Peggy Mason’s visit and seminar

29 03 2013

Yesterday Peggy Mason was here all day, to talk about her truly fascinating work on rats rescuing other rats. Is it driven by empathy, or by some other motivation? In her CSAW seminar, she talked about her new data on the role of familiarity in rescuing behaviour, and on the role of affect: if the trapped rat is calmed down with Valium, s/he is not rescued! This work really is getting cooler and cooler… (and it turns out the chocolate element we had thought was a little ho hum before, was only added to placate referees; stoopid referees…). Another personal highlight of her talk for me was that her lab spent 4-5 months just developing a rat door that would open easily but not too easily: just loved this for some reason. On top of all this Peggy is very good company, so it was great spending time with her.

Peggy Mason's visit and seminar

Fish on benzos: antidepressants as pollutants

29 03 2013

Incredibly, Western humans take enough antidepressants that the trace amounts peed out end up concentrated enough in rivers and lakes to affect fish behaviour…

Avoiding cars drives evolutionary change in swallows

29 03 2013

Cool story in Current Biology: swallows that nest on motor-way bridges have got better at avoiding cars, thanks to rapid evolutionary change in their wing aspect ratio –

Our ‘old lady’ mice get new homes

21 03 2013

Our eight ‘practice mice’ rescued from HHN were re-homed these week. These animals essentially refused to give us useable data for five months, yet Agata and Carole found themselves fond of Fatty (pictured), Sophie, Marie Curie, Scratchy and their cagemates, and so ‘rehomed’ is no euphemism: thanks to Walter’s vegetarian listserv, we really did find three wonderful adopters to make their twilight months good ones. Fatty

A CPP apparatus from Canadian Tire

15 03 2013

Carole and Agata successfully turned a $28 tool box into a conditioned placed preference apparatus for mice! Mice were trained (well semi-trained) that one substrate (sand or gravel) would be associated with a titbit of nice food, while the other would be associated with an aversive spray of water. Our mice seem too stubborn or old (they are a year old now, having been thwarting us for months) to learn much, but the ones trained with a positive stimulus on sand did come to prefer sand when given a choice. This is all part of trying to develop a murine cognitive bias task, about which (nerdy joke coming up) we are still optimistic. Tool_Box_Mice

Weasly words I (no offence meant to weasels)

15 03 2013

This week we covered induction/deduction (briefly, as it turned out), and a variety of “weasly words”: begging the question, circular reasoning, complex questions, and loaded words. At first we thought we understood the difference between deduction and induction, but then had a bit of a wobble about what we do as scientists. We have a vague notion that we follow the “hypothetico-deductive method” (or that we’re supposed to, anyway), yet in reality we seem to rely on induction. Help! So we are revisiting this next week.

It was great to think about “begging the question” because it’s such a common device, and yet the phrase itself is counter-intuitive: people often treat it as though it means “raising the question” but it really it means to ask that the very point at issue be conceded. Sometimes this can happen as part of a complex, multi-part question (my favourite example from the Warburton book: “Are you going to carry on behaving like a spoilt brat or will you concede that you ought to spend at least half an hour a day doing the housework?”); sometimes, via the use of just a single loaded word (e.g. “natural”, or “freedom fighter” versus “terrorist”). We had a fun discussion about the amazingly loaded words that crop up in science all the time (experimental animals are not just killed, they are “sacrificed” via “euthanasia”; nesting or social contact are not just the basics that animals that need them should always have: they are “environmental enrichment”), and I found myself wondering if I deliberately call zoo, farm, and lab animals “captive animals” because it’s loaded in a negative way (I know some animal science students would rather I say “husbanded” or something else nicer-sounding). As for circular reasoning: circular reasoning is wrong because circular reasoning is wrong – what else is there to say?

Fur auction fun

14 03 2013

To have fun at a fur auction may sound weird, but every year some of us from the Animal Behaviour and Welfare group visit it, and are bowled over by the experience (including being shocked: it’s not all fun). First, there is the sheer number and diversity of pelts, including huge, tragic ones from carnivores like polar bears and mountain lions (the millions of skins also give the place a strong, strange smell). It’s easy to just hate it… but also hard to ignore that, just as to the first European colonizers of what was to become Canada, trapping and skinning wild animals is really important to First Nations people (a group historically abused and even today somewhat disenfranchised). The farmed mink are least upsetting (to me anyway), and their fur the most beautiful: no wonder it’s in such demand. And it’s the demand that’s the other amazing thing to see at this auction – hundred of buyers from all over the world, a myriad foreign tongues being spoken, but above all the Chinese: buying in force as their economy, and the demand for luxury products, continues to escalate. The third element is the farmers: watching the auction progress with anxiety or elation as a huge chunk of their annual income is determined on a single day. This time, the average mink pelt brought in a staggering $100, which bodes well for mink welfare (since it’ll encourage farmers to invest in enrichments and infrastructure). The beaming faces pictured here are, L to R, Lena Levison, who has just finished her MSc with Trevor de Vries; Gary Hazlewood, Executive Director of the Canada Mink Breeders (a very nice guy, and tireless champion for modernizing the industry & improving animal welfare); Agata, the PhD student visiting me from Poland; and my PhD student Maria, who’s currently writing up her thesis on super-enrichment for mink, using them as a model carnivore.

Fur auction fun