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11 Mysterious Facts About Okapis

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The giraffe’s closest living relative is a striped, long-tongued beast called the okapi. These forest-dwelling creatures are elusive—so much so that the species wasn't discovered by western scientists for centuries. Here’s what every animal enthusiast should know about okapis.

1. OKAPIS WERE UNKNOWN TO SCIENCE UNTIL FAIRLY RECENTLY.

While traveling through central Africa in the 1800s, European explorers would sometimes hear reports of a shy, hoofed, forest-dwelling mammal with distinctive striped hindquarters. During the late 1870s/'80s, a Russian adventurer named Wilhelm Junker managed to obtain a sample of the animal’s hide. Noting its stripes, he misidentified its owner as some new species of zebra, antelope, or chevrotain.

Rumors about the mystery creature eventually reached Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston, a British colonial administrator with a passion for biology. In 1899, he was appointed Special Commissioner of Uganda, and the following year, Johnston was given two shoulder belts made with the skins of an animal the locals called “o’api.” Then, in 1901, he received three more specimens: an entire hide and two isolated skulls. Their anatomy demonstrated that the species was in fact a close cousin of the giraffe. By the end of the year, a correspondent of Johnston’s had announced the existence of this animal—which we now know as the okapi—in a scientific paper, with the scientific name Okapia johnstoni.

2. OKAPIS AREN’T SOCIABLE.

How did the okapi, which stands over 5 feet tall and can weigh between 440 and 770 pounds, go undiscovered by scientists until 1901? The species’s preferred habitat played a big role in keeping it off the radar. Even today, scientists have a hard time locating or monitoring okapis because they live in dense, inhospitable forests. Since the striped herbivores are so difficult to observe in the wild, we know very little about their social habits. But with this said, it would appear that okapis lead a solitary existence. According to data collected from radio collars, adults spend most of their lives inside of a territory that might overlap with those of other individuals, but okapis seldom cross paths. While newborn calves will hang around their mothers until they mature, the evidence suggests that full-grown okapis—unlike giraffes—don’t travel together (although other researchers have noted that okapis might travel in pairs on rare occasions).

3. PROPORTIONATELY, OKAPIS HAVE LONGER TONGUES THAN GIRAFFES DO.

Both of these herbivores have long, prehensile tongues that help them pull leaves off of tree limbs. The tongues are bluish or grayish in color over the first several inches, which scientists believe prevents them from getting sunburned. A giraffe can be up to 19 feet tall—so relative to its smaller body size, the okapi’s 14- to 18-inch tongue is more impressive than the giraffe’s 20-inch tongue.

4. THE SPECIES’S RANGE IS NOW CONFINED TO ONE COUNTRY.

We know from a range of evidence that okapis once lived in Uganda. Unfortunately, they seem to have gone extinct there. Currently, wild okapis can only be found within the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, where they live in the dense forests of the northern and central recesses. Population estimates vary, but most scientists think that just 10,000 to 50,000 non-captive okapis are left in the world. They’ve recently been classed as endangered across their entire range.

5. ONLY MALES HAVE HORNS.

Okapis are sexually dimorphic, which means there are visible differences between the sexes that have nothing to do with their reproductive organs. For example, male okapis have a horn structure called an ossicone (like a giraffe), but females don’t have real horns, and instead have bumps. When mating season arrives, rival bucks will often use the horns to flank one another.

6. OKAPIS SOMETIMES EAT CHARCOAL.

These browsers subsist on a varied diet that includes the seeds, fruits, and leaves of more than 100 different types of plants, and the occasional fungi. To obtain important minerals, okapis will also lick clays that they find at riverbanks and eat charcoal off of scorched trees.

7. BABIES CAN GO OVER A MONTH WITHOUT POOPING.

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Nobody knows why, but newborn okapis usually don’t defecate for the first time until they’re four to 10 weeks old. (But it’s still unknown how much the peculiar situation of zoos affects this timeframe. Until the late 1970s, many baby okapis were suffering from rectal prolapse because of bored mothers overlicking their young’s rectal area.) This could be a survival strategy: Fecal material can attract predators, so maybe the absence of bowel movements early on helps to conceal the calves’ scent from leopards and other carnivores.

8. THEIR FEET RELEASE A FOUL-SMELLING SUBSTANCE.

On each foot, an okapi has a peculiar gland that sits between the toes and secretes a pungent, waxy material often described as tar-like—and during forest excursions, they sometimes leave that material behind. It’s been speculated that this helps okapis mark their territories, which they’ll also do by spraying urine over shrubs. While an adult female will generally ignore other individuals who wander onto her home range, males apparently behave aggressively towards each another and try to ward off intruders of their own sex. (In the process, those horns are put to good use.)

9. OKAPIS HAVE AN UNUSUAL GAIT.

Giraffes and okapis differ from the majority of quadrupedal animals in the way that they walk. To get from Point A to Point B, most quadrupeds—including dogs and cats—will simultaneously move one leg on their right side and another leg on the left side. In contrast, okapis and giraffes swing both right limbs forward at the same time, then they’ll do likewise with both left limbs. (For a visual aid, check out the above video.) However, when there’s a need for speed, the two species will gallop in a horse-like manner.

10. THEY EMIT NOISES THAT ARE TOO LOW FOR THE HUMAN EAR TO DETECT.

Okapis may not be the most vocal of animals, but they aren’t mutes either. “We hear coughs, bleats, and whistles quite often,” Dr. Matt Anderson, a behavioral ecologist who’s studied the okapis at the San Diego Zoo, notes in a blog post. Mothers will also communicate with their calves by releasing infrasounds—noises that fall below the normal limits of human hearing. Bioacoustics expert Elizabeth von Muggenthaler recently discussed this phenomenon in a 2013 paper. By keeping close tabs on okapi behavior, she’s found that you may be able to tell when an okapi is making infrasounds by watching the creature’s body language. As they generate ultra-low-frequency calls, the animals are known to rapidly jerk their heads upward and point their noses to the sky [PDF].

11. NOT ALL OKAPIS HAVE THE SAME NUMBER OF CHROMOSOMES.

Human cells generally contain 23 pairs of chromosomes, or 46 in total. Dog cells have 78 overall while 38 can be found in those of cats. But okapis are different. Although most have 46 per cell, a few specimens feature 44 or 45. What’s truly baffling about this is that okapis with an atypical chromosome count appear perfectly normal and healthy. The individuals who have 45 per cell are especially perplexing. Animals with an odd number of chromosomes usually exhibit physical abnormalities. Yet in a bizarre twist, the 45-chromosomed okapis look ordinary, as do their offspring. Geneticists are still trying to figure out what’s going on here.

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Stop Your Snoring and Track Your Sleep With a Wi-Fi Smart Pillow
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Everyone could use a better night's rest. The CDC says that only 66 percent of American adults get as much sleep as they should, so if you're spending plenty of time in bed but mostly tossing and turning (or trying to block out your partner's snores), it may be time to smarten up your sleep accessories. As TechCrunch reports, the ZEEQ Smart Pillow improves your sleeping schedule in a multitude of ways, whether you're looking to quiet your snores or need a soothing lullaby to rock you to sleep.

After a successful Kickstarter in 2016, the product is now on sale and ready to get you snoozing. If you're a snorer, the pillow has a microphone designed to listen to the sound of your snores and softly vibrate so that you shift positions to a quieter pose. Accelerometers in the pillow let the sleep tracker know how much you're moving around at night, allowing it to record your sleep stages. Then, you can hook the pillow up to your Amazon Echo or Google Home so that you can have your favorite smart assistant read out the pillow's analysis of your sleep quality and snoring levels the next morning.

The pillow is also equipped with eight different wireless speakers that turn it into an extra-personal musical experience. You can listen to soothing music while you fall asleep, either connecting the pillow to your Spotify or Apple Music account on your phone via Bluetooth or using the built-in relaxation programs. You can even use it to listen to podcasts without disturbing your partner. You can set a timer to turn the music off after a certain period so you don't wake up in the middle of the night still listening to Serial.

And when it's time to wake up, the pillow will analyze your movements to wake you during your lightest sleep stage, again keeping the noise of an alarm from disturbing your partner.

The downside? Suddenly your pillow is just another device with a battery that needs to charge. And forget about using it in a place without Wi-Fi.

The ZEEQ Smart Pillow currently costs $200.

[h/t TechCrunch]

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15 Reasons You Should Appreciate Squirrels
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Even if you live in a big city, you probably see wildlife on a regular basis. Namely, you're sure to run into a lot of squirrels, even in the densest urban areas. And if you happen to live on a college campus, well, you're probably overrun with them. While some people might view them as adorable, others see them as persistent pests bent on chewing on and nesting in everything in sight. But in honor of National Squirrel Appreciation Day, here are 15 reasons you should appreciate the savvy, amazing, bushy-tailed critters.

1. THEY CAN JUMP REALLY, REALLY FAR.

A flying squirrel soars through the air
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In one study [PDF] of the tree-dwelling plantain squirrels that roam the campus of the National University of Singapore, squirrels were observed jumping almost 10 feet at a stretch. In another study with the eastern ground squirrel, one researcher observed a squirrel jumping more than 8 feet between a tree stump and a feeding platform, propelling itself 10 times the length of its body. Flying squirrels, obviously, can traverse much farther distances midair—the northern flying squirrel, for instance, can glide up to 295 feet [PDF].

2. THEY'RE VERY ORGANIZED …

A squirrel digs in a grassy field filled with fallen leaves.
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In fact, they may be more organized than you are. A recent study found that eastern fox squirrels living on UC Berkeley's campus cache their nuts according to type. When given a mixture of walnuts, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts, the squirrels took the time to hide each type of nut in a specific place. This method of "spatial chunking" may help them remember where the nuts are when they go to retrieve them later. Though the study wasn't able to determine this for sure, the study's results suggested that the squirrels may have been organizing their caches by even more subtle categories, like the size of the nuts.

3. … BUT THEIR FORGETFULNESS HELPS TREES GROW.

Looking up a tree trunk at a squirrel climbing down
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Tree squirrels are one of the most important animals around when it comes to planting forests. Though they may be careful about where they bury their acorns and other nuts, they still forget about quite a few of their caches (or at least neglect to retrieve them). When they do, those acorns often sprout, resulting in more trees—and eventually, yet more acorns for the squirrels.

4. THEY HELP TRUFFLES THRIVE.

A man holds a truffle up for the camera.
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The squirrel digestive system also plays an important role in the survival of truffles. While above-ground mushrooms can spread their spores through the air, truffles grow below ground. Instead of relying on the air, they depend on hungry animals like squirrels to spread their spores to host plants elsewhere. The northern flying squirrel, found in forests across North America, depends largely on the buried fungi to make up its diet, and plays a major role in truffle propagation. The squirrels poop out the spores unharmed on the forest floor, allowing the fungi to take hold and form a symbiotic relationship with the tree roots it's dropped near.

5. THEY'RE ONE OF THE FEW MAMMALS THAT CAN SPRINT DOWN A TREE HEAD-FIRST.

A squirrel stands on the knot of a tree trunk looking down at the ground.
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You may not be too impressed when you see a squirrel running down a tree, but they're actually accomplishing a major feat. Most animals can't climb vertically down head-first, but squirrel's back ankles can rotate 180°, turning their paws all the way around to grip the tree trunk as they descend.

6. SEVERAL TOWNS COMPETE FOR THE TITLE OF 'HOME OF THE WHITE SQUIRREL.'

A white squirrel in Olney, Illinois stands on its hind legs.
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Squirrels are a more popular town mascot than you might think. Surprisingly, more than one town wants to be known as the "home of the white squirrel," including Kenton, Tennessee; Marionville, Missouri; the Canadian city of Exeter, Ontario; and Brevard, North Carolina, the location of the annual White Squirrel Festival. But Olney, Illinois may be the most intense about its high population of albino squirrels. There is a $750 fine for killing the all-white animals, and they have the legal right-of-way on roads. There's an official city count of the squirrels each year, and in 1997, realizing that local cats posed a threat to the beloved rodent residents, the city council banned residents from letting their cats run loose outdoors. In 2002, the city held a 100-Year White Squirrel Celebration, erecting a monument and holding a "squirrel blessing" by a priest. Police officers wore special squirrel-themed patches for the event.

7. THEY CAN AID STROKE RESEARCH.

An illustration of different regions of the brain lighting up in blue
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Ground squirrels hibernate in the winter, and the way their brains function while they do may help scientists develop a new drug that can limit the brain damage caused by strokes. When ground squirrels hibernate, their core body temperature drops dramatically—in the case of the arctic ground squirrel, to as low as 26.7°F, possibly the lowest body temperature of any mammal on Earth. During this extra-cold hibernation, a squirrel's brain undergoes cellular changes that help its brain deal with reduced blood flow. Researchers are currently trying to develop a drug that could mimic that process in the human brain, preventing brain cells from dying when blood flow to the brain is cut off during a stroke.

8. THEIR FUR MAY HAVE SPREAD LEPROSY IN THE MIDDLE AGES.

A woman in a fur vest with a hood faces away from the camera and stares out over the water.
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If you always warn your friends not to pet or feed squirrels because they can spread disease, put this story in your back pocket for later: They may have helped leprosy spread from Scandinavia to the UK in the 9th century. Research published in 2017 found a strain of leprosy similar to a modern variant found in squirrels in southern England in the skull of a woman who lived in England sometime between 885 and 1015 CE. The scientists suggest that the leprosy may have arrived along with Viking squirrel pelts. "It is possible that this strain of leprosy was proliferated in the South East of England by contact with highly prized squirrel pelt and meat, which was traded by the Vikings at the time this woman was alive," one of the authors told The Guardian. That may not be the most uplifting reason to appreciate squirrels, but it's hard not to admire their influence!

9. THEY'RE MORE POWERFUL THAN HACKERS.

A squirrel runs across a power line.
Frederic J. Brown, AFP/Getty Images

While energy companies may worry about hackers disrupting the power grid, squirrels are actually far more powerful than cyber-whizzes when it comes to sabotaging our electricity supply. A website called Cyber Squirrel 1 documents every public record of squirrels and other animals disrupting power services dating back to 1987. It has counted more than 1100 squirrel-related outages across the world for that time period, which is no doubt a vast underestimate. In a 2016 survey of public power utilities, wildlife was the most common cause of power outages, and for most power companies, that tends to mean squirrels.

10. THEY CAN HEAT UP THEIR TAILS TO WARD OFF PREDATORS.

A ground squirrel sits with its mouth open.
David McNew, Getty Images

California ground squirrels have an interesting way of scaring off rattlesnakes. Like cats, their tails puff up when they go on the defense. A squirrel will wave its tail at a rattlesnake to convince the snake that it's a formidable opponent. Surprisingly, they whip their tails at their foes whether it's light or dark outside. Squirrels can control the blood flow to their tails to cool down or keep warm, and they use this to their advantage in a fight, pumping blood into their tails. Even if the rattlesnakes can't see the bushy tails, researchers found in 2007, they can sense the heat coming off them.

11. THEY HELP SCIENTISTS KNOW WHETHER A FOREST IS HEALTHY.

A squirrel runs down a tree trunk toward a pile of leaves.
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Researchers look at tree squirrel populations to measure just how well a forest ecosystem is faring. Because they depend on their forest habitats for seeds, nesting sites, and food storage, the presence and demographics of tree squirrels in an area is a good bellwether for the health of a mature forest. Studying changes in squirrel populations can help experts determine the environmental impact of logging, fires, and other events that alter forest habitats [PDF].

12. THEY CAN LIE.

A squirrel with a bushy tail stands on its hind legs.
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Gray squirrels know how to deceive. They can engage in what's called "tactical deception," a behavior previously only seen in primates, as a study in 2008 found. When they think they're being watched by someone looking to pilfer their cache of food, the researchers discovered, they will pretend to dig a hole as if burying their acorn or nut, but tuck their snack into their mouth and go bury it elsewhere.

13. THEY WERE ONCE AMERICA'S MOST POPULAR PET.

A man in a hat kisses a squirrel on the White House grounds
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though some states currently ban (or require permits for) keeping squirrels as pets, it was once commonplace. Warren G. Harding kept a squirrel named Pete who would sometimes show up to White House meetings and briefings, where members of Harding's cabinet would bring him nuts. But keeping a squirrel around wasn't just for world leaders—the rodent was the most popular pet in the country, according to Atlas Obscura. From the 1700s onwards, squirrels were a major fixture in the American pet landscape and were sold in pet shops. Despite Harding's love of Pete, by the time he lived in the White House in the 1920s, squirrel ownership was already on the wane, in part due to the rise of exotic animal laws.

14. THE MERE SIGHT OF JUST ONE COULD ONCE ATTRACT A CROWD.

A historical photo of nurses leaning down to feed a black squirrel
Library of Congress // Public Domain

The American cities of the 1800s weren't great places to catch a glimpse of wildlife, squirrels included. In fact, the animals were so rare that in the summer of 1856, when a gray squirrel escaped from its cage inside a downtown New York apartment building (where it was surely living as someone's pet), it merited a write-up in The New York Times. According to the paper, several hundred people gathered to gawk at the tree where the squirrel took refuge and try to coax the rodent down. In the end, a police officer had to force the crowd to disperse. The paper did not document what happened to the poor squirrel.

15. IN THE 19TH CENTURY, THEY WERE TASKED WITH TEACHING COMPASSION.

A boy doing homework with a squirrel on the table.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In the mid-1800s, seeking to return a little bit of nature to concrete jungles, cities began re-introducing squirrels to their urban parks. Squirrels provided a rare opportunity for city slickers to see wildlife, but they were also seen as a sort of moral compass for young boys. Observing and feeding urban squirrels was seen as a way to steer boys away from their "tendency toward cruelty," according to University of Pennsylvania historian Etienne Benson [PDF]. Boy Scouts founder Ernest Thompson Seton argued in a 1914 article that cities should introduce "missionary squirrels" to cities so that boys could befriend them. He and other advocates of urban squirrels "saw [them] as opportunities for boys to establish trusting, sympathetic, and paternalistic relationships with animal others," Benson writes.

But young boys weren't the only ones that were thought to benefit from a little squirrel-feeding time. When the animals were first reintroduced to parks in the 19th century, feeding squirrels was considered an act of charity—one accessible even to those people who didn't have the means of showing charity in other realms. "Because of the presence of urban squirrels, even the least powerful members of human society could demonstrate the virtue of charity and display their own moral worth," Benson writes. "Gray squirrels helped reshape the American urban park into a site for the performance of charity and compassion for the weak." Even if you were too poor to provide any sort of charity for someone else, you could at least give back to the squirrels.

BONUS: THEY USED TO HATE TAX SEASON TOO.

A colored lithograph shows men and dogs hunting squirrels in a forest.
Currier and Ives, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though notably absent from big cities, much of the U.S. was once overrun by squirrels. The large population of gray squirrels in early Ohio caused such widespread crop destruction that people were encouraged—nay, required—to hunt them. In 1807, the Ohio General Assembly demanded that citizens not just pay their regular taxes, but add a few squirrel carcasses on top. According to the Ohio History Connection, taxpayers had to submit a minimum of 10 squirrel scalps to the town clerk each year. Tennessee had similar laws, though that state would let people pay in dead crows if they couldn't rustle up enough squirrels.

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