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10 Living Things Thriving in Death Valley

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There’s a reason it’s called Death Valley. This vast expanse of the Mojave Desert gets less than 2 inches of rain per year, the daytime temperatures can reach upwards of 120 degrees, and the landscape is so salt-laden and windswept that it’s nearly impossible for anything to take root. But there’s more life in Death Valley than you’d imagine. Here are 10 stubborn plants and animals that refuse to retire to greener pastures.

1. The Rat with a Drinking Problem

Like many Death Valley residents, the kangaroo rat lives for the nightlife. It spends most of its day napping underground, only venturing out after sunset. Of course, taking advantage of the cool nighttime temps is a common trick among desert mammals. What’s not common is how the kangaroo rat has adapted to deal with the scarcity of water: It never drinks the stuff! Special organs inside its nose allow it to absorb moisture directly from the air, and highly efficient kidneys keep its body hydrated. In fact, the kangaroo rat is so well adapted to the dry climate that even after living in captivity for years, it will still refuse water.

2. The Fish That Got Lucky in Las Vegas

Despite its bone-dry landscape, Death Valley is home to thousands of pupfish. The colorful, sardine-like fish live in isolated waterholes only a few feet wide. But how did all those aquatic animals get lured into the desert? The pupfish are actually stragglers from the ice age 10,000 years ago, back when the valley was a large glacial lake. As the glaciers melted, schools of pupfish became trapped in the waterholes and evolved into several distinct species. Today, the water in the small ponds can be as warm as a bath (around 90 degrees F), and the salt concentrations can exceed twice that of seawater. The conditions aren’t ideal, but the pupfish survive by drinking copious amounts of water and efficiently excreting the salt through their digestive tracts.

Life for the pupfish has become even more difficult in recent years. Beginning in the 1960s, farmers near Death Valley started pumping the desert’s groundwater for irrigation, which depleted the waterholes and caused serious declines in pupfish populations. One particular species, the Devils Hole pupfish, came close to extinction in 2006 when its numbers dipped below 40. But then an unlikely savior emerged: the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The casino relocated several pupfish to its swank aquariums, successfully reviving the species before its luck dried out.

3. The Plant That Outshines the Sun

It’s no secret that Death Valley is a tricky place for plants to take root. The earth there is so salty that it would kill most vegetation. But the Desert Holly has developed a clever technique for dealing with the unfriendly soil. The low-growing shrub soaks up the salt in the ground along with any moisture, and then, during blooming season from January to April, it excretes the sodium deposits onto its leaves. As a result, the plant turns from green to silver—a color change that helps it reflect the scalding sunlight instead of absorbing it.

4. The Bird You Don’t Want Your Children to See

Death Valley is home to the most iconic of desert birds—the roadrunner. Thanks to its Looney Tunes fame, the bird has become quite a tourist attraction. At the Death Valley National Park Visitor Center, sightseers can view roadrunners from large glass windows, and park officials often shout “meep, meep!” as they approach. However, the roadrunners don’t frequent the visitor’s center for the attention; they’re looking for fresh meat. Unlike their cartoon counterpart, real-life roadrunners are skilled hunters that use their lightning-quick speed to catch mice, insects, and snakes. They’re also pretty sly. Some of these clever creatures have figured out that if they wait by the visitor’s center, sooner or later a tasty bird will accidentally fly into the glass windows. The roadrunners then pounce on the stunned animal, ripping it apart and eating it in front of the horrified onlookers, Tasmanian Devil-style.

5. The Tortoise You Can Scare to Death

The desert tortoise has a simple solution for coping with Death Valley’s extreme heat: it avoids it. The slow-moving creature hibernates during the winter and stays in its burrow for much of the summer, meaning that it spends more than 90 percent of its life immobile. In fact, the tortoise usually only surfaces after a good rain. Then, it gets to work.

The tortoise stocks up on water by eating plants and digging trenches to collect rain. But to stay hydrated through its extended hibernation, the reptile relies on something else—its highly sophisticated bladder. Unlike most animals, the tortoise’s bladder acts as a holding tank, allowing it to reabsorb water back into its body. Incredibly, a desert tortoise can go a full year without taking in any fresh water at all. And because its bladder is so important to a tortoise’s survival, park rangers often remind visitors not to stop and help the slow-movers across the road. Tortoises become so terrified when people pick them up that they void their bladders, losing their precious water reserves.

6. The Bird with Legs You Never Want to Eat

The turkey vulture primarily feasts on decomposing animals, but that’s not the most disgusting thing about it. To stay cool, the vulture makes use of a process known asurohydrosis, a fancy way of saying that it pees on its legs to keep from overheating. This serves two purposes: the evaporating urine cools the blood circulating through the vulture’s legs, and also acts as a disinfectant, killing any germs the scavenger may have picked up from its last meal. You know you’re a dirty animal when peeing on your own legs actually makes you cleaner.

7. Seeds of Greatness

Every so often, Death Valley reveals a rare and beautiful display of life—a sea of colorful wildflowers, blossoming by the millions. The flowers seem to emerge out of nowhere, but in truth, the seeds of these blooms are always hidden on the desert floor, just waiting for the right amount of sunlight and rainfall before sprouting. The seeds are protected by a thick, waxy coating that guards them against the extreme heat. But when the desert gets enough rain to wash away the coating (which isn’t often), the seeds sprout and the flowers bloom, temporarily transforming the barren landscape.

8. The Flower That Haunts

The Gravel Ghost wildflower lives its life with the utmost discretion. It starts off as a patch of grayish leaves that blends in with the surrounding landscape. Then it sprouts a wiry stalk about 3 ft. high, which is also camouflaged against the barren scenery. But when the bulb atop the stalk blooms, it produces a vibrant white flower that insects flock to pollinate. Still, the stalk is so difficult to see that it creates the eerie appearance of a floating flower—hovering, ghost-like, above the desert floor.

9. Winning, by a Hare

The black-tailed jackrabbit may get teased for its oversize ears, but those trademark appendages help it beat the heat in Death Valley. The rabbit’s 7-inch-long ears contain a wealth of blood vessels that dissipate heat and help the animal regulate its body temperature. But the jackrabbit’s voracious appetite also plays into its success against the harsh climate. Like many desert creatures, the jackrabbit gets its water from the plants it eats. The clever hare switches its grazing seasonally, waiting until the hot summer months to consume the more water-filled cacti and grasses, often eating several times its body weight every day just to remain hydrated.

10. The Lizard That Was Born to Run

Like a water bug racing across a pond, the fringe-toed lizard glides with gravity-defying grace over the loose sand of the desert. Specially shaped scales on its toes allow the small reptile to scamper across the dunes and outrun most predators. But speed isn’t the lizard’s only superpower; the lightning-fast reptile can also vanish in an instant by diving headfirst beneath the surface of the sand. Thanks to special scales that fold over its eyes, ears, and nostrils, the fringe-toed lizard can keep sand out of its delicate parts while steering clear of predators underground.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 

PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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