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How Do Whales Hold Their Breath for Such a Long Time?

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By Chris Gayomali

Marine mammals have all kinds of wonderful adaptations to lead a comfortable life underwater, such as flippers and insulating blubber. Whales even have eyes that can see in monochrome, which is especially valuable deep beneath the surface where sunlight is at a premium.

But one of the whales' more fascinating adaptations is their enviable ability to hold their breath underwater for up to an hour at a time. Scientists know it has something to do with their myoglobin, a molecule in the blood that helps the body's muscles retain oxygen. In creatures like cows and humans, myoglobin is known for giving flesh its reddish tinge; seals and whales, on the other hand, have extremely high myoglobin concentrations that make their tissue look black.

Researcher Michael Berenbrink, a zoologist at the University of Liverpool, thought that was peculiar. "At high enough concentrations, [proteins] tend to stick together," Berenbrink tells BBC News. When too many proteins clump together, they become useless—dead weight.

So just how do densely packed myoglobin molecules in aquatic mammals keep from sticking together? BBC News reports:

The team extracted pure myoglobin from the muscles of mammals—from the land-based cow, to the semi-aquatic otter, all the way up elite divers like the sperm whale.

Led by researcher Scott Mirceta, this painstaking examination traced the changes in myoglobin in deep-diving mammals through 200 million years of evolutionary history.

And it revealed that the best mammalian breath-holding divers had evolved a non-stick variety of myoglobin. [BBC News]

The trick, apparently, is that the myoglobin of marine animals is positively charged, like one end of a magnet. Instead of clumping together, the molecules repel one another away, ensuring the blood stays loose and lubricated.

The whale's ability to hold its breath is, in a way, an evolutionary one-two punch: (1) The high concentration of myoglobin allows it to spend more time underwater in between breaths, and (2) the myoglobin's positive charge ensures the proteins don't clump together and kill the animal. Researchers say that mimicking this natural chemistry could have an impact in medical science, particularly in the way we perform human blood transfusions.

Berenbrink and his team even went so far as to reconstruct the myoglobin sequences of the whale's ancestors to pinpoint when the evolutionary adaptation may have occurred. "If you give me a myoglobin sequence, I can tell you if the animal is a good diver or not," says Berenbrink. Nature explains:

Using the reconstructed sequences from different animals to infer the electric charge on their myoglobin, together with information about the animal's body mass, the team was able to determine that an early whale ancestor—the terrestrial, wolf-sized animal Pakicetus—couldn't stay under water for much more than 90 seconds. But the larger, six-ton Basilosaurus, which appeared about 15 million years later than Pakicetus, could manage about 17 minutes. Many modern whales can remain submerged for more than an hour. [Nature]

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Big Questions
How Does Autopilot Work on an Airplane?
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How does autopilot work on an airplane?

Joe Shelton:

David Micklewhyte’s answer is a good one. There are essentially a few types of features that different autopilots have. Some autopilots only have some of these features, while the more powerful autopilots do it all.

  • Heading Hold: There’s a small indicator that the pilot can set on the desired heading and the airplane will fly that heading. This feature doesn’t take the need for wind correction to desired routing into account; that’s left to the pilot.
  • Heading and Navigation: In addition to holding a heading, this version will take an electronic navigation input (e.g. GPS or VOR) and will follow (fly) that navigation reference. It’s sort of like an automated car in that it follows the navigator’s input and the pilot monitors.
  • Altitude Hold: Again, in addition to the above, a desired altitude can be set and the aircraft will fly at that altitude. Some autopilots have the capability for the pilot to select a desired altitude and a climb or descent rate and the aircraft will automatically climb or descend to that altitude and then hold the altitude.
  • Instrument Approaches: Autopilots with this capability will fly preprogrammed instrument approaches to the point where the pilot either takes control and lands or has the autopilot execute a missed approach.

The autopilot is a powerful computer that takes input from either the pilot or a navigation device and essentially does what it is told to do. GPS navigators, for example, can have a full flight plan entered from departure to destination, and the autopilot will follow the navigator’s guidance.

These are the majority of the controls on the autopilot installed in my airplane:

HDG Knob = Heading knob (Used to set the desired heading)

AP = Autopilot (Pressing this turns the autopilot on)

FD = Flight Director (A form of navigational display that the pilot uses)

HDG = Heading (Tells the autopilot to fly the heading set by the Heading Knob)

NAV = Tells the autopilot to follow the input from the selected navigator

APR = Tells the autopilot to fly the chosen approach

ALT = Tells the autopilot to manage the altitude, controlled by the following:

VS = Vertical Speed (Tells the autopilot to climb or descend at the chosen rate)

Nose UP / Nose DN = Sets the climb/descent rate in feet per minute

FLC = Flight Level Change (An easy manual way to set the autopilot)

ALT Knob = Used to enter the desired altitude

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

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla Ice Cream?
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While you’re browsing the ice cream aisle, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s so French about French vanilla?” The name may sound a little fancier than just plain ol’ “vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the origin of the vanilla itself. (Vanilla is a tropical plant that grows near the equator.)

The difference comes down to eggs, as The Kitchn explains. You may have already noticed that French vanilla ice cream tends to have a slightly yellow coloring, while plain vanilla ice cream is more white. That’s because the base of French vanilla ice cream has egg yolks added to it.

The eggs give French vanilla ice cream both a smoother consistency and that subtle yellow color. The taste is a little richer and a little more complex than a regular vanilla, which is made with just milk and cream and is sometimes called “Philadelphia-style vanilla” ice cream.

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in 2010—when Baskin-Robbins decided to eliminate French Vanilla from its ice cream lineup—ice cream industry consultant Bruce Tharp noted that French vanilla ice cream may date back to at least colonial times, when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both used ice cream recipes that included egg yolks.

Jefferson likely acquired his taste for ice cream during the time he spent in France, and served it to his White House guests several times. His family’s ice cream recipe—which calls for six egg yolks per quart of cream—seems to have originated with his French butler.

But everyone already knew to trust the French with their dairy products, right?

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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