Newsletter March 2016

 March 2016

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Strange Animal Behaviors


Have you ever tried to run backwards? It’s pretty difficult, right? Well, not for the naked mole rat. This animal has the ability to run backwards just as fast as it can run forwards even when totally blinded, or in pitch-blackness. Naked mole rats exercise this ability regularly in the underground tunnels where they live. If this seems strange or uncanny to you, read on. The naked mole rat is not the only animal to exhibit unique behaviors. In fact, many animals in the animal kingdom have even stranger abilities and habits.


Perhaps even stranger than the naked mole rat is the female cuckoo bird’s parenting strategy. Rather than building their own nests, cuckoo birds find other bird nests, wait until the parents leave, and drop their own eggs in for those parents to look after. Once the cuckoo bird’s own eggs hatch, she will wait until the foster parents are out, and then attempt to knock the other eggs out of the nest. Each season, the cuckoo bird will find a new nest to deposit her eggs. It is believed that cuckoo birds do this because they are solitary animals. They want their young to survive, but don’t want to raise young themselves.




This video shows a cuckoo bird hijacking a warbler nest


Cows seem like ordinary animals at first, but one strange behavior they exhibit that not many people know about is the fact that they graze facing only north or south. You will never see a cow facing east or west while they are grazing. This seems crazy. How do cows even know where north and south is? Scientists believe that cows use Earth’s magnetic field in the same way that many birds and fish do. (Many species of birds and fish use the Earth’s magnetic field to migrate north and south; this is how they know where to go and how to get there.) Recently, images from Google Earth have shown that all grazing animals, including sheep and deer, consistently face north or south while eating. Why do these animals practice such a strange habit? Factors like sun and wind have been ruled out, and researchers believe it may be a defense against predators.




Another strange behavior is that of the Madagascar hissing cockroach. As their name implies, Madagascar hissing cockroaches are famous for their ability to produce a loud hissing sound.


The sound can be heard in this video


Males often hiss during encounters with other males, when they ram their horns into each other. Larger males often win, and also hiss much more; hissing contains information about the cockroach’s size. Cockroaches can even differentiate between the hisses of familiar roaches and strangers. Males also hiss during courtship interactions with females, but the most well known hiss is the only one that females make in addition to males. This is the distress hiss that any adult cockroach will make when it is disturbed.


One of the most truly remarkable abilities is that of the scorpion to glow in the dark. No, we are not making this up. If you ever find yourself in the desert at night, shine a UV light to see all the scorpions around light up against the dark sand (or maybe don’t). Scorpions appear a vibrant blue-green color under UV light at night. There are many theories as to why scorpions glow in the dark. Some believe it is a result of normal chemical reactions in the scorpion. Others speculate that it helps scorpions know when the best times to hunt are. It could also warn predators, or help scorpions locate each other.

It’s hard to look at animals the same way once you know about their weird habits and behaviors. These are just a few of the animals in the animal kingdom that stray from the norm. But there is so much diversity in the world that it is no wonder some animals seem strange to us. It is our fascination that drives us to study and learn more about these fascinating creatures, and keep a positive relationship with nature.


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Animal Intelligence

As we have learned in recent years, intelligence is a lot more complicated than originally thought. There are many types of intelligence, and one individual can be extremely intelligent in some ways and less intelligent in other ways. The theory of Multiple Intelligences states that there are at least nine forms of intelligence: naturalist, musical, logical-mathematical, existential, interpersonal, intrapersonal, bodily kinesthetic, linguistic, and spatial. And animal intelligence cannot be measured on a single scale either. Different species have varying intelligence levels in each of these categories (and possibly more). And within that, individuals in the species may have different intelligence levels than other individuals. This makes it very difficult to define an entire species’ intelligence, especially compared to other animals. However, scientists have been mapping animal intelligence for years and have observed various abilities and talents of animals around the globe.


It seems that every time humans decide that we have one ability that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, we discover an animal that has that ability as well. One example of this is episodic memory, which was thought to be unique to humans until it was discovered that scrub jays, chimpanzees, and gorillas, to name a few, also have this ability. Scientific discoveries about animal minds are constantly shocking us with amazing cognitive abilities.


It is pretty well established that some of the smartest animals on the planet are primates, dolphins and elephants. These animals show many different signs of higher-level thinking and behaviors. One other highly intelligent animal that has recently come to light is the crow. The proportion of brain size to body size is the same in crows as it is in chimpanzees. This TED Talk explains some of the amazing things crows can do, such as create tools to accomplish tasks they have never seen before, and learning to use a crosswalk.

Some scientists believe that the flaw with our perception of animal intelligence is that we are always comparing animals to humans. This creates biased opinions and eliminates types of intelligence humans may not even be capable of observing. Denise Herzing offers five tools to measure intelligence in a less biased way. These tools are called COMPLEX: COmplexity of Markers for Profiling Life in EXobiology. The markers include EQ – Encephalization Quotient, CS – Communication Signal complexity, IC – Individual Complexity, SC – Social Complexity and II – Interspecies Interaction. These five tools are arguably a better measure of intelligence than comparing nonhuman animals to human intelligence.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” This anonymous quote is widely appreciated, and has special relevance with regards to the theory of multiple intelligences. It demonstrates why judging different people on the same scale is not always accurate, or reflective of the array of skills a human can have. By the same token, judging animals on one scale will erase the special abilities and talents that many animals have. In the past several years, amazing discoveries have been made about the abilities of animals around the globe; who knows what the future will bring.


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Migration in Spiny Lobsters


When you think of an animal migrating, you probably think of geese flying south for the winter. But did you know that spiny lobsters also migrate to different parts of the ocean? Spiny lobsters have some of the most fascinating migration habits of any animal on the planet. Their migration techniques are unique and largely inexplicable as of now. Though these animals are often underappreciated, they are capable of much more than most people give them credit for.


The migration pattern of lobsters is amazing in pretty much every way. No one knows why lobsters migrate or what triggers their migration. The most likely reason is because of the weather. Where spiny lobsters live, in mid autumn, winds begin to change due to pressure differences, skies darken, the temperature drops, and rainfall increases. The result of these weather changes for lobsters is that sandbanks become blurred and large waves begin to form. It is thought that these changes signal lobsters to begin migration, though why they choose this timing and how they decide exactly when to leave remains a mystery.


Unlike some other migrating animals, lobsters don’t just pick up and leave. They form a single file line of about 50-60 individuals and they do not break that line until the end of migration, which can last several days. In fact, they physically hold on to the belly of the lobster in front of them using their antennae. They are so persistent about this that even if their antennae are removed, they will hold on with their front legs, and if parts of their front legs are removed, they will use the remaining part of their front legs.


Though what triggers lobsters to form this line is unknown, the use of a single file line is beneficial to lobsters in many ways. For one thing, it protects against predators. Lobsters prove that there is safety in numbers because they have not just one, but a huge number of eyes and antennae ready to detect and dissuade predators. Additionally, lobsters are often attacked by fish during migration, and in the event of an attack, the first lobster in the line would turn around to face the other lobsters. This signals that danger is coming, and allows all the other lobsters to form defensive shells and create a ring formation rather than a line for defense.




The line formation also benefits lobsters by allowing them to travel faster than they could separately. The lobster in front blocks water resistance for the lobsters behind him, allowing them to move more quickly while exerting the same amount of energy they would for a slower pace alone. Some species have been recorded moving at one kilometer per hour.


Yet another impressive and seemingly inexplicable aspect of lobster migration is the lobster’s uncanny ability to find its way home regardless of conditions. One experiment attempted to confuse a lobster by capturing it, putting it in a truck with magnets distorting the magnetic field, switching the magnets half way through the trip, driving in random circles, and dropping the lobster off in a region completely different from the area where it was captured. Once being released, the lobsters re-oriented themselves, revealing that it is unlikely they use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate. Some speculate that the lobsters use the ocean’s currents to determine the direction of travel, but ultimately, their abilities remain mysterious.

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Unusual Species Used in AAT/A/E


It isn’t often that a guinea pig makes the news, but when Emma “the Wonderpig” made a special visit to Manor Care Nursing Home in Carlisle, PA, the impact she had on residents was too great not to share. Emma began life as a rescue pet from Petco. She was adopted by Dickinson College student Katie Walters and soon became one of Red Cross’s star volunteers. Emma brings incredible joy and comfort to the residents at Manor Care Nursing Home. During her visits, she is passed around in a basket for all to pet and talk to. The impact that this has is incomparable; even residents that usually don’t talk or move much will reach out to touch and interact with Emma. While Emma is there, residents come alive with smiles and laughter as she brightens their day.




Emma’s News Debut


Emma is only one of many unusual animals used in animal assisted therapy, education and activities. While these things may bring to mind a dog or even a horse, there are hundreds of other animals that work to bring comfort and happiness to people’s lives every day. Though dogs and horses are useful for many reasons, other animals have their own advantages. For example, Emma is perfect to visit Manor Care because she can fit in a basket and is small and calm enough to let people pet her without causing the fuss that an excited dog might. One organization, Critter Assisted Therapy, specializes in bringing unusual animals into people’s lives to create positive change.




Critter Assisted Therapy uses animals as co-counselors during therapy sessions to help their clients who are dealing with mental illness, children on the autistic spectrum and victims of crime. And they are not limited to dogs and cats. Critter Assisted Therapy uses rabbits, turtles, lizards, snakes, hedgehogs, skunks, ferrets, chinchillas, and even some large insects to assist their clients. One of their hedgehogs, Bertie, is a rescue hedgehog from an unsuitable home. Because most people do not often see hedgehogs up close, petting Bertie can be very special for clients. He loves being petted and is very calm and relaxed around people. Bertie assists with social interaction and learning in ways that a human counselor could not do alone.


Critter Assisted Therapy’s full list of animals can be found here


Other species of animals have jobs helping people in AAT/A/E as well; one you may not expect to hear is the pot bellied pig. Pigs have been used more and more as therapy animals in recent years for many reasons. For one thing, they are perfect for people who are afraid or allergic to dogs and cats. They are also not an animal that most people see on a regular basis, so interacting with them is a treat and a way to really engage people in the moment and in conversation. They are often used to assist people with autism or other special needs. Contrary to popular belief, pigs are not dirty, but actually very friendly and sociable. They enjoy being pet and are very food motivated, which makes them easy to train.




Each animal has its own advantages as a volunteer in AAT/A/E. There are programs that bring any kind of animal you can think of to visit with clients, and even some that invite clients to come swim and spend time with dolphins. Whether it is a visit to a nursing home or a permanent position at a school, animals in these roles love to help people and the people love spending time with them. The impact that any kind of animal can have on others should never be underestimated, no matter what animal it is.

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