Bunch of new, cool stuff in PLoS ONE today – here are the titles that piqued my curiosity (and you know the spiel: rate, note, comment, trackback):
We describe new cranial and post-cranial marsupial fossils from the early Eocene Tingamarra Local Fauna in Australia and refer them to Djarthia murgonensis, which was previously known only from fragmentary dental remains. The new material indicates that Djarthia is a member of Australidelphia, a pan-Gondwanan clade comprising all extant Australian marsupials together with the South American microbiotheres. Djarthia is therefore the oldest known crown-group marsupial anywhere in the world that is represented by dental, cranial and post-cranial remains, and the oldest known Australian marsupial by 30 million years. It is also the most plesiomorphic known australidelphian, and phylogenetic analyses place it outside all other Australian marsupials. As the most plesiomorphic and oldest unequivocal australidelphian, Djarthia may approximate the ancestral morphotype of the Australian marsupial radiation and suggests that the South American microbiotheres may be the result of back-dispersal from eastern Gondwana, which is the reverse of prevailing hypotheses.
Animals have been hypothesized to benefit from pendulum mechanics during suspensory locomotion, in which the potential energy of gravity is converted into kinetic energy according to the energy-conservation principle. However, no convincing evidence has been found so far. Demonstrating that morphological evolution follows pendulum mechanics is important from a biomechanical point of view because during suspensory locomotion some morphological traits could be decoupled from gravity, thus allowing independent adaptive morphological evolution of these two traits when compared to animals that move standing on their legs; i.e., as inverted pendulums. If the evolution of body shape matches simple pendulum mechanics, animals that move suspending their bodies should evolve relatively longer legs which must confer high moving capabilities. We tested this hypothesis in spiders, a group of diverse terrestrial generalist predators in which suspensory locomotion has been lost and gained a few times independently during their evolutionary history. In spiders that hang upside-down from their webs, their legs have evolved disproportionately longer relative to their body sizes when compared to spiders that move standing on their legs. In addition, we show how disproportionately longer legs allow spiders to run faster during suspensory locomotion and how these same spiders run at a slower speed on the ground (i.e., as inverted pendulums). Finally, when suspensory spiders are induced to run on the ground, there is a clear trend in which larger suspensory spiders tend to run much more slowly than similar-size spiders that normally move as inverted pendulums (i.e., wandering spiders). Several lines of evidence support the hypothesis that spiders have evolved according to the predictions of pendulum mechanics. These findings have potentially important ecological and evolutionary implications since they could partially explain the occurrence of foraging plasticity and dispersal constraints as well as the evolution of sexual size dimorphism and sociality.
Climate warming is causing environmental change making both marine and terrestrial organisms, and even humans, more susceptible to emerging diseases. Coral reefs are among the most impacted ecosystems by climate stress, and immunity of corals, the most ancient of metazoans, is poorly known. Although coral mortality due to infectious diseases and temperature-related stress is on the rise, the immune effector mechanisms that contribute to the resistance of corals to such events remain elusive. In the Caribbean sea fan corals (Anthozoa, Alcyonacea: Gorgoniidae), the cell-based immune defenses are granular acidophilic amoebocytes, which are known to be involved in wound repair and histocompatibility. We demonstrate for the first time in corals that these cells are involved in the organismal response to pathogenic and temperature stress. In sea fans with both naturally occurring infections and experimental inoculations with the fungal pathogen Aspergillus sydowii, an inflammatory response, characterized by a massive increase of amoebocytes, was evident near infections. Melanosomes were detected in amoebocytes adjacent to protective melanin bands in infected sea fans; neither was present in uninfected fans. In naturally infected sea fans a concurrent increase in prophenoloxidase activity was detected in infected tissues with dense amoebocytes. Sea fans sampled in the field during the 2005 Caribbean Bleaching Event (a once-in-hundred-year climate event) responded to heat stress with a systemic increase in amoebocytes and amoebocyte densities were also increased by elevated temperature stress in lab experiments. The observed amoebocyte responses indicate that sea fan corals use cellular defenses to combat fungal infection and temperature stress. The ability to mount an inflammatory response may be a contributing factor that allowed the survival of even infected sea fan corals during a stressful climate event.
Sensory substitution devices for the blind translate inaccessible visual information into a format that intact sensory pathways can process. We here tested image-to-sound conversion-based localization of visual stimuli (LEDs and objects) in 13 blindfolded participants. Subjects were assigned to different roles as a function of two variables: visual deprivation (blindfolded continuously (Bc) for 24 hours per day for 21 days; blindfolded for the tests only (Bt)) and system use (system not used (Sn); system used for tests only (St); system used continuously for 21 days (Sc)). The effect of learning-by-doing was assessed by comparing the performance of eight subjects (BtSt) who only used the mobile substitution device for the tests, to that of three subjects who, in addition, practiced with it for four hours daily in their normal life (BtSc and BcSc); two subjects who did not use the device at all (BtSn and BcSn) allowed assessment of its use in the tasks we employed. The impact of long-term sensory deprivation was investigated by blindfolding three of those participants throughout the three week-long experiment (BcSn, BcSn/c, and BcSc); the other ten subjects were only blindfolded during the tests (BtSn, BtSc, and the eight BtSt subjects). Expectedly, the two subjects who never used the substitution device, while fast in finding the targets, had chance accuracy, whereas subjects who used the device were markedly slower, but showed much better accuracy which improved significantly across our four testing sessions. The three subjects who freely used the device daily as well as during tests were faster and more accurate than those who used it during tests only; however, long-term blindfolding did not notably influence performance. Together, the results demonstrate that the device allowed blindfolded subjects to increasingly know where something was by listening, and indicate that practice in naturalistic conditions effectively improved “visual” localization performance.
The leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) has undergone a dramatic decline over the last 25 years, and this is believed to be primarily the result of mortality associated with fisheries bycatch followed by egg and nesting female harvest. Atlantic leatherback turtles undertake long migrations across ocean basins from subtropical and tropical nesting beaches to productive frontal areas. Migration between two nesting seasons can last 2 or 3 years, a time period termed the remigration interval (RI). Recent satellite transmitter data revealed that Atlantic leatherbacks follow two major dispersion patterns after nesting season, through the North Gulf Stream area or more eastward across the North Equatorial Current. However, information on the whole RI is lacking, precluding the accurate identification of feeding areas where conservation measures may need to be applied. Using stable isotopes as dietary tracers we determined the characteristics of feeding grounds of leatherback females nesting in French Guiana. During migration, 3-year RI females differed from 2-year RI females in their isotope values, implying differences in their choice of feeding habitats (offshore vs. more coastal) and foraging latitude (North Atlantic vs. West African coasts, respectively). Egg-yolk and blood isotope values are correlated in nesting females, indicating that egg analysis is a useful tool for assessing isotope values in these turtles, including adults when not available. Our results complement previous data on turtle movements during the first year following the nesting season, integrating the diet consumed during the year before nesting. We suggest that the French Guiana leatherback population segregates into two distinct isotopic groupings, and highlight the urgent need to determine the feeding habitats of the turtle in the Atlantic in order to protect this species from incidental take by commercial fisheries. Our results also emphasize the use of eggs, a less-invasive sampling material than blood, to assess isotopic data and feeding habits for adult female leatherbacks.
Tool use is defined as the manipulation of an inanimate object to change the position or form of a separate object. The expansion of cognitive niches and tool-use capabilities probably stimulated each other in hominid evolution. To understand the causes of cognitive expansion in humans, we need to know the behavioral and neural basis of tool use. Although a wide range of animals exhibit tool use in nature, most studies have focused on primates and birds on behavioral or psychological levels and did not directly address questions of which neural modifications contributed to the emergence of tool use. To investigate such questions, an animal model suitable for cellular and molecular manipulations is needed. We demonstrated for the first time that rodents can be trained to use tools. Through a step-by-step training procedure, we trained degus (Octodon degus) to use a rake-like tool with their forelimbs to retrieve otherwise out-of-reach rewards. Eventually, they mastered effective use of the tool, moving it in an elegant trajectory. After the degus were well trained, probe tests that examined whether they showed functional understanding of the tool were performed. Degus did not hesitate to use tools of different size, colors, and shapes, but were reluctant to use the tool with a raised nonfunctional blade. Thus, degus understood the functional and physical properties of the tool after extensive training. Our findings suggest that tool use is not a specific faculty resulting from higher intelligence, but is a specific combination of more general cognitive faculties. Studying the brains and behaviors of trained rodents can provide insights into how higher cognitive functions might be broken down into more general faculties, and also what cellular and molecular mechanisms are involved in the emergence of such cognitive functions.
Recent brain imaging studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have implicated insula and anterior cingulate cortices in the empathic response to another’s pain. However, virtually nothing is known about the impact of the voluntary generation of compassion on this network. To investigate these questions we assessed brain activity using fMRI while novice and expert meditation practitioners generated a loving-kindness-compassion meditation state. To probe affective reactivity, we presented emotional and neutral sounds during the meditation and comparison periods. Our main hypothesis was that the concern for others cultivated during this form of meditation enhances affective processing, in particular in response to sounds of distress, and that this response to emotional sounds is modulated by the degree of meditation training. The presentation of the emotional sounds was associated with increased pupil diameter and activation of limbic regions (insula and cingulate cortices) during meditation (versus rest). During meditation, activation in insula was greater during presentation of negative sounds than positive or neutral sounds in expert than it was in novice meditators. The strength of activation in insula was also associated with self-reported intensity of the meditation for both groups. These results support the role of the limbic circuitry in emotion sharing. The comparison between meditation vs. rest states between experts and novices also showed increased activation in amygdala, right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), and right posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) in response to all sounds, suggesting, greater detection of the emotional sounds, and enhanced mentation in response to emotional human vocalizations for experts than novices during meditation. Together these data indicate that the mental expertise to cultivate positive emotion alters the activation of circuitries previously linked to empathy and theory of mind in response to emotional stimuli.
Serpentine receptors comprise a large family of membrane receptors distributed over diverse organisms, such as bacteria, fungi, plants and all metazoans. However, the presence of serpentine receptors in protozoan parasites is largely unknown so far. In the present study we performed a genome-wide search for proteins containing seven transmembrane domains (7-TM) in the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum and identified four serpentine receptor-like proteins. These proteins, denoted PfSR1, PfSR10, PfSR12 and PfSR25, show membrane topologies that resemble those exhibited by members belonging to different families of serpentine receptors. Expression of the pfsrs genes was detected by Real Time PCR in P. falciparum intraerythrocytic stages, indicating that they potentially code for functional proteins. We also found corresponding homologues for the PfSRs in five other Plasmodium species, two primate and three rodent parasites. PfSR10 and 25 are the most conserved receptors among the different species, while PfSR1 and 12 are more divergent. Interestingly, we found that PfSR10 and PfSR12 possess similarity to orphan serpentine receptors of other organisms. The identification of potential parasite membrane receptors raises a new perspective for essential aspects of malaria parasite host cell infection.