February 15, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Life Is Smarter Than We Know

How can toads calculate?  How can cells without a brain or central nervous system figure out a balanced diet?  How can bugs navigate the wind for optimum flight time?  These are some of the questions that can arise from observations of the living world.  The more we learn about life, the more we find unexpected abilities in the most “primitive” of living things.
    The ameba seems like a lowly life form.  How smart can it be?  French scientists found out they are not only social organisms; they know how to obtain a balanced diet.  Science Daily reported that “Even single-celled organisms feed themselves in a ‘smart’ manner.”  Experiments showed that amoebas thrive best with a ratio of two parts protein to one part sugar.  When presented with a veritable grocery stand of nutrients, they went for the optimal ingredients on their own.  “Social amoebae are thus capable of solving complex nutritional challenges, quite a surprising feat for a very simple organism lacking a centralizing system,” the article said.  “The researchers are now attempting to elucidate the mechanisms involved.”
    Toads look pretty clumsy when they hop and flop, but they actually calculate the timing and impact of their landings.  Another article on Science Daily reported that experiments at Holyoke College demonstrate that “toads, like humans, are capable of anticipating when and how hard they’re going to land after a jump and activating muscles important in absorbing impact accordingly.”  This ability had only been demonstrated previously in mammals.  The observations showed that toads adjust their elbow tension according to the length of the hop.  “In addition, one major elbow muscle was always activated at a fixed interval prior to landing in all hops, regardless of distance, suggesting that toads not only gauge how hard they’re going to hit the ground, but also anticipate precisely when that will happen.”  It seems obvious that rapid feedback from eyes and other senses is involved.  This is the first time that tuned muscle activation before landings has been observed in amphibians, and “It raises questions about how widespread this ability is among other species and how important feedback from various sensory systems—e.g., vision—is for mediating this ability.”  The team plans to blindfold some toads in their next experiments to measure the dependency on visual input for this ability.
    We tend to think of birds as the champions of migration, but research in the UK shows that “the flight behavior of some insects is similar to that of migrating birds in its sophistication.”  The short story in Live Science explains that “high-flying moths and butterflies are able to select favorable winds and correct for drift, tactics that maximize the ground the insects cover and optimize their travel times.”  That certainly must be true for monarch butterflies that are currently enjoying their winter-over in some remote mountains in Mexico after their long fall migration.  There must be a lot of computing power packed in a bug brain that is smaller than a pinhead.

Good old-fashioned science, the experimental kind, with controls and empirical tests, was done in these stories.  No appeals to Darwin were required.  The answers led to additional research questions.  Some of these experiments could be done in a middle school or high school.  If science restricted itself to observation and stayed out of theology (see next entry), there would be no science wars, and more young people would be attracted to careers studying the wonders of nature.

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