The White Deer of the Finger Lakes Are in Trouble

There are around 200 ghostly deer living near Seneca Lake in central New York. Pretty soon, the herd’s days might be numbered.

Technically, they’re not albinos. Albino animals either lack melanin altogether or at least have an extreme deficiency. Since this substance produces color, albinism is characterized by a pale complexion and—often—strangely tinted eyes. Instead, these deer exhibit what’s known as leucism. This means that while they look mostly white, they still retain a noticeable amount of pigmentation. As such, the creature’s eyes are brownish—which is normal by species standards.

How’d all these oddball deer get up there to begin with? That’s a story of war, peace, and rampant inbreeding. In 1941, the U.S. government broke ground on the Seneca Ordnance Depot (now called the Seneca Army Depot). A useful munitions storage facility, this base later held America’s largest nuclear weapons stockpile during the Cold War.

With any military arsenal, security is always a top priority. 24 miles of fence were planted around the 10,000-acre plot. Just like that, dozens of white-tailed deer found themselves trapped inside—including some specimens with recessive leucistic genes.

Soon enough, reports of all-white deer surfaced. The first sighting came in 1949 when a leucistic buck and fawn were spotted on-site. Coyotes would ordinarily make short work of such conspicuous game animals, but the depot’s fence isolated the deer from this threat. With no predators in sight, the mutation spread.

As a population control measure, depot personnel launched an annual hunt during the late 1950s. When this tightly regulated season starts, no more than 40 hunters are permitted on the premises at any given time. Also, those fixing to bag a colorless buck or doe must win the right via lottery. 

Such efforts have helped keep the herbivores from stripping their land barren, and, by extension, maintain what’s now the world’s largest white deer herd.  

Next year, this unique claim to fame could evaporate. The depot officially closed in 1995, but a small U.S. Army Corps of Engineers crew has remained behind for cleanup purposes. Part of their job involves maintaining that fence, which is the only thing keeping Seneca’s snowy deer alive.

“These deer won’t last more than a season in the wild,” says activist Dennis Money. Apart from being vulnerable to predation, they are, as he notes, “prized as trophies.” A former utility executive, Money heads Seneca White Deer, Inc. Founded in 1993, the group is dedicated to both protecting the unusual beasts and promoting them as an eco-tourist attraction.

At present, the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency (SENIDA) owns most of the property. Once the military’s team finally pulls out sometime in 2016, SENIDA plans to start making big changes. For some, the developers can’t come soon enough. “We have one of the biggest [percentages] of tax-exempt land of any township in New York state,” argues David Kaiser, the town supervisor of Romulus, NY. “We already have a lot of wildlife...Montezuma, the national forest south of us, Sampson State Park, Seneca Lake Park. There's no shortage of land set aside for wildlife in the county.”

Businesses, residential areas, and farms will likely crop up over the terrain. Meanwhile, the huge fence isn’t long for this world—at least, not according to SENIDA Executive Director Bob Aronson. “We just don’t have the staff or resources to manage this as a park," he says. "It’s imminent that something has to happen soon, one way or the other. It’s time.”

What destiny awaits the region’s white white-tailed deer? The world will just have to wait and see. 

NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
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]

There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop

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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