Peacocking on Parliament Hill

Here’s my poster from the Evolution conference in Ottawa:

Evolution poster

The colours are a bit off in this shrunken version, but you can download a larger PDF version here. The poster covers some of my work on the lesser-known green peacock (a close relative of the familiar blue variety). Green and blue peafowl have markedly different body colours, and in the green species, the females are as colourful as the males. Interestingly, the two species have eyespot feathers that are nearly identical. Why are their eyespots so similar? I think it’s because these feathers are crucial for courtship, and females of the two species have similar taste.

One of the main results I’ve found is that despite appearances, there are subtle differences in the eyespot colours of the two species. These differences, while slight, might be readily apparent to birds since they have excellent colour vision. I think the differences are the result of adaptation to different light conditions. Blue peacocks live in India, and prefer bright, open habitat like riverbeds and agricultural fields. Green peacocks live in darker forested areas of Southeast Asia, and their eyespots may be slightly brighter and greener to take advantage of dim forest light.

It was my first Evolution conference, and I hope I can get to another. The talks were fantastic. Author David Quammen summed things up nicely in his public lecture: “Science is people.” This theme carried through the meeting, from Rosie Redfield’s tale of the pitfalls of falling in love with your hypothesis to a rally where scientists young and old marched together on Parliament Hill (see my pictures here). How often does that happen?

To save trees, major rethink is needed

When you stop to think about it, few things are weirder than a tree. Like us, they’re largish organisms made up of many cells, each with a central nucleus – but we have little else in common. Plants diverged from our early ancestors well before there was anything bigger than a single cell around. They split from the animal lineage even before fungi, which leads to a shocking conclusion. That spot of mould in the vegetable drawer? It’s more closely related to you than the plants upon which you both depend.

Small wonder, then, that plants don’t live and die by the same rules as animals – but this could have dire implications. That’s the message of a new study by Jonathan Davies of McGill University, published in PLoS Biology. Davies and his international collaborators have shown that the factors causing extinction in plants are entirely unexpected, and the upshot is that the current IUCN Red List criteria for listing endangered species – which are based on animal studies – might be useless when it comes to plants.

Davies and his team used the latest the comprehensive Red List data for all flowering plant species in two locations: the United Kingdom and the South African Cape. The Cape is a biodiversity hotspot with thousands of endemic species: plants that evolved there, and that can be found nowhere else. The UK flora, in contrast, is made up of species from other regions that moved in after the retreat of Pleistocene glaciers.

Previous work has shown that among mammals, we are most likely to lose species with large body sizes and long generation times – giant pandas and elephants are classic examples. But according to the new analysis, plants break the mold. Davies and coauthors found that the kinds of plants most at risk in the UK are different from those at risk of extinction in the Cape, indicating that basic traits like size have nothing to do with it. Using a detailed evolutionary history of the Cape species, the team also found evidence that extinction risk in plants is tightly linked to mode of speciation: the Cape species most at risk tend to be ones from the younger, rapidly-evolving lineages.

This implies that in plants, extinction is pruning the tips of the evolutionary tree. The authors suggest an explanation: unlike animals, new plant species tend to arise from small isolated populations that are at the extremes of a much larger ancestral range. Thus, a new plant starts off with a limited distribution, and because range size is an important criteria for Red List risk, it is also highly vulnerable.

The team’s analysis of anthropogenic factors turned up an additional surprise. For the Cape flora, human-induced habitat changes such as urbanization and agriculture cannot explain extinction risk of local plants. In other words, there is no simple geographic correspondence between human activity and plant decline. As the authors put it, places like the South African Cape might therefore be both “cradles and graveyards of diversity”, regardless of human activities.

This study suggests that a major strategy revision is in order if we want to conserve the world’s plants – a group that we all depend upon for oxygen and energy. More generally, risk criteria for one taxonomic group cannot necessarily be applied to another, since the pathways to rarity may be as foreign as the species themselves.

Further Reading

Davies, J. T. et al. 2011. PLoS Biology: 9(5): e1000620.

Cuttlefish strike a pose for 3D camouflage

In the game of hide and seek, cuttlefish have the upper hand. These chameleons of the sea are astonishingly good at disappearing: they can instantaneously change the colour of their skin to blend in with the background, matching even the finicky details like the pattern of coloured rocks on the ocean floor.

Divers have long known that cuttlefish are masters of the 3D camouflage game, too, and new research from the Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute has revealed how they do it.

Alexandra Barbosa, a graduate student, and Dr. Roger Hanlon were interested in the way cuttlefish strike a pose when trying to hide. After encountering a predator, these octopus-like animals will flee among the corals, rocks and algae, and freeze with their arms contorted into shapes that mimic nearby objects – a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that cuttlefish arms can bend in any direction. Some birds and insects are also known to camouflage themselves with body posture, but few come close to cuttlefish in shape-shifting flexibility (see photos of cephalopod camouflage in the wild here).

To understand just how they do it, Barbosa and her colleagues in Dr. Hanlon’s lab presented captive cuttlefish with some highly unusual surroundings: jailbird stripes, in black and white. In response, the cuttlefish got theatrical, raising their arms roughly parallel to the angle of the stripes. And when the researchers shifted the angle of the background image, the cuttlefish stretched their arms into a new position in an attempt to stay hidden.

Cuttlefish posing on artificial backgrounds

Cuttlefish posing against different backgrounds. Modified from Barbosa et al. 2011 (see Figure 1).

Intriguingly, not all of the ten individuals tested were able to match the angle perfectly all of the time – but these quirks may not be surprising given that cuttlefish camouflage is so complex. After all, in nature cephalopods get to choose their own hiding places, a decision that might involve several different factors. According to the researchers, camouflaged cuttlefish are even known to gently wave their arms to match the movement of the underwater plants they are trying to mimic.

These results are a clear demonstration that cuttlefish use vision to guide their 3D camouflage, since the study animals matched a flat background image. Moreover, Barbosa and Hanlon have shown that shape-shifting cephalopods can easily handle scenarios that would never occur in the environment where these behaviours evolved, and adjust just as flexibly to this artificial environment as they do in their natural habitats.

Captive experiments like this are just the first step in understanding how cuttlefish use visual cues to hide, and some big questions remain. For instance, little is known about how cuttlefish can detect and match colours so well despite the fact that they are, in effect, colourblind – Hanlon has found that giant Australian cuttlefish can take on the colouration of rocks on the ocean floor even in the middle of the night.

These remarkable split-second decisions about where, and how, to hide might also help us understand something bigger. Strategic camouflage is just one aspect of the surprising intelligence of cuttlefish, which have the largest brains for a given body size of any invertebrate – these animals are also able to learn and communicate with one another at a level that rivals many land-based animals. It will be intriguing to see where hide and seek fits in to the history of cephalopod brain evolution.

Further Reading

Barbosa, A. et al. 2011. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. In press.

Species of serendipity

Like most ideas, this one arrived in the shower. I needed to write a post for this week, but my list of topics was wearing thin and the weather is finally starting to get nice enough to distract me. Sure, I had a few promising ideas lined up, but they all need more time to develop. Plus I had a DVD to watch: a Nature of Things episode on serendipity in science due back at the library. Then it hit me – of course! I’ll watch the episode and then write about that.

Serendipity – supposedly one of the top ten most untranslatable words in the English language – was coined in the 1700s by Horace Walpole as a play on the tile of a Persian fairy tale. The Three Princes of Serendip takes place in Sri Lanka. It follows the adventures of three brothers exiled from the island by their father the king, in hopes that his sons might achieve a more worldly education. In the course of their travels, the princes go on to solve many mysteries – like unintentionally tracking down a lost camel on scant evidence – thanks to their sagacity and a series of lucky accidents.

Since Walpole, the word has taken on a close association with Eureka moments in science, starting with Archimedes’ famous bath. Supposedly, the ancient Greek mathematician solved the problem of measuring the volume of irregular objects after noticing how his own body displaced water in the tub.

Scientists have taken a great interest in tracking serendipity, perhaps because it seems to play a role in research success. Wikipedia has an extensive list of celebrated examples, from Viagra to chocolate chip cookies. Many have looked for ways to encourage this kind of scholarly luck. For instance, after his Nobel prize winning work on viruses, the molecular biologist Max Delbrück is perhaps best known for coming up with the principle of limited sloppiness: researchers should be careless enough that unexpected things can happen, but not so sloppy that they can’t reproduce them when they do. Alexander Fleming had this advantage when he discovered penicillin. He first noticed its antibiotic effects in a stack of dirty culture dishes that he hadn’t bothered to clean before leaving for summer vacation.

So how do people study something that is by definition rare and unusual? Psychology Today has summed up some of the latest research on luck, most of it based on surveys of people who claim to be especially serendipitous1. Not surprisingly, they are more competent, confident and willing to take risks than the rest of us. They are also more extroverted and less neurotic than most. Being born in the summer apparently helps as well – especially May.

Other advice might be more practical.

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Monkeys draw from memory

We’re a little bit closer to understanding what it’s like to be a monkey, and it’s thanks to the same technology that powers your smartphone: the touchscreen.

The latest victory for touchscreens is in the field of memory research. Scientists have been studying this ability in animals for decades – some birds, for example, are remarkably good at keeping track of the little details they use when foraging. Florida scrub jays collect thousands of acorns in the fall, hiding them as reserves to help get through the winter. Proof that scrub jays can keep track of multiple pieces of information about their caches – including the type of food, its perishability, and how long it ago it was stored – came from some clever experiments where jays learned to store worms and peanuts in sand-filled ice cube trays in the lab1. Rufous hummingbirds perform a similar feat. They can keep track of flowers on their daily foraging routes, including when the nectar for each one should be replenished, and time their visits accordingly. How do we know? Biologists taught hummingbirds in the Alberta Rockies to feed at artificial flowers that could be refilled on schedule2.

There is also a long history of research on the mental capacities of our closest animal relatives, primates. Rhesus macaque monkeys, a lab favourite used in countless studies of pharmacology and physiology, can easily keep track of a set of objects and spot the difference if you show them an altered version later on3. Not surprisingly, primates seem to have better memories than birds. Baboons can learn thousands of different photographic images and retain these memories for years – incredibly, when this particular study went to press, the baboons were up to 5000 and still hadn’t maxed out their capacity4.  Pigeons, on the other hand, hit a memory wall at roughly 1000 images4. These abilities might prove useful to primates like the chimpanzees living in the Taï National Park of Côte d’Ivoire, Africa. They make extensive use of their vast forest habitat, visiting hundreds of fruit trees that ripen on different schedules5. The Taï chimps can apparently remember where the especially productive trees are, and will often travel longer distances just to get there5.

But there is something missing from this research. It has to do with a subtle distinction in the way memory works: the difference between recognition and recall. Recognition is the ability to identify something because you’ve experienced it in the past. Recall, which can be more difficult, involves retrieving that memory on demand. Ben Basile and Rob Hampton liken it to the difference between a police lineup and talking to a criminal sketch artist. To recognize something is to see it and sense familiarity; to recollect is to create that experience in its absence.

So far all we have been able to study in animals is recognition. Without language, we can’t get them to describe their memories – until now, that is. Basile and Hampton, two scientists from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, have figured out how to get monkeys to act like criminal sketch artists6.

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Quirks, quarks and quantum sailboats

An old mystery from my days as a sailor resurfaced this week. Does air on one side of the sail somehow know what the air on the other side is doing? Sounds strange, but it happens to be a key part of explaining how boats, birds and airplanes work, and it stumps a whole lot of people who should probably know better – including most pilots.

I was reminded of this by Bob McDonald from CBC’s Quirks and Quarks radio show. He was in town to give a talk on “The Science of Everyday Life”. It was clear that this was going to be a show for kids, but I dragged Charlie along for two reasons. First, I was planning on presenting some of my peacock research at a family science festival on Saturday; I thought it might be useful to see a master of this sort of thing in action. Fandom came into it too – the Quirks show is one of a handful of radio programs that got me through my troglobite period of 8 hour days in the darkroom last summer.

I was pretty sure what we were in for – baking soda and vinegar magic for the edification of the grade school set – but I wasn’t prepared for how quickly McDonald would put me under his spell, too. Sitting there cold and hungry in the dingy auditorium, I had forgotten all about my surroundings by the time McDonald was whirling a mop around and keeping a kid trapped in his chair using only his thumb to demonstrate centre of gravity. And he was just getting started. Although the talk was too long at nearly 2 hours, it was worth the wait to see video of McDonald’s adventures in weightless flight at the end. His imaginative pitch for the space tourism industry was another highlight. I was hooked at his concept for a giant rotating space hotel. If we put a cylindrical swimming pool smack in the middle, the water would stick to the outer walls by centripetal forces. You could literally fly around in the air at the zero-gravity centre and dive down in any direction to the water below.

McDonald mentioned something in his explanation of how to make a better paper airplane that brought up an old problem for me.

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Elections are like peacocks

Both are loud, and both cause colourful flashy things to pop up on lawns everywhere. And much like elections, the peacock’s train is a costly endeavour. The species might be better off in terms of survival and abundance if they could just do away with those feathers. In terms of sheer waste, they remind me of the Green party pamphlets in our apartment building entrance way. They were stuffed blindly into all of the available mailboxes – which happen to be for street level businesses on our downtown block, not residents. Nice.

Peacocks and elections are both supposed to experience strong positive feedback effects. In politics, momentum can lead to rapid climbs in popularity. Sexual selection can be similar: as Ronald A. Fisher pointed out, exaggerated male traits can potentially evolve through a process of positive feedback. If enough females prefer the particular male trait initially, and the next generation inherits both the female preference and the exaggerated male trait, it can kick-start a runaway process of sexual selection to extremes.

Despite claims to the contrary, we don’t actually know whether Fisher’s runaway process contributed to peacock evolution. But it may be reasonable to assume that it played at least some role: positive feedback should set up easily so long as mate choice is not very costly for females2.

Thinking about peacocks gave me an insight that may have cured my allergy to all things political, at least temporarily. Not that I don’t care about the election – I do – but I can’t get over my frustration at the kinds of things that count as good arguments in the political sphere. Here’s an example: I’d like to learn more about the Green party, but they seem to support a whole lot of pseudoscientific nonsense. Apparently their health care platform includes homeopathy and various other forms of alternative medical quackery. How can we be sure they won’t apply the same less-than-rational approach to the environment? If only there could be “one true party”, I thought after the leaders’ debate – a notion that, briefly, made me wonder whether I might be a closet fascist.

This doubt came up again when I was reading an article in this week’s Nature about the effect of social media on research priorities. It focused on the controversial and totally unproven “liberation procedure” for MS – extremely popular in Canada but, oddly enough, nowhere else1. The article mentioned that Michael Ignatieff has stated his support for clinical trials of the treatment, despite the recommendation by a panel of CIHR experts that a clinical trial would be premature without further evidence from observational studies1. The authors of the Nature article – a group of doctors and medical researchers in Canada – ended up somewhere close to Ignatieff’s position nonetheless. They concluded that the benefits of a full-blown experimental trial might outweigh the costs if thousands of social media-influenced patients are travelling outside of the country to receive private treatment anyway, “exposing themselves to the risks and costs”1. In other words, popularity is an important – and rational – consideration when it comes to medical science.

I have two things to offer for election day. First, there is a good summary of where the major parties stand on science and research funding here. Some are a lot more rational than others.

On to the peacocks. Democratic elections, like sexually selected traits, are communal illusions. Money is another example. The more you accept them, the more you believe in them, the better they work.

References

  1. Chafe, R. et al. 2011. Nature 472: 410-411.
  2. Lande, R. 1981. PNAS 78: 3721-3725.

The ancient mariner

I drove a tractor for the first time a few weeks ago, when we were furiously collecting the last of the sap run for maple syrup. A small triumph for me since it seemed so terrifying at first. Trying to hide my confusion, I waited until the last moment to ask, “Which pedal is the brake, again?” Both of them? Right. No chance for a screw up, so I charged ahead. It only took until my second trip – with shouts of “Slow down!” from the trailer behind – for me to figure out why those two brakes weren’t working so well. Turns out that the hand throttle was the missing part of my pedal equation.

Locomotion does not come naturally to me. It does, however, for a huge variety of other living things. Powered flight evolved several times in the history of life: at least once in the ancestors of birds, and separately in insects, pterosaurs and bats. Human inventors have had a much harder time with it: unlike animals, we haven’t progressed much beyond our earliest working designs. Orgel’s second rule applies:

“Evolution is cleverer than you are.”

Thinking about this made me realize that the situation today, where most of us are more familiar with human-engineered forms of locomotion than we are with the natural examples, is kind of strange. For most of our history, the inspiration to look for new ways to get around probably came from seeing it done in nature.

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Cultured tastes

Dinner in Shippagan, New Brunswick. Photo by Charlie Croskery.

We drove halfway across the country for the party, but the main course alone was worth the trip. When the pig was finally hauled out by a crew of strapping male relatives, the guests at Anne-Claire and Martin’s wedding converged at the carving table. Small children, I’m told even a Jewish person or two – nobody could resist a taste of warm skin ripped straight off with a knife. Not after seeing (and smelling) the thing turn that entire August afternoon.

I doubt we would have made the cross-country trip if charlem was on the menu. That’s what Vladimir Mironov, an expert in stem cell and tissue science, calls his latest culinary invention. Mironov’s product is grown right in his lab at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston – hence the name, short for Charleston engineered meat.

In a handful of labs around the world, scientists like Mironov are working on a curious agricultural problem: how to generate edible meat products without the farm – or the animals1,2. Their solution is to grow meat from animal stem cells. Some use cells taken from embryos, while others, like Mark Post at Eindhoven University in the Netherlands, are looking into the feasibility of growing muscle satellite cells taken from adults1. These can be extracted from domestic pigs or fowl with a quick and painless biopsy, and used to seed in vitro cell cultures.

In the future, this could be an easier way to serve a crowd. Like human cancer cell lines immortalized in a Petri dish, satellite cells can potentially go on multiplying forever in the lab, so long as you give them enough growth medium. Vladimir Mironov sees industry ultimately growing “charlem” – his cultured turkey – in bioreactors the size of football fields that he likes to call “carneries”. He imagines a world where fresh charlem is also grown at your local grocery store, in miniature appliance-size versions of the bioreactor machines3.

His work is, in part, funded by PETA, in an effort to stem the unmeasurable output of animal suffering caused by industrial agriculture. In 2008, the animal rights group also announced their in vitro chicken prize for the first person to develop a commercially viable product and sell it in at least 10 US states. To be eligible, the chicken also has to pass a panel of tasters when breaded and fried. The $1 million dollar reward is still up for grabs3,4.

No doubt this is a noble goal*. Large-scale meat production is an environmental scourge. The North American “meat guzzler”, as Mark Bittman calls it, is not sustainable6. Influential food writers like Bittman and Michael Pollan, and others including star chef David Chang, have been urging us to rethink our eating habits for years7. Environmentally, there’s a lot to be said for the alternatives: we could save a lot of resources by switching to the Asian practice of using small amounts of meat to complement dishes where vegetables and grains are the main event.

According to Nicholas Genovese from Vladimir Mironov’s lab, “Animals require between 3 and 8 pounds of nutrient to make 1 pound of meat. It’s fairly inefficient. Animals consume food and produce waste. Cultured meat doesn’t have a digestive system.”3

He’s right, of course. But his last point also happens to be the very reason charlem will never make it: meat from an animal is more than the sum of its in vitro parts. Want nutrients? We’ll have to add those in at the factory. Vitamin B12 and iron – two of the main nutritional reasons for eating animal protein in the first place – come from gut bacteria and blood1. You can’t get them from muscle tissue in isolation. Want taste? Let me see if we have an additive for that too…

Scientists may figure out how to culture meat efficiently in the lab, but it won’t be a viable solution to our agricultural problems, at least not anytime soon. The trouble with fake meat is that it’s up against evolution on two fronts, and, ironically, morality on a third.

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Dating the rainbow

Buttermere Lake, with Part of Cromackwater, Cumberland, a Shower

The truth is beautiful in Buttermilk Creek. That was the Texas site of a recent major archaeological find. In the village of Salado, just a couple hundred metres downstream from an important cache of artifacts of the early American Clovis people, anthropologists uncovered something just a few centimetres deeper1. In geological terms, that usually means older – and the assortment of stone tools found by Mike Waters and his team might be the definitive evidence needed to overturn the longstanding “Clovis first” theory.

“Clovis first” is the idea that North America was initially populated by a group of big game hunters known for their interchangeable fluted spear tips – a portable tool that fit well with the nomadic lifestyle. I won’t get into the details (see elsewhere), but many researchers now believe that other migrant groups arrived from the north well before Clovis domination. For example, fishing tools found in California’s Channel Islands provide evidence that a seafaring clan made its way south by hopping along the coastline2.

I also won’t cover the Buttermilk Creek find (again, see elsewhere for this). But there is a poetic element to this discovery worth sharing. The proof that the Buttermilk Creek people arrived ahead of Clovis hunters comes, not from the usual radiocarbon dating methods, but from dating the rainbow.

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Another reason for eggs

Roman soldiers used them for protein1. In Mexico, men steal them from endangered sea turtles for their supposed effects on virility2. Bird eggs and roe, the ripe ovaries of fish, have a rich balance of proteins, fats and minerals – nutritionally, almost everything a predator needs. The whole point of these things is to feed something for an extended period of time. It’s no wonder eggs are so delicious.

The applications go beyond adding energy to our diets and structure to baked foods. Laying hens also contribute to medicine. Fertilized chicken eggs are used to grow viruses for mass production of vaccines. In 2007, scientists figured out how to genetically engineer hens to incorporate certain cancer-fighting proteins right into their egg whites, in a more efficient way to manufacture drugs that has been dubbed “pharming3.

This morning, enthusiasts have yet another reason to celebrate, since a new study suggests that bird eggs might hold even more promise for medical research.

It has to do with migration, but not the kind you’re used to hearing about with birds. Cellular migration refers to the movement of cells within an organism during growth or embryonic development. For a long time, biologists studying this behaviour focused on the movement of single cells in isolation. In the last decade, however, the focus shifted to cells moving in a large, cohesive group. This collective migration is a fundamental part of gastrulation and neural crest development – two of the necessary steps for turning a blob of cells into a fully formed embryo during development (watch a time lapse video of this process in zebrafish).

Collective cell movement, or epithelial migration, occurs on a grand scale during bird embryo development. Every fertilized egg contains a tiny blastula, the hollow ball of cells that will eventually become a fetus. Early on, the cells of outer blastoderm layer of the ball start to expand across the vitelline membrane that surrounds the egg yolk, in a process known as epiboly. Eventually, the expanding sheet of cells envelops the entire yolk – a requirement for the yolk sustain the embryo during its transformation from a ball of cells into a viable chick.

Bird embryo and yolk

A chicken embryo grows while attached to its yolk, because of epiboly. Modified from drawing by D.G. Mackean.

This around-the-yolk migration happens rapidly, within days. From the perspective of a single cell, it’s a feat that bioengineer Evan Zamir likens to “an ant walking across the earth”4. And we still don’t know exactly how birds do it, with their humongous yolks; so far, most research on epithelial migration has involved other organisms.

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I can haz toxoplasmosis

In which you will learn why online cats are so attractive, and discover a new way to lose hours to the internet.

First, the cats. Charlie and I were hashing out the finer points of Facebook, memes and internet superstars, when, in frustration, I brought up his most hated animal.

“Look. Cute baby videos and LOLcats are popular because people send links to their friends. Nobody sits down and says, ‘Well it’s quarter to 10, the same time I always drink my coffee and look for the latest cute cat photos on the–’ ”

Self defeat and laughter mid-sentence, when I remembered living with my friend Jessica in Toronto. She had a brutal job in psychiatric research north of the city. After a hard day, that was exactly what she did. Nothing cheered this woman up like online cat research.

Felis catus is a polarizing species. Some people despise them. Ancient Egyptians and cat ladies have made a religion out of them. The story goes that wild cats were first domesticated in ancient Egypt for useful things like keeping rats out of grain stores and killing poisonous snakes, but this might be more myth than reality. Cats were probably kept around as tame rat-catchers much earlier, certainly before recorded history, and very likely around the beginning of agriculture itself. People were depicting cats on pottery 10,000 years ago1. Cyprus can boast the first Stone Age cat lover. A 9,500 year old burial site on the island is the earliest evidence of humans bonding with these animals, since a cat was intentionally buried alongside a human body there2. The fact that the cat was not butchered, and the inclusion of decorative seashells and stones in the grave, prove that cats had achieved cultural importance beyond their agricultural utility back then.

European wildcat

The European wildcat Felis silvestris is a close relative of the earliest domesticated species. Photo by Péter Csonka from Wikimedia Commons.

But could the cat haters be right – is there something off about feline love? After all, cats aren’t really that useful, at least not when compared to dogs. Dog people might be pleased to hear that when you consider all living and extinct canid and felid species, dogs have bigger brains than cats – probably because they tend to be the more social animals3. Indeed, dogs adapted readily in response to domestication, evolving a number of cognitive abilities that make them particularly good at understanding human gestures – much better, even, than chimpanzees4. Naïve 4-month old puppies will quickly learn what it means when a human points, without any training or close contact with humans beforehand5. Cats can do this too, but they require a lot more effort to learn how6. Dogs can detect certain forms of cancer in humans by smell, and they are often the first ones to notice that something is wrong with their owners7. I have yet to find any high profile studies on feline pathologists. Which raises the question: if cats could do it, would they care enough to try?

And in a bizarre twist, there’s reason to think that our magnetic attraction to cats might be the result of a real parasitic disease.

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Employed science

It’s when applied science gives back, contributing a piece to the basic research puzzle.

Jaded grad students like me get a warm fuzzy feeling when we hear about people reaping unexpected benefits – economic or social – from the results of pure science. Last night I was reminded that this can work in the opposite direction.

Matthew Mecklenburg and Chris Regan, two physicists from UCLA with interests in quantum theory and its applications for sustainable energy, wanted to design a better transistor. Instead, they discovered something fundamental about the structure of the universe1. Hidden from our eyes and our finest instruments, the space that surrounds us might be more like a chessboard than a continuous expanse.

Mecklenburg, a grad student, was investigating graphene as a potential material to make more efficient transistors – the little bits of silicon that allow computers and essentially all modern electronic devices to function. He needed some precise measurements of the way light interacts with graphene at the nanoscale, to assess feasibility of the new design. These experiments gave Mecklenburg a quantitative picture of the way electrons hop around in the lattice of carbon atoms in graphene. And that’s when the chessboard struck.

Mecklenburg and Regan realized that the hopping behaviour of electrons in graphene was formally equivalent to what happens when an electron flips its “spin” – a theoretical concept that has remained an enigma since it was described in the early 20th century.

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Identity evolves

Everyone is special.” The paradoxical refrain of baby boomer parents to their millenial offspring is true, so long as you’re a rodent living in a large, stable group of good communicators.

I recently wrote about the phenomenon of identity signals in animals, where variable colours and patchy-looking patterns can provide signatures of individuality, much like the human face. These are not limited to the visual domain. Think of how easily you can recognize a person’s voice – even someone you don’t know very well – from just a few lines of speech, like when a celebrity turns up in an animated movie.

But I didn’t have a chance to cover the latest news on this topic. In some very plain looking rodents, we now have evidence that individuality evolves1. Some of the plainest looking critters, like the Belding’s ground squirrel shown below, have the most distinctive snarfs and grumbles – and it all has to do with the number of group-mates they typically interact with.

Belding's ground squirrel pups

Two Belding’s ground squirrel pups peek out of a burrow. Photo by Alan Vernon from Wikimedia Commons.

The new results came out this month in the high profile journal Current Biology. Previously, researchers had looked for the evolution of individuality in a handful of bird and bat species. The prior studies examined distinctiveness in the begging calls offspring make to their parents, contrasting pairs of closely-related species that vary in the number of offspring in shared “crèche” or communal nest sites2,3. But nobody had tackled the evolution of individuality in a broad context.

Until Kim Pollard, that is. Pollard, a recent PhD graduate from UCLA, and her supervisor Dan Blumstein decided to look at this question in the social marmots. You might remember Blumstein from another recent post; his interests range from mammal conservation and environmental education to the bioacoustics of movie soundtracks.

For Kim Pollard’s study of identity signalling, marmots were an ideal choice. Marmota is a large genus of 14 different species in the squirrel family, all social, and all with their own alarm calls that they use to warn neighbours and family members about nearby predators. Species like the yellow-bellied marmot and Richardson’s ground squirrel also have the ability to recognize each other based on the unique sound of these calls4,5.

Crucially for Pollard and Blumstein, social group size also varies in the genus, ranging from about 5 to 15 individuals per clan or family group. This allowed the authors to test the hypothesis that group size has been an important factor in the evolution of distinctiveness, since, as they put it, “The bigger the crowd, the more it takes to stand out.”

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To kill bias, gather good data

I hate myself for this: I have the worst sense of direction.

For the entire year when I was living in my first apartment in Kingston, I would take a circuitous route along King Street and then up Princess on my way home from the Kingston Yacht Club. Nearly two kilometers, when walking up West Street would have got me home in half the time. As Charlie said when I revealed this to him, “Two sides of a triangle is always greater than one.”

It’s not that I didn’t know grade school geometry, or that I wanted a more scenic route. I just stuck to the path I knew would get me there.

I felt a bit triumphant when I realized how long it can take Charlie when you ask him to pick up the milk. The last time I dragged him to the grocery store, I left him alone for a few minutes to use the bathroom, and returned to find him loading pineapple after pineapple after pineapple – painfully slowly, into the cart. We laughed, but I don’t ask him to come with me anymore. Alone, I can collect a week’s worth of food in less than 20 minutes.

I’m not ashamed to admit my navigational failings, either. My field assistant Myra and I happily agreed that our best strategy driving around Los Angeles was that we should always do the opposite of whatever we both thought was correct. It worked.

What I hate is my sneaking suspicion that I’m just a lame stereotype. Maybe I’m a terrible navigator because of biology; female brains are just not suited for getting around.

Hunter, gatherer

Modified from this cartoon. Original source unknown.

Recently, psychologists looked at this sex difference in what seemed like a neat field study of human foraging behaviour – in a grocery store1. Joshua New from Yale University, and his coauthors from UC Santa Barbara, set up a unique experiment in a California farmers’ market: they led men and women around the market, giving them samples like apples, fennel, almonds and honey. Then they brought the subjects back to a central location and asked them to point in the direction of those same food items.

These researchers wanted to test the idea that women outperform men at certain kinds of spatial tasks: while men are thought to be better at vector-based navigation, women might excel at remembering the locations of objects, because of the way foraging roles were divided up when our brains were evolving. It’s thought that in our hunter-gatherer past, big game hunting meant that men had to figure out how to bring heavy prey home by the most direct route. Women foraging closer to home needed a much different set of spatial adaptations2. It’s not that men are better at spatial reasoning in general, you just have to choose the right task3.

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Mind hacks for athletes and the rest of us

For a change of pace, I thought I’d cover two recent neuroscience findings in today’s post. It’s not all academic, either, since both of these studies might help improve your everyday life. Just sit back, suspend your disbelief and fire up the expectation and reward centers of your brain. You might be able to unleash your inner endurance athlete – or epicure, if so inclined – all through the power of the mind.

I’ll start with a surprising finding that I’ve tried to explain to other long-distance runners, who often take a small snack to eat in the middle of a run. I’ve seen the gamut, from orange slices to salty sports drinks and space-age energy gels. The rationale is that these foods quickly replenish the glucose available as blood sugar, the fuel for muscle contraction.

But if you are running for less than an hour, it is biologically impossible for these snacks to improve your performance. For one thing, the amount of carbohydrate that can be effectively absorbed from the stomach to muscle cells in an hour is too small to make any real difference1. And besides, our muscles can hold vast stores of energy in the form glycogen, more than we can possibly use in that span of time, anyway. Spend an hour on a stationary bike, cycling all-out, and you still won’t fully deplete the glycogen in your muscle tissue – so long as you were charged up to begin with2. And yet the snacks work, even in controlled laboratory tests of exercise performance3. No wonder athletes everywhere continue to use them.

Incredibly, this energy boost has nothing to do with caloric consumption, and everything to do with the act of eating.

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