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Can Animals Be Racist?

Humans are racist.

Walls and Aryan babies aside, people are biologically programmed to behave differently with people who look or act differently than us. While this could be a self-defence technique in the most evolutionary sense, for the most part, racism stems from our misconceptions and preconceived notions.

When people talk of racism, they only refer to people.  I mean, nobody talks about a racist Guinea pig. But does this mean racism is an inherently human experience? Can animals be racist? Do they possess the intellect to process complex thoughts, like discrimination, hate and disgust?

Let’s find out.

Your dog may be a racist and you may not know it!

I don’t know about other animals, but there is definitive proof that dogs do discriminate between people. Whether you call this behaviour “racism” or not, depends on you.

Research by the Laboratory of Cognitive Psychology at the National Center for Scientific Research at Aix-Marseille University in Marseille (France) proved that dogs pick up discriminatory tendencies from their owners.

In the study, 72 pet parents were asked to bring their dogs to meet a complete stranger. Upon meeting the stranger, the groups of participants were asked to display specific behaviours.

  • A third of the dog owners were asked to walk three steps forward, towards the stranger.
  • Another group was asked to stand stock-still and display no physical cues during the meeting.
  • The final group was asked to take three steps away from the stranger.

The participants were told not to speak, make any noise or indicate any sign that alarmed their dogs in any way. Next, the dogs’ reaction to the meetings were observed and what the researchers saw astounded them!

 

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In groups where owners approached the stranger, the dogs were relatively calm and didn’t display any signs of aggression or fear.

But, in the groups where the owners stood motionless or walked away from the stranger, many dogs were observed looking sharper, taking in their surroundings carefully and watching the stranger for any reaction. Why? Because the stranger initiated an abnormal physical and emotional response in their owners – their behaviour was suddenly very different.  

These dogs were recorded looking at their owners for a sign – an approval, a confirmation – to tell them what they needed to do. They were observed standing much closer to their owners, some in slightly defensive positions.

This proved what the scientists were trying to establish – dogs modify their behaviours and actions based on social cues given by their owners.

In scientific circles, this is called “social referencing” and this is something humans do a lot. For example, there’s a large snail in your garden and your baby is really intrigued by it. She wants to go near it. She looks at you to see if that’s okay. Your frown and your expression of disgust tell her that she probably shouldn’t be going anywhere near the thing; maybe there’s something wrong with it. This is social referencing. In adults, especially in terms of racism, children learn racist tendencies by observing their parents indulge in racist behaviours. If a parent says something mean and hurtful to a coloured person, his child may do the same too because he perceives the response to be a socially-accepted one.

The racism connect

Dogs’ ability to socially reference behaviours makes them indulge in behaviours that resemble racism.

For example, if a pet owner is bigoted against a particular race or colour, he may display certain physical signs like a frown, a look of disgust, a clenching of his jaws, physically moving away from the person of his discomfort etc. His dog may observe these behaviours and over a period of time, may associate the other individual, with danger. This can make the dog behave defensive and aggressive towards this person. If the dog isn’t too aggressive, to begin with, he too may display signs of fear, when he encounters an individual or an object that reminds him of the person his owner doesn’t like. These physical cues by the owner need not be conscious either. They can be done unconsciously or subconsciously and the dog will still pick them up and react off them. 

But despite this, scientists don’t consider dogs to be racists and we shouldn’t either. The reason is that dogs have not been recorded consciously holding prejudices that give rise to bigotry and hate. Dogs feed-off the behaviours exhibited by their humans and reflect similar conduct. This makes them (at least according to our current understanding) incapable of conscious racism. 

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

 

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Fun Facts About the Howler Monkey

  1. There are 15 species of howler monkey and they’re all found in Central and South America. 
  2. The howler monkey is the loudest primate on the Earth. Its call – a gruff, resounding roar – can be heard even 3 miles away. You can listen to it here.
  3. Not just their voice, but the howler monkey’s sense of smell is unbelievably acute  – they can smell food from 2 miles away. 
  4. Howler monkeys aren’t herbivores, they’re folivores – they are specialists in eating leaves.  
  5. Howler monkeys are one of the few primates (including humans), who possess trichromatic colour vision. This means their eyes are sensitive to the three primary colours – green, blue & red – and they can make out the differences between colours. This helps them pick and choose the best (read – the ripest & safest) leaves to eat.
  6. A particular species of howler monkey – the Mantled Howler – uses sticks as tools to drive away intruders and scare away predators. This is extremely unusual to the species as a whole; since this type of tool usage is considered the speciality of higher-order primates like chimps and humans. 
  7. Howler monkeys are the second laziest animals of the planet, right after sloths. They spend 80% of their time on treetops just resting. The other 20% of the time? Well, they pee on, poop on and scream at other monkeys, animals and birds.
  8. Howler monkeys are an Endangered species, because of excessive hunting and habitat loss. Save them. 

 

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Black Howler Monkey & Baby (Males are completely black in colour, while females are yellowish-white) (Source)

 

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Mantled Howler Monkey – the only known howler monkey to use sticks as tools for defence. (Source)

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

 

 

P.S: Featured image: Howler monkey
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Celebrating Two Special Days In Paradise

Today is a good day. Today is a great day.

Today – June 5th 2019 – we celebrate World Environment Day and Global Running Day

So, here’s to an amazing Environment Day and Running Day to you and your loved ones! 

As I began my run today, I contemplated what I’d write about. I knew that this year’s theme for World Environment Day was Air Pollution. And while I did consider writing about it, I wasn’t really convinced.

Then I thought about running? Surely, as a physiological process that every species indulges in, running too comes in the purview of my blogging world.

The choice was hard. Writing about one meant foregoing the other. But then I realized that there was something I wanted to talk about a lot more than air pollution or running.

While many may talk about losing their favourite haunts to the ever-increasing curse of pollution (and yes, that’s important too); I still had something that (for now) was relatively untarnished.

In a sea of smog, I still had a piece of paradise in my city, where I could run in peace, enjoy a lungful of fresh air and watch birds and animals scamper about in joy.  

 

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Cubbon Park (Source)

 

Say hello to Cubbon Park 

Located in the heart of India’s Garden City, Cubbon Park is a beautiful, wooded, public park, that is spread out over 300 acres of pristine land. A kaleidoscope of greens, browns, oranges and yellows, it is a place that embodies happiness. A stroll through Cubbon Park can rejuvenate you and inspire the best in you. A run can do so much more. 

Cubbon Park is a goldmine of biodiversity. 

Over 34 species of birds, belonging to 10 different families, call Cubbon Park their home. And what a home it is. The park is also home to 68 genera and 96 species of plants (overall 6000 types of plants & trees!). It is one of the largest biological ecosystems in the South of India. Look around and you may spot a cluster of Bamboo trees, Ashoka trees, Gulmohars, Banyans, Neem plants, Mahagony and more. 

Peer through the lush leaves and you’ll definitely spot massive bustling beehives and birds nests with newborn chicks, on the branches. The twittering of baby birds can be heard for miles; a sound that is so soothing. Listen harder and you may hear the trilling, screeching and singing of the many insects who also have an equal claim on this beautiful land.

Follow the trail of nuts on the ground and you may spot an industrious squirrel busy foraging for the coming season. If you’re really lucky (like I was), you may even get to see the flowering of the Bamboo trees – a rare phenomenon which happens once every 12-20 years here! 

A magnificent study

Cubbon Park has been a top research spot for biologists, zoologists and botanists. There are many scientists who believe that there are undiscovered species of animals and plants here. Studies are regularly conducted by the Horticulture department and individual researchers, to unearth the ecological diversity in Cubbon Park.  

 

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One of the most popular running spots inside Cubbon Park – yes, there are many. (Source)

 

A runner’s paradise

Cubbon Park isn’t just a haven for the flora and fauna who have taken up residence here (and the people who study them). It is also a paradise for walkers, joggers, runners, cyclists and yoga enthusiasts. The park offers numerous trails where nature lovers can retire to and enjoy the meditative silence.  

You’ll also find heritage guides organizing guided walking tours of Cubbon Park, explaining its history and ecological significance. There’s always this gentle bustle of activity here that’s just infectious. 

Contrary to what some believe, the visitors to the park seldom disturb the flora and fauna. In fact, there are many who purchase bird seeds from government-run bird seed vans and feed the birds here. Not just the birds, there are many who feed the ants and termites sugar, honey and flour and keep them fed and energized. 

A muse for the artists

Cubbon Park isn’t just excellent for fitness enthusiasts, it is also an amazing inspiration for artists – professional and amateur. Don’t get too surprised if you see a man, woman or child with a paintbrush or a crayon in hand, sketching a tree or a pond or a flower. Because that’s exactly what this park does – kindle your creativity.

Like a second home

A single visit to Cubbon Park is enough to make you fall in love with this emerald treasure. You feel at home among the trees and among the animals, birds and insects. You never wish to leave and when you do, your thoughts are consumed about when you’d be back. 

As they say, “Home is not a place…it’s a feeling.” And I can safely say, Cubbon Park makes me feel so much…

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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Which Animals Yawn?

We all yawn. In fact, I’m yawning right now.

In humans, we yawn in order to replenish oxygen levels in the body. When our breathing slows down (this typically happens when we’re sleepy or tired and our bodies fail to consciously breathe), we tend to breathe in less oxygen and hold in carbon dioxide. This imbalance of gasses alerts the brain that we are running out of oxygen. The brain then signals the body to initiate a yawn.

When humans yawn, fresh oxygen is taken in and moved down from the oesophagus to various parts of the body. When the oxygen rushes in, the carbon dioxide is pushed out and exhaled with force. This helps the body stabilize its breathing.

But humans don’t just yawn to breathe better. We yawn to:

  • Express our boredom – a very give-away physical cue.
  • Keep alert – Our heart rates increase by 30% each time we yawn, sending more blood to the brain and making us more active.
  • Make friends – Contagious yawns, anyone? (here’s another great insight – research shows children with autism do not find yawns contagious because they are more likely to miss the physical and social cues associated with yawning. This makes scientists believe that yawns could have a sociological significance in groups.)

What about other animals – do they yawn?

If a yawn were to mean “opening the mouth wide and breathing slowly”, then no, humans aren’t the only ones who yawn.

Research shows that over 27 different animals, other than humans, yawn. This list includes – African elephants, walruses, dogs, lions, camels, cats, sheep, gibbons, chimpanzees, rats, mice and foxes, amongst others. All of these animals engage in yawning behaviours in order to regulate their breathing.

If you’ve noticed, this list of animals mentions only one specific family of animals – Mammals. So, does that mean only mammals have the ability to yawn .i.e. breathe in to regulate their oxygen intake? Not really.

 

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A guinea pig “yawning” (Source)

 

First off, not all mammals yawn in order to regulate their breathing. Baboons and Guinea pigs yawn when they’re irritated. Here, the yawn often serves as a sign of aggression, a sign that reads “Back off or I will attack.”

Then there are fish – whose normal, typical breathing behaviour resembles a big yawn. Fish also increase the number of times they yawn, when the waters they swim in have lesser oxygen and they need to breathe more to get the oxygen they need. This is a normal and daily occurrence in fishes. In comparison, human yawns occur once-in-a-while, when the body desperately needs oxygen.

Then there are Adelie penguins, who yawn as part of their courtship ritual. Their yawns also function as comfort behaviour .i.e. behaviours that animals indulge in, to make themselves more comfortable (ex: ruffling feathers, cleaning mites, grooming each other, wallowing in mud, bathing in dust etc.). The yawns have nothing to do with breathing regulation.

You may even have seen snakes yawn. They don’t do this to breathe better; instead, they do this before eating very large prey. Contrary to popular belief, snakes don’t unhinge their jaws when eating prey which are larger than they are. Instead, they yawn to make their jaws more flexible to hold their large meal. 

So, what does this mean? What’s the purpose of a yawn?

The answer is – nobody knows. Not definitively, at least.  Yawning means very different things to different species of animals. But there is one very interesting and entertaining piece of information that animal behaviourists have unearthed. Well, two interesting pieces of information:

  • Yawns are contagious in animals too A study showed how dogs tend to yawn when they see their owners yawn. Chimpanzees in the wild have been observed yawning when their troop-mates do.
  • Primate yawns are the longest in the animal kingdomAs it turns out, the length of our yawn depends on the size of our brain. Humans are the veteran champions when it comes to yawning, clocking in an average of 6 seconds per yawn.

Want to see who our close competitors were? Read here.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

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Do Other Animals Sweat and Do They Stink?

Humans sweat in order to regulate body temperature.

When our bodies get too hot, they release water, minerals and salt in order to cool themselves down. Without sweat, our bodies would overheat, our organs would start to malfunction and soon we would have a heatstroke; which could be fatal.

But what about other animals? Do they sweat too?

Yes, they do. So, this is one question you don’t have to sweat over.

  • Dogs and cats sweat through their paws/pads. You can see faint wet footprints on really hot days.
  • Horses sweat too. Their sweat contains a detergent-like compound known as “latherin”, which helps clean their coats and keep them cool. This compound is the reason why you see a foam-like layer on horses’ coats on really hot days or when they’re overworked.
  • Monkeys, chimps, gorillas and orangutans all sweat too. But we can’t see them sweat like we do, since their sweat glands are located below their fur.
  • Hippos secrete a really scary-looking liquid, called “blood sweat”. This liquid contains a reddish-orange pigment (which gives it its blood-red colour) and it offers anti-bacterial and cleansing properties, which keep the hippo healthy. In addition to this, it functions like sweat and regulates the hippo’s body temperature.

You know who doesn’t sweat? Pigs.

Pigs regulate their body temperatures by wallowing in the mud. So, they don’t sweat like we do. The expression “sweating like a pig” actually refers to pig iron, which is a type of iron metal. During the smelting process, pig iron tends to heat-up to a very high temperature. When it cools down, it reaches dew point, resulting in the formation of large dew droplets on the iron. 

 

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Sweating like a pig? (source)

 

What about the stench?

Okay, lets set the record straight.

Human sweat actually doesn’t have an odour of its own. The bacteria located on the skin, especially those around the sweat glands, start to break down the sweat compounds when sweat is produced. The resultant changes in the chemical make-up of the sweat leads to the release of an odour, which stinks.

There’s something else too.

Humans have two types of sweat glands –  Eccrine sweat glands (which are found all over the body) and Apocrine sweat glands (which are found under the armpit & around the anus). When the Apocrine sweat glands mature and start to function after a child hits puberty, it releases a thick & oily sweat, different from the one released by the Eccrine sweat glands. It is this thick and oily sweat that produces a terrible stink when broken-down by bacteria.

So, what about animals? Do they stink too?

Pigs don’t sweat the way we do and so they don’t produce any stench whatsoever. The same goes for any other animal that doesn’t sweat the way humans do.

What about the ones that sweat like us? Well, the bodies of other “sweating” animals do produce smells; just not the ones we’re talking about. 

Other types of body odour

The smell produced by animal body secretions shouldn’t be confused with sweat-induced smell. Some secretions, like musk, civet & ambergris (which are derived from musk deer, civet cats and sperm whales respectively) , aren’t sweat. In other cases, animal body odour is actually pheromones, which are released by animals to inform potential mates that the animal is willing to receive sexual partners.

Then there are gorillas, which produce a smell, unique to each individual troop member. But these odours act as social markers, providing other troop members and enemy gorillas information about the animal. These smells have been shown to affect how gorillas behave with one another.

But coming back to sweat and its stink; there is still no strong evidence to show that animals which do sweat like humans, stink like humans too. So far humans are the only ones who produce copious amounts of sweat and who stink up the joint when they sweat.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

P.S: Featured image
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The 10 Best Ways To Celebrate Earth Day 2019!

Hey there everyone! Happy Earth Day!

Today is a very special day. Today is the day we celebrate the Earth and everything she stands for. Today is the day we take a pledge to protect the Earth and do our bit to keep the animals, plants & insects on our planet safe from harm and alive for our descendants to enjoy.

So, this Earth Day 2019, let’s look at the 10 simple ways in which we can do our part to keep the Earth safe.

  1. Don’t drive to work – 1 gallon (3.8 litres) of gas produces 20 pounds of carbon dioxide when burnt. If everyone kept their car at home just for one day, it will stop the production of millions of pounds of carbon dioxide. This can save so many animals, plants & people.
  2. Tighten the tap – A leaking tap can lose up to 5 gallons (18.9 litres) of water each day. This quantity can meet the water needs of a small community. If you have leaking taps at home, get them fixed.
  3. Set up a bird bath – Many species of birds are at risk of extinction due to climate change. Installing a small bird bath on your terrace/garden/yard can provide these birds a place to cool-off in the scorching summer heat. Here is a simple guide to building a bird bath at home. You can also set-up a bird feeder, while you’re at it.
  4. Plant – Plants and trees give us oxygen. They give us fruits, flowers and seeds. They are homes for many animals & insects. All of us need plants for our survival. Yet, more than 2.47 million trees are cut down each day, around the world. Imagine what would happen if we continue to cut down trees and not replace them with new ones? Planting a single tree at home can really help the environment.
  5. Avoid plastics – Plastics are killers. No matter what form they come in – bags, bottles, rubber bands etc. – they are one of the greatest threats to the Earth. A single plastic bag takes 1000 years to decompose and there are more than 6.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic waste today on the Earth and in the ocean. Imagine how damaging this plastic can be on the planet. This informative blog will tell you all about it.
  6. Get eco-friendly toys for your pets – A lot of pet toys are actually made from materials which can have a negative impact on your pet’s health. They are also hard to recycle, making them very burdensome on the environment. Choose toys which are biodegradable and which are preferably ISO certified. Also make sure that they use ingredients which are hygienic & body-friendly for your pets.
  7. Choose re-usable bottles, coffee cups and straws – Disposable bottles, cups and straws are one of the main causes of pollution. They add to the plastic waste that’s already present on the Earth. Don’t contribute to this. Choose bottles which you can re-use multiple times. Take a coffee mug to work or to the cafe and ask the server to use that for your order. Ask for reusable straws, or better yet, avoid the straws altogether. The same goes for plastic grocery bags.
  8. Donate to animal welfare – Many zoos around the world allow the public to adopt animals for up to a year. During this adoption period, the patron foots the medical and food bills of the animal for the entire duration. But this may be expensive for some people. In that case, you can just donate the amount you want to the zoo of your choice. This will go a long way in getting quality food and medication for the animals.
  9. Volunteer at an animal shelter – If you’d like to play a more active role in animal welfare, then volunteer at an animal shelter or a Rescue & Rehabilitation unit. Not only will you be able to do your part for the Earth, but you’ll gain a better understanding and appreciation for your fellow-creatures.
  10. Recycle – Garbage is something we can’t escape. Its bound to pile up every day. The best way to respect the Earth and reduce the damage that you may be inflicting on the planet, is to actively recycle. Encourage your kids to join in and your neighbours too. Let this be a community event; after all, it will benefit the community as a whole. Here is a wonderful guide to recycling various materials.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

 

P.S: Featured image: Pixabay
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5 Animals and Insects That Resemble Leaves, Flowers and Poop!

Nature is mysterious. It’s also beautiful…sometimes, shockingly. When you think you’ve seen it all, nature throws another curveball at you, leaving you spellbound and speechless.

Here are 6 more curveballs to add your list. The 6 animals and insects who don’t look like they’re supposed to, but look like leaves, flowers and  yes, poop:

 

  • Kallima aka. Indian dead leaf butterfly

Found in: South Asia

Oakleaf butterfly

Image Source

 

Fun Fact: The Indian dead leaf butterfly  doesn’t like to fly. Just like a dead leaf skims the ground when a gentle gust of air lifts it into the air; the dead leaf butterfly  too occasionally flits around the ground only when he absolutely must. He chooses to stay-put, snacking on fallen fruits, moving only when food runs out or there’s danger nearby.

 

  • Satanic leaf-tailed gecko

Found in: Madagascar

Leaf tailed gecko

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Fun Fact: Despite its “satanic” appearance, the leaf-tailed gecko is a very mild-mannered creature and is relatively harmless. Her young are pretty shy too. In order to prevent them from being eaten after birth, the mother lays her clutch of eggs inside the dead leaves of a plant, so that her little ones (which resemble tiny dead leaves) get camouflaged completely once they’re born.

 

  • Bird dung crab spider

Found in: Malaysia, Sumatra and Java

Bird dung crab spider

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Fun Fact: The bird dung crab spider is a master of deception. In order to play the role of “bird dung” with conviction, the spider sprays a thin jet of its own silk on the leaf and then applies some on parts of its body. It then lays down on the silk and waits. From the air, the spider now looks like a piece of bird poo, laying in a puddle of white, watery bird droppings.

 

  • Moss mimic stick insect

Found in: Central America

Moss mimic insect

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Fun Fact: The moss mimic stick insect takes mimicry to a whole new level. The stick insect’s moss-like cuticles take on the colour of the tree it lives on. You may see insects of the same species in different shades of greens and browns. Another fun fact – the moss mimic stick insect’s eggs resemble plant seeds. She doesn’t lay them in clusters like other insects. Instead, she loosely fixes them onto different trees so that they can fall or be carried away by birds, hatch elsewhere and expand her kingdom.

 

  • Malayan leaf frog aka. Malayan horned frog

Found in: Indonesia and Thailand

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Fun Fact: The tadpoles of the Malayan horned frog have a really unique physiology. Unlike other frogs, their mouths are upturned and they cannot eat underwater. They need to swim to the surface and feed-off anything that is floating on the water’s surface (compared to other tadpoles which live underwater and eat aquatic algae).

 

  • Orchid mantis

Found in: Indonesia and Southeast Asia

Orchid mantis

Image Source

Fun Fact: The Orchid mantis’ camouflage is so effective; more number of butterflies, bees and other nectar-eating insects are actually attracted to the orchid mantis, than they are to the actual flowers!

 

 

Amazing, isn’t it? 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

P.S: Featured image: An Orchid Mantis.
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Do Cockroaches Add Any Value To Our Lives?

As it turns out, they do.

Periplaneta, the genus to which cockroaches belong to, might be considered vermin by most of us; but as it turns out, they’re actually quite useful little critters. Here’s how:

  • They eat everything

Okay, this may not sound too great at first, but read along and you’ll see why this is a good thing.

Cockroaches eat absolutely everything under the sun, from potatoes to animal carcases to books. This makes them excellent recyclers.

Just imagine. What would you do with thousands of metric tonnes of dead matter, used books and rotten fruits? You can’t responsibly dispose-off them all, can you? This is where cockroaches come in. They eat through absolutely everything and they get rid of your waste for you.

There are over 55 species of cockroaches in the world, of which 12 reside close to humans. The rest live outdoors. Together, they recycle millions of metric tonnes of waste each year.

  • They sustain life

Okay, this is going a little far, don’t you think? Nope, because it’s true.

Cockroach faeces is one of the most-powerful natural fertilizers on the planet. Cockroach waste produces huge amounts of nitrogen (courtesy, the decaying matter they feed on), which is then used by plants during their lifecycle.

Without nitrogen, plants won’t be able to survive. Kill enough cockroaches and over time you lose entire forests. And as you know, without forests there won’t be any animals. This includes humans.

So, if you encounter a cockroach, stop and consider this. The cockroach you’re about to stamp, is probably saving your life. Consider giving him a warning and let him off the hook. Poor guy.  

Lesson to be learnt

 

Now, I’ve had my fair share of cockroach kills in my life. And like most people, I never realized how important these creatures were to the ecosystem. But this insight helped me re-think how I view cockroaches. It also made me wonder about other pests like rats. Do they add any value to the Earth too?

As it turns out, they do.

Rats are very intelligent creatures. They’re very adaptable and are quick learners. That’s why they’re the primary subjects of all scientific experiments. But rats and mice do offer value beyond this.

We may hate rats because they’re “icky”, but they function as prized food for animals like cats, snakes, eagles, falcons, owls and weasels, amongst others; most of whom are beloved the world over. Imagine what would happen to them if rats were to go extinct.

Humans may be able to survive the loss of their lab companion. But do you think other animals could survive the loss of prey?

What can we take away from this?

Every animal on the planet fulfills a purpose. Learning about these animals can help us understand what this purpose is. More importantly, this knowledge can prevent our committing harsh actions against them, which may ultimately have a long-standing negative impact on the planet.

But in saying this, its also important to note that animals like cockroaches and rats are considered pests for a reason. They spread germs  and disease and they wreak havoc on farm produce. Killing them can prevent these pests from overrunning the planet and keep the Earth safe.

But for this to be executed correctly, it must be done in a controlled manner and a need-only basis.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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Do Animals Cry and Do They Mourn?

What’s your definition of “crying“?

  • The act of expressing emotions through the production of tears?

  • The physiological response of your body to counteract dryness in the eyes?

If its the first definition, then No, animals don’t cry. However, if its the second definition, then Yes, animals do cry. Animals apart from humans don’t feel what we normally call/define “emotions“. If an animal produces tears in its eyes, its most probably the result of dryness in the eyes or an eye infection.

Of course, this answer isn’t completely comprehensive either. We have animals like elephants who remember the grievances caused against them by humans years ago. We know for a fact that elephants have excellent memories and can hold grudges. We know that elephant mothers are distraught when their calves die. In one village in Southern India, an elephant herd destroyed an entire village through which the corpse of a calf was dragged through (the villagers were disposing-off the calf’s corpse a few days after its death and the scent of the corpse attracted the elephants). Elephants go so far as to investigate the corpse – using their trunks to feel the body and the bones. Sometimes they come back day-after-day, to investigate the bones until the smell wears-off.

Other animals like rhinos, Western scrub jays, chimpanzees and giraffes may not hold grudges, but they have been observed “mourning” their dead. Research shows that rhinos and scrub jays converge around their dead comrades and issue vocalizations that sound different to their normal communication – similar to the sounds humans make when crying. Giraffes have been spotted waiting for their dead calves to get up for hours, even days on end. One of homo sapiens‘ closest relatives – chimpanzees – carry their dead offspring with them for days. Chimps have been noticed tenderly grooming their dead, arranging their fur, posturing their limbs and swatting away insects and predators, keeping the corpses safe for days.

Crying and tears have been observed during some of these cases, but not all. Therefore, there is neither clarity nor validity as to whether animals can feel emotion, can cry or can really mourn (according to our definition of these, at least).

In the scientific community, there is a huge rift between the two groups who study the phenomenon of emotional responses, mourning and crying in animals – one group that truly believes that animals can feel and the other group that believes that humans anthropomorphize animals (attribute human emotions to inanimate objects or natural phenomenon) . The debates and the fights for academic supremacy are endless. Currently, there is enough evidence to support both claims –

  • Animals can really feel.

  • Animals can’t really feel – we only think so, because we anthropomorphize them.

Unfortunately, this creates more problems when trying to understand this phenomenon. Additionally, the concern of possible anthropomorphism often scares researchers and scientists from conducting further studies; at the (assumed) risk of discrediting their other discoveries/research. You see, in the scientific community, one of the worst things a scientist can be accused of is anthropomorphism.

So, until we have more evidence, we cannot make definitive calls regarding the emotional capacity or “crying” ability of non-human animals.

 

NISHA PRAKASH

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The Truth About Sharks and Their Sleep

“Do sharks sleep?”

This is a question that many-a-curious-George has asked him/herself for years. But the answer, unfortunately, remains elusive.

For long, science has told us that sharks need to constantly swim to stay alive. Stop swimming and they die. Unfortunately, sharks and their sleeping habits are one of the least-studied aspects of marine biology. Add to this the immense behavioural diversity that each of the 400 species of shark in the world exhibit and you have yourself a recipe for confusion.

A breath of truth

There are basically two categories of sharks you need to consider when studying shark sleeping behaviours:

  • Sharks that have spiracles
  • Sharks that don’t have spiracles

Spiracles are two small openings located on each side of the shark’s nose, just behind its eyes. They are actually a type of gill-slit that are designed to let water pass through the shark’s body when the shark is resting on the ocean floor. These spiracles work even when the shark is covered in sand. Only certain forms of bottom-dwelling sharks like rays, nurse sharks, wobbegong/carpet sharks and skates have spiracles.

When a shark has spiracles, it can easily rest on the floor without having to worry about breathing. The spiracles push the water into the shark’s body and enable the processing of oxygen. So, instead of being forced to be on-the-move always, sharks with spiracles can rest on the ocean floor and do what they do best, ambush their prey.

A shark’s spiracle (Image source)

So, what about sharks without spiracles?

See, this is where things get really tricky. Scans of “sleeping” sharks indicate that while the brains are inactive and unconscious, the rest of the shark is active and working. Just like in many other animals, it’s the spinal cord that is responsible for the swimming motion in sharks. Research shows that the synapses and neurons in a shark’s spinal cord are always active and always engaged in exchange of neural information, irrespective of what the rest of the body does.

What this means is that, the parts of the shark’s body responsible for swimming never stop working, even if the rest of the shark is asleep. So, the question of sleep & breathing doesn’t arise here, since sharks without spiracles don’t engage in what we humans traditionally term as “sleep”. Their brains remain unconscious, while their bodies continue to move.

But do sharks really sleep?

This still doesn’t answer the basic question – spiracle or no spiracle, do sharks actually sleep?

The answer – not really; at least not according to our description of “sleeping”.

Take a look at any dictionary and you’ll see that “sleep” is defined as an activity where
the mind and the body are suspended of consciousness“, where they “remain inactive until exposed to external stimuli“.

Based on observable evidence, sharks don’t really sleep. Often, bottom dwellers remain stationary, while being completely mentally active, observing the movement of animals swimming past. Irrespective of whether they ambush their prey or not, these sharks remain awake at all times.

Then there are sharks who do exhibit sleep-like behaviours, but don’t fall into deep slumber like we (or other animals) do; continuing to move through the water, always.

Why exactly these sharks remain partially-unconscious or lay so still, is unknown. But one thing is certain; these behaviours definitely aren’t proof of sharks resting or sleeping.

Of course, with the question of sleep, comes the question of dreams. Do sharks dream? The answer – maybe not. Since they don’t engage in traditional sleeping patters, scientists still aren’t certain whether they engage in REM and non-REM cycles; making any question related to dreaming redundant until further evidence is available.

For now, sharks and their sleeping habits remain heavily-shrouded in mystery. Let’s hope the future helps us swim past these cloudy waters towards clearer explanations.

-NISHA PRAKASH

(P.S: Featured image)

Image

Can Chicken Swim?

Have you ever seen that Friends episode where Joey and Chandler try to get their little chick to swim in the bathtub? And we all know how that ended – as expected, the chick began to drown and had to be saved. 

So, does this mean that chicken can’t swim?

As it turns out, technically they can, although they aren’t built to do so. 

Ducks, the natural comparison for chicken when it comes to swimming-related affairs, have: 

  • Webbed feet designed to create powerful strokes in the water.
  • Oily, water-proof feathers that don’t get wet.
  • Natural body-dynamics that help them stay upright in the water.

These are features that chicken don’t have. That’s what makes them so bad at swimming.  But this doesn’t mean that chicken can’t swim.

Experiments have shown that if the situations necessitated it (for example, during an attack from a predator or the lack of a road) and the conditions were right, chicken will not only attempt to swim to safety, but will swim successfully and not drown. 

Chicken can swim relatively well, although their strokes may not be as powerful as a duck’s because of the lack of webbed feet. If the water is shallow and the chicken are able to find a footing in the water without going under, a short swim won’t be fatal. 

Of course, their non-water-proof feathers will drag them down into the water in a minute or two and if they turn upside down when this happens, they are most-likely not going to be able to turn upright by themselves. Unless of course, something like a rock or tree bark or a step is there to help the chicken find their footing and land on their feet. 

So, to encapsulate: Chickens can swim, but they aren’t biologically designed to do so. Give a chicken a choice between a rocky road and a smooth stream, it will always choose the road. 

On this note, I sincerely request all of you to not try any swimming-related experiments or shenanigans on chicken. They are vulnerable creatures and deserve our love and respect. If you do see a chicken drowning, be sure to yank it out of the water or throw in a large stone or branch near it, so it can use it to get back out.

-NISHA PRAKASH