The oxytocin hormone contributes to our feelings of love and care, and scientists have been exploring what it means for how dogs feel about us (they have oxytocin too). The results suggest it is not just oxytocin in general that directs those loving doggie feelings, but which SPECIFIC variant of the oxytocin receptor gene a dog has, that predicts how friendly they are toward people. DogSpies summarizes it all for us very nicely here:
New Dish? Moles in Couscous
I'm not talking about spicy Mexican cuisine. Scientists at the University of Massachusetts investigated how moles burrow, by x-raying them in tunnels of couscous (apparently it has a nice texture). Apparently moles are burly little creatures, able to dig with a force of forty times their body weight! Read and see more here (there's video!)
Raising the Roof - with bovine flatulence
If you bring a lot of cows together in a small building, you are going to have serious gas (cows emit around 500 liters of methane a day - is there a cow fart suit like there is for dogs???). Add a bit of static electricity and you have an exploding barn. This happened in Germany this week. One cow was slightly injured, luckily no fatalities, and I once again can tag a blog post with the word "farting." There's not much more to the story really (cows, farts, explosions, what more do you need to know?) but you can read more about the science of cow flatulence here.
Safe to say, this feline behavior consultant’s least favorite thing is dealing with my own cats’ behavior problems. My cats are supposed to be perfect! And in general, they are; except when it comes to food.
I’ve got two cats. One we’ll call the Vacuum, and one we’ll call the Nibbler. The Vacuum may have food security issues, or she might just really love to eat. The Nibbler, on the other hand, prefers to graze small amounts throughout the day.
Conveniently, the Vacuum is a little on the chunky side, and not the most agile of cats. The Nibbler is more active and so we fed her for many years on top of the refrigerator. This situation worked just fine, until it didn’t anymore. As the Nibbler has entered her senior years, she made it clear that jumping up on the fridge was more work than she was willing to do.
We moved her food to a lower shelf, and all was well and good for a few months, until the Vacuum realized that there was extra food…possibly within her reach. Suddenly the Nibbler’s food was disappearing at a rapid pace, and not because the Nibbler was eating it.
Spiders in both the Phillippines and Peru have been observed building decoy spiders. This behavior had never been observed before but brings up so many questions! Are there evolutionary advantages? Are some decoy spiders better than others (depending on why they do this in the first place!) Is this tool use in a spider? Can they count to eight? I see a field of research developing before our eyes!! Read more here
I was fortunate enough to get to interview my former lab mate, dog expert and all around awesome person, Amy Cook. She received her PhD from UC Berkeley studying dog cognition and the relationship between dogs and their humans. You can read my profile of her and her research here, at the Berkeley Science Review.
Nice write up of a study that found that albino rats would help struggling rats (by freeing them from a cell they were trapped in) of a different strain, but only if they'd been socialized with them; they will free rats of the same strain, regardless if they are a familiar or a stranger.
If you want to learn a lot about yourself, try training another animal.
I’ve skated through life without having to do a lot of animal training --- even as someone who studies animals! I grew up with untrained cats; the research lab I worked in as an undergraduate used key-pecking in pigeons to study their behavior (something pigeons basically learn on their own through a process called autoshaping); I currently study food-storing in squirrels --- something they are experts at. I like studying what animals do naturally --- and now I think I know why.
Pigeons being autoshaped to peck a key in an operant chamber.
I have trained my cats to do cute parlor tricks – high-five, sit, and the like. But, most of the important stuff that my cats know, they have figured out on their own, such as using the litterbox (no help from me), and using their scratching post (encouraged with positive reinforcement). But I’ll be honest, I don’t really LOVE training. I enjoy the parlor tricks, and I think my cats do too, but that’s a low stakes situation. Now I would like to train one of my cats to perform a new behavior – to go through a cat door into a magical box that will prevent my other cat from eating all of her food (more on the Meowspace in a future blog!).
Ever wondered what happens in a squirrel nest? I think about it a lot! I'd like to know if there are beer cans and chocolate bars in there, and I'd love to take a peek and squee at some baby squirrels. But I also think about squirrels in their dreys at the top of barren trees, whenever the wind gets crazy here. Are squirrels getting blown out of trees? Turns out NO - those nests are built to last! Malcolm Campbell digs deep and tells us all about it here!
Okay, first of all, leave it to youtube. Look for cats singing “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls and you’ll find this bizarre video:
Now, time to get serious. I help a lot of people who are experiencing behavior problems with their cats – and a lot of those cases have to do with litterbox avoidance. There are several reasons that cats may stop using the litterbox – including medical problems, an undesirable litterbox location, substrate dislike, or even stress. Solving the problem often requires several different approaches, including modifications to the litterbox and the owner’s behavior. Sometimes the problems are obvious – like a dirty litterbox, or a box that is hard to access. Other times the cause is more subtle.
But one important question – can you assume your cat likes the litterbox just because she uses it consistently?
Paedomorphic Facial Expressions Give Dogs a Selective Advantage
It's no big surprise that we prefer animals with baby-like features: that is what CUTE is all about! Konrad Lorenz called it "baby schema" (Kindchenschema). This study used adoption from a shelter as a proxy for active selection (hmmm...does preference equal evolution?) and looked at how often dogs "raised their eyebrows", which the authors claimed made the dogs look more "paedomorphic" (juvenile). Two dogs were removed from the study because they took too long to get adopted (another hmmm...), and the results suggested that adoption rates for the remaining 27 dogs was related to how often they raised their eyebrows; more eyebrow raises = faster adoption. Read it for yourself here, yay OPEN ACCESS!