Spring break, even if it takes place in February, is not a time for being productive. I took this to heart last week as I caught up on zoning out in front of the TV. But it wasn’t all Sabrina the Teenage Witch reruns for this girl: I also caught bits and pieces of two fairly interesting Nova episodes on PBS, “The Four-Winged Dinosaur” and “Ape Genius”.
“The Four-Winged Dinosaur”
I’ll admit, I’m not as fascinated by dinosaurs as some in this lab, so this episode did not hold my interest for the entire hour. However, I came in toward the end and was fascinated to discover that amidst scenes from “Jurassic Park”, they were interviewing a real scientist who actually is trying to breed dinosaurs! The entire episode (or so I gathered) looked at how birds evolved from dinosaurs. They took a bird embryo, and injected it with a virus that would attack the DNA and turn on previously turned off genes, including one that apparently coded for the bird to grow teeth in its beak. But the bird embryo with a beak-full of teeth was not the coolest part. Next they tried to create an emu-asaurus! They didn’t actually manage this, but the Nova voice-over talked us through the technique of how it could be possible to turn an emu egg into an emu-like dinosaur. To quote a friend, “haven’t they seen Jurassic Park? Don’t they know how that turns out??” All I know, is that if they ever manage to recreate dinosaurs, they should avoid breeding raptors – those guys in the movie are SCARY!
This episode aired a while ago, but unfortunately I missed it the first time around. Thank god for reruns! This episode, which I actually watched most of, looked at what apes were and were not capable of doing in terms of communicating, learning, and working together (all those traits people try to describe as culture). I don’t have any profound conclusions about this episode, but I found a number of the experiments they did interesting and will describe a few of them here.
- Will two chimps work together to get and then share food? The animals had to both pull a string at the same time to get a long plate of food close enough to their cages to eat. Results: if the food was split already, the chimps would work together and each take their share. If the food was not split up, the chimps would usually start fighting and not get the food close enough to reach. If the apes were bonobos, they worked together and shared their food without problems.
- Do chimps understand the value of an M&M? A trainer puts 7 M&Ms in one bowl and 2 in another, and whichever bowl the chimp points to, a second chimp gets those M&Ms. The first chimp gets the bowl he doesn’t point to. Results: Even after multiple trials, the chimp still points first to the bowl with the most M&Ms, and thus does not get them.
- Do human children understand the value of a gummy bear? Similar to the above test, in this one an adult explains to a 4-year-old that the one gummy bear in front of them is theirs to eat, but if they wait until the adult leaves and comes back, then they get the entire package of gummy bears. In most cases, the child ate the one gummy bear and did not get the package (these tapes were adorable to watch, by the way).
- Do chimps understand numbers? A chimp is taught, using dots, the numbers 1-9. Then the previous chimp experiment (the one with the M&Ms) is repeated using numbers instead of M&Ms (introducing a symbolic element). In this case, the chimp learns to point to the lower number, and thus receives more M&Ms. However, the voice-over points out that chimps in the wild do not develop symbols on their own, they are just able to understand some of them when humans teach them.
- Will bonobos protect or share outside of their own family group? A dead bonobo that is a stranger to a group of live bonobos is placed in the live bonobos’ habitat. Humans with long poles use the sticks to “attack” the dead bonobo. Result: the live bonobos shriek and try to protect the dead bonobo from the offending poles, even though they did not know the bonobo in life.
These were just a few of the interesting experiments compiled in this episode. If you ever catch the rerun of either of these, they might be worth checking out! Next up, a post about all the crappy TV I also watched over break… or maybe I’ll just keep that to myself.