Archive for January, 2009

Chimps show that actions spoke louder than words in language evolution

By Ed Yong | January 31, 2009 12:00 pm


Hollywood cavemen typically communicate with grunts and snorts, reflecting a belief that human language originated like this and slowly evolved into the rich and sophisticated tongues we use today. But researchers from Emory University, Atlanta have found evidence that the origins of human language could lie in gestures, not words. If they are right, then high-fives, V-signs and thumbs-ups could more closely reflect the beginnings of human language than conversations do.

chimp-reaching.jpgAll primates can communicate with each other through facial expressions, body postures and calls, but humans and apes are unique in their use of gestures. These go beyond simple postures or walking patterns – they are movements of the hand, limbs and feet, specifically directed at another individual.

We think of language as mainly spoken or written but gestures play an enormous, often overlooked role. After all, isn’t a speaker who waves their hands animatedly more engaging than one who stands motionless behind a podium? Gestures are such an intrinsic part of the way we communicate that a blind speaker will naturally make them even when speaking to a blind audience. And babies use gestures long before they learn their first words.

To understand the role of gestures in the origins of human language, Amy Pollick and Frans de Waal decided to see how they are used by our closest relatives – the chimpanzee and the bonobo. For one and a half years, they watched 34 chimps belonging to two separate groups, and 13 bonobos, again from two groups. Through painstaking analyses, they identified 31 different gestures and 18 different facial and vocal expressions.

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Teaching scientific knowledge doesn't improve scientific reasoning

By Ed Yong | January 30, 2009 8:30 am

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchOn Tuesday, I wrote a short essay on the rightful place of science in our society. As part of it, I argued that scientific knowledge is distinct from the scientific method – the latter gives people the tools with which to acquire the former. I also briefly argued that modern science education (at least in the UK) focuses too much on the knowledge and too little on the method. It is so blindsided by checklists of facts that it fails to instil the inquisitiveness, scepticism, critical thinking and respect for evidence that good science entails. Simply inhaling pieces of information won’t get the job done.

This assertion is beautifully supported by a simple new study that compared the performance of physics students in the USA and China. It was led by Lei Bao from Ohio State University who wanted to see if a student’s scientific reasoning skills were affected by their degree of scientific knowledge. Does filling young heads with facts and figures lead to a matching growth in their critical faculties?

Fortunately for Bao and his team of international researchers, a ready-made natural experiment had already been set up for them, in the education systems of China and the US. Both countries have very different science curricula leading to different levels of knowledge, but neither one explicitly teaches scientific reasoning in its schools. If greater knowledge leads to sharper reasoning, students from one country should have the edge in both areas. But that wasn’t the case.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Education, Learning

David Attenborough on Charles Darwin

By Ed Yong | January 30, 2009 7:29 am

I don’t normally post videos here, but when it’s David Attenborough doing the talking, I’m more than happy to make an exception. This man is a legend, and has done so much to promote the majesty of nature to the entire world. He’s now finished with big mega-series, but not with film-making.
This Sunday, on February 1st, the BBC will air his new one-off programme Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life”. In it, Sir David candidly speaks about his views on Charles Darwin, the vital role of evolutionary theory in linking man to the natural world and how the attitudes espoused by the Book of Genesis have contributed to the devastation of the natural world.
Have a look at an interview I did with Sir David last year, and of course, at the video below.


The swarm-maker molecule – how serotonin transforms solitary locusts into social ones

By Ed Yong | January 29, 2009 2:00 pm

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchSerotonin is a chemical jack-of-all-trades. It relays messages between the cells of the brain and in doing so, controls everything from anger to sleep, body temperature to appetite. But in one insect, it is the key to Pandora’s box, periodically unleashing some of the most destructive swarms on the planet. It is the chemical responsible for turning solitary desert locusts into massive plagues.

With desert locusts, you get two insects for the price of one. For most of their lives, they are positively antisocial and will avoid other locusts – a far cry from the devastating swarms that farmers fear. Only when the climate is right and food is abundant do they lose their solitary streak. Their numbers increase to the point of overcrowding and that flicks a chemical switch which changes their bodies and behaviour. Within 2 hours, the solitary, green locusts transform into extremely sociable, yellow or red versions that gather in voracious swarms, several billion strong.

The transformation is a complicated one – it involves over 500 genes, the presence of other locusts and stimulation of their hind legs. Most of these details have been discovered by Stephen Simpson at the University of Oxford and Malcolm Burrows at Cambridge, and their latest finding is the most amazing yet.

They have found that the locust makeover is indeed a complex process but one that hinges on a single choice – stay alone or band together. And that choice is controlled by serotonin. This single chemical can trigger the change all by itself, and without it, the locusts won’t transform. In scientific lingo, it’s both necessary and sufficient for bringing out the sociable side of locusts.


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MORE ABOUT: locust, serotonin

Are emperor penguins marching to extinction?

By Ed Yong | January 28, 2009 8:34 am

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThe emperor penguin – caring parent, extreme survivor and unwitting movie-star – could be marching to extinction by the turn of the next century. In its Antarctic home, the penguins frequently have to deal with prolonged bouts of starvation, frosty temperatures of -40 degrees Celsius, and biting polar winds that blow at 90 miles per hour. And yet this icy environment that so brutally tests the penguins’ endurance is also critical to their survival. This is a species that depends on sea ice for breeding and feeding.

So what will happen to the emperor penguin as Antarctica’s sea ice shrinks, as it assuredly will in the face of a warming globe? Stephanie Jenouvrier from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have tried to answer that question by combining the forty years of census data on a specific emperor colony with the latest models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The results are not encouraging. They suggest that the number of emperors in a large colony at Terre Adelie (where March of the Penguins was filmed) will fall from about 6,000 breeding pairs at the moment to a mere 400 by 2100. There’s even a one in three chance that the population will drop by 95%- a level described as “quasi-extinction”, when the population is so small that it’s unlikely to sustain itself.

Image copyright of Samuel Blanc

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Old wounds show that Triceratops used its horns for combat

By Ed Yong | January 27, 2009 8:00 pm

Thanks to its trinity of horns, Triceratops has become of the most recognisable of dinosaurs. The sight of two bulls charging at each other and jousting with their horns must have been an incredible one – geeky palaeontologists might get a small thrill just thinking about it. But did it ever really happen? Did Triceratops ever use its unmistakeable horns in combat, or were they simply for show?

Both theories have been put forward, but Andrew Farke from the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Palaeontology (who blogs at the Open Source Palaeontologist) thinks that both were probably right. By looking at the pattern of injuries on the skulls Triceratops specimens, his team has found evidence that the dinosaur really did use its horns for duelling, and its giant neck frill for protection. Triceratops was effectively a reptilian knight that carried two lances and a shield on top of its enormous head. 

Farke compared the skull of Triceratops with a related but very different ceratopsian (horned dinosaur) called Centrosaurus. While Triceratops had two large horns over its eyes and a short one on its snout, Centrosaurus had the opposite arrangement – its eyebrow-horns were tiny and its nose one was huge.

Farke reasoned that if these animals fought with one another, their horn arrangements would have led to very different fighting styles. And over time, that would mean that the two animals would build up injuries in different hotspots. If, on the other hand, their horns and frills were only used to display to mates and rivals, they ought to have picked up injuries in more or less the same places.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Dinosaurs, Palaeontology

What is science's rightful place?

By Ed Yong | January 27, 2009 9:23 am

Last week, President Obama stated in his inaugural address that he would “restore science to its rightful place.” ScienceBlogs has been quick to capitalise on his words by launching a new initiative called The Rightful Place Project. As an opening salvo, the Project is asking writers, bloggers and scientists from all over the world to answer this innocuous question:

What is science’s rightful place?

Many of the others have had their say, and here’s my take.

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Low-calorie diets improve memory in old age

By Ed Yong | January 26, 2009 5:00 pm

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchPeople diet for many reasons – to fit into clothes, to look more attractive, or for the sake of their health. But to improve their memory? It’s an interesting idea, and one that’s been given fresh support by Veronica Witte and colleagues from the University of Munster in Germany.

Witte found that elderly people who slash the calories in their diet by 30% were better able to remember lists of words than people who stuck to their normal routine. It’s the first experiment to show that cutting calories can improve human memory at an age when declining memory is par for the course.

The benefits of low-calorie diets have been extensively studied in animals, ever since Clive McCay discovered that “caloric restriction” doubled the lifespan of rats, over 70 years ago. Many studies have found that such diets could help to slow the brain’s eventual decline and protect its neurons from the ravages of ageing. But until now, no experiments had confirmed that the same benefits are relevant to the human brain.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Medicine & health, Memory

How dolphins prepare the perfect cuttlefish meal

By Ed Yong | January 25, 2009 12:00 pm

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchCuttlefish are intelligent animals that can hide from predators by changing colour and texture, and squirting out a smokescreen of black ink. But amazing though cuttlefish are, their defences mean nothing against one of the most intelligent hunters in the ocean – the bottlenose dolphin.

Julian Finn, Tom Tregenza and Mark Norman (the trio who first described the amazing mimic octopus) have discovered a single female bottlenose, who has developed a way of hunting cuttlefish. Not only does she successfully capture them, but she has learned how to prepare them for the perfect meal, with all the skill of a master chef.

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A beach in glowing bacteria

By Ed Yong | January 24, 2009 12:00 pm

A little light weekend treat for you.

This beach scence was drawn using eight strains of glowing bacteria. Each has been engineered to produce a differently coloured fluorescent protein. The bacteria were swabbed over a nutrient plate and left to grow overnight, resulting in this living, shining work of art.

The best thing about it is that it comes from the laboratory of Roger Tsien, who won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of work on developing the green fluorescent protein, GFP. This big daddy of glowing proteins was isolated from a species of jellyfish and its structure has since been tweaked to produce variants that glow in different colours. By providing scientists with a way of visualising the goings-on inside living cells, GFP and its kin have revolutionised modern molecular biology. And, obviously, it makes for pretty, pretty pictures.

(Hat tip to the wonderful Observation of a Nerd)



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