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Tool use in sea otters doesn't run in the family

otter with rock

Sea otters, like this one holding a clam, use rocks to crack open their food. A new study suggests that a propensity for this behavior is not passed from mother to child. 

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Aside from being adorable, sea otters and Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins share an ecological feat: Both species use tools. Otters crack open snails with rocks, and dolphins carry cone-shaped sponges to protect their snouts while scavenging for rock dwelling fish.

Researchers have linked tool use in dolphins to a set of differences in mitochondrial DNA — which passes from mother to offspring — suggesting that tool-use behavior may be inherited. Biologist Katherine Ralls of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and her colleagues looked for a similar pattern in otters off the California coast. The team tracked diet (primarily abalone, crab, mussels, clams, urchins or snails) and tool use in the wild and analyzed DNA from 197 individual otters.

Otters that ate lots of hard-shelled snails — and used tools most frequently — rarely shared a common pattern in mitochondrial DNA, nor were they more closely related to other tool-users than any other otter in the population. 

Unlike dolphins, sea otters may all be predisposed to using tools because their ancestors probably lived off mollusks, which required cracking open. However, modern otters only take up tools when their diet requires them, the researchers report March 21 in Biology Letters

Particle Physics

Large Hadron Collider experiment nabs five new particles

By Emily Conover 3:25pm, March 21, 2017
LHCb experiment detects new particles composed of two strange quarks and one charm quark.
Animals,, Science & Society

Tropical bedbugs outclimb common bedbugs

By Helen Thompson 6:03pm, March 15, 2017
A study of bedbug traps and feet names finds that tropical bedbugs are much better at scaling slippery walls than common bedbugs.

In new Cassini portraits, Saturn’s moon Pan looks like pasta

By Helen Thompson 5:30pm, March 10, 2017
Photographs taken this week by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft provide a closer view of Saturn’s small moon Pan, which resembles ravioli.
Archaeology,, Microbiology,, Evolution

Ancient dental plaque tells tales of Neandertal diet and disease

By Helen Thompson 1:22pm, March 8, 2017
Researchers have reconstructed the diet and disease history of ancient Neandertals.
Particle Physics,, Astronomy

Rare triplet of high-energy neutrinos detected from an unknown source

By Emily Conover 1:20pm, March 3, 2017
The IceCube Neutrino Observatory spotted three neutrinos within 100 seconds that seem to have come from the same place in the sky.

Certain birth defects are on the rise since Zika arrived in the U.S.

By Laurel Hamers 5:36pm, March 2, 2017
The rate of certain birth defects is much higher in babies born to Zika-infected mothers in the United States, the CDC reports.
Planetary Science,, Oceans

Saturn’s ‘Death Star’ moon may not conceal an ocean after all

By Thomas Sumner 2:07pm, February 28, 2017
A lack of cracks on Mimas suggests that the icy moon of Saturn doesn’t conceal a subsurface ocean of liquid water.
Planetary Science,, Astronomy

Juno spacecraft won’t go into shorter orbit around Jupiter

By Ashley Yeager 4:02pm, February 17, 2017
Juno will remain in its 53-day orbit around Jupiter due to an issue with two helium check valves, NASA reports.
Climate,, Oceans,, Earth

Antarctic sea ice shrinks to record low

By Thomas Sumner 1:14pm, February 17, 2017
The Antarctic sea ice extent has reached a new low just two years after hitting a record high.

See how long Zika lasts in semen and other bodily fluids

By Meghan Rosen 5:03pm, February 14, 2017
For most men infected with Zika, traces of the virus disappear from semen 81 days after symptoms begin. In other bodily fluids, Zika RNA is typically cleared even faster.
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