Your tongue and the octopus

From USC News: “A linguist and a marine biologist at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences began an unlikely project two years ago to compare the movement of the human tongue with the manipulation of the arms of the octopus and the undulation of a small worm known as C. elegans. …

Titled “Dynamical Principles of Animal Movement,” the project is supported by the National Science Foundation. Its principal investigators at USC Dornsife are Khalil Iskarous, assistant professor of linguistics, and Andrew Gracey, associate professor of biological sciences.

As a linguist, Iskarous hopes the research will help explain how movements of the human tongue are compromised by Parkinson’s disease, but he said the NSF research is aimed at broader questions of motor control.”

Animal cognition: the cat and the octopus

This week’s issue of Nature reports that the octopus genome is almost as large as that of humans, and it contains a greater number of protein coding genes. Neurobiologist Benny Hochner from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel has studied octopus neurophysiology for 20 years: “It’s important for us to know the genome, because it gives us insights into how the sophisticated cognitive skills of octopuses evolved. Researchers want to understand how the cephalopods, a class of free-floating molluscs, produced a creature that is clever enough to navigate highly complex mazes and open jars filled with tasty crabs.” The video above, which comes with the Nature article, shows (among other things) an octopus opening a jar. Here is a video of our cat Willy doing the same thing: opening a jar with food for him. Willy can also open refrigerators. We had to attach a kids’ lock to our refrigerator to prevent him from robbing our dinner. 

Clever fish

Nature, 26 May 2015. Animal behavior: Inside the cunning, caring, and greedy minds of fish. This is an article describing the remarkable discoveries about fish intelligence made by behavioral ecologist Redouan Bshary.

“Primate chauvinism may now be poised to decline, thanks in large part to Bshary’s fish work,” says primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. “They now really do have to take on board that most species are going to have a type of smart intelligence.”

“Redouan has thrown down the gauntlet to us primatologists,” says Carel van Schaik, an expert in orang-utan culture at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. “He has made us realize that some of the explanations of primate intelligence that we have cherished don’t hold water anymore.”

The word “cooperation” covers a wide range of rather different behaviors, though. Here is a video on what human toddlers and chimps can do in the way of cooperation. I yet have to see a fish recognize what I am trying to do and come to my help.

Mind-reading neurons

From MGH News:

“A study by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) investigators has discovered two groups of neurons that play key roles in social interactions between primates – one that is activated when deciding whether to cooperate with another individual and another group involved in predicting what the other will do.  Their findings appear in the March 12 issue of Cell.”

In this study, pairs of Rhesus monkeys repeatedly played a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma game. The most remarkable result of the study is that the ‘predictor neurons’ of monkey A predicted the choices of monkey B as accurately as a ‘rational’ algorithm that tried to predict the choices of monkey B based on his/her prior choices. Here is a beautiful article on the Prisoner’s Dilemma and its role in Evolutionary Biology from Quanta Magazine

How does virtual reality affect the brain?

virtual-reality Nature Neuroscience, advance online publication: 24 November 2014.
UCLA Newsroom, 24 November 2014.

“Put rats in an IMAX-like surround virtual world limited to vision only, and the neurons in their hippocampi seem to fire completely randomly — and more than half of those neurons shut down — as if the neurons had no idea where the rat was, UCLA neurophysicists found in a recent experiment. Put another group of rats in a real room (with sounds and odors) designed to look like the virtual room, and they were just fine.” Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence, November 25, 2014.

This raises many interesting questions: What happens when humans hear or read spatial descriptions or look at maps? Are their hippocampi building maps? Partial maps? No maps at all? How does this relate to the results reported in Benjamin Bergen’s book? How does the brain distinguish reality and fiction?

Radhika Nagpal: One of 10 people who mattered this year in science


Source: Reflection Films

From Nature, volume 516, issue 7531, December 17 2014.
“When Radhika Nagpal was a high-school student in India, she hated biology: it was the subject that girls were supposed to study so that they could become doctors. Never being one to follow tradition, Nagpal was determined to become an engineer. Now she is — leading an engineering research team at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But she also has a new appreciation for the subject she once disliked. This year, her group garnered great acclaim for passing a milestone in biology-inspired robotics. Taking their cue from the way in which ants, bees and termites build complex nests and other structures with no central direction, Nagpal’s group devised a swarm of 1,024 very simple ‘Kilobots’. Each Kilobot was just a few centimetres wide and tall, moved by shuffling about on three spindly legs and communicated with its immediate neighbours using infrared light. But the team showed that when the Kilobots worked together, they could organize themselves into stars and other two-dimensional shapes.”
Earlier entry: Inferring simple rules from complex structures.

Trick and Treat


Source: Dick Daniels (

From Science.  Flower, Gribble & Ridley. 2014. Deception by Flexible Alarm Mimicry in an African Bird.

“Forked-tailed drongos are a particularly intelligent type of bird found in Africa. Drongos associate with many other bird and mammal species, which can learn to respond to drongo warning calls. Drongos are also exceptional mimics of the other species’ alarm calls. Though the increased vigilance across these multi-species associations is a benefit to all, drongos sometimes use these calls as ploys to scare associated species away from food, which the drongos then steal. However, without some approach to maintain the effectiveness of this deception, the drongos’ ploy would soon be detected. Flower et al. now show that drongos are able to fool their target species longer by flexibly varying the type of call they give.”

More from National Geographic Daily News. Related:The bird that cries wolf changes its lies.