By Caren Cooper August 25th, 2015 at 2:33 pm | Comment
Thank you, Lassie for saving my life! And thank you Rover, Spot, Fido, Benji, and Snoopy. We can all shout this refrain, not just those pulled from a burning building or comforted by slobbery kisses. Dogs may have saved the entire human race. Not recently, but back when our species was just starting out on the journey to dominate the Earth.
Neanderthals were in Europe and Asia for two hundred thousand years, but began their demise as our people, Homo sapiens, expanded beyond Africa. Like Neanderthals, humans hunted, used tools, were pyrotechnic, and social enough to have cliques. Some researchers suspect that humans had one advantage that Neanderthals lacked: the precursor to (hu-)man’s best friend, the domesticated dog. Less wild than wolves, more wild than today’s collie, early humans likely survived an epoch of environmental change with the help of furry friends that were eventually domesticated as dogs.
That’s the argument made by Pat Shipman in her book, The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction. Shipman, a retired adjunct professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, explores the evidence for a historic alliance between dogs and humans and what such an alliance enabled, including, for example, the hunting and transport of wooly mammoths.
Our longstanding relationship with dogs has led researchers in animal behavior and comparative psychology find our loyal companions (Canis familiaris) to be an excellent subject for studies of the mind. Some animal behaviorists prefer to study non-human primates because these are evolutionarily the closest relatives to our species. Even though we share more DNA with chimps, we’ve shared more of our social history with dogs. Now dogs solve social problems more similarly to human toddlers than many primates do. Their domestication process endowed them with skills to understand our verbal and body languages, and to read our emotional states which is something akin to empathy.
Children develop empathy after age four. Dogs don’t necessarily have the mental capacity to imagine walking their paws in a person’s shoes, but they have emotional contagion, like toddlers. Emotional contagion means they can respond to the emotions of others without fully understanding what the other is feeling. When dogs display sympathy and behave in comforting ways, it is in response to their owner being sad. When dogs are wary, their owner is giving off a vibe of distrust or fear. When a dog is humping, their owner is feeling…well, never mind, that behavior is an independent, normal part of a dog’s life.
Studies of dog cognition, behavior, and welfare have been making progress in laboratories for the last decade and are now poised to fetch new knowledge with giant leaps through citizen science.
In laboratories, research on dog cognition is modeled after research in developmental psychology of human infants. People are invited to bring their family dog into a research space where they are observed carrying out a variety of experimental tasks. Sometimes researchers visit dogs at their home or at doggy daycare centers, parks, or animal shelters to carry out observations. The traditional approach has one big limitation: small sample sizes. Most studies involve tests of a few dozen individuals. With citizen science, studies have the potential for enormous sample sizes by drawing from tens of millions of family dogs around the globe.
In one type, participants provide raw data, such as in the form of video-recordings, and researchers interpret and decipher the meaning. This was the approached used by scientist and Scientific American blogger Julie Hecht when she was a graduate student in the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab. To pursue research questions about dog-human relationships, she leveraged the Internet to expand the laboratory setting into homes and backyards around the world. In a short-term (now over) citizen science project called Play with your Dog, she asked owners to record and upload videos of themselves at play with their dog.
In another type of dog citizen science, participants carry out experiments, interpret dog behavior, and provide researchers with the results. In the citizen science project Dognition, developed by Duke University Professor Brian Hare, owners play ten cognitive games with their dogs, following a strict protocol. The games are not tests that dog pass or fail, but instruments that measure the cognitive strategy each dog uses. Dognition games provide data on dog empathy, communication, memory, cunning, and reasoning. Based on a dog’s strategy in each game, it can be placed into one of nine Dognition Profiles.
Dogs are so good at reading our intentions, practically reading our mind, that you probably can’t deceive your dog. Your dog, however, has no qualms about being deceptive. According to early findings in Dognition, dogs most bonded to their owners are most likely to have intelligent disobedience, such as watching their owners closely enough to capitalize on a distracted moment to steal food.
This style of citizen science may be the trickiest of type to implement because owners can unconsciously cue their pets towards a particular decision. In Dognition, to ensure that participants are aware of the mistakes to avoid and sufficiently prepared for carrying out the experiments, they are required to watch training videos.
In the third model of dog citizen science, researchers provide content and participants assist in the steps necessary to interpret the meaning. For example, in the Canid Howl Project, participants listen to howls of grey wolves, red wolves, coyotes, dingos, and dogs and mark the howl spectrograms for further analyses. Marking spectrograms is a massive, time-consuming task, ideal for divvying up into kibbles and bits among online crowds. Also, if you have a recording of your dog’s howl, you upload that to the database for analysis too.
In The Genius of Dogs: How dogs are smarter than you think, by Brain Hare and Vanessa Woods, they suggest that natural selection favored those individual early dogs that were best able to figure out human intentions. Selection was not necessarily favoring the most intelligent dogs, but those with strong skills at social cognition. Through it all, dogs have been paying attention to us and now they are better at understanding us than we are at understanding them. No wonder we are the ones scooping up the poop. Maybe it was their master plan since the dawn of time.
August 26 is World Dog Day. To celebrate, the next #CitSciChat will be about citizen science involving companion dogs. I’m founder and moderator of #CitSciChat and, along with our sponsor, SciStarter, we invite you to join the conversation on Twitter this week at 2:00pm ET (7:00pm BST). If you are not a Twitter user, you can follow the Twitter feed on this page. In the Q&A format of the #CitSciChat, we’ll hear from the following guest panelists:
Brian Hare, @bharedogguy, at Duke University
Mia Cobb, @doubelieveindog, of the Anthrozoology Research Group in Victoria, Australia
Moderator: Caren Cooper @CoopSciScoop
By Arvind Suresh (Editor) August 24th, 2015 at 1:58 pm | Comment
A Denver community/scientist partnership is launching a citizen science project to investigate local indoor air quality and new sampling methods. Read on to learn more, and check out the project page on SciStarter!
I never anticipated a career in science, let alone engineering. I began with dreams of being a professional ballet dancer and dedicated most of my young life to this goal. Now here I am, a first year PhD student in an Environmental Engineering program and I have found work that is truly engaging and meaningful in the way I had always hoped.
My research falls under the topic of air quality. To be more specific I work on testing low-cost sensors and examining their usefulness in research. I’m also interested in how new technologies can be used to further education, outreach and citizen science. I believe that communities and scientists must work together on appropriate methods, study design, and determining precisely how the data will be used. Our project which aims to study indoor air quality in Northeast Denver is designed to achieve these goals. It provides us the opportunity to both explore low-cost sampling methods and also understand how to effectively engage in community/science partnerships.
In implementing this project, I’m collaborating with Taking Neighborhood Health to Heart, a Denver nonprofit, that has a history of successful projects looking at health and nutrition within their community and the American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange which not only provides funding but also supports us through their expertise in community-science.
Community-Driven Air Quality Project
This project began when residents of this Northeast Denver community saw examples of spills of perchloroethylene (PERC), a solvent commonly used in dry cleaning, potentially endangering health in other Denver neighborhoods. One resident for example observed, the vacant space left by a local dry cleaner who had been in business for over 30 was next to door to a Boys and Girls club. This observation then led the community to question, “could PERC be a problem for us too?”
Working with TNH2H and members of the community, we have designed a plan to collect data on perchloroethylene and radon levels in homes. Radon is another hazardous gas-phase pollutant, common across Colorado and considered the second leading cause of lung cancer. While these types of pollutants may not pose immediate threats, long-term exposure to low levels of pollutants like PERC and radon can lead to chronic health impacts.
As part of our effort each participating home will be provided with an Air Quality Test Kit containing the sampling devices (a high-quality PERC test, a low-cost PERC test, and a certified radon test), instructions, data sheets, surveys, and background info. Participants will sample in their own homes with the help of community coordinators and the data will be reported back to TNH2H.
Why Get Involved
Perhaps it is because I grew up outside of science, but I feel strongly about making the methods and tools of science more accessible so more individuals can collect meaningful data from which they can learn and possibly even take action to improve their communities.
Data that we collect on the two pollutants will be provided to project participants along with assistance understanding what the data means and advice regarding remediation actions where appropriate. Our team will also analyze the data spatially to look for hot-spots or perhaps particular types of homes that might be the most at risk. Overall results will then be disseminated throughout the entire community.
These community/science partnerships that we hope to establish are valuable because together these teams can share knowledge and tailor research and solutions that will have the greatest impact as the local level, leading to more sustainable changes. In addition to the local impacts, other communities, researchers, and possibly even regulators could benefit from both the new PERC sampling method and what we have learned about how to facilitate community/scientist partnerships.
How Can You Help?
Testing for PERC is currently costly and not very accessible. We will use field and lab data to test a low-cost method for PERC detection. If successful, the new PERC detection method would take the cost of a sample from $100 per sample to $8 per sample. There will be lower accuracy with the new method, but it could serve as a powerful screening method that could more quickly identify homes with PERC well above the level of concern.
Radon tests, on the other hand, are simple to use and relatively low-cost. However, not everyone is aware of the importance of testing your home, we hope to provide education and raise awareness through this project.
If you happen to live in Northeast Denver, you may be able to participate in the data collection. Check out the project page on SciStarter for more information!
Otherwise, please consider joining us through our crowdfunding campaign, where you can support the project, stay updated on our progress, and be among the first to see the results of our collaboration. Be sure to check it out soon, the campaign ends at 11:59 pm PDT on 8/26!
Ashley Collier is a PhD candidate in Environmental Engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder and works in an air quality lab. Her work includes using low-cost technologies for research and education/outreach.
By Arvind Suresh (Editor) August 23rd, 2015 at 4:20 pm | Comment
By Guest August 18th, 2015 at 10:32 pm | Comment
This is an except of a story that ran in the February 2015 issue of Association of Zoos and Aquariums monthly magazine, Connect.
By Cathie Gandel
At dusk, Carolyn Rinaldi and her 14-year-old daughter sit silently on the shores of the lake at Wadsworth Falls State Park in Middletown, Conn. Then their ears go into overdrive. For three minutes they count the different grunts, gribbets, croaks and peeps emanating from frogs and toads resident in the wetlands. Read the rest of this entry »
By Guest August 17th, 2015 at 9:00 am | Comment
Guest post by Carrie Freeman
In the new world of Big Data, we’ve learned how to acquire great data, but we’re still struggling with accessing it, understanding it, and putting it to work. That’s especially true with environmental data, where the urgency of problems facing people right now is driving efforts to turn raw digital input into information leading to concrete solutions.
One global group, the Eye on Earth Alliance, is addressing that problem directly by convening the Eye on Earth Summit 2015 and organizing the related Data Innovation Showcase. As a competition intended to spark fresh thinking about how to use data, the Showcase is calling for entries from citizen scientists—professionals, too—and from artists who have a brilliant idea for applying publicly accessible data to solving environmental challenges. But time is running out—entries must be submitted online by August 20, 2015. Winners get a free trip to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, to participate in the summit (October 6–8), which will focus on informed decision-making for sustainable development. Read the rest of this entry »