Thursday, December 21, 2006


This Day in the History of Natural History

On this day in 1988, Dutch-born but naturalized English ethologist Nikolaas "Niko" Tinbergen dies at age 81. Tinbergen was a zoologist who studied the behavior of animals in their natural habitats, who shared with Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1973 for the three's discoveries concerning "organization and elicitation of individual and social behavior patterns." That means they watched animals alone and while reacting to other animals.

He was best known for his long-term field observations of the social patterns, courtship, mating and feeding behavior of seagulls. He was an early half-hearted adherent to sociobiology and was particularly interested in animal aggression. He interpreted the results of his elegant field experiments to explain, for example, that human violence is rooted in an animal instinct for survival. Though gulls were his first and encompassing interest, he also studied sand wasps and stickleback fish (the latter were where his theories on aggression came from).

He was the primary discoverer of super optimal releasers of animal behavior, the most famous of which was the red spot all gulls have near the tip of their bills. Their chicks peck at the red spot and are rewarded for hitting it with regurgitated fish. Where a gull chick would hit the red spot on a perfect replica of an adult gull head, let's say, 100 times an hour, the same gull chick would peck at a red knitting needle, with two thin white stripes for contrast, 150 times per hour. The exaggerated essence of the bill was a super optimal releaser for gull chick peck/begging behavior.

The only one of those I can think of for human behavior is refined sugar. 250 years ago each American consumed barely 5 pounds of sugar per year and few people were obese. Now we consume at least 135 pounds of sugar each year and obesity is a huge problem.

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