The Intelligence of Betta Fish

Contrary to popular belief, Siamese fighting fish are fairly intelligent. Research indicates they have complex behaviors, social interactions, and even individualized personalities. Males engage in carefully coordinated combat, dance-like courtship, and the building of “bubble nests”, which they fiercely protect; all this indicates a fairly well developed nervous system. Bettas are even capable of associative learning, meaning they develop and adopt certain responses to new stimuli (think of Pavlov’s famous experiment with dogs, where they learned to associate a bell ring with food).

Having had bettas for over fifteen years—including around 36 at the moment (blame the pandemic!)—I can vouch for this by personal experience. Our bettas are inquisitive, alert, and generally perceptive of their surroundings, watching and exploring anything new that comes their way. They also have varied personalities: Some are nearly always aggressive, tending to flare at us when we walk by; others are more shy and reclusive. They even have distinct tastes in food (which has prompted me to get several different brands and types).

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Our beautiful betta Dream, a “dumbo” or “elephant ear” type.

Now, aside from this being anecdotal, I know we humans tend to anthropomorphize animals, especially our pets, attributing human traits, behaviors, and intelligence to their natural behaviors. But there is quite a bit of scientific research backing my impressions (and perhaps those of fellow betta fish keepers).

In fact, Siamese fighting fish are frequently utilized in physiology and psychology studies due to their complex biology; many scientists in these fields consider them “prime models” in understanding how hormones and other hormones affect behavior.

For example, one study found that bettas were affected by antidepressants, specifically fluoxetine, which relies on serotonin transporter pathways to regulate behaviors; in this case, the bettas saw a reduction in their characteristic aggression, which indicates that have a comparable neurological framework. (In fact, bettas can be bored, depressed, and happy; moving them to a bigger tank or placing new decorations will elicit a positive response, with each specific betta having its own preference.)

A more recent study showed that bettas are able to synchronize their behavior during fights—something that has been observed among mammal as well! The longer they fought, the more they could precisely time their strikes and bites, to an extent that surprised the researchers. The study also determined that fights are highly choreographed, with seemingly “agreed on” breaks between each move. Bouts escalated every five to ten minutes, when fish locked onto each other’s jaws to prevent breathing—and thus test who can hold out the longest. The bettas then break apart to catch their breath, and the cycle begins anew—not unlike a boxing match!

Even more surprising, the team found that this synchronicity went down to the molecular level: Certain genes of the combatants were “turned on”, and while it is unclear what they do, this may influence how bettas will engage in future fights. Thanks to the betta’s renowned martial prowess, the researchers claim to have a “new dimension” to studying the relationship between genes and the nervous system in humans.

Given the complex personalities among bettas, and their capacity to feel happy, sad, or bored, they should be given far more than a cup or vase to live in: Not unlike humans, they prefer more space, more decor, and cleaner water, even if they can otherwise tolerate less than ideal conditions.

The Humblest Thing on Earth

Humanity seems a lot like the Martians in The War of the Worlds: An unstoppable force that can overcome and overwhelm every ecosystem with impunity, only to be brought to its lowest point by a tiny pathogen, “the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth” (to quote H.G. Wells nameless narrator in the book).

A bit dramatic, I know, but it is a reminder of how much more vulnerable we are to nature than we think. Many of us are so insulated in our highly industrialized and urbanized societies that we forget “the environment” is not some distant rainforest or coral reef: It is everywhere, part of a single planetary system that does not care about political or physical barriers; viruses can spread everywhere and anywhere, and environmental collapse or degradation in one part of the world can reverberate everywhere else.

The Benefits of Indoor Plants

Though I cannot confirm the efficacy of the many studies cited in the following
Vice article, I can speak from experience that gardening and caring for indoor plants has always been therapeutic for me; in fact, I attribute it to helping me cope with many a stressful or melancholic episode.

What’s good for the body is good for the brain, and the toxin-absorbing, air-purifying abilities of plants like pothos, aloe vera, and ivy are worth considering on your next trip to the nursery. Scented plants have health benefits, too: the smell of flowers like jasmine and lavender have been shown to lower anxiety and stress, and promote a good night’s sleep.

Researchers have been promoting the mental health benefits of horticulture for decades, and for good reason. Studies have repeatedly shown that the act of tending to plants can take our minds off the bad stuff, relieve stress, and have an overall calming effect. Gardening is so good for your brain that it’s even thought to lower the risk of dementia.

[…]

One recent study was able to demonstrate that a group of people in their early twenties experienced a massive decrease in blood pressure and other physical stress symptoms when they followed a computer-related task with an indoor gardening session; the results suggested that tending to indoor plants “reduced physiological and psychological stress, especially in comparison to mental tasks performed using technology.

[…]

The science is pretty clear on all this: humans are happier when they’re close to aesthetically-pleasing living things. Office workers have been found to be more productive and happy when surrounded by indoor plants, and having plants in hospital rooms helps surgical patients recover faster by lowering blood pressure, pain, and fatigue levels. Studies have found that even the literal act of looking out the window at a tiny strip of sad urban park can have restorative mental health properties—which means by investing in a couple of hanging baskets, you’ll actually be ahead of the game. Eyeballing the colour green has been found to promote emotional stability, whereas the presence of bright-coloured flowers can provide an instant mood booster.

Perhaps this isn’t too surprising, given that we did evolve and live in nature across millennia, after all.

The Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon

On this day in 1914, the passenger pigeon, which once numbered in the billions, became extinct when the last individual, Martha, died in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo.

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With a population between 3 and 5 billion, it was by far the most abundant bird in North America, if not the world; flocks were said to stretch on for miles and be thick enough to block out the sun. An account from naturalist John James Audubon claims that one flock was fifty-five miles in length and continued in “undiminished number” for three days. Continue reading

What Parasites Can Teach Us About Society

Who knew that the workings of a tapeworm could provide some very relevant implications about human nature and social control? Like many parasites, Schistocephalus solidus has a complex life cycle: it reproduces in the guts of waterbirds, from whose droppings its eggs are deposited; they hatch and the larva infect small crustaceans, which are eaten by stickleback fish, which are then eaten by the waterbirds, and…you get the picture.

So far, so typical of parasites. But as The Atlantic reports, the transition from one lifeform to another is facilitated by a pretty insidious form of mind control, which works far beyond the immediately infected animals. Continue reading

The World’s Looming Water Crisis

Today is World Water Day, which the U.N. commemorated in 1993 to highlight the importance — and growing scarcity — of potable freshwater. Unfortunately, the problem has only gotten worse in the subsequent decades, as the following map from National Geographic makes vividly clear:

Water Scarcity Worldwide.jpg Continue reading

Peru and Chile Protects Over 13 Million Acres of Wilderness Between Them

As one of the world’s 17 megadiverse countries — places with a vast abundance of plant and animal life found nowhere else beyond their borders — Peru is the unique heir to an incredible and precious environmental heritage. Fortunately, the government seems to have recognized this as well, announcing this past January the creation of a massive new national park for its most endangered land. As The Manual reported:

 

The Yaguas National Park is located near Peru’s border with Colombia in the northern region of Loreto. Its boundaries encompass a land mass roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park but with more than 10 times the diversity of flora and fauna. This is due in large part to the Putumayo  River,  an Amazon River tributary that runs through the heart of the park.

From a wildlife perspective, it’s a rich, varied, and critical ecosystem that’s home to more than 3,000 plant species, 160 species of mammals (like manatees and the Amazonian river dolphin), and 500 species of birds. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a vital piece of the country’s marine ecosystem with approximately 550 fish species that represent a full two-thirds of Peru’s freshwater fish diversity, which is among the richest assemblages of freshwater fish on the planet.

The advent of the automobile and subsequent boom in demand for rubber are arguably more responsible for the destruction of Amazon Rainforest land than any human act in history. The park’s creation is a long time coming, and has consequently been applauded by some of the world’s most active and well-respected environmental group. The South American-based Andes Amazon Fund has already pledged $1 million toward the park’s implementation.

Beyond the environmental damage, however, there’s been a very real human toll related to the rainforest’s decline. Some 29 communities — including 1,100 people from the Tikuna, Kichwa, Ocaina, Mürui, Bora, and Yagua tribes — call the area home. These are direct descendants of the area’s native people who rely on the land in general, and the endemic fish population in particular, to survive. For millennia, the area has been sacred land to their ancestors.

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As deforestation encroaches on intact rainforest, Peru is taking the initiative to protect the most pristine areas of its rainforest. Photo courtesy of Mongabay.

Fortunately, Peru is not the only Latin American nation taking a bold and necessary approach to conservation. Though less well known for its gorgeous scenery and wilderness, neighboring Chile also has a unique environmental heritage in desperate need of protection — and to that end, the country has committed itself to forming what may be the most ambitious conservation project yet. Also from The Manual (bolding mine):

For the last 25 years, self-described “wildland philanthropists” Doug Tompkins (co-founder of the Patagonia outdoor brand) and Kristine McDivitt worked to collect and cultivate more than a million acres of Patagonia known as Parque Pumalín. The duo’s wish was to forever preserve the land by gifting it to the Chilean people. Sadly, Tompkins died in a kayaking accident in December 2015 and would never live to see his dream fulfilled.

However, last month, the land was officially handed over to the country’s people, and Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, issued an executive order to turn the previously private park into a national park. She noted, “Today, we are bequeathing to the country the greatest creation of protected areas in our history.”

With the stroke of a pen, Parque Pumalín became the single largest donation of private land to a government ever in Latin America. But, the story doesn’t end there. Bachelet — a long-time supporter of Tompkins’ vision — bolstered the donation by combining Parque Pumalín with 10 million acres of federal land. To put that into perspective, the combined space will be a staggering 5,000 times larger than Central Park in Manhattan. Combining both Yellowstone and Yosemite would occupy less than one-third of the preserved land. The new order will simultaneously create and interconnect five new national parks and be dubbed “The Route of Parks.” What’s more, the land has long been in use by adventurous travelers, so cabins, trails, and an overall tourism “infrastructure” already exists.

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Just a small taste of Chile’s 11 million acres of pristine wilderness

While it remains to be seen how well these countries will enforce these protection — Peru in particular is less developed and well-governed than Chile — these ambitious efforts are certainly a welcome move in the right direction.

A Map of All Known Species of the World

Since first conceptualized by Charles Darwin in his seminal book, The Origin of Species (1859), tree diagrams of various kinds have been used to depict evolution and convey the relationship between various species across the animal, plant, and microbial kingdoms.

Now, a project called OpenTreeOfLife.org has confensed tens of thousands of various phytogenic trees into one beautiful and inuitive circular diagram, as seen below.

 

Circle of Life

This lovely and useful guide is the end result of three years of work undertaken by researchers from a dozen scientific institutions from around the world.

Every line in the circle represent a species, and together they account for all 2.3 million species thus far named; another 5.4 million are thought to remain to be properly accounted for. With around 15,000 new species being discovered annually, the diagram will continue to grow in size and sophistication — so it is a good thing anyone is free to suggest updates or tweaks to the database.

As biologists continue to make progress in discovering and classifying new species (and re-examining existing ones), we can expect to see a lot of changes in the makeup of this diagram. I cannot wait to see this used in classrooms and popular science books.

Source: Scientific American

The World’s Countries, Ranked By Tree Wealth

Friends and longtime readers are no doubt well away of my fondness for international rankings of all kinds. So it is nice to spice up the usual indexes of social, economic, or political performance and instead compare countries by the interesting new metric of tree wealth.

A team of researchers led by Thomas Crowther of Yale University recently published a study in Nature that looks at where the world’s over 3 trillion trees are located, and how this compares with a country’s geographic size, population, and more.

This might seem like an odd attribute to look at — perhaps suited for nothing more than an amusing fun fact — but as the Washington Post points out, trees are an often vital natural resource well worth studying and preserving.

[Having] lots of trees in a country provides a huge host of benefits — trees are both a natural resource and an asset to humans. They filter water, combat air pollution, sequester huge amounts of carbon that would otherwise reside in the atmosphere, and even, it appears, contribute to human psychological and health benefits. Indeed, large parts of the world population depend on forests for food.

And then, there’s just the emotional connection to nature. “I think people inherently value trees”, said Clara Rowe, a co-author of the study and a recent graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, by e-mail. “In the days since our study was published, we’ve heard from individuals all over the world who are concerned about forest resources in their countries.”

Amid widespread environmental degradation and worsening global climate change, such scientific and public interest in the health and abundance of trees is well founded. Where they naturally exist, they are a barometer for the health, vitality, and sustainability of the local ecosystem. So those nations that have managed to preserve as many trees as possible have much to gain, as well as a lot to offer the world at large. Tree wealth is an apt description.

Starting with the most basic measurement, here are the countries with absolute most trees. (The researchers note that these estimates are more accurate with larger countries and less so with smaller ones.)

Total Tree Count

Source: Nature / Washington Post

You can find an interactive version in the Post article, which allows you to select an individual country to see its estimated number of trees.

As one can plainly see, the countries with the most trees in total are, unsurprisingly, the largest ones.

Based on this approach, the world’s overall tree leader is clearly Russia, with 642 billion total trees, followed by Canada with 318 billion and Brazil with 302 billion. The United States is actually fourth overall in this ranking, with 228 billion trees. Other countries with over 100 billion trees include China, with 140 billion and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with 101 billion. Indonesia comes in 7th, with 81 billion, and Australia 8th, with 77 billion.

Adjusting for territorial size, the next measurement looks at tree density, e.g., the number of trees within a square kilometer (roughly equal to a little over a third of a square mile).

screenshot-www.washingtonpost.com 2015-09-16 14-20-03

Source: Nature / Washington Post

The difference is dramatic: countries with lots of trees in absolute numbers rank low once you adjust for size. Naturally, this applies most strongly to drier countries, such as the desert nations of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, each with just 1 tree per square kilometer.

Relatively large countries like Finland, Sweden, Bolivia, and Indonesia still fare pretty well, as do smaller countries like Gabon, Laos, New Zealand, and Slovenia. As the researchers note in the study:

…in “northern latitudes, limited temperature and moisture lead to the establishment of stress-tolerant coniferous tree species that can reach the highest densities on Earth”. There is more total forest in the tropics, they found, but it isn’t as dense. So the type of forest that a country fosters has a big influence on this metric.

Next up is the number of trees per person. One could imagine that countries with large populations would have a lot less tree wealth to go around, especially with the subsequently high need for space, shelter, and farmland.

Trees Per Person

Source: Nature / Washington Post

[Once] again … vast northern countries like Russia and Canada are surprisingly “tree rich”, with thousands of trees per resident. There are a whopping 8,953 trees per person in Canada. But tropical countries of the southern hemisphere can also hold their own. Here, Bolivia (5,465 trees per person), Gabon (8,131), and the Central African Republic (5,152) also fared quite well.

By contrast, desert countries once again were quite low – Egypt was  estimated to have only about one tree per person. The metric is also highly sensitive to population size, meaning that India, with a population of 1.27 billion and a tree population of only about 35 billion, had just 28 trees per person.

Very high tree-to-person numbers were clustered in the northeast of South America: Suriname had 15,279 trees per person, Guyana 14,692, and French Guiana a stunning 20,226. Of course, these countries all have populations under a million people.

So we have gone over the number of trees as they relate to size, density, and population. But what about wealth? Intuitively, fast-growing poorer countries would seem likelier to strip their forests clean, given the greater need for readily available farmland, fuel, and construction material. Most industrialized nations have moved on to other sources, or have the luxury of more efficient (and thus less land-intensive) agriculture; urban parks and tree planting are also a hallmark of greater wealth and development. Various reports and studies seem to bear this out, too.

Let the data do the talking.

Source: Nature / Washington Post

Source: Nature / Washington Post

Ultimately, the researchers concluded that “it was not clear that there was any meaningful difference overall”.

Rather, it was simply the case that one emerging country grouping, “Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan” was quite low on trees — but then, that’s not surprising given the prevalence of desert in these countries. So it seems odd to relate this to economics, rather than simple geography. Simply put, some countries, due to their environments and climatic regimes, just can’t host as many trees as others.

“If you said to me, okay, the GDP per capita of Costa Rica is $8,000, I would have no way of telling you how many trees there are in Costa Rica or how dense those trees are”, said Yale’s Clara Rowe. She said that the most meaningful way of looking at the relationship between a country’s wealth and its tree resources would be to calculate a nation’s “forest potential” — how many trees it is actually capable of supporting — and then compare that with how many it actually has, which would then reflect how much the country has exploited those resources, as opposed to preserving them.

“That can really give us a better sense of what percentage of forest can be lost in every single country, and then maybe we can start relating that to things like GDP”, Rowe said. But the researchers haven’t done that analysis on a country-by-country level yet.

Studying “forest potential” would definitely be the next step. Granted, it is important to keep in mind that there is a big difference between having lots of trees and having lots of forest; a country’s cities might have plenty of trees in its parks, medians, and public spaces, but these would not support the sort of thriving ecosystem as an unspoiled forest would. While trees are important in their own right, for reasons specified earlier, they need to be in abundant number and left undisturbed to support certain wildlife. That would be a whole different sort of wealth to look into.

The Health Benefits of Watching Fish

IFLS reports on the first known study to research the psychological effect of observing marine life. It might seem like an oddly specific thing to look into, but given the long history of aquarium-keeping across civilizations, it makes sense to consider what value humans derive from the practice

Sure enough, British researchers from Plymouth University and the University of Exeter, in collboration with the National Marine Aquarium, found measurable benefits in physical and mental well being among test subjects following a bit of aquarium-gazing.  Continue reading