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George Washington’s Favorite Parasite

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If you shuck and eat a lot of oysters, you might eventually come across a tiny crab hanging out inside one. It could be a pea crab. It could be an oyster crab. Either way, it’s a parasite that lives off of little bits of food that its oyster host filters into its shell. I’ve found a few of these little critters myself and tossed them aside, not realizing what they were. Thanks to science writer Carl Zimmer, I now know that I’ve been throwing away a delicacy with a long history in American cuisine. 

Finding a sizable parasite in your meal—or in your mouth after slurping back an oyster on the half-shelf—might turn you off to seafood, but oyster crabs have long been a highly prized treat for some eaters. In 1913, the New York Times called them “as dainty a morsel as the gourmet can have at any price.” The Times also mentions that one diner found out the hard way that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. When he discovered one of these crabs in his oyster stew at a restaurant, he sent it back to the kitchen to be replaced by steak and onions. He was laughed at by his waiter and called a “hayseed” for not realizing the treat he had found. 

I guess that makes me a hayseed, too, but I’m going to try and change my ways and cook up the next oyster crab that comes my way. I don’t know that I’ll go as far as to build an entire dish around them, though, as 300 Ways to Cook and Serve Shellfish suggested in 1901. Among the cookbook’s recipes are an omelette loaded with 25 to 40 of the little crabs, and something called Canopy a la Lorenzo, which calls for 50 oyster crabs, a quarter of a truffle, chicken and crab meat and a cream sauce to be cooked, cooled, molded into a bell shape and then cooked again on top of a large crouton. 

That dish sounds like it would have been right up George Washington’s alley. The first president was a well known fan of the oyster crab, and Wonders and Food Luxuries of the Sea mentions that an “extraordinary effort was made to procure a half pint of these for his repast, to his great surprise and delight” by a female admirer who hosted him for dinner. Author Alan Davidson, in North Atlantic Seafood, also says that the president so enjoyed them in his oyster stews that they were sometimes known as “Washington crabs.”

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environment
How Overfishing Threatens the World's Oceans—and What We Can Do About It
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Fish populations around the globe are in serious trouble, thanks to the modern fishing industry. Instead of simply using poles and intuition, factory ships employ radar, sonar, helicopters, and even spotter planes to hunt down schools of fish, which they catch using massive nets and lines studded with hundreds of hooks. These technologies allow us to snare all kinds of deep-water delicacies—but they come with an ecological cost, according to TED-Ed’s video below.

Learn how overfishing harms the environment—and what we can do to protect our oceans—by listening to marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and environmental studies scholar Jennifer Jacquet’s lesson below.

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Big Questions
What Is the Fastest Animal in the World?
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People seem to have an innate fascination with speed. We like to watch high-performance cars circle tracks—or tempt speed limits on highways ourselves—and celebrate Olympic athletes like Usain Bolt, who probably is the fastest man on two feet at the moment.

That curiosity often extends beyond machines and elite athletic competition. What has nature done to gift certain animals with enough momentum to overcome prey? And is there really such a thing as the fastest animal in the world?

If all we really want to determine is which animal can cover the distance from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time, then that lingering fact you may have heard about cheetahs is true. The sinewy cat found mainly in Africa can hit speeds of 64 mph, roughly the speed limit of many major U.S. highways. (Other studies have pegged it at 58 mph.)

That’s under ideal conditions. Normally, cheetahs sprint because they’re after dinner, and if that dinner tries to evade capture, the cheetah will need to stop and resume speed often to keep up. Because of the unpredictable nature of their prey, a cheetah often keeps its speed closer to 33 mph.

When we associate the fastest animal in the world with linear forward movement on land, the cheetah is probably going to come out on top. But not all animals use limbs to propel themselves vertically. The falcon, for example, takes advantage of gravity to descend on prey from above. Like free-falling parachutists, falcons have been known to reach high speeds on descent. The higher the starting point, the more speed they can achieve: One peregrine falcon that began at 15,000 feet (thanks to some human help) reached 183 mph.

The cheetah is also outperformed in water by the sailfish, which can reach speeds of 68 mph when they're breaching waves. For context, a sailfish could swim 200 meters in just 10 seconds; Michael Phelps would need well over a minute to cover the same distance. Killer whales can swim 34 mph—incredibly speedy considering their heft.

Asking which is the fastest animal in the world is a tricky question. Humans tend to think of "fast" in relation to the linear movement we see in racing, but fast can mean a variety of things in the wild. While you may never see most of these animals shift into gear in person, at least one domesticated creature can hit the gas: The greyhound tops out at 43 mph.

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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