12 Facts About Mandarin Ducks

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iStock.com/panda3800

Recently, the mysterious appearance of a mandarin duck alongside the native mallards in ponds across Central Park has captivated New York City, with large groups lining up to catch a glimpse (and snap a photo) of the brightly colored bird. It's unclear where he came from—though he has a band on his leg, he doesn't belong to any zoos in the area, which has led some to speculate that he was a pet who either escaped or was dumped by his owner in the park—but one thing is clear. This "hot duck" is taking the internet by storm. Curious about where the mandarin duck is from, what it eats, if you can keep one as a pet, and even what it tastes like? Read on.

1. ITS NAME MEANS "WIGGED DIVING BIRD."

A close-up image of a brightly colored mandarin duck.
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Dubbed Aix galericulata by Carl Linnaeus in 1758, the Aix in the mandarin duck's scientific name is Greek for an unknown diving bird mentioned by Aristotle. The galericulata is something like "wig" or "cap" and references the bright breeding plumage on the male’s head.

2. IT'S NOT AS EXOTIC AS YOU MIGHT THINK.

A mandarin duck swimming.
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The native breeding area of the mandarin duck is eastern Siberia, Japan, China, and parts of North Korea, and they overwinter in southern China and Japan. But according to the citizen science website eBird, mandarin ducks have been spotted in multiple sites on the west coast of America—there's a growing population of the birds in California—and are present in Florida and a few other isolated areas. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission notes that “Species are present but not confirmed to be breeding. Population persists only with repeated introductions and/or escapes of individuals.”

They’re much more common in Europe, especially southeast England, which has an estimated population of around 7000 individuals. The ducks were mostly released in the early 20th century, although there are records of introductions as early as 1745 [PDF]. They've also been found in other parts of Europe, Israel, and Africa (although, as in Florida, some of these populations are escaped ornamental birds that aren't necessarily breeding on their own [PDF]).

3. MANDARIN DUCKS AREN'T DOING WELL IN THEIR NATIVE TERRITORY.

An image of a female and a male mandarin duck.
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Sadly, they're threatened by severe habitat loss across their native range and have a global population of around 65,000 individuals. As a result, the European population is often considered important for the species survival. Officially, however, the bird is classed as "Least Concern" by the IUCN.

4. IT HAS DEEP MEANING IN MANY EAST ASIAN CULTURES.

A male and female mandarin duck touching beaks.
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It's thought that the first reference to mandarin ducks was from the time of Confucius, where they were name-dropped in a song. They're also significant in Buddhism, where there are references to their compassion and, most significantly, their marital loyalty. Multiple legends in Japan refer to a male and female mandarin duck getting separated and using supernatural means (such as transforming into humans) to be reunited.

5. THEY HAVE AN AMERICAN COUSIN.

A female and a male American Wood Duck standing on a rock.
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Mandarin ducks belong to the genus Aix, alongside the American wood duck. They're both hole-nesting ducks with brightly colored males. But perhaps most surprisingly for ducks, they have claws. The claws allow them to perch on branches, and in the case of baby mandarin ducks, one paper says that when they're as young as one day old, they can dig those claws into wood, then leap half a foot, and then dig in the other claw [PDF].

6. MALE AND FEMALE MANDARIN DUCKS LOOK A LOT DIFFERENT.

A male and a female mandarin duck sitting on a rock.
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The male mandarin duck is extremely easy to identify. Considered one of the prettiest birds, it has orange, green, white, blue-ish, and black feathers, some of which curl up into a "sail" shape. (However, in eclipse plumage—a set of feathers sported by the ducks when it's not the mating season—the male is a much more standard gray.)

Female mandarin ducks are nowhere near as distinctive, and it can often be difficult to distinguish them from the closely related native female wood ducks (the males look completely different) [PDF]. Female mandarin ducks are gray but have a pale tip at the bill and a stripe behind the eye.

7. THEY HAVE ELABORATE COURTSHIP RITUALS.

A male mandarin duck with its beak open.
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Mandarin duck courtship rituals are, as is probably expected from their plumage, impressive affairs. They mock drink and mock preen, they shake, and emit a sound that one researcher likened to "a half-repressed sneeze." Most of the rest of the time they're rarely vocal, with the occasional "staccato hwick or uib uib" from the male and a "coquette call" from the female.

As for their famous monogamy, it’s thought to derive from observations of their frequent courtship displays and frequent ejection of intruders. In reality, they likely are monogamous for at least several years, although bigamy/polygamy is not unheard of.

8. THE YOUNG LEAP OUT OF TREES.

A male mandarin duck from above.
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The natural nesting habitat of mandarin ducks is in tree holes, which can sometimes be up to 30 feet off the ground. The bird lays nine to 12 white eggs that are incubated for around a month. When the eggs hatch (which occurs within a few hours of each other), the ducklings start to crawl out of the nest. To get out of the tree and—eventually—into the water, the baby bird flings itself out of the hole and free-falls to the ground below (often with a little bounce). According to mandarin duck scholar Christopher Lever, "The female stands at the base of the tree with her head pointing upwards, uttering a soft encouraging call to her offspring."

9. IT'S NOT VERY TASTY.

A male mandarin duck cleaning its feathers.
iStock.com/anipecosa

It's widely said that one of the factors that has allowed mandarin ducks to survive in east Asia is their taste—which is not particularly nice. Christopher Lever quotes an authority as saying, "Mandarin duck in China are rather dirty feeders, often eating snails, small mice, fish spawn, etc., and consequently are well known to have an unpleasant taste."

10. MANDARIN DUCKS CAN HELP YOUR FENG SHUI.

A male mandarin duck standing on a rock in a pond.
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Feng Shui is a traditional Chinese method of balancing energy forces, and a large part of some schools involves placing certain objects to match and harness that energy. Many modern Feng Shui practitioners claim that, because of their association with love and monogamy, having a pair of mandarin duck figurines can attract and enhance love. Practitioners advise placing the figurines so they either face each other or the same direction. Never separate them, and if one breaks, the entire pair should be replaced.

11. YOU CAN BUY ONE.

A male mandarin duck sleeping.
iStock.com/PanuRuangjan

Mandarin ducks are very popular pets; in fact, according to one report from the Netherlands, they're "by far the most popular duck kept in private collections" in that region [PDF]. They're considered easy to keep, but just because you can buy one doesn't mean it's legal to have one: In New York, for instance, it's illegal to keep a duck as a pet (alongside bears, cobras, whales, and many other creatures).

12. IT MIGHT POSE A THREAT TO NATIVE SPECIES.

A male mandarin duck and a male American wood duck.
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Paul Sweet, ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History, tweeted that it was possible that mandarin ducks could become established and compete with native wood ducks. Little research has been done on mandarin ducks in the United States, but a recent report from the Netherlands suggests that there might be cause for concern [PDF]. There is some evidence that they destroy the eggs of other birds in a lab setting, although the extent of this behavior in the wild is unclear. They're also known to drive other birds away from food—although again, their impact is unknown. As for hybridizing, there’s a myth that they can’t reproduce with other birds. While crosses with other ducks are rare for mandarins, there have been reports in Europe of birds appearing that seem to be mixes of introduced mandarin ducks and introduced American wood ducks.

Chimpanzees Bond by Watching Movies Together, Too

Windzepher/iStock via Getty Images
Windzepher/iStock via Getty Images

Scientists at the Wolfgang Kohler Primate Research Center in Germany recently discovered that, like humans, chimpanzees bond when they watch movies together, the BBC reports.

In the study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers stationed pairs of chimpanzees in front of screens that showed a video of a family of chimps playing with a young chimp. They found that afterward, the chimps would spend more time grooming and interacting with each other—or simply being in the same part of the room—than they would without having watched the video.

They gave the chimps fruit juice to keep them calm and occupied while they viewed the video, and they chose a subject that chimps have previously proven to be most interested in: other chimps. They also used eye trackers to ensure the chimps were actually watching the video. If you’ve ever watched a movie with friends, you might notice similarities between the chimps’ experience and your own. Drinks (and snacks) also keep us calm and occupied while we watch, and we like to watch movies about other humans. Since this study only showed that chimps bond over programs about their own species, we don’t know if it would work the same way if they watched something completely unrelated to them, like humans do—say, The Lion King.

Bonding through shared experiences was thought to be one of the traits that make us uniquely human, and some researchers have argued that other species don’t have the psychological mechanisms to realize that they’re even sharing an experience with another. This study suggests that social activities for apes don’t just serve utilitarian purposes like traveling together for safety, and that they’re capable of a more human-like social closeness.

The part that is uniquely human about this study is the fact that they were studying the effect of a screen, as opposed to something less man-made. The chimps in question have participated in other studies, so they may be more accustomed to that technology than wild apes. But the study demonstrates that we’re not the only species capable of social interaction for the sake of social interaction.

[h/t BBC]

10 Facts You Should Know About Mosquitoes

tskstock/iStock via Getty Images
tskstock/iStock via Getty Images

Between the itching and the welts and the fears of mosquito-borne viruses, it's easy to forget that mosquitoes are a wonder of evolution, and that maybe they don't get a fair shake from us. Of more than 3000 known species, only 80 actually bite people, and at least one eats other mosquitoes for us. They grow from egg to adult in just five days, begin mating within minutes of hatching, and possess, by way of their stinging mouthparts, some of the coolest appendages in the animal kingdom.

1. Mosquitoes are excellent flyers in bad weather.

The average raindrop is 50 times heavier than the average mosquito, yet they buzz around in the rain with no problems. If a Boeing 747 got whacked with a similarly scaled-up raindrop, there would be 2375 tons of water coming down on it, and things probably wouldn’t turn out as well as they do for the mosquito. How do the insects do it?

A common urban legend said that the bugs were nimble enough to dodge the drops. A few years ago, a team of engineers from the Georgia Institute of Technology watched real mosquitoes and Styrofoam dummy mosquitoes with a high-speed camera during a rainy flight to see if that’s what was really happening. They found that the bugs don’t fly fast enough to dodge the drops, but their slowness is what keeps them from getting knocked out of the sky. A mosquito’s low mass even at slow speed doesn’t provide enough of a target for a raindrop to splash on collision. Instead, the drop just deforms, and doesn’t transfer enough momentum to the mosquito to disrupt its flight.

2. Texas is the mosquito capital of America.

Of the 3000 species of mosquitoes around the world, at least 150 are found in the United States, and 85 of those call Texas home. When people say everything's bigger in Texas, you can also include the biodiversity of the state's biting, disease-carrying insects.

3. Some mosquitoes are truly dangerous to humans ...

The female mosquito, which is the one that stings and sucks blood, is an incredible transmitter of disease and, because of that, the deadliest animal in the world. Each year, the malaria parasites they transmit kill 2 million to 3 million people and infect another 200 million or more. They also spread pathogens that cause yellow fever, dengue fever, Rift Valley fever, Chikungunya and West Nile disease.

4. ... and some mosquitoes are harmless.

Not every species of mosquito sucks blood from people, and among those that do, not every one transmits disease. The blood suckers don’t even need to bite you for every meal. Males live entirely on nectar and other plant fluids, and the females’ diet is primarily plant-based, too. Most of the time, they only go after people when they’re ready to reproduce, because blood contains lipids, proteins, and other nutrients needed for the production of eggs.

5. MosquitoEs actually help the environment.

When you’re rubbing calamine lotion all over yourself, mosquitoes might not seem to serve any purpose but to annoy you, but many species play important ecological roles. The mosquitoes Aedes impiger and Aedes nigripes, which gather in thick clouds in Arctic Russia and Canada, are an important food source for migrating birds. Farther south, birds, insects, spiders, salamanders, lizards, frogs, and fish also eat different mosquito species regularly. Plants need them, too, and some, like the blunt-leaved orchid and endangered monkeyface orchid, rely on mosquitoes as their primary pollinator.

Some mosquito species are also excellent at mosquito control. Species of the genus Toxorhynchites feed on the larvae and immature stages of other mosquitoes and will sometimes even cannibalize members of their own species.

6. Mosquitoes are amazing hunters (as if we needed to tell you that).

Mosquitoes are adept at picking up on the chemicals given off by their human hosts. They can detect the carbon dioxide in our breath, the 1-octen-3-ol in our breath and sweat, and other organic substances we produce with the 70-plus types of odor and chemical receptors in their antennae. These receptors can pick up traces of chemicals from hundreds of feet away, and once the mosquito closes in, it tracks its meal chemically and also visually—and they’re fond of people wearing dark colors.

7. Mosquitoes can be picky.

If it seems like you’re always covered head to toe by bites while people who were sitting right next to you only have one or two, it’s not just paranoia; the skeeters actually are out to get you. Some people happen to give off more of the odors and compounds that mosquitoes find simply irresistible, while others emit less of those and more of the compounds that make them unattractive to mosquitoes—either by acting as repellents or by masking the compounds that mosquitoes would find attractive.

8. A female mosquito's mouth is primed for sucking blood.

A mosquito doesn’t simply sink its proboscis into your skin and start sucking. What you see sticking out of a mosquito’s face is the labium, which sheaths the mouthparts that really do all the work. The labium bends back when a mosquito bites, allowing these other parts to pass through its tip and do their thing. The sharp, pointed mandibles and maxillae, which both come in pairs, are used to pierce the skin, and the hollow hypopharynx and the labrum are used to deliver saliva and draw blood, respectively.

9. Mosquito saliva prevents blood clotting.

The saliva that gets pumped out from the hypopharynx during a bite is necessary to get around our blood’s tendency to clot. It contains a grab bag of chemicals that suppress vascular constriction, blood clotting and platelet aggregation, keeping our blood from clogging up the mosquitoes' labrum and ruining their meal.

10. Mosquitoes can explode.

Blood pressure makes a mosquito's meal easier by helping to fill its stomach faster, but urban legend says it can also lead to their doom. Story goes, you can flex a muscle close to the bite site or stretch your skin taut so the mosquito can’t pull out its proboscis and your blood pressure will fill the bug until it bursts. The consensus among entomologists seems to be that this is bunk, but there is a more complicated way of blowing the bugs up. To make a blood bomb, you’ve got to sever the mosquito’s ventral nerve cord, which transmits information about satiety. When it's cut, the cord can’t tell the mosquito’s brain that its stomach is full, so it’ll keep feeding until it reaches critical mass. At least one researcher found that mosquitoes clueless about how full they were would keep sucking even after their guts had exploded, sending showers of blood spilling out of their blown-out back end.

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