Harvard that shows that untrained rhesus monkeys can do math and we can use this to learn about how we think.

4. A veined octopus shows off his imagination as he creates a “hiding” place:

5. And last, but not least, three shelter dogs were taught to drive! Here are the results:

Monday, November 2, 2015

Body Armor is Not Always for Protection

When we see an animal covered in scales and plates, we assume that it has this armor to protect itself from predators. It seems obvious, which is probably why scientists had not really tested it… until now. And they found that it is not necessarily true.

An armadillo girdled lizard has some impressive body armor, but does it do what we think it does?
Image by Handre Basson at Wikimedia Commons.
Today at Accumulating Glitches, I talk about new research on the functions of plates and scales in cordylid lizards. Check it out here.

And to learn more, check this out:

Broeckhoven, C., Diedericks, G. and le Fras Mouton, P. What doesn’t kill you might make you stronger: functional basis for variation in body armour, Journal of Animal Ecology, 84, 1213–1221 (2015). DOI: 10.1111/1365-2656.12414.

Monday, October 26, 2015

4 Real-Life Monsters

During the Halloween season, we find ourselves surrounded by monsters in movies, stores and decorations. We laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, oblivious to the fact that there are true monsters on our planet today! Mind you, these are not monsters in that they are evil, but they do have many of the same abilities and inclinations of our own mythical werewolves, vampires, zombies and shape-shifters.

Werewolf birds:

A Barau's petrel. Photo by SEOR
available at Wikimedia Commons.
Barau’s petrel is a migrating sea bird that is most active during nights with a full moon. Researchers tied bio-loggers on the birds’ feet to track their activity levels and found that under the full moon, the birds spent nearly 80% of these moonlit nights in flight! It is thought that since these birds migrate longitudinally (parallel with the equator), they can’t use changes in day length as a cue to synchronize their breeding, so they use the phases of the moon instead.

Vampire bats:

Three different bat species feed solely on blood: the common vampire bat, the hairy-legged vampire bat and the white-winged vampire bat. Feeding on blood is not uncommon – The actual term for it is hematophagy, and it is common in insects (think of those pesky mosquitos) and leeches. Although we don’t commonly think of it this way, blood is a body tissue and, like meat, it is rich in protein and calories. The reason it has not become a more popular food source among mammals is probably because it is so watered down (literally) compared to meat, that it can’t provide enough nutrition to sustain a large warm-bodied mammal. This is where our little vampire bat friends come in… small, stealthy, and with specialized saliva that prevents their victims’ blood from clotting, these guys are able to take advantage of this abundant resource, drinking up to half of their body weight in blood every night.


Scientists have recently discovered some strange honey bees: They mindlessly leave their hives in the middle of the night and fly in circles, often towards lights. It turns out that these honey bees are being parasitized by a species of phorid fly called the zombie fly. Female phorid flies lay their eggs inside the abdomens of honey bees, where the eggs hatch into larvae. The larvae feed on the insides of their bee hosts until they are mature enough to leave through the poor bee’s neck (the honey bee is generally dead by this time). Once out, the zombie flies develop into adults so they can breed and start the cycle anew with a new bee host. This phenomenon is still in the early stages of discovery, so if you would like to get involved in this project by watching honey bees in your area, check out ZomBee Watch, a citizen science project to track this zombie infestation.

Shape shifters:

The mimic octopus is a small harmless octopus that lives on the exposed shallow sandy bottoms of river mouths. To avoid its many predators it has developed an amazing strategy: it pretends to be something else, morphing its body into new shapes, like the shape of a deadly lion-fish, a poisonous flatfish, a venomous banded sea-snake, or any number of other animals that live in the area. Not only does the mimic octopus change its shape, it also changes its behavior to match its “costume” to convincingly fool predators. Most cephalopods, which include octopuses, are well-known for their ability to change the color, pattern and texture of their skin to blend in with rocks, coral and plants. Furthermore, octopuses do not have rigid skeletal elements, which allows their bodies great flexibility in the forms they imitate. But this ability to change both physical appearance and behavior to switch back and forth among imitations of multiple species is unique to this astounding shape shifter.

Monday, October 19, 2015


Photo by Alejandro Lunadei at Wikimedia.
Vampire mythologies have been around for thousands of years, terrifying the young and old alike with stories of predatory bloodsuckers that feed on our life essences. You may not believe in vampires, but they are all around us. In fact, you may have some in the room with you right now! You just don’t notice them because they are not human, or even human-like.

Vampires feed on the blood of their victims in order to sustain their own lives. This phenomenon, called hematophagy, is more common than typically occurs to us at first. Just take mosquitoes and ticks as examples. Once we’ve opened our minds to the idea of bloodthirsty arthropods, we quickly think of many more: bedbugs, sandflies, blackflies, tsetse flies, assassin bugs, lice, mites, and fleas. In fact, nearly 14,000 arthropod species are hematophages. We can expand our thoughts now to worms (like leeches), fish (such as lampreys and candirĂºs), some mammals (vampire bats), and even some birds (vampire finches, oxpeckers, and hood mockingbirds). We’ve been surrounded by vampires our whole lives, we just never sat up to take notice!

Hematophagous animals are not as scary as mythical vampires, in part because they don’t suck their victims dry – they just take a small blood meal to sustain their tiny bodies. Hematophagy is not, in itself, lethal. However, the process of exposing and taking the blood of many individuals transmits many deadly diseases, like malaria, rabies, dengue fever, West Nile virus, bubonic plague, encephalitis, and typhus.

Because blood feeders do not kill their meals, feeding can be even more dangerous for them than for traditional predators. As a result, many hematophagous animals have developed a similar toolkit. Many have mouthparts that are specialized to work as a needle or a razor and biochemicals in their saliva that work as anticoagulants and pain killers. Their primary skill, however, is their stealth: they can sneak up on you, eat their meal, and be home for bed before you even notice the itch.

Although a few species, like assassin bugs and vampire bats, are obligatory hematophages (only eat blood), most hematophages eat other foods as well. Somehow, Dracula is not quite so intimidating when you imagine him drinking his morning fruit juice, like many mosquitoes do.

Why drink blood in the first place? Blood is a body tissue like any other, and it contains a lot of protein and a variety of sugars, fats and minerals, just like meat. However, blood is mostly water, which means that a blood meal contains less protein and calories than the same weight of meat. Because you need to consume so much more to get enough protein and calories out of a meal, large animals and animals that generate their own body heat can't usually rely on blood meals alone. So much for human-like vampires that only live off the blood of their victims.

A deadly vampire spreading malaria. Photo by the CDC available at Wikimedia.

So true vampires are everywhere, but they are small, take small blood meals, don't generally kill their hosts, and often use blood to supplement their other meals. Not so scary any more, are they? ...Although, about 3.2 billion people (about half the world's population) are at risk of contracting the deadly disease, malaria, from these bloodsuckers... so maybe you aren't scared enough. Bwaa-haha!

Monday, October 12, 2015

How Fashion Destroyed My Best Friend (A Guest Post)

By Sarah Johanson

“Bulldog Portrait Frank”. Image by Pharaoh Hound at Wikimedia.

Man’s Best Friend is a title that has been passed onto our four-legged, drooling counterpart. Dogs have been at man’s side for a number of years showing us his dedication and protection. In the 19th Century, humans started breeding dogs as a hobby. Today, humans have created more than 400 breeds, with less than 200 being recognized by the American Kennel Club, and all can be traced back to the same canid ancestors similar to the gray wolf. As humans selectively bred dogs based on their physical appearances to make a fashion statement, beneath the skin genetic and physiological changes where happening that would have a far harsher consequence to dogs’ health. One such breed is the English Bulldog.

All dog breeds have what are known as breed standards that are set by the Kennel Club or the American Kennel Club. These standards dictate what the breed should look like physically. At first, dogs were bred on a guideline of form follows function. Bulldogs were bred to help butchers control bulls in the slaughter yard. They had long snouts with strong jaws, necks and shoulder muscles while also being tall, allowing them to be quick and agile. However, during the fashion era of dog breeding in the 19th century, breeding became more of a hobby for physical appeal rather than for the dog to have a purpose… which brought us the bulldog we see today.

Head Comparison of a Bulldog (bottom)
and that of a Labrador Retriever (above).
Bulldog image “Camilla, the english bulldog,”
by Trevomeisel at Wikimedia. Labrador
image and edits done by Sarah Johanson.
Over time, the bulldogs’ upper jaws and snouts have been shortened by a significant amount, giving them those mushed short faces. They were bred this way because people thought they looked cute. This shortening is caused by a genetic mutation which causes a developmental defect during bone formation. It’s thought the defect became prevalent due to severe inbreeding. This shortening of the upper jaw has led to there not being enough space in bulldogs’ mouths. Their tongues and palates are often compressed, with the teeth on their lower jaws protruding out in odd directions as their teeth don’t fit, leading to problems with eating and chewing food.

Bulldog nostrils have also been compressed to the point that they can barely breathe. If a human were to breathe like the bulldog, it would be like breathing through a straw. Having a small airway has led the bulldog to become easily overheated and exercise intolerant. To cool down most dogs pant, using water as a tool to take heat away with it as it evaporates. Due to the soft palates not being able to fit in the dogs’ mouths and the narrowing of their throats, panting interferes with breathing. This leads to the production of foam, which blocks the airways even more, sometimes causing suffocation.

Bulldogs are also unable to mate on their own or give birth successfully. Due to their short, stocky bodies, very wide shoulders and narrow pelvises, most males cannot breed with the female on their own. The female either needs to be attached to a breeding stand which gives her body support in order to bear the male’s weight or she needs to be artificially inseminated. Furthermore, a natural birth is almost impossible as the puppies’ heads are too large to fit through the breed’s narrow pelvis to leave the body. This condition, known as dystocia, causes over 80% of bulldog births to be performed via caesarian section. Almost all bulldog births need some kind of human assistance; otherwise they would risk the life of the mother and her unborn puppies.

Diagram of bulldog body shape demonstrating how the “box head” of the breed cannot fit through
the pelvic bone (triangle) during birth due to size and shape. Image created by Sarah Johanson.

These are only some of the physical challenges bulldogs face, not to mention all of the medical problems that could follow. It has been the selective breeding done by breeders and the breed standards set that have turned this dog from the power it once was to the mess that it is today. The bulldog became a fashion statement and although he continues to want to please his human counterpart, his body cannot keep up with his desire.

Work Cited:

Baldwin Bulldog. “Bulldogs Overheat.” Baldwin Bulldogs, 10 Dec. 2014. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.

Denizet-Lewis, Benoit. “Can the Bulldog Be Saved?” The New York Times, 22 Nov. 2011. Web. 5 Feb. 2015.

Dog Breed Health. “Bulldog (English Bulldog).” Dog Breed Health, n.d. Web. 6 Feb. 2015.

Dogtime. “A Brief History of Breeding.” Dogtime, 30 May. 2009. Web. 5 Feb. 2015.

Kalmanash, Angela. “The Physiology and Morphology of a Breed StandardDogChannel. DogChannel, 9 June. 2014. Web. 5 Feb. 2015.

Thomson, Keith Stewart. “Marginalia: The Fall and Rise of the English BulldogAmerican Scientist. 84(1996): 220-223. Web. 7 Feb. 2015.

Monday, October 5, 2015

How Fungus Makes Ant Zombies

"Ants biting the underside of leaves as a result of infection
by O. unilateralis. The top panel shows the whole leaf with
the dense surrounding vegetation in the background and the
lower panel shows a close up view of dead ant attached to
a leaf vein. The stroma of the fungus emerges from the back
of the ant's head and the perithecia, from which spores are
produced, grows from one side of this stroma, hence the
species epithet. The photograph has been rotated
to aid visualization." Image and caption by David P. Hughes
and Maj-Britt Pontoppidan at Wikimedia Commons.
The parasitic fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis sensu latu (O. unilateralis, for short), infects the brains of Carpenter ants, turning them into zombies that live and die for the sole purpose of helping the fungus thrive and reproduce. Under the influence of the fungus, zombie Carpenter ants leave their nests at an odd yet specific time, move randomly and convulsively, and climb up the north side of a plant to almost exactly 25 cm, where they bite the leaf vein. Once they bite the leaf, the muscles of their mandibles (mouth parts) deteriorate, causing lockjaw and fixing the ant victim in place while its legs kick and twitch. After a few hours, the movement stops as the fungus kills the ant, continues to grow throughout the victim's head, and then sprouts out of the back of the head. The fungus anchors itself to the plant and releases antimicrobial chemicals to protect itself and grows fruiting bodies from the ant's head to release its spores, spawning the next generation of fungus. O. unilateralis has been known to infect and wipe out entire Carpenter ant colonies, leaving dense aerial graveyards of ant carcasses in its wake.

Today at Accumulating Glitches, I talk about new research that has used genetic techniques to determine how this parasitic fungus takes over the minds of its ant victims. Check it out here.

And to learn more, check this out:

de Bekker, C., Ohm, R.A., Loreto, R.G., Sebastian, A., Albert, I., Merrow, M., Brachmann, A. and Hughes, D.P. Gene expression during zombie ant biting behavior reflects the complexity underlying fungal parasitic behavioral manipulation, BMC Genomics, 16:620, 1-23 (2015). DOI 10.1186/s12864-015-1812-x.

Monday, September 28, 2015

What Animals Contagiously Yawn?

Does this sight make you want to yawn?

A yawning Japanese macaque by Daisuke Tashiro at Wikimedia Commons.
Do you think it would make other animals want to yawn? Many animals yawn spontaneously, but yawning in response to sensing or thinking about someone else doing it may be a completely different thing. Contagious yawning requires a sense of social connection and emotional empathy that not all species share. So far, scientists have found experimental evidence of contagious yawning in humans, chimpanzees, domestic dogs (who interestingly yawn when people yawn, but not when other dogs do), and an abnormally yawny genetic line of rats. However, there have also been reports of bonobos, baboons, wolves, and budgerigars (small social parrots, also called budgies or parakeets) yawning contagiously in the wild, so this phenomenon may be more widespread than previously thought.

Andrew Gallup, Lexington Swartwood, Janine Militello and Serena Sackett from the State University of New York at Oneonta set out to experimentally test if budgerigars do in fact yawn contagiously. In one experiment, the researchers placed pairs of birds in separate adjacent cages with perches facing one another. They video recorded the birds both with an opaque barrier between them and without the opaque barrier. The researchers found that when the birds could see one another they were three times more likely to yawn within 5 minutes of the other bird yawning, although there was no difference in the overall number of spontaneous yawns.

Images of a yawning budgie from Gallup et al., 2015.
Next, the researchers decided to test if budgerigars contagiously yawn in response to videos of another budgerigar yawning. They played 10-minute videos of either yawning or non-yawning budgerigars on a laptop facing the birdcage. And who would have guessed that the budgies yawned twice as much in response to the yawning video than to the non-yawning video, showing that even our pet birds can get something out of watching TV!

Budgerigars are now the first non-mammalian species to display contagious yawning. Contagious yawning is not just interesting in itself, but it may also indicate a sense of empathy. Although we often limit our thinking of empathy to our own species, it makes sense to find empathetic behavior among social species like budgerigars. Now if we could just find more of it amongst our own species…

Want to know more? Check this out:

Gallup, A., Swartwood, L., Militello, J., & Sackett, S. (2015). Experimental evidence of contagious yawning in budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulatus) Animal Cognition, 18 (5), 1051-1058 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-015-0873-1