Science Shows That Snowball the Cockatoo Has 14 Different Dance Moves: The Vogue, Headbang & More

We humans think we invented everything.

The wheel…

The printing press…

Dancing…

Well, we’re right about the first two.

Turns out the impulse to shake a tail feather isn’t an arbitrary cultural construct of humanity but rather a hard-wired neurological impulse in beings classified as vocal learners—us, elephants, dolphins, songbirds, and parrots like the Internet-famous sulphur-crested cockatoo, Snowball, above.

Animals outside of this elite set can be trained to execute certain physical moves, or they may just look like they’re dancing when tracking the movements of their food bowl or shimmying with relief at being picked up from doggy daycare.




Snowball, however, is truly dancing, thanks to his species’ capacity for hearing, then imitating sounds. Like every great spontaneous dancer, he’s got the music in him.

Aniruddh Patel, a Professor of Psychology at Tufts who specializes in music cognition, was the first to consider that Snowball’s habit of rocking out to the Backstreet Boys CD he’d had in his possession when dropped off at a parrot rescue center in Dyer, Indiana, was something more than a party trick.

Dr. Patel notes that parrots have more in common with dinosaurs than human beings, and that our monkey cousins don’t dance (much to this writer’s disappointment).

(Also, for the record? That goat who sings like Usher? It may sound like Usher, but you'll find no scientific support for the notion that its vocalizations constitute singing.)

Snowball, on the other hand, has made a major impression upon the Academy.

In papers published in Current Biology and Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Patel and his co-authors John R. Iversen, Micah R. Bregman, and Irena Schulz delved into why Snowball can dance like … well, maybe not Fred Astaire, but certainly your average moshing human.

After extensive observation, they concluded that an individual must possess five specific mental skills and predilections in order to move impulsively to music:

  1. They must be complex vocal learners, with the accompanying ability to connect sound and movement.
  2. They must be able to imitate movements.
  3. They must be able to learn complex sequences of actions.
  4. They must be attentive to the movements of others.
  5. They must form long-term social bonds.

Cockatoos can do all of this. Humans, too.

Patel’s former student R. Joanne Jao Keehn recently reviewed footage she shot in 2009 of Snowball getting down to Queen’s "Another One Bites the Dust" and Cyndi Lauper’s "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," identifying 14 distinct moves.

According to her research, his favorites are Vogue, Head-Foot Sync, and Headbang with Lifted Foot.

If you’ve been hugging the wall since middle school, maybe it’s time to take a deep breath, followed by an avian dancing lesson.

How did Snowball come by his astonishing rug-cutting confidence? Certainly not by watching instructional videos on YouTube. His human companion Schulz dances with him occasionally, but doesn't attempt to teach him her moves, which she describes as "limited."

Much like two human partners, they’re not always doing the same thing at the same time.

And the choreography is purely Snowball’s.

As Patel told The Harvard Gazette:

It’s actually a complex cognitive act that involves choosing among different types of possible movement options. It’s exactly how we think of human dancing.

If he is actually coming up with some of this stuff by himself, it’s an incredible example of animal creativity because he’s not doing this to get food; he’s not doing this to get a mating opportunity, both of which are often motivations in examples of creative behavior in other species.

You can read more science-based articles inspired by Snowball and watch some of his many public appearances on the not-for-profit, donation-based sanctuary Bird Lovers Only’s website.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 9 for another season of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Download Beautiful Panoramic Paintings of U.S. National Parks by H.C. Berann: Maps That Look Even More Vivid Than the Real Thing

The United States of America's national parks have been inspiring artists even before they were officially declared national parks. That goes not just for American artists such as the master landscape photographer Ansel Adams, but foreign artists as well. Take the Austrian painter Heinrich C. Berann, described by his official web site as "the father of the modern panorama map," a distinctive form that allowed him to hybridize "old European painting tradition with modern cartography."

Berann found his way to cartography after winning a competition to paint a map of Austria's Grossglockner High Alpine Road, which opened in 1934, a couple years after Berann's graduation from art school. "In the following years," says the artist's bio, "he improved this technique, created the modern panorama map and became famous all over the world for his maps that are in a class of their own." Maps in a class of their own need geographical subjects in a class of their own, and America's national parks fit that bill neatly.




Berann's panoramas of Denali, North Cascades, Yellowstone, and Yosemite "were created in the 1980s and 90s as part of a poster program to promote the national parks," writes National Geographic's Betsy Mason. Just a few years ago, U.S. National Park Service senior cartographer Tom Patterson got to work on scanning the artworks in high resolution. When the project was complete, "the National Park Service released the new images on their newly redesigned online map portal, which also has more than a thousand maps that are freely available for the public to download."

Berann's 1994 painting of Denali National Park just above was his final work before retirement. It came at the end of a long and varied career in art that saw him paint not just the Alps, the Himalayas, the Virgin Islands, and the floor of the Pacific Ocean (as well as other impressive parts of the world under commission from the National Geographic society and six different Olympic Games) but travel posters and drawings of everything from landscapes to portraits to nudes.

But it is Berann's panoramic paintings of America's national parks, which you can download in high resolution here, that have done the most to make people see their subjects in a new way. Not least because, with an artistic sleight-of-hand that combines as many landmarks as possible into single vistas rendered with a strikingly wide range of colors, Berann provides them a series of vantage points entirely unavailable in real life. In one sense, these are all real national parks, but they're national parks captured in a way even Ansel Adams never could have done.

via Boing Boing

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Secret Language of Trees: A Charming Animated Lesson Explains How Trees Share Information with Each Other

Shel Silverstein’s bittersweet classic The Giving Tree paints an inaccurate view of trees as simple, easily victimized loners.

If only the titular character had had a same-species best friend around to talk some sense into her when her human pal started helping himself to her branches… You’ve Gotta Be Kidding Me Tree, or maybe No Bullshit Tree.

You’ve Gotta Be Kidding Me Tree could’ve passed some vital nutrients to The Giving Tree, whose self care regimen is clearly not cutting it, via the mycorrhizae system, a vast network of filament-like tree roots and symbiotic soil fungi.




That same system could serve as the switchboard by which You’ve Gotta Be Kidding Me Tree could alert the extended Tree family to the dangers of prolonged association with cute, but needy kids.

Imagine the upbeat ending, had Silverstein gone light—The Giving Tree N’ Friends.

Not as poignant perhaps, but not entirely inaccurate from a scientific standpoint.

As forest ecologists Suzanne Simard and Camille Defrenne point out in the animated TED-Ed lesson, "The Secret Language of Trees," above, trees have large family (forgive me) trees, whose living members are in constant communication, using the mycorrhizae system.

Hosting multiple fungal species allows each tree to connect with a wider network, as each group of symbiotic shrooms spreads information to their own personal crews, party line style.

On the other end, the receiving tree can identify its relation to the tree of origin, whether they are both members of what we humans refer to as a nuclear family, or much more distant relations.

And while this giant subterranean system for sharing information and resources is specific to trees, when we consider how many other forest denizens depend on trees for food and shelter, the message system seems even more vital to the planet’s health.

Defrenne and Simard’s full TED-Ed lesson, complete with quiz, customizable lesson plan, and discussion topics, can be found here.

Simard delves more deeply into the topic in the 18-minute TED Talk, "How Trees Talk to Each Other," below.

View more of animator Avi Ofer’s charming work here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

In 1886, the US Government Commissioned 7,500 Watercolor Paintings of Every Known Fruit in the World: Download Them in High Resolution

T.S. Eliot asks in the opening stanzas of his Choruses from the Rock, “where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” The passage has been called a pointed question for our time, in which we seem to have lost the ability to learn, to make meaningful connections and contextualize events. They fly by us at superhuman speeds; credible sources are buried between spurious links. Truth and falsehood blur beyond distinction.

But there is another feature of the 21st century too-often unremarked upon, one only made possible by the rapid spread of information technology. Vast digital archives of primary sources open up to ordinary users, archives once only available to historians, promising the possibility, at least, of a far more egalitarian spread of both information and knowledge.




Those archives include the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection, “over 7,500 paintings, drawings, and wax models commissioned by the USDA between 1886 and 1942,” notes Chloe Olewitz at Morsel. The word “pomology,” “the science and practice of growing fruit,” first appeared in 1818, and the degree to which people depended on fruit trees and fruit stores made it a distinctively popular science, as was so much agriculture at the time.

But pomology was growing from a domestic science into an industrial one, adopted by “farmers across the United States,” writes Olewitz, who “worked with the USDA to set up orchards to serve emerging markets” as “the country’s most prolific fruit-producing regions began to take shape.” Central to the government agency’s growing pomological agenda was the recording of all the various types of fruit being cultivated, hybridized, inspected, and sold from both inside the U.S. and all over the world.

Prior to and even long after photography could do the job, that meant employing the talents of around 65 American artists to “document the thousands and thousands of varieties of heirloom and experimental fruit cultivars sprouting up nationwide.” The USDA made the full collection public after Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Parker Higgins submitted a Freedom of Information Act request in 2015.

Higgins saw the project as an example of “the way free speech issues intersect with questions of copyright and public domain,” as he put it. Historical government-issued fruit watercolors might not seem like the obvious place to start, but they’re as good a place as any. He stumbled on the collection while either randomly collecting information or acquiring knowledge, depending on how you look at it, “challenging himself to discover one new cool public domain thing every day for a month.”

It turned out that access to the USDA images was limited, “with high resolution versions hidden behind a largely untouched paywall.” After investing $300,000, they had made $600 in fees in five years, a losing proposition that would better serve the public, the scholarly community, and those working in-between if it became freely available.

You can explore the entirety of this tantalizing collection of fruit watercolors, ranging in quality from the workmanlike to the near sublime, and from unsung artists like James Marion Shull, who sketched the Cuban pineapple above, Ellen Isham Schutt, who brings us the Aegle marmelos, commonly called “bael” in India, further up, and Deborah Griscom Passmore, whose 1899 Malus domesticus, at the top, describes a U.S. pomological archetype.

It’s easy to see how Higgins could become engrossed in this collection. Its utilitarian purpose belies its simple beauty, and with 3,800 images of apples alone, one could get lost taking in the visual nuances—according to some very prolific naturalist artists—of just one fruit alone. Higgins, of course, created a Twitter bot to send out random images from the archive, an interesting distraction and also, for people inclined to seek it out, a lure to the full USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection.

At what point does an exploration of these images tip from information into knowledge? It's hard to say, but it’s unlikely we would pursue either one if that pursuit didn’t also include its share of pleasure. Enter the USDA's Pomological Watercolor Collection here to new and download over 7,500 high-resolution digital images like those above.

via Morsel.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Brilliant Colors of the Great Barrier Revealed in a Historic Illustrated Book from 1893

Paul Simon’s famous lyric about everything looking worse in black and white
is hardly a universal truth, but when it comes to William Saville-Kent's groundbreaking 1893 book The Great Barrier Reef of Australia: its products and potentialitiesthe assertion may have some merit.

Saville-Kent, a naturalist whose work in various British aquariums eventually led to a gig rebuilding depleted Tasmanian oyster beds, fell hard for the colorful fish, bêche-de-mer, corals, sponges, turtles, and other marine species he encountered in Australia.




He photographed the Great Barrier Reef while serving in Queensland as Commissioner of Fisheries. 48 of his images were published in the aforementioned book, offering readers an unprecedented armchair tour of a coral reef, albeit in black and white.

 

While Saville-Kent definitely achieved his goal of furthering the public’s awareness of the reef, he also upstaged himself by including 16 color lithographs inspired by his original watercolors.

These plates, by London-based lithographers Riddle and Couchman—whose work usually ran toward portraits of well-born gentlemen—exude a lively Seussian appeal.

Saville-Kent’s carefully captured fish, echinoderms, and anemones literally pale in comparison to the bright specimens the lithographers, who presumably lacked his firsthand experience of the forms they were depicting, brought to such vibrant life in the back of the book.

These days, alas, the Great Barrier Reef resembles Saville-Kent's photos more closely than those gorgeous lithographs, the victim of back-to-back bleaching events brought on by pollution-related climate change.

Saville-Kent is buried at All Saints Churchin Milford-on-Sea, Hampshire, England. His grave is decorated with coral.

Browse a digital copy of The Great Barrier Reef of Australia: its products and potentialities here.

via The Public Domain Review

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, June 17 for another monthly installment of her public domain-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Oliver Sacks Promotes the Healing Power of Gardens: They’re “More Powerful Than Any Medication”

Early European explorers left the continent with visions of gardens in their heads: The Garden of Eden, the Garden of the Hesperides, and other mythic realms of abundance, ease, and endless repose. Those same explorers left sickness, war, and death only to find sickness, war, and death—much of it exported by themselves. The garden became de-mythologized. Natural philosophy and modern methods of agriculture brought gardens further down to earth in the cultural imagination.

Yet the garden remained a special figure in philosophy, art, and literature, a potent symbol of an ordered life and ordered mind. Voltaire’s Candide, the riotous satire filled with gardens both fantastical and practical, famously ends with the dictate, “we must cultivate our garden.” The tendency to read this line as strictly metaphorical does a disservice to the intellectual culture created by Voltaire and other writers of the period—Alexander Pope most prominent among them—for whom gardening was a theory born of practice.




Exiled from France in 1765, Voltaire retreated to a villa in Geneva called Les Délices, “The Delights.” There, writes Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker, he “quickly turned his exile into a desirable condition…. When he wrote that it was our duty to cultivate our garden, he really knew what it meant to cultivate a garden.” Enlightenment poets and philosophers did not dwell on the scientific reasons why gardens might have such salutary effects on the psyche. And neither does neurologist Oliver Sacks, who also wrote of gardens as health-bestowing havens from the chaos and noise of the world, and more specifically, from the city and brutal commercial demands it represents.

For Sacks that city was not Paris or London but, principally, New York, where he lived, practiced, and wrote for fifty years. Nonetheless, in his essay “The Healing Power of Gardens,” he invokes the European history of gardens, from the medieval hortus to grand Enlightenment botanical gardens like Kew, filled with exotic plants from “the Americas and the Orient.” Sacks writes of his student days, where he “discovered with delight a very different garden—the Oxford Botanic Garden, one of the first walled gardens established in Europe,” founded in 1621.

“It pleased me to think,” he recalls, referring to key Enlightenment scientists, “that Boyle, Hooke, Willis and other Oxford figures might have walked and meditated there in the 17th century.” In that time, cultivated gardens were often the private preserves of landed gentry. Now, places like the New York Botanical Garden, whose virtues Sacks extolls in the video above, are open to everyone. And it is a good thing, too. Because gardens can serve an essential public health function, whether we’re stressed and generally fatigued or suffering from a mental disorder or neurological condition:

I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.

“In forty years of medical practice,” the physician writes, “I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.” A garden also represents—for Sacks and for artists like Virginia Woolf—“a triumph of resistance against the merciless race of modern life,” as Maria Popova writes at Brain Pickings, a pace “so compulsively focused on productivity at the cost of creativity, of lucidity, of sanity.”

Voltaire’s prescription to tend our gardens has made Candide into a watchword for caring for and appreciating our surroundings. (It’s also now the name of a gardening app). Sacks’ recommendations should inspire us equally, whether we’re in search of creative inspiration or mental respite. “As a writer,” he says, “I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. The effect, he writes, is to be “refreshed in body and spirit,” absorbed in the “deep time” of nature, as he writes elsewhere, and finding in it “a profound sense of being at home, a sort of companionship with the earth,” and a remedy for the alienation of both mental illness and the grinding pace of our usual form of life.

via New York Times/Brain Pickings

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

McDonald’s Opens a Tiny Restaurant — and It’s Only for Bees

How are the world's honey bees doing? Just a few years ago, word spread that they were on the verge of a mysterious extinction. Look for updates on their situation now and you get contradictory results, all of them fairly recent, from "Bees Are Still Dying" to "Bees Are Bouncing Back From Colony Collapse Disorder" to "Yes, the Bees Are Still in Trouble" to "The Bee Apocalypse Was Never Real." But whether they're in existential danger or not, bees at least now have their very own McDonald's — bees in certain parts of Sweden, anyway.

"McDonald’s has created a tiny replica of one of its restaurants, too small for any human to eat there," writes Emily Chudy in the Independent. "The replica, dubbed the 'McHive,' is a fully-functioning beehive designed to look like a McDonald’s restaurant and features seating, a drive-through and an entrance. The brainchild of set designer Nicklas Nilsson, the hive is part of an initiative which has seen beehives placed on certain Swedish branches of the franchise." This project seems to be the first insect-scale restaurant for Nilsson, whose past work includes costume design on the video for David Bowie's "Blackstar."




You can see footage of the McHive's design and assembly process, as well as an assembled McHive full of its "thousands of important guests," in the video at the top of the post. There are more photos at designboom, which quotes the project's advertising agency NORD DDB as saying that "the initiative started out locally but is now growing." In addition to installing beehives on their rooftops, more Swedish McDonald's franchisees "have also started replacing the grass around their restaurants with flowers and plants that are important for the wellbeing of wild bees."

Why so much concern about honey bees in the first place? Chudy quotes a Greenpeace estimate that they "perform about 80% of all pollination and a single bee colony can pollinate 300 million flowers each day." Bees do the hard work of keeping a surprisingly large part of the natural world working as we've always known it to, and to the extent that bees die out, much else may die out as well, with potential knock-on effects many would prefer not to think about. But then, the taste for predictions of ecological disaster on the internet seems only to have grown since we first noticed the problem with bees: if you really want to feel motivated to petition your local McDonald's to put up a McHive, try Googling the phrase "catastrophic collapse of nature."

via designboom

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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