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Hardship Strengthens Mutual Bonds

Ants patrol Cordia alliodora trees for caterpillars and leaf-eating insects, biting them until they leave.

Tiny sap-sucking insects that are a scourge to gardeners also have the upside of helping trees survive in seasonally dry forests in Central America. How? Scale insects use carbon they get from Cordia alliodora trees to make sugar-rich “honeydew” for Azteca pittieri ants, which in turn defend the trees against leaf-munching insects. Mutualism is often stronger when resources are scarce, but this interdependence usually involves a commodity that is traded directly between species.

Now, a new study shows that lack of a resource that is not traded—water—intensifies the bonds between C. alliodora, scale insects, and ants… (more)

PLOS Biology 2013



Understanding the Flight of the Bumblebee

Bumblebee heuchera

Bumblebees are remarkable navigators. While their flight paths may look scattered to the casual eye, all that buzzing about is anything but random. Like the travelling salesman in the famous mathematical problem of how to take the shortest path along multiple stops, bumblebees quickly find efficient routes among flowers. And once they find a good route, they stick to it. The same goes for other animals from hummingbirds to bats to primates that depend on patchy resources such as nectar and fruit.

Perhaps this is not such a surprising feat for animals with relatively high brain power. But how do bumblebees, with their tiny brains, manage it? New research in PLOS Biology shows that a simple strategy may be enough for a real-world solution to this complex problem… (more)

PLOS Biology, 2012



Yeast Survive by Hedging Their Bets

Investing in opposite outcomes—or bet hedging—is a common tool to cushion against huge monetary losses. While this strategy has earned a bad name for its role in the recent global financial crisis, bet hedging is key to survival in bacteria. But how microorganisms manage bet hedging at the molecular level is poorly understood. Now, new research in yeast shows that slow-growing cells resist stress better than fast-growing cells, thanks in part to higher levels of a stress-related protein… (more)

PLoS Biology, 2012



Finding Balance in Cortical Networks

Networks of pyramidal cells help you remember things

No matter what you’re doing at any given moment, from walking to talking or even sleeping, your brain is doing its own thing. Networks of neurons constantly and often spontaneously generate rhythmic electrical activity in the cortex, the brain’s outermost layer and the seat of judgment, decision making, and other higher order functions.

What keeps these cortical networks humming along? New research shows that small changes in the electrical properties of pyramidal cells are key to maintaining the excitation-inhibition balance of networks… (more)

PLoS Biology, 2011



Parallel Lives

California’s Sierra Nevada mountains are dotted with populations of checkerspot butterflies that belong to the same species but lead separate lives — one population lays eggs on blue-eyed Mary plants and the other on pine lousewort.

But other than that, the two kinds of checkerspots are much the same. They are alike morphologically and genetically, and can also interbreed and produce hybrid offspring. So what does keep them apart? (more)

PLoS Biology, 2010



Fast food boosts urban kit foxes

Where’s our supper?

New research may explain why the San Joaquin kit fox does better in Bakersfield, CA, than in nearby wildlife preserves. This endangered species chows down on the same fast food that humans do…(more—see p.5)

Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 2010



The Upside of Slackers

Hammock - Polynesia

It’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it

Are slackers a drag on the rest of us? It makes sense because those who produce (“co-operators”) benefit everyone, whereas those who don’t produce (“cheats”) get a free ride. Classic theory holds that cheating comes at the expense of society as a whole, making populations composed entirely of co-operators the most fit. But this may not be true… (more)

PLoS Biology, 2010



A Social Amoeba Discriminates in Favor of Kin

Microorganisms that cheat and practice nepotism to get the top—who needs science fiction?

Though seemingly simple life forms, microorganisms can display surprisingly complex behaviors, such as altruism and cheating, that are more often associated with “higher” organisms… (more)

PLoS Biology, 2008



Trained ovines chomp on weeds, avoid vines

To most vineyard managers, any plants growing directly under grapevines are nasty weeds that can rob the crop of water and nutrients. But to sheep, these weeds are tasty and nutritious forage. This would make sheep (ovines) ideal for controlling vineyard weeds except for one thing — these herbivores like grape leaves just as much… (more)

California Agriculture, 2008