These Desert Birds Make Jerk Stepdads

The list of things that only humans can do is constantly shrinking. Here’s an unexpected item to cross off: nepotism. Researchers say African desert birds will push their stepsons out of the group while promoting their biological sons to positions of power. They published their findings in the journal Biological Letters.

The southern pied babbler (Turdoides bicolor) is a dapper-looking little bird that makes its home in the dry savannah of the Kalahari Desert. The babblers are social birds, but their idea of socialization looks less like a tea party and more like a tense happy hour for high-level executives and their staff. Like many animals, they live in groups with strictly delineated social hierarchies. Each group includes a dominant male leader; his preferred in-circle of other dominant males; subordinate males; and dominant and subordinate females. All the birds in these units raise chicks together, which means that at any given time, the male leader may be looking after some other dude’s kids.

In many animal societies, subordinate members lose out on certain privileges. They may have to wait to eat until everyone else has eaten, or they may not be allowed to reproduce. Researchers were curious about the effect of babblers’ hierarchy on its subordinate members. They compiled 11 years’ worth of observations on color-banded babblers living at the Kuruman River Reserve and coded the birds’ behavior. 

Things are getting a little tense in the babbler household. Image Credit: Martha Nelson-Flower

The researchers found that over time, subordinates could become dominant, but only if they stuck it out and stayed with the group. But the ability to stay seemed to be a privilege afforded mostly to the biological sons of dominant males. Subordinates living under their stepfathers’ rule were more likely to be pushed out, which meant they’d have to go be subordinate somewhere else. Interestingly, female birds were completely uninvolved in these familial power struggles. To them, babies were babies.

Lead author Martha Nelson-Flower is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia. She notes that the strained dynamics of blended families are part of what makes babblers who they are. "Nepotism has likely played a vital role in the evolution of family life in this species," she said in a press statement.

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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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