From the Community: December Edition

The following links highlight ecology from the month of December, but there are several science-related end-of-year lists floating around as well.

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Worm brain sheds light on the evolution of the cerebral cortex

The last time humans and the marine ragworm Platynereis dumerilii shared a common ancestor was roughly 600 million years ago, according to scientists from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany (EMBL). That is, researcher have discovered a true counterpart of the cerebral cortex, also called the pallium, in this relative of the earthworm. This finding, explained the scientists, could be the key to unraveling the evolution of this important area of the human (and all vertebrates) brain.

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From the Community: fish-mimicking octopuses, aquanauts and the evolution of ecology

An octopus that mimics toxic sea creatures, the tobacco plant sends out an SOS when attacked, the genetic differences between ant social castes, unusually high records of jellyfish swarms this summer and Simon Levin discusses the evolution of ecology and where it is headed next. Here are stories in ecology wrapping up the month of August.

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Flowers make it rain (and then some)

The Amazon rainforest—with its millions of creaking, chirping and buzzing insects, sticky frogs, vibrant birds, and unique fish—may owe its diversity primarily to flowers, said researchers from the University of Chicago. And, they say, just as flowering plants formed the building block of biodiversity in this region, their removal could result in a cascade of declining diversity.

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The sharp shooters of marine life

The archerfish’s long distance spitting can fire a bug off of a branch and send it down to the water’s surface, and the nearly-blind pistol shrimp uses its gigantic claw to stun its prey with a bubble nearly as hot as the Sun. However, if the archerfish didn’t have keen eyes enabling it to detect an insect against a vegetative background, and if the pistol shrimp lacked its protective eye covers, called orbital hoods, these animals might never have developed the ballistic mechanisms that characterize them.

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The phrenologist’s guide to ecological competence

Since Darwin, scientists have been theorizing as to why there is variation in brain size between species and individuals. Does a larger brain, in say humans, indicate advanced cognitive abilities and complex language processing? Or is a smaller brain, such as the Olive-backed thrush’s, adapted to weigh less to accommodate lengthy flights?

In psychology, the field of phrenology has generally been dissolved, and with it, the idea that variations in brain size could indicate differences in intelligence, creativity or personality between humans. In the field of biology, however, scientists are discovering that brain variation across species might actually be linked to ecological competence. In this case, ecological competence describes the efficiency of a species to engage in ecological processes—such as flexible foraging abilities or advanced spatial memory for migration.

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