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5 Horrifying Ways Plants Can Fight Back

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Most people probably consider plants to be nothing more than a lovely green backdrop to their lives—one that is constantly being eaten by even the lowliest of animals. These people are unaware that plants have been slowly plotting their revenge. While you sleep, even our very food crops are subtly planning ways to seek payback! Here is a quick listing of just some of the ways we might expect to meet our ends at the leaves of these photosynthetic psychopaths.

1. Cyanide Poisoning

Over 3000 different plants—including apples, cassava, spinach, and lima beans—have evolved a defense that causes the animals that eat them to choke on hydrogen cyanide (HCN) [PDF]. This compound is synthesized by plants in an attempt to dissuade herbivores from munching down on them. During the process, called cyanogenesis, hydrogen cyanide is attached to sugar or fat molecules and eventually stored. When an animal eats a part of the plant containing these cyanide laced sugars (cyanogenic glycosides) or fats (cyanogenic lipids), they are broken down in the digestive tract, releasing the hydrogen cyanide which disrupts cellular respiration, the process from which we are able to, you know, continue living.

But how does the plant keep from poisoning itself? It compartmentalizes the poison in specialized cells which only release the poison after being ruptured. So an average plant cell sequence may go something like this: delicious, delicious, delicious, deadly poison, delicious. And the reason that we don't die from eating things like apples is that the concentration of cyanide is much lower than in plants like cassava, which need to be soaked in water or cooked in order to leach out the cyanide compounds! 

2. Giving You Immediate Heart Attacks

Some plants want to cut right to the chase. Why give you time to slowly die from cellular death like cyanide when they can just go for the heart of the matter, literally? Plants like foxglove contain incredibly potent toxins that can stop the heart dead in its tracks. Digitoxin, the cardiac glycoside responsible for the poisoning and named after the foxglove genus Digitalis, is fatal in excess of 10 milligrams. Toxins such as digitoxin are certainly a good way to ensure that even if a potential herbivore takes a nibble of you, chances are they won’t be doing so again—namely because they’ll be too busy convulsing on the ground, dying.

People have been accidentally poisoning themselves with foxglove for years; its leaves look remarkably similar to the leaves of comfrey (Symphytum spp.) which is commonly made into a soothing, healing tea. Below is a comparison of the two leaves. 

3. Injecting You With Horrifyingly Painful Neurotoxin

Some trees just want to see you suffer. The Stinging Tree of Australia (Dendrocnide moroides), or Gympie Gympie, is certainly one of them. This relatively innocuous looking plant is covered in countless microscopic hairs, all of which are loaded with an incredibly potent neurotoxin. The hollow hairs get easily stuck in skin on contact and deliver the neurotoxin, which causes intolerable pain and, sometimes, death—this according to Dutch Botanist H. J. Winkler, who recorded such an event in the 1920s after an associate was stung by the plant. 

How intense is the pain? It’s apparently akin to being burned alive while being stabbed and can apparently last for months after the initial sting. It turns out, plants can really hold a grudge. Here’s a video of an Australian biologist brushing the plant with the back of his finger for barely a second.


4. Covering You in Innumerable Biting, Swarming Ants

Wikimedia Commons

Just like humans, some plants have turned to hiring bodyguards in order to protect themselves. The bull-horn acacia (Acacia cornigera) has evolved a mutualistic relationship with the aptly named acacia ant (Pseudomyrmex ferruginea): In exchange for housing—inside of its giant thorns, which can house many ants each—and food (the plant feeds them through special nectaries and even by producing little bag-lunches for the ants in the form of fat and protein-packed Beltian bodies), the ants viciously defend the tree. 

If a herbivorous insect even so much as touches the tree, it is immediately descended upon by the ants, who will eat the intruder or throw it off the tree.  Even large animals such as humans will be given no mercy by the ants, who will swarm and bite in order to defend their precious all-providing tree. In fact, many bull-horn acacias have reduced pollination rates as compared to other plants as even beneficial pollinating insects can barely approach the tree without having a hurricane of ants sweep them to their deaths!

5. Summoning Deadly Wasps from the Heavens

When you think of corn (Zea mays), you may think of warm summers, grilling with your family, and enjoying the ears at your leisure, slathered in butter. Rarely do people think of corn as a capable arcane wizard of a plant that can call down a torrent of wasps to annihilate would-be murderers. 

Corn, as well as many other plants, produces what are referred to as “green leaf volatile compounds” when its leaves are chewed on. These compounds are a cocktail of various chemicals, including terpenoids and phenolics, that are incredibly attractive to parasitic wasps. These wasps fly to the plant that is being eaten, find the culprits and, depending on the species, employ a few different protection strategies: some wasps, like digger wasps (genus Sphex), will actually pick up the host and put it somewhere else. Other wasps will lay eggs in the creature munching on the plant; those eggs hatch a la the Xenomorphs from Alien, often chewing their way out of the host’s body cavity within a day or two. 

This sounds like a long time if you're being eaten, but it takes a while for caterpillars or other insects to completely destroy a corn plant. Generally, the host is dying or near dead by the time the larvae emerge. So the next time you pick a fresh ear of corn, make sure you leave as quickly as possible—the wasps are probably already en route.

Additional Source: Lambers, H., Chapin F.S., Pons, T.L., Plant Physiological Ecology, Second Edition, Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, 2008, New York.

Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.


In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.


An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
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Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.


A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.


Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.


Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.


Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."


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