The malodorous mysteries of asparagus pee

Everyone’s pee smells. But you may have noticed it takes on a more pungent, kind of rotten-egg quality after you’ve munched on a few spears of asparagus.


This smell stems from the aptly named asparagusic acid, a chemical present only in asparagus. In the plant, this chemical is thought to act as a natural pesticide to protect the vegetable’s tender young shoots from attack by predatory parasites.

Curiously enough, some people never even notice.

Scientists have two theories to explain this olfactory antipathy. The first theory suggests that some people simply don’t produce any malodorous molecules when they digest asparagus.

A 2011 study by the Monell Chemical Sciences Center in Philadelphia suggests both possibilities are true.


The researchers asked 38 men and women to pee in a cup before and after noshing on grilled asparagus. Then they asked the study volunteers to come back for a smell-test of their own samples, as well as samples from the other donors. The study ran into a bit of trouble when several of the recruits dropped out due to “unanticipated aversions to urine.” Still, the researchers were able to gather enough data to show that 8 percent of people couldn’t produce the asparagus odorant and 6 percent of people failed to detect it.

Another study traced the latter olfactory disability to a single genetic change, amid a cluster of genes that code for the proteins that help process and identify smells.


By Marla Vacek Broadfoot. Illustrated by Jaime Van Wart. 

Marla Vacek Broadfoot is a geneticist-turned science writer. She currently serves […]

By |September 17th, 2015|Backbones|1 Comment

Calling All Clowns



Clownfish live in groups of two to six, but only the two largest in the group can breed.


Instead of fighting or kicking out their group members for dominance like wasps, chimps, and many other animals, clownfish patiently wait their turn to the top and call to each other to determine size, as well as to help find each other.

When they’re not sex switching or bubbling out babbles, they’re happily fertilizing their anemone homes with poop.

By Roar. Illustrated by Christin Hardy.

Christin Hardy grew up in a teeny, tiny place called Seven Springs, North Carolina, where livestock outnumber people. Her father is a farmer and her mother is an artist, so naturally Christin turned out to be an artist who loves nature, infusing it into her work and life. Currently she works for the NCDOT designing posters, banners and brochures, but her heart lies in explaining science through illustrations and graphic design. You can find her on Instagram @c_creature, on Twitter @c_hristin or send her an email at c.creature.881@gmail.com.


Check our facts!


By |September 3rd, 2015|Backbones|0 Comments

The Kama Sutra of the Anglerfish

Fortunately, they live in the dark. Because no matter which way you spin it, deep-sea anglerfish (suborder Ceratioidei) ladies are not easy on the eyes.

Most notable for their creepy countenance—and that bioluminescent dangle that lures hypnotized prey to their doom—anglerfish also have a crazy level of sexual dimorphism.


While the females get all the ghastly looking bells and whistles, male anglerfish are tiny and bland, sometimes 60 times smaller than their lovers, with huge nostrils and big, hopeful eyes.


Yes, they may be an unlikely pair, but deep-sea anglerfish display one of the most romantic love stories—or craziest sex habits—of the animal world. It all depends on how you look at it.

It can be hard to find a mate in the deep, dark ocean. It’s pretty vast down there, and hard to see. So Monsieur Anglerfish uses his gigantic nose to sniff out his lover, and, once he finds her, opens wide and bites his sweetie’s behind (taking the term “clingy boyfriend” to the max). angerfish_sweetlove_03

Eventually, the male’s mouth tissue fuses to his mate and their circulatory systems unite. As long as she lives, he lives, spawning away whenever and wherever. Like that old couple at the end of The Notebook, they eventually die with each other’s last breaths.

The more romantic ladies of some anglerfish species remain one-man women. Others can have as many as eight lovers living off their blood, which takes tender to terrifying. Okay, they could be considered parasites, but we think it’s kind of sweet.


Check our facts!

By |July 15th, 2015|Backbones|0 Comments

Your Anti-Shark Attack Handbook

shark_attack2 shark_attack4

View/download our Anti-Shark Attack Handbook in poster form (PDF).

Written by Roar with Katie Mosher (@ncsg_katiem) and NC Sea Grant (@SeaGrantNC). In addition to giving people the skinny on sharks, NC Sea Grant gives research, education, and outreach opportunities relating to issues affecting the North Carolina coast and communities. Whether or not you’re from NC, NC Sea Grant’s site gives you a chance to learn cool stuff. Check it out here.

Illustrated by Heather Copley. Heather is a Clinical Social Worker whose hobbies happen to include: science, long walks on the beach, drawing technicolor dream sharks, and writing hilarious llama jokes.

By |June 24th, 2015|Backbones, Other Science|1 Comment

Collective Intelligence

Within ant colonies, nobody’s in charge. There’s no central control. No one, not even the queen, gives orders in the colony. The queen can:

But she doesn’t give orders for the other ants to follow. Instead, each ant walks around in her own world and operates on feedback from her environment.

These individual actions result in a collective intelligence, where the seemingly uninformed interactions of individuals can add up to a group dynamic that shapes the world.

Ants aren’t alone with their collective intelligence. Individual decisions are how:

Our choices in the buffet line, our electing of leaders and even our internet search results all represent the presence of collective intelligence at work.

It’s easy to squash an ant. Pretty easy to catch a fish or knock down a bird. But to wipe out the insect society? Capture the school or flock? Smash our culture? Each individual choice, that ant reacting to the smell of a chocolate chip cookie, makes a world of difference.



By Roar. Illustrated by Christin Hardy.

 Christin Hardy grew up in a teeny, tiny place called Seven Springs, North Carolina, where livestock outnumber people. Her father is a farmer and her mother is an artist, so naturally Christin turned out to be an artist who loves nature, infusing it into her work and life. Currently she works for the NCDOT designing posters, banners and brochures, but her heart lies in explaining science through illustrations and graphic design. […]

By |June 17th, 2015|Backbones, Bugs|1 Comment

Spider book update: Help us pick our species!

We’re writing a spider book!

Chris Buddle and Roar will soon present a happy volume packed with eight-legged greatness.

Each chapter will highlight a common species: a plain language and scientific overview of the biology and natural history of common spider species of North America. That’s a big task, because of the hundreds of potential candidate species, we’ll only highlight a dozen or so of the most common.

We need your help: Many of you provided valuable feedback on your favorite spidey friends, and we have already spoken to loads of Arachnologists, but we want to know what’s on everybody’s minds (spiderly speaking). See our chapter candidates and let us know if we missed a North American species SO INCREDIBLE IT MUST BE INCLUDED!

Here are the species we are proposing as “main chapters”:

Argiope aurantia (garden spider, or writing spider)

Oxyopes salticus (the striped lynx spider)

Neoscona sp. (orb-weavers)

Misumena vatia (goldenrod crab spider)spiders_page1_1
Dolomedes sp. (fishing or dock spiders)
Salticus scenicus (zebra jumper)
Parasteatoda tepidariorum (American house spider)
Latrodectus sp. (widow spiders)
Pardosa sp. (thin-legged wolf spiders)
Cheiracanthum sp. (ceiling spiders)

Agelenopsis sp. (funnel-web spiders)

By |June 4th, 2015|Backbones, News, Spiders|15 Comments

Bugs are Shiny, but How? And Why?

Like Katy Perry’s halftime star ride, some bugs just beg to be seen. Some flash and glimmer to attract mates while others show off to tell you to back off. Whether they’re blending in with a little bling or wowing with disco-ball bodies, insects use amazing engineering feats to play tricks with light. Here’s how they do it:

Piled sheets of exoskeleton create stunning colors in beetles and harlequin bugs, as well as the mirror-like golds and silvers found in chrysalises.

Some insects take reflecting to the next level with added features. Morpho butterflies’ tree-shaped structures work like LEDs. They trap light and force it back out in a straight line. Morphos are even more impressive than LEDs, reflecting 80 percent of the light that enters their wings.


Another type of reflector uses dishes that reflect light with a colorful effect. Different dish thicknesses, widths, and depths result in different color and shine outcomes. These structures not only produce regal brown in the bronzed tiger beetle but also help the gaudy Madagascar sunset moth strut her stuff.

Weevils and some butterflies use complex 3D, crystal-like structures in their exoskeletons to reflect light, like opals. Light bounces off the indentions in all directions.


Cooler still: Some insects use their powers of reflection to hide from selected audiences. The green hairstreak butterfly’s wings reflect polarized light to its mates while camouflaging its wings against new spring leaves.



Some Morpho butterflies flash shiny blue or green signals to mates from the sidelines while appearing […]

By |May 28th, 2015|Bugs|1 Comment

Things that get under your skin: Parasitoids

Your worst enemies can really get under your skin. Insects known as parasitoids do just that, getting into other insects’ bodies and eating their hosts alive from the inside out.

More than 100,000 described parasitoid species of wasps, flies and other insects lurk the globe, hoping to turn nearly every type of insect’s life into a horror show.

The following parasitoids master the horrifying art of living inside an all-you-can-eat buffet.

1. Aphidiinae
BHR-parasitoid-illo-2Aphidiinae wasps are aphid specialists. These tiny terrors find unsuspecting aphids and jam their waspy eggs directly into the aphids’ abdomens with needle-like egg-laying devices. Our poor aphids die slowly as wasp larva slurp their nutritious aphid guts. Meanwhile, the aphids’ outsides turn into a papery, brown protective husk, from which Aphidiinae burst triumphantly as adults.

Don’t get too comfy inside that aphid husk, Aphidiinae!

2. Asaphes vulgaris

Hyperparasitoids, like the even smaller wasp Asaphes vulgaris, attack parasitoid wasps already infecting hosts. Hyperparasitoids of Aphidiinae, for example, will seek out parasitized aphids. The hyperparasitoid inserts an egg into the first parasitoid, and after its own gobblefest, the new larvae pupates before chewing its way out of the aphid, like the tiniest doll in a horrific babushka.

Some parasitoids don’t have an only child complex.

3. Copidasoma


Copidasoma takes a “DIY, babies!” approach to child rearing by depositing a few eggs into moth eggs. The moth caterpillars hatch, unaware that they’re stuffed with flesh eating aliens. While the young caterpillars grow up, the wasp eggs rapidly divide, and the original few become up to 2000 eggs, a […]

By |May 13th, 2015|artist in residence, Bugs|4 Comments

Blast from the Past: Animals in Space!

They did it, folks. Ants went to the International Space Station the verdict is out: even in microgravity they can still figure out how to ruin a picnic. Let’s take a minute to remember other crusading creatures who also took the trip beyond earth’s borders (originally posted 4/16/14):







Editor’s note:

While we commend these brave creatures on their orbital journeys and appreciate the valuable job they do for us humans, we’d like to point out that many other animals went into space before and after them. Animals like monkeys, apes, dogs, mice, cats, goldfish, and chimpanzees. Some returned fine, and others suffered extreme conditions. Outer space is littered with the corpses of more than half a century of our investigations. Here’s a brief summary of some of our unfortunate animals: http://science.howstuffworks.com/dead-animals-in-space.htm, and you can read more about them online.

View/download Animals in Spaaaaaaace in poster form (PDF) 

Drawn by Hoot, written by Roar.

Check our facts!

1 http://archive.rubicon-foundation.org/xmlui/handle/123456789/9288

2 http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/news/fruit_fly/#.UyMX1oVPJS4

3 http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/ast.2005.5.690

4 http://jeb.biologists.org/content/209/16/3209.short

5 http://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/9-12/features/F_Animals_in_Space_9-12.html

6 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12528722?dopt=Abstract

7 http://www.nsbri.org/EDUCATION-and-TRAINING/Teaching-Resources/Middle-School/Butterflies-in-Space/

8 http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/expeditions/expedition22/butterflies.html

9 http://jeb.biologists.org/content/212/24/4033.full

10 http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0064793

11 http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/786.html

12 http://newsdesk.si.edu/releases/world-s-first-spidernaut-lands-smithsonian

13 http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/news/space_spiders_live.html


By |April 15th, 2015|Bugs|0 Comments

Taxonomy Puns! We Have Winners!

Five winners! Of more than 70 taxonomy appreciation puns emailed, Facebooked, commented, and tweeted our way, our esteemed and impartial judges selected their five punniest winners. We present them to you now, just in time for Taxonomist Appreciation Day!* Check in each day this week to see a new winner. And thanks for all the excellent submissions!

And, drumroll please: Our first winner for 2015!


Pun by Natalie Sopinka (@phishdoc). Illustration by Christin Hardy (@c_hristin)

And our second winner:


Pun by Julie Himes (@jehimes). Illustration by Hoot (@sarahblackmon).

And our day three winner:


Pun by Rick Wright (@birdernewjersey), illustration by Heather Copley.

Here’s winner #4:


Pun by Jeremy McNabb @JeremyMcnabb, illustration by Roar @VerdantEleanor

And finally, winner #5:


Pun by Natalie Sopinka (@phishdoc), illustration by Chris Buddle (@cmbuddle).

Meet our celebrity judges!

Matt Shipman (@ShipLives) is a public information officer at North Carolina State University and a freelance science writer. He also writes the Communication Breakdown blog, which focuses on science communication. He lives near Raleigh, in a house full of humans.

Gwen Pearson (@Bug_Gwen) writes for WIRED science. She also is the Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Purdue Department of Entomology.

Dr. Floyd W. Shockley (@Beetle_Guy) is the Acting Collections Manager of the National Insect Collection in the Department of Entomology at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.  In addition to managing the 35 million specimens in the collection, he is an expert on fungus […]

By |March 16th, 2015|Contests|7 Comments