MBB Junior Symposium 2014: Mind, Brain, and the Wonderful World of Animal Behavior


Saturday, November 1, 2014, 8:45am to 2:15pm


William James Hall 1 (basement lecture hall)

Please note: This event is not open to the public.

The MBB junior symposium features talks by and discussions with a variety of scholars on an interdisciplinary theme in mind/brain/behavior. The symposium will include speaker presentations and a lunch/discussion with speakers and MBB faculty. The talks are open to all MBB undergraduates and faculty, and the full symposium activities are open to MBB juniors and to those MBB seniors who did not attend the 2013 symposium. Participation is required of students pursuing the Certificate in MBB (students in honors MBB tracks) and is also open and recommended to students pursuing or considering a secondary field in MBB.


Juniors and seniors who are completing the symposium requirement - and thus who will be attending the entire symposium - should pre-register by emailing Shawn Harriman at shawn_harriman@harvard.edu. Please include your name, year, MBB affiliation (track or secondary field), and concentration. Please pre-register by noon on Wednesday, October 29th.


Joshua Greene, John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of the Social Sciences (Harvard University)

Edward Kravitz, George Packer Berry Professor of Neurobiology (Harvard Medical School)

Robert Stickgold, Associate Professor of Psychiatry (Harvard Medical School)


Estimates vary widely but suggestions are that some 10-30 million different species of organisms exist in huge numbers in the world that surrounds us. In every ecological niche on the planet we find organisms that have evolved to adapt, survive and even flourish in what might be very hostile environments to human beings. On an evolutionary time scale, how has this happened? What do we learn about ourselves as a species by examining such adaptations? In this symposium we hear about three widely divergent vertebrate species and the special mechanisms they have evolved to allow them to exist in and interact with ecosystems different than ours. They present fascinating stories about the behavior of these animals. As details emerge about how the nervous systems of these animals process incoming information, however, they also teach us things about how we function. See if you will agree with that statement by the end of the symposium.


8:45 a.m. - Registration (outside William James Hall 1)
9:00 - Welcome and Introduction, Prof. Robert Stickgold
9:15 – Active Acoustic Sensing: Representing Space through Sound, Prof. Cynthia Moss
10:30 – A Mechanism for Rheotaxis in Larval Zebrafish, Prof. Florian Engert
11:30 – Self-Domestication as an Evolutionary Dynamic: Chimpanzees, Bonobos, and Implications for Human Cognition, Prof. Richard Wrangham
12:30 p.m. - Lunch and Discussion
1:30 – Panel Discussion and Conclusion, Prof. Edward Kravitz with symposium organizers and speakers)


Florian Engert, Professor of Cellular and Molecular Biology (Harvard University)

Cynthia Moss, Professor of Psychology (University of Maryland)

Richard W. Wrangham, Ruth B. Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology (Harvard University)


Active Acousting Sensing: Representing Space through Sound (Cynthia Moss)
Spatial perception by echolocation involves the dynamic interplay between auditory information processing and adaptive motor control. An important component of this adaptive system is the timing of echolocation signals, which the bat adjusts, not only with respect to object distance, but also in the context of perceptual demands and planning. Specifically, the big brown bat, Eptesicus fuscus, produces stable groups of echolocation signals, flanked by longer pulse intervals, when it is challenged by spatial tasks, such as figure-ground segregation and target trajectory uncertainty. Behavioral and neurophysiological data suggest that the bat actively organizes its echolocation calls into groups to build a detailed representation of the sonar scene.

A Mechanism for Rheotaxis in Larval Zebrafish (Florian Engert)
Almost all animals who have to navigate with respect to the flow of moving water or air rely on the processing of visual whole field motion generated by the stationary reference frame of the ground or the shore. Such relative motion signals allow the detection of the presence and direction of the coherent motion of the medium that carries them along. This reliance on signals from an external , stationary reference frame is an adaptive strategy since no relative forces between the body and the surrounding medium – shear or pressure - are exerted and can be sensed if the body is moving at the same speed as the surrounding water or air. Here we show that larval zebrafish can perform efficient rheotaxis in complete darkness and in the absence of any other direct cues from the external reference frame. We show that this behavior requires the presence of a flow velocity gradient, and we present behavioral data that support a novel algorithm that fish use to efficiently navigate laminar flow. To this end, fish use their later line to first measure the curl of the local velocity vector field to detect the presence of flow and, second, measure the temporal change in curl magnitude following swim bouts to deduce flow direction. We believe that this is an efficient and simple strategy to navigate flow in the absence of external cues that generalizes to any animal that needs to navigate in moving water.

Self-Domestication as an Evolutionary Dynamic: Chimpanzees, Bonobos, and Implications for Human Cognition (Richard Wrangham)
Chimpanzees and bonobos, humans’ two closest relatives, provide a key model for the evolution of reduced aggressiveness. Like humans, chimpanzees exhibit considerable proactive aggression particularly in the context of intergroup interactions. They differ from humans, however, in also being routinely violent within their social communities. Bonobos are much less aggressive in both contexts. This remarkable difference between two species that are anatomically very similar presents a fascinating parallel to the difference between a wolf and a dog. I will use it to describe the concept of self-domestication as an evolutionary dynamic, and will apply the self-domestication concept to human evolution so as to illuminate the origins of human language and culture.