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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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NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
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Researchers in Singapore Deploy Robot Swans to Test Water Quality
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

There's something peculiar about the new swans floating around reservoirs in Singapore. They drift across the water like normal birds, but upon closer inspection, onlookers will find they're not birds at all: They're cleverly disguised robots designed to test the quality of the city's water.

As Dezeen reports, the high-tech waterfowl, dubbed NUSwan (New Smart Water Assessment Network), are the work of researchers at the National University of Singapore [PDF]. The team invented the devices as a way to tackle the challenges of maintaining an urban water source. "Water bodies are exposed to varying sources of pollutants from urban run-offs and industries," they write in a statement. "Several methods and protocols in monitoring pollutants are already in place. However, the boundaries of extensive assessment for the water bodies are limited by labor intensive and resource exhaustive methods."

By building water assessment technology into a plastic swan, they're able to analyze the quality of the reservoirs cheaply and discreetly. Sensors on the robots' undersides measure factors like dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll levels. The swans wirelessly transmit whatever data they collect to the command center on land, and based on what they send, human pilots can remotely tweak the robots' performance in real time. The hope is that the simple, adaptable technology will allow researchers to take smarter samples and better understand the impact of the reservoir's micro-ecosystem on water quality.

Man placing robotic swan in water.
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

This isn't the first time humans have used robots disguised as animals as tools for studying nature. Check out this clip from the BBC series Spy in the Wild for an idea of just how realistic these robots can get.

[h/t Dezeen]

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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
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Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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