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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: Matthias Le Dall
Thanks in part to his original songwriting, singing, and guitar-playing, physics doctoral student Pramodh Senarath Yapa won this year’s “Dance Your PhD” contest.

This is such a creative idea: a “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest!

Just as almost any information can be compressed into a haiku, almost any abstract concept can be danced. That’s what my high school dance teacher said when she made us partner with classmates to choreograph scientific principles.  And when Page and I started to choreograph Lavoisier’s discovery of oxygen to the Firebird Suite, Miss Hinney reminded us that we had to give life to the concept, not do a historical reenactment. Hard but memorable.

That’s why I loved this story about dancing your PhD. Emma Bowman writes at National Public Radio (NPR), “Pramodh Senarath Yapa, a physicist currently pursuing his doctorate at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, has been named the 2018 winner of the ‘Dance Your PhD’ contest.

“The competition, sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Science magazine, invites doctoral students and Ph.D. recipients to translate their research into an interpretive dance. The winner takes home $1,000.

“It took Senarath Yapa six weeks to choreograph and write the songs for ‘Superconductivity: The Musical!’ — a three-act swing dance depicting the social lives of electrons. The video is based on his master’s thesis, which he completed while pursuing his degree at the University of Victoria in Canada.

“The 11-minute sing-songy rendition is far less paralyzing than the jargony title of Senarath Yapa’s thesis alone: ‘Non-Local Electrodynamics of Superconducting Wires: Implications for Flux Noise and Inductance.’

” ‘Superconductivity relies on lone electrons pairing up when cooled below a certain temperature,’ Senarath Yapa told Science. ‘Once I began to think of electrons as unsociable people who suddenly become joyful once paired up, imagining them as dancers was a no-brainer!’ …

“John Bohannon, a former contributing correspondent for Science, founded the contest, now in its 11th year. It all started at a party one New Year’s Eve that was heavy on scientist attendees and light on the dancing. ‘I tapped into their competitive spirit,’ Bohannon tells NPR’s Scott Simon. …

” ‘I think in general, they’re exhibitionists. If you’re willing to stand up and defend some crazy obscure research topic that you’ve devoted your life to then there’s probably something in you that wants to dance.’ ”

More at NPR, here.

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Credit: Tjflex2/Flickr
Inside the pupa (or chrysalis), the caterpillar actually turns to liquid during metamorphosis. Despite such an extreme transformation, the butterfly or moth can retain learning from its caterpillar days.

Do you remember being a newborn? I don’t think our species is capable of that kind of remembering. What about other species? Recent research suggests that butterflies have a kind of muscle memory from the good old days of their caterpillar-hood.

An article from Curious Kids — a series that gets experts to answer questions that kids send in — has the scoop. Evan, age 5, asked the question.

“We have caterpillars at home. I would like to know whether they will remember being caterpillars when they are butterflies.”

“Dear Evan,

“I think it is highly unlikely that a butterfly or moth remembers being a caterpillar. However, it may well remember some experiences it learned as a caterpillar.

“That fact in itself is especially amazing because inside the pupa (or chrysalis), the caterpillar actually turns to liquid as it transforms into a butterfly or moth (the adult stage).

“The transformation from the pupa to the adult is the most dramatic change in the life cycle of a butterfly, and scientists refer to this change as metamorphosis. During metamorphosis, the body tissues of the caterpillar are completely reorganised to produce the beautiful adult butterfly that emerges from the pupa.

“Scientists have known for a long time that caterpillars can learn and remember things when they are caterpillars, and adult butterflies can do the same when they are butterflies. However, because of metamorphosis, we were not sure if an adult butterfly could remember things it learned as a caterpillar.

“This ability to remember caterpillar experiences as an adult was tested in a study by a team of scientists at Georgetown University in the US.

“The researchers trained the caterpillars to dislike the smell of ethyl acetate, a chemical often found in nail polish remover. They did this by giving the caterpillars little electric shocks every time they smelled the chemical. Soon, these caterpillars were trained to avoid that smell because it reminded them of the electric shock.

“They let the caterpillars transform into adult moths, and then tested the moths again to see if they still remembered to stay away from the ethyl acetate smell.

“And guess what? Most of them did! The scientists had shown that the memories of avoiding the bad smell experienced as a caterpillar had been carried over into the moth stage. …

“Thank you for sending in this very interesting question.

“Yours sincerely,

“A/Prof Michael F. Braby”

More at the Conversation, here.

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Art: Mary Delany (1700-1788)
Flowering Raspberry (Rubus odoratus) paper collage.

I’m not sure how I learned about the extraordinary botanical collages of Mary Delany, but as soon as I saw photos of her work, I headed straight to Wikipedia.

There I got enraged for the umpteenth time about the helplessness of women in past centuries (Delany was forced to marry a 60-year-old when she was 17). Finally, I came to this description of her late-blooming avocation.

“In 1771, a widow in her early 70s, Mary began on decoupage, a fashion with ladies of the court. Her works were detailed and botanically accurate depictions of plants.

“She used tissue paper and hand colouration to produce these pieces. She created 985 of these works, calling them her ‘Paper Mosaiks,’ [from] the age of 71 to 88, when her eyesight failed her.

‘With the plant specimen set before her she cut minute particles of coloured paper to represent the petals, stamens, calyx, leaves, veins, stalk and other parts of the plant, and, using lighter and darker paper to form the shading, she stuck them on a black background. By placing one piece of paper upon another she sometimes built up several layers and in a complete picture there might be hundreds of pieces to form one plant. It is thought she first dissected each plant so that she might examine it carefully for accurate portrayal.’ [Hayden, Ruth. Mrs Delany: her life and her flowers] …

Frances Burney (Madame D’Arblay) was introduced to her in 1783, and frequently visited her at her London home. … She had known many of the luminaries of her day, had corresponded with Jonathan Swift [among others], and left a detailed picture of polite English society of the 18th century in her six volumes of Autobiography and Letters (ed. Lady Llanover, 1861–1862).”

More pictures at Wikipedia, here. You may also be interested in this post, about the botanical art of Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter. Potter, as a woman, failed to receive the attention men in science achieved — a century after Delany.

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Photo: Don Lyman
Threatened Blanding’s turtles have been parceled out to Massachusetts teachers and students to protect until big enough for the Grassroots Wildlife Conservation to return them to the wild.

I’m increasingly impressed with the science projects that schools are pursuing these days. My kindergarten grandchild, for example, brings home interesting science kits regularly — the latest involving batteries, wires, and electricity.

In Carlisle, Massachusetts, students are giving a leg up to tiny Blanding’s turtles, as Don Lyman, of the radio show Living on Earth (LOE), reports. The edited transcript follows.

“Lyman: On a clear but cold February day, snow from a recent storm blanketed the outdoor basketball courts at the Carlisle School. But inside the tank where two young turtles lived [Tsunami and Squirtle], it was a balmy 80 degrees or so, and the classroom itself teemed with excitement. I found myself among perhaps the only people with more questions than journalists: fifth graders. …

“Chris Denaro’s students grilled Emilie Schuler, the Director of Programs and Operations at Grassroots Wildlife Conservation, about everything from how many turtles are left in the world, to potential hazards the littlest ones face. …

“The kids were in the midst of a yearlong project to take care of two baby turtles, to give the hatchlings a head start in life, so they’d have a much better chance of surviving to adulthood and boosting the threatened species’ numbers when they’re released in the spring. … The kids were pros at feeding the turtles, giving them fresh water and weighing them, but they still had lots to learn about some amazing things the hatchlings – which they’d named Tsunami and Squirtle — could do. …

“Schuler: Can a turtle’s body – is it okay for a turtle, for its body to be 33 degrees? … That’s the really cool thing. It’s like kind of a superpower of turtles and of reptiles that they can have their body so, so cold. They can drop their body temperature like that and still be fine.

“Lyman: In order to still be okay with such a low body temperature, Blanding’s turtles have to slow down. Wa-a-ay down.

“Schuler: They’ve measured turtles that are this cold, and their heart was beating only one time every ten minutes. … Turtles have the ability to hold their breath for a really, really, really long time. Scientists have even done studies where they’ve purposely put turtles in water where they’ve bubbled out all the oxygen. Those turtles stayed under the water super-chilled for five months. …

“Your Blanding’s turtle cousins that are outside … in the winter right now … even if they were the same age as Tsunami, come April or May, when it starts getting warmer and they come out – what’s the size difference gonna be between Tsunami and their cousins?

“Lyman: The answer: around 7 or 8 times the weight! That’s the main reason why the headstart program is proving so valuable for boosting Blanding’s turtle population numbers. In just eight months, the kids make the baby turtles look like four-year olds. So they’re less attractive to predators like raccoons, herons, and bullfrogs, and much more likely to make it out in the wild.”

When I was in fifth grade, the teacher let a praying mantis egg case hatch in the classroom (and all over the school). That was certainly memorable, but I think the contemporary science projects involve more learning.

More at Living on Earth, here.

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When I was a child, the great blue whale was the attraction I most looked forward to seeing at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Now my grandchildren look forward to it.

But in an article on the website called Seeker about how the whale gets cleaned every year, I learned that the model I saw was not anatomically correct.

“The original model was based on measurements taken by American Museum of Natural History scientists in the 1920s. The measurements were of a dead female blue whale captured by a whaling station in the southern Atlantic, and although the artists who crafted the whale followed the original records, there were anatomical inaccuracies, likely because the whale that the scientists examined was already decaying. …

” ‘It was the wrong color. It had bulging eyes, probably due to decomposition,’ [Melanie Stiassny, curator for the Department of Ichthyology] said. In 2001, artists adjusted the body color and flattened the whale’s eyes, also adding a navel that had originally been omitted.

“Today, the [whale] resembles living blue whales more closely than before. However, while scientists’ knowledge of blue whales has certainly improved, there is still much about these giants that remains elusive.

” ‘We still don’t know how many blue whales are out there,’ Stiassny said. ‘We don’t know exactly where they go to breed. They still remain one of the great mysteries of the ocean.’ ”

More at Seeker.

Art: Richard Ellis

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Our friend Mika is back in Hokkaido these days, after several years in New York working in restaurants and perfecting her “house” dancing. But every once in a while she ventures out to help on a street art project. Here is her friend Florence Blanchard’s mural for CBM Network (Crossing Biological Membranes) at the University of Sheffield in England.

At her WordPress site, Florence explains what the art represents, “I am delighted to present my newest mural here – a collaboration with CBMNet at the University Of Sheffield, in conjunction with Festival Of The Mind 2016 / Fear of the Unseen: Engineering Good Bacteria.

“The ‘Crossing Biological Membranes Network’ is composed of scientists working to understand the mechanisms by which substances are transported into, within, and out of cells. Their ultimate aim is to produce knowledge which will enable the development of new technologies in the Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy sector (eg: producing biofuels using E coli bacteria).

“My role in this collaboration has been to translate the CBMNet area of work into a large outdoor mural located within the university campus. For this occasion I have presented my interpretation of a detail of a cell membrane as seen under an electron microscope, having undergone a cryofracture.

“A cryofracture is a procedure in which the sample is frozen quickly and then  broken with a sharp blow so you are able to study its structure in very close detail – Imagine breaking a bar of chocolate with hazelnuts, this way you can see how hazelnuts are positioned inside the bar.”

“For an online animation of a biomembrane cryofracture follow this link: http://www.sciencephoto.com/media/530082/view.”

Check out the WordPress post.

Photo: Florence Ema Blanchard
Blanchard’s street art is tied to a scientific quest: “Engineering Good Bacteria.”

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