Sheep's genes and rueful rats

SARAH JANE O'CONNOR
Last updated 05:00 13/06/2014

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As part of a new series, Sarah-Jane O'Connor looks back at some of the main findings from Kiwi scientists and their compatriots around the world in the last week. 

1. What are a sheep's genes?

New Zealand researchers have helped map the sheep genome, which is hoped to aid in production of wool, meat and milk. The work has taken eight years and involved 26 institutions across eight countries. With more than 30 million sheep in New Zealand, any improvements to production could have huge pay-offs to the agricultural economy.

AgResearch principal scientist John McEwan, who was involved in the project, said the genetic information was already being used to develop genetic selection for traits including parasite resistance, number of lambs born and meat yield.

2. Calicivirus is still killing rabbits, but not as many

Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (previously known as calicivirus) was illegally released in New Zealand in 1997. Landcare Research scientists used 23 years of data from Alexandra's Great Easter Bunny Hunt to track changes in the number of rabbits killed in the hunt. The number of rabbits killed annually dropped dramatically after the virus was introduced in 1997, but stayed low for only four years. The researchers said the virus was still killing rabbits, but not as effectively as it had when it was first introduced.

3. Crows clever, but children still smarter

Researchers at the University of Auckland have pitted New Caledonian crows against 2-year-old children, and the children came out on top.

The researchers tested whether the birds could observe a cause-effect relationship and then replicate it. The birds and the children were both shown a contraption which would dispense a reward (meat for the birds, marbles for the children) if a block was put through the correct hole in a box. The researchers likened the process to seeing fruit fall off a branch when it was shaken by the wind. The children were able to make a causal link (ie, shaking the branch to make fruit fall off even when there was no wind) where the crows could not.

4. Can computers "think" like humans?

Computers hit the news this week after a group of programmers claimed their programme beat the "Turing test" - where a computer fools people into thinking it is human. The programme, named Eugene Goostman, managed to convince 10 out of 30 judges at the Turing Test 2014 competition that it was a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy. The judges "chatted" online with two entities - one a real person, the other the chat-bot Eugene - and had to decide which was which. The event organisers claimed the programme passed the test, but that assertion has sparked debate among experts, who say Alan Turing set a higher bar for artificial intelligence than exhibited in the competition.

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5. Regret isn't just for humans - rats feel it, too

Regret was once thought to be unique to humans but neuroscientists at the University of Minnesota have shown that rats exhibit the behaviour, too. Rats were offered a situation much like being in line at a food court where the line at one restaurant might be unbearably long. At each station there was a delay waiting for the reward, and impatient rats that moved onto the next station where the reward was not as good displayed behaviours consistent with regret. The same part of the brain active in humans experiencing regret was also active in regretful rats.

- The Press

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