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Some Bats Call “Dibs” on Food

In my seven-sibling family, “dibs” is the most frequently heard phrase at holiday meals. Everyone wants to lay claim to the turkey drumstick or the end piece on the ham or the last (several) beer(s) in the fridge. And it’s not just me and my brothers and sisters that warn each other to back off from our food: Scientists now think that bats do it, too. 

Researchers at the University of Maryland were examining audio recordings of big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus) when they noticed that some of the noises the animals made were a little weird. They were unlike the sounds that bats usually use for echolocation, and turned out to be social or communicative calls, the bat version of conversation. 

One of the calls consisted of three or four long, low downward sweeps through a range of frequencies and then a few short, buzz-like calls. The “frequency-modulated bout” (FMB), as the researchers dubbed it, only seemed to be made when the bats were hunting for food. 

To learn more about the FMBs, the researchers, led by biologist Genevieve Wright, dangled a mealworm in a lab enclosure and let some bats have at it, either individually or in pairs, while they recorded things with high-speed video and audio equipment. 

The recordings revealed that only male bats emitted FMBs, and only when they were hunting with another bat. Once one bat produced an FMB, the other one quickly changed its behavior, breaking its flight path toward the food and increasing the distance between itself and the calling bat. The bat that made the noise then claimed the prey for itself. When both bats produced FMBs, the one that emitted more of the calls usually nabbed the mealworm. 

All this suggests that the FMBs have a repellent effect on nearby bats, and are the animals’ way of calling dibs on a prey item and saying “hey, that one’s mine, back off!”

The researchers are left with a nagging question, though. Why do only male bats call dibs? It might be that females don’t need to because they usually hunt alongside related bats and roost-mates, while males often forage with other, unrelated males and there is stronger competition for prey. The researchers also say its possible that only males make the FMBs because they’re related to a male-specific mating call. Even though Wright’s team only examined the calls outside of mating season, other researchers have described calls similar to the FMB being used during mating to assert control over a contested mate. 

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Animals
Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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The Queen's Racing Pigeons Are in Danger, Due to an Increase in Peregrine Falcons
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Queen Elizabeth is famous for her love of corgis and horses, but her pet pigeons don't get as much press. The monarch owns nearly 200 racing pigeons, which she houses in a luxury loft at her country estate, Sandringham House, in Norfolk, England. But thanks to a recent boom in the region’s peregrine falcon population, the Queen’s swift birds may no longer be able to safely soar around the countryside, according to The Telegraph.

Once endangered, recent conservation efforts have boosted the peregrine falcon’s numbers. In certain parts of England, like Norfolk and the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire, the creatures can even find shelter inside boxes installed at local churches and cathedrals, which are designed to protect potential eggs.

There’s just one problem: Peregrine falcons are birds of prey, and local pigeon racers claim these nesting nooks are located along racing routes. Due to this unfortunate coincidence, some pigeons are failing to return to their owners.

Pigeon racing enthusiasts are upset, but Richard Salt of Salisbury Cathedral says it's simply a case of nature taking its course. "It's all just part of the natural process,” Salt told The Telegraph. "The peregrines came here on their own account—we didn't put a sign out saying 'room for peregrines to let.' Obviously we feel quite sorry for the pigeons, but the peregrines would be there anyway."

In the meantime, the Queen might want to keep a close eye on her birds (or hire someone who will), or consider taking advantage of Sandringham House's vast open spaces for a little indoor fly-time.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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