“Bird Brain” Not an Insult, Chimps Freed

Posted on 23 August 2013 by Jerry

Calling someone “bird brained” used to be an insult but that is changing. Although their observed physical reactions are the same, new brain PET scans of birds demonstrate crows react differently when viewing various threats.  In an experiment birds were injected with a die that left traces of brain usage, they were shown various threats, anesthetized and given PET scans to see which areas of their brain had been activated.  When watching a researcher wearing a mask sitting with a dead crow in his lap they activated their hippocampus and cerebellum, the learning and memory areas of their brains.  This was different from their reaction to seeing a hawk, a traditional threat.

Researchers believe the differences came from the bird’s intent.  John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington in an article appearing in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B when discussing the masked person with a crow in his lap said, “The crow wasn’t just responding to a danger when he was watching you.  He was learning the features of your masked face.  That’s why we think his hippocampus was activated.”  This and other characteristics of sentience have prompted behavioral researchers to call crows, belonging to the Corvid family, “feathered apes”.

As reported in a July 2013 issue of PLOS ONE, a team led by Alice Auersperg at the University of Vienna demonstrated that captive cockatoos were capable of sequential step-wise problem solving.  In an experiment, when confronted with a series of five locks that had to be unlocked to allow a bird to get to a visible treat, all ten birds figured out the solution to this sequential problem and successfully adjusted their behavior when the locks were sequenced in a different order or removed entirely.

Other research showed that New Caledonian crows share the same capabilities as ravens, African gray parrots and keas (a New Zealand parrot), all of which can all solve the problem of getting a treat hanging out of reach from a perch using the same stepwise method.  The article previously mentioned in the Proceeding of the Royal Society B described the experiment and said “They pull up the string with their beak, then step on the segment with their feet, freeing their beak to pull up more of the string, and so on, until they reach the treat.”

This article also references a 2004 report where an international team of neurobiologists and ornithologists stated “the brains of birds have structure, including an advanced forebrain, that are analogous to those of mammals.”  Once again the research is expanding the scope of animals and birds that have sophisticated problem-solving intellect.  We have been slow to learn the lesson that we are not the only animals that can think the way we do or feel the complex emotions we feel.

There is an exceptional article that appeared in the July 2013 issue of Scientific American entitled When Animals Mourn that describes research indicating that we share our mourning the death of one of our kind with dolphins, elephants, giraffes, gorillas, cats and mallard ducks.   This speaks to the widespread nature of love and mourning in the animal kingdom.

Turning to the role of chimpanzees, the closest human relatives with which we share 98% of our DNA, it was predicted in an earlier posting on this blog (see NIH Moves Chimps From Chumps to Champs in December of 2011) that is was clear the National Institute of Health (NIH) would progressively end the use of chimpanzees in NIH funded research laboratories in the U.S.  The NIH has now announced the agency will retire the majority of its 360 chimps used for medical research.  In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed making all chimpanzees, wild and domesticated, subject to the terms of the Endangered Species Act.

This means almost a complete end to what has been one of our most abusive behaviors.  Many people have come to decry the pain and suffering we have inflicted on these sensitive animals.  Research methods and alternatives now exist to make use of chimpanzees in medical experiments completely unnecessary and a thing of the past.  This represents meaningful progress for the human species.

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