22 May 2016: Crows got smarts


Corvus corax, the common raven. Photo: Pkspks [CC BY-SA 4.0]

It’s no secret that corvids – crows and ravens – are exceptionally smart for birds, especially at problem solving. Now an experiment carried out with ravens provides evidence they may have a basic Theory of Mind as well; this means they have an ability to attribute mental states they experience to another raven.

In a paper published in Nature in February, researchers Thomas Bugnyar, Stephan Reber and Cameron Buckner from the universities of Vienna and Houston, carried out an ingenious experiment that tested how ravens caching food behaved when they thought they were being seen by another raven.

There is increasing evidence that the Theory of Mind exists in chimpanzees, bonobos, scrub jays and ravens. How equivalent the experience of a ToM is between species is, so far, untestable, but the strong possibility that some form of ToM exists in different animals provides yet more evidence of the complexity of the mental life of species apart from humans.

Not only does this add weight to calls that humans should reconsider the way they relate to other animals, especially the often appalling way we treat farmed and domesticated animals, but firmly places Homo sapiens as the product of the same evolutionary process that produced ravens, dogs and garden slugs.

02 November 2014: But I discovered the meaning of life!

Who’d have thought that in a competition between scientific research papers on the wonders of sex, the bizarre mini-universe of quantum physics, the age and size of the cosmos, the last universal common ancestor, the wingspan of giant condors and the implications of relativity, the top three most cited papers would be about proteins?

The most recent issue of Nature, one of the world’s leading academic journals, has a fascinating article about the most popular papers in science.

The top three – and here you need to take a very deep breath – are “Protein measurement with the folin phenol reagent” (1951), “Cleavage of structural proteins during the assembly of head of the bacteriophage T4” (1970), and “A rapid and sensitive method for the quantitation of microgram quantities of protein utilizing the principles of protein-dye binding” (1976).

I didn’t even know “quantitation” was a word, let alone part of the title of a scientific articles that has over 150,000 citations.

For the full wherefore and whyfore, go read the article. In the end, as it generally does in science, it all makes sense.