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Citizen Science Goes to the Dogs

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Dog behavioral and cognition studies, like their human counterparts, are often lacking in one thing: numbers. It’s difficult to get as many dogs and owners into the lab as necessary to get really significant results. But what if dog owners could test their pets at home and submit the results to researchers? 

According to a new study in the journal PLOS ONE, this type of citizen science could help give dog research a much-needed boost. Experts from Duke University and a company called Canines, Inc. compared data submitted by regular pet owners who perform tests with their dogs to traditional lab-based experiments, and found that the results were more or less equal. 

The study focused on more than 500 citizen scientists who signed up for Dognition.com. Volunteers completed questionnaires about their dogs and received instructions for how to perform 10 different cognition tests with their canine friends. They could submit their data on the web from any computer, tablet, or smartphone. Here’s one test they used:

The results submitted replicated the findings of several conventional lab studies on dog cognition, and there was no evidence that the volunteers manipulated the results. This indicates that citizen science initiatives could be a boon for dog studies. After all, it’s much easier to get a large, diverse sample of dogs and their owners by recruiting volunteers on the Internet and letting them perform tests at home. It's also possible that performing the experiments in an environment that’s comfortable for the dogs (the home) provides a more accurate picture of their capabilities than an unfamiliar place like a university cognition lab. 

More than 17,000 dog owners from around the world have signed up to share data with the researchers, compared with the network of 1,000 dog owners who Duke University asks to bring pets into the lab for testing. "They're just games,” as Duke dog researcher Brian Hare, who developed the website, explains of the tests in a press release. “The owners love playing them and the dogs love playing them.” Now go play with your dog for science. 

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Slow Motion Is the Only Way to Appreciate a Chameleon’s Lightning-Fast Tongue
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From the unusual way they walk, to their ability to change color, the evolutionary adaptations of chameleons are pretty bizarre, and some of them remain mysterious even to scientists. Their super-powered tongues, for instance, can dart out so quickly that the movement can barely be seen with the naked eye. But modern high-speed cameras have enabled researchers at the University of South Dakota to observe this appendage at work like never before. The video below, shared over at The Kid Should See This, includes some of that groundbreaking footage, and it's pretty amazing to watch.

Shooting at 3000 frames per second, the camera was able to capture every split-second aspect of the chameleon's tongue strike. Slowed down, the video allows you to see how every component of the process works in harmony: First, muscles in the lizard’s tongue contract like the string of a bow. Then, when that tension is released, the bony base of the tongue shoots forward, pushing the sticky, elastic part toward the chameleon’s prey.

According to Christopher Anderson, one of the scientists who conducted the high-speed camera research, larger chameleons can catapult their tongues forward at distances of one to two times their body length. For smaller chameleons, this distance can reach up to two and a half times their body length. “Small chameleons need to be able to eat more food for their body size than large chameleons,” he tells bioGraphic in the video, “and so by being able to project their tongues proportionately further than these large species, they basically are opening up additional feeding opportunities to themselves that they wouldn’t have if they had a shorter tongue.”

To see one of nature’s greatest hunting tools in action, check out the full video below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
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Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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