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It Takes One Penguin to Break Up a Huddle

In nature documentaries, the huddles performed by penguins are often portrayed as astonishing acts of cooperation. And while watching thousands of penguins rotate through a crowd is impressive, this behavior doesn’t always end so gracefully once the camera cuts away.

During the 2005, 2006, and 2008 breeding seasons, André Ancel of the University of Strasbourg in France and his colleagues studied about 3000 breeding pairs of the emperor penguin colony of Antarctica’s Pointe Géologie Archipelago. In the December issue of Animal Behavior, the researchers report that the huddles they observed are much more complicated than they appear. The arrangements lasted a few hours at the most, and all it took was one penguin to break up the group in less than two minutes. 

In penguin huddles, the birds in the center are always depicted as having the sweetest set-ups while it's the ones around the perimeter that are thought to be taking one for the team. But when penguins decide to give up their prime interior spot, it's not necessarily out of altruism. The heat-conserving strategy works so well that the center of a huddle can reach temperatures of nearly 100°F, which is well past the point of comfort for penguins. Penguins shift towards the outside of the group not just to give other penguins a chance to get in, but because they're looking for some relief for themselves. After leaving a huddle, Ancel and his team observed some penguins eating snow, possibly as a way to cool down.

It was for this reason that the team of researchers hypothesized that most huddle breakups would begin at the center, but they only observed this happening once. Most of the time it was started by penguins on the exterior, and within two minutes of departure the huddle would be complete broken up. The huddles lasted anywhere from a dozen minutes to several hours, but the average length was 50 minutes. After they dispersed, a haze of warm air could sometimes be seen rising over the colony. The researchers think that while huddles begin as a way to conserve heat, the sudden breakups help to dissipate it. Consider that the next time you're watching footage of a penguin huddle—you should probably save some sympathy for the guys in the middle. 

[h/t: Science News]

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

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 a School of Humpback Whales 'Fish' Using Nets Made of Bubbles 

Just like humans, humpback whales catch many fish at once by using nets—but instead of being woven from fibers, their nets are made of bubbles.

Unique to humpbacks, the behavior known as bubble-net feeding was recently captured in a dramatic drone video that was created by GoPro and spotted by Smithsonian. The footage features a school of whales swimming off Maskelyne Island in British Columbia, Canada, in pursuit of food. The whales dive down, and a large circle of bubbles forms on the water's surface. Then, the marine mammals burst into the air, like circus animals jumping through a ring, and appear to swallow their meal.

The video offers a phenomenal aerial view of the feeding whales, but it only captures part of the underwater ritual. It begins with the group's leader, who locates schools of fish and krill and homes in on them. Then, it spirals to the water's surface while expelling air from its blowhole. This action creates the bubble ring, which works like a net to contain the prey.

Another whale emits a loud "trumpeting feeding call," which may stun and frighten the fish into forming tighter schools. Then, the rest of the whales herd the fish upwards and burst forth from the water, their mouths open wide to receive the fruits of their labor.

Watch the intricate—and beautiful—feeding process below:

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