On Sticking Your Arm Into an Underwater Cavern and Hoping a Catfish Bites You

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters/Landov

Lincoln Sadler eyes one of his favorite fishing spots, Great Rock, from a distance, but times his approach around an oncoming boat so as not to reveal the rock’s secret location. He has already hiked two miles in the boiling heat of an August North Carolina day followed by two miles of swimming and wading in the Pee Dee River.

Lincoln can wait a moment longer.

He reaches below the water and extends his arm into a dark cavern under the boulder. Enthusiastically wiggling his fingers in a dark underwater hole, Lincoln hopes a catfish bites him. Once Lincoln’s fingers are in the catfish’s mouth, he jerks the beast to the surface.

Near the Arkansas-Oklahoma border where I’m from, we call this noodling. In the Carolinas, the term is hand grabbling. Either way, it ends in a Greco-Roman grappling match where noodlers across the South, like Lincoln, wrestle very large catfish from their underwater holes. But this fishing story started long before Lincoln Sadler began his pilgrimage to Great Rock that August morning.

In the Beginning

Fifty million years ago, when bats, rodents, and elephants were also getting their start, large catfish species began diverging from their smaller brethren. Today, of the 49 catfish species in North America, 34 would not stretch across a dinner plate. Those 7 species of catfish prized by noodlers are the blue and channel catfish, and the flatheads. The latter can reach lengths of five and half feet. Work by Michael and Lotta Harman suggest these three species originated 35-40 million years after the original split between the large and small catfish, making them among the oldest of living catfishes.

Fast forward 11-15 million years and Lincoln is catching his largest catfish, 60 pounds, at Lost Rock, another of his secret locations on the Pee Dee. Lincoln’s prize catch is just 3.2 ounces light of the record largest catfish taken by Chad Lamb a few years later during the famous Okie Noodling Tournament.

Serving as human bait and wrestling catfish in the murky waters of the South may not seem efficient, but one study found that noodlers in the Tallahatchie River average catches of catfish 2.5 feet in length, nearly double that of traditional anglers. Ironically, if not for Lincoln and other noodlers, large size in catfish would prevent them from becoming dinner for a would-be predator.

In 1973, Jerry T. Krummrich, a masters student at Southern Illinois, investigated this by stocking experimental ponds with channel catfish and their predator, large-mouth bass. Krummrich determined that a channel cat must be 7-8 inches in length to avoid predation. Thus, the 49 species of catfish smaller than this would face tough times in many waters. This may be why the largest species of catfish also have the largest natural geographic ranges. The blue catfish is found from South Dakota to southern Mexico, the channel catfish from Mexico City to Manitoba, and the flathead from Mexico City to Minnesota. Compare this to one of the smallest catfish, the Ozark Matdom, measuring just over 4 inches in length. This catfish is found, as the name would suggest, exclusively in the Ozark Mountains.

There may be another reason why large catfish are geographically dispersed. Large fishes produce large clutches of eggs. While eventually yielding more offspring to geographically scatter, these large egg masses also attract predators. To protect against this, female catfish spawn in sheltered hollows with small entrances. Big underwater hollows with small openings, ideal nurseries for large catfish, are also favored by Lincoln and other noodlers. As with size itself, what would be typically evolutionarily favorable for a large catfish also makes it an easy target for a fish fry by noodlers.

You Are (Smarter Than) What You Eat

A twist of fate also produced another disadvantage for catfish. Along the Pee Dee River, Lincoln has identified a dozen rocks that are ideal for noodling. Among noodlers from the Carolinas to Oklahoma, these spots remain heavily guarded secrets. No flags or markers identify the rocks on the Pee Dee, just names, like Lost Rock and Great Rock, stored in the brains of Lincoln and his cohort.

Our large brains, that very trait that allows assessing habitat preferences for catfish or remembering locations of rocks along a river, require special nutrition. Specifically for our brain development, we need a significant amount of long-chain polyunsaturated lipids. Dr. Leigh Broadhurst does not believe it is coincidence that 3 million years ago our ancient ancestors arose in the East African Rift Valley, an area with many enormous lakes ripe with fish rich in these specific lipids.

David Braun and others found the earliest definitive evidence of this idea, a 1.95 million year old fossil site in East Turkana, Kenya, containing the butchered remains of aquatic animals. Today, fishermen benefit and catfish suffer from our million-year-old affinity for the fish course.

Increased brain size allowed not only for the development of memory and learning, but more complex communication and social interactions — and noodling is not a solitary recreational activity. As Lincoln states, “I never go by myself. Three is a minimum. If I get my arm caught in a hole, I need one person to run for help, and one person to hold my other hand.”

Sometimes, Lincoln’s group can swell to 17 people, including his brother and another Carolina noodling legend, Terry Sharp, who introduced Lincoln to noodling in 1998. Experience and social groups are key for noodlers and fishing success. For a masters thesis, Susan Baker of Mississippi State University surveyed hundreds of anglers throughout the South and found that noodlers formed stronger social connections and possessed more angling experience than traditional anglers.

But a noodler needs more than keen intellect and trustworthy friends. A noodler needs sheer bravado. Lincoln says that only about 1 in 30 men he takes out will stick their whole arm in a dark underwater hole. “They don’t cowboy up and just alligator arm it,” he says. In other words, many are too tentative, reaching in a short distance, their arms mimicking the short, squatty arms of alligators. So perhaps it's not shocking that a study found noodling is tied to masculine identity among Missouri noodlers. If, as Dr. Meghan Provost has shown, fertile women have a strong preference for men who strut in a masculine manner, imagine what landing a 100-pound catfish does for your image.

Is This Legal?

Wrestling a giant catfish to impress your friends, attract females, or simply for a large fish fry is not without controversy. Noodling is legal in just five states. In Texas, noodling is currently illegal but a bill to change this was approved by the Texas senate and house last summer. Why would noodling be illegal compared to other forms of angling? Fisheries and biologists voice concerns about the possible negative impacts on catfish populations, because noodling season in Mississippi specifically coincides with catfish spawning in the summer. Nevertheless, research indicates noodling does not negatively impact catfish populations in Mississippi or in Oklahoma due to limited success of noodlers in muddy waters and rapid currents.

And there's another reason why there may be no impact. Ultimately, few people want to “cowboy up” and shove their hands into the mouths of giant catfish.

Dr. Craig McClain is an expert on the science of body size in animals. His work has been featured in Miller-McCune, Cosmos, Science Illustrated, Wired, io9, and American Scientist. He is currently the assistant director of the National Science Foundation’s National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, North Carolina.

You can find Craig on Twitter @DrCraigMc, blogging at deepseanews.com, or at craigmcclain.com.

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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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iStock
A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo
iStock
iStock

The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

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