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6 People Who Can Cheat (Certain Kinds of) Death

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The grim specter of death hangs over us all. But for certain people, some forces guaranteed to kill wind up being reduced to mere nuisances. Take a look at six examples of people who can fend off the Reaper—providing he’s playing by their rules.

1. The Peruvians Immune to Rabies

The World Health Organization has declared rabies fatal “nearly always” if the bite victim hasn’t gotten vaccinated following exposure. It’s a lousy way to go, too: infected patients develop hydrophobia (a fear of water) or muscle paralysis leading to coma. But in 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced they had found six people living in the Peruvian Amazon with rabies antibodies who were in good health. Since antibodies are only created after vaccination or after exposure—and only one had been vaccinated—scientists concluded they had survived some degree of viral infection, possibly owing to the high concentration of vampire bats in the area.

2. Wim Hof

Dutchman Wim Hof once felt an overwhelming urge to jump into icy water. Feeling no worse for the wear, he graduated to Arctic marathons and North Pole swimming. Hof has been studied by experts in hypothermia and displays no adverse effects to freezing temperatures under controlled conditions. In ice water, his body temperature has plunged as low as 93.6 degrees without shivering. (Ninety degrees can prove fatal.) Hof told The Guardian he can withstand the cold through meditation and appears to have the confidence to back it up: He once tried climbing Mount Everest in nothing but shorts and ascended roughly 24,000 feet.  

3. Timo Kaukonen

Timo Kaukonen has made a name for himself on the Russian sauna competition circuit: the Finland native once withstood a 230 degree Fahrenheit room for 16 minutes in 2003. (Water boils at 212 degrees.) Under such conditions, burns and hyperthermia become serious considerations. Kaukonen’s onetime competitor, Vladimir Ladyzhensky, collapsed and died shortly after one such event in 2010.

4. Tom Sietas

If Tom Sietas should ever find himself trapped underwater, he’ll have at least 15 minutes to figure things out. A German free diver, Sietas holds the world’s record for holding his breath underwater at over 22 minutes. Since those attempts are frequently after inhaling oxygen, though, it wouldn’t do Sietas much good if he went overboard spontaneously. Good thing he can hold his breath unassisted for over 10 minutes. Typically, brain damage occurs after three to four minutes without respiration. Sietas’s lungs are believed to hold 20 percent more oxygen than a normal person’s.

5. Bill Haast

Who can say what compels a man to essentially “milk” the venom from millions of poisonous snakes? Bill Haast spent decades handling vipers, cobras, diamondbacks, and other reptiles under the banner of his Serpentarium Laboratories, which supplied the key ingredient—poison—in anti-venom formulas for bite victims. In order to handle his high volume of ornery suppliers, Haast injected himself with venom every day for 60 years. Despite being bitten over 170 times, he was never fatally struck. When he passed away, it was of natural causes—at the age of 100.  

6. Dickinson Oppong

Guzzling too much water in too short a period of time can easily induce hyponatremia, a condition where the body becomes so overloaded with fluid the kidneys are unable to keep up and your bloodstream becomes diluted. (In 2009, a woman died from a marathon water drinking contest arranged by a radio station.) But Ghana’s Dickinson Oppong is somehow able to down liters of water in minutes without absorbing it. His stomach contains the liquid before Oppong spits it back out, avoiding everyone’s least favorite conclusions to a party trick: brain edema, coma, and death.

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Deb Wright
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Animals
The ‘Yoda Bat’ Gets an Even Cuter Name
Deb Wright
Deb Wright

The fruit bat formerly known as Yoda has found its forever name. Scientists christened the happy tube-nosed fruit bat in the Records of the Australian Museum.

The genus Nyctimene comprises 18 species, all of which live in Oceania and southeast Asia. They’ve got bright fur and faces, and noticeable spots on their wings. They will do just about anything for a mushy piece of fruit.

The family tree is no stranger to memorable common names, with cousins like N. draconilla, the dragon tube-nosed bat, and N. masalai, the demonic tube-nosed bat.

But wacky names aside, it would be hard to spot the dragon or the demon amid a lineup of other Nyctimene species.

“Bat species often look similar to each other,” biologist and co-author Nancy Irwin of York University said in a statement, “but differ significantly in behavior, feeding, and history.”

The newest member of the family showed its smiling little face during a field survey of Papua New Guinea in the late 1990s. Surveyors brought the bat to Irwin, who suspected it was a separate species. For its wrinkly ears and sage but goofy smile, she nicknamed the bat Yoda.

To confirm that they did, in fact, have a new species on their hands, Irwin and her colleagues combed through the scientific literature and museum collections. They examined nearly 3000 bat specimens from 18 museums.

A happy tube-nosed fruit bat with her baby and a postage stamp featuring an illustration of an unknown tube-nosed fruit bat.
Happy tube-nosed fruit bat (L) and a postage stamp (R) showing an unknown Nyctimene species, because they all look the same.
(L) Nancy Irwin; (R) Illustration by Julie Himes.

Many years and many, many research hours later, Irwin and her colleagues can confidently say the Yoda bat is a species unto itself. But they won’t call it Yoda anymore—since, as Irwin points out, most local Papuans have never seen the Star Wars movies, and the word "Yoda" means nothing to them.

She went with Hamamas (a local word for happy) instead. Its full name is the Hamamas tube-nosed fruit bat, Nyctimene wrightae sp. nov. (new species). The species name was chosen in honor of conservationist and scientist Deb Wright, who spent two decades exploring and protecting Papua New Guinea wildlife.

“Until a species is recognized and has a name,” Irwin says, “it becomes difficult to recognize the riches of biodiversity and devise management. Fruit bats are crucial to rainforest health, pollinating and dispersing many tree species, therefore it is essential we know what is there and how we can protect it, for our own benefit.”

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SMBishop, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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Animals
Bats Yell, Too
SMBishop, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
SMBishop, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Imagine you’re in a noisy restaurant, trying and failing to place an order. “IT’S VERY LOUD IN HERE!” you shout to your server, who shrugs. Now imagine that same conversation conducted super-fast, at a pitch so squeaky-high that you can’t even hear it. Researchers say bats are incredibly speedy at recognizing when they need to start shouting. A report on the bats’ raised voices is forthcoming in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Humans, bats, and other animals often start our conversations at one volume, then adjust as necessary. Study co-author Ninad Kothari of Johns Hopkins University says this seemingly simple action, called the Lombard effect, has proved complicated to understand.

“Scientists have been wondering for a century—could there be a common auditory process to explain how this phenomenon happens in fish to frogs to birds to humans, species with wildly different hearing systems?” Kothari said in a statement.

Previous studies had found that the Lombard effect takes about 150 milliseconds for birds and bats, and between 150 and 175 milliseconds for people.

Human listening, like human speech, can be messy, slow, and difficult to study. But bats’ echolocation squeaks and chirps are quick and precise, which makes them excellent scientific subjects.

Kothari and his colleagues Jinhong Luo and Cynthia Moss, also of Johns Hopkins, trained big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus) to sit calmly on little platforms surrounded by recording equipment. The researchers set up an automated pulley system that brought insects zooming toward the bats, then listened as the bats hunted, bouncing sound off the approaching meal. Sometimes they let the bats go about their business in silence; other hunting sessions were interrupted by bursts of loud white noise.

The results suggest that earlier speed estimates had been way, way off. Just 30 milliseconds after hearing white noise, the bats got louder. That’s a “remarkably short” reaction time, the authors say.

“Typically, we breathe every three to five seconds, our heart beats once per second, and eye blinking takes one-third of a second,” Luo said in the statement. “If we believe that eye blinking is fast, the speed at which an echolocating bat responds to ambient noise is truly shocking: 10 times faster than we blink our eyes.”

Not bad, bats. Not bad.

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