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Current Biology, Muto et al.

This is What a Fish Thought Looks Like

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Current Biology, Muto et al.

It’s an old cartoon trope that a light bulb will appear over a character’s head when they’re struck by a brilliant idea, but that kind of tangible indication of mental activity only exists in animated illustration—at least, it did until Japanese researchers Akira Muto, Koichi Kawakami, and Junichi Nakai pioneered new technology enabling them to observe neural activity occurring in the zebrafish brain in real time, as described in a recent article published in Current Biology.

In its embryonic and larval stages, the zebrafish's body remains transparent, making it an ideal candidate for the fluorescence imaging study undertaken by scientists at Japan’s National Institute for Genetics. That unique property allows researchers to observe the body's underlying structures directly, either with the naked eye or under magnification. By developing a chemical marker that can be inserted directly into the relevant neurons of interest and detected by a fluorescent probe, the scientists enabled a close study of the activity occurring within the zebrafish brain at the level of a single cell. They introduced a new version of GCaMP, a genetically encoded calcium indicator that glows green in the presence of calcium, signaling a quantifiable increase in brain activity. As areas of the fish’s brain lit up in response to a moving stimulus, the researchers were able to keep track of neural firing at any given moment, tracing the path of the fish’s thought as it occurred.

In order to make sure they would be able to monitor the correct parts of the working zebrafish brain, the scientists first identified the relevant neurons that became active in response to a moving object and created a model of how they anticipated the neurons would react to other patterns of movement. They then tempted their subject by releasing single-celled paramecia, a common zebrafish food source, into its environment. The expected neurons glowed in accordance with the researchers’ forecast, thereby validating their predictive model.

Observing the hunger responses of a 2-inch minnow is a far cry from unlocking the secrets of human cognition, but the developments with the zebrafish indicate potential for an expansion into research on other animals' neural patterns, including humans. Co-author Kawakami optimistically predicts that “in the future, we can interpret an animal’s behavior, including learning and memory, fear, joy, or anger, based on the activity of particular combinations of neurons.” Even if we never get there, maybe we’ll finally prove, on a neurochemical level, that goldfish shouldn’t get such a bad rap for their terrible memories.

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Animals
Elusive Butterfly Sighted in Scotland for the First Time in 133 Years

Conditions weren’t looking too promising for the white-letter hairstreak, an elusive butterfly that’s native to the UK. Threatened by habitat loss, the butterfly's numbers have dwindled by 96 percent since the 1970s, and the insect hasn’t even been spotted in Scotland since 1884. So you can imagine the surprise lepidopterists felt when a white-letter hairstreak was seen feeding in a field in Berwickshire, Scotland earlier in August, according to The Guardian.

A man named Iain Cowe noticed the butterfly and managed to capture it on camera. “It is not every day that something as special as this is found when out and about on a regular butterfly foray,” Cowe said in a statement provided by the UK's Butterfly Conservation. “It was a very ragged and worn individual found feeding on ragwort in the grassy edge of an arable field.”

The white-letter hairstreak is a small brown butterfly with a white “W”-shaped streak on the underside of its wings and a small orange spot on its hindwings. It’s not easily sighted, as it tends to spend most of its life feeding and breeding in treetops.

The butterfly’s preferred habitat is the elm tree, but an outbreak of Dutch elm disease—first noted the 1970s—forced the white-letter hairstreak to find new homes and food sources as millions of Britain's elm trees died. The threatened species has slowly spread north, and experts are now hopeful that Scotland could be a good home for the insect. (Dutch elm disease does exist in Scotland, but the nation also has a good amount of disease-resistant Wych elms.)

If a breeding colony is confirmed, the white-letter hairstreak will bump Scotland’s number of butterfly species that live and breed in the country up to 34. “We don’t have many butterfly species in Scotland so one more is very nice to have,” Paul Kirkland, director of Butterfly Conservation Scotland, said in a statement.

Prior to 1884, the only confirmed sighting of a white-letter hairstreak in Scotland was in 1859. However, the insect’s newfound presence in Scotland comes at a cost: The UK’s butterflies are moving north due to climate change, and the white-letter hairstreak’s arrival is “almost certainly due to the warming climate,” Kirkland said.

[h/t The Guardian]

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Plagued with Rodents, Members of the UK Parliament Demand a Cat
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iStock

Members of the United Kingdom’s Parliament want a cat, but not just for office cuddles: As The Telegraph reports, the Palace of Westminster—the meeting place of Parliament’s two houses, the House of Commons and the House of Lords—is overrun with vermin, and officials have had enough. They think an in-house feline would keep the rodents at bay and defray skyrocketing pest control costs.

Taxpayers in the UK recently had to bear the brunt of a $167,000 pest control bill after palace maintenance projects and office renovations disturbed mice and moths from their slumber. The bill—which was nearly one-third higher than the previous year’s—covered the cost of a full-time pest control technician and 1700 bait stations. That said, some Members of Parliament (MPs) think their problem could be solved the old-fashioned way: by deploying a talented mouser.

MP Penny Mordaunt tried taking matters into her own hands by bringing four cats—including her own pet kitty, Titania—to work. (“A great believer in credible deterrence, I’m applying the principle to the lower ministerial corridor mouse problem,” she tweeted.) This solution didn’t last long, however, as health and safety officials banned the cats from Parliament.

While cats aren’t allowed in Parliament, other government offices reportedly have in-house felines. And now, MPs—who are sick of mice getting into their food, running across desks, and scurrying around in the tearoom—are petitioning for the same luxury.

"This is so UNFAIR,” MP Stella Creasy said recently, according to The Telegraph. “When does Parliament get its own cats? We’ve got loads of mice (and some rats!) after all!" Plus, Creasy points out, a cat in Parliament is “YouTube gold in waiting!"

Animal charity Battersea Dogs & Cats Home wants to help, and says it’s been trying to convince Parliament to adopt a cat since 2014. "Battersea has over 130 years [experience] in re-homing rescue cats, and was the first choice for Downing Street, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Cabinet Office when they sought our mousers to help with their own rogue rodents,” charity head Lindsey Quinlan said in a statement quoted by The Telegraph. “We'd be more than happy to help the Houses of Parliament recruit their own chief mousers to eliminate their pest problem and restore order in the historic corridors of power."

As of now, only assistance and security dogs are allowed on palace premises—but considering that MPs spotted 217 mice alone in the first six months of 2017 alone, top brass may have to reconsider their rules and give elected officials purr-mission to get their own feline office companions.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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