In three decades as a research subject, Alex 31 (an acronym for Avian Learning EXperiment), an African Grey parrot, dazzled the world with his ability to talk, count and identify colors and shapes, along the way providing scientists with unprecedented insights into the avian brain.
Alex, who died unexpectedly last week, was the subject of a thirty-year-long experiment conducted by animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg, initially at the University of Arizona and most recently at Harvard and Brandeis University. Pepperberg bought Alex in a pet shop when he was about one year old.
In 2002, Pepperberg's book "The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots" brought the bird and her research widespread attention, showing that creatures so evolutionarily separate from humans can perform the same types of complex cognitive tasks as young children.
Before Pepperberg's work, it was widely believed in the scientific community that birds were not intelligent and could only use words by mimicking, but Alex's accomplishments showed that birds may be able to reason on a basic level and use words creatively. Pepperberg wrote that Alex's intelligence was on par with that of dolphins and great apes. She also reported that Alex had the intelligence of a five-year-old human and had not reached his full potential by the time he died.
"It's devastating to lose an individual you've worked with pretty much every day for 30 years," Pepperberg told The Boston Globe. The parrot had an emotional development similar to a 2-year-old child, demonstrated some of his skills on nature shows, including programs on the BBC and PBS, where he famously shared scenes with actor Alan Alda on the PBS series "Look Who's Talking."
By using novel methods of teaching, Pepperberg prompted Alex to
learn a wide vocabulary of words, which he could put into categories,
and to count small numbers of items, as well as recognize colors and
"The work revolutionized the way we think of bird brains," said Diana Reiss, a psychologist at Hunter College who works with dolphins and elephants. "That used to be a pejorative, but now we look at those brains — at least Alex's — with some awe."
Pepperberg said Alex was discovered dead in his cage Friday. The cause of death is not yet known, but the African Grey parrot's average life span is 50 years.
Pepperberg joined the UA in 1991 as an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, bringing with her Alex and more than a decade of research into the cognitive abilities of parrots. She was a full-time faculty member at the UA, also affiliated with psychology and neuroscience, until she joined MIT as a visiting professor in 1999. She remained an adjunct faculty member at the UA until 2002.
In experiments, Pepperberg would employ one trainer to, in effect, compete with Alex for a small reward, like a grape. Alex learned to ask for the grape by observing what the trainer was doing to get it; the researchers then worked with the bird to help shape the pronunciation of words.
Posted by Casey Kazan.
Contributions may be made to the Alex Foundation.
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