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The Beetle That Doubles as a Mass Transit System

In the tropical forests of Central and South America, a fantastic looking beetle begins its life in the drabbest of places. The harlequin beetle (Acrocinus longimanus) is named for the eye-catching splashes of black and red (or yellow) that cover its forewings. While seemingly conspicuous (some of the patterns look like something Guy Fieri would have on a bowling shirt), the designs actually help the beetles blend in with the mottled trunks and branches of trees, and it’s in the dull brown wood of fallen, decaying tree limbs that a mother harlequin beetle lays her eggs. She gnaws into the bark and deposits her eggs, usually in a batch of 15 to 20. The larvae dig deeper into the wood when they hatch, and again when they’re ready to pupate. Then they spend the next few months developing and growing into their adult form. 

Meanwhile, on those same rotting branches, the pseudoscorpion Cordylochernes scorpioides scuttles about eating small insects. Lacking the tails and poisonous stingers of their namesake, the true scorpions, these little teardrop-shaped arachnids instead take down their prey with venom secreted through their pinching claws. When a branch becomes too decayed to make a good home, or there are too many pseudoscorpions and not enough food to go around, some of these guys will have to find another dead limb to live on. But they’re tiny (often just a few millimeters long) and wingless, and the next branch might be far away. How do they get from Point A to Point B?

The answer is right underneath them. When the the fully-grown harlequin beetles chew their way back out from the branches, one of their first orders of business is to find a branch to eat bark and fungus from. Since both species are looking for the same thing, the pseudoscorpions hitch a ride on the beetles. 

After a beetle bores its way out of the wood, pseudoscorpions swarm around it and pinch its belly with their claws. Annoyed at the less than warm welcome to the outside world, the beetle flexes its abdomen and flicks its forewings, exposing its back and giving the pseudoscorpions space to climb aboard. 

As they shuffle onto the beetle, the male pseudoscorpions will make room for females, but shove each other around as they jockey for the best spots and try to keep other males from climbing on. When the beetle takes off, the pseudoscorpions secure themselves with “safety harnesses” they fashion from silk from their claws, and the males that managed to stay on the beetle compete for the attention of the female passengers and mate with them. The females usually disembark at the next branch, but the males may stay on the beetle if new females climb on and use the bug as a mobile love shack for a few days.

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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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