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Open Your Senses

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

One day we will know for sure that all the trees we killed and the grass we pulled out, all the plants we mutilate and the flowers we arrange in vases – all of them have the same senses and intelligence as us. They are not inanimate, passive species, but highly evolved beings.

In India we have people who have reached a point where they have become one with themselves and nature. All our gurus of every religion have talked about non-dual awareness - no me and you, just one, being the key to the liberated vision that is the true meaning of happiness.

Dr Monica Gagliano of the University of Sydney has written an amazing book” Thus Spoke the Plant” (North Atlantic Books). She has taken the difficult path of showing, through scientific experimentation, the different senses of the plant. I am going to write about two of her experiments.

There is an elementary type of learning called “habituation,” in which a subject is taught to focus on important information, while filtering out irrelevant rubbish. How long does it take the animal to recognize that a stimulus is “rubbish,” and how long will it remember what it has learned? Gagliano wanted to know whether the same thing can be done by a plant. Mimosa pudica, the Sensitive Plant, is that rare plant with a behaviour both speedy and visible. As children you have played at touching its fernlike leaves (chooee mooee) to watch them fold up immediately. This is probably a defence mechanism, or to frighten insects into staying away.  The mimosa also collapses its leaves when the plant is dropped or jostled. Gagliano potted fifty-six mimosa plants and made a system to drop them from a height of fifteen centimetres every five seconds. Each “session” involved sixty drops. In the beginning each mimosa plant folded its leaves as soon as they were dropped. But some of the mimosas started to reopen their leaves after just four, five, or six drops, as if they had concluded that nothing bad was going to happen and they could ignore the happening. By the end, all of them were completely open, no matter how many times they were dropped. Was this just fatigue? Apparently not: when the plants were shaken, they again closed up. The plant had attuned itself to a new stimulus. Gagliano  retested her plants after a week and found that they continued to disregard the drop stimulus, indicating that they “remembered” what they had learned. Even after twenty-eight days, the lesson had not been forgotten.

Humans insist that intelligence comes from an identifiable “brain”, a command centre . It could well be cells exchanging intelligent signals in a network. Memory is part of intelligence – and yet we know so little about how it works. We think that animal memory involves the laying down of new pathways in a network of neurons. But there are ways to store information that don’t require neurons. Immune cells “remember” their experience of pathogens, and call on that memory in subsequent encounters. In plants, it is known that experiences such as stress can alter the molecular wrapping around the chromosomes, and this determines which genes will be silenced. Scientists now know that events, like traumas and starvation, change animal brains and can be passed on to offspring. This is what happens in plants as well.

In another experiment Gagiliano places a parasitic vine, Cuscuta europaea,  near potential host plants. This white vine coils itself around the stalk of another plant and sucks nourishment from it. The vine always chooses, assessing by scent, the host which offers the best potential nourishment. Having selected a target, the vine then performs a cost-benefit calculation before deciding exactly how many coils it should invest—the more nutrients in the victim, the more coils it deploys.

The book is full of such experiments. But it is more than just scientific. Gagliano invites us to see the world at a far more profound level, than the one that we are accustomed to. We have a constructed a simplistic narrative of plants lacking in intelligence or sentience. This version ignores their evolutionary history. It is only human arrogance that keeps us from appreciating their intelligence and success. Plants dominate every terrestrial environment, composing ninety-nine per cent of the biomass on earth. In comparison, humans and all animals are just traces.

Many years ago, Dr Ashok Khosla (the head of Club of Rome – one of the best recognised collection of scientific minds) of Development Alternatives, and I visited a place in Italy called Damanhur headed by a seer called Falco. It is a place where the best minds go and it is humming with experiments on how to live. One of the things we saw was a small machine that, when attached to a plant, brings its voice down to human hearing levels. Meaning : you can hear it speak. Not in any way that humans can understand, but it certainly converses with another plant attached to a machine too. It is a conversation: one speaks, then the other. Another species of plant has a different language, but in time learns the first.

“The Secret Life of Plants,” by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, described the experiments of a C.I.A. polygraph expert named Cleve Backster, who, in 1966, hooked up the galvanometer to the leaf of a dracaena plant. Backster found that by simply imagining the dracaena on fire he could make the needle of the polygraph machine go up and down, registering a surge of electrical activity that in human beings meant stress. “Could the plant have been reading his mind?” the authors ask. “Can plants think?”

Backster and his collaborators went on to hook up polygraph machines to dozens of plants, including lettuces, onions, oranges, and bananas. They found that plants reacted to the thoughts of humans in close proximity and, in the case of humans familiar to them, over a great distance. In one memory experiment , Backster found that a plant that had witnessed the murder (by stomping) of another plant could pick out the killer from a lineup of six suspects, registering a surge of electrical activity when the murderer was brought before it. Backster’s plants also displayed a strong aversion to interspecies violence. Some had a stressful response when an egg was cracked in their presence, or when live shrimp were dropped into boiling water, an experiment that Backster wrote up for the International Journal of Parapsychology, in 1968. They are capable of cognition, communication, information processing, computation, learning, and memory.

Our tendency to equate behaviour with mobility, keeps us from appreciating what plants can do. In fact, many of the most impressive capabilities of plants can be traced to the fact that they are unable to move when they need something, or when conditions turn unfavourable. Imagine defending yourself and finding everything you need while being fixed in one place. Plants have evolved between fifteen and twenty distinct senses, including variations of our five: smell and taste (they sense and respond to chemicals in the air, or on their bodies); sight (they react differently to various wavelengths of light, as well as to shadow); touch (a vine, or a root, “knows” when it encounters a solid object); and sound. In an experiment, Heidi Appel, a chemical scientist at the University of Missouri, found that when she played a recording of a caterpillar chomping on a leaf, for a plant that hadn’t been touched, the sound primed the plant to produce defence chemicals. Another experiment found that plant roots would seek out a buried pipe through which water was flowing, even if the exterior of the pipe was dry, which suggests that the plants could “hear” the sound of flowing water.

Unable to run away, plants deploy a complex vocabulary to signal distress, deter or poison enemies, and recruit animals to perform various services for them. A study in Science found that the caffeine produced by plants functions not only to keep away certain insects but as an addictive drug in their nectar, which keeps bringing the same bees back, making them faithful and effective pollinators.

We now know that when a plant’s leaves are infected, or chewed, by insects they emit chemicals that signal other leaves to mount a defence. This warning signal contains information about the identity of the insect. The defence involves altering the leaf’s flavour or texture, or producing toxins that render the plant’s flesh less digestible. When antelopes browse acacia trees, the trees let them. When the eating increases, the leaves produce tannins that make them unappetizing. When food is scarce and acacias are over-browsed, the trees produce sufficient amounts of toxins to kill the animals.

Plants signal insects as well.  Corn and lima beans emit a chemical distress call when attacked by caterpillars. Parasitic wasps, some distance away, follow the scent to the afflicted plant and destroy the caterpillars.

Two years ago the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sponsored a think tank on plant communication in Seattle, and thirty leading scientists attended it. Open your senses. Change your view of the world and what you do with it. If you realised that your table was a magnificent talking, thinking being, you would not be in such a hurry to get wooden furniture into your house, use paper, toothpicks, or  make your offerings with agarbatti sticks. 

To join the animal welfare movement contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , www.peopleforanimalsindia.org

  • Written by Denis Giles
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Do dogs get an active say in your selection of mate?

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

We always knew that dogs were good for our mental health. Many studies, like the one conducted by Dr Laurie Santos, professor of psychology and director of the Canine Cognition Center at Yale University, have shown how even brief interactions with dogs can significantly alleviate our mood and reduce our anxiety levels. Research shows their positive effect on their guardians’ health, such as lowering blood pressure, combating loneliness, encouraging physical activity, and promoting an overall sense of happiness.

Pets, specially dogs, are increasingly viewed as family. Research among American (Blouin 2013) and Israeli (Shir-Vertesh 2012) adults, for example, shows that a growing number of pet owners describe their dog or cat as a “family member.”

As dogs and cats are increasingly viewed as family members, a person’s pets may wield significant influence in human courtship and ultimate partner choice.

How much does a dog’s opinion matter when a woman chooses a date, or a potential mate? While men treat their dogs as companions and friends, women tend to look upon them as their children  as well. As a result, women tend to be more sensitive as to how their partner treats their dog. A cardinal tenet of evolutionary psychology is that women tend to allocate more brownie points, subconsciously, to child-rearing. So, a man’s interaction with a dog provides a woman with clues signaling their date’s qualities as a potential parent, according to the research conducted by the University of Nevada anthropologist Peter Gray, published in Psychology Today.

A man who has a dog automatically leads women to believe that he’s nurturing and responsible with people too, and that he is affectionate and compassionate, especially if he has adopted a rescued dog.

A survey was given to a group of singles, who were registered on the online dating site, Match.com, to determine the role companion animals play in partner assessment and partner selection.

The results of the survey showed that women are more sensitive to a potential partner’s treatment of companion animals, because they place greater concern on the well-being of their current companion animals, as well as the possible integration of a partner’s companions into their family. Additionally, women were much more likely than men to judge a date based on how that person reacted to their companion animal, so they could decide if that person was worth dating and whether he will be kind, committed, and engaged with their own future children.

Women also placed value on how their dog reacted to a potential mate, in the same way that she would put value on how her human children would react to a potential mate. The survey found that women are more satisfied in their relationships when their partners feel the same way they do about their companion animals, and when there is harmony in the household.

Dogs serve more commonly as social guidelines in the dating world than cats. Companion cats tend to be less social and demanding, and less integrated into their guardians’ lives, so they show less of a potential partner’s caregiving capacity.

Most of the singles in the study stated that they would approach someone they were attracted to, if that person had a dog with them, mainly because dogs are easy conversation starters.

Do men realize this? Most do. When asked “Have you ever used a pet to attract a potential date?”, a much higher percentage of men than women reported having done so. Which means that  men know that these traits are desirable to prospective mates. In a study conducted by Gueguen and Ciccoti , published in Anthrozoos, a man with a dog was more likely to obtain unfamiliar woman’s phone number during a meeting in a public space, than the same man without a dog. Another study, done by Tifferet et al. in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, showed that women evaluate men as more attractive if these men were described as dog owners. Anecdotal data also suggests that an adult’s perception of pet dogs (example, particularly whether they are allergic to them, or if they do not like to take care of animals) may also play a role in mate selection.

Do dogs get an active say in your selection of mate? Do they eavesdrop on your conversations, pick up clues, form opinions?

The answer is yes.

Kazuo Fujita, the lead researcher of Kyoto University in Japan, tested 18 canines. In this test, the dogs watched as their owners asked a stranger to help him open a box. In the first scenario, the stranger refused to aid the owner. In the second, the stranger came to the owner's rescue. And in the third, the stranger remained neutral, neither helping nor refusing aid. Afterwards, the strangers approached the dogs with treats. The animals refused to take food from the strangers who had snubbed their owners. They took treats from the helpful and neutral parties.

Over the process of domestication, the human-dog bond has evolved. The dog studies the guardian’s behaviour, says Oscar E. Chavez, DVM, at Cal Poly Pomona University. “They’re watching our every move to see if we give them clues as to our intentions. In this way, they can anticipate that it’s time for a walk, or see that you are getting ready to leave, or perhaps that it’s dinnertime. They’ve become the animal kingdom’s human language experts — both physical and spoken language.”

Dogs make their opinions clear as to whether the male, a woman is seeing, is a good partner in the long run or not. Since they are not attracted superficially and have spent time analyzing behaviour, it might be better to rely on their judgment rather than yours- they could save you from yourself!

Here are a few signs that indicate that your dog disapproves of the man you’re seeing:

* A stiff tail between the legs and ears pinned to the back.

* Growling or snarling.

* A polite sniff of the crotch is a stamp of approval. A crotch bite, on the other hand is not.

* If your pup is licking your guy by the third date you’re ok. If that lick of approval happens on the first date, keep the man!

* If your date throws a stick and the dog, who normally fetches everything, refuses to fetch the stick it’s a sign of massive disapproval.

* Refusal to greet him.

* Refusal to leave you alone in his company.

* Not letting your man take the lead while the two of them go for a walk together.  If your dog is walking him, you know the dog has no respect for this man. But if your dog is well-behaved, and heeling, it's ok. If he goes to the bathroom in front of your man, your dog is very comfortable and it’s a double yes. 

To join the animal welfare movement contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , www.peopleforanimalsindia.org

  • Written by Denis Giles
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Seeing the World Through a New Lens

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

Are we the only ones who vote, drink, sleep around, eavesdrop on conversations? Every animal does the same thing. So, why not see the world through a new lens and realise that all of us are the same. It will make it easier for you not to make them suffer, or tolerate people and decisions that make them suffer. The latest decision by the new President of Brazil, that the Amazon forests should be cut and housing/mining instituted there, will destroy not just thousands of species of animals, insects and native people, but bring the world much closer to the terrible end  it deserves. One man can change the world for the worse. Why don’t you be the one person who changes it for the better – even if it is just in your own area.

* Chickens value social status and each group has a very strict power hierarchy. When roosters mate with females, according to a study done by Oxford University and printed in The American Naturalist, the hens selectively eject sperm, from their reproductive tracts, from roosters who are low in rank, making sure that they only bear chicks from superior ranking fathers rather than from low status ones.

Both sexes mate with multiple partners. Hens sometimes don't have a choice in mates. They prefer important males, but other roosters with lower status will force them — the females are half their size — to mate. Rather than attempt to fight off undesirable mates, hens have developed a more subtle way to reject them.

* Alcohol/ethanol consumption occurs in every human society that has access to fermentable raw materials. Chimpanzees drink alcohol too. The Royal Science Open Society scientists discovered that the chimps in Guinea frequently drink  fermented palm sap, a naturally-occurring alcohol, that human locals are also partial to. The chimps also use utensils to gather and drink this liquor, namely, crushed leaves they used as “sponges” to sop it up and move it to their mouths—often in such copious quantities that some of them actually get drunk.

The slow loris  ingests fermented nectar (3.8% ethanol content) from the Bertam palm. Green monkeys on St Kitts target tourist cocktails. However, like humans primates, are not attracted to, and rarely eat, over-ripe fruit (which contain higher levels of ethanol).

* People watch other people and this allows us to figure out who's nice and who's mean. Do dogs do the same? Scientists, Chijiiwaa, Kuroshimaa et al, tested 54 dogs that each watched their owners struggle to retrieve something from a container. The dogs were divided into three groups: helper, non-helper, and control.

In the helper group, in the presence of the dogs, the owner requested help from another person, who then held the container for him. In the non-helper group, the owner asked for help from a person, who then turned their back without helping. In the control group, the person helped without being asked for help.

After the interaction each offered a piece of food to the dog. Dogs chose food either from the helper, or the control person, but refused to take something from the nonhelper. The dogs' avoidance of someone who behaved negatively to the owner suggests that social eavesdropping is common to all species.

*According to raisingyourpaws.com, when humans are shocked, or extremely frightened, the hair on their arms and sometimes their neck literally stands on end. The same applies to felines. Adrenaline rush causes the phenomenon. Raised hackles in humans as well as in cats signify fear, imminent aggression or shock. The same applies to dilated pupils. The human eye tends to expand involuntarily in extreme situations, just as it does in cats. Humans express self-satisfaction, pride or cockiness, by walking very erect and throwing their head back and thrusting the chin forward. The equivalent behaviour, typical to cats, is stalking or prancing around, head up and tail in the air.

* When a human male proposes, he offers a precious stone to his beloved. So does a penguin. According to Edinburgh zoo studies, pebbles are the most prized possession of Adelie penguins, equivalent to diamonds for humans. Adelie penguins use pebbles to make their nests and help keep their eggs afloat in the freezing water. Because they live on the frozen, barren Antartica coast, these are scarce. Penguins are notorious for stealing each other pebbles and fighting over them. During courtship, the male will present the female with a pebble as a gift. If the female accepts the generous gift, they mate for life.

But, like humans, female penguins, whether they are single or attached, will provide sex for stones, as the BBC recorded in Deep into the Wild series. The prostitution starts with the female penguin flirting with the male penguin. She will initiate a courtship ritual by joining him at his site and “head-bowing” to him. This is soon followed by copulation. After that, the female penguin will take a stone from his nesting site and return to her nest. Sometimes, she will come back for even more stones which the male will allow her to take.

* A study by psychologists in McGill University and the University of British Columbia, Canada, published in Nature Methods, shows that mice, like humans, express pain through facial expressions in the same way humans do.

Scientists do their pain research on mice, which means subjecting them to terrible cruelty. Scientists have developed a Mouse Grimace Scale which shows that as the pain increases the mouse shows the same contortions of the face that  humans show. Five facial features are scored: orbital tightening (eye closing), nose and cheek bulges and ear and whisker positions, according to the severity of the stimulus.

* Are humans the only ones that vote?  Red deer of Eurasia live in large herds, either grazing or sitting down. Some deer are ready to move on before others are, but, research by biologists Conradt and Roper have noted that herds only move when 60 percent of the adults stand up — essentially voting with their feet. Even if a dominant individual is more experienced, and makes fewer mistakes than its underlings, herds typically favour democratic decisions over autocratic ones.

African buffalo also make group decisions about when and where to move. Researchers realized that what looked like random stretching is actually voting behaviour in which females indicate their travel preferences by standing up, staring in one direction and then lying back down.

"Only adult females vote, regardless of their social status within the herd," biologist David Sloan Wilson writes. The herd moves always in the direction of the majority gaze. “On days in which cows differ sharply in their direction of gaze, the herd tends to split and graze in separate patches for the night." 

To join the animal welfare movement contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , www.peopleforanimalsindia.org

  • Written by Denis Giles
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