Newsletter January 2017

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 January 2017

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Animal Behavior Institute is proud to announce that it has earned the 2017 Military Friendly® School designation by Victory Media, publisher of G.I. Jobs®, STEM Jobs SM , and Military Spouse. First published in 2009, Military Friendly® Schools is the most comprehensive, powerful resource for veterans today. Each year, the list of Military Friendly® Schools is provided to service members and their families, helping them select the best college, university, or trade school to receive the education and training needed to pursue a civilian career. 

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The Noble Chicken

While many birds, such as parrots and ravens, are well known for their intelligence and problem solving skills, chickens are often thought of as clueless and “bird-brained.” However, chickens are actually extremely smart. A recent review published in the journal Animal Cognition covers the latest research in the psychology, behavior, and emotions of chickens. The review reveals that chickens have the ability to present distinct emotions, outmaneuver one another, have a sense of time, and even use deductive reasoning, a skill humans don’t develop until the age of seven. 

Like other intelligent animals, chickens have some degree of self-awareness. They can exercise self-control when holding out for a better reward, and can self-assess their position in the pecking order. They communicate through a combination of visual displays and vocalizations, which they use to sound an alarm to warn others. They even have different sounds to indicate land-based or air-based predators. Chickens can feel positive and negative emotions including fear, anticipation and anxiety, and they choose to act based on these emotions. Furthermore, chickens possess a simple form of empathy called emotional contagion. They exhibit empathy when they express concern for others. In one experiment, researchers exposed chickens to a puff of air, which caused their heart rates to increase. When mother hens were present for the exposure of their chicks to puffs of air, they showed signs of distress and concern. Therefore, researchers concluded that the hens were able to take on the perspective of another animal. Empathy is considered to be an advanced emotion; it is also possessed by cognitive giants such as elephants and primates.

One of chickens’ most impressive feats is their ability to perform basic math when they are newborns. At just five days old, chicks can add and subtract. This video shows a chicken doing basic arithmetic. As they grow up, they begin to gain even more skills. For example, chickens are able to remember the trajectory of a hidden ball for up to 180 seconds. This is similar to the performance of most primates under similar conditions. While it takes humans a full year to learn that an object that goes out of sight still exists, chickens are able to demonstrate this knowledge when they are extremely young. Chickens have also been known to deceive one another, a skill which requires in-depth thought processing. For example, submissive males will often court females while diverting attention away from a dominant male who might otherwise foil their plan.

Like humans, chickens can recognize and take cues from other birds. They look to their mothers for guidance and learn by watching them. Scientists have discovered that chicks are able to communicate with their mothers before they even hatch! What scientists call “stress peeps” indicate to mothers that the chicks are cold, letting her know it’s time to turn them over in the nest. A purring sound then lets the mother know that they’re comfortable. By the time they hatch, chicks are familiar with their mother’s voice, which they can distinguish from other chicken voices.

As chicks grow up, they learn important life skills from their mothers. A mother will teach her chicks how to forage and avoid predators. In one study, researchers taught a mother to eat red food and taught her chicks to eat blue food. Then, when put together, the mother began scratching, pecking and vocalizing to indicate to her chicks that they were eating the wrong food. Other studies have shown that chickens are also able to plan ahead and take into account prior knowledge of a situation. At just two weeks old, chickens are able to navigate using the sun. This requires them to consider the height and position of the sun on a particular day. Can you navigate using the position of the sun? If not, we hate to break it to you, but chickens may be smarter than you.

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Heroes of the Animal Kingdom

Not all heroes wear capes. In fact, some of them wear fur and fins. While most pet owners will testify to the kindness of their furry friends, these stories of animals rescuing humans are a testament to the lengths some animals are willing to go to in order to save a life.

Lulu the Potbellied Pig

Have you ever considered getting a pig as a pet? Neither did the humans in this story. But after Lulu saved her owner’s life, she quickly changed her mind. Lulu started out as a birthday gift to a girl that didn’t want her. Out of pity, the birthday girl’s mother took Lulu home, likely planning on having some extra ham for dinner. However, everything changed when Lulu’s new owner had a heart attack. Sensing trouble, Lulu immediately ran for help. Though she had never been outside of her fenced yard before, she somehow managed to escape. She ran to the nearest highway, where she laid down on the road to get the cars to stop. After 45 minutes, someone finally pulled over, followed Lulu back home, and called for help.

Mila the Beluga Whale

At the Polarland Aquarium in Harbin, China, Mila was one of two beluga whales that had front row seats to a diving contest. The aquarium held a free diving contest in the 20-foot-deep, freezing whale tank for seven divers with neither scuba nor snorkel equipment. You might be asking yourself why anyone would be willing to participate in this contest. The competitors were enticed with the opportunity to apply for a job as a whale trainer if they won. However, for one diver, it might not have been worth it. As she got to the bottom of the tank, her leg cramped up and she was unable to push back up to the top. She began to panic because, well, she was in freezing water with no breathing equipment. She likely would have drowned if it hadn’t been for Mila. Mila was intently watching the competition and immediately realized what was happening to the diver. Wasting no time, the whale grabbed the diver’s leg in her mouth and began pushing her forcefully towards the surface. Because of Mila’s rescue, the diver survived.

This news report covers Mila’s rescue.

Binti Jua the Gorilla 

The Brookfield Zoo in Illinois is home to a gorilla named Binti Jua, who was minding her own business one day when a three-year-old boy dropped 18 feet into her enclosure. The boy suffered a critical head injury from the fall and was knocked unconscious upon impact. In a moment of panic, police were barred from immediate action; gorillas can be unpredictable, especially when a foreign object enters their territory. However, observing the accident, Binti Jua came to the boy’s rescue. As if she somehow knew exactly what to do, the gorilla cradled the boy in her arms like a protective mother and brought him directly to her enclosure door, where she knew he could get help.

Dolphins to the Rescue

Adam had bigger issues on his mind as he took on an eight and a half hour swim across a freezing ocean in New Zealand. As if this challenge wasn’t enough, he soon realized he was accompanied by a two-meter long shark. Though this encounter could have been lethal for Adam, the shark never attacked him. Before the shark could do anything, a large pod of dolphins approached Adam and swam around him protectively, fending off the shark. In fact, the dolphins stayed by Adam’s side for over an hour as he finished the swim. One of them even brushed him with its tail!

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They Can't All Be Siberian Huskies: How to Keep Dogs Safe in the Snow

Your puppy might have been nervous the first time she saw snow, but she probably faced her fear and scampered playfully into they backyard after a little encouragement. This might lead you to believe that dogs don’t need your help when braving the icy weather. After all, your pup looked like she was having so much fun! However, you should always be aware of the dangers that winter weather can pose to dogs. Just like you, they sometimes need a little extra protection before going out in the snow and ice. 

If you’re going to take your dog on a walk in the winter, you should keep in mind that the weather is taxing on her body in all sorts of ways. As a result, winter walks should generally be shorter than usual walks. Additionally, you should make sure to keep your dog’s nails trimmed, especially in the winter. This will help your dog have better traction on the ice and keep her from sliding around or worse, slipping and falling. More importantly, snow, ice and salt can be extremely harmful to dog feet. To protect your dog’s paws, you can use boots, or simply put some petroleum jelly on the bottom of her feet before starting your walk. After the walk, check for ice between your dog’s toes and wipe her feet: ice and salt can dry out the pads on her paws, making them more likely to get cracked and irritated.

You should be especially mindful of your dog pulling on icy walks. If you have a dog that likes to pull when she gets excited, make sure you have her under control before embarking on a walk in winter wonderland. If your dog pulls and jerks on the ice, she could lose her balance and fall, or cause you to lose your balance and risk injury. Therefore, if your dog starts to pull during an icy walk, you should stop and ask her to sit. Make sure to maintain control and safety for both you and your pet.

Just like in the summer, you should never leave your dog alone in the car in extreme weather. The car can quickly turn into a refrigerator for a dog left alone without the heat on. In fact, dogs can freeze to death from being left in the car too long. Additionally, make sure to clean up chemicals such as antifreeze right away and keep them away from dogs. Your dog might like the taste, but these chemicals can be deadly for dogs if they swallow them. Another danger is that its easier for dogs to get lost in the winter than any other time of the year because the snow and ice can cover the familiar scents your dog might normally use to get back home. During the winter, keep an extra eye on your dog, and check her collar and tag to make sure that they are secure.

This video shows how people around the community are keeping their pets warm and safe.

You can also pay attention to your dog’s natural protection for the cold. If your dog has long hair, she will probably be willing to stay out longer than a shorthaired dog. If you are the owner of the latter, you might want to get her a coat or jacket for the outside. This can help keep dogs warm, especially in icy wind. However, just because your dog has a coat doesn’t mean they can be outside forever. Even with the jacket on, you should keep your dog indoors most of the time and limit walks to fifteen or twenty minutes. You should also be mindful of your dog’s skin. Like human skin, it can get drier and itchier in the winter. As a result, you should refrain from bathing your dog as much as you might in the summer months, since bathing strips away a dog’s natural oils. If you do give your dog a bath, make sure to use moisturizing shampoo.

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Creature Feature: Greenland Sharks

Creature Feature will be a regular column in the ABI Newsletter. Let us know if you have a suggestion for a creature you would like to learn more about!

The Greenland shark is one of the ocean’s lesser-known animals, probably because it falls far from the typical shark stereotype. It’s not fast and flashy like the great white shark, or quirky like the hammerhead shark, yet it does have some tricks up its sleeve. For instance, the Greenland shark lives between 400 and 500 years. This makes it the longest living vertebrate known to man. In fact, it is estimated that it takes 150 years for a Greenland shark to reach maturity and begin breeding. Just think – there are Greenland sharks swimming the oceans today that were around when Shakespeare was writing Hamlet!

And their long lifespan isn’t the only wacky fact that Greenland sharks have to bring up at parties. They also don’t behave like many of their fellow sharks. For one, Greenland sharks live in icy waters at temperatures of -2°C. Not only that, but they move extremely slowly compared to most other sharks. In fact, they have the slowest swim speed for their size of any fish species. They generally swim between .76mph and 1.6 mph. This is about half the average human walking speed of 3.1 mph.

As if this isn’t strange enough, Greenland sharks are also some of the deepest diving sharks; they have been observed as deep as 7,200 feet underwater! Because it dives at such depths, the Greenland shark has a huge concentration of trimethylamine N-oxide in its tissues. This makes its meat toxic; sled dogs that eat the meat of the Greenland shark have been rendered unable to stand. However, after being treated to reduce toxin levels, Greenland shark meat is considered a delicacy in Iceland. And there’s lots of it: Greenland sharks grow about as big as great white sharks, up to 24 feet and 3,100 pounds!

This video discusses a rare encounter with the Greenland shark.

Yet another trait that separates Greenland sharks from their more typical cousins is their dietary habits. Rather than being vicious predators, Greenland sharks are mainly scavengers. However, they have also been recorded eating other animals such as seals. Scientists were initially baffled by this fact since seals swim more than twice as fast as Greenland sharks, but it has since been theorized that Greenland sharks ambush seals in their sleep in order to capture them. However, the Greenland shark has never been observed hunting, so this is only a theory. While it mainly feeds on fish, it has also been known to eat polar bears, horses, and moose. In fact, one Greenland shark was found with an entire intact reindeer in its stomach! Although it could easily eat a human swimmer, the freezing waters that the Greenland shark inhabits make it extremely unlikely that the shark would come in contact with humans. As a result, there are currently no documented cases of a Greenland shark attacking a human.

Scientists have recently been exploring how to determine the exact age of a Greenland shark. While other methods used to date marine animals have failed, these sharks provided a unique method: their eye lens is composed of a specialized material, which contains proteins that can be radiocarbon dated. Using this method, a team of scientists examined 28 sharks. They determined that the largest shark, a female, was between the age of 272 and 512. This means she was born between the years of 1501 and 1744, but her most likely date of birth was in the 17th century. However, even with the lowest number, 272 years, she would still be considered the longest-living vertebrate. On the other hand, if she is 512, she will have outlived the previous record-holder, Ming the clam, who lived to be 507 years old.

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