Of Tools, Calls and Balls – Three Papers to Check

Can crows keep the score in a game, is a football a type of tool, and should we pay attention to what someone says on the questionable basis that they are older – and thus wiser – than ourselves? None of those questions are addressed in this post, but nevertheless, there are a few things worth reading online today, of which the following are but three examples.

First up, the Royal Society has a couple of interesting papers for our perusal, both of which are freely accessible, to wit:

Tool Use by Wild New Caledonian Crows Corvus moneduloides at Natural Foraging Sites, for which this is the abstract:

New Caledonian crows Corvus moneduloides use tools made from sticks or leaf stems to ‘fish’ woodboring beetle larvae from their burrows in decaying wood. Previous research on this behaviour has been confined to baited sites, leaving its ecological context and significance virtually unexplored. To obtain detailed observations of natural, undisturbed tool use, we deployed motion-triggered video cameras at seven larva-fishing sites. From 1797 camera hours of surveillance over 111 days, we recorded 317 site visits by at least 14 individual crows. Tool use was observed during 150 site visits. Our video footage revealed notable variation in foraging success among identifiable crows.

Two nutritionally independent, immature crows spent considerable time using tools, but were much less successful than local adults, highlighting the potential role of individual and social learning in the acquisition of tool-use proficiency. During systematic surveys of larva-fishing sites, we collected 193 tools that crows had left inserted in larva burrows. Comparing these tools with the holes in which they were found, and with raw materials available around logs, provides evidence for tool selectivity by New Caledonian crows under natural conditions. Taken together, these two complementary lines of investigation provide, to our knowledge, the first quantitative description of larva fishing by wild crows in its full ecological context.

Whilst back in the world of primates, we have this:

Attention to Elders’ Voice in Non-human Primates – here’s the abstract:

The observed respect and attention to elders’ speech in traditional cultures appears to have a ‘universal’ component which questions its possible biological bases. Animals present differential attention to the vocalizations of other individuals according to their characteristics but little is known about the potential propensity to pay more attention to vocalizations of elders. On the basis of several hundreds of vocal exchanges recorded, here we show that aged female Campbell’s monkeys (Cercopithecus campbelli), despite being significantly less ‘loquacious’ than their younger adult counterparts, elicit many more responses when calling. These findings show that attention to elders’ vocal production appears in non-human primates, leading to new lines of questioning on human culture and language evolution.

All of which is followed by:

Why England’s Soccer Team Keeps Losing on Penalty Shots

With all this talk of tool use, paying heed to elders and social learning amongst non-humans, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ascribe much in the way of definitive activities that properly explain why we humans are so different from all other members of the animal kingdom. However, playing football (aka ‘soccer’ to USAsians) is one activity for which our bipedality alone makes us uniquely adapted, and in common with most other sports, psychology can play just as important a role as technique, especially when it comes to taking the dreaded penalty kick.

As many a long-suffering England fan will attest, the national team have a depressing tendency to getting themselves eliminated from major competitions in penalty shoot-outs, whilst teams like Germany appear to prosper greatly from such sudden-death events, for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained by scientists – or anyone else, for that matter.

About a month ago, in early December 2009, Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard missed a penalty in his side’s 2-1 defeat away to Manchester City,  prompting a comment that being the consummate professional he is, ‘Lamps’ was getting in some early practise at missing penalties for England in the upcoming July, 2010 World Cup – although in fairness to the player, he subsequently scored an equalising spot-kick at Upton Park two weeks later, as his team came back from a goal down to draw 1-1 with West Ham. To his further credit, the ref had ordered the kick to be re-taken twice, with Lampard beating the ‘keeper on each occasion, after which the Chelsea fans amused themselves by chanting ‘3-1, 3-1’ long into the night, presumably in the hope of subliminally persuading the ref to chalk up two extra goals on their account.

A new paper reported in Science Daily may be of help to Lampard and other England players this coming summer in South Africa, as it offers some advice to would-be scorers of penalty kicks, placing the emphasis on ignoring the opposing goal-keeper, and concentrating instead on placing the ball just inside either post, making the shot harder to save. The idea is that anxious players tend to look too long at the ‘keeper before the penalty is taken, which we are told results in many kicks being overly centralised, and thus much easier to save. As we see from the abstract:

The current study sought to test the predictions of attentional control theory (ACT) in a sporting environment. Fourteen experienced footballers took penalty kicks under low- and high-threat counterbalanced conditions while wearing a gaze registration system. Fixations to target locations (goalkeeper and goal area) were determined using frame-by-frame analysis. When anxious, footballers made faster first fixations and fixated for significantly longer toward the goalkeeper. This disruption in gaze behavior brought about significant reductions in shooting accuracy, with shots becoming significantly centralized and within the goalkeeper’s reach. These findings support the predictions of ACT, as anxious participants were more likely to focus on the “threatening” goalkeeper, owing to an increased influence of the stimulus-driven attentional control system.

I’m not sure how far back, or in which specific ways this might apply to early human evolution – ignoring one’s opponent – or at least not looking directly into their eyes – is often a sign during a heated argument that fisticuffs are about to ensue, possibly a sub-conscious ruse to lull the opposition into a false sense of security, or allowing the assailant to think through the moves without being distracted or coming under the thrall of their target by focussing overt attention on them. However, it isn’t clear whether this is a socially mediated skill or an instinctive behaviour that kicks in at the flick of a neuronal switch.

Returning to the Royal Society, BBC Radio 4 are running a mini-series of its 350-year history, this week, with ‘In Our Time’ presenter Melvyn Bragg, well-known wit and raconteur. To get the previous programmes aired this week, it might be necessary to subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.

image from here


Tool Use by Wild New Caledonian Crows Corvus moneduloides at Natural Foraging Sites – by  Lucas A. Bluff, Jolyon Troscianko, Alex A. S. Weir, Alex Kacelnik and Christian Rutz

Published online before print January 6, 2010, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.1953

Attention to Elders’ Voice in Non-human Primates – by Alban Lemasson, Enora Gandon  and Martine Hausberger

Published online before print January 6, 2010, doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2009.0875

Anxiety, Attentional Control, and Performance Impairment in Penalty Kicks – by Mark R. Wilson, Greg Wood, Samuel J. Vine

Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology JSEP, 31(6), December 2009, Copyright © 2009

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