Issue 23


In this issue:

  • Does your cat recognize names? 🐈

  • Hide-and-seek with a rodent twist. 🐀

  • The fluffiest COVID story ever. 🐕

  • More insights on the animal kingdom (noticing a theme yet?) 🐟

A lot of readers love our animal stories, so we figured why not dedicate a special issue to the Secret Lives of Animals (after all, humans are kinda boring). Enjoy!
~Team Lab Leaks

You may have heard that cats are aloof. 🐱

They may seem disinterested, but they’re probably paying closer attention than you think. A new study shows that cats recognize the names of their fellow cat friends.

Where does one find cats to participate in a study?

In this case, the cats came from two places — some were domestic pets (cohabitating with two other cats in the same house), while others lived in cat cafés (if you don’t know what those are, you’re missing out). The researchers hypothesized that cats living as domestic pets would be more likely to hear and therefore recognize their feline family members’ names. Cats living in a large cat cafés, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t get to hear their buddies’ human-assigned names as frequently, and may not recognize them as such.

The experiment: The researchers made these cats look at a picture of one of their co-habitant cats on a computer screen (is this the world’s cutest experiment?). At the same time, they played an audio recording of a cat’s name being spoken out loud. In some cases, the name being spoken belonged to the cat whose picture was on screen (this was the “congruent” condition). In other cases, the name being spoken did not belong to the cat whose picture was on screen (this was the “incongruent” condition).

What did they find?

Domestic pet cats spent longer looking at and investigating the picture on the screen in the incongruent condition compared to the congruent condition. In other words, the cats seemed to recognize when the name being spoken didn’t match the face on screen, and spent more time trying to reconcile this mismatch. Café cats on the other hand didn’t seem to care about the mismatches, probably because they don’t recognize their cat roomies by their given human names.


The Leak: A new study shows that cats are capable of relating the identity of their feline cohabitants with their names. Aside from being downright adorable, this research provides more evidence for the fact that animals can associate specific vocalizations with specific meanings (which is a crucial property of language). So the next time your cat doesn’t come when called, you’ll know that it’s probably not because they don’t understand — they really are just ignoring you.


Enjoy a good game of hide & seek? 🐭

Apparently so do rats. In what might be the most playful study to date, scientists figured out how to teach rats to play hide and seek (spoiler: the rats LOVED it).

Uh... that doesn’t sound like “science”.

It’s true — most research looks at animal behavior in very controlled environments. But real life is rarely as controlled as scientific experiments. What do animals and their brains look like during spontaneous, even inherently enjoyable behavior? That’s what the architects of this study set out to figure out.

The experiment: Rats were taught to play hide-and-seek in a maze of cardboard boxes. Like the classic game, they took turns either searching for a human experimenter or hiding themselves until the experimenter found them. As the game progressed, the scientists recorded neural activity from the prefrontal cortex of the rats’ brains.

What did they find?

Neural activity fell into somewhat stereotypical patterns of activity (called “states”) that correlated with the rats' behaviors in the game. For instance, their brains exhibited a certain state when they first started “seeking”. They exhibited a different state while investigating the cardboard walls, and yet a third state when they finally found the experimenter.

That’s pretty cool.

These results are especially fascinating because they show that neural activity can be studied even during spontaneous animal behavior.


The Leak: Rats love to play hide-and-seek. What’s more, we can study the activity in their brains during uncontrolled play. If more studies begin to take similar approaches to studying spontaneous behavior, it could dramatically shift the way neuroscience research is conducted.


You're not the only one with a day job. 🐶

In addition to being wholesome, purehearted babies, dogs help us accomplish tons of everyday tasks. The latest skill in their fluffy toolkit? Detecting COVID-19.

Tell me more.

In a new blinded, randomized, real-life trial (that’s about as rigorous as it gets), four dogs were taken to the Helsinki airport to see if they could help identify whether anyone was infected with coronavirus. Remarkably, these sensitive sniffers were able to successfully identify a person’s COVID status 92% of the time (confirmed by a PCR). And when they did make mistakes, it was often because an individual was infected with a variant other than the one the dogs were trained on.


The Leak: Dogs can use their snoots to nose out whether or not a person has COVID in a real-life airport setting. We don’t know about you, but if it were up to us, we’d definitely replace PCR testing (aka nasal impalement) with a quick sniff from a pup, hands down.

Save the ugly fish! 🐟

A new study shows that fish that are considered “unattractive” are less likely to receive conservation support. This in spite of the fact that these ugly fish play important ecological roles in their habitats. Looks like even fish aren’t exempt from unrealistic beauty standards…

Perhaps you've heard that one dog year is seven human years... 🐕

But where does this notion come from? And does it have any scientific basis? Here’s a helpful video to set the record straight.

How do fish chase down unpredictable prey? 🐠

Scientists used robots to answer this question. (open access paper here)

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