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.

Why Do Bats Hang Upside Down?

iStock.com/CraigRJD
iStock.com/CraigRJD

Stefan Pociask:

The age-old question of upside down bats. Yes, it is awfully weird that there is an animal—a mammal even—that hangs upside down. Sure, some monkeys do it when they're just monkeying around. And a few other tree climbers, like margays, hang upside down if they are reaching for something or—again, like the margay cat—may actually even hunt that way ... But bats are the only animals that actually spend most of their time hanging upside down: feeding this way, raising their young this way, and, yes, sleeping or roosting this way.

There is actually a very good and sensible reason why they do this: They have to hang upside down so that they can fly.

First off, we have to acknowledge that bats are not birds, nor are they insects. These are the other two animals that have true powered flight (as opposed to gliding). The difference between bat flight and bird or insect flight is weight—specifically, the ratio of weight to lift-capacity of the wings. If you walk up to a bird or insect, most species will be able to fly right up into the air from a motionless position, and do it quickly.

Bats, on the other hand (or, other wing), can’t do that. They have a lot of difficulty taking off from the ground (not that they can’t do it ... it’s just more difficult). Insects and birds often actually jump into the air to give them a start in the right direction, then their powerful wings take them up, up, and away.

Birds have hollow bones; bats don’t. Insects are made of lightweight chitin or soft, light tissue; bats aren’t. And bats don’t have what you could call "powerful" wings. These amazing creatures are mammals, after all. The only flying mammals. Nature found a way to evolve such an unlikely thing as a flying mammal, so some compromises had to be made. Bats, once airborne, manage perfectly well in the air, and can literally fly circles around most birds in flight. The problem is in first getting off the ground.

To compensate for the extra weight that mammals must have, to compensate for the problem of getting off the ground, evolution found another way for bats to transition from being motionless to immediately being able to fly when necessary. Evolution said, “How about if we drop them from above? That way they are immediately in the air, and all they need to do is start flapping."

It was a great idea, as it turns out. Except bat feet aren’t any good for perching on a branch. They are mammals, not birds, so their musculature, their bones, and their tendons are set up in a completely different way. When a bird squats down on a branch, their tendons actually lock their toes into an even tighter grip on the perch. It happens automatically. That’s part of being a bird, and is universal. That’s why they don’t fall off in their sleep.

Bats, as mammals, are set up differently. Therefore, to compensate for that fact, nature said, “How about if we have them hang upside down? That way, their tendons will actually pull their toes closed, just like a bird does from the opposite direction.” So that’s what evolved. Bats hang from the bottom of something, and all they have to do is "let go" and they are instantly flying. In fact, with this gravity-assist method, they can achieve instant flight even faster than birds, who have to work against gravity.

Side note: In case you were wondering how bats poop and pee while upside down ... First off, pooping is no big deal. Bat poop looks like tiny grains of rice; if they are hanging, it just falls to the floor of the bat cave as guano. Pee, however ... well, they have that covered too. They just “hold it” until they are flying.

So there you go. Bats sleep hanging upside down because they are mammals and can’t take off into the air like birds can (at least not without difficulty). But, if they're hanging, all they do is let go.

Makes total sense, right?

Now, having said all that about upside down bats, I must mention the following: Not all of the 1240-plus species of bats do hang upside down. There are exceptions—about six of them, within two different families. One is in South America (Thyropteridae) and the other is in Madagascar (Myzopodidae). The Myzopodidae, which includes just one species, is exceedingly rare.

So it turns out that these bats roost inside the tubes of young, unfurled banana leaves and other similar large leaves. When they attach themselves to the inside of this rolled leaf, they do it head-up. The problem with living inside of rolled-up leaves is that within a few days, these leaves will continue growing, and eventually open up. Whenever that happens, the whole group of bats has to pick up and move to another home. Over and over again. All six of these species of rare bats have a suction cup on each wrist and ankle, and they use these to attach to the smooth surface of the inside of the leaf tube. Evolution: the more you learn, the more amazing it becomes.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Sorry, But Last Month's Polar Vortex Didn't Wipe Out 95 Percent of Stink Bugs

iStock.com/drnadig
iStock.com/drnadig

In the wake of the polar vortex that brought bone-chilling temperatures to the Midwest and Northeast U.S. last month, a silver lining appeared to emerge. Multiple media outlets recently reported that the weather phenomenon may have wiped out as many as 95 percent of brown marmorated stink bugs in areas that weren't accustomed to such frigid conditions.

Unless you like having your home smell like the musky, burnt-cilantro scent of squished stink bugs, we have some bad news: Those reports are not entirely accurate. According to KDKA Radio in Pittsburgh, the Virginia Tech lab experiment that has been widely cited in these articles is a little outdated, having been conducted in 2014.

At the time, it appeared to be a promising find. Researchers from the university had collected stink bugs, placed them in insulated buckets, and waited to see if they'd survive a particularly cold spell. Even though the insects were in a dormant state called diapause, 95 percent of them died when a polar vortex hit the region. That led entomology professor Thomas Kuhar to tell The Washington Post in 2014 that “there should be significant mortality of BMSB (brown marmorated stink bugs) and many other overwinter insects this year."

However, in an email to Mental Floss, Kuhar says the rehashing of "some media misquotes from 2014" led to these too-good-to-be-true reports being recirculated this week. "There is no new research on this topic," he writes. Furthermore, the lab experiment can't easily be applied to real-life scenarios because stink bugs tend to seek shelter during the winter. "Severe sub-freezing temperatures will negatively impact winter survival of these stink bugs if they were unable to find suitable shelter such as inside of houses and sheds," he writes.

These sentiments were echoed by entomologist Chad Gore of Ehrlich Pest Control, who spoke with KDKA Radio. "When they can find that shelter, they can survive the winter. Those that are exposed, they will freeze and we won’t have to worry about them," he said.

But is there still a chance we will see fewer stink bugs in the spring? Gore says don't count on it. "I’d love to be able to reassure everybody and say that 95 percent of all of our stink bugs are going to be gone, but that’s just not going to be the case," he said. "We’re still going to see them."

Even though stink bugs don't bite and are basically harmless (though they sometimes trigger allergic reactions), they can be difficult to trap once they've found a way into one's house. The invasive species is also harmful to crops—especially grapes—and sometimes end up getting pulverized and fermented in red wine. Suffice it to say, a lot of people would be happy if the pests suddenly disappeared. For now, though, we'll have to keep on dreaming.

[h/t KDKA Radio]

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