Wild Things

Mouse lemur calls, a coral comeback, sunflower seeds and more

University of Cincinnati-led researchers found sunflower seeds in Tabasco, Mexico. Frank van Haalen / iStockphoto

Name: Schistocerca gregaria, or the desert locust.
What's Ancient: Plagues—or what scientists call mass migrations—during which billions of locusts take flight.
What's New: Insight into why locusts move in coordinated masses. It's not simply because they need to find greener pastures after eating everything in sight. It's because when they're hungry, they start eating each other. A recent University of Oxford study showed that juvenile locusts, which walk rather than fly, flee when they feel another locust nip their abdomen. As they run from the attack, other juveniles become alarmed, and soon all of them are on the move. The researchers suggest that cannibalism may also spur flying swarms.

How do species that look alike tell each other apart? Madagascar's gray, golden brown and Goodman's mouse lemurs—previously thought to be one and the same—play it by ear. Researchers from Germany discovered that the male of each species has a unique, ultrasonic mating call enabling females to detect suitable suitors. This is the first time look-alike primates have been shown to use vocalizations to identify mates.

Another Helping
While in groups, animals from birds to mongooses employ a lookout that makes a sound every few seconds to signal that all's well. Now University of Bristol researchers have demonstrated for the first time that a sentinel's call encourages birds to eat more. Pied babblers, native to the Kalahari Desert, spent less time looking for predators and more time eating when the researchers played a recorded call. All adults take turns as sentinel; the researchers call it cooperation.

Coral Comeback
Fifty years after U.S. atomic bomb tests obliterated three of Bikini Atoll's islands and heated the ocean surface to 99,000 degrees Fahrenheit, corals are recovering. Australian marine biologists recently counted 183 types of coral around the atoll's reef and lagoon, or about 70 percent of the species present before the explosions.

Where Sunflowers were First Sowed
Scientists long thought sunflowers were first domesticated in the Mississippi Valley 3,200 years ago. But University of Cincinnati-led researchers found sunflower seeds in Tabasco, Mexico, that are 4,600 years old and too large to be wild. People likely cultivated the plants for food and later used them in medicines and rituals.

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