Edinburgh Zoo
Edinburgh Zoo

Sir Nils Olav, Norway’s Penguin Knight

Edinburgh Zoo
Edinburgh Zoo

The United States Marines have their bulldogs and the Army has their mules, but the Norwegian Royal Guard has a mascot a little more accustomed to colder temperatures: Nils Olav, a King Penguin who is also a Colonel-in-Chief and a knight. As implausible as it seems, the story of how a humble bird ascended to such a distinguished title is actually more straightforward than you’d think.

In 1913, to commemorate the Edinburgh Zoo’s opening, Norwegian citizen Christian Salvesen presented the Zoo with its first King Penguin, paving the way for positive, pro-penguin relations between Scotland and Norway from that day forward. In 1961, as part of their routine visit to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, an annual international army display, the Norwegian King’s Guard happened upon the Zoo’s penguin exhibit. Lieutenant Nils Egelien was enchanted by the waddling birds, and returned in 1972 with the intent of adopting one of them as the army’s new mascot. He did, and it was named Nils Olav, both for the penguin-loving lieutenant and in homage to Olav V, the King of Norway at the time.

Upon his adoption, Nils Olav was immediately given the title of visekorporal, or lance corporal—the lowest rank granted to a non-commissioned officer. When the King’s Guard returned, they upped his officer status: a decade after his first adoption, Norway’s mascot became Corporal Nils Olav. Over the years, Nils has risen through the ranks, from Sergeant to Regimental Sergeant Major to Honorable Regimental Sergeant Major until finally, in 2005, he became the Colonel-in-Chief he is today. Being a penguin doesn’t excuse him from the rules of uniform dress, either—in the absence of a military uniform, he wears the insignia tied to his right flipper.

So what exactly does a penguin do to merit moving upwards through the ranks of the Norwegian military, despite never having seen combat? According to the Guardsmen, Nils continues to be honored for his “outstanding service and good conduct”; presumably, that means he plays well with other penguins and stands tall when called to attention. On August 15, 2008, Nils’s good behavior took him all the way to knighthood, as British Major General Euan Loudon ceremonially dropped a sword on each of the penguin’s winged sides, standing in place of the Norwegian king. King Harald V, though not present at the ceremony, issued a citation to congratulate the penguin on his conduct, describing Nils as “in every way qualified to receive the honor and dignity of knighthood”—not too shabby for a bird who can’t fly.

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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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