Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Epigenetics: The Fusion of Nature and Nurture (A Guest Post)

A reposting of an original article by Tricia Horvath on August 14, 2013.

For decades scientists have been debating what makes a person who they are. Is someone’s personality, appearance, and medical history determined by their nature (their hardwired genes with the environment playing no role) or nurturing (how they were raised, and what they encountered in their environment growing up)? Many scientists were convinced that only one of these things, nature or nurture, could be responsible for determining a person’s fate. For instance, those who believed in nurture as the prevailing force thought that a person’s specific genes had nothing to do with how they behaved. Although ample evidence has been built up on both sides, scientists now know that the answer is actually both!

If you need convincing, just think about identical twins. Identical twins are genetic clones (all of their genes are exactly the same). These twins are very similar to each other in many ways such as physical appearance and personalities, even if they are separated at birth and raised apart from one another. However, anyone who has spent significant time with identical twins knows that each twin is their own person, and as they get older and spend less time together the personalities of the twins will continue to diverge. If nature (just genes) was in charge, identical twins would be the same in every respect. If nurture (just environment) was in charge, identical twins would be no more similar than any pair of siblings.

Genes are like pages in an
instruction manual for ourselves.
If genes are the pages in our
instruction manual, then DNA
is the actual book. Image by
tungphoto at freedigitalfotos.net.
So how is any of this possible? The answer lies in a field called epigenetics. Epigenetics studies how the environment interacts with genes to change their expression. Genes are like pages in an instruction manual for ourselves. In order for certain traits to be expressed, these genes/pages need to be read. If a gene cannot be read, then the trait it represents will not be expressed.

The environment plays a large role in determining which genes can be read, and therefore what traits are expressed. However, if a person does not have the genes for a specific trait (their book does not have those pages) that trait could never be expressed. For example, no matter how much time you spend in the water growing up, you will never grow a mermaid tail because you don’t have the genes for a mermaid tail. In this example, spending a lot of time in the water growing up would be part of your nurturing, and the lack of genes for a mermaid tail would be part of your nature. Even though having a mermaid tail would be beneficial in the water, the environment cannot interact with your genes to give you a mermaid tail because you simply don’t have the genes. Therefore epigenetics only works if you have the right genes.


How does epigenetics work?


DNA is the long strings of genetic material that are found in every cell (and every cell has exactly the same DNA). Genes are strung together on the DNA strings: If genes are the pages in our instruction manual, then DNA is the actual book. Each gene has a section with “read” or “don’t read” signs. The gene will be read, or not read depending on which of these signs is showing. The environment can determine which genes are read (and therefore which traits are expressed) by covering up these signs.
You’re less likely to stop if you don’t see the sign.
Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli at Flickr.

The first player in covering up one of these signs is a methyl mark. Methyl marks are little chemical tags that get attached to certain parts of DNA. Methyl marks have two jobs. First, they partially cover up one of the signs (“read” or “don’t read”). Second, they help attract proteins that can help completely cover up the sign.

Before we talk about these other factors, it is important to understand a few structural aspects of DNA. DNA exists in cells loosely wrapped around proteins called histones. This looks like beads (histones) on a string (DNA). DNA wraps around histones easily because DNA is negatively charged and histones are positively charged, and oppositely charged things attract one another. (Think about magnets that stick together when the opposite poles are facing each other, but repel each other when the same poles are facing each other.) In order to keep the DNA from wrapping too tightly around the histones, acetyl groups are added to the histones. Acetyl groups cover up the positive charges on the histones. This makes the histones less positively charged so they don’t attract the DNA as strongly. (This would be like making one of the magnets less strong. It is easier to pull apart two magnets that aren’t strongly attracted to each other.)

This diagram of epigenetic mechanisms is by NIH at Wikimedia Commons.

When methyl marks are present on DNA they attract proteins that remove the acetyl groups. This causes the DNA to wrap around the now more positively-charged histones very tightly. (The magnet is stronger now). When a whole section of a gene becomes wound up this tightly it leads to a complete covering up of the “read” or “don’t read” sign. Sometimes this can also happen on part of the gene that would normally be read (the actual page of the instruction manual). If enough of the gene is covered up by the DNA wrapping too tightly around the histones, then the gene cannot be read (imagine if there was a large object covering the page you wanted to read in the instruction manual).

Once a “read” or “don’t read” sign is covered up, it is not necessarily covered up for the rest of your life. Instead, the environment can remove methyl marks from DNA and add acetyl groups back onto the histones (covering up the positive charge on the histones, making them attract the DNA less strongly). This would uncover the sign and allow it to be read once more.

All of this means that traits (including behavior) may be influenced by both genes and the environment. Although the genes we are born with only make it possible for us to express certain traits, our environment helps determine which of those traits are actually expressed. If our environment changes, the traits we express can change! Because we can change our environments, we have the power to change ourselves!

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Exploring How Predators Hunt

By Jon Clark

A "Lion King" in his natural habitat. Photo by Jon Clark.
Predatory animals are a huge obsession for most children at some point. From that picture book about the cool T-Rex to watching “The Lion King” millions of times, we’re fascinated with the kings of the food chain. And let’s be honest, even as adults they’re still pretty neat to us. Why else take a grand safari adventure to see lions and other animals in their natural habitat? So to fuel that curiosity, below is a guide to how predators hunt. It might just help you understand animal movements and behavior for watching wildlife.


The basics of how predators hunt


Predators are, of course, animals that feed on other animals. These predators rely on the flesh of other animals as a resource for their survival and are highly skilled at finding and catching it. Predators sit at the top of a delicate food web, all components of which fit together to keep the environment balanced over time.

Different types of predators have four main hunting strategies for finding their prey. According to an article from Idaho Public Television, they are:

  • Chase: Think of an eagle diving for a mouse. This is chase behavior in predators. This method requires a delicate balance of hunting down food that provides enough energy and nutrition to offset the energy cost of running that food source down.

  • Stalk: For this method, think of an egret or crane standing motionless or walking slowly in water, and then lunging as a tasty morsel goes by. This method is a huge time sink for the animal as it moves from cover to cover getting incrementally closer to it’s prey. It also takes far less energy, however, as only a small burst of speed is required at the end. This means that these predators can often live off of smaller prey. 

  • Ambush: Lion researcher, George Schaller, watched a group of gazelles in the Serengeti. In order to access water, there was a patch of thick brush they would need to cross. As the gazelles entered the brush, Schaller watched as the lions hiding in wait, instantly ambushed and ate one of the gazelles. Due to their long manes and tan color, lions are nearly undetectable in such cover. The ambush requires a great deal of time, as it relies on other animals to wander into the area. For predators that have the patience, the success rates are quite high.

  • Teamwork: Think of wolves working as a pack to take down a deer. This is one of the most exciting ways of how predators hunt. Teamwork allows the animals to pursue large and fast prey, scoring large amounts of food for the group. This is arguably one of the most successful tactics as seasoned hunters can quickly steer their prey in the direction of the other party. Additionally, the energy required for the chase and kill can be dispersed across the collective group. 


Lions on the hunt


One of the coolest and most popular things to see on a safari is a lion in its own natural habitat. This mighty “King of the Jungle” hunts both independently and as part of groups. Lions hunt some of the fastest animals in the world, like the wildebeest, which can run at speeds of 50 mph. Lions themselves are not incredibly fast, so they’ve had to get smart through a variety of hunting strategies.

Because lions are also relatively lazy animals, they tend to eat larger animals – which sustain them for longer periods. These animals include antelopes, zebras and wildebeest.

A lioness. Photo by Jon Clark.

The female lionesses hunt the most often for both themselves and for the males. A lioness will stalk from cover to cover to get close to the prey animal, and then pounce at the last minute. Their prey usually has slower reaction times, so this is a solid method. If the prey sees them, the lion will act innocent by sitting up and staring off into the distance, as if to say, “I wasn’t doing anything.”

Another method lions use is to find a bush near where the prey goes often, like a watering hole, and wait until they can strike. Lions have been known to actually nap while awaiting their deadly ambush.

To catch large or fast prey, lions leverage their group numbers to help each other cut off the escape of fleeing prey. When lions decide to hunt in pairs and groups their success rate goes up from about 18 percent to 30 percent while hunting alone and in daylight, according to the African Lion & Environmental Research Trust.

When hunting in groups, lions stalk in a pattern to encircle the prey. Then some attack, driving the prey to other waiting lions. As the prey animal tires from the constant running, one or two lionesses will try to jump on the back of the animal or hang by their claws from a zebra's or gnu's or buffalo's back. This certainly makes it very hard for the poor animal to run away from the next lion, who goes for the throat to complete the hunt. It’s one of the smartest and most effective ways for how predators hunt.

Hungry cubs waiting for lunch. Photo by Jon Clark.

Lions are known for their advanced hunting skills and have mastered the art of teamwork in all of their hunting strategies, including chasing, stalking, and ambushing their prey. Embarking on an African safari will be your best chance to experience these master hunters in real life.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Why Ask for Directions? (A Guest Post)

A reposting of an original article by Anna Schneider on Feburary 8, 2016.

For the iconic monarch butterfly, the shorter days in fall mean it’s time to pack up and head south to a warmer climate! Just like clockwork, the Eastern population of monarch butterflies makes a 2000 mile journey to their winter paradise roosts in central Mexico. The journey in itself is one of the greatest migrations among all animals.

But here’s the catch: none of these butterflies has made this trip before. Several generations of monarchs have come and gone over the course of a summer, but the generation born in late August and early September are genetically prepared for months of survival without feeding or breeding. But their predecessors didn’t exactly leave them with a map. How do they know where to go? Do they have a map and compass inside their heads? The answer: yes! Well, sort of…

Think about this: if you were lost in the woods and needed to find south, what would you do? Here’s a hint: look up! The sun can be a great resource when you’re lost, and I’m not talking about just asking it for directions. As the Earth rotates on its axis throughout the day, the sun appears to travel overhead. By knowing approximately what time of day it is, you can determine the cardinal directions. Monarchs use specialized cells or organs called photoreceptors that respond to light to establish the position of the sun.

Representation of time compensated sun compass orientation used by monarchs;
Image created by Anna Schneider.
Until recently, it was thought that monarchs simply used the photoreceptors on the top portion of their compound eyes, called the dorsal rim. Past studies have shown that the signals are passed from the photoreceptors on to the “sun compass” region in their brains and the butterflies change direction based on that information. Like most animals, it was assumed that their internal clock was located inside their brains. However, recent research has demonstrated that individuals whose antennae have been painted or removed altogether become disoriented when placed in flight simulators. These monarchs do not adjust for the time of day when trying to fly south. When those same antennae that were removed were placed in a petri dish, they continued to respond to light and showed signs that they continued the pattern of time. This indicates that antennae and the brain are both needed for the monarchs to correctly determine their direction.

Diagram of features on the head of a monarch butterfly; Image created by Anna Schneider.
Now, estimating which way is South might be fine and dandy on a bright sunny day, but what happens when it’s cloudy? Not a problem for these super-insects! In another recent study, researchers tethered monarchs to flight simulators and altered the magnetic field conditions to see what would happen. When the magnetic field was reversed so magnetic North was in the opposite direction, the butterflies altered their bearings and flew exactly opposite as well. This suggests that monarchs could have some sort of way to detect the earth’s magnetic field, called magnetoreception, which could enhance the photoreception capabilities.

Many of the mechanisms behind the migration of these incredible creatures are yet to be discovered, but much progress has been made in the past decade. So next time you see a monarch butterfly, take a second look. There is more than meets the eye.

Sources:

Gegear, R., Foley, L., Casselman, A., & Reppert, S. (2010). Animal cryptochromes mediate magnetoreception by an unconventional photochemical mechanism Nature, 463 (7282), 804-807 DOI: 10.1038/nature08719

Guerra, P., Gegear, R., & Reppert, S. (2014). A magnetic compass aids monarch butterfly migration Nature Communications, 5 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms5164

Merlin, C., Gegear, R., & Reppert, S. (2009). Antennal Circadian Clocks Coordinate Sun Compass Orientation in Migratory Monarch Butterflies Science, 325 (5948), 1700-1704 DOI: 10.1126/science.1176221

Steven M. Reppert. The Reppert Lab: Migration. University of Massachusetts Medical School: Department of Neurobiology.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Summer Break!

The school year is winding down and summer will soon be upon us. The Scorpion and the Frog is on break, but we'll be back with more animal stories in September! Enjoy the small moments... like this adorable baby elephant at the beach for the first time:



Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Reduce Stress with this Animal Behavior Meditation

A reposting of an original article from March 21, 2012.

In a search for the promised inner peace and tranquility of meditation, I attended a meditation class at a local yoga studio. In a room with dim fluorescent lights and an artificial wood floor I laid on my back on my yoga mat, sandwiched between a fidgety woman who kept her smartphone on the edge of her mat and a man whose stress had apparently resulted in a flatulence problem. I was told to close my eyes, breathe deeply, and think about nothing. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and thought: “How do I think about nothing?” I thought about black. “Does black count as nothing? Wondering if I’m thinking about nothing is definitely not nothing. Am I doing this wrong? Is this going to work? If this isn’t going to work, I’m just wasting my time. I could be working through my to-do list right now. Oh! I forgot to put laundry on my to-do list. Oh, right… think about nothing. Black?


This ring-tailed lemur has found her inner peace - Can you find yours?
Photo by Margaret at Wikimedia Commons

It was years later that I realized that meditation doesn’t have to be so painfully contrived. I do it all the time naturally. Maybe you do too. We just have to nurture those moments. Here’s one way to do it:

1) Go to a place where you have seen at least one animal in the recent past. Maybe you saw a squirrel or a songbird in that tree in your yard. Maybe you saw fish in the creek you pass over on your way to school. Maybe there’s an occupied spider web in the corner. Maybe you have a favorite spot at the local zoo or aquarium. Go there. Don’t worry if there is an animal there now or not.

2) Sit down in a comfortable position and take a deep breath. Look around and take in your surroundings. Feel the environmental conditions. Listen to the sounds around you. Wait and observe. If you’re quiet, they will come.

3) When an animal shows up, focus on it. If multiple animals show up, pick one to be your focal animal. Observe every possible detail of your focal animal: What does it look like? Does it have any markings? What is it doing? How does it position itself with respect to its surroundings? What is its posture? How does it respond to changes in its surroundings?

4) Allow your mind to wander into your focal animal’s world (or umwelt). How do you think your focal animal perceives its surroundings?

5) Allow your mind to ponder explanations and consequences of your focal animal’s behavior.

6) Continue for as long as you can keep your mind focused on your animal, or until you have somewhere else you are supposed to be.

Try this out for yourself, and then let us know what you experienced!