Newsletter December 2018

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December 2018

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How Does Kelly the Elephant Eat Her Breakfast Cereal? Science Wants to Know

An elephant’s trunk is a fascinating appendage with a plethora of unique uses including smelling, touching, picking things up, drinking, painting pictures, and even eating breakfast cereal. Scientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology recently conducted a study investigating the technique that one elephant uses to pick up cereal and other treats with her trunk. The results could lead to the development of future robots that grip things like sand and gravel more efficiently.

The subject of this study was Kelly, an African elephant who got to participate by eating tasty treats all summer. Scientists visited Kelly at her home in Zoo Atlanta in order to observe how she would pick up tiny, granular materials such as wheat bran. They also brought her carrots and rutabagas, chopped into cubes of various sizes. After many trials and many snacks, the team of researchers measured the amount of force Kelly’s trunk exerted while picking up each pile of cereal or vegetables.

To eat the cereal, Kelly pushed her trunk down over the pile and pinched the tip of her nose shut. She then carried the cereal in her trunk and put it directly in her mouth. However, to eat larger veggie pieces, Kelly wrapped the side of her trunk around them and scooped them into her mouth. This second strategy is akin to using the crook of your elbow to pick something up.

As it turned out, the clumping of the cereal into a lump that Kelly could grab took a lot more effort than it took her to scoop up the larger chunks. According to the force plate, the device measuring how much force Kelly used in each trial, the clumping process took about 40 newtons of force (about one-twentieth the average force humans exert when biting something), whereas scooping the larger chunks only took about 10 newtons.

The process of picking up piles of particles actually involves using friction, or the resistance between objects rubbing against each other. With enough friction, objects stop moving. Instead of sliding around on the table, the particles act more like one solid piece when pushed together in the way that Kelly did.

Additionally, the more particles that are lifted, the more force must be used. This is because with fewer pieces, there are fewer spots for friction, so it is not necessary to press as hard. However, with cereal, there are many places for grain to slip free, so Kelly had to apply much more pressure.

As a result of the study, scientists found that elephant trunks are even more versatile than they previously knew. The pinching tactic that elephants like Kelly use to pick up and eat piles of smaller objects can be used to implement more effective robots in the future. Because granular materials such as small piles of cereal are difficult to work with, the findings of this study will be particularly useful.

Who would have thought that humans would be looking to elephants to learn how to build the most effective robots? Researchers in this study point out that working with animals allows humans to be creatively inspired. While a person might think of using a dustpan and broom to pick up a pile of granular materials, an elephant like Kelly wouldn’t have that option. Instead, they would solve the problem creatively and provide different ideas on how to find a solution.

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Therapy Animals Who Deserve an Award

1.     Rapunzel the Guinea Pig

As one of only 29 guinea pigs in the United States certified for animal-assisted therapy, Rapunzel the guinea pig has an important job to do in Edgewood, Kentucky. Certified a few months ago, Rapunzel visits the hospital with her owner, Heather Hauser during the holiday season to bring cheer to chemotherapy patients.  

Rapunzel was the first guinea pig to be certified for AAT in the Tri-State, and she is more than living up to the job. Patients in the hospital thoroughly enjoy the long-haired coronet guinea pig’s visits. Nurses comment that Rapunzel’s visits are good for everybody, and that they bring job and comfort to those who get to spend time with her.

Petting a soft animal is a perfect distraction for those going through a difficult and stressful time, and Rapunzel is the perfect pet to be there for those in need.

2.     Rojo the Llama and Napoleon the Alpaca

Vancouver, Washington is home to some one of a kind therapy animals as well. At Mountain Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas, Rojo the llama and Napoleon the alpaca are bringing joy to local hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and schools. Rojo is among only 14 llamas registered as therapy animals in the U.S. The team at Mountain Peaks Therapy has made over 1,500 therapy visits since Rojo was certified in 2007.

Rojo and Napoleon have interacted with over 10,000 people each year through their therapy work, and continue to be recognized in news and media. You can visit their website here. In their visits to schools and hospitals, they help patients and students feel less lonely and provide a glimmer of hope during what can often be a difficult time.

3.     Spartacus the Akita Therapy Dog

After the tragedy that struck Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, over fifty therapy dogs came to the school to provide comfort and support to students and community members. However, one in particular stood out. Spartacus, an Akita therapy dog, with his owner Brad Cole, helped students heal and feel comfort during an incredibly dark time.

Spartacus made a meaningful impact on many individuals and as a result of his efforts Connecticut government officials passed a new law requiring victims to have access to a therapy dog within 24 hours of a crisis. In the midst of terrible tragedy, the presence of a loving and supporting canine friend can truly make a world of difference, as Spartacus does every day.

4.     Buttercup the Pig

Buttercup is a 70-pound miniature Vietnamese pot-bellied pig with a knack for helping children with special needs. She travels to different schools in San Francisco, California to encourage kids to come out of their shells and feel more comfortable interacting with other. Buttercup’s owner, Lois Brady, is a speech pathologist who assists children during their visits as well. Children who might otherwise be afraid are encouraged to improve their social skills when interacting with Buttercup. Her calming presence puts everyone at ease and helps children break down boundaries every day.

Why Do Cats Love Catnip?

Catnip is well known for its effects on cats, as it often causes them to enter “intoxicated” states. A simple YouTube search will reveal the wacky effects that cats experience when around this substance. But what is it about catnip that makes cats go crazy? Researchers have been exploring this phenomenon and its potential effects for life-saving research.

Catnip is a plant native to Africa, Europe and Asia, and it can also be found throughout North America. Around the world, there are more than 250 species of catnip. It grows up to three feet tall, and produces flowers in blue, white, pink, or purple.

The reason that catnip creates such a reaction in cats is because the leaves and stems of the plant produce the chemical nepetalactone. Nepetalactone triggers the state of “high” in cats because it sets in motion a chain of events that scientists did not previously understand, stimulating the cats’ pheromones.

The result of this chemical reaction gives cats a sense of euphoria or overwhelming happiness. When cats smell catnip, they will often paw at it, rub it, roll over it, lick it, and even chew it. The effect wears off after only a few minutes, but two hours later cats may smell catnip again and have the same reaction.

This video displays some of the effects of catnip on cats.

Not all cats react this way to catnip. In fact, scientists estimate only about 50 to 75 percent of cats are affected by it, with the youngest and oldest cats least likely to be affected. It is believed that whether a cat reacts to catnip is hereditary. As a result, most Australian cats are not affected by it. However, some big cats such as lions, tigers and leopards, react to it as well.

Researchers believe that understanding the production of the chemical in catnip, nepetalactone, can lead to significant improvements in medicine. For one thing, understanding nepetalactone could help scientists understand the way that plants synthesize chemicals such as vinblastine, which is used for chemotherapy. Understanding this process could help scientists create medicines more quickly and efficiently than they are currently able to do.

Catnip’s chemical, nepetalactone, is part of a group of chemicals called terpenes. Terpenes are found in plants such as peppermint, and are usually formed by a single enzyme. In catnip, however, terpenes are formed in a two-step process: an enzyme activates a precursor compound, which is then grabbed by a second enzyme to produce the substance.

Scientists have never previously observed this two-step process. However, they anticipate that a similar process occurs in the synthesis of the anti-cancer drugs vincristine and vinblastine. Dr. Benjamin Lichman, who has conducted this research on nepetalactones, notes that catnip performs very unusual chemical processes, and that these processes can help science create compounds that can be used to treat diseases such as cancer.

Nepetalactones also have potential use in agriculture because they participate in interactions between plants and insects. Future work will further investigate the effects that nepetalactones and related chemicals have in plants.

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Excuse Me, Do You Speak Whale?

It is well known that intelligent animals including whales communicate with each other through sounds that mimic languages. But did you know that some groups of short-finned pilot whales even have their own dialects? Just as different groups, cities, or regions of humans have distinct accents and dialects, these whales have developed their own versions of a common language as well, depending on the group they belong to. This discovery demonstrates the complex social structure that these animals have, and the deep intelligence that they possess.

The Woods Hold Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) found that groups of short-finned pilot whales living off the coast of Hawaii all use the same habitat, but have different sets of vocal sounds that they use to communicate. Scientists believe that this indicates the whales are purposely not associating with others outside of their groups.

This new discovery is particularly fascinating because of the fact that relatively little is known about the social structures of pilot whales. They are understudied due to the fact that Hawaii is one of the only locations in the U.S. where they can be accessed easily.

Previous studies of these whales allowed scientists to determine the basic social groups that the whales form: the smallest level has been termed a “unit,” which is made up of a small number of whales that are all directly related to each other. A group of these units is known as a “cluster,” which is a slightly larger group comprised of extended family members. Multiple clusters come together form what has been termed a “community” of many pilot whales.

Most recently, researchers recorded the calls of pilot whales with a special underwater microphone and took genetic samples from each of the whales. After all of the recordings had been collected, scientists sorted each call into groups of the same “dialect.” If two groups sounded similar to each other, researchers could determine that they communicated to each other regularly, using similar areas for living or hunting.

By organizing whale calls into these groups, scientists can understand the social ties between different groups as well as the genetic diversity and evolution of the species. Conservationists believe this is particularly important because it shows that pilot whales must be conserved at the family level due to the high level of similarity in genes between children and parents, but the great genetic diversity across an entire population.

Pilot whales are not currently endangered, but they still face many threats in the wild. They are hunted in many countries, and may be sensitive to human-made noise in the ocean. Pilot whales can often be mass stranded on the beach because an entire social group will become stranded together. This often happens if the leader of the group beaches itself; the social ties among the group are so strong that all the other whales in the group will beach themselves as well.

With the help of this and similar research, scientists hope to conserve these intelligent animals and continue to learn more about their complicated and in-depth social structures.

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