Researcher Stages Cheeto Olympics for Birds

When we think about science, we often think about people in lab coats, standing around recording tiny measurements. But a huge amount of science happens in the field—that is, out in the world. And a lot of that science is pretty weird. Take, for example, a set of recent experiments on wild crows and magpies in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that had the birds competing for Cheetos. The results of these experiments were presented at the 101st Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America.

Corvids (the family of birds that includes crows, ravens, and magpies, among others) are famously savvy creatures. They’re schemers to the core, using and making tools and exploiting other animals to suit their needs. Magpies, for example, will nest near larger species like crows, counting on the presence of the big birds to scare off any would-be attackers. The two species share similar diets, a fact that made ecologist Rhea Esposito wonder. The larger birds are “notorious nest raiders,” she said in a press statement. Wouldn’t crows just make off with the magpies’ food? Is keeping big, hungry birds so close to the nest really worth it?

To find out, Esposito staged a set of tasks for the birds centered around a primo prize: Cheetos. They’re “…not the healthiest food, but the birds like them a lot," Esposito said. "And because they are bright orange, it was really easy to observe when the birds completed the task."

After identifying the nesting sites of breeding pairs of magpies and crows, Esposito set up Cheeto puzzles of varying levels of difficulty. At first, she just left a few Cheetos out in the open near each pair’s nest, watching to see what the birds would do. Next, she tucked them inside a nearby hollow log. To extract their snack, the birds had to figure out to pull a string, which Esposito admits was “just a blast to watch.” And all the time the birds’ brains and beaks were working, Esposito was timing them, recording them, and taking notes.

The two species took very different approaches to the crunchy, orange wonder in their midst. Magpies flew down to check out the Cheetos almost immediately, around 20 seconds faster than crows. The crows were warier and waited longer before testing the bait. But once they’d figured out that the Cheetos were food (in a manner of speaking), they were three times more likely than magpies to grab them and go.

"These puzzles were very simple for corvid abilities,” Esposito said. “They have solved much harder problems in the lab. But this was one of the first such experiments with wild birds and I was more interested in the ecological than the cognitive questions."

The birds had performed admirably thus far, but Esposito decided it was time to crank up the competition. She set out new Cheetos bait smack in between two nests—one belonging to crows and one belonging to magpies—and sat back to watch the mayhem.

With other animals, this might have been the beginning of a blood bath. But these are corvids, which means they’re more prone to playing mind games than picking fights. And that’s exactly what happened: the crows started using the magpies. At first, the crows would wait for the smaller birds to arrive and test the bait. Once it proved to be edible and the coast was clear, the crows descended and bullied the magpies into leaving. After a while, Esposito said, the magpies just stopped trying.

"Crows are about twice the size as magpies—that's why they are great as nest defenders,” Esposito said. “But there is a cost.”

To the magpies, she says, that cost is apparently worth it.

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Watch a School of Humpback Whales 'Fish' Using Nets Made of Bubbles 

Just like humans, humpback whales catch many fish at once by using nets—but instead of being woven from fibers, their nets are made of bubbles.

Unique to humpbacks, the behavior known as bubble-net feeding was recently captured in a dramatic drone video that was created by GoPro and spotted by Smithsonian. The footage features a school of whales swimming off Maskelyne Island in British Columbia, Canada, in pursuit of food. The whales dive down, and a large circle of bubbles forms on the water's surface. Then, the marine mammals burst into the air, like circus animals jumping through a ring, and appear to swallow their meal.

The video offers a phenomenal aerial view of the feeding whales, but it only captures part of the underwater ritual. It begins with the group's leader, who locates schools of fish and krill and homes in on them. Then, it spirals to the water's surface while expelling air from its blowhole. This action creates the bubble ring, which works like a net to contain the prey.

Another whale emits a loud "trumpeting feeding call," which may stun and frighten the fish into forming tighter schools. Then, the rest of the whales herd the fish upwards and burst forth from the water, their mouths open wide to receive the fruits of their labor.

Watch the intricate—and beautiful—feeding process below:

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Big Questions
Why Do Dogs Love to Dig?
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Dog owners with green thumbs beware: It's likely just a matter of time before Fido turns your azalea bed into a graveyard of forgotten chew toys. When dogs aren't digging up your prized garden, they can be found digging elsewhere in your yard, at the beach, and even between your couch cushions at home. But what exactly is behind your dog's drive to turn every soft surface he or she sees into an excavation site?

According to Dr. Emma Grigg, an animal behaviorist and co-author of The Science Behind a Happy Dog, this behavior is completely normal. "When people say 'why do dogs dig,' the first thing that always comes to mind is 'well, because they're dogs,'" she tells Mental Floss. The instinct first appeared in dogs' wolf ancestors, then it was amplified in certain breeds through artificial selection. That's why dogs that were bred to hunt rodents, like beagles and terriers, are especially compelled to dig in places where such animals might make their homes.

But this tendency isn't limited to just a few specific breeds. No matter their original roles, dogs of all breeds have been known to kick up some dirt on occasion. Beyond predatory urges, Dr. Grigg says there are two main reasons a dog may want to dig. The first is to cool off on a hot day. When stuck on an open lawn with little to no shade, unearthing a fresh layer of dirt untouched by the sun is a quick way to beat the heat.

The second reason is to stash away goodies. Imagine your dog gets bored with chewing his favorite bone but knows he wants to come back for it later. Instead of leaving it out in the open where anyone can snatch it up, he decides to bury it in a secret place where only he'll be able to find it. Whether or not he'll actually go back for it is a different story. "There's a disconnect with modern dogs: They know the burying part but they don't always know to dig it up," Dr. Grigg says.

Because digging is part of a dog's DNA, punishing your pet for doing so isn't super effective. But that doesn't mean you should stand idly by as your yard gets turned inside-out. When faced with this behavior in your own dog, one option is to redirect it. This can mean allowing him to dig in a designated corner of the yard while keeping other parts off-limits, or setting up a raised flowerbed or sandbox especially to satisfy that urge. "You can get him interested in the area by burying a couple bones or some interesting things in there for him to dig," Dr. Grigg says. "I like the idea of buried treasure."

If your dog's motive for digging is more destructive than practical, he may have an energy problem. Dogs require a certain amount of stimulation each day, and when their humans don't provide it for them they find their own ways to occupy themselves. Sometimes it's by chewing up shoes, toppling trash cans, or digging ditches the perfect size for twisting ankles. Fortunately, this is nothing more walks and playtime can't improve.

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