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Attack of the Killer Tits

Hungarian cave-dwellers massacred in their sleep

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Reports are coming in of a previously unknown, deadly threat to sleepy Hungarian bats: that of being killed by tits.

The shock news comes courtesy of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, where boffins have been working with "colleagues in a cave in Hungary". Needless to say, we speak here not of any scenario involving carelessly-roosting chiropterine boudoir intruders inadvertently stifled by human female tophamper in a comedo-tragic cleavage mishap or similar. Rather, the "Great Tits" in question here are peckish birds - of the same ingenious family as the renowned cream-snaffling Blue Tits of old Blighty.

According to the German/Hungarian boffinry team:

The observed cave had a large entrance... The Great Tits needed at most 15 minutes from entry into the cave to capture a bat. In some cases, they carried the Pipistrelles out of the cave in their beaks and ate them on nearby trees.

Reports on the ingenuity of birds of the tit family in their search for food go as far back as the 1940s when it was observed that Blue Tits in the British Isles had learned how to open the aluminium tops of milk bottles left on doorsteps by milkmen to get at the cream that had formed on top of the milk. Another astonishing acquired behaviour among Great Tits (Parus major) has now been observed...

It seems that the hungry feathered assassins only scoff snoozing bats when their need is extreme, as in midwinter when heavy snow cover in Hungary prevents them getting hold of their usual cold-weather diet of seeds, berries etc. Researchers found that the tits would ignore bats in favour of more conventional birdy tuck such as sunflower seeds or bacon rind if such was on offer.

"Behavioural flexibility coupled with altered environmental conditions, e.g. food scarcity, can trigger astonishing innovations in animal behaviour," concludes Björn Siemers of the Max Planck Institute. "This could support the idea of cultural learning between different populations or it could indicate an independent development in different locations with the same ecological conditions."

We asked our colleagues over on the Reg biology desk for comment on the remarkable killer-tit discovery. After some thought, they felt it important to point out that "Tits are not the same as Boobies". ®

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