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Do Lemmings Really Run Off Cliffs to Their Death?

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ThinkStock

Animals are rarely known for their suicidal tendencies. Perhaps because when your daily thought pattern is limited to eat-sleep-defecate, there's no time for existential exegesis or contemplating the futility of life. That is, except for the lemming—a small, furry, gerbil-like rodent that has come to be defined by its alleged tendency to mindlessly kill itself by jumping off of cliffs. However, the long-lived myth actually has its roots in Hollywood trickery.

Populations of lemmings fluctuate dramatically, from massive herds to near extinction. For years, theories on these populace peaks and plummets varied from the supernatural to the absurd. As reported by ABC News in 2004:

"In the 1530s, the geographer Zeigler of Strasbourg, tried to explain these variations in populations by saying that lemmings fell out of the sky in stormy weather, and then suffered mass extinctions with the sprouting of the grasses of spring. Back in the 19th century, the Naturalist Edward Nelson wrote that 'the Norton Sound Eskimo have an odd superstition that the White Lemming lives in the land beyond the stars and that it sometimes comes down to the earth, descending in a spiral course during snow-storms.'"

That was before the modern meaning gained traction: That populations tumbled because packs of lemmings would occasionally run head-first off of cliffs, plunging to their self-induced death for no apparent reason. To refer to an individual as a lemming thus became synonymous with calling them a follower of a large group--a community on an unthinking course towards mass destruction.

However, this does a disservice to these cuddly hamster-lookalikes.

It turns out that there is no proof that an assemblage of wild lemmings would actually drive themselves off of a cliff at all, but rather the myth was perpetuated by a 1958 Disney documentary called White Wilderness, in which the filmmakers manually ran a pack of lemmings off of a cliff to make for good television. The staged suicide turned out to be a critical success, as the movie went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. See a clip of the film below.

During the cliff-diving sequence, the pocket-sized creatures cascade into thin air, tumbling backward and flailing their Lilliputian limbs a la Mufasa in The Lion King, before they land with a distinctive splash in the Arctic Sea. The survivers then swim deeper into the vast body of water, where the narrator speculates they will soon drown.

Since White Wilderness, this erroneous misnomer has finagled its way into the present-day lexicon, including being referenced in a 2008 US Senate campaign ad, as well as a song by Blink-182.

While a definitive explanation for the waxing and waning lemming communities remains unknown, recent speculation suggests their explosive annihilation can be attributed to the variety of predators they attract, including the stoat—a short-tailed weasel that's even capable of hunting lemmings beneath winter snow beds.

As the narrator of the documentary, Winston Hibler, suggests: "In this land of many mysteries, it's a strange fact that the largest legends seem to collect around the smallest creatures."

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NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
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Researchers in Singapore Deploy Robot Swans to Test Water Quality
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

There's something peculiar about the new swans floating around reservoirs in Singapore. They drift across the water like normal birds, but upon closer inspection, onlookers will find they're not birds at all: They're cleverly disguised robots designed to test the quality of the city's water.

As Dezeen reports, the high-tech waterfowl, dubbed NUSwan (New Smart Water Assessment Network), are the work of researchers at the National University of Singapore [PDF]. The team invented the devices as a way to tackle the challenges of maintaining an urban water source. "Water bodies are exposed to varying sources of pollutants from urban run-offs and industries," they write in a statement. "Several methods and protocols in monitoring pollutants are already in place. However, the boundaries of extensive assessment for the water bodies are limited by labor intensive and resource exhaustive methods."

By building water assessment technology into a plastic swan, they're able to analyze the quality of the reservoirs cheaply and discreetly. Sensors on the robots' undersides measure factors like dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll levels. The swans wirelessly transmit whatever data they collect to the command center on land, and based on what they send, human pilots can remotely tweak the robots' performance in real time. The hope is that the simple, adaptable technology will allow researchers to take smarter samples and better understand the impact of the reservoir's micro-ecosystem on water quality.

Man placing robotic swan in water.
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

This isn't the first time humans have used robots disguised as animals as tools for studying nature. Check out this clip from the BBC series Spy in the Wild for an idea of just how realistic these robots can get.

[h/t Dezeen]

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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
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iStock

Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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