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Scientists understand color vision in nonhuman animals by studying the properties of cone cells. (Illustration by Traci Daberko)

Can Animals Decipher Colors and More Questions From Our Readers

Clouds, bluegrass, chipmunks and Picasso round out this month’s batch of questions

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How do we know whether nonhuman animals—mammals, birds, fish—can distinguish colors?
Rob Loughridge
Honolulu, Hawaii

Scientists understand color vision in nonhuman animals by studying the properties of cone cells, which distinguish colors in animal eyes, and by conducting behavioral experiments. Both vertebrates and invertebrates (especially insects) can see colors, but their abilities to do so vary widely. Color vision is usually best in animals that live on land and are active during the day, such as birds and butterflies.
Kristofer Helgen
Zoologist, Museum of Natural History

Why do clouds turn orangish when they pass in front of the full moon?
Ariana Rosario
Melbourne, Florida

It’s because moonlight scatters when it passes through the clouds, and the red light scatters less than the blue. The degree of reddening depends on many factors, including cloud density and air temperature. In big cities, the redness can come from low-pressure sodium street lamps, with or without the moon. But you’d notice it more with the moon.
David H. DeVorkin
Senior Curator, Air and Space Museum

Did the improvisation inherent in jazz influence bluegrass?
Glenn Germaine
Silver Spring, Maryland

It did. Bill Monroe, after founding bluegrass in the 1940s, stressed instrumental solos; like jazz bands, bluegrass bands sound different depending on the players, even when they play the same songs. In the 1960s several bluegrass musicians, such as David Grisman and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, reflected a rock ’n’ roll “jamming aesthetic,” but they too acknowledged the influence of jazz.
Jeff Place
Ethnomusicologist, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

We’ve heard chipmunks emit high-pitched cheeps, usually from some high ground, for what seems like 15 or 20 minutes on end. What are they trying to communicate?
Justin Wild
Bloomington, Indiana

Chipmunks seem to have three distinct calls—the chip, the chuck and the startle call. The chip seems to indicate high alert for a terrestrial predator. The chuck, which is deeper, focuses attention on an avian predator. The startle call seems to be just that. In any event, the chipmunks are broadcasting an alert.
Steven J. Sarro
Curator of Small Mammals, National Zoo

Can you help me understand the influence of African art on Pablo Picasso’s work?
Sabrina McMillian
Kensington, Maryland

Picasso denied any such influence in his later years, but when you look at his work and at photographs of him standing next to African artworks, the connection seems obvious; consider the importance of animal imagery in Guernica or the multiple views and geometric features of the women in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. He was interested in the way African art looked, rather than what it signified in its homeland. And much of what he liked could be considered art made for tourists, rather than what Africanists today would see as museum pieces. Bryna Freyer
Curator, African Art Museum

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