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Do Lemmings Really Run Off Cliffs to Their Death?

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Animals are rarely known for their suicidal tendencies. Perhaps because when your daily thought pattern is limited to eat-sleep-defecate, there's no time for existential exegesis or contemplating the futility of life. That is, except for the lemming—a small, furry, gerbil-like rodent that has come to be defined by its alleged tendency to mindlessly kill itself by jumping off of cliffs. However, the long-lived myth actually has its roots in Hollywood trickery.

Populations of lemmings fluctuate dramatically, from massive herds to near extinction. For years, theories on these populace peaks and plummets varied from the supernatural to the absurd. As reported by ABC News in 2004:

"In the 1530s, the geographer Zeigler of Strasbourg, tried to explain these variations in populations by saying that lemmings fell out of the sky in stormy weather, and then suffered mass extinctions with the sprouting of the grasses of spring. Back in the 19th century, the Naturalist Edward Nelson wrote that 'the Norton Sound Eskimo have an odd superstition that the White Lemming lives in the land beyond the stars and that it sometimes comes down to the earth, descending in a spiral course during snow-storms.'"

That was before the modern meaning gained traction: That populations tumbled because packs of lemmings would occasionally run head-first off of cliffs, plunging to their self-induced death for no apparent reason. To refer to an individual as a lemming thus became synonymous with calling them a follower of a large group--a community on an unthinking course towards mass destruction.

However, this does a disservice to these cuddly hamster-lookalikes.

It turns out that there is no proof that an assemblage of wild lemmings would actually drive themselves off of a cliff at all, but rather the myth was perpetuated by a 1958 Disney documentary called White Wilderness, in which the filmmakers manually ran a pack of lemmings off of a cliff to make for good television. The staged suicide turned out to be a critical success, as the movie went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. See a clip of the film below.

During the cliff-diving sequence, the pocket-sized creatures cascade into thin air, tumbling backward and flailing their Lilliputian limbs a la Mufasa in The Lion King, before they land with a distinctive splash in the Arctic Sea. The survivers then swim deeper into the vast body of water, where the narrator speculates they will soon drown.

Since White Wilderness, this erroneous misnomer has finagled its way into the present-day lexicon, including being referenced in a 2008 US Senate campaign ad, as well as a song by Blink-182.

While a definitive explanation for the waxing and waning lemming communities remains unknown, recent speculation suggests their explosive annihilation can be attributed to the variety of predators they attract, including the stoat—a short-tailed weasel that's even capable of hunting lemmings beneath winter snow beds.

As the narrator of the documentary, Winston Hibler, suggests: "In this land of many mysteries, it's a strange fact that the largest legends seem to collect around the smallest creatures."

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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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