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How Giraffes Helped Human Space Travel

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Should human space-travelers ever execute the long-awaited trek to Mars or another distant planet, they'll have baby giraffes to at least partially thank for their voyage.

Extraterrestrial weightlessness—the sensation of floating through space within the confines of one's craft—is both a blessing and a curse for astronauts during long missions, as Canada's Chris Hadfield says in this Youtube video. Hadfield notes that “bodies are designed to work with gravity. The blood is pushed to your feet and your heart squeezes it to your head, and if you take away gravity, your heart's gonna keep squeezing the blood up to your head ... but gravity doesn't push your blood down to your feet anymore, so your head's gonna inflate!”

Additionally, because the blood vessels in an astronaut's lower body aren't used to the same extent as they are on Earth, they gradually lose tone and start growing thinner. Upon re-entry to our planet's atmosphere, this becomes problematic, since the increased gravity rapidly fills the legs and ankles with blood, which results in fainting and dizzy spells.

Though one doesn't generally associate space travelers with fetal giraffes, the two demographics are faced with one remarkably-similar challenge: the rapid transition from a weightless environment to one of significantly greater gravitational pull.

In the 1980s, physiologist Alan Hargens and his colleagues at NASA noted that, shortly after birth, the blood vessels in young giraffes' legs quickly thicken, often enabling them to walk within their first hour of life outside of the womb.

This discovery helped improve the effectiveness of an invention known as the Lower Body Negative Pressure Device (LBNP), which works like an everyday vacuum cleaner to “apply negative pressure over the lower body.” This, in turn, simulates earth-like conditions and prevents homecoming astronauts from blacking out.

But infant giraffes don't hold a monopoly on inspiring NASA technology. As Wisconsin zoologist Neil Anderson explains below, their adult counterparts inspired several aspects of modern space suits:

For a much more technical account, check this out!

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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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