Raccoons Pass Famous Intelligence Test—By Upending It

Fun fact: one test of intelligence is based on Aesop’s Fable. It measures if animals can discern cause and effect by displacing water to access food. It’s based on the story in which a thirst crow can’t drink from a pitcher at a low level of water. By dropping in stones, the bird raises the water level and is able to drink (Related: “Watch Clever Birds Solve a Challenge From Aesop’s Fables.”)

In a new study,  researchers presented put raccoons to the test. Eight captive raccoons were presented with a cylinder containing a floating marshmallow that was too low to grab. Next, they showed the raccoons how dropping stones in the water would raise the marshmallow.

Two of the eight raccoons successfully repeated the behavior, dropping the stones to get the marshmallow. A third took matters into her own hands: She climbed onto the cylinder and rocked it until it tipped over, giving her access to the sweet treat.

Want to know more? Read about these pesky bandits here!

 

A raccoon reaches into a cylinder to get marshmallows during a recent experiment.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAUREN STANTON

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What are the biggest puzzles in ecology?

Evolutionary biology is full of puzzles, most of which have the form “Evolution by natural selection should produce X but yet we see Y. How come?” Examples include the surprisingly high frequency of sterile males, individuals that help unrelated individuals reproduce, and senescence. Resolving the puzzle usually involves figuring out why trait or behavior X actually is adaptive despite appearances to the contrary, as with individuals that help non-relatives reproduce.

What are the biggest puzzles in ecology? Does ecology have as many puzzles as evolutionary biology? And if not, does that indicate a failing of ecology?

Here’s a classic ecological puzzle: Hairston, Smith, and Slobodkin’s question, why is the world green? That is, why is the world covered with plants, given that there are lots of herbivores around that you’d think would eat all the plants?

Interested? Read more about the puzzles in Ecology and which ones are global and which ones are local, here!

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The ‘Mother’s Curse’ in Canada

The idea for the mother’s curse goes like this. Most human genes are on chromosomes, but a tiny number are in mitochondria, little power factories in human cells that for reasons of evolutionary history have their own loops of DNA. Sperm do not pass on any mitochondria, but eggs do. Therefore, all sons and daughters inherit their mitochondrial DNA from their mother (great mother’s day present idea: sequence yourmitochondria, make into cool figure, give it to your mom thanking her for the DNA). If a harmful mutation in mitochondrial DNA ends up in a woman, she will be less evolutionarily “fit” and thus less able to pass it along. But if the mutation ends up in a man, nothing happens. He never passes along mitochondrial DNA anyway.

However, this hasn’t been tested all that often in humans. Until a perfect system arose. You see,  the first King’s Daughters—or filles du roi—arrived in New France in 1663, and 800 more would follow over the next decade. They were poor and usually of common birth, but their passage and dowry were indeed paid by King Louis XIV for the purpose of empire building: These women were to marry male colonists and have many children, thus strengthening France’s hold on North America. And so they did.

One of these is Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, which causes vision loss, usually in young men. Recently, geneticists using French Canadian genealogy have reexamined the effects of Leber’s and found a striking pattern of inheritance: It seems to show a long-theorized but never-seen-in-humans pattern called the “mother’s curse.”

Want to know more? Read about it here.

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In Africa that conservation is a “white thing”

It is the height of arrogance for industrialized countries to demand that developing countries conserve nature, while they plowed down natural resources (and often still do) to gain economic supremacy.

And that sentiment is reflected in a recent piece about the 18th anniversary of the death of Michael Werikhe, the enigmatic African conservationist.

Moreover, some of these points were emphasized in an interesting stream over on twitter.

The first step is recognizing the problem. But how do we solve said problem?

CRISPR just got really real

The great things about CRISPR is its potential do all kinds of interesting things! The scary part about CRISPR is its ability to mutate human embryos and the slippery slope to designer babies. That last part might be an exaggeration… but given that scientists just removed a dangerous mutation from human embryos…. its not too far off.

You can read about it all over the place, but I particularly like this NY Times article.

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Embryos before and after editing.

When facing aliens, which PhD would be the most useful

With the new aliens movie coming out this summer, Jeremy Yoder took the time to measure the strengths and weaknesses of various disciplines of biologists.

For example:

Herpetologists. Strengths: Herpers know how to handle venomous snakes and poisonous frogs safely, and those skills probably apply to hazardous alien organisms. Weakness: Their skill set and confidence maybe actually mean they’ll be more likely to try to pick up the hissing slime-thing they find alongside the trail.

Mammalogists. Strengths: Mammalogists study the clade that contains some of the most dangerous megafauna alive today, so they should be familiar with evading a stalking predator and come prepared bear spray or maybe even a gun. Weakness: They may tend to assume that anything they don’t identify as a homeothermic vertebrate is too slow and stupid to be a real threat.

Intrigued? Want to know who to bring with you on your interplanetary exploration? Read more here.

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Save the (Wild) Bees

The domesticated honey bee dominates headlines as beekeepers struggle to stop mass die-offs. But they are not the only pollinators out there, and not the only bees that are declining.

“The needs of wild bees are so different that, as some experts say, raising honeybees to save pollinators is like raising chickens to help birds.”

Want to know more? Read about it here.

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