Tag: animal intelligence

Dolphins Protect Themselves With Sponges To Seek Out Bottom-Dwelling Fish

By Valerie Ross | July 21, 2011 1:48 pm

A few years ago, scientists observed that some bottle-nosed dolphins held sponges in their beaks as they poked around the ocean floor, flushing out fish they promptly gobbled up—and that mothers taught this trick to their daughters. In a follow-up study published yesterday, the scientists shed some light on why dolphins go to all this trouble: They’re after fatty, energy-rich fish on the seafloor, and the sponges let them scare up a snack without scraping their beaks on sharp rocks or coral.

[PLoS One via ScienceNOW]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Polly-math Parrots Add Sophisticated Reasoning to Their List of Clever Feats

By Joseph Castro | June 22, 2011 3:54 pm

What’s the News: Parrots are even less bird-brained than previously thought, suggests a new study in the journal Biology Letters. In a series of tests, researchers have learned that some African grey parrots can use logical reasoning to uncover hidden food.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Documentary Tells the Tale of Nim Chimpsky, the Chimp Raised as a Human

By Andrew Moseman | January 26, 2011 5:14 pm

The 1970s: a time for Reggie Jackson, the first go-round of John Travolta, and adopting a chimpanzee to settle a scientific dispute.

The new film Project Nim by director James Marsh, the documentarian behind the acclaimed Man On Wire, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah this week. Marsh tells the tale of a chimp that was taken from its mother and raised in a human family just like a human baby; the experimenters were attempting to show that language is not unique to our species.

In Project Nim [Marsh] looks at a project dreamed up by Columbia University psychologist Herbert Terrace and carried out on Nim Chimpsky, a chimp named for famed linguist Noam Chomsky, who has argued language is uniquely human. Alternating between previously unpublished footage and interviews with participants in the experiment, the film shows how Nim initially connects with his family before his animal nature gradually takes over. [AFP]

Where a previous study had taught a chimp named Washoe symbols in American Sign Language, Terrace sought to go further with Nim. The chimp lived with the LaFarge family of New York, and for four years Terrace’s team tried to teach Nim to respond using a series of signs to make a sentence. (Nim’s Wikipedia article lists all the “phrases” he put together.)

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Plastic-Loving Raptors Use Nest Decor to Advertise Their Status

By Andrew Moseman | January 21, 2011 10:30 am

Raptors don’t lie. At least, not with plastic.

Black kites are a raptor variety that lives on multiple continents, and like several other varieties of bird (including the crafty bowerbirds), they’re avid decorators. For whatever reason, these black kites are terribly fond of white plastic, and the birds use these bits of our refuse to decorate their nests. Scientists who studied these birds in Spain report in Science this week that there is a meaning—and a strict honesty—to the decoration scheme.

They found that, several weeks before females laid eggs, birds festooned their nests with pieces of white plastic. Fitter birds, in possession of the best territory, tended to use more plastic. Weaker birds, with less-desirable territory, used less. Elderly and very young birds used none. Territorial confrontations are common among kites, and proved closely linked to displays of plastic. Kites with much plastic in their nest were rarely challenged, while those with little were challenged daily, even hourly. [Wired]

With so much at stake, you might think these raptors have the ideal motivation to cheat—decorating more liberally than their status would allow, perhaps, as a “don’t mess with me” message to their rivals. But not so, Fabrizio Sergio and his team found. Kites tell the truth with their status symbols because it’s not worth the risk of being caught in a lie.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

"Science Is Cool And Fun": 8-Year-Old Kids Get Their Bee Study Published

By Andrew Moseman | December 22, 2010 10:31 am

Do bees prefer certain colors or shapes in the flowers from which they forage? And can they learn on the fly to go to certain colors or shapes that prove to be more lucrative?

That was the question for the students of Blackawton Primary School in Devon, England. And by devising a clever experiment to find out, these kids became the youngest authors ever to have a study published in a journal of Britain’s Royal Society.

From Ed Yong:

Their paper, based on fieldwork carried out in a local churchyard, describes how bumblebees can learn which flowers to forage from with more flexibility than anyone had thought. It’s the culmination of a project called ‘i, scientist’, designed to get students to actually carry out scientific research themselves. The kids received some support from Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist at UCL, and David Strudwick, Blackawton’s head teacher. But the work is all their own.

The class (including Lotto’s son, Misha) came up with their own questions, devised hypotheses, designed experiments, and analysed data.  They wrote the paper themselves (except for the abstract), and they drew all the figures with colouring pencils.

For all the details about this class experiment turned published study, check out the rest of Ed’s post at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Wrong By Design (PHOTOS): Beau Lotto, the scientist who helped the Blackawton kids with their bee study, explains the neuroscience of optical illusions.
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Turning Secondary School Children Into Research Scientists
80beats: How Ancient Beekeepers Made Israel the Land of (Milk and) Honey: Imported Bees
80beats: New Caledonian Crows—the Bird Geniuses—Blow Our Minds Again

Image: Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Mirror, Mirror: Study Says Monkeys May Recognize Their Own Images

By Andrew Moseman | October 1, 2010 9:47 am

MonkeyRecognitionLuis Populin never meant to study whether monkeys recognize themselves in the mirror. As DISCOVER blogger Carl Zimmer notes at the Loom, Populin’s team was working on a different project that required putting mirrors in monkey cages to stimulate their brains. Quite by accident, he noticed that monkeys with electrodes attached by the researchers spent an awful long time gawking at themselves in the mirrors.

The researchers published their findings this week in PLoS One, in which they write:

We hypothesize that the head implant, a most salient mark, prompted the monkeys to overcome gaze aversion inhibition or lack of interest in order to look and examine themselves in front of the mirror. The results of this study demonstrate that rhesus monkeys do recognize themselves in the mirror and, therefore, have some form of self-awareness.

For a video of a monkey checking itself out in the mirror, as well as much more detail about the study, its implications, and other primatologists’ doubts about it, check out Zimmer’s post.

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80beats: New Caledonian Crows—the Bird Geniuses—Blow Our Minds Again

Image: Populin et. al.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

New Caledonian Crows—the Bird Geniuses—Blow Our Minds Again

By Andrew Moseman | September 16, 2010 2:45 pm

From Ed Yong:

In New Caledonia, an island off the eastern coast of Australia, a crow is hunting for beetle grubs. The larvae are hidden within a decaying tree trunk, which might seem like an impregnable fortress. But the New Caledonian crow is smarter than the average bird. It uses a stick to probe the tunnels where the grubs are sheltered. The grubs bite at intruders with powerful jaws but here, that defensive reflex seals their fate; when they latch onto the stick, the crow pulls them out.

This technique is not easy. Birds need a lot of practice to pull it off and even veterans can spend a lot of time fishing out a single grub. The insects are fat, juicy and nutritious but do they really warrant the energy spent on extracting them? The answer is a resounding yes.

Check out the rest of this post, including video of the crows at work, at Not Exactly Rocket Science. (The video above, of the birds making hooks, is from a different study a few years ago.)

And for plenty more about bird geniuses, be sure to read the DISCOVER feature “Who You Callin’ Bird Brain?” It includes more avian smarts, such as hiding food underground and going back later to move it, just in case other birds were watching the first time and thought about stealing a meal.

Related Content:
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Not Exactly Rocket Science: Clever New Caledonian crows use one tool to acquire another
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Confirming Aesop – rooks use stones to raise the level of water in a pitcher

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Male Bowerbirds Use a Clever Optical Illusion to Woo Mates

By Eliza Strickland | September 9, 2010 3:00 pm

bowerbird-bowerFrom Ed Yong:

Right from its entrance, Disneyland is designed to cast an illusion upon its visitors. The first area – Main Street – seems to stretch for miles towards the towering castle in the distance. All of this relies on visual trickery. The castle’s upper bricks and the upper levels of Main Street’s buildings are much smaller than their ground-level counterparts, making everything seem taller. The buildings are also angled towards the castle, which makes Main Street seem longer, building the anticipation of guests.

These techniques are examples of forced perspective, a trick of the eye that makes objects seem bigger or smaller, further or closer than they actually are. These illusions were used by classical architects to make their buildings seem grander, by filmmakers to make humans look like hobbits, and by photographers to create amusing shots. But humans aren’t the only animals to use forced perspective. In the forests of Australia, the male great bowerbird uses the same illusions to woo his mate.

Read the rest of this post at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Related Content:
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80beats: Mockingbird to Annoying Human: “Hey, I Know You”
DISCOVER: Stunning High-Speed Photos of Birds (gallery)

Image: Current Biology / John Endler

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

4 Messages a Pantomiming Orangutan Might Be Trying to Convey

By Joseph Calamia | August 11, 2010 5:32 pm

orangutanStop patting yourself on the back. You’re not so special. Orangutans, a new study suggests, also use complex gestures or pantomimes to communicate.

Looking through twenty years worth of orangutan observations, researchers believe they have found 18  examples of pantomimes. The study, which appeared today in Biology Letters, supports the claim that we’re not unique when it comes to abstract communication and lends credence to other observations of great ape gesturing, according to lead researcher Anne Russon.

[Orangutans and chimpanzees were already known] to throw an object when angry, for example. But that is a far cry from displaying actions that are intentionally symbolic and referential–the behaviour known as pantomiming. “Pantomime is considered uniquely human,” says Anne Russon from York University in Toronto, Canada. “It is based on imitation, recreating behaviours you have seen somewhere else, which can be considered complex and beyond the grasp of most non-human species.” [New Scientist]

Of the eighteen observed orangutan pantomimes, four took place between orangutans and 14 between a human and an orangutan. If you ever find yourself in the Indonesian jungles, here are some examples of messages that you might expect:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Living World

Dog Breeders’ Tinkering Produced Breeds With Reorganized Brains

By Andrew Moseman | August 4, 2010 10:53 am

English_pointerHounds, pointers, and other dogs bred for their excellent abilities to pick up a scent tend to have longer snouts—but it’s not just that a bigger nose is a better one. Researchers have found that human domestication of dogs has shifted the structure and alignment of some dogs’ brains. And in those varieties with shorter snouts—which humans bred for other reasons, like appearance—the olfactory brain region rotated to a different part of their skull, leaving scientists to question whether we’ve crossed up their smelling abilities (and perhaps more).

Since the first wolf was domesticated an estimated 12,000 years ago, “selective breeding has produced a lot of [anatomical] variation, but probably the most dramatic is in terms of skull shape,” said study co-author Michael Valenzuela [National Geographic].

For this study, which appears in the open-access journal PLoS One, Valenzuela and colleagues examined the brains of 11 dog breeds and found great variation in the size and shape of their skulls. The breeds with shorter snouts had brains that rotated forward by as much as 15 degrees over the generations, the scientists say. That means that the olfactory lobe, as well as other parts  of these dogs‘ brains, has shifted position and shape because humans guided their evolution through domestication.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain
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