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October 19, 2014

Weekend Open Thread: Amazing Animal Anecdotes [Y-not]

I need a break from DOOM. How about you? We have a lot of animal lovers in the Moron Horde, so here's a thread about amazing animals and how they communicate with us.

Do you guys know about "Alex" the African Grey Parrot?

He was also able to correctly identify a silver key when I presented it to him. It was one of those 'I think he's got it; by George, he's got it' moments.

But why, I wondered, had Alex’s pronunciation so dramatically improved from one day to the next?

The answer became clear when I left a tape running overnight, and found that -- like small children -- he happily babbled to himself, often practising a newly acquired word.

Within a few more weeks, he was learning colours and could correctly identify a red key as being a key -- even though I'd shown him only a silver key up till then.

In other words, he knew that a key was a key, whatever its colour. This kind of vocal cognitive ability had never before been demonstrated in non-human animals -- not even in chimps. It was a very, very good start.

Alex died in 2007, but Irene Pepperberg published a book about Alex last year. I remember being fascinated by her work when I saw it described in a nature documentary. One of the things that seemed to elevate what Alex did with language beyond just mimickry was his ability to form new concepts by putting words together. I recall them showing how Alex, who was normally given dried corn as a treat, was presented with a cob of fresh corn straight out of the refrigerator. As he was happily trying this new treat, he described it using a new phrase, "cold corn." As I recall, in the future he used "cold corn" to describe and request fresh corn treats. He was also able to apply the concept of color to his description of items.

While I was at Purdue, I had a chance to have dinner with Dr. Pepperberg during a campus visit she made. Sadly, I never had the opportunity to meet Alex.

Here's a thing you might not know, it turns out black-capped chickadees are good animal models for studying language. I had an animal behaviorist colleague who studied bird language and other behaviors, as well as their physiology. Unlike studies of parrots (or even the sign language studies using apes like Washoe), that tend to be accused to be about training rather than about true language*, studies of chickadees involve their normal communications. And these studies suggest that they have a rather sophisticated type of language:

The gargle call, a vocalization used in agonistic encounters by black-capped chickadees, Poecile atricapillus, was examined for evidence of geographical variation along a corridor of continuous riparian habitat in northern Colorado. [snip] Examination of individual repertoires showed that chickadees shared a higher proportion of gargle types with birds from their own sites compared with birds from either of the two other sites. Thus, gargle dialects occurred among these chickadee populations despite the absence of geographical barriers to blending of vocal traditions. As the birds studied were obtained from sites along an uninterrupted dispersal corridor, the results of this study suggest that behavioural mechanisms are responsible for maintenance of dialects in this aggressive call.

The upshot of this and related work, overly-simplified by me, is that chickadees develop "dialects" within cooperative groups. Because chickadees are so small and have such high metabolisms, they are very sensitive to food availability. In the winter, when food is scarce, they form cooperative groups for survival. Part of that group formation involves developing their own dialect of chickadee language. As I recall, my colleague said that if you introduced a chickadee from outside the group, the birds were unable to communicate. I think he said that these groups and dialects broke down during the spring and were taken up again in the winter. Cool stuff.

By that point, I was well on the path to molecules and atoms, but had I stayed in science I would have loved to have done a sabbatical in his lab. His research made for much better dinner party conversation than mine did! It was always a treat to be out where birds were singing, because he invariably had interesting things to relate about the birds' songs. Sometimes I'd ask him about some bird calls I'd heard and he'd usually wind up saying something like, "Yes, that was a grackle. They have interesting vocalizations."

I don't have parrots (well, for a few years we had a pair of zebra finches, Pete and Re-Pete... they eventually had two babies, Ditto and Ibid), but like most pet owners, I think my dogs and cats can understand me. My older collie seems to have a fairly large vocabulary when it comes to objects and is able to distinguish the names of specific toys she has. She's also extremely tuned in to our moods and activities based on what seem like pretty subtle cues to me. (My other collie seems to be brighter in terms of tricks she can do, but less attuned to our speech.)

I also had a Siamese cat, our first pet as a married couple, who was able to recognize pictures of Siamese cats and respond to them. She was an "only cat" and had not interacted with other cats for a couple of years, but she would go Witch Cat on us if she was shown a picture of a blue-eyed cat (even if it was a drawing of one and not just a photograph). Funny as hell.

I love nature and animals of all types, but there is something extra special about animals that appear to communicate with humans.

True confession time. This movie actually made me sob uncontrollably:

Yes, I'm as soft as a grape.

In any event, it's pretty clear from the success of the Doctor Doolittle story that this desire to communicate with animals outside our species is a pretty common one. I wonder why. And I hope that today's "texting generation" has retained that passion to understand individuals beyond their smart phone screens.

Do you have any amazing animal stories to share?

*It turns out that there is some evidence that parrots use mimickry in nature. Here's an article that discusses how they use this ability in the wild.

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