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Do Skunks Know They Stink?

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Getty Images

If Pepe Le Pew has taught us anything, it’s that skunks seem to relish their own stench, refusing to let it rob them of their self-confidence. The dual-striped creatures—there are 11 species in total— are mammals, and they defend themselves against predators by using anus-adjacent oil glands to shoot a plume of sulfurous stink at attackers. They can also aim it like a water gun with surprising force (over a 10-foot trajectory) and accuracy. But what happens if a skunk is sprayed by another skunk? And does the sprayer find his or her own smell offensive?

As it turns out, Warner Bros. cartoons may not be as scientifically accurate as previously thought. According to Jerry Dragoo, Ph.D., a mephitologist and head of the Dragoo Institute for the Betterment of Skunks and Skunk Reputations, skunks do not find their own odor pleasant. At all. “Skunks do not enjoy the spray of other skunks,” he says. “A skunk’s sense of smell is stronger than a human’s, so the odor will be as offensive.” Like any other victim, a skunk will rub its face in the dirt, sneeze, or try to groom itself to get rid of the irritant.

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Out of courtesy, skunks usually warn one another of a pending squirt before firing away—and it’s usually a last resort. “Skunks rarely spray each other,” Dragoo says, citing the fact that few skunk-on-skunk conflicts are serious enough to warrant nature's mustard gas. Some juvenile skunks, however, might spray an adult, since mature skunks have been known to kill weaker passersby; females will also spray during mating season if a male is too aggressive in his courtship.

For any skunk, resorting to their special ammunition carries the risk of catching some stink shrapnel. “When skunks spray, they rarely get any on themselves, but it does happen,” Dragoo says. “Though they can tolerate [their own] smell, they do not appreciate getting it in the face and eyes.”

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Good News, Dog Parents: You Can Teach Puppies as Well as Their Canine Moms Can
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iStock

If you’ve ever adopted a puppy, you probably know how frustrating it can be to teach your new family member the basic tenets of common decency, like not to pee on the carpet or tear up a whole roll of toilet paper.

In other areas, though, pups are rather impressive learners, capable of mimicking some human behaviors. In fact, for some tasks, they learn just as effectively from watching people as they do from watching other dogs, including their own mothers, a new study in Nature revealed.

Researchers from Hungary and the UK took 48 young puppies of various breeds and studied the conditions under which they can be taught to open a puzzle box containing food. The experiment revealed that the puppies were able to learn how to open the box regardless of whether the task was first demonstrated by a person, their mother, or an unfamiliar dog. In other words, not only are puppies capable of social learning, but they're able to learn tasks from humans they don't know—in this case, the experimenter.

However, researchers were surprised to learn that the puppies were more likely to learn how to open the box by watching an unfamiliar dog than by watching their own mothers. That may be because puppies spend more time looking at—and thus, learning from—an unfamiliar dog that intrigues them. This differs from other species such as kittens, which “learn to press a lever for food more rapidly from their mother than from an unfamiliar adult,” the study notes.

In addition, the puppies were able to perform the task again after a one-hour break, indicating that they had retained some memory of the learning experience.

The ability of dogs to learn from humans has been recorded in previous research. A 2015 study revealed that dogs learn better by demonstration (or the “do as I do” method) than training techniques that involve a system of punishments and rewards. The "do as I do" approach probably isn't the most practical method of teaching your pup to do its business outside, but if you already have an adult dog at home, your new puppy can follow the older dog's lead and learn by example.

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Michael Hutchinson
Spiders Can Fly Through the Air Using the Earth's Electric Field
A spider exhibiting ballooning behavior.
A spider exhibiting ballooning behavior.
Michael Hutchinson

Every so often, otherwise Earth-bound spiders take to the air. Ballooning spiders can travel hundreds of miles through the air (and, horrifyingly, rain down on unsuspecting towns). The common explanation for this phenomenon is that the spiders surf the wind on strands of silk, but there may be other forces at work, according to a new study spotted by The Atlantic.

In the research, published in Current Biology, University of Bristol scientists argue that Earth's atmospheric electricity allows spiders to become airborne even on windless days. To test their hypothesis, the researchers exposed spiders in the lab to electric fields similar to those naturally found in the atmosphere.

When the electric field was turned on, the spiders began to exhibit behavior associated with ballooning—they "tiptoed" on the ends of their legs, raised their abdomens, and released silk. Spiders only exhibit this behavior when ballooning. And when they did become airborne, the spiders’ altitude could be controlled by turning the electric field on and off. When the electric field was on, they rose through the air, but when it was off, they drifted downward.

This provides a potential explanation for why spiders take to the skies on certain days but not others, and how they can fly in calm, windless weather— something scientists have puzzled over since the early 19th century. (Even Darwin was flummoxed, calling it "inexplicable," The Atlantic notes.) However, the researchers note that these electric fields might not be totally necessary for ballooning—wind alone might work perfectly fine on some days, too. But understanding more about when and how spiders become airborne could help us predict when there will be large masses of arachnids flying through the skies (and hide).

[h/t The Atlantic]

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