Monday, September 28, 2015

What Animals Contagiously Yawn?

Does this sight make you want to yawn?

A yawning Japanese macaque by Daisuke Tashiro at Wikimedia Commons.
Do you think it would make other animals want to yawn? Many animals yawn spontaneously, but yawning in response to sensing or thinking about someone else doing it may be a completely different thing. Contagious yawning requires a sense of social connection and emotional empathy that not all species share. So far, scientists have found experimental evidence of contagious yawning in humans, chimpanzees, domestic dogs (who interestingly yawn when people yawn, but not when other dogs do), and an abnormally yawny genetic line of rats. However, there have also been reports of bonobos, baboons, wolves, and budgerigars (small social parrots, also called budgies or parakeets) yawning contagiously in the wild, so this phenomenon may be more widespread than previously thought.

Andrew Gallup, Lexington Swartwood, Janine Militello and Serena Sackett from the State University of New York at Oneonta set out to experimentally test if budgerigars do in fact yawn contagiously. In one experiment, the researchers placed pairs of birds in separate adjacent cages with perches facing one another. They video recorded the birds both with an opaque barrier between them and without the opaque barrier. The researchers found that when the birds could see one another they were three times more likely to yawn within 5 minutes of the other bird yawning, although there was no difference in the overall number of spontaneous yawns.

Images of a yawning budgie from Gallup et al., 2015.
Next, the researchers decided to test if budgerigars contagiously yawn in response to videos of another budgerigar yawning. They played 10-minute videos of either yawning or non-yawning budgerigars on a laptop facing the birdcage. And who would have guessed that the budgies yawned twice as much in response to the yawning video than to the non-yawning video, showing that even our pet birds can get something out of watching TV!

Budgerigars are now the first non-mammalian species to display contagious yawning. Contagious yawning is not just interesting in itself, but it may also indicate a sense of empathy. Although we often limit our thinking of empathy to our own species, it makes sense to find empathetic behavior among social species like budgerigars. Now if we could just find more of it amongst our own species…

Want to know more? Check this out:

Gallup, A., Swartwood, L., Militello, J., & Sackett, S. (2015). Experimental evidence of contagious yawning in budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulatus) Animal Cognition, 18 (5), 1051-1058 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-015-0873-1

Monday, September 21, 2015

Science Beat: Round 5

Science concepts can be daunting at times… and sometimes they just make more sense with a beat. Try these science music videos on for size:


Cellular Respiration:

Anatomy and Physiology:

Vote for your favorite in the comments section below and check out other sciency song battles at Science Beat, Science Beat: Round 2, Science Beat: Round 3, Science Beat: Round 4, Science Song Playlist, The Science Life, 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!

Monday, September 14, 2015

5 Animal Species With Surprising Memories

We often think of animals as having hilariously short memories – the “memory of a goldfish”, if you will. But many animals have memories that can put yours to shame.

There are many different kinds of memory and each of them is controlled differently by different parts of the brain. Short-term memory can be thought of as the brain’s scratch pad: It holds a small amount of information for a short period of time while your brain decides whether it is worth retaining in long-term memory or if it can just fade away. When a short-term memory becomes a long-term memory, this process is called consolidation and involves physiological changes in the brain.

Long-term memory can be further divided into two main types: procedural memory and declarative memory. Procedural memory is used to remember how to do things and what objects are needed to do those things. Declarative memory is used for recall and can be further divided into memory used to recall facts (semantic memory) and events (episodic memory).Each of these different types of memories are stored in different parts of the brain. Furthermore, different types of facts (remembering faces versus numbers, for example) and different types of events (depending on if they have an emotional component or not, for example) are also stored in the brain differently. Because species differ in how we rely on our brains, it makes sense that this might be reflected in our abilities to remember in different ways.

So let’s check out some of the most amazing memories in the animal kingdom:

Do you know what all your kids and nieces and nephews are
doing right now? These elephants do. Photo by PJ KAPDostie
at Wikimedia.
1) They say an elephant never forgets. Elephants are very social animals that live in large stable herds. This has led to some incredible feats of social memory. They can keep track of the whereabouts of 30 group members at once and they can remember an animal they briefly met over 20 years ago. For an animal that lives about 50 or 60 years, this is very impressive. Elephants also have outstanding episodic memory: In 1993, Tarangire National Park in Tanzania suffered the worst drought that it had seen in 35 years. It was so severe that it killed 20% of elephant calves, compared to the average loss of about 2%. Of three herds that lived in the park in 1993, two of them were led by females that had lived during the severe droughts of 1958-61 and those herds left the park and were more successful at finding food and water. The herd that stayed was led by a younger female that had never experienced such a severe drought and that herd suffered 63% of the total mortality.

Dolphins never forget a name. Photo from the
NOAA Photo Library available at Wikimedia.
2) Bottlenose dolphins have even more incredible social memories. They, like elephants, live in complex social groups. Each dolphin has a unique whistle that it uses like a name. When they are played recordings of whistles of companions they lived with years or even decades earlier, they approach the speakers for longer than when they are played the whistles of dolphins they never met. The fact that they, like elephants, remember companions for over 20 years is much more impressive because their lifespan is only 40-50 years!

Sea lions can remember
meaningless tricks for years.
Photo by LSA2886 at Wikimedia.
3) Sea lions have amazing procedural memory. In 1991, marine biologists at the University of California, Santa Cruz, taught a California sea lion named Rio a card trick. They held up one card with a letter or number on it and another set of two cards: one that matched the first card and one that did not. Rio learned to pick the matching card to be rewarded with a fish. Everyone was impressed and she didn't do the trick again... until 10 years later, when researchers pulled out the cards and asked her to do it again. Rio had the same score in 2001 with no practice that she did in 1991 when she originally learned the trick!

Clark's nutcrackers can remember where they stashed
30,000 pine nuts.I can't even keep track of my keys.
Photo by Gunnsteinn Jonsson at Wikimedia.
4) Clark’s nutcrackers can remember the exact location of 30,000 pine nuts. This kind of superhero ability is born out of necessity: nutcrackers completely rely on their caches of food to get them through the winter. However, despite their amazing long-term spatial memory, their short-term memory is below average: they can’t even remember the color of a light for 30 seconds.

5) Chimpanzees can put your working memory to shame. Working memory is a form of short-term memory that is applied to a task. A group of researchers taught chimpanzees to do a task in which they were shown the numbers from 1-9 in random locations on a computer screen. When the numbers are covered, chimps can remember where each number was. Furthermore, they only need to see these randomly placed number for a few seconds to get this task correct. In comparison, only people that are considered savants have comparable abilities.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Dogs Have Co-opted Our Physiology to Win Our Hearts

Photo by Roberto Ferrari at Wikimedia Commons.
Why do we feel genuine love and friendship for our dogs? The social relationship between humans and dogs is not just special, it is downright AMAZING! Domestic dogs are the only species that we know of that will spontaneously respond to cooperative human gestures, such as pointing or gazing in a specific direction, without any training or prior experience. Wolves and even non-human great apes require extensive experience with people to understand these human gestures. Dogs, on the other hand, are so naturally in-tune with our gestures that they, like human children, are likely to interpret eye contact as communicative, even when it is not. New research has found that eye contact between ourselves and our canine companions may fuel an interspecies physiological feedback loop that keeps our two species living as best friends.

Today at Accumulating Glitches, I am exploring new research about how our four-legged best friends change our brain physiology so we will love and care for them more. Check out the full story here

And this is why we love our dogs so much:

Further reading:
MacLean, E.L. and Hare, B. Dogs hijack the human bonding pathway, Science, 438:6232, 280-281 (2015). DOI: 10.1126/science.aab1200

Nagasawa, M., Mitsui, S., En, S., Ohtani, N., Ohta, M., Sakuma, Y., Onaka, T., Mogi, K.., and Kikusui, T. Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds, Science, 438:6232, 333-336 (2015). DOI:10.1126/science.1261022