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15 Furry Ferret Facts For National Ferret Day

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Happy National Ferret Day! In honor of the holiday, brush up on your knowledge about everyone's favorite (and longest) pet. 

1. Ferrets have been domesticated for a quite a while. 

It is unclear when ferrets were first domesticated, but the critters have a long and storied history. Greek scholars—Aristophanes in 450 BCE and Aristotle in 350 BCE—wrote about a ferret-like animal. Some lore asserts that ancient Egyptians even kept them as pets, but the absence of ferret bones in explored tombs casts doubt on that claim. Remains have been found in a medieval castle in Belgium, but there is no mention of the pets in any contemporary writings. It's also possible that the ferret was exclusively a lower class pet, which would explain the lack of documentation. 

In the late 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci painted Cecilia Gallerani holding a weasel-like creature. Although the animal has been dubbed an ermine, many scholars believe the animal is actually a ferret. 

2. They are related to polecats. 

Ferrets are the domesticated subspecies of European polecats. They can easily interbreed to produce offspring that’s very similar to domestic ferrets.   

3. When threatened, ferrets will dance. 

In the wild, ferrets and stoats perform a hypnotic dance that sends their prey into a trance. Domestic ferrets also perform this dance, but they use it for play instead of hunting. They arch their backs, puff their tails, and move from side to side. This rug-cutting is usually a sign that the ferret is happy and having fun

4. Black-footed ferrets almost exclusively eat prairie dogs.

Wild black-footed ferrets, or American polecats, live in central North America and feast on unsuspecting prairie dogs. Scientists discovered that in South Dakota, 91 percent of the black-footed ferret's diet was prairie dogs [PDF]. 

Unfortunately, their main source of food has bigger problems than being eaten: The Black Death. The plague is no longer a worry for most humans, but it has a tendency to wipe out whole colonies of black-tailed prairie dogs. This threat is a real issue for the endangered black-footed ferrets, which perish without their favorite food. Luckily researchers have found a vaccine that could help keep the tiny rodents healthy. Testing is currently underway to see if the vaccine works in the wild. 

5. A group of ferrets is called a business.

Now that’s a professional pet! 

6. Ferrets can be used to hunt rabbits.

Rabbit hunting with ferrets is a popular sport in England. The ferrets run into rabbit holes to run the prey out of hiding. When the rabbits dash from their homes, human hunters trap them in nets. The tiny hunters wear ferret finder collars so if they corner a rabbit underground, their owners can come to their rescue with a shovel. One place you'll never see any ferret hunting:  Minnesota, where it’s illegal.

7. They can team up with falcons. 

Falconers employ ferrets in a similar role; the only difference is that the ferrets are used to bring the prey to the falcons. The two animals make a great hunting team.

8. Some ferrets have jobs. 

Known for their love of burrowing, ferrets can put their skill at running through pipes to a variety of professional uses. When wires cannot be pushed through tubes or tunnels with rods, the tiny critters step in. They are known for pulling wire through underground tunnels, and even helped lay wire for the millennium concert in London. 

One famous ferret named Felicia helped clean pipes at Fermilab's Meson Laboratory in 1971. A swab connected to her collar allowed her to clear away unwanted debris. Although Felicia only cost $35, she likely saved the lab thousands of dollars. 

9. This job led to a fun competition.

Ferret racing is a popular sport in London that involves competing ferrets racing through drainpipes. A small section of the pipe is removed and replaced with chicken wire so viewers can know when the pets are half-way through. Apparently, the animals thoroughly enjoy the race and company of their fellow ferrets. 

According to zoologist James McKay, the sport originated with ferrets being used to drag cables through pipelines in the desert. After a hard day's work, the engineers would use their downtime to race the employed ferrets through tubing.

10. Keep your babies away from them.

Ferrets are great pets for adults, but they should not be left around babies. Several reports have found that pet ferrets have attacked babies while the parents slept. 

Edgar K. Marcuse explained the phenomenon in the Journal of American Academy of Pediatrics

The animals seem attracted to babies, perhaps due to odors resembling those of suckling rabbits. Typically, attacks are made when parents are absent or asleep; the ferret escapes its cage and jumps into the baby's crib.

11. Scammers have sold ferrets on steroids as fancy poodles.

If you are looking to get a tiny exotic dog, make sure you’re not actually buying a ferret. In 2013, some Argentineans were being tricked into buying fake miniature poodles. Ferrets were given steroids and new haircuts before being passed off as exotic tiny dogs. The owners often didn’t realize they had accidentally bought drugged ferrets until visiting the vet for shots.   

12. Females can die if they go too long without mating.

Unspayed females need to mate or run the risk of producing too much estrogen. The overproduction can lead to estrogen toxicity, or hyperestrogenism. This condition can lead to anemia, clotting, and death. 

13. Ferret legging is a thing.

There is a "sport" called ferret legging and it is horrifying. The popular endurance game starts with a man with loose fitting pants. The ends are tied shut, and several ferocious ferrets are placed inside. The belt closes the top of the pants, and the game begins. The angry ferrets will bite and claw to try to get out and the player must endure the pain as long as he can. The current record is over 5 hours.

14. Scientists fiddled with a ferret’s brain and made a startling discovery.

In the 1990s, neuroscientists at MIT reconfigured baby ferrets' brains so that the critters' retinas were connected to their auditory cortexes. They expected the ferrets to go blind, but miraculously, they readjusted so that the auditory cortex worked like the visual cortex; they could see using the part of the brain normally used for hearing. This discovery showed that the brain is adaptable and makes use of what’s available. ''It's just waiting for signals from the environment and will wire itself according to the input it gets,'' said Dr. Jon Kaas, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University. 

15. They love to jump.

But sometimes they land in some unfortunate places.

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Why Can Parrots Talk and Other Birds Can't?
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If you've ever seen a pirate movie (or had the privilege of listening to this avian-fronted metal band), you're aware that parrots have the gift of human-sounding gab. Their brains—not their beaks—might be behind the birds' ability to produce mock-human voices, the Sci Show's latest video explains below.

While parrots do have articulate tongues, they also appear to be hardwired to mimic other species, and to create new vocalizations. The only other birds that are capable of vocal learning are hummingbirds and songbirds. While examining the brains of these avians, researchers noted that their brains contain clusters of neurons, which they've dubbed song nuclei. Since other birds don't possess song nuclei, they think that these structures probably play a key role in vocal learning.

Parrots might be better at mimicry than hummingbirds and songbirds thanks to a variation in these neurons: a special shell layer that surrounds each one. Birds with larger shell regions appear to be better at imitating other creatures, although it's still unclear why.

Learn more about parrot speech below (after you're done jamming out to Hatebeak).

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Extinct Penguin Species Was the Size of an Adult Human
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A penguin that waddled across the ice 60 million years ago would have dwarfed the king and emperor penguins of today, according to the Associated Press. As indicated by fossils recently uncovered in New Zealand, the extinct species measured 5 feet 10 inches while swimming, surpassing the height of an average adult man.

The discovery, which the authors say is the most complete skeleton of a penguin this size to date, is laid out in a study recently published in Nature Communications. When standing on land, the penguin would have measured 5 feet 3 inches, still a foot taller than today’s largest penguins at their maximum height. Researchers estimated its weight to have been about 223 pounds.

Kumimanu biceae, a name that comes from Maori words for “monster" and "bird” and the name of one researcher's mother, last walked the Earth between 56 million and 60 million years ago. That puts it among the earliest ancient penguins, which began appearing shortly after large aquatic reptiles—along with the dinosaurs—went extinct, leaving room for flightless carnivorous birds to enter the sea.

The prehistoric penguin was a giant, even compared to other penguin species of the age, but it may not have been the biggest penguin to ever live. A few years ago, paleontologists discovered 40-million-year-old fossils they claimed belonged to a penguin that was 6 feet 5 inches long from beak to tail. But that estimate was based on just a couple bones, so its actual size may have varied.

[h/t AP]

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