New and Exciting in PLoS ONE

There are 20 new articles in PLoS ONE today and several are, IMHO, very bloggable:

Why Do African Elephants (Loxodonta africana) Simulate Oestrus? An Analysis of Longitudinal Data:

Female African elephants signal oestrus via chemicals in their urine, but they also exhibit characteristic changes to their posture, gait and behaviour when sexually receptive. Free-ranging females visually signal receptivity by holding their heads and tails high, walking with an exaggerated gait, and displaying increased tactile behaviour towards males. Parous females occasionally exhibit these visual signals at times when they are thought not to be cycling and without attracting interest from musth males. Using demographic and behavioural records spanning a continuous 28-year period, we investigated the occurrence of this "simulated" oestrus behaviour. We show that parous females in the Amboseli elephant population do simulate receptive oestrus behaviours, and this false oestrus occurs disproportionately in the presence of naïve female kin who are observed coming into oestrus for the first time. We compare several alternative hypotheses for the occurrence of this simulation: 1) false oestrus has no functional purpose (e.g., it merely results from abnormal hormonal changes); 2) false oestrus increases the reproductive success of the simulating female, by inducing sexual receptivity; and 3) false oestrus increases the inclusive fitness of the simulating female, either by increasing the access of related females to suitable males, or by encouraging appropriate oestrus behaviours from female relatives who are not responding correctly to males. Although the observed data do not fully conform to the predictions of any of these hypotheses, we rule out the first two, and tentatively suggest that parous females most likely exhibit false oestrus behaviours in order to demonstrate to naïve relatives at whom to direct their behaviour.

The Sixth Rhino: A Taxonomic Re-Assessment of the Critically Endangered Northern White Rhinoceros:

The two forms of white rhinoceros; northern and southern, have had contrasting conservation histories. The Northern form, once fairly numerous is now critically endangered, while the southern form has recovered from a few individuals to a population of a few thousand. Since their last taxonomic assessment over three decades ago, new material and analytical techniques have become available, necessitating a review of available information and re-assessment of the taxonomy. Dental morphology and cranial anatomy clearly diagnosed the southern and northern forms. The differentiation was well supported by dental metrics, cranial growth and craniometry, and corresponded with differences in post-cranial skeleton, external measurements and external features. No distinctive differences were found in the limited descriptions of their behavior and ecology. Fossil history indicated the antiquity of the genus, dating back at least to early Pliocene and evolution into a number of diagnosable forms. The fossil skulls examined fell outside the two extant forms in the craniometric analysis. Genetic divergence between the two forms was consistent across both nuclear and mitochondrial genomes, and indicated a separation of over a million years. On re-assessing the taxonomy of the two forms we find them to be morphologically and genetically distinct, warranting the recognition of the taxa formerly designated as subspecies; Ceratotherium simum simum the southern form and Ceratotherium simum cottoni the northern form, as two distinct species Ceratotherium simum and Ceratotherium cottoni respectively. The recognition of the northern form as a distinct species has profound implications for its conservation.

A Wasp Manipulates Neuronal Activity in the Sub-Esophageal Ganglion to Decrease the Drive for Walking in Its Cockroach Prey:

The parasitoid Jewel Wasp hunts cockroaches to serve as a live food supply for its offspring. The wasp stings the cockroach in the head and delivers a cocktail of neurotoxins directly inside the prey's cerebral ganglia. Although not paralyzed, the stung cockroach becomes a living yet docile 'zombie', incapable of self-initiating spontaneous or evoked walking. We show here that such neuro-chemical manipulation can be attributed to decreased neuronal activity in a small region of the cockroach cerebral nervous system, the sub-esophageal ganglion (SEG). A decrease in descending permissive inputs from this ganglion to thoracic central pattern generators decreases the propensity for walking-related behaviors. We have used behavioral, neuro-pharmacological and electrophysiological methods to show that: (1) Surgically removing the cockroach SEG prior to wasp stinging prolongs the duration of the sting 5-fold, suggesting that the wasp actively targets the SEG during the stinging sequence; (2) injecting a sodium channel blocker, procaine, into the SEG of non-stung cockroaches reversibly decreases spontaneous and evoked walking, suggesting that the SEG plays an important role in the up-regulation of locomotion; (3) artificial focal injection of crude milked venom into the SEG of non-stung cockroaches decreases spontaneous and evoked walking, as seen with naturally-stung cockroaches; and (4) spontaneous and evoked neuronal spiking activity in the SEG, recorded with an extracellular bipolar microelectrode, is markedly decreased in stung cockroaches versus non-stung controls. We have identified the neuronal substrate responsible for the venom-induced manipulation of the cockroach's drive for walking. Our data strongly support previous findings suggesting a critical and permissive role for the SEG in the regulation of locomotion in insects. By injecting a venom cocktail directly into the SEG, the parasitoid Jewel Wasp selectively manipulates the cockroach's motivation to initiate walking without interfering with other non-related behaviors.

The Walking Behaviour of Pedestrian Social Groups and Its Impact on Crowd Dynamics:

Human crowd motion is mainly driven by self-organized processes based on local interactions among pedestrians. While most studies of crowd behaviour consider only interactions among isolated individuals, it turns out that up to 70% of people in a crowd are actually moving in groups, such as friends, couples, or families walking together. These groups constitute medium-scale aggregated structures and their impact on crowd dynamics is still largely unknown. In this work, we analyze the motion of approximately 1500 pedestrian groups under natural condition, and show that social interactions among group members generate typical group walking patterns that influence crowd dynamics. At low density, group members tend to walk side by side, forming a line perpendicular to the walking direction. As the density increases, however, the linear walking formation is bent forward, turning it into a V-like pattern. These spatial patterns can be well described by a model based on social communication between group members. We show that the V-like walking pattern facilitates social interactions within the group, but reduces the flow because of its "non-aerodynamic" shape. Therefore, when crowd density increases, the group organization results from a trade-off between walking faster and facilitating social exchange. These insights demonstrate that crowd dynamics is not only determined by physical constraints induced by other pedestrians and the environment, but also significantly by communicative, social interactions among individuals.

'Positive' Results Increase Down the Hierarchy of the Sciences:

The hypothesis of a Hierarchy of the Sciences with physical sciences at the top, social sciences at the bottom, and biological sciences in-between is nearly 200 years old. This order is intuitive and reflected in many features of academic life, but whether it reflects the "hardness" of scientific research--i.e., the extent to which research questions and results are determined by data and theories as opposed to non-cognitive factors--is controversial. This study analysed 2434 papers published in all disciplines and that declared to have tested a hypothesis. It was determined how many papers reported a "positive" (full or partial) or "negative" support for the tested hypothesis. If the hierarchy hypothesis is correct, then researchers in "softer" sciences should have fewer constraints to their conscious and unconscious biases, and therefore report more positive outcomes. Results confirmed the predictions at all levels considered: discipline, domain and methodology broadly defined. Controlling for observed differences between pure and applied disciplines, and between papers testing one or several hypotheses, the odds of reporting a positive result were around 5 times higher among papers in the disciplines of Psychology and Psychiatry and Economics and Business compared to Space Science, 2.3 times higher in the domain of social sciences compared to the physical sciences, and 3.4 times higher in studies applying behavioural and social methodologies on people compared to physical and chemical studies on non-biological material. In all comparisons, biological studies had intermediate values. These results suggest that the nature of hypotheses tested and the logical and methodological rigour employed to test them vary systematically across disciplines and fields, depending on the complexity of the subject matter and possibly other factors (e.g., a field's level of historical and/or intellectual development). On the other hand, these results support the scientific status of the social sciences against claims that they are completely subjective, by showing that, when they adopt a scientific approach to discovery, they differ from the natural sciences only by a matter of degree.

Searching PubMed during a Pandemic:

The 2009 influenza A(H1N1) pandemic has generated thousands of articles and news items. However, finding relevant scientific articles in such rapidly developing health crises is a major challenge which, in turn, can affect decision-makers' ability to utilise up-to-date findings and ultimately shape public health interventions. This study set out to show the impact that the inconsistent naming of the pandemic can have on retrieving relevant scientific articles in PubMed/MEDLINE. We first formulated a PubMed search algorithm covering different names of the influenza pandemic and simulated the results that it would have retrieved from weekly searches for relevant new records during the first 10 weeks of the pandemic. To assess the impact of failing to include every term in this search, we then conducted the same searches but omitted in turn "h1n1," "swine," "influenza" and "flu" from the search string, and compared the results to those for the full string. On average, our core search string identified 44.3 potentially relevant new records at the end of each week. Of these, we determined that an average of 27.8 records were relevant. When we excluded one term from the string, the percentage of records missed out of the total number of relevant records averaged 18.7% for omitting "h1n1," 13.6% for "swine," 17.5% for "influenza," and 20.6% for "flu." Due to inconsistent naming, while searching for scientific material about rapidly evolving situations such as the influenza A(H1N1) pandemic, there is a risk that one will miss relevant articles. To address this problem, the international scientific community should agree on nomenclature and the specific name to be used earlier, and the National Library of Medicine in the US could index potentially relevant materials faster and allow publishers to add alert tags to such materials.

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