Can Wild Animals Really 'Sense' Fear in Other Animals?

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Stefan Pociask:

All too often, some interpret the phrase “They can sense your fear” as something telepathic, some additional non-human sense, or something that is not understood. That, of course, is not it at all. Animals sense fear in others by just using various combinations of the five senses that we are all already familiar with.

Most everyone knows that the majority of vertebrates have at least one sense, if not more, that is more developed and stronger than what humans possess. The nose of a bloodhound, the eyes of an eagle, the ears of an owl, etc. (our sense of taste ranks about average, and our sense of touch is better than most).

In any case, it shouldn’t be surprising that animals can use those heightened senses to sense fear in other animals. No “sixth sense” is required. Actually, only various combinations of three are required: smell, sight, and hearing. I think we can all agree that, if it gets down to an animal tasting your fear or touching your fear, it’s already too late for you, or the prey in question, in any case.

That’s not to say that there are not more than our five senses. Take the sense of navigation in animals like pigeons and other birds; we don’t have that. There’s the sense of echolocation, found in certain bats and whales; we don’t have that, either. Nor the sense related to electroreception, in sharks and other fish. There are several others, scattered about the animal kingdom.

Having said all that … the most brave, fearless, aggressive bunny in the world is still going to feel the jaws of that fox or coyote crush his body, if the predator gets close enough. The fearless dodo bird was still regularly scooped up by sailors and other predators (that being one of the few higher animals who never developed the “fight or flight” response).

The ability to either sense fear or project fear plays a large part in the predator/prey relationship. For a human, not projecting fear won’t necessarily save you from being jumped by that cougar, nor being trampled by that bull elephant, but it might increase your chances of surviving. On the other hand, projecting fear in those situations will almost certainly decrease your chances of surviving. Your adversary in situations like that will surely be using its basic senses (sight, smell, and hearing) to determine its next course of action, in regards to you.

The “other animals” are not the only ones who can and do sense fear. Humans do it, as well. Granted, our level of fear-sensing is not as acute as most other vertebrates. But we still have the ability. Bullies use it. Car salesmen use it. Debt collectors use it. Con men and scam artists use it. Athletes use it. Diplomats use it. And of course, various types of warriors use it.

There’s a related term here: "Never let them see you sweat." That, if applied both figuratively and literally, is what it’s all about. Yet, it’s more than just about sweating.

In the end, it’s not particularly difficult to understand how animals, including us, can sense fear. Actually, it is beneficial that you understand it; that you understand how fear is both projected, and how it is sensed. It can help you to keep from getting bullied, from getting taken advantage of, and indeed, there are times when it can help you to survive. Part of it is instinctual, and part of it is learned. A good part of it is skill. You’d be well served to learn this skill well, both sensing it and controlling the projecting of it. Yet, to learn it best, you must understand it.

To understand it best, I would suggest that you change the phrase from "sensing fear" to "reading fear." It’s not only the wild animals. Most all animals are capable of it ... including you.

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

What Would Happen If a Plane Flew Too High?

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Tom Farrier:

People have done this, and they have died doing it. For example, in October 2004, the crew of Pinnacle Airlines 3701 [PDF]  was taking their aircraft from one airport to another without passengers—a so-called "repositioning" flight.

They were supposed to fly at 33,000 feet, but instead requested and climbed to 41,000 feet, which was the maximum altitude at which the aircraft was supposed to be able to be flown. Both engines failed, the crew couldn't get them restarted, and the aircraft crashed and was destroyed.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable causes of this accident were: (1) the pilots’ unprofessional behavior, deviation from standard operating procedures, and poor airmanship, which resulted in an in-flight emergency from which they were unable to recover, in part because of the pilots’ inadequate training; (2) the pilots’ failure to prepare for an emergency landing in a timely manner, including communicating with air traffic controllers immediately after the emergency about the loss of both engines and the availability of landing sites; and (3) the pilots’ improper management of the double engine failure checklist, which allowed the engine cores to stop rotating and resulted in the core lock engine condition.

Contributing to this accident were: (1) the core lock engine condition, which prevented at least one engine from being restarted, and (2) the airplane flight manuals that did not communicate to pilots the importance of maintaining a minimum airspeed to keep the engine cores rotating.

Accidents also happen when the "density altitude"—a combination of the temperature and atmospheric pressure at a given location—is too high. At high altitude on a hot day, some types of aircraft simply can't climb. They might get off the ground after attempting a takeoff, but then they can't gain altitude and they crash because they run out of room in front of them or because they try to turn back to the airport and stall the aircraft in doing so. An example of this scenario is described in WPR12LA283.

There's a helicopter version of this problem as well. Helicopter crews calculate the "power available" at a given pressure altitude and temperature, and then compare that to the "power required" under those same conditions. The latter are different for hovering "in ground effect" (IGE, with the benefit of a level surface against which their rotor system can push) and "out of ground effect" (OGE, where the rotor system supports the full weight of the aircraft).

It's kind of unnerving to take off from, say, a helipad on top of a building and go from hovering in ground effect and moving forward to suddenly find yourself in an OGE situation, not having enough power to keep hovering as you slide out over the edge of the roof. This is why helicopter pilots always will establish a positive rate of climb from such environments as quickly as possible—when you get moving forward at around 15 to 20 knots, the movement of air through the rotor system provides some extra ("translational") lift.

It also feels ugly to drop below that translational lift airspeed too high above the surface and abruptly be in a power deficit situation—maybe you have IGE power, but you don't have OGE power. In such cases, you may not have enough power to cushion your landing as you don't so much fly as plummet. (Any Monty Python fans?)

Finally, for some insight into the pure aerodynamics at play when airplanes fly too high, I'd recommend reading the responses to "What happens to aircraft that depart controlled flight at the coffin corner?"

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

Why Are Some Men's Beards a Different Color Than Their Hair?

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Throughout civilization, beards have acted as a silent communicator. For some, it's a symbol of virility and power. For others, being hirsute is mandated by religion, marital status, or both. (Amish single men are clean-shaven; husbands are not.) Seeing an unkempt, scraggly beard could be an indication of a person's economic status or their lack of vanity. One man, Hans Langseth, sprouted a 17-foot-long chin warmer for the unique identity it afforded him. (He kept it neatly rolled over a corn cob when he wasn't busy showing it off.)

Langseth's whiskers, which wound up in the Smithsonian, present a curious timeline of his life. The furthest end of the beard was a vibrant brown, grown out when he was younger. The ends closer to his face—and to the end of his life in 1927—were yellowed.

While age can certainly influence hair and beard color, it doesn't explain why a younger man can sport a decidedly different beard tone than what's on the rest of his head. Other follicular forces are at work.

By default, scalp hair is white. It gets its color from melanin, turning it everything from jet black to dirty blonde. Pheomelanin infuses hair with red and yellow pigmentation; eumelanin influences brown and black. Like shades of paint, the two can mix within the same hair shaft. (Melanin production decreases as we age, which is why hairs start to appear gray.) But not all follicles get the same dose in the same combination. While you might sport a light brown top, your beard could be predominantly dark brown, or sport patches of lighter hairs in spots. Eyebrow hair will probably appear darker because those follicles tend to produce more eumelanin.

If you're wondering why these two-toned heads often have a red beard but not red hair, there's an answer for that, too. While all hair color is genetic, one gene in particular, MC1R, is responsible for a red hue. If you inherit a mutated version of the gene from both parents, you're likely to have red hair from head to toe. (Hopefully not too much toe hair.) But if you inherit MC1R from just one parent, it might only affect a portion of your follicles. If that swatch of color annoys you for whatever reason? There’s always beard dye.

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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