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14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Garbage Collectors

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By Elland Road Partners*

There are more than 116,000 garbage collectors in the United States, which sounds like a lot until you consider the staggering volume of trash Americans toss out every year: 250 million tons (and growing). And yet, these intrepid men and women are shrouded in mystery. Maybe that's because we only think of them when running to the curb in our undies at 6 a.m. or when stuck behind a truck on our way to Costco.

Well, let ignorance go the way of open-air incinerators. To help clear the mystery surrounding the only people who—unlike mom—will keep cleaning up after you for the rest of your life, we interviewed dozens of garbage collectors around the country about their work, motivation, and, yes, that smell. Here's what we learned:

1. It's OK to call us garbage men.

Politically correct terms are "sanitation engineer" and “waste management professional,” but if you ask the men and women who actually do the work there’s nothing to be ashamed of in a description that’s less euphemistic. Veteran "engineer" Scott Fultz, of Portland, Oregon, speaks for most of his peers when he says that the classic moniker is still the best. “Just call me the garbage man," he implores. "I’m the guy that picks up your sewage. I’m the guy driving the big green truck." Trash collector, trash hauler and, across the pond, “bin men” are also acceptable. (So is their actual name.)

2. Or garbage women.

About 99% of U.S. garbage collectors are men, but that still means that more than 1,000 women are out there hauling trash. And all the garbage women we interviewed say they encounter real surprise when they share their vocational choice. Not that such reactions deter them. "I wear it like a badge of honor," says veteran Memphis collector Kim Hardeman. "I’m a garbage woman, and I love it. I’m outdoors all day. And I don’t have to worry about the garbage can talking back to me." And while female collectors may not match their male counterparts when it comes to strength in numbers, they often have a stronger stomach. Says Baltimore garbage woman Kristen Anderson, "If you could see these grown men going crazy when things get gross…"

3. These are not jobs for the faint-hearted.

Trash collecting routinely shows up on lists of the most dangerous jobs in America, with roughly 30 fatalities per 100,000 workers annually. (Logging, the most dangerous profession, averages nearly 60 deaths per 100,000.) Small wonder: Every aspect of a trash collector's job has the capacity to injure. From heavy lifting to man-eating gears to glass and needles hidden in black garbage bags, disaster is never far away. “The toughest job is the position on the back,” says Dallas trash collector Jimmy Johnson. “Mostly because you’re jumping on and off the truck.”

But the most common accident is sadly preventable: collectors getting hit by cars. "It’s a very dangerous job," says Orlando garbage man Edwin Hernandez. "A lot of us get hurt. A driver is flying around a curve and doesn’t see the garbage man—or the truck—and ..." Part of the solution might just be a change in attitude. "Some people do not see you," says Joe Udice, a trash collector in the suburbs of New York City. "It’s a mentality: The garbage truck is there, but it’s not really there. Everyone is in a rush. Everyone’s the most important person."

4. These are also not jobs for the faint-nosed.

It may be the No. 1 reason more people don't get into garbage collection as a career: that unholy odor, impossible to parse but instantly recognizable. "It all combines into one sour swill," explains Udice. But after a while, you just stop noticing. "On the way home I might pick up a friend and he’ll be like, 'Joe, you stink!' And I can’t even notice it." Odor is only one part of an overall gross-out factor that quickly and brutally weeds out the weaklings from the rest of the herd. Minneapolis garbage man Al Gruidl says, "Our running joke—after we dump the garbage from the truck and it’s just water and maggots sloshing around—is to see if you can say, 'Mmmm, looks like great soup!'” Not everyone can. “One summer, a new guy was standing there just puking his guts out. We always have fun with the new guys."

5. This is not your father’s garbage man’s truck.

For many sewage picker-uppers, the days of lifting overstuffed cans by hand are over. “In Phoenix, all the trash collectors are drivers,” says Valley of the Sun veteran Tim Femrite. “Everything’s automated. We call it curbside pickup, where we drive up next to the bins, pick them up and dump them in. So it’s just me in the truck. It could get lonely for some people, but I like it. It’s my office.”

Even in places where the sanitation department and citizenry are less in-tune, today’s trucks are often high-tech wonders equipped with motion-activated cameras (for avoiding unseen hazards) and onboard tablets that help drivers track houses that have missed collection. "I’ve had a customer that I need to go back for because they didn’t have their stuff out in the morning," says Fultz, the Portland collector. "I can get that info in real time, whip right back around the corner, get it picked up and not have to worry about the phone calls." Trash haulers can also flag residents for particularly poor garbage etiquette, like overfilling cans. (“We call it ‘snow-coning,’” says Femrite.) You know who you are—and they do, too.

6. Your trash is our treasure.

You know that flat screen you dumped because it was last year's model? Or that bike your child begged for and never rode? You might have thought those were destined for the compactor, but garbage folk often find new homes for the unloved but usable goods we toss. "A lot of people throw out vacuum cleaners that are really just clogged," Udice explains. Those get a good cleaning and are put to use again. Lamps get fixed and recycled. Old TVs are taken back to headquarters, tested and then installed somewhere else. Just because you don’t have use for it doesn’t mean someone else won’t.

7. Your trash is our titillation.

Most trashcans are filled with the humdrum detritus of day-to-day living: spoiled food, broken appliances, waxen Q-tips, and threadbare underpants. But every so often— a.k.a. pretty much every day—there’s a titillating surprise for the guys and gals who dispose of your rubbish. "Pornography," says Udice. “A lot of pornography.” And while some may be shocked that anyone still buys X-rated magazines and videos, Udice is mostly amazed at the volume. "Never just a couple of magazines,” he says. “It’s always like someone just threw out their trove."

8. Your trash is you!

Minnesotan Gruidl recalls, "At the facility where we dump our garbage, one of the trucks, a front-end loader that picks up private dumpsters, was getting ready to offload. Somebody must have jumped in the dumpster that night to stay warm. They dumped it, and there he was down in the pit. The entire operation stopped. The guy was rolling around in there."

9. It’s the bag, stupid.

The next time you're shopping for trash bags, take a moment to consider all the stakeholders. Cheap bags are cheap for a reason, and when they fail it’s your garbage collector who will pay the price. "Guys throw bags into the truck and the garbage busts right out of the bag,” says Terrell Thompson, a trash collector in Kansas City, Missouri. “If they’ve been cleaning out the yard where their dog was, well…" And Thompson wants you to know that it’s not just about the quality of the bag. “On a hot day,” he explains, “bag material will thin.” In other words, people: Don't be afraid to double-bag it in the summer.

10. It’s a jungle out there.

"We run into animals all the time," says Gruidl. And not just raccoons. "Squirrels have a way of chewing through the lids and getting in and out of the garbage,” he says. “So when you dump it into the hopper, the squirrels fly out and scare the living daylights out of you." Kristen Anderson, a Baltimore garbage woman, had a slightly closer encounter: "I opened a can, and I felt something go up my arm. The guy I was working with jumped back and yelled, 'Did you see that?!' It was a rat, and it ran right up my arm. I didn’t notice till it jumped off. I was glad. I might have quit my job right there."

11. We hate autumn.

Summer, with its bag-thinning and trash-ripening heat, isn't easy on garbage folk. And winter's snow banks are certainly a pain (even if the smell lessens). But the real nightmare season? When the leaves start falling. "Memphis in the fall," says veteran Bluff City collector Kim Hardeman, "The piles—oh my goodness, it’s overwhelming.”

12. We’re generally pretty flexible.

In San Francisco, where Mario Montoya has spent 27 years hauling trash, the Public Works Department "does it all." That not only means emptying cans, but also cleaning out illegal waste dumps and cleaning up after car accidents and fires—even scrubbing down biological waste on the street. And yes, the job can get frustrating, but for Montoya and many of his peers there’s a pervasive sense of pride in their work. "We all grew up in this city," he says, "and we’re proud of that. My dad used to say, 'Whatever you do, whether you’re flipping burgers or flipping dollars, take pride in what you do.' I think that’s very important, especially in this job."

13. And sometimes we’re very flexible.

Joe Udice has a story for you. “There’s a lot of nice areas in Westchester," he says. "You wouldn’t think sanitation workers would really hook up on route because they smell, but there’s this wealthy divorcee who kept joking with one guy on a three-man crew. So eventually he says to one of the other guys, ‘Do you think you could cover my route for like a half hour?” And the other guy is like, ‘Are you kidding?’ And the first guy says, ‘I’m gonna try.’ He hit the lottery with that one. The guy has skills.”

14. These are not jobs of last resort.

"As a kid I always wanted to be a garbage man,” says Orlando garbage man Edwin Hernandez. “I used to live in the projects, and the garbage men had to come to the back of the house, grab the cans and pull them all the way around the house. I liked helping them. This guy, he was probably about 18 years old. He worked on the garbage truck. His name was Lester. And I followed that garbage truck everywhere it went. So that’s one of the things that inspired me. I always wanted to do it.”

Elland Road Partners is a content collaborative founded by Gary Belsky and Neil Fine. Kevin J. Ryan and Deanna Cioppa contributed to this story.

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Lists
25 Royals in the Line of Succession to the British Throne
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Between the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge welcoming their third child on April 23, 2018 and Prince Harry's upcoming marriage to Suits star Meghan Markle in May, the line of succession to the British throne has become a topic of interest all over the world. And the truth is, it’s complicated. Though Queen Elizabeth II, who turned 92 years old on April 21, shows no signs of slowing down, here are the royals who could one day take her place on the throne—in one very specific order.

1. PRINCE CHARLES

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As a direct result of his mother being the world's longest-reigning monarch, Prince Charles—the eldest child of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip—is the longest serving heir to the throne; he became heir apparent in 1952, when his mother ascended to the throne.

2. PRINCE WILLIAM

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At 35 years old, odds are good that Prince William, Duke of Cambridge—the eldest son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana—will ascend to the throne at some point in his lifetime.

3. PRINCE GEORGE 

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On July 22, 2013, Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge welcomed their first child, Prince George of Cambridge, who jumped the line to step ahead of his uncle, Prince Harry, to become third in the line of succession.

4. PRINCESS CHARLOTTE 

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On May 2, 2015, William and Catherine added another member to their growing brood: a daughter, Princess Charlotte of Cambridge. Though her parents just welcomed a bouncing baby boy, she will maintain the fourth-in-line position because of the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, which went into effect just a few weeks before her arrival, and removed a long-held rule which stated that any male sibling (regardless of birth order) would automatically move ahead of her.

5. PRINCE OF CAMBRIDGE

 Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge depart the Lindo Wing with their newborn son at St Mary's Hospital on April 23, 2018 in London, England
Chris Jackson, Getty Images

On April 23, 2018, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge welcomed their third child—a son, whose name has yet to be announced, but who has already pushed his uncle, Prince Harry, out of the fifth position in line to the throne.

6. PRINCE HARRY

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As the second-born son of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Prince Harry's place in the line is a regularly changing one. It changed earlier this week, when his brother William's third child arrived, and could change again if and when their family expands.

7. PRINCE ANDREW, DUKE OF YORK

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Prince Andrew is a perfect example of life before the Succession to the Crown Act 2013: Though he’s the second-born son of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, he’s actually their third child (Princess Anne came between him and Prince Charles). But because the rules gave preference to males, Prince Andrew would inherit the throne before his older sister.

8. PRINCESS BEATRICE OF YORK

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Because Prince Andrew and his ex-wife, Sarah, Duchess of York, had two daughters and no sons, none of that male-preference primogeniture stuff mattered in terms of their placement. But with each child her cousin Prince William has, Princess Beatrice moves farther away from the throne. If Beatrice looks familiar, it might be because of the headlines she made with the Dr. Seuss-like hat she wore to William and Catherine’s wedding. (The infamous topper later sold on eBay for more than $130,000, all of which went to charity.)

9. PRINCESS EUGENIE OF YORK

Princess Eugenie of York arrives in the parade ring during Royal Ascot 2017 at Ascot Racecourse on June 20, 2017 in Ascot, England
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Though she’s regularly seen at royal events, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson’s youngest daughter spends the bulk of her time indulging her interest in fine art. She has held several jobs in the art world, and is currently a director at Hauser & Wirth’s London gallery.

10. PRINCE EDWARD, EARL OF WESSEX

 Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex leaves after a visit to Prince Philip
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Like his older brother Andrew, Prince Edward—the youngest son of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip—jumps the line ahead of his older sister, Princess Anne, because of the older rule that put males ahead of females.

11. JAMES, VISCOUNT SEVERN

 James, Viscount Severn, rides on the fun fair carousel on day 4 of the Royal Windsor Horse Show on May 11, 2013 in Windsor, England
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James, Viscount Severn—the younger of Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex and Sophie, Countess of Wessex’s two children, and their only son—turned 10 years old on December 17, 2017, and celebrated it as the 10th royal in line of succession. (The birth of the youngest Prince of Cambridge pushed him back a spot.)

12. LADY LOUISE MOUNTBATTEN-WINDSOR

Lady Louise Windsor during the annual Trooping the Colour Ceremony at Buckingham Palace on June 15, 2013 in London, England.
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Because the Succession to the Crown Act 2013 wasn’t enacted until 2015, Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor—the older of Prince Edward’s two children—will always be just behind her brother in the line of succession.

13. PRINCESS ANNE, THE PRINCESS ROYAL

Princess Anne, Princess Royal, visits the Hambleton Equine Clinic on October 10, 2017 in Stokesley, England
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Princess Anne, the Queen and Prince Philip’s second-born child and only daughter, may never rule over the throne in her lifetime, but at least she gets to be called “The Princess Royal.”

14. PETER PHILLIPS

Peter Phillips poses for a photo on The Mall
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The eldest child and only son of Princess Anne and her first husband, Captain Mark Phillips, stands just behind his mother in line. Interesting fact: Had Phillips’s wife, Autumn Kelly, not converted from Roman Catholicism to the Church of England before their marriage in 2008, Phillips would have lost his place in line.

15. SAVANNAH PHILLIPS

Savannah Phillips attends a Christmas Day church service
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On December 29, 2010, Peter and Autumn Phillips celebrated the birth of their first child, Savannah Anne Kathleen Phillips, who is also the Queen’s first great-grandchild. She’s currently 15th in line.

16. ISLA PHILLIPS

Princess Anne, Princess Royal, Isla Phillips and Peter Phillips attend a Christmas Day church service
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Less than two years after Savannah, Peter and Autumn Phillips had a second daughter, Isla, who stands just behind her sister in line. It wasn’t until 2017 that Savannah and Isla made their Buckingham Palace balcony debut (in honor of their great-grandmother’s 91st birthday).

17. ZARA TINDALL

 Zara Tindall arrives for a reception at the Guildhall
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Not one to hide in the background, Zara Tindall—Princess Anne’s second child and only daughter—has lived much of her life in the spotlight. A celebrated equestrian, she won the Eventing World Championship in Aachen in 2006 and was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year the same year (her mom earned the same title in 1971). She’s also Prince George’s godmother.

18. MIA TINDALL

Mike Tindall, Zara Tindall and their daughter Mia Tindall pose for a photograph during day three of The Big Feastival at Alex James' Farm on August 28, 2016 in Kingham, Oxfordshire.
Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

Zara Tindall’s daughter Mia may just be 4 years old, but she’s already regularly making headlines for her outgoing personality. And though she’s only 18th in line to the throne, her connection to the tippity top of the royal family is much closer: Prince William is her godfather.

19. DAVID ARMSTRONG-JONES, 2ND EARL OF SNOWDON

David Armstrong-Jones, 2nd Earl of Snowdon
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David Armstrong-Jones, the eldest child of Princess Margaret, isn’t waiting around to see if the British crown ever lands on his head. The 56-year-old, who goes by David Linley in his professional life, has made a name for himself as a talented furniture-maker. His bespoke pieces, sold under the brand name Linley, can be purchased through his own boutiques as well as at Harrods.

20. CHARLES ARMSTRONG-JONES, VISCOUNT LINLEY

Margarita Armstrong-Jones and Charles Patrick Inigo Armstrong-Jones
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David Armstrong-Jones’s only son, Charles, may be 20th in line to the throne, but the 18-year-old is the heir apparent to the Earldom of Snowdon.

21. LADY MARGARITA ARMSTRONG-JONES

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II (R) talks with Lady Margarita Armstrong-Jones (C) as her father David Armstrong-Jones (L), 2nd Earl of Snowdon, known as David Linley
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Lady Margarita Armstrong-Jones, the youngest child of David Armstrong-Jones and his only daughter, is also the only granddaughter of Princess Margaret. Now 15 years old (she'll turn 16 in June), Lady Margarita made headlines around the world in 2011 when she served as a flower girl at the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.

22. LADY SARAH CHATTO

Lady Sarah Chatto, the daughter of Princess Margaret arrives for her mother's memorial service
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Lady Sarah Chatto, Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones’s only daughter, is the youngest grandchild of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. In addition to serving as a bridesmaid to Princess Diana, she is Prince Harry’s godmother.

23. SAMUEL CHATTO

Lady Sarah Chatto (L) and her son Samuel Chatto (R) leave a Service of Thanksgiving for the life and work of Lord Snowdon at Westminster Abbey on April 7, 2017 in London, United Kingdom
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The first-born son of Lady Sarah Chatto and her husband, Daniel, has a long way to go to reach the throne: He’s currently 23rd in line.

24. ARTHUR CHATTO

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For better or worse, Sarah and Daniel Chatto’s youngest son Arthur has become a bit of a social media sensation. He's made headlines recently as he regularly posts selfies to Instagram—some of them on the eyebrow-raising side, at least as far as royals go.

25. PRINCE RICHARD, DUKE OF GLOUCESTER

Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester makes a speech during the unveiling ceremony of London's first public memorial to the Korean War on December 3, 2014 in London, England
Carl Court/Getty Images

At 73 years old, Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester is the youngest grandchild of King George V and Queen Mary. Formerly, he made a living as an architect, until the 1972 death of his brother, Prince William of Gloucester, put him next in line to inherit his father’s dukedom. On June 10, 1974, he officially succeeded his father as Duke of Gloucester, Earl of Ulster, and Baron Culloden.

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20 Black-and-White Facts About Penguins
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To celebrate World Penguin Day (which is today, April 25), here are a few fun facts about these adorable tuxedoed birds.

1. All 17 species of penguins are found exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere.

2. Emperor Penguins are the tallest species, standing nearly 4 feet tall. The smallest is the Little Blue Penguin, which is only about 16 inches.

emperor penguin
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3. The fastest species is the Gentoo Penguin, which can reach swimming speeds up to 22 mph.

Gentoo Penguin
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4. A penguin's striking coloring is a matter of camouflage; from above, its black back blends into the murky depths of the ocean. From below, its white belly is hidden against the bright surface.

penguins swimming in the ocean
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5. Fossils place the earliest penguin relative at some 60 million years ago, meaning an ancestor of the birds we see today survived the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.

emperor penguins
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6. Penguins ingest a lot of seawater while hunting for fish, but a special gland behind their eyes—the supraorbital gland—filters out the saltwater from their blood stream. Penguins excrete it through their beaks, or by sneezing.

penguins swimming in the ocean
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7. Unlike most birds—which lose and replace a few feathers at a time—penguins molt all at once, spending two or three weeks land-bound as they undergo what is called the catastrophic molt.

molting penguin
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8. All but two species of penguins breed in large colonies of up to a thousand birds.

king penguins
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9. It varies by species, but many penguins will mate with the same member of the opposite sex season after season.

chinstrap penguins
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10. Similarly, most species are also loyal to their exact nesting site, often returning to the same rookery in which they were born.

maegellic penguin nesting
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11. Some species create nests for their eggs out of pebbles and loose feathers. Emperor Penguins are an exception: They incubate a single egg each breeding season on the top of their feet. Under a loose fold of skin is a featherless area with a concentration of blood vessels that keeps the egg warm.

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12. In some species, it is the male penguin which incubates the eggs while females leave to hunt for weeks at a time. Because of this, pudgy males—with enough fat storage to survive weeks without eating—are most desirable.

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13. Penguin parents—both male and female—care for their young for several months until the chicks are strong enough to hunt for food on their own.

Penguins nest
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14. If a female Emperor Penguin's baby dies, she will often "kidnap" an unrelated chick.

penguin chicks
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15. Despite their lack of visible ears, penguins have excellent hearing and rely on distinct calls to identify their mates when returning to the crowded breeding grounds.

16. The first published account of penguins comes from Antonio Pigafetta, who was aboard Ferdinand Magellan's first circumnavigation of the globe in 1520. They spotted the animals near what was probably Punta Tombo in Argentina. (He called them "strange geese.")

17. An earlier, anonymous diary entry from Vasco da Gama's 1497 voyage around the Cape of Good Hope makes mention of flightless birds as large as ducks.

18. Because they aren't used to danger from animals on solid ground, wild penguins exhibit no particular fear of human tourists.

19. Unlike most sea mammals—which rely on blubber to stay warm—penguins survive because their feathers trap a layer of warm air next to the skin that serves as insulation, especially when they start generating muscular heat by swimming around.

20. In the 16th century, the word penguin actually referred to great auks (scientific name: Pinguinus impennis), a now-extinct species that inhabited the seas around eastern Canada. When explorers traveled to the Southern Hemisphere, they saw black and white birds that resembled auks, and called them penguins.

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