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11 Fierce Facts About Scottish Wildcats

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Each year, over a million tourists descend on northern Scotland, where many hope to catch a glimpse of the legendary Loch Ness Monster. And yet, roaming the countryside is another mysterious beast, one that’s every bit as interwoven into the area’s cultural fabric. It’s a remarkable predator whose bold stripes and sheer ferocity have earned it the nickname “highlands tiger.” Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Scottish wildcat.

1. THIS IS BRITAIN’S LAST NATIVE CAT.

There was a time when many native cats roamed England, Wales, and Scotland. Fourteen thousand years ago, UK forests were home to cave lions. By the time rising sea levels separated Great Britain from the rest of Europe around 8200 years ago, a few Eurasian cat species had settled there. Another feline resident was the lynx, an animal that vanished from the island after the 7th century CE.

At some point, a population of so-called wildcats was also established in Britain. Comparable in both size and appearance to housecats, these creatures are still at large on the island—although habitat loss and overhunting has restricted their range to the northernmost recesses of Scotland. With Britain’s lynx and lions long gone, Scottish wildcats are the only indigenous felines left in the United Kingdom.

2. THERE’S SOME DEBATE OVER HOW THE SCOTTISH WILDCAT SHOULD BE CLASSIFIED.

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You’ll sometimes hear it said that this animal is a subspecies of the wildcat, also known as Felis silvestris. DNA testing has shown that the kitten currently napping on your sofa is itself a subspecies of wildcat, one that scientists call Felis silvestris catus.

It’s believed that the common housecat first emerged around 9000 to 10,000 years ago. The popular pet is directly descended from Felis silvestris lybica, or the “African wildcat.” As its name implies, the animal can be found throughout Africa, plus certain parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Were you to travel eastward from there, you might encounter the aptly-named Asiatic wildcat (Felis silvestris ornate), another subspecies that roams from Central Asia to western India.

This brings us to the European wildcat, Felis silvestris silvestris. Because of its unusually thick coat, the beast looks much bulkier than its Asiatic and African relatives. Also, while the Asian wildcat essentially mates year-round, the European variety only breeds from January to March.

So where do highland tigers fit into the family portrait? Some mammal experts believe that the Scottish wildcat should be regarded as its own subspecies, Felis silvestris grampia. Proponents of this argument point out that Britain’s wildcats look atypically large when compared to those living across the English Channel. However, other scientists disagree and write off the Scottish felines as nothing more than an isolated population of European wildcats.

3. EASTERN AND WESTERN CATS HAVE DIFFERENT DIETARY HABITS.

With their strong jaws, acute night vision, and ears that can rotate independently, highland tigers are formidable predators. Like many cats, they’re also opportunistic feeders. Those living in eastern Scotland primarily dine on rabbits, which can represent up to 70 percent of their diet [PDF]. But in the west, where rabbits are less common, wildcats mostly eat mice and voles instead. Wildcats will also eat assorted birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and small mammals. In rare instances, they’ve even been known to bring down deer fawns. Most prey is killed with a bite to the back of the neck, which either crushes or severs its spine. To dispatch bigger targets, wildcats will often clamp their jaws down onto the windpipe.

4. THEY USE GRASS TO FIGHT PARASITES.

Wildcats are known eat long blades of grass every so often. The dense plants help clear a cat’s digestive tract by forcing indigestible bones, fur, and feathers out of its system. Swallowing grass is also a good way to dislodge parasitic worms, which the cats regularly contract by eating raw meat.

5. SCOTTISH WILDCATS WILL “MOCK CHARGE” WHEN THREATENED.

The highland tiger has an aggressive reputation. John George Wood, a 19th-century science enthusiast, once wrote that “When caught in a trap, [wildcats] fly without hesitation at any person who approaches them, not waiting to be assailed. I have heard many stories of their attacking and seriously wounding a man, when their escape has been cut off.”

Although Wood’s sources may have been exaggerating, the point remains: Wildcats shouldn't be messed with. And yet, they almost never lash out at human beings without warning. Should you make a wildcat feel threatened, the animal’s first response will be to stare you down, arch its back, and hiss like an angry tabby. If that doesn’t work, the feline will start moving toward you, stamping its feet all the while. Known as a “mock charge,” this maneuver is designed to make the cat look as intimidating as possible—if only for a second or two. A moment’s hesitation on the attacker’s part may be all that a cat needs in order to escape.

If all else fails, the cats can bite and claw with unbelievable fierceness. More often than not, the feisty little creatures drive off their foes, sometimes inflicting nasty lacerations in the process. According to the Scottish Wildcat Association, large dogs, park rangers, and ill-prepared veterinarians are among the most common recipients of “non-hunting wildcat attacks.”

6. THE LAST ENGLISH WILDCATS MAY HAVE DISAPPEARED IN THE 19TH CENTURY.

The name “Scottish wildcat” is something of a misnomer. After all, for thousands of years, the animals were distributed throughout Great Britain. Unfortunately, human interference has driven them to the brink of extinction. The Scottish wildcat didn’t enjoy any sort of legal protection until the UK classified it as a protected species in 1988. Before that, trappers on the island had been harvesting their valuable coats since ancient times. As if this weren’t bad enough, the cats were believed to kill livestock en masse, so farmers deliberately killed them. Centuries of persecution—combined with deforestation—drove the felines into Scotland’s most sparsely-populated areas. The last documented sighting of a wildcat on English soil took place in 1849.

7. THE WILDCAT IS OFTEN USED AS A SCOTTISH CLAN EMBLEM.

To many Scots, the highland tiger is a national icon. Nowhere is this fact more apparent than within Scotland’s familial clan system. Among many others, Clan Mackintosh, Clan MacBean, and Clan MacPherson have each incorporated a wildcat into their respective crests. The groups' motto is “Touch not the cat bot a glove,” with the word bot meaning “without” in this context. Sounds like good advice (although some consider it to be even more poetic, and say that the one without the glove is the cat—i.e. claws ready to go).

8. POOP HELPS THEM COMMUNICATE.

Solitary by nature, adult wildcats generally give each other a wide berth outside of the breeding season. Data collected from radio collars have revealed that an average female spends most of its time within a one-square-mile home range. Males are thought to have similar habits.

Your typical highland tiger buries most of its own scat. However, some droppings will be intentionally left exposed in order to mark territory. This is also done for the benefit of other wildcats. By smelling the dung, a passing cat can assess the leaver’s sex, age, and reproductive status.

9. THEY’RE HYBRIDIZING WITH DOMESTIC CATS.

The single greatest threat to the Scottish wildcat’s continued existence is no longer habitat loss or reckless hunting. Today, the real problem is genetic pollution, since the wildcat and housecat can successfully interbreed. Such encounters produce hybrid kittens—and unlike (most) mules, these cats are capable of having babies of their own.

Rampant hybridization has contaminated the Scottish wildcat gene pool to an alarming degree. Some naturalists estimate that just 35 “pure” highland tigers are left in the wild. Within a few generations, the animal could be rendered effectively extinct.

Further complicating matters is a potential epidemic of mistaken identity. To the untrained eye, the Scottish wildcat looks quite similar to the “tabby” breed of housecat. Concerned citizens are having a hard time telling the highland tiger apart from the very animal that’s wiping it out. Under the wrong circumstances, mistaking one for the other may have serious legal repercussions.

“The Scottish wildcat is enshrined as a protected species in British law,” notes conservationist David MacDonald in the above video. “For the law to function … it has to be possible to identify what is a Scottish wildcat.” In the 1990s, government officials tried to prosecute a gamekeeper who had been accused of shooting three wildcats. Yet, because an expert couldn’t confirm that the victims were, in fact, highland tigers and not tabbies, the charge was dismissed.

Fortunately, though, there are a few subtle differences between the wildcat and its domestic counterpart. The most obvious among them has to do with the shape of the tail. Whereas wildcats possess thick, bushy tails, tabbies have fairly slender ones. Also, you’ll never find a purebred highland tiger with spots on its back. Another key difference: In wildcats, the black line that runs down the spine terminates at the base of the tail, and in tabbies, it extends all the way to the tail’s tip [PDF].

10. SOME WANT TO CLONE WILDCATS.

How do you rescue an endangered animal that’s breeding its way into oblivion? Dr. Bill Ritchie sees cloning as a step in the right direction. Ritchie became world-famous as a member of the team that produced Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal to ever be created from an adult cell. In 2011, Ritchie started to research the possibility of cloning some purebred wildcats. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland supported the idea, but as of this writing, no attempt to actually follow through has been made.

11. ONE WAS JUST BORN IN A SCOTTISH ZOO.

In May, the Scottish wildcats at the Chester Zoo in Cheshire—female Einich and male Cromarty—welcomed an adorable kitten, the first to be born at the zoo as part of its Scottish wildcat breeding program. "The arrival of the new kitten is a major boost to the increasingly important captive population in Britain," Tim Rowlands, Chester Zoo’s curator of mammals, said in a statement. "Conservation breeding in zoos is a key element in the wider plan to conserve the species in the UK and, drawing on the unique skills, knowledge and knowhow of the carnivore experts working here, we’re breeding Scottish wildcats to increase the safety net population and hope to release their offspring into the highlands of Scotland in the future."

Above is video of the kitten emerging from the den for the first time. We think you'll agree it's pretty adorable.

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The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
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How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
 
 
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.

1. IT'S THE "DUCT TAPE OF LIFE."

It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.

2. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE.

It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.

3. IT'S NAMED AFTER COAL.

While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.

4. IT LOVES TO BOND.

It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.

5. NEARLY 20 PERCENT OF YOUR BODY IS CARBON.

May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.

6. WE DISCOVERED TWO NEW FORMS OF IT ONLY RECENTLY.

Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

7. DIAMONDS AREN'T CALLED "ICE" BECAUSE OF THEIR APPEARANCE.

Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.

8. IT HELPS US DETERMINE THE AGE OF ARTIFACTS—AND PROVE SOME OF THEM FAKE.

American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.

9. TOO MUCH OF IT IS CHANGING OUR WORLD.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

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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