Monday, February 22, 2010

Skunks Don't Walk In Straight Lines, and More On the Amygdala

At the barn, I'm the first person out and around after a fresh snowfall (we were spared and only got about 4 inches rather than the larger amount that was predicted), and one of the things I enjoy about this is seeing the animal tracks.

I noticed something interesting about some skunk tracks this morning - they wandered all over the place - there were no straight lines at all. I wonder if skunks walk this way because they're omnivores, always on the lookout for a choice morsel. Chickens also don't spend a lot of time going somewhere in a straight line - they move and peck in what looks like almost a random pattern. Herbivores also don't walk in straight lines while they're grazing or browsing; they move from mouthful to mouthful, although they're capable of straight-line movement when they want to go somewhere specific. Horses, as prey animals, also have the speed thing down, as well as the predator-avoiding sideways spook and the sudden spin-and-bolt (as many of us have found out the hard way). The small prey animals, mice and voles, often have tracks that go straight and then veer away - I expect to quickly cover open spaces and take advantage of cover.

It seems to be the predators of the world that walk in straighter lines, more of the time. If you're a predator who hunts by sight, this would make sense - you'd be scanning for food and would only vary your course when an opportunity presented itself. Scent hunters, like some dogs, do weave all over but that's due to the scent of what they're following. We have coyotes, and I've always been interested in how different their tracks are from those of domestic dogs. Coyote tracks look almost as though they're stepping in their own prints, so the trail is very narrow and straight - not the wide stance where you can see the feet from two separate sides of the animal as in most domestic dogs.

I wonder if anyone has looked at this in a systematic way.

* * * * * *

Shannon of A Work In Progress . . . left an interesting comment on yesterday's post about brain function - she's actually a neurobiologist, and I'll take the liberty of quoting from her comment:

The amygdala is primarily involved with fear conditioning and memory formation. Damage to the amygdala is associated with a loss of fear and an inability to react to social cues appropriately. Individuals with a loss of amygdala function can show increased aggression, but it is because they have lost fear of the social consequences of aggression or because they could not accurately gauge the intent of the other individual (they think the other individual is acting aggressively towards them or otherwise threatening them). These individuals find it difficult to recognize the social intent of others, they cannot tell if another individual is mad, happy or sad. Over-activation of the amygdala results in anxiety disorders and paranoia, which can also lead to aggressive behavior.

Although we may never really know for sure, a lot of Miranda's behaviors, both with people and horses, seems to show signs of inability to read the intentions of others - she reads threat into simple touch or glance, and does not seem able to understand the social cues of other horses (and they seem to know it - some of our horses seem spooked by her and others ignore her completely as if she doesn't exist).


  1. Interesting post, Never thought about how skunks or other andimals walk . Cool insights

  2. Great insight Kate. Funny, I love the skunk smell..not on my dog, but outside. I don't know why. :)
    Poor Miranda, I can't imagine what is going on in her mind, confusion, fright or maybe just false confidence? Interesting..I've never heard of this condition.

  3. Fascinating about the animal tracks. I'd imagine someone, somewhere has done a study, but I'll have to research that to see if I can find out.

    My yard is a little less populated, at least where I can see. Although there was an opossum in my recycle can the other night--now a dead opossum on the road up a ways, so I fear my little scavenger is no more. But I didn't see any tracks. Have to think he did make straight for the garbage cans, though. *S*

    Miranda's behavior does seem to fit the pattern. Wish there were a way to know for sure. *sigh*

  4. I think I remember some research along those lines from my animal behavior course. It has to do with being prey vs. being predator, just as you surmised.

    Even with everything we do know about the brain, there's still so much we don't know. We can't fix most problems with the brain, and when we try to fix things, our "fixes" often have unintended consequences. I think it helps to arm ourselves with as much knowledge as we can, though. Even if there's still nothing we can do, at least maybe we can begin to understand or empathize. I think understanding helps alleviate some of the frustration.

    Even though there's probably nothing that will really "fix" Miranda and you may never know what's going on, I think trying to understand it makes it easier to deal with.


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