Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Journal: Interface focus


Figs are keystone resources that sustain chimpanzees when preferred fruits are scarce. Many figs retain a green(ish) colour throughout development, a pattern that causes chimpanzees to evaluate edibility on the basis of achromatic accessory cues. Such behaviour is conspicuous because it entails a succession of discrete sensory assessments, including the deliberate palpation of individual figs, a task that requires advanced visuomotor control. These actions are strongly suggestive of domain-specific information processing and decision-making, and they call attention to a potential selective force on the origin of advanced manual prehension and digital dexterity during primate evolution. To explore this concept, we report on the foraging behaviours of chimpanzees and the spectral, chemical and mechanical properties of figs, with cutting tests revealing ease of fracture in the mouth. By integrating the ability of different sensory cues to predict fructose content in a Bayesian updating framework, we quantified the amount of information gained when a chimpanzee successively observes, palpates and bites the green figs of Ficus sansibarica. We found that the cue eliciting ingestion was not colour or size, but fig mechanics (including toughness estimates from wedge tests), which relays higher-quality information on fructose concentrations than colour vision. This result explains why chimpanzees evaluate green figs by palpation and dental incision, actions that could explain the adaptive origins of advanced manual prehension.

Concepts: Integral, Fruit, Common Chimpanzee, Color, Ficus, Nutrition, Scientific method, Common fig


Small-winged drones can face highly varied aerodynamic requirements, such as high manoeuvrability for flight among obstacles and high wind resistance for constant ground speed against strong headwinds that cannot all be optimally addressed by a single aerodynamic profile. Several bird species solve this problem by changing the shape of their wings to adapt to the different aerodynamic requirements. Here, we describe a novel morphing wing design composed of artificial feathers that can rapidly modify its geometry to fulfil different aerodynamic requirements. We show that a fully deployed configuration enhances manoeuvrability while a folded configuration offers low drag at high speeds and is beneficial in strong headwinds. We also show that asymmetric folding of the wings can be used for roll control of the drone. The aerodynamic performance of the morphing wing is characterized in simulations, in wind tunnel measurements and validated in outdoor flights with a small drone.

Concepts: Flight, Lift, Aircraft, Reynolds number, Drag, Aerospace engineering, Wing, Aerodynamics


To maintain the quality of the feathers, birds regularly undergo moult. It is widely accepted that moult affects flight performance, but the specific aerodynamic consequences have received relatively little attention. Here we measured the components of aerodynamic drag from the wake behind a gliding jackdaw (Corvus monedula) at different stages of its natural wing moult. We found that span efficiency was reduced (lift induced drag increased) and the wing profile drag coefficient was increased. Both effects best correlated with the corresponding reduction in spanwise camber. The negative effects are partially mitigated by adjustments of wing posture to minimize gaps in the wing, and by weight loss to reduce wing loading. By studying the aerodynamic consequences of moult, we can refine our understanding of the emergence of various moulting strategies found among birds.

Concepts: Flying and gliding animals, Corvus, Fluid dynamics, Jackdaw, Drag, Lift, Wing, Aerodynamics


Small aerial robots are limited to short mission times because aerodynamic and energy conversion efficiency diminish with scale. One way to extend mission times is to perch, as biological flyers do. Beyond perching, small robot flyers benefit from manoeuvring on surfaces for a diverse set of tasks, including exploration, inspection and collection of samples. These opportunities have prompted an interest in bimodal aerial and surface locomotion on both engineered and natural surfaces. To accomplish such novel robot behaviours, recent efforts have included advancing our understanding of the aerodynamics of surface approach and take-off, the contact dynamics of perching and attachment and making surface locomotion more efficient and robust. While current aerial robots show promise, flying animals, including insects, bats and birds, far surpass them in versatility, reliability and robustness. The maximal size of both perching animals and robots is limited by scaling laws for both adhesion and claw-based surface attachment. Biomechanists can use the current variety of specialized robots as inspiration for probing unknown aspects of bimodal animal locomotion. Similarly, the pitch-up landing manoeuvres and surface attachment techniques of animals can offer an evolutionary design guide for developing robots that perch on more diverse and complex surfaces.

Concepts: Aerodynamics, Locomotion, Animal locomotion, Bat, Bird, Flight, Flying and gliding animals, Insect


Aspect ratio (AR) is one parameter used to predict the flight performance of a bat species based on wing shape. Bats with high AR wings are thought to have superior lift-to-drag ratios and are therefore predicted to be able to fly faster or to sustain longer flights. By contrast, bats with lower AR wings are usually thought to exhibit higher manoeuvrability. However, the half-span ARs of most bat wings fall into a narrow range of about 2.5-4.5. Furthermore, these predictions do not take into account the wide variation in flapping motion observed in bats. To examine the influence of different stroke patterns, we measured lift and drag of highly compliant membrane wings with different bat-relevant ARs. A two degrees of freedom shoulder joint allowed for independent control of flapping amplitude and wing sweep. We tested five models with the same variations of stroke patterns, flapping frequencies and wind speed velocities. Our results suggest that within the relatively small AR range of bat wings, AR has no clear effect on force generation. Instead, the generation of lift by our simple model mostly depends on wingbeat frequency, flapping amplitude and freestream velocity; drag is mostly affected by the flapping amplitude.

Concepts: Ratios, Flying and gliding animals, Bat, Ratio, Aspect ratio, Planform, Flight, Wing


Terrestrial laser scanning (TLS) is providing exciting new ways to quantify tree and forest structure, particularly above-ground biomass (AGB). We show how TLS can address some of the key uncertainties and limitations of current approaches to estimating AGB based on empirical allometric scaling equations (ASEs) that underpin all large-scale estimates of AGB. TLS provides extremely detailed non-destructive measurements of tree form independent of tree size and shape. We show examples of three-dimensional (3D) TLS measurements from various tropical and temperate forests and describe how the resulting TLS point clouds can be used to produce quantitative 3D models of branch and trunk size, shape and distribution. These models can drastically improve estimates of AGB, provide new, improved large-scale ASEs, and deliver insights into a range of fundamental tree properties related to structure. Large quantities of detailed measurements of individual 3D tree structure also have the potential to open new and exciting avenues of research in areas where difficulties of measurement have until now prevented statistical approaches to detecting and understanding underlying patterns of scaling, form and function. We discuss these opportunities and some of the challenges that remain to be overcome to enable wider adoption of TLS methods.


Mathematical and statistical methods enable multidisciplinary approaches that catalyse discovery. Together with experimental methods, they identify key hypotheses, define measurable observables and reconcile disparate results. We collect a representative sample of studies in T-cell biology that illustrate the benefits of modelling-experimental collaborations and that have proven valuable or even groundbreaking. We conclude that it is possible to find excellent examples of synergy between mathematical modelling and experiment in immunology, which have brought significant insight that would not be available without these collaborations, but that much remains to be discovered.

Concepts: Probability theory, Chaos theory, Science, Applied mathematics, Experiment, Scientific method, Mathematics, Statistics


Since the last major theoretical integration in evolutionary biology-the modern synthesis (MS) of the 1940s-the biosciences have made significant advances. The rise of molecular biology and evolutionary developmental biology, the recognition of ecological development, niche construction and multiple inheritance systems, the ‘-omics’ revolution and the science of systems biology, among other developments, have provided a wealth of new knowledge about the factors responsible for evolutionary change. Some of these results are in agreement with the standard theory and others reveal different properties of the evolutionary process. A renewed and extended theoretical synthesis, advocated by several authors in this issue, aims to unite pertinent concepts that emerge from the novel fields with elements of the standard theory. The resulting theoretical framework differs from the latter in its core logic and predictive capacities. Whereas the MS theory and its various amendments concentrate on genetic and adaptive variation in populations, the extended framework emphasizes the role of constructive processes, ecological interactions and systems dynamics in the evolution of organismal complexity as well as its social and cultural conditions. Single-level and unilinear causation is replaced by multilevel and reciprocal causation. Among other consequences, the extended framework overcomes many of the limitations of traditional gene-centric explanation and entails a revised understanding of the role of natural selection in the evolutionary process. All these features stimulate research into new areas of evolutionary biology.

Concepts: DNA, Population genetics, Evolutionary biology, Evolutionary developmental biology, Charles Darwin, Natural selection, Biology, Evolution


Our objective was to use expectancy-violation methods for determining whether Portia africana, a salticid spider that specializes in eating other spiders, is proficient at representing exact numbers of prey. In our experiments, we relied on this predator’s known capacity to gain access to prey by following pre-planned detours. After Portia first viewed a scene consisting of a particular number of prey items, it could then take a detour during which the scene went out of view. Upon reaching a tower at the end of the detour, Portia could again view a scene, but now the number of prey items might be different. We found that, compared with control trials in which the number was the same as before, Portia’s behaviour was significantly different in most instances when we made the following changes in number: 1 versus 2, 1 versus 3, 1 versus 4, 2 versus 3, 2 versus 4 or 2 versus 6. These effects were independent of whether the larger number was seen first or second. No significant effects were evident when the number of prey changed between 3 versus 4 or 3 versus 6. When we changed prey size and arrangement while keeping prey number constant, no significant effects were detected. Our findings suggest that Portia represents 1 and 2 as discrete number categories, but categorizes 3 or more as a single category that we call ‘many’.

Concepts: Change, Number, Category, Following, Predation, Category theory, Arthropod, Spider


Many aspects of an individual’s biology derive from its interaction with symbiotic microbes, which further define many aspects of the ecology and evolution of the host species. The centrality of microbes in the function of individual organisms has given rise to the concept of the holobiont-that an individual’s biology is best understood as a composite of the ‘host organism’ and symbionts within. This concept has been further elaborated to posit the holobiont as a unit of selection. In this review, I critically examine whether it is useful to consider holobionts as a unit of selection. I argue that microbial heredity-the direct passage of microbes from parent to offspring-is a key factor determining the degree to which the holobiont can usefully be considered a level of selection. Where direct vertical transmission (VT) is common, microbes form part of extended genomes whose dynamics can be modelled with simple population genetics, but that nevertheless have subtle quantitative distinctions from the classic mutation/selection model for nuclear genes. Without direct VT, the correlation between microbial fitness and host individual fitness erodes, and microbe fitness becomes associated with host survival only (rather than reproduction). Furthermore, turnover of microbes within a host may lessen associations between microbial fitness with host survival, and in polymicrobial communities, microbial fitness may derive largely from the ability to outcompete other microbes, to avoid host immune clearance and to minimize mortality through phage infection. These competing selection pressures make holobiont fitness a very minor consideration in determining symbiont evolution. Nevertheless, the importance of non-heritable microbes in organismal function is undoubted-and as such the evolutionary and ecological processes giving rise to variation and evolution of the microbes within and between host individuals represent a key research area in biology.

Concepts: Life, DNA, Biology, Gene, Natural selection, Evolution, Bacteria, Organism