Scientific discoveries this week: 2/11/13

Stony Brook, New York – A deep study into mammal physiology and genetics revealed the ancestor of all placental mammals. Placental mammals are mammals that give birth to young in much the same way as humans. The research group responsible for the study began by assembling a massive database of genetic traits from 86 different species of placental mammals, then compared the various species-specific traits in an effort to find common threads. By doing this, they were able to infer that the ancestor of these mammals was likely a furry, tree-climbing, insect-eating creature no larger than a large rat. The ancestor probably came around roughly 400,000 years after the mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaur population. The researchers speculate that the period beginning with this mammal was likely the time when new species categories were appearing rapidly, perhaps on 200,000 year intervals.

Wallingford, United Kingdom – Ants are commonly known to communicate by using pheromones, or special scents, that inform other ants about their social status, alert them to a predator, or guide them to food. Until recently, scientists believed that ants did not communicate any other way than by the use of these pheromones. A few years ago, however, scientists studying various species of ants found that they make noise. At first they did not know what the noise meant, but they have gradually begun to understand the behaviors of the ants and how they appear to communicate using this noise. By rubbing their legs against a spiky ridge along their abdomen, the ants are able to produce a sound that can be used to communicate with other ants. More recent studies have also shown that mature ant pupae can also communicate like this, and that communication is likely critical to their survival.

Bonn, Germany – Coral reefs, built of calcium carbonate deposits excreted by tiny organisms on the ocean floor, are in danger of being dissolved away by the increasing acid content of the oceans. There is hope, however. New studies performed by a group from the University of Bonn, Germany, show that there is an ancient microbe that generates significantly more calcium carbonate per square foot of ocean floor than the coral microbes, and are much more resistant to the increasing acidity. As the waters of our oceans continue to warm, these microbes spread farther north and cover more coastline. As they spread, they build “reefs” along the coasts, providing the same type of ecological protection that coral reefs provide, but in a much more robust way. The end result of this “new-old” microbe remains to be seen, but it may have a positive impact on the planet’s various marine ecosystems.

Cambridge, United Kingdom – Humans are not the only species capable of knowing what another of their kind is thinking. A group of researchers from Cambridge, England, who have been studying Eurasian Jays have come to the conclusion that they must share the same type of intuition that defines human relationships. The male jay, when feeding his mate, appears to sense that she wants to eat some other type of insect, and will thus provide her with those instead. In addition to this behavior, the jays appear to have some concept of planning for the future, and not just satiating their immediate appetite. To identify whether or not this behavior was actually caring for the other bird, the researchers placed the birds in a cage and gave them mealworms and wax fly larvae. The Jays prefer the wax fly larvae to the mealworms, so if they are purely acting out of their own desires, they will both eat the wax fly larvae. The male, rather than feeding the female a mixture of the two or just mealworms, fed her the wax fly larvae. This would indicate that he was considering her desires over his own. Whether this study can be taken to prove that jays are capable of some higher intelligence or not must still be determined.

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