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Indoor Cat Behaviour — A Masterclass in Adaptation to Surroundings

Indoor Cat Behaviour — A Masterclass in Adaptation to Surroundings

cat in a box

Though we at DFC are avowed dog people (and today is Jill’s birthday), there are folks in our lives who are strictly Team Cat when it comes to at-home companions. And, like cute catmost of the internet, they will not stop talking about the doofy things their indoor felines do on a daily basis — like get brain freeze, startle at cucumbers, and give in to a mysterious force that compels them to jump into boxes. (I’m looking at you, Maru)
 
Now I’m biased: as a dog owner, I believe there is nothing more majestic than a canine chasing after a groundhog through the tall grass of a field. But it turns out that Maru and friends are not just being cute — they’re hunting. They are exhibiting exactly the same noble behaviour as the irrepressible Jill, but they’re just doing it in their own way, and (big difference) indoors.
 
Via the always-wondrous BoingBoing comes a fascinating video starring Abigail Tucker, author of The Lion in the Living Room, and contextualizer of housecat behaviour. In it, she analyzes the adorable kitty who can’t help invading the box your Amazon purchase just came in. Cats are not particularly well suited to confined living, and will often engage in cute-to-annoying behaviours (scratching, running around madly at 3 am) out of boredom. Cats jump into boxes due to an evolutionary memory as well: in an effort to ambush prey (read: their favourite nip-stuffed toy) the same way they did for eons in the wild. Unlike a canine, a cat does not chase, and a box provides a compact, secluded base of operations for it to play to its strengths.
 
Tucker further explains that fifty years ago, we would not have seen as much of this box-jumping behaviour, because cats only really came into prominence as domestic pets around that time. Before then, they would have prowled backyards or earned their keep by patrolling for mice in a barn. This is not to say that it’s better for a cat to be based outdoors! Sure, they won’t be bored, but they’ll face danger and injury, and an average lifespan of only two to five years. Give your indoor cat lots of mental stimulation, good food, and exercise, and they will have 18 to 20 years to do all kinds of weird stuff you can then post on YouTube!

Salmonella vs. Cancer: Someday a More Even Match?

Salmonella source

In a proof-of concept study, researchers at Chonnam National University in South Korea have bioengineered a strain of Salmonella that can enter tumours and, Trojan-Horse-style, trigger the host’s immune system to attack the malignant cells. So far, this works well in mice, but the team is hoping this early success will pave the way for human trials.
 
Bacteria naturally have great tumour-radar, which makes them ripe for use in cancer therapies. In this expereiment:
 
“[…] the Salmonella bacteria is genetically modified to secrete a foreign protein known as flagellin (FlaB). This protein, found in an aquatic microbe called Vibrio vulnificus, is the building block of flagellum—the lash-like appendage that allows microorganisms to swim around. Since vertebrate animals, including humans, don’t have a flagellum, this protein is foreign to our cells. When voracious white blood cells known as macrophages detect the presence of these foreign proteins, they immediately sense danger and spring into action.

Macrophages are like microscopic Roombas, vacuuming anything that doesn’t look like it’s supposed to be there, including bits of cellular debris, unfamiliar substances, viruses, unwanted bacteria, and importantly, cancer cells.”

Bacterial therapy for cancer is experiencing a resurgence, after spending most of the 20th century in the shadow of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. The researchers propose someday using all three methods together, for a three-pronged attack on tumours.
 
I really enjoy the symmetry here, that the food poisoning bacteria everyone loves to hate may someday be used against the just-plain-hated scourge of cancer! Where the microbiome is concerned, the wonders truly never cease.

Snail Spa Supports Slime Surplus: The Ethics of a New Cosmetics Fad

snail

European snail farmers are currently experiencing an unheard-of demand for their product. Interestingly, it’s not in response to an uptick in escargot consumption, the usual fate of Helix aspersa or Cornu aspersum, but in a cosmetics fad for snail slime skin serums.
 
Studies have shown that the uniquely thick mucus produced by these snails can help regenerate skin. This has led to massive interest in a formerly niche ingredient in skincare creams, and a surge in production at the many (often Italian) farms where these snails are bred.
 
While staying on top of this lucrative trend, farmers have developed a gentler slime harvesting process, which keeps the snails happier and more productive (in the mucus-y definition):
 
“To force snails to secrete slime, traditionally they were dunked in pots of water with salt, vinegar or other chemicals. […]

Italy’s International Heliciculture Association recently patented a new machine, called the Muller One, which extracts snail slime by immersing the creatures in a special steam bath.

‘It is essentially a spa for snails,’ said [president of the Association Simone] Sampo. ‘We raise them naturally, feed them only vegetable matter and then extract the slime with water that contains ozone, which kills all the bacteria. The snails are not harmed.’”
 
It’s no secret that I love nature, and I’m especially interested in conservation. So I’m thrilled to see that these tiny creatures — so different from us it can be hard to have empathy — are being treated with conscience in this arrangement, and even being pampered! It’s a fair trade-off, I think, for the pampering their goop provides for us.

Hydrogel Robots Wave Us Over to New MIT Innovation

hydrogel capsules

Some great new tech news from my favourite innovators, those wacky folks at MIT: they’ve invented a series of hydrogel “robots,” which are much more responsive than previous generations, and could have an extraordinary range of applications in the medical field and beyond!
 
These soft robots are designed to “live” and work in water. The designs include a fin that waves, an articulated finger that can kick outward, and a hand-shaped construction that can gently grab small objects. The chief new innovation involves pumping water into the structures quickly, rather than relying on natural absorption. This allows the fin, finger, and especially the hand, to move faster and apply greater force to what they are trying to affect. The team offered a particularly cool demonstration video in which the hand robot grasped and release a goldfish so quickly and gently, that the goldfish was barely disturbed! 
 
These robots are rough-and-tough too, and are effectively invisible — benefits for both medical and underwater applications:

“‘Hydrogels are soft, wet, biocompatible, and can form more friendly interfaces with human organs, [MIT associate professor of mechanical engineering and civil and environmental engineering Xuanhe] Zhao says. ‘We are actively collaborating with medical groups to translate this system into soft manipulators such as hydrogel “hands,” which could potentially apply more gentle manipulations to tissues and organs in surgical operations. […]

For the past five years, Zhao’s group has been developing ‘recipes’ for hydrogels, mixing solutions of polymers and water, and using techniques they invented to fabricate tough yet highly stretchable materials. They have also developed ways to glue these hydrogels to various surfaces such as glass, metal, ceramic, and rubber, creating extremely strong bonds that resist peeling.”
 
The team also mentions that other potential applications for these robots may not have even been thought of yet, and they are “tossing this concept out there” to see what the rest of the community might come up with. The spirit of collaboration at its finest! I’m very intrigued to see where these little guys go, and I for one welcome our tiny, invisible, fish-hugging overlords.

A Musical Robot for an Improvisational Age

To the pantheon of adorable robots, Georgia Tech’s Centre for Music technology is making a bid to add a little fellow named Shimon. With one large lens for a friendly eye and four mallets in hand, Shimon is a demon on the marimba. But while rocking out with the best improvisational jazz musicians, he also shows through mimicry how humans read each other in order to make art.
 
Shimon can improvise with human musicians by “listening” to them, and following programming to select appropriate complementary beats and notes. But, above and beyond your standard music-generating robot, he also takes in and reflects back particular social cues.
 
“When you watch a band perform on stage and you observe the guitar player and the drummer synchronizing their movements, you’re actually witnessing an important part of musicianship. […] Body movement, gestures and physical interaction tell musicians how to play their instruments.

[…]Shimon’s intelligence includes an ‘interestingness’ algorithm, where interesting is defined by music that is different from what other players are playing or different from music Shimon heard earlier in a song.

‘And when it does this, he’ll look at you, just like a musician would when you’re playing together, and you do something that was a little off or different,’ [creator Professor Gil] Weinberg said.”
 
Musicians who jam with Shimon report treating him like a peer: wanting to catch his gaze and while performing and feeling connected to the group as a result.
 
Beyond the coolness factor, Shimon illustrates how easy it is for a robot to foster human emotional connection. All it takes is a few physical gestures in recognizable shapes, and we fill in the rest. Shimon embodies artistic application, but I could totally see the same principle applied to household helper robots, or even sales robots. Of course, when we get that far…!

Bird “Mobbing”: Self-Conservation in Action

Titmouse does mobbing

I’ve long enjoyed a little light birding as a hobby — but I’ve gotten much more serious about it since moving both home and business to the Frontenac Arch Biosphere and incredibly species-rich area of Canada. Consequently, I’ve also become more interested in the mechanics of conservation — and a recent article in Nautilus introduced me to an aspect of bird self-protection that I’d never considered before.
 
It’s pretty neat: turns out, the behaviour known as “mobbing” (when groups of smaller birds harass and drive away larger predators from an area) has an important social aspect. Avian wildlife ecologist Katie Sieving (University of Florida) characterizes mobbing as, on the surface, full of risk. The activity calls attention to the birds doing the mobbing, and is distracting enough that another predator could swoop in and pick off a meal with almost no resistance. But chatty, loud, active bird species — in eastern North America, the species is often the titmouse — serve as an early warning system for many species around them, contributing to a general understanding that the area is a “good neighbourhood.” Other species (including small mammals) literally “eavesdrop” on the titmice, and:
 
“[t]his eavesdropping turns out to be adaptive. Multiple studies have demonstrated that social and talkative bird species, the ones most likely to initiate mobbing, improve the survival of the birds around them. Titmice, tits, chickadees, fulvettas: They’re tiny birds with big mouths, and wherever they live, less outspoken species are drawn to them, and eat better, have more babies, and live longer. Sieving says, ‘We don’t know if it’s a kind of parasitism’ — that is, the bolder species are actually harmed by the shyer species’ use of their vigilant habits; ‘or if it’s just commensalism’ — the shyer species benefit, but the bolder species are not affected.

Either way, these dynamics seem essential to community structure.”
 
This behaviour is so valued by other species that they will follow their virtual canaries in the mine to other locations — which is helping scientists refine the efficacy of wilderness corridors, and other human-created strategies for bird survival in an anthropocentric world.
 
Right now, as mentioned earlier, I’m having a great time working with the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre on a series of workshops on using tech to help identify all the amazing birds that call our home “home.” I’m hoping, at the next session when I’m chatting with an attendee, or if I’m out and about, to catch a little “mob” activity — giving me the chance to see such a seemingly straightforward behaviour in a much more far-reaching light!

The Only Thing (Really) Separating Us from the Animals is our Ability to Accessorize

samson and other animals

As a devoted dog person, I have long thought that my two pack-mates, Jill and Samson try to communicate with me vocally. (Jill especially, who is a howler more that a barker, can be quite articulate in her criticisms when I’m a bit too slow getting her dinner ready!) But, of course, they can’t really be capable of conversation, can they? They’re dogs — and research has proven that even primates who are animals more closely related to us don’t possess throat and mouth structures that allow for speech.
 
That was the prevailing idea even two months ago; but new research is now calling into question humanity’s monopoly on intelligible speech. First, scientists out of the University of Vienna and Princeton University tested live macaques’ vocal tracts and found them to be capable of replicating the sounds needed for human speech. (The previously accepted research that said they weren’t was based on dissections of deceased specimens.) Along with their study, published in ScienceAdvances, the team released audio of what a macaque, if it also had the necessary neural capacity, would sound like speaking English. (Bonus questioning-how-different-we-truly-are points by having it ask “Will you marry me?”!)
 
Now, a French team who studied baboons, not macaques, has discovered that they too are naturally able to produce all the distinct vowel sounds found in human languages. That indicates that the ability to speak is more widely dispersed among our animals relatives, and may have been cooking in our genetic code since before our split from other primates. More work from the Max Planck Institute supports this too:
 
“Whatever sounds make up a vocal repertoire — vowels, consonants, grunts or basic barks — humans were once thought the only primate able to control their voices to any significant extent. Other animals were thought to make sounds like you yelp when you touch an iron: as pure reflex.

But in a 2015 study, [cognitive scientist affiliated with the Max Planck Institute Marcus] Perlman and a team of researchers documented how a 280-pound gorilla named Koko had been trained to cough, blow into a recorder and make several other noises at will.

His team’s study was followed up last year, when an orangutan named Rocky at the Indianapolis Zoo was trained to control something approximating a voice.

‘He was able to listen to a human make a vocalization and able to match the frequency of that,’ said Rob Shumaker, who is the zoo’s executive vice president and co-authored the study. ‘Prior to this study with Rocky, most of the conversation was saying this is a uniquely human event.’”

Some folks are getting excited about the possibilities of other, non-human species’ capacity for speech — but still recognize that a parrot asking for a cracker, or cat yelling “No!”  would not shed light on the relation between our evolution and our ability to make ourselves understood. I’d be happy if it would shed light on exactly what Jill is cursing me with when I chastise her for opening the front door in the middle of the night. But we’ll start with this exciting development with primates first, and see how it goes!

Organizational Citizenship Behaviour: A Hidden Form of Burnout

organizational citizenship

A study out of the School of Management and Business at King’s College London has proven something that, anecdatally, also makes a lot of sense — that conscientious, above-and-beyond-type employees, who are successful at their jobs because of this drive, also experience significant emotional exhaustion, and struggle to keep a work-life balance.
 
Participants in the study, all workers in a UK bank’s inbound call-centre, reported feelings of being drained and “used up.” This was often because of workplace policies, that, in today’s age of tenuous employment with vaguely defined boundaries, called on participants to go beyond their job descriptions.
 
While participants were frequently rewarded for their “organizational citizenship behaviour,” in the form of being considered for raises, job advancement, and being thought of as generally dependable, this goodwill had a dark side.
 
“Conscientious workers have been noted for their dependability, self-discipline and hard work, and their willingness to go beyond the minimum role requirements for the organization. They are also said to make a greater investment in both their work and family roles and to be motivated to exert considerable effort in both activities (not wanting to “let people down”), thus increasing work-family conflict and leaving them with little resource reserve. […]
 
Our study shows that a possible overfulfillment of organizational contributions can lead to emotional exhaustion and work-family conflict.  […] Managers are prone to delegate more tasks and responsibilities to conscientious employees, and in the face of those delegated responsibilities conscientious employees are likely to try to maintain consistently high levels of output. […] The consequences, however, may be job-related stress and less time for family responsibilities.” 
 
I do wonder if the fact that they drew from a pool of employees in an already emotional-labour heavy industry made the study’s results even starker. It will be interesting to see if further research into other types of work, as the study’s conclusion calls for, might uncover the same trends. I know that in my working life, I myself have seen firsthand proof of the adage “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” This study shows that, similarly, “If you want something done well ask a conscientious person” — but maybe now we have a responsibility to think about the personal fallout of that request.

Your Media Habits Are In Your Genes

media and your genes

With the veritable explosion of technology and online platforms in recent decades, research is understandably catching up to the core truths about how our (comparatively un-evolved) brains and bodies interact with these almost parallel realities. One narrative has us at the mercy of insidious tech that erodes our willpower and enslaves us to our glowing blue screens. But new research involving twins and social media use is shedding light on a possible genetic component to our online habits — and, paradoxically, showing us how a lot of it can be modulated by choice.
 
The new study, authored by researchers at King’s College London, and published recently in the journal PLOS ONE analyzed online media use of 8500 teenage twins, both identical and fraternal. By comparing their behaviours and the amount of genes they shared (identical twins share all, and fraternal half), the researchers were able to determine how much of their online engagement was nature, and how much nurture. The (rather complicated!) equation is as follows:
 
“Heritability (A) is narrowly defined as the proportion of individual differences in a population that can be attributed to inherited DNA differences and is estimated by doubling the difference between [identical] and [fraternal] twin correlations. Environmental contribution to phenotypic variance is broadly defined as all non-inherited influences that are shared (C) and unique (E) to twins growing up in the same home. Shared environmental effects (C) are calculated by subtracting A from the [identical] twin correlation and contribute to similarities between siblings while non-shared environmental effects (E) are those experiences unique to members of a twin pair that do not contribute to twin similarity.”
 
The results found that a great deal of heritability was at play for all types of media consumption, including entertainment (37%); educational media (34%); gaming (39%); and social networking, particularly Facebook (24%). At the same time, environmental factors within families were the cause of two-thirds of the differences in siblings’ online habits. That indicates that while we are what our genes are, their in-world expression can be molded by free will. A heartening thought for a species buffeted by so much technological change!

Using an Old Toy to Save Lives

button toy

We’re lucky enough to be surrounded by so much gee-whiz tech nowadays – from the Mars rover to tortilla Keurigs  – that it’s easy to forget that the definition of technology includes some elegantly simple concepts. The lever, the wedge and the pulley have all changed the world far beyond what their uncomplicated structures might indicate possible. We have learned that in simplicity lies a wealth of usefulness – and an amazing new lab tool with world-changing potential is demonstrating this to us yet again.

Stanford bioengineer Manu Prakash, of Foldscope and “frugal science” fame, and his team, have created an incredibly portable, outrageously inexpensive human-powered centrifuge, adapted from a popular and ancient toy design: the whirligig.  A whirligig is essentially a paper disk or button, which, when suspended on a looped string that is pulled outward with the hands, spins quickly in the middle. Prakash’s “Paperfuge,” nearly identical in design, can spin hard enough to separate plasma from blood cells in 90 seconds. This allows important diagnostic procedures to be carried out quickly in clinics that may lack the electricity, funds, or infrastructure to obtain and use standard centrifuges. Faster diagnosis means faster help for patients in remote communities.

The problem of a frugal centrifuge was longstanding: researchers had already tried adapting a salad spinner and an egg-beater into devices that were still too complicated to be effective and cheap. Then post-doc Saad Bhamla remembered a toy from his childhood that seemed suddenly promising:

“They discovered that much of the toy’s power hinges on a phenomenon called supercoiling. When the string coils beyond a certain threshold, it starts to form another coil on top of itself.

[…] Physical prototypes came next. They tweaked the length of the string and the radius of the disc, and tried a variety of materials, from balsa wood to acrylics. In the end, though, the group settled on the same stuff Prakash used to build his Foldscopes . ‘It’s synthetic paper, the same thing many countries use in their currency,’ Prakash says. ‘It has polymer films on both front and back that make it waterproof, and it’s incredibly strong, as well.’”

The Paperfuge removes critical barriers to access to diagnosis of many diseases, including malaria and HIV. In addition to the cool factor of a beloved childhood toy being repurposed for a higher calling, its existence will help prevent many deaths, and increase quality of life for huge segments of the world population. And that, I think, is the truest and best use of any technology.