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Fish Markets: Cooperation and Competition in the Undersea "Economy"

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You probably know that hermit crabs live in shells. What you might not know is that really nice shells to call home are a scarce commodity, and hermit crabs consequently have some pretty cool ways of optimizing the ways they acquire and occupy their shells.

A study of the purple-clawed hermit crabs (Coenobita clypeatus) on an island off the Belizean coast reveals that the crabs fill shells using "vacancy chains"—social structures through which vacancies in certain resources propagate through a population, like the ways humans fill jobs and apartments.

Synchronous and Asynchronous Vacancy Chains

The hermit crabs were observed to use two types of vacancy chain: synchronous and asynchronous. An asynchronous chain is when one crab moves into a new, empty shell and abandons its old one to be found by another crab, which abandons its own for another crab to find, etc. With this type of chain, shell switching is sequential and the crabs experience little to no interference or competition. They have the opportunity to investigate any vacant shells they find and can directly compare their current shell with a new shell by switching back and forth between the two. It's sort of like when you look at apartments that have just been moved out of and are available immediately or in the near future. If you take one of those apartments, someone else can check out and move into yours, someone else will move into theirs, etc., in an orderly fashion.

Synchronous vacancy chains are more social and much more interesting. They start off with "waiters," crabs that hang around a shell that's too big for them, and wait for a bigger crab to come along so that if the big crab moves in to the vacant shell, the waiter can grab their more appropriately-sized hand-me-down shell. (The researchers note that the decision to wait, and how long to wait, based on previous experience, provides some evidence that the crabs are smarter than we thought.)

As a crowd gathers—a crowd always gathers, but no one knows how; the researchers think the waiters may use vocal or chemical signals to draw attention to the vacancy—the crabs queue up by size, from largest to smallest. Once the largest crab switches into the vacant shell, each crab climbs into a new shell as it's vacated by the slightly larger crab ahead of it, quickly shuffling vacancies (literally) down the chain. A similar type of chain happens in college towns across America every fall. Students spend months "lining up" by finding apartments, packing and labeling boxes, and then—BAM!—a few thousand kids move in and out of apartments in one day.

Here's a synchronous chain in action.

The Undersea Service Industry

Moving away from real estate and into the service industry, animals still behave kind of like humans. They partner with other animals that provide the high-quality goods and services, cheat each other, and then threaten to take their business elsewhere in order to get what they want.

"Cleaner fish," which remove dead skin and parasites from other fish in a mutually beneficial relationship (they get a meal, and the other fish get groomed), have been known to make their "clients" wait for service and cheat them by feeding on healthy tissue or mucous instead of parasites. Clients don't have many options for ensuring good service. They can't demand their mucous back or complain to the Better Business Bureau. What they can do is go get cleaned somewhere else.

A study by a University of California, Santa Barbara biologist found that individuals of one type of cleaner fish near French Polynesia, the luestreak cleaner wrasse, have to compete for access to their preferred clients, the ornate butterfly fish. This competition gives clients with easy access to multiple "cleaner stations" - areas where the cleaner fish hang out and do their thing - the ability to get better service from cleaners, who apparently are cued to the fact that their customers can easily take their business elsewhere and are discouraged from cheating them.

This story originally appeared in a different format on Matt's website.

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Tracing Vladimir Nabokov's 1941 Cross-Country Road Trip, One Butterfly at a Time
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Vladimir Nabokov is most famous as a writer, but the Russian scribe was also an amateur—yet surprisingly accomplished—lepidopterist. Nabokov first began collecting butterflies as a child, and after moving to the U.S. in 1940 he began volunteering in the Lepidoptera collections at the American Museum of Natural History.

The following year, the author took a cross-country road trip, driving 4000 miles from Pennsylvania to California. Along the way, he stopped at kitschy roadside motels, which provided atmospheric fodder for his 1955 novel Lolita. Nabokov also collected hundreds of butterfly samples at these rest stops, most of which he ended up donating to the AMNH.

Nabokov would go on to publish multiple scientific papers on lepidoptery—including the definitive scholarly study of the genus Lycaeides, or the “blues”—and produce perhaps thousands of delicate butterfly drawings. Multiple butterfly species were also named after him, including Nabokov’s wood nymph.

In the AMNH’s 360-degree video below, you can trace the author's 1941 cross-country road trip state-by-state, see some of the specimens he collected, and learn how museum curators are using his westward journey to better understand things like species distribution and migration patterns.

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Trying to Save Money? Avoid Shopping on a Smartphone
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Today, Americans do most of their shopping online—but as anyone who’s indulged in late-night retail therapy likely knows, this convenience often can come with an added cost. Trying to curb expenses, but don't want to swear off the convenience of ordering groceries in your PJs? New research shows that shopping on a desktop computer instead of a mobile phone may help you avoid making foolish purchases, according to Co. Design.

Ying Zhu, a marketing professor at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan, recently led a study to measure how touchscreen technology affects consumer behavior. Published in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, her research found that people are more likely to make more frivolous, impulsive purchases if they’re shopping on their phones than if they’re facing a computer monitor.

Zhu, along with study co-author Jeffrey Meyer of Bowling Green State University, ran a series of lab experiments on student participants to observe how different electronic devices affected shoppers’ thinking styles and intentions. Their aim was to see if subjects' purchasing goals changed when it came to buying frivolous things, like chocolate or massages, or more practical things, like food or office supplies.

In one experiment, participants were randomly assigned to use a desktop or a touchscreen. Then, they were presented with an offer to purchase either a frivolous item (a $50 restaurant certificate for $30) or a useful one (a $50 grocery certificate for $30). These subjects used a three-point scale to gauge how likely they were to purchase the offer, and they also evaluated how practical or frivolous each item was. (Participants rated the restaurant certificate to be more indulgent than the grocery certificate.)

Sure enough, the researchers found that participants had "significantly higher" purchase intentions for hedonic (i.e. pleasurable) products when buying on touchscreens than on desktops, according to the study. On the flip side, participants had significantly higher purchase intentions for utilitarian (i.e. practical) products while using desktops instead of touchscreens.

"The playful and fun nature of the touchscreen enhances consumers' favor of hedonic products; while the logical and functional nature of a desktop endorses the consumers' preference for utilitarian products," Zhu explains in a press release.

The study also found that participants using touchscreen technology scored significantly higher on "experiential thinking" than subjects using desktop computers, whereas those with desktop computers demonstrated higher scores for rational thinking.

“When you’re in an experiential thinking mode, [you crave] excitement, a different experience,” Zhu explained to Co. Design. “When you’re on the desktop, with all the work emails, that interface puts you into a rational thinking style. While you’re in a rational thinking style, when you assess a product, you’ll look for something with functionality and specific uses.”

Zhu’s advice for consumers looking to conserve cash? Stow away the smartphone when you’re itching to splurge on a guilty pleasure.

[h/t Fast Company]

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