Monday, March 30, 2009

Pets underfoot more than just an annoyance

Don't trust that innocent "Who, me?" face.

According to a recently released report by the Centers for Disease Control, you'd better pay attention to keeping your feet on the ground around your pets, 'cause they're out to get you.

As reported by

America's dogs and cats, it turns out, can be blamed for injuries caused in an estimated 86,000 falls treated each year in the country's emergency rooms, federal health officials said today.

Dogs are more of a hazard - 88% of the injuries were dog-related. I'm confident that the explanation for this lies in the fact that dogs deliberately try to trip people who are carrying something edible. It's a fascinating example of the evolution of food-gathering behavior that deserves further study.

Unfortunately, the CDC's meticulous research won't contribute to that topic, because it was apparently stymied by the large percentage of us who found our dog-tripping episode too embarrassing to explain:

Among the people hurt while walking their dog, a third of the injuries came from tripping over the pooch and a fifth from the canine pushing or pulling them. Nearly 9 percent of injuries occurred when someone toppled over their pet's toy or food bowl. Investigators weren’t able to sort out the circumstances of nearly 40 percent of doggie-related falls.

(Pug Rose, looking for someone to trip.)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Elephant Week, Part 3: Highway Robbery

Drink isn't the only thing that prompts bad behavior in elephants. It's not uncommon for hungry elephants to damage food crops, like many other animals. But some elephants repay human kindness by committing crimes: in Thailand, denied their usual handout of food from truck drivers, they stopped them on the road and robbed them at trunk-point:

Yoo said the elephants had learned to pick up sugarcane dropped by drivers who took pity on them, but that the practice had taught them dangerous new habits.

He told the daily of incidents where the leader of the herd had stood in the road to block the vehicle while the others unloaded the produce with their trunks.

Elephant lurking by Flickr user Misterqueue.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Elephant Week, Part 2: Delinquency and Family Breakdown

But what are the drunken elephants drinking to forget?

One study suggests that some rampaging elephants are actually taking revenge on humans. But it makes an even more interesting point: Like people, they've become hooligans because of the breakdown of the family, resulting from poaching in the 1970s-80s:
Many herds lost their matriarch and had to make do with inexperienced "teenage mothers". Combined with a lack of older bulls, this appears to have created a generation of "teenage delinquent" elephants...
A study...showed that a lack of older bulls to lead by example had created gangs of aggressive young males with a penchant for violence towards each other and other species.

T-shirt from Cat and Girl, buy it here.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Elephant Week, part 1: Drunkness and Violence

The incident reported last week is only the tip of the rampaging elephant iceberg.

Drunkenness is repeatedly reported as a cause of elephants behaving badly in Sri Lanka and and in India, where they steal fermenting rice beer,these drunken brawls can be fatal to humans. But, like most drunks, they're a danger to themselves as well,like the ones that electrocuted themselves messing with power lines.

However, apparently it's a myth that elephants in Africa get drunk from fermented fruit, in large part because they and their fellow animals are too greedy to let fruit lie around long enough to rot.

Drinking Elephant by Flickr user Valerie Everett

Friday, March 20, 2009

Bad primate briefs

New York Times:

Frans B. M. de Waal, a professor at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and Emory University, said chimpanzees or orangutans in captivity sometimes tried to lure human strangers over to their enclosure by holding out a piece of straw while putting on their friendliest face.

“People think, Oh, he likes me, and they approach,” Dr. de Waal said. “And before you know it, the ape has grabbed their ankle and is closing in for the bite. It’s a very dangerous situation.”

Apes wouldn’t try this on their own kind. “They know each other too well to get away with it,” Dr. de Waal said. “Holding out a straw with a sweet face is such a cheap trick, only a na├»ve human would fall for it.”

(Another remarkable chimp face photo by Flickr user ucumari.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Elephant loses it in India

Couldn't stand being asked one more time "How do you spell that?" perhaps?

Kochi, Mar 2 (ANI): A tame elephant in Kochi recently turned violent and damaged a vehicle on a busy road while being led to take part in a temple festival.

The jumbo known as 'Sankarankulangara Ayyappan' ran amok while being taken for bath early morning.

It managed to damage an autorikshaw by tearing through its roof before being brought under control by the locals.

No casualties were reported.

(Photo from Reuters)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Primate plotting

A chimp at a zoo in Sweden has convinced some skeptics that humans aren't the only animals that can plan for the future. But what does an animal do when it can plan for the future? Plan to behave badly, of course.

Santino had a habit of throwing stones at zoo visitors(and from personal experience I can say, any zookeeper can sympathize). That's not unusual - primates are well known to throw even less savory objects at passing humans. What's significant is that he gathered ammunition when no one was watching and hid caches of it around his exhibit. Another indication that he knew exactly what he was doing: when the zoo was closed to visitors over the winter, he didn't bother to gather and hide rocks.

Well, as anyone knows who's observed humans, intelligence isn't all it's cracked up to be. But the humans, having exhausted all their other options to keep zoo visitors safe, had the last laugh in this case:

"They have castrated the poor guy. They hope that his hormone levels will decrease and that will make him less prone to throw stones. He's already getting fatter and he likes to play much more now than before. Being agitated isn't good for him," said (researcher) Osvath.

(Photo of a chimp obviously thinking wicked thoughts by Flickr user ucumari.)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Frightful frog f&#%ing

It would be wrong if this week's posts left the impression that monkeys were the only perverted animal.

Frogs mate in a position called amplexus, where the male gets on the female's back, clasps her with his legs, and hangs on, in some cases for weeks. Frogs don't fertilize their eggs internally, so he's just waiting till she releases her eggs into the water, at which point he'll add his sperm. It doesn't sound like much fun, but frogs don't know any better.

Male frogs can be so persistent about this that they drown the female. They can also engage in a sort of group sex, where more than one male climbs onto the female. Here you can see an excellent example of both phenomena, where many male frogs are still attempting to mate with a dead female wood frog.

If she does survive, scientists have shown by genetic analysis that the female may have young with different fathers in the same clutch. Of course, she doesn't stick around to see which guy the kids resemble, since most species of frogs don't care for their young.

If this doesn't sufficiently convince you of the sad state of frog society, you might want to read this scientific report on frog amplexus in microgravity, conducted at a Japanese amusement park. Yes, frogs had no shame about having sex on an amusement park ride, no doubt surrounded by innocent children.

You might as well just give in and watch this video of a frog orgy, with appropriate soundtrack.

Toads by Flickr user minipixel and Panamanian golden frogs by Flickr user Grufnik.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Primates pay for pornographic pictures

Our fellow primates not only engage in prostitution, a 2005 experiment found that they also like to look at pornographic pictures.

As reported by Nature News:

The researchers gave captive male rhesus macaques two options: a drink of cherry juice, or a different-sized shot of juice and the chance to look at one of a range of pictures of their troop members for just over half a second.

By varying the amounts of juice, the team worked out how much the monkeys valued each image. "Monkeys are basically juice experts; they're very sensitive to the differences," says team member Robert Deaner.

Monkeys would take a juice cut to look at powerful males' faces or the perineum of a female, Deaner and his colleagues report in Current Biology.

.... the juice-to-picture exchange rate was highest for images of female rears. "Virtually all monkeys will give up juice to see female hindquarters," Deaner says of his male subjects. "They really value the images."

Researcher Robert Deaner claims that this isn't really pornography, and his university emphasizes what the study might do to help us understand autism.

Yeah, sure. They're our relatives; it's natural to try to put a good spin on it.

But even Deaner allows a connection to some of our less admirable habits.

The monkey study might even help to explain humans' fascination with gossip magazines, Deaner suggests. The urge to keep tabs on sexy, powerful people may stem from our tribal past, when the actions of the group's movers and shakers would have influenced our own lives. "Hollywood doesn't affect our lives at all, but people still feel they get some cultural capital from knowing about it," he says.

Watching Monkey Porn by Flickr user Tracy Lee

Monday, March 9, 2009

World's oldest profession

Apparently both paying for sex and prices that respond to market forces go way back in our evolutionary heritage.

TIME MAGAZINE - In a recent study of macaque monkeys in Indonesia, researchers found that male primates "paid" for sexual access to females — and that the going rate for such access dwindled as the number of available females went up....

Researchers, who studied the monkeys for some 20 months, found that males offered their payment up-front, as a kind of pre-sex ritual. It worked. After the females were groomed by male partners, female sexual activity more than doubled, from an average of 1.5 times an hour to 3.5 times. The study also showed that the number of minutes that males spent grooming hinged on the number of females available at the time: The better a male's odds of getting lucky, the less nit-picking time the females received.

And whether you're one of the cool kids matters too, lead researcher Michael Gumert told Discovery News:

"Powerful individuals can take more and give less than low-ranked individuals can," he said, suggesting that such corruption of the fair trade ideal appears to be an inherent facet of primate social life that can apply to everything from monkey sex to human politics. High-ranking females can also skew the system because, in the case of macaques, they demand more attention before they agree to mate.

(Photo by researcher Michael Gumert from Discovery News.)

Friday, March 6, 2009

There's a double standard in everything...

...even cannibalistic parenting.

Eating one's offspring seems to be actually rather common in the animal kingdom.
There must be a reason for this behavior, or it wouldn't have evolved. But it's an interesting mystery because if the point of reproducing is to pass on your genes, it seems just a bit counterproductive.

A couple of recent studies of this phenomenon show that even in the animal kingdom, when it comes to child care, men don't have to work nearly as hard to be considered great for pitching in with the child care.

One study looked at sand gobies, a species of fish where dad provides all the care. Sounds enlightened, right? Not so fast:

"Overall, dad does a pretty good job of taking care of the eggs, except for one thing — he tends to eat about a third of them," said researcher Hope Klug, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Helsinki in Finland. "Based on previous work in this species, we know that the males aren't just doing this because they're hungry — even when they have excess food, they continue to eat a really large number of their own eggs."

There are many theories about offspring cannibalism that aren't too bad - for example, getting rid of defective or inferior young - but in this case, researchers concluded that the males's goal is to get back to partying:

The scientists found the males preferred to eat larger eggs — which take longer to hatch — from the second female they spawned with. They conjecture the fish do so to cut down on the amount of time spent caring for their young, thereby enabling the dads to reenter the mating game sooner.

Sand goby dads have to care for thousands of eggs "until they hatch — about one to two weeks — and during this time he isn't able to attract any new females," Klug explained.

In contrast, another study showed that rattlesnake mothers eat their babies because they're exhausted and starving after giving birth - and they only consume the ones that are already dead.

Isn't it always the way?

Goby photo by Flickr user Preview_H.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Bad animals in history: cliche comes alive

The dog ate my homework: it's an excuse that's as old as homework. Grownups can use it too, though: here's your precedent.

Perhaps one of the most famous and influential bad animals in American literature, Toby, a setter, destroyed the first manuscript of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

Steinbeck had nothing but excuses for this behavior; William Kennedy explains:

In 1933 John Steinbeck was so poor he couldn't afford a dog. The literary critic Lewis Gannett uncovered this fact in Steinbeck’s correspondence with his agents during the time he was writing Tortilla Flat... “I need a dog pretty badly,” Steinbeck wrote. “Apparently we are headed for the rocks. The light company is going to turn off the power in a few days . . .”

By the time he was writing (Of Mice and Men) he had earned enough money to buy a dog—a setter named Toby who, one night, alone with the Of Mice and Men manuscript, made confetti of it. “Two months’ work to do over,” Steinbeck wrote. “There was no other draft. I was pretty mad, but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically. I didn't want to ruin a good dog for a manuscript I'm not sure is good at all.” Mice, as Steinbeck called it, was critically acclaimed, became a Book-of-the-Month, and a serious movie, but the suddenly famous Steinbeck still had his doubts. “I'm not sure,” he wrote, that “Toby didn't know what he was doing when he ate the first draft. I have promoted Toby-dog to be lieutenant-colonel in charge of literature.”

The excuses are no surprise from Steinbeck, clearly a lifelong sucker for dogs. Not only did he count his lack of a dog as an equal hardship to his imminent lack of electricity, he is of course famous for writing an entire book about traveling cross-country with his standard poodle, Charley - who is introduced as follows:
Charley is a born diplomat. He prefers negotiation to fighting, and properly so, since he is very bad at fighting. Only once in his ten years has he been in trouble - when he met a dog who refused to negotiate. Charley lost a piece of his right ear that time.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Invertebrate Bad Behavior updates

The man and woman on the street at The Onion, always ready with an opinion, comment on serotonin-crazed locusts.

And like his previously reported aquarium-damaging relative, an octopus in Santa Monica figures out how to cause a flood:

AP - Staff at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium in California say the trickster who flooded their offices with sea water was armed. Eight-armed, to be exact... The octopus apparently tugged on a valve and that allowed hundreds of gallons of water to overflow its tank.

Aquarium spokeswoman Randi Parent says no sea life was harmed by the flood, but the brand new, ecologically designed floors might be damaged by the water.

Read more complete coverage at the LA Times:
Since octopuses are considered by many to be the most intelligent invertebrate -- and to have good memories -- (aquarium education specialist) Fash said he jury-rigged his octopus tank piping with clamps and tape in hopes of thwarting any further mischief by its occupant. "She would need tools," he said of his octopus, which until now had no name.

"Some people are suggesting we call her 'Flo,' " he said.