On the horizon

Birds smarter than believed

Birds are not stupid, and it is time the scientific world gave them full credit.

That's the verdict of an international group of avian experts, who are taking on the slow-moving world of scientific nomenclature by calling for a new map of the avian brain.

The new system, which draws upon many words used to describe the human brain, acknowledges the now overwhelming evidence that avian and mammalian brains are remarkably similar - a fact that explains why many kinds of bird are not just twitchily resourceful but are able to design and manufacture tools, solve mathematical problems and, in many cases, use language in ways that even chimpanzees and other primates cannot.

The wholesale revision of terms is rarely seen in science, and the first total makeover of bird brain anatomy in more than a century.

"We believe that names have a powerful influence on the experiments we do and the way in which we think," the Avian Brain Nomenclature Consortium wrote in its argument, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

Sri Lanka's slow beach recovery

Most of Sri Lanka's beaches battered by the Asian tsunami are expected to take as many as six months to return to normal, a global environmental group said.

A survey of Sri Lanka's reefs had shown the impact of the Dec. 26 tsunami varied widely, but several beaches lost width and had seen significant washing away of sand, the World Conservation Union said.

"In the next three to six months the beaches below the sand dunes will recover, but some seashore vegetation will take at least two years," said Channa Bambaradeniya, program coordinator at the group's office in the capital, Colombo.

Beach erosion was severe in most places, and stretches where illegal coral mining was rampant were damaged badly, the group said.

Irrational stock markets

Investors who feel there is no good reason for their stock losses may be right, said researchers who report that an irrational computer model very accurately predicted activity on the London Stock Exchange.

But the model, which assumed buyers and sellers act with "zero intelligence," did not show that traders acted blindly, the researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Rather, it showed that the difference between selling and buying prices and other market properties may depend more on the structure and constraints of trading itself than on a trader's individual strategic behavior.

"The prevailing view in economics about how markets function is that you have a rational investor rationally processing all the information that arrives," says Doyne Farmer of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, who led the study. "Our analysis challenges that view by saying that maybe a lot of price movement is more or less mechanical."

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