Brawn over brains?

There’s no question that broadly speaking, big brains are smart. Take humans, for instance: our brains weigh in at about 3 pounds on average, nearly four times the size of the brains of chimpanzees (whose brains weigh in at less than a pound apiece).

What’s less clear is why. There are a number of theories: maybe intelligence evolved to give us a competitive edge in foraging, or maybe it helped us keep track of increasingly complex social interactions. Ideally, we’d like a theory to explain the evolution of intelligence broadly, so researchers have tried to these hypotheses across multiple species (for instance, comparing relative brain size and social group size among hoofed mammals like horses and deer1).

But brain size alone – even when scaled as a proportion of overall body size – is not an ideal measure of intelligence. The trouble is that small animals often have considerably higher brain-to-body mass ratios – ant brains, for instance, can weigh nearly 15% of their total body mass (the equivalent of a 20 pound human head!), and mice have about the same brain-to-body mass ratio as we do. So how can we study brain evolution, when even primates span a 3000-fold difference in body size (comparing a gray mouse lemur and a gorilla)?

Enter the encephalization quotient, or EQ, a measure of brain size relative to what we would predict, given that there is a curved relationship between brain size and body size (allometry is the technical term for this). It’s the best yardstick we have for the evolution of intelligence. Until now, that is.

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Monkeys draw from memory

We’re a little bit closer to understanding what it’s like to be a monkey, and it’s thanks to the same technology that powers your smartphone: the touchscreen.

The latest victory for touchscreens is in the field of memory research. Scientists have been studying this ability in animals for decades – some birds, for example, are remarkably good at keeping track of the little details they use when foraging. Florida scrub jays collect thousands of acorns in the fall, hiding them as reserves to help get through the winter. Proof that scrub jays can keep track of multiple pieces of information about their caches – including the type of food, its perishability, and how long it ago it was stored – came from some clever experiments where jays learned to store worms and peanuts in sand-filled ice cube trays in the lab1. Rufous hummingbirds perform a similar feat. They can keep track of flowers on their daily foraging routes, including when the nectar for each one should be replenished, and time their visits accordingly. How do we know? Biologists taught hummingbirds in the Alberta Rockies to feed at artificial flowers that could be refilled on schedule2.

There is also a long history of research on the mental capacities of our closest animal relatives, primates. Rhesus macaque monkeys, a lab favourite used in countless studies of pharmacology and physiology, can easily keep track of a set of objects and spot the difference if you show them an altered version later on3. Not surprisingly, primates seem to have better memories than birds. Baboons can learn thousands of different photographic images and retain these memories for years – incredibly, when this particular study went to press, the baboons were up to 5000 and still hadn’t maxed out their capacity4.  Pigeons, on the other hand, hit a memory wall at roughly 1000 images4. These abilities might prove useful to primates like the chimpanzees living in the Taï National Park of Côte d’Ivoire, Africa. They make extensive use of their vast forest habitat, visiting hundreds of fruit trees that ripen on different schedules5. The Taï chimps can apparently remember where the especially productive trees are, and will often travel longer distances just to get there5.

But there is something missing from this research. It has to do with a subtle distinction in the way memory works: the difference between recognition and recall. Recognition is the ability to identify something because you’ve experienced it in the past. Recall, which can be more difficult, involves retrieving that memory on demand. Ben Basile and Rob Hampton liken it to the difference between a police lineup and talking to a criminal sketch artist. To recognize something is to see it and sense familiarity; to recollect is to create that experience in its absence.

So far all we have been able to study in animals is recognition. Without language, we can’t get them to describe their memories – until now, that is. Basile and Hampton, two scientists from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, have figured out how to get monkeys to act like criminal sketch artists6.

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To kill bias, gather good data

I hate myself for this: I have the worst sense of direction.

For the entire year when I was living in my first apartment in Kingston, I would take a circuitous route along King Street and then up Princess on my way home from the Kingston Yacht Club. Nearly two kilometers, when walking up West Street would have got me home in half the time. As Charlie said when I revealed this to him, “Two sides of a triangle is always greater than one.”

It’s not that I didn’t know grade school geometry, or that I wanted a more scenic route. I just stuck to the path I knew would get me there.

I felt a bit triumphant when I realized how long it can take Charlie when you ask him to pick up the milk. The last time I dragged him to the grocery store, I left him alone for a few minutes to use the bathroom, and returned to find him loading pineapple after pineapple after pineapple – painfully slowly, into the cart. We laughed, but I don’t ask him to come with me anymore. Alone, I can collect a week’s worth of food in less than 20 minutes.

I’m not ashamed to admit my navigational failings, either. My field assistant Myra and I happily agreed that our best strategy driving around Los Angeles was that we should always do the opposite of whatever we both thought was correct. It worked.

What I hate is my sneaking suspicion that I’m just a lame stereotype. Maybe I’m a terrible navigator because of biology; female brains are just not suited for getting around.

Hunter, gatherer

Modified from this cartoon. Original source unknown.

Recently, psychologists looked at this sex difference in what seemed like a neat field study of human foraging behaviour – in a grocery store1. Joshua New from Yale University, and his coauthors from UC Santa Barbara, set up a unique experiment in a California farmers’ market: they led men and women around the market, giving them samples like apples, fennel, almonds and honey. Then they brought the subjects back to a central location and asked them to point in the direction of those same food items.

These researchers wanted to test the idea that women outperform men at certain kinds of spatial tasks: while men are thought to be better at vector-based navigation, women might excel at remembering the locations of objects, because of the way foraging roles were divided up when our brains were evolving. It’s thought that in our hunter-gatherer past, big game hunting meant that men had to figure out how to bring heavy prey home by the most direct route. Women foraging closer to home needed a much different set of spatial adaptations2. It’s not that men are better at spatial reasoning in general, you just have to choose the right task3.

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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.

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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.

Language Instincts: Do animals lie?


From November 11, 2006

In my last few posts you may have noticed a theme: signals that are used to advertise sex in the animal world are generally thought to be honest ones. In fact, animal communication in general is pretty truthful. There may be different reasons for this: some signals may be impossible to fake (for instance, toad calls may contain honest information about the caller’s size simply because bigger bodies produce lower-frequency sounds). But even when a signal could be faked, the evolution of dishonest signaling is very unlikely. There is a simple reason for this: in the long run it would not benefit receivers to respond to a signal that could be cheated.

This is something that we might find surprising given the amount of deception that goes on in human interactions. Is deception really so rare in animal communication systems? Are there any animals liars?

We have some examples of deceptive communication between different species: for example, ground-nesting birds will fake an injury to draw a predator away from their nest, and some birds in mixed-species flocks will give false alarm calls to increase their own foraging success. Within species, however, the examples of deception are few. We know deceptive communication occurs within a number of primate species. Interestingly, some recent work using ravens has shown that, much like many primates, birds may also be capable of intentionally deceiving conspecifics.

This result came as a bit of an accident during an experimental study on social learning and scrounging in foraging ravens. The researchers provided their ravens with a series of covered plastic boxes that served as food caches (some containing pieces of cheese; some empty). The boxes were arranged in clusters and ravens were videotaped during their foraging explorations. Right from the start, the researchers noticed an interesting pattern between a pair of male ravens: rather than search for his own food, a dominant male relied on a subordinate male’s explorations, following the subordinate male around and eating the food that he discovered.

It eventually became apparent to the researchers that the subordinate raven wasn’t the only one being exploited in this situation. He had developed a strategy to trick his competitor. Whenever the subordinate male found a cluster of boxes containing food, he would quickly move on to a different cluster and start opening boxes there. The dominant male would soon follow, leaving the subordinate free to return to the other boxes and enjoy his snacks at leisure.

The parallels here to primate behaviour are interesting: chimpanzees have been known to walk away from a food site in order to induce other group members to do the same, and then return later to enjoy the food in privacy. Does the ability to communicate deceptively say something special about the cognitive evolution of a species?

You can read the raven study here.