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Study: Cougars Could Prevent Deer-Related Road Deaths

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Despite their Disney-branded charms and generally decent nature, deer have no regard at all for traffic laws. That—coupled with a tendency to trot along rural roadways—leads to roughly 1.2 million collisions with automobiles every year, with 200 of those ending in a human fatality. In fact, deer are the most dangerous large animal in North America to humans, say the authors of a new study. They argue that the solution may be to introduce a less adorable animal into the equation: the cougar.

A paper [PDF] co-authored by University of Idaho wildlife ecologist Sophie Gilbert and recently published in the journal Conservation Letters argues that a restoration of the cougar population in 19 states in the eastern U.S. could lead to 21,400 fewer injuries and 155 fewer deaths over 30 years.

In order to assess what this modified food chain might do, the authors estimated that roughly 850 square miles would be needed in order for cougars to flourish to the point where they would be able to sustain life and control the local deer population. Over a six-year span, a cougar might kill 259 deer. Even if most of those were, as the study speculates, already sick or dying, it would still be enough of a rampage to affect the number of deer wandering into roads and subsequently injuring drivers in collisions.

The authors don’t know if the scenario they present would be similar if humans were to introduce cougars as opposed to the species flourishing on their own, which they sometimes do. Consider South Dakota: An increase in the number of cats there has led to a $1.1 million reduction in annual collision costs. (This population boom had a little help though: Cougars—also called mountain lions—were protected as a threatened species in South Dakota for more than two decades. Reclassified as big game animals in 2003, they're now hunted in the state.)

There’s also the troubling matter of cougars not limiting their diet to deer: As many as 30 human deaths, or one a year, might result from their repopulation. Some have been sighted as far east as Connecticut.

[h/t New York Times]

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Listen to the Impossibly Adorable Sounds of a Baby Sloth
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Sometimes baby sloths seem almost too adorable to be real. But the little muppet-faced treasures don't just look cute—turns out they sound cute, too. We know what you're thinking: How could you have gone your whole life without knowing what these precious creatures sound like? Well, fear not: Just in time for International Sloth Day (today), we have some footage of how the tiny mammals express themselves—and it's a lot of squeaking. (Or maybe that's you squealing?)

The sloths featured in the heart-obliterating video below come from the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica. The institution rescues orphaned sloths, rehabilitates them, and gets them ready to be released back into the wild.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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