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Ravens are extremely successful, adaptable, opportunistic birds whose population has exploded in the Mojave over the last 60 years. This has been bad news for the desert tortoise. The solution to this problem might just lay in the overlap of conservation and engineering with 3d printing, lasers, and grape flavoring.

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Ravens have been eating our trash for at least 30,000 years. And why wouldn’t they? They’re smart birds who appreciate an easy meal and where we’ve gone, they’ve often followed, picking at our leftovers from mammoths to McDonald’s.

This opportunistic approach to food has allowed them to tag along with us to places where finding meals would otherwise not be so easy, like the Mojave Desert. Unfortunately, our trash isn’t the only thing on the menu in the

Mojave: desert tortoises, especially juveniles, are, too. And this is where things start to get a little bizarre. When we realized the desert tortoises needed help, the strategies we came up with to save them weren’t about protecting the tortoises themselves… Instead, they were mostly about setting hilarious booby-traps for the ravens, like we were the conservation equivalent of Kevin in some kind of desert Home Alone. [♪♪ INTRO ♪♪] If you want to support the channel, the Bizarre Beasts pin club will now be open for subscriptions for the whole month! Sign up by April 20th and the first pin you will get will feature both of the players in this desert battle.

And, in case you missed our April Fool's Day announcement, we have brought back our Hankfoot pin, available for pre-order for a limited time! If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, chances are pretty good that you’ve seen a common raven before, maybe croaking at you from a tree or making off with a bag of your snacks at a campsite. They’re among the most widely distributed birds, living in all kinds of habitats from tundra to plains to temperate forests to deserts.

And they come in at least eight subspecies and maybe as many as 11. But what they all have in common is that they’re all relatively big, black birds with thick, chunky beaks. And they are opportunistic predators and scavengers.

They eat all kinds of animal foods and carrion, including roadkill, along with nuts, fruits, and other plant parts. And while the ravens initially targeted juvenile tortoises, whose shells are thinner and more delicate, those big chunky beaks allow them to peck through the shells of tortoises up to 10 years old. In the battle between common raven and desert tortoise, they’re definitely winning in terms of just how incredibly widespread and adaptable to different environments they are.

The desert tortoise, on the other hand, is only found in certain parts of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico... And the Mojave population is even more restricted, including just the desert tortoises “north and west of the Colorado River in Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California.” This population tends to live in desert-scrub habitats where they feed on low-growing plants, and they only get up to around 20 to 38 cm long [8-15 in] and 3.6 to 6.8 kilograms [8-15 lbs]. And since the 1960s, the common raven population in the Mojave region has shot up by over 1000%, absolutely decimating the desert tortoises there – their numbers have dropped by as much as 90 to 95%.

Tortoise versus raven really doesn’t seem like a fair fight, especially when it was our development in the Mojave that allowed the ravens to thrive in the desert in the first place. So, for the last decade or so, some researchers and conservationists have been working to level the playing field with some… unconventional methods. Enter the Techno-Tort, a realistic 3D-printed replica of a juvenile desert tortoise, created by Hardshell Labs.

These Techno-Torts are raven-bait and they’re useful for a couple of different reasons. For one thing, paired with a motion-detecting camera, they allow researchers to study things like attack rates and the behaviors ravens use to prey on the real tortoises. And for another, they can be weaponized to spray the birds with an irritating chemical called methyl anthranilate when triggered by pecking.

Now, spraying ravens with chemicals does sound bad and they definitely don’t like it. But it’s meant to get them to associate the unpleasant experience with the tortoises and avoid them in the future, without doing any lasting damage to the ravens. And you might be more familiar with this chemical than you think; it’s a naturally-occurring compound that gets used in grape flavoring.

The whole set-up seems pretty ridiculous on the surface when you stop to think about it: researchers are literally making fake baby tortoises to spray ravens with the scent of grapes. Hardshell Labs calls this “conservation through deception.” But it’s also pretty ingenious. Their goal isn’t to kill the ravens; it’s just to teach them not to eat the tortoises.

And that’s not the only way they’re doing it… They’re also waging a laser war on the ravens. The goal here is to annoy them enough that they stay away from sites that would otherwise be an all-you-can-eat buffet for the birds– places like composting facilities, landfills, and pistachio orchards. And while they were testing this idea manually back in 2015, shooting ravens with a three-watt laser rifle, they’ve since moved on to remotely-operated lasers, which makes the idea much more efficient.

The lasers work in the short-term because ravens seem to see the beam of light as a solid object and want to get away from it. And it almost certainly doesn’t hurt them– the writer of one of the news articles we read for this episode even had a biologist shoot him in the arm with the laser rifle and felt nothing. Longer-term, the hope is that the lasers will convince the ravens that certain areas of the desert are too annoying to bother with, creating safe havens for the tortoises and other wildlife the ravens prey on.

It should also help keep the raven population down and, potentially even reduce it, by keeping them away from the easiest pickings – essentially, giving them less energy to turn into babies. And these tactics should work, in theory, because ravens are really smart, social birds, they learn from their experiences and from each other, and they have good memories. For example, in one study published in 2020, some captive ravens were shown two experimental conditions.

In one, a person wearing one kind of mask walked by their aviary four times carrying a dead raven. In the other, a person wearing a different mask walked by four times empty-handed. Many of the ravens recognized the dangerous mask – the one associated with the dead raven – after it came by once, and some of them continued to recognize it four years later, making alarm calls when they saw it.

And it’s their intelligence that makes tricking them with fake tortoises and lasers possible. To save the desert tortoises of the Mojave, researchers must turn the ravens’ smarts against them. What started as a battle between the tortoises and the ravens has essentially become a battle of us against the ravens.

And if we’re the ones making fake tortoises and remotely-operated anti-bird lasers, then I have to ask – who really is the bizarre beast of this story? Don’t forget to sign up for the pin club by April 20th if you want to get one of these incredible pins! And if you like the design as much as we do, you might also enjoy this bandana.

It really is the perfect accessory for when you are out in the desert counting tortoises. You can get everything Bizarre Beasts over at The war between ravens and tortoises shows us that a determined attacker can figure out a way to breach almost any defense, and nowhere is that more clear than in the world of cybersecurity.

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