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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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Watch as Hummingbirds Fly, Drink, and Flap Their Tiny Wings in Slow Motion
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Hummingbirds have more feathers per inch than nearly any other bird, but it’s hard to fully appreciate their luminescent colors when they beat their wings between 70 to 200 times per second.

For the enjoyment of birders everywhere, National Geographic photographer Anand Varma teamed up with bird biologists and used a high-speed, high-resolution camera to capture the tiny creatures in slow motion as they flew through wind tunnels, drank artificial nectar from a glass vessel, and shook water from their magnificent plumage.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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9 Wild Facts About the Bronx Zoo
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Even if you’ve never set foot in New York, you almost certainly know of the Bronx Zoo. Opening its doors for the first time in 1899, this sprawling 250-acre wildlife reservation has over 4000 different animals and 650 species. Take a look at a few things you might not have known about one of the world’s most famous zoological retreats.

1. IT WAS CO-CREATED BY A TAXIDERMIST.

William Temple Hornaday was working as a taxidermist for the Smithsonian Institution when he noticed that the nation’s population of bison was shrinking. Eager to promote conservation efforts, Hornaday used his voice with the Smithsonian to spread the word about the threatened species. After a spat with the Institution, he was approached by the New York Zoological Society in 1896 to serve as director of the Bronx Zoo. In doing so, Hornaday helped bring the bison back from the brink of extinction by sending several of the Zoo's bison back out west in 1906. He remained with the zoo for 30 years.

2. IT ONCE HOUSED TASMANIAN TIGERS.

Thylacines, or Tasmanian tigers, were nearing extinction in the early 1900s, but the Bronx Zoo was able to acquire several for exhibition beginning in 1902. The first lived for six years; the next two, arriving in 1912 and 1916, lived only a short time in captivity before perishing. The zoo's last thylacine was secured in 1917. The species was thought to have died out in 1936, but in early 2017, several eyewitness accounts of the distinctive animals were reported in Australia. Zoologists are working to determine if the thylacine might still be alive.

3. THEY EXHIBITED A MAN.

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In the most ignoble chapter in the zoo’s history, organizers opened an attraction in 1906 that featured a "Mbuti pygmy” or “bushman”—an African man named Ota Benga. Benga and other tribesmen had been brought to America by anthropologist Samuel Verner at the behest of organizers of the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair so visitors could gawk at them in mock-up villages. When the fair was over, Verner brought Benga and others back to Africa: the two struck up a friendship, and Benga reportedly asked to come back to the States. Verner approached the Bronx Zoo with the prospect of Benga becoming a fixture: Hornaday agreed to let him live on and roam the grounds. Public outrage followed, and Benga was released after just two weeks to the care of an orphanage. He committed suicide in 1916.

4. THE ZOOKEEPERS HAD TO BE TOLD NOT TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE BEARS.

Too much children’s literature about cuddly bears may have proven disastrous for early zookeepers at the park. In 1919, Hornaday told the New York Tribune that he had to constantly warn his employees not to try and befriend the mammoth bears housed on the property. Two keepers ignored his advice; both had to be pried from the clutches of the bear and suffered “severe” injuries.

5. IT’S HOME TO A REMNANT OF THE ICE AGE.

Not all of the Zoo’s attractions are feathered or furred. The Rocking Stone sits near the World of Darkness exhibit and packs 30 dense tons into a formation standing 7 feet tall and 10 feet wide. The boulder was carried by glaciers in the last Ice Age. The “rocking” label came from the fact that the stone was so perfectly balanced that it could be moved with slight pressure. The Zoo, fearing someone might one day push it too far, eventually shored up the base to keep it on firmer footing.

6. THEY ONCE SAVED A SPECIES OF TOAD THAT WAS DECLARED EXTINCT.

The kihansi spray toad was in dire circumstances in 2009: A hydroelectric dam in Tanzania had dried up mists showering a five-acre area near Kihansi Gorge, the toad's only known micro-habitat, and the species was officially declared extinct in the wild. Fortunately, Tanzanian authorities had seen the situation coming and allowed the Bronx Zoo to come in and obtain 499 toads to bring back to America. A portion went to the Toledo Zoo; both facilities spent nearly a decade breeding them in a captive assurance population. The Zoos replicated their habitat while Tanzania created a gravity-operated misting system that would restore water. Roughly 100 toads were returned in 2010 as test cases; a full-scale reintroduction followed in 2012.

7. A COBRA ONCE ESCAPED (AND SIGNED ONTO TWITTER).

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Animal escapes have been few and far between at the Zoo. One of the most publicized was the the disappearance of a 20-inch venomous Egyptian cobra in 2011. Zoo officials weren’t certain how the reptile broke out of her habitat, but felt confident she would remain in the building. She did, and was found after a week’s search. In the interim, someone on Twitter engaged 203,000 followers with the freed snake’s fictional exploits. It’s still tweeting.

8. IT SET AN ORIGAMI ELEPHANT WORLD RECORD.

In 2016, the Zoo was recognized by Guinness World Records as having the largest displayed collection of origami elephants in the world: 78,564. The display, which was briefly open to the public, was intended to draw attention to the plight of the creatures and their poaching rivals through their 96 Elephants campaign meant to stop the trafficking of ivory. The Zoo is down to just three live elephants, and has vowed not to acquire any more once they pass. On August 3, 2017, Zoo organizers plan to crush two tons of ivory in Central Park as part of the awareness campaign.

9. IT HAS PLANS FOR YOUR POOP.

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With thousands of daily visitors, the Bronx Zoo could probably make use of its own sewage system. Instead, the park unveiled an eco-friendly restroom on park grounds in 2006 that captures human waste and diverts it into compost. The system, which uses only six ounces of water per flush, is estimated to save a million gallons of water a year.

Want to learn more about the Bronx Zoo? Catch The Zoo, a documentary series now airing on Animal Planet. New episodes premiere in February.

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