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Jamie Allen
Jamie Allen

See a Squirrel? These Citizen Scientists Want to Know About It

Jamie Allen
Jamie Allen

If you spot a squirrel, Jamie Allen wants to know about it. In 2011, Allen, an Atlanta-based writer, found himself wondering exactly how many squirrels there were in the world around him. And so he and another squirrel-curious friend decided to launch the Squirrel Census, an effort to count all the squirrels in his neighborhood. Several woodland-rodent tallies later, the Squirrel Census has gone national.

The first squirrel count began in Atlanta’s Inman Park, where Allen lives, in the spring of 2012, followed by another in the fall of 2015. For each, the Squirrel Census team created an elaborate visual guide to the data for the public, squirrel-obsessed and not. Now, this fall, the project is branching out. Allen and his fellow squirrel counters are organizing a Central Park Squirrel Census for October 2018 with help from local universities, the New York City Parks Department, and other groups.

A person holds up an oversized map.
Squirrel Census

According to the Squirrel Census website, the project is focused “on the Eastern gray (Sciurus carolinensis), his pals, and his mortal enemies.” With its distinctly whimsical site design, filled with animated squirrels and an unexplained pop-up image of author Tom Clancy, you’d be forgiven for thinking the wildlife census is somewhat of a lark. And it is partly a storytelling exercise—the 2016 version of the Squirrel Census report, called Land of a Thousand Squirrels, included not just infographics and a map on the Inman Park squirrel population, but fiction and “general fun,” as Allen told Mental Floss in an email. But it has real scientific methodology, too.

The Squirrel Census team includes an Emory University epidemiologist, a veterinarian, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife fire specialist, and a wildlife illustrator, as well as a small legion of designers, fundraisers, logistics specialists, and other supporters. To estimate squirrel populations, the team uses an established wildlife-counting formula that has previously been used by scientists to study events like the Great Squirrel Migration of 1968. They break the area they want to study into quadrants and send volunteers out with clipboards, maps, and specific questions to tally squirrels over a set amount of time.

A close-up of a map of squirrel sightings
Squirrel Census

Since the first census, Allen and the Squirrel Census team have thrown events to bring their results to the public, spoken at Emory University and other colleges about their methods and results, and launched an iPhone app, called Squirrel Sighter, to allow citizen scientists to contribute data from around the world. Each time a user indicates they've seen a squirrel (dead or alive) in the app, the Atlanta-based Squirrel Census team gets an update with data on the date and time, the location of the sighting, and the weather conditions there.

The app, and the census itself, is meant as a way to “attract people to the idea of sighting squirrels, which are normally so common as to be invisible,” according to Allen, as well as to encourage people to “realize the strange joy of just taking a moment to get outside of their own heads and pay attention to something else.” And of course, in the process, they’ll gather a huge chunk of data that can be used to study wildlife populations in urban areas.

“There are many reasons to do any wildlife census,” Allen tells Mental Floss. “Information is power, it's educational, and our data has been used in academic studies on squirrel populations. But for me, the simple idea of a census allows people to appreciate their surroundings in entirely different and new ways.”

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NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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Animals
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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environment
London Grocery Chain Encourages Shoppers to Bring Their Own Tupperware
iStock
iStock

Why stop at bringing your own grocery bags to the store? One London grocery wants you to BYO-Tupperware. The London Evening Standard reports that a UK chain called Planet Organic has partnered with Unpackaged—a company dedicated to sustainable packaging—to install self-serve bulk-food dispensers where customers can fill their own reusable containers with dry goods, cutting down on plastic packaging waste.

To use the system, customers walk up and weigh their empty container at a self-serve station, printing and attaching a label with its tare weight. Then, they can fill it with flour, nuts, or other kinds of dry goods, weigh it again, and print the price tag before taking it up to the check out. (Regular customers only have to weigh their containers once, since they can save the peel-off label to use again next time.)

Planet Organic is offering cereals, legumes, grains, nuts, chocolate, dried fruit, and even some cleaning products in bulk as part of this program, significantly reducing the amount of waste shoppers would otherwise be taking home on each grocery trip.

Zero-waste grocery stores have been popping up in Europe for several years. These shops, like Berlin's Original Unverpackt, don't offer any bags or containers, asking customers bring their own instead. This strategy also encourages people to buy only what they need, which eliminates food waste—there's no need to buy a full 5-pound bag of flour if you only want to make one cake.

The concept is also gaining traction in North America. The no-packaging grocery store in.gredients opened in Austin, Texas in 2011. The Brooklyn store Package Free, opened in 2017, takes the idea even further, marketing itself as a one-stop shop for "everything that you'd need to transition to a low waste lifestyle." It sells everything from tote bags to laundry detergent to dental floss.

[h/t London Evening Standard]

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