28 February 2007

whales heave heavy sigh of relief

BBC: Japanese whale hunt ended early

it's about time

…from New Scientist:

[…] The song of an extremely rare species of cuckoo has been recorded for the first time. It is only the third confirmed sighting in a decade of the Sumatran ground-cuckoo and knowing its song will help gather more information about the mysterious bird’s distribution, conservationists say. […]

26 February 2007

humans have been trying to reach nonhumans through art since prehistoric times

Head of a White Stork
attributed to Vincenzo Leonardi

…from the Telegraph:
Beauty of the beasts

Why has mankind always loved to draw animals? David Attenborough explains the fascination

Animals were the first things that human beings drew. Not plants. Not landscapes. Not even themselves. But animals. Why? The earliest known drawings are some 30,000 years old. They survive in the depths of caves in western Europe. The fact that some people crawled for half a mile or more along underground passages through the blackness is evidence enough that the production of such pictures was an act of great importance to these artists.

But what was their purpose? Maybe drawing was an essential part of the ceremonials they believed were necessary to ensure success in hunting. Maybe the paintings were intended not to bring about the death of the creatures portrayed but, on the contrary, to ensure their continued fertility so that the people would have a permanent source of meat. We cannot tell. One thing, however, is certain. These drawings are amazingly assured, wonderfully accurate and often breathtakingly beautiful.

This practice of painting images of animals on walls has persisted throughout our history. Five thousand years ago, when men in Egypt began to build the world's first cities, they too inscribed images of animals on their walls.

There is no doubt about the function of at least some of these: the Egyptians worshipped animals as gods. But Egyptian artists also delighted in their natural beauty, for they adorned the walls of their own underground tombs with pictures. The mummified dead in the next world would surely wish to be reminded of the beauties and delights of this one.

The distinction between animals as gods and animals as themselves is also apparent in the manuscripts of medieval Christianity. Scribes provided their saints with emblematic animals. Saint Mark has his lion, but it is a lion with wings; and Saint John is accompanied by an eagle, but often one of such magnificence that it is scarcely recognisable as the brown bird of reality.

But other less exalted and more earthy creatures also crept into their manuscripts. The monks introduced on to their pages the wild creatures that abounded in the natural world outside. Squirrels run up the margins; rabbits chase one another around the capital letters.

In the early 12th century, such animals began to escape from the breviaries and Psalters into books of their own. These bestiaries seem to be a particularly English phenomenon, an early indication of a special national affection for animals that endures to this day. Among these recognisable images there are some fantastic animals - unicorns and dragons, sea monsters, and griffins that were part-lion and part-eagle. The scribes had not seen them but they certainly believed in their existence.

By the 15th century however, the new scientific spirit of the Renaissance swept through Europe. Scholars began to examine the world with fresh eyes and to question the myths of the medieval mind. Leonardo da Vinci started to look at animals and plants in a new way. He wished to understand how they grew, moved and reproduced themselves, so he not only drew them in action but dissected their bodies.

Other scholars began to assess the variety of animal life that lay beyond their own countryside. For explorers travelling south down the coast of Africa, east to the Indies and west to the New World were bringing back completely new kinds of creatures.

The natural world needed a catalogue, and the first to compile one - thus earning the title of the father of zoology - was a Swiss doctor, Conrad Gesner. To illustrate it, he assembled drawings from wherever he could get them. Some he commissioned from artists, who drew many of the skins and skeletons that Gesner himself had collected. Others, he asked to use their imaginations to produce pictures of animals that neither they nor anyone else had ever seen, and some images he simply appropriated. All these pictures, Gesner published from 1551 onwards in his Historia animalium.

Gesner's illustrations in turn were plundered by an Italian encyclopaedist, Ulisse Aldrovandi, professor of natural sciences at the University of Bologna. Like Gesner, Aldrovandi amassed an immense collection. His cabinet of curiosities was said to contain 4,554 drawers of specimens. For years, he wrote and rewrote descriptions of his objects, quoting from all kinds of sources, including references from classical poets. The myths of medieval times had not yet entirely vanished, for Aldrovandi firmly believed in the existence of dragons and he accordingly devoted a section to them - some with wings and some with seven heads.

Aldrovandi's illustrations, like those in most printed books of the 16th century, came from wooden blocks on which the design was cut in relief. The simplicity of the technique inevitably imposed limitations on detail. Many of Aldrovandi's images are banal representations of banal subjects: worms, a tooth, lumps of stone. But there are also many that have an undeniable grandeur, such as the huge crabs, shown full-page, which glower at the reader from within their splendidly armoured and articulated shells.

Aldrovandi's works were firmly based on his own collections of specimens. However, in the first half of the 17th century, a new kind of collector appeared, who accumulated not objects but drawings of them.

Such a one was Cassiano dal Pozzo, whose interests took in classical statues and architecture, plants, animals and fossils. These drawings, which would ultimately fill many huge vellum-bound volumes, constituted what he called his museo cartaceo, or his "Paper Museum". He was more rigorously scientific than Aldrovandi: gone are the mermaids, dragons and centaurs.

Cassiano himself investigated the anatomy of many of his animal specimens as Leonardo had done 150 years earlier - though the records his artists produced are no match for Leonardo's. But they did produce drawings that convey with great mastery the colour, texture and details of their subjects. Occasionally, they succeeded in giving their drawings of the most ordinary objects a monumentality that the originals probably never possessed.

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the influx of strange and wonderful plants and animals from overseas supplied the artists of Europe with abundant new subjects. Eventually, the time came when some decided that they would themselves travel to far-flung places to find animals and plants in their original settings.

One of the first of these adventurous artists was a divorced middle-aged woman by the name of Maria Sibylla Merian. She lived in Amsterdam, where she earnt her living as a flower painter, but she also had a passion for insects. In 1699, at what was then regarded as the advanced age of 52, she set out for the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America. She wanted to discover and chronicle the stages insects passed through during their life cycles. And she drew them, sitting on their particular food plants, often with other small and quite unrelated invertebrates alongside them.

Merian's work is unmistakable. Style in natural history drawing is often subtle - indeed, sometimes it is almost unidentifiable. The artists are often too concerned with correctness and accuracy of detail in what they are portraying to mould its contours to their own particular taste. There is no room for vague impressions. There are no costumes to bring a sense of period. Since backgrounds are often omitted, there is no need to use the conventions of perspective. So a drawing of a flower made in the 16th century may be hard to distinguish from one of the same species made in the 20th. But Merian's pictures display clear clues to their authorship. She has a special fondness for curls and she draws them whenever she has the opportunity. Given the chance, her snakes squirm into extravagant coils.

Twenty years later and farther north, in Virginia, another European artist also began to delineate the natural history of the New World. Mark Catesby, a young naturalist born in Suffolk, often gives his subjects settings that are neither accurate from a naturalist's point of view nor even to scale. His flamingo is placed against a branch of so-called black coral, a gorgonian, which lives only in coral reefs, where flamingos never go.

Most bafflingly of all, he sets his biggest subject, the magnificent one-ton American bison, against a spray of a Robinia tree, drawn to a completely different scale. None the less, Catesby's images have great freshness and charm. He engraved them himself on copper plates, and between 1729 and 1747 published them as The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands.

This was the first in a series of illustrated books on the natural history of North America that culminated in 1827 in perhaps the greatest and certainly the most gigantic of all bird books, entitled The Birds of America, by John James Audubon. Audubon hunted birds with an unquenchable passion and he drew them with equal enthusiasm. He thought that the standard static profiles, which, since ancient Egyptian times, had been the almost universal way of representing birds, gave no idea of their vivacity and grace.

He determined to draw them in motion, so he took one of his newly shot victims and fixed it on to a board with a squared grid drawn on it. He manipulated the bird's wings and neck into what he considered life-like attitudes and fixed them in position with skewers. The process must have been a fairly blood-spattered one, since his specimens were newly killed. The results, however, did indeed bring life to his images. Terns swoop, eagles crouch over their captured prey, and hummingbirds hover in front of flowers. Audubon brought these dramatic drawings to Britain in order to get them engraved for reproduction. They were, however, among the last important natural history drawings to be printed in this way.

That was because a German printer had discovered that a line drawn with a wax pencil on a fine-grained limestone could be inked and printed. He refined the process to such an extent that soon the lithographic process was in use all over Europe, offering prints that could reproduce the most delicate lines directly from the artist's hand. The process led to a new flowering of natural history books.

Among the most spectacular were those produced by John Gould, who employed a series of artists, perhaps the most talented of whom was the 18-year-old Edward Lear, later to become more famous for his nonsense verse. Gould's sumptuous folio volumes appeared in imposing ranks on the shelves of aristocratic libraries throughout Britain.

By the beginning of the 20th century, it seemed that the age of great scientific natural history painting was coming to an end. Photography was beginning its reign, and it was soon possible to capture an exact image of the creature in front of you with the press of a finger.

Now the tiny electronic camera can record high-quality pictures in light so low that even the human eye has difficulty in perceiving what is in front of it. Optical cables can carry images from underground nest chambers at the end of long narrow tunnels. New vibration-proof mountings allow the camera to record close-ups of an animal while hovering in a helicopter a thousand feet above it.

You might think that these latest developments would finally bring to an end a tradition that stretches back 30,000 years. Not so. Today large-scale monographs devoted to particular groups of plants and animals are still produced by artists who welcome the double demands of aesthetic delight and scientific accuracy.

And they always will do. For no matter what the ostensible motive for their work, whether it is to lighten the reverential atmosphere of a monastery or to invoke animal spirits in a fertility ritual, to explore anatomy or to catalogue a discovery, there is a common denominator that links all these artists. It is the profound joy felt by all who observe the natural world with a sustained and devoted intensity.

The exhibition 'Amazing Rare Things', featuring many of the artists mentioned here, opens next Friday at the Queen's Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh. Details at www.royalcollection.org.uk

23 February 2007

"lizards shout" sez NSF, like drunks at a party

Public release date: 23-Feb-2007
National Science Foundation

Lizards shout against a noisy background
to get points across

Male Anole lizards signal ownership of their territory by sitting up on a tree trunk, bobbing their heads up and down and extending a colorful throat pouch.

They can spot a rival lizard up to 25 meters away, says National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded biologist Terry Ord of the University of California at Davis. Ord and colleagues published their results this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The lizards' signals need to be strong enough for a rival to see, but not vivid enough to interest predators. Their forest homes, however, can be "visually noisy" environments, with branches and leaves waving in the breeze.

"They have to have a strategy to get their message across," Ord says.

"We all know that people speak more loudly in a noisy party," says John Byers, program director in NSF's division of organismal systems. "These researchers have shown that lizards can do the same. We are only beginning to understand how perfectly adapted the behavior of animals can be."

Ord videotaped two species of Anole lizards, Anolis cristatellus and Anolis gundlachi, in the Caribbean National Forest of Puerto Rico. He found that the more "noise" in the background, the faster and more exaggerated the movements of the lizards.

Anole lizards are interesting to evolutionary biologists because different species are found on different islands throughout the Caribbean. The lizards are not closely related -- they are separated by 30 million years of evolution -- but they live in similar environments with the same obstacles to communication.

Co-authors of the paper are Richard Peters, Australian National University, Canberra, and Barbara Clucas of the University of California at Davis. The work was also supported by grants from the National Geographic Society and the Australian Research Council.


"spearwielding" story says more about humans than chimps

Details still dribbling in, but one certainty: the press jumped on this story of female chimps making spears and teaching the younger generation how to kill cute little "bush babies" to eat. "Clues to human evolution" the stories proclaimed, in apparent affirmation of a human tendency to butchery that dominates the headlines. "Women make first weapons" is another active framing story that tends to further absolve human men from responsibility in this bloody matter. Only one out of 22 chimps observed in the study seems to have managed to kill anything in this sketchy study, but the conclusion remains clear: humans have a desperate need to blame their drive to butchery on somebody or something else, and to show that we were just naturally pre-disposed to evolve this way. Might as well say, "The Devil made me do i."
.…in what is thought to be another first for chimps, the Fongoli population have taken up aspects of cave living. They use the the shady interiors for socialising, taking siestas and picnicking, the researchers say. Pruetz jokes that she would not be surprised if the chimps began making cave drawings.

…read it all:
Spear-wielding chimps snack on skewered bushbabies
NewScientist.com news service, 22 February 2007
by Rowan Hooper

22 February 2007

not "funny" for the animals who don't like it

Howls for Hayley Westenra from animal world

NZPA 23 FEb 07 http://www.stuff.co.nz/3971775a1860.html

Internationally renowned Christchurch singer Hayley Westenra is causing a stir in the animal world.

The 19-year-old soprano apparently can hit some notes that can only be heard by animals – and it seems they don't appreciate her finer talents.

A border terrier called Iggy, owned by Westenra's manager, Steve Abbott, went "berserk" in the London studio when she went through her vocal range, The Press newspaper reported today.

A similar incident happened at another studio near Salisbury when llamas in a field next door reacted strangely.

"They were going crazy, making weird sounds. It was really bizarre," the singer said.

Westenra's Christchurch-based mother, Jill, said she hadn't experienced her daughter's animal communication skills first-hand.

"We don't have a dog so we couldn't test it, although our bird always seemed to like her singing," Mrs Westenra said.

"It all sounds quite funny."

"The transformation of animals into production units"

Animals can't speak for themselves - it's up to us to do it
J.M. Coetzee
February 22, 2007

To any thinking person, it must be obvious that there is something badly wrong in relations between human beings and the animals that human beings rely on for food; and that in the past 100 or 150 years whatever is wrong has become wrong on a huge scale, as traditional animal husbandry has been turned into an industry using industrial methods of production.

There are many other ways in which our relations to animals are wrong (to name two: the fur trade, experimentation on animals in laboratories), but the food industry, which turns living animals into what it euphemistically calls animal products - animal products and animal byproducts - dwarfs all others in the number of individual animal lives it affects.

The vast majority of the public have an equivocal attitude to the industrial use of animals: they make use of the products of that industry, but are nevertheless a little sickened, a little queasy, when they think of what happens on factory farms and in abattoirs. Therefore they arrange their lives in such a way that they need be reminded of farms and abattoirs as little as possible, and do their best to ensure that their children are kept in the dark too, because as we all know children have tender hearts and are easily moved.

The transformation of animals into production units dates back to the late 19th century, and since that time we have already had one warning on the grandest scale that there is something deeply, cosmically wrong with regarding and treating fellow beings as mere units of any kind. This warning came so loud and clear that one would have thought it impossible to ignore. It came when in the mid-20th century a group of powerful and bloody-minded men in Germany hit on the idea of adapting the methods of the industrial stockyard, as pioneered and perfected in Chicago, to the slaughter - or what they preferred to call the processing - of human beings.

Of course we cried out in horror when we found out what they had been up to. We cried: What a terrible crime, to treat human beings like cattle! If we had only known beforehand! But our cry should more accurately have been: What a terrible crime, to treat human beings like units in an industrial process! And that cry should have had a postscript: What a terrible crime, come to think of it - a crime against nature - to treat any living being like a unit in an industrial process!

It would be a mistake to idealise traditional animal husbandry as the standard by which the animal-products industry falls short: traditional animal husbandry is brutal enough, just on a smaller scale. A better standard by which to judge both practices would be the simple standard of humanity: is this truly the best that human beings are capable of?

The efforts of the animal-rights movement, the broad movement that situates itself on the spectrum somewhere between the meliorism of the animal welfare bodies and the radicalism of animal liberation, are rightly directed at decent people who both know and don't know that there is something going on that stinks to high heaven - people who will say: "Yes, it's terrible what lives brood sows live, it's terrible what lives veal calves live", but who will then add, with a helpless shrug of the shoulders - "What can I do about it?"

The task of the movement is to offer such people imaginative but practical options for what to do next after they have been revolted by a glimpse of the lives factory animals live and the deaths they die. People need to see that there are alternatives to supporting the animal-products industry, that these alternatives need not involve any sacrifice in health or nutrition, that there is no reason why these alternatives need be costly, and furthermore that what are commonly called sacrifices are not sacrifices at all - that the only sacrifices in the whole picture, in fact, are being made by non-human animals.

In this respect, children provide the brightest hope. Children have tender hearts, that is to say, children have hearts that have not yet been hardened by years of cruel and unnatural battering. Given half a chance, children see through the lies with which advertisers bombard them (the happy chooks that are transformed painlessly into succulent nuggets, the smiling moo-cow that donates to us the bounty of her milk). It takes but one glance into a slaughterhouse to turn a child into a lifelong vegetarian.

Factory farming is a new phenomenon, very new in the history of animal husbandry. The good news is that after a couple of decades of what the businessmen behind it must have regarded as free and unlimited expansion, the industry has been forced onto the defensive.

The activities of animals-rights organisations have shifted the onus onto the industry to justify its practices; and because its practices are indefensible and unjustifiable except on the most narrowly economistic grounds ("Do you want to pay $1.50 more for a dozen eggs?") the industry is battening down its hatches and hoping the storm will blow itself out. Insofar as there was a public relations war, the industry has already lost that war.

A final note. The campaign of human beings for animal rights is curious in one respect: that the creatures on whose behalf human beings are acting are unaware of what their benefactors are up to and, if they succeed, are unlikely to thank them. There is even a sense in which animals do not know what is wrong.

They do certainly not know what is wrong in the same way that we human beings know what is wrong. Thus, however close the well-meaning benefactor may feel to his or her fellow animals, the animal-rights campaign remains a human project from beginning to end.

J. M. Coetzee was the 2003 Nobel Prize laureate for literature. This is an edited extract of a speech to be delivered in Sydney tonight.

…from The Age

21 February 2007

hiding food = plans for future meals

Why is this sort of thing always such a surprise to human reseachers? Isn't it obvious that if somebody - human or non - hides something that means they have a plan to do something with it later?

Jays travel in time to be sure of breakfast
New Scientist, 21 February 2007

We're all time travellers, in the sense that we can recall memories and plan for the future. Mental time travel is considered by many to be unique to humans; animals were assumed to be "stuck in time", but now that idea has been challenged... by a bird.

Western scrub jays (Aphelocoma californica) store food in caches, but as with other provisioning animals, such as squirrels, it is difficult to tell whether they do so because they are planning for the future or because the are behaving instinctively, as they do when building a nest or migrating. Also they could simply be hungry.

To see if they had a sense of the future, Nicola Clayton and colleagues at the University of Cambridge allowed eight jays to feed during the day for six days, except in the morning, when they were allowed to enter either a compartment where they got breakfast or one where they didn't. On the evening of day 7 the jays were unexpectedly given extra food, and the researchers found they stashed the surplus in the compartment where they had learned they would not get breakfast. This suggests that they do plan for the future - in this case a future without breakfast (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature05575).

"If I thought I'd end up in a grotty motel with no breakfast, I'd take provisions with me," says Clayton.

From issue 2592 of New Scientist magazine, 21 February 2007, page 18

the hedgehogs will be glad

Scotland will stop Western Isles Island hedgehog cull, reports the BBC. Said a supporter of the slaughter's end:
"We sincerely hope that lessons will be learned from this experience and that conservation organisations will incorporate a respect for animals and their welfare into future policies."

the hedgehogs will be glad

cotland will stop Western Isles Island hedgehog cull is suspended, reports the BBC.

"We sincerely hope that lessons will be learned from this experience and that conservation organisations will incorporate a respect for animals and their welfare into future policies."

"May there not be domains only a few men have penetrated in which whales may be superior?

The second argument for the preeminence of man over larger-brained cetaceans points to the human accomplishments of using hands, planning structures and building them. Cetaceans have no hands and therefore had no need to develop intelligence. This argument is derived from man's own narcissistic need to see the use of intelligence and sentience only in areas most men have entered. May there not be domains only a few men have penetrated in which whales may be superior? May not their philosophies and traditions be more complex, more full of insight than ours? Cut off from the need for building, for external forms of transport, for food preservation and preparation, they probably have very advanced ethics and laws, developed over millennia and passed on, through sonic communication, to their young. Their memories are probably much greater than ours. Like those among us with no written language (the Masai, for example), they probably have long histories which they recount to their young, who must memorize them in detail.

…from: "COMMUNICATION BETWEEN MAN AND DOLPHIN: The Possibilities of Talking with Other Species", by JOHN C. LILLY, M.D., Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1976, p. 136

20 February 2007

if humans don't talk about them, do they disappear, too?

Saving indigenous languages from extinction is the only way to preserve traditional knowledge about plants and animals that have yet to be discovered by Western scientists, says a linguist and cultural expert. …

…read it all:

Endangered species encode plant and animal knowledge
New Scientist.com, 19 February 2007

19 February 2007

sounds like cooperation

The Noises of Nature
By JEFF HULL, New York Times
Published: February 18, 2007

.…Bernie Krause.…worldwide, nearly 40-year quest to record the earth’s rapidly disappearing “biophony” — a term he coined to describe that portion of the soundscape contributed by nonhuman creatures. Biophony, Krause has theorized, is unique to each place; nowhere in nature sounds exactly like anywhere else. This idea has led him toward a controversial way of thinking that would broaden the scope of today’s evolutionary biology. Many animals, he argues, have evolved to squeeze their vocalizations into available niches of the soundscape in order to be heard by others of their kind. Evolution isn’t just about the competition for space or food but also for bandwidth. If a species cannot find a sonic niche of its own, it will not survive.

Krause’s “niche hypothesis” may seem more plausible after you’ve listened to his recordings of dense tropical jungles, polyphonous soundscapes packed with whistles and whinnies, whoops, hoots and howls, deep bass throbbings and shrieking buzzes. Krause employs supersensitive recording equipment and computer programs to create spectrograms of these group vocalizations, visual printouts indicating the stratified sounds according to time and frequency — not unlike a symphonic score. Using his trained eye, Krause is then able to locate the sonic signature of each animal. “What you’re listening to is an animal orchestra, very finely tuned and constructed and conducted — there’s no accident here,” Krause says. “They all coalesce in a way that’s not planned but cooperative or competitive, one creature in relation to another.”

.…Even our most pervasive form of mass aural communication, the television, is accompanied by visual images, and natural sound infrequently permeates our built environment. The literature on these transformations is meager. Krause found his early inspiration in the writing of the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, who coined the term “soundscape” in the 1960s and explored the impact of changes in the soundscape — like urbanization and industrialization — on our perception of our environment.

.…Some evolutionary biologists find troublesome ambiguities in Krause’s hypothesis. Michael Greenfield, who specializes in animal communication and sensory evolution at University of Kansas, says: “I don’t know of any cases where you have a variety of species that basically have decided: ‘Let’s all get along. You can have this bandwidth, and I’ll have this, and that guy over there can have his piece.’ There’s little evidence that animals are solving this problem in a cooperative and amicable fashion.”…

17 February 2007

real-time flight info communication

Science 9 February 2007: Vol. 315. no. 5813, pp. 771 - 772 DOI:

Perspectives BIOPHYSICS: Antennae as Gyroscopes R. McNeill

Flying insects need to detect unwanted movements of their own
bodies, so that they can make any necessary corrections to
restore the status quo. They need to know, for example, when
their flight is disturbed by an eddy in turbulent air or by an
imperfectly executed wing beat. Dragonflies depend on sight for
this information. That works well in bright daylight but would
not be satisfactory in near-darkness because eyes cannot provide
precise information quickly in dim light. Moths active at night
need information about unwanted movements to maintain flight
stability, especially when hovering to collect nectar from
flowers. On page 863 of this issue, Sane and colleagues (1)
explain how a hawk moth senses its own rotations.

These researchers found that the moth's movement-detection system
depends largely on the Coriolis effect, which keeps spinning
gyroscopes stable. This effect is an apparent deflection of an
object viewed in a rotating frame of reference, seemingly
attributable to an apparent force. We already knew of the
importance of Coriolis forces for dipteran flies (house flies,
mosquitoes, etc.). Instead of having four wings like other
insects, dipterans have only two. Their hind wings have been
reduced to tiny club-shaped halteres (see the figure) that beat
at the same frequency as the fore wings. If their halteres are
cut off, these flies become unstable in flight and soon crash to
the ground. Pringle (2) explained how Coriolis forces on the
halteres inform flies of rotations of their bodies, enabling them
to fly stably. Sane et al. now find that hawk moths can do this
with their antennae, although detection of aerodynamic as well as
Coriolis forces may have a role.

February 16, 2007
Vol. 11 - Number 7

14 February 2007

o please be my nonhuman valentine

Lots of human concern today about nonhuman courtship and mating rituals, but only for titillation, to get us in the mood for romance. The San Francisco Chronicle's article with graphic details of the endangered mountain tapir's penis is a good example:
"Tapirs have very large penises relative to their body size," said Brenda Melton, an assistant curator at the zoo. Former penguin keeper Jane Tollini said: "I would describe them as having the most awesome appendages in the zoo." Tollini should know. Eighteen years ago, she created a Valentine's Day sex tour for the public about animal mating habits that has been copied by many zoos in North America. This year she conducted six sessions -- the last is tonight. "The penis bounces on the ground and has a huge bulbous head. It comes out at the drop of a hat and wraps around, like one of those children's party toys," said Tollini, who recalled the reaction to a Baird's tapir during a previous sex tour. "One year, there were a bunch of women who took one look, tipped their heads and had their mouths hanging open like synchronized swimmers."

blinding bioluminescent flashes, then sudden death!

That's how the seven-foot-long deep-sea squid, Taningia danae, takes its prey, reports the BBC.

And, here's the Valentine's Day angle:
…further investigation revealed the light bursts may also serve another, quite different, purpose away from the hunting field - courtship. As the squid drifted around torches that had been attached to the bait rig, they emanated long and short pulses of light. The team believe the torch lights may have resembled another glowing T. danae, and the squid were possibly emitting light as courtship behaviour.

like having fingers growing from your upper lip

…reports New Scientist:
New high-speed video footage has revealed the extraordinary dexterity with which rats use their whiskers. The rodents are able to move these groupings of feelers independently on each side of their heads, allowing them to navigate efficiently in the dark, the film shows.

12 February 2007

what are the bees trying to tell us?

Why are honeybees dying at such an alarming rate? "Colony collapse disorder" – but a name hardly explains this mystery. So far, not surprisingly, the focus is on financial injury to human farmers, from lack of pollination services, and not on the suffering and death of the bees.

"A detailed, up-to-date report on Colony Collapse Disorder can be found on the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium Web site at

11 February 2007

what a talker!

Says the BBC, in Parrot's oratory stuns scientists:
The bird, a captive African grey called N'kisi, has a vocabulary of 950 words, and shows signs of a sense of humour. He invents his own words and phrases if he is confronted with novel ideas with which his existing repertoire cannot cope - just as a human child would do.…About 100 words are needed for half of all reading in English, so if N'kisi could read he would be able to cope with a wide range of material.…He uses words in context, with past, present and future tenses, and is often inventive. One N'kisi-ism was "flied" for "flew", and another "pretty smell medicine" to describe the aromatherapy oils used by his owner, an artist based in New York. When he first met Dr Jane Goodall, the renowned chimpanzee expert, after seeing her in a picture with apes, N'kisi said: "Got a chimp?" .…When another parrot hung upside down from its perch, he commented: "You got to put this bird on the camera."

…Professor Donald Broom, of the University of Cambridge's School of Veterinary Medicine, said: "The more we look at the cognitive abilities of animals, the more advanced they appear, and the biggest leap of all has been with parrots."

09 February 2007

the evolution of cooperation

There's a useful way to look at nature, instead of the usual dog-eat-dog law of the jungle approach that seems best designed to rationalize human butchery, and it's the title of a recent book:

The Evolution of Cooperation
by Robert Axelrod

The publisher's description sounds promising:

The Evolution of Cooperation addresses a simple yet age-old question: If living things evolve through competition, how can cooperation ever emerge? Despite the abundant evidence of cooperation all around us, there existed no purely naturalistic answer to this question until 1979, when Robert Axelrod famously ran a computer tournament featuring a standard game-theory exercise called The Prisoner's Dilemma. To everyone's surprise, the program that won the tournament, named Tit for Tat, was not only the simplest but the most "cooperative" entrant. This unexpected victory proved that cooperation--one might even say altruism--is mathematically possible and therefore needs no hidden hand or divine agent to create and sustain it. A great roadblock to the understanding of all sorts of behavior was at last removed.

07 February 2007

females talk, males listen - that's how evolution works. No? Amazing what people learn when they actually listen to nonhumans.

Males do the singing and females do the listening. This has been the established, even cherished view of courtship in birds, but now some ornithologists are changing tune.

László Garamszegi of the University of Antwerp, Belgium, and colleagues studied the literature on 233 European songbird species. Of the 109 for which information on females was available, they found evidence for singing in 101 species. In only eight species could the team conclude that females did not sing.

Females that sing have been overlooked, the team say, because either their songs are quiet, they are mistaken for males from their similar plumage or they live in less well-studied areas such as the tropics (Behavioral Ecology, DOI: 10.1093/beheco/arl047). Garamszegi blames Charles Darwin for the oversight. "He emphasised the importance of male sexual display, and this is what everyone has been looking at."

The findings go beyond modern species. After carefully tracing back an evolutionary family tree for their songbirds, Garamszegi's team discovered that, in at least two bird families, singing evolved in females first. They suggest these ancient females may have been using their songs to deter other females from their territories, to coordinate breeding activities with males, or possibly to attract mates. "It leaves us with a perplexing question," says Garamszegi. "What evolutionary forces drove some females to give up singing?"

…from: Are female songbirds evolution's unsung heroines
issue 2589 of New Scientist magazine, 3 February 2007, p. 17

"you can see a grown squirrel cry" ...but, it's all about the humans, in the end

David Lynch sits on a couch at the Hotel Monaco, two unfinished cappuccinos in front of him and cigarette in hand, and talks about his bird feeders.

"I have a feeder cam," he says, running a hand through his explosion of silver hair. "It's a live camera, like a traffic camera, watching the birds 24/7. The idea is to get many other animals involved, too. You see some incredible things."

Such as ...

"Squirrels," he continues. "There are two kinds of squirrels where I live, in Hollywood. Ground squirrels and the Other Ones. The Other Ones are bigger and more acrobatic, like monkeys. These guys don't take no for an answer. They come up with all kinds of ways to get the bird feed. It's been so much fun to work with them. But now there's a disc of sorrow to keep them away from the feeder." He exhales a plume of smoke thoughtfully. "You know, if you get the thing set up right, you can see a grown squirrel cry."

"That is very sad," says the interviewer.

"Yes," says Lynch. "But the reverse would be seeing me cry."

Lynch dives within: The cult director discusses bird feeders and pets. By the way, he has a new film out.
by Neva Chonin, San Francisco Chronicle, 7 February 2007

02 February 2007

electric fish swim in circles for clueless researchers

Clueless because the humans don't seem to care what these remarkable creatures may be trying to signal, instead the researchers merely run the glass knifefish in circles as if they were new cars in a brake test, reports Science Daily:
"All animals, including humans, must continually make adjustments as they walk, run, fly or swim through the environment. These adjustments are based on feedback from thousands of sense organs all over the body, providing vision, touch, hearing and so on. Understanding how the brain processes this overwhelming amount of information is crucial if we want to help people overcome pathologies," said Noah Cowan, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering in Johns Hopkins' Whiting School of Engineering. In studying the fish and preparing the Neuroscience paper, Cowan teamed up with Eric Fortune, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, also at Johns Hopkins.

Cowan and Fortune focused on the movements of a small, nocturnal South American fish called the "glass knifefish" because of its almost transparent, blade-shaped body. This type of fish does something remarkable: it emits weak electrical signals which it uses to "see" in the dark. According to Fortune, several characteristics, including this electric sense, make this fish a superb subject for the study of how the brain uses sensory information to control locomotion.

"These fish are ideal both because we can easily monitor the sensing signals that their brains use and because the task we asked the fish to do -- swim forward and backward inside a small tube -- is very simple and straightforward," said Fortune, who also uses the fish to study the neural basis and evolution of behavior.

The fish prefer to "hide" inside these tubes, which are immersed in larger water tanks. In their research, Cowan and Fortune challenged the fish's ability to remain hidden by shifting the tubes forward and backward at varying frequencies. This required the fish to swim back and forth more and more rapidly in order to remain inside the tubes. But as the frequency became higher, the fish gradually failed to keep up with the movement of the tubes.

The team's detailed engineering analysis of the fish's adjustments under these conditions suggested that the animal's sensors and brains are "tuned" to consider Newton's laws of motion, Cowan said. In other words, the team found that the fish's nervous systems measured velocity, so the fish could accelerate or "brake" at just the right rate to remain within the moving tube.

"The fish were able to accelerate, brake and reverse direction based on a cascade of adjustments made through their sensory and nervous systems, in the same way that a driver approaching a red light knows he has to apply the brakes ahead of time to avoid overshooting and ending up in the middle of a busy intersection," Fortune said. "Your brain has to do this all the time when controlling movement because your body and limbs, like a car, have mass. This is true for large motions that require planning, such as driving a car, but also for unconscious control of all movements, such as reaching for a cup of coffee. Without this sort of predictive control, your hand would knock the cup off the table every time."'

The researchers' understanding of the complex relationship between the glass knifefish's movements and the cascade of information coming into their brains and bodies via their senses could eventually spark developments in areas as far reaching as medicine and robotics.

"That animals unconsciously know that they have mass seems obvious enough, but it took a complex analysis of a very specialized fish to demonstrate this," Fortune said. "With this basic knowledge, we hope one day to be able to 'tune' artificial systems, such as prosthetics, so that they don't have the jerky and rough movements that most robots have, which is critical for medical applications."