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 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.

Humpback Bubble Feeding And The Importance Of Animal Culture

Humpbacks are high on my list of fascinating animals, in part because of this sort of spectacular and complex behavior, filmed by drone in Alaska’s Prince William Sound:

For the uninitiated, I09 describes what is going on:

Typically, humpback whales lunge into a shoal of prey, but as described in Arkive, they also herd their prey using a “bubble net” to trap them in quantity:

During this process, a number of whales will circle underwater emitting a continuous stream of air which traps fish in the centre of the ring, the whales then surface up through their ‘net’ gorging on the contents within. During the summer months, humpbacks must feed intensely as they do not feed again during either the migration or the time spent in tropical breeding grounds.

The fact that many species have developed unique and distinctive behaviors gives credence to the idea that animals have “cultures,” that both define them and help them survive. Increasingly, conservationists are arguing that understanding and incorporating those cultures into conservation strategies is a key to success. Last month, delegates at the UN Convention on Migratory Species passed a resolution (PDF) that calls on conservationists to acknowledge and incorporate animal cultures into conservation thinking.

This is a key evolution in thinking about the animal world and its future. Philippa Brakes of Whale And Dolphin Conservation explains:

In 1975 sociobiologist E. O. Wilson noted the influence of social structure on fitness, gene flow and spatial patterns in some species. Deeper understanding only started to emerge in the past decade, and wildlife policy has been slow to catch up.

The new resolution recognises both positive and negative consequences of non-human culture. Individuals passing on knowledge may increase population viability by allowing the rapid spread of innovations amid environmental challenges, which could mean more-resilient social groups. On the other hand, the effects of human-induced threats may be amplified by the presence of non-human culture.

How so? The type of threat and the type of society is important. For example, orca societies are often conservative and so may be reluctant to adopt an innovation in response to a new threat, like the depletion of a food source. The distinct cultures of different groups also lead orcas to behave in different ways, and this can make one group more vulnerable than another. So they should be assessed as cultural groups, rather than by absolute population numbers.

In African elephants, older matriarchs are thought to act as “repositories of social knowledge”, holding information important to the survival and fitness of their social group, such as the location of food or water. Their removal may have impacts beyond the loss of one elephant.

There is also evidence that baleen whale calves learn migratory routes from their mothers and that hunting two species – southern right and humpback whales – meant that critical knowledge was lost.

I would add another benefit. Understanding the distinctive cultures of animals opens the door to empathy. A mother elephant or whale who has knowledge and plays the same role that your own mother might is more than just a whale or elephant. She is inherently valuable and her protection is inherently important.

That makes a difference. It shouldn’t, in my view. But unfortunately humans care more when they can see parallels to their own lives and social structures. So the more awed and compelled we are by any cultural behavior, like bubble-feeding, the better.

Concept Of The Day: Scientism

Just came across this, from this engrossing story called “Zoo Animals And Their Discontents“:

The philosopher Thomas Nagel, who wrote the seminal essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” used a term for the tendency to deny the existence of phenomena that cannot be proved empirically. “Scientism,” he wrote in 1986, “puts one type of human understanding in charge of the universe and what can be said about it. At its most myopic, it assumes that everything there is must be understandable by the employment of scientific theories like those we have developed to date — physics and evolutionary biology are the current paradigms — as if the present age were not just another in the series.”

It is presented in the article as an argument against the tendency among animal scientists and animal keepers to go to extremes to avoid anthropomorphism. But scientism–the idea that if science hasn’t proved it yet it must not be true; ignoring the possibility that science may YET prove it–is a phenomenon that I see across many spheres, from animal intelligence to the connections between diet and health (for example in the gluten debate).

We should be open to anecdotal evidence, and what our instincts and experience tell us, about the world around us (pet owners, for a long time, knew more about the emotional lives of animals than researchers did). We may not KNOW the truth, or have proof, of why something is the way it is. But sometimes we might have a pretty good idea, good enough to act on, even if the science isn’t definitive one way or the other yet.

Annals Of Animal Intelligence: Elephants Understand Pointing

“Dude, it’s over there.”

Here’s another datapoint in humanity’s endlessly evolving understanding of animal intelligence, otherwise known as “Holy crap, they are smarter than we thought!”:

We point to things without giving much thought to what a sophisticated act it really is. By simply extending a finger, we can let other people know we want to draw their attention to an object, and indicate which object it is.

As sophisticated as pointing may be, however, babies usually learn to do it by their first birthday. “If you don’t get that they’re drawing your attention to an object, they’ll get cross,” said Richard W. Byrne, a biologist at the University of St Andrews.

When scientists test other species, they find that pointing is a rare gift in the animal kingdom. Even our closest relatives, like chimpanzees, don’t seem to get the point of pointing.

But Dr. Byrne and his graduate student Anna Smet now say they have discovered wild animals that also appear to understand pointing: elephants. The study, involving just 11 elephants, is hardly the last word on the subject. But it raises a provocative possibility that elephants have a deep social intelligence that rivals humans’ in some ways.

Can’t say I am shocked (though I do wonder how they prevented the smell of the food being a factor). Anyhow, Byrne is interested in testing the pointing recognition of dolphins and whales. I can save him some time and money but letting him know that dolphin researchers like Lou Herman, among others, have pretty successful demonstrated that dolphins understand pointing. And pointing certainly gets used at SeaWorld and in other marine parks every day.

Anthropomorphism And Film

I’ve been laying off posting about every review of Blackfish that comes across my Google alerts.

But I just came across a fascinating review of Disney’s movie “Chimpanzee,” which dives into a deep discussion of how animals are portrayed in feature films and documentaries:

You could say cinema and nature got off on the wrong foot, or paw, right from the start. In 1926, to much excitement, an adventurer named William Douglas Burden brought back two komodo dragons to New York’s Bronx zoo – the first live specimens the western world had ever seen. Most of that excitement had been generated via a movie Burden had made depicting these semi-mythical reptiles in the Indonesian wild, voraciously devouring a wild boar. By comparison, the real, live komodo dragons were something of a disappointment. They just lay about lethargically in their cage, and died a few months later. It later transpired that Burden’s film had been heavily edited and staged to amp up the drama. The dragons hadn’t actually killed the boar; it had been put there by Burden as bait. The slow reality of nature was no match for the drama of the screen, it turned out. The science couldn’t match the fiction. One of the first to learn this lesson was the film-maker Merian C Cooper. He went on to incorporate elements of Burden’s Komodo expedition into a fictional movie: King Kong.

We have come a long way since Burden’s day in many respects, but that tension between rigorous natural history and populist entertainment is still very much at work in the nature genre, especially now that it has migrated on to the big screen in a big way. Where once we flocked to see animals painted as man-eating monsters in the movies, Jaws-style, now we want to get closer to them, physically and spiritually. There could be several explanations. Maybe it’s guilt at our destruction of their habitats, the proliferation of internet-related animal cuteness or because there are parents keen to give their children something more edifying than Iron Man 3. Or maybe it’s just because we’ve got so much better at filming wildlife. Nature films are one place where all the technological advances of film-making really come into their own: high-definition, 3D, surround sound, lightweight cameras.

But while cinema has made all these advances, nature itself hasn’t really got with the program. Unlike characters in Madagascar or The Lion King, real wild animals haven’t learned to take direction any better than Burden’s giant lizards. It can take years of uncomfortable, patient, expensive observation to gather enough footage for a feature-length documentary. And although it was common practice in the past, faking it is very much frowned upon. We like our wildlife cinema authentic, but we also want it exciting and dramatic, and that is still a challenge.

My view, based on the fact that the more we learn about almost any animal, the more we realize that their thinking and social lives are more complex and sophisticated than we assumed, is that we should err on the side of anthropomorphism. But perhaps “anthropomorphism,” is not even the right word anymore. It is a concept that is based on the idea that humans are unique in the animal world, and so to assume nonhuman animals have intelligence, or emotion, is to assume they are like humans. Instead, I think what science is showing us over time is that intelligence and emotions are to greater and lesser degrees universal among animals. And so perhaps we should start thinking of emotion and intelligence in the animal world as qualities which don’t necessarily set us apart from other animals, but connect us to other animals.

One of the elements of Blackfish that strikes audiences is the degree to which the orca brain has an architecture that suggests cognitive abilities we don’t yet comprehend, cognitive abilities which may in certain respects be superior to human cognitive abilities. So maybe one day as we come to better understand orca cognition and the relative quality of human cognition we will find ourselves orcapomorphizing.

I’m happy to say that this article picks up on exactly that, because Blackfish should make you think, for the first time, that the hierarchy of intelligence and cognition might not always have humans at the top:

Another new film in this vein throws the anthropomorphism debate into fresh relief. Blackfish by Gabriela Cowperthwaite deals not with animals in the wild, but in captivity, namely killer whales at the SeaWorld chain of resorts in the southern US. These creatures are essentially coerced into performing entertaining tricks for the benefit of a public audience, but one whale has been linked to the deaths of three people. Free Willy it ain’t.

As the story progresses, ex-trainers express regret over the treatment of whales, and the lies they routinely trotted out about how “happy” the whales were. There is much sinister footage and gruesome description showing just what killer whales can do to humans if they feel like it.

Blackfish makes no attempt to anthropomorphise its whales and it doesn’t need to. Like chimpanzees, they are evidently highly intelligent and social creatures, and they clearly don’t like what SeaWorld is doing to them – which is in effect imprisoning and torturing them until they snap. Where once they roamed the open ocean, they are now confined to tiny pools, mothers are separated from their calves, and they are forced into unnatural, violent behaviour towards themselves and us. If anything, we empathise with the whales more than the humans because they’re treated like animals. Does that mean they haven’t been anthropomorphised enough?

Like the other nature docs, Blackfish is a gripping movie, with drama and characters and emotion, but unlike them, it’s one that reminds us how much of a gap there is between humans and animals, and between movies and reality, which often amounts to the same thing. Thanks to cinema, we’re able to see nature better, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re any closer to it.

During filming, one of the ideas we used to joke about a lot with the former SeaWorld orca trainers is the idea that Blackfish is like “Planet Of The Apes,” except the humans are the apes who are incarcerating a being who they don’t really understand or credit with intelligence and emotion. After a few beers, we’d have Tilikum banging the tank walls, protesting “I am not an animal!”

The idea that an orca, say, or a chimpanzee, might have intellectual or emotional capabilities that exceed a human’s obliterates the idea of anthropomorphism. That makes it a revolutionary, and thrilling, idea that can completely change how you think about, and relate to, animals.

Humpback Learnin’

Just one more data point in my broader theory that the more we study animals in general, and cetaceans in specific, the smarter we realize they are.

From NatGeo:

Whether it’s learning a new song, figuring out how to use tools to forage for food, or picking up the local customs, learning from others is an important part of life for many animals, including people.

The idea of a culture or traditions—behavior shared by an identifiable group and acquired through social learning—in cetaceans, a group including whales and dolphins, has been controversial.

But a new study finds strong evidence that a group of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the Gulf of Maine (map) is sharing a newly observed feeding behavior via their social networks. (See related blog: “Sharks Have Social Networks, Learn From Friends.”)

That behavior, called lobtail feeding, was first recorded in one whale in the Gulf of Maine in 1980. Since then, 278 humpback whales—out of about 700 observed individuals that frequent the Stellwagen Bank (map) area—have employed the strategy, according to the study, published this week in the journal Science.

What’s surprising to me is not that humpbacks learn from each other. What’s surprising is that we continue to be surprised at all the complex thinking and learning non-human animals do. It’s a reflection of how strong our bias in favor of human exceptionalism is.

One interesting point is that lobtail feeding appears to be a form of adaptation to changes in prey availability:

Lobtail feeding is a variation on a technique called bubble-net feeding, which is used by humpbacks around the world.

In bubble-net feeding, a whale blows bubbles into a kind of net surrounding the prey, corralling them into dense schools. Then the whale lunges up through the school with its jaws wide open, scooping up mouthfuls of food. (Watch a video that shows humpbacks bubble-net feeding.)

In lobtail feeding, the humpback slaps the surface of the water one to four times with the underside of its tail before diving down and blowing the bubble net. Rendell speculates the slaps may keep its sand lance prey from jumping out of the water, away from the whale.

“The origin of this behavior was strongly associated with the collapse of herring stocks and a boom in sand lance stock,” said Rendell. So he and his team suggest that lobtail feeding came about when humpbacks switched from hunting herring to catching sand lances, a type of fish.

So it’s a good thing that humpbacks are smart enough to adapt their hunting strategies and learn from one another. Because humans will continue to impact the oceans and prey they depend on.

This humpback is no doubt glad we are so impressed, but probably wishes he would be left alone to dine in peace:

Using Animals: Of Factory Monkeys And Anti-Tank Dogs

Via The Daily Dish comes this fascinating, but depressing, review of some of the ways in which humans have put animals to work:

On November 11, 1960, a worker named Bobby clocked in at the Houston-area factory of the Superior Furniture Manufacturing Co., pressed a button on a bedding machine, and set about wrapping the legs of the company’s new Abba Dabba Lounge Chair before placing it in a shipping box. After a while he knocked off to take a break for a favorite snack: bananas.

But that was to be expected—because Bobby was a chimpanzee…[snip]

…Disney and Superior Furniture Manufacturing alike had tapped into a long mythology of monkey labor, one that stretched back to at least 1772. It was then that John Coakley Lettsome—a British physician, abolitionist, and friend of Benjamin Franklin—claimed that Chinese tea harvesters had “monkeys to assist them.” The Chinese, another account claimed, “mock, and irritate [the monkeys], till the animals, to revenge themselves, break off the branches, and shower them down on their insulters.” Enraged monkeys splintering tea-bushes is not exactly sustainable farming, but the explanation circulated widely for the next century, receiving an incalculable boost when it was quoted under the Encyclopedia Britannica’s 1797 entry for “Tea.”

Monkey-harvesters soon even acquired the appearance of an ancient lineage. Among the waves of discoveries of Egyptian artifacts in Beni Hasan in the nineteenth century, one wall painting in the c. 1900 B.C. tomb of Khnumhotep showed a fig harvest where, as Sir John Gardner Wilkinson put it in 1837, “Monkies appear to have been trained to assist in gathering the fruit.” It’s a charming explanation that some books repeat even today, and only slightly spoiled when one closely examines the tomb-painting: the monkeys aren’t handing over the fruit at all; they’re greedily stuffing figs into their own mouths.

The author doesn’t get much into animals and entertainment, but does dip into a discussion of animal intelligence and cognition, which includes dolphins (though, in my view, he gets it totally wrong).

That aside, one especially poignant discussion involves the use by the Soviets in World War II of explosive-carrying anti-tank dogs:

Animals are deeply and immediately practical. If an illogical series of actions produces a reward, a chimpanzee will stick with that. It knows what works, but perhaps not why. It is unlikely and perhaps even incapable of thinking through the motives behind that reward, or what the activity may lead to in time. It is intelligent, but it does not cogitate much.

And cognition is an advantage that humans can ruthlessly exploit. During the Second World War, the Soviet Union resorted to training dogs to wear explosives that would detonate when they ran up to German tanks. It is unclear whether the “anti-tank dog” program succeeded, except perhaps at being horrifying. But that disgust is instructive: animals are killed all the time in war, yet we cringe at sending one to obliterate itself, oblivious to any understanding or possibility of consent. We cannot help but view it as creatures who dounderstand the motive and causation of a suicide vest.

It’s chilling, even shameful, stuff. You’d like to think our understanding of animal awareness and intelligence, and human empathy and compassion for animals, has progressed since the days of factory monkeys and suicide dogs. I think the science definitely has. But our broader culture still has a long way to go.

What Came Before–Extended Version

Sorry to start your week off with such a stark, brutal look at pig farming in America. But it is what it is, and anyone who raves about bacon and pork should at least have the courage to know what it takes to put those things on their plate.

This is an extended version of an earlier video from Farm Sanctuary, about a pig named Nicky that escaped from an Iowa factory farm during a flood (apparently natural disasters have freed more than pigs). Before you watch, here’s a little background about pig intelligence and studies that show pigs are able to use mirrors as a tool to find food:

The finding is just one in a series of recent discoveries from the nascent study of pig cognition. Other researchers have found that pigs are brilliant at remembering where food stores are cached and how big each stash is relative to the rest. They’ve shown that Pig A can almost instantly learn to follow Pig B when the second pig shows signs of knowing where good food is stored, and that Pig B will try to deceive the pursuing pig and throw it off the trail so that Pig B can hog its food in peace.

They’ve found that pigs are among the quickest of animals to learn a new routine, and pigs can do a circus’s worth of tricks: jump hoops, bow and stand, spin and make wordlike sounds on command, roll out rugs, herd sheep, close and open cages, play videogames with joysticks, and more. For better or worse, pigs are also slow to forget. “They can learn something on the first try, but then it’s difficult for them to unlearn it,” said Suzanne Held of the University of Bristol. “They may get scared once and then have trouble getting over it.”

Researchers have also found that no matter what new detail they unearth about pig acumen, the public reaction is the same. “People say, ‘Oh yes, pigs really are rather clever, aren’t they?’ ” said Richard W. Byrne, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of St. Andrews. “I would recommend that somebody study sheep or goats rather than pigs, so that people would be suitably impressed to find out your animal is clever.” His feigned frustration notwithstanding, he added, “if you want to understand the evolution of intelligence and social behaviors, it’s important to work on animals like pigs that are not at all closely related to us” but rather are cousins of whales and hippos.

And here is how we treat them. How can this in any way be morally acceptable?

Mountain Gorillas vs. Poachers

Dian Fossey Trust Rwanda Gorrila

Nat Geo reports that mountain gorilla youngsters have been seen dismantling and destroying poachers’ snares:

On Tuesday tracker John Ndayambaje spotted a trap very close to the Kuryama gorilla clan. He moved in to deactivate the snare, but a silverback named Vubu grunted, cautioning Ndayambaje to stay away, Vecellio said.

Suddenly two juveniles—Rwema, a male; and Dukore, a female; both about four years old—ran toward the trap.

As Ndayambaje and a few tourists watched, Rwema jumped on the bent tree branch and broke it, while Dukore freed the noose.

The pair then spied another snare nearby—one the tracker himself had missed—and raced for it. Joined by a third gorilla, a teenager named Tetero, Rwema and Dukore destroyed that trap as well.

That’s an amazing insight into gorilla intelligence and awareness, and it makes it all the more horrific and tragic that wild gorillas are being driven by humans toward extinction. The gorillas apparently are doing what they can to preserve their young from poachers. But they will need a lot more help to have any hope of surviving.

(via @sam10k)