Category: Animal research

Zoo Animals and Their Discontents

The New York Times:

The notion that animals think and feel may be rampant among pet owners, but it makes all kinds of scientific types uncomfortable. “If you ask my colleagues whether animals have emotions and thoughts,” says Philip Low, a prominent computational neuroscientist, “many will drop their voices to a whisper or simply change the subject. They don’t want to touch it.” Jaak Panksepp, a professor at Washington State University, has studied the emotional responses of rats. “Once, not very long ago,” he said, “you couldn’t even talk about these things with colleagues.”

That may be changing. A profusion of recent studies has shown animals to be far closer to us than we previously believed — it turns out that common shore crabs feel and remember pain, zebra finches experience REM sleep, fruit-fly brothers cooperate, dolphins and elephants recognize themselves in mirrors, chimpanzees assist one another without expecting favors in return and dogs really do feel elation in their owners’ presence. In the summer of 2012, an unprecedented document, masterminded by Low — “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Human and Nonhuman Animals” — was signed by a group of leading animal researchers in the presence of Stephen Hawking. It asserted that mammals, birds and other creatures like octopuses possess consciousness and, in all likelihood, emotions and self-awareness. Scientists, as a rule, don’t issue declarations. But Low claims that the new research, and the ripples of unease it has engendered among rank-and-file colleagues, demanded an emphatic gesture. “Afterward, an eminent neuroanatomist came up to me and said, ‘We were all thinking this, but were afraid to say it,’ ” Low recalled.

The Emotional Lives of Dairy Cows

Wired:

Daniel Weary, an applied animal biologist at the University of British Columbia, and his colleagues have been working for decades to help improve the lives of dairy cattle. His practical studies have found ways to better feed and house cows and provided farmers with advice to help them decide the best practices for their animals — but he’s also demonstrated that dairy cows possess surprising intelligence and emotional sensitivity.

In a new study, Weary and his colleagues investigated how calves are affected by the emotional pain of separation from their mother and the physical pain of dehorning. The researchers found both types of pain can result in a negative cognitive bias similar to pessimism.

The Tears Of An Elephant

The Dish:

Yesterday, there was a strikingly good reported piece in the NYT magazine on thegrowing evidence that consciousness does not have some kind of radical break between humans and every other species on the planet. And by consciousness, at varying levels, I mean, for example, the ability to feel fear, or joy, or anxiety, or even grief. This is emphatically not about anthropomorphism. It’s about the reality of creation:

A profusion of recent studies has shown animals to be far closer to us than we previously believed — it turns out that common shore crabs feel and remember pain, zebra finches experience REM sleep, fruit-fly brothers cooperate, dolphins and elephants recognize themselves in mirrors, chimpanzees assist one another without expecting favors in return and dogs really do feel elation in their owners’ presence. In the summer of 2012, an unprecedented document, masterminded by Low — “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Human and Nonhuman Animals”[PDF] — was signed by a group of leading animal researchers in the presence of Stephen Hawking. It asserted that mammals, birds and other creatures like octopuses possess consciousness and, in all likelihood, emotions and self-awareness.

And then I come across this rather beautiful story about an elephant around my own age, captured in his infancy, chained and shackled his entire life, until he is released by an animal welfare group.

Inside the mind of the octopus

Orion Magazine:

Another measure of intelligence: you can count neurons. The common octopus has about 130 million of them in its brain. A human has 100 billion. But this is where things get weird. Three-fifths of an octopus’s neurons are not in the brain; they’re in its arms.

“It is as if each arm has a mind of its own,” says Peter Godfrey-Smith, a diver, professor of philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and an admirer of octopuses. For example, researchers who cut off an octopus’s arm (which the octopus can regrow) discovered that not only does the arm crawl away on its own, but if the arm meets a food item, it seizes it — and tries to pass it to where the mouth would be if the arm were still connected to its body.

“Meeting an octopus,” writes Godfrey-Smith, “is like meeting an intelligent alien.” Their intelligence sometimes even involves changing colors and shapes. One video online shows a mimic octopus alternately morphing into a flatfish, several sea snakes, and a lionfish by changing color, altering the texture of its skin, and shifting the position of its body. Another video shows an octopus materializing from a clump of algae. Its skin exactly matches the algae from which it seems to bloom — until it swims away.