Sunday, January 13, 2013

Mother Nature is Weird

I've been watching my way though a free course available on YouTube:  Human Behavioural Biology taught by Prof. Robert Sapolsky at Stanford University.  I am completely fascinated by what I'm learning.  The course investigates the roles of heredity and environment in shaping behaviour.  The aim is to explain human behaviour, but the course also presents the results of numerous animal studies to make various points.

For example, the case of the naked mole rat, (a.k.a. the "sand puppy", according to Google). According to National Geographic, this ugly little beast looks like a tiny, pink walrus, or "perhaps a bratwurst with teeth".  Professor Sapolsky explains that these guys live in elaborate underground burrows, in large communities.  There is division of labour.  Each naked mole rat has a job to do.  Except, researchers found when observing one community, there were a handful of lazy naked mole rats.  They just hung around in the burrows, eating lots of food that was brought to them by their buddies.  They ate so much that they got big and fat.

The researchers couldn't figure out why the other naked mole rats wasted resources feeding the lazy naked mole rats.  Until rainy season.  When rain started pouring down, each overfed naked mole rat backed his big fat butt into one entrance to the burrow, thusly plugging up the doorway and keeping rainwater from flooding the underground tunnels.  Take whatever lesson you will from this.

Another one of my favourite anecdotes from the course has to do with bees.  As you probably all know, bees communicate via "dancing".  A dance with particular parameters translates into "There is a significant food source if you travel around 10 minutes from the hive entrance at an angle of 80 degrees to the east" or something close to that.  Normally if a bee came back to the hive and did that dance there would be an immediate bee exodus to go take advantage of the food source.  That's pretty impressive in itself.

Here's the even-more-awesome part.  The researchers put an attractive food source onto a rowboat and rowed out into the middle of a lake.  They waited for a bee to discover the food source, then they monitored what happened inside the hive.  The discoverer bee flew home and danced the message "Hey guys I found a tasty snack 7 minutes outside the hive, 150 degrees to the left!"  But the other bees didn't believe him.  They were all "Yeah, right, I don't think so.  Dude, that's in the middle of the lake!  Pollen doesn't grow out there!"  And none of the bees went to investigate.

How could bees possibly be that smart?  I mean, do they even have a brain?  I'm thinking that they might have a tiny cluster of neurons inside their fuzzy little heads about the size of a poppy seed, or of sesame seed if we're being very optimistic.  How can they put two and two together to make four?  It's pretty amazing.


DarcKnyt said...

Wow. I'm always amazed at bees. It's true, they're tiny-brained, but perhaps there's more to intellect than simply number of brain cells. :)

Happy Sunday!

Warped Mind of Ron said...

Hmmm.... obviously nobody has learned the "It's on a freaken boat now get over there!" dance move yet.

Jenski said...

Naked mole rats are cool! And bees - I was waiting for you to say they moved the boat and found something cool that way. :-)

Granny Annie said...

I would end up (no pun intended) as a naked mole rat:)

Lynn said...

That is amazing!

LL Cool Joe said...

I'm trying to work out what the moral is to the fat naked mole rat story. There aren't many situations where it's an advantage to have a big fat arse.

DarcsFalcon said...

Well there you go! The naked mole rats prove it! Fat has a purpose! Besides being a character on Kim Possible. :D

Truly amazing about the bees, too. I would have thought they'd know their buddy wasn't lying - can bees lie? - and they'd go investigate right away.

Sounds like a fascinating course you're taking. :)