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

Scientists Say Bird Poop Helps Cool the Arctic

Andreas Trepte via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5
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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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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iStock
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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
iStock
iStock

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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