Biology Online is a Biology blog and dictionary site that provides up to date articles on the latest developments in biological science. The Biology Online Dictionary is a completely free and open dictionary with over 60,000 biology terms. It uses the wiki concept, so that anyone can make a contribution.

Category: Zoology

Hallucination – Are we the only ones “seeing” things or animals hallucinate, too?

Hallucination is defined as perceiving something that seems real but in fact it is not. Some references take it as a synonym for delusion. Both hallucination and delusion are a perception or belief that something seems real. However, the individual that experiences hallucination senses a vision, sound, or other perceptions later on denies it to be real based on evidence or logic. People with delusion, in contrast, believe something as real in spite of refuting evidence.  

hallucination
Hallucinations – a brain glitch – apparently could occur in animals, too. At least, according to a recent experiment on lab mice using optogenetics technique. [Img credit: Rick Harris (Flickr), by CC BY-SA 2.0]

Common causes of hallucination

Hallucination does not occur frequently. Nonetheless, it could be a common experience in individuals suffering from mental disorders like schizophrenia. Accordingly, >70% of those suffering from schizophrenia experience visual hallucinations whereas 60-90% believe they heard voices.[1] Additionally, other conditions that result in hallucinations include certain cases of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, migraines, brain tumor, and epilepsy. Apart from these conditions certain medications – called “hallucinogens”  — have also caused hallucinations. For example, “Lysergic acid diethylamide” drug causes hallucination, in particular, by acting on serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine [5-HT])-receptors.

High caffeine intake was also implicated to hallucinations. Accordingly, people who drink more than seven cups of instant coffee in a day turned out to be three times more likely to “hear voices” than those who drink less.[2] In this case, scientists explicated that high caffeine intake led to an increased cortisol (a stress hormone), which, in turn increased proneness to hallucinate.

People experiencing hallucinations may feel afraid from the perceptual experience. Seeing a vision like a seemingly floating light, hearing sounds like footsteps, or a crawling feeling on the skin that later on are construed as not real could really be scary.  

Neurobiological factors

Why does hallucination occur? In essence, hallucinations involve defects in the structure and function of the primary and secondary sensory cortices of the brain. In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, visual hallucinations are associated with grey and white matter abnormalities. “Seeing”, “hearing”, or “feeling” things is by chance spontaneous and also a transitory personal experience. Thus, understanding the biological phenomenon of hallucination remains a challenge to neurobiologists and scientists alike to this day.

Do animals hallucinate?

Do animals hallucinate, too? Scientists can hardly tell but studies implicate animal models such as lab mice making a head-twitch response (a hallucinatory behavior) when administered with hallucinogen.[3] However, some scientists argue it was not a compelling proof of such animals hallucinating.

Recently, though, a team of researchers from Stanford Medicine claim that they made lab mice hallucinate without injecting hallucinogen. Instead, they made use of optogenetics technique. In this case, they inserted light-sensitive genes into their brain. As a result, certain neurons tend to fire with particular light wavelengths. The genes would produce two types of proteins: one, causing neurons to fire when exposed to infared laser light and another, causing neurons to glow green when activated.[4]

The scientists, then, trained the mice to lick a water spout when exposed to a pattern of moving parallel lines (i.e. perfectly vertical or horizontal lines). Based on the green glow response of the visual cortex, the scientists knew which neurons were firing, thus responding. These neurons supposedly were the ones responsible for “seeing” the pattern of lines. [4,5]

Gradually, researchers dimmed the projections while triggering the target neurons with their special laser. Eventually, they stopped showing the line patterns and yet the mice would still lick the water spout when scientists hit the same target neurons with laser. The result therefore implies that the mice might have experienced “true hallucination”, seeing “ghost” line patterns.[5]

— written by Maria Victoria Gonzaga

References:

1  Fowler, P. (2015, August 27). Hallucinations. Retrieved from WebMD website: Link

2  Durham University. (2009, January 14). High Caffeine Intake Linked To Hallucination Proneness. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from Link

3  Can animals have hallucinations? – Quora. (2018). Retrieved from Quora.com website: Link

4  Stanford Medicine. (2019, July 18). Scientists stimulate neurons to induce particular perceptions in mice’s minds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from Link

5  Specktor, B. (2019, July 19). It’s a Mystery Why We Are Not Constantly Hallucinating, Trippy New Study Suggests. Retrieved from Live Science website: Link

Rabies pathobiology and its RNA virus agent – Lyssavirus

Having a dog as a pet presents myriad of benefits. One of them is having a companion reputed for being charismatic and loyal. Dogs, apparently, render a “cure” when melancholy “strikes“. However, there are repercussions to avoid or deal with when handling a dog. One of the most important concerns when domesticating a dog is preventing dog bites. Getting bitten by a dog is, in fact, how microbes could find their way through the skin.  Dogs, inopportunely, can be agents of medically-important diseases like rabies.

dog rabies
Dog infected with rabies

Rabies transmission

Rabies is a viral disease that is almost always deadly. It can be acquired chiefly through a single bite by an infective dog. One could also get it when a broken skin is exposed to infected saliva. Other potential routes include eyes, mouth, and nose. Nonetheless, not all dogs carry the virus causing the disease. Also, dogs are not the only ones that can transmit rabies virus. Most warm-blooded vertebrates (e.g. monkeys, raccoons, cattle, cats, bats, etc.) can carry the virus and transmit it to a human host. The virus has further adapted, and hence, could grow as well as in cold-blooded vertebrates.[1] However, because of the widespread domestication of dogs in human households dogs have consequently incited most rabies cases in humans.[2]  

Lyssavirus – the viral agent

The virus of rabies disease is a Lyssavirus, a type of RNA virus belonging to the family Rhabdoviridae, order Mononegavirales. It has a bullet shape. It carries a single negative-strand RNA as its genome, enough to code for proteins[3] — namely, nucleoprotein, phosphoprotein, matrix protein, glycoprotein, and RNA polymerase — to establish within the host cell.

Lyssavirus rabies virus
A coloured transmission electron micrograph of Australian bat lyssavirus (finger-like projections and the one that bud off from a host cell). Credit: Electron Microscopy Unit AAHL, CSIRO, CC 3.0 Unported license

In particular, the virus makes its way inside the host cell (e.g. muscle cell or nerve cell) through receptor binding and membrane fusion by way of endosome using its glycoprotein G. The virus transcribes its genome by its polymerase inside the endosome. Then, it fuses to the endosome to release its newly transcribed proteins and RNA into the cytosol.

The matrix protein regulates both transcription and replication of the virus. From transcribing, the polymerase shifts into replicating its genome. The nucleoprotein tightly binds to the newly replicated genome, thus, forming ribonucleoprotein complex. This, in turn, can now form new viruses.[4]

The virus performs transcription and replication processes via a specialized inclusion body referred to as the Negri body. In fact, the presence of Negri bodies in the cytoplasm of the host cell indicates histological proof of Lyssavirus infection.

Rabies – two types

Early symptoms of rabies disease include fever, discomfort, and paraesthesia (burning sensation at the bite site). Eventually, the symptoms progress to behavioral changes when the virus spreads to the central nervous system.

Lyssavirus enters and hijacks muscle cells to replicate. From the muscle tissue, it travels to the nervous system through the neuromuscular junctions.[5] The virus enters the peripheral nervous system directly and then spreads to the central nervous system where it can cause fatal inflammation in the brain and spinal cord.

Depending on the symptoms, the rabies may be described as “furious” or “paralytic“. The furious rabies — the more common form (80% [5]) — is characterized by hyperactivity, confusion, abnormal behavior, paranoia, terror, hallucinations, and hydrophobia (“fear of water“). The paralytic rabies, as the name implies, causes paralysis starting from the site of bite (or entry). Both of these types may lead to coma and eventually to death of the patient. However, patients with the furious type have higher risks, due to the likely cardio-respiratory arrest.[2]  Without an early and a proper medical intervention, death may ensue typically two to ten days after these symptoms manifest.

Rabies – pathobiology

How rabies causes behavioural changes baffles scientists. In 1980s and 1990s, researchers explicated how the virus caused paralysis. Accordingly, the glycoprotein at the cell surface of the Lyssavirus competes against acetylcholine in terms of binding affinities to specific muscle receptors (e.g. nicotinic acetylcholine receptors).[6] Lately, researchers conjectured that the virus could also be doing the same with the similar receptors found in the brain. Furthermore, they presumed that the interaction could have affected how the brain cells normally communicate, and thereby induced changes in the behavior of the host.[6] 

Further research

Recently, researchers from the Ohio State University College of Medicine and The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center conducted a study aimed at identifying dog breeds and physical traits that pose high risk of biting with severe injury.[7] Their data could provide empirical basis when deciding which dogs to own. Still, further studies on rabies are necessary since the disease is marked as fatal as soon as the clinical symptoms set in.[2]  Although vaccine-preventable, rabies, especially via a dog bite, remains a significant cause of annual deaths in humans, both young and old. Novel treatments and vaccines that are effective and economical could preclude death. At present, the staggering cost of treatment remains a major health-care restraint. Without the proper and early treatment, death from rabies, unfortunately, is almost always certain.

— written by Maria Victoria Gonzaga

References:

1 Campbell, J. B. & Charlton, K.M. (1988). Developments in Veterinary Virology: Rabies. Springer. p. 48. ISBN 978-0-89838-390-4.

2 World Health Organization (WHO). (2019, May 21). Rabies. Retrieved from Who.int website: [Link]

3  Finke, S. & Conzelmann, K. K. (August 2005). “Replication strategies of rabies virus”. Virus Res111 (2): 120–131. doi:10.1016/j.virusres.2005.04.004  

4 Albertini, A. A., Schoehn, G., Weissenhorn, W., & Ruigrok, R. W. (January 2008). “Structural aspects of rabies virus replication”. Cell. Mol. Life Sci65 (2): 282–294. doi:10.1007/s00018-007-7298-1

5 Newman, T. (2017, November 15). Rabies: Symptoms, causes, treatment, and prevention. Retrieved May 23, 2019, from Medical News Today website: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/181980.php

6 University of Alaska Fairbanks. (2017, October 11). How rabies can induce frenzied behavior: Researchers better understand the disease that kills 59,000 people annually. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from website: [Link]

7 The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. (2019, May 22). Study identifies dog breeds, physical traits that pose highest risk of biting children. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from website: [Link]

Regeneration in humans – Finding the gene switch

Regeneration in humans is much more limited compared in other animals. Say for instance when one lost a limb, much as well say goodbye to it for the rest of one’s life. Perhaps, it would be nice if we have higher capacity to regenerate many of our indispensable body parts, like head, limbs, and many other “regeneration-incapables”. Then probably, we might not have to worry much about losing any of them knowing that they will eventually re-grow in due time.

 

 

Regeneration vs. Healing

Humans have the capacity to regenerate. However, we have a very limited capabiltiy to restoring parts of our skin, hair, nails, fingertips, and liver. At the tissue level, surely we have dedicated cells to replace lost and damaged cells. For instance, our non-injured bone eventually replenishes into a full new bone but in a span of ten years. Our skin naturally renews but give it two weeks. The story swerves differently though in the case of an injury.

 

Rather than expending energy into having it replaced with a new one, our body directs its efforts into healing it. So when our skin is deeply damaged, our body fixes it with a scar. Tissue repair mechanisms such as wound healing aren’t really a snag. They forestall pathogenic microbes from using an injured body part as an easy gateway into our body. (Besides, we do have ample microbiota naturally thriving inside of us already) The main goal is to fix it efficaciously, with relatively less effort.

 

 

 

Natural regeneration in humans

In humans, the only tissue that regenerates naturally, consistently, and completely is the endometrium.1 After it slough-offs during a woman’s menstrual period, it grows back by re-epithelialization until the next period. Humans can also regenerate an injured liver provided that the restoration involves as little as 25% of the original liver mass. The liver can grow back to its original size but may not to its original shape. Damaged tubular parts of the kidney can also re-grow. The surviving epithelial cells undergo migration, dedifferentiation, proliferation, and re-differentiation to set a new epithelial lining of the tubule.

 

 

 

Animals with higher regeneration capacities

 

axolotl regeneration
Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) is one of the animals dubbed as masters of regeneration. It can grow back its limbs, even a heart, without a scar. [Photo credit: Mike Licht, Flickr]
 

 

Some animals have higher capacity to re-grow lost body parts. Sharks, skates, and rays can regenerate their kidneys. They can regrow an entire nephron, which humans cannot. A lizard would drop its tail as a mode of escape; its tail will be fully restored over time anyway. Sharks do not have qualms about losing teeth. They can replace any of them more than a hundred times in their lifetime. Axolotl can replace its broken heart. A starfish will once again be stellar upon the return of a lost arm. In fact, even its lost arm can fully regenerate into an entire starfish as long as the central nerve ring remains intact.2 A decapitated planarian worm needs not worry about losing its head; it can grow back, together with its brain, including the memories.2 Without a doubt, many of these animals are simply masters of their craft – regeneration.

 

 

Regeneration genes

Researchers from Harvard University published their new findings on whole-body regeneration capacity of the three-banded panther worm.3 They uncovered DNA switches that seemed to regulate genes that have a role in the regeneration process. Accordingly, they found a section of a non-coding DNA that controlled the activation of a master gene in which they called the “early growth response” (EGR) gene. When active, the EGR gene seemed like a power switch that turns on and off certain genes in the coding region during regeneration. On the contrary, when deactivated, no regeneration occurred.

 

Surprisingly, humans have EGR gene, too.  So why doesn’t it lead to greater regeneration capacities as it does in the three-banded panther worm? The researchers explained that while it works in the worm, it doesn’t work the same way in humans. The wiring may be different. The worm’s EGR gene may have germane connections that are absent in humans.

 

 

 

Switching the gene on

Regeneration in humans
Regeneration in humans is limited. If only we knew the switch that could amplify our regeneration capacity then we might not have to worry much about losing a body part. [Photo credit: Pete Johnson, Pexels]
 

 

Induced regeneration in humans is one of the goals of regenerative medicine. This field of medicine seeks new ways to give our regenerative capacity a boost. One of the ways is to look “molecularly”. Researchers are looking into the gene “Lin28a“. When active, this gene can reprogram somatic cells into embryonic-like stem cells. Accordingly, it has a role in tissue regeneration and recovery. However, the gene is naturally turned off in adults. Research in boosting our regenerative capacities is ongoing. Switching our organs from being regeneration-incapable to regeneration-capable may just be a matter of discovering the gene switch that could enhance regeneration capacity of humans.

 

 

— written by Maria Victoria Gonzaga

 

 

References:

1 Min, S., Wang, S. W., & Orr, W. (2006). “Graphic general pathology: 2.2 complete regeneration”Pathology. pathol.med.stu.edu.cn. Retrieved from [Link]

2  Langley, L. (2013, August 28). “Pictures: 5 Animals That Regrow Body Parts”. National Geographic News. Retrieved from [Link] ‌

 

Lurking beneath the ice

Scientists found dead tardigrades beneath the Antarctica based on their report published of recent.[1] It was a surprising discovery since tardigrades have acquired the mark as the tiny infinities. They are so resistant to extreme conditions that they are thought of as some sort of “immortals“. Nonetheless, scientists found remains of tardigrades, together with crustaceans in deep, frozen Antarctic lake.[1]

 

 

Antarctic Realm – The Cold Realm

 

Antarctic realm
The Antarctic biogeographic realm – the smallest of all realms.

 

The Antarctic is a region located in the southern-most tip of the Earth. The biogeographic realm that includes the Antarctic is called the Antarctic realm. A biogeographic realm refers to an area of land where similar organisms thrived and then evolved through periods of time in relative isolation.[2] It rouses extensive research with the paramount objective of understanding the extent of biodiversity, especially the distributional patterns of residing organisms and the biological evolutionary history incurred.

 

 

The Antarctic biogeographic realm is the smallest of all realms. It spans a total area of about 0.12 million square miles. Its components include the land area, the Antarctic tectonic plate, the ice in the waters, and the ocean itself. [2]  Because of the cold temperature, few floral species are able to persist and thrive. At present, around 250 lichens, 100 mosses, 25-30 livertworts, 700 algal species, and two flowering plant species (i.e. Antarctic hair grass and Antarctic pearlwort) inhabit the region. As for fauna, animal species include the penguinsseals, and whales.[2]

 

 

An Icy Surprise

 

tardigrade
Tardigrades . [Credit: Willow Gabriel, Goldstein Lab – https://www.flickr.com/photos/waterbears/1614095719/]
 

The discovery of the remains of tardigrades was unexpected, according to David Harnwood, a micropaleontologist. Late last year, Harnwood and his research team drilled a hole in the subglacial Lake Mercer. This frozen lake had been undisturbed for millennia.  Thus, their research project SALSA (Subglacial Antarctic Lakes Scientific Access) was the first to conduct direct sampling. They were absolutely surprised to find these water bears –frozen and dead.

 

Astounded, the animal ecologist, Byron Adams, conjectured that these tardigrades might have come from the Transantarctic Mountains, and then carried down to Lake Mercer. [1] Further, he said, “What was sort of stunning about the stuff from Lake Mercer is it’s not super, super-old. They’ve not been dead that long.”

 

 

Chilly Giants

mollivirus
“Mollivirus sibericum” found in Siberian permafrost.
[Credit: © IGS CNRS/AMU]
 

In September 2015, Jean-Michel Claverie and others reported two giant viruses (i.e. ”Pithovirus sibericum” and ”Mollivirus sibericum”) that they revived from a 30,000-year-old permafrost in Siberia.[3,5] Once revived, the viruses quickly became infectious to their natural hosts, the amoebae. [5] Luckily, these chilly giants do not prefer humans as hosts. Nonetheless, the melting of these frozen habitats could implicate danger to the public health when pathogens that can infect humans escape the icy trap.

 

 

A frozen Pandora’s Box

The frozen regions of the Earth hold so many astonishing surprises waiting to be “thawed”. In August 2016, a 12-year old boy from the Yamalo-Nenets region of Siberia died from anthrax. Reports included a few number of locals and thousands of grazing reindeer as well.[6] Prior to the anthrax outbreak, a summer heatwave caused the melting of the permafrost in the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic Circle. The thawing of the frozen soil unleashed anthrax bacteria presumed to have come from the carcass of their reindeer host that died over 75 years ago. Their release apparently reached the nearby soil, water, the food supply, and eventually their new hosts.[5] The anthrax bacteria survived because they form spores that can protect them during their dormancy.

 

 

 

A Hotter Earth

Global warming supposedly increases the average temperature of the Earth’s surface enough to cause climate change. Accordingly, the global surface temperature increased 0.74 ± 0.18 °C (1.33 ± 0.32 °F) during the last century. The temperature rise brings threat as it could lead to environmental changes that could cause adverse effects of massive magnitude. One of which is the destruction of habitats due to the subsequent rise of water level from the melting of ice. Deadly pathogens could rise again from their cold slumber and plausibly cause another major mass extinction in no time. So, while we try to explore the deeper mysteries lurking beneath the ice, we should also make sure that we remain a step ahead. Claverie[5] excellently put it:

The possibility that we could catch a virus from a long-extinct Neanderthal suggests that the idea that a virus could be ‘eradicated’ from the planet is wrong, and gives us a false sense of security. This is why stocks of vaccine should be kept, just in case.

 

 

— written by Maria Victoria Gonzaga

 

 

References:

 

1  Berman, R. (2019, January 18). Dead – yes, dead – tardigrade found beneath Antarctica. Retrieved from [link]

2  Pariona, A. (2018, May 18). What Are The Eight Biogeographic Realms? Retrieved from [link]

3 CNRS. (2015, September 9). New giant virus discovered in Siberia’s permafrost. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from [link]

4  ‌ Wikipedia Contributors. (2018, November 10). Antarctic realm. Retrieved from [link]

5  Fox-Skelly, J. (2017, January 1). There are diseases hidden in ice, and they are waking up. Retrieved from [link]

6  Russia anthrax outbreak affects dozens in north Siberia. (2016, August 2). BBC News. Retrieved from [link]

7  Biology-Online Editors. (2014, May 12). Biology Online. Retrieved from [link]

Sex Reversal – When Males Grew Ovaries Instead of Testes

Summary: Sex reversal is not unusual in some animals, especially in invertebrates. As for the vertebrates, there are reptiles and fish that can have their sex reversed under certain circumstances. Sex reversal in these animals is often driven by environmental and social factors. But how about mammals and humans whose gonads are fully differentiated and thereby permanent by the time they reach adulthood…? Can they, too, undergo sex reversal without going through any artificial intrusions? If so, up to what extent…?

 

 

 

Sex reversal occurring in nature

In a biological context, sex reversal pertains to the phenomenon in which the sex (gonadal and secondary sexual characteristics) of an organism is altered from one gender to another. This is fairly common among invertebrates, like a number of free-living nematodes. Within a given population, they can alter their gender – from male to female and vice versa. Less-favourable environmental conditions drive them to their sex reversal.1 Slipper-shell snails (Crepidula, sessile molluscan species) males are also capable of turning into females. Initially as a male when young, it changes into a female when a male sits close.2  Certain vertebrates are capable of sex reversal, too. For example, in a group of goby fish, the loss of an alpha male causes the largest female in the group to assume the role.3

 

 

 

Genetic factors in mammalian sex reversal

Sex reversal: sex-reversed male XY mouse (left) and female XX mouse (right). Credit: Greta Keenan, Francis Crick Institute.

 

In mammals, natural sex reversal is plausible, albeit genetically and during early gonadal development. It can occur even in humans but only among those with genetic tendencies.  Our gonadal plasticity is so limited that our gonadal sex is determined not by social or environmental factors but essentially by the activity of the existing sex chromosomes.  Typically, a male has one Y chromosome and one X chromosome; a female has two X chromosomes. Previously, people mistook the X chromosome as the sex-determiner. Proofs from subsequent studies, such as the discovery of the sex-determining region Y (SRY) gene normally located on the Y chromosome, debunked the notion. The SRY gene carries the code responsible for the synthesis of a protein that can initiate the development of the testes. If the SRY gene is dysfunctional or nonexistent the testes will not form. Hence, the protein it encodes for was named testis-determining factor (TDF).  In 1991, scientists successfully incited sex reversal on a mouse when introduced with SRY gene while still an embryo. Although it was chromosomally female to begin with, it eventually grew male gonads.4 Thus, in spite of the minuscule size and having fewer genes than the X chromosome, the Y chromosome is considered the key to determining the chromosomal sex owing to its SRY gene.

 

(Read a related article on Y chromosome: Men could go extinct? Y chromosome is slowly disappearing)

 

 

Junk DNA Enh13 in sex reversal

A research team from the Francis Crick Institute found yet another chromosomal piece that resulted in gonadal sex reversal in mice. It contained genes that were regarded as junk. Junk DNAs are called as such because they are noncoding genetic material. In human genome, a meager 2% codes for the building blocks of proteins crucial to life. The remaining percentage, which comprises the bulk, is deemed unnecessary, and therefore, dubbed as junk. Apparently, they do not code for proteins. Nevertheless, recent findings suggest that they, too, play an important role. The enhancer 13 (Enh13) exemplifies it. The researchers found that the lack of Enh13 in male mice led to their sex reversal. Instead of testes, the mice grew ovaries and female genitalia. 4 This could mean that the junk DNA Enh13 takes a crucial role in early gonadal development. Enh13 supposedly enhanced the production of SOX9 protein. SOX9 gene encodes for the SOX9 protein. The SOX9 gene does so when TDF proteins bind to the enhancer sequence upstream of the SOX9 gene. The more SOX9 proteins produced the more that the embryo will commit to developing into a male.

 

 

 

Impact of Enh13 findings on sex reversal

Dr. Nitzan Gonen, one of the researchers on the team, talked about the impact of their study on mammalian sex reversal. He said that so far they identified four enhancer regions and they were surprised how a single enhancer could control “something as significant as sex”.4 Their Enh13 findings could be used as a genetic basis to understanding sex reversals in humans and other mammals.

 

 

 

Sex reversal in mammals occurs but is not as extensive as that in other animals. Gonadal plasticity is confined during the time of embryonic development. Upon reaching adulthood, the gonads are already formed and will not change from one type to another. When both male and female gonads develop (in the case of intersexuality), usually, only one of them, or none, will be functional. Sex reversal in humans has also been reported. One such example is the case of two brothers and a paternal uncle from the U.K. They are outwardly and anatomically males but genetically females (with 46, XX karyotype).5 Genetic mutations might have been the underlying cause.  More studies on the molecular genetics of sex reversal could help provide insight as to the gender ambiguities in humans, which, unfortunately up to this day, have no clear genetic explanation.

 

 

— written by Maria Victoria Gonzaga

 

 

References:
1 Kent, G. C. (2018). Animal reproductive system: sponges, coelenterates, flatworms, and aschelminths. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/science/animal-reproductive-system/Sponges-coelenterates-flatworms-and-aschelminths#ref606936
2 Smith, N. G. (1999). Reproductive behavior. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/science/reproductive-behaviour-zoology/Reproductive-behaviour-in-invertebrates#ref497554
3 Wilson, M. (2013). Sex-reversal in adult fish. The Company of Biologists. Retrieved from http://thenode.biologists.com/sex-reversal-in-adult-fish/research/
4 The Francis Crick Institute. (2018). Non-coding DNA changes the genitals you’re born with. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/06/180614213729.htm
5 Cox, J. J., Willatt, L., Homfray, T., & Woods, C. G. (2011). A SOX9 Duplication and Familial 46, XX Developmental Testicular Disorder. N Engl J Med. 364 (1):91-93. doi: 10.1056/NEJMc1010311. Retrieved from https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc1010311

Tracking the migration of Whip-poor-will in Americas

Eastern whip-poor-will (Antrostomus vociferous) is continuously declining due to habitat loss and unavailability of insects for food. Little is known about whip-poor-will migration because of their nocturnal quite habit during non-breeding season. At high latitude 80% avian species are migratory wherein factors affecting migration includes predators, anthropogenic threats and pathogens. Migratory strategies allows individual to track seasonal changes mostly for temperate breeding aerial insectivores. However, population declines among temperate insectivore birds due to extreme weather condition, cost of migration and reliance on sensitive prey. In addition it is important to determine the migratory routes, year round habitat requirement and temporal constraints of threatened species.

 

Geolocator deployment of Whip-poor will

There were 20 males and 2 females of whip-poor-will have been tracked using geolocators in four regions of Canada. The study shows that this species breed more in northern part than southern breeding population and experienced different wintering conditions. Also a high migratory cost happens such as novel threats, energy expenditure and the ability to adjust time in tracking breeding ground condition.  In contrast, both eastern and western breeding individuals wintered together wherein mostly concentrated in Guatemala and some provinces of Mexico. However, male often have higher benefits of early arrival on the breeding grounds thus accept higher cost of wintering further. Additionally, early arrival on breeding grounds is more advantageous on whip-poor-will males allowing occupation on higher quality territories.

 

On the other hand female whip-poor-will forced to migrate further on lower latitude with less competition and more abundant resources. Most of this species travel overland through Mexico and Central America. However, only two individuals flights across portion of the Gulf of Mexico during autumn and spring. It just shows that this pattern is the response to prevailing winds and availability of resources along different route. Also more species migrating along Eastern North America, South and Central America over ocean flights during autumn. While in spring more species taking longer over land route around western side of the Gulf of Mexico.

 

Therefore, geolocators is helpful in identifying wintering areas, stopovers and migratory route of whip-poor-will. These migratory stopovers in the southeastern and central United States as well as in southern Mexico and Central America are both important for the whip-poor-will species. Finally, habitat protection and insect population might increase the number of these species despite pressures of long migrations and climate changes.

 

Source: Prepared by Joan Tura from Springer BMC Zoology

Volume 2:5, 2017

The Amazing Spider Dads

Humans are not the only fathers capable of giving it all for the sake of their progeny. The animal kingdom is teeming with fathers that are downright heroes.  For instance, male redbacks and dark fishing spiders would voluntarily throw themselves into the clutches of their mated female and eaten… never again to procreate or see the light of the ensuing days. This seems disturbing. How could mating be evolutionary costly for these unfortunate yet amazing spidey dads?

 

 

 

Sexual cannibalism of spider fathers

Sexual cannibalism. (Credit: Kumon, Flickr)

 

The mating of spiders in which the female eventually devours the male is one the most fascinating animal couplings. In this case, male spiders that engage in the rituals of courtship and copulation are likely dead fathers. Literally hungry for more, the females consume their mates in an act called sexual cannibalism. The devouring of another individual of the same species could occur before, during, or after copulation. The female spiders are usually the sexual cannibal, perhaps, because they are often larger than their male counterparts, and so, more physically dominating. Cannibal female spiders are often hostile and unenthused to mate. Thus, male spiders ought to be valiant to approach and fancy them with their moves. An impending death may be too much of a price to pay but these hopeless romantics are willing just so they can be fathers to their mate’s soon-to-be spiderlings.

 

 

 

Spider Fathers avoiding sexual cannibalism

Sexual cannibalism in spiders is real. However, not all spider dads end up harmed after mating.  Many male spiders, in fact, do not end up in the females’ gut. Not all female black widow spiders consume the fathers of their prospective spiderlings. Thus, the notion that all black widow females are sexual cannibals (hence, the “widow” on their name) is a misconception.1 There are also male spiders that came up with their own tricks. One fantabulous example is to play dead. By appearing stiff dead, male wolf spiders avoid ending up as a palatable snack after copulation.2  The apparent death trick is called thanatosis.

(Read: Thanatosis – faking death to escape doom)

 

 

Altruistic Spider Fathers

While certain spiders dodge sexual cannibalism, there are those that do not just welcome it but also incite it. These male spiders are the quintessential altruistic spider fathers. Male redbacks (Latrodectus hasseltii), for instance, encourage adult females to engage in sexual cannibalism. After inseminating the adult female, the male somersaults to bring his body close to her mouthparts like a cue saying “eat me now”. The female spider spits gut juice, and then feeds on him. If lucky enough to live after that, he returns to her, filling her with more sperm, plus a nutritious “meal”.  Eventually, he dies by succumbing to his injuries from slow cannibalism. Another example is the male dark fishing spider (Dolomedes tenebrosus). As if a befitting sacrifice to his female, the spider curls up with no hesitation. Thus, one may wonder: “Why would these male spiders sacrifice their life for a one-time sex?” It seems unsound and evolutionary counter-productive. Research3 on dark fishing spiders implicated that cannibalism improved offspring survival. Females that ate their spiderlings’ fathers had more surviving offspring than those that did not. The spider dads seem to possess unknown components that significantly boosted their offspring size, fitness, and survival.

Redback spider. (Credit: Ryan Wick, Flickr)

Dark fishing spider. (Credit: Charles de Mille-Isles, Flickr)

 

 

 

 

In essence, the self-sacrificing behavior of these spider fathers is a manifestation of how ready they are to die for the sake of their progeny. With the assurance that their genes are passed on to their offspring, they served a remarkable purpose as befitting fathers to their spiderlings even if it means acceding to sexual cannibalism.

 

 

 

— written by Maria Victoria Gonzaga

 

 

 

References:
1 Crawford, R. (2015). Myth: Black widows eat their mates. Retrieved from http://www.burkemuseum.org/blog/myth-black-widows-eat-their-mates
2 Seriously Science. (2016). Male spiders play dead to avoid “sexual cannibalism.” Retrieved from http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/seriouslyscience/2016/05/26/5406/
3 Choi, C. (2016). Journal Club: Self-sacrificing male spiders assist in their own cannibalism to aid offspring. Retrieved from http://blog.pnas.org/2016/10/journal-club-self-sacrificing-male-spiders-assist-in-their-own-cannibalism-to-aid-offspring/

Muscles of the Apes – a thwack on human muscle evolution

Summary: A recent finding suggests that apes do have the muscles for bipedalism, vocal communication, and facial expressions that were largely held exclusive to humans.

 

 

 

When Planet of the Apes hit the big screen, many of us thought it was a far-fetched display of what could have been if apes were able to act, speak, and think like humans do. Of course, it was a downright fictional movie and was great at that. What comes first to mind is the concept’s plausibility. In essence, humans possess the distinctive capabilities for vocal communication, facial expressions, and prolonged bipedalism that closely-related apes do not display. It seems that the apes lack the muscles purportedly “unique” to humans. However, this notion may be completely overturned. A recent finding suggests that apes do have the muscles for bipedalism, vocal communication, and facial expressions that were largely held exclusive to humans.

 

 

 

Human muscles lacking in apes?

How is it possible that humans can talk and walk but apes cannot? Is it because the apes do not have the necessary muscles? A long-held theory elucidates that apes cannot speak and walk like we do because they lack the muscles essential for vocal communication and full-time bipedalism. These muscles are dubbed as “uniquely human” since nobody has them but humans. Examples of these muscles are fibularis tertius (also called peroneus tertius, a lower limb muscle linked to effeicient bipedalism), musculus arytenoideus obliquus (or oblique arytenoid, a laryngeal muscle used for vocal communication), and risorius (a facial muscle involved in facial expression).1

The exclusively-human muscles helped, particularly, the modern human species, to veer away from an arboreal way of life. Our ancestors used to live above the ground on the trees just so they could evade predators and at the same time have access to food, such as fruits and insects. Eventually, they developed new habits. They expanded their food choices. They became skilled hunters. They enriched their social interactions. The pressure of a risky bipedal habit on the ground teeming with predators perhaps pushed our ancestors to living in groups. Soon, they acquired features that made them very well adapted to living life on the ground. One of them is muscle adaptations. For instance, humans evolved an opposable thumb that enabled multitasking and tool use. A full-time bipedal would also need to balance and center the force of gravity on two feet. Thus, a thigh bone with an inward slope down the knee eventually developed. This enabled the gluteal abductors to adapt efficiently to the stress. Apparently, humans lost certain features (such as the flexible plantaris muscle in foot essential for grabbing and gripping) but gained important attributes that helped thrive on the ground.

 

Muscles that were believed to be exclusive to humans but were also recently found in apes:
A. Risorius, a facial muscle involved in facial expression (in bright red)
B. Musculus arytenoideus obliquus, a laryngeal muscle used for vocal communication (see arrows)
C. Fibularis tertius also called peroneus tertius, a lower limb muscle linked to efficient bipedalism (in bright red)

 

 

Exclusively-human muscles found in apes

A study on ape anatomy1 published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution posits that the seven muscles linked to sophisticated vocal communication, facial expressions, bipedalism, and tool use once thought as “unique” to humans were present in apes as well. The muscles found in certain ape species even included fibularis tertius, musculus arytenoideus obliquus, and risorius.

The author, Rui Diogo, an Associate Professor at Howard University, USA refuted the long-held theory that such muscles are unique to humans. His findings contradicted this perception on human muscle evolution. He explicates, “Our detailed analysis shows that in fact, every muscle that has long been accepted as ‘uniquely human’ and providing ‘crucial singular functional adaptations’ for our bipedalism, tool use and vocal and facial communications is actually present in the same or similar form in bonobos and other apes, such as common chimpanzees and gorillas.”2

Due to the anatomical studies on apes are scarce, the long-held theory on exclusively-human muscles has not been defied with substantial empirical data but now.

In another study3 published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers looked at the molecular features of the muscle fibers of the thigh and calf muscles of an ape group, the chimpanzees (Pan spp.). They found out that the chimpanzees had twice more myosin heavy chain II (MHC II, also referred to as the fast-twitch fibers) in those muscle areas than humans. In contrast, humans had higher myosin heavy chain I (MHC I, also referred to as the slow-twitch fibers) content than the chimpanzees. Their findings indicate that our human ancestors seemingly traded off strength for endurance, which was more crucial in a life of roaming and foraging.

 

 

 

Many people believed that humans are far more superior than our ape relatives. Our sophisticated vocal communication, facial expression, and full-time bipedalism are simply unmatched. However, these studies point out that humans were not that grander. While we could be better in terms of endurance, some of the apes are indeed physically sturdier than us. They even have muscles that were previously thought as exclusive to us. In essence, we did lose certain physical attributes that our closely-related apes retained for their worth in an arboreal way of life. Even so, we gained a leeway to living life on the ground, which we could meekly consider a human milestone.

 

 

 

— written by Maria Victoria Gonzaga

 

 

 

 

References:
1 Diogo, R. (2018). First Detailed Anatomical Study of Bonobos Reveals Intra-Specific Variations and Exposes Just-So Stories of Human Evolution, Bipedalism, and Tool Use. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 6. DOI: 10.3389/fevo.2018.00053
2 Frontiers. (2018, May 23). ‘Uniquely human’ muscles have been discovered in apes: Apes also have muscles long-believed to be only present in humans and used for walking on two legs, using complex tools, and sophisticated facial and vocal communication. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/05/180523145842.htm
3 O’Neill, M.C., Umberger, B.R., Holowka, N.B., Larson, S.G., and Reiser, P.J. (2017). Chimpanzee super strength and human skeletal muscle evolution. PNAS , 114 (28): 7343-7348. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1619071114