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The Strange Effect 9/11 Had on the Whale Population

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Canada’s Bay of Fundy is located on the east coast of North America, tucked between Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. It’s a common home to a number of ships and active ports, at least on a typical day. But September 11, 2001, was not a typical day. The attacks on the United States brought sea traffic throughout the region to a crawl as authorities rushed to ensure the safety of ships, their passengers, and their cargo. That slowdown lasted a couple of days and unintentionally created unique conditions for scientific inquiry. 

For example, it helped researchers discover that whales were really stressed out.

The Bay of Fundy is a seasonal feeding ground for a few species of whales, whose populations spike in the summer and into the early fall. As a relatively enclosed body of water, the Bay of Fundy lends itself well to the study of these creatures. In September 2001, two teams of researchers were independently conducting whale-focused experiments in the area. One was collecting recordings of whale songs, to learn more about how whales communicate. The other was collecting whale feces, which, while gross, can be used to tell us more about whale diet and nutrition by measuring various hormone levels found within the stool samples. (The things we do in furtherance of science.)

Nearly a decade after 9/11, a group led by scientists from the New England Aquarium in Boston noticed that these two experiments provided a rare opportunity. For years, as the New York Times reported, we’ve known that whales “communicate with acoustic signals at low frequency, the range of many noises from ships” and that “whales move off, reduce their own calls and otherwise respond to ship noise.” Some researchers believed that whales were moving away because ship noise caused them stress, but there was no good way to test this theory. Incredibly, the 9/11 data provided a rare insight into the question. 

When whales get stressed, they release a hormone that, ultimately, they excrete in their feces. Because researchers were collecting the poop on 9/11 and the days previous and subsequent, the science community had data on the relative stress levels of the Bay of Fundy whales during that time. What it shows is that the whales were pretty relaxed on the days after the attack—or, at least, more relaxed than they were in the days prior. 

From the same time period, we also have data measuring the amount of low-frequency acoustic signals in the Bay that week—again, from before and after 9/11. We already knew that ship traffic came to a near-halt, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the amount of underwater noise also dropped dramatically. One could say that it was, relatively speaking, rather peaceful if you were a whale.

Whether the whales’ stress levels are important, though, is harder to determine. Since the conditions of this experiment were accidental, researchers can’t repeat the tests. One of the researchers pointed out, in the words of the Associated Press, that it is “unclear how much chronic stress from noise the whales can take before the population is affected, largely because it’s impossible to conduct controlled experiments on fifty-ton animals.” So for now, we’ll likely keep stressing out the whales.

Bonus Fact

Life as a college student can be stressful, too, especially around finals. A few schools have found a cute solution—puppies. The schools bring in trained therapy animals to take some of the edge off.

Excerpted from Now I Know More Copyright © 2014 by Dan Lewis and published by F+W Media, Inc. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. 

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

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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Animals
Listen to the Impossibly Adorable Sounds of a Baby Sloth
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Sometimes baby sloths seem almost too adorable to be real. But the little muppet-faced treasures don't just look cute—turns out they sound cute, too. We know what you're thinking: How could you have gone your whole life without knowing what these precious creatures sound like? Well, fear not: Just in time for International Sloth Day (today), we have some footage of how the tiny mammals express themselves—and it's a lot of squeaking. (Or maybe that's you squealing?)

The sloths featured in the heart-obliterating video below come from the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica. The institution rescues orphaned sloths, rehabilitates them, and gets them ready to be released back into the wild.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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