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Seagulls in Namibia Are Attacking Baby Seals

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Lots of beach-goers find seagulls annoying, but usually the only harm they do is snatching away poorly-guarded snacks. On one particular beach, though, scientists have found that some gulls have a much more aggressive and grisly way of getting their meals. 

Biologist Austin Gallagher and his team have documented a startling behavior among kelp gulls in Dorob National Park on the Namibian coast. One of their collaborators, a local guide who’s led kayak and 4x4 tours of the park since 1999, has logged around 500 instances where gulls have approached Cape fur seal pups and “attacked the ocular region of the seal with its beak, and attempted to remove and consume the seals’ eyeballs.” After plucking out a seal’s eyes, which the birds successfully did about half the time, the first attacker was joined by other gulls who pecked at the blind and defenseless seal’s soft belly and began consuming it. 

As far as Gallagher knows, this is the first record of this attack behavior and may be unique to the gulls living in the park. Why they do it isn’t exactly clear, but the researchers think the birds are just making the best of a bad situation. Both gull and seal populations in the area have grown in the last few decades and the two animals compete for the same food source: fish. With overfishing by humans making that competition stiffer, the gulls appear to to have turned their rivals into an alternate food source. Each new batch of pups “represents a dense and predictable pulse of energy” for the gulls, the researchers write, and plucking out their eye makes them easy pickings.

While seals getting their eyes plucked out may be hard to stomach, the researchers say that the gulls' odd, aggressive attacks deserve attention. Shifts in behavior like this can be indicators of ecological changes to come, helping us understand how pressures like overfishing are disrupting natural systems and alerting conservationists to areas and species that need protection. 

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Animals
10 Notable Gestation Periods in the Animal Kingdom
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The gestation periods of the animal kingdom are varied and fascinating. Some clock in at just a few weeks, making any human green with envy, while others can last more than a year. Here are 10 notable gestation times for animals around the globe. The lesson? Be thankful that you’re not a pregnant elephant.

1. ELEPHANTS: 640-660 DAYS

Elephants are pregnant for a long time. Like really, really long. At an average of 95 weeks, the gestation period is more than double the length of a human pregnancy, so it shouldn't come as a shock that female elephants don't often have more than four offspring during their lifetimes. Who has the time?

2. HIPPOS: 8 MONTHS

A photo of a mother hippo and her baby in Uganda

Yes, it takes less time to make a hippopotamus than it takes to make a human.

3. GIRAFFE: 14-15 MONTHS

Baby giraffes can weigh more than 150 pounds and can be around 6 feet tall. Another fascinating tidbit: giraffes give birth standing up, so it's pretty normal for a baby to fall 6 feet to the ground.

4. KILLER WHALE: 17 MONTHS

There’s a reason for the long wait: after that 17 months, Baby Shamu emerges weighing anywhere from 265 to 353 pounds and measuring about 8.5 feet long. Yikes.

5. OPOSSUM: 12-13 DAYS

A baby opossum wrapped up in a blanket

Blink and you'll miss it: This is the shortest gestation period of any mammal in North America. But since the lifespan of an opossum is only two to four years, it makes sense.

6. GERBILS: 25 DAYS

Hey, they get off pretty easy.

7. GORILLAS: 8.5 MONTHS

It's not a huge surprise that their gestational periods are pretty similar to ours, right?

8. BLACK BEAR: 220 DAYS

A pair of black bear cubs

Also less than a human. Interestingly, cubs might only be 6 to 8 inches in length at birth and are completely hairless. 

9. PORCUPINE: 112 DAYS

This is the longest gestation period of any rodent. Thankfully for the mother, porcupine babies (a.k.a. porcupettes) are actually born with soft quills, and it's not until after birth that they harden up.

10. WALRUS: 15 MONTHS

Baby walruses? Kind of adorable. They certainly take their sweet time coming out, though.

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Goldfish Can Get Depressed, Too
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Don’t believe what Pixar is trying to sell you: Fish are not exactly brimming with personality. In aquariums, they tend to swim in circles, sucking up fragments of food and ducking around miniature treasure chests. To a layperson, fish don’t appear to possess concepts of happy, or sad, or anything in between—they just seem to exist.

This, researchers say, is not quite accurate. Speaking with The New York Times, Julian Pittman, a professor at the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at Troy University, says that fish not only suffer from depression, they can be easily diagnosed. Zebrafish dropped into a new tank who linger at the bottom are probably sad; those who enthusiastically explore the upper half are not.

In Pittman’s studies, fish depression can be induced by getting them “drunk” on ethanol, then cutting off the supply, resulting in withdrawal. These fish mope around the tank floor until they’re given antidepressants, at which point they begin happily swimming near the surface again.

It’s impossible to correlate fish depression with that of a human, but Pittman believes the symptoms in fish—losing interest in exploring and eating—makes them viable candidates for exploring neuroscience and perhaps drawing conclusions that will be beneficial in the land-dwelling population.

In the meantime, you can help ward off fish blues by keeping them busy—having obstacles to swim through and intriguing areas of a tank to explore. Just like humans, staying active and engaged can boost their mental health.

[h/t The New York Times]

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