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15 Times Animals Saved the Day

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Animals help us in ways too numerous to count. At the global level, they’re an indispensable part of the natural systems that keep humans healthy. And at the individual level, they give us priceless companionship. But they’ve also assisted us in less-obvious ways. Here are a few surprising times that animals have swooped in—or crawled in, or swam in—to save the day.


At Wimbledon, pigeons are a problem. They love to eat the seed that is used to maintain the courts’ grassy carpet, and they’ll occasionally amble onto the courts and interrupt play. But pigeons are afraid of hawks and falcons, so raptors are a natural way to keep them at bay. A trained Harris hawk named Rufus holds the official title of “Bird Scarer” for the Wimbledon Championships. Rufus’ owner has him fly around the complex to keep pigeons away. Besides his work in the service of tennis, this hawk has also shooed away pigeons from hospitals, airfields, Westminster Abbey, and other sites.


Slugs may spell death for your garden plants, but they can also protect human lives. That’s because they’re able to detect deadly poison. In the early 20th century, Dr. Paul Bartsch, a mollusk expert at the U.S. National Museum, kept great grey garden slugs (also known as leopard slugs) in his home. One day his slimy charges escaped into his furnace room, and they reacted to gas fumes by hunching up and closing their breathing holes. Intrigued, Bartsch ran experiments and found that slugs also reacted to very low levels of mustard gas. During World War I, soldiers began to bring these humble critters into the trenches as an early warning system. 


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Collisions between birds and planes can cause engine failures and crashes. At Salt Lake City International Airport, domestic pigs have been used in recent years to keep birds away. Because pigs will disturb nests and eat eggs, their presence scares away the local population of California gulls, preventing the seabirds from nesting too near the airport. 


A person who loves wine is an oenophile. And if you’re one of them, you might want to give thanks to barn owls. Rodents are a big problem in vineyards; pocket gophers, for example, form networks of tunnels through the soil and chew on roots and vines. Luckily, barn owls make a big dent in rodent populations. In California, grape growers have been putting up nesting boxes to boost owl populations and keep their crop safe.


The fantastically named magician’s cone is a sea snail that uses highly toxic venom to hunt fish. This venom is amazing stuff; it contains substances that work rapidly and target highly specific spots. Researchers figured out how to harness magician’s cone venom for medicine and used it to create a painkilling drug. Approved by the FDA in 2004, Ziconotide provides relief for patients who don’t respond to traditional painkillers.


With the help of a jellyfish called the crystal jelly, three scientists discovered an incredible way to peer into the hidden inner workings of cells. Osamu Shimomura, Roger Y. Tsien, and Martin Chalfie figured out how to attach a fluorescent jellyfish protein to proteins and follow them like a glowing beacon. They won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work, and this major advancement has helped researchers around the world fight cancer, follow the spread of dangerous viruses, and do much more.


Bones are a treasure trove of information for scientists. But cleaning the meat and other material from a skeleton is harder than you’d think—especially when you’re working with tiny, delicate specimens. Enter dermestid beetles. The larvae of these insects eat everything but the bones, quickly and effectively cleaning valuable specimens. Several museums maintain colonies of these useful beetles. 


Anyone who’s had a pet ferret knows that they love exploring tubes. Wild ferrets use their skinny bodies to hunt rabbits in their burrows. In 1971, a visiting physicist at Fermilab’s Meson Laboratory figured out a novel method for cleaning the vacuum chamber pipes that were essential to the center’s experiments. Carrying a string, a ferret named Felicia scurried through the tubes in exchange for tasty treats. Researchers used the string to pull cleaning rags through the tubes.



Dogs are renowned for their ability to find lost people, but they can also help biologists track endangered species. Handlers have taught canines to detect the poop of wolverines, right whales, giant anteaters, gorillas, and all sorts of other creatures, giving scientists more insight into the natural world.


Here’s another way that dogs use their noses to do good. Bed bugs can cause itching and misery, and they also make a musty smell. Some exterminators use trained dogs to sniff out these household pests. If you’d like to enlist the services of a bed bug dog, be sure to do your research—poorly trained dogs may fake a discovery just to get an extra treat.


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Cheetahs are notoriously nervous. When frightened, they’re more likely to beat a hasty retreat than to fight. To keep them calm, some zookeepers have paired cheetahs with dogs. The canines, often from animal shelters, provide companionship and keep the cats feeling safe. Dogs are helping wild cats, too; in Namibia, cheetahs sometimes prey on farm animals, so the Cheetah Conservation Fund gives guard dogs to farmers as a harmless way to deter predators.


African giant pouched rats have tremendous powers of smell. APOPO, a Belgian nonprofit based in Tanzania, is training these rodents to cheaply and quickly detect tuberculosis in laboratory samples. In rural Angola, Gambian giant pouched rats been used to sniff out land mines.


Narwhals are amazing arctic whales, and, like much of life on Earth, they’re at risk from the effects of a changing climate. In 2010, Kristin Laidre of the University of Washington led researchers in an effort to measure ocean temperatures in Baffin Bay using narwhals. They tagged the whales with sensors that tracked temperatures on deep dives to the seafloor, providing insight into Earth’s climate. As these kinds of sensors become smaller and cheaper, more animals are helping science by turning into data collectors.


European glow worms aren’t really worms—they’re female beetles that use light to attract mates. In the trenches of World War I, soldiers gathered them into jars and used their natural illumination to read important reports, letters, and maps.


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Japan’s famous bullet trains, or Shinkansen, can travel at an astonishing 200 miles per hour. To reach high speeds without causing too much noise, these trains must be the perfect shape to slice through the air. Designers took inspiration from the common kingfisher, a bird with a long, sharp bill that dives into water at high speed to catch its fishy prey. Bullet trains now have slender, pointed noses based on kingfisher beaks.

Slow Motion Is the Only Way to Appreciate a Chameleon’s Lightning-Fast Tongue

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]

There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop

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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