Trap-Jaw Ants

Can you jump over 100 feet in the air? Neither can I. But trap-jaw ants can perform the equivalent feat. With their mouths. This video (complete with protractor!) demonstrates these amazing insects in action, using their jaws to propel themselves great distances.

From the YouTube post:

This has to be one of the oddest (and strangely mesmerizing) things on the net: ants flying through the air in extreme slow motion propelled by the rapid closing of their jaws. All set to a very peculiar sound track. The ant at the top of the image above is cart-wheeling its way over the other two.

What are the other ants thinking while they watch this? Does this hurt the ant? I’m convinced that many animals have cognition. But insects? Is this all reflex? What’s going on here?

(Read more about trap-jaw ants in this article.)

The Cat Who Was Raised by a Crow (Extended Version)

Last fall I shared a two-minute video of the cat who was raised by a crow. Diane recently left a comment pointing to a longer video with a more complete story on this unlikely friendship:

There is nothing I like more than stories of interspecies friendship. I love the idea that different kinds of animals can communicate and empathize with one another. Great stuff.

Lost Parrot Gives Its Name and Address

It has been a long time since I posted here. It’s not for lack of material. Animal Intelligence doesn’t have a lot of readers, but you few brave souls continue to send me good stories.

For example, here’s a story about Yosuke the Japanese parrort. When Yosuke escaped from his cage, he was able to return home because he knew his address. From the CNN story:

“I’m Mr. Yosuke Nakamura,” the bird told the veterinarian, according to Uemura. The parrot also provided his full home address, down to the street number, and even entertained the hospital staff by singing songs.

“We checked the address, and what do you know, a Nakamura family really lived there. So we told them we’ve found Yosuke,” Uemura said.

The Nakamura family told police they had been teaching the bird its name and address for about two years.

This instance may or may not be indicative of animal intelligence, but it’s still a fun story. I grew up around birds, and I know they’re smart. Once our yellow-naped Amazon flew from one end of the house to the other and crashed into the piture window at full speed, falling to the ground stunned. I rushed over to see him stand up, shake his feathers, and announce, “That was fun.” To this day I have no idea if he had any idea what he was saying. (I had also taught him to say “I’m Superman” but that phrase wasn’t appropriate to the situation.)

[CNN: Lost parrot gives vet his name and address]

Animals and Perceptions of Reality

When I was a kid, we used to try to fool our dog, Hairy. We’d make a stuffed dog “growl” and “bark” at him. Hairy was always game, responding to the play with growls and barks of his own, but I’ve always wondered just what his thought process was. Did he understand it was play? (And it’s obvious that animals enjoy play.) Did he on some level believe the stuffed dog was a real dog?

Modern technology makes such questions even trickier. Here, via Boing Boing, is a video of a real dog reacting to a $15 battery-operated toy.

I find it unlikely that the real dog — Isabel — would believe she were encountering another animal. For one thing, the toy isn’t going to possess the scent of a living creature. For another, its “bark” sounds artificial. But what does Isabel think? She’s fascinated by the interloper, but what is her perception of it?

On a similar note, my wife gave me a fake crow for Christmas last year. (Yes, I’m serious.) It’s not a real crow, and it doesn’t even have real feathers, but it certainly looks real. Its wings are spread wide, and if I swoop it around the room, the cats get tense. “Why is there a crow in the house?” they seem to say. One of the cats runs like hell. The others wonder if they might not be able to catch the crow.

When its not tormenting my animals, the fake crow lives on one of our windows. One of our cats — Max — periodically attempts to examine the crow. He’s very curious about it, but since it’s out of his reach, he feels thwarted.

How does this fake crow affect my cats’ views of the real crows outside?

I wish there were a way to get deeper inside animal minds.

The Dog, the Cat, and the Rat

By far my favorite aspect of animal intelligence are the stories of interspecies friendships. A goat that hangs out with tiger cubs? A pig that befriends a bear? A moose and a tern who are inseparable? These sorts of things make my day. I want to believe that on some level, all animals are capable of empathy with other animals. (I realize that I may be stretching things there, but that’s okay. I’m aware of my weakness in this area.)

Therefor, I love this video:

Here we have a dog. And a cat. And a rat. The three of them live in what seems to be perfect harmony. “The dog raised the cat,” says Greg, the animals’ owner. “That’s her puppy.”

I love how these animals seem to want to be around each other. They huddle together (probably out of fear, it’s true — they’re in a downtown area), they groom each other.

It’d be great to find more videos like this…

Squirrel Smarts (Times Two)

Here’s one a couple months old. The 20 January 2008 edition of the Toronto Star reported on two new stuides about the brains of squirrels.

First, from the journal Animal Behaviour (which sounds like something I need to be reading!), biologist Michael Steele at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania has been examining how squirrels cache nuts. Apparently, they’re concerned enough about theft to “fake it” sometimes:

While the furry-tailed creatures made a show of digging a hole in the ground and covering it with dirt and leaves when watched, one time out of five they were faking and nothing was buried. The proportion of phony caching increased after the squirrels saw their morsels being filched by undergrads who had kept a keen watch on where the nuts were really buried. Steele speculates that the squirrel brains have an inkling about the intention to steal, by either two- or four-legged thieves.

The second study is interesting, too. Some squirrels in the southwestern part of the United States are bitter enemies with the rattlesnake. Their bodies provide some defense (they can tolerate snake venom), but according to specialist like the SEQ Snake Catchers they’ve also developed special behaviors to avoid being attacked in the first place:

Animal-behaviour researcher Barbara Clucas, at the University of California, Davis, investigated how squirrels employ false scent to reduce detection in the first place.Scientists had already discovered that squirrels will chew on discarded rattlesnake skins and then vigorously lick their fur, effectively applying an olfactory camouflage.

This might have been a way to repel fleas or drive away other squirrels. In the current issue of the Royal Society’s Proceedings B, Clucas and colleagues ruled out these two possibilities. By recording the rate of tongue flicking, they showed that rattlesnakes were more attracted to squirrel scent on its own than to squirrel scent combined with their own snaky scent.

“Snaky scent” — ha!

[Toronto Star: A week’s worth of science news — Squirrel Smarts]

Monkeys May Possess Rich Vocabulary

A recent Discovery News article indicates that some primates may have a richer vocabulary than previously believed — but that their language may just take an unfamiliar form. Author Jennifer Viegas writes:

While such syntax-like behavior has been described in other species, such as whales and dolphins, the new findings are the first to clearly demonstrate the skill in a non-human primate.

“What our research shows is that individual calls do not carry any specific meanings, but different call sequences do,” co-author Klaus Zuberbuhler told Discovery News.

“So, for example, a series of hacks almost certainly indicates the presence of a crowned eagle, whereas a series of hacks preceded by 1 to 2 pyows reliably indicates that the caller is about to start traveling away,” added Zuberbuhler, who is a researcher in the School of Psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

The article describes the study’s method, which consisted of researches playing recorded calls and observing the results. I’m fascinated how our own preconceptions about language play into studies like this. It’s easy for humans to observe other animals and conclude that no language-based communication is occurring — it doesn’t resemble our language after all! But our lack of comprehension does not necessarily imply a lack of language.

[Discovery News: Monkey vocab richer than thought]

A Cold Shower: More Elephants in Love

In an older post about elephants in love, Lynne shared the following story. With her permission, I’m posting it as an entry.

I volunteered at a zoo back in the 1970’s doing animal behavior observations with elephants and others.  I spent one hour each week observing and recording what I saw.

One week I watched the herd bull and a young cow who had never been pregnant. It was hoped that would soon change, so the two were cooped up in the viewing rooms of the barn to get acquainted and do the deed.  The youngster was utterly disinterested.  The bull was gentle, interested, and persistent, using his trunk to stroke her and sniff her.  Repeatedly, she simply moved off to the other side of the room.  Nothing more happened in that hour. 

The next week, I observed the same two animals plus another female. My supervisor told me the new animal was an experienced female who understood sex, and who might be able to teach the reluctant youngster a thing or two.  This ‘older woman’ flirted w/ the bull unashamedly.  The bull immediately responded. The two stood face to face, trunks stroking, exploring, and sniffing each other’s bodies.  The reluctant youngster simply watched from across the room. She seemed to be glaring, but I think it was her constant slight agitation that made me think that.

She stood beside an enormous metal chain with a ring on the end, which hung from the roof.  This chain could be pulled by the elephants at any time to activate a carwash that had been installed in their doorway.  The elephants could then give themselves a shower whenever they wanted.  The reluctant youngster never left the immediate area of the chain.  She stood watching intently as the happy couple petted and rumbled and attempted to copulate.  As soon as the couple neared the doorway, the youngster pulled the chain dousing them both with cold water, and the five foot erection would disappear.  

She did this 3 times during my hour of observation.  I couldn’t believe my eyes. The zoo patrons were pretty amazed too.  It was interesting to see the women going up close to watch, giggling and talking to one another.  The few men who came in abruptly left without a word. 

On the following week, the experienced ‘older woman’ was gone.  Little Miss Reluctance and the bull were happily groping each other and ignoring the crowd of interested visitors.

Some Fish Can Count

Elaine sent me more evidence of fish intelligence. Researchers have discovered that certain fish can count. But only up to four. According to the London Telegraph:

Previously it was known that fish could tell big shoals from small ones, but researchers have now found that they have a limited ability to count how many other fish are nearby. This means that they have similar counting abilities to those observed in apes, monkeys and dolphins and humans with very limited mathematical ability.

Christian Agrillo, an experimental psychologist at the university of Padua in Italy said: “We have provided the first evidence that fish exhibit rudimentary mathematical abilities.”

Last year, he and his colleagues showed that if a female mosquito fish is harassed by a male, she will try to avoid his attentions by seeking solace in the largest nearby shoal; demonstrating that the fish can tell bigger shoals from smaller ones. The team first conducted a series of experiments to see whether a lone mosquito fish would prefer to join a shoal of between two and four others.

This article is fascinating because it describes the notion of numbers, not just among animals, but among non-mathematical humans.

[London Telegraph: Fish can count to four — but no higher]

Moko, the Heroic Dolphin

“You’re home blogging full-time now,” a friend wrote me recently. “Does that mean there’s a chance you’ll revive Animal Intelligence? Again?” Why sure!

A couple of people sent me this BBC News story about a New Zealand dolphin that helped to rescue a pair of beached whales. Due to copyright issues, I’ve been trying not to quote entire articles, but this one is so good that I’m going to make an exception:

A dolphin has come to the rescue of two whales which had become stranded on a beach in New Zealand. Conservation officer Malcolm Smith told the BBC that he and a group of other people had tried in vain for an hour and a half to get the whales to sea.

The pygmy sperm whales had repeatedly beached, and both they and the humans were tired and set to give up, he said. But then the dolphin appeared, communicated with the whales, and led them to safety.

The bottlenose dolphin, called Moko by local residents, is well known for playing with swimmers off Mahia beach on the east coast of the North Island. Mr Smith said that just when his team was flagging, the dolphin showed up and made straight for them.

“I don’t speak whale and I don’t speak dolphin,” Mr Smith told the BBC, “but there was obviously something that went on because the two whales changed their attitude from being quite distressed to following the dolphin quite willingly and directly along the beach and straight out to sea.”

He added: “The dolphin did what we had failed to do. It was all over in a matter of minutes.”

Mr Smith said he felt fortunate to have witnessed the extraordinary event, and was delighted for the whales, as in the past he has had to put down animals which have become beached.

He said that the whales have not been seen since, but that the dolphin had returned to its usual practice of playing with swimmers in the bay.

“I shouldn’t do this I know, we are meant to remain scientific,” Mr Smith said, “but I actually went into the water with the dolphin and gave it a pat afterwards because she really did save the day.”

This is one of my favorite animal intelligence stories ever. I love the interaction between the whales and humans, between dolphin and whales, and between humans and dolphin. I love that the locals know this dolphin. I love that the story involves one of the great animal mysteries: why do whales beach themselves? And, too, I love that Mr. Smith obviously has great respect and affection for Moko.

Animal Intelligence is back up and running. Again. Send me your stories!

[BBC: NZ dolphin rescues beached whales]