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Newborn Ducklings May Understand Abstract Relational Concepts

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iStock

Everyone knows ducklings are adorable, but it turns out they’re also surprisingly smart. While many animals, including humans, are pretty helpless when they’re first born, ducklings spring into action quickly, learning to recognize and follow their mother (or a maternal substitute) in the first moments of their lives. In a recent study published in the journal Science, researchers discovered that newborn ducklings may also be capable of learning abstract relational concepts—specifically, the concepts of “sameness” and “difference.”

The Guardian reports that researchers at the University of Oxford wanted to determine whether ducklings were capable of abstract thought, so they presented groups of newborn hatchlings with objects that were either the same shape (for instance, two pyramids) or different (for instance, a pyramid and a sphere). The ducklings imprinted on the shapes and began to follow them around their pen, as researchers pulled the shapes on a string.

Later, the ducklings were presented with different sets of shape pairs: One featured the same shapes (say, two cubes), and the other different shapes (a cube and a cylinder). Researchers found that the majority of ducklings followed shapes that matched their original pairing concept (either sameness or difference). For instance, if the ducklings initially imprinted on two shapes that were the same, they were more likely to follow new shapes that were identical to each other.

In a second test, researchers exposed ducklings to shapes that were either the same or different colors. Later, they presented the ducklings with new color sets. Once again, they observed that ducklings were more likely to follow color sets that matched their original color relationships. For instance, if a duckling was exposed to red and blue shapes shortly after birth, it was more likely to follow two other differently colored shapes than two shapes of the same color.

Researchers believe their experiment shows that ducklings may be capable of certain forms of abstract thought. They also believe that the ducklings’ ability to distinguish between the concepts of “sameness” and “difference” may help them better follow their mother after birth. “They need a table of rules or concepts that lets them identify something that doesn’t look exactly like it did last time they saw it—as with mother duck walking halfway behind a tree,” researcher Antone Martinho III told The Guardian. “She doesn’t physically look the same way that she did last time [the duckling] saw her, but because [the duckling] has an abstract understanding of what defines [its] mother duck, it is able to say, ‘That’s her.’” 

The study seems to provide more evidence that being bird brained isn't a bad thing. As the researchers write: "Thus, even in a seemingly rigid and very rapid form of learning such as filial imprinting, the brain operates with abstract conceptual reasoning, a faculty often assumed to be reserved to highly intelligent organisms."

[h/t The Guardian]

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Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images
How a Hairdresser Found a Way to Fight Oil Spills With Hair Clippings
Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images
Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images

The Exxon Valdez oil tanker made global news in 1989 when it dumped millions of gallons of crude oil into the waters off Alaska's coast. As experts were figuring out the best ways to handle the ecological disaster, a hairdresser from Alabama named Phil McCroy was tinkering with ideas of his own. His solution, a stocking stuffed with hair clippings, was an early version of a clean-up method that's used at real oil spill sites today, according to Vox.

Hair booms are sock-like tubes stuffed with recycled hair, fur, and wool clippings. Hair naturally soaks up oil; most of the time it's sebum, an oil secreted from our sebaceous glands, but it will attract crude oil as well. When hair booms are dragged through waters slicked with oil, they sop up all of that pollution in a way that's gentle on the environment.

The same properties that make hair a great clean-up tool at spills are also what make animals vulnerable. Marine life that depends on clean fur to stay warm can die if their coats are stained with oil that's hard to wash off. Footage of an otter covered in oil was actually what inspired Phil McCroy to come up with his hair-based invention.

Check out the full story from Vox in the video below.

[h/t Vox]

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Bristly
A New Chew Toy Will Help Your Dog Brush Its Own Teeth
Bristly
Bristly

Few pet owners are willing to sit down and brush their pet's teeth on a regular basis. (Most of us can barely convince ourselves to floss our own teeth, after all.) Even fewer pets are willing to sit calmly and let it happen. But pet dental care matters: I’ve personally spent more than $1000 in the last few years dealing with the fact that my cat’s teeth are rotting out of her head.

For dog owners struggling to brush poor Fido’s teeth, there’s a slightly better option. Bristly, a product currently being funded on Kickstarter, is a chew toy that acts as a toothbrush. The rubber stick, which can be slathered with doggie toothpaste, is outfitted with bristles that brush your dog’s teeth as it plays.

A French bulldog chews on a Bristly toy.
Bristly

Designed so your dog can use it without you lifting a finger, it’s shaped like a little pogo stick, with a flattened base that allows dogs to stabilize it with their paws as they hack at the bristled stick with their teeth. The bristles are coated in a meat flavoring to encourage dogs to chew.

An estimated 80 percent of dogs over the age of 3 have some kind of dental disease, so the chances that your dog could use some extra dental attention is very high. In addition to staving off expensive vet bills, brushing your dog's teeth can improve their smelly breath.

Bristly comes in three sizes as well as in a heavy-duty version made for dogs who are prone to ripping through anything they can get their jaws around. A Bristly stick costs $29 and is scheduled to start shipping in October. Get it here.

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