Monthly Archives: June 2009

Um, Just Send a Gift Thanks, Nine-Spine Stickleback.

Nine-spined stickleback

As recently reported in the Journal of Behavioral Ecology, nine-spine sticklebacks have been named the geniuses of the fish world, after researchers in Leicestershire discovered that they possess a learning method previously unseen in any other animal apart from humans. Known as “hill-climbing,” this type of sophisticated social learning causes the fish to be selective about who and when they copy in order to achieve optimal results.

In the experiment, 270 nine-spine sticklebacks were placed in tanks and were supplied food by two feeders at either end, with one significantly more generous than the other, dubbed the “rich feeder.” The fish quickly identified the rich feeder and would naturally gravitate towards him, until the sticklebacks were removed from the tank and the feeders swapped. The original sticklebacks were replaced with a new group who were fed by the switched feeders while the original sticklebacks were forced to watch. Once back in the tank, 75% of the original sticklebacks were “clever” enough to correctly identify which end of the tank the rich feeder was at, having learnt from their observation of the second group of sticklebacks. This cognitive strategy has yet to be definitively shown in any other non-human animals so far.

So alright yes, Nine-Spine Stickleback, a genius you may well be, but I’m willing to bet you haven’t been invited to many wedding receptions of late, now have you? Well not since the nautilus’ reception two years ago at least. That was a right debacle, Stickleback, no thanks to you. The moment you arrive you’re all, “Hey does anyone know where the hors d’oeuvres come out?” and a carp with a mouthful of pastries points across the room, only that’s where the nautilus’ mother is hovering and she starts talking to you about wedding planners and pyramid schemes, and pretty soon it’s like, “Have you noticed that the waiter coming out of this door has so far only distributed one tray while the waiter coming out of that door has already done three?”

But Madame Nautilus just blinks at you and pulls out a notepad and pen and starts drawing some kind of triangular diagram for you, so you’re like, “Oh hell no!” and start backing away towards the other kitchen door. Only you accidentally bump into a seahorse and fully make her spill red wine all over herself, and you’re all, “Way to be drunk already… Jesus!” as you slink away, and she starts trumpeting angry profanities after you with her wee little mouth.

And then it’s like, “Hey isn’t that the jawfish who did it with your cousin in the car park after that show that time?” and everyone within earshot turns around as you surreptitiously switch the place cards so you can sit between the giggly cherry salmon sisters with the impressive cleavage and tightly-clinging scales. Then the entrees arrive and it’s chicken liver paté or stuffed peppers and you tap the sea bass sitting behind you on the shoulder all, “How’s the paté?” and he’s like, “Exquisite.” And meanwhile the lampreys are swapping their dishes because she’s making a fuss about how underwhelming the peppers are and he knows better than to argue with her, unlike the lady cod’s partner who’s doing a pretty good job ignoring her futile sad-faced requests to trade.

And then your table is served, and oh look, Stickleback, you got the peppers, so you urgently grab the waiter by the crisp, white sleeve and tell him, “Boy, I’m afraid I forgot to mention that I’m allergic to peppers…” And he replaces them with the paté while giving you this look like, “Dude, if you don’t want the peppers, just say you don’t want the peppers, I really don’t care. It’s not like I haven’t already drunk an entire bottle of champagne already. There’s champagne all over the fucking place, it’s even in the bathroom, what the fuck is that about? Oh and LOL at ‘allergic to peppers.’ Arsehole.” before rasing his eyebrows rather judgementally at one of the cherry salmon sisters who is indelicately cleaning some of her peppers from her décolletage.

A dozen dense quasi-observations by the cherry salmon sisters about politics later and the mains start to arrive and you’re looking around like, “I kind of want the bigger one, you know?” And then you see that they’re alternating swordfish with veal and the veal’s like massive, so when the waiter stumbles over to your table and serves you the swordfish (of course, Stickleback), you grab his sleeve and tell him, “Pardon me, I’m terribly sorry, but I’m afraid I’m also allergic to fish.”

The cover band comes to a sudden halt with a wobbly off-key trumpet bleat and a couple of drum sticks tumbling noisily to the floor. The overreaching shocked silence is broken only by the myriad outraged whispers from every one of the seated guests and you sheepishly excuse yourself and make for the bathroom muttering, “something something – cannibals – something something.” Unfortunately you’re intercepted by a pack of half a dozen border collies who come bursting through the kitchen doors and shepherd you noisily from the venue amidst a resounding chorus of “good riddance” and “bad egg.”

– bec



Filed under Science, Sea Creatures

Back to Work, Sleepy Fire Ant!

sleeping ant
* Picture from

In a recent study for the Journal of Insect Behaviour researchers from the University of South Florida have described the sleeping habits of a colony of fire ants, revealing that while the queens have up to ninety leisurely six-minute dozing sessions per day, the worker ants take around 250 sixty-second naps, ensuring that at any moment eighty per cent of the workforce is awake and fully functional. While this is all very beneficial for the colony, surviving on around four hours sleep per day means the workers generally only live to be six months old,* whereas the well-rested queen ants can live for many years.

The research also reveals that queen ants have two very distinct modes of slumber: the light doze, which can be identified by half-raised antennae and a gaping mouth, and the deep sleep, which prompts them to close their mouths and retract their antennae. During this deep sleep, the team observed a “rapid antennal movement (RAM),” suggesting that the queen ants experienced dreaming at their most restful state.

Now with all this microsleeping going on amongst the individuals of the working caste, I can only imagine how it would turn out when something really exciting happened during a routine food expedition:

“Hey, Percy! Guess what? I just found ice-cream!”

“Dude, no way! Where?”

“It’s just over….”

“Howard? Shit. HEY. HOWARD. Christ.”

“Hey guys, what’s up? Why is everyone just standing around when we have a chicken bone to action?”

“Howard found ice-cream.”

“Awesome! Where?”

“He’s like, ‘It’s just over…’…”

“Percy? Shit. Hey Howard, Percy said you found ice-cream?”

“Ughhh. Wait – what? What time is it?”

“I don’t know, 2:30 or something. Where’s the ice-cream?”

“Huh? I don’t even… Ugh, just give me a second… Ha, yeah okay, that works.”

“Hey Howard, did you tell Jesse about the ice-cream?”


“Oh shit, sorry. Haha he’s drooling. So… ice-cream?”

“Ice-cream? Wait, you mean that wasn’t a dream? Percy? PERCY…? Shit.”

I guess that’s why they use chemicals to communicate.

* Which does not bode well for those of us who frequently subsist on roughly this amount during the week. I might actually literally die before graduating.

– bec

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Filed under Insects, Science

Oh Hey, Cephalopod. How Much of That Did You Just Hear…?


For the first time since the question was asked last century, researchers in Taiwan have confirmed that cephalopods (octopuses, squid, cuttlefish and nautiluses) can perceive sound. They might not have a swim bladder connected to tiny otoliths to help them amplify and transmit sound like fish do, but it has been suggested that they use a sac-like structure called a statocyst to achieve the same function.

While the squid were found to have better hearing than the octopuses, their ranges between 400Hz and 1000Hz and 400Hz to 1500Hz respectively, lead researcher, Hong Young Yan of the Taiwan National Academy of Science, reports that, “Both species hear best at a frequency of 600Hz.”

So cephalopods can hear then. The rest of the sea creatures had better catch on to this quick-smart, or pretty soon a couple of unfortunate saddle wrasses are going to find themselves in the back of the common room at lunchtime being all, “Huh? Wait – you just heard that? Shit. Well okay, don’t be pissed, I mean, it’s actually a compliment because your tentacles really do look awesome in that skirt. Um yeah alright, so we did say Mel’s looked slightly more awesome, but it’s because her skirt is a bit shorter than yours, you know? But it’s cool because you tell heaps better jokes than her anyway.”

And then the cephalopod would give them this totally withering look because everyone knows Mel has all the personality of a comatose brittle star, and one of the saddle wrasses would start fumbling desperately for something in his pocket while the other one grins uselessly at the angelfish playing Tekkin (pretty badly) on the other side of the room. But then it’s like, “Oh! Here, I made this in D&T this morning. You can have it. It fully looks like a rabbit, you like them or something, right?”

And then before the cephalopod could point out that he’d actually just given her a flattened lump of solder with a couple of unintentional protrusions that happened to look sort of vaguely like ears, the saddle wrasses are all, “What’s that? Brandings? Now? Awesome! Strawberry clouds and teeth after class later, yeah?”

Original paper here.

– bec

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Filed under Science, Sea Creatures

Well This is Embarrassing…


Last month, researchers from the El Instituto de Geología Económica in Madrid uncovered the remarkably complete fossils of numerous giant clustered trilobites in a rock quarry in northern Portugal. The largest trilobites found to date, one stretching to almost 90 centimetres in length, this thousand-strong group appears to have expired en masse when the stagnant pool they called home became irrevocability oxygen-deficient some 465 million years ago.

Of particular interest to Dr Juan Carlos Gutiérrez-Marco and his team were a group of fossils showing twenty-odd dutifully-organised monotaxic individuals. In a paper published in the May edition of Geology, Gutiérrez-Marco et al suggest that the distinct positioning of these curious marine arthropods was due to an urge to reproduce prompted by a session of epibenthic mass molting, “The hormones that instigate molting are related to those that induce sexual reproduction,” said Garcia-Bellido.

Now this is all very well, but it’s like I always say, Trilobites, if you insist on doing something like this in a public space, it’s going to end up on the Internet. And don’t think your parents aren’t going to see this just because they don’t know what Facebook is. Give it a few weeks and they too will be copied in on an all-staff email with the title, “LOL: What a Way to Die!” and once everyone recognises you, your dads won’t be able to go to the lunchroom without some greasy sales rep attempting to give them an unwelcome high five.

And too bad you can’t even score a record deal out of this either, because I don’t know what it was like back in Palaeozoic Era, but here in the twenty-first century, no one’s buying what you’re selling. Bet you don’t think exhibitionistic group sex in the vicinity of sporadic anoxic fluctuations is such a great idea now, do you, Trilobites? Sickos.

Original paper here.

– bec


Filed under Fossils, Museum Stuff, Sea Creatures

It’s Called a “Personal Brand,” Komodo Dragon.

komodo dragon

I guess theoretically I’m supposed to like Komodo Dragons. They’re beady-eyed giant lizards with formidable claws, which is really a rather wonderful thing to be. And okay, so they might a little frightening, but that’s not so inappropriate seeing as they are beady-eyed giant lizards with formidable claws. And yet, they’ve managed to really grate on me. It’s not so much their nauseating penchant for a three-day-old corpse, and it’s not that they are sometimes-people-killers. People are mostly gross anyway. It’s just that they seem to have this lame identity crisis going on, and it’s totally getting worse.

That’s right, Komodo Dragon, I’m talking about the dinosaur thing. Yes, that. Is it not enough that you already have “the most complex (venom) duct system described in reptiles to date,”? Apparently not, because first you demand your own island à la Jurassic Park, and now you’ve decided to run around terrorising its humans, marching into offices and tearing shit up like you own the place, à la Jurassic Park. I mean, I get it, Komodo Dragon, if some startled ranger threw a useless wad of notepaper in my general direction as I burst through the door unannounced only to watch him stumble about in a desperate panic and shove a clumsy foot in the waste paper basket containing an ill-considered half-bottle of discarded orange juice, I’d get a serious case of the giggles too. And if he starts crying because he’s realised you’re not there to complain about the state of the lavatory unit (which to be fair is actually quite good considering the average standard of island lavatories these days), well that’s all the more hilarious.

But let’s face it, Komodo Dragon, it’s just so played. Get your own freaking gimmick and stop trying to eat the plucky island children. Unless of course someone is there to document your apt utilisation of multiple oral venom ducts to expedite the bleeding and paralyze the nervous system, Komodo Dragon. Then by all means…

– bec

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