We Have the Brain of a Fruit Fly

It's easy to think of fruit flies as tiny robots that respond reflexively to their environment. But like humans, they take time to collect information and deliberate when faced with a difficult choice, according to a new study.

The findings, published in the journal Science, could help researchers study cognitive development and defects in humans. Scientists have long been fascinated by the decisionmaking process, said an author of the study, Gero Miesenböck, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, but "this is the first time in an animal as low as a fruit fly we have been able to show that similar processes occur."

To study how flies make up their minds, the researchers placed them in bifurcated chambers filled on both sides with an odor they had been taught to avoid. When the odor was clearly more potent on one side than the other, the flies were quick to choose which chamber to inhabit (and nearly always chose the less odorous one). But when the difference was subtle, the flies took longer to decide, and were more apt to make the wrong choice.

"We were surprised," Miesenböck said. "The original thought was that the flies would just act impulsively, they won't take time to deliberate."

The process so closely mimics decisionmaking in humans, the researchers said, that the same mathematical models used to describe the actions of deliberating people could be used to predict a fly's behavior. The link between fly and human mental activity appears to be FOXP, a gene that is closely associated with cognitive development and language in humans.

removing SEAshells harms ecosystem

You might think twice next time you snag a seashell from the beach and drop it into your pocket: You might be altering the seaside environment.

In a study more than 30 years in the making, researchers found that the removal of shells from beaches could damage ecosystems and endanger organisms that rely on shells for their survival. The study focused on coastline on Spain's northeastern Mediterranean shore called Llarga Beach, where the researchers conducted monthly surveys of seashell abundance between 1978 and 1981.

At the time they weren't thinking of ecology: They were trying to understand what happens to shells after the organisms that inhabit them die. "Only later did our research group realize that this quantitative data set offered us a unique opportunity to evaluate changes in shell abundance on a beach that was increasingly frequented by tourists," said study leader Michal Kowalewski, a curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

The researchers returned to the same beach three decades later. They found that the abundance of seashells had decreased by 60 percent while tourism had increased by 300 percent. Shell abundance was especially low in the tourist-heavy summer months of 2008 to 2010 compared with the rest of the year.

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