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Pigeons as Good as Radiologists at Spotting Breast Cancer, Scientists Say

Humans pride ourselves on our supreme intelligence: our clever inventions, and the ability to use them. But the rest of the animal kingdom is gaining on us. Plenty of animals, from octopuses to orangutans, use tools. And now, scientists say, pigeons presented with mammogram results can spot breast cancer.

This sounds completely outrageous—unless you know something about pigeons. They’ve got terrific vision and can learn to use touchscreens. They also consistently outperformed human subjects on a classic logic problem called the Monty Hall dilemma

University of Iowa psychologist Edward Wasserman has studied pigeon cognition for years. "Research over the past 50 years has shown that pigeons can distinguish identities and emotional expressions on human faces, letters of the alphabet, misshapen pharmaceutical capsules, and even paintings by Monet vs. Picasso," Wasserman said this week in a press release. "Their visual memory is equally impressive, with a proven recall of more than 1800 images."

Wasserman’s work caught the eye of Richard Levenson, a pathologist and vice chair of strategic technologies at UC Davis. Levenson wondered if the pigeons could learn to interpret medical images.

This is hardly an easy or straightforward task. Radiologists train for years to learn how to read the nuanced visual information in slides, X-rays, and MRI results. Could a group of pigeons get the basics in just a few days?

They sure could. In a paper published this week in PLOS ONE, Levenson, Wasserman, and their colleagues reported that the trained pigeons could tell the difference between cancerous and normal tissue. And the pigeons were really, really good at it. 

Image Credit: © 2015 Levenson et al

Researchers first trained the pigeons to spot abnormalities using a process called operant conditioning, in which the birds were rewarded with food only when they chose the right image between two histology slides. After only 15 days, the pigeons could easily identify which slides showed cancerous cells and which didn’t. 

To make sure the birds weren’t just memorizing the images, the researchers began using brand-new images that the pigeons had never seen before. The pigeons continued to ace the test, spotting breast cancer with 85 percent accuracy. And it only got better from there: When the researchers combined the results of four birds, the flock’s accuracy rate reached a mind-boggling 99 percent.

The pigeons also learned to scan mammogram results for evidence of cancer in little lumps of calcium called microcalcifications. Again, the pigeons nailed it. Their success rate was lower this time, only 72 percent—but that still puts them on par with human radiologists.

Does this mean we’ll soon have white-coated pigeons in our hospitals? Not exactly. Wasserman and Levenson hope to use the birds’ talent for reading medical images to develop better imaging and image-reading techniques. Pigeons won’t replace radiologists in the clinic, but they may pick up some of the grunt work. 

“While new technologies are constantly being designed to enhance image acquisition, processing, and display, these potential advances need to be validated using trained observers to monitor quality and reliability," Levenson said in the press release. "This is a difficult, time-consuming, and expensive process that requires the recruitment of clinicians as subjects for these relatively mundane tasks.

"Pigeons' sensitivity to diagnostically salient features in medical images suggest that they can provide reliable feedback on many variables at play in the production, manipulation, and viewing of these diagnostically crucial tools, and can assist researchers and engineers as they continue to innovate."

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Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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Squirrels Are Probably More Organized Than You, Study Finds
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Despite having a brain that's slightly bigger than the size of a peanut M&M, squirrels have a fascinating, razor-sharp instinct when it comes to survival. They know that acorns that are high in fat and sprout late are perfect for long-term storage, so they salvage them for winter and eat the less nutritionally dense white-oak acorns right away. They also tend to remember where they put their acorn stash rather than relying solely on smell. Like nature's perfect stunt performer, they can even fall out of trees in a way that minimizes physical damage. Now, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have unveiled a newly discovered part of a squirrel's hoarding strategy, Atlas Obscura reports.

The researchers tracked 45 wild fox squirrels on the UC-Berkeley campus for nearly two years. They made available to the squirrels four different types of nuts—walnuts, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts. Sometimes the animals were given a single type of nut, and other times the nuts were mixed. Either way, the squirrels promptly sorted and stored their food according to type—walnuts went in one hiding place, almonds in another, and so on.

This type of behavior is known as "chunking" and makes it easier to retrieve data in memory. In doing this, a squirrel won't have to visit several different places looking for pecans: They know just where the main supply is. Squirrels can stockpile up to 10,000 nuts a year, so it's essential for them to know which type of nut is where.

The study, published in Royal Society Open Science, also indicated that squirrels seem to understand nuts have weight, choosing to carry heavier acquisitions to a different location than lighter nuts.

Squirrels being squirrels, they were happy to be gifted an assortment of nuts during the experiment, but there was one wrinkle: Rather than stash them away, sometimes they'd just eat them on the spot.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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