Teacher Appreciation Week: Animal (school)House

For our final tribute to teachers, we're focusing on creatures -- today we visit the animal kingdom to see what learning looks like there.

Dolphins: Spongeworthy Under the Sea
Using tools was once thought to separate humans from primates, but now, it doesn't seem to distinguish us much from dolphins, either. Recently, scientists observed dolphins using sponges to protect their sensitive schnozzes while searching for food on the rough sea floor. Not only that, but they also appear to be especially shrewd in their choice of tools. They only select sponges that are conical, not flat, so their noseguards stay on even if they get jostled during use. Sponge use also appears to be a family tradition usually passed from mothers to daughters. Some researchers have even speculated that the behavior may have originated with one common ancestor (the "Sponging Eve," so to speak) that other dolphins copied.

Macaques: Monkeys that Wash and Learn
Scientists have long been impressed with the macaque, a type of monkey known to exhibit several unique learned behaviors, including wheat-washing, stone-handling, and group snowball-rolling. And if that's not enough to make you want to adopt one, consider this: It just might fix you dinner. Behavioral researchers on Koshima Island, off the coast of Japan, laid out sweet potatoes along the beach for a group of macaques, and one smart female monkey named Imo made sure to wash them in the ocean before eating. Pretty soon, other macaques had caught on, and the behavior has since been passed on to several new generations of macaques from Imo's troop.

Ants: An Apple for Your Teacher
While all the other entries on this list focus on animals that like to learn, it's far more difficult to find those that enjoy teaching (that arrogant, self-righteous calculus professor you had junior year included). On the whole, animals learn by imitation, not pedagogy. In fact, scientists know of only one exception to this rule, and that's the ant. In order to help the younger generation find the path to the grub, older ants utilize a technique called "tandem running." A professor ant takes the lead, but if it can't feel the eager limbs of the pupil on its posterior, the leader will slow down so the little learner can catch up. Though crude, this counts as teaching because the lead ants are willing to compromise their own bid for the ant buffet so their younger pals can catch up—and that's downright humanitarian, folks. At least for the ants.

You can read about seven more of those in Mark Peters' "10 Studious Animals to Cheat off off in School," found in our September/October issue. By the way, if you're a subscriber, you should be getting the November/December issue very soon... and if you're not, well, hey, get on that!

Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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