At the St. Louis Zoo yesterday, I watched this drama unfold. A bird landed in the prairie dog area and decided that it wanted the prairie dog to share its food. The prairie dog (and yet another prairie dog) remained stoic throughout this ordeal (this is a series of 13 photos), which begs for cartoon captions.
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In this article in the Wall Street Journal, Frans de Waal cautions us that we need to properly test animals before declaring that they lack intelligence. He gives several examples, concluding that scientists need to take the time to think like animals when designing experiments for animals.
A growing body of evidence shows . . . that we have grossly underestimated both the scope and the scale of animal intelligence. Can an octopus use tools? Do chimpanzees have a sense of fairness? Can birds guess what others know? Do rats feel empathy for their friends? Just a few decades ago we would have answered “no” to all such questions. Now we’re not so sure.
Experiments with animals have long been handicapped by our anthropocentric attitude: We often test them in ways that work fine with humans but not so well with other species. Scientists are now finally meeting animals on their own terms instead of treating them like furry (or feathery) humans, and this shift is fundamentally reshaping our understanding.
Humans are not the only animals capable of meta-cognition: the ability to think about their thinking. A recent article in Science Daily demonstrates that chimpanzees are capable of meta-cognition:
[C]himpanzees named items immediately and directly when they knew what was there, but they sought out more information before naming when they did not already know.
The research team said, “This pattern of behavior reflects a controlled information-seeking capacity that serves to support intelligent responding, and it strongly suggests that our closest living relative has metacognitive abilities closely related to those of humans.”
After viewing the IMAX movie “Flight of the Butterflies,” I’ve had this fascination. This weekend (the second time in two weekends) I traveled to the Insectarium of the St. Louis Zoo to closely observe live butterflies indoors and to attempt to photograph them with a macro lens, this time using flash. Click on any of these photos for high-res versions of the photos below, which I took today.
If someone told you that you need to make a small device, less than .1 ounce (3 grams), and it needed to fly and be capable of making controlled landings, you would likely not know where to start. Then add in that this device would need to seek out it’s own fuel sources using its long extendable proboscis–a device that might make you think that the butterfly is a tiny flying elephant. It would need to avoid eating foods that were not appropriate. It would need to recognize conspecifics of the opposite sex. Just Imagine how hard this would be to for a devices this small to be able to recognize others of its same species, especially given that it will use sight and olfactory clues. Just imagine training this device the mechanics of mating and producing viable young. Then imaging training this little device to properly navigate to where it needs to go, sensing out food and mates for its short life span of between 2 weeks and 2 months. Add in the ability to reach flight morphology through a chrysalis stage and you wouldn’t have any engineers that would take you seriously. For more details on how butterflies work, see How Stuff Works.
That was my mindset as I set out to the Insectarium at the St. Louis Zoo today.
Today’s bonus is that in the process of struggling to use flash with the macro lens, I learned to drag the flash, capturing some visuals regarding the flight path of several butterflies. Notice the steaks of blur from the wings in the following two photos.
Many of us are content to watch butterflies from afar, enjoying their beautiful colors. I’m finding them all the more fascinating up close, thinking of them as almost impossible to comprehend in their phenomenal delicate complexity, even as you are studying them up close.
Last week I went to the St. Louis Science Center to view the IMAX movie “Flight of the Butterflies.” I learned many of the details of the 2,000 mile migration of monarch butterflies. It was a superb story, beautifully filmed. Today, I went to the “Insectarium” at the St. Louis Zoo seeking to mingle with butterflies and take some macro photos. The butterflies were quite trusting, allowing me to often get within a few inches of them. These are amazing animals, stunningly beautiful.
It lived 66 million years ago, and it might be your ancestor:
Humankind’s common ancestor with other mammals may have been a roughly rat-size animal that weighed no more than a half a pound, had a long furry tail and lived on insects. In a comprehensive six-year study of the mammalian family tree, scientists have identified and reconstructed what they say is the most likely common ancestor of the many species on the most abundant and diverse branch of that tree — the branch of creatures that nourish their young in utero through a placenta. The work appears to support the view that in the global extinctions some 66 million years ago, all non-avian dinosaurs had to die for mammals to flourish.
Goose Bumps. What are they? Radiolab informs us:
1. It traps heat! The air your body heats up gets trapped more effectively when all those hairs are erect, so you’ve got yourself a nice warm layer of air to prevent against the advancing cold. Mmmm. Cozy town.
2. It makes you look bigger to predators. Poof. I’m giant. I swear. Rowr.
But there’s more to the story. Why would an emotional passage in a piece of music cause goose-bumps? Maybe (Radiolab suggests) because the awesomeness of the passage makes us feel small, maybe a little too small, which gets us feeling a big defensive and helpless, making us bring out the goose bumps for reasons #2 above.
Yesterday, my 14 year old daughter JuJu and I spent the entire day at Studio 314 in Midtown St. Louis learning Adobe Lightroom 4. I’d been using Picasa for organizing my photos, and Picasa/Photoshop for processing. Lightroom is an incredible package –it allows you to quickly sort through your photos and also to “develop” them using sophisticated controls that allow for individual tweaks and batch processing. It’s a professional tool, and even after a day of studying it and most of a day (today) continuing to study it and use it on my own, I only think I’ve tapped into 50% of what the program can do. Not that knowing the controls is being proficient at using the program either. I’m sure that I’ll be picking up lots of tips and efficiencies over the next six months or so (there are tons of Youtubes and other videos offering instruction in Lightroom). What I’ve already noticed is that I’m turned some mediocre shots into decent shots and I’ve turned many decent shots into impressive images. Lightroom offers far more flexibility than the free photo organizing and processing programs out there, such as Picasa and iPhoto. Lightroom 4 is only about $100, so it’s well in range of amateur photographers like me.
Today I spent a couple hours at the St. Louis Zoo capturing images, so that I could have something interesting to process in Lightroom 4. I’ll paste a couple of my photos below, but also offer a gallery (you can get to the gallery by clicking on the title of this post if you don’t see it). I invite you to click on the photos below to see them in much better detail.
So far, so good. I’m definitely going to incorporate Lightroom into my workflow.
[These images were taken a Canon S95 and a Sony HX10V, two modest priced cameras, nothing fancy].