Our Strange World

The Black Mountain

Black Mountain National park, a half an hour from Cooktown, is a place imbued with legends, disappearances, aboriginal history, and the power o the black rock. Originally called Kalkajaka, by the Eastern Kuku Talanji people of the black mountain welcomes visitors but request their respect for this sacred place.

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Not a mountain in the traditional sense the black mountain is a huge mound of slick, black boulders quite apart from the green that surrounds it. While the mountain is within a national park, no one is allowed to climb or even directly approach the mountain. Why? Because the mountain is pitted with tunnels, caves, and bodies. There are also dangers besides getting lost - sudden drop-offs, hundreds of pockets of bad air, snakes, and spiders. Few people that enter the black mountains lives to tell the tale of this labyrinth-like natural wonder.

Kalkajaka translates as the ‘place of the spear.’ This was named by the Kuku Yalanji people who knew better than to get too close to this foreboding mountain.

Disappearances are centuries old at Black Mountain with stories beginning as the white settlers began arriving and did not respect the Kuku Yalanji’s warnings. For example, in 1877 a man went out towards the Black Mountain to locate an escaped calf. When the man failed to return searches were conducted for days but no trace of the horse, cow, or man was ever discovered. Several years later Sugarfoot Jack and his criminal companions decided to take refuge near the mountain after a shootout, knowing not many people would venture there. Despite an exhaustive police search in the following days, no bodies were ever recovered.

In 2001 a tale of a man that made it out alive finally arose. A man named Ivan and his friend Danny decided to camp at the bottom of Black Mountain while on a journey to a different destination. While setting up camp both noticed the complete silence of nature that surrounded them and noted it was a bit off. As the two friends drifted to sleep they were awoken when the sounds of rocks crumbling shattered the silence. Then, they started to hear footsteps that got closer and closer in every step. In a moment of adrenaline-inspired bravery, Danny rushed outside to scare whoever (or whatever) was stalking them away. Ivan, not wanting to leave his friend alone, followed behind him. When they left the tent they saw a huge black mass ambling towards them. Then, it disappeared in front of their eyes. Despite it being the middle of the night the camp as quickly as they could and left the Black Mountain.

It is said that people are often filled with anxiety just by gazing at the strange, dark mountain. There is a theory that the wind and the shifting of the boulders creates a noise similar to moans. Many planes also avoid flying over it and although a magnetic test was done in the 1990s to see if there was a reasoning for an adverse reaction to flying over the mountains, none was found.



Thank you Matthew E for the suggestion.

The above image is of Black Mountain National Park near Cooktown, Queensland, Australia - 20th of August, 2016 by Ben Cordia and is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.


Why A Chameleon Always Changes its Spots

Many of us mistakenly think that chameleons change their color to camouflage themselves against the predators they encounter in their daily lives. However, that isn’t why they cloak themselves in so many different, wonderful colors. Nor do they only change colors to match their surroundings. Surprisingly, the answer is much more complicated.

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Sadly, chameleons cannot change their skin to match *every* background they encounter in their daily lives. Chameleons, sadly, don’t have many defenses in the wild besides blending into their surroundings, even if they can’t automatically match every background. In their natural coloring, they often already resemble the detritus on ground or even a lot like leaves or branches. However, their real skill is the ability to change how bright their skin appears, Dr. Devi Stuart-Fox, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Melbourne told National Geographic, “It’s like putting a dark wash on everything,” Stuart-Fox says. “You’ve got to imagine paint mixing: If you have green paint and mix more black into it, it will change the brightness and also the hue.”

The bright colors and elaborate displays we so often think of when we think of chameleons have nothing to do with blending in and everything to do with standing out. In fact, these colors help guard their territory. When defending territory against another male, chameleons will become a wide array of colors - yellow, red, white...anything besides the color of the forest or trees. Instead of waving a white flag, the weaker male will admit defeat by returning to their more natural colorings.

In addition to defense, they also use it go on the offense, at least when it comes to dating. They will put on displays - rapidly changing colors and brightness - to show off to the females. Female chameleons will respond with their own display indicating their interest.

It has even ANOTHER use -- to regulate their body heat! Since chameleons aren’t able to generate body heat on their own, changing the color of the skin can be an important way to do this. A cold chameleon will usually become darker to absorb heat, whereas a chameleon that has had enough may turn pale (or, at least, paler).

But, how do they do it? Well, they have transparent skin. Not completely transparent, but at least the top layer is. Under this transparent first layer of skin are more layers of skin that contain special cells called chromatophores. Chromatophores at every level of skin are, essentially, sacs that are filled with different kinds of pigment. There are several different kinds of pigment, such a iridophores (which have blue pigment) and xanthophores (yellow pigments). When the chameleon experiences changes in temperature or mod, its nervous systems tells which chromatophores to rise to the surface by expanding or contracting. This is how a chameleon can produce a whole variety of colors and patterns.

So, now we've busted an old wives tale of sorts - chameleons aren't the hide-and-seek champions we once believed they were (luckily, Bigfoot is still winning that title) and that these creatures and the way they express themselves physically is much more complicated than we originally guessed!

 

 

This file is licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution 2.0 Generic license and was created by Becker1999

Thismia neptunis Re-Emerges from the Underworld

Thismia neptunis, after 150 years of invisibility has returned to view. The flower comes from a family of plants often referred to as ‘Fairy Lanterns’. Thismia neptunis is notable for many things including the fact that it is a mycoheterotroph. Mycoheterotrophs are flowering plants that have abandoned photosynthesis, making them parasitic plants.

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Mycoheterotrophs have to derive their nutrients from another plant, which is why many call them ‘parasitic’. Because the Thismia neptunis does not need to rely on photosynthesis it is able to live underground and away from sunlight. Thismia neptunis, “obtain [its] nutrition indirectly from the plant via a mycorrhizal fungus.” This fungus attaches itself to the photosynthetic plant and acts as a bridge between the plant and Thismia neptunis so that nutrients can flow from plan root to the fungus bridge and finally to the Thismia neptunis.

Thismia neptunis was first recorded 151 years ago by an Italian botanist named Odoardo Beccari. While on a trip to the jungles of Malaysia he stumbled across the supremely alien looking Thismia neptunis. The Thismia neptunis la on the rich, wet dirt of the rainforest in an area called Matang massif, alongside a river. Although he was sure it was a plant...it was unlike any plant he had ever come across. It had no leaves, no chlorophyll, and didn’t appear to perform photosynthesis. Furthermore, it also appeared to flourish underground. To Beccari, it seemed more like a fungus...or even an insect.

The plant itself was odd looking, to say the least. It has a creamy, white stem that poked up from the ground ever-so-slightly. The bulb on top almost looks like a dirty q-tip (seriously). It is pale with orange coloring at the top, and, at the very top of the bulb...an opening “like the mouth of a sea-worm.” One of the most interesting aspects of the flower are the three “red, hairy appendages sticking straight up like a shrimp’s long antennae from flat protrusions around the bulb -- part of its pollen-producing organ.” Underneath the stem is a simple root system whose aim is to collect nutrients from underground fungi.

On his 1866 trip, Beccari did not have a camera to document his findings. So, he illustrated the strange plant and made several notes on this new, bizarre species. After this, the strange plant was never seen or documented again.

Recently, however, the Thismia neptunis has come back to greet us. In a new paper published in the academic journal, Phyotaxa on Feburary 21st, 2018 a group of Czech researchers believe it is “only the second finding of the species in total."

Thismia neptunis lives most of its life underground and only appears above-ground when it flowers...and flowering is rare. Although we don’t know for sure it is possible that blooms only appear a few weeks at a time or, potentially, not even every year.

The researchers who recently re-discovered the plant still aren’t quite sure how the plant pollinates. But, interestingly enough, two different species of dead flies were found inside the flower. It is surmised that these may act as pollinators.

Finding Thismia neptunis is part of an on-going research effort to discover “long-lost” plants and flowers. Researchers on this project hope that they may continue discovering more long-lost lants from Beccari’s time in Malaysia. There is hope that this goal could be accomplished, thanks to the fact that where Beccari once researched and where the scientists are now “has remained largely undisturbed.”

 

 

the image above: Thismia neptunis Becc. Beccari, O., Malesia, vol. 1: t. 11, fig. 6 (1877-1883) [O. Beccari]. It is in the public domain. 

Books Made of Human Flesh

Books bound with human flesh seems to be a macabre old wives' tale, or something of the sort. However, there is a long historical tradition of binding books in human skin that weaves its way into history well into the 19th century. Even more terrifying, the 19th century is when they were the most popular. 

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Seriously, and if you ever want to go visit some of these humans-made-books, you can head over to places like the Mutter Museum and see them in person. In fact, there is even a term for books bound in human skin: "Anthropodermic Bibliopegy" and a book project that has, as of 2016, identified 47 alleged anthroprodermic books in the world's libraries and museums. According to wikipedia, roughly 30 of those are being tested or have been tested and 18 have been confirmed as having human skin bindings. 

In an interview with Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris, a medical historian, Vice asked the most simple question: "Why would anyone ever bind a book in human skin?"

Dr. Fitzharris notes that there are likely three reasons, according to her research an experience:

  1. For Punishment
  2. To Create Collector's Items
  3. Memorialization

Another historian, Heather Cole, of Harvard's Houghton Library notes that, "The confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the convicted, or an individual might request to be memorialized for family or lovers in the form of a book." Which helps to explain why they were so often used as part of a punishment.

The second reason seems, at least, a little obvious. Books bound in human skin were at least a relatively rare item. And, taking an example from the Victorian age when people collected shrunken heads from newly discovered tribes, or stolen Egyptian artifacts claimed to be cursed proved that there was a significant market for the strange and macabre. Dr. Fitzharris continues: "Sometimes they collected books bound in tattooed skin because they made particularly beautiful covers. And in fact there's a lot of preserved tattoos in anatomical collections, and sometimes they're used for these bound books. "

Finally, we arrive at the third reason: memorialization.  The Highwayman: Narrative of the Life of James Allen alias George Walton, is probably the most notable example of a book bound in human flesh because it was bound with skin from Allen himself. 

Although, I would suggest adding another number to the three reasons that Dr. Fitzharris gives - and that is one of opportunity. Take, for example, the sad story of Mary Lynch's thigh. She was a young  woman in her late 20s whose skin was used to bound three different books. There is a record of her entering the Old Blockley almshouse in Philadelphia in 1868. She likely went to this almshouse for help, or to die away from her family members from tuberculosis. Roughly six months from when she entered the almshouse, she died. Dr.John Stockton Hough carried out the autopsy in which he took the liberty of slicing some of her skin. After this, he took his illicit, stolen goods to tan in the almshouse chamber pot. 20+ years later, he used it for the spines of three books written on women's health. It is unclear his intentions or why he did this.

We have examples dating from the sixteenth-century, and although some "human flesh" books turn out to be sheep or other animals, several have been tested and verified as human. And these books are still being analyzed, tested, and reviewed by people in many different disciplines. 

For example, an article in JAMA Dermatology featured an examination of a book bound in human skin called, "Anthropodermic Bibliopegy: Lessons From a Different Sort of Dermatologic Text" by  dermatologist Vinod Nambudiri who says these strange books, "serve as reminders of the versatility of the body’s largest organ—both during life and beyond."

This image comes from Flickr user Diego da Silva and is liscensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Rats are Probably Worse than you Thought

Living in a city means I am usually confronted with pests of various kinds - cockroaches, over-confident squirrels, and the worst of the worst - rats. Although D.C. is no New York City or Medieval England when it comes to rats they are still abundant. So, I decided to read up on some "urban legends" about these city-dwellers and see if they were really as bad as we make them out to be.

Well, as it turns out...they're much worse. 

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For example, they CAN actually go through the sewer, up your toilet pipes, and into your home. Seriously, watch the video here for an interesting play-by-play on how it works. Basically, if a rat can fit its head through its opening, its ribs can give way because they are hinged to the spine - and that's how rats can get through the pipe. But, what about the water? Rats are actually pretty good swimmers. They use their tales as a rudder, their back feet to swim, and their arms to "steer". Rats can even tread water for three days straight, and hold their breath for up to three minutes. This is how they survive so effortlessly in sewers and are able to swim right up the pipes and into your toilet.

Oh, and rats are NOT easy to get rid of. This is mostly because they have an extremely low tolerance for being hungry and often go into berserker mode and do anything and everything they can to get their next meal as soon as possible. But, once they find a steady food supply - whether it be an apartment building, garden, or sewer - they really hunker down.

Furthermore, a rat may only venture a few dozen feet in its entire LIFETIME if it is near a food source that keeps on giving. They usually connect a pathway directly from their nest to their food supply and simply make the food run several times a day, every day. These are not a creature imbued with wanderlust. In fact, next time you're in a city see if you see a trail of what looks like grease...it is rat grease. Oftentimes, the trails are so well travelled that the continued use will leave behind grease from a rat's fur.

Oh, and just knocking down one rat population isn't enough to rid a city, or even a neighborhood, of them. It is theorized that killing one rat population just gives the survivors the resources to eat more and breed faster. 

Not to mention, rats can still spread disease better than almost any animal in the game. In fact, after Katrina rat-transmitted diseases were a major public health issue, especially the spreading of bacterial diseases like leptospirosis, which can lead to kidney damage, meningitis, liver failure, and death in extreme cases.

So, not only can rats horrifyingly crawl through the sewers into your toilets, they are also hard to get rid of and still carry lots of diseases!

 

The above image is from Wikipedia user Edal Anton Lefterov and is liscensed under CC.

Squids Speak Alphabets...but Without using their Mouths

Squids are some of the most amazing creatures on our planet, and I feel like scientists are always finding out new and interesting facts about these strange, alien-like animals. Recently, the Journal of Neuroscience published a piece that gave us even more insight into squids. What exactly did Taiwanese neuroscientists Tsung-Han Liu and Chuan-Chin Chiao discover and publish? Well, squids might be able to "speak". 

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Squids are able to change colors at a moment's notice - whether it be their whole bodies, parts of their body, or even creating patterns of shifting colors. As part of their experiment Chiao and Liu wanted to see how, and potentially why, squids changed colors. 

To do this, they placed electrodes in different part of the squid's optic lobe in their brains. According to the scientists, when they stimulated different spots on the lobe, the squid changed colors in the same body part. This then made Chiao think that the optic lobe may control the muscles that manipulate the squid's pigment cells.

Wired did a wonderful report on this strange case, in which they noted Chiao's surprise at how the experiment went. "When Chiao started out, he thought the optic lobe would be organized like the human cortex, with the pigment on different body parts correlating with different locations in the brain: a squidunculus. Not so."

Unlike a human's, it seemed that the squid's body parts weren't singularly represented. In fact, their body parts could be represented, and affected, in more than one spot in the optic lobe. This has some seriously interesting consequences for how we not only understand squids biology, but how we might be better able to understand their communication and what the changes to their skin colors might mean.

According to Chicao, "It’s like the squid has an alphabet of patterns—14 by Chiao’s count—which repeat in a mosaic within the optic lobe. It’s like if your keyboard had hundreds of keys, but still only 26 letters."

But, studying squids brains is difficult because they are so drastically different from our own. What does these 14 color changes communicate to other squids? Why have the set of 14? What can we learn by studying their behavior? How closely related are their communication patterns to humans or other animals?

Right now, Chiao and his team are trying to record and better capture the different combinations of pigment patterns and what they might mean to another squid. Are they having complex conversations? Are they trying to figure out how best to mate? Are they gearing up to fight? Hopefully, in a few more years we'll better understand this strange creature and the power, and potential depth, behind its communication patterns. 

 

This above image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.    Attribution: © Hans Hillewaert. Common squid from the Belgian continental shelf. Picture taken in the lab on board of the RV Belgica, of a live specimen to preserve colour and structure of chromophores.

Ghosts go APA Style

Listeners of the show, and readers of this blog, you might appreciate this little story on how to "Cite Works from the Spirit World." I'm not sure how many of you are still in college, or are active journalists, but who knows - this could be of use to you someday. This particular post was suggested via our new Facebook Group from listener Jen K! 

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We've discussed spirit communication and the craze of interacting with spirits that happened in the late 1800s and early 1900s a few times on the blog (here and here), but never in the realm of publishing before. In fact, spirit dictation was quite common and many people have published on it, both of their own experiences and academically. 

Luckily, the internet is chock full of stories that you might otherwise not ever seen. But, it isn't just stories that create interest...it's the questions. On the American Psychological Website there is a Q&A section where members of the site can ask questions to the Style Experts on the website for answers about their toughest APA Style questions.

One user, in particular, wrote in something very interesting. Spooked in Spokane asks...

"I need to cite a book that was dictated by a spirit to a medium. Who’s the author here? I was thinking it would be the spirit, but now that I’ve put it into my reference list, it looks kind of weird."

Jeff Hume-Pratuch, one of the aforementioned style experts, approached this question as if it wasn't a strange thing at all to ask. In fact, he even acknowledges that...

"Noncorporeal beings have dictated a number of bestsellers, yet they never seem to cash their own royalty checks."

He then proceeds with a very simple answer based on the above sentence. For bibliographic purposes, the author is the person who entered the work IN the corporeal realm. But to me, this opens up some questions. Do spirits have no publishing rights? So that means beings that aren't in our "realm" get absolutely no royalties and no benefits except some name recognition.  Well...I guess it makes some sense, since we don't know the currency exchange rate for Earth dollars in the spirit world.

It should be noted that not all spiritual communication is non-fiction, in the sense that it is a spirit dictating to a medium or person in the corporeal being quotes, events of their life and death, and other historical "facts" and stories. In fact, there are a few cases of ACTUAL ghost-writing...as in works of fiction dictated by ghosts to those in the corporeal world.

One of the most notorious cases of this strange, literal ghost writing is "Jap Herron: A Novel Written from the Ouija Board", published in 1917. Emily Grant Hutchings was the writer and claimed that this novel had been dictated to her via the ghost of Mark Twain, who had died over 5 years earlier. Sadly, this might have been a bit of a hoax due to the book's poor literary quality, propped up by rejections from Twain's published and estate. It was swiftly put out of print, and most copies were destroyed. 

However, not all of this purported ghost writing was a total flop. In fact, a young woman named Pearl Lenore Curran garnered acclaim from The New York Times, and several other notable literary organizations. Curran, like Grant Hutchings, was dictating for a deceased woman named Patience Worth. Curran communicated with Worth via a ouija board and her life story was a sad one - she had set off from England to America in the latter half of the 1600s only to be quickly killed by Native Americans.  However, Patience didn't just share her actual life story with Curran. She also shared stories and poetry. To this day, no one has definitively debunked the existence of an actual Patience Worth. 

If you're interested in reading more books by ghosts and spirits, you can check out Bustle's list of the 5 Best Books written by ghosts, or click on the source links above!

Oh, and if you're wondering...citing a ghost looks something like this:

"Curran, P. (1917). The sorry tale: A story of the time of Christ. New
     York, NY: Holt. Retrieved from..."

Thanks again for listener and FB group member Jen K for sharing the initial source that inspired this post! 

The above image is unrelated to the story and is from Flickr user Frederick Rubensson and is liscensed under Creative Commons.

 

 

 

 

A Frightening Haul

A faceless fish, zombie worms, and flesh-eating crustaceans - oh my! All these and more were recently pulled up from the depths of the abyss...and by abyss, I mean some of the deepest parts of the oceans humans have explored so far.

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The mission itself was called 'Sampling the Abyss'. This mission was headed up by a joint effort between Australia's 'Museums of Victoria' and the 'Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation'. 

The goal of 'Sampling the Abyss' was to explore Australia's easern abyss which is roughly 2.5 miles below the surface of the ocean. Why? Well, this patch of ocean is one of the least explored parts of the entire planet and it is believed that discoveries and research there will further help scientists to understand biodiversity, and maybe even how to best protect it.

The team comprised of 40 international scientists that lasted roughly a month.  The entire month was spent on the  research vessel, aptly named 'Investigator.' The Chief Scientist on this pioneering voyage into the deep is Dr Tim O’Hara. Dr. O'Hara is the deputy head of the Museums of Victoria and hopes to find and collect new specimens with the help of specially created nets and other fishing gear.

One of my favorite finds was the Coffinfish. Although Coffinfish have been documented for quite some time, the ones they discovered were quite interesting looking (if you want to see pics head over here). One interesting things about coffinfish is, well, they aren't fish at all. In fact, their in the sea toad family. 

O'Hara has said about the mission, “We know that abyssal animals have been around for at least 40 million years, but until recently only a handful of samples had been collected from Australia’s abyss,”

The above image is from Flickr user Paramita and is liscensed under creative commons. 

5 Decades of Fire: Life in Centralia, PA.

When we think of ghost towns in America, we typically think of stone foundations found in the middle of the forrest, like in the Pine Barrens of NJ. Or, we think of the dusty abandoned boom-towns of the west. But very rarely do we think of ghost towns as being on fire for 50+ years. That is, until, you consider Centralia, PA.

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 Centralia, PA was never a big town. Once it was a semi-successful coal mining town with about 1,000 residents. But now it is a cesspit of fire pits, smoldering grounds, and surprise sinkholes. But, how did it get like this?

Well, as I mentioned before Centralia was a coal-mining town. The main mining was done almost directly underneath the town, too. In 1962, the crew set a purposeful fire to burn a landfill but that fire soon grew out of control. Sadly, the men did not realize that the landfill which they had set fire to was an old strip-mine pit, connected to a maze of abandoned underground mining tunnels full of coal right below town.

Although they were able to extinguish most of the above-ground fires, the fire would continue to feed on the outskirts of town and slowly, but surely, make its way to town center - which made the town uninhabitable. In fact, there was so much coal underground that scientists estimate the fire could keep burning underground for the next 200+ years. 

As time has passed from 1962 more and more holes have opened, spewing sulfurous gas, parts of the street remain constantly hot to the touch, and the ground swells, bubbles, and breaks. But, the town wasn't completely left to fend for itself until 1980. In 1980, there was a $42 million relocation plan set in place which incentivized most of the townspeople to relocate, save for less than a dozen hold-outs. Many of the homes were demolished and signs of life remained small and bleak. According to experts who have studied the town, the fire grows at about 75-feet per year.

Kevin Krajick, in article written for Smithsonian Magazine, describes what Centralia looks like today: "Vegetation has been obliterated along a quarter-mile strip; sulfurous steam billows out of hundreds of fissures and holes in the mud. There are pits extending perhaps 20 feet down: in their depths, discarded plastic bottles and tires have melted. Dead trees, their trunks bleached white, lie in tangled heaps, stumps venting smoke through hollow centers." He continues, describing the last inhabitants of this desolate place, "Today Centralia exists only as an eerie grid of streets, its driveways disappearing into vacant lots. Remains of a picket fence here, a chair spindle there ― plus [John] Lokitis and 11 others who refused to leave, the occupants of a dozen scattered structures."

One thing I find very poignant is that while these people still believe in their town...the government doesn't, not really any way. The United States Postal Office revoked the town’s zip code in 2002.

There are many reasons why I think people want to remain where they are. Past residents speak highly of how Centralia used to be this slice-of-pie American coal town. In fact, some who believed they were force and/or didn't have a chance to "fight back" and remain in their homes regret giving up the houses their parents left them or the houses they built or the houses their families had owned for generations. 

Some may argue that these people must be "stuck". They aren't stuck, in fact the remaining townspeople had to spend about 20k in lawyers fees in order to remain in their owns and in their town. The town that had been home for them for decades. All of these people had the chance to be paid to leave, but instead they paid for the pleasure of staying. They take pride in their lawns, some even mowing abandoned lots near their houses. They stay abreast of the temperatures of the fire and any potential threats that may arise. They even hold events every year when former residents come back and visit. These are not people that are stuck - these are people that made a choice.

Technically, those who remain in Centralia are squatters. The government demolished over 600 buildings and now owns the town completely. However, no one has been evicted or forced out yet. 

The above image is from Wikimedia Commons user Macaddct1984

We Can Thank Mucus For Cleaning Our Oceans

If you've been following the AL blog long enough, you probably know that I'm in love with the ocean and one of my favorite things to explore on the blog are all the crazy things we're learning about the ocean every day. Earlier this month, the journal of Science Advances, published an article on "the role of giant larvaceans in oceanic carbon cycling." If it sounds dry, it really isn't. Mostly because, ya know, giant larvaceans are pretty snotty. 

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The ones we're talking about today are called "Bathochordaues". These alien-looking creatures have a little mouth, almost too little to function - so it "outsources" the actual filtration process required to feed. 

So, what is their filtration system since their mouth is so little? Well, it's a little graphic...and mucusy. Every day, the creatures blows a huge, sticky, mucus balloon. Throughout the day, the balloon snags all kinds of goodies, as animals drift through it. Each trapped morsel contains a little bit of carbon. Once the creature is full, it discards and unlatches the snot bubble and the bubble begins to sink. Thus, some of the carbon trapped within the bubble descends to the sea floor.

This sinking carbon appears to play a monumental role in supporting deep-sea life. How? Well, by transferring carbon it can be buried and stored long term. Given larvaceans abundance in other parts of the world, "these organisms likely play a crucial role in the global carbon cycle."

While these snot bubbles are just asking to be studied - but, because they're mucus...they're super hard to "catch" and study. In fact, they're so delicate that they tend to disintegrate, even at the slightest touch. This means that putting them in a jar, or catching them in a net, is damn near impossible. 

But, luckily, humans are almost as ingenious as the ocean and the Monterey Bay Area Research Institute (MBARI) decided to develop a technology to make this strange substance easier to analyze and study. 

It's called the "Particle Image Velocimetry" (PIV). Typically, it is used to study how water moves...but they adapted it to work more acutely to snot bubbles. They attached a PIV laser, with camera, to an ROV and sent it into the depths of the Californian coast.

When the camera of the ROV finally spotted a larvacean, the researchers activated the PIV laser. This laser spread a thin sheet of light over the animal, its dwelling, and every particle inside the snot bubble.

It was also proven that, through this process larvaceans can filter all of Monterey bay’s water from about '300 to 1,000 feet deep in less than two weeks, making them the fastest known zooplankton filter feeders'.

This is a huge leap forward in being able to analyze all kinds of deep-sea research, which I definitely expect to see some updates in the next few months.

 

The above image is from the NOAA Photo Library's Flickr Account. It is liscensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). 

Mushrooms Are Weird (And Glowing Mushrooms Are Weirder)

We've known how weird mushrooms are for a long time. How weird? Well, for starters we know they grow towards sunlight, but now what they use sunlight for...oh, and earth used to be covered in giant mushrooms. But, one thing is coming out of the shadows recently: why and how some mushrooms glow.

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The process of process of fungal bioluminescence seems a bit...off. But, a new article in the Science Advances Journal that is shedding new light on this phenomena. The team behind the Science Advances article on the subject was made up of an international team of researchers. These researchers analyzed extracts from two different glowing mushrooms, first, Brazil's Neonothopanus gardneri and then Vietnam's poisonous Neonothopanus nambi.

The authors note “Future work on the isolation, characterization, and heterologous expression of the luciferase will stimulate the development of fungal bioluminescence–inspired applications,” which could help with projects like draining streetlights, litmus tests for toxins, and even candy!

The first thing they discovered is that the bioluminescence of mushrooms is similar to the enzymes found in other bioluminescent animals. These two enzymes, luciferin and luciferase, combine with energy and oxygen. Once this happens, a chemical reaction happens and the compound oxyluciferin is created. This is an excited state and is not really sustainable for long, so it releases its energy in the form of light.

However, the mushrooms were doing one thing a little differently: although they were using the two enzymes, they ended up creating their own proprietary blend similar to excited oxyluciferin.

And here's where the fungi gets a little sexy, according to the scientists this proprietary blend is "promiscuous". What this means, in fungi terms, is that it can mix and mingle with multiple types of luciferin. And it is this specific approach that allows the bioluminescence to be more than green - in fact, the mushrooms can glow a whole variety of different colors.

This research, and what will be built upon it, will help further pave the way for bioluminesence inspired applications.

The above mushroom image is not related to the story and may or may not be bioluminescent. It is liscensed under creative commons and is from Flickr User Kalle Gustafsson.

 

Squids and Octopi Continue to Baffle (and Amaze) Scientists

Many marine biologists continue to be enamored with the study of Cephalopods, in particular squids and octopi. In early April 2017, researchers discovered something even more alien about these baffling creatures: they can edit their DNA.

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In a study published in Cell, an academic journal, Joshua Rosenthal’s published his work and insight on the RNA editing abilities in squid. First, let's have a quick lesson on how MOST creatures DNA works: typically RNA acts as a middleman in how DNA makes proteins and faithfully transmits the message in the genes. And, typically, these creatures have no say in how it is transmitted. Except, as it comes to light, octopi, squids, and cuttlefish can change or edit the message that gets read out to make proteins.

This is particularly interesting because it seems to be the reason behind their slow evolution. The article in Cell goes as far as saying that this editing process lead to "positive selection of editing events slows down genome evolution.” Rosenthal adds, "Editing is important enough that they’re forgoing standard evolution,” 

What is even more interesting is the fact that most organisms posses the enzyme needed for gene editing. However, it just isn't widely used. One of the largest reasons it isn't used is because it can cause more damage than it does good. Scientists have investigated it, but, according to an article in Wired, largely abandoned the research into it, as it wasn't entirely worthwhile.

Queue Rosenthal and his team of researchers. Squid DNA/RNA first became of interest to him because he realized it was a little bit different each time he looked at it. As Wired says, "Where the genetic material of humans, insects, and other multi-celled organisms read like a book, the squid genome reads more like a Mad Lib." 

However, the conclusion of the article in Cell presents only a hypothesis: that these creatures used DNA editing to maintain a more complex brain structure instead of going through a natural evolutionary process. It is this brain structure, likely a product of RNA editing, that allows these animals to do all the amazing things they are well-known for: camouflage themselves, using tools, solve puzzles, and even communicate.

The above image comes from Flickr user damn_unique and is liscensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

A Massive Pharaoh Has Been Unearthed

In early March archaeologists, from Egypt and Germany, unearthed the remains of an ancient Egyptian statue they believe could depict one of history's most famous rulers. Although there aren't many clues as to which Pharaoh it directly depicts, there is one hint - the inscription: Nebaa.

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This discovery was made by the joint effort Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities and researchers from the University of Leipzig. This was especially helpful considering that there were multiple factors that made this a tough dig site, such as a rising water-table, industrial waste, and even a growing rubble pile.

It was discovered in a working class neighborhood in Cairo. Cairo is built over the ancient city of Heliopolis.  It has been submerged in ground-water for goodness knows how long. In fact, it is believed to be King Psammetich I, who ruled Egypt from 664 to 610 BC. This means it could be up to 3,000 years old. Originally, it was thought it was a depiction of Ramses, given its proximity to a temple worshipping Ramses. But, as noted earlier, they know believe it to be King Psammetich. 

So far, they have found the bust of the statue, the head, the crown, an ear, and a fragment of the right eye. The statue is believed to be roughly 26-feet long. It is constructed from quartzite. 

However, this wasn't the only artifact discovered. The archaeological team also discovered a limestone statue of Pharaoh Seti II the grandson of Ramses II. 

 

The above picture is not related to the story and is by Flickr User Chris Buckridge. It is liscensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

 

Why Are Swordfish So Fast?

Swordfish are some of the most notoriously fast creatures in the ocean. In fact, they can allegedly reach up to 60 miles per hour. Which, for a fish, is pretty darn impressive. But, although this is undoubtedly one of the most-recognizable fish, on menus and in the sea alike, parts of their being are still a bit alien to us.

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Cue John Videler, of Leiden & Groningen University, who has studied the physics behind swimming fish for much of his career. Swordfish have always been of interest to him, not just because of their quickness, but also because they are great swimmers. 

Their efficiency is largely due to the ingenious design of their bill. Basically, when swordfish swim layers of water flow along the surface of its bill. However, the faster it gets the currents that are made by these layer can create drag. The bill, once doused in oil, is also porous and rough to further limit turbulence and decrease drag.

What else did John Videler and other researchers discover? Well, that there is a baseball-sized gland in their heads with slathers lubricating oils all their heads to help further increase their speed and is another drag-reducing aspect of swordfish.

The oil production also explain another quirky feature of the swordfish - they are one of the only fish with a "concave hollow at the front of their heads an slight inward-curving bowl that, counter-intuitively, ought to increase drag," according to National Geographic writer, Ed Young. Videler believes that this hollow is in fact shaped so that the water that zips by is create an area of low pressure, allowing the oil to be sucked out of the gland and then coat the bill.

Although this is an interesting theory, it is important to note it is still a working theory. Videler intends to conduct more experiments to further prove this idea. 

The above image is from Flickr User Jocelyn Kinghorn is not related to the story. It is licensed under creative commons 2.0.

 

An Update on One of Astonishing Legends’ Favorite (real) Creatures!

As our listeners know, we’re big fans of a little creature called Tardigrades, also known as water bears. They may be only half a millimeter long, but they can live through astonishing conditions such as -458 degrees (fahrenheit) or as high as 300 degrees! In early fall 2016, researchers in Japan published a new analysis of the entire genome of this fascinating animal.

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One of their best survival tricks is called “cryptobiosis” which basically an extreme form of hibernation where ALL metabolic functions stop. This suspends the creature between life and death, thus allowing it to survive almost anything. Even more impressive, it can even be dried out to roughly 3% of its normal water content and come back to life with a simple spalsh of water. But how is this possible?

Geneticist Takekazu Kunieda, along with his colleagues, from the University of Tokyo found some of the genetic tricks that have helped the tardigrades to survive in extreme environments. However, the process of this research was a bit complicated.

First, because it is easier to study these processes when housed within mammalian cells. So, in order to create a successful study the researchers cultured humans cells to produce bits of the tardigrade genome. From this space the cells of the tardigrade could be manipulated to figure out exactly which genes give these creatures their incredible resistance to all sorts of environments.

In living creatures, dehydration can wreak havoc among cells and even rip apart DNA. For example, Humans are made of, depending on age/gender, about 55-65% water. Imagine that shrinking to 3-10%…needless to say, it would be drastic and likely impossible. However, unlike humans tardigrades have a protein called Dsup. Dsup has the ability to hold DNA together, even under the stress of drying out.

Additionally, when Kunieda and his team pinpointed this impressive protein, they also found that it protects the DNA from radiation. Kunieda says, “Tolerance against X-ray is thought to be a side-product of [the] animal’s adaption to severe dehydration,”

One of the most important takeaways is that the researchers found that human cells, aided by Dsup, reduced x-ray damage by up to 40%. The future of medicine may heavily affected by this seemingly minuscule creature!

 

The picture above comes from Flickr User Eden, Janine and Jim and is licensed under Creative Commons.

Birds, Snails, and Parasite-Induced Zombism (Oh My!)

We’ve all heard about human zombies, but what about snail zombies? There is a dastardly devious worm that hijacks a snail’s brain and leads that brain to sacrifice itself.

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The parasitic worm is called “Leucocholordium Paradoxum” and lives primarily in north america and Europe.

Once it infiltrates the snail’s body, it crawls not the snail’s tentacles. These tentacles, for added spookiness, are translucent and you can actually see the worm working its will from within.

Snails typically have the instinct not to crawl up plants, because it is safer to stay away from the light. But this worm is so intense that it turns the snail against its instincts in order to get the snail visible to birds.

Want one more layer to this complicated plan? Birds don’t really like snails -but they do like caterpillars. It’s tentacles, and the worm inside, resembles a caterpillar on a leaf and the bird becomes interested. Typically, they snatch one of the tentacles, allowing the worm to enter its guy and travel through it its rectum. In the bird’s rectum, it becomes an adult and produces.

Once the worm is ‘passed’ with the birds droppings, snails come across and feed on them.

And then the parasite’s eggs get into a new snail…and so on and so forth.

The above picture is not infected with Leucocholordium Paradoxum and is from Flickr User Andy Powell and is licensed under Creative Commons.

 

A Fish Out of Water

We’ve all heard that old saying, “A fish out of water”. Unusually meant to describe something that makes you feel uncomfortable, completely out of your environment, etc. Though it was previously believed that fish had evolved to survive, at least briefly, on land once or twice it is know believed, thanks to a new study, that they can survive dozens of times.

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Though the transition between water and land is extreme, it is not necessarily difficult. Well, what does this mean?

Well, it means something else prevent fish from becoming full-time, land-swelling creatures. The authors of the study, published in Evolution in August, ask a fundamental question: “How do species establish themselves in new environments?”

It can be gathered that most species fail to establish themselves in new environments…most of the time. For fish, there are many hurdles to overcome such as breathing, moving, and metabolizing. All of these things, and even more bodily functions, have to be modified in a way that accepts radically increased gravity and seriously decreased wetness.

Authors of the study, Terry Ord and Georgina Cooke of the University of New South Wales, had a few theories, as summarized below.

  • Fish that live in the intertidal zone would be more likely to have contact with land and away from their water due to their twice-daily transformation of the tides. Similarly, fish that live in ponds, puddles, or creeks that shrink and grow face a similar challenge.
  • Fish that live in water that is prone to heating up are known to lave it because warmer water means less oxygen, which leads to suffocating. In these cases, air/land provide some relief.
  • Fish that live on the bottom of their body of water also seem like better candidates for land-dwelling due to the fact that they have certain adaptations that make them more suited to the ground, such as flattened bodies that make walking easier and fins that are limb-like.
  • Since getting around on land is difficult for any fish, it might be easier for those whose diets don’t depend on seeking out mobile prey.

Based on these, they began a deep dive of all fish species that fit the above parameters. They found amphibious behavior in about 130 fish, from 33 different families that reach the oldest and youngest branches of the fish family tree. Many of these 33 families have a great evolutionary chance to transition from water to land.

But let’s get back to the question at hand – why have so few fish pioneered into the terrestrial world, because breathing, walking, and reproducing do not seem to pose huge barriers.

The authors theorize that, at the root of the issue, is staying wet. Fish drying out is the real challenge, especially the desiccation gills. Gills must remain moist in order for a fish to breathe, and without that guaranteed moisture…they’re doomed.

 

The above picture comes from Flickr user Alan Levine and is licensed under creative commons.

The Great Kentucky Meat Shower

You read that title correctly, this is not a drill. Over 100 years ago, on March 3rd 1876, large hunks of flesh began falling from the sky over Olympia Springs, KY. Allen Crouch and his wife, both witnesses to this occurrence, shared their expereince in a New York Times article published the following week. Crouch said, "The meat, which looked like beef, fell all around her [his wife]. The sky was perfectly clear at the time, and she said it [the meat] fell like large snowflakes.

Most of the meat chunks were about 5x5 cm, and began spoiling around the town the next morning. Two unidentified men turned up to the strange event on March 4th and tasted the meat-rain. They declared it tasted like venison or mutton.

But where did this mystery meat come from?

The first theory burst forth about three months later, when someone called Leopold Brandeis, who had been sent samples in glycerine, announced the meat was not meat. He claimed it was "no more or less than nostoc".

Okay, so what the hell is nostoc? Well, it's a type of cyanobacterial that forms colonies that are protected by a gelatinous envelope. It is well known for swelling up into jelly-like masses whenever it rains. It has garnered colorful nicknames like star jelly and witches' butter throughout the years.

Notice anything wrong with this statement? "Whenever it rains"...but eye witness reports confirmed it was a perfectly clear night. And, with that, the first logical theory was dismissed.

Another histologist, Dr. JWS Arnold, studied the specimens and concluded that they consisted of animal cartilage and lung tissue.

Dr. L.D Kastebine followed up with Dr. Arnold by writing in an 1876 edition of the Louisville Medical News in which he surmised the strange meaty substance to be...projectile vulture vomit.

 

The above picture is unrelated to the story and comes from Flickr user Marius Boatca it is licensed under Creative Commons.

 

There's a Bird that Thinks it's a Chainsaw

As we know from TV, movies, and the news, Australia is home to many strange creatures. But more than creepy crawlies, Australia is also home to a wide array of birds. The Superb Lyrebird is one of the greatest representatives of Australia's amazing animals. link

Scientifically known as 'Menura novaehollandiae' the Superb Lyrebird is one of the largest of the Passerines. The Passerines are a group of birds that comprises over 50% of all known bird species. The Passerines are commonly known as perching birds and, mistakenly, song birds.

Visually, the Superb Lyrebird looks like a cross between a pheasant and a peacock, due to their size and the fact that the males have an impressive plume. But it isn't any old plumage, in fact, it is two diftinct kinds of plumage: lace-like feathers and two outer-feathers that are curled, and resemble a greek lyre. But their plumage isn't the only impressive thing about them, their amazing ability to mimic sounds also makes them a notable species.

As young chicks, lyrebirds mainly imitate their parents’ vocalizations but as they continue to mature, their repertoire of sounds increases as they experience a broader environment. Their ability to mimic plays an important role in their ability to find a mate. During their mating season (June-August) males showcase their collection of sounds to put on a wonderful show for the females. His ability to mimic is parallel to his level of fitness, one of the main factors in finding a suitable mate.

So how does the bird sound like a chainsaw? Well,as tourism, humans, and construction begins to invade many of the the Superb Lyrebirds habitats their talents for mimicking have grown. Not only that, but the Lyrebirds have actually grown to include manufactured sounds they pick up into their mating rituals!

Sound a little nuts? Check out this video to hear it for yourself!

This picture is from Flickr User Dave Hosford and is licensed under Creative Commons.

 

Why is the Deepest, Darkest Place on Earth so Noisy?

Scientists from NOAA have recently released audio recordings taken from the Mariana Trench, the very deepest part of the ocean. Strangely enough, sounds from humans, animals, and the earth itself can be heard echoing in its dark depths. link

Researchers sunk a hydrophone 36,000 feet into the Challenge Deep in the Mariana Trench in an effort to establish some baseline for oceanic noise. They were, logically, expecting to capture nothing more than silence - given the remoteness of the trench and its depths.

Much to their surprise, over the course of several weeks, they were able to capture whale calls, ship propellers, earthquakes, and the sound of a category four typhoon passing above.

How is this possible?

Well, sound waves travel around 5x faster through water than through air. In addition to the speed, they also have to deal with fewer disturbances and obstacles, which helps them travel further distances.

One of the main reasons NOAA conducted this 23 day study was due to the prevalence of noise pollution. Human generated noise pollution, like ship propellers, have been often linked to disruptions in marine life behavior. At close to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, researchers thought they would be too far away from these disturbances to hear a thing.

There is a return investigation planned for 2017 to see if noise levels have increased.

 

This picture was taken by AvocadoGirlfriend and is licensed under Creative Commons.