CLOSE
Original image
ThinkStock

7 Animals That Smell Like Jelly Beans (Because It's National Jelly Bean Day)

Original image
ThinkStock

Mother Nature loves a joke. Marine invertebrates that literally puke their guts out at the slightest provocation and hippos that sweat sunscreen are just a few of her favorites. There are vultures that wear leggings made from their own poop. There are alarmingly large bugs that smell like cherry cola, and mammal butts that smell like French vanilla and buttered popcorn. (Go home, nature. You’re drunk.)

So is this the zoo or a candy factory? Your nose can’t tell the difference. These seven animals are olfactory dead ringers for Jelly Belly flavors.

1. BINTURONG (ARCTICTIS BINTURONG) // BUTTERED POPCORN

The back end of the binturong, or bearcat, is legendary. Not for its size, shape, or productivity, but because it smells remarkably like a movie theater lobby. The heavenly scent that wafts across a bearcat habitat originates right in its inhabitants’ anal glands. Like housecats, binturongs are highly territorial and use smell to stake out their turf, but that’s where the similarity ends. While cats will snuggle and rub affectionately to leave their calling cards, a binturong scent-marks by dragging its butt across every object and surface it can find.

2. YELLOW ANTS (LASIUS INTERJECTUS) // LEMON DROP

The yellow ant is kind of a two-for-one deal. Not only do these ants emit an unmistakably lemony aroma, but they also look like little tiny lemons. Or their gasters (behinds) do, anyway.

When a colony of yellow ants is disturbed, its members emit a defensive chemical that smells so much like lemons that some people call these insects citronella ants. If your backyard smells suspiciously like a lemonade stand and there are no enterprising children in sight, take a look—you may have ants.

3. SPADEFOOT TOAD (SPEA MULTIPLICATA) // PEANUT BUTTER

Oh, spadefoot toad, you incredible weirdo. Behind your bulging eyes and claw-tipped hind legs is a gentle soul, a soul that craves solitude. A soul that enjoys a good wallow in the mud. A soul—and a parotoid gland—that will secrete a peanut butter-scented substance that causes sneezing and burning eyes in anyone who touches you. You just want to be left alone, spadefoot toad. We understand.

NOTE: We realize that Peanut Butter is no longer part of Jelly Belly’s 50 Official Flavors collection, but it remains lodged in our memories, our taste buds, and our hearts.

4. AFRICANIZED HONEYBEE (APIS MELLIFERA SCUTELLATA) // TOP BANANA

Their sting is bananas. B-A-N-A-N-A-S.

Let’s rewind a moment: Bee communication is super complex, and ranges from adorable folk dances to hysteria-inducing chemical signals like the alarm pheromone. When a forager bee feels threatened, it sends the scent of fear out into the hive. Other bees pick up the chemical trail and pass along the message, spreading panic. Africanized bees are both more sensitive to the pheromone than their European cousins and produce more of it, which means more panic, which means more stinging. And what does this alarm pheromone smell like to humans? You guessed it: bananas.

5. CRESTED AUKLET (AETHIA CRISTATELLA) // TANGERINE

So far we’ve seen nutty amphibians, citrusy insects, and buttery mammal butts, but what about fruit-fragranced birds? Yeah, we’ve got those, too.

Crested auklets are so fragrant, wildlife biologist Julie Hagelin told Nature, that “it’s like somebody is peeling a tangerine next to you.” The auklets are the first birds known to signal through scent. The seabirds use their oily bills to apply fragrance to their feathers like humans applying perfume, hoping to attract a mate. Smell is such a turn-on for these birds that their greetings consist of sniffing each other’s neck feathers. Toucan Sam could not be reached for comment.

6. GIANT MILLIPEDE (APHELORIA VIRGINIENSIS) // CHERRY COLA

Giant millipedes are kind of scary. They are, as their name suggests, pretty big—some species can be more than 15 inches long—and they brew all manner of poisons when they’re upset. The American giant millipede (Narceus americanus) secretes a liquid that can cause dermatological burns. But maybe these bugs have a bad name. Sure, Apheloria virginiensis may release cyanide when it’s stressed, but it also “has a nice odor, like cherry cola.”

Again: we’ve strayed from the Jelly Belly top 50, but hear us out. Cherry cola jelly beans, while retired from the American J.B. roster, are still a thing in the UK.

7. BEAVER (GENUS CASTOR) // FRENCH VANILLA

In the science world, the vanilla-scented, molasses-like goo that comes out of a beaver’s butt is known as castoreum. In the world of food science, it’s known as “natural flavoring.” When the news hit a few years back that beaver bum-milk was a legal food additive, consumers hit the fan. Fortunately, milking a beaver bottom is a thankless job and the yield is low, which means that most food-grade vanilla flavoring comes from less extreme sources.

(Most of it.)

AND TWO ANIMALS THAT PROBABLY DON’T SMELL LIKE JELLYBEANS AT ALL:

The old trail wisdom goes that if you smell watermelons and you’re nowhere near a melon patch, rattlesnakes can’t be far away. This is not true. The misconception may have arisen from the Southern melon varietal known as the rattlesnake watermelon. When asked what the snakes do smell like, one experienced woodsman answered, “Rattlesnakes.”

And then there’s elephant pee, which allegedly smells like black licorice. There is no proof that this is true. There’s also no proof that it isn’t. The next time you encounter an elephant urine scholar (or a beaker of elephant urine), find out for yourself and send us an update.

All images courtesy of Thinkstock

Original image
Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
arrow
Animals
These Strange Sea Spiders Breathe Through Their Legs
Original image
Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

We know that humans breathe through their lungs and fish breathe through their gills—but where exactly does that leave sea spiders?

Though they might appear to share much in common with land spiders, sea spiders are not actually arachnids. And, by extension, they don't circulate blood and oxygen the way you'd expect them to, either.

A new study from Current Biology found that these leggy sea dwellers (marine arthropods of the class Pycnogonida) use their external skeleton to take in oxygen. Or, more specifically: They use their legs. The sea spider contracts its legs—which contain its guts—to pump oxygen through its body.

Somehow, these sea spiders hardly take the cake for Strangest Spider Alive (especially because they're not actually spiders); check out, for instance, our round-up of the 10 strangest spiders, and watch the video from National Geographic below:

arrow
science
Scientists Study the Starling Invasion Unleashed on America by a Shakespeare Fan

On a warm spring day, the lawn outside the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan gleams with European starlings. Their iridescent feathers reflect shades of green and indigo—colors that fade to dowdy brown in both sexes after the breeding season. Over the past year, high school students from different parts of the city came to this patch of grass for inspiration. "There are two trees at the corner I always tell them to look at," Julia Zichello, senior manager at the Sackler Educational Lab at the AMNH, recalls to Mental Floss. "There are holes in the trees where the starlings live, so I was always telling them to keep an eye out."

Zichello is one of several scientists leading the museum's Science Research Mentoring Program, or SRMP. After completing a year of after-school science classes at the AMNH, New York City high school students can apply to join ongoing research projects being conducted at the institution. In a recent session, Zichello collaborated with four upperclassmen from local schools to continue her work on the genetic diversity of starlings.

Before researching birds, Zichello earned her Ph.D. in primate genetics and evolution. The two subjects are more alike than they seem: Like humans, starlings in North America can be traced back to a small parent population that exploded in a relatively short amount of time. From a starting population of just 100 birds in New York City, starlings have grown into a 200-million strong flock found across North America.

Dr. Julia Zichello
Dr. Julia Zichello
©AMNH

The story of New York City's starlings began in March 1890. Central Park was just a few decades old, and the city was looking for ways to beautify it. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Eugene Schieffelin came up with the idea of filling the park with every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. This was long before naturalists coined the phrase "invasive species" to describe the plants and animals introduced to foreign ecosystems (usually by humans) where their presence often had disastrous consequences. Non-native species were viewed as a natural resource that could boost the aesthetic and cultural value of whatever new place they called home. There was even an entire organization called the American Acclimatization Society that was dedicated to shipping European flora and fauna to the New World. Schieffelin was an active member.

He chose the starling as the first bird to release in the city. It's easy to miss its literary appearance: The Bard referenced it exactly once in all his writings. In the first act of Henry IV: Part One, the King forbids his knight Hotspur from mentioning the name of Hotspur's imprisoned brother Mortimer to him. The knight schemes his way around this, saying, "I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him to keep his anger still in motion."

Nearly three centuries after those words were first published, Schieffelin lugged 60 imported starlings to Central Park and freed them from their cages. The following year, he let loose a second of batch of 40 birds to support the fledgling population.

It wasn't immediately clear if the species would adapt to its new environment. Not every bird transplanted from Europe did: The skylark, the song thrush, and the bullfinch had all been subjects of American integration efforts that failed to take off. The Acclimatization Society had even attempted to foster a starling population in the States 15 years prior to Schieffelin's project with no luck.

Then, shortly after the second flock was released, the first sign of hope appeared. A nesting pair was spotted, not in the park the birds were meant to occupy, but across the street in the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History.

Schieffelin never got around to introducing more of Shakespeare's birds to Central Park, but the sole species in his experiment thrived. His legacy has since spread beyond Manhattan and into every corner of the continent.

The 200 million descendants of those first 100 starlings are what Zichello and her students made the focus of their research. Over the 2016-2017 school year, the group met for two hours twice a week at the same museum where that first nest was discovered. A quick stroll around the building reveals that many of Schieffelin's birds didn't travel far. But those that ventured off the island eventually spawned populations as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico. By sampling genetic data from starlings collected around the United States, the researchers hoped to identify how birds from various regions differed from their parent population in New York, if they differed at all.

Four student researchers at the American Museum of Natural History
Valerie Tam, KaiXin Chen, Angela Lobel and Jade Thompson (pictured left to right)
(©AMNH/R. Mickens)

There are two main reasons that North American starlings are appealing study subjects. The first has to do with the founder effect. This occurs when a small group of individual specimens breaks off from the greater population, resulting in a loss of genetic diversity. Because the group of imported American starlings ballooned to such great numbers in a short amount of time, it would make sense for the genetic variation to remain low. That's what Zichello's team set out to investigate. "In my mind, it feels like a little accidental evolutionary experiment," she says.

The second reason is their impact as an invasive species. Like many animals thrown into environments where they don't belong, starlings have become a nuisance. They compete with native birds for resources, tear through farmers' crops, and spread disease through droppings. What's most concerning is the threat they pose to aircraft. In 1960, a plane flying from Boston sucked a thick flock of starlings called a murmuration into three of its four engines. The resulting crash killed 62 people and remains the deadliest bird-related plane accident to date.

Today airports cull starlings on the premises to avoid similar tragedies. Most of the birds are disposed of, but some specimens are sent to institutions like AMNH. Whenever a delivery of dead birds arrived, it was the students' responsibility to prep them for DNA analysis. "Some of them were injured, and some of their skulls were damaged," Valerie Tam, a senior at NEST+m High School in Manhattan, tells Mental Floss. "Some were shot, so we had to sew their insides back in."

Before enrolling in SRMP, most of the students' experiences with science were limited to their high school classrooms. At the museum they had the chance to see the subject's dirty side. "It's really different from what I learned from textbooks. Usually books only show you the theory and the conclusion, but this project made me experience going through the process," says Kai Chen, also a senior at NEST+m.

After analyzing data from specimens in the lab, an online database, and the research of previous SRMP students, the group's hypothesis was proven correct: Starlings in North America do lack the genetic diversity of their European cousins. With so little time to adapt to their new surroundings, the variation between two starlings living on opposite coasts could be less than that between the two birds that shared a nest at the Natural History Museum 130 years ago.

Students label samples in the lab.
Valerie Tam, Jade Thompson, KaiXin Chen and Angela Lobel (pictured left to right) label samples with Dr. Julia Zichello.
©AMNH/C. Chesek

Seeing how one species responds to bottlenecking and rapid expansion can provide important insight into species facing similar conditions. "There are other populations that are the same way, so I think this data can help [scientists],” Art and Design High School senior Jade Thompson says. But the students didn't need to think too broadly to understand why the animal was worth studying. "They do affect cities when they're searching for shelter," Academy of American Studies junior Angela Lobel says. “They can dig into buildings and damage them, so they're relevant to our actual homes as well.”

The four students presented their findings at the museum's student research colloquium—an annual event where participants across SRMP are invited to share their work from the year. Following their graduation from the program, the four young women will either be returning to high school or attending college for the first time.

Zichello, meanwhile, will continue where she left off with a new batch of students in the fall. Next season she hopes to expand her scope by analyzing older specimens in the museum's collections and obtaining bird DNA samples from England, the country the New York City starlings came from. Though the direction of the research may shift, she wants the subject to remain the same. "I really want [students] to experience the whole organism—something that's living around them, not just DNA from a species in a far-away place." she says. "I want to give them the picture that evolution is happening all around us, even in urban environments that they may not expect."

SECTIONS

More from mental floss studios