Social Learning in Lizards

Perhaps you've assumed that reptiles and amphibians aren't so smart. You're wrong! The cold-blooded cognition lab at the University of Lincoln is just one of the labs starting to focus on these very interesting creatures. A new study from Macquarie University in Sydney showed that young skinks could learn how to solve a task (which colored container contained a mealworm) faster by watching a demonstrator skink, one of the first studies to show social learning in these not-so-social creatures.

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Science shows why mozzarella is a good cheese for pizza

Spoiler alert! It's the water-content and its stretchability!

Perhaps you're wondering if you made a huge mistake when you chose your research topic for grad school. "The aim of this study is to quantify the pizza baking properties and performance of different cheeses." I'm in, how do you get to work in this lab? Can you get a coal-fired pizza oven paid for by your uni? 

In case that's not enough pizza-science for you, here's an article on the physics of pizza tossing.

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Can a video game help us understand egg camouflage?

If you're a bird, you want to make sure your eggs won't be detected by predators. If you're a predator and hungry, you want to find those eggs. The "battle" between egg and egg-eater is a sort of evolutionary arms race, where the eggs get harder to detect, and the eaters get better at detection.

There's still a lot that scientists don't understand about this process, and they've started using video games and citizen participants to get at this question. In the game, you have to look at images of "camouflaged" eggs and click on them. Response time can give clues as to what makes an egg easy or hard to find. You can visit the egglab here, or read about it here! Very cool!

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It may not be your veterinarian.

All pets have needs - food, water, comfort, attention, stimulation. But how do we know that we are meeting a cat's welfare needs? Behavior problems can be one indicator that a pet's needs are not being met (although a lack of overt behavior problems should not be assumed to mean that all needs ARE being met). Another way to get at the question is outright ask people what they know about cat behavior and welfare, which is exactly what some scientists in Portugal did. The study, "Comparison of interpretation of cat’s behavioral needs between veterinarians, veterinary nurses and cat owners" was recently published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior.

Scratching is a basic need for all cats.  Photo by Mr. TinDC via Creative Commons

Scratching is a basic need for all cats.
Photo by Mr. TinDC via Creative Commons

In the study, there were three groups of participants: 226 veterinarians, 132 vet techs and 582 cat owners who were bringing their cat to the vet. All participants were asked to what extent they agreed with several feline behavior/welfare related statements, such as "Scratching behavior is natural and needed for all cats" and "Some forms of play by the owners can lead to aggression."

The 11-item questionnaire statements broke down into three general categories related to either Elimination, Stress-Releasers or Human Stimulation. The development of the questionnaire is rather glossed over (all we know is that it was previously "pre-tested" on 50 people), so you may be thinking there are some categories or questions missing, and you may be right. But let's get to the findings.

Feline elimination behavior. Often discussed, frequently misunderstood. Photo via Wikimedia commons,  recubejim at

Feline elimination behavior. Often discussed, frequently misunderstood.
Photo via Wikimedia commons, recubejim at

Results suggested that veterinarians scored highest on knowledge related to Elimination behaviors (such as "The type of litter tray can influence the cat's elimination behavior"), with vet techs scoring higher than cat owners, who ranked lowest in knowledge. However, for the Stress-Releasers and Human Stimulation categories, there were no differences between groups; meaning that cat owners were just as knowledgeable as vets and vet techs about those two subjects, based on the questions asked.

Does it matter if your veterinary professional owns a cat? Only on the questions related to the category Stress-Releasers, in which case vets and techs with cats scored higher than those without. Otherwise, there was no "benefit" to having a veterinarian or vet-tech who was also a cat-guardian.

This study does have some limitations, one being whether or not the eleven questions the authors chose represent a full repertoire of feline behavioral welfare needs. I'm not sure that they do. We again run into the problem of not knowing whether cat owners who bring their cat to the vet regularly are different from those who do not. It was also hard to gather from the data as presented how much variability there was in the answers - did everyone generally tend to score high on most items, or did some people score very low?

On the plus side, I think the study nicely highlights that there is a need for veterinarians to either learn more about feline behavior, or to know where to refer people who need help. The veterinarian may be the only "pet professional" that some pet owners reach out to, so they play a critical role in either triage-ing or re-directing a behavioral problem. Any study that can help us understand the gaps in pet owner's understanding of their pet's behavior helps us make progress toward a better world for pets!


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Do you look like your pet?

For some strange reason, we are really good at matching photos of strangers and their dogs. This finding has been demonstrated in a few studies, and a new study delved deeper - and it turns out that if you can't see the eyes of either the dog or the owner, it is ever so much harder to match the whatever it is that makes people and their dogs seem like they belong together - it's in the eyes!

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The disturbing history of ape language studies

Hey! My friend Jane Hu wrote this amazing expose/history of ape language studies, which as you will see, is a complicated and depression one. My undergrad advisor worked with (and was bitten by) Kanzi, so I've heard many "interesting" stories. A must read for perspective on animal research, ethics and studies of language in other species.

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The fascinating nests of the weaver bird

This very social bird, the weaver, lives in huge colonies in a shared nest...a nest so big that sometimes it causes the tree it is built in to fall down! These birds are an interesting example of both social living, and vertebrates living together in one massive structure (similar to humans and skyscrapers). Super cool, read about it here.

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A festival of squirrels

Where in the world would more than 7000 people gather to celebrate squirrels with music, beer, fireworks, face painting and even a bridge for squirrels to cross the road without getting squished by cars? Longview, Washington, a place I really need to visit one day.

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Squirrel season has begun

For the record, I am a vegetarian and not exactly pro-hunting. But…last year was a mast year for many areas, and squirrel populations are up. Quotes like “it’s a good way to introduce kids to firearms” and “someone is bound to have a good recipe” are not exactly a fast track to my heart.

Change two letters in the word “hunting” and you get…not suitable for work

randyI’ve heard of male squirrels chasing softballs during mating season, thinking they might be a female on the move. This squirrel is now notorious for trying to get it on with a camera. Brings a new meaning to the term “camera trap.” Possibly NSFW!!!

On the subject of cameras…instead of romantic feelings, this squirrel felt a bit aggressive toward this camera. Channeling a little Sean Penn if you will…

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Should rescued squirrels be kept as pets?

petWhat do you think? This woman nursed this little guy back to health, and he’s not suitable for release back into the wild. Should he go to a wildlife facility, or be kept as a pet? The outcome? The woman got a permit to keep wildlife.





Pregnant squirrel trashes home

A couple went on vacation for a week only to come home to a disaster area…caused not by a burglar, but a squirrel who got trapped inside. Damage was estimated at hundreds of dollars, with chewed sofa cushions, and chocolate wrappers all over the floor.

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Squirrel behavior gone awry

buryThis squirrel tried to bury his nuts in a man’s clothing, and another squirrel who was found making a nest in a sheep has been rehabilitated and released into the wild, hopefully to make a proper nest in a tree.





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Speaking of nests

You may want to check your grill before you fire it up, as a company in Edmonton got a flame-filled surprise when they started the company’s yearly BBQ – a squirrel had made a nest inside the corporate grill (does your workplace have its own BBQ grill?!?!). Luckily no one was injured, but apparently it’s a favorite spot for wayward squirrels.

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Sports and squirrels

Yet another squirrel-related delay, this time golf is the victim. The WGC Bridgestone Invitational was interrupted by this frisky guy running across the green.

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Power outages

Recent power outages were reported in Fargo, ND; Marquette, MI; there was an outage in Kittanning, PA, where an electrocuted squirrel tripped a breaker (the squirrel was reported “deceased”); and a squirrel got stuck in an air conditioner and caused a brownout in Stillwater, OK.








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I was lucky to attend this year's fantastic Animal Behavior Society Meeting in Princeton NJ. So many amazing talks and ideas and people! Among my favorites were Iain Couzin, James Serpell, Tim Clutton-Brock, Dorothy Cheney and David Whyte-MacDonald.

I storified my live tweets of the talks so you could get a taste of the awesome stuff that was presented:

Day 1: August 10

Day 2: August 11

Day 3: August 12

Day 4: August 13

I also hung with a few fellow science bloggers/twitter peops, like DogSpiesPrancingPapio and @RiceisReal

IMG_4021As a bonus, Princeton is a lovely campus with lots of eastern gray squirrels and rabbits! And somehow I got lucky, two weeks on the East Coast and the weather was pretty fantastic.

Next week: we return to regular programming with cats and squirrels and Friday Faves. Stay tuned!

IMG_4019 IMG_4006

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One academic conference is enough to exhaust your brain. Two might fry it. I'm currently at the Animal Behavior Society Meeting in Princeton, NJ (more on that later). Last week I was at the International Society for Behavioral Ecology meeting in NYC.

For your reading pleasure, I have storified my tweets from the presentations that I attended - Now you can see what kind of cool, amazing science got reported there!

Day 1: August 1

Day 2: August 2

Day 3: August 4

Day 4: August 5

I also spent a few lovely days in Brooklyn, where I got to hang out with DogSpies. I also checked out the Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Brooklyn museum, ate some serious pizza, met with a fellow cat behavior consultant and hung with some friends. I have to love a place that has THIS mural!!


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Cats and Squirrels will be taking a little break from Friday Faves, This Week in Squirrels and the usual blog posts to attend (and present my research at) two conferences on the East Coast: The International Society for Behavioral Ecology Meeting in NYC, and the Animal Behavior Society Meeting at Princeton.

To be sure, I'll be live tweeting from the meetings and will likely be posting some bits and pieces on here. Cats and Squirrels resumes regular programming on August 15th!

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A squirrel’s guide to life

Imagine you are a squirrel: Should you trust humans? Should you cross the street? How do you get ladies and food? Being a squirrel isn’t easy…but now there’s the “Squirrel Code” (spoofing something I’m obviously too old and unhip to know about) to help you survive. (May not be suitable for work)

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...continue reading

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 Do dogs feel jealousy?

Most scientists agree that non-human animals feel the "basic" emotions - fear, anger, happiness, surprise - or at least the animal-equivalents. Behavioral and neurological studies support that animals have, to some degree, similar emotional experiences as we do.

When it comes to more complex emotions, such as guilt, embarrassment, and sympathy, we have much less empirical support. These emotional states may require some form of theory of mind or a level of self-consciousness that we aren't sure that animals have.

The new dog-jealousy study has gotten a lot of hype and press, and now everyone thinks dogs can feel jealous. Other studies have shown that anthropomorphism may play a huge role in how we interpret the "guilty look" in dogs. I think it's a bit strange that the human researchers find the evidence more compelling than the animal cognition experts and it would have been nice if they had included a dog-cog expert on their team.

Dog owners petted a stuffed dog (or read a book or paid attention to a jack o'lantern), and the behavior of their pet dog was measured. Dogs were more likely to bark or push on the owner or investigate the object when it was a stuffed dog. I think what we can all agree on - dogs attempt to get their owner's attention when it is directed elsewhere - attention is of course a resource that is important to many pets. You can read the study here - yay open access!

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Why isn't composting the norm?

I am lucky to live somewhere where we can put all of our food scraps in a compost bin and not into landfill. I'm very excited to see that NYC is following suit! I think some psychological science can be added to get everyone on board!

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The Camo-Corner

Camouflage is an amazing thing. This satanic leaf gecko has perfectly evolved to match its habitat -  even when that habitat varies.

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haresBut what about when that habitat has completely changed? Scientists examine the outlook of the snowshoe hare, an animal that typically changes color as the weather changes to match the presence of snow in the winter...but what happens when there's no snow?




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Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Do you play with your cat? How about every day? Be honest. I know most of you reading this are pretty lazy about playing with your cats (I can be too). You might even blame it on your cat…”Oh…he doesn't really like to play with toys,” “She liked to play when he was a kitten, but now that she’s older, she prefers to cuddle.” I've heard it all before and I know it’s a lie! Why? Because to cats, play should be practice for predation, and cats are natural-born killers who cannot resist the opportunity to pounce! This doesn't mean that the play is always fun for the human, who may or may not be particularly skilled at eliciting those killer behaviors in their cats. But we’ll get to that. First, let’s look at a recent study examining how play might influence the behavior of cats.

An Owner Survey of Toys, Activities and Behavior Problems in Indoor Cats” was recently published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior. The study was a survey of 277 veterinary clients in Tennessee who were bringing their cats in for a veterinary visit (coming for anything besides a behavior problem rendered someone eligible to participate). The goal of the study was to examine just how much playtime owners give their cats, and how this might be correlated with behavior problems.

Owners were asked standard questions about their cats (such as if they were spayed/neutered, the cats’ sex and the like). The survey also asked owners if the cats eliminate outside of the litterbox, fight with other cats, and if they bite and scratch people. They were next asked how often and long they play with their cat, and what types of toys/activities they provide for their cats (e.g. balls, mice, stuffed toys, catnip, etc.). Finally, they asked participants if they talk to their veterinarian about any behavior problems their cat might be experiencing.

On the human side of things, all owners stated that they played with their cat at least once a month, with 64% claiming to play at least twice a day. Most owners played with their cat for 5-10 minutes at a time. The majority of people (78%) reported leaving toys out all the time for their cat.

On the cat side, we've got a lot of naughty kitties out there. Sixty-one percent of owners reported at least one undesirable behavior, with many cats displaying aggression toward people (36%), closely followed by urination outside the litterbox (24%) and aggression between cats in the home (21%). Of those owners with “problem children,” only half of them had mentioned the problem to their veterinarian.

Photo by Jon Ross via Creative Commons/Flickr

Photo by Jon Ross via Creative Commons/Flickr

Was playtime correlated with behavior problems? Maybe. The owners who played with their cats for longer periods of time reported fewer behavior problems (on average one behavior problem, compared to the 2.25 behavior problems reported by those who played with their cat for only one minute at a time). Behavior problems were strongly related to the sex of the cat, with male cats being more likely to have reported behavior issues, regardless of neuter status.

I do think we should interpret these results with some caution. First of all, we have a very small sample size of people (less than 10) who reported they only play with their cat for one minute at a time. These people may not be representative of a random sampling of people who don’t play much with their cat, and of course, we don’t know if the decreased play is the cause of the behavior problems, or the result (or because of something else altogether). We also don’t know if those who claimed to play with their cat for longer periods of time were being honest. Perhaps many of them only play for one minute as well, they just didn't feel like admitting it!

We also don’t know if people who bring their cats to the vet regularly are different from pet owners who do not. More than half of all pet cats do not get a yearly exam, due in large part to the fact that many cats are afraid of their cat carrier (a subject for another blog post!). So it’s possible that the cats represented in this survey are also somehow different from your average pet cat, for better or worse.

On behavior problems: it seems like a lot of cats are having them (more than reported in a previous study). Is this because people are making less time for their cats? Are more cats bored and indoors? (For the record, I advocate keeping cats indoors only, but it needs to be a loving, fun and stimulating environment!) They also didn't report whether age correlated with behavior problems, but I wonder if aggression toward humans is more prevalent in younger cats and kittens, with more of a playful/predatory bent, than the more fearful, defensive types of aggression problems seen in some cats.

Most people don’t mention behavior problems to their veterinarian, and while the authors suggest that veterinarians can be a resource for help, (no diss on vets, but…) I think it’s important to remember that most veterinarians do not get much (if any) training in cat behavior. In many veterinary programs, ONE multi-species behavior course is an elective, not a requirement (see here, here and here for examples of veterinary curricula). Many veterinarians admit they know little about behavior, while others may give outdated or just bad behavior advice!

That said, veterinarians are hopefully making progress on this end, and hopefully know of some resources for cat-owners that they can at least point them to (such as veterinary behaviorists, CAABS, the IAABC and Cats International) if they can’t answer a client's behavior-related questions! Because behavior issues are a major reason that cats are surrendered to shelters, it is important to intervene and provide assistance early!

This study reveals some valuable information about pet owners and the type of activities they provide for their cats and I have plenty of thoughts about the findings! This study found owners reporting even less playtime with cats than data from a study in 1997, where owners reported 20-40 minutes of daily play with their cats. Sadly, the current figure is probably not enough to meet most cats’ needs.

Food puzzles are a great way to provide enrichment for your cat!

Food puzzles are a great way to provide enrichment for your cat!

Furthermore, people need to expand their selection of toys and activities. In the current study, only 39% of owners reported using an interactive (“fishing pole”) toy with their cats. This is a travesty! Only NINE percent had a cat tree, four percent trained their cats to do tricks, and less than one percent provided food puzzles as enrichment for their cats. I’d say those are four “magic bullet” things that all cats owners can do to immediately improve their cats’ lives, and sadly, not many people are doing any of them.


Does your cat have a cat tree? Picture by David Kowis via Creative Commons/Flickr

Does your cat have a cat tree? Picture by David Kowis via Creative Commons/Flickr

So for those of you who might be cringing about the kitty care you are providing right now, I’m going to give you a few quick tips to make playtime easier for you and your cat:

Think like prey – get interactive (that means a toy with a stick that you move, not a toy you just toss across the room) toys that resemble birds, bugs and mice. Move them like birds, bugs and mice! Quiver, skitter, hop, but whatever you do, don’t shove the toy in your cat’s face. No self-respecting mouse would do that. Also, don’t feel the need to wildly wave the toy around constantly. This might work for kittens, but older cats need more calculated play…bringing me to my next tip:

Take advantage of your cat’s stalk and rush hunting style. Stalk and rush means that the predator spends a lot of time carefully watching prey before making a very hasty and deadly attack. Cats really like the “pre-pounce” phase – where the toy is barely moving for many seconds. Watch their eyes – are their pupils dilated? Is their butt wiggling? Are their whiskers forward? If yes, you have feline focus!

This short burst style of hunting means that you don’t always need 20 minute play sessions with your cat. Several 5-10 minute sessions are likely just as effective! Just make sure your cat has a little time to calm down from the play before taking the toy away.

Use all of their senses! We are visual, so we tend to think that cats are too. But they want to use their senses of smell, sound and touch too! Try toys scented with catnip, or small amounts of mint, valerian or even cat food. Remember their sense of smell is much stronger than ours, so a little bit will go far. The scent may help them track toys as you move them around.

Move toys against a scratchy surface, like under a paper bag or rug, or hide the toy behind a table leg and gently tap the toy against the leg. The sound will immediately pique your cat’s interest!

Be sure to let the cat catch and touch the toy frequently. They have many sensitive nerve endings and whiskers in their face and paws to help them hunt. These are designed to help them capture prey. This why lazer pointer play can get frustrating; they can never catch the toy.

Cats can get bored of the same toys. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Cats can get bored of the same toys. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Rotate toysa previous study suggested that cats don’t get bored of play – they get bored of the same old toy. So be sure to take some toys away, and put out different ones. Have multiple interactive toys for play sessions. Switch toys if your cat seems to lose interest and see if she is re-engaged!


I hope now you feel a little more inclined to pick up that dusty cat dancer that’s been sitting in the back of your closet and give your kitty a little exercise! You may even have fun and create a bonding moment with your cat…and if you’re lucky, you’ll prevent some behavior problems too!

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