Showing posts with label Cognition. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cognition. Show all posts

Monday, February 27, 2012

Alex the Parrot's Last Addition Experiments

Image via Wikipedia user Blurpeace
Last year while taking a class on human and animal relationships I learned about Alex the African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus). At the time, Alex had already passed away (he died in 2007) but he was still renowned for his performance in cognition experiments conducted by psychologist Irene Pepperburg of Harvard University. I was thinking a lot about animal cognition back then, and I was impressed by what Alex did so I wrote a short post about his skills. We humans like to think of ourselves as elite, but too often we underestimate the abilities of other species.

The reason I bring up Alex is because I recently read this Nature News article about a new paper published by Pepperburg in the journal Animal Cognition (behind a pay wall, sorry) describing her last experiments with Alex on addition. The newly published paper describes Alex's ability to successfully add together arabic numerals (the ones we use) up to eight. He was also able to come up with the total number of objects separated under three different cups. The experiments were still being conducted when Alex died, however Pepperburg says there was enough statistically significant evidence to suggest that Alex was really doing addition.

According to Ewen Callaway's Nature News article, when asked "how many total?" in response to questions like 3+4 or 4+2 Alex chose the right answer nine out of 12 times. When presented sequentially with three sets of objects underneath three cups, Alex was able to total the objects correctly eight out of 10 times. It used to be believed that the ability to understand the numerical value of a set was dependent on language, and thus a specifically human characteristic.

To date, Alex and a chimpanzee named Sheba are the only non-human primates that have been able to successfully perform addition. While two examples isn't exactly a lot, the research is exciting because it demonstrates that a higher level of thinking is possible in other species. So are we headed for a planet of the parrots? I'm going to go with no, but it is still very cool to see what Alex was capable of doing. 

Friday, April 29, 2011

Wisconsin's Place in the History of Animal Research

I decided to apply to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison at the recommendation of my undergraduate advisor. I honestly wasn't thrilled with the idea of coming to the midwest. I had never really considered what the cheese state was like before I applied - as a strictly east coast girl it was so far removed from everything in my life I couldn't even imagine living here. But, when the college admission chips fell where they did, it was obvious to me that UW Madison was the clear first choice for grad school.

That being said, when I arrived in Wisconsin nearly nine months ago, I knew very little about the history of the University I was attending. I knew that UW-Madison was home to an amazing amount of scientific research, but I had no idea how rich the tradition of scientific inquiry really was. I quickly became aware of the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center (WNPRC) and notorious, and immensely important, psychology researcher Harry Harlow.

Those who follow this blog regularly know that I have written a lot of posts this semester inspired by my zoology class on human and animal behavior. It is this class that really got me motivated to learn more about animal research, and in particular UW-Madison's role in animal research. That brought me to two books, both written by Deborah Blum a professor in the journalism school here at UW.

In 1992 Blum won the Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles on the ethical dilemmas posed by primate research. She turned this into the 1994 book The Monkey Wars. I was enthralled by the history of primate research in the United States, and am ashamed to admit how little I knew prior to reading the book. The story of Edward Taub, the Silver Spring Monkeys (named after the site of the lab in Maryland,) and the rise of PETA in 1981 had me riveted. The condensed version of that story is that PETA founder Alex Pacheco volunteered undercover in the lab of Taub, who was conducting neurological experiments on monkeys (severing the nerves to control a limb and then coaxing nerve regeneration.) The monkeys were held in filthy conditions - but there was no legal standard for research animal care at the time. Pacheco took photographs (some admittedly staged) and went to the police to have Taub arrested (which he was - for animal cruelty.)

The majority of events described in the book take place long before I was even born, and I suppose thats why I felt so removed from them. I didn't realize I was taking the idea that animals have rights for granted until I learned about the history of animal research in this country. I knew that people are cruel to animals, but I was blissfully oblivious to the cruelty that was standard in research labs in the 1950's, 1960's, and 1970's. After finishing Monkey Wars, my blissful respect for science felt somewhat dingy - and I needed more information.

The book I picked up next, to explore the history of animal research and in particular its role in Wisconsin, was Blum's 2002 biography of Harry Harlow, Love at Goon Park. I don't think I had ever heard the name Harry Harlow before moving to Wisconsin - yet his work is something that I reap the benefits of in my daily life. Harlow is both famous and infamous for his "mother love" and "pit of despair" (a catchy term for depression) studies. His research used rhesus macaque babies to show that children need love and social interaction - particularly touch - to function and develop normally, and that being isolated can be the cause of a complete psychological breakdown.

The reason Harlow is so controversial is that the way he studied depression and isolation from one's mother was to psychologically "break" baby monkeys. These were horrible studies. The monkeys were taken away from their mothers and given a variety of fake substitutes to see which the babies would cling to most (warm, cloth, animated mother was the winning surrogate but cold metal mother caused psychological damage to her babies.) For the depression studies the babies were put in isolation cages for 3-6 months at a time, with no interaction at all. The monkeys suffered tremendously. The concept of love as a necessity needed to be proven, to move parental nurturing into the mainstream. But the question remains if it needed to be proven in that way.

Considering that I was surprised by just how awful the United States history of animal research is, you can imagine how shocking I found it that studies were needed to prove that mothers should hug their children. But then again, as Blum so poignantly points out, the scientific standard at the time was to isolate children for health reasons (limit the spread of bacteria & disease.) What seems so obvious to me - that animals should be well taken care of, that children should be hugged - were really revolutions within the scientific community. Looking back we can say how ridiculous it is that such assertions needed to be scientifically proven, but then again think about where we might be if these ideas had never been generally accepted.

This semester has really driven home for me just how much I owe to animals. The idea that my mom would have been condemned as a bad mother for hugging me when I cried were it not for Harry Harlow and his baby rhesus macaques makes me very appreciative of the role of animals in research. I remember so vividly crying on my Mom's shoulder at maybe 4 or 5 years old. I remember the silky salmon colored blouse she was wearing. I remember staining it mercilessly with my tears, but I don't know why I was crying. I do know that all I wanted was to be held, and have my hair stroked and be comforted. I can't imagine my parents keeping me at arm's length.

We owe a lot to the animals who started the social movement that changed the way people parented, and the researcher who brought it all to light for making society take notice; and I had no idea about either before coming to Wisconsin. While I do my fair share of whining about being in the cheese state, my experiences here have opened my mind to a lot of new concepts - particularly with regard to the role animals play in society and how we as humans should regard them.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Science For Six-Year-Olds: Animals & Tool Use

This is a special Science Decoded post for Mrs. Podolak's first graders at Lincoln-Hubbard Elementary School (yes that would be my Mom's class). My viewers in Lincoln-Hubbard's first grade liked my post Animal Cognition & The Genius Parrot about Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her experiments with Alex the african grey parrot, so I decided to do a post just for them to give them some more information about animal cognition (thinking) by sharing some videos about tool use in animals.

Animal cognition is a fascinating subject because we don't even know everything about how our human brains work, yet we have been able to observe other species demonstrating the ability to think. The following videos show some interesting examples of animals showing us that they do think about their surroundings by using tools to achieve their goals.
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Chimpanzees - termites are a source of food for chimpanzees, but they can be extremely difficult to catch because the mounds they build to live in are thick and hard for a chimp to break into. So, chimps have developed a way to infiltrate (sneak into) the mounds. They even modify (change) simple tools (a regular stick) by making them into brushes which capture even more termites.


New Caledonian Crows - birds like to eat nuts, but getting through the hard shell to the tasty part can be very difficult. These crows have devised a special way of cracking the nut, and even found a way to safely collect the edible part of the nut once it has been smashed. (Because this is a BBC video it needs to be watched on YouTube but clicking below will take you to the right link).


Octopus - Researchers have found an example of tool use by the octopus. The organism takes coconut shells and gathers them to use as a shelter which is a startling and significant use of an object external to the animal's self to achieve a goal among invertebrates (animals that don't have a spine, the bones in their back.)


There are many other examples of animals using tools, which shows that the ability to manipulate an object and use it to accomplish a task is by no means a uniquely human trait. If there are any questions, leave them for me in the comment section and I'll be sure to answer them!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Animal Cognition & The Genius Parrot

In my previous post Osteoarthritis, Cognition and Animal Healthcare I raised some questions about animal cognition - basically how can we understand what animals know and how they think? In my zoology class we are studying animal cognition, and we watched a really interesting video of Alex the African Grey Parrot, who is famous for the cognitive abilities he demonstrated when asked complex questions. 

Alex died in 2007 (check out his obituary in the New York Times,) but prior to his death he was the subject of very interesting work by Dr. Irene Pepperberg at Brandeis University (she is also an associate researcher at Harvard University) and the subject of her book Alex and Me. Even though it isn't new research, I wanted to share the video of Alex going through some of the cognition tests, because I hadn't seen it before, and I was pretty impressed by just how much he knew. 



Since Alex's death researchers in Pepperberg's laboratory are working with other parrots. Although, cognitive abilities as extensive as Alex's haven't been reported. Alex shows us what parrots are capable of, but I can't help but wonder if he showed the highest boundary of what parrots can learn and most parrots are not as smart, or if it really is just a matter of training parrots to communicate with us. 

Friday, February 25, 2011

Osteoarthritis, Cognition and Animal Healthcare

As I've talked about in previous posts, I'm taking a zoology class this semester on the biology and psychology of human and animal relationships with Patricia McConnell. I'm really enjoying the class so far because it has me thinking more critically about the way humans think about and treat other animals.

Case in point, I read the article Polar Bear Mercedes' Health Failing mostly because it is about a polar bear (as I've proclaimed before, they are my absolute favorite animals and have been since I was a child). I was having a gushy "oh poor polar bear" sort of moment. BUT reading the article made me think a lot about veterinary science and the way that humans take care of the health problems of other animals.

The article is about a specific polar bear in the Highland Wildlife Park in the United Kingdom that has been diagnosed with osteoarthritis. Currently the bear is being treated with painkillers for the condition, which is a degenerative disorder of the joints. Joints are places in the body where bones meet. They are held together with cartilage, tendons and muscles that enable the joint to bend. When an individual has osteoarthritis the cartilage starts to break down, causing the bones to rub directly together. This can cause pain, swelling and stiffness that drastically limits movement as the disease progresses.

At the Bronx Zoo.
Source: Wikipedia Commons
There is no known cure for osteoarthritis (which it should be noted affects many different species, and is very common in humans) but the symptoms can be controlled with painkillers. The condition typically effects older individuals. In the case of the polar bear, the patient is 30 years old which makes her a very old lady as far as polar bears go. Because there is no cure for the condition it is possible that the polar bear will be put down when her condition progresses enough to reduce her quality of life.

I can't help but wonder how we define quality of life for a polar bear. Even though she is suffering from a condition that also effects humans, we can't necessarily define the polar bear's suffering or quality of life the way we would our own. How do veterinarians or zoologists decide when enough is enough for a polar bear? She can't tell us when she's tired of living with the disease. Quite frankly assisted suicide isn't legal in humans, so what is it that makes euthanasia in animals alright? I support trying to limit the pain and suffering of animals that have been brought under human care, but what needs to be considered before deciding that it is time for them to die?

In humans a joint that no longer functions due to damage from osteoarthritis could be replaced with an artificial one made of plastic, metal or cement. That type of invasive surgery wouldn't be done on other species. Not only are these procedures extremely expensive, they require strenuous physical therapy and rehabilitation to come back from. This is a case where the condition might be the same across species, but the way it is treated is different. Really all they could do to alleviate the bear's symptoms is treat it with painkillers (which is what they are doing.)
A human joint with osteoarthritis.
Source: NIH-NIAMS photo gallery

It is interesting to consider how the polar bear would deal with the disease in the wild. They certainly wouldn't have pain killers at their disposal. In this case the polar bear wouldn't even have made it to old age (and have developed this disease) if it weren't for human interference. It was rescued after being shot in the wild and brought to a zoo, and later moved to the wildlife park.

These aren't easy questions. Animal behaviorists are still searching for answers about how much other species are self-aware. The fact is we don't know how much the polar bear thinks, or what it thinks - about its life or its condition. Even though I don't have answers, I appreciate my zoology class for getting me to think like this about how humans manage other animal's health.

If you are interested in animal cognition there is an entire journal dedicated to scientific research being done in the field called (shockingly) Animal Cognition where you can learn more about studies of what and how animals think.