Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Props to the Bee Maven

Lots of buzz about bee maven extraordinaire May Berenbaum, winner of the 2011 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. A longtime professor of entomology at the University of Illinois of Urbana-Champaign, Berenbaum won the prize partly for her groundbreaking work into the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious plague striking honeybee colonies across North America, as well as for her many contributions to our understanding of plant-insect interactions. Through her many books for the general reader, insectophile or -phobe, she has become an ambassador for the little things that run the world.

Don't know May? You ought to. She knows her bees and beetles, moths and roaches. She has organized a long-running Insect Fear Film Festival, now in its 28th year. And she's a very, very funny writer. I had the pleasure of working with her on The Earwig's Tail, a "modern bestiary" of essays debunking urban legends about insects in the age of the Internet. You can learn more about that book, with splendid art by Jay Hosler, here.

And there probably isn't another person on the planet whose ego is in such spectacular inverse proportion to her wit, intelligence, wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, generosity, and warmth.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Using Their Little Grey Cells

Elefolio is all about elephants these days...I wrote a book on elephant communication for Lerner Books, and have been blogging about elephants over on my personal writing blog on WordPress. This is a copy of today's post over there.

Amazing, if not surprising, study showing that elephants cooperate to get food. And even cheat. Lots going on in those big, social brains.

There are short write-ups of the study, conducted by Joshua Plotnik, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge, up on New Scientist and Wired Science. The work was done with 12 Asian elephants at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang, Thailand.

Plotnik wanted to investigate whether cooperation, known anecdotally in elephants, could be shown through a rigorous experiment. He was scaling up a study previously done with bonobos, in which two bonobos had to cooperate to pull a heavy box. The problem was, if it was scaled up to a size an elephant couldn't pull alone, they would have a box the size of a jumbo jet.

The video shows Plotnik's elegant solution. The entire paper, which makes good reading, is available online at PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. If you don't normally seek out the papers on which popular news stories about science stories are based, I recommend it. IMHO, more nonspecialists should learn their way around a real scientific paper, and it's a habit that can start pretty young.

Plotnik is a former student of Frans de Waal, a comparative psychologist and the dean of altrusiam and cooperation in animals. I had the privilege of working with DeWaal on Animal Social Complexity and Intelligence, co-edited with Peter J. Tyack. That book is a fascinating look at intelligence in an amazing range of relatively large-brained, social animals, from apes and whales to much less expected animals: bats, hyenas, and starlings, as well as elephants. It's highly recommended, too.