Sunday, November 14, 2010

Traumatizing Tadpoles

Just admit it. Somehow, someway, I've managed to peer inside your head once again to find out exactly what you're thinking. Or are you going to try to deny that such a thought has ever crossed your mind? The idea of intentionally traumatizing baby tadpoles apparently crossed someone’s mind, as I was intrigued when I came across the practice in a science article. Why would anyone want to traumatize tadpoles, you ask? Aside from giving the future axe-murderers of society ideas for something to do on Friday nights, the concept was employed to test the ability of tadpoles to learn from their environment, even before they hatch.

A research team at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada exposed wood frog eggs to water which had been doused with slurry of freshly ground-up wood frog tadpoles. Naturally, such an environment could be scary to aspiring tadpoles. Imagine taking your child to a daycare with ground up baby bits everywhere. Researchers then paired this experience with water from the tanks of fire-belly salamanders. Since the salamanders don't live around wood frogs in nature, their scent by itself shouldn't provoke any reaction, as they're not a natural predator.

Yet when the eggs hatched, tadpoles that had been exposed to the scent of the salamander alongside the slurry of their ground-up nursery school friends, considered the scent of the salamander by itself to be threatening. Un-traumatized tadpoles didn't have the same reaction.

In a follow up study by another team led by Maud Ferrari of the same University, the same type of embryos were exposed to salamander scent, this time with no morbid slurry of dead comrades. Instead, they exposed them to this mix of salamander scent and dead playmates after they hatched. In theory, this alarming exposure could give the youngsters a life-long fear of the salamanders. Yet tadpoles who had already been exposed to the scent earlier in their life, when nothing seemed to be amiss, disregarded the scent as irrelevant. So tadpoles are capable of learning not only what to be afraid of, but they also learn when it isn't time to panic. Turns out the little fellas are smarter than most people would have ever thought.

What all this nonsense accomplished, other than allowing us to create one of the most intriguing blog post titles ever, is to show that even among some of the earth's lowliest creatures, learning takes place from the very beginning. Its part of a new wave of research revealing that right from the start, baby creatures of all kinds show an extraordinary knack to absorb their environment and adjust accordingly.

The moral of the story: fetuses can be aware of their environment to a degree that most don't fully appreciate. That, and under no circumstances should you expose pregnant women to a slurry of ground up baby bits. If a tadpole is capable of learning before birth, imagine how much more so a baby human picks up from their surroundings.

When I read about this study, I began to think about all the other research I've explored regarding the consequences of things such as conflict or maternal stress on fetal development. The studies are numerous and the research conclusive: negative environments can adversely affect fetal development. Yet something about this study gave me a whole new perspective on things, and maybe it will you as well. At the very least, it's an interesting example of how wonderful and complex life can be even at the smallest levels.

So before any future little ones get here, remember: friendly voices, calm tones, and a healthy, nurturing environment babies are learning from you, even before they're born. They're absorbing their surroundings; reading any conflict in the environment and observing the tones of voices in their future caretakers, and even adjusting their development accordingly. Let’s make sure to give them lots of happy thoughts.

1. Susan Milius, "Smart from the start," Science News, Vol. 176(4):26-29, August 15, 2009

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