CLOSE
iStock
iStock

How Many Trees Are on the Planet?

iStock
iStock

Deforestation is occuring at a frightening rate, but, until recently, no one could say just how many trees there are on earth. Using satellite images, scientists previously estimated the number to be around 400.25 billion, but a new census produced a number more than seven times that. 

According to a recent study published in Nature, there are 3.04 trillion trees on planet earth. The data was gathered by Thomas Crowther, who's now an ecologist at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, and his team of researchers while working at Yale University. He was inspired by a friend who was a part of a group that aimed to plant one billion trees to combat global warming. The problem was that no one knew whether one billion trees was a significant amount or just a drop in the global bucket.  

When Crowther went digging for hard figures on the number of trees on earth, he was surprised to learn that no one really had an answer. All he could find was the estimate of over 400 billion trees based on satellite pictures, but this number was dubious because another census based on ground-sourced data showed there were 390 billion trees in just the Amazon basin. 

In a quest for more accurate numbers, Crowther gathered information sourced from ground surveys. His team compiled data from the detailed national forest inventories maintained by nations around the world. After looking at information from approximately 400,000 forest plots over the course of two years, they finally came up with their massive estimate. The areas with the highest tree densities were Russia, Scandinavia, and the boreal forests of North America. The thin conifers that grow there account for 24 percent of the world's total tree count. 

Though three trillion trees is almost too many to comprehend, Crowther asserts this is no excuse to continue the decimation of the world’s forests. Before the inception of agriculture 12,000 years ago, there were nearly twice as many trees as there are today. Every year, the gross number of trees that are lost due to human activity is around 15 billion. In light of the new data, the conservation group that inspired Crowther has upped their goal to one trillion trees

[h/t: NPR]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?
iStock
iStock

Santa Claus. A big ol’ red-and-white stocking hung by the fire. Nativity scenes. Most classic Christmas imagery is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s the holly, genus Ilex, which found its way onto holiday cards through a more circuitous route. 

Christmas is kind of the new kid on the block as far as holly symbolism is concerned. The hardy plant’s ability to stay vibrant through the winter made it a natural choice for pre-Christian winter festivals. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated at the darkest time of the year, celebrated the god of agriculture, creation, and time, and the transition into sunshine and spring. Roman citizens festooned their houses with garlands of evergreens and tied cheery holly clippings to the gifts they exchanged.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul saw great magic in the holly’s bright "berries" (technically drupes) and shiny leaves. They wore holly wreaths and sprigs to many sacred rites and festivals and viewed it as a form of protection from evil spirits. 

Christianity’s spread through what is now Europe was slow and complicated. It was hardly a one-shot, all-or-nothing takeover; few people are eager to give up their way of life. Instead, missionaries in many areas had more luck blending their messages with existing local traditions and beliefs. Holly and decorated trees were used symbolically by new Christians, just as they’d been used in their pagan days.

Today, some people associate the holly bush not with the story of Jesus’s birth but with his death, comparing the plant’s prickly leaves to a crown of thorns and the berries to drops of blood. 

But most people just enjoy it because it’s cheerful, picturesque, and riotously alive at a time when the rest of the world seems to be still and asleep.

NOTE: Holly is as poisonous as it is pretty. Please keep it away from your kids and pets.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
holidays
What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
iStock
iStock

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios