Evolution & Behaviour

Number of breaks: 23

‘Laughing’ together: bridging avian-mammalian differences

We like animals that we perceive as being similar to ourselves. It is not a coincidence that those animals that humans consider similar to them in terms of appearance, intelligence and/or sociality, also enjoy the highest levels of protection in modern societies (for example primates, dolphins and dogs). Interestingly, some "human" features that distinguish us, such as bipedalism and vocal learning, are widespread amongst birds. Nonetheless, birds have long been regarded as less similar to humans than mammals, and thus less relatable. In the past decades, research on bird cognition, mostly corvids (crows and ravens) and psittacines (parrots), has shown that these animals have strikingly similar capabilities to our mammalian cousins. This may come as a surprise, considering that the (...)

· Raoul Schwing | Professor at Messerli Research Institute, Comparative Cognition, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna), Vienna, Austria

· Amelia Wein | PhD student at Messerli Research Institute, Comparative Cognition, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna), Vienna, Austria

Published on October 17, 2017 Reading time: 3.5 min

By default, people treat immoral actions as impossible

Imagine that you're on the way to the airport to catch a flight, but your car breaks down on the side of the road. In this situation, some of the solutions you would immediately consider seem obvious: you might call a friend, hail a taxi, or find public transportation. Upon reflection, though, the number of possible solutions you could consider is infinite. In principle, you could consider everything from trying to fix your car by banging on it, to selling your car for a ride to the airport, to hijacking the next car that drives by, to attempting to levitate and fly to the airport. When facing open-ended problems like this, humans seem to have an impressive capacity for focusing in (...)

· Jonathan Phillips | Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Published on October 11, 2017 Reading time: 4 min

Saving the injured: The value of rescued veterans in a predatory ant species

In general, we imagine ants as little pieces of something bigger, with the value of the individual being marginal, even sacrificing themselves if necessary for the good of the colony. Matabele ants (Megaponera analis) are a specialized termite predator of sub-Saharan Africa. In the early morning and evening hours they leave their nest in raiding parties of up to 500 ants to kill termites at their foraging sites (where they are more vulnerable than inside their nests). Termites though developed ways to defend themselves against predators: a special caste of soldier-termites have developed large heads with strong jaws to fend off and kill predators that are out for an easy snack. Matabele ants, being specialized on overcoming this defenses, easily (...)

· Erik Frank | PhD student at Department of Animal Ecology and Tropical Biology, Biocentre, University of Würzburg, Am Hubland, D-97074 Würzburg, Germany

Published on September 25, 2017 Reading time: 3 min

How cats conquered the Ancient world: a 9,000-years DNA tale

When animals became domesticated, they gained protection from starvation, predation and disease but lost freedom. This is very well exemplified with the dog, the first animal that had been domesticated and that is very different from its ancestor, the wolf, in terms of behavior, morphology and physiology, which is also seen in its genome. But what about the cat that in many cases is still difficult to distinguish from wildcats, even at the genomic level, and whose behavior is not too different from the one of wildcats either? It was known from analyses of the mitochondrial DNA from modern cats that all domestic cats, including feral ones, descend from the north African wildcat F. s. lybica, that is also present in (...)

· Eva-Maria Geigl | Research Director at National Research Center CNRS, Jacques Monod Institute, University Paris Diderot, 15 rue Helene Brion, 75013 Paris, France

· Thierry Grange | Research Director at National Research Center CNRS, Jacques Monod Institute, University Paris Diderot, 15 rue Helene Brion, 75013 Paris, France

Published on September 20, 2017 Reading time: 4 min

The daily life of Neandertals

Neandertals are our closest evolutionary relative. They have been extinct for approximately 40,000 years, but lived across Europe and West Asia where they co-existed and interbred with humans. Despite their remarkable physical and genetic similarity to us humans, our understanding of their lifestyle is limited. Who were our enigmatic genetic cousins? Understanding the diet of an ancient group can give insight into many aspects of their lives. What foods they ate shows how they interacted with their environments. In turn, knowing how the landscape was exploited and managed provides insight into knowledge, tools, and social structures that may have been in place. On a more personal note, food is a central part of day-to-day life and knowing what someone ate can (...)

· Andrew Farrer | PhD student at Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD), School of Biological Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, SA, 5005 Australia

Published on September 19, 2017 Reading time: 4 min

Homo floresiensis – little species, big mystery

A new kind of human, Homo floresiensis was a surprise discovery in 2003 by an Australian-Indonesian archaeological team who were trying to find the origins of the first Australians. Their focus was Liang Bua cave, on the island of Flores, Indonesia. Instead of finding modern human bones, they discovered something completely unprecedented. Deep in the excavation were bones representing a number of very different and very small individuals dated to between 100.000 and 60.000 years ago. These bones represent a new species and are named Homo floresiensis. 14 years on, and we know a lot about H. floresiensis. Individuals were short - about 1 meter tall. They had a small brain of only 426 cm3 (ours average 1300-1500cm3); had backward sloping (...)

· Debbie Argue | Postdoctoral Research Fellow at School of Archaeology and Anthropology, College of Arts and Social Science, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia

Published on September 5, 2017 Reading time: 3.5 min

Food for thought: recipe for bigger brains

There are hundreds of species of primates spread all across the globe that vary greatly in both brain size and intelligence. At the extremes, the great apes (our closest living relatives) have brains that are slightly larger than those of newborn humans, while mouse lemurs have brains less than 1/100th of that size. And although some species are very innovative, have strong self-control, display impressive spatial memory, and/or use many different types of tools, there are many other species which do not possess these skills. Many hypotheses have been put forth in an attempt to explain why some species have evolved large brains, specifically those whose brains are larger than expected for their body size. Animals with larger bodies tend to (...)

· Alexandra R DeCasien | PhD student at Department of Anthropology, New York University, New York Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology, New York, USA

Published on September 4, 2017 Reading time: 4 min

How environment shapes…your nose

An important function of the human nose is to warm and humidify the air that we breathe in. This is important so as to prevent the inner respiratory tract from drying up, which can lead to infections. Because the shape of the nose and the geometry of the inner airways are tied to the efficiency of the air-conditioning process, it is thought that these traits might have been shaped in part by natural selection. This could help explain some of the variation in nose shapes and sizes across human populations living in different climates. Indeed, several studies looking at variation in the shape of the nasal aperture and internal nasal cavity in human skulls across different environments have shown that (...)

· Mark Shriver | Professor at Department of Anthropology, PennState College of the Liberal Arts, The Pennsylvania State University, USA

· Arslan Zaidi | PhD student at Department of Anthropology, PennState College of the Liberal Arts, The Pennsylvania State University, USA

Published on August 29, 2017 Reading time: 3.5 min

The mutation that allowed our brain to grow

During human evolution, one of the most remarkable events was the expansion of the upper layer of the brain: the so-called neocortex. This event took place about 2 million years ago and allowed us to develop the cognitive abilities that characterize modern day humans. In a recent paper published in the scientific journal Science, the geneticist Marta Florio and her colleagues pinned down a single genetic event that could help explain this sudden expansion of the neocortex. They identified a gene, called ARHGAP11B, which is present in our DNA but also in that of most humanoid species like, for example, the chimpanzee. This gene affects the generation and division of brain cells in a specific part of the neocortex. In (...)

· Reinier Prosee | PhD student at Department of Molecular Biology, Section of Biology, Faculty of Science, University of Geneva, Switzerland

Published on August 24, 2017 Reading time: 4 min

Hips don’t lie: attraction revealed by dancing body language

Dancing forms a huge part of human social life, and humans often get together to dance when romance is in the air but what makes a good dancer? Human courtship is complex, yet we currently know a lot about the physical factors involved in one person deciding that they are attracted to another person. Certain physical characteristics, facial features, and body size and shape have all been extensively investigated, and they each provide key information about the health, and reproductive qualities of the person being viewed. Movement has been less well-studied, mainly because it is difficult to disentangle other characteristics such as facial attractiveness, and body size and shape when asking people to judge the movements of others. Our team have pioneered (...)

· Nick Neave | Associate Professor and Lecturer at Department of Psychology, Northumbria University, Newcastle, UK

Published on July 27, 2017 Reading time: 3.5 min

Howler monkeys: living a life in colour helps finding better food

In terms of their ability to see colours, primates are unique compared to other mammals. Many primates have trichromatic colour vision and can see differences among red, orange, yellow, and green hues. What is particularly fascinating, however, is how much variation there is among primates in their ability to see colour. Take humans, for example. Compared to our closest relatives - African and Asian apes and monkeys - a sizeable number of humans are red-green "colour-blind". This trait is far more common among men, because the gene linked to perception of reddish hues is located on the X-chromosome (one of the so-called sex-chromosomes: men posses only one of them, whereas women have two - in the latter case a second (...)

· Amanda D. Melin | Professor at Department of Anthropology and Archaeology & Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute University of Calgary, AB, Canada

Published on July 3, 2017 Reading time: 4 min

Human gut parasite has a sinister use for its stolen genes

It is well established knowledge that bacteria routinely exchange genes between unrelated species, creating an extensive network of information flow independent of sexual reproduction. By acquiring new genes, each being a blueprint for a single protein, the bacteria gain also the functions the proteins perform within the cell. This phenomenon is forcing itself on our attention especially with the spread of antibiotic resistance among bacteria, which is threatening our ability to fight infections. But is swapping of genes important also in more complex organisms like animals, plants, or single-celled protists? Their DNA might be better protected against change as it is enwrapped in membranes of the nucleus, but it is unclear if this barrier plays a significant role. Answers to (...)

· Lukáš Novák | PhD student at Department of Parasitology, Faculty of Science, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic

Published on May 18, 2017 Reading time: 3 min

Symbiogenesis: how algae and bacteria shaped new genes together

Genes are an essential component of every living being. They are encoded in the DNA, and contain the information needed to produce a fully-functional organism. Deciphering the origin of new genes in organisms is important to understand how living beings adapted to their environment. Genes can emerge through numerous and diverse mechanisms. For example, new genes in plants and animals are mostly formed by recycling those already present in their own DNA while bacteria often acquire new genes by stealing them from other bacteria living in their environment. Symbiosis, the close association between unlike organisms, can also have an impact on the way genes are formed and this is what our research showed in algae. Unlike animals which obtain energy from (...)

· Raphaël Méheust | PhD student at Pierre and Marie Curie University - Paris 6, Unité de recherche Systématique, Adaptation, Évolution

· Eric Bapteste | Professor at Pierre and Marie Curie University - Paris 6, Unité de recherche Systématique, Adaptation, Évolution

Published on May 3, 2017 Reading time: 3.5 min

“Who is really, really smart?” Early differences in boys’ and girls’ assumptions about intelligence

Common stereotypes associate brilliance with men more than women. Evidence for this association is everywhere around us, but maybe easiest to detect in portrayals of brilliance and genius on TV and in the movies. The vast majority of characters that are supposed to be brilliant, such as Sherlock Holmes or Dr. House, are men. Because of this stereotype, women may feel they are less likely to be brilliant and thus less likely to succeed in careers that are thought to require this characteristic. As a result, women might be underrepresented in these careers. In fact, in a paper published in the journal Science in 2015, researchers found that women are indeed underrepresented in fields that are thought to require brilliance (...)

· Lin Bian | PhD student at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, USA

Published on April 6, 2017 Reading time: 3 min

Amoebas trap bacteria using nets of DNA: the same mechanism as human immune cells

Our multicellular bodies containing trillions of cells seem to have little in common with protists, the tiny single-celled creatures inhabiting every drop of water, which spend their days eating bacteria or each other, parasitizing larger organisms or living from light. And yet, this is how our ancestors looked like. It took almost one billion years to fine-tune the coordination between cells so they can altruistically cooperate within our tissues and organs. However, there are still several features in our cells which don't let us forget our humble unicellular predecessors. For example, the motile "tails" of sperm cells are nothing else than flagella which protists use to propel themselves through water. The immune cells circulating through our bodies and defending us (...)

· Lukáš Novák | PhD student at Department of Parasitology, Faculty of Science, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic

Published on January 27, 2017 Reading time: 3.5 min

Fancy footwork: Darwin’s pigeons and the evolution of foot feathers

Ever since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, people have been fascinated with understanding the mechanisms of how species could change over time. Like sitting down with relatives around the dinner table during the holidays, it is sometimes hard for us to look at other species and understand how we could have a common ancestor, yet wind up looking and acting so differently. We know that heritable traits are encoded in DNA, and that changes in DNA (mutations) are responsible for changes in traits. But this raises many questions, such as: how many mutations does it take to evolve a new trait? Which genes are mutated to form a new trait, and how do the mutations affect the (...)

· Eric Domyan | Assistant Professor at Utah Valley University, 800 W. University Parkway, Orem

Published on January 20, 2017 Reading time: 3.5 min

The Dark Side of Love

Love isn't all rainbows and butterflies. Sure, in the beginning, everything is great. Everyone knows the age-old story: boy meets girl, boy courts girl, and if girl accepts then boy mates with girl. Life is good. Unfortunately, this honeymoon stage doesn't endure. Initially, the interests of the sexes are aligned because mating benefits both males and females. From an evolutionary perspective, these benefits are expressed in terms of number and quality of offspring produced. The name of the game is passing on genes to the next generation, and "success" is measured in offspring number. In this way, sexual reproduction is cooperation between males and females. Everyone is happy...until they are not. After mating, things change. Conflict of interest arises when either (...)

· Meghan Laturney | PhD student at Groningen Institute for Evolutionary Life Sciences, University of Groningen, The Netherlands

Published on January 13, 2017 Reading time: 4 min

Living without mitochondria: the downfall of one textbook truth

It was the greatest leap in evolution since the emergence of life on Earth. So-called eukaryotic cells, the building blocks of all multicellular organisms like you and me, animals, plants, fungi, and also a whole zoo of single-celled protists, evolved from a common ancestor more than a billion years ago. This ancestor resembled current-day prokaryotes, i.e. bacteria and archaea. These organisms populated all imaginable habitats and developed a plethora of wildly diverse means of obtaining their energy. However, the simple structure of their cells limited their size and complexity of interactions. With time, our ancestor developed a series of innovations that are nowadays defining characteristics of the eukaryotic cell. How this process went through, what was its driving force, and (...)

· Lukáš Novák | PhD student at Department of Parasitology, Faculty of Science, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic

Published on October 3, 2016 Reading time: 3.5 min

Lab-life: the afternoon siesta of the fruit fly

"The early bird catches the worm" it's a simple enough idiom that we've all heard. But to a circadian biologist - a scientist studying 24 hour rhythms - that idiom leads to all manner of further questions: how does the bird know when to get up, are there early worms that escape the bird, and why aren't all birds early? It's a question we can all relate to: why are some people early risers, others night owls, and teenagers stuck in bed till midday? It turns out that our bodies have a "clock" that accurately tells the time, and which organises all sorts of physiological processes to keep them in synchrony with the day/night cycle. Importantly, the body clock can be (...)

· Edward Green | Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Marie Curie Intra European Fellowship, German Cancer Research Center, Germany

Published on July 13, 2016 Reading time: 3.5 min

Distractions and emotions: key factors in vehicle collisions

In general, fatal crash rates have been declining in the U.S. for several decades.1 This improvement is due to a variety of factors, including the reliability and overall safety of vehicles and the design and conditions of U.S. roadways. However, the U.S. has not kept pace with other developed countries in terms of overall traffic safety.2 There are many potential reasons for this discrepancy, including driver behavior and performance. Until relatively recently, we have not been able to fully understand the role of driver behavior and performance leading up to a crash. To fill that knowledge gap, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) pioneered - and continues to evolve - the naturalistic driving study (NDS) method. The NDS method involves instrumenting (...)

· Jon Hankey | Director of Research and Development at Research and Development, Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI), VA, USA

Published on June 30, 2016 Reading time: 3 min

Chimpanzees Trust Their Friends

Human friendships are often characterized by preferential intentions and attitudes including trusting expectations of close social relations. Humans largely trust only their friends with crucial resources or important secrets. In this study, we investigated whether chimpanzees show a comparable pattern and extend trust selectively toward those individuals they are closely bonded with. A large body of research shows that chimpanzees cooperate with each other in a wide variety of contexts including grooming, meat-sharing, group-hunting, and communal border patrols. Many different psychological mechanisms might account for such collaborative behaviors. For example, chimpanzees may cooperate with dominant individuals out of a fear of being punished. Alternatively, chimpanzees might show trust-based cooperation, i.e. chimpanzees might cooperate because they expect their partners to behave in (...)

· Jan Engelmann | Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany

Published on April 14, 2016 Reading time: 3.5 min

The lingering effects of parental care and its role in evolutionary change

For centuries, European culture has been enriched by depictions in art and literature of the diverse ways in which parents can exert a long-lasting influence on their children. We now know that animal parents can have similarly lingering effects on their offspring and a relatively new and growing area of research in evolutionary biology sets out to understand the causes and consequences of these influences. Formally known as ‘parental effects’, and defined as non-genetic influences of the parent on their young, the phenomenon is of particular interest because it can potentially speed up the pace of evolutionary change that allows animals to adapt to changing environments. This may prove vital for the continued survival of animal populations whose habitats are (...)

· Rebecca Kilner | Professor at Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, UK

Published on January 27, 2016 Reading time: 4 min

How humans gave acne to the grapevine

Many organisms, ourselves included, host diverse communities of microorganisms that live on and within us. Plenty of these are bacteria and with time, some adapt to live and depend so intimately with their hosts that eventually, life without them is almost impossible. However, in some rare cases, bacteria can switch and adapt to a different host, much like other organisms may adapt to new ecosystems. So far, this has been observed mainly between hosts that are closely related. For example, bacteria depending on one insect species can switch to another insect species and adapt to the new host. One bacterium that lives closely with us humans is Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes), usually present in our skin, sometimes causing acne. In (...)

· Carlos J. Rivera-Rivera | PhD student at Department of Genetics and Evolution, University of Geneva, Switzerland

Published on February 28, 2015 Reading time: 3.5 min