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Olivier Testa for the Abanda Expedition

Bat Poop Might Be Turning Gabon’s Cave Crocodiles Orange

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Olivier Testa for the Abanda Expedition

In 2010, scientists started exploring the Abanda cave system in Gabon after getting a tip about something strange living there: crocodiles. And not just any crocodiles. Orange crocodiles.

Crocodiles will sometimes use caves as temporary refuges during droughts, but the dwarf crocodiles (Osteolaemus tetraspis) in the Abanda caves seemed to have taken up permanent residence there. When we wrote about the expedition a few years ago, the researchers didn’t know much about the cave crocs. They knew they were there, they knew they were weird, and they knew some of them had turned orange. The scientists, led by biologist Matthew Shirley, have since gone back into the caves to study the animals. Their new paper, published in African Journal of Ecology, overturns some of their early ideas about the Abanda crocodiles, showing that life in the caves has been good to them, and offers a new explanation for their strange colors.

After seeing the crocodiles for themselves, the team began surveying the caves and capturing crocodiles by hand, taking their measurements and determining their sex. To see what the reptiles were eating, they used a method called the hose-Heimlich technique, which is exactly what it sounds like. While one scientist flushed a croc’s stomach with an improvised stomach pump, another grabbed the animal and squeezed its belly, expelling the water and the stomach contents through the animal's mouth. They did the same with a group of crocodiles living aboveground at streams in the forest around the caves.

While the forest crocs barfed up freshwater crabs, shrimp, crayfish, and a variety of insects, the cave crocodiles were eating cave crickets and bats—and little else. The difference in diets, the researchers say, suggests that cave crocodiles don’t hunt or feed aboveground and likely have very little contact with their neighbors. The animals have to come out of the caves to breed and lay their eggs because there aren’t any suitable places to build nests in there, but they apparently don’t spend much time on the surface. They’re not entirely trapped in the caves, as the researchers once thought, but they’re still very isolated.

Even with all that time spent in the caves, the Abanda crocs don’t appear to be changing in response to life underground. Despite some physical and genetic differences between them and the forest crocs, the researchers say that the cave crocodiles “showed no signs of physical adaptation, or repercussion, of living in a hypogean environment”—such as the reduced pigmentation or smaller eyes often found in other cave-dwelling animals. The only notable physical change the team thinks is connected to their lifestyle is the crocs’ orange skin. They initially thought that the color change might have been an adaption to living in darkness or caused by their diet. But they now have a different—and grosser—idea.

With thousands of bats hanging from the cave ceilings, the floor has become covered in a caustic mixture of water and bat waste. “We hypothesize that the orange coloration in large adults is caused by ‘bleaching’ of the skin after what is presumably years of inundation in bat guano,” the researchers say. In some cases, they found, the guano isn’t just bleaching the crocs’ skin and changing its color, but eroding it to the point where the scientists could clearly see the animals’ skulls peeking out through the skin.

Those don't sound like the best living conditions, but the caves offer plenty to make up for it. After taking all the animals’ measurements, the researchers found that the cave crocodiles were in better physical condition than any of the crocs living aboveground. The team thinks this is because the cave crocs’ prey—bats and crickets—is abundant (numbering in the tens of thousands), easy to catch, and available year-round. Furthermore, the caves provide a stable microclimate and protection from the elements. The researchers also found more crocodiles in the caves than they did in the surrounding forest, where the animals are vulnerable to logging and bushmeat hunting, leading them to think that the caves also provide some safety from humans. Living in guano may have its costs, but at the end of the day, it’s not easy being green.

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Focus Features
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Animals
25 Shelter Dogs Who Made It Big
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Focus Features

If you’ve been thinking of adding a four-legged friend to your brood and are deciding whether a shelter dog is right for you, consider this: Some of history’s most amazing pooches—from four-legged movie stars to heroic rescue dogs—were found in animal shelters. In honor of Adopt-a-Shelter-Dog Month, here are 25 shelter dogs who made it big.

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iStock
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technology
This High-Tech Material Can Change Shape Like an Octopus
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iStock

Octopuses can do some pretty amazing things with their skin, like “see” light, resist the pull of their own sticky suction cups, and blend in seamlessly with their surroundings. That last part now has the U.S. Army interested, as Co.Design reports. The military branch’s research office has funded the development a new type of morphing material that works like an octopus’s dynamic skin.

The skin of an octopus is covered in small, muscular bumps called papillae that allow them to change textures in a fraction of a second. Using this mechanism, octopuses can mimic coral, rocks, and even other animals. The new government-funded research—conducted by scientists at Cornell University—produced a device that works using a similar principle.

“Technologies that use stretchable materials are increasingly important, yet we are unable to control how they stretch with much more sophistication than inflating balloons,” the scientists write in their study, recently published in the journal Science. “Nature, however, demonstrates remarkable control of stretchable surfaces.”

The membrane of the stretchy, silicone material lays flat most of the time, but when it’s inflated with air, it can morph to form almost any 3D shape. So far, the technology has been used to imitate rocks and plants.

You can see the synthetic skin transform from a two-dimensional pad to 3D models of objects in the video below:

It’s easy to see how this feature could be used in military gear. A soldier’s suit made from material like this could theoretically provide custom camouflage for any environment in an instant. Like a lot of military technology, it could also be useful in civilian life down the road. Co.Design writer Jesus Diaz brings up examples like buttons that appear on a car's dashboard only when you need them, or a mixing bowl that rises from the surface of the kitchen counter while you're cooking.

Even if we can mimic the camouflage capabilities of cephalopods, though, other impressive superpowers, like controlling thousands of powerful suction cups or squeezing through spaces the size of a cherry tomato, are still the sole domain of the octopus. For now.

[h/t Co.Design]

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