Flapping while running up a ramp takes far
less energy than flight at the same angle.
What’s the News: How did birds get their wings? And how did they start using them to fly? These questions have bedeviled evolutionary biologists for more than a century, and with flight’s origins long buried, a lot of careful measurements of how modern birds work combined with clever guesswork has resulted in several fiercely differing theories. The two major camps have proto-birds either dropping from trees or running along the ground before finally taking to the air.
A new study lends credence to the idea that flapping wings while running could have been involved by showing that it requires much less energy than flying while still helping birds get over obstacles. This suggests that it could have been an easy way for proto-birds to start going through the motions.
What’s the News: While you may be able to hide your age with makeup and plastic surgery, don’t think that your deception is foolproof. Researchers have now developed a technique to ascertain your age to within five years using only your saliva. The new method, published in the journal PLoS One, could someday be used by forensic experts to pinpoint the age of crime suspects.
What’s the News: In the animal kingdom, prey species must follow one rule above all others: keep away from predators. To do this, some animals take chemical cues from the urine they stumble upon. Now, new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science has identified a single molecule in the urine of many mammalian carnivores that causes rodents to scurry in fear. This chemical could eventually help scientists understand instinctual behavior in animals.
What’s the News: We walking, talking agglomerations of cells have always thought of multicellular life as a profound jump in evolution. The first organisms were just single cells, but at some point, they began to work together for the good of the whole, divvying up tasks like nutrient transport and cellular messaging. Eventually, these colonies became the complex multicellular life that we know and love.
But maybe being multicellular isn’t as difficult to achieve as we thought. Scientists presenting at the Society for the Study of Evolution conference have, over just a couple months, gotten single-celled yeast to grow into colonies that function as multicellular organisms.
What’s the News: Parrots are even less bird-brained than previously thought, suggests a new study in the journal Biology Letters. In a series of tests, researchers have learned that some African grey parrots can use logical reasoning to uncover hidden food.
What’s the News: Lytro, a Silicon Valley start-up, has designed a camera that lets you shoot first and focus later. The camera captures the far more light and data than traditional models, and comes with software that lets you focus the photo, shift perspective, or go 3D after you’ve taken the photo. The company plans to sell a consumer, fits-in-your-pocket model by the end of the year.
What’s the News: Researchers have developed a new, more targeted way to deliver cancer-fighting drugs, in which some nanoparticles zero in on a tumor, then summon another type of nanoparticles that actually dispense the drug. This method, detailed in a new study published online by Nature Materials, piggybacks on the body’s underlying biochemistry, using the chain of events that makes blood clot to call the drug-bearing nanoparticles to the site.
What’s the News: The left and right halves of the brain have separate stores for working memory, the information we actively keep in mind, suggests a study published online yesterday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. People can, on average, hold only four pieces of information in working memory—say, where four strangers are seated in a room. The current study suggests that, in fact, working memory capacity is two plus two—two items stored in each side of the brain—rather than four items stored anywhere. This understanding could be used to design learning techniques and visual displays that maximize working memory capacity.
Could Neanderthal DNA have protected our ancestors from diseases?
What’s the News: While we humans have certainly outlasted our hominin cousins, new research shows that Neanderthal and Denisovan genes may have helped us spread far and wide. By mating with the two species, our ancestors acquired genes that allowed them to adapt to diseases outside of Africa far quicker than would have been otherwise possible, according to Peter Parham, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University.
What’s the News: Scientists have built a brain implant that can restore lost memories and reinforce new ones. The implant, tested in a recent study in rats, brings back a memory by recording and replaying the electrical activity of neurons in a part of the hippocampus, the brain’s long-term memory center. While the device is far from ready for use in humans, it’s an important step toward memory-boosting implants that could one day help patients who have developed dementia or suffered a stroke.