Snowball the dancing, Backstreet Boys-loving cockatoo is more than a web meme: he is a scientific conundrum. Bobbing in time to music is a shockingly rare behavior, and even monkeys, capable of learning very complex tasks, find it impossible to get down to the beat even after more than a year of training. It’s marvelous evolutionary serendipity that humans dance, thinks neurobiologist Aniruddh Patel, who has found that our hearing system and motor control are intimately linked. In DISCOVER’s 2011 special issue on the brain, Patel discusses his idea that that animals needed a vocal-learning brain in order to get their groove on:
The implication is that dogs and cats can never do it, horses and chimps can never do it, but maybe other vocal-learning species can do it. I proposed that idea, but it was purely hypothetical until a few years after, when along came Snowball [in 2007].
But more importantly (drumroll), he issues a challenge:
If your pet really does have rhythm, he wants to know about it. “If someone has a dog that can dance to the beat, it will totally refute my hypothesis,” he says, “and that’s progress in science.”
If you think your pet proves Patel wrong, collect some video evidence, upload it to YouTube, and e-mail the link to email@example.com. We will post the best videos on May 1 (along with footage of Snowball shaking his groove thang).
Having a bee brain might not be so bad after all, since new research shows that bees are faster than supercomputers when it came to solving one of those dreadful “word problems” from (probably very advanced) high school math class.
“There is a common perception that smaller brains constrain animals to be simple reflex machines. But our work with bees shows advanced cognitive capacities with very limited neuron numbers.”
The problem is called the traveling salesman problem, and the bees’ lives actually depend on solving it every day. The traveling salesman needs to visit a number of cities in the shortest amount of time, without repeating a visit. The traveling bumblebee needs to visit a number of flowers everyday, while expending as little energy as possible. Queen Mary University of London researcher Lars Chittka explained in the press release why studying bees’ habits is important:
Some damselfish have sensitive stomachs, but they certainly aren’t in distress. They can hold their own, researchers have recently determined, by diligently farming their preferred algae crops.
We’re not that special.
At least, not for the reasons we thought we were. Our knack for acting altruistically, for communicating, for putting a complicated brain to good use: We’ve claimed all these as our own, as the things that set humans apart from every other species.
But recently, science has shown that we have a lot more in common with other animals, from bonobos to bees, than you might expect. On Saturday, five researchers helped set the public record straight by busting up a few humanocentric myths during “All Creatures Great and Smart,” a panel event at the World Science Festival in New York.
Myth #1: Humans are the only altruistic animals.
From proffering a shovel in the sandbox to writing a check to our favorite charity, humans commit altruistic acts whenever they do something for someone else without any concrete benefit for themselves. But you can cross sharing off the “uniquely human” list; in a simple experiment, anthropologist Brian Hare demonstrated that bonobos do it, too.
Alone in a room with some delectable snacks, each bonobo in the study had two choices: Enjoy the snacks on his own, or open a door to let another bonobo in an adjoining room come share the feast. Hare found that, time and again, bonobos in this situation chose to voluntarily share.
“It could be that they feel bad for the other guy, or maybe they’re just being politicians,” sharing now with the expectation they’ll be shared with later, Hare said. “Or maybe they just want to go on a blind date.” The fact that altruism might come with an agenda doesn’t make the bonobos’ actions any less remarkable, Hare added. These same motivations prompt a lot of the sharing we do, too.
From the heroic Flipper to the charismatic Willy, dolphins and whales have made some splashy supporting actors. And since they often seem almost as smart and interesting as their human costars, perhaps it’s not surprising that a new movement is afoot to grant these animals “human rights.”
Research on everything from whale communication to “trans-species psychology” hints that the glowing portrayals of these fictional animal friends have some basis in reality. If cetaceans—marine mammals including whales, dolphins, and porpoises—can act like humans, even using tools and recognizing themselves in a mirror, shouldn’t they have the same basic rights as people?
That’s what attendees of a meeting organized by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) said yesterday, where a multidisciplinary panel agreed on a “Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins.” Read More
Turns out humans aren’t the only ones who can keep a beat!
This sulphur-crested cockatoo can dance “in time” to a changing rhythm—and in a particularly impressive display, it can even raise its feathers when the music picks up.
In a move of criminal genius, prisoners in Brazil got carrier pigeons to do some of their dirty work for them. Or got them to try, at least—until they got caught. Last week, guards at a Sao Paulo prison noticed that a pigeon on a nearby electric wire had a small bag tied to one of its legs. They lured it down with some food, and found a small cell phone inside the bag.
The next day, another pigeon was found with a similar bag—this time, with the phone’s charger.
Radford, a University of Bristol professor, found that woodhoopoes live in gangs of about a dozen, and those groups don’t get along terribly well—they often descend into shouting contests. Unlike human shouting matches, which usually just end up with everyone unhappier than they were before, the birds’ contests have a definite winner. But, Radford says, the interesting part is what happens with the losers.
Birds aren’t just smart; they remember when they’ve been wronged.
John Marzluff, of the University of Washington in Seattle, wanted to prove his gut feeling that the crows he studied could identify individual human faces. So he and his students brought out some props. They donned a series of Halloween masks—one was a caveman, which the scientists wore when they trapped the birds. They then let the birds see them in “neutral” masks, like one resembling Vice President Dick Cheney (though this is probably one of the few times Cheney has been referred to as “neutral”).
Scientists have long known that one of their favorite test subjects, the fruit fly, has a talent unavailable to humans: sensing magnetic fields. Now, researchers led by Steven Reppert of the the University of Massachusetts Medical School say that while fruit flies might not actually “see” magnetism, their perception of it is linked to their sight—specifically, to a molecule called cryptochrome, a receptor for blue and ultraviolet light.
In their experiment, Reppert and Robert Gegear trained test flies to associate a magnetic coil with food. When the scientists put the flies in a small maze with two coils, one working and providing a magnetic field and one not, the flies flew toward the live magnet, presumably sensing the magnetic field and associating that with a sugary snack.