It Just Ain’t Natural!

Here's a quick round-up of a few things that I couldn't quite crow-bar into the "Weird Wildlife" category.

If you've any particular aversion to rats, and quite a lot of people have, then Deshnok in India is probably a place best avoided, for there stands the Karni Mata Temple, built a century ago and devoted to the Hindu matriarch Karni Mata. Worshipped as a 14th century incarnation of the goddess Durga, Karni Mata is said to have struck a deal with Yama, the god of death, that all members of her clan would reincarnate as rats so that the clan would remain united. Hence rats in Deshnok are sacred animals, venerated as ancestors, and fed and protected by the locals, so than now thousands of rats scamper over the feet of visitors to the temple (National Geographic).

And it's not only in India that people have built havens for rats, one was once built in British Columbia, though for quite a different reason. Bruce Alexander was studying addiction, and he had a problem. He knew that rats kept in cramped cages or strapped to apparatus that allowed them to dose themselves with drugs, would often do so to the point of self-destruction, but, he thought, could you really blame them? What if the addiction to the drugs was a product of their environment, rather than a reaction to the drug itself? Hence, in the 1970s, Alexander decided to give his rats the best living conditions he could, so he build "Rat Park". It was 95 square-feet in area, and well stocked with food, toys and "private areas" where the rats - who would be of both sexes - could go to mate or give birth. It was then filled with rats who had been forced to consume morphine for 8 weeks prior to the experiment, quite long enough to cause hopeless addiction in standard experiments, who were now offered a choice of pure water, or more morphine. All of them chose water. Nothing Alexander could do would entice them to take the drug, even sweetening it had no effect, only when he added naloxone (a drug that blocks the action of opiates) or diluted the morphine to the point of near impotency, could park rats be tempted to take it (Absolute Astronomy).

Yet another piece of rodent research now, as scientists (sadly not from NIMH) have found that transplanting a human 'language gene' into mice affects the way they communicate with one another. The gene, called foxp2 is one of a small family of genes known to be markedly different in humans compared to apes and other animals, hence may be the genes that are the very core of our humanity, so would putting a humanized gene in a mouse create a talking mouse? Well, no, there's a lot more to our use of language than a single gene, however while the transgenic mice were significantly less curious, they also showed increased growth and plasticity in the speech centres of their brains, and a tendency to use a greater range of frequencies in their calls (NY Times).

Of course, when it comes to communication, rats can't hold a candle to songbirds, so it is perhaps inevitable that they too would fall under science's gaze. In an experiment conducted by City University and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, NY, male zebra finches were raised in isolated, sound-proof boxes, before being used as 'tutors' to a new generation. The finches usually learn their song from male relatives, so the isolated finches, deprived of any cultural cues, grew up singing discordantly. The second generation, reared by the distorted singers of the first, mostly copied their song, but with variations, while a third generation, reared by the second, incorporated yet more changes in their song. Remarkably, by the fifth generation, the finches' songs were very nearly back to the wild type. So while birdsong itself might be learned, their 'song culture' is a product of genetics (Wired Science).

And it's not just in laboratories that birdsong is being disrupted, researchers from Aberystwyth University in the UK have discovered that city birds sing louder and higher than their country cousins, most likely to be heard over traffic. This has resulted in the British bird population developing town and country 'accents' with the country birds not recognising the more strident song of the 'townies', and city birds ignoring their 'yokel' cousins' country drawl (BBC News).

And I make no apologies for finishing with quite my favourite example of humans interfering with birdsong, the amazing Lyre-bird from the David Attenborough series, The Life of Birds. Enjoy.
     Posted By: Dumbfounded - Sun Jun 07, 2009
     Category: Animals | Languages | Nature | Experiments

I've switched the link to "foxp2" study to the NY Times from the original study in Cell, as the latter was pretty highbrow. The original link was to here.
Posted by Dumbfounded on 06/07/09 at 01:33 PM
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