Category Archives: Animal Behavior

Cicadas, Brood XIX, northern Chatham Co, NC [Videos]



A “sixth sense” for earthquake prediction? Give me a break!

This post is a slightly edited version of my December 29, 2004, post written in reaction to media reports about a “sixth sense” in animals, that supposedly allows them to avoid a tsunami by climbing to higher ground.

Every time there is a major earthquake or a tsunami, various media reports are full of phrases like sixth sense and extrasensory perception, which no self-respecting science journalist should ever use.

Sixth sense? Really? The days of Aristotle and his five senses are long gone. Even humans have more than five sensory modalities. Other animals (and even plants) have many more. The original five are vision, audition, olfaction, gustation and touch.

Photoreception is not just vision (perception of images) and is not a unitary modality. There are animals with capabilities, sometimes served by a separate organ or at least cell-type, for ultraviolet light reception, infrared perception (which is also heat perception as infrared light is warm), perception of polarized light, not to mention the non-visual and extraretinal photoreception involved in circadian entrainment, photoperiodism, phototaxis/photokinesis, pupillary reflex and control of mood. The “third eye” (frontal organ in amphibians, or parapineal in reptiles) cannot form an image but detects shadows and apparently also color.

Audition (detection of sound) in many animals also includes ultrasound (e.g., in bats, insects, dolphins and some fish) and infrasound (in whales, elephants, giraffes, rhinos, crocodiles etc., mostly large animals). And do not forget that the sense of balance and movement is also located in the inner ear and operates on similar principles of mechanoreception.

Olfaction (detection of smells) is not alone – how about perception of pheromones by the vomero-nasal organ (and processed in the secondary olfactory bulb), and what about the nervus terminalis? Some animals have very specific senses for particular chemicals, e.g., water (hygroreceptors) and CO2. Gustation is fine, but how about the separate trigeminal capsaicin-sensitive system (the one that lets you sense the hot in hot peppers)? Chemoreceptors of various kinds can be found everywhere, in every organism, including bacteria.

Touch (somatoreception) is such a vaguely defined sense. In our skin, it encompasses separate types of receptors for light touch (including itch), pressure, pain, hot and cold. The pain receptor is a chemoreceptor (sensing chemicals released from the neighboring damaged cells), while the others are different types of mechanoreceptors. Inside our bodies, different types of receptors monitor the state of the internal organs, including stretch receptors, tendon receptors etc. Deep inside our bodies, we have baroreceptors (pressure, as in blood pressure) and chemoreceptors that detect changes in blood levels of O2 or CO2 or calcium etc. Animals with exoskeletons, such as arthropods, also possess tensoriceptors that sense angles between various elements of the exoskeleton, particularly in the legs, allowing the animals to control its locomotion.

Pit-vipers, Melanophila beetles and a couple of other insects (including bed bugs) have infrared detectors. While snakes use this sense to track down prey, the insects like Melanophila beetles use it to detect distant forest fires, as they breed in the flames and deposit their eggs in the still-glowing wood, thus ensuring they are there “first.” While infra-red waves are officially “light,” it is their high energy that is used to detect it. In case of the beetles, the energy is transformed into heat. Heated receptor cells expand and get misshapen. Their shape-change moves a hair-cell, thus translating heat energy into mechanical energy, which is then translated into the electrical energy of the nerve cell.

Several aquatic animals, including sharks and eels, as well as the platypus, are capable of sensing changes in the electric field – electroreception.

More and more organisms, from bacteria, through arthropods, to fish, amphibians, birds and mammals, are found to be quite capable of sensing the direction, inclination and intensity of the Earth’s magnetic field. Study of magnetoreception has recently been a very exciting and fast-growing field of biology (pdf).

On a more philosophical note, some people have proposed that the circadian clock, among other functions, serves as a sensory receptor of the passage of time. If that is the case, this would be a unique instance of a sensory organ that does not detect any form of energy, but a completely different aspect of the physical world.

Finally, many animals, from insects to tree-frogs to elephants, are capable of detecting vibrations of the substrate (and use it to communicate with each other by shaking the branches or stamping the ground). It is probably this sense that allowed many animals to detect the incoming tsunami, although the sound of the tsunami (described by humans as hissing and crackling, or even as similar to a sound of a really big fire) may have been a clue, too.

I am assuming that birds could also see an unusually large wave coming from a distance, although they would need the warning the least, considering they could fly up at the moment’s notice. The “sixth sense” reports (in 2006) were from Indonesia and Sri Lanka – places worst hit by high waters. It would be interesting to know how the animals fared farther from the epicenter of the earthquake.

Which leads me to the well-known idea that animals can predict earthquakes. While pet-owners swear their little preciouses get antsy before earthquakes, studies to date see absolutely no evidence of this. Animals get antsy at various times for various reasons, and next day get as surprised as we are when the “Big One” hits.

When a strong earthquake hit California in the 1980s, a chronobiology laboratory looked back at the records of their mice and hamsters. Those were wheel-running activity records, continuously recorded by computers over many weeks, including the moment of the earthquake. No changes in the normal patterns of activity were detected. I believe that this finding was never published, but just relayed from advisor to student, generation after generation, and mentioned in courses as an anecdote.

On the other hand, one study – “Mouse circadian rhythm before the Kobe earthquake in 1995″ – described an increase, and another study – “Behavioral change related to Wenchuan devastating earthquake in mice” – a decrease in activity of some of the mice kept in isolation in the laboratories. With one study showing increase, one showing decrease, and one anecdotal account showing no change, the jury on this phenomenon is still out.

Mice (or the monitoring equipment) could have shown these patterns for causes unrelated to earthquakes. How much each of the three laboratories was isolated from outside cues (light, sound, substrate vibration, air pressure, radiation, etc.) is also not known but could have been quite variable – it is difficult to build a laboratory that is completely isolated from every possible environmental cue (and in circadian research light and temperature are key cues to isolate from, so many others are neglected).

The key difference here, of course, is between sensing the earthquake as it is happening somewhere far away (as the animals can certainly do), or the ability to sense small “foreshocks” that often precede the strong earthquakes, and the ability to predict earthquakes before they happen (which animals cannot do). So, I don’t think there is anything mysterious about the survival of animals in the tsunamis, and the sense they use is certainly not just “sixth”…perhaps 26th or 126th (based on whatever criterion one uses for counting them) depending on the species.

Sigma Xi Pizza Lunch – ‘ Friends or Foes: Social Relationships Among Female Chimpanzees’ with Anne Pusey

To keep keeping you on your toes, we’ll host Pizza Lunch on a Wednesday again this month, rather than on a Tuesday. And it promises to be another good one.

Come hear Anne Pusey, chair of evolutionary anthropology and a James B. Duke professor at Duke, speak at noon Wed., Feb 23 at Sigma Xi. Her talk: Friends or Foes: Social Relationships Among Female Chimpanzees. Pusey has studied competition, cooperation and social bonds in multiple species. Most of her work focuses on our close evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzees. Early in her career, Pusey observed juvenile and adolescent development under the direction of Jane Goodall at Tanzania’s Gombe Stream Reserve. She still has ties. Her research team maintains and digitizes data collected at Gombe, where Goodall started observing chimpanzees more than 50 years ago.

Thanks to a grant from the N.C. Biotechnology Center, American Scientist Pizza Lunch is free and open to science journalists and science communicators of all stripes. Feel free to forward this message to anyone who might want to attend. RSVPs are required (for the slice count) to cclabby@amsci.org

Directions to Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society in RTP, are here: http://www.sigmaxi.org/about/center/directions.shtml

Look Up! The Billion-Bug Highway You Can’t See (video)

Schooling-like Behavior of Medaka Fish Induced by Optomotor Response (video)

Explanation here.

Do Big Cats like catnip? (video)

Food goes through a rabbit twice. Think what that means!

ResearchBlogging.orgRabbits are funny animals!

For one thing, rabbits eat grass. Usually animals that eat grass are large and have complex multi-chamber stomachs (think of cows) and very long intestines (sheep), or a very large cecum (horses). Cellulose is difficult to digest, and herbivores use some help from intestinal bacteria. The bacteria are slow, though, so the food usually remains in these large fermentation chambers for a long time.

But rabbits are small. They have a single small stomach, and as much intestines as they can pack into their small bodies, and as large a cecum as they can get. But that is not enough – the food, half digested, passes through them too fast. What a waste of energy!

So they have to do something that you and I may find distasteful, but rabbits apparently enjoy – coprophagy! Yes, they eat their own feces.

But there is a trick to it. Food goes through the rabbit twice. Not once, not three or four times, just twice. How do the rabbits accomplish that?

The droppings that passed through the rabbit only once – caecotrophs – are small and soft and clumped up like grapes. They are apparently yummy to rabbits and get eaten. Droppings that made the passage through the rabbit twice are larger, separate from each other, and dry.

Interestingly, they mostly defecate dry droppings in the morning, and soft droppings in the evening.

And the timing of excretion of these two types of feces is under the control of the circadian clock – the rhythm (and the separation between timing of soft and dry pellets) persists in constant darkness, can be entrained by light-dark cycles, and can be entrained by feeding cycles (Refs, 1, 4, 5, 6).

It is interesting to me that much of this research was done a long time ago – in the 1940s for the feces composition and the 1970s for the circadian rhythms (including comparative studies in other animals, e.g., rodents that have a similar system, Refs. 2-3). I guess it would be hard to get funding for this kind of research in today’s climate. Though, understanding that the food passes through the rabbits twice, and the temporal dynamics of the process, is important for studies like this one – monitoring the spread of radioactivity from a spill site by monitoring the radioactivity in rabbit pellets in the countryside.

References:

1. Bellier R, Gidenne T, Vernay M, & Colin M (1995). In vivo study of circadian variations of the cecal fermentation pattern in postweaned and adult rabbits. Journal of animal science, 73 (1), 128-35 PMID: 7601725

2. Kenagy, G., & Hoyt, D. (1979). Reingestion of feces in rodents and its daily rhythmicity Oecologia, 44 (3), 403-409 DOI: 10.1007/BF00545245

3. Kenagy GJ, Veloso C, & Bozinovic F (1999). Daily rhythms of food intake and feces reingestion in the degu, an herbivorous Chilean rodent: optimizing digestion through coprophagy. Physiological and biochemical zoology : PBZ, 72 (1), 78-86 PMID: 9882606

4. Hörnicke H, Ruoff G, Vogt B, Clauss W, & Ehrlein HJ (1984). Phase relationship of the circadian rhythms of feed intake, caecal motility and production of soft and hard faeces in domestic rabbits. Laboratory animals, 18 (2), 169-72 PMID: 6748594

5. Pairet M, Bouyssou T, & Ruckebusch Y (1986). Colonic formation of soft feces in rabbits: a role for endogenous prostaglandins. The American journal of physiology, 250 (3 Pt 1) PMID: 3456721

6. Hörnicke, H., Batsch, F., & Hornicke, H. (1977). Coecotrophy in Rabbits: A Circadian Function Journal of Mammalogy, 58 (2) DOI: 10.2307/1379586

UCLA’s Peter Narins’ lecture on frog communication (video)

BIO101 – What Creatures Do: Animal Behavior

As you may know, I have been teaching BIO101 (and also the BIO102 Lab) to non-traditional students in an adult education program for about twelve years now. Every now and then I muse about it publicly on the blog (see this, this, this, this, this, this and this for a few short posts about various aspects of it – from the use of videos, to the use of a classroom blog, to the importance of Open Access so students can read primary literature). The quality of students in this program has steadily risen over the years, but I am still highly constrained with time: I have eight 4-hour meetings with the students over eight weeks. In this period I have to teach them all of biology they need for their non-science majors, plus leave enough time for each student to give a presentation (on the science of their favourite plant and animal) and for two exams. Thus I have to strip the lectures to the bare bones, and hope that those bare bones are what non-science majors really need to know: concepts rather than factoids, relationship with the rest of their lives rather than relationship with the other sciences. Thus I follow my lectures with videos and classroom discussions, and their homework consists of finding cool biology videos or articles and posting the links on the classroom blog for all to see. A couple of times I used malaria as a thread that connected all the topics – from cell biology to ecology to physiology to evolution. I think that worked well but it is hard to do. They also write a final paper on some aspect of physiology.

Another new development is that the administration has realized that most of the faculty have been with the school for many years. We are experienced, and apparently we know what we are doing. Thus they recently gave us much more freedom to design our own syllabus instead of following a pre-defined one, as long as the ultimate goals of the class remain the same. I am not exactly sure when am I teaching the BIO101 lectures again (late Fall, Spring?) but I want to start rethinking my class early. I am also worried that, since I am not actively doing research in the lab and thus not following the literature as closely, that some of the things I teach are now out-dated. Not that anyone can possibly keep up with all the advances in all the areas of Biology which is so huge, but at least big updates that affect teaching of introductory courses are stuff I need to know.

I need to catch up and upgrade my lecture notes. And what better way than crowdsource! So, over the new few weeks, I will re-post my old lecture notes (note that they are just intros – discussions and videos etc. follow them in the classroom) and will ask you to fact-check me. If I got something wrong or something is out of date, let me know (but don’t push just your own preferred hypothesis if a question is not yet settled – give me the entire controversy explanation instead). If something is glaringly missing, let me know. If something can be said in a nicer language – edit my sentences. If you are aware of cool images, articles, blog-posts, videos, podcasts, visualizations, animations, games, etc. that can be used to explain these basic concepts, let me know. And at the end, once we do this with all the lectures, let’s discuss the overall syllabus – is there a better way to organize all this material for such a fast-paced class.

Today, we discuss animal behavior. Note that I tend to do a lot of drawing on the whiteboard in this lecture, which is not seen in these notes. I also show a lot of short YouTube videos that show examples of strange animal behaviors.

See the previous lectures:

BIO101 – Biology and the Scientific Method
BIO101 – Cell Structure
BIO101 – Protein Synthesis: Transcription and Translation
BIO101 – Cell-Cell Interactions
BIO101 – Cell Division and DNA Replication
BIO101 – From Two Cells To Many: Cell Differentiation and Embryonic Development
BIO101 – From Genes To Traits: How Genotype Affects Phenotype
BIO101 – From Genes To Species: A Primer on Evolution

Follow me under the fold:

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Periodic Tables: Durham’s Science Cafe – Bonobo Handshake: Love and Adventure in the Congo

From e-mail:

I hope you can join us for our next installment of Periodic Tables: Durham’s Science Cafe! Below are the details for the evening. And remember, try to come early if you want a seat and a bite to eat before we kick things off at 7pm!

——

What: Bonobo Handshake: Love and Adventure in the Congo

“A young woman follows her fiancé to war-torn Congo to study extremely endangered bonobo apes—who teach her a new truth about love and belonging.”

Author and scientist Vanessa Woods will discuss and sign copies of her new book, Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo. Like chimpanzees, bonobos are related to humans by 98.7%. But in contrast to chimpanzees, who live in male dominated societies where infanticide and lethal aggression are observed, bonobos live in highly tolerant and peaceful societies due to female dominance that maintains group cohesion and regulates tension through sexual behavior. How much of us is chimpanzee and how much is bonobo?

The Regulator Bookstore will be on hand to sell Vanessa’s book after her talk.

Who: Vanessa Woods, Author and Research Scientist at Duke University

Where: Broad Street Cafe, 1116 Broad Street, Durham

When: Tuesday, August 10th @7pm (2nd Tuesday of every month)

Parking: We understand that parking can be tough so please feel free to park at the NC School for Science and Math (catty-corner to Broad Street Cafe)

Additional Info

At the Museum: bonobos and bioluminescence

Two great lectures at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences:

1. Museum hosts presentation on ‘Bioluminescence Below the Bahamas’

RALEIGH ― Join Duke University biologist Sonke Johnsen for a detailed look into the world of marine bioluminescence and its use as an adaptation to help organisms hide, hunt and communicate. Johnsen’s multimedia presentation, “Deep Light: Bioluminescence and Vision 2,000 Feet below the Bahamas,” takes place at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences on Thursday, August 12 at 7pm. Free.

Johnsen is associate professor of biology and director of The Johnsen Lab at Duke, which studies bioluminescence ― an organism’s ability to produce its own light ― and other aspects of visual ecology. He recently participated in an inaugural survey of deep-sea floor bioluminescence and continues to collaborate with Edith Widder, bioluminescence expert and a former curator of GLOW: Living Lights, the first-ever museum exhibit to explore the phenomenon of bioluminescence. Now showing at the Museum of Natural Sciences, this exhibit reveals the world of light-producing terrestrial organisms, from fireflies to foxfire fungus, before traveling to the mid-ocean, where an estimated 90 percent of animals produce light. GLOW runs through September 12.

Adult tickets to GLOW are available at a discounted rate on these evenings, with tickets sold from 5 to 6:30pm. For more information, visit www.naturalsciences.org.

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2. Vanessa Woods to discuss “Bonobo Handshake” at Museum of Natural Sciences

In the midst of the war-torn Congo, there exists a peaceful society in which females are in charge, war is nonexistent, and sex is as common and friendly as a handshake. Welcome to the world of bonobos, a rare ape with whom we share 98.7 percent of our DNA. On Thursday, August 19 at 6:30pm, join author and Duke University scientist Vanessa Woods for a detailed discussion of her new book, “Bonobo Handshake,” at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh. Free.

“For thousands of years, we have wondered what makes us human,” says Woods. “To find the answer, we study our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and more recently, bonobos. Neither species is easy to study, but bonobos are particularly difficult, being the world’s most endangered ape in the world’s most dangerous country. But this makes them all the more important, and bonobos could not only unlock the secret of what makes us human, but also teach us how being a little less human could go a long way.” Woods will be signing copies of her book in the Museum Store prior to her lecture.

Woods is an internationally published author and journalist and is the main Australian/ New Zealand feature writer for the Discovery Channel. She graduated with a Masters of Science Communication from the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University and has written for various publications including BBC Wildlife, New Scientist, and Travel Africa. In 2003, Woods won the Australasian Science award for journalism. In 2007, her children’s book on space was named an Acclaimed Book by the UK Royal Society and shortlisted for the Royal Society’s Junior Science Book Prize.

Seven Questions….with Yours Truly

Last week, my SciBling Jason Goldman interviewed me for his blog. The questions were not so much about blogging, journalism, Open Access and PLoS (except a little bit at the end) but more about science – how I got into it, what are my grad school experiences, what I think about doing research on animals, and such stuff. Jason posted the interview here, on his blog, on Friday, and he also let me repost it here on my blog as well, under the fold:

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Revenge of the Zombifying Wasp (repost)

Revenge of the Zombifying WaspAs this is a Zombie Day on scienceblogs.com, here is a re-post of one of my old post about one of the coolest parasites ever (from February 04, 2006):
a1%20ampulex_compressa.jpgI am quite surprised that Carl Zimmer, in research for his book Parasite Rex, did not encounter the fascinating case of the Ampulex compressa (Emerald Cockroach Wasp) and its prey/host the American Cockroach (Periplaneta americana, see also comments on Aetiology and Ocellated).
In 1999, I went to Oxford, UK, to the inaugural Gordon Conference in Neuroethology and one of the many exciting speakers I was looking forward to seeing was Fred Libersat. The talk was half-hot half-cold. To be precise, the first half was hot and the second half was not.
In the first half, he not just introduced the whole behavior, he also showed us a longish movie, showing in high magnification and high resolution all steps of this complex behavior (you can see a cool picture of the wasp’s head here).
a2%20wasp-cockroach.jpgFirst, the wasp gives the roach a quick hit-and-run stab with its stinger into the body (thorax) and flies away. After a while, the roach starts grooming itself furiously for some time, followed by complete stillness. Once the roach becomes still, the wasp comes back, positions itself quite carefully on top of the raoch and injects its venom very precisely into the subesophageal ganglion in the head of the roach. The venom is a cocktail of dopamine and protein toxins so the effect is behavioral modification instead of paralysis.
Apparently, the wasp’s stinger has receptors that guide it to its precise target:

“To investigate what guides the sting, Ram Gal and Frederic Libersat of Ben-Gurion University in Beer-Sheva, Israel, first introduced the wasp to roaches whose brains had been removed. Normally, it takes about a minute for the wasp to find its target, sting, and fly off. But in the brainless roaches, the wasps searched the empty head cavity for an average of 10 minutes. A radioactive tracer injected into the wasps revealed that when they finally did sting, they used about 1/6 the usual amount of venom. The wasps knew something was amiss.”

The wasp then saws off the tips of the roach’s antennae and drinks the hemolymph from them. It builds a nest – just a little funnel made of soil and pebbles and leads the roach, by pulling at its anteanna as if it was a dog-leash, into the funnel. It then lays an egg onto the leg of the roach, closes off the antrance to the funnel with a rock and leaves. The roach remains alive, but completely still in the nest for quite some time (around five weeks). The venom, apart from eliminating all defence behaviors of the roach, also slows the metabolism of the cockroach, allowing it to live longer without food and water. After a while, the wasp egg hatches, eats its way into the body of the roach, eats the internal organs of the roach, then pupates and hatches. What comes out of the (now dead) cockroach is not a larva (as usually happens with insect parasitoids) but an adult wasp, ready to mate and deposit eggs on new cockroaches.
Why was the second half of the talk a disappointment? I know for a fact I was not the only one there who expected a deeper look into evolutionary aspects of this highly complex set of behaviors. However, the talk went into a different direction – interesting in itself, for sure, but not as much as an evolutionary story would have been. Libersat described in nitty-gritty detail experiments that uncovered, one by one, secrets of the neuroanatomy, neurophysiology and neurochemistry of the cockroach escape behavior – the one supressed by toxin – as well as the chemistry of the toxin cocktail. Ganglion after ganglion, neuron after neuron, neurotransmitter after neurotransmitter, the whole behavior was charted for us on the screen. An impressive feat, but disappointing when we were all salivating at a prospect of a cool evolutionary story.
He did not say, for instance, what is the geographic overlap between the two species. I had to look it up myself afterwards. American cockroach can be found pretty much everywhere in the world. The wasp also has a broad geographical range from Africa to New Caledonia (located almost directly between Australia and Fiji) and, since 1941, Hawaii (another example of a non-native species wreacking havoc on the islands), but not everywhere in the world, especially not outside the tropics – there are most definitely parts of the planet where there are roaches but no Ampulex compressa.
In most cases in which one species is suspectible to the venom or toxin of another species, the populations which share the geography are also engaged in an evolutionary arms-race. The victim of the venom evolves both behavioral defenses against the attack of the other species and biochemical resistance to the venom. In turn, the venom evolves to be more and more potent and the animal more and more sneaky or camouflaged or fast in order to bypass behavioral defenses.
There are many examples of such evolutionary arms-races in which one of the species is venomous/toxic and the other one evolves resistance. For instance, garter snakes on the West Coast like to eat rough-side newts. But these newts secrete tetrodotoxin in their skins. The predator is not venomous, but it has to deal with dangerous prey. Thus, in sympatry (in places where the two species co-exist) snakes have evolved a different version of a sodium channel. This version makes the channel less susceptible to tetrodotoxin, but there is a downside – the snake is slower and more lethargic overall. In the same region, the salamanders appear to be evolving ever more potent skin toxin coctails.
Similar examples are those of desert ground squirrels and rattlesnakes (both behavioral and biochemical innovations in squirrels), desert mice (Southwest USA) and scorpions (again it is the prey which is venomous), and honeybees and Death’s-Head sphinx-moths (moths come into the hives and steal honey and get stung by bees after a while).
But Libersat never wondered if cockroaches in sympatry with Emerald wasps evolved any type of resistance, either behavioral or physiological. Perhaps the overwhelming number of roaches in comparison with the wasps makes any selective pressure too weak for evolution of defenses. But that needs to be tested. He also never stated if the attack by the wasp happens during the day or during the night. Roaches are nocturnal and shy away from light. The movie he showed was from the lab under full illumination. Is it more difficult for the wasp to find and attack the roach at night? Is it more difficult for the roach to run away or defend itself during the day? Those questions need to be asked.
Another piece of information that is missing is a survey of parasitizing behaviors of species of wasps most closely related to Ampulex compressa. Can we identify, or at least speculate about, the steps in the evolution of this complex set of behaviors (and the venom itself)? What is the precursor of this behavior: laying eggs on found roach carcasses, killing roaches before laying eggs on their carcasses, laying eggs on other hosts? We do not know. I hope someone is working on those questions as we speak and will soon surprise us with a publication.
But let me finish with a witty comment on Zimmer’s blog, by a commenter who, for this occasion, identified as “Kafka”:

“I had a dream that I was a cockroach, and that wasp Ann Coulter stuck me with her stinger, zombified my brain, led me by pulling my antenna into her nest at Fox News, and laid her Neocon eggs on me. Soon a fresh baby College Republican hatched out, burrowed into my body, and devoured me from the inside. Ann Coulter’s designs may be intelligent, but she’s one cruel god.”

Update: That post on The Loom attracted tons of comments. Unfortunately, most of them had nothing to do with the cockroaches and wasps – Carl’s blog, naturally, attracts a lot of Creationists so much of the thread is a debate over IDC. However, Carl is happy to report that a grad student who actually worked on this wasp/cockroach pair, appeared in the thread and left a comment that, among else, answers several of the behavioral and evolutionary questions that I asked in this post.
Update 2: You can watch some movies linked here and here.

Lizards, carcasses and bacteria

Do Komodo dragons kill their prey by making them sick with the bacteria from their dirty mouths? Or do they kill with strength, speed and venom while bacteria are just incidental? Or is it bacteria who hitch a ride on the lizards on their journeys from one juicy carcass to the next?

The Primal Power of Play (video)

Books: ‘Bonobo Handshake’ by Vanessa Woods

To get disclaimers out of the way, first, Vanessa Woods (on Twitter) is a friend. I first met her online, reading her blog Bonobo Handshake where she documented her day-to-day life and work with bonobos in the Congo. We met in person shortly after her arrival to North Carolina, at a blogger meetup in Durham, after which she came to three editions of ScienceOnline conference.
I interviewed Vanessa after the 2008 event and blogged (scroll down to the second half of the post) about her 2009 session ‘Blogging adventure: how to post from strange locations’. At the 2010 conference, she was one of the five storytellers at the ScienceOnline Monti on Thursday night (and did another stint at The Monti in Carrboro a couple of months later). I have since then also met her husband Brian Hare and we instantly hit it off marvelously.
bonobo 002.JPGI have read Vanessa’s previous book, ‘It’s every monkey for themselves‘, but never reviewed it on the blog because I felt uneasy – that book is so personal! But it is an excellent and wonderfully written page-turner of a book so I knew I was in for a treat when I got a review copy of her new book, Bonobo Handshake (amazon.com). I could not wait for it to officially come out so I could go to the first public reading (where I took the picture) at the Regulator in Durham on May 27th, on the day of publication.
Vanessa recently moved her blog to a new location on Psychology Today network and had a few interviews in local papers, more sure to come soon.
Vanessa will also soon read/sign the book at Quail Ridge Books on June 9th at 7:30pm, and at Chapel Hill Borders on June 12th at 2pm (also June 22 at Barnes & Noble on Maynard in Cary, June 30 at The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, and Aug. 10 at Broad Street Café in Durham, in-between readings in other cities on the East and West coasts) and I hope you can make it to one of these events as they are fun, especially the way she tries to talk about a species renowned for its sexual behavior by using language that is appropriate for the kids in the audience ;-)
The book weaves four parallel threads. The first is Vanessa’s own life. Bonobo Handshake starts where ‘Each monkey’ leaves off. And while the ‘Monkey’ covered the period of her life that was pretty distressing, this book begins as her life begins to normalize, describing how she met Brian, fell in love, and got married – a happy trajectory.
The second thread is the science – the experiments they did on behavior and cognition in bonobos and chimps, and how the results fit into the prior knowledge and literature on primate (including human) nature.
The third thread reports on the conservation status of great apes, especially bonobos, and all the social, cultural, financial and political factors that work for or against the efforts to prevent them from going extinct.
The fourth thread is the country of Congo, where all the bonobos in the wild live, especially its recent history of war and its effects on the local people.
The four threads are seamlessly intervowen with each other, but it takes some time into the book to realize that there is, besides the fact that Vanessa was there and did the stuff and wrote about it, another unifying thread – the question of cooperation vs. competition. Vanessa and Brian sometimes love, sometimes fight: what determined one behavior at one time and the opposite at another time?
bonobo handshake.jpgFor the most part, chimps compete and bonobos cooperate: why is that? And what accounts for occasional exceptions to that rule? When threatened, or perceiving to be threatened, animals become insecure. Chimps deal with that insecurity by lashing out – becoming violent and aggressive, or at least putting out a great show of machismo. When bonobos feel insecure (including when they are very young), they solve the problem (and release the tension) by having sex with each other. If chimps won the national elections in the USA, they would probably rule by fear and force, investing mightily into the military, the police and the prison system, going around the world bombing other countries, declaring various internal “Wars on X”, and generally trying to keep the population fearful, subdued and obedient. Bonobos in such a position would always first try to find out a diplomatic solution: how to turn a stranger, or even an enemy into a friend and ally? Share something! Whatever you have: food, shelter, sex…. Everyone is safer that way in the end.
Of course, there are reasons why chimps are one way and bonobos the other. Food is scarce where chimps live, thus there is competition for it, thus the strongest individual wins, and the winner takes all. The position in the hierarchy is the key to survival. Individualism rules. On the other hand, there is plenty of food where bonobos live, enough to share with everyone, eat enough to get bloated, and still plenty left over to just let rot. Why fight over it? Thus, communitarian spirit rules, and if a big strong male starts to feel his oats a little too much, the females will get together and gang up on him as a sisterhood and beat the crap out of him – a rare exception to their usual non-violence, but an act that restores harmony to the group as a whole.
What can we learn from it? That, being equally related to both species, as well as being smarter, we are quite capable of switching between the two modes of reaction to perceived threats: competitive or cooperative. Some people (probably due to the social environment in which they were raised) tend to respond more like chimps, others more like bonobos, but all are capable of behaving both ways. Thus, all are capable of making choices how to react. And the society as a whole can teach people about the exictence of this choice and, in some general ways regarding different kinds of issues, suggest which of the two reactions is condoned by the society and which one will lend you in jail. Studying both chimps and bonobos, comparing them to each other and to humans, can help us understand this choice better, and what it takes to make one or the other reaction to a perceived threat. And even how to study, as researchers, competitions versus cooperation, something that was historically colored by the social upbringing of individual scientists.
[An aside: this is not really relevant to the book as whole, but if I remember correctly it occurs once in the book, and Vanessa sometimes mentions it in her public speaking and on her blog. She mentions the old trope that we are about 98% identical to both chimps and bonobos. That number denotes the identity of sequences of DNA that is expressed in adult, sexually mature individuals at a particular time of year and particular time of day. It ignores all the unexpressed DNA, individual differences, seasonal/daily changes in expression, and effect of the environment. It also ignores the fact that the sequence is not what really matters - it is how the developing organism (from zygote, through embryonic and post-embryonic development, through metamorphosis, growth, maturation, puberty, adulthood and senescence) uses those sequences to effect the development of traits and the day-to-day response of the organism to the environment. It is not the sequence that matters, but which gene is expressed in which cell at what time and in conjunction with which other genes that matters. The number "98% equal" reeks of genetic determinism, which originates with Adaptation and Natural Selection, the 1966 book by George Williams which corrupted generations of biologists, and 'The Selfish Gene', the 1976 book by Richard Dawkins which ruined generations of lay readers and science journalists. It peaked in late 1990s (I wrote this in 1999) with the hype over Human Genome Project ("Holy Grail", "Blueprint of Life"!) and currently survives only in the realm of that abomination of science we all know as Evolutionary Psychology. There is a lot of literature explaining the poverty of the genocentric and deterministic view of biology, most notably the entire opuses of Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, their numerous students and proteges and fans, and an entire generation of evo-devo researchers (the field was spawned/inspired by Gould's 1977 book 'Ontogeny and Phylogeny') and Philosophers of Science (e.g.., Bob Brandon, Bill Wimsatt) who spent some years proving it wrong and, successfully done that, have since moved on to more fertile topics. Actually, one of the easiest-to-read books on the topic for lay audience is titled - What it Means to be 95% Chimpanzee: Apes, People, and their Genes. Saying that humans and bonobos are 98 (or 95, or 99, different numbers are thrown out) percent identical to us is like saying that an airplane and a house are identical because both are built with identical sizes, shapes and colors of Lego blocks - except that one propeller-piece that the airplane has and the house does not. Bonobos and humans are similar because our development is similar, leading to similar phenotypes - not much to do with the sequences of c-DNA libraries. Aside over.]
Conservation of Great Apes depends on humans cooperating to make it happen, but also has to take into account the instrinsic proclivities of different species (chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans and gibbons are all different) towards violence vs. collaboration which dictate the sizes and shapes and organizational schemes of their sanctuaries and eventual wild refuges.
Finally, civil war in Congo is an enormous example of violent competition, but what were its causes? Who chose to compete in this way and why? What was the competition about? Did the end of the Cold War sufficiently weaken the Non-Aligned Movement in a way that reduced the national pride of the people of its member-nations (allowing tribal instincts to take over), reduced the economic cooperation between the member countries (thus sending some of their economies into a downward spiral leading to hopelessness which often leads to lashing out at perceived enemies), or reduced the military cooperation between the members that would scare any potential leader of a tribal movement, or reduced the authority and thus ability of the Movement’s leadership to intervene and prevent wars between the members?
Why did some people come out of war utterly changed – the “living dead” – while others emerged hopeful, energetic and optimistic, full of life and love? How did collaboration of some people help save some of them from murder, and save their psyches from lifelong scars?
Vanessa weaves these four threads expertly and, at the end of the book, you cannot help but care about all four! It is a fast and easy read, you never feel bored or inundated by information, yet you end the book with vastly more knowledge than when you began. And once you know about something enough, you start caring.
I remember as a kid, before the Internet, trying to find something to read after I have finished all 20 library books I took out and still having a couple of weeks of boring vacation ahead of me. Stuck somewhere outside of civilization, with nothing else to do, there was nothing else but to explore the enormous leather-bound classics, each thousands of pages long, each unabridged – stuff that every home has. So I read, slowly and carefully as there was no need to rush, such books as David Copperfield, Pickwick Papers, Teutonic Knights, Moby Dick, Les Miserables, The Road to Life and Martin Eden and others. Being a kid, I did not know anything about any of those topics, and these ancient authors LOVED to write lengthy treateses on various topics over many pages, yet, by getting informed about them, I got to care about Victorian England, Medieval Religious Wars in Poland, classification of whales (and how Melville got it horribly wrong), Paris sewers, educational reforms, and the hard life of becoming a writer. Once, when I contracted something (rubella? scarlet fever?) that made me sick for a couple of days but contagious for another three weeks, with nothing to do at home, I read the unabridged five volumes of War and Peace – at the beginning I did not, but at the end I did care about Russian aristocracy and military strategy (or “how to lose a land war in a Russian winter, part I”).
I don’t know about you, but before I picked up ‘Bonobo Hanshake’ I cared about Vanessa, being a friend, and was thus interested to see what happened after the ‘Monkeys’ book was published. I was interested in bonobo behavior (as we discussed it a lot back in grad school – I did my concentration in Animal Behavior and was a part of the Keck Center for Behavioral Biology) especially as I did not follow the scientific literature on it over the past 6-7 years. I had no idea how endangered bonobos were, nor did I know anything about the civil war in the Congo (and how it is related to the civil war in Rwanda). And while Vanessa did not emulate the 19th century writers, and instead of long chapters on each topic she intertwined brief updates on each of the four threads within each short chapter, I still learned a lot – enough to start caring about the apes, about the people of Congo, about the primatologists working in dangerous places, about individual bonobos and individual Congolese people whose lives intersected Vanessa’s over the past few years. More you know, more you care. So, even if the four themes of this book do not automatically excite you, I suggest you pick up the book – a couple of hours later, you will deeply care about it, know more, want to know even more, and will feel good about it.
Update: In strange synchronocity, my SciBlings Jason Goldman and Brian Switek also reviewed the book today.
Update: The book has now also been reviewed by DeLene Beeland, Sheril Kirshenbaum and Christie Wilcox.

Science Café Raleigh – The Human-Animal Bond

Hi Café Friends,
Our June Science Café (description below) will be held on Tuesday 6/15 at the Irregardless Café on Morgan Street. Our café speaker for the evening will be Dr. Dianne Dunning from the NCSU School of Veterinary Medicine. Join us for a thought provoking discussion with Dr. Dunning about the relationships humans have with animals in our increasingly crowded world.
The Human-Animal Bond
Tuesday June 15, 2010
Time: 6:30 – 8:30 pm with discussions beginning at 7:00 followed by Q&A
Location: The Irregardless Café, 901 W. Morgan Street, Raleigh 833-8898
Animals touch our daily lives — from the pets we keep, to the food we eat, to the health care advances we enjoy. Current animal welfare concerns include pet overpopulation, rescue and care of animals in disasters, treatment of food animals, biomedical research involving animals, and the affects of global urbanization and environmental change on wildlife. Our evolving human-animal bond and the mandate to be good stewards of animal welfare are at the heart of these concerns. Join our discussion about how the integration of veterinary medicine and animal science, as well as ethics and public policy, can dictate how successfully these concerns are addressed, and how the diverse needs of humans and animals are met on a local and global scale.
About the Speaker
Dr. Dianne Dunning is a clinical associate professor and the director of the Animal Welfare, Ethics and Public Policy Program (AWEPP) at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine. Through professional education, public service, research and public policy development, AWEPP seeks to explore and address issues including pet abandonment, animal abuse and fighting, companion animal loss and grief, and the link between animal health and human well being.
Please RSVP (Katey Ahmann: kateyDOTahmannATncdenrDOTgov ) if you are able to come – As always, I will be communicating with the restaurant so that we can have a good set-up for our group.
Looking forward to seeing eveyone on the 15th – hope you can come.

‘Bonobo Handshake’ coming soon to a bookstore near you

bonobo handshake.jpgVanessa Woods (website, old blog, new blog, Twitter) will be reading from her new book “Bonobo Handshake” (comes out May 27th – you can pre-order on amazon.com) at the Regulator in Durham on May 27th at 7pm, at Quail Ridge Books on June 9th at 7:30pm, and at Chapel Hill Borders on June 12th at 2pm.
I have interviewed Vanessa last year so you can learn more about her there.
I received a review copy recently and am halfway through. Once I finish I will post my book review here.
From Publishers Weekly:

Devoted to learning more about bonobos, a smaller, more peaceable species of primate than chimpanzees, and lesser known, Australian journalist Woods and her fiancé, scientist Brian Hare, conducted research in the bonobos’ only known habitat–civil war-torn Congo. Woods’s plainspoken, unadorned account traces the couple’s work at Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary, located outside Kinshasa in the 75-acre forested grounds of what was once Congo dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s weekend retreat. The sanctuary, founded in 1994 and run by French activist Claudine André, served as an orphanage for baby bonobos, left for dead after their parents had been hunted for bush meat; the sanctuary healed and nurtured them (assigning each a human caretaker called a mama), with the aim of reintroducing the animals to the wild. Hare had only previously conducted research on the more warlike, male-dominated chimpanzee, and needed Woods because she spoke French and won the animals’ trust; through their daily work, the couple witnessed with astonishment how the matriarchal bonobo society cooperated nicely using frequent sex, and could even inspire human behavior. When Woods describes her daily interaction with the bonobos, her account takes on a warm charm. Woods’s personable, accessible work about bonobos elucidates the marvelous intelligence and tolerance of this gentle cousin to humans.

Periodic Tables – next Durham NC science cafe: ‘The Importance of Being Dad: Paternal Care in Primates’

In ten days, new Periodic Tables:

May 11, 2010 at 7:00 P.M.
The Importance of Being Dad: Paternal Care in Primates
Although human males often get criticized for being “deadbeat dads”, the truth is that compared to most mammals, human males are simply outstanding fathers. Join us as Dr. Susan Alberts discusses why we don’t generally expect male mammals to provide paternal care (answer: because we think they usually can’t recognize their own offspring), and the unusual and surprising case of paternal care in a primate species where we least expect to find it.
In the baboons of the Amboseli basin of southern Kenya males differentiate their own offspring from other males’ offspring, and provide care to them. Dr. Alberts will talk about why this should be so, and what it means about males of all species and their tendencies to provide offspring care.
Speaker: Dr. Susan Alberts, Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at Duke University

Ant tea-party protest (video)


Hat-tip: Annalee Newitz:

Crazy Brazilian pranksters managed to get a colony of real ants to carry tiny protest signs in a demonstration against the insecticide Baygon. Need I say that I welcome our new insect overlords?

Ants Vs Crabs (video)

Army ants devour a crab:

I would not like to be that crab!
[via Michael Bok]

Woodpecker vs. egg eating Yellow-bellied Puffing Snake (video)


(hat-tip @tdelene @aubiefan on Twitter)

Jell-O Enrichment for Squirrel Monkeys at the Bronx Zoo (video)

Give A Squirrel A Helping Hand (video)

Interesting how the parent is steering the youngster towards the bag, trying to get it to use it as a prop!

The Amazing Bouncing Pebble Toad (video)


Seen on DeLene’s Facebook wall….

The craziest fish jaws ever (video)


(via Deep Sea News)

Bird Tango (video)

Professor Nicky Clayton researches the social behaviour, intelligence and dance credentials of birds! As an accomplished dancer in her own right she has fused her passions by collaborating with Rambert Dance Company to produce a Darwinian inspired ballet called The Comedy of Change.

No more ‘alpha male’!

L. David Mech is a famous wolf researcher (and a blogger about his research). If you have heard of a concept of “alpha-male” it is because of ideas from an old book of his, about social structure of wolf societies.
However, most of the early research on wolves was done on artificially built groups, e.g., wolves caught in various places all put together in a single wolf pen at a zoo. In such rare and unnatural situations, these stranger-wolves do indeed form social hierarchies (or “pecking order” – a term that arose from studies of chickens). But such situations rarely if ever happen out in nature. A pack of wolves is usually composed of Mother, Father and their (sometimes quite grown-up) offspring: closely related individuals who know each other well.
These days, it is L. David Mech himself who is working the hardest to change the way we think about wolf (and dog) packs and to eliminate the term “alpha male” at least from studies of canid behavior if not from metaphors about human societies (hat-tip to Jim Henley). Decades have passed since his book came out, much research was done in the meantime (including by him and his students) and we now know better. That is how science is supposed to work:

The concept of the alpha wolf is well ingrained in the popular wolf literature at least partly because of my book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” written in 1968, published in 1970, republished in paperback in 1981, and currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it. Although most of the book’s info is still accurate, much is outdated. We have learned more about wolves in the last 40 years then in all of previous history.
One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. “Alpha” implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today, the “breeding male,” “breeding female,” or “male parent,” “female parent,” or the “adult male” or “adult female.” In the rare packs that include more than one breeding animal, the “dominant breeder” can be called that, and any breeding daughter can be called a “subordinate breeder.”


Learn more about the wolves here.
Update: Thanks DeLene for alerting me to a recent Mech’s article Whataver Happened to the term Alpha Wolf (PDF)

Alcoholic Vervet Monkeys! – Weird Nature – BBC animals (video)

Why social insects do not suffer from ill effects of rotating and night shift work?

ResearchBlogging.orgMost people are aware that social insects, like honeybees, have three “sexes”: queens, drones and workers.
Drones are males. Their only job is to fly out and mate with the queen after which they drop dead.
Female larvae fed ‘royal jelly’ emerge as queens. After mating, the young queen takes a bunch of workers with her and sets up a new colony. She lives much longer than other bees and spends her life laying gazillions of eggs continuously around the clock, while being fed by workers.
Female larvae not fed the ‘royal jelly’ emerge as workers.
Workers perform a variety of jobs in the hive. Some are hive-cleaners, some are ‘nurses’ (they feed the larvae), some are queen’s chaperones (they feed the queen), some are guards (they defend the hive and attack potential enemies) and some are foragers (they collect nectar and pollen from flowers and bring it back to the hive).
What most people are not aware of, though, is that there is a regular progression of ‘jobs’ that each worker bee goes through. The workers rotate through the jobs in an orderly fashion. They all start out doing generalized jobs, e.g., cleaning the hive. Then they move up to doing a more specialized job, for instance being a nurse or taking care of the queen. Later, they become guards, and in the end, when they are older, they become foragers – the terminal phase.
This pattern of behavioral development is called “age polyethism” (poly = many, ethism = expression of behavior), or sometimes “temporal polyethism” (image from BeeSpotter):
Age polyethism.jpg
This developmental progression in behavior is accompanied by changes in brain structure, patterns of neurotransmitter and hormone synthesis and secretion, and patterns of gene expression in the central nervous system.
Some years ago (as in “more than ten years ago”) Gene Robinson and his students started looking at daily patterns of activity in honeybees. The workers in their early stages are doing jobs inside the hive, where it is always dark. They clean the hive, take care of the eggs and pupae, and feed the larvae and the queen around the clock. Each individual bee sometimes works and sometimes sleeps, without any semblance of a 24-hour pattern. Different individuals work and sleep at different, apparently random times. The hive as a whole is thus constantly busy – there is always a large subset of workers performing their duties, day and night.
As they get older, they start doing the jobs, like being guards, that expose them to the outside of the hive, thus to the light-dark and temperature cycles of the outside world.
Finally, the foragers only go out during the daytime and have clear and distinct daily rhythms. Furthermore, the foragers have to consult an internal clock in order to orient towards the Sun in their travels, as well as to be able to communicate the distance and location of flowers to their mates in the hive using the ‘waggle dance’. As bees are social insects, it is difficult to keep individuals in isolation for longer periods of time, but it has been done successfully and, in such studies, foragers exhibit both freerunning (in constant darkness) and entrained (in light-dark cycles) circadian rhythms, while younger workers do not.
In the Robinson lab, then PhD student Dan Toma and postdoc Guy Bloch did much of the early and exciting work on figuring out how the rhythmicity develops in individual worker bees as they pass through the procession of ‘jobs’.
In an early study, they measured levels of expression of mRNA of the core clock gene Period (Per). The gene was expressed at low levels and no visible daily rhythm in early-stage workers, but at much higher levels and in a circadian fashion in foragers.
As the levels of expression were measured crudely – in entire bee brains – it was impossible at the time to be sure which of the two potential mechanisms were operating: 1) the celluular clock did not work until the bee became a forager, or 2) the cellular clocks were working, but different cells were not synchronized with each other, producing a collectively arrhythmic output: both as measured by gene expression of the entire brain and as measured by behavior of the live bee.
Either way, the study showed correlation: the appearance of the functional circadian clock coincided with other changes in the brain structure, brain chemistry and bee behavior. They could not say at the time what causes what, or even if the syncronicity of changes was purely coincidental. They needed to go beyond correlation and for that they needed to experimentally change the timing to see if various processes can be dissociated or if they are tightly bound to each other.
And there is a clever way to do this! First, they took some hives and removed all the foragers from it. This disrupted the harmony of the division of labor in the hive – too many cleaners and nurses, but nobody is bring the food home. When that happens, the behavioral development of other workers speeds up dramatically – in no time, some nurses and guards develop into foragers. And, lo and behold, the moment they became foragers, they developed rhythms in behavior and rhythms of the Per gene expression in the brain. So, as the development is accelerated, everything about it is accelerated at the same rate: gene expression, brain structure, neurochemistry, and behavioral rhythmicity.
Nice, but then they did something even better. They removed most of the cleaners and nurses from some hives. Again, the balance of the division of labor was disrupted – plenty of food is arriving into the hive but there is not enough bees inside to take care of that food, process it, feed the larvae, etc. What happened then? Well, some of the foragers went back into the hive and started performing the house-keeping duties instead of flying out and about. And, interestingly, their brain structure and chemistry reverted its development to resemble that of cleaners and nurses. They lost behavioral rhythmicity and started working randomly around the clock. And the rhythm of clock-gene expression disappeared as well.
So, genetic, neural, endocrine, circadian and behavioral changes all go together at all times. Social structure of the colony, through the patterns of pheromones present in the hive, affects the gene expression, brain development and function, and behavior of individual bees. Just like the gene expression and behavioral patterns, the patterns of melatonin synthesis and secretion in honeybee brains is low and arrhythmic in young workers and becomes greater and rhythmic in foragers. With the recent sequencing of the honeybee genome, the potential for future research in honeybee chronobiology looks promising and exciting.
But are these findings generalizable or are they specific to honeybees? How about other species of bees or other social insects, like wasps, ants and termites? Are they the same?
Other species of socials insects have been studied in terms of age polyethism as well. The earliest study I am aware of (let me know if there is an older one) studying behavioral rhytmicity in relation to behavioral development was a 2004 Naturwissenschaften paper by Sharma et al. on harvester ants. In that study, different castes of worker ants exhibited different patterns – some were strongly diurnal, some nocturnal, some had strange shifts in period, and some were arrhythmic. Those with rhythms could entrain to light-dark cycles as well as display freerunning rhythms in constant darkness.
Just last month, a new paper on harvester ants came out in BMC Ecology (Open Access). In it, Ingram et al. show that foragers have circadian rhythms (both in constant darkness and entrained to LD cycles) in expression of Period gene (as well as behavioral rhythms), while ants working on tasks inside the hive do not exhibit any rhythms either in clock-gene expression or in behavior, suggesting that the connection between age polyethism and the development of the circadian clock may be a universal property of all social insects.
We know that in humans, night-shift and rotating-shift schedules are bad for health as the body is in the perpetual state of jet-lag: the numerous clocks in our bodies are not synchronized with each other. We have evolved to be diurnal animals, entrained to environmental light cycles and not traveling over many time zones within hours, or working around the clock. Social insects have evolved a different strategy to deal with the potentially ill effects of shift-work: switch off the clock entirely until one develops far enough that time-keeping becomes a requirement.
Yang, L., Qin, Y., Li, X., Song, D., & Qi, M. (2007). Brain melatonin content and polyethism in adult workers of Apis mellifera and Apis cerana (Hym., Apidae) Journal of Applied Entomology, 131 (9-10), 734-739 DOI: 10.1111/j.1439-0418.2007.01229.x
Sharma, V., Lone, S., Goel, A., & Chandrashekaran, M. (2004). Circadian consequences of social organization in the ant species Camponotus compressus Naturwissenschaften, 91 (8) DOI: 10.1007/s00114-004-0544-6
Ingram, K., Krummey, S., & LeRoux, M. (2009). Expression patterns of a circadian clock gene are associated with age-related polyethism in harvester ants, Pogonomyrmex occidentalis BMC Ecology, 9 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1472-6785-9-7

Mating slugs

I know PZ has recently posted a picture and a video of slugs mating. But these pictures were taken here in North Carolina, by blog reader Kris Barstow, who says:

The year was 1999 plus or minus a year, the site was a few miles from Asheboro, NC. I don’t recall the season, but it was warm, and there is definitely a chill there in the cold seasons, so I assume spring or summer. It was about half an hour after sunrise; I was walking my dog. I would occasionally carry my camera “just because …”
I saw these two acting strangely on the surface of the wooden shed. They actually attached themselves, then went into freefall. They twined around each other, and then a moist pouch was extruded below them. White froth was present but in moderation.
I don’t recall what exactly happened after that. They remained suspended for some time, and the likeliest thing is that I left them to their passion.

SlugLove1.jpgSlogLove2.jpgSlugLove3.jpgSlugLove4.jpg
So, can someone identify the species?

Spiders On Drugs


If you missed it before, I have written about this kind of research before – this is interesting stuff, as much as the video is just plain funny (video, hat-tip: Psique).

The six secrets of squid sex

w00t! Miriam Goldstein had a piece published in Slate! The real references to that piece arehere.

Circadian Rhythm of Aggression in Crayfish

ResearchBlogging.orgLong-time readers of this blog remember that, some years ago, I did a nifty little study on the Influence of Light Cycle on Dominance Status and Aggression in Crayfish. The department has moved to a new building, the crayfish lab is gone, I am out of science, so chances of following up on that study are very low. And what we did was too small even for a Least Publishable Unit, so, in order to have the scientific community aware of our results, I posted them (with agreement from my co-authors) on my blog. So, although I myself am unlikely to continue studying the relationship between the circadian system and the aggressive behavior in crayfish, I am hoping others will.
And a paper just came out on exactly this topic – Circadian Regulation of Agonistic Behavior in Groups of Parthenogenetic Marbled Crayfish, Procambarus sp. by Abud J. Farca Luna, Joaquin I. Hurtado-Zavala, Thomas Reischig and Ralf Heinrich from the Institute for Zoology, University of Gottingen, Germany:

Crustaceans have frequently been used to study the neuroethology of both agonistic behavior and circadian rhythms, but whether their highly stereotyped and quantifiable agonistic activity is controlled by circadian pacemakers has, so far, not been investigated. Isolated marbled crayfish (Procambarus spec.) displayed rhythmic locomotor activity under 12-h light:12-h darkness (LD12:12) and rhythmicity persisted after switching to constant darkness (DD) for 8 days, suggesting the presence of endogenous circadian pacemakers. Isogenetic females of parthenogenetic marbled crayfish displayed all behavioral elements known from agonistic interactions of previously studied decapod species including the formation of hierarchies. Groups of marbled crafish displayed high frequencies of agonistic encounters during the 1st hour of their cohabitation, but with the formation of hierarchies agonistic activities were subsequently reduced to low levels. Group agonistic activity was entrained to periods of exactly 24 h under LD12:12, and peaks of agonistic activity coincided with light-to-dark and dark-to-light transitions. After switching to DD, enhanced agonistic activity was dispersed over periods of 8-to 10-h duration that were centered around the times corresponding with light-to-dark transitions during the preceding 3 days in LD12:12. During 4 days under DD agonistic activity remained rhythmic with an average circadian period of 24.83 ± 1.22 h in all crayfish groups tested. Only the most dominant crayfish that participated in more than half of all agonistic encounters within the group revealed clear endogenous rhythmicity in their agonistic behavior, whereas subordinate individuals, depending on their social rank, initiated only between 19.4% and 0.03% of all encounters in constant darkness and displayed no statistically significant rhythmicity. The results indicate that both locomotion and agonistic social interactions are rhythmic behaviors of marbled crayfish that are controlled by light-entrained endogenous pacemakers.

I think the best way for me to explain what they did in this study is to do a head-to-head comparison between our study and their study – it is striking how the two are complementary! On one hand, there is no overlap in methods at all (so no instance of scooping for sure), yet on the other, both studies came up with similar results, thus strengthening each other’s findings. You may want to read my post for the introduction to the topic, as I explain there why studying aggression in crayfish is important and insightful, what was done to date, and what it all means, as well as the standard methodology in the field. So, let’s see how the two studies are similar and how the two differ:
1) We were sure we used the Procambarus clarkii species. They are probably not exactly sure what species they had, so they denoted it as Procambarus sp., noting in the Discussion that it was certainly NOT the Procambarus clarkii, which makes sense as our animals were wild-caught in the USA and theirs in Germany. As both studies got similar results, this indicates that this is not a single-species phenomenon, but can be generalizable at least to other crayfish, if not broader to other crustaceans, arhtropods or all invertebrates.
2) We used only males in our study. They used only females. In crayfish, both sexes fight. It is nice, thus, to note that other aspects of the behavior are similar between sexes.
3) We used the term ‘aggression’. They use the term ‘agonistic behavior’, which is scientese for ‘aggression’, invented to erase any hints of anthropomorphism. Not a bad strategy, generally, as assumed aggression in some other species has been later shown to be something else (e.g., homosexual behavior), but in crayfish it is most certainly aggression: they meet, they display, they fight, and if there is no place to escape, one often kills the other – there is no ‘loving’ going on there, for sure.
4) The sizes of animals were an order of magnitude different between the two studies. Their crayfish weighed around 1-2g while ours were 20-40g in body mass. This may be due to species differences, but is more likely due to age – they used juveniles while we used adults. Again, it is nice to see that results in different age groups are comparable.
5) We did not measure general locomotor activity of our animals in isolation. We, with proper caveats, used aggressive behavior of paired animals as a proxy for general locomotor activity, and were straightforward about it – we measured aggressive behavior alone in a highly un-natural setup. As Page and Larimer (1972) have done these studies before, we did not feel the need to replicate those with our animals.
The new study, however, did monitor gross locomotor activity of isolated crayfish. Their results, confirming what Page and Larimer found out, demonstrate once again that activity rhythms are a poor marker of the underlying circadian pacemaker (which is why Terry Page later focused on the rhythm of electrical activity of the eye, electroretinogram – ERR – in subsequent studies) in crayfish. Powerful statistics tease out rhythmicity in most individuals, but this is not a rhythm I would use if I wanted to do more complex studies, e.g., analysis of entrainment to exotic LD cycles or to build and interpret a Phase-Response Curve. Just look at their representative example (and you know this is their best):
crayfish image 1.JPG
You can barely make out the rhythm even in the light-dark cycle (white-gray portion of the actograph) and the rhythms in constant darkness (solid gray) are even less well defined – thus only statistical analysis (bottom) can discover rhythms in such records. The stats reveal a peak of activity in the early night and a smaller peak of activity at dawn, similarly to what Page and Larimer found in their study, and similar to what we saw during our experiments.
6) They used an arena of a much larger size than ours. We did it on purpose – we wanted to ‘force’ the animals to fight as much as possible by putting them in tight quarters where they cannot avoid each other, as we were interested in physiology and wanted it intensified so we could get clearly measurable (if exaggerated) results. Their study is, thus, more ecologically relevant, but one always has to deal with pros and cons in such decisions: more realistic vs. more powerful. They chose realism, we chose power. Together, the two approaches reinforce and complement each other.
7) As I explained in my old post – there are two methodological approaches in this line of research:

Two standard experimental practices are used in the study of aggression in crustaceans. In one, two or more individuals are placed together in an aquarium and left there for a long period of time (days to weeks). After the initial aggressive encounters, the social status of an individual can be deduced from its control of resources, like food, shelter and mates.
In the other paradigm, two individuals are allowed to fight for a brief period of time (less than an hour), after which they are isolated again and re-tested the next day at the same time of day.

They used the first method. We modified the second one (testing repeatedly, every 3 hours over 24 hours, instead of just once a day).
What they did was place 6 individuals in the aquarium, a couple of hours before lights-off, then monitor their aggressive behavior over several days. What they found, similar to us, is that the most intense fights resulting in a stable social hierarchy occur in the early portion of the night:
crayfish image 2.JPG
Once the social hierarchy is established on that first night, the levels of aggression drop significantly, and occasional bouts of fights happen at all times, with perhaps a slight increase at the times of light switches: both off and on. Released into constant darkness, the pattern continues, with the most dominant individual initiating aggressive encounters a little more often during light-transitions then between them. The other five animals had no remaining rhythm of agonistic behavior: they just responded to attacks by the Numero Uno when necessary.
In our study we tried to artificially elevate the levels of aggression by repeatedly re-isolating and re-meeting two animals at a time. And even with that protocol, we saw the most intense fights at early night, and most conclusive fights, i.e., those that resulted in stable social hierarchy, also occuring at early nights, while the activity at other time of the day or night were much lower.
8) The goals of two studies differed as well, i.e., we asked somewhat different questions.
Our study was designed to provide some background answers that would tell us if a particular hypothesis is worth testing: winning a fight elevates serotonin in the nervous system; elevated serotonin correlated with the hightened aggression in subsequent fights, more likely leading to subsequent victories; crayfish signal dominance status to each other via urine; melatonin is a metabolic product of serotonin; melatonin is produced only during the night with a very sharp and high peak at the beginning of the night; if there is more serotonin in the nervous system, there should be more melatonin in the urine; perhaps melatonin may be the signature molecule in the urine indicating social status.
In order to see if this line of thinking is worth pursuing, we needed to see, first, if the most aggressive bouts happen in the early night and if the most decisive fights (those that lead to stable hiararchy) happen in the early night. This is what we found, indicating that our hypothesis is worth testing in the future.
They asked a different set of questions:
Is there a circadian rhythm of locomotor activity? They found: Yes.
Is there a circadian rhythm of aggression? They found: Yes.
Do the patterns of general activity and aggressive activity correlate with each other? They found: Yes.
Does the aggression rhythm persist in constant darkness conditions? They found: Yes.
Do all individuals show circadian rhythm of aggression? They found: No. Only the most dominant individual does. The others just defend themselves when attacked.
Is there social entrainment in crayfish, i.e., do they entrain their rhythms to each other in constant conditions? They found: No. All of them just keep following their own inherent circadian periods and drift apart after a while.
Is there a pattern of temporal competitive exclusion, i.e., do submissive individuals shift their activity patterns so as not to have to meet The Badassest One? They found: No. All of them just keep following their own inherent circadian periods.
So, a nice study overall, the first publication I know of that attempts to connect the literature on circadian rhythms in crayfish to the literature on aggressive behavior in crayfish.
Except….

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Evolution in PLoS ONE

Evolution is the theme of the month for January at PLoS ONE, so we have picked , for your pleasure, some of our papers for the Top picks in Evolutionary Biology. In conjuction with this, I have also conducted an interview with our Evolution Section Editor Dr.Tom Tregenza.
Dr.Tom Tregenza studies sexual selection and sexual conflict in crickets, both in the lab and in the field, and we discuss some of his research in the interview. He is also involved in a collaborative study of the amazing mimic octopus – see the movie below – so I hope you go and check out the interview:

Department of Justice poised to ban all non-dog Service Animals

This is your weekend reading – lots of it, some fascinating, some enraging, but perhaps if enough people are aware and scream loudly enough, something can be done:
Assistance Monkeys, Ducks, Parrots, Pigs and Ducks … Should the law protect them?
More Follow Up on NYT Story About Assistance Creatures
More Assistance Creature Follow Up – The History of Service Monkeys, Plus Monkey Waiters
Newsflash! DOJ ADA Changes Leaked — All Animals Set to Be Banned Except Dogs
DoJ’s Rationale Behind Banning Non-Canine Service Animals
DOJ’s Proposal and Rationale for Allowing Psychiatric Service Animals (dogs only)
Service Animals on the Radio, a Horse Fetching a Beer, Plus Blog Maintenance Downtime

An awesome Geonemertes australiensis? (video)

See the discussion about identification of this strange animal here. Is it correct?

Grackles are Smart! (video)

Bird of Paradise Mating Behavior (video)

Amazing animal behavior: Battle at Kruger (video)

Leopard takes down 2 Wildebeest (video)

Tigress Kill 14 foot Long Crocodile (video)

Twin baby moose in sprinkler (video)

Crime of Passion (video)

Naughty male Australian satin bower bird selectively steals blue items to decorate his nest. The female bower birds rate their partner by their home decor so they do a lot of stealing.

Hummingbird Nest Documentary (video)

Bizarre Squid Sex (no video)

In National Geographic:

A new investigation into the tangled sex lives of deep-sea squid has uncovered a range of bizarre mating techniques. The cephalopods’ intimate encounters include cutting holes into their partners for sex, swapping genders, and deploying flesh-burrowing sperm. These and other previously unknown reproductive strategies were documented in a survey of ten squid species living worldwide at depths of between 984 and 3,937 feet (300 and 1,200 meters). Study leader Henk-Jan Hoving, a Ph.D. student at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, examined squid caught during research voyages as well as preserved museum specimens.

Of course, you can find many more examples of Weird Cephalopod Sex on Pharyngula….

This is your honeybee. And this is your honeybee on drugs.

A well-written press release on a very well done and exciting study:
Honey bees on cocaine dance more, changing ideas about the insect brain:

In a study published in 2007, Robinson and his colleagues reported that treatment with octopamine caused foraging honey bees to dance more often. This indicated that octopamine played a role in honey bee dance behavior. It also suggested a framework for understanding the evolution of altruistic behavior, Robinson said.
“The idea behind that study was that maybe this mechanism that structures selfish behavior – eating – was co-opted during social evolution to structure social behavior – that is, altruistic behavior,” he said. “So if you’re selfish and you’re jacked up on octopamine, you eat more, but if you’re altruistic you don’t eat more but you tell others about it so they can also eat.”
But it was not even known if insects have a bona fide reward system. That question led the researchers to study the effects of cocaine on honey bee behavior. Cocaine – a chemical used by the coca plant to defend itself from leaf-eating insects – interferes with octopamine transit in insect brains and has undeniable effects on reward systems in mammals, including humans. It does this by influencing the chemically related dopamine system.
Dopamine plays a role in the human ability to predict and respond to pleasure or reward. It is also important to motor function and modulates many other functions, including cognition, sleep, mood, attention and learning.
One aspect of reward in the human brain involves altruistic behavior, Robinson said. Thinking about or performing an altruistic act has been found to excite the pleasure centers of the human brain.
“There are various lines of thought that indicate that one way of structuring society is to have altruistic behavior be pleasurable,” he said.
Because cocaine causes honey bees to dance more – an altruistic behavior – the researchers believe their results support the idea that there is a reward system in the insect brain, something that has never before been shown.

To determine whether the cocaine was merely causing the bees to move more or to dance at inappropriate times or places, the researchers conducted a second set of experiments. These tests showed that non-foraging honey bees don’t dance, even when exposed to cocaine. They showed that foragers on cocaine do not move more than other bees (except when dancing), and that they do not dance at inappropriate times or in locations other than the dance floor.
The researchers also found that the bees on cocaine do not dance every time they go on a foraging excursion. And, most important, their dances are not distorted.
“It’s not like they’re gyrating wildly on the dance floor out of control,” Robinson said. “This is a patterned response. It gives distance information, location information. That information is intact.”
In a final experiment that also shows parallels to human behavior, the researchers found that honey bees on cocaine experience withdrawal symptoms when the drug is withheld.
“This study provides strong support for the idea that bees have a reward system, that it’s been co-opted and it’s now involved in a social behavior, which motivates them to tell their hive mates about the food that they’ve found,” Robinson said.

Read the whole thing….

This is an awful lot of REALLY fast dolphins! (video)

Dolphins ClipClick here for more free videos
A dolphin stampede!

This pork is tough! (video)


[From]

Jumping Spider courtship behavior


More movies here