Do Big Cats Get Hairballs?

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iStock

Chances are that the only time your cat will seem like they’re in any real distress is when they’re forced to deal with a trichobezoar, a soggy clump of undigested fur better known as a hairball. As domestic cats groom themselves, tiny papillae on their tongues act as bristles, catching loose hair and sweeping it away from their bodies. Some of this hair often winds up being swallowed before the cat coughs or retches it up in a somewhat unnerving display of kitty regurgitation.

At zoos or on YouTube, you may have seen cats of a different stripe—tigers, lions, and other wild animals—perform a similar huffing, heaving action. Do big cats get hairballs, too?

Not really. According to Natalia Borrego, a research associate at the University of Minnesota Lion Center, her subjects aren’t prone to hacking up tumbleweed-sized hairballs even though they perform the same grooming rituals as smaller cats. Borrego told National Geographic that while there’s nothing in their physiology that would prevent them from developing one in or out of captivity, it’s simply not a common observation.

Smaller wildcats under care, like servals and ocelots, might be more prone to hairballs since their diet includes commercial foods. Jaguars, leopards, and other cats stick to meat. Some experts believe processed food diets might contribute to digestive conditions leading to hairballs, which might be one reason a large animal’s farm-to-table preferences mean a lower risk of developing the clumps.

When big cats do develop them, they can be massive. In recent years, one lion and one tiger in captivity developed hairballs so large—four pounds in size—they had to be surgically removed. They were simply too big to be passed on their own.

So what’s really happening when you see a lion chuffing with its mouth open? It’s probably not dislodging a hairball. Lions and other big cats use their voice box to make contact calls or roars that might be mistaken for coughing.

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Why Are Elections Held on Tuesdays?

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iStock/YinYang

Ever wonder why Americans always vote in federal elections on Tuesdays? There are a few reasons—including a little something to do with the horse and buggy.

Between 1788 and 1845, states decided their own voting dates. In 2012, then-Historian of the Senate Don Ritchie told NPR that strategy resulted in chaos, a "crazy quilt of elections" held all across the country at different times to pick the electors—the white, male property owners who would cast their votes for president on the first Wednesday of December. In 1792, a law was passed mandating that state elections be held within a 34-day period before that day, so most elections took place in November. (Society was mostly agrarian; in November, the harvest was finished but winter hadn’t yet hit, making it the perfect time to vote.)

The glacial pace of presidential elections wasn't a huge issue in the late 18th and early 19th centuries—communication was slow, so results took weeks to announce anyway—but with the advent of the railroad and telegraph, Congress decided it was time to standardize a date. Monday was out, because it would require people to travel to the polls by buggy on the Sunday Sabbath. Wednesday was also not an option, because it was market day, and farmers wouldn’t be able to make it to the polls. So it was decided that Tuesday would be the day that Americans would vote in elections, and in 1845, Congress passed a law that presidential elections would be held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article originally ran in 2012.

Does Sound Travel Faster or Slower in Space?

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iStock/BlackJack3D

Viktor T. Toth:

It is often said that sound doesn’t travel in space. And it is true … in empty space. Sound is pressure waves, that is, propagating changes in pressure. In the absence of pressure, there can be no pressure waves, so there is no sound.

But space is is not completely empty and not completely devoid of pressure. Hence, it carries sound. But not in a manner that would match our everyday experience.

For instance, if you were to put a speaker in interstellar space, its membrane may be moving back and forth, but it would be exceedingly rare for it to hit even a single atom or molecule. Hence, it would fail to transfer any noticeable sound energy to the thin interstellar medium. Even the somewhat denser interplanetary medium is too rarefied for sound to transfer efficiently from human scale objects; this is why astronauts cannot yell to each other during spacewalks. And just as it is impossible to transfer normal sound energy to this medium, it will also not transmit it efficiently, since its atoms and molecules are too far apart, and they just don’t bounce into each other that often. Any “normal” sound is attenuated to nothingness.

However, if you were to make your speaker a million times bigger, and let its membrane move a million times more slowly, it would be able to transfer sound energy more efficiently even to that thin medium. And that energy would propagate in the form of (tiny) changes in the (already very tiny) pressure of the interstellar medium, i.e., it would be sound.

So yes, sound can travel in the intergalactic, interstellar, interplanetary medium, and very, very low frequency sound (many octaves below anything you could possibly hear) plays an important role in the formation of structures (galaxies, solar systems). In fact, this is the mechanism through which a contracting cloud of gas can shed its excess kinetic energy and turn into something compact, such as a star.

How fast do such sounds travel, you ask? Why, there is no set speed. The general rule is that for a so-called perfect fluid (a medium that is characterized by its density and pressure, but has no viscosity or stresses) the square of the speed of sound is the ratio of the medium’s pressure to its energy density. The speed of sound, therefore, can be anything between 0 (for a pressureless medium, which does not carry sound) to the speed of light divided by the square root of three (for a very hot, so-called ultrarelativistic gas).

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

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