Sunday, October 13, 2019

4 Real-Life Monsters

A repost of an original article published October 26, 2015.

During the Halloween season, we find ourselves surrounded by monsters in movies, stores and decorations. We laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, oblivious to the fact that there are true monsters on our planet today! Mind you, these are not monsters in that they are evil, but they do have many of the same abilities and inclinations of our own mythical werewolves, vampires, zombies and shape-shifters.

Werewolf birds:

A Barau's petrel. Photo by SEOR
available at Wikimedia Commons.
Barau’s petrel is a migrating sea bird that is most active during nights with a full moon. Researchers tied bio-loggers on the birds’ feet to track their activity levels and found that under the full moon, the birds spent nearly 80% of these moonlit nights in flight! It is thought that since these birds migrate longitudinally (parallel with the equator), they can’t use changes in day length as a cue to synchronize their breeding, so they use the phases of the moon instead.

Vampire bats:

Three different bat species feed solely on blood: the common vampire bat, the hairy-legged vampire bat and the white-winged vampire bat. Feeding on blood is not uncommon – The actual term for it is hematophagy, and it is common in insects (think of those pesky mosquitos) and leeches. Although we don’t commonly think of it this way, blood is a body tissue and, like meat, it is rich in protein and calories. The reason it has not become a more popular food source among mammals is probably because it is so watered down (literally) compared to meat, that it can’t provide enough nutrition to sustain a large warm-bodied mammal. This is where our little vampire bat friends come in… small, stealthy, and with specialized saliva that prevents their victims’ blood from clotting, these guys are able to take advantage of this abundant resource, drinking up to half of their body weight in blood every night.


Scientists have recently discovered some strange honey bees: They mindlessly leave their hives in the middle of the night and fly in circles, often towards lights. It turns out that these honey bees are being parasitized by a species of phorid fly called the zombie fly. Female phorid flies lay their eggs inside the abdomens of honey bees, where the eggs hatch into larvae. The larvae feed on the insides of their bee hosts until they are mature enough to leave through the poor bee’s neck (the honey bee is generally dead by this time). Once out, the zombie flies develop into adults so they can breed and start the cycle anew with a new bee host. This phenomenon is still in the early stages of discovery, so if you would like to get involved in this project by watching honey bees in your area, check out ZomBee Watch, a citizen science project to track this zombie infestation.

Shape shifters:

The mimic octopus is a small harmless octopus that lives on the exposed shallow sandy bottoms of river mouths. To avoid its many predators it has developed an amazing strategy: it pretends to be something else, morphing its body into new shapes, like the shape of a deadly lion-fish, a poisonous flatfish, a venomous banded sea-snake, or any number of other animals that live in the area. Not only does the mimic octopus change its shape, it also changes its behavior to match its “costume” to convincingly fool predators. Most cephalopods, which include octopuses, are well-known for their ability to change the color, pattern and texture of their skin to blend in with rocks, coral and plants. Furthermore, octopuses do not have rigid skeletal elements, which allows their bodies great flexibility in the forms they imitate. But this ability to change both physical appearance and behavior to switch back and forth among imitations of multiple species is unique to this astounding shape shifter.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

It Feels Good When You Sing a Song (In Fall)

A repost of an original article published October 3, 2012.

Most male songbirds will sing when they see a pretty female during the breeding season. But some male songbirds sing even when it’s not the breeding season. Why do so many birds sing in fall at all?

Maybe singing feels good… But how do you ask a bird if it feels good to sing? European starlings are one of those bird species that sing both in spring (the breeding season) and in fall (not the breeding season). Lauren Riters, Cindi Kelm-Nelson, and Sharon Stevenson at the University of Wisconsin at Madison did a series of ingenious experiments to ask starlings if and when it feels good to sing.

A European starling sings his fall-blues away. Photo by Linda Tanner at Wikimedia.

Psychologists have long used a paradigm called conditioned place preference (CPP) to evaluate whether an animal finds something rewarding or pleasurable. CPP is based on the idea that if an animal experiences something meaningless while at the same time experiencing something else that is rewarding, the animal will learn to associate these two things with each other in a phenomenon called conditioning. For example, a puppy that has learned that every time it sits it gets a treat, will find itself sitting more often.

A researcher can also compare how rewarding different types of treats are. If we want to know if puppies like carrots or steak better, we can give one group of puppies a carrot every time they sit and another group of puppies a piece of steak every time they sit. If the group of puppies that are conditioned with steak spend more time sitting, we can conclude that steak is more rewarding to puppies than carrots are.

Lauren and Sharon used this principle to ask starlings if singing is rewarding. They put spring starlings in a cage with a nestbox and a female and let them sing away, while counting how many songs they sang in 30 minutes. Then they immediately put them in another cage that was decorated with yellow materials on one side and green materials on the other, but they restricted each bird to only one of the two colored sides. This is the conditioning phase in which the bird learns to associate the colored cage with the feeling they get from singing.

The next day, they put the starlings in the yellow and green cage without restrictions so they could choose what side they wanted to hang out in. If singing is rewarding, we would expect starlings that sang a lot to spend more time on the side with the color they were placed in the day before.

Do people that sing in the car spend more time in the car?
Photo by
That didn’t happen. The spring starlings spent the same amount of time in the yellow or green side of the cage regardless of how much they sang the day before.

But when Lauren and Sharon did the same test with fall starlings singing without a female, there has a huge effect: Males that sang more spent much more time on the colored side of the cage they were placed in the day before. Singing, for a male starling, is apparently rewarding in fall, but not in spring.

This result actually makes a lot of sense. In spring, males sing to attract and court females, so they are rewarded by the feeling they get from the female’s response, not from the act of singing itself. But in fall, males are not attracting females. So why do they sing in fall? Because it feels good.

It looks like Sesame Street got it right with their 1970s song “It Feels Good When You Sing a Song”:

You can't go wrong
when you're singing a song
Sing it loud, sing it strong
It feels good when you sing a song

But why does singing feel good? At least some of the reason, it seems, is opioids. Not quite what Sesame Street had in mind, but hey.

Despite their reputation for being one of the world’s oldest drugs, many opioids are naturally occurring neuropeptides (brain chemicals). They are involved in pain relief and euphoria, commonly combined in the phenomenon of runner’s high. Could opioids be involved in the feel-good sensation created by singing? Maybe.

Cindi, Sharon and Lauren suspect that singing in fall causes male starlings to release opioids in their little brains, which makes singing more rewarding and makes them want to sing more. But how do we know how much opioid an animal has in its brain? Hmmm… Opioids cause analgesia (pain relief). Therefore, if singing a lot in fall releases more opioids, then birds that sing a lot in fall should be more pain-tolerant, right? The researchers let male starlings sing and counted how many songs they produced for 20 minutes. Then they dipped their foot in uncomfortably warm water and timed how long it took for the bird to pull its toes out. Fall males that sang more took longer to pull their feet out of the birdy foot-spa than did the males that sang less.

Interestingly, if you give starlings a drug to enhance opioids, they leave their feet in the foot-spa longer than if you give them a drug to block opioids. So it seems that singing in fall increases pain tolerance in the same way that opioids do, likely because the act of singing in fall causes the brain to release its own opioids. (Although it is also possible that birds that produce more opioids feel like singing more).

And what about singing in spring? When Cindi, Sharon and Lauren repeated the study with spring starlings, these birds did not get pain relief from singing. Again, they are probably rewarded by their interactions with females and not the act of singing.

So if you ever find yourself in pain, just
Sing a song
Make it simple
To last your whole life long
Don't worry that it's not good enough
For anyone else to hear
Sing a song
La la la la la la la la la la la
La la la la la la la

Want to know more? Check these out:

1. Riters LV, & Stevenson SA (2012). Reward and vocal production: song-associated place preference in songbirds. Physiology & Behavior, 106 (2), 87-94 PMID: 22285212

2. Kelm-Nelson, C.A., Stevenson, S.A., & Riters, L.V. (2012). Context-dependent links between song production 1 and opioid-mediated analgesia in male European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) PLOS One, 7 (10)

3. Riters LV, Schroeder MB, Auger CJ, Eens M, Pinxten R, & Ball GF (2005). Evidence for opioid involvement in the regulation of song production in male European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Behavioral neuroscience, 119 (1), 245-55 PMID: 15727529

4. Kelm CA, Forbes-Lorman RM, Auger CJ, & Riters LV (2011). Mu-opioid receptor densities are depleted in regions implicated in agonistic and sexual behavior in male European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) defending nest sites and courting females. Behavioural brain research, 219 (1), 15-22 PMID: 21147175

Sunday, September 29, 2019

A Yawn & Man’s Best Friend

By Erin Gellings

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of coming home after a long hard day and being welcomed by your dog. Many things dogs do are in response to their owners’ actions, including comforting and mimicking actions like yawning. There are many theories about why humans and other animals yawn, but no one theory has been proven 100% correct. What causes dogs to yawn in response to seeing a human yawn though?

Yawning Dog. Image by Scientre from Wikimedia Commons

This was the question Silvia Karine and Bessa Joana from the Universidade do Porto in Portugal set out to examine. The researchers found preliminary evidence that simply the sound of a human yawn and their relationship with their owner is enough to make a dog yawn.

Sometimes, when dogs are under stress, they can do something called a ‘tension yawn.’ There is still little evidence that explains why dogs yawn when experiencing stress. The best way to know if a dog is yawning due to feeling stressed, or in response to a human is to look at the environment. If the dog is in a new setting with new people, it is likely yawning due to stress. Researchers were very careful to make sure all the yawns dogs produced were genuine and not stress related. This was partly achieved by allowing dogs to become used to researchers before being introduced to audio of yawns. They made this determination by carefully reviewing what events led up to the dog’s yawn.

Karine and Joana used 29 dogs of various breeds and let each one become acclimated to them by just sitting in the dog’s home for about 10 minutes before they started the experiment. The researchers then exposed them to four conditions: a prerecorded sound of their owner’s yawn, familiar control sounds from their home, a stranger’s yawn, or control sounds not from their home. Each dog experienced the prerecorded sounds in a random order during two different sessions. A researcher played the sounds through a large set of speakers from audio files from a laptop in the dog’s home. The researcher wrote down every time the dog yawned, and also made a video recording of the dogs listening to the sounds so other researchers could go back and double check that their count was correct.

Twelve of the twenty-nine dogs yawned during the experiment. Out of the dogs who yawned, more dogs yawned at the yawning audio than at the background audio. This leads us to believe that the sounds of yawning are contagious and the dogs “caught” the yawn. The researchers also found that dogs yawned more when listening to the yawn of their owners than of strangers.

Aside from showing that dogs tend to yawn after hearing a human yawn, this research also hints that there may be some sort of social variable in why dogs yawn more at their owner’s yawn. The researchers suggest this may be related to a sense of empathy dogs feel towards humans, but this claim needs more research in order to be demonstrated. This research also showed that dogs do not necessarily need a visual cue of seeing a person yawn in order to yawn on their own. This is a claim that is unique to this particular project. While this research is still in its early stages, it does give us a new perspective on why dogs may yawn when around humans, and what leads to this unique behavior.

Although this study does not help us understand the function of yawning in dogs, it does bring us closer to understanding why dogs yawn in response to humans and sets the stage for future research in the field. So, after your next long day when you sit down and yawn and notice your dog yawn too, take a moment to appreciate the connection they have with you.


Finlay, K. (2017, June 15). Why do dogs yawn? American Kennel Club.

Silva, K., Bessa, J., & De Sousa, L. (2012). Auditory contagious yawning in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): First evidence for social modulation. Animal Cognition, 15(4), 721-724.

Why do I yawn? (2019).

Saturday, September 21, 2019

A Master of Disguise (A Guest Post)

By Jake Klemm

Cephalopods are among the most intelligent of marine life. Their highly advanced nervous systems allow them to exhibit a complex array of behaviors (for example, camouflage). Within this array is a rather unique behavior observed in the cuttlefish Sepia pharaonis. These elegant beings are now known to… intensely flap their arms? These animals are truly graceful.

A lovely photo of S. pharaonis. Image by Silke Baron at Wikimedia Commons.

Researchers Kohei Okamoto, Haruhiko Yasumuro, Akira Mori, and Yuzuru Ikeda of the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, Japan observed this behavior on two separate occasions while studying S. pharaonis. The scientists had initially collected these cuttlefish with the intention of conducting other experiments but noticed this behavior while the cuttlefish were introduced to a large water-filled tank and while hunting prey. After noticing this wild arm-flapping behavior, the researchers turned their attention towards why the behavior was being displayed.

The researchers first observed this behavior in December of 2011. The cuttlefish were placed in a large, circular tank for conducting other experiments when a couple of them were observed to flap their arms. After the initial experiments were finished, a few of the cuttlefish were placed in the same sized tank and observations were recorded with a video camera over a period of five days. This behavior was revisited in 2013 for further observation. The cuttlefish they used were reared from eggs found in the same coastal waters of Okinawajima Island as the cuttlefish that were part of the 2011 experiments. Again, cuttlefish were placed in a large tank to observe the behavior with a video camera. The researchers counted each occurrence of the behavior and recorded the duration of each behavior. After observations were complete, the researchers performed experiments to observe the hunting ability of S. pharaonis. This arm-flapping behavior was observed unexpectedly while the cuttlefish hunted prey. The means of recording the behavior were the same as described above. In addition, the researchers recorded the number of prey caught between cuttlefish that did and did not display the behavior.

The researchers noticed variation in the frequency and duration of this behavior in the presence and absence of prey. When placed in a tank without prey, only a small number of cuttlefishes displayed this behavior. Of the cuttlefish that did flap their arms, the behavior lasted (on average) no longer than 37 seconds. However, the cuttlefish that were placed in a tank with prey, the behavior was displayed for at significantly longer period of time. In addition to that, more cuttlefish overall were seen flapping their arms in this second experiment. The cuttlefish that flapped their arms caught a significantly larger number of fish than the ones that did not flap their arms, despite being observed in the same tank and having access to the same number of prey animals. This observation led the researchers to believe that something about this unique behavior is helping the cuttlefish capture more prey.

A front view of a cuttlefish. Image by Stickpen at Wikimedia Commons.

The resemblance is uncanny! Image by Maximilian Paradiz at Wikimedia Commons.

What could this all mean? The researchers think that the cuttlefish may be mimicking another organism, specifically the hermit crab, to confuse the prey fish into thinking that they are another harmless animal. It is thought that the head of the cuttlefish resembles the shell of the hermit crab while the arms resemble the eyes and legs of the hermit crab. Posing as a harmless crab would allow the cuttlefish to get behind enemy lines and ultimately catch more prey. Further research will have to be done in lab as well as the field to see if this behavior is really that of mimicry. Other cephalopods are notorious for mimicking other animals, so it is not out of the realm of possibility. Studying this behavior would allow scientists to difurtveher into the evolutionary history of S. pharaonis. Until then, the graceful limb-flailing will remain an ever-tantalizing mystery.


Okamoto, K., Yasumuro, H., Mori, A., & Ikeda, Y., (2017). Unique arm-flapping behavior of the pharaoh cuttlefish, Sepia pharaonic: putative mimicry of a hermit crab. Journal of Ethology, 35(3), 307-311. DOI: 10.1007/s10164-017-0519-7

Saturday, September 14, 2019

How To Get Into An Animal Behavior Graduate Program: An Outline

Do you dream about a career of studying animals?
Image by
A repost of an original article from March 13, 2013.

**NOTE: Although this advice is written for those interested in applying to graduate programs in animal behavior, it applies to most programs in the sciences.**

So you want to go to grad school to study animal behavior… Well join the club! It is a competitive world out there and this is an increasingly competitive field. But if every fiber of your being knows this is the path for you, then there is a way for you to follow that path. With hard work, dedication and persistence, you can join the ranks of today's animal biologists to pursue a career of trekking to wild places to study animals in their native habitats, testing questions about the physiology of behavior in a lab, or exploring the genetics of behavioral adaptation.

This is an outline of advice on how to get into a graduate program in animal behavior. More details on the individual steps will follow, so leave a comment below or e-mail me if you have any particular questions you would like me to address or if you have any advice you would like to share.

  1. Get good grades, particularly in your science and math courses. And make sure you take all the science and math prerequisites for biology graduate programs.
  2. Prepare well for the GREs.
  3. Get research experience. This can come in many forms (such as volunteering in a lab, working as a field technician, or doing an independent project for credit), but as a general rule, the more involved you are in a project, the more it will impress those making acceptance decisions.
  4. Choose the labs you are interested in, not just the schools. As a graduate student, you will spend most of your time working with your advisor and the other members of your advisor’s lab. This means that the right fit is imperative. Figure out what researchers you may want to work with, then see if they are at a school you would like to attend.
  5. Be organized in your application process. There will be a lot of details to keep straight: due dates, recommendation letters, essays, communication with potential advisors… The more organized you are, the less likely you are to miss a deadline or make an embarrassing mistake.
  6. Write compelling essays. Most schools will ask you to write two short essays: a Statement of Purpose and a Personal History. This is your place to set yourself apart. They need to convey your experience with animal behavior research and passion for working with that particular advisor. They also need to be very well written, so expect to write multiple drafts.
  7. Be organized and prepared when you ask for your recommendation letters. The easier you make it for your references to write a thoughtful recommendation letter for you, the better the letters will be.
  8. Apply for funding. This isn’t essential: Most first-year graduate students do not have their own funding. But the ability of a school and a specific researcher to accept a graduate student depends on what funding is available to support them. If you have your own funding, it is more likely you will to be able to write your own ticket.
  9. Be prepared for each interview you are invited to.
  10. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. Although heartbraking at the time, it is very common in animal behavior graduate programs to not be accepted anywhere in your first year of applications. If you are rejected, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are not a good candidate. Often it means there is no funding available to support you in the labs you would like to join. Spend the year participating in research and applying for funding so you can reapply next year.
The submission of a successful application takes a lot of planning and preparation. Getting good grades is a continuous effort. Plus, the most successful applicants often have two or more years of research experience. Ideally, you are working on these two things at least by your sophomore year of college. But if you waited too long and you haven’t taken enough science or math prerequisites, your grades are not where they need to be, or you don’t have enough research experience, you can take some extra time after you graduate to take community college courses and volunteer or work in a lab. Persistence and dedication are key to following a challenging path.