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(Almost) Everything We Know About the Orchid Mantis is Wrong

Orchid mantises, as the name suggests, look a lot like orchid flowers. The insects trade the drab colors and sharp angles of their cousins for bright floral shades and a rounder, softer shape, giving them an uncanny resemblance to delicate petals. When Western scientists first encountered them in Southeast Asia in the late 18th century, more a few mistook them for carnivorous plants at first glance. 

Naturalists soon began describing the insect as an aggressive mimic that uses its floral disguise to hide among orchids and devour bugs that come to pollinate them. Over the last 200 years, this idea has become enshrined as fact in textbooks and nature documentaries. There’s one hitch, though—there’s little to no evidence that it’s true. 

The bug was and still is rare, and with few specimens to study, 18th and 19th century scientists based their conclusions on just a handful of observations and accounts from travelers. Whether or not the mantis actually mimics flowers and which flower it bases its supposed disguise on are questions that haven’t been experimentally tested until now, and a series of recent studies suggests that we’ve had the mantis’ M.O. pretty wrong this whole time. 

The naturalists of yore had at least one thing right. In 2013, Australian biologists (including Marie Herberstein, who has done lots of cool work on animal liars) confirmed that the orchid mantis really does mimic flowers to attract prey, and it’s the first animal known to do that. But a pair of follow-up studies by the same researchers show that the mantis’ hunting strategy doesn’t quite work the way we thought it did. 

For one thing, the mantises don’t need to hide among flowers for their mimicry to work, and they can attract prey just fine on their own. In one study, the researchers found that the mantises don’t have a preference for hunting near flowers or on plain green leaves, and that their hunting success doesn’t differ between the two spots. Being near flowers isn’t necessary to grab a meal, but it does benefit a mantis because abundant flowers mean there will be more prey around. 

The real surprise, though, is that the orchid mantis doesn’t look much like an orchid to anyone but us. In a second study, the team used what scientists know about animals’ visual systems to compare the mantis’ shape and color to different flowers from the perspective of different prey bugs and predatory birds. While early accounts of the orchid mantis often compared it to a handful of plant species that grow in the same forests, the study found that from the point of view of the animals that it’s trying to fool, the mantis doesn’t resemble an orchid or any other specific flower. Instead, it has a generalized “flower-like” appearance that isn’t a perfect mimic of a single species, but a close approximation of several different ones. This might be embarrassing for generations of scientists who thought they knew a thing or two about orchid mantises, but it works out alright for the bugs, the researchers say, because it allows them to fool a wider range of prey and its own predators. 

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Slow Motion Is the Only Way to Appreciate a Chameleon’s Lightning-Fast Tongue
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From the unusual way they walk, to their ability to change color, the evolutionary adaptations of chameleons are pretty bizarre, and some of them remain mysterious even to scientists. Their super-powered tongues, for instance, can dart out so quickly that the movement can barely be seen with the naked eye. But modern high-speed cameras have enabled researchers at the University of South Dakota to observe this appendage at work like never before. The video below, shared over at The Kid Should See This, includes some of that groundbreaking footage, and it's pretty amazing to watch.

Shooting at 3000 frames per second, the camera was able to capture every split-second aspect of the chameleon's tongue strike. Slowed down, the video allows you to see how every component of the process works in harmony: First, muscles in the lizard’s tongue contract like the string of a bow. Then, when that tension is released, the bony base of the tongue shoots forward, pushing the sticky, elastic part toward the chameleon’s prey.

According to Christopher Anderson, one of the scientists who conducted the high-speed camera research, larger chameleons can catapult their tongues forward at distances of one to two times their body length. For smaller chameleons, this distance can reach up to two and a half times their body length. “Small chameleons need to be able to eat more food for their body size than large chameleons,” he tells bioGraphic in the video, “and so by being able to project their tongues proportionately further than these large species, they basically are opening up additional feeding opportunities to themselves that they wouldn’t have if they had a shorter tongue.”

To see one of nature’s greatest hunting tools in action, check out the full video below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
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Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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