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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Jun 26;109 Suppl 1:10701-8. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1201885109. Epub 2012 Jun 20.

Evolution of brains and behavior for optimal foraging: a tale of two predators.

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Department of Biological Sciences, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN 37235, USA.


Star-nosed moles and tentacled snakes have exceptional mechanosensory systems that illustrate a number of general features of nervous system organization and evolution. Star-nosed moles use the star for active touch--rapidly scanning the environment with the nasal rays. The star has the densest concentration of mechanoreceptors described for any mammal, with a central tactile fovea magnified in anatomically visible neocortical modules. The somatosensory system parallels visual system organization, illustrating general features of high-resolution sensory representations. Star-nosed moles are the fastest mammalian foragers, able to identify and eat small prey in 120 ms. Optimal foraging theory suggests that the star evolved for profitably exploiting small invertebrates in a competitive wetland environment. The tentacled snake's facial appendages are superficially similar to the mole's nasal rays, but they have a very different function. These snakes are fully aquatic and use tentacles for passive detection of nearby fish. Trigeminal afferents respond to water movements and project tentacle information to the tectum in alignment with vision, illustrating a general theme for the integration of different sensory modalities. Tentacled snakes act as rare enemies, taking advantage of fish C-start escape responses by startling fish toward their strike--often aiming for the future location of escaping fish. By turning fish escapes to their advantage, snakes increase strike success and reduce handling time with head-first captures. The latter may, in turn, prevent snakes from becoming prey when feeding. Findings in these two unusual predators emphasize the importance of a multidisciplinary approach for understanding the evolution of brains and behavior.

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