# How do dogs count??

Many have brought forward their pet dogs to the media with claims that their dog can count. It often involved certain reactions to specific questions posed by strangers to the dogs – usually based on simple mathematics. Slowly, people started debunking these attention-churning acts, with evidence that the owner was actually giving secret actions or secret hidden commands in his phrasing of words for his dog to follow.

The video below shows that dogs can count (somehow or rather)! Even without secret coded signals from the owner. The video is taken from the Animal Planet channel variety show, Pet Star. The show allows pet owners to flaunt the skills of their pet. Here we see that the judge, Debra, could not seem to find any secret signals between the two.

This raises the question. HOW IN THE WORLD DO DOGS COUNT???

I started to wonder if the body language of pet owners actually made a difference in their pets’ reactions. And in this case, if Maggie’s owner’s body language actually made Maggie know how many times to tap her paw.

Many of my dog owner friends shared the same sentiments that their body language and tone affected the way their dogs reacted to them. For instance, when friend A greeted his dog, A.J. with a subtle whine about how the latter had destroyed his play ball, A.J.’s initial cheery disposition turned into that of nonchalance about his owner’s return.

Similarly, could Maggie have sensed the different reactions of her owner and observers when facing the questions, and hence knew how many times to tap her paw?

This leads us to the observations of German comparative biologist and psychologist, Oskar Pfungst, who is most well known for his observations and contributing to what is now called the Clever Hans effect.Finding out about the Clever Hans effect answered almost all my questions.

First, let me explain what the Clever Hans Effect is.

It was a study starting in 1907, led by Pfungst, to investigate how Clever Hans, a horse could solve arithmetic questions. It was then concluded that, the horse would be able to answer the question if

1. His owner could get the answer formulated in his mind
2. The person posing the question knew the answer and was also in his sight

Keeping in sight the owner and the audience who posed the question allowed the horse to observe their reactions  and in turn know when to stop tapping his hoof in accordance to their reactions. For instance, if the answer were 4, he would tap his hoof until there was a change in tenseness amongst the audience. The change in tenseness was only natural among the (gullible if I might add) audience as they would wait in bated breath for Clever Hans’ answer, and would release their excitement gradually as he got closer to the answer.

Back to Maggie. I suppose that the reactions and expressions of the audience, the people posing the judges and her owner played a role in helping her know whe to stop tapping her paw. Judging by the way the crowd would cheer immediately after she got the answer, I have come to think that her arithmetic skills are simply more than meets the eye, but in fact a good observation of the reactions around her.

Hence, can dogs really do math? I wouldn’t rule out that possibility, but this post aims to give the general audience another take into the issue, rather than blindly believing or insisting that the dog has been trained to react to certain signals. It is clear that dogs do respond different to the body language, or expressions of those around them.

Reference:

Heini K.P. Hediger, Issue with The Clever Hans Phenomenon: communication with Horses, Whales, Apes and people. Vol. 364, 16 December 2006, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences,

http://www.dumbassguide.info/blog.php?bid=6

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090810025241.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clever_Hans

http://youtube.com

# It’s a car! It’s a chainsaw! Wait… IT’S A BIRD!

Imagine you’re walking through the forest and you suddenly hear the sound of a chainsaw nearby; the thought of a tree falling on you is enough to make you scramble for your life. But if you’re in an Australian forest, hold your thoughts and calm down for a bit; you will be pleased to know that the sound of the chainsaw might just be coming from a bird instead – the Superb Lyrebird.

Superb Lyrebird

Scientifically known as the Menura novaehollandiae, the Superb Lyrebird (above) is a songbird whose specialty is to mimic any sounds that it hears. This is one of the two species of Lyrebirds which exist, with the other being the Albert’s Lyrebird. In a YouTube video from BBC Wildlife, a male Superb Lyrebird can be heard performing amazing mimicries of a Kookaburra, car alarm, chainsaw and camera shutter sounds – mimicries so convincing that you would think they’re the real deal. (Check the video out here!) This vocal mimicry is usually prominent during male displays where male Superb Lyrebirds stand on a “platform” to perform a courtship song which includes its own song as well as imitations of other species and surrounding environment to attract females. While doing so, the male Superb Lyrebird will spread out its tail (above), showing off a stunning display of its feathers.

The Superb Lyrebird’s syrinx (vocal chords) is “the most complex of all songbirds” (Birds.com, 2007) and this gives the bird its astonishing ability to reproduce sounds accurately. The accuracy of vocal mimicry in Superb Lyrebirds is also an “indicator of male age” (Zann & Dunstann, 2008). Although vocal mimicry plays a clear role in the selection of mates, not many studies have been done regarding the relationship between the complexity of vocal mimicry and the level of mating success (Kelly et al., 2008).

References

“Amazing! Bird sounds from the lyre bird – David Attenborough – BBC wildlife” by BBC. BBCWorldwide YouTube Channel, 12 February 2007. URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjE0Kdfos4Y (accessed on 27 Mar 2010).

Kelly, L. A., Coe, R. L., Madden, J. R., Healy, S. D. 2008. Vocal mimicry in songbirds. Animal Behaviour, 76: 521-528.

“Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) by kookr. Flickr: Kookr’s photostream. URL: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kookr/3866749339 (accessed on 27 Mar 2010)

“The Marvelous Mimicry of the Lyrebird,” by Editor. Birds.com, 10 September 2007. URL: http://www.birds.com/blog/the-marvelous-mimicry-of-the-lyrebird (accessed on 26 Mar 2010).

Zann, R. & Dunstan, E. 2008. Mimetic song in superb lyrebirds: species mimicked and mimetic accuracy in different populations and age classes. Animal Behaviour, 76: 1043-1054.

# Follow my waggle!

Do you find yourself losing your way even after carefully following the given directions? Or, do you often provide directions to others? Find communicating words too troublesome? Maybe next time you can try the honey bee’s waggle dance!

YouTube- Bee waggle dance

Apis mellifera, a species of honey bee are most often located as a colony  in hives that are constructed and stored with honey. They are easily one of the most hardworking animal considering to fill half a kilo of the combs with honey, it requires nectar from 4 million flowers! With finding nectar as their main concern, think about it, to get to the best nectar, it would be more efficient if the bees actually share and spread the location of the “good stuff”, right? Well, being good team players, that is exactly what they do, and they do it in their own way- the waggle dance.

The process of the waggle dance follows as such

1. Foraging bee returns to hive

2. Allow other bees to taste the nectar so as to share the quality

3.  Start waggle dance by doing a figure of eight followed by shaking of body in the centre

4. Off it goes again to collect more nectar

Despite the inconsistency in the duration of the dance, according to Kirchner and Grasser(1997), the “dances contain correlates of distance and direction to the food source”(p. 169). What is interesting is that the communication of direction is made according to the position of the sun. However, the sun is constantly moving but more often than not, research has shown that the following bees are able to accurately find the food source. Hence it seems that the dancing bee has made prior changes to the direction before conveying!

However, there are contradictory arguments that disregard the assertion that the waggle dance serves as the sole communication tool in directing the bees to the food source. Other factors such as “olfactory cues” (Kirchner and Grasser, 1997, 170) and even sounds are seen as important. It is made more complicated by the need to consider the effect of habitats. However, despite these interlocking of factors, the waggle dance is still seen as important in at least communicating the presence of food nearby and also to increase the intensity of food hunting.

So next time you see a bee hive, maybe you could try observing and you never know, it might just lead you to good source of nectar!

• “Bee Waggle dance,” WGBHstocksales. Youtube channel, 14 Oct 2009. URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jc-mtUs-eis
• Kirchner, Wolfgang H. & Grasser, Andreas, 1998. The Significance of Odor Cues and Dance Language Information for the Food Search Behavior of Honeybees (Hymenoptera: Apidae). Journal of Insect Behavior, 11(2): 169- 178.
• “Overloaded honey bee,” F. Roberto. Flickr, 27 March 2008. URL:http://www.flickr.com/photos/robfon/2358526180/

# Male Porcupines’ Golden Shower of Love

Porcupines undergo several stages of courting process before they engage in copulation. Shadle, Smelzer and Metz reported one peculiar mating ritual in their 1946 study on the North American Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum). They observed that the male porcupine would approach the female with his penis fully erected and spray her with high-pressure jets of urine. In one encounter, the forceful stream of urine was noted to have shot as far as 6 feet and 7 inches from the spot where the male porcupine stood. In less than a minute, the female may be thoroughly drenched from nose to tail.

It is still unclear what is the scientific or biological function behind this unusual male urine-hosing of the female. Manono (2006) suggested that males do it to soften the female porcupines’ quills enough before mounting on her for copulation. Personally, I feel the males do so to test for the female’s reaction on whether she’s ready to mate or not. Research has shown that female porcupines will express objection to reject the male’s advances.

Another study on the North American Porcupine by Spalsbury (1956) reported the same unusual courting behavior in male porcupines. He observed, in one encounter, that this behavior thoroughly terrified the young female porcupine and caused her to run to a corner of the cage where she buried her head between her front legs. The male trailed after her and tried to sniff her genital organs, but she whacked him in the face with her tail.

More pictures of the North American Porcupine

References

“Erethizon dorsatum (North American Porcupine),” by Arthur Chapman. Hosted on Flickr.com, 5 October 2009. URL: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3440/3986448936_55c9cc7445.jpg (accessed on 28 March 2010).

“Erethizon dorsatum (North American Porcupine),” by Arthur Chapman. Hosted on Flickr.com, 5 October 2009. URL: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3487/3986441854_cfff370d50.jpg (accessed on 28 March 2010).

“Erethizon dorsatum (North American Porcupine),” by Arthur Chapman. Hosted on Flickr.com, 5 October 2009. URL: http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2484/3986445266_a993137441.jpg (accessed on 28 March 2010).

“Hunting Down Porcupines to Earn a Living”, by Clifford Manono. Kisii.com, 9 April 2006. URL: http://www.kisii.com/portal/index.php?/Hunting-Down-Porcupines-to-Earn-a-Living.html (accessed on 28 March 2010).

Spalsbury, J.R., 1956. Unusual Sex behavior of a Male Porcupine, Erethizon dorsatum epixanthum. Journal of Mammalogy, 37 (3): 452-453.

Shadle, A.R., Smelzer, M. & Metz, M., 1946. The Sex Reactions of Porcupines (Erethizon d. dorsatum) before and after Copulation. Journal of Mammalogy, 27 (2): 116-121.