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11 Frosty Facts About the Iditarod

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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
20 Black-and-White Facts About Penguins
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To celebrate World Penguin Day (which is today, April 25), here are a few fun facts about these adorable tuxedoed birds.

1. All 17 species of penguins are found exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere.

2. Emperor Penguins are the tallest species, standing nearly 4 feet tall. The smallest is the Little Blue Penguin, which is only about 16 inches.

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3. The fastest species is the Gentoo Penguin, which can reach swimming speeds up to 22 mph.

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4. A penguin's striking coloring is a matter of camouflage; from above, its black back blends into the murky depths of the ocean. From below, its white belly is hidden against the bright surface.

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5. Fossils place the earliest penguin relative at some 60 million years ago, meaning an ancestor of the birds we see today survived the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.

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6. Penguins ingest a lot of seawater while hunting for fish, but a special gland behind their eyes—the supraorbital gland—filters out the saltwater from their blood stream. Penguins excrete it through their beaks, or by sneezing.

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7. Unlike most birds—which lose and replace a few feathers at a time—penguins molt all at once, spending two or three weeks land-bound as they undergo what is called the catastrophic molt.

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8. All but two species of penguins breed in large colonies of up to a thousand birds.

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9. It varies by species, but many penguins will mate with the same member of the opposite sex season after season.

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10. Similarly, most species are also loyal to their exact nesting site, often returning to the same rookery in which they were born.

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11. Some species create nests for their eggs out of pebbles and loose feathers. Emperor Penguins are an exception: They incubate a single egg each breeding season on the top of their feet. Under a loose fold of skin is a featherless area with a concentration of blood vessels that keeps the egg warm.

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12. In some species, it is the male penguin which incubates the eggs while females leave to hunt for weeks at a time. Because of this, pudgy males—with enough fat storage to survive weeks without eating—are most desirable.

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13. Penguin parents—both male and female—care for their young for several months until the chicks are strong enough to hunt for food on their own.

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14. If a female Emperor Penguin's baby dies, she will often "kidnap" an unrelated chick.

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15. Despite their lack of visible ears, penguins have excellent hearing and rely on distinct calls to identify their mates when returning to the crowded breeding grounds.

16. The first published account of penguins comes from Antonio Pigafetta, who was aboard Ferdinand Magellan's first circumnavigation of the globe in 1520. They spotted the animals near what was probably Punta Tombo in Argentina. (He called them "strange geese.")

17. An earlier, anonymous diary entry from Vasco da Gama's 1497 voyage around the Cape of Good Hope makes mention of flightless birds as large as ducks.

18. Because they aren't used to danger from animals on solid ground, wild penguins exhibit no particular fear of human tourists.

19. Unlike most sea mammals—which rely on blubber to stay warm—penguins survive because their feathers trap a layer of warm air next to the skin that serves as insulation, especially when they start generating muscular heat by swimming around.

20. In the 16th century, the word penguin actually referred to great auks (scientific name: Pinguinus impennis), a now-extinct species that inhabited the seas around eastern Canada. When explorers traveled to the Southern Hemisphere, they saw black and white birds that resembled auks, and called them penguins.

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6 Myths About Animals, Debunked
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It’s easy to think we understand animals: They’re present in every part of our culture, from the movies we watch to the clichés we use. But the way a species functions in the wild is often worlds apart from a stereotype or cartoon. This gulf between misconceptions and reality is the theme of Lucy Cooke’s new book, The Truth About Animals.

"We have a habit of viewing the animal kingdom through the prism of our own existence, and that trips us up and obscures the truth,” Cooke, a zoologist and founder of the Sloth Appreciation Society, tells Mental Floss. “I think it's time we rebrand the animal kingdom according to facts and not sentimentality.”

As Cooke examines in her book, the real world is one in which pandas are virile lovers and sloths are master survivalists. These are just a few of the myths that were debunked in The Truth About Animals.

1. PANDAS HAVE LOW SEX DRIVES.

Pandas have long been blamed for their own precarious position in the animal kingdom. The species is in danger, some people claim, because pandas are reluctant to or just plain bad at copulating. If only they would get off their furry behinds and get it on, there would be more of them.

In The Truth About Animals, Cooke debunks this modern myth. Pandas have been living in the wild for 18 million years—long before humans swooped in to act as their savior—and that wouldn’t be the case without healthy sex habits. It’s true that pandas are difficult to breed in captivity, and the several failed attempts of zoos to produce a baby panda throughout the 20th century is likely what led to this stereotype. But the bears are much more responsive to members of the opposite sex in the wild. The female chooses who she mates with, moaning from high in a bamboo tree while several males on the ground compete for her attention. Once the bears have paired off, they can have sex over 40 times in one afternoon.

2. SLOTHS ARE LAZY.

Cooke was inspired to write her book by sloths, which she describes to Mental Floss as “highly successful, highly evolved” creatures. Not everyone agrees: More than perhaps any other animal, sloths have become synonymous with laziness and sluggishness, and today they’re held up as an example of evolutionary failure.

The reality is that sloths are much more impressive than their appearance suggests. They’ve been around since 64 million years ago—earlier than wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers—and they have their slow and steady nature to thank for their success. Sloths have a remarkably slow digestive system and a low-calorie diet, so they expend as little energy as possible, not out of laziness, but out of survival instinct. A sloth is awake for more than half the day, and when necessary it can scramble up a tree at speeds approaching 1 mph. It spends most of its day in a still, seemingly trancelike state, but it isn’t wasting its potential: It’s conserving energy so it can maintain its dominant spot in the evolutionary tree.

3. PENGUINS ARE LOYAL LOVERS.

Emperor penguins, the most famous of the bird group, are known for splitting parenting duties between mated pairs, with the father incubating the egg while the mother gathers food for her family. This has led some to praise penguins as the reflection of ideal, moral family dynamics in the animal kingdom, but these people should probably find a different analog. Though the parents of any given chick may raise their offspring together, penguins aren’t monogamous: 85 percent of emperor penguins find a new partner from one breeding season to the next. Penguins are also some of the only animals known to exchange goods for sex. Adélie penguins need rocks to build up their nests during warmer months when meltwater threatens their eggs. With no parenting duties to distract them, bachelor penguins end up collecting more stones than they need, so some females will sometimes trade a one-off sex session for one of their pebbles.

4. VULTURES STALK DYING PREY.

Watch enough survival movies and you’re bound to see a shot of a hungry vulture trailing behind the starving protagonist, waiting for them to lie down and die. The myth that vultures stalk their prey while it’s still alive and have the power to predict death is a persistent one, but that doesn’t make it accurate. The scavengers have no interest in living animals and will only seek out meat from dead and decaying corpses. Rather than reaper-like premonitions of mortality, turkey vultures and greater and lesser yellow-headed vultures use their noses to locate their meals. They join kiwis and kakapos on the small list of birds with highly-developed olfactory glands. Without a strong sense of smell, other New World vultures and all Old World vultures primarily rely on sight to find food. Some New World vultures like black vultures have adopted a different strategy: They'll follow turkey vultures to their prey, taking advantage of their sensitive noses.

5. ALL BATS ARE RABID BLOOD-SUCKERS.

Bats may be the animals most closely associated with the horror genre. They crave blood, so the myth goes, and though a bat latched onto your neck won’t be able to suck you dry, it will likely infect you with a nasty case of rabies.

According to Cooke, there are many problems with the statement above. Bats are poor stand-ins for their fictional vampire counterparts; only three species of bats drink blood—the common vampire bat, the hairy-legged vampire bat, and the white-winged vampire bat—while most prefer fruit or insects. After climbing onto its prey, the vampire bat locates where the blood is flowing with the heat sensor on its nose, and then, using its sharp front teeth like shears, it cuts away any hair that might be blocking the skin. Rather than biting down and sucking like Dracula, the bat creates a small incision and laps up blood from the open wound. They can recognize an individual animal's breathing patterns and return to feed on it the following night, taking advantage of the reliable blood source.

Bats are rarely rabid, with just .05 percent of them carrying the disease—less than dogs or raccoons. The image of a bat getting tangled in your hair also has no basis in reality: Their sophisticated echolocation system signals them to turn long before they have a chance to collide with your head.

6. FEMALE HYENAS HAVE PENISES.

Hyena genitalia has been baffling scientists for centuries. Member of both sexes appear to have a penis, while in females there’s no external vagina to be found. Scientists originally thought that hyenas must be hermaphrodites, but the true explanation is even more unusual. Though it’s often referred to as a pseudo-penis, female hyena genitalia doesn’t produce sperm, technically making it a nearly 8-inch-long clitoris. This appendage is also saddled with all the same duties as a conventional female organ, including giving birth to hyena pups.

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