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7 Unlikely Seagull Enemies

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The seagull—scourge of the beach-blanket snacker, parking-lot pest—is nobody's favorite. Birding guides will tell you that seagulls have no natural enemies, which is mostly true. But once in a while, somebody’s had enough.

1. A Manipulative Dolphin

At Mississippi’s Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, dolphins are trained to help keep their own pools clean by bringing any litter they find to a trainer. For each piece of garbage a dolphin delivers, he or she gets a fish. One day, a seagull landed in Kelly the dolphin’s pool. She obediently brought it to her trainer, who rewarded her with extra fish.

If this was some other animal, the story might have ended there. But Kelly had a talent for math—and manipulation. She realized that gulls were worth more than trash, and that one gull was worth more than one fish. She began fishing for seagulls, using her own fish as bait and cashing in each time. The strategy was so effective that she eventually taught it to her kid.

Amazingly, Kelly isn't the only fishing cetacean. Captive orcas in San Diego and Ontario have independently figured it out, although they mostly just eat the birds. 

2. Schoolchildren

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To be fair, the seagulls started this one. In 2010, the Daily Mail reported that a colony of more than 90 gulls had taken over a British schoolyard. The birds were a special menace at lunchtime, dive-bombing the students and carrying off their sandwiches like feathered bullies. Not to be intimidated, the school administrators hired a squad of mercenaries: two Harris's hawks and a falcon. Hit-birds Jasper, Hope, and Monty began patrolling the skies above the school twice a day. Before long, they’d reclaimed the airspace, and sandwiches were safe again.

3. Weasels

Two things set weasels apart from other animals. First, they will attack anything that moves. Second, because their metabolisms are so fast, they’re always, always hungry. The combination of these factors leads to some unbelievable fights. Even the tiniest weasels will launch themselves at animals 10 times their size—and sometimes, those animals have wings.

Weasels are well known for prowling among gull nests, snatching eggs and chicks where they can. And sometimes (frequently), they bite off a little more than they can chew. It’s not known who struck first in this video: it might have been the seagull. It could, just as easily, have been the weasel. SPOILER ALERT: The weasel loses this one. They may be tenacious, but they aren’t aquatic. 

4. The Police

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File it under "We’ll Probably Regret This Later For Some Reason": In 2012, Argentinean police were given orders to start shooting at seagulls. The gulls in question had begun attacking southern right whales. Each time the whales rose to breathe, the gulls swooped in and began pecking at their flesh, creating open wounds. The whales began curtailing their visits to the surface, rising just enough to breathe before diving again; their new swimming patterns were separating mothers from calves. Over 100 calves died that year, and the seagulls soon found themselves on the Most Wanted list. About 140 seagulls were killed in the initial cull, but it didn’t make much difference: As of 2013, the siege continued

5. The Color Red

A few years ago, houses in the Scottish seaside town of Arbroath were plagued by seagulls. They perched on the rooftops and rummaged through garbage bins, creating a ruckus and a huge mess. One night, Ian Watson threw out the remains of his daughter’s birthday cake, sure the gulls would have their way with it—but they didn’t. They wouldn’t touch it.

The cake was frosted in bright red icing (Watson’s daughter is a Manchester United supporter), and he wondered if the vibrant color was somehow keeping the birds at bay. He began experimenting with birdfeeders and platforms in various hues. Bread crumbs left on black platforms vanished immediately. Food on the red feeders remained untouched. The experiment expanded, but the results were the same: seagulls avoided the color red. Watson’s findings impressed the town council, which decided to literally paint parts of the town red.

And then there was this science fair project by sixth-grader Sydney M. Kamerman, which found that seagulls "seemed frightened" by red towels, even those covered with food. Big Science has yet to weigh in on this one, but the initial findings seem pretty compelling. 

6. and 7. Octopus and Tuna

Being a seabird is risky business. Sometimes you dive and you get a mouthful of whale. Other times, sea life gets a mouthful of you. Exhibit A: the octopus. On more than one occasion, people at the beach have witnessed an octopus wrestling and devouring a seagull. Several octopus species come into shallow water to feed, and can even walk on dry land. They’re nimble, clever, and can vanish into their surroundings. The bird—loud, brazen, and above all, curious—doesn’t stand a chance.

Exhibit B: the tuna. Seagulls like eating fish. So do Atlantic bluefin tuna. They can reach 12 feet long and weigh more than a ton, which makes them very attractive to sport fishermen. To attract their prey, the big fish hunters throw little fish into the water. Sometimes, the seagulls get to the bait first. Sometimes, as evidenced here, the tuna gets to the seagull first. 

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NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
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Researchers in Singapore Deploy Robot Swans to Test Water Quality
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

There's something peculiar about the new swans floating around reservoirs in Singapore. They drift across the water like normal birds, but upon closer inspection, onlookers will find they're not birds at all: They're cleverly disguised robots designed to test the quality of the city's water.

As Dezeen reports, the high-tech waterfowl, dubbed NUSwan (New Smart Water Assessment Network), are the work of researchers at the National University of Singapore [PDF]. The team invented the devices as a way to tackle the challenges of maintaining an urban water source. "Water bodies are exposed to varying sources of pollutants from urban run-offs and industries," they write in a statement. "Several methods and protocols in monitoring pollutants are already in place. However, the boundaries of extensive assessment for the water bodies are limited by labor intensive and resource exhaustive methods."

By building water assessment technology into a plastic swan, they're able to analyze the quality of the reservoirs cheaply and discreetly. Sensors on the robots' undersides measure factors like dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll levels. The swans wirelessly transmit whatever data they collect to the command center on land, and based on what they send, human pilots can remotely tweak the robots' performance in real time. The hope is that the simple, adaptable technology will allow researchers to take smarter samples and better understand the impact of the reservoir's micro-ecosystem on water quality.

Man placing robotic swan in water.
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

This isn't the first time humans have used robots disguised as animals as tools for studying nature. Check out this clip from the BBC series Spy in the Wild for an idea of just how realistic these robots can get.

[h/t Dezeen]

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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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