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The Grossest 'Snow' on Earth

There is snow at the bottom of the ocean. Submersible cameras trawling the depths capture scenes reminiscent of winter nights: endless black, punctuated with picturesque drifts of swirling white flakes. But what looks like frozen water is really anything but. Marine snowflakes are made up of tiny bits of dead animals, molted shells, and poop—all of which becomes a banquet for the multitudes of still-living creatures lucky enough to be snowed on. 

For a very long time, people assumed that nothing could survive in the deepest parts of the ocean. Without sunlight, there could be no phytoplankton, and without phytoplankton, what would form the bottom of the food chain? When naturalists began dredging the sea floor in the mid-1800s, they found that the barren landscape they envisioned was actually crawling with critters. 

Deep Seafood

The mystery of the food chain remained. What were these animals eating? The stomachs of dissected deep-sea animals contained a few smaller animals, but were mostly filled with sticky sludge. What was this sludge, and how had it reached those depths?

Answers began rolling in during the 1970s, when the first-ever deep-sea sediment trap was recovered from the bottom of the Sargasso Sea. The trap’s contents revealed specks of decaying plant and animal matter, fecal pellets, mucus, and shells. But each speck of garbage was tiny. How could they sink to such great depths? By sticking together. 

Let’s Stick Together

Each speck might start off on its own, but as it sinks through the water column, it gloms on to others like it, growing heavier and heavier, and gaining velocity as it falls. Passing fish and marine mammals eat these clumps and poop them out again, adding even more bulk and weight and hastening the smooshy snowflake’s descent. Flakes that would have taken years to sink alone—if they sank at all—can touch down in a matter of weeks. 

Marine snow is resourceful but indiscriminate, and will aggregate with anything that bumps into it. Earlier this year, scientists learned that the higher-than-average marine snowfalls in the Gulf of Mexico were likely due to the 2010 BP oil spill. With more sticky material—in this case, oil—to build around, marine snowflakes were falling even more quickly than usual. 

Manna from Heaven

Marine snow is a hugely important food source for sea floor residents. By the time it reaches the black, a snowflake is a tidy package of carbon, calcium, and other, er, recycled nutrients. Baby eels, for example, are completely dependent on marine snow during their four-month larval stage. They won’t eat anything else, which has presented quite a challenge for the scientists trying to start eel farms. 

But the mushy marine snow is more than just baby food. Vampyroteuthis infernalis, the "vampire squid from hell," may look like a killer, but it’s actually quite content to snarf snowflakes. The vampire squid has even evolved special sticky filaments, which work almost like a spider web, trapping falling particles of marine snow in what has to be the laziest hunting ever. Once its filaments are full, the squid squeezes them through its arms to collect the goodies. It envelops its catch in a juicy glob of mucus, then eats the parcel whole. 

Not every snowflake gets eaten. Those that don’t will join their predecessors, settling into the thick blanket of sludge that blankets the ocean floor.

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There's a Train Full of New York City Poop Stranded in Alabama—Here's Why
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Residents of Parrish, Alabama probably aren't too fond of New Yorkers right now. That’s because the town is currently home to a full trainload of poop courtesy of the Big Apple, as Bloomberg reports. Some 200 shipping containers of treated sewage have been stuck in Parrish for more than two months while the town takes landfill operators to court.

New York City doesn't keep its own sewage sludge to itself, and it hasn't for decades. In the 1980s, New York City was dumping its "biosolids"—the solids left over from sewage treatment, i.e., your poop—into the Atlantic Ocean, where it settled on the bottom of the sea floor in a thick film stretching over 80 square nautical miles. When the government banned the practice of dumping waste straight into the ocean, the city had to get creative, finding a way to get rid of the 1200 tons of biosolids produced there every day.

Enter the poop train. As a 2013 Radiolab episode taught us (we highly recommend you listen for yourself), treated sludge was eventually shipped out to other states to use as fertilizer in the 1990s. After farmers in Colorado began noticing better growth and fewer pests in the fields they grew with New York City's finest sewer sludge, growers in other states began clamoring to take the big-city poop by the train-full, too. That tide has turned, though, and now no one wants the city's poop. Because of the cost of running the program, the train to Colorado stopped in 2010.

Now, biosolids are instead shipped to landfills upstate and in places like Georgia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, according to The Wall Street Journal. And Alabama. For more than a year, the Big Sky landfill near Parrish has been accepting New York City biosolids, and the locals who have to deal with trainloads of rotting waste aren’t happy.

Normally, the sludge would be loaded onto trucks and then driven the last stretch to get to the landfill. But Parrish and its nearby neighbor of West Jefferson aren't interested in playing host to those messy poop transfers anymore. As the two towns take the landfill operators to court over it, the trains are stuck where they are, next to Parrish's Little League baseball fields. The trainload of sludge is blocked from either being sent to the landfill or back to New York City. While the city has stopped shipping more waste to Big Sky, it essentially said "no takebacks" regarding what they've already sent south. Short of a legal decision, that poop isn't moving.

Needless to say, the residents of Parrish would really, really like to resolve this before summer hits.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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7 Fast Facts About Animal Farting
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Anyone who’s had a pet can testify that dogs and cats occasionally get gassy, letting rip noxious farts and then innocently looking up as if to say “Who, me?” You may not have considered the full breadth of animal life passing gas in the world, though—and not just mammals. In a new book, ecologist Nick Caruso and zoologist Dani Rabaiotti detail the farting habits (or lack thereof) of 80 different animals. Here are seven weird animal farting facts we learned from Does It Fart?.

1. FOR ONE FISH, FARTING IS AN EMERGENCY.

A black-and-white illustration of a fish floating upside down on the surface of the water
Ethan Kocak

The diet of the Bolson pupfish, a freshwater fish found in northern Mexico, can lead to dangerous levels of gas. The pupfish feeds on algae, and it can inadvertently eat the gas bubbles that algae produces in warm temperatures. The air inflates the fish’s intestines and distends its belly, messing with its equilibrium and making it difficult to swim. Even if it tries to bury itself in sediment at the bottom of a pool, as Bolson pupfish are wont to do, the air causes the fish to rise to the surface, where it’s at risk of being eaten by a bird. If the fish doesn’t fart, it will likely die, either from predation or because its intestines rupture under the pressure of the trapped gas.

2. MANATEES USE FARTS AS A SWIMMING TECHNIQUE.

The Bolson pupfish isn't the only animal that needs healthy farts to maneuver underwater. Buoyancy is vital for swimming manatees, and they rely on digestive gas to keep them afloat. The West Indian manatee has pouches in its intestines where it can store farty gasses. When they have a lot of gas stored up, they’re naturally more buoyant, floating to the surface of the water. When they fart out that gas, they sink. Unfortunately, that means that a manatee’s ability to fart is vital to its well-being. When a manatee is constipated and can’t pass gas properly, it can lose the ability to swim properly and end up floating around with its tail above its head.

3. TERMITE FARTS ARE A SIGNIFICANT SOURCE OF GLOBAL EMISSIONS.

A black-and-white illustration of a termite farting
Ethan Kocak

They’re not as bad as cars or cows, but termites fart a lot, and because they are so numerous, that results in a lot of methane. Each termite only lets rip about half a microgram of methane gas a day, but every termite colony is made up of millions of individuals, and termites live all over the world. All told, the insects produce somewhere between 5 and 19 percent of global methane emissions per year.

4. FERRETS ARE SURPRISED BY THEIR OWN FARTS.

Ferrets are quite the fart machines. They not only let ‘em rip while pooping—which they do every few hours on a normal day—but they get particularly gassy when they’re stressed. The pungent smells are often news to their creators, though. According to the book, “owners often report a confused look on their pet’s face in the direction of their backside after they audibly pass gas.” And you don't want your ferret to get really scared: Their fear response involves screaming, puffing up, and simultaneous farting and pooping.

5. A BEADED LACEWING’S FARTS CAN BE DEADLY.

A black-and-white illustration of a beaded lacewing standing triumphantly over a prone termite
Ethan Kocak

A winged insect known as the beaded lacewing carries a powerful weapon within its butt, what Caruso and Rabaiotti call “one of the very few genuinely fatal farts known to science.” As a hunting strategy, Lomamyia latipennis larvae release a potent fart containing the chemical allomone, paralyzing and killing their termite prey.

6. WHALE FARTS MAKE QUITE THE SPLASH.

A black-and-white illustration of a whale farting above water while a woman on a boat speeds behind it
Ethan Kocak

As befits their size, whales produce some of biggest farts on the planet. A blue whale’s digestive system can hold up to a ton of food in its multiple stomach chambers, and there are plenty of bacteria in that system waiting to break that food down. This, of course, leads to farts. While not many whale farts have been caught on camera, scientists have witnessed them—and report them to be “incredibly pungent,” as Rabaiotti and Caruso tell it.

7. NOT ALL ANIMALS FART.

Octopuses don’t fart, nor do other sea creatures like soft-shell clams or sea anemones. Birds don’t, either. Meanwhile, sloths may be the only mammal that doesn’t fart, according to the book (although the case for bat farts is pretty tenuous). Having a belly full of trapped gas is dangerous for a sloth. If things are working normally, the methane produced by their gut bacteria is absorbed into their bloodstream and eventually breathed out.

The woodlouse has an odd way of getting rid of gas, too, though it’s technically not flatulence. Instead of peeing, woodlice excrete ammonia through their exoskeleton, with bursts of these full-body “farts” lasting up to an hour at a time.

The cover of 'Does It Fart?'
Hachette Books

Does It Fart? is available for $15 from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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