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Mia Persson
Mia Persson

Your Dog's Interest in You Might Be Genetic

Mia Persson
Mia Persson

The love affair between dogs and people is an old one indeed, stretching back at least 15,000 years. Dogs are our coworkers, guides, companions, and family members. But how did they get that way? A paper published in Scientific Reports proposes an intriguing possibility: dogs have a genetic predisposition to crave human companionship.

Previous studies have suggested a genetic component to the domestication of dogs. To further test that hypothesis, five researchers from Linköping University in Sweden assembled an enormous group of 437 laboratory-raised beagles and gave each one an impossible test. Each dog was brought to a room containing a box with three dishes, and each dish held a treat. To get the treat, the beagle needed to figure out how to slide the cover off the container. But there was a catch: one of the containers was covered with transparent Plexiglas and would not yield its treat no matter what the confused beagle did.

The dog was not alone in the testing room; each was accompanied by a seated researcher, who looked away while the dog wrestled with the puzzle box. The real test came when each dog realized it could not retrieve the last treat. At this point, some dogs gave up and started walking around the room. But others—many others—looked to or approached the researcher for help, a behavior that demonstrated their interest in people.

Each dog’s test was videotaped and its reactions coded and quantified. The researchers then identified the 95 most sociable dogs and the 95 least sociable dogs, and sequenced their genomes, looking for trends.

They found them. The most sociable dogs showed activation in two highly specific genomic regions. The presence of a single marker on the 26th chromosome of the SEZ6L gene was a significant indication that a beagle would have spent more time near and physically touching the researcher during the test. Another two markers on chromosome 26 of the ARVCF gene were strongly associated with seeking out human contact.

These genomic regions are not unique to dogs and, the researchers say, their role in socialization may not be either. Studies in humans have found a relationship between changes in SEZ6L and autism. ARVCF has been linked to schizophrenia, as have COMT and TXNRD2, which both hail from the same genetic neighborhood.

“This is, to our knowledge, the first genome-wide study presenting candidate genomic regions for dog sociability and inter-species communication,” the authors write. They acknowledge that more research is needed to validate their findings. Still, they say, “these results contribute to a greater insight into the genetic basis of dog-human communicative behaviors and sociability, increasing our understanding of the domestication process, and could potentially aid knowledge relating to human social behavioral disorders.”

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

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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Animals
Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View
Google
Google

Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.
Google

Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]

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