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10 Mind-Blowing Discoveries This Week

When the next natural disaster strikes, squads of trained cockroaches may come to rescue you.

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“When a role model’s success seems impossible to achieve, people may feel less motivated to try,” Betz concludes (which makes you wonder if all the gorgeous models and actors we see are one of the reasons we so often just give up and wade into the Ben & Jerrys).

In contrast, Betz reports that eighth-grade girls warmed to women in science after discovering they had lives outside the lab. “Rather than broadcasting videos of women who look relatable to young girls, we should highlight women who are relatable to girls,” she writes.

Understandably so. Isn’t looking past the surface -- no matter how hot pink it is -- what the sciences are all about? 

6. Oooh, shiny thing

Case in point: the Pollia berry. This, Discover Magazine’s Ed Yong reports , is the shiniest living thing on the planet, shiny enough to pass for a piece of art nouveau jewelry or something from the Christmas section of your local craft store.

But was “Oooh, pretty!” enough for Silvia Vignolini from the University of Cambridge and her group, lead by Ullrich Steiner ? Nope. Vignolini found a sample at Kew Gardens that still looked the same despite having been collected in 1974. The fruit contains “three to four layers of of thick-walled cells,” the cells contain more layers of cellulose fibers which run parallel to each other but at a slight angle. As light hits the plants those layers upon layers are reflected.

Yong writes: “Provided the layers are exactly the right distance apart, the reflected beams of light amplify each other to produce exceptionally strong colours. The technical term is 'multilayer interference.'" Or alternatively: “Ooh, shiny!” 

And this pretty thing is not something you’ll end up getting much out of besides looks (who’s surprised?). It’s nutritionally vacant and would seem to have mastered the art of looking attractive enough for birds to notice and then either eat or take with them as ornaments, thus getting to spread the seeds inside them without having to actually go to the effort of producing fruit or anything. 

Alluring. Smart. Accomplishes its goals with minimal effort. Role model, anyone? 

7. Gender bending: It’s natural 

Role models for gender have traditionally been a kind of big deal for human beings. Some people find it  “natural” or “unnatural” for men or women to behave a certain way when, in fact, the natural world has no idea about these rules and couldn’t care less. 

In the first installment of a new series on human perceptions of sex and gender versus what goes on outside our species, Ars Technica’s Kate Shaw explains the difference between sex and gender with sex being whether we are biologically male or female and gender being a “sociological construct” or the behaviors and activities we tend to assign to the sexes. Think of it as holes versus roles: how many you have of the first dictates how the second is often assigned to you. Even researchers don’t escape this cultural conditioning; Shaw writes about a study which “ found that scientists tend to assign traditional human gender roles to animals—and even to plants.”

Some of our biology is tied to our gender, Shaw writes, i.e. the ability to lactate means you’d be a good bet to feed the baby, but other things, like whether that baby ought to be dressed in pink or blue are just cultural perceptions.

When it comes to things like size, ornamentation and even biological equipment, nature doesn’t have the preconceived ideas we do either. Female hyenas, Shaw writes, have “psuedopenises” that can be up to 7 inches long through which they urinate, copulate and give birth, while 97% of bird species have no external sex organ at all. Adornment is something humans think of more as the province of the female but other species’ males -- i.e., peacocks, lions, antlered deer -- can be the glamour pusses, too.

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