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Britain’s “Big Cat” Conundrum

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Thinking of the wild English countryside might conjure up images of manor houses, green fields, and secret gardens; lions, tigers, and bears are from a different kind of story—but that's not actually so, according to a recent discovery by a team of researchers. The team analyzed the skeleton and mounted skin of a previously unidentified animal in the basement of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and have found it to be a Canadian lynx, a cousin to housecats and cheetahs and tigers—oh my.

A previous curator of the Bristol Museum had mislabeled the specimen as a Eurasian lynx, a close-but-not-quite-right identifier for the species of “big cat.” The records also indicated that the museum had acquired the animal’s body in the early 1900s, after a Devonshire landowner shot the creature for having killed two of his dogs—a surprisingly domestic end for an animal more likely to be found roaming in dense forests under the cover of deep snow.

The Canadian lynx obviously isn’t a species native to Britain, so how did it get there if not by boat or plane? British big cats are something of an anomaly to begin with: Reports come in every so often of one having been sighted in the wild, despite the impossibility of any natural animal migration to the island, but the Bristol Museum’s long-dead specimen is one of the only definitive cases subjected to scientific scrutiny. One hypothesis traces the surge in non-native species like various big cats to the time of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976, passed when the worrying trend of imported exotic pets threatened to infringe on public safety. That is, traveling by boat or plane may be exactly how Canadian lynxes got to England. Spooked by the threat of regulation and hefty fines, owners then irresponsibly released foreign creatures into the British wild.

The museum’s lynx acquisition, however, dates from 1903—proof that big cats have roamed English soil for over a century, long before the 1976 law might have convinced tiger-owners to set their pets free. The origins of Britain’s big cats, and Bristol’s one Canadian lynx, remain a mystery.

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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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