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Rats Save Drowning Pals, Skip the Chocolate

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istock

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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Good News, Dog Parents: You Can Teach Puppies as Well as Their Canine Moms Can
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iStock

If you’ve ever adopted a puppy, you probably know how frustrating it can be to teach your new family member the basic tenets of common decency, like not to pee on the carpet or tear up a whole roll of toilet paper.

In other areas, though, pups are rather impressive learners, capable of mimicking some human behaviors. In fact, for some tasks, they learn just as effectively from watching people as they do from watching other dogs, including their own mothers, a new study in Nature revealed.

Researchers from Hungary and the UK took 48 young puppies of various breeds and studied the conditions under which they can be taught to open a puzzle box containing food. The experiment revealed that the puppies were able to learn how to open the box regardless of whether the task was first demonstrated by a person, their mother, or an unfamiliar dog. In other words, not only are puppies capable of social learning, but they're able to learn tasks from humans they don't know—in this case, the experimenter.

However, researchers were surprised to learn that the puppies were more likely to learn how to open the box by watching an unfamiliar dog than by watching their own mothers. That may be because puppies spend more time looking at—and thus, learning from—an unfamiliar dog that intrigues them. This differs from other species such as kittens, which “learn to press a lever for food more rapidly from their mother than from an unfamiliar adult,” the study notes.

In addition, the puppies were able to perform the task again after a one-hour break, indicating that they had retained some memory of the learning experience.

The ability of dogs to learn from humans has been recorded in previous research. A 2015 study revealed that dogs learn better by demonstration (or the “do as I do” method) than training techniques that involve a system of punishments and rewards. The "do as I do" approach probably isn't the most practical method of teaching your pup to do its business outside, but if you already have an adult dog at home, your new puppy can follow the older dog's lead and learn by example.

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Michael Hutchinson
Spiders Can Fly Through the Air Using the Earth's Electric Field
A spider exhibiting ballooning behavior.
A spider exhibiting ballooning behavior.
Michael Hutchinson

Every so often, otherwise Earth-bound spiders take to the air. Ballooning spiders can travel hundreds of miles through the air (and, horrifyingly, rain down on unsuspecting towns). The common explanation for this phenomenon is that the spiders surf the wind on strands of silk, but there may be other forces at work, according to a new study spotted by The Atlantic.

In the research, published in Current Biology, University of Bristol scientists argue that Earth's atmospheric electricity allows spiders to become airborne even on windless days. To test their hypothesis, the researchers exposed spiders in the lab to electric fields similar to those naturally found in the atmosphere.

When the electric field was turned on, the spiders began to exhibit behavior associated with ballooning—they "tiptoed" on the ends of their legs, raised their abdomens, and released silk. Spiders only exhibit this behavior when ballooning. And when they did become airborne, the spiders’ altitude could be controlled by turning the electric field on and off. When the electric field was on, they rose through the air, but when it was off, they drifted downward.

This provides a potential explanation for why spiders take to the skies on certain days but not others, and how they can fly in calm, windless weather— something scientists have puzzled over since the early 19th century. (Even Darwin was flummoxed, calling it "inexplicable," The Atlantic notes.) However, the researchers note that these electric fields might not be totally necessary for ballooning—wind alone might work perfectly fine on some days, too. But understanding more about when and how spiders become airborne could help us predict when there will be large masses of arachnids flying through the skies (and hide).

[h/t The Atlantic]

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