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Animal Kingdom Kleptos: 7 Species That Steal

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Humanity, you’re not alone in harboring a criminal element. Some animals have developed kleptoparasitic tendencies, which means they’re willing to steal food that’s been collected by another animal. Other animals are just outright sneaky, and will take anything that’s there for the snatching. Here are seven animal kleptos.

1. Bumblebee

It’s a tenet of nature that the typical bee feeds off the nectar of a plant for pollinating that plant, but some bees are too rude to play by the rules. Bees who’ve evolved with short tongues and thus can’t reach for the sweet nectar have learned to carve holes into the side of a flower in order to reach their reward. This phenomenon, first observed by Charles Darwin, gets a bee nectar without the bee pollinating the plant. More cannily, there’s evidence suggesting that bees aren’t born behaving this way—they learn how to thieve from other bees, a sad sign that bee society is being overrun by hoodlums.

2. Sperm whale

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Grace is not a word instinctively associated with the sperm whale, given its hulking size. But fishermen complaining about their depleted hauls were shocked to record video of a sperm whale nimbly plucking a savory sablefish off the end of a line with its tongue, leaving barely a trace of evidence. Whales will use their sonar to track a fishing boat so they can slip in when the line is heaviest, and are advanced enough to differentiate between the tastiest catches. Of course, there’s a school of thought stating that it’s really the fishermen who are stealing from the ocean, and that the spermwhale is just correcting the balance of nature. Fight the power, whale!

3. Skua

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A moniker like “avian pirate” has a heavy reputation, and the skua’s plundering tactic isn’t quite as charming as Johnny Depp’s. The skua will gang up on smaller seabirds such as the guillemot and kittiwake, forcing them to give up a recently acquired kill. Sometimes, that means scaring a mark into vomiting up the contents of its stomach; other times, that means spearing another bird out of the air over and over until it drops its catch. It’s not very nice, but no skua ever claimed it was here to make friends.

4. Hyena

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Despite their depiction in The Lion King as skeevy flea-bags all too excited to endorse a false king, hyenas are wily hunters who can survive on anything and travel in large matriarchally organized clans. And they're savvy enough to snatch a fresh kill from animals who haven't learned to do their hunting when the hyena is asleep. It's payback from when larger cats stole their own spoils, a natural part of the animal kingdom's adaptive ecosystem. Don't believe everything you see, even if it's a Disney classic.

5. Magpie

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Type “magpie stealing” into YouTube and a number of videos will pop up showing a string of eclectic thefts: tea light candles, coathangers, lighters, cigarettes, cookies, dog food, raccoon bait, and more. An Englishwoman even thought she’d lost her engagement ring until it turned up three years later in a magpie’s nest. Though superstition states that magpies prefer shiny objects, they’re willing to take whatever—a characteristic that’s perhaps enabled by a prodigious intelligence rating amongst the highest of all animals. Hence the taken tea light candles—clearly, that magpie was smart enough to recognize how much they would improve the mood lighting for a party.

6. Burrowing owl

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Pity the poor prairie dog, which does so much work building a habitat only to see it taken over by a stranger proclaiming a very simple edict: your home or your life. The burrowing owl prefers to occupy a burrow that’s already been dug out by a prairie dog, and is willing to eat those who aren’t naturally submissive to its bullying. It’s a truly parasitic relationship, as there’s evidence showing that burrowing owl populations are drastically depleted in areas where prairie dogs have been targeted for extermination. “I can’t quit you” isn’t the greatest consolation during the eviction process, but it’s better than nothing.

7. Bdelloid rotifers

A lack of sex will lead a person toward some pretty erratic behavior; still, the the bdelloid rotifer takes asexuality to another level. The microscopic animal has been a female-only species for 80 million years, but they’ve nevertheless diversified into hundreds of other subspecies by absorbing the DNA of fungi, bacteria, algae, and whatever else is small enough to consume at the planktonic level. That allows them to develop different traits to help survive in varied environments, since monastic perseverance is at least something in lieu of a hot date.

This post originally appeared last year.

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NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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