Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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Where our minds go when words let us down

Kenneth S. Kosik writes: The drive to express ourselves can be joined with the sense that we cannot quite express ourselves fully, that language is inherently the limiting factor. Why should that be? Via a complex circuitry, the brain delivers motivation to the body as a motor command to execute its will. One view is the brain is busy making predictions about the world such as what we will see

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

Evolution doesn’t proceed in a straight line — so why draw it that way?

Evolution has no final endpoint in mind. Uncle Leo/ By Quentin Wheeler, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry; Antonio G. Valdecasas, CSIC – Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, and Cristina Cánovas, CSIC – Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas A high school marching band’s T-shirt places a horn-playing Homo sapiens at the end of the evolutionary process. Brian Kloppenburg, Jordan Summers, Main Street Logo Evolution doesn’t

Did parasite manipulation influence human neurological evolution?

Christopher Packham writes: It seems so obvious that someone should have thought of it decades ago: Since parasites have plagued eukaryotic life for millions of years, their prevalence likely affected evolution. Psychologist Marco Del Giudice of the University of New Mexico is not the first researcher to suggest that the evolution of the human brain could have been influenced by parasites that manipulate host behavior. But tired of waiting for

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

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,

Why people and parrots know how to dance

Ed Yong writes: Before he became an internet sensation, before he made scientists reconsider the nature of dancing, before the children’s book and the Taco Bell commercial, Snowball was just a young parrot, looking for a home. His owner had realized that he couldn’t care for the sulfur-crested cockatoo any longer. So in August 2007, he dropped Snowball off at the Bird Lovers Only rescue center in Dyer, Indiana—along with

Why did octopuses become so smart?

Ed Yong writes: A small shark spots its prey—a meaty, seemingly defenseless octopus. The shark ambushes, and then, in one of the most astonishing sequences in the series Blue Planet II, the octopus escapes. First, it shoves one of its arms into the predator’s vulnerable gills. Once released, it moves to protect itself—it grabs discarded seashells and swiftly arranges them into a defensive dome. Thanks to acts like these, cephalopods—the

The dancing species: How moving together in time helped make us human

By Kimerer LaMothe Dancing is a human universal, but why? It is present in human cultures old and new; central to those with the longest continuous histories; evident in the earliest visual art on rock walls from France to South Africa to the Americas, and enfolded in the DNA of every infant who invents movements in joyful response to rhythm and song, long before she can walk, talk or think

Like humans, ravens mirror the distress they witness in others, study suggests

Katherine J. Wu reports: Seeing someone else suffer a big disappointment can have a pretty damaging effect on your own morale. That’s definitely the case with people—and it might be true for ravens, too. New research suggests that, like humans and many other mammals, common ravens (Corvus corax) can read and internalize the emotional states of others. In the study, published today in the journal PNAS, ravens watch their friends

I’m an evolutionary biologist – here’s why this ancient fungal fossil discovery is so revealing

Do fungi like this Penicillium mold, which produces the the antibiotic penicillin, trace their origins to an ancestor that lived a billion years ago? Rattiya Thongdumhyu/ By Antonis Rokas, Vanderbilt University Biologists don’t call them “the hidden kingdom” for nothing. With an estimated 5 million species, only a mere 100,000 fungi are known to scientists. This kingdom, which includes molds, yeasts, rusts and mushrooms, receives far less attention than plants

A jawbone shows Denisovans lived on the Tibetan Plateau long before humans

Science News reports: Denisovans reached what’s now called “the roof of the world” at least 160,000 years ago. Found in a Tibetan Plateau cave, a partial lower jawbone represents a Denisovan who is the oldest known hominid to reach the region’s cloud-scraping heights, researchers report online May 1 in Nature. The fossil suggests that these perplexing, extinct members of the human lineage weathered the plateau’s frigid, thin air long before

How culture works with evolution to produce human cognition

Cecilia Heyes writes: The conventional view, inside and outside academia, is that children are ‘wired’ to imitate. We are ‘Homo imitans’, animals born with a burning desire to copy the actions of others. Imitation is ‘in our genes’. Birds build nests, cats miaow, pigs are greedy, while humans possess an instinct to imitate. The idea that humans have cognitive instincts is a cornerstone of evolutionary psychology, pioneered by Leda Cosmides,

New species of ancient human discovered in the Philippines

  Science magazine reports: A strange new species may have joined the human family. Human fossils found in a cave on Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines, include tiny molars suggesting their owners were small; curved finger and toe bones hint that they climbed trees. Homo luzonensis, as the species has been christened, lived some 50,000 to 80,000 years ago, when the world hosted multiple archaic humans, including Neanderthals

Dueling dates for Deccan Traps volcanic eruption reignite debate over dinosaurs’ death

Science News reports: Which came first: the impact or the eruptions? That question is at the heart of two new studies in the Feb. 22 Science seeking to answer one of the most hotly debated questions in Earth’s geologic history: Whether an asteroid impact or massive volcanism that altered the global climate was mostly to blame for the demise of all nonbird dinosaurs 66 million years ago. The dinosaur die-off

Plankton that are both plant-like and animal-like are redefining marine ecology

Knowable magazine reports: Their color gave them away. Ecologist Diane Stoecker was looking at plankton in samples of ocean water from the dock in Woods Hole Harbor in Massachusetts some 40 years ago when she spotted something strange. Under the microscope, she recognized Laboea strobila, shaped like an ice-cream cone — “yellowish green and very beautiful,” she recalls — and the smaller, more spherical Strombidium species — also oddly greenish.