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The Story Behind Man's Best Friend

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There are around 400 million dogs in the world, the majority of which are pets. While the animals know a surprisingly large amount about their human companions, there’s plenty we still don’t know about them. In celebration of National Dog Week, here’s all kinds of information that you probably never knew about your best friend.

A Brief History of Inter-Species Love

While the exact time that humans and dogs started to socialize together is unknown, most researchers agree that the pairing occurred at least 15,000 years ago. There is evidence dogs were domesticated by 12,000 BC, as archaeologists have discovered an Israeli grave site from this time period where an old man had been buried with a puppy.

While early researchers argued whether dogs were most closely related to coyotes, dingoes or wolves, DNA evidence has proven conclusively that our four-legged friends are most closely related to gray wolves. The means that the animals became domesticated is contested, but one common theory says that wolves started to scavenge around human campsites where they could get meals with minimal effort and that wolves that were less frightened by humans soon saw an advantage in aligning themselves with paleolithic man.

Image courtesy of Sometimesong's Flickr stream.

In the beginning, both species would gain significant benefits from one another.

Dogs would be safer, have a more reliable food source and benefit from humans' ability to see predators and prey from a long distance. Humans would benefit as dogs increased sanitation by cleaning waste and food scraps; dogs also would have used their excellent hearing to warn humans of approaching animals. On the hunt, dogs would be able to use their strong sense of smell to track prey, as man used his tools to bring down large animals with less effort. Both species would also benefit from the increased body warmth during cold nights. It is very likely that humans not only shaped the future of dogs, but that dogs changed our evolutionary course as well.

As the years wore on, dogs continued to play an important role in human history. Many people believe that humans could not have successfully traveled across the Bering Straight without the help of sled dogs. After crossing, dogs continued to be important to Native Americans and served as their only domesticated animal until the Spanish introduced the horse. Many cultures even continued to use dogs as pack animals long after horses were introduced to the continent.

Selective breeding allowed certain dogs to excel at certain tasks, such as herding, ratting, hunting or carrying weight. The idea of pets solely for the sake of companionship wasn’t such a major part of the average person’s life until the suburbanization of Western culture after World War II. While dog training existed long before this, the idea of breaking the animals of their natural digging, barking and jumping instincts only really took off after this point and it seems we may be on the cusp of a new evolutionary mark for dogs as they are increasingly bred for companionship skills rather than working skills.

Image courtesy of nyominx's Flickr stream.

Cross-Species Benefits

Most people can immediately see the benefit modern dogs get from humans (food, shelter, water and affection), but the benefits our pets bring to us is equally impressive. Modern service dogs can be trained to not only help those with external physical disabilities, but also to help warn epileptics and diabetics about upcoming attacks while they still have time to do something about it. The animals can also be useful in treating anxiety, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Dogs can even be used to detect oncoming conditions such as cancer. When a control group of dogs were trained to smell out lung or breast cancer in the breath of test subjects, their accuracy stayed between 88 and 97 percent. It sure is a whole lot less invasive than a biopsy.

People who own pets, whether dogs or cats, have been shown to be healthier and happier than those who do not own an animal. In fact, one study showed pet owners had a major reduction in minor health problems during their first month of ownership and dog owners continued to show these improvements through the duration of the study.

Image courtesy of Martin Kuo's Flickr stream.

What’s Breed Got To Do With It?

Dogs have more variations in size, appearance and behavior than any other animal on earth because they have been targets of artificial selection through human interference, rather than natural selection. Scientists have even recognized 155 distinct genetic locations that account for all of these differences.

Dog sizes vary from the world’s smallest dog, a 2.5 inch tall Yorkshire Terrier that weighed 4 ounces, to the world’s tallest dog, a Great Dane that stands at 43 inches (that's him above), to the 343 pound English Mastif that was named the world’s largest dog. Similarly, dog lifespans, which are around 11 years on average, vary greatly by breed. In fact, the Dogue de Bordeaux has a notably short lifespan that averages just over five years. Many other breeds, including Toy Poodles, Japanese Spitz and others have an average lifespan of fourteen and a half years. Strikingly, the world’s oldest dog, an Australian Cattle Dog named Bluey, lived to be almost 30.

Breeding can also affect the level of energy and muscle a particular dog has. Some of the best athletic dogs are the Siberian Huskies used in the Iditarod sled race. Scientists fount that these animals burned 11,000 calories the day, which is eight times the proportional calories burned by a Tour de France cyclist. They also take in three times the oxygen of human athletes.

Another famed animal athlete is the Greyhound, which is one of the fastest accelerating animals in the world, second only to the cheetah. Greyhounds have an incredible heart, the same size as a human, but that beats at twice the speed of a human when exercising.

Startling K-9 Psychology


Image courtesy of PKMousie's Flickr stream.

While people like to think we have more in common with our primate ancestors than any other animal, when it comes to communication and social dynamics, we actually have more in common with dogs. Researchers have said that while dogs are only as smart as two-year old humans, they have the social skills of teenagers. In fact, dogs are the only animals that understand pointing. They understand human languages better than other primates and the average dog can be taught as many as 165 words, more than an ape can learn. Particularly smart dogs have even been taught over 300 words.

Dogs understand deception, which chimps cannot grasp as clearly. Researchers tested this by placing two covered buckets, one with a treat and one without, in front of the dog. Half of the dogs would be directed to the wrong bucket by a person in the room, while the others would be given correct signals. While all of the dogs would start out listening to the human, those that were being lied to soon started going to the opposite bucket.

Dogs also know how to deceive humans without getting caught. To test this, dogs were left in a room with two containers with bells, one of which was muted and one of which was not. Researchers observed that when the animals were being watched, they would go to either of the containers, but when the observer looked away, the animals would always go for the quiet container.

If you’ve ever had a dog get in trouble, you probably know that dogs can show guilt, but it is worth noting that researcher Frans de Waal has proven that their expression of guilt applies whenever the dog thinks he or she will get in trouble, regardless of whether or not he or she actually did something bad. So if you have more than one dog, you might not want to blame the one who looks guilty automatically; he or she might just be worried they’ll get in trouble for the actions of their co-habitant.

Image courtesy of srte's Flickr stream.

I learned my dog is the jealous type when I came home and greeted my roommate’s dog before him. He immediately tried to fight her. Apparently, I was on to something here, because Vienna researchers studied whether dogs can get jealous of one another a little while ago by rewarding one dog with a treat for doing a trick and then asking the other to do the trick without a reward. The unrewarded dog soon got annoyed and stopped performing the trick, which did not happen when the same animal went unrewarded without another dog around. Up until that time, primates were the only animals known to show signs of jealousy.

Do you have a dog? Share your favorite stories about his or her behavior in the comments.

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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski
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The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
 
 
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.

1. IT'S THE "DUCT TAPE OF LIFE."

It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.

2. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE.

It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.

3. IT'S NAMED AFTER COAL.

While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.

4. IT LOVES TO BOND.

It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.

5. NEARLY 20 PERCENT OF YOUR BODY IS CARBON.

May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.

6. WE DISCOVERED TWO NEW FORMS OF IT ONLY RECENTLY.

Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

7. DIAMONDS AREN'T CALLED "ICE" BECAUSE OF THEIR APPEARANCE.

Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.

8. IT HELPS US DETERMINE THE AGE OF ARTIFACTS—AND PROVE SOME OF THEM FAKE.

American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.

9. TOO MUCH OF IT IS CHANGING OUR WORLD.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Nicole Garner
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History
How One Widow's Grief Turned a Small Town Into a Roadside Attraction
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Nicole Garner

Like many small towns, the southwest Missouri town of Nevada (pronounced not as the state, but as Nev-AY-duh) loves to tell tales. Incorporated in 1855, the 8000-person city was once a railroad hub and a former home to the outlaw Frank James, the elder brother of the more infamous Jesse James. But the one story Nevada residents love to tell above all others isn't about anyone famous. It's about an atypical above-ground grave in the town's oldest cemetery, the man who's interred there, and how he can't get any rest.

Scan of the Nevada Daily Mail from March 4, 1897.
Nevada Daily Mail; March 4, 1897.
Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

On March 4, 1897, the body of a young man was found near Nevada, Missouri, apparently struck by lightning. The local newspaper, the Nevada Daily Mail, printed the story of his death that evening right next to the news that William McKinley had been sworn in as president that day; a bold-faced headline declared "Death Came Without Warning," and noted “His Clothing Torn From His Body." A reporter at the scene described how the body, which was found around 11 a.m., was unrecognizable at first. Eventually the young man's father identified him as Frederick Alonzo "Lon" Dorsa, and the coroner determined that an umbrella was the cause of Lon's electrocution.

Lon left behind a widow whose name was never mentioned in newspapers; to this day, other printed versions of the Dorsas' story omit her identity. But she had a name—Neva Dorsa—and her grief led her to commission a singularly peculiar grave for her husband—one that would open her up to years worth of ridicule and also make their small town a roadside attraction.

A funeral announcement in the Daily Mail noted that undertakers had prepared Lon's body in a "neat casket" before a funeral service set for March 7. A follow-up article the next day read that Lon's funeral was widely attended, with a large procession to the cemetery and burial with military honors. His widow—whose name was determined from a marriage license filed at the Vernon County courthouse showing that Lon married a Neva Gibson on February 12, 1895—had gone from a newlywed to a single mother in just two years.

But, Lon's first interment was temporary. Neva had arranged a grand resting place for her husband, which wasn't ready in the short time between his death and the funeral. Modern newspaper retellings of Lon and Neva's tale say she ordered a large, above-ground enclosure from the Brophy Monument Company in Nevada. A large piece of stone—some accounts say marble while others suggest limestone or granite—was shipped in via railroad car. When it arrived, the stone was too heavy to move, so a local stonecutter spent more than a month chiseling away before the piece was light enough to be pulled away by horses. A wire story described the stone tomb as being "12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet high. Its weight at completion was 11,000 pounds."

Before Lon’s body was placed inside, Neva made a few key additions—specifically a hidden pane of glass that let her view her husband:

"A piece of stone, covered to represent a bible [sic], is the covering of the aperture. It can be lifted easily by the widow's hand and when Mrs. Dorsa's grief becomes unusually poignant, she goes to the cemetery and gazes for hours at a time upon the face of her dead husband."

The Daily Mail covered the second tomb's installation with morbid attention to detail on May 6, 1897, precisely two months after Lon was initially buried:

"When the grave was opened this morning the coffin looked as bright and new as when buried but it had water in it which had at one time nearly submerged the body. The remains looked perfectly natural and there were no evidences of decomposition having sat in—no odor whatover [sic]. A little mould [sic] had gathered about the roots of his hair and on the neck, otherwise the body looked as fresh as when buried."

The newspaper called the tomb a "stone sarcophagus" and noted that Neva was there to examine her husband's corpse and watch the reburial of his remains. There was likely no inkling from those present, or the community who read about it in that evening's paper, that Neva had designed the tomb with unexpected and usual features, like the pivoting stone Bible that would reveal Lon's face below when unlocked and moved.

Instead, the newspaper suggested that the "costly mousoleum [sic] provided for the reception of his remains is the tribute of her affection."

Lon Dorsa's grave.
Lon Dorsa's grave at Deepwood Cemetery in Nevada, Missouri.
Nicole Garner

Following Lon's re-interment, Neva managed her grief by visiting her deceased husband regularly. Her home was near his grave—the 1900 U.S. Census listed her as a 25-year-old widow living on south Washington Street in Nevada, the same street as the cemetery—and three years after her husband's death, she was employed as a dressmaker, working year-round to provide for their young children, Beatrice and Fred.

By 1905, a new wave of public scrutiny hit the Dorsa (sometimes spelled Dorsey) family when the details of Neva's specially designed, above-ground grave began circulating. It's not clear who reported the story first, but the Topeka Daily Capital, published across the Kansas border 150 miles from Nevada, published a piece, which eventually spread to The St. Louis Republic. Early that spring, the same story was printed in the Pittsburgh Press, a Chicago church publication called The Advance, and in the summer of 1906, a description of Lon Dorsa's crypt had made it nearly 1000 miles to the front page of the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator in Staunton, Virginia:

"The strangest tomb in America, if not in the world, is that which rest the remains of Lon Dorsa in Deepwood cemetery, Nevada, Mo. It is so constructed that the widow can look upon her deceased husband at will, by the turning of a key in a lock which holds a stone Bible just above the remains."

Articles at the time noted that Lon's remains were in an airtight tomb and that scientists supposedly told Mrs. Dorsa that her husband's body would be well-preserved in those conditions, but decomposition had already taken place: "It [the body] has turned almost black, but the general outline of the features remains unchanged."

According to a 1997 walking tour pamphlet of Deepwood Cemetery, it wasn't long before community members caught on that Neva visited the cemetery all too often: "Fascinated children hung about to watch the lady arrive in her buggy. If she saw them, she'd go after them with a whip, shrieking like a madwoman …" the guide stated. Eventually, "her family had the pivot removed and the Bible cemented down."

Local lore suggests that the publicity and Lon's deterioration drove Neva to insanity. Some say she ended up in an asylum and died soon after—a fairly believable tale, considering Nevada was home to one of the state's hospitals for mental illness. However, a list of Deepwood Cemetery lot owners, found at the Vernon County Historical Society, doesn't have a burial space for Neva.

A more likely explanation—based on a listing on Find a Grave, a website that indexes cemeteries and headstones, and which matches Neva's personal information—suggests she simply remarried and moved to California. The California Death Index, 1945-1997, shows that a Neva (Gibson) Simpson died Dec. 30, 1945 in Los Angeles. The birth date and place match those of Neva (Gibson) Dorsa.

Newspaper clipping featuring a picture of a skull.
Nevada Daily Mail, Nov. 30, 1987. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
State Historical Society of Missouri

Wherever Neva ended up, Lon's body didn't exactly rest in peace. In July 1986, vandals broke into the town's most famous tomb and stole his head. It was recovered the following year in a Nevada home, but law enforcement and cemetery caretakers noted that the stone Bible, which had been cemented down for some time, was periodically ripped off the tomb.

Talbot Wight, the Deepwood Cemetery Board’s president at the time, told the Daily Mail in 1987 that Lon's hair, skin, and clothing were well preserved until vandals broke the encasing glass. "Evidently, he was still in pretty good shape until July," Wight said.

But when Lon's skull was photographed for the newspaper's front page, it featured no hair or skin, both of which likely decomposed quickly after being stolen if not before. The skull was buried in an undisclosed location away from the body so as to not tempt new grave robbers, and the tomb was re-sealed with marble in an attempt to prevent further damage.

Still, the story of Neva Dorsa and her husband’s remains hasn't died away. It circulates through southwestern Missouri, drawing visitors to Deepwood Cemetery to gaze at the stone plot—just not in the same way Neva had intended.

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