Parrots That Show Selfless Kindness

A good study has recently been done on grey parrots.

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According to Charles Darwin, helping others just doesn’t make sense. Yet we’ve seemingly seen altruism time and again in the animal kingdom: in primates, in canines, in cetaceanspinnipeds, even vampire bats. Now, for the first time, it’s been demonstrated in birds.

The kind bird is one of the titans of avian intelligence, the African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus). New experiments have shown these birds happily helping each other acquire treats, without any assumption or anticipation that their altruism will be reciprocated.

“We found that African grey parrots voluntarily and spontaneously help familiar parrots to achieve a goal, without obvious immediate benefit to themselves,” explained behavioural biologist Désirée Brucks of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology.

But the birds take it one step further. Unlike primates, for example, the parrots display no anger or envy if one of their friends receives favourable treatment, instead seeming quite content that good things are happening to a buddy.

Among the bird kingdom, it’s the corvids – such as crows and ravens – that are probably the most famed for their wicked smarts, and with very good reason. In fact, corvids have demonstrated skills previously only observed in primates.

However, the researchers said, corvids have failed tests of altruism. But there are other smart birds out there – like parrots. Cockatoos can make their own tools, and have even demonstrated playful creativity. And African grey parrots have proven to be smarter than a human child in some tests.

So, the research team designed a test for altruism, and gave it to two different types of parrots – eight African greys, and six blue-headed macaws (Primolius couloni).

The birds had been previously trained to exchange tokens (metal washers) for treats. This training was refreshed, and the scientists assessed their subjects’ relationships with other birds of their species. Each bird was tested with one bird with whom they had a close bond, and a second bird with a less close bond.

The birds were then placed in a clear perspex enclosure, with a dividing wall between them. The front of the box had holes through which items could be exchanged with a human; and the dividing wall between the birds also had a hole, through which the two birds could also exchange items.

All the birds quickly understood the concept of swapping the washer for a piece of walnut, and were able to do so. But, when only one of two birds was given tokens, only the African grey parrots, not the macaws, also deliberately gave tokens to their buddies.

“Remarkably, African grey parrots were intrinsically motivated to help others, even if the other individual was not their friend, so they behaved very ‘prosocially,'” said zoologist Auguste von Bayern of Oxford University.

“It surprised us that 7 out of 8 African grey parrots provided their partner with tokens spontaneously – in their very first trial – thus without having experienced the social setting of this task before and without knowing that they would be tested in the other role later on. Therefore, the parrots provided help without gaining any immediate benefits and seemingly without expecting reciprocation in return.”

In all, they voluntarily gave other African grey parrots 157 out of 320 tokens – nearly half. And, interestingly, although they passed tokens regardless of their social bond, they did give more tokens to birds with whom they shared a close bond.

The macaws, by contrast, rarely passed their tokens through to the other parrot. If they did, they dropped it through the hole; and they did it more often when the human experimenter was present. This led the scientists to believe the macaws were trying to pass the token to the human, not their buddy.

The difference could be due to social differences between the species in the wild, but there was one more interesting thing. In a separate recent study, the researchers showed that, when an African grey parrot sees a friend getting a better treat, they didn’t seem particularly bothered. This is in contrast to animals such as chimpanzees, who tend to get riled up about it.

According to von Bayern, this could be because the parrots monogamously mate for life.

“Given that parrots are so closely bonded with a single individual and thus so mutually interdependent, it does not make any difference if one of them gets a better pay-off once in a while,” she said.

“What counts is that together, they function as a unit that can achieve much more than each of them on their own (in addition to raising their joint offspring). This is probably why parrots are much more tolerant towards unequal treatment than species that are not long-term monogamous, while still being excellent cooperators.”

The research has been published in Current Biology.

How Toxic Chemicals Are Robbing Vulnerable Children of Millions of IQ Points

The crisis of contaminated water seen in Flint, Michigan is ongoing and terrible, but other related events of contamination are more common than people tend to think they are. America is a society with many protections for the most powerful, and not enough for the most vulnerable.

The chemicals we’ve long feared the most – heavy metals like lead and mercury – are less of a threat to kids’ developing brains than they were two decades ago. But two new menaces may be taking their place: pesticides and flame retardants.

According to new research from New York University, flame retardants resulted in a loss of 162 million IQ points among children in the US between 2001 and 2016.

The study, published Tuesday in the journal Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology, looked at the four chemicals known to impact the brain of a developing child most: lead, mercury, pesticides, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (otherwise known as flame retardants).

Leo Trasande, a paediatrician and public-health researcher at NYU who co-authored the study, described these pollutants as “hit-and-run” chemicals: Once a child is exposed to them, there’s no reversing the damage.

“Kids’ brain development is exquisitely vulnerable,” Trasande told Business Insider. “If you disrupt, even with subtle effects, the way a child’s brain is wired, you can have permanent and lifelong consequences.”

The study found that lead cost US kids 78 million IQ points during the 15-year period studied, while pesticides caused a loss of nearly 27 million IQ points during those years. Mercury, meanwhile, caused a loss of 2.5 million IQ points.

Children’s’ lower IQs are costing the US trillions of dollars

The researchers found that among kids exposed to toxins from 2001 to to 2016, the proportion of IQ loss due to exposure to flame retardants and pesticides increased from 67 percent to 81 percent. Flame retardants can be found in household furniture and electronics, while pesticides can be consumed when they linger on produce.

“What we found was quite striking,” Trasande said.

“We know that there is no safe level of lead exposure. The same is true for methylmercury, pesticides, and flame retardants.”

The study also found that there is an economic cost to childhood brain damage: Trasande said that each individual IQ point is worth roughly 2 percent of a child’s lifetime economic productivity. So if a child could potentially make US$1 million over the course of their lifetime, they would lose US$20,000 for every IQ point lost.

“A kid’s brain power is the engine of our economy,” Trasande said.

“If a child comes back from school with one less IQ point, maybe mum or the parent might not notice. But if 100,000 children come back with one less IQ point, the entire economy notices.”

According to the researchers, IQ loss due to lead, mercury, flame retardants, and pesticide exposure combined cost the US around US$6 trillion from 2001 to 2016.

Regulations on flame retardants and pesticides are more lax than heavy metals

For decades, scientists have understood that exposure to lead and mercury can result in childhood brain damage. So many of the main hideouts for these chemicals – leaded gasoline, lead paint, and mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants – have been phased out.

As early as the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency required lead to be phased out of gasoline and paint (though lead paint can still be found in homes built before 1978).

The agency also set standards to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants in 2011, though some power plants still do not meet these requirements.

But there have been fewer efforts to regulate pesticides and flame retardants.

The EPA has banned around 37 pesticides, though more than 500 have been used in the US. Another 97 have been voluntarily withdrawn by pesticide manufacturers.

More than a dozen states have adopted legislation that restricts the use of flame retardants in products like furniture, carpeting, and children’s toys, but none of the chemicals are banned federally.

Ways to reduce kids’ exposure

Many factors can influence a kid’s exposure to a chemical, Transande said.

“The science has really evolved such that the dose is not the only thing that makes the poison,” he said. Other factors to consider could include the timing and frequency of exposure.

Trasande added that regulating all of these chemicals has a far lower long-term economic cost than the cost of kids’ lost IQ points due to exposure.

To minimise personal risk in one’s own home, Trasande suggested simple steps like opening windows so that dust laced with flame retardants can escape. He also suggested vacuuming frequently and using a wet mop to sop up chemicals on the floor.

In addition, parents should avoid mattresses and children’s toys that contain polyurethane foam (which often carries flame retardants).

Trasande also said households should avoid spraying pesticides on their lawns or backyards and recommended switching to organic foods (though organic produce can also contain pesticides).

“We’ve made less progress in phasing out or banning some of the pesticides of greatest concern,” Trasande said. “But there are steps we can take proactively as consumers.”

Research: Junk TV Can Make People Less Intelligent

Perhaps it’s similar to junk food, where it can worsen people’s physical condition.

A raft of new research shows that watching junky cable and other lowbrow TV is actually making people dumber — literally lowering their IQs.

In research published in the American Economic Review this month, Italian researchers showed that people with greater access to former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s trashy entertainment TV network, Mediaset, in the 1980s were much more likely to vote for Berlusconi later in later elections. Furthermore, people with greater exposure to Mediaset as children were “less cognitively sophisticated and civic-minded as adults, and ultimately more vulnerable to Berlusconi’s populist rhetoric.”

From the American Economic Association’s writeup of the research:

In 1980, Berlusconi was an up-and-coming media entrepreneur hoping to fill a void in the television market, which was dominated by a state-owned network driven by an educational mission. Catering to a growing middle class eager to spend on entertainment, Berlusconi spent the decade rolling out Mediaset to new markets throughout the country.

At the time, Mediaset’s programming did not suggest that he was using it as a propaganda tool for political gain. Nearly all the shows were shallow, critically poorly received, and purely for fun with no educational value. Mediaset did not have a news show component until 1990. Yet, the authors found very real effects of their influence on viewers’ political sympathies.

“The language codes that were popularized by TV also made people much more susceptible to the populist party because they used very simple language,” Ruben Durante, one of the paper’s coauthors, said. “They used accessible language. And that can potentially be very powerful.”

Andrea Tesei, another coauthor, spoke to The Washington Post’s Nikita Lalwani about some of the findings.

Lalwani: You show that exposure to entertainment TV most affected the voting behavior of the very young and the very old. Were they affected in the same way?

Tesei: For the elderly, the effect was happening through habit formation. They were hooked by the kind of television that Berlusconi showed — the salacious shows and sports. They were then much more likely to watch news shows on Mediaset when those shows were introduced universally in the ’90s. And we know that news on Mediaset was slanted toward Berlusconi.

Unlike the elderly, kids were not more likely to watch news on Mediaset later on — there was no habit formation. What was happening was that kids who were introduced to Mediaset in the 1980s were much more likely to grow up socially and civically disengaged, and even more, they appear to be more cognitively shallow compared to their peers, who grew up without this entertainment diet. We were able to show that kids who grew up in Mediaset-exposed areas performed significantly worse on standardized exams taken in adulthood.

The results also applied to another Italian populist politician, Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement, that was not as ideologically right-wing as Berlusconi. “The fact that our results apply not just to Berlusconi but also to the Five Star Movement suggests that there is perhaps a more general message,” Tesei said. “Less civically minded voters may be more vulnerable to populistic rhetoric.”

Crows Shown to Build Complex Tools from Multiple Separate Parts, Something Only Great Apes and Humans Have Been Shown Doing

Crows continue to prove that they have amazing attributes unique among animals. Crows likely have more to teach humans that study them about cognitive processes, which would aid understanding of the human mind.

Well, we didn’t think it was possible, but we should have had more faith in our feathered corvid friends: crows just got even cooler. Researchers have discovered that crows don’t just use single objects as tools; they can also make them out of multiple parts that are individually useless.

Let that sink in for a moment.

We already knew that corvids – crows and ravens – are capable of reasoning cause and effect, solving multi-step puzzles, planning for the future and even fashioning simple tools out of sticks and paper.

But making compound tools is something that has only ever been observed before in primates – specifically, humans and and great apes.

Even young humans take several years to be able to learn this skill, because cognitively speaking, it’s actually quite complex. It requires the ability to anticipate the properties of objects, and to be able to mentally map the consequences of putting them together prior to doing so.

As such, it’s considered a pretty important milestone when it comes to brain evolution. So observing it in birds is pretty spectacular.

“The finding is remarkable because the crows received no assistance or training in making these combinations, they figured it out by themselves,” said ornithologist Auguste von Bayern of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and the University of Oxford.

The team conducted their research on eight New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides), a bird well known for its intelligence.

Almost 1000 New Genes Related to Intelligence Found

The deeper understanding of intelligence allows for it to be recreated, utilized and optimized more effectively. There are certainly more than enough problems in the world — more intelligence could be very helpful in solving them.

Researchers have identified over 1,016 specific genes associated with intelligence, the vast majority of which are unknown to science.

An international team conducted a large-scale genetic association study of intelligence and discovered 190 new genomic loci and 939 new genes linked with intelligence, significantly expanding our understanding of the genetic bases of cognitive function.

Led by statistical geneticist Danielle Posthuma from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands, the researchers performed a genome-wide association study (GWAS) of almost 270,000 people from 14 independent cohorts of European ancestry.

All these people took part in neurocognitive tests that measured their intelligence, and when researchers contrast their scores with variations in the participants’ DNA – called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) – you can see which mutations are associated with high intelligence.

From over 9 million mutations detected in the sample, Posthuma’s team identified 205 regions in DNA code linked with intelligence (only 15 of which had been isolated before), and 1,016 specific genes (77 of which had already been discovered).

According to the team, the genes that make for smartness also look to confer a protective effect to overall cognitive health, with the analysis finding a negative correlation with Alzheimer’s disease, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, depressive symptoms, and schizophrenia.

The intelligence genes were however correlated with increased instances of autism, and also longevity, suggesting people with these genetic underpinnings of high intelligence are more likely to live longer.

“Our results indicate overlap in the genetic processes involved in both cognitive functioning and neurological and psychiatric traits and provide suggestive evidence of causal associations that may drive these correlations,” the researchers write.

“These results are important for understanding the biological underpinnings of cognitive functioning and contribute to understanding of related neurological and psychiatric disorders.”

Japanese Crow Steals Credit Card to Buy a Train Ticket

The wonders of crow intelligence appear once again.

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We know crows are like, really smart, but are they use-a-credit-card-to-buy-a-train-ticket smart? Well, actually… maybe. One crow has been caught in the act of appearing to try just that after stealing a woman’s credit card in Japan.

In the video from Tokyo’s Kinshichō Station, originally posted to Twitter by user @kinoshi42155049, the corvid is filmed inspecting a ticket machine before hopping over to the customer at the next machine and stealing her credit card as her machine ejects it.

It doesn’t seem to know quite what to do after that point, though – it’s possible that it just wanted the card because of the shiny hologram sticker. (Apparently, the crow did return the card to its owner.)

But there’s evidence that corvids can easily understand bartering. Not only are crows able to reason out cause and effect, ravens have shown they can plan for the future and barter for the items they might need to be able to obtain high-quality food later.

And inventor Josh Klein in the US created a sort of crow vending machine that dispenses peanuts when the birds insert a coin – the idea being to train wild crows to find lost coins in exchange for a snack. Guess what, it works.

Of course, in all of these scenarios the crows have been shown the basics, but there’s evidence that wild crows can work out problems all on their own – such as using the way traffic lights stop cars to drop nuts to be cracked open by the traffic when it starts flowing again.

They even craft their own tools out of sticks to obtain food their beaks can’t reach, and save their favourite tools to use again.

To be clear, there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that the crow in this video knows what a credit card is for, or how ticket machines work… but, based on what we know of corvid intelligence, we wouldn’t be surprised if it was trying to figure it out.

You can read some more about the incredible smarts of these amazing birds here.

Research Into Crows Making Tools

Why surprisingly intelligent crows make elaborately crafted tools — increased efficiency at catching food.

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The new study, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution today (22 January), explores why crows go the extra mile rather than using simple, unmodified sticks to extract prey — it allows them to get at hidden food several times faster than if they used basic (non-hooked) tools.

[…]

Biologists have long assumed that there was some benefit to crows manufacturing hooked tools, but had no idea just how much better they might be. The Scottish team conducted experiments to record how long wild-caught crows took to extract food from a range of naturalistic tasks, using either hooked or non-hooked tool designs.

Depending on the task, they found that hooked tools were between two and ten times more efficient than non-hooked tools. “That’s a huge difference!” says project leader, Professor Christian Rutz from the University of St Andrews. “Our results highlight that even relatively small changes to tool designs can significantly boost foraging performance.”

These new findings help explain why New Caledonian crows have evolved such remarkable tool-making abilities: “In nature, getting food quickly means that birds have more time and energy for reproduction and steering clear of predators. It’s really exciting that we were able to measure the benefits of these nifty crow tools,” adds study co-author Professor Nick Colegrave from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences.

Scientists still don’t know how crows acquire the ‘know-how’ and make hooks; they may inherit the ability from their parents, or learn by observing experienced birds. Either way, because hooked-tool users will live longer and leave more offspring, the skill is expected to spread.

Professor Rutz notes wryly: “We’ve all heard that the early bird gets the worm. In the case of the New Caledonian crow, it’s the skilled hook-maker that gets the worm, or at least it gets many more worms than its less-crafty neighbours!”

Study Reveals the Wonderful Depth of Intelligence Crows Have for Creating Tools

Crows are surprisingly intelligent and amazing creatures.

New Caledonian crows are the only species besides humans known to manufacture hooked tools in the wild. Birds produce these remarkable tools from the side branches of certain plants, carefully ‘crafting’ a crochet-like hook that can be used for snagging insect prey.

The study, published in Current Biology today (7 December), reveals how crows manage to fashion particularly efficient tools, with well-defined ‘deep’ hooks.

The hook is widely regarded as one of humankind’s most important innovations, with skilful reshaping, a useless piece of raw material is transformed into a powerful tool. While our ancestors started making stone tools over 3 million years ago, hooks are a surprisingly recent advance — the oldest known fish hooks are just 23,000 years old.

Project leader Professor Christian Rutz, from the School of Biology, has conducted field research on New Caledonian crows for over a decade. His team recently noticed that crows’ hooked tools vary considerably in size and shape. While some tools only exhibit a small extension at the tip, others have immaculate hooks.

Professor Rutz explains: “We suspected that tools with pronounced hooks are more efficient, and were able to confirm this in controlled experiments with wild-caught crows. The deeper the hook, the faster birds winkled bait from holes in wooden logs.”

This finding raised the intriguing question of what it takes to make such well-formed hooks. The researchers started planning their study by imagining how humans would approach a comparable task. “When a craftsperson carves a tool from a piece of wood, two things ensure a quality product: good raw materials and skill,” Professor Rutz said.

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Study: Smart People Have Well-Connected Brains

Intelligence can be difficult to measure well. I do know from my own experience how creativity is often based in linking concepts though.

Differences in intelligence have so far mostly been attributed to differences in specific brain regions. However, are smart people’s brains also wired differently to those of less intelligent persons? A new study supports this assumption. In intelligent persons, certain brain regions are more strongly involved in the flow of information between brain regions, while other brain regions are less engaged.

[…]

Earlier this year, the research team reported that in more intelligent persons two brain regions involved in the cognitive processing of task-relevant information (i.e., the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex) are connected more efficiently to the rest of the brain (2017, Intelligence). Another brain region, the junction area between temporal and parietal cortex that has been related to the shielding of thoughts against irrelevant information, is less strongly connected to the rest of the brain network. “The different topological embedding of these regions into the brain network could make it easier for smarter persons to differentiate between important and irrelevant information — which would be advantageous for many cognitive challenges,” proposes Ulrike Basten, the study’s principle investigator.

[…]

The study shows that in more intelligent persons certain brain regions are clearly more strongly involved in the exchange of information between different sub-networks of the brain in order for important information to be communicated quickly and efficiently. On the other hand, the research team also identified brain regions that are more strongly ‘de-coupled’ from the rest of the network in more intelligent people. This may result in better protection against distracting and irrelevant inputs. “We assume that network properties we have found in more intelligent persons help us to focus mentally and to ignore or suppress irrelevant, potentially distracting inputs,” says Basten. The causes of these associations remain an open question at present. “It is possible that due to their biological predispositions, some individuals develop brain networks that favor intelligent behaviors or more challenging cognitive tasks. However, it is equally as likely that the frequent use of the brain for cognitively challenging tasks may positively influence the development of brain networks. Given what we currently know about intelligence, an interplay of both processes seems most likely.”