Zoom-Enhance: Identifying Trends in Article-Level Metrics

In late December 2013, PLOS ONE published an article from UK-based Psychologists Rob Jenkins and Christie Kerr titled “Identifiable Images of Bystanders Extracted from Corneal Reflections”. Using high-resolution photography, Jenkins, from the University of York, and Kerr, from the University … Continue reading »

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Fun(d) with Science

Many researchers will tell you that financing their work–writing grants, securing funding, and budgeting for varying funding levels year to year–is the least rewarding part of life in academia, but there’s no escaping the simple fact that science costs money. … Continue reading »

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At Year’s End: Staff Editors’ Favorite PLOS ONE Articles of 2014

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2014 has been an exciting year for PLOS ONE. We saw the journal reach a milestone, publishing its 100,000th article. PLOS ONE also published thousands of new research articles this year, including some ground-breaking discoveries, as well as some unexpected … Continue reading »

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Innovating open at Mozfest

Innovating open at Mozfest

In late October, more than sixteen hundred developers, science buffs, and Open Web advocates converged on the Ravensbourne campus in South-East London to kick off MozFest, a hands-on festival dedicated to envisioning and creating the future of an open, global web. MozFest, now in its fifth year, began as a small, community-driven gathering with an…

PLOS ONE’s Spookiest Images of 2014

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As we take a look back at research articles published so far in PLOS ONE in 2014, we realize we have no shortage of images to terrify our readers, or at least sufficiently creep them out long enough to last through … Continue reading »

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“Low T” and Prescription Testosterone: Public Viewing of the Science Does Matter

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The Science of Snakeskin: Black Velvety Viper Scales May be Self-Cleaning

West African Gaboon Viper

West African Gaboon viper

Whether you love them or hate them, snakes have long captivated our interest and imagination. They’ve spurred countless stories and fears, some of which may have even affected the course of human evolutionary history. We must admit, there is something a little other-worldly about their legless bodies, willingness to swallow and digest animals much bigger than them, and fangs and potentially fatal (or therapeutic?) venomous bites.

Not least of all, their scaly skin is quite mesmerizing and often laden with intricate and beautifully geometric patterns just perfect for camouflaging, regardless of whether they live high up in a tree, deep in murky waters, or on the forest floor. Snakeskin was the focus of recent research by the authors of this PLOS ONE study who sought to determine whether it has any special properties less obvious to the naked eye.

Please meet the West African Gaboon viper, Bitis gabonica rhinoceros (pictured above). Native to the rainforests and woodlands of West Africa, these large, white-brown-and-black snakes can be identified by large nasal horns and a single black triangle beneath each eye—nevermind that, because they also lay claim to titles for the longest fangs and most venom volume produced per bite. The pattern of their skin is intricate and excellent for camouflage, and the black sections have a particularly velvety appearance. These eye-catching characteristics intrigued zoology and biomechanics researchers from Germany, who decided to take a closer look.

In a previously published paper, the authors analyzed the Gaboon viper’s skin surface texture by using scanning electron microscopy (SEM), as well as its optical abilities by shining light on the snakeskin in different ways to see how it’s reflected, scattered, or transmitted. They found that only the black sections contained leaf-like microstructures streaked with what they call “nanoridges” on the snake scales, a pattern that has not been observed before on snakeskin. What’s more, the black skin reflects less than 11% of light shone on it—a lot less than other snakes—regardless of the angle of light applied. The authors concluded from the previous study that both of these factors may contribute to the viper’s velvet-like, ultra-black skin appearance.

Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) of viper scales

Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) of viper scales

In their most recent PLOS ONE paper titled “Non-Contaminating Camouflage: Multifunctional Skin Microornamentation in the West African Gaboon Viper (Bitis rhinoceros),” the authors conducted wettability and contamination tests in hopes of further characterizing the viper skin’s properties, particularly when comparing the pale and black regions.

To test the wettability of the viper scales, the authors sprayed droplets of water, an iodide-containing compound (diiodomethane), and ethylene glycol on the different scale types shown above, on both a live and dead snake, and then measured the contact angle—the angle at which a liquid droplet meets a solid surface. This angle lets us know how water-friendly a surface is; in other words, the higher the contact angle, the less water-friendly the surface.

Contact angle (A) and snake skin with water droplet on light and dark areas (B)

Contact angle (A) and snake skin with water droplet on light and dark areas (B)

As you can see in the graph above, the contact angle was different depending on the liquid applied and the type of scale; in particular, the contact angle on the black scales was significantly higher than the others, in a category that the authors refer to as “outstanding superhydrophobicity,” or really, really, really water-repelling. This type of water-repelling has been seen in geckos, but not snakes.

Water droplet appearance on live snake skin

Water droplet appearance on live snake skin

The authors then took some of the snake carcass and dusted it with a sticky powder in a contamination chamber, after which they generated a fog for 30 minutes and took pictures.

Skin before dusting (A), skin under black light after dusting (B), skin under black light after fogging (C), section of SEM, showing light and dark skin (D)

Skin before dusting (A), skin under black light after dusting (B), skin under black light after fogging (C), section of SEM, showing light and dark skin (D)

After 30 minutes of fogging, the black areas were mostly free of the dusting powder, while the pale areas were still completely covered with dust. The powder itself was also water-repelling, and so the authors showed that despite this, the powder rolled off with the water rather than sticking to the black areas of snake skin. Therefore, as suggested by the authors, this could be a rather remarkable self-cleaning ability. The authors suspect that the “nanoridges,” or ridges arranged in parallel in the black regions, may allow liquid runoff better than on the paler areas of the snake.

How does this texture variation help the snake, you ask? The authors posit that all these properties basically contribute to a better form of camouflage. If the snake were completely covered in one color, it may stand out against a background of mixed colors (or “disruptive coloration”), like that of a forest floor. If the black regions have fairly different properties from the paler regions, mud, water, or other substances would rub off in these areas and continue to provide the light-dark color contrast and variation in light reflectivity that helps the snake do what it does best: slither around and blend in unnoticed.

Citations

Spinner M, Kovalev A, Gorb SN, Westhoff G (2013) Snake velvet black: Hierarchical micro- and nanostructure enhances dark colouration in Bitis rhinoceros. Scientific Reports 3: 1846. doi:10.1038/srep01846

Spinner M, Gorb SN, Balmert A, Bleckmann H, Westhoff G (2014) Non-Contaminating Camouflage: Multifunctional Skin Microornamentation in the West African Gaboon Viper (Bitis rhinoceros). PLoS ONE 9(3): e91087. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091087

Images

First image, public domain with credit to TimVickers

Remaining images from the PLOS ONE paper

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A Year in Review: 2013 PLOS ONE Papers in the Media

 

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Tired of year-end lists? We know you’ve got room for at least one more. 2013 was a great year for PLOS ONE media coverage: We had over 5,000 news stories on over 1450 published articles.

The PLOS ONE press team poured tirelessly over the list to whittle down the papers that stood out the most. In celebration of the New Year, we’d like to share some of these titles with you.

Zipping back to January 2013 and moving forward from there, here they are:

 

1. Flowers Flowering Faster

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In “Record-Breaking Early Flowering in the Eastern United States,” US researchers used 161 years of historical reports—initiated by Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold in 1935—to track spring flowering times. They discovered that exceptionally warm spring temperatures in Massachusetts and Wisconsin in 2010 and 2012 may have resulted in the earliest recorded spring in the eastern United States. Furthermore, scientists indicate that these advanced flowering times could be predicted based on the historical data. This research received media attention from the The New York Times, National Geographic, and NPR.

 

2. Lend an Ear?

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US scientists 3D-printed a human ear using collagen hydrogels (a network of polymers that form a gel with water) derived from cow cartilage in the lab. They shared their results in “High-Fidelity Tissue Engineering of Patient-Specific Auricles for Reconstruction of Pediatric Microtia and Other Auricular Deformities.” The authors suggest that this advancement may be a significant first step toward creating patient-specific tissue implants for those who require ear prosthesis. Popular Science, Discovery News, and NPR covered this research.

 

3. Central African Elephants in Big Trouble

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African forest elephant populations may have declined by an alarming 62% in the last decade, according to the study “Devastating Decline of Forest Elephants in Central Africa.” The authors suggest that this dramatic drop is largely due to continuing illegal ivory trade and inadequate efforts to put a stop to it. ScienceNow, TIME, Slate, Smithsonian, and many others covered this story.

 

4. Wrapped up in a Book

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For everyone who enjoys a good page-turner, researchers in the study “The Expression of Emotions in 20th Century Books” indicate that recent British and American books have fewer emotional “mood” words than they did in the earlier half of the 20th century. What’s more, the study’s authors provide evidence that American authors express more emotion than British authors, and that newer American books use more words conveying fear than older ones. This research was covered by the The New York Times Arts Beat, Jezebel, our EveryONE blog, and Nature.

 

5. Gaming for All Ages

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In the article “A Randomized Controlled Trial of Cognitive Training Using a Visual Speed of Processing Intervention in Middle Aged and Older Adults,” researchers from multiple institutions in Iowa discovered that when middle-aged and older adults played video games, they scored better on cognitive function tests. The authors hope that these results might help us slow cognitive decline in older individuals. This paper was covered by the The Wall Street Journal, Nature, and The Telegraph.

 

6. Seafood Watch for Arctic Foxes?

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In another saddening story of declining wild animal populations, researchers studying the “Correlates between Feeding Ecology and Mercury Levels in Historical and Modern Arctic Foxes (Vulpes lagopus)” found that mercury levels in seafood may be the culprit. They emphasize that overall direct exposure to toxic materials may not be as important as the feeding ecology and opportunities of predators, like the arctic fox, that have a very marine-based diet, which may contain these toxic substances. This research received media attention from Wired UK, Scientific American, and The Guardian.

 

7. Cancer in Neandertals

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At least one Neandertal 120,000 years ago had a benign bone tumor in a rib, according to researchers in the study “Fibrous Dysplasia in a 120,000+ Year Old Neandertal from Krapina, Croatia.” The authors note, however, that they cannot comment on any health effects or the overall health condition of the individual without further evidence. This article received media attention from sources including the BBC, The New York Times, ScienceNOW, and Gizmodo.

 

8. Who Needs Rows of Teeth When You’ve Got a Tail to Slap Sardines?

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Image credit: PLOS ONE article

Thresher Sharks Use Tail-Slaps as a Hunting Strategy” contains the first video evidence of long-tailed sharks tail-slapping to stun their sardine prey. The authors suggest that this method may be effective when hunting prey that swim in schools. A Scientific American podcast, National Geographic’s Phenomena blogs, and NBC News were some of the media outlets that covered this research.

 

9. Contagious Yawning in Dogs and Chimps

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Yawning animals were the focus of more than one PLOS ONE article in 2013. In one study, “Familiarity Bias and Physiological Responses in Contagious Yawning by Dogs Support Link to Empathy,” Japanese researchers found that dogs yawn more often in response to their owners’ yawns rather than a stranger’s, and received media coverage from The Guardian, CBS News, and The Telegraph. The authors of another research article “Chimpanzees Show a Developmental Increase in Susceptibility to Contagious Yawning: A Test of the Effect of Ontogeny and Emotional Closeness on Yawn Contagion” showed that chimpanzees appear to develop a contagion for yawning as they get older, just as humans do, and this article received media attention from The New York Times Science Takes, Los Angeles Times, and Scientific American Blogs.

 

10. What, the Cat? Oh, He’s Harml…

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Our favorite parasite Toxoplasma gondii strikes again. Mice are normally terrified of cats, and rightly so, but Berkeley researchers (including a PLOS founder Mike Eisen) in “Mice Infected with Low-Virulence Strains of Toxoplasma gondii Lose Their Innate Aversion to Cat Urine, Even after Extensive Parasite Clearance” show that mouse exposure to the parasite, carried in cat feces, may alter the mouse’s brain, causing the mouse to permanently lose their fear of cats. The story received coverage from several news outlets, including a CNN segment by Charlie Rose, BBC, National Geographic Phenomena, and Nature.

 

11. Just in Time for the Movie: Jurassic Park is Fake

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Sorry in advance for the disheartening news: Jurassic Park will likely remain a work of fiction. In “Absence of Ancient DNA in Sub-Fossil Insect Inclusions Preserved in ‘Anthropocene’ Colombian Copal,” UK researchers were unable to find any evidence of ancient DNA in specimens of prehistoric insects fossilized in hardened tree sap. Conveniently, the article published right when the newest Jurassic Park film series was announced, and was covered by San Francisco Chronicle, The Telegraph, The Conversation, and others.

 

12. Not Now, Honey – The Pressure Just Dropped

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Insects avoid sex when a drop in atmospheric pressure occurs, which usually precedes rain, according to researchers in the study “Weather Forecasting by Insects: Modified Sexual Behaviour in Response to Atmospheric Pressure Changes.” Injury from rain can be deadly for some insect species, so the authors suggest that the insects modified their behavior to enhance survival (good choice!). The article has received attention from nearly 20 news outlets, including Nature, Los Angeles Times, Scientific American, and ScienceNOW.

 

13. Dinos with Squishy Joints and Tiny Arms

 

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Image credit: PLOS ONE article

Dinosaurs were a popular item in PLOS ONE in 2013, especially with the launch of PLOS ONE’s New Sauropod Gigantism Collection. The most popular article was a simulation of how the largest dinosaur, the Argentinosaurus, might have walked in “March of the Titans: The Locomotor Capabilities of Sauropod Dinosaurs,” which was covered in Washington Post and The Guardian. Another group of researchers showed that squishy joints were a major factor in the massiveness of saurischian dinosaurs in “What Lies Beneath: Sub-Articular Long Bone Shape Scaling in Eutherian Mammals and Saurischian Dinosaurs Suggests Different Locomotor Adaptations for Gigantism.” The article was covered by Gizmodo, Inside Science, and Discovery. Finally, a new super-predator larger than T. rex lived 80 million years ago and was described in “Tyrant Dinosaur Evolution Tracks the Rise and Fall of Late Cretaceous Oceans” and covered by BBC, Nature, and Discovery.

 

14. Huh?

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The title of this next study says it all: “Is “Huh?” a Universal Word? Conversational Infrastructure and the Convergent Evolution of Linguistic Items.” The authors of this article suggest that it is, and that at least ten countries use a variation of this word to verbally express confusion. The article was featured in NPR, The New York Times, and LA Times.

 

15. Little Red Riding Hood: The Evolution of a Folk Tale

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Little Red Riding Hood has very deep roots, as the authors of “The Phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood” show in their article. It has made its way across China to Europe and back again, but where did it begin? The authors indicate that phylogenetic methods (like the branched chart above) may be a new way to analyze cultural relationships among folk tales and oral narratives. This article received coverage in ScienceNOW, National Geographic, and Nature.

Thank you to all of our Academic Editors, reviewers, and authors for making these articles a reality. Needless to say, PLOS ONE staff cannot wait to see what lies ahead in 2014!

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