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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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Land Cover CCI, ESA
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Afternoon Map
European Space Agency Releases First High-Res Land Cover Map of Africa
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Land Cover CCI, ESA

This isn’t just any image of Africa. It represents the first of its kind: a high-resolution map of the different types of land cover that are found on the continent, released by The European Space Agency, as Travel + Leisure reports.

Land cover maps depict the different physical materials that cover the Earth, whether that material is vegetation, wetlands, concrete, or sand. They can be used to track the growth of cities, assess flooding, keep tabs on environmental issues like deforestation or desertification, and more.

The newly released land cover map of Africa shows the continent at an extremely detailed resolution. Each pixel represents just 65.6 feet (20 meters) on the ground. It’s designed to help researchers model the extent of climate change across Africa, study biodiversity and natural resources, and see how land use is changing, among other applications.

Developed as part of the Climate Change Initiative (CCI) Land Cover project, the space agency gathered a full year’s worth of data from its Sentinel-2A satellite to create the map. In total, the image is made from 90 terabytes of data—180,000 images—taken between December 2015 and December 2016.

The map is so large and detailed that the space agency created its own online viewer for it. You can dive further into the image here.

And keep watch: A better map might be close at hand. In March, the ESA launched the Sentinal-2B satellite, which it says will make a global map at a 32.8 feet-per-pixel (10 meters) resolution possible.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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iStock
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Scientists May Have Found the Real Cause of Dyslexia—And a Way to Treat It
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iStock

Dyslexia is often described as trying to read letters as they jump around the page. Because of its connections to reading difficulties and trouble in school, the condition is often blamed on the brain. But according to a new study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the so-called learning disability may actually start in the eyes.

As The Guardian reports, a team of French scientists say they've discovered a key physiological difference between the eyes of those with dyslexia and those without it. Our eyes have tiny light-receptor cells called rods and cones. The center of a region called the fovea is dominated by cones, which are also responsible for color perception.

Just as most of us have a dominant hand, most have a dominant eye too, which has more neural connections to the brain. The study of 60 people, divided evenly between those with dyslexia and those without, found that in the eyes of non-dyslexic people, the arrangement of the cones is asymmetrical: The dominant eye has a round, cone-free hole, while the other eye has an unevenly shaped hole. However, in people with dyslexia, both eyes have the same round hole. So when they're looking at something in front of them, such as a page in a book, their eyes perceive exact mirror images, which end up fighting for visual domination in the brain. This could explain why it's sometimes impossible for a dyslexic person to distinguish a "b" from a "d" or an "E" from a "3".

These results challenge previous research that connects dyslexia to cognitive abilities. In a study published earlier this year, people with the condition were found to have a harder time remembering musical notes, faces, and spoken words. In light of the new findings, it's unclear whether this is at the root of dyslexia or if growing up with vision-related reading difficulties affects brain plasticity.

If dyslexia does come down to some misarranged light-receptors in the eye, diagnosing the disorder could be as simple as giving an eye exam. The explanation could also make it easy to treat without invasive surgery. In the study, the authors describe using an LED lamp that blinks faster than the human eye can perceive to "cancel out" one of the mirror images perceived by dyslexic readers, leaving only one true image. The volunteers who read with it called it a "magic lamp." The researchers hope to further experiment with it to see see if it's a viable treatment option for the millions of people living with dyslexia.

[h/t The Guardian]

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