Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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The elephant-human relationship dates back into prehistory

Tim Flannery writes: In January 1962, on my sixth birthday, I was taken to Melbourne Zoo, where I rode an elephant. We children climbed a scaffold and perched on rough wooden benches atop the elephant’s back, where my fingers furtively reached for a feel of its wrinkled skin. A few months later, elephant rides were discontinued, for safety reasons, at most zoos in Australia, Europe, and the US. I was

Birds that form surprisingly complex societies

Natalie Parletta writes: The gregarious, small-brained vulturine guineafowl (Acryllium vulturinum) forms complex, multi-level societies, according to new research. Published in the journal Current Biology, it challenges previous notions that only animals with large brains – such as humans, primates, elephants, giraffes and dolphins – are capable of such social structures. Lead investigator Damien Farine, from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour in Konstanz, Germany, says he was curious to

Mapping the human oral microbiome

In an interview with Knowable Magazine, Floyd Dewhirst says: We don’t really know the number of bacteria in an average mouth. But there are something like 1011 [100 billion] organisms per gram of plaque — so we’re looking at a large number. What people usually talk about is how many species are in there. The Human Oral Microbiome Project identified a little over 700 different species of bacteria. (There are

New bird species arises from hybrids, as scientists watch

Quanta Magazine reported (2017): It’s not every day that scientists observe a new species emerging in real time. Charles Darwin believed that speciation probably took place over hundreds if not thousands of generations, advancing far too gradually to be detected directly. The biologists who followed him have generally defaulted to a similar understanding and have relied on indirect clues, gleaned from genomes and fossils, to infer complex organisms’ evolutionary histories.

Inherited learning? It happens, but how is uncertain

Viviane Callier writes: As a biological concept, the inheritance of acquired characteristics has had a wild roller coaster ride over the past two centuries. Championed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck at the beginning of the 19th century, it soared to widespread popularity as a theory of inheritance and an explanation for evolution, enduring even after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Then experimental tests, the rise of Mendelian genetics, and

Exploring a newly discovered universe of microproteins

Mitch Leslie writes: Mice put human runners to shame. Despite taking puny strides, the rodents can log 10 kilometers or more per night on an exercise wheel. But the mice that muscle biologist Eric Olson of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and colleagues unveiled in 2015 stood out. On a treadmill, the mice could scurry up a steep 10% grade for about 90 minutes before faltering,

What an embodied history of trees can teach us about life

Dalia Nassar and Margaret M Barbour write: Place yourself on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, near the Franz Josef Glacier. Officially, this forest is a temperate podocarp-hardwood rainforest, but these dry words belie the rich diversity of plant life around, encompassing every imaginable shade of green, brown and grey. They also do an injustice to the experience of standing dwarfed by the soaring trunks of

For microorganisms, cooperation rather than competition, is the key to survival

The University of Copenhagen reports: New microbial research at the Department of Biology reveals that bacteria would rather unite against external threats, such as antibiotics, rather than fight against each other. The report has just been published in the scientific publication ISME Journal. For a number of years the researchers have studied how combinations of bacteria behave together when in a confined area. After investigating many thousands of combinations it

Cell-bacteria mergers offer clues about how organelles evolved

Viviane Callier writes: There are few relationships in nature more intimate than those between cells and the symbiotic bacteria, or endosymbionts, that live inside them. In these partnerships, a host cell typically provides protection to its endosymbiont and gives it a way to propagate, while the endosymbiont provides key nutrients to the host. It’s a deeply cooperative arrangement, in which the genomes of the host and the endosymbiont even seem

Complex birdsongs help biologists piece together the evolution of lifelong learning

Vocal learning in birds is a lot like how people learn language. Alexandra Giese/ By Cristina Robinson, Vanderbilt University; Kate Snyder, Vanderbilt University, and Nicole Creanza, Vanderbilt University Bonjour! Ni hao! Merhaba! If you move to a new country as an adult, you have to work much harder to get past that initial “hello” in the local language than if you’d moved as a child. Why does it take so

Microbiome-drug interactions are largely being ignored by the pharmaceutical industry

Megha Satyanarayana reports: Matthew Redinbo remembers the day he entered the murky waters of the gut microbiome. He had popped in to say hi to Lisa Benkowski, a colleague in the Chemistry Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was 2002, Benkowski had colon cancer, and she was taking a powerful chemotherapy called irinotecan. “She said the side effects were a nightmare,” Redinbo says, describing how

Universal emotions are the basis of our profound affinity with other animals

Stephen T Asma and Rami Gabriel: Charles Darwin closed his On the Origin of Species (1870) with a provocative promise that ‘light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history’. In his later books The Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Darwin shed some of that promised light, especially on the evolved emotional and cognitive capacities that humans shared

Eye-opening discovery: 54 million year old fossil flies yield new insight into the evolution of sight

Eyes surprise: fossil eyes from a 54 million year old cranefly. Lindgren et al./Nature By Mike Lee, Flinders University Fossilised flies that lived 54 million years ago have revealed a surprising twist to the tale of how insects’ eyes evolved. These craneflies, unveiled in Nature today, show that insect eyes trap light the same way as human eyes, using the pigment melanin – yet another example of evolution finding similar

Metabolic health is inseparable from the health of our gut microbes

James Hamblin writes: The relationship between microbes and weight gain has long been overlooked in humans, but people have known about similar effects in animals for decades. After World War II, antibiotics became affordable and abundant for the first time. Farmers began giving the drugs to their livestock—for example, to treat a milk cow’s infected udder—and noticed that animals who got antibiotics grew larger and more quickly. This led to

We are not at the center of the microbial world

Ed Yong writes: Aside from those of us with access to microscopes, most people will never see microbes with their own eyes. And so we tend to identify microbes with the disease-causing minority among them, the little buggers that trigger the tickling mist of a sneeze or the pustule on otherwise smooth skin. We become aware of their existence when they threaten our lives, and for much of our history,

Revealing the secret lives of cells with advanced microscopy

Chris Parker writes: Open any biology textbook, and you’ll encounter an artistic rendering of a perfectly round cell, says biophysicist Winfried Wiegraebe. Yet the truth is more complex. Wiegraebe’s team at the Allen Institute for Cell Science in Seattle has been modeling the behavior of individual cells in three dimensions. Among their recent observations: Even with cells of the same type, no two are shaped alike, let alone truly round.