Chapter 6. Evolution of the Brain and Behavior

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By Susan Milius An elephant, a narwhal and a guinea pig walk into a bar. From there, things could get ugly. All three might get drunk easily, according to a new survey of a gene involved in metabolizing alcohol. They’re among the creatures affected by 10 independent breakdowns of the ADH7 gene during the history of mammal evolution. Inheriting that dysfunctional gene might make it harder for their bodies to break down ethanol, says molecular anthropologist Mareike Janiak of the University of Calgary in Canada. She and colleagues didn’t look at all the genes needed to metabolize ethanol, but the failure of this important one might allow ethanol to build up more easily in these animals’ bloodstreams, Janiak and colleagues report April 29 in Biology Letters. The carnivorous cetaceans, grain- or leaf-eating guinea pigs and most other animals that the study identified as potentially easy drunks probably don’t binge on sugary fruit and nectar that brews ethanol. Elephants, however, will feast on fruit, and the new study reopens a long-running debate over whether elephants truly get tipsy gorging on marula fruit, a relative of mangoes. Descriptions of elephants behaving oddly after binging on overripe fruit go back at least to 1875, Janiak says. Later, a taste test offering the animals troughs of water spiked with ethanol found that elephants willingly drank. Afterward, they swayed more when moving and seemed more aggressive, observers reported. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2020.

Keyword: Drug Abuse; Evolution
Link ID: 27230 - Posted: 05.05.2020

By Asher Elbein Rufous treepies, birds in the crow family native to South and Southeast Asia, usually eat insects, seeds or fruits. But some of them have learned to eat fire. Well, not exactly, but close. At a small temple in the Indian state of Gujarat, the caretakers regularly set out small votive candles made with clarified butter. The birds flit down to steal the candles, extinguish the butter-soaked wicks with a quick shake of their heads and then gulp them down. This willingness to experiment with new foods and ways of foraging is an indicator of behavioral flexibility, and some scientists think it is evidence that certain species of birds might be less vulnerable to extinction. “The idea is that if a species has individuals that are capable of these novel behaviors, they’ll respond with changes in their behavior more easily than individuals from species that do not tend to produce novel behaviors like that,” said Louis Lefebvre, a professor at McGill University in Montreal and an author on the study. “The idea is pretty simple. The problem was to be able to test it in a convincing way.” A team of researchers, led by Simon Ducatez of Spain’s Center for Research on Ecology and Forestry Applications and including Dr. Lefebvre, combed through 204 ornithological journals for mentions of novel behaviors and feeding innovations, comparing the number of sightings in each species with their risk of extinction. Their results were published this month in Nature Ecology & Evolution. Dr. Lefebvre said the approach provided backup to earlier cognition experiments he had led with wild-caught birds, such as testing their ability to figure out how to open boxes full of food. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Learning & Memory; Evolution
Link ID: 27220 - Posted: 04.29.2020

By Ann Gibbons If you think you got your freckles, red hair, or even narcolepsy from a Neanderthal in your family tree, think again. People around the world do carry traces of Neanderthals in their genomes. But a study of tens of thousands of Icelanders finds their Neanderthal legacy had little or no impact on most of their physical traits or disease risk. Paleogeneticists realized about 10 years ago that most Europeans and Asians inherited 1% to 2% of their genomes from Neanderthals. And Melanesians and Australian Aboriginals get another 3% to 6% of their DNA from Denisovans, Neanderthal cousins who ranged across Asia 50,000 to 200,000 years ago or so. A steady stream of studies suggested gene variants from these archaic peoples might raise the risk of depression, blood clotting, diabetes, and other disorders in living people. The archaic DNA may also be altering the shape of our skulls; boosting our immune systems; and influencing our eye color, hair color, and sensitivity to the Sun, according to scans of genomic and health data in biobanks and medical databases. But the new study, which looked for archaic DNA in living Icelanders, challenges many of those claims. Researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark scanned the full genomes of 27,566 Icelanders in a database at deCODE Genetics in Iceland, seeking unusual archaic gene variants. The researchers ended up with a large catalog of 56,000 to 112,000 potentially archaic variants—and a few surprises. They found, for example, that Icelanders had inherited 3.3% of their archaic DNA from Denisovans and 12.2% from unknown sources. (84.5% came from close relatives of the reference Neanderthals.) © 2020 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Evolution; Genes & Behavior
Link ID: 27211 - Posted: 04.24.2020

Christie Wilcox Sex might be biology’s most difficult enigma. The downsides of relying on sex to reproduce are undeniable: It takes two individuals, each of whom gets to pass on only part of their genome. Because these individuals generally have to get fairly intimate, they make themselves vulnerable to physical harm or infections from their partner. Asexual reproduction, or self-cloning, has none of these disadvantages. Clones can be made anywhere and anytime, and they receive the full complement of an individual’s genes. Yet despite all its benefits, asexual reproduction is the exception, not the norm, among organisms that have compartmentalized cells (eukaryotes). In plants, for example — which are somewhat known for their genetic flexibility — less than 1% of species are thought to reproduce asexually often. Among animals, only one out of every thousand known species is exclusively asexual. For centuries, biologists have pondered this apparent paradox. In 1932, the geneticist Hermann Muller, whose work on radiation-induced mutations would eventually garner a Nobel Prize, believed he had the answer. “Genetics has finally solved the age-old problem of the reason for the existence (i.e., the function) of sexuality and sex,” he boasted in The American Naturalist. He went on to explain, “Sexuality, through recombination, is a means for making the fullest use of the possibilities of gene mutations.” All Rights Reserved © 2020

Keyword: Sexual Behavior; Evolution
Link ID: 27210 - Posted: 04.24.2020

By John Pickrell Joseph Schubert spends hours at a time lying in the dirt of the Australian outback watching for tiny flickers in the sparse, ground-hugging foliage. The 22-year-old arachnologist is searching for flea-sized peacock spiders, and he admits, he’s a little obsessed. But it wasn’t always so. Schubert grew up fearing spiders, with parents who were “absolutely terrified” of the eight-legged crawlers. “I was taught that every single spider in the house was going to kill me, and we should squish it and get rid of it,” he says. Then Schubert stumbled across some photographs of Australia’s endemic peacock spiders, a group named for the adult males’ vivid coloring and flamboyant dance moves aimed at wooing a mate (SN: 9/9/16; SN: 12/8/15). And he was hooked. “They raise their third pair of legs and dance around and show off like they are the most amazing animals on the planet, which in my eyes they are.” He decided to pursue a career in arachnology. And despite not quite having completed his undergraduate degree in biology, he’s begun working part time at Museums Victoria in Melbourne, and has already made a mark. Of the 86 known peacock spider species — each just 2.5 to 6 millimeters in length — 12 have been described by Schubert, including seven named in the March 27 Zootaxa. Those seven were found at a range of sites across Australia, including the barren dunes and shrublands of Victoria state’s Little Desert and the red rocks and arid outback gorges of Kalbarri National Park, north of Perth. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2020

Keyword: Sexual Behavior; Evolution
Link ID: 27202 - Posted: 04.17.2020

Gregory Berns, M.D., Ph.D. There is no official census for dogs and cats, but in 2016, the American Veterinary Medical Association estimated that 59 percent of households in the United States had a pet. Although the numbers of dogs and cats remains debatable, dogs continue to gain in popularity with 38 percent of households having at least one. Families with children are even more likely to have a dog (55 percent). With all due respect to cats, dogs have insinuated themselves into human society, forming deep emotional bonds with us and compelling us to feed and shelter them. Worldwide, the dog population is approaching one billion, the majority free-ranging. Even though many people are convinced they know what their dog is thinking, little is actually known about what is going on in dogs’ heads. This may be surprising because the field of experimental psychology had its birth with Pavlov and his salivating dogs. But as dogs gained traction as household pets, in many cases achieving the status of family members, their use as research subjects fell out of favor. In large part, this was a result of the Animal Welfare Act of 1966, which set standards for the treatment of animals in research and put an end to the practice of stealing pets for experimentation. How strange it is then that these creatures, whose nearest relatives are wolves, live with us and even share our beds, yet we know almost nothing about what they’re thinking. In the last decade or so, however, the situation has begun to change, and we are in the midst of a renaissance of canine cognitive science. Research labs have sprung up around the world, and dogs participate not as involuntary subjects, but as partners in scientific discovery. This new research is beginning to shed light on what it’s like to be a dog and the nature of the dog-human bond. © 2020 The Dana Foundation.

Keyword: Brain imaging; Evolution
Link ID: 27195 - Posted: 04.16.2020

Peter Rhys-Evans For the past 150 years, scientists and laypeople alike have accepted a “savanna” scenario of human evolution. The theory, primarily based on fossil evidence, suggests that because our ancestral ape family members were living in the trees of East African forests, and because we humans live on terra firma, our primate ancestors simply came down from the trees onto the grasslands and stood upright to see farther over the vegetation, increasing their efficiency as hunter-gatherers. In the late 19th century, anthropologists only had a few Neanderthal fossils to study, and science had very little knowledge of genetics and evolutionary changes. So this savanna theory of human evolution became ingrained in anthropological dogma and has remained the established explanation of early hominin evolution following the genetic split from our primate cousins 6 million to 7 million years ago. But in 1960, a different twist on human evolution emerged. That year, marine biologist Sir Alister Hardy wrote an article in New Scientist suggesting a possible aquatic phase in our evolution, noting Homo sapiens’s differences from other primates and similarities to other aquatic and semi-aquatic mammals. In 1967, zoologist Desmond Morris published The Naked Ape, which explored different theories about why modern humans lost their fur. Morris mentioned Hardy’s “aquatic ape” hypothesis as an “ingenious” theory that sufficiently explained “why we are so nimble in the water today and why our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, are so helpless and quickly drown.” © 1986–2020 The Scientist

Keyword: Evolution
Link ID: 27190 - Posted: 04.15.2020

By Alexandra Horowitz Recently, in communities under quarantine or stay-at-home orders, residents have looked out their windows to find wild animals that usually stay on the fringes of the city or emerge only at night suddenly appearing in daylight in the middle of the street. The reason is us: Human activity disturbs animals. Even our presence — simply observing, as bird-watchers, or field biologists, or nature-loving hikers — changes their behavior. The ecologist Carl Safina (author of “Beyond Words” and “Song for the Blue Ocean”) is no agnostic observer. He sees humans as destroying the world for nonhuman animals, to say nothing of destroying the animals themselves, and would like us to stop, please. The question for him, and for anyone with this conviction, is: Short of quarantining the human race, what’s the best way to do this? Fifty years ago, the biologist Robert Payne first eavesdropped on a humpback whale community and heard whale song. He spread the word about their ethereal, beautiful forms of communication, and the world looked at whales differently. Since that time, whaling has sharply declined. Today, many advocates for animals appeal to species’ cognitive abilities to argue for their better treatment. They’re so smart or humanlike, the argument goes, we should be treating them better. Such is the vestige of the scala naturae that has awarded all lives a certain value — with humans on top, of course. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Evolution
Link ID: 27185 - Posted: 04.14.2020

Amy Schleunes The brains of Australopithecus afarensis, a hominin species that lived in eastern Africa more than 3 million years ago, were organized in a manner similar to those of apes, report the authors of a study published on April 1 in Science Advances, but they also indicate a slow growth period like that found in modern humans. “The fact that protracted brain growth emerged in hominins as early as 3.3 Ma ago could suggest that it characterized all of subsequent hominin evolutionary history,” the authors write in the paper, though brain development patterns in hominins may not have followed a linear trajectory in the evolutionary process that led to modern humans. Whatever the evolutionary pattern, they say, the extended brain growth period in A. afarensis “provided a basis for subsequent evolution of the brain and social behavior in hominins and was likely critical for the evolution of a long period of childhood learning.” P. Gunz et al., “Australopithecus afarensis endocasts suggest ape-like brain organization and prolonged brain growth,” Science Advances, doi:10.1126/sciadv.aaz4729, 2020. © 1986–2020 The Scientist

Keyword: Evolution
Link ID: 27177 - Posted: 04.10.2020

Ruth Williams If a mouse is in a lot of pain, an experienced handler may see it in the animal’s facial expression—its narrowed eyes and bulging cheeks. But, subtler facial expressions may be more difficult to match to their moods. So researchers developed an unbiased machine learning approach to study hundreds of videos of mice and, as a result, have now catalogued a range of emotion-specific facial expressions. These expressions, the researchers show, can serve as handy readouts for studying the neural basis of emotions. “It’s a tour de force in terms of techniques,” says neuroscientist Sheena Josselyn of the University of Toronto who was not involved in the research. “Using the techniques . . . they are really beginning to give [emotion] a scientific definition, which I think is really important.” “The results provide an important advance by adding quantitative analysis of facial motor patterns to the repertoire of ‘emotional’ behaviors that can be measured in mice,” David Anderson, a neuroscientist at Caltech, writes in an email to The Scientist. That’s important, he adds, because “facial expressions have been considered as key indicators of emotion state in mammals, but have previously been measured in rodents only in a more qualitative, subjective manner.” Anderson, who studies the neurobiology of emotional behaviors, was also not involved in the project. Previous investigations of facial expressions in mice and other animals not only lacked objectivity, they tended to focus on just one or two emotions, says Nadine Gogolla of the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology. “None of those studies looked at a whole spectrum [of emotions] and whether they can be distinguished from each other.” © 1986–2020 The Scientist.

Keyword: Emotions; Evolution
Link ID: 27170 - Posted: 04.04.2020

By Laura Sanders Although it’s tricky for us humans to see, mouse feelings are written all over their furry little faces. With machine learning tools, researchers reliably spotted mice’s expressions of joy, fear, pain and other basic emotions. The results, published in the April 3 Science, provide a field guide for scientists seeking to understand how emotions such as joy, regret and empathy work in animals other than humans (SN: 11/10/16; SN: 6/9/14; SN: 12/8/11). Using machine learning to reveal mice’s expressions is “an extraordinarily exciting direction,” says Kay Tye, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. The findings “lay the foundation for what I expect will be a game changer for neuroscience research on emotional states.” Neuroscientist Nadine Gogolla of the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Martinsried, Germany, and colleagues gave mice experiences designed to elicit distinct emotions. Sugar water evoked pleasure, a shock to the tail triggered pain, bitter quinine water created disgust, an injection of lithium chloride evoked a nauseated malaise, and a place where shocks previously had been delivered sparked fear. For each setup, high-speed video cameras captured subtle movements in the mice’s ears, noses, whiskers and other parts of the face. Observers can generally see that something is happening on the mouse’s face, Gogolla says. But translating those subtle clues into emotions is really hard, “especially for an untrained human being,” she says. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2020

Keyword: Emotions; Evolution
Link ID: 27168 - Posted: 04.03.2020

By Bruce Bower Lucy’s kind had small, chimplike brains that, nevertheless, grew at a slow, humanlike pace. This discovery, reported April 1 in Science Advances, shows for the first time that prolonged brain growth in hominid youngsters wasn’t a by-product of having unusually large brains. An influential idea over the last 20 years has held that extended brain development after birth originated in the Homo genus around 2.5 million years ago, so that mothers — whose pelvic bones and birth canal had narrowed to enable efficient upright walking — could safely deliver babies. But Australopithecus afarensis, an East African hominid species best known for Lucy’s partial skeleton, also had slow-developing brains that reached only about one-third the volume of present-day human brains, say paleoanthropologist Philipp Gunz of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and his colleagues. And A. afarensis is roughly 3 million to 4 million years old, meaning slow brain growth after birth developed before members of the Homo genus appeared, perhaps as early as 2.8 million years ago (SN: 3/4/15). Too few A. afarensis infants have been studied to calculate the age at which this species attained adult-sized brains, Gunz cautions. The brains of human infants today reach adult sizes by close to age 5, versus an age of around 2 or 3 for both chimps and gorillas. In the new study, Gunz and colleagues estimated brain volumes for six A. afarensis adults and two children, estimated to have been about 2 years and 5 months old. The kids had brains that were smaller than adult A. afarensis brain sizes in a proportion similar to human children’s brains at the same age relative to adult humans. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2020.

Keyword: Evolution; Development of the Brain
Link ID: 27163 - Posted: 04.02.2020

By Matt McGrath Environment correspondent A new study that looks at lifespan in wild mammals shows that females live substantially longer than males. The research finds that, on average, females live 18.6% longer than males from the same species. This is much larger than the well-studied difference between men and women, which is around 8%. The scientists say the differences in these other mammals are due to a combination of sex-specific traits and local environmental factors. In every human population, women live longer than men, so much so that nine out of 10 people who live to be 110 years old are female. This pattern, researchers say, has been consistent since the first accurate birth records became available in the 18th Century. While the same assumption has been held about animal species, large-scale data on mammals in the wild has been lacking, Now, an international team of researchers has examined age-specific mortality estimates for a widely diverse group of 101 species. In 60% of the analysed populations, the scientists found that females outlived the males - on average, they had a lifespan that's 18.6% longer than males. "The magnitude of lifespan and ageing across species is probably an interaction between environmental conditions and sex-specific genetic variations," said lead author Dr Jean-Francois Lemaître, from the University of Lyon, France. He gives the example of bighorn sheep for which the researchers had access to good data on different populations. Where natural resources were consistently available there was little difference in lifespan. However, in one location where winters were particularly severe, the males lived much shorter lives. © 2020 BBC.

Keyword: Sexual Behavior; Evolution
Link ID: 27137 - Posted: 03.24.2020

By Virginia Morell Whether it’s calculating your risk of catching the new coronavirus or gauging the chance of rain on your upcoming beach vacation, you use a mix of statistical, physical, and social information to make a decision. So do New Zealand parrots known as keas, scientists report today. It’s the first time this cognitive ability has been demonstrated outside of apes, and it may have implications for understanding how intelligence evolved. “It’s a neat study,” says Karl Berg, an ornithologist and parrot expert at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Brownsville, who was not involved with this research. Keas already had a reputation in New Zealand—and it wasn’t a great one. The olive-brown, crow-size birds can wield their curved beaks like knives—and did so on early settlers’ sheep, slicing through wool and muscle to reach the fat along their spines. These days, they’re notorious for slashing through backpacks for food and ripping windshield wipers off cars. To see whether keas’ intelligence extended beyond being mischievous, Amalia Bastos, a doctoral candidate in comparative psychology at the University of Auckland, and colleagues turned to six captive keas at a wildlife reserve near Christchurch, New Zealand. The researchers taught the birds that a black token always led to a tasty food pellet, whereas an orange one never did. When the scientists placed two transparent jars containing a mix of tokens next to the keas and removed a token with a closed hand, the birds were more likely to pick hands dipped into jars that contained more black than orange tokens, even if the ratio was as close as 63 to 57. That experiment combined with other tests “provide conclusive evidence” that keas are capable of “true statistical inference,” the scientists report in today’s issue of Nature Communications. © 2020 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Evolution; Attention
Link ID: 27092 - Posted: 03.04.2020

Nicola Davis From humans to black-tailed prairie dogs, female mammals often outlive males – but for birds, the reverse is true. Now researchers say they have cracked the mystery, revealing that having two copies of the same sex chromosome is associated with having a longer lifespan, suggesting the second copy offers a protective effect. “These findings are a crucial step in uncovering the underlying mechanisms affecting longevity, which could point to pathways for extending life,” the authors write. “We can only hope that more answers are found in our lifetime.” The idea that a second copy of the same sex chromosome is protective has been around for a while, supported by the observation that in mammals – where females have two of the same sex chromosomes – males tend to have shorter lifespans. In birds, males live longer on average and have two Z chromosomes, while females have one Z and one W chromosome. Scientists say they have found the trend is widespread. Writing in the journal Biology Letters, the team report that they gathered data on sex chromosomes and lifespan across 229 animal species, from insects to fish and mammals. Hermaphroditic species and those whose sex is influenced by environmental conditions – such as green turtles – were not included. The results reveal that individuals with two of the same sex chromosomes live 17.6% longer, on average, than those with either two different sex chromosomes or just one sex chromosome. The team say the findings back a theory known as the “unguarded X hypothesis”. In human cells, sex chromosome combinations are generally either XY (male) or XX (female). In females only one X chromosome is activated at random in each cell. © 2020 Guardian News & Media Limited

Keyword: Sexual Behavior; Evolution
Link ID: 27090 - Posted: 03.04.2020

By Laura Sanders Here’s something neat about sleeping sheep: Their brains have fast zags of neural activity, similar to those found in sleeping people. Here’s something even neater: These bursts zip inside awake sheep’s brains, too. These spindles haven’t been spotted in healthy, awake people’s brains. But the sheep findings, published March 2 in eNeuro, raise that possibility. The purpose of sleep spindles, which look like jagged bursts of electrical activity on an electroencephalogram, isn’t settled. One idea is that these bursts help lock new memories into the brain during sleep. Daytime ripples, if they exist in people, might be doing something similar during periods of wakefulness, the researchers speculate. Jenny Morton, a neurobiologist at the University of Cambridge, and her colleagues studied six female merino sheep with implanted electrodes that spanned their brains. The team collected electrical patterns that emerged over two nights and a day. As the sheep slept, sleep spindles raced across their brains. These spindles are akin to those in people during non-REM sleep, which accounts for the bulk of an adult’s sleeping night (SN: 8/10/10). But the electrodes also caught spindles during the day, when the sheep were clearly awake. These “wake” spindles “looked different from those we saw at night,” Morton says, with different densities, for instance. Overall, these spindles were also less abundant and more localized, captured at single, unpredictable spots in the sheep’s brains. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2020.

Keyword: Sleep; Evolution
Link ID: 27089 - Posted: 03.03.2020

By James Gorman There’s something about a really smart dog that makes it seem as if there might be hope for the world. China is in the midst of a frightening disease outbreak and nobody knows how far it will spread. The warming of the planet shows no signs of stopping; it reached a record 70 degrees in Antarctica last week. Not to mention international tensions and domestic politics. But there’s a dog in Norway that knows not only the names of her toys, but also the names of different categories of toys, and she learned all this just by hanging out with her owners and playing her favorite game. So who knows what other good things could be possible? Right? This dog’s name is Whisky. She is a Border collie that lives with her owners and almost 100 toys, so it seems like things are going pretty well for her. Even though I don’t have that many toys myself, I’m happy for her. You can’t be jealous of a dog. Or at least you shouldn’t be. Whisky’s toys have names. Most are dog-appropriate like “the colorful rope” or “the small Frisbee.” However, her owner, Helge O. Svela said on Thursday that since the research was done, her toys have grown in number from 59 to 91, and he has had to give some toys “people” names, like Daisy or Wenger. “That’s for the plushy toys that resemble animals like ducks or elephants (because the names Duck and Elephant were already taken),” he said. During the research, Whisky proved in tests that she knew the names for at least 54 of her 59 toys. That’s not just the claim of a proud owner, and Mr. Svela is quite proud of Whisky, but the finding of Claudia Fugazza, an animal behavior researcher from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, who tested her. That alone makes Whisky part of a very select group, although not a champion. You may recall Chaser, another Border collie that knew the names of more than 1,000 objects and also knew words for categories of objects. And there are a few other dogs with shockingly large vocabularies, Dr. Fugazza said, including mixed breeds, and a Yorkie. These canine verbal prodigies are, however, few and far between. “It is really, really unusual, and it is really difficult to teach object names to dogs,” Dr. Fugazza said. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Language; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 27063 - Posted: 02.21.2020

Amy Schleunes New Zealand’s North Island robins (Petroica longipes), known as toutouwai in Maori, are capable of remembering a foraging task taught to them by researchers for up to 22 months in the wild, according to a study published on February 12 in Biology Letters. These results echo the findings of a number of laboratory studies of long-term memory in animals, but offer a rare example of a wild animal retaining a learned behavior with no additional training. The study also has implications for conservation and wildlife management: given the birds’ memory skills, researchers might be able to teach them about novel threats and resources in their constantly changing habitat. “This is the first study to show [memory] longevity in the wild,” says Vladimir Pravosudov, an animal behavior researcher at the University of Nevada, Reno, who was not involved in the study. Rachael Shaw, a coauthor and behavioral ecologist at Victoria University in New Zealand, says she was surprised that the birds remembered the new skill she had taught them. “Wild birds have so much that they have to contend with in their daily lives,” she says. “You don’t really expect that it’s worth their while to retain this learned task they hardly had the opportunity to do, and they can’t predict that they will have an opportunity to do again.” Shaw is generally interested in the cognitive abilities of animals and the evolution of intelligence, and the toutouwai, trainable food caching birds that can live up to roughly 10 years, make perfect subjects for her behavioral investigations. “They’ve got this kind of boldness and curiosity that a lot of island bird species share,” says Shaw. These qualities make them vulnerable to predation by invasive cats, rats, and ermines (also known as stoats), but also inquisitive and relatively unafraid of humans, an ideal disposition for testing memory retention in the field. © 1986–2020 The Scientist

Keyword: Learning & Memory; Evolution
Link ID: 27053 - Posted: 02.20.2020

By Elizabeth Pennisi Scientists seeking the origins of sleep may have uncovered important clues in the Australian bearded dragon. By tracing sleep-related neural signals to a specific region of the lizard’s brain—and linking that region to a mysterious part of the mammalian brain—a new study suggests complex sleep evolved even earlier in vertebrate evolution than researchers thought. The work could ultimately shed light on the mechanisms behind sleep—and pave the way for studies that may help humans get a better night’s rest. “Answers to the questions raised and reframed by this research seem extremely likely to be significant in many ways, including clinically,” says Stephen Smith, a neuroscientist at the Allen Institute who was not involved with the new study. Mammals and birds have two kinds of sleep. During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, eyes flutter, electrical activity moves through the brain, and, in humans, dreaming occurs. In between REM episodes is “slow wave” sleep, when brain activity ebbs and electrical activity synchronizes. This less intense brain state may help form and store memories, a few studies have suggested. In 2016, Gilles Laurent, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, discovered that reptiles, too, have both kinds of sleep. Every 40 seconds, central bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps) switch between the two sleep states, he and his colleagues reported. © 2019 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Sleep; Evolution
Link ID: 27037 - Posted: 02.13.2020

By Veronique Greenwood When you look at a reconstruction of the skull and brain of Neoepiblema acreensis, an extinct rodent, it’s hard to shake the feeling that something’s not quite right. Huddled at the back of the cavernous skull, the brain of the South American giant rodent looks really, really small. By some estimates, it was around three to five times smaller than scientists would expect from the animal’s estimated body weight of about 180 pounds, and from comparisons to modern rodents. In fact, 10 million years ago the animal may have been running around with a brain weighing half as much as a mandarin orange, according to a paper published Wednesday in Biology Letters. The glory days of rodents, in terms of the animals’ size, were quite a long time ago, said Leonardo Kerber, a paleontologist at Universidade Federal de Santa Maria in Brazil and an author of the new study. Today rodents are generally dainty, with the exception of larger creatures like the capybara that can weigh as much as 150 pounds. But when it comes to relative brain size, N. acreensis, represented in this study by a fossil skull unearthed in the 1990s in the Brazilian Amazon, seems to be an extreme. The researchers used an equation that relates the body and brain weight of modern South American rodents to get a ballpark estimate for N. acreensis, then compared that with the brain weight implied by the volume of the cavity in the skull. The first method predicted a brain weighing about 4 ounces, but the volume suggested a dinky 1.7 ounces. Other calculations, used to compare the expected ratio of the rodent’s brain and body size with the actual fossil, suggested that N. acreensis’ brain was three to five times smaller than one would expect. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Evolution; Brain imaging
Link ID: 27035 - Posted: 02.13.2020