12 Memorable Facts About Elephants

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iStock

Known for their strong family bonds and intelligence, elephants have fascinated humans across time and cultures. As the largest living land mammal, a male African bush elephant typically stands more than 10 feet tall and weighs an incredible 6.6 tons. Although poachers still kill approximately 100 African elephants every day, conservation groups are working to save elephant populations from extinction. Read on for a dozen things you might not know about elephants, from their long history as a political symbol to their legit firefighting skills.

1. CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, THEY'RE NOT EXACTLY SCARED OF MICE.

Baby elephant looks startled.
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Cartoonists have long depicted the funny juxtaposition of a giant elephant terrified of a tiny mouse. Zoologists and elephant trainers have conducted experiments to test whether elephants are truly afraid of rodents, and it seems to be a myth. Mice themselves don't frighten elephants, but the pachyderms have poor vision and can get extremely startled when anything suddenly scurries by. Elephants are probably more afraid of a mouse's sudden movement than the mouse itself.

2. WILD ELEPHANTS COULD HAVE POPULATED THE U.S., BUT LINCOLN NIXED THE IDEA.

A mother and baby elephant taking a walk.
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In 1861, President Lincoln received gifts, including elephant tusks and a handmade sword, from Siam's King Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongkut. The king of present-day Thailand also made an interesting offer: Mongkut proposed that Siam would send pairs of male and female elephants to the U.S. to breed in the forests. Americans could then tame the wild elephants and put them to work for the economic benefit of the country. William Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state, replied to Mongkut in 1862, graciously declining his offer. He told the king that since the U.S. already used steam power to efficiently transport goods within the country, elephants simply wouldn't be practical.

3. THE ELEPHANT EQUIVALENT OF THUMB-SUCKING IS TRUNK-SUCKING.

Baby elephant sucking its trunk.
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When baby elephants want to comfort themselves, they instinctively start sucking their trunks. Trunk-sucking is also a way that a baby elephant can learn how to use her trunk (which contains between 40,000 and 50,000 muscles). Although most elephants, like human babies, grow out of sucking behavior, some adult elephants also suck their trunks when they feel anxious.

4. THEY'VE SYMBOLIZED THE REPUBLICAN PARTY SINCE 1874.

Elephant symbol for the Republican party.
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Although elephants had been occasionally used as a symbol for Republicans during the Civil War, cartoonist Thomas Nast, who drew an elephant in an 1874 issue of Harper's Weekly, gets the credit for linking the animal with the political party. In later cartoons, Nast continued to draw an elephant to portray the Republican Party, and other cartoonists adopted it, establishing the animal as the GOP symbol.

5. BARNUM & BAILEY TRAINED ELEPHANTS TO PLAY BASEBALL.

U.S. stamp with a circus elephant on it.
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Baseball is America's pastime, so why not teach elephants how to play the game? In 1912, thanks to the work of Barnum & Bailey's elephant trainer, Harry L. Mooney, the intelligent animals played their first ballgame. Although playing baseball was just one of many tricks that circus elephants learned, Barnum & Bailey capitalized on the concept of elephant baseball by using the image on posters to sell tickets for shows.

6. SOME ELEPHANTS HAVE BEEN CONVICTED OF MURDER.

Elephant foot in chains.
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Although elephants are typically viewed as gentle giants, they are capable of attacking and killing humans. Male elephants undergo musth, a hormonal change that makes them temporarily produce tons of testosterone, resulting in aggression. But even female elephants can kill. In 1916, a town in Tennessee charged an elephant named Big Mary with first-degree murder for killing her handler. Big Mary, who worked for the Sparks Circus, attacked her handler, possibly after he struck her with a bullhook as she was trying to eat a watermelon rind. Big Mary was convicted and sentenced to execution. Some 2500 residents of the town gathered to watch Big Mary's dramatic hanging, which featured a 100-ton crane and a chain that broke under her weight.

7. THEY GRIEVE DEATH.

Elephants mourning the death of a baby elephant.
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Although we can't know exactly what elephants feel and how they process death, they seem to show signs that they experience grief when a member of their family (or another elephant) dies. When they see a dead elephant, they may vocalize, use their trunks to "hug" the dead animal, or stay with the carcass for hours. Some elephants have also tried to bury the dead body by covering it in leaves and soil.

8. TRAINED ELEPHANTS FIGHT FIRES IN INDONESIA.

Elephant with water spewing out of its trunk.
Ishara S.KODIKARA, AFP/GettyImages

You probably won't see an elephant riding on a fire truck anytime soon, but elephants in Indonesia are a vital part of fighting fires. In 2015, East Sumatra was plagued with multiple fires over a period of several months, so 23 trained elephants from a conservation center went to work. Carrying water pumps and hoses, the elephants helped patrol the land and made sure that new fires weren't ignited.

9. YOU MIGHT SEE THEM STROLL THROUGH YOUR HOTEL'S LOBBY IN ZAMBIA.

An elephant walks into the lobby of the Mfuwe Lodge in Zambia.
An elephant walks into the lobby of the Mfuwe Lodge in Zambia.
Lars Plougmann, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Some guests at Mfuwe Lodge in the African country of Zambia get an unusual animal sighting before they even leave the lobby. Each year between October and December, families of elephants walk through the lodge's reception area to eat wild mango from a tree in the courtyard. The elephants' giant size and seeming indifference to their hotel lobby surroundings make for quite a striking sight.

10. IN 2015, SCIENTISTS RECORDED THEM YAWNING FOR THE FIRST TIME.

An elephant's open mouth.
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Although scientists speculated that elephants probably yawn, scientists from the University of California, Davis captured the first video of an elephant yawning. If you enjoy watching sleepy animals stretching and yawning, this is for you. Warning: extreme cuteness ahead.

11. ELEPHANTS STARRED IN YOUTUBE'S FIRST EVER VIDEO.

Man taking a photo of an elephant on his phone.
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On April 23, 2005, Jawed Karim made internet history when he uploaded the first video to a certain nascent video-sharing website. Karim, one of YouTube's founders, posted an 18-second scene of himself standing in front of elephants at a zoo. In the video, he speaks about how cool the elephants' long trunks are. As of August 2018, it has more than 53 million views.

12. THEY SNACK ON OLD CHRISTMAS TREES.

Two elephants snacking on pine trees.
VADIM KRAMER, AFP/Getty Images

Zookeepers at Tierpark Berlin, a zoo in Germany, feed unsold Christmas trees to their elephants in early January. The trees are certified pesticide-free, and the elephants seem to enjoy their special snack. Berlin isn't the only place where elephants eat Christmas trees, though. Zoos in Prague also treat their elephants to the tasty conifers.

This story originally ran in 2017.

5 Times the Jig Was Up Because the Parrot Squawked

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iStock

Most of our feathered friends can sing, but only a few can talk. And if those talkers witness something naughty, they might just tell on you.

1. SUSPICIOUS SWEET TALKING

A woman in Kuwait, where adultery is illegal, had been suspicious for some time that her husband was carrying on an affair with their housekeeper. There were little signs, like when she returned home from work early and noticed that he seemed nervous. But it was when the family parrot squawked unfamiliar sweet nothings that she decided to take her suspicions to the police. If her husband wasn’t saying those things to her, how was the parrot learning them? However, because it could not be proven that the parrot hadn’t heard the phrases from a steamy TV show, the bird's evidence was deemed inadmissible.

2. THAT'S NOT MY NAME

In another case of infidelity revealed with a squawk, a man was surprised to hear his beloved African Grey parrot Ziggy say, “Hiya Gary!” when his live-in girlfriend’s phone rang, because his name was not Gary. After he heard the parrot say, “I love you, Gary,” and make kissing sounds when the name Gary was said on TV, he confronted his girlfriend, who admitted she was having an affair with Gary. Not only did he lose his girlfriend, but when the parrot continued to chatter on about Gary in her voice, the man was forced to give his pet up too.

3. THE AWFUL LAST LAUGH

Even when other evidence is already damning, a parrot can add an extra sinister twist to a crime investigation. When an elderly woman was found in a filthy South Carolina home, covered in bedsores and near death, her daughter was charged with elder abuse and neglect (her mother died the next day). The police noted that a parrot in the house repeatedly cried for help and then laughed. They believe it was mimicking the interaction between the mother and daughter: The mother pleading for help and the daughter laughing.

4. REPLAYING THE LAST WORDS

After a Michigan man was found shot to death in his home, his parrot kept repeating a dialogue, alternating between a man and woman’s voice, that went: “Get out.” “Where will I go?” “Don’t f***ing shoot!” His wife—who police believe tried to kill herself but did not succeed—was charged with his murder and was convicted in 2017.

5. GIVING THE CRIMINAL AWAY

Tales of parrots giving the criminal away go back to the 19th century, when the leader of a Paris crime syndicate who went by Victor Chevalier escaped with his beloved parrot from the residence he shared with his wife Marie before the cops descended on him. When an officer was called to another residence for a seemingly unrelated search, he heard as he walked in, a parrot cry out “Totor! Riri!” which happened to be the pet names of Victor and Marie. The discovery of the parrot eventually led to the capture of Victor.

This piece originally ran in 2016.

Scientists Reveal the Most Comprehensive Map of Butterfly Evolution Ever—and It's Gorgeous

Espeland et al., Current Biology (2018)
Espeland et al., Current Biology (2018)

There are 18,000 known butterfly species in the world, so maybe it’s not surprising that scientists haven’t quite worked out how they’re all related. Recently, scientists developed what is currently the most comprehensive roadmap of butterfly evolution ever, one that includes 35 times more genetic data and three times as many classifications as past butterfly evolutionary trees. Oh, and as Fast Company found, it’s beautiful.

The study, published in Current Biology, drew on genetic data from 207 butterfly species that together represent 98 percent of butterfly tribes (the classification just above genus). Led by Florida Museum of Natural History curator Akito Kawahara and Marianne Espeland of the Alexander Koenig Research Museum in Germany, the study used this genetic data and the fossil record to trace the evolution of different butterfly species and figure out when different species split off from their cousins.

A circular visualization of the butterfly family tree
Espeland et al., Current Biology (2018)

Needless to say, millions years of evolution means a lot of information to visualize in one family tree. Each bold label on the very outside of the circle represents a tribe, like Tagiadini, followed by the individual species that made it into the study, like Tagiades flesus (the clouded skipper). Species are clumped together by subgroup—in this case, Pyrginae (spread-winged skippers)—and color-coordinated by family—in this case, Hesperiidae (skippers).

The solid gray circle near the center, labeled K-PG boundary (for Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary) represents the mass extinction event that killed off most of Earth’s plant and animal species, including the dinosaurs.

A close-up of a circular visualization of the butterfly family tree
Espeland et al., Current Biology (2018)

The study confirms several pieces of information that butterfly experts had hypothesized about in previous studies, while overturning other hypotheses. Butterflies can be divided into seven different families, and though previous research estimated that the first butterflies appeared around 100 million years ago, this study pushes that date back to around 120 million years ago. But there were just a few early ancestors of butterflies prior to the mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs, after which the butterfly family tree explodes into different branches.

Swallowtail butterflies (the subfamily Papilioninae, to the left in blue) were the first butterfly family to branch off, so they’re a “sister” species to all other butterfly species. Skippers (the family Hesperiidae, in purple) likely branched off next, then nocturnal butterflies like the Hedylidae family (in gray). However, some species that scientists previously thought were sister groups do not, in fact, share common ancestry, including swallowtails, birdwings, zebra swallowtails, and swordtails. The timeline shows that some butterfly species seem to have evolved together along with the plants they feed on or, in some cases, ant species with which they now have a mutually beneficial relationship.

[h/t Fast Company]

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