Parrot intelligence, new study

This 2015 video says about itself:

Alex the Smart Parrot – Talking bird distinguishes colors, shapes, sizes, numbers

Due to repeated concerns regarding the empty cage shown in the video, it is my impression, after having read her book, that this is where Alex sleeps, like a bed, and that he is mostly perched outside the cage when he is not sleeping. Also, had Dr. Pepperberg taken Alex home with her every night or hung toys in his cage, it would have compromised the study. Enjoy the Genius of Birds.

From the University of Alberta in Canada:

Neuroscientists uncover secret to intelligence in parrots

Study shows evidence of convergence in bird and primate evolution

July 3, 2018

University of Alberta neuroscientists have identified the neural circuit that may underlay intelligence in birds, according to a new study. The discovery is an example of convergent evolution between the brains of birds and primates, with the potential to provide insight into the neural basis of human intelligence.

“An area of the brain that plays a major role in primate intelligence is called the pontine nuclei,” explained Cristian Gutierrez-Ibanez, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology. “This structure transfers information between the two largest areas of the brain, the cortex and cerebellum, which allows for higher-order processing and more sophisticated behaviour. In humans and primates, the pontine nuclei are large compared to other mammals. This makes sense given our cognitive abilities.”

Birds have very small pontine nuclei. Instead, they have a similar structure called the medial spiriform nucleus (SpM) that has similar connectivity. Located in a different part of the brain, the SpM does the same thing as the pontine nuclei, circulating information between the cortex and the cerebellum. “This loop between the cortex and the cerebellum is important for the planning and execution of sophisticated behaviours,” said Doug Wylie, professor of psychology and co-author on the new study.

Not-so-bird brain

Using samples from 98 birds from the largest collection of bird brains in the world, including everything from chickens and waterfowl to parrots and owls, the scientists studied the brains of birds, comparing the relative size of the SpM to the rest of the brain. They determined that parrots have a SpM that is much larger than that of other birds.

“The SpM is very large in parrots. It’s actually two to five times larger in parrots than in other birds, like chickens”, said Gutierrez. “Independently, parrots have evolved an enlarged area that connects the cortex and the cerebellum, similar to primates. This is another fascinating example of convergence between parrots and primates. It starts with sophisticated behaviours, like tool use and self-awareness, and can also be seen in the brain. The more we look at the brains, the more similarities we see.”

Next, the research team hopes to study the SpM in parrots more closely, to understand what types of information go there and why.

“This could present an excellent way to study how the similar, pontine-based, process occurs in humans”, added Gutierrez. “It might give us a way to better understand how our human brains work.”


Racist violence against Belgian Muslim woman

This September 2017 video says about itself:

Rising Islamophobia in Europe Ignored by Mainstream Media

Muslim refugees are being targeted across Europe, some even attacked at shelters where they are meant to be protected.

Translated from Dutch NOS TV today:

Two unknown persons have maimed and insulted a young Muslim woman last night in the Belgian town Anderlues, near Charleroi. Then, they ran away.

The woman walked late last night in an alley in the Walloon town. Two strangers stopped her, threw the woman to the ground and made various racist statements. Her headscarf was then pulled off and her upper clothes pulled off. Then they mutilated her face, legs, stomach, and torso with a sharp object and fled.

The Belgian justice authorities speak of a case of racism. Nobody has been arrested yet.

Barn owl, human eyes similar

This video from Britain says about itself:

25 May 2010

A three minute video explaining what makes Barn Owls so special. For more information go here.

From the Society for Neuroscience:

Owls see as humans do

Humans and birds may be more similar than previously thought

July 2, 2018

A study of barn owls published in JNeurosci suggests the visual systems of humans and birds may be more similar than previously thought.

The ability to perceive an object as distinct from a background is crucial for species that rely on vision to act on their environment. One way humans achieve this is by grouping different elements of a scene into “perceptual wholes” based on the similarity of their motion. This phenomenon has been mostly studied in primates, leaving open the question of whether such perceptual grouping represents a fundamental property of visual systems in general.

Yoram Gutfreund and colleagues addressed this question by studying the brain and behavior of barn owls as the animals tracked dark dots on a gray background presented on a computer screen. A wireless “Owl-Cam” tracked the owls’ visual search behavior in one set of experiments while neural activity in the optic tectum — the main visual processor in non-mammalian vertebrates — was recorded in another.

The researchers indeed report evidence of perceptual grouping in the owl, suggesting that this ability evolved and was conserved across species prior to the development of the human neocortex.

Koala genetic code discovery

This 2016 video from Australia is called KOALA RESCUE: Passing bikers stopped to help pull a drowning koala from a river. Video by Mario Orcon.

From the University of Sydney in Australia:

Cracking the genetic code of koalas

July 2, 2018

Summary: The koala genome has been sequenced in a world first, by an international consortium of conservation scientists and geneticists. Considered to be the most complete marsupial genome sequenced in terms of quality — on par with the human genome — the highly accurate genomic data will provide information to inform habitat conservation, tackle diseases and help ensure this iconic animal’s long-term survival.

A team of Australian and international scientists, led by Professor Rebecca Johnson, Director of the Australian Museum Research Institute and Professor Katherine Belov, University of Sydney, have made a significant break-through successfully sequencing the full koala genome, with the findings published today in Nature Genetics.

Considered to be the most complete marsupial genome sequenced to date, it is in terms of quality, on par with the human genome. The highly accurate genomic data will provide scientists with new information that will inform conservation efforts, aid in the treatment of diseases, and help to ensure the koala‘s long-term survival.

“The Koala Genome Consortium has been an ambitious journey affording us great insights into the genetic building blocks that make up a koala — one of Australia’s, as well as the world’s, most charismatic and iconic mammals,” Professor Johnson said.

“This milestone has come from our vision to use genomics to conserve this species. The genetic blueprint has not only unearthed a wealth of data regarding the koala‘s unusual and highly specialised diet of eucalyptus leaves, but also provides important insights into their immune system, population diversity and the evolution of koalas“, she said.

Co-lead author at the University of Sydney, Professor of Comparative Genomics, Katherine Belov said:

“The genome provides a springboard for the conservation of this biologically unique species.”

The Australian led consortium of scientists comprised 54 scientists from 29 different institutions across seven countries. They have sequenced over 3.4 billion base pairs and more than 26,000 genes in the Koala genome — which makes it slightly larger than the human genome. Unlocking the genomic sequence gives scientists unprecedented insights into the unique biology of the koala.

Professor Johnson said the uneven response of koala populations throughout their range was one of the major challenges facing broad scale management of the species.

“The genome enables a holistic and scientifically grounded approach to koala conservation”, she said. “Australia has the highest mammal extinction record of any country during the Anthropocene.

“Koala numbers have plummeted in northern parts of its range since European settlement, but have increased in some southern parts, notably in Victoria and South Australia.”

Director and CEO, Australian Museum, Kim McKay, AO congratulated Professor Johnson and the team on this achievement.

“Today we celebrate the completion of the highest quality, marsupial genome sequencing undertaken to date. This work was brought about through the meticulous efforts not only of Professor Johnson and Professor Belov, but also the contributions from many other Australian Museum scientists, as well as scientists from around the nation and the world. It will usher in a new era in our understanding and conservation of the iconic koala”, she said.

Professor Jennifer Graves, AO, Distinguished Professor of Genetics, La Trobe University and winner of the 2017 PM’s Prize for Science, said: “We could never have imagined, when we were pioneering koala genetics in the 1980s, that one day we’d have the entire koala genome sequence. This opens up all sorts of ways we can monitor the genetic health of koala populations.”

The Koala Genome Consortium announced the establishment of the project in 2013 with its first unassembled draft genome. The collective aim was to steer their research towards ensuring the long-term survival of this important marsupial while simultaneously increasing Australia’s genomics capability.

Since then, researchers have worked tirelessly to assemble this genome into the most complete and accurate marsupial genome to date and annotate its 26,000 genes for analysis. The koala genome has been sequenced to an accuracy of 95.1%, which is comparable to that of the human genome.

The 3.4 billion base pairs of the published Koala genome were sequenced at the Ramaciotti Centre for Genomics, at the University of New South Wales, using new sequencing technology.

“We then assembled the genome with supercomputers, allowing the Consortium to then study the >20,000 genes of this unique species,” said Professor Marc Wilkins, Director, Ramaciotti Centre for Genomics, UNSW.

Consortium members from the Earlham Institute (EI), (Norwich, UK) identified that koalas have two large expansions in a gene family known to be integral to detoxification, the Cytochrome P450 gene family of metabolic enzymes. They found these genes to be expressed in many koala tissues, particularly in the liver; indicating they have a very important function in detoxification and likely allowed koalas to become dietary specialists.

As Professor Johnson explains, “this probably helped them to find their niche to survive, as they could rely on a food source that would have less competition from other species who were not able to detoxify as effectively.”

Dr Will Nash in the Haerty Group at Earlham Institute, said: “Gene duplication can lead to copies of genes associated with specific functions being retained in the genome. In the Koala, the largest group of retained copies make an enzyme that breaks down toxins. This means the Koala has evolved an excellent toolkit to deal with eating highly toxic eucalypts, one made up of lots of copies of the same (or very similar) tools.”

According to Professor Belov, another important discovery was the characterisation of the composition of koala milk. Like all marsupials, koalas do the majority of their development in the pouch. They are born without an immune system after 34-36 days gestation and spend ~6 months developing in the pouch.

“We characterised the main components of the mothers’ milk — which is crucial for koala joeys — born the size of a kidney bean and weighing half of one gram,” Professor Belov said.

“We identified genes that allow the koala to finetune milk protein composition across the stages of lactation, to meet the changing needs of their young.”

“Thanks to the high-quality genome, the team was able to analyse and discover koala-specific milk proteins that are critical for various stages of development. It also appears these proteins may have an antimicrobial role, showing activity against a range of bacterial and fungal species, including Chlamydia pecorum, the strain known to cause ocular and reproductive disease in koalas”, she said.

Chlamydia causes infertility and blindness and has severely impacted koala populations in New South Wales and Queensland. Using information gained from the koala genome, scientists hope to develop a vaccine to fight diseases like Chlamydia.

Professor Peter Timms, University of the Sunshine Coast said: “In addition to Chlamydia, the other major infection that is threatening the species is koala retrovirus (KoRV), however very little is presently known about it. The complete koala genome has been instrumental in showing that an individual koala can have many (more than a hundred) insertions of KoRV into its genome, including many versions of KoRV.

“This information will enable to determine which strains of KoRV are more dangerous and to assist with our development of a KoRV vaccine,” he said.

One of the most threatening processes to koala survival is loss of habitat through land clearing and urbanisation which results in a reduction of habitat connectivity, reduced genetic diversity and puts koalas at high risk of inbreeding. The results of inbreeding can be highly detrimental to survival of those koala populations as it leads to reduced genetic diversity.

Professor Johnson added: “For the first time, using over 1000 genome linked markers, we are able to show that NSW and QLD populations show significant levels of genetic diversity and long-term connectivity across regions.

“Ensuring this genetic diversity is conserved in concert with other conservation measures to protect habitat, reduce vehicle strikes, dog attacks and disease, are the keys to the long-term survival of the koala.”

Dr Graham Etherington in the Di Palma Group at the Earlham Institute, said: “With its puppy-dog looks, the Koala is an internationally recognised species. But this iconic Australian marsupial is not just a pretty face.

“The Koala genome assembly is by far the most comprehensive marsupial genomic resource to date, which allows us an insight into how this unique animal came to be and provides us with information about potential threats to its survival. It also provides us with an excellent platform to launch further marsupial genome projects that could look into potential genetic reservoirs of previously unknown anti-microbial genes that could be leveraged for human health.

“Additionally, it provides us with an incredible amount of information about genetic diversity across different populations of koalas that can be used as a benchmark for further studies on other endangered marsupial species.”

This genomic sequencing represents the new generation of science-based conservation policy as it has already been integrated as an important pillar into the NSW Koala Strategy 2018.

All of the sequence data generated by The Koala Genome Consortium has been deposited into public databases and made freely available to scientists around the world.

“Not only does open data promote the best interests of science, it also maximises the benefits that the koala populations, and the public, receive from such research”, Professor Johnson said.

The koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) is a native tree-dwelling Australian marsupial that is one of the world’s most fascinating and iconic mammals. Not only is the koala synonymous with Australia it is also a powerful international symbol for the preservation and conservation of our natural world.

Wild koalas are currently found in eucalypt forest and woodlands across Eastern Australia (Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland) and have been translocated to other sites, such as south eastern South Australia and onto some islands such as Kangaroo Island, South Australia and French Island, Victoria.

Their unique and highly specific diet of eucalyptus (gum) tree leaves, has resulted in koalas being especially vulnerable to habitat loss due to the clearing of native vegetation for agriculture and urban development. The Australian Federal government lists koala populations in Queensland, New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory as ‘Vulnerable’ under national environment law.

“Our next efforts must be in the application of these findings to genetically manage koala populations, advance the treatment of the diseases affecting koalas, with the goal of conserving this very important species”, Professor Johnson said.

Sequencing of the koala genome has revealed some interesting qualities about these marsupials on their sense of taste. They have more bitter taste receptor genes than any other Australian marsupial, and most mammals. This possibly enables the animals to detect toxic metabolites contained in eucalyptus. Koalas even have functional receptors for both sweetness and umami: here.

Ancient virus defends koalas against new viral attacks: here.