Newsletter May 2016

 May 2016

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Why Birds Mimic Other Birds


After watching Katniss Everdeen fight the Capitol in Mockingjay, you probably thought that Mockingbirds were pretty cool. In the Hunger Games series, Katniss whistles four notes and counts on the Mockingbirds to repeat it until the message gets back to her friend Rue. But mockingbirds do this in real life as well. Though they may not be relaying life or death messages between teens battling to survive, they do mimic the sounds of other birds on a regular basis. However, unlike the birds in the movie, they mimic sounds they hear for a variety of biological reasons.


One of the main reasons that mockingbirds mock is to attract a mate. While you may find a copycat annoying, mockingbirds have a very different reaction. In fact, scientists have found that fluctuations in mocking bird singing patterns strongly coincide with hormonal changes that are necessary for mating and nesting. By listening to a male mockingbird sing, you can draw some interesting conclusions about his testosterone levels. Additionally, the male’s mocking can also “reset” the female mockingbird’s reproductive system and get her ready to mate. In some ways, mockingbirds’ mocking is very similar to peacocks’ tails.


What makes mocking so attractive for mockingbirds? It communicates to females that the male has survived and established territory. This is important not only for the female, but for the offspring as well; the males are the ones that build the nest, feed the offspring, and drive away predators. Mockingbirds are very aggressive breeders, often breeding several times in a season and continuing to breed while other species have stopped. This causes them to sing even more often than other bird species.


Some birds mimic other birds for other reasons as well. The female thick-billed Euphonia mimics the alarm calls of other species when her nest is threatened in order to get the attention of other species to help. Additionally, the Lyrebird is in close competition with the mockingbird as a copycat artist. This Australian bird species is famous for its ability to mimic even non-animal sounds such as car alarms and chainsaws. However, it does a great deal of mimicking other birds as well.




This video shows the amazing variety of sounds that the Lyrebird can produce.


Like the mockingbird, Lyrebirds sing most during mating season, sometimes singing up to four hours per day. Female Lyrebirds will also sing, but not as often or as skillfully as the males. Some birds also mimic the sounds of predator birds such as hawks in order to keep their territory safe and deter other predators from approaching. This can also be used to claim a food source by sounding more dangerous than they really are.


Some birds mimic the sounds of other birds when defending their territory in order to both show off their strength, and make it appear as if there are more birds present, deterring the threat from attacking. The benefits to mimicking other birds are quite extensive if used creatively, in some ways making mocking the “Swiss army knife” of bird survival since it can be used in so many different ways.




Birds such as the lyrebird and the mockingbird mimic the sounds and calls of other birds in the wild for a variety of reasons that help them in many aspects of survival. This ability to mimic is not only a testament to the skill of these birds, but also to the intelligence and problem-solving skills that they have. It’s no wonder that Katniss’s pin featured such an amazing creature.


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Adam was 23 when he returned home from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like many war veterans, he found it extremely difficult to adjust to civilian life, feeling disconnected and isolated. He struggled with symptoms of PTSD until he was matched with Rakassan, a white Korean Jindo. Rakassan turned Adam’s life around through the unconditional love that he gave him. Whenever Adam feels like he is back in a combat zone, Rakassan brings him back to reality. He believes that Rakassan is the antithesis of aggression and negativity in his life. This same story is true of many war veterans. While the PTSD can be devastating, many vets are seeking the help of specially trained PTSD dogs to alleviate symptoms and help them cope.


What was it about Rakassan that made him such a life-changing accommodation for Adam? Not any dog can be a PTSD dog. Dogs must have a specific skill set and personality to work as service animals. For example, service dogs must be perceptive, courteous, compliant and an intuitive in order to perform their duties independently when the individual is facing a crisis. Dogs must also be trained to recognize and interrupt behaviors associated with anxiety, panic attacks and nightmares. Not only does a service dog require the right personality, skills, and training, but in order to be successful, they must also be paired appropriately with a human who they will mesh well with.


What is it that PTSD dogs must do, exactly? For Adam, one of the most helpful things that Rakassan does is to sense when he is feeling particularly bad, and pay extra attention to him. Doing things like tugging on the leash to remind him that he is there can make a huge difference for Adam. Additionally, the companionship and love that a dog can provide can help reduce stress, and even just be a reason to get out of the house, spend time outside and meet new people. Furthermore, PTSD dogs take orders and are well trained, which can be very comfortable for a veteran who was used to giving orders in the military.


For some vets, PTSD dogs are trained to monitor breathing and heart rate. By doing this, a dog can nudge a vet back into reality before flashbacks or panic-attacks start. For many, simply touching and petting a dog can help calm the mind and body. With PTSD dogs, vets who felt paranoid and cut off can begin leaving home again and reconnecting with family and friends. This simple comfort can be enough to allow people to function in society the way they want to without the barrier of PTSD symptoms.


Other vets may rely on service dogs to perform daily tasks for them if they have other disabilities. For example, vets who have lost their arms in combat can rely on dogs to open doors or retrieve items for them. However, even for these people, the companionship and unwavering support the dog provides can mean the most. In the midst of isolation after returning from war, a dog can provide a way to reconnect without fear of judgment or misunderstanding.


PTSD dogs are recognized widely as service dogs and are allowed in public places such as restaurants and shops that may normally have policies against pets. This allows vets to take them everywhere they go so that they constantly have their dog to rely on in times of stress and discomfort. Because PTSD dogs are so well trained, they do not cause the problems when in public that might arise from regular untrained animals. The ability to be with these dogs constantly is transformative for many vets, and continues to change lives every day.

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Feminist Salamanders

Female mole salamanders are some of the most impressive amphibians alive today. Though some mole salamanders reproduce heterosexually, other populations live in all female groups, reproducing primarily by cloning themselves. By shunning men, these salamanders are able to grow larger and have increased health benefits such as the ability to regenerate lost limbs 36% faster than coed mole salamander populations. Much like Amazon warriors, these female salamander populations are stronger than their male and coed counterparts, accomplishing feats that scientists are still struggling to understand.




The ability to regenerate is crucial for salamanders, so this advantage in regeneration is extremely significant. Salamanders get injured often, and regeneration is necessary for survival. In fact, salamanders are able to regenerate not only tails and limbs, but also parts of the heart and eye, as well as many other structures. It is unknown why all-female populations of salamanders are able to regenerate so much faster than their coed counterparts. However, a recent study by Ohio State University has sparked interest in how the impressive regeneration of female salamanders can be applied to human medicine.


In addition to faster limb regeneration, female populations of mole salamanders also have more than two sets of chromosomes. This is relatively common in plants and occurs in a few other animals such as goldfish. Though most animals have two sets of chromosomes, one from each parent, the term for having multiple is polyploid. It is unclear why these salamanders have multiple chromosomes. They usually reproduce through cloning, but sometimes borrow salamander sperm from other species to stimulate egg production. This borrowing process is called kleptogenesis. Because of this process, female mole salamanders may contain DNA from up to five different species.


Though it would be expected that the salamanders would have mutations and deformities due to cloning, this is not seen. It is unknown how the salamanders are able to avoid these kinds of mutations, but some speculate that kleptogenesis contributes to the lack of reproductive issues by keeping the gene pool diverse. In fact, female mole salamanders are able to reproduce more efficiently than coed populations because they can create more animals without the usual complications of mating.




Even more impressive, polyploid salamanders have been around for about 6 million years, far longer than any other animal that reproduces asexually. Because animals that reproduce this way have a smaller range of genetic variation, they are usually wiped out when living conditions change; they have a hard time adapting to differences. However, mole salamanders have avoided this problem, possibly by borrowing sperm from other species to create more diversity. Throughout history, they have certainly shown that they do not need men.


Some speculate that having more genomes is what helps the female salamander populations to regenerate faster; they have more genes to produce RNA and proteins, which means they can produce tissue faster. This is a huge advantage from an evolutionary perspective. Not only do these amazing creatures survive in populations without males, they thrive and do better than their male and female counterparts that live in mixed populations and reproduce heterosexually. You might say that the female mole salamander is a strong independent woman who don’t need no man.


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Animal Emotions

Do animals have emotions? While pet owners will often project their own feelings or ideas onto pets, these are often misguided. For example, your cat did not pee on the carpet because of a grudge against you or as revenge for going to the vet. However, there is evidence that animals do experience their own emotions. We must simply make the distinction between projecting how a human would feel onto an animal and perceiving how the animal itself is actually feeling. By studying animal consciousness, we can make guesses at what kinds of emotions animals feel and when.




One of the first scientists to study animal emotions was Charles Darwin. His approach to studying emotions in nonhuman animals was based on observation and anecdotes. However, it soon led to more scientific and hypothesis-driven approaches of studying animal emotions. Many believe that animal emotions stem from the same mechanisms as human emotions. Today, we have several tests that help determine the emotional level of different nonhuman animals. For example, the cognitive bias and learned helplessness models have been used on countless species. Cognitive bias, or optimism and pessimism, has been observed in rats, dogs, cats, rhesus macaques, sheep, chicks, starlings, pigs and honeybees. If you have one of these animals at home, you may have observed it yourself!




One interesting experiment on animal emotions tested the lab mice that are used to test drugs that treat mood disorders in humans. Scientists hypothesized that mice without enrichment, which were prevented from exhibiting natural behaviors, would be more anxious than mice that had enrichment. During the experiment, each set of mice, enriched and non-enriched, was given the choice of drinking either non-drugged water, or a solution of Midazolam, which is used to treat anxiety in humans. The mice in the non-enriched cages drank a greater proportion of the Midazolam solution than the mice in the enriched cages, indicating that the non-enriched mice may have experienced more anxiety than the enriched mice.


Many scientists question the validity of research on animal emotions, however. Some say that it is too much speculation to conclude that animals are conscious, or make the argument that emotions aren’t even universal among humans, so it is too much of a stretch to make conclusions about them in animals. Others say that interpretations of animal behavior are anthropomorphic, meaning that we as humans are simply projecting our own emotions and experiences onto animals.




Despite these claims, in recent years, the scientific community has become more and more supportive of the idea of emotions in animals. Many prestigious scientific journals have published essays on joy in rats, grief in elephants and empathy in mice. You can find ABI’s more extensive article specifically on emotions in elephants here. In fact, for many researchers, the question has changed from “Do animals have emotions?” to “Why do animals have emotions?” Many have interesting theories about why animals have evolved to experience emotions and how those emotions help them in social situations both with friends and enemies.


If you have a pet, you probably experience a lot of emotions when you interact with them. Animals can be very calming, loving and joyful to be around. And evidence shows that your pet is experiencing some of those emotions as well. As scientists study more about animal minds and behavior, we are able to make better speculations as to what animals are thinking and feeling.

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