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What Does Marijuana Do to Spiders?

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Jason mentioned the other day that he and his wife were watching the new series Orange is the New Black, wherein one of the characters talks about how deer were eating her marijuana plants. The factoid checked out. Deer really are a problem for pot growers because fresh growth on the plants makes an excellent snack. 

According to forest rangers who were led to a hilltop grow site by under-the-influence animals in Italy, deer who’ve consumed marijuana plants are “unusually frisky” and “abnormally high-spirited.” This got us wondering what kind of effect marijuana had on other animals. 

Cannabinoid receptors have been found in non-human mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and even some invertebrates, so there are plenty of animals that react to marijuana. Most of those reactions aren’t that surprising, or all that interesting, though. Dogs and cats act kind of funny and groggy after eating weed (please don’t feed them your stash, no matter how YouTube famous you want to be, though—the stuff can be toxic to them, especially dogs), and monkeys exposed to THC keep wanting more.

Spiders, though, are infinitely interesting when they get stoned because the effects of the drug are clear in the odd-looking webs they build afterwards. 

Getting spiders high for science started in 1948, when German zoologist H.M. Peters got fed up with trying to study web-building behavior in spiders who wouldn't do him the courtesy of working on his schedule. His garden spiders tended to build their webs between two and five a.m., and he asked his pharmacologist friend P.N. Witt if there might be some chemical stimulant that would coax the spiders into building their webs at a more reasonable time. 

Witt tried giving the spiders some amphetamine and, while they kept building at their usual hour (to Peters' dismay), the two scientists did notice that those webs were more haphazard than normal. Over the next few decades, Witt continued to dose spiders with a smorgasbord of psychoactive substances, including marijuana, LSD, caffeine and mescaline, to see how they reacted. Since spiders can’t use tiny bongs or drink from little mugs, Witt and his team either dissolved the drugs in sugar water or injected them into flies and then fed the spiders with them.

The drugs affected the size and shape of the spiders’ webs, the number of radii and spirals, the regularity of thread placement and other characteristics. By comparing photographs and measurements of normal and “drug webs,” Witt and other researchers could see how the different substances affected different aspects of the web and, by extension, the spiders’ motor skills and behavior. 

The line of study didn’t have many practical applications at the time and was eventually discontinued. In 1995, though, NASA repeated some of Witt’s experiments and analyzed the webs with modern statistical tools and image processors. This allowed them to quantify the differences between webs, and they suggested that comparisons like this could be used to test the toxicity of different chemicals on spiders instead of “higher” animals like mice, saving time and money. 

What a web they weave

This is your web.

This is your web on drugs.

Specifically, this a web on marijuana. It was made by one of the NASA spiders, which appears to have given up on it halfway through. NASA says the spiders that were given marijuana were easily sidetracked while building and left their webs unfinished. 

The spiders on benzedrine, a stimulant also known as “bennies,” weaved their webs energetically, even frantically, but without planning or attention to detail. Their webs were characterized by large gaps. 

Caffeinated spiders made smaller, but wider webs, characterized by threads meeting at wide angles, disorganized cells and a lack of the normal “hub and spoke” pattern. 

Spiders given the sedative chloral hydrate gave up on their webs even faster than the ones who’d had a little pot. 

Finally, spiders given low doses of LSD actually maintained more geometric regularity than they did when they were stone sober.

All images courtesy of NASA.

For a funny take on this experiment, see this video.

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Animals
Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London
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Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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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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