Fish can recognize human faces, study shows

archerfish

CNN reports: Can your pet fish recognize your face?

A new study says, Yes, it probably can.

Researchers studying archerfish found the fish can tell a familiar human face from dozens of new faces with surprising accuracy.

This is a big, big deal. It’s the first time fish have demonstrated this ability.

Think about it: All faces have two eyes sitting above a nose and a mouth. And for us to be able to tell them apart, we need to be able to pick up the subtle differences in features.

We’re good at this because we are smart, i.e. we have large and complex brains. Other primates can do this too. Some birds as well.

But a fish? A fish has a tiny brain. And it would have no reason in its evolution to learn how to recognize humans.

So this study, published in the journal “Scientific Reports,” throws on its head all our conventional thinking. It was done by scientists at University of Oxford in the U.K. and the University of Queensland in Australia. [Continue reading…]

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Magpies challenge bird-brain myth

magpie

GrrlScientist writes: Birds have been disparaged publicly as “bird brains” for so long that most people have lost the ability to view them as intelligent and sentient beings. However, a group of researchers in Germany have conducted a series of studies with several captive European magpies, Pica pica, that challenge the average person’s view of birds and their cognitive abilities.

It is widely accepted in the scientific community that self-awareness is prerequisite for the development of consciousness. Previously, only mammals — humans and several of their cousins, chimpanzees and orangutans, as well as dolphins and elephants — were observed to have self-awareness by demonstrating that they could recognize themselves in a mirror.

However, a new study by a research group in Germany reveals that birds apparently also evolved self-recognition.

“[Our research] shows that the line leading to humans is not as special as many thought,” pointed out lead researcher Helmut Prior of the Institute of Psychology at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany.

To do their research, Prior and his colleagues carried out a series of tests with five hand-raised European magpies. [Continue reading…]

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The strange case of the butterfly and the male-murdering microbe

Ed Yong writes: Hurbert Walter Simmonds had only been in Fiji for a year before he was appointed as Government Entomologist in 1920. It was an unusual role, but an important one. The island was repeatedly threatened by agricultural pests, and so Simmonds would spend the next 46 years searching for predators and parasites that could bring these crop-destroyers to heel.

In his downtime, he collected butterflies. There are thousands of species in Fiji, and the blue moon butterfly (Hypolimnas bolina) is among the most beautiful of them. The name comes from the males, whose black wings have three pairs of bright white spots, encircled by blue iridescence. They are stunning, and all males look the same. The females are more varied: they are clothed in a wide range of spots, stripes and hues, many of which mimic other local butterflies. Simmonds wanted to know how these patterns are inherited, so he started capturing and breeding the insects.

That’s when he noticed that most of the females only gave birth to females.

Some 90 percent of them would produce all-female broods. They laid large clutches of eggs and around half the embryos died — presumably, the male ones. Simmonds didn’t know why. [Continue reading…]

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Ancient Venus may have been much like Earth

The Washington Post reports: For a 2-billion-year-long span, ending about 715 million years ago, Venus was likely a much more pleasant spot that it is today. To observe Venus now is to witness a dry and toxic hellscape, where the planet heats up to a scorching 864 degrees Fahrenheit. A super-strong electric wind is believed to suck the smallest traces of water into space. With apologies to Ian Malcolm, life as we know it could not find a way.

But travel back in time a few billion years or so. Ancient Venus, according to a new computer model from NASA, would have been prime solar system real estate, to the point it may have been downright habitable.

That life would find Venus amenable hinges on two main factors. Venus would have needed much balmier temperatures, and it also would have needed a liquid ocean — which is a significant if, although elemental traces such as deuterium indicate water existed on Venus at one point. As Colin Wilson, an Oxford University planetary physicist, told Time in 2010, “everything points to there being large amounts of water in the past.”

Venusian temperatures, too, appear to have been far cooler when the solar system was younger. NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in a report published Thursday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, calculated that the average surface temperature 2.9 billion years ago was about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Such temperature would have made Venus, surprisingly for a planet closer to the Sun, a bit chillier than Earth was at the time. [Continue reading…]

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Cricket’s famous ‘legover’ moment and why getting the giggles is so contagious

By Sophie Scott, UCL

It is 25 years since cricket commentators Brian Johnston and Jonathan Agnew famously got the uncontrollable giggles on live radio, while reporting on that day’s Test Match between England and the West Indies. The pair were commentating on the wicket of England’s Ian Botham, when he stumbled on to his stumps and, as Agnew put it: “Didn’t get his leg over”.

The resulting infectious two minutes of laughter has since been voted the greatest moment of sporting commentary ever. It’s worth listening to again – see if you can help giggling along with them.

I research the neurobiology of human vocal communication, and recently I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at laughter, which is easily the most common non-verbal emotional expression which one comes across (though in some cultures laughter is rather impolite and can be less frequently encountered when out and about). There are four key features of the science of laughter that this the Botham clip illustrates.

[Read more…]

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There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ microbes

microbiome

Ed Yong writes: In the 1870s, German physician Robert Koch was trying to curtail an epidemic of anthrax that was sweeping local farm animals. Other scientists had seen a bacterium, Bacillus anthracis, in the victims’ tis­sues. Koch injected this microbe into a mouse – which died. He recovered it from the dead rodent and injected it into another one – which also died. Doggedly, he repeated this grim process for over 20 generations and the same thing happened every time. Koch had unequivocally shown that Bacillus anthracis caused anthrax.

This experiment, and those of contemporaries like Louis Pasteur, confirmed that many diseases are caused by microscopic organisms. Microbes, which had been largely neglected for a couple of centuries, were quickly cast as avatars of death. They were germs, pathogens, bringers of pestilence. Within two decades of Koch’s work on anthrax, he and many others had discovered that bacteria were also associated with leprosy, gonorrhoea, typhoid, tuberculosis, cholera, diphtheria, tetanus, and plague. Microbes became synonymous with squalor and sickness. They became foes for us to annihilate and repel.

Today, we know this view is wrong – as I explain in my new book I Contain Multitudes. Sure, some bacteria can cause disease, but they are in the minority. Most are harmless, and many are even beneficial. We now know that the trillions of microbes that share our bodies – the so-called microbiome – are an essential part of our lives. Far from making us sick, they can protect us from disease; they also help digest our food, train our immune system, and perhaps even influence our behaviour. These discoveries have shifted the narrative. Many people now see microbes as allies to be protected. Magazines regularly warn that antibiotics and sanitisers might be harming our health by destroying our microscopic support system. Slowly, the view that ‘all bacteria must be killed’ is giving ground to ‘bacteria are our friends and want to help us’.

The problem is that the latter view is just as wrong as the former. We cannot simply assume that a particular microbe is ‘good’ just because it lives inside us. There’s really no such thing as a ‘good microbe’ or a ‘bad microbe’. These broad-brush terms belong in children’s stories. They are ill-suited for describing the messy, fractious, contextual relationships of the natural world. [Continue reading…]

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Your gut bacteria predates appearance of humans, genetic study finds

The Guardian reports: The evolutionary history of the bacteria in your guts predates the appearance of humans, and mirrors that of our great ape relatives, according to a genetic study.

The research suggests that microbes in our ancestors’ intestines split into new evolutionary lineages in parallel with splits in the ape family tree.

This came as a surprise to scientists, who had thought that most of our gut bacteria came from our surroundings – what we eat, where we live, even what kind of medicine we take. The new research suggests that evolutionary history is much more important than previously thought.

“When there were no humans or gorillas, just ancestral African apes, they harboured gut bacteria. Then the apes split into different branches, and there was also a parallel divergence of different gut bacteria,” said Prof Andrew Moeller of the University of California, Berkeley who led the study, published in Science. This happened when gorillas separated somewhere between 10-15 million years ago, and again when humans split from chimps and bonobos 5 million years ago. [Continue reading…]

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Biodiversity is below safe levels across more than half of world’s land, say scientists

wheat

The Guardian reports: The variety of animals and plants has fallen to dangerous levels across more than half of the world’s landmass due to humanity destroying habitats to use as farmland, scientists have estimated.

The unchecked loss of biodiversity is akin to playing ecological roulette and will set back efforts to bring people out of poverty in the long term, they warned.

Analysing 1.8m records from 39,123 sites across Earth, the international study found that a measure of the intactness of biodiversity at sites has fallen below a safety limit across 58.1% of the world’s land.

Under a proposal put forward by experts last year, a site losing more than 10% of its biodiversity is considered to have passed a precautionary threshold, beyond which the ecosystem’s ability to function could be compromised.

“It’s worrying that land use has already pushed biodiversity below the level proposed as a safe limit,” said Prof Andy Purvis, of the Natural History Museum, and one of the authors. “Until and unless we can bring biodiversity back up, we’re playing ecological roulette.” [Continue reading…]

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Goats, sheep and cows could challenge dogs for title of ‘man’s best friend’

By Catherine Douglas, Newcastle University

Since the evolution of dogs from wolves tens of thousands of years ago, they have been selectively bred for various roles as guards, hunters, workers and companions. But dogs are not the only animal humans have domesticated, which suggests that although dogs get all the attention, there’s reason to argue other species could also deserve the title of “man’s best friend”.

Anthrozoology, the study of human-animal relationships, has established that dogs demonstrate complex communication with humans. Charles Darwin thought that dogs experienced love, but it was only in 2015 that Japanese scientists demonstrated what we all intuitively knew. Miho Nagasawa and colleagues sprayed the “love hormone” oxytocin up dogs’ noses, measured the loving gaze between dog and human, and then measured the oxytocin levels in the humans’ urine, finding them to be higher. Rest assured, dog owners, that science has verified your bond with your faithful hound.

Horses also show intentional communicative behaviour with humans, and another recent paper published in the Royal Society’s Biology Letters from researchers at Queen Mary University of London has shown that goats also demonstrate an affinity with humans. The experiments tested goats’ intelligence and ability to communicate with humans. What the team found may come as no surprise to anyone who has worked with livestock: goats are highly intelligent, capable of complex communication with humans, and are able to form bonds with us – treating us as potential partners to help in problem-solving situations.

Our attitudes to animals tend to reflect the familiarity we have with them. Dogs score higher in perceived intelligence ratings than cows, for example, yet a study in the 1970s demonstrated that in a test cows could navigate a maze as well as dogs, and only slightly less well than children. The point was made that our perception of an animal’s ability is influenced by how we test them.

[Read more…]

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Learning from nature: Record-efficiency turbine farms are being inspired by sealife

Alex Riley writes: As they drove on featureless dirt roads on the first Tuesday of 2010, John Dabiri, professor of aeronautics and bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology, and his then-student Robert Whittlesey, were inspecting a remote area of land that they hoped to purchase to test new concepts in wind power. They named their site FLOWE for Field Laboratory for Optimized Wind Energy. Situated between gentle knolls covered in sere vegetation, the four-acre parcel in Antelope Valley, California, was once destined to become a mall, but those plans fell through. The land was cheap. And, more importantly, it was windy.

Estimated at 250 trillion Watts, the amount of wind on Earth has the potential to provide more than 20 times our current global energy consumption. Yet, only four countries — Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and Denmark — generate more than 10 percent of their electricity this way. The United States, one of the largest, wealthiest, and windiest of countries, comes in at about 4 percent. There are reasons for that. Wind farm expansion brings with it huge engineering costs, unsightly countryside, loud noises, disruption to military radar, and death of wildlife. Recent estimates blamed turbines for killing 600,000 bats and up to 440,000 birds a year. On June 19, 2014, the American Bird Conservancy filed a lawsuit against the federal government asking it to curtail the impact of wind farms on the dwindling eagle populations. And while standalone horizontal-axis turbines harvest wind energy well, in a group they’re highly profligate. As their propeller-like blades spin, the turbines facing into the wind disrupt free-flowing air, creating a wake of slow-moving, infertile air behind them. [Continue reading…]

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A molecule deep in space could help explain the origins of life

Discover Magazine reports: A peculiar new molecule hovering within a star-forming dust cloud in deep in space could help explain why life on Earth is the way it is.

The cloud, called Sagittarius B2, resides near the center of the Milky Way, and it’s there that researchers from the California Institute of Technology discovered an organic element that displays a key property shared by all life. Propylene oxide is the first element discovered outside of our solar system to exhibit chirality, or the presence of two distinct, mirror-image forms. Many complex molecules have this property, including myriad organic molecules necessary for life. The chemical formula of these two versions is exactly the same, but the structure is flipped.

All life on Earth is composed of chiral molecules, and the versions organisms use, either right- or left-handed, determines fundamental properties of their biology. For example, all living things only use the right-handed form of the sugar ribose to form the backbone of DNA, giving it that the signature twist. You can think of molecular handedness by picturing gloves — hence the “handed terminology”. The gloves, or molecules, may look similar, but you could never put a left-handed glove on your right hand. [Continue reading…]

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RIP Bob Paine, a keystone among ecologists

Ed Yong writes: I’m deeply saddened to learn that Bob Paine, a giant of ecology, passed away yesterday. You may not know his name, but you almost certainly know the ideas that he pioneered.

Back in 1963, Paine began prying ochre starfish off a rocky beach in Washington and hurling them into the sea. After a year, the mussels that the starfish would normally have eaten had overrun the beach, turning a wonderland of limpets, anemones, and barnacles into a monoculture of black gaping shells.

The experiment was ground-breaking. It showed that not all species are equal, and that some — like the starfish—are secret lynchpins of the natural world. Their absence can ripple outwards, triggering the rise and fall of connected species and can even reshape the landscape. For example, when sea otters vanish, the sea urchins they eat transform lush forests of kelp into desolate barrens, dooming the fish, crabs, and other animals that once lived there. Paine called these ripples “trophic cascades”, and he billed the animals behind them — the starfish, otters, and others — as “keystone species”, after the central stone that stops an arch from collapsing. These concepts are so familiar today that we take them for granted, but we didn’t always know about them. We only do because of Paine. [Continue reading…]

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