Archive for April, 2009
Bayou Renaissance Man posted a fascinating story about a unique British war hero. A homeless mutt called Rip was befriended by an Air Raid Precaution Warden. Rip became the unit’s mascot and then – on his own – developed a remarkable talent for locating people buried in bomb debris. Rip was the British Civil Defence’s first sniffer dog.
According to the Daily Mail:
In 12 months between 1940 and 1941, the plucky mutt combined all the inherited skills of uncertain parentage to rescue more than 100 victims of the Blitz from the air-raid ruins of London.
Then he carried on the good work for another four years until the end of the war.
But what made this tale of a shaggy dog so remarkable was that Rip was never trained for search and rescue – he simply attached himself to a Civil Defence team after being bombed out of his home. Then he mucked in as a sniffer dog solely because he enjoyed it.
His astonishing success rate earned him the rare honour of a PDSA Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent of a Victoria Cross.
Speaking of British air raids – check out the Keep Calm And Carry On image generator! One of my favorite posters (SRSLY – KCACO is a great motto for alldog owners) can now be customized to suit any occasion. Here’s the Audie version:
In training-related news, I recently came across this excellent article on the Cardinal Points Farm blog on “Fool-Proof Humane Animal Training”. Here’s a small bite – go read the rest:
Animal training is complicated. There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ training approach. Did I say complicated? Add to this a good dose of moral confusion (thanks to the media and some special interest groups). In the context of animal training, few terms are as emotionally charged as ‘punishment’ and ‘abuse’; and few terms are as misapplied (intentionally or otherwise) as ‘humane’ and ‘cruel’.
I came across an interesting clip on YouTube today featuring a very clever little dog called Maggie.
A bit of googling turned up an article in the Mountain Xpress News that tells us Maggie’s story:
When Jesse and Arthur Treff got Maggie, a Jack Russell terrier as a puppy, “she was a challenge,” explains Jesse. “Between chewing and just everything a puppy can do, magnify that by 10 — that’s what a Jack Russell puppy does.”
In an attempt to curb Maggie’s misbehavior, the Treffs thought they’d try redirecting her energy into learning tricks. It was immediately apparent that she was a natural. “She was picking up new things every three or four minutes,” says Jesse. “She’d get it. I’d come back and she’d still have it. It just accelerated from there.”
When Maggie was about 6 months old, a friend of Jesse’s said to her jokingly, “I bet she can even count.”
Not really expecting anything, Jesse held up four of her fingers for Maggie — who proceeded to tap her right front paw on the ground four times. Over the next couple of weeks, Jesse continued showing Maggie varying numbers of her fingers. “She was getting it right about 80 percent of the time,” says Jesse.
Initially, Maggie would respond only to Jesse, but eventually she began to answer mathematical equations from strangers as well. Sometimes, Jesse says, she still can’t quite believe that Maggie is able to do what she does. “I think she’s not going to be able to do it one day — it’ll go away. Someone will ask her something and she’ll just stand there.”
This summer, WLOS-TV did a short segment about Maggie’s ability to count and the piece was picked up by other stations nationwide. Since then, says Jesse, “I can’t go down the sidewalk in Asheville without someone saying, ‘My friend doesn’t believe your dog can count — can you show him?”
When asked about those skeptics who believe Maggie’s counting is some kind of hoax, Jesse says: “In Asheville, there are very few people who don’t believe Maggie can count. The few people who don’t believe it … I use to work hard at trying to change their minds. Now I feel like, ‘That’s fine. I couldn’t care less.’ And I really understand: You have to see it to believe it.”
Ah… but seeing isn’t necessarily the same as believing – or more importantly, the same as knowing.
Should we believe reports that dogs can do mathematical calculations? Is Maggie’s owner telling us the truth?
Well… in science, as in all things, there’s a big difference between honesty and reliability. An honest observer can be unreliable and a reliable observer can be dishonest. Honest observers can make mistakes by focusing on the wrong aspects of an experiment or they can be fooled by their pre-conceived notions. Either way, their mistakes can be gosh-darned hard to ferret out.
Human beings have an odd tendency to be most impressed by animals when they seem to be able to mimic human activities like doing math or using language. We are generally much less impressed when they excel at tasks that are beyond our abilities. Obsessed with our own big brains, we also have a hard time accepting the idea that we aren’t always in conscious control of our actions. Because of this we sometimes prefer to “dishonestly” believe that behaviors that occur outside our conscious control are governed by supernatural forces like mind reading or telepathy.
A classic example of this phenomenon is illustrated by the story of another clever animal – Clever Hans. Hans was a horse who learned to cleverly and correctly respond to a range of questions involving mathematical calculations and other advanced cognitive tasks by tapping his hoof. Hans was a sensation. People flocked to see the horse that could think like a man.
Or could he? In 1904 Oskar Pfungst discovered that Hans wasn’t spelling, doing mathematical calculations or telling time; he was responding to incredibly subtle physical cues he picked up from his owner, Wilhelm von Osten. How did Pfungst solve the riddle that so many others had missed? Well… everyone other than Pfungst who watched and studied Hans focused on the horse’s performance. Pfungst was the only one who asked von Osten how he had taught Hans to tap. He was also the first investigator who didn’t automatically assume that the key issue in understanding the phenomenon was how Hans learned the answers to the questions. Because he thought outside the box, Pfungst was able to demonstrate that Hans was only able to perform well when certain people were present.
Robert Yerkes later noted another important issue with regard to reports of clever animals: The fact that they regularly responded correctly to questions about things they had absolutely no previous knowledge of. Clever Hans would spell out a word that included letters he hadn’t been taught to tap out. A clever dog called Roger appeared to spontaneously learn to do complex tasks like multiplication. These animals seemed to acquire advanced skills by osmosis.
The skills of clever animals like Hans, Roger and Maggie are astonishing. They’re just not amazing in quite the way most people assume they are. Clever animals don’t understand spelling or mathematics – they’re geniuses at observing and responding to human behavior.
How do they do it?
Mirror neurons may be the key.
Horses and dogs are social species. Being able to understand the intentions of others is a fundamental part of social behavior. While the neural and functional mechanisms behind social intentionality are still not well understood, a recent article by Iacoboni, Molnar-Szakacs, Gallese, Buccino, Mazziotta, and Rizzolatti in PLoS Biology holds some tantalizing clues.
Recently, the discovery of a special class of neurons in the primate premotor cortex has provided some clues with respect to such mechanisms. Mirror neurons are premotor neurons that fire when the monkey performs object-directed actions such as grasping, tearing, manipulating, holding, but also when the animal observes somebody else, either a conspecific or a human experimenter, performing the same class of actions. In fact, even the sound of an action in the dark activates these neurons.
Researchers have believed for some time that mirror neurons might be the neural mechanism that allows us to understand the intentions of other people. The basis of this idea arises from the fact that mirror neurons focus on actions. An action includes both an actor and a goal. The idea of a goal implies intention. This action – goal – intention chain may form the basis of the process in which mirror neurons allow us to create internal representations other’s mental states in our own minds.
Context appears to play an important part in the action – goal – intention chain, and it may be the missing link that explains how clever animals are able to discern and correctly interpret astonishingly subtle cues about the intentions of the people they spend their lives with. Iacoboni et al. propose that context provides vital cues that help us clarify intentions. They state that, “The same action done in two different contexts acquires different meanings and may reflect two different intentions.”
Context provides the vital contrast that allows an animal to differentiate one subtle action from another. If I call my dog’s name while I bend every so slightly and smile he is able to tell that my intention is entirely different than it is when I call him from a somewhat more formal posture. And he doesn’t need to be able to read or do math to figure it out.
And – context is important in our discussion here. Unlike humans, dogs and horses aren’t distracted from subtle changes in context in their sensory world by a continuous internal narrative. Free from that endless stream of white noise, they exist in a world that’s far richer in sensory input than ours. This explains why they’re often startled or distracted by sights, sounds and smells that we can’t even detect.
Given their much greater sensitivity to context and sensory information – it doesn’t require a great leap to imagine that clever dogs and horses can learn to detect and respond to incredibly subtle – and even unintentional – physiological cues emitted by human beings.
Why is this important to pet owners? The important issue here is that of our common, human failures of expectation. We take a naïve, inexperienced animal and put it into a situation where we expect it to perform advanced tasks like an experienced, trained human would. If the animal fails our expectations and doesn’t respond “correctly” we assume that it’s stupid. If it meets our expectations by responding correctly we assume that it has suddenly – and without prior training – successfully made the mental leap to being capable of advanced human skills. And in both cases – we are the ones displaying a sobering lack of cleverness.
I run into errors of expectation nearly every day in my work as a dog trainer. A busy family gets a new dog and they expect it to learn the rules of the household by osmosis. When the dog, understandably, fails to respond in a properly “clever” way, they assume that he’s stupid and give up any hope of training him. Worse yet, if the dog initially manages to parse out a reasonably acceptable version of the rules on his own, he’s likely never to be given the training and attention his – obviously bright – mind craves because, of course “he doesn’t need it”.
We can learn far more about the mental abilities of animals when we learn to see them they way they are instead of the way we’d like them to be. Your dog shouldn’t need to learn to read or do math to impress you. Once you learn to recognize them, I’m sure you’ll find that your dog’s got plenty of astonishing skills – and he’d love to share them with you.
So show me who’s a clever girl. Spend a few years teaching your dog to understand the alphabet, spelling and phonics – and I’ll be thrilled to celebrate your success. Spend a few weeks or months teaching your dog to read subtle physiological cues in a way that makes it look like she can read – and I’ll be more than happy to celebrate her success.
No – I’m not talking about lead, arsenic or mercury. On the heels of our post on semiochemical boundaries the WallStreetJournal has published an article on the use of hard rock music as a boundary to control hordes of swarming Mormon crickets:
TUSCARORA, Nev. — The residents of this tiny town, anticipating an imminent attack, will be ready with a perimeter defense. They’ll position their best weapons at regular intervals, faced out toward the desert to repel the assault.
Then they’ll turn up the volume.
Rock music blaring from boomboxes has proved one of the best defenses against an annual invasion of Mormon crickets. The huge flightless insects are a fearsome sight as they advance across the desert in armies of millions that march over, under or into anything in their way.
But the crickets don’t much fancy Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones, the townspeople figured out three years ago. So next month, Tuscarorans are preparing once again to get out their extension cords, array their stereos in a quarter-circle and tune them to rock station KHIX, full blast, from dawn to dusk. “It is part of our arsenal,” says Laura Moore, an unemployed college professor and one of the town’s 13 residents.
Scientists aren’t sure if vibrations from the music deter the marauding arthropods – or indeed – if the muscial barrier even works, but residents plan to blast music in the crickets’ direction from dawn ’till dusk in the hope that the plan will work as well as it did back in 2006 when residents swear that the music stopped the bugs dead in their tracks.
Contrary to what my parents told me, heavy metal is a whole lot safer than insecticides and it’s not nearly as messy as smashing or smothering tens of thousands of thumb-sized bugs. Because some of the crickets that hatched in 2007 weren’t deterred by Led Zeppelin and Marilyn Manson, the residents of tiny Tuscarora have a fall back plan – if they don’t do the trick this year they’ll add the roar of dozens of weed-whackers and lawn mowers.
Today NewScientist.com reported that the world’s first transgenic puppies were recently born in Korea. The five cloned beagles have been genetically modified to produce a fluorescent protein that glows red under ultraviolet light.
Lee and stem cell researcher Woo Suk Hwang were part of a team that created the first cloned dog, Snuppy, in 2005. Much of Hwang’s work on human cells turned out to be fraudulent, but Snuppy was not, an investigation later concluded.
A team led by Byeong-Chun Lee of Seoul National University in South Korea created the dogs by cloning fibroblast cells that express a red fluorescent gene produced by sea anemones.
Lee’s team states that the goal of the experiment is to create transgenic dogs to help model human diseases. Dogs are commonly used in comparative medicine studies. Humans and dogs share many physiological similarities and we suffer from a lot of the same diseases. The genetic bottlenecks common in purebred dogs combined with the terabytes of data obtained from the dog genome study have made studies on dogs vital in identifing genes that cause diseases in both species.
Lee’s team created Ruppy [short for ruby puppy] by first infecting dog fibroblast cells with a virus that inserted the fluorescent gene into a cell’s nucleus. They then transferred the fibroblast’s nucleus to another dog’s egg cell, with its nucleus removed. After a few hours dividing in a Petri dish, researchers implanted the cloned embryo into a surrogate mother.
Starting with 344 embryos implanted into 20 dogs, Lee’s team ended up with seven pregnancies. One fetus died about half way through term, while an 11-week-old puppy died of pneumonia after its mother accidentally bit its chest. Five dogs are alive, healthy and starting to spawn their own fluorescent puppies, Ko says.
Besides the low efficiency of cloning – just 1.7 per cent of embryos came to term – another challenge to creating transgenic dogs is controlling where in the nuclear DNA a foreign gene lands. Lee’s team used a retrovirus to transfer the fluorescent gene to dog fibroblast cells, but they could not control where the virus inserted the gene.
Creating transgenic dogs is difficult, expensive, time-consuming and highly controversial and the jury is still out on whether this work will lead to the development of viable laboratory populations or not. It’s not entirely new work. Ruppy and her kin aren’t the first fluorescent transgenic animals created in the laboratory. Scientists have already produced glowing bacteria, bollworms, fruit flies, mosquitoes, zebra fish, chickens, mice, rabbits, cats, pigs, cows – and even a monkey.
Fluorescence has become the standard marker in transgenic work because it gives scientists a simple way to verify that gene insertion was successful. The first flourescent transgenic animals were worms and bacteria created in at Columbia University in 1994. Thinkness writes:
These fluorescent creations, colorfully illustrating one of science’s hottest topics, are well tailored for consumption by the mainstream media. Eduardo Kac claimed to have created “transgenic art” by adopting a glowing rabbit, and his manipulated photos of the bunny he named Alba appeared in news stories around the world. The GloFish, which also borrowed its “Glo” from the jellyfish, drew similar attention when it went on sale last year as the world’s first transgenic pet.
Despite its absurd appearances, the glowing creature is a bona fide scientific revelation, one of genetic engineering’s most valuable tools. Researchers consistently rave about its performance as a transgenic marker. Moreover, they appreciate that it frees them just a bit from the most rigorous demands of research. All humans are, to some extent, natural scientists, relying heavily on sight to collect data from our environs. Professional scientists, however, must often overpower their eyes’ innocent observations with a relentless rationality. When working with fluorescent animals, they are able to act a little more like the rest of us, more like children playing with fireflies – they can once again goggle at something amazing, and know for a moment that seeing really is believing.
Kac’s kitschy art project and the idea of pet GloFish concern me. Given our human fascination with odd and unusual animals I’m more than a little concerned that if they become cheaper and easier to create, transgenic pets will become all the rage. In a world where many people lust for the biggest, smallest, most bizarrely marked or extremely built dogs – even when the traits that make these animals “special” come at a terrible cost – I’m afraid that glow-in-the-dark beagles could all too easily become the next yuppie status dog.
As for me – when I want to “goggle at something amazing” I’ll go watch the fireflies dance in the willows near the creek. And, ignoring of the whims of fashion, I’ll stick with the wonderfully unremarkable purpose-bred dogs I share my home with.
Despite her penchant for basking in the sun I’ve discovered that Zip isn’t a reptile after all.
Keeping warm isn’t the only reason lizards and other cold-blooded critters bask in the sun. According to a study published in the May/June issue of Physiological and Biochemical Zoology, chameleons alter their sunbathing behavior based on their need for vitamin D.
“It’s a longstanding assumption that thermoregulation is the only reason that lizards bask,” says Kristopher Karsten, a biologist at Texas Christian University who led the study. “Our results suggest that in addition to thermoregulation, vitamin D regulation appears to have a significant impact on basking behavior as well.”
Chameleons, like humans and most other vertebrates, get vitamin D in two ways: They can absorb it from food, and they can produce it in their skin. In order to produce vitamin D, however, the skin must be exposed to UV radiation.
But – unlike most of her vertebrate cousins Mrs. Zippy can’t synthesize vitamin D3 by basking in the sun. Like all dogs and cats Zip has to get her vitamin D from eating meat, fish, egg yolks or additives in commercial pet food.
Vitamin D isn’t a single chemical, it’s a group of compounds that can be synthesized in most animals’ bodies from a parent compound that’s structurally similar to cholesterol. In fact – today many scientists recognize the biologically active form of vitamin D as a type of steroid hormone (a seco-steriod) rather than a vitamin.
Pro-vitamin D3 or 7-dehydrocholesterol is produced in relatively large quantities in the skin of vertebrate animals like humans, sheep, cattle, horses and poultry. When the skin of these animals is exposed to sunlight, the 7-dehydrocholesterol in their epidermal and dermal cells absorbs ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation and a series of chemical changes resulting in the formation of pre-vitamin D3 are triggered. Pre-vitamin D3 is thermodynamically unstable and it spontaneously breaks down into the far more thermodynamically stable vitamin D3 structure. Vitamin D3 is a prohormone, not nutritionally important on its own. It has to be metabolized into other active forms in the liver and kidneys. Thirty-seven forms of Vitamin D3 have been isolated and characterized.
Unlike humans and chameleons, the skin of dogs and cats doesn’t produce significant quantities of pre-vitamin D3 when it’s exposed to UVB radiation. Their skin contains much lower concentrations of 7-dehydrocholesterol than the skins of species that can synthesize vitamin D so they need to fultill their need for vitamin D3 nutritionally, not through thermoisomerisation.
Some researchers have hypothesized that carnivores like dogs and cats evolved without the need to produce their own vitamin D because the fat, liver and blood of their prey fulfilled their needs adequately. Vitamin D is also present in commercial dog foods, fish, egg yolks and fortified dairy products – so even if they don’t eat raw fat, liver and blood; most modern dogs still get plenty of vitamin D in their diet. And because the dietary forms of vitamin D are very stable, fat soluble and easily stored in the body, deficiencies typically only develop when an animal either eats an extremely restricted diet or has a metabolic disorder.
Vitamin D was classified as a vitamin in a somewhat ironic turn of history. In 1920 Sir Edward Mellanby conducted research on rickets using dogs. Mellanby fed the dogs a diet consisting only of oat porridge (the staple food of his Scottish homeland at the time). The dogs developed rickets while on the oats-only diet and Mellanby was able to cure them by adding cod-liver oil to their diet. He assumed that the substance that cured the dogs of rickets was a vital nutritional compound present in the cod-liver oil and he referred to it as “vitamin D”.
Scientists later discovered that vitamin D can be consumed in the diet or produced naturally by our skin when it’s exposed to sunlight. Though Mellanby’s dogs were raised in an indoor laboratory away from sunlight, we now know that this wasn’t a significant factor in his research. Mellanby’s findings were somewhat ironic because – unlike other vitamins – vitamin D can be synthesized in the bodies of most animals and because the species he selected for his research was one of only a few species that isn’t able to synthesize the vitamin D on its own.
So, unlike a chameleon, Zip doesn’t bask to generate vitamin D. She’s just an Australian sun goddess.
The brilliant minds at PeTA took another giant step toward irrelevance this week. Apparently having temporarily run out of fur coats to dump fake blood on and hot chicks to film in abstruse, sexually provocative ads — the group is now threatening NASCAR fans’ God-given right to dance.
Yes my friends, PeTA wants us to boycott the Chicken Dance at Talladega Superspeedway — an attempt to set a world record for the most people doing America’s Favorite Dance in one spot at the same time.
Thousands of people simultaneously doing the chicken dance at a NASCAR event – how utterly horrific.
Or maybe not…
Are Ingrid et al. incensed because the Chicken Dance represents a shallow, speciesist mockery of galline lifestyles? Is PeTA concerned that vibrations generated by thousands of waggling NASCAR butts will attract flocks of bait-seeking worm charmers to Talledega where they can make a killing harvesting hordes chicken dancing annelids? Are they worried that the hot, carbon-dioxide saturated exhalations of throngs of over-weight, out of shape, beer-guzzling fans will trigger a surge of polar ice melting? No – our friends over at PeTA are madder than wet hens because the Great Talledega Chicken Dance is sponsored by Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Now mind you, I’ m no fan of factory farmed chicken. Or of battery eggs. I’m just amused (and a bit pleased) to observe that these days it appears that the folks at PeTA seem to be capable of little more than mindless, incessant fishing for media attention. And the stunts they employ get more outrageous – and more pointless – by the day. Are they morphing into:
Pathetic Egomaniacs Targeting Anonymity?
I can hope…
Feral dogs in Moscow adapt to a commuter lifestyle from English Russia via natureblog. Go to the link at English Russia for some fascinating information on how these dogs are adapting to changing urban conditions.
Old news but new to us – The UK’s Telegraph reported back in 2007 that a miniature wire-haired dachshund named Daisy dug up the leg bone from a woolly mammoth when her owner took her for a morning walk while on a beach holiday in Suffolk.
The dog’s owner, Dennis Smith, 69, dug it out of the sand and later showed it to a geologist who identified it as part of a leg from a mammoth that probably roamed the area up to two million years ago.
The 13 in bone is believed to have been uncovered by heavy seas that battered the Suffolk coast and washed away sand that may have covered it for centuries.
Yesterday the Telegraph reported this story about a retired doctor who has trained wo generations of wild foxes to stand up and beg for food. Cute – but not a particularly good idea. Taming wild animals all too often leads to unneccessary troubles for two- and four-leggers.