26 September 2007

city birds cope best with humans

[drawing by doug millison]

From University of Washington:

City birds better than rural species in coping with human disruption

Birds that hang out in large urban areas seem to have a marked advantage over their rural cousins – they are adaptable enough to survive in a much larger range of conditions.

In fact, new research from the University of Washington suggests that the adaptability of many urban bird species means they don't just survive but actually thrive in what might be considered to be a very challenging environment.

"The urban habitat is usually more severe than the habitats these birds historically occupied. Urban habitats aren't easy, so the birds have to have developed coping mechanisms," said John Wingfield, a UW biology professor involved in the research.

The study was led by Frances Bonier, a postdoctoral researcher in biology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, who did the work as a UW doctoral student before moving to Virginia Tech. Co-author Paul Martin, now an assistant professor of biology at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, also took part in the research as a UW doctoral student.

Ornithologists, biologists and birdwatchers around the world were sent questionnaires that asked them to list 10 common native breeding birds found in their cities. The responses produced data on 217 urban bird species from 73 of the world's largest cities and 247 rural species. To be considered "rural," a species could not be described as breeding in human-disturbed habitats such as towns and cities, and its natural breeding distribution must overlap at least one of the large cities, implying that at one time the species occupied the area where the city is now.

Some birds on the urban list – starlings, parrots, crows, sparrows, pigeons and doves – would be expected to be found in cities, Bonier said. However the researchers only looked at species native to a particular area, so starlings and sparrows native to Europe but found in North American cities, for example, did not count. Less-common species found in cities included the black-tailed trainbearer, a tiny hummingbird in Quito, Ecuador; the green bee-eater found in Giza, Egypt; and a small bird called the broad-billed tody that lives in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and is part of a group of birds found only in the Caribbean.

The researchers learned that urban birds worldwide can endure a far broader range of environments than rural species. Urban species had elevation ranges more than 1,600 feet broader and their distribution covered about 10 degrees more of latitude, or about 700 miles.

"This sounds very intuitive, but there's never been any research confirming urban birds' adaptability," Wingfield said. "Fran's idea to send out the questionnaires provided the information that we lacked. This now gives us a hypothesis to work from for further research."

The work, supported in part by the National Science Foundation, is detailed in a paper that has been published online and will appear later this year in the print edition of the Royal Society journal Biology Letters. The Royal Society is the United Kingdom's national science academy.

While it is not exactly clear what allows some species to flourish in urban settings, the research supports previous findings that suggested the most specialized birds will have the hardest time adapting in an ever-changing world.

"In the face of global climate change and human disturbances, such as increased urbanization and deforestation, we may be able to identify species that can cope with such changes," Wingfield said. "Then we may be able to identify the species that cannot cope with these changes, or might even go extinct in the face of increased disruption."

The information could be used to fine-tune conservation efforts to save those challenged species, he said.

"Land managers can use the information to determine where trails should go, how many people should be on those trails and similar issues," he said.


25 September 2007

"plants are not boring and passive organisms that just stand there waiting to be cut off or eaten up"

…reports the Nederlands Organization for Scientific Research:

Clever plants chat over their own network

4 September 2007

Recent research from Vidi researcher Josef Stuefer at the Radboud University Nijmegen reveals that plants have their own chat systems that they can use to warn each other. Therefore plants are not boring and passive organisms that just stand there waiting to be cut off or eaten up. Many plants form internal communications networks and are able to exchange information efficiently.

Many herbal plants such as strawberry, clover, reed and ground elder naturally form networks. Individual plants remain connected with each other for a certain period of time by means of runners. These connections enable the plants to share information with each other via internal channels. They are therefore very similar to computer networks. But what do plants want to chat to each other about?

Recently Stuefer and his colleagues were the first to demonstrate that clover plants warn each other via the network links if enemies are nearby. If one of the plants is attacked by caterpillars, the other members of the network are warned via an internal signal. Once warned, the intact plants strengthen their chemical and mechanical resistance so that they are less attractive for advancing caterpillars. Thanks to this early warning system, the plants can stay one step ahead of their attackers. Experimental research has revealed that this significantly limits the damage to the plants.

However there are two sides to the coin. That is not just the case for the Internet but also for plants. It appears that plant viruses can use the infrastructure present to rapidly spread through the connected plants. The infection of one plant therefore leads to the infection of all plants within the network.

This research clearly reveals that the general image of plants is a poor reflection of reality. Who had now suspected that the majority of plants around us are constantly internetting?

This research is part of the Vidi project 'Plant Intranets. Costs, benefits, & risks of communication pathways in clonal plant networks' that was funded by NWO and the Radboud University Nijmegen.

Image: Clover plants can warn each other via a network of runners.

17 September 2007

elephant god ganesh playing veena

…from the Ganesh in Indian Art site, which also features an article, The King of Sets, about the god:

Ganesh or Ganapati (translated as the King of sets) is the elephant headed son of Lord Shiva and is widely worshipped by the Hindus. He is the God of the Beginning (so much so that to Ganesh is to begin in many Indian languages), the God of elimination of troubles, and a deity who is easily pleased (with good food).

Ganapati is considered god of wisdom in mythology. Though name "Ganapati" appears in Rigveda, he is not the same God who is worshipped as elephant-headed God today. "Gana" represents a clan and "Pati" is considered chieftain. In Vedic times, image worship did not exist and "Ganapati" stood for Brihaspati or Brahmin. The concept of Ganapati as elephant-headed God evolved in later age. In Hindu mythologies, every deity has a animal vehicle of his own and Lord Ganesh has mouse as his vehicle!

The elephant in Indian ethos occupies significant place. Due to its enormous strength, huge form, sharp memory an cleverness, Indians who visualize divinity in all living creatures naturally ascribe super qualities in this great animal. In our vast tropical forests, roaming elephant herds are led by powerful youthful elephant who commands respect for young and old ones. Among early Aryans and native tribes, elephants evoked fear and respect and it did not take long to conceptualize elephant God who was full of contrasts. For a heavy god, with enormous body and appetite, he rides a small mouse! He has big ears, and small eyes. For his super intellect and sharp memory, he is humble and serves as a scribe to great Vyasa who wrote (dictated) the Mahabharata. He is considered Ameya (beyond measure), and Aprameya (beyond visualization (riddles)). It is perhaps only to represent omniscience form of Almighty that Ganesh is worshipped.

16 September 2007

alex approaches the zero

…from the New York Times:

September 16, 2007
Parrot Power
Alex Wanted a Cracker, but Did He Want One?

IN “Oryx and Crake,” Margaret Atwood’s novel about humanity’s final days on earth, a boy named Jimmy becomes obsessed with Alex, an African gray parrot with extraordinary cognitive and linguistic skills. Hiding out in the library, Jimmy watches historical TV documentaries in which the bird deftly distinguishes between blue triangles and yellow squares and invents a perfect new word for almond: cork-nut.

But what Jimmy finds most endearing is Alex’s bad attitude. As bored with the experiments as Jimmy is with school, the parrot would abruptly squawk, “I’m going away now,” then refuse to cooperate further.

Except for the part about Jimmy and the imminent apocalypse (still, fingers crossed, a few decades away), all of the above is true. Until he was found dead 10 days ago in his cage at a Brandeis University psych lab, Alex was the subject of 30 years of experiments challenging the most basic assumptions about animal intelligence.

He is survived by his trainer, Irene Pepperberg, a prominent comparative psychologist, and a scientific community divided over whether creatures other than human are more than automatons, enjoying some kind of inner life.

Skeptics have long dismissed Dr. Pepperberg’s successes with Alex as a subtle form of conditioning — no deeper philosophically than teaching a pigeon to peck at a moving spot by bribing it with grain. But the radical behaviorists once said the same thing about people: that what we take for thinking, hoping, even theorizing, is all just stimulus and response.

Was Alex only parroting when he showed off for Alan Alda on “Scientific American Frontiers” (one of the PBS productions the fictional Jimmy might have seen)?

“What color smaller?” Dr. Pepperberg asked the parrot as she held up two keys. “Green,” he responded. Alex also seemed to understand concepts like “bigger,” “different” and “same.” Presented with a tray of colored cutouts — the numerals 1 to 6 — he could tell you which one was gray: “Four.”

Many linguists argue that only human brains have the ability to nest ideas within ideas to form the infinitely recursive architecture of thought: When you’re done eating breakfast would you look in the box at the back of the table for the yellow rubber glove with the middle finger turned inside out?

Alex could pull together a few simple concepts. Show him a group of objects and he could tell you, “What color is wood and four-corner?” or, “What shape is paper and purple?” Dr. Pepperberg was hoping to train Alex to spin his own recursions, informing her that the nut was “in the blue cup that’s on the tray” or “in the yellow box on the chair.”

“I wish we had gotten further,” Dr. Pepperberg wrote in an e-mail message. “We were just beginning to get him to designate things like ‘in’ and ‘on.’ ”

The deepest recursion is consciousness — knowing that you know and that you know that you know. In his recent book, “I Am a Strange Loop,” Douglas Hofstadter proposed that the richness of a creature’s mental representations be used to take the measure of its soul.

The unit Dr. Hofstadter whimsically proposed is the “huneker,” named for James Huneker, a music critic who wrote that Chopin’s 11th √Čtude, in A minor, (Op. 25) was so majestic that “small-souled men, no matter how agile their fingers, should not attempt it.”

If your average person’s soulfulness weighs in at 100 hunekers with a hamster down near 10, Alex hovered somewhere above the halfway mark. But there were moments when he seemed to reach for the top.

In an talk on Edge.org, Dr. Pepperberg told of an effort to teach the parrot about phonemes using colored tokens marked with letter combinations like sh and ch.

“What sound is green?”

“Ssshh,” Alex answered correctly, and then demanded a nut. Instead he got another question.

“What sound is orange?”


“Good bird!”

“Want a nut!” Alex demanded. The interview was over. “Want a nut!” he repeated. “Nnn ... uh ... tuh.”

Dr. Pepperberg was flabbergasted. “Not only could you imagine him thinking, ‘Hey, stupid, do I have to spell it for you?’ ” she said. “This was in a sense his way of saying to us, ‘I know where you’re headed! Let’s get on with it.’ ”

She is quick to concede the impossibility of proving that the bird was actually verbalizing its internal deliberations. Only Alex knew for sure.

Next to infinity, one of the hardest concepts to grasp is zero. Toward the end of his life Alex may have been coming close.

In a carnival shell game, an experimenter would put a nut under one of three cups and then shuffle them around. Alex would pick up the cup where the prize was supposed to be. If it wasn’t there he’d go a little berserk — a small step, maybe, toward understanding nothingness.

A bigger leap came in an experiment about numbers, in which the parrot was shown groups of two, three and six objects. The objects within each set were colored identically, and Alex was asked, “What color three?”

“Five,” he replied perversely (he was having a bad attitude day), repeating the answer until the experimenter finally asked, “O.K., Alex, tell me, ‘What color five?’ ”

“None,” the parrot said.

Bingo. There was no group of five on the tray. It was another of those high huneker moments. Alex had learned the word “none” years before in a different context. Now he seemed to be using it more abstractly.

Dr. Pepperberg reported the result with appropriate understatement: “That zero was represented in some way by a parrot, with a walnut-sized brain whose ancestral evolutionary history with humans likely dates from the dinosaurs, is striking.”

In a well-known essay, “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?” the philosopher Thomas Nagel speculated about the elusiveness of subjectivity. What was it like to be Alex that last night in his cage? We’ll never know whether there really was a mind in there — slogging its way from the absence of a cork-nut to the absence of Alex, grasping at the zeroness of death.

13 September 2007

"all animals are to be found in men "

From the oyster to the eagle, from the swine to the tiger, all animals are to be found in men and each of them exists in some man, sometimes several at the time. Animals are nothing but the portrayal of our virtues and vices made manifest to our eyes, the visible reflections of our souls. God displays them to us to give us food for thought.

–Victor Hugo, Les Mis√©rables, pt. 1, bk. 5, ch. 5 (1862).

12 September 2007

how we see Other

No doubt the thought that was uppermost in a thousand of those vigilant minds, even as it was uppermost in mine, was the riddle--how much they understood of us. Did they grasp that we in our millions were organized, disciplined, working together? Or did they interpret our spurts of fire, the sudden stinging of our shells, our steady investment of their encampment, as we should the furious unanimity of onslaught in a disturbed hive of bees?

-War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells, Ch 15

11 September 2007

"despotic" or "egalitarian"? let the computer sort it out

…from: University of Bath
Primate behavior explained by computer 'agents'

The complex behaviour of primates can be understood using artificially-intelligent computer ‘agents’ that mimic their actions, shows new research published in a special edition of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B and presented at the BA Festival of Science in York.

Scientists using agents programmed with simple instructions to work out why some primate groups are ‘despotic’ whilst others are ‘egalitarian’ - overturning previous theories developed by primatologists.

They have also found support for an existing theory of how dominant macaques make it to the safer positions at the middle of their troop without seeming to be pre-occupied with getting there.

Using agents programmed with two rules – stay in a group for safety and pester subordinates until they move away – scientists found that their more dominant agents would make their way to the centre of the group.

This desire to stay in a group and pick on subordinates could be an evolutionary mechanism that helps protect the more dominant and successful individuals in a group, they suggest.

“This kind of agent-based modelling is really a new way of doing science,” said Dr Joanna Bryson from the University of Bath who led the study and is one of the editors of the Philosophical Transactions special edition.

“Previously scientists have been limited to trying to understand animal behaviour by making observations and then developing theories that fit.

“Now we can test these theories using agents to give us a better understanding of complex behaviours.

“This work shows that agent models are an ordinary part of scientific theory building. We confirmed and extended previous work on spatial location of dominant animals, while showing where some theories got it wrong – in this case a theory put forward for why macaques form either despotic or egalitarian troops.”

Whilst there is no hierarchical structure in egalitarian groups there tends to be more fighting, although it is less violent, than in despotic groups.

Primatologists noticed that egalitarian groups tend to spend more time preening and hugging each other after fighting, leading them to speculate that the two different types of society evolved following the development of some groups’ ability to ‘reconcile’.

“Agent-based modelling techniques let us invent and remove behaviours to test the explanations of what we see in nature,” said Dr Bryson, from the University’s Department of Computer Science.

“Using modelling you can vary the external environmental factors to see if they have any effect on behaviour. You can do this for many generations in a few hours and see whether new behaviour is adaptive.”

More recent work by Dr Bryson and graduate student Hagen Lehmann has shown a new explanation for the theory they had previously overturned.

“By changing the amount of space between troop members, you can create models of despotic and egalitarian groups of agents,” said Dr Bryson.

“Then you can show that the despotic agents do better in the conditions we find despotic macaques in the wild. The same holds for egalitarian macaques

“The violence and lack of reconciliation in despotic groups comes down to the fact that they don’t like living on top of each other.

“This creates more space for the troop so they can find more food.

“But by hugging and making up after fights, the egalitarians spend more time close to each other. This makes them safer in environments where there are predators.

“This is a simple explanation for what we see in the wild, and it explains why some groups have a different range of behaviours than another.”

10 September 2007

r.i.p. Alex

…press release from The Alex Foundation:

Alex the African Grey parrot and subject of landmark studies of bird intelligence dies at 31

WALTHAM, MA (SEPTEMBER 10, 2007)—Alex, the world renowned African Grey parrot made famous by the ground-breaking cognition and communication research conducted by Irene Pepperberg, Ph.D., died at the age of 31 on September 6, 2007. Dr. Pepperberg’s pioneering research resulted in Alex learning elements of English speech to identify 50 different objects, 7 colors, 5 shapes, quantities up to and including 6 and a zero-like concept. He used phrases such as “I want X” and “Wanna go Y”, where X and Y were appropriate object and location labels. He acquired concepts of categories, bigger and smaller, same-different, and absence. Alex combined his labels to identify, request, refuse, and categorize more than 100 different items demonstrating a level and scope of cognitive abilities never expected in an avian species. Pepperberg says that Alex showed the emotional equivalent of a 2 year-old child and intellectual equivalent of a 5 year-old. Her research with Alex shattered the generally held notion that parrots are only capable of mindless vocal mimicry.

In 1973, Dr. Pepperberg was working on her doctoral thesis in theoretical chemistry at Harvard University when she watched Nova programs on signing chimps, dolphin communication and, most notably, on why birds sing. She realized that the fields of avian cognition and communication were not only of personal interest to her but relatively uncharted territory. When she finished her thesis, she left the field of chemistry to pursue a new direction—to explore the depths of the avian mind. She decided to conduct her research with an African Grey parrot. In order to assure she was working with a bird representative of its species, she asked the shop owner to randomly choose any African Grey from his collection. It was Alex. And so the 1-year old Alex, his name an acronym for the research project, Avian Learning EXperiment, became an integral part of Pepperberg’s life and the pioneering studies she was about to embark upon.

Over the course of 30 years of research, Dr. Pepperberg and Alex revolutionized the notions of how birds think and communicate. What Alex taught Dr. Pepperberg about cognition and communication has been applied to therapies to help children with learning disabilities. Alex’s learning process is based on the rival-model technique in which two humans demonstrate to the bird what is to be learned. Alex and Dr. Pepperberg have been affiliated with Purdue University, Northwestern University, the University of Arizona, the MIT Media Lab, the Radcliffe Institute, and most recently, Harvard University and Brandeis University.
Alex has been featured worldwide on numerous science programs including the BBC, NHK, Discovery and PBS. He is well known for his interactions with Alan Alda in an episode of Scientific American Frontiers on PBS and from an episode of the famed PBS Nature series called “Look Who’s Talking.” Reports on Alex’s accomplishments have appeared in the popular press and international news from USA Today to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. The Science Times section of the New York Times featured Alex in a front-page story in 1999. That same year, Dr. Pepperberg published The Alex Studies, a comprehensive review of her decades of learning about learning from Alex. Many other television appearances and newspaper articles followed.

Alex was found to be in good health at his most recent annual physical about two weeks ago. According to the vet who conducted the necropsy, there was no obvious cause of death. Dr. Pepperberg will continue her innovative research program at Harvard and Brandeis University with Griffin and Arthur, two other young African Grey parrots who have been a part of the ongoing research program.

Alex has left a significant legacy—not only have he and Dr. Pepperberg and their landmark experiments in modern comparative psychology changed our views of the capabilities of avian minds, but they have forever changed our perception of the term “bird brains.”

If you choose to help support this research, please consider making a donation in Alex's memory to The Alex Foundation, c/o Dr. Irene Pepperberg, Department of Psychology/MS-062, 415 South Street, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA 02454.

divulge bird talk or divorce: you make the call

There are many instances in our scriptures where ancient Indians had mastered animal languages. While king Kekaya was with his queen, he overheard the conversation of a pair of birds nesting in his courtyard which made, him laugh. He admitted to the queen that he understood birds' talk but refused to share this with others which was a taboo. When the queen insisted to know the contents of the bird's conversation, the king preferred to divorce her on the advice of his guru who had blessed this boon on the king than divulge the code. In Chandogyaupanishat another interesting incident has been mentioned. One evening a pair of cranes were flying back to their place of rest ; the talkative one said to the other that the king Janasbruthi is a very religious and learned person and therefore we must be extra careful while flying over his kingdom. This other crane reacted sharply and asked, "Does this king come anywhere near wisdom of Raikva?" The king overheard this conversation, located Raikva who was relaxing under a bullock cart and learned Bramha-jnana from him.

Animals of Indian Mythology
by Dr. Krishnanand Kamat

01 September 2007

she taught her pet pig to play tag and chew gum, and still eats pork

… Oglesby says she's happy with her decision to go with a somewhat unusual pet, despite the challenges in raising it.

"I'm an odd person," she says. "I think I'm a fun person, but I am an odd person. I've just always wanted a pig."

That may be true if you consider teaching a pig to chew gum and play tag. Oglesby says both hidden talents came out of Tater Tot by accident.

"We were just out in the yard and I ran up and touched her one day, then I ran away," Oglesby says. "She kind of danced around for a minute, then she chased me and touched me with her snout, then she ran off. Another time I was just sitting there and I decided to give her a piece of gum."

Don't believe all that stuff you may have read about pigs eating anything.

"She only likes fruit-flavored gums," Oglesby says. "She'll chew it for 10 or 15 minutes until it loses its flavor, then she'll spit it out. My next big thing is teaching her how to blow a bubble."

That's about where Tater Tot's picky palette ends. Except for a distaste for carrots and cucumbers, the little pig will eat just about anything put before her, from table scraps to dog food - her favorite.

"Of course, we don't feed her any pork," Oglesby says. "That would just be wrong."

Oglesby still eats pork, though.

"Yeah, but I can't tell her that," she says. …

…from: One 'Pig' Happy Family by Derek Hodges, The Mountain Press