On Goldfish Listening to Bach

A new study suggests that goldfish not only listen to music but are able to discern various composers from one another. Discovery Magazine summarizes:

For the study, published in the journal Behavioural Processes, Shinozuka and colleagues Haruka Ono and Shigeru Watanabe played two pieces of classical music near goldfish in a tank. The pieces were Toccata and Fugue in D minor by Johann Sebastian Bach and The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky.

The scientists trained the fish to gnaw on a little bead hanging on a filament in the water. Half of the fish were trained with food to gnaw whenever Bach played and the other half were taught to gnaw whenever Stravinsky music was on. The goldfish aced the test, easily distinguishing the two composers and getting a belly full of food in the process.

This is an example of auditory discrimination. From the paper’s abstract:

This paper investigated whether music has reinforcing and discriminative stimulus properties in goldfish. Experiment 1 examined the discriminative stimulus properties of music. The subjects were successfully trained to discriminate between two pieces of music – Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565) by J. S. Bach and The Rite of Spring by I. Stravinsky. Experiment 2 examined the reinforcing properties of sounds, including BWV 565 and The Rite of Spring. We developed an apparatus for measuring spontaneous sound preference in goldfish. Music or noise stimuli were presented depending on the subject’s position in the aquarium, and the time spent in each area was measured. The results indicated that the goldfish did not show consistent preferences for music, although they showed significant avoidance of noise stimuli. These results suggest that music has discriminative but not reinforcing stimulus properties in goldfish.


The Perils of Captivity of India’s Celebrity Elephants

A really sad piece in this week’s New York Times Magazine profiles a few celebrity elephants in India and the perils of captivity that they endure.

The captivity of elephants in south India goes back thousands of years. At first their use was mostly practical — tanks in wartime, timber forklifts in peacetime. In Kerala, elephants have been status symbols since the feudal era, and today most of its captive elephants are owned by private individuals. And it’s the only state in India where elephants are widely used for temple festivals. When or why this tradition started is unknown — no scripture commands it — but you can imagine how it may have happened: elephants were housed at temples between battles and were gradually integrated into religious festivities. Eventually, as soldiers and loggers replaced their elephants with machines, festivals became the best way owners could turn a profit on such high-maintenance animals.

Celebrity elephants in India.

Celebrity elephants in India.

Twenty years ago, Kerala elephants would appear only at whatever festivals were within walking distance, and few elephants were famous. Now they’re trucked all over the state to the highest bidder, the price driven up every year by the enthusiasms of the superfans who form associations to honor their favorite animals, urge festival organizers to feature them and trash-talk the competition. “You call that an elephant?” they write on their rivals’ Facebook pages. “Go tie him up in the cow barn.” The fans are especially concerned with what’s called lakshanam — a term that elephantspotlight.com defines as “the sexy features of the elephants.” A fan named Sujith told me: “The ivory should be clean white. The tail should be like a brush, and the trunk should reach the ground.” (Sujith’s own favorite elephant, he said, was out of commission this season: he was hit in the hind legs by an S.U.V.)

Celebrity elephants at a festival in India.

Celebrity elephants at a festival in India.

Although most elephant festivals in India are Hindu, Kerala is unusual in that its population is a quarter Muslim and a fifth Christian, and those faiths have jumped on the elephant bandwagon, too. At a Muslim festival I went to, rowdy young men rode up and down the road throwing confetti from the 60-odd elephants they rented — some of the same elephants that carried idols at Hindu temples the day before.

There is a conflict among India’s population on what should be done to protect these elephants:

…the solution to the harm inflicted on and by elephants is self-evident: their captivity should be banned — or at the very least, elephants should no longer be used in festivals. Tradition or not, they’re wild animals that belong in the forest. But Raman Sukumar, the founder of the Asian Nature Conservation Foundation and perhaps the world’s leading expert on Asian elephants, says it isn’t that simple. Asian elephants have been on the endangered-species list since 1986, yet contrary to trends nearly everywhere else in the world, the wild-elephant population in southern India has actually been increasing over the past several decades, with elephants now living in places where they hadn’t been spotted for hundreds of years. The trouble with this is that deforestation and booming human populations have shrunk and fragmented their habitats, which means elephants are increasingly coming into conflict with humans — raiding crops, running amok in forest villages. Thirty years ago, Sukumar told me, wild elephants killed around 150 people a year across India. Today it’s closer to 500. When wild elephants exceed the capacity of their habitats, the only alternative to capturing them is culling them, which is to say, shooting them dead.


Additional reading:

1) This excellent 2006 New York Times piece titled “An Elephant Crackup?” which highlights how elephants have become more violent, prone to attacking villages and humans.

2) George Orwell’s classic essay “Shooting an Elephant.” One of my favorite works by Orwell outside of 1984.

What Causes Fairy Circles in the Namib Desert?

A fascinating new paper in Science on the so-called “fairy circles” in the inhospitable Namib Desert in southern Africa:

The sand termite Psammotermes allocerus generates local ecosystems, so-called fairy circles, through removal of short-lived vegetation that appears after rain, leaving circular barren patches. Because of rapid percolation and lack of evapotranspiration, water is retained within the circles. This process results in the formation of rings of perennial vegetation that facilitate termite survival and locally increase biodiversity. This termite-generated ecosystem persists through prolonged droughts lasting many decades.

Ars Technica summarizes:

But now, after a six-year study and more than 40 trips to the Namib Desert, Dr. Norbert Juergens believes he has come to understand the biological underpinnings of this strange phenomenon. According to Juergens, a single species of termites is responsible for creating and maintaining the circles. But the barren circles aren’t just a byproduct of these tiny insects living below the sandy desert surface; they are part of a carefully cultivated landscape that helps the termites—and many other organisms—thrive in an otherwise inhospitable climate.

Juergens hypothesized that if the fairy circles’ cause was biological, the organism would need to co-occur with the circles and would probably not be found elsewhere. Only one species fit the bill:Psammotermes allocerus, the sand termite. Not only was the sand termite the only insect species that lived across the entire range of the fairy circles, but these termites were found to be living beneath nearly every circle sampled. And the harder the termites worked – foraging, burrowing, and dumping their refuse – the more grass died, leading Juergens to conclude that the termites keep the circles barren by burrowing underground and foraging on the roots of germinating grasses.

In summary: the termites are cultivating their own constant sources of water and food by creating and maintaining these circles. It’s a phenomenon known as ecosystem engineering.

On Animal Intelligence

New research shows that we have grossly underestimated both the scope and the scale of animal intelligence. Primatologist Frans de Waal explains in the Saturday essay for The Wall Street Journal. This example on elephant intelligence is striking:

Experiments with animals have long been handicapped by our anthropocentric attitude: We often test them in ways that work fine with humans but not so well with other species. Scientists are now finally meeting animals on their own terms instead of treating them like furry (or feathery) humans, and this shift is fundamentally reshaping our understanding.

Elephants are a perfect example. For years, scientists believed them incapable of using tools. At most, an elephant might pick up a stick to scratch its itchy behind. In earlier studies, the pachyderms were offered a long stick while food was placed outside their reach to see if they would use the stick to retrieve it. This setup worked well with primates, but elephants left the stick alone. From this, researchers concluded that the elephants didn’t understand the problem. It occurred to no one that perhaps we, the investigators, didn’t understand the elephants.

Think about the test from the animal’s perspective. Unlike the primate hand, the elephant’s grasping organ is also its nose. Elephants use their trunks not only to reach food but also to sniff and touch it. With their unparalleled sense of smell, the animals know exactly what they are going for. Vision is secondary.

But as soon as an elephant picks up a stick, its nasal passages are blocked. Even when the stick is close to the food, it impedes feeling and smelling. It is like sending a blindfolded child on an Easter egg hunt.

On a recent visit to the National Zoo in Washington, I met with Preston Foerder and Diana Reiss of Hunter College, who showed me what Kandula, a young elephant bull, can do if the problem is presented differently. The scientists hung fruit high up above the enclosure, just out of Kandula’s reach. The elephant was given several sticks and a sturdy square box.

Kandula ignored the sticks but, after a while, began kicking the box with his foot. He kicked it many times in a straight line until it was right underneath the branch. He then stood on the box with his front legs, which enabled him to reach the food with his trunk. An elephant, it turns out, can use tools—if they are the right ones.

Worth reading in entirety.

When Animals Talk


An Asian elephant called Koshik has astounded scientists with his Korean language skills. Researchers report that the mammal has learnt to imitate human speech and can say five words in Korean: hello, no, sit down, lie down, and good.

From a press release:

There have been some earlier reports of vocal mimicry in both African and Asian elephants. African elephants have been known to imitate the sound of truck engines, and a male Asian elephant living in a zoo in Kazakhstan was said to produce utterances in both Russian and Kazakh, but that case was never scientifically investigated.

In the case of Koshik, Angela Stoeger, Daniel Mietchen, Tecumseh Fitch, and their colleagues confirmed that Koshik was imitating Korean words in several ways. First, they asked native Korean speakers to write down what they heard when listening to playbacks of the elephant’s sounds.

You can see a brief video here.

Earlier this month, we learned about a beluga whale that can make animal sounds:

Although dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) have been trained to match numbers and durations of human vocal bursts [1] and reported to spontaneously match computer-generated whistles [2], spontaneous human voice mimicry has not previously been demonstrated. The first to study white whale (Delphinapterus leucas) sounds in the wild, Schevill and Lawrence [3] wrote that “occasionally the calls would suggest a crowd of children shouting in the distance”. Fish and Mowbary [4] described sound types and reviewed past descriptions of sounds from this vociferous species. At Vancouver Aquarium, Canada, keepers suggested that a white whale about 15 years of age, uttered his name “Lagosi”. Other utterances were not perceptible, being described as “garbled human voice, or Russian, or similar to Chinese” by R.L. Eaton in a self-published account in 1979. However, hitherto no acoustic recordings have shown how such sounds emulate speech and deviate from the usual calls of the species. We report here sound recordings and analysis which demonstrate spontaneous mimicry of the human voice, presumably a result of vocal learning [5], by a white whale.

Which animals will follow suit in this phenomenon?