Angsar Walk via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Angsar Walk via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Whaling Voyages Also Devastated Walruses and Many Other Animals

Angsar Walk via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Angsar Walk via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The 19th century was a heady time for American whalers, and, consequently, a pretty awful time for whales around the world. But cetaceans weren’t the only ones to take a hit. A forthcoming study of whaler ship logs found that thousands of other animals, from walruses to kangaroos, all fell prey to whalers’ weapons.

The study itself began as a midterm project for undergraduates in Joshua Drew’s Historical Ecology class at Columbia University. Drew wanted to give his students something other than lectures, he tells mental_floss, and thought he might be able to help prepare them for academic life after college. "There’s this idea that when you get accepted to a graduate program somebody bops you on the head with a magic wand," he says, "and suddenly you know how to write papers." (Spoiler: "That’s not the case.")

Drew knew that Massachusetts' New Bedford Whaling Museum had scanned and digitized dozens of logbooks taken from whaling ships. "It was a great dataset, just sitting there," Drew says. He set his class a task: Identify and add up all the non-whale animal kills recorded in each of 79 logs from 1846 to 1901.

This was slightly harder than it sounds. The whalers who kept the logs were, well, whalers, not scientists. Different people used different names to refer to the same animal, and sometimes lumped several species together.

And then there was the handwriting—beautiful to look at, but a huge pain to decipher. "Ugh," Drew remembers. "It was like Elvish script."

But the students loved it. After the midterm, they asked if they could keep going, and Drew decided to extend the project for the rest of the semester. Drew and his seven students conducted a formal study from start to finish, beginning with recording and classifying every single animal’s death from the scanned primary source documents.

The students analyzed the data and compared their findings with climate data and merchants’ records. The last two weeks of class were dedicated to writing and preparing the study for publication. On the final exam, each student had to draft the paper’s abstract. "By this point in the project, they definitely should have known enough about it to write one," Drew said. "Plus, I hate writing abstracts. I figured I’d give them the pleasure instead."

The resulting paper—soon to be published in the journal Ecology and Evolution—is full of surprises. As expected, non-whale animal deaths were widespread, but they were also astonishingly diverse. "There were tons—literally, tons—of walruses being caught," Drew says. There were seals and cod and caribou, otters and ptarmigans. More than 150 rabbits. Seventeen polar bears. Seven bears. Four beavers. Two kangaroos. The whalers had been busy.

Terse and no-nonsense though the logbooks might have been, they managed to create a vivid picture of life at sea. Gaps of time between entries suggest "days and days of boredom punctuated by life-threatening exhilaration," Drew says. The men aboard these ships were hungry for action, for a payday, and for something other than the disgusting preserved food in the hold. When an opportunity to go ashore and hunt arose, they were going to take it.

These were desperate and dangerous days, and not just for the whalers' quarry. "The logs talked about people being killed or getting incredibly sick," Drew says, "and they were just trapped on these boats in the middle of the ocean." He says the lists of kills are, in their own way, tinged with a sense of loneliness.

This is the power of historical ecology, Drew says: to show us how we got here, for better or for worse. He says, "It’s like lifting that veil and seeing this wonderful complexity, this drama and dance, that led to the world being the way it is now."

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.

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Roadside Bear Statue in Wales is So Lifelike That Safety Officials Want It Removed
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Wooden bear statue.

There are no real bears in the British Isles for residents to worry about, but a statue of one in the small Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells has become a cause of concern. As The Telegraph reports, the statue is so convincing that it's scaring drivers, causing at least one motorist to crash her car. Now road safety officials are demanding it be removed.

The 10-foot wooden statue has been a fixture on the roadside for at least 15 years. It made headlines in May of 2018 when a woman driving her car saw the landmark and took it to be the real thing. She was so startled that she veered off the road and into a street sign.

After the incident, she complained about the bear to highways officials who agreed that it poses a safety threat and should be removed. But the small town isn't giving in to the Welsh government's demands so quickly.

The bear statue was originally erected on the site of a now-defunct wool mill. Even though the mill has since closed, locals still see the statue as an important landmark. Llanwrtyd Wells councilor Peter James called it an "iconic gateway of the town," according to The Telegraph.

Another town resident, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Telegraph that the woman who crashed her car had been a tourist from Canada where bears are common. Bear were hunted to extinction in Britain about 1000 years ago, so local drivers have no reason to look out for the real animals on the side of the road.

The statue remains in its old spot, but Welsh government officials plan to remove it themselves if the town doesn't cooperate. For now, temporary traffic lights have been set up around the site of the accident to prevent any similar incidents.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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10 Scientific Benefits of Being a Dog Owner
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The bickering between cat people and dog people is ongoing and vicious, but in the end, we're all better off for loving a pet. But if anyone tries to poo-poo your pooch, know that there are some scientific reasons that they're man's best friend.

1. YOU GET SICK LESS OFTEN.

Dog snuggling on a bed with its person.
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If cleaning commercials are to be believed, humanity is in the midst of a war against germs—and we shouldn't stop until every single one is dead. In reality, the amount of disinfecting we do is making us sicker; since our bodies are exposed to a less diverse mix of germs, our entire microbiome is messed up. Fortunately, dogs are covered in germs! Having a dog in the house means more diverse bacteria enters the home and gets inside the occupants (one study found "dog-related biodiversity" is especially high on pillowcases). In turn, people with dogs seem to get ill less frequently and less severely than people—especially children—with cats or no pets.

2. YOU'RE MORE RESISTANT TO ALLERGIES.

Child and mother playing with a dog on a bed.
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While dog dander can be a trigger for people with allergies, growing up in a house with a dog makes children less likely to develop allergies over the course of their lives. And the benefits can start during gestation; a 2017 study published in the journal Microbiome found that a bacterial exchange happened between women who lived with pets (largely dogs) during pregnancy and their children, regardless of type of birth or whether the child was breastfed, and even if the pet was not in the home after the birth of the child. Those children tested had two bacteria, Ruminococcus and Oscillospira, that reduce the risk of common allergies, asthma, and obesity, and they were less likely to develop eczema.

3. YOU'LL HAVE BETTER HEART HEALTH.

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Everything about owning a dog seems to lend itself to better heart health. Just the act of petting a dog lowers heart rate and blood pressure. A 2017 Chinese study found a link between dog ownership and reduced risk of coronary artery disease, while other studies show pet owners have slightly lower cholesterol and are more likely to survive a heart attack.

4. YOU GET MORE EXERCISE.

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While other pets have positive effects on your health as well, dogs have the added benefit of needing to be walked and played with numerous times a day. This means that many dog owners are getting 30 minutes of exercise a day, lowering their risk of cardiovascular disease.

5. YOU'LL BE HAPPIER.

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Dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression than non-pet owners. Even for those people who are clinically depressed, having a pet to take care of can help them out of a depressive episode. Since taking care of a dog requires a routine and forces you to stay at least a little active, dog owners are more likely to interact with others and have an increased sense of well-being while tending to their pet. The interaction with and love received from a dog can also help people stay positive. Even the mere act of looking at your pet increases the amount of oxytocin, the "feel good" chemical, in the brain.

6. YOU HAVE A MORE ACTIVE SOCIAL LIFE.

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Not only does dog ownership indirectly tell others that you're trustworthy, your trusty companion can help facilitate friendships and social networks. A 2015 study published in PLOS One found that dogs can be both the catalyst for sparking new relationships and also the means for keeping social networks thriving. One study even showed that those with dogs also had closer and more supportive relationships with the people in their lives.

7. YOUR DOG MIGHT BE A CANCER DETECTOR.

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Your dog could save your life one day: It seems that our canine friends have the ability to smell cancer in the human body. Stories abound of owners whose dogs kept sniffing or licking a mole or lump on their body so they got it checked out, discovering it was cancerous. The anecdotal evidence has been backed up by scientific studies, and some dogs are now trained to detect cancer.

8. YOU'LL BE LESS STRESSED AT WORK.

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The benefits of bringing a dog to work are so increasingly obvious that more companies are catching on. Studies show that people who interact with a pet while working have lower stress levels throughout the day, while people who do not bring a pet see their stress levels increase over time. Dogs in the office also lead to people taking more breaks, to play with or walk the dog, which makes them more energized when they return to work. This, in turn, has been shown to lead to much greater productivity and job satisfaction.

9. YOU CAN FIND OUT MORE ABOUT YOUR PERSONALITY.

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The kind of dog you have says a lot about your personality. A study in England found a very clear correlation between people's personalities and what type of dogs they owned; for example, people who owned toy dogs tended to be more intelligent, while owners of utility dogs like Dalmatians and bulldogs were the most conscientious. Other studies have found that dog owners in general are more outgoing and friendly than cat owners.

10. YOUR KIDS WILL BE MORE EMPATHETIC.

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Though one 2003 study found that there was no link between pet ownership and empathy in a group of children, a 2017 study of 1000 7- to 12-year-olds found that pet attachment of any kind encouraged compassion and positive attitudes toward animals, which promoted better well-being for both the child and the pet. Children with dogs scored the highest for pet attachment, and the study notes that "dogs may help children to regulate their emotions because they can trigger and respond to a child's attachment related behavior." And, of course, only one pet will happily play fetch with a toddler.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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