Vultures Surf on Humans’ Hot Air


A few years ago, biologists James Mandel and Keith Bildstein got a surprise while watching turkey vultures at landfill in Pennsylvania. That the birds were there wasn’t shocking—they’re scavengers, and city dumps provide a buffet of discarded meat—but their timing was. The two scientists saw the buzzards flying and feeding as late as 11 p.m., well past the time they usually call it a day and head back to their roosts. 

While their macabre eating habits and association with death might lead you to think that vultures are creatures of the night, they’re most active during the middle of the day and rarely fly after sunset. This is because of the way they fly. Like hawks, eagles, and pelicans, vultures save energy by soaring or gliding through the air instead of flapping their wings. They coast on updrafts produced by wind deflecting off the landscape and on rising columns of warm air called thermals. These air currents are strongest and most abundant in the late morning and afternoon, so that’s the schedule vultures follow: early to bed and late to rise. 

Everywhere else Mandel and Bildstein saw vultures—farms, forests, and even the suburbs around the landfill—the birds headed back to their roosts as the sun went down. At the landfill, though, they flew around well into the night. The scientists soon figured out that the vultures were able to shift their schedule thanks to man-made thermals. The landfill had four tall pipes for venting methane, which operated around the clock and created strong, hot gusts of air. When natural thermals subsided, the vultures used the vents to power late-night flights and get an altitude boost before gliding back to their roosts. The researchers also saw vultures use the vents early in the morning to gain lift before soaring off to other feeding sites. 

Now, another research team has discovered that vultures also use thermals from power plants as a pick-me-up. In Manuas, Brazil, most electrical energy is generated by group of steam-driven thermal power stations, and ecologist Weber Galvão Novaes found that vultures flock to these stations regularly. Turkey vultures, black vultures, and lesser yellow-headed vultures all used the power plants’ vent pipes for lift, and visited different stations over the course of the day. One station in a more rural area near the edge of a forest bustled with birds early in the morning and in the late afternoon and evening as the vultures used its thermals to get to and from their roosts. Another station downtown provided thermals for vultures searching for food at the city’s harbor and fish markets. 

Using mad-made thermals like this is a neat trick that shows off vultures’ adaptability, Mandel and Bildstein say, and may help explain why turkey vultures are so abundant and widespread across the Americas. But the Brazilian researchers warn that coasting over power plants could put Manua’s vultures, and its people, in harm’s way: All the power stations are close to airports, and birds congregating there could collide with planes that are coming and going. They recommend that air traffic controllers adapt to the vultures just as they’ve adapted to us, and change flight paths and schedules to avoid the power stations when there are large numbers of birds there. 

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Dogs

Dogs: They’re cute, they’re cuddly … and they can smell fear!

Today on Scatterbrained, John Green and friends go beyond the floof to reveal some fascinating facts about our canine pals—including the story of one Bloodhound who helped track down 600 criminals during his lifetime. (Move over, McGruff.) They’re also looking at the name origins of some of your favorite dog breeds, going behind the scenes of the Puppy Bowl, and dishing the details on how a breed gets to compete at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

You can watch the full episode below.

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Sploot 101: 12 Animal Slang Words Every Pet Parent Should Know

For centuries, dogs were dogs and cats were cats. They did things like bark and drink water and lay down—actions that pet parents didn’t need a translator to understand.

Then the internet arrived. Scroll through the countless Facebook groups and Twitter accounts dedicated to sharing cute animal pictures and you’ll quickly see that dogs don’t have snouts, they have snoots, and cats come in a colorful assortment of shapes and sizes ranging from smol to floof.

Pet meme language has been around long enough to start leaking into everyday conversation. If you're a pet owner (or lover) who doesn’t want to be out of the loop, here are the terms you need to know.


You know your pet is fully relaxed when they’re doing a sploot. Like a split but for the whole body, a sploot occurs when a dog or cat stretches so their bellies are flat on the ground and their back legs are pointing behind them. The amusing pose may be a way for them to take advantage of the cool ground on a hot day, or just to feel a satisfying stretch in their hip flexors. Corgis are famous for the sploot, but any quadruped can do it if they’re flexible enough.


Person holding Marnie the dog.
Emma McIntyre, Getty Images for ASPCA

Unlike most items on this list, the word derp isn’t limited to cats and dogs. It can also be a stand-in for such expressions of stupidity as “duh” or “dur.” In recent years the term has become associated with clumsy, clueless, or silly-looking cats and dogs. A pet with a tongue perpetually hanging out of its mouth, like Marnie or Lil Bub, is textbook derpy.


Cat laying on desk chair.
PoppetCloset, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you’ve ever caught a cat or dog poking the tip of its tongue past its front teeth, you’ve seen a blep in action. Unlike a derpy tongue, a blep is subtle and often gone as quickly as it appears. Animal experts aren’t entirely sure why pets blep, but in cats it may have something to do with the Flehmen response, in which they use their tongues to “smell” the air.


Mlems and bleps, though very closely related, aren’t exactly the same. While blep is a passive state of being, mlem is active. It’s what happens when a pet flicks its tongue in and out of its mouth, whether to slurp up water, taste food, or just lick the air in a derpy fashion. Dogs and cats do it, of course, but reptiles have also been known to mlem.


Very fluffy cat.
J. Sibiga Photography, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Some pets barely have any fur, and others have coats so voluminous that hair appears to make up most of their bodyweight. Dogs and cats in the latter group are known as floofs. Floofy animals will famously leave a wake of fur wherever they sit and can squeeze through tight spaces despite their enormous mass. Samoyeds, Pomeranians, and Persian cats are all prime examples of floofs.


Dog outside barking.

According to some corners of the internet, dogs don’t bark, they bork. Listen carefully next time you’re around a vocal doggo and you won’t be able to unhear it.


Shiba inu smiling up at the camera.

Speaking of doggos: This word isn’t hard to decode. Every dog—regardless of size, floofiness, or derpiness—can be a doggo. If you’re willing to get creative, the word can even be applied to non-dog animals like fennec foxes (special doggos) or seals (water doggos). The usage of doggo saw a spike in 2016 thanks to the internet and by the end of 2017 it was listed as one of Merriam-Webster’s “Words We’re Watching.”


Tiny kitten in grass.

Some pets are so adorably, unbearably tiny that using proper English to describe them just doesn’t cut it. Not every small pet is smol: To earn the label, a cat or dog (or kitten or puppy) must excel in both the tiny and cute departments. A pet that’s truly smol is likely to induce excited squees from everyone around it.


Hands holding a puppy.

Like doggo, pupper is self-explanatory: It can be used in place of the word puppy, but if you want to use it to describe a fully-grown doggo who’s particularly smol and cute, you can probably get away with it.

10. BOOF

We’ve already established that doggos go bork, but that’s not the only sound they make. A low, deep bark—perhaps from a dog that can’t decide if it wants to expend its energy on a full bark—is best described as a boof. Consider a boof a warning bark before the real thing.


Dog noses poking out beneath blanket.

Snoot was already a dictionary-official synonym for nose by the time dog meme culture took the internet by storm. But while snoot is rarely used to describe human faces today, it’s quickly becoming the preferred term for pet snouts. There’s even a wholesome viral challenge dedicated to dogs poking their snoots through their owners' hands.

12. BOOP

Have you ever seen a dog snoot so cute you just had to reach out and tap it? And when you did, was your action accompanied by an involuntary “boop” sound? This urge is so universal that boop is now its own verb. Humans aren’t the only ones who can boop: Search the word on YouTube and treat yourself to hours of dogs, cats, and other animals exchanging the love tap.


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