CLOSE
Original image
Wikimedia Commons

The Desert of Maine

Original image
Wikimedia Commons

Ahhh . . . Maine! Land of lakes and lighthouses, lobster and blueberries, pine trees and sand dunes.

Wait, sand dunes?

A miniature desert blankets 40 acres of land just a stone’s throw west of Freeport, Maine. An uncanny contrast with the state’s sweeping trees, the dunes (dubbed the “Desert of Maine”) are a geological curiosity—and Mother Nature’s way of reminding us that if you don’t take care of her, she’ll come after you.

About 10,000 years ago, glaciers lurched through what is today southern Maine, grinding soil and rock into glacial silt. As the millennia flew by, topsoil accumulated and caked over the mica-heavy silt, priming the area into first-class farmland. That’s what lured William Tuttle there: In 1797, he bought 300 acres to start up his family farm. Like most Maine-ahs back then, he was clueless about what lurked beneath.

Tuttle was a fine farmer. His descendants, though, were not. They failed to rotate the crops and their sheep overgrazed (the same bad habits that sparked the Dust Bowl). When the farm’s topsoil started to erode, a tiny patch of sand—no bigger than a basketball—appeared. It grew, and it spread so much that it gobbled up the family’s farmland. The Desert of Maine was born, and it swallowed so much that some buildings are now buried under eight feet of silt.

After a fire forced the Tuttles to call it quits, Henry Goldrup bought the land in 1919. Living the cliché that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, Goldrup made bank by transforming the desert into a tourist trap, which it remains today. Although it’s technically not a desert (it rains too much) and the wavy hills of sand are really silt, the Tuttles seemingly farmed up their own patch of Death Valley in the Pine Tree State.

Original image
iStock
arrow
This Just In
Criminal Gangs Are Smuggling Illegal Rhino Horns as Jewelry
Original image
iStock

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]

Original image
iStock
arrow
environment
How Japan's 'Dancing' Cats Predicted a Deadly Environmental Disaster
Original image
iStock

In the 1950s, residents of Minamata, Japan, noticed that something was wrong with the city's cats. As the SciShow's Hank Green recounts in the video below, the cats would convulse, make strange noises and jerking "dancing" motions—and eventually die. Soon, these symptoms spread to the local townspeople, and scientists began searching for the cause of the terrifying sickness.

The culprit was soon revealed to be the Chisso Corporation, a Japanese chemical company with a factory in Minamata. About 30 years earlier, the company had begun making an organic chemical called acetaldehyde, using mercury as a catalyst to trigger the needed reactions. Afterwards, the company dumped the leftover chemicals into Minamata Bay, where the mercury came into contact with bacteria that transformed it into the most noxious form of the metal: methylmercury. This toxic substance was absorbed by plants, which were in turn eaten by fish. Eventually, the methylmercury made its way up the food chain and poisoned both felines and humans. Birth defects became rampant, and more than 900 people died. Thousands of victims have since been identified. The neurological syndrome caused by extreme mercury poisoning is now known as Minamata disease.

You can learn more about the worst mercury poisoning disaster the world has ever seen by watching the video below.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios