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America's National Parasite Collection Is Getting Spruced Up

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Tapeworms? Ticks? Fish lice? You name 'em, we’ve got 'em—and by “we,” I mean America. One of our country’s most underrated scientific treasures, the National Parasite Collection, is currently getting spruced up by zoologists at the Smithsonian.

The collection began in 1892, when researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) started saving specimens for future reference. Almost from the beginning, the project was a collaboration between the USDA and the Smithsonian, with scientists at both institutions helping to collect, identify, and catalog the specimens that rolled in from around the country. The USDA even built a parasite library in Washington, D.C., where researchers could visit or even check out specimens to study.

Shortly after its inception, the parasite collection began to be shuttled back and forth between Smithsonian and USDA facilities, even as it continued to grow. As this timeline explains, the collection spent 45 years at USDA’s Beltsville research campus.

In 2014, the collection once again landed back at the Smithsonian. This latest hand-off was a bit more labor-intensive than previous exchanges, as the collection now includes around 20 million parasites preserved in bottles and jars and on microscope slides. Many of these, like the malaria parasite, are too small to see with the naked eye. Others are … a bit bigger, like the 30-foot tapeworms removed from the intestines of a dolphin.

Remarkably, as zoologist Anna Phillips told the Washington Post, the dolphin may not have even known the parasites were there. “The tapeworms were not a problem for it,” she said. “There were other things going on.”

Phillips and her colleague Bill Moser are spearheading the Smithsonian’s effort to take stock of what they’ve got. Although scientists from around the world have continued to call on the collection’s resources, the majority of specimens have spent the last century gathering dust in the basement of the Beltsville facility.

“We still are finding out what’s in here,” Phillips said. “It’s so much. We didn’t get a grasp on it when you’re moving massive amounts.”

Assessing the collection is going to be a huge project, but Phillips is glad to have the opportunity to spread awareness about our planet’s incredible parasitic diversity. “Most of the time, parasites aren’t causing major harm to their hosts,” she said. “They’re taking a little bit, what they need ... They can even be beautiful ... They have these really amazing morphological structures that are really pretty.”

[h/t Washington Post]

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Animals
Why Do Female Spotted Hyenas Give Birth Through Their Pseudo-Penises?
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At the zoo, you can sometimes tell the difference between male and female animals by noting their physical size, their behavior, and yes, their nether regions. Hyenas, however, flip the script: Not only are lady spotted hyenas bigger and meaner than their male counterparts, ruling the pack with an iron paw, they also sport what appear to be penises—shaft, scrotum, and all.

"Appear" is the key word here: These 7-inch-long phalluses don't produce sperm, so they're technically really long clitorises in disguise. But why do female hyenas have them? And do they actually have to (gulp) give birth through them? Wouldn't that hurt … a lot?

The short answers to these questions are, respectively, "We don't know," "Yes," and "OW." Longer answers can be found in this MinuteEarth video, which provides the full lowdown on hyena sex. Don't say we didn't warn you.

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science
Are Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll Really Linked? Researchers Investigate
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Around the world, sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll are said to go hand-in-hand. But do they? As PsyPost reports, a pair of Pennsylvania psychologists recently dove into the empirical evidence tying the three together, asking college students to talk about their drug use, sex lives, and music preferences and talents to suss out whether people who play and enjoy rock music really do have more active sex lives and drug use.

Published in the journal Human Ethnology Bulletin, the study [PDF] of 467 students relied on self-reporting, which isn't typically the most reliable evidence—people are wont to exaggerate how often they've had sex, for instance—but the survey also asked them about their desires, posing questions like "If you could, how frequently would you have sex?" It also asked about how often the students drank and what drugs they had tried in their lifetimes. They also described their musical experience and what kind of music they listened to.

The results were mixed, but the researchers identified a relationship between liking faster, "harder" music and having more sex and doing more drugs. Acoustic indie rock aficionados weren't getting quite as wild as heavy metal fans. High-tempo-music lovers were more likely to have taken hallucinogenic drugs like LSD, for example, and tended to have had more sexual partners in the previous year than people who favored slower types of music. According to the study, previous research has found that attention-seeking people are more likely to enjoy "hard" music.

The study didn't have a diverse enough group either in age or in ethnicity to really begin to make sweeping generalizations about humans, especially since college students (the participants were between 18 and 25) tend to engage in more risky behaviors in general. But this could lay the groundwork for future research into the topic. Until then, it might be more accurate to change the phrase to "sex, drugs, and heavy metal."

[h/t PsyPost]

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