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Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Sound of Running Water Puts Beavers in the Mood to Build

Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal Images Group via Getty Images

From the outside, a beaver dam looks like a heap of sticks, but a closer look reveals the insane amount of effort and detail that goes into building each structure. At a rate of five feet per day, beavers use mud, sticks, and rocks to construct the multi-chamber, watertight dams that hold their families and store their food. 

In the 1960s, Swedish biologist Lars Wilsson wanted to know if this industrious behavior was learned or innate. He decided to capture four adult beavers with the intention of raising them in different habitats. Some were kept in an outdoor enclosure and others in a glass-walled terrarium indoors. 

When a new generation of beavers was born, he chose a few of them to raise in isolation in order to study which of their behaviors were instinctual. He discovered that when released into running water, the young beavers built near perfect examples of dams on their first try. Wilsson then tried a different experiment where he placed the beavers in still or very slow-moving water. The subjects responded by burying themselves in the mud and making no attempts to build. 

It was only when Wilsson played them the sounds of running water through a speaker that their instincts kicked in. Suddenly the beavers were compelled to start building over the speaker, convinced that it was the source of the leak. When the sound was played for them through a loudspeaker on concrete, the beavers still built their dam over the dry floor. Even when presented with a clear pipe that showed water (silently) escaping through their dam and a speaker that played them the sound of running water, they chose to build over the speaker and ignore the clearly visible leak. 

This instinctive quirk makes beavers easy for people to manipulate. Instead of demolishing the dams that overflow river banks and damage property, a special, silent outflow pipe can be installed that diverts the water under the beavers’ radar. If blocking the sound of the pipe is impossible, people will sometimes make small holes in the dam around the pipe, which the beavers will innately plug up instead. For some reason, all those wicked dam-building skills now seem a lot less intimidating. 

[h/t: io9]

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Animals
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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