‘Lost’ Galapagos Tortoise Species Could Make a Comeback

Score one for the giant tortoise: The descendants of one thought-to-be extinct species have apparently been chilling on the side of a volcano, eating grass for the last few hundred years. Scientists say breeding these animals could bring the species back from the brink. A report on the tortoise surprise was published on the preprint server bioRxiv.

Once upon a time, the Galapagos archipelago was a veritable paradise for 15 different species of giant tortoise. Then, humans showed up and the lumbering slowpokes began to disappear with alarming speed. Three centuries of human depredation wiped out 90 percent of the islands’ tortoises. Four entire species, including Floreana (Chelonoidis elephantopus) and Pinta (C. abingdoni) tortoises, completely disappeared. Or so we thought.

Then in 2008, DNA tests revealed that 105 of the tortoises living on Floreana Island had some C. elephantopus blood in their veins, mingled with ancestry from another species on the island. None of the tortoises were purebred, but scientists’ curiosity was piqued.

Seven years later, a team of 70 field researchers set out to see if they could find more. And there, on the grassy side of a volcano, they did: 144 tortoises with C. elephantopus’s distinctive saddle-shaped shell.

Blood tests from the volcano dwellers and six tortoises already in the islands’ captive breeding program revealed a rich field of Floreana tortoise DNA. Most of the samples included some of the thought-extinct species’ DNA, and two individuals appeared to be 100 percent, uncut C. elephantopus.

The researchers collected 23 of the tortoises, including the two apparent purebreds, and added them to the captive breeding program—after checking to make sure none of them were related. A few generations of baby tortoises would be enough to bring the species back.

Craig Stanford is a tortoise and turtle expert at the International Union for Conservation of Nature. He was not involved with the research but expressed excitement about the possibility of bringing Floreana tortoises back.

“We have the opportunity to restore a critically rare and biologically remarkable species to its natural habitat, which is an amazing chance that doesn’t come along very often,” he told New Scientist. “I’m cautiously optimistic about the odds of success.”

The paper’s authors note that the rogue population on the volcano’s slopes may be the result of the same human interference that obliterated the rest of the species. “Ironically, it was the haphazard translocations by mariners killing tortoises for food centuries ago that created the unique opportunity to revive this ‘lost’ species today.”

[h/t New Scientist]

How Did 6 Feet Become the Standard Grave Depth?

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iStock

It all started with the plague: The origins of “six feet under” come from a 1665 outbreak in England. As the disease swept the country, the mayor of London literally laid down the law about how to deal with the bodies to avoid further infections. Among his specifications—made in “Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, Concerning the Infection of the Plague”—was that “all the graves shall be at least six feet deep.”

The law eventually fell out of favor both in England and its colonies. Modern American burial laws vary from state to state, though many states simply require a minimum of 18 inches of soil on top of the casket or burial vault (or two feet of soil if the body is not enclosed in anything). Given an 18-inch dirt buffer and the height of the average casket (which appears to be approximately 30 inches), a grave as shallow as four feet would be fine.

A typical modern burial involves a body pumped full of chemical preservatives sealed inside a sturdy metal casket, which is itself sealed inside a steel or cement burial vault. It’s less of a hospitable environment for microbes than the grave used to be. For untypical burials, though—where the body isn’t embalmed, a vault isn’t used, or the casket is wood instead of metal or is foregone entirely—even these less strict burial standards provide a measure of safety and comfort. Without any protection, and subjected to a few years of soil erosion, the bones of the dearly departed could inconveniently and unexpectedly surface or get too close to the living, scaring people and acting as disease vectors. The minimum depth helps keep the dead down where they belong.

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This article originally appeared in 2012.

One Good Reason Not to Hold in a Fart: It Could Leak Out of Your Mouth

iStock/grinvalds
iStock/grinvalds

The next time you hold in a fart for fear of being heard by polite company, just remember this: It could leak out of your mouth instead of your butt. Writing on The Conversation, University of Newcastle nutrition and dietetics professor Clare Collins explains that pent-up gas can pass through your gut wall and get reabsorbed into your circulation. It's then released when you exhale, whether you like it or not.

“Holding on too long means the build up of intestinal gas will eventually escape via an uncontrollable fart,” Collins writes. In this case, the fart comes out of the wrong end. Talk about potty mouth.

A few brave scientists have investigated the phenomenon of flatulence. In one study, 10 healthy volunteers were fed half a can of baked beans in addition to their regular diets and given a rectal catheter to measure their farts over a 24-hour period. Although it was a small sample, the results were still telling. Men and women let loose the same amount of gas, and the average number of “flatus episodes” (a single fart, or series of farts) during that period was eight. Another study of 10 people found that high-fiber diets led to fewer but bigger farts, and a third study found that gases containing sulphur are the culprit of the world’s stinkiest farts. Two judges were tapped to rate the odor intensity of each toot, and we can only hope that they made it out alive.

Scientific literature also seems to support Collins’s advice to “let it go.” A 2010 paper on “Methane and the gastrointestinal tract” says methane, hydrogen sulfide, and other gases that are produced in the intestinal tract are mostly eliminated from the body via the anus or “expelled from the lungs.” Holding it in can lead to belching, flatulence, bloating, and pain. And in some severe cases, pouches can form along the wall of the colon and get infected, causing diverticulitis.

So go ahead and let it rip, just like nature intended—but maybe try to find an empty room first.

[h/t CBS Philadelphia]

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