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April 2012 Archives

A while back now, I wrote a brief piece commenting on the ability of at least some chimpanzees to recognise numbers. So it didn't come as a huge surprise to hear that members of a baboon troop could distinguish between 'real' words and random strings of letters. Yes, really.

A group of psychologists led by Jonathan Grainger (Grainger, Dufaur, Montant, ZIegler & Fagot, 2012) have just published a paper in Science entitled "Orthographic Processing in Baboons (Papio papio)", where 'orthography' is a standardised system for using a particular writing system (script) to write a particular language. The team noted that most research on visual word recognition hasn't treated words as 'visual objects', instead dealing with the relationship between information at the letter level and 'higher-level linguistic properties including semantics & syntax. But it seems that the ability to recognise words as entities resides in a part of the brain that's also involved in recognition of objects & faces, and primates are pretty good at faces, so Grainger & his colleagues decided to investigate whether baboons could extend their facial recognition skills to identifying words. 

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Scientists, like everyone else, have a sense of humour. (It's just that sometimes their 'in-jokes' may come across as somewhat incomprehensible.) And taxonomy seems to offer fertile ground to indulge that wit. What else can you think, when there's a tiny tiny snail with the genus name Ittibittium; a fly called Pieza kake (say it out loud); and a trilobite with the binomial name Han solo (yes, seriously!). And yes, there's more - you'll find a more extensive list here (thanks to Mark Willoughby for sending me the link). In fact, such punny names (sorry, couldn't resist it!) turn out to be surprisingly common.

It's not just the biologists; chemists seem to have enjoyed coming up with funny names for new chemical compounds. Moronic acid, anyone? You'll find a lengthy list at Molecules with Silly or Unusual Names - but you may wish to exercise a little discretion as to whether you wish to call some of the names out loud :-)

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We've just come back from a few glorious days in New Plymouth (arriving home before the change in weather). Had a great time tramping, walking the coastal walkway, eating yummy food - all those nice things you do, holidaying with friends. And as some of the party were driving from Paritutu to meet the rest of us at an outdoor cafe on the coastal walkway, they saw the following sign:

 why are there still apes.jpg

It's a variant on the old "if men evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys", only slightly more accurate - in the sense that we are much more closely related to apes than we are to monkeys, lol. But both versions are wrong, based on a misunderstanding on the nature of evolution, and I wonder if the sign's author would be willing to look at the evidence for the real state of affairs.

For we didn't evolve 'from' modern apes. In taxonomic terms, humans are apes: placed in the primate sub-order Anthropoidea along with gorillas, chimpanzees & bonobos, orangutans, & gibbons. Morphological & DNA evidence indicates that our nearest living relatives are the chimpanzees, with whom we last shared a common ancestor around 6 million years ago. At 4.4 million years old, Ardipithecus ramidus is the oldest known hominin - & it wasn't particularly chimp-like. Which is hardly surprising, as the ancestors of both humans and chimps/bonobos have been following separate evolutionary trajectories for all that time. As the team who discovered and described 'Ardi' have commented (White et al., 2009): 

Perhaps the most critical single implication of Ar.ramidus is its reaffirmation of Darwin's appreciation: humans did not evolve from chimpanzees but rather through a series of progenitors starting from a distant common ancestor that once occupied the ancient forests of the African Miocene. 

T.D.White, B.Asfaw, Y.Beyene, Y.Haile-Selassie, C.Owen Lovejoy, G.Suwa & G.WoldeGabriel (2009) Ardipithecus ramidus and the palaeobiology of early hominids. Science 326: 64 (authors' summary**) & 75-86. doi: 10.1126/science.1175802

** Teachers - the summary would be a good introductory read for your senior students.

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 It's more than 3 years now since a very close friend died of cancer. At the time, I wrote briefly of how cancer cell lines can evolve resistance to chemotherapy. Now Orac has written a much longer essay discussing the same thing. It's well worth reading & would probably make an excellent resource for working with senior school biology students.

Orac ends his essay with the following quote, an answer to those who ask why we have yet to cure cancer (even when using personalised therapies that in some cases target the genes themselves):

The reason we haven't cured cancer yet is because we haven't figured out how to overcome the power of evolution. Right now, cancer seems almost always to find a way. Until we figure out a way how to block all the ways it can find, personalised therapy will be effective in only a small proportion of cases.

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This is a post I first wrote for Talking Teaching - but hey! it's about teaching science!

Today's class was a real experiment for me, & although I try lots of different things in my classes, it was also a step outside my normal comfort zone. (But hey! life would be a bit boring if we always stayed safely inside that zone!) Why? Because I put into practice an idea I stole from my friend & colleague Kevin Gould (who also very kindly let me use the resources he'd developed): today was "design-a-plant" day, & probably to anyone looking into the lecture theatre during the first 30 minutes or so it would have looked as if chaos definitely ruled.

Last Friday I gave everyone an information sheet: descriptions of the features of leaf, stem & root that you might see in plants adapted to different environments. Today I trotted off to the lecture room with a box full of overhead transparency sheets, overhead pens, & printed scenarios (descriptions of a particular environment). The lecture theatre was already full – everyone had come ahead of time! This definitely wasn’t usual (it’s not that they normally trickle in late, but we're talking seriouslyearly); obviously they were expecting something special. Gulp.

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 When I took the cover off the barbecue the other day, a tiny insect caught my eye. It was moving in short, fluttering hops so was fairly easy to catch, and once I had it in a jar I could have a better look. It was less than a centimetre long, dark blue with lovely contrasting golden spots on all four of its short wings. The number of wings told me it wasn't a fly (despite my husband's protestations to the contrary), as did its long antennae, which were not quite half the length of its body. And I knew 'it' was actually 'she', because there on the end of her fat little abdomen were two palest gold puffs - her scent glands.

We showed her to friends over dinner (barbecued lamb that had marinated for the day in a delightful mix of soy sauce, garlic, rosemary, lemon zest & lemon juice, with various other dishes on the side), but no-one knew what our little moth might be. And lacking a decent close-up lens on the camera, I couldn't mount a photo here for other, wiser eyes to identify.

But tonight I've just had an e-mail from our dinner guests, who identified her in a book they were browsing through in a second-hand bookstore in Thames. She's a female bag moth, Cebysa leucotelis, shown here in a photo from the Landcare Research website:

Australian bag moth

This is a strongly dimorphic species, as the male - who is capable of sustained flight, unlike his partner - looks quite different, a dull brown with pale yellow spots on his hind wings & bars of the same colour along the leading edge of each forewing.

The husband was suspicious, lest they be of the same ilk as the pantry moths currently littering the traps in my store cupboard. But no, bag moths apparently eat lichen & algae on the walls of buildings. So our enchanting little house guests can stay, without fear of further disturbance (at least until the next barbecue!).

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  • Alison Campbell: I'm surprised you get 'no reaction' given the warnings associated read more
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  • ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®©: Do not listen to Smut Clyde. His methods are unsound. read more
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  • ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®©: What an impressive fellow! ~ read more
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