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5 Great Snoots of the Animal Kingdom

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A nose isn't just a house on the face for the nostrils. Some of nature's most notable beaks can regulate heating and cooling, filter particles, act like fingers, or woo the ladies. These five great animal schnozzes, snoots, and suckers do a lot more than sniff.

1. Saiga (Saiga tataricus)

Saiga antelopes live on the unforgiving plains of Russia and Kazakhstan, where winters see subzero temperatures and summers are dry and desolate. Hang on, you're about to get jealous: the saiga's magnificent snoot is also a personal HVAC system. During hot, dusty summer migrations, the saiga's Gonzo-esque snout acts as an air filter and may even serve as an air conditioner, cooling down its owner’s blood. In the punishing depths of winter, it's a cozy little heater, warming up outside air before it hits the saiga’s lungs.

2. Star-Nosed Mole (Condylura cristata)

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This handsome specimen is a star-nosed mole, and those fleshy little things on the front of its face are tentacles. Like most moles, C. cristata has terrible eyesight and spends much of its time underground or underwater. It digs straight ahead with its powerful claws, feeling around with its retractable tentacles. The mole's starry snoot-fingers are super fast, touching up to 12 objects each second and moving so quickly that they look like a creepy pink blur to the naked eye.

They're also super sensitive, and a mole can identify and stuff prey in its mouth within half a second. If that's not enough, scientists think the tentacles might also be able to pick up on faint electrical signals from aquatic prey. That would be useful, because star-nosed moles are also the only mammals that can smell underwater. They do this by blowing bubbles, then snorting the scent-filled bubbles back up their snoots.

3. Darwin's Hawk Moth (Xanthopan morganii praedicta)

Behold one of the most legendary snoots in scientific history: the hawk moth. Three years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin turned his attention to orchids. He was fascinated by their diversity and the remarkable ways they've adapted to make themselves sexy to insects. To help him in his studies, fellow naturalist Robert Bateman mailed Darwin a package of orchid specimens, including Angraecum sesquipedale, which boasts an impressive foot-long nectary. Darwin was boggled. "Good Heavens," he wrote to a friend. "What insect can suck it?"

A few days later, he'd come up with an answer. There had to be a moth, he figured, with a foot-long proboscis. He wasn't exactly laughed out of the academy, but it did sound pretty stupid. But, as it turned out, Darwin was right—although he'd never know. Twenty years after his death, scientists found the Madagascan hawk moth Xanthopan morganii praedicta, complete with super-sized snoot.

4. Proboscis Monkey (Nasalis larvatus)

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Once again, sexual selection is the name of the game: Proboscis monkey chicks dig a male with a big, bulbous honker. But the male's massive schnozz isn’t just for looks; scientists believe that it also works as an amplifier, making sure everybody can hear him.

You really can’t miss a male proboscis monkey. Even if he isn't yelling, you can’t overlook a 50-pound monkey with a big nose, webbed feet, a bright red penis, and a black scrotum. These guys don’t do subtle.

The very same obnoxious visibility that makes male proboscis monkeys so successful also makes them a target. Populations have plummeted in recent years, partly due to habitat loss, but also from hunting. These monkeys are lazy and easy to catch, which makes them a popular meal among local people. They also produce bezoars (gut-stones), which are sold as medicine in China.

5. Hooded Seal (Cystophora cristata)

Most seals are social, family-oriented animals who keep their face-parts to themselves. Not the hooded seal. With adult males averaging about 8 feet long and 660 pounds, this beast is enormous, territorial, and mean. Fights over females and feeding grounds involve biting, punching, bellowing, and waving around the football-sized pink balloons they keep in their noses.

These nasal sacs serve a number of unlikely purposes. When challenged, a male will inflate his balloon and shake it all over the place. To other males, this is apparently intimidating; to females, it’s hot as hell. This means that the males with the most magnificent nose-balloons get to mate and start a new generation of magnificent balloon-snooting babies. Nature is amazing.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

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
7 Fun Facts for Elephant Appreciation Day
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Happy Elephant Appreciation Day! Celebrate the occasion with some facts about everyone's favorite gentle giant. 

1. ELEPHANTS CAN RECOGNIZE OTHER ELEPHANT CARCASSES.

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The University of Sussex's Karen McComb told National Geographic that elephants "become excited and agitated if they come across a dead elephant," and, in particular, will investigate skulls and tusks. McComb teamed up with researchers at the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya to study the behavior, showing wild elephants a range of objects that included skulls. They found that the elephants examined skulls—and tusks in particular—of their own kind twice as long as other skulls, and examined tusks six times as long as they did pieces of wood. They were even able to recognize elephant skulls with the tusks removed, but didn't show preference for certain elephant skulls over others, which suggests they didn't know which skulls belonged to their own relatives. "Animals that are intensely social in life may be most likely to display an interest in their dead," McComb told National Geographic. "But what goes on in their minds while they are doing this is a total mystery."

2. THEY'RE SCARED OF BEES.

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Forget about mice scaring off elephants: When farmers need to keep elephants away from their crops, they should use bees. Researchers in Kenya discovered that even the recorded sound of buzzing bees was enough to make elephants retreat—and cause them to emit a low-frequency sound, inaudible to humans, that warns other elephants of the bees' presence.

"It's impossible to cover Africa in electric fences," Lucy King, author of the paper, told The Huffington Post. "The infrastructure doesn't exist in many places and it would restrict animals' movement." But something like a bee fence—hives strung on strong wires a certain distance apart that would move when elephants walked into them, disturbing the hives—"could be a better way to direct elephants away from farmers' crops," she said.

3. THEY MIGHT UNDERSTAND POINTING.

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Humans often use pointing as a way to nonverbally get a message across, though not many other animals grasp the concept. But according to a two-month study of 11 tame African elephants, these pachyderms might be able to: When presented with two identical buckets and pointed in the direction of the one containing food, elephants picked up on the cue fairly consistently: Elephants had a success rate of 67.5 percent (1-year-old humans have a success rate of 72.7 percent). But an earlier study of Asian elephants indicated that they don’t notice pointing gestures, which is a bit of a mystery.

4. ONE ELEPHANT CAN "TALK." 

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Koshik, an elephant in a South Korean zoo, developed the ability to imitate the sounds of five words he's heard from his trainer—annyeong (hello), anja (sit down), aniya (no), nuwo (lie down), and joa (good)—by sticking his trunk in his mouth. The scientists who first noticed Koshik’s ability speculate that he learned to “talk” because he was lonely.

5. THEY'RE DIGITIGRADES.

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It's Latin for "finger walking," and what it means is that elephants walk on their toes (there are five of them, as well a sixth false toe). According to the book Mammal Anatomy: An Illustrated Guidemost of the animals' weight "rests on a broad pad of elastic tissue behind the toes" which "acts as a shock absorber and prevents the skeleton from jolting too much when the animals walk. It also allows elephants to move surprisingly quietly despite their size."

6. AN ELEPHANT PREGNANCY LASTS ABOUT TWO YEARS.

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If you thought being pregnant for nine months was a long time, be glad you're not an elephant, which can be pregnant for up to 680 days, according to the BBC. All that time in the oven has a benefit, though: Elephant calves are born with highly-developed brains, capable of learning their herd's complex social structures and ready to put their trunks to use.

7. NINETY-SIX ELEPHANTS ARE KILLED IN AFRICA EVERY DAY.

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Unfortunately, elephant poaching remains a very big problem: An estimated 35,000 elephants are killed annually, their tusks sold illegally in the ivory market. Do the math, and that comes out to nearly 96 elephants every day. Find out what you can do to help elephants and stop poaching at 96Elephants.org.

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