from the world's big
Researchers decoded the love signals of lizards "spoken" through chemical signals.
- Scientists discovered that lizards developed novel chemical communication signals when relocated to tiny island groups with no predators.
- Male lizards began to rapidly produce a new chemical love elixir, not unlike cologne, to call on potential mates.
- With new technology we're increasingly able to detect and identify the chemicals that make up much of the language of non-human nature.
Discovery of lizard love language dialects<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzE2OTMzOC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MjA1MjcxMH0.WZUBceriGkgHhb5yza4468TF9aJDvmdJGqW7wVERHgU/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C89%2C0%2C90&height=700" id="0bda9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9c6e02aa7dfbb5e8f23aed152fd1e21b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Agios Artemios was one of the islets that a lizard group was relocated to.
Photo Credit: Colin Donihue<p>Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis relocated 12 female and eight male Aegean wall lizards from a single source lizard population in Greece to five tiny islands with no predators. Under these happy conditions, the lizard population proliferated and competed aggressively—evidenced by bite scars—for resources. Researchers tagged each individual lizard so that they could be identified and checked up on over the course of four years.</p><p>As the scientists made visits back to the lizard populations to note how they and their offspring were doing, they made a exciting discovery. On each of the islands, the male lizards had made new chemical cocktails different from the chemical secretions of the lizards in the original source population. The changes had happened rapidly, becoming evident to the scientists after just four generations.</p><p>Could this be evidence that male lizards spruce themselves up with new, au naturale "cologne" when in new ecological settings? The researchers think so, pointing out that having no predators around likely made all the difference. </p><p>"Signals to attract mates are often conspicuous to predators," said Simon Baeckens, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Antwerp in Belgium and co-author of the new paper, in a <a href="https://source.wustl.edu/2020/04/lizards-develop-new-love-language/" target="_blank">university news release</a>. "As such, sexual signals present a compromise between attractiveness and avoidance of detection. However, on these islets, there is no constraint on the evolution of highly conspicuous and attractive signals." </p><p>In other words, with no snakes or other predators to clue in on their prey's potent chemical secretions, the male lizards could let loose on their love signals without worry. </p><p>"In the experimental islands, we found that the 'signal richness' of the lizard secretions is the highest—meaning that the number of different compounds that we could detect in the secretion is the highest," <a href="https://source.wustl.edu/2020/04/lizards-develop-new-love-language/" target="_blank">Baeckens added</a>. </p><p>Though the researchers are still working to decode the signals, they note that previous research suggests that this more elaborate signal may advertise high "male quality" and possibly immune function to both lure females and tell other males to scram. </p><p>"Lizards deposit their chemical messages encoded in secretions from specialized glands located on their inner thighs," reported Talia Ogliore for <a href="https://source.wustl.edu/2020/04/lizards-develop-new-love-language/" target="_blank">Washington University</a>. "The secretions are a waxy cocktail of lipid compounds that contains detailed information about the individual lizard that produced them."</p><p>Lizards are able to collect those chemical messages from their environment by rapidly flickering out their slim, nimble tongues. They process those cues via a sensory organ in the roof of their mouths.</p>
Chemical dialects<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="71eb9f69f0ff048c645911b7b444da85"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/7kHZ0a_6TxY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Most chemical signals between animals fall out of the parameter of human perception, and are therefore more complex to examine. So when studying animal communicative signals, studies have typically prioritized sound and sight.<br></p><p>But chemical "language" is the oldest and most widely used communication mode in nonhuman nature. Life spanning from bacteria to <a href="https://www.the-scientist.com/features/plant-talk-38209" target="_blank">plants</a> to <a href="https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4615-4733-4_23" target="_blank">beavers</a> all communicate through this medium. So research like this new paper on lizard love signals represents a valuable opportunity for deciphering ways that animals communicate and perceive the world around them. </p><p>"What we've discovered is that within species there is important variation in chemical signals depending on your context: Who's trying to eat you, who wants to mate with you and who you're trying to compete with," said <a href="https://biology.wustl.edu/people/colin-donihue?" target="_blank">Colin Donihue</a>, a postdoctoral fellow in biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and lead author of the new study.</p><p>Donihue also pointed out that nonhuman species have spent more than a billion years developing complex chemical languages. Only relatively recently have humans been able to decipher those methods of communication. </p><p>"With new technology though we're increasingly able to detect and identify these chemical compounds and this is leading to exciting new possibilities for understanding how species interact and evolve," Donihue told Big Think. "As these chemical assays become more common, cheaper, and easier to conduct, I think we're going to find that there are chemical communicators in the plant and animal world that are every bit as exotic and impressive as the bright feathers or intricate birdsongs that are currently the subject of so much research."</p><p>This is likely just the beginning for gaining understanding as to what nonhuman beings, like lizards, are saying to one another right under our noses. </p>This research was published on April 21 in the <a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1365-2656.13205" target="_blank">Journal of Animal Ecology</a>.
Being stuck at home is not as intense as being away from Earth, but there are ways to cope in either scenario.
- While she has not personally been to space, NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller has heard from friends and colleagues what it is like to truly be isolated. Coping mechanisms for these extreme cases can also benefit people here on Earth during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Setting and maintaining a schedule can help you and your body return to a more normal state, as can finding familiar sensory inputs. For astronauts, that includes Earthly scents like citrus.
- Speaking personally and making a point about silver linings, Thaller shares a story about how COVID-19 has given her more time with her sick husband for what are likely his final days.
Why finding joy is more easily attainable than the pursuit of happiness.
- Joy and happiness are often used synonymously, but designer Ingrid Fetell Lee argues that there is an important distinction between the two: time. Happiness is something that measures how good we feel over time, while joy is about feeling good in the moment.
- Noticing visual and sensorial patterns in the things that brought people joy, Lee was able to identify 10 "aesthetics": abundance, harmony, energy, freedom, play, surprise, transcendence, magic, renewal, and celebration.
- In this video, we learn more about each aesthetic and why focusing on joyful moments is the key to getting the most out of life.
Our remarkable olfactory senses are modeled in a new research chip.
- Two researchers have created an algorithm that can accurately identify 10 different smells.
- The AI algorithm runs on an Intel chip that has 130,000 silicon "neurons."
- The natural mammalian olfactory bulb grows new neurons even in adults.
Simulating the brain<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjg4ODYxMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNjI4MjgwMX0.1DfL1VUT9hNaQSLXTLDrz97NR3KQlHetUfPEtv18Fds/img.jpg?width=980" id="92a7c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1c1b0ee005d2025f1c6059b10d22afdb" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Neuromorphic chip abstract illustration" />
Image source: GiroScience/Shutterstock<p><a href="https://psychology.cornell.edu/thomas-cleland" target="_blank">Thomas Cleland</a>, senior author of "<a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s42256-020-0159-4" target="_blank">Rapid Learning and Robust Recall in a Neuromorphic Olfactory Circuit</a>" published in Nature Machine Intelligence says, "This is a result of over a decade of studying olfactory bulb circuitry in rodents and trying to figure out essentially how it works, with an eye towards things we know animals can do that our machines can't."</p><p>"We now know enough to make this work," says Cleland speaking with <a href="https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2020/03/researchers-sniff-out-ai-breakthroughs-mammal-brains" target="_blank">Cornell Chronicle</a>. "We've built this computational model based on this circuitry, guided heavily by things we know about the biological systems' connectivity and dynamics. Then we say, if this were so, this would work. And the interesting part is that it does work."</p><p>Cleland's co-author, Intel intern Nabil Imam, has the AI running on an Intel research chip called <a href="https://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/research/neuromorphic-computing.html" target="_blank">Loihi</a>. The chip is something of a wonder all by itself. It's designed to perform neuromorphic computing inspired by the brain, sporting some 130,000 silicon "neurons." Like our own neurons, each can fire independently of the others, sending pulsed signals to its neighbors, changing their electrical states. In addition, Loihi can accept inputs from a variety of physical sensors, such as the metal-oxide chemical sensors that Cleland and Imam used, allowing the entire structure to simulate the natural learning process that occurs when the mammalian brain is fed various sensory inputs.</p>
What the AI knows<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjg4ODYxOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMTk1NzU4NH0.iGlNspuVnanIK2UOlM3vb7PNMfDqfjBicT2TjV0zZYo/img.jpg?width=980" id="9a554" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e67ccc037da2f759d265454099f3c677" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The sweet smell of success<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjg4ODYyNi9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MDMwNDc5MH0.eU6P3TJR2sfolIRI1nZGU7TO8wwRUzxDcPZNbBiTBG0/img.png?width=980" id="067f2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7b33246f6fc639695506e03bdc5141f2" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Patrick J. Lynch, wikimedia<p>As AI and machine learning do, Cleland's and Imam's algorithm would be expected to get better with more training. Machine smell-detection for use in bomb-sniffing, for example, is clearly not just around the corner. Still, the research offers new insights about learning.</p><p>Due to the normally finite number of neurons available for storage of new memories in an adult brain, and the fact that "when you learn something, it permanently differentiates neurons," as Cleland says, storing new information means changing the information already encoded in neurons. However, the mammalian olfactory bulb is able to continually learn smells — hundreds or thousands of them —without losing knowledge of already-learned odors. It's one of the few areas of the brain that can keep creating new neurons through adulthood.</p><p>The researchers' experience with Loihi underscores the value of the olfactory bulb's unusual neuronal expandability. "The computational model turns into a biological hypothesis for why adult neurogenesis is important," Cleland says, "because it does this thing that otherwise would make the system not work. So in that sense, the model is feeding back into biology. And in this other sense, it's the basis for a set of devices for artificial olfactory systems that can be constructed commercially."</p>
- Asian elephants often leave protected areas to feed and come into conflict with humans.
- The elephants, it turns out, can recognize the largest quantities of food by smell.
- This insight could lead to keeping Asian elephants out of harm's way via redirection using olfactory cues.
Plotnik's hunch<p>A failed experiment led Plotnik to his suspicion. A middle school student study in which he was involved sought to test if elephants could follow visual cues — humans pointing — to find food in buckets. "They couldn't," Plotnik tells <a href="https://www.inverse.com/article/56366-elephants-can-smell-numbers-can-you" target="_blank"><em>Inverse</em></a>, "which surprised not only me but also the elephant handlers (mahouts) in Thailand." The mahouts told him they'd assumed that elephants' habitual picking up and returning tourists' lost sandals was prompted by their own pointing out of the discarded footwear to them.</p><p>"This led me to a big turning point in my research focus," Plotnik continues. "What if the elephants weren't following the pointing cue, but were instead using their ears and nose to guide their behavior?" That elephants continually send their trunks and noses upward like periscopes to assess their surroundings suggests smell plays a significant role in their decision-making.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTYxOTE0OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNjYxMDQ0M30.8ZWYhW34YRmuVp2beGPF-viVl0YhkeCkZ4efo1n5eIU/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=14%2C107%2C344%2C244&height=700" id="a44bb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="748ddb6a24ce65f587d1cbab0f66eba1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
This is actually an Indian elephant, but, in any event, "Here's sniffing at you." Image source: Starik_73 / Shutterstock
The nose counting experiments<p>Plotnik and his colleagues set up a series of experiments at the <a href="https://www.anantara.com/en/golden-triangle-chiang-rai/elephant-camp" target="_blank">Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort</a> in Chiang Rai, Thailand. They presented six Asian elephants with pairs of plastic buckets containing sunflower seeds — in each pair, one bucket had more seeds than the other, with a range of difference ratios. The buckets were covered, but had holes through which the smell of the seeds could escape. (The buckets were scrupulously washed out between tests to avoid lingering odors.) An elephant could choose one bucket from each pair to snack on.</p><p>The results were surprising, Plotnik <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/04/science/elephants-smell-quantity.html" target="_blank">tells</a> the <em>New York Times</em>. "Remarkably, when we put two different quantities in the buckets, the elephants consistently chose the quantity that had more over less."</p><p>Elephants were more or less successful depending on the ratio. With larger differences between buckets, the pachyderms were more accurate. (Two especially accurate elephants, Pepsi and Phuki, were right 80 percent of the time.) With more subtle differences in quantities, they chose correctly only up to about half the time.</p><p> The exact mechanism by which elephants count and compare food amounts isn't yet known. Do larger quantities simply smell <em>more</em>? It is known that they have <a href="https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2014/07/22/elephants-have-2000-genes-for-smell-most-ever-found/" target="_blank">more genes</a> related to smell — about 2,000 — than those renowned expert sniffers, dogs, who have only about 800. (Rats come in second with 1,200.)</p><iframe width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/1o54mK3dGnw" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe>
Peaceful management<p> To Plotnik, the research suggests a new approach to managing Asian elephants roaming. As he tells <em>Inverse</em>, "By better understanding elephants' needs in terms of habitat and resources, we can hopefully come up with better solutions to the conflict that take both human and elephant perspectives into account." Perhaps olfactory cues can more gently guide elephants to safer pastures.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTYxOTE1OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzY3NzgzOH0.kioffGYukqOXuW8_iltW4D6BCWTJKBIhG6DUSQmqeUI/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C189%2C285%2C119&height=700" id="8a1a6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c3cb283f4d2306d11373d21d9413b203" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: worradirek / Shutterstock