Keas!

Yesterday Andy Whiten gave a talk here in Vienna. I went to hear it although I already have heard him talk this year, but got to go out to dinner with him and some students and postdocs, another KLI fellow Zsofia, and the host Ludwig Huber. Andy is very famous for his work on animal culture, but Ludwig's group is also amazing and Andy was very interested in hearing their research (as was I --- I pretty much know Whiten's but don't know enough about Huber's yet!) I woke up early this morning to send off a funding pre-application for some cool work I may get a friend and colleague to do next year, and then went to hear Ludwig's group discuss Andy's papers with him. It was two hours mostly on the two group's research (of course!) but I also think I got some of the best ideas of my own research topic (biological evolution of cultural evolution) I've had since I've been here. To be fair, I did write in my application that the first few months I'd have to spend time working on finishing a UK grant and helping my PhD students graduate, which is what I've been concentrating most of my concentrated time on (honest Hagen! (and Mark, if you read this, which I haven't seen any hits from Bath :-)) Then afterwords we were going to have a quick look at the keas that Ludwig's group uses for some of their social-learning experiments, but that turned into lunch first, then coffee, then a long train & bus ride, and then we spent a long time with the keas and Ludwig's field researchers and then visited the institute director (the Keas are out at another (differently funded) KLI), visited a bunch of other birds and some fish and some mice!

Afterwards it was so late I gave up on going to my KLI, and I wound up having dinner with Andy again. He was very impressed with the energy and commitment of the researcher's he met, as well as excited by all their results. In general, people here are much more immersed in their research than the majority of academics I've seen since I was at MIT. It's nice :-) It's not that they don't have lives or anything, it's just that they honestly care about what they are doing and also have a very professional attitude towards it.

I knew you'd want a picture of a kea -- fortunately I found a copy-left one on wikipedia. I guess I should really say a bit about them -- we were allowed in this enormous enclosure with the "fledglings" (they were already the size of rabbits.) These birds take 4 years to mature, like capuchins. And like capuchins they are incredibly smart. When we first got there they were all doing this really weird call & unison response noise at us at odd intervals, but then as they relaxed they climbed all over us and tried to take our shoes, my jean cuffs, and Andy's hat apart. They made a big fuss and the field worker (Alice?) said "they are begging" and I said "what are they begging for?" there was food and toys everywhere. And she said "attention", and I said "what, visual attention, like a baby?" and sure enough, if you looked at them they'd shut up.

The other really weird behaviour they do I got to see is gather two items together that look just the same (same size, shape and colour) pair them carefully (all lined up) and then carry them over (in their beaks) and throw them at something to make a noise. Totally bizarre. Apparently they often throw things and drop things into different contexts making various noises and splashes. Alice said she'd also seen some put something that floated in water, then pile stuff on top of it until it sank.

There are no primates in New Zealand. I said that if capuchins are the new world apes, keas must be the New Zealand ones. Andy was so excited he was talking about trying to come get a short fellowship and spend a month studying them.

While we were there we got hailed on! Fortunately there was a roof that mostly kept the rain and hail out, although the walls were just mesh.
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