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Zoos Are Tracking Elephant Fitness, and It's Improving the Animals' Health 

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Even elephants are getting on the quantified-self movement. The health of some zoo elephants is now being monitored through fitness trackers, according to NPR. It’s called the Elephant Welfare Initiative, a national endeavor to study how elephants in captivity are faring and what steps can be taken to improve their health and happiness.

As part of the program, caretakers keep detailed logs about their elephants’ activity and behaviors. (The animals aren't wearing any devices a la Fitbit.) Fitness tracking software, developed by an organization called AWARE (Animal Welfare Assessment, Research and Education), then provides suggestions about how to change up the animals’ routines to benefit their well being.

AWARE found several important factors for elephant health while tracking hundreds of elephants for several studies published in July 2016. For instance, having more space doesn’t necessarily make elephants healthier, but elephants that have lots of social time exhibit fewer nervous tics, and reproductive health in female elephants can improve by giving them puzzle challenges. The studies found that soft soil or sand was better for the elephants' joints. Not to mention, the tracking of the animals’ movements can reduce their obesity rates. Two elephants at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo have each lost about 2000 pounds while taking part in the program, which is currently being implemented in 40-some zoos around the country.

Elephants are highly intelligent, social animals, and some critics argue that zoos will never be able to provide the kind of environment they need to really thrive. Zoos don’t have the space to support the large, complex social networks elephants have in the wild, and elephant families are often separated as young elephants born in captivity are sent to other institutions. Many zoos have closed their elephant programs, though there are still 78 zoos in North America that keep the pachyderms. However, some zoos that have pledged to end their elephant programs are continuing to keep their current elephants until they pass away, and others are planning to keep hosting elephants for the foreseeable future, so a little bit of tracking can help those institutions keep their elephants as happy as possible while in captivity.

[h/t NPR]

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Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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The Queen's Racing Pigeons Are in Danger, Due to an Increase in Peregrine Falcons
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Queen Elizabeth is famous for her love of corgis and horses, but her pet pigeons don't get as much press. The monarch owns nearly 200 racing pigeons, which she houses in a luxury loft at her country estate, Sandringham House, in Norfolk, England. But thanks to a recent boom in the region’s peregrine falcon population, the Queen’s swift birds may no longer be able to safely soar around the countryside, according to The Telegraph.

Once endangered, recent conservation efforts have boosted the peregrine falcon’s numbers. In certain parts of England, like Norfolk and the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire, the creatures can even find shelter inside boxes installed at local churches and cathedrals, which are designed to protect potential eggs.

There’s just one problem: Peregrine falcons are birds of prey, and local pigeon racers claim these nesting nooks are located along racing routes. Due to this unfortunate coincidence, some pigeons are failing to return to their owners.

Pigeon racing enthusiasts are upset, but Richard Salt of Salisbury Cathedral says it's simply a case of nature taking its course. "It's all just part of the natural process,” Salt told The Telegraph. "The peregrines came here on their own account—we didn't put a sign out saying 'room for peregrines to let.' Obviously we feel quite sorry for the pigeons, but the peregrines would be there anyway."

In the meantime, the Queen might want to keep a close eye on her birds (or hire someone who will), or consider taking advantage of Sandringham House's vast open spaces for a little indoor fly-time.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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