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Iida Loukola/QMUL

Bees Can Teach Each Other to Play Ball

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Iida Loukola/QMUL

Beauty, brains, and buddy-system learning: It seems bumblebees have it all. Scientists say bees can teach each other to move a tiny ball into a tiny goal—even though soccer is most definitely not a skill bees would ever need in the wild. A report on the bees’ sweet skills was published in the journal Science.

Humans have historically written off other animals as unintelligent, in part because they don’t behave the same way we do. But a growing body of research suggests that it’s our tests, not our test subjects, that need to get smarter. The more thoughtful our experiments become, the more we’ve realized that animals like apes, birds, fish, and even bugs have impressive cognitive abilities of their own.

Previous studies have shown that bees can learn new behaviors and teach them to one another, but these studies have mostly focused on behaviors that might come in handy for bees foraging in the wild. Researchers at Queen Mary University of London wondered if these learning abilities extended to new, non-survival-related activities—like, say, pushing a ball into a goal.

They set up a minuscule field and created three different scenarios. In the first, uninitiated bees watched other, trained bees (let’s call them coaches) score goals and get a sweet reward—a sucrose solution. In the second, a “ghost demonstrator” (actually a magnet) moved the ball. In the third, the bees received no demonstrations.

The new bees proved eager learners, picking up the game from both coaches and ghosts. Bees who had bee coaches were more likely to succeed, but those with magnets eventually got the idea, too. What’s more, they sometimes played better than their teachers, selecting balls nearer to the net to ensure a more efficient goal—and quicker access to the reward.

"The bees solved the task in a different way than what was demonstrated,” co-lead author Olli J. Loukola said in a statement, “suggesting that observer bees did not simply copy what they saw, but improved on it. This shows an impressive amount of cognitive flexibility, especially for an insect."

These itsy-bitsy soccer games are as important as they are adorable, said project supervisor and co-lead author Lars Chittka. "Our study puts the final nail in the coffin of the idea that small brains constrain insects to have limited behavioural flexibility and only simple learning abilities."

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iStock
10 Amazing Facts About Our Bond With Dogs
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iStock

They’ve been our companions for tens of thousands of years. They share our beds, follow us into the bathroom, and star in our holiday cards. The beautiful friendship between Homo sapiens and Canis lupus familiaris has had some surprising effects on both species—read on to learn more about the ways we’ve helped each other along the way.

1. IMPROVED IMMUNITY

Living with furry friends, especially dogs, has been shown to decrease babies’ and kids’ risk for asthma, allergies, and other immune conditions. Some studies have found that the benefits can begin as early as the womb. Scientists aren’t completely sure why this happens; it may be that bacteria on the dogs’ bodies can help give our immune systems a boost during a crucial moment in our development.

2. INCREASED FOCUS

Keeping your phone loaded with pictures of your pet may pay off in the long run. In one 2012 experiment, people who looked at pictures of puppies scored higher on tasks that required their close attention. Photos of older dogs were less effective; the researchers say it might be that baby animals inspire a specific type of positive emotion and mental activation.

3. A THIRST FOR PRAISE

Dogs are social animals; that’s part of the reason we were able to tame them in the first place. And once we take them in, they really start to care what we think. Experiments with dogs and their owners have shown that when given the choice between snacks and praise, most prefer being told what good dogs they are.

4. MORE CHILL

Sharing your life with a drooling, adoring furry friend is good for your attitude and your stress levels. Spending time with dogs can ease tension and stress. Studies have found that this is especially true in high-stress situations like crises, natural disasters, and the office.

5. HEALTHIER HEARTS

Reduced stress is its own reward, but it can also have long-term health benefits, including lower blood pressure, lowered heart rate, and a decreased risk of heart disease. This works even in little doses: just petting a dog for a few minutes sends feel-good chemicals to the brain and can soothe a frazzled nervous system.

6. INTERSPECIES EMPATHY

All those millennia together have made a real impression on dogs’ brains. One 2016 study found that dogs could read and respond to the emotions on human faces, even in photographs. This is especially cool when you consider the major differences in body language between our two species. Dogs don’t smile, but they still know what our grin means when they see it.

7. MORE EXERCISE

There’s nothing like an “I’ve-got-to-pee-RIGHT-NOW” bark to get you up and out the door. For obvious reasons, dog owners get more casual exercise than other people. This, in turn, can also lower stress levels and improve heart health.

8. LANGUAGE LEARNING

Spoken language, like body language, differs drastically between our two species, but that hasn’t stopped dogs from trying to figure ours out. A series of Hungarian experiments using MRI scanners found that dogs’ brains responded to human voices speaking both positive words and with positive tone. This was true even when the positive words were spoken in a neutral tone (“good boy”) and the positive tone was applied to a neutral phrase (“however!!!”). They get us.

9. A SOFT, COMFY LIFE

The good news for dogs is that domestication has given them a steady source of food, shelter, and companionship. The bad news is that all this cushy living has dulled their edges somewhat. Compared to the wolves from which they descended, pet dogs have weaker senses of hearing and smell, and they’re worse at problem-solving tasks. But this isn’t a problem, per se; they’ve simply evolved and been bred to prioritize one set of survival skills (coexisting with people) over another (sharp senses and keen minds).

10. GENETIC CONNECTION

The bond between us and our dogs is real, and may trace all the way down into dogs’ DNA. Experiments have found that the most sociable pet dogs have genetic mutations that appear to make them more interested in people. Without these abnormalities, experts say, we might never have been able to domesticate dogs in the first place.

Dogs make our lives a whole lot happier and healthier. (You can’t argue with science!) Looking to return the favor? Consider a monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other goodies. Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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Buttelmann et al (2017)
Great Apes Understand When Humans Are Wrong
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Buttelmann et al (2017)

Humans aren’t the only ones who can spot when their friends are about to make a mistake. A new study of chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans has found that our great ape cousins can recognize and attempt to correct false beliefs in others—an ability once thought to belong to humans alone. The findings were published in the journal PLOS One.

It’s called Theory of Mind (ToM): the idea that an individual is aware that others have thoughts and feelings different from their own. Because it requires such complex cognitive processing, scientists have long presumed that we’re the only animals that can do it. However, a series of recent studies has called that presumption into question. In 2015, Japanese primatologists created custom horror movies for apes, then observed the apes watching them to see if they could follow the plot. Then in 2016, they made new movies, specially designed to test the apes’ response to watching other apes (actually people in ape costumes) make mistakes.

The movies showed the fake apes being tricked, then having to make a decision based on faulty information. And sure enough, the audience apes’ eyes lingered on the wrong option onscreen, even though they knew where the right option was. They could predict that the actors were about to get it wrong.

The latest experiment takes these discoveries one step farther, by giving apes a chance to help the hapless actor make the right decision. Researchers taught 34 apes to make a simple, rational decision by placing a noisemaker inside one of two locked boxes while the apes were watching. The ape participants were then asked to select the box with the object inside. Next, they set up a little drama. One experimenter would place the object in the box and lock it, then briefly leave the room. While they were gone, another person would come in, remove the object from the first box, place it inside the second box, then exit before the first person returned.

At this point, the ape knew something the experimenter theoretically did not: where the noisemaker was really hidden. When the experimenter came back, they began pretending to try to open the wrong box. More than 75 percent of the time, the apes would reach for, and help them unlock, the right box instead.

In other versions of the drama, where the experimenter watched the sneak switch the object’s location, the apes didn’t seem to care which box the experimenter eventually opened. They knew the experimenter had this handled. The authors say the findings are another strike against the idea that ToM is a human-only phenomenon.

Developmental psychologist Uta Frith was unaffiliated with the research, but told The Guardian that she found it encouraging. “That is very nice because in evolution there is nothing that comes out of the blue from nowhere.”

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