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Crows can Perform as Well as 7 to 10-year-olds on cause-and-effect Water Displacement Tasks

In Aesop’s fable about the crow and the pitcher, a thirsty bird happens upon a vessel of water, but when he tries to drink from it, he finds the water level out of his reach. Not strong enough to knock over the pitcher, the bird drops pebbles into it — one at a time — until the water level rises enough for him to drink his fill.

Highlighting the value of ingenuity, the fable demonstrates that cognitive ability can often be more effective than brute force. It also characterizes crows as pretty resourceful problem solvers. New research conducted by UC Santa Barbara’s Corina Logan, with her collaborators at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, proves the birds’ intellectual prowess may be more fact than fiction. Her findings, supported by the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program, appear today in the scientific journal PLOS ONE: Modifications to the Aesop’s Fable Paradigm Change New Caledonian Crow Performances.

photo of Corina Logan

Researcher Corina Logan with a great-tailed grackle and a night heron at the Santa Barbara Zoo. The zoo is one of the sites where Logan is gathering data to compare and contrast the cognitive abilities of grackles and New Caledonian crows.
Photo Credit: Sonia Fernandez

Logan is lead author of the paper, which examines causal cognition using a water displacement paradigm. “We showed that crows can discriminate between different volumes of water and that they can pass a modified test that so far only 7- to 10-year-old children have been able to complete successfully. We provide the strongest evidence so far that the birds attend to cause-and-effect relationships by choosing options that displace more water.”

Logan, a junior research fellow at UCSB’s SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, worked with New Caledonian crows in a set of small aviaries in New Caledonia run by the University of Auckland. “We caught the crows in the wild and brought them into the aviaries, where they habituated in about five days,” she said. Keeping families together, they housed the birds in separate areas of the aviaries for three to five months before releasing them back to the wild.

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Skateboarding Cat

A fun way to start out the week: skateboarding cat.

Related: Friday Fun, Cat Playing Ping PongCat Using the DoorbellCats and Kids with iPads

Goats Excel at Learning and Remembering a Complex Tasks

I like research showing animals using intelligence that seems advanced, for example: Crow Using a Sequence of Three ToolsInsightful Problem Solving in an Asian ElephantBird-brains smarter than your average apeTropical Lizards Can Solve Novel Problems and Remember the SolutionsPigeon Solves Box and Banana Problem.

I also like open access science, and this has both: Goats excel at learning and remembering a highly novel cognitive task

The majority of trained goats (9/12) successfully learned the task quickly; on average, within 12 trials. After intervals of up to 10 months, they solved the task within two minutes, indicating excellent long-term memory. The goats did not learn the task faster after observing a demonstrator than if they did not have that opportunity. This indicates that they learned through individual rather than social learning.”

The individual learning abilities and long-term memory of goats highlighted in our study suggest that domestication has not affected goat physical cognition. However, these cognitive abilities contrast with the apparent lack of social learning, suggesting that relatively intelligent species do not always preferentially learn socially. We propose that goat cognition, and maybe more generally ungulate cognition, is mainly driven by the need to forage efficiently in harsh environments and feed on plants that are difficult to access and to process, more than by the computational demands of sociality. Our results could also explain why goats are so successful at colonizing new environments.

The experiment was done with domesticated goats. I also learned this from the article, which I didn’t know before:

Domestication is known to strongly affect brain size. Consistent reductions in brain size relative to body size, as well as in brain size parts, have occurred in many domestic species.

Related: Orangutan Attempts to Hunt Fish with SpearFriday Fun: Bird Using Bait to FishPhoto of Fish Using a Rock to Open a Clam

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How Wolves Changed the Yellowstone Ecosystem

A great short video explaining the dramatic changes to the Yellowstone ecosystem with the re-introduction of wolves. Even the rivers changed.

Related: Light-harvesting Bacterium Discovered in YellowstoneFishless FutureThe Sea Otter storyYellowstone Youth Conservation Corps Polar Bears Playing with HuskiesCurious Cat travel photos of Yellowstone National Park

Why Don’t All Ant Species Replace Queens in the Colony, Since Some Do

My response to: There are other species of ants that do replace the queen, so why did some species not do this?

Basically the method they evolved copes well with losing the queen. Out of various ways of dealing with having a dominant Queen some may lead to replacement if she dies.

There are lots of examples of method is very effective at creating lots of successful offspring but happens to be less than ideal in some situations. Natural selection is pretty amazing and awesome at creating effective genes but we certainly can look at the results sometimes and see improvements that would be useful.

Likely if losing the queen was very common a good way of dealing with that would be found (or that species would be disadvantaged and at risk). If the queen happens to evolve to being very reliable coping with her death becomes less important. If they produce lots of useful offspring but have a less than ideal method of coping with their home colony losing her it is entirely sensible to imagine that species could flourish.

I would imagine species with queens that had shorter lifespans, that invested more in the home colony, that were less effective at setting up new colonies… would be more likely to have better queen replacement strategies/results.

Related: Ants, Ants, AntsE.O. Wilson: Lord of the AntsAmazonian Ant Species is All Female, Reproduces By CloningRoyal Ant GenesHuge Ant Nest

Another Bee Study Finds CCD is Likely Due to Combination of Factors Including Pesticides

Abstract of open access science paper funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Crop Pollination Exposes Honey Bees to Pesticides Which Alters Their Susceptibility to the Gut Pathogen Nosema ceranae:

Recent declines in honey bee populations and increasing demand for insect-pollinated crops raise concerns about pollinator shortages. Pesticide exposure and pathogens may interact to have strong negative effects on managed honey bee colonies. Such findings are of great concern given the large numbers and high levels of pesticides found in honey bee colonies. Thus it is crucial to determine how field-relevant combinations and loads of pesticides affect bee health.

We collected pollen from bee hives in seven major crops to determine 1) what types of pesticides bees are exposed to when rented for pollination of various crops and 2) how field-relevant pesticide blends affect bees’ susceptibility to the gut parasite Nosema ceranae. Our samples represent pollen collected by foragers for use by the colony, and do not necessarily indicate foragers’ roles as pollinators. In blueberry, cranberry, cucumber, pumpkin and watermelon bees collected pollen almost exclusively from weeds and wildflowers during our sampling.

Thus more attention must be paid to how honey bees are exposed to pesticides outside of the field in which they are placed. We detected 35 different pesticides in the sampled pollen, and found high fungicide loads. The insecticides esfenvalerate and phosmet were at a concentration higher than their median lethal dose in at least one pollen sample. While fungicides are typically seen as fairly safe for honey bees, we found an increased probability of Nosema infection in bees that consumed pollen with a higher fungicide load.

Our results highlight a need for research on sub-lethal effects of fungicides and other chemicals that bees placed in an agricultural setting are exposed to.

The attempts to discover the main causes of bee colony deaths and find solutions continues to prove difficult years after the problems became major. The complex interaction of many variables makes it difficult. And special interest groups pushing pesticides and the like, which have seemed to be major contributors to the problem for years, make it even more difficult (by preventing restrictions on potentially damaging pesticide use).

The challenges in determining what is killing bees are similar to the challenges of discovering what practices are damaging human health. The success of studying complex biological interactions (to discover threats to human health) is extremely limited. I am concerned we are far too caviler about using large numbers of interventions (drugs, pesticides, massive antibiotics use in factory farms, pollution…).

Related: Europe Bans Certain Pesticides, USA Just Keeps Looking, Bees Keep DyingGermany Bans Chemicals Linked to Bee Deaths (2008)Virus Found to be One Likely Factor in Bee Colony Colapse Disorder (2007)Study of the Colony Collapse Disorder Continues as Bee Colonies Continue to Disappear

Tropical Lizards Can Solve Novel Problems and Remember the Solutions

Brainy Lizards Pass Tests for Birds

[Duke biologist Manuel Leal] tested the lizards using a wooden block with two wells, one that was empty and one that held a worm but was covered by a cap. Four lizards, two male and two female, passed the test by either biting the cap or bumping it out of the way.

The lizards solved the problem in three fewer attempts than birds need to flip the correct cap and pass the test, Leal said. Birds usually get up to six chances a day, but lizards only get one chance per day because they eat less. In other words, if a lizard makes a mistake, it has to remember how to correct it until the next day

Leal’s experiment “clearly demonstrates” that when faced with a situation the lizards had never experienced, most of them were able to devise a way to solve the problem. Their ability to “unlearn” a behavior, a skill that some mammalian species have difficulty in, is the mark of a cognitively advanced animal, said Jonathan Losos, a biologist at Harvard who was not involved in the study.

To see if the lizards could reverse this association, Leal next placed the worm under the other cap. At first, all the lizards bumped or bit the formerly lucrative blue cap. But after a few mistakes, two of the lizards figured out the trick. “We named these two Plato and Socrates,” Leal said.

It is very cool to see what scientists keep learning about animals.

Related: Insightful Problem Solving in an Asian ElephantBird Using Bread as Bait to Catch FishCrows Transferring Their Understanding to Novel ProblemDolphins Using Tools to Hunt

Scientific Inquiry Process Finds That Komodo Dragons Don’t have a Toxic Bite After All

This articles is another showing the scientific inquiry process at work. Scientists draw conclusions based on the data they have and experiments they do. Then scientists (sometimes the same people that did the original work) seek to confirm or refute the initial conclusions (based on new evidence or just repeating a similar experiment) and may seek to extend those conclusions.

Sometimes the scientists conclude the initial understanding was incorrect, such as with Komodo Dragon’s: Here Be Dragons: The Mythic Bite of the Komodo

for centuries Komodos have been feared by many, with tales of their deadly bite echoing through local cultures. It’s even thought the monstrous lizards may have inspired the mythical beasts that share their name. Their villainous reputation only grew when these fearsome predators were discovered by Europeans in the early twentieth century. But of all the terrible tales told about these dragons, none has been so persistent and pervasive than that of their bite. The mouths of Komodos are said to be laden with deadly bacteria from the decaying corpses they feed on, microbes so disgustingly virulent that the smallest bite lethally infects prey. As the story goes, Komodos have turned oral bacteria into a venom.

It’s a truly fascinating way for an animal to feed — well, truly fascinating in that it’s not true at all.

Related: Video of Young Richard Feynman Talking About Scientific ThinkingNanoparticles With Scorpion Venom Slow Cancer SpreadBig Lizards in Johor BahruNigersaurus

Homing Pigeons May Use Low Frequency Sound Maps To Locate Home

Mystery of Lost Homing Pigeons Finally Solved

Prior research had shown that birds hear incredibly low-frequency sound waves of about 0.1 Hertz, or a tenth of a cycle per second. These infrasound waves may emanate from in the ocean and create tiny disturbances in the atmosphere. Hagstrum began to think the birds used infrasound for navigation.

on the odd day when the birds reached home from Jersey Hill without problems, the infrasound traveled between the two locations. At the other locations where pigeons headed off in the wrong direction, he showed that wind currents channeled the infrasound waves in that direction.

The explanation may solve other mysteries about pigeons — for instance, why they circle around before heading off in one direction. Because the sound waves are so long, but the birds’ ear canals are tiny, they need to circle to reconstruct the wave and figure out which way they are oriented, he said.

More interesting scientific inquiry. It is very interesting to learn what scientists are learning about our world – even when the conclusions are still preliminary and may be adjusted or refuted.

Related: Pigeon Solves Box and Banana ProblemCool Research on CrowsBird Using Bait to FishMoth Jams Bat Sonar

Parrots Given “Names” by Their Parents and Use Them Throughout Their Lives

Parrots learn their ‘names’ from their parents

Parrots, which have long amused us for their ability to imitate our vocal patterns, actually learn to caw their “names” from their parents, says a new Cornell study. The research offers the first evidence that parrots learn their unique signature calls from their parents and shows that vocal signaling in wild parrots is a socially acquired rather than a genetically wired trait.

Previous research had shown that all wild parrots use unique “contact calls” that not only distinguish each bird individually, but also communicate their gender, and the mate and larger group they belong to.

“Parrots can have extremely long periods [leading up] to independence, and this is thought to be related to their large brains,” explained Berg. The same goes for primates, he said, with humans in particular being “off the charts” when it comes to a lengthy stage of child dependence.

More research is required, to better understand the evolution of and interaction between these physical and behavioral traits, he said. “We still don’t have good explanations of how these behaviors help wild individuals survive and reproduce in nature,” he said.

The paper offers some possible explanations: Perhaps the parrots’ far-ranging journeys to “communal foraging sights” are what impress upon each parent the need to have their fledglings’ names sorted out — not unlike human parents’ need to call for their children by name at a crowded fair.

I enjoy learning more fun and cool stuff about the animals we share the world with. They are quite an interesting bunch of creatures.

Related: Crow Using a Sequence of Three ToolsFriday Fun: Crow Sledding, Flying Back Up and Sledding Down AgainBackyard Wildlife: HawkFriday Fun: Dancing Parrot

Friday Fun: Gibbon Plays with Tiger Cubs

While this gibbon appears to be playing with the tiger cubs I am not sure the tigers see it as play.

Related: Monkey and Kitten PlayingFriday Fun: Kitten and BunnySumatran Tiger and Cubs Filmed by Remote Wildlife Monitoring CamerasCat and Crow Friends

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