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Video: ‘Blindfolded’ dolphins astound scientists

  1. Closed captioning of: ‘Blindfolded’ dolphins astound scientists

    >>> we are back at 7:43. we have always known dolphins are smart, but now a new study is revealing their brains may be closer to humans than we first thought. kerry sanders is in the florida keys with details. good morning to you.

    >> reporter: good morning, meredith. i'm at the dolphin research center here on glassy key. we have always known with a trainer they can give a hand signal and we can see them doing some motions. but here's the discovery. we thought humans had the only ability to imitate. now what they discovered here is that dolphins can imitate without the benefit of seeing what they are mimicking. kibbe and tanner have long followed trainers' hand signals . but what no one ever tested before was one dolphin's ability to imitate the other blindfolded.

    >> i'm going to cover tanner's eyes so he can't see the signals.

    >> reporter: silently.

    >> can you imitate?

    >> reporter: no whistles or voice cues, kibbe begins to spin and tanner knows what's happening and mimics the behavior. kibbe swims like a shark. tanner, eyes still covered, copies.

    >> imitation in the animal kingdom is really rare. we have all heard the phrase, monkey see, monkey do.

    >> reporter: not true?

    >> it's a myth.

    >> reporter: the journal of comparative psychology published the findings of the dolphin study. the best guess as to how tanner does it, just as a human would -- by listening.

    >> if i ask you to close your eyes and copy what i'm doing. you can do it because that behavior has a characteristic sound. it may be that tanner is picking up on what kibbe is doing the same way.

    >> reporter: in the wild kingdom even imitation is extremely rare. plenty of animals emulate behaviors like young lion cub that is watch a kill and years later emulate that behavior. what's the difference between emulating and imitating?

    >> if you raised your hand and said, five, four, three, two, one. a human child would imitate that and try to get the exact sequence of number raising the exact same way. chimps may just raise their hand and wiggle their fingers around.

    >> reporter: there are people whose ability to imitate is also rare -- those with autism. which is why experts believe this discovery could be so important.

    >> it's a better understanding of imitation that may help us find better therapies for autism.

    >> reporter: so it's a long way, of course, from the research to the application, but it's very exciting here because what they say is that the dolphins here aren't specially trained to do this. they chose them because they had already acclimated them to being blindfolded but the discovery is being passed around and scientists are wondering how it's going to benefit us. meredith?

    >> cool stuff, kerry sanders . thank you so much.

Photos: Dance of the dolphins

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  1. Fun in the sun

    Photographer Greg Huglin of Santa Barbara, Calif., captured these striking images of bottlenose dolphins during three trips to the South African coast between 2000 and 2007. He shot the photos along a stretch of coastline between Port Elizabeth and Wilderness. (GregHuglin.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Getting into position

    While on his trips to the South African coast, Greg Huglin took photos from a variety of vantage points: From a helicopter, from a motorized sailplane, from a boat in surfline and from land. All of the images were captured with film cameras, not digital cameras. (GregHuglin.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Awesome power

    Huglin said it's both humbling and exciting to be in the presence of such powerful animals. "Bottlenose dolphins are the ones that do all the really fancy surfing," he said. "They’re up to 12 feet long, those suckers. ... When you put your hand on one of them, they’re solid muscle. It’s amazing how powerful they are." (GregHuglin.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A love for the sea

    Huglin has spent his entire career photographing and filming great white sharks, dolphins and other sea creatures, as well as extreme water sports. His trips to South Africa have been major highlights of his life. "From sunrise to sunset when I’m down there I’m either shooting great whites or I’m chasing dolphins," he said. (GregHuglin.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Gracefully choreographed

    Huglin noted that in all the time he's spent around dolphins doing playful tricks, he's never once seen them collide into each other. "I’ve got shots of groups of 100 to 150 dolphins, and they don’t collide in the air. Their awareness is phenomenal," he said. "They always land gracefully." (GregHuglin.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Patience and perseverance

    Huglin said he had to go through 1,200 rolls of film to end up with 175 high-quality dolphin photographs. He plans to return to South Africa again next year and use digital photography equipment on that trip. (GregHuglin.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Olympians of the seas

    "It's amazing how acrobatic dolphins are," Huglin said. "Surfers ride the front of a wave, and dolphins ride the back of a wave. ... The jumping ones, they wait for a wave to start breaking and they’ll leap right through the back. That’s how they get that giant air." (GregHuglin.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Coming up for air

    Bottlenose dolphins have blowholes on the tops of their heads, and they must deliberately come to the surface and open them to breathe. They usually breathe two to three times a minute, but they can stay under water for as long as 20 minutes. (GregHuglin.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Blast off!

    Huglin shot this photo from a motorized sailplane. Five bottlenose dolphins can be seen just taking off on the peak of a wave. "They’re tapping the energy of the wave and being pulled forward," he said. "This is actually a pretty late takeoff." (GregHuglin.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. View from above

    Huglin took this photograph from a helicopter about 1,000 to 1,200 feet above the water. The dolphins are surfacing after a wave has broken, and the color of the water is altered by a plankton bloom. (GregHuglin.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Breathing deeply

    Proportionally speaking, dolphins are able to store almost twice as much oxygen in their bodies as humans. (GregHuglin.com.) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A special language

    To communicate, bottlenose dolphins emit whistles and squeaks from their blowholes and also make masterful use of body language. In different instances, they will slap their tails on the surface of the water and leap into the air to get a message across. (GregHuglin.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Here comes the pod

    Huglin used a long telephoto lens to shoot this photo from land. "The dolphins are catching the wave just as the wave breaks," he said. (GregHuglin.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Time together

    Pods of bottlenose dolphins can vary considerably in size. The typical size is about 15, but sometimes hundreds of dolphins will congregate in the same area. Dolphins are exceptionally good at hunting for fish as a team, although they also can hunt alone. (GregHuglin.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Listening for echoes

    Bottlenose dolphins use echolocation to search for prey and monitor their whereabouts. Similar to sonar, echolocation involves making clicking sounds and assessing the return echoes to surmise an item's shape and location. (GregHuglin.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A graceful ballet

    "It's just amazing to be around big schools of dolphins and to watch them all take off at full speed and dive into the waves as high as they can, as fast as they can, all in sync," Huglin said. "It’s hypnotizing. I just can’t get enough of it." (GregHuglin.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Joyful play

    Huglin knows that dolphins often leap into the air for a purpose, but after watching them for hours on end, he also thinks they jump and frolic just for the fun of it. "I can’t help but think they do it because they can and because it’s really fun," he said. "Wouldn’t you do that if you could?"

    See more of Greg Huglin's photos (GregHuglin.com) Back to slideshow navigation
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Explainer: The 2011 Weird Science Awards

  • Image: Stone Age sex toy; Beer and civilization; Slime-mold transit; Cricket testicles
    SNHB / U. Penn / AAAS / U. Derby

    Sex, booze and strange animal tricks: You had to know the 2011 Weird Science Awards would hit on those themes. After all, past award winners have included scientists' successful quest to reattach rabbit penises, a 2,700-year-old marijuana stash and glow-in-the-dark kitties. This year, msnbc.com users were asked to select the weirdest stories from a list of 30 nominees. Click ahead to count down the top 10 selections, plus some bonus picks.

    — Alan Boyle, msnbc.com science editor

  • 10. Oops! Maya doomsday date corrected

    El Castillo
    MSNBC file
    The El Castillo pyramid at Chichen Itza in Mexico is one of the monuments left behind by the Maya.

    Are we having doomsday yet? Some folks say the ancient Maya calendar's "Long Count" runs out on Dec. 21, 2012, and that a world-changing crisis will occur at that time. Other folks, including the modern-day Maya, say that's just a load of llama crap ... and that 12/22/2012 will merely mark the start of a new calendar cycle.

    And then there's Gerardo Aldana, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who says they're all probably wrong.

    Aldana contends that the calculations we've used to match up the Maya calendar to our modern reckoning could be off by as much as 50 to 100 years, and that the Long Count may have already ended. If Aldana is right, the timetable for the apocalypse may already be up. Which might explain why "Apocalypto" director Mel Gibson's been acting so weird lately.

  • 9. Why it's OK for birds to be gay

    Image: Gay geese
    Dreamstime
    Nearly one-fifth of all long-term greylag geese couples are gay, composed of two males.

    Scientists have found more than 130 bird species that engage in some sort of same-sex hanky-panky — and the males in some of those species, such as penguins and greylag geese, occasionally form long-term sexual relationships with each other.

    That's presented a puzzle for some evolutionary biologists, because same-sex relationships would seem to reduce the birds' chances of reproductive success. Believe it or not, gay birds are quite a research topic ... not that there's anything wrong with that.

    Geoff MacFarlane, a biologist at the University of Newcastle in Australia, and colleagues reviewed studies of 93 bird species and suggested that there was a relationship between the rearing of young and same-sex mating. Male homosexual behavior would be likelier if the females of the species took care of the chicks. "Homosexual behavior is more likely to be maintained and not be selected against than if you are a sex that cares a lot for offspring and only has one or few reproductive partners," MacFarlane said.

    Are you still curious? Find out why some scientists think mercury pollution may spark bird homosexuality, and learn more about the bizarre study of a homosexual necrophiliac duck.

  • 8. The race to create A.I. as smart as a cat

    NIH
    Are cats worried about the Pentagon's efforts to match their intelligence with an artificial brain? What do you think?

    Puss-Bob is not amused: He's heard the reports claiming that Pentagon-funded scientists are trying to create an artificial brain as intelligent as a cat, of course, but he realizes this is a grossly oversimplified description of the SyNAPSE project.

    He knows the real point of the research is to build electronic networks that mimic biological brains, using new types of devices known as memristors. Such networks could "learn" by taking in additional information from the environment and adapting accordingly.

    The technology could produce smarter robotic scout vehicles for the U.S. military, IEEE Spectrum reports. But Puss-Bob highly doubts that memristor-based neural networks will ever match the intelligence of cats. Dogs, maybe ... but not cats.

  • 7: 'Da Vinci code' in Mona Lisa's eyes?

    V.A Sole  /  CNRS via AP
    Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" is examined with X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy.

    The Mona Lisa is one of the great masterpieces of the art world, but it's also a great generator of weird science. In past years, researchers have said that they've tracked down the inspiration for Leonardo da Vinci's portrait, found a nude version of the painting and figured out what Mona Lisa's voice sounded like.

    In 2010, Italy's national committee for cultural heritage claimed that Leonardo painted tiny, almost invisible letters in Mona Lisa's eyes. The committee's president, Silvano Vinceti, said the lines in one eye appear to form the initials "LV," perhaps standing for the artist's name. The other eye seems to contain the letters "CE" or perhaps "B." And still more letters and numbers were spotted in other areas of the painting.

    But are they really there? Several experts have said the committee is probably reading too much into the painting's patterns of tiny cracks. Among art historians, at least, this "Da Vinci Code" is no best-seller.

  • 6. Which came first, chicken or egg?

    Image: Chicken and egg
    USDA
    Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The scientific answer is problematic.

    Which came first? The chicken or the egg? The question is really more of a philosophical conundrum, like the old "immovable object vs. irresistible force" conflict. But in 2010, British research into the process of eggshell formation was heralded as providing a scientific answer to the riddle.

    Biologists from Sheffield and Warwick universities reported that ovocleidin-17, a protein found in a chicken's ovaries, played an essential role in building eggshells from calcium carbonate crystals. That led some chicken-or-egg philosophers to claim that the first chicken egg could exist only if it was created inside a chicken.

    Actually, it all depends on your definitions: We know that dinosaurs laid eggs, for example, so eggs clearly predate chickens. And if a prehistoric not-quite-chicken laid an egg that contained the first honest-to-goodness chicken, based on its genetic coding, do you count that as a chicken, or a chicken egg? Try using that one if you're ever captured by "Star Trek" androids.

  • 5. Giant storks may have fed on hobbits

    Inge van Noortwijk
    The extinct giant stork Leptoptilos robustus would have dwarfed the "hobbit" Homo floresiensis living on the Indonesian island of Flores.

    "The storks! The storks! They're eating Frodo!" J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" saga might have had a horror-movie ending if it reflected the fossil evidence found on the Indonesian island of Flores.

    Flores is known as the site where scientists discovered the remains of a species of hominids known as Homo floresiensis. The creatures, which apparently went extinct about 12,000 years ago, have been nicknamed "hobbits" because of their short stature.

    Now paleontologists say they've unearthed wing and leg bones from carnivorous storks in the same cave where the Homo floresiensis bones were discovered. The storks, which apparently stood nearly 6 feet tall, could have fed on other birds as well as fishes and lizards — "and possibly in principle even small, juvenile hobbits, although we have no evidence for that," the Smithsonian Institution's Hanneke Meijer told LiveScience.

    What sound do giant storks make when they're swallowing? Gollum! Gollum!

  • 4. Cricket's testicles set world record

    University of Derby
    The male Tuberous bushcricket has testicles (shown here) that amount to 14 percent of its body weight.

    Now here's a bug with balls: The tuberous bushcricket's testicles account for 14 percent of its body weight, according to researchers at the University of Derby in England. That means the cricket's cojones are the largest in the animal world, based on proportion to total body mass.

    To put the cricket's statistics in perspective, the testicles of a man weighing 200 pounds (91 kilograms) with that ball-to-body ratio would weigh 28 pounds (12.7 kilograms). Or basically the weight of two bowling balls.

    Why would a cricket need testes that big? The researchers suggest that the large size lets male crickets capitalize quickly on breeding opportunities with multiple mates. But size is always relative, and often deceiving. Turns out that the runner-up in the ball-to-body competition is the humble fruit fly, with testes that make up more than 10 percent of body weight.

  • 3. Better transit design through ... slime mold?

    Image: Slime mold
    Science / AAAS
    The left image shows slime mold growing out to connect food sources laid out like a map of rail stations. After 26 hours, the mold resolved itself into an efficient network of tubes connecting the sources

    It's hard to imagine a scientific specialty that's weirder than slime mold, but researchers from Hokkaido University in Japan has been able to make the weird life form do some wonderful things.

    First, the scientists used slime mold's food-finding prowess to solve labyrinth puzzles. This year, they published research showing how the mold's growth patterns could reflect the optimal routes for mass transit links ... on a map where bits of food stood in for train stations. Those dubious achievements earned them not just one, but two Ig Nobel Prizes for silly science.

    The Hokkaido team isn't the only one working with the humble organism: British scientists say they've constructed a rudimentary slime-mold computer nicknamed the Plasmobot. So where does America stand in the race to harness slime mold? And what are we going to do about the slime gap?

  • 2. How beer sparked civilization

    Image: ancient vessel
    University of Pennsylvania
    Fragments of a jar unearthed in Iran contain the chemical residues of beer from more than 5,000 years ago.

    Some people might say the invention of fire sparked the rise of civilization. But Brian Hayden, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University, suggests that another innovation may have played a crucial role: beer.

    The age of agriculture dawned about 11,500 years ago when Neolithic peoples began domesticating wild grains such as barley and rice. Hayden is among a number of archaeologists who say the motivation for domesticating those cereals might have been to brew alcoholic drinks for ceremonial use. "It's not that drinking and brewing by itself helped start cultivation, it's this context of feasts that links beer and the emergence of complex societies," Hayden says.

    The earliest chemical evidence for beer comes from residues inside a jar excavated in Iran that is dated to between 3400 and 3100 B.C. Other evidence suggests that beer gave ancient Africans a healthy dose of antibiotics, and that women took on the primary role for brewing beer in ancient Peru. For still more, check out our interactive gallery of ancient drinks.

  • 1. Stone Age carving may be ancient sex toy

    Image: Bone carving
    Peter Zetterlund  /  Swedish National Heritage Board

    The top vote-getter in the 2010 Weird Science Award competition may not be totally suitable for work ... but hey, this is archaeology, right? Researchers suspect that a carved piece of antler bone, found at a Stone Age site in Sweden that goes back as far as 6000 B.C., might have been an ancient sex toy.

    The object is about 4 inches long and an inch wide, with a knobby end as well as a pointy end. The pointy end suggests that despite its phallic appearance, the bone could have been used for chipping flakes of flint. Sigmund Freud is said to have observed that "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," and sometimes a Stone Age tool is just a Stone Age tool.

    Even if the antler bone is judged to be a sex toy, it's not the oldest of its type: A polished stone phallus found in Germany is thought to be about 28,000 years old, while a 35,000-year-old female figure with exaggerated breasts could be considered the world's oldest-known porn.

  • Weirdly honorable mentions

    Image: Mouse
    Stephanie Pappas / LiveScience
    This mouse is among many that was born with genetic contributions from two male mice.

    Even though we offered up a long list of nominees for the Weird Science Awards, there are always some additional discoveries that deserve recognition. Here are four honorable mentions for 2010:

    • Mice with two dads: Researchers reprogrammed mouse cells and then used unconventional breeding tricks to produce some cute babies with genetic contributions from two male mice (but carried to term by mommy mice, of course). The experiment suggested a method by which same-sex human couples could eventually have genetic progeny.
    • Chimps with stick dolls: Female chimpanzees have been observed in the wild cuddling and playing with sticks and small logs, much like human children do. In contrast, such behavior has not yet been seen among male chimps, leading researchers to wonder whether gender differences in styles of play extend beyond humans to other species.
    • Mice that sing like birds: In the course of developing new breeds of genetically engineered mice, Japanese researchers happened upon a mouse that made tweeting noises like a bird. The tweeting trait could be passed along to the generations that followed, and the lab says it now has more than 100 "singing mice." Listen to the chirping mice on YouTube.
    • 8-year-olds publish scientific paper: One of the more unusual papers published in Biology Letters was illustrated with diagrams that looked as if they were scrawled by elementary-school students. That's because they were. The peer-reviewed report, written by 8- to 10-year-olds from Blackawton Primary School in Devon, England, represented a "genuine advance" in the study of bumblebee vision, the Royal Society said.

    For still more scientific strangeness, review the 2010 Weird Science Awards.

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