It’s not only cats

August 4, 2013 • 1:09 am

by Matthew Cobb

I feel very conflicted about playing with a laser pointer with my cats. They get extremely excited about it, but also appear very frustrated because they never catch anything. Ollie in particular gets very weirded out after a while. So I don’t do it, even if it’s a lot of fun for me. Anyway, as this gif (pronounced ‘jif’) shows, bearded dragons can also join in the fun. Do they show signs of what we would interpret as frustration? How could we know – are they the same signs as in a mammal? Herp fanciers please chip in.

EDIT – as danlwarren points out below the fold, it’s not only cats and lizards:

h/t for the lizard – gif-fanatic extraordinaire @JohnRHutchinson

134 thoughts on “It’s not only cats

    1. The consensus in the US also seems to be that some fellow named “God” exists.

      GIF was created by someone. That someone says it’s pronounced “jiff”. So that’s how it’s pronounced.

      Mind you, I always pronounced it that way, because the alternative is strained and unnatural.

      1. That’s not a very scientific approach. It’s like saying natural selection works exactly like Darwin described it because it was his idea.

        The linguist’s approach is to collect data on how people actually pronounce the word. There’s no right or wrong of course, but if close to 100% pronounce it as /gif/ then it’s fair to put that pronounciation in a dictionary.

      2. A whole bunch of things for which we have English words were initially called other things, even by the people that invented them. That doesn’t mean we have to retain the original language or pronunciation. Language evolves, it’s not prescriptive. Most English speakers look at that word and say “gif”, with a hard g. It doesn’t really matter what the inventor, or you, or anyone else has to say on the matter – the patent may be his, but the language isn’t.

        1. the patent may be his

          The last advice we had from our lawyers was that the patent appears to now belong to some bunch of trolls called UniSys, and that it’s not worth attempting to comply with, or fight, their claims. Just don’t use GIF. It’s the simplest and cheapest solution to the problem.
          Actually, strike “now” – the threatening letters were around a decade ago. So we excised that functionality and installed something better and Free. Which was probably not what the trolls wanted, but was much the better response.

          1. The patent on LZW expired over ten years ago. Everyone can use that compression algorithm freely, in GIF, TIFF, and any other file format.

      3. I have always said it with a hard “g”. The creator of the term is wrong. The “g” in gif is from the word “graphic”, so gif has a hard g. Also, most words in English that start with “gi…” have a hard g.

      4. You are correct on the pronunciation. See my other comment below on #7.

        Guess we don’t have much to do this fine Sunday morning, or are avoiding as in my case.

      5. So that’s how it’s pronounced.

        As a matter of empirical linguistic fact, it’s pronounced both ways in actual speech.

        You’re free to express your opinion (or the inventor’s opinion) on how it ought to be pronounced, but such opinions are not binding on the people doing the pronouncing, who will pronounce it as they please. You can’t get “is” from “ought”.

      6. Replying to myself since it applies to many.

        GIF is not a word. It’s a proper name.

        No doubt all of you would object to someone saying the way you pronounce your own name is wrong, because most people would say it differently.

        The same principle applies.

        And I need to echo the experience of another commenter, in that it was some time before I encountered anyone who used a hard ‘G’. And that person was not a techie.

        1. People pronounce my name in all sorts of different ways; I try not to get my knickers in a twist about it. In fact I pronounce my name differently than my father does, who pronounces it differently than his immigrant father did.

          The rules of language are not imposed from above by authoritarian fiat. They arise naturally from actual usage, and the linguist’s job is to discover them, not to dictate them. Even proper names evolve over time, and may come into widespread use as ordinary words such as atlas, cardigan, crapper, diesel, leotard, mackintosh, sandwich, shrapnel, and many many more (as the infomercials say).

          This is what’s happening with GIF, and it’s a natural part of a word’s life cycle, not an abomination to be suppressed.

          1. So, it doesn’t matter what GIF’s “dad” thinks. We should listen to what GIF says… … … … … …


            PS. I’ve always thought someone could mess up those commercials by calling their pop group Many, Many More.

          2. I agree that it is best to take a stoic approach toward those things we can not control.

            However, we all know some special place, a beach, a small bar or cafe, an open field, some unspoiled forest, a neighborhood, that ended up being over-run and spoiled by crowds and development, a victim of popularity and success. It’s inevitable, it’s reality, but we don’t have to like it.

            One of my own personal pet peeves is coffee served in paper cups with plastic spoons, and I blame Starbucks for for the McDonaldization of the espresso bar, which once only existed as small independent mom and pop shops, each one with its unique ambiance and decor, that served cappucino and espresso in real ceramic cups that were the right size and shape to enable proper enjoyment of the drink, and you could stir your drink with real stainless steel spoons.

            So I hate Starbucks and always have, but nobody listens to me. I’m a lone voice calling out in the wilderness about a time in the distant past when people weren’t herded into passive acceptance of having coffee the way Starbucks wants you to have coffee.

            While I’m at it, how about when someone says “I can’t speak to that”, where “that” represents a subject rather than actual persons who may have the ability to listen when you speak to them? Another travesty that seems to have been adopted at some point during my lifetime as a mark of coolness, but it just sounds awful to me.

            So I’m defending the right to resist the pressure to relent to group think, to be a grouchy grumpy curmudgeon who recognizes degradation when he sees it, even if “everybody’s doing it”.

            Such changes may be inevitable, wrought by popular opinion and the unthinking habits of the uninformed, proliferated and perpetuated by the inattentive bad habits of the uncaring masses, but there is no need to accept that such changes must necessarily be improvements, simply because they are popularized. We don’t have to follow hoi phalloi (to borrow a recent coinage, I believe thanks to Diana and Ant).

            I will always say it as “jif”, because that seems right to me, because it’s how I learned it, and it was the original pronunciation. Plus, it sounds way better than the galling goofy glugging sound of GIF as pronounced by the hard ‘g’ Gestapo.

          3. Ha ha yes I forgot that conversation. I think Ant came up with hoi phalloi and it is awesome.

          4. RE the hoi polloi. Where are the descriptivists when you need them? Yeah, the redundancy is being talked about now, but years of common use make it sound wrong not to use ‘the.’ What’s next, respecting the Arabic ‘al?’ Hand me almanac.

          5. I also always imagine it being said by uppercrusty people scrunching their noses in a way that you do when you smell something unpleasant and using “the”. Also, my uppercrusty people also hold their fancy eye glasses on sticks (I thought this description is funnier than calling them by their proper name, temples) and some where monocles. These are the people who say “the hoi polloi” a lot.

            I do like hoi phalloi though. Still waiting to use it to see if people get my joke, think I’m dumb & don’t know it’s hoi polloi or just think I have a speech impediment.

          6. muphry rides again….I just can’t make fun of anyone without errors. Damn muphry keeps me honest. If ever I were to worship an abstract deity, it would be Muphry.

          7. @ Diane

            I just meant to tease Diana, with her vaunted Classics knowledge! 😉

            It would be overly pedantic to make that correction seriously, even for me!!


          8. @ ant

            Oops! Well, glad to know some things are too pedantic even for you.


            I have actually run into that correction more than once lately, though.

            BTW, thanks for noticing the difference in Diana’s and my names! (I’ve actually always wished I were a “Diana.”)

          9. Ha ha Diane G. you can be a Diana if you want but it’s just going to cause more confusion on here. 🙂

          10. Ha ha Diane G. you can be a Diana if you want but it’s just going to cause more confusion on here. 🙂

          11. Jeff, you have no idea how long I railed at GUIs when they first came out. Just because executives can’t type, I thought! (Remember the Apple Lisa? Probably not. Just as well.)

          12. I remember the Lisa, actually. But where I was working we put Unix on it.

            You were way ahead of me–I was still programming my Atari 800.

            The point remains–I get your gist. <– 😉

          13. Gosh, I thought I got it when it was GUIFs…now not so much?

            (FWIW, I only came up with GUI’s as the first thing that came to mind trying to think of an example where I lost the battle bigtime. Just a coincidence it started w/ G.)

            ( . . . Or was it?) <–Imagine eerie music here.

          14. Hard “g” used I. GESTAPO or are you sayi.g we supporters of the hard “g” are in the Geheimnis Staats Polizei? 😉

            You know you’re sounding older than your age, right. Damn kids, get off my lawn 🙂 ha ha, I’m only teasing you.

          15. Exactly. They can only play on my lawn if they say “JIF”. Otherwise all bets are off. 🙂

          16. Ha ha and my smart ass remarks were all muphry. That looked like I was a drunk youth. 🙂

          17. Ah yes, to be a drunk youth, just once again. Wouldn’t it be grand?

            That’s my frist encounter with Muphry’s Law. I really thought you meant Murphy until I looked it up.

          18. The problem, Jeff, is that this degradation you’re bravely resisting is a phantom. For every alleged “rule” put forward by peevish prescriptivists decrying the modern debasement of language, actual working linguists can find counterexamples going back centuries. It invariably turns out that these “rules” were never part of the language as it was actually spoken, existing only in the prejudices of grumpy curmudgeons.

            It’s rather like bemoaning the deplorable modern tendency of isolated populations to diverge into distinct species, and longing for the lost golden age when such things Just Weren’t Done and creatures had the good sense to breed true to their Biblical kind. Not only is it a profound misunderstanding of evolutionary biology; it also ignores the facts of the fossil record.

            Now obviously there are no century-old uses of GIF to cite. But I’d lay odds that it was being pronounced with a hard ‘g’ by significant numbers of people from the very first time it appeared in print.

            And I hope you’re aware of the irony of calling your opponents “the hard ‘g’ Gestapo”, since nobody is insisting that you pronounce it that way. We merely note, as a matter of empirical fact, that it is pronounced that way frequently enough to qualify as an acceptable alternative pronunciation by dictionary standards. It’s the “jif” partisans who insist that everyone fall into line with the One True Pronunciation.

            If you really care about such things, I suggest you spend some time over at Language Log, where such questions are addressed with actual data.

            And by the way, I read your comment while drinking espresso out of a ceramic cup at an independent coffee bar in Seattle, the home town of Starbucks, where the independents are far from extinct.

          19. I’m glad to hear you are drinking from a ceramic cup.

            I do read Language Log as one of my regular RSS feeds, and truly I am in favor of descriptivism in language usage.

            For some reason it was relatively recently that I first heard a person pronounce it with hard ‘g’. As to whether there were lots of people pronouncing it that way in the late 80s, I can’t speak to that (see how cool AND annoying that is?).

            My whole post was mostly typed with my tongue firmly lodged in my cheek. I don’t really want to insist that anyone pronounce GIF my way. But just as I think coffee from a ceramic cup is superior to coffee from paper, I also think “jif” is superior to “gif”. I was just having fun with the silliness of it all.

            As I opened, I can stoically accept those things I can’t control, even if it sounds awful.

            Gee, I wonder what Geoffrey Pullum would say if a majority of English speakers started to pronounce his first name with a hard ‘g’, as opposed to the way my name Jeffrey is pronounced? Perhaps the spelling would change to Geffrey. It might be a real conflict for him…hehe. 🙂

            (Actually the name Jeffrey/Geoffrey comes from Godfrey and before that from Gottfried). So it once was a hard ‘g’)

    2. Yes, if he wanted it pronounced “jif”, he should’ve used a “j” instead of a “g”.

      1. And we should jenerate power, cut jems, and study jenetics, too.

        It wasn’t a jraphics format, it was a Graphics Information Format with an acronym pronounced with a soft ‘g’.

        Should “GPA” be pronounced with a hard ‘g’ because “grade” is?

        While we’re at it, Genghis Kahn should be pronounced Jenghis. In the original Mongolian it sounds like “Chingiss” and was transliterated with a soft ‘g’ that later became mispronounced, as has happened with GIF format.

        I’m all for descriptive over prescriptive linguistics, but getting names right is a different matter.

        It has been common for Americans to use “Scotch” for “Scots” or “Scottish”. Ought we go with the consensus on that, or correct the error?

          1. Good point. Out of respect to Canadians, who are North Americans, and to all the people of Central and South America, also Americans, we could stop calling ourselves Americans and call ourselves USers, or users. (How appropriate, since we consume more resources per capita than any other nation).

            This tradition of using the term “Americans” for citizens of the USA got started back before there were any other nations in North or South America; they were all natives or colonials of European countries when the USA became a nation. Then we were Americans, and all others were members of tribes or belonged to Spain, England, France, Portugal, or other European countries. Sadly, old habits die hard.

        1. Yes precisely my point – the guy who made up the gif file, getting bent out of shape because his made up word that, as others have stated, stands for “graphics information format”, is not always pronounced “jif” when there are multiple ways of pronouncing a “g” in English, is a bit much. If he wanted to force the pronunciation, knowing the multiple English pronunciations, it would be better to just eliminate the controversy, call it a “jif” and figure out another word besides “graphic” to start off his file name.

          Otherwise, he has no authority to enforce a particular pronunciation.

    3. I don’t know what consensus you mean. My experience in California is that the vast majority of programmers pronounce it “jif”, as I always have since the late eighties.

      I never even heard someone use hard ‘g’ until a couple of years ago, and I didn’t even know what he was talking about.

      But maybe hordes of uninformed people have popularized the wrong pronunciation in the media. I don’t watch much TV, and I’ve happily used ‘jif’ at work and when reading print media without even noticing this growing assault on proper pronunciation.

      The same thing happened to the word hacker; ignorant reporters misinformed the world as to the word’s meaning, and the incorrect meaning eventually became the common one.

      Oh well. There is no stopping pop culture from defiling the world with stupidity. It’s a fact of life we have to live with. 😉

          1. How do you pronounce the acronym “GAO” for “Government Accounting Office”?

            How about GSA for Government Services Administration?

          2. Those aren’t acronyms gay-o and geeza 🙂 Seriously, I probably would just say those words. Yeah yeah I know “George” isn’t pronounced “gorge” but look how unless you knew English, you wouldn’t get the distinction.

            I also don’t pronounce “knight” Kuhneekt either but you did in Middle English.

            In other words, there is no easy answer. It’s not my fault English pronunciation and writing didn’t keep up with each other (printing press).

          3. True. If people had first heard about GIF and not read about it, they would be pronouncing it correctly, as it almost universally was, with a soft ‘g’, until the Internet really started to grow post-1995.

        1. You probably call your southern neighbor “Tyskland”, when everyone knows it’s “Germany” with a soft ‘g’. So we have to discount your opinion a little bit or that. 😉

          1. Ha ha – I blame my hard G preference on the Germans and the French. Various languages have affected my native language (English) when I’ve studied them.

          2. Hard g in French? Manger, gens, menage, fromage…

            And in the Kölsch dialect of Köln, the g is often softened. For example, “es regnet” sounds something like “es rechnet”.

            There is linguistic beauty in softness!

          3. Yech, you probably like that odious church Latin too with it’s wrong soft “c’s”.

          4. JJ: Correct. In German (phonetic for USians): Ah, bay, say, day, ay, eff, gay, hah, ee, yott, u.s.w. …

          5. You probably call your southern neighbor “Tyskland”, when everyone knows it’s “Germany” with a soft ‘g’.

            We do, although we sometimes refer to Germany as Region South. We can get a bit imperalistic if need be. 🙂

            So we have to discount your opinion a little bit or that. 😉

            As a dane, I’m offended. 😉

          6. Sorry. Would it help if I told you my great-grandfather was Julius Jensen from Denmark? I’ve got some Viking blood (but German and Irish too).

          7. We do, although we sometimes refer to Germany as Region South.

            Is that somewhere near the Plains of Englandshire?

          8. Close enough. England hasn’t caused us any trouble
            recently, so atm there’s no plans of invasion.

            The Germans on the other hand….

  1. I let Hillary Rotten Kitten think she has eaten the red dot. I’ll eventually put it on her paw and she’ll scoop it up and put it to her mouth. It disappears at that point and she seems satisfied. Then I try to get my roommate to chase the red dot (with varying degrees of success.) 😛

  2. For less frustration: scatter cat treats around the floor. You have better vision than your cat does for still objects, so after they’ve nabbed the obvious ones there will be several you see that they don’t. Lead them there with the red dot 🙂

    1. Correct. As explained in Wikipedia: According to Steve Wilhite, the creator of the GIF format, the intended pronunciation deliberately echoes the American peanut butter brand, Jif, and CompuServe employees would often say “Choosy developers choose GIF”, spoofing this brand’s television commercials.[9] As of 2013, Wilhite remains annoyed that there is debate over the pronunciation.

      1. He’ll probably remain annoyed for the rest of his life then. That’s his choice, but his annoyance is not binding on the rest of us, who are free to pronounce it as we see fit.

        1. During WWII Canadians liberated Holland. So they still make a big deal out of it and send tulips and have ceremonies thanking us.

          I have a Dutch friend who kept telling everyone they were saying “gouda” wrong.

          So I told him, “look how about this: in exchange for liberating Holland, we get to pronounce the name of your cheese however we want and you don’t have to send tulips anymore?”


          1. Kind of like how da but with more back of the throat stuff going on at the how.

  3. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, I really really don’t like this recent problem that as cropped up in pop culture in the last five years or so, probably as a result of hordes of uninitiated people coming on-line who didn’t even know what the Internet was in 1995, let alone 1985.

    I’m talking about the dorky and grating sound of GIF being pronounced with a hard ‘g’. Thank you so much for doing us this service by explaining how to correctly pronounce it. The Johnny-come-lately hordes are trying to corrupt this, and there may be no turning them back, but at least we can try.

    More on topic, I was wondering whether any species of reptile engage in play, or is it entirely unique to mammals? Somebody here must know. Is this lizard hunting or playing? I should think hunting, which in my mind makes the laser game a bit worse.

      1. And you don’t say “JIF”? Heavens to murgatroyd. I’m so shocked. 😉

        In my book, if you weren’t using FTP, Telnet, Archie, WAIS, and Gopher before the WWW existed, you must be a newcomer. Hehe. 😉

        On the other hand, I wasn’t a Compuserve user, so I didn’t have much need of GIF until NCSA Mosaic hit the scene.

    1. But GPA stands for Jrade Point Average?

      That hissing sound you hear us the air rushing out of your argument.

      1. You pronounce GPA “juh-pa?” People don’t pronounce GPA as a word.

        You spelling it out and you pronounce the G exactly the same as the G in “grade” if you were spelling its letters out.

        That silence you hear is me still waiting for you to take the air out of my argument!

        1. Oops, you’re right, I confused spelling and pronouncing. When people say the acronyms GPA, GI, GSA, and GAO, they use soft ‘g’.

          Most acronyms beginning with G use hard ‘g’ when phonetically pronounced, but soft ‘g’ when pronounced by spelling. This is probably how the error got started, because most people first read GIF on the Internet rather than hearing it from knowledgable computer professionals, so they incorrectly assumed it was pronounced with g as in gift rather than as in gin.

          The point you made, that the prounounciation of an acronym must follow the pronunciation of the underlying words only requires one counter-example to refute it, and there are several, but the best is JPEG, pronounced “jay peg”.

          To extend JPEG according to your point, you would argue it should be pronounced “jay feg” because it’s Joint Photographic Experts Group, not Joint Potographics Experts Group.

          1. Geff Gonsohn:

            You are confusing acronyms with initialisms, a common error, but not a punishable offenses. See

            Acronyms are a series of alpha characters that are pronounced, e.g. LASER; initialisms are a series of alpha characters that are sounded out, e.g GAO, GPO.

            It is normal for people to want to pronounce an acronym based upon how the actual words defining it are pronounced, although it really doesn’t rate the amount of verbiage this thread has created abd I have just added to…

  4. This page may help people get used to the idea that they are pronouncing it wrong.

    An important point: it’s possible for a consensus to be wrong. And fulfilling Godwin’s Law, I’ll say just look at Nazi Germany if you don’t believe me. They probably pronounced GIF with hard ‘g’. 😉

    1. It doesn’t matter what the dude who created the format thinks. It’s used by the majority with a hard “g” and I’m told that usage trumps all! This is the same argument we all had regarding alternate and alternative as synonyms.

      It is also the argument I give when people try to tell me that the official Canadian way of putting the date is like the British way: day-month-year but we all use the American way and I was taught the American way month-day-year, so if you insist on the way which is not used, you’re going to confuse people.

      1. I’m told that usage trumps all!

        Right. Usage über Alles. I get it. 😉

        But still (as Galileo might have said) it moves. But still it’s a mistake that comes from people reading it wrong back in the days when most people were pronouncing it JIFF.

        So you may consider it a triumph that the Internet is highly effective at propagating errors. I still know in my heart what is right! Hehe. 😉

        1. 20130804

          Most-people think gods exist outside their minds, therefore, jif is probably the correct pronunciation.

  5. I don’t think i’ve ever seen a dog fall for the laser trick, so there. Also, why spell it d_g on this website? Isn’t that implying that you respect the word so much that you avoid spelling it out in full? (Please don’t ban me for my humble comments.)

    1. Yes, d_g is a joke, implying the word is unspeakable, because Dr. Coyne is a devoted cat lover.

      So evidently dogs aren’t perceptive enough to detect the laser dot. Maybe it’s because they’re color blind. If only you could smell laser light. 😉

  6. This discussion thread seems to be missing the point… The lizard is attempting to capture the red dot with its tongue – the standard iguanian lizard (iguanids, agamids, chamaeleonids) prey capture mechanism. Being forced to do this over and over again is cruel, even if the lizard does not feel ‘frustration’ in the mammalian sense. The moving dot is eliciting a reflexive motor response; the lizard doesn’t have much choice. If nothing else, the repeated behavior will exhaust the lizard – not to mention all the crap from the floor it is forced to ingest. In short, while amusing to observers, this kind of thing exploits an animal’s evolved behaviors and robs them of the reward the behaviors evolved for in the first place. Doing it briefly to observe lingual feeding behavior is one thing. But doing it repeatedly seems wrong to me. As someone who studies lizards professionally, it bothers me to see it.

    1. Good point. I knew the “jiff” point would be provocative, but not to the extent of nearly 60 comments! The only point I would make is that cats are similarly hard-wired to chase stuff, it’s just probably less tiring than for the lizard. Mind you, what would happen if the lizard came across a line of ants? It would presumably nom nom nom as much as it could and get equally tired, but ful. And what about the dizzy fish?

      1. …and her I was thinking you totally knew the “gif” thing would be controversial and you wanted to keep us busy! 🙂

    2. I agree. I don’t think lizards are capable of the same level of frustration as a cat would be, but the prolonged teasing could cause the lizard to become despondent when offered real food. They are able to learn – minimally. I kept bearded dragons and they are far more inquisitive than most other lizards I’ve interacted with. I think it is entirely unfair to exploit their natural instincts. And having cared for lizards with blockages, I was saddened to see this occurring on the carpet. As you probably know, most people have no idea how to properly care for lizards – and omnivores are even more difficult. I think the best possible first pet for a child is a corn snake – minimal maintenance, no emotional requirements, doesn’t get too big – yet because people are so primally fearful of snakes, that never happens. It’s the poor iguanas, leopard geckos, and beardies that get the brunt of neglect and abuse. In fact, iguanas are probably about the most difficult to maintain properly – along with chameleons. I’ve seen people exploit the chameleon’s hunting technique as well and they don’t realize they can serious damage their tongue and jaw.

    3. I asked a question on one of my posts that was ignored. It was: More on topic, I was wondering whether any species of reptile engage in play, or is it entirely unique to mammals? Somebody here must know. Is this lizard hunting or playing? I should think hunting, which in my mind makes the laser game a bit worse.

      Another question: can’t the lizard distinguish one type of prey from another? Or does it just leap at and eat anything that moves in its proximity? If it has any kind of discrimination, why does it think the light is prey? If it can discriminate, is it possible it could be playing?

      Even if play is involved, of course repeated failure to grasp a physical object at play could be exhausting with no actual sense of reward ever being signaled in the brain.

      1. I think they can engage in play – not to the extent that we observe mammals, but I’ve seen baby lizards chase each other in an exaggerated manner – it looks like play but maybe it’s not. Baby bearded dragons are quite inquisitive and will explore their environment thoroughly. I think it also depends on the species – chameleons are quite “serious” and don’t engage in any shenanigans, lol. Whereas iguanas, beardies, and monitor lizards have displayed what appears to be very light play. It could just be status wrangling as well. Maybe I’m biased, but most lizards I’ve observed are far more curious and social than any snake I kept. I can say with 100% confidence that snakes don’t play. They explore, but it’s a very instinctual action – they are looking for escape routes or warmth or hiding spots – the certainly don’t explore out of curiosity. As beautiful as I find snakes to be, they have almost no personality aside from being either aggressive or passive.

        1. So if it is play, it could just do this without expectation of a food reward, and just “play” until it is tired and then quit.

          Also, if it can distinguish healthy prey from poisonous prey, then perhaps it can with time recognize the laser dot as prey to be avoided, or at least prey that provides no satisfying nutrition.

          Or am I giving them too much credit?

          1. First, this particular lizard is not able to distinguish a laser dot from a prey item. It uses primarily visual cues to identify prey, movement being the most important. In fact, it is typical that a bearded dragon (or relative) that is about to capture an insect with its tongue will halt mid-tongue protrusion if the prey item suddenly freezes. The moment the prey so much as twitches an antenna, it’s a goner. Some lizards require chemosensory information before they’ll eat something (via tongue-flicking) – they do not require prey movement. Rapid, jerky movement is particularly stimulating as a prey cue for a visual-hunting insectivores. This is one of the problems with the laser – it is very bright, very red and moves quickly and jerkily. Most visual-hunting, diurnal lizards are particularly sensitive to yellows, oranges and reds. Coupled with jerky movement, the laser dot creates what is known as a ‘supernormal stimulus’. The lizard simply cannot resist it. It is NOT playing. The stimulus is triggering its prey capture motor pattern almost irresistibly. I cannot say with absolute certainty that the lizard does not have a ‘choice’, but as a professional with research expertise in lizard feeding, that is my opinion based on years of observation and study.

            As for play in reptiles, generally, it is argued that some species do, indeed, ‘play’. However, play in reptiles is difficult recognize, at best, and is quite controversial. It really depends on how you define play. If it is any behavior that is unnecessary to sustain life, then yes, most reptiles play. A colleague of mine is convinced that captive snakes ‘play’ when they make drinking movements in water, but do not actually drink. This is a very non-mammalian notion of play. In my opinion, lizards do not play in the mammalian sense. They do engage in what appears to be spontaneous behavior, however. If you want to call that play, fine. Most of their behavior, as, Jeannine pointed out in her comment, is goal-directed.

            As for cats, I agree that they probably get a kick out of chasing the laser, as long as it is not over done. There is no question that most mammals play and certainly cats easily tire of such things and ‘choose’ to stop it if they’re bored or tired. The lizard, and probably the fish, arthropods, whatever – anything non-mammalian – are a different story. I can see it only as torment for them.

            If you really want to know more about play in reptiles and other animals, look up work by Gordon Burghardt. He is an expert on reptile behavior at the Univ. of Tennessee and has written extensively on this subject.

          2. Yes, many insectivores will try to consume anything smaller than them that has jerky movements. It is common to see people feeding their bearded dragons pinkies or even full grown mice – it’s a gruesome experience for both animals involved. Monitors tongue flick and search for prey by smell whereas with beardies and chameleons it is sight-based hunting. You probably couldn’t get a monitor lizard to chase a laser…now I’m curious! Anyone happen to have a spare varanid??? ) I’m no professional, just a girl with a long standing fascination with reptiles of all kinds. Since as long as I could remember reptiles have appealed to me – truly and breathtakingly beautiful creatures – perfection, in my eyes. I was never afraid of them and found it odd that other people were terrified of the scaly beauties. It is one of the reasons I probably don’t have any close girlfriends.
            I will look up Burghardt! Thank you for the recommendation! I maintain that snakes are not capable of play. I think there is a social component to play that would better define the activity in a sense we can understand. I will see what he has to say though!

      1. Shit. Now you’re asking me to be serious?!

        Well, let’s see. I have always pronounced GIF with a hard G. But, though I started programming on a TI-16, and wrote most of the software that the company I worked my first job as an adult at used for project management and just about everything else, I never formally studied or worked in programming or computing and was never in the league of a true professional. Well, I did take one Fortran 77 class in college, but it was so similar structurally to what I already knew it was more like taking a course on a language that I already spoke, but with a slightly different dialect.

        But, I will continue to pronounce GIF with a hard G, and I won’t feel even a tiny bit bad about it.

        On animals chasing lasers, I find it fascinating that all these varied animals will do it. I had no idea. I certainly wouldn’t want to cause any animal hardship merely for my casual amusement, but various cats and I have all seemed to have lots of fun playing with a laser pointer.

        No, I can’t read cat minds, but after long association I am confident that I can judge my cats’ general mood and physical disposition with reasonable accuracy.

  7. A proposal: anybody who wants to engage in debate over the hard- versus soft-G in “.gif” should be made to read the entire Wikipedia talk page for the spelling of “Aluminium” ( first, just to get a feel for where that discussion is going to go.

    I just wanted to know whether anyone had posted the jumping spider one. (They had.)

  8. PS – lizards and snakes ARE capable of learning to avoid noxious prey based on visual and chemical cues. However, learning in this case is based on a bad experience after eating the prey (bite, sting, sickness) that is associated with the prey type, which is eventually avoided. The laser cue does not provide negative feedback – only no reward. The failure to capture something will not provide the negative experience necessary to learn by association, particularly when the light is a positive super-normal stimulus, as noted before.

    1. Kurt,
      thanks for your answers, both here and above.

      It looks like this is much more of a problem for fish and lizards than cats or dogs.

      Here is a similar torture problem with iPads rather than lasers:

      Maybe somebody needs to make some youtube videos explaining why people shouldn’t do these things to their pets. This “fun” game is spread far and wide on the net, and probably lots of lizards are paying the price…

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