Chapter 6. Evolution of the Brain and Behavior

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By Erin Garcia de Jesus A whiff of catnip can make mosquitoes buzz off, and now researchers know why. The active component of catnip (Nepeta cataria) repels insects by triggering a chemical receptor that spurs sensations such as pain or itch, researchers report March 4 in Current Biology. The sensor, dubbed TRPA1, is common in animals — from flatworms to people — and responds to environmental irritants such as cold, heat, wasabi and tear gas. When irritants come into contact with TRPA1, the reaction can make people cough or an insect flee. Catnip’s repellent effect on insects — and its euphoric effect on felines — has been documented for millennia. Studies have shown that catnip may be as effective as the widely used synthetic repellent diethyl-m-toluamide, or DEET (SN: 9/5/01). But it was unknown how the plant repelled insects. So researchers exposed mosquitoes and fruit flies to catnip and monitored the insects’ behavior. Fruit flies were less likely to lay eggs on the side of a petri dish that was treated with catnip or its active component, nepetalactone. Mosquitoes were also less likely to take blood from a human hand coated with catnip. Insects that had been genetically modified to lack TRPA1, however, had no aversion to the plant. That behavior — coupled with experiments in lab-grown cells that show catnip activates TRPA1 — suggests that insect TRPA1 senses catnip as an irritant. Puzzling out how the plant deters insects could help researchers design potent repellents that may be easier to obtain in developing countries hit hard by mosquito-borne diseases. “Oil extracted from the plant or the plant itself could be a great starting point,” says study coauthor Marco Gallio, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2021

Keyword: Pain & Touch; Evolution
Link ID: 27719 - Posted: 03.06.2021

By Veronique Greenwood Sign up for Science Times: Get stories that capture the wonders of nature, the cosmos and the human body. In the warm, fetid environs of a compost heap, tiny roundworms feast on bacteria. But some of these microbes produce toxins, and the worms avoid them. In the lab, scientists curious about how the roundworms can tell what’s dinner and what’s dangerous often put them on top of mats of various bacteria to see if they wriggle away. One microbe species, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, reliably sends them scurrying. But how do the worms, common lab animals of the species Caenorhabditis elegans, know to do this? Dipon Ghosh, then a graduate student in cellular and molecular physiology at Yale University, wondered if it was because they could sense the toxins produced by the bacteria. Or might it have something to do with the fact that mats of P. aeruginosa are a brilliant shade of blue? Given that roundworms do not have eyes, cells that obviously detect light or even any of the known genes for light-sensitive proteins, this seemed a bit far-fetched. It wasn’t difficult to set up an experiment to test the hypothesis, though: Dr. Ghosh, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, put some worms on patches of P. aeruginosa. Then he turned the lights off. To the surprise of his adviser, Michael Nitabach, the worms’ flight from the bacteria was significantly slower in the dark, as though not being able to see kept the roundworms from realizing they were in danger. “When he showed me the results of the first experiments, I was shocked,” said Dr. Nitabach, who studies the molecular basis of neural circuits that guide behavior at Yale School of Medicine. In a series of follow-up experiments detailed in a paper published Thursday in Science, Dr. Ghosh, Dr. Nitabach and their colleagues establish that some roundworms respond clearly to that distinctive pigment, perceiving it — and fleeing from it — without the benefit of any known visual system. © 2021 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Vision; Evolution
Link ID: 27718 - Posted: 03.06.2021

By Elizabeth Pennisi For a glimpse of the power of sexual selection, the dance of the golden-collared manakin is hard to beat. Each June in the rainforests of Panama, the sparrow-size male birds gather to fluff their brilliant yellow throats, lift their wings, and clap them together in rapid fire, up to 60 times a second. When a female favors a male with her attention, he follows up with acrobatic leaps, more wing snaps, and perhaps a split-second, twisting backflip. “If manakins were human, they would be among the greatest artists, athletes, and socialites in our society,” says Ignacio Moore, an integrative organismal biologist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. As biologists have understood since Charles Darwin, such exhibitionism evolves when females choose to mate with males that have the most extravagant appearances and displays—a proxy for fitness. And now, by studying the genomes of the golden-collared manakin (Manacus vitellinus) and its relatives, researchers are exploring the genes that drive these elaborate behaviors and traits. Last month at the virtual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, Moore and other researchers introduced four manakin genomes, adding to two already published, and singled out genes at work in the birds’ muscles and brains that may make the displays possible. © 2021 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Sexual Behavior; Evolution
Link ID: 27716 - Posted: 03.06.2021

By Richard Sima Sign up for Science Times: Get stories that capture the wonders of nature, the cosmos and the human body. Though it is well-known for its many arms, the octopus does not seem to know where those eight appendages are most of the time. “In the octopus, you have no bones and no joints, and every point in its arm can go to every direction that you can think about,” said Nir Nesher, a senior lecturer in marine sciences at the Ruppin Academic Center in Israel. “So even one arm, it’s something like endless degrees of freedom.” So how does the octopus keep all those wiggly, sucker-covered limbs out of trouble? According to a study published this month in The Journal of Experimental Biology by Dr. Nesher and his colleagues, the octopus’s arms can sense and respond to light — even when the octopus cannot see it with the eyes on its head. This light-sensing ability may help the cephalopods keep their arms concealed from other animals that could mistake the tip of an arm for a marine worm or some other kind of meal. Itamar Katz, one of the study’s authors, first noticed the light-detecting powers while studying a different phenomenon: how light causes the octopus’s skin to change color. With Dr. Nesher and Tal Shomrat, another author, Mr. Katz saw that shining light on an arm caused the octopus to withdraw it, even when the creature was sleeping. Further experiments showed that the arms would avoid the light in situations when the octopus could not see it with its eyes. Even when the octopuses reached an arm out of a small opening on an opaque, covered aquarium for food, the arm would quickly retract when light was shined on it 84 percent of the time. This was a surprise, as though the octopus “can see the light through the arm, it can feel the light through the arm,” Dr. Nesher said. “They don’t need the eye for that.” ImageScientists suspect octopuses keep their arms concealed from other animals that could mistake the tip of an arm for a meal. Scientists suspect octopuses keep their arms concealed from other animals that could © 2021 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Vision; Evolution
Link ID: 27704 - Posted: 02.23.2021

Ariana Remmel Researchers have created tiny, brain-like ‘organoids’ that contain a gene variant harboured by two extinct human relatives, Neanderthals and Denisovans. The tissues, made by engineering human stem cells, are far from being true representations of these species’ brains — but they show distinct differences from human organoids, including size, shape and texture. The findings, published1 in Science on 11 February, could help scientists to understand the genetic pathways that allowed human brains to evolve. Can lab-grown brains become conscious? “It’s an extraordinary paper with some extraordinary claims,” says Gray Camp, a developmental biologist at the University of Basel in Switzerland, whose lab last year reported2 growing brain organoids that contained a gene common to Neanderthals and humans. The latest work takes the research further by looking at gene variants that humans lost in evolution. But Camp remains sceptical about the implications of the results, and says the work opens more questions that will require investigation. Humans are more closely related to Neanderthals and Denisovans than to any living primate, and some 40% of the Neanderthal genome can still be found spread throughout living humans. But researchers have limited means to study these ancient species’ brains — soft tissue is not well preserved, and most studies rely on inspecting the size and shape of fossilized skulls. Knowing how the species’ genes differ from humans’ is important because it helps researchers to understand what makes humans unique — especially in our brains. © 2021 Springer Nature Limited

Keyword: Development of the Brain; Evolution
Link ID: 27687 - Posted: 02.13.2021

By Jonathan Lambert When one naked mole-rat encounters another, the accent of their chirps might reveal whether they’re friends or foes. These social rodents are famous for their wrinkly, hairless appearance. But hang around one of their colonies for a while, and you’ll notice something else — they’re a chatty bunch. Their underground burrows resound with near-constant chirps, grunts, squeaks and squeals. Now, computer algorithms have uncovered a hidden order within this cacophony, researchers report in the Jan. 29 Science. These distinctive chirps, which pups learn when they’re young, help the mostly blind, xenophobic rodents discern who belongs, strengthening the bonds that maintain cohesion in these highly cooperative groups. “Language is really important for extreme social behavior, in humans, dolphins, elephants or birds,” says Thomas Park, a biologist at the University of Illinois Chicago who wasn’t involved in the study. This work shows naked mole-rats (Heterocephalus glaber) belong in those ranks as well, Park says. Naked mole-rat groups seem more like ant or termite colonies than mammalian societies. Every colony has a single breeding queen who suppresses the reproduction of tens to hundreds of nonbreeding worker rats that dig elaborate subterranean tunnels in search of tubers in eastern Africa (SN: 10/18/04). Food is scarce, and the rodents vigorously attack intruders from other colonies. While researchers have long noted the rat’s raucous chatter, few actually studied it. “Naked mole-rats are incredibly cooperative and incredibly vocal, and no one has really looked into how these two features influence one another,” says Alison Barker, a neuroscientist at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2021.

Keyword: Language; Evolution
Link ID: 27673 - Posted: 01.30.2021

By Veronique Greenwood Last spring, robins living on an Illinois tree farm sat on some unusual eggs. Alongside the customary brilliant blue ovoids they had laid were some unusually shaped objects. Although they had the same color, some were long and thin, stretched into pills. Others were decidedly pointy — so angular, in fact, that they bore little resemblance to eggs at all. If robins played Dungeons and Dragons, they might have thought, “Why do I have an eight-sided die in my nest?” The answer: Evolutionary biologists were gauging how birds decide what belongs in their nests, and what is an invasive piece of detritus that they need to throw out. Thanks to the results of this study, published Wednesday in Royal Society Open Science, we now know what the robins thought of the eggs, which were made of plastic and had been 3-D printed by the lab of Mark Hauber, a professor of animal behavior at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and a fellow at Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg in Delmenhorst, Germany. He and his colleagues reported that the thinner the fake eggs got, the more likely the birds were to remove them from the nest. But curiously, the robins were more cautious about throwing out the pointy objects like that eight-sided die, which were closer in width to their own eggs. Birds, the results suggest, are using rules of thumb that are not intuitive to humans when they decide what is detritus and what is precious cargo. It’s not as uncommon as you’d think for robins to find foreign objects in their nests. They play host to cowbirds, a parasitic species that lays eggs in other birds’ nests, where they hatch and compete with the robins’ own offspring for nourishment. Confronted with a cowbird egg, which is beige and squatter than its blue ovals, parent robins will often push the parasite’s eggs out. That makes the species a good candidate for testing exactly what matters when it comes to telling their own eggs apart from other objects, Dr. Hauber said. © 2021 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Attention; Evolution
Link ID: 27669 - Posted: 01.30.2021

By Mitch Leslie Spitting cobras protect themselves by shooting jets of venom into the eyes of their attackers. A new study suggests that over the course of several million years, all three groups of spitters independently tailored the chemistry of their toxins in the same way to cause pain to a would-be predator. The work provides a novel example of convergent evolution that “deepens our understanding of this unique system” for delivering venom, says Timothy Jackson, an evolutionary toxinologist at the University of Melbourne. Like other cobras, spitting cobras will bite attackers in self-defense. Spitting is their signature move, however, and the snakes are crack shots. They can direct a stream of venom into an attacker’s face from more than 2 meters away, aiming for the eyes. The behavior is such a formidable defense that it evolved independently three times: in Asian cobras, African cobras, and a cobra cousin called the rinkhals (Hemachatus haemachatus) that lives in southern Africa. Scientists previously found the venom of some other snakes evolved to better subdue their prey. By analyzing the venoms of 17 spitting and nonspitting species—and measuring their effects—venom biologist Nicholas Casewell of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and colleagues tested whether the makeup of spitting cobra venom had also changed over time to become a more effective defense. © 2021 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Pain & Touch; Evolution
Link ID: 27659 - Posted: 01.23.2021

By Cathleen O’Grady Golden paper wasps have demanding social lives. To keep track of who’s who in a complex pecking order, they have to recognize and remember many individual faces. Now, an experiment suggests the brains of these wasps process faces all at once—similar to how human facial recognition works. It’s the first evidence of insects identifying one another using “holistic” processing, and a clue to why social animals have evolved such abilities. The finding suggests holistic processing might not require big, complex brains, says Rockefeller University neuroscientist Winrich Freiwald, who wasn’t involved with the research. “It must be so hard to train these animals, so I find it fascinating how one can get such clear results,” he says. Most people recognize faces not from specific features, such as a unique beauty spot or the shape of a nose, but by processing them as a whole, taking in how all the features hang together. Experiments find that people are good at discriminating between facial features—like noses—when they see them in the context of a face but find it much harder when the features are seen in isolation. Other primates, including chimpanzees and rhesus macaques, use such holistic processing. And studies have even found that honey bees and wasps, trained to recognize human faces, have more difficulty with partial faces than whole ones, suggesting holistic processing. But biologists didn’t know whether insects actually use holistic processing naturally with each other. © 2021 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Attention; Evolution
Link ID: 27655 - Posted: 01.20.2021

Daniel Osorio The neuroscientist Michael Land, who has died aged 78 from respiratory disease, was the Marco Polo of the visual sciences. He visited exotic parts of the animal kingdom, and showed that almost every way humans have discovered to bend, reflect, shape and image light with mirrors and lenses is also used by some creature’s eye. His research revealed the many different ways in which animals see their own versions of reality, often to find members of the opposite sex. His 1976 discovery that prawns focus light not by lenses, but with a structure of mirror-lined boxes, helped lead to the discovery of a method to focus X-rays, and in the 1990s he developed a simple device to track humans’ gaze as they move their eyes while doing everyday tasks. Land’s PhD thesis at University College London in the early 1960s, on how scallops evade the attacks of predatory starfish, turned out to be a serendipitous choice. He was supposed to investigate what passes for the brain of this shellfish, but found its eyes far more interesting. Scallops have many pinhead-sized eyes, just inside the lip of the shell. Rather than focusing light with a lens as people do, they use a concave mirror in the manner of a Newtonian telescope. Moving from UCL, with his first wife, Judith (nee Drinkwater), to the University of California, Berkeley, in 1968, he turned his attention to jumping spiders. These arachnids do not build webs but are visual hunters. Each of their four pairs of eyes has a different task, and Land showed how the most acute of these eyes moves to detect prey and mates. © 2021 Guardian News & Media Limited

Keyword: Vision; Evolution
Link ID: 27651 - Posted: 01.20.2021

By Jonathan Lambert One Volta’s electric eel — able to subdue small fish with an 860-volt jolt — is scary enough. Now imagine over 100 eels swirling about, unleashing coordinated electric attacks. Such a sight was assumed to be only the stuff of nightmares, at least for prey. Researchers have long thought that these eels, a type of knifefish, are solitary, nocturnal hunters that use their electric sense to find smaller fish as they sleep (SN: 12/4/14). But in a remote region of the Amazon, groups of over 100 electric eels (Electrophorus voltai) hunt together, corralling thousands of smaller fish together to concentrate, shock and devour the prey, researchers report January 14 in Ecology and Evolution. “This is hugely unexpected,” says Raimundo Nonato Mendes-Júnior, a biologist at the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation in Brasilia, Brazil who wasn’t involved in the study. “It goes to show how very, very little we know about how electric eels behave in the wild.” Group hunting is quite rare in fishes, says Carlos David de Santana, an evolutionary biologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. “I’d never even seen more than 12 electric eels together in the field,” he says. That’s why he was stunned in 2012 when his colleague Douglas Bastos, now a biologist at the National Institute of Amazonian Research in Manaus, Brazil, reported seeing more than 100 eels congregating and seemingly hunting together in a small lake in northern Brazil. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2021.

Keyword: Evolution
Link ID: 27647 - Posted: 01.15.2021

By Elizabeth Pennisi Hammer a nail into a tree, and it will get stuck. So why doesn’t the same thing happen to the sharp beaks of woodpeckers? Scientists say they finally have the answer. In a new study, researchers took high-speed videos of two black woodpeckers (Dryocopus martius) pecking away at hardwood trunks in zoos and analyzed them frame by frame to see how the head and beak moved throughout each peck. The bird’s secret: an ability to move its upper and lower beaks independently, the team reports this week at the virtual annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. Once the tip of the woodpecker’s bill hits the wood, the bird’s head rotates to the side ever so slightly, lifting the top part of the beak and twisting it a bit in the other direction, the videos reveal. This pull opens the bill a tiny amount and creates free space between the beak tip and the wood at the bottom of the punctured hole, so the bird can then easily retract its beak. Until now, scientists have thought woodpecker bills would need to be rigidly attached to the skull to successfully drill into the wood to find insect prey. But actually, the bill’s flexibility in these joints ensures that the bird’s signature “rat-a-tat-tat” doesn’t stop at “rat.” © 2021 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Brain Injury/Concussion; Evolution
Link ID: 27640 - Posted: 01.09.2021

By Veronique Greenwood Zipping through water like shimmering arrowheads, cuttlefish are swift, sure hunters — death on eight limbs and two waving tentacles for small creatures in their vicinity. They morph to match the landscape, shifting between a variety of hues and even textures, using tiny structures that expand and contract beneath their skin. They even seem to have depth perception, researchers using tiny 3-D vision glasses found, placing them apart from octopuses and squids. And their accuracy at striking prey is remarkable. But for cuttlefish, these physical feats in pursuit of food are not the whole story. A new study published this month in the journal Royal Society Open Science shows that there is even more to cuttlefish cognition than scientists may have known. The sea creatures appear to be capable of performing calculations that are more complicated than simply “more food is better.” Presented with a choice between one shrimp or two, they will actually choose the single shrimp when they have learned through experience that they are rewarded for this choice. While the braininess of their octopus cousins gets a lot of attention, researchers who study animal cognition have uncovered surprising talents in cuttlefish over the years. For instance, the cephalopods will hunt fewer crabs during the day if they learn that shrimp, their preferred food, is predictably available during the night. That shows that they can think ahead. Chuan-Chin Chiao, a biologist at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, and an author of the current paper alongside his colleague Tzu-Hsin Kuo, has found in the past that cuttlefish that are hungry will choose a bigger, harder-to-catch shrimp to attack, and those that are not will choose smaller, easier-to-catch ones. But researchers have also found that animals do not always make decisions that seem logical at first glance. Like humans, whose behavior rarely fits economists’ visions of what an ideal, rational creature would do, animals respond to their environments using learned experiences. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Attention; Evolution
Link ID: 27637 - Posted: 12.31.2020

By Elizabeth Preston When Jessica Yorzinski chased great-tailed grackles across a field, it wasn’t a contest to see who blinked first. But she did want the birds to blink. Dr. Yorzinski had outfitted the grackles, which look a bit like crows but are in another family of birds, with head-mounted cameras pointing back at their faces. Like other birds, grackles blink sideways, flicking a semitransparent membrane across the eye. Recordings showed that the birds spent less time blinking during the riskiest parts of a flight. The finding was published Wednesday in Biology Letters. Dr. Yorzinski, a sensory ecologist at Texas A&M University, had been wondering how animals balance their need to blink with their need to get visual information about their environments. Humans, she said, “blink quite often, but when we do so we lose access to the world around us. It got me thinking about what might be happening in other species.” She worked with a company that builds eye-tracking equipment to make a custom bird-size headpiece. Because a bird’s eyes are on the sides of its head, the contraption held one video camera pointed at the left eye and one at the right, making the bird resemble a sports fan in a beer helmet. The headpiece was connected to a backpack holding a battery and transmitter. Dr. Yorzinski captured 10 wild great-tailed grackles, which are common in Texas, to wear this get-up. She used only male birds, which are big enough to carry the equipment without trouble. Each bird wore the camera helmet and backpack while Dr. Yorzinski encouraged it to fly by chasing it across an outdoor enclosure. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Vision; Evolution
Link ID: 27636 - Posted: 12.22.2020

By Isabella Backman Even tough male chimps need their moms. Chimpanzees live in a male-dominated society, where most of their valuable allies are other males. However, as young male chimpanzees become adults, they continue to maintain tight bonds with their mothers, a new study reveals. And for about one-third of them, this mother-son relationship is the closest one they have. The dramatic changes of adolescence are difficult for chimps, just like they are for humans, says Elizabeth Lonsdorf, a primatologist at Franklin & Marshall College who was not involved in the study. And “sure enough,” she says, “their moms remain a key social partner during this turbulent time.” Previous research has shown chimpanzee mothers provide their sons support that goes far beyond nursing. Young male chimps that are close with their moms grow bigger and have a greater chance of survival. What’s more, losing their mothers after weaning, but before age 12, hinders the ability of young chimps to compete with other males and reproduce. To see whether this bond extends later into life, researchers followed 29 adolescent (9 to 15 years old) and young adult (16 to 20 years old) male chimpanzees at a research site in Kibale National Park in Uganda. For 3 years, they observed the chimps from a distance, recording any social interaction they witnessed. These included grooming, comforting behaviors such as holding hands or shoulder pats, looking back for or waiting for other individuals, offering support during conflicts, and sitting near each other. © 2020 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Evolution; Emotions
Link ID: 27633 - Posted: 12.22.2020

By Bruce Bower Bonobos display responsibility toward grooming partners akin to that of people working together on a task, a new study suggests. Until now, investigations have shown only that humans can work jointly toward a common goal presumed to require back-and-forth exchanges and an appreciation of being obligated to a partner (SN: 10/5/09). Primate biologist Raphaela Heesen of Durham University in England and colleagues studied 15 of the endangered great apes at a French zoological park. The researchers interrupted 85 instances of social grooming, in which one ape cleaned another’s fur, and 26 instances of self-grooming or solitary play. Interruptions consisted either of a keeper calling one bonobo in a grooming pair to come over for a food reward or a keeper rapidly opening and closing a sliding door to an indoor enclosure, which typically signaled mealtime and thus attracted both bonobos. Social grooming resumed, on average, 80 percent of the time after food rewards and 83 percent of the time after sliding-door disruptions, the researchers report December 18 in Science Advances. In contrast, self-grooming or playing alone was resumed only around 50 percent of the time, on average. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2020

Keyword: Evolution; Emotions
Link ID: 27629 - Posted: 12.19.2020

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