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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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London's Sewer-Blocking 'Fatbergs' Are Going to Be Turned Into Biodiesel
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UK officials can't exactly transform the Whitechapel fatberg—a 143-ton trash mass lurking in London's sewer system—into treasure, but they can turn it into fuel. As The Guardian reports, Scottish biodiesel producer Argent Energy plans to convert parts of the noxious blockage into an environmentally friendly energy source.

For the uninitiated, fatbergs (which get their names from a portmanteau of "fat" and "icebergs") are giant, solid blobs of congealed fat, oil, grease, wet wipes, and sanitary products. They form in sewers when people dump cooking byproducts down drains, or in oceans when ships release waste products like palm oil. These sticky substances combine with floating litter to form what could be described as garbage heaps on steroids.

Fatbergs wash up on beaches, muck up city infrastructures, and are sometimes even removed with cranes from sewer pipes as a last resort. Few—if any—fatbergs, however, appear to be as potentially lethal as the one workers recently discovered under London's Whitechapel neighborhood. In a news release, private utility company Thames Water described the toxic mass as "one of the largest ever found, with the extreme rock-solid mass of wet wipes, nappies, fat and oil weighing the same as 11 double-decker buses."

Ick factor aside, the Whitechapel fatberg currently blocks a stretch of Victorian sewer more than twice the length of two fields from London's Wembley Stadium. Engineers with jet hoses are working seven days a week to break up the fatberg before sucking it out with tankers. But even with high-pressure streams, the job is still akin to "trying to break up concrete," says Matt Rimmer, Thames Water's head of waste networks.

The project is slated to end in October. But instead of simply disposing of the Whitechapel fatberg, officials want to make use of it. Argent Energy—which has in the past relied on sources like rancid mayonnaise and old soup stock—plans to process fatberg sludge into more than 2600 gallons of biodiesel, creating "enough environmentally friendly energy to power 350 double-decker Routemaster buses for a day," according to Thames Water.

"Even though they are our worst enemy, and we want them dead completely, bringing fatbergs back to life when we do find them in the form of biodiesel is a far better solution for everyone," said company official Alex Saunders.

In addition to powering buses, the Whitechapel fatberg may also become an unlikely cultural touchstone: The Museum of London is working with Thames Water to acquire a chunk of the fatberg, according to BBC News. The waste exhibit will represent just one of the many challenges facing cities, and remind visitors that they are ultimately responsible for the fatberg phenomenon.

"When it comes to preventing fatbergs, everyone has a role to play," Rimmer says. "Yes, a lot of the fat comes from food outlets, but the wipes and sanitary items are far more likely to be from domestic properties. The sewers are not an abyss for household rubbish."

[h/t The Guardian]

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Does Self-Control Deplete Over the Course of the Day? Maybe Not, Says New Study
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For months now, I’ve been trying to cut out sugar from my diet. I’ve read about all the ways my sweet tooth will be the death of me, and I’ve resolved to give it up. And yet, even as I write this, my long-term goal to eat healthy is losing out to my eternal desire to eat M&Ms at my desk. Is it because it’s the end of the day, and I’ve been trying to make choices for eight hours already? Or is it something else?

A new study in PLOS One pushes back on the popular theory known as "ego depletion," which hypothesizes that self-control is a finite resource that depletes throughout the day, much like energy levels. Instead, researchers from the University of Toronto and the learning technology company Cerego found that people's self-control depletes when it comes to doing one task for a long period of time, but that self-control fatigue isn't a factor when you're switching tasks. In other words, it's hard to say no to the box of cookies all day long, but saying no to the box of cookies won't impede other acts of self-control, like your ability to focus on your homework instead of turning on the TV.

The study used data from Cerego, which publishes online study materials, examining the study behaviors of two groups of college students using the Cerego system as part of semester-long psychology courses. The researchers looked at data from two groups of users, one group of 8700 students and one of almost 8800, focusing on how long they worked during each session and how well they performed at the memory tests within the curriculum.

If self-control really is a finite resource, it should be depleted by the end of the day, after people presumably have spent many hours resisting their first impulses in one way or another. But the researchers found that this wasn't true. Overall, students didn't do any better if they used the program earlier in the morning. Instead, performances peaked around 2 p.m., and people logged in to use the software more and more as the day went on, suggesting that the motivation to learn doesn't fall off at night (though that may also be because that's when college students do their homework in general).

However, mental resources did seem to be drained by doing the same task for a long period of time. The researchers found that after a certain point, students' performance dropped off, peaking at about 28 minutes of work. They made about 5 percent more mistakes 50 minutes into the session compared to that peak.

When it comes to the idea that we exhaust our store of self-control, the authors write, "the notion that this fatigue is completely fluid, and that it emerges after minutes of self-control, is under considerable doubt."

The notion of ego depletion comes from a 1998 study in which researchers asked participants to hang out in a room full of fresh-baked cookies, telling them to eat only from a bowl of radishes, leaving the cookies untouched. Then, those volunteers worked on an impossible puzzle. Volunteers who had spent time avoiding the delicious pull of cookies gave up on the mind-boggling task an average of 11 minutes earlier than a group of volunteers who were brought into the same room and allowed to eat as many cookies as they wanted. (Lucky them.)

Since then, the idea has taken off, leading to hundreds of subsequent studies and even influencing the habits of people like Barack Obama, who told Vanity Fair in 2011 that he only wore blue or gray suits in order to cut down on the non-vital decisions he had to make throughout the day.

This current study isn't the first to challenge the theory’s veracity, though. In 2016, a 2000-person replication study by some of the same authors (with scientists in 23 different labs) pushed back on the theory of ego depletion, finding that short spurts of self-control didn't have any effect on subsequent tasks. This study just adds to the evidence against the well-established idea.

So it's looking more and more like ego depletion isn't a good excuse for my afternoon vending-machine habit. Perhaps the true secret to excellent self-control is this: Just be a raven.

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