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Funky Chicken Walk Can Indicate a Sick Bird

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Why did the chicken cross the pen? No, seriously. That’s a legitimate scientific question. The way chickens move through a pen may tell us a lot about whether or not they’re feeling well and how many opportunities they have to spread illnesses. Now scientists are studying how chicken locomotion can reveal disease—knowledge that could help farmers do a better job of heading off certain kinds of outbreaks. 

As he and his colleagues recently recounted in the journal Mathematical Methods in the Applied Sciences, Arni S.R. Srinivasa Rao, a mathematical modeler and associate professor at Georgia’s Augusta University, has spent years developing mathematical models that could aid in the understanding of how Avian flu spreads.

Recently, he teamed up with collaborators Fiona Tomley and Damer Blake, from the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London, to learn about outbreaks of Eimeria, a parasite that spreads easily among chickens and other farm animals, causing diarrhea, weakness, and weight loss. The pathogen costs the poultry industry billions of dollars each year.

“The livelihood of farmers depends on their poultry, so it’s a big loss if we’re not using technology to support them,” said Rao.

One day while observing a group of chickens in their pen, Rao had an idea: What might be learned about the spread of Eimeria by documenting the routes chickens take as they go about their daily business—mainly eating, drinking, scratching, pecking, and defecating—and plugging that data into mathematical models?

Rao and his collaborators observed chicken pens in India and in England. He recorded the chickens’ routes and the amount of time they spent eating and drinking, walking and standing around, and where they pooped and pecked.

The next step involved plotting on a grid each chicken’s movements, and multiplying that by the total number of chickens to find out how often they crossed each other’s paths, and hence had opportunity to spread disease.

He also analyzed individual chickens’ movements to look for deviations in their idiosyncratic patterns, which might indicate illness.

“What we see is that the distance covered by a sick chicken is substantially less than for a healthy chicken,” said Rao. “Infected chickens become so sick that it’s difficult for them to move, while healthy chickens frequently jump around and move to different parts of the pen.”  

Plotted on the grid, the sick chickens’ paths appear as a single line between, say, the water and the roost, while healthy chickens produce multiple lines that cover the entire space of the grid.

The next step for the team is to use animation software and generate models that can help predict the movement of sick and healthy chickens within a particular group.

Rao would eventually like to see farmers themselves use animation software to translate video of their flocks into visual patterns and models that can help identify sick birds in as little as a day—something that isn't so easy on large poultry farms.

These models would allow farmers to more quickly isolate a sick chicken, reducing treatment costs and slowing the spread of disease. Rao believes similar models could also be adapted for other farm animals.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View
Google
Google

Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.
Google

Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]

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