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5 Times Scientists Played Animal Matchmakers

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Most animal relationships look pretty effortless, but sometimes even Mother Nature needs a little push. We found five romantic (and not-so-romantic) stories of scientists stepping in where Cupid failed. 

1. JEREMY, THE BACKWARD SNAIL

Appearance isn’t everything when you’re a snail, but it does help to at least have your genitals on the right side of your body. Researchers in the UK found a garden snail whose body plan—from the whorl of "his" shell to the location of his reproductive organs—was a mirror image of other snails’. They named their new backward friend Jeremy and asked the public for help finding another lefty snail to be his sweetie. Amazingly, they succeeded, although Jeremy is reportedly taking his time warming up to his date. (Snails are hermaphroditic, but the researchers decided to use male pronouns for Jeremy.)

2. ORANGUTAN TINDER 

An orangutan at the National Zoo plays with an iPad. Image Credit: Jen Zoon, Smithsonian's National Zoo via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Researchers at one Dutch zoo are giving a female orangutan the chance to swipe and select her next mate. The four-year experiment was designed to improve 11-year-old Samboja’s odds of getting pregnant, as previous studies have found that mating success rates increase when animals get to choose their own partners.  

3. SWINGER

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As populations of endangered animals dwindle in the wild, so, too, do their gene pools. To help prevent inbreeding among captive-bred animals, researchers at Flinders University created SWINGER. This saucily named program uses a matchmaking algorithm to help conservationists identify suitable mates for the animals in their care. 

4. KISSES FOR KOALAS

Diliff via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The staff at the Dreamworld Wildlife Foundation in Australia rely on similar genetic matchmaking programs to pair off local koalas and bilbies. They’re looking to build healthier, more resilient animals that will succeed and thrive in the wild. “We want little guys,” foundation director Al Mucci told Australia’s 9 News, “and lots of them returned back to the wild in those fragmented communities.”

5. A 16-ARMED EMBRACE

Nothing says “romance” like being set up, formally introduced, then monitored as you get your groove on. The Seattle Aquarium’s annual Octopus Blind Date event pairs two of-age Pacific octopuses, each weighing more than 40 pounds, for what aquarium staff hope will be a whirlwind affair. Each date is not without its risks; octopuses are naturally solitary creatures, and sometimes they’d rather eat each other than get it on.

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Where Do Birds Get Their Songs?
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Birds display some of the most impressive vocal abilities in the animal kingdom. They can be heard across great distances, mimic human speech, and even sing using distinct dialects and syntax. The most complex songs take some practice to learn, but as TED-Ed explains, the urge to sing is woven into songbirds' DNA.

Like humans, baby birds learn to communicate from their parents. Adult zebra finches will even speak in the equivalent of "baby talk" when teaching chicks their songs. After hearing the same expressions repeated so many times and trying them out firsthand, the offspring are able to use the same songs as adults.

But nurture isn't the only factor driving this behavior. Even when they grow up without any parents teaching them how to vocalize, birds will start singing on their own. These innate songs are less refined than the ones that are taught, but when they're passed down through multiple generations and shaped over time, they start to sound similar to the learned songs sung by other members of their species.

This suggests that the drive to sing as well as the specific structures of the songs themselves have been ingrained in the animals' genetic code by evolution. You can watch the full story from TED-Ed below, then head over here for a sample of the diverse songs produced by birds.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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