Why Do Fainting Goats Faint?

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iStock

If you haven’t been to a farm with fainting goats, you might have witnessed their signature move online: When startled, the farm animals will seize up and topple over, sticking their limbs straight out like cartoon corpses. Some people think the apparent over-dramatic behavior is hilarious (as evidenced by countless viral videos), but once you learn the real reason for the response, it doesn’t seem so cute.

Fainting goats are a small domestic goat breed native to North America. Technically called myotonic goats, they don’t really faint at all. Fainting involves losing consciousness briefly due to lack of oxygen in the brain. When a myotonic goat falls over, it’s because of problems with their muscles, not their brain, and they remain completely conscious for the whole episode.

Myotonic goats suffer from a condition called myotonia congenita, which causes their muscles to stiffen involuntarily and stay that way for brief periods. Regular goats, along with most animals, respond one of two ways when confronted with a perceived threat: fight or flight. What this looks like in the body is a sudden tensing of the skeleton muscles—the brain's cue to get ready to move—followed by an immediate relaxing of the muscles, allowing the body to either rush forward or flee the scene.

When a fainting goat's body tenses up in fear it has a much harder time getting back to normal. The goat’s muscles continue to contract for about 10 to 20 seconds after it’s startled, which is where the fainting part of its name comes in. “You can imagine if you’re stiff, you’re going to fall over,” Susan Schoenian, a goat specialist at the University of Maryland's Western Maryland Research and Education Center, tells Mental Floss. “And that’s where the name comes from.”

There’s a reason you don’t see this type of defect too often in nature. Falling to the ground at times when you’re most vulnerable isn’t exactly a desirable trait to have, and in the wild, natural selection would have quickly removed the condition from the gene pool. But when these goats first appeared in Tennessee in the 1880s, breeders had an incentive to keep them the way they were. Myotonia congenita is associated with dense, meaty muscles, and as a result myotonic goats have one of the highest meat-to-bone ratios of any goat breed.

In the 21st century, fainting goats have gained popularity as quirky, internet-friendly pets. Sneaking up on them has become a pastime among some goat owners, but don’t feel too bad next time a fainting goat compilation pops up in your feed: The reaction isn’t supposed to be harmful or painful for goats—it’s likely just annoying.

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What's the Difference Between Straw and Hay?

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iStock.com/dusipuffi

The words straw and hay are often used interchangeably, and it's easy to see why: They're both dry, grassy, and easy to find on farms in the fall. But the two terms actual describe different materials, and once you know what to look for, it's easy to tell the difference between them.

Hay refers to grasses and some legumes such as alfalfa that are grown for use as animal feed. The full plant is harvested—including the heads, leaves, and stems—dried, and typically stored in bales. Hay is what livestock like cattle eat when there isn't enough pasture to go around, or when the weather gets too cold for them to graze. The baled hay most non-farmers are familiar with is dry and yellow, but high-quality hay has more of a greenish hue.

The biggest difference between straw and hay is that straw is the byproduct of crops, not the crop itself. When a plant, such as wheat or barley, has been stripped of its seeds or grains, the stalk is sometimes saved and dried to make straw. This part of the plant is lacking in nutrients, which means it doesn't make great animal fodder. But farmers have found other uses for the material throughout history: It what's used to weave baskets, thatch roofs, and stuff mattresses.

Today, straw is commonly used to decorate pumpkin-picking farms. It's easy to identify (if it's being used in a way that would be wasteful if it were food, chances are it's straw), but even the farms themselves can confuse the two terms. Every hayride you've ever taken, for example, was most likely a straw-ride.

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

How and Why Did Silent Letters Emerge in English?

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iStock/Bychykhin_Olexandr

Kory Stamper:

The easy answer is “"because English can’t leave well enough alone."

When we first started speaking English around 600 AD, it was totally phonetic: every letter had a sound, and we sounded every letter in a word. But English—and England itself—were influenced quite a bit by the French, who conquered the island in 1066 and held it for a long time. And then later by Dutch and Flemish printers, who were basically the main publishers in England for a solid two centuries, and then by further trading contact with just about every continent on the planet. And while we’re shaking hands and stealing language from every single people-group we meet, different parts of the language started changing at uneven rates.

By the 1400s, English started to lose its phonetic-ness: the way we articulated vowels in words like “loud” changed slowly but dramatically, and that had an effect on the rest of the word. (This is called “The Great Vowel Shift,” and it took place over a few hundred years.) Somewhere in the middle of the GVS, though, English spelling became fixed primarily because of the printing press and the easy distribution/availability of printed materials. In short: we have silent letters because the spelling of words stopped changing to match their pronunciations.

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

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