Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Substance abusing bees, part 1

Recent research shows that honey bees that are given cocaine dance more - which may not be surprising - but there's more to it than it sounds at first, because remember that for bees, dancing isn't about partying, it's about communication:

ScienceDaily (Dec. 25, 2008) — In a study that challenges current ideas about the insect brain, researchers have found that honey bees on cocaine tend to exaggerate.

Normally, foraging honey bees alert their comrades to potential food sources only when they've found high quality nectar or pollen, and only when the hive is in need. They do this by performing a dance, called a "round" or "waggle" dance, on a specialized "dance floor" in the hive. The dance gives specific instructions that help the other bees find the food.

Foraging honey bees on cocaine are more likely to dance, regardless of the quality of the food they've found or the status of the hive, the authors of the study report.

(Click here for a less restrained look into the mind of bees on coke, from this week's New Yorker.)

Bees have also been used to study the effects of alcohol, and the effect likewise sound awfully familiar.

"Alcohol affects bees and humans in similar ways – it impairs motor functioning along with learning and memory processing," said Julie Mustard, a study co-author and a postdoctoral researcher in entomology at Ohio State University.

Researchers gave honey bees various levels of ethanol, the intoxicating agent in liquor, and monitored the ensuing behavioral effects of the drink – specifically how much time the bees spent flying, walking, standing still, grooming and flat on their backs, so drunk they couldn't stand up.

...Not surprisingly, increasing ethanol consumption meant bees spent less time flying, walking and grooming, and more time upside down.

You might say that this doesn't count as bad behavior, because it wasn't the bees' choice to imbibe... but come back on Friday.

Partying bee by Flickr user Henrique Vicente.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Not safe for work (especially if your co-workers are cold-blooded)

If you've ever spent even a moment observing tortoises at the zoo, you probably noticed that they seem to have nothing on their minds but sex. It's particularly conspicuous with the very large species - and not just visually, but also because they call attention to themselves by moaning and groaning at quite a volume.

Smaller tortoises are just as bad if less noticeable, though, and apparently some of them have unnatural inclinations, as you can see in this YouTube video of a tortoise's encounter with a shoe.

I thought about trying to embed this video but... I couldn't do it. I just felt too dirty. In any case, then you wouldn't see the many similarly disgusting entries that YouTube helpfully suggests under 'Related Videos.' Just don't say I didn't warn you.

And don't be fooled by the thoughtful expression on the face of the tortoise in that photo by Flickr user Misterqueue.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Everyone's a critic

Amazing news from a study on bonobos indicates that not only are they just as fussy about their food as we are - but that the five-star scale for rating restaurants goes back much farther on the evolutionary scale than previously suspected:

Bonobos yell out their food ratings using at least five distinct vocalizations, the study found... When presented with their favorite foods, the bonobos almost always barked. They grunted when encountering their least favorites. The other calls seemed to signify ratings in between, with peep-yelps falling in the middle range for nibbles the individual thought were so-so.

It's no surprise though that dessert got higher ratings than the stuff that's good for you.

Zuberbuhler, a professor in the School of Psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and colleague Zanna Clay began their experiments by documenting the food preferences of bonobos housed at the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park. The great apes were presented with foods on a tray, and the scientists noted their first choices.

Figs got a perfect score, with raisins a close second. In order from most to least favored, the rest of the list read: grapes, bananas, popcorn, apples, oranges, biscuits, celery, melon, lettuce, yams and peppers.

"It appears that energy-rich succulent fruits were the most favored of foods," Clay told Discovery News. "A bit like us, they weren't so keen on their vegetables."

A meal that bonobos would not care for at the inaptly named Bonobo's Organic Vegetarian Restaurant in New York - detail of photo by Flickr user Dano

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Continuing news from the Making Excuses for Other Primates Department

But in this case, I think maybe they've got a point...

A new study argues that there's a good reason that female orangutans steal food from males. They're testing to see whether they make good mates:

When males reacted violently or took the food back, the females screamed and tended to end the interactions much sooner than when the male tolerated the stealing...

"We think the stealing allows females to test males for their tendency to be aggressive toward them so they can determine whether they are worth further associating with."

Maybe stealing is wrong, but after all, there are two kinds of people in the world: the ones who will share what they've ordered at a restaurant and the ones who won't. And there's nothing more important to determine on a first date, right?

Orangutan by Flickr user the van

Monday, April 20, 2009

Dolphins and their dirty secrets

"Everybody who's done research in the field is tired of dolphin lovers who believe these creatures are floating hobbits," said well known animal trainer Karen Pryor, quoted in the New York Times - in 1992. She must be 17 years tireder now, because nothing has changed.

As we saw Friday, all dolphins have to do is show up and people assume they're doing some great good deed - despite the fact that when they can get close enough, they may actually attempt sexual assault.

Their own sex lives are no more gentle or romantic, the same Times article relates. In fact, male dolphins actually form gangs to capture females to have sex.

Males collude with their peers as a way of stealing fertile females from competing dolphin bands. And after they have succeeded in spiriting a female away, the males remain in their tight-knit group to assure the female stays in line, performing a series of feats that are at once spectacular and threatening. Two or three males will surround the female, leaping and bellyflopping, swiveling and somersaulting, all in perfect synchrony with one another. Should the female be so unimpressed by the choreography as to attempt to flee, the males will chase after her, bite her, slap her with their fins or slam into her with their bodies. The scientists call this effort to control females "herding," but they acknowledge that the word does not convey the aggressiveness of the act.

"Sometimes the female is obviously trying to escape, and the noises start to sound like they're hurting each other," said Dr. Rachel A. Smolker of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "The hitting sounds really hard, and the female may end up with tooth-rake marks."

At the time of this article, one question was still unanswered:

although what happens once the males have herded in a female, and whether she goes for one or all of them, is not yet known: the researchers have yet to witness a dolphin copulation.

I guess I could look for more recent research on this, but aren't you appalled enough for now? If not, how about this:

...once she gives birth the alliance loses interest in her. Female dolphins raise their calves as single mothers for four to five years.

So utterly charming!

Dolphin laughing at us by Flickr user holga new orleans.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Dolphins are full of it

BEIJING, April 14 (Xinhuanet) -- Thousands of dolphins blocked the suspected Somali pirate ships when they were trying to attack Chinese merchant ships passing the Gulf of Aden, the China Radio International reported on Monday.

The Chinese merchant ships escorted by a China's fleet sailed on the Gulf of Aden when they met some suspected pirate ships. Thousands of dolphins suddenly leaped out of water between pirates and merchants when the pirate ships headed for the China's.

The suspected pirates ships stopped and then turned away. The pirates could only lament their littleness before the vast number of dolphins. The spectacular scene continued for a while.

I know, you're thinking, "But this is a good deed! How are these animals behaving badly?"

Well, there's nothing that ticks me off like animals leaping on a news story to get free publicity to boost their already ridiculous reputation.

There may be no animal that people have a more absurdly romantic view of than dolphins, and no doubt they like it that way. Showing up and leaping gracefully next to a pirate ship - and letting people's imagination fill in the most benevolent interpretation - it's a great way to deflect attention from their more unsavory activities.

In fact, dolphins not only harass female dolphins till they have sex with them (an activity worthy of attention on its own - come back Monday), they've even been reported trying to do the same to human swimmers, like the case of a dolphin called George reported in England in 2002.

O'Barry, who works with the World Society for the Protection of Animals, said: "Georges's well-documented sexual aggression poses a real threat to the thousands of swimmers who will be descending on Weymouth over the summer."

He told the London-based Times newspaper: "This dolphin does get very sexually aggressive. He has already attempted to mate with some divers.

"When dolphins get sexually excited, they try to isolate a swimmer, normally female. They do this by circling around the individual and gradually move them away from the beach, boat or crowd of people."

O'Barry said the dolphin would get very excited and rough before trying to mate with a swimmer, possibly causing them to drown.

We'll look more at dolphins and their aggressive attitude toward sex on Monday. In the meantime - They're animals, people, don't let the pretty paintings fool you!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Bad primates from the archives

India isn't the only place that has trouble with macaques that don't know where to draw the line. They're also up to the usual primate pranks in Singapore, as Reuters reported in 2007:

Gangs of long-tailed macaque monkeys have been causing havoc in housing estates bordering nature reserves; stealing food and brawling on the streets.

"They roam the estate in groups of up to 20 …- rampaging the estate and turning over dustbins," one irate local wrote to the national paper in October.

"They enter the house, open cupboards, steal food and soil the premises".

Picnics are spoiled and snacks are snatched from bags while golfers tee off. Even the British Club has armed staff with brooms to shoo monkeys away from the gourmet buffet.

As usual when the relatives are involved, some are quick to make excuses.

"It's a very weird situation," said Sharon Chan, the National Parks official tasked with managing the macaques.

"It's not that they want to attack. They just think, if you have the food, why don't you share it? Why are you eating and not sharing? Can I have some? They cross the line".

Feeding monkeys has been banned, since it just encourages them. But despite fines of over a hundred dollars, some humans have no more self-control - or fear of the consequences - than their monkey cousins.

Whenever he gets time, 50-year old driver J.J. Jolibi buys ten dollars worth of bananas and heads for the roads by the reservoirs to feed and watch curb-crawling troops.

The self-described animal-lover has been warned twice, but isn't scared of fines:

"A fine is not very expensive," Jolibi said. "I'd feed them again. Maybe the judge will be an animal lover and give me a warning. If the judge hates monkeys, maybe he'll fine me".

Consultant Barbara Martelli, 42, who works with Chan, says stamping out feeding won't be easy, even among Singaporeans well used to a regular diet of government-sponsored education campaigns on everything from flushing toilets to speaking good Mandarin.

"It is good fun. You can't deny that it's good fun. Monkeys are sweet and funny," said Martelli.

Photo from Flickr user Shenghung Lin.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Post-Holiday Warning

Keep an eye on that half-price Easter candy that you ran out and bought, or it could cost you more than you expected, like it did for the owners of a Lab in England.

A sweet-toothed dog that wolfed down 12 creme eggs in one sitting has sparked new warnings for owners to keep their Easter treats out of pets' reach.

Labrador Buster ended up in intensive care with chocolate poisoning after sniffing out the eggs at home in Derby.

Don't think experience will teach a pup anything in this department, as this lab showed after his expensive trip to the vet.

Owner Brenda Dawes said: "He's already tried to eat a bag of crisps and a toilet roll since he's been home."

(At least what he's eating is food, unlike his fellow Englishpup who who was reported in 2007 to have eaten 300 socks and 40 pairs of pants.)

Bad dog by Flickr user dennis and aimee jonez.

Friday, April 10, 2009

More primate prostitution

It's not news that certain primates pay for sex - not people, I mean, but we know about those macaques that are willing to give it up in exchange for a nice grooming.

So it's no surprise that our closer relatives do it too - but at least they have the sense to hold out for better pay. Male chimps pay with meat for mating, say researchers from the Max Planck Institute:

"By sharing, the males increase the number of times they mate, and the females increase their intake of calories," said Dr Gomes.

"What's amazing is that if a male shares with a particular female, he doubles the number of times he copulates with her, which is likely to increase the probability of fertilising that female."

As we've seen in the past, though, researchers find ways to make excuses for the relatives, arguing that this is less like prostitution and more like... marriage?

"We looked at chimps when they were not in oestrus, this means they don't have sexual swellings and aren't copulating."

"The males still share with them - they might share meat with a female one day, and only copulate with her a day or two later."

...Professor Gurven, who was not involved in this study, added that the nature of this exchange of meat for sex is "kind of like pair bonding in humans, because it's long-term."

No comment!

(Full of himself chimp by Flickr user Misterqueue.)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Pigeons gone bad

Street pigeons are considered by many to be no better than rats with wings. But carrier pigeons have a noble history of service to humans, including carrying messages in two world wars. Unfortunately - perhaps because work is scarce for them, with all the other communications technology we have now - it seems that these days they're not picky about who they associate with.

SAO PAULO (AFP) – To smuggle cellphones into prison, Brazilian inmates have turned to a much older form of communication: carrier pigeons.

Guards have intercepted two carrier pigeons carrying cellphones to detainees at a prison in Sorocaba, some 62 miles (100 kilometers) from Sao Paolo, a spokeswoman for the state penitentiary system told AFP.

"Penitentiary agents found the pigeons outside the Danilo Pinheiro prison but, fortunately, the birds did not have time to enter the prison building with the material," said Rosana Alberto.

Each pigeon was carrying a small bag containing a cellphone and charger, she said. They were caught in two successive days, last Wednesday and Thursday.

In fact it seems like pigeons are easily bribed to change sides in either direction. As reported by the AP:

Guards at the Danilio Pinheiro prison near the southeastern city of Sorocaba last week noticed a pigeon resting on an electric wire with a small cloth bag tied to one of its legs.

"The guards nabbed the bird after luring it down with some food and discovered components of a small cell phone inside the bag," police investigator Celso Soramiglio said Tuesday.

Photo by Flickr user Wolfraven.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Pigginess or politics?

We can keep animals from participating in politics in the usual ways, but some still find a way to express an opinion.

NOVO-OGARYOVO, Russia (Reuters) - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's pet dog gobbled up a special tea prepared for bosses of Russia's ruling party Wednesday.

While Putin discussed ways to help the local food industry, his favorite black Labrador Koni slinked into a room at his residence and tucked into delicacies prepared for leaders of his United Russia party.

"Koni ate everything," said one of Putin's astounded bodyguards.

Putin's spokesman said Koni, who has the run of Putin's Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, had eaten some pastries, biscuits and jellied desserts.

We might suggest that Mr. Putin hire some more qualified bodyguards - "Astounded" clearly has no experience with dogs and their most routine sorts of bad behavior.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Depends on your point of view

Some consider gay marriage to be a form of bad behavior. But in China, a pair of male penguins changed people's minds.

THE SUN, UK: They were once given the cold shoulder at the wildlife park in China for stealing heterosexual couples' eggs to nest as their own.

But after being allowed to try out with eggs rejected by their mothers the couple have become the zoo's best penguin parents.

Now keepers at Polarland Zoo in Harbin, north east China, have rewarded their devotion with a wedding day.

One wore a tie and the other was dressed in a red blouse – a traditional Chinese bridal colour – as they stepped into their icy wedding room to the music of the Wedding March.

A similar pair in New York's Central Park Zoo had a children's book written about them - but, sadly, in most of this country a wedding would be out of the question, even for animals that are already appropriately attired for the ceremony.

(Photo by Flickr user Paul Mannix.)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sneaky transvestite lizards

It is my impression that most human transvestites aren't men who dress up as women to pick up women, but, apparently for lizards, it's a good strategy.

Researchers have recently found a species of lizard in South Africa where non-dominant males delay changing to their adult coloration so they can sneak around and steal women without the dominant males realizing what's going on. This works because juveniles of the Augrabies Flat Lizard all start out the color of females.
"By delaying the onset of colour to a more convenient period, these males, termed she-males, are making the best of a bad situation."

Australian National University associate professor Scott Keogh said opting to become transvestites for a period offered young males a dual advantage.

"They can avoid potentially dangerous bouts with dominant males and still have access to normally inaccessible females," he said.

I almost wrote "steal women right under the dominant males' noses," but in fact, you can fool them by looks - but if the dominant male gets close enough to smell, the she-males are in trouble:

University of Sydney researcher Jonathan Webb said... the she-males needed to be nimble to avoid advances from dominant males smitten by their fake female allure.

"Males are fooled by looks, but not by scent," he said.

"She-males are able to maintain this deception by staying one step ahead of a prying male, and thereby avoiding a nosey tongue that might give the game away."

Maybe a good cologne would help?

(Photo from coverage at, Gay South Africa Lifestyle News.)