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That Other Time Someone Tried to Get the British to Eat Horses

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If you haven’t heard by now, there’s an ongoing problem in the UK and continental Europe where food products labeled as containing beef actually turn out to have surprise horse meat in them. If history had played out a little differently, this wouldn’t be a scandal, and Brits eating horse meat would be about as newsworthy as Americans eating cheeseburgers. 

In the mid-1800s, a guy named Algernon Sidney Bicknell started a group called the Society for the Propagation of Horse Flesh as an Article of Food. The name should leave little doubt as to what their goal was. In 1868, Bicknell and the Society hosted a banquet at a London hotel where 150 guests were served horse soups, horse sausages, horse steaks, horse roasts, and almost anything else the cooks could think to make from horse. Not long after that, Bicknell released his manifesto, Hippophagy: the Horse as Food for Man, and outlined what he saw as horse meat’s economic, cultural, nutritional and gastronomical benefits.

Bicknell and his horse sausages probably couldn’t have come on to the scene at a more perfect time. According to historian Chris Otter, in a paper on Bicknell’s “dietary revolution,” England was in the throes of a meat famine. Demand was rising, and so were prices, but the domestic supply couldn’t keep up and the international supply chains were weakened by breakouts of livestock disease in mainland Europe, and primitive refrigeration technology. If you wanted meat, Bicknell reasoned, horse was about to become the best, and maybe only, game in town.

Still, Bicknell’s crusade pretty much crashed and burned. Butchers didn’t get on board with selling horse and the people didn’t get on board with eating it. Across the English Channel, though, things shook out a little differently. 

Cheval Délicieuse

Just a few years before Bicknell’s banquet, an old ban on consuming horse meat was lifted in France, and French scientists started their own hippophagy movement. The anatomist Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and veterinarian Emile Decroix made many arguments for horse consumption that echoed Bicknell: horse meat was healthy and French meat consumption was too low, it was moral to not let animals die in vain and economically sound to use what meat was available. 

Their arguments began getting press in the country’s science and medical journals and then in the mainstream newspapers, gaining support among social reformers as a cheap way of feeding France’s urban poor. With all the attention, backlash soon followed. Some Catholics objected based on a religious taboo and an old Papal decree against horse consumption. Others made the “slippery slope” argument that if horse meat caught on, the French would soon be eating dogs, rats, and any other animal they could get their hands on. 

Despite the opposition, the sale of horse meat was legalized by the summer of 1866 and a horse meat stall was authorized in a Paris market. Within a few years, there were 23 horse butcher shops in the city alone, and business was brisk. In 1874, the economist Armand Husson suggested that this horse meat boom relied on a few factors: the high price of other meats, the falling threshold of disgust with horse and the support of scientific expertise.

Back in Britain...

Bicknell had some of that going for him in England—he touted horse meat’s cost effectiveness, and backed up his nutritional claims with scientific evidence—but just couldn’t gain a foothold. Decroix even offered 1100 francs and a medal to whoever could open the first horse butchery stall in London, and the prize was never claimed. Just a decade later, all the effort would be unnecessary. The birth of refrigerated ships made it easier to import “regular” meats to the British Isles, and turning to horses no longer had to be contemplated.

Why did Bicknell fail where the French hippophagists succeeded, sending the two countries on diverging dietary paths? Both the British and French had religious/cultural objections to eating horse, and in both countries the horse had a central role in the agrarian and early industrial economy as a source of transportation and power, worth more in the field than on a plate. The difference, Otter argues, was that France’s scientific and medical elite and its adventurous butchers and chefs supported horse meat and convinced the public to make it part of their diet. 

These factors, he writes, made horsemeat “available and tolerable, which consequently altered equine economics, making the sale of old horses for meat more profitable…relatively tight links between scientific expertise, butchery and popular taste allowed hippophagy to gain economic and cultural momentum in France, meaning that the taboo on horsemeat was partially shattered.”

The British hippophagy movement didn’t enjoy the same high-profile support from laboratories and kitchens, and Bicknell and his Society alone weren’t enough to turn the average diner on to horse, even if they made the same case that the French did. Otter also suggests some “dietary nationalism” was involved too. The British might have rejected hippophagy, in part, because the French (historically, not their best pals) embraced it. 

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DNA Analysis of Loch Ness Could Reveal the Lake's Hidden Creatures
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Stakeouts, sonar studies, and a 24-hour video feed have all been set up in an effort to confirm the existence of the legendary Loch Ness Monster. Now, the Associated Press reports that an international team of scientists will use DNA analysis to learn what's really hiding in the depths of Scotland's most mysterious landmark.

The team, led by Neil Gemmell, who researches evolutionary genetics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, will collect 300 water samples from various locations and depths around the lake. The waters are filled with microscopic DNA fragments animals leave behind as they swim, mate, eat, poop, and die in the waters, and if Nessie is a resident, she's sure to leave bits of herself floating around as well.

After extracting the DNA from the organic material found in the water samples, the scientists plan to sequence it. The results will then be compared to the DNA profiles of known species. If there's evidence of an animal that's not normally found in the lake, or an entirely new species, the researchers will hopefully spot it.

Gemmell is a Nessie skeptic, and he says the point of the project isn't necessarily to discover new species. Rather, he wants to create a genetic profile of the lake while generating some buzz around the science behind it.

If the study goes according to plan, the database of Loch Ness's inhabitants should be complete by 2019. And though the results likely won't include a long-extinct plesiosaur, they may offer insights about other invasive species that now call the lake home.

[h/t AP]

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10 Biting Facts About Snapping Turtles
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Here in the Americas, lake monster legends are a dime a dozen. More than a few of them were probably inspired by these ancient-looking creatures. In honor of World Turtle Day, here are 10 things you might not have known about snapping turtles.

1. THE COMMON SNAPPING TURTLE IS NEW YORK'S OFFICIAL STATE REPTILE.

Elementary school students voted to appoint Chelydra serpentina in a 2006 statewide election. Weighing as much as 75 pounds in the wild (and 86 in captivity), this hefty omnivore’s natural range stretches from Saskatchewan to Florida.

2. ALLIGATOR SNAPPING TURTLES CAN BE LARGE. (VERY LARGE.)

An alligator snapping turtle
NorbertNagel, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Utterly dwarfing their more abundant cousin, alligator snappers (genus: Macrochelys) are the western hemisphere’s biggest freshwater turtles. The largest one on record, a longtime occupant of Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, weighed 249 pounds.  

A monstrous 403-pounder was reported in Kansas during the Great Depression, though this claim was never confirmed.  

3. COMMON SNAPPERS HAVE LONGER NECKS AND SPIKIER TAILS.

Alligator snappers also display proportionately bigger heads and noses plus a trio of tall ridges atop their shells. Geographically, alligator snapping turtles are somewhat restricted compared to their common relatives, and are limited mainly to the southeast and Great Plains.

4. BOTH VARIETIES AVOID CONTACT WITH PEOPLE.

If given the choice between fight and flight, snapping turtles almost always distance themselves from humans. The animals spend the bulk of their lives underwater, steering clear of nearby Homo sapiens. However, problems can arise on dry land, where the reptiles are especially vulnerable. Females haul themselves ashore during nesting season (late spring to early summer). In these delicate months, people tend to prod and handle them, making bites inevitable.

5. YOU REALLY DON'T WANT TO GET BITTEN BY ONE. 

Snapping turtle jaw strength—while nothing to sneeze at—is somewhat overrated. Common snapping turtles can clamp down with up to 656.81 newtons (N) of force, though typical bites register an average of 209 N. Their alligator-like cousins usually exert 158 N. You, on the other hand, can apply 1300 N between your second molars.

Still, power isn’t everything, and neither type of snapper could latch onto something with the crushing force of a crocodile’s mighty jaws. Yet their sharp beaks are well-designed for major-league shearing. An alligator snapping turtle’s beak is capable of slicing fingers clean off and (as the above video proves) obliterating pineapples.

Not impressed yet? Consider the following. It’s often said that an adult Macrochelys can bite a wooden broom handle in half. Intrigued by this claim, biologist Peter Pritchard decided to play MythBuster. In 1989, he prodded a 165-pound individual with a brand new broomstick. Chomp number one went deep, but didn’t quite break through the wood. The second bite, though, finished the job.

6. SCIENTISTS RECENTLY DISCOVERED THAT THERE ARE THREE SPECIES OF ALLIGATOR SNAPPING TURTLES.

A 2014 study trisected the Macrochelys genus. For over a century, naturalists thought that there was just a single species, Macrochelys temminckii. Closer analysis proved otherwise, as strong physical and genetic differences exist between various populations. The newly-christened M. suwanniensis and M. apalachicolae are named after their respective homes—namely, the Suwannee and Apalachicola rivers. Further west, good old M. temminckii swims through the Mobile and the Mississippi.

7. THANKS TO A 19TH CENTURY POLITICAL CARTOON, COMMON SNAPPING TURTLES ARE ALSO KNOWN AS "OGRABMES." 

Snapping turtle cartoon
Urban~commonswiki via Wiki Commons // CC BY PD-US

Drawn by Alexander Anderson, this piece skewers Thomas Jefferson’s signing of the unpopular Embargo Act. At the president’s command, we see a snapping turtle bite some poor merchant’s hind end. Agitated, the victim calls his attacker “ograbme”—“embargo” spelled backwards.

8. ALLIGATOR SNAPPERS ATTRACT FISH WITH AN ORAL LURE …

You can’t beat live bait. Anchored to the Macrochelys tongue is a pinkish, worm-like appendage that fish find irresistible. Preferring to let food come to them, alligator snappers open their mouths and lie in wait at the bottoms of rivers and lakes. Cue the lure. When this protrusion wriggles, hungry fish swim right into the gaping maw and themselves become meals.

9.  … AND THEY FREQUENTLY EAT OTHER TURTLES. 


Complex01, WikimediaCommons

Alligator snappers are anything but picky. Between fishy meals, aquatic plants also factor into their diet, as do frogs, snakes, snails, crayfish, and even relatively large mammals like raccoons and armadillos. Other shelled reptiles are fair game, too: In one Louisiana study, 79.82% of surveyed alligator snappers had turtle remains in their stomachs.

10. YOU SHOULD NEVER PICK A SNAPPER UP BY THE TAIL.

Ideally, you should leave the handling of these guys to trained professionals. But what if you see a big one crossing a busy road and feel like helping it out? Before doing anything else, take a few moments to identify the turtle. If it’s an alligator snapper, you’ll want to grasp the lip of the upper shell (or “carapace”) in two places: right behind the head and right above the tail.

Common snappers demand a bit more finesse (we wouldn’t want one to reach back and nip you with that long, serpentine neck). Slide both hands under the hind end of the shell, letting your turtle’s tail dangle between them. Afterwards, clamp down on the carapace with both thumbs.

Please note that lifting any turtle by the tail can permanently dislocate its vertebrae. Additionally, remember to move the reptile in the same direction that it’s already facing. Otherwise, your rescue will probably turn right back around and try to cross the road again later. 

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