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.

 

A Guide To Eating Seafood Sustainably

A farmed, vegan, rainbow trout. Really. (Photo is by Andrew Andrew Hetherington, who took great photos to illustrate the story)

 

Quite apart from now being vegan, I have long been skeptical of all the ways in which humanity catches, farms and eats fish. Species after species seemed to dwindle in number, despite “fisheries management,” and farming fish seemed equally destructive. So when people asked me what fish they should eat, I usually answered “You should eat no fish.”

But my editor at Outside, who loves fish and loves the planet, kept insisting this was the wrong answer. So I researched and reported a story on the question of fish. The answer I came up with is much more useful, interesting and surprising than I expected.

So, for all the seafood lovers out there, here is your guide to eating fish responsibly.

Here’s how it starts (which is already causing me grief from vegan absolutists on Twitter):

I contemplated the simple sandwich on the plate in front of me: a beautiful slab of glistening rainbow trout, crisp lettuce, and a freshly baked French roll. The trout skin was lightly seared and seasoned. The pinkish meat was firm and toothsome. I genuflected briefly, then two-fisted the thing and took a big bite. A slightly smoky, sweet flavor gave my taste buds a sensation long denied. I chased it with a slug of Fort Point ale. Soon, both fish sandwich and beer were gone. I am a vegan, but I was untroubled. Eating the trout seemed like the right thing to do. 

Read the rest here. Hope you enjoy it.

And there is a great photo gallery here. As well as a 6-step Guide To Eating Fish Right.