Jackals moved north because wolves were eradicated

Thursday, February 21st, 2019

Jackals now vastly outnumber wolves in Europe:

Smaller than North American coyotes, the golden jackal weighs an average 20 pounds. It is native to the Middle East and southern Asia, ranging as far east as Thailand and inhabiting Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

The species arrived at the southern edge of Central and Eastern Europe about 8,000 years ago, fossil evidence suggests, and started to expand slowly in the 19th century. But the current boom really began in the 1950s and has accelerated over the past 20 years.

Jackals are one of the least studied canine predators. Like wolves and coyotes, jackals have family-based packs, but the groups tend to be smaller, with four to six animals, while wolf packs may include 15 animals.

A monogamous pair of jackals forms the core of a pack; the young may stay with the parents, or leave to establish their own packs.

Jackals are not as prominent in tales and proverbs as some other animals, although there’s an old quote, variously attributed, that it is better to live like a lion for a day than a jackal for 100 years. Hemingway described “personal columnists” as jackals, which no doubt refers to their scavenging habits.

Jackals did have one moment of past glory. The Egyptian god Anubis was sometimes said to have a jackal’s head. That claim to fame has been lost: The North African animal that may have inspired the sculptures of Anubis has been reclassified as the African wolf.

Golden Jackal in Croatia

Substantial populations of jackals now live in a number of European countries, including Greece, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, Austria, Italy, and above all, Bulgaria, which has the largest population.

Jackal wanderers — or advance scouts — have been found in France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Belarus, Estonia, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Scientists think jackals began to move north because wolves were targeted for eradication, particularly in the Balkans. That opened a door, since jackals seem to avoid areas well populated by wolves.


The jackals’ expansion is a huge natural experiment, similar to but more surprising than the spread of coyotes in North America. Coyotes were well established in the West and Southwest before they started arriving in the Northeast and Southeast, and lately in Mexico.

The clinging death

Saturday, February 16th, 2019

In Jack London’s White Fang, the wolf-dog goes through an ugly episode under the ownership of the ironically nicknamed Beauty Smith, an ugly man, inside and out:

At irregular intervals, whenever a fight could be arranged, he was taken out of his cage and led off into the woods a few miles from town.  Usually this occurred at night, so as to avoid interference from the mounted police of the Territory.  After a few hours of waiting, when daylight had come, the audience and the dog with which he was to fight arrived.  In this manner it came about that he fought all sizes and breeds of dogs.  It was a savage land, the men were savage, and the fights were usually to the death.

Since White Fang continued to fight, it is obvious that it was the other dogs that died.  He never knew defeat.  His early training, when he fought with Lip-lip and the whole puppy-pack, stood him in good stead.  There was the tenacity with which he clung to the earth.  No dog could make him lose his footing.  This was the favourite trick of the wolf breeds — to rush in upon him, either directly or with an unexpected swerve, in the hope of striking his shoulder and overthrowing him.  Mackenzie hounds, Eskimo and Labrador dogs, huskies and Malemutes — all tried it on him, and all failed.  He was never known to lose his footing.  Men told this to one another, and looked each time to see it happen; but White Fang always disappointed them.

Then there was his lightning quickness.  It gave him a tremendous advantage over his antagonists.  No matter what their fighting experience, they had never encountered a dog that moved so swiftly as he.  Also to be reckoned with, was the immediateness of his attack.  The average dog was accustomed to the preliminaries of snarling and bristling and growling, and the average dog was knocked off his feet and finished before he had begun to fight or recovered from his surprise.  So often did this happen, that it became the custom to hold White Fang until the other dog went through its preliminaries, was good and ready, and even made the first attack.

But greatest of all the advantages in White Fang’s favour, was his experience.  He knew more about fighting than did any of the dogs that faced him.  He had fought more fights, knew how to meet more tricks and methods, and had more tricks himself, while his own method was scarcely to be improved upon.

As the time went by, he had fewer and fewer fights.  Men despaired of matching him with an equal, and Beauty Smith was compelled to pit wolves against him.  These were trapped by the Indians for the purpose, and a fight between White Fang and a wolf was always sure to draw a crowd.  Once, a full-grown female lynx was secured, and this time White Fang fought for his life.  Her quickness matched his; her ferocity equalled his; while he fought with his fangs alone, and she fought with her sharp-clawed feet as well.

But after the lynx, all fighting ceased for White Fang.  There were no more animals with which to fight — at least, there was none considered worthy of fighting with him.  So he remained on exhibition until spring, when one Tim Keenan, a faro-dealer, arrived in the land.  With him came the first bull-dog that had ever entered the Klondike.  That this dog and White Fang should come together was inevitable, and for a week the anticipated fight was the mainspring of conversation in certain quarters of the town.

Then comes the clinging death:

Beauty Smith slipped the chain from his neck and stepped back.

For once White Fang did not make an immediate attack. He stood still, ears pricked forward, alert and curious, surveying the strange animal that faced him. He had never seen such a dog before. Tim Keenan shoved the bull-dog forward with a muttered “Go to it.” The animal waddled toward the centre of the circle, short and squat and ungainly. He came to a stop and blinked across at White Fang.

There were cries from the crowd of, “Go to him, Cherokee! Sick ’m, Cherokee! Eat ’m up!”

But Cherokee did not seem anxious to fight. He turned his head and blinked at the men who shouted, at the same time wagging his stump of a tail good-naturedly. He was not afraid, but merely lazy. Besides, it did not seem to him that it was intended he should fight with the dog he saw before him. He was not used to fighting with that kind of dog, and he was waiting for them to bring on the real dog.

Tim Keenan stepped in and bent over Cherokee, fondling him on both sides of the shoulders with hands that rubbed against the grain of the hair and that made slight, pushing-forward movements. These were so many suggestions. Also, their effect was irritating, for Cherokee began to growl, very softly, deep down in his throat. There was a correspondence in rhythm between the growls and the movements of the man’s hands. The growl rose in the throat with the culmination of each forward-pushing movement, and ebbed down to start up afresh with the beginning of the next movement. The end of each movement was the accent of the rhythm, the movement ending abruptly and the growling rising with a jerk.

This was not without its effect on White Fang. The hair began to rise on his neck and across the shoulders. Tim Keenan gave a final shove forward and stepped back again. As the impetus that carried Cherokee forward died down, he continued to go forward of his own volition, in a swift, bow-legged run. Then White Fang struck. A cry of startled admiration went up. He had covered the distance and gone in more like a cat than a dog; and with the same cat-like swiftness he had slashed with his fangs and leaped clear.

The bull-dog was bleeding back of one ear from a rip in his thick neck. He gave no sign, did not even snarl, but turned and followed after White Fang. The display on both sides, the quickness of the one and the steadiness of the other, had excited the partisan spirit of the crowd, and the men were making new bets and increasing original bets. Again, and yet again, White Fang sprang in, slashed, and got away untouched, and still his strange foe followed after him, without too great haste, not slowly, but deliberately and determinedly, in a businesslike sort of way. There was purpose in his method — something for him to do that he was intent upon doing and from which nothing could distract him.

His whole demeanour, every action, was stamped with this purpose. It puzzled White Fang. Never had he seen such a dog. It had no hair protection. It was soft, and bled easily. There was no thick mat of fur to baffle White Fang’s teeth as they were often baffled by dogs of his own breed. Each time that his teeth struck they sank easily into the yielding flesh, while the animal did not seem able to defend itself. Another disconcerting thing was that it made no outcry, such as he had been accustomed to with the other dogs he had fought. Beyond a growl or a grunt, the dog took its punishment silently. And never did it flag in its pursuit of him.

Not that Cherokee was slow. He could turn and whirl swiftly enough, but White Fang was never there. Cherokee was puzzled, too. He had never fought before with a dog with which he could not close. The desire to close had always been mutual. But here was a dog that kept at a distance, dancing and dodging here and there and all about. And when it did get its teeth into him, it did not hold on but let go instantly and darted away again.

But White Fang could not get at the soft underside of the throat. The bull-dog stood too short, while its massive jaws were an added protection. White Fang darted in and out unscathed, while Cherokee’s wounds increased. Both sides of his neck and head were ripped and slashed. He bled freely, but showed no signs of being disconcerted. He continued his plodding pursuit, though once, for the moment baffled, he came to a full stop and blinked at the men who looked on, at the same time wagging his stump of a tail as an expression of his willingness to fight.

In that moment White Fang was in upon him and out, in passing ripping his trimmed remnant of an ear. With a slight manifestation of anger, Cherokee took up the pursuit again, running on the inside of the circle White Fang was making, and striving to fasten his deadly grip on White Fang’s throat. The bull-dog missed by a hair’s-breadth, and cries of praise went up as White Fang doubled suddenly out of danger in the opposite direction.

The time went by. White Fang still danced on, dodging and doubling, leaping in and out, and ever inflicting damage. And still the bull-dog, with grim certitude, toiled after him. Sooner or later he would accomplish his purpose, get the grip that would win the battle. In the meantime, he accepted all the punishment the other could deal him. His tufts of ears had become tassels, his neck and shoulders were slashed in a score of places, and his very lips were cut and bleeding — all from these lightning snaps that were beyond his foreseeing and guarding.

Time and again White Fang had attempted to knock Cherokee off his feet; but the difference in their height was too great. Cherokee was too squat, too close to the ground. White Fang tried the trick once too often. The chance came in one of his quick doublings and counter-circlings. He caught Cherokee with head turned away as he whirled more slowly. His shoulder was exposed. White Fang drove in upon it: but his own shoulder was high above, while he struck with such force that his momentum carried him on across over the other’s body. For the first time in his fighting history, men saw White Fang lose his footing. His body turned a half-somersault in the air, and he would have landed on his back had he not twisted, catlike, still in the air, in the effort to bring his feet to the earth. As it was, he struck heavily on his side. The next instant he was on his feet, but in that instant Cherokee’s teeth closed on his throat.

It was not a good grip, being too low down toward the chest; but Cherokee held on. White Fang sprang to his feet and tore wildly around, trying to shake off the bull-dog’s body. It made him frantic, this clinging, dragging weight. It bound his movements, restricted his freedom. It was like the trap, and all his instinct resented it and revolted against it. It was a mad revolt. For several minutes he was to all intents insane. The basic life that was in him took charge of him. The will to exist of his body surged over him. He was dominated by this mere flesh-love of life. All intelligence was gone. It was as though he had no brain. His reason was unseated by the blind yearning of the flesh to exist and move, at all hazards to move, to continue to move, for movement was the expression of its existence.

Round and round he went, whirling and turning and reversing, trying to shake off the fifty-pound weight that dragged at his throat. The bull-dog did little but keep his grip. Sometimes, and rarely, he managed to get his feet to the earth and for a moment to brace himself against White Fang. But the next moment his footing would be lost and he would be dragging around in the whirl of one of White Fang’s mad gyrations. Cherokee identified himself with his instinct. He knew that he was doing the right thing by holding on, and there came to him certain blissful thrills of satisfaction. At such moments he even closed his eyes and allowed his body to be hurled hither and thither, willy-nilly, careless of any hurt that might thereby come to it. That did not count. The grip was the thing, and the grip he kept.

White Fang ceased only when he had tired himself out. He could do nothing, and he could not understand. Never, in all his fighting, had this thing happened. The dogs he had fought with did not fight that way. With them it was snap and slash and get away, snap and slash and get away. He lay partly on his side, panting for breath. Cherokee still holding his grip, urged against him, trying to get him over entirely on his side. White Fang resisted, and he could feel the jaws shifting their grip, slightly relaxing and coming together again in a chewing movement. Each shift brought the grip closer to his throat. The bull-dog’s method was to hold what he had, and when opportunity favoured to work in for more. Opportunity favoured when White Fang remained quiet. When White Fang struggled, Cherokee was content merely to hold on.

The bulging back of Cherokee’s neck was the only portion of his body that White Fang’s teeth could reach. He got hold toward the base where the neck comes out from the shoulders; but he did not know the chewing method of fighting, nor were his jaws adapted to it. He spasmodically ripped and tore with his fangs for a space. Then a change in their position diverted him. The bull-dog had managed to roll him over on his back, and still hanging on to his throat, was on top of him. Like a cat, White Fang bowed his hind-quarters in, and, with the feet digging into his enemy’s abdomen above him, he began to claw with long tearing-strokes. Cherokee might well have been disembowelled had he not quickly pivoted on his grip and got his body off of White Fang’s and at right angles to it.

There was no escaping that grip. It was like Fate itself, and as inexorable. Slowly it shifted up along the jugular. All that saved White Fang from death was the loose skin of his neck and the thick fur that covered it. This served to form a large roll in Cherokee’s mouth, the fur of which well-nigh defied his teeth. But bit by bit, whenever the chance offered, he was getting more of the loose skin and fur in his mouth. The result was that he was slowly throttling White Fang. The latter’s breath was drawn with greater and greater difficulty as the moments went by.

It began to look as though the battle were over. The backers of Cherokee waxed jubilant and offered ridiculous odds. White Fang’s backers were correspondingly depressed, and refused bets of ten to one and twenty to one, though one man was rash enough to close a wager of fifty to one. This man was Beauty Smith. He took a step into the ring and pointed his finger at White Fang. Then he began to laugh derisively and scornfully. This produced the desired effect. White Fang went wild with rage. He called up his reserves of strength, and gained his feet. As he struggled around the ring, the fifty pounds of his foe ever dragging on his throat, his anger passed on into panic. The basic life of him dominated him again, and his intelligence fled before the will of his flesh to live. Round and round and back again, stumbling and falling and rising, even uprearing at times on his hind-legs and lifting his foe clear of the earth, he struggled vainly to shake off the clinging death.

At last he fell, toppling backward, exhausted; and the bull-dog promptly shifted his grip, getting in closer, mangling more and more of the fur-folded flesh, throttling White Fang more severely than ever. Shouts of applause went up for the victor, and there were many cries of “Cherokee!” “Cherokee!” To this Cherokee responded by vigorous wagging of the stump of his tail. But the clamour of approval did not distract him. There was no sympathetic relation between his tail and his massive jaws. The one might wag, but the others held their terrible grip on White Fang’s throat.

I don’t think London would’ve been too surprised by those early UFCs.

Almost a vampire story, but with dogs

Thursday, February 14th, 2019

I recently listened to an audiobook version of Jack London’s White Fang and was surprised by how much the opening chapters resemble a horror story:

The pale light of the short sunless day was beginning to fade, when a faint far cry arose on the still air. It soared upward with a swift rush, till it reached its topmost note, where it persisted, palpitant and tense, and then slowly died away. It might have been a lost soul wailing, had it not been invested with a certain sad fierceness and hungry eagerness. The front man turned his head until his eyes met the eyes of the man behind. And then, across the narrow oblong box, each nodded to the other.

A second cry arose, piercing the silence with needle-like shrillness. Both men located the sound. It was to the rear, somewhere in the snow expanse they had just traversed. A third and answering cry arose, also to the rear and to the left of the second cry.

“They’re after us, Bill,” said the man at the front.

His voice sounded hoarse and unreal, and he had spoken with apparent effort.

“Meat is scarce,” answered his comrade. “I ain’t seen a rabbit sign for days.”

Thereafter they spoke no more, though their ears were keen for the hunting-cries that continued to rise behind them.

At the fall of darkness they swung the dogs into a cluster of spruce trees on the edge of the waterway and made a camp. The coffin, at the side of the fire, served for seat and table. The wolf-dogs, clustered on the far side of the fire, snarled and bickered among themselves, but evinced no inclination to stray off into the darkness.

“Seems to me, Henry, they’re stayin’ remarkable close to camp,” Bill commented.

Henry, squatting over the fire and settling the pot of coffee with a piece of ice, nodded. Nor did he speak till he had taken his seat on the coffin and begun to eat.

“They know where their hides is safe,” he said. “They’d sooner eat grub than be grub. They’re pretty wise, them dogs.”

Bill shook his head. “Oh, I don’t know.”

His comrade looked at him curiously. “First time I ever heard you say anything about their not bein’ wise.”

“Henry,” said the other, munching with deliberation the beans he was eating, “did you happen to notice the way them dogs kicked up when I was a-feedin’ ’em?”

“They did cut up more’n usual,” Henry acknowledged.

“How many dogs ’ve we got, Henry?”


“Well, Henry . . . ” Bill stopped for a moment, in order that his words might gain greater significance. “As I was sayin’, Henry, we’ve got six dogs. I took six fish out of the bag. I gave one fish to each dog, an’, Henry, I was one fish short.”

“You counted wrong.”

“We’ve got six dogs,” the other reiterated dispassionately. “I took out six fish. One Ear didn’t get no fish. I came back to the bag afterward an’ got ’m his fish.”

“We’ve only got six dogs,” Henry said.

“Henry,” Bill went on. “I won’t say they was all dogs, but there was seven of ’m that got fish.”

Henry stopped eating to glance across the fire and count the dogs.

“There’s only six now,” he said.

“I saw the other one run off across the snow,” Bill announced with cool positiveness. “I saw seven.”

Henry looked at him commiseratingly, and said, “I’ll be almighty glad when this trip’s over.”

Go ahead and read the first three chapters. They’re their own short story — almost a vampire story, but with dogs.

The sensation of a continuous sharp trill

Tuesday, January 8th, 2019

The US embassy in Havana halved its staff when diplomats came under sonic attack:

The mysterious wave of illness fuelled speculation that the staff had been targeted by an acoustic weapon. It was an explanation that appeared to gain weight when an audio recording of a persistent, high-pitched drone made by US personnel in Cuba was released to the Associated Press.

But a fresh analysis of the audio recording has revealed what scientists in the UK and the US now believe is the true source of the piercing din: it is the song of the Indies short-tailed cricket, known formally as Anurogryllus celerinictus.

“The recording is definitively a cricket that belongs to the same group,” said Fernando Montealegre-Zapata, a professor of sensory biology at the University of Lincoln. “The call of this Caribbean species is about 7 kHz, and is delivered at an unusually high rate, which gives humans the sensation of a continuous sharp trill.”

Scott Adams adds his hypnotist perspective:

If you tell a hundred random people they were attacked by a sonic device, twenty will have symptoms. You can test it without the noise.

Your family pet is a secret badass

Sunday, November 4th, 2018

When screenwriter Zack Stentz was a little kid, he was obsessed by the Chuck Jones adaptation of Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi“:

I think the idea that your family pet is a secret badass who will fight cobras to protect you at night spoke to me on a deep level.

I remember loving it too, so I was surprised when someone mentioned another Chuck Jones-animated adaptation of a Kipling story, “The White Seal.”

Chuck Jones is a fascinating character — as you might expect of the guy who created the Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Pepé Le Pew, and Marvin Martian — and I remember enjoying his memoir, Chuck Amuck. I distinctly remember one anecdote.

Chuck’s father kept starting businesses, and each time he started a new business, he bought lots of letterhead. When the business soon failed, his kids were encouraged to use up the paper as fast as possible — so young Chuck got lots and lots of practice drawing.

Chuck’s grandson seems to have inherited a bit of the animator’s spirit, judging from this look at how Chuck studied seals for “The White Seal”:

Hamsters really do love wheels

Sunday, September 9th, 2018

Like other rodents, hamsters are highly motivated to run in wheels:

It is not uncommon to record distances of 9 km (5.6 mi) being run in one night. Other 24-h records include 43 km (27 mi) for rats, 31 km (19 mi) for wild mice, 19 km (12 mi) for lemmings, 16 km (9.9 mi) for laboratory mice, and 8 km (5.0 mi) for gerbils.

Hypotheses to explain such high levels of running in wheels include a need for activity, substitute for exploration, and stereotypic behaviour. However, free wild mice will run on wheels installed in the field, which speaks against the notion of stereotypic behaviour induced by captivity conditions. Alternatively, various experimental results strongly indicate that wheel-running, like play or the endorphin or endocannabinoid release associated with the ‘runner’s high’, is self-rewarding. Wheel use is highly valued by several species as shown in consumer demand studies which require an animal to work for a resource, i.e. bar-press or lift weighted doors. This makes running wheels a popular type of enrichment to the captivity conditions of rodents.

Captive animals continue to use wheels even when provided with other types of enrichment. In one experiment, Syrian hamsters that could use tunnels to access five different cages, each containing a toy, showed no more than a 25% reduction in running-wheel use compared to hamsters housed in a single cage without toys (except for the running wheel).

In another study, female Syrian hamsters housed with a nest-box, bedding, hay, paper towels, cardboard tubes, and branches used a wheel regularly, and benefited from it as indicated by showing less stereotypic bar-gnawing and producing larger litters of young compared to females kept under the same conditions but without a wheel. Laboratory mice were prepared to perform more switch presses to enter a cage containing a running wheel compared to several meters of Habitrail tubing or a torus of Habitrail tubing.

Running in wheels can be so intense in hamsters that it may result in foot lesions, which appear as small cuts on the paw pads or toes. Such paw wounds rapidly scab over and do not prevent hamsters from continuing to run in their wheel.

A hamster in a running wheel equipped with a generator can generate up to 500 mW electric power, enough for illuminating small LED lamps.

(Hat tip to our Slovenian Guest.)

Primates managed to keep most of their neurons the same size

Friday, August 10th, 2018

Eugène Dubois gathered the brain and body weights of several dozen animal species and calculated the mathematical rate at which brain size expands relative to body size:

Dubois reasoned that as body size increases, the brain must expand for reasons of neural housekeeping: Bigger animals should require more neurons just to keep up with the mounting chores of running a larger body. This increase in brain size would add nothing to intelligence, he believed. After all, a cow has a brain at least 200 times larger than a rat, but it doesn’t seem any smarter. But deviations from that mathematical line, Dubois thought, would reflect an animal’s intelligence. Species with bigger-than-predicted brains would be smarter than average, while those with smaller-than-predicted brains would be dumber. Dubois’s calculations suggested that his Java Man was indeed a smart cookie, with a relative brain size — and intelligence — that fell somewhere between modern humans and chimpanzees.

Dubois’s formula was later revised by other scientists, but his general approach, which came to be known as “allometric scaling,” persisted. More modern estimates have suggested that the mammalian brain mass increases by an exponent of two-thirds compared to body mass. So a dachshund, weighing roughly 27 times more than a squirrel, should have a brain about 9 times bigger — and in fact, it does. This concept of allometric scaling came to permeate the discussion of how brains relate to intelligence for the next hundred years.

Seeing this uniform relationship between body and brain mass, scientists developed a new measure called encephalization quotient (EQ). EQ is the ratio of a species’s actual brain mass to its predicted brain mass. It became a widely used shorthand for intelligence. As expected, humans led the pack with an EQ of 7.4 to 7.8, followed by other high achievers such as dolphins (about 5), chimpanzees (2.2 to 2.5), and squirrel monkeys (roughly 2.3). Dogs and cats fell in the middle of the pack, with EQs of around 1.0 to 1.2, while rats, rabbits, and oxen brought up the rear, with values of 0.4 to 0.5. This way of thinking about brains and intelligence has been “very, very dominant” for decades, says Evan MacLean, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “It’s sort of a fundamental insight.”

Comparative EQ

A century later, Suzana Herculano-Houzel found a (gruesome) way to count neurons efficiently:

An entire rat brain contains about 200 million nerve cells.

She looked at brains from five other rodents, from the 40-gram mouse to the 48-kilogram capybara (the largest rodent in the world, native to Herculano-Houzel’s home country of Brazil). Her results revealed that as brains get larger and heavier from one species of rodent to another, the number of neurons grows more slowly than the mass of the brain itself: A capybara’s brain is 190 times larger than a mouse’s, but it has only 22 times as many neurons.

Then in 2006, Herculano-Houzel got her hands on the brains of six primate species during a visit with Jon Kaas, a brain scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. And this is where things got even more interesting.


As the primate brain expands from one species to another, the number of neurons rises quickly enough to keep pace with the growing brain size. This means that the neurons aren’t ballooning in size and taking up more space, as they do in rodents. Instead, they stay compact. An owl monkey, with a brain twice as large as a marmoset, actually has twice as many neurons — whereas doubling the size of a rodent brain often yields only 20 to 30 percent more neurons. And a macaque monkey, with a brain 11 times larger than a marmoset, has 10 times as many nerve cells.


The usual curse of an ever-expanding neuron size may stem from the basic fact that brains function as networks in which individual neurons send signals to one another. As brains get bigger, each nerve cell must stay connected with more and more other neurons. And in bigger brains, those other neurons are located farther and farther away.


A large rodent called an agouti has eight times as many cortical nerve cells as a mouse, while its white matter takes up an astonishing 77 times as much space. But a capuchin monkey, with eight times as many cortical neurons as a small primate called a galago, has only 11 times as much white matter.


Kaas thinks that primates managed to keep most of their neurons the same size by shifting the burden of long-distance communication onto a small subset of nerve cells. He points to microscopic studies showing that perhaps 1 percent of neurons do expand in big-brained primates: These are the neurons that gather information from huge numbers of nearby cells and send it to other neurons that are far away. Some of the axons that make these long-distance connections also get thicker; this allows time-sensitive information, such as a visual image of a rapidly moving predator, or prey, to reach its destination without delay. But less-urgent information — that is, most of it — is sent through slower, skinnier axons. So in primates, the average thickness of axons doesn’t increase, and less white matter is needed.

This pattern of keeping most connections local, and having only a few cells transmit information long-distance, had huge consequences for primate evolution. It didn’t merely allow primate brains to squeeze in more neurons. Kaas thinks that it also had a more profound effect: It actually changed how the brain does its work. Since most cells communicated only with nearby partners, these groups of neurons became cloistered into local neighborhoods. Neurons in each neighborhood worked on a specific task — and only the end result of that work was transmitted to other areas far away. In other words, the primate brain became more compartmentalized. And as these local areas increased in number, this organizational change allowed primates to evolve more and more cognitive abilities.

All mammal brains are divided into compartments, called “cortical areas,” that each contain a few million neurons. And each cortical area handles a specialized task: The visual system, for example, includes different areas for spotting the simple edges of shapes and for recognizing objects. Rodent brains don’t seem to become more compartmentalized as they get larger, says Kaas. Every rodent from the bite-sized mouse to the Doberman-sized capybara has about the same number of cortical areas — roughly 40. But primate brains are different. Small primates, such as galagos, have around 100 areas; marmosets have about 170, macaques about 270 — and humans around 360.

Humans can’t comprehend the magnitude of the insult that we pour into the ocean

Thursday, August 9th, 2018

What is it like to be a right whale? Not good:

They take their name from having been the “right” whale to hunt, because of the value of their blubber and baleen, and as such, they’d already been driven to rarity by the time of the American Revolution. Yet they do not die easy. The intentional killing of right whales was banned in 1935, but in March of that year, it took a group of fishermen — apparently not up to speed on international law — six hours, seven hand-thrown harpoons, and 150 rifle rounds to kill a 32-foot calf off Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

If right whales are threatened with extinction, it’s not from a lack of grit. It’s because their home — which spans 2,000 miles of coastline from southern Canada to northern Florida and cannot be described as small or niche — is one of the most human-modified and influenced regions on Earth. With due respect to Kraus, the North Atlantic right whale is not so much the urban whale as the Anthropocene whale.


One of the first people to start thinking about how we make whales miserable, as opposed to how we kill them, was the marine-acoustics scientist Chris Clark, now retired as a graduate professor of Cornell University. In the 1990s, with Cold War tensions subsiding, Clark was selected as the U.S. Navy’s marine-mammal scientist.

Using the Navy’s underwater listening posts, he was able to tune in to singing fin whales — second only to the blue whale in size — across a patch of sea larger than Oregon. In a data visualization he later created, the singing whales wink on and off: hotspots that arise, spread their sonic glow, and fade. Then enormous flares ripple across the entire space. That’s the acoustic imprint of a seismic air gun, used to probe for oil and gas deposits under the seafloor. “This was an epiphany,” Clark said. He had witnessed the way that human-made sounds could overwhelm, at enormous scales, whales’ ability to hear and be heard in the ocean.

I asked for his opinion about what day-to-day life is like for right whales now, two decades later. “Acoustic hell,” Clark replied. “Humans can’t comprehend the magnitude of the insult that we pour into the ocean.” While no one can say how an animal experiences its world, there are clues that Clark is correct. When the 9/11 attacks took place in 2001, researchers from the New England Aquarium happened to be in the Bay of Fundy, just across the U.S. border into Canada, testing right-whale feces for stress hormones. Over the following days, boat traffic abruptly dropped off. The scientists were struck by how clearly they could hear whale calls through their equipment, as though they’d been standing beside a freeway that fell silent and could suddenly hear birdsong. The whale stress levels measured in those quiet waters were the lowest by far that were recorded across four summers of sampling.

Noise his what biologists refer to as a “sublethal” impact, meaning it doesn’t directly cause death. The list of sub-lethal impacts has grown long, however. Right whales have the highest prevalence of infection with Giardia and Cryptosporidium, mainly from sewage and agricultural manure runoff, ever recorded in any mammal. In humans, these cause the diseases known as beaver fever and crypto, respectively, which involve debilitating digestive complaints. No one knows what problems, if any, they cause in right whales.

The whales are similarly exposed to an alphabet soup of chemicals (DDT, PCBs, PAHs, etc.), oil and gas, flame retardants, pharmaceuticals, pesticides — all the effluvia of civilization. Then there are blooms of red tide and other toxic algae, which can cause paralysis and death in humans, and are increasingly common. One study found paralytic shellfish poisoning in the feces of all 16 right whales it sampled. Again, no one can say what effect these pollutants might be having on right whales.


For an endangered species, a lack of births is a kind of death, and this year, for the first time since reliable record-keeping began nearly 30 years ago, no calves at all were born in the right-whale population. The animals’ welfare may now be so poor, their suffering so serious, that sublethal impacts have turned lethal.

We call them flying saltshakers of death

Wednesday, August 8th, 2018

Imagine emerging into the sun after 17 long years spent lying underground, Ed Yong suggests, only for your butt to fall off:

That ignominious fate regularly befalls America’s cicadas. These bugs spend their youth underground, feeding on roots. After 13 or 17 years of this, they synchronously erupt from the soil in plagues of biblical proportions for a few weeks of song and sex. But on their way out, some of them encounter the spores of a fungus called Massospora.

A week after these encounters, the hard panels of the cicadas’ abdomens slough off, revealing a strange white “plug.” That’s the fungus, which has grown throughout the insect, consumed its organs, and converted the rear third of its body into a mass of spores. The de-derriered insects go about their business as if nothing unusual has happened. And as they fly around, the spores rain down from their exposed backsides, landing on other cicadas and saturating the soil. “We call them flying saltshakers of death,” says Matt Kasson, who studies fungi at West Virginia University.

Massospora and its butt-eating powers were first discovered in the 19th century, but Kasson and his colleagues have only just shown that it has another secret: It doses its victims with mind-altering drugs. Perhaps that’s why “the cicadas walk around as if nothing’s wrong even though a third of their body has fallen off,” Kasson says.


Greg Boyce, a member of Kasson’s team, looked at all the chemicals found in the white fungal plugs of the various cicadas. And to his shock, he found that the banger-wings were loaded with psilocybin—the potent hallucinogen found in magic mushrooms. “At first, I thought: There’s absolutely no way,” he says. “It seemed impossible.” After all, no one has ever detected psilocybin in anything other than mushrooms, and those fungi have been evolving separately from Massospora for around 900 million years.

The surprises didn’t stop there. “I remember looking over at Greg one night and he had a strange look on his face,” Kasson recalls. “He said, ‘Have you ever heard of cathinone?’” Kasson hadn’t, but a quick search revealed that it’s an amphetamine. It had never been found in a fungus before. Indeed, it was known only from the khat plant that has long been chewed by people from the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. But apparently, cathinone is also produced by Massaspora as it infects periodical cicadas.


Infected cicadas behave strangely. Despite their horrific injuries, males become hyperactive and hypersexual. They frenetically try to mate with anything they can find, including with other males. They’ll even mimic the wing-flicking signals of females to lure males toward them. None of this does them any good—their genitals have either been devoured by the fungus or have fallen off with the rest of their butts. Instead, this behavior only benefits the fungus, allowing its spores to find new hosts.

Kasson suspects that cathinone and psilocybin are responsible for at least some of these behaviors. “If I had a limb amputated, I probably wouldn’t have a lot of pep in my step,” he said. “But these cicadas do. Something is giving them a bit more energy. The amphetamine could explain that.”

Psilocybin’s role is harder to explain. The drug might make humans hallucinate, but no one knows if cicadas would similarly trip. There is, however, a theory that magic mushrooms evolved psilocybin to reduce the appetites of insects that might compete with them for decaying wood. Perhaps by suppressing the appetites of cicadas, Massospora nudges them away from foraging and toward incessant mating.

There are many parasitic fungi that manipulate the behavior of insect hosts, including the famous Ophiocordyceps fungi, which can turn ants into zombies.

This is how a zombie outbreak could (semi-plausibly) happen.

You can learn a lot from humans and their stuff

Thursday, July 26th, 2018

You can learn a lot from humans and their stuff, it turns out:

Formal training programs, which can be called education, enhance cognition in human and nonhuman animals alike. However, even informal exposure to human contact in human environments can enhance cognition.

We review selected literature to compare animals’ behavior with objects among keas and great apes, the taxa that best allow systematic comparison of the behavior of wild animals with that of those in human environments such as homes, zoos, and rehabilitation centers.

In all cases, we find that animals in human environments do much more with objects. Following and expanding on the explanations of several previous authors, we propose that living in human environments and the opportunities to observe and manipulate human-made objects help to develop motor skills, embodied cognition, and the use of objects to extend cognition in the animals. Living in a human world also furnishes the animals with more time for such activities, in that the time needed for foraging for food is reduced, and furnishes opportunities for social learning, including emulation, an attempt to achieve the goals of a model, and program-level imitation, in which the imitator reproduces the organizational structure of goal-directed actions without necessarily copying all the details. All these factors let these animals learn about the affordances of many objects and make them better able to come up with solutions to physical problems.

The kea is a large parrot found in the mountains of the South Island of New Zealand — and it’s pretty freakin’ smart.

(Hat tip to Tyler Cowen.)

You never hear about a tiger laughing

Wednesday, May 16th, 2018

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from personality psychology?” Tyler Cowen asks Bryan Caplan:

At least one thing that might be a good answer is that cheerfulness loads on extroversion.

There’s something actually very social about happiness. When you read this, it makes so much sense — how little of happiness seems to be about material possessions and how much of it is about having good relationships with other people.

You can think about animals. When I read you something about animals, the animals that laugh, they’re all social animals. Dogs laugh, chimpanzees laugh, humans laugh. You never hear about a tiger laughing, these very asocial animals. At least that’s one that I often do think about, is this connection between social interaction and being happy.

Dog training techniques work on children, too

Tuesday, April 17th, 2018

Dogs and children are surprisingly similar creatures:

Might dog training techniques then teach us something about parenting? Strictly speaking, this should work for human children up to age two to two-and-a-half, though so-called “super dogs” have mental abilities akin to a three-year-olds, says Stanley Coren, a professor emeritus of psychology at University of British Columbia and author of The Intelligence of Dogs.

“This works both emotionally and cognitively,” he tells Quartz, “so the techniques that will work for a two- or three-year-old child will work for a dog and vice versa.” By the time children reach age four or five, they begin to diverge from dogs by using language and intellect to reason things out.

Here are the recommended techniques (with edited-down descriptions):

Give them physical cues

Dogs require a consistent physical signal to focus their attention on a specific task or command. This is also true of human infants, who have been shown to learn better when prompted with social cues to direct their attention (for instance, turning our head or directing our gaze). “With children too,” Johnston tells Quartz, “it’s really important that you call their attention and signal to them that you’re trying to tell them something. Even infants are much more ready to learn when you use special cues.”

Know what they can and can’t handle

Typically children’s brains begin developing the capacity for self-control between the ages of 3 and 5, though the process continues until about age 11.

Dogs act out when their frontal lobes are over-worked. That’s why they chew up furniture or bark uncontrollably when left alone to simmer in their anxiety. This is also why young children throw tantrums at toy stores or while waiting for a meal at a restaurant.

“You figure how to engage him in an appropriate behavior before he engages in an inappropriate behavior.” In these situations, distracting a child before they act out is more effective than waiting to punish them.

Use positive reinforcement

In MRI scans of young children, neuroscientists found that negative reinforcement requires complicated reasoning that is difficult for their brains to grasp. In essence, small children fail to understand where they made the mistake. As they approach adolescence, though, negative reinforcement, which takes more complicated reasoning, becomes more effective, though scientists have yet to identify why this change in cognition occurs.

Model good behavior

Johnson recently conducted research at Yale University’s Canine Cognition Center that built on a previous Yale study of toddlers. In the previous study, the toddlers watched an adult run through a series of steps to open a puzzle box and get a prize. One of the steps was completely superfluous, yet the toddlers in the experiment did it anyway, without discriminating between what was necessary and what wasn’t. In Johnson’s study, dogs watched people go through steps to open a puzzle box and retrieve a treat. The people pulled one lever on the box that was irrelevant to the task. When dogs tried to solve the puzzle, they began to skip the lever step as soon as they learned to just open the lid instead.

Researchers believe that children meticulously repeat an adult’s sequence of steps because, unlike dogs, human socializing involves many behaviors that are not directly related to survival.

Run with their personality

“Kids are similar to dogs—at least before they can talk—because you can’t ask them questions. But you can ask them to make choices, and we can find out a lot about how they see the world when we use this method,” Hare, of the Dognition lab, says. “Some dogs are super communicative, while others might rely on their exceptional memories. You would teach these dogs in different ways, playing to their strengths.”

Guide them with calm, controlled authority

The rules vary based on a dog’s or child’s unique personality, but one thing must remain constant: the authority figure’s calmness and self-control.

An endearing antelope with a bulbous nose

Saturday, January 27th, 2018

The saiga is “an endearing antelope” that roams Central Asia. Its “bulbous nose gives it the comedic air of a Dr. Seuss character,” Ed Yong says:

It typically wanders over large tracts of Central Asian grassland, but every spring, tens of thousands of them gather in the same place to give birth. These calving aggregations should be joyous events, but the gathering in May 2015 became something far more sinister when 200,000 saiga just dropped dead. They did so without warning, over a matter of days, in gathering sites spread across 65,000 square miles — an area the size of Florida. Whatever killed them was thorough and merciless: Across a vast area, every last saiga perished.

Saiga calf

At first, the team suspected that a new infectious disease had spread through the population, but the pattern of deaths just didn’t fit. The saiga were dying too synchronously and too quickly. Also, all of them had died. “In biology, there’s certain rules, you know?” says Kock. “We accept that sometimes microbes can cause us harm, but not like this. Even very severe viral diseases or anthrax don’t do this. A good proportion of the animals would be fine.”

News of the die-off sparked outlandish explanations about Russian rocket fuel, radiation, and even aliens. But while conspiracy theories raged, a huge international team of scientists, led by Kock, got to work. Vets autopsied as many saigas as they could. Ecologists sampled the soil. Botanists checked the local plants. They couldn’t find any signs of toxins that might have killed the saiga. Instead, the actual culprit turned out to be a bacterium, one that’s usually harmless.

Pasteurella multocida normally lives in the saiga’s respiratory tract, but Kock’s team found that the microbe had found its way into the animals’ blood, and invaded their livers, kidneys, and spleens. Wherever it went, it produced toxins that destroyed the local cells, causing massive internal bleeding. Blood pooled around their organs, beneath their skin, and around their lungs. The saigas drowned in their own bodily fluids.

But that answer just led to more questions. Pasteurella is common and typically harmless part of the saiga’s microbiome. In livestock, it can cause disease when animals are stressed, as sometimes happens when they’re shipped over long distances in bad conditions. But it has never been linked to a mass die-off of the type that afflicted the saigas. What could have possibly turned this docile Jekyll into such a murderous Hyde?

The team considered a list of possible explanations that runs to 13 pages. They wondered if some environmental chemical or dietary change had set the microbe off. They checked if biting insects had transmitted a new infection that interacted with Pasteurella. They considered that Pasteurella might have gone rogue because of an accompanying viral infection, in the same way that Streptococcus bacteria can bloom during a cold, leading to strep throat. “We tested for everything and we couldn’t find anything,” says Eleanor Milner-Gulland from the University of Oxford.

Only one factor fit the bill: climate. The places where the saigas died in May 2015 were extremely warm and humid. In fact, humidity levels were the highest ever seen the region since records began in 1948. The same pattern held for two earlier, and much smaller, die-offs from 1981 and 1988. When the temperature gets really hot, and the air gets really wet, saiga die. Climate is the trigger, Pasteurella is the bullet.

It’s still unclear how heat and humidity turn Pasteurella into a killer, and the team is planning to sequence the bacterium’s genome to find out more.

None more black

Thursday, January 25th, 2018

Blackbirds, Ed Yong explains, aren’t actually all that black:

Their feathers absorb most of the visible light that hits them, but still reflect between 3 and 5 percent of it. For really black plumage, you need to travel to Papua New Guinea and track down the birds of paradise.

Although these birds are best known for their gaudy, kaleidoscopic colors, some species also have profoundly black feathers. The feathers ruthlessly swallow light and, with it, all hints of edge or contour. They make body parts seem less like parts of an actual animal and more like gaping voids in reality. They’re blacker than black. None more black.

By analyzing museum specimens, Dakota McCoy, from Harvard University, has discovered exactly how the birds achieving such deep blacks. It’s all in their feathers’ microscopic structure.

A typical bird feather has a central shaft called a rachis. Thin branches, or barbs, sprout from the rachis, and even thinner branches—barbules—sprout from the barbs. The whole arrangement is flat, with the rachis, barbs, and barbules all lying on the same plane. The super-black feathers of birds of paradise, meanwhile, look very different. Their barbules, instead of lying flat, curve upward. And instead of being smooth cylinders, they are studded in minuscule spikes. “It’s hard to describe,” says McCoy. “It’s like a little bottle brush or a piece of coral.”

Bird of Paradise Ultra-Black

These unique structures excel at capturing light. When light hits a normal feather, it finds a series of horizontal surfaces, and can easily bounce off. But when light hits a super-black feather, it finds a tangled mess of mostly vertical surfaces. Instead of being reflected away, it bounces repeatedly between the barbules and their spikes. With each bounce, a little more of it gets absorbed. Light loses itself within the feathers.

McCoy and her colleagues, including Teresa Feo from the National Museum of Natural History, showed that this light-trapping nanotechnology can absorb up to 99.95 percent of incoming light. That’s between 10 and 100 times better than the feathers of most other black birds, like crows or blackbirds. It’s also only just short of the blackest materials that humans have designed. Vantablack, an eerily black substance produced by the British company Surrey Nanosystems, can absorb 99.965 percent of incoming light. It consists of a forest of vertical carbon nanotubes that are “grown” at more than 750 degrees Fahrenheit. The birds of paradise mass-produce similar forests, using only biological materials, at body temperature.

Legendary was Hacienda Napoles where Pablo Escobar decreed his stately pleasure dome

Monday, January 22nd, 2018

I’m not sure what led Steve Sailer to cite a two-year-old National Geographic story about Pablo Escobar’s escaped hippos, but I immediately remembered the story from long, long ago (2003):

Legendary was Xanadu where Kubla Khan decreed his stately pleasure dome. Today, almost as legendary is Florida’s Xanadu…or Pablo Escobar’s 7,400-acre Hacienda Napoles.

Commenter Polearm noted that we nearly filled the United States with the great beasts at the beginning of the 20th Century:

America was withering under a serious meat shortage at the time. Beef prices had soared as rangeland had been ruined by overgrazing, and a crippled industry struggled to satisfy America’s explosively growing cities, an unceasing wave of immigrants, and a surging demand for meat abroad. There were more mouths to feed than ever, but the number of cows in the country had been dropping by millions of head a year. People whispered about the prospect of eating dogs. The seriousness of the Meat Question, and the failure to whip together some brave and industrious solution to it, was jarring the nation’s self-confidence and self-image. It was a troubling sign that maybe the country couldn’t keep growing as fast and recklessly as it had been. Maybe there were limits after all.

Now, though, someone had an answer. The answer was hippopotamuses. One Agricultural Department official estimated that an armada of free-range hippos, set moping through the bayous of Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, would easily yield a million tons of meat a year. Already, Representative Broussard had dispatched a field agent on a fact-finding mission. The man, a native of southern Africa, found the Louisiana swamps “wildly dismal and forbidding.” (The “silence strike[s] one with an almost unforgettable horror,” he wrote in his report, titled “Why and How to Place Hippopotamus in the Louisiana Lowlands.”) Still, the place was perfect for hippos. His conclusion: “The hippopotamus would find no difficulty living in Louisiana.”

Apparently, the animals tasted pretty good, too, especially the fatty brisket part, which could be cured into a delicacy that a supportive New York Times editorial was calling, euphemistically, “lake cow bacon.” (“Toughness is only skin deep,” another reporter noted.) Congressman Broussard’s office was receiving laudatory letters from ordinary citizens, commending his initiative-taking and ingenuity. Several volunteered to be part of the expedition to bring the great beasts back.

In other words, in the encroaching malaise of 1910, it was easy to be gripped by the brilliance of the hippopotamus scheme, to feel hippopotamuses resonating not just as a way of sidestepping catastrophic famine, but as a symbol of American greatness being renewed. Burnham’s generation had seen the railroad get synched across the wild landscape like a bridle and the near solid swarms of buffalo and passenger pigeons get erased. America had dynamited fish out of rivers, dredged waterways, felled and burned forests, and peeled silver from the raw wreckage of what had once been mountains. The frontier was now closed. So much had been accomplished and so much taken. It was clear that a once boundless-seeming land did have boundaries, and with those limits revealed, you couldn’t help but feel like you were drifting listlessly between them. There was a sense in the country of: Now what? And, lurking beneath that: What have we done?

Another commenter, the one they call Desanex, shared one of his favorite paintings, The Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt by Peter Paul Rubens:

The Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt by Peter Paul Rubens