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We all want a bit of L-O-V-E, from homo sapiens, through to dolphins and of course the various sub-groups of the Heliconius toxic butterfly species.

Scientists are intrigued by two central American sub-species in particular  – the red-winged Heliconius Melpomene Rosina and the white-winged Heliconius Cydno Chioneus. This pair have been part of the same ecosystem for a million years and competed for the same resources and yet have remained genetically distinct with very few instances of interbreeding.

One evolutionary explanation posits that these species haven’t blended through the generations because any off spring would have a blend of wing patterns. This would be a free-for-all for other predators who only identify danger in the distinct red or white-winged patterns of Melpomene and Cydno respectively. Therefore, being an easy target means hybrid butterfly babies don’t live long enough to pass on their own mixed genes.

But why won’t Melpomene and Cydno get it on? The recently published journal PLOS biology attributes this lack of romance to genetics. The team of researches believe to have  found which parts of the genome determine mating preferences.

It’s also understood that there is a link between wing patterning and mating preference. The genes that are said to have an influence on mating preference are located very close to the Optix which is responsible for the colouring of the butterfly species’ wings. Although this is not firmly understood, scientists are optimistic that cameras and machine learning will help identify exactly what the processes are.

This case in genetics is called ‘reproductive isolating’ and it’s definitely a great topic for biologists to explore in their personal statements and interviews.

Meet Aloxotl  (pronounced ah-loh-shottle) – most likely the cutest little amphibian you’ve ever seen. A quick google search reveals it and ancient Aztec religion revered it. This gorgeous little creature is almost unbelievable, but don’t underestimate how important its potential may be in revolutionising human history.  

Aloxotls are neotenic and do not fully mature unlike their other salamander counterparts. This means they live out their lives underwater in a ‘Peter Pan’ style prolonged youth. They have been invaluable assets to genetic science and scientists are close to the point of having fully mapped out their entire genome.

This salamander is special because of their uncanny ability to regenerate almost every part of their body including parts of their brain, and in lab environments their gills are able to transform into lungs under the right circumstances.

Studying Aloxotls provides geneticists with incredible insights that could eventually be adapted to human medicine. One ability this friendly-faced amphibian has is to convert cells at the site of injury back into stem cells where they become much more malleable. Although this process has been hitherto mysterious, a fully mapped out genome will give scientists the co-ordinates to zero in on the exact communication between different genes.

However, this story of hope and wonder comes with a serious slice of caution pie. Aloxotl’s in their natural habitats are severely endangered as Mexico City has expanded evermore over the Mexican landscape.

Although Aloxotls can survive in artificial tanks, preserving a wild population is essential if scientists want to be able to apply their insights to the human genome.

Students considering any Biology related degrees should definitely spend more time researching the particulars of the Aloxotl genome and its implications on stem cell advancement. Geographers and Earth Scientists might want to consider the environmental frame of this story as an example of species endangerment through human destruction of natural habitats. 

William Taylor of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History has recently carried out research on the impressive horse burial sites of the Deer Stone-Khirigsuur Culture (ca. 1300-700 BC).  Examination of skeletal remains from horse burials showed the oldest known examples of veterinary dental practice.

This study forms part of wider examination into a people from eastern Eurasia that are the first known communities to rely on horses for livestock and food products.  They are also thought to be the first to mount ride horses.  It was the mounting of horses that led to nomadic lifestyle and the development of a horse-based pastoral economy.  These advancements led to the horses becoming a valuable commodity resulting in increased equine veterinary care. 

The dental care identified is shown to be temporally linked to the development of horse control.  Herders and riders used, as they do today, metal and bronze mouthpieces for bridles.  These allowed for nuanced control but with this came regular contact with the vestigial tooth known as a “wolf tooth”.  This interaction would have caused pain and even prevented young horses from feeding, leading to other health complications.  This potentially serious issue led to the removal of these teeth and Taylor has drawn a contemporary parallel stating “herders in Mongolia today practice relatively sophisticated procedures using very simple equipment”.  In fact the methods of extraction used are considered to be very similar to modern Western forms of veterinary dental extraction.

These findings come centuries before the sedentary civilizations of China and the Mediterranean and riding aided the movements of these people of the 1st millennium BCE, which shaped the cultural and biological landscapes of Eurasia.

Veterinary Medicine applicants can research the current methods of dental care and the development on pain management at the point of care.  Human Sciences applicants may wish to consider the ways in which the evidence of burial sites can be interpreted and what importance these findings have in our understanding of ancient civilisations.         

Raw honey is considered to be a natural energy source, antioxidant and handy hayfever preventative, but how different is it to its cousin which is found on the supermarket shelves?

Recent studies have shown that commercial honey is often more than just stored, heated, chemically refined, pasteurised and filtered (if that wasn’t enough). Much of the honey sold in the United States has been declared by food health and safety experts to consist largely of sweeteners, unrefined sugar, corn syrup and a tiny amount of real honey. This process of passing off impure honey as real honey is now known as ‘honey laundering’.

When one imagines cartels dealing in illegal substances, honey isn’t often the first thing to spring to one’s mind, however honey is a very valuable product! The sticky substance is consumed in vast quantities in the States, either in baked products or used as a topping. The US Department of Justice has indicted two American companies for selling mislabelled honey and has handed out several million-dollar fines to other brands.

Honey imported from Asia contains even more horrors than that produced in North America, such as metal toxins and antibiotics. These bee antibiotics are banned in the USA, however the unpleasant taste can be disguised by more added sugar in imports. The Chinese ‘bulked up’ honey can be sold for far lower prices than its real counterparts and, as a result, Chinese honey is subject to heavy duties. To avoid these import taxes, honey from China is often shipped to neighbouring countries, before passing to the US to disguise its original origin.

It can be difficult to judge the difference between real honey and ‘fake’ honey, however there are some subtle signs that a consumer can pick up on. Pure honey should be thick and viscous in texture, have no saccharine aftertaste, and be silky when rubbed between the figures.

Students that desire to study PPE at Oxford or HSPS at Cambridge should examine the ethics that are involved in the sale of ‘natural’ foods. Aspiring Medicine students should consider the harm caused to public health by contaminated honey. Those interested in pursuing the study of Economics should read up on the consequences of a market flooded by counterfeit products.

Facial recognition and memory is innately human; being able to recognise faces is something fundamental to our ability to communicate and survive. Familiar faces are easy to recognise and humans can learn to identify unfamiliar faces from repeatedly presented images: for example, have you ever met President Trump? Probably not, but you can certainly recognise his face.

A recent study from the University of Cambridge found that this ability to recognise faces is more than just a human phenomenon. Researchers from the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience trained eight sheep to recognise the faces of celebrities like Barack Obama, Emma Watson and Fiona Bruce. Initial recognition training involved sheep receiving a reward of food by breaking an infrared beam near the screen showing a celebrity photograph. The initial tests then presented two images: one showing the celebrity and one showing a stranger. The results showed that the celebrity was picked eight out of ten times. When the faces were shown at an angle, the sheep’s performance dropped by about 15%, comparable to that seen when humans perform the same task. Sheep were also seen to recognise photos of their human handlers without any pre-training, and were observed to do a ‘double-take’ before choosing the correct image.

The implications of these results are that, at least in the scientific domain, sheep can be useful models to help us understand disorders of the brain such as Huntington’s disease. Beyond research, Professor Jenny Morton who led the study said that “anyone who has spent time working with sheep will know that they are intelligent, individual animals.” Perhaps then there are wider implications on the way in which sheep will be both understood and perceived in years to come.

Philosophy, Psychology and PPE applicants may want to look into the implications of how our perception of animal intelligence may influence the social and economic landscape. Natural Sciences (B) and Medicine applicants may want to explore how studies like this enhance our ability to understand human diseases.

It has long been understood that dolphins are intelligent, social creatures, and that they have their own distinct language that humans can’t understand. Although we can distinguish the different sounds that dolphins make, and understand that each dolphin has a unique call, scientists face struggles when trying to study their communication, due to the difficulty in tracking which dolphin is making which sound and why. However, recently, psychologist and marine mammal scientist Diana Reiss and a group of biophysicists have built a ‘dolphin touchscreen’ in the form of a window into the wall of a pool at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. The researchers project interactive progammes onto it, and optical sensing technology can detect when the window is being touched by the dolphins. The project was inspired by an experiment Reiss conducted in the 1980s with an electronic keyboard with unique symbols on each key. Each key made a dolphinesque whistle when touched, with the idea that dolphins could use the keyboard to make requests of their handlers. When listening to recordings, Reiss noticed that the dolphins were mimicking the sounds made by the keyboard and combining with their own unique sounds.

One of the programmes the team have developed is a dolphin version of ‘whack-a-mole’. In the game, fish swim across the scream and disappear when touched. Within seconds of the screen turning on, the scientists witnessed the dolphin approaching the screen and touching the fish with his melon, or forehead. Motivated by this success and with the 1980s experiment in mind, the team are now developing an app similar to the keyboard. Alongside this the team will use microphones embedded in the walls to record the sounds, and multiple cameras to track the locations of the dolphins. The combination of audio and visual data the team will be able to trace the sounds back to a particular point in the pool and thus a specific dolphin. Data-mining algorithms will then be used to look for patterns in this information. 

Psychology, Biology and Veterinary students should explore our understanding of animal intelligence and consciousness and how technology is allowing us greater insight into this. Physics students can consider how such technology may help us communicate with potential extre-terrestrial life forms as we continue to pursue space exploration. Computer Scientists and Mathematicians can investigate the nature of the programmes and technology used to pursue this research.

I know, what you’re thinking…

You must be ‘kidding’, right?

A school in Zimbabwe have told parents that in order to fund their children through education, they will now accept payment in the form of livestock. This means technically a goat could go towards children’s educations.

This development comes from country’s education minister Lazarus Dokora who told a newspaper that schools will have to show flexibility when it comes to demanding tuition fees from parents, and that they should accept not only livestock, but also services and skills. For instance if a plumber has a child and wants to fund their way through education, he/she can do so by offering their services as a form of payment.

This means that farming families who have livestock to offer will be able to pay for their children’s futures not only through motor vehicles and machinery, but now by goats cows and sheep.

The week before, banks started to accept that livestock are business commodities, and started to accept them as propositions for bank loans. There has been a debate between the government of Zimbabwe and its critics, arguing whether the development has happened because of people taking hard cash out of the country, or because of the rise of unemployment and the lack of investment within the country.

Economic Students may start to think about what defines legal tender, and whether circumstance or geography defines it. HSPS students may want to consider the way in which western culture reacts to what it deems a more primitive out-dated form of payment. Land economy will definitely want to look into how our natural world has become a commodity with which to trade. Geography students might want to look into the differing ways different cultures both educate and trade.

Researchers at the University of St Andrews have found that fish can work together to tackle complex problems. After studying the behaviour of sticklebacks, scientists have concluded that more experienced fish can pass knowledge on to less experienced fish and that, when information is shared, the whole shoal is benefited.

To test their theory, the study’s authors presented the sticklebacks with a two-part problem – the fish first had to first locate and then access a food source. The sticklebacks were shown either one of the two stages in the process or were not taught anything.

Fish in groups that contained members educated in both elements of the problem obtained food faster than groups that only had knowledge of one area. Shoals with fish that made good leaders/educators saw more fish that had begun the task uneducated attempting to work on both sides of the task. The researchers also discovered that larger groups of fish were also more likely outperform smaller groups and lone individuals when completing certain tasks.

Future Psychology students should study the team building behaviours of animals and how this can be applied to humans. Those hoping to study Computer Science should investigate how this swarm theory can be used in AI software and bio-inspired robotics.

In what is thought to be the first policy of its kind in India, publishing company Harper Collins has introduced ‘pawternity leave’ to employees adopting a pet. Employees who are adopting any animal – not just a dog or a cat – can have up to 5 days of paid leave to help bond with their new arrival.

In the West, some companies have already introduced such a policy, but it was – until now – unheard of in India. The idea is to encourage responsible adoption of pets, as well as, according to Harper Collins India’s CEO, to support their employees’ ‘work-life balance and family needs’.

In addition to pawternity leave, Harper Collins India will also be allowing employees who are unable to leave their pets at home to bring them to the office. The animals will be kept in a specifically designated ‘pet creche’ for the day. A spokesperson for Harper Collins UK stressed that the company was not looking to bring this policy to the UK.

Economics and Management students might be interested in how pawternity leave will impact on the business in varying ways, both positively and negatively (increased employee satisfaction vs financial repercussions of having a reduced workforce due to staff utilising these additional days of paid leave). Students of HSPS and other social sciences like Politics might be interested in why Harper Collins India have introduced this, but Harper Collins UK will not be introducing this policy.

Exotic animals have been kept as pets across the UK for years, imported from all over the world into British households. Currently, there are over 4,500 exotic pets kept in the country, BBC reports, including big cats, large reptiles and primates. In spite of increasing campaigning to highlight the cruelty of practices that bring animals outside their natural habitats and into our homes, interest in owning exotic pets has not appeared to have waned. One question particularly pertinent to discussions on the ownership of exotic pets is how private captivity changes their behaviour.

Studies have been done to monitor and find patterns in behavioural changes amongst pets kept in captivity, however there is limited information on the ways in which private ownership can affect exotic pets. Such studies also need to take into account the operational practices exotic pets undergo in order to coexist with their owners. For instance, dangerous exotic pets such as snakes and birds of prey are regularly de-fanged and declawed to minimise risk of injury to their owners.

Veterinary Medicine applicants may want to think of the long term health risks posed to exotic animals who are kept privately in the UK, while Biological Sciences applicants could consider the ways in which the behaviour of exotic animals are influenced and transformed through private ownership. For Land Economy applicants, the implications of self-funding and self-management involved in the private ownership of exotic pets could be analysed in juxtaposition with public enclosures in zoos, for instance.

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