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Today's questions, inventions and discoveries.

Researchers argue for dolphin personhood

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Should dolphins be treated as 'non-human people'? That's the argument of some scientists and ethical researchers, who claim their sense of self, social talents, relative brain size, and ability to perform complex tasks put them second only to humans. [Soulskill/Slashdot]

The point was also made last year at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science – publishers of the well-known journal Science.

Chaser learns 1000 words

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Chaser, a Border Collie, has been shown to have learned the names of 1022 objects. The researchers working with Chaser showed that she not only remembered the names of the objects but was able to understand certain aspects of language.

John Pilley – a master animal trainer – was getting a new puppy in 2004, just as a German study was released on Rico, a dog who learned the names of 200 objects. Pilley decided to find the limits of dog intelligence, and began language training with Chaser when she was five months old. Chaser's training continued for three years under psychologists Alliston Reid and John Pilley.

Eco-friendly pigs promise reduced feed costs, emissions

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The BBC investigates the development of the Enviropig – a genetically modified breed of Yorkshire pigs which can digest plant phosphorous, reducing feed costs and harmful emissions.

Physicist mulls double-slit cat cannon experiment

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Cat eyesAsk a Physicist considers the viability of using a cat cannon to perform Young's double-slit experiment. [Tip: Ben]

While theoretically there is no problem, the physicist noted that in practice the universe does not have 330 quadrillion light years of space, nor the 1036 kittens required.

The science of cats' lapping

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Roman Stocker, of MIT, was inspired by his cat, Cutta Cutta, to study how cats drink. Although humans are able to suck liquids, dogs and cats are unable to seal their cheeks and so need to lap. While dogs bend their tongue to form a scoop cats, both domesticate and wild, were found to use a different mechanism.

Research uncovers new depths to dolphin sociology

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Recent research on how dolphins interact with one another has shown surprising levels of complexity. Groups of dolphins have been observed working together and dolphins of different species may even be able to communicate – or at least attempt to.

Science NOW reported on two dolphin papers showing social co-operation, while the BBC covered preliminary research on dolphin communication.

Researchers link big cat habitat and coat patterns

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Creating a feline character? You might want to decide on their habitat before picking a coat.

Research by the University of Bristol's School of Experimental Psychology has found correlations between the complexity or irregularity of a cat's pattern and its habitat:

[...] cats living in dense habitats, in the trees, and active at low light levels, are the most likely to be patterned.

The researchers admitted that this rule did not explain the coat of cheetahs, who have evolved spots despite a preference for open plains.

The team discounted suggestions that coat patterns in big cats were linked to social hierarchy or gender, as they did not differ significantly between such individuals. Their paper, Why the leopard got its spots, was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Hares exhibit permanent pregnancy

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While foxes have the reputation of being sluts in the furry fandom, perhaps this title should rather fall to hares, who have been shown to have simultaneous pregnancies.

The hares show superfetation — the ability to become pregnant before giving birth from an earlier pregnancy. Scientists at the Liebniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research found that pregnant European brown hares can become pregnant again about four days before delivery. This decreases the amount of time between litters and makes the hares capable of being permanently pregnant.

Eastern U.S. bats on verge of extinction

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Bats in eastern parts of the United States and Canada are dying out from a new disease.

White-nose syndrome, named for the white fungi on muzzles and wings, makes bats restless, depleting their reserves of body fat during hibernation. The fungi – first found in February 2006 in a New York cave – are considered the likely cause of the disease.

According to a Wired article, biologist Winifred Frick said: "Yes, we had the empirical observations that cave floors were littered with dead bats. [...] But nobody had quantified the impact to the populations. We didn’t know what those die-offs meant to population viability as a species."

Frick and her colleagues analyzed the last 30 years of population data for the most common and most-studied species of bat in North America, the little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus). If recent trends continue, the researchers predict a "99 percent chance of regional extinction of little brown myotis within the next 16 years."

Top 10 new species of 2009

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The International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University has released a list of the top 10 species discovered in 2009.

The list is taken from the 20 000 newly discovered species that are found each year and includes such organisms as a plant that eats rats and a fish with vampire fangs. It is a good start if you want to learn about the variety of living things in the world, and how little about them we know, or even if you just want to create a unique fursona.

Squirrels: more interesting than their size suggests

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Warning: May Contain Nuts

Squirrels may be small, but are extremely complex creatures.

Squirrels will actively try to deceive people, pretending to hide their nuts when they think they are being watched, but actually keeping them hidden in their mouths. They have different calls for different things and can learn by watching other species, even humans. Physically they have a number of exceptional features, like the ability to jump ten times their body length.

Meerkats provide example of culture in non-humans

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Researchers studying meerkats have found different groups follow different traditions that are passed on non-genetically. They noticed that different meerkat groups wake up at different times, and that immigrants adjust to the group's traditional waking hour.

Read more: Multi-generational persistence of traditions in neighbouring meerkat groups

Ohio plays catchup, bans human-animal hybrids

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Not wanting to let Arizona get all the glory, the Ohio Senate has passed a bill banning the creation of "human-animal hybrids."

The bill was supported by the Ohio Christian Alliance and threatens violators with up to a year in jail, and a minimum fine of $250,000 if they make a profit.

Stinkpot turtle breathes through tongue

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Sternotherus odoratus

The common musk turtle, Sternotherus odoratus, turns out to have an unusual ability: breathing underwater through its tongue.

In a paper, Austrian researchers describe how they noticed the turtle's curious eating habits under high-speed video, and used a scanning electron microscope to examine the lingual papillae.

The same group previously explained how a newt used its ribs as poisonous barbs, puncturing its own skin and that of animal hoping to consume it.

Also from the BBC: The "lost world" of PapuaArgonaut octopuses sail through sea

Hyena laughs and giggles decoded

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Hyena giggles may convey important information about the age and status of individuals, as this BBC article explains.

Read more: What the hyena's laugh tells by Frederic Theunissen, Nicolas Mathevon and UC Berkeley researchers.