Smiling at Horses

Scientists are finally beginning to catch up with cowboys.

Anyone with good sense who has been around horses knows that equines are careful, and expressive, observers of people.

Now, thanks to researchers at the University of Sussex in England, this is a carefully documented fact.

In 2015, Jen Ward and her colleagues enumerated the expressiveness of a horses face—noting that horses control their facial expressions by combining 17 distinct muscle groups—more than dogs (16) or chimpanzees (12) but fewer than humans (27).

Horses, of course, respond to our voices and tonality, to body language, and to gestures. But Amy Victoria Smith, of the University of Sussex’s Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group wanted to know whether horses recognize and respond to human facial expressions, independent of other emotive clue. If you smile at your horse, does he relax? If you frown, does he worry? Previous research demonstrated that dogs respond to human facial expressions. What about equines?

Smith and her colleagues selected 28 horses for their research—21 geldings and seven mares, ages 4-23 years—all from local riding stables. To eliminate factors such as human body language, odors, and sounds, they only showed horses life-sized pictures of either a smiling, happy human, or a very angry, unhappy one.

sn-horses_0.jpgThe horses responded to these two different images in two very different ways.

When viewing the angry face, most horses turned their head to the left, looking at the image with their left eye. Their heart rates rose. The happy face elicited either a first look, turning their heads to the right, and viewing the image with the right eye,

Their heart rates remained stable

Like dogs, horses seem to process negative stimuli and observations with the right side of their brains—which is wired to the left-side of the body—and more positive stimuli with the left side of their brains—which is wired to the body’s right side. Hence, when scrutinizing a frown or a menacing, angry face, they turn their head to the left so that the left eye gets a detailed, monocular view of the situation, and the right side of the brain can process the threat.

What are the practical implications of this research? They might include that it really does pay to simply smile at your horse. Perhaps more importantly, if he turns his head to look at something with his left eye, it’s likely a cause of anxiety. You might want to take a deeper seat. And smile.

To read the entire research papers:

Horse facial expressions:

Horses recognizing human expressions:

Return of the Bumblebee?

Bombus occidenatlis is back! And it’s living on Zumwalt Prairie.

Since the mid-1990s, the western bumblebee (Bombus occidentalis) declined from being one of the most common to one of the rarest bumblebee species in the Pacific Northwest. This large, plain-looking black and yellow pollinator has become so rare that it was recently petitioned for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listing as threatened or endangered—the first insect species ever petitioned for listing.

But recent surveys of bees by Paul Rhoades of the University of Idaho and, Sujaya Rao of Oregon State University found small but growing populations of this vanishing bee in widely separated locations—Zumwalt Prairie, the Washington Palouse and the Olympic Mountains.

western bumblebee.jpgThere are 40 species of bumblebee in the western U.S. These animals have large, furry bodies that allow them to fly and work in colder temperatures when other bees are inactive. They are the premier pollinators in alpine and arctic environments. Like honeybees, bumblebees are social insects that live in colonies headed by one queen who is the mother off all the bees in the colony. Colonies usually inhabit abandoned rodent burrows, and prefer open meadows and grassland landscapes.

Native bees and native pollinators are in decline across the globe. The reasons are unresolved, but likely include disease and competition with non-native and commercially introduced species—which are also in trouble. Rhoades suggests that PNW native bumblebee decline is related to competition and diseases related to introduction of non-native bees (Nosema bombi) to pollinate greenhouses in the early 1990s.

Only 2.4 percent of bumblebees collected on the Washington Palouse were the western bumblebee (Bombus occidenatlis) Still, the news that populations may be on the increase, however slight, is heartening. The western bumblebee is especially important because it is a general pollinator, serving wildflowers, fruit trees, and crops that include tomatoes and eggplants.

On Zumwalt, Rhoades and his colleagues documented the presence of the bee. It is a fragile population, constituting only 2% of the 200 bumblebees counted over the two years (2012 and 2014) of the study. In 2011, Sujaya Rao and colleagues from Oregon State University, collected 49 western bumblebees on Zumwalt—the highest number of this species found in one area since its population collapse in the 1990’s.

So this important wildflower pollinator, once-common and now rare, seems to persist on Zumwalt. Researchers note that undisturbed habitat is important to this bee. With its abundance of open space and native grasslands, Zumwalt should provide an inviting habitat for recovery for a native son.

To read the original papers:





Guide to Bumblebees: