It was a slow news day in the Siberian town of Lazo. That is, until a pack of ravenous squirrels descended from the trees and then attacked, killed, and ate a stray dog.
Archive for the 'animals' Category
From Lies.com Ivory-billed Woodpecker Bureau Chief Ethan P comes this latest New York Times update on the big question at the AOU meeting held last week in my neck of the woods: Ivory Bill or not? The proof flits tantalizingly out of sight.
Some fishermen in the Mekong Delta pulled something really big out of their nets back in May: Truly, it was a whopper, but are there bigger fish? The view of the researcher quoted in the story is that no, as of now, he doesn’t have evidence of any bigger (freshwater) fish.
The monster fish was one of just three giant catfish caught in Thailand this year.
Before he headed out on May 1, one of the men who caught it, Thirayuth Panthayom, 29, made sure luck would be on his side. He said he prayed at the shrine of the God of Catfish and begged his boat to help him, “Please, Miss Boat, let me catch something today and I’ll sacrifice a chicken for you.”
He said he had only been out for 15 minutes when he saw the fish smack the water four times with its tail – “Pung! Pung! Pung! Pung!” It took his crew an hour to pull it in.
His father, as owner of the boat, earned nearly $2,000 for the fish from the village fishing association, a fortune in rural Thailand. Mr. Thirayuth, like the other four members of the crew, got $175 of this, which he said he gave right back to his father.
As required by its permit to fish for these endangered catfish, the village association then sold it to the Department of Fisheries, which harvests their eggs and sperm as part of a captive breeding program.
After that, the fish are to be returned to the river, but few have survived the harvesting process, in which hormone injections are administered and the belly is vigorously massaged and manipulated.
The monster fish was returned dead to the fishermen, who cut it into giant steaks and sold it.
When he tried a bit, Mr. Thirayuth said, it tasted soft and sweet and mild.
“It’s hard to describe,” he said. “You have to try it yourself.”
Unforutnately, I seem unlikely to get the chance. Even more unfortunately, the rest of the world’s fish-eaters seem unlikely to have the chance for much longer.
I really liked this op-ed piece from Bernd Heinrich, in which he praises the documentary March of the Penguins, while addressing the broader issue of what it means to anthropomorphize animals in movies, and where one might usefully draw the line between things like Bambi and things like Winged Migration: Talk to the animals.
Paradoxically, the cartoonish anthropomorphism of “Bambi,” although it entertained the youngsters, blocked rather than promoted an understanding of animals. In “Bambi” we do not see other creatures. Instead, we are presented humans with antlers, and with our thought and speech. This is what the traditional idea of anthropomorphizing is – expecting animals to feel and behave like humans, which they never will. One look at that penguin with the egg on its toes shows the inadequacy, the outright folly, of wishing they “were more like us.”
Nature is the greatest show on earth, and reverence for life requires acknowledging the differences between ourselves and the animals as well as seeing our relatedness.
Birds are so cool.
First, a quick update on the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, the long-believed-extinct Liberace of the bird world recently rediscovered (or so we hope) in Arkansas. Tom Nelson has his doubts: my thoughts: Was “Elvis” just a partially leucistic Pileated Woodpecker? But meanwhile, the NYT has an article about how some early skeptics are coming around to the “yup, probably an Ivory-Billed” position based on some interesting sound recordings: Sound files ease doubts on elusive woodpecker.
Meanwhile, if you want a well-written and entertaining insight into what it means to be a birder, check out this piece from Jonathan Franzen in The New Yorker: My bird problem: Love, grief, and a change in the weather.
A brief, but thoughtful, article on the use of juvenile chimpanzees in show business, from Gelf Magazine’s David Goldenberg: Meet Mikey, chimpanzee cover boy.
To think I was lucky enough to live in these days of miracles and wonders: GoDogGo! The Automatic Fetch Machine! Remote Controlled!
GoDogGo is the first, and still the only, Automatic Fetch Machine for dogs.
So, I guess there was some sort of trial up the road in Santa Maria that ended yesterday? At least, I noticed that at one point in the afternoon the same dumb program, in which a swarm of helicopters follwed a line of black SUVs, was on every channel.
It’s a little late, but Triumph is always good for a laugh. Courtesy of anti-copyright superhero Norm of One Good Move (I think he has a spandex suit in the closet that says “Fair Use Man!” in bold letters across the chest): Triumph The Insult Comic Dog and MJ Fans.
I could while away the hours
Conferrin’ with the flowers
Consultin’ with the rain
And my head, I’d be scratchin’
While my thoughts were busy hatchin’
If I only had a brain.
I’ve just finished reading Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale, and it’s had me thinking about the non-neurological component of intelligence.
Dawkins’ book is a journey backwards through our ancestors, cast as a pilgrimage to the “Canterbury” of the remotest common ancestor shared by all life on earth. It’s an interesting journey, in part because of the way it emphasizes the literal truth of the notion that all life is related. Reading the book puts you in the position of imagining what it was actually like to be a pre-human hominid, a shrew-like early mammal, a proto-vertebrate, a worm, an amoeba, a bacterium.
In the ‘later’ (that is to say, earlier) stages of that journey, you’re inhabiting a body that doesn’t have much in the way of a brain. And yet, despite their lack of big cerebral cortexes and the resulting large vocabularies that would let them do things like post rambling conceptual pieces on their weblogs, “simpler” organisms seem to have some pretty interesting abilities that are analogous to what we like to think of as the characteristically “human” manifestation of intelligence.
I also just finished reading Jeremy Narby’s Intelligence in Nature. Narby writes in his book about Martin Giurfa of the Centre of Animal Cognition Research in France, who, along with four co-authors, published The concept of ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’ in an insect. In Giurfa’s experiment, bees were trained to enter a simple Y-shaped maze that had been marked at the entrance with a particular color. Inside the maze was a branching point where the bee was required to choose between two paths. One path, which led to the food reward, was marked with the same color that had been used at the entrance to the maze, while the other was marked with a different color. Bees learned to choose the correct path, and continued to do so when a different kind of marker (black and white stripes oriented in various directions) was substituted for the colored markers. When the experimental conditions were reversed, rewarding bees for choosing the inner passage marked with a symbol that was different than the entrance symbol, the bees again learned to choose the correct path. “Thus,” write Giurfa et al., “not only can bees learn specific objects and their physical parameters, but they can also master abstract inter-relationships, such as sameness and difference.”
Narby also talks about slime molds, which in part of their life cycle resemble huge colonial assemblages of one-celled individuals who have fused their cytoplasm into a single enormous (well, by unicellular standards) cell containing thousand of nuclei. Narby visited Japanese scientist Toshiyuki Nakagaki, whose studies have shown that slime molds can “solve” a simple maze, arranging their bodies to lie along the shortest path between two food items placed in opposite corners (see Slime mould solves maze puzzle).
Plants, too, manifest something that could arguably be called intelligence. We hyperactive denizens of kingdom Animalia aren’t really wired to notice it, but on longer time scales plants adapt and respond to their environment, and research has shown that they actually respond surprisingly quickly (albeit in ways not easily visible) to outside stimuli of various kinds — all without benefit of brains, or even individual nerve cells.
Narby visits with Scottish scientist Tony Trewavas, who has been making waves in recent years by publishing studies describing what he refers to as “plant intelligence”. (See Root and branch intelligence and Aspects of plant intelligence.) For example, Trewavas talks about earlier research by CK Kelly showing that dodder, a parasitic plant that takes the form of bright orange twining tendrils (and which I happened to be checking out a couple of days ago while taking a hike in the Caprinteria salt marsh with my son), can quickly discriminate between a “good” host and a poor one, “choosing” in a matter of an hour or two how much of its resources to devote to a particular new host plant.
All of which brings me to the item I actually wanted to talk about when I started this posting: Scientists experiment with ‘trust’ hormone. It’s an article describing recent research into how the hormone oxytocin, which I’m mainly familiar with from its medical use in stimulating contractions during childbirth, can render people more trusting.
Oxytocin is secreted in brain tissue and synthesized by the hypothalamus. This small, but crucial feature located deep in the brain controls biological reactions like hunger, thirst and body temperature, as well as visceral fight-or-flight reactions associated with powerful, basic emotions like fear and anger.
For years oxytocin was considered to be a straightforward reproductive hormone found in both sexes. In both humans and animals, this chemical messenger stimulates uterine contractions in labor and induces milk production. In both women and men, oxytocin is released during sex, too.
Then, elevated concentrations of the hormone also were found in cerebrospinal fluid during and after birth, and experiments showed it was involved in the biochemistry of attachment. It’s a sensible conclusion, given that babies require years of care and the body needs to motivate mothers for the demanding task of childrearing.
In recent years, scientists have wondered whether oxytocin also is generally involved with other aspects of bonding behavior – and specifically whether it stimulates trust.
The article goes on to describe how researchers dosed experimental subjects with oxytocin, then had them play a simple investment game that revealed the level of trust they were willing to extend to a randomly assigned trading partner. Those who got the hormone were dramatically more trusting.
Researchers said they are performing a new round of experiments using brain imaging. “Now that we know that oxytocin has behavioral effects,” Fehr said, “we want to know the brain circuits behind these effects.”
I’m sure there’s more to learn about how the brain is involved in all this, but I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that it necessarily plays the most important role. Brains are a relatively recent innovation. For most of our collective history of living on the planet we haven’t had them — yet we’ve been intelligently negotiating our environment the whole time, presumably through the same sorts of complex chemical interactions that underlie the “intelligent” behavior of our distant relatives, the slime molds and dodder plants.
Okay. Done rambling for now.
I’ve had this kicking around in my post-to-lies folder for a while. It’s a short interview with Jane Goodall: Animals and us: Close encounters
What is the most human-like behaviour you saw in chimpanzees?
Chimps can be deliberately deceptive. For example, when we wanted the young males to get the bananas, the big males would come and take them all, so we took to hiding some of the bananas up in the trees. One day a young male called Figan suddenly looked up into a tree and there was a banana nobody else had seen. He glanced over at three older males grooming. Chimps follow each other’s gaze, and if the males had noticed where Figan had been looking they would have immediately taken the banana, and if he had tried to get it quickly they would have attacked him. I think he knew if he stayed there he wouldn’t be able to resist looking, so he went out of sight. The moment they left, he came back to fetch it.
I very much recommend the whole thing.
Here’s another one of those stories that people more plugged into the world of television than I am probably heard about a long time ago. From an article by David Goldenberg about recent discoveries of hitherto unknown primates (A primate explosion), comes this bit about the Golden Palace monkey:
Robert Wallace, who found the new titi monkey in Bolivia, auctioned off the naming rights for the new species, eventually earning $650,000 for the nonprofit organization that protects the monkey’s habitat (WCS). The Golden Palace casino, the same online company that bought the grilled-cheese sandwich with the image of the Virgin Mary and has paid a woman to name her baby GoldenPalace.com, eventually outbid Ellen DeGeneres for the honor (official site); unsurprisingly, the new species has the scientific name Callicebus aureipalatii, the Golden Palace monkey.
I’ve been watching birds most of my life. I’ve seen a pileated woodpecker just three times; twice when I was 12 years old and living (briefly) in Florida, a third time in my early 20s when visiting my father near Houston. Those sightings were very memorable for me; the pileated woodpecker is a spectacular bird: big as a crow, boldly marked, loud, and boisterous. If a pileated woodpecker were a human, it would be like Muhammed Ali in his prime, only dressed like Liberace. That bird just owns any room it’s in.
One of the things that makes the pileated so nifty, at least for me, is the visual reminder it provides of its close relative, the ivory-billed woodpecker. Even larger and more spectacular than the pileated, the ivory-billed has been thought extinct for decades, its population having crashed in the 19th and early 20th centuries after the southeastern old-growth forests it favored were logged.
There were occasional reports, unconfirmed, of someone seeing one in the backwoods somewhere, but experts always ended up concluding that the sightings actually involved misidentified pileateds. For a while the Cuban subspecies of the ivory-billed was believed to have survived, but then it, too, was downgraded to “presumed extinct.” Today’s best bird-watcher’s field guide, the Sibley Guide to the Birds, doesn’t even bother depicting the ivory-billed.
Well, hold on to your hats, bird-lovers: Ivory-billed woodpecker refound in the USA. There’s also coverage from the Washington Post: Woodpecker thought extinct rediscovered, and from Reuters: Ivory billed woodpecker, feared extinct, isn’t.
I realize that the fact that a tiny remnant population (possibly just a single individual) has managed to survive doesn’t offer much hope; the odds are stacked very much against the species’ actually recovering. Species go extinct; it’s the way of things. But like individual death, extinction is forever, and for someone who cherishes the beauty and wonder of creation, staving it off, if only for a little bit, is reason to celebrate.
Yee ha. The ivory-billed woodpecker lives. That makes my day.
Update: Here are some additional details courtesy the very-much-abuzz birdwatchers’ mailing lists I subscribe to:
For a while CNN’s web site had a small still image taken from a video of the bird (except it actually wasn’t; see below); that image has been removed now, but Google still had a copy of it:
(Later update: Oh, except that image actually is a still from a test video showing a wooden model of the bird that the researchers used for comparison purposes. See the link below for the actual video image.)
From ivorybill.org (!), a video news release that includes the actual footage of the bird: Video news release.
Finally, in PDF form, the article from Science that came out today: Ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) persists in continental North America.
Some loosely coupled links for your morning:
An African lion (maybe?) is loose near the Reagan Presidential Library: Lion or tiger, not bear, oh my! And this is an interesting time for me to read that story, because I am just now in the midst of David Quammen’s excellent Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind.
In the book, Quammen speculates about what it means to be a large hominid near, but not quite at, the top of the food chain, contemplating the existence of various alpha predators (lions, tigers, leopards, crocodiles, grizzly and polar bears, a few sharks), all of whom share the tendency to occasionally have one of us for lunch.
Quammen is the author of the even-more-excellent The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions, so you can bet Monster of God deals with the consequences of our making it so those alpha predators disappear, and the tension between those who think such predators should be exterminated, and those who think they should be preserved.
But speaking of God and gods reminds me of a site I came across the other day by following the back link from a cherished lies.com commenter. You’ll recall that I previously linked to Jason Salavon, a digital artist who created averaged versions of each of four decades’ Playboy playmates. Now lies.com reader Larry Holdaway has done something similar with the faces of 295 porn stars and nude models, to produce Clotho, Lachesis & Atropos, that is, the three Fates. It’s pretty cool.
While checking that out, I noticed another interesting item from the God- (or gods-) obsessed Holdaway: God and the tool making apes, which links to a 1998 Douglas Adams speech, in which the late author said the following:
…early man has a moment to reflect and he thinks to himself, ‘well, this is an interesting world that I find myself in’ and then he asks himself a very treacherous question, a question which is totally meaningless and fallacious, but only comes about because of the nature of the sort of person he is, the sort of person he has evolved into and the sort of person who has thrived because he thinks this particular way. Man the maker looks at his world and says ‘So who made this then?’ Who made this? — you can see why it’s a treacherous question. Early man thinks, ‘Well, because there’s only one sort of being I know about who makes things, whoever made all this must therefore be a much bigger, much more powerful and necessarily invisible, one of me and because I tend to be the strong one who does all the stuff, he’s probably male’. And so we have the idea of a god. Then, because when we make things we do it with the intention of doing something with them, early man asks himself , ‘If he made it, what did he make it for?’ Now the real trap springs, because early man is thinking, ‘This world fits me very well. Here are all these things that support me and feed me and look after me; yes, this world fits me nicely’ and he reaches the inescapable conclusion that whoever made it, made it for him.
Okay. Enough rambling for one morning.
One cool thing about the Internet is that stuff hangs around. Jokes that made the rounds years ago eventually get to be retold to a new audience, with the same amusing results. Like just happened with my daughter, who, when I asked what she was looking at on the computer on the other side of my desk when she should be getting ready for school, started giving me an outraged account of an email she’d just received about Bonsai Kitten.
Me: Uh, Julia, let me tell you about this extremely important web site called snopes.com…
Inaugurating a mess of brief postings to make up for yesterday’s 4,000-word opus, here’s ganns.com’s Winners of the “I Look Like My Dog” Contest.
Actually, this isn’t as bad as you think. The illustrations are pretty cool. Tasteful, if somewhat crude (but not crude the way you’re thinking). Anyway: I gave my cat an enema.
Some people read an article like this and think: “Stupid birds.” Other people think: “There goes mankind, messing up the environment and indirectly killing off a species”.
I read it and thought: “This is fucking hilarious!” …
(Which kind of person are you?)