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Red Feathers, Caterpillar Poop, Prissy Ants, Babies and Bullying

November 5, 2010

We’ll be back to our (fairly) regularly scheduled blogging by the end of the month. For now, we’re visiting the carnivals and gobbling up all the fascinating posts other people have written—and sharing them with you.

At Carnival of Evolution #29, which went up at Byte Size Biology on Halloween, we learned about feather color and babies (among other things, of course). Ya know how some white birds have brown or black wing feathers? I always thought it was some sort of countershading (silly marine biologist), but apparently it’s a strength thing. Melanins make feathers dark, but they also make them strong and durable. That isn’t even the point of GrrlScientist’s post, just an interesting factoid she shares in her post about the bacterial resistant abilities of red parrot feathers. In his contribution to the carnival, Greg Laden writes that, “human babies are more helpless in more ways and for longer than comparable ape babies.” In other words, they’re kind of high maintenance. We knew that. But why? It has to do with the pre-juvenile stage (which lasts until kids are 5 or 6), heavy metal music and the most important human adaptation.

At Encephalon #81 at Cephalove, we were enthralled by Scicurious’s post about the brain’s response to stress and social rejection (and bullying). She describes a cringe-worthy experiment in which subjects “ had to do difficult mental arithmetic (which included things like counting backward by 7s from 2,935…), while the experimenter kept looking at them in an annoyed way, checking his watch, and saying “faster please,” and generally acting all mean.”

Then we moved on to the gross stuff—at the Carnal Carnival! First, we learned about poop (in the first edition of the carnival) and then we learned about vomit (in the second edition). The topic for the third and most recent edition is taphonomy (death and decay). We’re not really into death and decay, but the ways animals use puke and poop is pretty freaking awesome. First, Meera writes about a study in which scientists investigate why some caterpillars throw their poop. They don’t just fling it. They chuck it—to a distance 38 times their body length. By the way, individual pellets of insect poop are called “frass.” On the other end of things (sorry), Ed writes about a species of caterpillar that defends itself with barf. When European fire ants attacked the caterpillars, the caterpillars puked on them. Poor little guys probably got nervous, right? Nope. When the big bad fire ants came in contact with the caterpillar vomit, they immediately halted their attack and got all prissy. Actually, they started frantically cleaning themselves for a very good reason…

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