Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Your Picks of 2012

This has been a wild first year for The Scorpion and the Frog. I have enjoyed sharing the world of animal physiology and behavior research with you. But even more, I have enjoyed hearing from you about your experiences, thoughts and perspectives.

I gathered data on page visits, comments, and social media attention for The Scorpion and the Frog posts and have determined your top five posts of the year. Here are Your Favorite The Scorpion and the Frog Posts of 2012 (in no particular order).

1. The “Love Hormone” Pageant pits six hormones against one another in a contest for the title of the “Love Hormone”. The "Love Hormone" of 2012 focuses on the big winner (as determined by reader votes), Dopamine!

2. Scientists put the philosophical question, “What Do Animals Think of Their Dead?” to the test. Their results may surprise you!

3. In Snakes Deceive to Get a Little Snuggle, we learn about boy snakes pretending to be sexy girl snakes, all in the hopes of a good cuddle.

4. Male nursery web spiders give silk-wrapped gifts to the girls that catch their eyes. But why waste a perfectly good present when a piece of junk in clever packaging will do? Sex, Lies and Spider Silk tells the story of these deceptive gift-givers.

5. Don’t Challenge a Fruit-Eating Bat to a Drinking Contest. Just don’t. Here’s why.

Thank you for your support and participation over the year. Next year should be full of new wacky animal stories. (And if you’d like to see my 2012 picks for my favorite animal physiology and behavior blog posts at other sites, click here).

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Not Fair! Even Dogs Know the Importance of Gift-Equity

Don't leave out your best friend when
gift-giving this holiday season!
Photo by Ohsaywhat at Wikimedia.
When I was a child, I think one of the things that stressed my mom out most about the holidays was making sure that all of us kids got Christmas gifts worth the exact same amount. Why all the fuss? Because if the value of the gifts wasn’t equal, we were guaranteed to spend our holidays in a chorus of “Not fair!” cries rather than appreciating the holiday bounty and cheer around us.

As a species, we have a pretty developed sense of fairness. This sense of fairness is central to our ability to cooperate to achieve goals that are too difficult for one person to accomplish alone. But we’re not the only social species that cooperates… and it turns out, we’re not the only ones with a sense of fairness, either.

Domestic dogs and their wild relatives, like wolves and African wild dogs, are very social and have cooperative hunting, territory defense, and parental care. Friederike Range, Lisa Horn, Zsófia Viranyi, and Ludwig Huber from the University of Vienna, Konrad Lorenz Institute, and Wolf Science Center, all in Austria, sought out to test whether domesticated dogs have a sense of fairness.

The researchers tested pairs of dogs who had lived together in the same household for at least a year. All of these dogs had been previously trained to give their paw on command, as if giving a handshake. Each pair of dogs was asked to sit in front of an experimenter (one dog was designated the “subject” and the other was the “partner”). In this position, the willingness of the subject dog to shake paws with the experimenter was tested under six different situations.

An experimenter asks two dog-buddies to each give her a paw and they wait
to see who gets rewarded. Photo from Range et al., PNAS, 2009.
In the basic situation, both dogs were asked to give a paw, and both dogs were rewarded with a “low-value” reward (a piece of bread). This happened repeatedly and the researchers measured how many times the subject dogs would give their paw.

In another situation, both dogs were asked to give a paw, but the subject dog was rewarded with a “low-value” reward (a piece of bread) while its buddy was rewarded with a “high-value” reward (a piece of sausage).

In a third situation, both dogs were asked to give a paw, but only the partner dog was rewarded with a piece of bread (the subject dog got nothing).

In the fourth situation, only the subject dog was asked to give a paw, but both dogs were rewarded with a piece of bread.

In the fifth situation, the experimenter measured how many times the subject dog would give its paw for a piece of bread if his doggy-buddy wasn’t around.

In the last situation, the experimenter measured how many times the subject dog would give its paw for no reward if his doggy-buddy wasn’t around.

When both dogs received bread, they were happy to keep giving the experimenter their paw for as long as they were asked to. But when dogs saw their buddy get a piece of bread when they got nothing, they soon refused to give their paw to the experimenter (and started showing signs of stress). You may think this is just what happens when you stop rewarding a dog for doing what you ask, but something different was going on here. The dogs that never got a reward gave their paw to the experimenter for longer when their buddy wasn’t around than if their buddy was around and getting bread treats. Clearly, even dogs know that equal work for unequal pay is not fair.

But the doggy-sense-of-fairness is limited. As long as they got their bread when they gave their paw, they really didn’t seem to care (or notice) if their buddy got bread or sausage, or even whether their buddy had to perform the same trick or not.

So this holiday season, don’t forget to get a present for your four-legged friend so he doesn’t feel left out. But don’t worry about getting something expensive – He doesn’t care anyway. For him, it’s the gesture that counts.

Want to know more? Check these out:

1. Range F, Horn L, Viranyi Z, & Huber L (2009). The absence of reward induces inequity aversion in dogs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106 (1), 340-5 PMID: 19064923

2. Range, F., Leitner, K., & Virányi, Z. (2012). The Influence of the Relationship and Motivation on Inequity Aversion in Dogs Social Justice Research, 25 (2), 170-194 DOI: 10.1007/s11211-012-0155-x

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Miss Behavior’s Picks of 2012

The "Best in Show" for 2012:
The Top 5 Animal Physiology
and Behavior Blog Posts of 2012.
Photo from
‘Tis the season for year-end lists. As we sift through lists of the most downloaded songs, most popular books, best movies, most interesting people, and most embarrassing moments of 2012, I would feel remiss if I did not contribute my own year-end list for the best animal physiology and behavior blog posts. There have been so many great blog posts across the interwebs this year, it was hard to choose. These are my picks for The Top 5 Animal Physiology and Behavior Blog Posts of 2012 (not including The Scorpion and the Frog posts, of course, and in no particular order).

1. Paternal care is rare in the animal kingdom. Males taking care of babies that aren’t even their own is exceptional. Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish talks about the strange case of a snail species in which males don’t just care for their own babies, but other snails’ babies too in Long-Suffering Snail Dads Carry Illegitimate Babies.

2. Jordan Gaines at Gaines, on Brains explains exactly what happens to your cat when you give her that catnip-filled toy in Catnip Fever: Why Your Cat Acts High.

3. Chimpanzees don’t just use tools, but they carefully select them. Jason Goldman at The Thoughtful Animal writes about how scientists discovered this chimpanzee decision-making process in For Chimps, Tool Choice Is A Weighty Matter.

4. Everything you have ever wanted to know about turtle penises (and much, much more) is brilliantly explained in Tetrapod Zoology by Darren Naish at Terrifying Sex Organs of Male Turtles.

5. In Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed Yong explains how fairy wrens know which babies are theirs in Fairy Wrens Teach Secret Passwords to Their Unborn Chicks to Tell Them Apart From Cuckoo Impostors.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Scientist Swagger

Scientists have a bad rap when it comes to social skills. But I promise you, we’re not all like the guys in The Big Bang Theory (although some of us are). If you thought scientists ain’t got no game, guess again:

The Most Beautiful Girl in the Lab:

Look At Me Now:

Bright Scope / Long Lab Coat:

Hmmm... Now that I look at it, maybe biologists are the exception to the swaggerless-scientist phenomenon. (Biologists also won the Battle of the Grad Programs by the way). Beg to differ? Comment or vote for your favorite in the comments section below. And if you’ve got some science swagger, show it to the world: Make a video of your own, upload it on YouTube and send me a link to include in a future battle!