Grossman: Zombie Bees Again?! – Spreading to Vermont


August 14, 2014

13 February 2014

The New York Times broke the story in late 2012.  There are zombie bees.  Discovered in California in 2008 by John Hafernik, a professor of biology at San Francisco State University, zombie bees keep spreading.

Of course, if zombie bees were going to “appear” somewhere, I wasn’t surprised that it turned out to be California.  Then, they were reported in Washington state.  Why not Oregon?  Actually, they had spread stealthily into Oregon with reports only surfacing well after the “zom-bees” (I couldn’t resist) were an established fact to the north, in Washington state.

But the next appearance puzzled me.  North Dakota seemed like the last place I’d expect to meet a zombie, but that was the next state in which the “zom-bees” appeared. The zombie horror genre had conditioned me to imagine brain-eating zombies in California.  And the “real” zombie lore might suggest Louisiana.  But North Dakota just doesn’t have the “feel” of a hotspot for zombie anything.  But the “zom-bees” can fly where they will.  If, as “zom-bees,” they still have a “will.”

And their latest flight has taken them from South Dakota to Burlington, Vermont.  There, amateur beekeeper Anthony Cantrell began finding dead bees near his home.  One can only imagine his “horror” when he discovered a close match between the behavior of his dying bees and a description on, the website belonging Hafernik and his colleagues.  Dr. Van Helsing, er, ah, I mean, Professor Hafernik soon arrived to investigate and confirm that, indeed, Cantrell’s bees had been zombified!

The bee version of a zombie needs its own description.  They aren’t really much like the brain-eating zombies created by Hollywood.  And, then, there are the “real” zombies.  At least, the real belief in zombies that goes with a belief in Voodoo. But neither the “zombies” of Hollywood or Voodoo exactly match our zombie bees.  Still, when you hear how zombie bees behave, you’ll understand why “zombie” was picked as the best way to describe the fate of these poor insects.

The zombie bee falls victim to a parasitic fly, apocephalus borealis. The fly lays its eggs physically inside the bee’s body.  Then, the eggs actually affect the bee’s behavior.  However, the eggs and larvae of the apocephalus borealis fly control the bee’s “mind,” only briefly, before causing its death.

Under the influence of the developing fly larvae, the honeybee abandons its exclusively daytime routine and does something a bee doesn’t do  — flies at night.  Just before, and during, this “last flight” into the night, (what Hafernik calls “”the flight of the living dead,’”) the bee begins to move erratically.  It ends its last flight in death.  Only then, do the fly larvae eat their way out of the dead bee to continue their growth to maturity.

Cantrell reported that, at a recent meeting of the Vermont Beekeepers Association, Steve Parise, an agriculture production specialist with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, discussed the threat posed by zombie bees.  Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture is considering trapping bees to investigate the zombie bee threat.

The culprit fly was originally discovered in the 1920s, in Maine. Since that time, it has spread across the United States.  It was a known parasite of bumblebees and yellow jacket hornets — but it left honeybees alone.  At least, it did until 2008, when the fly changed.  Now, it’s a honeybee parasite.  Not only do the fly’s eggs and larvae feed off the honeybee, they turn the victim into a zombie.

The End?

Mark Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri & Belleville, Illinois

About the Author


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Grossman: The Bee’s Brain — the Zombie Apocalypse, but with Bees?


19 December 2013

The New York Times broke the story in late 2012.  There are zombie bees.  So, Night of the Living Dead might be a true story!?  Yeah, but with bees instead of people and . . . substantial script revisions.
If zombie bees were going to “appear” somewhere, California does seem like the most appropriate place.  Then, the zom-bees spread to Oregon.   Then, Washington State.  And, then . . .

The zom-bees suddenly arrived in a fourth state, North Dakota.  North Dakota?  It just didn’t seem right.  The zombie horror genre just hadn’t conditioned me to think of North Dakota as a sort of hot spot for zombie anything.  Still, the bees can go where they will.  If, as zombies, they still have a will of their own.

Anyway, the short answer is:  Zom-bees are with us.

When you start to talk about zombies, the first question is, “What kind of zombies?”  It’s not so much that there are different varieties of zombies as there are different versions.  There are horror movie zombies, the zombies of folklore, and the “real” zombies – or, at least, “real” in the sense that a lot of people alive today absolutely believe in the reality of zombies.

On the top of the heap, in terms of popularity, is the Hollywood horror version of the brain-eating zombie.  However, many of the characteristics of these, oh, so familiar, zombies were made up by Hollywood writers.

Digging deeper, we reach the cultural folklore of zombies together with anthropological explanations of that folklore.  Many believe that what are taken to be zombies are persons who are drugged with a special concoction that, either by its very nature, or through precision dosing, so depresses vital functions that the victim is mistaken for dead and buried.  The perpetrator, then, digs up the depressed, but still living, body of the victim and either fools or drugs them into a life of servitude.

However, the “true believers” in zombies will tell you that specially trained and/or gifted“Voodou” (Voodoo) practitioners have the ability to reanimate a dead body and control it like a robot.  The belief is that the victim’s soul, consciousness, or spirit has permanently departed, but their body remains as a sort of biological robot under the complete control of its “bokor.”

But what about our bee zombies?  Well, actually, their zombification resembles none of the above.  However, what happens to these bees is so zombie-like that, maybe, there no better or readily understandable term to describe what’s happening to the poor victims.

Unlike the zombie of Hollywood, folklore, or Voodoo, the zombie bee falls victim to a parasitic fly, Apocephalus borealis.  The fly lays its eggs physically inside the bee’s body.  The eggs, in turn, affect the bee’s behavior.  The process is not too unlike what was presented in the 1982 film, StarTrek: The Wrath of Khan, in which “indigenous eels” of Ceti Alpha V are introduced into the brains of the crew members, characters Chekov and Terrell, by the character Khan — maddened by his years in exile.  The film’s eels enter the ears of their victims and, reaching their brains, render them susceptible to mind control.

However, unlike Star Trek’s eels, the eggs and larvae of the Apocephalus borealis fly actually control the bee’s “mind” only briefly before causing its death.  Then, they consume the bee’s physical remains.  From another angle, the action of larvae in “eating their way out” of the dead bee’s body reminds one of another Hollywood creation, the mythical earwig.

The earwig is a real and mean-looking insect, but it doesn’t enter the human ear, burrow into the human brain and lay its eggs.  All of that was an old and almost forgotten “urban legend,” until it was featured in the March 1, 1972 episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery(Season 2, Episode 60, “The Caterpillar”).  However, even this apocryphal version of the earwig had no ability to control the mind of its host.  So, zombification was not part of the earwig repertoire.

But a New York Times article that announced the arrival of the zombie bees, asked,“Whose in charge in [the bee’s] head”?   Why?  Because the fly larvae, inside the bee’s body, directly affect that honeybee’s behavior in disturbingly zombie-like ways.

Under the influence of the developing fly larvae, the honey bee abandons its exclusively daytime routine and does something bees don’t do  — flies at night.  Just before, and during, this “last flight” into the night, the bee begins to move erratically.  It ends its flight in death.  Only then, do the fly larvae eat their way out of the dead bee to continue their growth to maturity.

Hollywood has never quite dealt with this exact kind of zombification.  Of course, the zombie bee might be a good subject for a (not so) new and (not so) different kind of zombie movie.

Maybe the zombie-making flies enter a hive belonging to beekeeper, Ms. Red Queen, owner of Raccoon Apiary.  Realizing the problem, she uses an insecticide to kill all of the possibility infected bees in that particular hive.  However, these flies are “mutants” and have laid mutant eggs in the bodies that hive’s bees. Instead of just eating the infected bees, these mutant fly larvae reanimate the dead bees into murderous zombie bees worthy of any respectable (or not so respectable) Hollywood production.

One of the infected hive’s bees, Alice, is accidentally outside the hive (or something) during the spraying of the insecticide.  She survives and re-enters the hive to discover zombified bees trying to escape and infect the apiary’s other hives.  She engages in a heroic struggle to contain the zombie bees and the infection they carry only to awaken from a coma outside the hive days later.  She sees only a single obviously dysfunctional bee.  Bees communicate through their flight patterns or “dances.”  And this lone bee-dancer just flies, again and again, in the same pattern – repeating the message: “The dead buzz.”  See: Resident Evil

Grossman: The Bee’s Brain — The Green Brain Project

19 December 2013

Any new project intended to deal with decreasing honeybee populations should probably focus on CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder.  In case you’ve been shipwrecked on a desert island for about seven years or have been really busy, during that period of time, you’ve probably heard that honeybee populations throughout the world are declining at an alarming rate.  The cause of the current decline is unknown, but has a name, Colony Collapse Disorder.

There have been mass bee die-offs since the beginning of recorded history.  So, for the first few years of the current die-off, there was concern, but not alarm.  What’s special about CCD is, first, that it’s worldwide.  Historical bee die-offs have been local affairs.  Second, historical bee die-off’s have been brief.  Our present CCD isn’t stopping, and the bee numbers keep declining.  The one thing that CCD has in common with historical die-offs is that no one knows exactly what’s killing the bees.

It’s fashionable to blame pesticides, and almost everyone does, with a new article announcing the discovery of “the cause” appearing every few weeks.  It’s sort of like those monthly magazines that feature a “new” diet every month.  Each month, it’s “the last diet you’ll ever need.”  Then, the next month, a “new” last diet you’ll ever need . . . and on and on.  If you believe all this . . . well, we’d all be thin as rails and bees would have stopped dying off years ago.

Here’s the actual puzzle.  Bees are weakened, not by one thing, but a number of things happening at the same time.  Today’s bee suffers with fatigue from long distance transport, parasites and infections, exposure to pesticides, and these insects are even “drugged” for better performance — something like what’s done to athletes with steroids.

The problem is that no single one of these factors, alone, would kill a bee.  Worse, even all these factors, together, wouldn’t kill a bee.  Unfortunately, all these factors together will weaken a bee’s immune system to the point that the insect will contract and die from a completely unrelated disease.

So, finding the cause of CCD is a bit like solving the old puzzle called Rubrics Cube.  You have to line up combination after combination.  Except, unlike the puzzle, after you line up a particular combination, you have perform lengthy tests, again and again, until you find the “right” combination.  Sadly, long before the combination is found, the bees may be gone.  Of course, our current honeybees could be replaced, on the one hand, with a less efficient species imported from somewhere else or, on the other, with an efficient, but really mean and dangerous species (Africanized).

Strangely, the only thing that would take longer than finding the cause of CCD would be to build a robotic bee.  However, that’s what a lot of people are trying to do.  Robo-Bee is most definitely a thing of the future.  The best current prototype has just mastered a few seconds of controlled flight – then it crashes.  Prior to this, the old prototype would just take off and crash into the nearest wall without any maneuvers at all.

Robo-Bee’s crashes are even more discouraging when you realize that the current prototype is stabilized by a fixed wire.  Also, Robo-Bee “needs a cord.”  Figuratively speaking, you have to plug it into the wall, because there is no battery both powerful enough and lightweight enough that Robo-Bee can lift into the air.  But that’s not all it will have to lift.  Robo-Bee will also need an on-board flight computer to direct its flight.  Right now, no computer small enough and light enough exists.  And, if it did, there’s not even a prototype of a flight program that could successfully direct the small robotic insect in flight.

Discouraged yet?  Well, to their credit, the would-be developers of Robo-Bee aren’t the least discouraged.  And, as modest as Robo-Bee’s current performance may be, it’s an incredible achievement.  Only with the persistence of the project engineers have a host of seemingly impossible challenges and problems been met and solved.  However, it will be a long, long time before the first Robo-Bee rolls off the assembly line, flies into the fields, and begins pollinating.

And there will be even more challenges. We’ve only covered a few of the issues.  Even with an on-board computer to direct its flight, how will the Robo-Bee pollinate flowers?  Think about it.  To do so, these robots would have to see and smell.  They’d have to master the varied challenges of the pollination of each individual bloom.  To do that, these ‘bots would almost have to be able to . . . think.  How are they going to do that?  Well, the members of the Green Brain Project “are glad you asked them that question.”

I don’t know how long people have been thinking about the answer to that question but, about a year ago, researchers in Great Britain, specifically, at the Universities of Sheffield and Sussex decided to do something about it.

In an article describing the project, George Dvorsky, reports that, late last year, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) put up £1 million (USD $1,614,700) for the development and creation of the “first accurate computer simulation of a honey bee brain.”  However, when you consider the challenging goal of the project, even this “front money” is not so very much. After all, the project couldn’t afford the kind of computer muscle that would seem to be needed to tackle a job like this.  However, a creative solution to the computer problem has been provided by California’s NVIDIA.  That corporation will provide the project with a number of high-performance graphical processing units called GPU accelerators. This will allow the researchers to simulate aspects of a honey bee’s brain by using a large group of paralleled desktop PCs.  In other words, put together enough desktops and you can approximate some of the functions of a cluster of supercomputers, but at a fraction of the cost.

However, no matter how much or little money and equipment are involved, this part of the Robo-Bee project, building the bee’s mind, is an even more formidable challenge than building a robotic insect that just flies.  The mind of even an insect is breathtakingly complex, but the Green Project researchers are not trying to tackle the replication of the honeybee’s entire brain.  Instead they are focusing on only two functions: vision and the sense of smell.

Researchers are attempting to develop cognitive models of sight and smell.  To duplicate even part of an actual bee’s brain, you need to study an actual bee or, at least, work with someone who has.  That someone is Martin Giurfa of Toulouse, “an expert in all aspects of bee brain anatomy, physiology, and bee cognition and behavior.”  The ultimate goal is a robotic bee that can detect particular odors or particular flowers.  But, more immediately, the researcher are hoping to develop computer models of these processes that, someday, will be downloaded directly into the “brain” of a robotic bee.

However, the description above understates and ambition of one aspect of this project.  The researchers are attempting to develop models with true artificial intelligence.  That is, they are attempting to develop a computerized intelligence that will allow a robotic honeybee to act autonomously.  Put yet another way, these robotic bees would have the cognitive ability to perform certain basic tasks without pre-programmed instructions.

Such cognitive models are several steps beyond simple programming.  Successfully modeling the cognitive processes associated with vision and speech is essential to the development such artificial intelligence.  But why?

What do we think about?  We think about what we see, smell, hear, feel and taste.  Could a human intelligence ever be “designed” without senses and sensory input?  No.  So, in order to develop a real artificial intelligence — an intelligence that thinks, that intelligence must be “embodied” with those senses that provide the necessary sensory input (something to think about).

Simply put, the concept termed “embodiment,” as applied to robotics, “holds that any true artificial intelligence is impossible unless the robot has sensory and motor skills that connect it to the world.”  In other words, without sensory input, cognitive intelligence, as we know it, wouldn’t exist.

The envisioned final version of Robo-Bee will be able tothink.

These, and other projects, reach far beyond our current technological abilities and promise innovations that are scarcely imaginable.  A thinking robotic bee is just one step away from more sophisticated social integrations leading, perhaps, to a thinking hive that would autonomously send certain robotic bees to certain locations, monitor honey and pollen reserves and so on.

There’s something both fascinating and frightening about thinking machines.  I must admit my mind wanders to sci-fi.  I can’t help thinking of the 1984 film, Terminator, in which the artificially intelligent Skynet initiates a planned extermination of the human race to allow intelligent machines to take over the world.

Imagine a bee version of Skynet, maybe, “Buzznet,” coordinating all activities of all beehives throughout the world.  Of course, scientists design “Buzznet” to “help” the few remaining organic honeybees.  Sure.  We know where this is going.

“Buzznet” promptly tries to wipe out all the remaining biological bees.  The few survivors will be herded into special detention hives, and come to depend on John . . . , no, Jane Connor.  (All active bees are female).

Of course, Buzznet will develop a robotic terminator bee and send it back through time to kill Jane’s queen and mother.  Because bees are not easy to find in crowded hives, the Terminator bee will just start killing them all.  In our film, this is the cause of CCD  — Terminator bees from the future.

As silly as all this sounds, I wonder . . . .

As technology advances to almost unimaginable frontiers including the development of artificial intelligences that operate independently of biological intelligence (in other words, independently of us), perhaps, a cautionary note is in order.  Maybe all scientists, technologists and engineers should be forced to take a course featuring 10 to 20 selected sci-fi movies in which good science goes bad.   The collection would include more than one film illustrating “what not to do.”   Or, at least, what not to do when developing artificial intelligence that operates independently of human intelligence.


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Grossman: Toy Robot Spiders — As If the Real Things Weren’t Enough


6 March 2014

“The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.”

Oscar Wilde

Before we go, we have to get some definitions out of the way.

A robotic purist will explain that there’s no such thing as a toy robot.  The words “toy” and “robot,” used together, form an oxymoron.  In other words, by definition, a toy isn’t a robot, and a robot isn’t a toy. A robot is a machine that “does work.”  A toy is a machine, but not a machine that does work.

An animatronic device is a machine that moves like a living creature.  Animatronic devices are used for entertainment.

But these aren’t robots. Right?

Is entertainment work?

Well, uh . . . .   Let’s get back to robots.

No one can play with a robot. Right?

Well, I have to admit that children can play with anything including (and especially) the cardboard box their “toy” came in.

So, if a child plays with a robot, does it become a toy? Well, if a tree falls in the forest . . .

Let’s forget the purist definitions.

There are toy robot spiders. They are really cool.

Inside Adam Savage’s Cave: Awesome Robot Spider!


In addition to the animatronic spider, the Robugtix line includes a hexapod (6-legged) robot for those who are not “spider purists” demanding the full 8-legs of the “octopodal” arachnid.

[video] iitsii the Hexapod Robot

These animatronic devices are produced by Amoeba Robotics Ltd., a research, engineering, and design company.  Founded in 2010, this Hong Kong based concern focuses on “providing innovative robotics systems for professional and educational use.”  I can’t resist including another video of the “T8.” [video]

Watching these animatronic devices, you might pause to wonder what their working counterparts, the “robots,” must look like.  And there you might get a surprise.  Working robots, like their animatronic/entertainment counterparts, are being designed to resemble animals and even people.


As soon as engineers began developing sophisticated robotics, they ran into some problems.  You may have seen those sleek glass and metal robots from those 1950’s sci-fi movies.  In those days, there was an idea that robots would have to be, somehow, completely different from organic life forms.  And this idea carried over into early, “real-world” technology.  But there were problems.  These “unlife-like” robots didn’t work so well.

The reason was obvious.  Most often, we don’t need robots to do weird, strange, or superhuman tasks.  We really need robots that do exactly what human beings (and a variety of common animals and even insects) do. What’s more, the tasks we want robots to do aren’t necessarily complicated. Often we need robots that do common, everyday tasks. Tasks that are simple, but time consuming and repetitive,

So, for about the past decade, most robots have been developed to imitate animals and human beings.  And, not surprisingly, these robots are becoming more animatronic – life-like — in their movements and, even, appearance.

Sometimes, this is intended as in the Army Research Laboratory’s Robo-Raven. This aerial drone is designed to fly and maneuver with movements so much like a bird that it actually fools real birds. [image] [video]

The “animatronic” appearance and movement aren’t the result of idle tinkering.   Instead, it’s part of this aerial drone’s camouflage.  This particular “application” of camouflage is called mimesis or “masquerade.”  The goal is to create an aerial drone that the observer mistakes for — just a bird flying by.  But the bird is a flying drone relaying sound and video back to another, concealed observer. [video]. So, the “bird-watcher” is the one being watched.

Grossman: The Nano Hummingbird – The Original Bird ‘Bot


12 December 2013

[Nano Hummer Video]

On 17 February 2011, DARPA announced the development of the first fully functional robotic bird. [1]  The “Nano Hummingbird” or, as it is also less imaginatively called, the “Nano Air Vehicle” (“NAV”), was the successful result of a project started in 2006 by AeroVironment, Inc. under the direction of DARPA. [1] Robots, by definition, must “do work.”  And the Nano-Hummer was the first fully functional bird-drone designed and able to perform surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

This robotic hummingbird can remain aloft for 11 minutes and attain a speed of 11 mph. [1]   With a skeleton of hollow carbon-fiber rods wrapped in fiber mesh, coated in a polyvinyl fluoride film, [5] and carrying “batteries, motors, and communications systems; as well as the video camera payload,” the robo-hummer weighs just .67 ounces. [1]

Designed to be deployed in urban environments or on battlefields, this drone is can “perch on windowsills or power lines” and even “enter buildings to observe and its surroundings” while relaying a continuous video back to its “pilot.” [video] [1]

In terms of appearance, the Nano-Hummer was, and is, quite like a hummingbird.    Although larger than the typical hummingbird, Nano-Hummer, is well within the size range of the species and is, actually, smaller than the largest of real hummingbirds. [1]   With a facade both shaped and colored to resemble the real bird, the Nano-Hummer presents the viewer with a remarkable likeness of a hummingbird. [1]

The Nano-Hummer isn’t stealth in the sense of evading radar.  Nor is it “cryptic,” that type of camouflage that blends, or disappears, into the surrounding terrain.  Rather, with the appearance of a hummingbird, the designers used a type of camouflage called “mimesis,” also termed “masquerade,” as concealment.  A camouflaged object is said to be “masqueraded” when the object can be clearly seen, but looks like something else, which is of no special interest to the observer.  And such camouflage is important to a mini-drone with the primary purpose of surveillance and reconnaissance. [1]

Designing this drone on the “hummingbird model,” however, was not done only for the purpose of camouflage.  The project’s objective included biomimicry, that is, biologically inspired engineering. [8] With the hummingbird, its amazingly diverse flight maneuvers were the object of imitation.  However, UAV’s head researcher, Matt Keennon, admits that a perfect replica of what “nature has done” was too daunting. [5]  For example, the Nano-Hummer only beats its wings 20 times a second, which is slow motion compared to the real hummingbird’s 80 beats per second. [video] [5]

Whatever the technical shortfalls, this bird-bot replicates much of the real hummingbird’s flight performance. [5]  Not only can it perform rolls and backflips [video] but, most important of all, it can hover like the real thing. [video] [5]  Part of the importance of the ability hover relates to its reconnaissance and surveillance functions.  Hovering allows the video camera to select and observe stationary targets.  However, the “hover” of both hummingbirds and bees attracts so much attention from developers of drone technology because it assures success in the most difficult flight maneuver of all — landing.  In fact, landing is the most complex part of flight, and the maneuver most likely to result in accident or disaster.

When landing, a flying object must attain the slowest speed possible before touching down.  Hovering resolves the problem neatly by assuring that the robot can stop in midair and, therefore, touch the ground or perch as zero speed.  Observe the relatively compact helicopter landing port in contrast to the long landing strip required by an airplane which must maintain forward motion when airborne.

The drone has a remarkable range of movement in flight much like the real hummingbird. [1] Nano-Hummer “can climb and descend vertically; fly sideways left and right; forward and backward; rotate clockwise and counter-clockwise; and hover in mid-air.” [1]  Both propulsion and altitude control are entirely provided by the drone’s flapping wings. [video] [1]

This remote controlled mini-drone can be maneuvered by the “pilot” without direct visual observation using the video stream alone. [1] With its small camera, this drone can relay back video images of its location. [1] The camera angle is defined by the drone’s pitch.  In forward motion, the camera provides a continuous view of the ground.  Hovering provides the best camera angle for surveying rooms. [video] [5]

To DARPA, it was particularly important that this drone demonstrate the ability to hover in a 5 mph side-wind without drift of more than one meter. [1]  The CIA’s “insectothopter,” a robotic dragonfly was developed in the 1970’s. [image] [3] This unmanned aerial vehicle “was the size of a dragonfly, and was hand-painted to look like one.” [3]  Powered by a small gasoline engine, the insectothopter proved unusable due to its inability to withstand even moderate wind gusts. [video] [3]

The Nano-Hummingbird was named by Time Magazine as one of the 50 best inventions of 2011 [4] and has paved the way for the development of a whole generation of bird inspired ‘bots, including Prioria’s “Maverick,” [image] [video] and, the even more “bird-like,” Robo-Raven, which is still in development by the Army Research Laboratory. [image 1] [video] [video] Also, the development of this first small bird-bot brought the U.S. Air Force one step closer to one of the goals on its wish list: “flocks of small drones.” [7]

A flock of small drones sounds really cool – as long as the flock isn’t after me.

Grossman: The Emu – Green Eggs, But No Ham


20 March  2014


Africa has its ostrich, and America has its, lesser known, rhea.  But Australia has its emu.  On first sight, this large, grey-brown bird is unmistakably the close relative of both the ostrich and rhea.  However, the emu is the “character” of the family — the odd one in this not so typical family of birds.


Like its cousins, the emu is a flightless bird.  And, also, like it cousins, it’s fast.  So, even if it can’t fly, it can run faster than any other animal in Australia.  At 31 miles per hour, the emu ranks as the second fasted bird on earth — second only to its African cousin, the ostrich.  At a height reaching up to a bit over six-and-a-half feet and weighing as much as 130 pounds, the emu enjoys the distinction of being the largest bird in Australia.  But, again, in terms of size, the emu is only the second largest bird in the world.  The largest?  You guessed it.  Cousin Ostrich.

Although sharing the ostrich’s unmistakable form and profile, in terms of appearance, the emu is not only smaller than its African cousin, but has brown colored plumage –  just a touch drabber than the grey-brown feathers of its other cousin, the Rhea.  Maybe to make up for its drab feathers, nature has favored the emu with a blue neck.   This relatively bright “collar” give the bird a bit of color while allowing it to conceal itself by lowering its head and neck for purposes of camouflage.

Camouflage?  This bird is over 6 feet tall.  Who’s going to mess with it?  Actually, the emu has predators in the wild, unpopulated “Outback” of Australia.   Both eagles and hawks attack emus from the air.   But there’s a catch.  The emus that are grabbed and carried off by eagles and hawks are young birds that have not yet reached their adult height and weight.

Could a flying bird carry off a full grown emu?  Well, even in the Out-est of the Outback, there are no birds that big.  The young victims have few defenses beyond their speed and a peculiar swerving run they share with Cousin Rhea.  At times, Emus extend their relatively small wings to keep their balance as the run in an evasive swerving pattern.

Dingos, a member of the grey wolf family, are the only predator of the full grown bird.  Even if emu’s lose some fights for survival with this free ranging dog of the Outback, the emu brings a serious weapon to the fight – its feet.

Like Cousin Rhea, the emu has 3 toes on its clawed feet.  This is unusual for birds, which often have a fourth “opposing” toe used to grip branches and other natural perches.   Three toe, tridactyl, clawed feet are found in birds that, like the emu, walk and run on flat ground instead of flying.  And the emu has really big, mean clawed feet.  Mean?  Yes, mean.  Emus have been known to use their feet to rip through wire fences.  You really don’t want to get these birds angry or get in their way when they’re going somewhere.


And emus like to get where they’re going.  Not favoring flocks, these birds often travel in pairs.  They run at high speed and are unruffled by water.  When a body of water comes between an emu and where it wants to go, it just jumps in and swims.

When these birds aren’t running or swimming, they pause to feed on a variety of insects and plants.  They have excellent eye-sight.  When they’re not eating, they like to groom or “preen” their “plumage” or look around and “investigate.”

Noted for their curiosity, emus will approach humans – especially if they see movement or a colorful piece of clothing.  These birds have been known to follow and watch humans in the wild.  And, once you attract an emu’s attention, it might not be so easy to give an interested bird “the slip.”   Hoping that an emu will go away if you “just ignore it” doesn’t always work.   And, be warned: emus seem to have a sense of humor.  They have been known to approach humans and other animals and poke them with their beak and, then, run away.  Observers have the impression that this is a kind of “game” for the large bird.

The emu’s “call” is not like a bird’s call at all.  The emu makes a loud drumming or thumping sound.  That’s all.  And . . .  did I say it was loud?  It can be heard a little over a mile away.  The emu’s call enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame on the animated television series, King of the Hill .   In one episode, (Season 6, Episode 17, “Fun with Jane and Jane”), the emus “sing” the theme song with the closing credits.  Of course, there’s no music involved.  The animated birds simply intone a series of loud thumps in lieu of the regular theme.

Although there is no recognizable difference in appearance that distinguishes the male from the female.   But emus generally roam in pairs.  The pair consists of one male and one female.  But this pairing ends, more or less, with mating season.  Wait . . . the male-female pairing ends with mating season?  Yes.  It’s strange.  But that’s only the beginning of the strangeness.

Emus don’t abandon the male-female stereotypes in mating.  They reverse them.

During mating season, the females become aggressive and begin to court the relatively passive males.  A female will circle around the potential male mate drawing closer and closer.  If another passing female develops an attraction for the same male, it may, and often does, start a fight.  During mating season, fights among females are common with a single fight sometimes lasting for hours.

After mating, the male builds its nest.  And it is the male’s nest.  The female will lay eggs in the nest, but not sit on the eggs.  The male cares completely for eggs, and will lose about a third of his body-weight because of its inability to leave the nest and obtain food.   After laying her eggs, the mating female will often seek out another male, mating with as many males as possible during the mating season.

The emu’s eggs are . . . interesting . . . because they are large: over 5 inches long and weighing as much as 2 pounds.  Also, they are green.  When freshly laid, the emu’s eggs are a light green.  You might ask, “Then, they turn white, right?”  No, they don’t.  They get greener and greener until they reach the shade of an avocado.


The eggs hatch about 56 days after they are laid.  The newly hatched chicks weigh a little over a pound and are about 5 inches tall.  They can leave the nest within days, but will stay with their defending father for about 6 or 7 months learning how to find food and reaching their full adult size.  However, the young can spend as long as a year in this family circle before taking off on their own.  An emu can live as long as 20 years.


Emus are raised for meat in Australia, the United States, Peru, and China. The USDA classifies emu as red, poultry meat.  Emu skin is used to produce a distinctive type of leather.  Oil from emu fat is used for cosmetics and dietary supplements.  Although emu oil has a long history of use as an anti-inflammatory, therapeutic product, the US FDA has classified emu oil as an “unapproved drug.”

The emu is prized as a cultural icon in Australia appearing with the red kangaroo on the Coat of arms of Australia and the Australian 50 cent coin.   The bird has been featured on a number of Australian postage stamps and is the namesake of mountains, lakes, towns and even a brand of beer.

Grossman: A Different Flavor – Just How Smart Are Octopuses?


28 November 2013

Octopuses have a rather creepy reputation.   Let’s just say that, what the creeping spider is to dry land, the eight-tentacled octopus is to the sea – a “monster” of the deep.  These creatures have thousands of suckers on their eight “arms,” squirt dark ink, change color, and can squeeze their, sometimes, large bodies through amazingly small holes.  Also, they can move when they want to move having the ability to propel themselves by producing a jet of water in the same way jet engines propel aircraft through the air.

The octopus is a celebrated predator.   Well equipped for the hunt, the octopus has a parrot-like beak, a tongue covered with teeth, and poisonous venom.  Superficially, there’s nothing about the octopus that would put anyone in a warm or cuddly mood.  But like some seemingly forbidding people you may have met, it seems that the better you get to know the octopus, the more favorable (and friendlier) your opinion becomes.

Scientists have recently discovered that octopuses might be intelligent – much more intelligent than anyone had ever suspected.  However, this is one of those discoveries that seems like “yesterday’s news.”  When you read accounts of octopus behavior, the fact that octopuses are intelligent is like the proverbial “elephant in the living room.”  How could anyone have missed it?

Consider Otto, an octopus resident at the Sea Star Aquarium in Coburg, Germany.  Otto shares a large tank with hermit crabs, which he probably traumatizes on a regular basis with his ideas of fun.  Among other activities, Otto likes to juggle the helpless crabs, throwing them, not in the air, but up above him into the tank’s water.  Being repeatedly tossed by a two-handed juggler would be bad enough, but you can only cringe at the thought of the experience with eight-hands.

Otto’s behavior isn’t particularly unusual.  In an experiment, Roland Anderson, gave octopuses small pill bottles, each of a different color, to evaluate the creatures’ color preferences. Most of the octopuses lost interest when they realized the bottles weren’t food, but one blew a “modulated” jet of water at the bottle sending it swirling to the other end of the tank and back to the sender – repeating this action 20 times.  Anderson compared the action to the human version of bouncing a ball.  Another octopus, in the same group, was caught using its water jet to propel its bottle back and forth over the surface of the water.

What’s so significant about all this?  It’s play.  Anderson’s observations appeared in the Journal of Comparative Psychology. “Only intelligent animals play—animals like crows and chimps, dogs and humans.”

Although, sometimes, Otto seems more like a candidate for the staring role in an upcoming documentary, “When Good Octopuses Go Bad,” he demonstrates a mastery of tool-use when he throws stones into front glass of his tank (damaging the aquarium glass several times).  In spite of Otto’s disruptions and vandalism, his behaviors are clearly intelligent.

Octopuses gather building materials as part of what is, sometimes, called their fortress behaviors.  These creatures tend to settle in a location and fortify the perimeter with a variety of building materials.  And, in the act of collecting these building materials, the octopus displays one of its most amazing characteristics.  Most animals either use or discard an item that is of no immediate use.  In other words, most animals have no ability to delay gratification and, therefore, do not appreciate the need to find, hold, or transport items that may be of value at a later time.

The Veined Octopus, however, retrieves discarded coconut shells, transports them over a distance, and reassembles them to build a shelter.  This behavior demonstrates selection of a tool and, then, holding the tool exclusively for a later use.

You might think of this behavior as resembling grocery shopping.  When you go to the store, you don’t eat the food you want straight off the shelves and, then, leave without taking any food with you.  Rather, you gather food, groceries, and take it home for future use.

And, it so happens that octopuses often gather food in a way not so different from human grocery shopping.  As it hunts, this creature picks up all the food it can carry and transports the load home.  It will eat the food, at its leisure, later.  With eight arms, an octopus can carry a lot of food, but sometimes its eyes are bigger than its eight-armed carrying capacity.  If it finds its load is too heavy for the trip home, it simply makes an unscheduled stop, eats its “groceries” down to a portable volume and, then, continues home with what’s left.

But octopuses demonstrate other intelligent behaviors.  They are also problem solvers. Wilson Menashi designed a puzzle consisting of three plexiglas cubes each with a different type of latch.  When food was placed in the first box and given to an octopus, the creature quickly managed to figure out how to open the box.  Then, the first box was locked in the second box.  Again, the octopus quickly learned to open both boxes to get to the food.  The same swift mastery followed the addition of a third box.  Sadly, when the octopus’s food of choice, crab, is unavailable, some octopuses turn their problem solving abilities to crime.  That is, octopuses sometimes rob lobster traps, which they learn to open with relative ease.

So, you would never want to snooze on the beach with a crab in your pocket.  That crab would be awfully tempting to passing octopus.  Oh, . . . you thought you’d be safe because you weren’t in the water?  Surprise!  Many octopuses seem never to have learned that they are sea-dwelling creatures.  They tend to jump onto land at the least provocation.

An octopus was recently, not just caught on land, but also caught on video grabbing a snack on the beach — completely out of the water.  These creatures like to eat crabs so much that they have been known to climb on board fishing boats, jump into containers of dead crabs, and pig-out. As a matter of fact, aquariums sometimes have difficulty keeping these creatures in the water.

Otto, for example, thought the overhead light in the Sea Star Aquarium was too bright, and his irritation was only relieved by occasional mysterious power failures.  While the failures gave Otto a break from the bright light, the cessation in the filtration systems in the aquarium’s tanks was a positive danger.  When the power outages became more frequent, the staff organized a stake-out of the area, day and night, to find the cause.  On the third night, Otto climbed out of his tank and directed his jet-stream of water at the irritating light above his tank and continued to do so until the system shorted and the power failed.  The light has been re-installed in a location beyond the range of Otto’s water-jet.

Octopuses frequently put their water-jets to other creative uses.  Octopus Truman of the New England Aquarium developed an aversion to one volunteer and used his water-jet to soak her with salt water at every opportunity.  She eventually quit her volunteer position, but returned for a visit a few months later.  As she entered the lab she was drenched in saltwater by Truman’s jet.  Apparently, Truman remembered her.  He had not sprayed anyone with water since her departure months earlier.

Researching her senior thesis in the octopus lab at Middlebury College, Alexa Warburton often struggled to remove reluctant octopuses from their tanks. The creatures had mastered all the skills I employed on a particular day when I tried to avoid attending the first grade.  The octopuses would hide in the corners of their tanks or hold on to objects and not let go. In fact, octopuses in captivity escape their tanks with great frequency.  When the creatures were removed from their tank, a few used the net as a kind of trampoline bouncing off the net and onto the floor.  Then, they’d make a run for it.  And they’d “run,” Warburton emphasized, “You’d chase them under the tank, back and forth, like you were chasing a cat.”  “It’s so weird!”

When you understand how octopuses behave, it’s tough to understand how their intelligence could have been overlooked for so long.  Perhaps, in the past, science has been too physiologically minded.

For example, several species of birds have recently demonstrated remarkably high levels of intelligence and even self-awareness.  The last common ancestor of human beings and birds roamed the earth about 300 million years ago.  During the last 300 million years, the brains of birds and mammals developed along separate lines.  Scientists were sure that the mammalian brain’s neocortex made certain species, including human beings, self-aware (i.e., conscious).  Problem.  Several species of birds pass all the self-awareness tests with flying colors, but their brains are the size of walnuts and they have no neocortex.

Then, there’s the octopus.  Octopuses are mollusks, invertebrates, closely related to the clam.  Clams don’t even have brains.  The last common ancestor of human beings and octopuses lived between 500 and 700 million years ago.  From that point on, human and octopus brains developed along separate lines in quite different environments.  The octopus brain is about the size of a walnut with only about 130 million neurons compared to the 100 billion of the typical human brain.  However, you don’t need these numbers to see some staggering differences.  For example, humans have one brain, but “three-fifths of the octopus’s neurons” are in the octopus’s arms and not their “head.”  It seems that intelligence doesn’t have as much to do with brain size as was once supposed.

Perhaps, the intelligence of octopuses was overlooked because of their lack of social behavior.  These creatures are one of the most unsocial animals you could imagine.  Their contacts with their fellow creatures result in either one octopus eating the other or mating.  There are no other social encounters with their peers.  Period.  In the first instance, predation, one octopus dies when it’s eaten.  In the second, mating, both octopuses die because disorientation and death follow swiftly.

Much of our appraisal of the intelligence of any animal is based on observation of social interaction.  But, in the case of the unsocial octopus, you have to observe its relationship with its inanimate, physical environment to appreciate its intelligent behavior and evaluate the scope of its intelligence.  Strangely, the captive octopuses that are the subject of study in laboratories seem to enjoy a richer relationship with their human captors, than any of their own species.  But, perhaps, even this relationship is the simple result of the dependence of the captive octopuses on their human captors for survival (food).

Maybe it’s the plain strangeness of both the octopus and its intelligence that so long delayed the “discovery” of the creature’s intelligent behavior.  Philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith compared encountering the octopus with “meeting an intelligent alien.”  And, indeed, everything seems so “out-of-whack” when you learn about the octopus.  For example, octopus communication is limited to changes of color.  An octopus uses color changes to camouflage itself, express emotions, and warn off (frighten) predators.  But the octopus’s use of a wide range of color displays becomes confusing when you discover that these creatures are colorblind.  But, then, you discover that octopus “skin contains gene sequences usually expressed only in the light-sensing retina of the eye.”  So, octopuses may be able to see color with their skin.

In the end, what can we say about the octopus as an intelligent being?  It is an alien.  An immensely ancient alien that evolved on the ocean floor — the oldest and most enduring environment provided by the hydrosphere we call Earth.  However, “alien” is a relative term.  Compared to the octopus, we are the newcomers.  We are one of a group of strange, and relatively new, life forms that live on those limited peaks that rise above and beyond the more natural aquatic environment.  Those peaks rise up into a strange rarefied level of atmosphere—a level, not of water, but composed entirely of gases, nitrogen and oxygen.

As intelligent beings, we continue to confront the all too obvious evidence that “we are not alone.”  But I’m not talking about intelligent life on other planets.  “We are not alone” on our own planet.  The creatures around us have developed intelligence and self-awareness but, often, not “on our terms.”  These “others” have developed out of their own environmental and physiological roots.  Our planet is home to more and stranger environments (worlds) than we regularly or comfortably imagine.   It seems that intelligence and self-awareness are not a single, defined point at one end of a yard stick.  Rather, as Dr. Jennifer Mather of the University of Lethbridge suggests, intelligence and self-awareness may come “in flavors.”

Grossman: The Ostrich – the Biggest and the Fastest


20 March 2014

Australia has its emu, and America has its rhea. You only have to look at an emu or rhea to recognize these large birds as the cousins of the familiar ostrich.  And Africa’s ostrich is the biggest and the fastest.

[Ostrich image]

The common ostrich is the biggest bird on earth growing as tall as 9 feet and weighing up to 240 pounds.  Faster than either of its cousins, ostriches have been clocked at 43 mph.  At that speed, the ostrich isn’t just the fastest bird on earth; it’s the fastest of any land animal on the planet.  Perhaps, speed compensates for flight.  Like the other members of its intercontinental family, the ostrich is a flightless bird.

[Ostrich video]

The ostrich has flashier feathers than either of its cousins.  Adult male ostriches are black with a white wing tips and white tail feathers.  Females and young males have grayish-brown feathers – similar to those of their American cousin, the rhea.  The head and neck of the ostrich . . . well, . . . it looks like the bird is going bald — with only a sparse cover of “down.”   But, instead of a comb-over, the ostrich’s thin hair stands straight up.  It looks like it had a crew cut and, then, let it grow out.

Nature has given the ostrich all it needs to keep an eye on things.   The bird’s head rises 9-feet into the air.  Its eyes are 2 inches wide — the largest eyes of any land vertebrate (land animal with a back-bone).

Ostriches spend most of their time roaming in pairs.   Sometimes, during dry spells, these large birds form flocks.  Ostriches eat plants, but will also chow-down on some insects.  You’d expect the ostrich to be a daytime-animal like most birds.   But, if you’re wandering around in the wilds of Africa, on a moonlit night, you might meet an ostrich.  The moon gives enough light to make the ostrich comfortable enough for a nocturnal prowl.

When threatened, the ostrich will lie flat on the ground to fool passers-by into thinking it is nothing more than a bump on the ground.  But there’s one old story about the ostrich that isn’t true: this bird never hides its head in the sand.  When threatened, ostriches seem to prefer to just hide – as a first line of defense.  But, when push comes to shove, these birds are more than able to defend themselves.  Ostriches use their powerful legs to kick.  And they have quite a kick.  It can be fatal.

Speaking of legs, no discussion of the ostrich would be complete without a discussion of this bird’s toes.  Yes, toes.  The ostrich’s relatives, the emu and the rhea, are both unusual birds because they have only three toes.  Most birds have four toes – three forward and one “opposing” toe.  The opposing toe is used to help the bird hang on to branches and other perches in the wild.    Of course, if you’re a bird, and you don’t fly, you don’t perch.  Flightless birds like the emu and rhea use their feet to walk and run.  To a running bird, a fourth toe would be nothing but an irritation.

It seems only logical that the ostrich should also have three toes, but it’s hard to count the number of ways in which this particular family of birds is unusual.  And, if you count the toes, you’ll find that the ostrich has only two.  Also, you’d think if you had toes, they’d be a bit alike.   Again, this family is unusual.  One toe has an enormous nail that resembles a hoof.   The other toe has no nail at all.  The best guess is that this “reduced number of toes” helps the ostrich run even faster.

[Ostrich feet]

But before we leave the subject of the ostrich’s legs, we need to say a few words about predators.  Africa is no place for any animal that can’t defend itself.  Aside from the famous “king of the jungle,” the lion, the rest of the list includes cheetahs, leopards, and hyenas as just a few of the most ferocious predators from which the ostrich has to defend itself.  Surprisingly, this bird does an amazingly good job of defending itself and can more than hold its own in the jungle.  How, does it manage?  With its legs.  The ostrich uses its legs to defend itself in two very different ways.

First, “he who fights and runs away will live to fight another day.”  The ostrich often runs away from predators.  As the fastest land animal on earth, it’s got a built-in advantage in this department.   Unfortunately, young ostriches, which haven’t grown up to their full speed, are particularly vulnerable to predators that the adult birds can easily outrun.  Sometimes, predators succeed by ambushing the ostrich – hiding and pouncing on an unsuspecting bird.  The cheetah is not as fast as an ostrich but, sometimes, is fast enough to catch an ostrich before the bird can build-up to full speed.

Second, the ostrich can use its legs to fight.  When an ostrich can’t retreat, especially when defending its nest, it will use its legs against an attacker.  With all of its running, you might get the impression that the ostrich isn’t an effective fighter.  It almost seems inaccurate to say the ostrich uses its legs to defend itself, because its legs are so often fatal to its adversary.  Maybe it’s enough to say that ostriches can, and do, kill lions with their legs.

In the wild, ostriches avoid humans as potential predators.  Maybe it’s a good thing for humans that the ostrich prefers to run away.  Ostriches in the wild, and sometime in captivity, can attack humans if these birds feel threatened.  Human deaths occur each year from massive injuries from a single kick of a leg and a single swipe of a claw.  These birds are big and tough.

Of the members of this family, the ostrich, emu, and rhea, the mating behavior of the ostrich is “about in the middle” in terms of strangeness.  Like the rhea, during mating season, a single ostrich male will mate with as few as 2 or as many as 7 females.  Although the male mates with several females, it will form a couple – a bond – with only one of the females in the group.

The strangeness of ostrich mating involves its rituals.  The male will repeat a loud, booming call while doing a kind of dance in which it flaps one wing a few times and, then, the other a few times.  The female will run in a circle around the male, while the male winds his head in a spiral motion. Disturbingly, ostriches raised entirely by humans will direct these same rituals toward their human keepers.

Females lay their eggs in a shared nest.  Ostriches lay the largest eggs of any bird at about 6 inches in length and 3 pounds in weight.  The males sit on the eggs at night and, then, the females sit on the eggs during the day.   The eggs hatch in about 40 days.  The male principally defends the hatchlings and teaches them to feed, but both the male and female raise their young together.

[Ostrich family on a walk]

The young ostriches will not reach full maturity in less than 2 years and, if they survive predators until they reach adulthood, a large number can expect to live for many more years.  Ostriches have been known to live past 60 years of age.

Ostriches have always been a focus of human fascination.  Use of their feathers for ornamentation extends back almost to the beginning of recorded history.  However, only in the 19th century did commercial ostrich farming for feathers develop.   These giant birds where tamed by capturing baby ostriches and raising them in captivity.  Ostriches, by the way, aren’t plucked, but sort of sheared.  A new crop of feathers re-grows about every 8 months.  The ostrich industry was only about feathers until the 1970’s when ostrich skin/leather and ostrich meat became profitable products.

Also, ostrich racing is catching on.  In Africa, people race ostriches while riding on the birds’ backs.  The “riding-birds” are specially fitted with saddles, reins, and bits for the purpose.  In the United States, ostrich racing began in Jacksonville, Florida, with the ostriches pulling draw-carts with human occupants.  Now, races are not only held in Florida, but also in Arizona, Nevada, and Minnesota.