Random Samples

Science  13 Aug 2010:
Vol. 329, Issue 5993, pp. 733
  1. Tricky Trikes

      CREDIT: © ROBERT WALTERS

      Dinosaur buffs, you may want to sit down for this: Triceratops was not quite the critter you have come to know and love. Paleontologists examining fossilized skulls of the popular dinosaur have determined that it's actually a juvenile version of a related genus, Torosaurus.

      Before reaching this startling conclusion, John Horner and John Scannella of Montana State University, Bozeman, spent 10 years studying every Triceratops (above left) and Torosaurus (above right) fossil ever unearthed. By microscopically examining signs of growth in the skulls and bones, the pair determined approximately how old each of the more than 50 animals was at the time of its death. The Triceratops fossils, it turned out, were all from either babies or juveniles, whereas the torosaurs were all either young adults or fully mature.

      When laid out from youngest to oldest, the skulls showed a gradual but striking evolution: Triceratops's thick horns thinned, lengthened, and changed orientation slightly as it grew older. Its signature jagged neck frill, meanwhile, smoothed out into the round frill typical of torosaurs, the team reported in the July Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

      The morphing was possible because the dinosaur's skull, horns, and frill never fully develop into hard bone but instead stay relatively plastic, Horner says. Analysis of the more mature animals showed that their skulls were continuing to change.

      Horner has good news for Triceratops fans: Despite the discovery, the beloved name isn't going anywhere. Because paleontologists named the genus Triceratops first, he says, “Torosaurus is the name that is being delisted.”

    1. They Said It

        “Ooh my / I ain't nothing but a tour guide, / Using science like an x-ray to see into your mind / … Yeah welcome to the future, baby, / A time when science is even illuminating / The roots of human behavior.”

        —Canadian “lit-hop” artist Baba Brinkman, from his album The Rap Guide to Human Nature, released this month. A follow-up to The Rap Guide to Evolution, the new album is an “introduction to evolutionary psychology and the science of human behaviour,” he writes on his blog. In one song, for instance, Brinkman raps a nature-video-style analysis of the human behavior he observes at a night club.

      1. 'Ick' Factor

          CREDIT: DEBRA LIEBERMAN

          If you've ever found yourself wrist deep in peeled grapes at a Halloween party, then a new study's results won't surprise you: Researchers have found that touch and disgust can—quite literally—go hand in hand.

          Scientists consider disgust a universal emotion and think it probably evolved to help people avoid pathogens. Gagging at the smell of rotten eggs, for example, discourages hungry humans from eating spoiled food that could make them sick.

          Psychologist Debra Lieberman and colleagues at the University of Miami in Florida wondered whether the often-overlooked sense of touch could elicit that icky feeling. So the team brought the classic Halloween game into the lab: They asked 50 students to touch and rate the yuckiness of wet and dry pieces of rope and dough that were hidden out of sight in boxes. The students consistently ranked the wet items as more disgusting and found the wet dough to be the grossest of all.

          That's natural enough, says Lieberman, because soft, moist things have a more “biological consistency”—that is, they're more reminiscent of the wet environments in which pathogens like to live.

          The study, published online 20 July in Cognition & Emotion, is the first of its kind and “makes a lot of sense,” says Daniel Fessler, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. But he notes that testing a more cross-cultural selection of disgustees would strengthen the results. “We live in a society of soap and Purell,” he says. “Collegeage Americans are probably the most disgust-sensitive population in the world.”

        1. Citizen Scientist

            CREDIT: STEVEN HELLER/USC

            University of Southern California (USC) neuroscientist Roberta Diaz Brinton was among 13 people honored at the White House last week with the 2010 Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation's second highest civilian honor. Brinton, who studies how aging and neurodegenerative disease affect the neural mechanisms of cognition, was recognized for her contributions to science and technology education.

            “When I was a graduate student in neuropharmacology, I was one of the only females and the only student from a working-class background, and I was determined somehow to change that,” Brinton says. After meeting a group of promising high school students whose classroom was a trailer in the back lot of a school in East Los Angeles, Brinton founded the USC STAR Program, which she has directed for the past 19 years. The program teaches elementary through high school students and their teachers about science and provides hands-on research opportunities in labs at USC.