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What Are Loofahs Made Of?

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Bath time, spa experiences, and even common household chores just wouldn't be the same without the humble sponge. Sponges, mostly from class Demospongiae, have been sold commercially as cleansing aids for thousands of years, and have also been used as water filters, padding for soldiers’ helmets, and for painting and decorating. (The brightly-colored pad hanging out by your kitchen sink right now is, of course, a synthetic design modeled after nature's handy tool.)

Although natural loofahs resemble their bathroom counterparts, they're actually about as unrelated as it’s possible to be. The loofah you scrub with is a dried-out tropical or subtropical gourd belonging to genus Luffa (most often either species L. aegyptiaca or L. acutangula). And while no one is completely sure where it originated—as W.M. Porterfield wrote in a 1955 Economic Botany article: "[c]ultivation of the sponge gourd is of such ancient origin that it is impossible to determine whether the original home was in Africa or Asia” [PDF]— a study in 1990 indicated that it was probably first cultivated in India. These plants—which look a bit like giant cucumbers—grow year-round in almost any tropical climate and places that have warm seasons, so long as there is plenty of moisture and no risk of frost.

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Like sponges, the fibrous dried luffa has likely been used in Egypt and Asia for up to a couple thousand years. But its biggest boost as a cleansing tool began in the early 1890s, when Japan started cultivating commercial luffa crops for international export. (Prior to that, luffas were mostly used when a thorough household scrubbing was in order.) Word spread about the exfoliating item just as bathing suits and hemlines began retreating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to The New York Times Magazine, which left many women with newfound anxiety about the smoothness of their skin. Inventions like the Improved Bathing Mitten, patented in 1889 by Judson S. Snyder of Brooklyn, New York, transformed the large gourds into easier-to-handle versions. By 1893, “no one seemed able to agree on how to spell the name of that sponge, but it inspired such a craze [that one] expected to see ‘a ‘loafer,’ ‘luphar,’ a ‘loopa’ or a ‘loofah’ in every wash basin the land,'” according to that same New York Times Magazine article.

But cleaning isn't all they're good for. According to Porterfield, commercial cultivation of the plant in the 1890s also let luffas fill a wide range of industrial roles. Before the second World War, over half of imported luffa goards were used in filters (chiefly in the Navy) for everything from steam to diesel engines. They also found use as water filters, industrial scourers, and even surgical tools. After wartime conflict drove Western powers to start sourcing their luffa shipments elsewhere, the dried veggies continued to prove useful through the mid-20th century as an effective sound-proofing material for tanks, helmets, and certain kinds of buildings.

When man-made materials began taking over many industrial roles in the 20th century, the noble luffa was mostly returned to its role as a cleaning tool—and, of course, a popular food, one that easily stands in for cucumbers or summer squash while it’s still immature. The vine is so easy to grow that it has been floated as a candidate for a profitable, sustainable crop to help drive economic and agricultural development here in the U.S. as well as countries like Paraguay [PDF]. Because they’re so resilient, luffa vines can be easily grown by amateur gardeners in much of the country (apart from the upper Midwest and New England), so feel free to take a whack at rearing this useful gourd—just make sure that any luffas that find a place in your bathroom don’t end up being a farm for bacteria themselves.

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Animals
Scientists Discover 'Octlantis,' a Bustling Octopus City
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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Octopuses are insanely talented: They’ve been observed building forts, playing games, and even walking on dry land. But one area where the cephalopods come up short is in the social department. At least that’s what marine biologists used to believe. Now a newly discovered underwater community, dubbed Octlantis, is prompting scientists to call their characterization of octopuses as loners into question.

As Quartz reports, the so-called octopus city is located in Jervis Bay off Australia’s east coast. The patch of seafloor is populated by as many as 15 gloomy octopuses, a.k.a. common Sydney octopuses (octopus tetricus). Previous observations of the creatures led scientists to think they were strictly solitary, not counting their yearly mating rituals. But in Octlantis, octopuses communicate by changing colors, evict each other from dens, and live side by side. In addition to interacting with their neighbors, the gloomy octopuses have helped build the infrastructure of the city itself. On top of the rock formation they call home, they’ve stored mounds of clam and scallop shells and shaped them into shelters.

There is one other known gloomy octopus community similar to this one, and it may help scientists understand how and why they form. The original site, called Octopolis, was discovered in the same bay in 2009. Unlike Octlantis, Octopolis was centered around a manmade object that had sunk to the seabed and provided dens for up to 16 octopuses at a time. The researchers studying it had assumed it was a freak occurrence. But this new city, built around a natural habitat, shows that gloomy octopuses in the area may be evolving to be more social.

If that's the case, it's unclear why such octo-cities are so uncommon. "Relative to the more typical solitary life, the costs and benefits of living in aggregations and investing in interactions remain to be documented," the researchers who discovered the group wrote in a paper published in Marine and Freshwater Behavior and Physiology [PDF].

It’s also possible that for the first time in history humans have the resources to see octopus villages that perhaps have always been bustling beneath the sea surface.

[h/t Quartz]

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Criminal Gangs Are Smuggling Illegal Rhino Horns as Jewelry
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Valuable jewelry isn't always made from precious metals or gems. Wildlife smugglers in Africa are increasingly evading the law by disguising illegally harvested rhinoceros horns as wearable baubles and trinkets, according to a new study conducted by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

As BBC News reports, TRAFFIC analyzed 456 wildlife seizure records—recorded between 2010 and June 2017—to trace illegal rhino horn trade routes and identify smuggling methods. In a report, the organization noted that criminals have disguised rhino horns in the past using all kinds of creative methods, including covering the parts with aluminum foil, coating them in wax, or smearing them with toothpaste or shampoo to mask the scent of decay. But as recent seizures in South Africa suggest, Chinese trafficking networks within the nation are now concealing the coveted product by shaping horns into beads, disks, bangles, necklaces, and other objects, like bowls and cups. The protrusions are also ground into powder and stored in bags along with horn bits and shavings.

"It's very worrying," Julian Rademeyer, a project leader with TRAFFIC, told BBC News. "Because if someone's walking through the airport wearing a necklace made of rhino horn, who is going to stop them? Police are looking for a piece of horn and whole horns."

Rhino horn is a hot commodity in Asia. The keratin parts have traditionally been ground up and used to make medicines for illnesses like rheumatism or cancer, although there's no scientific evidence that these treatments work. And in recent years, horn objects have become status symbols among wealthy men in countries like Vietnam.

"A large number of people prefer the powder, but there are those who use it for lucky charms,” Melville Saayman, a professor at South Africa's North-West University who studies the rhino horn trade, told ABC News. “So they would like a piece of the horn."

According to TRAFFIC, at least 1249 rhino horns—together weighing more than five tons—were seized globally between 2010 and June 2017. The majority of these rhino horn shipments originated in southern Africa, with the greatest demand coming from Vietnam and China. The product is mostly smuggled by air, but routes change and shift depending on border controls and law enforcement resources.

Conservationists warn that this booming illegal trade has led to a precipitous decline in Africa's rhinoceros population: At least 7100 of the nation's rhinos have been killed over the past decade, according to one estimate, and only around 25,000 remain today. Meanwhile, Save the Rhino International, a UK-based conservation charity, told BBC News that if current poaching trends continue, rhinos could go extinct in the wild within the next 10 years.

[h/t BBC News]

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