December 22, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Overqualified Mammals

Here are some mammals with capabilities that exceed the requirements of mere survival.

Seal GPSLive Science reports that Weddell seals in the Antarctic may have GPS guided by earth’s magnetic field.  They have an amazing ability to find their breathing holes in the ice after staying down on complex hunting maneuvers.  This ability, if confirmed to be magnetically based, would have to be extremely precise for them to find spots under the featureless ice to high precision.

“The animal always found its way back. It’s like he knew exactly where the hole was,” Fuiman said. “I couldn’t figure out how they would do that. How did they know where they were by the time they turned around?”

Fast sniff:  “Neuroscientists have discovered that mice can detect minute differences in the temporal dynamics of the olfactory system,” Science Daily says.  Researchers publishing in PLoS Biology experimented on mice and found that their ability to discriminate between smells is “capable of very high transient information transmission rates” on the order of 13 milliseconds.

Time management:  “Many animals may have a previously under-appreciated ability to make up for lost time with more effort,” another article on Science Daily says alongside a photo of African cats and zebras.  It’s more than just measuring the trade-off between speed and accuracy.  Princeton researchers identified “a crucial third component: an ability to expend effort at a greater rate to compensate for any limit to the time spent making a decision.”  A Darwinian tale was concocted to explain this ability:

This flexibility gives an animal an advantage, in terms of Darwinian fitness, over individuals that are stuck with a simple trade-off between speed and accuracy, the researchers report. Because of this fitness advantage, the authors predict that the ability to control investment of time and effort separately should be widespread in nature.

What this means is that, after the fact, we can see how the trait is beneficial.  It says nothing about how the trait arose.  What mutation in a mammal brain gave it time management skill?

Got a job opening?  Hire these mammals!  They’re overqualified, but will work for food.


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