Mar 11, 2011

Two Suns Appear on Camera in China: Mystery or Mirage?

“They appear in the video indicated below, one slightly higher than the other. There are two different colors; one of the sun’s is fuzzy orange while the other is an almost neon yellow.

“The double sun image is an effect of optical refraction, but it’s a pretty darn rare one, and one not fully explained by science… I doubt it’s been computer modeled. There must have been some blob of atmosphere somewhere that caused this truly spectacular phenomenon, which in a sense is a mirage,” said Jim Kaler, University of Illinois astronomer.

Mirages are the result of a refraction (bending) of light particles in the atmosphere. Due to the fact that air is often denser near the horizon, more often they appear there.

If these two suns are merely strange objects in the sky or a mirage, they are unlike other of their ilk as usually mirages are aligned vertically above or below the original source of light and not beside the light as these two images appear to be.

The famous Flemish astronomer, Marcel Minnaert, published a book recording previous sightings of horizontally affixed double images called Light and Color in the Outdoors. Published in 1993, this book remains the most accurate reference on the appearance of double suns.

Many atmospheric optical effects such as sun dogs, sunset mirages, sun pillars and sun halos, can be explained away by science, but not this one.

Not this one.

Check out this amazing video below. Although it is not in English, the visual is astounding and trumps language.”



Via Weird Asia News

Researchers Use Avatar Camera Technology to Try to Understand Kangaroo’s Hop

“At first glance, biologists slapping motion capture gear onto kangaroos sounds like a scientific foray into the 3-D-movie craze. But James Cameron can rest assured: The scientists are merely performing their day jobs, studying kangaroos—and using a nifty new camera to do it.”


“As kangaroos mosey along at low speeds, they walk, using their tail as a fifth limb. But as they speed up, they slip into their signature bounce. The mystery for scientists is why such large animals—some being over six feet tall—are so darn springy, and as Alexis Wiktorowicz-Conroy, a researcher at the Royal Veterinary College, told the BBC, “We can’t really explain … why their bones don’t break at high speeds.”So the question here isn’t only why and how roos hop, but also why they don’t fall apart when they do. To tackle these questions anew, a team of international scientists is trying out a new gadget on kangaroos at Australia’s Alma Park Zoo, in Brisbane: an outdoor motion-capture camera that uses infrared light—much like how a sonar uses sound—to study the kangaroos’ bodies movements in detail. After the scientists place several plastic-ball markers on the joints of kangaroos (a feat unto itself), they turn on the infrared light, which is strongly reflected by the markers, and let the cameras roll. They then entice the marsupials to hop onto force plates, which measure the pushing forces of the kangaroos’ feet, thereby capturing both their movements and the way their bodies distribute force.

The new camera used by the researchers provides a couple of benefits over other models. One major point is that most infrared cameras have trouble observing kangaroos outside, in their normal setting, because of the plentiful infrared coming emitted the sun. The camera used in this study, on loan from the fiber-optics firm Vicon, can sort out sunlight from artificial infrared.

Now that they have a way to study roos in a natural setting, they hope to address a couple of puzzles about their biomechanics”

Read more at Discover

Dalai Lama ready to give up political power

“(CNN) — The Dalai Lama announced Thursday his plan to retire as political head of the exiled movement, according to his website.

“Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power,” the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader said in a statement. “Now, we have clearly reached the time to put this into effect.”

He said he will formally propose amendments to the Charter for Tibetans in Exile to make the change at the upcoming session of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile that begins Monday. If the changes are made, leadership of the group would be passed to an elected leader.

The Dalai Lama told CNN in October that he would like to retire at some point.

“I’m also a human being. … Retirement is also my right,” he said while on a speaking tour of North America.
Without saying exactly when, he said, “Sooner or later, I have to go. I’m over 75, so next 10 years, next 20 years, one day I will go.”

The Dalai Lama fled China in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. The exile group is headquartered in Dharamsala in northern India.”

Via CNN

Mar 10, 2011

People don’t know when they’re lying to themselves

““I am on a drug. It’s called Charlie Sheen. It’s not available because if you try it, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body.” – Charlie Sheen

“We put our fingers in the eyes of those who doubt that Libya is ruled by anyone other than its people.” – Muammar Gaddafi

You don’t have to look far for instances of people lying to themselves. Whether it’s a drug-addled actor or an almost-toppled dictator, some people seem to have an endless capacity for rationalising what they did, no matter how questionable. We might imagine that these people really know that they’re deceiving themselves, and that their words are mere bravado. But Zoe Chance from Harvard Business School thinks otherwise.

Using experiments where people could cheat on a test, Chance has found that cheaters not only deceive themselves, but are largely oblivious to their own lies. Their ruse is so potent that they’ll continue to overestimate their abilities in the future, even if they suffer for it. Cheaters continue to prosper in their own heads, even if they fail in reality.

Chance asked 76 students to take a maths test, half of whom could see an answer key at the bottom of their sheets. Afterwards, they had to predict their scores on a second longer test. Even though they knew that they wouldn’t be able to see the answers this time round, they imagined higher scores for themselves (81%) if they had the answers on the first test than if they hadn’t (72%). They might have deliberately cheated, or they might have told themselves that they were only looking to “check” the answers they knew all along. Either way, they had fooled themselves into thinking that their strong performance reflected their own intellect, rather than the presence of the answers.

And they were wrong – when Chance asked her recruits to actually take the hypothetical second test, neither group outperformed the other. Those who had used the answers the first-time round were labouring under an inflated view of their abilities.

Chance also found that the students weren’t aware that they were deceiving themselves. She asked 36 fresh recruits to run through the same hypothetical scenario in their heads. Those who imagined having the answers predicted that they’d get a higher score, but not that they would also expect a better score in the second test. They knew that they would cheat the test, but not that they would cheat themselves.

Some people are more prone to this than others. Before the second test, Chance gave the students a questionnaire designed to measure their capacity for deceiving themselves. The “high self-deceivers” not only predicted that they would get better scores in the second test, but they were especially prone to “taking credit for their answers-aided performance”.”

Read more at Discover

Latest Geminoid Is Incredibly Realistic


“Okay, I admit it… I found myself wondering whether this was in fact a real robot, or actually a person pretending to be a robot or even a fake robot.
It’s not a fake. This is the latest iteration of Geminoid series of ultra-realistic androids, from Kokoro and Hiroshi Ishiguro. Specifically, this is Geminoid DK, which was constructed to look exactly like Associate Professor Henrik Scharfe of Aalborg University in Denmark.

When we wrote Prof. Scharfe inquiring about the android, he confirmed: “No, it is not a hoax,” adding that they’ve been working on the project for about a year now. His Geminoid was built by Kokoro in Tokyo and is now at Japan’s Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR) in Nara for setup and testing. “In a couple of weeks I will go back to Japan to participate in the experiments,” he says. “After that, the robot is shipped to Denmark to inhabit a newly designed lab.”

If you’re wondering why on Earth someone would want an exact robotic double of themselves, besides being TOTALLY AND COMPLETELY AWESOME, the Geminoid is going to be used for researching “emotional affordances” in human-robot interaction, the novel notion of “blended presence,” as well as cultural differences (from different continents) in the perception of robots.”

Read more at ieee Spectrum

Mar 9, 2011

Genetic Errors Nixed Penis Spines, Enlarged Our Brains

Geneticists have linked the physical appearance of humans to patches of DNA lost in the five million years since we shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees. One loss prevented men from growing penile barbs, which chimps possess. Another enlarged some regions of our brain.

“We can know what makes us human, what makes us physically different from other animals and why,” said developmental geneticist Gill Bejerano of Stanford University, an author of the March 10 study in Nature.

Only 2 percent of the DNA in our genome forms protein-coding genes. The rest, once called “junk DNA,” helps control and coordinate gene activity. Out of this regulatory coordination, physiological complexity emerges.

Bejerano’s team started by comparing the genomes of chimpanzees and macaque monkeys, which last shared a common ancestor 20 million years ago. They identified regions that hadn’t changed in chimps, then compared these to corresponding stretches of the human genome. They found more than 500 mutations known as deletions, or missing stretches of DNA present in chimps but lost in humans.

Two deletions, one near a male hormone-signaling gene and another near a neural development gene, were especially intriguing. Tweaking those genes in mice suggested possible roles for the loss: eliminating penile spines and boosting cerebral cortex growth.

Bigger brains are an obvious advantage — “It probably helped us become the thinkers we are today,” Bejerano said — but it’s unclear why evolution weeded out the spines. These tiny, hair-like projections, found in male chimps and cats, can trigger female ovulation. They also increase sensitivity and remove existing sperm, ostensibly giving males a reproductive advantage. Bejerano suspects the spines are conducive to monogamy.

Could restoring the relevant regulatory DNA in humans resurrect penile spines? “I’m going to leave it to others to paint that picture and its consequences,” said evolutionary biologist Sean B. Carroll of the University of Wisconsin, who wasn’t involved in the study. “But my guess is that something would probably happen.”

Read more at Wired Science

Why Skin Doesn't Dissolve in Water

Australian scientists have found the secret to why our skin goes wrinkly but doesn't dissolve in the bath.

Myfanwy Evans of the Australian National University in Canberra, and colleagues, report their findings today in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

"When we are in the bath and we have been there for a while the stratum corneum [outer] layer of our skin expands," says Evans. "This causes wrinkles and means our fingerprints will be enlarged also."

Evans says previously researchers had proposed that the stratum corneum had a structure that was capable of expanding as it absorbed water. But they couldn't explain why the skin didn't fall apart as it expanded.

She and colleagues have been modeling structures like the stratum corneum on computer, and have identified the special feature of skin that helps explain why it stays intact in the bath.

"We're coming at it from a completely geometric point of view in order to try and explain some of the phenomena that are seen in skin," says Evans, who has just completed a PhD under the supervision of Professor Stephen Hyde.

"Our model provides an explanation as to why the skin maintains its structural rigidity and expansion in water, which was something that was never quite able to be explained," says Evans.

Evans says the stratum corneum is made up of helical fibers of keratin that are woven together in a three-dimensional pattern.

The researchers found the particular weave of the keratin enables it to act like a sponge, staying robust while absorbing water.

The helical fibers also straighten out, allowing the material to expand and increase the volume of water it can hold, says Evans.

But the key point is that as the material expands, all of the contacts between each of the fibers are maintained.

"Contact between fibers are what gives the material structural stability," says Evans. "In this expansion all of those inter-fiber contacts are maintained so the material stays as a rigid material."

Read more at Discovery News

Monkeys Invent New Fishing Technique

Dumb blonde jokes don't apply to wild blonde capuchins. These clever, fair-haired monkeys have invented a new and tool-conserving method to fish for termites, researchers have just discovered.

The technique, reported in the latest Royal Society Biology Letters, has never been documented before for primates, including humans. In fact, people who recently tried out the new five-step termite fishing method found that it worked better than anything else at retrieving the nutritious, yet pesky, insects, which some human cultures eat too.

"Our observations started when the capuchins were already fishing for termites," lead author Antonio Souto told Discovery News. "Under these circumstances, we can only speculate how this behavior began."

"It is tempting to believe that a serendipitous discovery was made by one of the members of the group and then other capuchins learned how to do it through observation," added Souto, a researcher in the Department of Zoology at the Federal University of Pernambuco.

Under a grant from the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, Souto and his colleagues studied a group of six tufted blonde capuchins in the northeastern Brazil Atlantic Forest in the state of Paraiba. This species is critically endangered and was once even thought to be extinct, until small groups like this one were rediscovered. At present, it's estimated that only around 180 of the golden-hued monkeys exist.

The monkey's diet consists of fruits, spiders, small vertebrates, an occasional sweet sip of sugar cane, and insects, including termites. The scientists noticed that three male blonde capuchins used a unique, multi-step method to extract termites from nests located high in the forest canopy, up to around 33 feet above the ground.

With his semi-prehensile tail wrapped around a tree branch, the monkey sits in a squatting position on a limb. The individual next taps on the sides of the termite nest before breaking a branchlet off the tree. Using a rotating motion, the monkey inserts the stick into the nest. Upon retrieval, he inspects the stick and then eats the attached termites.

"When a nest is disturbed by an object breaking into its walls, soldiers (of this Brazilian termite species) swarm at the place where the break occurs," Souto explained. "Our results indicate that tapping the walls before inserting a stick increases the number of extracted termites, possibly because soldiers enter into a state of alert prior to the break, enhancing their response toward the strange object."

Tapping isn't the only secret to better termite fishing.

When the researchers tried out the insect-hunting method themselves, they determined that rotating the stick also prevented this tool from breaking. Souto believes the rotation, like a drill, causes abrasion of the nest surface material, helping to create the needed hole.

Read more at Discovery News

Mar 8, 2011

Elephants Outwit Humans During Intelligence Test

Elephants recently aced a test of their intelligence and ability to cooperate, with two of them even figuring out ways that the researchers hadn't previously considered to obtain food rewards.

The study, published in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, highlights not only the intelligence of individual elephants, but also the ability of these animals to cooperate and understand the value of teamwork.

Scientists now believe elephants are in league with chimpanzees and dolphins as being among the world's most cognitively advanced animals.

"Elephant sociality is very complex," lead author Joshua Plotnik told Discovery News. "Social groups are made up of matriarchal herds (an older female is in charge), and varying levels of relatedness among members. Cooperation in elephants was most likely necessary in a context of communal care for, and protection of, young."

"In the wild, there are fascinating anecdotes of elephants working together to lift or help fallen members, and forming clusters to protect younger elephants," added Plotnik, a Cambridge University researcher who is also head of research at Thailand's Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation.

Tests of elephant intelligence and their other abilities are rare, simply because working with these large and potentially dangerous animals poses risks. To meet the challenge, Plotnik and colleagues Richard Lair, Wirot Suphachoksahakun, and Frans de Waal reworked a classic 1930s experiment used on primates.

The researchers positioned a sliding table, holding enticing red bowls full of yummy corn, some distance away from a volleyball net. A rope was tied around the table such that the table would only move if two elephants working together pulled on the dangling rope ends. If just one elephant pulled, the rope would unravel. To get to the front of the volleyball net, the elephants had to walk down two separate, roped-off lanes.

A total of 12 male and female elephants from the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang, Thailand, participated. It's estimated that fewer than 2,500 of these animals are left in the Thai jungle, so conservation efforts now are critical.

After quickly learning that the corn-on-the-table task could not be successfully completed solo, elephants would wait up to 45 seconds for the second "partner" elephant to show up. If the researchers did not release this second elephant, the first one basically looked around as if to say: "You've got to be kidding. It takes two to do this." In most cases, the elephants got the corn.

Two elephants, named Neua Un and JoJo, even figured out how to outwit the researchers.

"We were pleasantly surprised to see the youngest elephant, Neua Un, use her foot to hold the rope so that her partner had to do all the work," Plotnik said. "I hadn't thought about this beforehand, and Neua Un seemed to figure it out by chance, but it speaks volumes to the flexibility of elephant behavior that she was able to figure this out and stick to it."

The other "cheater," JoJo, didn't even bother to walk up to the volleyball net unless his partner, Wanalee, was released.

Read more at Discovery News

Pompeii Couple Reunited in Marble Inscription

A married couple from Pompeii have been reunited with the recovery of a missing piece of a 2000-year-old marble puzzle made of several inscribed fragments.

Broken apart and buried during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., the pieces belonged to a tomb inscription.

They were unearthed in 1813 along the Via dei Sepolcri in Pompeii near a burial tomb known as "Tomb of the Marble Door."

Still under construction at the time of the eruption, the tomb featured a door made of a single piece of marble, but carved to resemble the sort of folding wooden doors typical in Pompeian houses.

Although unfinished, the tomb had already been used for a number of burials.

"Most likely, the inscription had been displayed in some temporary fashion to be later embedded in the face of the tomb once the structure was completed," Peter Kruschwitz and Virginia Campbell at the University of Reading wrote in the journal Tyche.

But it never made it there. Smashed to pieces by the eruption, the inscription, or what remained of it, was stored in the huge deposits of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.

Later reassembled by piecing together six fragments, it read: "L(ucius) Caltilius L(uci) l(ibertus) Coll(ina tribu) [P]amphilus [...]ae uxori [...]mo."

While four pieces referred to "Lucius Caltilius Pamphilus, freedman of Lucius, member of the Collinian tribe," two fragments contained the Latin word "uxori," indicating a wife.

Kruschwitz and Campbell identified the missing spouse by scrutinizing photographs of various fragments of inscriptions stored at the Naples museum.

"According to the original excavation report, the fragmentary inscription consisted of seven pieces of marble. The missing piece was in the same museum, but until now, has not been recognized as part of the same inscription," Campbell told Discovery News.

Containing nothing but the name of a female -- Servilia -- and the first part of a phrase, the fragment reads: "Seruiliae [...] amico anim [o ...]."

Although there are some other small pieces missing, the inscription is now legible and reads: "Lucius Catilius Pamphilus, freedman of Lucius, member of the Collinian tribe, for his wife Servilia, in a loving spirit."

After spending nearly 2,000 years apart, Lucius Catilius Pamphilus and Servilia were finally reunited.

"What makes the story so beautiful is the way the inscription was fragmented, with the name of the wife separated of that of the man, and the 'in a loving spirit' bit left with the wife's fragment," Kruschwitz told Discovery News.

Clearly an outsider to the Pompeian establishment, Caltilius Pamphilus was a former slave who took great pride in his status.

"You can see this by the way he displays his tribal affiliation in the inscription," Kruschwitz said.

Read more at Discovery News

Benny Hinn Sued For Adultery

Scam artist “faith healer” and mega-millionaire Pastor Benny Hinn is being sued by a Christian book publisher who says Hinn violated the “immorality” clause in their contract when he had an adulterous affair with fellow preacher Paula White.

Hinn is estimated to be worth hundreds of millions, money largely scraped out of the Social Security checks of the gullible elderly and the desperately ill. He travels the world in a $36M personal Gulfstream jet in between stays at his numerous opulent mansions.

Full details at JoeMyGod

Up-Inspired Floating House

“Our awesome partners over at National Geographic sent over these incredible photos, as they just wrapped up creating a real-life version of Pixar’s animated hit film Up. It’s pretty amazing what human beings are capable of…

Yesterday morning, March 5 at dawn, National Geographic Channel and a team of scientists, engineers, and two world-class balloon pilots successfully launched a 16′ X 16′ house 18′ tall with 300 8′ colored weather balloons from a private airfield east of Los Angeles, and set a new world record for the largest balloon cluster flight ever attempted. The entire experimental aircraft was more than 10 stories high, reached an altitude of over 10,000 feet, and flew for approximately one hour.

The filming of the event, from a private airstrip, will be part of a new National Geographic Channel series called How Hard Can it Be?, which will premiere in fall 2011.”

See more photos over at My Modern Met

Mar 7, 2011

NASA scientist finds ‘alien life’ fossils

“A NASA scientist’s claim that he found tiny fossils of alien life in the remnants of a meteorite has stirred both excitement and skepticism, and is being closely reviewed by 100 experts.

Richard Hoover’s paper, along with pictures of the microscopic earthworm-like creatures, were published late Friday in the peer-reviewed Journal of Cosmology, which is available free online. Hoover sliced open fragments of several types of carbonaceous chondrite meteorites, which can contain relatively high levels of water and organic materials, and looked inside with a powerful microscope. He found bacteria-like creatures that he calls “indigenous fossils,” which he believes originated beyond Earth and were not introduced here after the meteorites landed. “He concludes these fossilized bacteria are not Earthly contaminants but are the fossilized remains of living organisms which lived in the parent bodies of these meteors, e.g. comets, moons, and other astral bodies,” said the study. “The implications are that life is everywhere, and that life on Earth may have come from other planets.”

Studies that suggest alien microbes can be contained in meteorites are not new, and have drawn hefty debate over how such life could survive in space and how and where life may have originated in the universe. The journal’s editor in chief, Rudy Schild of the Center for Astrophysics, Harvard-Smithsonian, said Hoover is a “highly respected scientist and astrobiologist with a prestigious record of accomplishment at NASA.” “Given the controversial nature of his discovery, we have invited 100 experts and have issued a general invitation to over 5,000 scientists from the scientific community to review the paper and to offer their critical analysis,” he said. Those commentaries will be published March 7 through March 10.

A NASA-funded study in December suggested that a previously unknown form of bacterium had been found deep in a California lake that could thrive on arsenic, adding a new element to what scientists have long considered the six building blocks of life. That study drew plenty of criticism, particularly after NASA touted the announcement as evidence of extraterrestrial life. Scientists are currently attempting to replicate those findings.”

Via Yahoo News

Follow Up: A couple of people have mentioned in comments http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/03/did_scientists_discover_bacter.php

Humanist religious question census campaign launched

“Campaigners are urging members of the public who are not religious to say so in the national census.

For only the second time, the 10-yearly survey will include an optional question about religious belief.

Some secular groups, including the British Humanist Association, say the question is skewed and may overstate the extent of religious affiliation.

The campaign slogan was changed to drop the words “for God’s sake” after advice from advertising regulators.

Poster campaign
The secular groups want people who are not religious to tick the box saying “No religion” on the census.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) has unveiled a series of posters on buses and billboards across the country.

Using the slogan “Not religious? In this year’s census, say so”, they hope to persuade people to think carefully about which option to tick on the census form, which is being delivered to every household in the country this month.

The question about religious belief allows respondents to choose from several possible answers, including “No religion”, “Christian”, or “Hindu”.

But BHA chief executive Andrew Copson believes the wording of the question in the last census resulted in 72% of people being classed as Christians – a figure which is much higher than other surveys.

“Instead of asking, ‘Do you have a religion and if so, what is it?’, the question asks ‘What is your religion?’, a closed question that funnels people into giving a religious response, even if they don’t go to a church or a mosque, even if they don’t believe in God.”

A similar sentiment was expressed by Prof Richard Dawkins who told the BBC more precise questions need to be asked “if you want to use information for political purposes”.”

Read more at BBC News

Mar 6, 2011

Sick note: Faking illness online

“Anyone following her updates online could see that Mandy Wilson had been having a terrible few years. She was diagnosed with leukaemia at 37, shortly after her husband abandoned her to bring up their five-year-old daughter and baby son on her own. Chemotherapy damaged her immune system, liver and heart so badly she eventually had a stroke and went into a coma. She spent weeks recovering in intensive care where nurses treated her roughly, leaving her covered in bruises.

Mandy was frightened and vulnerable, but she wasn’t alone. As she suffered at home in Australia, women offered their support throughout America, Britain, New Zealand and Canada. She’d been posting on a website called Connected Moms, a paid online community for mothers, and its members were following every detail of her progress – through updates posted by Mandy herself, and also by Gemma, Sophie, Pete and Janet, Mandy’s real-life friends, who’d pass on news whenever she was too weak. The virtual community rallied round through three painful years of surgeries, seizures and life-threatening infections. Until March this year, when one of them discovered Mandy wasn’t sick at all. Gemma, Sophie, Pete and Janet had never existed. Mandy had made up the whole story.

Mandy is one of a growing number of people who pretend to suffer illness and trauma to get sympathy from online support groups. Think of Tyler Durden and Marla Singer in Fight Club, only these support groups are virtual, and the people deceived are real. From cancer forums to anorexia websites, LiveJournal to Mumsnet, trusting communities are falling victim to a new kind of online fraud, one in which people are scammed out of their time and emotion instead of their money. The fakers have nothing to gain from their lies – except attention.

These aren’t just people with a sick sense of humour. Jokers want a quicker payoff than this kind of hoax could ever provide. It requires months of sophisticated research to develop and sustain a convincing story, as well as a team of fictitious personas to back up the web of deceit. Psychiatrists say the lengths to which people like Mandy are prepared to go mean their behaviour is pathological, a disorder rather than simply an act of spite. The irony is these people might actually be classed as ill – just not in the way they claim to be.
Some psychiatrists have started using the term M√ľnchausen by internet (MBI) to describe this behaviour. Whereas M√ľnchausen syndrome requires physically acting out symptoms to get attention from doctors, online scammers just have to be able to describe them convincingly. ”

Read more at The Guardian

4 New Species of Zombifying Ant Fungus Found

“Four new species of brain-manipulating fungi that turn ants into “zombies” have been discovered in the Brazilian rain forest.

These fungi control ant behavior with mind-altering chemicals, then kill them. They’re part of a large family of fungi that create chemicals that mess with animal nervous systems.

Usually scientists study these fungi as specimens preserved in a lab, said entomologist David Hughes of Pennsylvania State University, co-author of a study March 3 PLoS ONE. “By going into the forest to watch them, we found new micro-structures and behaviors.”

Once infected by spores, the worker ants, normally dedicated to serving the colony, leave the nest, find a small shrub and start climbing. The fungi directs all ants to the same kind of leaf: about 25 centimeters above the ground and at a precise angle to the sun (though the favored angle varies between fungi). How the fungi do this is a mystery.

“It’s related to the fungus that LSD comes from,” Hughes said. “Obviously they are producing lots of interesting chemicals.”

Before dying, ants anchor themselves to the leaf, clamping their jaws on the edge or a vein on the underside. The fungi then takes over, turning the ant’s body into a spore-producing factory. It lives off the ant carcass, using it as a platform to launch spores, for up to a year.

“This is completely different from what we see in temperate zones where, if an insect dies from a fungal infection, the game’s over in a few days,” Hughes said. “The fungi rots the body of the insect and releases massive amounts of spores over two or three days. But in the tropics, where humidity and temperature are more stable, the fungi has this strategy for long-term release.”

Of the four new species, two grow long, arrow-like spores which eject like missiles from the fungus, seeking to land on a passing ant. The other fungi propel shorter spores, which change shape in mid-air to become like boomerangs and land nearby. If these fail to land on an ant, the spores sprout stalks that can snag ants walking over them. Upon infecting the new ant, the cycle starts again.”

Read more at Wired