Archive for the ‘Animal behavior’ Category

One of the issues I’m most careful with in looking at domestication literature is claims about brain size reduction. Brain size reduction from wolf to dog is a way more complex topic than some popularizers of science would have you believe.

We should also not assume that smaller brains in domestic animals means that the domestic animal are automatically less intelligent than the wild form. In dogs, there is an argument to be made that domestication has enhanced some parts of their intelligence.  I believe part of this problem comes from the romantic delusions that existed in the early study of animal behavior, some of which were openly fascistic in their understanding of wild versus domestic.

A more nuanced way of looking at domestic animals is that their evolution changes to fit an environment that is fully dominated by human society.  In this world, humans are not a major predator, though humans certain do eat many of the animals.  However, the animals live out their lives with humans as benefactors and protectors, and the evolutionary pressures that work on domestic animals change how their brains operate.

A recent study on red junglefowl found that selection for a lack of fear does change their and brain anatomy. The researchers bred a high fear line and a low fear line of red junglefowl. The low fear line birds had smaller overall brains.  However, they much reduced brainstems and tended to have larger cerebra than the high fear line ones. They had a harder time with remembering fearful situations that the high fear line birds easily remembered, but both strains were of equal ability in terms of general associative learning.

This means that the domestication process does not just dull the intelligence of a species and make its brain smaller. Instead, the process makes it easier for the species to live in concert with our societies.

Our popular understanding is that dog domestication made them significantly less intelligent than wolves, and the best proof we have is the proportionality of brain size, as well as some low n experiments that looked at problem-solving ability between captive wolves and very well-trained domestic dogs.

We need to be very careful about what these studies say, for domestication is a process of evolution as much as anything that goes on in the wild. To live with humans in the way that domestic dogs do, their brains have experienced rather dramatic changes from the wild form, and we must be careful about making simplistic explanations that posit “domesticated” as a synonym for “dumber.”

It’s a much more complex conversation, and this study on red junglefowl clearly demonstrates how difficult the reality of brain changes and domestication clearly is.

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In most of the US, coyotes, people, and domestic dogs live quite close to each other, and there are certainly conflicts. Coyotes can behave as predators toward small dogs and cats, and when someone loses a pet to a coyote, it is a truly sad event.

One idea that seems to be out there is that coyotes lure dogs to their death. This is an old cowboy story, but it goes this way. A coyote runs up to a dog that you’re walking. They coyote tries to play with the dog, and most dogs will play with the coyote. The coyote runs away the dog, taking it back into the cover where its pack then leaps upon the dog and kills and eats it.

These events may happen, but I doubt they are as common as people assume.  What is actually going when something like this happens isn’t anything planned out by the coyotes. Coyotes generally don’t regard dogs that are their size or larger as being distinct species.

Coyotes are socially monogamous. Only one female per territory has a litter every year, but very often, offspring from the previous year will remain with their parents. They will often be on a look out for a potential mate, and if one these young, unpaired coyotes discovers a dog, it might try to flirt with the dog.

The problem happens when the flirting coyote, usually a young female, takes the dog back to meet the parents. Coyotes generally hate when dogs get near their dens and rendezvous sites, and the parents may attack their daughter’s new boyfriend.  These encounters almost always occur during mating and denning seasons.

They may kill the dog, if the dog is of the right size and the coyote pack is large enough. However, they never planned out that they were going to kill a dog in this fashion. That is attributing far higher reasoning powers upon an animal than the animal possesses.

Large and mid-sized dogs are not easy prey for coyotes. They have jaws and sharp teeth, and even if a pack were to swarm a large dog, the risks of injury are quite high.  Coyotes are generally smart enough to avoid taking unnecessary risks with their prey sources.

So the idea that coyotes have a predation strategy that involves luring dogs into their deaths is based upon a faulty understanding of coyote behavior.

And it is a textbook example of projection. Why do I say this?

Well, one well-known method for hunting coyotes involves using decoys dogs.  During the denning and mating season, a coyote hunter will play coyote howls or prey in distress sounds.  These sounds, when played in a sequence, will tell a resident coyote pair that a poacher is upon their land.

When the coyotes come in to investigate, a well-trained, mid-sized dog is sent out. This dog, called the “decoy dog,” plays the role of the poaching coyote that was howling and killing prey on their territory. The coyotes rush the dog. The dog annoys them, and when the coyotes decide to come in strong, the dog runs back toward the hunter who then shoots the coyotes.

This way of coyote hunt is essentially the same as the behavior ascribed to coyotes when they are alleged to lure dogs away.

Indeed, I bet if we actually knew the real numbers, dogs are responsible for killing more coyotes than coyotes are for killing dogs. Not only are dogs used to hunt coyotes in the way that I just described. but there are plenty of scenthounds, curs, HPRs, and coursing dogs that are maestros at taking out coyotes.

Because coyotes are so controversial and often so reviled,  very few people have questioned the behavioral sequences that lie behind that old cowboy story.

I am not denying that coyotes can and do kill dogs. I know that conflicts between humans and coyotes are very real, and they often can only be addressed through lethal means. I am also not opposed to coyote hunting, because hunting them can be a way of keeping the peace between coyotes and farming and hunting interests.

But we do animals a disservice when we attribute human characteristics upon them, whether it is to confer positive or negative intent. We need to accept that animals are animals and appreciate what they really are.


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This is my favorite zoo, BTW.

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A lion ate this tame barn owl at the Colchester Zoo.

From The London Evening Standard:

Children visiting a zoo were left in tears after an owl taking part in a display was caught and eaten by lions.

Families were horrified when a female lion “clubbed” the bird out of the air before a male pounced and devoured it in front of them.

The barn owl, called Ash, had been taking part in a falconry display with her handler at Colchester Zoo when she accidentally flew over the lion enclosure. Although she landed safely on the side, she was said to have lost her footing and fallen. Seconds later she was killed.

Gavin Duthie, from Colchester, had taken his two-year-old son Daniel to the zoo on Saturday. He said: “Daniel was in tears along with most of the people who were there. Women and children were screaming but it was all over in seconds.

“It’s in the lion’s nature – I have taught Daniel that lions are not fluffy animals. He was very upset.”

Alex Downing, the zoo’s marketing director, said: “We are very sad to report that our little barn owl ‘Ash’ sadly died at the weekend.

Unfortunately she got spooked during an experience and flew right out of the falconry arena and hit the window of another enclosure. She picked herself up and flew onto the roof of the meerkat enclosure where we hoped she’d settle but she was obviously dazed and as a result flew low across the lion enclosure.

“Although she landed on the side of the enclosure she very sadly lost her footing and fell in whereupon she was killed by one of the lions.

“Everyone involved is obviously extremely upset about such a combination of events but there is nothing that anyone could have done at the time to avoid such an awful outcome.

“In 25 years of falconry displays nothing like this has occurred as the birds do normally instinctively know that this isn’t a safe place to go.”

I wonder if any of these children has ever been around a dog or cat that has caught something.

These things happen.

But I think we have a bigger problem.

Nature shows in recent years have tended to sanitize predation.

When I was a child, the nature shows always showed big cats killing things.

That was like the big draw for most these programs.

But now, they tend to overly personalize the animals, which makes explaining predation somewhat more difficult.

I know that a lot of BBC nature films do show predatory sequences. I’ve been told that that new Frozen Planet series had lots of epic predation sequences in it.

Maybe films like these will prepare children for things like this.

Personally, if I had been at a zoon when I was a boy and saw a lion kill an owl, I would have been totally pumped!

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