Archive for family

Luke Melvin Basil

Grandson painting

The evolution of intelligence

My sister Jenny Basil, a brilliant biologist headquartered at the City University of New York (Brooklyn College), makes a spirited appearance in this piece in bioGraphic (by Kate Evans, with photographs and video by Dave Abbott and others):

What would be lost, if we lost the nautilus? Not just beauty, but brains, too. In the past, some marine biologists have dismissed nautiluses as “dumb snails,” the least intelligent of the cephalopods. The suggestion greatly offends Basil, who has studied chambered nautiluses in her Brooklyn lab for more than 25 years. Her hair is a color her students call “nautilus auburn,” and she has nothing but enthusiasm for her subjects. She and her doctoral students call them “the kids,” and Basil says looking after them is like parenting a gang of troublesome 12-year-olds: “‘I’m gonna go out the outlet pipe. I’m gonna fight for some shrimp even though I have some.’ They’re always trying to injure themselves.”

Basil studies animal brains and behavior—hamsters, jays, chickadees, lobsters—but she finds nautiluses particularly compelling because they can help answer questions about the evolution of intelligence. As a group, cephalopods have the most grey matter of any invertebrate on Earth, Basil says—“big, fat, sassy brains” that evolved hundreds of millions of years before the vertebrate brain. But while octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid live fast and die young after laying a thousand eggs, nautiluses don’t mate until they are at least 10 years old, then lay a handful of eggs that take a year to hatch. “They are solving problems in a different way with a different brain.”

Basil’s early studies showed that nautiluses have superior powers of smell—they are able to detect very low concentrations of odors at distances of more than 10 meters, and move toward the source with great accuracy by comparing minute differences in the intensity of the odor reaching the receptors on each side of their body. In other words, they smell in stereo—an adaptation requiring complex sensory processing, and a surprise in such an ancient animal.

Their eyesight isn’t bad, either. In another experiment, Basil and doctoral student Robyn Crook strapped each nautilus into a harness—dubbed the “nautilus car seat”—and exposed them to a flash of blue light, giving the animals some food immediately afterward. Just like Pavlov’s dog, the nautiluses learned to respond and continued to do so hours later, proving they have both short-term and long-term memory.

The whole piece is utterly engrossing.

Jacquelin Elinski

Jackey was the youngest of her siblings, all of whom welcomed me with love and friendliness to their homes and into their lives. She was surpassingly sharp, and almost never said a common thing. Her Christmas Eve parties showed me what life should be.

Apples and Tree

Nashville.