Why Crows Hold Noisy Funerals for Their Fallen Friends

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iStock

The next time you hear a murder of crows cackling for no apparent reason, show a little respect: You may have stumbled onto a crow funeral. Crows are among the few animals that exhibit a social response to a dead member of their species. Though their caws may sound like heartbroken cries, such funerals aren't so much about mourning their fallen friends as they are about learning from their mistakes.

In the video below from the PBS series Deep Look, Kaeli Swift, a researcher at the University of Washington's Avian Conservation Lab, investigates this unusual phenomenon firsthand. She familiarized herself with a group of crows in a Seattle park by feeding them peanuts in the same spot for a few days. After the crows got used to her visits, she returned to the site holding a dead, taxidermied crow and wearing a mask and wig to hide her identity. The crows immediately started their ritual by gathering in the trees and crying in her direction. According to Swift, this behavior is a way for crows to observe whatever might have killed the dead bird and learn to avoid the same fate. Flocking into a large, noisy group provides them protection from the threat if it's still around.

She tested her theory by returning to the same spot the next week without her mask or the stuffed crow. She offered the crows peanuts just as she had done before, only this time the birds were skittish and hesitant to take them from her. The idea that crows remember and learn from their funerals was further supported when she returned wearing the mask and wig. Though she didn't have the dead bird with her this time, the crows were still able to recognize her and squawked at her presence. Even birds that weren't at the funeral learned from the other birds' reactions and joined in the ruckus.

Swift was lucky this group of crows wasn't particularly vengeful. Crows have been known to nurse and spread grudges, sometimes dive-bombing people that have harmed one of their own.

[h/t Deep Look]

Why Do Dogs Sniff Each Other's Butts?

Chloe Effron // Dogs: iStock
Chloe Effron // Dogs: iStock

WHY? is our attempt to answer all the questions every little kid asks. Do you have a question? Send it to why@mentalfloss.com.

We might giggle when we see dogs sniffing each other’s rear ends, but there’s a good reason why dogs stick their noses in private places. It lets them find out all kinds of things about each other to help them get along and survive. A butt sniff for dogs is like a handshake for humans.

Dogs’ amazing sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times better than humans. They also have a special part of their noses called the Jacobson's organ that lets them ignore the smell of poop when they sniff another dog’s rear. Instead, the organ detects something more important. On the sides of a dog’s anus (AY-nuss)—the place where poop comes out—are special glands that release chemicals telling the body how to grow and work properly. This is what interests dogs the most about each other’s butts. 

The chemicals tell dogs a lot about each other. They help a dog to know if another dog is male or female, how old it is, what it eats, how healthy it is, and even what kind of mood they’re in. The chemicals also help it to know if other dogs are strangers or if they’ve met before. All of this helps dogs decide how they should behave. It's how dogs first get to know each other!

To sniff out more information about dogs and their noses (and their butts!), see this video by Reactions.

Do Lobsters Really Mate for Life?

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iStock

It's a pop culture trope that mated lobsters stay together until they die. But is it true?

Nope. While plenty of animals practice long-term monogamy, lobsters are not among them. Lobsters actually mate by a weird system of serial monogamy. It's not exactly a one-night stand, but it's not a lifelong commitment either. Instead, a bunch of females take turns having a fling with the local dominant male that lasts a week or two and, if they're not happy with the amount of genetic material he's provided, then seek a little extra action.

It works like this: A female lobster who's ready to mate (which they can only do right after they've molted) hangs out near the den of the local dominant male and fans her pheromone-laced urine into his home. This relaxes the male, making him less aggressive and more receptive to mating. Then there's a brief courtship, and the male allows the female into his den.

Anywhere from a few hours to a few days later, the female slips into something a little more comfortable by shedding her exoskeleton. (Shacking up with the neighborhood tough guy guarantees her protection during this vulnerable time.) The pair mates, and the male deposits his sperm in the female. Once her new shell has hardened a week or two later, she takes off, and another female can have her turn. Often, the females in an area will stagger the timing of their molts to make their reproductive conga line more efficient. As soon as one female is done with the stud, the next one is already waiting to pee on his doorstep.

Sometimes, the male doesn't provide enough sperm to fully fertilize all of a female's eggs. In these cases, she'll leave before her new shell finishes forming to find and mate with another male (or males) until she collects enough sperm. Usually this requires just an extra dalliance or two, but as many as 10 have been reported.

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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