- Published on Monday, 20 January 2014 12:58
That there are temperature and humidity gradients along mountains which create microclimates is well known. Indeed, biologists who study alpine ecosystems are often utterly unsuprised to find entirely different species dwelling just ten meters above others. The tall trees of rainforests, in theory, should create similar microclimates, but they have never been studied in this way. Now a team is revealing that such microclimates do exist and, more importantly, that they shift with altitude. Read on here.
Photo courtesy of Ales Kocourek.
Where teeth came from
- Published on Friday, 10 January 2014 13:05
Which came first the mouth full of teeth or protective armor? It sounds like a bad chicken and egg joke but it is one that palaeontologists take rather seriously. For years the guess was that the first bones were teeth used for hunting and that the protective exoskeletons covering early fish followed, but now a study is revealing that the truth is the other way around. The new work focuses on a group of ancient jawless animals known as conodonts that died out during the late Triassic. These eel-like creatures lacked skeletons but had bits in their mouths that were hard, readily fossilised and were comprised of tissues that look like dentine and enamel. Since the teeth of fish, dogs, dinosaurs and people are made of these materials, the assumption has long been that teeth evolved in conodonts and that the exoskeletal armor that covered the first fish later developed from them. Apparently this is all wrong... Read on in my article in Nature.
Learning from lemurs
- Published on Monday, 30 December 2013 13:20
To learn language, infants must do more than tune in to the sounds of their native tongue, they must also discover how these sounds are linked to meaning. Recent work has demonstrated that infants do this by entering a state of in-depth processing when they hear human vocalisations. More specifically, when they were presented with numerous images of dinosaurs and fish which were accompanied by either differing tonal beeps that were correlated to the differing groups (dinosaurs vs fish), differing human sounds (also correlated), or no audio at all, the infants demonstrated that they were able to discriminate between dinosaurs and fish only when they had been associated with differing human sounds. The results revealed that hearing human vocals confered an adaptive advantage by aiding infants in the fundamental cognitive process of categorisation. Intriguing as the find is, it leaves open a key developmental question: What is the developmental origin of this link?
Some have argued that the link is specific to human vocalisations from the start while others have argued that it derives from a broader template that initially also encompasses the vocalisations of non-human primates. Now a team is addressing this matter directly by running the dinosaur/fish category experiment again, but this time with a new auditory signal - lemur calls. Remarkably, children at the ages of 3 and 4 months learn to build the categories dinosaurs and fish when these images are supported by lemur screams just as effectively as when they hear human vocalisations. Read on in my article in The Economist.
Photo courtesy of IParjan.
The sound of morality
- Published on Friday, 20 December 2013 12:19
During the US presidential campaign, Mr Obama came under public scrutiny when Mitt Romney, criticised him for having eaten dog as a child in Indonesia. In a quick counter attack, Mr Obama pointed out that Mr Romney put his dog in a crate fastened to the roof of his car while embarking on a 12 hour drive from Massachusetts to Canada. Many expressed moral outrage at both Mr Obama and Mr Romney. But the nature of the condemnation may have been quite different. Eating dogs and harming dogs are thought to elicit two very different emotions: anger and disgust. They are easy enough to tease apart when seen, but we know precious little about how they affect the way we make moral judgements.
Anger is theorised to underlie reactions to crimes against people, such as battery and unfairness, and disgust is theorised to underlie reactions to crimes against nature, such as sexual transgressions and cannibalism. To date, however, it has not been shown that inducing these two emotions has divergent effects.Keen to take a look at this, a team designed an experiment that used icky and annoying sounds to elicit anger and disgust in participants and then asked them to consider moral vignettes. Read on in my article here.
Deflated by inflated praise
- Published on Saturday, 07 December 2013 22:57
Anyone who works with kids knows they do it. Saying "that painting is the best I've ever seen" about art cobbled together by a six year old rather than just saying the truth with "I like it" or "Good job." Inflated praise is incredibly common but we know little about how children actually respond to it. Curious about this, a team explored when and why adults inflate praise and monitored how different children responded.
The team found that adults inflate praise far more often when dealing with children that they believe have low self esteem. More worryingly, they also found that children with low self esteem are much less likely to seek future challenges after receiving inflated praise while children with high self esteem experience the opposite reaction and more aggressively seek out challenges when given such inflated praise.
Rather remarkably, the researchers found that even when the difference between inflated and non-inflated praise was only the single word “incredibly” there was still a significant effect on the children being examined. They speculate that, although small to an outside observer, this single word may feel quite large to children with low self-esteem who fear that they might not be able to perform “incredibly” well in the future.
With all this in mind, they argue that inflated praise can cause children with low self-esteem to avoid crucial learning experiences, eventually undermining their learning and performance. The full paper on this will be available with the journal Psychological Science in January.
Powered by poo
- Published on Tuesday, 10 December 2013 12:06
Saving the giant pandas has always been about maintaining biodiversity and keeping a charismatic species alive, but now it looks like all the conservation work might also have an economic effect... by improving biofuel production. Unlikely as it may sound, giant pandas are making contributions toward shifting production of biofuels away from corn and other food crops and toward food waste like corn cobs and stalks. These contributions are coming in the form of microbes that are being discovered in panda faeces. Corn stalks and corn cobs currently require special processing to break down the tough lignocellulose material in them to make ethanol. Breaking down this stuff is costly (it requires heat and high pressure) but the bacteria in giant panda digestive tracts (which are adept at breaking up bamboo) look like they can make the process much simpler. Read on in my article in The Economist.
Photo courtesty of Fernando Revilla.
Improved chimpanzee match-making
- Published on Sunday, 01 December 2013 12:13
Chimpanzees are highly endangered and desperately need to be captive bred to keep their genetic diversity as high as possible. Unfortunately, these animals are a lot like us in that they cannot just be thrown together without conflicts breaking out. This reality has forced primatologists at zoos to try and develop chimpanzee personality tests so that they can communicate with one another effectively as they work to build the largest breeding social groups possible without creating tensions (or worse) violence. To date, most of these personality tests have been adapted from human personality tests, but these have not worked too well. Now, a new study is suggesting a way forward that depends upon an examination of chimpanzee culture. Read on in my article in The Economist.