That Time it Rained Flesh in Kentucky


March 3, 1876, was a beautiful day in Bath County, Kentucky, and a local farmer’s wife, Mrs. Crouch, was outside making soap. 

“Between 11 and 12 o'clock I was in my yard, not more than forty steps from the house,” she told reporters. “There was a light wind coming from the west, but the sky was clear and the sun was shining brightly. Without any prelude or warning of any kind, and exactly under these circumstances, the shower commenced.”

Suddenly, meat came raining down all around her. 

When the flesh began to fall I saw a large piece strike the ground close by me, with a snapping-like noise when it struck,” Crouch said. “The largest piece that I saw was as long as my hand and about half an inch wide. It looked gristly, as if it had been torn from the throat of some animal. Another piece that I saw was half round in shape and about the size of a half dollar."

For several minutes, Crouch and her husband Allen watched as pieces of fresh, raw meat, some “delicate shreds as light as a snowflake” and others “a solid lump three inches square” fell from the sky.  

Mrs. Crouch said she was “impressed with the conviction that it was either a miracle or a warning.” The Crouchs’ cat, less concerned about meaning of the meat than his masters, "immediately gorged himself with the public breakfast so unexpectedly tendered to him."

When it was over, the “Kentucky meat shower,” as it came to be known, left an area of the farmyard 100 yards long and 50 wide strewn with flesh. “Particles of meat” were found “sticking to the fences and scattered over the ground.” 

The shower drew plenty of attention, and curious neighbors and newspaper reporters flocked to the Crouchs’ farm to see the mystery meat and offer their opinions on it. Many locals said it looked like beef, but one neighbor who was a hunter, “on being shown a piece of the flesh, declared it to be bear meat, and stated that it had ‘that uncommonly greasy feel’ peculiar to the flesh of that animal.”

Tastes Like Mutton

Others took it upon themselves to taste it, and two men said it was “either mutton or venison.” A local butcher who tried a piece “declared that it tasted neither like flesh, fish or fowl. It looked to him like mutton, but the smell was a new one.”

With no one able to identify the meat by sight or taste, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported, “a great deal of the flesh was sent to chemists and others in various parts of the country, and analyses were made by several well-known scientists.”

A Professor J.L. Smith initially thought that the “meat” was actually dried frog spawn that had been picked up from a pond by the wind, but later abandoned the idea. 

Leopold Brandies, writing in a journal called The Sanitarian, claimed that “the ‘Kentucky Wonder’ is nothing more or less than the ‘Nostoc’ of the old alchemist,” a “strange-looking vegetable mass” [now recognized as cyanobacteria] consisting of “translucent, gelatinous bodies joined together by thread-like tubes or seedbearers.”

A few other scientists concluded that their samples “possess undoubted characteristics peculiar to the flesh of animals”—it was indeed meat, but which kind was unclear. 

Dr. L.D. Kastenbine, a chemist at Louisville College, heated one sample over a Bunsen burner and noted that it had an odor “distinctly like rancid mutton-suet on warming, and after ignition had the characteristic smell of burned animal tissue.” He also treated some pieces in chemical solutions, which helped expose muscle fibers and connective and fatty tissues. “As the specimen was not placed in alcohol the odor was retained, which a number of meat experts pronounced without hesitation mutton,” he wrote. “Since my examination I have learned that others have arrived at the same conclusion as myself, some even asserting that the wool of the animal was distinctly seen.”

Doctors Allan McLane Hamilton and J.W.S. Arnold agreed that the flesh had come from an animal, but it wasn’t mutton. After examining a piece under a microscope, they identified it instead as lung tissue either from a horse or a human infant, “the structure of the organ in these two cases being very similar.”

Dr. Mead Edwards, meanwhile, examined three different samples, “two in the natural state as they fell and one prepared and mounted for the microscope.” The mounted specimen and one of the others, he determined, were bits of cartilage, while the last piece was composed of “striated muscular fibers along with what appears to be dense connective tissue.” While the condition of the samples prevented him from identifying source of the flesh, Edwards concluded that all of the specimens “proved to be of animal origin, showing that the Kentucky shower was a veritable ‘meat’ shower.”

But if it was meat, where did it come from? William Livingston Alden, writing in the New York Times, offered two different tongue-in-cheek explanations. The first was the “obvious conclusion” that the deluge of meat was a bizarre form of meteor shower. “According to the present theory of astronomers, an enormous belt of meteoric stones constantly revolves around the sun, and when the earth comes in contact with this belt she is soundly pelted,” he wrote. “Similarly, we may suppose that there revolves about the sun a belt of venison, mutton, and other meats, divided into small fragments, which are precipitated upon the earth whenever the latter crosses their path.”  

Alternately, he offered that “a terrible suspicion has since grown up that the shower actually consisted of finely-hashed citizens of Kentucky, who had been caught in a whirlwind while engaged in a little 'difficulty' with Bowie knives and strewn over their astonished State.” 

A more probable explanation, suggested by the Crouchs and chemist Robert Peter and supported by Kastenbine, Edwards and Smith, was that meat shower was simply vomit produced by a passing flock of vultures “who had been feasting themselves more abundantly than wisely” on a carcass. 

“I am informed that it is not uncommon for buzzards thus to disgorge their overcharged stomachs,” Smith wrote. “And that when in a flock one commences the relief operation, the others are excited to nausea, and a general shower of half-digested meat takes place.”

That would explain the melange of muscle, connective tissue and fat that was recovered, Kastenbine wrote. It would also, unfortunately, mean that a cat and a bunch of people were eating bits of half-digested meat off the ground. 

Whatever the meat was and wherever it came from, you can see a bit of it for yourself. The Monroe Moosnick Medical and Science Museum at Transylvania University in Lexington has a preserved piece of meat from the shower in its collection.

Big Questions
Why Do Canada Geese Fly at Night?

Why do Canadian geese fly at night?

Stefan Pociask:

There are actually very good reasons that these geese fly at night, and I will go over them with you. But first ... I must point out that any goose you see that is carrying a valid passport from the great country of Canada, may be called a Canadian Goose. All others should be referred to by their actual name, which is Canada Goose, or Branta canadensis, if you prefer.

I can’t count how many nights at 10 p.m., at midnight, at 3 a.m., and any and all other hours of the night, I have had that all too familiar “Honk! honk-honk-honk HONKhonk HONK HONKhonkhonkhonk HONK honk HOOOONK!” cacophony pass right outside my bedroom window, as the familiar flying-V formations of Canada geese fly over my home.

Those V formations are quite extraordinary. You can’t tell from the ground, but the lead goose is the lowest of the bunch. Each goose behind is slightly higher than the one in front of it, all the way to the last goose, which is flying the highest. They do this because of the aerodynamics of their wings. The only goose that is using all its wing power is the lead goose—point-man, so to speak. When that goose flaps its wings, it causes a certain turbulence of the air that’s following the wing. The next goose in line benefits from this swirling air, and doesn’t need to apply 100 percent of its wingpower. The next goose again benefits from that one, and so on down the line. Flying in formation this way adds 71 percent more distance that they can fly, than when flying alone.

So who gets chosen to be point-man? You’d think the one with the map! Or ... the leader? Or the new guy? No. None of these. They actually take turns. When one gets tired, he will drop back so he can rest a bit and benefit from another goose’s turbulence. When migrating ... in good weather ... with favorable winds, a strong tail wind ... these guys can make up to 1500 miles in a single day ... Hard to imagine, but it’s been done. They are migration masters.

So … the flying at night thing … I’ve already touched upon one of the reasons they prefer the night. It has to do with that turbulence I just mentioned.

You see ... many other large birds (and these are large birds) use thermals to gain altitude and to soar on. Raptors do this. Hawks, eagles, etc. During the day, the landscape is riddled with all kinds of thermals rising from the ground, all depending on what the surface looks like below; how much heat was absorbed and stored from the sun; if it’s dark or light … or even water. These thermals are great for raptors—lots of vertical air movement, all over. But geese don’t soar, and they don’t have need to fly in circles. They have somewhere to go. And all those daytime thermals are a pain in the butt; doesn’t make for smooth sailing. Plus, they interfere with the aforementioned wing turbulence that they use to keep from tiring. At night, several hours after sunset, the Earth cools and those pesky vertical thermals disperse.

So that’s one reason they like the night. Another reason for night flight is to prevent overheating (makes sense, right?). Nights are cooler, so birds that expend a lot of energy with constant flapping (as opposed to soaring) take advantage of the cool of the night.

A third reason is also something I’ve already mentioned. Hawks! And eagles! And falcons! All those guys are diurnal hunters, meaning they hunt during the day. Which goose in its right mind would want to share the not-so-friendly skies with something called a raptor? Now, if you’ve ever seen flocks of geese on the ground and tried to get amongst them or feed them or something … you may already know how mean and nasty they can get. People have used geese instead of watchdogs. They are tough! Especially on the ground. But falcons, hawks, and eagles, hitting them from the air often spells doom. In other words ... their goose is cooked. During the day, they often rest and feed and rejuvenate in the water, where they are safe from raptor attack. As long as they stay in the water.

So given the choice, they take the red-eye.

Otherwise, this can happen ... (WARNING: Extremely dramatic footage follows of a falcon/goose battle. Also extremely exciting! Who will win?!)

You’ll certainly see Canada geese fly during the day. But the smart goose prefers the night.

All migratory birds are split up into three classes, regarding migration habits. Nocturnal Migrants, are the first classification, [and they fly] at night. This would include most of the seed-eating songbirds, such as sparrows and thrushes. They will fly all night, then rest up, top off the tank with food, and try to stay out of sight of raptors during the day.

The second group is the Diurnal Migrants, who migrate during the day. These are often the insect-eaters; jays, swifts, swallows, larks, etc. They benefit greatly from the daytime thermals during their journey—not for reasons of soaring, like raptors use thermals, but rather because these warm updrafts send up clouds of insects from the fields, right into the paths of the migrating birds, like a food delivery service. Most insects are so light that a gust of wind or a thermal current can lift them high into the air—and unwittingly into the beak of a hungry swallow.

And the third class of [migratory birds] are those that have a preference, but actually migrate day and/or night, depending on the circumstances. Canada geese, and many waterfowl, fit into this last category.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Rachael Herman, Louisiana State University, © Stony Brook University
Poop Visible From Space Helped Scientists Find a Remote 'Supercolony' of Penguins
Rachael Herman, Louisiana State University, © Stony Brook University
Rachael Herman, Louisiana State University, © Stony Brook University

Penguin poop visible from space just helped scientists discover a previously unknown, massive colony of Adélie penguins on a chain of remote Antarctic islands, according to a new study published in Scientific Reports.

In 2014, Stony Brook University's Heather Lynch and NASA's Mathew Schwaller identified guano stains in satellite images of the Danger Islands, a rocky archipelago off the Antarctic Peninsula. The visible guano marks signaled that a large population of penguins was living there. When the scientists launched an expedition to the islands to learn more, and counted birds by hand and with a camera-equipped drone, they discovered a "supercolony" of more than 1.5 million Adélies.

"Until recently, the Danger Islands weren't known to be an important penguin habitat," Lynch said in a press release. By this count, the islands are actually home to the largest population of the species on the Antarctic Peninsula.

The Danger Islands were discovered by British explorer James Clark Ross in 1842, and got their name from the fact that they are often hidden under ice. Ross and his crew almost crashed their ships on them—"appearing among heavy fragments of ice, they were almost completely concealed until the ship was nearly upon them," as the USGS's Geographic Names Information System explains. They're still hard to access and dangerous to visit because of the thick ice that surrounds them. And that makes them perfect for penguins.

Aerial shot from a quadcopter of penguin populations on Heroina Island.
Thomas Sayre McChord, Hanumant Singh, Northeastern University, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Penguins depend on sea ice for survival, and in places where sea ice is disappearing, their populations are declining. The western Antarctic Peninsula has seen huge declines in Adélie penguin populations as the ice has melted—up to 80 percent in some colonies since 1981, by one estimate. But because of the geographic variation in how climate change has affected temperatures, the population decline hasn't been the same everywhere, and other colonies have even grown. This new discovery tracks with Lynch's previous research, which has found that the impact of climate change on Antarctic penguins will be highly variable depending on the location.

“Just because a huge colony was just found doesn't mean that colonies in areas where sea ice isn't great aren't declining," University of Minnesota ecologist Michelle LaRue wrote in an email to Mental Floss. “If the sea ice conditions at the Danger Islands colony all of a sudden saw similar trends in sea ice decline, I would still expect that colony to decline, too." LaRue has worked with Lynch to study penguin populations before, but wasn't involved with this latest study.

The paper also shows how useful the combination of satellite, ground observation, and drones can be in counting penguins in remote areas. The drone was able to capture images like the one above every second as it flew over the island, creating 2D and 3D views of the whole area. This made their overall population count more accurate, which will aid researchers in tracking changes in the colony as time goes on.


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