History. Art. Culture. The Written Word. Comedy. Nature and The Sciences. Oddities and Curiosities. Anything Else That Holds My Attention. Combinations Thereof. And The Occasional Stilted Personal Post. Please To Enjoy.
"Queen of the Cultured Wilds. Empress of the Empty Space between Words. Grand Duchess with Dominion over Damasks" - shilohta
"The best mystery I've ever discovered" - R a n d e h
So who was throwing spears before humans? The discovery of 280,000-year-old stone-tipped spear remains in Ethiopia has two possible implications: that our species is much older than previously thought or, more likely, that a predecessor species was making tools long before Homo sapiens.
New genome sequences from two extinct human relatives suggest that these ‘archaic’ groups bred with humans and with each other more extensively than was previously known.
The ancient genomes, one from a Neanderthal and one from a different archaic human group, the Denisovans, were presented on 18 November at a meeting at the Royal Society in London. They suggest that interbreeding went on between the members of several ancient human-like groups living in Europe and Asia more than 30,000 years ago, including an as-yet unknown human ancestor from Asia.
“What it begins to suggest is that we’re looking at a ‘Lord of the Rings’-type world — that there were many hominid populations,” says Mark Thomas, an evolutionary geneticist at University College London who was at the meeting but was not involved in the work. Read more.
In an article titled "Origins: Going Back to Where the Story Really Starts" from the August 2010 issue of Scientific American, Brendan Borrell brings science to the philosophical question that E. B. White and James Thurber asked in 1929: Is sex necessary?
Approximately two billion years ago a pair of single-celled organisms made a terrible mistake — they had sex. We’re still living with the consequences. Sexual reproduction is the preferred method for an overwhelming portion of the planet’s species, and yet from the standpoint of evolution it leaves much to be desired. Finding and wooing a prospective mate takes time and energy that could be better spent directly on one’s offspring. And having sex is not necessarily the best way for a species to attain Darwinian fitness. If the evolutionary goal of each individual is to get as many genes into the next generation as possible, it would be simpler and easier to just make a clone.
The truth is, nobody really knows why people – and other animals, plants and fungi-prefer sex to, say, budding. Stephen C. Stearns, an evolutionary biologist at Yale University, says scientists now actively discuss more than 40 different theories on why sex is so popular. Each has its shortcomings, but the current front-runner seems to be the Red Queen hypothesis. It gets its name from a race in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. Just as Alice has to keep running to stay in the same place, organisms have to keep changing their genetic makeup to stay one step ahead of parasites. Sexual reproduction allows them to shuffle their genetic deck with each generation. That’s not to say that sex is forever. When it comes to reproduction, evolution is a two-way street. When resources and mates are scarce, almost all types of animals have been known to revert to reproducing asexually.
In a simple experiment, researchers at the University of Chicago sought to find out whether a rat would release a fellow rat from an unpleasantly restrictive cage if it could. The answer was yes.
The free rat, occasionally hearing distress calls from its compatriot, learned to open the cage and did so with greater efficiency over time. It would release the other animal even if there wasn’t the payoff of a reunion with it. Astonishingly, if given access to a small hoard of chocolate chips, the free rat would usually save at least one treat for the captive— which is a lot to expect of a rat.
The researchers came to the unavoidable conclusion that what they were seeing was empathy— and apparently selfless behavior driven by that mental state.
Who says humans are the only living organisms with personalities? Scientists have known for many years that certain animals, like cats, dogs, and chimps have distinct, developed personalities, but what about smaller organisms with brains that aren’t quite as developed? Like, say, spiders?
To find out whether spiders have their own distinct characters that help to shape their individual lifestyles, researchers in India chose a social species of spider, Stegodyphus sarasinorum, one of the few spider species that live in colonies. In order to make the investigation easier, the scientists chose to focus on only one aspect of personality: boldness. In spiders, ‘boldness’ is described as ”the tendency to rush out of the nest to see what sort of creature has become stuck in its web, rather than hanging behind to see what develops.”
When the 40 little spiders chosen as specimens were observed in their simulated environments, researches found that individual spiders varied considerably between being very bold and very shy. They also found that the bolder ones in the community were assigned tasks like dealing with captured prey, while the meeker ones usually engaged in less confrontational tasks like nurturing offspring. Since within-group variation in individual personalities seems to shape task differentiation, I personally believe that this is an evolutionary process designed to lead to increased colony efficiency and productivity. Interesting!
These photos represent an awesome mystery, a whole new wing of Department of Awesome Natural Wonders. They were taken in the Amazon rainforest in Peru by a graduate student named Troy Alexander and we think they look like something you might find on the asteroid where The Little Prince lives.
Troy was in South America working on a parrot biology and conservation project called the Tambopata Macaw Project when he began noticing these remarkable and puzzling structures on tree trunks. Some sort of animal had constructed a delicate barrier around its newly-laid egg sac that looks just like a white picket fence. These structures appear to have been constructed by a spider or insect, but so far no one has been able to say for sure. They are completely new to science.
Though he had no idea what built it, he snapped a few photos, hoping that when he got home an entomologist would help him zero in on the moth or spider responsible and that would be the end of the story.
Weeks after his return, Alexander hoped for a quick ID by posting a photos to Reddit’s popular “whatsthisbug” subreddit where biologists and experts in both insects and arachnids were all stumped. He says the photos have now been viewed “by the professional entomologists moderating Whatsthisbug, but also entomologists at Cal Tech, Georgia Tech, Rice University, the Smithsonian Institute, and more… [but] still no definite confirmation.” Some suspect that it could be something similar to the Ribbed-Cocoon Maker Moth which also builds a protective structure, but nothing so distinct as this fence.
Head over to Colossal to view more of Troy’s photos.
University of Washington researchers have performed what they believe is the first noninvasive human-to-human brain interface, with one researcher able to send a brain signal via the Internet to control the hand motions of a fellow researcher.
Using electrical brain recordings and a form of magnetic stimulation, Rajesh Rao sent a brain signal to Andrea Stocco on the other side of the UW campus, causing Stocco’s finger to move on a keyboard.
While researchers at Duke University have demonstrated brain-to-brain communication between two rats, and Harvard researchers have demonstrated it between a human and a rat, Rao and Stocco believe this is the first demonstration of human-to-human brain interfacing.
“The Internet was a way to connect computers, and now it can be a way to connect brains,” Stocco said. “We want to take the knowledge of a brain and transmit it directly from brain to brain.”
Rao, a UW professor of computer science and engineering, has been working on brain-computer interfacing in his lab for more than 10 years and just published a textbook on the subject. In 2011, spurred by the rapid advances in technology, he believed he could demonstrate the concept of human brain-to-brain interfacing. So he partnered with Stocco, a UW research assistant professor in psychology at the UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.
On Aug. 12, Rao sat in his lab wearing a cap with electrodes hooked up to an electroencephalography machine, which reads electrical activity in the brain. Stocco was in his lab across campus wearing a purple swim cap marked with the stimulation site for the transcranial magnetic stimulation coil that was placed directly over his left motor cortex, which controls hand movement.
The team had a Skype connection set up so the two labs could coordinate, though neither Rao nor Stocco could see the Skype screens.
Rao looked at a computer screen and played a simple video game with his mind. When he was supposed to fire a cannon at a target, he imagined moving his right hand (being careful not to actually move his hand), causing a cursor to hit the “fire” button. Almost instantaneously, Stocco, who wore noise-canceling earbuds and wasn’t looking at a computer screen, involuntarily moved his right index finger to push the space bar on the keyboard in front of him, as if firing the cannon. Stocco compared the feeling of his hand moving involuntarily to that of a nervous tic.
“It was both exciting and eerie to watch an imagined action from my brain get translated into actual action by another brain,” Rao said. “This was basically a one-way flow of information from my brain to his. The next step is having a more equitable two-way conversation directly between the two brains.”
The technologies used by the researchers for recording and stimulating the brain are both well-known. Electroencephalography, or EEG, is routinely used by clinicians and researchers to record brain activity noninvasively from the scalp. Transcranial magnetic stimulation is a noninvasive way of delivering stimulation to the brain to elicit a response. Its effect depends on where the coil is placed; in this case, it was placed directly over the brain region that controls a person’s right hand. By activating these neurons, the stimulation convinced the brain that it needed to move the right hand.
Computer science and engineering undergraduates Matthew Bryan, Bryan Djunaedi, Joseph Wu and Alex Dadgar, along with bioengineering graduate student Dev Sarma, wrote the computer code for the project, translating Rao’s brain signals into a command for Stocco’s brain.
“Brain-computer interface is something people have been talking about for a long, long time,” said Chantel Prat, assistant professor in psychology at the UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, and Stocco’s wife and research partner who helped conduct the experiment. “We plugged a brain into the most complex computer anyone has ever studied, and that is another brain.”
At first blush, this breakthrough brings to mind all kinds of science fiction scenarios. Stocco jokingly referred to it as a “Vulcan mind meld.” But Rao cautioned this technology only reads certain kinds of simple brain signals, not a person’s thoughts. And it doesn’t give anyone the ability to control your actions against your will.
Both researchers were in the lab wearing highly specialized equipment and under ideal conditions. They also had to obtain and follow a stringent set of international human-subject testing rules to conduct the demonstration.
“I think some people will be unnerved by this because they will overestimate the technology,” Prat said. “There’s no possible way the technology that we have could be used on a person unknowingly or without their willing participation.”
Stocco said years from now the technology could be used, for example, by someone on the ground to help a flight attendant or passenger land an airplane if the pilot becomes incapacitated. Or a person with disabilities could communicate his or her wish, say, for food or water. The brain signals from one person to another would work even if they didn’t speak the same language.
Rao and Stocco next plan to conduct an experiment that would transmit more complex information from one brain to the other. If that works, they then will conduct the experiment on a larger pool of subjects.
Some memories just won’t die — and some can even be transferred to a whole new brain. Researchers at Tufts University have determined that a small, yellow worm known as a planarian, which has long been studied for its regenerative properties, is able to grow back a lot more than just its body parts: after the worm’s small, snake-like head and neck are removed, its body will even regrow a brain that’s capable of quickly relearning its lost skills.