Dedicated experiments needed to understand why dogs wag their tails

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Chasing the tale

Silvia Leonetti and colleagues in the Netherlands, Italy, Austria, the US and Denmark don’t quite explain why dogs wag their tails, but they do explain that it is hard to explain.

In a paper called “Why do dogs wag their tails?” in Biology Letters, these dog-tail contemplators confront one, presumably easier, sub-question: “why [do] dogs wag their tails more frequently and in more contexts than other closely related canids, such as wolves“?

This narrowed focus, they say, “serves as a starting point to propose empirical low-hanging fruits, recommendations and suitable methodologies for future studies”. They offer generalised guesses that the increased wagging could result – maybe directly, but maybe indirectly – from evolving while living with humans. Finding the real answer to even this little piece of the wag story, they conclude (leaving lots of waggle room), will require “dedicated experiments that not only better quantify tail wagging in general but also explicitly consider how the behaviour is controlled”.

Thus, as many people suspected, understanding why dogs wag their tails requires understanding why dogs wag their tails.

Donald Duck dam jubilee

We are just a year away from the jubilee – the 50th anniversary! – of the publication of the most beloved technical report ever written by a deputy director of design and construction for the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation. That report, which perhaps needs no introduction, is “Construction of Grand Coulee [Dam’s] Third Power Plant”. Published in the Journal of the Construction Division in 1975, it was written by Donald J. Duck.

Duck, as his admirers well know, was based at the Bureau of Reclamation’s facility in Denver, Colorado. (His name is familiar to many, perhaps due to the publicity from a lawsuit brought against Duck and the United States of America, and also against three of Duck’s fellow government officials. The case concerned a directive to the plaintiff to repair a pipeline. A judge dismissed that lawsuit in 1980.)

Feedback suggests that you not procrastinate in preparing yourself and your family for the grand celebration.

Anti-covid tea gargling

The story of tea is now, in tiny part, the story of an attack – an attack by inanimate bits of tea on a virus that attacks humans: the coronavirus.

It is the story of “SARS-CoV-2 viral particles resuspended in saliva”, where those particles are assaulted by one or another kind of tea commercially available in North America. Julianna Morris and Malak Esseili at the University of Georgia in the US mounted that tea onslaught. They describe this in their study, “Screening commercial tea for rapid inactivation of infectious SARS-CoV-2 in saliva”.

The Morris/Esseili adventure, violent though it may be at a microscopic level, is part of a large, mostly placid, not especially coordinated international search to recognise and verify all the different effects that tea might have on… well, on everything.

Investigators are searching and testing for tea effects on the coronavirus in India, Japan, China, Austria and many other places. And the powers-of-tea quest grows ever wider in its hopes. Every new disease is a possible triumph-in-waiting for They Who Would Vanquish an Ailment with a Mighty Cupful or Potful.

Tea can invigorate, maybe. Tea can heal, maybe. Tea can rejuvenate, maybe. Tea can boost a person’s intelligence. Maybe. Maybe tea can do anything. Maybe.

Every year, the world finds itself awash in thousands of new research studies about tea and its imagined effects. Where will it all lead? Morris and Esseili express their current, specific vision of how and why to deploy tea. They hope that someday “rapid at-home intervention (tea drinking or gargling) to reduce infectious SARS-CoV-2 load in the oral cavity… might also mitigate infection of the oral mucosa”.

When the next new big disease comes down the turnpike, tea will be there to be hurled at it by researchers. Hope will brew eternal.

Just a wee experiment

An ounce of prevention was not worth a pound of cure in Jorge Castro’s attempt “to find an easy to use, cheap, and universal substance to protect seeds against predators in forest restoration programs”. Restoration Ecology published Castro’s explanation of what went wrong. It is called “Human urine does not protect acorns against predation by the wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus): A field study with video recording”.

Mark Benecke sent a copy to Feedback, who was relieved to learn that those videos – there are 1440 of them – deal mostly with the activity of the mice. Lots of pilfering of acorns, done artfully, quickly, efficiently.

Castro, at the University of Granada, Spain, came into this with two hypotheses. He came out of this deciding that only one of them is true: “that mice will be the main agent of acorn removal”.

The experiment showed, he says, that the other hypothesis – “that human urine will repel wood mice” – is false. Furthermore, he worries, it may be worse than false. Citing a 2002 paper, he warns that: “If the mice do not perceive humans as a danger, our scent could actually have the opposite effect than expected.”

Marc Abrahams created the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony and co-founded the magazine Annals of Improbable Research. Earlier, he worked on unusual ways to use computers. His website is

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