Mark Grossman: What Do the Birds Think?

3 October 2013

While observing western scrub jays in the wild, UC Davis researchers were surprised to witness what appeared to be a bird funeral.  When a dead jay was spotted on the ground, another jay immediately began shouting out alarm calls to the other members of the flock.  This seemed to make sense.  If the discovery of a dead bird was interpreted as danger, the first bird “on the scene” might call out an alarm to the rest of the flock to warn them that a jay-killing predator was in the area.

However, what happened next was puzzling.  Instead of fleeing, the first bird landed beside the dead bird’s body while continuing its call.  The rest of the birds joined the calling jay with the whole flock gathering until they formed a circle around the body of the dead jay.

This seemed odd.  If a dead bird meant a predator was in the area, you’d expect the rest of the flock to retreat.  Instead, the flock gathered at the very location of the possible attack.  Stranger still, the surviving jays stopped foraging for food for the rest of the day.  The observers had to ask: Is this a funeral?  Is fasting for the remainder of the day a kind of mourning?  It sort of looked that way.

The researchers were so intrigued that they experimented by placing other objects in the area of the flock to observe the reaction.  Colored pieces of wood were ignored.  A stuffed jay was mobbed receiving the same treatment as a competitor from another flock.  More interesting was the reaction to a stuffed Great Horn Owl, the jay’s chief predator.  With the sighting of the owl, the birds made alarm calls and the flock gathered together — just as they had for the “funeral.”  However, once gathered together, the group attacked the stuffed owl, more or less, swooping down on it repeatedly.

So, perhaps the gathering wasn’t a funeral, but massing for a possible attack.  It may be that jays don’t flee or hide from predators.  Rather they locate the threat, call their numbers together, and counterattack.  But, that still leaves one question unanswered.  After the flock found the dead jay, why did they stop eating for the rest of the day?

The researchers admit that they don’t know what this behavior means.  All they can say is that “the jays see the presence of a dead bird as information to be publicly shared, just as they do the presence of a predator.”

Whether you call it animal intelligence, thought, self-awareness, or consciousness, the question is:  How do you know if an animal has “it.”

Forgive me for saying that the philosophical approach to the question seems the least enlightening.  Frankly, whenever philosophers define animal consciousness, their definition requires the animal to have an advanced degree in philosophy to make the cut.  I’m joking — but only a little.

My first encounter with the formal theory of animal intelligence came after I unexpectedly came into possession of two guinea pigs.  When I read up on the animals, I was shocked to discover that experts agreed that a guinea pig could never learn to recognize its own name.  I was surprised because my pigs, apparently, did know their own names.  At least, when I said one of their names, that particular pig’s nose would immediately poke up into the air, and I would get a direct look.  The other pig — the one I hadn’t called by name — would go about its business without any response.

A few months later, at a social gathering, I had an opportunity to speak to a credentialed “expert” on the philosophical theories of animal intelligence. When I described my pigs’ behavior and their, apparent, ability to recognize their own names, my expert laughed, condescendingly, at my “understandable,” but “naïve,” assumptions.

He explained what was “really” happening.  Each pig had developed a sort of conditioned reflex specifically to the sound of its spoken name.  Based on repeated experiences, each animal came to associate a particular sound with certain events.  When I spoke a pig’s name, that animal had become conditioned to expect me to pick it up, pet it, feed it, remove it from its pen, etc.  Of course, if my tone was harsh, the animal had become conditioned to stop whatever it was doing and put its head down — out of sight.

I was confused by this explanation because, as far as I could tell, this expert had just described “name recognition,” human or animal, to a tee.  Sensing my confusion, my expert quickly disabused me of my false notion.  In order to understand one’s name, I was told, one had a to have the conceptual ability to understand, not only abstraction but, the process of abstracting.  In other words, the animal would have to understand that the sound of a particular word was an abstract formulation intended to represent the animal, itself, as it existed within, though distinct from, its environment.

He continued with his explanation for a while.  Then, excusing myself to get refreshments, I avoided him for the rest of the evening.

Inspired by this experience, I hope the reader will forgive me if I avoid any further philosophical discussion of animal intelligence, and take a more visceral approach to the question of what the birds might be thinking.

Let’s begin with the mirror test.  If you check out a pet shop, you’ll find that small mirrors are sold as amusement devices for caged birds.  I used to think that a mirror might fool a bird into thinking it had a companion.  This may work with some birds, but not with others.

What can a mirror tell us about self-awareness?  The test is surprisingly easy.  What would you do if you passed a mirror and saw a dark smudge on your face?  You’d wipe it off.  Well, researcher Gordon G. Gallup marked the skin, hair, or feathers of an animal with a mark that couldn’t be directly seen, at least, not without looking in a mirror.

Then, the animal is observed as it observes its own reflection in a mirror.  If the animal begins grooming behavior directed at the mark — tries to remove it — this means that the animal is aware of itself.  In other words, the animal knows it’s looking at itself in the mirror and recognizes the image as its own reflection, rather than, another animal.

Chimpanzees, orangutans, pygmy chimpanzees, and gorillas, dolphins, elephants and, among birds, magpies pass this test.  Magpies were chosen for study because researchers already suspected that these birds might be self-aware.  Their suspicions were based on the magpie’s lifestyle and apparent displays of empathetic behavior, which is thought to be a precursor to self-awareness.

The mirror test has come under criticism, not because it’s not rigorous enough, but because of its anthropocentric bias: over-emphasis on vision as a criterion for self-awareness.  So, if the mirror only tests animals with a sharp eye, what about animal speech.

Researchers have listened to the speech (and sounds) of young children and infants in their cribs hoping to learn their thoughts and levels of consciousness.  This method of study is being adapted for the study of animal speech.  Some researchers propose that by passively listening to an animal’s voluntary speech, it is possible to learn about its thoughts and determine whether the animal is conscious.  These studies have tended to focus on one species of bird, the loquacious Macaw.  However, I’ve heard no word on the progress made by those scientists attempting to learn the Macaw language.

Another proposed criterion of self- awareness is suffering.  However, there is no agreement on the answers to two basic questions.  What is suffering?  — and — Does suffering demonstrate consciousness?  Until researchers can agree on the answers, there’s no “yard stick” with which to measure results.

So, research based on “suffering” provides speculative conclusions.  Some scientists believe that even plants have consciousness.  One researcher draws the line between shrimp and oysters.  Apparently, shrimp know what’s going on, but oysters are permanently out of the consciousness loop. Another researcher has gone so far as to speak of “the inner life of cockroaches.”

Using suffering as a test for consciousness is a problem because suffering is easily confused with the more universal experience of pain, which can be experienced without self-awareness.

On the other hand, the over-estimation of animal self-awareness is, perhaps, a reaction against the “official truth” of the past.  Until recently, scientific opinion confirmed that all animals were biological robots thoughtlessly moving through their daily activities.

When we think of consciousness, let’s start with the “gold standard.”  We humans haven’t lost our place at the top.  The sheer extent of human consciousness is unparalleled in the rest of the animal kingdom.  Even if some animals are “more conscious” than we thought, none can hold a candle to human beings when it comes to consciousness.  So much so, that the degree of human self-awareness is one of the primary characteristics that differentiate our species from every other species on earth.

So, when looking for consciousness in animals, we would expect other anthropoids, chimps, orangutans, or gorillas, to be the likely candidates.  But, there are, also, several bird species registering at the high end on “the consciousness meter.”  And, the self-awareness of birds is as interesting as it is unexpected.  You’d have go back almost 300 million years to find a common ancestor of both mammals and birds.  And during the last 300 million years, mammals and birds have developed very different types of brains.

The mammalian neocortex was once thought to be the neurological structure that was absolutely necessary to consciousness.  However, birds don’t have a neocortex.  So, based on our current understanding of brain structure, birds shouldn’t be conscious at all.  However, our fine feathered friends go right on demonstrating high levels of consciousness.

Researcher Irene Pepperberg has worked with captive African Gray Parrots.  One of the birds, Alex, has scientifically demonstrated the ability to associate a few human words with meaning.  These birds have also demonstrated the ability to work intelligently with abstract concepts of shape, color, and number.

According to Pepperberg and others, African Gray Parrots compare favorably in the performance of cognitive tasks with dolphins, chimpanzees and, even, human toddlers.

Of course, those who spend a lot of time with animals, or even one animal, have known for centuries that animals possess a degree of conscious self-awareness.

In 2012, at the The Francis Crick Memorial Conference, in Cambridge England, a number of scientists presented evidence that lead to The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness confirming that “Humans are not the only conscious beings; other animals, specifically mammals and birds, are indeed conscious, too.”

Dr. Marc Bekoff commented on the Declaration in an article most appropriately titled, “Scientists Finally Conclude Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious Beings.  Didn’t we already know this?  Yes, we did.”  I particularly appreciated the article’s reemphasis of the obvious with the comment, “It’s difficult to believe that those who have shared their homes with companion animals didn’t already know this.”

I’ve heard it said that Sir Isaac Newton “discovered” gravity — complete with the story of an apple falling down out of a tree.  However, Newton didn’t discover gravity.  Everyone already knew that objects fall down and not up.  Rather, Newton discovered a reliable scientific description of the laws of gravity.

Just as everyone knew about gravity before Newton, so most of us knew animals were conscious long before the Cambridge Declaration.  However, the Declaration is a landmark moment.  It affirms that the weight of formal scientific evidence has established that certain animals are conscious.

To most of us, the discussion of animal consciousness, self-awareness, and intelligence is both interesting and entertaining.  But the Cambridge Declaration isn’t just a decorative bow on top of a package of research findings.  The Declaration has potential ethical implications regarding the treatment of animals.  Specifically, the use and treatment of animals in scientific experimentation and animal husbandry must, now, be reviewed and evaluated in light of the scientific determination that certain animals are conscious.

But, even with the results of all this research, it’s still difficult to know exactly what’s going on in an animal’s head.  Some animals take notice of their dead.  Giraffes and elephants, for example, have been observed lingering near the body of a “recently deceased close relative.”  This suggests that animals may have a mental concept of death.  They may mourn the passing of those “close to them.”  But the question remains: What do the birds think?  Do jays hold funerals for their dead?

Mark Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri & Belleville, Illinois

About the Author

See also:

[12/26/13] Crows – Organic Arial Surveillance Vehicles.

Also of Interest:

SoundEagle in Debating Animal Artistry and Musicality


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Mark Grossman: Solar Flares & CME’s — Who Loves the Sun?

12 September 2013

Love the Sun?  It’s easy on a mildly warm spring day.  Flowers are in bloom, and children play.  The warm sunshine lightly caresses your face.  However, if you’re an astronaut or it’s your job to protect the integrity of our electrical grid, you know there’s another side to the Sun: the Sun’s dark side.  Well, not really dark.  The Sun’s always light, but you get the idea.

In fact, it’s just when the Sun is at its very brightest — when it flares — that it’s most dangerous.  Cheerful light-giver or flaring disrupter, the Sun’s disposition not only changes like the weather, the changes are called the “weather.”  But the Sun’s weather is referred to as “space weather” because its powerful effects dominate the entire Solar System — the planets and the space in between.

The solar wind is the constant out-flowing of charged particles from the Sun into space.  When this wind strikes the earth’s magnetic field, it produces auroras visible at the poles.  At the North Pole, this aurora is known as the northern lights.  But the Sun has more than “wind,” it also has its own version of lightning — solar flares.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into space . . .

The Sun’s weather goes through eleven-year cycles marked by increases and decreases in the number of sunspots.  These “spots” are slightly darker and cooler areas on the surface of the Sun, which are created by magnetic forces beneath the Sun’s surface.  Sunspots are like caps trapping a lot of pent-up energy below the surface.  Although the exact mechanics of solar flares is still a mystery, when the trapped energy reaches a certain level, it bursts out of the Sun in the form of a solar flare.  Invisible from the surface of the earth, a solar flare’s signature is only detectible using telescopes operating outside the earth’s atmosphere — in space.

On the good side, these flares actually have little effect on those of us with the good sense to stay out of space.  The earth’s atmosphere shields us from almost all the effects of solar flares.  At their worst, X-class flares affect the earth’s upper atmosphere and can cause radio blackouts for short periods of time.  But the earth’s atmosphere is no protection if you’re in space.  So, if you’re an astronaut, gadding about in the heavens, these flares are big trouble.

With solar flares, the Sun ejects radiation powerful enough to pass through the outer shell of a spacecraft, a spacesuit, and the human being inside.  In space, exposure to a solar flare is fatal.  Again, the typical spacesuit and spacecraft provide no protection for the unlucky astronaut caught in the radiation from one of these flares.

So, how did our astronauts survive the missions to the Moon?  With careful timing.  Although the timing of any particular solar flare can’t be predicted, there are rather definite cycles of rest and activity.  Our lunar missions were carefully timed to coincide with periods of low activity.  Still, one of the greatest known, but least publicized, risks of a trip to the Moon was an unexpected solar flare.

Why so little publicity?  I would guess that attention tends to focus on factors that human effort can influence or control.  With solar flares, silent hope may be the most natural response to a possible event so firmly and completely in the hands of fate.

Novelist James A. Michener wrote “Space,” a fictionalized account of the history of the U.S. space program from the end of World War II through the Apollo landings on the Moon.  The book ends with a fictional tragedy in which risky timing of a Moon mission results in the deaths of two astronauts from exposure to a solar flare.

Needless to say, this doesn’t bode well for those hoping to colonize the earth’s lifeless and barren satellite — the Moon.  Of course, solar flares can be ducked and dodged.  Colonists would have a bit of warning.  We can detect solar flares as they leave the Sun.  After detection, there would be about 8 minutes for colonists or astronauts to receive the warning and take substantial cover.

The perils of space travel aside, most of us can breathe a sigh of relief when it comes to solar flares.  As long as we stay out of space, we’ll be ok.  I don’t know about you, but I can handle a life without extensive space travel.  And the Moon is not my idea of a garden spot for a vacation.  So, I doubt I’ll ever be living there.

Unfortunately, the Sun ejects something worse than flares — something less like a wind, and more like an ocean tsunami.  Coronal Mass Ejections, CME’s, are the worst of the worst.  On the earth’s surface, we can avoid the flares, but not these waves.  Still, a CME could come and go and, if you were asleep in your hammock, you might not even know it.

Sunspots are held in place by magnetic fields, which occasionally collapse, or break, releasing a blast of plasma from the Sun’s surface — a CME.  These leave the Sun at about 7 million miles per hour.  They are not infrequent, but the sun throws off CME’s in any and all directions.   The earth is a small target.  So, very, very few of the many CME’s strike the earth.

When a wave of highly charged particles does strike the earth, it extends the earth’s magnetic field stretching it farther and farther until the field snaps-back. This “snap-back” discharges an extremely large amount of electrical energy into the earth’s atmosphere.  Then, the stretch and snap-back action is repeated — again and again.  As the process continues, the earth’s atmosphere becomes saturated with electrical potential.

The highly charged atmosphere produced by a CME comes and goes far too quickly to affect human health.  The same atmosphere that picks up the electrical charge, also, protects human beings from the directly harmful physical effects of CME’s.  But without the protection of the earth’s atmosphere, astronauts and hypothetical lunar colonists would suffer swiftly fatal injuries from a CME — just as they would from a solar flare.  Spacecraft shells and spacesuits offer as little protection from CME’s as they do from solar flares.

However, CME’s move more slowly.  Our astronauts or lunar colonists could have between one and five days advance warning of a CME’s arrival.  Like a jellyfish alert at the seashore, the warning could go up with some time to spare.  Just as swimmers can stay out of the sea to avoid jellyfish stings, so astronauts or lunar colonists could take substantial shelter until the radiation from a CME subsided.

So, why are CME’s so much worse than solar flares?  While CME’s are relatively harmless to human beings in the earth’s atmosphere, these waves can be the kiss of death to electrical transformers and sensitive electrical equipment.

Although high-magnitude CME’s are rare, these can create an intense electromagnetic charge in the earth’s atmosphere, which could damage sensitive electronic equipment.  However, the greatest potential danger is to the electrical transformers and electrical transmission lines that form our electric power grid.  In other words, without prompt defensive action, a powerful CME could potentially destroy our power grid or, at least, trigger prolonged blackouts.

Today, the potential dangers from CME’s are understood.  With one to five days advance warning, serious damage to the equipment used to supply our electric power could easily be avoided by shutting down the entire grid.  Not that such a shutdown wouldn’t be disruptive, but disruption is better than disaster.

Without a shutdown, the electrically charged atmosphere produced by a high-magnitude CME could induce a tremendous increase in the electrical load on power transformers and the entire power grid.  With the power grid in North America operating at about capacity, a sudden and enormous increase in electrical load could cause power lines to sag or even snap.  Transformers would blowout and massive blackouts would affect much of North America.

At the same time, a powerful CME would cause magnetic turbulence that would interfere with radio signals, electronic communications, and satellites causing temporary communication failures. GPS signals could be disrupted.  Long metal structures, like pipes, could pick up and carry electrical currents with a variety of unintended and unfortunate results.

Without a prior shutdown, the damage could take a month or more to repair.  Emergency services would have to operate with limited electric power and possibly damaged communication equipment.  Cell phones or computers might not be directly affected, but the communication infrastructure, including cell relay towers and internet services, might be disabled making much of our communication technology useless.

However, before we become survivalists, stocking canned goods in our cellar in anticipation of the next CME, there is some good news to keep in mind.  No expensive equipment or years of upgrading are necessary to protect our power grid — just a prompt and complete shutdown.  Another piece of good news is that a high magnitude CME, one that could do the damage described above, only strikes the earth about once every 500 years.

Of course, some have suggested fantastically expensive and complicated accommodations to shield our ever-changing and growing electrical grid systems.  However, most of these accommodations are less than necessary.  With one to five days advanced warning, a complete shutdown is relatively simple to implement.

But what about exposed communication equipment such as satellites and our communication infrastructure — those electronics that can’t be shutdown?  Some of these devices are of vital importance to emergency services.  Here is where special shielding, though expensive, would do a great deal of good.  Communication breakdowns can have extremely serious consequences, and a good portion of our communication infrastructure can’t be shutdown.  Another substantial portion is composed of delicate electronics that could be damaged even when powered-down.

Again, the study of Greenland ice cores reveals that a super CME — ones that could cause the extensive damage — only strikes the earth about once in 500 years.  However, the ice cores also reveal that smaller events, more disruptive than destructive, happen several times a century.

During the 20th Century, three significant CME’s struck the earth: One in 1921 and a second in 1960, which produced reports of widespread radio disruption.  However, we can get the most contemporary picture of the effects of a CME from the third event, which significantly disrupted Quebec, Canada’s electrical power grid in March of 1989.

A CME left the Sun’s surface on March 6, 1989.  Three and a half days later, on March 9, intense auroras formed at the poles and could be seen as far south as Texas and Florida — these were the first signs that a severe geomagnetic storm had struck the earth.

The CME caused short-wave radio interference.  Signals from Radio Free Europe into Russia were disrupted.  Suspicions that the Soviet government had jammed the signal triggered Cold War fears of an impending nuclear strike.

By midnight, communications from a weather satellite were interrupted.  Another communication satellite, TDRS-1, recorded over 250 anomalies caused by the increased particles flowing into the satellite’s own electronics.  The space shuttle Discovery, on a mission, experienced an unusually high reading from a pressure sensor on one of its fuel cells.  The anomalous reading disappeared after the geomagnetic storm ended.

Quebec, Canada rests on a large layer of rock, which acted as shield against the natural discharge of the electricity from the highly charged atmosphere to the ground.  Without discharge into the ground, the powerful atmospheric electrical potential found its path of least resistance along utility transmission lines.  Circuit breakers on Hydro-Québec’s power grid were tripped, and Quebec’s James Bay network experienced a 9-hour power failure.

Today, geomagnetic storms and solar flares are monitored from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) satellite, a joint project of NASA and the European Space Agency.  Currently, standards are being developed for utilities including the required installation of protective equipment and the establishment of emergency procedures to deal with future CME’s.  Also, special protocols are being developed for nuclear power facilities to assure core shutdowns in case of a high-magnitude CME event.

But once we know that odds of a big CME — one every 500 years — the next question is:  How long has it been since the last “big one?”

The granddaddy of them all happened on September 1, 1859.  The “Carrington Event,” began when an amateur astronomer, Richard Carrington, observed the Sun suddenly grow larger and brighter.  What he couldn’t have known, at the time, was that the Sun’s size and brightness only appeared to change.  A CME, in the form of a circular cloud was expanding out from the Sun.  This “halo coronal mass ejection,” was so bright and emitted so much light that the Sun appeared to grow in both size and brightness.

Carrington, also, couldn’t have known why the “halo” cloud appeared to be almost perfectly circular.  That apparent shape indicated that the CME was headed right for the earth.

Electrical equipment was relatively rare in 1859, but telegraph pylons threw sparks.  Some telegraph operators were shocked by their equipment even after disconnection from their power supply.  Other telegraph operators reported sending and receiving signals without external power — the equipment powered only by the electricity in the atmosphere.  Magnetic instruments, as simple as a compass, wouldn’t give consistent readings.

Auroras, like the northern lights, which are seldom visible beyond the artic circle, could be seen in the tropics.  The northern lights were so bright in the Rockies that the glow was mistaken for sunrise by gold miners, who got up and started breakfast.  In the northeastern U.S., people could read newspapers in the middle of the night by the light of the aurora.  The Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser waxed lyrical reporting, “The light was greater than that of the Moon at its full, but had an indescribable softness and delicacy that seemed to envelop everything upon which it rested.”

This happened 154 year ago.  So, if it’s once every 500 years . . . .  Well, we’re still on the right side of the odds.

Mark Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri & Belleville, Illinois

About the Author


Mark Grossman: “Bye Bye Blackbird” — The Solution to the Bird Problem?

5 September 2013

Prolog:  North American bird populations have been in continuous decline for decades.  These population losses are shared by all species of birds — both “common” and “endangered.”  A National Audubon Society report, “Common Birds in Decline,” documents that there has been as much as an 80% decline in populations of many “secure” species.  In spite of endless speculation, the cause of these declines remains a mystery.  However, some declines are less mysterious than others. [1]

Let’s pick up this story in the middle.  Just minutes before New Years, on December 31, 2010, birds began to drop dead out of the sky in Beebee, Arkansas.  Hours after dark, hundreds of Red Winged Blackbirds suddenly flew out of trees and brush and into the air.  No sooner were they airborne, than they tumbled back down to the ground dead.  In the morning, thousands of dead birds were found everywhere.  A major clean-up operation was required.

No one knew the cause.  The poor night vision of this variety of blackbird makes nocturnal flight extremely rare.  Some had speculated that fireworks had frightened the birds from their roost, but the county vet was doubtful.  Some blamed the frequency of thunderstorms during the previous week, but the last thunderstorm had ended days earlier.  Others remembered the death of a flock of ducks that had fallen to the ground dead near Hot Springs in 2001.  Those deaths were attributed to a lighting strike or, possibly, hail.  But, again, there had been no storm during the last flight of Beebee’s blackbirds. [2]

During the following week, “Several hundred dead birds” were found near Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky.  The birds were “scattered around” several city blocks.  “No one could determine the cause of death,” but speculation was that “[i]t could be something in the weather.” [3]

As the news spread, one woman, living in Marshall County, Kentucky, came forward to report that she had found dozens of dead birds on her property throughout that same Christmas season. [4]

Then, on January 5, 2011, just days after the mass bird deaths in Arkansas, 500 birds were found dead on a Louisiana highway.  The location was only about 300 miles away from Beebee.  The dead birds were of three species: blackbirds, starlings, and sparrows.  Louisiana officials believed the birds fell to their deaths after “flying into a power line.”  However, the reason why 500 birds would engage in this amazingly precise flying maneuver was “still a mystery.”  [5]

Although no one immediately concluded that the weather was to blame, soon a thunderstorm was discussed as a possible cause.  Again, however, the last thunderstorm had ended days before these birds’ last flight.  With the timing of the thunderstorm so far off the mark, attention turned to a rare weather phenomenon that could suck birds into the air, hold them and, then, drop the birds, in mass, at a particular location. [6]  The 2001 deaths of the Hot Springs ducks made another appearance in media reports to illustrate weather-related bird deaths.

Pathologists all agreed that trauma was the cause of death — a broken breastbone.  In other words, the birds died from the impact as they hit the ground.  However, the reason why the birds fell out of the sky and hit the ground could not be determined.

Stress was placed on the toxicology report.  These blackbirds, starlings, and sparrows hadn’t been poisoned.  However, it’s not clear whether pathologists checked for an unusual and expensive poison like DRC-1339, which affects only a small group of bird species.  This poison metabolizes quickly in a bird’s system so that insects and animals that scavenge the dead bird would not be affected.  DRC-1339 is marketed under the commercial name that says it all: Starlicide.  [7]

After all those stories about the “mysterious” decline in North American bird populations, it turns out that at least one factor is about as mysterious as the decline in insect populations after a visit by the exterminator.

This story ends in Yankton Riverside Park in the City of Yankton, South Dakota, on the morning of January 18, 2011 — just 18 days after the first mass death in Beebee, Arkansas.  Residents were puzzled and alarmed to find hundreds of dead birds in the park.  The event received substantial publicity and a police investigation began. [8]

Like the reports of other bird die-offs over the past weeks, this latest mass death remained unexplained.  Accounts of the mysterious deaths were repeated by mystified naturalists.  Environmentalists were sure that some enjoyable aspect of modern life was responsible and, of course, should be stopped.  Those with an apocalyptic streak even worried that these mass bird deaths were a sign of the end of world.

Then, the United States Department of Agriculture contacted the Yankton Police.  The USDA representative explained that the Department of Agriculture had poisoned the birds at a location south of Yankton — adding, pleasantly, that they were surprised the birds made it as far north as Yankton before dying. [9]

This story begins with a Nebraska farmer.  We’ll call him Farmer Jones.  He complained to the USDA that starlings were defecating in his feed meal.  The USDA investigated and concluded that the birds were causing “agricultural damage.”  Also, feed meal contaminated with bird poop was “a threat to human health.”

This confronted the USDA with a difficult decision.  They had to find the most humane, economical, and least disruptive means of dealing with the problem.  On the one hand, they could provide Farmer Jones with a cover for his feed meal.  On the other hand, they could obtain a deadly poison and begin a program of mass bird extermination.  Weighing all the factors, it was apparent that mass bird extermination was the only possible solution.

Quickly consulting their staff experts, the USDA obtained large quantities of DRC-1339, a deadly poison called Starlicide, and began the implementation of their new program. Thousands of birds were allowed to feed on the poison and die.  But the USDA felt this should be the start of something really big.  They made it so.

With amazing efficiency, and certainly great expense, the USDA had fatally poisoned over 4 million birds by the time of the Yankton Park die-off.  This was no idle boast.  These numbers were, and are, documented on the USDA website.  Better yet, the USDA has a name for the program.  It’s called “Bye Bye Blackbird.” [10]

This program of systematic poisoning is costing taxpayers a lot of money and bird lovers a lot of grief.  Black birds, starlings, farmers, and feed meal have been living together since — about forever.  Call me crazy, but wouldn’t it have been cheaper and more merciful to buy Farmer Jones a cover for his feed meal?

Epilog:  The residents of Beebee, Arkansas didn’t hold a memorial on the first anniversary of the mass bird deaths of 2010.  They didn’t need to be reminded because it happened again.

On December 31, 2011, Beebee’s police dispatcher began to receive multiple calls reporting, that “blackbirds [were] falling again and that [people] found blackbirds on the streets where they live or at [their] churches,” A spokesperson for Animal Control reported that there were “birds falling down on the street and people dodging and missing them.”  A Police spokesperson later explained that this second die-off wasn’t as bad as the previous year “when birds covered the streets.”  At least this year, the clean-up would be easier because the dead birds were scattered over a smaller area.

Initial suspicion, again, fell on fireworks with news reports confirming that fireworks had caused a similar event the previous year.  Even an unnamed expert expressed the opinion that the many blackbirds flew into the air and crashed down to their deaths because they were scared by fireworks.  [11]

However, the fireworks explanation faded away as later news reports refocused on the weather.  Although there had been no thunderstorms at the time of this latest death flight, there had been thunderstorms days earlier.  And, of course, the reporters remembered those ducks that were struck by lightening in Hot Springs in 2001.

M Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri

& Belleville, Illinois

About the Author



Mark Grossman: The Bumblebee — The Possible Return of the Hive-less Bee

29 August 2013

In the summer of 2012, bee enthusiast Megan O’Donald encountered a bumblebee in her mother’s garden in Briar, Washington.  In the distant past, this would have hardly been noteworthy, but after the disappearance of bumblebees from Washington state, almost ten years ago, the sighting was an event. [1]  In 2013, O’Donald saw another bumblebee in a goldenrod in the same garden.

When Will Peterman, a freelance writer and photographer, heard about O’Donald’s sightings, he decided to “launch an expedition.”  He identified several “patches of habitat” in small parks and unmown lots.  Investigation of the first three sites yielded nothing but, at the fourth, he struck gold. [2]

In Briar, Washington‘s Briar Park, he found and photographed several bumblebees.  Several days later, Peterman returned to the park with a group of bee experts (entomologists) and, together, they located and photographed several bumblebee queens.

It is estimated that the United States has lost almost half of its honeybee population in just the last seven years.  However, the many species of the relatively petite honeybee differ in appearance, behavior, and habitat from that group of species called bumblebees.

The relatively large and, somewhat, rotund bumblebee has also suffered a substantial disappearance in North America.  Not long ago, the bumblebee was common throughout the Western United States and Canada.  However, beginning in the late 1990’s, its numbers declined until it all but vanished from a vast area of its range extending from the Pacific Coast of California north into British Columbia.  Mysteriously, bumblebee populations remained relatively unaffected in the mountainous portions of this same range.

Unlike honeybees, bumbles are wild bees.  They are not kept by beekeepers.  However, their wild status makes them no less important to the agricultural industry.  These bees are specially suited to pollinate a variety of cash crops including tomatoes, cranberries, almonds, apples, zucchinis, avocados, and plums and their unique style of pollination accounts for about 3 billion dollars in produce each year.

Bumblebees are known for their characteristically loud buzz.  However, unlike hive-dwelling honeybees, bumblebees don’t just buzz when they’re flying.  They can, and do, produce that same buzz without moving their wings.  And it is just the vibration from this flightless buzz that makes them uniquely valuable pollinators of certain crops.

After landing in a blossom, the large bumblebee grabs the blossom and holds it tightly.  While maintaining this tight grip, it strongly vibrates while remaining stationary.  Nothing less than the bumblebee’s strong vibration will assure pollination by shaking loose sufficient quantities of the thick pollen produced by certain species of plants.  No other bee could do this job as consistently or successfully.

While the sighting of a few bumblebees in Washington state may not seem like much, Biologist Rich Hatfield, of the Xerces Society, believes that these few sightings hold the promise of a possible bumblebee repopulation of the their abandoned Western Range. [3]

Also, these sightings came at a time when bee watchers needed some good news.  Just a few weeks earlier, 50,000 bumblebees died, in mass, in an Oregon parking lot.  The cause of the die-off remains unexplained.  Even worse, these deaths came only one week before the beginning of the newly declared “National Pollinator Week.”

The challenges to bumblebee survival grow out of its peculiar lifestyle.  Unlike the petite honeybee, the bumblebee doesn’t maintain the familiar hive.  Bumble queens locate their 12-inch wide nests rather opportunistically, in “clumps of dry grass, old bird nests, abandoned rodent burrows, old mattresses, car cushions or even in or under old abandoned buildings.” [4]  Each bumblebee nest will be used for only a single year.  And a colony will begin and end within that same year’s time.  Each year, a new nest will be built and a new colony developed in a different location.  Most colonies number only a few hundred bees, though rarely, numbers can reach as high as 2,000.

The wild bumble’s nomadic lifestyle disburses its population.  This works to their advantage by protecting them from the rapid, plague-like spread of diseases so common in the perennial and densely populated hives of the honeybee.  Also, the freestyle foraging of this wild bee limits its exposure to systematically applied pesticides.  Bumbles certainly suffer some collateral damage from pesticides and are vulnerable to certain diseases.  However, pesticides and disease, the “usual suspects” in the disappearance of the honeybee, are less prominent contributors to the decline in bumble populations.

Inspired by the honeybee colonies, human attempts to create similar domesticated bumble colonies led to one of the few documented disease outbreaks among these bees.  When a few of the experimental, domesticated queens were imported from Europe to American, they brought with them a new fungal disease, which spread among some American bumblebees.

In spite of this incident, and the plentiful speculation about the possible role of disease in declining American bumble populations, there is little evidence that any disease played a significant role in the massive North American disappearance.  In fact, the healthy bumble population levels in the Western mountainous areas of North America and Canada argue against the disease theory.  These unaffected populations suggest another cause — one more often associated with animals than insects: loss of habitat.

Certain human activities have tremendously reduced the bumble’s natural habitat.  Modern land management, agricultural and aesthetic, continues to eliminate the open, unmown grasslands and areas of brush that bumbles need for nesting.

Over the past 40 years, agricultural planning and land-use have been revolutionized to provide maximum yields.  But these modifications have destroyed vast areas of potential habitat — especially those close to sources of honey and, therefore, locations in need of pollinators.

In the past, the typical farm included a substantial number of fallow tracts of land in which wild brush and unmown grass were allowed to grow.  These areas provided breaks between fields to slow or prevent the spread of disease.  Other uncultivated areas were buffers between different types of crops.  This separation was intended to prevent bleed-over of one type of crop into fields dedicated to another.  However, the practice of planting different types of crops was, again, a kind of insurance against the spread of disease.  While one type of crop might fall victim to disease, another would be less susceptible and survive to produce a much-needed yield at harvest.  And, finally, there was crop rotation.  Some fields were periodically left fallow to prevent a loss of fertility.  All of these uncultivated areas of the typical farm were ideal habitat for the bumblebee.

However, advances in pesticides and herbicides have so reduced the incidence of crop damage and disease that a new style of agriculture, sometimes called “monoculture,” dominates farm planning and geography.  The modern farm is a study in intensive land use and specialization.  All lands are cultivated and, often, with a single crop.  Any creeping wild brush or grass growth is eliminated, quickly and thoroughly, with extremely effective herbicides.  Chemical soil fertilization is just as effective and has made crop rotation a thing of the past.  The result is a modern farm with no place for bumbles.

Beyond our farms, today’s increasingly urban world is also working to eliminate unsightly brush and unmown lands.  Even road embankments and open park areas are regularly mowed.  This creates a more pleasing cosmetic effect, but at the expense of bumblebee habitat.

In notable contrast, the bumble’s habitat remains relatively intact in the less farm-friendly mountainous areas of the Western United States and Canada.  And it is in just these areas, less touched by modern farming or systematic public landscaping, that bumble populations remain strong.

At least one organization, the Xerces Society, named for the extinct California butterfly, Xerces Blue, is currently working to advance conservation of bumblebee habitat.  The society focuses on several conservation issues including the preservation of native pollinators.  In 2010, the society’s scientists developed a bee-friendly conservation strategy, the Yolo Natural Heritage Program, operated in Yolo County California.

Alas, there have only been a few sightings, but let’s all keep our fingers crossed for the bumblebee’s return.

M Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri

& Belleville, Illinois

About the Author


Mark Grossman: What’s in a Robot Name? IRNG — Imaginative Robot Name Gap

22 August 2013

Militarily, the United States is unsurpassed. American soldiers are expertly trained. American weapons exceed those of any other nation in terms of both sophistication and sheer power. American military technology is a wonder to behold. We have long left the world of the 1960’s — a world in which pundits could place the U.S. on the wrong side of a weapons gap with any other nation. Sadly, however, another gap has emerged at the very center of this superior military technology: the Imaginative Robot Name Gap.

Robots are the ultimate symbols of high-tech. Their characteristics and capabilities are not just amazing, they’re really cool.  Putting aside America’s amazing techno-military resources, consider our robot naming resources.  After food, America’s top export is advertising.  America has Hollywood, the motion picture glitz capital of the world.  With these formidable, creative resources, why can’t our military and defense contractors seem to be able to come up with cool, or even exciting, names for military robots?

Now, we’re not speaking in terms of actual military strength, resiliency, audacity or, most of all, technology. Rather, we’re speaking in terms of imagination when it comes to naming robots. The U.S. may be first in every other category, but in imaginative robot names, I doubt that the U.S. could rank among the top 50 nations in the world.

The issue is America’s IRNG — Imaginative Robot Name Gap.

Consider Boston Dynamics’ amazing four-legged robot that carries more than 400 pounds through terrain too rough for wheels. Not only does this robotic marvel travel, it travels fast. Imagine this resilient four-legged chrome and steal monster swiftly moving through an almost impassible forest, relentlessly making its way to its destination — no — its target. Laden with a fifth of a ton of gear, its continuous, intrepid movements strike terror into the hearts of any enemy. Pretty scary, in a cool sort of way, isn’t it?

But what do they call this marvel? The Jungle Rat? The Mountain Devil? The Spider? None of these names made the cut. Instead, this robotic wonder is called “Robo-Mule.” [1]


Gee, I bet it took all of 20 seconds to think that one up. Sure, this robot actually does exactly what a mule used to do, but is this any kind of a name to give to this amazing ‘bot?

Some commentators have tried to conceal this dead zone of unimaginative robot naming by pointing out that this tough practical robot deserved this drab, anticlimax of a name because it is inelegant.

Inelegant? These are load-carrying ‘bots intended to accompany the Marines on treks through rough terrain in hostile territory. Nobody’s expecting the Robo-Mule to pirouette through the jungles and mountains like a ballerina. But that doesn’t mean this robot can’t have a cool, or even menacing, name.

A robot’s name doesn’t have to match its function. The name just has to sound good.  Consider American over-the-road trucks.  Trucks are called “Ram,” “Ranger,” “Silverado,” and “Avalanche.” And what do trucks do? They haul stuff. Do these brand names have anything to do with hauling stuff? Rams don’t haul anything. Rangers don’t haul stuff, they patrol around. Who knows what a Silverado is anyway? And the Chevy Avalanche? What does an avalanche have to do with hauling anything? These names just sound cool. This is what advertising can do with trucks. Why can’t we do as much for our military robots?

And to underline my point, let’s extend the truck analogy. Suppose, instead of “Ram Tough,” it was “Mule Tough?” How about changing Chevy Silverado to the “Chevy Mule?” If DARPA ever got a hold of the Chevy Avalanche, they’d rename it the “Chevy Sinkhole.”

Worse yet, “Robo-Mule” isn’t even a new name. It was given to another, earlier model, over 10 years ago, and quickly discarded.  Who would have ever dreamed that this cast-off, retread of a name would be fished out of the dumpster and given to a state-of-the-art military ‘bot . . . again?

To give the reader a better appreciation of the dreary history military robot naming, let’s take a melancholy stroll down “Unimaginative Robot Name” Lane.

In 2002, Boston Dynamics [2] created a four-legged robot for military use. This robot could carry only 320 lbs of gear. It made a sound like a swarm of bees. An experienced cow-tipper could put this ‘bot out of action. If tipped, it couldn’t get back up. However, for a short time, it had one thing in common with Boston Dynamics’ newest robotic quadruped. This 2002 robot was briefly named “Robo-Mule.”

With the creation of the first four-legged military robot more than a decade ago, a new era of really cool robotic technology dawned. Tragically, the christening, and re-christening, of this same robot created the Imaginative Robot Name Gap.

It was an exciting time for those of us who closely follow military robot-naming.  During those idyllic days, I was optimistic and hopeful.  The name “mule” was a let-down, but a chance for redemption came when the developers of the first model of this four-legged robot announced they were giving it a new name. My relief was only surpassed by my hopes. What would the new exciting “brand” be? What new and clever, yet terrifying, name would be selected. I was sure it would be a name that would strike fear into the hearts of any enemy.  Then, the new name was announced.

“Big Dog.”

Well, . . . I still don’t know what to say about the name “Big Dog.” [3] To use a metaphor involving heat would imply excitement. The name “Big Dog” is anything but exciting. So, instead of saying the name-change was like jumping from the frying pan into the fire, let’s just say that replacing “Robo-Mule” with “Big Dog” was something like jumping from the refrigerator into the deep freeze.  I still can’t get over it.  Big Dog!”

Was that the best they could do?

Ignoring the fact that, functionally, this robot really has nothing to do with a dog, let’s see if we can use this new name as a “creative starting point.” Did anyone consider substituting different words with similar meanings for “Big” and “Dog?” Words that were more . . . exciting?

Instead of “big,” how about “monster?” Instead of “dog,” how about “pit bull” or “rottweiler?” Better yet, “wolf.” “Monster Wolf.” Even better — wolves aren’t load-bearing, pack animals, so there’s no such thing as a pack-wolf. But why not reverse the “pack” and the “wolf” and change the name to “Wolf Pack.” Give each robot the scary name of a pack of wolves with the word “pack” as a sort of pun referring to the robot’s ability to haul heavy gear like a pack animal.

Well, . . . no matter. We’re locking the barn door long after the robot has been named.  We’re stuck with “Big Dog.”

The year was 2005. Boston Dynamics announced a new and improved four-legged ‘bot. This new robot was less noisy and traveled a bit faster than the “Big Dog Mule.” These improvements were good news, but new developments weren’t the critical issue. The important issue was the new name. Would it be imaginative enough?

The suspense left me with a sinking feeling. I’d been disappointed before.  But my fears faded when the new robot was described as more of an equine, horse-like, robot. This was exciting. Boston Dynamics had developed a swift robo-horse. The horse metaphor would provide a treasure-trove of exciting name possibilities. What would I have called it? Maybe the Coldblood Trotter, the Tiger Horse, or the Warlander.  When the announcement came, what was the new name?

“Alpha Dog.”

Let’s recap: “Mule” was followed by “Big Dog.” “Big Dog” was followed by the — oh, so imaginative — “Alpha Dog.” [4] Another 15 seconds of creative thought invested in the newest robot name. I guess moving from the name “Dog” to anther animal was too big a creative leap — even after the developers described the new robot as horse-like. After all, who would have thought to name a horse-like robot after a horse instead of a dog?!

I could see the imaginative robot name gap taking on the proportions of an undersea trench. But, before we move on, let’s stop to ask: Why “Alpha?” Alpha means “first,” but this is the second model. Maybe alpha means “leader,” like an “alpha wolf.” But these machines don’t operate in coordination with each other? So there is no dominant or even lead robot. Well, who knows? And . . . there’s no point in rehashing the retention of the word “Dog” in the name. I said all I have to say about that yawn-boring name a few paragraphs ago.

After our nation fell into this “Big Alpha Mule Dog” tar-pit of lame robot names, I had all but given up hope when something amazing happened. With one new robot and one new name, the Imaginative Robot Name Gap seemed to all but disappear.

In 2011, Boston Dynamics developed the “Robo-Cheetah.” [5] Reaching speeds up to 18 mph, it was the fastest four-legged robot on earth. This new ‘bot left the Robo-Mule (or “Big Alpha Dog” or whatever) far behind and not just in terms of speed, but in style.

This robot boasts a “cat-like spine,” which “flexes and extends” with the robot’s galloping stride. And does it gallop — “constantly tipping forward, falling, and regaining equilibrium with every step.”

Slap an American flag on each one of these and paint the word “CHEETAH” in bold red, white and blue letters all over it. On the very front of the ‘bot, paint a big cat face with a ferocious expression. Then, ship these off to the battlefield. The robot name gap is closing fast!

I don’t know what happened to produce this fantastic name. Something must have disrupted the normal robot naming process. I can only guess that, by some amazing coincidence, the military’s “robot namer,” (let’s call him, Major Dullman,) and the military contractor’s “robot brander,” (let’s call him VP Mildew,) were both out sick that day. Of course, none of the remaining crew could think of a single name. Then, a teenager inadvertently stumbled into the room. Realizing that the new robot looked like a giant cat, he or she probably said, “Cool, a robotic cheetah.” Then, asked where the nearest soft drink machine was located. The rest is robot-naming history.

My faltering faith in our ability to close the gap was all but restored with “Robo-Cheetah.” I could see a light at the end of the tunnel, which would, of course, prove to be a train coming in the opposite direction.

This brings us, full circle, back to the present — the 2012 announcement by Boston Dynamics of the creation of an amazingly advanced descendant of their “Alpha Big Dog.” Yes, everything about this new ‘bot is better, except its name: “Robo-Mule.” Dullman and Mildew were back on the job again and at the top of their form. No one wasted even 10 or 20 seconds on this one. They just took the oldest discarded name they could find in the wastebasket and slapped it on this amazing triumph or modern robotic technology.

I began having nightmares in which DARPA announced that even Robo-Cheetah has been renamed “Robo-Cuddles the Tabby Cat.” I’d awake, covered with sweat, shouting, “No!”  “No!”  As soon as I awoke, however, I knew it was only a dream. I knew because “Robo-Cuddles the Tabby Cat” was far too imaginative a name for Dullman and Mildew. They’d rename Robo-Cheetah something like “Robo-Pig” or “Robo-Snail.”

As the hours tick by, our strategic preparedness, in terms of imaginative robot names, is diminishing to almost nothing. We want our robots to confront the enemy and incapacitate them with fear — not uncontrolled laughter. Of course, the enemy will be defeated with the aid of these formidable robotic weapons. But after each victorious battle, the sound of derisive enemy laughter at our pathetic robot names will still be ringing in the ears of our victorious soldiers. They deserve better. Yes, our soldiers deserve robots with imaginative names.

The critical robot naming crisis is going from worse to much worse. Lame robot names are becoming part of the culture of our techno-military development process. Potential military contractors are catching on. Lame robot names attract military attention. In other words, the sillier and more unimaginative the robot’s name, the better.

We can see an example of this downward trend played out in a project undertaken by Virginia Tech and funded by the U.S. Navy, which led to the development of a “life-like, autonomous” underwater robot. [6] About the size and weight of a man, this ‘bot consists of a central core of components in a waterproof shell connected to eight moving arms. [7] The drone is capable of feats of amazing speed, endurance, and versatility while patrolling the ocean depths on “underwater surveillance missions.”

The naming possibilities were staggering. Perhaps, stingray, shark, barracuda, or something really scary, like “devilfish.” But no sooner had I thought these happy thoughts than I realized I was dreaming dreams. These experienced defense contractors, working directly with the military, were firmly in grip of the military-industrial complex’s robot misnaming machine.

And I was right. What did they name this intrepid sentinel of the deep?


No, that’s not a typo. The name was “Robo-Jelly.” Then, they changed the name. By this time, however, I was both sadder and wiser. I didn’t get my hopes up. But even my lowered expectations weren’t enough of a cushion. The name was changed from “Robo-Jelly” to “Cyro, the robotic jellyfish.” How cute. He should have his own cartoon show, like “Barney,” the dinosaur.

Jellyfish can certainly be a bit unpleasant. They’re all squishy, and they sting. But, somehow, being swarmed by a by a school of Robo-Jellies just isn’t the same thing as being swarmed by a school of Robo-Sharks or Robo-Devilfish is it?

While the underwater robotic technology of other nations will be far inferior to our own, their robots will have names that will send a shiver down your spine. You’ll be a bit apprehensive even before you see one. However, what will happen when our enemies hear about an approaching school of U.S. “Robo-Jellies?” Will this name fill them with fear? Or will this name evoke nothing more than a vision of being swarmed by waitresses with marmalade at IHOP?

Just imagine yourself as the only American at a cosmopolitan gathering. Foreign friends brag about their nations’ new telecommunications satellites and ionospheric heaters — all of which have formidable, even frightening, names. Then, in condescending tones, someone will ask you about how America’s doing with its new robot made out of Jello. You’ll try to explain that there’s no Jello involved and that the actual name is “Cyro the Jellyfish.” But your attempted explanation will be lost as the group dissolves into deafening laughter.

Moments later, still stinging from your Robo-Jelly humiliation, you’ll attempt to reenter the conversation only to be met with the same looks and tones as the same foreign friends ask pointed questions about the continuing development and deployment of “Robo-Jackass.” Again, you’ll try to explain that its name is “Mule” or “Big Dog” or “Alpha Dog.” As you are trying to defend your nation’s superior technology, you’ll find yourself hampered and, then, trapped in the tangled web of America’s farcical automatonic nomenclature. The Imaginative Robot Name Gap strikes again.

Update: 5 October 2013 — Boston Dynamics presents Robo-Cheetah’s smaller sibling: the well-named “WildCat.” [video] [story]  I found this story and video on RT.  I bet the Russians are green with envy!  [Additional links below]

Robo Wildcat Update Links:

Terrifying Wildcat military robot can hunt down any human in 9 seconds

Boston Dynamics Releases Its Four-Legged WildCat Robot

Watch that robo-WildCat go: Boston Dynamics’ newest four-legged robot – Los Angeles Times

This Video of a Cyborg Quadriped Will Have You Gasping in Terror

Have You Seen the Military’s ‘Throwable Robots?’

Meet Wildcat, The Military’s Wireless Running Robot: VIDEO

Watch as four-legged robot known as WildCat purrs along at 16 mph (video)

Four-Legged, DARPA Running War Robot Released (VIDEO)

Wildcat: the fastest legged robot in the world

Links and Notes:

[1] Robo-mule: The military’s rugged new wilderness beast

[2] Boston Dynamics – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[3] Big Dog

[4] Meet AlphaDog, the terrifying robot horse the military’s building

[5] The Pentagon’s ‘freakily fast’ robo-cheetah

[6] Large robotic jellyfish could one day patrol oceans

[7] Meet Cyro, the robotic jellyfish that will haunt your dreams

Mark Grossman: Australia’s Megafauna — The Forgotten Giants of Prehistory

Mark Grossman: Australia’s Megafauna — The Forgotten Giants of Prehistory

8 August 2013

Everyone remembers the dinosaurs, but what happened after the dinosaurs went extinct?  They left a vacuum filled by giant and often forgotten animals: the megafauna.  The term megafauna, “big animals,” covers several groups of giant creatures.  However, naturalist Richard Owen honored only the oldest members of the group with the special name, “dinosaur.”  The remaining giants, those that roamed the earth between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago, are known by the (too general) term “megafauna.”

Today, Australia boasts a unique collection of animals.  Not only do these creatures look exceptional, they are also exceptional in terms scientific classification.  The duck billed platypus is classified as a mammal, but has a much lower body temperature than other mammals and lays eggs–earning it a special mention whenever biologists formulate a list of standard mammalian characteristics.  Indeed, the platypus is so “different” that the first reports of its discovery were denounced as “a fraud.”

Australia, also, has a large variety of marsupials, a group of animals that carry their immature young in a pouch for a period of time after birth.  Not surprisingly, the prehistoric Australian megafauna also include a wide variety of now-extinct marsupials.

Throughout millennia, arid periods threatened the survival of Australia’s megafauna, but one particular arid period, their last, coincided with the arrival of homo sapiens.  There is intense debate about whether climate or human interference caused the extinction.  Perhaps, it was some of both.

However, extinction is not necessarily the same as “dying out.”  The megafauna are no more, but many of their direct descendants roam Australia today–miniature versions of their ancient ancestors.  The modern kangaroo and wombat are direct descendants, “distant children,” of monstrously huge versions of themselves.  And huge they were.  New and more precise methods of calculating the size of the ancient mammals has revealed that they may have been much larger than previously thought.

Prehistoric Australia’s strange collection of giant wildlife included Diprotodon, the Giant Wombat. Unlike its relatively petite, modern descendant, this wombat weighed as much as two tons.  The remains of these giant creatures have been found all over Australia.

The Giant Short-Faced Kangaroo, Procoptodon, the largest known kangaroo that ever existed, stood about 7 feet tall and weighed 500 pounds.  Its feet looked a bit like horse hooves having only one large toe on each foot.  Each of its front paws had two long fingers with large claws. A full-size, lifelike replica is on permanent display, along with other ancient Australian animals, at the Australian Museum.

The Marsupial Lion, Thylacoleo, was not quite as big as the modern lion, but had just as strong a bite.  In fact, this creature had the strongest bite for its size of any known mammal species, living or dead.  Its long muscular tail was similar to that of a kangaroo, and it may even have been able to climb trees.  The Marsupial Lion is thought to have hunted large animals such as the giant wombat and giant kangaroo.

The Demon Duck of Doom, Bullockornis, is older than the typical megafauna species.  Although living closer to the age of dinosaurs, it was just too unusual to omit.  This flightless bird was about 8 feet tall and weighed about 500 pounds.  Thought to be carnivorous, Bullockornis had a huge beak, suitable for “shearing,” which probably explains its threatening name.

The giant turtle, Meiolania, had disturbingly devilish horns making its head almost 2 feet wide (measured from the tip of each horn).  The horns prevented the giant turtle from withdrawing its head into its shell–but who was going to mess with it anyway.  Pulling its tail was not a good idea either.  The tail was ringed with armor-like skin and was tipped with spikes.  At about 8 feet long, most animals probably just got out of this turtle’s way as it crawled across the prehistoric landscape.

One cannot research these giant creatures without stumbling across the fact that all continents had megafauna–not just Australia.  North America had one of the most famous species and one of the last to go extinct, the Wooly Mammoth.  This enormous version of the modern elephant roamed the northern extremes of North America about 12,000 years ago.

At one-ton (2,000 pounds), Andrewsarchus was the largest carnivorous land mammal that ever lived.  Bearing a resemblance to the hyena, on which it preyed, it might be the biggest dog-like creature that ever lived.  It was certainly larger than the than biggest prehistoric dog, Canis Diris, the Dire Wolf.  At 150 pounds, the Dire Wolf was a featherweight compared to Audrewsarchus, but more than a heavyweight compared to its descendant, the modern wolf.  Remains of the Dire Wolf have been found alongside those of the Saber Toothed Tiger in the La Brea Tar Pits of Los Angeles.

Perhaps the species that suffered the most indignity at human hands was a giant version of the modern armadillo, Glyptodon.  It lumbered through the forests of South America and was about the size of a modern VW bug.  Slow and meaty, human hunters had both the patience and ingenuity to hunt and kill this strange creature.  Not only was its meat used for food, its shell was used as a kind of prefabricated living shelter.  In terms of size, its shell provided something like the Torrid Zone equivalent of an igloo.  As human food and housing demands increased, the number of giant armadillos decreased until the prehistoric housing bubble burst when this natural producer of “prefabricated housing solutions” went extinct.

Image Links:

The Giant Wombat, Diprotodon

Giant Kangaroo, Procoptodon

The Marsupial Lion, Thylacoleo

Demon Duck of Doom, Bullockorn

The Giant Turtle, Meiolania

Wooly Mammoth


Dire Wolf

The Giant Armadillo, Glyptodon


M Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri

& Belleville, Illinois

About the Author


Mark Grossman: Robotic Bees and Mini-Drone Surveillance Bees

25 July 2013

Scientists at Harvard are working on the development the first robotic bee. They hope that their robo-bee will, someday, be able to pollinate flowers and crops just like the organic original: the honeybee.

Beginning in 2009, Harvard’s “Micro Air Vehicles Project” has used titanium and plastic to replicate the functions, if not the appearance, of the familiar honeybee. The robo-bee pops up, complete with wings, from a quarter-sized metal disk. The the creators hope that, one day, “robo-bees” will be engineered to fly in swarms, live in artificial hives, and coordinate both their target locations and pollination methodologies.

In fact, the researcher’s vision of the future “robo-bee” is so striking that one writer expressed the wish that the project’s spokesperson add the phrase “for the good of all mankind” to each progress report. Without it, readers might be reminded of all the movies “about technology that eventually destroys mankind.” In fact, the robo-bee may help save us or, at least, save our food supply.

Bees have been dropping like (the proverbial) flies for over 7 years now. The current bee depopulation was termed a “disappearance,” then, a “die-off” and, now, is formally referred to as “Colony Collapse Disorder.” The decline in bee populations continues at an alarming rate. However, bee die-offs are not just a part of modern life. There have been a number of die-offs in that last couple of centuries. The original European honeybee disappeared from Europe long ago. Its successor, our modern honeybee, was imported from Turkey into Europe and, then, into the United States.

Bees get a lot of scientific attention because they are vital to American agriculture, which is vital to the American economy. Without bees, production of some of our most profitable crops would be impossible. Every few weeks, a news article announces the discovery of “the cause” of the threatened bee “extinction.” Blaming pesticides is almost fashionable. However, these sensational claims do little more than draw attention to particular studies, and the involved researchers. In fact, there probably isn’t a single cause. The current die-off seems to be the result of several factors working together. Sadly, our familiar honeybee may be gone long before the exact combination of factors can be found.

The puzzle goes like this. A bee (1) has a parasite like varroa mites; (2) is exhausted by transport over long distances; and (3) is exposed to a particular pesticide. Alone, none of these factors would kill a bee. Even all of these put together wouldn’t kill a bee. However, all of these put together might weaken the bee’s immune system. Then, with a compromised immune system, the bee contracts, and dies from, a completely unrelated disease. That disease is the final cause the bee’s death. However, the underlying cause is an immune system compromised, not by one factor, but by a particular combination of several factors. For now, that combination remains a mystery.

While science fiction films have portrayed the replacement of human beings with robots, films have never explored the possibly sinister side of robo-bee. Imagine a robotic “Stepford Bee” hiding quietly in the wings waiting for death of the last honeybee. And, then, a “brave new” technological world–without any bees at all!

There is something a bit creepy about human-engineered bees pollinating crops grown from human-engineered seeds. One writer described the disturbing vision as “swarms of tiny robot bees . . . pollinating those vast dystopian fields of GMO cash crops.”

By the way, one developer of those “GMO cash crops,” Monsanto, sponsored a recent “Bee Health Summit” in Saint Louis, Missouri. A company spokesperson acknowledged that the beekeepers might have heard some “scary stuff” about Monsanto. The summit is the company’s effort to “introduce itself to the beekeeping industry” and “raise their comfort level.” And there was some discomfort with one beekeeping guest commenting, “I can’t believe I’m at Monsanto.”

On the comforting side, Monsanto is after one of the oldest and most clearly identified factors in declining bee health, the parasitic varroa mite, which spreads a variety of viruses to honeybees. Researchers with Beeologics, one of Monsanto’s recent acquisitions, are planning to use RNA, a genetic regulator that determines how a plant or insect “works.” The RNA would be fed to the bee and, then, would be ingested by the mites. Once in the mite’s system, the RNA would “turn off” the mite’s virus transmitting gene.

With this RNA intervention, and other technologies, our honeybees may yet be saved from relative extinction.  Then, their robotic replacements would have to remain on the shelf.  But hold on. Genetically engineering the mite is only one step closer to genetically engineering the honey bee. So, we may be saved from robotic bees by . . . GMO bees?

Well, as our GMO bees pollinate our GMO crops, we can only feel a pang of sorrow for our robo-bee languishing in the shadows. With a revived, genetically engineered super-honeybee, where could a robotic bee go? What would it do?

No problem.  Harvard’s Micro Air Vehicles Project had that covered from the beginning.  The project’s published reports also suggest potential military uses. So, robo-bee, with some market repositioning, becomes the world’s smallest drone.

Well, if Monsanto “saves” the honeybee, who will be interested in our newly re-branded and repositioned mini-drones? Again, possibly Monsanto, which, at least once in the past, retained a private security contractor “to protect its GMO crops.”   The “protection” was less exciting than it sounds. It was limited to the simple monitoring of public information.

Still, what security company couldn’t use swarms of surveillance mini-drones?  So, if Monsanto needs security in the future, robo-bee might play a part in the security provider’s services.

Finally, we end up with yet another, unexpected vision of our future.  Just picture it.  We stand watching the setting sun as swarms of genetically engineered super-bees pollinate “dystopian fields of GMO cash crops,” while we, ourselves, are closely surveilled by swarms of robo-bees or, rather, “mini-drones.”

Why does everything just keep getting weirder?

The End?

[Author’s Note: Actually, Robo-Bee is a long, long way from rolling off the assembly line and into the fields. Even farther away are the technologies and knowledge necessary to genetically engineer anything as complicated as an insect.]

Selected Source Links:

Harvard scientists unleash the robot bees

Robotic Bees to Pollinate Monsanto Crops, 04/08/13, Russ McSpadden

Monsanto hopes to win over beekeepers with cure, 06/14/13, Georgina Gustin