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© Aleksandar Dutsov, Balkani Wildlife Society

The Curious Case of the Flying Communist Bears

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© Aleksandar Dutsov, Balkani Wildlife Society

There was something off about some of the bears. They didn’t belong there. 

Researchers had gone to Bulgaria to study one of the last large populations of brown bears in Europe. While it’s nearly extinct in Western Europe, the species hangs on in the east, but biologists didn’t know much about how many there were, where they lived, or how the bears were all connected. To learn more about them, the team, led by Carsten Nowak, a wildlife geneticist at the Germany’s Senckenberg Research Institute, collected hair, scat, and tissue samples, and analyzed them.

While going through the animals’ DNA profiles, Nowak’s PhD student Christiane Frosch found something odd. Some of the bears didn’t fit. Their DNA profiles were unlike any of the others, suggesting they didn’t belong to the Bulgarian populations and that they’d come from somewhere else. 

When the scientists compared the strange bears’ DNA to another population in Romania, they found a match. The bears had family ties to ones living in the Carpathian Mountains, some 600 miles away. 

While bears will sometimes wander far from where they were born to find new territory, it didn’t seem likely that these foreigners had migrated from the Carpathians. They were all found far from the only potential travel route that could have gotten them there, with plenty of barriers in between. The foreign animals also were mostly females, which aren’t known to stray far from their home range. The genetic differences between the two populations didn’t suggest a lot of interbreeding, either. 

So how did they get there? Nowak thinks it’s the work of a trigger-happy dictator. 

Nicolae Ceausescu was the communist ruler of Romania from 1967 to 1989. During his reign, he enjoyed hunting, or, as David Quammen put it, “the sort of travesty of hunting that only a despot can experience and only a delusional egotist would enjoy.”

Ceausescu shot bears like they were fish in a barrel. He would travel by helicopter and jeep to one of the many hunting areas he had set aside for his personal use. There he would find a comfortable hunting blind overlooking a feeding trough that had been arranged by forest managers ahead of time. If it was taking too long for a bear to wander over to the bait (his attention span during a hunt often only lasted a few minutes), forest department employees would move through the woods and drive the animals towards him. If he missed his shot, his lackeys would find, kill, and deliver another animal so the president could still have his trophy. Once, after missing two shots, he commanded that fences be erected near the blind to channel the animals towards him and make them easier targets. Afterwards, taxidermists would stretch the bears’ pelts to artificially increase their size and Ceausescu’s trophy score.

Over his lifetime, Ceausescu shot anywhere from a few hundred to more than a thousand bears, depending on whose estimate you go by. He loved shooting the animals so much that he sometimes used them as a strange form of diplomacy. Bulgaria’s communist leader, Todor Zhikov, was also an avid hunter, but Bulgarian bears were disappointingly small compared to Romanian ones. To maintain good relations, Ceausescu would occasionally pack a few big bears from the Carpathians into a military plane and send them to Bulgaria as a gift for Zhikov. 

While there’s no surviving documentation of these flying bears, forest managers and game wardens in both countries told Nowak’s team that they did happen. They also pointed them to some of the enclosures (top) that the bears were delivered to in Bulgaria, a few of which still exist and still house bears (the researchers weren’t allowed access to these to take samples from the bears). Indeed, the majority of the “alien” bears were found within a few miles of these delivery sites. The bears’ proximity to the enclosures and the evidence against natural migration, the researchers say, provide some of the first hard evidence confirming what’s long been regarded as just a Cold War-era legend. 

Bulgaria isn’t the only place that Ceausescu sent his furry gifts, either, foresters told Nowak. The dictator supposedly tried to firm up his friendship with Sweden the same way, but the bear-bearing plane was turned away at the airport. 

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Big Questions
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

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2017 Ig Nobel Prizes Celebrate Research on How Crocodiles Affect Gambling and Other Odd Studies
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The Ig Nobel Prizes are back, and this year's winning selection of odd scientific research topics is as weird as ever. As The Guardian reports, the 27th annual awards of highly improbable studies "that first make people laugh, then make them think" were handed out on September 14 at a theater at Harvard University. The awards, sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research, honor research you never would have thought someone would take the time (or the funding) to study, much less would be published.

The 2017 highlights include a study on whether cats can be both a liquid and a solid at the same time and one on whether the presence of a live crocodile can impact the behavior of gamblers. Below, we present the winners from each of the 10 categories, each weirder and more delightful than the last.


"For using fluid dynamics to probe the question 'Can a Cat Be Both a Solid and a Liquid?'"

Winner: Marc-Antoine Fardin

Study: "On the Rheology of Cats," published in Rheology Bulletin [PDF]


"For their experiments to see how contact with a live crocodile affects a person's willingness to gamble."

Winners: Matthew J. Rockloff and Nancy Greer

Study: "Never Smile at a Crocodile: Betting on Electronic Gaming Machines is Intensified by Reptile-Induced Arousal," published in the Journal of Gambling Studies


"For his medical research study 'Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?'"

Winner: James A. Heathcote

Study: "Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?" published in the BMJ


"For their discovery of a female penis, and a male vagina, in a cave insect."

Winners: Kazunori Yoshizawa, Rodrigo L. Ferreira, Yoshitaka Kamimura, and Charles Lienhard (who delivered their acceptance speech via video from inside a cave)

Study: "Female Penis, Male Vagina and Their Correlated Evolution in a Cave Insect," published in Current Biology


"For studying the dynamics of liquid-sloshing, to learn what happens when a person walks backwards while carrying a cup of coffee."

Winner: Jiwon Han

Study: "A Study on the Coffee Spilling Phenomena in the Low Impulse Regime," published in Achievements in the Life Sciences


"For the first scientific report of human blood in the diet of the hairy-legged vampire bat."

Winners: Fernanda Ito, Enrico Bernard, and Rodrigo A. Torres

Study: "What is for Dinner? First Report of Human Blood in the Diet of the Hairy-Legged Vampire Bat Diphylla ecaudata," published in Acta Chiropterologica


"For using advanced brain-scanning technology to measure the extent to which some people are disgusted by cheese."

Winners: Jean-Pierre Royet, David Meunier, Nicolas Torquet, Anne-Marie Mouly, and Tao Jiang

Study: "The Neural Bases of Disgust for Cheese: An fMRI Study," published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience


"For demonstrating that many identical twins cannot tell themselves apart visually."

Winners: Matteo Martini, Ilaria Bufalari, Maria Antonietta Stazi, and Salvatore Maria Aglioti

Study: "Is That Me or My Twin? Lack of Self-Face Recognition Advantage in Identical Twins," published in PLOS One


"For showing that a developing human fetus responds more strongly to music that is played electromechanically inside the mother's vagina than to music that is played electromechanically on the mother's belly."

Winners: Marisa López-Teijón, Álex García-Faura, Alberto Prats-Galino, and Luis Pallarés Aniorte

Study: "Fetal Facial Expression in Response to Intravaginal Music Emission,” published in Ultrasound


"For demonstrating that regular playing of a didgeridoo is an effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea and snoring."

Winners: Milo A. Puhan, Alex Suarez, Christian Lo Cascio, Alfred Zahn, Markus Heitz, and Otto Braendli

Study: "Didgeridoo Playing as Alternative Treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnoea Syndrome: Randomised Controlled Trial," published by the BMJ

Congratulations, all.

[h/t The Guardian]


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