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R.I.P., Alex the African Grey Parrot

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Alex, perhaps the best-known parrot in recent history, has died at the age of 31. The cause of death is still being determined (suspected to be aspergillosis, a fungal infection), and is expected to be announced sometime today at a press conference.

Alex was the subject of ongoing research by Dr. Irene Pepperberg. The name is "Alex" is actually an acronym for "Avian Learning EXperiment," and he was noted for his apparent ability to communicate using spoken English, responding to questions and displaying an awareness of quantities (including zero), colors, and a variety of specific objects. Here's more on his abilities from Wikipedia:

Alex had a vocabulary of around 100 words as of 2000, but was exceptional in that he appeared to have understanding of what he said. For example, when Alex was shown an object and is asked about its shape, color, or material, he could label it correctly. If asked the difference between two objects, he also answered that, but if there is no difference between the objects, he said "none." When he was tired of being tested, he will say "I'm gonna go away," and if the researcher displays annoyance, Alex tried to defuse it with the phrase, "I'm sorry." If he said "Wanna banana", but was offered a nut instead, he stared in silence, asked for the banana again, or took the nut and threw it at the researcher. When asked how many objects of a particular color or a particular material are on a tray, he gave the correct answer approximately 80% of the time.

But this doesn't necessarily mean that Alex is "speaking English" in the same way a human would. More from Wikipedia: "However, according to Dr. Pepperberg herself, Alex was not using human language, but rather used 'complex two-way communication.' This means that Alex was able to translate a concept as he understood it into a form comprehensible to humans by using his knowledge of English." Linguist Noam Chomsky argued that Alex's apparent communication skills were merely the result of operant conditioning.

In any case, Alex was a remarkable bird, and will be missed. You can read his obituary, visit a Yahoo Group dedicated to his memory, or check out The Alex Foundation.

For more general information on Alex, start with this 1999 New York Times article about him, or watch video of Alex from Scientific American Frontiers -- scroll down to the "Entertaining Parrots" segment unless you want to watch the whole episode.

UPDATE: A press release has been posted by The Alex Foundation -- no cause of death determined by the necropsy. The New York Times has a great story summarizing Alex's life and Pepperberg's work with him.

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Why Adding Water to Your Whiskey Makes It Taste Better
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Don’t ever let people tease you for watering down your whiskey. If they’re true aficionados, they’ll know that adding a splash of water or a few cubes of ice to your drink will actually enhance its natural flavors. But how can something as flavorless as water make a barrel-aged scotch or bourbon taste even better? Chemists think they’ve found the answer.

As The Verge reports, researchers from the Linnæus University Centre for Biomaterials Chemistry in Sweden analyzed the molecular composition of whiskey in the presence of water. We already know that the molecule guaiacol is largely responsible for whiskey’s smoky taste and aroma. Guaiacol bonds to alcohol molecules, which means that in straight whisky that guaiacol flavor will be fairly evenly distributed throughout the cask. Alcohol is repelled by water, and guaiacol partially so. That means when a splash of the water is added to the beverage the alcohol gets pushed to the surface, dragging the guaiacol along with it. Concentrated at the top of the glass, the whiskey’s distinctive taste and scent is in the perfect position to be noticed by the drinker.

According to the team’s experiments, which they laid out in the journal Scientific Reports [PDF], whiskey that’s been diluted down to 40 percent to 45 percent alcohol content will start to show more guaiacol sloshing near the surface. Most commercial whiskey is already diluted before it's bottled, so the drink you order in a bar should fall within this range to begin with. Adding additional water or ice will boost the flavor-enhancing effect even further.

As for just how much water to add, the paper doesn’t specify. Whiskey lovers will just have to conduct some experiments of their own to see which ratios suit their palate.

[h/t NPR]

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Gray, George Robert; Hullmandel & Walton; Hullmandel, Charles Joseph; Mitchell, D. W / Public Doman
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Animals
DNA Tests Show ‘Extinct’ Penguin Species Never Existed
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Gray, George Robert; Hullmandel & Walton; Hullmandel, Charles Joseph; Mitchell, D. W / Public Doman

Science is a self-correcting process, ever in flux. Accepted hypotheses are overturned in the face of new information. The world isn’t flat after all. Disease isn’t caused by demons or wickedness. And that Hunter Island penguin? Yeah, apparently that was just a figment of our imaginations. Researchers writing in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society say the remains of one supposed species are in fact a “jumbled mixture” of bones from three extant species.

The bones were unearthed in the 1980s during the excavation of a prehistoric trash heap on Tasmania’s Hunter Island. Two scientists named Tets and O’Connor argued that the remains were different enough from other penguins to constitute their own genus and species, one which must have died out during the Holocene epoch. The proud potential penguin parents dubbed the apparently extinct bird Tasidyptes hunterivan, and that was that.

Except that this is science, where no story is ever really over. Other biologists were not satisfied with the evidence Tets and O’Connor presented. There were only four bones, and they all bore some resemblance to species that exist today. Fortunately, in 2017, we’ve got ways of making fossils talk. A research team led by Tess Cole of the University of Otago used DNA barcoding to examine the genetic code of each of the four bones.

“It was a fun and unexpected story,” Cole said in a statement, “because we show that Tasmania’s ‘extinct' penguin is not actually an extinct or unique penguin at all.”

Snares penguins dive into the water.
Snares penguins (Eudyptes robustus).
Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The bones were “a jumbled mixture of three living penguin species, from two genera": the Fiordland crested penguin or Tawaki (Eudyptes pachyrhynchus) and the Snares crested penguin (Eudyptes robustus), both of New Zealand, and the Australian little fairy penguin (Eudyptula novaehollandiae).

“This study shows how useful ancient DNA testing can be,” Cole said. “Not only does it help us identify new but extinct species, but it can help us rule out previously postulated species which did not exist, as in this case.”

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