A Firefly's Twinkle Doubles as a Warning Sign to Predators

iStock
iStock

A group of fireflies twinkling on a summer's night may look peaceful, but those flashing lights can send an unsettling message: 'If you eat me, you'll regret it.' That's what a team of researchers discovered when conducting a study published in Science Advances.

According to the new research, reported by ScienceNews, a firefly's flashing behind acts as a warning signal to predators like big brown bats. Entomologists have long known that fireflies use their lights to attract mates, but the suspicion that they also use them to avoid becoming dinner wasn't confirmed until recently.

To investigate this theory, a team of scientists from Boise State University and other institutions exposed fireflies to three bats with no experience hunting the insects. Fireflies contain toxic chemicals that make them unappealing to predators. After tasting a few of the bugs and spitting them out, the bats learned to stop going after them altogether.

To see what part light played in these interactions, the researcher conducted a separate experiment. They attached tiny paper belts to each firefly and painted them with two coats of black paint—a process that took about 45 minutes for each specimen. The result was a cloak that effectively hid the fireflies' light show. When bats were set loose on the snuffed-out group, it took the predators about twice the amount of time to realize the fireflies were toxic and ignore them. With no visual warning signs to tip the bats off, the study authors suspect that the bats eventually learned to identify the insects from their flight patterns via echolocation.

Fireflies don't light up only when they see a bat swooping their way: Males each have their own "flash fingerprints" they use to attract mates, and females blink in response when they see a display they like. The new study suggests that predators' reaction to this bioluminescent adaptation may have influenced its evolution.

[h/t ScienceNews]

Periodic Table Discovered at Scotland's St Andrews University Could Be World's Oldest

Alan Aitken
Alan Aitken

The oldest surviving periodic table of elements in the world may have been found at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, according to the Scottish newspaper The Courier.

University researchers and international experts recently determined that the chart, which was rediscovered in a chemistry department storage area in 2014, dates back to 1885—just 16 years after Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev invented the method of sorting the elements into related groups and arranging them by increasing atomic weight.

Mendeleev’s original periodic table had 60 elements, while the modern version we use today contains 118 elements. The chart found at St Andrews is similar to Mendeleev’s second version of the table, created in 1871. It’s thought to be the only surviving table of its kind in Europe.

The periodic table soaks in a washing treatment
Richard Hawkes

The St Andrews table is written in German, and was presumably produced for German universities to use as a teaching aid, according to St Andrews chemistry professor David O’Hagan. The item itself was dated 1885, but St Andrews researcher M. Pilar Gil found a receipt showing that the university purchased the table from a German catalog in 1888. A St Andrews chemistry professor at the time likely ordered it because he wanted to have the latest teaching materials in the scientific field, even if they weren't written in English.

When university staffers first found the table in 2014, it was in “bad condition,” O’Hagan tells The Courier in the video below. The material was fragile and bits of it flaked off when it was handled. Conservators in the university's special collections department have since worked to preserve the document for posterity.

The 19th century table looks quite a bit different from its modern counterparts. Although Mendeleev laid the groundwork for the periodic table we know today, English physicist Henry Moseley improved it in 1913 by rearranging the elements by the number of protons they had rather than their atomic weight. Then, in the 1920s, Horace Deming created the boxy layout we now associate with periodic tables.

Learn more about the St Andrews discovery in the video below.

[h/t The Courier]

Can You Tell an Author’s Identity By Looking at Punctuation Alone? A Study Just Found Out.

iStock.com/RyersonClark
iStock.com/RyersonClark

In 2016, neuroscientist Adam J Calhoun wondered what his favorite books would look like if he removed the words and left nothing but the punctuation. The result was a stunning—and surprisingly beautiful—visual stream of commas, question marks, semicolons, em-dashes, and periods.

Recently, Calhoun’s inquiry piqued the interest of researchers in the United Kingdom, who wondered if it was possible to identify an author from his or her punctuation alone.

For decades, linguists have been able to use the quirks of written texts to pinpoint the author. The process, called stylometric analysis or stylometry, has dozens of legal and academic applications, helping researchers authenticate anonymous works of literature and even nab criminals like the Unabomber. But it usually focuses on an author's word choices and grammar or the length of his or her sentences. Until now, punctuation has been largely ignored.

But according to a recent paper led by Alexandra N. M. Darmon of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, an author’s use of punctuation can be extremely revealing. Darmon’s team assembled nearly 15,000 documents from 651 different authors and “de-worded” each text. “Is it possible to distinguish literary genres based on their punctuation sequences?” the researchers asked. “Do the punctuation styles of authors evolve over time?”

Apparently, yes. The researchers crafted mathematical formulas that could identify individual authors with 72 percent accuracy. Their ability to detect a specific genre—from horror to philosophy to detective fiction—was accurate more than half the time, clocking in at a 65 percent success rate.

The results, published on the preprint server SocArXiv, also revealed how punctuation style has evolved. The researchers found that “the use of quotation marks and periods has increased over time (at least in our [sample]) but that the use of commas has decreased over time. Less noticeably, the use of semicolons has also decreased over time.”

You probably don’t need to develop a powerful algorithm to figure that last bit out—you just have to crack open something by Dickens.

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