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Hippos Eat Way More Meat than We Thought, and It Can Make Them Sick

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Hippos are huge animals with fearsome tusks and aggressive natures, but they mainly eat plants. Sometimes they attack people and can tangle with crocodiles, sure, but they’re not predators or carnivores. Right?

But a closer look reveals that hippos aren't so herbivorous after all, says biologist Joseph Dudley. Despite their grass-heavy diets and all the adaptations that make them great grazers, hippos have been known to eat their fair share of meat. There are scattered reports by scientists and amateur observers (note: NSFW gory pictures) of hippos attacking, killing, and eating other animals, stealing kills from predators, and scavenging carcasses, including those of other hippos. In a new paper published in the journal Mammal Review, Dudley and his fellow researchers argue that these incidents aren’t as unusual as they seem or isolated to a few animals or populations. They say there’s a pattern of carnivorous behavior in hippo populations across the animal’s entire range—and that behavior has consequences for hippos. 

Evolution has outfitted hippos and other big herbivores for a plant-based diet, and their guts and the microbes that live within them are adapted for fermenting and digesting lots of plant material. That doesn’t mean these herbivores animals can’t add meat to their menu, though. Many can and do. Antelope, deer, and cattle have been known to feed on carrion, birds’ eggs, birds, small mammals, and fish. What might hold most of these animals back from more frequent carnivory, Dudley suggests, isn’t their digestive physiology, but “biomechanical limitations” in securing and ingesting meat. In other words, they aren’t built for taking down prey or biting into flesh. The hippo is another story. 

THOSE WHO CAN, DO

“Due to its large body size and unusual mouth and dental configurations, the hippo may represent an extreme case in which the predation and scavenging of large mammals by an ungulate species is not constrained by biomechanical factors,” Dudley and his team write. Not only can hippos kill and eat other big animals more easily than other herbivores, the researchers say, the fact that they’re territorial and highly aggressive may facilitate carnivory, putting them in situations where they kill other animals and can get themselves something to eat.

And eat they do. Since Dudley made the first scientific record of carnivory in hippos in 1996, other cases of hippo carnivory and even cannibalism have also been documented. Dudley lists instances where wild hippos have fed on impalas, elephants, kudus, wildebeest, zebras, and other hippos that they either killed themselves or were killed by other predators. Events like these have been seen both during times when carnivory may be a last resort (e.g. droughts when food is scarce), and when it was merely a convenient opportunity, like a mass drowning of wildebeest crossing a river. There are also reports of captive hippos in zoos killing and eating their neighbors, including tapirs, wallabies, flamingoes and pygmy hippos.

“Our scientific records, coupled with those of other investigators and observers, demonstrate that the phenomenon of carnivory by hippos is not restricted to particular individuals or local populations but is an inherent characteristic of the behavioral ecology of hippos,” the team writes.

EATING MEAT WHILE WE SLEEP

If that’s the case, then why did it take so long for anyone to figure it out? Part of the blame can fall on conflicting schedules. Hippos are mostly active at night, which means their meals, meat or otherwise, usually go unseen by humans. Their carnivorous ways, Dudley thinks, have simply been overlooked. 

They may also explain why hippos are so susceptible to anthrax and experience higher mortality rates during outbreaks, the researchers say. Hippos, they think, are doubly exposed to the disease because they ingest and inhale bacterial spores on plants and in the soil like other herbivores, and also consume them when feeding on contaminated carcasses. Cannibalism during outbreaks exacerbates the problem. 

That carnivory might make these outbreaks worse in hippo populations has implications for controlling the disease and protecting both animals and humans. During anthrax outbreaks among wildlife, many human illnesses occur because of contaminated “bush meat.” During a 2011 outbreak in Zambia, for example, 511 human cases of anthrax and at least five deaths were linked to people handling and consuming meat from infected hippos. Burying or burning suspected infected animal carcasses is a standard practice during anthrax outbreaks, and the researchers think that this may be especially effective in hippo habitats because it takes infected meat off the menu for both humans and hippos. 

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats 'Blep'?
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As pet owners are well aware, cats are inscrutable creatures. They hiss at bare walls. They invite petting and then answer with scratching ingratitude. Their eyes are wandering globes of murky motivations.

Sometimes, you may catch your cat staring off into the abyss with his or her tongue lolling out of their mouth. This cartoonish expression, which is atypical of a cat’s normally regal air, has been identified as a “blep” by internet cat photo connoisseurs. An example:

Cunning as they are, cats probably don’t have the self-awareness to realize how charming this is. So why do cats really blep?

In a piece for Inverse, cat consultant Amy Shojai expressed the belief that a blep could be associated with the Flehmen response, which describes the act of a cat “smelling” their environment with their tongue. As a cat pants with his or her mouth open, pheromones are collected and passed along to the vomeronasal organ on the roof of their mouth. This typically happens when cats want to learn more about other cats or intriguing scents, like your dirty socks.

While the Flehmen response might precede a blep, it is not precisely a blep. That involves the cat’s mouth being closed while the tongue hangs out listlessly.

Ingrid Johnson, a certified cat behavior consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the owner of Fundamentally Feline, tells Mental Floss that cat bleps may have several other plausible explanations. “It’s likely they don’t feel it or even realize they’re doing it,” she says. “One reason for that might be that they’re on medication that causes relaxation. Something for anxiety or stress or a muscle relaxer would do it.”

A photo of a cat sticking its tongue out
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If the cat isn’t sedated and unfurling their tongue because they’re high, then it’s possible that an anatomic cause is behind a blep: Johnson says she’s seen several cats display their tongues after having teeth extracted for health reasons. “Canine teeth help keep the tongue in place, so this would be a more common behavior for cats missing teeth, particularly on the bottom.”

A blep might even be breed-specific. Persians, which have been bred to have flat faces, might dangle their tongues because they lack the real estate to store it. “I see it a lot with Persians because there’s just no room to tuck it back in,” Johnson says. A cat may also simply have a Gene Simmons-sized tongue that gets caught on their incisors during a grooming session, leading to repeated bleps.

Whatever the origin, bleps are generally no cause for concern unless they’re doing it on a regular basis. That could be sign of an oral problem with their gums or teeth, prompting an evaluation by a veterinarian. Otherwise, a blep can either be admired—or retracted with a gentle prod of the tongue (provided your cat puts up with that kind of nonsense). “They might put up with touching their tongue, or they may bite or swipe at you,” Johnson says. “It depends on the temperament of the cat.” Considering the possible wrath involved, it may be best to let them blep in peace.

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
Why Crows Hold Noisy Funerals for Their Fallen Friends
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The next time you hear a murder of crows cackling for no apparent reason, show a little respect: You may have stumbled onto a crow funeral. Crows are among the few animals that exhibit a social response to a dead member of their species. Though their caws may sound like heartbroken cries, such funerals aren't so much about mourning their fallen friends as they are about learning from their mistakes.

In the video below from the PBS series Deep Look, Kaeli Swift, a researcher at the University of Washington's Avian Conservation Lab, investigates this unusual phenomenon firsthand. She familiarized herself with a group of crows in a Seattle park by feeding them peanuts in the same spot for a few days. After the crows got used to her visits, she returned to the site holding a dead, taxidermied crow and wearing a mask and wig to hide her identity. The crows immediately started their ritual by gathering in the trees and crying in her direction. According to Swift, this behavior is a way for crows to observe whatever might have killed the dead bird and learn to avoid the same fate. Flocking into a large, noisy group provides them protection from the threat if it's still around.

She tested her theory by returning to the same spot the next week without her mask or the stuffed crow. She offered the crows peanuts just as she had done before, only this time the birds were skittish and hesitant to take them from her. The idea that crows remember and learn from their funerals was further supported when she returned wearing the mask and wig. Though she didn't have the dead bird with her this time, the crows were still able to recognize her and squawked at her presence. Even birds that weren't at the funeral learned from the other birds' reactions and joined in the ruckus.

Swift was lucky this group of crows wasn't particularly vengeful. Crows have been known to nurse and spread grudges, sometimes dive-bombing people that have harmed one of their own.

[h/t Deep Look]

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