A look at avian intelligence with Nathan Emery

EmeryWhat really goes on inside the mind of a bird? Are these creatures as simplistic as the expression “bird brain” would have us believe? In Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence, Nathan Emery shines new light on the minds of birds, offering insight into their sophisticated neurological functions and the diverse behaviors these functions give rise to. An extraordinary work of cognitive biology, Bird Brain uncovers an array of unexpected abilities including mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight. Recently, Emery took the time to talk with us about avian intelligence, why it has long been misunderstood, and how he first became hooked on birds.

Can you tell us something about how you go into studying avian intelligence?

NE: I completed undergraduate degree in Neuroscience at the University of Central Lancashire in the northwest of England. Then I moved north of the border to do my PhD studying face responsive neurons and social signals in primates at the University of St Andrews. After that, I moved to UC Davis in California for 3 years to work on an animal model of autism, that didn’t exactly work out as expected, but it did result in me meeting my future wife, Nicky Clayton. We moved to Cambridge in 2000, me continuing my neuroscience research at the Sub-department of Animal Behaviour, where both Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey did their PhDs; Nicky as a lecturer in the Department of Psychology. It was at Cambridge that I started getting focusing on birds instead of monkeys.

How did you become interested in birds?

NE: My wife Nicky got me hooked on birds. I was never a birdwatcher, I didn’t keep a pet parrot, and it would be fair to say that I’d never really considered them, except as a tasty meal at Christmas. Nicky has worked with birds for her entire career, first studying bird song for her PhD, then concentrating on spatial memory and caching behaviour. I was writing a review paper on how different animals use eye gaze as a social signal. I didn’t know what to say about birds, as my knowledge up to that point had been entirely about primates. She made me see the light! She told me dozens of fascinating facts about birds. I was hooked and haven’t turned back. My review completed from a new perspective, Nicky and I collaborated on a project looking at whether scrub-jays appreciated that others were watching where they cached, and whether they protected their caches from these potential thieves. This lead to our first joint paper, which we were lucky enough to get into the highly prestigious journal Nature a few months after we got married. It was published on our joint birthday, probably the first, and possibly the last occasion this happened to a paper in Nature! In the 15 years since, I’ve not looked back on either front, and now my research is entirely on birds.

How did you get involved in writing Bird Brain?

NE: I’ve wanted to write a popular book on avian intelligence for about 10 years, but things always seemed to get in the way. Then I was approached by Ivy Press to write a chapter on avian brains for an edited book they were putting together. My wife was asked to edit it, but she didn’t want to do so, so suggested me. I was keen, but then thought ‘why don’t I just write the whole thing myself?’ Ivy agreed, so that’s what I did. I had already arranged a year long sabbatical from work, so switched focus from the experiments I’d planned, to writing the book.

The book is beautifully designed and illustrated. Did you have any input into how it looks?

NE: One of the reasons I was excited to be working with Ivy Press (the UK publisher of Bird Brain) was their reputation for producing beautiful books with a specific focus on design.

They were producing some very attractive nature and science books for a popular audience, and I really liked what they had planned for this project as it tallied with my own ideas. I’ve always been interested in illustration. At that crucial point in my life when I had to choose what I was going to study, I had to decide between science and science illustration. I chose science, but have always tried to incorporate illustration into my science work – whether the design of my lectures or talk slides, the illustrations in papers or even the design of problem-solving tasks. This project was a dream come true. I designed and drew all the illustrations in the book (except for three) using Photoshop, but they were then changed into a style more consistent with other Ivy books by three great illustrators. I do get credited for Illustration Concept, but would love to illustrate my own books in the future.

It’s quite unusual to see detailed brain wiring diagrams and experiments illustrated in a popular science book. Was this something you had in mind from the start?

NE: Yes. Jacqui Sayers, the book’s original editor was very keen on doing something visually different with the book, to try and make some of the arcane aspects of science more accessible to the public. I tried to illustrate the various steps in an experiment in a way that could be easily understood. We also tried not to dumb down how the information is presented, which is why there are quite a few complex diagrams detailing the avian brain’s wiring patterns. Also, it is called Bird Brain! However, the brain is said to be the most complicated object in the known universe, so it would be a travesty to present it too simply. We think we’ve achieved the right balance.

Why do you think birds have been maligned for so long?

NE: The term ‘birdbrain’ is part of our language. Our ancestors knew more about the capabilities of our feathered cousins than we did, until very recently. They feature as the clever protagonists of many fables and legends, including origin stories concerning the beginning of the world. Although somewhat fanciful, there is a lot of truth – at least in terms of their behaviour and intelligence – about these birds. A bigger issue is that most people have little experience of birds, outside of pigeons, chickens, ducks and sparrows, and they wouldn’t know what constitutes intelligence. You see an animal using a tool, such using a stick to move food into reach, and it is easy to use your own experience to understand that this requires some intelligence. This is possibly why a video of a New Caledonian crow solving a problem requiring 8 different steps has received over 10 million hits on YouTube. It just looks clever. Compare that to a study of long-term memory, such as remembering where something was hidden 6 months ago. This doesn’t translate very well to a single video. All the relevant information about what maybe going on in the bird’s mind when it’s recovering a memory of a past caching event, such as ‘where or when did I hide that worm?’ is hidden in the details of the experiment rather than a video clip. Our perception of all animals is guided by what we see in front of us, and its relationship to our past experiences. Unfortunately, our day-to-day view of the natural world is not enhanced by a Sir David Attenborough voice over. This clouds our view of an animal’s intelligence more than any particular aspect of their behaviour.

What would you say were your most important findings about clever birds?

NE: There are three pieces of research of which I’m the proudest. The first is the study that I mentioned earlier, that scrub-jays are protective of their caches by implementing different strategies to reduce the chance of them being pilfered. The most intriguing fact about this, is that not all scrub-jays do this. It’s not an innate response to being watched. Only birds that have previous experience of being thieves protect their caches – it takes a thief to know a thief! Birds without such experience, do not protect their caches. They are too naïve to know that the world is a bad place until they experience otherwise. This finding has been proposed as evidence that jays have a theory of mind – thinking about another’s thoughts. However, I’m not sure that this is akin to human theory of mind or a process that is special to creatures who cannot speak.

The second finding is a series of studies on tool-related cognition in rooks; namely whether they are capable of creating novel tools to solve unique problems, such as bending a wire to reach and pull up a bucket containing a treat, or placing stones into a water-filled tube to raise the water level to reach a treat floating on the surface. There is no evidence that rooks use tools in the wild, so it is striking that in captivity they can do things that great apes have yet to demonstrate. One of my greatest loves is designing experiments, especially new cognitive tasks. I have notebooks filled with my experimental designs, and we’re currently testing the problem-solving abilities of the famous ravens at the Tower of London using some of these new designs. It’s extremely rewarding when others adopt your tasks, especially when they add their own improvements and test them on their own species. One case is the Water Displacement Task, my ex-PhD student Chris Bird and I adapted from Aesop’s Fable ‘The Crow and the Pitcher’, that has now been used to test rooks, New Caledonian crows, Eurasian jays, western scrub-jays, grackles and young children. It’s one of the challenges of comparative psychology to develop tasks that assess cognitive differences across species that aren’t based on simpler factors, such as visual acuity or manual dexterity. Certainly for birds, the Aesop’s Fable Task appears to be achieving this aim.

The final contribution for which I’m proudest is not the result of an experiment, but an idea. Nicky and I wrote a review paper in the journal Science in 2004 in which we proposed that crow and ape intelligence is an example of convergent evolution – namely that complex cognition evolved in these distantly related animals due to facing similar selection pressures, such as living in complex social groups or having to find and process a range of foods, some that are difficult to acquire or with external defences. This idea lead to me coining the term ‘feathered apes’ for corvids. It is gratifying to see this has become part of the scientific furniture where the general public just accepts that crows are smart, and just as smart as apes, dolphins and elephants.

Nathan Emery is Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Biology at Queen Mary University of London, UK has studied the intelligence of corvids, and parrots, as well as apes and monkeys for the last 20 years. Emery is the co-editor Social Intelligence: From Brain to Culture and The Cognitive Neuroscience of Social Behaviour, and is on the editorial board of the journals. He is the author of Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence, a visually stunning guide to the brain, behaviour and cognition of our feathered friends. Emery’s work has been extensively covered by international newspapers and magazines, in books, and on TV. He is currently working with the ravens at the Tower of London.

Bird Fact Friday – Do birds have a prefrontal cortex?

From page 26 of Bird Brain:

In the mammalian brain, the prefrontal cortex is a center of intelligence—it has a role in personality, self-awareness, problem-solving, and in executive functions such as planning, flexibility, and working memory. In birds, scientists have determined through studies of behavior, neural connectivity, and neurochemistry that the caudolateral part of the nidopallium (NCL) is the avian equivalent of the prefrontal cortex. Even pigeons are known to achieve executive functions traditionally attributed to the prefrontal cortex, including working memory, planning, flexible thinking, and attending to objects of interest.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Announcing Britain’s Birds

BirdsWe’re thrilled to announce the release of Britain’s Birds, an essential addition to any birder’s collection.  This user-friendly guide for beginner and experienced birders includes comprehensive coverage of every bird recorded in Britain and Ireland, distribution maps and migration routes, as well as a wealth of tips for identifying birds in the wild. To learn more about the book, listen to a podcast the authors recorded with Talking Naturally, and watch the trailer for a glimpse of the beautiful full color interior. Put together by a group of life-long birders, the book is comprehensive, practical, and full of color images of every plumage you are likely to see in the UK.

 

 

 

The team behind Britain’s Birds:

Rob Hume, a freelance writer and editor for 35 years and editor of RSPB publications from 1983 to 2009, was Chairman of the British Birds Rarities Committee, and has led wildlife holidays in the UK, Europe and Africa. Robert Still, co-founder and publishing director of WILDGuides, is an ecologist and widely travelled naturalist. Andy Swash has been involved professionally in nature conservation since 1977 and is managing director of WILDGuides. A renowned photographer, he leads photographic tours worldwide, and has devised, co-authored and edited many books. Hugh Harrop founded the ecotourism business Shetland Wildlife and is one of Shetland’s top birders and naturalists. His award-winning photographs have been published throughout Europe and North America. David Tipling, one of the world’s most widely published wildlife photographers, is author or commissioned photographer for many books and writes regularly for leading wildlife and photographic magazines.

Bird Fact Friday – What do we know about the bird brain?

From page 22 of Bird Brain:

Despite more than 100 years of study, we know very little about the structure and function of the avian brain. There are approximately 10,000 species of birds, all with different brain architectures. What we do know about the avian brain is restricted to a few species: the pigeon, the domestic chick, and a few songbirds. None of these species figure in the list of world’s smartest birds. With more research, we will gain a deeper understanding of avian intelligence.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Bird Fact Friday – Why do birds have a reputation for lack of intelligence?

We have officially concluded our Firefly Fact Friday feature. Thanks to everyone who commented on and shared the series! This week, we’re bringing back Bird Fact Friday with a fun tidbit from one of our newest titles in Birds & Natural History. Check this space every week for a new fact from Bird Brain by Nathan Emery.

From page 17 of Bird Brain:

Nathan Emery argues that birds are not as dimwitted as has been previously thought—in fact, many of them exhibit remarkable intelligence. This ill-founded assumption can be traced back to a comparative anatomist of the 19th century by the name of Ludwig Edinger. In an encyclopedia of animal brains, Edinger posited that bird brains are composed largely of the striatum, the part of the brain responsible for instinctual or species-typical behavior, with little or no areas responsible for thinking, such as the cortex. He believed that if the bird brain evolved from the striatum, then birds should not be capable of thought. Edinger’s ideas held sway well into the twentieth century despite studies on bird intelligence that contradicted his hypothesis.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Sara Lewis: Why we must keep the fires of the magical firefly burning

Once upon a time, fireflies were abundant throughout Japan. For more than 1,000 years, these glowing harbingers of summer shone brilliantly through the fabric of Japanese culture, which celebrated them in poetry and art. During the late 1800s, hundreds of city dwellers journeyed to the countryside to view their dazzling displays. In 1902, Lafcadio Hearn, the acclaimed English-language author and interpreter of Japanese culture, described this summertime spectacle:

Myriads of fireflies dart from either bank, to meet and cling above the water. At moments they so swarm together as to form what appears to the eye like a luminous cloud, or like a great ball of sparks.

Sometimes, when many fireflies gathered together, they all glowed slowly on then off again in unison, as if the air itself was breathing. Yet within just a few decades, these beloved insects would be nearly extinguished from the Japanese countryside.

Best-known among Japan’s 50 different firefly species is the Genji firefly, Luciola cruciata. With its fast-flowing rivers and streams, Japan provides ideal habitats for this firefly, whose life cycle is intimately tied to water. Females lay their eggs along mossy riverbanks, and newly hatched larvae crawl down into the water. As juveniles, these aquatic fireflies spend several months underwater, feasting on freshwater snails. Eventually, the young fireflies crawl back onto land, before metamorphosing into the familiar adults. As forerunners of early summer, Genji fireflies’ lime-green lights float silently over the water, mysterious and otherworldly.

Why did they fade away into glowing ghosts? Although Japanese fireflies faced many hazards, perhaps the most destructive was overharvesting, followed by habitat degradation.

During the Meiji period (1868-1912), the popular summer pastime of firefly-watching segued into commercial firefly harvesting. Live fireflies were in vogue, and people were willing to pay good money to enjoy their luminous beauty closer to home. Setting up shop in prime firefly locations, firefly wholesalers hired dozens of local firefly hunters. A single skilled hunter could bag up to 3,000 wild fireflies per night, working sunset to sunrise. In the morning, shop owners carefully packaged up the night’s catch and dispatched cages full of live fireflies to clients in Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo, where the insects were released into hotel, restaurant and private gardens so that city dwellers might enjoy their brightly glowing show.

Japanese fireflies, harvested for their beauty, were being loved to death. As the demand for live fireflies grew, wild populations began to decline. Apparently no one cared that, once harvested, adult fireflies survived only a week or two; when they died, they were just replaced with freshly harvested new ones. And apparently no one cared that firefly hunters indiscriminately harvested not just the males, but also the precious egg-laying females, thereby extinguishing the only hope fireflies had to replenish their own populations. At the same time, rapid industrialisation and urban development led to the degradation of the fireflies’ natural habitat, as industrial effluent, agricultural runoff and household sewage flowed freely into rivers. River pollution curtailed the survival of the aquatic juveniles, and killed off their snail prey.

By the early 1920s, people took notice of the fact that firefly populations around Japan were thinning out. In response, the Japanese government in 1924 established the first National Natural Monument, providing legal protection for the Genji firefly habitat. Local communities undertook municipal projects to clean up their rivers, while commercial harvesting of wild fireflies was regulated, then banned altogether. Numerous private citizens attempted to raise the aquatic fireflies in captivity, using trial and error to coddle them through each life stage. Once these artificial breeding programmes determined how to rear large numbers of firefly larvae, they were reintroduced into rivers to bolster dwindling natural populations. While Japanese fireflies have never been restored to their former glory days, a predictably sad saga was transformed into a conservation success story by an impressive combination of national, local and private efforts. Now, Genji fireflies have become a symbol of national pride and Japanese environmentalism.

So what lessons can the United States take from this Japanese tale?

For nearly half a century, fireflies in the US were also harvested – this time, though, it was for their chemicals. Beginning around 1960, what’s now the Sigma-Aldrich chemical company of St Louis in Missouri extracted light-producing chemicals from fireflies that had been harvested from wild populations. Sigma enlisted thousands of collectors, across 25 Midwestern and Eastern states, to collect and process more than 3 million fireflies every summer. After extracting the firefly chemicals, the company marketed bioluminescence kits that were widely used in medical research and food-safety testing.

Fortunately for fireflies, in 1985 scientists developed synthetic versions of these chemicals that are both cheaper and more reliable, obviating the need to harvest wild fireflies. Yet near Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a mysterious gentleman named Dwight Sullivan was, even as recently as 2014, still paying collectors who harvested more than 40,000 wild fireflies that summer.

North America has more than 120 different firefly species. Some are abundant and widespread; others are rare, with restricted distributions. Surely we have plenty of fireflies! I suppose the Japanese thought so, too. And US fireflies are also threatened by habitat degradation, as well as by light pollution and pesticide use.

The first lesson is that fireflies are not an inexhaustible resource. We need to ban their commercial harvesting as an unjustifiable activity that exploits our shared natural heritage.

The second lesson is the need for habitat protection, specifically where species of particular cultural, ecological or economic interest live. Worldwide, that includes not just the Genji fireflies of Japan, but also the congregating mangrove fireflies of Thailand and Malaysia, and the winter fireflies of Taiwan. Right now, firefly ecotourism for two distinctive US species is escalating: the unique Blue Ghost fireflies (Phausis reticulata) found in DuPont State Forest in North Carolina, among other places, and the synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Japan has now designated 10 national monuments around the country that legally protect firefly habitats. In both Thailand and Malaysia, firefly sanctuaries have recently been established along mangrove rivers to safeguard prime sites for firefly ecotourism. In Taiwan, two firefly species enjoy legal habitat protection. In 2014, China set up a firefly preserve outside of Nanjing. Yet in the US, fireflies have no special protection.

If other countries can do it, why can’t the US – proactively setting aside just a few places where fireflies now thrive? Working with local, state and national conservation organisations, we can start by establishing firefly sanctuaries and management plans for existing ecotourist sites. We could also identify and protect biodiversity hotspots known to support many different firefly species.

We all dream about the kind of world that we want our children to inherit. Now is the time to work together to preserve for future generations these brilliant emissaries of nature’s magic.

Fireflies spark childhood memories, transform ordinary landscapes, and rekindle our sense of wonder (photo by Tsuneaki Hiramatsu).

Fireflies spark childhood memories, transform ordinary landscapes, and rekindle our sense of wonder (photo by Tsuneaki Hiramatsu).

Sara Lewis is a professor of biology at Tufts University. Her latest book is Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies (2016). She lives in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Firefly Fact Friday – How fireflies are beautiful—and useful

Just in time for Firefly Fact Friday, a new adapted excerpt from Silent Sparks over at Ideas.Ted.com tells us how fireflies can actually be beneficial to the health of humans:

Firefly light isn’t just useful to fireflies. Before electricity, of course, firefly light had many uses. I’ve heard oldsters around the world tell stories about gathering fireflies to use at night for reading, for biking and for walking along forest paths. But scientific discoveries about the chemistry behind firefly bioluminescence have paved the way for even wider practical applications. Fireflies’ light-producing talent has provided invaluable tools for improving public health, for facilitating innovative research, and for advancing medical knowledge.

Lewis goes on to describe how the food industry has long used fireflies’ light reaction to detect food contamination, and have also helped scientists develop new forms of noninvasive imaging to see what’s happening inside living organisms.

Read the full piece online

Silent Sparks
The Wondrous World of Fireflies
Sara Lewis

LewisFor centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.

For more information, visit Sara Lewis’s website! To check out some cool firefly videos, find her on Vimeo.

Firefly Fact Friday – Energy Efficient Bugs

This week’s Firefly Fact is from Sara Lewis, author of Silent Sparks:

Fireflies make their light with higher efficiency than any other bioluminescent creature. Although often quoted as nearly 100%, recent measurements of quantum yield estimate fireflies’ efficiency to be closer to 40% (Niwa et al. 2010). This means that 4 photons of light get emitted for every 10 luciferin molecules chemically transformed. Compared to the typical incandescent light bulb, which shines with efficiency only around 10%, this is still quite impressive.

Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies
Sara Lewis

LewisFor centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.

For more information, visit Sara Lewis’s website! To check out some cool firefly videos, find her on Vimeo.

K. Niwa, Y. Ichino, and Y. Ohmiya. 2010. Quantum yield measurements of firefly bioluminescence using a commercial luminometer. Chemical Letters, Vol. 39: 291-293.

Global Firefly Conservation

This week, we have a special feature from Sara Lewis, author of Silent Sparksfor Firefly Fact Friday.

By Sara Lewis

Here in the Anthropocene, firefly populations worldwide are threatened by habitat loss and light pollution. Another less widely recognized threat is commercial harvesting of fireflies taken from wild populations. In Japan a hundred years ago, firefly wholesalers harvested millions of Genji fireflies and sold them for their luminous beauty. In the United States fifty years ago, millions of fireflies were harvested and sold to extract their light-producing chemicals. And in China, right now, commercial firefly harvesting is flaring up again in a dangerous new incarnation: firefly theme parks.

In June 2016, a story in the Taiwanese  press reported that to entertain customers, North First Park in Chengdu released 100,000 imported fireflies from a large glass box. Hundreds of spectators enjoyed watching escaping fireflies fly up into the night sky and flicker down to the ground. Yet knowledge of firefly biology quickly reveals the ecological disaster behind this seemingly innocent entertainment. The spectators’ glee – along with the fireflies – was short-lived, because adult fireflies only survive for a week or so. Also, fireflies have very specific habitat requirements, so they are not likely to survive outisde their native habitat.

Where did these theme park fireflies come from? We don’t really know. In the past, Chinese organizers of similiar commercial firefly exhibitions have claimed that all the fireflies they released were raised in captivity. Yet to artificially breed 100,000 fireflies from egg to adult would be technically challenging and quite costly. Instead, it seems most likely that all these fireflies had been harvested from wild firefly populations somewhere in China.

Does harvesting a million fireflies matter? Yes. Based on past experience, we already know that overharvesting can put fireflies at risk. During the early 1900s Genji fireflies were nearly extinguished from the Japanese countryside by commercial overharvesting. In the United States, beginning in the 1950s many different firefly species were commercially harvested in massive numbers (surprisingly, this practice persists in some places. While a few very abundant fireflies species might be able to tolerate such heavy harvesting, less common and more localized firefly species would be driven to extinction.

China is a country imbued with much ancient wisdom, vast natural resources, and impressive technological expertise. Yet without some protection, rapid urban growth and economic expansion will inevitably put Chinese fireflies at risk. To conserve fireflies for future generations to enjoy, commercial harvesting from wild populations should be banned, both in China and in the United States.

Learn more about commercial harvesting of fireflies in the U.S. and in Japan in Silent Sparks.

Lewis

The making of a field guide in Ecuador: an interview with Nick Athanas and Paul Greenfield

birds of western ecuador athanas jacketIn Birds of Western Ecuador: A Photographic Guide, Nick Athanas and Paul Greenfield provide a practical field guide for birders wanting to explore the region. Filled with bright and beautiful photographs, their extensively researched and photographed volume is a striking guide for the area’s birds, with nearly every species in Western Ecuador included. Recently, both authors agreed to answer some questions about their personal passions for the project.

Why did you want to write Birds of Western Ecuador?

NA: I had been photographing birds in South America for about ten years, and had built up a sizable collection of nice images. I wanted to do something useful with them. Since I am also a birder and a birding tour guide based in Ecuador, a field guide to the region was an obvious project to think about. Iain Campbell, longtime friend and business partner, was working on a photographic guide for Australia, and encouraged us to do it; he put us in contact with Robert Kirk at Princeton University Press.

PG: Ecuador is a huge country in terms of bird species diversity, and with the advent of digital photography, actually capturing nice images of much of its avifauna made doing such a project a viable possibility. When the project was first presented to me by Nick and Iain, I hesitated a bit, only because I had already spent over 20 years working on the painted illustrations of the Birds of Ecuador, but after looking over some of the proposed shots, the idea of presenting a photographic testimonial to the Ecuador’s rich birdlife instantly became very attractive.

What is your target audience?

NA & PG: Our book targets English-speaking birders visiting western Ecuador, either on their own or on an organized tour. We assumed no previous birding experience in the Neotropics. However, the guide will be useful and inspiring for anyone with an interest in the birds of the region, even those with a lot of experience birding the Neotropicals. We excluded photos of some species that are very rare visitors to the region in order make the book smaller and more user-friendly, but it will have everything most visiting birders will see on a typical trip to western Ecuador. The excluded species are also usually mentioned in the text so that readers are aware of them. While not specifically designed for it, the guide also covers the vast majority of birds occurring in southwestern Colombia and northwestern Peru.

So this is a real field guide, and not just a collection of pretty bird photos?

NA & PG: Absolutely, this is a field guide. It was designed to help identify birds. The photos were chosen to show the relevant field marks, the text is extensive and helps to distinguish between similar species, and the range maps are completely new and based on up to date sighting information. Text, species accounts, and maps are all laid out side-by-side and everything is indexed.

Do you believe photographs can be as effective as paintings in a field guide?

NA: With good photos and clear text, I really do believe that. It would have been impossible even just five years ago. With the amazing recent technological advances in digital cameras, it is now possible to get great shots of shy rainforest species in natural light that were impossible before. The better gear also has led to an explosion in interest in wildlife photography, so there are a lot more people out there shooting bird photos. There are now good images available of the vast majority of the world’s bird species. A clear, sharp photo can show a bird’s important field marks at least as well as a good painting, and can even reveal features that other field guides might overlook.

PG: Having experience with both bird photography and painting, I believe that each presents effective, but slightly different strengths for illustrating field guides. Bird painting, with its respective pros and cons, can be quite effective—through hardly noticeable distortions—in presenting field marks from above and below a bird at the same time, as well as creating a sense of wondrous anticipation in the viewer. Bird photography presents the ‘real’ image of the actual species—it brings in the element of reality with ‘real-time’ accuracy when it comes to field-marks, ‘attitude’ and expression.

Were you able to get all the photos you needed?

NA & PG: All but a few. There were two species that we could not find any photos which were of high enough quality to publish: Berlepsh’s Tinamou and Colombian Crake. There were a few species where we could not find photos of one of the sexes. There are also a few of marginal quality, but in general we are extremely happy with the selection of photos. About half the photos are Nick’s, but we also invested a huge amount of time looking for other photos and contacting dozens of talented photographers. In the end, over 70 photographers contributed shots to Birds of Western Ecuador. It includes images of nearly 950 species. To put that in perspective, that’s more bird species than are found in all of the continental US.

This guide only covers half of Ecuador. Why?

NA & PG: We did not think we had the photos to do the entire country, nor did I we think we would be able to get them in the few years we had to write this book. Eastern Ecuador has significantly more species, and many of them are rainforest birds that are extremely hard to find and see, never mind photograph. Western Ecuador was a manageable starting place, and even still it was a far larger project than we anticipated.

Will you write a companion volume?

NA & PG: If this book is well-received, and if PUP is interested, we’d like to write another volume. It could be for eastern Ecuador, or possibly for the whole country. Most of Ecuador’s birds are in the East, so including everything won’t make the book proportionally that much larger. I think that in the years that have passed since we started Birds of Western Ecuador, many more species have been photographed, so that we should be able to obtain nice shots of almost all of Ecuador’s birds by the time a companion volume is finished.

Some people may see all these photos of amazingly colorful birds and be inspired to visit. When is the best time of year?

NA & PG: Come any time! We go out birding any month of the year and always find great birds. June-September are usually the driest months, and January to May are usually the wettest months. A lot of people like to visit the Northwest in the intermediate months of October-November since some rain is good for activity but it usually isn’t too much. January in the Southwest is usually great because the rains are just starting, the birds are singing, but the trees still haven’t leafed out much so the birds are easier to spot and enjoy. But really, if you can only come at a certain time, by all means do so.

Do you have a favorite bird?

NA: I have many! Hard to pick favorites when there are so many amazing choices. One of them, however, is definitely the Velvet-purple Coronet that went on the cover. It’s such a uniquely-colored hummer and its shimmering hues change depending on the angle and the lighting conditions.

PG: I have always said that my favorite bird is the one I am looking at ‘right now’, and I believe that’s really true. I especially get a kick out of remembering the circumstances when I first saw a species, each time I see it again; but how can you not go nuts with tanagers, hummingbirds, trogons, cotingas, antbirds, toucans… well all of them!

Nick Athanas is cofounder of the tour company Tropical Birding. He leads bird tours throughout the Neotropics and has photographed more than 2,500 bird species. Paul J. Greenfield is a longtime resident of Ecuador, where he leads bird tours and is active in bird conservation. He is the coauthor and illustrator of The Birds of Ecuador. Together they have written Birds of Western Ecuador: A Photographic Guide.

Firefly Fact Friday – Winning the reproductive game

“Although [Photinus fireflies] mated only once each night, it turned out that both sexes took many different mates over their two-week adult lives. I understand how this might seem like an esoteric bit of knowledge. But while gallivanting males were no surprise, the discovery that firefly females had multiple mating partners had huge implications…. What difference does all this make? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Widespread female promiscuity challenged everything we thought we knew about sexual selection…. Discovery of female infidelity opened an exciting new frontier known as postcopulatory sexual selection. Over the past two decades, behavioral ecologists have unearthed some surprising strategies that animals use during and after mating to win this ongoing reproductive game.” p. 47

To find out how female fireflies engage in postcopulatory sexual selection, and what males do to increase their chances of siring offspring, read Silent Sparks! 

Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies
Sara Lewis

LewisFor centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.

For more information, visit Sara Lewis’s website! To check out some cool firefly videos, find her on Vimeo.

Happy Father’s Day with Donald Kroodsma

In Listening to a Continent Sing, Donald Kroodsma tells the story of the ten-week, ten-state cross-country bike tour he took with his son, David, to listen to the different birds that live all over the United States. In celebration of Father’s Day, here is a sampling of one of the many entries. Be sure to visit the author’s companion website to hear the birds for yourself.

Pacific

On July 7, Day 65 of the journey, Kroodsma and his son prepared to leave Dixie Summit for Dayville, Oregon.

Back at the campsite I find David eating breakfast. I join him, and we gradually pack up and ready our departure. “July 7, 7:52 a.m.,” I announce into my recorder. “We’re about the drop down off Dixie Pass, biking downhill for 53 easy miles beside the John Day River, dropping almost 2000 feet to where we’ll spend the night as guests at the Presbyterian church in Dayville.” To David’s playful, muted strains of “happy birthday to you,” we mount our bikes, aim them west, and begin coasting…. All around us are those exhumed bits and pieces of oceanic islands that were scraped off the Pacific plate…. Dayville arrives quickly, and with permission kindly granted we’re soon camped inside the church. After a quick visit to the nearby general store, David prepares a feast fit for any birthday, topped off with two brownies laden with 57 candles, enough to create a conflagration (wisely, I note, he has a bucket of water nearby, just in case). “Happy birthday, Pops,” smiles David as he unveils my birthday present: a second Super Soaker water cannon to match my Father’s Day present, which David still carries, but this new one is entrusted to me. p. 252-253

31-94_SilhouettesAtPacific

To learn more about the book, check out a Q&A with the author at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology blog, All About Birds.