Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Risky Business: Ape Style

A reposting of an article from April, 2013


The decisions of this chimpanzee living in the
Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Sanctuary are affected
by his social situation. Photo by Alex Rosati.
If you have a choice between a prize that is awesome half the time and totally lame the other half of the time or a mediocre prize that is a sure-thing, which would you choose? Your choice probably depends on your personality somewhat. It may also depend on your needs and your mood. And it can depend on social contexts, like if you’re competing with someone or if you’re being watched by your boss or someone you have a crush on.

All animals have to make choices. Some choices are obvious: Choose the thing that is known to be of high quality over the thing that is known to be of low quality. But usually, the qualities of some options are uncertain and choosing them can be risky. As with us, the likelihood of some primates, birds, and insects to choose riskier options over safer ones can be affected by outside influences. And we aren’t the only species to have our risk-taking choices influenced by social context.

Anthropologists Alex Rosati and Brian Hare at Duke University tested two ape species, chimpanzees and bonobos, in their willingness to choose the riskier option in different social situations. They tested chimpanzees living in the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Sanctuary and bonobos in the Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary, both in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most of the apes living in these sanctuaries are confiscated from poachers that captured them from the wild for the pet trade and for bushmeat. In these sanctuaries the animals live in social groups, generally spending their days roaming large tracts of tropical forest and their nights in indoor dormitories. This lifestyle rehabilitates their bodies and minds, resulting in psychologically healthy sanctuary inhabitants.

It is in these familiar dormitories that Alex and Brian tested the apes’ propensity for making risky choices. For their experimental set-up, an experimenter sat across a table from an ape and offered them two options: an overturned bowl that always covered a treat that the apes kinda like (peanuts) versus an overturned bowl that covered either an awesome treat (banana or apple) or a lousy treat (cucumber or lettuce). In this paradigm, the peanut-bowl represents the safe choice because whenever the ape chooses it, they know they’re getting peanuts. But the other bowl is the risky choice, because half the time they get fruit (yum!), but the other half of the time they get greens (bummer).

This figure from Rosati and Hare's 2012 Animal Behavour paper shows Alex
demonstrating the steps they would go through before the ape chose one of the two options.

After spending some time training the apes to be sure they understood the game, the researchers tested their choices in different social situations. In each test session, the ape was allowed to choose between the two bowls (and eat the reward) multiple times (each choice was called a trial). But before the test session began and in between choice trials, another experimenter sat with the ape for two minutes and did one of three things: In one group, the experimenter sat at the table and silently looked down (they called this the “neutral condition”). In another group, the experimenter repeatedly offered the ape a large piece of food, pulling it away and grunting whenever the ape reached for it (they called this the “competitive condition”). In a third group, the experimenter tickled and played with the ape (they called this the “play condition”).

Alex and Brian found out that whereas bonobos chose the safe option and the risky option about equally, the chimpanzees were significantly more likely to choose the risky option. But despite this species difference, both species chose the risky option more often in the “competitive condition”. Neither species increased their risk-taking in the “play condition”.

The graph on the left shows that wheras bonobos chose the safe option and the risky option each about 50% of the time (where the dashed line is), the chimpanzees chose the risky option much more often. The graph on the right shows that both species chose the risky option more often in the "competition condition" than they did in the "neutral condition". Figure from Rosati and Hare's 2012 Animal Behavour paper.

These are interesting findings, especially when you consider the natural behaviors and lifestyles of these closely related species. Bonobos can be thought of as the hippies of the ape world, happily sharing and using sex to settle disputes and strengthen relationships. In comparison, chimpanzees are more like gangsters, aggressively fighting over resources and dominance ranks. So in general, the more competitive species is more likely to take risks. But when the social environment becomes more competitive, both species up the ante. This effect doesn’t seem to be simply the result of being in a social situation, because the apes didn’t increase their risk-taking in the presence of a playful experimenter.

This still leaves us with some questions to ponder though. Are apes more likely to take risks when an experimenter is offering food and taking it away because of a heightened sense of competition, or is this the result of frustration? And would we see the same effect if the “competitor” were another ape of the same species, rather than a human experimenter? How would their behavior change if they were hungry? These questions are harder to get at, but this research does demonstrate that like in humans, the decision-making process in chimpanzees and bonobos is dependent on social context.


Want to know more? Check this out:

Rosati, A., & Hare, B. (2012). Decision making across social contexts: competition increases preferences for risk in chimpanzees and bonobos Animal Behaviour, 84 (4), 869-879 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2012.07.010

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Cow Pies Can Make You Smarter and Less Stressed

A reposting of an article from August, 2015

It seems like everyone is running around buying school supplies and books, registering for classes, and fretting about how hard it is going to be to learn another whole year’s worth of stuff. The secret to success, it turns out, may lie in cow dung.

A cow pie. Photo taken by Jeff Vanuga at
the USDA available at Wikimedia Commons.
Recent research has highlighted the important role that microbes living in animal digestive tracts have on host animals’ health and behavior. This influence of our gut microbes on our behavior is called the microbiota-gut-brain axis. Many of these microbes have long-standing populations that reproduce and spend their whole lives in our guts. Because our digestive tracts do not have much oxygen, these species are anaerobic (do not require oxygen to live). However, our gut communities also have more transient aerobic members (species that do require oxygen to live) that come in when they are ingested and die or leave with the droppings. One of these transient aerobic intestinal citizens is Mycobacterium vaccae (or M. vaccae for short), an aerobic bacterium that naturally lives in soil, water, and yes, cow dung.

When mice are injected with heat-killed M. vaccae, they develop an immune response that activates their brain serotonin system and reduces signs of stress. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is found in the brain and is involved in regulating alertness, mood, learning and memory. In fact, many antidepressant drugs work by increasing the amount of available serotonin in the brain. Interestingly, serotonin is also found in the digestive system, where it plays a role in digestive health. Since M. vaccae can increase serotonin function, and serotonin reduces anxiety and improves learning, researchers Dorothy Matthews and Susan Jenks at The Sage Colleges in New York set out to test whether eating live M. vaccae could reduce anxiety and improve learning in mice.

A drawing of the mouse maze used by Dorothy and Susan.
This image is from their 2013 Behavioural Processes paper.
The researchers developed a Plexiglas mouse-maze with three difficulty levels, where each increase in difficulty was marked by more turns and a longer path. They encouraged the mice to run the maze by placing a tasty treat (a square of peanut butter on Wonder Bread™) at the end of the maze. Half of the mice were given live M. vaccae on the peanut butter and bread treat three weeks and one week before running the maze, and then again on each treat at the end of each maze run. The other half were given peanut butter and bread without the bacterial additive. The mice then ran the maze roughly every other day: four times at level 1, four times at level 2 and four times at level 3. Each maze run was video recorded and the researchers later watched the videos to count stress-related behaviors.

The mice that ingested M. vaccae on their peanut butter sandwiches completed the maze twice as fast as those that ate plain peanut butter sandwiches. They also had fewer stress-related behaviors, particularly at the first difficulty level of the maze when everything was new and scary. In general, the fewer stress behaviors a mouse did, the faster its maze-running time was. The mice that ate the M. vaccae also tended to make fewer mistakes.

The researchers then wanted to know how long the effects of M. vaccae lasted. They continued to test the mice in the same maze, again with four runs at level 1, four runs at level 2 and four runs at level 3, but for these maze runs no one was given the M. vaccae. The mice that had previously eaten the M. vaccae continued to complete the maze faster and with fewer mistakes and to show fewer stress-related behaviors for about the first week before the M. vaccae effects wore off.

What does this all mean? It means eating dirt isn’t all bad (although I don't recommend eating cow poop). Letting yourself get a bit dirty and ingesting some of nature's microbes could even help you learn better, remember more, and stay calm - especially in new situations. Just something to think about as the school year gets started.


Want to know more? Check these out:

1. Matthews, D., & Jenks, S. (2013). Ingestion of Mycobacterium vaccae decreases anxiety-related behavior and improves learning in mice Behavioural Processes, 96, 27-35 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2013.02.007

2. Lowry, C., Hollis, J., de Vries, A., Pan, B., Brunet, L., Hunt, J., Paton, J., van Kampen, E., Knight, D., Evans, A., Rook, G., & Lightman, S. (2007). Identification of an immune-responsive mesolimbocortical serotonergic system: Potential role in regulation of emotional behavior Neuroscience, 146 (2), 756-772 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2007.01.067

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Need a Hand? Just Grow it Back! How Salamanders Regenerate Limbs (A Guest Post)

By Maranda Cardiel

(A reposting of an original article posted on February 29, 2016)

How cool would it be if you could regenerate your own body parts? Just imagine: you are chopping up some carrots for dinner, but whoops! You accidentally cut off your thumb! No worries, it’ll grow back in a few weeks, good as new and fully functional. No need to take a trip to the hospital and pay all of those annoying medical costs.

That all sounds pretty nifty, but that can’t actually happen, right? Tissue regeneration on that large of a scale is something you can only find in science fiction. …Or so you may think. Nature has actually found a way to regenerate full limbs and other body parts after they have been completely amputated. However, among animals with spines, this unique ability is only found in salamanders. But how does it work, and why can’t we do it too?

A cartoon illustrating examples of the three different methods of tissue regeneration in animals. A.) An
adult hydra being cut into two pieces and regenerating into two separate hydras. B.) Part of a human
liver being cut off and the remaining liver regenerating via cell division. C.) A salamander’s arm being
amputated and undergoing epimorphosis to regenerate an entire new arm.
Source: Maranda Cardiel

There are actually three ways that animals can regenerate tissues. Some animals, such as hydras, can use the tissues they already have to regenerate themselves after being cut in two, resulting in two separate hydras. Mammals, including humans, have the ability to regenerate their livers by having the liver cells divide into more liver cells. This is how liver transplants work – a portion of liver from a live donor will grow into a fully-functioning liver in the recipient. The third method is called epimorphosis, which is the ability to change existing cells of specific types so that they can re-grow as different cell types, and this is what salamanders are able to do.

When the limb of a salamander is cut off, only the outermost layer of skin moves to cover the wound. This single layer forms a special skin cap known as the epithelial cap, and the nerves at the amputation site shrink back from the wound. Then the cells beneath the cap dedifferentiate, losing their specific characteristics so all of the different types of cells become the same and detach from each other.

A cartoon illustrating the process of a salamander regenerating its arm. A.) The limb is amputated.
B.) The outermost layer of the skin begins to cover the wound. C.) This single layer of skin creates
an epithelial cap and the blastema forms underneath it. D.) The cells of the blastema begin to
differentiate into bone, nerves, etc. E.) The cells continue to divide and differentiate until the limb is
fully formed. Source: Maranda Cardiel

Now the amputated limb has a mass of indistinguishable cells under the cap, and this mass is called the regeneration blastema. A blastema is simply a clump of cells that is able to grow into an organ or body part. Over the course of several weeks, this blastema divides into more cells and the cells begin to differentiate - or turn into multiple types - again, forming different cell types such as bone, muscle, cartilage, nerves, and skin. Eventually, the salamander will have a brand new limb.

The salamander’s body can even tell what body part it’s supposed to re-grow; if it’s amputated at the wrist it will grow a new hand, and if its entire hind leg is amputated it will grow a new hind leg. And it’s not only limbs that salamanders can regenerate – they can even grow back their tails, retinas, spinal cords, and parts of their hearts and brains!

As you can see, the process of epimorphosis is much more complicated than simply having a single cell type divide a lot. It also requires certain chemicals and patterns of immune signaling to work properly. But why can’t people do this too? One of the reasons is because when our tissues are damaged, all of our skin grows to cover and heal the wound, which forms scars. In salamanders, only the outermost layer of skin does this, which prevents the scarring that would stop tissue regeneration. The salamander’s immune system is also regulated differently than our own, which allows them to regenerate whole body parts.

Unfortunately we are not salamanders, so when you cut off your finger it’s not going to grow back. But researchers are continuing to study salamanders and their astounding regenerative abilities in the hopes of finding a way to apply it to people. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll be able to grow back our own limbs too.


Sources:

Gilbert, Scott F. Developmental Biology 6th Edition. Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2000.

Godwin, J., Pinto, A., & Rosenthal, N. (2013). Macrophages are required for adult salamander limb regeneration Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110 (23), 9415-9420 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1300290110

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Summer Vacation!

It is time for this blogger to unplug and unwind! But don't worry, I will be back in September with more stories of why animals behave the way they do, how their bodies function, and how to pursue your animal-related dreams.

Be curious!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

A Tiny Surprise in Regards to Regeneration (A Guest Post)

By Jessica Klein

The ability to regenerate limbs and tails is nothing new to reptiles and amphibians. Many lizards are able to drop their tails to escape an enemy, whereas salamanders have been known to grow back entire legs with muscle after being attacked by a predator. These regenerative characteristics have been seen to some extent in rabbits and pika before 2012, but were later discovered to occur extensively in, surprisingly enough, small African spiny mice.

One of the African spiny mouse species. Photo by Ashley Seifert and Tom Gawriluk.

In a study done by Ashley W. Seifert and Megan G. Seifert at the University of Kentucky, Todd M. Palmer and Malcolm Maden at the University of Florida, Stephen G. Kiama at the University of Nairobi, and Jacob R. Goheen at the University of Wyoming, African spiny mice were studied in order to view the extent of their regenerative properties, why they might occur, and the physiological processes that make it happen.

The rodents were captured in Kenya, where researchers learned that vigorous movement during handling caused the skin of African spiny mice to come apart. One mouse was reported to have an open wound that took up 60% of its back, just from being handled! Therefore, Dr. Seifert measured the amount of strength it took to tear the skin of spiny mice using something called a Hounsfield tensometer. He took the measurements from that tool and graphed them on a plot, creating something called a stress-strain curve which showed how much strength it took to tear the skin of the mouse.

The strength measurements revealed that the skin of these species was 77 times weaker than average mice, explaining why their skin tore so easily during the handling process. In order for the African spiny mice to survive such large injuries due to their extremely fragile skin, it would be beneficial to heal quickly or regenerate the skin. This is exactly what Dr. Seifert discovered.

An African spiny mouse shows
the regenerative process with
(1) being before the wound
(2) being after the wound and
(3) showing how the wound was
completely healed after 30 days.
Figure from Seifert, et al., 2012.
After the strength measurements were completed, the rodents were anaesthetized and had 4mm and 1.5cm wounds made on their skin, as well as 4mm holes punched in their ears in order to view the regeneration process. In an average rodent, the repair of a 4mm skin wound takes around 5 to 7 days and is accompanied by a significant amount of scarring. However, in the African spiny mouse it only took 1 to 2 days for scabbing of the skin wound to occur with new cells forming on the outside of the wound to repair it. After just 10 days, the ear of the mouse was fully healed. In the ear punches, there were no signs of scarring that would have been expected in a rodent, and healthy cartilage had formed. By the 21st day of the experiment, African spiny mice had developed new hair follicles and healthy new hair covering the once wounded area. In total, Dr. Seifert discovered that African spiny mice were capable of regenerating their skin, hair follicles, and sweat glands.

Dr. Seifert suggested the skin of African spiny mice is fragile because it allows them to escape predators. This would require a quick healing time to reduce the chance of infection and ultimately death in the mouse after escaping. This is why they may have gained the ability to regenerate their skin, but how exactly does this happen? Dr. Seifert and his research team recently showed that, in these species, it occurs through a process known as epimorphic regeneration. This is when a blastema (a mass of immature, unspecialized cells) forms where the wound once was. These cells are capable of turning into whatever type of tissue was present in that area. This particular method of regeneration is how salamanders are capable of regenerating their limbs. Again, more research would need to be done in order to confirm or deny this. However, one thing is true, and that is that more research into this could prove to be useful in the future of medicine when it comes to healing critical and invasive injuries. By discovering the physiological process behind this, and then being able to replicate it in a lab, researchers may discover ways to heal injuries faster.




Works Cited

Seifert, Ashley W., Stephen G. Kiama, Megan G. Seifert, Jacob R. Goheen, Todd M. Palmer, and Malcolm Maden. "Skin Shedding and Tissue Regeneration in African Spiny Mice (Acomys)." Nature 489 (2012): 561-65. doi:10.1038/nature11499

Gawriluk, Thomas R., Jennifer Simkin, Katherine L. Thompson, Shishir K. Biswas, Zak Clare-Salzler, John M. Kimani, Stephen G. Kiama, Jeramiah J. Smith, Vanessa O. Ezenwa & Ashley W. Seifert. "Comparative analysis of ear-hole closure identifies epimorphic regeneration as a discrete trait in mammals" Nature Communications 7.11164 (2016). doi:10.1038/ncomms11164