It's nice to know that the great man we celebrate in this special issue had a warm sense of humor. For example, in 1943 Albert Einstein received a letter from a junior high school student who mentioned that her math class was challenging. He wrote back, “Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics; I can assure you that mine are still greater.”
Today we know that his sentiment could also have been directed at crows, which are better at math than those members of various congressional committees that deal with science who refuse to acknowledge that global temperatures keep getting higher. Studies show that crows can easily discriminate between a group of, say, three objects and another containing nine. They have more trouble telling apart groups that are almost the same size, but unlike the aforementioned committee members, at least they're trying.
A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA finds that the brain of a crow has nerve cells that specialize in determining numbers—a method quite similar to what goes on in our primate brain. Human and crow brains are substantially different in size and organization, but convergent evolution seems to have decided that this kind of neuron-controlled numeracy is a good system. (Crows are probably unaware of evolution, which is excusable. Some members of various congressional committees that deal with science pad their reactionary résumés by not accepting evolution, which is astonishing.)
Crows are not the only avian types out there illustrating that “birdbrain” should really be a compliment. Mexican jays in Arizona (which to Donald Trump's probable dismay cross the border with impunity) know lots about legume load. That is, researchers report in the Journal of Ornithology that they observed the birds picking up peanuts in their beaks to gauge the samples' hefts. After literally weighing their options, the birds would fly off with the densest nut—but enough about various congressional committees that deal with science. And Donald Trump.
By the way, although the journal article refers to the Mexican jays as Aphelocoma ultramarina, in 2011 the American Ornithologists' Union decided that A. ultramarina should probably be considered a separate species called the transvolcanic jay. And that the birds still to be called Mexican jays, which include the subjects of the peanut study, should be referred to as Aphelocoma wollweberi. Mexican jays used to be called gray-breasted jays, for anyone keeping score at home. The thing to remember is that the birds don't care, and if you worry about these designations too much, you could wind up aphelocomatose.
Dogs may not have the talents, let alone the talons, of some birds, but their domesticated sophistication extends into realms that look suspiciously ethical or moral. The journal Animal Behaviour recently featured a study in which 54 dogs watched an unknown person either help the dog's owner with a task or refuse to help. And the dogs later turned their noses up at a snack offer from that good-for-nothing creep who would not give a hand to the most wonderful person in the world. Well, to be more accurate, the dogs were less likely to accept the snack from the rat punk than from somebody else, anyway. In a follow-up interview, one weak-willed dog allegedly described its choice to take the tasty morsel as “rough.”
Finally, in invertebrate news, here's a quote from a late June story by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation about a finding published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: “A tiny worm which procreates by jabbing a needle-like penis into its own head has left biologists in Europe stunned.” That's some jab.
Of course, the flatworm is hermaphroditic; its actions would otherwise be mere self-abuse. But during times when it can't find a discrete mate, the male end bends around to the head end to engage in what's technically called hypodermic insemination. The sperm then travels to the midbody, where fertilization occurs. So it looks like it injects where it does because that's the easiest place for the tail to wriggle around to reach. That is, it did the math and used its head.
*SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN IS PART OF SPRINGER NATURE