The study of animal behavior requires careful attention to subtle assumptions and sources of bias. One particularly interesting example of this is how biases are built into our language. Let’s take male and female birds sitting close together.
Back when the term “pair bond” was applied to this behavior, scientists though that most birds were monogamous partners that stayed together for multiple years. So, this term conjures up a nice notion of ‘devoted couples spending time together being intimate’. The problem is that this leads us to think we know the function of a behavior, when often we really don’t. It leads to a bias in how we view a behavior. Read more
Recent papers in Nature and PLoS One promise to revolutionize how we understand human biology and disease. As part of NIH’s Human Microbiome Project, researchers used sophisticated genome sequencing techniques to discover that there are more than 10,000 microbial species inhabiting the human body.
Take a listen to this mind blowing discussion from NPR’s On Point about the myriad of functions performed by these bacteria, fungi, and viruses; and how modern life is is thought to be altering our microbal “ecosystem.” Well worth the listen!
Here’s a nice article By Amanda Schaffer (NY Times, May 28, 2012) that summarizes new research about how fish detect the presence of predators. It’s really quite cool, and a little bizarre. Keep in mind the concept of umwelt, and imagine what it might be like if we sensed our world in a similar manner.
When one fish is injured, others nearby may dart, freeze, huddle, swim to the bottom or leap from the water. The other fish know that their school mate has been harmed. But how? In the 1930s, Karl von Frisch, the famous ethologist, noted this behavior in minnows. He theorized that injured fish release a substance that is transmitted by smell and causes alarm. But Dr. von Frisch never identified the chemical composition of the signal. He just called it schreckstoff, or “scary stuff.”
Today, the NY Times features some amazing photographs from Joel Sartore, a freelance photographer for National Geographic.
The following article by Carl Zimmer appeared in the New York Times on 29 March 2012.
“Scientists have been alarmed and puzzled by declines in bee populations in the United States and other parts of the world. They have suspected that pesticides are playing a part, but to date their experiments have yielded conflicting, ambiguous results. In Thursday’s issue of the journal Science, two teams of researchers published studies suggesting that low levels of a common pesticide can have significant effects on bee colonies”. Read More
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This fascinating video of Ayumu the chimp excelling at memory tasks has been going around the net. The results of the study in the video were published by Sana Inoue and Tetsuro Matsuzaw (Current Biology 17:1004-1005). Ayumu performed better at this memory task than humans, and younger chimps performed better than older ones. They concluded that this ability was due to having better eidectic memory, which is ‘the memory capability to retain an accurate, detailed image of a complex scene or pattern’. Pretty amazing. I wonder how good you or I would be if we practiced this for years?
You can read more about eidectic memory here.
In Berlin in a courtyard surrounded by high apartment buildings in the summer of 1904, there is a man and his horse. The man is Herr von Osten who taught mathematics to grade school children. His horse is Hans and the two are obviously very close and von Osten is very gentle with his horse. Herr von Osten asks Hans questions, usually mathematical ones, and the horse answers by tapping out his right foot on the ground. A shake of the head is zero. When the answer is large, Hans taps quickly, when the answer is small he taps slowly, as though he knew the answer in advance. Read more