Weaver birds’ duet singing and brains

This video says about itself:

White-browed Sparrow-Weaver (Zimbabwe) building a nest. These noisy and social cuties were always around at Nakavango Conservation Centre. May 2015.

From the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft in Germany:

The brains of birds synchronize when they sing duets

Vocal control areas in the brain of weaver birds fire in time when they sing together

June 12, 2019

When a male or female white-browed sparrow-weaver begins its song, its partner joins in at a certain time. They duet with each other by singing in turn and precisely in tune. A team led by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen used mobile transmitters to simultaneously record neural and acoustic signals from pairs of birds singing duets in their natural habitat. They found that the nerve cell activity in the brain of the singing bird changes and synchronizes with its partner when the partner begins to sing. The brains of both animals then essentially function as one, which leads to the perfect duet.

White-browed sparrow-weavers (Plocepasser mahali) live together in small groups in trees in southern and eastern Africa. Each bird has a roosting nest with an entrance and an exit. The dominant pair will have a breeding nest which is easily recognisable by the fact that one passage is closed to prevent eggs from falling out. In addition to the dominant pair, there are up to eight other birds in the group that help build nests and raise the young. All group members defend their territory against rival groups through duets of the dominant pair and choruses together with the helpers.

White-browed sparrow-weavers are one of the few bird species that sing in duet. It was assumed that some cognitive coordination between individuals was required to synchronise the syllables in the duet, however the underlying neuronal mechanisms of such coordination were unknown.

Miniature transmitters enable recording under natural conditions

“White-browed sparrow-weavers cannot develop their complex social structure in the laboratory. We were therefore only able to investigate the mechanisms of the duet singing in the natural habitat of the birds,” says Cornelia Voigt, one of the three lead authors of the study. Because of this, researchers and technicians at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen developed mobile microphone transmitters to record the singing in the wild. These weigh only 0.6 g and were attached to the bird like a backpack.

With another newly developed transmitter, weighing only 1 g, the scientists could also make a synchronous record of the brain activity in the birds while they were singing in their natural environment. An antenna placed near the birds’ tree recorded up to eight of these signals in parallel. With the help of an external sound card and a laptop, the singing and the brain signals were synchronously recorded with millisecond precision. “The technology we have developed must withstand the extreme conditions of the Kalahari Savannah in northern South Africa,” says Susanne Hoffmann, a scientist in the Department of Behavioural Neurobiology. “The electronics for recording the signals were stored in a car. During the day, it got so hot that the laptop almost began to glow. But the recordings all worked well, even when the birds and their transmitters were caught in one of the few downpours.”

Brain activity of the duetting birds synchronizes

Lisa Trost, also a scientist in the department, says: “Fortunately, the procedure for fixing the implants for neuronal measurements on the heads of the birds did not take long. After complete recovery, the respective bird was quickly returned to the group and did not lose its social status. All birds sang in the tree immediately after their return.” The researchers recorded almost 650 duets. In many cases, the males began with the song and the partner joined in after some introductory syllables. The syllables between the duetting pair followed each other without delay and in perfect coordination. The coordination was so precise that analysis showed only a 0.25s delay between the duetting partners’ singing bouts.

The singing of songbirds is controlled by a network of brain nuclei, the vocal control system. In one of these nuclei, the HVC, the call of the partner bird triggers a change in neuronal activity in the bird that began singing. This, in turn, affects its own singing. The result is a precise synchronization of the brain activity of both birds. “The rhythmic duet of the individuals is achieved through sensory information that comes from the partner,” says Manfred Gahr, who led the study. The brains of the partners form a network that functions like an extended circuit to organize the temporal pattern for the duet. The researchers suspect that similar mechanisms are also responsible for coordinating movement during social interactions in humans (e.g. dancing with a partner).

“Until now, this kind of study has only been performed in the laboratory. Measuring the activity of nerve cells in the field using wireless transmitters is much less stressful for the birds,” says Susanne Hoffmann. “We hope this study has laid the foundation for the further development of neuroethology.”


African teams at women’s football World Cup

This 31 May 2019 video says about itself:

Nigeria, Cameroon, South Africa in high spirits ahead of FIFA Women’s World Cup

Africa’s representatives at the Women’s World cup are in high spirits ahead of kick off on June 7.

Nigeria, South Africa and Cameroon have intensified preparations as show time looms.

Nigeria’s Super Falcons are optimistic about their strategies and tactics to top group A. With such determination South Korea, Norway and host nation France face a daunting challenge. ”He [the trainer] wants us to play in the 3-5-2 formation, I think that has been our best formation right now, I think it’s a great improvement for the team’‘, said Super Falcons’ captain, Evelyn Nwabuoku.

New Zealand, Canada and the Netherlands also face a hurdle with Cameroon.

Known as the Indomitable Lionesses and so hungry to win, the three other teams on such a fairly balanced group will have to fight their way through.

Indomitable Lionesses’ goalkeeper, Mireille Mambingo said they are ready to leave no stone unturned.

“Like all lionesses going out hunting, we’re on a hunt and we’ll get our prey, because a lioness never comes home empty-handed’‘, she said.

Although Germany remains number 2 in the world and is unbeaten since losing to France in last year’s Cup, South Africa is also ready to put up a fight, with China and Spain also on the group.

“Today you are good, tomorrow you are better and the other day you’re even greater”, Banyana Banyana’s striker, Thembi Kgatlana said.

‘‘So yes people say we’re in the group of death, but I mean by the time we’ll be at the World Cup we’ll be good as a team and they would not know what to expect from us’‘, she added.

Belgian government apology for stealing African children

This 2015 video is called Human zoos, dunking booths, African dodger, Hit the trigger.

Among the images in this video is an African little girl in a human zoo in Belgium in 1958, fed bananas like a caged ape.

Translated from Dutch NOS TV today:

Belgium apologizes for abducting children from colonies

Belgian Prime Minister Michel will apologize tomorrow at a special ceremony for the way children from mixed relationships were treated in the middle of the last century. The children from Africa, called ‘métis‘ in Belgium, were systematically removed from their mothers and sent to Belgium to grow up in orphanages.

The Catholic Church, which played a major role in abducting the children, already apologized years ago.

In 2017.

The children were Rwandan or Congolese

or Burundian

, those countries were then colonies of Belgium. After they were taken away, they did not automatically acquire Belgian nationality and many have been stateless for years.

The apologies come after last year the parliament called on the government to help those involved to obtain Belgian nationality. The MPs also wanted the victims to get help in the search for their biological parents, especially the mothers.

Now, about 70 years later … when many of the children and nearly all of the parents are already dead …


The discussion about the colonial past is extremely sensitive in Belgium. The renewed Africa Museum was recently reopened, but not by King Philip, precisely because of that sensitivity.

That museum was once built to honour King Leopold II, who considered the resource-rich Congo as his personal colony. The museum has overhauled the old colonial decor and now gives more explanation about the past and the dark sides of the occupation. …

Some more explanation, but not enough yet, according to critics.

Critical report

Belgium also recently refused to apologize after a critical United Nations report, in which the abuses and atrocities committed during the colonial occupation of Congo were denounced.

Tony Blair’s wife’s anti-African racism

This 27 March 2019 video from the USA says about itself:

Cherie Blair said ‘African women‘s first sexual experience is rape’

Some self-styled ‘centrist‘ politicians are emulating the xenophobia of far-right politicians like Donald Trump.

In November 2018, United States Democratic politician Hillary Clinton made ‘Trump-lite’ statements against immigrants.

Donald Trump said about Mexicans: ‘They are rapists’.

And now, Cherie Blair, the ‘centrist‘ wife of Blairitecentrist‘ ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Ms Blair says in fact about African men in general, tarring all of them with the same brush: ‘They are rapists’.

From the Daily Mail in Britain (itself often not free of racism) today:

Cherie Blair causes storm after telling pupils that ‘most African women’s first sexual experience is rape‘ during school talk

Reportedly made the remark to pupils during a talk at London secondary school

By Mary O’Connor

Cherie Blair has claimed that rape is the first sexual experience of ‘most African ladies’.

She is reported to have made the remark during a talk about women and leadership to pupils at a London secondary.

In this case: misleadership.

But an audience member accused the wife of former prime minister Tony Blair of making unsubstantiated claims.

Giving her name only as Caitlin, she said: ‘No one seemed to react and I was shocked because I felt like she was in a position of authority and should take responsibility for saying things like that without any evidence to support it.’

Chi Onwurah, the Labour MP who chairs the all-party group for Africa, said: ‘Mrs Blair should enable African women to speak for themselves instead of usurping their voice and their experience.’

She accused Mrs Blair of reinforcing harmful stereotypes, adding: ‘Violence against women is a huge problem in many African countries – as it is here.

‘But to characterise African women’s sexual experience as rooted in rape undermines the hard work of many to tackle this issue while playing to and indeed stoking stereotypes of sexually aggressive African men and passive women.’

She urged Mrs Blair, 64, to fund the flights and visas for a group of African women to come to the UK to speak about their own experiences. She said this would ‘undo the insult and injury’ her comments had caused.

Caitlin sent a written complaint to the Cherie Blair Foundation, a charity that supports women and girls in developing countries build their own businesses.

Cherie Blair kissing Bush

This photo shows Cherie Blair kissing United States Iraq war president George W. Bush. Apparently, it is easy, if you are right-wing on waging bloody wars in Iraq and all over the world, to then become right-wing on xenophobia as well.

Prehistoric African Homo sapiens, new study

This is a map showing early African archaeological sites with evidence for symbolic material and microlithic stone tools. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Image by Reto Stöckli

From the University of Huddersfield in England:

New light on origins of modern humans

March 20, 2019

Summary: The work confirms a dispersal of Homo sapiens from southern to eastern Africa immediately preceded the out-of-Africa migration.

Researchers from the University of Huddersfield, with colleagues from the University of Cambridge and the University of Minho in Braga, have been using a genetic approach to tackle one of the most intractable questions of all — how and when we became truly human.

Modern Homo sapiens first arose in Africa more than 300,000 years ago, but there is great controversy amongst scholars about whether the earliest such people would have been ‘just like us’ in their mental capacities — in the sense that, if they were brought up in a family from Yorkshire today, for example, would they be indistinguishable from the rest of the population? Nevertheless, archaeologists believe that people very like us were living in small communities in an Ice Age refuge on the South African coast by at least 100,000 years ago.

Between around 100,000 and 70,000 years ago, these people left plentiful evidence that they were thinking and behaving like modern humans — evidence for symbolism, such as the use of pigments (probably for body painting), drawings and engravings, shell beads, and tiny stone tools called microliths that might have been part of bows and arrows. Some of this evidence for what some archaeologists call “modern human behaviour” goes back even further, to more than 150,000 years.

But if these achievements somehow made these people special, suggesting a direct line to the people of today, the genetics of their modern “Khoi-San” descendants in southern Africa doesn’t seem to bear this out. Our genomes imply that almost all modern non-Africans from all over the world — and indeed most Africans too — are derived from a small group of people living not in South Africa but in East Africa, around 60,000-70,000 years ago. There’s been no sign so far that southern Africans contributed to the huge expansion of Homo sapiens out of Africa and across the world that took place around that time.

That is, until now. The Huddersfield-Minho team of geneticists, led by Professor Martin Richards at Huddersfield and Dr Pedro Soares in Braga, along with the eminent Cambridge archaeologist Professor Sir Paul Mellars, have studied the maternally-inherited mitochondrial DNA from Africans in unprecedented detail, and have identified a clear signal of a small-scale migration from South Africa to East Africa that took place at just that time, around 65,000 years ago. The signal is only evident today in the mitochondrial DNA. In the rest of the genome, it seems to have been eroded away to nothing by recombination — the reshuffling of chromosomal genes between parents every generation, which doesn’t affect the mitochondrial DNA — in the intervening millennia.

The migration signal makes good sense in terms of climate. For most of the last few hundred years, different parts of Africa have been out of step with each other in terms of the aridity of the climate. Only for a brief period at 60,000-70,000 years ago was there a window during which the continent as a whole experienced sufficient moisture to open up a corridor between the south and the east. And intriguingly, it was around 65,000 years ago that some of the signs of symbolism and technological complexity seen earlier in South Africa start to appear in the east.

The identification of this signal opens up the possibility that a migration of a small group of people from South Africa towards the east around 65,000 years ago transmitted aspects of their sophisticated modern human culture to people in East Africa. Those East African people were biologically little different from the South Africans — they were all modern Homo sapiens, their brains were just as advanced and they were undoubtedly cognitively ready to receive the benefits of the new ideas and upgrade. But the way it happened might not have been so very different from a modern isolated stone-age culture encountering and embracing western civilization today.

In any case, it looks as if something happened when the groups from the South encountered the East, with the upshot being the greatest diaspora of Homo sapiens ever known — both throughout Africa and out of Africa to settle much of Eurasia and as far as Australia within the space of only a few thousand years.

Professor Mellars commented: “This work shows that the combination of genetics and archaeology working together can lead to significant advances in our understanding of the origins of Homo sapiens.”

Zebra stripes help against flies

This 20 February 2019 video says about itself:

How Do Zebra Stripes Stop Biting Flies?

Scientists learned in recent years why zebras have black and white stripes – to avoid biting flies. But, what is it about stripes that so disrupts a biting fly’s ability to land on a zebra and suck its blood? UC Davis Professor Tim Caro led a series of unique experiments for this study to better understand how stripes manipulate the behavior of biting flies as they attempt to come in for a landing on a zebra.

From PLOS:

Zebra stripes are not good landing strips

Stripes reduce controlled landing by biting flies, supporting the leading hypothesis of their utility

February 20, 2019

The stripes of a zebra deter horse flies from landing on them, according to a new study published February 20, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS One by Tim Caro of the University of California Davis, Martin How of the University of Bristol, and colleagues.

Zebra stripes have been posited to provide camouflage, visually confuse predators, signal to other zebras, or help control heat gain, but none of these hypotheses have withstood rigorous experimentation. An alternative, that stripes somehow reduce the likelihood of being bitten by predatory flies, has gained adherents, but the mechanism has been unclear.

In the new study, the authors compared behavior of horse flies as they attempted to prey on zebras and uniformly colored horses held in similar enclosures. Flies circled and touched horses and zebras at similar rates, but actually landed on zebras less than one-quarter as often. When horses wore a striped, black or white coat, flies landed far less often on the striped coat, but just as often on the uncovered head. The authors found that while flies decelerated prior to landing on horses, they approached zebras at a faster clip and failed to slow down as they closed the distance, often bumping into the zebra before flying away again.

Additionally, zebras were at greater pains to keep flies off through tail swishing and running away.

Taken together, these results indicate that stripes do not deter flies from approaching zebras, but do prevent effective landing, and thus, reduce the number of flies successfully feeding. This finding provides further support for the hypothesis that the evolutionary benefit of zebra stripes is to reduce biting by predatory flies.

The authors add: “Zebra stripes are now believed to have evolved to thwart attack by biting flies. We observed and filmed the behaviour of horse flies near captive zebras and horses and found that flies failed to decelerate close to stripes preventing controlled landings. Combined with zebras’ anti-parasite behavior, few flies landed successfully or probed their hosts for blood.”

New research published in the Journal of Natural History indicates that zebras’ stripes are used to control body temperature after all — and reveals for the first time a new mechanism for how this may be achieved: here.

‘Belgian Africa Museum still neocolonialist’

This 9 December 2018 video says about itself:

Belgium’s Africa museum reopened its doors in the Tervuren Palace outside Brussels on Sunday, after five years of restoration works. The reopening has fueled a debate on whether African artefacts should be given back to their countries of origin, as President of the Democratic Republic of Congo Joseph Kabila called for the repatriation of the items. …

The museum was founded by King Leopold II to house items collected in the Congo Free State during Belgian rule, including beheaded skulls of tribal chiefs and stuffed animals slaughtered by hunters.

Translated from Dutch NOS TV today:

United Nations criticize ‘racist images’ in the reopened Belgian Africamuseum

An anti-racism working group of the United Nations has criticized the Africamuseum in Tervuren, near Brussels. The museum was recently reopened after a thorough renovation, which was decided after a public debate about the glorification of colonization in the museum.

The museum removed statues of King Leopold II and placed signs with additional explanations at controversial texts. However, the changes do not go far enough for the UN.

Belgian Congo was a colony of Belgium between 1908 and 1960. Since 1885, the country had already been a private colony of the Belgian king Leopold II. The country is now called Congo-Kinshasa.

The colonization period is a black page in Belgian history. Under the Belgian administration, millions of people died and the local population was exploited.

The Africa experts working group visited Belgium last week and presented its conclusions in a press release yesterday. According to the experts, the Africamuseum is the most visible post-colonial expression in Belgium. The museum must remove all “racist and offensive” images, they think.

“The Working Group is of the view that the reorganization of the museum has not gone far enough”, says the report. “The reorganization falls short of its goal of providing adequate context and critical analysis. The Working Group notes the importance of removing all colonial propaganda and accurately presenting the atrocities of Belgium’s colonial past.”

The working group also does not like the many statues of Leopold II and his colonial army in the Belgian street scene. The contributions of people with African roots to Belgian society must become more visible, according to the UN group. They also demand that the Belgian government apologize for this period in Belgian history.

The UN working group falls under the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). In 2013, the working group did research on Zwarte Piet [blackface Saint Nicholas holiday character] in the Netherlands. Two years later the UN advised the Dutch government to change the tradition.

In Belgian media, Minister of Development Cooperation Alexander De Croo responded surprisedly to the report.

In this 8 December 2018 Dutch language video, Kenyan Belgian Stella Nyanchama Okemwa visits the reopened museum. She notes there is a plaque in the museum commemorating Belgians who died in Congo, but that nothing there commemorates the very many more Congolese who died violent deaths because of colonialism. She also notes sculpture, depicting Africans as small children next to big Belgian Catholic missionaries.