Chapter 6. Evolution of the Brain and Behavior
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By Karin Brulliard Think about how most people talk to babies: Slowly, simply, repetitively, and with an exaggerated tone. It’s one way children learn the uses and meanings of language. Now scientists have found that some adult birds do that when singing to chicks — and it helps the baby birds better learn their song. The subjects of the new study, published last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, were zebra finches. They’re good for this because they breed well in a lab environment, and “they’re just really great singers. They sing all the time,” said McGill University biologist and co-author Jon Sakata. The males, he means — they’re the singers, and they do it for fun and when courting ladies, as well as around baby birds. Never mind that their melody is more “tinny,” according to Sakata, than pretty. Birds in general are helpful for vocal acquisition studies because they, like humans, are among the few species that actually have to learn how to make their sounds, Sakata said. Cats, for example, are born knowing how to meow. But just as people pick up speech and bats learn their calls, birds also have to figure out how to sing their special songs. Sakata and his colleagues were interested in how social interactions between adult zebra finches and chicks influences that learning process. Is face-to-face — or, as it may be, beak-to-beak — learning better? Does simply hearing an adult sing work as well as watching it do so? Do daydreaming baby birds learn as well as their more focused peers? © 1996-2016 The Washington Post
By Simon Makin Other species are capable of displaying dazzling feats of intelligence. Crows can solve multistep problems. Apes display numerical skills and empathy. Yet, neither species has the capacity to conduct scientific investigations into other species' cognitive abilities. This type of behavior provides solid evidence that humans are by far the smartest species on the planet. Besides just elevated IQs, however, humans set themselves apart in another way: Their offspring are among the most helpless of any species. A new study, published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), draws a link between human smarts and an infant’s dependency, suggesting one thing led to the other in a spiraling evolutionary feedback loop. The study, from psychologists Celeste Kidd and Steven Piantadosi at the University of Rochester, represents a new theory about how humans came to possess such extraordinary smarts. Like a lot of evolutionary theories, this one can be couched in the form of a story—and like a lot of evolutionary stories, this one is contested by some scientists. Kidd and Piantadosi note that, according to a previous theory, early humans faced selection pressures for both large brains and the capacity to walk upright as they moved from forest to grassland. Larger brains require a wider pelvis to give birth whereas being bipedal limits the size of the pelvis. These opposing pressures—biological anthropologists call them the “obstetric dilemma”—could have led to giving birth earlier when infants’ skulls were still small. Thus, newborns arrive more immature and helpless than those of most other species. Kidd and Piantadosi propose that, as a consequence, the cognitive demands of child care increased and created evolutionary pressure to develop higher intelligence. © 2016 Scientific American
By David Z. Hambrick If you’re a true dog lover, you take it as one of life’s simple truths that all dogs are good, and you have no patience for scientific debate over whether dogs really love people. Of course they do. What else could explain the fact that your dog runs wildly in circles when you get home from work, and, as your neighbors report, howls inconsolably for hours on end when you leave? What else could explain the fact that your dog insists on sleeping in your bed, under the covers—in between you and your partner? At the same time, there’s no denying that some dogs are smarter than others. Not all dogs can, like a border collie mix named Jumpy, do a back flip, ride a skateboard, and weave through pylons on his front legs. A study published in the journal Intelligence by British psychologists Rosalind Arden and Mark Adams confirms as much. Consistent with over a century of research on human intelligence, Arden and Adams found that a dog that excels in one test of cognitive ability will likely excel in other tests of cognitive ability. In more technical terms, the study reveals that there is a general factor of intelligence in dogs—a canine “g” factor. For their study, Arden and Adams devised a battery of canine cognitive ability tests. All of the tests revolved around—you guessed it—getting a treat. In the detour test, the dog’s objective was to navigate around barriers arranged in different configurations to get to a treat. In the point-following test, a researcher pointed to one of two inverted beakers concealing a treat, and recorded whether the dog went to that beaker or the other one. Finally, the quantity discrimination test required the dog to choose between a small treat (a glob of peanut butter) and a larger one (the “correct” answer). Arden and Adams administered the battery to 68 border collies from Wales; all had been bred and trained to do herding work on a farm, and thus had similar backgrounds. © 2016 Scientific American
By C. CLAIBORNE RAY Q. Does the size of an animal’s brain really correlate with intelligence on a species-by-species basis? A. “It’s not necessarily brain size but rather the ratio of brain size to body size that really tells the story,” said Rob DeSalle, a curator at the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics at the American Museum of Natural History. Looking at this ratio over a large number of vertebrate animals, he said, scientists have found that “brain size increases pretty linearly with body size, except for some critical species like Homo sapiens and some cetaceans,” the order of mammals that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises. “So if there is a deviation from this general ratio, one can predict how smart a vertebrate might be,” Dr. DeSalle continued. Therefore, living vertebrates that deviate so that their brains are inordinately bigger compared with their bodies are for the most part smarter, he said. As for dinosaurs, he said, scientists really can’t tell how smart they may have been. “But the Sarmientosaurus, with its lime-sized brain, was a big animal, so the extrapolation is that it would have been pretty dense,” he said. “On the other hand, Troodon, a human-sized dinosaur, had a huge brain relative to its body size and is widely considered the smartest dinosaur ever found.” © 2016 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 22261 - Posted: 05.30.2016
By RUSSELL GOLDMAN There’s an elephant at a zoo outside Seoul that speaks Korean. — You mean, it understands some Korean commands, the way a dog can be trained to understand “sit” or “stay”? No, I mean it can actually say Korean words out loud. — Pics or it didn’t happen. Here, watch the video. To be fair, the elephant, a 26-year-old Asian male named Koshik, doesn’t really speak Korean, any more than a parrot can speak Korean (or English or Klingon). But parrots are supposed to, well, parrot — and elephants are not. And Koshik knows how to say at least five Korean words, which are about five more than I do. The really amazing part is how he does it. Koshik places his trunk inside his mouth and uses it to modulate the tone and pitch of the sounds his voice makes, a bit like a person putting his fingers in his mouth to whistle. In this way, Koshik is able to emulate human speech “in such detail that Korean native speakers can readily understand and transcribe the imitations,” according to the journal Current Biology. What’s in his vocabulary? Things he hears all the time from his keepers: the Korean words for hello, sit down, lie down, good and no. Elephant Speaks Korean | Video Video by LiveScienceVideos Lest you think this is just another circus trick that any Jumbo, Dumbo or Babar could pull off, the team of international scientists who wrote the journal article say Koshik’s skills represent “a wholly novel method of vocal production and formant control in this or any other species.” Like many innovations, Koshik’s may have been born of sad necessity. Researchers say he started to imitate his keepers’s sounds only after he was separated from other elephants at the age of 5 — and that his desire to speak like a human arose from sheer loneliness. © 2016 The New York Times Company
Susan Milius Forget it, peacocks. Nice try, elk. Sure, sexy feathers and antlers are showy, but the sperm of a fruit fly could be the most over-the-top, exaggerated male ornamentation of all. In certain fruit fly species, such as Drosophila bifurca, males measuring just a few millimeters produce sperm with a tail as long as 5.8-centimeters, researchers report May 25 in Nature. Adjusted for body size, the disproportionately supersized sperm outdoes such exuberant body parts as pheasant display feathers, deer antlers, scarab beetle horns and the forward-grasping forceps of earwigs. Fruit flies’ giant sperm have been challenging to explain, says study coauthor Scott Pitnick of Syracuse University in New York. Now he and his colleagues propose that a complex interplay of male and female benefits has accelerated sperm length in a runaway-train scenario. Males with longer sperm deliver fewer sperm, bucking a more-is-better trend. Yet, they still manage to transfer a few dozen to a few hundred per mating. And as newly arrived sperm compete to displace those already waiting in a female’s storage organ, longer is better. Fewer sperm per mating means females tend to mate more often, intensifying the sperm-vs.-sperm competition. Females that have the longest storage organs, which favor the longest sperm, benefit too: Males producing megasperm, the researchers found, tend to be the ones with good genes likely to produce robust offspring. “Sex,” says Pitnick, “is a powerful force.” © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2016
By Andy Coghlan It’s a tear-jerker worthy of Hollywood – and one of the first examples of compassionate care and grief in a wild monkey. The alpha male of a group of snub-nosed monkeys and his dying partner spent a final, tender hour together beneath the tree from which she had fallen minutes earlier, cracking her head on a rock. Before she succumbed, he gently touched and groomed her. And after she was dead he remained by her side for 5 minutes, touching her and pulling gently at her hand, as if to try and revive her (for a full account of what happened, see “A monkey tends to his dying mate – as it unfolded”, below). “The case we’ve reported is particularly important because of the exclusively gentle nature of the interactions, and the special treatment of the dying female shown by the adult male,” says James Anderson of Kyoto University, Japan. “The events suggest that in the case of strongly bonded individuals at least, monkeys may show compassionate behaviour to ailing or dying individuals.” Together, the reports add to evidence that humans may not be the only species to display grieving behaviour following bereavement, or to show respect for dead individuals with whom they have forged ties. They also hint that animals have some recognition of the finality of death. “It seems likely that in long-lived species such as many primates, repeated exposure to death within the group leads to an understanding of the irreversibility of death,” says Anderson. “I believe the adult male and other members of his unit understood the dead female was no longer alive.” © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Bret Stetka We've all been caught in that hazy tug of war between wakefulness and sleep. But the biology behind how our brains drive us to sleep when we're sleep-deprived hasn't been entirely clear. For the first time scientists have identified the neurons in the brain that appear to control sleep drive, or the growing pressure we feel to sleep after being up for an extended period of time. The findings, published online Thursday by the journal Cell, could lead to better understanding of sleep disorders in humans. And perhaps, one day, if the work all pans out, better treatments for chronic insomnia could be developed. To explore which brain areas might be involved in sleep drive, Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Dr. Mark Wu and his colleagues turned to fruit flies, that long tinkered-with subject of scientific inquiry. Despite our rather obvious physical distinctions, humans and fruit flies – or Drosophila – have a good deal in common when it comes to genes, brain architecture and even behaviors. Included in the study were over 500 strains of fly, each with unique brain activation profiles (meaning certain circuits are more active in certain flies). By employing a genetic engineering technique in which specific groups of neurons can be activated with heat, the researchers were able to monitor the firing of nearly all the major circuits in the fruit fly brain and monitor the resulting effects on sleep. Moreover, the neurons of interest were engineered to glow green when activated allowing specific cells to be identified with fluorescent microscopy. Wu found that activating a group of cells called R2 neurons, which are found in a brain region known as the ellipsoid body, put fruit flies to sleep, even for hours after the neurons were "turned off." © 2016 npr
By JONATHAN BALCOMBE Washington — IN March, two marine biologists published a study of giant manta rays responding to their reflections in a large mirror installed in their aquarium in the Bahamas. The two captive rays circled in front of the mirror, blew bubbles and performed unusual body movements as if checking their reflection. They made no obvious attempt to interact socially with their reflections, suggesting that they did not mistake what they saw as other rays. The scientists concluded that the mantas seemed to be recognizing their reflections as themselves. Mirror self-recognition is a big deal. It indicates self-awareness, a mental attribute previously known only among creatures of noted intelligence like great apes, dolphins, elephants and magpies. We don’t usually think of fishes as smart, let alone self-aware. As a biologist who specializes in animal behavior and emotions, I’ve spent the past four years exploring the science on the inner lives of fishes. What I’ve uncovered indicates that we grossly underestimate these fabulously diverse marine vertebrates. The accumulating evidence leads to an inescapable conclusion: Fishes think and feel. Because fishes inhabit vast, obscure habitats, science has only begun to explore below the surface of their private lives. They are not instinct-driven or machinelike. Their minds respond flexibly to different situations. They are not just things; they are sentient beings with lives that matter to them. A fish has a biography, not just a biology. Those giant manta rays have the largest brains of any fish, and their relative brain-to-body size is comparable to that of some mammals. So, an exception? Then you haven’t met the frillfin goby. © 2016 The New York Times Company
By Linda Zajac For nearly 65 million years, bats and tiger moths have been locked in an aerial arms race: Bats echolocate to detect and capture tiger moths, and tiger moths evade them with flight maneuvers and their own ultrasonic sounds. Scientists have long wondered why certain species emit these high-frequency clicks that sound like rapid squeaks from a creaky floorboard. Does the sound jam bat sonar or does it warn bats that the moths are toxic? To find out, scientists collected two types of tiger moths: red-headed moths (pictured above) and Martin’s lichen moths. They then removed the soundmaking organs from some of the insects. In a grassy field in Arizona they set up infrared video cameras, ultrasonic microphones, and ultraviolet lights, the last of which they used to attract bats. In darkness, they released one tiger moth at a time and recorded the moth-bat interactions. They found that the moths rarely produced ultrasonic clicks fast enough to jam bat sonar. They also discovered that without sound organs, 64% of the red-headed moths and 94% of the Martin’s lichen moths were captured and spit out. Together, these findings reported late last month in PLOS ONE suggest that instead of jamming sonar like some tiger moths, these species act tough, flexing their soundmaking organs to warn predators of their toxin. © 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science
By Virginia Morell After defeating other males in boxing matches and winning a territorial roost—and a bevy of females—a male Seba’s short-tailed bat (Carollia perspicillata, pictured) might think his battles for reproductive rights are over. But the defeated males of this neotropical species have a trick up their sleeve: clandestine matings with willing females. The tactic works, and now researchers know why. Scientists studied bats in a captive colony in Switzerland, removing alpha males from their harems for 3 days, and examining their sperm—as well as that of their rivals. A previous study showed that the sneaky males have faster, longer lived sperm, which gives them a leg-up on the alpha male. Researchers had suspected this was because the sneakers produced this supersperm to compete. But the new study finds that after the 3 days of abstinence, the alpha male’s sperm is as agile and vigorous as that of his rivals. Thus, the team reports today in the Journal of Experimental Biology, the sneaky males aren’t generating special sperm—they just mate less, so their sperm is in better shape when it comes time to race to the egg. © 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
By Sarah Kaplan The ancient Greeks spoke of a mythological society composed entirely of warrior women. The medieval traveler John Mandeville wrote of a place whose female rulers "never would suffer man to dwell amongst them." "Paradise Island," home of Wonder Woman, was a feminist utopia where no one with a Y chromosome was allowed. Sadly, those places only exist in fiction. But something like them does exist in the real world. It's in a wetland in rural Ohio. And it's full of salamanders. "They’re pretty incredible," said Robert Denton, a biologist at Ohio State who studies an unusual group of salamander species that literally don't need men. These creatures – all female – reproduce by cloning themselves. To keep their gene pool diverse, they sometimes "steal" sperm left behind on trees and leaves by male salamanders of other species and incorporate that DNA into their offspring. Most sexually reproducing organisms have two sets of chromosomes to make up their genome – one from each parent. But one of these strange salamanders can have between two and five times that much genetic material lying in wait within her cells. It's as if they have multiple genomes to fall back on, and that's made them incredibly successful. "Polyploid" salamanders have been around some 6 million years, Denton said — far longer than most other animal species that reproduce asexually. Since a lack of diversity means having a smaller arsenal of genetic variation to fall back on when living conditions change, these groups usually go extinct relatively quickly. © 1996-2016 The Washington Post
by Susan Milius There’s nothing like a guy doing all the child care to win female favor, even among giant water bugs. Thumbnail-sized Appasus water bugs have become an exemplar species for studying paternal care. After mating, females lay eggs on a male’s back and leave him to swim around for weeks tending his glued-on load. For an A. major water bug, lab tests show an egg burden can have the sweet side of attracting more females, researchers in Japan report May 4 in Royal Society Open Science. Given a choice of two males, females strongly favored, and laid more eggs on, the one already hauling around 10 eggs rather than the male that researchers had scraped eggless. Females still favored a well-egged male even when researchers offered two males that a female had already considered, but with their egg-carrying roles switched from the previous encounter. That formerly spurned suitor this time triumphed. A similar preference, though not as clear-cut, showed up in the slightly smaller and lighter A. japonicus giant water bug. “We conclude that sexual selection plays an important role in the maintenance of elaborate paternal care,” says study coauthor Shin-ya Ohba of Nagasaki University. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2016
By Emily Benson Baby birds are sometimes known to shove their siblings out of the nest to gain their parents’ undivided attention, but barn owl chicks appear to be more altruistic. Scientists recorded the hissing calls of hungry and full barn owl nestlings (Tyto alba, pictured), then played the sounds back to single chicks settled in nests stocked with mice. The young owls that heard the squawks of their hungry kin delayed eating each rodent by an average of half an hour; those that heard cries indicating their invisible nest-mate was full ate the mice more quickly. The findings suggest that barn owl chicks give hungrier siblings a chance to eat first even when the nest is full of food, the researchers will report in an upcoming issue of Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. So is it true altruism? Maybe not. Nestlings may share food in exchange for help with grooming or to get the first crack at a later meal, the team says, suggesting a possible ulterior motive. © 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Link ID: 22174 - Posted: 05.04.2016
By ERICA GOODE Horses snooze in their stalls. Fish take their 40 winks floating in place. Dogs can doze anywhere, anytime. And even the lowly worm nods off now and then. All animals, most scientists agree, engage in some form of sleep. But the stages of sleep that characterize human slumber had until now been documented only in mammals and birds. A team of researchers in Germany announced in a report published on Thursday, however, that they had found evidence of similar sleep stages in a lizard: specifically, the bearded dragon, or Pogona vitticeps, a reptile native to Australia and popular with pet owners. Recordings from electrodes implanted in the lizards’ brains showed patterns of electrical activity that resembled what is known as slow-wave sleep and another pattern resembling rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep, a stage of deep slumber associated with brain activity similar to that of waking. Some researchers had argued that these stages were of relatively recent origin in evolutionary terms because they had not been found in more primitive animals like amphibians, fish, reptiles other than birds, and other creatures with backbones. But the new finding, said Gilles Laurent, director of the department of neural systems at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and the principal author of the study, “increases the probability that sleep evolved in all these animals from a common ancestor.” He added that it also raised the possibility that staged sleep evolved even earlier and that some version of it might exist in animals like amphibians or fish. The report appeared in Thursday’s issue of the journal Science. Other researchers said the study could help scientists understand more about the purpose and mechanisms of sleep. But the finding, they added, is bound to generate more controversy about whether the resting state of primitive animals is really the same as sleep, and whether the brain activity seen in a lizard can be compared to that in mammals. © 2016 The New York Times Company
Nicola Davis Benedict Cumberbatch’s deep and booming voice might have made him a hit among women, but a low pitch is more likely to have evolved to intimidate other men, new research suggests. When both heterosexual men and women were played recordings of male voices, the deeper tones were hailed by men as sounding more dominant. While the deeper voices were judged to be more attractive by female listeners, the effect was weaker, the researchers report. “If you look at what men’s traits look like they are designed for, they look much better designed for intimidating other males than for attracting females,” said David Puts of Pennsylvania State University, who led the study. Published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, the three-part study by an international team of scientists explored the links between voice pitch and mating systems, attractiveness and, for males only, perceived dominance. A formula for the perfect voice? Read more In the first leg of the research, the scientists turned their attention to primates encompassing Old and New World monkeys, as well as humans and other apes, to explore differences in “fundamental frequency” between males and females of each species - the aspect of the voice that is perceived as pitch. After selecting 1721 recordings, they found large differences were more common in polygynous species - where males mate with more than one female - than monogamous ones. That, they say, could be because in polygynous species, competition between males is greater - hence a male with a lower-pitched voice deemed to be intimidating could have the edge in securing a mate. Intriguingly, the researchers found that among the apes humans showed the greatest difference in pitch between the sexes, suggesting our ancestors were not searching for “the one” but were polygynous - a situation Puts still believes to be the case. © 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited
Cassie Martin The grunts, moans and wobbles of gelada monkeys, a chatty species residing in Ethiopia’s northern highlands, observe a universal mathematical principle seen until now only in human language. The new research, published online April 18 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sheds light on the evolution of primate communication and complex human language, the researchers say. “Human language is like an onion,” says Simone Pika, head of the Humboldt Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, who was not involved in the study. “When you peel back the layers, you find that it is based on these underlying mechanisms, many of which were already present in animal communication. This research neatly shows there is another ability already present.” As the number of individual calls in gelada vocal sequences increases, the duration of the calls tends to decrease — a relationship known as Menzerath’s law. One of those mechanisms is known as Menzerath’s law, a mathematical principle that states that the longer a construct, the shorter its components. In human language, for instance, longer sentences tend to comprise shorter words. The gelada study is the first to observe this law in the vocalizations of a nonhuman species. “There are aspects of communication and language that aren’t as unique as we think,” says study coauthor Morgan Gustison of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2016
By Sarah Kaplan We know where the human story started: In Africa, millions of years ago, with diminutive people whose brains were just a third of the size of ours. And we know where it ended: with us. Yet a lot of what happened in between is still debated, including the question of how humans' bodies and noggins got so much bigger than our ancestors'. The traditional thinking is that the growth of both was spurred by the process of natural selection. The evolutionary advantages of a big body and a big brain are plentiful, so it seems reasonable to think that each developed independent of the other in response to the demands of survival in a hostile world. But a new study in the journal Current Anthropology suggests that, while our brains are certainly an advantageous adaptation, our imposing physiques (such as they are) are more of an evolutionary fluke. That's because the genes that determine brain and body size are the same, argues Mark Grabowski, a fellow at the American Museum of Natural History. So as humans evolved bigger and bigger brains, our bodies "just got pulled along." Grabowski acknowledges that it may seem like a counterintuitive conclusion — most of us learned in high school biology that evolution is about adapting to circumstances and that only the fittest survive. We're not used to thinking of traits as a product of happenstance. But evolutionary scientists know that lots of traits — even ultimately beneficial ones — are just the luck of the draw.
Link ID: 22119 - Posted: 04.20.2016
By Robin Wylie Bottlenose dolphins have been observed chattering while cooperating to solve a tricky puzzle – a feat that suggests they have a type of vocalisation dedicated to cooperating on problem solving. Holli Eskelinen of Dolphins Plus research institute in Florida and her colleagues at the University of Southern Mississippi presented a group of six captive dolphins with a locked canister filled with food. The canister could only be opened by simultaneously pulling on a rope at either end. The team conducted 24 canister trials, during which all six dolphins were present. Only two of the dolphins ever managed to crack the puzzle and get to the food. The successful pair was prolific, though: in 20 of the trials, the same two adult males worked together to open the food canister in a matter of few minutes. In the other four trials, one of the dolphins managed to solve the problem on its own, but this was much trickier and took longer to execute. But the real surprise came from recordings of the vocalisations the dolphins made during the experiment. The team found that when the dolphins worked together to open the canister, they made around three times more vocalisations than they did while opening the canister on their own or when there was either no canister present or no interaction with the canister in the pool. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Eleanor Ainge Roy in Dunedin An octopus has made a brazen escape from the national aquarium in New Zealand by breaking out of its tank, slithering down a 50-metre drainpipe and disappearing into the sea. In scenes reminiscent of Finding Nemo, Inky – a common New Zealand octopus – made his dash for freedom after the lid of his tank was accidentally left slightly ajar. Staff believe that in the middle of the night, while the aquarium was deserted, Inky clambered to the top of his cage, down the side of the tank and travelled across the floor of the aquarium. Rob Yarrell, national manager of the National Aquarium of New Zealand in Napier, said: “Octopuses are famous escape artists. “But Inky really tested the waters here. I don’t think he was unhappy with us, or lonely, as octopus are solitary creatures. But he is such a curious boy. He would want to know what’s happening on the outside. That’s just his personality.” One theory is that Inky slid across the aquarium floor – a journey of three or four metres – and then, sensing freedom was at hand, into a drainpipe that lead directly to the sea. The drainpipe was 50 metres long, and opened on to the waters of Hawke’s Bay, on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Another possible escape route could have involved Inky squeezing into an open pipe at the top of his tank, which led under the floor to the drain. © 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited