How a snake uses its sense of smell| Trending Viral hub

If the words “animal self-recognition” are uttered, many scientists will think of chimpanzees, crows and elephants.

For the first time, researchers, employing an innovative twist on the mirror test, have found evidence that snakes can be distinguished from others not by sight but by smell.

“Reptiles are very understudied,” said Noam Miller, a comparative psychologist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, and an author of the paper. published on wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. “There is a prejudice that they are boring and poorly cognitive animals, and that is completely wrong. “That’s one of the reasons we’re very interested in studying them and showing the complex cognitive things they can do.”

A traditional sign of animal cognition has generally been the mirror test, Dr. Miller said, or whether an animal can learn to recognize itself in a reflective surface, a trait believed to be an indicator of higher intelligence. sophisticated. The test, pioneered by primate researchers in the 1970s, typically involves marking an animal with paint somewhere visible only in the mirror and waiting to see if it investigates the change.

Similar tests have since been conducted on a variety of species: elephants (approved), pandas (failed), roosters (approved) and even fish like the cleaner wrasse (approved).

But the mirror test is aimed at animals that are primarily visual. Many species, such as snakes, rely primarily on their sense of smell, Dr. Miller said. In 2017, researchers devised an olfactory version of the dog test. (They passed.)

Two different species of snakes were tested in the new study. In one corner: snakes from eastern North America, predators of insects and fish with a surprisingly complex social life. In the other, African ball pythons, a sedentary and largely solitary snake that ambushes rodents.

Snakes, like humans, have oils on their skin that leave an aromatic trail. The team rubbed makeup remover pads on the undersides of both snakes to collect scent samples, some of which they touched up with olive oil. They placed the pads at both ends of long, narrow boxes and offered the snakes several options: between their own scent and pure olive oil; its own smell modified with olive oil; and the modified or unmodified odors of other snakes of the same species.

The team gauged the snakes’ interest by measuring how long they flicked their tongues to taste the air; a longer time indicated sustained interest, he said. The ball pythons showed no apparent distinction. But the snakes focused on their own manipulated scent and ignored variations in the other snakes’ scents.

“Basically, it seems like if other people smell funny, they don’t care,” Dr. Miller said. “If they smell funny, that’s something they should investigate.”

Recent research has found that eastern garter snakes are remarkably social and gather in large groups to hibernate in the winter and form networks – complete with “friends””- during its active season.

As a more gregarious species, they may be more attuned to the need to distinguish themselves from others. One possible explanation for how self-recognition works is the ability to recognize the difference between self and “not-self,” Dr. Miller said. “That then links it to social behaviors.”

However, it’s hard to say whether ball pythons’ failure to pass the test is due to a lack of skill or interest, he added. Continued research in his laboratory suggests that ball pythons, although more solitary, are socially complex.

But with more than 5,000 species of living snakes inhabiting a variety of different environments, he said, the family as a whole offers a wide range of opportunities to discover what ecologies and behaviors might drive the animals to actively distinguish themselves. Future tests could focus on tree-dwelling species or vipers such as rattlesnakes, as recent research suggests. I prefer to live with relatives and stress less around other snakes. Of course, it’s also “more difficult to work with the rattlesnake in a lab full of college students,” Dr. Miller said.

“In many ways, I think their experimental paradigm is more powerful than mirror tests.” said Rulon Clark, a biologist at San Diego State University who researched the social behavior of snakes and was not involved in the study. “TO The highly reflective mirrored surface does not have many environmentally friendly analogues. But finding and understanding the importance of the chemical signals left by you and your conspecifics is probably a profoundly important aspect of the natural history of these animals.”

“Our research links how snakes experience themselves with how they experience the world around them,” said Morgan Skinner, a biologist at Wilfrid Laurier University and author of the study. “It also shows that when you can do this effectively in an experiment, you can find cognitive abilities that some might find surprising.”

Little is known about the social structures of snakes and other reptiles, Dr. Miller said. “And if we want to understand the fundamental components of social structure, we need to study a broader range of species rather than just rats and pigeons all the time.”

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