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Tiny Shrimp Are the Bees of the Sea

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Caridean shrimp like this one carry pollen between male and female sea grass flowers. Image Credit: Enrique Dans via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0.

Just when you thought nature couldn’t get any more adorable, there’s this. Scientists have discovered that teensy shrimp, jellies, and other sea creatures act as pollinators for underwater plants. They described the sea bees’ activity in the journal Nature Communications.

The sea grass Thalassia testudinum, also known as turtle grass, grows in dense meadows in the shallows of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. The grass puts out little white and pale pink flowers, some (male flowers) giving off pollen and others (female flowers) accepting it. Scientists have long believed that turtle grass pollinates itself by simply releasing its pollen into the water, which washes it into receptive female flowers.

Those scientists were correct. But the grass also seems to make use of its little visitors, as researchers learned when they trained video cameras on a flowering meadow. They discovered that the meadow was a bustling place frequented by dozens of different species [PDF], from shrimp and crabs to jellies, isopods, and worms.

Analysis of the recordings also revealed an interesting trend: male flowers full of pollen were far more popular with crustacean visitors than those without. The researchers watched as the tiny animals fed from the male flowers and swam away, grains of pollen still stuck to their bodies. The situation looked awfully familiar. Was it possible that the animals serve the same role underwater as bees do on land?

To find out, the researchers carefully collected flowering turtle grass and a sampling of its animal visitors, then brought them all into the lab. They set up a series of trays, each containing a single pollen-rich male and a single female flower, then added the trays to small aquaria teeming with their regular customers. They also ran a second experiment, in which the two flowers were buffeted by different types and strengths of current.

The researchers’ hypothesis was spot-on: The little animals were indeed ferrying grains of pollen from male to female flowers, allowing the flowers to get it on even in the absence of strong currents.

Kelly Darnell of The Water Institute of the Gulf was unaffiliated with the study, but told New Scientist she was excited with its findings.

"That pollination by animals can occur adds an entirely new level of complexity to the system," she said, "and describes a very interesting plant-animal interaction that hasn’t really fully been described before."

Turtle grass can also reproduce asexually, so pollination via shrimp likely represents a pretty small portion of its sex (or sexless) life. But the fact that it happens at all is delightful enough for us.

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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.

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