Why neuroscientists need to study the crow

crow

Grigori Guitchounts writes: The animals of neuroscience research are an eclectic bunch, and for good reason. Different model organisms—like zebra fish larvae, C. elegans worms, fruit flies, and mice — give researchers the opportunity to answer specific questions. The first two, for example, have transparent bodies, which let scientists easily peer into their brains; the last two have eminently tweakable genomes, which allow scientists to isolate the effects of specific genes. For cognition studies, researchers have relied largely on primates and, more recently, rats, which I use in my own work. But the time is ripe for this exclusive club of research animals to accept a new, avian member: the corvid family.

Corvids, such as crows, ravens, and magpies, are among the most intelligent birds on the planet — the list of their cognitive achievements goes on and on — yet neuroscientists have not scrutinized their brains for one simple reason: They don’t have a neocortex. The obsession with the neocortex in neuroscience research is not unwarranted; what’s unwarranted is the notion that the neocortex alone is responsible for sophisticated cognition. Because birds lack this structure—the most recently evolved portion of the mammalian brain, crucial to human intelligence—neuroscientists have largely and unfortunately neglected the neural basis of corvid intelligence.

This makes them miss an opportunity for an important insight. Having diverged from mammals more than 300 million years ago, avian brains have had plenty of time to develop along remarkably different lines (instead of a cortex with its six layers of neatly arranged neurons, birds evolved groups of neurons densely packed into clusters called nuclei). So, any computational similarities between corvid and primate brains — which are so different neurally — would indicate the development of common solutions to shared evolutionary problems, like creating and storing memories, or learning from experience. If neuroscientists want to know how brains produce intelligence, looking solely at the neocortex won’t cut it; they must study how corvid brains achieve the same clever behaviors that we see in ourselves and other mammals. [Continue reading…]

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1.5 billion birds missing from North American skies, ‘alarming’ report finds

The Canadian Press reports: North American skies have grown quieter over the last decades by the absent songs of 1.5 billion birds, says the latest summary of bird populations.

The survey by dozens of government, university and environmental agencies across North America has also listed 86 species of birds — including once-common and much-loved songbirds such as the evening grosbeak and Canada warbler — that are threatened by plummeting populations, habitat destruction and climate change.

“The information on urgency is quite alarming,” said Partners In Flight co-author Judith Kennedy of Environment Canada. “We’re really getting down to the dregs of some of these populations.”

The report is the most complete survey of land bird numbers to date and attempts to assess the health of populations on a continental basis. It concludes that, while there are still a lot of birds in the sky, there aren’t anywhere near as many as there used to be. [Continue reading…]

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How trees talk to each other

 

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Forget ideology, liberal democracy’s newest threats come from technology and bioscience

John Naughton writes: The BBC Reith Lectures in 1967 were given by Edmund Leach, a Cambridge social anthropologist. “Men have become like gods,” Leach began. “Isn’t it about time that we understood our divinity? Science offers us total mastery over our environment and over our destiny, yet instead of rejoicing we feel deeply afraid.”

That was nearly half a century ago, and yet Leach’s opening lines could easily apply to today. He was speaking before the internet had been built and long before the human genome had been decoded, and so his claim about men becoming “like gods” seems relatively modest compared with the capabilities that molecular biology and computing have subsequently bestowed upon us. Our science-based culture is the most powerful in history, and it is ceaselessly researching, exploring, developing and growing. But in recent times it seems to have also become plagued with existential angst as the implications of human ingenuity begin to be (dimly) glimpsed.

The title that Leach chose for his Reith Lecture – A Runaway World – captures our zeitgeist too. At any rate, we are also increasingly fretful about a world that seems to be running out of control, largely (but not solely) because of information technology and what the life sciences are making possible. But we seek consolation in the thought that “it was always thus”: people felt alarmed about steam in George Eliot’s time and got worked up about electricity, the telegraph and the telephone as they arrived on the scene. The reassuring implication is that we weathered those technological storms, and so we will weather this one too. Humankind will muddle through.

But in the last five years or so even that cautious, pragmatic optimism has begun to erode. There are several reasons for this loss of confidence. One is the sheer vertiginous pace of technological change. Another is that the new forces at loose in our society – particularly information technology and the life sciences – are potentially more far-reaching in their implications than steam or electricity ever were. And, thirdly, we have begun to see startling advances in these fields that have forced us to recalibrate our expectations.[Continue reading…]

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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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