7 Facts About Turkish Van Cats

The Turkish Van is a striking, silky cat with a white body and colored head and tail. True to its name, it's thought to hail from modern-day Turkey’s eastern Lake Van region. Here are seven facts about the gorgeous kitty.

1. THE TURKISH VAN IS LIKELY AN OLD BREED ...

Like many cat breeds, no one quite knows the Turkish Van’s true origins. According to legend, ancestors of the Turkish Van sailed aboard Noah’s Ark. Once the boat reached Mount Ararat—a volcanic mountain in eastern Turkey that serves as the Biblical vessel’s mythical landing place—the cats hopped off and swam for dry land. God blessed them, and his divine touch caused their white coats to develop their signature coloration. These cats became the progenitors for the Turkish Van breed.

In reality, the Turkish Van breed probably developed in central and southwest Asia. It's believed that the furry cat has lived in Turkey’s isolated Lake Van region—a mountainous area that’s home to the country’s largest lake—for generations, thanks to local legends, traditional folk songs, and ancient artifacts that reference the cat and its unusual markings. The Turkish Van has reportedly also been spotted in neighboring countries including Iran, Iraq, and parts of the former Soviet Union.

2. ... BUT THE CAT WAS ONLY RECENTLY RECOGNIZED IN AMERICA.

The Turkish Van eventually migrated from Turkey to central Europe, possibly thanks to merchants, explorers, military troops, or returning Crusaders, who brought the cat home with them during the late 13th century. But according to most sources, the cat didn’t make its mark on the world until the mid-1950s, when two British women named Laura Lushington and Sonia Halliday were photographing Lake Van for the Turkish Tourist Board; when they had finished their project, the Tourist Board thanked them with a pair of unrelated dark red and white felines. Lushington took them back to England, began breeding the kitties, and imported more cats from Turkey to further the bloodline.

Eventually, the foreign breed was registered with the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy (GCCF). Originally called “Turkish cats,” their name was later changed to the Turkish Van to avoid confusion with the Turkish Angora breed. (Over the years, the Turkish Van has also been known by a handful of other names.) In 1969, the GCCF officially granted the Van full championship status.

No one knows quite how or when Turkish Vans made their way to America, but in the early 1980s, two breeders named Barbara and Jack Reark imported two of the cats from France, helping to pave the way for the Van’s acceptance as a new breed. By 1985, The International Cat Association (TICA) also recognized the Van, and the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) followed suit in 1994.

The Turkish Van is still relatively rare in America, so if you want to purchase one you might have to search long and hard for a breeder who sells the silky kitties. In 2013, CFA registration statistics showed that the Turkish Van ranked 41st in popularity out of the 43 breeds the organization accepts for championship status—probably because so few of them exist in the U.S.

3. THE TURKISH VAN IS PROTECTED IN ITS NATIVE LAND.

Even though the Turkish Van is beloved in the Republic of Turkey, one 1992 survey revealed that only 92 of the purebred felines remained in the country's Lake Van region. To expand the cat's bloodline, the Turkish government officially recognized the Van and launched measures to protect it, while a local university developed breeding programs. Today, very few Turkish Vans are exported to other countries, and most of America’s breeding stock comes from Europe.

4. THE TERM "VAN MARKINGS" WAS COINED TO DESCRIBE THE TURKISH VAN'S COAT.

If you’re a cat aficionado, you’ve likely heard the term Van markings, which describes a mostly-white feline with colored markings that are restricted to its head and tail. This phrase was originally coined to describe the Turkish Van’s unique coloration. The Van’s markings can come in multiple shades, including red, cream, black, and blue, and patterns like tabby and tortoiseshell [PDF]. Cat registries have rules about how many colored markings can cover the white portion of the Van’s body before it’s considered a bicolor cat instead of a Turkish Van. The CFA, in particular, only allows for 15 percent of the Van's entire body, excluding the head and tail color, to be colored.

You’ll also find solid white Turkish Vans, and Vans that have been “blessed” with a color patch between their shoulder blades; cat fanciers refer to this as the “Mark of Allah.”

Aside from its markings, the Van is known for its beautiful fur. It has a plumed tail, and a silky, semi-long coat that’s water-repellant. The coat is thick and dense in the winter, sheds to a shorter length in the summer, and has no undercoat, so it’s tangle-free and easy to groom. This fur covers a broad-chested, muscular body, which according to some accounts, can weigh anywhere from 7 to 20 pounds.

5. TURKISH VAN CATS SOMETIMES HAVE ODD-COLORED EYES.

Turkish Van kittens are initially born with pale blue eyes, which change to a deeper blue or amber as they grow older. Occasionally, you’ll also see a Van with one amber eye and one blue eye, or two blue eyes of different hues. This unusual trait stems from the cat’s piebald white spotting gene, which sometimes prevents melanin, or pigment, from imbuing one eye’s iris with color.

6. TURKISH VAN CATS ARE SAID TO LOVE WATER.

Turkish Vans are often called “the swimming cats” because they’re said to love water. Fans of the fluffy feline claim they’ve seen the kitty jump into showers, pounce at dripping faucets, and splash through puddles, kiddie pools, and thunderstorms.

It’s unknown why Vans like water, but it’s likely that the breed developed its love for swimming—and its water-repellant coat—to hunt for the fish that live in Lake Van. Still, these claims are speculative, so unless your Turkish Van has proven its love for all things liquid, don’t try giving it a bath without clipping its claws first.

7. THE TURKISH VAN IS A LIVELY CAT.

If you’re looking for a quiet, cuddly lap cat, the Turkish Van is not the pet for you. But if you’re looking for a livewire feline that likes to play games, leap onto high surfaces, and race around the house, the Van might be your best bet.

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

Fish Tube: How the 'Salmon Cannon' Works and Why It's Important

PerfectStills/iStock via Getty Images
PerfectStills/iStock via Getty Images

If you’ve been on the internet at any point in the past week, you’ve certainly come across footage of wildlife conservationists stuffing salmon into a giant plastic tube and shuttling them over obstacles. It’s so bizarre—even by the already loose standards of the web—that it briefly ignited discussions over fish welfare, its purpose, and the seeming desire of people to be similarly transported through a pneumatic tunnel into a new life.

Naturally, the “salmon cannon” has a mission beyond amusing the internet. The system was created by Whooshh Innovations, a company that essentially adopted the same kind of transportation system featuring pressurized tubing that's used in banking. Initially, the system was intended to transport fruit over long distances without bruising. At some point, engineers figured they could do the same for fish.

The fish payload is secured at the entrance of the tube—acceptable species can weigh up to 34 pounds—and moves through a smooth, soft plastic tube that conforms to their body shape. Air pressure behind them keeps them moving. The fish are jettisoned between 16 and 26 feet per second to a new location, where they emerge relatively unscathed. Because there’s no need for a water column, the tubing can cover most terrain at virtually any height.

The tubing solution is a human answer to a human problem: dams. With fish largely confined to still bodies of water thanks to dams and facing obstacles swimming upstream to migrate and spawn, fish need some kind of assistance. In the past, “fish ladders” have helped fish move upstream by providing ascending steps they can flop on, but not all fish can navigate such terrain. Another system, trapping and hauling fish like cargo, results in disoriented fish who can even forget how to swim. The Whooshh system, which has been in used in Washington state for at least five years, allows for expedient fish export with an injury rate as little as 3 percent, although study results have varied.

The video features manual insertion of the fish. In the wild, Whooshh counts on fish making semi-voluntary entries into the tubing. Once they swim into an enclosure, they’re curious enough about the tube to go inside.

If all goes well, the system could help salmon be reintroduced to the Upper Columbia River in Washington, where the population has been depleted by dams. Testing of the device there is awaiting approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

[h/t Popular Mechanics]

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