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Humans can learn echolocation

Get ready Batman, soon you might be able to echolocate like a bat!

Researchers have found that people can be taught to distinguish rotating objects by listening to their echoes, using an echolocation-inspired technique.

Using android tablets that emit buzzing signals – which mimic the sounds bats use for echolocation – 15 sighted participants were able to identify rotating objects based on echo patterns, character of sound and pitch from different angles.

Some blind people can echolocate by making clicks with their mouth, but it’s a trickier skill for sighted people to learn.

The research was published in the journal PLOS One.

Five more specimens found of 240-million-year-old ichthyosaur

Palaeontologists have scoured museum archives to uncover five previously unknown fossil specimens of an ancient fish-like reptile, Besanosaurus leptorhynchus. This predator was a formidable eight metres long, making it the earliest large marine diapsid (the group including lizards, snakes and crocodiles). It had a long and narrow snout, equipped with pointy teeth perfect for catching small fish and extinct squid-cousins.

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The skull of the type specimen of Besanosaurus leptorhynchus is characterized by extreme longirostry (i.e., thin elongate snout), and equipped with tiny pointed teeth, perfect for catching small fish and extinct cousins of squids with rapid snapping moves of the head and jaws. Credit: Gabriele Bindellini and Marco Auditore, © Museo di Storia Naturale di Milano.

“The extremely long and slender rostrum suggests that Besanosaurus primarily fed on small and elusive prey, feeding lower in the food web than an apex predator,” says Gabriele Bindellini from Milan University, first author of the study published in PeerJ.

The species was initially discovered over three decades ago, but during reanalysis of other specimens, palaeontologists realised that two previously undescribed fossils are Besanosaurus leptorhynchus, and so are two fossil specimens that had previously been described as Mikadocephalus gracilirostris.

The specimens are housed in museums in Milan, Zurich and Tübingen.

Touch of a robot linked to positive emotional state

Credit: RUB, Marquard

Interpersonal touch in humans is known to have positive effects – and this might be the case for robots, too. A small study found that people who were touched by a humanoid robot reported a positive emotional state and were more likely to comply with the robot’s requests, according to a study in PLOS One.

The study observed 48 students who engaged in a school counselling conversation with a humanoid robot. During some conversations, the robot briefly patted the back of the students’ hands – most smiled or laughed in response, and none pulled away.

The researchers conclude that more study is needed on the complexities of human-robot interactions.

Food date labels are commonly misunderstood

A study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior has found that many consumers misunderstand food labels – yet use them with confidence anyway.

These labels are intended to help people make informed decisions about food, preventing unsafe consumption and food waste.

Example of an illustrated message. Credit: Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior

But a survey of 2,607 US adults revealed that less than half knew what “Best if used by” means (that the food quality may deteriorate after the specified date) and less than a quarter knew what “Use by” means (that it is unsafe to eat the food after the date).

“Despite confidently using date labels, many consumers misinterpreted the labels and continued to misunderstand even after reading educational messaging that explained the labels’ meaning,” says researcher Catherine Turvey from George Washington University in the US.

“Responses to the survey suggest that date labels are so familiar that some consumers believe they are boring, self-explanatory, or common sense despite misunderstanding the labels.”

New aurora feature revealed by old video

By reanalysing a video from two decades ago, physicists have found a new feature of auroras.

These spectacular light shows are caused when charged particles from the sun interact with gases in the atmosphere. They are most commonly seen at the poles, as the Earth’s magnetic field concentrates incoming particles there.

Researchers have now described a new feature of these enthralling events, which they call “diffuse auroral erasers.” By studying a video taken on March 15, 2002, in the remote town of Churchill, Canada, they noticed that the faint background glow of an aurora (behind the more vivid curtains of light) periodically goes dark.

“The biggest thing about these erasers that we didn’t know before but know now is that they exist,” says Allison Jaynes, co-author from the University of Iowa in the US. “It raises the question: Are these a common phenomenon that has been overlooked, or are they rare?” The research is published in the Journal of Geophysical Research Space Physics. It is co-authored by David Knudsen, a physicist at the University of Calgary who took the original video.

In a new study, physicists led by the University of Iowa describe a new phenomenon they call “diffuse auroral erasers,” in which patches of the background glow are blotted out, then suddenly intensify and reappear. Credit: Riley Troyer, University of Iowa

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