Tag Archive: biology

Everything you wanted to know about peacock spiders, but were too afraid to ask

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There are famously unexplored parts of the world that promise to harbour as yet undiscovered species for the determined naturalist, but you wouldn’t expect the suburbs of Sydney to be one of them. The species to be discovered aren’t everyone’s cup of tea; they’re Australia’s colourful little jumping spiders. One man isn’t afraid of these little cuties, and we hope you won’t be either by the end of this article. Dr Jürgen Otto has photographed all the wildlife around Sydney, where he works as a government scientist, and was at a loss for what to do next until he stumbled across the tiny Maratus volans in the bush around the city in 2005. Since then he has discovered several new species and found out a lot more about the genus whose members are commonly described as peacock spiders. Dr Otto believes he is the first to capture the peacock spider’s incredible courtship behaviour on film. He has shared these videos …

That Loving Feeling: The Science Behind Attraction

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What is love? It’s a hard enough question to contemplate, let alone answer. We all know what it feels like; flushed cheeks, clammy hands and a racing heartbeat are all sure fire signs that cupid’s arrow has struck home. But what about the science behind the emotion. How exactly is that loving feeling created, and just what are the physiological and psychological triggers behind it?… THE PHYSIOLOGY: Although research is still in its infancy, a number of hormones have been identified as key regulators in the development of love. To begin with, the brain and adrenal glands begin to pump out prodigious amounts of dopamine, which enhances testosterone release. Dopamine itself acts on various organs, including the genitals and the sweat glands, to produce those physically embarrassing effects of attraction that we all know so well. It also influences the senses, causing a shift in mood and emotions, which leads to feelings of increased energy, excitement and happiness. Meanwhile, testosterone continues …

Making a Killing: Which is the Most Humane Method of Execution?

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If, like me, you’re an avid reader of depressing news stories, then you may have come across several articles this week reporting on the recent decision by the government of Papua New Guinea to legalise the death penalty. Now I don’t want to get into a discussion on the morality of the decision itself (I have neither the word count nor the time), but it did get me thinking about the science of executions. Although it may sound obvious, just exactly how do the major forms of execution work, and which, if any, should be considered the most humane?… Hanging One of the oldest forms of execution, the principle behind hanging has remained unchanged for centuries. The favoured modern variation is termed the ‘long drop’ and was the method used to kill former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2006. Those planning the execution calculate the so-called ‘drop distance’ required to break the neck based on the height, weight and build …

Video: Woodland Wildlife

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Unpopular Science’s Jack Croxall and his chocolate Labrador Archie take a stroll around a springtime forest in search of woodland critters. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeuc4bOCIzI FYI The common toad can live for an astounding 40 years. For information on how you can help protect Britain’s amphibians, check out the Frog Life website. Check out Jack Croxall’s YouTube channel here or website here. Have you found any fascinating wildlife this spring? Let us know in the comments section below.

Victory Is Bitter Sweet

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They are often cited as the one creature likely to survive in the event of all out-nuclear war. But it seems that the lowly cockroach has now found a brand new way to survive. American scientists have discovered that a strain of European cockroach has managed to completely reorganize its sense of ‘taste’. Instead of being attracted to the ‘sweet’ glucose used in traps around the continent, these intrepid little bugs perceive the bait as bitter. The phenomenon was first noted over two decades ago, when pest controllers reported a failure to eradicate the roaches because the insects were stubbornly refusing to eat the bait. Subsequent scientific studies have confirmed these anecdotal observations. When offered a choice between sweet jam or the more savoury peanut butter, hungry cockroaches from the mutant strain showed a much greater aversion to the glucose rich jam, physically jumping back when contact was established. The neural mechanism behind the response was identified using tiny electrodes to …

Shiny Happy People

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Now that the warm weather has finally arrived, smiles are starting to return to faces and frozen fingers are beginning to thaw. After nearly 6 months of spine-tingling cold it seems that we are all drawing a deep sense of satisfaction from watching the mercury rise. But bizarrely, this well-established link between sunshine and feeling good may well be another one of those popular misconceptions. A cursory examination of last-year’s ‘well being’ statistics reveals that the happiest regions of the UK were found at higher latitudes, including the Shetland Isles and the Outer Hebrides, where annual hours of sunshine were 340 below the national average. Support comes from the list of the world’s happiest countries, which is consistently topped by northerly nations like Norway, Sweden, Canada and Denmark, none of which are known for their prodigious quantities of warm weather. The association between sunshine and feeling happy was first put forward in scientific circles during the 1970s and 80s. Various …

Phobias and society

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I’m sure all of us are a little afraid of something; be it something small, something big or even something exceptionally common. Take Arachnophobia for example: research shows that 50% of all women in the US suffer from the fear of spiders, and it’s the most common phobia in the UK. However, not one species of native UK spider is classified as deadly. So we have to ask ourselves, in general, are phobias rational or irrational? It was Walter Bradford Cannon who first coined the term ‘fight or flight’. Cannon was a physiologist who studied the response of animals when faced with an immediate threat. As well as acceleration of heart rate, increased breathing and loss of peripheral vision, the body releases a series of hormones (including adrenaline and noradrenaline) to prepare itself for danger. Now, as humans, we’ve evolved from our prehistoric roots; we no longer face the terrible dangers of times past, yet we still undergo that same fight or flight …

Shark Teeth Weapons

Helmet from the Gilbert Islands made of porcupine fish skin. PRM 1884.32.31  Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

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Natural History Museum collections have been used for a novel study: the past biodiversity of a remote collection of Pacific coral islands. Joshua Drew from Columbia University and colleagues have just published a paper (see below) reporting on their identification of shark teeth used in weapons made by Kiribati people from the Gilbert Islands over a hundred years ago and now in the collection of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. Having no metal, but a tradition of hunting the plentiful sharks, the I-Kiribati people used shark teeth to edge coconut wood weapons, both swords and fierce-looking tridents. While the team found plenty of teeth from species of sharks that still roam the local coral reefs, like tiger sharks, two species were represented that no longer exist around the Gilbert Islands, dusky and spottail sharks. The team were excited that museum collections could be used to shed light on past ecosystems, and to highlight changes in those ecosystems over time. …

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