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Like Humans, Dogs Understand Both Tone and Vocabulary

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When we talk to our dogs, it turns out they’re listening pretty carefully. According to a study in the journal Science, dogs listen to both vocabulary and tone of voice, processing them together. That means your beloved pup is paying attention both to what you say and how you say it.

The New York Times reports that Hungarian scientists recently trained a group of 13 extremely patient dogs to lie completely still in a MRI machine while the researchers measured brain activity. Scientists then played a voice recording of a trainer saying positive phrases (like “good boy”) in a positive tone of voice, positive phrases in a neutral tone of voice, neutral words (like “however”) in a positive tone of voice, and neutral words in a neutral tone of voice.

They found that the reward centers in the canine volunteers’ brains lit up significantly more when they heard positive phrases in a positive tone. Positive phrases in a neutral tone and neutral phrases in a positive tone didn’t have nearly the same impact. That is, dogs interpreted tone and vocabulary together. (Researchers note that in cases where dogs respond to owners saying meaningless or insulting words in a positive tone of voice, the dogs are likely responding to body language.)

The team also found that dogs put more stock in words than intonation: While the left hemisphere of the brain is largely responsible for interpreting the meanings of words, the right is responsible for interpreting intonation. Looking at the MRI results, researchers observed a left hemisphere bias for processing meaningful words independently of intonation—a bias humans also share.

The discovery is significant, in part, because it shows that dogs—and possibly other animals—process language in much the same way as humans. They not only interpret both tone and vocabulary together, but share a left hemisphere bias when it comes to communication.

"Humans seem to be the only species which uses words and intonation for communicating emotions, feelings, inner states," researcher Attila Andics tells NPR. "To find that dogs have a very similar neural mechanism to tell apart meaningful words from meaningless sound sequences is, I think, really amazing."

For more on the study from the authors themselves, check out the video below. 

[h/t The New York Times]

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Animals
Watch a School of Humpback Whales 'Fish' Using Nets Made of Bubbles 

Just like humans, humpback whales catch many fish at once by using nets—but instead of being woven from fibers, their nets are made of bubbles.

Unique to humpbacks, the behavior known as bubble-net feeding was recently captured in a dramatic drone video that was created by GoPro and spotted by Smithsonian. The footage features a school of whales swimming off Maskelyne Island in British Columbia, Canada, in pursuit of food. The whales dive down, and a large circle of bubbles forms on the water's surface. Then, the marine mammals burst into the air, like circus animals jumping through a ring, and appear to swallow their meal.

The video offers a phenomenal aerial view of the feeding whales, but it only captures part of the underwater ritual. It begins with the group's leader, who locates schools of fish and krill and homes in on them. Then, it spirals to the water's surface while expelling air from its blowhole. This action creates the bubble ring, which works like a net to contain the prey.

Another whale emits a loud "trumpeting feeding call," which may stun and frighten the fish into forming tighter schools. Then, the rest of the whales herd the fish upwards and burst forth from the water, their mouths open wide to receive the fruits of their labor.

Watch the intricate—and beautiful—feeding process below:

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Big Questions
Why Do Dogs Love to Dig?
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Dog owners with green thumbs beware: It's likely just a matter of time before Fido turns your azalea bed into a graveyard of forgotten chew toys. When dogs aren't digging up your prized garden, they can be found digging elsewhere in your yard, at the beach, and even between your couch cushions at home. But what exactly is behind your dog's drive to turn every soft surface he or she sees into an excavation site?

According to Dr. Emma Grigg, an animal behaviorist and co-author of The Science Behind a Happy Dog, this behavior is completely normal. "When people say 'why do dogs dig,' the first thing that always comes to mind is 'well, because they're dogs,'" she tells Mental Floss. The instinct first appeared in dogs' wolf ancestors, then it was amplified in certain breeds through artificial selection. That's why dogs that were bred to hunt rodents, like beagles and terriers, are especially compelled to dig in places where such animals might make their homes.

But this tendency isn't limited to just a few specific breeds. No matter their original roles, dogs of all breeds have been known to kick up some dirt on occasion. Beyond predatory urges, Dr. Grigg says there are two main reasons a dog may want to dig. The first is to cool off on a hot day. When stuck on an open lawn with little to no shade, unearthing a fresh layer of dirt untouched by the sun is a quick way to beat the heat.

The second reason is to stash away goodies. Imagine your dog gets bored with chewing his favorite bone but knows he wants to come back for it later. Instead of leaving it out in the open where anyone can snatch it up, he decides to bury it in a secret place where only he'll be able to find it. Whether or not he'll actually go back for it is a different story. "There's a disconnect with modern dogs: They know the burying part but they don't always know to dig it up," Dr. Grigg says.

Because digging is part of a dog's DNA, punishing your pet for doing so isn't super effective. But that doesn't mean you should stand idly by as your yard gets turned inside-out. When faced with this behavior in your own dog, one option is to redirect it. This can mean allowing him to dig in a designated corner of the yard while keeping other parts off-limits, or setting up a raised flowerbed or sandbox especially to satisfy that urge. "You can get him interested in the area by burying a couple bones or some interesting things in there for him to dig," Dr. Grigg says. "I like the idea of buried treasure."

If your dog's motive for digging is more destructive than practical, he may have an energy problem. Dogs require a certain amount of stimulation each day, and when their humans don't provide it for them they find their own ways to occupy themselves. Sometimes it's by chewing up shoes, toppling trash cans, or digging ditches the perfect size for twisting ankles. Fortunately, this is nothing more walks and playtime can't improve.

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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