Category Archives for "Nature"

January 8, 2017

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel

We are not alone on earth. There are several highly intelligent, emphatic species right here within our midst.

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What’s it about?

Carl Safina’s ground-breaking book details the richness of animals inner lives. He offers compelling evidence that large brained animals – the great apes, killer whales, bottle-nosed dolphins, elephants and wolves, have emotions and cultures that are richer than previously thought.

What Animals Think and Feel:

  1. Emotions evolved in the distant past. Oxytocin, is the chemical that creates feelings of pleasure and increases sociability. It seems to have evolved over 700 million years ago. Even worms exhibit great behavioral sophistication. Charles Darwin believed that their emotional responses to their environment meant they deserved to be classed as intelligent.
  2. Those who have spent decades studying elephants call them smart, social, emotional, personable, respectful of ancestors, playful, self-aware and compassionate. Matriarch led clans of female elephants sometimes associate in larger groups. Individual elephants are able to recognize up to a thousand individuals. They have been known to extract spears from wounded friends, to stay with infants born with disabilities, and to grieve their losses.
  3. Dogs and wolves are intelligent too. There are many similarities between wolves and humans. They are tough, flexible in social structure, capable of forming pair bonds and adaptable to changing hierarchies. While the traditional view is that human’s domesticated dogs over tens of thousands of years ago, the plausible alternative is that wolves initiated contact and the relationship developed out of mutual value to each other.

What Animals Think and Feel:

  1. Sperm whales have the largest brains on earth, around six times larger than our own. Like elephants, adult males live independent lives, roaming solo or moving from group to group. Females and children live in clans of up to thirty. They are social too, taking care of each other’s young and communicating through sonar clicks. Each clan’s clicks are distinctive and mark identity. They allow the whales to synchronize their diving, feeding and other activities.
  2. Killer Whales (Orcas) have a different social organization. Males remain with their mothers all their life. All the young whales have extended lactating periods, reaching, in some cases, to 15 years. Along with human’s they are the only other mammal to experience the menopause. As much as a quarter of the females in any group can be post reproductive but still active. With lifespans of eighty years, grandmothers are important in killer whale societies due to their accumulated knowledge.
  3. Killer whales are also xenophobic and clans have their own food taboos. Some clans eat only one species of seal, others only one species of salmon and they don’t intermingle with members of the other clans. Like sperm whales, the vocalizations are also clan specific. They have been known to form working relations with humans, hunting together and sharing the prey afterwards.

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So strong is elephant empathy that they sometimes bury their dead, and will return repeatedly to the skeleton of a deceased matriarch to fondle her tusks and bones. When the Amboseli matriarch Eleanor was dying, the matriarch Grace approached her, her facial glands streaming with emotion, and tried to lift her to her feet.

Grace stayed with the stricken Eleanor through the night of her death, and on the third day Eleanor’s family and closest friend Maya visited the corpse. A week after the death the family returned again to express what can only be called their grief.

A researcher once played the recording of a deceased elephant’s voice to its family. The creatures went wild searching for their lost relative, and the dead elephant’s daughter called for days after.

Take Away Points and Context

  • Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel builds on the recent evidence that suggests animals lives are more complex than we have previously taken for granted. We are not alone on earth. There is intelligent life here. There are several smart, socially emphatic species within our midst.
  • It is a unfamiliar conclusion, but one based on evidence. Before the domestication of plants and the invention of writing, there was little difference between human societies and those of the higher animals.
  • The brains of dogs, as well as humans, have shrunk since we began living together, perhaps because of the mutual aid offered. Our dogs understand us and love us, but we often surrender from the full implications. Why asks the author has it taken so long for to understand animals are intelligent too? Are our egos threatened? Does acknowledging the mind of others make it harder to abuse them?

 

Full article:

The Amazing Inner Lives of Animals

Tim Flannery

See also:

Animals Minds: I think therefore…

The Economist

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel

by Carl Safina
Henry Holt, 461 pp., $32.00

 

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. Your comments welcome below.
December 30, 2016

Why Trees have feelings too: Amazing Discoveries in a German Forest

In their own way trees have feelings. They communicate with each other and help each other in times of need.

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What’s it about?

Thomas Pakenham looks at the literature on trees, new and old, and at recent discoveries that show trees can communicate with each other through underground networks connected by fungi.

Why Trees have feelings too:

  1. The Oak tree has been a symbol of power and strength since classical times. Britain, the US and twelve other European countries now claim it as their national tree.
  2. Oak can survive for around 600 to a 1,000 years. Exact estimates are impossible, since the oldest oaks are hollow, their inner rings missing. Within Britain a few, around 500-600 years of age, still stand proud.  It’s possible for visitors to enter into the interior of the Bowthorpe Oak in Lincolnshire. Diner parties for 17 people were recorded inside it in the eighteenth century.
  3. In the 17 Century, John Every wrote a best seller on trees, Slyva, or a Discourse on foreign trees. Despite many attempts, few books have matched it in elegance and authority. A hundred years after it was first published it was reissued with elegant copperplate illustrations and new commentary.
  4. The European ash and horse-chestnut are threatened by diseases from Asia. Parks and forest across Europe and North America are being destroyed. In Denmark 80 percent of European ashes have already gone. It may already be too late to stop. A combination of fungus, beetles and bacteria means many wood-lined roads, green parks, and sheltered towns will be left bare.
  5. One solution is to reintroduce Asian varieties of the same trees, as it is believed these are immune. It will take many years to find out.
  6. A forest in  Hummel, a small village in the Eifel Mountains in Germany, has been found to have an extensive network, called a mycorrizha. Fungi connect trees of different species by passing electrical signals along their roots. The trees communicate by exchanging carbon, often helping others in time of need and receiving the favor back in turn. They also exchange vital information. Alerting their children and neighbors to opportunities and threats.

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The oak has always been admired for its staying power…. No other tree is so self-possessed, so evidently at one with the world. Unlike the beech, horse chestnut or sycamore, whose branches reach up towards the sky, the solid, craggy trunk of a mature oak spreads out, as if with open arms, to create a vast hemisphere of thick, clotted leaves.

It is this copious canopy that provides a home for an astonishing number of small insects, birds, animals, lichens, ferns, and fungi. A great oak is a world in itself. The King of the Trees, the head, heart and habitat of an entire civilization.

Poetry

Trees have appeared in poetry as well ancient texts (the Oak was the tree of Zeus, the Greek King of Gods). John Clare wrote of the splendid sycamore, for example. Its sticky leaves were a great gift to the world. Percy Shelley described sycamore leaves as “yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red.”

“If Winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

Take Away Points and Context

  • The new books match the original Sylva in their lyrical descriptions and new discoveries, reminding us of trees inherent beauty,  gifts for survival, and cultural associations.
  • In their own way trees have feelings. They communicate with each other and help each other in times of need. Living their lives in harmony with the ecosystem and each other.
  • The message that these books carry is the same as Evelyn’s three centuries ago. We need trees for many reasons, grab your spade and plant one today.

 

Full Article:

What the Trees Say

Thomas Pakenham

 

Greystone/David Suzuki Institute, 272 pp., $24.95

 

Why Trees have feelings too. Your comments welcome below.

December 26, 2016

Why Nature is not as full as it was

In North America forty-six common land-bird species have lost half or more of their populations since 1970.

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What’s it about?

Verlyn Klinkenborg reviews The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy and writes an ode to nature, calling on humans to treat nature not just for our own means but as having value in and of itself. Now, before it’s too late.

Why Nature is not as full as it was:

  1. There were only two natural extinctions of birds in Britain in the post-war period; however, there have been huge numbers of local extinctions. The population of farmland bird species dropped 56 percent.
  2. There have been three national extinction of butterflies but over the country three-quarters of Britain’s natural species have declined or disappeared.
  3. In North America forty-six common land-bird species have lost half or more of their populations since 1970.
  4. Twenty-four of those species have lost between 50 and 90 percent of their 1970 populations. Bobolinks have declined in the US by 74 percent since 1966. Chimney swifts have declined by 72 percent in the same period.
  5. The thinning of nature changes our experience of the natural world.
  6. This loss of abundance is continuing right now all over the world at a rapid rate.

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As species crash and vanish, the world loses diversity, something it’s been doing for centuries. But the loss of abundance is even more startling. Nature is not as full as it once was. Species continue to exist but in diminished numbers, which means that the species itself has a far more tenuous hold on existence.

But it also means that the numerical robustness, the plenitude within nature, has dwindled.

It’s like looking into the sky and discovering that thunderheads are no longer dark and towering but only faint wisps of themselves.

Joy and Loss

The Moth Snowstorm takes its name from the thick clouds of summer moths that used to appear in front of car headlights on Britain’s country roads. A natural phenomenon that has now disappeared. The book contributes to the literature on environmental despair, noting the problems are too deep and systemic for anything except cautious hope. It also attempts to account for the joy and beauty and bond with nature that humans often feel.

Take Away Points and Context

  • The world’s nature is thinning at a rapid rate. While the individual causes – overpopulation, industrial farming and unchecked reclamation – are sometimes known, the real problem is that it seems impossible to make nature count in the mind of humans.
  • The ideas of sustainable development, or attempts to commoditise nature based on either its direct or aesthetic value, means nature is valued only for its worth to humans rather than valuing it in and of itself.

 

Full article:

What’s Happening to the Bees and Butterflies?

The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy

by Michael McCarthy
New York Review Books, 262 pp., $24.95
Why Nature is not as full as it was: Comments welcome below.
December 24, 2016

Why Octopuses are more intelligent than we think

The type of consciousness experienced by an octopus is wholly alien to humans.

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What’s it about?

Peter Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher, combines science, philosophy and his experiences of swimming among octopuses to illuminate the origin and nature of consciousness.

Why Octopuses are more intelligent than we think:

  1. Life and the mind both first evolved in the oceans.
  2. Hundreds of millions of years ago ocean going animals crawled onto dry land. This branch of the tree of life gave rise to intelligent creatures: humans, other mammals, and birds.
  3. In the water intelligence also evolved. These are the Cephalopods and include squid, cuttlefish and octopus.
  4. An octopus’s body contains 500 million neurons, roughly the same as a dog’s, but most of these reside in its arms, allowing the tentacles to act apart from the brain.
  5. The type of consciousness experienced by an octopus is wholly alien to humans.
  6. Octopuses are more intelligent than the scientific research literature suggests.

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Early experiments assumed that the intelligence of animals could be estimated by their ability to carry out tasks, such as learning to pull a lever in exchange for food. Octopuses perform quite well in such tests but not as well as rats.

The anecdotes buried in research papers or related by scientists are often more revealing, however.

One researcher tells of an octopus that waits until she isn’t looking and then stuffs unwanted scraps of squid down the drain.

In captivity octopuses have also been known to keep tabs on individual human keepers, raid neighboring tanks for food, turn off lightbulbs by spouting jets of water, plug drains, and make daring escapes.

Take Away Points and Context

  • Consciousness evolved in two distinct ways, one on land and one in the water.
  • The Octopus, for example has eight ‘brains’, one in each arm. For an octopus, its arms are partly self – they can be directed and used to manipulate things. But from the central brain’s perspective they are non-self too, partly agents of their own.

 

Full article:

The smart arms of the octopus: Why cephalopods may be far more intelligent than we think

The Economist

 

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
By Peter Godfrey-Smith.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 255 pages; $27.

Why Octopuses are more intelligent than we think. Your comments are welcome below.