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Some Animals Give Poison Presents

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Characters on Game of Thrones aren't the only ones who hand out poison in the guise of gifts. Some real-world critters also hand out poison as presents, too. Take the Six-Spot Burnet (top), a type of moth, for example. Their bodies are black with a metallic sheen, save for the six crimson spots on their forewings that give them their name and advertise the fact that they’re chock-full of cyanide. The moths sequester the toxic compounds from the plants that they eat as larva and then synthesize the chemicals themselves when they’re older. The chemical defense and warning colors not only keep predators away, but the cyanide also makes a nice gift. 

Researchers in Denmark found that male Burnets with higher cyanide levels were more likely to get to mate with females, and that the males transferred some of their chemicals to their partners during sex. The scientists think that the “nuptial gift” could be a form of paternal care: If a mother moth has cyanide from daddy to spare, she can transfer some to her eggs to defend them. The female might also hang on to the poison and emit it as part of a chemical plume that helps her attract more males later on. 

Apple snail parents also give their offspring a little bit of poison when they come into the world. Their eggs contain two proteins, one of which gives the eggs a bright pink color that serves as a warning and one that’s a powerful neurotoxin that scares off all of the snail’s predators except the fire ant. The toxin is as strange as it is effective: Its structure is unlike anything else in the chemical defenses of animals, and was thought to be restricted to plants and bacteria. What’s more, the neurotoxin is made up of two other proteins that normally play a role in immune defense. Joined together, they protect against much more than disease, though, and show that defenses supposedly confined to one kingdom of life can also pop up in another. 

It’s not just invertebrates that have toxic gifts for their babies. Frogs do it, too. Poison dart frogs don’t make their poison on their own, but get it from the insects they eat and then store it in their skin. When the frogs are just born, they don’t have these chemicals and are pretty defenseless, so mom gives them a little bit of hers. Researchers from the US and Central America reported earlier this year that strawberry poison frogs feed their growing tadpoles with unfertilized eggs, which they load up with toxins from their own reserves. Thanks mom!

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Big Questions
Why Do Dogs Howl at Sirens?
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A dog's behavior can often prove confusing to their human colleagues. We know they like to eat their own poop, but puzzle at their motivations. We're surprised when dogs give a ladybug the same greeting as a home intruder.

Topping the list of eccentric canine behavior: Why do dogs howl at sirens? Is there some genetic predisposition to responding to a high-pitched alarm from passing ambulances or police vehicles?

As it turns out, the reason dogs howl at sirens is because of their ancestry—namely, the wolf. When members of a pack are fractured and spread out, their companions will howl to provide a way of locating them. Think of it as nature’s GPS: By howling, dogs are able to communicate their respective locations to one another, even across long distances.

Since dogs really don’t know what a cop car is supposed to sound like, they’ll often interpret a siren as an animal’s howl. It’s also possible that dogs consider sirens to be a sign that something is abnormal in their environment, and that they want you, the pack leader, to be aware of it.

Contrary to belief, a dog is rarely howling because the noise hurts their delicate ears. If that were the case, some experts say, then they would display other behaviors, like running and hiding.

The more a dog hears and responds to a siren, the more they might be compelled to continue the behavior. That’s because dogs who howl and then notice the sound drifting away might begin to associate their vocalizing with the disappearance of the noise. In the future, they’ll probably recall that they “drove” the interloper away with their warbling and repeat the process.

While howling is usually harmless, sometimes it can be a sign that your pet is feeling separation anxiety from an owner or that they’re feeling unwell. If howling persists even without a screaming siren within earshot, you might consider taking them in for a check-up.

If you’ve wondered why dogs howl at sirens, now you know. It’s simply a way of signaling their location and not because it pains them. Owners, on the other hand, might feel differently.

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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Animals
5 Ways to Keep Your Dog Calm on the Fourth of July

The Fourth of July can be rough for dogs. Fireworks displays light up their senses with unfamiliar noises, flashes, and smells, and parties flood their homes with strange guests who may invade the rooms they usually have as private retreats. And when distressed dogs escape, howl, or thrash around the house, Independence Day can quickly become a nightmare for their owners, too. To minimize Fido's stress this holiday, we spoke to some dog experts to discover the best ways to keep your canine calm on the Fourth of July.

1. EXERCISE

Anthony Newman, the dog whisperer who runs New York City's Calm Energy Dog Training, says that exercise is a great way to help your dog let off some nervous energy. “Whenever Fido is going to be neglected for an extended period of time, or around any stressful stimuli, it always helps to tire him out just before—and even during the night if you can,” Newman says. “As the saying goes, a tired dog is a good dog! He’ll be calmer, happier, and more peaceful.”

2. STAY INDOORS

Dr. Stephanie Liff, head veterinarian at Pure Paws Veterinary Care, says the best place to keep your pet during a fireworks show is inside and away from the windows. “If the pet is very scared, an escape-proof crate or a sound-insulated room, such as an internal bathroom, may help the pet to feel more secure,” Liff tells us. “If you cannot keep your pet inside, make sure that the pet is prevented from escape (monitor all exits and tell guests to monitor your pet).”

3. SOCIALIZE

While your dog may feel more secure in a room away from all the noise, Newman points out that keeping your dog isolated in another room for too long can be stressful for your pet. “Release his curiosity and let him in on the fun, to run around and play with both two-legged as well as four-legged guests,” Newman says. “Then back to his obedient room, bed, car, crate, or spot. Rinse and repeat as needed throughout the night."

4. TAKE CONTROL

According to Newman, the best way to keep your dog calm during the chaos of July 4th is to stay in charge. “If your dog winces, shivers, and runs away at loud noises, the last thing he wants is to feel like nobody else is looking out for him,” Newman says. Don’t let your dog run rampant around the house or follow him around trying to soothe him. Instead, Newman says it's important to “take control by attaching a super-light leash that you can grab and lead him whenever you need.”

5. MEDICATE

In extreme cases of nervousness, Liff says that you should talk to your vet about medication to sedate your dog.

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