Researcher Stages Cheeto Olympics for Birds

When we think about science, we often think about people in lab coats, standing around recording tiny measurements. But a huge amount of science happens in the field—that is, out in the world. And a lot of that science is pretty weird. Take, for example, a set of recent experiments on wild crows and magpies in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that had the birds competing for Cheetos. The results of these experiments were presented at the 101st Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America.

Corvids (the family of birds that includes crows, ravens, and magpies, among others) are famously savvy creatures. They’re schemers to the core, using and making tools and exploiting other animals to suit their needs. Magpies, for example, will nest near larger species like crows, counting on the presence of the big birds to scare off any would-be attackers. The two species share similar diets, a fact that made ecologist Rhea Esposito wonder. The larger birds are “notorious nest raiders,” she said in a press statement. Wouldn’t crows just make off with the magpies’ food? Is keeping big, hungry birds so close to the nest really worth it?

To find out, Esposito staged a set of tasks for the birds centered around a primo prize: Cheetos. They’re “…not the healthiest food, but the birds like them a lot," Esposito said. "And because they are bright orange, it was really easy to observe when the birds completed the task."

After identifying the nesting sites of breeding pairs of magpies and crows, Esposito set up Cheeto puzzles of varying levels of difficulty. At first, she just left a few Cheetos out in the open near each pair’s nest, watching to see what the birds would do. Next, she tucked them inside a nearby hollow log. To extract their snack, the birds had to figure out to pull a string, which Esposito admits was “just a blast to watch.” And all the time the birds’ brains and beaks were working, Esposito was timing them, recording them, and taking notes.

The two species took very different approaches to the crunchy, orange wonder in their midst. Magpies flew down to check out the Cheetos almost immediately, around 20 seconds faster than crows. The crows were warier and waited longer before testing the bait. But once they’d figured out that the Cheetos were food (in a manner of speaking), they were three times more likely than magpies to grab them and go.

"These puzzles were very simple for corvid abilities,” Esposito said. “They have solved much harder problems in the lab. But this was one of the first such experiments with wild birds and I was more interested in the ecological than the cognitive questions."

The birds had performed admirably thus far, but Esposito decided it was time to crank up the competition. She set out new Cheetos bait smack in between two nests—one belonging to crows and one belonging to magpies—and sat back to watch the mayhem.

With other animals, this might have been the beginning of a blood bath. But these are corvids, which means they’re more prone to playing mind games than picking fights. And that’s exactly what happened: the crows started using the magpies. At first, the crows would wait for the smaller birds to arrive and test the bait. Once it proved to be edible and the coast was clear, the crows descended and bullied the magpies into leaving. After a while, Esposito said, the magpies just stopped trying.

"Crows are about twice the size as magpies—that's why they are great as nest defenders,” Esposito said. “But there is a cost.”

To the magpies, she says, that cost is apparently worth it.

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How Does Catnip Work?

If you have a cat, you probably keep a supply of catnip at home. Many cats are irresistibly drawn to the herb, and respond excitedly to its scent, rubbing against it, rolling around on the floor, and otherwise going nuts. There are few things that can get felines quite as riled up as a whiff of catnip—not even the most delicious treats. But why does catnip, as opposed to any other plant, have such a profound effect on our feline friends?

Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint family. It contains a compound called nepetalactone, which is what causes the characteristic catnip reaction. Contrary to what you might expect, the reaction isn’t pheromone related—even though pheromones are the smelly chemicals we usually associate with a change in behavior. While pheromones bind to a set of specialized receptors in what’s known as a vomeronasal organ, located in the roof of a cat's mouth (which is why they sometimes open their mouths to detect pheromones), nepetalactone binds to olfactory receptors at the olfactory epithelium, or the tissue that lines the mucus membranes inside a cat’s nose and is linked to smell.

Scientists know the basics of the chemical structure of nepetalactone, but how it causes excitement in cats is less clear. “We don’t know the full mechanisms of how the binding of these compounds to the receptors in the nose ultimately changes their behavior,” as Bruce Kornreich, associate director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, tells Mental Floss. Sadly, sticking a bunch of cats in an MRI machine with catnip and analyzing their brain activity isn’t really feasible, either from a practical or a financial standpoint, so it’s hard to determine which parts of a cat’s brain are reacting to the chemical as they frolic and play.

Though it may look like they’re getting high, catnip doesn’t appear to be harmful or addictive to cats. The euphoric period only lasts for a short time before cats become temporarily immune to its charms, meaning that it’s hard for them to overdo it.

“Cats do seem to limit themselves," Michael Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss. "Their stimulation lasts for about 10 minutes, then it sort of goes away.” While you may not want to turn your house into a greenhouse for catnip and let your feline friend run loose, it’s a useful way to keep indoor cats—whose environment isn’t always the most thrilling—stimulated and happy. (If you need proof of just how much cats love this herb, we suggest checking out Cats on Catnip, a new book of photography from professional cat photographer Andrew Martilla featuring dozens of images of cats playing around with catnip.)

That said, not all cats respond to catnip. According to Topper, an estimated 70 percent of cats react to catnip, and it appears to have a genetic basis. Topper compares it to the genetic variation that causes some individuals to smell asparagus pee while others don’t. Even if a cat will eventually love the smell of catnip, it doesn’t come out of the womb yearning for a sniff. Young kittens don’t show any behavioral response to it, and may not develop one until several months after birth [PDF].

But some researchers contend that more cats may respond to catnip than we actually realize. In one 2017 study, a group of researchers in Mexico examined how cats might subtly respond to catnip in ways that aren’t always as obvious as rolling around on the floor with their tongue hanging out. It found that 80 percent of cats responded to catnip in a passive way, showing decreased motor activity and sitting in the “sphinx” position, an indicator of a relaxed state.

There are also other plants that have similar effects on cats, some of which may appeal to a wider variety of felines than regular old catnip. In a 2017 study in the journal BMC Veterinary Research, researchers tested feline responses to not just catnip, but several other plants containing compounds similar in structure to nepetalactone, like valerian root, Tatarian honeysuckle, and silver vine. They found that 94 percent of cats responded to at least one of the plants, if not more than one. The majority of the cats that didn’t respond to catnip itself did respond to silver vine, suggesting that plant might be a potential alternative for cats that seem immune to catnip’s charms.

Despite the name, domestic cats aren’t the only species that love catnip. Many other feline species enjoy it, too, including lions and jaguars, though tigers are largely indifferent to it. The scent of the plant also attracts butterflies. (However, no matter what you’ve heard, humans can’t get high off it. When made into a tea, though, it reportedly has mild sedative effects.)

The reason Nepeta cataria releases nepetalactone doesn’t necessarily have to do with giving your cat a buzz. The fact that it gives cats that little charge of euphoria may be purely coincidental. The chemical is an insect repellant that the plant emits as a defense mechanism against pests like aphids. According to the American Chemical Society, nepetalactone attracts wasps and other insect predators that eat aphids, calling in protective reinforcements when the plant is in aphid-related distress. That it brings all the cats to the yard is just a side effect.

Because of this, catnip may have even more uses in the future beyond sending cats into a delighted frenzy. Rutgers University has spent more than a decade breeding a more potent version of catnip, called CR9, which produces more nepetalactone. It’s not just a matter of selling better cat toys; since catnip releases the compound to ward off insects, it’s also a great mosquito repellant, one that scientists hope can one day be adapted for human use. In that case, you might be as excited about catnip as your cat is.

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

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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