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Pekar, et al.
Pekar, et al.

A Tiny Spider’s Secret to Taking Down Big Prey

Pekar, et al.
Pekar, et al.

At first glance, the pinhead-sized spider Zodarion cyrenaicum seems like it's on a suicide mission every time it hunts for a meal. Its preferred prey is a desert ant, Messor arenarius, some three times bigger and six times heavier than itself. But as David and the Red Viper have shown us, size isn’t everything—especially if you’ve got some slick moves and the right tools for the job. 

Wondering how the spiders consistently come out on top when battling the relatively-giant ants, Czech scientists watched some captured critters hunt in their lab. 

They found that both adult female and juvenile spiders rely on a potent venom that can immobilize an ant with just one bite. They use slightly different tactics to stay out of harm’s way until the venom does its job, though. (The adult males don’t hunt at all, and instead take a cut of the food from a female's or juvenile’s kill).

The adult female spiders attack quickly from behind, biting the ant’s abdomen or hind leg, and then retreat from any counter-attacks until the ant falls.

Following a bite, the ant stopped moving and stood still with opened mandibles,” the researchers write. “Meanwhile, the bitten limb contracted, and the gaster [the bulbous hind end of the ant body] bent under the thorax. Such a C-shaped position lasted for several minutes; then the ant collapsed, falling on one side. At this moment, the spiders approached and began to feed.”

The juvenile spiders are small enough that they can take a different approach. They actually climb onto their foe, deliver a bite to the abdomen, and then hang on to the ant’s back until it’s paralyzed so it can’t retaliate. Even at a young age, their venom is already something to be reckoned with. While the venom glands of an adult are more then 50 times bigger than a juvenile’s, the younger spider’s venom only takes a little bit longer to immobilize the prey. 

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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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