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Socializing May Lead to Healthier Gut Bacteria

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Everybody loves a good story about animals being friends. But there’s often a lot more to those heartwarming images than any of us would suspect. That’s certainly the case with chimpanzee buddies. In a paper published today in Science Advances, researchers say that friendly chimpanzees have healthier microbiomes.

The term “microbiome” refers to the microscopic ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, and archaea that live on your skin and in your mouth and gastrointestinal tract. Like any ecosystem, a microbiome is healthiest when it contains a wide range of species. Studies have shown that low microbial diversity is linked to a number of medical conditions. “The more diverse people’s microbiomes are, the more resistant they seem to be to opportunistic infections,” co-author Andrew Moeller said in a press release

The contents of your microbiome come from a wide variety of sources, including your family, your diet, and the world around you. For social animals like humans and chimpanzees, that world includes a lot of contact with others. 

Moeller and his colleagues wondered just how much of an effect socializing could have on the microbiome. To find out, they spent eight years studying wild chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe National Park, collecting chimpanzee poop. The researchers followed 40 individuals, ranging in age from babies to seniors, picking up what the apes left behind while noting what the animals ate and how much time they spent with others.

The scientists then brought the chimpanzee poop back to the lab and sequenced the DNA of all the bacteria inside. They found that the chimps’ microbiomes were about 20 to 25 percent more diverse during the rainy season, a time when bugs, fruit, and leaves are in abundance. 

But it wasn’t just the food that was causing those changes. The researchers noted that the chimps spent a lot more time together during the rainy season, mating and grooming one another. And where there were a lot of chimpanzees in close proximity, the odds of one individual accidentally stepping in another’s poop was increased. In short, there was a whole lot of bacterial transmission going on. The friendlier the chimp, the more diverse its gut bacteria. 

The study results also showed that the specific bacteria species found in chimpanzee guts were just as likely to be similar between friends as they were between mothers and babies, a fact that suggests that social interactions are far more important than initially believed.

The microbiomes and chimpanzee friendships are especially interesting to scientists because they may offer clues to the evolution of human interactions. 

“One of the main reasons that we started studying the microbiomes of chimpanzees was that it allowed us to do studies that have not or cannot be done in humans,” study co-author Howard Ochman said in the press release. “It’s really an amazing and previously underexploited resource.” 

More research is needed to find out whether and how the diversity of gut bacteria affects chimpanzee health, and how the findings of this study might translate for humans. 

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Big Questions
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

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
Squirrels Are Probably More Organized Than You, Study Finds
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Despite having a brain that's slightly bigger than the size of a peanut M&M, squirrels have a fascinating, razor-sharp instinct when it comes to survival. They know that acorns that are high in fat and sprout late are perfect for long-term storage, so they salvage them for winter and eat the less nutritionally dense white-oak acorns right away. They also tend to remember where they put their acorn stash rather than relying solely on smell. Like nature's perfect stunt performer, they can even fall out of trees in a way that minimizes physical damage. Now, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have unveiled a newly discovered part of a squirrel's hoarding strategy, Atlas Obscura reports.

The researchers tracked 45 wild fox squirrels on the UC-Berkeley campus for nearly two years. They made available to the squirrels four different types of nuts—walnuts, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts. Sometimes the animals were given a single type of nut, and other times the nuts were mixed. Either way, the squirrels promptly sorted and stored their food according to type—walnuts went in one hiding place, almonds in another, and so on.

This type of behavior is known as "chunking" and makes it easier to retrieve data in memory. In doing this, a squirrel won't have to visit several different places looking for pecans: They know just where the main supply is. Squirrels can stockpile up to 10,000 nuts a year, so it's essential for them to know which type of nut is where.

The study, published in Royal Society Open Science, also indicated that squirrels seem to understand nuts have weight, choosing to carry heavier acquisitions to a different location than lighter nuts.

Squirrels being squirrels, they were happy to be gifted an assortment of nuts during the experiment, but there was one wrinkle: Rather than stash them away, sometimes they'd just eat them on the spot.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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