If Looks Could Kill
Scientific experiments don’t always go as planned, but that’s the point of the exercise. An experiment is a kind of question. If you knew in advance what was going to happen—if you already had the answer—you could skip the whole thing and go get ice cream.
But sometimes experiments take spectacularly unexpected turns and humanity ends up with life-changing discoveries, like penicillin or Post-It Notes, neither of which anyone was looking for until they turned up in very surprised labs.
A chance new discovery doesn’t fall into that category, but it has the advantage of being funny. Researchers in Australia were hoping to learn more about the social habits of magpies, a sometimes annoying bird in the crow family. But the scientists got more than they bargained for when the magpies put their heads together and almost instantly figured out how to remove the G.P.S. tracking devices they had been fitted with.
“[T]he birds outsmarted us,” Dr. Dominique Potvin, the study’s lead researcher, admitted last month in The Conversation, an online science magazine.
She and her colleagues had been hoping to answer several questions: “How far did magpies [travel]? Did they have patterns or schedules throughout the day in terms of movement, and socialising? How did age, sex or dominance rank affect their activities?” All good questions!
Dr. Potvin and her team fitted five magpies with tiny backpack-like harnesses that held the G.P.S. trackers. The researchers were quite proud of the gear’s lightweight, innovative design. Indeed, Air Mail Pilot imagines that many of our school-age readers would also appreciate lightweight backpacks.
But the design was perhaps not innovative enough. “Within ten minutes of fitting the final tracker,” Dr. Potvin noted, “we witnessed an adult female without a tracker working with her bill to try and remove the harness off of a younger bird.”
The older bird quickly found the weakest spot on the harness and snapped it off. Dr. Potvin: “Within hours, most of the other trackers had been removed.” Score more than one for the birds.
But the scientists had an unexpected win of their own. “While we’re familiar with magpies being intelligent and social creatures,” Dr. Potvin explained, this behavior was something new. “[W]e had never read about any other [type of] bird cooperating in this way…. The birds needed to problem solve, possibly testing and pulling and snipping at different sections of the harness with their bill. They also needed to be willing [to] help other individuals, and accept help.”
In other words, magpies, aside from being clever, have a strong sense of community and trust. Perhaps humans could learn even more from them. —Bruce Handy
The Name’s Bond. Rhino Bond.
Black rhinos are in trouble. Before the 1970s, about 65,000 of them roamed the southern part of Africa. Then the demand for ivory, which is made from animal tusks and horns and used for things like ornaments and piano keys, increased. While most rhinos have two horns, some black rhinos have three, making them an especially big target for poachers. By 1993, the black rhino population fell by 96 percent. Just 2,300 were left.
Conservation efforts have helped the population go back up, but today there are still just about 5,500 black rhinos. Don’t despair, though. AIR MAIL Pilot has found a way to help the animals: Rhino Impact Bonds.
A quick AIR MAIL Pilot economics lesson: bonds are a type of financial security. A borrower can take out loans from investors and, in exchange for forking over all that money, investors get a receipt that guarantees they will be paid back by the borrower—with interest. That receipt is called a bond.
Issued last week by the World Bank, rhino bonds work a lot like regular bonds. The bank has collected $150 million from investors. The amount of money those investors will get back is based on how much the black rhino population increases. The bank will look at two South African reserves where half of the world’s black rhinos live: the Addo Elephant National Park and the Great Fish River Nature Reserve.
In five years, if the population increases by 4 percent or more, investors will get their loan back, plus interest. But there’s a catch: if the rhino population stays the same or decreases, the investors don’t get their money back.
“[The rhino bond] is a groundbreaking approach to enabling private-sector investment in global public goods,” David Malpass, the World Bank Group president, said in a statement.
“The nickname is the ‘rhino bond’ but it’s about so much more than that,” Heike Reichelt, the World Bank’s head of investor relations and sustainable finance, told The Times of London.”It also has real tangible benefits to the communities and incentives to protect land.”
If the rhino bonds work, the bank will create similar bonds for other endangered species. AIR MAIL Pilot will be buying black-footed ferret bonds. —Elena Clavarino
While tennis star Roger Federer has won 20 Grand Slams, he doesn’t play “real” tennis. Dubbed the “sport of kings” by Henry VIII, real tennis is a lot like regular tennis—only, it’s played with a heavy, solid ball in an enclosed court.
Played in monasteries since the 12th century, the game became a British royal family favorite. Now, only three universities in the U.K. are keeping the tradition alive: Oxford, Cambridge, and Middlesex. But not for long. Middlesex administrators are attempting to shut down their real tennis club.
In 2000, a private donor gifted the court to the university. Since then, the school has outfitted the space with more modern gym equipment. Now, the university is proposing to close the court for good on Valentine’s Day 2026.
“Given the club has 50 student members, we believe we must use the space to meet the needs of more of our 20,000 students who study at the Hendon campus,” Middlesex administrators said in a statement. They hope to turn the space into a second cafeteria or a student union.
Well, the U.K. has far more real tennis fans than anyone expected. While only 7,500 people across the country play the sport, thousands more appreciate the elegant facilities and historic game. So far, more than 3,800 players and supporters have signed an online petition to protest the closure of the Middlesex court.
Jack Carter, the Middlesex real tennis club’s current captain, has led the charge. Carter, a third-year student, joined the club during his second year. In an impassioned plea to get people to sign the petition, Carter wrote that the club “became the reason I learnt what it meant to be a leader, to work hard, and to be responsible.”
The club “became my hangout place, my place of comfort, and a second home,” wrote Carter. “More importantly, it provided many key figures that acted as mentors.”
People outside the university are campaigning to save the space, too. Suzannah Lipscomb, a historian and television presenter, asked her 140,000 Twitter followers to sign the petition. “There are very few real tennis courts left in the U.K. and the historically illiterate at Middlesex Uni plan to close theirs, ARGH,” she wrote on Twitter.
Some are taking the closure as a sign that the tennis community must open more real tennis courts. The Tennis & Rackets Association is “planning proposals for half a dozen courts and in negotiation to bring three existing buildings back into use,” Simon Talbot-Williams, a representative of the association, told The Times of London. The courts include a 19th-century home in Worcestershire once occupied by the Earl and Countess of Plymouth.
Talbot-Williams insists that real tennis is for everyone, despite its royal origins. Even Hampton Court, the club where Henry VIII used to play, is egalitarian. Members include “the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker,” he said. “There’s quite a lot of accountants, though,” he adds, “because it is a very analytical game.” —Bridget Arsenault