February 2016 Newsletter

 February 2016

Animals Telling Time

If you’re a dog owner, you’ve probably noticed that your dog has a sense of what time it is, or at least what event is coming next in the schedule. If it’s time for dinner, your pet will know, and make sure you don’t forget! But can dogs really tell time? How do they know when to expect food, bedtime, or a walk? Unlike humans, they do not construct artificial measures of time such as seconds, minutes and hours. 5:30pm has no meaning to a dog. Nevertheless, dogs can anticipate future events and predict when they will happen.


It is widely debated among scientists whether animals can tell time the way that we do. Some speculate that dogs and other animals may be able to tell time of day based on the position of the sun or other factors. Other theories lie in the type of memory that animals have. Humans are able to tell time because of episodic memory; we remember specific events, and their temporal relations to other events. It was previously believed that only humans had episodic memory, and that this was part of what separated us from other animals. However, recent research has suggested that other animals such as dogs may have episodic memories as well.


In fact, it has been demonstrated that apes, monkeys, rats, bees, and some birds, such as crows, have episodic memory. They can perform mental time travel by thinking about an event and recalling where it occurred and what was happening. This ability is also referred to as a “www” memory, standing for where, what, when. This can be tested very easily. An animal is presented with two opaque jars, one containing a non-perishing snack such as a grape, and the other containing something that will be gone quickly like a frozen cube of juice that will melt. The animal has the opportunity to open one of the jars after five minutes, and the other jar after an hour. After doing this test a few times, the animal will realize that they must open the perishing food first, or it will be gone later. This demonstrates that the animal has “www” memory: what: a tasty treat; where: inside the jar; when: within five minutes.


Rats have “www” memory to an extent. One study was done with rats to determine whether they could measure how much time had passed between events and whether they could determine time of day. The first test taught rats that cheese would appear in a certain leg of a maze at four-hour intervals. Once the rats learned this, they would rush to that part of the maze after four hours, expecting the treat. They could tell when four hours had passed. However, when the cheese appeared at a certain time of day, rats did not go to the cheese at that same time the next day. So they can judge how much time has passed, but not what time it is.


Though dogs can remember people and events, it is still up in the air whether or not they have true “www” memory. Examination of the canine mind, with respect to time, has really only taken place in the last 15 years; there is little to no data on whether dogs have “www” memories.


Though not proven, there are a few theories as to how dogs can tell when dinnertime will be each day. Some believe dogs’ sense of time comes from their circadian rhythm. Others believe that dogs look at shadows to determine time of day. One interesting theory is that dogs tell time using their sense of smell. For example, when you leave the house, your scent begins to disappear at a specific rate. If you have a fairly regular schedule, your dog may be able to predict that you are coming home when your scent drops to a certain level.


Watch a test of this theory and the interesting results


Though we do not have a clear answer currently, studies of the canine mind continue. Many animals have been studied for episodic memories in attempts to better understand the human memory. Soon we should have a better understanding of canine memories as well - it’s about time!


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Elephants Never Forget? Memory in Animals

You’ve probably heard the saying “Elephants never forget” at least a hundred times. Have you ever wondered whether it’s true? Actually, elephants have some of the best memories in the animal kingdom. They are also one of the most emotional animals, and their bonds with other elephants are…unforgettable. However, there are other animals with pretty amazing memories as well. So next time you’re at the zoo, pay more attention to your actions. They will not be forgotten!


Many animals have memories that are actually much more impressive than those of humans. For example, chimpanzees have eidetic memories. After seeing an image for just a few seconds, they can recall every detail. In one experiment, chimpanzees were given two seconds to look at a screen that displayed numbers in random positions like the image below. After only two seconds of viewing, they could recall the position of every number. In a similar experiment, humans achieved nowhere near the results of chimps, and decreased as the viewing time decreased. However, chimp scores did not change based on viewing time, indicating that they memorized the number positions in the first few seconds.


Watch the chimps in action


Chimps are not the only animals to knock humans out of the park with their memories. Sea lions have amazing long-term memories that allow them to learn and remember huge amounts of information. If you can remember the details of a typical day at school or work from ten years ago, you’re on par with a sea lion. But if not, humans have been beaten again. One sea lion named Rio was taught the concept of sameness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Ten years later, Rio was given a similar task, and answered correctly on the first try despite the fact that she had not done the task at all in those ten years in between. Scientists believe that this incredible long-term memory is helpful for sea lions that eat prey they only encounter once every few years.




One of the most impressive animals is the Clark’s nutcracker. Despite its odd name, this bird blows humans out of the water (out of the sky?). The Clark’s nutcracker has a hippocampus that continues producing neurons into adulthood; the hippocampus is the part of the brain associated with spatial memory. While the hippocampus fades with age in humans, it continues to grow in the nutcracker. What is the effect of this impressive hippocampus? The Clark’s nutcracker can remember the exact location of up to 30,000 pine nuts. On the other hand, can you even remember where your keys are? This bird doesn’t have to hunt for its hiding places in the winter. After it hides nuts during the fall, it knows exactly where to go to retrieve them.




Though many animals can beat humans endlessly at memory games, there are an equal number of animals that cannot remember as well as us. For example, dogs have very limited short-term memory. In fact, they can barely remember what happened to them two minutes ago, according to recent research. Rather than remembering specific events, dogs store important information learned from those events. This is why your dog remembers the command “sit” even though they may not remember the last time you asked them to sit and gave them a treat. They do not have the episodic memory that humans have, which allows us to remember specific events like where we parked the car or the fact that we have an appointment at 2pm.


Next time you think humans are the smartest animals, think about how you stack up to some of these memory geniuses. And if someone says you have a memory like an elephant…it’s probably not true.


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How Birds Learn to Sing


Have you ever considered how birds learn the beautiful songs they use to serenade the forest? Though they don’t take music lessons, many do go through a process of learning how and what to sing. While some birds are born with full adult repertoire, others learn by listening to a tutor when they are first born. While still in the nest, they listen to adults, and later begin trying to replicate the songs of others. Some songbirds, such as catbirds, thrashers, and mockingbirds, even learn to mimic other species.


Songbirds are different from other birds in that their songs are learned and more complex, whereas other bird species use vocalizations that are simpler and more instinctual. What’s more, they sing for different reasons. Singing is draining for birds, and often alerts predators to their whereabouts. So why do they do it? It is often used as a way to show off. In part, it is used to defend territories, but it is also a way of attracting mates. Each bird has a variety of songs and calls that they can use at different times depending on the situation. If you hear a bird singing in your backyard, it is most likely a male. Males use song more often to communicate with other birds. In contrast, females use short, quick calls. However, this rule is reversed in the tropics, where females often sing and birds will sometimes sing duets.


Songbirds are able to produce these sounds using a box called the syrinx. Not only does the syrinx allow them to make beautiful songs, it also lets them perform vocal gymnastics that human singers can only dream of. For example, songbirds can easily sweep through more notes than are on a keyboard in just a few seconds. Additionally, the branches of the syrinx are individually controlled, so a songbird can begin on one side of the syrinx and switch to the other without stopping for breath. Or if they wanted, they could sing two different notes at once with two different parts of the syrinx. This also means that they can sing an ascending pattern and a descending pattern at the same time. Not even Idina Menzel can do that!


Interestingly, songbirds develop local dialects just like humans. When bird populations are separated by geographic features such as mountains, bodies of water, or stretches of unsuitable habitat, they begin to develop distinct songs from other groups. These songs are passed down through generations so that after awhile, one group of the same species can sound completely different from another group in a different location.


One puzzling aspect of birdsong is the fact that many birds sing more intensely at dawn than any other time. Believe it or not, science has not found an explanation for this phenomenon. It is hypothesized that the increase in singing is due to males sending a warning to others, protecting their territory and mate. But why this occurs in the early morning is still unknown.


While birdsong may seem trivial, there are serious consequences to singing improperly. When songbirds are young, if they do not learn to mimic the songs of the adults around them, their songs will sound sloppy to other birds and chances are they will not mate. As a result, their genes will not be passed on to the gene pool. It seems that nature selects for beautiful music. For some bird species, certain traits of songs make them seem better or worse. Some species prefer tempo precision, while others prefer the ability to hit the same rhythm precisely over and over again. It has been suggested that these abilities indicate the singer is in good physical condition, although there is no definitive proof that this is true.


Though there are still a number of remaining questions about birdsong, songbirds are a beautiful and integral part of the outdoor world. There is more to birdsong than you may have thought, so the next time you hear the sounds of a bird calling out to his mate, listen carefully.

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Litter Training Unusual Pets


While nearly everyone with a cat or dog has litter or paper trained their pet, you may be surprised to learn that a number of other common animals can also be trained to use a litter box. You don’t want your pet to leave little presents around their enclosure for you to pick up. But how can you control where they go? Luckily, the process isn’t that different from housebreaking a cat or a dog.




Small animals like rabbits naturally leave droppings in the same place. Your job is simply to control where that place is. Observe where the animal usually does its business, and put the litter box there. Continue moving the box until the animal begins to leave droppings in it. Once the litter box is an established place that the animal consistently goes, if the animal begins to go somewhere else, you should gently say “no” and herd the animal towards the box. To prevent negative associations with the litter box, put something welcoming inside, such as a handful of hay for a rabbit. Praise the animal for using the box and reward it with a treat. The habit should start to form quickly. Try not to vary the box’s location in the cage once the animal uses it consistently, as this can throw them off.


Believe it or not, spaying or neutering a rabbit makes a difference in how easily they will adopt the litter box. If your rabbit is not spayed or neutered, their hormones will cause them to want to mark their territory and their droppings will be harder to control. While older rabbits are easier to train than younger rabbits, this does not mean that young rabbits can’t learn. It may help your rabbit while they are learning to have multiple litter boxes. As with cats, a change in the home, such as introducing a new pet, may cause your animal to begin urinating outside of the litter box. But after an adjustment period, they should be able to return to their old habit.



Guinea pigs are a little harder to train than rabbits. Realistically, if trained, they will go in their litter box the majority of their time but with a number of exceptions. Still, this is a good deal better than nothing and helps significantly with cleanup. Because guinea pigs can be territorial, they often scent mark around their cage. However, they will sometimes begin to go in the same corner routinely. This is when you can begin to put the litter box in the corner and train them. It will be most effective if you wait to see where their routine spot is, and then place the litter box in that corner rather than placing the litter box randomly and hoping they use it.


Fortunately, like rabbits, hamsters are much easier to litter train. These animals often prefer to do their business in the corner of their enclosure, so try a litter box that fits nicely into the corner. One strategy to help your hamster get the message is to take bedding that he has previously soiled, and put it in the litter box so that it smells like the hamster’s usual toilet. This will encourage the hamster to go where you want him to, in fact this works with many species.


Video on how to litter train hamsters


There are a variety of litters available at most pet stores. When choosing the right litter for your pet, be sure that it is safe for them. Some cat litters are okay for hamsters, such as wood and paper pellets. However, clay or crystal based litters, or clumping litters are not good for these smaller animals. Sand, Aspen, Aubiose, Megazorb, Carefresh, and shredded paper are some other good choices.


Though it may be frustrating at first, litter training is a great way to ensure that your pet’s home stays clean and fresh on a daily basis. It not only makes cleanup easier for you, but also creates a more sanitary home for your furry friend. Taking the time to litter train an animal shows that you truly care about your pet’s happiness and well being.


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