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11 Frosty Facts About the Iditarod

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Wikimedia Commons

The Iditarod has been called "the last great race on Earth"— a long, blistering competition across nearly 1000 miles of Alaskan wilderness. Though the traditional starting line in Anchorage was used on Saturday for a ceremonial kick-off, the race itself began on Monday, March 6, in Fairbanks, about six hours north—marking the second time in three years that the conditions in Anchorage were too mild for a proper send-off. While this year's 72 mushers make their way to Nome, here are 11 amazing facts about the brutal and trying, but always exciting, Iditarod.

1. RACE TIMES HAVE IMPROVED DRAMATICALLY SINCE IT STARTED.

The first Iditarod took place in 1973, and took about 20 days to complete; currently, it takes about 10 days. Last year's winner, four-time champ Dallas Seavey, set a new record at 8 days, 11 hours, 20 minutes, and 16 seconds. The last place time was 32 days in the beginning, and now it’s about 13 days.

2. SLED DOGS NEED 10-12,000 CALORIES A DAY.

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Each sled is pulled by a team of 16 dogs, and they need to keep on eating. On the trail they get frozen snacks like chunks of meat, fish, or soaked dog food. When they stop at checkpoints they get a warm meal, maybe a nice a slurry of beef, Arctic char, vitamin supplements, and kibble mixed with water and chicken fat—cooked in a bucket camp stove that doubles as the driver’s seat on the sled.

3. THE DOGS WEAR BOOTIES.

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It’s cold out there on the trail, but that’s not why the dogs have to keep their feet covered. Their fur and efficient circulatory systems keep them warm enough. But the ice, snow, and rocky terrain is hard on their foot pads, so they have to be protected. Mushers usually make their dogs’ booties themselves, and they are required by the rules of the race to have at least eight extra per dog on the sled. "This is easily the most important piece of dog gear I use," 2012's Rookie of the Year Brent Sass told Outside, adding that he actually packs 3000 extra booties for his dogs. "My dogs will race over bare ground, ice, fresh snow, and open water—and booties are the best way to prevent injury."

4. THERE'S A JAMAICAN DOG SLED TEAM.

Inspired by the Olympic Jamaican bobsled team, a Caribbean tour operator started a Jamaican dog sled team to compete in various races. (It was sponsored by Jimmy Buffett.) In 2010, team member Newton Marshall became the first Jamaican to compete in the Iditarod—he competes independently as Mushin’ Mon Newton. In 2014, he made Iditarod news when he helped rescue another musher who had broken his ankle chasing a loose dog. That musher happened to be the subject of our next fact…

5. DOGS CAN BE SAVED WITH MOUTH-TO-SNOUT RESUSCITATION.

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The musher Marshall saved, Scott Janssen, a funeral home proprietor known as the Mushing Mortician (and who is currently racing this year), made news in the 2012 Iditarod when he saved one of his dogs who had collapsed on the trail by performing mouth-to-snout resuscitation. That husky’s name? Marshall. Coincidence? Or mysterious karma on the trail?

6. IT'S A FAMILY AFFAIR.

There’s quite a bit of friendly family rivalry in the Iditarod. Last year's winner, Dallas Seavey, became the youngest Iditarod winner at 25 on his first win in 2012. The next year, his father, Mitch, became the oldest winner at 53. Mitch’s father, Dan, had finished third in the original 1973 race. Other Iditarod families include Anna and Kristy Berington, twin sisters who have competed six and eight years each, respectively, and the Mackeys—father Dick and sons Rick and Lance, who each won the race on their sixth attempt, each while wearing number 13 (Lance went on a four-year winning streak from 2007-2010). Dick's two other sons, Bill and Jason have also competed, with Jason currently out on the trail.

7. THE FINISH LINE IS A GOOD PLACE TO BECOME A CITIZEN.

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Martin Buser moved to Alaska from his native Switzerland in 1979. He ran his first Iditarod in 1980 and holds the record for finishing the race the most times at 33 (and he's competing this year as well). He also held the previous record for fastest finish time with his 2002 win. Right after that win, he became a U.S. citizen in a naturalization ceremony held under the monument arch that marks the finish line.

8. SLED DOGS HAVE TO STUDY THEIR VOCABULARY.

Part of sled dog training involves teaching them a set of standard commands.

Hike! (Let’s go! Get moving!)
Haw! (Turn left!)
Gee! (Turn right)
On by! (Pass another team! or Pay that distraction no mind!)
Easy! (Slow down!)
Whoa! (Stop!)

9. THE RACE IS NAMED FOR A GHOST TOWN.

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Or at least for the name of the route than once carried mail, supplies, and gold prospectors to the town of Iditarod. The town was named for the Iditarod River and was once flush with action from an early 20th-century gold rush. But after the gold ran out in the 1930s, everyone left. All that's left of it are a few abandoned shelters and a rusty old bank vault.

10. THE DISTANCE VARIES.

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The race course is about 1000 miles, but it can vary depending on snow, ice, and other terrain conditions. Also, the race alternates between a northern course and a southern course every year. This way, more of the small towns in the middle of the state get to participate in the action and benefit from a bump in visitors. Officially though, they say the race is 1049 miles, in honor of Alaska being the 49th state to enter the union.

11. THE LAST PLACE FINISHER GETS A SPECIAL PRIZE.

It’s a race tradition to light a lantern at the finish line in Nome when the race begins and leave it lit as long as there are still mushers out on the trail. It’s a nod to the old custom of the "widow’s lamp," which was a safety measure to keep track of when sled drivers were out on the trail and whether they had reached their destination or not. Some sled races started handing out lanterns to the last place finisher as a joke, but now the "red lantern" is an official prize to bear proudly. When it comes to the Iditarod—over 1000 miles of snow, ice, frostbite, sleeplessness, danger, and mud—just finishing is no small achievement.

Follow the action at Iditarod.com.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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Animals
14 Bold Facts About Bald Eagles
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Bald eagles are powerful symbols of America—but there’s a whole lot more to these quirky birds.

1. YOUNG BALD EAGLES AREN'T BALD.

A young bald eagle with a brown head on a beach.
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So obviously adult bald eagles aren't really bald, either—their heads have bright white plumage that contrasts with their dark body feathers, giving them a "bald" look. But young bald eagles have mostly brown heads. In fact, for the first four or five years of their lives, they move through a complicated series of different plumage patterns; in their second year, for instance, they have white bellies.

2. BALD EAGLES SOUND SO SILLY THAT HOLLYWOOD DUBS OVER THEIR VOICES.

A red-tailed hawk.
A red-tailed hawk's screech is usually dubbed over the bald eagle's weaker scream.
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It's a scene you’ve probably seen countless times in movies and on TV: An eagle flies overhead and emits a rough, piercing scream. It's a classic symbol of wilderness and adventure. The only problem? Bald eagles don't make that sound.

Instead, they emit a sort of high-pitched giggle or a weak scream. These noises are so unimpressive that Hollywood sound editors often dub over bald eagle calls with far more impressive sounds: the piercing, earthy screams of a smaller bird, the red-tailed hawk. If you were a fan of The Colbert Report, you might remember the show's iconic CGI eagle from the opener—it, too, is making that red-tailed hawk cry. Listen for yourself and decide who sounds more impressive.

3. THEY EAT TRASH AND STOLEN FOOD.

Two bald eagles guard their prey against two magpies on a snowy field.
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Picture a majestic bald eagle swooping low over a lake and catching a fish in its powerful claws. Yes, bald eagles eat a lot of fish—but they don't always catch them themselves. They've perfected the art of stealing fish from other birds such as ospreys, chasing them down until they drop their prey.

Bald eagles will also snack on gulls, ducks, rabbits, crabs, amphibians, and more. They'll scavenge in dumpsters, feed on waste from fish processing plants, and even gorge on carrion (dead, decaying animals).

4. BALD EAGLES USUALLY MATE FOR LIFE ...

Two bald eagles perched on a tree.
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Trash and carrion aside, they're pretty romantic animals. Bald eagles tend to pair up for life, and they share parenting duties: The male and the female take turns incubating the eggs, and they both feed their young.

5. … AND THEY LIVE PRETTY LONG LIVES.

Two bald eagles sitting on a rock.
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Those romantic partnerships are even more impressive because bald eagles can survive for decades. In 2015, a wild eagle in Henrietta, New York, died at the record age of 38. Considering that these birds pair up at 4 or 5 years of age, that's a lot of Valentine's Days.

6. THEY HOLD THE RECORD FOR THE LARGEST BIRD'S NEST.

Two bald eagles in their large nest.
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Bald eagles build enormous nests high in the treetops. The male and female work on the nest together, and this quality time helps them cement their lifelong bond. Their cozy nurseries consist of a framework of sticks lined with softer stuff such as grass and feathers. If the nest serves them well during the breeding season, they'll keep using it year after year. And, like all homeowners, they can't resist the thought of renovating and adding to their abode. Every year, they'll spruce it up with a whopping foot or two of new material.

On average, bald eagle nests are 2-4 feet deep and 4-5 feet wide. But one pair of eagles near St. Petersburg, Florida, earned the Guinness World Record for largest bird’s nest: 20 feet deep and 9.5 feet wide. The nest weighed over two tons.

7. FEMALES ARE LARGER THAN MALES.

Two bald eagles in their large nest.
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In many animal species, males are (on average) larger than females. Male gorillas, for example, dwarf their female counterparts. But for most birds of prey, it's the opposite. Male bald eagles weigh about 25 percent less than females.

Scientists aren't sure why there's such a size difference. One reason might be the way they divide up their nesting duties. Females take the lead in arranging the nesting material, so being bigger might help them take charge. Also, they spend longer incubating the eggs than males, so their size could intimidate would-be egg thieves.

If you're trying to tell male and female eagles apart, this size difference may help you—especially since both sexes have the same plumage patterns.

8. TO IDENTIFY THEM, LOOK AT THE WINGS.

A bald eagle flies across the water.
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People often get excited about a big soaring bird and yell "It's an eagle!” just before it swoops closer and … oops, it's a vulture. Here's a handy identification tip. Bald eagles usually soar with their wings almost flat. On the other hand, the turkey vulture—another dark, soaring bird—holds its wings up in a shallow V shape called a dihedral. A lot of large hawks also soar with slightly raised wings.

9. THEY'RE COMEBACK KIDS.

Baby eagle chicks in a nest.
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Before European settlers arrived, bald eagles were abundant across the U.S. But with settlement came habitat destruction, and the settlers viewed the eagles as competition for game and as a threat to livestock. So many eagles were killed that in 1940 Congress passed an act to protect the birds.

Unfortunately, another threat rose up at about that time. Starting after World War II, farmers and public health officials used an insecticide called DDT. The chemical worked well to eradicate mosquitos and agricultural pests—but as it traveled up the food chain, it began to heavily affect birds of prey. DDT made eagle eggshells too thin and caused the eggs to break. A 1963 survey found just 471 bald eagle pairs in the lower 48 states.

DDT was banned in the early 1970s, and conservationists began to breed bald eagles in captivity and reintroduce them in places across America. Luckily, this species made a spectacular recovery. Now the lower 48 states boast over 9700 nesting pairs.

10. THEY'RE UNIQUELY NORTH AMERICAN.

An African fish eagle flies over the water.
The African fish eagle is a relative of the North American bald eagle.
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You've probably heard of America's other eagle: the golden eagle. This bird lives throughout much of the northern hemisphere. But the bald eagle is only found in North America. It lives across much of Canada and the U.S., as well as northern parts of Mexico.

Though it may be North American, the bald eagle has seven close relatives that are found throughout the world. They all belong to the genus Haliaeetus, which comes—pretty unimaginatively—from the Latin words for "sea" and "eagle." One relative, the African fish eagle, is a powerful symbol in its own right. It represents several countries; for example, it's the national symbol of Zambia, and graces the South Sudanese, Malawian, and Namibian coats of arms.

11. THEY'RE AERIAL DAREDEVILS.

A bald eagle carries a fish off in its talons.
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It seems too weird to be true: While flying, bald eagles sometimes grab each other's feet and spin while plummeting to the earth. Scientists aren't sure why they do this—perhaps it's a courtship ritual or a territorial battle. Usually, the pair will separate before hitting the ground (as seen in this remarkable set of photographs). But sometimes they hold tight and don't let go. These two male bald eagles locked talons and hit the ground with their feet still connected. One subsequently escaped and the other was treated for talon wounds.

12. THEIR EYES ARE AMAZING.

Close-up of a bald eagle's face.
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What if you could close your eyes and still see? Besides the usual pair of eyelids, bald eagles have a see-through eyelid called a nictitating membrane. They can close this membrane to protect their eyes while their main eyelids remain open. The membrane also helps moisten and clean their eyes.

Eagles also have sharper vision than people, and their field of vision is wider. Plus, they can see ultraviolet light. Both of those things mean the expression "eagle eye" is spot-on.

13. THEY MIGRATE … SORT OF.

A bald eagle sits in a snowy tree.
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If you're a bald eagle that nests in northern Canada, you'll probably head south for the winter to avoid the punishing cold. Many eagles fly south for the winter and return north for the summer—as do plenty of other bird species (and retired Canadians). But not all bald eagles migrate. Some of them, including individuals in New England and Canada's Maritime provinces, stick around all year. Whether or not a bird migrates depends on how old it is and how much food is available.

14. THEY CAN SWIM … SORT OF.

A bald eagle
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There are several videos online—like the one above—that show a bald eagle swimming in the sea, rowing itself to shore with its huge wings. Eagles have hollow bones and fluffy down, so they can float pretty well. But why swim instead of soar? Sometimes, an eagle will swoop down and grab an especially weighty fish, then paddle it to shore to eat.

Note that the announcer in the video above says that the eagle's talons are "locked" on a fish that's too heavy to carry. In fact, those lockable talons are an urban legend.

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Animals
New Health-Monitoring Litter Box Could Save You a Trip to the Vet
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Unsure if your cat is sick or just acting aloof per usual? A “smart toilet” for your fur baby could help you decide whether a trip to the vet is really necessary.

Enter the Pet Care Monitor: More than a litter box, the receptacle is designed to analyze cat urine for health issues, The Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo reports. Created by the Japan-based Sharp Corporation—better known for consumer electronics such as TVs, mobile phones, and the world's first LCD calculator—the product will be available for purchase on the company’s website starting July 30 (although shipping limitations may apply).

Sensors embedded in the monitor can measure your cat’s weight and urine volume, as well as the frequency and duration of toilet trips. That information is then analyzed by an AI program that compares it to data gleaned from a joint study between Sharp Corp and Tottori University in Japan. If there are any red flags, a report will be sent directly to your smartphone via an application called Cocoro Pet. The monitor could be especially useful for keeping an eye on cats with a history of kidney and urinary tract problems.

If you have several cats, the company offers sensors to identify each pet, allowing separate data sets to be collected and analyzed. (Each smart litter box can record the data of up to three cats.)

The Pet Care Monitor costs about $225, and there’s an additional monthly fee of roughly $3 for the service. Sharp Corporation says it will continue developing health products for pets, and it has already created a leg sensor that can tell if a dog is nervous by measuring its heart and respiratory rates.

[h/t The Asahi Shimbun]

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