RIP Alex

alex/pepperberg

Alex, the African Grey parrot studied by by researcher Irene Pepperberg, died September 6 at the age of 31.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that Pepperberg’s work with Alex completely changed the scope of information known about the avian brain and parrots in general.

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 year-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 avian brain. 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 one-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. Dr. Pepperberg will continue her innovative research program with Griffin and Arthur, two other young African Grey parrots who have been a part of the ongoing research program.

Brandeis University website.

 The Alex Foundation

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2 Responses

  1. ya such a good soul. what an amazing study. so sad Alex died. oy, death.

  2. death is motherfucker, no?

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