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What Is the Longest River in the World?

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The answer to the question “What’s the longest river in the world?” might sound simple—find the source, the mouth, and measure—but in between those steps are strange definitions, fractals, hydrology, and especially national pride. It’s an issue so complicated that several hydrologists contacted by Mental Floss explained that river length isn't even considered a useful measure anymore. So, what is the longest river in the world?

HOW LONG IS A RIVER?

According to Laurel Larsen, assistant professor at the University of California Berkeley’s geography department, “The length of a particular river is the longest possible along-thalweg continuous distance from the headwaters (1st order stream) to the mouth of a river.”

To unpack those terms, the thalweg is “the line connecting the lowest or deepest points along a stream bed or valley.” First order stream is more complicated. There are two major ways to classify stream order, but the most common is the Strahler method. In this method, streams without any tributaries entering—streams that are just starting out the river—are first order. When two first order streams join together they form a second order stream, and when two second order streams join they form a third order (but if a first order stream intersects with a second order, the main river stays a second order stream).

The source of a river then is considered to be the furthest distance to the source of a stream that has no inputs—although, in practice, this can be extremely difficult to determine. And it's not a perfect system. (For historical reasons, the source of the Mississippi is often treated separately from the Missouri, despite the conventional definition grouping them into one river system.)

As for the mouth? That’s also contentious. For some rivers, the mouth is relatively simple to determine. But for large rivers entering the ocean, like the Amazon, where the mouth is placed can make all the difference.

ARE WE GOING TO ANSWER THE QUESTION?

The longest river has generally been the Nile, with the Amazon coming in second. But in 2007 Brazilian scientists announced that a new analysis put the Amazon on top. They got this by identifying a new source, but more importantly a new mouth. Traditionally, the mouth of the Amazon has been located on the north side of Marajó Island. But this new report wrapped the river around the south side of the island to the Pará River and then out into the ocean.

What side of an island the mouth is on might not seem relevant, but Marajó Island is the size of Switzerland. The new source plus the new mouth gave a distance longer than the Nile.

This was controversial. The Pará River is usually associated with the Tocantins River, not the Amazon. And more recent studies have tended to agree that, although there is some Amazon water in it, the Pará is distinct from the Amazon. Which means that the current best guess for the longest river in the world is still the Nile.

But there’s another, more fundamental issue with measuring a river: What does length even mean?

SO WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

The early 20th century mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson made the observation that Spain and Portugal disagreed on their border length. Spain said it was 987 km and Portugal maintained it was 1214 km. The disagreement wasn’t down to disputed territories or anything like that; Richardson explained that it was the length of the measuring stick. As the measuring stick gets smaller, it’s able to more accurately capture the curves and nuances of bends and curves in complex borders.

The same trick appears with rivers. Rivers meander and have small curves. And if you zoom in further, more little bends and twists might appear in the thalweg.

It’s called the coastline paradox—the length of something complex is basically impossible to determine because the length keeps increasing the smaller the measurement goes.

For both this reason and the inherent difficulties of determining length, several researchers have told Mental Floss that river length just isn’t something that particularly matters, and what is really important is drainage area, which is the area of land that contributes water to the river. Unlike river length, a few elevation measurements make this a much easier metric to calculate. And according to an article in Nature, using this metric, the Amazon is dramatically the largest river in the world, with a drainage area of 6.3 million square kilometers. If it were a country, the drainage basin would be the seventh largest in the world just behind Australia.

The Nile falls down to fifth, behind the Congo, the Mississippi, and the Ob. So in the measurement that matters to hydrologists today, the Amazon wins it.

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
Do Bacteria Have Bacteria?
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Drew Smith:

Do bacteria have bacteria? Yes.

We know that bacteria range in size from 0.2 micrometers to nearly one millimeter. That’s more than a thousand-fold difference, easily enough to accommodate a small bacterium inside a larger one.

Nothing forbids bacteria from invading other bacteria, and in biology, that which is not forbidden is inevitable.

We have at least one example: Like many mealybugs, Planococcus citri has a bacterial endosymbiont, in this case the β-proteobacterium Tremblaya princeps. And this endosymbiont in turn has the γ-proteobacterium Moranella endobia living inside it. See for yourself:

Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization confirming that intrabacterial symbionts reside inside Tremblaya cells in (A) M. hirsutus and (B) P. marginatus mealybugs. Tremblaya cells are in green, and γ-proteobacterial symbionts are in red. (Scale bar: 10 μm.)
Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization confirming that intrabacterial symbionts reside inside Tremblaya cells in (A) M. hirsutus and (B) P. marginatus mealybugs. Tremblaya cells are in green, and γ-proteobacterial symbionts are in red. (Scale bar: 10 μm.)

I don’t know of examples of free-living bacteria hosting other bacteria within them, but that reflects either my ignorance or the likelihood that we haven’t looked hard enough for them. I’m sure they are out there.

Most (not all) scientists studying the origin of eukaryotic cells believe that they are descended from Archaea.

All scientists accept that the mitochondria which live inside eukaryotic cells are descendants of invasive alpha-proteobacteria. What’s not clear is whether archeal cells became eukaryotic in nature—that is, acquired internal membranes and transport systems—before or after acquiring mitochondria. The two scenarios can be sketched out like this:


The two hypotheses on the origin of eukaryotes:

(A) Archaezoan hypothesis.

(B) Symbiotic hypothesis.

The shapes within the eukaryotic cell denote the nucleus, the endomembrane system, and the cytoskeleton. The irregular gray shape denotes a putative wall-less archaeon that could have been the host of the alpha-proteobacterial endosymbiont, whereas the oblong red shape denotes a typical archaeon with a cell wall. A: archaea; B: bacteria; E: eukaryote; LUCA: last universal common ancestor of cellular life forms; LECA: last eukaryotic common ancestor; E-arch: putative archaezoan (primitive amitochondrial eukaryote); E-mit: primitive mitochondrial eukaryote; alpha:alpha-proteobacterium, ancestor of the mitochondrion.

The Archaezoan hypothesis has been given a bit of a boost by the discovery of Lokiarcheota. This complex Archaean has genes for phagocytosis, intracellular membrane formation and intracellular transport and signaling—hallmark activities of eukaryotic cells. The Lokiarcheotan genes are clearly related to eukaryotic genes, indicating a common origin.

Bacteria-within-bacteria is not only not a crazy idea, it probably accounts for the origin of Eucarya, and thus our own species.

We don’t know how common this arrangement is—we mostly study bacteria these days by sequencing their DNA. This is great for detecting uncultivatable species (which are 99 percent of them), but doesn’t tell us whether they are free-living or are some kind of symbiont. For that, someone would have to spend a lot of time prepping environmental samples for close examination by microscopic methods, a tedious project indeed. But one well worth doing, as it may shed more light on the history of life—which is often a history of conflict turned to cooperation. That’s a story which never gets old or stale.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats 'Blep'?
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As pet owners are well aware, cats are inscrutable creatures. They hiss at bare walls. They invite petting and then answer with scratching ingratitude. Their eyes are wandering globes of murky motivations.

Sometimes, you may catch your cat staring off into the abyss with his or her tongue lolling out of their mouth. This cartoonish expression, which is atypical of a cat’s normally regal air, has been identified as a “blep” by internet cat photo connoisseurs. An example:

Cunning as they are, cats probably don’t have the self-awareness to realize how charming this is. So why do cats really blep?

In a piece for Inverse, cat consultant Amy Shojai expressed the belief that a blep could be associated with the Flehmen response, which describes the act of a cat “smelling” their environment with their tongue. As a cat pants with his or her mouth open, pheromones are collected and passed along to the vomeronasal organ on the roof of their mouth. This typically happens when cats want to learn more about other cats or intriguing scents, like your dirty socks.

While the Flehmen response might precede a blep, it is not precisely a blep. That involves the cat’s mouth being closed while the tongue hangs out listlessly.

Ingrid Johnson, a certified cat behavior consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the owner of Fundamentally Feline, tells Mental Floss that cat bleps may have several other plausible explanations. “It’s likely they don’t feel it or even realize they’re doing it,” she says. “One reason for that might be that they’re on medication that causes relaxation. Something for anxiety or stress or a muscle relaxer would do it.”

A photo of a cat sticking its tongue out
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If the cat isn’t sedated and unfurling their tongue because they’re high, then it’s possible that an anatomic cause is behind a blep: Johnson says she’s seen several cats display their tongues after having teeth extracted for health reasons. “Canine teeth help keep the tongue in place, so this would be a more common behavior for cats missing teeth, particularly on the bottom.”

A blep might even be breed-specific. Persians, which have been bred to have flat faces, might dangle their tongues because they lack the real estate to store it. “I see it a lot with Persians because there’s just no room to tuck it back in,” Johnson says. A cat may also simply have a Gene Simmons-sized tongue that gets caught on their incisors during a grooming session, leading to repeated bleps.

Whatever the origin, bleps are generally no cause for concern unless they’re doing it on a regular basis. That could be sign of an oral problem with their gums or teeth, prompting an evaluation by a veterinarian. Otherwise, a blep can either be admired—or retracted with a gentle prod of the tongue (provided your cat puts up with that kind of nonsense). “They might put up with touching their tongue, or they may bite or swipe at you,” Johnson says. “It depends on the temperament of the cat.” Considering the possible wrath involved, it may be best to let them blep in peace.

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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