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Why the Inside of a Camel's Mouth Looks Like a Sarlacc Pit

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Flickr user AnneLeroy

If you can get over the whole spitting thing, camels are pretty cute—at least until they open up their mouths. It's like staring into the Sarlacc pit from Return of the Jedi. What are those little fleshy things? What purpose do they serve? What is going on here?

The things in the camel's mouth are oral papillae, and they're totally normal, says Luis Padilla, Director of Animal Health at the St. Louis Zoo. "Papillae are projections or raised structures found in different parts of the mouth, internal cheeks, and tongues of some species," he says. "There are many kinds of papillae. Most have simply a mechanical function, but some have a sensory function, either positional sensation or they may have taste buds on them. In ruminants, the ones on the cheek and esophagus can be extremely large, as what you see in the picture." 

When the papillae's function is purely mechanical, Padilla says, they're usually cone- or triangular-shaped, and work in conjunction with the tongue and the muscles of the mouth to help manipulate food in one direction, typically toward the stomach (which means that a camel's mouth has more in common with the Sarlacc pit than just looks!). Camels need those big papillae because of what they're eating. "Swallowing chewed leaves and sticks without some sort of mechanical assistance can be hard," Padilla says. "The papillae are sort of firm—they can be partially keratinized—and can feel almost like plastic. In the areas where they are keratinized, the papillae protect the cheek and mouth from getting scratched, abraded, poked, perforated, or injured." Though all camelids have papillae, size and shape can vary, and they can be affected by the animals' health, according to Padilla. "Blunting of the papillae or ulcerated papillae are signs of certain disease conditions," he says.

Many different kinds of animals have papillae, including humans. "There are lots of tiny papillae in the human mouth, especially on the tongue," Padilla says. "Humans and most primates do not have papillae as big as camels’ or other ruminants’. Because of our masticatory adaptations and diet, we don’t really need them to keep food flowing in one direction on the lining of our cheek or esophagus." (Also important to note: "Taste buds sit on top of a specialized kind of papilla," Padilla says, "but not all papillae are taste buds.")

But look inside the mouths of many fish-eating birds, reptiles, and fish, and you'll find varying types of papillae. "There are actually about 10 to 15 types of papillae based on their shape, location, and function," Padilla says. "These papillae are so large and elaborate in some species—like penguins or sea turtles—that once you put something in their throat, it can be sort of difficult to pull it back." And they're not just found in the mouth; Padilla says papillae can be found in some other parts of the gastrointestinal system, including the stomach, esophagus, and rumen of certain species; depending on the animal, and the location of the papillae, proportions and firmness vary. Sea turtles, for example, have pretty soft papillae.

Back to camels, though—there's one more thing Padilla wants to point out about that mouth. "In some of the photos [on the Internet], you see the really impressive canine teeth of some male camels," he says. "These can be pretty dangerous."

Photo courtesy of Flickr user AnneLeroy; used with permission.

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Animals
Australian Charity Releases Album of Cat-Themed Ballads to Promote Feline Welfare
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An Australian animal charity is helping save the nation’s kitties one torch song at a time, releasing a feline-focused musical album that educates pet owners about how to properly care for their cats.

Around 35,000 cats end up in pounds, shelters, and rescue programs every year in the Australian state of New South Wales, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Microchipping and fixing cats, along with keeping closer tabs on them, could help reduce this number. To get this message out, the RSPCA’s New South Wales chapter created Cat Ballads: Music To Improve The Lives Of Cats.

The five-track recording is campy and fur-filled, with titles like "Desex Me Before I Do Something Crazy" and "Meow Meow." But songs like “I Need You” might tug the heartstrings of ailurophiles with lyrics like “I guess that’s goodbye then/but you’ve done this before/the window's wide open/and so’s the back door/you might think I’m independent/but you’d be wrong.” There's also a special version of the song that's specifically designed for cats’ ears, featuring purring, bird tweets, and other feline-friendly noises.

Together, the tunes remind us how vulnerable our kitties really are, and provide a timely reminder for cat owners to be responsible parents to their furry friends.

“The Cat Ballads campaign coincides with kitten season, which is when our shelters receive a significantly higher number of unwanted kittens as the seasons change,” Dr. Jade Norris, a veterinary scientist with the RSPCA, tells Mental Floss. “Desexing cats is a critical strategy to reduce unwanted kittens.”

Listen to a song from Cat Ballads below, and visit the project’s website for the full rundown.

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Animals
Scientists Discover 'Octlantis,' a Bustling Octopus City
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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Octopuses are insanely talented: They’ve been observed building forts, playing games, and even walking on dry land. But one area where the cephalopods come up short is in the social department. At least that’s what marine biologists used to believe. Now a newly discovered underwater community, dubbed Octlantis, is prompting scientists to call their characterization of octopuses as loners into question.

As Quartz reports, the so-called octopus city is located in Jervis Bay off Australia’s east coast. The patch of seafloor is populated by as many as 15 gloomy octopuses, a.k.a. common Sydney octopuses (octopus tetricus). Previous observations of the creatures led scientists to think they were strictly solitary, not counting their yearly mating rituals. But in Octlantis, octopuses communicate by changing colors, evict each other from dens, and live side by side. In addition to interacting with their neighbors, the gloomy octopuses have helped build the infrastructure of the city itself. On top of the rock formation they call home, they’ve stored mounds of clam and scallop shells and shaped them into shelters.

There is one other known gloomy octopus community similar to this one, and it may help scientists understand how and why they form. The original site, called Octopolis, was discovered in the same bay in 2009. Unlike Octlantis, Octopolis was centered around a manmade object that had sunk to the seabed and provided dens for up to 16 octopuses at a time. The researchers studying it had assumed it was a freak occurrence. But this new city, built around a natural habitat, shows that gloomy octopuses in the area may be evolving to be more social.

If that's the case, it's unclear why such octo-cities are so uncommon. "Relative to the more typical solitary life, the costs and benefits of living in aggregations and investing in interactions remain to be documented," the researchers who discovered the group wrote in a paper published in Marine and Freshwater Behavior and Physiology [PDF].

It’s also possible that for the first time in history humans have the resources to see octopus villages that perhaps have always been bustling beneath the sea surface.

[h/t Quartz]

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