Cone snail venom contains insulin

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The geographic cone snail, Conus geographus, is the most venous cone snail, and one of the most venomous animals on the planet; human fatality rates are as high as 65%, from doses of 0.038-0.029 mg/kg.

While some cone snails feed rapidly by impaling prey with harpoon-like teeth that deploy this venom, others feed by extension of a distended ‘false mouth’ acting as a feeding net. This is a slow process, limited in its effectiveness as prey fish must be unaware of the cone snail’s presence, or chemically sedated, to ensure their capture.

Discovery of specialised insulins in the venom complexes of Conus geographus and its congener Conus tulipa, in a study published by Safavi-Hemami et al. in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on January 20th, is thought to supply such sedation. When injected into fish, the venom and insulin together elicit hypoglycemic shock, a condition characterised by dangerously low blood glucose, which immoblise the fish and allow it to be captured more easily. The fish appear almost passed out, or drunk.

This reaction mixture has been named the ‘nirvana cabal’, and it is thought that the release of the combination of these toxin venoms into the water column could allow entire schools of fish to be simultaneously captured with little effort.

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The homemade hot chocolate taste test

Revision is a marathon, not a sprint. I am one of those people who cannot cram; if it works for you I am honestly thrilled on your behalf, but I can’t get through it if I don’t have a long haul plan. Each and every day. Up early, work, break, work, break, work, episode of Due South, bed.

This has been my field of view for ten hours a day. For the past two weeks.

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However you do it, though, revision is pretty monotonous. Add in the fact that you can barely be bothered to cook food nor can you spare the time; that you are drinking nothing but tea or coffee at a rate that would be more efficient if replaced by an intravenous drip; and that you are literally sat in the same position day in, day out, it really does get rather boring.

Desperate for distraction the other day, I stumbled across this infographic, which features a tonne of fancy homemade hot chocolate recipes and I thought, why not give them a try? I needed to buy some food anyway, and I was clawing at the windows to be let out and breathe some air that hadn’t already gone through all of my housemates. I could pick up any ingredients I don’t have, and a sugar boost isn’t much different to a caffine boost. At least it’s something different, you know?

And of course, as a firm believer in the Mythbusters adage that the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down, I devised strict criteria of assessment for each recipe I tried. Each of my categories would be ranked on a scale of one to five, with three marking the drink as decidedly average and being no less and no more pleasant than drinking the hot chocolate you get in the university cafe. Categories would be Taste, Texture, Appearance, and Bottom (because come on, all those concentrated chocolate bits at the bottom of a rubbish hot chocolate? Disappointing).

I obtained my supplies. I was ready.

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I went to work.

Pumpkin Spice
1 tsp maple syrup + 1/2 tsp pumpkin pie spice + whole milk + 1 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder

I decided to start from the top; my top, that is. As you may have gathered from the little line of soldiers behind my work space, pumpkin pie is rather a passion of mine. An American autumnal and winter classic that has never made its way across the pond, a pumpkin pie is a pastry case blind baked and then filled with condensed milk, sugar, autumnal spices and pumpkin puree. (Waitrose is the only place I’ve found that stocks pumpkin puree, and even then it pops on to and off of the shelves at unpredictable intervals, hence my stockpiling.)

It’s heavenly. It’s my favourite dessert. I was desperate to put chocolate in it and transfer it to drinkable form.

Somewhat unsure of the order in which I should go about combining the ingredients suggested by the recipe, I decided to make a spiced milk mixture, heat it, and then add the chocolate as I would if making a normal drink.

I put maple syrup into the mug, looked at it disappointedly, and then trippled the suggested amount. I made up my pumpkin spice as best I could; they sell pre-mixed spice in America, but I was trying to figure out the ratio of cinnamon:ginger:clove that I usually use for a 9-inch pie and convert it into a half a teaspoon. I probably ended up with teaspoon, but I really didn’t care.

I whacked in the milk, ignoring the recipe’s instruction to use whole milk because I like to remain health conscious even when beginning a journey that will carry me through five mugs of hot chocolate in one day, and fondly watched it fail to spin around in our broken microwave for two minutes.

I removed it, added my cocoa powder, and stirred vigorously.

Without a shadow of a doubt this was one of the best tasting things I’ve recently had the pleasure of drinking. It is like sipping a whole warm, seasonally spiced dessert, though it could have done with thickening up with a side of ice cream. I sat it on a little pyramidal can-throne of its subjects, because it deserves to reign supreme as the chocolate-based liquid-medium form of this dessert.

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Taste: 5/5
Texture: 3/5 – unremarkable, somewhat thin.
Appearance: 2/5 – inconsistent, patches stubborn undissolved spices.
Bottom: 2/5 – gritty from said spices.
Average: 3/5

Verdict: Imagine drinking a roaring fire and autumnal leaves, but in a nice sort of way.

Peanut butter
Few squares of milk chocolate + tablespoon of smooth peanut butter + milk

Though I would have been content to stop at this stage in the game and just make spiced hot chocolate forever more, I steeled my resolve. I added five or so squares of milk chocolate to the mug, then dropped in a loaded tablespoon of chunky peanut butter (my preferred kind, and hence what I had in the cupboard), then covered it to an appropriate level with milk.

After removing it from the microwave it needed a very thorough stir to distribute all the thick bits, which gave me great hope that this would be a pleasant, almost chocolate-custard like drinking experience. It had pleasant appearance with a softly bubbling top. Additionally it also fizzed rather violently whenever agitated, though lack of an experimental control means I’m unsure whether this was some chemical reaction I’d inadvertently created, or merely a by-product of accidentally setting the microwave to four minutes, not two.

Whatever happened, I’m glad it did.

This has the taste and consistency of drinking a melted Snickers. When drinking you are, admittedly, occasionally hit in the face by a floating chunk of peanut, but in my opinion this simply adds to the immersive experience of it being truly intensely peanut butter-and-chocolate-y. It’s almost like those fancy Spanish hot chocolates. Thick, sort of soupy. I really cannot recommend this enough.

Taste: 5/5
Texture: 4/5 – peanut projectiles not withstanding.
Appearance: 3/5 – standard.
Bottom: 3/5 – coagulated peanut butter, not unpleasant.
Average: 3.75/5

Verdict: Imagine drinking a SnickersI will offer this to weary guests forevermore.

White hot chocolate
Few squares of white chocolate + milk

I’ve had white hot chocolate and been blown away in the past, particularly the one from Costa’s winter range. So, at this stage and high on previous successes, I was optimistic. I skipped the lavender recommended by the recipe because, well, I don’t know who you think I am, but it’s certainly not the type of student who grows lavender. I can barely keep a basil plant alive for more than a week.

Once again unsure of the order of ingredients’ addition and repelled by wikiHow’s suggestion that I use two microwavable mugs, I chopped some white chocolate off the bar, whacked it in the microwave with some milk, and hoped for the best.

It tasted exactly like you’d expect, but slightly worse.

It might be the quality of the chocolate I used, but there was a clear and decidedly yellow layer of oil which overlaid the milk, which sadly became startlingly clear every time you tilted the mug to take a drink.

Honestly, be thankful no closer photo than that exists.

The taste itself was actually really quite nice, but it was only remotely possible to enjoy it when I closed my eyes and did not think about the wax-like wash that accompanied every mouthful. I shuddered every time I went to drink, anticipating it contacting my mouth. This was not an enjoyable beverage

I’ve never tried oil pulling but I anticipate it feels something like drinking this.

Taste: 3/5
Texture: 0/5
Appearance: 0/5
Bottom: This would imply I finished it
Average: 0.75/5

Verdict: Imagine melting white chocolate, putting it in hot milk, then adding some olive oil or perhaps a squirt of facial cleanser. You’ll feel the distinct need to eat a salad after this.

Treacle tart
Few squares of milk chocolate + golden syrup + lemon juice + milk

I was unsure, now. Distrustful. I did not believe in the words spoken to me by the friendly infographic. I had been betrayed.

I could trust no one. I was alone in the world.

I came up with my own recipe.

The two previous successes stemming from real-life food options, I realised my best bet was to try and re-create a familiar, enjoyable taste in liquid chocolate form. After pondering briefly for what I desired (and had the facility) to create, I settled upon treacle tarts. They’re not much more than golden syrup and a squeeze of lemon juice, so in the two went to my mug.

The result was, after the white hot chocolate, much needed reaffirmation that there is joy in the world. But I was sorely underwhelmed. It tasted like someone once tried a treacle tart and was trying desperatly recreate it, years later, in the dark, when they had forgotten all the main ingredients and also the type of food a treacle tart is. The result was simply a sweetened hot chocolate with a slightly bitter aftertaste, though the addition of the golden syrup did do it some favours to thicken it and make the drinking experience more pleasant as a whole.

The experience was rather reminiscent of that time in first year when my friends and I did shots of double concentrate lemon squash.

Say no more on this topic. I decided not to come up with any of own my ideas ever again.

Taste: 2/5
Texture: 3/5
Appearance: 3/5
Bottom: 2/5 – consistent with the rest of the drink, and hence not very nice.
Average: 2.5/5

Verdict: Imagine having a very sweet hot chocolate, and followed by a shot of Lemsip.

Nutella
2 tbsp Nutella + 1 tbsp cocoa powder + pinch salt + milk

I was weary, feeling fat, and growing somewhat sick of hot chocolate by this point. I could have quit. But a need to end on a round number compelled me onwards.

Confession: I had to compromise. We don’t actually -gasp- have any Nutella in the house. Instead I stole my flatmate’s Galaxy and Hazelnut spread with the certainty that, when hidden in a mug of milk and under further chocolate products, there would not be a signficant difference in taste. That is perhaps an experiment for a later time.

I squeezed the chocolate spread into the mug (yes, Galaxy and Hazelnut spread comes in a squeezey tube, like a giant toothpaste, it’s disturbing), and added the cocoa powder with no small amount of hesitancy. My experiences have taught me that using the cocoa powder produces a more inconsistent drink, with little undissolved floaty bits, than melting squares of actual chocolate does. I didn’t want to end this whole endeavour on a bad note.

I didn’t.

The thickness of the spread must have evened out the bitty-ness of the cocoa powder, producing a nice even drink with only a very subtle nutty aftertaste. It was vaguely wintery, like you’d had roasted chestnuts after a yule log. That said, next time, I would definitely recreate this with melted squares as my chocolate source.

Taste: 4/5
Texture: 3/5
Appearance: 3/5
Bottom: 4/5
Average: 3.5/5

Verdict: Imagine those hazelnut hot chocolate powders that you can actually buy, then double it in thickness and half it in hazelnut intensity.

Conclusions

So what have we learned?

First and foremost, that attempting to ingest 610 calories of milk and a minimum of 400 calories of further sugary goods is probably not only foolish but also detrimental to your health, particularly when you’re glued to a seat in front of an ocean of notes with no exercise in your foreseeable future. Scientific exploration is not always a valid excuse.

That said?

A clear winner was found. Contributing to not only the taste but also the texture of the drink, peanut butter was a clear winner. Adding to it’s success was, despite Lagrangian behaviour of the peanut pieces both sinking to the drink’s bottom and hitting you in the face when you drank, the use of chunky peanut butter in the place of the suggested smooth.

I’ve done the science so you don’t have to. Go forth and make your drinkable Snickers hot chocolate, everyone.

On a winter’s Sunday I go

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I have been pretty quiet over the Christmas hols; sorry about that. It’s been a very busy time of year for me, as it is for everyone. I’ve been up early and revising for ten, 12 hours every day. I’ve been jetting here and there with my mum to be present-delivering elves. I’ve been up until 4:00am bent over a sewing machine, finishing my handmade gifts last minute. I’ve been opening the most heartfelt presents with a glass of bubbly on Christmas day, while my dogs wore festive Father Christmas bandanas. I’ve been hiking St David’s Head in the bitter blustery British weather, and dressing up all fancy that evening for a splendid New Year’s Eve party.

(Happy 2015, by the way, everyone! Only 104 more years until we can join Starfleet.)

So it’s not that I’ve forgotten to write so much as that I’ve had an awful lot on my plate, and, at the end of the day, when forced to make a choice between things we have to do and things we’d like to do, we all know which one gets thrown by the wayside.

But I start term again tomorrow, and I woke up this morning with a view to getting a few hours of work in before I needed to pack up my bags and return to uni. So I was sat at my desk with the room light on and the curtains drawn, because the sun hadn’t really come up yet, and it was only when I left my bedroom for one final bubble bath did I actually clock the rather breathtaking scene outside my window.

It was foggy and gorgeous, and made me rather feel like I was in a horror film.

This time of year always makes me nostalgic, or at the very least quietly contemplative. I think it’s partly due to revision and spending so much time in one’s own head. I love the white and the grey and the green; it makes me think about when I first moved house around Christmas 2012, the very day the heavens opened for my first proper white Christmas. I binge drank peppermint tea, revised in rooms full of moving boxes lit only by streetlights reflecting off snow through undressed windows, and listened to Bat For Lashes’ version of I’m On Fire about a hundred times.

(It’s 10AM Gare du Nord this time around. Always with the haunting, broken love songs in the winter.)

January always gets to me, I think, because it’s this time of new beginnings. New year, new promises, new goals, new term. But at least from where I’m standing now, I’ve still got the best part of a month of tiredly trudging through the slew of last year’s stress before I can get on with all the new things. 1/12 of this year is spent tying up the last one. That’s kind of sad, I think.

At the end of the day, though, beginnings are just endings. You can’t start new things without finishing up those that you’ve already started (well, from a point; my workload from last semester would beg to differ).

So I’m happy to work hard in January. Maybe not in the gym or on my non-existant smoking habit, as I’m sure some people’s New Year’s missions entailed, but to just keep pushing through. My song this time of year is always January Hymn, by the Decemberists; it’s where this entry’s title comes from (I honestly didn’t mean this to end up like an extended music rec list, I promise). If you give it a listen, you’ll know why.

The new year is cold and misty and grey, like some sort of pathetic fallacy about my life at the moment, but if we keep moving through, soon everything’s going to change.

#LettuceOnMars

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I was on campus for a good couple of hours today; it’s Christmas Jumper Day! Organised by my housemate, the event was a UK-wide effort to simultaneously get everyone in the Christmas spirit, and raise money for Save The Children. We had great fun selling the 50-odd cakes I baked for the occasion last night, bucket shaking until people took pity on us out in the freezing cold in only our festive knitwear, and blasting the Redbrick with some seasonal Michael Bublé.

There are of course plenty of people outside the Union on any given day, and while we gleefully accepted and read the latest copies of Wessex Scene, we also shared our space with a group of people spreading the word about their project. We got chatting, and asking what they were all about, and we were absolutely blown away.

Mars One is a non-profit organisation, which ones day hopes to build permanent settlements on Mars. In 2018 they are sending an unmanned lander to the planet to test the viability of new and existing technologies, and an international competition is being held to find a group of scientists to design and build equipment for one of the lander’s payload spaces.

This is where #LettuceOnMars comes in.

A group of University of Southampton students have passed through all rounds of the competition, to make it to the final selection process – a popular vote, where they are one of 10 candidate groups.

Their project aims to test the ability of the Martian atmosphere to grow plant life, with only a bare minimum of material imported from Earth. Said plant life has been chosen as lettuce; an edible crop with durable seeds that uses space efficiently, it has been grown in orbit before, and would not be remiss in a human Martian colony.

Frozen seeds will be carried by the powered-down lander in its journey to the planet, which will then heat up and switch on upon landing. This will maintain a pleasant, ideal temperature of 21-24°C; a slight contrast to the ambient one of -63ºC. The equipment will use pressurised carbon dioxide and reacted nitrogen species from Mars’ atmosphere and oxygen from electrolysis to grow the plants by aeroponics, flourishing under both light from both the Sun and LEDs in the payload.

The lettuce will take around four weeks to grow, during which time sensory and video information will be relayed back to Earth to check if anything is growing in unpredictable, or fundamentally different, ways. On Mars.

Honestly, I was nearly drowning out the Bublé with my Bowie after we learnt about all of this. There really could be life on Mars! Admittedly, things we put there and then sadly kill at the end of the experiment to stop possible contamination and being responsible for a lettuce invasion of alien planets, but still!

We were blown away by the enthusiasm and hard work of this team, who number just seven and who come from a variety of science backgrounds, all stemming from the University’s Spaceflight society. The payload module they designed has passed through the technical round, so all that now stops a team of students from a place close to our hearts doing something truly awe inspiriting is only a vote.

The easiest way to vote is to like this photo on Facebook, but you can vote multiple times following the links on #LettuceOnMars’s website. This team of hardworking students are the only UK contenders in the whole competition, and the ability to play a tiny part in establishing real, growing plant life on Mars is only the click of a button away. Beyond easy.

You could even call it a god-awful small affair.

Damn it. So close.

Are scientists right to criticise Jurassic World?

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In development for over a decade following the release of Jurassic Park III, the much loved sci-fi franchise is set to continue in 2015 with Jurassic World. The first full-length trailer for the film, which director Joe Johnston has stated will start a new trilogy within the franchise, was released on 25th November, and in it eager audiences got their first glimpse at Hollywood’s dinosaurs in 13 years.

Featuring a Big Bad dinosaur made from hybridised DNA that harks back to the original film’s theme of man’s obsession with playing God and meddling in things he just can’t control, and raptors clearly so enamoured with Chris Pratt in a leather waistcoat that they’re trotting tamely alongside him, Jurassic World doesn’t exactly seem as if it will be grounded in reality. No one is denying that. Rather, that’s what audiences are likely hoping for – it’s going to be a jolly romp in fantasy.

Criticism, however, has arisen from scientists who have openly commented on the inaccuracy of the reconstructed life appearances of Jurassic World’s dinosaurs, among other things. One of those featured in a round-up article by The Independent is Southampton’s own Dr. Darren Naish, a renowned palaeontologist. Blogging on Tetrapod Zoology for Scientific American, he highlighted some issues in the appearance of the giant marine Mososaur, though he did praise others.

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Further, entomologist Morgan Jackson noted that what was probably meant to represent a gigantic blood sucking mosquito was instead a crane fly. The life spans of many crane flies are so short that many don’t actually eat at all, so the film’s fictional geneticists might have some trouble obtaining dinosaur DNA from that precise bit of amber. The larvae, however, are herbivorous – maybe they’re trying to reconstruct ancient plants, as in the first Jurassic Park? Perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch.

Subsequently, there has been a vocal social media response to criticism of the film, suggesting those commenting should just lighten up because, after all, it’s only a film; likening them to dorky palaeontologist Ross Geller from Friends. Firstly, most scientists will both readily and proudly acknowledge that they are, in fact, dorks. It’s the age of the geek. We wear it like a badge of pride.

But it must be also considered that the inaccuracies Jurassic World features are not recent revelations, or concepts supported but one or two niches journals only. The presence of feathers in dinosaurs in particular is supported and argued across vast quantities of literature.

Birds descended from theropod dinosaurs – a group primarily composed of bipedal carnivorous dinosaurs, that contained species such as the charismatic Tyrannosaurus and Spinosaurus. But feathers did not appear full formed in ‘missing link’ species like Archaeopteryx towards the crown of this group, but rather were present in some form far back into dinosaur’s evolutionary history. Likely evolving from single filamentous skin protrusions which subsequently split to develop the barbs, barbules and central quill of modern feathers, we now know that dinosaurs across the development of this group had some kind of soft body covering.

V. mongoliensis by Jules RuizIn early dinosaurs this would have been a fuzz of ‘proto-feathers’, but these would have become advanced such that by the time the relatively ‘young’ group the Dromaeosaurids emerged, these dinosaurs would have been covered in feathers all over their bodies, perhaps elaborated to longer ‘wings’ or with a tail fan. Velociraptors are Dromaeosaurs; this modern reconstruction by palaeoartist Jules Ruiz is probably quite unlike anything audiences have been exposed to in mainstream media. Supporting this further, a formal description of a new fossil published in Science in July 2014 suggests that feathers coexisted with scales in the very earliest of theropod dinosaurs, where they split from other evolutionary groups, and are potentially widespread across early and other dinosaur groups.

I’m not expecting Jurassic World to incorporate new concepts that arise during or prior to its film making; far from it. If anything, I would strongly suggest against it – one article in one journal does not a sound scientific concept make, and to distribute possible misinformation to innumerable cinema goers would be reckless.

But so it also is to continue perpetuating ill founded information, which goes against the established consensus of the entire palaeontological community.

A palaeontologist from the Smithsonian gave the scientific knowledge displayed thus far in Jurassic World a resounding “Meh”, dating the reconstructions to ideas from the 1970s and 1980s and likening them more to regular fantasy monsters than anything like what we now know real prehistoric animals to have looked like. These are not new ideas, and neither can these mistakes nor others be chalked up to a lack of research by a film with a budget of $150 million.

At the end of the day Jurassic World is a film. It’s entertainment. It’s not a documentary, and it has no obligation to be completely scientifically accurate. It wants its dinosaurs to look like dinosaurs. The dinosaurs, that is, of public imagination – grey-brown, scaly and mean looking. Audiences, including those from a background of palaeontology, will love it regardless. Because, hey! Dinosaurs! In a theme park! Eating people! It’ll be like Zoo Tycoon, when you delete the fences.

But being in such a position does not exempt filmmakers from making responsible choices to educate and inform. Far more people will watch Jurassic World than will study the evolutionary emergence of morphological characters in theropod dinosaurs – does that not give them some duty to disseminate accurate information? Celebrities and other public figures are constantly scrutinised, for their actions both public and private, and the criticism levied at them often constitutes their status as a role model. In the public eye, your actions for better or worse will have an impact on those they are broadcast to.

When the media we consume, purpose built to be watched and enjoyed, has the power to impact our lives and culture so significantly, those who suggest it not be given a free pass to do as it pleases are certainly worthy of consideration.

Electric eels manipulate prey muscle when hunting

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Published in Science on Friday 5th December, a new study has observed interesting behaviours in electric eel predation.

‘Electric eels’ (Electrophorous electricus – some awesome alliteration there) though not actually technically eels, are one of a few groups of marine organisms which harness electric discharges for prey capture and predator deterrence, though many lineages are able to sense these fields. Elasmobranchs of all genera detect electric fields using ampullae of Lorenzini, which are distributed in pores laterally along the fish’s body and predominantly around the head; the movement of prey item’s muscle in the water column generates electric fields which are detected to a very small threshold of sensitivity. Further, a number of Batoid elasmobranchs – the rays – have adapted to produce electricity proportional to their size, up to around 200volts. While the Pacific electric ray uses electricity to stun prey, the less electric ray uses theirs exclusively in predator defence. Elephantnose fish are a group of Osteoglossiformes, the group which contain giant arapaima, and are classified as producing either ‘waves’ and ‘pulses’ to sense their environment.

And finally, one of my favourite animals; the duck-billed platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), uses electroreceptors embedded in the rostrocaudal rows of skin of the bill to determine the size and direction of prey in the water, in conjunction with touch and pressure sensitive mechanoreceptors. These are homologous to the electrosensors in the bills of the related terrestrial Echidna, who have significantly less (≤2000 vs 40,000). Both of these species are Monotremes, and in addition to being the only egg laying mammals, are the only mammals with these electrosensory capabilities.

Electric eels use electrically to ‘illuminate’ their environment, sending out low-voltage pulses and sensing the feedback, much like echolocating bats. However, they are also renowned for their ability to generate extremely high voltage shocks; shocks of up to 600volts, over double that of a UK mains plug.

This has consistently been interpreted as an adaptation to stun and immobilise prey. This makes them easier to eat, and stops otherwise trashing prey from damaging delicate respiratory surfaces around the gill area.

However, this new research by Catania suggests that the discharges eels can generate are specialised. The high frequency, high voltage shocks mentioned above allow immobilisation capture of free swimming prey, or defence against predators. Also known, however, are repeated pairs and triplets of high voltage discharges, which are used when hunting in complex environments.

Catania measured the responses to eels’ electric discharge in the bodies of fish, and found that motor neurone activation is required to produce muscle contraction of the prey fish.

This means that electric eels’ discharges act specifically to activate prey motor neurones, and hence muscle, and that this allows the eels to ‘remotely control’ their desired prey item. They not only immobilise prey, but by repeatedly sending out periodic waves or pulses of electric discharges, that the eel can cause full body involuntary twitching, causing the prey to move and reveal its location – the eel then strikes 10-15 seconds later. These volleys of impluses are advantagous, as an initial twitch and the resulting electrical feedback will inform the eel if the prey item is alive, and worth the energy investment of pursuing it. This also acts to explain why this behaviour is used particularly in cryptic environments, where prey needs to be ‘flushed out’.

With this insight, there is further evidence to support suggestion that organisms that are highly sensitive to and which produce electric fields may use them for additional reasons, including those not exclusively relating to predator-prey interactions, such as sociosexual selection and communicating with conspecifics.

Statistically, Christmas really does start earlier every year

We know the gripe – we’ve all made it or, at least, someone in our family has. “I can’t believe they’re selling selection boxes already!, or, “It’s not even Halloween yet!”, or, “I swear, Christmas starts earlier every year!”. Well it turns out that, according to a study from the Royal Statistical Society, it does.

The matter was on my mind first and fore-mostly because I adore the commercial exploitation of Christmas and am not in the least bit ashamed. That was some of the haul from my December 1st shopping up there or, as I called it when joyously conversing with my professor that day who was playing Christmas music before the lecture and hence seemed one of only a few people adequately enthused about the season, Christmas 1st. I was bedecked in a festive jumper and my big Christmas tree earrings while I bought my first seasonal overpriced coffee and gleefully Instagramm-ed it. Gal pals and I stopped for mulled wine on the way home, and the flatmates and I heated up some mulled cider the other day – before it was even December (though in my defence, mince pies are sacred and are only consumed within the December 1st through 31st window).

But though I revel in every tinsel trimmed moment, even I must admit that Christmas seems like it’s already been going on for months. Particularly this year – I decided to investigate.

Nathan Cunningham of the Royal Statistical Society seemed to think so too, and decided to use freely available web search data to test the clichéd saying.

Figure 1 – Relative search frequency for ‘Christmas’.

He analysed the data using a constrained model-based clustering algorithm, which assumes that the data for search terms arises from statistical distributions with differing mean and variance values. You would expect increased mean search volume of Christmas-y terms as an uninterrupted, truly festive season begins, as people start searching for decorations, gifts, films and other entertainment. He tested the regularity of users searching for seven search terms predominantly associated with the festive season – ‘Christmas’, ‘cards’, ‘elf’, ‘Home Alone’, ‘Scrooge’, ‘presents’ and ‘toy shop’.

The cluster analysis produced a value of probability, of each week’s worth of search terms belonging to both Christmas and the non-Christmas periods – the beginning of the Christmas period in each year was designated as the earliest week that was more likely to belong to the Christmas period than not.

Cunngingham’s data really does show some pretty fantastic trends. Calculated for every intervening year, from a seemingly appropriately late beginning of November 11th in 2007, we have begun turning our minds to thoughts of the festive season progressively ealier. The earliest calculated was the week commencing August 19th in 2012, with last year’s the only marginally more acceptable week beginning August 25 in 2013.

Figure 2 – The statistical beginning of the festive period for 2007-2013, with the dashed line showing linear regression – Nathan Cunningham.

So statistically speaking, Christmas really does come earlier each year.

(As an aside, in my searching I also stumbled across examples of the Royal Statistical Society’s annual Christmas quizzes, which are terrifying.)

Selfridges opened its Christmas display in August this year, whenabouts Clinton’s also expanded its range to include Christmas cards and gifts. Most shops had likely only begun taking down their summer holiday displays, and while the seasonal aisle of my local Sainsburys was largely full of Halloween products, as early autumn progressed the supermarket’s selection of Christmas products began growing in the aisle like red and green bacteria on a petri dish.

I do think that these findings can be partly attributed not only to the increased, but also to the significantly more casual, way we use the internet now compared to how we did back in 2007. We carry around with us pretty much every second of every day devices with the potential to access the human race’s collectively amassed intelligence – in 2007, I didn’t have a phone that could do anything more extravagant than let me play Snake. We probably think far less about a Google search, and its terms, than we would have all those years ago.

Given that just seven observations were tested here, it is difficult to confirm whether this trend reflects a true, progressively earlier arrival of Christmas. And, as Cunningham acknowledged, search terms have applications greater than simply the festive – he highlighted that searches for ‘elf’ were likely higher across the whole of 2012-2013 period for The Hobbit related reasons.

That said; indulge in your shameless seasonal capitalism. Statistically, everyone else seems to have been doing it for a couple of months now.