Look up tonight and you’ll see a waning crescent Moon, and, every few minutes, shooting stars falling from the sky. The Lyrids meteor shower peaks on April 21, and if light pollution is low in your area, you can expect to see around 10 meteors per hour—maybe more if you escape to the countryside.
WHAT IS GOING ON UP THERE?
The Lyrids—named for the constellation Lyra from which they seem to originate—are the happy result of the Earth slamming into the debris of the comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher (named after its discoverer, not the former British prime minister). But don’t worry: Thatcher isn’t a danger! As it flies about its four-century-long orbit around the Sun, particles fall away. It’s perfectly normal shedding, resulting in an annual evening-time spectacular.
Thatcher is a long-period comet; such comets have orbits longer than 200 years. At aphelion—that is, its farthest point from the Sun—Thatcher is at a distance of 110 astronomical units (AU). To put this in perspective, the distance from the Sun to the Earth is 1 AU. The distance from the Sun to Pluto is about 40 AU. The very farthest-known natural, observable object in the solar system, V774104, is presently 103 AU. So Thatcher has put in a lot of work to make tonight's light show happen. I hope you appreciate it. This meteor shower is 415 years and 21,225,138,770 miles in the making. If that’s not good enough for you, nothing is.
HOW DO I SEE THE LYRIDS?
Sometimes, the Lyrids deliver a mind-blowing show. Its first reported occurrence was reportedly so bright and busy that it drowned out the stars. In 1982, it reached 90 meteors an hour. Ordinarily, however, the meteor shower produces five to 20 meteors every hour. Don’t miss this chance to see them, because when it comes to dust-sized cometary particles vaporizing in Earth’s atmosphere at 30,000 miles per hour, you just never know how good the show will be.
The best time to see the Lyrids will be after midnight until just before dawn. While you wait, check out Jupiter, bright and unblinking in the south. If you have a telescope handy, or even a reasonably powered set of binoculars, you’ll easily see four of its moons: Europa, Ganymede, Io, and Callisto. You can also see Saturn to the southeast (though this isn’t the best time for viewing it). As dawn approaches, look east and you’ll see Venus up there, as bright as ever. (It reaches greatest brilliancy on April 30.)
To enjoy the Lyrids meteor shower, you won’t need binoculars or a telescope or anything, really, but a blanket and patience. Since it’s a Friday night, bring a bottle of wine. You’re not going to live forever. Because the Moon will be but a sliver, it won’t wash out the sky with moonlight. So Thatcher and the Moon are doing the heavy lifting here. All you have to do is show up and wait.
Amelia Earhart's disappearance during her attempt to fly around the world has captivated historians and conspiracy theorists for more than 80 years. One organization is now suggesting that her fate may have been sealed by giant crabs.
The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) believes that Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan may have landed their plane on Nikumaroro Island when they couldn't find their target, Howland Island, and that Nikumaroro's endemic crustaceans may have played a part in the ensuing mystery.
According toNational Geographic, there are several clues supporting TIGHAR's theory. The large reef that hugs Nikumaroro’s coast makes it conducive to emergency aircraft landings. In 1940—just three years after Earhart’s disappearance—British colonists found 13 human bones beneath a ren tree on the island and shipped them to Fiji, where they were lost. The colony's administrator, Gerald Gallagher, sent a telegram back to England positing that it was Earhart’s skeleton. Then, in 2001, researchers uncovered U.S.-made artifacts around the ren tree including a jackknife, a woman’s compact, a zipper, and glass jars. The plot thickened even further in 2017, when four forensic bone-sniffing dogs all indicated that a human had indeed died at the site, though excavators failed to dig up any more evidence.
If those 13 bones beneath the ren tree did belong to the unfortunate castaway, where are the rest of her remains? Tom King, TIGHAR’s former chief archaeologist, thinks that coconut crabs can answer that question.
Nikumaroro is home to thousands of the colossal creatures, which can grow to a terrifying 3 feet across and weigh 9 pounds. They’re sometimes called robber crabs because of their penchant for absconding with objects that smell like food, and they’ll eat practically anything—coconuts, fruit, birds, rodents, other crabs, their own discarded body parts, and carrion.
It’s not unreasonable, then, to think that coconut crabs may have feasted on Earhart’s corpse and then taken her bones home with them. In one experiment to test the theory, TIGHAR researchers deposited a pig carcass on the island and filmed the aftermath. With the help of small strawberry hermit crabs, coconut crabs stripped the pig down to the bone in two weeks. After a year, some of the bones had been dragged 60 feet from the carcass’s original location, and some were never recovered at all.
King believes Earhart’s missing 193 bones could be hidden in the burrows of various coconut crabs. As in the pig experiment, crabs may have scattered some of Earhart’s bones dozens of feet away, but maybe not all of them—after all, the forensic dogs smelled bones near the ren tree that haven’t yet been located. Right now, TIGHAR is working with the Canine Forensics Foundation to further explore the area.
While we wait for more answers, dive into these other theories about Earhart’s disappearance.
Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate.
1. Not all leeches suck blood.
Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.”
“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech.
Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. “How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.”
4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.
Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”
5. Leeches can get pretty big.
The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.
6. Leeches make good bait.
Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”
7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.
Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”
8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.
Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)
9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents.
“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”
10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species.
Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”