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Dieter Braun

The Parasite and the Parrot: A Love Story

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Dieter Braun

Two bizarre New Zealand species are on the brink of extinction. Can they save each other?

When it comes to parasites, few are as diabolically elegant as the Hades flower. The rootless, leafless plant lurks beneath the thick undergrowth of New Zealand forests, attaching itself to trees and pilfering nutrients. As it drains its host, the Hades leaves beautiful scars—fluted burls that remain in the wood. It’s these so-called flowers that give the plant its nickname, the wood rose.

Collectors used to bag the once ubiquitous bark roses, varnishing them for home decoration. But environmental threats such as deforestation and invasive species have landed the Hades flower on the endangered-species list. By the end of the last decade, the plant’s span had shrunk to four percent of its original range. Scientists guessed that just a few thousand plants remained, but they couldn’t be sure. And while the flowers do sprout shoots and bloom for two months a year, possums and pigs make such quick snacks of the buds that the underground Hades plant is impossible to track.

Unsure of how many Hades flowers are left, the New Zealand Department of Conservation has been desperate to protect the species. As part of a recovery plan in the 1990s, it considered transplanting populations of the plant but couldn’t find an area with enough bats or other creatures to pollinate it. Of course, protecting the Hades flower isn’t the only conservation issue on the island.

New Zealand is a hotbed of endangered species. Because the archipelago’s flora and fauna were isolated for so much of human history, its native species were ill equipped to protect themselves when settlers arrived. In the last few years, conservationists have been stumped about how to save the Hades flower. Then, in a lucky coincidence, they hit upon a possible solution. What if they recruited another endangered species—the hapless kakapo bird—to help?

The kakapo is unquestionably cute—the bird looks like a parakeet crossed with an owl crossed with a Muppet—but it’s impossible to underscore how useless it is. Also, it has some of the world’s worst evolutionary luck. Kakapos can’t fly, so they build their nests on the ground. Instead of hiding their homes, they settle down in big open spaces. They’re nocturnal, feeling their way through forests with the whiskerlike feathers on their faces. Perhaps most self-defeating, kakapos emit a strong musky scent that’s impossible to ignore. And it’s this combination—their preference for slow nighttime strolls combined with the body odor of dinner—that made the bird easy pickings for humans, dogs, cats, and every other predator. It was once one of the country’s most prevalent birds; today there are only 124 kakapos left.

For scientists who study endangered species, one of the major challenges is figuring out how historical animal populations behaved in long-gone ecosystems. How did they interact with one another? Who ate what? Which species were enemies and which were friends? It’s akin to watching a movie with the major plot points edited out. That’s where fossilized feces can come in handy. Rock-hard mineralized animal droppings—known as coprolite—function as thousand-year-old clues to animal diet, behavior, and relationships and are often key to reconstructing these ecological “deleted scenes.”

In 2010, New Zealand paleoecologist Jamie Wood and a team of researchers trekked to Honeycomb Hill Caves in the northwestern corner of New Zealand’s South Island to collect coprolite as part of a project to reconstruct the diets of extinct birds. Among the bits of organic matter, Wood and his fellow researchers noticed something distinctive: round grains of pollen, each full of large holes with raised borders, almost like the suckers on an octopus’s tentacles. The moment Wood peered at them under the microscope, he knew he was looking at a Hades flower.

“I knew the plant didn’t occur on the South Island anymore,” he says. “But it wasn’t until we started to research the ecology that we worked out the full significance of the finding.” Radiocarbon dating revealed that the coprolite was 900 years old. Its source? A kakapo.

Scientists hadn’t known that the parrot and the plant were acquainted. But as he learned about the Hades flower’s life cycle and the problems it faced, Wood realized that the pollen in the coprolite hinted at an untold story. Before they were each driven out of their shared territory by human settlement and encroaching predators, kakapos fed on the Hades flower and carried its pollen on their whiskery feathers, helping the plant reproduce.

If the two species were reunited, would the parrots resume their ancient role and help the plants pollinate? The chance to find out came when the Department of Conservation’s Kakapo Recovery relocated eight kakapos to one of the last remaining refuges of the Hades flower, Little Barrier Island off the coast of North Island. In the early morning hours one day in April 2012, wranglers captured the birds by hand and placed them in pet carriers. The crates were packed with damp towels, along with apples and carrots for the kakapos to snack on. When the birds arrived a day later, it marked the first time in years that the two strange species shared a home.

Setting the kakapos loose on the island, outside of heavy human handling, is an important step in the parrot’s repopulation process. “We need to see if they can survive and flourish without outside help,” conservation minister Kate Wilkinson told a New Zealand newspaper. “This initiative could play a major role in securing the long-term survival of the species.”

As for the bird’s role in helping the Hades flower spread, it’s still too early to tell whether the endangered species matchmaking will work. So far, there’s little evidence that the kakapos have taken notice of the flowers. But scientists are optimistic, holding out hope that somewhere in the dark forest—as these strange little birds feel their way toward the pale flowers barely poking out of the ground—old ties still bind.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. You can get a free issue here or check out our iPad edition.

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Big Questions
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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science
2017 Ig Nobel Prizes Celebrate Research on How Crocodiles Affect Gambling and Other Odd Studies
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The Ig Nobel Prizes are back, and this year's winning selection of odd scientific research topics is as weird as ever. As The Guardian reports, the 27th annual awards of highly improbable studies "that first make people laugh, then make them think" were handed out on September 14 at a theater at Harvard University. The awards, sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research, honor research you never would have thought someone would take the time (or the funding) to study, much less would be published.

The 2017 highlights include a study on whether cats can be both a liquid and a solid at the same time and one on whether the presence of a live crocodile can impact the behavior of gamblers. Below, we present the winners from each of the 10 categories, each weirder and more delightful than the last.

PHYSICS

"For using fluid dynamics to probe the question 'Can a Cat Be Both a Solid and a Liquid?'"

Winner: Marc-Antoine Fardin

Study: "On the Rheology of Cats," published in Rheology Bulletin [PDF]

ECONOMICS

"For their experiments to see how contact with a live crocodile affects a person's willingness to gamble."

Winners: Matthew J. Rockloff and Nancy Greer

Study: "Never Smile at a Crocodile: Betting on Electronic Gaming Machines is Intensified by Reptile-Induced Arousal," published in the Journal of Gambling Studies

ANATOMY

"For his medical research study 'Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?'"

Winner: James A. Heathcote

Study: "Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?" published in the BMJ

BIOLOGY

"For their discovery of a female penis, and a male vagina, in a cave insect."

Winners: Kazunori Yoshizawa, Rodrigo L. Ferreira, Yoshitaka Kamimura, and Charles Lienhard (who delivered their acceptance speech via video from inside a cave)

Study: "Female Penis, Male Vagina and Their Correlated Evolution in a Cave Insect," published in Current Biology

FLUID DYNAMICS

"For studying the dynamics of liquid-sloshing, to learn what happens when a person walks backwards while carrying a cup of coffee."

Winner: Jiwon Han

Study: "A Study on the Coffee Spilling Phenomena in the Low Impulse Regime," published in Achievements in the Life Sciences

NUTRITION

"For the first scientific report of human blood in the diet of the hairy-legged vampire bat."

Winners: Fernanda Ito, Enrico Bernard, and Rodrigo A. Torres

Study: "What is for Dinner? First Report of Human Blood in the Diet of the Hairy-Legged Vampire Bat Diphylla ecaudata," published in Acta Chiropterologica

MEDICINE

"For using advanced brain-scanning technology to measure the extent to which some people are disgusted by cheese."

Winners: Jean-Pierre Royet, David Meunier, Nicolas Torquet, Anne-Marie Mouly, and Tao Jiang

Study: "The Neural Bases of Disgust for Cheese: An fMRI Study," published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience

COGNITION

"For demonstrating that many identical twins cannot tell themselves apart visually."

Winners: Matteo Martini, Ilaria Bufalari, Maria Antonietta Stazi, and Salvatore Maria Aglioti

Study: "Is That Me or My Twin? Lack of Self-Face Recognition Advantage in Identical Twins," published in PLOS One

OBSTETRICS

"For showing that a developing human fetus responds more strongly to music that is played electromechanically inside the mother's vagina than to music that is played electromechanically on the mother's belly."

Winners: Marisa López-Teijón, Álex García-Faura, Alberto Prats-Galino, and Luis Pallarés Aniorte

Study: "Fetal Facial Expression in Response to Intravaginal Music Emission,” published in Ultrasound

PEACE PRIZE

"For demonstrating that regular playing of a didgeridoo is an effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea and snoring."

Winners: Milo A. Puhan, Alex Suarez, Christian Lo Cascio, Alfred Zahn, Markus Heitz, and Otto Braendli

Study: "Didgeridoo Playing as Alternative Treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnoea Syndrome: Randomised Controlled Trial," published by the BMJ

Congratulations, all.

[h/t The Guardian]

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