(no subject)

My friend, thereallinda (I haven't figured out yet how to make the link thing with the little heads work), introduced me to the grand pastime of looking for treepeople. These are for her: first, a dancing tree I saw while hiking with my husband around Mountain Lake Resort in southwestern Virginia:

When spam is more interesting than regular e-mail . . .

I'm afraid to look at the message itself, but it's obviously something I'd like if it were actually what the subject line suggested:

"Boann has gotten her drum and something perhaps best described as Q-Celtic rap is about to begin"

I don't know who Boann is, but Q-Celtic rap with drumming sounds like lots of fun.
fossil, critter, dromeosaur

The better angels of our nature

Bonobos are just plain cool, anyway, what with all that sex and all.  Now it seems that they've got things figured out better than chimps do.  Makes me hope someone figures out that they're our closest living relatives, after all.  Gotta love that genital rubbing . . .

Score One for the Sociable Ape

By Greg Miller
ScienceNOW Daily News
8 March 2007

Chimpanzees and bonobos are our closest primate relatives, but the two apes have very different personalities. While primatologists have often noted nasty, competitive behavior among power-hungry chimps, bonobos have a reputation as free-loving peaceniks. Now, a behavioral study that directly compares the two apes suggests that the bonobos' more cordial nature enables them to cooperate more successfully than chimps in some situations.

Most researchers believe that humans shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos between 5 million and 7 million years ago (for a different take, see ScienceNOW, 27 February). Both of these apes may have something to tell us about the evolution of human behavior, yet most research has focused on chimps, in large part because bonobos are endangered--perhaps as few as 10,000 remain. In the new study, researchers worked with bonobos at a sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo and with chimps at a Ugandan sanctuary.

The different natures of the two apes became clear when the researchers, led by Brian Hare, a biological anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, presented pairs of bonobos and pairs of chimps with plates of fruit. Bonobo pairs reacted by playing with each other and even rubbing genitals--a frequent stress-reliever in bonobo society. They also shared the bounty more often than not. Chimps, on the other hand, generally avoided their partner and shared food less than half of the time.

Next, the researchers tested both apes on a cooperation task they'd used previously with chimps, putting pairs of animals in an enclosure and placing a fruit-laden platform just outside. The only way to bring the food within reach was to simultaneously pull two ropes connected to the ends of the platform, but the ropes were too far apart for one animal to reach on its own (ScienceNOW, 2 March 2006). Both chimps and bonobos teamed up with their cagemate to pull the ropes when the fruit was cut up into easily sharable pieces, the researchers found. But when the food was cut into big chunks, bonobos cooperated to haul in the fruit more often than chimps did. And when the chimps did cooperate, they almost always adopted a winner-take-all mentality, with one animal hogging the entire bounty, the researchers report online today in Current Biology. Because bonobos are more tolerant of each other and more willing to share, they're able to cooperate more effectively than chimps in some situations, the researchers conclude.

The findings "open a bit of a door on the bonobo mind that we didn't have before," says Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Although field studies have found little evidence of cooperative behavior in wild bonobos, it may simply be that their lush forest habitat provides enough easily accessible food that teamwork isn't necessary, de Waal says. We often look to chimps for clues to human behavior, he notes, but "this study shows another side to our primate ancestry."

cherry, flower

And the pedestal just keeps rocking . . .

So now it appears that lab rats are capable of metacognition, another trait we thought we only shared with dolphins and other primates. Inquiring minds want to know: how big a step is it from metacognition to meta-analysis and post-modern criticism?

The Rodent Who Knew Too Much

By Gisela Telis
ScienceNOW Daily News
8 March 2007
Already famous for swimming through sewers and surviving under subway rails, rats can now claim a more sophisticated talent: thinking about thinking. It's not epistemology, but a study published today in Current Biology reports the first evidence that rats know the limits of their own knowledge--a capacity long thought to belong only to the animal kingdom's top brains.

People experience metacognition, or gauging their own knowledge, on a daily basis; anyone who's ever had a sinking feeling during an exam knows it well. But attempts to detect metacognition in animals have met with little success, in large part because animals can't tell researchers what they're thinking. Scientists must instead rely on behavioral clues: Monkeys place lower bets on their answers when given a difficult test, for example, and dolphins waver when asked to distinguish between two similar sounds. Thus far, however, smaller-brained animals, such as pigeons, have shown no signs of metacognition in the lab.

Would rats be any different? Neuroscientist Jonathon Crystal of the University of Georgia in Athens and his graduate student, Allison Foote, put the rodents to the self-knowledge test by asking them to classify sounds. First, the researchers trained the rats to associate a short burst of static--lasting about 2 seconds--with one lever, and a long burst of static--lasting about 8 seconds--with another lever. Pushing the correct lever yielded a tasty reward of six food pellets; pushing the incorrect lever yielded no food and no chance to try again. The rats also learned that they could get half the reward without making a choice, by poking their nose into a food trough.

Then the metacognition test began. Crystal and Foote placed the rats in a cage with the levers and the food trough and started playing the static sounds. Knowing they could get a bigger reward by pushing the correct lever, the rats shunned the trough and began tapping. But things changed when the researchers made the test more difficult. In a second set of experiments, the team played more intermediate bursts of static that were harder to classify as "short" or "long." This time, the rats were twice as likely to go for the trough and not bother with the levers. "The harder you make the test, the more likely they are to decline [to take it]," says Crystal.

To confirm that the rats were skipping the exam because they knew they'd get the wrong answer, Crystal and Foote repeated the hard test without the food trough. When forced to take the test, the rats performed poorly, just as they probably knew they would. "Rats are capable of reflecting on their internal mental states," Crystal concludes. In that respect, he notes, they behave just as primates and dolphins do.

"It's an important study," says University of California, Los Angeles, metacognition researcher Nate Kornell. "It tells us that the mental processes of rats are more similar to ours than we thought." It may also tell us that supposedly smart animals don't have the market cornered on awareness, he adds, because "if this is true for rats and monkeys, then it's probably true for other mammals as well."

Don't leave the lights on

I knew that city lights were problematic for migrating birds -- I didn't realize how far the problem went, though.  So douse those lights (and find something fun to do in the dark :)

Bright Nights Dim Survival Chances

By Phil Berardelli
ScienceNOW Daily News
22 February 2007

WASHINGTON, D.C.--At a conference here yesterday, researchers reported that even low levels of light from incandescent, fluorescent, or other humanmade sources can befuddle creatures that require a period of nighttime darkness. The findings add to the evidence that artificial lighting is interfering with the development, reproduction, and survival of species across the taxonomic spectrum.

All animals--from one-celled critters to humans--produce melatonin, a hormone that regulates cell metabolism, protects against the formation of cancerous tumors in larger animals, and allows many mammals and humans to enjoy restful sleep. But the hormone accumulates most efficiently in recurring or total darkness, such as in regular day-night cycles. When those cycles are disrupted, so is melatonin production. On the behavioral side, even seeing artificial illumination--such as street lights or indoor lamps shining through windows--at night can throw off foraging and migration in many species.

To find out how brighter nights are altering metabolism and reproduction, herpetologist Bryant Buchanan of Utica College in New York and colleagues exposed snails and larval frogs to different levels of artificial light over periods lasting up to 2 months. With even the slightest amount of artificial light, the percentage of frogs developing normally dropped as low as 10%, compared with about 40% under more natural lighting conditions. The snail experiments produced similar results. Artificial illumination appears to produce "a dose response, not an on-off switch," Buchanan says. Constant lighting at night also suppressed the frogs' normal calling behavior and kept the snails hiding under leaf litter instead of searching for food.

Buchanan's findings are consistent with results for other species, says ecologist Travis Longcore of The Urban Wildlands Group in Los Angeles, California. "The introduction of light--even light that we would consider dim--will disrupt the natural cycles of animals, including humans," he says. An overlooked problem, he adds, is that outdoor lighting can hamper attempts to protect endangered wildlife living in or near urban areas. Longcore says he knows of one species of snake that disappeared from an urban habitat specifically set aside for it after steady levels of artificial light apparently disrupted its predation patterns, either by exposing it to its prey or to its own predators. "If we don't take [lighting effects] into account," he says, "our best-laid conservation plans will not succeed."