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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
Slow Motion Is the Only Way to Appreciate a Chameleon’s Lightning-Fast Tongue
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From the unusual way they walk, to their ability to change color, the evolutionary adaptations of chameleons are pretty bizarre, and some of them remain mysterious even to scientists. Their super-powered tongues, for instance, can dart out so quickly that the movement can barely be seen with the naked eye. But modern high-speed cameras have enabled researchers at the University of South Dakota to observe this appendage at work like never before. The video below, shared over at The Kid Should See This, includes some of that groundbreaking footage, and it's pretty amazing to watch.

Shooting at 3000 frames per second, the camera was able to capture every split-second aspect of the chameleon's tongue strike. Slowed down, the video allows you to see how every component of the process works in harmony: First, muscles in the lizard’s tongue contract like the string of a bow. Then, when that tension is released, the bony base of the tongue shoots forward, pushing the sticky, elastic part toward the chameleon’s prey.

According to Christopher Anderson, one of the scientists who conducted the high-speed camera research, larger chameleons can catapult their tongues forward at distances of one to two times their body length. For smaller chameleons, this distance can reach up to two and a half times their body length. “Small chameleons need to be able to eat more food for their body size than large chameleons,” he tells bioGraphic in the video, “and so by being able to project their tongues proportionately further than these large species, they basically are opening up additional feeding opportunities to themselves that they wouldn’t have if they had a shorter tongue.”

To see one of nature’s greatest hunting tools in action, check out the full video below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
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Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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