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Prehistoric giant bird had tiny brain

The largest flightless bird to ever have walked the Earth had a disproportionately small brain, according to new research.

The prehistoric birds of the clade Dromornithidae roamed north-west Queensland for millions of years before going extinct along with many other species of megafauna 50,000 years ago. The largest species, Dromornis stirtoni, stood up to three metres tall, weighed in at a whopping 600kg, and had a head about half a metre long.

But that huge skull only held a small brain, squeezed and flattened to fit, according to a new study published in the journal Diversity.

The researchers led by Flinders University examined the brain structures of four Dromornis species using a CT scanner. This allowed them to make internal models and show that there wasn’t much space in the skull for brain matter.

Vertebrate palaeontologists Dr Warren Handley and Associate Professor Trevor Worthy hold the skull (L) and partial upper bill (R) of the mihirung Dromornis planei. Credit: Flinders University

In fact, the brains and nerves of these giant bids are thought to resemble those of modern-day chickens and the Australian mallee fowl.

Lead author Warren Handley, from Flinders, says this new research could indicate “a lot about their sensory capabilities, and something about their possible lifestyle which enabled these remarkable birds to live in the forests around river channels and lakes across Australia for an extremely long time”.

Majority of Australians want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

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Credit: Tania Malrechauffe on Unsplash.

In this week’s good news about the climate crisis, a survey has found that most Aussie voters are keen to reduce emissions.

The researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) surveyed a nationally representative sample of over 2,000 people in 2019, aiming to examine potential links between climate attitudes and voting behaviour in light of the 2019 federal election – dubbed ‘the climate election’.

They found over 80% of respondents view action to reduce Australia’s emissions as important.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the results revealed a strong age divide: younger voters are more strongly pro-climate action than older voters, which may see increased support for climate policies in the coming decades as more young people become eligible to vote.

In addition, as the authors note in their paper published in PLOS ONE, “holding pro-climate action attitudes consistently correlates with voting for progressive political parties and having higher levels of education”.

Still, 70% of conservative voters viewed climate action as important, and over a quarter (26%) of conservative voters considered it extremely important. In contrast, 73% of progressive voters viewed climate action as extremely important.

The research also looked to the future, seeing how public opinion would change as the population ages, and concludes: “While cleavages in climate attitudes in Australia are set to continue, efforts to promote climate delay are bound to have a limited shelf life as a growing majority of voters accepts the need for climate action.”

Bilingual babies love all babble

Babies pay more attention to baby talk than regular speech, no matter what language is being spoken, according to research from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).

Previous studies have shown that monolingual babies prefer adults to speak baby talk rather than ‘normal’ talk. Now, this new research confirms that babies exposed to two languages have the same preference.

The study, published in Advances in Methods and Practices in Psychological Science, was conducted at 17 labs over four continents, observing 333 bilingual and 384 monolingual babies.

The results also indicate that bilingual kiddos become interested in baby talk at the same age as their monolingual peers. This puts to rest parental fears that teaching a baby two languages sets them back – in fact, they’re developmentally right on track.

“Crucially for parents, we found that development of learning and attention is similar in infants, whether they’re learning one or two languages,” says co-author Megha Sundara, a linguist from UCLA. “And, of course, learning a language earlier helps you learn it better, so bilingualism is a win-win.”

Bunny hopping gene discovered

Patterns of locomotion in sauteur rabbits. From Samuel Boucher. Credit: Carneiro M et al., 2021, PLOS Genetics

The molecular and genetic mechanics of hopping isn’t well understood. But a new paper published in PLOS Genetics has investigated a few jumping-related genes.

The researchers, based at Uppsala University in Sweden, used a breed of rabbit called the sauteur d’Alfort, which doesn’t hop at all – instead, it lifts its back legs and walks on its front paws.

The researchers bred sauteur d’Alfort rabbits with regular bunnies, then investigated the genomes and hopping abilities of the rabbits’ offspring.

They found a mutation in a gene called the RORB gene, which leads to a decrease in the number of neurons in the rabbit’s spinal cord. This mutation causes the bizarre gait of the sauteur d’Alfort rabbits.

This means that the RORB gene is necessary for rabbits, and probably other animals that hop as well like kangaroos and hares. It also backs up previous research on RORB in mice.

“This study provides a rare example of an abnormal gait behavior mapped to a single base change and the first description of a gene required for saltatorial locomotion,” write the authors in their paper.

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The sauteur d’alfort rabbit. Taken by (A) R. Cavignaux; (B) S. Boucher. Credit: Carneiro M et al., 2021, PLOS Genetics

Wiki page views show increase in biodiversity awareness

Researchers have developed a new metric for tracking awareness of biodiversity, based on the Wikipedia page views for different organisms.

The Species Awareness Index collates the pageviews for animals across the globe, then adjusts them for factors like background popularity of Wikipedia per country.

“It’s vital that the global community works together to protect biodiversity. But to do that effectively, we need buy-in from the public,” says Joe Millard, lead author on a paper published in Conservation Biology that describes the index.

“To track our progress, we need to understand the extent to which people recognise the value of biodiversity, which can help to determine what might drive changes in awareness and behaviour.”

The researchers used the index to find that there had been a marginal increase in biodiversity awareness over the past five years. Some families, like reptiles, increased quickly in awareness, while amphibians declined in awareness.

Increases in pageviews didn’t seem to be linked to economic value – like the trade of species or their contribution to plant pollination.

“We hope that our metric could form the basis of a new global indicator of biodiversity awareness that would be useful to policy makers, perhaps supported by other measures, and it could also be used to track the impact of specific initiatives,” says Millard.

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