Ren & Stimpy lives on in all my explanations

by chelsea schuyler

Red Button of the White House

Today we answer the ever nagging question: Should you press the red button?

There has been much speculation about whether there actually is a red button, from which the president in his infinite stable genius wisdom could launch a nuclear weapon.

Luckily for humanity, there is no such nuclear button. However, there IS a button available to the president, and it IS red. I have included an image of the White House’s Resolute Desk below. Included is Barack Obama looking under said desk, for scale (and the memory of better times).

Resolute Desk red buttonHistory Fun Fact!

This desk was made from wood from the HMS Resolute, a drifting British ship that the Americans found. They were like ‘poor chaps’ and gave it back to the British in the spirit of good will. The Queen was like ‘Aww!’ and commissioned a fancy desk to give to America in 1880. Drinks all around!

So what does this White House button in fact do? Turns out it’s just for calling the valet to get a coke or something. Seagulls are in full support of this practice, and if we want to commune with them, we should probably start here.

The Dutch – “Do You Even Science Bro?”

European herring gull

Larus argentatus, the European version of default seagull

If there were a red button available for nuclear destruction, seagulls would press it, because they are completely wired to do so. At least, when they’re young.

How do we know this? Well, there was once a Dutch scientist  Niko Tinbergen, who studied Herring Gulls. (Remember the Dutch? We love them for their babies and their Brothers coffee, and of course, their airplane attendants’ ability to pronounce my last name.)

dutch baby, dutch brothers, niko tinbergen

Top 3 reasons to approve of the Dutch: Dutch baby, Dutch Brothers, and Niko Tinbergen.

Anyway, at the time Tinbergen was studying, scientists were completely obsessed with behaviorism, the idea that everything was learned or could be taught (a la Pavlov). Nothing could possibly be innate they said.

Well, Tinergen’s experiment with birds  basically said, “You don’t know Shinola from seagulls.”

shinola shoe polish

Shinola was a shoe polish brand. Now you know s@!# from Shinola AND from seagulls

Seagull’s Shape and Gender

Tinbergen studied Herring gulls. There’s a lot of species and regions and blah blah, but at heart they are your basic default seagulls, so we’re just going to say that from now on.

If you live in North America or Europe you’ve no doubt you’ve seen these beasts in town or on your various beach trips, but have you ever noticed the red spot? It’s on their bottom lip-beak (mandible) and resembles sloppy joe dribble.

Both males and females have them. A note on seagull sex – males and females look basically the same. It’s the juveniles that are the mottled brown gulls you see hanging out with them – which you may have mistaken for females, because I may have told you as much, because I may have/was definitely wrong, and I blame mallard ducks entirely.

mallard ducks

female brown, male colorful dammit

The female is in fact, slightly duller than the males, which we can barely see, but they have no problem seeing. While we have three cones in our eyes (seeing red, green, and blue), the seagull has four, the fourth capable of seeing UV light. To them the males stand out like a french fry held off a boat.

Tinbergen’s Experiment

Why the spot? Well, that little dribble is a target for baby seagulls. When the adult returns to the nest, the chicks peck at the red spot, which stimulates the parent to regurgitate food in that time-honored, revolting tradition of so many animals.

seagull herring gull baby

Yeah, you’re cute now, but you’ll be pushing my buttons soon enough.

How do we know this? Well, Tinbergen gathered his best experimental supplies, the very same ones our own children run to the fastest – cardboard and sticks!

Approaching seagull chicks on the coast, he held a seagull-shaped disembodied head with the white face and the red beak. Somehow not horribly traumatized, the chicks pecked at the spot.

Okay, so far so good.  What about just a head and beak with no spot? No pecks. What about other colors? Nope, red only please. Okay, what if we just waved a stick with a red spot on it? Pecking resumes.

red spot experiment tinbergen

Mine?

And the best part – what about a stick with three red lines on it? Pecking frenzy!

Apparently, nature uses minimal wiring in the chick’s brain to save energy (in the biological sense), so its neurons simply know that red = peck = food.

seagull chick

Putting the ‘gull’ in ‘gullible’

Cardboard red dot? Sure. Thick red lines? Superbeak!! It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet so peck like there’s no tomorrow!

Thus proving that some behavior is innate, Tinbergen championed a new field – ethology, the study of animal behavior that evolves as part of adaptation. He won a Nobel Prize for his contributions in 1973.

Meanwhile, we know what the seagull would say about pressing the red button. You say push and it says ‘how red?’

Thank You Robert Sapolsky

The idea for this blog was brought to you by a tiny footnote in the book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by my hero Robert Sapolsky:

behave robert sapolsky

Don’t skip the appendices

700 microscopically thin pages of genius that will teach you neurobiology basics through really cool case studies and relatable examples. I heart you Robert Sapolsky.

Photos in the public domain except:
seagulls drinking – photo by John Haslam, CC by 2.0
dutch baby- photo by Jengod, CC by SA 3.0
niko tinsbergen– photo by Rob Mieremet, CC by SA 3.0
dutch brothers – photo by M.O. Stevens, CC by SA 3.0
baby gull – photo by Byron Chin, CC by NC-SA 2.0
Behave – BUY IT so that promoting it will let me off the copyright hook?

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