Friday, November 20, 2009

MALE SABERTOOTHED CATS WERE PUSSYCATS COMPARED TO MACHO LIONS

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Commonly called the sabertoothed tiger, Smilodon fatalis was a large predatory cat that roamed North and South America about 1.6 million to 10,000 years ago, when there was also a prehistoric cat called the American lion. A study appearing in the November 5 issue of the Journal of Zoology examined size differences between sexes of these fearsome felines using subtle clues from bones and teeth.

The researchers report that while male American lions were considerably larger than females, male and female sabertoothed cats were indistinguishable in size. The findings suggest that sabertooths may have been less aggressive than their fellow felines, researchers say.

In species where males fight for mates, bigger, heavier males have a better chance of winning fights, fending off their rivals and gaining access to females. After generations of male-male competition, the males of some species evolve to be much larger than their mates.

Most big cats have a form of sexual dimorphism where males are bigger than females, said co-author Julie Meachen-Samuels, a biologist at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, NC. So she and Wendy Binder of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles wanted to know if extinct sabertooths and American lions showed the same size patterns as big cats living today.

When it comes to fossils, sorting males from females can be tricky. "It's hard to tell who's a male and who's a female in the fossil record," said Blaire Van Valkenburgh, a biologist at UCLA who has studied these animals extensively but was not an author on the paper. "Unless you're lucky enough to get some DNA, or you're working with an animal where males have horns and females don't."

For species that keep growing into adulthood, simply separating the fossils into two groups by size may not do the trick, either. "It's easy to get a younger, smaller male confused with an older, larger female if you're just dividing them by size," Meachen-Samuels said.

The researchers accounted for continued growth using subtle clues from fossilized teeth. "Teeth fill in over time," said Binder. "In young animals the tooth cavity is basically hollow, but as they get older it fills in with dentin. It won't give you an exact age, but it can give you a relative age in terms of young, middle aged or old," Binder added.

Meachen-Samuels and Binder x-rayed the lower teeth and jaws of 13 American lions and 19 sabertoothed cats recovered from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. To account for growth over time, they measured tooth cavity diameter and plotted it against jaw length for each species. Plotted this way, the data for the American lion fell easily into two groups, regardless of age. The researchers concluded that "the little ones were females and the big ones were males," said Van Valkenburgh.

In contrast, sabertoothed cat sizes seemed to be governed solely by age. It would appear that the males were indistinguishable from their mates. "Even by incorporating a measure of age, you can't distinguish males and females," said Meachen-Samuels.

Size differences between the sexes tend to be more impressive in species where male aggression is more intense, and in the extinct American lion, size differences between the sexes were even more dramatic than in lions living today.

The closest living relative of the American lion, "African lions engage in aggressive takeovers where one to several males will take over an entire pride – the males have battles to the death," said Van Valkenburgh.

"Living lions have huge sexual dimorphism," said Meachen-Samuels.

Based on their findings, the researchers think the American lion probably lived in male-dominated groups, where 1-2 males monopolized and mated with multiple females. "My guess would be that the American lion was similar to African lions, where males guard groups of females," said Meachen-Samuels.

"But we don't see that in the sabertoothed cat," Binder said. The size similarity in sabertoothed cats suggests that male sabertooths may have been less aggressive than their larger cousins. "Rather than males having harems of females, the males and females in a group might have been more equal," Binder said.

(Photo: Charles R. Knight, 1905)

Duke University

ARE THE ALPS GROWING OR SHRINKING?

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The formation of the Alps through the collision of the two continents Africa and Europe began about approximately 55 million years ago. This led to the upthrusting of the highest European mountains, which probably already achieved its greatest height some millions of years ago. At present, however, the Swiss Alps are no longer growing as a result of this tectonic process.

Swiss geodesists, who have already been measuring the Alps with highest accuracy for decades, have observed, however, that the Alp summits, as compared to low land, rise up to one millimetre per year. Over millions of years a considerable height would have to result. But why then are the Alps not as high as the Himalayas? Researchers from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences were able to calculate that mountains eroded concurrently at almost exactly the same speed.

"This mountain erosion cannot even be determined using the highly precise methods of modern geodesy" explains Professor Friedhelm v. Blanckenburg from the GFZ. "We use the rare isotope Beryllium-10, which develops in the land surface via cosmic radiation. The quicker a surface erodes, the fewer isotopes of this type are present therein". Therefore, von Blanckenburg, and the GFZ geoscientist, Dr. Hella Wittmann, have analysed this "cosmogenic" isotope in the sand of the Swiss Alps rivers and, thus, in the direct products of erosion.

How does it come about now that the Alps erode at the same speed that they rise? "Here pure upthrusting forces are at work. It is similar to an iceberg in the sea. If the top melts, the iceberg surfaces out of the water by almost the same share" explains von Blanckenburg. Thus this paradoxical situation with the Alps that through wind, water, glaciers and rock fall, they are being constantly finely eroded from the top but on the other hand, regenerated from the Earth's mantle. This phenomenon, even if already postulated theoretically has now been proven for a complete mountain range for the first time.

Thus, the Alps are constantly rising, although they have been deemed "dead" in a tectonic sense. Instead of plate forces it is the strong climatic variations since the beginning of the so-called quaternary glacial before approximately 2.5 million years, to which mountain slopes in particular have been reacting so sensitively. This holds the Alps in motion.

Helmholtz Association

WEIZMANN INSTITUTE SCIENTISTS REVEAL HOW SOME AROMAS ARE BOUND UP IN OUR MEMORIES

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From Proust’s Madeleines to the overbearing food critic in the movie Ratatouille who’s transported back to his childhood at the aroma of stew, artists have long been aware that some odors can spontaneously evoke strong memories. Scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science have now revealed the scientific basis of this connection. Their research appeared in the latest issue of Current Biology.

Graduate student Yaara Yeshurun, together with Profs. Noam Sobel and Yadin Dudai of the Institute’s Neurobiology Department, thought that the key might not necessarily lie in childhood, but rather in the first time a smell is encountered in the context of a particular object or event. In other words, the initial association of a smell with an experience will somehow leave a unique and lasting impression in the brain.

To test this idea, the scientists devised an experiment: First, in a special smell laboratory, subjects viewed images of 60 visual objects, each presented simultaneously with either a pleasant or an unpleasant odor generated in a machine called an olfactometer. Next, the subjects were put in an fMRI scanner to measure their brain activity as they reviewed the images they’d seen and attempted to remember which odor was associated with each. Then, the whole test was repeated – images, odors and fMRI – with the same images, but different odors accompanying each. Finally, the subjects came back one week later, to be scanned in the fMRI again. They viewed the objects one more time and were asked to recall the odors they associated with them.

The scientists found that after one week, even if the subject recalled both odors equally, the first association revealed a distinctive pattern of brain activity. The effect was seen whether the smell was pleasant or unpleasant. This unique representation showed up in the hippocampus, a brain structure involved in memory, and in the amygdala, a brain structure involved in emotion. The pattern was so profound, it enabled the scientists to predict which associations would be remembered just by looking at the brain activity within these regions following the initial exposure. The scientists could look at the fMRI data on the first day of the experiment and predict which associations would come up a week later. To see if other sensory experiences might share this tendency, the scientists repeated the entire experiment using sounds rather than smells; they found that sounds did not arouse a similar distinctive first-time pattern of activity. In other words, these results were specific to the sense of smell. ‘For some reason, the first association with smell gets etched into memory,’ says Sobel, ‘and this phenomenon allowed us to predict what would be remembered one week later based on brain activity alone’.

Yeshurun: ‘As far as we know, this phenomenon is unique to smell. Childhood olfactory memories may be special not because childhood is special, but simply because those years may be the first time we associate something with an odor.

Weizmann Institute of Science

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