Sunken whale carcasses create entire marine cities on the ocean floor

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FACT: A bunch of 18th century guys hung out together in very hot rooms in the name of science.

By Rachel Feltman

This story comes from an article I read about in the Public Domain Review called “Experiments and Observations in a Heated Room”, circa 1774, which sounds like the name of a one-act play and frankly should have become in one.

The article, by British physician and scientist Charles Blagden, recounts his experience being invited into the home of scientist George Fordyce to see the man’s very, very hot rooms.

Fordyce had built a series of sealed rooms that were basically saunas, with pipes radiating heat and thermometers mounted on the walls. According to Blagden’s article, and the sequel he published in 1775, he and several other gentlemen worked with Fordyce to test the limits of the human body with respect to heat.

They started in a 100 degree Fahrenheit room, which isn’t particularly impressive. But by the time they finished their second batch of experiments in 1775, they had worked their way up to 260 degrees.

They made many observations that may now seem obvious. They realized that, at these higher temperatures, it was actually more comfortable to have clothes on than to be naked, since the heat burned the skin much faster than it raised the core body temperature. Blagden also noted that they could tolerate higher heat in the drying rooms and correctly surmised that this was because water transported heat to the body more efficiently than air and that sweating, which is more effective when air it has more room to absorb moisture and evaporates your sweat—it was the key to the body’s powers to destroy heat. He was one of the first Western scientists to make this connection, although it is reasonable to assume that people living in warmer climates probably realized this out of necessity. Note that the first thermometers designed to measure human temperature only appeared in the 17th century and would not become part of standard clinical medicine until the 19th century.

But it’s worth noting that they were being a bit obtuse about the temperatures humanity previously endured. In his initial article, Blagden actually referred to “the experiments of M. Tillet,” the botanist and metallurgist Mathieu Tillet. In 1760, while trying to figure out how to heat grain enough to kill pests without ruining the crop, Tillet had problems with his data. He was using a thermometer attached to a long shovel to get the exact temperature inside the sugar baking ovens he was using, but the temperature dropped in the time it took him to get it out. The girl who tended the oven offered to come in and mark the level on the thermometer with a pencil, and she told the scientist, at least according to her notes, that she “didn’t feel any trouble” in the 288-degree oven. . He and his colleague basically proceeded to mess around with a bunch of random items in the oven to see how the heat affected them. Blagden points out that the maid in question endured 280 degree temperatures for over 10 minutes, and basically seems to be saying that he thinks girls who work with hot stoves probably get used to working with hot stoves, apparently as a nod to how very obvious. reality that he and his friends did not actually find or test the upper limits of resistance to human heat.

We now know that Blagden was quite right about the importance of moisture in the air: the wetter it is, the less heat we can absorb before our bodies start to break down, because we can’t put heat back into the air in any way to evaporate sweat. A 120 degree forecast in Death Valley can be as physiologically tolerable as a minus 90 degree day in a swampy area.

When viewing weather reports, refer to the “wet bulb” temperature, which is a measure of the combination of heat and humidity. Once it gets to 95 F wet bulb, give or take a couple of degrees, we’re in trouble. At 100 percent humidity, we can only handle temperatures up to 87 degrees.

On a lighter note, here’s a brief aside on the guy who built the hot rooms, which was remembered in a local restaurant guide at the beginning of the 19th century for its diet entirely based on bananas.

FACT: When whales die, they create entire cities

By Sabrina Imbler

In 1987, a submersible exploring the seabed of the Santa Catalina Basin detected something unusually large, 1,240 meters below the sea surface. It was a 65 foot long whale skeleton. The whale had been dead for years, but its remains had grown into a thriving community on the seafloor, feeding on clams, mussels, limpets and snails.

A natural burial for a whale, which dies in the ocean and sinks to the bottom of the sea, is called a whale fall. Ecosystems this deep are short of food, and many creatures rely on the constant drizzle of decaying meat, excrement, dust, and mucus called marine snow to survive. But a whale fall is like a spontaneous deep-sea feast that can sustain entire communities for years. Scientists estimate that one whale fall is equivalent to a thousand years of marine snow.

Whale falls are devoured in multiple stages. First, mobile scavengers such as sleeper sharks, hagfish, and isopods travel long distances to feast on the carcass. This stage can last several years until all the soft tissue is chewed away. The next stage is called the opportunistic enrichment stage, where worms, crustaceans and bacteria feast on the nutrients from the sunken whales in the surrounding sand. The third stage, sulfophilic, can last for decades. Here, bone-eating Osedax worms and sulfur-oxidizing bacteria break down the blubber inside the whale bones. The fourth and final stage of a whale fall is called the reef stage and can last for an indefinite time. Now, the whale has become a hard substrate, where suspension eaters like anemones and sponges can latch onto and grow.

Whale falls were much more abundant hundreds of years ago, before whale populations dramatically reduced the number of whales sinking to the seafloor. This has likely led to a series of extinctions in species that specialize in whale falls and rely on these carcasses to complete their life cycles. One whale researcher suggests that around a third of specialist whale fallers may have gone extinct in the North Atlantic, where whaling reduced populations by 75 percent. It stands to reason that a creature so impressive in life would also be so important in death.

FACT: Neanderthals couldn’t smell how stinky they were

By Sarah Kiley Watson

You probably have a unique scent that you can’t smell at all. And in your brain, it’s not that you don’t stink, it’s that you’re so used to your own stench that it no longer affects you. In fact, your own scent is comfortingly familiar. After all, if you were constantly smelling yourself, you’d probably have a breakdown due to the sensory input of all the odors from your microbes, sweat, farts, etc. So when some of your own smell stinks, well, it stinks, your nose gets used to it. And really, it’s not just your own stench after a while, you’ll eventually get used to the smell of your pets and family members and favorite foods.

But smell is exclusive to all species and individuals. For a study published in December, scientists looked at 30 different olfactory receptors in the Neanderthal, Denisovian, and ancient Homo sapiens genomes. They found 11 receptors in extinct humans that had unique DNA that did not appear in humans.

Through a difference in receptors, Neanderthals had a bit of a superpower. They couldn’t smell body odors as well as their cousins; Specifically, a Neanderthal had a genetic mutation that reduced his ability to smell androstadienone, a chemical we associate with the odors of urine and sweat. Considering these guys were living in caves, building complex structures there for around 176,000 years, this probably came in handy when trying to live in a world without deodorant.

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