(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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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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5 Fascinating Facts About Koko the Gorilla
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ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy

After 46 years of learning, making new friends, and challenging ideas about language, Koko the gorilla died in her sleep at her home at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California on June 21, 2018. Koko first gained recognition in the late 1970s for her ability to use sign language, but it was her friendly personality that made her a beloved icon. Here are five facts you should know about the history-making ape.

1. SHE KNEW OVER 1000 SIGNS.

Francine "Penny" Patterson, then a graduate student at Stanford University, was looking for an animal subject for her inter-species animal communication experiment in the early 1970s when she found a baby gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo. Originally named Hanabiko (Japanese for "fireworks child," a reference to her Fourth of July birthdate), Koko took to signing quickly. Some of the first words Koko learned in "Gorilla Sign Language," Patterson's modified version of American Sign Language, were "food," "drink," and "more." She followed a similar trajectory as a human toddler, learning the bulk of her words between ages 2.5 and 4.5. Eventually Koko would come to know over 1000 signs and understand about 2000 words spoken to her in English. Though she never got a grasp on grammar or syntax, she was able to express complex ideas, like sadness when watching a sad movie and her desire to have a baby.

2. SHE CHANGED WHAT WE KNEW ABOUT LANGUAGE.

Not only did Koko use language to communicate—she also used it in a way that was once only thought possible in humans. Her caretakers have reported her signing about objects that weren't in the room, recalling memories, and even commenting on language itself. Her vocabulary was on par with that of a 3-year-old child.

3. SHE WASN'T THE ONLY APE WHO SIGNED.

Koko was the most famous great ape who knew sign language, but she wasn't alone. Michael, a male gorilla who lived with Koko at the Gorilla Foundation from 1976 until his death in 2000, learned over 500 signs with help from Koko and Patterson. He was even able to express the memory of his mother being killed by poachers when he was a baby. Other non-human primates have also shown they're capable of learning sign language, like Washoe the chimpanzee and Chantek the orangutan.

4. SHE HAD FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Koko received many visitors during her lifetime, including some celebrities. When Robin Williams came to her home in Woodside, California in 2001, the two bonded right away, with Williams tickling the gorilla and Koko trying on his glasses. But perhaps her most famous celebrity encounter came when Mr. Rogers paid her a visit in 1999. She immediately recognized him as the star of one of her favorite shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and greeted him by helping him take off his shoes like he did at the start of every episode.

5. SHE WAS A LOVING CAT MOM.

Koko was never able to have offspring of her own, but she did adopt several cats. After asking for a kitten, she was allowed to pick one from a litter for her birthday in 1985. She named the gray-and-white cat "All Ball" and handled it gently as if it were her real baby, even trying to nurse it. She had recently received two new kittens for her 44th birthday named Ms. Gray and Ms. Black.

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