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Clever magpies hold the key to understanding animal intelligence

The humble Australian magpie is the star of new research that suggests social interaction is key to ..

The humble Australian magpie is the star of new research that suggests social interaction is key to the development and evolution of intelligence in animals.

And when it comes to developing smarts, it seems the more birds in the group, the merrier.

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Magpies living in larger groups are no …

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Researchers from the University of Western Australia have linked social interaction with the evolution of intelligence in magpies.

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Magpies living in larger groups are no bird brains

Researchers from the University of Western Australia have linked social interaction with the evolution of intelligence in magpies.

In a study published by the journal Nature on Wednesday, researchers from the University of Western Australia and the University of Exeter, UK, found magpies living in larger groups appeared to be smarter than those in smaller groups.

The study also found clever female birds made better mothers, with a higher success rate when it came to both hatching their eggs and raising their young.

A study has shown magpies appear smarter when they live in larger groups.
A study has shown magpies appear smarter when they live in larger groups. Photo: Nick Moir

Study co-author Dr Benjamin Ashton said it backed up "the social intelligence hypothesis", a theory that posits intelligence in animals evolved in response to the demands of living in complex social systems. Previously, this theory had only been tested by comparing the brain size of different animal species, usually in captivity.

"The link between brain size and intelligence is slightly contentious in itself," he said. "But also the majority of studies that have looked at the relationship between cognition and sociality have done the studies in captive conditions, where the selective pressures are arguably quite different to those in the natural environment. We were able to do it on a wild population of Australian magpies which is quite unique as well."

In work that began in 2013, researchers studied the behaviour of 56 wild magpies, individually tagged, living in 14 territorial groups of between three and 12 birds in the Perth suburb of Guildford.

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Magpies were chosen for the task because of their territorial nature, which means the same group of birds will always be found in the same place. They're also relatively comfortable with humans, despite being wild.

The birds' cognitive ability was tested using a number of activities. One task, which tested spatial awareness, involved repeatedly giving the birds a foraging board in which their food reward was hidden, always in the same place. Birds that lived in bigger groups would more quickly learn to look in the right place for their food.

Having established the cognitive ability of individual adult birds, the researchers were then able to look at the effect of a mother-bird's intelligence on her reproductive success. They found smarter female birds hatched more eggs, and successfully raised more young – but the reason why is yet to be worked out, Dr Ashton said.

As for the fledgling birds, cognitive tests indicated their intelligence also developed socially. They were tested at 100, 200 and 300 days old. At 100 days, there was little difference between the birds in big groups and small groups. At 200 and 300 days, it became clear the birds in the larger groups were getting smarter.

This finding brings up the age-old question of nature versus nurture. The social intelligence hypothesis has traditionally viewed intelligence as genetically determined, Dr Ashton said, "but we have shown here that the social environment has an effect on cognitive development.

"What we need to determine now is whether selection can act upon the cognitive changes that the social environment has caused."

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Enviroment

So, we guess this means Beyonce and Jay-Z are OK then

The first couple of pop music took the world by surprise by dropping their first album together last..

The first couple of pop music took the world by surprise by dropping their first album together last weekend. As you'd expect, it's a statement.

There is arguably no couple better at controlling their own press than Beyonce and Jay-Z. When a video surfaced in 2014 showing Bey's younger sister Solange attacking her brother-in-law in an elevator, rumours of a strained marriage proliferated.

Rather than battle the tabloids, the spouses used the gossip to fuel the creation of two critically beloved, commercially successful records: Beyonce's Lemonade and Jay-Z's 4:44. And, in them, they offered just as many details about their private lives as they chose.

Beyonce and Jay-Z on stage in France for the 2014 On the Run tour.

Photo: Rob Hoffman

Now the couple have continued their domination of pop music, surprising the world last Saturday by releasing their joint album Everything Is Love, which is something of a sequel to those two solo records. Though they have collaborated for at least 15 years, this marks their first joint album, which they dropped under the name The Carters.

The record is a victory lap from a couple who have mined their relationship for universal truths and then presented them as art. It's a fierce love letter to success, to family, to blackness – but, most of all, to each other.

Artwork for the album Everything is Love by The Carters, aka Beyonce and Jay-Z.

Photo: Karl Quinn

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Lyrically, it primarily focuses on two aspects of the Carters' lives: their marriage and their success. (more…)

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Enviroment

Rachel Griffiths: female characters are finally getting real on screen

Almost a year into the #MeToo era, Rachel Griffiths believes the likes of Mystery Road, Wentworth, P..

Almost a year into the #MeToo era, Rachel Griffiths believes the likes of Mystery Road, Wentworth, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Top of the Lake show that female characters are finally coming of age on Australian screens.

In a spirited speech at the launch of a new state government scheme to support more women directors in television, the actor-turned-director said it was exciting to see female characters move beyond "the typical tropes of 'likable, f—able, adorable'" to "more complex depictions of female experience" recently.

Happy to see "more complex depictions of female experience": Rachel Griffiths (left) with Leah Purcell at the launch of #SheDirects.

Photo: Louie Douvis

While she acknowledged there were male directors who created fresh and compelling women characters, Griffiths said the "male gaze" often reduced them to colouring the characters of their male counterparts.

"[They are created to] make him hot, make him authentic, make him empathetic, make him fatherly, make him conflicted, make him grieve," she said. "In the male gaze, we are so often not the gatekeepers; we're not the ferryman. Sometimes the mentor but usually only ironically, like Judi Dench's M…

"Under-written and under-observed, brought into our sexual awareness precociously and prepubescent in order to accommodate the male libido.

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"Often in television we're used by lazy writers and producers who can think of nothing more interesting this week than 'let's have her have sex with X' or 'discover she's a lesbian – for an episode'."

Griffiths, who is about to begin editing the Melbourne Cup drama Ride Like A Girl after finishing the shoot, endorsed Hollywood star Sandra Bullock's recent comment that it was time for women to "stop being polite" about gender equality. (more…)

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Enviroment

Rachel Maddow breaks down on air over Trump immigration policy

US television host Rachel Maddow has broken down on live air as she delivered the latest development..

US television host Rachel Maddow has broken down on live air as she delivered the latest developments in the Trump administration's controversial "zero tolerance" immigration policy.

Maddow, who hosts her own show on MSNBC, was reading from a breaking news release from the Associated Press that revealed government officials have been sending babies and toddlers to what are being called "tender age" shelters in the US.

The youngsters are some of the 2,300 children who have been forcibly separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border since the White House announced a zero-tolerance policy on migrant families in May.

"The AP has just broken some new news," Maddow started.

"Um, this has just come out from the Associated Press, this is incredible. Trump administration have been sending babies and other young children – oh, hold on," she said, her voice breaking.

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Maddow attempted to get through the breaking news piece one more time before moving the show over to a guest. "To at least three – three tender age shelters in South Texas. Lawyers and medical providers… I think I'm going to have to hand this off. Sorry."

Maddow took to Twitter shortly after the segment aired to say sorry to her viewers. "Again, I apologise for losing it there for a moment," she wrote. "Not the way I intended that to go, not by a mile."

She also tweeted out what she had been trying to say in her live read, writing out what was presented in the AP story. "Lawyers and medical providers who have visited the "tender age" shelters described play rooms of crying preschool-age children in crisis…" she wrote.

"Decades after the nations child welfare system ended the use of orphanages over concerns about the lasting trauma to children, the administration is standing up new institutions to hold Central American toddlers that the government separated from their parents." (more…)

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