Natura Nihil Frustra Facit

Nature does nothing in vain.

I love collecting interesting side-facts from our lectures and want to share them here as some kind of off-topic goodie.

The work of cognition researches influences the protection status of species.
How “intelligent” a species is perceived factors into their protection status – some, like dolphins or primates, are sometimes granted a higher protection that what their endagerment would suggest because of this (click here for some input). It’s also easier to enforce that protection if the general public cares, and caring is easier when we see similarities between us and the species in question (i.e. “intelligence”). That’s why some of my colleagues argue that we have to take that into account when designing and experimental setup. Specifically when there’s a chance that the species might be clever enough to pass the test but is prevented to do so by a badly designed apparatus for example. That’s one side of it.
Another side of it is that a lab that dedicates itself to the investigation of the social system and cognition of pigs was strictly forbidden to call itself the “clever pig lab”.
And another is that dogs and rats are still widely used in labs, despite evidence that rats are capable of showing empathy and pro-social behaviour. They also laugh when being tickled.
[From a conversation I overheard at our lab. To my defence, the people involved are highly respected researchers.]

Size doesn’t matter all that much, at least when it comes to brains.
In the early days of brain research, the size of a brain was considered to be the criterion for its processing power. That’s not the whole truth, though. As we saw earlier with bird brains, organization matters too – as do bodysize and the number of synapses. The latter is the most important aspect: a single neuron, with its cell body and dendrites and axons, isn’t worth much. Our processing power comes from the connectivity of our millions upon millions of neurons, and which way the electric signal takes. That’s where our intelligence, behaviour and memories are.
[Taken from: VO Basics of Neurobiology]

The Homo sapiens sapiens is an incredibly young species.
Lots of people have problems with imagining long periods of time. I always run into this when discussing evolution related things with my friends who are studying economics or law or informatics. One of my professors made a neat little analogy that will come in handy if this ever comes up again (and I’m sure it will): “The earth is 4.6 billion years old. But it’s hard to imagine that. Let’s say the world is 46 years old. Humans would be around for roughly four hours. Industrialization for one minute.”
[Taken from: Microbes, marine snow and the carbon cycle in the deep oceans – old paradigms and recent findings; Talk at UniVie; May 6th, 2015]

Our retina has a curious origin.
“The retina is actually a part of the brain; it was just relocated to the periphery.”
[Taken from: VO Physiology of Senses]

Your body is a wonderland… for microbes. There’s lots of life in us!
“More microbial than human. Our body is an ecosystem for ten times more microbial cells than human cells.”
[Taken from: Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Vienna booklet; p. 39]

There’s an all-female species of lizards.
There’s an all-female species of lizards, called the Desert Grassland Whiptail lizard (Aspidoscelis uniparens; unus – one, parens – parents/mother/father, so essentially having one parent). They reproduce without male fertilization via parthenogenesis. The individuals are triploid (they have three copies of their genetical information; humans have two) and originally came to be through hybridization of other species. If their estrogen levels are high, they behave like females; if their estrogen levels are low, they behave like males. They need this pseudo-dichotomy, because without “copulation” there’s no ovulation in the “females” – and no parthenogenesis.
[Taken from: VO Behavioural Ecology]

The scent of others may help us determine immunological compatibility.
The MHC is a curious thing. It’s a cell-surface protein that’s part of our immune system first and foremost, but it’s also possible that it has an effect on our mate choice.
The theory goes like this: Evolution favours genetic variability in our immune systems. More genetic variability means better protection against a variety of parasites and illnesses. When MHC proteins are shed from cells, they are dispensed in our bodily fluids and thus contribute to our unique body odour. That’s not simply the smell of sweat – it’s a little like a smell-fingerprint. Our noses can percieve these chemicals (pheromones) and our brains are apparently able to gain information through them. It’s even possible that immunological incompatibility leads to problems concerning the fertilization of the female egg.
Person whose MHC is different from yours = smell is percieved as pleasant
Person whose MHC is similar to yours = smell is percieved as unpleasant
Ever met someone you immediately couldn’t stand but really found no reason why? Maybe it was their smell. (It’s even possible that this is part of the reason siblings fight with each other.)
As always: It’s not quite as easy as that. But it’s still worth noting.
[Taken from: VO Behavioural Ecology; You can read up on the topic here.]

Bird brains are actually more efficiently organized than ours.
For a long time, scientists believed that, because the brains of birds are almost free of sulci (furrows), they can’t be intelligent – their net brain surface is small in comparison.
Well, there’s a reason for that! While our brain is organized in layers (grey substance = neuronal cell bodies on the outside, white matter = axons on the inside), bird brains are organized in a “nuclear” way. This means that birds have no need for all those “cables” inside; they use the little space they have much more efficiently than we do. That’s how it’s possible that smart birds like Alex taught us so many lessons.
[Taken from: VO Current Topics in Cognitive Biology; Are Corvids Feathered Apes?]

Mosquitos are attracted by the CO2 we exhale.
That’s right! It’s a common thing around here to believe that they are attracted by the smell of blood of the warmth of our bodies, but it’s actually our breath that acts as a cue for the little beasts.
[Taken from: VO Biology of Cognition; Animal Signals and Communication]