Cool Similarity Between How Humans and Animals Communicate

While we have probably encountered a parrot at least once in our lives and have recently received news of orcas imitating their human trainers’ speech, we don’t really expect most animals to talk the way humans talk to each other. But surprisingly enough — they do!

According to a comprehensive new study, many species pause in their “conversations” to facilitate taking turns. For many years, this turn-taking has long been thought to be a solely human trait, but it has since been observed everywhere — from birds to whales to elephants.

After reviewing hundreds and hundreds of studies about mammals, amphibians, and many other classifications, the research team proposed a framework to understand how different animals communicate. Their findings imply that we might soon be able to understand how we evolutionarily began to communicate as well.

“The ultimate goal of the framework is to facilitate large-scale, systematic cross-species comparisons,” says one of the team, linguist Kobin Kendrick from the University of York in the UK.

“Such a framework will allow researchers to trace the evolutionary history of this remarkable turn-taking behaviour and address longstanding questions about the origins of human language.”

While taking turns was discovered to be common among many species, the gaps in the “conversations” vary. Songbirds take less than 50 milliseconds before they answer their fellow songbird. The gap in sperm whales can reach up to two seconds in between replies. Meanwhile, pauses in human conversations tend to be around 200 milliseconds.

Other interesting findings include what’s socially acceptable among other species. For instance, birds called European starlings avoid overlaps when they communicate. In human terms, this means that they don’t talk over each other. When that happens, it results in silence or one of the birds flying away. Fascinating, huh?

Since about 50 years ago, scientists have already been studying the ways animals communicate. But what’s different now is the large comparative scale of this analysis. Previous findings have never been compared, but now even human linguists are collaborating with the effort.

“We came together because we all believe strongly that these fields can benefit from each other, and we hope that this paper drives more cross talk between human and animal turn-taking research in the future,” says [Sonja Vernes from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands].

Who knows? One day we might not only be studying how communication happens across different species, but how it could eventually happen between different species.

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Dogs Love Baby Talk, Study Says

Dear dog moms and dog dads, fret not. When your pup saves people from a house fire, learns a new trick that would make the family proud, or simply behaves like the good boy that he is, you are not delusional to spend a few minutes babying him. You don’t even need to get him a comfy armchair or mouth-watering treats, researchers at York University say that dogs appreciate baby talk or high-pitched “dog speak.”

“Obviously we know that dogs can’t learn to talk, so we wanted to know whether dog-speak also has a function for dogs, or whether it is simply something we tend to use with our pets in a culture where we think of dogs as part of the family, like fur-babies,” lead author Alex Benjamin told HuffPost […]

The researchers wanted to see if the dogs were interested in the high-pitched intonation used for them or if they were responding to the actual words said to them. After conducting speech tests with 69 adult ones, the research team discovered that dogs were most likely to engage with people who mix dog-directed speech (high-pitched tone) and dog-related content (“Who’s a good boy? You’re a good boy!”).

“I was a little surprised that in the second experiment, neither content, nor prosody ― which [is] intonation of the voice ― was driving the dogs’ preference,” she said. “I think it is really interesting that our dogs are able to use both acoustic and content information to determine what speech might be meant for them.”

So next time, when somebody says that you’re just being a crazy dog mom or dad, give them the scientific basis of your adoration. Perhaps using baby talk could help you guys communicate, too.

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Deaf Dog Rescues Lost 3-Year-Old

We all know dogs are capable of achieving amazing feats — that is just completely irrefutable. They rescue their owners from gas leaks, help calm veterans with PTSD, plant trees to restore burnt forests, track survivors of an earthquake, and even comfort anxious cheetahs.

Dogs do these awe-inspiring acts, sometimes in spite of their own disability. A partially blind and deaf dog recently became an honorary member of the police as he rescued a three-year-old girl who was lost in the Australian bush in Queensland.

Seventeen-year-old blue heeler Max stayed with the girl, named locally as Aurora, overnight and then helped lead her grandmother directly to her location after a huge search and rescue operation . . . Aurora wandered off alone on Friday afternoon and was found safe in bushland 2 kilometres from her house at around 7.30am local time on Saturday, according to ABC News.

100 volunteers were involved in the emergency search, but it was the deaf dog that eventually led to Aurora after camping with her the whole night. Queensland Police showered Max, the deaf dog, with praises and tweeted that he is now an honorary member of the police force.

[Aurora’s grandmother Leisa Marie Bennett] told ABC News: “I think [Aurora] was a bit overwhelmed by the tears and the howling, but I explained to her how happy those tears were. It could have gone any of 100 ways, but she’s here, she’s alive, she’s well and it’s a great outcome for our family.”

I swear, dogs just never run out of life-saving surprises for their human friends. And for rescuing a 3-year-old girl, Max truly deserves his yummy one-of-a-kind treat from the Queensland police.

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103-Year-Old Gets Sweet and Furry Birthday Surprise

By now, the relationship between humans and dogs is understood by many as no doubt profound, especially through stories like how shelter dogs learned to aid in the therapy of veterans suffering from PTSD or how a man went to great lengths to return an abandoned dog home. I suppose it’s just a case-to-case question of the level of depth or intimacy of the friendship between species.

However, someone equally sweet and equally furry can also provide a deep connection to human friends. Last April, in an inspirational birthday surprise, a 103-year-old woman named Lillian Grant was gifted with a new kitty friend.

Debbie Presland, the administrator at Ridgeview Gardens Assisted Living in St. George, Utah, where Grant lives, asked the centenarian what she’d want if she could pick anything in the world for her birthday present. “A sweet cat like Sammy,” she said, according to Presland.

Sammy was Grant’s beloved cat who passed away about a year ago. Seeing Grant so obviously still heartbroken, Presland wanted to make her wish come true. Along with her brother Joseph Harradine who was an officer at St. George Animal Shelter, they picked out a previously abandoned cat named Marley.

Right before bringing out her birthday cake, Presland told Grant they had a special surprise for her. Harradine brought out Marley and Grant started cuddling her. “The cat just took to her immediately,” Presland told TODAY.

Grant seemed to think that her present was just Marley’s visit. She initially didn’t realize that the cat was going to be hers. When Grant found out that Marley now belonged to her, the 103-year-old woman was almost in tears. Presland herself almost cried as well.

“Just to see her reaction choked me up . . . It was so sweet.”

After the birthday surprise, Grant and Marley are already inseparable. When two lonely species meet, it seems they can give each other life and be each other’s happiness, which makes me want to say… a shelter cat might as well be a woman’s best friend, eh?

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Caribou Herds Rebuilt by Maternity Programs

This is no truth bomb: more and more species are becoming endangered or approaching the brink of extinction. However, there is some good news: more and more global efforts are also being executed to address the problem. In 2017, British Columbia banned recreational bear hunting. This 2018, China is funding a national park to serve as a sanctuary for giant pandas.

And some efforts are already paying off this year. With the special help of a maternity program at Smithsonian Zoo, baby Mokey — the first western lowland gorilla there in 9 years — was born to loving mom Calaya. In the same light, caribou herds are now being helped by the Revelstoke Caribou Maternal Penning Project.

About half [of the calves] are killed and eaten by wolves . . . said Scott McNay, a wildlife biologist. For the past four years, McNay has worked with the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations, which are taking radical action to reverse the decline of the caribou by protecting cows and calves in “maternity pens” until the newborns are ready to survive life in the wild.

That bears and wolves feed on caribou is a natural phenomenon, but the proportion has been unhealthy for the past decade. Industrial development in the area has also worsened the situation. In addition to a ban on the hunting of caribou herds that have been imposed decades ago by the elders of the First Nations, wolf population control and habitat restoration are now being done simultaneously.

During the first four years of the pilot maternity project, 47 pregnant caribou from the North Columbia herd have been taken into the penning program and assisted in a nine-hectare enclosure. A few weeks ago, another 20 were sequestered. And the results look hopeful.

To date, 36 calves have released to the wild and they have about double the normal survival rate, which has stabilized the herd.

Funded by a variety of government agencies and other organizations, the maternity program wants to commit to protecting and releasing 20 cows and calves every year, in order to successfully restore the caribou herds.

Looking at these probable results, it seems that after all, every species including humankind is just trying to survive, with each other’s help in life.

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Baby Gorilla in Smithsonian Zoo, First in 9 Years

When critically endangered species successfully reproduce offspring and show the world their adorable baby, I’m not going to lie, I also tend to feel like getting a new shot at life. An OB-gyn who delivered a western lowland gorilla via C-section at the Philadelphia Zoo even said the experience of actually making it happen felt like an incredible privilege.

Just a few weeks ago, another western lowland gorilla was born at Smithsonian National Zoo, the first of his kind in nine years!

“The birth of this western lowland gorilla is very special and significant, not only to our zoo family but also to this critically endangered species as a whole,” Meredith Bastian, the zoo’s curator of primates, said in a statement regarding Moke’s birth.

Born to mother Calaya and father Baraka, the baby gorilla was named Moke (Mo-Key). Keeper Melba Brown went through months of training with Calaya to make sure she is able to prepare for the task of motherhood. And those months have truly paid off, as soon enough Calaya is kissing and nursing adorable Moke without difficulty.

“This infant’s arrival triggers many emotions — joy, excitement, relief — and pride that all of our perseverance in preparing Calaya for motherhood has paid off,” Brown said. “We will provide support to her if need be, but I have every confidence that Calaya will be a great mom to Moke. I am excited to see how he will fit into the group dynamic. There are a lot of different personalities in this family troop, but they all work well together.”

Surely a cute baby gorilla is enough cause to celebrate. Though of course, I would like to be proud first of amazing mommy Calaya. Now let me just go get a piece of tissue to wipe away this stray teardrop on my left cheek.

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Type of “Exploding Ants” Discovered in Borneo

Sometimes, biological discoveries are inexplicable, except somehow by serendipity — or perhaps how the ecological balance of the world makes way for good things — as seen in the resurfacing of the supposedly extinct crest-tailed mulgara in Australia or the resurgence of the starfish population in South California. Sometimes, much-studied and long-awaited breakthroughs happen, as seen in the unearthing of 215 dinosaur eggs in China.

Other times, scientific research takes a backseat for almost a century due to a lack of progress, until certain individuals bring it upon themselves to finally answer some questions. Such is the case when an interdisciplinary research team did an expedition to Borneo, Thailand, and Malaysia to study “exploding ants” again — the first time since 1935.

The team from the Natural History Museum Vienna, Technical University Vienna, and other contributing institutions published the results of their studies where they were able to identify 15 separate species of exploding ants, including one new discovery.

The new species is called Colobopsis explodens, but the researchers like to call it “yellow goo” on account of its bright yellow grand secretion. The researchers consider C. explodens to be a model species of exploding ant, which means it’ll now serve as a reference point, or an exemplar, for future research. The new species earned this designation because it’s particularly prone to self-sacrifice when threatened.

When threatened, the newfound species of Southeast Asian exploding ants intentionally rupture their own abdomen to release a sticky and toxic substance that can kill the enemy. Called “autothysis,” this suicidal mechanism can only be found in super-social organisms like ants, who work towards the preservation of their colony rather than the life of any individual insect.

[I]n addition to documenting the ants’ exploding behavior in more detail, the researchers also studied their eating habits; these insects like to munch on algae, moss, fungi, dead insects, fruit, and fish.

The discovery itself of an interesting species should already be lauded as a great contribution to biology. But what’s more important about the work of these scientists is how they laid the groundwork for future research involving these insects.

We must have missed a lot of scientific opportunities in the past. This is why being very proud of rediscovering them is the farthest thing from making a mountain out of an anthill.

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Orca Sighting along River Clyde in Scotland

It is certainly not new to hear about adorable orcas calling for attention, as we have seen in scientists’ accounts of how they are now close to imitating human speech, and some other media appearances here and there, like in films or video games. The latest exciting orca sighting occurred just a few days ago in the River Clyde near Gourock and Dunoon in Scotland.

Chris Denovan said he saw up to six of the mammals when he filmed them in water near Dunoon earlier this week.

They were also spotted by Lindsay Moss during a Western Ferries trip between Gourock and Dunoon on Saturday afternoon.

The pod of killer whales, dubbed by an expert as “urban Orcas,” also seemed to include at least one calf, which was seen in videos while being taught to feed by the pod’s older members.

David Nairn, of Clyde Porpoise marine mammal project, told the BBC Scotland website that they are regularly seen near Arran in the Firth of Clyde.

However, they have not been regular visitors to the upper Clyde for many years.

Orcas are quite the social creatures and tend to travel in groups. Though they are also called “killer whales,” they are not known to show any aggression towards humans or each other.

If this orca sighting really is a rare visit as experts describe it, then what a magnificent day for their human friends!

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A Camera to See the Sea like a Mantis Shrimp

Humans never stop trying to improve the world for fellow creatures. We turn empty lots into homes for bees, we make highways so that hedgehogs may survive our cities, we teach orcas human speech. But we don’t know everything, and there’s a lot to learn about the world through these animals’ eyes as well. In this instance, through the eyes of a shrimp:

For a small glimpse of the mantis shrimp’s view of the ocean, humans can now look through a mantis-shrimp-inspired camera from a team led by Viktor Gruev, an engineer at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Mantis shrimp have the ability to detect up to six types of polarization in the ocean, a property of light that is impossible for humans to see. To imitate this, Gruev’s team made miniature polarized lenses, popped them inside a video camera, and collaborated with marine biologists to study how different underwater creatures use polarization.

[T]he ability to see detect polarization is widespread among cuttlefish, octopus, squid, crabs, and even some fish. Perhaps marine animals use polarization to communicate with each other, or perhaps it enhances contrast underwater for them to detect predators.

Through their findings, the team was also able to raise another important factor in the survival of marine animals: navigation. Do the mantis shrimp and other animals actually use polarization as their very own GPS? Scientists are not yet certain as to exactly how. But the idea already sounds awesome.

And with this camera, the world just might get a whole lot bigger in the future.

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Boy Discovers 1-Million-Year-Old Fossil

Hiking is always an exciting activity. You discover a lot of things — about yourself, about nature, and if you’re this young boy, occasionally a 1-million-year-old fossil. The bones were from a Stegomastodon, or prehistoric elephant.

“I was running farther up, and I tripped on part of the tusk,” Jude Sparks, who was hiking in the desert with his parents and brothers, said. “My face landed next to the bottom jaw. I looked farther up, and there was another tusk.”

Talk about sheer coincidence! The family immediately contacted the New Mexico State University, who confirmed that the skull was only one of two complete fossils. The skull measured to weigh nearly a ton.

“I have every hope and expectation that this specimen will ultimately end up on exhibit and this little boy will be able to show his friends, and even his own children, ‘Look what I found right here in Las Cruces,'” [said NMSU professor Peter Houde].

As for the rest of the animal’s remains, there’s a chance they are hiding nearby. “It’s quite possible it was preserved.”

While the skull was held together by surrounding sediment, it’s possible the rest of the skeleton eroded away. Whatever the case, Jude now has an incredible story to tell.

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