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Photo: Irena Schulz
This is YouTube personality Snowball the dancing parrot.

Internet videos of cute animals doing surprising things can sometimes lead to research that expands scientific knowledge. Such was the case with Snowball, better known on YouTube as the dancing parrot.

Ed Yong writes at the Atlantic, “Before he became an internet sensation, before he made scientists reconsider the nature of dancing, before the children’s book and the Taco Bell commercial, Snowball was just a young parrot, looking for a home.

“His owner had realized that he couldn’t care for the sulfur-crested cockatoo any longer. So in August 2007, he dropped Snowball off at the Bird Lovers Only rescue center in Dyer, Indiana — along with a Backstreet Boys CD, and a tip that the bird loved to dance. Sure enough, when the center’s director, Irena Schulz, played ‘Everybody,’ Snowball ‘immediately broke out into his headbanging, bad-boy dance,’ she recalls. She took a grainy video, uploaded it to YouTube, and sent a link to some bird-enthusiast friends. Within a month, Snowball became a celebrity. When a Tonight Show producer called to arrange an interview, Schulz thought it was a prank.

“Among the video’s 6.2 million viewers was Aniruddh Patel, and he was was blown away. Patel, a neuroscientist, had recently published a paper asking why dancing [was rare in animals.] …

“Patel reasoned that dancing requires strong connections between brain regions involved in hearing and movement, and that such mental hardware would only exist in vocal learners — animals that can imitate the sounds they hear. …

“In 2008, he tested Snowball’s ability to keep time with versions of ‘Everybody’ that had been slowed down or sped up. In almost every case, the parrot successfully banged his head and lifted his feet in time. Much like human children, he often went off beat, but his performance was consistent enough to satisfy Patel. …

“Meanwhile, Snowball was going through his own dance dance revolution. Schulz kept exposing him to new music, and learned that he likes Pink, Lady Gaga, Queen, and Bruno Mars. He favored songs with a strong 4/4 beat, but could also cope with the unorthodox 5/4 time signature of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five.’ …

“In 2008, Patel’s undergraduate student R. Joanne Jao Keehn filmed these moves, while Snowball danced to ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ and ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun.’ And recently [she] she combed through the muted footage and cataloged 14 individual moves (plus two combinations). Snowball strikes poses. He body rolls, and swings his head through half circles, and headbangs with a raised foot. …

“His initial headbangs and foot-lifts are movements that parrots naturally make while walking or courting. But his newer set aren’t based on any standard, innate behaviors. He came up with them himself, and he uses them for different kinds of music. …

“Snowball’s abilities are all the more impressive because they’re so rare. Ronan the sea lion, for example, was recently filmed bobbing her head to music (including, again, the Backstreet Boys), but she was trained. And when [another researcher, Adena Schachner,] combed through thousands of YouTube videos in search of animals that could be charitably described as dancing, she found only 15 species that fit the bill. One was the Asian elephant, which sometimes sways and swings its trunk to music. The other 14 species were parrots.”

Are any of you owners of parrots? I wonder if you have seen dancing behaviors. Read more here. And be sure to note the videos of early and late Snowball moves.

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Photo: Kate Holt/Flickr
The joy on the faces of these performers in Kenya illustrates a universal truth: people love to dance. And it turns out, dancing informs our development in significant ways.

There’s something about being human that inclines one to dancing. Not necessarily ballet or hip hop or ballroom dancing, but dancelike movement that is part of everyday lives. The research on this may surprise you.

Kimerer LaMothe writes at Aeon, “Dancing is a human universal, but why? … What if humans are the primates whose capacity to dance (shared by some birds and mammals) was the signature strategy enabling the evolution of a distinctively large and interconnected brain, empathic heart and ecological adaptability? And what if dancing plays this role for humans not just in prehistoric times, but continuing into the present? …

“Researchers are discovering the vital role played by bodily movement not only in the evolution of the human species, but in the present-day social and psychological development of healthy individuals. Moreover, it is not just bodily movement itself that registers as vital in these cases, but a threefold capacity: to notice and recreate movement patterns; to remember and share movement patterns; and to mobilise these movement patterns as a means for sensing and responding to whatever appears. This threefold capacity is what every dance technique or tradition exercises and educates.

“According to the New York University neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás, writing in the book I of the Vortex (2001), bodily movement builds brains. A brain takes shape as it records patterns of neuromuscular coordination, and then remembers the outcomes in terms of pain or pleasure, emotional tags that help it assess whether to mobilise that movement again, and if so, how.

“In so far as bodily movements build the brain, every movement a human makes matters. Each repetition of a movement deepens and strengthens the pattern of mind-body coordination that making that movement requires; and the repetition also defines avenues along which future attention and energy flow. Every movement made and remembered shapes how an organism grows – what it senses and how it responds. …

“Humans have a unique capacity to notice, recreate and remember patterns of movement. More abundant in the human brain than any other mammalian brain, mirror neurons fire when a person notices a movement, recreating the pattern of neuromuscular coordination needed to make that movement. In this way, humans can learn to recreate the movement of others – not only other humans, but also trees and giraffes, predators and prey, fire, rivers and the Sun. As the neuroscientist V S Ramachandran writes in his book The Tell-Tale Brain (2011), mirror neurons ‘appear to be the evolutionary key to our attainment of full-fledged culture’ by allowing humans ‘to adopt each other’s point of view and empathise with one another.’

“Nevertheless, the term ‘mirror’ is misleading; it hides the agency of bodily movement. A brain does not provide a passive reflection. As eyes register movement, what a person sees is informed by the sensory awareness that his previous movements have helped him develop. He responds along the trajectories of attention that these previous movements have created. From this perspective, dance is a human capacity, not just one possible activity among others. …

“In this light, every dance technique or tradition appears as a stream of knowledge – an ever-evolving collection of movement patterns discovered and remembered for how well they hone the human capacity for movement-making. Most of all, dancing provides humans with the opportunity to learn how their movements matter. They can become aware of how the movements they make are training them – or not – to cultivate the sensory awareness required to empathise across species and with the Earth itself. In this regard, dance remains a vital art. From the perspective of bodily becoming, humans cannot not dance.”

This Aeon article came from the website Arts Journal, which brings together arts stories from around the world. Read more at Aeon, here.

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Photo: Steve Atwood
The wrybill uses its laterally curved bill to reach insect larvae under rounded riverbed stones.

I was intrigued by new research showing that some cells in nature have a left or right orientation and, when disrupted, are able to repair themselves. The Quanta Magazine article reposted at Wired is long and technical. I’m hoping to capture the basics here.

Tim Vernimmen writes, “In 2009, after she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, Ann Ramsdell began to search the scientific literature to see if someone with her diagnosis could make a full recovery. Ramsdell, a developmental biologist at the University of South Carolina, soon found something strange: The odds of recovery differed for women who had cancer in the left breast versus the right. Even more surprisingly, she found research suggesting that women with asymmetric breast tissue are more likely to develop cancer.

“Asymmetry is not readily apparent. Yet below the skin, asymmetric structures are common. Consider … how our heart, born from two identical structures fused together, twists itself into an asymmetrical pump that can simultaneously push oxygen-rich blood around the body and draw in a new swig from the lungs, all in a heartbeat. …

“In her early years as a scientist, Ramsdell never gave asymmetry much thought. But … after her recovery, Ramsdell decided … to start looking for asymmetry in the mammary glands of mammals.

In marsupials like wallabies and kangaroos, she read, the left and the right glands produce a different kind of milk, geared toward offspring of different ages. …

“Research from [the lab of Michael Levin, a biologist at Tufts University] suggests that communication among cells may be an under-explored factor in the development of asymmetry.

“The cellular skeleton also directs the transport of specialized proteins to the cell surface, Levin said. Some of these allow cells to communicate by exchanging electrical charges. This electrical communication, his research suggests, may direct the movements of cells as well as how the cells express their genes.

“ ‘If we block the [communication] channels, asymmetrical development always goes awry,’ he said. ‘And by manipulating this system, we’ve been able to guide development in surprising but predictable directions, creating six-legged frogs, four-headed worms or froglets with an eye for a gut, without changing their genomes at all.’

“The apparent ability of developing organisms to detect and correct their own shape fuels Levin’s belief that self-repair might one day be an option for humans as well.

“ ‘Under every rock, there is a creature that can repair its complex body all by itself,’ he points out. ‘If we can figure out how this works,’ Levin said, ‘it might revolutionize medicine. Many people think I’m too optimistic, but I have the engineering view on this: Anything that’s not forbidden by the laws of physics is possible.’ ”

The original story appeared in Quanta Magazine. Check the Wired reprint here.

Photo: SEFSC Pascagoula Laboratory; Collection of Brandi Noble, NOAA/NMFS/SEFSC
The twospot flounder lies on the seafloor on its right side, with both eyes on its left side.

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Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
A sponge the size of a minivan was found in summer 2015 in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument off Hawaii.

One of Earth’s oldest living animals is a sea sponge. As big as a minivan, it has been growing for generations unnoticed and undisturbed in waters off Hawaii.

Elahe Izadi writes in the Washington Post that a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) “captured footage of the spectacularly large sponge during a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration deep-sea expedition, and the species was identified for the first time in a study published [in May] in the journal Marine Biodiversity. …

“There’s more to this sponge than its girth: It could also be among the oldest living animals on earth. … Sponges can live for hundreds or even thousands of years. ‘While not much is known about the lifespan of sponges, some massive species found in shallow waters are estimated to live for more than 2,300 years,’ the study authors write. …

“ ‘Finding such an enormous and presumably old sponge emphasizes how much can be learned from studying deep and pristine environments such as those found in the remote Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument,’ Daniel Wagner, Papahānaumokuākea research specialist, said in a statement. …

“Christopher Kelly, NOAA research scientist and co-lead for the expedition, said the sponge ‘just appeared’ on the ROV’s high-definition camera, Australia’s Pacific Beat radio reported.

” ‘We were looking for deep water corals and sponges, and we had just gotten some close ups of some corals, then turned away to continue the survey and the sponge appeared out of nowhere.’ ”

I can just picture that cinematic moment of discovery.

More at the Washington Post, here.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou never know what you’ll find at Andrew Sullivan’s blog.

Today he notes research on the memory of toddlers. A new study has demonstrated that three-year-olds have memories of  seeing someone once, back when they were one.

Danish researcher Osman “Kingo and his team first renewed contact with parents and their children who’d taken part in an earlier study when the children were age one. That earlier research involved the infant children interacting with one of two researchers for 45 minutes – either a Scandinavian-Caucasian man or a Scandinavian-African man.

“Now two years on, 50 of these parents and children – the latter now aged three – were invited back to the exact same lab (hopefully cueing their earlier memories). Here the children were shown two simultaneous 45-second videos side by side. One video was a recording of the researcher – either the Scandinavian-Caucasian or Scandinavian-African man – interacting with them two years earlier; the other video showed the other researcher (the one they hadn’t met) interacting with a different child in the exact same way. …

“The children spent significantly more time looking at the video that featured the researcher they’d never met. … This result provides strong evidence that the children had some recognition of the researcher they’d met, and were drawn more strongly to look at the unfamiliar researcher.”

More at Andrew Sullivan, here, and at Research Digest at the British Psychological Society, here.

I am especially delighted that there’s a bit of proof for what I have long insisted was true. (No one ever believes that I remember taking my first steps.)

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“Elizabeth S. Spelke,” writes Natalie Angier in today’s NY Times, is a “professor of psychology and a pre-eminent researcher of the basic ingredient list from which all human knowledge is constructed.” She studies babies  to learn how much knowledge humans start out with. And perhaps not surprising, she finds that babies are intensely focused on … other people.

“Dr. Spelke studies babies not because they’re cute but because they’re root. ‘I’ve always been fascinated by questions about human cognition and the organization of the human mind,’ she said, ‘and why we’re good at some tasks and bad at others.’

“But the adult mind is far too complicated … ‘too stuffed full of facts’ to make sense of it. In her view, the best way to determine what, if anything, humans are born knowing, is to go straight to the source, and consult the recently born. …

“Dr. Spelke is a pioneer in the use of the infant gaze as a key to the infant mind — that is, identifying the inherent expectations of babies as young as a week or two by measuring how long they stare at a scene in which those presumptions are upended or unmet. …

” ‘Why did it take me 30 years to start studying this? … All this time I’ve been giving infants objects to hold, or spinning them around in a room to see how they navigate, when what they really wanted to do was engage with other people!’ ”

Read more.

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John sent me this heavenly video from a Public Broadcasting show called “The Human Spark.” Do watch it. It isn’t long.

It highlights research with both chimps and toddlers, showing what is apparently an innate impulse to help others. Interestingly, whereas the chimp will pass you something you are reaching for and stop at that, a toddler will go above and beyond — and seem to enjoy it.

All of which suggests to me that if you want to be around people who are truly human, hang out with the ones who like to help others.

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