You've been hearing your whole life about how human progress means extinction for countless species -- usually due to humans just outright paving over their habitats or dumping poison into the water they swim in. But some of the effects we have on Mother Nature are much less obvious and much, much weirder. We're talking about things like ...
The expression "happy as a pig in shit" is a bit of a misnomer. Pigs probably aren't any happier rolling around in their own excreta than we are, or at least most of us. In the wild, pigs move around and graze like any other animal, and a poop in the woods here and there is par for the course. It's only when we started farming them, keeping large numbers of pigs in a small space, that their dung started piling up. And exploding.
"You want to run that last part by me again?"
You read that correctly. See, pig poop is useful stuff for farmers. They let it collect in manure pits for an entire year so they can spread that yummy juice all over the fields come fall. And it should just stay there, getting bigger and bigger but sitting safe, 'til the shit harvest comes. But sometimes something a little extra happens. From deep within the shit bank, for reasons that remain unclear, comes the Mysterious Foam.
David Schmidt, Iowa State University
Wow. That's gross even by "ocean of shit" standards.
It's gray. It's bubbly. It piles up several feet thick. It pulsates like something alive. Worst of all, scientists still don't know what it is, just that it's filled with weird bacteria that have no right to be there. It contains poisonous gases like hydrogen sulfide. Most notably, it's extremely rich in methane, which, as anyone who has been drunk enough at a party to try to light a fart knows, is super flammable. So what happens when a spark lands on the foam?
An hour at 350 degrees becomes six seconds at 4,000 instead?
Pigsplosion. The foam and all the shit blow up. Blue fire tears across the foam, melting plastic and metal. The blast rips apart the pit and the barn. Shit, foam, flame, and hog flesh meld together, and the pigs die by the thousand.
These hog shitfernos are a new phenomenon, and no one's quite sure why they've started now. They could have something to do with the pigs' diet, mash left over from making ethanol fuel. We might have created the conditions necessary for the crazy new bacteria to thrive. But once you've blown up your pigs, there's not much point in wondering why it happened. You just scrape up the crisp pork and put it on toast. Bacon's bacon.
Something strange has been happening to the giant squid population over the past decade -- they have been washing up on the shore having apparently exploded from the inside. This sounds like the prologue to a Roland Emmerich global disaster movie, but scientists in the real world searched for an explanation that didn't involve aliens or space radiation or magnetic field reversals.
Michael Knight/iStock/Getty Images
"Exploding squid? No, we mostly just slice up cattle and molest rednecks."
Namely, it was suspected that human sonar might have something to do with the squidpocalypse. Generally, sonar is considered to be harmless to ocean life because our low-frequency, low-amplitude sound bursts shouldn't be loud enough to bother anything in Triton's kingdom. But after discovering that all the dead squid had exploded ears, the scientists decided to put the sonar to the test, dragging out squid from the wild and subjecting to them to careful blasts of sound waves.
The squid got hurt, all right -- after thoroughly sciencing the dead bodies, the researchers found that the squid were killing themselves in response to the sound, like a desperate parent suffering through endless choruses of "It's a Small World." Their cells showed damage, and the damage was from chemicals that the squid released in response to the sonar.
Comstock Images/Stockbyte/Getty Images
"As focus groups go, this is still the least painful one I've ever been a part of."
It began, reasonably enough, in the parts of the squid that sense the sound waves, receptors called statocysts. Little hairs that were supposed to be doing their job snapped off and floated away. Then the squid's own neurotransmitters would make its nerves start swelling up, and those nerves would explode. Finally, the squid would wind up blowing giant holes in its head and welcoming death's sweet kiss.
Laboratori d'Aplicacions Bioacustiques, Universitat Politenica de Catalunya
It's essentially Saw for a cephalopod.
And all this comes from that most innocuous of human operations -- scanning the ocean so that scientists can survey it. Then again, we should have expected something murderous when we named the invention responsible the seismic gun.
Digital Vision./Photodisc/Getty Images
On the timeline of evolution, perfectly flat surfaces have been around for only a quarter of a second. The only thing in nature that's flat and shiny is the surface of a lake, and as far as birds, bats, and insects know, it still is.
Unfortunately, thanks to humans, our world is now littered with parking lots, wooden decks, and solar panels that to various flying animals look just like an enticing pool of liquid refreshment on a cool day. Bats, for example, use echolocation to identify objects by their shape, so they are accidentally bashing their faces into hard surfaces all the time. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute tested this recently, which was fairly dickish in retrospect.
"Stay the fuck away from scientists" seems to be the take-home lesson for today.
They set up a series of smooth and textured plates made of wood, plastic, and metal and released some bats to see if the animals would try to drink them. Sure enough, many of the bats torpedoed face-first into the smooth surfaces, expecting a mouthful of hydration but receiving a face full of painful disappointment, sometimes making more than 100 confused attempts on the same solid plate.
Greif, S. & Siemers B. M., Nature Communications
A) Liquid refreshment. B) Broken nose.
But the same thing happens to insects and birds. Apparently sunlight reflecting off of standard solar panels produces a watery illusion, attracting insects in search of a quick drink or some sexy time. And because solar panels are optimal light polarizers, insects actually find them more attractive than water. The effect is so powerful that enchanted insects will buzz about the panels incessantly until they literally drop dead from exhaustion.
Jeffrey Hamilton/Photodisc/Getty Images
Not that we really expected much from an animal that can be outsmarted by a jelly jar.
And then there was the case of thousands of migrating water birds plunging to their deaths after confusing a series of parking lots and other flat areas with lakes. Unable to walk very well, they were very likely searching for bodies of water in which to park their feathered asses when they found St. George, Utah, glistening with flat, broad, snowy surfaces. In the end, what should have been a relaxing splash and swim turned into a gruesome mass suicide as the flocks went crashing into the concrete. Yes, birds are kind of stupid.