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Zoos Are Tracking Elephant Fitness, and It's Improving the Animals' Health 

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Even elephants are getting on the quantified-self movement. The health of some zoo elephants is now being monitored through fitness trackers, according to NPR. It’s called the Elephant Welfare Initiative, a national endeavor to study how elephants in captivity are faring and what steps can be taken to improve their health and happiness.

As part of the program, caretakers keep detailed logs about their elephants’ activity and behaviors. (The animals aren't wearing any devices a la Fitbit.) Fitness tracking software, developed by an organization called AWARE (Animal Welfare Assessment, Research and Education), then provides suggestions about how to change up the animals’ routines to benefit their well being.

AWARE found several important factors for elephant health while tracking hundreds of elephants for several studies published in July 2016. For instance, having more space doesn’t necessarily make elephants healthier, but elephants that have lots of social time exhibit fewer nervous tics, and reproductive health in female elephants can improve by giving them puzzle challenges. The studies found that soft soil or sand was better for the elephants' joints. Not to mention, the tracking of the animals’ movements can reduce their obesity rates. Two elephants at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo have each lost about 2000 pounds while taking part in the program, which is currently being implemented in 40-some zoos around the country.

Elephants are highly intelligent, social animals, and some critics argue that zoos will never be able to provide the kind of environment they need to really thrive. Zoos don’t have the space to support the large, complex social networks elephants have in the wild, and elephant families are often separated as young elephants born in captivity are sent to other institutions. Many zoos have closed their elephant programs, though there are still 78 zoos in North America that keep the pachyderms. However, some zoos that have pledged to end their elephant programs are continuing to keep their current elephants until they pass away, and others are planning to keep hosting elephants for the foreseeable future, so a little bit of tracking can help those institutions keep their elephants as happy as possible while in captivity.

[h/t NPR]

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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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