You are what you feed

What makes you you?

The problem of identity – and its flip-side, change – has been vexing philosophers ever since the discipline got started in ancient Greece. As early as 500 years BC, Heraclitus was musing about the ever-changing nature of a flowing river, recorded by his contemporary Plato with the enduring line, “You cannot step in the same river twice.”

This issue comes up everywhere. In an astronomy course I took at university, the professor gave us a mind-boggling assignment: calculate the number of atoms in your body that were once part of a living dinosaur. The answer was a lot, and though I don’t recall the exact number, the question could have just as easily been about sharing atoms with Heraclitus, or Plato, for that matter. The point is that most of the molecules in our bodies are being replaced and recycled, all of the time1. Like a flowing river, you are literally not the same bag of stuff that you were last year, or even last week; although a more accurate way to put it might be that you are a bag of somewhat different stuff than you contained before.

This raises a tough question. If a different collection of matter can be the same person, how much has to change before you aren’t yourself anymore? The implications are nearer than you might think. Organ transplants, bionic limbs and electronic implants – including devices implanted in the brain – are all within the range of current medicine. How much of a person’s body can we replace and still consider them to be the same person?

I don’t have the answer, and I’m not sure anyone ever will, although some would argue that it is a mistake to assume that there is anything like a constant “you” in the first place. For example, the philosopher Daniel Dennett contends that the idea of a continuous self is really just an illusion produced by the brain2.

Biology has a thing or two to say about the matter. It turns out that part of what makes you you is other species. Specifically, the ones living inside you: the veritable ecosystem of bacteria and other microscopic organisms inside your gut. Evidence is mounting that the microcosm within is an important part of who we are: it provides a unique signature of individuality. It can also determine future health. It might even be part of what defines us as human, since a new study shows that as we evolved from ape ancestors, so did our inner ecosystems3.

Continue reading →

The winning score

As Hollywood gets dolled up for the Oscars, fans at home might surprised to learn that a field biologist could tell us a thing or two about the winning films. Dan Blumstein, a behavioural ecologist who works, quite fittingly, at UCLA, is an expert on yellow-bellied marmots. He might also be the person to turn to if you want to predict the win in the “Best Original Score” category this weekend.

Although Blumstein does most of his work with wild marmots in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, studying several facets of their behaviour and evolution, he recently published a paper on the science of movie soundtracks1. With Richard Davitian and Peter Kaye from the School of Music at Kingston University in the UK, Blumstein applied techniques from his research on marmot vocal communication to an entirely new question: why are Hollywood moviemakers so good at manipulating our emotions? The results pick up on a common theme in the way humans and other animals use sound.

Continue reading →

A royal waste?

Giant pandas are in the news again, this time for their annual date night at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC. But hardly a day goes by without a report somewhere on the latest captive panda birth, strategic breeding attempt or panda relocation.

A blogger at the London Review of Books compared the bears to members of the British royal family: both are suffering from shrinking ecological niches and in serious danger of extinction, hanging on by virtue of their marketing potential. The similarities don’t end there. Giant pandas, like royals, are expensive to house, with a fee of over $1 million per year for a zoo to lease a pair from China. Naturally, the breeding activities of giant pandas are as intensely scrutinized as those of Prince William.

This entails some surprising efforts when it comes to the pandas. The history of captive breeding for Ailuropoda melanoleuca is no sordid royal affair. It’s long, and for the most part, pretty unfortunate; zoos have been failing to produce heirs to the panda legacy for decades.

For starters, it’s nearly impossible to get the bears to mate in captivity, and it’s not just their deficiency in the looks department, as comedian Mike Birbiglia suggests. Captive pandas can’t seem to figure out a working sexual position1. Females often start things off all wrong by lying down, but the males are just as clueless. This led to panda porn: zoos started making videos of pandas achieving copulatory success, as training tools for the more hapless bears2. Other attempts to use Viagra on pandas were less encouraging, but the porn worked – for females as well as males – leading to a boom in captive births in recent years3.

Giant panda cub

Visitors can pay to see the cubs at the Chengdu giant panda breeding centre. File photo modified from newssc.org.

Continue reading →

Groupthink

Which animal would use Facebook most, if it could?

My poll in class last week was a popular one – a fact that I couldn’t properly enjoy, since Charlie came up with it for me in a fit of brain-dead incapacity. Charlie’s Facebook question elicited chirps of excitement, compliments and even a few drawings on the response sheets. Here are the results, ranked by favour among the students:

  • Chimpanzees: So they have opposable thumbs, and can “use the spacebar” (is this actually important in Facebook?). A number of students gave bonobos special mention, since they would probably want to keep track of all their casual sexual relationships.
  • Dolphins: Highly intelligent, social, and they might also be interested in monitoring multiple sexual conquests. Dolphins and migratory whales could use Facebook to keep in touch while roaming widely over the oceans – the long-distance relationships of the animal kingdom. For some reason, students in different tutorial groups who chose dolphins were inspired to draw them for me as well. Coincidence?
  • Parrots and other birds: Especially in species that have high levels of extra-pair paternity, birds could use Facebook as a form of mate-guarding to keep tabs on their social partner1,2. There are other reasons to think that songbirds might easily make the transition to internet gossip. Female black-capped chickadees, for instance, eavesdrop on the outcome of song contests between rival males, and use this information when deciding on a mate3.
  • Eusocial animals: Like ants or naked mole rats (the only known eusocial mammal). A couple of students also mentioned highly social meerkats, since living in groups of 10-40 individuals would require them to keep track of a lot of social information.
  • Other yappy follower-types: hyenas, seals, lemmings, and Yorkshire terriers all got a mention.

Charlie and I discussed it over dinner at the Iron Duke. My first thought went to ants, for their extreme group lifestyle. The problem is that ants don’t really care about what other ants do or think about each other. Insect sociality is all about the greater good: worker ants toil away for the colony despite having no hope of reproducing on their own. Ok, so maybe the internet isn’t conducive to real reproduction either, but ants just don’t have the ego required. Plus, as one clever student pointed out, a colony of eusocial animals are all very close genetic relatives of one another – and she tends to block family members from Facebook.

Charlie mentioned peacocks for spending so much time on courtship and preening, but I rejected that one too.

Continue reading →

Not when cupid strikes

Raphael's The Triumph of Galatea

“Not when cupid strikes.”

That was Christine Drea’s response at the Animal Behavior meeting last summer. She had just given a talk on her latest study, showing the dramatic effects of hormonal contraception on the way lemurs communicate with the opposite sex1. I was asking her what advice she gives to women about birth control. On the 50th anniversary of the Pill, scientists like Drea were adding to the evidence that we might want to think twice about our widespread use of these drugs. The lemur research suggests that hormonal contraception could be replacing one “problem that has no name” – Betty Friedan’s idea of the dissatisfaction felt by modern women – with another2.

Like many primates, ring-tailed lemurs have a complicated system of signaling to one another through scent. Males are able to detect the sex, fertility and even the identity of a particular female by smell alone3. At first glance, the connection to humans might seem far-fetched, since our noses are pretty poor compared to other mammals. But we are relatively well-endowed when it comes to scent production: humans have more scent glands on the surface of our skin than any other primate4.

We also have some surprising olfactory abilities lurking beneath the surface. The classic example is the T-shirt test. In the 1990s, researchers at the University of Bern in Switzerland gave a group of men T-shirts to take home, with instructions to sleep and sweat in them over the next two nights5. When women were later asked to sort the dirty T-shirts based on pleasantness of smell, they did something surprising. Their rankings came down to genes: the more genetically distinct a man was from a female rater, the more she liked his scent.

Continue reading →

Backpedalling on backwards evolution

In a recent post I wrote about irreversible colour changes in morning glory flowers, and how this was promoted as evidence that evolution does not work in reverse1. This is called Dollo’s Law, after the 19th century Belgian paleontologist Louis Dollo. He spent most of his life digging up and reconstructing Iguanodons, but his name lives on in our concept of evolutionary trees. In linguistics, for example, the “stochastic Dollo” model refers to the scenario where words can only arise once in a family of languages2.

Louis Dollo supervising the reconstruction of an Iguanodon

Louis Dollo supervising the reconstruction of an Iguanodon. From Wikimedia Commons.

And the reason Dollo’s name is forever tied to the idea of history not repeating? He wrote that “an organism is unable to return, even partially, to a previous stage already realized in the ranks of its ancestors.”3

Frogs might prove Dollo wrong. A new study by John Wiens, a herpetologist at Stony Brook University, proves that a South American frog re-evolved the long lost bottom teeth of its ancestors, after going more than 200 million years without them4.

Guenther’s marsupial frog lives in the tropical forests of Colombia and Ecuador. It is the only frog we know of among thousands of species with true teeth in its lower jaw. Nearly all frogs have teeth, but only on the upper mandible. They use their single set for grasping prey items that they swallow whole, rather than chewing. The closest amphibian relatives to frogs, salamanders and worm-like caecilians, have maintained upper and lower teeth. This means that somewhere along the line, early frogs lost their bottom set.

As the odd one out, Guenther’s marsupial frog was originally placed in its own family within the taxonomic order Anura. But early studies of tadpole development and immunological proteins suggested that something was off5. In some ways, the marsupial frog was similar to typical tree frogs in the family Hylidae.

John Wiens’ latest results provide a more comprehensive picture of the early amphibian family tree than ever before. He compiled genetic data from 170 species of frogs, salamanders and caecilians. The new phylogeny firmly places Guenther’s marsupial frog in the family Hemiphractidae, and, by calibrating the new tree with evidence from the fossil record, Wiens can pin down the timing of events in amphibian history. His results show that frogs evolved from a salamander-like ancestor and lost their bottom teeth over 230 million years ago – and Guenther’s marsupial frog regained them quite recently, within the last 17 million years.

Hoatzin chick

The marsupial frog is just the latest in a long line of putative exceptions to Dollo’s Law. Others include fossil ammonites that have lost and regained the coiled form of their shells several times3, and modern slipper limpets that regained the coiled shells of their snail-like ancestors6. Some lizards have re-evolved long lost fingers and toes7. The strange bird known as the hoatzin, which has claws on its wings that are used for climbing until its wings are fully developed for flight, might have re-evolved this feature from its dinosaur ancestry. These examples have led some authors to argue that Dollo’s Law has outlived its usefulness8. Should it go the way of chewing teeth in hens and (most) frogs?

Continue reading →

Wherefore the mustache?

Ears, palms, toes, neck, and nose. In that order.

These are the grossest places for humans to have hair, according to Queen’s students. Ok, there were a few others that I didn’t mention. The upper lip, however, did not receive a single vote.

Last fall a number of men in the biology department grew competitive mustaches for “Movember” prostate cancer research fundraising. This required mass beard shaving on the first of November. Martin Mallet, known for his thick coat of fur, emphatic hand gestures and all-around intensity, suddenly transformed into a meek imposter. For the first time Martin had no probing questions for the speaker at the EEB seminar. I can’t help but wonder: if he did, would anyone have noticed?

I started to recognize Martin again when the hair on his upper lip attained visibility. Other men of Movember fared less well. It can’t be a good thing when the people who work in the same office as you don’t even notice your new, mustachioed face.

But what, if anything, is it for? My experience suggests that human facial hair serves as a male status signal. Is this why we evolved mustaches in the first place?

Inca Tern

Why do mustaches evolve? Inca tern, from Wikimedia Commons.

In class the other week we discussed Stephen Jay Gould and the trouble with adaptationism. Gould famously criticized the proliferation of sloppy adaptive reasoning in his 1979 paper “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm1. He took aim at scientists who apply adaptive “story-telling” to nearly anything – from the colour of our skin to the size of our noses – in an unverifiable, unfalsifiable way.

It can be easy to jump on the adaptationist bandwagon, since these stories are often quite plausible. This may have been especially true when “Spandrels” was written, due to the rise of some revolutionary ideas about how to apply evolutionary biology to the study of social behaviour. There was plenty of new research to be done. Of course, many of the people doing this research disagreed with Gould’s characterization2. At its worst, adaptationist thinking might lead to some bad science, especially when it comes to human behaviour (where confounds are especially hard to control). But speculation is a necessary part of the scientific method, and adaptive reasoning can be a good place to start.

It is worth noting that Gould’s paper has been enormously influential. “Spandrels” has been cited well over 3500 times. I’m still waiting on citation number 3 for my Master’s research.

And yet, the response of the research community to the “Spandrels” critique has largely been, “That’s well said, but let’s get back to our field work.”2 In that spirit, consider the mustache. Can we speculate about it in a reasonable way, avoiding the big adaptationist pitfalls?

First of all, is this question worth asking?

Continue reading →

Super indelible flower colours

How do you fire a pollinator?

That was the question in last week’s Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour departmental seminar. The speaker was James Thomson, an evolutionary ecologist from the University of Toronto who specializes in the interactions between plants and their animal pollinators. His research shows that nectar-addled hummingbirds are like corporate ladder climbers. Bees, on the other hand, are always getting canned.

Pollination syndromes have been a major focus of Thomson’s work1. These are not garden ailments. “Syndrome” here refers to a suite of traits that tend to be found together, in this case because they help a plant attract a certain kind of pollinator.

Bird-pollinated flowers tend to be red and tube-shaped, producing lots of nectar but relatively little scent. Birds have sharp vision, and do not depend much on their sense of smell. Honeysuckle is an example of this type of flower – or anything that looks like a hummingbird feeder. Bee-pollinated flowers come in shades of yellow, blue, and purple, because bees cannot see the colour red. Familiar examples are sunflowers, snapdragons and wild pansies. These often have petals modified into special bee landing platforms. Flowers that specialize on birds and bees are common, but there are many other pollination syndromes. If a flower is orange-brown and smells like rot, it probably depends on carrion flies. Mammal-pollinated flowers often smell fruity, like synthetic grape flavouring.

In his talk, James Thomson reviewed a decade’s worth of work on beardtongue flowers from the genus Penstemon2. In 2007, Thomson and his collaborators used genetic analyses to build the evolutionary tree for close to 200 of the species in this group3. When flower traits were mapped on to the Penstemon family tree, interesting patterns were revealed.

First, the bird and bee pollinated species were distributed broadly throughout, implying frequent transitions between these two syndromes in the history of the Penstemon group. Like an evolutionary magnet, pollination by one type of animal or another exerts a strong pull on multiple flower traits in concert. Evolving species are drawn rapidly towards a new form, so you almost never find intermediates.

This lability or changeable nature of floral traits was not much of a surprise, but the Penstemon tree also suggested something incredible. Floral evolution was directional.

Continue reading →

Evolutionary rescue

Can evolution save us from the brink of collapse?

Andy Gonzalez thinks so. Gonzalez, an ecologist from McGill University, gave an entertaining seminar to the department last Thursday on the subject. His research group works on the causes and consequences of biodiversity loss, using mathematical models and controlled experiments to investigate how environmental change might affect populations.

Gonzalez teamed up with McGill’s Graham Bell, who is known for using simple systems like yeast and algae to tinker with the evolutionary process through experimental evolution. Gonzalez describes their third collaborator on this project as “painful to work with, but once things were up and running [he was] amazing.” He was, in fact, a robot.

Continue reading →

Beware of the blob

It creeps, and it might be more like us than we care to admit. That was a lesson I learned last fall when trying to choose between pigeons and slime moulds for our lab journal club. The birds, it seems, are on a different level.

It started with the Monty Hall problem and a new study that asks, “Are birds smarter than mathematicians?”1. For those not familiar, the Monty Hall problem is a puzzle made famous by columnist Marilyn vos Savant, based on the popular 1960s game show Let’s Make a Deal (which was, incidentally, hosted by Winnipeg-born Monty Hall). Here it is:

Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, “Do you want to pick door No. 2?” Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?2

If you were on Let’s Make a Deal, would you take Hall’s offer to switch doors? Or would you stand by your original choice?

Let's Make a Deal

Does it make any difference?

Continue reading →

Reaching the other side, in synchrony

It’s a familiar site on campus here during the first week of class: packs of jaywalkers moving in tight co-ordination, in sync with the flow of oncoming cars. From traffic lights and power grids to stereo sound and cinema, synchrony is so common in our environment that we usually only notice it when it fails. Not so with nature: the examples of synchrony in living things tend to be much more surprising to people studying animal behaviour.

Group courtship displays are a classic example. Think of chorusing songbirds in the morning or calling frogs gathered around a pool of water at night. Readers of my blog on peacock field work might be familiar with lek-mating birds gathered around a clearing to wait for females. Peacock train displays also tend to happen in sync. One traditional explanation for these co-ordinated displays is that, by synchronizing their most conspicuous behaviour, animals might gain some protection from predation1. Another possibility is constructive interference: co-ordinated timing might allow a pair of animals to spread the message farther than either one could on its own2. Two innovative new studies on animal courtship have added to this list. The first, on firefly displays, shows that synchrony might help insects recognize members of their own species by getting rid of visual clutter.

Continue reading →

Honed

We brought home a new kitchen knife from my parents last month. The knife block was full, but Charlie exchanged the new one for what was previously our smallest and dullest. He wasted no time wrapping the old one up in plastic and hiding it from me. My hand naturally gravitates towards whichever tool will fit nicely inside it, even when I’m cutting a monster squash. We have a good arrangement: Charlie keeps the knives sharp, I keep my fingers, and I toss him the odd carrot slice in return.

But could he eventually be replaced by a sea urchin? A new study in the journal Advanced Functional Materials explains how sea urchin teeth never dull or break. In fact, they get sharper with use1.

Most people are probably familiar with sea urchins as the spiny little balls one occasionally encounters on the beach. Evil looking, but mostly harmless, so long as you avoid stepping on them. Sea urchins live in shallow tidal pools, eating algae and other plant material. So why do they need such sharp teeth? Much like their spines, the teeth probably serve a protective function. The urchins use them to chew burrows, often in solid rock, where they can take shelter from predators and waves.

In the current study, a group of physicists and biologists used an arsenal of sophisticated imaging, chemical and nano-scale stress test procedures to investigate the teeth of the California purple sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus). Like starfish and sea cucumbers, urchins are members of a group of animals known for their penta-radial, or five-fold, symmetry. They have five teeth arranged in what is known as Aristotle’s lantern.

Aristotle's lantern

Aristotle’s lantern, as viewed from below with teeth closed. From Killian et al. 20111.

Continue reading →

Masters of illusion

It can be easy to see intelligence in the animals we spend a lot of time with. Everyone has their pet example, one of the most common being dogs who can anticipate the precise time of their owners’ return. But what does this really say about the mental life of dogs? Some birds are capable of even more impressive mental stunts – only they often go unnoticed in the wild. Two recent field studies in Africa and Australia provide a nice illustration. The results challenge our notion of limited animal intelligence, but as we will see, the way we interpret them might say more about our own minds than it does about the birds.

Fork-tailed drongos are masters of deception. These small, glossy black birds from southern Africa are known for their ability to mimic the calls of other bird species – much like the mockingbirds found throughout the US and parts of southern Canada. Most of the time, drongos forage alone hunting insects, but occasionally they get other animals to do the hard work for them. Drongos will follow groups of meerkats and pied-babblers – mammals and birds known for their highly social lifestyles – and steal their food, a process known as kleptoparasitism. It might not be a complete loss for the victims, either. Drongo thieves give plenty of alarm calls along the way, and these may help the meerkat and babbler groups avoid predation1.

Perhaps not surprising for an accomplished mimic, the fork-tailed drongo has a diverse alarm call repertoire that includes its own unique warning “chink” as well as the calls of several other bird species. On the savannahs of the Kalahari Desert, birdwatchers noticed that drongos often seem to use these mimicked calls during kleptoparasitism, swooping in to steal food from pied-babblers immediately after sounding a false alarm1. For Tom Flower at the University of Cambridge, this was fascinating anecdotal evidence, so he set out to test whether these alarm calls are used by the drongos in a deceptive way2.

The first thing Flower needed to do was eliminate the possibility that the drongo false alarms are coincidental. If the drongos are truly deceptive, the calls should only occur when the birds are attempting to steal food. Flower also had to establish that the drongos sound the same, regardless of whether they are using their alarm calls in an honest or deceptive context. Finally, he had to show that the meerkats and babblers respond similarly in both cases.

Fork-tailed drongo

Fork-tailed drongo.

Continue reading →

Shark Lady and the convict fish

Who’s weirder: the shark lady or the convict fish? It may seem a strange way to get this blog started again, but it turns out to be quite fitting this time of year when we find ourselves cooped up with relatives of all stripes.

My first encounter with the convict fish was this summer. It was one of those enigmatic creatures that blew all of the biologists in the room away, at one of our regular gatherings to watch the BBC’s Life series. Over images of thousands of tiny fish emerging from a burrow on the sea floor, David Attenborough explained the mystery. This was a swarm of siblings, all offspring of the same pair of adults who spend their entire lives in a tunnel. Each day, the young convict fish head out to forage on plankton around the reef, returning home at night. Biologists have no idea how the parents feed, though, because no one has ever seen the adults leave their burrows in the wild. Attenborough left us hanging, suggesting with intrigue that the young fish might have something to do with it.

Could the convict fish be living off of its own offspring? A bit grim, yes, but also a fascinating biological paradox – perfect for this blog on the stranger twists of evolution, I thought. In nature, it might not even be that unusual. The males of plenty of fish species feed on eggs from their own nests. By taking in extra resources, this might allow them to invest more in future nesting attempts1. In fish with especially large broods, once filial cannibalism gets started it could get an evolutionary boost from the fact that many of the offspring in dense egg masses will not survive anyway2.

Continue reading →

Deep archives: Irreducible beauty

Peacocks and audience at the Toronto Zoo

Were peacocks designed with this kind of audience in mind?

A while back I was searching for images of peacock feathers on Google, and I stumbled upon this article. It’s a piece by Stuart Burgess, an engineer who is head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Bristol University, and apparently also quite an opinionated creationist.

Burgess’ idea is that the peacock’s train feathers “contain an extremely high level of optimum design”, so much so that they provide evidence against Darwinian evolution. He thinks that the aesthetic features of the peacock are so complex, so contingent upon each other, that no step-by-step process of evolutionary change could have produced them. He’s right that these ornaments are highly complex, and that selection for this kind of extreme aesthetic feature presents a bit of a puzzle for evolutionary biology. To claim that the extraordinary complexity must be “irreducible”, however, is a big assumption.

The article provides a lot of amusing examples of twisted logic along the way. For example, one of the features that Burgess finds irreducibly beautiful is the fact that the peacock’s train forms a fan-like shape. This is because “the axis of every feather can be projected back to an approximately common geometrical center” – indeed, the body of the bird that grew them!

Continue reading →

Deep archives: Sex “pests” get more practice

Juvenile male peafowl practice their displays

Having finished my field work this year, I thought I’d keep up with this blog by writing about interesting things that other people have seen animals do.

To start: this BBC science news report on the discovery of a “sex pest” seal that attempted to mate with a penguin, brought to my attention by Rob Ewart (the original paper can be found here but you will need a subscription to the journal to read the whole thing).

Apart from the entertainment factor – the abstract to the scientific paper concludes, “we report a case of interspecific sexual harassment bridging the rank of vertebrate class” – there are a few interesting issues here. The first being, why on earth would the seal do this? The authors provide a few possible answers. Apparently these fur seals sometimes eat king penguins, so perhaps by some strange mis-wiring, predatory arousal translated into sexual arousal in this case. Alternatively, the seal may have been too young to find a real mate, desperation leading it astray. Or, intriguingly, the young seal could have been play mating, a form of practice for the real thing later on.

The second issue: why on earth would a scientific journal publish something like this? Is it really that unusual for hormonally-charged animals to make the occasional mistake? This year alone I witnessed a peacock give chase to a human female (with the characteristic “hoot” of excitement that accompanies all mating attempts), and I’ve seen several peacocks attempt the same with guinea fowl and squirrels. All of these events happened with males that were displaying intently but that hadn’t had any peahen visitors in quite some time. Is this paper really such a novel finding, or are the authors just as desperate as the seal?

On reflection, it’s probably important to document these unusual behaviours somewhere, since it would be an interesting outcome if they turned out not to be mistakes after all. Young peacocks, for example, will frequently display their undeveloped train feathers to each other (pictured above). This male-male display may seem futile, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the kind of dancing skill required later in life demands some practice. Similarly, in Costa Rica I remember hearing juvenile long-tailed manakins displaying long after the real mating season had ended, no doubt honing their skills for next year. There is even some evidence that the reason male manakins pair up for their co-ordinated display dances, even though only the dominant member of the pair will get to mate, is for the practice.

The full citation for the seal paper:

De Bruyn PJN et al. 2008 Journal of Ethology 26:295-297.

And two on long-tailed manakin displays:

Trainer et al. 2002 Behavioral Ecology 13: 65-69.

Trainer and McDonald 1995 Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 37:249-254.

Language Instincts: Grammar in nature

From November 18, 2006

Many linguists would claim that grammar is what sets human language apart from anything else in the animal world. Some would disagree – bird song, for example, can be quite complex and it is thought that there might be some rules involved in its underlying structure. The question is, at what level of complexity does this ‘grammar’ occur?

A couple of recent studies have examined these claims about animal grammar with respect to communication in monkeys and birds. The interesting thing is that while the monkey researchers claim that their study animals cannot understand complex grammar, the bird researchers claim that their animals can.

First, some grammatical background: the kind of structure we are talking about here is called recursive grammar. This is the ability to insert phrases or clauses within other clauses. For example, we humans can say, “The bird sang from his perch”, or we can go further and say, “The bird, who had just caught a worm, sang from his perch”. We can go further still: “The bird, who had just caught a worm that was wriggling in the dirt, sang from his perch”. It is theoretically possible to keep on adding to a sentence like this forever, and come up with something that is infinitely long (but technically understandable).

In a recent paper in the journal Nature, researchers working with starlings claim to have demonstrated that, much like humans, birds can understand recursive grammar. Their methods involved creating a series of artificial songs following two different patterns: half of the songs had a novel element embedded into the middle of the song, while in the other half this element was added to the beginning or the end of the song. The results were that starlings could eventually learn to distinguish the two song-structure types.

While these results are definitely interesting, they don’t justify any sweeping conclusions about starling grammar (not yet, anyways). The ability to remember and distinguish different song patterns is surely different from the ability to use the patterns for the communication of specific information. The authors of the study have countered that even if the birds are simply using memory to distinguish the song-types, this behaviour is still “remarkable and previously thought beyond the realm of non-human abilities.”

Cotton-top tamarins

Interestingly, a similar study using cotton-top tamarins seems to demonstrate that recursive grammar is beyond the ability of these monkeys. This research involved teaching the monkeys an artificial grammar using recorded sounds, and testing whether or not certain deviations from the learned sound-order captured the monkeys’ attention. Apparently, the monkeys could recognize recordings that violated simple grammatical rules, but they did not respond to recordings that violated recursive grammar.

The monkey study was published in the journal Science, and in the same issue the psychologist David Premack provides several reasons why he thinks animals have not evolved language in the human sense. Premack believes that besides the lack of complex grammar, the lack of teaching, imitation, and voluntary control of sensory-motor systems is what sets animal communication apart from human language. But I’m not so sure that animals like primates and birds lack imitation and teaching. In any case, it would be interesting to know more about the patterns and structures underlying the whole spectrum of animal communication.

Here is a National Geographic article on the cotton-top tamarin study, and a Seed magazine article on starling grammar.