10 "Udderly" Fascinating Facts About Cows

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Cows dot fields and pastures across many countries, and cow products are valued and consumed worldwide because their production of milk and meat isn't seasonal, as crops usually are. Cow products can also be preserved for extended use, such as butter, cheese, and smoked or cured meats. And, scientists are still finding new uses for the roughly 80 pounds of manure that a dairy cow produces daily. Chew the cud over these 10 facts about bovines. 

1. COWS ARE KILLERS.

Cow looking at a camera.
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An ABC News report cited a 2012 study, published in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, which found that cattle cause an average of 22 deaths per year. Sharks, on the other hand, kill about six people per year. It sounds like SyFy should have made Cownado instead.

2. COW TIPPING IS JUST A MYTH.

Cow sleeping with its head on the rock.
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It might be funny to imagine a sleeping cow falling over with just a gentle shove, but cow tipping isn't that easy. Actually, it's nearly impossible. Cows sleep lying down and are generally wary of approaching humans, so they're never really blissed-out enough to allow a stranger to get close enough to touch them. But the bigger obstacle is their sheer size. Cows are massive—on average 1500 pounds—and balance their weight on all four legs.

3. COWS HAVE COMPLICATED DIGESTIVE SYSTEMS.

Cows eating hay in a row.
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Cows' stomachs are made up of four pouches—the reticulum, the rumen, the omasum, and the abomasum—each serving a specific purpose. Cows barely chew their food before it enters the first and largest part of the stomach called the rumen. Once the rumen is full, the cow lies down and the reticulum—which is made of muscle and is connected to the rumen so food and water can easily pass back and forth—pushes the unchewed food back up the esophagus and into the mouth. After re-chewing, or rumination, the food eventually passes through the omasum. The omasum filters out the water and gives the bacteria in the rumen more time to break down the food and take in more nutrients. Finally, the food enters the abomasum, which functions similar to a human stomach.

4. THERE ARE SURROGATE COWS.

Pregnant cow in a field.
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Transferring embryos from a genetically superior cow to a merely adequate cow is becoming more common. The procedure—known as embryo transfer (ET)—involves injecting a superior cow with hormones so she produces multiple eggs. Her eggs then need to be fertilized, either naturally or through artificial insemination. When the eggs are fertilized, a vet performs an "embryo flush" to remove them. That generally results in six to seven usable embryos, but can produce as many as 80 or 90. Without hormone treatment, a cow can only produce one embryo.

There are a number of reasons to perform ET—genetically superior cows produce genetically superior eggs. When they're transferred to surrogates, herds gain more powerful and efficient cows, instead of the offspring the surrogates might produce on their own. Embryos are also easily sent overseas to improve the bovine gene pool elsewhere, supplying more (and more efficient) milk-producing cows to countries that lack enough resources to meet demand. (For more on the cow surrogacy process, check out this story from NPR's Abby Wendle.)

5. THE ORIGIN OF THE WORD CATTLE STEMS FROM THE WORD FOR PERSONAL PROPERTY.

Cattle in a field.
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According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the origin of cattle is chatel, the Anglo-French word for personal property. Chatel comes from the Medieval Latin term capitale.

6. A COW IS TECHNICALLY A FEMALE WHO HAS GIVEN BIRTH TO AT LEAST ONE CALF.

Mother cow licking a baby calf.
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There are specific terms for bovines depending on their age, sex, and purpose. For example, a "bull" is a mature, male bovine used for breeding, while a "steer" is a male that's been castrated and is used for its beef. A "heifer" is a female bovine that has yet to have calves, and a "bred heifer" is a pregnant heifer. There are a number of additional terms that farmers use to describe members of their herd.

7. BULLS CAN'T SEE RED.

A matador in the arena with a bull.
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A bullfighter could just as easily wave a pink or purple flag to get a bull to charge. The bull isn't angered by the color—all bovines are red/green colorblind. Instead, it's the movement of the cloth that gets it all riled up. The real reason matadors wear red: to hide the bull's blood.

8. COWS WITH NAMES PRODUCE MORE MILK.

A cow being milked.
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If farmers have a good relationship with their cows—meaning they give them names and show enough affection—they can produce more milk than their lonely counterparts. A 2009 study from Newcastle University found that cows who are more comfortable around humans are less stressed when milked. When cows are stressed, they produce cortisol, a hormone that inhibits milk production.  Another plus side of a happy cow-human relationship: farmers are less likely to get injured on the job (see fact #1).

9. INTO THE WOODS USED A REAL COW.

James Corden on stage in a white jacket
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For the 2014 film, director Rob Marshall wanted to use a real, live cow instead of depending on CGI. James Corden, who played the Baker and spent plenty of time with his bovine costar, admitted that things didn't always go smoothly: "You just don't know what it's like when you're doing a scene, and Meryl Streep is giving a phenomenal performance in only the way she can and it's scuppered by just 'Moooooooo,'" he recalled, adding, "That cow was the biggest diva on this set."

10. COWS PRODUCE METHANE, BUT DON'T BLAME THEM FOR GLOBAL WARMING.

Cows in a rounded milking station.
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Even though cattle produce plenty of methane during digestion, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) still considers the animals' contribution to global warming our fault, "because humans raise these animals for food and other products." In other words, this is a classic case of "He who smelt it, dealt it."

This story originally ran in 2015.

Chimpanzees Bond by Watching Movies Together, Too

Windzepher/iStock via Getty Images
Windzepher/iStock via Getty Images

Scientists at the Wolfgang Kohler Primate Research Center in Germany recently discovered that, like humans, chimpanzees bond when they watch movies together, the BBC reports.

In the study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers stationed pairs of chimpanzees in front of screens that showed a video of a family of chimps playing with a young chimp. They found that afterward, the chimps would spend more time grooming and interacting with each other—or simply being in the same part of the room—than they would without having watched the video.

They gave the chimps fruit juice to keep them calm and occupied while they viewed the video, and they chose a subject that chimps have previously proven to be most interested in: other chimps. They also used eye trackers to ensure the chimps were actually watching the video. If you’ve ever watched a movie with friends, you might notice similarities between the chimps’ experience and your own. Drinks (and snacks) also keep us calm and occupied while we watch, and we like to watch movies about other humans. Since this study only showed that chimps bond over programs about their own species, we don’t know if it would work the same way if they watched something completely unrelated to them, like humans do—say, The Lion King.

Bonding through shared experiences was thought to be one of the traits that make us uniquely human, and some researchers have argued that other species don’t have the psychological mechanisms to realize that they’re even sharing an experience with another. This study suggests that social activities for apes don’t just serve utilitarian purposes like traveling together for safety, and that they’re capable of a more human-like social closeness.

The part that is uniquely human about this study is the fact that they were studying the effect of a screen, as opposed to something less man-made. The chimps in question have participated in other studies, so they may be more accustomed to that technology than wild apes. But the study demonstrates that we’re not the only species capable of social interaction for the sake of social interaction.

[h/t BBC]

10 Facts You Should Know About Mosquitoes

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tskstock/iStock via Getty Images

Between the itching and the welts and the fears of mosquito-borne viruses, it's easy to forget that mosquitoes are a wonder of evolution, and that maybe they don't get a fair shake from us. Of more than 3000 known species, only 80 actually bite people, and at least one eats other mosquitoes for us. They grow from egg to adult in just five days, begin mating within minutes of hatching, and possess, by way of their stinging mouthparts, some of the coolest appendages in the animal kingdom.

1. Mosquitoes are excellent flyers in bad weather.

The average raindrop is 50 times heavier than the average mosquito, yet they buzz around in the rain with no problems. If a Boeing 747 got whacked with a similarly scaled-up raindrop, there would be 2375 tons of water coming down on it, and things probably wouldn’t turn out as well as they do for the mosquito. How do the insects do it?

A common urban legend said that the bugs were nimble enough to dodge the drops. A few years ago, a team of engineers from the Georgia Institute of Technology watched real mosquitoes and Styrofoam dummy mosquitoes with a high-speed camera during a rainy flight to see if that’s what was really happening. They found that the bugs don’t fly fast enough to dodge the drops, but their slowness is what keeps them from getting knocked out of the sky. A mosquito’s low mass even at slow speed doesn’t provide enough of a target for a raindrop to splash on collision. Instead, the drop just deforms, and doesn’t transfer enough momentum to the mosquito to disrupt its flight.

2. Texas is the mosquito capital of America.

Of the 3000 species of mosquitoes around the world, at least 150 are found in the United States, and 85 of those call Texas home. When people say everything's bigger in Texas, you can also include the biodiversity of the state's biting, disease-carrying insects.

3. Some mosquitoes are truly dangerous to humans ...

The female mosquito, which is the one that stings and sucks blood, is an incredible transmitter of disease and, because of that, the deadliest animal in the world. Each year, the malaria parasites they transmit kill 2 million to 3 million people and infect another 200 million or more. They also spread pathogens that cause yellow fever, dengue fever, Rift Valley fever, Chikungunya and West Nile disease.

4. ... and some mosquitoes are harmless.

Not every species of mosquito sucks blood from people, and among those that do, not every one transmits disease. The blood suckers don’t even need to bite you for every meal. Males live entirely on nectar and other plant fluids, and the females’ diet is primarily plant-based, too. Most of the time, they only go after people when they’re ready to reproduce, because blood contains lipids, proteins, and other nutrients needed for the production of eggs.

5. MosquitoEs actually help the environment.

When you’re rubbing calamine lotion all over yourself, mosquitoes might not seem to serve any purpose but to annoy you, but many species play important ecological roles. The mosquitoes Aedes impiger and Aedes nigripes, which gather in thick clouds in Arctic Russia and Canada, are an important food source for migrating birds. Farther south, birds, insects, spiders, salamanders, lizards, frogs, and fish also eat different mosquito species regularly. Plants need them, too, and some, like the blunt-leaved orchid and endangered monkeyface orchid, rely on mosquitoes as their primary pollinator.

Some mosquito species are also excellent at mosquito control. Species of the genus Toxorhynchites feed on the larvae and immature stages of other mosquitoes and will sometimes even cannibalize members of their own species.

6. Mosquitoes are amazing hunters (as if we needed to tell you that).

Mosquitoes are adept at picking up on the chemicals given off by their human hosts. They can detect the carbon dioxide in our breath, the 1-octen-3-ol in our breath and sweat, and other organic substances we produce with the 70-plus types of odor and chemical receptors in their antennae. These receptors can pick up traces of chemicals from hundreds of feet away, and once the mosquito closes in, it tracks its meal chemically and also visually—and they’re fond of people wearing dark colors.

7. Mosquitoes can be picky.

If it seems like you’re always covered head to toe by bites while people who were sitting right next to you only have one or two, it’s not just paranoia; the skeeters actually are out to get you. Some people happen to give off more of the odors and compounds that mosquitoes find simply irresistible, while others emit less of those and more of the compounds that make them unattractive to mosquitoes—either by acting as repellents or by masking the compounds that mosquitoes would find attractive.

8. A female mosquito's mouth is primed for sucking blood.

A mosquito doesn’t simply sink its proboscis into your skin and start sucking. What you see sticking out of a mosquito’s face is the labium, which sheaths the mouthparts that really do all the work. The labium bends back when a mosquito bites, allowing these other parts to pass through its tip and do their thing. The sharp, pointed mandibles and maxillae, which both come in pairs, are used to pierce the skin, and the hollow hypopharynx and the labrum are used to deliver saliva and draw blood, respectively.

9. Mosquito saliva prevents blood clotting.

The saliva that gets pumped out from the hypopharynx during a bite is necessary to get around our blood’s tendency to clot. It contains a grab bag of chemicals that suppress vascular constriction, blood clotting and platelet aggregation, keeping our blood from clogging up the mosquitoes' labrum and ruining their meal.

10. Mosquitoes can explode.

Blood pressure makes a mosquito's meal easier by helping to fill its stomach faster, but urban legend says it can also lead to their doom. Story goes, you can flex a muscle close to the bite site or stretch your skin taut so the mosquito can’t pull out its proboscis and your blood pressure will fill the bug until it bursts. The consensus among entomologists seems to be that this is bunk, but there is a more complicated way of blowing the bugs up. To make a blood bomb, you’ve got to sever the mosquito’s ventral nerve cord, which transmits information about satiety. When it's cut, the cord can’t tell the mosquito’s brain that its stomach is full, so it’ll keep feeding until it reaches critical mass. At least one researcher found that mosquitoes clueless about how full they were would keep sucking even after their guts had exploded, sending showers of blood spilling out of their blown-out back end.

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