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1. Owls have tube-shaped eyes rather than spherical ones, and they cannot roll or rotate their eyes. To compensate for it, they have evolved the ability to rotate their heads 270° in either direction. 

Owl’s Eyes. Image Source: Pixabay, The New International Encyclopaedia/Wikisource

One of the many unique features of owls is that unlike the rest of the birds, their eyes are placed at the front of their heads rather than on either side, which gives them some of the largest binocular fields of vision. They are one of the few nocturnal birds that do not use echolocation during the night. Instead, their eyes are disproportionately large, making up to 3% of their body weight compared to human eyes which are just 0.0003% of our body weight.

Since the large eyes have to be housed in a relatively small skull, they have evolved to be tubular, held tightly in place by a set of bones known as “sclerotic rings.” Instead of rotating their eyes, they can rotate their heads 270° in either direction and 90° up and down. With one advantage comes one disadvantage. The owls are farsighted, which means though they can see with crystal clarity what’s far away, they have trouble focusing on what’s nearby. They have to rely on sensitive, whisker-like bristles to sense objects up close. (12)

2. Most birds need gravity to swallow water.

When we drink water, our esophagus undergoes a mechanism known as “peristalsis” which creates a contracting and expanding motion that travels like a wave down the tube moving water and food to our stomach. Birds cannot do this. They generally drink water by lapping it up with their tongue like other animals or gathering it in their beaks and then tilting their head back to let it flow down to their stomach.

There are very few exceptions to this, like pigeons and doves that can suck water even with their heads bent down, or pelicans which collect rainwater in their large beaks. Some birds, especially those living in deserts, do not usually drink water at all. Hummingbirds make do with the nectar which they use their tongue to encircle and pump down their throat. (12)

3. Mushrooms are more genetically related to humans than they are to plants.

Freshly Picked Mushrooms. Image Source: Canva

Mushrooms, along with yeasts and molds, belong to a group of eukaryotic organisms that we know as fungus. Considering how they do not move or react, for a long time, fungi were considered a part of the plant kingdom and were not given the status of one of the five kingdoms of life until the advent of molecular biology. Now we know that their evolution diverged from other life over one billion years ago, and though they are unique, they share many genetic features with animals.

What sets them apart from plants is their cell walls which contain a long-chain polymer called “chitin,” also found in the exoskeletons of insects, arthropods, mollusks, crustaceans, cephalopods, and even in the scales of fish. A more apparent distinction from plants is that fungi do not perform photosynthesis to make their own food. Instead, just like animals, they absorb dissolved molecules by secreting digestive enzymes on existing organic matter. Another common feature with animals is the presence of lanosterol, a compound both animals and fungi use to derive steroids and eventually cholesterol. (12)

4. The terminal velocity of an ant is around 3.9 mph.

Image credits: Pixabay

When an object is dropped from a height, it begins to accelerate at 9.8 m/s2 towards the ground due to gravity. But the object also experiences air resistance or drag that pushes it upward. At a certain point, the gravity and the drag force become equal, canceling acceleration and causing the object to fall at a constant velocity known as “terminal velocity.” The terminal velocity depends on two things – how heavy the object is and how wide the object’s horizontal cross-section area is.

Ants might be ubiquitous creatures on Earth contributing an estimated 15–20% of terrestrial animal biomass. That’s more than all the vertebrates, but the weight of a single, average worker ant is just between 1-5 mg. So, its terminal velocity is just 3.9 mph (6 kph), and in comparison, for a human, it is 124 mph (200 kph). Also, for their size and mass, the ants have a very tough exoskeleton, and according to Michael Kaspari, an ecologist at the University of Oklahoma, they can use their legs to maneuver through the air and glide. So, they’re not in as much danger of getting hurt from a fall as we are. (123)

5. The consistency of a nursing sperm whale’s milk is that of cottage cheese so that the calf can just “eat it” in the water.

Sperm Whales. Image Source: Gabriel Barathieu/Wikimedia

Being aquatic mammals, all species of whales must deliver and nurse their calves in water. That means suckling them in water too, and milk at the consistency produced by land mammals would just dissolve in the water. So, sperm whales, just like other whales, produce milk that has very high fat content, about 36% compared to 4% in cow milk, and an energy content of approximately 3,840 kcal/kg, while cow milk has just 640 kcal/kg. This gives the milk a consistency similar to cottage cheese or toothpaste that the calf can simply eat. Another important purpose of the high-fat content is to help develop blubber in the young. (12)

6. Those stringy things between the banana and its peel are called “phloem bundles.” They are just like the vascular system of a plant, and their function is to help nutrients travel along the fruit. 

Banana Peel and String. Image Source: Canva

You might have found yourself cursing the stringy bits that dangle from the banana and stick to your hand or chin while enjoying the fruit. They are, however, not as useless to the banana as they are to us. You probably heard the word “phloem” in conjunction with the word “xylem” in biology class back in school. The phloem bundles are complex tissues that provide food, nutrients, minerals, and water to a plant, in this case, the bananas, to help them grow. (source)

7. Opossums eat ticks the way we eat potato chips. They are known to chomp down on up to 5,000 ticks in a season and are immune to Lyme disease. 

Young Virginia Opossum. Image Source: Liam Wolff/Wikimedia

Opossums, also sometimes just known as “possums,” are North America’s only marsupial animals that successfully migrated to and survived in the North around 3 million years ago during the Great American Interchange via Central America. For an animal so small, opossums show remarkable abilities, such as their resistance to Lyme disease and snake venom, including venom from copperheads and rattlesnakes.

Opossums are extraordinarily good groomers, munching ticks on them as well as on the forest floor left and right. They eat so many of them that they are considered little vacuum cleaners when it comes to ticks and are often welcomed by gardeners as wildlife friends into their yards. The little creatures also have a voracious appetite for cockroaches, rats, mice, snails, slugs, carrion, and even snakes. (source)

8. The heart, if pumped with a solution containing oxygen and nutrients, can beat for hours outside of the body. 

Traditionally, heart donations for transplant are done when the donor’s brain stops functioning but while their heart is still working. After the heart is removed, there is only a four-to-six-hour window to transplant it in the recipient before it becomes non-viable. Because of this, many hearts go unused every year, especially if the recipient’s location is far away from that of the donor. Over the past few years, scientists have been developing a new technology known informally as a “Heart in a Box” which could give the surgeons around 12 hours to get the heart to the recipient.

Instead of putting the heart in a cooler, it is put in a box that pumps it full of warm blood with oxygen and nutrients to keep it beating until it reaches the recipient. The advantage of this method is that the heart can be used even when the blood circulation stops in the donor. According to Dr. Jacob Schroder at the Duke University Hospital, this is believed to increase the donor pool by 30%. So far, over 100 Heart in a Box transplants were successfully performed in the UK and Australia out of which 70 were done after blood circulation stopped. This year on December 1, this surgery was performed for the first time in the US. (12)

9. Sloths can hold their breath for up to 40 minutes underwater while dolphins can only hold their breath for just eight to 10 minutes.

Sloth in Panama. Image Source: Canva

Aptly named “sloths,” these arboreal mammals from the tropical rain forests of South and Central America are known for their slow, deliberate movements and are almost always found hanging upside down in the trees. Their superpower, if it can be called that, is their slow metabolism which they are capable of slowing down further as well as their heart rate to less than a third of its normal rate.

This lets them hold their breath underwater for up to 40 minutes. Dolphins, on the other hand, can only stay submerged no more than 15 minutes before they need to surface and breathe through the blowhole on top of their heads.

Sloths might be painfully slow on land, but they are surprisingly strong swimmers. While their speed on land is just three to four meters per minute, their speed in water is 13.5 meters per minute and they easily cross rivers and swim between islands. (12)

10. The longest word in English is “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.”

Silicosis X-Ray. Image Source: Gumersindorego/Wikimedia

The word was coined by Everett M. Smith, the president of the National Puzzlers’ League, in the organization’s 103rd semi-annual meeting, as a synonym for silicosis. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means “a lung disease caused by inhaling very fine ash and sand dust.” It was featured in the New York Herald Tribune in February 1935 and succeeded “electrophotomicrographically” as the longest word in English as recognized by the League.

The title for the longest word in English that doesn’t repeat a letter goes to two, 15-letter words – “uncopyrightable,” something that cannot be copyrighted, and “dermatoglyphics,” the study of skin markings. (12)

 

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