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Animal Cognition Update: Dog Urine and Startled Guppy Edition

September 28, 2017

“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.

 

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Does Wildlife Extinction = Famine?

September 27, 2017

If it does, will we finally care about biodiversity and conservation? We should:

 

Three-quarters of the world’s food today comes from just 12 crops and five animal species and this leaves supplies very vulnerable to disease and pests that can sweep through large areas of monocultures, as happened in the Irish potato famine when a million people starved to death. Reliance on only a few strains also means the world’s fast changing climate will cut yields just as the demand from a growing global population is rising.

There are tens of thousands of wild or rarely cultivated species that could provide a richly varied range of nutritious foods, resistant to disease and tolerant of the changing environment. But the destruction of wild areas, pollution and overhunting has started a mass extinction of species on Earth. The focus to date has been on wild animals – half of which have been lost in the last 40 years – but the new report reveals that the same pressures are endangering humanity’s food supply, with at least 1,000 cultivated species already endangered.

Everything is connected…

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

September 27, 2017

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.

 

How To Address Overpopulation Without Talking About Overpopulation

September 26, 2017

“Stop hassling us about population growth. Instead help empower our women and stop consuming so much yourselves!”

Rapid growth in human numbers is a key variable of any equation related to climate, conservation and stress on the planet. But you don’t often hear about it.

Vox writer David Roberts explains why, and argues that it is far more constructive to talk about policies that can help address population and its environmental impact (empowering women and global income inequality) than it is to directly plunge into the morally sticky and inevitably controversial topic of population control:

The first way to look at population is as a pure numbers game. More people means more consumers and more emitters, so the thing to do is slow the rise of population. Specifically, since most of the new people are going to come from poor or developing countries, the question is specifically how to slow population growth there.

Luckily, we know the answer. It is family planning that enables women to have only children they want and choose, and education of girls, giving them access to income opportunities outside the home. We know that women, given the resources and the choice, will opt for smaller families.

Those are the two most powerful levers to bend the population curve. They are also, in and of themselves, an enormously powerful climate policy. When Paul Hawken and his team investigated and ranked carbon-reduction solutions for their Drawdown project, they found that the combination of the two (call it the female-empowerment package) carried the most potential to reduce greenhouse gases later this century, out of any solution. (Together they could prevent 120 gigatons of GHGs by 2050 — more than on- and offshore wind combined.)…

One way to prevent the creation of new high-consumers would be to persuade the wealthy to have fewer babies and to close off the borders of wealthy countries, preventing low-consumers from immigrating and becoming high-consumers. You could try, in short, to engineer population decline in wealthy countries.

That seems … fraught.

For one thing, fertility tends to decline with wealth anyway. For another, any targeted attempt to engineer population decline is going to run into an unholy thicket of moral and political resistance.

Another way to approach the problem would be, rather than prevent the birth of extremely wealthy people, prevent the creation of extremely wealthy people. In other words, prevent the accumulation of massive wealth. You could do that by, for instance, taxing the shit out of wealthy people.

If you approached the problem that way, under the banner of reducing global income inequality, you would find many allies. Income inequality is a top-line concern of people and organizations all over the world, even some conservatives these days.

He’s right. And I’d stress that when wealthy populations preoccupy themselves with the environmental impact of growing developing world populations, instead of their own overconsumption,  they are aiming at the wrong target.

Chart Of The Day: Wealth and C02 Emissions

September 26, 2017

The idea that wealthier people consume more and emit for greenhouse gases won’t surprise you. But the concentration of global emissions among the planet’s wealthiest might.

How much wealth do you need to be in the richest 10%? $68,800. So now we have a very clear picture of where (most of) the problem lies, and who should (mostly) bear the expense and burden of reducing carbon emissions–and it is not the world’s developing populations. Just in case that wasn’t already clear.

Finally, David Attenborough…

September 26, 2017

It’s hard not love the amazing and sublime depiction of the planet and all its species in David Attenborough‘s work. But the beauty and wonder he depicted rarely had a hint that there was anything going seriously wrong with the planet, that the beauty and wonder was under threat. Too much of a bummer for a TV audience, perhaps.

But now Attenborough plans to rectify this omission:

David Attenborough vividly remembers, nearly 80 years on, his first encounter with one of the worst scourges of the planet. He was a schoolboy. “I remember my headmaster, who was also my science master, saying: ‘Boys, we’ve entered a new era! We’ve entered, we’ll be proud to say, the plastic era. And what is so wonderful about this is we’ve used all our scientific ingenuity to make sure that it’s virtually indestructible. It doesn’t decay, you know, it’s wonderful.’”

Attenborough lets the last word hang in the air, eyebrows and hands raised. Then the hands fall. “Now we dump thousands of tonnes of it, every year, into the sea, and it has catastrophic effects.”

Pieces of plastic in the ocean will soon outnumber fish. They have, in the past few years, been recognised as one of the most pressing problems we face. Fish eat the plastic debris, mistaking it for food, and can choke or starve to death. The long-term effects are not yet understood, but we do know that plastic microparticles are now found in drinking water across the world, as well as throughout our oceans.

Plastics are the latest in a long line of concerns for the 91-year-old naturalist. They are a key theme of his latest work for television, the new series of The Blue Planet, which he will return to writing after our interview. Premiering at the BFI Imax in London this Wednesday – with Prince William as a special guest – the series will focus not only on the marvels of ocean life, but the threats to it, of which plastic is one of the worst. It will also deal with what people can do to help.

It’s often argued that negative news just depresses an audience into helplessness. That has always seemed like a cop out, a plea to be given permission to live as we live, buying every new iPhone, flying frequently to holiday destinations, and chowing down on burgers. Maybe the reality that this lifestyle is killing the planet is depressing. But it is also necessary if there is any hope of mobilizing the human nation into seeking a dramatically different, more planet-friendly, lifestyle. So it is good news that one of the planet’s premier naturalists and film-makers will focus his work on raising these issues and solutions. Finally.

 

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

September 25, 2017

“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…

 

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