Tag Archives: Dr Molecule

Chaser – a dog of many words wins the ‘Dr Doolittle stamp of approval’

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This piece was guest-authored by Jess Upson who is studying Biology at Oxford Brookes University

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss Chaser the Border collie and animal languages starting 50 seconds of ridiculous intro chat in this clip:

[audio http://www.brookes.ac.uk/lifesci/runions/DrMolecule/20130528%20-%20Animal%20languages%20and%20white%20tigers.mp3]

Do animals communicate more than we think?

Do animals communicate more than we think?

It has long been thought that we humans are ‘top-dog’ with regards to intelligence and communication, but it has recently been discovered that animals may not be as dim-witted as we sometimes give them credit for.

It turns out that if I call you ‘bird-brained’ this may not be so offensive…  Recent studies have shown that crows are one of the most intelligent animals on the planet, demonstrating extraordinary abilities of creative problem solving. These breakthroughs are beginning to shed light on how the brains of many animals work and, as much as we feel so superior, they work not unlike our own.

One of the best ways to understand the mind of an animal is observe how they behave with others of their kind. From a bee’s waggledance which tells others where the best flowers are, to the pops and whistles of dolphins whilst playing, there are a variety of mechanisms used by animals for communication. Perhaps one of the most exciting ideas is the idea that animals having a language of their own.

Studies now demonstrate that animals may communicate in what could be considered a language. A mother and infant dolphin talked over the telephone when placed in different enclosures. Elephants have also been known to demonstrate a sophisticated way of communicating, with each individual producing a unique noise, often in the sub-sonic range that humans can’t hear, and it can travel for miles. The matriarchal female can recognize hundreds of calls from elephants she knows and from huge distances away – that is the equivalent of being able to stand blindfolded in the middle of 1000’s of screaming people – like outside of One Direction’s hotel – and still being able to distinguish the ones you know!

I'll tell you a secret if you promise not to tell anyone else...

I’ll tell you a secret if you promise not to tell anyone else…

But it is not just the larger mammals that can demonstrate this. Work carried out on prairie dogs has shown their ability to produce effective warning calls, with all the details included. It was discovered that each predator had a unique call associated with it, including humans. The call could tell other individuals what the threat was as well as information like its colour and size. When a new object was placed within sight of different groups of prairie dogs, each came up with the same new warning call, showing that there may be something within their culture, a language perhaps, which allows them to convey this sort of information.

Chaser the Border collie sitting with some of her 1000+ toys

Chaser the Border collie sitting with some of her 1000+ toys

So,it is not just humans who have shown the ability to understand different forms of communication. Famously, Panzee the chimpanzee can distinguish more than 130 human words. But it looks like there is a new champion at understanding human-speak, Chaser the Border collie.Tell your dog a simple command and it may respond, but no dog has yet quite matched the ability of Chaser when it comes to understanding our language. Chaser knows the name of every single one of her toys – all 1022 of them! She also understands verbs and conjugate sentences. That’s better than I can do some mornings…

Chaser goes beyond remembering words. She can correctly respond to phrases with three parts (a noun, a verb, and another noun) 75% of the time. This sort of ability is learnt at about the age of three in humans.

It is a baffling question that if we are so ‘intelligent’, why can’t we understand animals when many appear to be able to understand us? But the mechanisms used by different animals to relay information are vast and often very complex. A dolphin clapping its fins could mean multiple things depending on the situation. For example, if you put a hand in the air it could mean you were greeting someone, or waving goodbye, or even indicating the number five, all depending on the situation.

Many animal species have vocal cords that are used for making sounds. During evolution of human speech, we have developed the ability to modulate those sounds using out tongues, lips and larynx. Many scholars are actively engaged in trying to determine how and when in our evolutionary history we developed this extrorinary ability that sets us apart from other animals, including those like the great apes who possess vocal cords.

Talk to the animals

Talk to the animals

Some still argue that the idea of species other than humans communicating through a language is far-fetched. But we are only just beginning to understand the subtlties and intricacies of animal communications. So is animal language really as fictional as Dr Doolittle’s Pushmi-pullyu?

Can animals evolve to survive climate change?

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Many who might be skeptical that climate change is a problem that results from Human activities will say, as a last refrain:

“Oh, anyway… animals can just evolve to survive rising temperature.”

But is this true?

funny-hot-dog-melting-picsCharled Darwin had a dreadful time trying to convince his Victorian peers that evolution by natural selection was a real process in nature. This is because he could not demonstrate unequivocally that is was happening. And the reason that he could not demonstrate that it was happening is that it happens slowly.

I mean, part of the process of evolution results when organisms adapt to new and changing environments. This adaptation takes place over hundreds or thousands of generations. The snow leopard will not just simply decide that it’s too warm and shed its fur so that all is hunky-dory.

Thinking about Human generation times – arguably 20 years – hundreds of generations means that it takes 5000-10000 years to notice even very small changes that result from mutation of genes that might confer an evolutionary advantage in a given situation. Most organisms have shorter generation times but even the smallest adaptations gotten through evolution will realistically take 1000s of years.

I saw a calculation recently that showed that animals can ‘evolve’ at a rate that would make them able to adapt to temperature change of 1 degree celsius per million years. Present calculations show that our average temperature on earth will likely rise by 4 degrees celsius by the end of this century. Evolution needs to work, uh, let’s see… (4 degrees in 87 years = 1 degree in 21.75 years, and 1,000,000 / 21.75 = 45977), 46,000 times faster than it does now. That isn’t going to happen.

The funny thing is that an average temperature rise of 4 degrees doesn’t seem like that much to us. It will have devestating consequences for our planet, however. Ice sheets will melt and the water cycle will be thrown completely out of kilter with consequences like worsening weather, flooding, and drought like we are starting to experience now.

familyAnimals and plants that have evolved to survive in their special environment (and that’s generally what evolution has done) might survive the onslaught of climate change for a while by moving to adjacent environments where it is (choose one – wetter / drier / warmer / colder) but that is a short-term fix.Plants and animals that are adapted to survive in desert environments are separated by hundreds of millions of years of evolution from those that are adapted to survive in very wet conditions.

Our snow leopard really won’t find the prey items that it needs to survive if its habitat warms, and it can’t simply pick up and find a new home like the Bevely Hillbillies did (Kin folks said, Jed, move away from there…)

Girls’ world record attempt to measure gravity

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Malcolm and I discuss the giant physics experiment starting at 7 minutes and 37 seconds in this clip.

[audio http://www.brookes.ac.uk/lifesci/runions/DrMolecule/20121113 – Science in UK and GSDT giant physics experiment.mp3]

At 11:30 this morning, more than 2,300 schoolgirls between the ages of 10-15 attempted to set a new world record. They set out to measure the force of gravity… The good thing about this attempt at classical physics experiments was that it was going on simultaneousley in 26 different academy schools of the Girls’ Day School Trust in the UK. If successful, the girls will have set the record for the largest (most participants), multi-location physics lesson/experiment ever conducted.

A couple of things that I would like to address:

i) How does one measure the force of gravity?

ii) Why is it significant that the Girls’ Day School Trust is carrying out this experiment?

(I’ll finish this blogpost later but wanted to get the clip up so that the GDST students could listen if they want)

#organellewars – a fun school project in cell biology

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Malcolm and I discuss #organellewars starting at 6 minutes and 15 seconds in this clip.

[audio http://www.brookes.ac.uk/lifesci/runions/DrMolecule/20121023 – Star Trek tech and organellewars.mp3]

Lysosomes for the win

I don’t need write very much more about #organellewars because my colleague Dr. Anne Osterrieder has explained it on her blog at theplantcell.com. Anne describes this innovative approach to teaching as ‘The organelle presidential campaign 2012‘.

Mighty Mitochondria

Briefly, high-school science teacher Brad Graba, who teaches AP Biology at William Fremd High School in Palatine, IL., has conceived a biology learning project that involves social media in an innovative way. His instructions to his students (#organellewars – Cell Organelle Campaign) are straightforward. Each group is to assume the identity of a cellular organelle (nucleus, mitochondrian, chloroplast, whathaveyou…), and to wage a campaign about that organelle. The campaign is intended to teach about that organelle and here’s the fun part. Among tasks that the students are expected to carry out is a mudslinging smear campaign against the other organelles! This aspect of the project has been largely carried out on twitter and I am absolutely amazed by the sheer volume of tweets that this has generated (See some of these storified).

Go Go Golgi

Not only has the twitter-based discussion and mudslinging fest been popular with the Grade 10 students, but scientists worldwide have jumped into the fray. Go onto twitter and search #organellewars for just a small fraction of the tweets that make up this campaign.

Whether the kids realize it or not, to smear another organelle, you’ve got to know what you’re talking about. In other words, they are learning about cells and organelles and having a lot of fun while doing so.

What’s my favorite organelle today… let me see, perhaps the pre-vacuolar compartment or the early endosome…

What’s yours? I’ll write later to let you know the final outcome of the campaign.

Your DNA doesn’t contain as much junk as your teacher says it does!

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New scientific evidence, released this week as the ENCODE project, tells us that our DNA has a lot more information in it than we had previously expected

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss the ENCODE project starting at 47 seconds into this clip:

[audio http://www.brookes.ac.uk/lifesci/runions/DrMolecule/20120911 – ENCODE and a gene for trotting.mp3]

Follow this link for a good GuestBlogged essay on the information contained in DNA.

Whales committing suicide en masse… why?

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On a recent weekend, whales stranded themselves on 4 different beaches around the world. Why do they do this?

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm (actually, with Nick Piercey this time. We discuss whale strandings starting at 25 seconds into this clip:

[audio http://www.brookes.ac.uk/lifesci/runions/DrMolecule/20120904 – Beached whales and tree diseases.mp3]

Whales and dolphins stranded on a beach

Stories about animals committing mass suicide are just not true – whether the animals in question be lemmings or whales. On of the central tenets of evolutionary biology is that the gene is selfish. Mass suicide is not a biological imperative – animals seek to reproduce and raise their young in all cases. While it is true that evolutionary theory talks of a ‘struggle for survival’ and ‘survival of the fittest’, there is no indication that whales that strand themselves are at less than peak fitness. So, although the reasons for whale strandings are unclear, the thing that you can be sure of is that whales are not ‘committing suicide.’

An engraving depicting three beached sperm whales that dates from 1577

Why then do these terrible tragedies occur? It is easy to point the finger and say that man is to blame. That might be partially true, and I will explain why in a bit, but there have been documented whale strandings since well before we filled the ocean with human technology that might confuse whales.

What is usually true is that it is the ‘toothed’ whales like pilot and sperm whales that beach themselves. These are the whales who hunt and eat meat like fish and seals. Larger whales such as Blue whales who filter zooplankton (the baleen whales) much less commonly beach themselves. The suggestion here is that it is the act of hunting in packs for animals that shelter in shallower waters that contributes to whale strandings. I hear you say, ‘But whales aren’t stupid!.’  Far from it, I think I made the point already that they wouldn’t have survived this long if something as common as a bit of shallow water was going to confuse them so much that they died.

Humans rescuing beached whales

My contention is that shallow waters have probably resulted in confused and stranded whales throughout evolutionary history but that it is exactly this that should have selected for whales that are exquisitely able to survive in these environments. Orcas have been observed to beach themselves as a hunting strategy. They catch seals on the beach and wait for the next wave to re-float them. This is a learned / evolved behaviour that not all whale species have acquired. Evolution is a slow process – especially for large, long-lived organisms that take years to produce successive generations. That’s why deer haven’t ‘evolved’ the ability to avoid cars. No predators with which they have evolved move as fast as a car, and cars have only been around for a few decades. I can imagine that if we kept driving cars at deer for many thousands of years that the ability to avoid them would evolve in deer.

OK, so whales have evolved to survive in shallow water environments and should be able to avoid being beached. It still happens – and it happens much more commonly on some beaches than on others. Scientists postulate that when pods of hunting whales stray into unfamiliar territory, they can become confused. This confusion is most prevalent in areas where the angle between beach and sea bottom is very shallow – it does not, therefore, reflect the sound that whales make as a navigation aid back to them and they remain unaware that they are dangerously close to the beach. This situation combined with strong current or tides is why whales end up high on beaches.

A Long-finned Pilot whale being rescued by crane

Whale rescue agencies have been set up around the world and are staffed, generally by volunteers, so that they can be mobilized quickly when whales beach or, even better, when a pod of whales gets close to a stranding site. Whales have not evolved to support their own weight for very long (I even find it a bit uncomfortable when I lay on the couch for more than a few hours watching TV!) and they quickly become very ill when beached. Even when rescued, they commonly remain confused and often re-beach themselves.

I mentioned at the top that human human activity might play a role in the increasing number of whale strandings that are being observed. In early September this year (2012), pilot whales beached themselves at 4 different locations around the world. That just seems like too much of a coincidence. One factor that seems to cause a great deal of confusion in whales is noise. And man do we fill the oceans with noise. Not only the din caused by ships engines but, increasingly, SONAR from military exercises. These sounds can be louder (240 decibels) than any sounds on land including jet engines and rock concerts. Think about whales who have evolved to navigate using sound – hear for yourselves the plaintive whale sounds that some species can detect from hundreds of miles away. The incidence of whales beaching increases after military exercises involving SONAR, and scientists have observed that many of the whales involved in these beachings have acoustically-induced hemorrhages around the ears.

We must consider the natural environment of these animals before we deploy things like load SONAR for military purposes – is it worth it?

A breaching humpback whale

While I’m on the topic of what we do to the whales environment, watch this amazing video of a humpback whale being rescued from a fishing net. I just about didn’t watch it because I was concentrating on whale strandings when I found it. It leaves me with mixed emotions. On the one hand, the majesty of the animal and it’s apparent cooperation with the humans. On the other, what if they hadn’t encountered the whale. It would just be a statistic on its way to extinction.

Google… how did the internet work before?

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Co-founders are multi-billionaire mathematicians and computer scientists.

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss Google after 1 minute 30 seconds of ridiculous intro chat about Kenny Rogers in this clip:

[audio http://www.brookes.ac.uk/lifesci/runions/DrMolecule/20120821 – Google and artificial hearts.mp3]

How do you get to be one of the biggest companies on the planet when your website looks like this?

Google grew out of the vision of Larry Page and Sergey Brin who met as PhD students at Stanford University in the early 1990s. Since its inception, it has grown to become one of the world’s biggest tech companies. You know you have achieved a milestone when your company name becomes a verb – this has happened with Hoover (must irritate Dyson), Xerox and Skidoo among others. When we refer to searching for something on the web, we almost invariably say that we ‘googled’ something – even if we used a competitors search engine!

How a search engine works

For 5 or 6 years before Google came along, the internet worked differently. If you found a webpage about a subject you were interested in, you bookmarked it immediately. Webpages were only discoverable by entering their exact html address and it became very tedious listening to people read out all of the words and slashes (is it a backslash or a forward slash?). Gradually, early search engines like Yahoo and Alta Vista started to group links by interest category and this is when the internet took off – companies recognized the need to have their names grouped with competitors. I recall hearing a pundit in 1995 saying ‘any company that isn’t on the web won’t survive.’ I was shocked at the time about the prophecy of the importance of the world-wide web but I very quickly came to see the truth in what was said.

As a student looking for a PhD project, Sergey Brin was interested in data mining. At the same time, Larry Page was studying the idea that the importance of publications was linked to the number of times they were cited… These two interest sets mesh nicely and, in retrospect, I can see how the two came up with the idea of Google. Personally, I’m too thick to have even appreciated what they had done when I saw it in action — even when I started using it habitually. Gradually I stopped using the bookmarks feature in web browsers. It was actually easier just to type in the keyword or a company name and the website would magically appear.

Brin and Page’s idea was that web searchers needed a prioritized list of websites that match search terms entered by the user, i.e. if I search for Hoover, I probably am more interested in the actual Hoover website than just a randomly ordered list of all websites that mention the word ‘hoover’ (noun or verb – for any North Americans that might have accidentally strayed into this blog, we in the UK ‘hoover’ rather than ‘vacuum’). But how do you prioritize the results of a web search? Simple, you could list web pages that mention a search term based on how many other web pages refer to them. The more a page is refered to, the more important it must be – right? Of course, nowadays, the algorithms (methods) that search engines like Google use are much more ‘intelligent’ than that in my simplified example but that was the genesis of an elegant idea.

A web-crawler. These guys do the work so that a search engine can make your life easier

All the search engine company needs to do is to read every webpage on the internet, catalogue every word that’s written into a giant index, and be able to instantaneously deliver your web search results. Sounds daunting but computers are fast and getting faster all of the time. Companies like Google employ spiders – well software that they call web crawlers or web spiders – to systematically search the web for purposes of cataloguing words. That’s why we are told to be sure our web pages have pertinent titles and keywords – so that the spiders find us and display us on Google. This page, for example, has tags like ‘fun science’ and ‘technology’ that the spiders will read. It won’t be catalogued immediately but within a few days it will start to appear in Google searches (how did you get to this page?).

How many computers running crawlers and answering search queries must a company like Google have in order to keep up with the demand? The answer is astounding. Probably more than a million – running 24/7 – and they’re not insignificant computers either. All spread across at least 6 sites around the world.

How does Google make money? Simple, they will prioritize your website to a higher level if you pay them to. Notice the sites that appear at the top of you Google search that are just slightly shaded in color – they’ve paid for the privilege of being at the top of your search return. Many of us just click the first link we see when our search is returned and, chi-ching for that company.

How big can Google get?

Where is the internet going? Not-so-simple. I don’t know, but then again you know that I’m not very good at seeing the need or the promise in new web ideas. I can tell you that I’ve just gotten a new smartphone that runs the Android operating system developed by Google. That purchase was so that I could more easily interface with my email and calendars at work because we’ve switched over to Gmail (what would you guess the ‘G’ stands for?). I am now a member of Google ‘circles’ although I haven’t yet figured that out completely (Twitter takes all of my time!).

So from small things big things come. Will Google get as big as Cyberdyne Systems? Should I get a Google tatoo…?

Florence Nightingale, scientist, mathematician and, uh… nurse

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Florence used statistics to make her case…

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss Florence Nightingale starting at 6 minutes and 45 seconds in this clip:

[audio http://www.brookes.ac.uk/lifesci/runions/DrMolecule/20120814 – Human evolution and Florence Nightingale.mp3]

Lady with the lamp (and her own cartoon it looks like!).

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) might have been a lady with a lamp, and she might have been a nurse, but I want to tell you that she was a scientist and a mathematician too! I’ll get to that in a bit.

Born into a rich English family living in Tuscany (it was the place to go then too I suppose), Florence was pre-destined to be a young lady of leisure and to do what all in her position were expected to do: marry well and have babies. She went for option B – eschewed the pile of 20 mattresses and instead spent her life caring for those in need. Fortunately, Florence’s father saw that an education was a requirement for a well-to-do young lady and he personally tutored her in mathematics. ‘What-everrr… when am I ever going to use this in real life?’

Uh, no, Florence didn’t say that.

Soldiers in appalling wartime conditions

Rather, after being ‘called by God’ in 1837, i.e. age 17, she announced her decision to go into nursing. Unbelievably, this decision caused much consternation for her mother but she soldiered on. It was during 1854 that she and a group of 38 women who had trained under her were despatched to the Crimean War (hope they had their satnavs working – where is Crimea?) to attend to injured British soldiers.

The Crimean War was, Florence wrote, ‘calamity unparalleled in the history of calamity’. To her it was obvious that the quality of care being offered to the wounded was sorely lacking and she set about revolutionizing the way that nursing is practised – right up until today.

From the writing of Ed Hird
No operating tables. No medical supplies. No furniture.  The lack of beds, for example, meant that the best the wounded soldiers could hope for was to be laid on the floor wrapped in a blanket. Rats ran amongst the dying. On occasion, even dead bodies were forgotten about and left to rot.  There had been no washing of linen – and every shirt was crawling with vermin. Florence ordered boilers – and boilers were installed.  Florence was able to demonstrate that for every soldier killed in battle in the Crimean War, seven died of infections and preventable disease.

Florence’s contention was that cleanliness and good nutrition would go a long way to increasing survivorship – and she deduced this without really knowing about germs because people weren’t really yet studying them at that time.

Not that Data!

But how did Florence make a compelling argument to the officials back in Britain about these terrible conditions? She fell back on her early learning, realizing that statistics and data presented as pages of numbers were boring and not persuasive to politicians. Instead, she collected numbers of the wounded who benefited from her new nursing ideas and devised a persuasive way to present them – The pie chart.

Don’t let me hear you groaning about the pie chart – what a wonderful concept. It

Pie chart example – I never thought it mattered!?

can encapsulate pages of numbers and distill the outcome of an experiment so that a casual observer immediately sees what is important. Pie charts weren’t invented by Florence but she is the one most responsible for putting them to good use. In fact, she invented a type of pie chart known as a polar area diagram, or by some as a Nightingale rose diagram. Politicians back in England took one look at her data presented in such a diagram and immediately saw the benefit of doing things Florence’s way. She was given resources and staff to clean war hospitals and to bring standards of care up to reasonable levels. What came to pass was that far fewer men died as a consequence of injuries and Florence became famous the world over for her new nursing system.

One of Florence’s actual Nightingale rose diagrams illustrating the causes of mortality during the Crimean war.

In 1860, Florence established the Nightingale Training School – not for training nightingales – at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London. The school still exists and is called the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery.

Florence was an author, too (didn’t she sleep?). She penned Notes on Nursing in 1859 and is widely acknowledged as ‘the founder of modern nursing.’

Tireless effort and compassion helped Florence Nightingale change the world but let us not forget that she got where she did – in part – by being a mathematician and scientist!

Human evolution… our ancestors weren’t fighting dinosaurs!

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It makes for good TV though…

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss our Human ancestors after 2 minutes of ridiculous intro chat in this clip:

[audio http://www.brookes.ac.uk/lifesci/runions/DrMolecule/20120814 – Human evolution and Florence Nightingale.mp3]

A happy looking chap – of an entirely different species

I grew up watching televised accounts of our ‘cavemen’ ancestors battling giant man-eating dinosaurs. In fact, those battles didn’t happen – not even close. Dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago and our ancestors have evolved to walk on two legs and look something like us only in the last 2-3 million years. The very earliest primates started to evolve from early mammals 85 million years ago and would have overlapped with the dinosaurs somewhat.

We all – excepting Simon Schama – experience this sort of historical time dilation when thinking about things that happened before we were born. At its extreme, the child who asks, ‘Mommy, when you were little did you see dinosaurs’ to the usual adult confusion about what century events happened in. Modern humans of our species, Homo sapiens, have only been around for the last 400,000 years, and have only started to behave modernly during the last 50,000 years. It is during that period that we see the rise of symbolic culture and language.

Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace shocked Victorian sensibilities

That’s me on the lef…uhh, the right.

when they proposed that Humans had evolved from apes. The very idea was lampooned in ‘the ascent of Man’ images of the sort that are now known to depict one of the most brilliant and impactful scientific ideas ever. Evolution is a fact. I proceeds so slowly, however, that it is difficult to observe in action. The giraffe that might benefit from having a longer neck doesn’t just grow a longer neck. Over hundreds or thousands of generations, giraffes that have slightly longer necks are slightly more successful at foraging in trees than their slightly-shorter-necked contemporaries. These more successful foraging giraffes are likely more fit and are better able to pass their genes into the next generation. By a series of very small increments, giraffe offspring in subsequent generations will have slightly longer necks. That process continues until the longer necks are no longer an advantage, i.e. until they become too heavy or breathing becomes difficult. Evolution is a slow process which results in ‘fitter’ organisms but it regulates against ‘runaway’ selection – it is just physically impossible for a giraffe to have a neck any longer than they now are – the animal would become ‘unfit’ in many other respects.

Back to Human evolution. It really isn’t as simplistic as the idea illustrated that a chimpanzee turned into a caveman etc. After all, chimpanzees still exit. Why? The answer is that in the deep dark past – millions of years ago – we shared a common ancestor that resembled a small primate. Some offspring of the ancestor began to evolve towards Human form while others evolved towards modern chimpanzee form. Evolution is a branching process and one of the biggest drivers of branching is when offspring find themselves in different environments where different characteristics will help them survive and reproduce better. What was the original main distinction between the Human branch and the chimpanzee branch? Answer – the ability to walk upright in our branch (or to walk on a branch in the chimp’s case, get it?). The Human branch moved onto the savannah where individuals who could stand or walk upright had a definite surveillance and hunting advantage just by being able to see further. The chimp branch remained in the forest where climbing ability and smaller stature were an advantage (have you ever seen a chimp climb – holy baloney?). Gradually and over thousands of generations, animals in each branch evolved to more closely resemble either modern Humans or chimpanzees.

Branches in Human evolution – about a million question marks still remain

So, let’s consider the Human branch. Why did it stop branching along the way? That’s a trick question. The answer is that it didn’t stop branching. As Human ancestors spread out of Africa into Asia and Europe, populations became isolated. Remember, we’re talking about migrations that take generations – you didn’t just jump on Air Africa and fly to London in those days. Isolated populations gradually differentiate – as you well know if you’ve ever sat in a pub with a Scotsman, an Irishman, a Welshwoman, and an Englishwoman. Language is one of the first things to start changing and differences are obvious over very fine geographical scales. Physical attributes take longer to evolve but they do and they have resulted in many branches of the original one that lead to modern Humans. Look at an enlarged view of the image to the left – we (Homo sapiens) are only one of several different species which have existed and even co-existed during the last 2 million years. Most recently, we shared Europe with Homo Neanderthalis – and I mean in relatively modern times, until about 30,000 years ago.

So what ever became of the Neanderthals? Well, they went extinct. This often happens when closely related species try to co-exist. Perhaps

Clap for the ape-man

we could have continued to co-exist but similar species usually require what is called a ‘niche’, that is, they need to have their own environment, or food source, or method of survival. Remember that Humans and chimpanzees can co-exist because they get the trees and we get everything else. If the chimpanzees tried to use our resources, a Planet-of-the-Apes situation might ensue. More likely, however, is that they would go the way of the Neaderthals and not be heard from again. Hey, we’re not even very tolerant with members of our own species who try to take our land from us.

A debate continues about just how close our species and the Neanderthals really were. We still harbour a good deal of Neanderthal DNA and scientists are trying to work out whether that’s because, as some think likely, the species interbred where their ranges overlapped (in Paris after a romantic night out on the left bank, for example), or whether that’s just leftover DNA from our common ancestor back at the ranch point.

In any case, ‘no Sweetheart, Mommy didn’t see dinosaurs when she was little.’ She was closer to meeting Human-relatives of a completely different species but even that’s probably pushing it a bit.  How old do you think Mommy is, anyway!?

Keeping an eye on the cuckoo

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You can migrate but you can’t hide…

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss tracking cuckoos at  at 7 minute 36 seconds in this clip:

[audio http://www.brookes.ac.uk/lifesci/runions/DrMolecule/20120807 – Mars Curiosity and cuckoos.mp3]

A cuckoo with stylish tracking device

So we all know that birds we see in the summer fly south for the winter. I often think jealously of the birds laughing it up in sunnier climes while we suffer the cold and wet of winter. The journey that birds embark upon is epic and preprogrammed as an instinctive response to the onset of cold.

We’ve heard the stories of the thousands of miles that birds fly each year but the trip is really brought home to us when we can see the exact route that a bird takes.  Until now, we know that certain species are here in the summer and we also know that the same birds appear in the distant south during the winter. Data to support these observations has come anecdotally from travellers who recognize our native summer species. For almost 100 years, researchers have been banding birds with rings that are inobtrusive and which contain location data. We marvel that birds tagged in England appear in southern Africa, or that the same birds appear year after year in the same summer locations. How do they pathfind on their journeys? Do they have some inbuilt SatNav that lets them accomplish amazing feats of orienteering?

The Common Cuckoo of Europe (bird, not clock) is renowned for the distance of its migration

Follow cuckoos every step, uh… flap along the way

which sees it travelling from Northern Europe to Southern Africa every year. For some in the UK,  hearing the call of the Common Cuckoo is regarded as the first harbinger of spring. The problem is that the bird is becoming very endangered and scarce. Scientists are puzzled as to exactly why the species is in decline and now, in collaboration with the British Trust for Ornithology  (BTO – but not Bachman Turner Overdrive takin’ care of business…), have decided to do something about it.

If the question is, ‘are the birds just not managing the migration successfully,’ the answer might be to track their whereabouts at all times. Modern electronics technology has been able to produce satellite transmitters that are so small that they can be fitted in a non-invasive way to a cuckoo. If you click on the image above, you will see the travels of a set of male cuckoos that the BTO have been tracking since departing Britain. You will see that the birds take very different routes, sometimes flying vast distances over water or the Sahara desert.

Miniature tracking technology is fairly accurate on a global scale but is not yet as accurate as the GPS systems in common use in our cars and phones. Those devices would still be to heavy for the birds to carry. The newest of these Platform Transmitter Terminals use solar panels to recharge the batteries – this means that after 10 hours of tracking, the transmitter must be shut down to recharge for 48 hours (I wish we got that after working for 10 hours!). In the age of Big Brother on television, many have come to expect instant gratification from our voyeur systems. The 48 hour shut down is going to be the undoing of many passionate birders who stay glued to their computers to see how the birds are making out. For example, exactly as I am writing this, one of the birds whose name is Lyster seems to be taking a break in a desert are of Mauritania. But no, he is moving. Is he getting food somehow in this relatively barren part of the world? Is he just all shagged out after a particularly long squawk? We’ll just have to stay tuned.

You can sponsor a bird and your donations will help the BTO keep this amazing experiment running so that we can finally figure out why our cuckoo is declining.