Wednesday, August 31, 2011

PANCAKE TORTOISES AT OMSI and ANGEL REVEALS SECRETS OF MIND

Our Lecture-Demonstration at the OMSI Reptile and Amphibian Show
A pancake tortoise meets one of many visitors. OMSI, 2009
Photo by Sharon Appleman

Saturday, September 3, 2011, we present our fourth annual lecture-demonstration at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s Reptile and Amphibian Show, always on Labor Day Weekend. Other years the show has tallied around 3,000 visitors a day. Our special event is all about the unusual adaptations and accomplishments of the “amazing” East African pancake tortoises in our lab. We (including seven pancake tortoises from the lab) will be in a room near the main exhibit hall between 9:30 and 1:30—Saturday only.
      The computer slide show comes to life when a pancake tortoise meets you, perhaps examining your T-shirt design or jewelry and greets you bolder ones with a turtle-to-turtle greeting: a nose-to-nose push. They will demonstrate their balloon play, mirror play, and procedure in drawing pictures. Some of the better turtle art will be on display.     
      It’s always fun, though tiring, for all of us—the reason we’re limiting our time this year. Come get acquainted while we’re there! There’s more information and a link back to our blog on the OMSI site:  http://www.omsi.edu/reptileshow

Revealing Secrets: Angel Finds a Way
Until I got irritated at reading a whole book at my desktop computer, I was reading a galley version of dolphin researcher Diana Reiss’s forthcoming book, The Dolphin in the Mirror, a very interesting narrative. Her dolphin book, scheduled to appear in stores September 20, is one of a handful for the general reader on long-term studies of captive animals’ cognition that are written by the principal investigator. Thus, like books about Alex the parrot, Koko the gorilla, Kanzi the bonobo, and first signing animal Washoe the chimpanzee, it is a cousin to our Diode’s Experiment. (Funding for behavioral research is tenuous, and a rare study is able to continue for a whole career, so even Diana was not able to study the same dolphins throughout her thirty years of research.) Diana is also featured in the December 2011 issue of Discover magazine.
      Back in the mid eighties, Diana introduced me to her research dolphins (including Circes), John Lilley’s dolphins in adjacent pools, and the set-up for her research, at that time recording and studying dolphin contact calls. Both of us have studied our animals’ vocalizations and mirror self-recognition since the eighties—both with success—but more about the turtles’ sounds and mirror responses another time.
      In her book Reiss notes—and I agree—that if you pay attention to the animals’ interactions, both among themselves and with you, they “often reveal their secrets.” One way they begin this revelation is to show their behavioral flexibility and planning as they try to communicate with a human with whom they’re bonded (and, uh, from whom they want services.) If a lab turtle finds a water dish is, shall we say, “used,” I often see the turtle balanced on the edge of the dish, head bent straight down, staring into the water until I come to change it.
Angel in the Secret Garden
      Here’s a recent example from our lab. Angel, one of Diode’s daughters, found a way to request audio services from the floor. More often, a turtle will steer in hand to the audio equipment or a CD and give it a tap with the beak: the direct approach. This time Angel was walking on the lab floor.
      When I had reorganized books and speakers into a newly-purchased bookcase, I had placed the speakers at either end of the bottom shelf, only three inches above the floor. Angel walked back and forth in front of the long bookcase and stared up at the speaker nearer me each time she passed it, then glanced to my face. After a while I got the idea and put on the next CD.

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