Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Animal "Speech" Project Aims to Decode Critter Communication

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
September 26, 2006

The fictional children's book character Dr. Dolittle easily understood animal chatter. But for the rest of us, the meaning behind creatures' clucks, rumbles, and whistles remains a mystery.

Now, researchers from several universities and institutions are working on an effort called the Dr. Dolittle Project, which aims to crack the code of animal communication.

Their work could help people gain a better understanding of animal behavior and hopefully allow researchers to improve care for wild and captive animal populations.

"For centuries humans have tried to teach animals to communicate like humans," said Michael Darre, an animal science professor at the University of Connecticut (UConn) in Storrs.

"And now we're getting to the point where we're saying, Wait a second. Why don't we learn their language instead of making them learn ours?"

(Related feature: "Calls in the Wild" in National Geographic magazine.)

Elephant Talk

In the past three years researchers with the project have captured sounds from a variety of animals, including African elephants, rhinos, horses, chickens, and bottlenose dolphins.

Scientists also videotape the animals' corresponding behavior and feed the data into a modified human speech-recognition program.

The program can alert scientists to a range of details, including physiological indicators, such as stress or whether the animal is in heat.

Mike Johnson, an assistant professor of computer and electrical engineering at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, leads the project.

"We wanted to find ways to apply the high-tech side of what you can do in speech processing, which has been used in human speech processing for a decade or more, and apply those ideas to the field of bioacoustics," he said.
African elephants at the theme park wear collars with digital microphones to capture sound. Each night the collars are removed and the recorded information is analyzed.

Anne Savage, the park's senior conservation biologist, says understanding how pachyderms use vocalizations to communicate will help people better manage them in the wild and in captivity.

"There is a lot of information—such as individual identification, emotion, and function—that is encoded in their rumbles that we are just beginning to understand," she said.

One study at the park focused on measuring emotion in elephant voices.

Since elephants have a clear hierarchy, Savage wanted to see if subordinates got nervous around higher-ranking members, much like some humans do.

"A lot of people, when they have to go deliver bad news to their boss, they'll get a little nervousness in their voice," she explained. "And you can actually measure the amount of shaking in their voice."

Savage found that the same thing happens in elephants: When lower-ranking animals approach dominant ones, their rumble contained a nervous jitter.

Another study involved herd communication.

Before Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, pairs of elephants were brought in from other institutions, where they had lived together for ten or more years.

After arriving at the park, a new dominance hierarchy was established.

Savage wondered if elephants that had previously lived together would still communicate, even if the new ranking system separated them.

She discovered that the strong social bonds the elephants had previously forged won out.

"One of the things that was very clear in all of this is that best friends talk to each other all the time and are more likely to answer a call of their close friend than others," she said.

Shouting Whales

For more than ten years, UConn animal bioacoustics researcher Peter Scheifele has collected sounds from a threatened group of beluga whales in Canada's St. Lawrence River estuary.

After joining the Dolittle project two years ago, he made a breakthrough discovery: Under noisy conditions, such as those created by passing motor boats, the whales vocalized louder so that pod members could hear them.

Scientists call this a Lombard response, and humans do it too.

"The Lombard response has typically been thought of as a reflex attributable to complex mammals having speech," he said.

"However, it is now thought of as being a reflexive response by animals that have a need for sounds with specific meaning to be heard."

Songbirds and some primates also "talk" louder when noise levels rise, he says.

(Related news: "Baby Birds' Efforts to Outshout City Noise May Take Toll" [April 2005].)

Another Doolittle study is underway at a small-scale commercial poultry farm owned by UConn.

Adult chickens are thought to make between 19 and 22 different vocalizations.

"We're trying to see how those vocalizations change under stressful conditions and if there's a way to detect that," Darre, the UConn animal scientist, said.

The long-term goal is to equip commercial poultry farms with microphones that transmit clucking to a voice recognition system.

If the system identifies stress, an alarm would sound in the manager's office.

Darre says that from a humane standpoint, such a system would ensure that animals are being reared under good husbandry conditions.

Because tense chickens can stop laying eggs or require more food to gain weight, the alarm could also prevent declines in egg and meat production, he says.

So far the Dr. Dolittle Project has focused on only a handful of wild and farm animals, but methods are now being developed for use across a wide variety of species.

"It's all part of understanding the world around us," Darre said. "We, as humans, really need to learn more about the rest of the ecosystem we're in."

"The more we do, the more we learn, the better off we'll be—and the better we can care for [wild animals] so they don't become extinct because we did something stupid."

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

From Dear Yahoo! - I know you wanted to know who invented sliced bread (yes, someone really did! I wonder if he got rich off it...)

Dear Yahoo!,

Who invented sliced bread?
Cookeville, Tennessee

Dear Jerid:
History is full of great inventions. But, with all due respect to the wheel, none are as celebrated as sliced bread. Because so many enthusiastic consumers enjoy comparing products to the breakfast staple, we thought it high time to give its creator, Otto Frederick Rohwedder, his due.
Mr. Rohwedder was born in the great state of Iowa and is generally credited with inventing the first automatic bread slicer in 1928. Before this, people had to slice their own bread, or, in a pinch, rip off a hunk. According to Food Reference, Rohwedder's invention was initially poo-pooed by bakers who felt sliced bread would go stale too quickly. Eventually, Rohwedder constructed a slicer that also wrapped the bread, effectively solving the problem.

In 1930, Wonder Bread began selling pre-sliced bread. Other large bakeries quickly hopped on the bandwagon. The trend also helped to boost the popularity of another invention still in use today -- the toaster. We wouldn't call it the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it's certainly up there.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Recurring Places and Themes in Dreams

Well this morning I woke up with those tell-tale signs of impending cold-type illness contracted from the hazards of being a public school teacher. Along with that, I awoke from a dream that was one of several "recurring" ones I've had over the course of my life. They're never exactly the same, but I have had a lot of dreams where places that exist only in my dreams reoccur or in which certain themes reoccur. Many of them were restricted to childhood dreams, but some into adulthood as well. When they reoccur, it is rare and often years apart.

The one this morning, I can't remember all the details anymore, but the recurring part is that somehow I ended up in this small mall that doesn't really exist. In my dreams, however, there is a small mall (like The Citadel or something, or rather, maybe one wing of it) but it exists either on Security Blvd. in Security or near Main in Fountain. Why on earth every now and again would this non-existent mall end up in my dreams, I don't know, but it does. Not often, but it has come back on more than one occasion, which makes it interesting. I could give you detail of all the stores, which do not really exist in the real world either, and the layout of the place. And when I first woke up, it was so real that for a moment I doubted if it were not really real but I had just 'forgotten'. Because I had been there many times before and knew a great deal about it - the escalators, the secret passageway into a back elevator, the old chandelier in a fancy department store, the great bookstore that had discarded library books that were special and dad and I loved. Sometimes it was actually a library, and there was a spiraling stair case down a tower to the kids' section, and at the top of the tower was an observatory. Sometimes this library was not in the mall but somewhere else like a campus and I had to sneak to get the books I wanted and into the secret parts of the library as it was highly guarded and had heavy electronic security. Sometimes the mall would be bigger and had long curving hallways. In this mall, it was not located near here, but it was dark and had a game room with one of those gumball machines that gave really special prizes (although I can't remember what they were). And in that big mall, it was always a struggle to find the exit without getting locked in and trapped, and if you got out, then you couldn't find your car because the parking lots had literally moved, and so I would end up trying to walk/run home for about 20 miles, again feeling in a hurry, and trying to make shortcuts through neighborhoods. None of these streets really exist, but I could describe every storefront, draw a map of the streets, the houses, where certain people lived along the way, etc. But it was one of those dreams that you never get home, it just ends before then, probably by waking you up due to frustration and repetition - getting stuck in a repeating cycle that never progresses.

Another dream that seemed very real was a recurring one I had as a kid. This dream was probably the most recurring and most realistic of all my dreams. It was so real that for years I thought it was indeed real until one day I actually thought about it for some reason and realized it was impossible - but I had to actually reason it out to conclude it never could have happened. You see, this dream involves the floor duct in my childhood bedroom (for the heating system.) I vividly remember as a child getting out of bed at night, taking the vent cover off ( which is maybe 12 by 4 inches), and crawling into the duct (which in reality is only 3-4 inches across in many places). The duct curled back tightly under my room to underneath my closet where it opened into a room about the same size as the closet and there were many other paths and turns, too. I cannot remember any longer the details of what I did there, but there were creatures or people that I met and talked to. I believe I did shrink to get there, and the people/creatures were also small. There were notes pinned on the duct walls on yellowed paper. At the time, I could draw a map for you of the ductworks I traveled through in my dreams in precise detail. I was sure I had been there, until realizing it must have been only dreamt.

Another place of dreams related to the closet - my closet was above a staircase, so it had a steep ramp on its right side. In my dreams, I could climb up the ramp, push through a secret door, and enter a fantastic secret library that contained anything I wanted to know. When I got older, it became a library with secret undetectable computers that contained all knowledge and did anything I wanted them to.

Another recurring place dream - I used to dream long ago that I would be driving through my neighborhood and when I got to about where I happen to live now (about 1-2 miles from my childhood home), all the streets would change name and direction completely and become a foreign place. Also, I used to have a recurring dream about a secret place found by following the railroad tracks south from this place (where the old Safeway is). You could access the secret place only by following a man in a black top hat driving a push cart - you'd have to run after him, and you'd end up in a beautiful secluded forest glade type area. Sometimes the push cart man would chase you away or chase after you so you couldn't get in or he'd get too far ahead and the forest glade would never appear. Sometimes it was the full moon you followed to get there.

The last recurring place dream I can remember right now is one about an elementary school playground. My real elementary playground was a big gravel yard enclosed by chain link fence. In my recurring dream, the playground was also a big gravel yard enclosed by chain link, but was not intended as the same place and did not look quite the same as the real one. In my dreams, the playground was filled to the top of the chain link fence with gravel and had dunes even higher. The only exception was a trench that was a few feet wide that followed the fence just inside its perimeter all the way around. We kids would hide in the trench unless we were running stealthily from dune to dune to try to get to the only feature on the playground - a downed plane - a big one, decaying and partly buried in the sand. But we were always either trying to get there or hide from people who were there.

As for recurring themes in dreams,

I do remember having dreams of flying, but never flying fast, always more like swimming or floating in the air.

I also would have dreams of running as hard as I could but moving in slow motion and never gaining ground. This happened more in the days when I was a runner in real life.

I also had dreams of finding out right before final exams that I had registered for a class and forgotten about it and so had not attended it all semester. So now, I was desperately trying to pass the class by acing the final. But, in the dream, I was racing to where the final was supposed to be and when I would get there, there would be a sign on the door saying it had moved all the way across campus and I would run again and again trying to get there but never actually getting there. This one would occasionally happen even for years after I graduated from college, in fact, I don't think I had that dream while I was actually in college, but only after.

I also (only as an adult) would have dreams of my teeth crumbling. It didn't hurt and I wasn't bothered in my dreams, but rather I was fascinated by the feel of the teeth crumbling in my mouth and would playing with them with my tongue, which only made them crumble further. That one was also very realistic so that I at times had doubts that at least some of my teeth had not really crumbled.

Now, some of these dreams have had meaning - such as the teeth dream, which I felt had meaning, possibly it meant change or evolution in my life, neither good or bad, and dreams about running in place or final exams or streets changing related to stress, being too busy, wanting more control, etc.

Some seemed to be living out fantasies - such as the secret library behind the ramp in my closet. (In a later version, it was a secret computer room on my college campus).

But some apparently existed for their own-selves - such as the forest glade or the duct dream - and I tend to wonder if maybe, in some out-of-body kind of way, there really wasn't some reality to that duct one - in an unreal kind of way, of course.

The most 'real' reaction I ever had to dream comes from one I don't even remember. But once, when I was in junior high, I awoke from a dream, knowing and positive that it was time to get up and get ready for school and mom would come to wake me in a few minutes. But I was wide awake, so I got up in the dark (it was winter) and got dressed, went to the bathroom, etc., to get ready for school, and when I came out of the bathroom I saw on a clock it was only about 12:30 p.m. I was shocked because I had been certain it was time to get up and go to school. I had another 'real' one in junior high I don't remember anymore - in it, my homeroom and math teacher had said something I can no longer recall. I didn't remember the dream at all, until one day I was sitting in class and I suddenly remembered what she had said and began to think it really strange and puzzling, finally realizing she could not have said it and I had dreamt it - but somehow subconsciously I had been operating for some time in my daily class life as if she had said it - very strange, that one, and wish I could remember what she had said in my dream, some nonsense thing.

Well maybe I'll think of more later. But maybe others will blog about their dreams, too!