Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Lets Dance - Part 1 Araneae

I've been very interested in these dancing spider videos that have been surfacing online - the spiders are incredibly colorful and have these intricate, detailed dances.  I am so intrigued I've decided to learn more about them and share some info on spiders.  We'll break down a little taxonomy - it wont be overwhelming I promise - and then we'll dive into these adorable groovy spiders.  I'm sure we'll all learn a thing or two today!  

These little guys are Maratus volans, a species in the peacock spider genus.  When I say little I mean it -
They're tiny!!  These peacock spiders are within the jumping spider family.  The jumping spider family is THE largest family of spiders with over 5,000 described species.

I'm not usually a big arachnid person.. I'm a little scared when I encounter a big spider in my basement... but as a class of animal I think they're fascinating.  So lets break down the arachnids just a little before we dive into the dancing peacock spiders!

Spiders have a hard outside and squishy insides - we've all stepped on a spider before right?  Simply put, having a hard outside - an exoskeleton - makes spiders Arthropods.  Arthropods are a huge group of animals that have exoskeletons (no bones on the insides, just hard outsides made of chitin and protein), segmented bodies, and jointed limbs.  Arthropods include everything from crabs, to shrimp, barnicles, crickets, centepedes, scorpions, and spiders.  A HUGE group right?? This huge group is called a Phylum.

So the huge Phylum Arthropoda gets broken down into more "like" groups.  Our next breakdown is a grouping of the horseshoe crabs and other slightly spooky critters like spiders, scorpions and ticks.  They all have appendages that appear before the mouth called "chelicerae".  These chelicerae (mouth parts) are usually small pincers.  This slightly smaller group is called the Chelicerata and we refer to it as a Sub-Phylum.   

Now we get to the good stuff.  Our next "like" group is all the chelicerates with eight legs - arachnids!  So we've cruised from Phylum Arthropoda; segmented bodies with crunchy outsides, to Subphylum Chelicerata; crunchy critters with mouth appendages, to Class Arachnida; creatures with all of the above who have eight legs.  Arachnids are spiders, scorpions, mites, ticks, and solifuges. 

We're interested in just the spiders today.  So our final stop is the Order Araneae; segmented, crunchy critters with eight legs and mouthbits - but the mouthbits (chelicerae) must be fangs to be in this group.  That's what makes a spider an araneid, is having ALL of these characteristics.  If a creature is segmented, crunchy, has eight legs and mouthbits BUT THE MOUTHBITS ARE NOT FANGS then it is not an araneid/spider.  Make sense?

Phylum: Arthropoda
Subphylum: Chelicerata
Class: Arachnida
Order: Araneae = SPIDER!!! 

Spiders are fascinating.  There are a ton of different spider groups, but we've done enough taxonomy for now lets dive into the fun stuff!  Dancing spiders on the next post!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

New Post Coming Soon!

Get ready to learn some basic taxonomy, and characteristics of everyones favorite furry friends.... spiders!! 

Hahaha just kidding, I know they're not a favorite. 

But they are very interesting!  We'll get into some fun tidbits on what makes a spider a spider, and how and why they dance!  Till the post is ready enjoy this spider.. with a "hat". 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

I've been on tortiose time

Hello there!  It's been far too long since I've posted on here. Today I realized how much I miss sharing my love for cool creatures.  I think that I'll start a small bit featuring each of my creatures, so you can get to know me and my pets! 

I've been on tortoise time with my little buddy Koopa the Sulcata tortoise.  This photo is the first time I ever saw him! He's my first reptile, I've had him since he was a little nugget, and now hes about a year old!  He was bred in captivity and I got him via mail (yes he really came in the mail!!).  He - now here I'm making assumptions Koopa could end up being a girl, you cant determine the sex of your Sulcata unless they are incubated at specific temperatures or until they reach sexual maturity - is a quiet, brave little fellow.  His favorite activities include eating, napping in warm sunny places, and adventuring for a spot to hide where he can still see whats happening around him.  He also likes to climb, he'll climb a mountain of shoes or up a heap of rocks to check out the view. 

Koopa and I have learned much on our journey so far together.  He tells me when he doesn't like something in his own turtle-y way.  When he was very small he wouldn't eat any of the grasses or food I provided and wasn't growing, and so I caved as a mommy and fed him delicious lettuces from romaine, spinach, kale and beyond.  He was a happy baby, and was eating, but then I noticed his growth wasn't right, he began to pyramid (pyramiding is where instead of the shell growing uniformly flat around the edges of each scute, each scute begins to grow upward making each scute look like a little pyramid).  Let me define scute as well, when you look at a turtles shell it is made up of a bunch of units, each of these units is a scute.  Scutes are the outermost form of armor on a turtles shell.  The ribs form the base of the shell on the inside (by the turtles guts), they are fused to each other creating a solid bony box that the head, arms, legs and tail poke out of.  The scutes are on the outside of this bony box.  An interesting anatomical note is that the shoulder blades of a turtle are INSIDE the ribcage, swing your arms around a little and think about how weird that is - our shoulder blades are on the outside of our ribs.  Turtles have accomplished this through many minor changes in their evolutionary development that I will write about in more detail at a later date for those of you who are interested (it's super totally amazingly cool but too detailed for this post).  Koopa is now back to a diet he would encounter in his native element. 

This is Koopa reading about his history.  Tortoises are some of the longest lived terrestrial animals, some species can live for one to two hundred years.  Tortoises are not all giant like the Galapagos Giant Tortoise, Aldabra Tortoises and Suclata Tortoises, some are small like the Desert Tortoise.  To be a tortoise - or not to be - is a question of being terrestrial.  Turtles are aquatic; pond turtles, snapping turtles, sea turtles. Tortoises are terrestrial; desert tortoises, rainforest tortoises, grassland tortoises.  To be a tortoise is to be a specialized terrestrial turtle.  Let me clarify further, a tortoise is a turtle.  A turtle is NOT a tortoise.  From here you may ask, did a turtle become specialized over millions of years to become exclusively terrestrial and create a family of tortoises who are all related to each other? 
The answer to that question is no.  Tortoises have each converged on an exclusively terrestrial lifestyle from many different independant turtle families.  A sulcata is not more closely related to another tortoise because they're both terrestrial - they could be related because they share common ancestors in the same region - but is most likely more closely related to a turtle species in a different habitat in that same region, which could be extant or extinct.  The key to surviving is to capitalize on individual mutations that you posses and exploit them in a habitat with less competition for resources.  This is what tortoises have done, they acquired traits like armored limbs for burrowing, keen senses of smell and sensitivity to color, and a lengthened intestinal tract for digesting plant matter versus a high protein diet which enabled them to survive in new environments where there are less turtles competing for the same resources.

I want to note that tortoises did not choose to acquire these traits because they thought they would be good to have to survive in harsh environments, these characters were acquired randomly through genetic mutations in DNA that created many different outcomes.  Some proto-tortioses did not get dealt the right genetic hand to succeed in a hot, dry, protein deficient environment and they died - but a few did get the right hand, completely randomly in a random order over huge lengths of time and succeeded.

Another note is that gigantisism in tortoises is not commonplace, there are factors selecting for gigantisism or else there are a relaxation of factors selecting for small size.  Sulcatas are likely giant because once an individual reaches a certain size a lion can not break the shell open with its jaws, so gigantisism has been selected for as a tool for surviving with large predators.  Galapagos tortoises are the other example, there was no selection for staying small to avoid getting spotted and eaten by predators, because there are no predators like large birds of prey or giant cats, so selection was relaxed and the species became a giant species. 

Sulcata tortoises are native to Africa inhabiting the northern grasslands and southern Sahara Desert.  The proper scientific name is Geochelone Sulcata and designates Koopa as a giant land tortoise.  Sulcata's are the third largest land tortoise species.  He is a vegetarian and eats a high fiber low protein diet of grasses and occasional veggies like squash, pumpkin, and he loves carrots.  I give him a carrot and refer to it as a carrot-kong (like the dog toy) he loves the color and ends up rolling it around as he gets little bites out of it.  He'll let you pet him if you stroke him very gently, he lets me pet his little tortoise head which melts my heart.  He doesn't prefer to be picked up, if you pick him up you really should let him stand on your hand so he has some "ground" under his feet or else he peeeeeeees all over you.  He has small/medium size rocks as his substrate, many hiding places, a basking lamp and he gets sunshine every day.  He loves when you give him a bath and rub him gently with a soft tooth brush, he even stretches out his neck so you can get his chin.  He is my little nugget and I love him to death. This post was a brief, very very brief highlight of a few points in tortoise evolution and an introduction to my experience with tortoise ownership.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Lizard Lips

 This is my little sister Lila Jane and I a few years ago playing put-put.  Shes adorable.  The course has all kinds of castles and pirates, but Lila's favorite are the giant lizards.  

Some adorable photos..


 And now some science.  

Did you know that lizards don't have lips?

 Nope, no lips.  This lucky lizard was getting lots of love from a sweet little mammal, but giving none in return.  Why don't lizards have lips?  Well, they don't really need lips.  But lets start at the beginning.

Lizards are reptiles, and they have been around for approximately 350 million years.  The Mesozoic is known as the Age of Reptiles for good reason.  Dinosaurs dominated the terrestrial environment, but the transition from aquatic amphibious individuals to fully terrestrial reptiles required many physiological changes in the preceding era, the Paleozoic.  If you want to be on land, but will dry out, it would be most advantageous to have skin that is more thick and keratinized scales to keep your insides moist and protected from harmful UV rays.  If you want to have your babies on land, and not in the water, you'll need a system to keep them safe while they develop.  Eggs!  If you don't want to be hungry, you'll need to have the tools necessary to capture prey.  This is where we get into the lip-less neck of the woods.

Reptiles are ancestrally carnivorous.  They capture prey animals, crush, gobble, and swallow.  They have no need to manipulate their prey items in a particular manner in their mouth to aid in digestion, like how many mammals need to finely macerate food before ingestion so the stomach can effectively digest the nutrients.  Reptiles have never needed to be able to use their mouths in the same way that we do.  Which is why they don't have lips like we do.

Mammals have lips to strip leaves off branches, eat delicate parts of fruits, remove meat from bone, and to blow bubbles.  That last part is just us I suppose, but the idea of lips evolving to aid in specific functions for like groups of animals was a mind blowing revelation I had the other day.  Lizards don't have lips, neither do turtles, salamanders, frogs, snakes, birds (relatively obvious) or even mammals like rodents.  It's interesting to grasp characteristics that unite us with our animal bretherin like vertebrae, and strange to understand how different we are by thinking about one little thing like lips.

Lizards can smile though.  Just no kissing, or blowing bubbles.  

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Eye Candy

It is so windy outside.  I'm escaping with some marine photos and thought I should share with you all!  I've collected the images stumbling the internet and viewing the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Collections online here.  Having collections accessible online is an awesome easy way to access biodiversity, I'm obsessed, more is sure to come. Enjoy!

 : )

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Lecture+collections+cladograms+fossilized evidence=love

This makes me so happy.  Its a cladogram of a collection at the American Museum of Natural History showing the evolution of vertebrates.  The transition from aquatic environments to terrestrial is one of my very favorite things to think about, this highlights the story as well as demonstrates how DINOSAURS EVOLVED. Woah, yeah, dinosaurs.  Whats even better, is that I'm learning the nitty gritty story behind all this in my classes this quarter. 

The good stuff in evolutionary history starts once we have some solid evidence for life, I like solid evidence.  3.7 billion years ago (give or take a few million) there were plankton alive and doing what plankton do in Precambrian oceans.  They were photosynthesizing happily, and then they reached the end of their little lives, died, and sank to the bottom of the ocean.  Then they got fossilized, and discovered in modern Isua, Greenland.  They aren't the first cells on Earth, but those lucky cells got fossilized and are the oldest fossilized evidence of life today.

From that point cellular life developed for THREE BILLION YEARS, gradually increasing in complexity to the point of mulitcellularity and sex.  Cyanobacteria filled our atmosphere with free oxygen, and diversity radiated on our planet.  Bacteria, Archea, and Eukaryotes have since been in competition for resources on Earth, acquiring truly astonishing diversity in every form.  Below is amphibian predator Koskinonodon, formerly known as Buettneria perfecta, an animal who lived primarily in aquatic habitats but was capable of walking on land.  Not a reptile, evolution is cool. 

I'll post new knowledge and discoveries just as soon as I encounter them. Check back soon!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Manta Rays Fate Worse Than Sharks

It's been a while, sorry! I'll post as often as I can with school. This article is devastating, we desperately need to protect the surviving populations. Shark fins and rhinoceros horns, now manta ray gills.. this mindless harvesting of beautiful rare species must stop.

As the population of sharks has depleted, fishermen are turning more and more to Manta Rays - animals unfit, in the most Darwinian sense of the word, to handle the pressure.
Manta Rays take 10 years to reach maturity and females give birth to "a single pup every two to three years," ray researcher Mike Bennett of the University of Queensland told ABC Science:
By comparison, a Great White Shark, which is widely considered to be one of the world's most vulnerable marine species, may produce as many pups in one litter as a Manta Ray does over its entire lifetime.
42-21824868The worldwide decline in Manta and their cousins the Mobula Rays, is documented in a recent study released by the conservation organizations, Shark Savers and WildAid. The study, Manta Ray of Hope: The Global Threat to Manta and Mobula Rays, began by following the trade in gill rakers, the cartilaginous part of the rays that helps them filter feed.

"We first came across manta and mobula ray gills in Asian markets several years ago and followed the trail to the dried seafood markets of Southern China. It's sad to see these animals follow the same path to extinction as sharks," conservation photographer and lead investigator Paul Hilton said in a statement.
Currently the IUCN Red List of threatened species lists both the Giant Manta Ray (Manta birostris) and the Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias) as vulnerable and Smoothtail Devil Rays (Mobula thurstoni) as only in a slightly better situation, that of near-threatened.
The study also valued the life of a Manta Ray at US$1 million, the income one animal makes for local eco-tourism. The market value for gill rakers? An estimated $11 million annually, according to the study. Making the value of the animal alive a much more lucrative investment. The tourism industry for snorkling and scuba diving with rays is estimated at over $100 million per year, globally.

Vulnerable Giant Manta Ray (Manta birostris) entangled in a fisherman's net, in Yap, Micronesia. (Corbis)
Near-threatened Smoothtail Devil Rays (Mobula thurstoni aka Mobula lucasana) slaughtered on a beach in Baja California, Mexico. (Norbert Wu, Corbis)
Giant Manta Ray hooked on long line near Cocos Island, Costa Rica - Pacific Ocean. (Jeffrey Rotman, Corbis)


Monday, January 9, 2012

'Extinct' Giant Tortoise Found on Remote Island - Discovery News

I love this article!!! Museum collections are a personal favorite, and by utilizing them researchers have been able to determine that at least one male of a thought extinct species of giant tortoise is ALIVE! That's awesome. They compared genomes of wild giant tortoises with museum specimens and determined that a"lonesome George" C. elephantopis is still alive!

A species of giant tortoise believed extinct for 150 years was actually just moved from its original home and now lives on the volcanic slopes of the northern shore of Isabela Island in the Galapagos archipelago.

A genetic analysis, published in the latest Current Biology, found that DNA footprints of the long lost tortoise species, Chelonoidis elephantopus, exist in the genomes of its hybrid offspring. These tortoises turn out to be a mix of C. elephantopus and another giant tortoise from the area, C. becki.

While researchers have yet to isolate a purebred C. elephantopus individual, such tortoises must exist, based on the DNA data. The study marks the first time that a species has been rediscovered by way of tracking the genetic footprints left in the genomes of its hybrid offspring.

NEWS: Turtle Power to the Rescue

"This work also underscores the importance of museum collections in facilitating new discoveries," co-author Ryan Garrick told Discovery News. "Here, we were able to extract DNA from tortoise bones that were collected many decades ago, and use this DNA to characterize the gene pool of purebred C. elephantopus."

Garrick is a former Yale postdoctoral researcher who is now an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi.

He and his colleagues visited Volcano Wolf on the northern tip of Isabela Island and took blood samples from more than 1600 tortoises. The scientists then compared them to a genetic database of living and extinct tortoise species.

The matching process detected the genetic signatures of "extinct" C. elephantopus in 84 of the Volcano Wolf tortoises, meaning one of their parents was a purebred member of the missing species.

In 30 cases, breeding took place within the last 15 years. Since the lifespan of the tortoises can exceed 100 years, there's a high probability that many purebreds are still alive.

The Galapagos tortoises are famous for their influence on Charles Darwin's ideas about evolution by natural selection. It's no wonder they captured his attention: individuals can weigh nearly 900 pounds and grow to almost 6 feet in length.

SCIENCE CHANNEL: 10 Extinct Species

The tortoise's size and slow moves also led to its downfall. Garrick explained that "populations were heavily decimated by buccaneers in the late 1600s and 1700s, and then by whalers, fur sealers, merchantmen and the crews of naval vessels."

"Largely owing to the exploitation of tortoises for oil and as a source of food aboard ships, C. elephantopus from Floreana Island (its original home) was reported to be extinct soon after Charles Darwin's historic voyage to the Galapagos in 1835," he added. "Indeed, it has been estimated that up to 200,000 tortoises were eliminated from the archipelago within only two centuries of intensive harvesting."

Co-author Gisella Caccone, a senior research scientist in Yale's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, told Discovery News she hopes to now find actual C. elephantopus individuals and restore them to their island of origin.

"We plan to go back to Volcano Wolf in December 2012 and attempt to find all the individuals of mixed ancestry (we have them all tagged with PIT transmitters), and if we are lucky also the pure ones," she said.

The work is important, she continued, "as these animals are keystone species playing a crucial role in maintaining the ecological integrity of the island communities."

It remains unclear how the tortoises wound up on Isabela Island, but Caccone and her colleagues suspect that humans transported them as food. Whalers may have also thrown them overboard or simply left them on the shore of this other island.

Garrick said he's hopeful that other "extinct" species might be rediscovered using the same genetic methods used to detect the missing giant tortoise.

There's already hope that the giant tortoise C. abingdoni from Pinta Island, now represented by the single known purebred individual "Lonesome George," is alive and well elsewhere.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Antarctic Hot Springs Yields Ghostly New Species - Discovery News

Ahhhhh my true love deep sea biology!!

The discovery of new deep-sea hot springs off Antarctica may rewrite theories of how marine creatures populate the world's oceans.

Scientists say the underwater plumes -- located between the southern tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula -- are chock-full of new species, including a pale, ghostly-looking octopus, a predatory seven-legged sea star and a hairy-chested "yeti" crab.

Experts say the strangest thing is what they didn't find -- tube worms, shrimp and mussels that have been found at the world's other deep-sea hydrothermal vent communities.

"It wasn't just one creature, virtually everything we saw was new to science," said Alex Rogers, professor zoology at the University of Oxford and lead author of the new report.

"It was a remarkable experience. You're not quite sure if these things are mineral or biological structures. That's a very unusual feeling to see all this stuff for the first time and saying I don't understand what's going on here."

Rogers and his colleagues at the University of Southampton described their findings in today's PLOS Biology.

The discoveries came during a January and February 2010 expedition to the region and were made using a remote-operated vehicle (ROV) called Isis.

Rogers said it took nearly two years to get the findings published because there were so many undescribed species that his team had to send samples out to experts around the world for identification.

He recalled watching a small video screen on board the British oceanographic vessel James Cook as the ROV camera descended 2,600 meters (8,530 feet) down to the seafloor.

"The robot camera captured images of smoking plumes of hydrogen sulfide and minerals billowing up from fissures in the undersea ridge up to 382 degrees Celsius (720 degrees Fahrenheit) and surrounded by vast living mats of barnacles, anemones, crabs and other critters."

"It's probably the most exciting scientific cruise I've ever taken part in," Rogers said from his office in England.

"The wonderful thing was that the discoveries just kept coming right through the trip. Seeing the images for the first time was absolutely breathtaking, just stunning."

But beyond the giddy excitement of finding new animals, marine biologists say that the mix of deep-sea fauna at these vents will stir debate about how these creatures got there.

NEWS: First Hybrid Shark Found

"The Rogers paper fills in a piece of the bio-geographic puzzle for global vent faunas and raises new questions about evolutionary alliances and pathways to hydrothermal vents," said Cindy Van Dover, director of the Duke University Marine Laboratory, and a leading expert in undersea hot springs biology, in an email to Discovery News.

"Their discovery of dense populations of crabs related to the yeti crab is especially intriguing. This family of crabs was discovered in 2005 at hot springs in the southeastern Pacific -- there must be an evolutionary link between the two regions."

That means that the creatures living at underwater hot springs must be able to colonize other vents, even though the plumes often are short-lived, lasting only a few decades before the seafloor shifts and the hot springs disappear.

Another big question is whether the extremely cold water that circles Antarctica helps or hinders dispersal of the larvae of the strange life that thrive at the vents.

"Depending on the group of deep-sea organisms, the Southern Ocean can be an ecological dead end or a jumping-off point for colonizing other parts of the world," said Rich Aronson, head of the department of biological sciences at the Florida Institute of Technology who studies Antarctic undersea life.

NEWS: Deepest Hydrothermal Vent Offers Alien Life Model

"This paper is a start to figuring out if one or the other scenario is the rule for vent faunas."

While most Antarctic marine animals lay eggs that include an embryonic sac, the creatures found at the new hot springs do not. That's one key to figuring out how they get from one vent to another, according to James McClintock, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.

"This would suggest that getting from one vent community to another is important, and having a small swimming feeding larvae is something that is being selected for," McClintock said.

The first deep-sea hot springs were discovered in 1977 on the Galapagos Rift west of Ecuador by researchers at Oregon State University. Since then, they've been found in the Indian, Pacific and North Atlantic. But this is the first discovery in polar waters.

McClintock says he expects there are more hidden places out there for scientists like him who are trying to understand the world's animal and plant life.

"The scientific community has gotten used to seeing the same assemblage of organisms at each of the vents," McClintock said. "Here you have a whole different suite of organisms. I would definitely say that the book is not written."

Friday, December 23, 2011

Holy frijole.. H5N1

We all remember the H1N1 virus from a few years ago right?  Well there's a new virus in town, H5N1, that top virologists have been studying.  H5N1 is a strain of influenza that's deadly in birds.

H5N1 has been coaxed by researcher Ron Fouchier from Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and his team to leap between species, from birds to ferrets.  This research was completed in state of the art facilitates with rigorous bio safety controls --people in anti-contaminate space suits etc.  That's good to know.. but while the risk of being infected in this controlled setting is less than 1%, it is not zero.. 

This research having been completed is controversial, scientists mutated strains of a deadly influenza that are transmissible between mammals-- we're mammals.  The research specifically demonstrated that with the induced mutations H5N1 was not only transmissible between mammals in close contact, but was also an airborne infectious agent.  That's f*cking scary. If one ferret sneezes while the hatch is open, and one researcher becomes infected..
These scientists did this research to test if the H5N1 virus had the potential to acquire random genetic changes that could possibly make it transmissible to humans.  Now we are armed with the knowledge that this deadly flu very well has the potential to jump species and potentially infect humans.  

What has been ignored, or at least under-reported, is that there are 600 documented cases of H5N1 infection in humans with a 60% mortality rate.  

When construction began on a skate park near my house a few years ago a mass grave of nearly 100 individuals was discovered.  They all died during the bird flu epidemic of 1918, which had a 2.5% mortality rate... 

I think this is scary.  Check out the article below for more info and do some more googling of your own if you're interested. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Pigeons Are Brilliant in Math - Discovery News

Pigeons may be ubiquitous, but they're also brainy, according to a new study that found these birds are on par with primates when it comes to numerical competence.

The study, published in the latest issue of the journal Science, discovered that pigeons can discriminate against different amounts of number-like objects, order pairs, and learn abstract mathematical rules. Aside from humans, only rhesus monkeys have exhibited equivalent skills.

NEWS: Chimps Have Better Sex Than Humans

Could pigeons then be the Einsteins of the bird world?

"It would be fair to say that, even among birds, pigeons are not thought to be the sharpest crayon in the box," lead author Damian Scarf told Discovery News. "I think that this ability may be widespread among birds. There is already clear evidence that it is widespread among primates."

Scarf, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Otago, and colleagues Harlene Hayne and Michael Colombo began the study by first teaching pigeons how to order the numbers 1, 2 and 3.

To do this, they presented the pigeons with three images containing one, two, or three objects. All three images appeared at once on a touch screen and the pigeons pecked the screen to make a response. If they correctly accomplished the task -- pecking the images in ascending order -- they received a wheat snack.

"We took steps to ensure things like volume could not control responding in training and testing," he said. "For example, during training and testing, the higher numerosity did not always have the largest surface area/volume and thus the pigeons could not respond based on this stimulus dimension."

The images also came in different colors and shapes, so the pigeons weren't somehow linking those qualities to quantity.

Next, the researchers upped the ante, to see whether or not pigeons had just learned to order 1, 2, and 3, or if they'd learned a more abstract rule. Scarf and his team presented the pigeons with pairs of images containing 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 objects. The pigeons again had to pair the items in ascending order. For example, if a pigeon saw 8 and 5, it had to peck the objects representing 5 first.

NEWS: Brainy Birds Live the High Life in Cities

"Remarkably, the pigeons were able to respond to these novel pairs correctly," Scarf said. "In addition, their performance was indistinguishable from that of two rhesus monkeys that had been previously trained on this task."

For a while, scientists have suspected that birds were math whizzes. Prior studies, however, usually focused on very socialized individuals like Alex, an African grey parrot that belonged to Irene Pepperberg, an adjunct professor of psychology at Brandeis University and a lecturer at Harvard.

Alex, who died suddenly in 2007, could count and talk and had the intelligence of a 5-year-old human and the emotional maturity of a 2-year-old, according to Pepperberg.

Parrots are often just given credit for mimicking humans when they talk, but Pepperberg told Discovery News that Alex created new word labels for objects by combining words he already knew.

For example, he called a juicy red apple that appears to have brought to mind bananas and cherries a "banerry."

In terms of math, one of Alex's greatest feats was that he understood a numerical concept akin to zero, which is an abstract notion that people don't typically understand until age three or four.

Now scientists are facing a parrot/pigeon/primate puzzle. Why is it that birds and primates seem to share math skills?

One explanation could be that the last common ancestor of these two groups possessed amazing numerical competence, but that would mean many other animals have it too, and studies haven't found clear evidence for such abilities yet.

Another possibility is that math skills somehow evolved independently in birds and primates.

"At this point in time, I have no inkling as to which hypothesis is correct," Scarf said. "To answer this question, many distantly related animals would have to be tested."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Camera Trap Images Tell Anti-Poaching Success Story - Discovery News

1. IMAG0028 (small)

Photo: A tigress drinks with her cubs from a watering hole inside Thailand's Western Forest Complex; Credit for all images: DNP-Government of Thailand/WCS Thailand Program

Camera trap photo stills and video footage suggest that anti-poaching efforts in the forests of Thailand are paying off, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.

NEWS: Elephants Outwit Humans During Intelligence Test

The cameras, set up at several locations across Thailand's Western Forest Complex over the last year, have captured tigers, Asian elephants, gaurs, sun bears, and many other species in off guard moments. Video footage shows a tigress and her cubs feeding on an animal carcass, leopards marking their territory with scent, wild pigs nursing their young, and even Asian elephants mating.

"The video represents a huge payoff for the government of Thailand, which has invested considerable resources in protecting wildlife and preventing illegal hunters from plundering the country's natural heritage," Joe Walston, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Asia Program, was quoted as saying in a WCS press release.  "We thank the government of Thailand for collaborating with WCS and others to put in place best practices in law enforcement and monitoring tigers and prey in Western Forest Complex."

DISCOVERY NEWS: Camera Traps Catch Animals in the Act

The evidence indicates tiger and prey populations have stabilized in this Thai forest region, which is larger than the state of Connecticut and consists of 17 contiguous protected areas. Recent estimates have found that the area is home to as many as 175 tigers. It also contains one of the largest and most important elephant populations in Southeast Asia, according to the WCS.

Thailand is really emerging as a conservation leader. Enforcement staff from China, Nepal, India, Myanmar, Bhutan, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and Indonesia all go to Thailand for training, so hopefully the successes at the Western Forest Complex can inspire ecosystem victories in other Asian countries.

Here are more stills from the camera trap video footage:

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Photo: A Malayan tapir pauses as it trips the infra-red beam of a camera trap in Thailand

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Photo: An Asian elephant calf peeks out from the middle of a herd of adults.