Chapter 6. Evolution of the Brain and Behavior
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Ewen Callaway A shell found on Java in the late 1800s was recently found to bear markings that seem to have been carved intentionally half a million years ago. The photograph is about 15 millimetres wide. Expand A zigzag engraving on a shell from Indonesia is the oldest abstract marking ever found. But what is most surprising about the half-a-million-year-old doodle is its likely creator — the human ancestor Homo erectus. "This is a truly spectacular find and has the potential to overturn the way we look at early Homo," says Nick Barton, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford, UK, who was not involved in the discovery, which is described in a paper published online in Nature on 3 December1. By 40,000 years ago, and probably much earlier, anatomically modern humans — Homo sapiens — were painting on cave walls in places as far apart as Europe2 and Indonesia3. Simpler ochre engravings found in South Africa date to 100,000 years ago4. Earlier this year, researchers reported a 'hashtag' engraving in a Gibraltar cave once inhabited by Neanderthals5. That was the first evidence for drawing in any extinct species. But until the discovery of the shell engraving, nothing approximating art has been ascribed to Homo erectus. The species emerged in Africa about 2 million years ago and trekked as far as the Indonesian island of Java, before going extinct around 140,000 years ago. Most palaeoanthropologists consider the species to be the direct ancestor of both humans and Neanderthals. © 2014 Nature Publishing Group
Link ID: 20390 - Posted: 12.04.2014
Katie Langin In the first couple of years after birth, sea lion sons seem to be more reliant on their mothers—consuming more milk and sticking closer to home—than sea lion daughters are, according to a study on Galápagos sea lions published in the December issue of the journal Animal Behaviour. The young males venture out to sea on occasion, but their female counterparts dive for their own food much more often. The curious thing is, it's not like the young males aren't capable of diving. As one-year-olds, males can dive to the same depth as females (33 feet, or 10 meters, on a typical dive). It's also not like their mother's milk is always on hand. Sea lion moms frequently leave their growing offspring for days at a time to find food at sea. (Watch a video of a Galápagos sea lion giving birth.) And yet, despite all this, for some reason sons are far less likely than daughters to take to the sea and seek out their own food. "We always saw the [young] males around the colony surfing in tide pools, pulling the tails of marine iguanas, resting, sleeping," said Paolo Piedrahita, a Ph.D. student at Bielefeld University in Germany and the lead author of the study. "It's amazing. You can see an animal—40 kilograms [88 pounds]—just resting, waiting for mom." © 1996-2014 National Geographic Society.
By Sarah C. P. Williams Craving a stiff drink after the holiday weekend? Your desire to consume alcohol, as well as your body’s ability to break down the ethanol that makes you tipsy, dates back about 10 million years, researchers have discovered. The new finding not only helps shed light on the behavior of our primate ancestors, but also might explain why alcoholism—or even the craving for a single drink—exists in the first place. “The fact that they could put together all this evolutionary history was really fascinating,” says Brenda Benefit, an anthropologist at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, who was not involved in the study. Scientists knew that the human ability to metabolize ethanol—allowing people to consume moderate amounts of alcohol without getting sick—relies on a set of proteins including the alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme ADH4. Although all primates have ADH4, which performs the crucial first step in breaking down ethanol, not all can metabolize alcohol; lemurs and baboons, for instance, have a version of ADH4 that’s less effective than the human one. Researchers didn’t know how long ago people evolved the more active form of the enzyme. Some scientists suspected it didn’t arise until humans started fermenting foods about 9000 years ago. Matthew Carrigan, a biologist at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, and colleagues sequenced ADH4 proteins from 19 modern primates and then worked backward to determine the sequence of the protein at different points in primate history. Then they created copies of the ancient proteins coded for by the different gene versions to test how efficiently each metabolized ethanol. They showed that the most ancient forms of ADH4—found in primates as far back as 50 million years ago—only broke down small amounts of ethanol very slowly. But about 10 million years ago, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a common ancestor of humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas evolved a version of the protein that was 40 times more efficient at ethanol metabolism. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
By John Edward Terrell We will certainly hear it said many times between now and the 2016 elections that the country’s two main political parties have “fundamental philosophical differences.” But what exactly does that mean? At least part of the schism between Republicans and Democrats is based in differing conceptions of the role of the individual. We find these differences expressed in the frequent heated arguments about crucial issues like health care and immigration. In a broad sense, Democrats, particularly the more liberal among them, are more likely to embrace the communal nature of individual lives and to strive for policies that emphasize that understanding. Republicans, especially libertarians and Tea Party members on the ideological fringe, however, often trace their ideas about freedom and liberty back to Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries, who argued that the individual is the true measure of human value, and each of us is naturally entitled to act in our own best interests free of interference by others. Self-described libertarians generally also pride themselves on their high valuation of logic and reasoning over emotion. The basic unit of human social life is not and never has been the selfish and self-serving individual. Philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel have emphasized that human beings are essentially social creatures, that the idea of an isolated individual is a misleading abstraction. So it is not just ironic but instructive that modern evolutionary research, anthropology, cognitive psychology and neuroscience have come down on the side of the philosophers who have argued that the basic unit of human social life is not and never has been the selfish, self-serving individual. Contrary to libertarian and Tea Party rhetoric, evolution has made us a powerfully social species, so much so that the essential precondition of human survival is and always has been the individual plus his or her relationships with others. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 20371 - Posted: 12.01.2014
|By Jason G. Goldman A sharp cry pierces the air. Soon a worried mother deer approaches the source of the sound, expecting to find her fawn. But the sound is coming from a speaker system, and the call isn't that of a baby deer at all. It's an infant fur seal's. Because deer and seals do not live in the same habitats, mother deer should not know how baby seal screams sound, reasoned biologists Susan Lingle of the University of Winnipeg and Tobias Riede of Midwestern University, who were running the acoustic experiment. So why did a mother deer react with concern? Over two summers, the researchers treated herds of mule deer and white-tailed deer on a Canadian farm to modified recording of the cries of a wide variety of infant mammals—elands, marmots, bats, fur seals, sea lions, domestic cats, dogs and humans. By observing how mother deer responded, Lingle and Riede discovered that as long as the fundamental frequency was similar to that of their own infants' calls, those mothers approached the speaker as if they were looking for their offspring. Such a reaction suggests deep commonalities among the cries of most young mammals. (The mother deer did not show concern for white noise, birdcalls or coyote barks.) Lingle and Riede published their findings in October in the American Naturalist. Researchers had previously proposed that sounds made by different animals during similar experiences—when they were in pain, for example—would share acoustic traits. “As humans, we often ‘feel’ for the cry of young animals,” Lingle says. That empathy may arise because emotions are expressed in vocally similar ways among mammals. © 2014 Scientific American
By Virginia Morell When we listen to someone talking, we hear some sounds that combine to make words and other sounds that convey such things as the speaker’s emotions and gender. The left hemisphere of our brain manages the first task, while the right hemisphere specializes in the second. Dogs also have this kind of hemispheric bias when listening to the sounds of other dogs. But do they have it with human sounds? To find out, two scientists had dogs sit facing two speakers. The researchers then played a recorded short sentence—“Come on, then”—and watched which way the dogs turned. When the animals heard recordings in which individual words were strongly emphasized, they turned to the right—indicating that their left hemispheres were engaged. But when they listened to recordings that had exaggerated intonations, they turned to the left—a sign that the right hemisphere was responding. Thus, dogs seem to process the elements of speech very similarly to the way humans do, the scientists report online today in Current Biology. According to the researchers, the findings support the idea that our canine pals are indeed paying close attention not only to who we are and how we say things, but also to what we say. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Christopher Stringer Indeed, skeletal evidence from every inhabited continent suggests that our brains have become smaller in the past 10,000 to 20,000 years. How can we account for this seemingly scary statistic? Some of the shrinkage is very likely related to the decline in humans' average body size during the past 10,000 years. Brain size is scaled to body size because a larger body requires a larger nervous system to service it. As bodies became smaller, so did brains. A smaller body also suggests a smaller pelvic size in females, so selection would have favored the delivery of smaller-headed babies. What explains our shrinking body size, though? This decline is possibly related to warmer conditions on the earth in the 10,000 years after the last ice age ended. Colder conditions favor bulkier bodies because they conserve heat better. As we have acclimated to warmer temperatures, the way we live has also generally become less physically demanding, which overall serves to drive down body weights. Another likely reason for this decline is that brains are energetically expensive and will not be maintained at larger sizes unless it is necessary. The fact that we increasingly store and process information externally—in books, computers and online—means that many of us can probably get by with smaller brains. Some anthropologists have also proposed that larger brains may be less efficient at certain tasks, such as rapid computation, because of longer connection pathways. © 2014 Scientific American
Link ID: 20345 - Posted: 11.24.2014
James Gorman Evidence has been mounting for a while that birds and other animals can count, particularly when the things being counted are items of food. But most of the research is done under controlled conditions. In a recent experiment with New Zealand robins, Alexis Garland and Jason Low at Victoria University of Wellington tested the birds in a natural setting, giving them no training and no rewards, and showed that they knew perfectly well when a scientist had showed them two mealworms in a box, but then delivered only one. The researchers reported the work this fall in the journal Behavioural Processes. The experiment is intriguing to watch, partly because it looks like a child’s magic trick. The apparatus used is a wooden box that has a sliding drawer. After clearly showing a robin that she was dropping two mealworms in a circular well in the box, Dr. Garland would slide in the drawer. It covered the two worms with an identical-looking circular well containing only one worm. When the researcher moved away and the robin flew down and lifted off a cover, it would find only one worm. The robins pecked intensely at the box, behavior they didn’t show if they found the two worms they were expecting. Earlier experiments had also shown the birds to be good at counting, and Dr. Garland said that one reason might be that they are inveterate thieves. Mates, in particular, steal from one another’s food caches, where they hide perishable prey like worms or insects. “If you’ve got a mate that steals 50 or more percent of your food,” she said, you’d better learn how to keep track of how many mealworms you’ve got. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Carl Zimmer In the early 1970s, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, then a graduate student at Harvard, traveled to India to study Hanuman langurs, monkeys that live in troops, each made up of several females and a male. From time to time, Dr. Hrdy observed a male invade a troop, driving off the patriarch. And sometimes the new male performed a particularly disturbing act of violence. He attacked the troop’s infants. There had been earlier reports of infanticide by adult male mammals, but scientists mostly dismissed the behavior as an unimportant pathology. But in 1974, Dr. Hrdy made a provocative counter proposal: infanticide, she said, is the product of mammalian evolution. By killing off babies of other fathers, a male improves his chances of having more of his own offspring. Dr. Hrdy went on to become a professor at the University of California, Davis, and over the years she broadened her analysis, arguing that infanticide might well be a common feature of mammalian life. She spurred generations of scientists to document the behavior in hundreds of species. “She’s the goddess of all this stuff,” said Kit Opie, a primatologist at University College London. Forty years after Dr. Hrdy’s initial proposal, two evolutionary biologists at the University of Cambridge have surveyed the evolution of infanticide across all mammals. In a paper published Thursday in Science, the scientists concluded that only certain conditions favor the evolution of infanticide — the conditions that Dr. Hrdy had originally proposed. “My main comment is, ‘Well done,'” said Dr. Hrdy. She said the study was particularly noteworthy for its scope, ranging from opossum to lions. The authors of the new study, Dieter Lukas and Elise Huchard, started by plowing through the scientific literature, looking for evidence of infanticide in a variety of mammalian species. The researchers ended up with data on 260 species, and in 119 of them — over 45 percent — males had been observed killing unrelated young animals. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Email David By David Grimm Place a housecat next to its direct ancestor, the Near Eastern wildcat, and it may take you a minute to spot the difference. They’re about the same size and shape, and, well, they both look like cats. But the wildcat is fierce and feral, whereas the housecat, thanks to nearly 10,000 years of domestication, is tame and adaptable enough to have become the world’s most popular pet. Now scientists have begun to pinpoint the genetic changes that drove this remarkable transformation. The findings, based on the first high-quality sequence of the cat genome, could shed light on how other creatures, even humans, become tame. “This is the closest thing to a smoking gun we’ve ever had,” says Greger Larson, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom who has studied the domestication of pigs, dogs, and other animals. “We’re much closer to understanding the nitty-gritty of domestication than we were a decade ago.” Cats first entered human society about 9500 years ago, not long after people first took up farming in the Middle East. Drawn to rodents that had invaded grain stores, wildcats slunk out of the deserts and into villages. There, many scientists suspect, they mostly domesticated themselves, with the friendliest ones able to take advantage of human table scraps and protection. Over thousands of years, cats shrank slightly in size, acquired a panoply of coat colors and patterns, and (largely) shed the antisocial tendencies of their past. Domestic animals from cows to dogs have undergone similar transformations, yet scientists know relatively little about the genes involved. Researchers led by Michael Montague, a postdoc at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, have now pinpointed some of them. The scientists started with the genome of a domestic cat—a female Abyssinian—that had been published in draft form in 2007, then filled in missing sequences and identified genes. They compared the resulting genome with those of cows, tigers, dogs, and humans. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
James Gorman Here is something to keep arachnophobes up at night. The inside of a spider is under pressure, like the air in a balloon, because spiders move by pushing fluid through valves. They are hydraulic. This works well for the spiders, but less so for those who want to study what goes on in the brain of a jumping spider, an aristocrat of arachnids that, according to Ronald R. Hoy, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University, is one of the smartest of all invertebrates. If you insert an electrode into the spider’s brain, what’s inside might squirt out, and while that is not the kind of thing that most people want to think about, it is something that the researchers at Cornell had to consider. Dr. Hoy and his colleagues wanted to study jumping spiders because they are very different from most of their kind. They do not wait in a sticky web for lunch to fall into a trap. They search out prey, stalk it and pounce. “They’ve essentially become cats,” Dr. Hoy said. And they do all this with a brain the size of a poppy seed and a visual system that is completely different from that of a mammal: two big eyes dedicated to high-resolution vision and six smaller eyes that pick up motion. Dr. Hoy gathered four graduate students in various disciplines to solve the problem of recording activity in a jumping spider’s brain when it spots something interesting — a feat nobody had accomplished before. In the end, they not only managed to record from the brain, but discovered that one neuron seemed to be integrating the information from the spider’s two independent sets of eyes, a computation that might be expected to involve a network of brain cells. © 2014 The New York Times Company
By Jenna Bilbrey Your starbase is almost complete. All you need is a few more tons of ore. You could take the afternoon to mine it from an asteroid field, but you’ve heard of a Ska’ari who trades ore for cheap. So you message your alliance, use your connections to set up a meeting, and hop in your spacecraft. It’s good to have friends, even if they are virtual. An online science fiction game may not seem like the ideal place to study human behavior, but physicist Stefan Thurner has shown that the way people act in the virtual world isn’t so different from how they act in the real one. Thurner studies all sorts of complex systems at the Medical University of Vienna, so when one of his doctoral students just happened to create one of the most popular free browser-based games in Europe, Thurner suggested using the game, called Pardus, to study the spontaneous organization of people in a closed society. For almost three-and-a-half years, they monitored the interactions of roughly 7000 active players at one time within the game’s virtual world. Unlike in real life, Pardus players’ moves are tracked and their interactions are recorded automatically by the game. “We have information about everything,” Thurner says. “We know who is where at what point in time, … who exchanges things or money with whom, who is friends with whom, … who hates someone else, who collaborates with whom in entrepreneurial activities, who is in a criminal gang with whom, etc. Even though the society is artificial, it’s a human society.” © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Carl Zimmer Scientists have reconstructed the genome of a man who lived 45,000 years ago, by far the oldest genetic record ever obtained from modern humans. The research, published on Wednesday in the journal Nature, provided new clues to the expansion of modern humans from Africa about 60,000 years ago, when they moved into Europe and Asia. And the genome, extracted from a fossil thighbone found in Siberia, added strong support to a provocative hypothesis: Early humans interbred with Neanderthals. “It’s irreplaceable evidence of what once existed that we can’t reconstruct from what people are now,” said John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin who was not involved in the study. “It speaks to us with information about a time that’s lost to us.” The discoveries were made by a team of scientists led by Svante Paabo, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Over the past three decades, Dr. Paabo and his colleagues have developed tools for plucking out fragments of DNA from fossils and reading their sequences. Early on, the scientists were able only to retrieve tiny snippets of ancient genes. But gradually, they have invented better methods for joining the overlapping fragments together, assembling larger pieces of ancient genomes that have helped shed light on the evolution of humans and their relatives. In December, they published the entirety of a Neanderthal genome extracted from a single toe bone. Comparing Neanderthal to human genomes, Dr. Paabo and his colleagues found that we share a common ancestor, which they estimated lived about 600,000 years ago. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 20231 - Posted: 10.23.2014
Daniel Cressey The history of sex may have to be rewritten thanks to a group of unsightly, long-extinct fish called placoderms. A careful study1 of fossils of these armour-plated creatures, which gave rise to all current vertebrates with jaws, suggests that their descendants — our ancient ancestors — switched their sexual practices from internal to external fertilization, an event previously thought to be evolutionarily improbable. “This was totally unexpected,” says John Long, a palaeontologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and lead author of the study, published in Nature1. “Biologists thought that there could not be a reversion back from internal fertilization to external fertilization, but we have shown it must have happened this way.” Go back far enough in your family tree — before placoderms — and your ancestors were rather ugly jawless fish who reproduced through external fertilization, in which sperm and eggs are expelled into the water to unite. Some of these distant relatives later gave rise to the jawless fish called lampreys that lurk in seas today and still use this method of reproduction. Bony organ Long's team studied placoderms, one of the earliest groups of jawed animals, and found structures in fossils that they interpret as bony ‘claspers’ — male organs that penetrate the female and deliver sperm. © 2014 Nature Publishing Group,
by Penny Sarchet He's sexy and he knows it. The little devil frog is noisy in pursuit of a partner, and doesn't care who hears him. The little devil frog's fearlessness in the face of hungry predators could be down to his toxicity. The little devil, Oophaga sylvatica, is a member of the dendrobatid group of poisonous frogs. His bright colours warn predators that he is unsafe to eat, which Juan Santos of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, believes has allowed the evolution of more flamboyant mating calls. Santos and his colleagues examined the calls, colourings and toxicity of 170 species of frog, including the little devil. They found a strong relationship between the volume of a frog's call and its aposematism – markings that warn of its toxicity. In general, the more toxic a frog, the brighter and more noticeable it is – and the louder and more rapidly it sings (Proceedings of the Royal Society B ). Non-toxic frogs are camouflaged and call from less exposed perches, says Santos. "Females can have a significant effect on the selection of the most noisy males, given that predators will avoid these aposematic individuals," says Santos. The male's calls can travel over long distances, in an attempt to attract a mate. But it's not just about attracting a female frog's attention – it's about letting her know how desirable he is. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
BY Sarah Zielinski Bird’s nests come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and they’re built out of all sorts of things. Hummingbirds, for instance, create tiny cups just a couple centimeters wide; sociable weavers in Africa, in contrast, work together to build huge nests more than two meters across that are so heavy they can collapse trees. There are nests built on rocky ledges, in mounds on the ground, high in trees and on the edges of buildings. Bowerbirds even construct their nests as tiny houses decorated with an artistic eye to attract the ladies. So perhaps it’s not all that surprising the no one had ever investigated whether birds camouflage their nests to protect their eggs against potential predators. It would make sense that they do, but if you were to test it, where would you start? For Ida Bailey of the University of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland, and colleagues, the answer was zebra finches. Male finches usually build nests in dense shrubs and layer the outside of the nests with dry grass stems and fine twigs. Predators, usually birds, take a heavy toll on the zebra finches, though. Since birds tend to hunt based on sight rather than smell, camouflaging a nest might work to protect the eggs sequestered inside. And even better, because zebra finches have good color vision, building a camouflaged nest might be possible. So Bailey’s team gathered 21 pairs of zebra finches, some of which were already housed at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, while others were bought from a local pet store. The researchers set each pair up in its own cage. Two walls of the cage were lined with colored paper, and a nest cup was placed in that half of the cage. Then the birds were given two cups containing colored paper — one color that matched the walls and a second contrasting color. The results of the study appear October 1 in The Auk. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2014.
David Cyranoski Unlike its Western counterparts, Japan’s effort will be based on a rare resource — a large population of marmosets that its scientists have developed over the past decade — and on new genetic techniques that might be used to modify these highly social animals. The goal of the ten-year Brain/MINDS (Brain Mapping by Integrated Neurotechnologies for Disease Studies) project is to map the primate brain to accelerate understanding of human disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. On 11 September, the Japanese science ministry announced the names of the group leaders — and how the project would be organized. Funded at ¥3 billion (US$27 million) for the first year, probably rising to about ¥4 billion for the second, Brain/MINDS is a fraction of the size of the European Union’s Human Brain Project and the United States’ BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, both of which are projected to receive at least US$1 billion over the next decade. But researchers involved in those efforts say that Brain/MINDS fills a crucial gap between disease models in smaller animals that too often fail to mimic human brain disorders, and models of the human brain that need validating data. “It is essential that we have a genetic primate model to study cognition and cognitive brain disorders such as schizophrenia and depression, for which we do not have good mouse models,” says neuroscientist Terry Sejnowski at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, who is a member of the National Institutes of Health BRAIN Initiative Working Group. “Other groups in the United States and China have started transgenic-primate projects, but none is as large or as well organized as the Japanese effort.” © 2014 Nature Publishing Group,
By Virginia Morell Two years ago, scientists showed that dolphins imitate the sounds of whales. Now, it seems, whales have returned the favor. Researchers analyzed the vocal repertoires of 10 captive orcas (Orcinus orca), three of which lived with bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and the rest with their own kind. Of the 1551 vocalizations these seven latter orcas made, more than 95% were the typical pulsed calls of killer whales. In contrast, the three orcas that had only dolphins as pals busily whistled and emitted dolphinlike click trains and terminal buzzes, the scientists report in the October issue of The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. (Watch a video as bioacoustician and co-author Ann Bowles describes the difference between killer whale and orca whistles.) The findings make orcas one of the few species of animals that, like humans, is capable of vocal learning—a talent considered a key underpinning of language. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
by Michael Marshall When we search for the seat of humanity, are we looking at the wrong part of the brain? Most neuroscientists assume that the neocortex, the brain's distinctive folded outer layer, is the thing that makes us uniquely human. But a new study suggests that another part of the brain, the cerebellum, grew much faster in our ape ancestors. "Contrary to traditional wisdom, in the human lineage the cerebellum was the part of the brain that accelerated its expansion most rapidly, rather than the neocortex," says Rob Barton of Durham University in the UK. With Chris Venditti of the University of Reading in the UK, Barton examined how the relative sizes of different parts of the brain changed as primates evolved. During the evolution of monkeys, the neocortex and cerebellum grew in tandem, a change in one being swiftly followed by a change in the other. But starting with the first apes around 25 million years ago through to chimpanzees and humans, the cerebellum grew much faster. As a result, the cerebellums of apes and humans contain far more neurons than the cerebellum of a monkey, even if that monkey were scaled up to the size of an ape. "The difference in ape cerebellar volume, relative to a scaled monkey brain, is equal to 16 billion extra neurons," says Barton. "That's the number of neurons in the entire human neocortex." © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Carl Zimmer As much as we may try to deny it, Earth’s cycle of day and night rules our lives. When the sun sets, the encroaching darkness sets off a chain of molecular events spreading from our eyes to our pineal gland, which oozes a hormone called melatonin into the brain. When the melatonin latches onto neurons, it alters their electrical rhythm, nudging the brain into the realm of sleep. At dawn, sunlight snuffs out the melatonin, forcing the brain back to its wakeful pattern again. We fight these cycles each time we stay up late reading our smartphones, suppressing our nightly dose of melatonin and waking up grumpy the next day. We fly across continents as if we could instantly reset our inner clocks. But our melatonin-driven sleep cycle lags behind, leaving us drowsy in the middle of the day. Scientists have long wondered how this powerful cycle got its start. A new study on melatonin hints that it evolved some 700 million years ago. The authors of the study propose that our nightly slumbers evolved from the rise and fall of our tiny oceangoing ancestors, as they swam up to the surface of the sea at twilight and then sank in a sleepy fall through the night. To explore the evolution of sleep, scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Germany study the activity of genes involved in making melatonin and other sleep-related molecules. Over the past few years, they’ve compared the activity of these genes in vertebrates like us with their activity in a distantly related invertebrate — a marine worm called Platynereis dumerilii. The scientists studied the worms at an early stage, when they were ball-shaped 2-day-old larvae. The ocean swarms with juvenile animals like these. Many of them spend their nights near the ocean surface, feeding on algae and other bits of food. Then they spend the day at lower depths, where they can hide from predators and the sun’s ultraviolet rays. © 2014 The New York Times Company