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Newborn Ducklings May Understand Abstract Relational Concepts

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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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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Listen to the Impossibly Adorable Sounds of a Baby Sloth
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Sometimes baby sloths seem almost too adorable to be real. But the little muppet-faced treasures don't just look cute—turns out they sound cute, too. We know what you're thinking: How could you have gone your whole life without knowing what these precious creatures sound like? Well, fear not: Just in time for International Sloth Day (today), we have some footage of how the tiny mammals express themselves—and it's a lot of squeaking. (Or maybe that's you squealing?)

The sloths featured in the heart-obliterating video below come from the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica. The institution rescues orphaned sloths, rehabilitates them, and gets them ready to be released back into the wild.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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