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

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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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8 of the Weirdest Gallup Polls
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Born in Jefferson, Iowa on November 18, 1901, George Gallup studied journalism and psychology, focusing on how to measure readers’ interest in newspaper and magazine content. In 1935, he founded the American Institute of Public Opinion to scientifically measure public opinions on topics such as government spending, criminal justice, and presidential candidates. Although he died in 1984, The Gallup Poll continues his legacy of trying to determine and report the will of the people in an unbiased, independent way. To celebrate his day of birth, we compiled a list of some of the weirdest, funniest Gallup polls over the years.

1. THREE IN FOUR AMERICANS BELIEVE IN THE PARANORMAL (2005)

According to this Gallup poll, 75 percent of Americans have at least one paranormal belief. Specifically, 41 percent believe in extrasensory perception (ESP), 37 percent believe in haunted houses, and 21 percent believe in witches. What about channeling spirits, you might ask? Only 9 percent of Americans believe that it’s possible to channel a spirit so that it takes temporary control of one's body. Interestingly, believing in paranormal phenomena was relatively similar across people of different genders, races, ages, and education levels.

2. ONE IN FIVE AMERICANS THINK THE SUN REVOLVES AROUND THE EARTH (1999)

In this poll, Gallup tried to determine the popularity of heliocentric versus geocentric views. While 79 percent of Americans correctly stated that the Earth revolves around the sun, 18 percent think the sun revolves around the Earth. Three percent chose to remain indifferent, saying they had no opinion either way.

3. 22 PERCENT OF AMERICANS ARE HESITANT TO SUPPORT A MORMON (2011)

Gallup first measured anti-Mormon sentiment back in 1967, and it was still an issue in 2011, a year before Mormon Mitt Romney ran for president. Approximately 22 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate, even if that candidate belonged to their preferred political party. Strangely, Americans’ bias against Mormons has remained stable since the 1960s, despite decreasing bias against African Americans, Catholics, Jews, and women.

4. MISSISSIPPIANS GO TO CHURCH THE MOST; VERMONTERS THE LEAST (2010)

This 2010 poll amusingly confirms the stereotype that southerners are more religious than the rest of the country. Although 42 percent of all Americans attend church regularly (which Gallup defines as weekly or almost weekly), there are large variations based on geography. For example, 63 percent of people in Mississippi attend church regularly, followed by 58 percent in Alabama and 56 percent in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Utah. Rounding out the lowest levels of church attendance, on the other hand, were Vermont, where 23 percent of residents attend church regularly, New Hampshire, at 26 percent, and Maine at 27 percent.

5. ONE IN FOUR AMERICANS DON’T KNOW WHICH COUNTRY AMERICA GAINED INDEPENDENCE FROM (1999)

Although 76 percent of Americans knew that the United States gained independence from Great Britain as a result of the Revolutionary War, 24 percent weren’t so sure. Two percent thought the correct answer was France, 3 percent said a different country (such as Mexico, China, or Russia), and 19 percent had no opinion. Certain groups of people who consider themselves patriotic, including men, older people, and white people (according to Gallup polls), were more likely to know that America gained its independence from Great Britain.

6. ONE THIRD OF AMERICANS BELIEVE IN GHOSTS (2000)

This Halloween-themed Gallup poll asked Americans about their habits and behavior on the last day of October. Predictably, two-thirds of Americans reported that someone in their house planned to give candy to trick-or-treaters and more than three-quarters of parents with kids reported that their kids would wear a costume. More surprisingly, 31 percent of American adults claimed to believe in ghosts, an increase from 1978, when only 11 percent of American adults admitted to a belief in ghosts.

7. 5 PERCENT OF WORKING MILLENNIALS THRIVE IN ALL FIVE ELEMENTS OF WELL-BEING (2016)

This recent Gallup poll is funny in a sad way, as it sheds light on the tragicomic life of a millennial. In this poll, well-being is defined as having purpose, social support, manageable finances, a strong community, and good physical health. Sadly, only 5 percent of working millennials—defined as people born between 1980 and 1996—were thriving in these five indicators of well-being. To counter this lack of well-being, Gallup’s report recommends that managers promote work-life balance and improve their communication with millennial employees.

8. THE WORLD IS BECOMING SLIGHTLY MORE NEGATIVE (2014)

If you seem to feel more stress, sadness, anxiety, and pain than ever before, Gallup has the proof that it’s not all in your head. According to the company’s worldwide negative experience index, negative feelings such as stress, sadness, and anger have increased since 2007. Unsurprisingly, people living in war-torn, dangerous parts of the word—Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Sierra Leone—reported the highest levels of negative emotions.

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11 Times Mickey Mouse Was Banned
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Despite being one of the world’s most recognizable and beloved characters, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Mickey Mouse, who turns 89 years old today. A number of countries—and even U.S. states—have banned the cartoon rodent at one time or another for reasons both big and small.

1. In 1930, Ohio banned a cartoon called “The Shindig” because Clarabelle Cow was shown reading Three Weeks by Elinor Glyn, the premier romance novelist of the time. Check it out (1:05) and let us know if you’re scandalized:

2. With movies on 10-foot screen being a relatively new thing in Romania in 1935, the government decided to ban Mickey Mouse, concerned that children would be terrified of a monstrous rodent.

3. In 1929, a German censor banned a Mickey Mouse short called “The Barnyard Battle.” The reason? An army of cats wearing pickelhauben, the pointed helmets worn by German military in the 19th and 20th centuries: "The wearing of German military helmets by an army of cats which oppose a militia of mice is offensive to national dignity. Permission to exhibit this production in Germany is refused.”

4. The German dislike for Mickey Mouse continued into the mid-'30s, with one German newspaper wondering why such a small and dirty animal would be idolized by children across the world: "Mickey Mouse is the most miserable ideal ever revealed ... Healthy emotions tell every independent young man and every honorable youth that the dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal.” Mickey was originally banned from Nazi Germany, but eventually the mouse's popularity won out.

5. In 2014, Iran's Organization for Supporting Manufacturers and Consumers announced a ban on school supplies and stationery products featuring “demoralizing images,” including that of Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Sleeping Beauty, and characters from Toy Story.

6. In 1954, East Germany banned Mickey Mouse comics, claiming that Mickey was an “anti-Red rebel.”

7. In 1937, a Mickey Mouse adventure was so similar to real events in Yugoslavia that the comic strip was banned. State police say the comic strip depicted a “Puritan-like revolt” that was a danger to the “Boy King,” Peter II of Yugoslavia, who was just 14 at the time. A journalist who wrote about the ban was consequently escorted out of the country.

8. Though Mussolini banned many cartoons and American influences from Italy in 1938, Mickey Mouse flew under the radar. It’s been said that Mussolini’s children were such Mickey Mouse fans that they were able to convince him to keep the rodent around.

9. Mickey and his friends were banned from the 1988 Seoul Olympics in a roundabout way. As they do with many major sporting events, including the Super Bowl, Disney had contacted American favorites to win in each event to ask them to say the famous “I’m going to Disneyland!” line if they won. When American swimmer Matt Biondi won the 100-meter freestyle, he dutifully complied with the request. After a complaint from the East Germans, the tape was pulled and given to the International Olympic Committee.

10. In 1993, Mickey was banned from a place he shouldn't have been in the first place: Seattle liquor stores. As a wonderful opening sentence from the Associated Press explained, "Mickey Mouse, the Easter Bunny and teddy bears have no business selling booze, the Washington State Liquor Control Board has decided." A handful of stores had painted Mickey and other characters as part of a promotion. A Disney VP said Mickey was "a nondrinker."

11. Let's end with another strike against The Shindig (see #1) and Clarabelle’s bulging udder. Less than a year after the Shindig ban, the Motion Picture Producers and Directors of America announced that they had received a massive number of complaints about the engorged cow udders in various Mickey Mouse cartoons.

From then on, according to a 1931 article in Time magazine, “Cows in Mickey Mouse ... pictures in the future will have small or invisible udders quite unlike the gargantuan organ whose antics of late have shocked some and convulsed others. In a recent picture the udder, besides flying violently to left and right or stretching far out behind when the cow was in motion, heaved with its panting with the cow stood still.”

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