© Aleksandar Dutsov, Balkani Wildlife Society
© Aleksandar Dutsov, Balkani Wildlife Society

The Curious Case of the Flying Communist Bears

© Aleksandar Dutsov, Balkani Wildlife Society
© Aleksandar Dutsov, Balkani Wildlife Society

There was something off about some of the bears. They didn’t belong there. 

Researchers had gone to Bulgaria to study one of the last large populations of brown bears in Europe. While it’s nearly extinct in Western Europe, the species hangs on in the east, but biologists didn’t know much about how many there were, where they lived, or how the bears were all connected. To learn more about them, the team, led by Carsten Nowak, a wildlife geneticist at the Germany’s Senckenberg Research Institute, collected hair, scat, and tissue samples, and analyzed them.

While going through the animals’ DNA profiles, Nowak’s PhD student Christiane Frosch found something odd. Some of the bears didn’t fit. Their DNA profiles were unlike any of the others, suggesting they didn’t belong to the Bulgarian populations and that they’d come from somewhere else. 

When the scientists compared the strange bears’ DNA to another population in Romania, they found a match. The bears had family ties to ones living in the Carpathian Mountains, some 600 miles away. 

While bears will sometimes wander far from where they were born to find new territory, it didn’t seem likely that these foreigners had migrated from the Carpathians. They were all found far from the only potential travel route that could have gotten them there, with plenty of barriers in between. The foreign animals also were mostly females, which aren’t known to stray far from their home range. The genetic differences between the two populations didn’t suggest a lot of interbreeding, either. 

So how did they get there? Nowak thinks it’s the work of a trigger-happy dictator. 

Nicolae Ceausescu was the communist ruler of Romania from 1967 to 1989. During his reign, he enjoyed hunting, or, as David Quammen put it, “the sort of travesty of hunting that only a despot can experience and only a delusional egotist would enjoy.”

Ceausescu shot bears like they were fish in a barrel. He would travel by helicopter and jeep to one of the many hunting areas he had set aside for his personal use. There he would find a comfortable hunting blind overlooking a feeding trough that had been arranged by forest managers ahead of time. If it was taking too long for a bear to wander over to the bait (his attention span during a hunt often only lasted a few minutes), forest department employees would move through the woods and drive the animals towards him. If he missed his shot, his lackeys would find, kill, and deliver another animal so the president could still have his trophy. Once, after missing two shots, he commanded that fences be erected near the blind to channel the animals towards him and make them easier targets. Afterwards, taxidermists would stretch the bears’ pelts to artificially increase their size and Ceausescu’s trophy score.

Over his lifetime, Ceausescu shot anywhere from a few hundred to more than a thousand bears, depending on whose estimate you go by. He loved shooting the animals so much that he sometimes used them as a strange form of diplomacy. Bulgaria’s communist leader, Todor Zhikov, was also an avid hunter, but Bulgarian bears were disappointingly small compared to Romanian ones. To maintain good relations, Ceausescu would occasionally pack a few big bears from the Carpathians into a military plane and send them to Bulgaria as a gift for Zhikov. 

While there’s no surviving documentation of these flying bears, forest managers and game wardens in both countries told Nowak’s team that they did happen. They also pointed them to some of the enclosures (top) that the bears were delivered to in Bulgaria, a few of which still exist and still house bears (the researchers weren’t allowed access to these to take samples from the bears). Indeed, the majority of the “alien” bears were found within a few miles of these delivery sites. The bears’ proximity to the enclosures and the evidence against natural migration, the researchers say, provide some of the first hard evidence confirming what’s long been regarded as just a Cold War-era legend. 

Bulgaria isn’t the only place that Ceausescu sent his furry gifts, either, foresters told Nowak. The dictator supposedly tried to firm up his friendship with Sweden the same way, but the bear-bearing plane was turned away at the airport. 

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Animals
14 Bold Facts About Bald Eagles
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Bald eagles are powerful symbols of America—but there’s a whole lot more to these quirky birds.

1. YOUNG BALD EAGLES AREN'T BALD.

A young bald eagle with a brown head on a beach.
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So obviously adult bald eagles aren't really bald, either—their heads have bright white plumage that contrasts with their dark body feathers, giving them a "bald" look. But young bald eagles have mostly brown heads. In fact, for the first four or five years of their lives, they move through a complicated series of different plumage patterns; in their second year, for instance, they have white bellies.

2. BALD EAGLES SOUND SO SILLY THAT HOLLYWOOD DUBS OVER THEIR VOICES.

A red-tailed hawk.
A red-tailed hawk's screech is usually dubbed over the bald eagle's weaker scream.
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It's a scene you’ve probably seen countless times in movies and on TV: an eagle flies overhead and emits a rough, piercing scream. It's a classic symbol of wilderness and adventure. The only problem? Bald eagles don't make that sound.

Instead, they emit a sort of high-pitched giggle or a weak scream. These noises are so unimpressive that Hollywood sound editors often dub over bald eagle calls with far more impressive sounds: the piercing, earthy screams of a smaller bird, the red-tailed hawk. If you were a fan of The Colbert Report, you might remember the show's iconic CGI eagle from the opener—it, too, is making that red-tailed hawk cry. Listen for yourself and decide who sounds more impressive.

3. THEY EAT TRASH AND STOLEN FOOD.

Two bald eagles guard their prey against two magpies on a snowy field.
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Picture a majestic bald eagle swooping low over a lake and catching a fish in its powerful claws. Yes, bald eagles eat a lot of fish—but they don't always catch it themselves. They've perfected the art of stealing fish from other birds such as ospreys, chasing them down until they drop their prey.

Bald eagles will also snack on gulls, ducks, rabbits, crabs, amphibians, and more. They'll scavenge in dumpsters, feed on waste from fish processing plants, and even gorge on carrion (dead, decaying animals).

4. BALD EAGLES USUALLY MATE FOR LIFE.

Two bald eagles perched on a tree.
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Trash and carrion aside, they're pretty romantic animals. Bald eagles tend to pair up for life, and they share parenting duties: the male and the female take turns incubating the eggs, and they both feed their young.

5. … AND THEY LIVE PRETTY LONG LIVES.

Two bald eagles sitting on a rock.
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Those romantic partnerships are even more impressive because bald eagles can survive for decades. In 2015, a wild eagle in Henrietta, New York, died at the record age of 38. Considering that these birds pair up at 4 or 5 years of age, that's a lot of Valentine's Days.

6. THEY HOLD THE RECORD FOR THE LARGEST BIRD'S NEST.

Two bald eagles in their large nest.
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Bald eagles build enormous nests high in the treetops. The male and female work on the nest together, and this quality time helps them cement their lifelong bond. Their cozy nurseries consist of a framework of sticks lined with softer stuff such as grass and feathers. If the nest serves them well during the breeding season, they'll keep using it year after year. And, like all homeowners, they can't resist the thought of renovating and adding to their abode. Every year, they'll spruce it up with a whopping foot or two of new material.

On average, bald eagle nests are 2-4 feet deep and 4-5 feet wide. But one pair of eagles near St. Petersburg, Florida, earned the Guinness World Record for largest bird’s nest: 20 feet deep and 9.5 feet wide. The nest weighed over two tons.

7. FEMALES ARE LARGER THAN MALES.

Two bald eagles in their large nest.
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In many animal species, males are (on average) larger than females. Male gorillas, for example, dwarf their female counterparts. But for most birds of prey, it's the opposite. Male bald eagles weight about 25 percent less than females.

Scientists aren't sure why there's such a size difference. One reason might be the way they divide up their nesting duties. Females take the lead in arranging the nesting material, so being bigger might help them take charge. Also, they spend longer incubating the eggs than males, so their size could intimidate would-be egg thieves.

If you're trying to tell male and female eagles apart, this size difference may help you—especially since both sexes have the same plumage patterns.

8. TO IDENTIFY THEM, LOOK AT THE WINGS.

A bald eagle flies across the water.
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People often get excited about a big soaring bird and yell "It's an eagle!” just before it swoops closer and … oops, it's a vulture. Here's a handy identification tip. Bald eagles usually soar with their wings almost flat. On the other hand, the turkey vulture—another dark, soaring bird—holds its wings up in a shallow V shape called a dihedral. A lot of large hawks also soar with slightly raised wings.

9. THEY'RE COMEBACK KIDS.

Baby eagle chicks in a nest.
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Before European settlers arrived, bald eagles were abundant across the U.S. But with settlement came habitat destruction, and the settlers viewed the eagles as competition for game and as a threat to livestock. So many eagles were killed that in 1940 Congress passed an act to protect the birds.

Unfortunately, another threat rose up at about that time. Starting after World War II, farmers and public health officials used an insecticide called DDT. The chemical worked well to eradicate mosquitos and agricultural pests—but as it traveled up the food chain, it began to heavily affect birds of prey. DDT made eagle eggshells too thin and caused the eggs to break. A 1963 survey found just 471 bald eagle pairs in the lower 48 states.

DDT was banned in the early 1970s, and conservationists began to breed bald eagles in captivity and reintroduce them in places across America. Luckily, this species made a spectacular recovery. Now the lower 48 states boast over 9700 nesting pairs.

10. THEY'RE UNIQUELY NORTH AMERICAN.

An African fish eagle flies over the water.
The African fish eagle is a relative of the North American bald eagle.
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You've probably heard of America's other eagle: the golden eagle. This bird lives throughout much of the northern hemisphere. But the bald eagle is only found in North America. It lives across much of Canada and the U.S., as well as northern parts of Mexico.

Though it may be North American, the bald eagle has seven close relatives that are found throughout the world. They all belong to the genus Haliaeetus, which comes—pretty unimaginatively—from the Latin words for "sea" and "eagle." One relative, the African fish eagle, is a powerful symbol in its own right. It represents several countries; for example, it's the national symbol of Zambia, and graces the South Sudanese, Malawian, and Namibian coats of arms.

11. THEY'RE AERIAL DAREDEVILS.

A bald eagle carries a fish off in its talons.
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It seems too weird to be true: While flying, bald eagles sometimes grab each other's feet and spin while plummeting to the Earth. Scientists aren't sure why they do this—perhaps it's a courtship ritual or a territorial battle. Usually, the pair will separate before hitting the ground (as seen in this remarkable set of photographs). But sometimes they hold tight and don't let go. These two male bald eagles locked talons and hit the ground with their feet still connected. One subsequently escaped and the other was treated for talon wounds.

12. THEIR EYES ARE AMAZING.

Close-up of a bald eagle's face.
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What if you could close your eyes and still see? Besides the usual pair of eyelids, bald eagles have a see-through eyelid called a nictitating membrane. They can close this membrane to protect their eyes while their main eyelids remain open. The membrane also helps moisten and clean their eyes.

Eagles also have sharper vision than people, and their field of vision is wider. Plus, they can see ultraviolet light. Both of those things mean the expression "eagle eye" is spot-on.

13. THEY MIGRATE … SORT OF.

A bald eagle sits in a snowy tree.
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If you're a bald eagle that nests in northern Canada, you'll probably head south for the winter to avoid the punishing cold. Many eagles fly south for the winter and return north for the summer—as do plenty of other bird species (and retired Canadians). But not all bald eagles migrate. Some of them, including individuals in New England and Canada's Maritime provinces, stick around all year. Whether or not a bird migrates depends on how old it is and how much food is available.

14. THEY CAN SWIM … SORT OF.

A bald eagle
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There are several videos online—like the one above—that show a bald eagle swimming in the sea, rowing itself to shore with its huge wings. Eagles have hollow bones and fluffy down, so they can float pretty well. But why swim instead of soar? Sometimes, an eagle will swoop down and grab an especially weighty fish, then paddle it to shore to eat.

Note that the announcer in the video above says that the eagle's talons are "locked" on a fish that's too heavy to carry. In fact, those lockable talons are an urban legend.

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How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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