Can animals understand and use language? What actually happened to the dinosaurs and why do cats purr? These intriguing questions top a list of natural science mysteries which the British public would most like to see answered according to a new study released today. The survey of 2,000 British adults was commissioned to celebrate the launch of new TV show David Attenborough’s Natural Curiosities, screening every Tuesday 8pm on Eden HD.
The perennial conundrum of whether animals have a language proved the most popular mystery of natural science, with almost a third (31%) of those polled choosing this question as one of the questions they would most like to see answered. In second place was the answer to the age-old question – why did dinosaurs become extinct (29%)? The top three is rounded off by the public’s desire to know why our feline friends purr (22%) – a question which remains unanswered despite the fact that Britain houses 10.3 million domestic cats!
Here is that Top Ten list in full.
1. Do animals have language? – 31%
Scientists are still unsure. Animals can certainly communicate in sounds and gestures and trained to follow commands, but in terms of using this language between them there is no final answer. The vervet monkey alarm call in particular has led people to question ‘language’ in animals. It is thought that prairie dogs can in one chirp, distinguish the identity of the predator, its size and its direction of travel.
2. How did dinosaurs die out? – 29%
No one knows conclusively, but it’s suggested that the decline was due to volcanic eruptions affecting the world’s climate, combined with drastic falls in sea level. A huge asteroid struck the seabed near Mexico 65 million years ago which may have finally wiped out dinosaurs.
3. Why do cats purr? – 22%
This is still up for debate. Although it is tempting to state that cats purr because they are happy, research suggests that for a cat purring is a means of communication and a potential source of self-healing
4. Why does the zebra have stripes? – 19%
There are several theories, but no conclusive answers. Theories include: to confuse predators when they’re in a group; to keep away blood-sucking flies because the striped patterns reflect light; and that zebras use the stripes to recognize each other.
5. How do animals navigate? – 17%
It’s been suggested that carrier pigeons and migrating birds all navigate using magnetic fields, in addition to visual references. This has been proved as a pigeon with a magnet strapped to itself will get completely and utterly lost! No one knows how the brain is able to sense magnetic fields, and as such no one knows whether humans also may be sensitive.
There’s no conclusive answer to this remarkable ability. One popular theory is that a dog’s superior sense of smell helps to make a prediction, whilst others believe that dogs are more sensitive to body language so they can pick up on tiny changes in behaviour that occur prior to an epileptic seizure.
7. Why did the giraffe develop such a long neck? – 14%
No one really knows – they don’t necessarily need it for eating food, so it’s been suggested that it’s used in males to club other males during the mating season or a combination of both.
8. How do creatures survive at the bottom of the ocean? – 12%
Different animals that live deep in the oceans have come up with their own solutions to solve the problem of living in a dark, cold and high pressured environment. Some of these adaptations are well understood others less so. One sea creature with amazing abilities still baffling scientists is the tardigrade which can reversibly suspend its metabolism enabling it to withstand the vacuum of space and temperatures from -273°C to 151°C. As of yet, no one fully understands how these animals can reverse the suspension of their metabolism and come back to life
9. How are oysters able to change sex?– 12%
Oyster’s reproductive organs contain both eggs and sperm- a successful reproductive strategy evolved to ensure the survival of the species; one oyster can produce an egg and then fertilise it or, change sex. The question of how however, is still not certain and further research is required to fully understand the process
10. How does a bee buzz? – 8%
It used to be thought that the movement of the wings caused the sound. However the bees can buzz even when the wings are at rest. So it may be that the vibration of the muscles in the thorax that causes the buzzing sound, but this isn’t conclusive – and it may be a combination of both.
David Attenborough’s Natural Curiosities, Tuesdays at 8pm on Eden.