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Baby Barn Owls Give Their Hungrier Siblings First Preference at Mealtime

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Like in most families, mealtime in owl nests can get a little rowdy. But among barn owl nestlings, competition over food is actually relatively civil: According to a new study, these avian siblings vocally communicate the extent of their hunger, and the less hungry step aside for the famished to eat their fill first. 

In a study in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology (as reported by Audubon), ecologists at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland placed 27 young barn owls in fake nests with several mice, and played recordings of earlier sibling calls at different rates, monitoring how the sounds affected eating behavior. This was designed to simulate situations in which owl parents drop off food that can be divided up between multiple chicks, rather than forcing the nestlings to compete over a single piece of food. The recorded calls came from owl chicks that had not eaten in 28 hours. 

While the owls who heard the faster playback (indicating greater hunger) ate the same amount as the chicks who heard the slower playback (a noncompetitive call) over the course of the night, those who heard “siblings” crying faster for food paused before eating, waiting for the playback to stop. These chicks ate significantly less over the first five hours of the night, but then ate more to compensate during silent periods. 

When the owlets were alone, they didn’t vocalize any more than usual before eating, but when together, the parliament of owl siblings chattered before chowing down, suggesting that the vocalizations are communication-related, rather than simply related to the act of eating. “In barn owls, our results suggest that siblings vocalize to signal their intention to consume part of a food stock, a behavior that efficiently deters siblings from competing,” the researchers write, perhaps because it’s evolutionarily advantageous not to provoke your siblings into attacking you. 

[h/t Audubon]

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Good News, Dog Parents: You Can Teach Puppies as Well as Their Canine Moms Can
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If you’ve ever adopted a puppy, you probably know how frustrating it can be to teach your new family member the basic tenets of common decency, like not to pee on the carpet or tear up a whole roll of toilet paper.

In other areas, though, pups are rather impressive learners, capable of mimicking some human behaviors. In fact, for some tasks, they learn just as effectively from watching people as they do from watching other dogs, including their own mothers, a new study in Nature revealed.

Researchers from Hungary and the UK took 48 young puppies of various breeds and studied the conditions under which they can be taught to open a puzzle box containing food. The experiment revealed that the puppies were able to learn how to open the box regardless of whether the task was first demonstrated by a person, their mother, or an unfamiliar dog. In other words, not only are puppies capable of social learning, but they're able to learn tasks from humans they don't know—in this case, the experimenter.

However, researchers were surprised to learn that the puppies were more likely to learn how to open the box by watching an unfamiliar dog than by watching their own mothers. That may be because puppies spend more time looking at—and thus, learning from—an unfamiliar dog that intrigues them. This differs from other species such as kittens, which “learn to press a lever for food more rapidly from their mother than from an unfamiliar adult,” the study notes.

In addition, the puppies were able to perform the task again after a one-hour break, indicating that they had retained some memory of the learning experience.

The ability of dogs to learn from humans has been recorded in previous research. A 2015 study revealed that dogs learn better by demonstration (or the “do as I do” method) than training techniques that involve a system of punishments and rewards. The "do as I do" approach probably isn't the most practical method of teaching your pup to do its business outside, but if you already have an adult dog at home, your new puppy can follow the older dog's lead and learn by example.

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Michael Hutchinson
Spiders Can Fly Through the Air Using the Earth's Electric Field
A spider exhibiting ballooning behavior.
A spider exhibiting ballooning behavior.
Michael Hutchinson

Every so often, otherwise Earth-bound spiders take to the air. Ballooning spiders can travel hundreds of miles through the air (and, horrifyingly, rain down on unsuspecting towns). The common explanation for this phenomenon is that the spiders surf the wind on strands of silk, but there may be other forces at work, according to a new study spotted by The Atlantic.

In the research, published in Current Biology, University of Bristol scientists argue that Earth's atmospheric electricity allows spiders to become airborne even on windless days. To test their hypothesis, the researchers exposed spiders in the lab to electric fields similar to those naturally found in the atmosphere.

When the electric field was turned on, the spiders began to exhibit behavior associated with ballooning—they "tiptoed" on the ends of their legs, raised their abdomens, and released silk. Spiders only exhibit this behavior when ballooning. And when they did become airborne, the spiders’ altitude could be controlled by turning the electric field on and off. When the electric field was on, they rose through the air, but when it was off, they drifted downward.

This provides a potential explanation for why spiders take to the skies on certain days but not others, and how they can fly in calm, windless weather— something scientists have puzzled over since the early 19th century. (Even Darwin was flummoxed, calling it "inexplicable," The Atlantic notes.) However, the researchers note that these electric fields might not be totally necessary for ballooning—wind alone might work perfectly fine on some days, too. But understanding more about when and how spiders become airborne could help us predict when there will be large masses of arachnids flying through the skies (and hide).

[h/t The Atlantic]

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