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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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Slow Motion Is the Only Way to Appreciate a Chameleon’s Lightning-Fast Tongue
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From the unusual way they walk, to their ability to change color, the evolutionary adaptations of chameleons are pretty bizarre, and some of them remain mysterious even to scientists. Their super-powered tongues, for instance, can dart out so quickly that the movement can barely be seen with the naked eye. But modern high-speed cameras have enabled researchers at the University of South Dakota to observe this appendage at work like never before. The video below, shared over at The Kid Should See This, includes some of that groundbreaking footage, and it's pretty amazing to watch.

Shooting at 3000 frames per second, the camera was able to capture every split-second aspect of the chameleon's tongue strike. Slowed down, the video allows you to see how every component of the process works in harmony: First, muscles in the lizard’s tongue contract like the string of a bow. Then, when that tension is released, the bony base of the tongue shoots forward, pushing the sticky, elastic part toward the chameleon’s prey.

According to Christopher Anderson, one of the scientists who conducted the high-speed camera research, larger chameleons can catapult their tongues forward at distances of one to two times their body length. For smaller chameleons, this distance can reach up to two and a half times their body length. “Small chameleons need to be able to eat more food for their body size than large chameleons,” he tells bioGraphic in the video, “and so by being able to project their tongues proportionately further than these large species, they basically are opening up additional feeding opportunities to themselves that they wouldn’t have if they had a shorter tongue.”

To see one of nature’s greatest hunting tools in action, check out the full video below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
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Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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