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Basil el Jundi / Lund University
Basil el Jundi / Lund University

Dung Beetles Navigate Using Mental Snapshots of the Sky

Basil el Jundi / Lund University
Basil el Jundi / Lund University

We may giggle about the diet of dung beetles, but these bugs have an awful lot to teach us about animal minds. Researchers have found that dung beetles use mental snapshots of the sky to find their way. The report was published in the journal Current Biology. 

These are the same researchers from Lund University who previously outfitted their dung beetle subjects with tiny vision-blocking hats to determine if the bugs were navigating by sight (they were). Once the scientists realized that the beetles were looking at the sky to get their bearings, they wanted to know how it worked.

The research team, led by Lund University researcher Basil el Jundi, suspected that the navigation process might be associated with the beetle’s habit of climbing atop its dung ball and turning in a circle, a process the researchers call dancing. 

The scientists brought dung beetles (in this case, Scarabaeus lamarcki) into an arena with an artificial sky, which allowed them to manipulate the sources and amount of light the beetles could see. They ran three separate experiments to tests the bugs’ responses to light polarization patterns, gradients of colored light, and different intensities of light—all factors that influence the navigation of other traveling insects like bees and ants. 

In the end, it was all about the dance. Beetles were able to roll their dung balls away in a straight line if they had the opportunity to rotate in a circle while watching the sky. During that time, the researchers say, the insects were taking mental snapshots of the positions of the artificial stars and planets, which they then translated into maps for their movement on Earth. Pretty sophisticated stuff. 

"Other animals and insects also use the position of celestial bodies to navigate,” el Jundi said in a press statement, “but the dung beetles are unique—they are the only ones to take a snapshot where they gather information about how various celestial bodies, such as the Sun, Moon, and stars, are positioned.”

Specialized map-making is not unique to dung beetles. Little fish called frillfin gobies spend much of their lives in tidal pools. When the water level in their pool diminishes, the fish are able to jump into another pool, even though they can’t see where they’re going. Scientists in the 1950s realized that the fish make mental maps of the entire tidepool region as the ocean carries them up and into the pools. The gobies memorize the overhead map, then translate it into ground-level topography to help them decide which way to jump.

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Animals
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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Squirrels Are Probably More Organized Than You, Study Finds
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Despite having a brain that's slightly bigger than the size of a peanut M&M, squirrels have a fascinating, razor-sharp instinct when it comes to survival. They know that acorns that are high in fat and sprout late are perfect for long-term storage, so they salvage them for winter and eat the less nutritionally dense white-oak acorns right away. They also tend to remember where they put their acorn stash rather than relying solely on smell. Like nature's perfect stunt performer, they can even fall out of trees in a way that minimizes physical damage. Now, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have unveiled a newly discovered part of a squirrel's hoarding strategy, Atlas Obscura reports.

The researchers tracked 45 wild fox squirrels on the UC-Berkeley campus for nearly two years. They made available to the squirrels four different types of nuts—walnuts, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts. Sometimes the animals were given a single type of nut, and other times the nuts were mixed. Either way, the squirrels promptly sorted and stored their food according to type—walnuts went in one hiding place, almonds in another, and so on.

This type of behavior is known as "chunking" and makes it easier to retrieve data in memory. In doing this, a squirrel won't have to visit several different places looking for pecans: They know just where the main supply is. Squirrels can stockpile up to 10,000 nuts a year, so it's essential for them to know which type of nut is where.

The study, published in Royal Society Open Science, also indicated that squirrels seem to understand nuts have weight, choosing to carry heavier acquisitions to a different location than lighter nuts.

Squirrels being squirrels, they were happy to be gifted an assortment of nuts during the experiment, but there was one wrinkle: Rather than stash them away, sometimes they'd just eat them on the spot.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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