Animal Cognition Update: Dog Urine and Startled Guppy Edition

“Dogs must think we are so stupid because we have to build fences, and can’t just do this, to mark our territory.”

That Stinks: On one level, I think it would come as no surprise to dog owners that dogs recognize the smell of their own urine, and are more interested in urine from other dogs (When my dog works over a scent near our house I can almost see her thinking “Dammit, what was the jerk lab down the street doing up here?”–before she squats and does her best to over-write the scent).

Still, researcher Alexandra Horowitz thinks she has created a “smell-mirror test” that is sort of analogous to Gordon Gallup’s mirror self-recognition tests. Her conclusions are interesting, even if Gallup himself disagrees.

Guppy Medal Of Honor: Nothing really surprises me about research that shows animals are smarter and more complex in their thinking than humans have generally (and arrogantly) assumed. But the details are always interesting. So I am happy to know that guppies have distinctive personalities, and that whether they are brave or cowards can be revealed by (okay, this part I don’t like so much) scaring them:

According to the team’s study, published Monday in the journal Functional Ecology, each fish demonstrated a unique response to stress — which they endured every three days in the form of a pulley-rigged lawn-ornament heron named “Grim,” or a predatory cichlid suddenly revealed on the other side of the glass.

“Some of them go straight to the shelter,” said Houslay, an evolutionary biologist and the study’s lead author. “Some just stop moving, maybe hoping they won’t be seen. Some rush to the side and just swim up and down trying to escape.”…

By measuring how long each guppy stayed hidden, frozen or otherwise panicked, the researchers determined that some fish were naturally cowards, and some were relatively brave.

And that wasn’t a fluke. The guppies kept proving their cowardice or braveness in repeated tests — every three days for four weeks.

“We see quite complex strategies; more complex than we thought,” Houslay said. “The variation isn’t just random. There’s something more meaningful going on.”

I often think that we’d be a lot closer to the truth if our starting assumption about animals was that they have intelligence, cognition and any number of other traits which the human animal likes to think of as unique to humans, and then used applied science to try and disprove it–instead of assuming all animals are stupid and then being surprised when researchers reveal something which seems pretty obvious to anyone who has ever spent any time around that type of animal.

But we have to take what we can get. And the more people recognize that fish have feelings and personalities, too, the more we might treat them with the respect and moral consideration they deserve–by which I first and foremost mean STOP NETTING AND EATING THEM.


The Link Between Dead Northern Right Whales And Fishing Entanglement Only Gets More Clear

Snow Crab Cocktail: You can’t see it, but there is some dead right whale in there somewhere.

CBC News continues its invaluable and revealing series on the fate of the North Atlantic right whale. According to a post-summer, post-mortem, at least seven right whales got entangled with fishing lines in the Gulf Of St. Lawrence this summer. Two died, two were freed, two have fates unknown, and one freed itself. And this is just part of a devastating tally overall:

At least 14 whales have died in the Atlantic Ocean this summer, including at least 11 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. No more than 500 of the animals remain.

According to Hamilton’s research, only one in four or five carcasses washes ashore, meaning the true death toll could be much higher.

“If that were the case, then we’ve just lost a big chunk of the population,” said Hamilton, who described the deaths as “profoundly discouraging.”

So far, the federal government has closed a crab fishery early and is forcing large ships to slow down in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

What the Canadian government won’t do is commit to requiring changes to fishing gear. Or closing the fisheries which are killing whales.

What would work? Consumer (and restaurant) avoidance of snow crabs, which is the fishery that seems to be doing the most damage.

Most people don’t think much about the upstream impacts of their food choices. Even if they wanted to the issues are obscure and complex, especially when it relates to fisheries. That’s why there is only one clear principle you can rely on: giving up all seafood is the only way to guarantee you are not having any upstream impacts that are killing and endangering other wildlife.


Surprising (Yet Unsurprising) Fact Of The Day: Zoo Surplus Edition

“Wait, did you just say you sold me to a hunting ranch?!”

A 1999 investigation by reporter Linda Goldston found that:

Of the 19,361 mammals that left the nation’s accredited zoos from 1992 through mid-1998, 7,420 — or 38 percent — went to dealers, auctions, hunting ranches, unidentified individuals or unaccredited zoos or game farms whose owners actively buy and sell animals, according to transaction data from the International Species Information System.

Just a snapshot in time, after lots of effort by Goldston to get state and federal records (since zoos and the AZA don’t freely share this info). But revealing…


The Military Commoditization Of Marine Mammals

“WTF am I doing here?”

It’s seriously annoying when sea lions and dolphins in the US Navy’s benighted marine mammal program are referred to as “friends,” “capabilities,” or “systems.” They are autonomous (though not free) and sentient creatures, drafted into captive service for military purposes that have nothing to do with their lives or needs:

“Actually, there is a long history of using our friends at sea for these kind of roles, so I’m not dubious,” said P.W. Singer, a strategist and senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank New America. “Dolphins have been used in mine hunting in the Iraq war and even anti-enemy swimmer roles in Vietnam. And the reality is that for the time being, animals have superior agility and even sensors than most robotic systems.”

The trend over the past century has been to swap military animals with machines, which is why the horse gave way to the tank and homing pigeons gave way to radios. But engineers see animals and machines as “systems.”

The hundreds of millions of dollars spent on these programs is money wasted in service of dubious aims.

Animal Welfare Quote Of The Day

Another from my ongoing reading about morality and our treatment of animals, found in Matthew Scully’s Dominion. The quote is from Ecclesiastes 3:19-20, and perfectly captures the humility and sense of connection we need to see animals as worthy of moral consideration:

“For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts. Even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.

That puts it in some perspective, no?

Blurring The Species Line

Injection of human iPS cells into a pig blastocyst. A laser beam (green circle with a red cross inside) was used to perforate an opening to the outer membrane (zona pellucida) of the pig blastocyst to allow easy access of an injection needle delivering human iPS cells. (Salk Institute)
Injection of human iPS cells into a pig blastocyst. A laser beam (green circle with a red cross inside) was used to perforate an opening to the outer membrane (zona pellucida) of the pig blastocyst to allow easy access of an injection needle delivering human iPS cells. (Salk Institute)

Scientists have created a part-human, part-pig embryo:

“The experiment, described Thursday in the journal Cell, involves injecting human stem cells into the embryo of a pig, then implanting the embryo in the uterus of a sow and allowing it to grow. After four weeks, the stem cells had developed into the precursors of various tissue types, including heart, liver and neurons, and a small fraction of the developing pig was made up of human cells.

The human-pig hybrid — dubbed a “chimera” for the mythical creature with a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail — was “highly inefficient,” the researchers cautioned. But it’s the most successful human-animal chimera and a significant step toward the development of animal embryos with functioning human organs.”

If that sounds creepy to you that it is because it is creepy, very creepy. And I can only imagine what “highly inefficient” is a euphemism for. Yet again, we have a perfect example of technology rushing forward because it can, before the ethical implications can be well understood.

And yet again, it is human interests and needs, with no real consideration of the interests of the other species involved, that is the driving force:

“Researchers hope that one day doctors may be able to grow human tissue using chimera embryos in farm animals, making organs available for sick humans who might otherwise wait years for a transplant.”

Now imagine a factory farm of sows, all nurturing chimera fetuses which can be harvested for human organ transplants. When are the fetuses harvested? How? When and how are they euthanized or killed? What happens to the sows?

There is a heated and growing ethical debate about the wisdom of these techniques, but some bioethicists are already arguing that the benefits these techniques are demonstrating for human health justify the means. That presupposes that you value human life and experience highly, and animal life and experience not much at all. And that is the real problem here.


The Mind Of An Octopus (#432)

“You must be pretty dumb if you are endlessly surprised by how intelligent and interesting I am.”

Not sure how many articles and books it is possible to write about how darn smart an octopus happens to be. But they keep coming. Which is fine, because maybe if we read enough about nonhuman intelligence we will stop being so arrogant about our own.

Here’s the latest, adapted from from Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith.

In Defense Of Zoos?

Detroit Zoological Society Executive Director Ron Kagan talks about the history, morality and future of zoos. He probably makes the best case possible–the sanctuary model is the least objectionable–but I am not quite convinced.

I am all for educating the public about animals, conservation, climate change and the anthropocene. I just don’t think you need to confine animals and subject them to the stress of gawking crowds to do it, which also affirms and perpetuates the notion of human dominance and dominion.

If zoos had the guts to tell their visitors straight up that they are the greatest threat to animals on the planet, and that each and every visitor needs to make dramatic lifestyle changes if humanity is to stop destroying habitat and dooming thousands of species, I might be more convinced. But they don’t do that, do they? Because they think no one would show up to hear that hard truth.

Anyhow, lots of interesting ideas in this talk, many of which do not require the actual use of live animals.

Young People Aren’t Connecting With Nature

Forget Instagram. This is where true meaning lies.

I was recently mocking the Pokemon Go craze, which manifests itself in my local park in the form of dazed-looking teenagers, wandering aimlessly while holding a cell phone at arm’s length. My son, who naturally is familiar with my worldview and knew where this was headed, stopped me and pointed out: “Well, at least it is getting kids outside.”

That is both true, and sad. Sad that it takes Pokemon Go to get kids out in nature more often, and sad that all the indoor devices and distractions are winning over the lure and fun of the outdoors. I used to worry that my generation would be leaving our children an impoverished version of nature (which we will). But I recently also started to think that they might not notice, because they are so disengaged from the unplugged, natural spaces that are all around us.

Timothy Egan took to a raft on the Colorado River with his son to write about this phenomenon and what it portends for our national parks (where visitors are increasingly old and white). And his son, Casey, sort of learns that the world will not stop and he will not disappear into a black hole if he is unplugged for a week (and that the wild offers other distractions and pleasures). But still. The article wasn’t that reassuring, and mainly you get the impression that Casey did not come away from the adventure as an outdoors enthusiast so much as he realized that rafting down the Colorado with no cell service didn’t suck as bad as he thought it might.

The story, which is in Nat Geo, does a good job profiling some groups of young people who actually do love the outdoors and our national parks. But the stats it includes are daunting:

“Young people,” Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, told me, “are more separated from the natural world than perhaps any generation before them.” That’s quite an accusation. Jarvis has been saying this for a couple of years, in different forums in the run-up to this year’s Park Service centennial. “There are times when it seems as if the national parks have never been more passé than in the age of the iPhone,” he warned in one speech. “The national parks risk obsolescence in the eyes of an increasingly diverse and distracted demographic.”

Obsolescence? How could that be? Last year national park sites clocked 307 million visits—an all-time record. Fifty-seven locations set high-water marks for attendance. Oh, but don’t be deceived by the numbers, Jarvis advised during an interview in his office, a few blocks from the White House. Take a closer look at who’s going through the gates: people like the silver-haired Jarvis and, well … me. It’s a risky thing, this generalizing about generations. Did our kids fall out of love with America’s Best Idea? Or maybe they never fell in love to begin with. Anecdotally, I have noticed a passion deficit among Casey and his friends. And technology, as a companion, is a must. A large majority of millennials—71 percent—said they would be “very uncomfortable” on a one-week vacation without connectivity, according to a survey by Destination Analysts. For boomers, the figure was 33 percent.

Having been to Yellowstone with my family last summer, and appalled by the crowds, selfie-sticks and traffic, the lack of Millennial interest in the National Parks may become a boon to anyone who does spend time in them. But this would be a collateral benefit in a trend that could have dire long-term implications, which the Guardian’s George Monbiot lays out in a related essay this week, lamenting the removal of children from the outdoors, called “If Children Lose Contact With Nature They Won’t Fight For It“:

We don’t have to disparage the indoor world, which has its own rich ecosystem, to lament children’s disconnection from the outdoor world. But the experiences the two spheres offer are entirely different. There is no substitute for what takes place outdoors; not least because the greatest joys of nature are unscripted. The thought that most of our children will never swim among phosphorescent plankton at night, will never be startled by a salmon leaping, a dolphin breaching, the stoop of a peregrine, or the rustle of a grass snake is almost as sad as the thought that their children might not have the opportunity.

The remarkable collapse of children’s engagement with nature – which is even faster than the collapse of the natural world – is recorded in Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, and in a report published recently by the National Trust. Since the 1970s the area in which children may roam without supervision has decreased by almost 90%. In one generation the proportion of children regularly playing in wild places in the UK has fallen from more than half to fewer than one in 10. In the US, in just six years (1997-2003) children with particular outdoor hobbies fell by half. Eleven- to 15-year-olds in Britain now spend, on average, half their waking day in front of a screen.

Monbiot points out that not much good will come of this in a world in which Nature and the Planet need mobilization, activism, and committed advocacy (not to mention the fact that more kids are develoing attention deficits, obesity, etc., etc).

I am sympathetic to the teenagers. If I was a 12-year old today I would be similarly entranced by everything going on within the confines of a smartphone, iPad or computer. There is nothing wrong with kids today. They are simply exposed to more temptations than I was. But I have learned that simply saying “go outside” just won’t cut it. Even if they do go outside to the local park, it is often empty. Instead, I have learned that the most effective and rewarding strategy is to invite my children to join me outdoors. It’s a win-win-win: they get outside and off their screens, you get to spend time with them with no electronic distractions, and they (just maybe) will learn to love and appreciate the outdoors.

Yesterday I did just this, and invited my son to ride his bicycle with me to Arlington National cemetery. On the way we stopped at Roosevelt Island. In all, we rode maybe 12 miles on a beautiful Fall day. We talked about lots of things, scoffed at all the people taking endless pictures of themselves or staring down at their phones, and learned some new bike routes. At the end my son looked at me and asked: “can we do this sort of thing more often?”

“Earth In Human Hands”

I may find reasons to doubt the wisdom and future of the human race and the planet it is trashing. But astrobiologist David Grinspoon takes the long view, and sees both opportunity and hope. Fingers crossed he is right.

Here is the trailer for his new book, “Earth In Human Hands,” out Dec. 6.