Current reading: Shell Life: An Introduction to the British Mollusca by Edward Step. If you want the full information about plumed slugs or hairy sea lemons, or just a picture of some whelk teeth, then this is the place to come:
A fascinating episode of Radiolab this week, focusing on the strange and sad story of Lucy the chimpanzee, who was brought up by psychotherapist Maurice Temerlin (shown above) in an experimental attempt to see how human she could become. Some of the moments where the human/animal boundary gets very fuzzy in this programme will make your hair stand on end – particularly the bits dealing with Lucy’s, er, interest in pictures of naked human males.
Listen to the end to get an update from the Great Ape Trust, where the attempts to teach the apes language seem to have taken a surprising turn: a researcher insists that one of the bonobos has started actually speaking in gruff English. Although his colleague sounds a little less convinced. One thing is certain: if a bonobo threatens to bite you if you don’t do what he says, you’d better listen.
A piece by David Attenborough on the radio the other day was the first I’d heard of the Vogelkop bowerbird in Papua New Guinea. This amazing bird creates a lawn of moss in front of its already impressive nest, and lays out objects on it to attract females. These vary from bird to bird – piles of red leaves, beetles’ wings or deer droppings covered with fungi with a bluish sheen (the last apparently highly successful). They endlessly rearrange every bit of fungus or berry for the perfect display.
The females shop around and choose their mate on the basis of the best bower. As Attenborough explained, if you want a chance of filming it mating, you first have to decide which is the best nest to stake out. Luckily, the Vogelkop and humans turn out to have surprisingly similar aesthetic tastes.
You can hear more about filming the Vogelkop here, in an episode of Nature which also features its weird vocal duels.
According to this article in National Geographic, jackdaws are possibly the only animal able to interpret the human gaze, because their eyes are unusually similar to ours.
Bit of an unsettling idea, though I’d feel even more uncomfortable under the stare of, for instance, a goat:
(Pic from here)
Or Snowy the albino gorilla:
There’s been increased interest lately in monkey languages after discoveries were made about how putty-nosed monkeys combine sounds to create a basic syntax:
* Hack-hack-hack-hack: “There’s an eagle over there!”
* Pyow-hack-hack-pyow-pyow-pyow: “I’ve seen a leopard, let’s move away!”
* Hack-hack-hack-pyow-hack-hack-hack-hack-hack “There’s an eagle over
there, let’s move away!”
But research at the Great Ape Trust using the sign language Yerkish reveals the primates are capable of far more linguistic sophistication. Primate Poetics sets out a manifesto to enrich this new language, starting, ambitiously, with a translation of the epic Gilgamesh:
“We will learn Yerkish.
We will translate human literature into Yerkish.
We will invent words, word-tricks, word-jokes, word-games to show the
apes new ways of using (their) language.
We will become knowledgeable and original enough to be invited by the researchers of the Great Ape Trust to read our Yerkish translation of Gilgamesh to Kanzi, Panbanisha and all the others.”
“We are not here to compare and to compete with the ape but to appreciate its language for its own beauty. This is emphatically not about some lone genius monkey penning the Great Primate Novel.”
Found via the sadly lamented Nonist.
See also: The song of the gibbon
Can apes talk?
This video of bioluminescent comb jellies was made by the Vancouver Aquarium – shame about the intrusive subtitles, but the creatures themselves are incredible. You can see more of them in these extracts from the film Deep Blue here.
This Slate interview explores the work of the Great Ape Trust in Iowa, where researchers for many years have been trying to teach chimpanzees and bonobos to use language. Results are still hotly contested: in this film, their answer to most questions seems to be “hot dog” or “banana”, which suggests sophisticated language structures aren’t quite there yet. But the researchers themselves have learnt to take their charges’ abilities seriously; one man whispers his replies to the interviewer, explaining that he’s learnt never to make critical remarks about the apes within their hearing: “Yeah! They eavesdrop! It’s disgusting!” As one of his colleagues points out, what we need to do isn’t to teach apes to be more human, but to find out what’s really going on with them. We might be surprised.
A visit to Beasts of London leads me to the mysterious tale of the sighting by four terrified boys of a bear on Hackney Marshes in the 1980s. Don’t remember hearing about this growing up in Hackney – not even the gory detail that two decapitated bear corpses had been found earlier, floating in a nearby river. These bodies are talked about in various forums as the corpse of a giant, or as skinned bears, the result of feuding local circuses. This writer seems to know the real explanation: one of those ‘pointless traditions’ which judging by the number of urban wild beast sightings on the internet is still going strong. Weirdly, it looks like the Hackney bear was immortalised in an episode of Jasper Carrott’s The Detectives.