Social Distancing: Taking a Lesson from Creatures Big and Small

For many of us, the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic means working from home. For many, working from home means being away from human companionship that’s normally part of our work lives. While my four-legged office mates are quiet and do not require meetings, they are no substitute for human coworkers.

How about you? In our socially distanced world, do you find strength in the knowledge that others are also self-isolating to stay healthy?

What if I told you that numerous animal species, lobsters to mongoose, ants to mandrills, all practice social distancing to avoid infectious agents? Here are a few examples.

Image of banded mongoose family group.
Banded mongoose family group.
Continue reading “Social Distancing: Taking a Lesson from Creatures Big and Small”

Misunderstood: The Ticklish, Empathetic, Laughing, Problem-Solving, Chocolate-Sharing Rat

Rats are social creatures.

In just a few days, my family will be welcoming some new pets in the form of three young rats. We have been planning for them for about a month now, and my kids and I are getting excited (the jury is still out on how my husband or our cat feels).  The response we get when we share the news with friends and family members has been wildly varying. Some can barely repress their shuddering as they ask why on earth would we want rats?? Others will go on and on about the cool rats they have owned or known and share humorous anecdotes about their furry friends.

The difference in opinion is striking. One group sees these creatures as horrid, filthy, vicious, disease-carrying vermin; while the other sees them as intelligent, social, affectionate companions. As a scientist in the lab, my experience with rats was limited to comparing the sequences of rat and human nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (they’re not all that different it turns out), but the more I read, the more I begin to think that rats have been terribly misunderstood. Mind you, I don’t mean that I have been reading Rat Fancier or some other rat enthusiast publication (not that these are bad sources of information). No, I am a scientist and when I want information, I go to the literature, and what the scientific literature says about rats is really quite fascinating. Continue reading “Misunderstood: The Ticklish, Empathetic, Laughing, Problem-Solving, Chocolate-Sharing Rat”

Are we finally smart enough to learn from the gloomy octopus?

Test octopus responding to stimulus. See blog for link to videos.

The octopus is a fascinating creature and probably the smartest invertebrate known. It has an extremely well developed visual system with high acuity, and although it cannot distinguish color, it can see polarized light. Scientists have proposed that octopuses communicate with each other by polarizing the light that reflects from their scales, creating a messaging system that could not be observed, much less understood by other creatures in their realm who have much less sophisticated visual systems (1).

Many animals rely on visual stimuli for recognizing predators, food and other members of their species. And scientists have used pictures, models and videos to attempt to understand how visual cues affect animal behavior. Pictures and models lack the movement aspect of live stimuli, so video playback presents the best, controllable method, for presenting visual stimuli. However, video has been designed for the human visual system, not that of the octopus, and until recently no video study has managed to elicit a biologically appropriate response from cephalopods (octopus, cuttlefish or squid). Continue reading “Are we finally smart enough to learn from the gloomy octopus?”

Mate Selection at Frog Cocktail Parties: Keep it Short, Low, Loud, and Stand Out from the Crowd (Oh, and have a colorful vocal sac, too)

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Hyla versicolor (Copes grey treefrog) Photo credit: LA Dawson wikipedia
Hyla versicolor (Copes grey treefrog) Photo credit: LA Dawson wikipedia

When I lived in Sioux City, IA, I had the opportunity of hanging out with a zoologist who studied the Plains Spadefoot Toad (Spea bombifrons). I would go out with her on nighttime listening surveys, and we would slowly drive the gravel farm roads in the middle of nowhere, weaving from one side to the other as we dodged hopping frogs and toads, and I would be amazed as the clamor of these calling anurans rattled my eardrums.

Just last week in Madison, as I took my lunchtime walk, I passed by a roadside wetland, and my ears filled with the calls of Chorus frogs, singing with all their one-inch might in hopes of attracting a mate. And, later that evening, as my daughter and I weeded our garden at home, I heard the crisp bell trill of two American toads carrying over the chorus frogs in the neighborhood.

Congresses of snoring Spadefoot Toads. In-your-face Copes Gray Tree Frogs. Peepers, Chorus Frogs and and Leopard Frogs. The evenings are noisy when the temperatures moderate and these frogs and toads come out to call. The din of the local roadside wetland begins to resemble the din of the local roadside bar, in more ways than one as it turns out. Continue reading “Mate Selection at Frog Cocktail Parties: Keep it Short, Low, Loud, and Stand Out from the Crowd (Oh, and have a colorful vocal sac, too)”