Stupid pets tricks: are dogs really as smart as a 2-year old?

The story is all over the web: a researcher at the recent American Psychological Association says that the cognitive abilities of some dogs resemble those of a 2-year old child. In fact, the way most sources are covering the story they’re headlining it something like, “Dogs as smart as 2-year-olds”.

It’s all a bit silly. Where are the science editors? At minimum, this story seems to have been dumbed-down to the point that it’s become quite inaccurate. Possibly science correspondents are just regurgitating info without raising an eyebrow (is there really the correspondence of a couple of capabilities here? even if there is, does that warrant saying intelligence is similar?). At worst, they’re regurgitating just because fuzzy anthropomorphic animal stories generate lots of clicks.

Language Log points out the shakiness of the claims and the even more extreme shakiness of the oversimplified assumptions that have followed. And it does so in a very funny manner.

Time to order my shirt, I think.

Inside Nature’s Giants: The Crocodile

I watched the third episode of  excellent TV series Inside Nature’s Giants last night (recorded from earlier in the week). Week 1 was an elephant; week 2 was a whale; this week was a Nile crocodile.

I love crocodilians. I think they’re fascinating animals. Like sharks, they’re well-adapted predators whose suitability for their environment means they haven’t evolved much in millions of years. You’ve gotta respect that. And this show, like the others, laid bare all the interior structures that make this animal what it is.

They showed how the massive underjaw muscles are made for swift, powerful bites, while the muscles that lift the upper jaw are tiny but have great endurance (waiting for the right moment to use the underjaw ones).

They showed how the complicated aortic arrangement of the crocodile’s heart can pump extra blood to its stomach so that it can digest the things – bones, skin, and hooves – it must swallow whole since it has no chewing teeth.

They showed how a crocodile can not only inflate but also move its lungs, changing not only its buoyancy but also its centre of gravity.

And they showed what caused this relatively young crocodile to die prematurely.


Inside Nature’s Giants: The Whale

Last week I blogged about the first show of Channel 4 series looking at large animal anatomy, Inside Nature’s Giants, wherein they dissected an elephant.

I recorded the second show – about a whale – this week and just got around to watching it. It was equally fascinating. They opened up a fin whale that had beached and died off the coast of Ireland; they did this on the beach, the only episode not taking place at the Royal Veterinary College. The show was therefore as much about the difficulties of the dissection – using diggers, fighting the rain and tide – as about the 60-ton animal itself.

They showed the skeletal structures that prove that whales used to be land mammals – they have vestigal hind legs – that evolved for the ocean.

They showed that the structure that allows the whale to make sounds is also the structure that lets it initiate its gallop-like swimming motion.

They showed the structure of baleen, the chitinous mesh that lets the whale filter its food from seawater.

There were points at which people were totally enclosed by squelching pools of whale innards. It was soooooo cool.

TV tonight: Inside Nature’s Giants – Elephant

At 9pm UK time on Channel 4 tonight is the first show in a science series called Inside Nature’s Giants. They’re doing detailed, on-camera dissections of large animals. In this first show they’re pulling the guts out of an elephant. In future shows they’re dissecting a giraffe, a crocodile, and a whale.

At first the ads made me wonder if it was just going to be a bizarre TV freakfeast. But then I noticed that Richard Dawkins makes a couple of appearances and figured it must have some scientific cred.

It looks like Charlie Brooker thought the same as I did, but changed his mind dramatically during his preview screening.

This is a rare thing – a hardcore biological science documentary that will both entertain and enlighten almost anyone who watches.

It’s also strangely moving. Because they chop that elephant to pieces all right – but they do so with palpable love. Watch it. It’s amazing.