A computational model for automated tracking of socially-interacting animals

Review written by Andy Jones (COS, GS)

Understanding the link between neural activity and behavior is one of the long-running goals of neuroscience. In the information age, it is becoming more and more common for neuroscientists to take a data-driven approach to studying animal behavior in order to gain insight into the brain. Under this approach, scientists collect hours’ or days’ worth of video recordings of an animal, relying on modern machine learning (ML) systems to automatically identify exact locations of body parts and classify behavior types. These methods have opened the door for more expansive studies of the relationship between brain activity and behavior, without relying on laborious manual annotations of animal movements. 

Contine reading

Why some mosquitoes prefer biting us

Review written by Jessi Hennacy (MOL)

There are about 3500 mosquito species worldwide, but only a handful of them are responsible for the transmission of mosquito-borne illnesses such as malaria and dengue fever. Whereas most mosquito species are generalists that lack a preference for a particular animal, the specialist mosquito species that prefer biting humans over other animals are also the species that most widely spread human diseases. Understanding the environmental factors that are driving these mosquitoes to prefer humans could help uncover strategies for mitigating the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses. It is therefore vital for public health to ask why and how certain mosquitoes have evolved to target humans.

Continue reading

What can amoebae teach us about “loners”?

Review written by Thiago T. Varella (PSY GS) and Gabriel T. Vercelli (PHY ‘20)

Ever since the spread of SARS-Cov-2 imposed quarantines of global reach, people around the world have voiced their frustrations about social isolation. Indeed, Aristotle said back in 4th century BC, “man is by nature a social animal,” highlighting that our unease towards isolation is at least as ancient as the Classical era. However, as seemingly unnatural as social isolation might be for humans, it plays a crucial role in the current attempts to stave off the pandemic. Interestingly, isolation might serve a similar purpose in the natural world! Individuals that do not engage in collective behaviors have been observed in many social species. This behavioral divergence is usually thought of as an error, a failure to perfectly coordinate all individuals in a population; but this isolation could, at least theoretically be premeditated or shaped by natural selection (Barta, 2016). This leads to the question: are these isolated individuals, also called “loners,” a mere consequence of failed synchronization of the group, or could they be a mechanism nature developed to mitigate the risks of collective action?

Continue reading