Chapter 6. Evolution of the Brain and Behavior
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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
It's not just humans who want the latest gadget. Wild chimpanzees that see a friend making and using a nifty new kind of tool are likely to make one for themselves, scientists report. "Our study adds new evidence supporting the hypothesis that some of the behavioural diversity seen in wild chimpanzees is the result of social transmission and can therefore be interpreted as cultural," an international research team writes today in the journal PLOS ONE. The findings suggest that the ability of individuals to learn from one another originated long ago in a common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans, the researchers add. "This study tells us that chimpanzee culture changes over time, little by little, by building on previous knowledge found within the community," said Thibaud Gruber, a co-author of the study, in a statement. "This is probably how our early ancestors' cultures also changed over time." Scientists already knew that chimpanzees in different groups have certain behaviours unique to their group, such as using a particular kind of tool. They suspected that wild chimpanzees learn those behaviours from other chimpanzees within their group, as scientists have observed in captive chimps. But they could never be sure. The new study documents the spread of two new behaviours among chimpanzees living in Uganda's Budongo Forest. It shows that chimps learned one of them — the making and use of a new tool called a moss sponge — by observing other chimps who had already adopted the behaviour. Chimps dip the tool in water and then put it in their mouth to drink. © CBC 2014
Link ID: 20141 - Posted: 10.01.2014
By Jia You Fish larvae emit sound—much to the surprise of biologists. A common coral reef fish in Florida, the gray snapper—Lutjanus griseus (pictured above)—hatches in the open ocean and spends its juvenile years in food-rich seagrass beds hiding from predators before settling in the reefs as an adult. To study how larval snappers orient themselves in the dark, marine biologists deployed transparent acrylic chambers equipped with light and sound sensors under the water to capture the swimming schools as they travel to the seagrass beds on new-moon nights. The larval snappers make a short “knock” sound that adults also make, as well as a long “growl” sound, the team reports online today in Biology Letters. The researchers suspect that the larvae use the acoustic signals to communicate with one another and stay together in schools. If so, human noise pollution could be interrupting their communications—even adult fish have been found to “yell” to be heard above boat noises. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Wild marmosets in the Brazilian forest can learn quite successfully from video demonstrations featuring other marmosets, Austrian scientists have reported, showing not only that marmosets are even better learners than previously known, but that video can be used successfully in experiments in the wild. Tina Gunhold, a cognitive biologist at the University of Vienna, had worked with a population of marmoset monkeys in a bit of Brazilian forest before this particular experiment. The forest is not wilderness. It lies near some apartment complexes, and the marmosets are somewhat used to human beings. But the monkeys are wild, and each extended family group has its own foraging territory. Dr. Gunhold and her colleagues reported in the journal Biology Letters this month that they had tested 12 family groups, setting up a series of video monitors, each with a kind of complicated box that they called an “artificial fruit.” All the boxes contained food. Six of the monitors showed just an unchanging image of a marmoset near a similar box. Three of them showed a marmoset opening the box by pulling a drawer, and three others a marmoset lifting a lid to get at the food. Marmosets are very territorial and would not tolerate a strange individual on their turf, but the image of a strange marmoset on video didn’t seem to bother them. Individual marmosets “differed in their reactions to the video,” Dr. Gunhold said. “Some were more shy, some more bold. The younger ones were more attracted to the video, perhaps because of greater curiosity.” © 2014 The New York Times Company
Posted by James Owen in Weird & Wild Bigger males may get a lot of attention, but sometimes being smaller—and sneakier—is more successful when it comes to mating. In the East African cichlid fish, Lamprologus callipterus, males come in two sizes: giants or dwarves that are 40 times smaller than their beefier rivals. (Watch a video of male cichlid fish fighting.) It’s an example of male polymorphism, a phenomenon in which males of the same species take different forms. Though people vary in height, men don’t come in two different sizes like the cichlids. Several research studies suggest that tall men—those over 5’7″—are more successful in dating and in their careers—but they get divorced at higher rates. But the variation in L. callipterus, which are found only in Lake Tanganyika (map), is “the most extreme there is,” said Michael Taborsky, co-director of the Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Bern, Switzerland. “It’s an enormous size difference.” In a new study, published September 17 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Taborsky and his team linked this gulf in size to the female’s unusual habit of laying eggs in empty snail shells. To attract females, the giant males collect hundreds of these shells, using their mouths to create nesting sites. But while their hefty build is ideal for lugging about the heavy shells and chasing off rivals, the giants can’t access the chambers of their female harem, instead releasing their sperm outside the shell, Taborsky explained. (Also see “Small Squid Have Bigger Sperm—And Their Own Sex Position.”) © 1996-2013 National Geographic Societ
Keyword: Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 20127 - Posted: 09.29.2014
by Greg Laden I heard yesterday that my friend and former advisor Irven DeVore died. He was important, amazing, charming, difficult, harsh, brilliant, fun, annoying. My relationship to him as an advisee and a friend was complex, important to me for many years, and formative. For those who don’t know he was instrumental in developing several subfields of anthropology, including behavioral biology, primate behavioral studies, hunter-gatherer research, and even ethnoarchaeology. He was a cultural anthropologist who realized during his first field season that a) he was not cut out to be a cultural anthropologist and b) most of the other cultural anthropologists were not either. Soon after he became Washburn’s student and independently invented the field study of complex social behavior in primates (though some others were heading in that direction at the same time), producing his famous work on the baboons of Kenya’s Nairobi National Park. For many years, what students learned about primate behavior, they learned from that work. Later he and Richard Lee, along with John Yellen, Alison Brooks, Henry Harpending, and others started up the study of Ju/’hoansi Bushmen along the Namibian/Botswana border. One of the outcomes of that work was the famous Werner Gren conference and volume called “Man the Hunter.” That volume has two roles in the history of anthropology. First, it launched modern forager studies. Second, it became one of the more maligned books in the field of Anthropology. I have yet to meet a single person who has a strong criticism of that book that is not based on having not read it. For many years, much of what students learned about human foragers, they learned from that work.
Link ID: 20114 - Posted: 09.25.2014
By John Horgan On this blog, in my book The End of War and elsewhere (see Further Reading and Viewing), I have knocked the deep roots theory of war, which holds that war stems from an instinct deeply embedded in the genes of our male ancestors. Inter-community killings are rare among chimpanzees and non-existent among bonobos, according to a new report in Nature, undercutting the theory that the roots of war extend back to the common ancestor of humans and chimps. Proponents of this theory—notably primatologist Richard Wrangham—claim it is supported by observations of inter-community killings by chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes, our closest genetic relatives. Skeptics, including anthropologists Robert Sussman and Brian Ferguson, have pointed out that chimpanzee violence might be not an adaptation but a response to environmental circumstances, such as human encroachment. This “human impacts” hypothesis is rejected in a new report in Nature by a coalition of 30 primatologists, including Wrangham and lead author Michael Wilson. In “Lethal aggression in Pan is better explained by adaptive strategies than human impacts,” Wilson et al. analyze 152 killings in 18 chimpanzee communities and find “little correlation with human impacts.” Given that the primary interest in chimp violence is its alleged support of the deep-roots theory, it might seem odd, at first, that Wilson et al. do not mention human warfare. Actually, this omission is wise, because the Nature report undermines the deep-roots theory of war, and establishes that the “human impact” issue is a red herring. © 2014 Scientific American,
By Virginia Morell Living in a complex social world—one with shifting alliances and competitors—is often cited as the key reason humans, dolphins, and spotted hyenas evolved large brains. Now, researchers say that social complexity also underlies the braininess of parrots, which have big brains relative to their body size. To understand the social lives of these birds, the scientists observed wild populations of monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus), a small parrot, in Argentina and captive ones in Florida. They recorded how often the birds (pictured) were seen with other individuals and how they interacted—and then analyzed the parakeets’ social networks. The birds, the researchers report online today in The Auk: Ornithological Advances, prefer to spend time with one specific individual, usually their mate. In the captive populations, the birds also had strong associations with one or two other individuals, numerous more moderate relationships, and only a few that were weak. The scientists also recorded aggressive interactions among the captive birds, revealing that monk parakeets have a dominance hierarchy based on which birds won or lost confrontations. Thus, the parakeets’ society has layers of relationships, similar to those documented in other big-brained animals. Living in such a society requires that the birds recognize and remember others, and whether they are friend or foe—mental tasks that are thought to be linked to the evolution of significant cognitive skills. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Link ID: 20087 - Posted: 09.18.2014
By Sarah Zielinski The marshmallow test is pretty simple: Give a child a treat, such as a marshmallow, and promise that if he doesn’t eat it right away, he’ll soon be rewarded with a second one. The experiment was devised by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel in the late 1960s as a measure of self-control. When he later checked back in with kids he had tested as preschoolers, those who had been able to wait for the second treat appeared to be doing better in life. They tended to have fewer behavioral or drug-abuse problems, for example, than those who had given in to temptation. Most attempts to perform this experiment on animals haven’t worked out so well. Many animals haven’t been willing to wait at all. Dogs, primates, and some birds have done a bit better, managing to wait at least a couple of minutes before eating the first treat. The best any animal has managed has been 10 minutes—a record set earlier this year by a couple of crows. The African grey parrot is a species known for its intelligence. Animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg, now at Harvard, spent 30 years studying one of these parrots, Alex, and showed that the bird had an extraordinary vocabulary and capacity for learning. Alex even learned to add numerals before his death in 2007. Could an African grey pass the marshmallow test? Adrienne E. Koepke of Hunter College and Suzanne L. Gray of Harvard University tried the experiment on Pepperberg’s current star African grey, a 19-year-old named Griffin. In their test, a researcher took two treats, one of which Griffin liked slightly better, and put them into cups. Then she placed the cup with the less preferred food in front of Griffin and told him, “wait.” She took the other cup and either stood a few feet away or left the room. After a random amount of time, from 10 seconds to 15 minutes, she would return. If the food was still in the cup, Griffin got the nut he was waiting for. Koepke and colleagues presented their findings last month at the Animal Behavior Society meeting at Princeton. © 2014 The Slate Group LLC.
// by Richard Farrell Conventional thinking has long held that pelvic bones in whales and dolphins, evolutionary throwbacks to ancestors that once walked on land, are vestigial and will disappear millions of years from now. But researchers from University of Southern California and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM) have upended that assumption. The scientists argue in a paper just published in the journal Evolution that cetacean (whale and dolphin) pelvic bones certainly do have a purpose and that they're specifically targeted, by selection, for mating. The muscles that control a cetacean's penis are attached to the creature's pelvic bones. Matthew Dean, assistant professor at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and Jim Dines, collections manager of mammalogy at NHM, wanted to find out if pelvic bones could be evolutionarily advantageous by impacting the overall amount of control an individual creature has with its penis. The pair spent four years examining whale and dolphin pelvic bones, using a 3D laser scanner to study the shape and size of the samples in extreme detail. Then they gathered as much data as they could find -- reaching back to whaler days -- on whale testis size relative to body mass. The testis data was important because in nature, species in "promiscuous," competitive mating environments (where females mate with multiple males) develop larger testes, relative to their body mass, in order to outdo the competition. © 2014 Discovery Communications, LLC.