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Lycanthropy

I've been thinking about lycanthropy--maybe because we're just that much closer to Halloween, maybe because the "Back to the Future" ride is closing down (I just can't choose between McFly and Teen Wolf), or maybe it's because of all the traction that Sea Wolf song is getting (though my friends Hang the Lights romanced the topic quite beautifully first). It's been conjectured that the ergot in people's rye bread was responsible for episodes of clinical lycanthropy, which continues to be treated today, right along other body dysmorphic disorders (like BIID). A Wisconsin man acted out under this delusion earlier this year. And plucked from the annals of feral children tales: a boy sheltered by the wild dogs of Transylvania, an Uzbeki boy living in the wild for eight years, and of course "The Wolf Girls of Midnapore." I have to say, if I were banished to the wild, I'd absolutely prefer to be raised by wolves. Or at least huskies. Or even--after viewing this clip--water buffalo. Anybody else?

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Mythical Yetis are Actually Bears, According to DNA Analysis
Walkabout Films via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Walkabout Films via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

In 1959, the U.S. government advised hunters that they were permitted to kill a Yeti only in self-defense. The decree was prompted by findings from earlier expeditions—huge footprints, hides, and bones from a large, unidentified creature native to the Himalayas—which explorers thought could be from the mythical hominid that local Sherpas called the Yeti, or "wild man."

But now, researchers at the State University of New York in Buffalo and their colleagues have concluded that folklore about abominable snowmen in the Himalayas was just that. After testing evidence collected from the Tibetan Plateau and from museum collections, they found the biological root of the Yeti legends to be local bears.

In the new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers analyzed 24 hair, bone, tooth, skin, and scat samples. Nine of the samples were purported to be from Yetis, while the rest were gathered recently from the Tibetan brown bear, Himalayan brown bear, and Himalayan black bear. The team assembled complete mitochondrial genomes for the Himalayan brown bear and black bear for the first time, then analyzed and compared all of the samples. Of the nine allegedly from Yetis, eight were actually from Asian bears. One was from a dog.

While these particular findings suggest that the Yeti stories probably emerged from humans' encounters with bears, the study provides valuable genetic data that could shed light on how the bears evolved. The mitochondrial genomes—which are based on the genetic information passed down only through females—could reveal when the rare subspecies and more common bear species last shared a maternal ancestor, and how genetically dissimilar they are today, Science notes.

The genomic analysis showed that Tibetan brown bears share a close ancestry with North American and Eurasian brown bears. But the Himalayan brown bears branched off from their common ancestral tree about 650,000 years ago, when glaciers expanded over the Tibetan Plateau—which may have separated those bears from the larger gene pool. Understanding how the subspecies evolved could illuminate the environmental history of the region, said Charlotte Lindqvist, an associate professor of biological sciences at SUNY Buffalo and the study's lead scientist, in a statement. The genetic data may assist conservation of these vulnerable and endangered animals.

Lindqvist said that their technique could also be a useful tool for exploring the roots of folklore about large cryptids—as well as real beasts.

"Our findings strongly suggest that the biological underpinnings of the Yeti legend can be found in local bears," she said. "Our study demonstrates that genetics should be able to unravel other, similar mysteries."

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7 Myths About Bats
iStock
iStock

Though in China bats are said to bring good luck, and ancient Egyptians believed they could cure an array of diseases, our feelings about bats are often negative. Perhaps these rumors started because bats are so mysterious—with their nocturnal flying and dank, dark habitats, they’re hard to study! But the world’s only flying mammal isn’t nearly as bad as our fears make it out to be. Keep reading for seven misconceptions, as well as explanations of what really goes on in the batcave.

1. BATS ARE TOTALLY BLIND.

Though we love to talk about things being "blind as a bat," bigger bats can see up to three times better than humans, according to Rob Mies, executive director of the Organization for Bat Conservation. Bat vision varies across species, but none are actually blind. In addition to working peepers, bats also use echolocation (emitting sound to navigate)—which means they probably have a better idea of where they’re going than many of us.

2. BATS ARE FLYING RATS.

Bats belong to the order Chiroptera, not Rodentia; they’re actually more closely related to primates than they are to rodents. They also don’t share behavior with rodents. For example, bats don’t chew on wood, metal, or plastic, and usually aren’t nuisances. In fact, bats eat pests, which brings us to ...

3. BATS ARE ANNOYING PESTS.

Bat flying in a forest at night
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Quite the opposite! According to National Geographic, bats can eat up to a thousand insects in an evening. Their bug-eating prowess is so notable it carries economic importance. A recent study showed that bats provide “nontoxic pest-control services totalling $3.7 billion to $53 billion per year”! Bats also pollinate plants and distribute seeds, and their droppings—called guano—are used as fertilizer.

4. BATS WANT TO DRINK YOUR BLOOD.

Only three of the roughly 1200 existing bat species are vampire bats, and none of them live in the United States or Canada. Vampire bats don’t even really drink blood—Mies says the feeding process is more like that of a mosquito. While mosquitos will take blood from humans, though, vampire bats primarily feed on cattle. Fun fact: a medication called draculin is currently being developed from bats’ saliva, which has unique anti-blood-clotting properties.

5. BATS WILL FLY INTO YOUR HAIR AND BUILD A NEST.

An old myth claims that bats fly into hair, get stuck, and build nests. While it’s possible this rumor started to deter young women from going out at night, bats do sometimes swoop around people’s heads. The reason isn’t because they’re shopping for a new home, however: our bodies attract insects, and bats are after their next snack. So don’t worry—your spectacular updo is safe.

6. IN FACT, BATS DON'T NEST AT ALL.

Unlike birds or rodents, bats don’t build nests. Instead, they find shelter inside existing structures. Caves, trees, walls, and ceilings are favorites, as are rafters of buildings. They don’t always hang upside down, either. According to Dr. Thomas Kunz from Boston University, bats are frequently horizontal when roosting in small crevices, not vertical.

7. BATS WILL ATTACK YOU AND GIVE YOU RABIES.

Three bats hanging upside down on a branch
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Nope. Shari Clark, president of the Florida Bat Conservancy, says that statistically bats contract rabies much less frequently than other mammals. And if they do get rabies, it manifests differently than in raccoons or foxes. Rabies-infected bats become paralyzed and can’t fly or roost. This means that as long as you stay away from bats on the ground that are behaving weirdly, you’re pretty much in the clear. Phew.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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