What you might have missed: bees linking symbols to numbers, the birthplace of humanity’s tool kit and a breakthrough in the development of organoids

Our science stories this week included everything from the mathematics of acting to the colourless teeth of a deep-sea dragon, the birthplace of humanity’s tool kit and chimps with an appetite for crabs. 

Here’s a snapshot of a few stories we particularly enjoyed. Click on the links to read them in full. You can also see all the week’s yarns here

Minefield on a chip: Organoid research might produce cancer cures, or viable embryos

In a special edition of the journal Science, leading researchers have catalogued stunning breakthroughs in the development of organoids – miniature human organs that are used to mimic disease and test treatments, and might one day provide replacement parts for the sick and elderly.

Perhaps nowhere are those advances more pressing than in cancer research.

Read the full story here

In ultra-marathons and pregnancies, humans have a metabolic ceiling

The ultimate limits to human endurance-race performance, scientists say, may not be determined simply by strength and stamina, important as those are.

Rather, they may be related to the body’s ability to process energy from food.

Athletes have long known that calories are important. Bicycle races such as the Tour de France have been described as “eating contests on bicycles”, says Herman Pontzer, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. 

Read the full story here

Chimps have a taste for crabs 

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Female and juvenile chimps are more likely than adult males to eat crabs.


A paper in the Journal of Human Evolution, written by Kathelijne Koops from the University of Zurich, and colleagues, documents year-round crab-catching behaviour by a troupe of chimps (Pan troglodytes verus) resident in the rainforest of the Nimba Mountains in Guinea, West Africa.

Film captured by the scientists clearly shows the apes painstakingly dredging through a muddy stream bed and lifting rocks at the water’s edge in pursuit of small freshwater crabs.

Read the full story here

For those about to rock: the birthplace of humanity’s tool kit found

Humans are expert tool-makers, and as far back as 2.6 million years ago our stone age relatives were getting there too.

That’s according to an analysis of 300 stone artefacts – including sharp-edged rock flakes and the rocks they have been chipped from, known as “cores” – published in the journal PNAS.

The new trove of artefacts was unearthed in Ethiopia’s Afar Basin, a region that rocketed to fame in 1974 when the 3.2-million-year-old remains of our ancient relative “Lucy” (Australopithecus afarensis) were discovered.

Read the full story here

Bees can link symbols to numbers

Bees continue to impress in the intellectual stakes. Not only can they understand zero and do basic maths, it appears they may be capable of connecting symbols to numbers.

The same team of Australian and French researchers that discovered the zero trick has now trained honeybees to match a character to a specific quantity – a finding that sheds new light on how numerical abilities may have evolved over millennia.

Read the full story here

Acting success is a function of maths, not talent

Success in showbusiness, at least according to cynics and more than a few out-of-work actors, does not depend on talent alone. Or possibly at all.

And now there’s some solid mathematics to back the contention up. Researchers Oliver Williams, Lucas Lacasa and Vito Lacora, all of the Queen Mary University of London in the UK, applied machine-learning analysis to the careers of more than two million performers detailed on the International Movie Database (IMDb) and came to several dispiriting conclusions.

Read the full story here

And here’s our image of the week 

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Two nebulae, two nurseries and a runaway star, courtesy of the Spitzer Space Telescope.


This extraordinarily beautiful image, compiled from data acquired by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in 2009, and now formally released, shows two massive nebulae in the region of the constellation Cepheus, which can be found near the constellation Cassiopeia.

And although these towering clouds of dust and gas are visually magnificent, they are not – to astronomers, at least – the most interesting components of the picture.

The image also contains two infant star clusters, dubbed Cepheus C and Cepheus B. The first is visible as a small smattering of red and orange dots on the left-hand side of the larger nebula; the second – all red and blue – lies directly above the second nebula.

Back on the right hand side, deep in the gas cloud, a star with what appear to be red fans above and below it can be seen. This is V374 Ceph, a massive star surrounded by what researchers think might be a disk of dark, dusty material – the dark spaces between the fans.

And in the smaller nebula, there is a red arc. This, say the folks at NASA, is a runaway star – a high-speed wrecker powering across space. The arc is, in fact, the shock wave that precedes it.

To view all this week’s featured images, click here

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