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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iStock
Good News, Dog Parents: You Can Teach Puppies as Well as Their Canine Moms Can
iStock
iStock

If you’ve ever adopted a puppy, you probably know how frustrating it can be to teach your new family member the basic tenets of common decency, like not to pee on the carpet or tear up a whole roll of toilet paper.

In other areas, though, pups are rather impressive learners, capable of mimicking some human behaviors. In fact, for some tasks, they learn just as effectively from watching people as they do from watching other dogs, including their own mothers, a new study in Nature revealed.

Researchers from Hungary and the UK took 48 young puppies of various breeds and studied the conditions under which they can be taught to open a puzzle box containing food. The experiment revealed that the puppies were able to learn how to open the box regardless of whether the task was first demonstrated by a person, their mother, or an unfamiliar dog. In other words, not only are puppies capable of social learning, but they're able to learn tasks from humans they don't know—in this case, the experimenter.

However, researchers were surprised to learn that the puppies were more likely to learn how to open the box by watching an unfamiliar dog than by watching their own mothers. That may be because puppies spend more time looking at—and thus, learning from—an unfamiliar dog that intrigues them. This differs from other species such as kittens, which “learn to press a lever for food more rapidly from their mother than from an unfamiliar adult,” the study notes.

In addition, the puppies were able to perform the task again after a one-hour break, indicating that they had retained some memory of the learning experience.

The ability of dogs to learn from humans has been recorded in previous research. A 2015 study revealed that dogs learn better by demonstration (or the “do as I do” method) than training techniques that involve a system of punishments and rewards. The "do as I do" approach probably isn't the most practical method of teaching your pup to do its business outside, but if you already have an adult dog at home, your new puppy can follow the older dog's lead and learn by example.

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Michael Hutchinson
Spiders Can Fly Through the Air Using the Earth's Electric Field
A spider exhibiting ballooning behavior.
A spider exhibiting ballooning behavior.
Michael Hutchinson

Every so often, otherwise Earth-bound spiders take to the air. Ballooning spiders can travel hundreds of miles through the air (and, horrifyingly, rain down on unsuspecting towns). The common explanation for this phenomenon is that the spiders surf the wind on strands of silk, but there may be other forces at work, according to a new study spotted by The Atlantic.

In the research, published in Current Biology, University of Bristol scientists argue that Earth's atmospheric electricity allows spiders to become airborne even on windless days. To test their hypothesis, the researchers exposed spiders in the lab to electric fields similar to those naturally found in the atmosphere.

When the electric field was turned on, the spiders began to exhibit behavior associated with ballooning—they "tiptoed" on the ends of their legs, raised their abdomens, and released silk. Spiders only exhibit this behavior when ballooning. And when they did become airborne, the spiders’ altitude could be controlled by turning the electric field on and off. When the electric field was on, they rose through the air, but when it was off, they drifted downward.

This provides a potential explanation for why spiders take to the skies on certain days but not others, and how they can fly in calm, windless weather— something scientists have puzzled over since the early 19th century. (Even Darwin was flummoxed, calling it "inexplicable," The Atlantic notes.) However, the researchers note that these electric fields might not be totally necessary for ballooning—wind alone might work perfectly fine on some days, too. But understanding more about when and how spiders become airborne could help us predict when there will be large masses of arachnids flying through the skies (and hide).

[h/t The Atlantic]

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