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Stocking Stuffers: Smart Squirrels, DNA Origami, and More


Here’s a collection of short news items of interest from the animal and human worlds.

Squirrels Are Smarter than Nuts

A squirrel may stash dozens of nuts for the winter, burying them or hiding them for later use. Some squirrels stash them in one place, but most species hide them in many scattered locations. Biologists at the University of California at Davis wondered how they find them again. Do they just hide lots of nuts and hope to get lucky? No; they remember. 

Live Science says their search algorithm is not random, nor do the squirrels rely on scent. Somehow — although the scientists do not understand the exact mechanisms — squirrels remember where to go to find each nut that might have been buried months earlier. 

That’s quite a memory feat, but it’s not all. Here are some other signs of squirrel intelligence:

  • They arrange their nuts by traits, like the type of nut. This indicates the ability to mentally organize their hoard.
  • Instead of randomly storing, “there appears to be a meticulous strategy behind the way they store food.”
  • The squirrels are generally able to retrieve 95 percent of their stashed nuts.
  • They probably use landmarks to find the nuts. They can recognize the trees, and gauge distances between the trees, themselves, and their nests. They also remember the distances between their hiding places.
  • Experiments have shown they can remember how to solve puzzles two years after figuring them out, like how to move a lever to retrieve a treat. This indicates good long-term memory.
  • They appear to do “quality control” on their nuts before stashing them, checking for the highest-quality nuts and selecting the ones least likely to decay in the ground.
  • Squirrels will meticulously hide the burial place, covering it with vegetation.
  • They have been seen to “pretend” to bury a nut when a neighboring squirrel is watching “— and then scurry off to a secret location where they actually hide their edible treasures.”

The lead author at UC Davis speculated that scatter-hoarding “probably evolved because it reduces the risk of suffering a major loss,” A Japanese expert in squirrel cognition, though, finds nothing nutty about their behavior. He commented, “We think these little creatures may be way smarter than we thought.” But actually, nuts are pretty smart, too. Both organisms use DNA.

The DNA Game

The engineering wizards at Caltech have made the world’s smallest Tic-Tac-Toe board — out of DNA. Earlier attempts at “DNA origami” resulted in sculptures from the genetic material, but those were static, not capable of alteration. The new technique allows bio-engineers to reconfigure the parts and create new shapes. A video clip shows how nanorobots could actually play the game by exchanging tiles. 

Their paper listed by Caltech Coda, “Information-based autonomous reconfiguration in systems of interacting DNA nanostructures,” tells how it was done. Without doubt, Jerry Coyne will be impressed with what can be accomplished by blind, unguided forces acting on random mutations.

Cultural Atheism Among UK Scientists

A study at Rice University funded by the Templeton Foundation appears to confirm that most scientists in the UK are atheists, sharing the mindset of Richard Dawkins and the late Stephen Hawking. Published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the study, led by Elaine Howard Ecklund, finds that “while only 18 percent of people in the U.K. said they do not believe in God, 45 percent of U.K. scientists responded the same way” — and the gap is wider among scientists at elite institutions. Indeed, Nick Perham at Cardiff University in Wales tries to explain religiosity with a “cognitive perspective” at The Conversation. He argues that science explains why we are “adapted for faith” by evolution.

But since the great erosion of faith “could also be a product of social forces rather than intellectual ones,” according to Ecklund, it seems that turnabout is fair play. A theological journal could do a “study” on the social reasons behind the same trend. Perhaps it’s because in the elite scientific culture, scientists “may disproportionately feel the cultural pressure to secularize.” Obviously, great scientists in the UK’s heritage, such as Newton and Boyle, did not at all feel that science’s “methods and mindset are inherently in conflict with religion.” 

The Science of Gratitude

Many of us view the holidays as a time to express gratitude to family and friends — and to God — for the blessings we enjoy. Arguably, saying thank you to others is a human need, not merely an obligation. Can we enjoy gratitude without the paralysis of analysis? Mention any such need or capacity, and you will find a Darwinian trying to tell us how it evolved. For instance, at New Scientist, Susana Martinez-Conde turns gratitude into selfishness, arguing that it evolved to make our own lives better. “All of this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective,” she asserts (emphasis added). Pointing to experiments using functional MRI (fMRI) with patients told about acts of kindness, and watching how the brain responded, Martinez-Conde argues that gratitude plays a strong, probably evolved, role in our social bonds and networks.” Presumably that is when the physical brain is not planning war or genocide for survival of the fittest. Similarly, but without the evolutionary angle, Christina Karns focuses on the selfish benefits of gratitude at The Conversation, once again based on fMRI experiments. 

But are people actually being grateful if only thinking about what it can do for them? Is gratitude just an adaptation happened upon by selfish genes for no reason? And doesn’t gratitude require an object who is worthy to receive it? We have ample reasons to get our minds off of ourselves this season, and to express gratitude and awe toward the designing agent, call that being what you will, who built a fine-tuned universe, gave us the right kind of star and planet, and endowed us with hands and minds with which to serve others.

Photo credit: This squirrel has found a top-quality nut, by Caleb Martin via Unsplash.