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Andi Gentsch via Flickr// CC BY-SA 2.0
Andi Gentsch via Flickr// CC BY-SA 2.0

Dung Beetles Use the Milky Way for Navigation

Andi Gentsch via Flickr// CC BY-SA 2.0
Andi Gentsch via Flickr// CC BY-SA 2.0

In ancient Egypt, the lowly dung beetles that rolled turd balls across the desert were the inspiration for the scarab-faced God Khepri, who rolled the sun across the sky each day. Relating these insects to celestial bodies may seem a little generous today, but perhaps the Egyptians weren’t too far off. We now know that dung beetles are one of the few species that use the sun, the moon, and the stars to navigate themselves. 

When a dung beetle finds a prime piece of feces it wants to take back home, it carves it out with its chisel-like head and uses its legs to form a smooth sphere. It transports the ball by basically doing the insect equivalent of a handstand and pushing it backwards with its hind legs. As you can imagine, steering yourself in the right direction in this position gets tricky. Moreover, beetles steal poop balls from each other, so it's in a beetle's best interest to move in a straight line away from the poop source as efficiently as it can.

That’s why before beginning its journey, the dung beetle climbs on top of its poop ball and does a little “navigation dance.” Depending on whether it's a nocturnal or diurnal species, the beetle takes a look at the sun or moon and calculates its internal GPS based on the position in the sky. Dung beetles have even been recently proven to use the Milky Way galaxy for navigation, making them the only known species to do so. Though their eyesight isn’t strong enough to make out specific constellations, dung beetles can recognize the Milky Way’s gradient of light to dark and use it to find their way home. 

Scientists discovered this behavior by strapping tiny hats onto dung beetles to see how it affected their navigation skills. Without the Milky Way to guide them, the beetles were suddenly lost and stumbling aimlessly through the dark. When the hats were removed, the bugs went back to being master navigators.

Even when they do come across an obstacle in their path, all the dung beetles need to do is hop back on top of their prized turd, do the orientation boogie, and get back on track. For anyone who thinks dung beetles are dull, disgusting creatures, this behavior shows that at least they’re not dull.

[h/t: National Geographic

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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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