Chapter 6. Evolution of the Brain and Behavior
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or subscribe to our mailing list, to receive news updates. Learn more.
Think fast. The deadly threat of snakes may have driven humans to develop a complex and specialized visual system. The sinuous shape triggers a primal jolt of recognition: snake! A new study of the monkey brain suggests that primates are uniquely adapted to recognize the features of this slithering threat and react in a flash. The results lend support to a controversial hypothesis: that primates as we know them would never have evolved without snakes. A tussle with a snake meant almost certain death for our preprimate ancestors. The reptiles slithered through the forests of the supercontinent Gondwana roughly 100 million years ago, squeezing the life out of the tiny rodent-sized mammalian ancestors of modern primates. About 40 million years later, likely after primates had emerged, some snakes began injecting poison, which made them an even deadlier and more immediate threat. Snakes were “the first and most persistent predators” of early mammals, says Lynne Isbell, a behavioral ecologist the University of California, Davis. They were such a critical threat, she has long argued, that they shaped the emergence and evolution of primates. By selecting for traits that helped animals avoid them, snakes ultimately endowed us with forward-facing eyes, for example, and enlarged visual centers deep in our brains that are specialized for picking out specific features in the world around us, such as the general shape of a snake’s body camouflaged among leaves. Isbell published her “Snake Detection Theory” in 2006. To support it, she showed that the rare primates that have not encountered venomous snakes in the course of their evolution, such as lemurs in Madagascar, have poorer vision than those that evolved alongside snakes. © 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science
by Bethany Brookshire There are many animal species out there that exhibit same-sex mating behavior. This can take the form of courtship behaviors, solicitation, all the way through to mounting and trading off sperm). In some species, it’s clear that some of this behavior is because the animals involved have pair bonded. But what about insects? Many insects mate quickly, a one and done approach, with very little bonding involved beyond what’s needed to protect against other potential suitors. When it comes to bugs, is it intentional same-sex behavior? Or is it all a mistake? Hypotheses are out there, but in the end, we need science. A new study in the November Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology wants to answer these questions. The authors did a meta-analysis of papers looking at same-sex sexual activity in male insects and arachnids. They tried to tease out why same-sex sexual behavior might occur in insects. What are the benefits? The potential downsides? And from that, to hypothesize why it might occur. Some of it, it turns out, could be due to context. A lot of observed same-sex mating behavior in insects is observed, for example, when the males are all housed together, away from the females. Partially because of this (but possibly for other reasons as well), same-sex sexual behavior in insects tends to occur much more frequently in the lab than in the wild. But it’s still often documented in the field. Why does it happen? Some say that by mating with a “passive” male and transferring sperm, that sperm then gets passed over to the female when the passive male mates. Sneaky. But does it really happen? And if it does, is it effective? So far, it doesn’t appear that it is; less than 0.5% of the offspring resulted from the transfer of sperm when these cases were documented. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013
If you were stung by a bark scorpion, the most venomous scorpion in North America, you’d feel something like the intense, painful jolt of being electrocuted. Moments after the creature flips its tail and injects venom into your skin, the intense pain would be joined by a numbness or tingling in the body part that was stung, and you might experience a shortness of breath. The effect of this venom on some people—small children, the elderly or adults with compromised immune systems—can even trigger frothing at the mouth, seizure-like symptoms, paralysis and potentially death. Based solely on its body size, the four-inch-long furry grasshopper mouse should die within minutes of being stung—thanks to the scorpion’s venom, which causes temporary paralysis, the muscles that allow the mouse to breathe should shut down, leading to asphyxiation—so you’d think the rodent would avoid the scorpions at all costs. But if you put a mouse and a scorpion in the same place, the rodent’s reaction is strikingly brazen. If stung, the four-inch-long rodent might jump back for a moment in surprise. Then, after a brief pause, it’ll go in for the kill and devour the scorpion piece by piece: This predatory behavior isn’t the result of remarkable toughness. As scientists recently discovered, the mouse has evolved a particularly useful adaptation: It’s immune to both the pain and paralytic effects that make the scorpion’s venom so toxic. Although scientists long knew that the mouse, native to the deserts of the American Southwest, preys upon a range of non-toxic scorpions, “no one had ever really asked whether they attack and kill really toxic scorpions,” says Ashlee Rowe of Michigan State University, who led the new study published today in Science.
Who would win in a fight: a bark scorpion or a grasshopper mouse? It seems like an easy call. The bark scorpion (Centruroides sculpturatus) delivers one of the most painful stings in the animal kingdom—human victims have compared the experience to being branded. The 25-gram grasshopper mouse (Onychomys torridus) is, well, a mouse. But as you can see in the video above, grasshopper mice routinely kill and eat bark scorpions, blissfully munching away even as their prey sting them repeatedly (and sometimes right in the face). Now, scientists have discovered why the grasshopper mice don’t react to bark scorpion stings: They simply don’t feel them. Evolutionary neurobiologist Ashlee Rowe at the University of Texas, Austin, has been studying the grasshopper mice’s apparent superpower since she was in graduate school. For the new study, she milked venom from nearly 500 bark scorpions and started experimenting. When she injected the venom into the hind paws of regular laboratory mice, the mice furiously licked the site for several minutes. But when she injected the same venom into grasshopper mice, they licked their paws for just a few seconds and then went about their business, apparently unfazed. In fact, the grasshopper mice appeared to be more irritated by injections of the saline solution Rowe used as a control. Rowe knew that grasshopper mice weren’t entirely impervious to pain—they reacted to injections of other painful chemicals such as formalin, just not the bark scorpion venom. To find out what was going on, she and her team decided to determine how the venom affects the grasshopper mouse’s nervous system, in particular the parts responsible for sensing pain. © 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Daniel Cossins It may not always seem like it, but humans usually take turns speaking. Research published today in Current Biology1 shows that marmosets, too, wait for each other to stop calling before they respond during extended vocal exchanges. The discovery could help to explain how humans came to be such polite conversationalists. Taking turns is a cornerstone of human verbal communication, and is common across all languages. But with no evidence that non-human primates 'converse' similarly, it was not clear how such behaviour evolved. The widely accepted explanation, known as the gestural hypothesis, suggests that humans might somehow have taken the neural machinery underlying cooperative manual gestures such as pointing to something to attract another person's attention to it, and applied that to vocalization. Not convinced, a team led by Daniel Takahashi, a neurobiologist at Princeton University in New Jersey, wanted to see whether another primate species is capable of cooperative calling. The researchers turned to common marmosets (Callithrix jacchus) because, like humans, they are prosocial — that is, generally friendly towards each other — and they communicate using vocalizations. After you The team recorded exchanges between pairs of marmosets that could hear but not see each other, and found that the monkeys never called at the same time. Instead, they always waited for roughly 5 seconds after a caller had finished before responding. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group
Sending up the alarm when a predator approaches seems like a good idea on the surface. But it isn’t always, because such warnings might help the predator pinpoint the location of its next meal. So animals often take their audience into account when deciding whether or not to warn it of impending danger. And a new study in Biology Letters finds that the vulnerability of that audience matters, at least when we’re talking about baby birds and their parents. Tonya Haff and Robert Magrath of Australian National University in Canberra studied a local species, the white-browed scrubwren, by setting up an experiment to see if parents' reactions to predators changed when the babies were more vulnerable. Baby birds are vulnerable pretty much all the time but more so when they’re begging for food. That whining noise can lead a predator right to them. But a parent’s alarm call can shut them right up. Haff and Magrath began by determining that parent scrubwrens would respond normally when they heard recordings of baby birds. (They used recordings because those are more reliable than getting little chicks to act on cue.) Then they played those recordings or one of background noise near scrubwren nests. The role of the predator was played by a taxidermied pied currawong, with a harmless fake crimson rosella (a kind of parrot) used as a control. The mama and papa birds called out their “buzz” alarm more often when the pied currawong was present and the baby bird recording was being played. They barely buzzed when the parrot was present or only background noise was played. The parents weren’t alarm calling more just to be heard over the noise, the researchers say. If that were the case, then a second type of call — a contact “chirp” that mamas and papas give when approaching a nest — should also have become more common, which it didn’t. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013.
Sid Perkins One of the most complete early human skulls yet found suggests that what scientists thought were three hominin species may in fact be one. This controversial claim comes from a comparison between the anatomical features of a 1.8-million-year-old fossil skull with those of four other skulls from the same excavation site at Dmanisi, Georgia. The wide variability in their features suggests that Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis and Homo erectus, the species so far identified as existing worldwide in that era, might represent a single species. The research is published in Science today1. The newly described skull — informally known as 'skull 5' — was unearthed in 2005. When combined with a jawbone found five years before and less than 2 metres away, it “is the most complete skull of an adult from this date”, says Marcia Ponce de León, a palaeoanthropologist at the Anthropological Institute and Museum in Zurich, Switzerland, and one of the authors of the study. The volume of skull 5’s braincase is only 546 cubic centimetres, about one-third that of modern humans, she notes. Despite that low volume, the hominin’s face was relatively large and protruded more than the faces of the other four skulls found at the site, which have been attributed to H. erectus. Having five skulls from one site provides an unprecedented opportunity to study variation in what presumably was a single population, says co-author Christoph Zollikofer, a neurobiologist at the same institute as Ponce de León. All of the skulls excavated so far were probably deposited within a 20,000-year time period, he notes. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group
Link ID: 18806 - Posted: 10.19.2013
by Denise Chow, LiveScience The discovery of a fossilized brain in the preserved remains of an extinct "mega-clawed" creature has revealed an ancient nervous system that is remarkably similar to that of modern-day spiders and scorpions, according to a new study. The fossilized Alalcomenaeus is a type of arthropod known as a megacheiran (Greek for "large claws") that lived approximately 520 million years ago, during a period known as the Lower Cambrian. The creature was unearthed in the fossil-rich Chengjiang formation in southwest China. VIDEO: Bugs, Arthropods, and Insects! Oh My! Researchers studied the fossilized brain, the earliest known complete nervous system, and found similarities between the extinct creature's nervous system and the nervous systems of several modern arthropods, which suggest they may be ancestrally related. [Photos of Clawed Arthropod & Other Strange Cambrian Creatures] Living arthropods are commonly separated into two major groups: chelicerates, which include spiders, horseshoe crabs and scorpions, and a group that includes insects, crustaceans and millipedes. The new findings shed light on the evolutionary processes that may have given rise to modern arthropods, and also provide clues about where these extinct mega-clawed creatures fit in the tree of life. "We now know that the megacheirans had central nervous systems very similar to today's horseshoe crabs and scorpions," senior author Nicholas Strausfeld, a professor in the department of neuroscience at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said in a statement. "This means the ancestors of spiders and their kin lived side by side with the ancestors of crustaceans in the Lower Cambrian." © 2013 Discovery Communications, LLC.
Link ID: 18804 - Posted: 10.17.2013
by Bob Holmes The great flowering of human evolution over the past 2 million years may have been driven not by the African savannahs, but by the lakes of that continent's Great Rift Valley. This novel idea, published this week, may explain why every major advance in the evolution of early humans, from speciation to the vast increase in brain size, appears to have taken place in eastern Africa. Anthropologists have surmised for several years that early humans, or hominins, might have evolved their unusually large, powerful brains to cope with an increasingly variable climate over the past few million years. However, studies testing this hypothesis have been equivocal, perhaps because most use global or continental-scale measures of climate, such as studying trends in the amount of airborne dust from dry earth that is blown into the ocean and incorporated into deep-sea sediments. Mark Maslin, a palaeoclimatologist at University College London, and his colleague Susanne Shultz at the University of Manchester, UK, have taken a local approach instead, by studying whether the presence or absence of lakes in the Rift Valley affected the hominins living there. Maslin's hunch is that relatively short periods of extreme variability 2.6, 1.8, and 1 million years ago – which are important periods for human evolution – corresponded to times of rapid change in the large lakes of the Great Rift Valley. Because the valley concentrates rainfall from a wide area into relatively small basins, these lakes are unusually sensitive to rainfall and swell or disappear depending on climate. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Link ID: 18802 - Posted: 10.17.2013
By Jason G. Goldman Scientists love yawning. No, that’s not quite right. Scientists love doing research on yawning. It seems to be of interest to folks in fields ranging from primatology to developmental psychology to psychopathology to animal behavior. If the notion of scientifically investigation the purpose of yawning makes you, well, yawn, then you’re missing one of the more interesting debates in the social cognition literature. To understand why yawning is about more than feeling tired or bored, we have to go back a few years. Once upon a time, scientists thought that yawning might be process through which the brain keeps itself cool (PDF). Yawning is associated with increases in blood pressure, and the consequential increase in blood flow might mean that the vascular system acts as a radiator, replacing the warm blood in the brain with cooler blood. It could also be that the deep inhalation of cold air during a yawn can, through convection, alter blood temperature which in turn could cool the brain. Even if it turns out that some yawns can be explained through purely physiological means, yawning is also contagious for humans and other species. If someone watches someone else yawning, they’ll be likely to yawn as well. That means that there is social component to yawning, and it might be related to empathy. It turns out that there’s a correlation between a person’s self-reported empathy and their susceptibility to reacting to a yawn contagion, and those who are more skilled at theory of mind tasks are also more likely (PDF) to yawn contagiously. © 2013 Scientific American
by Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Apes orphaned by the African bushmeat trade lack the social savvy of apes raised by their mothers, a new study finds. The study links the emotional development of bonobos (Pan paniscus), one of humans' closest living relatives, with the ability to interact nicely with others, echoing how human emotions develop. Bonobos who are good at soothing themselves out of a bad mood are more likely to comfort other bonobos in distress, researchers report today (Oct. 14) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "By measuring the expression of distress and arousal in great apes, and how they cope, we were able to confirm that efficient emotion regulation is an essential part of empathy," study researcher Frans de Waal, of Emory University's National Primate Research Center, said in a statement. PHOTOS: How Santino, the Chimp, Attacks Visitors Though animal emotions "have long been scientifically taboo," de Waal said, he and his colleagues suspected that emotions might have evolved similarly before the bonobo and human lines split about 6 million years ago. The researchers observed juvenile bonobos at a sanctuary near Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They watched as the young primates fought, threw tantrums and comforted one another by hugging or stroking. (See Video of a Bonobo Hug) In 373 post-distress interactions (318 caused by fights and 55 caused by tantrums), the researchers found that the better a bonobo was at soothing his or her own emotions, the more likely he or she was to rush to aid a friend in need. A similar pattern is seen in human interactions, the researchers reported. © 2013 Discovery Communications, LLC.
by Jack Flanagan Although dogs are said to be man's best friend, it doesn't mean they "get" us. At least, not like elephants seem to. Without any training, the giant herbivores can understand and follow our hand gestures – the first non-human animals known to be able to do so. Elephants have lived alongside humans for between 4000 and 8000 years. Despite their potential to be tamed, though, elephants have never been domesticated in the same way as dogs, cats and agricultural animals have. This hasn't prevented them from developing a number of human-like skills. In the wild, they are famously empathetic towards one another. In captivity, elephants have displayed a degree of self-awareness by being able to recognise themselves in a mirrorMovie Camera. Others have developed the teamwork necessary to coordinate and complete a task. In fact, one elephant has even learned some basic phrases in Korean – and another has been taught to paint by its parents. Arguably it was only a matter of time before they added another skill to their impressive repertoire. Hidden talent Pointing gestures are common enough among humans: from an early age babies naturally recognise the meaning behind them. We know that chimpanzees and even seals can do this too, but not without hours of training. It comes as a surprise, then, to discover that elephants can find hidden food once it is pointed out to them – without any prior lessons. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
by Erika Engelhaupt Could I interest you in eating the partially digested stomach contents of a porcupine? No? Maybe a spot of reindeer stomach, then. Still no? Well, that’s curious. The Western aversion to these dishes is odd, because people around the world have long partaken of — even delighted in — the delicacy known to medical science as chyme. That’s what becomes of food after it’s chewed, swallowed and mushed around in the stomach for a while with a healthy dose of hydrochloric acid. And, researchers now suggest, Neandertals were no exception. Eating chyme may even explain the presence of some puzzling plant matter found in Neandertal’s tartar-crusted teeth. Neandertals didn’t have great dental care, and in the last few years anthropologists have begun to take advantage of monstrous tartar buildup on fossilized teeth to figure out what the hominids ate. Various chemical signatures, starch grains and even tiny plant fossils called phytoliths get preserved in the tartar, also known as calculus. Just what Neandertals ate has been more of a puzzle than paleo dieters might have you believe. Isotope analyses of fossilized bones and teeth suggest Neandertals ate very high on the food chain, with high-protein diets akin to those of wolves or hyenas. But wear marks on their teeth suggest the Neandertal diet consisted of more animals in colder high-latitude areas, and more of a mix of plants and animals in warmer areas. Tartar analyses support the idea that Neandertals ate their veggies, and have also suggested the presence of plants considered inedible, or at least unpalatable and non-nutritious. These include some plants like yarrow and chamomile with medicinal value, so one team suggested Neandertals self-medicated. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013
Link ID: 18776 - Posted: 10.12.2013
By Justin Gregg Santino was a misanthrope with a habit of pelting tourists with rocks. As his reputation for mischief grew, he had to devise increasingly clever ways to ambush his wary victims. Santino learned to stash his rocks just out of sight and casually stand just a few feet from them in order to throw off suspicion. At the very moment that passersby were fooled into thinking that he meant them no harm, he grabbed his hidden projectiles and launched his attack. Santino was displaying an ability to learn from his past experiences and plan for future scenarios. This has long been a hallmark of human intelligence. But a recently published review paper by the psychologist Thomas Zentall from the University of Kentucky argues that this complex ability should no longer be considered unique to humans. Santino, you see, is not human. He’s a chimpanzee at Furuvik Zoo in Sweden. His crafty stone-throwing escapades have made him a global celebrity, and also caught the attention of researchers studying how animals, much like humans, might be able to plan their behavior. Santino is one of a handful of animals that scientists believe are showing a complex cognitive ability called episodic memory. Episodic memory is the ability to recall past events that one has the sense of having personally experienced. Unlike semantic memory, which involves recalling simple facts like “bee stings hurt,” episodic memory involves putting yourself at the heart of the memory; like remembering the time you swatted at a bee with a rolled up newspaper and it got angry and stung your hand. © 2013 Scientific American
By DAVID P. BARASH WAR is in the air. Sad to say, there’s nothing new about this. Nor is there anything new about the claim that war has always been with us, and always will be. What is new, it seems, is the degree to which this claim is wrapped in the apparent acquiescence of science, especially the findings of evolutionary biology with respect to a war-prone “human nature.” This year, an article in The National Interest titled “What Our Primate Relatives Say About War” answered the question “Why war?” with “Because we are human.” In recent years, a piece in New Scientist asserted that warfare has “played an integral part in our evolution” and an article in the journal Science claimed that “death in warfare is so common in hunter-gatherer societies that it was an important evolutionary pressure on early Homo sapiens.” The emerging popular consensus about our biological predisposition to warfare is troubling. It is not just scientifically weak; it is also morally unfortunate, as it fosters an unjustifiably limited vision of human potential. Although there is considerable reason to think that at least some of our hominin ancestors engaged in warlike activities, there is also comparable evidence that others did not. While it is plausible that Homo sapiens owed much of its rapid brain evolution to natural selection’s favoring individuals that were smart enough to defeat their human rivals in violent competition, it is also plausible that we became highly intelligent because selection favored those of our ancestors who were especially adroit at communicating and cooperating. Conflict avoidance, reconciliation and cooperative problem solving could also have been altogether “biological” and positively selected for. © 2013 The New York Times Company
At Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore every May, the winning horse in the Preakness Stakes is draped with a blanket covered with what appear to be the Maryland state flower, the black-eyed Susan. But the flower doesn't bloom until later in the season. Those crafting the victory blanket must resort to using yellow Viking daisies — and painting the centers black. That might fool race fans, but bees can see through the ruse. With eyes equipped to detect ultraviolet light, a bee can pick out an additional band in the black-eyed Susan's bull's-eye. The insect's livelihood depends on it. At the center of the target is the flower's nutritional payload, nectar and pollen, which also glows in UV light. As with other members of the sunflower family, black-eyed Susan flower heads are composed of two kinds of florets. The dark center is made up of numerous disc florets, each of which contains male and female reproductive components. When a bee or other pollinator fertilizes a disc floret, it develops a single seed that ripens and falls from the flower head in the autumn. Seeds can remain viable for more than 30 years. Circling the disc florets are bright yellow ray florets, which flag down pollinators and act as landing strips. The inner portion of each ray floret contains several compounds that absorb UV rays. The outer portion reflects UV rays, contributing a visually energetic outer ring to the pattern — provided you're a bee. Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta. © 1996-2013 The Washington Post
By Felicity Muth In most animals, females are generally the ones that choose the males. This is a massive generalisation (for example, it doesn’t apply in this case), but I hope people who work on this topic will forgive me for it. Generally speaking, it’s the females that get to size up the males, check out whatever trait it is that’s attractive to them (be it weight, head feather colour, ability to sing, or muscle size) and then choose who they want to mate with. However, how animals (even insects) behave when choosing mates is by no means governed by fixed rules, and is influenced by many different things. I’ve previously written about fish that will change how they court females depending on who’s watching and male crickets that will change their victory displays after fighting with another male depending on their audience. Similarly, what a female chooses in a male mate isn’t totally free from influences outside the quality of the male in question. In some species, such as the field cricket, wolf spider and cowbirds, females with more experience choose differently to naïve females. But what other things might affect what females choose? Pretty much all animals come into contact and may be infected by parasites at some point in their life. Amazingly, parasites seem to affect the mating behaviour of animals in some unusual and unexpected ways. Some parasites castrate their hosts, or change who the host wants to mate with. Others can even cause sex-role reversals, such as in the bush cricket. © 2013 Scientific American
// by Jennifer Viegas Certain animals may weep out of sorrow, similar to human baby cries, say animal behavior experts. Many may have wondered if this was true after news reports last week described a newborn elephant calf at Shendiaoshan Wild Animal Nature Reserve in eastern China. The calf reportedly cried inconsolably for five hours after being stomped on by his mother that then rejected the little elephant. The calf, named Zhuang-zhuang, has since been "adopted" by a keeper and is doing well, according to the news site Metro. "Some mammals may cry due to loss of contact comfort," animal behaviorist Marc Bekoff explained to Discovery News. An ape's laugh is similar to a human one, according to new research exploring the evolution of laughter. "It could be a hard-wired response to not feeling touch," added Bekoff, former professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. © 2013 Discovery Communications, LLC.
Associated Press It's the ape equivalent of Google Maps and Facebook. The night before a big trip, Arno the orangutan plots his journey and lets others know where he is going with a long, whooping call. What he and his orangutan buddies do in the forests of Sumatra tells scientists that advance trip planning and social networking aren't just human traits. A new study of 15 wild male orangutans finds that they routinely plot out their next-day treks and share their plans in long calls, so females can come by or track them, and competitive males can steer clear. The researchers closely followed the males as they traveled on 320 days during the 1990s. The results were published Wednesday in the journal PLoS One. Typically, an orangutan would turn and face in the direction of his route and let out a whoop, sometimes for as long as four minutes. Then he'd go to sleep and 12 hours later set on the heralded path, said study author Carel van Schaik, director of the Anthropological Institute at the University of Zurich. "This guy basically thinks ahead," van Schaik said. "They're continuously updating their Google Maps, so to speak. Based on that, they're planning what to do next." The apes didn't just call once - they kept at it, calling more than 1,100 times over the 320 days. © 2013 The Hearst Corporation
By Susan Milius Mice in the wild have no problem dining where someone else has pooped. Animals with higher standards of hygiene, reported in earlier studies, may not face the same dangers as small, hungry creatures scurrying around the woods. Feeding among feces of your own species raises the risk of catching nasty intestinal parasites, explains behavioral ecologist Patrick T. Walsh of University of Edinburgh. So far most tests of fecal avoidance have focused on hoofed animals. Horses, cows, sheep, reindeer and even wild antelopes tend not to graze in heavily poop-dotted areas. White-footed and deer mice, however, show no such daintiness of manners in a test in the woods, Walsh and his colleagues report in the September Animal Behaviour. Wild mice may have more immediate problems, like starvation or predators that domesticated--or just plain bigger--animals don’t. For the wild mice, Walsh says, fecal avoidance may be “a luxury.” Learning whether and when animals avoid poop helps clarify how parasites spread, an issue important for the health of both wildlife and people. So far no one has tested fecal avoidance for mice feeding in the lab, but research has shown that female lab mice tend to avoid the urine of parasite-infected males. To see whether mice in the wild dodge parasite risks, Amy Pedersen, a coauthor of the study also at Edinburgh, designed an experiment with a long plastic box divided into zones, some of which had mouse droppings in them. In the experiment, researchers tested more than 130 wild Peromyscus mice, of either the leucopus or maniculatus species, held captive for less than a day in the mountains of Virginia. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013