Rats Have a Double View of the World

Rats process visual information from their eyes similar to other mammals. Nevertheless, their eyes move in a very different way. Unlike humans, their eyes can move in opposite directions. (Credit: © MPI for Biological Cybernetics/Kerr)

Rats process visual information from their eyes similar to other mammals. Nevertheless, their eyes move in a very different way. Unlike humans, their eyes can move in opposite directions. (Credit: © MPI for Biological Cybernetics/Kerr)

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, using miniaturised high-speed cameras and high-speed behavioural tracking, discovered that rats move their eyes in opposite directions in both the horizontal and the vertical plane when running around. Each eye moves in a different direction, depending on the change in the animal’s head position. An analysis of both eyes’ field of view found that the eye movements exclude the possibility that rats fuse the visual information into a single image like humans do. Instead, the eyes move in such a way that enables the space above them to be permanently in view — presumably an adaptation to help them deal with the major threat from predatory birds that rodents face in their natural environment.

Like many mammals, rats have their eyes on the sides of their heads. This gives them a very wide visual field, useful for detection of predators. However, three-dimensional vision requires overlap of the visual fields of the two eyes. Thus, the visual system of these animals needs to meet two conflicting demands at the same time; on the one hand maximum surveillance and on the other hand detailed binocular vision.

The research team from the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics have now, for the first time, observed and characterised the eye movements of freely moving rats. They fitted minuscule cameras weighing only about one gram to the animals’ heads, which could record the lightning-fast eye movements with great precision. The scientists also used another new method to measure the position and direction of the head, enabling them to reconstruct the rats’ exact line of view at any given time.

The Max Planck scientists’ findings came as a complete surprise. Although rats process visual information from their eyes through very similar brain pathways to other mammals, their eyes evidently move in a totally different way. “Humans move their eyes in a very stereotypical way for both counteracting head movements and searching around. Both our eyes move together and always follow the same object. In rats, on the other hand, the eyes generally move in opposite directions,” explains Jason Kerr from the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics.

In a series of behavioural experiments, the neurobiologists also discovered that the eye movements largely depend on the position of the animal’s head. “When the head points downward, the eyes move back, away from the tip of the nose. When the rat lifts its head, the eyes look forward: cross-eyed, so to speak. If the animal puts its head on one side, the eye on the lower side moves up and the other eye moves down.” says Jason Kerr.

In humans, the direction in which the eyes look must be precisely aligned, otherwise an object cannot be fixated. A deviation measuring less than a single degree of the field of view is enough to cause double vision. In rats, the opposing eye movements between left and right eye mean that the line of vision varies by as much as 40 degrees in the horizontal plane and up to 60 degrees in the vertical plane. The consequence of these unusual eye movements is that irrespective of vigorous head movements in all planes, the eyes movements always move in such a way to ensure that the area above the animal is always in view simultaneously by both eyes -something that does not occur in any other region of the rat’s visual field.

These unusual eye movements that rats possess appear to be the visual system’s way of adapting to the animals’ living conditions, given that they are preyed upon by numerous species of birds. Although the observed eye movements prevent the fusion of the two visual fields, the scientists postulate that permanent visibility in the direction of potential airborne attackers dramatically increases the animals’ chances of survival.

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The above story is reprinted from materials provided by Max-Planck-Gesellschaft.

Keep Bad Company at an Arm’s Length


There is a saying, “It’s better to be alone than a bad company”. And it’s true. It is far better to be alone than being with bad friends which lead us a unhealthy life. Let us take an example; in schools I was taught that A rotten Apple rots all the fresh Apples. In the same way, a bad company spoils each and every friend. So, the best treatment is to keep you far away from bad company. Bad company is not supposed to be a boy or a girl; it can be anything which diverts you from your aim. It’s better to be lonely than a bad company. To be happy and gay, keep the bad things at an arm’s length. You will definitely lead a healthy life.
– H$

Why Early Human Ancestors Took to Two Feet


A new study by archaeologists at the University of York challenges evolutionary theories behind the development of our earliest ancestors from tree dwelling quadrupeds to upright bipeds capable of walking and scrambling.

The researchers say our upright gait may have its origins in the rugged landscape of East and South Africa which was shaped during the Pliocene epoch by volcanoes and shifting tectonic plates.

Hominins, our early forebears, would have been attracted to the terrain of rocky outcrops and gorges because it offered shelter and opportunities to trap prey. But it also required more upright scrambling and climbing gaits, prompting the emergence of bipedalism.

The York research challenges traditional hypotheses which suggest our early forebears were forced out of the trees and onto two feet when climate change reduced tree cover.

The study, “Complex Topography and Human Evolution: the Missing Link,” was developed in conjunction with researchers from the Institut de Physique du Globe in Paris. It is published in the journal Antiquity.

Dr Isabelle Winder, from the Department of Archaeology at York and one of the paper’s authors, said: “Our research shows that bipedalism may have developed as a response to the terrain, rather than a response to climatically-driven vegetation changes.

“The broken, disrupted terrain offered benefits for hominins in terms of security and food, but it also proved a motivation to improve their locomotor skills by climbing, balancing, scrambling and moving swiftly over broken ground — types of movement encouraging a more upright gait.”

The research suggests that the hands and arms of upright hominins were then left free to develop increased manual dexterity and tool use, supporting a further key stage in the evolutionary story.

The development of running adaptations to the skeleton and foot may have resulted from later excursions onto the surrounding flat plains in search of prey and new home ranges.

Dr Winder said: “The varied terrain may also have contributed to improved cognitive skills such as navigation and communication abilities, accounting for the continued evolution of our brains and social functions such as co-operation and team work.

“Our hypothesis offers a new, viable alternative to traditional vegetation or climate change hypotheses. It explains all the key processes in hominin evolution and offers a more convincing scenario than traditional hypotheses.

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The above story is reprinted from materials provided by University of York.

Detection of the Cosmic Gamma Ray Horizon: Measures All the Light in the Universe Since the Big Bang


How much light has been emitted by all galaxies since the cosmos began? After all, almost every photon (particle of light) from ultraviolet to far infrared wavelengths ever radiated by all galaxies that ever existed throughout cosmic history is still speeding through the Universe today. If we could carefully measure the number and energy (wavelength) of all those photons — not only at the present time, but also back in time — we might learn important secrets about the nature and evolution of the Universe, including how similar or different ancient galaxies were compared to the galaxies we see today.

That bath of ancient and young photons suffusing the Universe today is called the extragalactic background light (EBL). An accurate measurement of the EBL is as fundamental to cosmology as measuring the heat radiation left over from the Big Bang (the cosmic microwave background) at radio wavelengths. A new paper, called “Detection of the Cosmic γ-Ray Horizon from Multiwavelength Observations of Blazars,” by Alberto Dominguez and six coauthors, just published today by the Astrophysical Journal — based on observations spanning wavelengths from radio waves to very energetic gamma rays, obtained from several NASA spacecraft and several ground-based telescopes — describes the best measurement yet of the evolution of the EBL over the past 5 billion years.

Directly measuring the EBL by collecting its photons with a telescope, however, poses towering technical challenges — harder than trying to see the dim band of the Milky Way spanning the heavens at night from midtown Manhattan. Earth is inside a very bright galaxy with billions of stars and glowing gas. Indeed, Earth is inside a very bright solar system: sunlight scattered by all the dust in the plane of Earth’s orbit creates the zodiacal light radiating across the optical spectrum down to long-wavelength infrared. Therefore ground-based and space-based telescopes have not succeeded in reliably measuring the EBL directly.

So, astrophysicists developed an ingenious work-around method: measuring the EBL indirectly through measuring the attenuation of — that is, the absorption of — very high energy gamma rays from distant blazars. Blazars are supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies with brilliant jets directly pointed at us like a flashlight beam. Not all the high-energy gamma rays emitted by a blazar, however, make it all the way across billions of light-years to Earth; some strike a hapless EBL photon along the way. When a high-energy gamma ray photon from a blazar hits a much lower energy EBL photon, both are annihilated and produce two different particles: an electron and its antiparticle, a positron, which fly off into space and are never heard from again. Different energies of the highest-energy gamma rays are waylaid by different energies of EBL photons. Thus, measuring how much gamma rays of different energies are attenuated or weakened from blazars at different distances from Earth indirectly gives a measurement of how many EBL photons of different wavelengths exist along the line of sight from blazar to Earth over those different distances.

Observations of blazars by NASA’s Fermi Gamma Ray Telescope spacecraft for the first time detected that gamma rays from distant blazars are indeed attenuated more than gamma rays from nearby blazars, a result announced on November 30, 2012, in a paper published in Science, as theoretically predicted.

Now, the big news — announced in today’s Astrophysical Journal paper — is that the evolution of the EBL over the past 5 billion years has been measured for the first time. That’s because looking farther out into the Universe corresponds to looking back in time. Thus, the gamma ray attenuation spectrum from farther distant blazars reveals how the EBL looked at earlier eras.

This was a multistep process. First, the coauthors compared the Fermi findings to intensity of X-rays from the same blazars measured by X-ray satellites Chandra, Swift, Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, and XMM/Newton and lower-energy radiation measured by other spacecraft and ground-based observatories. From these measurements, Dominguez et al. were able to calculate the blazars’ original emitted, unattenuated gamma-ray brightnesses at different energies.

The coauthors then compared those calculations of unattenuated gamma-ray flux at different energies with direct measurements from special ground-based telescopes of the actual gamma-ray flux received at Earth from those same blazars. When a high-energy gamma ray from a blazar strikes air molecules in the upper regions of Earth’s atmosphere, it produces a cascade of charged subatomic particles. This cascade of particles travels faster than the speed of light in air (which is slower than the speed of light in a vacuum). This causes a visual analogue to a “sonic boom”: bursts of a special light called Čerenkov radiation. This Čerenkov radiation was detected by imaging atmospheric Čerenkov telescopes (IACTs), such as HESS (High Energy Stereoscopic System) in Namibia, MAGIC (Major Atmospheric Gamma Imaging Čerenkov) in the Canary Islands, and VERITAS (Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array Systems) in Arizona.

Comparing the calculations of the unattenuated gamma rays to actual measurements of the attenuation of gamma rays and X-rays from blazars at different distances allowed Dominquez et al. to quantify the evolution of the EBL — that is, to measure how the EBL changed over time as the Universe aged — out to about 5 billion years ago (corresponding to a redshift of about z = 0.5). “Five billion years ago is the maximum distance we are able to probe with our current technology,” Domínguez said. “Sure, there are blazars farther away, but we are not able to detect them because the high-energy gamma rays they are emitting are too attenuated by EBL when they get to us — so weakened that our instruments are not sensitive enough to detect them.” This measurement is the first statistically significant detection of the so-called “Cosmic Gamma Ray Horizon” as a function of gamma-ray energy. The Cosmic Gamma Ray Horizon is defined as the distance at which roughly one-third (or, more precisely, 1/e — that is, 1/2.718 — where e is the base of the natural logarithms) of the gamma rays of a particular energy have been attenuated.

This latest result confirms that the kinds of galaxies observed today are responsible for most of the EBL over all time. Moreover, it sets limits on possible contributions from many galaxies too faint to have been included in the galaxy surveys, or on possible contributions from hypothetical additional sources (such as the decay of hypothetical unknown elementary particles).

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The above story is reprinted from materials provided by University of California High-Performance AstroComputing Center.

Monkey Teeth Help Reveal Neanderthal Weaning


A team of U.S. and Australian researchers reports in the journal Nature May 22 that they can now use fossil teeth to calculate when a Neanderthal baby was weaned. The new technique is based in part on knowledge gained from studies of teeth from human infants and from monkeys at the California National Primate Research Center at the University of California, Davis.

Using the new technique, the researchers concluded that at least one Neanderthal baby was weaned at much the same age as most modern humans.

Just as tree rings record the environment in which a tree grew, traces of barium in the layers of a primate tooth can tell the story of when an infant was exclusively milk-fed, when supplemental food started, and at what age it was weaned, said Katie Hinde, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and an affiliate scientist at the UC Davis Primate Center. Hinde directs the Comparative Lactation Laboratory at Harvard and has conducted a three-year study of lactation, weaning and behavior among rhesus macaques at UC Davis.

The team was able to determine exact timing of birth, when the infant was fed exclusively on mother’s milk, and the weaning process, from mineral traces in teeth. By studying monkey teeth and comparing them to center records, they could show that the technique was accurate almost to the day.

After validating the technique with monkeys, the scientists applied it to human teeth and a Neanderthal tooth. They found that the Neanderthal baby was fed exclusively on mother’s milk for seven months, followed by seven months of supplementation — a similar pattern to present-day humans. The technique opens up extensive opportunities to further investigate lactation in fossils and museum collections of primate teeth.

Although there is some variation among human cultures, the accelerated transition to foods other than mother’s milk is thought to have emerged in our ancestral history due, in part, to more cooperative infant care and access to a more nutritious diet, Hinde said. Shorter lactation periods could mean shorter gaps between pregnancies and a higher rate of reproduction. However, there has been much debate about when our ancestors evolved accelerated weaning.

For the past few decades researchers have relied on tooth eruption age as a direct proxy for weaning age. Yet recent investigations of wild chimpanzees have shown that the first molar eruption occurs toward the end of weaning.

“By applying these new techniques to primate teeth in museum collections, we can more precisely assess maternal investment across individuals within species, as well as life history evolution among species,” Hinde said.

Authors in addition to Hinde were: Christine Austin and Manish Arora, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, Harvard School of Public Health, and University of Sydney, Australia; Tanya Smith, Harvard University; Asa Bradman and Brenda Eskenazi, UC Berkeley; Renaud Joannes-Boyau, Southern Cross University, Lismore, Australia; David Bishop, Dominic Hare and Philip Doble, University of Technology Sydney, Australia.

The work was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, U.S. National Science Foundation, Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, Australian Research Council and Harvard University.

Bacterium from Canadian High Arctic Offers Clues to Possible Life On Mars



The temperature in the permafrost on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian high Arctic is nearly as cold as that of the surface of Mars. So the recent discovery by a McGill University led team of scientists of a bacterium that is able to thrive at -15ºC, the coldest temperature ever reported for bacterial growth, is exciting. The bacterium offers clues about some of the necessary preconditions for microbial life on both the Saturn moon Enceladus and Mars, where similar briny subzero conditions are thought to exist.

The team of researchers, led by Prof. Lyle Whyte and postdoctoral fellow Nadia Mykytczuk, both from the Dept. of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University, discovered Planococcus halocryophilus OR1 after screening about 200 separate High Arctic microbes looking for the microorganism best adapted to the harsh conditions of the Arctic permafrost.

“We believe that this bacterium lives in very thin veins of very salty water found within the frozen permafrost on Ellesmere Island,” explains Whyte. “The salt in the permafrost brine veins keeps the water from freezing at the ambient permafrost temperature (~-16ºC), creating a habitable but very harsh environment. It’s not the easiest place to survive but this organism is capable of remaining active (i.e. breathing) to at least -25ºC in permafrost.”

In order to understand what it takes to be able to do so, Mykytczuk, Whyte and their colleagues studied the genomic sequence and other molecular traits of P. halocryophilus OR1. The researchers found that the bacterium adapts to the extremely cold, salty conditions in which it is found thanks to significant modifications in its cell structure and function and increased amounts of cold-adapted proteins. These include changes to the membranes that envelop the bacterium and protect it from the hostile environment in which it lives.

The genome sequence also revealed that this permafrost microbe is unusual in other ways. It appears to maintain high levels of compounds inside the bacterial cell that act as a sort of molecular antifreeze, keeping the microbe from freezing solid, while at the same time protecting the cell from the very salty exterior environment.

The researchers believe however, that such microbes may potentially play a harmful role in extremely cold environments such as the High Arctic by increasing carbon dioxide emissions from the melting permafrost, one of the results of global warming.

Whyte is delighted with the discovery and says with a laugh, “I’m kind of proud of this bug. It comes from the Canadian High Arctic and is our cold temperature champion, but what we can learn from this microbe may tell us a lot about how similar microbial life may exist elsewhere in the solar system.”

This research was funded by: Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada CREATE Canadian Astrobiology Training Program, Canadian Space Agency, the Polar Continental Shelf Program, Canada Research Chairs Program, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation.


Musicians really are sexier: Research


Carrying a guitar can increase the chances of you getting a date by a third, according to a study by researchers from the University of South Brittany.

The study found that women were 31% more likely to give their number to a man when he was empty-handed.

But this technique only works if you are a man, women are not seen any more or less attractive if they carry a musical instrument.

The study was led by professor Nicolas Gueguen, a researcher in behavioural sciences at the University. Gueguen hires a 20-year-old man to approach 300 women aged between 18 and 22 in a shopping centre in Brittany.

The man told each girl that they were ‘really pretty’ and asked for her phone number so they could arrange a date. For the first 100 women he was holding a sports bag. For the next 100 women he was approached them holding a guitar case. And for the final 100 women, the man asked them for their number without anything in his hands. When the actor was carrying the guitar case, 31% of the women gave them his number.