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Andreas Trepte via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Scientists Say Bird Poop Helps Cool the Arctic

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Andreas Trepte via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

You just never know how your contributions will change the world. In the case of Arctic birds, those contributions are drippy and white. Poop. We’re talking about poop. A recent study found that gases produced by huge quantities of seabird guano can increase cloud cover, thereby slightly reducing air temperature. The study results were published in the journal Nature Communications.

Climate change is a serious issue all over the globe, but it’s especially pronounced at the poles, where glaciers are vanishing and ecosystems are shifting at a dramatic rate. Understanding the many factors effecting these changes is essential if we want to protect our planet. Some factors, like a damaged ozone layer, are fairly obvious. Others are a little stealthier.

Take those bird droppings, for example. The Arctic is home to dozens of bird species and millions of birds, and they’ve all got to poop somewhere. Their runny poop—actually a combination of urine and feces—dribbles down the walls of their cliffside dwellings, accumulating in puddles and streaks.

Animals have excretory systems in order to get rid of materials they don’t need. We simply push them out of our bodies into the world around us. But the story doesn’t end there. The contents of our waste alter the environment they enter, often imperceptibly. The uric acid in bird poop, for example, releases ammonia (NH3) into the air.

A few years ago, researchers decided to find out exactly how much NH3 those birds’ butts were making. They conducted a global survey of 261 million breeding pairs of seabirds, then built a database listing the birds’ location and ammonia output.

Now, a team of climate and biology researchers from universities in Canada and the U.S. have put the excellent database to a very specific use. They were interested in figuring out if Arctic seabirds in particular were making enough NH3 to affect local weather. To find out, they pulled information on the birds’ productivity, then fed that information into a model that simulated the movement and transformation of ammonia particles in Arctic air.

They found that molecules of the birds’ ammonia could influence the growth of new particles, which could then expand and expand until they created new clouds. The clouds, in turn, could reduce the temperature above the bird colonies. Not by a lot, mind you; we’re talking about teeny, tiny changes. But we’re also talking about millions of birds in a swiftly shifting environment.

The results highlight just how linked we are to our planet, the authors write. Even as our lives and bodies are touched by the heat and air, we are touching back.

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Animals
Owning a Dog May Add Years to Your Life, Study Shows
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We've said that having a furry friend can reduce depression, promote better sleep, and encourage more exercise. Now, research has indicated that caring for a canine might actually extend your lifespan.

Previous studies have shown that dog owners have an innate sense of comfort and increased well-being. A new paper published in Scientific Reports and conducted by Uppsala University in Sweden looked at the health records of 3.4 million of the country's residents. These records typically include personal data like marital status and whether the individual owns a pet. Researchers got additional insight from a national dog registry providing ownership information. According to the study, those with a dog for a housemate were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or any other cause during the study's 12-year duration.

The study included adults 40 to 80 years old, with a mean age of 57. Researchers found that dogs were a positive predictor in health, particularly among singles. Those who had one were 33 percent less likely to die early than those who did not. Authors didn't conclude the exact reason behind the correlation: It could be active people are more likely to own dogs, that dogs promoted more activity, or that psychological factors like lowered incidences of depression might bolster overall well-being. Either way, having a pooch in your life could mean living a longer one.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

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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