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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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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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