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Bats Can Plan Their Kills Two Insects Ahead

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Bats need to eat a lot to power long flights. One species, the Japanese pipistrelle bat, eats enough insects in a single night to increase its weight by 20 percent. So when they go out hunting, they need to eat as much as they possibly can. A new study in the journal PNAS shows how they can be so efficient: They plan ahead. Echolocating bats take into account where their next prey is before they even capture their current target, the study finds. 

A group of Japanese researchers surveyed almost 800 bat-on-insect attacks over the course of six days, reconstructing the direction in which the bats emitted sonar beams from a microphone system. They then analyzed 70 of those attacks located along 35 flight paths to see how bats coordinated back-to-back attacks. The researchers also used mathematical modeling to determine which flight paths made it most likely for a bat to catch its prey, finding that a bat flying a route that took into account both the position of its first prey target and its second was more likely to catch them both. 

Modeling how a bat’s flight path might change to make it more efficient to capture both Prey 1 and Prey2 (bottom right). Image Credit: Fujioka, PNAS (2015)

The bats began figuring out how to get to their next meal before they even reached the first one, the study found. “When the bats consecutively captured two prey items within short time intervals, sonar attention directed not only toward the immediate prey but also to the next prey before capturing the immediate one,” the researchers write. As they approached their first prey, they were already directing sonar pulses toward their second target to minimize the amount of time spent between the two targets. In fact, “bats might select their flight paths to keep both prey items within their sonar beam,” they suggest. 

[h/t Discover]

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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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