Neanderthals Kept an Organised House * A Fish Out of Water * Female Albatross Practise Same-sex Parenting * Climbing Robot * Lemon Sharks Come Home to Give Birth * Snake Eyes

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On today's show, we'll hear about some remarkable fish that manage to move about on land; we'll learn why some female albatross choose same-sex parenting; we'll find out how a small climbing robot can grab onto an asteroid; we'll discover that some sharks go home to give birth; we'll hear how snakes get the blood out of their spectacles when they sense a threat; and we'll learn how to organise our house like a Neanderthal.

 


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Neanderthals Kept an Organised House

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Reuters image

When you picture a stereotypical caveman, you're probably picturing a Neanderthal. Thought to be brutish and slow-witted, they are often judged as a primitive branch in our own evolutionary tree. But Dr. Julien Riel-Salvatore, a Canadian assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver, and his colleagues, found that in Italy, Neanderthal caves were surprisingly well organized. There were areas in the cave for tool making, animal butchering and cooking, which were separated so clearly that they jumped right out of the fossil record. This discovery challenges the myth that Neanderthals lacked the sophistication of modern humans and shows that they, too, used logic and spatial reasoning in their daily lives.       

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A Fish Out of Water

The Mangrove Rivulus is a small fish that lives in mangrove swamps. It looks like an ordinary little fish, but despite this, it has adopted a suite of behaviours that allow it to do quite well as a fish out of water. They can survive in moist environments, like rotting logs, for up to months, absorbing oxygen through their skins. Benjamin Perlman, a PhD student in the Department of Biology at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, has been studying how the rivulus gets around on land. He's found that it can leap from water onto land, do a kind of fishy crawl to chase land-based prey, and escape predators by "tail-flipping" backwards away from whatever looks like a threat.

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  • Paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology
  • JEB news
  • Wake Forest University release
  • Society for Experimental Biology release (with videos)

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Female Albatross Practise Same-sex Parenting


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Two female Laysan Albatrosses.  Eric VanderWerf
Same-sex parenting in the animal world is not common, but it is known in many species, among them the Laysan Albatross, one of the most common sea birds of the Hawaiian Islands. In a study of the albatross population on the island of Oahu, about 60 percent of the birds were found to be female, which resulted in 31 percent of all breeding pairs also being female. Albatross are obligate biparental, which means two birds are required to raise one chick. So in the absence of males, two females will brood the egg and raise the chick. From an evolutionary standpoint, this really means making the most of  a bad situation when males are in short supply. But a new study by Dr. Lindsay Young, a Canadian wildlife biologist with Pacific Rim Conservation in Honolulu, found that this strategy has limitations; females in same-sex pairs produced 80 percent fewer chicks than females in male-female pairs.
  

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Climbing Robot

Most robots we've designed to explore other parts of the solar system use rockets or wheels to get around. But Dr. Aaron Parness, an engineer in the Mobility and Robotics section of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has been experimenting with one that uses specialized grippers to grab and climb. Inspired by the hooked feet of insects, the robot has grippers that use hundreds of tiny hooks in a concentric ring. These hooks engage with irregularities in the surface the robot is trying to latch on to, and provide quite a  powerful grip, allowing the robot to climb overhanging rock faces.
 

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Lemon Sharks Come Home to Give Birth

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Lemon Shark, Federico Calbello for the Pew Charitable Trusts
It's well known that sea turtles and salmon return to the same spawning grounds, year after year. Now, we can add lemon sharks to the list of animals with super-powered homing abilities. That's what new research by Dr. Kevin Feldheim, a biologist at The Field Museum in Chicago, and his colleagues, showed in the Bimini lagoon in the Bahamas. Baby sharks spend the first few years of their lives in the lagoon mangroves, then they leave this nursery for open waters. After more than 10 years away, these sharks find their way back home to give birth to their own young. Some females visit the Bimini lagoon every two years to have another litter of pups.

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Snake Eyes

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Coachwhip snake, courtesy Kevin van Doorn

Snakes' eyes never open. Their eyelids are fused together over their eyes, but the skin and scale forms a transparent covering over the eye, called the spectacle. The spectacle allows the snake protection, as it slithers through the environment, and also enables it to see. But there's a difficulty with the spectacle. Like all skin, it has blood vessels passing through it, and the blood in those vessels must obscure the snake's vision. But Dr. Kevin van Doorn, a researcher from the School of Optometry and Vision Science at the University of Waterloo, has found that the snake has a strategy to deal with this. When presented with a threat, the snake constricts the vessels in its spectacle, choking off blood flow, and removing the blood from its eyes.

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein, Creative Commons License by-nc-nd-2.0