Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Caught in My Web: Chimpanzee Memory, Beatbox-Dancing Cockroach Legs, Cute Animals Behaving Badly, Behavioral Catastrophe, and Scientifically Accurate Spider Man

This week in Caught in My Web, I share some quirky web pages that open our eyes to some aspects of animal behavior that we don't often think about:

1. Lee Rannals describes on redOrbit research that discovered that chimpanzees use long-term memory of how various trees produced fruit in previous years to forage today.

2. On TEDEd, Greg Gage hooks up a cockroach leg to a device that allows us to hear nerve impulses! And if that wasn’t cool enough, he then gets the cockroach leg to dance to a human beatbox. You have to see this.

3. Cute animals behaving badly. Need I say more?

4. Animals will sometimes continue their behaviors even when they end in catastrophe. George Dvorsky at IO9 describes 8 of the most deadly.

5. And if ADHD's Scientifically Accurate DuckTales was too much for you, DO NOT WATCH Scientifically Accurate Spider Man:

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What Cetaceans Can Teach Us About Culture

A bottlenose dolphin mother shares her culture with
her offspring. Image by M. Herko at the National
Undersea Research Program (NURP) available
at Wikimedia Commons.
We often think of culture as being food dishes, music, dance, and clothing that are specific to a group of people. But are we the only species that have culture? What is culture exactly and how does it relate to relationships?

Scientifically, culture is behavior that is socially transmitted between individuals and shared within population groups. Culture fundamentally depends on learning, and specifically learning from others. But everyone doesn't learn equally from everyone else. We tend to pick up behaviors more from individuals that we spend more time with than those that we don't. We also tend to spend more time with individuals that we share behaviors with. And we're not the only ones to show these tendencies.

This week at Accumulating Glitches I talk about various ways whales and dolphins share culture and are influenced by it. Check it out here.

And to learn more, check these out:

Cantor, M., & Whitehead, H. (2013). The interplay between social networks and culture: theoretically and among whales and dolphins Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (368), 1-8 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2012.0340

And learn about how orcas share dialects here.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Can Animals Sense Each Other’s Wants and Hopes?

Is the ability to empathize uniquely human? This question has long been pondered by philosophers and animal behaviorists alike. Empathy depends in part on the ability to recognize the wants and hopes of others. A new study by researchers at the University of Cambridge suggests that we may not be alone with this ability.

A male Eurasian jay feeds his female mate. Photo provided by Ljerka Ostojić.
Ljerka Ostojić, Rachael Shaw, Lucy Cheke, and Nicky Clayton conducted a series of studies on Eurasian jays to explore whether male jays could perceive changes in what their female partners desired. Eurasian jays are a good species with which to explore this phenomenon because males routinely provide food to their female mates as a part of their courtship. The researchers wanted to know if males would adjust what food items males offered their mates depending on what food type the females wanted more.

In order to make a female prefer one food type over another, the researchers fed each female one of two food types (wax moth larvae and mealworm larvae) until they were full. But being full of one type of food doesn’t mean you can’t find room for desert, right? So when the researchers then offered the females access to both wax moth larvae and mealworm larvae, those that had previously eaten wax moth larvae now preferred mealworm larvae and those that had previously eaten mealworm larvae now preferred wax moth larvae. But could their male partners tell what they preferred at that moment?

In order to test whether male jays were sensitive to their partners’ desires, the researchers fed the females either wax moth larvae or mealworm larvae until they were full. They did this while their male partners watched from behind a transparent screen. They then removed the screen and gave the males 20 opportunities to choose between a single wax moth larvae or mealworm larvae to feed their partner. In this context, males usually chose to share with their mates the food that their partners preferred rather than the food their partners had already been fed! But are the males responding to their mate’s behavior or are they responding to what they saw when the females were eating earlier?

This video (provided by Ljerka Ostojić) shows the experimental process
in which the male chooses a food type and then shares it with his mate.

The researchers repeated the study with an opaque screen so the males could not see their mates while the females gorged on one particular food type. Without the ability to see the mate eating beforehand, males chose both food types equally and did not attend to their mate’s preferences. Because the females still had a preference for the opposite food type but the males were not adjusting for that preference, this means that the males are not responding to their mate’s behavior in this experiment or the previous one. This suggests that if male Eurasian jays see what their mates are eating, then somehow they have the ability to know to give their mate the opposite food type!

Whether this process involves the males having an understanding of their mate’s desires or some other mechanism is not fully known. But male Eurasian jays are certainly adjusting what they give their mates according to what she wants. Now if we can only teach human males to do that!

Want to know more? Check this out:

Ostojić, L., Shaw, R.C., Cheke, L.G., & Clayton, N.S. (2013). Evidence suggesting that desire-state attribution may govern food sharing in Eurasian jays PNAS, 110 (10), 4123-4128 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1209926110

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Science Beat: Round 2

Sometimes science just makes more sense with a beat. Last January, I shared with you some fantastic music videos on fish genetics, climate science, and sexual reproduction. Here are the competitors for Round 2:

The Periodic Table:

Cellular Respiration:

Skeletal Muscle:

Vote for your favorite in the comments section below and check out other sciency song battles at Science Song Playlist, The Science Life, Science Beat, Scientist Swagger and Battle of The Grad Programs! And if you feel so inspired, make a video of your own, upload it on YouTube and send me a link to include in a future battle!