Tag Archives: animals

See-through goldfish

Every now and again, scientific research comes up with something that can be marketed beyond the laboratory circuit. Researchers at Mie University and Nagoya University in central Japan have just perfected the genetic manipulations required to make a transparent goldfish, and they’re hot on the tails of another group who developed a transparent frog a few years ago, which they’re now planning to start selling as pets. [image credit AFP, borrowed from linked article; contact for immediate take-down if required]

These transparent animals are a response to increasing pressure from animal rights groups over dissections, as they provide a rare opportunity to see the 3-dimensional arrangement of internal organs in a living creature… but who knows what demands might be created once these critters hit the pet stores?

What Are The Animals Becoming?

Since I went for things made of metal skins and electrical guts last month when I wrote about weird robots, I decided to opt for warm-blooded carbon-based life forms this time around – so welcome to the December column on smart animals!

Now, we’re a dog family, and we have a golden retriever and two border collies.  My partner just bought a puzzle for the dogs. It’s a wooden base with cups for treats, and sliding doors that move and hide the treats.  The object is for the dog to slide the doors out of the way and get the treats inside.  One of the stated purposes of the toy is to increase animal intelligence.  Mind you, if the border collies get much smarter we’re in trouble.  The golden?  Well, that’s another story. Continue reading What Are The Animals Becoming?

Pain-free animals and ethical carnivorism

cowsAll but the most ardent and uncaring carnivores among us would probably agree that factory farming is a cruel and unpleasant lifestyle for the animals that eventually become our food. There are numerous answers to this ethical dilemma (aside from vegetarianism, of course), the newest of which is the suggestion that livestock be genetically re-engineered so that they don’t feel pain:

“If we can’t do away with factory farming, we should at least take steps to minimise the amount of suffering that is caused,” says Adam Shriver, a philosopher at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. In a provocative paper published this month, Shriver contends that genetically engineered pain-free animals are the most acceptable alternative. “I’m offering a solution where you could still eat meat but avoid animal suffering.”


Performing brain surgery on livestock wouldn’t be feasible on an industrial scale. Livestock would have to be genetically engineered to be pain-free for it to be profitable.

Zhou-Feng Chen, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St Louis and colleagues are identifying the genes that regulate affective pain. Already, they have engineered mice that lack two enzymes which help neuron-to-neuron communication in the ACC. When the team injected a noxious, painful chemical into their paws, the mice licked them only briefly. In contrast, normal mice continued to do so for hours afterwards. This suggests that livestock could be spared persistent, nagging pain.

Now, I’m no militant animal rights campaigner, but Shriver’s suggestion sounds like aside-stepping of the issue rather than a solution. The ethical problem is the way we farm animals, and their suffering is a function thereof; removing their ability to feel pain would be like treating the symptoms of a disease rather than aiming to cure the disease itself, and the ethics of such a sweeping piece of genetic engineering is a whole new can of worms in and of itself. It certainly wouldn’t buy off my own guilt about factory farming… and it seems that I’m not the only one:

“Large farms have become an environmental disaster,” agrees Alan Goldberg at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. They generate enormous amounts of waste and greenhouse gases and breed antibiotic resistance. “I think factory farms have to go, it’s that simple.”

Goldberg also contends that public attitudes may make pain-free livestock a non-starter. He and colleague Renee Gardner conducted an online survey on the use of pain-free animals in research and found little public support, even among researchers who experiment on animals.

Even Shriver (apparently a life-long vegetarian himself) agrees that the better option is to abolish factory farming entirely, which makes me wonder whether his suggestion is in fact a form of deliberately provocative rhetorical gambit. Personally, I think that vat-grown meat is the best long-term solution… as well as the only one that has a chance of scaling in response to global consumption patterns. [image by law_kevan]

Upgrade for obsolete pets: animal contact lenses

dog with cataractsAs medical technology advances, the benefits can trickle down the hierarchy of species. Point in case: a German company developing custom-made contact lenses for animals who develop severe cataracts:

The acrylic intraocular lenses are implanted into animals’ eyes when their vision has clouded to the point of total impairment, and are fitted for various species, from cat-eye-sized to fist-width for rhinos.

“Cataracts generally means blindness for animals, unlike for humans,” said the head of the company’s veterinary division, Ingeborg Fromberg.

“And because animals have short life spans, it means losing quality of life in a greater share of that life.”

Since its launch in 2008, the firm has fielded calls from Sea World in San Diego (a sea lion who had trouble performing his tricks due to severely blurry vision), an Australia nature park (a blind kangaroo) and a Romanian zoo (a visually impaired lioness).

The German lenses have helped turn the lights back on for dozens of house pets, racehorses, circus animals, guide dogs — literally preventing the blind leading the blind — and even wild creatures roaming nature reserves.

I wonder if it’s an inevitable behaviour for a cyborg race to cyberneticise its “client” species? The animal uplift lobby might say that it’s a duty rather than a choice. [via grinding.be; image by Andy McLeod]

GPS for ants (and maybe other animals, too)

Giant bulldog ant; GPS available as optional upgradeLike many naturalists, I’ve always been fairly fascinated by ants – their industrious sense of purpose, their ability to collaborate as a single metaorganism, and so on. Greater minds than myself have often wondered how they navigate over wide areas so effectively, and now an answer has been unearthed: ant antennae incorporate magnetic minerals that may form part of an insectoid GPS system. [image by Arthur Chapman]

“The incorporation of minerals probably starts as soon as ants start getting in touch with soil,” she added, explaining to Discovery News that her team found ultra fine-grained crystals of magnetic magnetite, maghemite, hematite, goethite, and aluminum silicates in ant antennae. These particles could make a “biological compass needle” that drives ant GPS.


Our planet is magnetized, likely due to rotational forces of liquid iron in Earth’s core. Although the resulting magnetic field is one-twenty thousandth as strong as a refrigerator magnet, ants appear to “perceive the geomagnetic information through a magnetic sensor (the dirt particles), transduce it in a signal to the nervous system and then to the brain,” she said.

Not all ants may use this particular system. Desert ants, for example, appear to have evolved special eyes that detect skylight polarization, which they then use to find their way around their sandy habitat. Magnetic particles, however, have been detected in many fish, birds, butterflies, flies, bees, bats, mole rats, newts, sea turtles and spiny lobsters, suggesting these animals find their way like the Brazilian ants do.

Ain’t nature wonderful?

I wonder if perhaps we humans have  a similar ability lying dormant in our bodies, shoved aside by evolutionary pressures as unnecessary since we stopped being roaming bands of primates and began to settle in stable locations. Perhaps it could be reawakened, or simply installed from scratch by some deft ribofunk biohacking? Imagine a post-fuel future where we have an entire and recently re-greened planet to roam on foot – how wonderful to set out with no map besides the tiny magnets buried in your brain!