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Should Research Animals Get Names?

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You may have heard of Koko the gorilla or Alex the parrot, but what about Pia, Splinter, Oprah, and Persimmon the rats? Or Nixon the octopus? Or breeder pairs of mice named Tom and Katie or Brad and Angelina? It’s not only the animals with good communication skills and long-term relationships with human researchers that get names. As Michael Erard explains in Science, “for many researchers naming is a practice whose time has come.”

It hasn’t always been that way. In the past, naming was frowned upon because it had the potential to introduce bias. A name might make a researcher ascribe personality traits to an animal on the basis of connotations carried by the name. It also introduced a personal connection to the animal that researchers strove to avoid. In a 1980s study of lab practices, researchers said that “they didn’t name because they dealt with so many animals and were interested in them as sources of enzymes or data points, not as individuals.”

But it turns out that naming can lead to better science. One lab that used names for monkeys was led to start looking at individual differences between them which “led to the discovery of the genetics and epigenetics of personality in monkeys.” On a more general level,

Naming improves animals’ lives, argues Brenda McCowan, a scientist at the California National Primate Research Center at the University of California, Davis, who manages the behavioral enrichment program for 5000 rhesus and titi monkeys. “Naming helps create positive human-animal interaction, which is better for the welfare of those animals,” she says. Buckmaster adds that naming has become more accepted because “people realized the scientific value of the stress-free animal. … We have to make sure these are really happy animals, or none of the information that we get from them will be valid.”

Read more about the history of research animal naming and its effect on science at Science Magazine.

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Where Do Birds Get Their Songs?
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Birds display some of the most impressive vocal abilities in the animal kingdom. They can be heard across great distances, mimic human speech, and even sing using distinct dialects and syntax. The most complex songs take some practice to learn, but as TED-Ed explains, the urge to sing is woven into songbirds' DNA.

Like humans, baby birds learn to communicate from their parents. Adult zebra finches will even speak in the equivalent of "baby talk" when teaching chicks their songs. After hearing the same expressions repeated so many times and trying them out firsthand, the offspring are able to use the same songs as adults.

But nurture isn't the only factor driving this behavior. Even when they grow up without any parents teaching them how to vocalize, birds will start singing on their own. These innate songs are less refined than the ones that are taught, but when they're passed down through multiple generations and shaped over time, they start to sound similar to the learned songs sung by other members of their species.

This suggests that the drive to sing as well as the specific structures of the songs themselves have been ingrained in the animals' genetic code by evolution. You can watch the full story from TED-Ed below, then head over here for a sample of the diverse songs produced by birds.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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