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Scientists in Brazil Document New Gruesome Technique of 'Ant-Decapitating Flies'

The world is enormous, but most of its inhabitants are very, very small. Insects make up 80 percent of all organisms on Earth, yet we know relatively little about them. Take phorid flies, for example. There are more than 4000 species in the Phoridae family, many with gruesome habits that have earned them descriptors like “coffin flies,” “bee-killing flies,” and “ant-decapitating flies.” A species in that last group recently revealed a never-before-seen method of removing ants’ heads.

If you’ve got the stomach for it, the video above is absolutely fascinating. (If you don’t, you should probably stop reading now.) Scientists knew that some parasitic Phoridae flies lay eggs in ants’ heads. The eggs become larva, which then eat their way through and out of their hosts, removing the ants’ heads in the process. But researchers noticed female Dohrniphora longirostrata paying a lot of attention to Odontomachus (or trap-jaw) ants, even when the flies weren’t laying eggs. This called for a closer look.

Entomologist Brian Brown and his colleagues set up cameras in the flies’ habitat and baited the set with injured ants they had collected. Soon enough, the flies came along and descended. What they did next had never before been seen. As you’ll see in the video, it’s brutal, it’s efficient, and it’s totally mesmerizing.

Observing the files’ decapitation technique underscored for Brown the need to keep exploring. “When we consider our lack of knowledge of the other species of the flies here,” he says in the video, “the magnitude of our ignorance is obvious.”

[h/t @BioInFocus]

Header image from YouTube // Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

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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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