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Itsy-Bitsy Arachnids Use Bats as Airplanes

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We humans take a lot for granted. Take air travel, for example. We often forget how much cleverness, persistence, and hard work it took to overcome the fact that we have no wings of our own.

But we aren’t the only species that soars on borrowed wings. A number of little critters hitch rides on larger animals, in a practice known as phoresy (FAWR-uh-see). Recently, scientists in New Zealand reported the first known case of a pseudoscorpion riding a bat.

Pseudoscorpions are exactly what they sound like: bugs that look like, but are not, scorpions. Like scorpions, pseudoscorpions are arachnids with armored bodies and pincers. But pseudoscorpions are teeny-tiny: the largest known species tops out at about a half inch long. And where true scorpions have formidable, venom-tipped tails, pseudoscorpions have nothing. They do have venom in their pincers, but they’re too little to do much damage to anything other than their even-smaller prey. Because they’re so small, they have a limited range—or they would, if they didn’t get clever. 

Members of the pseudoscorpion family have been caught bumming rides before, using their little pincers to grab hold of another animal’s legs. “They’re sort of known as ‘nature’s hitch-hikers’,” Massey University’s Graeme Finlayson told New Scientist. “Hitch-hiking is their best way to disperse.” 

Finlayson was part of a team studying the effects of invasive species on the health of New Zealand’s native short-tailed bat (Mystacina tuberculata). “We were catching the bats and conducting thorough health checks,” he explained in an email to mental_floss this week. “This is when we first noticed the pseudoscorpions.”

The researchers found two bat-riding pseudoscorpions in one week. Both of the bugs were adult males of the species Apatochernes vastus, and both were very, very small. The body of the larger pseudoscorpion was measured at 3.33 millimeters, or about 0.13 inches. Each pseudoscorpion was found clinging to its bat’s fur.

It’s likely the pseudoscorpion hitchhikers went completely undetected by the bats, says Finlayson.

The team published their observations in the New Zealand Journal of Zoology, emphasizing the broader significance of what they found. “This discovery highlights how the protection of one species has implications for protecting lesser-known species with hitherto unidentified associations,” they wrote. 

NOTE: The species pictured above is a bat, but not the short-tailed bat.

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