CLOSE
Original image

How the Global Bird-Poop Trade Created a Traveling Mummy Craze

Original image
Mummy of Christopher Delano; image from the 1864 French translation of the 1854 A Descriptive Narrative of the Wonderful Petrifaction of a Man into Stone. Image Credit: Courtesy of Garrett Scott

 
Bird poop has been a favored fertilizer for centuries—and, it turns out, is an excellent preserver of human flesh. These two factors came together in the 19th century as the global trade in guano, the excrement of seabirds (or bats), took off, leading to some unexpected travelers coming along for the ride—and raking in the cash.

Guano contains essential nutrients for plant growth and naturally accumulates near nesting areas. Its Miracle-Gro properties were prized and regulated by the Incas (the word wanu is Quechua in origin), but it wasn’t until 1802 that the European world learned of this resource through the writings of Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who traveled extensively along the west coast of South America.

By the 1840s, Europe and the U.S. were importing guano for fertilizer. When it was discovered the poop could also make gunpowder, a veritable guano mania began. Guano was soon going for about $76 per ton, and the U.S. imported over 100,000 tons of it in 1861 [PDF]. That's about $250 million in today’s dollars.

In the race to control the world’s guano deposits and secure bird poo futures for its people, the U.S. created the Guano Islands Act in 1856, allowing any U.S. citizen to claim guano-covered islands. Control over guano resources became part of the justification for the Chincha Islands War (1864–1866) between Spain and Peru and Chile, as well as for the War of the Pacific (1879–1883), in which Chile stole Peru’s guano.

In the midst of this fervor for feces, guano miners were hard at work chipping away at the hardened mounds of poo on islands in the Pacific, Caribbean, and Atlantic. Strangely, on some of these islands, among the guano they also found mummified humans.

The most well-known guano mummy is that of Christopher Delano. On the island of Ichaboe, a teeny speck of land off Namibia, a crew of guano miners found a canvas hammock containing a human body under about 6 feet of guano, with a wooden plaque saying “Christopher Delano, 1721.” A cheery pamphlet from 1854 describes his mummified corpse and its travels: “But for the hair and teeth, which were quite perfect, [it] appeared a mass resembling stone, all the natural and component parts, of the body being changed by the process of petrifaction … [and] composed chiefly of lime and ammonia.”

In spite of the quite scientific understanding at the time of both natural and artificial mummification (thanks to early interest in ancient Egypt), even with the knowledge of the formation of adipocere, or “grave wax,” on recently interred corpses, the perception of what guano could do appears to have been wrong. Delano was not “changed into a mass of lime and ammonia.” We know now that in the short term, guano can help seal dead bodies, creating an oxygen-poor and salt-rich environment that is good for preservation. In a warm, arid climate like Namibia, the guano helped dry Delano’s body and shield it from scavengers.

Captain Wethers, who commanded the crew, brought the mummy from Ichaboe to Liverpool, where it traveled to the British Museum. From there, poor Delano went on a tour of Great Britain and Ireland, where he brought in more than $150,000—the equivalent of about $4 million today.

Upon examination of Delano, British and French scientists determined that he was European and not African, and the amount of wear on his teeth suggested he was in his mid to late 30s when he died. His right shoulder is elevated and contracted, and his open mouth revealed “a death of agony” (though it's not unusual to see a gaping jaw on a mummy). His cause of death? Likely a spear wound to his right shoulder.

The writer of the 1854 pamphlet took liberties with the sparse facts available: “About 1721, the Island of Ichaboe had been the resort of nests of Pirates…. In all human probability, the most satisfactory conjecture that can be arrived at is that the unfortunate Christopher Delano was a Spaniard, joined in some piratical enterprises, and leagued with a gang of desperadoes, from one of whom, while visiting the Island of Ichaboe, he most probably received his death wound in some bacchanalism origies [sic] or sudden quarrel.”

With this amazing manufactured backstory, Delano’s body was brought to Philadelphia and exhibited before being shipped to France by the mid-1860s. Although billed as the “only one in the world” and “the solitary known example in the Universe of its kind,” it was only a matter of time—and feverish digging—before more mummies preserved by bird poop materialized. Just a few years after Delano was discovered, the British ship Octavia also docked in Liverpool with a load of guano—and the mummies of a man, woman, and child from Peru [PDF]. Like Delano, they were eventually exhibited at the British Museum in London.

In 1868, British natural historian Francis Buckland noted that he saw yet another guano mummy in a “penny show” in Edinburgh; according to the show's handbill, the body was brought from Possession Island off the west coast of Africa by Captain Dunlop’s ship Echo. The mummy was well preserved, with an oaken board that was carved “Peter Creed, 1790.” Buckland spoke with the owner, who reportedly announced that the mummy “is as good as a pension to me,” earning him today’s equivalent of $2000 in under two weeks. The owner was aware of the Delano corpse, which at that point he claimed had disintegrated due to its travels, but mused “he ain’t no use as a scientific mummy now; the more’s the luck for me as long as my Peter Creed holds together.” (Given England’s humidity, though, it is doubtful that his Mr. Creed survived for very long.)

By the early 20th century, the guano trade had tapered off. Industrialized countries found new sources of fertilizer, and it turns out that guano was not a very good source of saltpeter for gunpowder. Many islands and atolls had been completely stripped, but the legacy remains: Many remain in U.S. possession after being claimed for their guano 150 years ago. Seven of these make up the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, the world’s largest marine reserve. As for the islands that produced Delano and Creed, these today support Cape gannets and endangered African penguins, and wildlife conservationists still often visit to monitor these populations.

While guano mummies are occasionally discovered in these areas, today new finds are largely made by archaeologists excavating prehistoric caves sites in arid locations like Nevada, New Mexico, and Durango, Mexico. Still, with the popularity of bat guano as an organic fertilizer on the rise today, it’s likely more poop-preserved mummies may yet turn up.

Original image
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
Original image
iStock

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.

arrow
Animals
10 Juicy Facts About Sea Apples

They're both gorgeous and grotesque. Sea apples, a type of marine invertebrate, have dazzling purple, yellow, and blue color schemes streaking across their bodies. But some of their habits are rather R-rated. Here’s what you should know about these weird little creatures.

1. THEY’RE SEA CUCUMBERS.

The world’s oceans are home to more than 1200 species of sea cucumber. Like sand dollars and starfish, sea cucumbers are echinoderms: brainless, spineless marine animals with skin-covered shells and a complex network of internal hydraulics that enables them to get around. Sea cucumbers can thrive in a range of oceanic habitats, from Arctic depths to tropical reefs. They're a fascinating group with colorful popular names, like the “burnt hot dog sea cucumber” (Holothuria edulis) and the sea pig (Scotoplanes globosa), a scavenger that’s been described as a “living vacuum cleaner.”

2. THEY'RE NATIVE TO THE WESTERN PACIFIC OCEAN.

Sea apples have oval-shaped bodies and belong to the genus Pseudocolochirus and genus Paracacumaria. The animals are indigenous to the western Pacific, where they can be found shuffling across the ocean floor in shallow, coastal waters. Many different types are kept in captivity, but two species, Pseudocolochirus violaceus and Pseudocolochirus axiologus, have proven especially popular with aquarium hobbyists. Both species reside along the coastlines of Australia and Southeast Asia.

3. THEY EAT WITH MUCUS-COVERED TENTACLES.

Sea cucumbers, the ocean's sanitation crew, eat by swallowing plankton, algae, and sandy detritus at one end of their bodies and then expelling clean, fresh sand out their other end. Sea apples use a different technique. A ring of mucus-covered tentacles around a sea apple's mouth snares floating bits of food, popping each bit into its mouth one at a time. In the process, the tentacles are covered with a fresh coat of sticky mucus, and the whole cycle repeats.

4. THEY’RE ACTIVE AT NIGHT.

Sea apples' waving appendages can look delicious to predatory fish, so the echinoderms minimize the risk of attracting unwanted attention by doing most of their feeding at night. When those tentacles aren’t in use, they’re retracted into the body.

5. THE MOVE ON TUBULAR FEET.

The rows of yellow protuberances running along the sides of this specimen are its feet. They allow sea apples to latch onto rocks and other hard surfaces while feeding. And if one of these feet gets severed, it can grow back.

6. SOME FISH HANG OUT IN SEA APPLES' BUTTS.

Sea apples are poisonous, but a few marine freeloaders capitalize on this very quality. Some small fish have evolved to live inside the invertebrates' digestive tracts, mooching off the sea apples' meals and using their bodies for shelter. In a gross twist of evolution, fish gain entry through the back door, an orifice called the cloaca. In addition expelling waste, the cloaca absorbs fresh oxygen, meaning that sea apples/cucumbers essentially breathe through their anuses.

7. WHEN THREATENED, SEA APPLES CAN EXPAND.

Most full-grown adult sea apples are around 3 to 8 inches long, but they can make themselves look twice as big if they need to escape a threat. By pulling extra water into their bodies, some can grow to the size of a volleyball, according to Advanced Aquarist. After puffing up, they can float on the current and away from danger. Some aquarists might mistake the robust display as a sign of optimum health, but it's usually a reaction to stress.

8. THEY CAN EXPEL THEIR OWN GUTS.

Sea apples use their vibrant appearance to broadcast that they’re packing a dangerous toxin. But to really scare off predators, they puke up some of their own innards. When an attacker gets too close, sea apples can expel various organs through their orifices, and some simultaneously unleash a cloud of the poison holothurin. In an aquarium, the holothurin doesn’t disperse as widely as it would in the sea, and it's been known to wipe out entire fish tanks.

9. SEA APPLES LAY TOXIC EGGS.

These invertebrates reproduce sexually; females release eggs that are later fertilized by clouds of sperm emitted by the males. As many saltwater aquarium keepers know all too well, sea apple eggs are not suitable fish snacks—because they’re poisonous. Scientists have observed that, in Pseudocolochirus violaceus at least, the eggs develop into small, barrel-shaped larvae within two weeks of fertilization.

10. THEY'RE NOT EASILY CONFUSED WITH THIS TREE SPECIES.

Syzgium grande is a coastal tree native to Southeast Asia whose informal name is "sea apple." When fully grown, they can stand more than 140 feet tall. Once a year, it produces attractive clusters of fuzzy white flowers and round green fruits, perhaps prompting its comparison to an apple tree.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios