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YouTube / SciFri
YouTube / SciFri

Why Do Cucumber Coils Change Direction?

YouTube / SciFri
YouTube / SciFri

Do you grow cucumbers in your garden? If you've ever seen one growing, you've seen the curious coils made by cucumber tendrils as they grasp a support (or grasp your other plants, yanking them to their doom). What's odd about these curls is that they change direction mid-way through the tendril -- the helix reverses. Now why would that happen? This has been a scientific question for quite a while; Charles Darwin called this helical reverse the cucumber's "perversion."

In this short video from NPR's Science Friday, the science of this odd tendril curl is explained. Plus, there's cool time lapse video of various plants growing, courtesy of Roger Hangarter (he runs Plants in Motion). Enjoy, then go out and observe this in your own garden! (And watch out for cucumber spines. Those suckers are nasty.)

For more on this phenomenon, read Harvard Magazine's article A Cucumber Coil Conundrum. If you're just into time lapse of a cucumber tendril coiling, here it is:

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Animals
15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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Food
Rare Banana From Japan Comes With a Peel That's Meant to Be Eaten
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It’s easy to see how someone could take issue with banana peels: They’re a major source of waste, it takes effort to peel them, and they’re always making people slip and fall (at least in 1920s slapstick gags). If you agree that the banana’s conventional covering leaves room for improvement, check out this Japanese alternative. As SoraNews24 reports, the Mongee banana from D&T Farm features a tender skin you can bite straight into and eat.

The Japanese food company grows the special fruit in the country’s Okayama Prefecture. Instead of cultivating them in a tropical climate that’s typical for the plant, D&T Farm freezes their saplings at -76°F. The frozen trees are then thawed and planted, which prompts a burst of rapid growth. The process is meant to awaken an ancient survival mechanism banana trees used to make it through the Ice Age. Not only does this allow farmers to grow bananas faster and in cooler climates, it also makes for a thinner, softer banana skin.

Mongee bananas are more pungent and stickier than regular bananas, thanks to their higher sugar content. To eat one whole, you first must wait for brown dots to appear on the skin, which indicate that it’s ripe. According to tasters at SoraNews24, the flesh of the fruit has a tropical taste similar to pineapples, while the peel is pretty much flavorless and easy to chew. According to D&T Farm, people who consume the peel get bonus doses of vitamin B6 and magnesium.

The fruits are only available at one store in Japan, and even if you’re able to get there you’ll have to snag one of the 10 bananas that arrive at the shop each week and pay roughly $5.75 for it. Of course you can always settle for eating the skin on a regular banana, which may be bitter and fibrous but still offers all the same health benefits.

[h/t SoraNews24]

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