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.

One-Sixth of Life Threatened With Extinction

From The Straits Times:

Climate change could drive up to a sixth of animals and plants on Earth to extinction unless governments cut rising greenhouse gas emissions, according to a US study published on Thursday.

Species in South America, Australia and New Zealand are most at risk, since many live in small areas or cannot easily move away to adapt to heatwaves, droughts, floods or rising seas, said the report in the journal Science.

The study averaged out 131 previous studies of climate change, whose projections of the number of species that could be lost to climate change ranged from zero to 54 per cent of species worldwide – too wide to be useful in designing conservation policies.

Overall, it found that one in six species could be driven to extinction if greenhouse gas emissions are unchecked and temperatures rise by 4.3 deg C above pre-industrial times by 2100, in line with one scenario from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

As another study reported in the The Washington Post found, large herbivores, which remain mostly in Africa, are especially vulnerable:

Large herbivores — elephants, hippos, rhinos and gorillas among them — are vanishing from the globe at a startling rate, with some 60 percent threatened with extinction, a team of scientists reports.

The situation is so dire, according to a new study, that it threatens an “empty landscape” in some ecosystems “across much of the planet Earth”. The authors were clear: This is a big problem — and it’s a problem with us, not them.

“Growing human populations, unsustainable hunting, high densities of livestock, and habitat loss have devastating consequences for large, long-lived, slow-breeding, and, therefore, vulnerable herbivore species”, reads “Collapse of the world’s largest herbivores” in Science Advances, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science…

…Between 2002 and 2011 alone, the number of forest elephants in central Africa declined by 62 percent. Some 100,000 African elephants were poached between 2010 and 2012. And the western black rhinoceros in Africa was declared extinct in 2011.

“This slaughter is driven by the high retail price of rhinoceros horn, which exceeds, per unit weight, that of gold, diamonds, or cocaine”, according to the study.

Vox.com provides a chilling picture at what the world will look like one out of six species gone:

“This paper is only about extinction risk, which is the most extreme of the biotic risks of climate change,” he says. “But that’s also just the tip of the iceberg. We’re also seeing substantial changes in abundances and ranges. So even if we didn’t have a single extinction, we’d be looking at a substantial reorganization of biodiversity around the world. And that will have many effects, some detrimental to other species and human interests.”

Even so, extinction tends to grab the most attention — and often for good reason. “The world is more colorful place with this diversity of species,” he says. “And it’s hard to imagine a world where we’ve lost a significant portion of these species. You think about losing one in six species. It’s like telling an artist they can no longer paint in one color.”

Not to mention the practical everyday impacts. “Global biodiversity is really the foundation of our natural economy, our food security, and our health,” he adds. “These are species that are integrally interwoven into our economic and personal life. When you get to these high extinction risks, you’re talking about a dramatic effect on world.”

How Humans Domesticated Cats

Given how most cats never seem to leave their wildness behind them, it’s hard to remember that they’re technically domesticated. Humans have had some sort relationship with felines for thousands of years (the earlier known evidence being 9,500 years old). But how did we manage to (somewhat) keep them around? The Atlantic reports on a new study that sheds some light on this odd but enduring relationship:

[N]ew archaeological evidence from China, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, documents for the first time a chain of events that forged the relationship between human and feline.

The story begins with agriculture. About 5,560-5,280 years ago in the Shaanxi region of central China, humans were experiencing an agricultural boom. “It’s early, but it’s not the earliest farming in China,” the paper’s co-author, Fiona B. Marshall of Washington University, told me. “It’s from the time when farming really took off, when it was successful.”

They had small villages, with clusters of homes, cemeteries, and communal areas. They kept pigs and dogs and grew crops, primarily millet but a bit of rice, too, which they kept in ceramic vessels.

Now, these farmers had a bit of a problem: rodents. Archaeologists at the village of Quanhucun found an ancient rodent burrow that led right into an ancient grain storage pit. Storage vessels found at the village feature angles and slippery surfaces, design elements that seem to indicate an intention to protect the contents from thieving zokors. Rodent bones from the site contain evidence of millet consumption. “Clearly those rodents were eating the farmers’ grains,” Marshall said.

But the farmers had some help in their battle against the rodents: cats.

In essence there was a symbiotic relationship, which is largely the basis for most other domesticated animals. But it gets more interesting:

“It’s very hard to find, archaeologically, exactly what relationship caused domestication,” she said. “Usually we can find the time or the place. It’s been speculated that for modern cat behavior that cats were attracted to early farmers, but it wasn’t known for sure. But what this shows us is, yes, there was food for ancient cats in ancient farming villages, and that they helped the farmers out, making it a mutualistic relationship, by eating rodents.”

Cats, Marshall explained, are very hard to find archaeologically, in part because humans do not tend to eat them. “What we mostly excavate from ancient homes and villages is the garbage. And we’re just not going to find many cats,” she said. Furthermore, it was a surprise to come across cat bones in China, as most of the existing evidence shows early cats in Egypt and around the eastern Mediterranean. Furthermore, modern genetics has shown that today’s house cats are more closely to related to Middle Eastern wildcats than any other. Research is still being done on the DNA of the Shaanxi cat bones to determine whether there is any relationship, perhaps via an early trans-Asian trade route, between these ancient cats and the popular pet.

Furthermore, this research highlights just how complex and nuanced the process of “domestication” really is, and how we must subsequently change our mentality towards animals in general and pets in particular.

Because cat domestication was a response to agricultural development, house cats are a much more recent creation than domesticated dogs, which first started hanging around hunter-gatherer hunting sites, long before agriculture. Wild wolves were likely attracted to the meat that humans hunted and, then, “people found them useful either to give alarm or to help in hunting.” This may have happened as many as 10,000 or even 20,000 years ago, Marshall says.

But, as for cats, this process is what scientists call a “commensal” pathway to domestication. Unlike cows or sheep, which evolved from wild animals that humans hunted, dogs and cats came into a mutually beneficial relationship with humans through food. Nothing about the process was intentional; no human set out to try to domesticate a cat or a dog and make it into a pet, but a chain reaction was set off by a human practice, and one thing led to another, and our pets today are the result.

Is domestication, then, in a sense, natural? Marshall says that the modern understanding of domestication complicates any sense of a stark line between domesticated and wild. “The idea of domestication comes out of 19th-century thinking,” she told me. “At that point, Darwin was thinking about Victorian animal breeding, which was very much: You take a male, you take a female, you breed intensively, and you change the animal very intentionally.”

But that’s not what happened with cats nor dogs. There are animal responses to humans, and human responses to animals. There is a relationship, centered around food, in which both species—human and feline—react and adapt over time.

In short, we and our feline friends (as well as our canine ones) just sort of fell into each other over a long period of time for various complex but mutually beneficial reasons. There wasn’t any clear rhyme or reason to it — it just sort of happened. Very interesting stuff.

Rats, Sperm Whales, and Altrusim

The following report comes from Discovery News, and while it’s a bit old, I think its relevance and implications remain secure.

Researchers started by housing 30 rats together in pairs, each duo sharing the same cage for two weeks. Then, they moved them to a new cage where one rat was held in a restraining device while the other could roam free.

The free rat could see and hear his (or her — six of the rats were female) trapped buddy, and appeared more agitated while the entrapment was going on.

The door to the trapping enclosure was not easy to open, but most rats figured it out within three to seven days. Once they knew how, they went straight to the door to open it every time they were put in the cage.

To test the rats’ true bond to their cagemates, researchers also ran the experiment with toys in the restraint to see if the rats would free the fake stuffed rats like they did their comrades. They did not.

“We are not training these rats in any way,” said first author Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal.

“These rats are learning because they are motivated by something internal. We’re not showing them how to open the door, they don’t get any previous exposure on opening the door, and it’s hard to open the door. But they keep trying and trying, and it eventually works.”

Even when researchers rearranged the experiment so that the trapped rat would be set free into another enclosure, away from his hero friend, the rats still opened the door, indicating they were not motivated by companionship.

“There was no other reason to take this action, except to terminate the distress of the trapped rats,” Bartal said. “In the rat model world, seeing the same behavior repeated over and over basically means that this action is rewarding to the rat.”

This sort of behavior is perhaps unexpected, give that most people would hardly think of rats (mere pests that they are) as being capable of much sentience, let alone selflessness. Not only does this challenge  the notion that altruism is the sole purview of advanced cognitive capacity, but it goes against the popular perception that living things are concerned only with their own self-interest and survival.

There’s clearly nothing to gain from freeing another rat, other than the apparent “satisfaction” of alleviating the suffering of another living thing.  But is there a limit to this behavior? What would the rats do if given a more enticing alternative to freeing their comrade?

In one final test to truly measure the resolve of the rats, scientists presented them with a pile of chocolate chips in the cage. The rats were not hungry, and in prior experiments showed they liked chocolate because they would eat it instead of rat chow given the chance.

Still, free rats tended to act benevolently. Even if they munched on a few chips first, they would then free their pal and allow him to eat the remaining chips.

“It said to us that essentially helping their cagemate is on a par with chocolate. He can hog the entire chocolate stash if he want(s) to, and he does not. We were shocked,” said co-author Peggy Mason, a professor of neurobiology.

So even when given an irresistible temptation to spurn their friend, the rats still tended to prioritize the well-being of the other rat. In fact, they furthermore shared in the goodies, even though they could easily hog them after having done their part.

Rats are hardly the only animals to demonstrate this sort of behavior. Just about every social species that’s been studied – from dolphins to monkeys – have displayed similar behavior. Most recently there was a discovery that a group of sperm whales,  a species widely perceived as aggressive, had adopted a deformed dolphin.

Behavioral ecologists Alexander Wilson and Jens Krause discovered this unique phenomenon when they set out to observe sperm whales off the island of Pico in the Azores in 2011. Upon arriving there, they discovered a whale group of adult sperm whales, several whale calves, and an adult male bottlenose dolphin. Over the next eight days, the pair observed the dolphin with the whales six more times, socializing and even nuzzling and rubbing members of the group. At times, the sperm whales seemed merely to tolerate the dolphin’s affection, while at others, they reciprocated. “It really looked like they had accepted the dolphin for whatever reason,” Wilson reports to ScienceNOW. “They were being very sociable.”

This gregarious dolphin was easily recognizable by its spinal malformation, a rare spinal curvature that gave the dolphin’s back half an “S” shape. This malformation did not seem to affect the dolphin’s overall health, but  was likely the reason that the dolphin joined up with the sperm whales in the first place. In the highly social and clique-based world of dolphins, such a disfigurement could have given the dolphin low social status, or may have prevented the dolphin from fitting in and keeping up with its peers. “Sometimes some individuals can be picked on,” Wilson says. “It might be that this individual didn’t fit in, so to speak, with its original group.” The deformed dolphin could perhaps better keep up with the sperm whales, which swim more slowly, and could stay by their side at all times, as sperm whales always assign a “babysitter” to remain at the surface with the calves while the other adults dive deep to feed.

Could there be anything in it for the sperm whales? It’s possible there is a mutual benefit, as the article notes towards the end. Why else would they accept the member of another species into their cohesive group, let alone one that has “disabilities”?

While there are several likely possibilities for the dolphin’s advantage in the match, the whales’ reason for the adoption is less clear — there is no obvious advantage that the whales could gain by adding the dolphin to their group. Sperm whales have never been seen being affectionate to other species, and, further, scientists say that bottlenose dolphins and sperm whales often do not get along, as the dolphins have been known to chase and harass the whales and their calves.

Of course, there are some caveats to keep in mind. For starters, it’s still uncertain what the sperm whales’ motivations are, and as tempting as it is to view it as an act of compassion, it’s simply too soon too tell. Then there’s the fact that this is an isolated incident, and can hardly be extrapolated to represent the norm.

Still, this and the previous rat experiment suggests that there is something innate within other social species that seems to cause what we would otherwise call altruistic or compassionate behavior. This is definitely something that should be studied more, if only to give animals more credit for sentience, and thus more rights.

In any case, it makes sense that social species would have some innate inclination to help one of their own, since our individual survival is dependent on the group’s well-being. We depend on each other’s cooperation to thrive, so generosity is often a win-win for everyone. Maybe even altruism, which requires personal sacrifice, may confer some sort of advantage. Regardless,  I this suggests that morality does indeed have some natural origin, given that empathy and a sense of solidarity seems to underpin most moral actions.

Thoughts?

 

As I’ve said before, nature is as beautiful as any work of art. These pictures are amazing. It’s hard to believe the insects I encounter without a passing thought (other than perhaps annoyance or revulsion) harbor this much beauty deep down.

Why Evolution Is True

Linden Gledhill’s Flickr page contains 32 sets of photographs, half of them devoted to biology or physical phenomena in nature. You could spend hours looking at them, for they include insects, plants, insect eggs, insect parts, fungi, as well as paint splashes, astronomy shots, and travel photographs.  Linden has given me permission to put up a few of his insect pictures, but be aware that they’re “copyright Linden Gledhill” and can’t be further reproduced without his permission.

I believe it was the stalwart Matthew Cobb who called my attention to Gledhill’s close-up photos of butterfly wings. The entire album is here (it’s two pages), and on that album you can click on each of the images to enlarge it. This array of thumbnails from the first page (screenshot below) looks like a wonderful patchwork quilt:

Picture 1

Photographers will be interested in Linden’s extensive technical notes about how he made the photos.

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Live “Hawk Cam”

This is probably the most innovative approach to studying nature I’ve ever found. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has set up a  camera offering a live feed of a pair of red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis), which have so far laid three eggs.

Here’s the information from the site:

About the Nest

A Red-tailed Hawk pair has been nesting on a light pole 80 feet above Cornell University’s athletic fields on Tower Road for at least the past four years. In 2012, we installed a camera to get a better look at these majestic birds as they raise their young amid the bustle of a busy campus. So far, we’ve seen the birds bringing prey such as voles, squirrels, and pigeons to the nest.

Big Red and Her Mate

The female, nicknamed “Big Red” in honor of her alma mater, is slightly larger, with a darker head, nape and throat, and is banded on her right leg. From banding records we know she was banded in nearby Brooktondale, New York, during her first autumn in 2003, making her nearly nine years old.

The male, who does not yet have a nickname, is banded on his left leg. He’s a bit smaller and has golden-tawny feathers on his face and head, and a paler neck than the female. He is at least seven years old and was first banded in 2006 as an adult bird on Judd Falls Road near the Cornell campus.

Learn more about Red-tailed Hawks in our online species guide.


Click here for a live camera feed. As I write this, I’m watching the female come back to the nest and lovingly tend to the eggs. It’s such a beautiful sight, and I’m having difficulty taking my eyes of it. Please bookmark the site and check on it periodically. It’ll be something once those eggs hatch (spare some money to donate to the project if you can too).

Some We Eat, Some We Love…

…and some we eat and love. Like most children, past and present, I had an immense love for animals. Just like today, they had figured prominently in storybooks, cartoons, movies, and games. Even folk songs, lullabies, and schoolwork referenced them. The most common animals we grew up with, aside from pets, were domesticated: cows, pigs, chickens, and the like – the same animals we nonetheless simultaneously consumed.

I still love animals of course. But now I’m old enough to recognize the strange contradiction with which we treat them. Even in our youngest years, when we anthropomorphize and adore animals the most, we were able to eat them with regularity and casual indifference. We knew what we were eating, and we could connect each animal with the meat they provided. Yet that didn’t stop us from caring about them anyway. We were still able to reconcile their slaughter with our love.

Reading a literary classic like Charlotte’s Weba family favorite about a pig being saved from slaughter, didn’t impact the widespread consumption of a culinary classic, bacon. Visiting petting zoos, another common childhood pastime, rarely ever lead to serious doubts about eating meat. People of all ages adored the animals all the same, even though the overwhelming majority of them were probably meat eaters. Adults saw no conflict surrounding us with images and stories of personified animals, even as they taught us that eating meat was normal and okay.

Obviously, nothing has changed. Kids are still going through these experiences, and meat eating is still ever-present. The explanations are plenty: children don’t know the extent to which these animals suffer when they are slaughtered, or they only superficially acknowledge the fact that they’re eating them – they know, but not in a truly deep way. Then there is the most potent influence, in the form of social and parental pressure. Meat is unavoidable and ubiquitous, compromising nearly every major dish (at least in the West). We’re taught that it’s abnormal and unhealthy not to eat it.

Cognitive dissonance is perhaps the biggest factor to explain this paradox, as it explains why even conscious adults – including those who are self-professed animal lovers – continue to eat meat in spite of their sincere compassion. Our complex minds are capable of holding conflicting beliefs at the same time. We can compartmentalize very different things in such a way that we can believe or disbelieve them periodically, depending on the context. It’s a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around (no pun intended), but that’s the way the mind works.  

I’m currently making an effort to become a vegetarian, which isn’t easy, given the ubiquity of meat in our society (and the expectation that eating meat is the “normal” thing to do). For a long time, I shared the same incongruous approach towards animals that most people do (vegetarians remain a small, if somewhat larger, minority). I can’t recall when exactly I changed my stance, or what triggered it. Perhaps I just thought long and hard about it, enough to finally break through my mind’s internal barriers. Whatever the case, I’m doing my best to synchronize my ethical concerns with my actions, however difficult that is in practice, given the lingering temptation of meat (I’ve gotten over all but chicken, and I’m still technically a “pescetarian” aka seafood eater).

To be clear, I’m not saying those of you who are omnivorous are immoral or unethical. The compunction to eat meat is very strong, and most people only avoid it for medical or religious reasons. I’m just analyzing a very curious relationship that we have with animals, and expressing my desire to at least try to address it in my own way.

A Beluga Whale Meets a Mariachi Band

Whales are incredibly intelligent creatures, known for having individual personalities and even distinct cultures (such that there is even a serious movement to grant them an equivalent to human rights). If the following video doesn’t attest to their remarkable development, I don’t know what will.

I could never watch that video without smiling. It’s definitely something to bookmark in the event of a bad day.

A Lost Bug is Rediscovered

A science blog from NPR by Robert Krulwich reported on a very rare but wonderful occurrence: re-discovery of a species previous thought extinct, in this case the Lord Howe stick insect. With so many species threatened or going extinct, this is a nice change of pace.

It’s a great story, and if I had the time, I’d elaborate on it here. I recommend you guys give it a read. Below is a video of one of these little guys hatching. If you’re not as interested in bugs as I am, you might find it squeamish. Regardless, I think we can all agree it’s beautiful to see a previously “extinct” animal come back to life, so to speak.