Science!: Duck Penises, Willpower and Whales


I used to think that willpower was a never-ending pit of untapped resolve. As you practiced foregoing that extra glass of Chardonnay on New Year’s or avoiding the leftover holiday desserts, your access to that willpower would grow larger and larger until finally you could just be one big ball of stubborn resolve. At least, that’s what I desperately believed every time New Years Eve rolled around, writing out a list of my resolutions and promising to actually follow through with them this year.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Willpower is a limited resource, and it only decreases with stress. Willpower comes from the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain right behind your forehead. The prefrontal cortex is also responsible for other important tasks, such as abstract thoughts and short term memories and tasks. Simply put, there’s just not enough prefrontal cortex to go around.

Baba Shiv, a researcher at Stanford University, gathered
undergraduates and divided them into two groups. One group was tasked with remembering a two digit number, the other a seven digit number. Each participant was then led into another room and given an option of snack: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad. The study was meant to test the resolve of students when faced with a tasty treat while their brain is preoccupied with a memory task.

The seven digit students were twice as likely to go for the cake than those students that were asked to remember the two digit number. According to Professor Shiv, it’s because those extra numbers took up enough space to produce a “cognitive load.” Essentially, willpower was compromised from having to remember a larger number; the prefrontal
cortex was overloaded, and all New Years resolutions are out the window.

In a related study, Mark Muraven at the University of Albany asked participants to write their thoughts down for five minutes – while not thinking of a white elephant, a more difficult task than you may think (go ahead, try it). Afterwards, the subjects were asked to take a beer taste test, then drive a car. The students who were asked to not think of white elephants consumed a significantly larger amount of beer than the control group. This suggests that the white elephant task took a toll on the prefrontal cortex, and when given the choice to drink, they indulged, even though they knew they would be driving a car afterwards. You might say that white elephants result in pink elephants!

Source: Science Blogs

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Corkscrew Penises and Backwards Vaginas

Penis. There, I wrote it. Get your giggles out now. We good? Vagina. Got it out of your system? Moving on!

Once upon a time, I naively believed that all penises and vaginae were made equal. Today I learned that I was horribly, horribly, wrong.

As it turns out, a Muscovy duck penis is corkscrew shaped, and a Muscovy duck vagina mimics this. This is not just a case of “Are you my Mommy?” match-the-shape-with-its-hole, but a story of co-evolution based on alternating bouts of sexual conflict.

About 97% of birds actually lack penises. The Muscovy duck is one of the few birds to actually possess one, and it’s such an oddly shaped penis, that it just begs to be studied. To study the evolution of duck penises, you either have to be a female duck, or get creative, and that’s exactly what Patricia Brennan of Yale University did. Using a variety of clear glass tubes, she studied the penis of the Muscovy duck to see how it navigated the labyrinthine
ducksnatch tunnels. You can see the results for yourself. I’m not sure if duck penis qualifies as NSFW, but just in case: Here be duck penis.

Not many animals mate for pleasure. For most, it’s a “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” ordeal, in which the male seeks to spread his seed to as many nubile duckstresses as possible, while the females are locating the mallards who drive luxury sedans and hold stock options.

Though some female ducks eventually do find their Prince Charming, others are the unfortunate recipients of forced sexual relations. The duck penis has evolved to deposit its sperm as far into the vaginal tract as possible. Duck sex isn’t a long, drawn-out affair, with elaborate wining and dining rituals. Duck sex is quick – the penis explodes out of its sac like a heat-seeking missile and quickly deposits the sperm within seconds. Rival ducks have evolved elaborate penises that are shaped like corkscrews, with backwards-pointing spines and ridges; which allow them to deposit their sperm further into the female, upping their chances of successful procreation.

In response, the female Muscovy duck’s vagina has evolved to prevent these intrusions, turning their baby maker into a maze of dead-end pockets, spirals that curve in the opposite direction of the incoming penis, and enough twists and turns to make Jareth cry. This prevents the penis from becoming fully erect, decreasing the chances that its sperm will be deposited in a viable area.

Source:Science Blogs



Why Powerful People Practice “Do As I Say, Not as I Do”

2009 has been rife with scandals of seemingly innocent celebrity and political figures engaging in disreputable, immoral behaviors. Researchers from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University believe they have found this is why powerful people – often the same people preaching moral behavior – are often the ones found to be indulging in the less savory activities.

According to Adam Galinsky, a researcher on the project, “power and influence can cause a severe disconnect between public judgment and private behavior, and as a result, the powerful are stricter in their judgment of others while being more lenient towards their own actions.”

Participants in a study were assigned roles of high power and low power statuses and then given moral dilemmas such as breaking traffic laws, declaring taxes and returning stolen items. The research found that those who were attributed more power than the others condemned cheating while cheating more themselves. When given a chance, those with high power statuses were more than willing to engage in immoral behaviors, such as speeding, dodging taxes, cheating at dice games and keeping stolen items.

Galinksy claims that moral hypocrisy has the greatest impact among people with legitimate power – i.e. people that were born into a power position, or believed they had earned it through hard work. Those that did not feel entitled to their power were actually harder on themselves than others, a phenomenon termed “hypercrisy.”

“Ultimately, patterns of hypocrisy and hypercrisy perpetuate social inequality,” stated Galinksky. “The powerful impose rules and restraints on others while disregarding these restraints for themselves, whereas the powerless collaborate in reproducing social inequality because they don’t feel the same entitlement.”

Source:Science Daily


Whale Protects Seal

During a trip from the tip of South America to the Antarctic Peninsula, researchers Robert Pitman and John Durban observed humpback whales treating shelter-seeking seals as offspring.

The duo was originally looking for a new species of killer whale, a kind which finds the local seals a particularly appetizing afternoon treat. Often, seals will seek refuge on a nearby ice floe when being hunted by killer whales, sharks, club-bearing humans, or any other predator that seeks to feast on their delicious, delicious blubber. The killer whales have developed a strategy for dealing with this, though. Acting as a team, killer whales will advance towards an ice floe, forcing a wave of water to rush over it, sweeping the seal from safety and into their waiting jaws.

While monitoring the area, Pitman and Durban noticed that a pod of killer whales were agitating a pair of adult-sized humpback whales. This is a technique killer whales will often employ, testing larger whales for signs of weakness. The humpback whales, however, would have their revenge.

After trapping a seal on an ice floe, the killer whales began sweeping the area, looking for ways to force the seal into the water. The aggravated humpbacks from earlier surrounded the ice floe, rushing the killer whales and bellowing loudly. The killer whales abandoned the seal and went in search for less populated waters. The researchers concluded that “this deliberate intrusion by the humpbacks was some jumbo-size form of mobbing behavior, comparable to the way songbirds pester birds of prey to drive them off.” It’s arguably not a case of the whales protecting the seal, but this next incident is.

In a similar incident, a Weddell seal was successfully swept off of the ice floe; but was determined to not become the next McHappy meal of the killer whales. The seal headed towards a pod of humpback whales, likely mistaking it for inanimate shelter, and not a live animal. As the seal neared, the humpback flipped onto its back, ushering the seal onto its stomach. When the killer whales approached, the humpback arched its back, lifting the seal out of the water, and away from the hungry killer whales. And when the seal began to slip off of the whale’s stomach, it lifted a single flipper and repositioned the seal so it would not fall off.

In this encounters, the aggressive behaviors of the killer whales seem to have triggered a protective, parental response in the humpback whales. This behavior is called “allomaternal care,” which occurs when individuals of another species act in a parental role to an individual of another species.

Source: Natural History Magazine

Lauren Admire is having a hard time getting the duck video out of her head.

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