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Beluga Whales Use Bubbles to Communicate

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A recent study suggests that the bubbles blown by beluga whales are more than just adorable. In a new paper currently under review for publication in the journal Aquatic Mammals, researchers report that belugas use bubbles to communicate with whales around them.

Animal behavior researchers Elizabeth George and Michael Noonan recently talked to Discover about their research, which they gathered by studying 44 captive belugas at Ontario's Marineland over the course of eight years. They found that the whales create four distinct bubbles types—blowhole drips, blowhole bursts, blowhole streams, and mouth rings—and that each corresponds to a different state of mind. Rings and bubbles slowly released from the blowhole are normally signs of playfulness, while an abrupt bubble burst could be a defensive reaction in the presence of a threat. Mother belugas have previously been observed blowing bursts of bubbles to fend off surrounding whales when swimming with their calves. In this new study, they were shown to create the bursts in response to alarming noises and other unexpected events. 

Anyone familiar with belugas shouldn’t be surprised that they also blow bubbles for fun. The whales are some of the most playful creatures on Earth—especially the females—and devote approximately one-third of their time to play. They often create shimmering bubble rings with their mouths just to entertain themselves. But bubbles can also provide an opportunity for social bonding. Sometimes one whale will blow a bubble to have another one pop it, or two whales will blow matching bubble rings. This latter behavior is especially prevalent in whales with close bonds, like pairs of affiliated males or mothers and calves. 

With other bubble-blowing patterns, the ultimate purpose isn’t as clear. Male belugas are sometimes observed swimming beside one another while blowing steady streams of bubbles, a behavior that has researchers perplexed. Humpback whales do something similar as a means of intimidation when competing for mates, but in belugas it appears to come from a more amicable place. The researchers behind the recent study suspect the stream might be a form of bonding between the whales.

With all these findings, it’s important to keep in mind that most of the research on their bubble-blowing behavior has been conducted on whales in captivity; belugas are difficult to study in the wild. So the actions of captive belugas may differ from those in natural habitats. 

[h/t: Discover]

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Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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The Queen's Racing Pigeons Are in Danger, Due to an Increase in Peregrine Falcons
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Queen Elizabeth is famous for her love of corgis and horses, but her pet pigeons don't get as much press. The monarch owns nearly 200 racing pigeons, which she houses in a luxury loft at her country estate, Sandringham House, in Norfolk, England. But thanks to a recent boom in the region’s peregrine falcon population, the Queen’s swift birds may no longer be able to safely soar around the countryside, according to The Telegraph.

Once endangered, recent conservation efforts have boosted the peregrine falcon’s numbers. In certain parts of England, like Norfolk and the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire, the creatures can even find shelter inside boxes installed at local churches and cathedrals, which are designed to protect potential eggs.

There’s just one problem: Peregrine falcons are birds of prey, and local pigeon racers claim these nesting nooks are located along racing routes. Due to this unfortunate coincidence, some pigeons are failing to return to their owners.

Pigeon racing enthusiasts are upset, but Richard Salt of Salisbury Cathedral says it's simply a case of nature taking its course. "It's all just part of the natural process,” Salt told The Telegraph. "The peregrines came here on their own account—we didn't put a sign out saying 'room for peregrines to let.' Obviously we feel quite sorry for the pigeons, but the peregrines would be there anyway."

In the meantime, the Queen might want to keep a close eye on her birds (or hire someone who will), or consider taking advantage of Sandringham House's vast open spaces for a little indoor fly-time.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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