Cool Similarity Between How Humans and Animals Communicate

While we have probably encountered a parrot at least once in our lives and have recently received news of orcas imitating their human trainers’ speech, we don’t really expect most animals to talk the way humans talk to each other. But surprisingly enough — they do!

According to a comprehensive new study, many species pause in their “conversations” to facilitate taking turns. For many years, this turn-taking has long been thought to be a solely human trait, but it has since been observed everywhere — from birds to whales to elephants.

After reviewing hundreds and hundreds of studies about mammals, amphibians, and many other classifications, the research team proposed a framework to understand how different animals communicate. Their findings imply that we might soon be able to understand how we evolutionarily began to communicate as well.

“The ultimate goal of the framework is to facilitate large-scale, systematic cross-species comparisons,” says one of the team, linguist Kobin Kendrick from the University of York in the UK.

“Such a framework will allow researchers to trace the evolutionary history of this remarkable turn-taking behaviour and address longstanding questions about the origins of human language.”

While taking turns was discovered to be common among many species, the gaps in the “conversations” vary. Songbirds take less than 50 milliseconds before they answer their fellow songbird. The gap in sperm whales can reach up to two seconds in between replies. Meanwhile, pauses in human conversations tend to be around 200 milliseconds.

Other interesting findings include what’s socially acceptable among other species. For instance, birds called European starlings avoid overlaps when they communicate. In human terms, this means that they don’t talk over each other. When that happens, it results in silence or one of the birds flying away. Fascinating, huh?

Since about 50 years ago, scientists have already been studying the ways animals communicate. But what’s different now is the large comparative scale of this analysis. Previous findings have never been compared, but now even human linguists are collaborating with the effort.

“We came together because we all believe strongly that these fields can benefit from each other, and we hope that this paper drives more cross talk between human and animal turn-taking research in the future,” says [Sonja Vernes from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands].

Who knows? One day we might not only be studying how communication happens across different species, but how it could eventually happen between different species.

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Dutch Startup Using Crows To Clean Cigarette Litter

It’s more than likely that we call groups of ravens an unkindness due to their unforgiving intelligence. A Swedish experiment training birds to earn food rewards had one raven hacking the project entirely. The thoughtful budgie even took the time to teach other birds the secret. Now, startup Crowded Cities is testing the brainpower of crows, using them to pick up litter.

The idea is to train the crows to drop cigarette butts in a ‘Crowbar,’ which scans the item to confirm it’s a cigarette butt, and then gives the crow a food reward to reinforce the behavior.

Considering the amount of cigarette butts that end up on sidewalks annually (about 4.5 trillion), these crows could make a difference. The butts are not only non-biodegradable, but toxic to marine life. For ultimate efficiency, the Crowbar uses a simple give-and-take mechanism.

[Everything] is done with the intention that the crow will fly away and inform others of this system, so that more crows participate in cigarette butt collecting.

Research has found that crows are as cognitive as apes, so the success of the Crowbar should be anticipated.

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Satellites Capture Massive Penguin Colony

Penguins are adorable, and that isn’t ever up for debate. Even political bodies such as the Chilean government would agree. Ultimately, they did snub a billion-dollar mining project to save the flightless birds. However, populations are on the rocky side — or so we thought. Cruising over the Antarctic Peninsula, NASA satellites captured a 1.5 million fleet of penguins.

“The sheer size of what we were looking at took our breath away,” [said] co-author Heather Lynch, Ph.D… “We thought, ‘Wow! If what we’re seeing is true, these are going to be some of the largest Adélie penguin colonies in the world, and it’s going to be well worth our while sending in an expedition to count them properly.”

Drones captured roughly 751,527 pairs of Adélie penguins, which isn’t even the most NASA has ever tallied. It’s only the third or fourth. In the last 60 years, sea ice levels and concentrations caused population drops. Apparently, the feisty fledglings are adapting.

“The size of these colonies makes them regionally important and makes the case for expanding the proposed Weddell Sea Marine Protected Area to include the Danger Islands,” [said] co-author Michael Polito, Ph.D.

What’s that I hear? A lot of happy feet stomping on cool ice up in Antarctica!

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Mexico Creates World’s Largest Marine Reserve

To prevent passersby having to rescue beached whales, activists are looking for ways to better protect marine life. Some are turning to lab-grown meat to combat overfishing, while others are dealing with poachers up front. Determined to keep their own Revillagigedo Islands afloat, Mexico is placing 57,000 square miles under protection.

“It’s an important place biologically for megafauna, kind of superhighway, if you will, for sharks, manta rays, whales and turtles,” [said] Matt Rand, director of the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project… “It’s a pretty biologically spectacular location.”

Altogether, the islands are home to 366 species of fish, as well as a vast number of plants and birds. Though fishing villages have expressed concern, conservationists have assured that the reserve will help catch populations to quickly rise.

“We have a long way to go,” [Rand] says. “But there’s been incredible growth in the concept of large-scale marine protected areas. It’s almost becoming a race. Hopefully it’s starting to snowball.”

To conserve ecosystems, at least 30% of the ocean must remain untouched. I’d say 57,000 square miles is a pretty good start.

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Microsoft Teaching Motor-less Plane To Fly

At the rate technology is advancing, we can teach machines to do almost anything. From programming drones to plant trees to manufacturing a robot that can detect water pollution, gadgets have become more capable than ever. But can we train a device to rely entirely on nature? Microsoft is teaching this motor-less plane to fly just like a bird.

The researchers have found that through a complex set of AI algorithms, they can get their 16 1/2-foot, 12 1/2-pound aircraft to soar much like a hawk would, by identifying things like air temperature and wind direction to locate thermals — invisible columns of air that rise due to heat.

The plane is one of the only AI systems to act based on predictions it makes. In a nutshell, it is is akin to a simple thinking being.

“Birds do this seamlessly, and all they’re doing is harnessing nature. And they do it with a peanut-sized brain,”

If successful, the planes could be implemented in farming and providing internet connections to remote areas. If cars can drive themselves, planes can follow in their tread marks.

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Intelligent Raven Outsmarts Researchers

Never underestimate the intellectual capacity of an animal. Just like us, they do what they can to get what they want. This intelligent raven was removed from an experiment by hacking it completely and teaching other ravens the secret.

In this study, researchers from Lund University in Sweden trained ravens to use a simple machine where they dropped a rock in a tube to earn a food reward. 86 percent managed to successfully use [the rocks] to open the machine.

One raven in the experiment figured out how to work their rock/box contraption first, then began teaching the method to other ravens, and finally invented its own way of doing it. Instead of dropping a rock to release a treat, the [raven] constructed a layer of twigs in the tube, and pushed another stick down through the layer to force it open.

This bird is certainly winning at life. Researchers can understand this behavior in apes. They are, ultimately, our closest animal relatives. But these ravens are proving that other species can be just as sharp-witted.

“It’s an independent evolution of complex cognition, which is a fascinating idea, because it shows that evolution sometimes likes to rerun good solutions. In this case, it’s planning skills,”

I’ve got to hand it to these birds. Their ability to think ahead is truly evolution at its best.

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