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Why Do Whales Beach Themselves?

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Humans have observed marine mammals stranding themselves on land since at least the first century CE, when the ancient Romans and Greeks recorded beaching incidents. Modern marine biologists are only able to determine the cause of a beaching about 50 percent of the time, according to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the reasons they find are varied.

Often the cause is obvious injury or illness. Disease or wounds from predators can leave an animal too weak to keep itself afloat, and at some point it gives up and lets the tides wash it ashore.

Cases where a group of animals beach themselves together, and not all of them exhibit signs of trauma, are more puzzling. One explanation biologists offer is that whales and dolphins, which hunt and travel together in groups called pods, fall victim to their own social structure. If the group leader or dominant animal is sick or hurt and runs ashore, the rest of the group might follow. Other times, the pod may just get itself stuck by a low tide after hunting or traveling too close to shore.

In some instances, mass beachings have occurred shortly after active use of military sonar in an area. In 2000, for example, 17 animals from four species (Cuvier’s beaked whale, Blainville’s beaked whale, Minke whale, and the spotted dolphin) were found beached within a 36 hour period in the Bahamas the day of, and after, a U.S. Navy sonar exercise. A joint Navy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) investigation soon concluded that the tactical mid-range frequency sonars used by the Navy ships “were the most plausible source of the acoustic or impulse trauma” that occured. The evidence suggests that sonar may have both physical and behavioral effects on marine mammals.

Some animals also beach themselves purposefully as a hunting tactic. Killers whales, or orcas, frequently chase pinnipeds, like seals and sea lions, into the surf zone and onto shore, where the prey has to make a clumsy transition from swimming to walking in shallow, turbulent water. As the prey struggles to escape, the orca launches itself, or rides a wave, onto the beach and grabs the prey in its jaws. After the meal is secured, the orca can either wriggle back into deeper water or let a large wave lift it off the ground and back out to sea.

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This Just In
Criminal Gangs Are Smuggling Illegal Rhino Horns as Jewelry
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Valuable jewelry isn't always made from precious metals or gems. Wildlife smugglers in Africa are increasingly evading the law by disguising illegally harvested rhinoceros horns as wearable baubles and trinkets, according to a new study conducted by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

As BBC News reports, TRAFFIC analyzed 456 wildlife seizure records—recorded between 2010 and June 2017—to trace illegal rhino horn trade routes and identify smuggling methods. In a report, the organization noted that criminals have disguised rhino horns in the past using all kinds of creative methods, including covering the parts with aluminum foil, coating them in wax, or smearing them with toothpaste or shampoo to mask the scent of decay. But as recent seizures in South Africa suggest, Chinese trafficking networks within the nation are now concealing the coveted product by shaping horns into beads, disks, bangles, necklaces, and other objects, like bowls and cups. The protrusions are also ground into powder and stored in bags along with horn bits and shavings.

"It's very worrying," Julian Rademeyer, a project leader with TRAFFIC, told BBC News. "Because if someone's walking through the airport wearing a necklace made of rhino horn, who is going to stop them? Police are looking for a piece of horn and whole horns."

Rhino horn is a hot commodity in Asia. The keratin parts have traditionally been ground up and used to make medicines for illnesses like rheumatism or cancer, although there's no scientific evidence that these treatments work. And in recent years, horn objects have become status symbols among wealthy men in countries like Vietnam.

"A large number of people prefer the powder, but there are those who use it for lucky charms,” Melville Saayman, a professor at South Africa's North-West University who studies the rhino horn trade, told ABC News. “So they would like a piece of the horn."

According to TRAFFIC, at least 1249 rhino horns—together weighing more than five tons—were seized globally between 2010 and June 2017. The majority of these rhino horn shipments originated in southern Africa, with the greatest demand coming from Vietnam and China. The product is mostly smuggled by air, but routes change and shift depending on border controls and law enforcement resources.

Conservationists warn that this booming illegal trade has led to a precipitous decline in Africa's rhinoceros population: At least 7100 of the nation's rhinos have been killed over the past decade, according to one estimate, and only around 25,000 remain today. Meanwhile, Save the Rhino International, a UK-based conservation charity, told BBC News that if current poaching trends continue, rhinos could go extinct in the wild within the next 10 years.

[h/t BBC News]

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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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