Substantial backblog

23 05 2014

Over the last semester my group has had excellent weekly logic discussions (on Wednesday we did “paradoxes”, for example), and we’ve also regularly gone to the many eclectic but good talks that crop up locally (from using electrodes to read the minds of rats, to understanding how and why horses were first domesticated). I then always plan to write them up… but … they have ended up here, gently intermingled with dust and cat hair. Think the only solution (though I can’t decide if this is obsessive) is to set aside a whole day and blitz them…



23 05 2014

Screen shot 2014-05-23 at 10.55.39 AMOn Wednesday we all went to the semester’s last “Distinguished speaker in Psychology” lecture. Bob Vallerand from McGill was talking on the role of passion in our lives, and how it affects our well-being. There’s a lot of cool research in positive psychology these days, and animal welfare science has much to learn from it if we want to do more than just alleviate suffering. But obviously personally this stuff is fascinating and relevant too (I know that reading about cognitive bias has definitely made me alert to the way I interpret things too bleakly when I’m tired, hungry or stressed).

This seminar was on how hobbies, interests, loves and obsessions can help or harm us, and involved a nice mix of hard data and anecdotes about famous dancers and sports stars who’ve achieved success either in ‘good ways’ (harmonious passion) or ‘bad’ (obsessive passion). Harmonious passions are those that make us feel good while we indulge them, and which we control; they can also make us healthier, happier and longer lived. Obsessive ones grip us without giving much joy, and can cause harms like physical injury (if your obsession is sport; no risk for me there), burnout (this I pay heed to) and broken relationships. Interestingly, about 20% of the population are essentially passionless, which is as bad for affect and health as being obsessive (are they bored, anhedonic, or just unlucky in not finding yet what grabs them? That what he hopes to investigate next).

Since the whole room was full of academics striving to attain success and excellence without going crazy, he had a rapt audience, us included. Very cool stuff. And my recent rule of taking time off to do the garden when I stop enjoying work (which happens about once a year)? Totally vindicated!

Guelph makes “Have I got news for you?”

23 05 2014

UoG achieves true fame!

The real Marie Curie

23 05 2014

Carole sent me this nice picture from Brussels a week or two ago — after working with a mouse called Marie Curie for some months (a name chosen by her and Agata because she was half French, half Polish), this is Carole with the real Marie Curie.

The real Marie Curie

How to make a thin hamster

23 05 2014

This is so great. If only I stroked the cats more assiduously…

Congratulations to Laura

21 05 2014

Screen shot 2014-05-21 at 11.00.47 AMJust as I decide that the social transmission of food preferences is not that a good a way to assess social competence, Laura wins a UFAW scholarship to look at it!

So I guess we’re committed now… (but we’ll supplement this risky experiment with a lot of in-cage behavioural observations to test the same hypothesis). And many thanks to UFAW regardless – this is just great for Laura.

CSAW Research day and congratulations to Mike (and Laura & Elyse & Walter & Laura)

21 05 2014

CSAW Res Day


It was CSAW Research Day last week – an excellent day-long extravaganza of welfare research talks. Like the OE3C and Neuroscience Day, it’s become a regular annual feature of academic life here.

Those of us presenting from my group had a practice session the day before, and this really paid off: Laura, Elyse, who I co-supervise with Tina, and Mike all gave flawless talks (I presented as well and it seemed to go fine), and Mike won the prize for the best talk of the day! Walter‘s talk wasn’t flawless as he was nervous, but since his topic is about 10x (maybe 100x) harder than anyone else’s, I really think he deserved that prize more than anyone. The best I could do was give him some morels (mmmmmmmmorals) that I’ve suddenly realised grow on my lawn (harvested a delicious 25 of them last week, and am kicking myself for just destroying them in previous years for being creepy-looking).


But back to Research Day: the keynote was good too – a veterinary researcher from the University of Montreal called Eric Troncy, who presented excellent (but sad) data on arthritis pain in cats: a topic close to my heart since Mouse and Sophie are now 19, very lame, and consume large amounts of bupernorphine every month.



OE3C and congratulations to Jamie and Heather

21 05 2014

Last week saw the Ontario Ecology, Ethology and Evolution Colloquium (OE3C) happening in Guelph. Jamie and Heather (below) were amongst the organisers, so congratulations to them for making it go so smoothly and well. It was easily as great as the event Western hosted last year.

Highlights for me were Amy Newman‘s talk, about looking for lab-studied phenomena (in this case various things to do with the HPA axis) in wild animals; gave me all sorts of ideas for trying to understand e.g. the adaptive bases of cognitive bias; catching up with David Sherry, and hearing his excellent student Carole Strang speak on bee cognition (here is her superb “Three Minute Thesis“); and seeing Jeff Galef‘s plenary and deciding to change Laura’s project (it’s long bugged me that the social transmission of food preferences may not really be that social… and his talk really emphasised that it’s so simply merely about breath that not only do rats pick up food preferences from sick conspecifics: they do so better because the poor things stay still and are easier to sniff!). Low points were speaking in a tragically empty session at 830 on a Saturday morning, and the response that another bee student gave when I asked here whether she thought it was right that her work (which involved socially isolating social bees for life) did not require an AUP: “Well, we have thousands of bees so it doesn’t really matter of some of them die” (though to her credit, even as she was giving this answer it was obvious from her face that she too knew her response was terrible!).


Gender bias in research subjects

21 05 2014

Screen shot 2014-05-21 at 7.15.37 AM The NIH is calling for more consideration of gender in research. What this Nature story doesn’t quite spell out – nor does the strange picture convey (would have been better if the pink blobs had been ovaries and testes…) is that there has long been a bias towards male subjects (including in animals research: female cycles are said to inconveniently mess up data;

Wheel-running in the wild

21 05 2014

Strange paper in Proc Roy Soc today. It’s very interesting but really doesn’t mean what they say it means. Hanno and I were both interviewed about it for USA today

Hmm, here is what I actually said to the journalist:

This fascinating study shows that normal wild animals can be ‘tricked’ into the pointless activity of running on the spot. Presumably it feels as good to them as do truly useful activities like searching for food or a new territory (a bit like the way we find candy highly rewarding — even though it’s bad for us — because we’ve evolved to like valuable natural high energy foods like fruit and honey).

Modern definitions of stereotypic behaviour (activities common in captive animals, like pacing and rocking in zoo-housed carnivores and primates) rely on its causes, not on what it looks like. True stereotypic behaviours are caused by developmentally abnormal brains and the frustration of natural behaviour. The wheel running performed by these wild animals is therefore definitely not a stereotypic behaviour.

However, what does this new finding say about wheel-running by caged lab rodents? Not that much I’m afraid. It could still be that wheel-running in caged animals has an obsessive or compulsive quality that’s missing in wild animals. One of the incredible things about wheel-running by caged rodents is that some of them spend hours a day doing it, and covers tens of kilometers in 24h. This is quite extreme! Are any of the wild animals doing anything like this? Who knows — the authors can’t say, because they could not tell individual animals apart.

The authors’ conclusion is therefore a bit like saying “normal children suck their thumbs; therefore it’s always a normal behaviour, even if adults do it”. Just because normal animals do it, does not mean that all forms of this behaviour – no matter how extreme – are therefore normal.