Monday, November 28, 2005

Heart of the Horse

Just spoke to Temple—she is raving about Heart of the Horse, a book of photographs by Juliet Van Otteren. Text by Alan Lightman, foreword by Jane Goodall.

The cover photo is exquisite.

Juliet Van Otteren's website is here.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

that's why they call it the pecking order

The Wall Street Journal has a story on aggressive tom turkeys:
In April, Will Millington was riding his dirt bike down a narrow trail in Norman, Okla., when he stopped before a flock of wild turkeys. The hens scattered, but two toms flared their feathers and stalked toward him. Then they suddenly leapt in the air, beat Mr. Millington with their wings and tried to scratch him with the sharp spurs on the backs of their legs.

Mr. Millington frantically revved his bike's motor. Thirty yards down the trail he looked back. "They were running after me," says the 46-year-old property manager. "That was kind of spooky."


...naturalists who have studied the wild turkey say it can become aggressive toward humans as it adapts to suburban life. They worry it may become the next form of "nuisance" wildlife, following in the tracks of the whitetail deer and the Canada goose.

Wild-turkey flocks have a pecking order. If they live around humans, some of the dominant toms may begin to include people in that order -- at a level below themselves, says Jim Cardoza, a turkey expert at the Massachusetts wildlife agency. Wild turkeys "get used to people and incorporate them into their view of society," he says. Some behavior, such as putting out bird food and slinking quietly away, can encourage these lordly males to think that humans are a subservient life form, believes Mr. Cardoza.

Biologist James Earl Kennamer, senior vice president of the National Wild Turkey Federation, an Edgefield, S.C., hunters' group, has studied wild turkeys for 40 years. "When they think you're one of them, they'll fight you to show who's dominant," he says. "If you turn your back, they'll take it to mean they're dominant."


Last month, jogging on a back road in Massachusetts' Berkshire hills, Betsy Kosheff passed a farmers' field where farm-raised wild turkeys were pecking for grain. Suddenly about 30 of them took off after Ms. Kosheff, who has a public-relations firm in West Stockbridge, Mass.

"It was like that scene in 'The Birds' except there was no phone booth," says Ms. Kosheff, referring to the famous refuge in the Alfred Hitchcock movie. A passing friend stopped her pickup truck and Ms. Kosheff ran around it several times. The turkeys kept up the chase, although she says "they were too stupid to split up or change directions" to trap her. Finally, Ms. Kosheff got in the truck, where, she says, her friend "was laughing so hard she almost choked on her Dunkin' Donut."

We have very similar stories about bulls in Animals in Translation : Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior.


Never let a bull—or a tom turkey—think he's a person.

Happy Thanksgiving!

One for 'The Birds': Wild Turkeys Attack Humans in Suburbia

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

In the Company of Crows and Ravens the title of a new book by John M. Marzhuff and Tony Angell Temple's been reading.

Terrific story:

Marzhuff and Angell watched a team of crows—possibly as many as 5—gang up on an otter with a fish.

Some of the crows would swoop in and distract the otter, poking his tail and bugging him, while the others watched and waited for their chance to snatch the fish away.

Once the watching crows got the fish, they all flew off together.


Monday, November 14, 2005

birth of a new language

The Economist reports that Bruno Galantucci, a cognitive scientist at Yale, has created a computer game for two that forces the players to invent a new language in order to play. The object of the game is to find each other inside an onscreen bungalow:
The two players cannot see or hear each other, but they are seated at interconnected computers. In the simplest version of the game, each player is located in one of four rooms and must find each other in one move each. These rooms are arranged in a square, and each pair of adjacent rooms is connected by a doorway. On the floor of each room is an icon—a circle, a hexagon, a flower—and, prior to the game starting, the players have a short time to explore their surroundings. (Sometimes, a player with good spatial awareness can move quickly through all four rooms and understand the layout but others do not grasp it at this stage.)

The players know there is another player in another of the rooms, and that they must both end up in the same room, but they can only ever see the room they are in. To help them guide each other to a rendezvous, they have a device on which they can scrawl symbols that appear on the other's screen. But the device works like a roll of paper that constantly scrolls downwards, preventing them from writing letters, numbers or any other commonly recognisable symbol.To communicate, the players have to invent new symbols.

The amazing thing is, they can do it. 9 of 10 pairs found each other onscreen in 3 hours, after inventing 3 or 4 shared symbols. Some pairs found each other in minutes; some took hours. A few never found each other at all.

The fascinating aspect of this research, from the perspective of the problems autistic people have with language, is that imitation is key to developing a successful new form of communication:
Having observed winning pairs at play, Dr Galantucci says that communication is established as soon as one player decides to copy the symbols proposed by his co-player, rather than impose his own. At that point the pair's chances of finding each other jump. As soon as there is imitation, he says, there is a common currency. After that, it is relatively easy to attach useful information to those symbols.

And listen to this:
"What is striking, he says, is that a pair can be successful even if a symbol represents something quite different in the virtual world to each player—as long as they agree on what they should do when confronted by it. In other words, people only need to convey a small amount of information to communicate effectively, and they can do so while holding fundamentally different ideas about how their language describes the world."

This is amazing.

"Communication" works just fine when very little is actually being communicated.

What matters is behavior, not thoughts.

If you're doing what you should do when you see or hear a symbol, it doesn't matter whether you understand what the other person means by the symbol.

For two people to communicate, they just need to agree on the actions they want each other to take, not the meaning of the actions!

Looks like the behaviorists were right.

"Looking for a sign,"
THE ECONOMIST, November 10, 2005

Thursday, November 10, 2005

mouse song

I'm talking to Temple on the phone right now; she's fascinated by the new research showing that mice can (probably) sing. It's further support for her feeling that music is the language of animals.

Here's what else she has to say:

"The only social cue I could understand was tone. I used to call up clients just so I could hear their voice. If I thought a client was annoyed with me, I would call them up just to see if I could hear this little annoyed whine in their voice. I could tell by their voice that they were annoyed. I could also tell by their voice if they were happy!"

"I could never understand for the longest time why people wanted to meet each other in person. I thought it was enough just to meet people on the phone, because all I needed to do was hear their voice. Meeting them on the phone was as good as meeting them face to face, because at that point I didn't even know eye signals existed."

"I did not know that eye signals existed until I was 50. I read about them in Simon Baron-Cohen's book Mind Blindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind. That's how I found out they existed."


Here's The Economist's description of the new research on singing mice (subscription required) :

Timothy Holy and Zhongsheng Guo of the Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, made the discovery after studying how male mice respond to female mouse pheromones, the chemical signals linked, among other things, to mating. The mice made noises inaudible to the human ear, and the researchers recorded and analysed them.

By dropping the pitch of the recordings so that humans could hear it, the researchers found that it sounded remarkably like birdsong. Each mouse made a series of “chirps” with bursts of closely spaced notes interspersed with lulls. Details were published this week in the Public Library of Science Biology.

To be classified as a song, a vocalisation has to contain distinct notes, rather than one sound repeated, as well as motifs and themes that recur from time to time. The researchers identified distinct clusters of pitch changes in the songs by analysing a set of 750 syllables produced by one mouse in a single 210-second recording. They concluded that these pitch changes followed a pattern and were thus a song. Tests with 45 different mice produced similar results, although each mouse had its distinct

Beyond Falsetto
Melodic Mice

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

are bees as smart as pigeons and monkeys?

They might be, if working memory is as important to general intelligence as it appears to be.

Working memory is the faculty we use to remember a phone number while we're dialing it—or to remember the beginning of this sentence while reading to the end.

Some brain scan research suggests that working memory and "general fluid intelligence" are strongly correlated. A difference in IQ probably means a difference in working memory, and vice versa.

Getting back to bees, when Shaowu Zhang and his colleagues tested honeybees' working memory, they found it lasted about 5 seconds—same as a pigeon's. Moreover, according to Zhang "a honeybee's memory is flexible enough to perform a simplified version of a task employed to test memory in rhesus monkeys."

Zhang calls the working memory of bees "robust and flexible."

If working memory is part of general intelligence, and honeybees have working memories as good as those of pigeons and monkeys, there's no reason to assume pigeons and monkeys are a lot smarter than honeybees.


Little Brains That Could: Bees show big-time working memory
Visual working memory in decision making by honey bees
The General Intelligence Factor
Study links problem-solving skills to brain 'g' spot