Yesterday we reported on a new study that showed shining a laser on certain neurons in mice brains could make them angry and aggressive. But with squid, you don’t need a laser to make the males get mean. All you need is to expose them to a particular chemical. From DISCOVER blogger Ed Yong:
In a flash, schools of male longfin squid can turn from peaceful gatherings to violent mobs. One minute, individuals are swimming together in peace; the next, they’re attacking one another. The males give chase, ramming each other in the sides and grappling with their tentacles.
These sudden bouts of violence are the doing of the female squid. Males are attracted to the sight of eggs, and females lace the eggs with a chemical that transforms the males into aggressive brutes.
For plenty more about how this chemical whips the males into an angry frenzy—and why—check out the rest of Ed’s post at Not Exactly Rocket Science.
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From Ed Yong:
In an Israeli laboratory, Shani Gelstein is harvesting a woman’s tears. The volunteer is watching the end of the boxing film The Champ. As she weeps, she holds a vial under her eyes to capture the fresh drops. This might seem ghoulish, but Gelstein has used the collected tears to understand why people cry during emotional times. She thinks they’re a chemical signal.
Gelstein used several different techniques to show that the smell of a woman’s emotional tears could reduce a man’s sexual arousal. The men never actually saw anyone cry, and they didn’t know about what they were smelling. Even so, their sniffs reduced their testosterone levels and they lowered the activity in parts of their brain involved in sexual desire.
The small study had men smell both women’s tears and saline that had dripped down women’s cheeks, and measured the men’s reactions. The fascinating (if preliminary) results suggest new possible reasons why we cry at emotional times–read the rest of the story at Not Exactly Rocket Science.
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Image: Science / AAAS
It’s the essence of instinct: If you take a lab mouse who has never caught a glimpse of a cat and waft a little eau de feline towards it, the mouse will freeze in fear, and will then back away from the source of the odor. Now researchers have pinned down the chemical signals the mice are reacting to–and have shown in the process a fascinating new form of inter-species communication.
Mice have a specialized organ in their noses that picks up chemical signals, called the vomeronasal organ, which helps them detect pheromones emitted by other mice. These mice pheromones have a direct effect on behavior–most obviously in the realms of mating and fighting. In this new study, published in the journal Cell, neurobiologist Lisa Stowers decided to investigate whether the vomeronasal organ was capable of picking up signals from other species as well.
Frog tadpoles have a good nose for danger: Scientists know that they go from headlong swimming to total stillness when they smell a predator. Now, researchers have discovered that frogs get that odoriferous training very early on. When they’re still embryos, they can learn to assess the threat level by sniffing for a predator’s pheromones.
Embryos put into water containing the odour of a salamander and the odour of injured tadpoles learned that the predator’s smell was a threat [BBC News]. The idea was to see if the amphibian embryos could learn to associate the smell of injured tadpoles with the smell of a predator. This type of learning behavior has also been observed in previous experiments with fish, larval amphibians, and larval mosquitoes, however this was the first study to document the behavior in embryos.
In an experiment sure to make PETA squirm, crushed tadpoles were mixed with water in which a tiger salamander had been swimming. Embryos were raised in this water with different concentrations of crushed tadpoles. Once the embryos had hatched into tadpoles, researchers tested their response to only the salamander odor. The tadpoles that were exposed to a higher concentration of the injured tadpole odour stayed motionless for longer in response to the salamander cue [BBC News]. The scientists say this demonstrates that these tadpoles learned as embryos that salamanders were more dangerous predators. The researchers published their findings in the journal Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology.
80beats: Meet the Sexually Irresistible Fruit Fly
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80beats: Sniffing Out Sickness: Mouse Noses Respond to the Urine of Diseased Mice
Image: Maud Ferrari, UC Davis
By altering a female fruit fly’s pheromones, researchers have created an insect with so much sex appeal that it even attracts males of other species. But in a surprising twist, they didn’t boost the levels of some courtship chemical–instead they created flies that lacked all pheromones, which were then besieged suitors. The discovery suggests pheromones can be back-off rather than come-hither signals. The finding could lead to a better understanding of the chemical signals that help flies and other animals interpret the world, including how to select a mate and how to distinguish other species [Science News].
The study, published in Nature, also found that males who lacked all pheromones attracted unwelcome attention from other males, who attempted to copulate with their heads. Says lead researcher Joel Levine: “It’s amazing what you see…. There are some pretty crude movies” [Nature News].
To conduct their experiments, the researchers identified the cells on the inside of the fly’s exoskeleton (pictured in glowing green) that produce the pheromones, and inserted a gene into the fly genome to kill all these cells. The manipulated flies provided a sort of blank canvas to allow the scientists to test the role played by each chemical – and how the chemical signals interacted. “We found that one compound – one that males transfer on to females when they copulate – kept other males away,” said Dr Levine. “It’s the male’s way of sort of protecting his investment” [BBC News].
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Image: Jean-Christophe Billeter
Researchers may have determined the method by which some animals can literally sniff out a sick individual–and hence avoid it to protect their own health. A team of scientists has identified a type of smell receptor in mice that seems to respond to disease-related molecules produced by bacteria, viruses, or as the result of inflammation [New Scientist].
Scientists have previously identified a number of mouse smell receptors, cell-surface proteins in the animals’ noses that pick up everything from the fragrance of food to the scent of fear…. Neurogeneticist Ivan Rodriguez of the University of Geneva in Switzerland and colleagues wondered whether there might be additional such receptors that respond to a disease “scent,” perhaps by detecting chemicals associated with bacteria and inflammation [ScienceNOW Daily News]. After scanning the mouse genome for genes in the olfactory system, they detected genes for five new smell receptors that seemed to be likely candidates. The receptors are part of a known family of proteins that are involved in immune response; other proteins in the same family detect chemicals given off by pathogens in an animal’s own blood.
When two people get knocked off their feet by physical chemistry, their friends may offer this standard glib explanation: “It’s all about the pheromones.” But in fact, 50 years after the term “pheromones” was coined by biologists to refer to the chemical messages passed within many insect and mammal species, researchers still haven’t found proof that humans emit or detect such chemicals. In an essay in Nature [subscription required] marking the 50-year milestone, zoologist Tristram Wyatt sums up the state of the research, and reminds the gullible not to buy any love potions that boast of their pheromone content.
The first studies took place in 1959, when German researchers discovered a chemical called bombykol that’s secreted by female silk moths and that immediately sends males into a mating frenzy. Following that Nobel Prize-winning work, biologists proceeded to find pheromones “across the animal kingdom, sending messages between courting lobsters, alarmed aphids, suckling rabbit pups, mound-building termites and trail-following ants. They are also used by algae, yeast, ciliates and bacteria” [Wired News], Wyatt writes. Pheromones have been found to play a part not just in mating rituals, but also battles for dominance, warnings about approaching danger, and cooperative behavior.
Worker ants that get too big for their britches and attempt to reproduce in a colony ruled by a queen are attacked by fellow colony members, according to a new study. By ant colony conventions, worker ants are supposed to give up procreating themselves in favor of taking care of the queen’s eggs. Researchers found that the occasional cheating worker ant gives off a distinct “fertility pheromone” that notifies other ants and incurs their wrath. Entomologist Les Greenberg said, “The study is a fascinating example of how social insects maintain order in their societies” [National Geographic News].
The queen ant is the only fertile female in an ant colony. Worker ants are mostly sterile females, but they are biologically capable of a type of parthenogenesis, the process that allows a female to produce offspring without a mate. When they try, however, they produce chemicals called pheromones that their sisters detect with antennas [National Geographic News]. The hydrocarbon-based pheromones indicate their reproductive status and are also transmitted to the eggs they lay. Jürgen Liebig, co-author of the study in Current Biology [subscription required], described pheromone detection: “It’s basically smell, but not the smell we know” [National Geographic News].
A mouse’s nose has a cluster of specialized cells that respond to the chemical signals sent out by fellow mice that are in distress, researchers report, meaning that mice can literally smell fear. A lump of nerve cells in the nose tip called the Grueneberg ganglion responds to the “fear pheromones” of imperiled creatures, sending a signal straight to the brain. As Grueneberg ganglia are known to exist in rodents, cats, apes, and humans, researchers say it’s likely that the cells perform the same function in all mammals.
In a new study, researchers dosed water dishes with mouse alarm pheromones, and put the dishes in cages with both normal mice and mice whose ganglia had been removed. The contrast was very striking, [lead researcher Marie-Christine] Broillet said. “The normal mouse immediately gets scared and goes to the corner of the box and freezes,” she said. But mice without the ganglia carried on as before, seemingly unaware of the danger signals. Both groups were able to sniff out cookies hidden in their cages, however, suggesting the altered group’s sense of smell was otherwise unaffected [National Geographic News].