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How Ancient Rome’s Scariest Ghosts Gave Their Name to Madagascar’s Lemurs

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Lemurs. Some of them, like the tiny mouse lemur, are impossibly cute. Others, like sifaka and its extraordinary bounding walk, are impossibly hilarious. And at least one, the nocturnal aye-aye with its creepy elongated finger, is impossibly weird. But every single one of them is native to Madagascar and its surrounding islands—and together, every single one of them takes its name from one of Ancient Rome’s creepiest bits of folklore.

The name lemur derives from the Latin word lemures. Some dictionaries translate that word as simply meaning “ghosts,” but in Roman tradition there was a lot more to it than that definition would suggest.

The Lemures of Ancient Rome were in fact grotesque skeletal specters, who would wander the earth at night causing hurt and injury to the living. According to the early Christian scholar St. Augustine (who brought it up to disagree with it), these were the cruel and malevolent ghosts of iniquitous characters and lost souls: thieves and criminals, the executed and the damned, and all those who for whatever reason had not been afforded a proper funeral, like sailors lost at sea whose bodies could not be recovered and buried appropriately. According to Roman poet Ovid, they were “voiceless spirits” who would walk the earth in search of their old homes, terrifying all those who crossed their paths as they wandered the streets at night. The only way to hold them at bay, he explained, was to exorcise your home during an early springtime festival known as Lemuria. At midnight on the ninth, 11th, and 13th of May, the head of the household would walk the house barefoot, throwing a ceremonial offering of dried black beans over their shoulders with the words “with these beans I redeem me and mine.” Bronze pots and dishes would then be clashed together, creating a cacophony of noise meant to drive the spirits from the house. Only once this ritual had been completed for the third time would the house be deemed as safe for another year.

No one is entirely sure why the Romans knew these ghosts and demons as lemures, but the theory put forward by Ovid was that the first of all these beings was the ghost of Remus, the legendary co-founder of Rome who was killed by his twin brother Romulus after a bitter dispute over the founding of the city. The macabre festival of Lemuria, ultimately, was originally Remuria—a festival intended to commemorate Remus’s death and placate his spirit.

What does all that have to do with the bouncing sifaka and the creepy-fingered aye-aye? Well, for the next piece of the puzzle we need the Swedish botanist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus.

One of the most acclaimed scientists of his day, Linnaeus was the father of the Linnaean system of classification, which divides all living creatures into an intricate hierarchy of kingdoms, genera, and species. He outlined this groundbreaking system in several editions of his Systema Naturae, most influentially in 1758, and it has remained in use (albeit with various extensions and modifications over the centuries) ever since.

Using this system, Linnaeus entered a record of a creature he called a lemur into the exhibition catalogue of the Museum of King Adolf Frederick of Sweden in 1754 [PDF]. Four years later, he included it in the 10th edition of his Systema Naturae, assigning it to a new genus, naming it the Lemur tardigradus (literally the “slow-moving lemur”) alongside two more species he called Lemur catta (literally the “cat lemur”) and Lemur volans (the “flying lemur”). These three are the earliest lemurs on the zoological and etymological record—and Linnaeus clearly took his cue from the ghostly lemures of Roman legend when it came to picking their names.

It’s often been said that Linnaeus had the lemurs’ bizarre screeching, whooping calls in mind when he named them after the ghosts of Ancient Rome, or else their eerie reflective eyes, their silent nocturnal wanderings, or even the fact that they are considered the ghosts of ancestors in Madagascan folklore. But as Linnaeus himself straightforwardly explained:

"I call [the creatures in this genus] lemurs, because they go around mainly by night, in a certain way similar to humans, and roam with a slow pace."

Things have changed since Linnaeus classified the first of his lemurs in the mid-18th century. For instance, only one of his original three is still recognized as a true lemur today: Lemur catta is the Latin name of the ring-tailed lemur. His Lemur tardigradus is now identified as the red slender loris of the Sri Lankan rainforests, while the “flying” Lemur volans is now the Philippine colugo, a small tree-dwelling mammal similar to a flying squirrel. The fact that he classified the three as all belonging to one close family is also questionable, as lorises, lemurs, and colugos aren’t today considered quite as closely related as Linnaeus had presumed.

Nevertheless, the mythological name he chose for them has remained in use, and over time has gone on to become attached exclusively to the 100 or so species of primates native only to Madagascar. And there’s nothing scary about them at all.

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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.

Wild turkey
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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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Owning a Dog May Add Years to Your Life, Study Shows
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We've said that having a furry friend can reduce depression, promote better sleep, and encourage more exercise. Now, research has indicated that caring for a canine might actually extend your lifespan.

Previous studies have shown that dog owners have an innate sense of comfort and increased well-being. A new paper published in Scientific Reports and conducted by Uppsala University in Sweden looked at the health records of 3.4 million of the country's residents. These records typically include personal data like marital status and whether the individual owns a pet. Researchers got additional insight from a national dog registry providing ownership information. According to the study, those with a dog for a housemate were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or any other cause during the study's 12-year duration.

The study included adults 40 to 80 years old, with a mean age of 57. Researchers found that dogs were a positive predictor in health, particularly among singles. Those who had one were 33 percent less likely to die early than those who did not. Authors didn't conclude the exact reason behind the correlation: It could be active people are more likely to own dogs, that dogs promoted more activity, or that psychological factors like lowered incidences of depression might bolster overall well-being. Either way, having a pooch in your life could mean living a longer one.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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