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Rats Save Drowning Pals, Skip the Chocolate

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Many studies have shown that rats exhibit empathy and social behavior. In one, scientists trapped a rat in a tight plastic tube and observed as its free cagemate, distressed by the trapped rat's panicked squirming, maneuvered the latch to free it. But many critics attributed the free rat's behavior to a need for companionship, not sensitivity to a fellow rodent's distress. (Rats get lonely too, you know.)

But a new study published in Animal Cognition (the somewhat awkwardly titled "Rats demonstrate helping behavior toward a soaked conspecific") from Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan shows that a rat's empathy extends to rodents it's not motivated to socialize with. In the study, scientists set up a box with two compartments separated by a transparent wall. A rat was placed in each compartment. One side was filled with water, forcing the rat within to swim. (The rat wasn't at risk of drowning, but it wasn't having any fun either.) Meanwhile, the rat on the dry side witnessed the soaked rat's distress—and then opened a tiny door leading to its dry compartment so the wet rat could escape.  

The dry rats repeatedly saved their struggling buddies. If there was no water in the box at all, the rats didn't open the door, which suggests the rats were motivated by empathy, not a need to socialize. Interestingly, rats that had previously experienced the wet side of the box were more likely to free their friends, showing they were very likely able to empathize.

For a final test, scientists threw a chocolate bribe into the mix. The dry rat now had to choose between two doors: one to the "soaked conspecific," and one to a tasty treat. Fifty to 80 percent of the time, the dry rat chose to save the wet rat. Rats seem to value friendship as much as they do food. 

Scientists believe this behavior is learned, not innate. In another recent study, neurobiologists from the University of Chicago transferred albino rat babies into a black-patched rat group, which raised them. When these albino adoptees grew up, in experiments they would help black-patched rats, but not other albinos. This is further evidence that rats develop relationships based on social familiarity, not biology.  

[h/t: Science Mag]

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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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