Signalman Jack: The Baboon Who Worked for the Railroad—and Never Made a Mistake

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One day in the 1880s, a peg-legged railway signalman named James Edwin Wide was visiting a buzzing South African market when he witnessed something surreal: A chacma baboon driving an oxcart. Impressed by the primate’s skills, Wide bought him, named him Jack, and made him his pet and personal assistant.

Wide needed the help. Years earlier, he had lost both his legs in a work accident, which made his half-mile commute to the train station extremely difficult for him. So the first thing he trained the primate to do was push him to and from work in a small trolley. Soon, Jack was also helping with household chores, sweeping floors and taking out the trash.

But the signal box is where Jack truly shined. As trains approached the rail switches at the Uitenhage train station, they’d toot their whistle a specific number of times to alert the signalman which tracks to change. By watching his owner, Jack picked up the pattern and started tugging on the levers himself.

Soon, Wide was able to kick back and relax as his furry helper did all of the work switching the rails. According to The Railway Signal, Wide “trained the baboon to such perfection that he was able to sit in his cabin stuffing birds, etc., while the animal, which was chained up outside, pulled all the levers and points.”

As the story goes, one day a posh train passenger staring out the window saw that a baboon, and not a human, was manning the gears and complained to railway authorities. Rather than fire Wide, the railway managers decided to resolve the complaint by testing the baboon’s abilities. They came away astounded.

“Jack knows the signal whistle as well as I do, also every one of the levers,” wrote railway superintendent George B. Howe, who visited the baboon sometime around 1890. “It was very touching to see his fondness for his master. As I drew near they were both sitting on the trolley. The baboon’s arms round his master’s neck, the other stroking Wide’s face.”

Jack was reportedly given an official employment number, and was paid 20 cents a day and half a bottle of beer weekly. Jack passed away in 1890, after developing tuberculosis. He worked the rails for nine years without ever making a mistake—evidence that perfectionism may be more than just a human condition.

Scientists Find Fossil of 150-Million-Year-Old Flesh-Eating Fish—Plus a Few of Its Prey

M. Ebert and T. Nohl
M. Ebert and T. Nohl

A fossil of an unusual piranha-like fish from the Late Jurassic period has been unearthed by scientists in southern Germany, Australian news outlet the ABC reports. Even more remarkable than the fossil’s age—150 million years old—is the fact that the limestone deposit also contains some of the fish’s victims.

Fish with chunks missing from their fins were found near the predator fish, which has been named Piranhamesodon pinnatomus. Aside from the predator’s razor-sharp teeth, though, it doesn’t look like your usual flesh-eating fish. It belonged to an extinct order of bony fish that lived at the time of the dinosaurs, and until now, scientists didn’t realize there was a species of bony fish that tore into its prey in such a way. This makes it the first flesh-eating bony fish on record, long predating the piranha. 

“Fish as we know them, bony fishes, just did not bite flesh of other fishes at that time,” Dr. Martina Kölbl-Ebert, the paleontologist who found the fish with her husband, Martin Ebert, said in a statement. “Sharks have been able to bite out chunks of flesh, but throughout history bony fishes have either fed on invertebrates or largely swallowed their prey whole. Biting chunks of flesh or fins was something that came much later."

Kölbl-Ebert, the director of the Jura Museum in Eichstätt, Germany, says she was stunned to see the bony fish’s sharp teeth, comparing it to “finding a sheep with a snarl like a wolf.” This cunning disguise made the fish a fearful predator, and scientists believe the fish may have “exploited aggressive mimicry” to ambush unsuspecting fish.

The fossil was discovered in 2016 in southern Germany, but the find has only recently been described in the journal Current Biology. It was found at a quarry where other fossils, like those of the Archaeopteryx dinosaur, have been unearthed in the past.

[h/t the ABC]

These Are America's 50 Most Rat-Infested Cities

iStock.com/Pierre Aden
iStock.com/Pierre Aden

New York City, home to the subway pizza rat, is surprisingly not America’s most rodent-infested city. That dubious honor goes to Chicago, according to a new analysis spotted by Thrillist.

A breakdown of the “50 Rattiest Cities” in the U.S. has been compiled by Orkin, a pest control service with locations across the country. The company tallied up the number of commercial and residential rodent treatments it carried out in each city over a period of 12 months (September 15, 2017 to September 15, 2018) and then ranked them. While the evidence is anecdotal, as it comes from just one company, it does reveal the areas where rat exterminators are in high demand.

This is the fourth year in a row that Chicago has been named the country’s rattiest city. Orkin isn’t the first to notice the city’s rodent problem, either. In July, Chicago was reportedly dubbed the “rat capital of the U.S.” by apartment search service RentHop. It reportedly received more rat complaints than any other city last year—nearly 51,000 total. According to RentHop’s analysis, New York City came in second place, followed by Washington, D.C. and Boston.

That isn’t too far off from Orkin’s latest analysis. New York comes in at third place, just after Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. is fourth. The biggest boom in rat populations was seen in Portland, Maine, which jumped 19 spots from last year. Chance Strandell, residential service manager for Maine Pest Solutions, told New England Cable News that milder winters may be extending the rats’ breeding period. However, it’s unclear why rats seem to be multiplying in Maine in particular.

One pregnant rat can birth up to 12 babies in a single litter, and those pups can begin reproducing at just two months old. “So after a year, a busy pair of rat parents can have 15,000 descendants,” reports KATU in Portland, Oregon (number 24 on Orkin’s list).

Charleston, West Virginia, has also been teeming with rodents, having risen 17 spots from last year. Check out the full list of the 50 most rat-ridden cities below—and if you have musophobia (a fear of rats or mice), you may want to plot your move to one of the cities toward the bottom of the list.

1. Chicago, Illinois
2. Los Angeles, California
3. New York, New York
4. Washington, DC
5. San Francisco, California
6. Detroit, Michigan
7. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
8. Cleveland, Ohio
9. Baltimore, Maryland
10. Denver, Colorado
11. Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota
12. Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas
13. Boston, Massachusetts
14. Seattle, Washington
15. Atlanta, Georgia
16. Indianapolis, Indiana
17. Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Florida
18. Hartford, Connecticut
19. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
20. Cincinnati, Ohio
21. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
22. Charlotte, North Carolina
23. Houston, Texas
24. Portland, Oregon
25. Columbus, Ohio
26. San Diego, California
27. Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina
28. Buffalo, New York
29. New Orleans, Louisiana
30. Norfolk, Virginia
31. Richmond, Virginia
32. Albany, New York
33. Kansas City, Missouri
34. Portland, Maine
35. Nashville, Tennessee
36. St. Louis, Missouri
37. Sacramento, California
38. Greenville, South Carolina
39. Grand Rapids, Michigan
40. Phoenix, Arizona
41. Orlando, Florida
42. Tampa, Florida
43. Burlington, New York
44. Champaign, Illinois
45. Rochester, New York
46. Syracuse, New York
47. Charleston, West Virginia
48. Dayton, Ohio
49. Memphis, Tennessee
50. Flint, Michigan

[h/t Thrillist]

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