STRANGE BUT TRUE- Pack animals: Dogs listen to bossman


Q. Are dogs or cats more faithful to their masters? –E. Knight

A. Not to start a 7-year-canine-feline-war, but, as on all great matters polemical, you need to define your terms.

Tales of mistreated dogs staying by abusive owners are classic, says British cat welfare advocate and freelance writer Sarah Hartwell ( Basically, they don't know what else to do. Dogs live and hunt communally, and their survival strategy is as a tight pack with a strong hierarchy where every individual knows who its boss is, and who it can boss around. This way they catch prey larger than themselves and share with others.

Where the human owner fits in is as pack leader.

So are the dogs remaining faithful or just following their pack instinct? 

"Many dogs are undoubtedly attached to their owners, but their innate social behavior can be mistaken for faithfulness," says Hartwell. Overlaid on this is breeding of dogs for puppy traits– barking, playing– further reinforcing low rank in the pecking order.

Cats will have none of this. They don't buy into a ranking and won't tolerate bullying but will leave instead. They are solitaryrather than pack hunters.

"Traditionally, cats were kept to control vermin. This did not require them to be faithful to individual humans," Hartwell says.  

Still, cats brought up in a loving household will be faithful in return– but this has to be earned– and bring home "hunting trophies" to show appreciation. Cats, like dogs, can be trained, but they demand rewards such as food, not just lavish praise.

So, it's fealty to big dog boss vs. cat tit for tat.

Q. How much water can be stored in a camel's hump? –O. BinLaden

A. It's not for water but is a mound of fatty tissue for sustenance when food is scarce, says Overtaxed, the 80-pound hump can go flaccid and hang at the camel's side. 

"Food and a few days' rest will return the hump to its normal firm condition" the website says.

The "ships of the desert," Dromedary (one-humped) camels can go for long distances without food or water, averaging 10 mph for 18-hour treks, downing large amounts of water when available, says "Information about Camels" site.  

Reducing water loss, their kidneys can concentrate urine to be thick as syrup, with twice the salt content of sea water. Master recyclers, camels can actually extract water from their own fecal pellets, wasting nary a drop.

Q. Some people say they can awaken themselves at a predetermined arbitrary time without an alarm clock. Can they really do this? –F. Jacques

A. These claims have been verified in sleep labs, and the precision of the awakenings is impressive– often within 10 minutes one way or the other, says Peretz Lavie in The Enchanted World of Sleep. Most self-awakers exit sleep during a dream period. 

"If, for example, we asked a subject to wake up at 3:30, he or she would awaken from the REM (dreaming) sleep closest to the target time- -say, at 3:15," says Lavie.

Most have no idea how they do it. But the brain is more aroused during REM, and may now be able to gauge the time and recall the instructions to awaken, says scientist William Moorcroft in the journal Sleep. Possibly the brain "clocks" the hour by counting off the number of dream periods elapsed through the night.

Q. If you had a mind to do it, is there a telescope strong enough to let you view the flag planted on the moon? –N. Armstrong

A. Assume the flag is 1 meter by .5 meter, on a 2- meter pole, poses UC-Santa Cruz optics researcher Eric Steinbring. The moon is about 385,000 kilometers away, so if you face it straight on, the angle subtended by the flag-pole turns out to be .001 arc seconds.

That's a tiny, tiny slice of sky space! Obviously, bigger telescopes have better resolution.

Fortunately, some telescopes like the giant twin Kecks (the world's largest at 10 meters across) use "adaptive optics" to remove the blurring effect by the Earth's atmosphere. The Keck resolution limit, then, drops to about .03 arc- seconds. That's getting there.

There's a plan to build a 30-meter Keck-like telescope good for visible light, says Steinbring. So, we can imagine getting down to .003 arc-seconds with that. 

Next trick is "interferometry"– combining two telescopes simultaneously. Do this with the twin Kecks at, say, 100 meters apart, and this gets you to the magic value of .001 arc-seconds.

"Even so, this is only down to the size of the pole, not the flag. So I guess you still wouldn't be able to tell it was a flag, and certainly not whose it was. For that you'd need paired telescopes perhaps 10-100 times farther apart. That's many decades off yet, as far as I can tell," says Steinbring.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at