Intelligence or Otherwise in Various Species
CHAPTER 74 Birds and Bees and More
I often face my self-imposed deadline of the first of the month for posting my columns searching for something to write about. Not this time. I find myself with a plethora of items that merit attention. For example, the November issue of National Geographic features an excellent article by Joel Achenbach delving into the many problems that face a manned mission to Mars. With Elon Musk, of Tesla and SpaceX fame, saying he hopes to land humans on Mars in the coming decade, a realistic consideration of the huge problems is certainly needed. I've expressed my own skepticism about the chances of pulling off a landing and return to Earth successfully. The Geographic article considers food, radiation, psychological problems, bone loss, and many other problems. It cites the experience of the Russian astronaut, Mikhail Kornienko, who accompanied Scott Kelly on their "one-year" mission (340 days) on the International Space Station. Kornienko said that when their Soyuz space capsule returned them to Earth it was shaking like a car on a cobblestone street and they could hardly breathe. The year in space had weakened their lung and chest muscles, in addition to causing loss of bone mass. They were carried from the capsule by the ground crew for fear they could stumble and break a bone. Think of how weak an astronaut will be on arrival at Mars, possibly breaking a leg on emerging from the spacecraft and trying to walk.
Breaking a bone would not be a problem if an octopus made the trip. An octopus doesn't have any bones! The same issue of National Geographic has a fascinating article on octopuses titled "The Power of Eight" by Olivia Judson. I've written about octopuses before, in my columns of 11/7/2000 and 12/31/2009 (see archives). In those columns I mentioned observations of octopuses showing intelligent thinking. One octopus was housed in a tank in a room in which a separate tank of crabs was kept to feed the octopus. One night, the octopus was observed crawling out of its tank and crossing the floor to the other tank to partake of a surreptitious meal and then go back to its tank. Another octopus lived in a body of water where half coconut shells were discarded after the coconuts were cut in half to get at the coconut meat inside. That octopus was seen picking up a half shell and storing it in its habitat, later picking up another half shell and taking it back home, where it put the two shells together and crawled inside.
The Geographic article points out that the octopus is "armed with intelligence", having some 500 million neurons, compared with a mouse's 80 million and a human's 86 billion. "Armed" is quite appropriate for the octopus in that only about a third of its 80 million neurons are in its brain. The rest are in its 8 arms, with some 200-300 suction cups on each arm. With these neurons the arms have some degree of autonomy in extending and twisting themselves, feeling what they encounter and their neurons processing the information, feeding it back to the brain. I could go on about the octopus and recommend you peruse both the Mars and octopus articles if you can.
The same issue of Geographic also provided a very short item by Nina Strochlic relevant to a subject of last month's column about keeping cool with a plastic fabric embodying nanotechnology. Normally, when an animal encounters very high temperatures, say 120 degrees Fahrenheit, it will seek shade or, in my case, an air conditioned shelter of some sort. Not the Saharan silver ant. In the heat of the day, the ant emerges from its underground lair to search for food, typically animal carcasses! Belgian researchers braved the scorching heat of the desert to search out these critters to see what their secret is to handle such heat. (I've mentioned that my wife and I were once in Sicily on a day when a group of us went to the beach one afternoon and the temp was 120. Even though the bus was air conditioned the driver did not turn it on! That day people actually died from the heat in nearby Salerno.)
So, what is the silver ant's secret? The Belgians took some ants back to Belgium and found that the ants had hairs that were shaped like prisms, which meant that the hairs reflected light and that's what kept the ant cool in the desert heat. When the researchers plucked the hairs from an ant the ant's temperature rose significantly.
I really had planned to write about birds and insects this month. My grandson called my attention to an article he spotted on the National Geographic Web site about crows dropping stones in tubes to raise the water level permitting the bird to pick up a piece of food floating in the tube. I've probably covered this in previous columns. I don't recall noting the crow that figured out a harder task which involved dropping the stones in a second flask not obviously connected to a second flask containing the food morsel. There's been a good bit of work on smart crows but the pigeon hasn't been put forth as a particularly intelligent bird as far as I know. Until now. Some pigeons have been taught how to "read".
OK, the pigeons can't truly read but scientists at the University of Otago in New Zealand and Ruhr University in Germany have succeeded in teaching a few pigeons how to differentiate between a bunch of 4-letter English words compared with the same letters forming a "non-word". Example - "mast" is a word, while "msta" is a non-word. When presented with a given 4-letter combination, the pigeons were to peck at a word or peck at a symbol if the display was a non-word. Four pigeons were involved in the project and over months of training the vocabulary of the pigeons ranged from 26 to 58 words. The birds weren't always spot on in identifying the words versus non-words but were significantly above chance in their performance.
One completely different study on birds really caught my attention. There have been many studies on birds' ability to navigate and the migrations of the winged critters over thousands of miles and their return to the same place is truly a marvel of navigation. We've considered similar feats of migration in another winged creature, the Monarch butterfly. Could it be that there's something in the genes that lead these superb flyers to follow defined migratory paths? Now it seems the answer might be yes. A team of University of British Columbia researchers led by Ph D student Kira Delmore wondered if they could attach tiny "knapsacks" containing tracking devices to the backs of birds and then recover these devices when and if the birds returned to the same sites a year later after round trip migrations of some 8,000 miles. The birds they selected were Swainson's thrushes. Surprisingly, they did recover dozens of these devices that had been attached to these migratory songbirds.
There are two subgroups of Swainson's thrushes. One group flies along the California coast to Mexico, while the other group flies over Alabama to Colombia. Back in Canada, there's some occasional hanky panky going on among the two groups and the result is hybrid offspring are born and some of these hybrids were also tracked. They were found to have flown on tracks in between those of their parents. Since they couldn't have learned these paths, this result is a strong indication that some mixture of genetic information is inherited from the parents of these hybrid birds that influences the migratory paths. Obviously, this will spur further research on just what genes are involved and how they are altered. I'm amazed that the researchers were able to recover those little knapsacks from all those birds after a year on the wing.
Finally, let's turn to another winged creature, the bumble bee. For many years we've known that bees know how to dance, conveying information relevant to the location of sources of nectar and the like. But I'm not aware of any studies on bees of the nature of studies performed with birds and apes on the use of tools and problem solving to get at food sources. Pulling of strings to get at food is one of the approaches to study the intelligence of these animals. A very brief news item in the October 14 issue of Science deals with the work of a team of scientists at Queen Mary University of London who put bumble bees to the string pulling test.
They put artificial flowers containing wells of sugar water on a table with an arrangement such that a bee would have to pull a string attached to the flower to get at the sugar water reward. They put 110 bees to the test. Many of the bees pulled at the string but they all gave up before pulling the flower out far enough to get at the sugar water. That is, all but two bees, who persevered enough to reap the reward. When the researchers arranged the experiment so that untrained bees could watch the trained bees pull the string and get the reward, 60 percent of the watchers were able to pull the string out far enough to get at the sugar water. Apparently these bees have the ability to learn and pass along what they learn. I wondered how many neurons the bumble bee has . Didn't find the bumble bee but the honey bee has about a million neurons in its tiny brain.
Next column on or about December 1, hopefully. Also, hopefully, by that time we will know who our next president will be and that man will no longer be the leading subject of every news broadcast. Just my opinion.
Allen F. Bortrum