A Scientist Tried To Determine Whether Mice Like Art


Scientists study a lot of crazy things, but it’s rarely that I look at a study and think it must have been a joke (not unless it’s April 1st). But this weekend I found “Preference for and discrimination of paintings by mice” by Shigeru Watanabe of Keio University in Tokyo, which was published last week in PLOS One.

It’s real.

The experiment begins with a box with three rooms. Two of the rooms each had a transparent wall behind which was an iPod that cycled through 10 images, changing the image every 10 seconds. The first test had paintings from two abstract artists, Kandinsky in one room and Mondrian in the other. Over a six-day period in which mice lived in the three-roomed box, only one mouse out of 20 spent more time in one of the artist’s rooms over the other; he preferred Kandinsky. The experiment was repeated with paintings from Renoir, an impressionist, and the cubist Picasso. Again, one mouse preferred one artist (Renoir), but the rest did not.

Watanabe was able to show that the mice could distinguish between two artists by conditioning them to associate a shot of morphine with works by one artist. When placed in the three-roomed box, they spent more time in the room with the paintings that they had once received morphine upon viewing. When they aren’t conditioned, though, mice appear not to care about art.

What you might find even more surprising is that this is not the first time that Watanabe has done a study like this. In his introduction, he summarizes similar studies he has made of birds, including a study of Java sparrows in which “six of seven birds preferred cubist paintings to impressionist paintings,” and several findings in pigeons. “Pigeons can discriminate paintings by Monet from those by Picasso, paintings by Chagall from those by Van Gogh, and Japanese paintings from impressionist paintings,” he writes. He has “also shown discrimination of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ children’s paintings by pigeons.”

Huh. Though this does leave me wondering how in the world Watanabe distinguished between “good” and “bad” art done by kids — even parents have a hard time doing that.

Image (Picasso’s Nude Standing by the Sea at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) courtesy of flickr user Wally Gobetz

To Count Bird Diversity In The Forest, Listen In The Morning

forestkingfisherIf you want to figure out how many different species of birds are in a forest, all you have to do is listen. But there are a few ways you can go about such a study: You and your colleagues can hang out in the forest for 12 hours a day, five days a week. Or you can set up microphones and record the forest sounds for analysis back in the lab, in which case you’ve got a few more options — let a computer listen and identify species, make your students listen to all of it, or listen to only some of the recordings.

But which way is best? The computer isn’t quite talented enough at this point, and though students are cheap, they’re not cheap enough to listen to all of the sound you’d collect. So the options are to count in person or listen to only some of the recordings. But which ones? And are they better than going into the forest yourself?

To figure that out, researchers from Queensland University of Technology in Australia set out to determine how many species of birds were in a eucalyptus forest in southeast Queensland. The study (in press) appears online in Ecological Applications.

They recorded five days of sounds from several sites in the forest and also had two experienced bird surveyors conduct on-site surveys of those areas at dawn, noon, and dusk for five days. Once the recordings were back in the lab, they were sampledĀ in one-minute bites in five different ways (listening to recordings longer than 240 minutes is cost prohibitive and impractical for most researchers): randomly over the 24-hour period, randomly only in the three hours after dawn, randomly only in the three hours before dusk, randomly after dawn and before dusk, and every half hour over the full 24 hours.

Across all the sites in the forest, the researchers found 96 species using acoustic methods and 66 species with the traditional, in-person survey. And when they looked at their samplings of the acoustic data, they were able to find the most species in those three hours right after dawn, almost twice as many as can be found in the same time by the traditional method.

Sampling the recordings isn’t perfect — it doesn’t find all species, especially rare and cryptic ones — but the researchers say that using a computer to help identify the parts of a recording more likely to have a bird call would help avoid getting random samples of only wind. Thus, combining computer analysis with human listeners of these recorded forest sounds could help scientists get a better picture of biodiversity.

Relying solely on the computer to identify so many species isn’t an option for now, the researchers say, because the programs are plagued with false positives and negatives. However, one day they may get good enough that they can detect birds with high accuracy and cut out the need for humans to listen to hours of sound. (But there’s something about that that makes me a little sad.)

Image of a forest kingfisher courtesy of JJ Harrison, via wikimedia commons