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10 Trippy Facts About Triops

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Try to picture a tiny, transparent crustacean that looks like a hybrid of a centipede and a horseshoe crab with a zillion writhing legs. While they’re not likely to win any beauty contests, triops are impressive little critters. The genus Triops has been around for as long as 300 million years—that’s about 200 million years older than T. Rex—making them the oldest known animals on the planet. Here are some other fun facts about these resilient creatures.

1. TRIOPS ARE OFTEN CALLED "LIVING FOSSILS,” BUT THAT'S A MISNOMER.

Commonly known as tadpole shrimp, they appear to be almost identical physically to their fossilized ancestors. But appearances can be deceiving. Recent research shows that their DNA and reproductive techniques are constantly evolving.

2. THEY OFTEN HAVE A VARIETY OF WAYS TO REPRODUCE.

In addition to sexual reproduction, some eggs are capable of developing without fertilization. Other triops are hermaphrodites. This means an entire population can develop from just one egg. No wonder they’ve survived for so long.

3. THERE ARE MORE THAN A DOZEN TRIOPS SPECIES.

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They're found in seasonal ponds, pools, and puddles all over the world. Triops were around before the break-up of the last supercontinent, which helps explain why they live on every continent except Antarctica. Triops longicaudatus, a rather fancy critter with a long tail, frequents all but the colder regions of North America, while Triops newberryi prefers the milder climate of the Pacific Northwest and parts of California. Triops granarius is found throughout much of Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. Triops Australiensis calls, you guessed it, Australia home. Triops cancriformis, the oldest species, hails from Europe, the Middle East, and India, and is considered endangered in the UK.  

4. TRIOPS MEANS "THREE EYES" IN GREEK.

They Might Be Giants wrote a song about this helpful feature. Sing along with the kids:

Two eyes on a face
Are usually enough
But triops has got
One that looks up
And one that looks around
And one to keep an eye
On the other pair of guys
Triops has three eyes

5. THEY CAN HAVE AS MANY AS 140 (SURPRISINGLY MULTIPURPOSE) LEGS.

What what they do with them is far more impressive than walking or swimming. Some legs act as antennae that help them find food, while others create a water current to direct food toward their mouth. Females have capsules on some of their legs to carry eggs. Some triops have lobe or leaf-like extensions on their legs that function similarly to gills, allowing them to breathe.

6.THEY EAT A LOT—INCLUDING EACH OTHER.

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Triops have a varied diet, from mosquito larvae to aquatic plants and tiny invertebrates to, um, other triops. Yes, to support their rapid growth, larger triops will cannibalize smaller ones if food supplies run low. Hey, when your home is perpetually in danger of drying up, you have to eat as much as you can so you can grow and breed before it’s too late.

7. THEY GROW QUICKLY—AND THAT CAN BE DEADLY.

Many reaching maturity in one to two weeks—but their exoskeletons do not. That requires them to molt regularly as they outgrow their exoskeletons. Young triops grow so quickly that molting is a daily experience, and a dangerous one: They can die if they don’t successfully shed the old exoskeleton.

8. TRIOPS EGGS CAN LAY DORMANT FOR DECADES, AND THEN HATCH IN WATER.

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They achieve this by laying something called cysts, or resting eggs, that are eggs with a special structure that protects the interior from extreme temperatures, drought, and even radiation. These cysts allow triops to move into new territory by hitching a ride with some pretty far-out modes of transportation, including inside migrating birds and in the feet and poop of animals that pick them up from puddles and pools.

9. THEY CAN SURVIVE IN OUTER SPACE FOR 18 MONTHS.

Tests on the International Space Station (ISS) prove this hardiness. Those findings led to a NASA high school experiment last year that sent Triops Longicaudatus back to the ISS to test whether it could be grown in space and serve as a high-protein food source for astronauts on future long-term missions.

10. CHARMED? YOU CAN HAVE YOUR OWN!

There is a wide assortment of triops starter kits out there to choose from. They’re low-commitment, too: Triops only live for 1–3 months (less if they eat each other). And when one batch dies out, you can dry out the soil or sand in the tank and transfer it to fresh water. If resting eggs are in the sand, with the proper care, you'll soon have another group of triops. 

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The Real Bay of Pigs: Big Major Cay in the Bahamas
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When most people visit the Bahamas, they’re thinking about a vacation filled with sun, sand, and swimming—not swine. But you can get all four of those things if you visit Big Major Cay.

Big Major Cay, also now known as “Pig Island” for obvious reasons, is part of the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Exuma includes private islands owned by Johnny Depp, Tyler Perry, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and David Copperfield. Despite all of the local star power, the real attraction seems to be the family of feral pigs that has established Big Major Cay as their own. It’s hard to say how many are there—some reports say it’s a family of eight, while others say the numbers are up to 40. However big the band of roaming pigs is, none of them are shy: Their chief means of survival seems to be to swim right up to boats and beg for food, which the charmed tourists are happy to provide (although there are guidelines about the best way of feeding the pigs).

No one knows exactly how the pigs got there, but there are plenty of theories. Among them: 1) A nearby resort purposely released them more than a decade ago, hoping to attract tourists. 2) Sailors dropped them off on the island, intending to dine on pork once they were able to dock for a longer of period of time. For one reason or another, the sailors never returned. 3) They’re descendants of domesticated pigs from a nearby island. When residents complained about the original domesticated pigs, their owners solved the problem by dropping them off at Big Major Cay, which was uninhabited. 4) The pigs survived a shipwreck. The ship’s passengers did not.

The purposeful tourist trap theory is probably the least likely—VICE reports that the James Bond movie Thunderball was shot on a neighboring island in the 1960s, and the swimming swine were there then.

Though multiple articles reference how “adorable” the pigs are, don’t be fooled. One captain warns, “They’ll eat anything and everything—including fingers.”

Here they are in action in a video from National Geographic:

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13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
Christine Colby

As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

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