Hot Soil and Ancient Beasts

Findings Log / by The Editors /

In this week’s Findings Log, we take a look at new research on body cues and abstract thought, warming soils, what roamed Earth before T-Rex, and more.

Findings Log is a look at some of the research and academic papers that have recently caught the eyes of Seed’s editors, Lee Billings, Greg Boustead, Joe Kloc, and Maywa Montenegro. For more recommended reading and occasional insights, follow them on Twitter.


Read the paperWhiteside et al. PNAS March 22, 2010

The Rise of the Dinosaurs
There was a time on this planet when the crurotarsans—a close relative of today’s crocodiles—were kings. These scaly beasts chomped their way through the small dinosaurs of the Triassic Period as they roamed across the supercontinent Pangaea, and in this way the order of the world was set: The mighty crurotarsans maintained their place high atop the animals by feeding on their saurian competitors. But then the Earth’s great continent split, Africa began to drift from North America, and for the next 600,000 years lava boiled from the crust, increasing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the planet’s atmosphere. According to a paper published this month in PNAS, the resulting environmental destruction killed off most of the mighty crurotarsans, but not the dinosaurs. With their main enemy crippled, the dinosaurs rose to power and the Jurassic Period began. Though it had been suggested before, the study is the first to clarify this link between volcanic activity and the mass extinction that ended the Triassic Period. It explores the infrequently discussed rise of the dinosaurs and provides a powerful reminder of nature’s ability to drastically and rapidly alter the order of the world.—JK


Read the paperGriskevicius et al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. March, 2010

It Ain’t Easy Being Green
Sticky gas pedals and misshapen floor mats aside, the Toyota Prius has become an icon of environmentally conscious consumerism. A big part of its success, according to a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, is that it is so iconic, a mobile jelly bean instantly recognizable as “green.” People want to be seen as altruistic, contends Vladas Griskevicius of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. And nothing, apparently, communicates that better than buying stuff that costs more—and might be lower in quality—but in benefiting the environment, is good for everyone. Green products that cost more than their less environmentally friendly counterparts, Griskevicius’ team discovered, actually fared better on the sales floor than green products priced lower than conventional fare. But what happens when the element of visibility is stripped away? The authors found that when people shop online, they choose products that are comforting and luxurious—the 4-ply toilet paper, or the imported Kobe beef—while in public, they are far more monkish. In public, status-motivation compels people to forgo luxury for an inferior green product that symbolizes “you care,” according to Griskevicius, whose work applies evolutionary biology to consumer choice.


Read the paperMazar et al. Psychological Science. March, 2010

The moral virtuosity of eco-consumerism was also the crux of another recent paper in the journal Psychological Science. This time, researchers compared green shoppers with conventional ones, with startling results: People who bought green products turned out to be less willing to share money than the conventional crew; when they were offered the chance to win cash by cheating on a computer game and then lying about it, they also took the bait, while conventional shoppers didn’t; and when asked to take cash from an envelope, the greens proved six times more likely to steal than their counterparts. In their paper, psychologists Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong expressed surprise with these findings, saying that just as exposure to the Apple logo increases creativity (according to another recent psych study), they figured that mere exposure to green products would “activate norms of social responsibility and ethical conduct.” Perhaps what’s going on, they suggest, is a compensating mechanism, or in the psych jargon, “moral balancing.” In other words, comforted by purchasing the organic t-shirt or the Prius, people feel entitled to act out in other areas. Whether privately indulging in carbon-laden goodies or pilfering extra cash, being eco-friendly, it seems, can tickle the Grinches and ugly green monsters in us all. —MM


Read the paperLoetscher et al. Current Biology March 23, 2010

Our Mind-betraying Eyes
Thoughts are generally believed to be of the ether. Intangible, ephemeral, hidden from sight. But scientists are beginning to identify the many ways that cognitive abstractions are transferred to the physical world. Last week, researchers from Australia and Switzerland reported that they can essentially predict “what number you’re thinking of” with a look into your eyes. More accurately, they can predict the relative size of that number in a random series. The team had a group of participants call out 40 numbers (from 1 to 30) as randomly as possible. The researchers recorded the volunteers’ average horizontal and vertical eye position a split second before each number was called out, and were able to reliably forecast whether the next number would be higher or lower. When the subjects looked to the left and down, the number was smaller; when they looked up and to the right, it was larger. Not only did the direction of eye movement indicate the relative size of the next number, but surprisingly, the degree of movement predicted the magnitude of the numerical shift. This is great news if you’re a magician or a card shark. But beyond the purview of children’s birthday parties and card tables, the implications of the study are decidedly more profound. The results confirm earlier findings that we mentally reference an “imaginary number line” when thinking about numbers and make a solid case for how subtly these abstractions can direct body movements. They illuminate the remarkable connections between supposedly abstract thought processes, body mechanics, and the choices we make.—GB


Read the paperBond-Lamberty & Thomson Nature
March 25, 2010

Heavy Breathing
Ice ages and solar minima, heavy snowstorms and urban heat islands—opponents of the scientific consensus that the Earth is warming due to rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) all have their favorite counterpoints. Some, like those aforementioned, can be dismissed as red herrings with relative ease. Others are more significant, like ones that question how well scientists understand the global carbon cycle. Such criticisms highlight real uncertainties that exist within current models of climate change. Quantifying just how much carbon the Earth’s skies, seas, and soils hold—and how these reservoirs all interact with each other—has great bearing on projecting future climate trends. Fortunately, as a new Nature study shows, some of this uncertainty is dwindling. Two researchers from the University of Maryland painstakingly analyzed decades of data from more than 400 studies of soil respiration (that is, the release of CO2 from buried microbes and plant roots). Their analysis elegantly confirms the prediction that as the climate warms, soils emit more CO2. According to the study, there are two likely explanations for this phenomenon, each with very different implications. The increased emissions could come from increased plant growth, with more plant roots emitting more CO2. In this case, the increased levels of emitted CO2 could be balanced out by increased amounts of photosynthesis. Alternatively, warming soils could be stimulating more microbial decomposition of organic matter, creating a dangerous positive-feedback loop in which warmer soils release more soil-heating CO2. Further work is needed to clarify which mechanism will dominate soil respiration in a warming world.—LB

Originally published March 29, 2010

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