Elias Levy via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Elias Levy via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Great White Sharks May Travel to Long Island to Mate

Elias Levy via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Elias Levy via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Great white sharks are pretty darn big. Yet for all their bulk, these fish are surprisingly hard to track down. Much of their lives—especially their sex lives—remain a mystery to us. That may soon change, as researchers say they have a lead on where many great white sharks may be converging to mate and bear their young: in the waters off Long Island.

If true, that’s a pretty big deal for conservation biologists. For all the media frenzy around shark attacks, the reality is that these animals are pretty rare and becoming rarer by the minute.

Chris Fischer is the expedition leader of marine science organization OCEARCH. “We lose 200,000 sharks a day, about 100 million a year,” he told the Observer. This is hardly inconsequential. After all, it’s not like sharks are decorative; as apex predators, they’re crucial to the health of marine ecosystems.

“Sharks are the balance keepers of our oceans,” Fischer said. “If we lose our sharks, there won’t be enough fish to eat and we will lose our oceans, and thus the planet.”

So he and the OCEARCH team are doing everything in their power to change that, from both the human and shark side. On Twitter, great whites Mary Lee and Katharine are spreading awareness and excitement with every tweet. And in the water, researchers are learning everything they can about these creatures as fast as they can.

That includes trying to figure out where great whites are going. The sharks’ migration patterns, like their mating habits, remain something of a puzzle. (“There’s no frickin’ pattern at all,” shark scientist Greg Skomal told WIRED in 2013.)

This is where Mary Lee and Katharine can help. They and three other tagged sharks have been transmitting location information to OCEARCH for a few years now, and at least one pattern has emerged: These massive travelers seem to heart New York.

“We’ve tagged five great whites on the east coast of the U.S.,” Fischer said, “and based on some of their migratory patterns, we suspect Long Island, New York may be a birthing site.”

So, good news for you, New York: Your wildlife is even cooler than you thought. But if OCEARCH is right about a Long Island shark nursery, it may also be in more need of protection. “The data coming from these sharks will help us understand the ecosystem off NY and manage the area toward a balanced abundant future,” Fischer said.

Want to pitch in? Check out OCEARCH’s research Kickstarter page.

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How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Honey Bees Can Understand the Concept of Zero
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The concept of zero—less than one, nothing, nada—is deceptively complex. The first placeholder zero dates back to around 300 BCE, and the notion didn’t make its way to Western Europe until the 12th century. It takes children until preschool to wrap their brains around the concept. But scientists in Australia recently discovered a new animal capable of understanding zero: the honey bee. According to Vox, a new study finds that the insects can be taught the concept of nothing.

A few other animals can understand zero, according to current research. Dolphins, parrots, and monkeys can all understand the difference between something and nothing, but honey bees are the first insects proven to be able to do it.

The new study, published in the journal Science, finds that honey bees can rank quantities based on “greater than” and “less than,” and can understand that nothing is less than one.

Left: A photo of a bee choosing between images with black dots on them. Right: an illustration of a bee choosing the image with fewer dots
© Scarlett Howard & Aurore Avarguès-Weber

The researchers trained bees to identify images in the lab that showed the fewest number of elements (in this case, dots). If they chose the image with the fewest circles from a set, they received sweetened water, whereas if they chose another image, they received bitter quinine.

Once the insects got that concept down, the researchers introduced another challenge: The bees had to choose between a blank image and one with dots on it. More than 60 percent of the time, the insects were successfully able to extrapolate that if they needed to choose the fewest dots between an image with a few dots and an image with no dots at all, no dots was the correct answer. They could grasp the concept that nothing can still be a numerical quantity.

It’s not entirely surprising that bees are capable of such feats of intelligence. We already know that they can count, teach each other skills, communicate via the “waggle dance,” and think abstractly. This is just more evidence that bees are strikingly intelligent creatures, despite the fact that their insect brains look nothing like our own.

Considering how far apart bees and primates are on the evolutionary tree, and how different their brains are from ours—they have fewer than 1 million neurons, while we have about 86 billion—this finding raises a lot of new questions about the neural basis of understanding numbers, and will no doubt lead to further research on how the brain processes concepts like zero.

[h/t Vox]

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