STRANGE BUT TRUE- Hot dogs: Rovers outsmart Fluffys

Q. Ask people if their cat or dog is smarter, and opinions will fly. What do the hard data say? –R. T. Tin

 A. Been asked this lots of times, says Katherine A. Houpt, animal behaviorist and clinician in Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine. A cat's brain is about one percent of its body weight, a dog's 0.5 percent (brainy humans: 2 percent). Smaller dogs do better, with Toy Poodles over 1 percent, Great Danes around 0.2 percent. So on average, cats seem to win on this one.

In "delayed response" trials, a dog can remember for five minutes which of three containers holds a treat, a cat for six minutes. But in "multiple choice" trials, when given four-door choices to escape an enclosure, dogs got the correct door more often by figuring out that the unlocked door was never the one unlocked the time before.

And in an "avoidance-response" experiment, dogs learned to jump up on a ledge after only four tries, cats took 12, more than any other species tested. Finally, in maze-running, dogs on average made fewer errors than cats, who were actually outscored even by sheep, an embarrassing defeat for the cat.  

So that makes our final score, an IQ of sorts: cats two, dogs three. A close win for the dog, who undoubtedly jumped up on his owner, barking with glee at the news. The cat, however, just lifted her tail and calmly walked out of the room, since there are more important things to life than silly experiments designed to amuse humans.

"I guess in the end it all depends on one's definition of intelligence, doesn't it?" Houpt says.

Q. As part of an experiment, you wear red-tinted goggles all day long for five days. Now guess what happens to your dreams at night. –S. Freud

A. On night 1, some 57 percent of the group studied reported dreams with red-tinted objects, says Tore Nielsen of the University of Montreal. By nights four and five, the rate jumped to 85 percent! Afterward, red dropped back to normal levels of around 28 percent. Nielsen terms these the "day residue effect" and the "dream-lag effect." Here dreams occur either the night after the target event or on a delayed basis, often a week or so later, though curiously not on other days in between. These lag dreams often involve interpersonal interactions, resolved problems or positive emotions.

Both effects support the "continuity hypothesis," where daytime experiences do show up in dreams. "The subtle dream-lag effect may help explain why many dreams seem so disconnected from our memories, and so puzzling."

Q. Hey, comics fans: Who's the most realistic Superhero, who's the most unrealistic, and who seems at greatest risk of suffering brain damage? Vote here! –T. G. Hornet

A. Our vote goes to James Kakalios, author of The Physics of Superheroes, who declares: The first is easy, as Batman always manages to find a way to win using just his razor-sharp mind and highly trained body. The second isn't tough either: While Superman banks on his super-strength, super-speed, flight, invulnerability (except to Kryptonite and magic), super-hearing, X-ray vision, heat vision, telescopic vision, microscopic vision, super-breath, super- ventriloquism, super-hypnotism, "He always obeys all the rules and has never tried to take over the world! Superman is totally unrealistic– and thank goodness for it!"

Another aspect of the Caped Crusader's believability, writer Robert Weinberg told National Geographic News, is that much of the equipment in this tool wielder's utility belt is available for sale today in some form, such as his grappling gun and Bat-line. "That's pretty accurate science for a comic book hero."

On the other hand, says Kakalios, given the number of times Batman, in over 60 years of fighting crime, has been knocked unconscious without suffering severe brain damage, "maybe he too has some hidden superpower."

Q. In a math competition between babies and birds, who wins? Could a five-month-old infant outfigure a crow? –A. Hale

A. It's known that crows in a field with a watch shed nearby are able to keep track of how many watchmen are inside: When one person goes in, the crows know to keep

their distance. When the person comes back out, the crows return to the field.

But what if two people go in and only one comes back out? Crows are no bird brains: They know two minus one leaves one still in the shed.

And if three watchmen go in but only one or two exit; or if one goes in, then another, then one of the two comes back out, this still won't fool the birds. Not until the

number of watchmen reaches five or six will the crows lose count

Can babies do as well? Enter Karen Lynn and her "looking time" experiments, based on the premise that an infant will look a little longer than normal at something that seems wrong or perplexing. 

Test #1: Show Baby a doll, then put it behind a screen, then remove the screen. Result: Baby sees one doll as expected and gives it only a brief look.

Test #2: Put one doll behind the screen, then another, then unveil two dolls. Result: Still OK by Baby.

Test #3: Place one doll, then a second, then show only one doll (the other was removed through a trap door). Result: Not OK by Baby–a longer stare.

As it turns out, both simple addition and subtraction are within Baby's ken, but numbers beyond two or three probably overtax visual capacity. So at this stage of the math race, the crows lead by a beak.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at [email protected].