Monthly Archives: November 2011

Mirror mirror on the wall: who is the most self-aware of all?

(Photo credit: Diana Reiss for Scientific American)

What happens when you place a mirror inside a dolphin tank? Diane Reiss performed that experiment with bottlenose dolphins, and described the results in the book The Dolphin in the Mirror.

The mirror self recognition (MSR) test has been designed to identify self-awareness in animals. When looking at the mirror, can the animal interpret the image as a reflexion of another animal (as opposed to some meaningless image)? Can it associate that animal with himself? Identify himself as an entity? The mirror test is a simplified way to answer those questions, and was originally created by Gordon Gallup in the 70’s. Chimps were the first to pass the mirror test, followed by the remaining great apes (orangutans, gorillas), bonobos and gibbons. Here’s a baby chimp during the mirror test:

Are primates the only animals with self-awareness?

Dolphins have large brains, complex social structures, and ability to express empathy. Could self awareness be added to that list?  A dolphins starts to seem like the perfect candidate for the mirror test.

Marten and Pasarkos initially applied the mirror test in bottlenose dolphins, followed by Reiss and Marino, who published their work in a PNAS paper. In both cases, mirrors were placed inside the dolphin’s tanks. Marten and Pasarkos mentioned the dolphins quickly respond to the mirror, and described their reaction as: “when a dolphin looks in a mirror it often opens its mouth and moves its head around in some rhythmic fashion”. For the authors, it seems clear that the dolphin is  looking at himself, instead of randomly swimming around. Diane Reiss went a step further and replaced the tank mirror with a much smaller one, in the hopes to quantify time spent by the dolphin in that small section of the tank. The book publisher released some of Reiss’ videos os dolphins in the mirror, so you can see for yourself:

To make sure the dolphins were looking at themselves, Reiss performed the mark test: she applied visible marks and invisible sham-marks (with zinc oxyde or harmless markers) in the dolphin’s body, as shown in the picture below.

(Photo credit: Reiss & Marino, PNAS 2000)

After marking, the dolphins would immediately inspect themselves in the mirror, positioning their body so they could see the mark. Primates would also touch and scratch the mark, but this proves difficult when an animal has no hands. Reiss and co-workers saw the dolphins rubbing their head at the tank walls after marking, presumably trying to remove the mark they just saw in the mirror.

Perhaps the dolphin is not the perfect candidate after all. How do we  translate the mirror and spot test for dolphins, who have no hands and live in an aquatic environment? Perhaps the mirror test is not a perfect test. How do we adapt the test? Dolphins spend less time in front of the mirror than primates, and Martin and Pasarkos attribute it to the fact that dolphins are more “mobile” and less likely to stand still in front of an object. They are also highly social, so their interest in the mirror decreased with the increasing presence of other dolphins. Those are signs of emerging challenges when analyzing a marine mammal with a test that was designed for a primate. (Orcas were also studied, with similar results).

(Photo credit: Plotnik et al, PNAS 2006)

Enters an animal that, even without hands, has a structure adapted for touching and inspection of a mark: an elephant’s trunk.

Diane Reiss went on to collaborate with an elephant self-awareness study. Elephants then passed the mirror test on 2006 (See mirror placement scheme in the image above), and the findings were published  by Plotnik et al (PNAS 2006). Elephants also have big brains and display complex social behavior, and exhibited analogous mirror inspecting behavior when marked:

(Photo credit: Plotnik et al, PNAS 2006)

Curiously, a non-mammal has also passed the mirror test: a magpie (a bird from the crow family). Magpie on the mirror was published by Prior et al in 2008, and the pictures below show a yellow spot marked on the bird, and its inspection behavior:

(Photo credit: Prior et al, PLoS Biology 2008)

(Photo credit: Prior et al, PLoS Biology 2008)

The mirror test, however, is not universal. It is argued that this test is not an absolute measurement of self-awareness. An animal might not know what the mirror is, or not be interested in investigating spots (people suffering from Prosopagnosia – inability to recognize faces – also do not recognize themselves in the mirror). I still think it is a somewhat straightforward way to gain insight into many animal species. I wonder who is going to pass the test next!

Washington, D.C. never ceases to amaze me

(Photo credit: Washington Ballet performing the Great Gatsby, by Dayna Smith for the Washington Post)

What happens when you push a scientist outside the realms of science?

Well, if that scientist is me, and the outside realm is Washington, D.C., then National Zoo and Natural History museum (and events like the Forensic Fridays or Human Origin Topics) are off limits, and Art & History are in!

The Anglo-Saxon hoard

The National Geographic museum is hosting the Lost Gold of the Dark Ages: the mistery of the anglo-saxon hoard exhibit. I first came across this story on the October edition of National Geographic, after reading the article by Caroline Alexander.  Turns out she is also the author of one of my favorite historical nonfiction books, The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, and it tells the tale of one antarctic expedition from the early 1900’s. Ms Alexander’s narrative of a ship trapped in ice is so compelling it transports the reader to the south pole, where man, ponies and dogs on ice were forced to subsist on penguin and seal meat, among other adversities…

But I digress. The Anglo-Saxon hoard is a treasure found in a farm in Stafordshire. It contains pieces believed to be part of sword hilts, helmets and other war gear, mostly made with gold and decorated with garnet. I’ve seen the pictures online and on the magazine, but nothing prepared me for the real thing. No photography was allowed inside the exhibit, so you will have to trust me on this one: seen live, the pieces are a way more intricate and exquisite. Precise tangles of gold depict animals, celt knots, and warrior scenes, suposed to confer a religious or magical quality to the weapons. The level of craftsmanship is unbelievable. Archeology is not in my field of expertise, so instead of saying more, I recommend reading the Nat Geo article.

(Photo credit: Rob Clark for National Geographic)

The Washington Ballet performs The Great Gatsby

After history, it was time for the Arts.

Husband and I went to the Kennedy center to see the Washington Ballet perform the Great Gatsby. The photo above is from the Washington Post, whose review called the performance “disjointed”. I, in the other hand, loved everything about it. For someone constantly in the hunt for modern depictions of Ballet, The Great Gatsby did not disappoint. After watching one thousand performances of the Nutcracker or Cinderella, it is refreshing to find a show on a new theme. The company danced to jazz compositions that gave each character their  own “soundtrack”. The choreography, my favorite part of this production,  was so original it makes the audience forget that this still is, after all, classic ballet.

Russia launches probe to Mars moon carrying exotic passengers

Update (Nov 11th): an engine failure is keeping Phobos-Grunt in Earth’s orbit. Roscosmos still has two weeks to attempt to fix it, but it is not looking good

(Photo credit: Russian Federal Space Agency)

Russia is launching its Phobos-Grunt (meaning Phobos-soil) mission today, November 8th, 2011. The probe will board one of Mars moons, Phobos, collect soil samples and return to earth. The journey will take 34 months and it is Russia’s 18th attempt to reach Mars. This time however, it will carry passengers of 10 different species.

(Phobos. Photo credit NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems)


I am accompanying the countdown for the launch on the left side menu of the Russian Federal Space Agency website. The site is in Russian and not much information is available on the English version. I attempted to apply rudimentary Russian skills – I took Russian 101 back in College – but I still have a hard time reading. I can tell you though, that the pink phrase in the top image means Фобос-Грунт, or Phobos-Grunt, and I identify the Roscosmos (Роскосмос), the nickname for the Russian Space Agency. (My husband also took Russian in college, and lets me know: “it says ‘project’ (проект) over there.”) . Translators can help somewhat but they don’t work for all the pretty schematics of the craft here (Update: it seems Roscosmos took down this page as of Nov 8th. It is back on). For comparison purposes, you can see a picture of the real thing here:

(Photo credit: Roscosmos)

Microorganism passengers

Asides from analyzing samples of soil from the martian moon, Phobos-Grunt will also transport passengers. There is still a long way to go before sending men to Mars – a manned mission would have to withstand radiation and other challenges – so initial experiments are being carried by transportin 10 species of microorganisms on the probe. This is called the LIFE experiment, where LIFE stands for Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment, and you can see the small device that will house the microorganisms below:

(Photo credit: the Planetary Society)

Passengers include life form representatives from each of Earth’s domains: bacteria, archaea (single-celled organisms that were once categorized as bacteria), and eukarya (nucleated cellular individuals, such as animals, plants, etc.)

Life survives in extreme conditions

One of the life forms on board Phobos-Grunt is Pyrococcus furiosus, an archaeon found living inside an Italian volcano, whose optimal growth occurs at 100oC. It is incredible that life survives (and thrives) in hot, highly saline or high pressure environments. Life has been found in deep sea vents or in high salt concentration bodies of water. Could these organisms survive in space?

(Image by the author)

I devoted a chunk of my Phd into studying Pyrococcus woesei, one archaeon from the same genus as the P. furiosus that is going to space. The funny thing is, DNA and proteins from this creature are pretty much alike our own. The picture above is a comparison between pieces of DNA and protein from human (yellow), yeast (blue) and P.woesei. The overlap is almost perfect. Then how is P.woesei able to withstand high salt and temperatures (while we are not)?

(image by the author)

In one of the studies from my doctorate, my co-workers and I looked into the electric charges surrounding one of the P.woesei proteins. Apparently it has a clever mechanism in which negative charges are present (red squiggly things on image above)  to “capture” the salt ions on their environment. This and other features make it stable at temperatures higher than that of boiling water. Imagine what that can tell us about life in space!  Or, even on Earth, it can teach us better ways to store molecules or drugs without worrying about storage temperature.

Mars and its moons are very cold, so the purpose of shipping P. furiosus to Phobos is also temperature control. Asides from learning if the archaeon will survive radiation, the Planetary Society believes it will be able to survive the trip in case temperature controls on board Phobos-Grunt malfunction. Hopefully it will come back alive.

And about coming back…  

(Art by Adoc)

There was some controversy in regards to sending living organisms near Mars. Like something out of Star Trek (think Prime Directive), “Planetary Protection” guidelines aim to prevent biological contamination of planets. The creatures inside LIFE, though, were cleared. As long as they stay far enough away from Mars, and with the guarantee that they will not be left behind.

More detail on the list of species (bacteria Bacillus subtilis, Bacillus safensis, Deinococus radiodurans; eukarya Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Arabidopsis thaliana, tardigrades; and archaea Haloarcula marismortui, Pirococcus furiosus, Methanotermobacter wolfeii) can be found here, or from this article that came via Diego: Scientific American mentions five microorganisms being launched into space towards one of the martian moons .

On Reductionism

(Art by Rory Harper)

“Assume a cow is a sphere” was a common joke from when I was a Computer Science major. It refers to the exhausting reductionism present in most sciences and engineering: breaking up a system in order to study its independent components, or deconstructing it for analysis. Still, reductionism can be a gracious way to show essential information.

The drawing above was made by my husband Rory, architect by trade and artist by heart. For someone who might end up buried in superfluous detail – for example, spending days trying to please a client with different thickness and color of tile –  a little bit of reductionism can be refreshing.

Below is the accompanying caption, by Rory:

Deconstruction of a typical american construction method. Focused more of the structural and skin components rather than include all components of a house (wall insulation, ceiling insulation, floor finishes, gypsum board, paint, trim, window components, lighting fixtures, plumbing fixtures, tile, grout, gutters, downspouts, grounding rods, electrical outlets, and more are missing) – maybe that’s the next step. In the drawing are the following building components: the wood framing, ceiling joists, roof rafters, roof underlayment, floor joists, sub floor, shingles, top plate, bottom plates, CMU foundation, poured concrete footers with wood framing, electrical panel, sewer line, plumbing riser, boiler/furnace stack, exterior ply wood sheeting, water barrier, wood siding, brick plinth.