Dogs Pay Attention to Your Looks

In a new study, researchers in Britain monitored dogs’ facial expressions — particularly the muscle that raises the inner part of the eyebrows and makes their eyes look bigger — while a person was either paying attention to them or turned away, sometimes holding food and sometimes not.

The dogs were much more expressive when the person was paying attention, but food didn’t seem to make a difference, according to the study, published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports. The dogs also stuck out their tongues and barked more when they got attention, compared with when they were being ignored or given food.

“This simply shows that dogs produce more (but not different) facial movements when someone is looking at them,” Juliane Kaminski, the study’s lead researcher and a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth in England, said via email.

Karen Weintraub, New York Times, October 19, 2017

Birds might be evolving to eat from bird feeders, study says

A little bird common in the United Kingdom is identical in almost every way to its counterparts across the North Sea in the Netherlands: black and yellow feathers, splotches of white across the cheeks. But the British ones have slightly longer beaks, scientists say, and the reason might be British humans’ embrace of bird feeders.

In a study published Thursday in Science, researchers report that great tits in the United Kingdom evolved to have lengthier bills in a matter of decades. The longer the beak, the easier the access to food in the hanging backyard buffets popular in Britain — and, the data show, the healthier the offspring: Longer-beaked birds produced more chicks that fledged.

Karin Brullliard, Washington Post, October 20, 2017

Nasty, Brutish and Short: Are Humans DNA-Wired to Kill?

A key proponent of this biological view is psychologist Steven Pinker, another Harvard researcher whose writing, particularly his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, has significantly shaped the conversation about human violence in recent years. In his 2002 book The Blank Slate, Pinker wrote, “When we look at human bodies and brains, we find more direct signs of design for aggression,” explaining that men in particular bear the marks of “an evolutionary history of violent male-male competition.” One widely quoted estimate by Pinker places the death rate resulting from lethal violence in nonstate societies, based on archaeological evidence, at a shocking 15 percent of the population.

Josh Gibabatiss, Scientific American, July 19, 2017

Why it’s good for grown-ups to go play

Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College, says, “Play primarily evolved to teach children all kinds of skills, and its extension into adulthood may have helped to build cooperation and sharing among hunter-gathers beyond the level that would naturally exist in a dominance-seeking species.” In other words, for our earliest ancestors, play wasn’t just about adding fun to their lives, it may have been a way of keeping the peace, which was critical for survival.

Jennifer Wallace, Washington Post, May 20, 2017

Cultivated Carp ‘Reverse Evolve,’ Grow Scales Back: Undoing hundreds of years of work by hungry monks

Several hungry carp

The dense protective layer of scales covering the body of the common carp makes the fish a pain to eat. But centuries ago, clever European monks managed to breed this quality out, creating a cultivated variety with few to no scales.

In 1912, mirror carp were brought to Madagascar for fish farming. With no native carp varieties to compete with, the mirror carp spread, living in the wild across the island.

Then a strange thing began to happen. The mirror carp began growing scales again. According to a paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, it took just forty generations for the carp to re-evolve — or devolve — their scales. The pressures of natural selection, the authors write, allowed the so called “wild type” trait of scales to return to the species.

Coby McDonald, Popular Science, August 24, 2016

How helpless babies helped make humans so smart

This may come as a surprise to anyone who has ever glimpsed a comments section, but humans are smarter than we need to be.

The answer just might have to do with how pathetic we are when we’re born. Helpless infants need smart parents to take care of them, and intelligent parents need bigger brains. But giving birth to offspring that will develop big brains is a challenge, because the mechanics of getting a big head out of a mother’s body are, well, difficult. That means babies need to be born at an earlier stage of development, before their heads get too big — when they’re even more tiny and helpless.

In a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Piantadosi and his colleague Celeste Kidd modeled how this evolutionary positive feedback system could have led to runaway natural selection that resulted in absurdly smart humans (but still not smart enough to behave well on the Internet). The effect was surprisingly strong: “The comparative helplessness of the species was a stronger predictor of intelligence than almost any other factor,” Piantadosi said.

Sarah Kaplan, Washington Post, May 24, 2016

When It Came To Food, Neanderthals Weren’t Exactly Picky Eaters

[R]esearchers are finding that Neanderthals and early humans weren’t all that different — they even got together and made babies every now and then.

But when it came to diet, the two may have had different approaches.

Both were omnivores. But, during the Ice Age, when the climate was constantly fluctuating, Neanderthals tended to chow down on whatever was most readily available, according to a study published this week in PLoS One. During cold spells, Neanderthals — especially those who lived in open, grassland environments — subsisted mostly on meat. During lusher climes, Neanderthals would supplement their diet with plants, seeds and nuts.

Early humans, on the other hand, seemed to stick with a pretty consistent diet regardless of environmental changes: They regularly ate a relatively higher proportion of plant-based foods. Researchers figured this out by studying the tiny, microscopic dings and dents on ancient teeth.

Maanvi Singh, NPR, April 29, 2016

200 years after Darwin, this is how the iconic Galapagos finches are still evolving

Married biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant have worked on the islands for more than 40 years, and they’ve witnessed evolution unfolding right before their eyes.

A decade ago, they saw a drought devastate Daphne Major Island, a scrubby volcanic cinder cone home to little more than some cacti and two species of bird: the medium ground finch and the large ground finch. Because of the resulting food shortage, the smaller-beaked medium ground finches — who didn’t try to compete with the bigger birds for large seeds — were outliving their larger-beaked brethren. Within a year, average beak size among medium ground finches had shrunk noticeably.

Sarah Kaplan, Washington Post, April 22, 2016

Startling new finding: 600 million years ago, a biological mishap changed everything

If life is effectively an endless series of photocopies, as DNA is transcribed and passed on from one being to the next, then evolution is the high-stakes game of waiting for the copier to get it wrong.

Too wrong, and you’ll live burdened by a maladaptive mutation or genetic disorder. Worse, you might never live at all.

But if the flaw is wrong in exactly the right way, the incredible can happen: disease resistance, sharper eyesight, swifter feet, big brains, better beaks for Darwin’s finches.

In a paper published in the open-access journal eLife this week, researchers say they have pinpointed what may well be one of evolution’s greatest copy mess-ups yet: the mutation that allowed our ancient protozoa predecessors to evolve into complex, multi-cellular organisms. Thanks to this mutation — which was not solely responsible for the leap out of single-cellular life, but without which you, your dog and every creature large enough to be seen without a microscope might not be around — cells were able to communicate with one another and work together.

Incredibly, in the world of evolutionary biology, all it took was one tiny tweak, one gene, and complex life as we know it was born.

Sarah Kaplan, Washington Post, January 11. 2016

Did The Language You Speak Evolve Because Of The Heat?

Probability in Language, Evolution –

English bursts with consonants. We have words that string one after another, like angst, diphthong and catchphrase. But other languages keep more vowels and open sounds. And that variability might be because they evolved in different habitats.

Consonant-heavy syllables don’t carry very well in places like windy mountain ranges or dense rainforests, researchers say. “If you have a lot of tree cover, for example, [sound] will reflect off the surface of leaves and trunks. That will break up the coherence of the transmitted sound,” says Ian Maddieson, a linguist at the University of New Mexico.

Angus Chen, NPR, November 6, 2015