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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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Animals
If You Want Your Cat to Poop Out More Hairballs, Try Feeding It Beets
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Have you ever wondered if there’s a way to get your cat to poop out its hairballs instead of hacking them up? If so, you’re likely a seasoned cat owner whose tolerance for gross stuff has reached the point of no return. Luckily, there may be an easy way to get your cat to dispose of hairballs in the litter box instead of on your carpet, according to one study.

The paper, published in the Journal of Physiology and Animal Nutrition, followed the diets of 18 mixed-breed short-haired cats over a month. Some cats were fed straight kibble, while others were given helpings of beet pulp along with their regular meals. The researchers suspected that beets, a good source of fiber, would help move any ingested hair through the cats’ digestive systems, thus preventing it from coming back up the way it went in. Following the experiment, they found that the cats with the beet diet did indeed poop more.

The scientists didn’t measure how many hairballs the cats were coughing up during this period, so it's possible that pooping out more of them didn’t stop cats from puking them up at the same rate. But considering hairballs are a matter of digestive health, more regular bowel movements likely reduced the chance that cats would barf them up. The cat body is equipped to process large amounts of hair: According to experts, healthy cats should only be hacking hairballs once or twice a year.

If you find them around your home more frequently than that, it's a good idea to up your cat's fiber intake. Raw beet pulp is just one way to introduce fiber into your pet's diet; certain supplements for cats work just as well and actually contain beet pulp as a fiber source. Stephanie Liff, a veterinarian at Pure Paws Veterinary Care in New York, recommends psyllium powder to her patients. Another option for dealing with hairballs is the vegetable-oil based digestive lubricant Laxatone: According to Dr. Liff, this can "help to move hairballs in the correct direction."

[h/t Discover]

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Don't Pour Alcohol on Your Bed Bugs—Try These Tips Instead
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Getting bed bugs is a nightmare experience, one that’s sure to cost you oodles of time, money, and emotional distress. The bugs are painfully hard to purge from your household, and it’s getting even harder as they become more resistant to common insecticides. Unfortunately, home remedies are often no match for these parasitic insects. Dousing them with rubbing alcohol (a tip you'll often hear) won’t kill them; in fact, it might just burn your house down, as a woman trying to rid her Cincinnati apartment of bed bugs found out recently. As The Washington Post reported, the alcohol in that case was too close to the flame of a candle or some type of incense, and ignited. It wasn't an isolated incident.

In the last 10 years or so, people trying to kill bed bugs with alcohol have started several house fires across the U.S., including a different incident in Cincinnati just two weeks ago. So short of burning down your entire house and starting over, how do you get rid of them?

The short answer is: Give up on the idea of saving money and call an exterminator. According to 2014 research, plenty of DIY bed bug-killing remedies are woefully ineffective. Rubbing alcohol, in fact, only killed half of the insects sprayed by the Rutgers University researchers in that study. Researchers have found that other recommended home remedies, like moth balls, foggers, or ultrasonic bug repellers, are even less effective. And don’t even think about using “natural” type products that use essential oils as the main ingredient. They might smell nice, but they won’t help your bug problem.

But before you call in the big guns, there are a few effective, concrete steps you can take to reduce your infestation. As Rutgers bedbug specialists Changlu Wang and Richard Cooper wrote in their bed bug fact sheet, putting your belongings in plastic storage bins or garbage bags is a good place to start. Since the bugs don’t like to climb on smooth plastic, this can help contain the infestation. Just make sure to treat whatever you’re putting inside the bags or bins first by putting them through the hot laundry, steaming, heating, or freezing them.

You’ll need a mattress encasement, too. This will keep the bugs that have already infested your mattress from escaping, meaning they won’t be able to feast on you anymore and will die of starvation. Nor will any new bugs be able to get inside to nest. You’ll want to make sure it’s a scientifically tested brand, though, since not all mattress encasements are bite-proof or escape-proof for bed bugs. (Most experts recommend the Protect-a-Bed BugLock encasement, which costs about $81 for the queen-sized version.)

Next, pick up some bed bug traps. Set them up under the legs of your furniture and around the perimeter of rooms to help detect new infestations and reduce existing ones. According to Wang and Cooper, a one-bedroom apartment might need eight to 12 of these traps, while bigger apartments will require more.

You’ll want to expose all your belongings to extreme temperatures before you even think about touching them again. Putting them through the washer/dryer on its hottest setting will do the trick to kill both bugs and their eggs, but if you need to eradicate bugs lurking in items you can’t wash, you can freeze them in plastic bags (as long as your freezer gets down to 0°F). You can also kill them with a steam cleaner, especially if you need to purge them from your couch or other upholstered furniture.

If you’ve still got a large number of bugs lurking in your house, you can tackle them with a vacuum cleaner, sucking them out of seams, zippers, trim, and other furniture crevices. But you’ll want to use a stocking or some other method of protecting your vacuum from being infested itself. (See Figure 6 here.)

Some research has also found that desiccant dusts that dehydrate bugs to death, like diatomaceous earth and silica gel, can be effective at controlling bed bug infestations (silica gel in particular) when spread around the perimeters of rooms, on bed frames and couches, and on furniture legs.

As we mentioned before, you’ll probably want to consult a professional even if you do all of the above, because if you miss even one bug or egg, you'll be back to where you started. The cost of an exterminator pales in comparison to the cost of throwing out everything you own, moving homes, and then realizing you’ve brought the bed bugs with you anyway.

The bad news for anyone who’s already infested is that prevention really is key when it comes to bed bugs. So brush up on what the pests look like, make sure to check your hotel room for them when you travel, and if you spot them in your apartment, make sure to warn your neighbors.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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