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Can Dogs Understand Human Emotions?

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Whenever I cry, my beagle, Sadie, jumps into my lap and nudges me with her nose. Is Sadie’s intuitiveness unique, or can dogs really understand human emotions?

According to a recent study, the answer is yes. Attila Andics, at the MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest, coaxed 11 canines into laying still in an MRI for 10 minutes at a time. While the pups listened to about 200 snippets of human voices, dogs' yips, yaps, grunts and barks, and environmental din, the researchers looked at their brain activity.

They found that when Fido heard his doggy brethren vocalizing, a particular region in his brain became very active. The area is comparable to one that humans have, which sparks when hearing the sound of one’s own species.

And when Fido heard human and doggy voices, neurons in a small area in the back of the brain, behind the ear, fired. This patch of neurons in the dogs’ brains is similar to one in humans known as the “voice area.” In humans, this region aids in understanding the emotional intent of the speaker, helping us differentiate between sarcasm and disgust, for example. In dogs, that area responds to the emotion in voices. It doesn’t help them understand the words, but rather allows them to decipher the emotions—so Fido understands happiness and sadness.

Dogs don’t simply have a region analogous to humans; they actually act like humans, too. “When you looked at how dogs respond to emotion cues in sounds, it’s very similar to how humans respond,” Andics told NPR.  

The dogs also pick up on context clues. "For instance, when you laugh, 'Ha ha ha,' it has short, quick pieces," Andics said. "But if you make the pieces longer, 'Haaaa, haaaa, haaaa,' it starts to sound like crying or whining. This is what people—and dogs—pay attention to."

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Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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The Queen's Racing Pigeons Are in Danger, Due to an Increase in Peregrine Falcons
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Queen Elizabeth is famous for her love of corgis and horses, but her pet pigeons don't get as much press. The monarch owns nearly 200 racing pigeons, which she houses in a luxury loft at her country estate, Sandringham House, in Norfolk, England. But thanks to a recent boom in the region’s peregrine falcon population, the Queen’s swift birds may no longer be able to safely soar around the countryside, according to The Telegraph.

Once endangered, recent conservation efforts have boosted the peregrine falcon’s numbers. In certain parts of England, like Norfolk and the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire, the creatures can even find shelter inside boxes installed at local churches and cathedrals, which are designed to protect potential eggs.

There’s just one problem: Peregrine falcons are birds of prey, and local pigeon racers claim these nesting nooks are located along racing routes. Due to this unfortunate coincidence, some pigeons are failing to return to their owners.

Pigeon racing enthusiasts are upset, but Richard Salt of Salisbury Cathedral says it's simply a case of nature taking its course. "It's all just part of the natural process,” Salt told The Telegraph. "The peregrines came here on their own account—we didn't put a sign out saying 'room for peregrines to let.' Obviously we feel quite sorry for the pigeons, but the peregrines would be there anyway."

In the meantime, the Queen might want to keep a close eye on her birds (or hire someone who will), or consider taking advantage of Sandringham House's vast open spaces for a little indoor fly-time.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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