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Animals Letters

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Are They Conscious?

I imagine most people will agree with Marc Bekoff that it is high time we recognised that animals are conscious (22 September, p 24), but I wonder if he is not naive in supposing that such recognition will help to stop the abuse of animals.

Around the world now and throughout history, our species has been perfectly willing to kill, torture, cage and otherwise maltreat fellow humans they believe to be conscious, so why would they stop abusing other animals now?

Dog Evolution

Regarding Brian Switek's review of Mark Derr's book How the Dog Became the Dog (30 June, p 46), I have an alternative hypothesis for the co-evolution of dogs and humans. Without the dog, and its excellent sense of smell, acting as a sentinel, humans could not have evolved the anatomy needed for language, as this development left the human olfactory system diminished.

The Chauvet cave puts a nice minimum age on the domestication of dogs that Pat Shipman describes (14 March, p 26). In it there are footprints of a teenager with wolf-dog footprints running in parallel. Since these run side-by-side and are not overlapping, it is reasonable to suppose they were simultaneous and thus a sign of friendship, not predation. The rockfall that sealed the cave is dated 21,500 years ago.

Shipman links domestication of the wolf to the demise of the Neanderthals. The youngest well-dated Neanderthal site is 39,000 years old, while the Chauvet paintings are dated just 3000 years later.

The proximity of these dates might be coincidence. But it may be that the wolf-dog that finished off the Neanderthals was by then so domesticated that humans could use it to keep bears out of caves - and could now experiment with art.

Regenerating Limbs

Katia Moskvitch's interview with biologist Michael Levin begins with an error: lizards cannot regenerate lost limbs as claimed (31 May, p 30)

Some can grow a pseudo-tail segment if the tail's end portion is broken off. It contains no vertebrae as the original did, but instead has a fibrocartilage rod for support and is embossed with a pattern resembling scales.

It is moved primarily by flexing the muscles remaining in the original tail base and thus works similarly to a prosthesis for people who have lost part of their arm or leg.

Bats and Disease

As a former bat ecologist I thought your article on diseases carried by bats (8 February, p 44) unnecessarily demonised these animals, which already get a bad press. What next? "Humans: nasty carriers of millions of diseases, avoid", or "birds: flying bags of flu virus: don't touch"? All animals are disease vectors and many diseases carried by other animals are transferable to humans.

Intergenerational memory transfer

I used to reject the concept of intergenerational memory transfer that John O'Hara highlights in his letter (18 January, p 29). Then I woke up. I have a pointer, my fourth. These dogs were bred to find birds, and then on command, get the birds to break cover so they could be shot. None of my pointers were trained to hunt, as I don't hunt, but all of them know what to do.

They are born obsessed with finding birds. When they find one they stalk it like a cat. When close enough they take up a "pointing" position that never varies, with one paw raised and the tail horizontal. The only explanation is that the behaviour is passed on by the genes. Intergenerational memory is there to see. If anyone doubts it, get a pointer.


We should expect that the vast majority of animal behaviour is genetically inherited.

Relatively little behaviour is learned, except in more intelligent species with longer childhoods. Consider the many species of cuckoo. Raised in the nest of a host species, the chicks may never have any contact with their biological parents. Yet they are able to migrate and return the following year to mate with their own species and repeat the cycle.

They can't have learned any of this - it must be inherited. This is also true of many insect and reptile species that never see their parents.

Countering Poachers

Instead of the losing battle against poachers (23 August, p 6), would it not be far more effective to screen David Attenborough's Life On Earth documentary wherever products from endangered animals are sold? Increasing understanding of our place in the animal kingdom, ecology and the meaning of extinction would be a huge help in reducing demand.

Rooks and Crows

It is not easy for the untrained eye to tell the difference between crows and rooks at a distance but an aide-memoire beloved of country folk is that, if you see one rook on its own it's a crow, but if you see several crows together they're rooks.


TIL that J.C. Maxwell, inventor of color photography and founder of theory of electromagnetism, killed a lot of cats by throwing them out of windows to find the precise height from where the cat couldn't land on its feet anymore.

I'm not a scientist, but isn't it better (less cat casualties) if you drop the cat from a low height then increase the height little by little. Instead of from a high height and decreasing the height?

And the Nobel Prize in the field of Scientific Theory goes to /u/a_flying_giraffe!

Now I want to know if this experiment has been done with giraffes....

It hasn't.



Cats as Vermin

You report a plan to exterminate vermin to protect New Zealand’s birds (30 July, p 7). Feral cats are also a major problem: are they included? And to prevent them becoming re-established, controlling the domestic cat population will be necessary.

The editor writes:

Feral cats are indeed included: mentioning them in the policy announcement was described as “electorally impossible”.

Avian Necrophilia

You report another observation of male-to-male necrophilia in birds (5 March, p 18). Any chicken farm operator will have seen this many times.

Sexually active cockerels queue to mate with recently deceased birds. Injured chickens also suffer unwanted attention from male birds, presumably due to the posture they adopt.

Part of the job involves rapid removal of unwell birds, for welfare reasons and to prevent males wasting valuable sperm.