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Why Is Bird Poop White?

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You, me, cats, dogs, horses, rabbits, deer, elephants and lots of other animals all make brown poop (most of the time, anyway). What makes birds veer from the standard color palette and produce black and white poo?

Birds’ digestive systems and naughty bits don’t work exactly like ours or most other animals'. Instead of pooping and peeing separately, they basically do it all in one weird mess. Their kidneys extract nitrogenous wastes from the bloodstream like other animals’ do, but instead of releasing it as urea dissolved in urine, birds excrete it in the form of uric acid. It comes out as a white sort of goo because of the biochemical reactions that happen to process the waste so it can be safely excreted with minimal water loss.

The way it's excreted is also a little weird compared to the rest of us. Most bird species don’t have “traditional” penises and vaginas (though there are some bizarre exceptions). Instead, both sexes have a cloaca — an all-purpose entrance and exit for the intestinal, reproductive, and urinary tracts. It’s used to expel waste, lay eggs and have sex (which, for birds, happens in the form of a “cloacal kiss”). This orificial multitasking explains the dark bullseye that’s often in the center of the white acid waste. That’s the actual “poop” part, or stool. Because the acid and poop are expelled at the same time from the same opening, but from two different bodily systems, they don’t have much time to blend, and you get a bird dropping with two distinct parts that looks like a poor man’s Rorschach test.

The acidic attributes of bird poop are a detriment to your car’s paint job, but it's highly sought after for what it can do to your face. Maybe not your face, but certain celebrities go nuts for bird poop facials, where Japanese Nightingale poop is mixed with rice bran and water and used to exfoliate the skin.

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Big Questions
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Are the Northern Lights?
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Over the centuries, many have gazed up at one of the Earth’s most fascinatingly beautiful natural wonders: the Northern Lights. In the past couple of weeks, some lucky American stargazers have gotten the chance to see them from their very own backyards—and could again this week, according to Thrillist. But what are they?

Before science was able to get a read on what exactly was happening in the night sky, ancient tribes had their own theories for what caused the jaw-dropping light show. Many early beliefs had roots in religion, such as that the light was a pathway souls traveled to reach heaven (Eskimo tribes) or that the light was an eternal battle of dead warriors (Middle-Age Europe). Early researchers were a bit more reasonable in their approximations, and most surrounded the idea of the reflection of sunlight off the ice caps. In 1619, Galileo Galilei named the lights the aurora borealis after Aurora, the Roman goddess of morning, after concluding they were a product of sunlight reflecting from the atmosphere.

Today, scientists have come to the general agreement that the lights are caused by the collision of electrically charged solar particles and atoms from our atmosphere. The energy from the collisions is released as light, and the reason it happens around the poles is because that's where the Earth’s magnetic field is the strongest. In 2008, a team at UCLA concluded that “when two magnetic field lines come close together due to the storage of energy from the sun, a critical limit is reached and the magnetic field lines reconnect, causing magnetic energy to be transformed into kinetic energy and heat. Energy is released, and the plasma is accelerated, producing accelerated electrons.”

"Our data show clearly and for the first time that magnetic reconnection is the trigger," said Vassilis Angelopoulos, a UCLA professor of Earth and Space Sciences. "Reconnection results in a slingshot acceleration of waves and plasma along magnetic field lines, lighting up the aurora underneath even before the near-Earth space has had a chance to respond. We are providing the evidence that this is happening."

The best time to see the Northern Lights is during the winter, due to the Earth’s position in relation to the sun (shorter days means darker night skies). And by the way, it’s not just the North Pole that puts on a show—there are Southern Lights, too. There are also aurora borealis on other planets—including Mars—so rest assured that future generations born “abroad” will not miss out on this spectacular feat of nature.

Haven’t seen them yet? Traditionally, the best places to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights are in Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, northern Canada, and Alaska. Maybe you'll get lucky this week and sneak a peek from your very own window. Check out Aurorasaurus for regular updates on where they are showing.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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