Chapter 5. The Sensorimotor System
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or subscribe to our mailing list, to receive news updates. Learn more.
By JAMES GORMAN There are lots of reasons scientists love fruit flies, but a big one is their flying ability. These almost microscopic creatures, with minimalist nervous systems and prey to every puff of wind, must often execute millisecond aerial ballets to stay aloft. To study fly flight, scientists have to develop techniques that are almost as interesting as the flies. At Cornell University, for instance, researchers have been investigating how the flies recover when their flight is momentarily disturbed. Among their conclusions: a small group of fly neurons is solving calculus problems, or what for humans are calculus problems. To do the research, the members of Cornell team — Itai Cohen and his colleagues, including Z. Jane Wang, John Guckenheimer, Tsevi Beatus and Leif Ristroph, who is now at New York University — glue tiny magnets to the flies and use a magnetic pulse to pull them this way or that. In the language of aeronautics, the scientists disturb either the flies’ pitch (up or down), yaw (left or right) or roll, which is just what it sounds like. The system, developed by Dr. Ristroph as a graduate student in Dr. Cohen’s lab, involves both low and high tech. On the low end, the researchers snip bits of metal bristle off a brush to serve as micromagnets that they glue to the flies’ backs. At the high end, three video cameras record every bit of the flight at 8,000 frames per second, and the researchers use computers to merge the data from the cameras into a three-dimensional reconstruction of the flies’ movements that they can analyze mathematically. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 19388 - Posted: 03.20.2014
Helen Shen For Frank Donobedian, sitting still is a challenge. But on this day in early January, he has been asked to do just that for three minutes. Perched on a chair in a laboratory at Stanford University in California, he presses his hands to his sides, plants his feet on the floor and tries with limited success to lock down the trembling in his limbs — a symptom of his Parkinson's disease. Only after the full 180 seconds does he relax. Other requests follow: stand still, lie still on the floor, walk across the room. Each poses a similar struggle, and all are watched closely by Helen Bronte-Stewart, the neuroscientist who runs the lab. “You're making history,” she reassures her patient. “Everybody keeps saying that,” replies the 73-year-old Donobedian, a retired schoolteacher, with a laugh. “But I'm not doing anything.” “Well, your brain is,” says Bronte-Stewart. Like thousands of people with Parkinson's before him, Donobedian is being treated with deep brain stimulation (DBS), in which an implant quiets his tremors by sending pulses of electricity into motor areas of his brain. Last October, a team of surgeons at Stanford threaded the device's two thin wires, each with four electrode contacts, through his cortex into a deep-seated brain region known as the subthalamic nucleus (STN). But Donobedian's particular device is something new. Released to researchers in August 2013 by Medtronic, a health-technology firm in Minneapolis, Minnesota, it is among the first of an advanced generation of neurostimulators that not only send electricity into the brain, but can also read out neural signals generated by it. On this day, Bronte-Stewart and her team have temporarily turned off the stimulating current and are using some of the device's eight electrical contacts to record abnormal neural patterns that might correlate with the tremors, slowness of movement and freezing that are hallmarks of Parkinson's disease. © 2014 Nature Publishing Group,
by Andy Coghlan Burmese pythons can find their way home even if they are taken dozens of kilometres away. It is the first demonstration that big snakes can navigate at all, and far exceeds the distances known to have been travelled by any other snake. At over 3 metres long, Burmese pythons (Python molurus bivitattus) are among the world's largest snakes. For the last two decades they have been eating their way through native species of Florida's Everglades National Park, having been abandoned to the wild by former owners. "Adult Burmese pythons were able to navigate back to their capture locations after having been displaced by between 21 and 36 kilometres," says Shannon Pittman of Davidson College in North Carolina. Pittman and her colleagues caught 12 pythons and fitted them with radiofrequency tags (see video). She released half of them where they were caught, as controls, and transported the other six to distant locations before releasing them. Five pythons made it back to within 5 kilometres of their capture location, and the sixth at least moved in the right direction. The displaced snakes made progress towards their destination most days and seldom strayed more than 22 degrees from the correct path. They kept this up for 94 to 296 days. By contrast, the control snakes moved randomly. On average, displaced snakes travelled 300 metres each day, while control snakes averaged just 100 metres per day. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Keyword: Animal Migration
Link ID: 19380 - Posted: 03.19.2014
By Ella Davies Reporter, BBC Nature The whales are known for their tusks which can reach 2.6m (9ft) in length, earning them comparisons with mythological unicorns. The tusk is an exaggerated front tooth and scientists have discovered that it helps the animals sense changes in their environment. Dr Martin Nweeia from the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, US, undertook the study alongside an international team of colleagues. Through the years, many theories have tried to explain the function of the narwhal's impressive tusk. "People have said it's everything from an ice pick to an acoustic probe, but this is the first time that someone has discovered sensory function and has the science to show it," said Dr Nweeia. More recently, experts have agreed that the tusk is a sexual characteristic because it is more often exhibited by males and they appear to use them during fights to assert their social hierarchy. But because the animals are rarely seen, the exact function of the tusk has remained a mystery. Previous studies have revealed that the animals have no enamel on their tusk - the external layer of the tooth that provides a barrier in most mammal teeth. Dr Nweeia and the team's analysis revealed that the outer cementum layer of the tusk is porous and the inner dentin layer has microscopic tubes that channel in towards the centre. In the middle of the tusk lies the pulp, where nerve endings which connect to the narwhal's brain are found. BBC © 2014
By Gary Marcus and Christof Koch What would you give for a retinal chip that let you see in the dark or for a next-generation cochlear implant that let you hear any conversation in a noisy restaurant, no matter how loud? Or for a memory chip, wired directly into your brain's hippocampus, that gave you perfect recall of everything you read? Or for an implanted interface with the Internet that automatically translated a clearly articulated silent thought ("the French sun king") into an online search that digested the relevant Wikipedia page and projected a summary directly into your brain? Science fiction? Perhaps not for very much longer. Brain implants today are where laser eye surgery was several decades ago. They are not risk-free and make sense only for a narrowly defined set of patients—but they are a sign of things to come. Unlike pacemakers, dental crowns or implantable insulin pumps, neuroprosthetics—devices that restore or supplement the mind's capacities with electronics inserted directly into the nervous system—change how we perceive the world and move through it. For better or worse, these devices become part of who we are. Neuroprosthetics aren't new. They have been around commercially for three decades, in the form of the cochlear implants used in the ears (the outer reaches of the nervous system) of more than 300,000 hearing-impaired people around the world. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first retinal implant, made by the company Second Sight. ©2014 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Link ID: 19371 - Posted: 03.17.2014
By Neuroskeptic A neuroscience paper published before Christmas drew my eye with the expansive title: “How Thoughts Give Rise to Action“ Subtitled “Conscious Motor Intention Increases the Excitability of Target-Specific Motor Circuits”, the article’s abstract was no less bold, concluding that: These results indicate that conscious intentions govern motor function… until today, it was unclear whether conscious motor intention exists prior to movement, or whether the brain constructs such an intention after movement initiation. The authors, Zschorlich and Köhling of the University of Rostock, Germany, are weighing into a long-standing debate in philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience, concerning the role of consciousness in controlling our actions. To simplify, one school of thought holds that (at least some of the time), our intentions or plans control our actions. Many people would say that this is what common sense teaches us as well. But there’s an alternative view, in which our consciously-experienced intentions are not causes of our actions but are actually products of them, being generated after the action has already begun. This view is certainly counterintuitive, and many find it disturbing as it seems to undermine ‘free will’. That’s the background. Zschorlich and Köhling say that they’ve demonstrated that conscious intentions do exist, prior to motor actions, and that these intentions are accompanied by particular changes in brain activity. They claim to have done this using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a way of causing a localized modulation of brain electrical activity.
Link ID: 19370 - Posted: 03.17.2014
New findings reveal how a mutation, a change in the genetic code that causes neurodegeneration, alters the shape of DNA, making cells more vulnerable to stress and more likely to die. The particular mutation, in the C9orf72 gene, is the most common cause for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), and frontotemporal degeneration (FTD), the second most common type of dementia in people under 65. This research by Jiou Wang, Ph.D., and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) was published in Nature and was partially funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). In ALS, the muscle-activating neurons in the spinal cord die, eventually causing paralysis. In FTD neurons in particular brain areas die leading to progressive loss of cognitive abilities. The mutation may also be associated with Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases. DNA contains a person’s genetic code, which is made up of a unique string of bases, chemicals represented by letters. Portions of this code are divided into genes that provide instructions for making molecules (proteins) that control how cells function. The normal C9orf72 gene contains a section of repeating letters; in most people, this sequence is repeated two to 25 times. In contrast, the mutation associated with ALS and FTD can result in up to tens of thousands of repeats of this section.
Daniel Cressey Researchers have called for a common method of killing zebrafish used in laboratories to be abandoned amid growing evidence that it causes unnecessary suffering. The anaesthetic MS-222, which can be added to tanks to cause overdose, seems to distress the fish, two separate studies have shown. The studies’ authors propose that alternative anaesthetics or methods should be used instead. “These two studies — carried out independently — use different methodologies to reach the same conclusion: zebrafish detect and avoid MS-222 in the water,” says Stewart Owen, a senior environmental scientist at AstraZeneca’s Brixham Environmental Laboratory in Brixham, UK, and a co-author of one of the studies. “As this is a clear aversive response, as a humane choice, one would no longer use this agent for routine zebrafish anaesthesia.” The use of zebrafish (Danio rerio) in research has skyrocketed in recent years as scientists have sought alternatives to more controversial animal models, such as mammals. The fish are cheap and easy to keep, and although no firm data on numbers have been collected, millions are known to be housed in laboratories around the world. Nearly all will eventually be killed. MS-222 (ethyl 3-aminobenzoate methanesulphate, also known as TMS) is one of the agents most frequently used to kill the creatures. It is listed as an acceptable method of euthanasia by many institutions, and also by societies such as the American Veterinary Medical Association. But the study by Owen and his co-authors, published last year (G. D. Readman et al. PLoS ONE 8, e73773; 2013), and the second study, published earlier this month by Daniel Weary and his colleagues at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada (D. Wong et al. PLoS ONE 9, e88030; 2014), show that zebrafish seem to find the chemical distressing. The research should fundamentally change the practice, say the authors of both papers. © 2014 Nature Publishing Group
Keyword: Pain & Touch
Link ID: 19294 - Posted: 02.26.2014
By Michelle Roberts Health editor, BBC News online Doctors have devised a new way to treat amputees with phantom limb pain. Using computer-generated augmented reality, the patient can see and move a virtual arm controlled by their stump. Electric signals from the muscles in the amputated limb "talk" to the computer, allowing real-time movement. Amputee Ture Johanson says his pain has reduced dramatically thanks to the new computer program, which he now uses regularly in his home. He now has periods when he is free of pain and he is no longer woken at night by intense periods of pain. Mr Johanson, who is 73 and lives in Sweden, lost half of his right arm in a car accident 48 years ago. After a below-elbow amputation he faced daily pain and discomfort emanating from his now missing arm and hand. Over the decades he has tried numerous therapies, including hypnosis, to no avail. Within weeks of starting on the augmented reality treatment in Max Ortiz Catalan's clinic at Chalmers University of Technology, his pain has now eased. "The pain is much less now. I still have it often but it is shorter, for only a few seconds where before it was for minutes. BBC © 2014
By James Gallagher Health and science reporter, BBC News US doctors are warning of an emerging polio-like disease in California where up to 20 people have been infected. A meeting of the American Academy of Neurology heard that some patients had developed paralysis in all four limbs, which had not improved with treatment. The US is polio-free, but related viruses can also attack the nervous system leading to paralysis. Doctors say they do not expect an epidemic of the polio-like virus and that the infection remains rare. Polio is a dangerous and feared childhood infection. The virus rapidly invades the nervous system and causes paralysis in one in 200 cases. It can be fatal if it stops the lungs from working. There have been 20 suspected cases of the new infection, mostly in children, in the past 18 months, A detailed analysis of five cases showed enterovirus-68 - which is related to poliovirus - could be to blame. In those cases all the children had been vaccinated against polio. Symptoms have ranged from restricted movement in one limb to severe weakness in both legs and arms. Dr Emanuelle Waubant, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco, told the BBC: "There has been no obvious increase in the pace of new cases so we don't think we're about to experience an epidemic, that's the good news. BBC © 2014
Keyword: Movement Disorders
Link ID: 19283 - Posted: 02.24.2014
by Clare Wilson A monkey controlling the hand of its unconscious cage-mate with its thoughts may sound like animal voodoo, but it is a step towards returning movement to people with spinal cord injuries. The hope is that people who are paralysed could have electrodes implanted in their brains that pick up their intended movements. These electrical signals could then be sent to a prosthetic limb, or directly to the person's paralysed muscles, bypassing the injury in their spinal cord. Ziv Williams at Harvard Medical School in Boston wanted to see if sending these signals to nerves in the spinal cord would also work, as this might ultimately give a greater range of movement from each electrode. His team placed electrodes in a monkey's brain, connecting them via a computer to wires going into the spinal cord of an anaesthetised, unconscious monkey. The unconscious monkey's limbs served as the equivalent of paralysed limbs. A hand of the unconscious monkey was strapped to a joystick, controlling a cursor that the other monkey could see on a screen. Williams's team had previously had the conscious monkey practise the joystick task for itself and had recorded its brain activity to work out which signals corresponded to moving the joystick back and forth. Through trial and error, they deduced which nerves to stimulate in the spinal cord of the anaesthetised monkey to produce similar movements in that monkey's hand. When both parts were fed to the computer, the conscious monkey was able to move the "paralysed" monkey's hand to make the cursor hit a target. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Link ID: 19266 - Posted: 02.19.2014
By DENISE GRADY The experiment was not for the squirmish. Volunteers were made to itch like crazy on one arm, but not allowed to scratch. Then they were whisked into an M.R.I. scanner to see what parts of their brains lit up when they itched, when researchers scratched them and when they were finally allowed to scratch themselves. The scientific question was this: Why does it feel so good to scratch an itch? “It’s quite intriguing to see how many brain centers are activated,” said Dr. Gil Yosipovitch, chairman of dermatology at the Temple University School of Medicine and director of the Temple Center for Itch (he conducted the experiment while working at Wake Forest School of Medicine). “There is no one itch center. Everyone wants that target, but it doesn’t work in real life like that.” Instead, itching and scratching engage brain areas involved not only in sensation, but also in mental processes that help explain why we love to scratch: motivation and reward, pleasure, craving and even addiction. What an itch turns on, a scratch turns off — and scratching oneself does it better than being scratched by someone else. The study results were published in December in the journal PLOS One. Itching was long overshadowed by pain in both research and treatment, and was even considered just a mild form of pain. But millions of people suffer from itching, and times have changed. Research has found nerves, molecules and cellular receptors that are specific for itching and set it apart from pain, and the medical profession has begun to take it seriously as a debilitating problem that deserves to be studied and treated. Within the last decade, there has been a flurry of research into what causes itching and how to stop it. Along with brain imaging, studies have begun to look at gene activity and to map the signals that flow between cells in the skin, the immune system, the spinal cord and the brain. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Pain & Touch
Link ID: 19264 - Posted: 02.18.2014
by Bethany Brookshire There are times when science is a painful experience. My most excruciating moment in science involved a heated electrode placed on my bare leg. This wasn’t some sort of graduate school hazing ritual. I was a volunteer in a study to determine how we process feelings of pain. As part of the experiment I was exposed to different levels of heat and asked how painful I thought they were. When the electrode was removed, I eagerly asked how my pain tolerance compared with that of others. I secretly hoped that I was some sort of superwoman, capable of feeling pain that would send other people into screaming fits and brushing it off with a stoic grimace. It turns out, however, that I was a bit of a wuss. Ouch. I figured I could just blame my genes. About half of our susceptibility to pain can be explained by genetic differences. The other half, however, remains up for grabs. And a new study published February 4 in Nature Communications suggests that part of our susceptibility to pain might lie in chemical markers on our genes. These “notes” on your DNA, known as epigenetic changes, can be affected by environment, behavior and even diet. So the findings reveal that our genetic susceptibility to pain might not be our destiny. Tim Spector and Jordana Bell, genetic epidemiologists at King’s College London, were interested in the role of the epigenome in pain sensitivity. Epigenetic changes such as the addition (or subtraction) of a methyl group on a gene make that gene more or less likely to be used in a cell by altering how much protein can be made from it. These differences in proteins can affect everything from obesity to memory to whether you end up like your mother. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013.
by Clare Wilson SOMETIMES you find out more about how something works by turning it off. That seems to be true for mirror neurons, the brain cells implicated in traits ranging from empathy and learning to language acquisition. Mirror neurons are said to help us interpret other people's behaviour, but this has yet to be shown convincingly in experiments. Now a study that briefly disabled these cells might give a better idea of what they do. Mirror neurons were discovered in the 1990s when an Italian team was measuring electrical activity in the brains of monkeys. In the region that controls movement, some of the neurons that fire to carry out a particular action – such as grasping an apple – also fired when the monkey saw another animal do the same thing. The tempting conclusion was that these neurons help interpret others' behaviour. Further work suggested that people also have this system, and some researchers claimed that conditions where empathy is lacking, such as autism or psychopathy, could arise from defective mirror neurons. Yet there has been little evidence to back this up and critics argued that mirror neuron activity could just be some sort of side effect of witnessing action. Powerful magnetic fields are known to temporarily disrupt brain cell activity, and a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is increasingly used in the lab to dampen specific areas of the brain. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Veronique Greenwood Young animals are capable of some pretty astounding feats of navigation. To a species like ours, whose native sense of direction isn’t much to speak of—have you ever seen a human baby crawl five thousand miles home?—the intercontinental odysseys some critters make seem incomprehensible. Arctic tern chicks take part in the longest migration on Earth—more than ten thousand miles (16,000 km)—almost as soon as they fledge. Soon after hatching, young sea turtles take to the waves and confidently paddle many thousands of miles to feeding grounds. Young Chinook salmon likewise make their way from freshwater hatching grounds to specific feeding areas in the open ocean. Biologists know that these species are able to sense things that humans can’t, from the Earth’s magnetic field to extremely faint scents, that could help with navigation. But they may also be inheriting some specific knowledge of the paths they have to follow. A paper in this week’s Current Biology reports that young salmon appear to possess an inborn map of the geomagnetic field that can help them get where they need to go. The researchers, who are primarily based at Oregon State University, performed a series of experiments with Chinook salmon less than a year old that were born and raised in a hatchery and had not yet taken part in a migration. They placed the salmon in pools surrounded by magnetic coils that they could tune to mimic the Earth’s magnetic field at various points in and around the salmons’ feeding grounds. (Kenneth Lohmann at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who has done similar studies that established that baby sea turtles have inborn maps, is also an author of the paper.) © 2014 Time Inc.
Keyword: Animal Migration
Link ID: 19220 - Posted: 02.08.2014
|By Carl Erik Fisher After 22 years of failed treatments, including rehabilitation, psychotherapy and an array of psychiatric medications, a middle-aged Dutch man decided to take an extraordinary step to fight his heroin addiction. He underwent an experimental brain surgery called deep brain stimulation (DBS). At the University of Amsterdam, researchers bored small holes in his skull and guided two long, thin probes deep into his head. The ends of the probes were lined with small electrodes, which were positioned in his nucleus accumbens, a brain area near the base of the skull that is associated with addiction. The scientists ran the connecting wires under his scalp, behind his ear and down to a battery pack sewn under the skin of his chest. Once turned on, the electrodes began delivering constant electrical pulses, much like a pacemaker, with the goal of altering the brain circuits thought to be causing his drug cravings. At first the stimulation intensified his desire for heroin, and he almost doubled his drug intake. But after the researchers adjusted the pulses, the cravings diminished, and he drastically cut down his heroin use. Neurosurgeries are now being pursued for a variety of mental illnesses. Initially developed in the 1980s to treat movement disorders, including Parkinson's disease, DBS is today used to treat depression, dementia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance abuse and even obesity. Despite several success stories, many of these new ventures have attracted critics, and some skeptics have even called for an outright halt to this research. © 2014 Scientific American
by Douglas Heaven We have the world at our fingertips. A sense of touch can sometimes be as important as sight, helping us to avoid crushing delicate objects or ensuring that we hold on firmly when carrying hot cups of coffee. Now, for the first time, a person who lost his left hand has had a near-natural sense of touch restored thanks to a prosthesis. "I didn't realise it was possible," says Dennis Aabo Sørensen, who is so far the only person to have been fitted with the new prosthesis. "The feeling is very close to the sensation you get when you touch things with your normal hand." To restore Sørensen's sense of touch, Silvestro Micera at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and his colleagues implanted tiny electrodes inside the ulnar and median nerve bundles in Sørensen's upper arm. Between them, the ulnar nerve – which runs down to the little finger and ring finger – and the median nerve – which runs down to the index and middle fingers – carry sensations from most of the hand, including the palm. The team then connected the electrodes to pressure sensors on the fingertips and palm of a robotic prosthetic hand via cables running down the outside of Sørensen's arm. When he used the hand to grasp an object, electrical signals from the pressure pads were fired directly into the nerves, providing him with a sense of touch. Getting to grips The electrical signals were calibrated so that Sørensen could feel a range of sensation, from the slightest touch to firm pressure just below his pain threshold, depending on the strength of his grip. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
by Andy Coghlan If you flinch where others merely frown, you might want to take a look at your lifestyle. That's because environmental factors may have retuned your genes to make you more sensitive to pain. "We know that stressful life events such as diet, smoking, drinking and exposure to pollution all have effects on your genes, but we didn't know if they specifically affected pain genes," says Tim Spector of King's College London. Now, a study of identical twins suggests they do. It seems that epigenetic changes – environmentally triggered chemical alterations that affect how active your genes are – can dial your pain threshold up or down. This implies that genetic tweaks of this kind, such as the addition of one or more methyl groups to a gene, may account for some differences in how our senses operate. Spector and his colleagues assessed the ability of hundreds of pairs of twins to withstand the heat of a laser on their skin, a standard pain test. They selected 25 pairs who showed the greatest difference in the highest temperature they could bear. Since identical twins have the same genes, any variation in pain sensitivity can be attributed to epigenetic differences. Pain thermostat The researchers screened the twins' DNA for differences in methylation levels across 10 million gene regions. They found a significant difference in nine genes, most of which then turned out to have been previously implicated in pain-sensitivity in animal experiments. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By LAUREN BRADY When I was 18 I watched my father perform what would be his final surgery. It was the summer of 2007 and I had just returned to Colorado after surviving my freshman year of film school at New York University. One day my dad invited me to observe a vitrectomy. And while I hadn’t a clue what this would entail I immediately accepted, honored by the invitation and determined not to faint. My father’s 21 years as an ophthalmologist produced over 15,000 operations, a private practice spanning three offices, and very little vacation time. While I sensed from an early age that the long hours were taxing on him I never felt an absence. In fact, my childhood was picturesque: two loving parents, a rowdy little brother whom I pushed around until he was big enough to push back, family trips in the Jeep to the Rocky Mountains. He was the dad with the Handycam at every soccer game and school play. He worked as a surgeon, but he lived for his children. The morning of the vitrectomy we left extra early because of a limp in my dad’s right leg that had appeared a few months earlier and had gradually worsened. He suspected it was a pinched nerve and had been meaning to get it checked out. In the interim, he had started using a chair during surgery. Walking toward the hospital entrance we encountered a fellow doctor who greeted me with the familiarity of someone who’d been exposed to years of my father’s wallet photos. He asked how I liked Greenwich Village, whether I had directed any films yet and if I had tried a bialy. We walked and talked until I noticed at one point that my dad was no longer part of the conversation. Turning around I realized he was a half block back pushing himself up from the ground. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Keyword: ALS-Lou Gehrig's Disease
Link ID: 19192 - Posted: 02.01.2014
By JAMES GORMAN The question of how moles move all that dirt when they tunnel just under the surface of lawns has never attracted the extensive study that other forms of locomotion — like the flight of birds and insects, or even the jet-propulsion of jellyfish — have. But scientists at the University of Massachusetts and Brown University have recently been asking exactly how, and how hard, moles dig. Yi-Fen Lin, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, reported at a recent meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology that moles seem to swim through the earth, and that the stroke they use allows them to pack a lot of power behind their shovel-like paws. Ms. Lin measured the power of hairy-tailed moles that she captured in Massachusetts and found they could exert a force up to 40 times their body weight. She also analyzed and presented X-ray videos taken of moles in a laboratory enclosure tunneling their way through a material chosen for its consistency and uniform particle size: cous cous. Angela M. Horner recorded the videos while studying the movement of Eastern moles in the lab of Thomas Roberts, a professor at Brown. One reason moles have not been studied as much as some other animals may be that they are not easy to capture or keep in a laboratory. “People said, ‘You won’t be able to catch them and you won’t be able to keep them alive,’ ” said Elizabeth R. Dumont, an evolutionary biologist who is Ms. Lin’s dissertation adviser. Ms. Lin solved the first problem by camping out in mole territory, on golf courses and farms, and marking their tunnels with sticks that she would watch for hours until movement indicated a mole on the move. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 19179 - Posted: 01.29.2014