Crows are Much Smarter Than Previously Thought: Study

Crows are Much Smarter Than Previously Thought: Study



Crows can reason by analogy, a study has found, showing an ability to recognize how different pairs of objects have similar relationships.

That means crows join humans, apes and monkeys in showing advanced “relational” thinking, according to the research. The crows also passed their test without training, except on a similar-but-easier task, the researchers said.

The crows’ feat is “phenomenal,” said Ed Wasserman, a University of Iowa psychologist and co-author of a report on the findings, though “it’s been done before with apes and monkeys.” Wasserman added that the crow brain is as “as special to birds as the brain of an ape is special to mammals.”

In the paper, published by Dec. 18 in the journal Current Biology, Wasserman and researchers at Lomonosov Moscow State University describe how they initially trained two hooded crows to win treats by matching pictures.

Later, they presented the birds with two cups, one empty and one with a treat. Each cup was covered with a card showing two pictures. The task was to choose the card where the pictured objects had the same relationship as those shown on a third, “sample” card.

For example, if the sample card displayed two same-sized squares, the crows might have to choose the card with two same-sized circles, rather than two different-sized circles.

The investigators said they were surprised to find that the crows could correctly perform this without specific training. Their previous game had involved exactly matching pictures rather than analogies.

“Honestly, if it was only by brute force that the crows showed this learning, then it would have been an impressive result. But this feat was spontaneous,” Wasserman said, although some background knowledge was present.

Anthony Wright, a neurobiologist at the University of Texas-Houston Medical School, said the discovery is on par with demonstrations of tool use by some birds, including crows.

“Analogical reasoning, matching relations to relations, has been considered to be among the more so-called ‘higher order’ abstract reasoning processes,” he said. “For decades such reasoning has been thought to be limited to humans and some great apes. The apparent spontaneity of this finding makes it all the more remarkable.”

Joel Fagot, director of research at the University of Aix-Marseille in France, agreed the results shatter the notion that “sophisticated forms of cognition can only be found in our ‘smart’ human species. Accumulated evidence suggests that animals can do more than expected.”

Wasserman concedes there will be skeptics and hopes the experiment will be repeated with more crows as well as other species. He suspects researchers will have more such surprises in store for science. “We have always sold animals short,” he said. “That human arrogance still permeates contemporary cognitive science.”

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Quantum physics may have just gotten simpler

Quantum physics may have just gotten simpler



Here’s a nice surprise: quantum physics is less complicated than we thought, according to new research. The work links two strange features of the quantum world—or nature at the smallest scales, such as that of subatomic particles—calling them different manifestations of the same thing.

These features go by the names “wave-particle duality” and the “uncertainty principle.” In work published Dec. 19 in the journal Nature Communications, the researchers, who did the work at the National University of Singapore, say the first is just the second in disguise.

The connection “comes out very naturally when you consider them as questions about what information you can gain about a system,” said one of the scientists, Stephanie Wehner, who is now at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

Wave-particle duality is the idea that a quantum object can behave like a wave, but that the wave behavior stops if you try to locate the object.

The duality is seen in experiments in which subatomic particles, such as electrons, are fired one by one at a screen with two thin slits. The particles pile up behind the slits not in two heaps, but in a striped pattern as you’d expect for waves that “interfere” with each other. An everyday example of wave interference occurs when you toss two pebbles in a pond at once a small distance away from each other: when the two sets of ripples meet, they form characteristic patterns as their effects add up.

However, in the quantum case, the pattern vanishes if you sneak a look at which slit a particle goes through—at which point the particles start to act like particles and not waves.

The quantum uncertainty principle is the idea that it’s impossible to know certain pairs of things about a quantum particle at once. For example, the more precisely you know the position of an atom, the less precisely you can know its speed. It’s a limit on the fundamental knowability of nature, not a statement on measurement skill. The new work finds that there is an identical sort of limit on how much you can learn about a system’s wave versus the particle behavior.

Wave-particle duality and uncertainty have been fundamental concepts in quantum physics since the early 1900s. “We were guided by a gut feeling, and only a gut feeling, that there should be a connection,” said co-researcher Patrick Coles, who is now at the Institute for Quantum Computing in Waterloo, Canada.

One can write equations that capture how much can be learned about pairs of properties subject to the uncertainty principle. Coles, Wehner and co-author Jedrzej Kaniewski work with a form of such equations known as “entropic uncertainty relations,” and they found that all the maths previously used to describe wave-particle duality could be reformulated in terms of these relations.

“It was like we had discovered the ‘Rosetta Stone’ that connected two different languages,” said Coles. “The literature on wave-particle duality was like hieroglyph that we could now translate into our native tongue.”

Because the entropic uncertainty relations used in their translation have also been used in demonstrating the security of quantum cryptography—schemes for secure communication using quantum particles—the researchers suggest the work could help inspire new cryptography methods.

In earlier papers, Wehner and collaborators found connections between the uncertainty principle and other aspects of physics, namely quantum “non-locality” and the second law of thermodynamics. The first deals with particles’ ability to act as though they can communicate instantaneously over long distances; the second states that disorder in the universe can always increase but not decrease. The researchers say their next goal is to think about how all this fits into a bigger picture of how nature works.

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Dinosaur-killer asteroid also nearly wiped out mammals

Dinosaur-killer asteroid also nearly wiped out mammals



The dinosaurs’ extinction 66 million years ago is thought to have opened the way for mammals to dominate the land. But a new study claims many of them died off too.

“If a few lucky species didn’t make it through, then mammals may have gone the way of the dinosaurs and we wouldn’t be here,” said Steve Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh in the U.K., one of the authors of a report on the findings.

Among mammals, the study argues, the brunt of the disaster seems to have hit a group known as metatherians—extinct relatives of living marsupials (“mammals with pouches,” such as opossums and kangaroos.) These thrived in the shadow of the dinosaurs during the Cretaceous period, just before the extinction.

The study, published in the research journal Zookeys, finds these once-abundant mammals nearly followed the dinosaurs into oblivion.

When a 10-km (6-mile)-wide asteroid struck what is now Mexico, unleashing a global cataclysm, some two-thirds of all metatherians living in North America perished, according to the researchers. These casualties, they said, included more than 90 percent of species living in the northern Great Plains, the best area in the world for preserving latest Cretaceous mammal fossils.

Metatherians, the scientists added, would never recover their previous diversity, which is why marsupials are rare today and largely restricted to areas in Australia and South America. Taking advantage of the metatherian demise were the placental mammals: species that give live birth to well-developed young. They are almost everywhere today and include everything from mice to men.

“It wasn’t only that dinosaurs died out, providing an opportunity for mammals to reign, but that many types of mammals, such as most metatherians, died out too—this allowed advanced placental mammals to rise to dominance,” said Thomas Williamson of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, lead author of the paper.

The study reviews the Cretaceous evolutionary history of metatherians and provides a family tree for these mammals based on the latest fossil records, which researchers said allowed them to study extinction patterns in unprecedented detail.

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Curiosity readings point to mysterious, pulsing source of methane on Mars

Curiosity readings point to mysterious, pulsing source of methane on Mars



Levels of the organic gas methane are periodically spiking at the Gale Crater on Mars—suggesting something, possibly something alive, is creating the substance, scientists say.

Most of Earth’s methane production has a biological origin, but there are other ways methane, the simplest organic molecule, can arise naturally. Organic molecules are carbon-based and are essential ingredients for life.

The new findings, from the NASA Mars rover Curiosity, are published this week in the research journal Science.

Investigators said the findings suggest that the methane level in Mars’ atmosphere at the 154-km (96 mile) wide crater is generally lower than models predict, but that it spikes often. This implies the gas arises periodically from some nearby source, they added.

The scientists, from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. and other institutions, used 20 months of data collected by instruments on Curiosity to gauge levels of the gas at crater, near where the rover landed.

Their study found that the stable, background level of atmospheric methane is less than half of what was expected from known processes, such as the light-induced breakdown of dust and organic materials delivered to Mars by meteorites.

However, the researchers also found that this background level of methane spiked about tenfold, sometimes over the course of just 60 Martian days, which was surprising because the gas is expected to have a lifetime of about 300 years. The results suggest that methane is occasionally produced or vented near the crater, which is near the Martian equator, they added.

NASA originally chose Gale Crater, which has a mountain in the middle of it, as a landing site for the rover because there were signs of water in the area. The crater is believed to have formed with a meteor hit Mars in its early history, about 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago.

The announcement comes just weeks after another report concluding that a Martian meteorite called Tissint contains organic molecules of possible biological origin.



Herd mentality: Are we programmed to make bad decisions?

Herd mentality: Are we programmed to make bad decisions?



A desire to be part of the “in crowd” is a result of our evolution—but can damage our ability to make good decisions, a new study proposes.

The research concludes that groups are less responsive to changes in their natural environment because individuals have evolved to be overly influenced by their neighbors. The investigators used mathematical models to examine how the use of social information has evolved within animal groups.

“Copying what other individuals do can be useful in many situations, such as what kind of phone to buy, or for animals, which way to move or whether a situation is dangerous,” said Colin Torney of the University of Exeter in the U.K., lead author of a paper on the findings.

But “the challenge is in evaluating personal beliefs when they contradict what others are doing. We showed that evolution will lead individuals to over use social information, and copy others too much… the result is that groups evolve to be unresponsive to changes in their environment and spend too much time copying one another, and not making their own decisions. “

The study is published in the Dec. 17 issue of the research journal Interface.

By using a simple model of decision-making in a changing environment, the team found that individuals overly rely on social information and evolve to be too readily influenced by their neighbors. The researchers suggest this is due to a “classic evolutionary conflict between individual and collective interest.”

“Our results suggest we shouldn’t expect social groups in nature to respond effectively to changing environments. Individuals that spend too much time copying their neighbors [are] likely to be the norm,” Torney said.

Data from Rosetta spacecraft yields secrets about comet’s water

Data from Rosetta spacecraft yields secrets about comet’s water


Comet 67p

A comet studied close-up by the European Space Agency is yielding surprising secrets about its water, scientists say.

The new data from the agency’s Rosetta spacecraft suggest most of Earth’s water came from asteroids, not comets, and that comets closer to our part of the Solar System have more diverse origins than previously suspected.

Rosetta found the water vapor from Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko to be very unlike Earth’s, in measurements made in the month following the spacecraft’s arrival at the comet on Aug. 6.

One of the leading hypotheses on Earth’s formation is that it was so hot when it formed 4.6 billion years ago that any original water content should have boiled off. But, today, two thirds of the surface is water, so where did that come from?

Scientists think the water came later from impacting asteroids and comets—two different types of objects that orbit the Sun. (They have different makeups and asteroids lack tails, for instance.)

But how much water came from each type of object is debated.

Scientists believe a key to determining where a particular body of water originated is the levels, within it, of a type of hydrogen known as deuterium, as compared to normal hydrogen. Simulations show that during the first few million years of the Solar System, deuterium levels should change with distance from the Sun and with time. Therefore deuterium levels in a particular body of water can reveal something about where and when it originated.

Comets in particular are considered unique tools to study these origins, since they harbor material directly left over from the dust cloud that gave rise to the planets.

But this isn’t straightforward because many comet orbits have gotten mixed up since long ago. “Long-period” comets, a type that is more distant from the sun, are thought to have originally formed closer in, in the area of the planets Uranus and Neptune. And “short-period” comets, which now inhabit inner regions—like Rosetta’s—were thought to have formed further out, in the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune.

Previous measurements of other comets’ deuterium levels have varied widely, researchers say. Of the 11 comets for which there are measurements, only the short-period Comet 103P/Hartley 2 was found to match Earth water in makeup, in observations made by the European Space Agency’s Herschel mission in 2011. The levels now measured by Rosetta are more than three times greater.

This suggests two things, mission scientists said.

“This surprising finding could indicate a diverse origin for the Jupiter-family comets – perhaps they formed over a wider range of distances in the young Solar System than we previously thought,” said Kathrin Altwegg, lead author of the paper reporting the results in the journal Science this week.

Second, she said, “our finding… adds weight to models that place more emphasis on asteroids [than comets] as the main delivery mechanism for Earth’s oceans.” Altwegg is principal investigator for an instrument called Rosina (Orbiter Spectrometer for Ion and Neutral Analysis) on the spacecraft, which made the measurements.

“As Rosetta continues to follow the comet on its orbit around the Sun throughout next year, we’ll be keeping a close watch on how it evolves and behaves,” added Matt Taylor, the space agency’s Rosetta project scientist.

Birds diversified in “big bang” after dinosaurs died out

Birds diversified in “big bang” after dinosaurs died out



A major new study sheds new light on how and when birds evolved and acquired features such as feathers, flight and song, scientists say.

The study charts a burst of evolution that took place after the dinosaurs suddenly died out, about 66 million years ago. Scientists say this burst occurred as new forms exploited opportunities left open by the absence of the dinosaurs, some of which were the ancestors of these same birds. Within 10 million years, researchers found, the avian explosion created representatives of nearly all the major bird lineages with us today.

The four-year project decoded and compared the entire genetic fingerprint of 48 bird species to represent all these lineages—including the woodpecker, owl, penguin, hummingbird and flamingo.

Researchers also compared these genomes with those of three other reptile species and humans.

They found that birdsong evolved separately at least twice. Parrots and songbirds gained the ability to learn and mimic vocal activity independently of hummingbirds, despite sharing many of the same genes.

The findings are considered important because some of brain processes that are involved in bird singing are also associated with human speech.

Birds are the most geographically diverse group of land animals. They help scientists investigate fundamental questions in biology and ecology and they are also a major global food resource, providing meat and eggs.

More than 200 scientists contributed to the Avian Phylogenomics Project, which was led by BGI in Shenzhen, China, the University of Copenhagen, Duke University in North Carolina, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute based in Chevy Chase, Md., and the Natural History Museum of Denmark. The findings are published in 23 scientific papers, including eight in the journal Science.

Building on this research, scientists at the National Avian Research Facility in Edinburgh have created 48 databases to share and expand on the information associated with the birds’ genomes. They hope that researchers from around the world will continue to upload their own data, offering further insights to the genetics of modern birds.

Such information is expected to be useful for helping scientists to understand why infectious diseases, such as bird flu, affect some species but not others.

“This is just the beginning. We hope that giving people the tools to explore this wealth of bird gene information in one place will stimulate further research,” said David Burt, acting director of the National Avian Research Facility at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute.

“Ultimately, we hope the research will bring important insights to help improve the health and welfare of wild and farmed birds.”

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Study: moving screen distracts hummingbird’s hovering skills

Study: moving screen distracts hummingbird’s hovering skills



Hummingbirds’ remarkable ability to hover in place depends on a motionless field of view presenting itself to the tiny, nectar-feeding birds, according to new research.

University of British Columbia zoologists Benjamin Goller and Douglas Altshuler studied how the surprisingly intelligent birds—their pea-sized brains are very large for their body size—stay place while hovering.

The researchers projected moving spiral and striped patterns in front of free-flying hummingbirds trying to feed from a stationary feeder. Even minimal background pattern motion caused the hummingbirds to drift, according to the findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Giving the birds time to get used to the situation didn’t help them, the scientists found. Projecting a combination of moving and stationary patterns in front of the birds didn’t do much good either, though the birds were able to regain some stability.

Photos and video of the hummingbird experiment are available here.

“We were very surprised to see how strong and lasting the disruption was—birds with hovering and feeding abilities fine-tuned to the millimeter were off the mark by a centimeter,” ten times as much, said Goller. “We think the hummingbird’s brain is so precisely wired to process movement in its field of vision that it gets overwhelmed by even small stimuli during hovering.”

“Our brains interpret visual motion based on our current circumstances,” added Altshuler. “We react very differently to sideways movement in a parked car than while driving. Now we want to investigate how birds use vision during transitions from mode to mode, for example as they move from hovering to forward flight.”

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Scientists found punishing kids for lying doesn’t work

Scientists found punishing kids for lying doesn’t work



If you want your child to be truthful, it’s best not to threaten punishment if she or he lies, a study suggests: children are more likely to tell the truth either to please an adult or because they believe it’s the right thing to do.

That’s what psychologists found through an experiment involving 372 children between the ages of 4 and 8.

“If children fear potential negative outcomes for disclosing information, they may be more reluctant to disclose,” the researchers, led by Victoria Talwar of McGill University in Canada, wrote in a paper for the Feb. 2015 issue of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

The researchers left each child alone in a room for a minute with a toy behind them on a table, having told the child not to peek during their absence. Experimenters told some of the children they would “be in trouble” if they lied about that, while for other youngsters the experimenters mentioned only positive reasons for telling the truth.

A hidden video camera filmed what went on while the child was alone. Upon returning, the experimenter would ask: “When I was gone, did you turn around and peak at the toy?”

About two-thirds of the children peeked, though for every one month increase in age, children became slightly less likely to peek, the study found. Moreover, about two-thirds of the peekers lied about having looked, and month-by-month as children aged, they both become more likely to tell lies and more adept at maintaining their lies.

The researchers also found that the threat of being “in trouble” alone led to more than twice the rate of lying as the appeals to conscience or good feelings alone. Combinations of both types of inducements led to in-between results.

The investigators also expected and found, they said, that while younger children were more focused on telling the truth to please the adults, older children had better internalized standards of behavior that made them tell the truth because it was the right thing to do.

“The bottom line is that punishment does not promote truth-telling,” said Talwar. “In fact, the threat of punishment can have the reverse effect by reducing the likelihood that children will tell the truth when encouraged to do so.”

Smoking may kill off the Y chromosome in men’s blood cells

Smoking may kill off the Y chromosome in men’s blood cells



New research suggests the Y chromosome—a repository of genes that only males have—may help explain why men live less long than women, and are more susceptible to smoking-related cancers.

With advancing age, some cells can lose their Y chromosome. Two new studies suggest this loss may increase cancer risk—and that smoking may exacerbate the chromosome loss. Both projects came from the same group of researchers, and while they did not prove cause-and-effect relationships, they found associations between the events in question.

The earlier study, published in the research journal Nature Genetics online April 28, “demonstrated an association between loss of the Y chromosome in blood and greater risk for cancer,” said Lars Forsberg of Uppsala University in Sweden, one of the investigators.

For the second project, published in the Dec. 4 issue of the research journal Science, he added that the group tested “if there were any lifestyle- or clinical factors that could be linked to loss of the Y chromosome.”

The result: “Out of a large number of factors that were studied, such as age, blood pressure, diabetes, alcohol intake and smoking, we found that loss of the Y chromosome in a fraction of the blood cells was more common in smokers than in non-smokers.”

Y chromosome loss is “the most common human mutation” to begin with, added Jan Dumanski, a co-researcher at Uppsala. The new work “may in part explain why men in general have a shorter life span than women, and why smoking is more dangerous for men.”

Smoking is a risk factor for various diseases, not only lung cancer, the researchers noted; male smokers have shown a greater risk of developing non-respiratory-tract cancers than female smokers.

The investigators found the association between smoking and Y chromosome loss to be “dose dependent”—heavy smokers had more widespread losses. But ex-smokers who had quit showed normal levels of Y chromosome loss. So “this process might be reversible,” which “could be very persuasive for motivating smokers to quit,” said Forsberg.

How the smoking-induced Y chromosome loss in blood cells is linked to cancer remains unclear. Perhaps immune cells in blood, bereft of Y chromosomes, are less able to fight cancer cells, the scientists speculated.

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