rebecca o'connell
rebecca o'connell

12 Friendly Facts About Labrador Retrievers

rebecca o'connell
rebecca o'connell

You probably have or know at least one Labrador retriever, so you should get to know them better! 

1. They’re America’s favorite breed.

Jason English

According to the American Kennel Club, the breed has taken the top spot in its rankings of most popular breeds for 24 consecutive years—the longest reign of any breed in AKC history.

2. Labs were originally used for fishing.

Labrador retrievers were bred to be the perfect water dogs: They have water-resistant double coats that provide insulation, and their short fur keeps them warm but doesn’t drag them down when it gets wet. Their webbed toes facilitate speedy swimming. Fishermen used the dogs to bring in nets, pull ropes between boats, and recover escaped fish.

3. Their name is a little misleading.

Labrador retrievers actually come from Newfoundland, not Labrador. In the 18th century, Greater Newfoundland dogs bred with smaller water dogs to produce St. John’s water dogs. These smaller canines looked a lot like modern day Labs, but with white muzzles and paws. The St. John’s water dog eventually went extinct, but it served as the ancestor for the Labrador retriever. 

4. The Earl of Malmesbury might have named them. 

The Earl brought these dogs home with him to England after a trip to Canada, and referred to his new pups as “Labrador dogs” in 1887. Since Newfoundland and Labrador are geographically close, many historians suspect the name is a result of the British commonly lumping the territories together and referring to the whole mass as Labrador. Others believe the name was a nod to the fact that the dogs were often seen swimming in the Labrador Sea. 

5. Canadian tax laws helped labs become a distinct breed.

A combination of new taxes on dogs in Canada and a quarantine of animals imported into England caused the sale of St. John’s water dogs there to come to a screeching halt. Eventually, these original labs went extinct in Canada, but the breed survived in Great Britain thanks to kennels in Scotland. Labs were finally recognized by the English Kennel Club in 1903.

6. They’re fast! 

Labrador retrievers are known for their ability to sprint. They can hit 12 miles an hour in just three seconds.

7. You can get all three colors in one litter.

Regardless of the parents’ color, a single litter can include black, yellow, and chocolate puppies. There are two genes that cause the pigmentation of the coat, so the variation can be just as common as different hair colors in a human family.

8. A nameless black Lab wandered his way into a Led Zeppelin song.

If you read the lyrics to Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” you'll notice it’s mysteriously not about dogs at all. The band named the song after a black Labrador that was wandering around the Headley Grange studio while they were recording the album Led Zeppelin IV

9. A lab went to jail ...

After killing the cat belonging to Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot’s wife, a black Labrador retriever named Pep was sentenced to life without parole. The pooch was admitted to the Eastern State Penitentiary on August 12, 1924 and did about 10 years of hard time, during the course of which he became good friends with the warden. Although it sounds like an urban legend, prison records support the story. (Pinchot, for his part, said the dog was sent there to be the prisoners' mascot.)

10. ... And another became a mayor.

OK—honorary mayor. In 1981, a black Labrador mix named Bosco won the election to be the honorary mayor of Sunol, Calif., beating out two human candidates for the job. Bosco ran as a “Re’pup’lican” and used the slogan “A bone in every dish, a cat in every tree, and a fire hydrant on every corner." The punny platform appealed to the residents of Sunol, and Bosco remained the mayor until he died in 1994. 

11. Labs are the most commonly-used breed for guide dogs.

The Guide Dogs of America say their breed ratio is 70 percent Labrador retrievers, 15 percent golden retrievers, and 15 percent German shepherds. Labs are found to be the best breed for the job thanks to their strong desire to please. They’re also the right size, easily adaptable, and easily trained. 

12. They can tell you if you have cancer.

Thanks to their powerful noses, Labrador retrievers have been trained to sniff out and identify early stages of cancer. Through work with cancer cell samples, dogs can learn to smell the disease. The canine doctors can make a diagnosis by smelling a patient’s breath, blood, or stool. So far, the only known way to screen for easy stages of ovarian cancer is by letting a lab sniff the patient—they have very high success rates. Scientists believe the labs sniff out changes in volatile organic compounds that suggest cancer.

Luckily for people afraid of dogs, researchers are developing a machine to do the sniffing. The dogs are expensive to train, and can only smell a certain number of samples a day, so automating the process would be ideal. An electronic nose is currently in production to cut out the cost of dog training.

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise stated. 


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iStock
13 Facts About Opossums
iStock
iStock

Opossums, which include the roughly 100 species in the order Didelphimorphia, are some of the most misunderstood animals in the Americas. They’re often thought of as dimwitted, dirty creatures whose most impressive trick is acting like roadkill. The truth is just the opposite: Opossums are smarter, cleaner, and more beneficial to humans than many of their woodland neighbors. Read on for more opossum facts.

1. OPOSSUMS AND POSSUMS AREN’T THE SAME ANIMAL.

In North America, opossum and possum describe the same thing, but in Australia the word possum refers to a completely different animal. Among the most well known of their respective types are the Virginia opossum and the brushtail possum. Both are small to medium sized, omnivorous marsupials, but the similarities end there. The possum looks like a cute cross between a squirrel and a chinchilla and it belongs to a different order than the North American mammal that shares (most of) its name. Despite the potential for confusion, possum is accepted as the shortened version of opossum in this part of the world (and if you see the word possum in this list, you can assume it’s referring to the animal from the Americas).

2. THEY’RE THE ONLY MARSUPIALS FOUND NORTH OF MEXICO.

Marsupials—mammals that carry and nurse their young in pouches—are absent from much of the world, and in Canada and the United States opossums are the sole representatives of the group. Like other marsupials, mother possums give birth to tiny, underdeveloped offspring (called joeys) that immediately crawl into a pouch where they live and nurse during their first months of life. Only once they’ve grown big and strong enough do they venture out, transitioning between their mother’s back and the warmth of the pouch until they mature into adults.

3. THEY CAN’T CHOOSE WHEN THEY PLAY DEAD.

Possum playing dead.
iStock

Perhaps the most famous characteristic of the opossum is its tendency to play dead in front of predators. When the animal experiences intense fear in the face of danger, it seizes up and flops to the ground where it can remain for hours staring blankly ahead and sticking out its tongue. It’s an impressive defensive mechanism, but its effectiveness can’t be chalked up to the possum’s acting skills. Possums have no control over when they play dead or for how long they do it: The comatose-like state is an involuntary reaction triggered by stress.

4. AN OFFENSIVE ODOR SELLS THE PERFORMANCE.

A picture of a possum playing dead doesn’t really do it justice. To get the full experience, you need to be standing over to it to smell the putrid odor it emits when pretending to be a corpse. The smelly substance it secretes from its anus is just one more reason for foxes and bobcats to look for their dinner elsewhere.

5. THEY SLOW THE SPREAD OF LYME DISEASE.

Even if possums aren’t the cutest creatures in the forest, they should be a welcome addition to your backyard. Unlike other mammals that carry ticks, and therefore spread Lyme Disease, possums gobble up 90 percent of the ticks that attach to them. According to the National Wildlife Federation, a single possum consumes 5000 of the parasites per tick season. That means the more possums that are in your area, the fewer ticks you’ll encounter.

6. THEIR MEMORIES ARE SURPRISINGLY SHARP.

Possum looking up at table.
iStock

Opossums have impressive memories—at least when it comes to food. Researchers found that possums are better at remembering which runway led to a tasty treat than rats, cats, dogs, and pigs. They can also recall the smell of toxic substances up to a year after trying them.

7. THEY’RE IMMUNE TO MOST SNAKE VENOM.

While most animals look at a snake and see danger, a possum sees its next meal. The animals are immune to the venom of nearly every type of snake found in their native range, the one exception being the coral snake. Possums take advantage of this adaptation by chowing down on snakes on a regular basis.

Researchers have been trying to harvest possums’ antivenom powers for decades. A few years ago, a team of scientists made progress on this front when they recreated a peptide found in possums and and found that mice given the peptide and rattlesnake venom were successfully protected from the venom’s harmful effects.

8. THEY ALMOST NEVER GET RABIES.

While possums aren’t totally immune to rabies (a few cases have been documented), finding a specimen with the disease is extremely unlikely. Marsupials like possums have a lower body temperature than the placental mammals that dominate North America—in other words, their bodies don’t provide a suitable environment for the virus.

9. THEIR TAIL ACTS AS A FIFTH APPENDAGE.

Baby opossum hanging from a tree branch by its tail.
iStock

Opossums are one of a handful of animals with prehensile tails. These appendages are sometimes used as an extra arm: They can carry grass and leaves for building nests or grip the sides of trees to provide extra stability while climbing. Baby possums can even use their tails to hang from branches upside down as they’re often depicted doing in cartoons. But it’s a myth that possums sleep this way: Their tails are only strong enough to hold them for a short amount of time.

10. THEY’RE CONSTANTLY SELF-GROOMING.

Thanks to their whole acting-and-smelling-like-a-corpse routine, opossums aren’t known as the most sanitary animals in nature. But they take cleanliness seriously: The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife writes that possums, like housecats, use their tongue and paws to groom themselves frequently and thoroughly. Possums largely lack sweat glands, and this behavior is believed to help them cool down. It also has the added effect of rendering them odorless (when they’re not secreting stinky predator-repellant, that is).

11. THEIR EYES AREN’T TOTALLY BLACK.

Close-up on opossum's face.
iStock

One of the opossum’s most recognizable features is its pair of opaque eyes. Opossum eyes do have whites and irises, but because their pupils are so large, their eyes appear completely black from a distance. The exaggerated pupil dilation is thought to help the nocturnal animals see after the sun goes down.

12. THEY’RE SOCIAL CREATURES.

It was long assumed that opossums like to keep to themselves, but a study published in the journal Biology Letters suggests they have a social side. Researchers at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil observed some possums in captivity sharing dens even if they weren’t mates. In one case, 13 white-eared opossums of various age groups were cohabiting the same space. The scientists suspect that male and female possums living in the wild may even build nests together as a way to trigger the female’s reproductive hormones.

13. THEIR REPRODUCTIVE SYSTEMS ARE COMPLICATED.

The way it gives birth and raises its young isn’t the only thing that’s interesting about the opossum's reproductive life. Females have two vaginal tracts and two uteri, and males in turn have a forked or bifurcated penis. This is fairly typical for marsupials, but when European colonizers first landed in North America centuries ago, they didn’t know what to make of the confusing genitalia. One explanation they came up with was that male opossums impregnated females through the nose.

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Andreas Trepte via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5
Climate Change Has Forced Mussels to Toughen Up
Andreas Trepte via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5
Andreas Trepte via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Researchers writing in the journal Science Advances say blue mussels are rapidly evolving stronger shells to protect themselves against rising acid levels in sea water.

Bivalves like mussels, clams, and oysters aren’t good swimmers, and they don’t have teeth. Their hard shells are often the only things standing between themselves and a sea of dangers.

But even those shells have been threatened lately, as pollution and climate change push the ocean's carbon dioxide to dangerous levels. Too much carbon dioxide interferes with a bivalve’s ability to calcify (or harden) its shell, leaving it completely vulnerable.

A team of German scientists wondered what, if anything, the bivalves were doing to cope. They studied two populations of blue mussels (Mytilus edulis): one in the Baltic Sea, and another in the brackish waters of the North Sea.

The researchers collected water samples and monitored the mussel colonies for three years. They analyzed the chemical content of the water and the mussels’ life cycles—tracking their growth, survival, and death.

The red line across this mussel larva shows the limits of its shell growth. Image credit: Thomsen et al. Sci. Adv. 2017

Analysis of all that data showed that the two groups were living very different lives. The Baltic was rapidly acidifying—but rather than rolling over and dying, Baltic mussels were armoring up. Over several generations, their shells grew harder.

Their cousins living in the relatively stable waters of the North Sea enjoyed a cushier existence. Their shells stayed pretty much the same. That may be the case for now, the researchers say, but it definitely leaves them vulnerable to higher carbon dioxide levels in the future.

Inspiring as the Baltic mussels’ defiance might be, the researchers note that it’s not a short-term solution. Tougher shells didn’t increase the mussels’ survival rate in acidified waters—at least, not yet.

"Future experiments need to be performed over multiple generations," the authors write, "to obtain a detailed understanding of the rate of adaptation and the underlying mechanisms to predict whether adaptation will enable marine organisms to overcome the constraints of ocean acidification."

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