Wednesday, January 09, 2008

'Pin-Head' Monarch Butterfly Shows Incredible Mental Capacity

Basic to Alfred North Whitehead's organic philosophy is the position that a mental pole is at work in every occasion of experience, no matter how primitive the organism that is the subject of the experience.

An Associated Press article in today's Houston Chronicle provides novel confirmation of Whitehead's view, with a report of new discoveries on how mentality works at the level of a monarch butterfly.

The article covers just published scientific findings that the monarchs, with a brain "no bigger than the head of a pin," have a unique cicadian clock that enables them to find their way from Canada to winter nesting grounds in Mexico by using the sun as a compass.

The story says a seven-member research team led by Dr. Steven Reppert, a neurobiologist at the University of Massachusetts, genetically mapped the butterflies' biological clocks at the molecular level and found proteins common to insects and mammals.

The study was published online yesterday by the Public Library of Science and the PLoS Biology Journal, which has a synopsis providing amazing technical details about the proteins involved and how they work differently in mammals, fruit flies and butterflies.

The synopsis says "In a new study, Haisun Zhu, Steven Reppert, and colleagues reveal the details of the clockwork in the monarch butterfly and show that it has aspects of clocks from both the mouse and the fly, the only other clock types known in [non-human] animals."

The synopsis concludes: "the results in this study suggest that part of the remarkable navigational ability of the butterfly relies on its ability to integrate temporal information from the clock with spatial information from its visual system. This allows the monarch to correct its course as light shifts across the sky over the course of the day."

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