Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Smell of Fear

A repost of an original article from October 24, 2012.

Several animals, many of them insects, crustaceans and fish, can smell when their fellow peers are scared. A kind of superpower for superwimps, this is an especially useful ability for prey species. An animal that can smell that its neighbor is scared is more likely to be able to avoid predators it hasn’t detected yet.

Who can smell when you're scared? Photo provided by Freedigitalphotos.net.

“What does fear smell like?” you ask. Pee, of course.

I mean, that has to be the answer, right? It only makes sense that the smell of someone who has had the piss scared out of them is, well… piss. But do animals use that as a cue that a predator may be lurking?

Canadian researchers Grant Brown, Christopher Jackson, Patrick Malka, Élisa Jaques, and Marc-Andre Couturier at Concordia University set out to test whether prey fish species use urea, a component of fish pee, as a warning signal.

A convict cichlid in wide-eyed
terror... Okay, fine. They're
always wide-eyed. Photo by
Dean Pemberton at Wikimedia.

First, the researchers tested the responses of convict cichlids and rainbow trout, two freshwater prey fish species, to water from tanks of fish that had been spooked by a fake predator model and to water from tanks of fish that were calm and relaxed. They found that when these fish were exposed to water from spooked fish, they behaved as if they were spooked too (they stopped feeding and moving). But when they were exposed to water from relaxed fish, they fed and moved around normally. Something in the water that the spooked fish were in was making the new fish act scared!

To find out if the fish may be responding to urea, they put one of three different concentrations of urea or just plain water into the tanks of cichlids and trout. The cichlids responded to all three doses of urea, but not the plain water, with a fear response (they stopped feeding and moving again). The trout acted fearfully when the two highest doses of urea, but not the lowest urea dose or plain water, were put in their tank. Urea seems to send a smelly signal to these prey fish to “Sit tight – Something scary this way comes”. And the more urea in the water, the scarier!

But wait a minute: Does this mean that every time a fish takes a wiz, all his buddies run and hide? That would be ridiculous. Not only do freshwater fish pee a LOT, many are also regularly releasing urea through their gills (I know, gross, right? But not nearly as gross as the fact that many cigarette companies add urea to cigarettes to add flavor).

The researchers figured that background levels of urea in the water are inevitable and should reduce fishes fear responses to urea. They put cichlids and trout in tanks with water that either had a low level of urea, a high level of urea, or no urea at all. Then they waited 30 minutes, which was enough time for the fish to calm down, move around and eat normally. Then they added an additional pulse of water, a medium dose of urea, or a high dose of urea. Generally, the more urea the fish were exposed to for the 30 minute period, the less responsive they were to the pulse of urea. Just like the scientists predicted.

A rainbow trout smells its surroundings.
Photo at Wikimedia taken by Ken Hammond at the USDA.

But we still don’t know exactly what this means. Maybe the initial dose of urea makes the fish hide at first, but later realize that there was no predator and decide to eat. Then the second pulse of urea may be seen by the fish as “crying wolf”. Alternatively, maybe the presence of urea already in the water masks the fishes’ ability to detect the second urea pulse. Or maybe both explanations are true.

Urea, which is only a small component of freshwater fish urine, is not the whole story. Urea and possibly stress hormones make up what scientists refer to as disturbance cues. Steroid hormones that are involved in stress and sexual behaviors play a role in sending smelly signals in a number of species, so it makes sense that stress hormones may be part of this fearful fish smell. But fish also rely on damage-released alarm cues and the odor of their predators to know that a predator may be near. Scientists are just starting to get a whiff of what makes up the smell of fear.

Want to know more? Check these out:

1. Brown, G.E., Jackson, C.D., Malka, P.H., Jacques, É., & Couturier, M-A. (2012). Disturbance cues in freshwater prey fishes: Does urea function as an ‘early warning cue’ in juvenile convict cichlids and rainbow trout? Current Zoology, 58 (2), 250-259

2. Chivers, D.P., Brown, G.E. & Ferrari, M.C.O. (2012). Evolution of fish alarm substances. In: Chemical Ecology in Aquatic Systems. C. Brömark and L.-A. Hansson (eds). pp 127-139. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

3. Brown, G.E., Ferrari, M.C.O. & Chivers, D.P. (2011). Learning about danger: chemical alarm cues and threat-sensitive assessment of predation risk by fishes. In: Fish Cognition and Behaviour, 2nd ed. C. Brown, K.N. Laland and J. Krause (eds). pp. 59-80, Blackwell, London.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Caught in My Web: Mind-Altering Substances

Image by Luc Viatour at Wikimedia Commons
Drunken birds have gone viral this week! For this edition of Caught in My Web, we wonder if animals alter their mental states like people do.

1. Drunk Minnesotan birds are flying into windows! At least that is what the viral story says. But the truth may be a bit more measured. As the Police Chief of Gilbert, Minnesota says, “It sounds like every bird in our town is hammered, and that’s not the case.” Read the real story here.

2. But do wild animals really drink alcohol? Not in the way that we do, maybe, but many consume overly fermented fruits. Some have developed a tolerance to the high alcohol content, others, not so much. Just ask this poor drunk moose that got herself stuck in a tree after eating too many fermented apples.

3. But it’s not just fermented fruits that get animals drunk. Some fish can make their own alcohol to help them survive a long winter under the ice.

4. What about the effects of other mind-altering substances on animals? Ever wonder what kind of web a spider would make on different drugs? In 1948, a zoologist at the University of Tubingen in Germany by the name of H.M. Peters did.

5. Octopuses are normally very solitary creatures… that is, unless they are given ecstasy. Apparently, even octopuses seek social interactions when they take the common party drug.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Friends Without Benefits: A Guest Post

A reposting of an original article by Joseph McDonald

Do you want to avoid the friend zone?
Photo by freedigitalphotos.net.
Guys DREAD the friend zone. That heart-aching moment when the girl you’ve been fawning over for years says you’re the best listener, the sister she never had, or so much better than a diary! You’ve been so nice to her and her friends, listening to all their drama. But that’s just the problem... you’re too nice to too many people.

Research performed by Aaron Lukaszewski and Jim Roney at the University of California – Santa Barbara (UCSB) tested whether preferences for personality traits were dependent on who the target was. In Experiment 1, they asked UCSB undergrads, on a scale from 1 to 7, the degree to which their ideal partner would display certain traits towards them and towards others. These traits included synonyms for kindness (e.g. affectionate, considerate, generous, etc.), trustworthiness (committed, dependable, devoted, etc.), and dominance (aggressive, brave, bold, etc.). Experiment 2 replicated the procedures of Experiment 1. The only difference was that the term “others” was divided into subsets including unspecified, family/friends, opposite sex non-family/friend, and same-sex non-family/friend.

Let’s go over the do’s and don’ts so that future “nice guys” aren’t friend zoned. According to the findings, as graphed below:

Figure from Aaron and Jim's 2010 Evolution and Human Behavior paper.
1. Women generally prefer men who are kind and trustworthy. So, to get that girl, don’t be mean; that’s not the point. This isn’t 3rd grade so don’t pull her hair and expect her to know that you LIKE-like her.

2. Women prefer men who are kinder and more trustworthy towards them than anyone else. So it’s not so much whether you are nice enough, its whether she knows you are nicer to her than anyone else.

3. Women prefer men who display similar amounts of dominance as they do kindness. Dominance isn’t a bad thing, as long as you can distinguish her friends from her foes; especially her male friends.

4. To make things more complicated, women also prefer men who are directly dominant toward other men but don’t display dominance toward them or their family/friends, whether male or female. Some guys may want to befriend these other men, but be weary. Women preferred dominance over kindness in this situation, so kindness may not be enough.

These preferences may have developed to avoid mating with someone willing to expend physical and material resources for extramarital relationships, and invest greater in her and the children. Moderate kindness and trustworthiness toward others will maintain social relationships and prevent detrimental relationships, which may be why women generally prefer kind and trustworthy guys. But in all fairness, women can be in the friend zone too; just look at Deenah and Vinny (excuse the shameful Jersey Shore reference).

There are some things that guys look for in a mate, so ladies, here is a little advice:

1. Guys generally want a mate who is kind and trustworthy, too. We’re not that different; so don’t act a little crazy because you think he likes it. He doesn’t.

2. Guys also prefer women who display dominance toward other women (non- family/friend). Don’t be afraid to put that random girl with the prying eyes in her place.

Contrary to the hypotheses predicting female mate preferences, male mate preferences may have developed as a way to take advantage of strong female-based social hierarchies. No matter what the reasoning, however, if you can
1) be kinder and more trustworthy towards that special someone than anyone else and
2) display dominance over other same-sex people, then feel free to say good-bye to the friend zone!

For further details, check out the original experiment:

Lukaszewski, A., & Roney, J. (2010). Kind toward whom? Mate preferences for personality traits are target specific Evolution and Human Behavior, 31 (1), 29-38 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2009.06.008

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Caught in My Web: We Are Primates

Image by Luc Viatour at Wikimedia Commons
If the news cycle these days has you wondering about our own humanity, take a moment to reflect on our primate nature. For this edition of Caught in My Web, let's explore primate behavior in the news.

1. Elizabeth Preston at Discover writes about lemur "stink flirting" in High-Ranking Male Primates Keep Wafting Their Sex Stink at Females, Who Hate It.

2. Janelle Weaver discusses how primates grant favors for their own social benefit at Nature in Monkeys Go Out on a Limb to Show Gratitude.

3. Roxanne Khamsi at NewScientist reports that Envious Monkeys Can Spot a Fair Deal.

4. Writing for The Verge, Angela Chen explains how we discovered that bonobos prefer to befriend bullies in For Bonobos, Nice Guys Finish Last.

5. In Those Lying Apes, Dale Peterson of Psychology Today discusses chimpanzee deception.

Sound familiar?

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!