Random Samples

Science  08 May 2009:
Vol. 324, Issue 5928, pp. 699
  1. Hidden Message


      Researchers have cracked the fine-grained code in the Gunnison prairie dog's alarm call: It seems the animals can send information about a predator's color.

      Many animals encode predator information in their calls. Ground squirrels, for example, differentiate between aerial and terrestrial threats, and black-capped chickadees can signal a predator's size.

      The prairie dogs' birdlike calls are distinct for different predators, but animal behaviorist Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff detected a deeper variation in their high-pitched squeaks. To see if they contained more detailed information, he and his colleagues recorded calls as three similar-sized women strolled through a prairie dog community wearing yellow, blue, or green T-shirts. Analysis of the calls' frequency patterns revealed that the chirps for blue shirts were different from those for yellow and green, which elicited the same calls. The results support the idea that the prairie dogs are incorporating colors into their alarm calls, the researchers report in the May issue of the journal Animal Cognition. The prairie dogs' dichromatic vision can distinguish yellow and green from blue but easily confuses yellow with green.

      This is one of the finest distinctions yet to be detected in an alarm call, says James Hare, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Manitoba in Canada. “The level of sophistication in communicating subtleties is just incredible.”

    1. A Diamond for Cicerone

        CREDIT: MIT

        Baseball nut Ralph Cicerone, who is also president of the National Academy of Sciences, is going to have a baseball diamond named after him. The University of California, Irvine (UCI), will rename its diamond at Anteater Park “Cicerone Field” at a pregame ceremony on 19 May, science blogger Gary Robbins reports.

        The renowned climate scientist, who pitched for MIT during his undergraduate days (see photo), helped revive baseball at UCI when he was chancellor there from 1998 to 2005. “He's planning to be there and will throw out the first ball,” says UCI spokesperson Tom Vasich.

      1. What a Dish


          Excavations from an extensive Roman cemetery in East London, located outside the walls of the former Londinium, have yielded a rare prize: a complete millefiori dish. Made from a technique in which glass rods are fused together and sliced into multicolored patterned beads, the dish was created from hundreds of pieces stuck together.

          The 23-centimeter-diameter dish was in many fragments, but they were all there, held together by the surrounding earth. It was in a grave belonging to a wealthy Roman whose cremated remains were in a casket flanked by other ceramic and glass vessels, “suggesting a rich and unusual burial,” according to the Museum of London Docklands. The find, put on display at the museum last week, has yet to be dated but is likely close to 2000 years old.

        1. No Laughing Matter

            In Central Europe, homeland of psychoanalysis, psychologists have been exploring a hitherto uncodified facet of the human personality: gelotophobia, the fear of being laughed at.

            In the latest of a spate of papers on the condition, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, Ilona Papousek of the University of Graz, Austria, and colleagues report that people with gelotophobia (from gelos, Greek for laughter) have weak control over their emotions and are hypersensitive to others' negative moods.

            Co-author Willibald Ruch of the University of Zurich in Switzerland says researchers have developed a 15-item scale that can distinguish the problem from social phobias or “shame-based” neuroticism. For example, he says, gelotophobes “distrust smiling faces” and “are not able to discriminate between friendly and hostile laughter” or between teasing and ridicule. That can lead to serious consequences, says Ruch, citing two recent school shootings in Germany in which the perpetrators reportedly had a horror of being mocked. About 10% of the population has some degree of gelotophobia, he says.

            In tests of the scale in 74 countries, Scandinavians ranked among the least gelotophobia-prone groups, whereas people in Muslim countries and in Africa tended to score high. The highest scores in Europe were from the United Kingdom—suggesting, Ruch says, that “maybe a well-developed sense of humor does not help [where] mock[ery] and ridicule are cultivated too.”