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Seagulls Eat Garbage in Landfills and Then Poop Pollution Into Our Waters

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What goes around comes around. Scientists say chemicals from trash in our landfills are making their way into our waters via the seagulls’ gastrointestinal tracts. A report on this delightful state of affairs was published in the journal Water Research.

We generally stop thinking about our trash the moment the garbage truck comes to collect it. But it doesn’t just disappear. No, our coffee filters and corn-chip bags head to the landfill, where they sit and sit and sit … unless they get eaten first. Then their nutrients, their nitrogen and phosphorus, disappear into an animal’s gullet and reappear on the other side, sometimes a few days later, sometimes miles away—and sometimes in our lakes, rivers, and streams.

Researchers wondered how much of an impact these trash-picking critters could have. They were especially interested in seagulls, whose poop has previously been shown to carry traces of toxic chemicals from our plastic-filled seas.

The first step was to figure out just how many landfill-mooching seagulls we have. Authors Scott Winton and Mark River of the Duke University Wetland Center used documented seagull sightings in the eBird citizen science database to estimate the number of landfill-living gulls across the entire United States. Their calculations came up with about 1.4 million birds.

"But the actual population is probably greater than 5 million,” Winton said in a statement. “That means the amount of nutrients deposited in the lakes, and the costs of preventing or remediating the problem, could be substantially higher."

The scientists then used that 1.4-million figure to calculate the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus the birds might collectively be dumping.

"The idea that gull feces can be a major water quality problem may sound comical—until you look at data from an individual lake," Winton said, noting the impact on North Carolina's Jordan Lake, home to a 14,000-acre state recreation area and more than 1000 campsites. "In Jordan Lake, for instance, we found that a local flock of 49,000 ring-billed gulls deposit landfill feces containing nearly 1.2 tons of phosphorus into the lake annually."

That phosphorus changes the water's chemical composition and could lead to more algae blooms, which can kill off other organisms in the lake’s ecosystem.

Winton and River suggest that rather than clean our waters after they're polluted, a better approach might be to stop the problem at the source: our trash. They recommend limiting landfill size and covering existing garbage heaps to keep the seagulls from ever finding it.

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Animals
How a Pregnant Rhino Named Victoria Could Save an Entire Subspecies
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images

The last male northern white rhino died at a conservancy in Kenya earlier this year, prompting fears that the subspecies was finally done for after decades of heavy poaching. Scientists say there's still hope, though, and they're banking on a pregnant rhino named Victoria at the San Diego Zoo, according to the Associated Press.

Victoria is actually a southern white rhino, but the two subspecies are related. Only two northern white rhinos survive, but neither of the females in Kenya are able to reproduce. Victoria was successfully impregnated through artificial insemination, and if she successfully carries her calf to term in 16 to 18 months, scientists say she might be able to serve as a surrogate mother and propagate the northern white rhino species.

But how would that work if no male northern rhinos survive? As the AP explains, scientists are working to recreate northern white rhino embryos using genetic technology. The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research has the frozen cell lines of 12 different northern white rhinos, which can be transformed into stem cells—and ultimately, sperm and eggs. The sperm of the last northern white male rhino, Sudan, was also saved before he died.

Scientists have been monitoring six female southern white rhinos at the San Diego Zoo to see if any emerge as likely candidates for surrogacy. However, it's not easy to artificially inseminate a rhino, and there have been few successful births in the past. There's still a fighting chance, though, and scientists ultimately hope they'll be able to build up a herd of five to 15 northern white rhinos over the next few decades.

[h/t Time Magazine]

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entertainment
Why Our Brains Love Plot Twists
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From the father-son reveal in The Empire Strikes Back to the shocking realization at the end of The Sixth Sense, everyone loves a good plot twist. It's not the element of surprise that makes them so enjoyable, though. It's largely the set-up, according to cognitive scientist Vera Tobin.

Tobin, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University, writes for The Conversationthat one of the most enjoyable moments of a film or novel comes after the big reveal, when we get to go back and look at the clues we may have missed. "The most satisfying surprises get their power from giving us a fresh, better way of making sense of the material that came before," Tobin writes. "This is another opportunity for stories to turn the curse of knowledge to their advantage."

The curse of knowledge, Tobin explains, refers to a psychological effect in which knowledge affects our perception and "trips us up in a lot of ways." For instance, a puzzle always seems easier than it really is after we've learned how to solve it, and once we know which team won a baseball game, we tend to overestimate how likely that particular outcome was.

Good writers know this intuitively and use it to their advantage to craft narratives that will make audiences want to review key points of the story. The end of The Sixth Sense, for example, replays earlier scenes of the movie to clue viewers in to the fact that Bruce Willis's character has been dead the whole time—a fact which seems all too obvious in hindsight, thanks to the curse of knowledge.

This is also why writers often incorporate red herrings—or false clues—into their works. In light of this evidence, movie spoilers don't seem so terrible after all. According to one study, even when the plot twist is known in advance, viewers still experience suspense. Indeed, several studies have shown that spoilers can even enhance enjoyment because they improve "fluency," or a viewer's ability to process and understand the story.

Still, spoilers are pretty universally hated—the Russo brothers even distributed fake drafts of Avengers: Infinity War to prevent key plot points from being leaked—so it's probably best not to go shouting the end of this summer's big blockbuster before your friends have seen it.

[h/t The Conversation]

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