Tag: Manufactured Animals
Monkeys Fall into the ‘Uncanny Valley’ Too
The uncanny valley, a phrase coined by Japanese robotic researcher Masahiro Mori nearly three decades ago, describes the uncanny feeling that occurs when people look at representations designed to be as human-like as possible – whether computer animations or androids – but somehow fall short. It turns out monkeys have that too.
In an attempt to answer deeper questions about the evolutionary basis of communication, Princeton University researchers have found that macaque monkeys also fall into the uncanny valley, exhibiting this reaction when looking at computer-generated images of monkeys that are close but less than perfect representations.
Watch Out Whales, Humans Want Your Krill
Krill, those tiny members of the ocean’s planktonic community, have an importance disproportionate to their size. They are a vital food for whales, penguins and increasingly, humans. Demand for krill-based animal feed and 0mega-3 fatty acids is leading to a “gold rush” in the Southern Ocean off Antarctica.
Harvesting krill is the outcome of a decades-long trend of “fishing down the food web“. After humans decimated large oceanic organisms like tuna and swordfish, global fisheries have turned to smaller and less desirable species. Lobster, for instance, was once fed to prisoners, while cod was once so plentiful it was used as fertilizer. Now, fisheries are increasingly snapping up ‘bait fish’ like anchovies, mackerel and menhaden. The fact that commercial fishermen are now turning to krill, even jellyfish, indicates we may be scooping up the last and least tasty fish in the sea.
Adorably Endangered Kitten Born to Domestic Cat Surrogate
“Crystal”, an endangered black-footed cat, was recently born to a domestic cat surrogate at the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species. The birth was achieved using a previously frozen embryo, marking…
Nature Ludens: The Natural World at Play
An ingenious Russian crow that used a lid as a snowboard to slide down a snowy roof persuaded millions of YouTube viewers that animals are not merely beasts of burden – they also want to have fun. Indeed, the natural world appears to be teeming with creatures enjoying themselves in all kinds of different ways, and wildlife experts even claim that bonobos and dolphins have sex for fun.
But how can we know this is the case? Aren’t we really just projecting our human values on to animals? After all, moods are subjective, so it’s hard enough for humans to communicate clearly enough to each other, even when they share the same language – let alone try to figure out what another species might be feeling. So, to keep things simple and empirically testable, the kinds of scientific experiments that have established the ‘feelings’ of animals have focused on responses to stimuli in which cause and effect are not at all complicated such as withdrawal from pain .
Unsurprisingly, this has produced a very limited model of scientifically ‘proven’ animal behaviour, since there are still no clearly identifiable behavioural markers of conscious experience that don’t involve language. We still don’t know how to unequivocally prove what animals may be thinking. We can only claim that creatures such as these fox cubs playing on a trampoline appear to be having fun, since we cannot be objective about what we observe. However, the work of philosophers of science such as Thomas Kuhn, Stephen Toulmin and Patrick Heelan, among many others, questions the long-held view that scientific data are absolutely objective.
Better Than Nature?
At the turn of the millennium, miniaturized canines acquired the cherished status of living, designer handbag ornaments. These teeny tiny photogenic doggies, which had been shrunken from generations of in breeding, were snapped up by fashionistas who pouted alongside them in front of seas of clicking cameras.
In just a fragment of evolutionary time, today’s ‘to die for’ bio-couture has been genetically spliced with jellyfish signatures. These trophies are freer to roam and easier to find than their miniaturised predecessors, as they can glow under UV, or ‘black’ light. Although not all varieties can fit in a clutch purse yet, there is an impressive range of designer ‘glo’ organisms available in green and red (blue is possible but isn’t as impressive under UV light). Options include fruit flies, fish, mice, chickens, rabbits, pigs and cats (for glo-cats, see here, here and here).
Science justifies these media friendly creations in service of the greater public good. Yet these animals have great popular appeal that speaks little to their ability to fight cancer or other diseases. Despite their ‘freaky’ designer origins, glo pets are undeniably ‘cute’. Genetic modification is part of a spectrum of technological approaches offered by the new science of synthetic biology, which enable us to overcome the apparent lottery of nature. The fundamental ‘vanity’ at the heart of synthetic biology is that we can do ‘better’ than nature, but is this actually possible?
Where Be Dragons? Try Your Instinctual Fear of Snakes
This last Monday rang in the Chinese Year of the Dragon. Not restricted just to the benevolent, snake-like creature of Chinese mythology, or to the greedy, princess-stealing monster from Europe, dragon-like creatures occur throughout the world. Legendary reptiles occur as far apart as the feathered snake of Precolombian America and the rainbow serpent of Aboriginal Australia. It may be that, like flight in bats, pterosaurs and birds, the dragon “evolved” multiple times independently throughout human mythology.
If, indeed, the dragon can be considered a cultural universal – it may be that “large scaly monster” is too general a category to be meaningful – several theories purport to explain their origin. Giant reptiles like the crocodile or monitor lizard are obvious suspects. It’s easy to imagine how word-of-mouth could transform an already terrifying beast into something that flies or breathes fire. Dinosaur bones may have inspired other dragon myths, while the rotten carcasses of sharks and whales are even today routinely mistaken for sea monsters. By far the most interesting theory is that of anthropologist David E. Jones, who argues that dragons are a mash-up of the predators that ate our distant primate ancestors. Dragons prey on what we’re genetically primed to fear.