Operation Migration
Operation Migration

Operation Migration: Saving the Whooping Crane 

Operation Migration
Operation Migration

Dan Lewis runs the popular daily newsletter Now I Know ("Learn Something New Every Day, By Email"). We've invited him to share some of his stories on mental_floss this week. To subscribe to his daily email, click here.

The whooping crane is an endangered bird native to North America. Before Europeans settled in the New World, there were an estimated 10,000 of them. By the late 1800s, that number fell to about 1500. In 1941, there were 23—two in captivity and just under two dozen in the wild.

Joe Duff wanted to fix that. To do so, he and his colleagues decided to dress up kind of like the whooping cranes they wanted to save.

Duff is the co-founder and CEO of a not-for-profit organization called Operation Migration. The whooping crane population is at risk mostly due to habitat loss—the areas they have been migrating to and from, for generations, have slowly been eroded away as people have moved in. Each subsequent generation of cranes learns the migratory path by following their parents and, unfortunately, the parents were going into a long-destroyed habitat; many did not survive the season. Without parents to guide them, the younger cranes were lost, and they, too, perished.

To combat this, Operation Migration uses a development from the 1980s and 1990s. A Canadian ultralight aircraft enthusiast named Bill Lishman—who would later become Duff’s co-founder—theorized that certain waterfowl could be trained to follow such a plane to a different migratory destination. In 1993, Lishman successfully led a group sixteen of Canada geese from Ontario to Virginia. Thirteen of the sixteen returned to Ontario the next year—without needing a human guide.

Lishman’s innovation centered on the fact that waterfowl, soon after their birth, imprint upon the first creature they see. Typically, this is their birth mother, but in a controlled environment, it could be basically any animal—including a person, if conditions are right. Duff, in an interview with NPR’s Talk of the Nation, explained: “Whooping cranes are hatched in the nest, in a marsh on the ground, basically, and they leave the nest almost immediately and follow their parents out to forage for food. And if they don’t follow their parents, they’re lost. So that natural instinct to imprint is there, and we just substitute parent for pilot and make sure they imprint on us.” The pilots wear the above-seen costumes so that the whooping cranes, when reintroduced to the wild, are not familiar with humans. Duff does not want them to learn that other people they come across are going to coddle and care for them because, simply, they won’t.

Once the cranes are able—assuming they’ve learned to follow the pilot—Operation Migration continues their conditioning, training them to follow the ultralight aircraft, as seen below.

According to an interview Duff did with VetStreet.com, there are now roughly 500 whooping cranes in the wild—a roughly 20-fold increase in just a few generations, although there is a long way to go. And there are unexpected problems along the way. As reported by the Sierra Club, toward the end of 2011 and into 2012, the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily grounded Operation Migration’s aircraft due to an unclear rule requiring the organization to obtain a special waiver before they took flight again. They are working with the FAA on a permanent solution to allow the flights to go off without further problems.

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Animals
How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Honey Bees Can Understand the Concept of Zero
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The concept of zero—less than one, nothing, nada—is deceptively complex. The first placeholder zero dates back to around 300 BCE, and the notion didn’t make its way to Western Europe until the 12th century. It takes children until preschool to wrap their brains around the concept. But scientists in Australia recently discovered a new animal capable of understanding zero: the honey bee. According to Vox, a new study finds that the insects can be taught the concept of nothing.

A few other animals can understand zero, according to current research. Dolphins, parrots, and monkeys can all understand the difference between something and nothing, but honey bees are the first insects proven to be able to do it.

The new study, published in the journal Science, finds that honey bees can rank quantities based on “greater than” and “less than,” and can understand that nothing is less than one.

Left: A photo of a bee choosing between images with black dots on them. Right: an illustration of a bee choosing the image with fewer dots
© Scarlett Howard & Aurore Avarguès-Weber

The researchers trained bees to identify images in the lab that showed the fewest number of elements (in this case, dots). If they chose the image with the fewest circles from a set, they received sweetened water, whereas if they chose another image, they received bitter quinine.

Once the insects got that concept down, the researchers introduced another challenge: The bees had to choose between a blank image and one with dots on it. More than 60 percent of the time, the insects were successfully able to extrapolate that if they needed to choose the fewest dots between an image with a few dots and an image with no dots at all, no dots was the correct answer. They could grasp the concept that nothing can still be a numerical quantity.

It’s not entirely surprising that bees are capable of such feats of intelligence. We already know that they can count, teach each other skills, communicate via the “waggle dance,” and think abstractly. This is just more evidence that bees are strikingly intelligent creatures, despite the fact that their insect brains look nothing like our own.

Considering how far apart bees and primates are on the evolutionary tree, and how different their brains are from ours—they have fewer than 1 million neurons, while we have about 86 billion—this finding raises a lot of new questions about the neural basis of understanding numbers, and will no doubt lead to further research on how the brain processes concepts like zero.

[h/t Vox]

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