Issue 8


In this issue:

  • How the California condor rejected everything we know about reproductive biology.

  • This recent paper shows a link between exercise and memory.

  • How your brain might be recognizing your best friends even at the cellular level.


Guess who just joined the strong independent woman club.

Two female California condors have apparently managed to reproduce and give birth to chicks without the help of a male. So yeah — step aside, boys.

I didn’t even know that was possible.

The phenomenon is called parthenogenesis. It’s rare, but it has been documented in several reptiles and fish. The fact that condors can apparently do this comes as a huge surprise.

How did scientists even figure this out?

It’s kind of a bad news/good news situation. Back in the 1980’s there were only 22 wild condors left (that’s the bad news). Alarmed that the condors might go extinct, conservationists captured them all and began breeding them in captivity.

That’s depressing. What’s the good news?

The silver lining is that there now exists a very detailed genetic database documenting the lineage of every condor that has been born for the past 4 decades. A group of scientists reviewing this database noticed that two of the condors were not a genetic match to any other known male. This meant that they literally had no father.


Once the scientists discovered this fact, it really only left one possibility: parthenogenesis. The fact that more than one female condor decided to reproduce en solo could have been an adaptive response to the near extinction of the species.


The Leak: With two female condors producing ‘virgin births’, scientists are beginning to wonder whether parthenogenesis is more common in the wild than initially anticipated. Conservationists are equally excited because they might have uncovered one more tool in their fight to prevent species from going extinct. California condors must be huge Beyoncé fans because it turns out they’re all about the single ladies. 


Don’t you hate that scientists won’t shut up about how exercise is good for you?

Some people love to run, others love high-intensity bursts of exercise. Then there are those who barely make it off the couch (life is hard, okay?). Time and time again, exercise has been linked to benefits for the body…and more recently, the mindA new paper suggests that different types of exercise might even have different effects on your memory

The experiment: The researchers recruited about 100 participants who use a fitness tracking device (Fitbit) and asked them for the data from their tracker. These individuals also answered questions about their mental health, and took a battery of cognitive tests (that’s how we like to spend our Friday nights). The scientists’ goal was to look for mathematical relationships between different kinds of exercise, mental health scores, and cognitive abilities. 

What did they find?

Participants who had done either low or moderate intensity exercises in the preceding week had a bump in performance when tested on their memory recall. On the flipside, people who had engaged in high intensity exercise performed better on tests of spatial ability. Basically, while exercise can influence your cognitive abilities, it appears that not all workouts affect you in the same way. 

So should I just hit the gym to improve my memory before an exam?

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. The scientists also found that self-reported stress levels were correlated with performance on the different memory tests. This meant that it was a little unclear whether the differences in memory were related to physical activity or just stress in general. Nonetheless, studies like these that link cognitive task ability with fitness data can help pull out interesting connections to focus on in subsequent research. 


The Leak: Exercise is good for you, but we already knew that. A new paper suggests that different intensities of exercise might affect your brain in different ways. This exciting new area of research could one day help link the data from your smartwatch to various aspects of your mental health. In the meantime, guess we’d better get off this couch and go get those steps in!


Do you and your besties ever just feel perfectly in sync?

That’s the social animal in you talking. And you’re not alone — a new paper shows that bats have neurons in their brains that react only when a member of their “cluster” (aka friend group) is vocalizing.

Why should I care about this?

Because social groups are an important part of our lived experiences. From ants to fish to people to bats, many species thrive when surrounded by their buddies. Given the significance of social interactions to our daily lives, it’s possible that the mysteries of the brain might actually be unlocked by studying the way we function in groups.

The experiment: A group of researchers recorded video, audio, and neural activity from clusters of Egyptian fruit bats as they hung out in their enclosure. The bats vocalized at each other several times during social interactions. Surprisingly, almost none of these vocalizations overlapped with one another (who knew bats were so polite). This made it easy to study how the bats’ brains responded when hearing sounds from their friends.

What did they find?

Some neurons in the frontal cortex responded only when hearing the bats’ own vocalizations. Other neurons responded only when hearing the vocalizations of specific members within the cluster. The existence of these specialized neurons could explain how we keep track of complicated exchanges in large social groups. Social vocalizations also led patterns of neural activity to become synchronized across the brains of multiple bats (talk about being on the same wavelength). And here’s the best part — this cross-brain synchrony ONLY occurred for bats belonging to the same cluster. Y’know, a classic “you can’t sit with us” situation.  


The Leak: New research has begun to dig deep into ways that our brains operate in large social groups. Bat brains appear extremely well adapted for representing vocalizations belonging to themselves and their peers during group interactions. Given the similarities in social networks between bats and humans, it’s not outlandish to suspect that you too might have a neuron in your brain that cares exclusively about your best friends. ❀️

In case you missed it:

  • According to a new paper, head tilting in dogs might be a sign of focus and concentration. Please give your smart pups an extra kiss from us here at Lab Leaks. πŸ•

  • People use forward thinking in social situations to mentally simulate and manipulate future interactions. You’ll never see your favorite soap opera villain the same way again. πŸ§Ό

  • Submit papers for us to write about and earn rewards! πŸ†

  • Look out for our next issue in 2 weeks (every other Wednesday)! πŸ™Œ

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