Chapter 6. Evolution of the Brain and Behavior

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By Veronique Greenwood The ibis and the kiwi are dogged diggers, probing in sand and soil for worms and other buried prey. Sandpipers, too, can be seen along the shore excavating small creatures with their beaks. It was long thought that these birds were using trial and error to find their prey. But then scientists discovered something far more peculiar: Their beaks are threaded with cells that can detect vibrations traveling through the ground. Some birds can feel the movements of their distant quarry directly, while others pick up on waves bouncing off buried shells — echolocating like a dolphin or a bat, in essence, through the earth. There’s one more odd detail in this story of birds’ unusual senses: Ostriches and emus, birds that most definitely do not hunt this way, have beaks with a similar interior structure. They are honeycombed with pits for these cells, though the cells themselves are missing. Now, scientists in a study published Wednesday in Proceedings of the Royal Society B report that prehistoric bird ancestors dating nearly as far back as the dinosaurs most likely were capable of sensing vibrations with their beaks. The birds that use this remote sensing today are not closely related to one another, said Carla du Toit, a graduate student at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and an author of the paper. That made her and her co-authors curious about when exactly this ability evolved, and whether ostriches, which are close relatives of kiwis, had an ancestor that used this sensory ability. “We had a look to see if we could find fossils of early birds from that group,” Ms. du Toit said. “And we’re very lucky.” There are very well-preserved fossils of birds called lithornithids dating from just after the event that drove nonavian dinosaurs to extinction. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Pain & Touch; Evolution
Link ID: 27605 - Posted: 12.05.2020

By Emily Willingham When a male sand-sifting sea star in the coastal waters of Australia reaches out a mating arm to its nearest neighbor, sometimes that neighbor is also male. Undaunted, the pair assume their species’ pseudocopulation position and forge ahead with spawning. Mating, pseudo or otherwise, with a same-sex neighbor obviously does not transfer a set of genes to the next generation—yet several sea star and other echinoderm species persist with the practice. They are not alone. From butterflies to birds to beetles, many animals exhibit same-sex sexual behaviors despite their offering zero chance of reproductive success. Given the energy expense and risk of being eaten that mating attempts can involve, why do these behaviors persist? One hypothesis, hotly debated among biologists, suggests this represents an ancient evolutionary strategy that could ultimately enhance an organism’s chances to reproduce. In results published recently in Nature Ecology & Evolution, Brian Lerch and Maria R. Servedio, from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, offer theoretical support for this proposed explanation. They created a mathematical model that calculated scenarios in which mating attempts, regardless of partner sex, might be worth it. The results predicted that, depending on life span and mating chances, indiscriminate mating with any available candidates could in fact yield a better reproductive payoff than spending precious time and energy sorting out one sex from the other. Although this study does not address sexual orientation or attraction, both of which are common among vertebrate species, it does get at some persistent evolutionary questions: when did animals start distinguishing mates by sex, based on specific cues, and why do some animals apparently remain indiscriminate in their choices? © 2020 Scientific American

Keyword: Sexual Behavior; Evolution
Link ID: 27603 - Posted: 12.05.2020

By Sabrina Imbler In the spring of 2018 at the Montreal Insectarium, Stéphane Le Tirant received a clutch of 13 eggs that he hoped would hatch into leaves. The eggs were not ovals but prisms, brown paper lanterns scarcely bigger than chia seeds. They were laid by a wild-caught female Phyllium asekiense, a leaf insect from Papua New Guinea belonging to a group called frondosum, which was known only from female specimens. Phyllium asekiense is a stunning leaf insect, occurring both in summery greens and autumnal browns. As Royce Cumming, a graduate student at the City University of New York, puts it, “Dead leaf, live leaf, semi-dried leaf.” Mr. Le Tirant, the collections manager of the insectarium since 1989, specializes in scarab beetles; he estimates that he has 25,000 beetles in his private collection at home. But he had always harbored a passion for leaf insects and had successfully bred two species, a small one from the Philippines and a larger one from Malaysia. A Phyllium asekiense — rare, beautiful and, most important, living — would be a treasure in any insectarium. In the insect-rearing laboratory, Mario Bonneau and other technicians nestled the 13 eggs on a mesh screen on a bed of coconut fibers and spritzed them often with water. In the fall, and over the course of several months, five eggs hatched into spindly black nymphs. The technicians treated the baby nymphs with utmost care, moving them from one tree to another without touching the insects, only whatever leaf they clung to. “Other insects, we just grab them,” Mr. Le Tirant said. “But these small leaf insects were so precious, like jewels in our laboratory.” The technicians offered the nymphs a buffet of fragrant guava, bramble and salal leaves. Two nymphs refused to eat and soon died. The remaining three munched on bramble, molted, munched, molted, and molted some more. One nymph grew green and broad, just like her mother. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Sexual Behavior; Evolution
Link ID: 27601 - Posted: 12.05.2020

By James Gorman Dogs go through stages in their life, just as people do, as is obvious to anyone who has watched their stiff-legged, white-muzzled companion rouse themselves to go for one more walk. Poets from Homer to Pablo Neruda have taken notice. As have folk singers and story tellers. Now science is taking a turn, in the hope that research on how dogs grow and age will help us understand how humans age. And, like the poets before them, scientists are finding parallels between the two species. Their research so far shows that dogs are similar to us in important ways, like how they act during adolescence and old age, and what happens in their DNA as they get older. They may be what scientists call a “model” for human aging, a species that we can study to learn more about how we age and perhaps how to age better. Most recently, researchers in Vienna have found that dogs’ personalities change over time. They seem to mellow in the same way that most humans do. The most intriguing part of this study is that like people, some dogs are just born old, which is to say, relatively steady and mature, the kind of pup that just seems ready for a Mr. Rogers cardigan. “That’s professor Spot, to you, thank you, and could we be a little neater when we pour kibble into my dish?” Mind you, the Vienna study dogs were all Border collies, so I’m a little surprised that any of them were mature. That would suggest a certain calm, a willingness to tilt the head and muse that doesn’t seem to fit the breed, with its desperate desire to be constantly chasing sheep, geese, children or Frisbees. Another recent paper came to the disturbing conclusion that the calculus of seven dog years for every human year isn’t accurate. To calculate dog years, you must now multiply the natural logarithm of a dog’s age in human years by 16 and then add 31. Is that clear? It’s actually not as hard as it sounds, as long as you have a calculator or internet access. For example the natural log of 6 is 1.8, roughly, which, multiplied by 16 is about 29, which, plus 31, is 60. OK, it’s not that easy, even with the internet. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Development of the Brain; Evolution
Link ID: 27574 - Posted: 11.10.2020

By Veronique Greenwood Some 230 million years ago, in the forests of what humans would eventually call Brazil, a small bipedal dinosaur zipped after its prey. It had a slender head, a long tail and sharp teeth, and it was about the size of a basset hound. Buriolestes schultzi, as paleontologists have named the creature, is one of the earliest known relatives of more famous dinosaurs that emerged 100 million years later: the lumbering brachiosaurus, up to 80 feet long and weighing up to 80 metric tons, the likewise massive diplodocus, as well as other sauropod dinosaurs. By the time the Jurassic period rolled around and the time of Buriolestes had passed, these quadrupedal cousins had reached tremendous size. They also had tiny brains around the size of a tennis ball. Buriolestes’s brain was markedly different, scientists who built a 3-D reconstruction of the inside of its skull report in a paper published Tuesday in the Journal of Anatomy. The brain was larger relative to its body size, and it had structures that were much more like those of predatory animals. The findings suggest that the enormous herbivores of later eras, whose ancestors probably looked a lot like Buriolestes, lost these features as they transitioned to their ponderous new lifestyle. It’s also a rare glimpse into dinosaurs’ neural anatomy at a very early moment in their evolution. In 2009, Rodrigo Müller of the Universidade Federal de Santa Maria and colleagues discovered the first partial Buriolestes fossil in southern Brazil. In 2015, they uncovered another Buriolestes nearby — and this time, to their excitement, the dinosaur’s skull was nearly all there. They used computed tomography scanning to get a peek inside, drawing inferences about the brain from the contours of the cavity left behind. They found that one portion of the cerebellum, the floccular lobe, was particularly large in Buriolestes. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Evolution
Link ID: 27566 - Posted: 11.04.2020

By Carolyn Wilke Fish fins aren’t just for swimming. They’re feelers, too. The fins of round gobies can detect textures with a sensitivity similar to that of the pads on monkeys’ fingers, researchers report November 3 in the Journal of Experimental Biology. Compared with landlubbers, little is known about aquatic animals’ sense of touch. And for fish, “we used to only think of fins as motor structures,” says Adam Hardy, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago. “But it’s really becoming increasingly clear that fins play important sensory roles.” Studying those sensory roles can hint at ways to mimic nature for robotics and provide a window into the evolution of touch. The newfound parallels between primates and fish suggest that limbs that sense physical forces emerged early, before splits in the vertebrate evolutionary tree led to animals with fins, arms and legs, says Melina Hale, a neurobiologist and biomechanist also at the University of Chicago. “These capabilities arose incredibly early and maybe set the stage for what we can do with our hands now and what fish can do with their fins in terms of touch.” Hardy and Hale measured the activity of nerves in the fins of bottom-dwelling round gobies (Neogobius melanostomus) to get a sense of what fish learn about texture from their fins. In the wild, round gobies brush against the bottom surface and rest there on their large pectoral fins. “They’re really well suited to testing these sorts of questions,” Hardy says. Working with fins from six euthanized gobies, the researchers recorded electrical spikes from their nerves as a bumpy plastic ring attached to a motor rolled lightly above each fin. A salt solution keeps the nerves functioning as they would if the nerves were in a live fish, Hardy says. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2020

Keyword: Pain & Touch; Evolution
Link ID: 27564 - Posted: 11.04.2020

By Jonathan Lambert Octopus arms have minds of their own. Each of these eight supple yet powerful limbs can explore the seafloor in search of prey, snatching crabs from hiding spots without direction from the octopus’ brain. But how each arm can tell what it’s grasping has remained a mystery. Now, researchers have identified specialized cells not seen in other animals that allow octopuses to “taste” with their arms. Embedded in the suckers, these cells enable the arms to do double duty of touch and taste by detecting chemicals produced by many aquatic creatures. This may help an arm quickly distinguish food from rocks or poisonous prey, Harvard University molecular biologist Nicholas Bellono and his colleagues report online October 29 in Cell. The findings provide another clue about the unique evolutionary path octopuses have taken toward intelligence. Instead of being concentrated in the brain, two-thirds of the nerve cells in an octopus are distributed among the arms, allowing the flexible appendages to operate semi-independently (SN: 4/16/15). “There was a huge gap in knowledge of how octopus [arms] actually collect information about their environment,” says Tamar Gutnick, a neurobiologist who studies octopuses at Hebrew University of Jerusalem who was not involved in the study. “We’ve known that [octopuses] taste by touch, but knowing it and understanding how it’s actually working is a very different thing.” Working out the specifics of how arms sense and process information is crucial for understanding octopus intelligence, she says. “It’s really exciting to see someone taking a comprehensive look at the cell types involved,” and how they work. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2020

Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste); Evolution
Link ID: 27560 - Posted: 10.31.2020

By Lucy Hicks Ogre-faced spiders might be an arachnophobe’s worst nightmare. The enormous eyes that give them their name allow them to see 2000 times better than we can at night. And these creepy crawlers are lightning-fast predators, snatching prey in a fraction of a second with mini, mobile nets. Now, new research suggests these arachnids use their legs not only to scuttle around, but also to hear. In light of their excellent eyesight, this auditory skill “is a surprise,” says George Uetz, who studies the behavioral ecology of spiders at the University of Cincinnati and wasn’t involved in the new research. Spiders don’t have ears—generally a prerequisite for hearing. So, despite the vibration-sensing hairs and receptors on most arachnids’ legs, scientists long thought spiders couldn’t hear sound as it traveled through the air, but instead felt vibrations through surfaces. The first clue they might be wrong was a 2016 study that found that a species of jumping spider can sense vibrations in the air from sound waves. Enter the ogre-faced spider. Rather than build a web and wait for their prey, these fearsome hunters “take a much more active role,” says Jay Stafstrom, a sensory ecologist at Cornell University. The palm-size spiders hang upside down from small plants on a silk line and create a miniweb across their four front legs, which they use as a net to catch their next meal. The spiders either lunge at bugs wandering below or flip backward to ensnare flying insects’ midair. © 2020 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Hearing; Evolution
Link ID: 27559 - Posted: 10.31.2020

By Elizabeth Pennisi When Ian Ausprey outfitted dozens of birds with photosensor-containing backpacks, the University of Florida graduate student was hoping to learn how light affected their behavior. The unusual study, which tracked 15 species in Peru’s cloud forest, has now found that eye size can help predict where birds breed and feed—the bigger the eye, the smaller the prey or the darker the environment. The study also suggests birds with big eyes are especially at risk as humans convert forests into farmland. The study reveals a “fascinating new area of sensory biology,” says Richard Prum, an evolutionary biologist at Yale University who was not involved in the new work. It also shows the size of a bird’s eye says a lot about its owner, adds Matthew Walsh, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Texas, Arlington, also not involved with the work. Light matters—not just for plants, but also for animals. Large eyes have long been associated with the need to see in dim conditions, but very little research has looked in depth at light’s impact on behavior. Recently, scientists have shown that the relative size of frogs’ eyes corresponds to where they live, hunt, and breed. And several studies published in the past 3 years suggest the eyes of killifish and water fleas vary in size depending on the presence of predators. With no predators, even slightly larger eyes offer a potential survival advantage. To find out how eye size might matter for birds, Ausprey and his adviser, Scott Robinson, an ecologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History, turned to the 240 species they had identified in one of Peru’s many cloud forests. The study area included a range of habitats—dense stands of trees, farms with fencerows, shrubby areas, and open ground. Because light can vary considerably by height—for example, in the tropics, the forest floor can have just 1% of the light at the tops of the trees—they included species living from the ground to the treetops. © 2020 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Vision; Evolution
Link ID: 27554 - Posted: 10.28.2020

By Bruce Bower A type of bone tool generally thought to have been invented by Stone Age humans got its start among hominids that lived hundreds of thousands of years before Homo sapiens evolved, a new study concludes. A set of 52 previously excavated but little-studied animal bones from East Africa’s Olduvai Gorge includes the world’s oldest known barbed bone point, an implement probably crafted by now-extinct Homo erectus at least 800,000 years ago, researchers say. Made from a piece of a large animal’s rib, the artifact features three curved barbs and a carved tip, the team reports in the November Journal of Human Evolution. Among the Olduvai bones, biological anthropologist Michael Pante of Colorado State University in Fort Collins and colleagues identified five other tools from more than 800,000 years ago as probable choppers, hammering tools or hammering platforms. The previous oldest barbed bone points were from a central African site and dated to around 90,000 years ago (SN: 4/29/95), and were assumed to reflect a toolmaking ingenuity exclusive to Homo sapiens. Those implements include carved rings around the base of the tools where wooden shafts were presumably attached. Barbed bone points found at H. sapiens sites were likely used to catch fish and perhaps to hunt large land prey. The Olduvai Gorge barbed bone point, which had not been completed, shows no signs of having been attached to a handle or shaft. Ways in which H. erectus used the implement are unclear, Pante and his colleagues say. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2020.

Keyword: Evolution; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 27543 - Posted: 10.24.2020

By James Gorman It’s good to have friends, for humans and chimpanzees. But the nature and number of those friends change over time. In young adulthood, humans tend to have a lot of friendships. But as they age, social circles narrow, and people tend to keep a few good friends around and enjoy them more. This trend holds across many cultures, and one explanation has to do with awareness of one’s own mortality. Zarin P. Machanda, an anthropologist at Tufts University, and her own good friend, Alexandra G. Rosati, a psychologist and anthropologist at the University of Michigan, wondered whether chimpanzees, which they both study, would show a similar pattern even though they don’t seem to have anything like a human sense of their own inevitable death. The idea, in humans, Dr. Machanda said, is that as we get older we think, “I don’t have time for these negative people in my life, or I don’t want to waste my time with all of this negativity.” So we concentrate on a few good friends and invest in them. This explanation is called socioemotional selectivity theory. Dr. Rosati and Dr. Machanda, who is the director of long-term research at the Kibale Chimpanzee Project in Uganda, drew on many years of observations of chimps at Kibale. Along with several colleagues, they reported Thursday in the journal Science that male chimps, at least, display the very same inclinations as humans. The team looked only at interactions of male chimpanzees because males are quite gregarious and form a lot of friendships, whereas females are more tied to family groups. So male relationships were easier to analyze. The finding doesn’t prove or disprove anything about whether knowledge of death is what drives the human behavior. But it does show that our closest primate relative displays the same bonding habits for some other reason, perhaps something about aging that the two species have in common. At the very least, the finding raises questions about humans. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Aggression; Stress
Link ID: 27542 - Posted: 10.24.2020

By Meagan Cantwell Although bird brains are tiny, they’re packed with neurons, especially in areas responsible for higher level thinking. Two studies published last month in Science explore the structure and function of avian brains—revealing they are organized similarly to mammals’ and are capable of conscious thought. © 2020 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Evolution; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 27541 - Posted: 10.24.2020

By Jake Buehler Naked mole-rats — with their subterranean societies made up of a single breeding pair and an army of workers — seem like mammals trying their hardest to live like insects. Nearly 300 of the bald, bucktoothed, nearly blind rodents can scoot along a colony’s labyrinth of tunnels. New research suggests there’s brute power in those numbers: Like ants or termites, the mole-rats go to battle with rival colonies to conquer their lands. Wild naked mole-rats (Heterocephalus glaber) will invade nearby colonies to expand their territory, sometimes abducting pups to incorporate them into their own ranks, researchers report September 28 in the Journal of Zoology. This behavior may put smaller, less cohesive colonies at a disadvantage, potentially supporting the evolution of bigger colonies. Researchers stumbled across this phenomenon by accident while monitoring naked mole-rat colonies in Kenya’s Meru National Park. The team was studying the social structure of this extreme form of group living among mammals (SN: 6/20/06). Over more than a decade, the team trapped and marked thousands of mole-rats from dozens of colonies by either implanting small radio-frequency transponder chips under their skin, or clipping their toes. One day in 1994, while marking mole-rats in a new colony, researchers were surprised to find in its tunnels mole-rats from a neighboring colony that had already been marked. The queen in the new colony had wounds on her face from the ravages of battle. It looked like a war was playing out down in the soil. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2020.

Keyword: Evolution; Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 27538 - Posted: 10.21.2020

Dogs aren't biologically attuned to faces in the same way that humans are — but they work hard to read our expressions anyway, according to a new study. Researchers in Hungary found that dogs simply aren't wired to respond to faces. When shown pictures or videos of faces, their brains simply don't light up the way a human brain does. In fact, to a dog's brain, it makes no difference whether they're looking us dead in the eyes or at the back of our heads. "I wouldn't say that dogs [are] not interested in our face," the study's lead author Attila Andics told As It Happens host Carol Off. "What we say is just that they don't respond to faces stronger than to other kinds of stimuli." The study was published Monday in the Journal of Neuroscience. Dogs' brains respond most to other dogs Andics, who studies adapted animal behaviour at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, says this study is one of the first to make a direct comparison between human and dog brain imaging. The researchers put 30 humans and 20 dogs into MRI machines and showed them a series of images and videos depicting human faces, the backs of human heads, dog faces, and the backs of dog heads. The dogs in the study were all longtime family pets who were trained with positive reinforcement to sit still in the MRI machines, Andics assured. ©2020 CBC/Radio-Canada.

Keyword: Emotions; Animal Communication
Link ID: 27509 - Posted: 10.07.2020

By Lucy Hicks Even before they learn to talk, human infants and toddlers know how to joke: They play games such as peek-a-boo and take whatever unexpected actions get a rise from adults. Now, it appears that nonhuman apes—like gorillas and orangutans—engage in similar behaviors, according to a paper published last week in Biology Letters. Science chatted with co-author Erica Cartmill, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, about what these “playful teasing” behaviors look like in our evolutionary cousins. Q: How did you get interested in this topic? A: I was studying how orangutans communicated with one another [in captivity], and I noticed several interactions where one orangutan would have an object, and they would extend it out toward the other one. As the other one went to reach for it, they would pull it back. But rather than get annoyed, the other one would just drop their hand, and then they both would do it again. It seemed to be something that was mutually enjoyable. In a couple of cases, they would even swap roles: The orangutan that was doing this teasing behavior would get bored and drop the object, and then the other one would pick it up and start doing it. The behavior seemed very gamelike, with specific rules and structure, and resembled the kind of thing that toddlers do. Q: Are there other types of teasing behaviors? A: One is called “provocative noncompliance,” where I’m doing something that goes against what you want me to do, and I’m doing it in a way that is meant to provoke you. In human infants, for example, the mom tells the child to put on shoes, and the child takes a shoe, looks at the mom, and then puts the shoe on the top of their head. This type of behavior was observed in apes raised with humans explicitly trained to communicate with sign language or a keyboard-based system. Q: Like Koko, the gorilla taught sign language? A: In one instance, when the caregivers were interacting with Koko, they asked her “What do [we] use to clean your teeth?” Koko signed “foot.” And then they asked her “What do [we] put on your toothbrush?” Koko then signed “nose.” A completely bizarre response, but then she lifted her foot up to her nose. It’s not just that she’s produced the wrong signs, but she produced the wrong signs and then acted out this weird interaction. This relies on an understanding of the communicative symbols and the ways in which they’re supposed to be used, and then using them in unexpected ways. © 2020 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Emotions; Evolution
Link ID: 27508 - Posted: 10.07.2020

By Jake Buehler During the summer feeding season in high latitudes, male blue whales tend to sing at night. But shortly before migrating south to their breeding grounds, the whales switch up the timing and sing during the day, new research suggests. This is not the first time that scientists have observed whales singing at a particular time of day. But the finding appears to be the first instance of changes in these daily singing patterns throughout the yearly feeding and mating cycle, says William Oestreich, a biological oceanographer at Stanford University. In the North Pacific, blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) spend summers off North America’s coast gorging on krill before traveling to the tropics to breed in winter. Data collected by an underwater microphone dropped into Monterey Bay in California to record the region’s soundscape for five years allowed Oestreich and his colleagues to eavesdrop on whales that visited the bay. When the team separated daytime and nighttime whale songs, it stumbled upon a surprising pattern: In the summer and early fall, most songs occurred at night, but as winter breeding season approached, singing switched mostly to the daytime. “This was a very striking signal to observe in such an enormous dataset,” says Oestreich. The instrument has been collecting audio since July 2015, relaying nearly 2 terabytes of data back to shore every month. The researchers also tagged 15 blue whales with instruments and from 2017 to 2019, recorded the whales’ movements, diving and feeding behavior, as well as their singing — nearly 4,000 songs’ worth. Whales that were feeding and hadn’t yet started migrating to the breeding grounds sang primarily at night — crooning about 10 songs per hour on average at night compared with three songs per hour in the day, or roughly three times as often. But those that had begun their southward trip sang mostly in the day, with the day-night proportions roughly reversed, the team reports October 1 in Current Biology. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2020.

Keyword: Animal Communication; Animal Migration
Link ID: 27504 - Posted: 10.03.2020

By Bret Stetka With enough training, pigeons can distinguish between the works of Picasso and Monet. Ravens can identify themselves in a mirror. And on a university campus in Japan, crows are known to intentionally leave walnuts in a crosswalk and let passing traffic do their nut cracking. Many bird species are incredibly smart. Yet among intelligent animals, the “bird brain” often doesn’t get much respect. Two papers published today in Science find birds actually have a brain that is much more similar to our complex primate organ than previously thought. For years it was assumed that the avian brain was limited in function because it lacked a neocortex. In mammals, the neocortex is the hulking, evolutionarily modern outer layer of the brain that allows for complex cognition and creativity and that makes up most of what, in vertebrates as a whole, is called the pallium. The new findings show that birds’ do, in fact, have a brain structure that is comparable to the neocortex despite taking a different shape. It turns out that at a cellular level, the brain region is laid out much like the mammal cortex, explaining why many birds exhibit advanced behaviors and abilities that have long befuddled scientists. The new work even suggests that certain birds demonstrate some degree of consciousness. The mammalian cortex is organized into six layers containing vertical columns of neurons that communicate with one another both horizontally and vertically. The avian brain, on the other hand, was thought to be arranged into discrete collections of neurons called nuclei, including a region called the dorsal ventricular ridge, or DVR, and a single nucleus named the wulst. In one of the new papers, senior author Onur Güntürkün, a neuroscientist at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, and his colleagues analyzed regions of the DVR and wulst involved in sound and vision processing. To do so, they used a technology called three-dimensional polarized light imaging, or 3D-PLI—a light-based microscopy technique that can be employed to visualize nerve fibers in brain samples. The researchers found that in both pigeons and barn owls, these brain regions are constructed much like our neocortex, with both layerlike and columnar organization—and with both horizontal and vertical circuitry. They confirmed the 3D-PLI findings using biocytin tracing, a technique for staining nerve cells. © 2020 Scientific American

Keyword: Evolution; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 27487 - Posted: 09.25.2020

By Elizabeth Preston This is Panurgus banksianus, the large shaggy bee. It lives alone, burrowed into sandy grasslands across Europe. It prefers to feed on yellow-flowered members of the aster family. The large shaggy bee also has a very large brain. Just like mammals or birds, insect species of the same size may have different endowments inside their heads. Researchers have discovered some factors linked to brain size in back-boned animals. But in insects, the drivers of brain size have been more of a mystery. In a study published Wednesday in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, scientists scrutinized hundreds of bee brains for patterns. Bees with specialized diets seem to have larger brains, while social behavior appears unrelated to brain size. That means when it comes to insects, the rules that have guided brain evolution in other animals may not apply. “Most bee brains are smaller than a grain of rice,” said Elizabeth Tibbetts, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Michigan who was not involved in the research. But, she said, “Bees manage surprisingly complex behavior with tiny brains,” making the evolution of bee brains an especially interesting subject. Ferran Sayol, an evolutionary biologist at University College London, and his co-authors studied those tiny brains from 395 female bees belonging to 93 species from across the United States, Spain and the Netherlands. Researchers beheaded each insect and used forceps to remove its brain, a curled structure that’s widest in the center. “It reminds me a little bit of a croissant,” Dr. Sayol said. One pattern that emerged was a connection between brain size and how long each bee generation lasted. Bees that only go through one generation each year have larger brains, relative to their body size, than bees with multiple generations a year. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Evolution; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 27476 - Posted: 09.16.2020

By Priyanka Runwal Acorn woodpeckers are renowned food hoarders. Every fall they stash as many as thousands of acorns in holes drilled into dead tree stumps in preparation for winter. Guarding these “granary trees” against acorn theft is a fierce, familial affair. But all hell breaks loose when there are deaths in a family and newly vacant spots in prime habitat are up for grabs. The news travels fast. Nearby woodpecker groups rush to the site and fight long, gory battles until one collective wins, according to a study published Monday in Current Biology. These wars also draw woodpecker audiences, the researchers reported, who leave their own territories unattended, demonstrating the immense investment and risks the birds are willing to take in pursuit of better breeding opportunities and intelligence gathering. “I think these power struggles are major events in the birds’ social calendars,” said Sahas Barve, an avian biologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and lead author of the study. “They’re definitely trying to get social information out of it.” Acorn woodpecker societies are complex. Each family consists of up to seven adult males, often brothers, which breed with one to three females, often sisters but unrelated to the males. They live with nest helpers who are typically their offspring from previous years. Together they defend 15-acre territories, on average, encompassing one or more granaries in the oak forests along coastal Oregon down into Mexico. The helpers don’t breed, but stick around for five to six years to help raise their half-siblings until these babysitters can find a new territory to start their own families. “It’s all about biding your time and gaining indirect fitness,” Dr. Barve said. “But it’s never as good as reproducing directly.” © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Aggression; Evolution
Link ID: 27472 - Posted: 09.14.2020

Primatologists observed that different groups of bonobos have different dietary preferences — indicating a form of "culture" among the animals. AILSA CHANG, HOST: Bonobos, like chimpanzees, are one of our closest living relatives. We share about 99% of our DNA. These endangered apes are covered in incredibly black hair. LIRAN SAMUNI: And what's very nice is that they have extremely pink lips, almost as if they put the lipstick on. SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST: That's Liran Samuni, a primatologist at Harvard University. Now her team has discovered that wild bonobos share more than just DNA with humans and chimps. They also appear to share our penchant for culture. SAMUNI: We already had some information about chimpanzees that they have the ability for culture. But it was always this kind of a puzzle about bonobos. CHANG: So for more than four years, the researchers tracked two bonobo groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, documenting the apes' social interactions and what they hunted. And they found a striking dietary difference. SAMUNI: So we had one group which specialized on the hunting of a small antelope called duiker, while the other bonobo group specialized on the hunting of anomalure, which is a gliding rodent. PFEIFFER: Samuni says think about it in the context of humans. You might have two cultures living near or among each other, but one prefers chicken; the other prefers beef. CHANG: Samuni's colleague at Harvard Martin Surbeck says that's important because it shows that the two groups of bonobos have different preferences despite their overlapping range. © 2020 npr

Keyword: Evolution
Link ID: 27465 - Posted: 09.12.2020