What hyenas can tell us about the origins of intelligence

David Z. Hambrick writes: Physical similarities aside, we share a lot in common with our primate relatives. For example, as Jane Goodall famously documented, chimpanzees form lifelong bonds and show affection in much the same way as humans. Chimps can also solve novel problems, use objects as tools, and may possess “theory of mind”—an understanding that others may have different perspectives than oneself. They can even outperform humans in certain types of cognitive tasks.

These commonalities may not seem all that surprising given what we now know from the field of comparative genomics: We share nearly all of our DNA with chimpanzees and other primates. However, social and cognitive complexity is not unique to our closest evolutionary cousins. In fact, it is abundant in species with which we would seem to have very little in common—like the spotted hyena.

For more than three decades, the Michigan State University zoologist Kay Holekamp has studied the habits of the spotted hyena in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, once spending five years straight living in a tent among her oft-maligned subjects. One of the world’s longest-running studies of a wild mammal, this landmark project has revealed that spotted hyenas not only have social groups as complex as those of many primates, but are also capable of some of the same types of problem solving.

This research sheds light on one of science’s greatest mysteries—how intelligence has evolved across the animal kingdom. [Continue reading…]


Jumping genes play a big role in what makes us human

Science News reports: Face-to-face, a human and a chimpanzee are easy to tell apart. The two species share a common primate ancestor, but over millions of years, their characteristics have morphed into easily distinguishable features. Chimps developed prominent brow ridges, flat noses, low-crowned heads and protruding muzzles. Human noses jut from relatively flat faces under high-domed crowns.

Those facial features diverged with the help of genetic parasites, mobile bits of genetic material that insert themselves into their hosts’ DNA. These parasites go by many names, including “jumping genes,” “transposable elements” and “transposons.” Some are relics of former viruses assimilated into a host’s genome, or genetic instruction book. Others are self-perpetuating pieces of genetic material whose origins are shrouded in the mists of time.

“Transposable elements have been with us since the beginning of evolution. Bacteria have transposable elements,” says evolutionary biologist Josefa González. She doesn’t think of transposons as foreign DNA. They are parts of our genomes — like genes.

“You cannot understand the genome without understanding what transposable elements are doing,” says González, of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona. She studies how jumping genes have influenced fruit fly evolution.

Genomes of most organisms are littered with the carcasses of transposons, says Cédric Feschotte, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Fossils of the DNA parasites build up like the remains of ancient algae that formed the white cliffs of Dover. One strain of maize, the organism in which Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock first discovered transposable elements in the 1940s, is nearly 85 percent transposable elements (SN: 12/19/09, p. 9). Corn is an extreme example, but humans have plenty, too: Transposable elements make up nearly half of the human genome.

Most of the transposons in the genomes of humans and other creatures are now “dead,” meaning they are no longer able to jump. The majority are in bits and pieces scattered throughout the genome like so much confetti. Many researchers used to think these broken transposons were just genetic garbage.

Far from junk, however, jumping gene remnants have been an evolutionary treasure trove. Some of the control switches transposons once used for their own hopping have been recycled over time into useful tools that help species, including Homo sapiens, adapt to their environments or take on new characteristics. [Continue reading…]


The thoughts of a spiderweb

Joshua Sokol writes: Millions of years ago, a few spiders abandoned the kind of round webs that the word “spiderweb” calls to mind and started to focus on a new strategy. Before, they would wait for prey to become ensnared in their webs and then walk out to retrieve it. Then they began building horizontal nets to use as a fishing platform. Now their modern descendants, the cobweb spiders, dangle sticky threads below, wait until insects walk by and get snagged, and reel their unlucky victims in.

In 2008, the researcher Hilton Japyassú prompted 12 species of orb spiders collected from all over Brazil to go through this transition again. He waited until the spiders wove an ordinary web. Then he snipped its threads so that the silk drooped to where crickets wandered below. When a cricket got hooked, not all the orb spiders could fully pull it up, as a cobweb spider does. But some could, and all at least began to reel it in with their two front legs.

Their ability to recapitulate the ancient spiders’ innovation got Japyassú, a biologist at the Federal University of Bahia in Brazil, thinking. When the spider was confronted with a problem to solve that it might not have seen before, how did it figure out what to do? “Where is this information?” he said. “Where is it? Is it in her head, or does this information emerge during the interaction with the altered web?”

In February, Japyassú and Kevin Laland, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Saint Andrews, proposed a bold answer to the question. They argued in a review paper, published in the journal Animal Cognition, that a spider’s web is at least an adjustable part of its sensory apparatus, and at most an extension of the spider’s cognitive system.

This would make the web a model example of extended cognition, an idea first proposed by the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers in 1998 to apply to human thought. In accounts of extended cognition, processes like checking a grocery list or rearranging Scrabble tiles in a tray are close enough to memory-retrieval or problem-solving tasks that happen entirely inside the brain that proponents argue they are actually part of a single, larger, “extended” mind.

Among philosophers of mind, that idea has racked up citations, including supporters and critics. And by its very design, Japyassú’s paper, which aims to export extended cognition as a testable idea to the field of animal behavior, is already stirring up antibodies among scientists. “I got the impression that it was being very careful to check all the boxes for hot topics and controversial topics in animal cognition,” said Alex Jordan, a collective behaviorial scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Konstanz, Germany (who nonetheless supports the idea).

While many disagree with the paper’s interpretations, the study shouldn’t be confused for a piece of philosophy. Japyassú and Laland propose ways to test their ideas in concrete experiments that involve manipulating the spider’s web — tests that other researchers are excited about. “We can break that machine; we can snap strands; we can reduce the way that animal is able to perceive the system around it,” Jordan said. “And that generates some very direct and testable hypotheses.” [Continue reading…]


The language of prairie dogs

Ferris Jabr writes: [Con] Slobodchikoff, an emeritus professor of biology at Northern Arizona University, has been analyzing the sounds of prairie dogs for more than 30 years. Not long after he started, he learned that prairie dogs had distinct alarm calls for different predators. Around the same time, separate researchers found that a few other species had similar vocabularies of danger. What Slobodchikoff claimed to discover in the following decades, however, was extraordinary: Beyond identifying the type of predator, prairie-dog calls also specified its size, shape, color and speed; the animals could even combine the structural elements of their calls in novel ways to describe something they had never seen before. No scientist had ever put forward such a thorough guide to the native tongue of a wild species or discovered one so intricate. Prairie-dog communication is so complex, Slobodchikoff says — so expressive and rich in information — that it constitutes nothing less than language.

That would be an audacious claim to make about even the most overtly intelligent species — say, a chimpanzee or a dolphin — let alone some kind of dirt hamster with a brain that barely weighs more than a grape. The majority of linguists and animal-communication experts maintain that language is restricted to a single species: ourselves. Perhaps because it is so ostensibly entwined with thought, with consciousness and our sense of self, language is the last bastion encircling human exceptionalism. To concede that we share language with other species is to finally and fully admit that we are different from other animals only in degrees not in kind. In many people’s minds, language is the “cardinal distinction between man and animal, a sheerly dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff,” as Tom Wolfe argues in his book “The Kingdom of Speech,” published last year.

Slobodchikoff thinks that dividing line is an illusion. To him, the idea that a human might have a two-way conversation with another species, even a humble prairie dog, is not a pretense; it’s an inevitability. And the notion that animals of all kinds routinely engage in sophisticated discourse with one another — that the world’s ecosystems reverberate with elaborate animal idioms just waiting to be translated — is not Doctor Dolittle-inspired nonsense; it is fact. [Continue reading…]



Morning glory seeds are tough enough for an interplanetary trip

Katherine Kornei writes: Natural sunscreens help morning glory seeds survive doses of ultraviolet (UV) radiation that would burn most humans to a crisp, according to a new study. The hardy seeds of the common flowering plant would probably even survive a voyage between planets, say the researchers. This might help researchers decide which species to send on future missions to Mars, a place that is bombarded with UV light because of its thin atmosphere. It also validates the concept of panspermia, the idea that life might have hopscotched through our solar system—or others—by hitching a ride on asteroids or comets.

“These results add to the fast-growing body of evidence showing that panspermia is not only possible, but absolutely inevitable,” says Chandra Wickramasinghe, director of the Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology at the University of Buckingham in the United Kingdom, who was not involved in the study.

The research began a decade ago, when astronauts placed about 2000 seeds from tobacco plants and a flowering plant known as Arabidopsis thaliana on the outside of the International Space Station. For 558 days, the seeds were exposed to high levels of UV light, cosmic radiation, and extreme temperature fluctuations—conditions that are lethal to most forms of life. [Continue reading…]


Wonders of the deep ocean

The New York Times reports: One of the great treasures in ocean preserves is the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, established in 2009 and expanded in 2014 to cover about 370,000 square miles.

That’s a lot of water to explore, and this year the research vessel Okeanos Explorer has been doing just that, collecting data and videos on the ocean and some of the astonishing creatures that live there.

The ship is operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which studies oceans and climate change, among other subjects. Scientists on board the most recent cruise — southwest of Hawaii — used a remotely operated vehicle, the Deep Discoverer, which can descend almost 20,000 feet, to take video of remarkable creatures like the deep water siphonophore. [Continue reading…]


Newfound 3.77-billion-year-old fossils could be earliest evidence of life on Earth

The Washington Post reports: Tiny, tubular structures uncovered in ancient Canadian rocks could be remnants of some of the earliest life on Earth, scientists say.

The straw-shaped “microfossils,” narrower than the width of a human hair and invisible to the naked eye, are believed to come from ancient microbes, according to a new study in the journal Nature. Scientists debate the age of the specimens, but the authors’ youngest estimate — 3.77 billion years — would make these fossils the oldest ever found.

Claims of ancient fossils are always contentious. Rocks as old as the ones in the new study rarely survive the weathering, erosion, subduction and deformation of our geologically active Earth. Any signs of life in the rocks that do survive are difficult to distinguish, let alone prove. Other researchers in the field expressed skepticism about whether the structures were really fossils, and whether the rocks that contain them are as old as the study authors say.

But the scientists behind the new finding believe their analysis should hold up to scrutiny. In addition to structures that look like fossil microbes, the rocks contain a cocktail of chemical compounds they say is almost certainly the result of biological processes. [Continue reading…]


Bees learn to play golf and show off how clever they really are

New Scientist reports: It’s a hole in one! Bumblebees have learned to push a ball into a hole to get a reward, stretching what was thought possible for small-brained creatures.

Plenty of previous studies have shown that bees are no bumbling fools, but these have generally involved activities that are somewhat similar to their natural foraging behaviour.

For example, bees were able to learn to pull a string to reach an artificial flower containing sugar solution. Bees sometimes have to pull parts of flowers to access nectar, so this isn’t too alien to them.

So while these tasks might seem complex, they don’t really show a deeper level of learning, says Olli Loukola at Queen Mary University of London, an author of that study.

Loukola and his team decided the next challenge was whether bees could learn to move an object that was not attached to the reward.

They built a circular platform with a small hole in the centre filled with sugar solution, into which bees had to move a ball to get a reward. A researcher showed them how to do this by using a plastic bee on a stick to push the ball.

The researchers then took three groups of other bees and trained them in different ways. One group observed a previously trained bee solving the task; another was shown the ball moving into the hole, pulled by a hidden magnet; and a third group was given no demonstration, but was shown the ball already in the hole containing the reward.

The bees then did the task themselves. Those that had watched other bees do it were most successful and took less time than those in the other groups to solve the task. Bees given the magnetic demonstration were also more successful than those not given one. [Continue reading…]


Low-status chimps revealed as trendsetters

Science News reports: Chimps with little social status influence their comrades’ behavior to a surprising extent, a new study suggests.

In groups of captive chimps, a method for snagging food from a box spread among many individuals who saw a low-ranking female peer demonstrate the technique, say primatologist Stuart Watson of the University of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland, and colleagues. But in other groups where an alpha male introduced the same box-opening technique, relatively few chimps copied the behavior, the researchers report online February 7 in the American Journal of Primatology.

“I suspect that even wild chimpanzees are motivated to copy obviously rewarding behaviors of low-ranking individuals, but the limited spread of rewarding behaviors demonstrated by alpha males was quite surprising,” Watson says. Previous research has found that chimps in captivity more often copy rewarding behaviors of dominant versus lower-ranking group mates. The researchers don’t understand why in this case the high-ranking individuals weren’t copied as much. [Continue reading…]


How a guy from a Montana trailer park overturned 150 years of biology

Ed Yong writes: In 1995, if you had told Toby Spribille that he’d eventually overthrow a scientific idea that’s been the stuff of textbooks for 150 years, he would have laughed at you. Back then, his life seemed constrained to a very different path. He was raised in a Montana trailer park, and home-schooled by what he now describes as a “fundamentalist cult.” At a young age, he fell in love with science, but had no way of feeding that love. He longed to break away from his roots and get a proper education.

At 19, he got a job at a local forestry service. Within a few years, he had earned enough to leave home. His meager savings and non-existent grades meant that no American university would take him, so Spribille looked to Europe.

Thanks to his family background, he could speak German, and he had heard that many universities there charged no tuition fees. His missing qualifications were still a problem, but one that the University of Gottingen decided to overlook. “They said that under exceptional circumstances, they could enroll a few people every year without transcripts,” says Spribille. “That was the bottleneck of my life.”

Throughout his undergraduate and postgraduate work, Spribille became an expert on the organisms that had grabbed his attention during his time in the Montana forests — lichens.

You’ve seen lichens before, but unlike Spribille, you may have ignored them. They grow on logs, cling to bark, smother stones. At first glance, they look messy and undeserving of attention. On closer inspection, they are astonishingly beautiful. They can look like flecks of peeling paint, or coralline branches, or dustings of powder, or lettuce-like fronds, or wriggling worms, or cups that a pixie might drink from. They’re also extremely tough. They grow in the most inhospitable parts of the planet, where no plant or animal can survive.

Lichens have an important place in biology. In the 1860s, scientists thought that they were plants. But in 1868, a Swiss botanist named Simon Schwendener revealed that they’re composite organisms, consisting of fungi that live in partnership with microscopic algae. This “dual hypothesis” was met with indignation: it went against the impetus to put living things in clear and discrete buckets. The backlash only collapsed when Schwendener and others, with good microscopes and careful hands, managed to tease the two partners apart.

Schwendener wrongly thought that the fungus had “enslaved” the alga, but others showed that the two cooperate. The alga uses sunlight to make nutrients for the fungus, while the fungus provides minerals, water, and shelter. This kind of mutually beneficial relationship was unheard of, and required a new word. Two Germans, Albert Frank and Anton de Bary, provided the perfect one — symbiosis, from the Greek for ‘together’ and ‘living’. [Continue reading…]


Why most planets will either be lush or dead

David Grinspoon writes: Can a planet be alive? Lynn Margulis, a giant of late 20th-century biology, who had an incandescent intellect that veered toward the unorthodox, thought so. She and chemist James Lovelock together theorized that life must be a planet-altering phenomenon and the distinction between the “living” and “nonliving” parts of Earth is not as clear-cut as we think. Many members of the scientific community derided their theory, called the Gaia hypothesis, as pseudoscience, and questioned their scientific integrity. But now Margulis and Lovelock may have their revenge. Recent scientific discoveries are giving us reason to take this hypothesis more seriously. At its core is an insight about the relationship between planets and life that has changed our understanding of both, and is shaping how we look for life on other worlds.

Studying Earth’s global biosphere together, Margulis and Lovelock realized that it has some of the properties of a life form. It seems to display “homeostasis,” or self‐regulation. Many of Earth’s life‐sustaining qualities exhibit remarkable stability. The temperature range of the climate; the oxygen content of the atmosphere; the pH, chemistry, and salinity of the ocean—all these are biologically mediated. All have, for hundreds of millions of years, stayed within a range where life can thrive. Lovelock and Margulis surmised that the totality of life is interacting with its environments in ways that regulate these global qualities. They recognized that Earth is, in a sense, a living organism. Lovelock named this creature Gaia.

Margulis and Lovelock showed that the Darwinian picture of biological evolution is incomplete. Darwin identified the mechanism by which life adapts due to changes in the environment, and thus allowed us to see that all life on Earth is a continuum, a proliferation, a genetic diaspora from a common root. In the Darwinian view, Earth was essentially a stage with a series of changing backdrops to which life had to adjust. Yet, what or who was changing the sets? Margulis and Lovelock proposed that the drama of life does not unfold on the stage of a dead Earth, but that, rather, the stage itself is animated, part of a larger living entity, Gaia, composed of the biosphere together with the “nonliving” components that shape, respond to, and cycle through the biota of Earth. Yes, life adapts to environmental change, shaping itself through natural selection. Yet life also pushes back and changes the environment, alters the planet. This is now as obvious as the air you are breathing, which has been oxygenated by life. So evolution is not a series of adaptations to inanimate events, but a system of feedbacks, an exchange. Life has not simply molded itself to the shifting contours of a dynamic Earth. Rather, life and Earth have shaped each other as they’ve co-evolved. When you start looking at the planet in this way, then you see coral reefs, limestone cliffs, deltas, bogs, and islands of bat guano as parts of this larger animated entity. You realize that the entire skin of Earth, and its depths as well, are indeed alive. [Continue reading…]


Dino-killing asteroid may have punctured Earth’s crust

Live Science reports: After analyzing the crater from the cosmic impact that ended the age of dinosaurs, scientists now say the object that smacked into the planet may have punched nearly all the way through Earth’s crust, according to a new study.

The finding could shed light on how impacts can reshape the faces of planets and how such collisions can generate new habitats for life, the researchers said.

Asteroids and comets occasionally pelt Earth’s surface. Still, for the most part, changes to the planet’s surface result largely from erosion due to rain and wind, “as well as plate tectonics, which generates mountains and ocean trenches,” said study co-author Sean Gulick, a marine geophysicist at the University of Texas at Austin.

In contrast, on the solar system’s other rocky planets, erosion and plate tectonics typically have little, if any, influence on the planetary surfaces. “The key driver of surface changes on those planets is constantly getting hit by stuff from space,” Gulick told Live Science. [Continue reading…]


How industrialization brought about the decline of vertebrate species

Nathan Collins writes: With climate change and deforestation threatening biodiversity around the world, it’s fair to wonder just how rapidly threatened species have been declining, and when exactly those declines began. The answer is bleak: Among threatened vertebrates, rapid losses began in the late 19th century, and numbers have since declined by about 25 percent per decade, according to a new study.

“Although preservation of biodiversity is vital to a sustainable human society, rapid population decline (RPD) continues to be widespread” across plant and animal populations, Haipeng Li and a team of Chinese and American biologists write in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Understanding the severity and origins of these population losses could help conservationists protect endangered species and possibly help promote public awareness of the threat, the researchers argue. But there’s a problem: Good data on plant and animal population sizes only goes back about four decades, and populations surely declined prior to that.

Fortunately, modern biologists have a way to circumvent that: DNA. [Continue reading…]


Huddled mice could change the way we think about evolution

Stuart P Wilson, University of Sheffield and James V Stone, University of Sheffield

Adapt or die. That’s the reality for an animal species when it is faced with a harsh environment. Until now, many scientists have assumed that the more challenging an animal’s environment, the greater the pressure to adapt and the faster its genes evolve. But we have just published new research in Royal Society Open Science that shows that genes might actually evolve faster when the pressure to adapt is reduced.

We built a simple computer model of how evolution may be affected by the way animals interact with each other when they’re in groups. Specifically, we looked at what happens to animals that huddle together to keep warm.

We found that when animals huddle in larger groups, their genes for regulating temperature evolve faster, even though there is less pressure to adapt to the cold environment because of the warmth of the huddle. This shows that an organism’s evolution doesn’t just depend on its environment but also on how it behaves.

When animals such as rats and mice huddle together in groups, they can maintain a high body temperature without using as much energy as they would on their own. We wanted to understand how this kind of group behaviour would affect a species’ evolution.

To do this, we built a computer model simulating how the species’ genes changed and were passed on over multiple generations. When the effects of huddling were built into the computer model, the reduced pressure to adapt was actually found to accelerate evolution of the genes controlling heat production and heat loss.

[Read more…]


China is at the forefront of manipulating DNA to create a new class of superhumans

G. Owen Schaefer writes: Would you want to alter your future children’s genes to make them smarter, stronger, or better looking? As the state of science brings prospects like these closer to reality, an international debate has been raging over the ethics of enhancing human capacities with biotechnologies such as so-called smart pills, brain implants, and gene editing. This discussion has only intensified in the past year with the advent of the CRISPR-cas9 gene editing tool, which raises the specter of tinkering with our DNA to improve traits like intelligence, athleticism, and even moral reasoning.

So are we on the brink of a brave new world of genetically enhanced humanity? Perhaps. And there’s an interesting wrinkle: It’s reasonable to believe that any seismic shift toward genetic enhancement will not be centered in Western countries like the US or the UK, where many modern technologies are pioneered. Instead, genetic enhancement is more likely to emerge out of China.

Numerous surveys among Western populations have found significant opposition to many forms of human enhancement. For example, a recent Pew study of 4,726 Americans found that most would not want to use a brain chip to improve their memory, and a plurality view such interventions as morally unacceptable. [Continue reading…]


A unified theory of evolution requires input from Darwin and Lamarck


Michael Skinner writes: The unifying theme for much of modern biology is based on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the process of natural selection by which nature selects the fittest, best-adapted organisms to reproduce, multiply and survive. The process is also called adaptation, and traits most likely to help an individual survive are considered adaptive. As organisms change and new variants thrive, species emerge and evolve. In the 1850s, when Darwin described this engine of natural selection, the underlying molecular mechanisms were unknown. But over the past century, advances in genetics and molecular biology have outlined a modern, neo-Darwinian theory of how evolution works: DNA sequences randomly mutate, and organisms with the specific sequences best adapted to the environment multiply and prevail. Those are the species that dominate a niche, until the environment changes and the engine of evolution fires up again.

But this explanation for evolution turns out to be incomplete, suggesting that other molecular mechanisms also play a role in how species evolve. One problem with Darwin’s theory is that, while species do evolve more adaptive traits (called phenotypes by biologists), the rate of random DNA sequence mutation turns out to be too slow to explain many of the changes observed. Scientists, well-aware of the issue, have proposed a variety of genetic mechanisms to compensate: genetic drift, in which small groups of individuals undergo dramatic genetic change; or epistasis, in which one set of genes suppress another, to name just two.

Yet even with such mechanisms in play, genetic mutation rates for complex organisms such as humans are dramatically lower than the frequency of change for a host of traits, from adjustments in metabolism to resistance to disease. The rapid emergence of trait variety is difficult to explain just through classic genetics and neo-Darwinian theory. To quote the prominent evolutionary biologist Jonathan B L Bard, who was paraphrasing T S Eliot: ‘Between the phenotype and genotype falls the shadow.’

And the problems with Darwin’s theory extend out of evolutionary science into other areas of biology and biomedicine. For instance, if genetic inheritance determines our traits, then why do identical twins with the same genes generally have different types of diseases? And why do just a low percentage (often less than 1 per cent) of those with many specific diseases share a common genetic mutation? If the rate of mutation is random and steady, then why have many diseases increased more than 10-fold in frequency in only a couple decades? How is it that hundreds of environmental contaminants can alter disease onset, but not DNA sequences? In evolution and biomedicine, the rates of phenotypic trait divergence is far more rapid than the rate of genetic variation and mutation – but why?

Part of the explanation can be found in some concepts that Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed 50 years before Darwin published his work. Lamarck’s theory, long relegated to the dustbin of science, held, among other things, ‘that the environment can directly alter traits, which are then inherited by generations to come’. [Continue reading…]