Posts Tagged ‘new scientist’

Last week, an article that featured in Current Biology was covered broadly in the media – by the  BBC and bloggers alike – which I am thrilled to see as it involves an animal I think is awesome. The Veined Octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus), from the same group (Mollusca) as snails, has blown existing theory on intelligence in invertebrates clean out of the water.

Octopuses are considered as intelligent as dogs

In a study spanning nine years from 1999  to 2008, researchers Julian Finn and Mark Newman from Museum Victoria in Australia spent 500 hours diving in Indonesian waters. They filmed the shenanigans of the soft-sediment dwelling octopus, and realised something unique was going on. The octopus was seen digging empty coconut shells out of the sand, emptying them with jets of water, stacking them and carrying them with a cumbersome gait now known as ‘stilt-walking’:

The shells are used as an instant shelter for the octopus – and are only used when required, often being carried as far as 20 meters across the sea floor. Stilt-walking is a novel method of transporting the shells, and leaves the octopus open to attack by predators. This deployment of the shell is a clear example of tool use.

Ants carry leaves - but they are not as canny with them

Where various ant species will collect and carry leaves, this is only in reponse to specific stimuli and not deployed – meaning this is the first-ever recorded case of tool use in invertebrates.

The use of tools is a benchmark of higher intelligence, previously only observed in mammals and birds.  Professor Jerry Coyne from the University of Chicago discussed this in his informative blog, Why evolution is true.  Although the greater intelligence of the octopus is well-known and debated over in biological circles, the actions of acquiring the coconut shells are the most complex ever recorded – and there have been a few.

It seems the Beatles were a fan of the octopus, too –

Observational learning is considered a sign of higher intelligence. In 1992, an experiment in Naples proved octopuses displayed key characteristic behaviours of this type of learning, when a group of captive octopuses were trained to grab a red ball over a white ball – after having watching previously trained octopuses do the same.

In 1997, an article by Doug Stewart for America’s National Wildlife Federation cites how a night biologist at the Seattle Acquarium heard a commotion and caught a 40-pound octopus slithering around on the floor, having smashed the quarter-inch-thick lid of its tank.

Octopuses can be pesky beasts

The article also notes: ‘Octopus literature is filled with tales of naturalists briefly leaving animals in open tanks and returning to find them scaling a bookcase, hiding in a teapot or expired on the carpet.’ There have been reports of octopuses boarding fishing boats, opening holds and stealing fish, and playing with bottles, by releasing them into currents of water and catching them.

The biology of the octopus is just as neat. If in danger, they can expel black ink, change colour in less than a second and, if they do get nipped by a predator and loose an arm,  they can grow a new one back. Expert in animal behaviour from Marine Biology Laboratory in Massachusetts, Roger Hanlon, told Stewart: “When it comes to camouflage, it’s the most capable organism on the planet without question.”

The blue ringed octopus - master of deception

Octopuses have a retractable beak like a parrot’s to kill their prey. They can even eat sharks:

But the intelligence of the Veined Octopus as represented by their canny use of coconut shells is still baffling. How has their cognitive ability evolved to this extent in the marine environment, where selective pressures are completely different to those influencing the evolution of terrestrial beings? How does a species known for being solitary know to mimic the actions of its contempories – what is the advantage of this?

I shall keep an eye on the way this debate shapes up. Meanwhile, here’s Jean Geary Boal, one of the scientists who worked on the Naples experiment. She’s got a bit of a soft spot for the soft things:  “It’s extremely easy to anthropomorphise octopuses. They make eye contact with you. They respond to you. They reach toward you. There’s just something mesmerising for people about octopuses.”

*nb – in researching this article, I found Octopi is not the plural preferred by the majority of  scientists.

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According to the Human Genome Project, Biology will be the foremost science of the 21st Century following the completion of sequencing the human genome in 2003. The possible ramifications of this are vast, and may be applied to areas as diverse as human migration and archaeology.

We all need the work of research scientists

This is music to my ears, as I find reading about new research in biology absolutely fascinating. I feel many more people would if they could only get to see some of the things the human condition is capable of, and the phenomenal abilities of the minds of research scientists who literally work to save humanity. The fates of our lives are in the hands of these people, and I do not think we consider them enough. Here’s some music for your ears, I think it goes nicely with my blog:

It’s a tough job. Where would you start, if you were faced with a disease such as HIV? A disease that morphs and hides in the body in ways a human being with all the time in the world and the mind of Einstein could not invent. Imagine having only a laboratory, and a set of symptoms to work with, what would you do? I am in constant awe of the people who are able to not only seek out the tiny changes causing disease, but who can use these observations to create bespoke treatments.

I’ve been reading about synesthesia today. This is a harmless neurological phenomenon where a stimulus to one sense triggers a response in another – literal sense swapping. So, you could see a piece of music in morphing colours and shapes, taste the flavour of words, see numbers as objects, or directly associate numbers and letters with personalities. Or a day, month, or number might mean a specific location in space.

Seeing numbers as colours

Synesthesia means ‘joined sensation’, and has an incidence of one in 23 people in its different forms. It can be induced by epilepsy, a stroke, blindness or deafness, and is passed through families, although scientists are yet to identify the exact form of inheritance. The sense-swap is accumulative, so the sufferer will hear a sound and see a picture, at the same time. The correlation lasts a lifetime – if Tuesdays taste of beef bourguignon and Nirvana’s 1993 acoustic set looks like a dozen cardboard cutouts of Des Lineham floating three foot from the floor, they will do always.

Synesthesia was first mentioned in 1690 by Oxford philosopher John Locke. He questioned the mental capabilities of a ‘studious’ blind man after he claimed he tasted scarlet when he heard a trumpet. Attitudes now have progressed following a bout of research in the late 1990s, and synesthesia is now regarded as something more than a literal metaphor, and fascinates many in the science and art communities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is an affliction  not uncommon amongst artists and musicians.

Wassily Kandinski, 1866 - 1944

Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky is largely considered the inventor and theorist of abstract painting in the 20th century. Kandinsky, born in 1866, suffered from synesthesia and wanted to use his condition to create the painterly equivalent of a symphony, to stimulate the ears of the observer. That’s quite a brief.

Wassily Kandinsky - Composition VIII, 1923

When he was a child, Kandinsky complained that his paintbox hissed at him. But whether or not he actually had synesthesia has been a subject for debate, as it is a phenonemon sometimes sought by artists in order to find inspiration for their abstract creations.

The Tate Modern featured an exhibition of Kandinsky’s work in 2005, which helped to raise discussion around the topic. An insightful piece in The Telegraph at the time claimed he had acheived ‘pure abstraction’.

Wassily Kandinsky - Several Circles, 1926

Kandinsky mused: ‘Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings.’

If  a composer encountered his paintings and was inspired to write a symphony, I wonder how similar the two pieces of music would be. Perhaps this has happened already.

British painter David Hockney heard the colours blue and red during the music of Ravel, so painted his stage sets of the Metrolopolitan Opera accordingly.

David Hockney, An Image of Celia

Perhaps this painting is supposed to look like Ravel’s Bolero?

I think one of the most remarkable forms of synesthesia is ordinal linguistic personification, OLP. This is when days, months, letters or years are assigned personalities. Dr Richard Cytowic has written a book entitiled ‘The Man Who Tasted Shapes’ . One of his subjects suffering from OLP told him in 2003:  ‘I is a bit of a worrier at times, although easy-going; J is male, appearing jocular, but with strength of character. K is female; quiet, responsible’.

Dr Cytowic's book

Another synesthete, Carol Steen, revealed: ‘There was a piece of music by a group called Uman. The first note was grey and it was like a band with a slight curve to it, and it was a gradient, and it had gold specs on it. The background was black but it was being broken up by other colours, moving shapes of fuchsia and there was a small click, almost like a drumbeat, something being struck, and as it was struck, a black shape appeared, and the shapes appeared from left to right, going horizontally across the bottom of this, like a movie screen I was watching.

‘And the shapes were so exquisite, so simple, so pure and so beautiful, I wanted to be able to capture them, but they were moving too quickly and I couldn’t remember them all. And it’s kind of a pity because it was a year’s worth of sculpture I was seeing in a few moments.’

I try think of phenomena such as synesthesia in an evolutionary context. Have our senses always been wired as they are now? For arguments sake, suppose seeing and hearing sound led to a quicker reflex time in response to a predator. The individual displaying this characteristic would be more likely to live to a reproductive age and pass on this trait, the inheritance of which would be likely due to syntesthesia’s strong inheritability.

Perhaps this characteristic would spread throughout populations and increase in incident until the prevailing response to sound is vision. How would a society shaped by these duo-senses look? How would it be different to ours, today? Would we be more efficient as a people, or less?

James Watson and Francis Crick, and their famous DNA double helix

I don’t have the answers, but I bet there is a scientist out there who is searching for them right now.

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