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That Time it Rained Flesh in Kentucky

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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.

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Crafty Crows Can Build Tools From Memory
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Scientists have discovered yet another reason to never get on a crow's bad side. According to new research reported by Gizmodo, members of at least one crow species can build tools from memory, rather than just copying the behavior of other crows—adding to the long list of impressive skills that set these corvids apart.

For the new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, an international team of scientists looked at New Caledonian crows, a species known for its tool usage. New Caledonian crows use sticks to pick grubs out of logs, sometimes stashing these twigs away for later. Tools are so important to their lifestyle that their beaks even evolved to hold them. But how exactly the crows know to use tools—that is, whether the behavior is just an imitation or knowledge passed down through generations—has remained unclear until now.

The researchers set up the experiment by teaching eight crows to drop pieces of paper into a box in exchange for food. The birds eventually learned that they would only be rewarded if they dispensed either large sheets of paper measuring 40-millimeters-by-60 millimeters or smaller sheets that were 15-millimeters-by-25 millimeters. After the crows had adapted and started using sheets of either size, all the paper was taken away from them and replaced with one sheet that was too big for the box.

The crows knew exactly what to do: They ripped up the sheet until it matched one of the two sizes they had used to earn their food before and inserted it into the dispenser. They were able to do this with out looking at the sheets they had used previously, which suggests they had access to a visual memory of the tools. This supports the "mental template matching" theory—a belief among some crow experts that New Caledonian crows can form a mental image of a tool just by watching another crow use it and later recreate the tool on their own, thus passing along the template to other birds including their own offspring.

This is the first time mental template matching has been observed in birds, but anyone familiar with crow intelligence shouldn't be surprised: They've also been known to read traffic lights, recognize faces, nurse grudges, and hold funerals for their dead.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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