Tag Archives: animals

Metacognition in Scrub Jays

Scrub Jay in Flight

Scrub Jay in Flight by Lyle Troxell

A common faulty justification for eating and exploiting animals is that humans are so much “smarter” than all other animal species. “Animals are dumb so it’s okay to eat them!” so many meat-eaters proclaim. This of course is absurd; even if it was true, this still doesn’t justify harming animals. Carry this reasoning far enough, and it justifies making meals of humans who are mentally challenged. Besides this, it seldom makes sense to do interspecies intelligence comparisons(it’s difficult enough comparing humans when it comes to intelligence). Each species evolved as intelligent as it needed to be, based on the unique environment it evolved in. Some species are “smarter” or more “talented” at some things than others.

Increasingly, it appears that certain cognitive traits that were once thought to only occur in humans also occur in other species. Metacognition, or “thinking about thinking”, is something humans do on a regular basis. This ability helps us solve problems, philosophize, and plan for the future, among other things.

Recent research reported in Scientific American suggests that a small species of bird called the Scrub Jay may be capable of metacognition. As Watanabe, one of the researchers put it, “some birds study for a test like humans do.” I suggest reading the entire article to understand the experiment they used to arrive at this conclusion.

If this is true, this is yet more evidence that the human mind isn’t so different from other animals after all.

Ferrets are not rodents


A ferret

Certain misconceptions just won’t go away. While some of them may be virtually harmless, like how a lot of people mistakenly believe Dimetrodon is a dinosaur(it is actually a synapsid, see my post “I don’t eat dinosaurs” for more info), some can have real world consequences on policy and how we live our lives.

One of the more annoying misconceptions I encounter when it comes to the animal kingdom is the idea that ferrets are rodents. I can’t count how many times someone has told me or I’ve overheard someone say “I could never keep a ferret as a pet, they are rodents!”(whether or not true rodents make good pets is beside the issue of this post).

Ferrets are not rodents, they are members of the glorious mustelid or weasel family. Mustelids belong to the large order carnivora, which means they are actually more closely related to other members of carnivora like dogs, cats, and bears than to rats and mice. What ferrets and other mustelids do have in common with rodents is their common mammalian heritage, which would also make them distant relatives to humans.

Yet this kind of ignorance persists, even though it is so easy to correct by merely looking it up online. Why does this misconception matter? There are often local, and state laws against keeping ferrets, and this kind if ignorance can influence policy. It can also affect the attitude some people have toward this animal, or their close relative the badger, which is getting treated like a pestilence in the U.K these days. See articles below for more info on this subject.

Other members of the mustelid family include minks, polecats, and wolverines, the largest and most ferocious of mustelids. Skunks used to be classified as mustelids, but recent genetic evidence has lead to them being reclassified in a closely related group. Don’t worry, skunks have been doing okay since reclassification; they are especially good at stinking up my neighborhood at night.


So this misconception has far more profound implications than thinking Dimetrodon is a dinosaur. Sure, the toy section at the local pharmacy may put the toy Dimetrodons with the dinosaurs, implying it is a dinosaur. Truth be told, Dimetrodon(or “cousin Dimi” as I affectionately call him sometimes, since Dimetrodon is more closely related to us than to dinosaurs) was not a dinosaur and went extinct long before the dinosaurs roamed the earth, but no one is harmed by this.

Other misconceptions that bother me, like Sikhs being thought of as Muslims, or people thinking Turks, Persians, and Pakistanis are Arabs are also disturbing, but that would require another post or two.

Related articles:

1) Dorset Calling!

2) The Badger Cull – Putting Pressure on the Supermarkets

3) Badger Cull – What’s the point?

4) So most farmers support the badger cull? Erm, no actually, they don’t.

The winter reds, and blues

2208147575_dc5f255bdfI hope everyone is having a splendid winter so far. Unfortunately, many people find it difficult to engage in outdoor or even indoor exercise this time of year due to the winter blues. Some people may even experience major depression caused by the shorter days, and may find it difficult to crawl out of their warm, cozy bed. If it is very cold outside, some folks won’t even venture outside.

In part, genetics may play a role. Indeed, slowing down and feeling depressed during the winter may be related to the hibernation response in other animals- Metabolic depression in hibernation and major depression: an explanatory theory and an animal model of depression.

This is fascinating research. It’s not necessarily easy to “prove” anything either way with this kind of speculation; even if it were “proven” that depression is related to hibernation, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to “hibernate” if you feel depressed, unless you are a bear. Understanding that there is a connection between the two could lead to a better understanding of depression and more effective ways to overcome it.

What we know already may already be helpful for some. In many animals, the hibernation response is turned on by light deprivation due to shorter winter days and/or lower temperatures. SAD(seasonal affective disorder) is a form of depression that tends to affect people more during the winter. Lack of light may play a role, and so logically, “light therapy” by using a light box in the morning may be beneficial for those affected – Seasonal affective disorder: an overview.

If you have eye problems though, using a light box may not be a good idea. It doesn’t work for everyone since the brain is very complex and we all have our own unique biochemistry. Some people are more sensitive to light than others. Whatever you do, keep on exercising, and try to expose yourself to extra light in the morning if you have SAD. If you think you have serious depression, seek professional help.

I must admit that I sometimes feel a little blue in the morning this time of year, but a quick juggle or some exercises and turning on all the lights seems to help me quickly overcome it. It is nothing serious luckily. I never drink coffee or caffeinated beverages, so I have to rely on intense exercise, and sometimes eating or drinking something very spicy to help wake up my system.

I don’t joggle early in the morning usually(though I often juggle a little), since I tend to drop the balls too much if I joggle soon after waking(the darkness doesn’t help) and I often don’t have the time anyway. I just do it later in the day. On the rare occasion I do a long, very early morning joggle(I mean around 5:30 AM to 7:00 AM), I notice I am slowly improving. Ideally, I’d like to do more joggling at this time of day, and so I continue to study various approaches to quickly overcoming early morning grogginess without caffeine. I’m open to any new suggestions.


Opossum in Mount Vernon

Opossum in Mount Vernon

Opossum sighting in Mount Vernon, New York. They are rarely seen because they are nocturnal. They are the only species of marsupial in North America. This photo was taken only a few miles north of New York City – New York City has opossums too. They are generally harmless.