27 March 2007

peaceable kingdom

… We were nearing the end of our tour when Bill suggested we visit the beluga whales (Delphinaptereus leucos), or "the canaries of the sea" as the whalers of the last century called them. He led us up a stairway through a large door and down a hallway to the top of an enormous tank. Suddenly I was looking down at one of the most unusual beings I had ever seen in my life.

The beluga whale looked like Caspar the Friendly Ghost –– pure white with a flexible neck and a mobile facial expression.

I had the feeling I was perceiving, and being perceived by, an immense presence. I was simultaneously speechless and trying to absorb a vast amount of information that I was unable to fit into adequate patterns of past experience. It somehow transcended the human experience, going deeply into unknown mysteries.

There were a few eternal moments of recognition … the frequency between us was like a brightly lighted tunnel of happiness. Everything else around me dimmed in the white light that soothed and pervaded my very essence.

I vaguely remember walking through the rest of the laboratory. ...

A whale raised her head above the water to peer at me. I looked directly into her eyes. Suddenly, she shot a stream of water from her mouth that splashed over my face and shoulders and slowly down over my body. It was a loving touch--an invitation to a more intimate communication--as sensual an approach as I have ever experienced from my own species. Without thinking, I cupped some water in my hand, brought it into my mouth, and shot it back at the beluga. The joy of the next few minutes can only be described as absurd. I was able to hug and kiss her soft white skin. This was what I had hoped to experience--I had crossed a boundary, a new space opened, I was fulfilled. This whale's invitation to share her world gave me a glimpse through a cosmic crack between species … a oneness of all living beings as we will know them someday in the future … a place we have been before and will return to again … as peaceful paradise … the "peaceable kingdom."

The process of contraction and expansion … emerging from a dense pattern of loneliness (interspecies deprivation) to overlap with the whales in a startling new way. …

The white ghosts had a sense of curious loving selves, careful of my vulnerability in their watery environment. They are my self living in the ancient, cold sea in which I swam in the dim, distant past before my cells organized and climbed out onto the land. That day with them I rejoined my archaic self in the water.

I will go back, I hope, and talk with them with new understanding of my origins and share the breaking of the long separation of human and cetacean.

--Antoinetta L. Lilly, "Invitation from a White Whale", in
Communication Between Man & Dolphin by John C. Lilly, M.D. 1979

illustration by Doug Millison, after Lilly's photograph]

23 March 2007

no more than a screen for human fantasy projections?

[…] I waited for a blank noon on one of those Southern California days that are like a shallow bowl filled with almost nothing, a day when the main event turns out in retrospect to have been lunch at Donut & Burger. I placed my order at the walk-up window. Two young men sat at a table by the sidewalk, and once or twice I caught the humid brush-fire scent of burning cannabis. I ate in the truck with the windows down, looking at a vacant lot next door through a chain-link fence. The view seemed to say more than I wanted to hear about dietary anomie and the kind of day this was turning out to be.

But the grass beyond the fence parted, and a head poked up. Then more heads. The vacant lot wasn’t vacant at all. It was occupied by a prosperous colony of ground squirrels — Spermophilus beecheyi, named after the English explorer Sir Frederick William Beechey, who visited California in the H.M.S. Blossom 180 years ago. I did not know about Sir Frederick at the time. I knew only that these were ground squirrels and that this vacant lot was a ground squirrel subdivision and that I had just eaten a burger and a doughnut for lunch in the city of Pomona, Calif., which is named for a minor Roman goddess of tree fruits.

What surprised me were the burrows. They were mounded at the entrance, like the burrows you’d find in a Wyoming prairie dog town, and they somehow turned the vacancy of that empty lot into habitat. The squirrels stood guard on their haunches and raced from hole to hole. Almost instinctively I found myself imagining their tragic history, composing the saga of the ground squirrel in my mind. This was a relict population — the last of a dying breed, cut off from their kind by the unconscious savagery of human encroachment, their world now bounded by an auto parts store, a busy highway, the back alley of an apartment complex and the parking lot of Donut & Burger. The San Gabriel Mountains loomed impossibly distant for them. I wondered if they had been reduced to eating fries.

But you don’t have to read very much about Spermophilus beecheyi — never mind Sir Frederick William Beechey — to realize that California ground squirrels are nearly human in their adaptability. And like all creatures that are nearly human in their adaptability, humans consider them pests. Ground squirrels invade gardens and damage plants. They can carry bubonic plague. They destroy the eggs of ground-nesting birds. Their burrows can extend for dozens of feet.

I found myself telling a new story. The ground squirrels in that vacant lot are colonists, opening new terrain to an expansionist species, developing the site before the human developers can do so. Perhaps this is one of a series of vacant lots scattered across the Los Angeles basin, an archipelago of ground squirrels quietly shaping the earth to suit their needs. They watch the humans eating at Donut & Burger and know their time will come.

The squirrels reminded me of my last flight to Wyoming. I changed planes in Denver, and during the layover I watched a small flock of sparrows — five or six — that were living in one of the terminals. They betrayed no anxiety, no frantic fluttering toward the lights or windows. They behaved exactly the way sparrows do when they’re at home. They flew up to an architectural strut and preened, and then flew down to the carpet and hopped across the waiting areas, silently scavenging for food. I imagined a separate species of sparrow evolving over the years to come, breeding quickly, adapting precisely to the conditions inside Denver International Airport. […]

Letter From California: A Hidden Populace in a Vacant Lot

by Verylyn Klinkenborg in today's
New York Times:

05 March 2007

how does a story about bird courtship wind up being about boorish humans on the prowl?

'Wingman' -- how buddies help alpha males get the girl
Cooperative courtship in the lance-tailed manakin

Adult male lance-tailed manakin on a branch

Why do some individuals sacrifice their own self-interest to help others?

The evolution and maintenance of cooperative behavior is a classic puzzle in evolutionary biology. In some animal societies, cooperation occurs in close-knit family groups and kin selection explains apparently selfless behavior.

Not so for the lance-tailed manakin. Males of this little tropical bird cooperate in spectacular courtship displays with unrelated partners, and the benefits of lending a helping wing may only come years down the line. Instead of fighting over females, pairs of male lance-tailed manakins team up to court prospective mates.

Two males dance together for interested females, using tightly synchronized 'leapfrog' and flight displays to impress the opposite sex. But when the dance is over, only the dominant male, the alpha, gets the chance to mate. Emily DuVal, of UC Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, studied these birds to answer the question of why subordinate beta males cooperate. Starting in 1999, DuVal color-banded and observed wild lance-tailed manakins in Panamá to follow changes in status over multiple years. Then she used genetic analyses to determine chicks' paternity and genetic relationships among adults.

Alpha and beta lance-tailed manakins dance for an attentive female

The results of DuVal's work, to be published in the April issue of The American Naturalist, showed that male partners were unrelated, and betas rarely sired chicks, ruling out two of the major hypotheses explaining males' cooperative behavior. Following males across years showed that betas became alphas more often than other males, but not necessarily at the same territory where they were betas. Even when the local alpha slot was empty, some betas moved to be helpers elsewhere rather than take over the vacant position. "Without being an alpha, there's essentially no chance for these males to reproduce," says DuVal. "My results suggest that betas could actually benefit from staying betas for a while, for example by gaining courtship skills during a sort of apprenticeship or by forming alliances with other males who later act as their betas." These results contrast with those from studies of other birds with cooperative courtship displays: wild turkeys strut cooperatively with close relatives, and ruffs (a shorebird) form alliances of males that often both mate while they are partners. These contrasts are interesting because they show that similar behavior can result from very different social and selective environments.

DuVal is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany, where she is investigating how female lance-tailed manakins choose their mates.

Emily H. DuVal (University of California, Berkeley), "Adaptive advantages of cooperative courtship for subordinate male lance-tailed manakins" American Naturalist 169:423-432 (April 2007)
University of Chicago Press Journals

"Humans are here to rejuvenate the planet," the tiny bird answered.

Thinking outside the litter box
Vermont's animal communicators are a different breed
Rutland Herald, 4 March 2007

"All animals have some kind of a language. Some sorts talk more than others; some only speak in sign-language, like deaf-and-dumb. But the Doctor, he understands them all — birds as well as animals. We keep it a secret though, him and me, because folks only laugh when you speak of it."
— "The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle"

Author Hugh Lofting was on to something back in 1922 when he wrote his second book in the series about the doctor who talked to the animals. He would doubtless find it fascinating that today, hundreds of people get paid to do just that.

They call themselves animal communicators, and Vermont has several who offer their services professionally.

Nationally they number some 350, according to Penelope Smith, 60, of Prescott, Ariz., a driving force in the field since 1971.

Of course, most pet owners (a word that animal communicators dislike) talk to their dogs or cats regularly, usually in silly baby talk.

But communicating — that is, a two-way exchange — with animals is an entirely different matter, says Kristina Berg Triplat, an animal communicator from Roxbury.

When a creature is lost or seems to be in pain and the owner can't find it or figure out what's wrong, someone like Triplat holds out hope of getting the answer. By far the most common request, communicators say, is to ask a cat why it's not using its litter box.

Addressing an audience recently at Montpelier's library, Triplat asks the group: "What animal species communicates nonverbally 90 percent of the time?" Dreadlocked John, who says he came to learn how to get along better with animals, answers tentatively: "Humans?"


Triplat, 35, explains that interspecies communication (the preferred term) is done telepathically, which is defined by Webster's as "communication between minds by some means other than normal sensory channels; transference of thought."

And because it is done telepathically, the animal and the communicator need not even meet. Most often, the communicator makes mental contact with the animal and then telephone contact with its human to relay the message. Rates start at $35 for 15 minutes.

An open mind, figuratively and literally, says Triplat, is key to success. A communicator may receive words, images or energy from an animal. In some cases, this information is relayed verbatim, or it may need interpretation by the communicator.

"You can receive the most profound truths (from an animal) or something as simple as, 'I want a cookie.' Animal communication can be a spiritual journey that leads you down paths you hadn't thought of," Triplat tells the library gathering.

Your guide on those paths could even be a garden slug.

Dawn Hayman, co-founder of the animal sanctuary Spring Farm CARES in Clinton, N.Y., has talked to more than 30,000 animals since turning pro in 1987. She also gives workshops in Vermont.

"Everybody, every living person is telepathic, regardless of intelligence level," she says. "Plants and trees, same thing. They can all communicate."

Even those slugs.

"I have actually had a profound communication from a slug," says Hayman, 43. "It's interesting because the hierarchy of how we view intelligence is based on human intelligence. Your basic garden slug? It can't write essays. It can't build bridges. But it has knowledge of the earth and the ecosystem that far surpasses any human being's. It spoke of the balance of the earth and how it felt the energy of the earth. It wanted to share that with people. It was quite profound, actually."

Animal communicator Jane Grillo, 44, who shares her Wells home and land with four dogs, one cat and assorted horses and llamas, echoes Hayman's view.

"I find that all animals are willing to communicate, and I don't find any difference in the way they communicate, really. Insects can communicate," she says, relaying the tale of the ants that had invaded her dishwasher.

"I told them very plainly: 'If you leave and go out in the patio, when we eat we'll drop crumbs, and you'll be able to have something to eat. If you stay' — I visualized the water coming up and the soap — 'this is what's going to happen to you. So, please' — I was respectful to them — 'leave.' I came back in the house. I swear to you they were in a line toward the door. I don't recall having ants in the dishwasher since then."

Naturally, the idea of mental telepathy with your average St. Bernard has its skeptics.

"Until a few years ago I was a firm non-believer in animal communication, an absolutely firm-scientific-skeptic-non-believer," says one of Grillo's clients, Kate Selby, 42, owner and director of riding at The Equestry in New Haven.

"The more and more you read about quantum physics, and particle matter, and how everything is made of energy, including communication, it has been proven over and over again, scientifically, that matter is energy, and communication and thought are energy. If you believe that ... you can access any kind of energy."

Selby explains how Grillo communicates. "She introduces herself to a horse and first asks the animal for permission to ask it some questions. She will ask me if there's anything in particular that I want to know. She will give me the answers. She may not understand the answers. Time and time again, I'd have to say close to 100 percent of the time, it makes sense."

Some are harder to convince, though. Dr. Carol Gifford, 49, of Riverside Veterinary Care in Rutland, has been practicing in Vermont since 1987, and she's a little skeptical of the pet communicator field, particularly the phone consultations.

"I'm very skeptical of that amount of psychic ability," she says. "There may be a few people in the world who truly have amazing clairvoyance. I do feel that we communicate in a meaningful way with animals every day. That's not psychic ability; it's just good observational skills."

Gifford recalls a pet communicator who came to Riverside Veterinary. (One of their services can be to relay symptoms or pain as the animal perceives it, but a professional code of ethics bars communicators from diagnosing physical illness.)

The communicator told the cat's owners that their cat liked her red pillow. The owners had taken away her red pillow and replaced it with a green one.

"Studies have shown that cats may see some colors but not the intensity or range that we do. Their visual trigger is motion," Gifford says.

"We think as humans. We interpret things we see as humans. So naturally our pets that live with us, we tend to instill human values and activities into them. That's how we view life."

"I don't think that what we do is different from what anyone else can do," says animal communicator Barbara Molloy, 56, who lives in Johnson with her two poodles. "We all have that ability. I find many times when I'm working with a client that I'll confirm things they already know about their pet. Part of what I'm doing is confirming. These are skills that we all have."

Still, most communicators interviewed say that at some point they recognized they have a special ability, sometimes encouraged by another communicator or teacher. Most of them cultivate it through training with others like Penelope Smith.

But communicating with pets and livestock is just one area of their world. There's also wildlife.

Molloy recalls driving home from a seminar, a little faster than she should have, when a squirrel ran in front of the car.

"He quickly had to get out of my way and said: 'What? Are you trying to kill me?' It suddenly brought the awareness that I'm going too fast. It seems like that's one of the things squirrels do — they make you slow down."

Animal communicators agree that their profession is an unusual and quirky one, and Julie Soquet, 59, of Hinesburg is hesitant to tell people what she does.

"There are people I would never tell if I have a sense that they might find this entertaining and kind of goofy. … But most people are quite curious about it. If they have animals, and have a good bond with an animal, I see kind of a light go on in their eyes."

Others, she says, roll their eyes.

"One day a friend of mine said out loud, 'Oh, and did you know that Julie is an animal psychic?" — another term animal communicators dislike — "I could see three people roll their eyes. … Who knows? Maybe down the road they might need the services of someone like me, and even though they rolled their eyes on that day, there might be another day when they might think twice about it."

Back at the library, Triplat is winding up her presentation by answering questions. Sue wants to know if animals have a sense of humor. Yes, says Triplat, especially dogs. Gorillas, on the other hand, are very serious. Linda wants to know if dogs have names for themselves. Triplat says they usually adopt the name we've given them but may suggest a different one.

Triplat ends the evening with a story about a chickadee that flew into a closed window. She says she brought the wounded bird inside, after asking it permission to do so, and sat with the tiny creature in her cupped hands.

"How are you feeling?" she asked it. The bird said it had a headache.

Since communication is a two-way street, Triplat asked the bird:

"Why am I here?"

"Humans are here to rejuvenate the planet," the tiny bird answered.

Tips for communicating
More than any other factor, your attitude toward animals influences how receptive you are to their communication and how willing they are to communicate to you.

Believe in your intuitive ability to give and receive telepathic communication.

Watch for judgments and preconceptions that limit receptivity to what the animal is really communicating.

Let communication assume its own form, whether it is feelings, images, impressions, thoughts, verbal messages, sounds, other sensations or simply knowing.

Practice with a wide variety of animals in various situations.
Source: Penelope Smith


…worth the click:


02 March 2007

"where is the hard evidence that bees cannot communicate with each other?

Capping a rather polite flame war:

From: prismx@earthlink.net
Subject: [SciPol 175] Re: Item no. 6 in the ScienceWeek list for Feb. 23, 2007.
Date: February 28, 2007 8:00:03 AM PST
To: scipol@googlegroups.com
Reply-To: scipol@googlegroups.com

This bee-dance controversy is an old item on the Internet, here
revived maybe by a transgendered Ruth Rosin writing as "Ross
Goodyear". That's fine. But I think it would be helpful to cut posts
to eliminate dragging along everything written before -- keep things
short. And second, I would like to see some discussion of the fact
that the opponents of the dance idea have plenty of rhetoric and
hardly and published evidence to support their position. Claims that
this or that idea was "stillborn" fifty years ago don't do much for
science. Rhetorical criticisms of published experiments also don't do
much. We need experimental data, current and contemporary
experimental data, that contradicts the prevailing view -- if that
prevailing view is to be discarded. Arguments that Wenner did this or
that years ago are baloney -- if no one is taking the time to repeat
Wenner's experiments. Arguments that appear in the American Bee
Journal are not evidence of anything -- it's a trade journal for
beekeepers, not a scientific journal manned by scientists. So my
suggestion is never mind the rhetoric, where is the hard evidence
that bees cannot communicate with each other? They certainly
communicate enough to form an insect "society". It would certainly be
adaptive if "scouts" could communicate in some way the existence and
location of flower beds. The problem of implied "mathematical
reasoning" is vacuous, since a crystal forms an almost perfect
geometrical arrangement without ever "thinking" about it. It seems to
me a large part of the so-called dance controversy lies in some
people imposing an implicit dichotomy between human solutions and
"animal" solutions. But these are all biological solutions,
ultimately based on physiology and physics and chemistry, and in
principle there is no reason why the nervous system of one bee could
not communicate with the nervous system of another bee. So please
let's can the rhetoric and talk about hard evidence. As for people
who have not heard about the bee dance controversy before, please be
advised that most of the biologists working today accept the view
that a bee dance "language" of some sort exists. Of course they may
be wrong, but no one has yet proved them wrong.

Dan Agin

nonhumans leap to wrong conclusions, too

Public release date: 1-Mar-2007
Association for Psychological Science

Man's best friend lends insight into human evolution
via EurekAlert!

Flexibly drawing inferences about the intentions of other individuals in order to cooperate in complex tasks is a basic part of everyday life that we humans take for granted. But, according to evolutionary psychologist Brian Hare at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, this ability is present in other species as well.

As Hare discusses in the April issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, chimpanzees utilize social cues like eye gaze and face orientation to monitor others' behavior or infer motives of other subordinate or dominant individuals, or even deceive them, when competing for food. But it turns out that chimps are not very good at drawing inferences about others' mental states in cooperative situations such as when an experimenter (or another chimp) helpfully points to hidden food. This is a skill that humans already display in infancy, and according to Hare it seems to have evolved since the human lineage split from that of chimps a few million years ago.

For Hare, who has worked with a number of different animal species, to understand the "unique" human ability to use social cues cooperatively we should look not just at our closest animal relatives, but also at our best animal friends. While chimps may fail to infer others' mental states when cooperating, domestic dogs do quite well at such tasks. If you point to hidden food, dogs often grasp what you are trying to tell them. Puppies even do it without prior training, indicating that it is an innate ability, not simply one they acquire through contact with their owners.

What accounts for this piece of convergent evolution between humans and domestic dogs is nothing other than the process of domestication - the breeding of dogs to tolerate, rather than fear, human company.

According to Hare, domesticated dogs' ability to solve social problems may have emerged once the brain systems mediating fear were altered and the same thing may have occurred in human evolution. Chimps, he says, are constrained in solving cooperative problems by their impulse to fear more dominant individuals and behave aggressively toward more subordinate ones.

"Taken together," Hare writes, "the results on chimpanzee cooperation and their use of social cues support the hypothesis that evolution in human social problem solving, much like that of dog social problem solving, occurred after changes in our species' social emotions lifted social constraints."

01 March 2007

most emailed photo @Yahoo!

Tiger, orangutan babies playmates at zoo
By NINIEK KARMINI, Associated Press WriterWed Feb 28, 5:22 PM ET

Call them the odd couples. A pair of month-old Sumatran tiger twins have become inseparable playmates with a set of young orangutans, an unthinkable match in their natural jungle habitat in Indonesia's tropical rainforests.

The friendship between 5-month-old female baby primates Nia and Irma, and cubs Dema and Manis, has blossomed at the Taman Safari zoo where they share a room in the nursery.

After being abandoned by their mothers shortly after birth, the four play fight, nipping and teasing each other, and cuddling up for a shared nap when they are worn out.

"This is unusual and would never happen in the wild," said zoo keeper Sri Suwarni, bottle-feeding a baby chimp on Wednesday. "Like human babies, they only want to play."

The four have lived side-by-side for a month without a single act of hostility, she said.

Indonesian tigers and orangutans are both endangered species, threatened by rapidly shrinking habitats.

Conservationists estimate there are fewer than 700 Sumatran tigers still alive, while fewer than 60,000 orangutans remain in the wild. Around 90 percent of the jungle has been destroyed by illegal logging, poaching and cut-and-burn farming practices on Borneo and Sumatra islands.

The exceptional friendship will likely be short-lived, said veterinarian Retno Sudarwati, because as the animals grow up their natural survival instincts will kick in.

"When the time comes, they will have to be separated. It's sad, but we cant' change their natural behavior," she said. "Tigers start eating meat when they are three months old."

…in other words, don't get your hopes up. This kind of unconditional love is possible only for babies, this story says, "See, what the animals are teaching us here is…" We all grow out of it and start devouring one another, sooner or later. It's only natural, right?

if they were doing it to humans...

…what would we call it?
Photographs taken over several decades show that parts of Kruger National Park -- a New Jersey-size sliver along South Africa's eastern border -- already have begun the shift from woodlands to grasslands. Kruger's elephant population has grown from 8,000, when culling stopped in 1994, to 12,500 today. At current growth rates, the park would have 34,000 elephants by 2020, officials say.

Elephants often live to be 60 years old, while eating more than 300 pounds of grass, bark and leaves every day. Even a few of Kruger's massive baobab trees, some thousands of years old, have succumbed to the tusks and voracious appetites of elephants, as have countless marula and acacia trees, which can be consumed in a matter of hours.

Culls typically are conducted by trained sharpshooters, often on helicopters. The bodies of the elephants are butchered into meat, and the tusks saved for possible sale into the highly restricted global ivory market.

Entire families of elephants generally are killed at once to lessen the grief for survivors.

…read it and weep:
South Africa wants to thin flourishing elephant herds to aid habitat
by Craig Timberg, Washington Post, March 1, 2007