Health & Science

The upside of being down; Man-eating lions got a bad rap; Bad-drivin’ genes; Something fishy about wine; Those frisky fruit bats

The upside of being down

“Happy” and “healthy” often go together, but being sad does have its advantages, new research suggests. In a series of experiments, researchers in Australia found that when people are feeling down, some of their cognitive skills are actually sharper than those of their sunnier counterparts. Scientists induced happy or sad moods in subjects by showing them various films and having them recall negative or positive events. When asked to judge the truth of certain urban myths, the sad subjects turned out to be less gullible than the happy ones. They also had more accurate memories of events they’d witnessed and could make more persuasive arguments. The researchers say that though a good mood encourages creativity and cooperation, it also promotes reliance on mental shortcuts; a negative mood prompts the sufferer to think more carefully and to pay closer attention to the external world. Sadness “promotes information processing best suited to dealing with more demanding situations,” psychologist Joseph Forgas tells the London Daily Mail. A “positive mood is not universally desirable.”

Man-eating lions got a bad rap

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For several months in 1898, two male lions went on an infamous man-eating rampage, reportedly killing and devouring more than 100 people in the Tsavo region of Kenya. But that death toll has long been debated, and now scientists have taken it down several notches. After the lions were shot and killed, their remains were sold to Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, where they’ve been on display ever since. Recently, scientists collected tissue samples from the pair and analyzed them using a method that indicates what they had consumed in their final months. “One lion was consuming a lot of humans, and one was not,” ecologist Justin Yeakel tells New Scientist. All told, the analysis found, the two ate about 35 people, not 135 as some reports said. The lions likely only turned to human prey after droughts, disease, and hunting killed off much of their usual game. “People are a dangerous food to go after,” Yeakel says.

Bad-drivin’ genes

Bad drivers may have a new excuse—their genes. Researchers at University of California, Irvine, had volunteers drive computer-simulated laps, a task that required them to learn, over time, the demanding curves of the course. The subjects who performed the worst, researchers found, possessed a faulty variant of the gene that aids the learning process. When it’s working normally, the gene helps communication among brain cells and strengthens memory. “These people make more errors from the get-go, and they forget more of what they learned after time,” neurologist Steven Cramer tells While the study was small, the implications could be broad: Roughly 30 percent of Americans carry the faulty gene. “I’d be curious to know the genetics of people who get into car crashes,” Cramer says. “I wonder if the accident rate is higher for drivers with

the variant.”

Something fishy about wine

As any good sommelier knows, seafood and red wine generally don’t mix. Try it, and you’ll likely end up with a sour aftertaste. The effect is commonly thought to be caused by tannins, the chemicals that give red wines their “dry” taste. But now scientists have identified a different culprit, says ScienceNOW. Japanese researchers asked seven experienced wine tasters to sample various wines while eating scallops and to rate any aftertaste. The most troublesome wines, it turned out, were those highest in iron, a metal that can enter wine through the soil or the production process. Iron is found in low amounts in wine and, since it doesn’t affect color or cloudiness, vintners tend to ignore it. It’s more common in reds than whites—and higher in some reds than others—which explains why very few reds go well with seafood. To be safe, says enologist Gordon Burns, drink your red “with a big stew or a hearty chunk of meat.”

Those frisky fruit bats

Scientists in China report that the short-nosed fruit bat engages in oral sex—the first time that activity has been observed in a nonprimate. The researchers had set out to study the bats’ basic mating habits. As bat couples copulated (upside down) in a laboratory, the females were seen to frequently lick the males’ genitalia. “We did not expect fellatio,” biologist Libiao Zhang tells “We were also surprised at how often it occurred.” In fact, about 70 percent of the females licked the males, for up to 19 seconds at a time, and the longer they licked, the longer intercourse lasted. Zhang and his colleagues theorize that the saliva might provide lubrication to facilitate intercourse or kill sexually transmitted diseases. Researchers say it’s possible that oral sex is more common in the animal kingdom than we know. “Part of the reason fellatio is rarely mentioned is shyness about the issue,” says primatologist Frans de Waal.

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