Tag Archive: evolution

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 …

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 …

A Question Of Faith

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  To say religion is a contentious issue may qualify as a serious contender for understatement of the millennium. The Western World in particular has experienced a greater number of religious scandals in recent years, along with a growing and more vocal secular movement. But religion is not a recent phenomenon and, from Aristotle to Aquinas, has always been at the forefront of attempts to explain our existence. It is only relatively recently, with the advent of modern scientific discovery, that these traditional modes of faith have been challenged by a new and empirical worldview. And yet, faith and religion continue to hold a prominent place in the hearts and minds of billions of people across the globe. So just what is it that makes them such attractive concepts, and why are they so prevalent throughout human culture? What’s immediately clear, is that the origins of our obsession with faith are mired deep in evolutionary history. Indeed, it all seems …

How Darwin predicted the genetic link

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Just over a century and a half ago, Charles Darwin finally published On the Origin of Species, explaining how all life had been shaped by natural selection. Before he explained this blind mechanism though, he softened up his readers by showing how we humans had shaped some species through artificial selection. His audience of educated Victorian gentlemen would have been more or less familiar with breeding cabbages, cows and dogs for various characteristics, but Darwin also explained the breeding of fancy pigeons. It seems fanciful to us, but scholars used to believe that different breeds of sheep or cattle had each been domesticated from a separate wild variety, instead of from just one. Darwin decided to study one species in detail to explore this notion, and hit upon fancy pigeons. According to John Ross [pictured] –  an historian of Darwin’s pigeons (www.darwinspigeons.com) and a pigeon fancier himself – it was all down to a chance sighting on a trip to London: …

Why Beethoven could not have been a reptile (or why you can’t swallow a cantaloupe for breakfast)

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This is the story of three little bones.They’re called the ossicles (literally little bones in Latin), and they’re in your ear. Unless, that is, you happen to be a reptile reading this, in which case you’ll only have one in each ear with the other two (or rather four) distributed symmetrically in your jaw. It’s a curious bit of evolutionary history, and nicely illustrates an aspect of evolution which called exaptation, the re-purposing of an existing structure. The presence of the ossicles in the reptilian jaw is one of the factors which allows some reptiles (particularly snakes) to swallow things significantly bigger than their own heads (think of a python swallowing a deer, and you’ll get the idea).In mammals on the other hand, these ossicles migrated the short distance from the tip where the jaw meets the skull into the zone known as the middle ear, where they joined the single bone of the reptilian ear which connects the ear-drum …

The biology of Pokémon

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Those were the days: training up a super-squad of Pokémon on your Game Boy Classic, draining enough AA’s to power a minor principality in the process. Of course, in the sixteen years since Pokémon was first released, numerous generations of players have discovered the charm of Nintendo’s monster franchise (there’s been a staggering twenty-one games excluding spin-offs since its inception). And so, with Pokémon’s ability to influence so massive, I thought a discussion on how biological concepts are communicated through the games was in order. As anyone still reading will probably know, all the Pokémon games follow the same basic storyline; a central character (controlled by the player) travels through a fantasy world capturing and battling Pokémon in order to level-up and achieve master ranking. Now, the influence of the real outdoors throughout this fantasy region is vast: it’s split into numerous virtual habitats (deserts, forests, icy-mountains etc) and the game’s developers have designed these habitats to accurately reflect the tapestry of …

New Dinosaur identified in Canada

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A team of Palaeontologists have named a new four-horned dinosaur, Xenoceratops, from an assortment of fossilised bone fragments first collected in Canada in the 1950’s. Upon re-examination of the previously undescribed fossils, the palaeontologists realised the bones belonged to at least three individuals of a new type of plant-eating dinosaur. Once the fossils had been analysed more closely, it became apparent the dinosaurs (relatives of the famous Triceratops) would each have weighed an impressive two tonnes and grown to a colossal 20ft in length. The palaeontologists named the new dinosaur Xenoceratops which means ‘alien horned-face’ – a reference to the odd pattern of horns on the dinosaurs head, as well as the relative scarcity of horned dinosaur specimens from this period of the fossil record. Xenoceratops is believed it to have lived in the Late Cretaceous period (100-65 million years ago) at the same time as other dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus-Rex and Stegosaurus. The four horned giant is the latest in a series of new discoveries being made as part …

The fish with the head of a fish and the body of – a different fish?

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With the end of the year fast approaching, I thought it might be a good time to reflect upon my favourite science story of 2012 and, in true Unpopular Science style, it’s one that may well have passed you by. On a cloudy day in May, just north of Cambridge, an outlandish beast was dragged from the depths of Magpie Lake by fishing tackle expert, Mark Sawyer. Gazing upon his catch Sawyer, tackle editor of Angling Times, immediately found himself in awe of the curious creature before him. The fish was not one of the roach, bream or goldfish known to inhabit the lake, but instead seemed to be a bizarre chimaera of the three; with the head of a roach, the anal fin of a bream and the body and tail of a fan-tailed goldfish. The ‘Frankenfish’ as it was quickly dubbed did grab some media attention, with many experts commenting it was quite possibly the result of hybridisation (goldfish, …

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