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Why Indiana Jones Was Right to be Scared of Snakes

I, like most everyone else, am really looking forward to May 22, when the new Indiana Jones movie hits screens. Indy is the perfect hero, except for that one flaw: his fear of snakes. After some research, though, I found that he may not have been too far off in being scared of snakes. Here are some reasons he was right.

They might take over the country

It sounds like something out of a horror movie: deadly snakes slither into an unsuspecting town, slowly killing the poor citizens. Unfortunately, it's really happening. A drought in Australia earlier this year started pushing snakes into cities in search of water, where they took to biting the people they saw. The number of snake attacks went up during the drought. And not even the Americas are immune from the snake attack. In two events that would shock Captain Planet, deforestation in Brazil is making deadly snakes flee to cities, while global warming might force Burmese pythons to expand their habitat to the southern third of the United States. Ironically, extreme climate change may have created one of Indy's safe havens. Contrary to the popular St. Patrick explanation, Ireland may be snake-free because of the Ice Age. The temperatures were too cold for snakes to survive for years, and once the earth warmed up, the surrounding seas probably kept the snakes away. After all, this was long before snakes discovered air travel.

They're really, really, really deadly

snake fangs.jpg

Popular Science recently called snake venom evolution's most effective killer, which is some pretty high praise. Turns out the poison is so ninja-like, it covers every base. It can slow prey down, giving the snake a better chance to catch it, while some even contain a diuretic, so the prey leaves a trail of urine. Venom can be divided into three categories, each with their own deadly attribute. The cytotoxins break down the cells and muscles, essentially starting digestion before the prey even enters the snake's mouth. Hemotoxins go after the blood, either clotting it or destroying the red blood cells. And neurotoxins either numb or overload the nervous system. Even though these toxins are ridiculously lethal, scientists are mining them for potential cures for cancer and the venom from a Brazilian pit snake even formed the basis for ACE inhibitors.

It's in his genes (your's too)

Those hidden picture games in the old Highlights for Kids magazine may hold the key to why Indy was so scared of snakes. A recent University of Virginia study found that we may be genetically hard-wired to spot snakes. Shown a series of color photographs, both adults and children had an easier time spotting a snake among pictures of non-threatening images than a non-threatening object among pictures of snakes. The researchers also found that the same holds true for spiders, which is why these creepy crawlers freak us out so much.

snake eating deer.jpgHe searched for "snake eating" on Youtube

Searching for "snake eating" on Youtube may make you never want to eat again. You'll find an array of snake meals, from hippos to deer to eggs. The unique jaw structure of the snake allows it to swallow some enormous food. The lower jaw is unattached to the skull, only held on by muscles and tendons, allowing it to open as wide as 150 degrees. Once it traps the prey in its jaws, the snake creeps forward, pushing the food into its body, where muscles and digestive acids break it down. The knowledge that a particularly hungry snake could eat him was probably enough to turn Indy off the critters forever.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
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iStock

Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

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