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Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Self-healing dolphins and the memories of trees, 2012

  1. Study shows chimps capable of insightful reasoning ability
  2. Whales’ Grandeur and Grace, Up Close
  3. Reindeer gained UV vision after moving to the Arctic
  4. Lessons of miraculous dolphin healing powers
  5. Researchers create the first artificial neural network out of DNA
  6. Cloned trees raised in separate places react differently to drought
  7. Dolphins have ability to sense electrical signals
Today, I'd like to share some articles mostly published last year on the miracles of the animal world. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. This time they come without comments, so that you can make up your mind on them yourself.
I personally find those on dolphins the most intriguing since they show a side of those magnificent creatures we didn't know. And which might be regarded as one of the miracles of evolution, or as one of the miracles of their minds. Who knows.
Also fascinating is the article on AI, which actually seems to me as the first working  DNA computer. Quite cool, huh?

Study shows chimps capable of insightful reasoning ability

June 10, 2011 by Bob Yirka
( -- A new study conducted by researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, with results published in PLoS ONE, shows that some apes are capable of using insightful reasoning to achieve goals. When presented with a peanut floating in a tube a quarter filled with water, some chimpanzees were able to figure out that they could raise the water level, and hence the peanut, by filling their mouths with water from a nearby dispenser, then spitting it into the tube. Doing so enough times, raised the floating peanut to such a level that they were eventually able to retrieve and eat it.
The research team conducted nearly the same experiment three times; the first was at a research center in Germany, and was a complete failure in that none of the figured out how to get the floating peanut. When the experiment was done again in a facility in Africa, however, the results were quite different; five of the 24 chimp volunteers successfully filled the tube and ate the peanut. Also, interestingly, one actually resorted to urinating into the tube, which also worked.
In the third experiment, instead of testing , human children were given nearly the same test; though instead of having to spit water from their mouths, they were allowed a water pitcher which they could use to pour the water into the tube. In this study, three age groups were tested, 4, 6, and eight year olds. Not surprisingly, the youngest group fared quite poorly, while the oldest group outperformed the chimps by a wide margin.

Whales’ Grandeur and Grace, Up Close

Turning around, Mr. Austin found himself looking straight into the eye of the mother whale, her body bigger than a school bus. The tap had come from her pectoral fin, weighing more than a ton. To Mr. Austin, her gesture was an unmistakable warning that he had gotten too close to the calf. And yet, the mother whale had extended her fin with such precision and grace — to touch the photographer without hurting him — that Mr. Austin was in awe of her “delicate restraint.”
Looking into the whale’s eye, lit by sunlight through the water, Austin felt he was getting a glimpse of calmness and intelligence, of the animal’s consciousness. The moment changed Mr. Austin’s life. It struck him that something was missing from four decades of whale photography: the beauty of true scale.  source

Reindeer gained UV vision after moving to the Arctic

Reindeer see their world in glorious ultraviolet, helping them find food and avoid predators.
Most mammals, including humans, see using light from the visible part of the spectrum; ultraviolet light, which has a shorter wavelength, is invisible. But not so reindeer, says Glen Jeffery of University College London.
The frozen wastes of the Arctic reflect around 90 per cent of the UV light that hits them; snow-free land typically reflects only a few per cent. So Jeffery and colleagues wondered whether reindeers had adapted to their UV-rich world.
In dark conditions, they shone LED lights of different wavelengths, including UV, into the eyes of 18 anaesthetised reindeers while recording with an electrode whether nerves in the eye fired, indicating that the light had been seen. The UV light triggered a response in the eyes of all the reindeer.
"Since migrating to the Arctic 10,000 years ago, these animals have adapted incredibly quickly," says Jeffery. source

Lessons of miraculous dolphin healing powers

Michael Zasloff has published a letter in the July 21 issue of the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, in which he recounts several documented incidents of serious injuries to dolphins, presumably inflicted by sharks. These bites, some larger than a basketball, healed in weeks without leaving the dolphins disfigured, without causing them apparent pain and without becoming visibly infected.
Miraculous dolphins Several remarkable abilities work together for the seemingly miraculous healing in dolphins. First, even with a large gaping wound in their side, dolphins don't bleed to death. Zasloff said they may use their diving mechanism, which cuts off the blood flow to unimportant parts of their bodies, to reduce the flow of blood to the injury while it clots.
Second, during the healing process the dolphins' wounds don't show signs of infection. Researchers have discovered that their skin and blubber contain compounds with antibacterial properties, which may help stop infections in the open wounds.
The dolphins also don't show typical reactions to pain while they are recovering from these injuries. Usually, a deep open wound would alter an animal's behavior and eating habits for a few weeks. In his discussions with dolphin handlers, Zasloff discovered that the dolphins eat and behave normally even when they are seriously injured.
The healing ability itself is pretty miraculous, Zasloff said. In a matter of weeks the dolphins can completely replace the missing tissue — even gouges the size of two footballs — without a dent in their body shape. They may get this regenerative ability from special stem cells, like some amphibians that resprout limbs.
The other proteins the dolphins are known to produce during healing, like a pain-relieving or anti-bacterial compound, could also work on humans. Because the dolphins create their own pain-relieving compound, there's a chance it wouldn't be addictive to humans as are many pain relievers on the market today. source

Researchers create the first artificial neural network out of DNA

July 20, 2011 
Researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have now taken a major step toward creating artificial intelligence -- not in a robot or a silicon chip, but in a test tube. The researchers are the first to have made an artificial neural network out of DNA, creating a circuit of interacting molecules that can recall memories based on incomplete patterns, just as a brain can. 
Consisting of four made from 112 distinct DNA strands, the researchers' plays a mind-reading game in which it tries to identify a mystery scientist. The researchers "trained" the neural network to "know" four scientists, whose identities are each represented by a specific, unique set of answers to four yes-or-no questions, such as whether the scientist was British.
After thinking of a scientist, a human player provides an incomplete subset of answers that partially identifies the scientist. The player then conveys those clues to the network by dropping DNA strands that correspond to those answers into the . Communicating via fluorescent signals, the network then identifies which scientist the player has in mind. Or, the network can "say" that it has insufficient information to pick just one of the scientists in its memory or that the clues contradict what it has remembered. The researchers played this game with the network using 27 different ways of answering the questions (out of 81 total combinations), and it responded correctly each time.
This DNA-based neural network demonstrates the ability to take an incomplete pattern and figure out what it might represent—one of the brain's unique features.The researchers based their biochemical neural network on a simple model of a neuron, called a linear threshold function. The model neuron receives input signals, multiplies each by a positive or negative weight, and only if the weighted sum of inputs surpass a certain threshold does the neuron fire, producing an output.

Cloned trees raised in separate places react differently to drought

July 25, 2011 By Amina Khan
Nurture matters - in plants as well as people. Cloned trees raised in different places and environments react differently to drought conditions even though they're genetically identical, scientists have found.
"Turns out the trees have a memory, and they are adapted to the environment in which they're grown," said Richard Meilan, a Purdue University molecular tree physiologist who was not involved in the study.
To figure out what might be going on, Canadian researchers grew clones from poplar trees that were genetically identical but raised in different parts of Canada. They did this for three types of poplar varieties - Okanese, Walker and DN34. In each case, some variants came from Saskatchewan and the others from regions with different amounts of rainfall and sunlight.
Reporting July 11 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers found that in the case of the Walker and DN34 clones, trees grown in different places reacted very differently when they were deprived of water.
Walker poplars raised in Alberta took two full days longer than their Saskatchewan siblings to respond to the simulated drought by closing up holes in their leaves, called stomata, to minimize water loss. And DN34 poplars raised in Manitoba closed their stomata two days sooner than DN34 poplars from Saskatchewan.
Okanese clones, however, took the same time to close up against the drought, regardless of where they were from.
The scientists also detected differences in gene activity that could be responsible for these differences, they said.  source

Dolphins have ability to sense electrical signals

July 29, 2011 by Deborah Braconnier
In a new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers reveal the discovery of how the Guiana dolphin, Sotalia guianensis, is able to sense electric fields of prey in the water using structures found on the animals head.
While electroreception is often seen in fish and amphibians, it is not common in mammals.
The researchers, led by Wolf Hanke from the University of Rostock in Germany studied some rare captive Guiana dolphins at a zoo in Muenster, Germany. When examining the rostrum of the dolphins, or the forward part of the head that contains the jaw, the researchers noticed small depressions. When one of the dolphins died, the researchers examined these depressions and found that they are crypts and hold whiskers when the dolphins are in the womb. These whiskers later drop off after the dolphin is born. It had been assumed these were just the depressions left after the whiskers were gone, but the researchers believed they were somehow still aiding the dolphin’s senses.
Turning to the remaining dolphin in captivity, the researchers trained the dolphin to rest it’s head on a platform fitted with electrodes designed to deliver electrical signals into the water. When the researchers delivered a signal, the dolphin was rewarded if it swam away. If there was no signal, the dolphin was rewarded for staying in place.
To prove that the signal was indeed being sensed through these crypts, the researchers then fitted the dolphins with a plastic shield that covered the crypts. With the shield in place, the dolphin did not move regardless of whether an electrical signal was present or not. source