Zombifying fungus bypasses the brain to make ants its puppets, study finds

Zombifying fungus bypasses the brain to make ants its puppets, study finds

Enlarge / A dead ant that has been taken over by a species of Cordyceps in the Rio Claro Reserve in Colombia. (credit: National Geographic/Justin Maguire)

Pity the poor unsuspecting carpenter ant who unwittingly becomes infected with spores scattered by a parasitic fungus in the Cordyceps genus. The spores attach to the ant and germinate, spreading through the host’s body via long tendrils called mycelia. Cordyceps essentially turns its host into a zombie slave, compelling the ant to climb to the top of the nearest plant and clamp its tiny jaws in a death grip around a leaf or twig.

The fungus then slowly devours the ant, sprouting through its head in one final indignity. Then the bulbous growths on the ends of the mycelia burst, releasing even more spores into the air, to infect even more unsuspecting ants. It’s not a great way to go: the entire process

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Musk’s newest startup is venturing into a series of hard problems

Musk’s newest startup is venturing into a series of hard problems

Enlarge / Elon Musk in Idaho in 2015. (credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Tonight, Elon Musk has scheduled an event where he intends to unveil his plans for Neuralink, a startup company he announced back in 2017, then went silent on. If you go to the Neuralink website now, all you’ll find is a vague description of its goal to develop an “ultra-high-bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers.” These interfaces have been under development for a while, typically under the monicker of brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs. And, while there have been some notable successes in the academic-research world, there’s a notable lack of products on the market.

The slow progress comes, in part, because a successful BCI has to tackle multiple hard problems and, in part, because the regulatory and market conditions are challenging. Ahead of tonight’s announcement, we’ll take a look at all

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Snowball the dancing cockatoo has wide range of killer moves, new study finds

Snowball the dancing cockatoo has wide range of killer moves, new study finds

Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo shows off 14 different dance moves to the beat of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” The movements come from different video segments of the study, with a single music track overlaid for illustrative purposes.

Chances are you’ve stumbled across YouTube videos of Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo grooving to his favorite tunes and keeping reasonably good time to the beat. Now the same researchers who demonstrated Snowball’s unusual flair for dance are back with a new paper in Current Biology, showing that Snowball has quite a broad range of distinct moves—14 in all.

Snowball is a male Eleonora cockatoo who came to national attention around 2008, when his owner, co-author Irene Schulz, posted a video of him moving to the beat on YouTube. (She runs the bird shelter where Snowball lives in Schererville, Indiana.) The Internet went crazy, and Snowball made numerous TV appearances, even appearing

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Debunking the flat Earth is a relatively easy task.

Two tactics effectively limit the spread of science denialism

Debunking the flat Earth is a relatively easy task. (credit: NASA)

“Vaccines are safe and effective,” write researchers Philipp Schmid and Cornelia Betsch in a paper published in Nature Human Behavior this week. “Humans cause global warming. Evolution theory explains the diversity and change of life.” But large numbers of people do not believe that these statements are true, with devastating effects: progress toward addressing the climate crisis is stultifyingly slow, and the US is seeing its largest measles outbreak since 2000.

Getting accurate information across in the face of this science denialism is something of a minefield, as there is evidence that attempts to correct misinformation may backfire, further entrenching the beliefs of science deniers instead. In their paper, Schmid and Betsch present some good news and some bad: rebutting misinformation reduces the ensuing level of science denialism, but not enough to completely counter the effect

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Declining monarch-butterfly populations may be hard to restore

Declining monarch-butterfly populations may be hard to restore

Enlarge (credit: Beth Waterbury)

Monarch butterflies engage in a spectacular migration that encompasses multiple generations. They surf the green wave of spring as it spreads north, producing new generations on the way. Then, as autumn sets in, that generation of butterflies shuts down reproduction and starts heading south, eventually reaching their wintering grounds in staggering numbers. But in recent years, those numbers have grown far less staggering. The loss of some of those wintering grounds, habitat destruction across North America, and other threats have steadily reduced the migrating population to the point where it’s under consideration for endangered species designation.

The declining population has inspired people throughout North America to try to give the butterflies a hand. Their efforts include planting more of the insects’ favorite food plants, protecting the butterflies in their pupal stage, and even ordering monarch pupae from commercial suppliers. Raising monarchs is also a common

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Physics indicates some of Earth’s earliest animals helped each other feed

Physics indicates some of Earth’s earliest animals helped each other feed

Enlarge / The result of a fluid mechanics simulation with multiple Erniettas. (credit: Dave Mazierski)

What drove the evolution of the earliest animal life? In modern animals, it’s easy to infer a lot about an organism’s lifestyle based on its anatomy. Even back in the Cambrian, with its large collection of bizarre looking creatures, these inferences are possible. Anomalocaris may have had a freakish, disk-shaped mouth, but it clearly was a mouth.

Go back to Earth’s earliest animals in the Ediacaran, however, and things get much, much harder. There’s only one species known so far that appears to have the right body plan to act as a predator of sorts. Beyond that, it’s all a collection of soft-looking fronds and segments that are difficult to ascribe any obvious function to. Faced with a lot of questions without obvious answers, biologists turned to an unlikely source of help: physicists and

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We may have inadvertently selected for muscles on dogs’ faces

We may have inadvertently selected for muscles on dogs’ faces

Enlarge / A muscle flex raises the inner portions of the eyebrow at right. (credit: Waller et al.)

Humans domesticated dogs about 30,000 years ago. Since then, we’ve worked with them, hunted with them, played with them, and come to rely on them for companionship. And, in the process, we’ve bred them for everything from general cuteness to the ability to guard and fight for us. Figuring out who’s manipulating whom and who’s getting more out of the relationship is a hopeless task.

But that doesn’t mean that some aspects of the changes dogs have undergone aren’t amenable to study. After studying the facial muscles of dogs and wolves, a US-UK team of researchers has now found that dogs have two muscles that wolves mostly lack. These muscles control the movements of the face near the eyes, and the researchers suspect that the muscles’ presence helps the dogs make

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Medical marijuana vs. opioid abuse: New study questions the connection

Medical marijuana vs. opioid abuse: New study questions the connection

Enlarge / Legal cannabis for sale in a tobacco shop in Italy. (credit: Stefano Guidi | Getty Images)

In the US, federal law has severely restricted our ability to study any potential medical properties of cannabis. But, given some limited studies and a lot of anecdotal stories, a number of states have gone ahead and legalized medical marijuana. This has allowed some population-level studies of what’s going on in the states, but those have faced additional complications, like rules that differ from state to state and an ongoing legalization of recreational use confusing the picture.

Just how confusing all this can be was driven home this week by the release of a paper that suggests that one of medical marijuana’s greatest successes was illusory. A couple of early studies indicated that states that had legalized medical marijuana use saw drops in opioid-related deaths. The new research replicates those results but

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Why do bats have such bizarrely long lifespans?

Why do bats have such bizarrely long lifespans?

Enlarge (credit: Ohio Department of Health)

In mammals, there’s a relatively simple relationship among metabolism, body mass, and lifespan. For the most part, as the size of the mammal goes up, its metabolism slows down and its longevity increases. There are exceptions, and we are one of them. We’re much longer lived than other mammals with a similar body mass. Bears, which tend to weigh quite a bit more than us, rarely live past 30.

But a new paper about longevity includes a remarkable statistic: “Nineteen species of mammals live longer than humans, given their body size, of which 18 are bats.” What is it about bats that’s so exceptional? A new study takes a careful look at bat aging and finds, at a time when most species are shutting down genes that help keep cells and tissues healthy, bats are cranking them up.

Mini-Methuselahs

To an extent, bats

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Target of first human gene editing cuts life expectancy short

Target of first human gene editing cuts life expectancy short

Enlarge / Chinese geneticist He Jiankui speaks during the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing at the University of Hong Kong days after he claimed to have altered the genes of the embryo of a pair of twin girls before birth, prompting outcry from scientists of the field. (credit: S.C. Leung/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Late last year, a Chinese researcher shocked the scientific community when he announced that the first gene-edited humans had already been born. He Jiankui barreled past an emerging consensus that the technology wasn’t ready for use and, once it was, should be reserved for otherwise untreatable diseases. Instead of respecting those boundaries, He did much of his work without any clear institutional oversight.

Rather than target an incurable genetic disorder, He Jiankui focused on something for which we have both preventative measures and treatments: HIV infection. He did so by using CRISPR gene

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