Scientists put “memories” into birds’ brains, teaching them to sing

A group of researchers from the University of Southwest Texas claims to have been able to bring “memories” into the brain of a finch species, teaching them a song they have never heard before. In particular, they have performed this technique on mandarin diamonds, which are widespread especially in Australia.

The singing of these birds is a vocal ability that is transmitted from father to son: in fact, fathers usually sing their melodies to the chicks, and soon they start to imitate them. However, the researchers have given good thought to directly manipulating the brains of chicks of this bird species without parental intervention.

They used optogenetics, a technique of the latest generation in which light flashes are used to stimulate certain areas of the brain and certain groups of neurons. They have focused on a particular area of the brain of these chicks that handles what the animal hears.

Using a kind of Morse code, the researchers were able to teach finches how long the different parts of the melody should last, and eventually the chicks, when they grew up, really learned to sing a song they had never heard before.

However, this is a very simple song compared to the songs that these birds usually sing when they become adults, and for this reason the same researchers admit that they have not taught birds everything they need to know about singing, and because they have focused on only two specific areas of the brain when much more needs to be involved.

Therefore, the researchers want to discover these other brain ways to teach young birds to sing their own songs without the intervention of their parents.


Sources & Recommended Reading:

https://www.utsouthwestern.edu/newsroom/articles/year-2019/implanted-memories-teach-birds-song.html#page

https://science.sciencemag.org/content/366/6461/83

Flies can become genetically modified to become poisonous to predators

Using the CRISPR technique, a group of researchers from the University of California at Berkeley genetically modified some specimens of fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) so that they could obtain a significant advantage over its predators, one of those advantages that are usually acquired after thousands of years of evolution.

The researcher Noah Whiteman, together with his colleagues, has in fact modified three genes in the fruit fly giving it the ability to eat toxic plants and extract, within his body, the toxins to then use them as a defense against predators, ie frogs and birds.

This is the same way of defense put in place by the monarch butterflies that thus manages to keep at bay many predators who tend not to eat it just to avoid vomiting everything or even die.

It is the first time that CRISPR is used to genetically modify a multicellular organism so that it can be endowed with a mutation that usually occurs only in the course of evolution, in a much longer time.

Scientists modified midges can eat particular poisonous plants and assimilate toxins into their bodies while they are still in the larval phase and can retain them even after they have become adult flies.


Sources & Recommended Reading:

https://news.berkeley.edu/2019/10/02/crispred-flies-mimic-monarch-butterfly-and-could-make-you-puke/

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1610-8/

Malaria-carrying mosquitoes can travel 185 miles per night thanks to the wind

Mosquitos usually cover limited distances and do not go far from their birthplace because their lives are relatively short. However, a new study published in Nature confirms the suspicion that wind can be an excellent ally in relation to the possibility of these insects being moved.

This is a very negative fact, as mosquitoes can also carry microorganisms that can cause serious diseases in humans, particularly malaria. Researchers have analysed populations of mosquitoes living in the semi-desert zone of the Sahel, sub-Saharan Africa. They found that mosquitoes, even those that transmit malaria, can literally be carried by the winds and travel hundreds of kilometers (in one case, they recorded a distance of 185 miles), traveling up to 290 meters from the ground; and all in less than nine hours overnight.

In addition, this discovery also explains why mosquito populations in the area are growing so rapidly that it was a mystery to researchers and scientists.

This discovery was made by researchers from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Maryland, and the University of Bamako, Mali. Researchers have been studying mosquito populations in four villages in Mali for 10 years.


Sources & Recommended Reading:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1622-4

A shark’s excavation skeleton, which lived 360 million years ago, was found in Morocco

Researchers found several fossils of the skull bones and an almost complete skeleton of an ancient species of shark, captured in the rocks of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, a discovery that the same researchers claim to have been stunned by. A study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B describes this shark (Phoebodus saidselachus), which lived more than 350 million years ago and for which no bone marks were found because the latter were made of soft cartilage rather than hard bone, so it is much more reluctant to petrify.

The mountainous area in which these remains were found was once a large shallow sea basin. The remains were found in a layer between 360 and 370 million years ago, the period of the famous Devon at the end of August.

The shark had a cone-shaped body, almost in the shape of an eel, and a pronounced muzzle, characteristics that could make it look like a modern curly shark (Chlamydoselachus, also called a collar shark or a fringe shark), a shark that today is often found in deep waters and represents various “primitive” features, for which they are also known as “living fossils.”

To confirm the thesis that the two sharks may be similar to each other, there are also teeth: Febod and the coiled shark are very similar, given that they both have a cone shape and are rotated inward, significantly different from the classic sharp teeth and serrated today’s sharks. Among other things, it also indicates that they ate more or less the same thing.

Researchers believe that Febodus himself is a close relative of Thrinacodus graciae, a variety of coal shark.


Sources & Recommended Reading:

https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1336

https://rs.figshare.com/articles/Supplementary_material_from_The_early_elasmobranch_i_Phoebodus_i_phylogenetic_relationships_ecomorphology_and_a_new_time-scale_for_shark_evolution/9918260

New study illustrates why Squirrels don’t like to drink

There are some squirrels that, unlike others, simply collect food for the winter, hibernate, reduce metabolism and, in particular, heart rate. Only one of these species, Ictidomys tridecemlineatus, has been studied by a team of researchers.

Protein manages to reduce heart rate and body temperature, as well as other metabolic processes, by going into hibernation and minimizing energy consumption, as bears do.

To find out how these proteins suppress their thirst, one of the basic needs that can cause them to awaken, researchers have analyzed their blood, dividing them into three groups: before hibernation, in a state of complete hibernation and in a state of non-hibernation.

The researchers noted that the concentration of serum, a thirsty substance in many animals, including humans, was unusually low. Squirrels did not drink a drop of water even after waking up, until the researchers themselves artificially increased the serum in their blood.

They then found that they could regulate blood concentrations by removing electrolytic substances such as sodium, glucose and urea, moving them to other parts of the body, especially the bladder. In this way, they may have remained moisturized.


Sources & Recommended Reading:

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/10/here-s-how-hibernating-squirrels-live-months-without-water

https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(19)30883-8