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Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

25 Wild Facts About Wyoming

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

Wyoming may always come last alphabetically, but don't hold that against it. From its natural wonders, to its early progressivism, to its many colorful characters, there's a lot worth knowing about the 44th state. Here are 25 facts for starters.

1. The name “Wyoming” comes from the Lenape Indian word mecheweami-ing, which means “at (or on) the big plain.”

2. The Wyoming territory became first in the nation to grant women over the age of 21 the right to vote in 1869. Historians believe that legislators passed the bill for several reasons, including a genuine conviction that women should have the same rights as men, a desire to attract new settlers to the territory by making it appear more modern, and because some legislators voted for it just to be able to say they did, believing (mistakenly) that the bill did not have enough traction to pass.

3. The country’s first female governor was also elected in Wyoming. After Nellie Tayloe Ross's husband, Governor William Bradford Ross, passed away, she was elected to finish his term. She served as the 14th governor of the state from 1925 to 1927, and was later appointed by FDR to serve as the director of the United States Mint. She is still the only female governor that the state has ever had.

By George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

4. Wyoming is the least populous state in the country, even though it’s the 10th largest by area. According to census records, approximately 586,000 people live within its 97,818 square miles. To put that in perspective, the smallest state in the U.S., Rhode Island, has an area of only 1212 square miles and is home to around 1.055 million people.

5. The official motto of Wyomingites is "Equal Rights" and one of the state’s nicknames is the Equality State, both in reference to the pioneering women’s suffrage law from 1869. The motto was officially adopted 86 years later in 1955.

6. The outlaw Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, a.k.a. The Sundance Kid, took his nickname from the town of Sundance, Wyoming, where he was jailed at the age of 15 for stealing a horse.

7. Most of Yellowstone, the nation’s first National Park, lies within the borders of Wyoming. Established in 1872, 44 years before there was a National Park Service, the park hosts nearly 4 million visitors each year. People come from all over the world to get a glimpse of Yellowstone’s majesty and its unique ecosystem, which is comprised of almost 300 species of birds, 67 species of mammals, 16 species of fish, five species of amphibians, and five species of reptiles.

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8. Abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming, a town named after the man who helped establish it, William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody. Pollock’s family then moved to Arizona and California, and Jackson later followed his older brother Charles to New York.

9. There are reportedly only two escalators in the entire state, and both are located in the town of Casper. That number is doubled if you count the up and down sides as independent systems.

10. Bison are the official state mammal of Wyoming, but the relationship between the animals and their human neighbors is complicated. According to the National Park Service, there are more people hurt every year at Yellowstone by bison than by bears. Because conservation efforts have been so successful, there's also an initiative to keep the bison population down: this year, the goal is to capture and kill between 600 and 900 of the animals.

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11. The mythical creature known as the jackalope was "born" in the 1930s when, in Douglas, Wyoming, Douglas Herrick and his brother Ralph decided to add antlers to a dead jackrabbit they had taxidermied. They sold the creatures—and their tall tale—to anyone willing to buy. You can still get a jackalope hunting license in the city.

12. We hate to disappoint any Jake or Heath fans, but there is no Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. The 2005 film may have been set in the mountains of Wyoming, but it was actually filmed much further north, in Alberta, Canada. It did, however, increase tourism to the area. “People are talking about Wyoming," Wyoming's director of travel and tourism, Diane Shober, told ABC News. “We've had more visibility from this movie than we've had in a long time from a movie." The last time movie fans flooded the state in droves, she added, was after the Devils Tower National Monument was used in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

13. Speaking of Devils Tower, President Theodore Roosevelt declared it the nation’s first National Monument as a part of the Antiquities Act of 1906.

14. Another famous movie that was filmed in Wyoming: Rocky IV. Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) trained to fight Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) on a farm in Jackson Hole; the frozen landscape that was supposed to pass for Russia was actually Grand Teton National Park.

Cinema Sins on YouTube

15. Since the mid-1800s, Wyoming has been an important destination for fossil hunters. Dinosaur bones were so plentiful in one area of southeast Wyoming that in the late 19th century, an enterprising local used bone fragments to construct a cabin (it still stands today). Wyoming is also one of only a handful of states with an official state dinosaur. An elementary school chose Triceratops to represent the state back in 1994.

16. There is only one public four-year educational institution in the state, the University of Wyoming. So if someone says they went to school in the Equal Rights State, they were probably rooting for the Cowboys.

17. In 2013, the tiny outpost of Buford, Wyoming—population one—was sold for $900,000 after its only resident decided to move away to be closer to his son. Pham Dinh Nguyen, a businessman from Vietnam, purchased the town in an online auction, and renamed it PhinDeli Town Buford, after the coffee brand he hoped to introduce to the area.

18. Old Faithful, the infamous cone geyser located in Yellowstone, got its name because of how dependable its eruptions are. The geyser erupts about every hour and a half, on average, and more than 90 percent of predictions about its eruptions are, according to the Park Service, accurate within a ten-minute window. 

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19. At one time or another, Tiger Woods, Harrison Ford, Sandra Bullock, Charles Schwab, and Wyoming native Dick Cheney, just to name a few, all reportedly owned real estate in Jackson Hole, which is still a favorite ski destination of the rich and famous.

20. Nearly half of the state (48 percent [PDF]) is owned by the United States government. Its Wyoming-based holdings include national forests, the National Grassland, and an Air Force Base in the capital.

21. Wyoming didn’t raise the legal drinking age from 19 to 21 until 1988—the last state in the union to do so.

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22. James Cash Penney opened his first store on April 14, 1902 in Kemmerer, Wyoming. Today there are approximately 1020 JCPenney stores across America.

23. On April 30, 2015, Laramie, Wyoming danced its way into the Guinness Book of World Records when 1184 swing dancers took to the floor of the University of Wyoming’s Fieldhouse at the same time.

24. Two of the largest coal mines in the world are located in Wyoming: North Antelope Rochelle and Black Thunder, both in the Powder River Basin. Coal is big business in Wyoming, with about 40 percent of the country’s domestic supply coming out of the state’s mines.

25. Wyoming may be landlocked, but it's still home to dozens of islands. There are 32 named islands within the state’s borders, most of which are located in Green River, Yellowstone Lake, and Jackson Lake.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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