Chapter 6. Evolution of the Brain and Behavior

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Carl Zimmer Octopuses, squid and cuttlefish — a group of mollusks known as cephalopods — are the ocean’s champions of camouflage. Octopuses can mimic the color and texture of a rock or a piece of coral. Squid can give their skin a glittering sheen to match the water they are swimming in. Cuttlefish will even cloak themselves in black and white squares should a devious scientist put a checkerboard in their aquarium. Cephalopods can perform these spectacles thanks to a dense fabric of specialized cells in their skin. But before a cephalopod can take on a new disguise, it needs to perceive the background that it is going to blend into. Cephalopods have large, powerful eyes to take in their surroundings. But two new studies in The Journal Experimental Biology suggest that they have another way to perceive light: their skin. It’s possible that these animals have, in effect, evolved a body-wide eye. When light enters the eye of a cephalopod, it strikes molecules in the retina called opsins. The collision starts a biochemical reaction that sends an electric signal from the cephalopod’s eye to its brain. (We produce a related form of opsins in our eyes as well.) In 2010, Roger T. Hanlon, a biologist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., and his colleagues reported that cuttlefish make opsins in their skin, as well. This discovery raised the tantalizing possibility that the animals could use their skin to sense light much as their eyes do. Dr. Hanlon teamed up with Thomas W. Cronin, a visual ecologist at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and his colleagues to take a closer look. © 2015 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Vision; Evolution
Link ID: 20966 - Posted: 05.21.2015

by Karl Gruber "As clever as a guppy" is not a huge compliment. But intelligence does matter to these tropical fish: big-brained guppies are more likely to outwit predators and live longer than their dim-witted peers. Alexander Kotrschal at Stockholm University, Sweden, and his colleagues bred guppies (Poecilia reticulata) to have brains that were bigger or smaller than average. His team previously showed that bigger brains meant smarter fish. When put in an experimental stream with predators, big-brained females were eaten about 13 per cent less often than small-brained ones. There was no such link in males, and the researchers suspect that their bright colours may counter any benefits of higher intelligence. They did find, Kotrschal says , that large-brained males were faster swimmers and better at learning and remembering the location of a female. "This is exciting because it confirms a critical mechanism for brain size evolution," says Kotrschal. It shows, he adds, that interactions between predator and prey can affect brain size. It might seem obvious that bigger brains would help survival. Yet previous research simply found a correlation between the two, leaving the possibility open that some third factor may have been driving the effect. Now, direct brain size manipulation allowed Kotrschal's team to pin it down as a cause of better survival. "This is the first time anyone has tested whether a larger brain confers a survival benefit," says Kotrschal. "The fact that large-brained females survived better in a naturalistic setting is the first experimental proof that a larger brain is beneficial for the fitness of its bearer. This is like watching evolution happen and shows how brain size evolves." © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Intelligence; Evolution
Link ID: 20962 - Posted: 05.21.2015

by Ashley Yeager New Caledonian crows are protective of their tools. The birds safeguard the sticks they use to find food and become even more careful with the tools as the cost of losing them goes up. Researchers videotaped captive and wild Corvus moneduloides crows and tracked what the birds did with their sticks. In between eating, the birds tucked the tools under their toes or left them in the holes they were probing. When higher up in the trees, the birds dropped the tools less often and were more likely to leave them in the holes they were probing than when they were on the ground. The finding, published May 20 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, shows how tool-protection tactics can prevent costly losses that could keep the crows from chowing down. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015

Keyword: Intelligence; Evolution
Link ID: 20953 - Posted: 05.20.2015

By James Gorman and Robin Lindsay Before human ancestors started making stone tools by chipping off flakes to fashion hand axes and other implements, their ancestors may have used plain old stones, as animals do now. And even that simple step required the intelligence to see that a rock could be used to smash open a nut or an oyster and the muscle control to do it effectively. Researchers have been rigorous in documenting every use of tools they have found find in animals, like crows, chimpanzees and dolphins. And they are now beginning to look at how tools are used by modern primates — part of the scientists’ search for clues about the evolution of the kind of delicate control required to make and use even the simplest hand axes. Monkeys do not exhibit human dexterity with tools, according to Madhur Mangalam of the University of Georgia, one of the authors of a recent study of how capuchin monkeys in Brazil crack open palm nuts. “Monkeys are working as blacksmiths,” he said, “They’re not working as goldsmiths.” But they are not just banging away haphazardly, either. Mr. Mangalam, a graduate student who is interested in “the evolution of precise movement,” reported in a recent issue of Current Biology on how capuchins handle stones. His adviser and co-author was Dorothy M. Fragaszy, the director of the Primate Behavior Laboratory at the university. Using video of the capuchins’ lifting rocks with both hands to slam them down on the hard palm nuts, he analyzed how high a monkey lifted a stone and how fast it brought it down. He found that the capuchins adjusted the force of a strike according to the condition of the nut after the previous strike. © 2015 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Evolution; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 20952 - Posted: 05.19.2015

by Andy Coghlan When a fly escapes being swatted, what is going on in its head? Is it as terrified as we would be after a close shave with death? Or is buzzing away from assailantsMovie Camera a momentary inconvenience that flies shrug off? It now seems that flies do become rattled. "In humans, fear is something that persists on a longer timescale than a simple escape reflex," says William Gibson of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. "Our observations suggest flies have a persistent state of defensive arousal, which is not necessarily fear, but which has some similarities to it." This doesn't mean that flies share the same emotional responses to fear as humans, but they do seem to have the same behavioural building blocks of fear as us. Evasive action Gibson and his colleagues exposed fruit flies to overhead shadows resembling aerial predators, such as birds. The more shadows they were exposed to, the more the flies resorted to evasive behaviour, such as hopping, jumping or freezing. When the shadow passed over once per second, by the time the shadow had fallen 10 times, the average running speed of the flies had doubled, for example. Their average number of hops trebled after just two passes. They also offered starved flies food, and part way through the meal threatened them with shadows. The more often the meal was interrupted, the longer the flies took to return to their meal after flying away. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Emotions; Evolution
Link ID: 20940 - Posted: 05.16.2015

Tina Hesman Saey COLD SPRING HARBOR, N.Y. — Taming animals makes an impression on their DNA. Domesticated animals tend to have genetic variants that affect similar biological processes, such as brain and facial development and fur coloration. Alex Cagan of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, reported the results May 6 at the Biology of Genomes conference. Cagan and colleagues examined DNA in Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus) that had been bred for 70 generations to be either tame or aggressive toward humans. Docility was associated with genetic changes in 1,880 genes in the rats. American minks (Neovison vison) bred for tameness over 15 generations had tameness-associated variants in 525 genes, including 82 that were also changed in the rats. The researchers also compared other domesticated animals, including dogs, cats, pigs and rabbits, with their wild counterparts. The domestic species and the minks had tameness-associated changes in genes for epidermal growth factor and associated proteins that stimulate growth of cells. Those proteins are important for the movement of neural crest cells within an embryo. That finding seems to support a recent hypothesis that changes in neural crest cells could be responsible for domestication syndrome, physical traits, including floppy ears, spotted coats and juvenile faces, which accompany tameness in many domestic animals. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015.

Keyword: Aggression; Genes & Behavior
Link ID: 20911 - Posted: 05.12.2015

By Rachel Feltman Animals didn't always have heads. We know that sometime during the Cambrian Period -- around 500 million years ago, as animals transitioned from the squishy likes of the penis worm to hard-bodied arthropods -- body segments started transitioning into something like the head/body differentiation we see today. But figuring out just how that transition went can be tricky. A study published on Thursday in Current Biology looks to one of the oldest-ever brain fossils for clues. Brains, being all squishy and stuff, aren't commonly found in fossilized form, especially not 500 million years after the fact. But the new study compares two specimens: A trilobite with a squishy body and Odaraia alata, a creature said to resemble a submarine. Cute, yeah? The Cambrian was such a great time. Lead author Javier Ortega-Hernández, a postdoctoral researcher from Cambridge's Department of Earth Sciences, found that the front portions of both creatures' brains had nerve connections to their eye stalks and a hard plate called the anterior sclerite. In modern arthropods, that brain region controls the eyes. Ortega-Hernández believes that this anterior sclerite was a bridge between ancient arthropods and more modern ones. Anomalocaridids, which lived at the same time but looked very different, have a plate that Ortega-Hernández thinks came from the same ancestral anatomy that went on to form anterior sclerites in the animals he examined (and, eventually, a more modern head structure today).

Keyword: Evolution
Link ID: 20899 - Posted: 05.08.2015

By Jonathan Webb Science reporter, BBC News Scientists have stumbled upon one of the secrets behind the big gulps of the world's biggest whales: the nerves in their jaws are stretchy. Rorquals, a family that includes blue and humpback whales, feed by engulfing huge volumes of water and food, sometimes bigger than themselves. Researchers made the discovery by inadvertently stretching a thick cable they found in the jaw of a fin whale. Most nerves are fragile and inelastic, so this find is first for vertebrates. The work is reported in the journal Current Biology. A Canadian research team had travelled to Iceland to investigate some of these whales' other anatomical adaptations to "lunge feeding" - things like their muscles, or the remarkable sensory organ in their jaws, discovered in 2012. They were working with specimens in collaboration with commercial whalers. "It's probably one of the only places in the world where you can do this sort of work, because these animals are so huge that even getting in through the skin is something you can't do without having heavy machinery around," said Prof Wayne Vogl, an anatomist at the University of British Columbia and the study's first author. When you are working with a 20m fin whale, it's important to have the right equipment, he said. "If a heart falls on you, it could kill you." © 2015 BBC.

Keyword: Miscellaneous; Evolution
Link ID: 20889 - Posted: 05.05.2015

// by Jennifer Viegas Male species of a West African monkey communicate using at least these six main sounds: boom-boom, krak, krak-oo, hok, hok-oo and wak-oo. Key to the communication by the male Campbell's monkey is the suffix "oo," according to a new study, which is published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. By adding that sound to the end of their calls, the male monkeys have created a surprisingly rich "vocabulary" that males and females of their own kind, as well as a related species of monkey, understand. The study confirms prior suspected translations of the calls. For example, "krak" means leopard, while "krak-oo" refers to other non-leopard threats, such as falling branches. "Boom-boom-krak-oo" can roughly translate to, "Watch out for that falling tree branch." "Several aspects of communication in Campbell's monkeys allow us to draw parallels with human language," lead author Camille Coye, a researcher at the University of St. Andrews, told Discovery News. For the study, she and her team broadcast actual and artificially modified male Campbell's monkey calls to 42 male and female members of a related species: Diana monkeys. The latter's vocal responses showed that they understood the calls and replied in predicted ways. They freaked out after hearing "krak," for example, and remained on alert as they do after seeing a leopard. © 2015 Discovery Communications, LLC.

Keyword: Language; Evolution
Link ID: 20858 - Posted: 04.29.2015

By Sid Perkins Imagine having a different accent from someone else simply because your house was farther up the same hill. For at least one species of songbird, that appears to be the case. Researchers have found that the mating songs of male mountain chickadees (Poecile gambeli, shown) differ in their duration, loudness, and the frequency ranges of individual chirps, depending in part on the elevation of their habitat in the Sierra Nevada mountains of the western United States. The songs also differed from those at similar elevations on a nearby peak. Young males of this species learn their breeding songs by listening to adult males during their first year of life, the researchers note. And because these birds don’t migrate as the seasons change, and young birds don’t settle far from where they grew up, it’s likely that the differences persist in each local group—the ornithological equivalent of having Southern drawls and Boston accents. Females may use the differences in dialect to distinguish local males from outsiders that may not be as well adapted to the neighborhood they’re trying to invade, the team reports today in Royal Society Open Science. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Language; Evolution
Link ID: 20857 - Posted: 04.29.2015

By Ann Gibbons Nearly 42,000 years ago, ancient humans began wielding a new kind of Stone Age toolkit in southern Europe—one that included perforated shell ornaments and long, pointed stone bladelets that were thrown long distances atop spears. Now, after decades of speculation about who made the tools, scientists have finally shown that they were crafted by modern humans, rather than Neandertals. The technological breakthrough may have helped our species outcompete Neandertals, who went extinct shortly after the new tools appeared in Europe. The proof comes from a new state-of-the-art analysis of two baby teeth found in 1976 and 1992 at separate archaeological sites in northern Italy. At the time, researchers were unable to tell whether they belonged to modern humans or Neandertals. But in the new study, an international team of researchers led by Stefano Benazzi of the University of Bologna in Italy used three-dimensional digital imaging methods, including computerized tomography scans, to measure the thickness of the enamel of one of the teeth, found at the collapsed rock shelter of Riparo Bombrini in the western Ligurian Alps. The enamel was thick, as in modern humans, rather than relatively thin, as in Neandertals, the authors report online today in Science. And new radiocarbon dates on animal bones and charcoal from the site suggest this modern child lived there approximately 40,710 to 35,640 years ago. The researchers were also able to extract maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the other child’s tooth from Grotta di Fumane, a cave in the western Lessini mountains, which dated between 41,110 and 38,500 years ago. When researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, sequenced the mtDNA and compared it with that of 10 ancient modern humans and 10 Neandertals, they found it belonged to a known lineage of mtDNA, called haplogroup R, which has also been found in a 45,000-year-old modern human bone found in a riverbank near Ust’-Ishim, Siberia. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Evolution
Link ID: 20843 - Posted: 04.25.2015

By Felicity Muth One of the first things I get asked when I tell people that I work on bee cognition (apart from ‘do you get stung a lot?’) is ‘bees have cognition?’. I usually assume that this question shouldn’t be taken literally otherwise it would mean that whoever was asking me this thought that there was a possibility that bees didn’t have cognition and I had just been making a terrible mistake for the past two years. Instead I guess this question actually means ‘please tell me more about the kind of cognitive abilities bees have, as I am very much surprised to hear that bees can do more than just mindlessly sting people’. So, here it is: a summary of some of the more remarkable things that bees can do with their little brains. In the first part of two articles on this topic, I introduce the history and basics of bee learning. In the second article, I go on to discuss the more advanced cognitive abilities of bees. The study of bee cognition isn’t a new thing. Back in the early 1900s the Austrian scientist Karl von Frisch won the Nobel Prize for his work with honeybees (Apis mellifera). He is perhaps most famous for his research on their remarkable ability to communicate through the waggle dance but he also showed for the first time that honeybees have colour vision and learn the colours of the flowers they visit. Appreciating how he did this is perhaps the first step to understanding everything we know about bee cognition today. Before delving into the cognitive abilities of bees it’s important to think about what kinds of abilities a bee might need, given the environment she lives in (all foraging worker bees are female). Bees are generalists, meaning that they don’t have to just visit one particular flower type for food (nectar and pollen), but can instead visit hundreds of different types. However, not all flowers are the same. © 2015 Scientific American,

Keyword: Learning & Memory; Evolution
Link ID: 20831 - Posted: 04.22.2015

By Virginia Morell Baby common marmosets, small primates found in the forests of northeastern Brazil, must learn to take turns when calling, just as human infants learn not to interrupt. Even though the marmosets (Callithrix jacchus) don’t have language, they do exchange calls. And the discovery that a young marmoset (as in the photo above) learns to wait for another marmoset to finish its call before uttering its own sound may help us better understand the origins of human language, say scientists online today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. No primate, other than humans, is a vocal learner, with the ability to hear a sound and imitate it—a talent considered essential to speech. But the marmoset researchers say that primates still exchange calls in a manner reminiscent of having a conversation because they wait for another to finish calling before vocalizing—and that this ability is often overlooked in discussions about the evolution of language. If this skill is learned, it would be even more similar to that of humans, because human babies learn to do this while babbling with their mothers. In a lab, the researchers recorded the calls of a marmoset youngster from age 4 months to 12 months and those of its mother or father while they were separated by a dark curtain. In adult exchanges, a marmoset makes a high-pitched contact call (listen to a recording here), and its fellow responds within 10 seconds. The study showed that the youngster’s responses varied depending on who was calling to them. They were less likely to interrupt their mothers, but not their dads—and both mothers and fathers would give the kids the “silent treatment” if they were interrupted. Thus, the youngster learns the first rule of polite conversation: Don’t interrupt! © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Language; Evolution
Link ID: 20828 - Posted: 04.22.2015

By JAMES GORMAN Studies of hunters and gatherers — and of chimpanzees, which are often used as stand-ins for human ancestors — have cast bigger, faster and more powerful males in the hunter role. Now, a 10-year study of chimpanzees in Senegal shows females playing an unexpectedly big role in hunting and males, surprisingly, letting smaller and weaker hunters keep their prey. The results do not overturn the idea of dominant male hunters, said Jill D. Pruetz of Iowa State University, who led the study. But they may offer a new frame of reference on hunting, tools and human evolution. “We need to broaden our perspective,” she said. Among the 30 or so chimps Dr. Pruetz and her colleagues observed, called the Fongoli band, males caught 70 percent of the prey, mostly by chasing and running it down. But these chimps are very unusual in one respect. They are the only apes that regularly hunt other animals with tools — broken tree branches. And females do the majority of that hunting for small primates called bush babies. Craig Stanford, an anthropologist at the University of Southern California who has written extensively on chimp hunting and human evolution, said the research was “really important” because it solidified the evidence for chimps hunting with tools, which Dr. Pruetz had reported in earlier papers. It also clearly shows “the females are more involved than in other places,” he said, adding that it provides new evidence to already documented observations that female chimps are “much more avid tool users than males are.” All chimpanzees eat a variety of plant and animal foods, including insects like termites. And all chimpanzees eat some other animals. The most familiar examples of chimpanzee hunting are bands of the apes chasing red colobus monkeys through the trees in the rain forests of East Africa. © 2015 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Evolution; Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 20800 - Posted: 04.15.2015

by Catherine Brahic TRANSLUCENT comb jellies are some of the most primitive animals on Earth, yet they have remarkable nervous systems. Controversial data discussed at a meeting in London last month proposes that their neurons are unlike any others on Earth. This could be evidence that neurons evolved more than once in the history of animal life. The suggestion that neurons evolved in parallel multiple times has divided biologists for over a century. Ultimately, Erich Jarvis of Duke University in North Carolina told a Royal Society conference in March, the question relates to how special we are. If neurons evolved several times on our planet, then it becomes more likely that they could evolve elsewhere in the universe. Until recently, the consensus has leaned towards a very Darwinian story. In this scenario, sometime around 600 million years ago, the common ancestor to all animals gave rise to some organisms with simple neural networks. Central nervous systems arose later, allowing for greater coordination and more complex behaviours. These perhaps started out as tight balls of neurons, but eventually gave rise to the magnificently complex primate brain. This single origin scenario offers a tidy explanation for why some animals, like sponges and flat, simple placozoans, still don't have neurons: they must have branched off before these evolved and are relics of ancestral animals (see diagram). The story was somewhat turned on its head by the recent whole genome sequence of comb jellies. These small marine animals look like jellyfish but in fact seem to be only distantly related. They use a neural network just beneath their skin and a brain-like knot of neurons at one end to catch food, respond to light, sense gravity and escape predators. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Evolution
Link ID: 20786 - Posted: 04.11.2015

By Jonathan Webb Science reporter, BBC News Living in total darkness, the animals' eyes have disappeared over millions of years A study of blind crustaceans living in deep, dark caves has revealed that evolution is rapidly withering the visual parts of their brain. The findings catch evolution in the act of making this adjustment - as none of the critters have eyes, but some of them still have stumpy eye-stalks. Three different species were studied, each representing a different subgroup within the same class of crustaceans. The research is published in the journal BMC Neuroscience. The class of "malocostracans" also includes much better-known animals like lobsters, shrimps and wood lice, but this study focussed on three tiny and obscure examples that were only discovered in the 20th Century. It is the first investigation of these mysterious animals' brains. "We studied three species. All of them live in caves, and all of them are very rare or hardly accessible," said lead author Dr Martin Stegner, from the University of Rostock in Germany. Specifically, his colleagues retrieved the specimens from the coast of Bermuda, from Table Mountain in South Africa, and from Monte Argentario in Italy. One of the species was retrieved from caves on the coast of Bermuda The animals were preserved rather than living, so the team could not observe their tiny brains in action. But by looking at the physical shape of the brain, and making comparisons with what we know about how the brain works in their evolutionary relatives, the researchers were able to assign jobs to the various lobes, lumps and spindly structures they could see under the microscope. © 2015 BBC.

Keyword: Evolution; Vision
Link ID: 20769 - Posted: 04.08.2015

Tom Bawden Scientists have deciphered the secrets of gibbon “speech” – discovering that the apes are sophisticated communicators employing a range of more than 450 different calls to talk to their companions. The research is so significant that it could provide clues on the evolution of human speech and also suggests that other animal species could speak a more precise language than has been previously thought, according to lead author Dr Esther Clarke of Durham University. Her study found that gibbons produce different categories of “hoo” calls – relatively quiet sounds that are distinct from their more melodic “song” calls. These categories of call allow the animals to distinguish when their fellow gibbons are foraging for food, alerting them to distant noises or warning others about the presence of predators. In addition, Dr Clarke found that each category of “hoo” call can be broken down further, allowing gibbons to be even more specific in their communication. A warning about lurking raptor birds, for example, sounds different to one about pythons or clouded leopards – being pitched at a particularly low frequency to ensure it is too deep for the birds of prey to hear. The warning call denoting the presence of tigers and leopards is the same because they belong to the same class of big cats, the research found. © independent.co.uk

Keyword: Language; Evolution
Link ID: 20768 - Posted: 04.08.2015

by Jan Piotrowski It's not the most charismatic fossil ever found, but it may reveal secrets of our earliest evolution. Unearthed in Ethiopia, the broken jaw with greying teeth suggests that the Homo lineage – of which modern humans are the only surviving member – existed up to 400,000 years earlier than previously thought. The fragment dates from around 2.8 million years ago, and is by far the most ancient specimen to bear the Homo signature. The earliest such fossil was one thought to be up to 2.4 million years ages old. Showing a mixture of traits, the new find pinpoints the time when humans began their transition from primitive, apelike Australopithecus to the big-brained conquerer of the world, says Brian Villmoare from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, whose student made the find. Geological evidence from the same area, also reported this week in a study led by Erin DiMaggio from Pennsylvania State University, shows that the jaw's owner lived just after a major climate shift in the region: forests and waterways rapidly gave way to arid savannah, leaving only the occasional crocodile-filled lake. Except for the sabre-toothed big cat that once roamed these parts, the environment ended up looking much like it does today. It was probably the pressure to adapt to this new world that jump-started our evolution into what we see looking back at us in the mirror today, according to Villmoare. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Evolution
Link ID: 20654 - Posted: 03.05.2015

By Nicholas Weiler The grizzled wolf stalks from her rival’s den, her mouth caked with blood of the pups she has just killed. It’s a brutal form of birth control, but only the pack leader is allowed to keep her young. For her, this is a selfish strategy—only her pups will carry on the future of the pack. But it may also help the group keep its own numbers in check and avoid outstripping its resources. A new survey of mammalian carnivores worldwide proposes that many large predators have the ability to limit their own numbers. The results, though preliminary, could help explain how top predators keep the food chains beneath them in balance. Researchers often assume that predator numbers grow and shrink based on their food supply, says evolutionary biologist Blaire Van Valkenburgh of the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the new study. But several recent examples, including an analysis of the resurgent wolves of Yellowstone National Park, revealed that some large predators keep their own numbers in check. The new paper is the first to bring all the evidence together, Van Valkenburgh says, and presents a “convincing correlation.” Hunting and habitat loss are killing off big carnivores around the world, just as ecologists are discovering how important they are for keeping ecosystems in balance. Mountain lions sustain woodlands by hunting deer that would otherwise graze the landscape bare. Coyotes protect scrub-dwelling birds by keeping raccoons and foxes in line. Where top carnivores disappear, these smaller predators often explode in numbers, with potentially disastrous consequences for small birds and mammals. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Sexual Behavior; Evolution
Link ID: 20629 - Posted: 02.28.2015

By Elizabeth Pennisi Last week, researchers expanded the size of the mouse brain by giving rodents a piece of human DNA. Now another team has topped that feat, pinpointing a human gene that not only grows the mouse brain but also gives it the distinctive folds found in primate brains. The work suggests that scientists are finally beginning to unravel some of the evolutionary steps that boosted the cognitive powers of our species. “This study represents a major milestone in our understanding of the developmental emergence of human uniqueness,” says Victor Borrell Franco, a neurobiologist at the Institute of Neurosciences in Alicante, Spain, who was not involved with the work. The new study began when Wieland Huttner, a developmental neurobiologist at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, and his colleagues started closely examining aborted human fetal tissue and embryonic mice. “We specifically wanted to figure out which genes are active during the development of the cortex, the part of the brain that is greatly expanded in humans and other primates compared to rodents,” says Marta Florio, the Huttner graduate student who carried out the main part of the work. That was harder than it sounded. Building a cortex requires several kinds of starting cells, or stem cells. The stem cells divide and sometimes specialize into other types of “intermediate” stem cells that in turn divide and form the neurons that make up brain tissue. To learn what genes are active in the two species, the team first had to develop a way to separate out the various types of cortical stem cells. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Development of the Brain; Evolution
Link ID: 20628 - Posted: 02.27.2015