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Birds and a Moon
While returning from grocery shopping the other day, thinking about possible topics for this week’s column, I heard on the radio an interview with one of New York’s state legislators on the subject of gay marriage. The legislature is considering whether or not New York will join other states that have recently legalized gay marriage. The interview reminded me of a report I saw in a recent Star-Ledger on two gay penguins in the Bremerhaven Zoo in Germany that have adopted and raised a penguin chick. Actually, the chick came from an abandoned egg that zoo personnel placed near the gay couple hoping that the guys would take on the raising of the chick - and they did!
The chick is doing fine under the protection and care of its gay foster parents, who make sure the chick gets plenty of pre-digested fish. It seems that gay penguins are not all that rare and indeed there are two other gay penguin couples in the same zoo. The gay foster parents of the chick have been a devoted couple for years; perhaps a role model for gay humans in a similar relationship, be it a civil union or marriage. (A major issue in the gay marriage controversy is the definition of the term "marriage". I think I’ve mentioned before my simple solution to the problem - defining "garriage" as the term for gay marriage, with all the benefits of conventional marriage. "Gouse" could be the equivalent of spouse and, if necessary or desired by the gay community, "gife" and "gusband" for wife and husband.)
Back to birds, some time ago I caught a very brief snippet of a crested cockatoo named Snowball dancing on a TV news program. This week that I followed up on Snowball and found on the National Public Radio (NPR) Web site (npr.org) a video lasting several minutes showing Snowball dancing. If you haven’t seen Snowball in action, I highly recommend you search out this, or other videos on the Web. He’s really one cool dude, worthy of a stint on "Dancing with the Stars".
Snowball apparently made his debut on YouTube dancing to the music of the Backstreet Boys. Snowball had been dropped off at a bird shelter in Indiana by his owner, who told Irena Schulz, who runs the shelter, that Snowball danced and he demonstrated Snowball dancing to his favorite music. Schulz was so impressed that she put Snowball’s dancing online, where it became a YouTube sensation.
Someone called Snowball to the attention of Aniruddh Patel, a neurobiologist at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego. Patel was blown away by Snowball, swaying to and fro and kicking his legs in time with the music. After contacting Schulz, Patel and his colleagues took their computers and massaged the Backstreet Boys music, speeding it up and slowing it down. Schulz then played the modified music and videotaped Snowball’s reactions.
Sure enough, Snowball varied his dancing in time with the altered beats. With the slower portions, he would sway his body back and forth but as the music got faster he didn’t sway as much, mainly just bobbing his head. Kicking and lifting his feet also changed with the tempo. When the tempo got too fast and he couldn’t keep up, he would just keep his foot lifted up and wave it.
In a similar vein, Adena Schachner, a grad student in the psychology department at Harvard, knew that people had made videos of their pet animals "dancing" and became interested in finding out if they really were dancing to the beat. Fortunately, my all-time favorite bird, the famed African grey parrot Alex and his mentor Irene Pepperberg were nearby. Schachner and her coworkers made up some music that nobody had heard before and played it for Alex. They were shocked when Alex seemed to be bobbing his head in time with the beat of the music. Unfortunately, Alex died before they could follow up on their work with him.
Schachner and her colleagues decided to follow up by combing through pet owners’ videos of their "dancing" pets on YouTube. So, they essentially watched YouTube videos for eight hours a day for a month and analyzed over 5,000 videos! Schachner notes it was fun for the first couple hours. They concluded that only 33 videos actually seemed to show animals moving to the beat. These included 14 species of parrots and one species of elephant. What these animals have in common is the ability to mimic sounds. (I did not know that elephants were mimics.)
Snowball and his dancing compatriots have opened up new fields for scientific research. We used to think we humans were the only ones who could move our body to a beat but, as with a lot of things recently, we’re finding we’re not as unique as we thought. In the interest of full disclosure, I am one human who is genetically deprived of this ability. I have been trying to convince my wife of this for over 50 years. For example, when I’m in a group where the people are clapping in unison I invariably quickly go out of sync and my wife tells me to stop clapping. I’m similarly handicapped on the dance floor and am quite envious of Snowball’s musical talent.
I was looking for other oddities in the bird world to discuss but got distracted by an odd moon, Phobos. Phobos is shaped like a potato and measures only some 12 or 13 miles in diameter and is about 17 miles long. You could set this pitiful moon down and it would fit between my town in New Jersey and New York City. Offhand, I wouldn’t think puny Phobos would arouse much interest. Nevertheless, as I learned from an article by James Oberg in the June issue of Discover magazine, the Russians plan to visit Phobos, perhaps launching their unmanned space probe known as Fobos- Grunt later this year.
Fobos-Grunt stands for Phobos soil, an appropriate name given the fact that the Russians not only hope to land on Phobos but they also hope to dig up some soil and bring it back to Earth in 2012. From the scientific standpoint, analysis of the soil from Phobos should tell us something about the origins of the little moon and possibly of our solar system. Phobos may be possibly be an asteroid captured by Mars or perhaps it formed from some leftover material after Mars was formed.
But there’s also practical interest in Phobos from the standpoint of an eventual manned expedition to Mars, as indicated by the title of Oberg’s article, "Stepping Stone to Mars". Why consider Phobos as a stepping stone? The answer lies in its small size and hence its low gravity. When you are planning a round trip journey in our solar system you have to consider that you must carry enough fuel to manage the return trip, that is, you have to be able to lift off from the planet or moon. The gravitational pull of tiny Phobos is so low that the Discover article implies that a good pitcher could launch a softball into space off the surface of the small moon. I don’t know if this statement was meant literally but the bottom line is that it takes less energy for a round trip to distant Phobos than it does for a round trip to our own much closer moon!
Phobos orbits Mars a mere 3700 miles above Mars’ surface, making it a good place to observe the planet. Since Phobos not only orbits Mars in just 7 hours and 39 minutes, and also keeps the same side facing Mars, it’s a good place to keep an eye on most of Mars’ surface on a continuing basis. Furthermore, if you are on the side facing Mars, hazardous radiation is blocked by the intervening bulk of Phobos and the looming presence of Mars itself. We do have to hurry a bit if we want to exploit the advantages of maintaining an outpost of Phobos. Because Phobos is so small, Mars’ gravity is tugging at Phobos and in some tens of millions of years it crash into Mars.
Whoa, enough of Phobos. I’ve found another bird - Christopher Bird at Cambridge University. Bird is lead author on a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on, what else, birds. He and his colleagues have shown that rooks are in the same league as crows when it comes to intelligence. The rooks don’t dance, as far as I know, but they do use tools when presented with the opportunity under laboratory conditions. You may recall Betty, the crow who made headlines some time ago when she fashioned hooks from straight wires to retrieve food from buckets in tubes.
In one type of experiment, Bird and co-workers placed a worm on a trap-door placed under a vertical tube running down to the door. Four captive rooks were presented with this situation and nearby were placed three stones of different sizes. The rooks picked the right size stone to drop down the tube, springing the trap door and the worms became tasty morsels for the birds.
Stepping the experiment up a notch, the researchers placed a worm under a narrow tube and a large stone nearby; the large stone was too big to fit in the tube. However, there was another tube/trap-door setup nearby with a small stone on the trap door. Yes, the rooks sized up the situation, took the large stone, dropped it in the larger tube to eject the small stone and then used the small stone to get at the worm!
Not to be outdone by a crow, when presented with the situation, the rooks also fashioned hooks out of straight wires to retrieve buckets of food from vertical tubes. You can watch these and other smart birds in action on the BBC Web site. In self defense, while I can’t begin to match Snowball in musicality, I do believe I would have also fashioned hooks from straight wires if presented with a sufficiently tasty treat in a bucket in a tube.
Next column on June 25.
Allen F. Bortrum