Ambergris

18 Oct

Ambergris, the most expensive excrement in the world.

It is a flammable, waxy substance produced in the digestive system of the sperm whale, normally looking like a strange dull grey rock.

Ambergris Source: Wikimedia Commons

Scientists believe that it may be produced to help hard and sharp objects to move through the digestive system, but in some cases the objects may become coated in ambergris and end up too large to pass through the intestine, in which case the whale vomits it up. This has lead to the confusion that ambergris is just whale vomit, when in fact it can be expelled in the whales fecal matter as well.

Ambergris has most often been found washed up along beaches, but there are cases where it has been found bobbing along in the ocean. It is most commonly used in perfumes as it has a very distinct smell, but historical records show it was also used by the Egyptians in tombs as incense and some other cultures even used it to flavour food. Its smell is often described as a marine, fecal odor but as it ages, it develops a sweeter, more earthy aroma.

Ambergris can often sell for $20-$50 a gram as it is quite rare and highly sought after.

In January of this year a man found a 6 pound lump of ambergris while walking his dog on the beach – link.

In August of last year a young boy and his father found a lump while walking on their local beach – link

If you are ever walking along the beach and find a lump of waxy material, take it home with you. You might just have found a piece of very valuable whale excrement.

For more information see the wikipedia article on ambergris

The Ice Mummies

17 Apr

The Inca Empire was the largest empire in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. Within Incan culture, human sacrifices were sometimes carried out as offerings to the gods. Child sacrifices were often made in times of famine or before/after important events. The children were taken up to the tops of mountains and killed, or sometimes left to die of exposure (the mountain tops were freezing). This practice was known as ‘capacocha’, and early Spanish settlers mentioned it in their writings. In recent times, preserved remains of some of these children have actually been found by archaeologists. The remains of a child known as ‘Mummy Juanita’ is an example of one of these sacrificed children.

Mummy Juanita's frozen body

Mummy Juanita’s frozen body

Mummy Juanita was found wrapped in a tapestry by archaeologist Johan Reinhard and his climbing partner in 1995, on Mount Ampato; a dormant stratovolcano in southern Peru. She was around 11-15 years old at time of death, and is thought to have been killed between the years of 1450-1480. Her body was frozen, which led to mummification. Later, two other well-preserved ‘ice mummies’ were found in close proximity to where Mummy Juanita was found. All had been killed by a blow to the head.

Mt. Amparo

Mt. Ampato

Location of Mt. Amparo in Peru

Location of Mt. Ampato in Peru

Because Mummy Juanita’s body was mummified, her internal organs were so well-preserved that it was possible for scientists to figure out what her last meal had been, even though she died over 500 years ago. She had eaten a meal of vegetables. It was also found that she had suffered from a lung infection shortly before her death. Her skin, hair, clothing and nails were also well-preserved. The tapestry that she had been wrapped in also contained many other Incan offerings; bowls, pins and figurines.

mummyjuanita3

Mummy Juanita’s face

A similar case was found on Llullaillaco, a mountain on the border of Chile and Argentina. Three frozen bodies were found in 1999 by Reinhard and fellow archaeologist, Constanza Ceruti. One of these is known as ‘la doncella’ (the maiden), and her body is amazingly preserved. Here’s some pictures of her:

mummyjuanita

La doncella

mummyjuanita1

La doncella was around 15 when she died. She was taken to the top of the mountain and left to die of exposure after being drugged with coca leaves and a type of maize beer. The other two mummies found with her were a young boy and a young girl. The boy was tied up, and died from strangulation, and the young girl was hit by lightning after her death. From testing the hair of the mummies, scientists could determine the diet that the children had lived on, and it was found that the children were fed a rich diet to ‘fatten them up’ before being sacrificed.

While the circumstances of these deaths are sad, these finds have allowed scientists a rare glimpse into the past.

To learn more on this, watch this documentary:

The Suicide Forest

15 Apr

At the base of Mt. Fuji, Japan, there is a forest called ‘Aokigahara’, which is also known as Jukai (the sea of trees). It is a popular tourist attraction due to the presence of icy caverns; however, it is also a popular destination for something much more disturbing. Aokigahara is one of the most popular suicide destinations in the entire world, second only to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

The forest as seen from a distance. (Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Alpsdake)

The forest as seen from a distance. (Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Alpsdake)

On average, approximately 100 suicides occur every year in the forest. Many of the suicides happen right at the end of the financial year, and most are drug overdoses or hangings. Throughout the forest (and also at its entrances), there are signs written in Japanese and English urging suicidal people to get help and think of their families and other loved ones.

A sign urging visitors to think of their loves ones and seek help. (Source: http://studio360.wordpress.com/2008/11/14/your-life-is-a-precious-gift-from-your-parents/)

A sign urging visitors to think of their loves ones and seek help. (Source: http://studio360.wordpress.com/2008/11/14/your-life-is-a-precious-gift-from-your-parents/)

There is an annual body hunt to recover dead bodies, but it is not uncommon to wander through the forest and come across bones, old clothes, nooses hanging from trees, suicide notes nailed to trees, and sometimes even creepier things. There are dolls nailed upside-down to trees in certain parts of the forest, which is allegedly an expression of hatred for society in the form of a curse. To add to the weirdness of the forest, it is also eerily quiet. This is due to the lack of wildlife and the density of the trees, which blocks the wind.

A place in the forest where a noose was found, along with a bag and cut-up credit cards. (Source: http://lookingforalosea.blogspot.com.au/2010/11/aokigahara-forest-suicide-forest-japan.html)

A place in the forest where a noose was found, along with clothes, a bag, and cut-up credit cards. (Source: http://lookingforalosea.blogspot.com.au/2010/11/aokigahara-forest-suicide-forest-japan.html)

So, how did this awful suicide tradition begin? No one is entirely sure, but many think that a book called ‘Tower of Waves’ may have inspired people to think of Aokigahara as a place for suicides. However, its reputation as a suicide destination predates this novel, and Japanese people have associated the forest with death for a long time. The practice of ‘ubasute’ was allegedly carried out in the forest in the past; this was the practice of taking the elderly or sick into remote areas such as mountains or forests and leaving them to die of exposure or starvation. Thus, many believe that the forest is haunted by the spirits of the dead, and it also has an association with demons in Japanese folklore.

Would you visit this forest, or go camping in it? Any other thoughts? Let us know in a comment below.

To find out more about Aokigahara, watch this documentary:

Venera Space Program

11 Apr

While we initially started this blog to focus on the interesting things on Earth, we soon realized that some of man’s greatest achievements involve our quest for exploration of our solar system. Because of this, we decided to have an ‘Out of this World’ category that  focuses on human achievements and discoveries that are not on this planet. This post will be the first in the category, with more to come soon.

The Venera Space Program was a Soviet attempt to create space probes to gather data about the planet Venus.

The missions began in 1961, with the Venera 1 craft, and ran through until 1984 with Venera 16.

 Venera 11 Lander - NASA

Venera 11 Lander – NASA

Venera 1 & 2

Venera 1 (1961) & 2 (1965) were meant to be pass-by probes that would collect data as they passed Venus. Unfortunately, both missions suffered from telemetry failure before reaching Venus.

The Soviet Union launched several other probes in the early 1960’s, but these were not announced as planetary observation missions.

Venera 3, 4, 5 & 6

Venera 3 was special. Although the Venera crafts 3-6 were all very similar, Venera 3 was the first craft to reach the surface of another planet. This occurred on March 1st, 1966, when the Venera 3 craft crash landed on the surface of the planet. Unfortunately, due to the entry through the atmosphere, all the data probes on board burned up and were unable to record any data.

Venera 4 was able to provide minor information about the atmosphere of Venus. Unfortunately, the hull of the craft was only able to handle 25atm, much less than the 75-100atm pressures on the surface of Venus.

Venera 5 and 6 were sent as atmospheric probes, and were able to record approximately 50 minutes of data before the batteries drained.

Venera 7 & 8

Venera 7 was the first craft to transmit data back from the surface of another planet. It was designed to survive the pressures, but its parachutes failed on entry and it toppled over during the landing. The signal was weak from the craft, but there was enough time for a transmission to be made.

Venera 8 was very similar; it was able to transmit data during its descent, measure sunlight and transmit data for nearly an hour.

Venera 9, 10, 11 & 12

The Venera craft 9-12 were designed to take photos and transmit the data back to Earth. They were all equipped with two cameras, but during the first two missions (9 &10), only one camera each time was able to capture photos due to the other camera’s lens cap failing to release. Venera 11 and 12 suffered worse; neither of the lens caps on these craft were released. Throughout these missions, the craft were operational for between 50 and 110 minutes.

Venera 13 & 14

These two Venera craft were equipped with much more scientific instrumentation. Here is a list of what was on board, taken from Wikipedia.

  • Accelerometer, Impact Analysis – Bison-M
  • Thermometers, Barometers – ITD
  • Spectrometer / Directional Photometer – IOAV-2
  • Ultraviolet Photometer
  • Mass Spectrometer – MKh-6411
  • Penetrometer / Soil Ohmmeter – PrOP-V
  • Chemical Redox Indicator – Kontrast
  • 2 Color Telephotometer Cameras – TFZL-077
  • Gas Chromatograph – Sigma-2
  • Radio / Microphone / Seismometer – Groza-2
  • Nephelometer – MNV-78-2
  • Hydrometer – VM-3R
  • X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometer (Aerosol) – BDRA-1V
  • X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometer (Soil) – Arakhis-2
  • Soil Drilling Apparatus – GZU VB-02
  • Stabilized Oscillator / Doppler Radio
  • Small solar batteries – MSB
Image from the right camera of Venera 13

Image from the right camera of Venera 13 – NASA

Image from the left camera of Venera 13

Image from the left camera of Venera 13 – NASA

Venera 15 & 16

These probes were similar to the previous probes, but were equipped with surface imaging radar to help with the entry that was obstructed by the thick clouds of Venus’ atmosphere.

For more detailed information, see the Wikipedia article on the Venera craft:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venera

Petra – The Rose-Red City

11 Apr

In the country of Jordan, one of the ancient world’s most beautiful cities is still visible today. The entire city, known as Petra, was carved into the side of a cliff-face, and it has been nicknamed the ‘rose-red city’. This is because most of the rock that it was carved into is a light red color. The city is also famous for its evidence of an ancient water management system.

Location of Petra in Jordan

Location of Petra in Jordan

Here’s some photos of Petra:

Al Khazneh - 'The Treasury'. Credit: Berthold Werner

Al Khazneh – ‘The Treasury’. Credit: Berthold Werner

Al Dier - 'The Monastery'. Credit: Dennis Jarvis (http://www.flickr.com/photos/archer10/2217568198/)

Al Dier – ‘The Monastery’. Credit: Dennis Jarvis (http://www.flickr.com/photos/archer10/2217568198/)

Credit: Berthold Werner

Credit: Berthold Werner

Close-up of the detail on Al Khazneh. Credit: Bernard Gagnon

Close-up of the detail on Al Khazneh. Credit: Bernard Gagnon

So, who built it?

Petra was built around 2000 years ago to serve as a capital city for the Nabataeans. The Nabataeans were an ancient Arabic people, and they established trade ties with many other groups at the time. Later, during Roman times, Petra was considered to be the capital of the Roman-Arabian world. During this period, the Petra Roman Road was constructed. This was the main entrance to the city, and featured enormous gates.

The Roman gates leading up to Petra. Credit: David Bjorgen

The Roman gates leading up to Petra. Credit: David Bjorgen

Unfortunately, during the period of Roman rule, Petra rapidly declined. In 363 AD, an earthquake destroyed a large proportion of the city, and it eventually fell into ruins. ‘Rediscovered’ by the Western world in 1812, it has been a popular Jordanian tourist destination ever since. It has also been classified as a World Heritage site, and it is quite vulnerable due to erosion/weathering and tourist damage. I hope that it can be preserved for future generations to enjoy.

To learn more about this amazing site, visit: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/326

The Mystery of the Flannan Isles

10 Apr

In the Outer Hebrides (a group of islands near Scotland), there is a small island chain known as the Flannan Isles. There are two main islands in this chain; Eilean Mòr and Eilean Taighe, and from 1895-1899, construction on a lighthouse took place on Eilean Mòr. No permanent residents have lived on the Isles since the lighthouse became automated in 1971. Overall, the island chain would be quite unremarkable if it hadn’t been for the mysterious and still-unexplained event that occurred only one year after construction on the lighthouse was finished.

Location of the Flannan Isles

Location of the Flannan Isles

After it was built, the lighthouse was operated by three men; Thomas Marshall, James Ducat and Donald Macarthur. Late in 1900, crew members of a passing ship noticed that something was amiss. The light was not on, which was especially strange given the poor weather conditions. They reported it to the authorities when they arrived at their destination, and a team was sent to the Flannan Isles to investigate. The team immediately realized that something was wrong when no one was there to greet them. All three of the lighthouse keepers had vanished.

The lighthouse on Eilean Mòr. Credit: Marc Calhoun (geograph.org.uk)

The lighthouse on Eilean Mòr. Credit: Marc Calhoun (geograph.org.uk)

The only other seemingly out-of-place thing was a chair that had been overturned in the lighthouse kitchen. Further investigation of the lighthouse and the island showed extensive storm damage to the west landing on the island, so at first, investigators thought that the men may have been washed away in the storm. However, they had kept logs of their activity right up until the morning that they disappeared (15th December), and the storm damage had apparently occurred sometime before this date.

The men were never seen again, and no bodies ever turned up.

Naturally, this strange occurrence led to wild speculation about what may have happened to the three men. Some alleged that one of the men had murdered the others, and then drowned himself out of guilt. It was also claimed that an enormous sea monster had taken them, while others blamed their disappearance on abduction by foreign spies. Some people also claimed that it was the work of malevolent ghosts, and modern theories mention alien abduction.

Some think that a giant sea monster took the men

Some think that a giant sea monster took the men

After an official investigation, the Northern Lighthouse Board came to the conclusion that the men must have been swept away by a freak wave while they were attempting to secure a box of equipment on the west landing, which was damaged in the previous storm (as recorded in their logs).

A more recent theory claims that a kind of geological formation known as ‘geos’ may have been to blame for the disappearance. A geo is an inlet or cleft in the face of a cliff, caused by wave erosion, and sea caves can form at their heads.

Eilean Mòr has many geos along its coastline, and the west landing of the island is actually situated in a geo. This geo terminates in a sea cave. In stormy weather, water could rush into the cave and explode out again. The theory holds that two of the men may have been securing the box on the west landing, while the other kept watch from the lighthouse. Noticing approaching waves, the watcher raced down to warn his colleagues of the impending danger, knocking a chair over in his haste to get out. Upon getting down to the west landing to warn them, he could have been washed out to sea by the water that exploded out of the sea cave, along with his two colleagues.

An example of a sea cave

An example of a sea cave

A very similar theory claims that one man may have been washed out to sea, and the other ran back to the lighthouse to get help. Upon attempting to rescue the man, both remaining men were washed out to sea by a second freak wave.

So, was the disappearance simply a combination of poor weather and bad luck, or did something far more sinister occur? We do know that when the men disappeared, the weather conditions were very poor, so I think that either one of the freak wave/geo theories would make sense. However, we will probably never know exactly what happened, so the mystery remains open to speculation.

Gigantopithecus

6 Apr

From as long ago as 9 million years, all the way up to only 100,000 years ago, an enormous genus of ape roamed around the areas now known as China, India and Vietnam. It’s also possible that they co-existed with early humans. The first species of this genus to be discovered was Gigantopithecus blacki, and was actually found by chance. In 1935, archaeologist Ralph von Koenigswald found some fossilised teeth in a Chinese medicine shop, and realized that they were from an unknown species. The teeth were usually ground up and used as part of traditional medicines.

While a full skeleton for the giant ape hasn’t yet been found, archaeologists can infer their size from dental remains that have been found. So, exactly how big were these apes? Scientists believe that the males could grow up to 10 feet tall, and weighed as much as 1,200 lb. Females were quite a lot smaller, due to sexual dimorphism. Like many other apes, they were most likely quadrupeds (this means that they moved around on four legs).

Cast of G. blacki's lower mandible. Credit: Mark A. Wilson (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Wilson44691)

Cast of G. blacki’s lower mandible. Credit: Mark A. Wilson (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Wilson44691)

This is what the gigantopithecus may have looked like. Source: http://img102.fansshare.com/pic131/w/non-celebrity/369/13006_gigantopithecus_std.jpg?rnd=2700

This is what the gigantopithecus may have looked like. Source: http://img102.fansshare.com/pic131/w/non-celebrity/369/13006_gigantopithecus_std.jpg?rnd=2700

G. blacki is thought to have lived in Southeast Asia, and dental analysis shows that it probably lived on bamboo and other plants. Furthermore, since the initial discovery of G. blacki, two more extinct gigantopithecus species have been found; Gigantopithecus giganteus and Gigantopithecus bilaspurensis. G. bilaspurensis lived in India, and G. giganteus appears to have lived in northern India and China. Despite its name, G. giganteus was actually about half the size of G. blacki.

Size comparison of gigantopithecus and human. Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Discott

Size comparison of gigantopithecus and human. Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Discott

Some conspiracy theorists believe that the gigantopithecus apes may still exist today, and are the reason why legends of Bigfoot, yetis and the like exist throughout the world. Unfortunately for proponents of this theory, there is no evidence that this is true. In fact, humans may have actually led to the decline and later extinction of the species, by using valuable resources that the apes needed to survive.

To read more on the subject, visit: http://www.uiowa.edu/~bioanth/giganto.html

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