When is “different” different from “not the same”?

27 11 2015

I went to the GTA Animal Cognition Group on Monday. Objectively it was a crazy use of my time, since it involved one hour reading and two hours discussing a paper on what humans are doing when they learn a “match to sample” as opposed to a “non-match to sample” rule, plus four hours on the road there and back. Yet, as ever, it just made me insanely happy. To be really intellectually stretched by what is very new material for me, as well as by the insight and logic of people like Jake Beck and Sara Shettleworth (not the full list!) was deeply enjoyable.

It was interesting too: we discussed unpublished work from the Carey Lab, inspired by older work showing that non-match-to-sample tasks are easier to learn than are match-to-sample tasks (some kind of innate ‘win-shift’ strategy, I wondered?). Over three experiments, clever eye-tracking data showed that when we learn to non-match-to-sample tasks, although we could follow a “seek out stimuli that are different from the sample” rule, we actually follow an “avoid stimuli that are the same as the sample” rule.

This in turn – rather more speculatively – suggests that the concept “same” is easier or more basic for us than is “different”, even though of course the two are reciprocals. This odd idea is made more plausible by similar asymmetries detectable in the development of concepts by infants: children apparently understand “more” before they understand “less”, “over” before “under”, and “front” before “back”, even though to us adults these pairs of concepts seem like mirror images.


The hens have landed

26 11 2015

Misha and Alexandra’s group relocated 24 birds to their new pens in the Animal Biosciences barn yesterday! They’ll start being exposed to the various treatments in a couple of days, and actually videoed a week after that.

They’re not attractive birds: no cute little nut-brown hens here – they are dirty white, rangy, somewhat motheaten-looking, with big, creepy spam-like wattles. But the gentle way they poke about inspecting things, making the calm warbly sounds that seem to typify happy hens, makes them really quite adorable.


Email of the week

26 11 2015

“Maybe it’s because it’s 2am, but aren’t ‘manipulative enrichments’ kind of sinister?’

– from Mike, on re-reading the wording of the NFACC mink codes during a late-night push to get a grant in to OMAFRA.

Gene editing the hornless cow

25 11 2015

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 10.06.50 PMI am months behind realizing this, but some cool research has come out with enormous animal welfare implications: collaboration between the University of Minnesota and a local tech company has resulted in the successful ‘editing in’ of the polled trait into normal horned cattle.  (Like optogenetics, gene editing is something I’m dimly aware of being new and massively important – and …. there ends my knowledge).  Not quite sure what it now takes for this to be adopted commercially, but good news for calves of the future, since dehorning is often done painfully. A techier and broader overview from the MIT Technology Review is available here.

I should admit I first heard of this on The Archers (the world’s longest running soap, to which I am hopelessly addicted but which sounds like this if you’re not a fan).

Refereeing saga over

25 11 2015

Refereeing for Animals recently, I just declined to look at this one MS any more, since the authors kept refusing to alter the most wrong thing in it, and the editor would then just bat it back my way  unchanged — basically waiting for one of us to cave instead of making an editorial decision.

I finally go this in my Inbox, today (weeks later): “After close consideration and based on 8 referees’ comments, as well as the academic editor’s decision, we have finally decided to reject this paper.”  Eight referees?! I would not want to be those authors after all these months, but I take my hat off to the journal for making a decision (and fully admit I was wrong about them).

We’ve all wondered – but were afraid to ask

21 11 2015

In my Inbox today:

In my Inbox today:

“My name is M____S____, a writer for the website Hopes & Fears.  Every week, we ask experts a question that many people may have thought about but were too afraid to ask.  This week, we’re asking linguists, biologists, evolutionary scientists and zoologists, ‘Will animals ever speak?’ 

No money for old rope

21 11 2015

Maria has organized a whole team of hardworking undergraduate volunteers (sorry folks) to score mink-chewed ropes for us. These used to be enrichments in our cage height experiment, and we’re now assessing how vigorously each was chewed as a rough proxy for how much of their active time each mink spent under the solid or mesh cage ceilings used in this study (this to complement the direct & video observations that were only collected during daylight hours).


Chick flick

20 11 2015

Misha‘s just finished crafting six enclosures each designed to offer groups of hens choices between different potential enrichments… here a video of soothing sunny jungle scenes (the control being a blank TV screen, matched for brightness and colour):


Another paper on the way

19 11 2015

Just got this pretty much accepted this week too: a nice paper lead by Maria showing that enrichment enhances developmental symmetry in mink (at least of jawbones) and lymphoid organ weight, and differentially affects two classes of stereotypic behaviour: pacing/head-twirling (common in farmed mink), and scrabbling (high at this MSU site, and really quite different [you’ll have to read the paper to find out how]).

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Cool new paper on nano magnets that could explain how animals find north

19 11 2015

Nice find from Jamie (apparently enmeshed in a whole furore about who first had the data/ideas): “A magnetic protein biocompass” in Nature Materials this week. Nice writeup in The Guardian here.