I have to once again thank my wife for pointing this article out to me. She likely got it from Fark or something similar with a headline along the lines of, “I, For One, Welcome Our New Drisophila Melanagaster Overlords”. I admit it’s one of the first things I thought of myself … check this one out:
In an experiment that has yielded some of the most interesting discoveries since a group of late night interns took turns farting in a mouse tank, scientists have actually developed a breed of fruit fly with the ability to count.
After repeatedly subjecting fruit flies to a stimulus designed to teach numerical skills, the evolutionary geneticists finally hit on a generation of flies that could count — it took 40 tries before the species’ evolution occurred.
I’m no evolutionary biologist, but that doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me (explanations welcome!). I would think that there has to be some sort of selective pressure acting on those specimens who did exceptionally well during their “training” session, such that they would then be allowed to breed with others who also did well. I got this explanation from Gizmodo:
The flies were exposed to two, three or four flashes of light, with two or four flashes coinciding with a shake of the container the flies were kept in. Following a pause, the flies were again subjected to the flashing light, however none prepared themselves for a repeat of the shake since they could not discern a difference between two, three or four flashes.
This helps at least to describe the process. Again, I’m not sure how selective pressures are active here, unless shaking the container killed off those who didn’t have the ability to tell the difference between two, three, or four flashes. Apparently whatever they did was enough to physically change the way their brains were wired by the 40th generation. It was also a sudden change; the 39th generation didn’t exhibit this ability, and the 40th one did. It’s hoped that studying the mutated neural architecture will give us better insight into how the human mind processes numbers, including a disability called dyscalculia, characterized by a difficulty in learning and carrying out arithmetic.