Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

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Well, just heard that the necropsy of Alex was performed and that no discernible cause of death could be found. This is puzzling and sad, since it would have been better to have some sense of closure, but I suppose we may never know what killed Alex.

I was also sent the official obituary of Alex, written by Irene, which is under the fold.

RIP Alex.

In addition, Irene Pepperberg was be interviewed on NPR’s “All Things Considered” today, check out the summary of the interview here. The audio of the interview will be at that link at 7pm Eastern Time.

8pm UPDATE: The audio link is now up! Highlights include Alex’s voice asking for a treat following a trial, and Irene’s reminsisces of him.

(continued under the fold….)

Alex the African Grey parrot and subject of landmark studies of bird intelligence dies at 31

WALTHAM, MASSACHUSETTS, (SEPTEMBER 10, 2007)– Alex, the world renowned African Grey parrot made famous by the ground-breaking cognition and communication research conducted by Irene Pepperberg, Ph.D., died at the age of 31 on September 6, 2007. Dr. Pepperberg’s pioneering research resulted in Alex learning elements of English speech to identify 50 different objects, 7 colors, 5 shapes, quantities up to and including 6 and a zero-like concept. He used phrases such as “I want X” and “Wanna go Y”, where X and Y were appropriate object and location labels. He acquired concepts of categories, bigger and smaller, same-different, and absence. Alex combined his labels to identify, request, refuse and categorize more than 100 different items demonstrating a level and scope of cognitive abilities never expected in an avian species. Pepperberg says that Alex showed the emotional equivalent of a 2 year-old child and intellectual equivalent of a 5 yr old. Her research with Alex shattered the generally held notion that parrots are only capable of mindless vocal mimicry.

In 1973, Dr. Pepperberg was working on her doctoral thesis in theoretical chemistry at Harvard University when she watched Nova programs on signing chimps, dolphin communication and, most notably, on why birds sing. She realized that the fields of avian cognition and communication were not only of personal interest to her but relatively uncharted territory. When she finished her thesis, she left the field of chemistry to pursue a new direction -to explore the depths of the avian mind. She decided to conduct her research with an African Grey parrot. In order to assure she was working with a bird representative of its species, she asked the shop owner to randomly choose any African Grey from his collection. It was Alex. And so the 1-year old Alex, his name an acronym for the research project, Avian Learning EXperiment, became an integral part of Pepperberg’s life and the pioneering studies she was about to embark upon.

Over the course of 30 years of research, Dr. Pepperberg and Alex revolutionized the notions of how birds think and communicate. What Alex taught Dr. Pepperberg about cognition and communication has been applied to therapies to help children with learning disabilities. Alex’s learning process is based on the rival-model technique in which two humans demonstrate to the bird what is to be learned. Alex and Dr. Pepperberg have been affiliated with Purdue University, Northwestern University, the University of Arizona, the MIT Media Lab, the Radcliffe Institute, and most recently, Harvard University and Brandeis University.

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Alex has been featured worldwide on numerous science programs including the BBC, NHK, Discovery and PBS. He is well known for his interactions with Alan Alda in an episode of Scientific American Frontiers on PBS and from an episode of the famed PBS Nature series called “Look Who’s Talking.” Reports on Alex’s accomplishments have appeared in the popular press and international news from USA Today to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. The Science Times section of the New York Times featured Alex in a front-page story in 1999. That same year, Dr. Pepperberg published The Alex Studies, a comprehensive review of her decades of learning about learning from Alex. Many other television appearances and newspaper articles followed.

Alex was found to be in good health at his most recent annual physical about two weeks ago. According to the vet who conducted the necropsy, there was no obvious cause of death. Dr. Pepperberg will continue her innovative research program at Harvard and Brandeis University with Griffin and Arthur, two other young African Grey parrots who have been a part of the ongoing research program.

Alex, has left a significant legacy – not only have he and Dr. Pepperberg and their landmark experiments in modern comparative psychology changed our views of the capabilities of avian minds, but they have forever changed our perception of the term “bird brains”.

For press contacts:
The Alex Foundation and Dr. Pepperberg can be reached by e-mail to alex@alexfoundation.org or by phone at 781 736 2195.

If you choose to help support this research, please consider making a donation in Alex’s memory to The Alex Foundation, c/o Dr. Irene Pepperberg, Department of Psychology/MS-062, 415 South Street, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA 02454

Comments

  1. #1 Vasha
    September 11, 2007

    I suspect that part of the lack of cause of death is due to the fact that bird physiology is just not as well understood as mammalian; and of course no other mammal has been as thoroughly studied as humans.

  2. #2 Warren
    September 11, 2007

    A good friend of mime, a teen boy attached to a family which is generally well-disposed to me too, has an African Grey named Edgar. Edgar is about three years old and does a superb job of beeping like the answering machine.

    Meanwhile their terribly inbred Jack Russell, Gwen, got herself run over by Mom — Sheesh! — as she backed out one day. Gwen, in her pain, bit the hell out of my friend. He was stitched and bandaged for days.

    There’s no point to this, but then, why should there be?

    We love them, you know; and when they hurt us, as they might, we forgive them; but we let that go, as we must.

    Edgar eyes me with open, naked suspicion. He stares at me and doesn’t squawk; but he edges away from me and tries to warn-bite me if my fingers get too close. (Unless I can sneak around and offer a finger-rub at the back of his head. He tolerates that until he realizes who’s rubbing him, and then — Oh noes. You iz not mah ppl. Bite! Bite!)

    It took nearly a year for me to get to that point with him, where he could eye me with distrust as opposed to just bare hatred and warning squawking.

    These are intelligent, learning animals; and they deserve some respect.

    There’s no way to really know what happened to Alex. But there should be. Because, dammit, he had a lot of years ahead of him, and to see it ended so arbitrarily just does not seem fair.

    Especially since his last words were what they were.

  3. #3 Jon H
    September 11, 2007

    Maybe he ate too many words.

  4. #4 Doug
    September 11, 2007

    Hi Shelley;

    I am a little surprised that there is not a forensic avian veterinarian in the US that might be able to determine the probable cause of death?

  5. #5 Ichthyic
    September 14, 2007

    I was sorry to hear of the premature demise of such an interesting and well known parrot.

    Wes Elseberry from PT/Austringer mentioned you worked with Pepperberg, so I was wondering if I might ask a question or two?

    I haven’t looked at the results coming out of the Alex project for a while now (5 years?), and was wondering how successful attempts have been at duplicating the training feats to produce other similar subjects for cognitive study?

    I’d hate to think this will all end with Alex.

    oh, btw, I have an amusing anecdote about an African Grey I was acquainted with some time back, but it’s a bit raunchy (well, technically, it was the parrot that could be considered raunchy)…

  6. #6 Linda Groenke
    September 20, 2007

    I am the owner of a two month old Congo African Grey named Joshua. I’ve had him since he was two weeks old, an have given him the best nutritian for brain developement and stimulated him daily with toys and problem solving. I teach Special Ed,but my only child is GT and valedictorian 4.0, tested out of 47 hours at A&M and graduated Summa Cum Laude. She is now going into brain reserch. I look for amazzing and unpresidented accoplishments from this bird. I so grieve the loss of Alex. He was alot of my inspiraation!

  7. #7 NormaGold
    September 21, 2007

    Alex was my inspiration for acquiring our Greys. We have 2 whom we love dearly. We are so saddened by Alex’s loss.

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