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10 Big-Mouthed Facts About Basking Sharks

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The second-largest living fish is a gentle giant with some peculiar habits and a knack for instigating cryptozoological debates. Brush up on your basking shark trivia with these 10 tantalizing tidbits.

1. THEY’RE BUS-SIZED FILTER-FEEDERS.

The two biggest fish in the sea consume surprisingly tiny animals. Basking sharks can grow to be 36 feet long and weigh four tons or more. Within the world of fish, this impressive size is exceeded only by that of the enigmatic whale shark. Those of you with a shark phobia will be relieved to learn that neither species is a big-game hunter; on the contrary, they eat plankton, fish eggs, and other minuscule organisms.

Like whale sharks, basking sharks use filtration to capture their food. The gills of both fish are lined with bristle-like, 3-inch structures called “gill rakers.” When it comes to capturing food, these rakers are critical. To feed, a hungry basking shark opens its colossal mouth—which is 3 feet wide in adult specimens—and swims around at a leisurely 2.5 to four mph. Any prey that might be floating in its path are corralled into the mouth, ensnared by the gill rakers, and then forced down the shark’s narrow throat.

By filtration system standards, the whole apparatus is a model of efficiency. In just 60 minutes, a basking shark can strain at least 1800 tons of water through its gills.

2. PEOPLE USED TO CALL THEM “SUNFISH.”

Over the centuries, English-speakers have given these leviathans plenty of different names, including elephant sharks, bone sharks, and hoe-mothers (“hoe” being descended from the Gaelic word for dogfish). In Scotland and Ireland, the preferred moniker used to be "sunfish." However, by the turn of the 18th century, this name had become problematic because many people had started using it to describe the ocean sunfish, an entirely different animal with a compressed body and really weird teeth.

Then, in 1769, Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant argued that the filter-feeder should be renamed the basking shark. Why’d he pick that particular name? Like most scientists at the time, Pennant believed that these huge fish hang around near the surface of the ocean in order to absorb solar rays. More recent evidence suggests they really do this because, at higher latitudes, plankton congregates just under the surface. Soaking up sun probably isn’t their main objective. Maybe it’s time for another name change.

3. BASKING SHARKS CAN GO AIRBORNE.

Boaters need to give basking sharks a wide berth. The giant fish might not be man-eaters, but they can still be dangerous. Biologists aren’t sure why, but basking sharks occasionally launch themselves out of the water Free Willy–style and come crashing back down with tremendous force. Maybe they do this in order to impress the opposite sex. Or perhaps breaching the surface helps them get rid of lamprey eels and other parasites that latch onto their skin. Regardless, you’ll want to maintain a respectful distance between your vessel and the sharks. In 1937, one breaching individual accidentally capsized a small boat that was passing through the Firth of Clyde, off the coast of Scotland. Three people drowned.

4. THEIR OIL-RICH LIVERS HELP KEEP THEM AFLOAT.

To regulate their buoyancy, most fish depend on a swim bladder. By regulating the amount of gas inside this organ, a fish can change or maintain its current depth. However, sharks don’t possess swim bladders. Instead, many species have enlarged livers that are filled with helpful oils. These oils sport high concentrations of squalene, a low-density hydrocarbon. Because it’s lighter than seawater, it gives the sharks buoyancy. As a way to compensate for their immense body size, basking sharks have evolved huge, squalene-filled livers—without which they’d sink like rocks.

Historically, basking shark livers were a valuable resource. In Europe and elsewhere, oils extracted from them became a common type of lamp fuel during the 1700s and 1800s. Simultaneously, the squalene was used as a key ingredient in perfumes, industrial lubricants, and man-made silk. Even today, it’s used to temper high-grade steel. To feed the world’s thirst for basking-shark livers, fishermen once slaughtered the animals en masse. Between 1946 and 1986, harpoon fisheries in Ireland, Scotland, and Norway killed 77,204 of them. Fortunately, numerous protective measures have since come into effect, and it’s now illegal to hunt basking sharks in many places.

5. GREAT WHITES AND ORCAS MIGHT BE NATURAL PREDATORS.

Are any non-human animals brave enough to hunt full-grown basking sharks? Maybe. Killer whale pods and great white sharks have been seen feasting on dead specimens. But it's possible these predators were merely scavenging the remains of basking sharks. No confirmed instance of either species attacking or killing the filter-feeders has been documented.

6. BASKING SHARKS WERE ONCE THOUGHT TO HIBERNATE ON THE OCEAN FLOOR.

In 1953, a pair of biologists suggested that the reason basking sharks seemed to disappear from northern European and American waters every winter was that they were swimming down to the ocean floor and hibernating. The idea spread like wildfire. “At this moment,” reads a 1962 New Scientist article, “there are probably great schools of these enormous fish quietly resting at the bottom of the sea.”

Engaging as such imagery is, we can now confidently dismiss the hypothesis. A 2009 paper published in Current Biology finally answered the riddle of where these sharks go during the chillier months. Near the Massachusetts coastline, the authors fitted 25 basking sharks with satellite tags. The tags started transmitting data from some unexpected locations. “When a tag popped up in the Caribbean Sea, I was really blown away,” co-author Gregory Skomal told National Geographic. A few of his sharks headed even further south—one specimen migrated all the way to Brazil.

Skomal and his co-researchers also learned that the fish frequented some very deep waters as they traveled. For weeks or months at a time, many of the sharks remained somewhere between 650 and 3300 feet below the surface.

7. THEY REEK.

Basking sharks produce a mucus-based slime that covers their skin. Presumably, it’s an anti-parasite defense mechanism that keeps lampreys and other freeloaders at bay. This might explain one of the sludge’s more unusual properties: extraordinary corrosiveness. Nets that come into contact with a basking shark’s hide tend to rot away as the slime burns through their natural fibers. And, as many ichthyologists have noted, the ammonia-rich cocktail also makes basking sharks stink to high heaven. In fact, the smell is so powerful that some fishermen claim they can even smell a fully submerged basking shark from a considerable distance.

8. JUVENILES HAVE HOOK-SHAPED SNOUTS.

The reproductive habits of basking sharks aren’t well understood, and nobody has yet figured out how long they usually live. But at least one thing about their life cycle is clear: juveniles look markedly different from older specimens. Youngsters have fairly long snouts that curve downward. When the animals mature, however, their snouts become straighter and, proportionately, a lot smaller. Such conspicuous differences between the age groups once led scientists to believe that adolescent and adult basking sharks represented two different species.

9. DESPITE THEIR MANY SIMILARITIES, BASKING AND WHALE SHARKS ARE NOT CLOSE RELATIVES.

Our oceans are home to more than 400 shark species. Scientists have divided these up into eight major groups. Basking sharks are classified as lamniformes, along with great whites, shortfin makos, and sandtiger sharks. On the other hand, anatomical and genetic data reveals that whale sharks belong to the orectolobiformes order, as do nurse sharks. Therefore, the filtration systems of Earth’s two biggest fish must have evolved independently—a phenomenon known as convergent evolution.

10. BASKING SHARK CORPSES HAVE OFTEN BEEN MISTAKEN FOR DEAD SEA MONSTERS.

An alleged sea serpent carcass that washed onto a beach near Scituate, Massachusetts in 1970 was positively identified by several experts as the rotting corpse of a basking shark. Seven years later, the Zuiyō Maru, a Japanese fishing trawler, hauled up and photographed a strange-looking cadaver. At first glance, it looked like the creature had a long neck, a small head, and four flippers. This led some to believe that the newly dead animal was really a prehistoric plesiosaur reptile. However, according to tissue samples, it was almost certainly a shark—and most likely one of the “basking” variety.

Over the past 200 years, many other so-called “sea monster” bodies have turned out to be probable basking sharks. Why does the same story keep repeating itself? Well, when the filter-feeders die, their lower jaws tend to break away from the rest of the body at an early stage in the decomposition process. The tail and dorsal fins are also among the first things to fall off. Consequently, a dead basking shark might look an awful lot like a long-necked, small-headed plesiosaur—or maybe some kind of sea serpent—to the untrained eye.

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Atlanta Shelters Give Pups a Temporary Home for the Holidays
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The holidays are looking a little brighter for adoptable dogs from two animal shelters in Atlanta, Georgia. As ABC News reports, a new program called Home for the Pawlidays is providing temporary homes to longer-term residents of Fulton County Animal Services and DeKalb County Animal Services for the week of Thanksgiving.

The initiative was organized by Atlanta's LifeLine Animal Project, a local group dedicated to providing healthcare and homes to shelter dogs. The dogs that were chosen for the project may be older, have special health needs, or other issues that make it more difficult to find them forever homes.

But from November 18 to 25, the dogs are getting to spend time away from the shelter and in the homes of loving foster families.

“We were thinking, everyone gets a break from work, and they should get a break from the shelter,” LifeLine’s public relations director Karen Hirsch told ABC News.

Some caretakers have already fallen in love with their four-legged house guests. Foster Heather Koth told ABC that she hadn’t been considering adoption, but after meeting Missy the shelter dog, she now plans to foster her until she has a permanent home or possibly adopt the dog herself.

And for the dogs that can’t be kept by their temporary owners, just a week of quality playtime and sleeping in a real bed can make a huge impact. You can check out photos of the pets who are benefiting from the program this week below.

[h/t ABC News]

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25 Things You Didn't Know About Turkeys
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Most of us probably associate turkey with a sumptuous Thanksgiving spread, but there’s a lot more to the big bird than how delicious it is alongside your grandma’s famous cranberry sauce. Here are a few bits of knowledge you can drop over the dinner table—when you’re not fighting with your family over white meat or dark meat, that is.

1. THE NORTH AMERICAN WILD TURKEY POPULATION WAS ALMOST WIPED OUT.

Wild turkey
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Wild turkeys once roamed the continent en masse, but by the early 20th century, the entire U.S. population had been whittled down to a mere 30,000 due to hunting and the destruction of their woodland habitats. In the 1940s, many of the remaining birds were relocated to parts of the U.S. with recovering woodlands so the turkeys could repopulate. Despite these efforts, by 1973, there were still just 1.5 million wild turkeys in North America. Today, that number is up to about 6 million.

2. TURKEY APPENDAGES ARE LIKE MOOD RINGS.

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The dangly appendage that hangs from the turkey’s forehead to the beak is called a snood. The piece that hangs from the chin is the wattle. These fleshy flaps can change color according to the turkey’s physical and mental health—when a male turkey (called a tom, of course) is trying to attract a mate, the snood and wattle turn bright red. If the turkey is scared, the appendages take on a blue tint. And if the turkey is ailing, they become very pale.

3. TURKEYS CAN FLY.

Wild turkey in flight
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Well, domestic turkeys that are bred to be your Thanksgiving centerpiece can’t. They’re too heavy. But wild turkeys can, reportedly at speeds up to 55 miles per hour. Though they don’t go very far—usually less than 100 yards—wild turkeys are among the five largest flying birds in the world. They’re in good company: Others on the list include the swan and the albatross.

4. THEY CAN ALSO SWIM.

Wild turkey drinking water
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Turkeys don’t swim often, it seems, but they can, by tucking their wings in, spreading their tails, and kicking. In 1831, John James Audubon wrote, “I have been told by a friend that a person residing in Philadelphia had a hearty laugh on hearing that I had described the Wild Turkey as swimming for some distance, when it had accidentally fallen into the water. But be assured, kind reader, almost every species of land-bird is capable of swimming on such occasions, and you may easily satisfy yourself as to the accuracy of my statement by throwing a Turkey, a Common Fowl, or any other bird into the water.”

5. TURKEY POOP CAN TELL YOU A LOT.

A handler picking up turkey poop at the White House Turkey Pardon in 2013.

The next time you happen across turkey poop—which happens all the time, we know—take a closer look at it. If the droppings are shaped like a “J,” they were left there by a male turkey. Spiral-shaped poo? The culprit is female.

The citizens of Pilot Rock, Oregon, probably don’t much care about the shape of the stuff, but more about the quantity of it. Earlier this year, Pilot Rock turned to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) for help combating a flock of 50 to 70 wild turkeys that would periodically invade the town, destroy gardens, perch in trees, and poop on pickup trucks. The ODFW offered several solutions, but as far as we know the turkeys still rule the roost at Pilot Rock.

6. TURKEY PROBABLY WASN'T ON THE PILGRIMS' MENU.

A recreation of the Pilgrims' first settlement
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Thanks to historical records, we know for sure that the Wampanoag brought deer, and the English brought fowl—likely ducks and geese.

7. BEN FRANKLIN DIDN'T REALLY WANT THE TURKEY TO BE OUR NATIONAL BIRD.

A drawing of Ben Franklin.
Getty / Hulton Archive / Handout

You may have heard that at least one of our Founding Fathers lobbied hard to make the turkey our national symbol instead of the noble bald eagle. That’s not quite true, but in a letter to his daughter, he did expound on the character of each, which may be where the rumor got started:

“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

“With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country…

“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

8. ANOTHER TURKEY FAN: ALEXANDER HAMILTON.

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Yep, A. Ham liked turkey. In fact, he thought eating turkey was practically a god-given right, and once remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day."

9. TEDDY ROOSEVELT BELIEVED THE BIRDS WERE CUNNING PREY.

Teddy Roosevelt on a hunting trip in Africa.
Getty / Hulton Archive / Stringer

Ol’ TR may have been accustomed to hunting big game, but wild turkeys held a special place in his heart. He believed they were every bit as challenging to hunt as deer. In his 1893 book Hunting Trips of a Ranchman and the Wilderness Hunter, he wrote, “The wild turkey really deserves a place beside the deer; to kill a wary old gobbler with the small-bore rifle, by fair still-hunting, is a triumph for the best sportsman.”

10. WILD TURKEYS HAVE BETTER VISION THAN YOU DO.

Close up of wild turkey's head
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Their fantastic vision is probably one reason Teddy Roosevelt found turkeys such a challenge to hunt. They can detect motion from many yards away, have vision three times greater than 20/20, and have peripheral vision of about 270 degrees. Ours, comparatively, is only 180. And although turkeys can’t see in 3D, they can see UVA light, which helps them better identify predators, prey, mates, and food.

11. THE TOP TURKEY-PRODUCING STATE MAY SURPRISE YOU.

Domesticated turkeys on a farm
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You may know Minnesota for producing Prince, the Mall of America, and Target. But we also have the Land of 10,000 Lakes to thank for our Thanksgiving turkeys. According to the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, approximately 46-48 million turkeys are produced in Minnesota every year. In fact, it’s where the turkey that receives a presidential pardon hails from every year. Speaking of which ...

12. THE PRESIDENTIAL TURKEY PARDON MAY DATE BACK TO ABE LINCOLN.

President Barack Obama pardons a turkey in 2011.
Getty / Mark Wilson / Staff

Officially, the tradition of the sitting president of the United States pardoning his Thanksgiving turkey dates back to John F. Kennedy, who decided to let his gift from the National Turkey Federation off the hook. But he wasn't the first president to let a turkey go free: When Abraham Lincoln’s son Tad befriended one of the birds intended for Christmas dinner in 1863, kind-hearted Abe granted it a stay of execution.

13. THE FIRST TV DINNER MEAL: THANKSGIVING LEFTOVERS

Thanksgiving TV dinner
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In 1953, Swanson ended up with 10 train cars full of frozen turkeys—260 tons of them—when an overzealous buyer ordered too many turkeys for the holidays. Salesman Gerry Thomas solved the problem by ordering 5,000 aluminum trays and setting up an assembly line of workers to scoop dressing, peas, and sweet potatoes into the compartments. Slices of turkey rounded out the meal, which Swanson sold for 98 cents. The idea was a hit: The following year, 10 million turkey TV dinners were sold.

14. NATIONAL TURKEY LOVERS’ MONTH ISN’T WHEN YOU THINK.

Grilled meats on a silver tray
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Everyone eats turkey in November and December, so there’s not a lot of need for extra poultry promotion during those months. If you want to celebrate National Turkey Lovers’ Month, you’ll have to do it in June with some turkey brats and burgers on the grill.

15. THE TURKEY YOU’LL BE EATING IS PROBABLY ABOUT 18 WEEKS OLD.

Roasted turkey on a platter
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That’s how long it typically takes the birds to grow to maturity, which is when they’re usually slaughtered.

16. THERE WAS ALMOST A TURKEY SIDEKICK IN POCAHONTAS.

Loren Javier via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

At one point, Disney thought Pocahontas needed a little comic relief, so they hired John Candy to voice a wisecracking woodland fowl named Red Feather. Sadly, Candy passed away while the logistics were being worked out, so animators dropped the turkey entirely and opted for a clever raccoon named Meeko.

17. NOT ALL TURKEYS GOBBLE.

Close up shot of a wild turkey
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If you hear a turkey making the distinctive noise we all associate with them, then you’re hearing a male communicating with his lady friends up to a mile away. Females make a clicking sound instead of a gobble.

18. IF YOU DON’T EAT TURKEY AT THANKSGIVING, YOU’RE IN THE MINORITY.

A black and white photo of a family gathering around the table as the mother brings in a turkey.
Getty / Evans / Stringer

According to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans eat turkey at Thanksgiving.

19. TURKEY CRAVINGS CAUSED A SPIKE IN KFC SALES IN JAPAN.

A large Kentucky Fried Chicken sign
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When KFC opened its first stores in Japan in the 1970s, the company was surprised to find that sales soared during the holidays. The phenomenon stymied executives since most of Japan celebrates neither Thanksgiving nor Christmas. It was later discovered that foreigners craving holiday turkey had decided that KFC’s chicken was the next best thing. After the company figured this out, they played up the association with their “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” campaign—“Kentucky for Christmas.” It worked on tourists and locals alike, and today, Christmas Eve is still the highest-selling day for KFC Japan.

20. THERE IS PROPER TURKEY TERMINOLOGY.

A flock of turkeys on a farm with one staring directly into the camera.
Getty / Cate Gillon / Staff

You probably know that a group of turkeys is a flock, but they can also properly be called a “rafter.” And should you want to call baby turkeys something a little more precise, you can call them “poults.”

21. THE MAYA USED TURKEYS AS SACRIFICIAL OFFERINGS.

A Maya tripod plate featuring a bird
Los Angeles County Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Archaeologists have found vases dating from 250-800 CE that have turkeys depicted on them. According to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee art historian Andrea Stone, "turkeys were quintessential animals for feasting and for sacrificial offerings." The Maya even crafted tamales shaped like the birds.

22. DURING THE ‘70S, YOU COULD CALL JULIA CHILD FOR TURKEY ADVICE ON THANKSGIVING.

Julia Child in her kitchen in 1978
Lynn Gilbert via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Even when she was at peak popularity, the famous chef refused to remove her phone number from public listings. According to friends, complete strangers would call Child on Thanksgiving to ask for advice on cooking the perfect turkey. Julia always answered the phone, and typically told callers whatever they needed to hear to get them to relax and enjoy the holiday. She even told some amateur cooks that turkey was best served cold anyway.

23. BIG BIRD IS A TURKEY.

Big Bird and Elmo at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Getty / Matthew Peyton / Stringer

Well, according to Sesame Street, he’s actually a canary—but his plumage makes him a turkey. The good people at American Plume & Fancy Feather provide Sesame Street with several thousand turkey feathers per costume to make sure Big Bird looks soft and fluffy.

24. THE BIRD IS NAMED AFTER THE COUNTRY.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey
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But the whole thing was a mistake. Centuries ago, the English began to import a rather tasty bird, now known as a helmeted guinea fowl, from Madagascar. But they didn’t know it was from Africa. Because it was imported to Europe from merchants in Turkey, the English believed the birds were also Turkish.

Later, when the Spanish arrived in the New World, they discovered Meleagris gallopavo—the wild turkey. It was delicious, so they started importing it back to Europe. Europeans thought it tasted like the “turkey” guinea fowl they had been enjoying, so they called it the same thing.

25. WHAT, EXACTLY, IS DARK MEAT?

Roasted turkey legs on a piece of butcher paper
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It’s just a different type of muscle than white meat. White meat is the result of glycogen, which doesn't need much oxygen from the blood because the muscles it fuels only require short bursts of energy. Dark meat, however, is found on wings, thighs, and drumsticks—muscles that are used for long periods of time and require more sustainable energy. It’s made dark by the proteins that convert fat into energy.

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