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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
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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