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Biblioteca aga via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Biblioteca aga via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Dolphin Moms May Start Teaching Their Calves Before They're Born

Biblioteca aga via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Biblioteca aga via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Just as a pregnant woman may coo lovingly to her own belly, dolphin moms-to-be may talk to their calves before the little ones are even born. Speaking at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in Denver, researchers from the University of Southern Mississippi said dolphins may start teaching their young to recognize their voices as early as two weeks before birth.

Dolphins and humans have a lot in common. Like us, they’re smart, social animals that rely heavily on sound to communicate. Each dolphin has what’s called a signature whistle: a unique noise that acts kind of like its name or call sign. Dolphin calves generally don’t come up with their own signature whistle until they’re about two months old. This may be so they can be sure they don’t choose a whistle that sounds too much like anyone else’s.

Previous studies had shown that, shortly before giving birth, pregnant dolphins start repeating their own signature whistles over and over. Some researchers theorized that the moms-to-be were trying to inspire their babies-to-be to develop their own whistles, but nobody was really sure. And while scientists had monitored moms before birth, nobody had yet continued the study after the calf was born. 

So doctoral student Audra Ames and her colleagues headed out to the dolphin enclosure at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, California. A female dolphin named Bella was well into her pregnancy, and so they set up recording equipment to monitor the noises that she and others made. They captured 80 hours of sound in the four months surrounding the calf’s birth: two months before, and two months after [PDF].

Two weeks before the calf—Mirabella, or Mira—was born, Bella ramped up the amount of time she spent repeating her own signature sound, and she kept it up until Mira was two weeks old. Interestingly, at the same time, other dolphins in the enclosure quieted down, minimizing the sounds of their own names. As soon as Bella eased up on her signature sound, they went back to whistling their sounds as usual. 

Ames believes Bella was teaching Mira to recognize her mother’s voice—a form of bonding and imprinting. "We actually do see that human babies develop a preference for their mother's voice in the last trimester," she told Live Science. "We don't know if that's something that's going on here, but it could be something similar." 

That would explain the non-mom dolphins’ decision to keep it down. "What the other dolphins might be doing here is remaining quiet so the calf does not imprint on the wrong signature whistle," Ames said. 

Ames and her colleagues are currently studying other sounds made by mother-calf pairs.

[h/t Live Science]

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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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