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Why Do Alligators Fall Asleep if You Rub Their Bellies?

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Myth has it that you can disarm an alligator by rubbing its belly. Some people don’t necessarily focus on the logistics of getting that close to the creature (let’s keep in mind the stomach is awfully close to all of those sharp teeth). However, we’re here to tell you that, yes, this is technically true—and alligators aren’t the only animals associated with this behavior.

"Belly rubbing refers to tonic immobility," the National's Zoo's Sean Henderson told The Washington Post in 2008. "It's a state of hypnotism generated by flipping the animal on its back and fully extending its neck" and, as we mentioned, stroking its belly. Fair warning, Henderson added: "Tonic immobility is generally brought about in an animal that is under heavily stressful conditions. Don't try this at home!"

According to Isaac Marks’s Fears, Phobias and Rituals: Panic, Anxiety, and Their Disorders, tonic immobility refers to the “prolonged stillness and decreased responsivity in a previously active animal in the face of threatening stimulation.” This state can last anywhere from 15 seconds to several hours, although the average length falls around eight to 10 minutes in chickens. (Yep, they can be affected too!)

Sharks are another type of creature susceptible to tonic immobility. There seem to be two different ways to trigger this effect in sharks, the most effective way being by rubbing a shark’s nose. While the exact reason why this works is unknown, one ecologist writes “[an] untested possibility is that a shark’s electroreceptors are concentrated in the snout area, and perhaps overstimulating this area ‘shocks’ them into immobility.”

Another means of immobilizing a shark is to invert it, flipping it on its back. WIRED recounted an especially odd occurrence of a shark being put into a state of tonic immobility—by another animal:

“In 1997, eyewitnesses watched a female orca off the coast of California seemingly induce tonic immobility purposely in a great white shark. The orca held the shark upside down, inducing tonic immobility, and kept the shark still for 15 minutes, which caused it to suffocate to death.”

Remember when we mentioned that tonic immobility occurs in chickens, too? WIRED theorizes that it’s a defense mechanism for the birds. “You can lay it on its side, tuck its head under its wing and gently rock it, or put it on its back and stroke its sternum,” the site reports. “You can wave your finger in front of its face—starting with your finger close to its beak and then pulling your finger slowly straight back. The chicken will focus on your finger.”

Tonic immobility affects different animals in different ways. "I've observed alpacas and llamas 'calmed' into a state of relaxation by gently rubbing the upper gum just beneath the cleft in the upper lip,” veterinary surgeon David Anderson told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “The animals stop resisting being held, and stop vocalizing.”

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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Good News, Dog Parents: You Can Teach Puppies as Well as Their Canine Moms Can
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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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Michael Hutchinson
Spiders Can Fly Through the Air Using the Earth's Electric Field
A spider exhibiting ballooning behavior.
A spider exhibiting ballooning behavior.
Michael Hutchinson

Every so often, otherwise Earth-bound spiders take to the air. Ballooning spiders can travel hundreds of miles through the air (and, horrifyingly, rain down on unsuspecting towns). The common explanation for this phenomenon is that the spiders surf the wind on strands of silk, but there may be other forces at work, according to a new study spotted by The Atlantic.

In the research, published in Current Biology, University of Bristol scientists argue that Earth's atmospheric electricity allows spiders to become airborne even on windless days. To test their hypothesis, the researchers exposed spiders in the lab to electric fields similar to those naturally found in the atmosphere.

When the electric field was turned on, the spiders began to exhibit behavior associated with ballooning—they "tiptoed" on the ends of their legs, raised their abdomens, and released silk. Spiders only exhibit this behavior when ballooning. And when they did become airborne, the spiders’ altitude could be controlled by turning the electric field on and off. When the electric field was on, they rose through the air, but when it was off, they drifted downward.

This provides a potential explanation for why spiders take to the skies on certain days but not others, and how they can fly in calm, windless weather— something scientists have puzzled over since the early 19th century. (Even Darwin was flummoxed, calling it "inexplicable," The Atlantic notes.) However, the researchers note that these electric fields might not be totally necessary for ballooning—wind alone might work perfectly fine on some days, too. But understanding more about when and how spiders become airborne could help us predict when there will be large masses of arachnids flying through the skies (and hide).

[h/t The Atlantic]

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