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Meet Our Weirdest Ever Cousins

A school of vetulicolians swimming in the Cambrian ocean

Our strangest relatives? A school of vetulicolians swimming in the Cambrian ocean, 515 million years ago. Credit: Katrina Kenny

By Diego García-Bellido & Michael Lee

Strange-sounding and even stranger-looking, vetulicolians are close relatives of vertebrates.

“Vetulicolians” sounds like a new race out of Star Trek. Indeed these 500 million-year-old fossils are so bizarre that they could be mistaken for aliens. They were tough-skinned blind creatures shaped like a figure-of-eight, with a drum-shaped head-end and a segmented tail. They were also important elements of Cambrian ecosystems. Larger than most of their fellow creatures, perhaps rendering them less prone to predation, they are some of the most abundant animals in Cambrian fossil sites after trilobites.

Human Races: Biological Reality or Cultural Delusion?

race

The use of “race” in biology has been controversial for many decades irrespective of which species it has been applied to, human or otherwise.

By Darren Curnoe

Is the concept of racial groups a sociopolitical construct or is there scientific evidence that races exist in humans?

The issue of race has been in the news a lot this year, with the canning of proposed amendments to Australia’s racial discrimination act, attempts by extremists to commit genocide on cultural minorities in Iraq, and a new book by US author Nicholas Wade that has scientists claiming their work was hijacked to promote an ideological agenda.

The Myth of the Love Hormone

Oxytocin is the molecule that helps a mother bond with her baby

Oxytocin is the molecule that helps a mother bond with her baby, and also to fiercely protect it from those she doesn’t trust.

By Signe Cane

There is a molecule intimately involved in your sex life. However, its effects are not as straightforward as some would make you think.

It has been touted as a love hormone, a diet aid, a generosity increaser, pain reliever and antidepressant. Oxytocin has such a sunny reputation that it sounds almost like a too-good-to-be-true drug. This hormone, released in the brain when we have sex, hug, shake hands, nurse babies and have other kinds of social contact, has been the subject of a vast array of scientific studies over the past decade.

Signe Cane is a freelance science writer, and editor at Wonder (www.pausetowonder.org).

Ancient Agriculture’s Role in Maternal and Infant Mortality

The skull of a young woman from Quiani-7 shows abnormal bone formation (arrowed) that may be associated with scurvy-related haemorrhage of the infraorbital artery. Credit: A. Snoddy

The skull of a young woman from Quiani-7 shows abnormal bone formation (arrowed) that may be associated with scurvy-related haemorrhage of the infraorbital artery. Credit: A. Snoddy

By Anne Marie Snoddy & Siân Halcrow

Ancient human remains have revealed evidence that the adoption of agriculture led to malnutrition in a mother, her foetus and other infants.

The foundation of modern society is rooted in agricultural dependency, a development that provided the necessary resources for population expansion. However, research by biological anthropologists who study ancient human remains has shown that the development of agriculture resulted in an increase in nutritional stress, food shortages and disease in many parts of the world.

The Wild West of Robot Law

Credit: DM7/Adobe

Credit: DM7/Adobe

By Matthew Rimmer

Robots remain a law unto themselves, with legal frontiers including issues such as liability, copyright and even the taxing of robots much like the human workers they are replacing.

Westworld is a new American science fiction show that taps into our hopes and fears about robots. The show imagines a Wild West theme park populated by androids and robots that indulge the dreams and fantasies of wealthy human visitors. Westworld is a mediation upon the law, ethics and social norms as they apply to robots.

The ART of Milk Production

Per Tillmann/Adobe

Credit: Per Tillmann/Adobe

By Tamara Leahy & Simon de Graaf

Assisted reproductive technologies play an increasingly important role in the genetic improvement of the high-yielding dairy cow.

The most common rationale for the use of assisted reproductive technologies (ART) in humans is to increase the chance of conception. Terms such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF) or artificial insemination (AI) have entered the lexicon of the layperson as society has become more familiar with the use of technology to assist reproduction.

Flower Evolution from the Birds to the Bees

 Credit: BirdImages/iStockphoto

Credit: BirdImages/iStockphoto

By Mani Shrestha, Adrian G. Dyer and Martin Burd

Walking around in the Australian bush we can see a dazzling array of different flower colours, but have you ever wondered how and why these evolved?

Plants face a challenging courtship problem. They can’t walk, talk... or the other pleasant parts that might “go with a date”. So to enable sexual reproduction to enhance the genetic variability of their offspring, plants must often rely on other mechanisms to enable pollen transfer.

Does Red Meat Deserve Its Bad Reputation?

bbq

Because Australian red meat differs so significantly from other western countries, we need to be very careful about interpreting the results of major studies examining health outcomes associated with red meat intake.

By Amanda Patterson

Returning to the tradition of eating “meat and three veg” for dinner may improve the eating patterns and nutritional status of Australians, and help to reduce rates of chronic disease.

Red meat is an excellent source of iron and zinc, vitamin B12, good quality protein, niacin, vitamin B6 and phosphorus. In fact, a 100 gram serving provides more than 25% of the Recommended Dietary Intake for each of these nutrients. Red meat is also a significant contributor to intakes of omega-3 fatty acids, riboflavin, pantothenic acid and selenium. Despite this extraordinary contribution to nutrient intakes, red meat has received bad press for the past three decades or more.

False Killers

Two juvenile false killer whales off north-eastern New Zealand.

Two juvenile false killer whales off north-eastern New Zealand. Image: Jochen Zaeschmar

By Jochen Zaeschmar

The false killer whale appears to form long-term relationships with another dolphin species.

It all started with a fish back in 2000. My first encounter with a large group of false killer whales and bottlenose dolphins climaxed when a false killer whale presented me with a large kingfish.

The other remarkable thing that struck me was the relationship between the whales and the dolphins. It appeared obvious that both species were very comfortable in each other’s presence, with the two intermingling in such a way that it was hard to detect any segregation. The encounter sparked a keen interest, not only in these whales but also in their relationship with the dolphins.

Are You Looking at Me?

eye spy

Observers have a tendency to believe that someone's gaze is directed towards themselves.

By Colin Clifford & Isabelle Mareschal

Is that person wearing the sunglasses looking at you? Or are we programmed to anticipate that we are being watched even when we’re not?

We rely on our vision to provide us with moment-by-moment information on the world around us. But the apparent effortlessness with which we enjoy a rich, seamless visual experience belies the amount of work going on in our brains. Roughly one-third of the human brain is devoted to vision, but what is all that grey matter doing?

Our brains are not merely passive receivers of sensory input from our eyes. Indeed, the visual information that reaches our brains from our eyes can be quite poor, yet we perceive a coherent and very detailed view of the world. How is this possible?