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9 Animals Accused of Espionage

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Our furry friends could make the perfect secret agents—easy to train, small, quick, and too cute to look dangerous, they’ve got the perfect cover to infiltrate your home. And while spy animals might seem like the stuff of movies, over the years a number of (probably) innocent animals have been accused of espionage, nine of which are collected here:

1. UK CHANCELLOR GEORGE OSBORNE’S CAT

Back in 2009 George Osborne’s cat Freya went missing. No one thought much of it until a few years later, after Osborne became Chancellor of the Exchequer and moved into number 11 Downing Street, right next door to the British Prime Minister. Shortly thereafter, he received a phone call notifying him that Freya had been found, and she was welcomed home by the Osborne family.

However, eyebrows were soon raised after Freya began waltzing in and out of some of the government’s most sensitive buildings, and some whispered that she might have been captured by a foreign power and bugged. In 2014 Freya was sent to live with another family in the Kent countryside, supposedly after being usurped by Osborne’s new dog, but some may wonder if her habit of infiltrating the heart of government may have been the real reason.

2. ISRAELI "SPY" VULTURE

In January 2016 an enormous vulture (its wingspan was 6 feet, 5 inches!) was captured flying over Lebanon after arousing suspicion because it had a tracker on its tail. Lebanese villagers seized the poor bird and accused Israel of training it as a spy. In fact, the bird was part of an effort by Tel Aviv University and others to re-introduce raptors to the Middle East. After a few ruffled feathers, the vulture was returned to Israel.

3. CAMERA-WIELDING FALCON

A dead falcon found in the border region of India and Pakistan in 2013 aroused suspicion after a small camera was discovered on its body. India seized the remains and speculated that the falcon may have been trained to spy on the Indian army, who conduct war games in the area. However it soon became clear that the camera was not sophisticated enough to have been planted by an intelligence agency and instead it was thought to have been used by Pakistani hunters.

4. SHARKS TRAINED BY MOSSAD

After a series of shark attacks in the popular Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in 2010, rumors in the Egyptian press accused Israeli intelligence agency Mossad of training the beasts. It was thought that the shark might have been deliberately planted in the area in order to damage the tourist trade. Israel vehemently denied the accusations and pointed out that they too had beach resorts on the Red Sea, meaning that any shark in the area was a danger to Israel as well.

5. THE HARTLEPOOL MONKEY

During the Napoleonic Wars between England and France in the early 19th century, a French ship was wrecked off the shore of northeast England. According to local legend, the inhabitants of Hartlepool gathered on the beach to see off their enemies but found only one survivor, a monkey dressed in a miniature military uniform. Never having seen a Frenchman before, the townsfolk immediately suspected the monkey of being a French spy and questioned the unfortunate beast, who unsurprisingly failed to answer their questions. After an impromptu trial, the monkey was convicted of spying and hanged. Hartlepool remains strangely pleased with this historic incident and their soccer team has a monkey mascot named H’Angus the Monkey, while the rugby team is affectionately known as the Monkeyhangers.

6. SUSPICIOUS SQUIRRELS

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The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) of Iran reported in 2007 that they had smashed a squirrel spying ring. Fourteen squirrels were reportedly captured by intelligence officers in the border region of Iran, each allegedly sporting listening devices. The British Foreign Office reacted in characteristic deadpan fashion, stating “The story is nuts.”

7. SPY DOLPHINS

Hamas captured a dolphin off the coast of Gaza in August 2015 and accused Israel of equipping the animal with spying devices. Israel did not respond to the allegations, but it would not be the first time a dolphin has been used in the military. The U.S. Navy has long had a program to train these highly intelligent animals, but rather than being trained to kill, the dolphins are used for peaceful missions to identify mines and underwater threats.

8. THE SPYING SWAN/STORK

A plucky Egyptian fisherman captured what he thought was a swan wearing a suspicious electronic device in 2013. As pictures of the jailed bird emerged, it soon became clear that it looked more like a stork. This mistaken identity did not prevent the Egyptians from accusing the French of training the bird as a spy. The incident soon blew over when it was revealed the swan/stork was in fact wearing a tracking device in order for academics to study its migration routes.

9. CATS AND DOGS IN THE TRENCHES

Declassified documents released by Britain’s National Archives reveal that two cats and a dog were suspected of spying for the Germans during World War I. The cats and dog had been observed frequently crossing the British trenches on the Flanders front line, arousing suspicions that they may have been carrying messages from the Germans. The archives reveal that the British were keen to capture the animals but unfortunately no records survive to indicate if they achieved their goal.

BONUS: ACOUSTIC KITTY

Although these stories may seem far-fetched, there have been incidences where intelligence agencies explored the idea of animal espionage. Declassified CIA documents revealed a 1960s effort to wire up a cat as a remote listening device, with its tail used as an antenna. The project, dubbed “Acoustic Kitty,” was abandoned after the unlucky feline was sent into a park to eavesdrop on some men sitting on a bench but was run over by a taxi before it could get into position.

All images courtesy of Getty Images unless noted otherwise.

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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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16 Playful Facts About Otters
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These adorable aquatic mammals are clever, chatty, and oddly aromatic.

1. THERE ARE 13 SPECIES OF OTTERS, AND JUST ABOUT ALL OF THEM ARE DECREASING.

Only one otter species seems to be thriving, and that's the North American River Otter. The other 12 otter species were recently identified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as having decreasing populations, and five otter species are already on the endangered list. Among the endangered are the sea otters along the California coast, which are threatened by "environmental pollutants and disease agents." Others, like the marine otters of South America, have had their numbers reduced because of poaching, as well as environmental concerns.

2. ZOROASTRIANS THOUGHT THE OTTERS TO BE NEARLY SACRED CREATURES.

This ancient monotheistic religion considered otters to be the dogs of the river or sea and had strict rules forbidding the killing of otters. It was thought that otters helped keep water purified by eating already dead creatures that might contaminate the water source if they were allowed rot. They would also hold ceremonies for otters found dead in the wild.

3. OTTERS HAVE VERY DISTINCTIVE POOP, AND THAT SCAT HAS ITS OWN NAME.

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Otters use their dung—known as spraint—to mark territory and communicate with other otters. The mammals like to keep things organized within their communities and will designate certain areas to be used as latrines. Spraint scents can vary, but often are (relatively) pleasant—one expert described them as not "dissimilar to jasmine tea." Spraint composition is unique to each otter, and the creatures can identify each other by the smells. Scientists suspect otters may even be able to determine the sex, age, and reproductive status of the spraint dropper just from a quick whiff. And since otters have superb metabolisms and must eat up to 15 percent of their body weight each day, there's a lot of spraint to go around.

4. OTTER MOMS ARE TOTALLY GAME FOR ADOPTION.

In 2001, a female otter at the Monterey Bay Aquarium gave birth to a stillborn pup on the same day a stranded pup was discovered in the wild nearby. The aquarium staff had previously tried raising pups themselves but found that hand-raised otters became too attached to humans to be released back into the wild. So instead, they dropped the pup in with the female otter, and she immediately went into mom mode. The aquarium has since devised a system of hand-rearing pups for the first 6-8 weeks—mostly for bottle feeding purposes—before handing the pups off to female otters for raising. At six months, the pups are released back into the wild with generally strong results.

5. THEY HAVE THE THICKEST FUR OF ANY MAMMAL IN THE ANIMAL KINGDOM.

Otters can have up to one million hairs per square inch. There are two layers of fur—an undercoat and then longer hairs that we can see. The layers manage to trap air next to the otter's skin, which keeps the otters dry and warm and also helps with buoyancy. Otter pups have so much air trapped in there, they actually can’t dive under water, even if they want to.

6. AN OTTER IS SOMETIMES ONLY AS GOOD AS HIS TOOLS.

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Otters love to eat shelled animals, like clams, but they aren't equipped with the strength to open their food without some help. Therefore, they are big on tools and will often use rocks to help crack into dinner. While they hunt for food underwater, they’ll often store a rock in the skin under their arms for later use.

7. OTTERS ARE POPULAR IN NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURE, BUT FOR VARYING REASONS.

Some tribes consider the otter to be a lucky animal and a symbol of "loyalty and honesty." But some, particularly in present-day Canada and Alaska, viewed the river otter "with awe and dread" and associated the creatures with the undead and drowning. They forbid eating the creatures and were offended when colonial Europeans began hunting the river otters and selling their furs.

8. GIANT OTTERS ARE SUPER CHATTY.

In 2014, a study of giant otters found that the river-dwellers have 22 distinct noises they make for different situations. On top of that, pups have 11 of their own calls that they intersperse with "infant babbling." Among the most notable calls: a "hum graduation" used to tell otters to change directions and a "Hah!" shout when a threat is nearby.

9. OTTERS AND HUMANS CAN COLLABORATE.

In Bangladesh, otters help fisherman maximize their haul. For centuries, fisherman have been training otters to act as herders and chase large schools of fish into the nets.

10. DRONES MAY HELP SCIENTISTS BETTER STUDY OTTERS IN THE WILD.

Keeping an eye on otters in the wild is a tricky task. In the past, observers have usually set up telescopes on shore to try and monitor otters at sea while on land. Otters won't act naturally with humans nearby, and using a telescope on a boat can get tricky in the rollicking ocean. But now, scientists are using unmanned drones with cameras to get an aerial look at otters in their element, making it easier to monitor the creatures as they dive for food and go about their day.

11. SEE A GROUP OF OTTERS? THAT'S A ROMP. OR A BEVY.

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Or a family or a raft. Otter groups go by a few different monikers, all of which are fairly unique to that crew. Generally, a group of otters on land will go by a romp, while a group hanging in the water is called a raft.

12. OTTERS ARE BIG ON PLAY TIME, AND MAKING SLIDES IS AMONG THEIR FAVORITE GAMES.

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Otter families are usually limited to pups and their mothers, and that duo will spend most of their time either feeding or sleeping. In the downtime, though, otters love to play and will often build themselves slides along the banks of rivers.

13. CALIFORNIA SEA OTTERS DIVIDE THEMSELVES IN DIET GUILDS.

Once thought to be gone from the area completely, southern sea otters—known as California sea otters—have been making a comeback in recent years. But with their numbers hovering around just a few thousand, researchers have kept a close eye on the population and their studies have revealed an interesting social structure. The otters, which need to consume 25 percent to 35 percent of their body weight every day in order to maintain their blubber stores and keep themselves warm in the cool waters, are divided into three "dietary guilds": Deep-diving otters that dine on abalone, urchins, and Dungeness crab; medium divers who subsist on clams, worms, and smaller shellfish; and those that stay in shallower waters, feeding on black snails.

14. THE FIRST EUROPEAN TO SET FOOT IN ALASKA WAS ALSO THE FIRST TO DESCRIBE SEA OTTERS.

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Georg Wilhelm Steller was the first to scientifically describe numerous new animals on the 1741 explorative voyage from Russia. Aboard the St. Peter, Steller and other 18th-century explorers crash-landed on mainland Alaska after getting separated from its sister ship. Steller was the first European to set foot on the icy land. Over the course of a rough Alaskan winter, he meticulously documented many species, and while some have since gone extinct (like a sea-cow he described that was hunted into extinction), the adorable otter was among his initial discoveries.

15. BABY OTTERS ARE BUOYANT, BUT THEY CAN'T SWIM ON THEIR OWN.

A mother will often wrap the babies in kelp to keep them in one place while she hunts. Or, she might rely on human resources and otter ingenuity to find a makeshift “playpen” for her pup.

16. THEIR BEHAVIOR ISN'T ALWAYS ADORABLE.

Like many animals, otters sometimes behave in ways that aren't exactly within the bounds of what humans would consider morally acceptable. Even if you find them otherwise adorable, otters' mating habits will no doubt make your stomach turn.

Male otters' mating techniques are violent. They bite their female partner's face during copulation to keep her from slipping away, leaving her with substantial facial wounds. It's not uncommon for female otters to die as a result of these aggressive encounters, either through drowning or from their wounds becoming infected. Male otters have also been known to violently copulate with other species—most notably, baby seals [PDF]. The behavior doesn't stop when the seals die from the trauma. Otters have been known to guard and have sex with the bodies of their victims for up to seven days after they've died.

Scientists hypothesize that these seemingly counterproductive mating habits might be the result of a population imbalance. In California's Monterey Bay, where scientists observed otters trying to copulate with the week-old bodies of dead baby seals, there are far more male otters than females. Facing a lack of female partners, male otters may be engaging in what researchers call "misdirected sexual activity." The area in the bay where the scientists observed the most otter-on-seal mating sessions was also where there was a high population of transient male otters, ones that, unlike more dominant males, don't have an established territory filled with potential mates. In the absence of females of their own kind, then, they turned their typical sexual responses toward the seals. Nature, unfortunately, isn't always pretty.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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