Friday, May 22, 2009

Animal Behaviors That Science Can't Explain

Animals do a lot of strange things: dogs will go after their own butts for hours, some fish fly and if some people are to be believed, sheep have the amazing ability to attract New Zealanders and Scotsmen. But there are some things about the animal world that leave the smartest of us scratching their heads in puzzlement saying, "Hell if I know..."

Animal Suicides

One of the major things that separate humans from animals is that most lower life forms have an intense will to live. Unless they are defending their babies or food, most animals will prefer to run off than fight, because life is precious. Plus, given the fact that most don't really appear to be all that self aware, the likelihood of goth hamsters and emo pigeons seems pretty thin.

Then why do some animals just up and decide to off themselves sometimes?

Well recently there were a couple of major animal suicides; in Switzerland, 28 cows decided to leap off a cliff over the course of three days, and in California, dozens of monstrous squids beached themselves.


And lets not forget Jatinga, India, where hundreds of birds from several species dive into the ground to kill themselves every year.

How Long Has This Been Going On?
That's a tough one. People don't typically record animal suicides unless it is really bizarre or a mass suicide, but studies were conducted as far back as the 1800s to try and figure out why.

But, They Must Have a Theory For This...
They do, and very few of them have anything to do with being jilted or members of a cult. Indian scientists believe that atmospheric conditions confused the birds in Jatinga, causing them to lose their sense of direction and crash into the earth, though evolutionarily speaking, that doesn't make a shit-lick of sense. There's also the old "follow the leader" theory, where they suggest that a tightly packed group is following one lost animal that is a bit sick to accidental deaths, similar to the way that some animals get lost during migration and end up leading a massive amount of birds in the wrong direction.
Still, that might explain one mass suicide, but those cows offed themselves during the span of three days. There wasn't just one line of cows lead by some misguided leader; several gangs of cows separately jumped off on their own accord.

Finally, there is the matter of the mass squid suicide. They all beached themselves around the time of an earthquake, so some figure there might be a connection. But scientists point out that squid are basically aggressive water balloons, and don't have any of the structures in them that cause fish and whales to become disoriented during quakes. Additionally, the squids started beaching themselves three days before the quake, which either means that the two events are unrelated or that squids a) can predict earthquakes (more on that later) and b) are using the earthquake as an opportunity to come on land and attack us at our most vulnerable and disoriented. Granted, that was probably the most poorly thought out invasion ever but still, it's scary to know they're planning something.

Bees Are Disappearing.

Remember being a kid and running through the grass barefoot, where halfway across the field, you stepped on a bee and instantly developed an unyielding terror of bare skin on grass? Well, the younger generations won't get to experience that joy. It seems that the honey bee population has been on the decline for years, and no one knows why. This seems like good news at first, since barefoot field-running is a joy most of us can't get enough of, but it's bad news if you like honey, wax, food or pictures of bees fucking. Bees are major pollinators, so without bees, food plants can't reproduce.


How long has this been going on?
Scientists first noticed a change in bee populations as far back as 1972, but the really dramatic drop didn't start until 2006. The decline was noticed in America and Europe first (both are known for their rich running-fields) although cases started being reported in Taiwan in 2007. It also seems to be spreading to India and Brazil, who may soon be experiencing the joys of field running
horror of no honey or pollination.

But, they must have a theory for this...
Several, and they run the gamut from interestingly plausible to absurdly retarded. Some suggestions that don't immediately make the people suggesting them look like idiots include mite-spread viruses, poor nutrition and pesticides. On the other end of the spectrum, we have cell phone radiation. Slightly less retarded is the suggestion that cell phone towers might disturb bees, but they are hardly so ubiquitous that they are killing off massive numbers of insects, who then disappear.

Some folks are suggesting that, quite simply, we're not getting any new, healthy, baby bees because the only bees attempting to reproduce, for some reason, are related. Yep. Brother and sister bees won't stop fucking each other, and now we'll never have honey again.

Cows Have Creepy Eating Habits.

When cows aren't launching themselves from cliffs, they are usually eating. Have you ever noticed anything peculiar about cows when they eat? No? Well, neither did anyone else until some German scientists started looking at satellite photos of cows using the high tech wonder-software known as "Google Earth." It turns out that all cows, everywhere, simultaneously face north (or south) while eating.


Scientists have a pretty good idea how they do this; like most every other animal on Earth that isn't a human, cows (and deer and sheep) can detect the planet's magnetic fields, so well in fact that power lines fuck up their feeding. The big question is why in hell do they bother?


How long has this been going on?
Here's the weird thing; they are pretty sure these animals always did this, just no one noticed, (probably because the directional behavior of dining cows falls hard in the "Who Gives a Shit" category). Still, farmers and hunters didn't notice. Not even Ronald McDonald, as he surveys his fields of delicious cheese covered death, noticed. It wasn't until thousands of square miles of satellite photos were painstakingly pored over that someone finally said "Holy crap! They're all facing the same way!"

But, they must have a theory for this...
Sort of. They originally thought maybe the position of the sun or wind direction played a roll, but that doesn't account for the fact that all of the deer and cows observed faced magnetic north. So then we are left with "because" as a reason. The people who discovered it decided "screw it, let neuroscientists figure that crap out."

Blue Whales Are Experiencing Global Puberty

Scientists are a weird lot, and they do some strange stuff in the name of science. Case in point, back in the 60s, some scientists thought it would be cool to stick a bunch of microphones into the oceans of the world and record blue whales singing. Forty years later, someone got the idea to study four decades of whale song, presumably to keep the grant money flowing, when they made a strange discovery: Every blue whale in the world was singing deeper every year.


How long has this been going on?
They have no idea why, but the whales have been going all Barry White on us for at least 40 years. The important thing to remember here, though, is that this isn't just most blue whales, but every goddamn one of them. This would be like every human on Earth slowly speaking more and more like James Earl Jones every year, regardless of language (which whales apparently have) or location. The drop is small, just a few fractions of a hertz per year, but it is steady and constant.

But, they must have a theory for this...
Everything from global warming to increased noise pollution has been suggested. However, the impact of global warming on the oceans doesn't hold water (get it?!) because the changes in acidity and density that might have caused a change that the whales would have to compensate for is so minor that it in no way explains the much larger change in whale voices.


Noise pollution might be a more reasonable solution. Sure, the last time we were in a crowded bar, we didn't try to get the waitress's attention by talking in a lower key. But assuming whales aren't as receptive to high pitched cries of "who do I have to blow to get MORE BEER!?" that still means that every Blue Whale in every ocean on the goddamn planet has simultaneously been altering their behavior in exactly the same way ... for forty years. What do you have to say to each other that's so important, Blue Whales? Something you want to share with the rest of the class? Something about a secret society, operating on a higher plan, waiting to strike during the next earth quake?

Ants With Collective Intelligence

Ants have amazed us for centuries. They build tightly structured colonies, some farm and others use suicide bombs to protect their hive. Perhaps you saw this video that made the rounds a while back in which scientists fill an underground ant colony with cement. It's pretty clear that we're in for some creepy shit when 10 goddamn tons of cement disappear down the hole before it's full. But then around the four minute mark, they dig out a sprawling underground "megalopolis."

As the narrator says, somehow keeping his bowels from audibly evacuating, the tiny ants have constructed an enormous city that "looks like it was designed by an architect. A single mind." If you've ever lived in a human city, you of course realize this is a feat mankind has yet to get the hang of.
"Good for ants," you might say if you're a sucker, "Why'd jerk-ass science have to drown them in cement?" Probably because Science knows about army ants. Sure, you can put 100 army ants on a table, and they will walk around in a circle until they drop dead of exhaustion, which is pretty stupid. On the other hand, when they are in groups of thousands or millions, they can regulate their collective temperature, decide when to either settle down and sleep for the night or pack up and leave. And sometimes they use their superorganism intelligence to coordinate attacks.

Amazingly, the more ants there are, the smarter they are as a whole. Sort of works opposite of humans, who get dumber for every person you add to a group, until a soccer riot breaks out. Put enough army ants in an urban location, and it won't be long before they realize they've got the upper hand. The cement doesn't seem so excessive now does it?


How long has this been going on?
Well, they think the African and South American types of army ants formed two different groups from a common ancestor back in the Cretaceous Era, meaning army ants have been acting together to travel and terrify other animals for at least 65-million years. On the up side, if they were planning on taking over the planet, they probably would have done it already.

But, they must have a theory for this...
Swarm Theory is just starting to get a grasp on this. Scientists suggest that while the individual ants are kinda retarded, as a group they manage to make good decisions because of how each individual idiot interacts with the others. Sort of how individual brain cells are pretty useless until you get the whole gang together. This behavior is surprisingly common, with everything from ants to bees to buffalo all showing abilities to use their minds like animal-brain Voltrons.

Animal Earthquake Predictions

If there is one power animals have that qualifies them as "Haley Joel Osment" creepy, it is this. Many, if not most animals have the bizarre ability to know when an earthquake is about to happen. Some can even detect something is amiss with Mother Earth up to a week in advance, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.


Everything from cats, to dogs to centipedes will leave the area when they sense a quake coming, leaving the humans behind scratching their heads and cleaning up lost pet shit when the big one hits.

How long has this been going on?
Since the beginning of recorded history. Pretty much the day mankind figured out they could put pen to paper and record what was happening, at least one person wrote down that animals were going apeshit just before a quake hit. According to the USGS link above, the Greeks recorded in 373 BC that rats, weasels, snakes and centipedes got the fuck out of dodge days before a "destructive" quake. As recently as the 2004 tsunami, there are records that a herd of 500 blackbucks left the coastal areas in India and headed for the hills shortly before the wave hit.


You can learn a thing or two from mother nature; if the animals are running in one direction, you might want to think about following them.

But, they must have a theory for this...
There are many, but most of them are followed with a shrug and "or maybe it's magic or some shit." All of these depend on animals having some previously unknown supersense, like the ability to sense seismic waves, or possible changes in the magnetic fields before the quake hits, or changes in groundwater, ground tilt or electrical fields. Not one of these has been or is detectable by humans or our equipment, so they are about as concrete as saying "Gandalf did it." But hey, if the USGS says Gandalf did it, we're inclined to accept that as proof.

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