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Why Do Alligators Fall Asleep if You Rub Their Bellies?

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Myth has it that you can disarm an alligator by rubbing its belly. Some people don’t necessarily focus on the logistics of getting that close to the creature (let’s keep in mind the stomach is awfully close to all of those sharp teeth). However, we’re here to tell you that, yes, this is technically true—and alligators aren’t the only animals associated with this behavior.

"Belly rubbing refers to tonic immobility," the National's Zoo's Sean Henderson told The Washington Post in 2008. "It's a state of hypnotism generated by flipping the animal on its back and fully extending its neck" and, as we mentioned, stroking its belly. Fair warning, Henderson added: "Tonic immobility is generally brought about in an animal that is under heavily stressful conditions. Don't try this at home!"

According to Isaac Marks’s Fears, Phobias and Rituals: Panic, Anxiety, and Their Disorders, tonic immobility refers to the “prolonged stillness and decreased responsivity in a previously active animal in the face of threatening stimulation.” This state can last anywhere from 15 seconds to several hours, although the average length falls around eight to 10 minutes in chickens. (Yep, they can be affected too!)

Sharks are another type of creature susceptible to tonic immobility. There seem to be two different ways to trigger this effect in sharks, the most effective way being by rubbing a shark’s nose. While the exact reason why this works is unknown, one ecologist writes “[an] untested possibility is that a shark’s electroreceptors are concentrated in the snout area, and perhaps overstimulating this area ‘shocks’ them into immobility.”

Another means of immobilizing a shark is to invert it, flipping it on its back. WIRED recounted an especially odd occurrence of a shark being put into a state of tonic immobility—by another animal:

“In 1997, eyewitnesses watched a female orca off the coast of California seemingly induce tonic immobility purposely in a great white shark. The orca held the shark upside down, inducing tonic immobility, and kept the shark still for 15 minutes, which caused it to suffocate to death.”

Remember when we mentioned that tonic immobility occurs in chickens, too? WIRED theorizes that it’s a defense mechanism for the birds. “You can lay it on its side, tuck its head under its wing and gently rock it, or put it on its back and stroke its sternum,” the site reports. “You can wave your finger in front of its face—starting with your finger close to its beak and then pulling your finger slowly straight back. The chicken will focus on your finger.”

Tonic immobility affects different animals in different ways. "I've observed alpacas and llamas 'calmed' into a state of relaxation by gently rubbing the upper gum just beneath the cleft in the upper lip,” veterinary surgeon David Anderson told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “The animals stop resisting being held, and stop vocalizing.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Watch a School of Humpback Whales 'Fish' Using Nets Made of Bubbles 

Just like humans, humpback whales catch many fish at once by using nets—but instead of being woven from fibers, their nets are made of bubbles.

Unique to humpbacks, the behavior known as bubble-net feeding was recently captured in a dramatic drone video that was created by GoPro and spotted by Smithsonian. The footage features a school of whales swimming off Maskelyne Island in British Columbia, Canada, in pursuit of food. The whales dive down, and a large circle of bubbles forms on the water's surface. Then, the marine mammals burst into the air, like circus animals jumping through a ring, and appear to swallow their meal.

The video offers a phenomenal aerial view of the feeding whales, but it only captures part of the underwater ritual. It begins with the group's leader, who locates schools of fish and krill and homes in on them. Then, it spirals to the water's surface while expelling air from its blowhole. This action creates the bubble ring, which works like a net to contain the prey.

Another whale emits a loud "trumpeting feeding call," which may stun and frighten the fish into forming tighter schools. Then, the rest of the whales herd the fish upwards and burst forth from the water, their mouths open wide to receive the fruits of their labor.

Watch the intricate—and beautiful—feeding process below:

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