Smart Dolphins

Cool interview in NYT the other day with Diana Reiss, psychology professor/dolphin researcher.  This anecdote kind of floored me:

Let me tell you a story. One of the first dolphins I ever worked with was Circe. I’d bring her a fish when I wanted her to do certain things. If she didn’t do them, I did a “time-out” where I turned my back and walked away. Well, there was a certain type of fish that Circe loathed because it had a spiny tail. So I accommodated her by cutting the spines off of the tail. One day, I forgot to do that. Circe spit it out, swam to the other side of the pool and placed herself into a vertical position that mimicked my time-out. I wanted to test this. I gave her untrimmed fish on four different days. Whenever I gave her fish with spiny tails, she gave me a time-out. What that suggested was that she saw time out as a correction and used it back on me. Well, that’s how we learn to communicate.

I love the image of the dolphin, fins crossed over its chest, freezing out Reiss because she’s pissed about being fed the wrong fish.  Just the latest proof that Douglas Adams was right about dolphins’ smarts…

man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much–the wheel, New York, wars and so on–while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man–for precisely the same reasons.

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 (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

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Yes, it's hot outside, but the Potomac River is really not a good place to go swimming

As if we needed another reason to avoid swimming in the Potomac River, now we have to be afraid of…sharks?

Willy Dean has an incredible fish tale to tell. On Tuesday, he caught a shark while on the Potomac River in St. Mary’s County, Md.

Don’t believe him? He has the pictures to prove it.

Dean put out a net Monday at Cornfield Harbor in the Potomac three miles north of Point Lookout with hopes of catching cow-nosed rays for a Solomons Island Marina biologist. When he checked Monday night everything seemed normal. But when he checked again Tuesday morning, he made a startling discovery.

In the net was an 8-foot-long shark. He said it was a bull shark. According to National Geographic, experts consider them to be “the most dangerous sharks in the world.”

Unanswered: Whether the shark was a male that laid eggs.

Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning), or Welcome to the "No-Spin Zone"

Filed under “Science is freaking crazy.” Witold Fraczek from Esri ran some models using ArcGIS on an interesting—but unlikely—question: What would happen if the world actually stopped turning? The answer is actually rather fascinating:

If earth ceased rotating about its axis but continued revolving around the sun and its axis of rotation maintained the same inclination, the length of a year would remain the same, but a day would last as long as a year. In this fictitious scenario, the sequential disappearance of centrifugal force would cause a catastrophic change in climate and disastrous geologic adjustments (expressed as devastating earthquakes) to the transforming equipotential gravitational state.

The lack of the centrifugal effect would result in the gravity of the earth being the only significant force controlling the extent of the oceans. Prominent celestial bodies such as the moon and sun would also play a role, but because of their distance from the earth, their impact on the extent of global oceans would be negligible.

If the earth stood still, the oceans would gradually migrate toward the poles and cause land in the equatorial region to emerge. This would eventually result in a huge equatorial megacontinent and two large polar oceans.

Via Boing Boing.

Males' tears make them more attractive to the ladies

Seriously:

A guy who can shed a tear really can drive females wild—among mice, at least.

According to a new study, male mouse tears contain a sex pheromone called ESP1, which makes female mice more receptive to mounting.

Male mice shed tears to keep their eyes from drying out. As they groom themselves, the tears—and the pheromone—get spread around their bodies and nests.

When female mice come in contact with a male or his nest, they pick up the pheromone via a nose organ called the vomeronasal, where the pheromone binds to a specific protein receptor.

“She has to touch it, because this is not a volatile compound like a fragrance,” Touhara said, referring to the ease with which some chemicals turn into vapor.

Upon contact, the pheromone is sent to sex-specific regions in the female’s brain. The female mouse is then three times more likely to engage in what’s called lordosis behavior, a posture shown by many animals in heat in which they thrust their rumps and tails upward.

[Insert obligatory creepy comment here.]

Doctor treats pregnant women with experimental drug to prevent lesbians (WHAT)

Dan Savage quoting from a piece by Alice Dreger, Ellen K. Feder, Anne Tamar-Mattis (emphasis his):

The majority of researchers and clinicians interested in the use of prenatal “dex” focus on preventing development of ambiguous genitalia in girls with CAH. CAH results in an excess of androgens prenatally, and this can lead to a “masculinizing” of a female fetus’s genitals. One group of researchers, however, seems to be suggesting that prenatal dex also might prevent affected girls from turning out to be homosexual or bisexual.

Pediatric endocrinologist Maria New, of Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Florida International University, and her long-time collaborator, psychologist Heino F. L. Meyer-Bahlburg, of Columbia University, have been tracing evidence for the influence of prenatal androgens in sexual orientation…. They specifically point to reasons to believe that it is prenatal androgens that have an impact on the development of sexual orientation. The authors write, “Most women were heterosexual, but the rates of bisexual and homosexual orientation were increased above controls . . . and correlated with the degree of prenatal androgenization.” They go on to suggest that the work might offer some insight into the influence of prenatal hormones on the development of sexual orientation in general. “That this may apply also to sexual orientation in at least a subgroup of women is suggested by the fact that earlier research has repeatedly shown that about one-third of homosexual women have (modestly) increased levels of androgens.” They “conclude that the findings support a sexual-differentiation perspective involving prenatal androgens on the development of sexual orientation.”

And it isn’t just that many women with CAH have a lower interest, compared to other women, in having sex with men. In another paper entitled “What Causes Low Rates of Child-Bearing in Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia?” Meyer-Bahlburg writes that “CAH women as a group have a lower interest than controls in getting married and performing the traditional child-care/housewife role. As children, they show an unusually low interest in engaging in maternal play with baby dolls, and their interest in caring for infants, the frequency of daydreams or fantasies of pregnancy and motherhood, or the expressed wish of experiencing pregnancy and having children of their own appear to be relatively low in all age groups.”

In the same article, Meyer-Bahlburg suggests that treatments with prenatal dexamethasone might cause these girls’ behavior to be closer to the expectation of heterosexual norms: “Long term follow-up studies of the behavioral outcome will show whether dexamethasone treatment also prevents the effects of prenatal androgens on brain and behavior.”

In a paper published just this year in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, New and her colleague, pediatric endocrinologist Saroj Nimkarn of Weill Cornell Medical College, go further, constructing low interest in babies and men—and even interest in what they consider to be men’s occupations and games—as “abnormal,” and potentially preventable with prenatal dex:

“Gender-related behaviors, namely childhood play, peer association, career and leisure time preferences in adolescence and adulthood, maternalism, aggression, and sexual orientation become masculinized in 46,XX girls and women with 21OHD deficiency [CAH]. These abnormalities have been attributed to the effects of excessive prenatal androgen levels on the sexual differentiation of the brain and later on behavior.” Nimkarn and New continue: “We anticipate that prenatal dexamethasone therapy will reduce the well-documented behavioral masculinization…”

It seems more than a little ironic to have New, one of the first women pediatric endocrinologists and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, constructing women who go into “men’s” fields as “abnormal.” And yet it appears that New is suggesting that the “prevention” of “behavioral masculinization” is a benefit of treatment to parents with whom she speaks about prenatal dex. In a 2001 presentation to the CARES Foundation (a videotape of which we have), New seemed to suggest to parents that one of the goals of treatment of girls with CAH is to turn them into wives and mothers. Showing a slide of the ambiguous genitals of a girl with CAH, New told the assembled parents:

“The challenge here is… to see what could be done to restore this baby to the normal female appearance which would be compatible with her parents presenting her as a girl, with her eventually becoming somebody’s wife, and having normal sexual development, and becoming a mother. And she has all the machinery for motherhood, and therefore nothing should stop that, if we can repair her surgically and help her psychologically to continue to grow and develop as a girl.”

In the Q&A period, during a discussion of prenatal dex treatments, an audience member asked New, “Isn’t there a benefit to the female babies in terms of reducing the androgen effects on the brain?” New answered, “You know, when the babies who have been treated with dex prenatally get to an age in which they are sexually active, I’ll be able to answer that question.” At that point, she’ll know if they are interested in taking men and making babies.

In a previous Bioethics Forum post, Alice Dreger noted an instance of a prospective father using knowledge of the fraternal birth order effect to try to avoid having a gay son by a surrogate pregnancy. There may be other individualized instances of parents trying to ensure heterosexual children before birth. But the use of prenatal dexamethasone treatments for CAH represents, to our knowledge, the first systematic medical effort attached to a “paradigm” of attempting in utero to reduce rates of homosexuality, bisexuality, and “low maternal interest.”

Welcome to the modern world of eugenics, everyone.

Baby not smiling because she likes you

CC photo by Flickr user bryangeek

Slate asks “Why Do Babies Smile?”

But research from the last couple of decades shows there’s more to it. Smiling typically develops around six to eight weeks, a time when a baby spends her days gazing at faces, and when her vision widens to take in the whole face, not just the eyes. It’s unclear if there’s any emotion embedded in these very early smiles or what they mean, if anything, to the infant. Daniel Messinger, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami, suspects that these first smiles teach infants the positive associations attached to a smile that we adults already feel. Learning to smile—and learning what’s meant by a smile—is a process, much like learning how to walk. “I take smiling to be a social signal,” Messinger says. “I really think that babies are learning what joy is by sharing it with someone else.” In other words, smiling might not be so much an expression of a preexisting state as a path we take to get to that state.

Take that, Platonic ideas of cuteness and happiness. Dwight Shrute: “I never smile if I can help it. Showing one’s teeth is a submission signal in primates. When someone smiles at me, all I see is a chimpanzee begging for its life.”