Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Ugly Animal Preservation Society

The IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ is widely recognized as the most comprehensive, objective global approach for evaluating the conservation status of plant and animal species. This List is used for information and analyses on the status, trends and threats to species in order to establish a baseline from which to monitor status changes, monitor biodiversity trends, establish conservation priorities, and provide freely available data. Their are seven classifications of species: Least Concern (LC), Near Threatened (NT), Vulnerable (VU), Endangered (EN), Critically Endangered (CR), Extinct in the Wild (EW), and Extinct (EX).

The IUCN Red List currently has over 4,000 species listed as Critically Endangered. This classification includes species such as gorillas and leopards, but the list is made up primarily of less charismatic species than these. The ugly species, if you will. These ugly species are important, of value, and contribute to their ecosystems in significant ways.

Now, evolutionary biologist Simon Watt has proposed that we stand up for these less aesthetically pleasing creatures through the Ugly Animal Preservation Society (UAPS). When you really take the time to find out about them, many of these ugly animals are more weird and fascinating than their charismatic co-inhabitants. Simon often champions the Canadian blue-grey taildropper slug. This slug is bright blue and has the interesting behavior of dropping its tail when it is scared. Yep, its butt drops off so the predator can eat it while the slug gets away. Don't worry though, it grows a new butt.

Recently, the UAPS had their first general meeting. Okay, well, it was sort of an excuse to get a bunch of comedians in the same room together to talk about ugly animals, but it turned out to be productive anyway. The audience of this meeting voted on a species that would represent the UAPS as their mascot. The winner was the Proboscis Monkey. Sure, you may find this breed of ugly to be kind of cute until you find out that this monkey's digestive system makes them bloat up and become massively flatulent. Ew.

We are all guilty of it: we get so caught up in the cute, the cuddly, and the beautiful that we sometimes forget about everyone else. The UAPS also takes an "everyone else" viewpoint in that they champion saving a habitat rather than a single species. By protecting a habitat, we save all of the species within it, ugly and cute alike.

What do you think? What is your favorite ugly animal....or plant (we shouldn't forget about plants!)?

(via the Naked Scientists podcast)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Gift of Regifting

Be honest: How bad is it to regift? We've all gotten gifts that are clearly items someone was given and didn't want. A Chia Pet, a fruitcake, or an ugly piece of jewelry. Some things you can just tell. No lie, I once got a set of used cassette tapes. I don't even own a cassette tape player. I considered rethinking a friendship.

Most often, people regift things they will not use or gifts they do not like. If you want to stick a name on it, it is a problem researchers refer to as "deadweight loss." This is because the gift recipients would never spend as much money as the giver (especially on an ugly, unusable item like that), and the receiver is left with an item that lingers around in the closet (or wherever) until they can get rid of it (hence, the "deadweight" terminology). How do you shed the deadweight? You pass it on. Maybe the receiver will appreciate it in ways you never did, or at least they will pretend to. And this gets to the heart of today's post: How do people regard regifting? Resourceful and thrifty or rude and distasteful? Does it matter if you are the giver or the receiver? A study published this year in Psychological Science asked just these questions in a series of studies.

Study 1: Is it okay to regift gift cards?
Participants were asked to imagine that a 50 dollar Amazon gift card had been given as a birthday gift and then regifted to someone else. Then they were asked to assess their feelings as either the giver or the regifter. The researchers found that regifters thought the giver would be more offended if they regifted the card than givers reported that feeling.

Study 2: Do you regift or throw away an undesirable present?
The first study showed that regifters may be overestimating how offended the givers would be at having their present regifted. But what if that present were just thrown away? Participants were asked to imagine that they had recently given or received a wristwatch as a gift and, depending on the rolls they were assigned (giver or receiver), how would they feel if the watch was either regifted or thrown away? Similar to Study 1, the researchers found that the receivers thought that regifting or throwing a gift away would offend givers more than givers felt they would have been offended. They also found that the recipients found throwing away a gift to be more offensive than regifting it. Givers were less offended if their present was regifted than if it was thrown away.

Study 3: In the real world, how do friends really feel about regifting?
In this study, the researchers wanted to get a more real world feel. How do real groups of friends feel about regifting? So they asked participants to sign up with two of their friends. One member of this group was assigned the roll of the giver, separated from the group, and asked to choose from three items that were pretested and identified as bad gifts (a magazine for retired people, a DVD about the life of Mandy Moore, and a weight-loss cookbook). The giver then wrapped their gift and gave it to one of their friends. Once the giver had gone back to the waiting room, the receiver (now the regifter) of the bad gift was then asked to rewrap the bad gift. Then, in front of the initial giver, the regifter enters the waiting room with the rewrapped gift and gives it to the final friend. I don't know about you, but this almost sounds mean just reading it. When each was asked about their feelings on this bout of regifting, the regivers again thought the initial giver would be more offended than they were. Givers thought that the regifters were entitled to do what they wished with the gift.

Study 4: Is it possible to make receivers more comfortable with regifting?
Did you know that there is a National Regifting Day? It's true. In honor of holiday office parties and the “unique” gifts exchanged at them, the creators of have declared the third Thursday in December as National Regifting Day. The results of Study 3 suggested that interventions that encourage receivers to do what they wish with their gifts may liberate them to regift. The researchers found that study participants were more likely to regift if they were told that it was National Regifting Day than if they were not told. They also found that receivers felt more entitled to do what they wanted with their bad gift if they were told it was National Regifting Day, although they still felt less entitled than givers thought they should.

When I stop and think about it, this all makes sense. However, I maintain that giving a bad gift (like used cassette tapes) is still giving a bad gift and that isn't being a good friend or relative. Go back and read the last gift giving post, your friends often don't need something flashy or weird (unless they are that kind of personality). Think about what they want and get it for them. Odds are that they will keep your gift and use it. At least I hope so. And if not, this article suggests that they don't mind if you regift it. I would have been interested to see another choice in Study 2 that included feelings on donating the gift.

What about you? What are your thoughts on regifting? Will you be giving away that ugly office gift from last year?

ResearchBlogging.orgAdams, G., Flynn, F., & Norton, M. (2012). The Gifts We Keep on Giving: Documenting and Destigmatizing the Regifting Taboo Psychological Science, 23 (10), 1145-1150 DOI: 10.1177/0956797612439718

Some more regifting reading:
The New York Times: "Re-Gifting: You Shouldn’t Have. But if You Did, Here’s How to Get Away With It"
The Huffington Post: "To Regift or Not to Regift, That Is the Question" and "Regifting Christmas Presents: How To Do It Properly"
ABC News: "Re-Gifting: It’s Not Just for the Poor, Frugal or Unashamed Anymore"

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Heroes of Science!

Datazoid @ Deviantart has created a wonderful image of what the Heroes of Science Action Figures would look like.
"These little guys took between 40 minutes and 2 hours each, totalling around 50 hours of work.
I like action figures. I have a small collection of them. I’ve noticed that you can buy Albert Einstein figures, Nikola Tesla bobble-heads and The Simpsons even brought out a Stephen Hawking figure based on his appearance in an episode. However, I thought it’d be really cool if there was an entire series of them, based on all of the people who’ve contributed to our understanding of the world and the universe it sits in. 
I realise there are a *lot* of scientists that I’ve missed!
I did make a few rules for who I’d include in this selection, which are: 
the scientist must have been alive at some point in the 20th century. This is a practical consideration, as it really narrows the field down, and it eliminates a lot of the more outrageously-dressed characters, allowing me to work with mostly dudes in suits. No scientists famous for major medical breakthroughs. Primarily because medical heroes is a category all of its own, and there are hundreds to choose from. I’ve included Alexander Fleming here, because he was primarily a chemist, and because his discovery of penicillin was not a discovery made in the course of trying to cure something."
Unlike the Lil' Giants of Science, these action figures aren't real. I know, I know, we all wish they were. Maybe someone out there will make them (*insert pleading puppy dog eyes here*)?

(click image for larger version)

Read more about this art at Datazoid @ Deviantart page.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Psychology of Gift Giving: Unique and Expensive or Ordinary but Useful?

The holiday shopping season is almost upon us. Black Friday is but a couple of days away. The annual shopping explosion event when you start thinking how close the year is to being over, how you haven’t even thought about what you are going to buy anyone, and how much money you don’t have to spend. Actually, I tend to be a Cyber Monday kind of shopper, but the same tenets hold true.

Gift giving: What do you get someone? Will they like it? What will they give you? Will you like it? Quite frankly, the whole process can be fun but exhausting.

Gifts can be tokens of social relationships, ways that we transmit impressions and feelings to one another. If you boil down the above questions, you are really asking about the attractiveness of gifts. A study in 2005 looked at the attractiveness of a gift seen from the perspective of the giver and the recipient. When you are shopping and picking out a gift, you probably go for something that you find attractive and/or you think the receiver will find attractive. Ultimately, you want your gift exchange to be successful. As a giver, that means you try to take the receiver’s perspective into account. As a recipient, that means you realize that any number of gifts could have been chosen for you and the one you received is what the giver thought you would like best. As with so many social psychology papers, this question of gift attractiveness was broken down into a series of studies.

Study 1: High-quality and unique or ordinary but useful? 
Ideally, you want to choose a gift that is both high-quality but also useful to the recipient. But high-quality usually means expensive. If, as a giver, your shopping list doesn’t include expensive then you have to make a trade-off. Usually this means a smaller, high-quality gift or a larger, more ordinary gift. This first type of gift is nice, and often exclusive or unique. The second type of gift is probably something more useful, something the recipient can use. They found that givers preferred to give expensive, exclusive, smaller gifts. On the other hand, receivers preferred less luxurious, more useful gifts. Makes sense I guess. As a giver, you want to give someone something both you and they perceive as nice. As a receiver, you actually have to live with that gift.

Study 2: What do you expect of your gifts? 
Cultural conventions, we all fall into them. In western societies, a gift should be nicely wrapped, come without a price tag, and arrive on time. The gift itself should be neither too cheap nor too expensive (especially as gifts are often reciprocal). Oh, and cash is only accepted under certain circumstances, usually helping someone pay for something specific (house, car, school, etc.). Receivers are expected to act surprised when they open the gift (even if they knew what it is), to be grateful, and to praise the gift (even when they hate it). This study asked people a series of questions: Gift voucher (gift cards) or cash? Opera or movie tickets? How important is it that a gift be a surprise? Or arrive on time? They found that givers prefer gift vouchers to cash and are concerned about timing, showing that gift givers are more serious about social conventions than are recipients. It’s weird really, because they found that gift givers are most concerned with pleasing the receiver even though the givers are abiding by cultural conventions that don’t do that (see Study 1). Receivers accept cash gifts and claim to not really care if the gift arrives late.

Study 3: Does self-perception or perceptions of others play into gift giving? 
Personally, you prefer the ordinary but useful gift, but you think these preferences are not shared by others. So you end up selecting gifts according to the preferences you think are more widespread among others. "Everybody likes expensive wine so I will buy expensive wine as a gift." They found little support for this self versus others perception hypothesis. Rather, people change their preferences in accordance with their rolls as either givers or receivers.

Study 4: Why are some conventions more important than others? 
It is nice to divide these questions up into studies, but in real life, pairwise comparisons aren’t made. When choosing a gift, givers have to choose between two or more simultaneous options and evaluate potential gifts one by one. Receivers don’t know all of the decision-making that the givers went through to pick their gift or what other gifts they could have gotten instead. This study found that when receivers evaluate a gift on its own they tend to agree with the givers’ preferences and prefer more exclusive gifts.

So what do we take away from a paper like this? Studies 1 – 3 seem to say “Skip the fancy wine and just buy them the comfy sweater.” I tend to agree. Buy something you know they will both love and use. Look at cultural gift giving conventions and choose to step away and consider your friend or loved one’s interests.

Our next topic – Regifiting…you know you shouldn’t but is it really the taboo you think it is?

ResearchBlogging.orgTeigen, K., Olsen, M., & SolÄs, O. (2005). Giver-receiver asymmetries in gift preferences British Journal of Social Psychology, 44 (1), 125-144 DOI: 10.1348/014466604X23428

Read more about gift giving:
Scientific American: "The Psychology Behind Gift-Giving and Generosity"
NY Times: "A Gift That Gives Right Back? The Giving Itself"

(image via

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Superman, Please Call Me Neil

I think that introducing a little science into a fictional story is never a bad thing. Science is so cool on its own that it can only make your story that much cooler. In the upcoming issue of Action Comics #14, astrophysicist and science rock star Neil deGrasse Tyson show up to help Superman find his home planet Krypton. We all know how good Neil is at calling the media on their science screw-ups, and so what a wonderful idea it is to get him involved before said screw-ups ever happen. Neil determines that Krypton is located 27.1 light-years from earth in the constellation Corvus. It orbits the red dwarf star LHS 2520 at Right Ascension 12 hours 10 minutes 5.77 seconds, Declination -15 degrees 4 minutes 17.9 seconds, and Proper Motion 0.76 arcseconds per year, along 172.94 degrees from due north (see Celestial Sphere).

“As a native of Metropolis, I was delighted to help Superman, who has done so much for my city over all these years,” Tyson said in a statement. “And it’s clear that if he weren’t a superhero he would have made quite an astrophysicist.”

Also of note is an episode of webseries Fact or Fictional that discusses the plausibility of the  S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier from The Avengers with scientist Phil Plait (of Bad Astronomy). Can that thing actually fly? How much power would it take? What about the cloaking technology?

(via /Film)

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Science Behind Superheroes

Some superheroes are a bit more set in reality than others. This becomes arguably more or less the case when you talk about movies vs. comic books, one superhero vs. another. Perhaps, Christopher Nolan's new Batman, Jon Favreau's Ironman, or maybe the new Amazing Spiderman work with the laws of the natural world a little better. OK, well, only if someone really knows what an arc reactor is and how spiders can change you at a genetic level. We could probably argue this all day.

Anyway, here's a great little infographic that I came across about The Science Behind Superheroes. Enjoy!

(via GeekTyrant via AllFancyDress)

Friday, November 9, 2012

Dung Beetles and Ball-Cooling: The Secret of the Poo

You’re a dung beetle. That isn’t an insult, it’s a visualization aid. You are a dung beetle, you live in South Africa, you roll up feces into balls, you push those balls to a storage location, and you use the balls as food or for brooding. Now, as a human visualizing yourself as a dung beetle, consider the environment you are rolling your dung ball across: the sands of the South African desert. Are your feet hot? How do you cool them down?

The authors of a new paper in Current Biology asked just these questions. The hot desert sands of South Africa can exceed temperatures of 60°C (140°F). Even for the resident dung beetle (Scarabaeus lamarcki) that’s hot. It is known that many species will seek refuges to cool down in these hot climes. For example, desert ants will spend up to 75 percent of their foraging time cooling down on elevated thermal refuges (like stalks of grass). It would make sense that dung beetles, which work under similar hot conditions, would seek refuges as they roll their poo-balls across the sand. Returning to your imagined-dung-beetle-state, what do you do to cool off?

The researchers used infrared thermography and behavioral experiments to see how dung beetles use their dung ball as a mobile thermal refuge onto which they climb to cool down. Jochen Smolka and his colleagues set up two sandy, circular, 3 meter diameter arenas in a natural South African habitat. One of the arenas was shaded in the morning to keep the ground temperature cooler. The other arena was exposed to full sunlight. They found that at the cooler ground temperatures, below 50°C, the beetles roll their dung balls straight across the arena without stopping. On the hotter ground, the beetles were observed to occasionally stop, climb up onto their ball and preen their front legs with their mouth-parts. It is likely that this preening covers the legs in regurgitated liquid, cooling them down by evaporative cooling. After the preening, the beetles perform an orientation dance and continue to roll their balls across the arena.

Fig 1. The dung ball as a mobile thermal refuge. (A) With rising soil temperature, beetles climb onto their dung balls more frequently while rolling (B) Temperature of the right front leg (red) and thorax (blue) of a beetle during its first three ball climbs (periods of rolling are grey) (C) Front leg temperature profile averaged over 84 ball climbs from 7 beetles (D) With silicone ‘boots’ on their legs, beetles perform fewer ball climbs. Similarly, beetles climb onto cool balls less often than hot balls

Ground temperature also significantly affected the frequency of this ball climbing behavior. At progressively high temperatures, the beetles climbed up on their balls more often, spending almost 70 percent of their time on top of their balls when the ground temperature went above 60°C.

So why climb balls? Answer: Ball-cooling. Infrared thermography shows that when the beetles roll their dung balls, the surface temperature of the beetles’ front legs increases by as much as 10°C, but when they climb up on their balls that temperature decreases again. That’s quite a bit, but is it really their hot feet that causes the beetles to ball climb? To this, they applied dental silicone to the beetles’ front legs. Pause: Beetle-booties, fun to say and I’m sure fun to see, and reminds me of the awesomeness that is ants on stilts. They found that these beetle-boots doubled the beetles’ ball rolling time, decreasing their ball climbing by 35 percent. This suggests that the ball climbing behavior is related to ground temperature and the heating up of beetle feet. As it turns out, the poo-balls are acting as thermoregulators in three ways:

1. They are portable, elevated platforms that can be used to escape the hot sand.

2. They are heat sinks. The moist dung ball undergoes evaporative cooling, keeping it the much cooler temperature of 31.8°C. This is substantially cooler than the beetle and the sand.

3. They are sand-coolers. Essentially, they are performing another heat sinking duty, sort of a heat vacuum, if you will. The dung ball draws the heat from the sand so it is cooler for the beetles to walk on.

If the poo-balls are actually acting as heat sinks, both during rolling and while the beetle is on it, then warmer balls should be less efficient heat sinks and the beetles should climb on them more often. The researchers tested this by giving beetles cold balls and hot balls. They found that the beetles climbed the hot balls 73 percent more often than the cold balls, supporting the heat sink hypothesis. “Because beetles roll their ball rather than drag it, the ball, preceding the beetle, cools down the sand the beetle is about to step on” by 1.5°C.

Put together, these mechanisms allow dung beetles to operate during a time of day when most arthropods, and other animals for that matter, seek a cool shelter. I guess there are a lot more good things about poo than I ever realized. And it appears that dung beetles have uncovered the secret of the poo.

ResearchBlogging.orgSmolka, J., Baird, E., Byrne, M., el Jundi, B., Warrant, E., & Dacke, M. (2012). Dung beetles use their dung ball as a mobile thermal refuge Current Biology, 22 (20) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.057

Here are a few news outlets that have picked up the story:
From Wired UK "Study: Dung beetles cool their heels atop balls of poo"
Discovery News' story "Why Dung Beetles Like to Chill on Poop Balls"
LiveScience's "That's Hot! Beetles Dance on Poop Balls to Keep Cool"
The Naked Scientists' report "Beetles use dung balls to keep cool"

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