Microbes give meerkat gangs their signature scents

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Microbes give meerkat gangs their signature scents. Duke Today, June 12, 2017. Body odor. To some it’s an embarrassing nuisance. But to meerkats, it’s a calling card. Meerkats produce a pungent “paste” that they use to mark their turf. With one whiff they can tell if a scent belongs to a relative, a rival or a potential mate. But the chemical signals in this stinky graffiti don’t come from the meerkats themselves; they’re made by odor-producing bacteria that thrive in the meerkats’ gooey secretions, researchers find. Picked up by Popular Science, the Daily Mail, Discover Magazine and Science News.

Data geeks go head to head

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Data geeks go head to head. Duke Research Blog, April 6, 2017. For North Carolina college students, “big data” is becoming a big deal. The proof: signups for DataFest, a 48-hour number-crunching competition held at Duke last weekend, set a record for the third time in a row this year.

What affordable art can tell us about taste

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What affordable art can tell us about taste. Duke Research blog, May 29, 2015. Of the billions of dollars of art bought and sold at auctions in New York, London, Paris and Hong Kong this spring, most of the buzz has centered on the highest-priced works. But these are a tiny fraction of what’s up for sale. An analysis of thousands of painting sales in 18th century Paris looks beyond the top sellers to find out why people were willing to pay more for some works of art than others. Picked up by Private Art Investor.

Water ‘thermostat’ could help engineer drought-resistant crops

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Water ‘thermostat’ could help engineer drought-resistant crops. Duke Today, August 27, 2014. Researchers have identified a gene that could help engineer drought-resistant crops. The gene, called OSCA1, encodes a protein in the cell membrane of plants that senses changes in water availability and adjusts the plant’s water conservation machinery accordingly. The findings, which appear in the journal Nature, could make it easier to feed the world’s growing population in the face of climate change. Picked up by MIT Technology Review.

Scientist identifies world’s biggest-ever flying bird

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Scientist identifies world’s biggest-ever flying bird. National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, July 7, 2014. Scientists have identified the fossilized remains of an extinct giant bird that could be the biggest flying bird ever found. With an estimated 20-24-foot wingspan, the creature surpassed the previous record holder — an extinct bird named Argentavis magnificens — and was twice as big as the Royal Albatross, the largest flying bird today. Computer simulations show that the creature’s long slender wings helped it stay aloft despite its enormous size. Picked up by Fox News, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Science Magazine, Discovery News, CBC, U.S. News & World Report, the Independent, the Guardian, NBC news, Science News, Discover Magazine, the Huffington Post, Slate Magazine, the Daily Mail, Scientific American, the Boston Herald, National Geographic, New Scientist, the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek.

Fruit-loving lemurs score higher on spatial memory tests

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Fruit-loving lemurs score higher on spatial memory tests. Duke Today, February 21, 2014. Food-finding tests in five lemur species show that fruit-eaters may have better spatial memory than lemurs with a more varied diet. The results support the idea that relying on foods that are seasonally available and far-flung gives a competitive edge to individuals with certain cognitive abilities — such as remembering where the goodies are.

Study offers clues to how plants evolved to cope with cold

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Study offers clues to how plants evolved to cope with cold. December 22, 2013. National Evolutionary Synthesis Center. Researchers have found new clues to how plants evolved to withstand wintry weather. In a study in the journal Nature, the team constructed an evolutionary tree of more than 32,000 species of flowering plants — the largest time-scaled evolutionary tree to date. By combining their tree with freezing exposure records and leaf and stem data for thousands of species, the researchers were able to reconstruct how plants evolved to cope with cold as they spread across the globe. The results suggest that many plants acquired characteristics that helped them thrive in colder climates — such as dying back to the roots in winter — long before they first encountered freezing. Picked up by Futurity.

Biodiversity higher in the tropics, but species more likely to arise at higher latitudes

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Biodiversity higher in the tropics, but species more likely to arise at higher latitudes. November 22, 2013. National Evolutionary Synthesis Center. A study of 2300 species of mammals and 6700 species of birds offers a counterintuitive explanation for why there are more species in the tropics than at higher latitudes. Researchers found that while the tropics harbor more species, the number of subspecies increases in the harsher environments typical of higher latitudes. The results suggest that the latitudinal diversity gradient may be due higher species turnover — speciation counterbalanced by extinction — towards the poles than near the equator.

Primate hibernation more common than previously thought

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Primate hibernation more common than previously thought. Duke Today, May 2, 2013. Until recently, the only primate known to hibernate as a survival strategy was a creature called the western fat-tailed dwarf lemur, a tropical tree-dweller from the African island of Madagascar. But it turns out this hibernating lemur isn’t alone. In a new study, researchers report that two other little-known lemurs — Crossley’s dwarf lemur and Sibree’s dwarf lemur — burrow into the soft, spongy rainforest floor in the eastern part of Madagascar, curl up and spend the next three to seven months snoozing underground. Picked up by Futurity, New Scientist and Nature World News.

Extinction risk factors for New Zealand birds today differ from those of the past

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Extinction risk factors for New Zealand birds today differ from those of the past. National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, August 2, 2012. What makes some species more prone to extinction? A new study of nearly 300 species of New Zealand birds — from pre-human times to the present — reveals that the keys to survival today differ from those of the past. The results are important for the growing number of studies that try to predict which species could be lost in the future based on what kinds of species are considered most threatened today, the researchers say.

Why not marry your cousin? Millions do

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Why not marry your cousin? Millions do. National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, April 25, 2012.The health risks of marrying a cousin have been grossly overstated, says a new book that examines common misconceptions about cousin marriage. A better understanding of the health effects of cousin marriage could mean more appropriate marriage laws and better medical care for cousin couples and their children, says author and NESCent visitor Alan Bittles. Picked up by West Australia Today and The West Australian.

New study traces the evolutionary history of what mammals eat

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New study traces the evolutionary history of what mammals eat. National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, April 16, 2012. The feeding habits of mammals haven’t always been what they are today, particularly for omnivores, finds a new study. Some groups of mammals almost exclusively eat meat — take lions and tigers and other big cats. Other mammals such as deer, cows and antelope are predominantly plant-eaters, living on a diet of leaves, shoots and bark. But particularly for omnivores, the situation wasn’t always that way, researchers report. Picked up by NSF and NPR.

Birds in uncertain climates are more likely to stray from their mates

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Birds in uncertain climates are more likely to stray from their mates. National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, February 16, 2012.  Married people may pledge to stay faithful through good times and bad, but birds sing a different tune — when weather is severe or uncertain, a new study finds that birds are more likely to stray from their mates. The results could mean more marital strife for birds coping with climate change, the researchers say. Picked up by Discovery News, Huffington Post, Scientific American, Globe and Mail, the New York Times, and MSNBC.

The future of a fog oasis

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The future of a fog oasis. Scientific American Guest Blog, August 19, 2011. In a fast-disappearing desert oasis, scientists are trying to bring a forest back to life – and discovering the imprint of a lost civilization amidst the vanishing trees.