News Stories

Butterflies & Laughing Dogs

Have you ever wondered why butterflies are calledBUTTERflies? They should be called "flutter-bys" instead,because of their seemingly random flight patterns. In LewisCarroll's "Alice in Wonderland," illustrator John Tennieldrew illustrations of sticks of butter with wings on them.Now ornithologists have discovered that butterflies do notflutter aimlessly, but are actually following precise flightpaths. And dog owners have long said that their pets both smileand laugh, but scientists have insisted this was all in thepet owners' imaginations?until now.

British researchers attached tiny transponders tobutterflies' backs so they could track them with radar. Theywere originally trying to make sure there was plenty of foodfor them at the places where they like to touch down duringtheir migrations. They discovered the insects' flights arenot random at all.

In recent years, scientists have been able to decipher themysterious "bee dance" that honeybees do when they returnfrom reconnoitering the area around the hive. This used tobe thought to consist of random movements as well, but it'sbeen discovered that these dances convey precise informationabout the places where nectar-rich flowers are located.Butterflies have two flight patterns, either in a straightline or in seemingly random, fluttering patterns. Thestraight line flights are, of course, faster, and seem tohelp butterflies identify edible flowers or hibernationspots. They make the slower, fluttering flights when theyactually forage from the flowers.

Scientists used to insist that dogs didn't dream, and evenmade detailed studies of dogs to try to prove this, whileany dog owner who has seen his dog "running" and whimperingin its sleep knows how silly this idea is. There are few petowners who would deny that their dogs also laugh and smile,although until recently, scientists have denied this as well.

Jaak Panksepp writes in the magazine Science that manyanimals have their own forms of laughter and some of themeven resemble human laughs. If you've ever had any closeinteraction with chimps, you?ll notice they seem to playjokes on each other and make human-like laughing sounds.Dogs seem to smile and make panting sounds that could beinterpreted as laughter, when they play.

Panksepp says that the neural circuits for laughter exist inancient parts of our brains--brain structures that we sharewith many other animals. Even rats, when they're tickled,seem to laugh and enjoy the sensation.

But why laughter? It could be a reaction to the nervecircuits in the brain releasing dopamine, a chemical whichleads to pleasant feelings. Under PET scans, thesedopamine-producing areas light up when people hear jokes orview cartoons.

Art credit: http://www.freeimages.co.uk

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