nuclearmuffinz asked:

Do cats get songs stuck in their heads?

Oh, my god. I don’t know. Nuclearmuffinz. Go to sleep.

It seems that… we don’t yet know.

We know for sure that some animals like birds can detect melodies and memorize them, but as for other type of animals and actually having songs stuck to their head, is a complete different matter.

At the moment, the most advanced we’ve got in this investigation is an animal psychologist in the University of Wisconsin-Madison that had created species-specific music for cats, and cats dig it a lot more than our regular music.

Most sources claim that animals do not recognize in our music what we do, so even if they have the capacity for a cognitive process such as “getting it stuck in your head”, we don’t know if that’s the case yet.

Dopamine and Horses: Learning, Stereotypies, and More
Without dopamine, horses wouldn't learn. But with too much, they can develop stereotypies. Here's what you need to know.

What creates a stereotypy-inducing overdose of dopamine? Essentially, stress.

“Stereotypies appear to be related to some dysregulation of the neurophysiology of the striatum (a learning center in the brain), most likely the result of stress,” McBride said during his plenary lecture on dopamine in equine brains at the 2014 International Society of Equitation Science conference, held Aug. 6-9 in Denmark.

Within the striatum are three well-organized structures designed for the learning process. The ventral striatum (or the nucleus accumbens) is involved in “initial stamping” of learning—in other words, the “light bulb” step. When your horse suddenly realizes that taking a step backwards means you will release the pressure on his halter, he gets a good shot of dopamine in his ventral striatum.

Later, once the horse recognizes the association among the aid (halter pressure), the action (stepping backwards), and the reward (pressure release), it’s the dorsomedial striatum, also known as the caudatus, that takes over. Dopamine is released during this part of the learning process, too, McBride said, but with one distinct difference. In this part of the brain and in this phase of learning, it’s no longer the reward that stimulates the dopamine release. It’s the aid.

“That’s the interesting thing about dopamine—it’s only released when the reward is unexpected or greater than expected,” he said. “Once you’ve learned something and you get that reward regularly, you stop getting a dopamine signal at the point of reward.”

The learning process enters this phase in the caudatus where dopamine is released when the horse gets the cue we give him. And the greater the dopamine response, the greater the strength of the horse’s behavior in response—what we know as motivation, McBride said.

“What’s going on in the medial striatum is all about action and outcome,” he said. “It’s about monitoring actions and adjusting behavior accordingly.”

In these two sections of the brain—the nucleus accumbens and the caudatus—dopamine acts as the “concrete” that ensures the brain structures’ function, McBride said. It serves the critical role of linking sensory information (what the horse feels, sees, or hears) to motor output (what he does). Without the dopamine release, the learning wouldn’t happen.

But a dopamine “overdose” can lead to habit formation, he said, along with a similar phenomenon: stereotypies, such as cribbing.

Stereotypes are a manifestation of what scientists call “hypermotivation,” which can occur in both humans and horses. While motivation is a good thing, hypermotivation exceeds the limits of being healthy or useful. For example, a hypermotivated horse might be hypermotivated to chew—and ultimately become a cribber—or hypermotivated to move—and start weaving or stall-walking.

Dopamine overdoses are related to actual structural changes in the striatum, McBride said, which, unfortunately, are permanent. That’s why when stereotypies develop, they’re usually there for life.

Horses with stereotypies tend to have other signs of habit formation as well, he added. This is part of their structural brain change—they get “stuck” in habits and have a hard time accepting change. Studies have shown that horses with and without stereotypies vary in their understanding of a changed task. For example, if two horses learn that there’s food in one of two buckets, and then the food is placed in the other bucket, the horse with the stereotypy will have more difficulty learning that the food has moved than one without.

“There’s clearly some dysregulated neurophysiology in the striatum, causing these learning anomalies,” McBride said.

Those dysregulations are usually the result of stress, bad training, or both, he said.

“What we’ve really got to think about are these windows of opportunity when the brain is most susceptible to stress physiology,” said McBride. “We’re putting the animal on a path for the rest of its life. Early life experiences are critical in forming the neurophysiological state in that horse. So things like weaning can be really important. Eating, locomotion, and social contact are also really important as the horse gets older.”

By contrast, when too little dopamine is released into the striatum, it can lead to depression in the horse, as it can in humans, McBride said. And that’s where the third part of the striatum comes into play. When this part, the putamen, takes over the learning process, it’s all about mechanization, and “there appears to be little dopaminergic modulation at this stage of learning,” he said. When dopamine is low or absent, depression and learned helplessness can set in.

Depressed horses have little reaction to stimuli, such as humans approaching a stall. They can also fall into a state of learned helplessness, in which the horse no longer makes an effort to learn, understand, or give natural responses to stimuli. He becomes “like a machine,” accepting that he has no control over his environment, McBride said.

Like stereotypy development, depression and learned helplessness can result from stress and poor training, McBride said.

“We know what the horse needs in terms of natural behaviors even in a domestic setting,” he said. “Now we need to be aware of the consequences of not facilitating those behaviors.”

Rats forsake chocolate to save a drowning companion

 A new study shows that rats will rescue their distressed pals from the drink—even when they’re offered chocolate instead. They’re also more likely to help when they’ve had an unpleasant swimming experience of their own, adding to growing evidence that the rodents feel empathy.

Researchers at the Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan tested the rat’s altruistic behavior by devising an experimental box with two compartments divided by a transparent partition. On one side of the box, a rat was forced to swim in a pool of water, which it strongly disliked. Although not at risk of drowning—the animal could cling to a ledge—it did have to tread water for up to 5 minutes. The only way the rodent could escape its watery predicament was if a second rat—sitting safe and dry on a platform—pushed open a small round door separating the two sides, letting it climb onto dry land.

Within a few days, the high-and-dry rats were regularly aiding their soaking companions by opening the door, the team reports online today in Animal Cognition. They did not open the door when the pool was dry, confirming that the rats were helping in response to others’ distress, rather than because they wanted company, Mason says. Rats that had previously been immersed learned how to save their cagemates much more quickly than those who had never been soaked, suggesting that empathy drove their behavior, she adds. “Not only does the rat recognize distress, but he is even more moved to act because he remembers being in that situation.”

Given a choice between eating chocolate and helping a pal, rats make the noble decision. Sato, N. et al., Animal Cognition (2015)


Dominance Behavior in Canids

I didn’t really even WANT to make a post about this.

The alpha-beta-omega model of wolf packs is dead in scientific literature, hammered into the ground, so to speak, and it’s been dead for over ten years. So why am I still hearing about it on TV and reading about it in articles? Why are popular dog trainers that encourage you to “be the alpha” still taken seriously?

I think the unfortunate truth is that the idea that there are strong and ferocious leaders in wolf packs and that you, too, can take on that role with your dog is just somehow appealing to people. Almost romantic, in the older sense of the word. And because of this, it makes money. It sells werewolf media. It sells dog training classes. Educational science channels that have no business promoting this false ideology keep it on board because it gets people watching.

If you couldn’t tell, I’m pretty fed up with the whole thing.

Okay, let’s talk about dominance, particularly what the word even means, because popular media does a terrible job of explaining it.

Read more…


Research has shown that these Marmosets can learn by watching how-to videos.

They installed a TV and played a video of other marmosets manipulating a box in order to take out a treat, with most of those who watched the video learning to do it themselves.

(Via Nature)

Someone asked me why cats meow at their owners and luckily for them I have done an entire academic project on this, which the above video was part of.

(Note: I am not the girl in the beginning. Also, don’t worry, to produce the more negative meows cats were at worse mildly irritated with fierce cuddling; one cat was placed in a shower to make it think it was going to get a bath, but the shower was never turned on.)

There are five basic meow categories cats use with their owners.

  • Agonistic: an aggressive meow, basically saying, “back off!”
  • Distress: basically, “help me! I’m scared!”
  • Food-related: fairly obvious, but it’s asking for food
  • Obstacle: asking for the owner to help with an obstacle, like a closed door or window
  • Afilliative: produced when the cat wants a petting session or during a petting session

Based on my own personal experience, I’d add a sixth meow-to-owner category, contact calls (that random meowing your cat does until you respond to it, also the back-and-forth vocalizations owners sometimes have with their cats), but there is no official literature on it yet.

Cats also use slightly different vocalizations with other cats, namely that they mainly meow at their mothers as kittens and as adults rarely meow to each other except when in heat/in an aggressive situation.

Note that this analysis is also limited specifically to meows, which are sounds the cat produces with a sustained open mouth. Other sounds may include purrs, trills, hissing, and spitting (see here for a study on all cat sound types).

Papers to look at:

Brown, K., Buchwald, J., Johnson, J., & Mikolich, D. (1978). Vocalization in the cat and kitten. Developmental psychobiology, 11(6)

McComb, K., Taylor, A. M., Wilson, C., & Charlton, B. D. (2009). The cry embedded within the purr. Current Biology, 19(13)

Nicastro, N. (2004). Perceptual and Acoustic Evidence for Species-Level Differences in Meow Vocalizations by Domestic Cats (Felis catus} and African Wild Cats (Felis silvestris lybica). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 118(3).

Nicastro, N., & Owren, M. J. (2003). Classification of domestic cat (Felis catus) vocalizations by naive and experienced human listeners. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 117(1)

Yeon, S. C., Kim, Y. K., Park, S. J., Lee, S. S., Lee, S. Y., Suh, E. H., … Lee, H. J. (2011). Differences between vocalization evoked by social stimuli in feral cats and house cats. Behavioural Processes, 87(2)

“Cognitive biologists have revealed that ravens do understand and keep track of the rank relations between other ravens. Such an ability has been known only from primates. Like many social mammals, ravens form different types of social relationships – they may be friends, kin, or partners and they also form strict dominance relations. From a cognitive perspective, understanding one’s own relationships to others is a key ability in daily social life ("knowing who is nice or not”). Yet, also understanding the relationships group members have with each other sets the stage for “political” maneuvers (“knowing who might support whom”). “

(via Political ravens? Ravens notice the relationships among others, study shows – ScienceDaily)

REALLY interesting research on the social behavior of ravens.

Dolphins like to get high by sucking on puffer fish


Using a remote-controlled camera disguised as a sea turtle, marine biologists watched as young dolphins got themselves stoned by ingesting a nerve toxin released by puffer fish. And as if sharing a joint, the dolphins could be seen passing it around.

Puffer fish, when provoked, protect themselves by releasing a nasty toxin that can be deadly. But the dolphins appear to have figured out how to make the fish release it in just the right amount.

After chewing on the puffer fish and passing it around between one another, the dolphins appeared to enter into a trance-like state.

“[T]hey began acting most peculiarly, hanging around with their noses at the surface as if fascinated by their own reflection,” noted zoologist Rob Pilley. “It reminded us of that craze a few years ago when people started licking toads to get a buzz, especially the way they hung there in a daze afterwards. It was the most extraordinary thing to see.”

The behavior was recorded on camera by the makers of the nature documentary, Dolphins: Spy in the Pod — a series produced for BBC One. Here’s the trailer: (x)

And check out this wild robotic camera disguised as a sea turtle: (x)

(full article)

Many of you have seen my post on a dolphin’s recreational tool use, so this post shouldn’t really come as a major surprise. Yes, dolphins are highly intelligent social animals…. BUT this kind of recreational self-medication (different than medicinal / strictly anti-parasitic self-medication) is not particularly unique in the animal kingdom. Let’s take a quick look at a few other animals who enjoy some recreational self-medication…

~Black Lemur (Eulemur macaco)
The Black Lemur will seek out certain toxic millipedes (Charactopygus spp.), bite them to stimulate the millipede’s defensive toxin production, and then proceed to rub the wounded millipede all over their fur. A report on this fur anointing noted that after biting the millipede, the lemurs would grimace, with their eyes half-closed, and salivate profusely. (x)

Check out this BBC Nature video of this anointing behavior! (x)

~Chacma / Cape baboons (Papio ursinus)
Hamilton et al. (1978) classified a group of food items consumed  by these baboons as euphorics. These euphorics are “distinguished by their hallucinogenic properties and their high toxicity to humans and other mammals” and included such plants like the Large Fever-Berry (Croton megalobotrys), Crown of Thorns (Euphorbia avasmontana), Downy thorn-apple / moonflower (Datura innoxia), and Jimson weed (D. stramonium). (x)


~Horses and other livestock
Locoweed is the common name for any plant that produces swainsonine, typically plants of the  Oxytropis and Astragalus families in North America. This intoxicating-yet-dangerous plant is very palatable to lifestock, and is even considered the largest poison-plant problem in the Western United States! Livestock that chronically ingest large amounts of swainsonine can develop diarrhea, behavioral changes, congestive heart failure, vacuolization of tissues, and a medical condition known as locoism (a.k.a. swainsonine disease). (x,x)

~Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)
Reindeer seek out the red and white caps of the ‘magic mushroom’ Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria ). These toxic fungi provide a high reminiscent of flying, and is said to be similar to hallucinogenic effects of LSD. This magic mushroom wasn’t just limited to animal use, it is also fairly prevalent in shamanism and other religious rituals in the area. (x, x)

~Hummingbirds (Ensifera ensifera)
Some hummingbirds, like the sword-billed hummingbird, feed on the nectar of the Datura (spp.) flower. Each plant’s toxicity depends on the age, location, and weather conditions, and can result in a 5:1 toxin variation. Datura intoxication can produce delirium, inability to distinguish reality from fantasy, hyperthermia, violent behavior, dilated pupils, painful long lasting photophobia, and even pronounced amnesia.(x, x)

Sword-billed hummingbird approaching Datura flower to feed (x)


Additional Reading:

~Animal Pharm: What Can We Learn From Nature’s Self-Medicators (National Geographic)

[This is a very brief introductory article on self-medication behavior. If you guys would like me to do an in-depth article on this, just let me know!]

Elephants Know How Dangerous We Are From How We Speak
Elephants pay attention when we speak, a new study in Kenya shows.

When an elephant killed a Maasai woman collecting firewood near Kenya’s Amboseli National Park in 2007, a group of young Maasai men retaliated by spearing one of the animals.

“It wasn’t the one that had killed the woman, says Graeme Shannon, a behavioral ecologist at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins. "It was just the first elephant they encountered—a young bull on the edge of a swamp.”

The Maasai spiked him with spears and, their anger spent, returned home. Later, the animal died from his wounds.

Elephants experience those kinds of killings sporadically. Yet the attacks happen often enough that the tuskers have learned that the Maasai—and Maasai men in particular—are dangerous.

The elephants in the Amboseli region are so aware of this that they can even distinguish between Ma, the language of the Maasai, and other languages, says a team of researchers, who report their findings today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

[read more]

Pigeon power

The more scientists study pigeons, the more they learn how their brains—no bigger than the tip of an index finger—operate in ways not so different from our own.

In a new study from the University of Iowa, researchers found that pigeons can categorize and name both natural and manmade objects—and not just a few objects. These birds categorized 128 photographs into 16 categories, and they did so simultaneously.

Ed Wasserman, UI professor of psychology and corresponding author of the study, says the finding suggests a similarity between how pigeons learn the equivalent of words and the way children do.

“Unlike prior attempts to teach words to primates, dogs, and parrots, we used neither elaborate shaping methods nor social cues,” Wasserman says of the study, published online in the journal Cognition. “And our pigeons were trained on all 16 categories simultaneously, a much closer analog of how children learn words and categories.”

For researchers like Wasserman, who has been studying animal intelligence for decades, this latest experiment is further proof that animals—whether primates, birds, or dogs—are smarter than once presumed and have more to teach scientists.

“It is certainly no simple task to investigate animal cognition; But, as our methods have improved, so too have our understanding and appreciation of animal intelligence,” he says. “Differences between humans and animals must indeed exist: many are already known. But, they may be outnumbered by similarities. Our research on categorization in pigeons suggests that those similarities may even extend to how children learn words.”

Wasserman says the pigeon experiment comes from a project published in 1988 and featured in The New York Times in which UI researchers discovered pigeons could distinguish among four categories of objects.

This time, the UI researchers used a computerized version of the “name game” in which three pigeons were shown 128 black-and-white photos of objects from 16 basic categories: baby, bottle, cake, car, cracker, dog, duck, fish, flower, hat, key, pen, phone, plan, shoe, tree. They then had to peck on one of two different symbols: the correct one for that photo and an incorrect one that was randomly chosen from one of the remaining 15 categories. The pigeons not only succeeded in learning the task, but they reliably transferred the learning to four new photos from each of the 16 categories.

Pigeons have long been known to be smarter than your average bird—or many other animals, for that matter. Among their many talents, pigeons have a “homing instinct” that helps them find their way home from hundreds of miles away, even when blindfolded. They have better eyesight than humans and have been trained by the U. S. Coast Guard to spot orange life jackets of people lost at sea. They carried messages for the U.S. Army during World Wars I and II, saving lives and providing vital strategic information.

UI researchers say their expanded experiment represents the first purely associative animal model that captures an essential ingredient of word learning—the many-to-many mapping between stimuli and responses.

“Ours is a computerized task that can be provided to any animal, it doesn’t have to be pigeons,” says UI psychologist Bob McMurray, another author of the study. “These methods can be used with any type of animal that can interact with a computer screen.”

McMurray says the research shows the mechanisms by which children learn words might not be unique to humans.

“Children are confronted with an immense task of learning thousands of words without a lot of background knowledge to go on,” he says. “For a long time, people thought that such learning is special to humans. What this research shows is that the mechanisms by which children solve this huge problem may be mechanisms that are shared with many species.”

Wasserman acknowledges the recent pigeon study is not a direct analogue of word learning in children and more work needs to be done. Nonetheless, the model used in the study could lead to a better understanding of the associative principles involved in children’s word learning.

“That’s the parallel that we’re pursuing,” he says, “but a single project—however innovative it may be—will not suffice to answer such a provocative question.”

Animal Morality

Excellent read in Aeon Magazineabout the scientific and philosophical question of when apparent moral behavior in animals really becomes moral behavior. You know, whatever that is. Case in point:

“Binti Jua, a gorilla residing at Brookfield Zoo in Illinois, had her 15 minutes of fame in 1996 when she came to the aid of a three-year-old boy who had climbed on to the wall of the gorilla enclosure and fallen five metres onto the concrete floor below. Binti Jua lifted the unconscious boy, gently cradled him in her arms, and growled warnings at other gorillas that tried to get close. Then, while her own infant clung to her back, she carried the boy to the zoo staff waiting at an access gate.”

From videos of dogs saving other dogs in the middle of highway traffic to a humpback whale appearing to give a “thank you” to fishermen who freed it from a net, these are clearly moments of significance to the animals involved.

But are they moral? Or are we applying human explanations where they don’t belong or where simpler explanations could suffice? And if a simpler explanation could suffice, is that necessarily always the right explanation? And if animals become moral, do they accept moral responsibility for their actions?

What are we even doing when we’re being moral? These are challenging issues.

Check out more at Aeon Magazine: lots of questions, few answers, and many intriguing thoughts.

(image via Wikipedia)

Do Crocodiles Play?

In a brand-new paper titled “Play Behavior in Crocodilians,” Vladimir Dinets argues that not only do crocodiles play, but that they play in varied and complex ways. This may come as a shock to many people, used to thinking of reptiles as cold-blooded and emotionless- particularly crocodiles, which look like they’ve got nothing but murder on their minds 24/7. But looks can be deceiving.

Now, to be clear, Dinets’ paper is not a formal study, and leaves plenty of room for argument that crocodilians (a group that includes crocodiles, alligators, caimans, and others) do not actually play. In fact, though the researchers spent roughly 3,000 hours observing crocodiles for other studies, they only recorded seven instances of play. The other instances were anecdotes collected from crocodile keepers and farmers.

Any good scientist knows that anecdotes don’t provide conclusive proof of anything, but they are a good starting point. And the anecdotes are fascinating. They include tales of crocodilians surfing the waves, attacking (and courting) rubber balls, picking pink flowers, and even giving piggyback rides to other crocodilians. There are even reports of crocodiles playing with humans (Pocho the crocodile, pictured above, is mentioned) and one instance of an alligator playing with an otter.

These are all incredibly charming, of course, but it is quite possible to argue that they are not play. Firstly, what play actually is has been famously hard to define, and many animal behaviors once termed play have been found to have actual adaptive functions. For example, before it was known that male fireflies flashed to attract mates, early researchers thought it was for the sheer pleasure.

There is a lot we do not know about crocodilian behavior, in part because they are so different from mammals, right down to the metabolism. Frivolous activity is harder to justify when you are not warm-blooded and need to be more careful about conserving energy. And as with the fireflies, behaviors that apparently have no adaptive purpose can turn out to be performed for specific goals.

So do crocodiles play or not? My hunch is that they do, though probably not nearly as often or even in the same ways that mammals might. There is no conclusive evidence yet to confirm this. Still, of all the things that might interest a crocodile, I bet you never thought of “pink flowers.”


Dinets, V. (2015). Play behavior in crocodilians. Animal Behavior and Cognition, 2(1), 49-55.

(This paper came out with perfect timing, because I am now writing an extensive article on the weird enigma of animal play. It should be out in the next couple of weeks!)