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Scientists are toilet-training cows to combat climate change

It’s your fever dream but also a coveted way to tackle climate change. Collaborating with Germany’s Federal Research Institute for Animal Health and Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN), a group of researchers have found a solution to reduce the environmental damage caused by livestock waste: toilet-training cows.

Farmed cattle are known for their notorious contribution to greenhouse gas emissions—producing roughly 66 to 88 pounds of faeces and 8 gallons of urine each day. When cows are kept outdoors, as in the case of New Zealand and Australia where they are free to roam and relieve themselves at their own leisure, the nitrogen from their urine breaks down into the soil. This results in the production of two toxic substances: nitrate and nitrous oxide.

While nitrate from these urine patches bleeds into lakes, rivers and aquifers, nitrous oxide emits into the environment as a long-lasting greenhouse gas which is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The former pollutes water bodies and contributes to the excessive growth of weeds and toxic algae while the latter accounts for about 12 per cent of New Zealand’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.

On the flip side, when cows are sheltered in barns—like in Europe and North America—the practice results in the production of yet another polluting gas: ammonia. This by-product is produced when the nitrogen from cow urine mixes with faeces on the barn floor. Confining cows in such spaces could also be detrimental to their wellbeing in general. On the quest to strike a balance between their personal health and our planet’s, scientists decided to test and dispel a common myth surrounding cattle.

In a study, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Current Biology, researchers proved that cows can be taught how to control their defecation or urination, just like human babies. “Cattle, like many other animals or farm animals, are quite clever and they can learn a lot. Why shouldn’t they be able to learn how to use a toilet?” said Doctor Jan Langbein, an animal psychologist at the FBN, in a press release. In their project, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, the scientists applied principles from behavioural psychology to train young cattle to urinate in a particular place using a procedure called ‘backward chaining’.

In phase one, a total of 16 calves were confined in a latrine pen and rewarded with an electrolyte mixture or crushed barley when they urinated. This established the pen as an ‘ideal’ place to excrete. The calves were then placed in an alley outside and rewarded for entering the pen and urinating in the same place. If they began excreting in the alley, they were discouraged with a ‘deterrent’. “We first used in-ear headphones and we played a very nasty sound whenever they urinated outside,” Langbein said in the press release. “We thought this would punish the animals, but they didn’t care. Ultimately, a splash of water worked well as a gentle deterrent.”

The calves were trained in this procedure—which the scientists have conveniently named “MooLoo training”—for 45 minutes every other day. After 15 days of training, 11 out of the 16 calves involved in the experiment were successfully “MooLoo trained.” Majority of them also learned the skill within 20 to 25 urinations—quicker than the time it usually takes to toilet train three to four year-old children.

“In a few years all cows will go to a toilet,” Langbein summed up. However, scaling this method for large-scale application in the agricultural industry involves two main challenges, which the scientists are planning to focus on in the coming stages of the project. First up is the automatic detection of urination in the latrine pen to deliver treats without human intervention. Optimal locations and number of latrine pens are the next hurdle. The latter is a particularly challenging issue in countries like New Zealand, where cattle spend most of their time in open paddocks rather than in barns.

“Part of our future research will require understanding how far cattle are willing to walk to use a pen,” the researchers wrote in a column for The Conversation. “And more needs to be done to understand how to best use this technique with animals in both indoor and outdoor farming contexts.” But what they do know for sure is that the MooLoo technique can significantly reduce the environmental impact of farmed cattle. “The more urine we can capture, the less we’ll need to reduce cattle numbers to meet emissions targets—and the less we’ll have to compromise on the availability of milk, butter, cheese and meat from cattle,” they concluded.

Dinosaurs may have excreted their way into extinction but the odds of history repeating itself is finally at an all-time low.

Caffeinated bumblebees could be used to boost crop production, a new study finds

Does caffeine inject a sense of purpose to your mornings? If so, congratulations, you have something revolutionary in common with bumblebees. A new study, published in the biweekly peer-reviewed scientific journal Current Biology, has concluded that caffeinated bees are better equipped to find target crops—regardless of whether the crops contain caffeine.

To date, various studies have proven caffeine’s potential in improving bee memory and thereby boosting their efficiency as foragers and pollinators. The experiments found honeybees retaining memories of the odour and preferentially returning to flowers that contained caffeinated nectar. However, the team of researchers, led by Sarah Arnold, a senior lecturer of insect behaviour and ecology at the University of Greenwich, have now decoupled the “rewarding effects of caffeine” from the stimulant’s actual effect on bee memory—thereby devising an experiment that provided doses of caffeine only at the nest.

The study involved 86 inexperienced bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) divided into three groups based on the type of scent wafted through their nest. The first group was exposed to a sugary solution, the second to an artificial odour reminiscent of strawberry flowers coupled along with the same sugary solution, and the third to a caffeinated version of the sugary solution along with the strawberry odour blend.

All the bees were then released into a flight arena covered with a green polypropylene sheet. The arena featured artificial flowers with the strawberry scent along with “distractor” flowers with another fragrance. Although both the flowers provided a sugar reward, neither of them were laced with caffeine. The electronic flowers were also designed to detect bee visits and refill automatically after 12 seconds.

“We were interested in seeing whether the bees would go for all of the flowers equally since they were all equally rewarded, or whether they go for the flowers that smell like the ones that they’ve been kind of trained on in the nest,” Arnold said in an interview with The Guardian.

Caffeinated bumblebees could be used to boost crop production, a new study finds

70 per cent of the caffeinated bees visited the strawberry-scented flowers first, compared to 60 per cent of the bees that were primed with the strawberry scent alone. On the other hand, only 44.8 per cent of the bees that were exposed to the sugary solutionwithout the association to the strawberry smellvisited the strawberry-scented flowers first. Caffeine-primed bees were therefore concluded to have faster “floral handling” and flower-visiting speeds.

“We anticipated that caffeine should help focus the bees on the crop,” Arnold told VICE, adding how the results cemented the hypothesis of bumblebees seeking out smells they were exposed to inside their nest when they ventured outside. Surprisingly, the effects of caffeine were short lived and the caffeine-primed bees eventually stopped showing an affinity toward the strawberry scent.

“What we think is most likely is that the two sorts of robotic flowers in the arena (the synthetic strawberry flower odor and the distractor odor) both offered an equal food reward and were easy to find in a small and simplified environment,” Arnold explained. “So rapidly, the bees realised that whether they sought out the ‘primed’ odor or not, they received a good energetic reward of sugar solution and could visit either type of flowers.”

With the climate crisis straining wild populators including bees, moths, wasps, butterflies, beetles and birds, some farmers are relying on “managed pollinators” like commercial bumblebees to pollinate their crops. However, these bee colonies aren’t as efficient—with some refusing to leave their nests and others easily distracted by other scents in the vicinity. Previous research with caffeinated bees also involved putting the substance directly on flowers to attract them. This was impractical on a larger scale.

The insights from this experiment, however, has wider implications for the impact of caffeine on overall crop production. Food locating behaviours in free-flying bumblebees could be a good start to enhance the efficiency of commercial bees and ensure crops are pollinated. “In a field situation…the bees would have to deal with different weather conditions, they would have further to fly and other challenges,” Arnold cautioned, noting that it would take a successful field-scale trial before this approach could be used in the real world.

If the results are replicated, then everyone stands to benefit, she added. “The growers get more value for money out of their commercial bumblebees, the wild bees potentially get a bit less competition for their natural food resources. And, as consumers, hopefully, we also get more fruit.” It seems a caffeinated bee is indeed a busier bee.