A Dutch Startup Wants to Train Crows to Pick Up Cigarette Butts

iStock
iStock

The tobacco industry produces a lot of cigarettes, and that leads to a lot of filters discarded on the ground. According to Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, we end up with 1.69 billion pounds of them each year, making cigarette butts the most common type of litter. Plenty of creative solutions, from musical ash trays to roads made from cigarette waste, have been proposed in the past. Now, a new startup is developing a strategy that takes advantage of something that’s already a part of our cities. As The Next Web reports, Crowded Cities wants to train urban crow populations to pick up our cigarette butts.

We already know that crows enjoy picking at the garbage humans leave on the ground and in cracks and crevices. Crowded Cities founders Ruben van der Vleuten and Bob Spikman wondered if they could redirect this habit and turn crows into tiny garbage collectors. Training crows to do something as specific as identifying and transporting cigarette butts isn’t as crazy as it may sound. The corvids are among the most intelligent creatures in the animal kingdom—they’re capable of using tools, nursing grudges, and even holding funerals.

But even if crows were capable of learning the task, the team needed to find an efficient way to train them. That’s when they came across the Crow Box: an open-source project designed by Joshua Klein that acts like a vending machine for crows. Whenever a crow deposits a coin in the device, it rewards them with a peanut, thus teaching the birds to hunt for change. Spikman and van der Vleuten adopted this concept, swapped butts for the coins, and renamed it the Crowbar.

Crow flying toward machine.
Crowded Cities

The training process starts by attracting crows to the machine with a piece of food next to a cigarette butt. Knowing that a snack will always be there waiting for it, the crow is conditioned to return for more. After this step repeats a few times, the food is moved inside the device and isn’t made available to the crow until the moment it lands. The animal now knows that the machine can give it food in response to its actions.

At a certain point, the Crowbar stops releasing the food automatically. The only way for the crow to get fed is by nudging the cigarette butt into the receptacle. If it's able to figure this step out, the idea is that it will start scouring for cigarettes elsewhere as payment for its meal.

The project is still a far way off from becoming a reality in major cities. Crowded Cities is looking for ways to fund trial runs, and if those are promising it will still need to conduct research into the harmful effects cigarette butts may pose to crows. As for the skeptics who don’t believe crows can pull off such a sophisticated feat, the startup’s founders encourage them to take a “Sunday morning to browse through some crow videos on YouTube.”

Here’s one example they selected for your viewing pleasure.

[h/t The Next Web]

Why You Should Never Squish a Stink Bug

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iStock.com/drnadig

Commit the insect you see above to memory. That’s the brown marmorated stink bug, an invasive species originally from Asia that’s made inroads across large sections of the United States, including the Mid-Atlantic.

If you come across one, don’t squish it. In fact, don’t even nudge it. A stink bug’s pestilence can survive after death. And you can probably guess how.

According to The State, stink bugs release a secretion that smells absolutely awful when they’re disturbed or feel threatened. Stomping them just expedites the liquid. Those who have had the unfortunate opportunity to get a whiff have described it as resembling skunk odor or rotten cilantro.

In winter, the bugs tend to find their way indoors, where their half-inch bodies tend to catch the eye of homeowners. Fortunately, they’re largely harmless, and are not known to carry diseases or be destructive to pets or property. (Crops are an exception: The stinkbugs can prove damaging to agriculture.) While exterminators can treat houses, some recommend just ignoring them.

If you want a DIY approach, you can try vacuuming them up or leaving out trays with soapy water. The mixture will kill the bugs and minimize any post-mortem secretion.

Since the bugs were first spotted in Allentown, Pennsylvania around 1998, they’ve been spotted in 43 states. Generally, you probably won’t see more than a few in your home, though they’ll definitely congregate if conditions are right. One wildlife biologist in Maryland suffering from an infestation counted 26,000 stink bugs in his residence.

The good news? Scientists have determined that the stinkbug’s natural predator, the samurai wasp, is in hot pursuit. Entomologists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture had made plans to bring the wasp over from Asia to help control the bug population but discovered in 2014 that the wasp had somehow made the journey on its own. Their idea of population control is injecting their own eggs into a stinkbug’s, its larvae eating the pest. The parasitic wasp is in 10 states and climbing.

[h/t The State]

New Study Reveals 'Hyper-Alarming' Decline of Rainforest Insect Populations

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iStock/jmmf

Climate change is decimating yet another vital part of the world's ecosystem, according to a startling new paper. Rainforest insects are dying off at alarming rates, according to a new study spotted by the The Washington Post. In turn, the animals that feed off those insects are decreasing, too.

In the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a pair of scientists from the Rensselaer Polytechnic University in New York and the National Autonomous University of Mexico studied populations of rainforest arthropods (an invertebrate classification that includes insects and spiders) in the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico. They compared the number of insects lead author Bradford Lister found on trips in 1976 and 1977 with the number he and co-author Andres Garcia found on trips they took between 2011 and 2013.

Lister and Garcia used nets and sticky traps to collect insects on the ground and several feet above the ground in the forest canopy. They dried these captured bugs and measured the mass of their haul against the mass of insects found in the 1970s, finding that the modern net sweeps captured only an eighth to a fourth of the insects captured in the '70s. The mass of insects captured by sticky traps on the ground declined by 30 to 60 times what they were a few decades ago. They also tracked populations of lizards, frogs, and birds that live off those rainforest insects, finding that those populations had declined significantly, too, at levels not seen in other rainforest animals that don't rely on insects for food.

Tropical insects are particularly vulnerable to climatic changes, since they can't regulate their body temperature. During the time of the study, average maximum temperatures in El Yunque rose by almost 4°F (2°C). The warming climate is "the major driver" of this decline in arthropod populations, the study authors write, triggering a collapse of the forest food chain.

The paper has other scientists worried. "This is one of the most disturbing articles I have ever read," University of Connecticut entomologist David Wagner, who wasn't involved in the research, told The Washington Post, calling the results "hyper-alarming." Other studies of insect populations have found similarly dire results, including significant declines in butterflies, moths, bees, and other species. One recent study found that Germany's flying insect populations had decreased by as much as 75 percent in the last three decades. Scientists don't always attribute those population losses directly to warmer temperatures (habitat loss, pesticide use, droughts, and other factors might play a role), but it’s clear that insect populations are facing grave threats from the modern world.

Not all insect species will be equally affected by climate change, though. While we may see a sharp drop in the populations of tropical insects, scientists project that the number of insects in other regions will rise—leading to a sharp increase in crop-eating pests in some parts of the world and broadening mosquitos' geographical range.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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