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Michael Nolan Jellyfish, anemones and coral polyps, known collectively as cnidarians, have captured the imaginations of scientists across biological disciplines for centuries. Their radial symmetries and graceful, fluid movements lend them an undeniable appeal, but it’s their peculiar nervous systems that have drawn recent attention from neuroscientists. Unlike in most animals, whose neurons are gathered into bundles of nerves and larger structures like brains and ganglia, cnidarian neurons are distributed through their tissues in structures called nerve nets. This diffuse organization makes it possible to observe neural activity from many neurons simultaneously: Because neurons are spread in a thin layer, no neuron blocks an observer’s view of another. That means researchers can use techniques like calcium imaging to potentially capture the activity of a cnidarian’s entire nervous system, rather than a subset of neurons in the dense tangle of a mouse brain, for example. Neuroscientists are leveraging the accessibility of nerve nets to more deeply explore the properties of neural ensembles, groups of neurons that fire in a correlated fashion. Ensembles are a fundamental feature of the brain; they offer a simple example of functional structure in an animal’s nervous system and have become a popular target for systems neuroscientists because they combine population coding (how neural activity encodes information in populations of cells) and connectivity (how connections among neurons relate to population activity). Understanding how these groups form, how they coordinate patterns of neural activity, and how they drive behavior may reveal organizational principles also present in larger and more complicated nervous systems. © Simons Foundation Terms and Conditions Privacy Policy Image Credits

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior
Related chapters from MM:None
Link ID: 28485 - Posted: 09.21.2022

Sara Reardon More than 500,000 years ago, the ancestors of Neanderthals and modern humans were migrating around the world when a pivotal genetic mutation caused some of their brains to improve suddenly. This mutation, researchers report in Science1, drastically increased the number of brain cells in the hominins that preceded modern humans, probably giving them a cognitive advantage over their Neanderthal cousins. “This is a surprisingly important gene,” says Arnold Kriegstein, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco. However, he expects that it will turn out to be one of many genetic tweaks that gave humans an evolutionary advantage over other hominins. “I think it sheds a whole new light on human evolution.” When researchers first reported the sequence of a complete Neanderthal genome in 20142, they identified 96 amino acids — the building blocks that make up proteins — that differ between Neanderthals and modern humans, as well as some other genetic tweaks. Scientists have been studying this list to learn which of these changes helped modern humans to outcompete Neanderthals and other hominins. Cognitive advantage To neuroscientists Anneline Pinson and Wieland Huttner at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, one gene stood out. TKTL1 encodes a protein that is made when a fetus’s brain is first developing. A mutation in the human version changed one amino acid, resulting in a protein that is different from those found in hominin ancestors, Neanderthals and non-human primates. The researchers suspected that this protein could increase the proliferation of neural progenitor cells, which become neurons, as the brain develops, specifically in an area called the neocortex — a region involved in cognitive function. This, they reasoned, could contribute to modern humans’ cognitive advantage. © 2022 Springer Nature Limited

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior; Chapter 7: Life-Span Development of the Brain and Behavior
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 13: Memory and Learning
Link ID: 28477 - Posted: 09.14.2022

By Kate Golembiewski Humans spend about 35 minutes every day chewing. That adds up to more than a full week out of every year. But that’s nothing compared to the time spent masticating by our cousins: Chimps chew for 4.5 hours a day, and orangutans clock 6.6 hours. The differences between our chewing habits and those of our closest relatives offer insights into human evolution. A study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances explores how much energy people use while chewing, and how that may have guided — or been guided by — our gradual transformation into modern humans. Chewing, in addition to keeping us from choking, makes the energy and nutrients in food accessible to the digestive system. But the very act of chewing requires us to expend energy. Adaptations to teeth, jaws and muscles all play a part in how efficiently humans chew. Adam van Casteren, an author of the new study and a research associate at the University of Manchester in England, says that scientists haven’t delved too deeply into the energetic costs of chewing partly because compared with other things we do, such as walking or running, it’s a thin slice of the energy-use pie. But even comparatively small advantages can play a big role in evolution, and he wanted to find out if that might be the case with chewing. To measure the energy that goes into chewing, Dr. van Casteren and his colleagues outfitted study participants in the Netherlands with plastic hoods that look like “an astronaut’s helmet,” he said. The hoods were connected to tubes to measure oxygen and carbon dioxide from breathing. Because metabolic processes are fueled by oxygen and produce carbon dioxide, gas exchange can be a useful measure for how much energy something takes. The researchers then gave the subjects gum. The participants didn’t get the sugary kind, though; the gum bases they chewed were flavorless and odorless. Digestive systems respond to flavors and scents, so the researchers wanted to make sure they were only measuring the energy associated with chewing and not the energy of a stomach gearing up for a tasty meal. The test subjects chewed two pieces of gum, one hard and one soft, for 15 minutes each. The results surprised researchers. The softer gum raised the participants’ metabolic rates about 10 percent higher than when they were resting; the harder gum caused a 15 percent increase. © 2022 The New York Times Company

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior; Chapter 13: Homeostasis: Active Regulation of the Internal Environment
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 9: Homeostasis: Active Regulation of the Internal Environment
Link ID: 28440 - Posted: 08.20.2022

By Tim Vernimmen Just a few decades ago, even most biologists would have readily agreed that culture is a quintessentially human feature. Sure, they already knew there were dialects in birdsong, and good evidence that many birds largely learned these regional songs by copying other birds. They knew that some enterprising European songbirds called tits had learned how to open milk bottles by watching one another. Scientists had even reported that the practice of washing sweet potatoes in seawater had spread among the members of a Japanese colony of macaque monkeys. But these and similar behavioral differences between populations — ones that couldn’t easily be explained by differences in their genes or environment — seemed limited in scope. Compare that with human culture, which creates variation in nearly everything we do. In recent decades, however, scientists have learned that culture plays a much more pervasive role in the lives of nonhuman animals than anyone had imagined. “The whole field has absolutely exploded in discoveries in the present century,” says primatologist Andrew Whiten of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, the author of a 2019 overview of cultural evolution in animals in the Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics. Whiten was one of the pioneers of the surge in animal culture research. In 1999, he oversaw an analysis in which primatologists published their findings from nearly four decades of studying wild chimpanzees, our closest living relatives. “We could show chimpanzees have multiple traditions affecting all different aspects of their lives,” he says — from foraging to tool use to courtship. Similar findings followed for several other apes and monkeys. © 2022 Annual Reviews

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior; Chapter 17: Learning and Memory
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 13: Memory and Learning
Link ID: 28417 - Posted: 08.03.2022

Philip Ball How do you spot an optimistic pig? This isn’t the setup for a punchline; the question is genuine, and in the answer lies much that is revealing about our attitudes to other minds – to minds, that is, that are not human. If the notion of an optimistic (or for that matter a pessimistic) pig sounds vaguely comical, it is because we scarcely know how to think about other minds except in relation to our own. Here is how you spot an optimistic pig: you train the pig to associate a particular sound – a note played on a glockenspiel, say – with a treat, such as an apple. When the note sounds, an apple falls through a hatch so the pig can eat it. But another sound – a dog-clicker, say – signals nothing so nice. If the pig approaches the hatch on hearing the clicker, all it gets is a plastic bag rustled in its face. What happens now if the pig hears neither of these sounds, but instead a squeak from a dog toy? An optimistic pig might think there’s a chance that this, too, signals delivery of an apple. A pessimistic pig figures it will just get the plastic bag treatment. But what makes a pig optimistic? In 2010, researchers at Newcastle University showed that pigs reared in a pleasant, stimulating environment, with room to roam, plenty of straw, and “pig toys” to explore, show the optimistic response to the squeak significantly more often than pigs raised in a small, bleak, boring enclosure. In other words, if you want an optimistic pig, you must treat it not as pork but as a being with a mind, deserving the resources for a cognitively rich life. We don’t, and probably never can, know what it feels like to be an optimistic pig. Objectively, there’s no reason to suppose that it feels like anything: that there is “something it is like” to be a pig, whether apparently happy or gloomy. Until rather recently, philosophers and scientists have been reluctant to grant a mind to any nonhuman entity. Feelings and emotions, hope and pain and a sense of self were deemed attributes that separated us from the rest of the living world. To René Descartes in the 17th century, and to behavioural psychologist BF Skinner in the 1950s, other animals were stimulus-response mechanisms that could be trained but lacked an inner life. To grant animals “minds” in any meaningful sense was to indulge a crude anthropomorphism that had no place in science. © 2022 Guardian News & Media Limited

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior; Chapter 17: Learning and Memory
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 13: Memory and Learning
Link ID: 28367 - Posted: 06.11.2022

By Jack Tamisiea Sign up for Science Times Get stories that capture the wonders of nature, the cosmos and the human body. Get it sent to your inbox. Since the days of Charles Darwin, the long necks of giraffes have been a textbook example of evolution. The theory goes that as giraffe ancestors competed for food, those with longer necks were able to reach higher leaves, getting a leg — or neck — up over shorter animals. But a bizarre prehistoric giraffe relative reveals that fighting may have driven early neck evolution in addition to foraging. In a study published Thursday in Science, a team of paleontologists described Discokeryx xiezhi, a giraffe ancestor, as having helmet-like headgear and bulky neck vertebrae. Discokeryx was adapted to absorb and deliver skull-cracking collisions to woo mates and vanquish rivals. “It shows that giraffe evolution is not just elongating the neck,” said Jin Meng, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History and co-author of the new study. “Discokeryx goes in a totally different direction.” Dr. Meng and his colleagues discovered the fossils in an outcrop of rock in northwestern China called the Junggar Basin. Around 17 million years ago, this area was an expanse of savannas and forests home to an array of large mammals like shovel-tusked elephants, short-horned rhinoceroses and burly bear dogs. While exploring this bonebed in 1996, Dr. Meng stumbled across a hunk of skull. He could tell it was a mammalian braincase, but the top was flattened like an iron press. Without more of the animal’s skeleton, Dr. Meng and his colleagues referred to it as the “strange beast.” © 2022 The New York Times Company

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 12: Sex: Evolutionary, Hormonal, and Neural Bases; Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 8: Hormones and Sex
Link ID: 28350 - Posted: 06.04.2022

By Veronique Greenwood Lovebirds, small parrots with vibrant rainbow plumage and cheeky personalities, are popular pets. They swing from ropes, cuddle with companions and race for treats in a waddling gait with all the urgency of toddlers who spot a cookie. But, along with other parrots, they also do something strange: They use their faces to climb walls. Give these birds a vertical surface to clamber up, and they cycle between left foot, right foot and beak as if their mouths were another limb. In fact, a new analysis of the forces climbing lovebirds exert reveals that this is precisely what they are doing. Somehow, a team of scientists wrote in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B on Wednesday, the birds and perhaps other parrot species have repurposed the muscles in their necks and heads so they can walk on their beaks, using them the way rock climbers use their arms. Climbing with a beak as a third limb is peculiar because third limbs generally are not something life on Earth is capable of producing, said Michael Granatosky, an assistant professor of anatomy at the New York Institute of Technology and an author of the new paper. “There is this very deep, deep set aspect of our biology that everything is bilateral” in much of the animal kingdom, he said. The situation makes it developmentally unlikely to grow an odd numbers of limbs for walking. Some animals have developed workarounds. Kangaroos use their tails as a fifth limb when hopping slowly, pushing off from the ground with their posteriors the same way they push with their feet. To see if parrots were using their beaks in a similar way, Dr. Granatosky and a graduate student, Melody Young, as well as their colleagues brought six rosy-faced lovebirds from a pet store into the lab. They had the birds climb up a surface that was fitted with a sensor to keep track of how much force they were exerting and in what directions. The scientists found that the propulsive force the birds applied through their beaks was similar to what they provided with their legs. What had started as a way to eat had transformed into a way to walk, with beaks as powerful as their limbs. © 2022 The New York Times Company

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior; Chapter 11: Motor Control and Plasticity
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 5: The Sensorimotor System
Link ID: 28336 - Posted: 05.25.2022

Erin Spencer The octopus is one of the coolest animals in the sea. For starters, they are invertebrates. That means they don’t have backbones like humans, lions, turtles and birds. Understand new developments in science, health and technology, each week That may sound unusual, but actually, nearly all animals on Earth are invertebrates – about 97%. Octopuses are a specific type of invertebrate called cephalopods. The name means “head-feet” because the arms of cephalopods surround their heads. Other types of cephalopods include squid, nautiloids and cuttlefish. As marine ecologists, we conduct research on how ocean animals interact with each other and their environments. We’ve mostly studied fish, from lionfish to sharks, but we have to confess we remain captivated by octopuses. What octopuses eat depends on what species they are and where they live. Their prey includes gastropods, like snails and sea slugs; bivalves, like clams and mussels; crustaceans, like lobsters and crabs; and fish. To catch their food, octopuses use lots of strategies and tricks. Some octopuses wrap their arms – not tentacles – around prey to pull them close. Some use their hard beak to drill into the shells of clams. All octopuses are venomous; they inject toxins into their prey to overpower and kill them. There are about 300 species of octopus, and they’re found in every ocean in the world, even in the frigid waters around Antarctica. A special substance in their blood helps those cold-water species get oxygen. It also turns their blood blue. © 2010–2022, The Conversation US, Inc.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior; Chapter 17: Learning and Memory
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 13: Memory and Learning
Link ID: 28321 - Posted: 05.11.2022

By Carolyn Gramling Modern mammals are known for their big brains. But new analyses of mammal skulls from creatures that lived shortly after the dinosaur mass extinction shows that those brains weren’t always a foregone conclusion. For at least 10 million years after the dinosaurs disappeared, mammals got a lot brawnier but not brainier, researchers report in the April 1 Science. That bucks conventional wisdom, to put it mildly. “I thought, it’s not possible, there must be something that I did wrong,” says Ornella Bertrand, a mammal paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh. “It really threw me off. How am I going to explain that they were not smart?” Modern mammals have the largest brains in the animal kingdom relative to their body size. How and when that brain evolution happened is a mystery. One idea has been that the disappearance of all nonbird dinosaurs following an asteroid impact at the end of the Mesozoic Era 66 million years ago left a vacuum for mammals to fill (SN: 1/25/17). Recent discoveries of fossils dating to the Paleocene — the immediately post-extinction epoch spanning 66 million to 56 million years ago — does reveal a flourishing menagerie of weird and wonderful mammal species, many much bigger than their Mesozoic predecessors. It was the dawn of the Age of Mammals. Before those fossil finds, the prevailing wisdom was that in the wake of the mass dino extinction, mammals’ brains most likely grew apace with their bodies, everything increasing together like an expanding balloon, Bertrand says. But those discoveries of Paleocene fossil troves in Colorado and New Mexico, as well as reexaminations of fossils previously found in France, are now unraveling that story, by offering scientists the chance to actually measure the size of mammals’ brains over time. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2022.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior
Related chapters from MM:None
Link ID: 28266 - Posted: 04.02.2022

Dominique Potvin When we attached tiny, backpack-like tracking devices to five Australian magpies for a pilot study, we didn’t expect to discover an entirely new social behaviour rarely seen in birds. Our goal was to learn more about the movement and social dynamics of these highly intelligent birds, and to test these new, durable and reusable devices. Instead, the birds outsmarted us. As our new research paper explains, the magpies began showing evidence of cooperative “rescue” behaviour to help each other remove the tracker. While we’re familiar with magpies being intelligent and social creatures, this was the first instance we knew of that showed this type of seemingly altruistic behaviour: helping another member of the group without getting an immediate, tangible reward. As academic scientists, we’re accustomed to experiments going awry in one way or another. Expired substances, failing equipment, contaminated samples, an unplanned power outage—these can all set back months (or even years) of carefully planned research. For those of us who study animals, and especially behaviour, unpredictability is part of the job description. This is the reason we often require pilot studies. Our pilot study was one of the first of its kind—most trackers are too big to fit on medium to small birds, and those that do tend to have very limited capacity for data storage or battery life. They also tend to be single-use only. A novel aspect of our research was the design of the harness that held the tracker. We devised a method that didn’t require birds to be caught again to download precious data or reuse the small devices. © 1986–2022 The Scientist.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior; Chapter 17: Learning and Memory
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 13: Memory and Learning
Link ID: 28218 - Posted: 02.26.2022

ByMichael Price When it comes to killing and eating other creatures, chimpanzees—our closest relatives—have nothing on us. Animal flesh makes up much more of the average human’s diet than a chimp’s. Many scientists have long suggested our blood lust ramped up about 2 million years ago, based on the number of butchery marks found at ancient archaeological sites. The spike in calories from meat, the story goes, allowed one of our early ancestors, Homo erectus, to grow bigger bodies and brains. But a new study argues the evidence behind this hypothesis is statistically flawed because it fails to account for the fact that researchers have focused most of their time and attention on later sites. As a result of this unequal “sampling effort” over time at different sites, the authors say, it’s impossible to know how big a role meat eating played in human evolution. Even before the study, many experts suspected the link between carnivory and bigger brains and bodies in early humans might be complex, says Rachel Carmody, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University who wasn’t involved in the work. The new results, though, “take the important step of demonstrating empirically that controlling for sampling effort actually changes the interpretation.” To conduct the study, W. Andrew Barr, a paleoanthropologist at George Washington University, and colleagues reviewed previously reported data on the appearance of butchery marks at nine archaeological hotbeds of early human activity across eastern Africa spanning 2.6 million to 1.2 million years ago. As expected, the scientist found an increase in the number of cutmarks on animal bones beginning about 2 million years ago. However, the researchers noticed that archaeologists tended to find more cutmarks at the sites that have received the most research attention. In other words, the more time and effort researchers poured into a site, the more likely they were to discover evidence of meat eating. © 2022 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior; Chapter 13: Homeostasis: Active Regulation of the Internal Environment
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 9: Homeostasis: Active Regulation of the Internal Environment
Link ID: 28169 - Posted: 01.26.2022

Chloe Tenn Whether they’re predicting the outcomes of sports games or opening jars, the intelligence of octopuses and their cephalopod kin has fascinated avid sports fans and scientists alike (not that the two groups are mutually exclusive). However, insights into the animals’ brains have been limited, as structural data has come from low-tech methods such as dissection. Wen-Sung Chung, a University of Queensland Brain Institute neurobiologist who focuses on marine species, explains that octopuses have “probably the biggest centralized brain in invertebrates,” with multiple layers and lobes. Some species have more than 500 million neurons, he adds—compared to around 70 million in lab mice—making cephalopods especially intriguing as models for neuroscience. Chung and his colleagues decided to bring cephalopod neuroscience into the 21st century: using cutting-edge MRI, they probed the brains of four cephalopod species. They were especially interested in exploring whether cephalopod brain structures reflect the environments they live in. Indeed, the team reports numerous structural differences between species that live on reefs and those that dwell in deeper waters in a November 18 Current Biology paper. Giovanna Ponte, an evolutionary marine biologist at Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn Napoli in Italy who was not involved with the work, tells The Scientist that while this isn’t the first study to look for neurological correlates underlying ecological differences in cephalopods, it offers a new technological approach to investigating these animals’ brain morphology and diversity, and most importantly, “is the first time that there is . . . a comparative approach between different species.” © 1986–2022 The Scientist.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior; Chapter 2: Functional Neuroanatomy: The Cells and Structure of the Nervous System
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 2: Neurophysiology: The Generation, Transmission, and Integration of Neural Signals
Link ID: 28166 - Posted: 01.22.2022

By Carl Zimmer Edward O. Wilson, a biologist and author who conducted pioneering work on biodiversity, insects and human nature — and won two Pulitzer Prizes along the way — died on Sunday in Burlington, Mass. He was 92. His death was announced on Monday by the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. When Dr. Wilson began his career in evolutionary biology in the 1950s, the study of animals and plants seemed to many scientists like a quaint, obsolete hobby. Molecular biologists were getting their first glimpses of DNA, proteins and other invisible foundations of life. Dr. Wilson made it his life’s work to put evolution on an equal footing. “How could our seemingly old-fashioned subjects achieve new intellectual rigor and originality compared to molecular biology?” he recalled in 2009. He answered his own question by pioneering new fields of research. As an expert on insects, Dr. Wilson studied the evolution of behavior, exploring how natural selection and other forces could produce something as extraordinarily complex as an ant colony. He then championed this kind of research as a way of making sense of all behavior — including our own. As part of his campaign, Dr. Wilson wrote a string of books that influenced his fellow scientists while also gaining a broad public audience. “On Human Nature” won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1979; “The Ants,” which Dr. Wilson wrote with his longtime colleague Bert Hölldobler, won him his second Pulitzer, in 1991. © 2021 The New York Times Company

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior
Related chapters from MM:None
Link ID: 28125 - Posted: 12.29.2021

Rafael Yuste Michael Levin In the middle of his landmark book On the Origin of Species, Darwin had a crisis of faith. In a bout of honesty, he wrote, “To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I confess, absurd in the highest degree.” While scientists are still working out the details of how the eye evolved, we are also still stuck on the question of how intelligence emerges in biology. How can a biological system ever generate coherent and goal-oriented behavior from the bottom up when there is no external designer? In fact, intelligence—a purposeful response to available information, often anticipating the future—is not restricted to the minds of some privileged species. It is distributed throughout biology, at many different spatial and temporal scales. There are not just intelligent people, mammals, birds and cephalopods. Intelligent, purposeful problem-solving behavior can be found in parts of all living things: single cells and tissues, individual neurons and networks of neurons, viruses, ribosomes and RNA fragments, down to motor proteins and molecular networks. Arguably, understanding the origin of intelligence is the central problem in biology—one that is still wide open. In this piece, we argue that progress in developmental biology and neuroscience is now providing a promising path to show how the architecture of modular systems underlies evolutionary and organismal intelligence. © 2021 Scientific American

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 7: Life-Span Development of the Brain and Behavior; Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 13: Memory and Learning
Link ID: 28118 - Posted: 12.18.2021

By Bruce Bower Evidence that cross-continental Stone Age networking events powered human evolution ramped up in 2021. A long-standing argument that Homo sapiens originated in East Africa before moving elsewhere and replacing Eurasian Homo species such as Neandertals has come under increasing fire over the last decade. Research this year supported an alternative scenario in which H. sapiens evolved across vast geographic expanses, first within Africa and later outside it. The process would have worked as follows: Many Homo groups lived during a period known as the Middle Pleistocene, about 789,000 to 130,000 years ago, and were too closely related to have been distinct species. These groups would have occasionally mated with each other while traveling through Africa, Asia and Europe. A variety of skeletal variations on a human theme emerged among far-flung communities. Human anatomy and DNA today include remnants of that complex networking legacy, proponents of this scenario say. It’s not clear precisely how often or when during this period groups may have mixed and mingled. But in this framework, no clear genetic or physical dividing line separated Middle Pleistocene folks usually classed as H. sapiens from Neandertals, Denisovans and other ancient Homo populations. “Middle Pleistocene Homo groups were humans,” says paleoanthropologist John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Today’s humans are a remix of those ancient ancestors.” © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2021.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior; Chapter 12: Sex: Evolutionary, Hormonal, and Neural Bases
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 8: Hormones and Sex
Link ID: 28111 - Posted: 12.15.2021

By Bruce Bower A child’s partial skull found in a remote section of a South African cave system has fueled suspicion that an ancient hominid known as Homo naledi deliberately disposed of its dead in caves. An international team led by paleoanthropologist Lee Berger of University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg pieced together 28 skull fragments and six teeth from a child’s skull discovered in a narrow opening located about 12 meters from an underground chamber where cave explorers first found H. naledi fossils (SN: 9/10/15). Features of the child’s skull qualify it as H. naledi, a species with an orange-sized brain and skeletal characteristics of both present-day people and Homo species from around 2 million years ago. “The case is building for deliberate, ritualized body disposal in caves by Homo naledi,” Berger said at a November 4 news conference held in Johannesburg. While that argument is controversial, there is no evidence that the child’s skull was washed into the tiny space or dragged there by predators or scavengers (SN: 4/19/16). Berger’s group describes the find in two papers published November 4 in PaleoAnthropology. In one, Juliet Brophy, a paleoanthropologist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and colleagues describe the youngster’s skull. In the other, paleoanthropologist Marina Elliott of Canada’s Simon Fraser University in Burnaby and colleagues detail new explorations in South Africa’s Rising Star cave system. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2021.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior
Related chapters from MM:None
Link ID: 28068 - Posted: 11.09.2021

By Laura Sanders Brains are like sponges, slurping up new information. But sponges may also be a little bit like brains. Sponges, which are humans’ very distant evolutionary relatives, don’t have nervous systems. But a detailed analysis of sponge cells turns up what might just be an echo of our own brains: cells called neuroids that crawl around the animal’s digestive chambers and send out messages, researchers report in the Nov. 5 Science. The finding not only gives clues about the early evolution of more complicated nervous systems, but also raises many questions, says evolutionary biologist Thibaut Brunet of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, who wasn’t involved in the study. “This is just the beginning,” he says. “There’s a lot more to explore.” The cells were lurking in Spongilla lacustris, a freshwater sponge that grows in lakes in the Northern Hemisphere. “We jokingly call it the Godzilla of sponges” because of the rhyme with Spongilla, say Jacob Musser, an evolutionary biologist in Detlev Arendt’s group at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany. Simple as they are, these sponges have a surprising amount of complexity, says Musser, who helped pry the sponges off a metal ferry dock using paint scrapers. “They’re such fascinating creatures.” © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2021.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior; Chapter 7: Life-Span Development of the Brain and Behavior
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 13: Memory and Learning
Link ID: 28065 - Posted: 11.06.2021

By Trishla Ostwal Juan Negro crouched in the shadows just outside a cave, wearing his headlamp. For a brief moment, he wasn’t an ornithologist at the Spanish National Research Council’s Doñana Biological Station in Seville. He was a Neandertal, intent on catching dinner. As he waited in the cold, dark hours of the night, crowlike birds called choughs entered the cave. The “Neandertal” then stealthily snuck in and began the hunt. This idea to role-play started with butchered bird bones. Piles of ancient tool- and tooth-nicked choughs bones have been found in the same caves that Neandertals frequented, evidence suggesting that the ancient hominids chowed down on the birds. But catching choughs is tricky. During the day, they fly far to feed on invertebrates, seeds and fruits. At night though, their behavior practically turns them into sitting ducks. The birds roost in groups and often return to the same spot, even if they’ve been disturbed or preyed on there before. So the question was, how might Neandertals have managed to catch these avian prey? To find out, Negro and his colleagues decided to act like, well, Neandertals. Wielding bare hands along with butterfly nets and lamps — proxy for nets (SN: 04/09/20) and fire (SN: 2/20/14) that Neandertals may have had at hand— teams of two to 10 researchers silently snuck into caves and other spots across Spain, where the birds roost to see how many choughs they could catch. a person inside a building attempting to catch a bird © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2021

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior
Related chapters from MM:None
Link ID: 28026 - Posted: 10.09.2021

By Carl Zimmer Ancient human footprints preserved in the ground across the White Sands National Park in New Mexico are astonishingly old, scientists reported on Thursday, dating back about 23,000 years to the Ice Age. The results, if they hold up to scrutiny, would rejuvenate the scientific debate about how humans first spread across the Americas, implying that they did so at a time when massive glaciers covered much of their path. Researchers who have argued for such an early arrival hailed the new study as firm proof. “I think this is probably the biggest discovery about the peopling of America in a hundred years,” said Ciprian Ardelean, an archaeologist at Autonomous University of Zacatecas in Mexico who was not involved in the work. “I don’t know what gods they prayed to, but this is a dream find.” For decades, many archaeologists have maintained that humans spread across North and South America only at the end of the last ice age. They pointed to the oldest known tools, including spear tips, scrapers and needles, dating back about 13,000 years. The technology was known as Clovis, named for the town of Clovis, N.M., where some of these first instruments came to light. The age of the Clovis tools lined up neatly with the retreat of the glaciers. That alignment bolstered a scenario in which Siberian hunter-gatherers moved into Alaska during the Ice Age, where they lived for generations until ice-free corridors opened and allowed them to expand southward. But starting in the 1970s, some archaeologists began publishing older evidence of humanity’s presence in North America. Last year, Dr. Ardelean and his colleagues published a report of stone tools in a mountain cave in Mexico dating back 26,000 years. © 2021 The New York Times Company

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior
Related chapters from MM:None
Link ID: 28006 - Posted: 09.25.2021

By Jonathan Lambert Vampire bats may be bloodthirsty, but that doesn’t mean they can’t share a drink with friends. Fights can erupt among bats over gushing wounds bit into unsuspecting animals. But bats that have bonded while roosting often team up to drink blood away from home, researchers report September 23 in PLOS Biology. Vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) can form long-term social bonds with each other through grooming, sharing regurgitated blood meals and generally hanging out together at the roost (SN: 10/31/19). But whether these friendships, which occur between both kin and nonkin, extend to the bats’ nightly hunting had been unclear. “They’re flying around out there, but we didn’t know if they were still interacting with each other,” says Gerald Carter, an evolutionary biologist at Ohio State University in Columbus. To find out, Carter and his colleague Simon Ripperger of the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, built on previous research that uncovered a colony’s social network using bat backpacks. Tiny computer sensors glued to 50 female bats in Tolé, Panama, continuously registered proximity to other sensors both within the roost and outside, revealing when bats met up while foraging. Two common vampire bats feed on a cow near La Chorrera, Panama. It can take 10 to 40 minutes for a bat to bite a small, diamond-shaped wound into an animal’s flesh, and fights can sometimes break out over access to wounds. But researchers found that bats who are friendly back at the roost likely feed together in the field, potentially saving time and energy. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2021

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior; Chapter 19: Language and Lateralization
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 15: Language and Lateralization
Link ID: 28005 - Posted: 09.25.2021