Archive | Nature RSS feed for this section

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 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:

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

The Island of Snakes

5 Apr

This is one island that I won’t be visiting anytime soon; Ilha de Queimada Grande, otherwise known as Snake Island, is probably one of the scariest places in the world. The uninhabited island is just off the coast of Brazil, and is home to a species of snake known as the Golden Lancehead Viper.

Location of the island just off the coast of Brazil

Location of the island just off the coast of Brazil

The Golden Lancehead, or Borthrops insularis, is not found anywhere else in the world, but this island is teeming with them. Some say that there is one snake per square meter, and others claim an even higher figure. The island is 430,000 square meters, so that’s at least 430,000 snakes.

They aren’t small snakes, either. The average length of one of these snakes is nearly 30  inches  (75 cm), with some reaching a maximum of 46  inches (116 cm). To make matters worse, they are one of the most venomous snake species on Earth. It’s really no wonder that the island isn’t used for anything.

The species might actually be at risk for extinction, which is sad for them (and snake-lovers). They are considered to be a critically endangered species, and they face other problems due to interbreeding. Interbreeding has caused a high rate of intersex baby snakes to be born, and these intersex snakes are almost always sterile.

As I said earlier, I would definitely never want to set foot on this island. Unfortunately for crazy thrill-seekers who do want to visit it, the Brazilian Navy has expressly forbidden anyone, except the occasional scientist, from going to the island. This really isn’t surprising, considering that wherever you set foot on this island, there is always a snake (or several) close by.

To read more, visit http://webspinners.com/coloherp/cb-news/archive/nature/Paradise.php or

http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/snake-island-ilha-de-queimada-grande

Giant’s Causeway

4 Apr

The Giant’s Causeway is located on the north-east coast of Ireland in a place called County Antrim. It consists of approximately 40,000 interlocking basalt columns that formed due to a volcanic eruption.

Giant's Causeway - Source

Giant’s Causeway – Source

Rather than paraphrase Wikipedia’s explanation on the formation I figured I would copy it here as it provides a good, easy to understand overview:

“Some 50 to 60 million years ago, during the Paleogene period, Antrim was subject to intense volcanic activity, when highly fluid molten basalt intruded through chalk beds to form an extensive lava plateau. As the lava cooled rapidly, contraction occurred. Horizontal contraction fractured in a similar way to drying mud, with the cracks propagating down as the mass cooled, leaving pillar-like structures, which are also fractured horizontally into “biscuits”. In many cases the horizontal fracture has resulted in a bottom face that is convex while the upper face of the lower segment is concave, producing what are called “ball and socket” joints. The size of the columns is primarily determined by the speed at which lava from a volcanic eruption cools”

There was an old legend that described the formation as the result of an ancient giant ‘Benandonner’ tearing it up so that the great warrior ‘Fionn mac Cumhaill’ could not follow him. The story goes that the giant challenged Fionn and went to his house seeking him out. Not wanting to fight, Fionn and his wife came up with the idea to dress Fionn up as a baby. When Benandonner came to the house, Fionn’s wife told the giant he was out but he would be back shortly and he could wait if he wished. She showed the giant Fionn’s baby and after seeing how big he was the giant feared Fionn would be bigger. He ran away and tore up the causeway so Fionn could not follow him. There are a few slight variations on this story but this is the general outline.

These basalt structures are not unique to the Giant’s Causeway. There are many other locations with similar features around the world. There are two interesting features located at this spot, though. They are the Chimney Stack and the Giants Boot, shown below.

The Giants Boot

The Giants Boot

The Chimney Stack

The Chimney Stack

If anyone has visited the Giant’s Causeway or any similar structures, we would love to hear about it. Feel free to share some photos too.

Mount Mihara – The Most Depressing Volcano in the World

3 Apr

The geographical region that contains Japan and its surrounding areas is infamous for its occurrences of tectonic and volcanic activity, and Mount Mihara is an example of this.

Mount Mihara's peak from a distance. Source: http://wikitravel.org/shared/Image:IMG_4759.JPG

Mount Mihara’s peak from a distance. Source: http://wikitravel.org/shared/Image:IMG_4759.JPG

An active, 2500-foot tall ‘stratovolcano’, it is located on the island of Izu Ōshima, around 100 kilometers south of Tokyo. Stratovolcanoes are tall, conical, and most commonly formed at subduction zones. Mt. Mihara erupts quite frequently, with major eruptions occurring every 100-150 years. During the last major eruption, in 1986, the entire island’s population had to be evacuated by the military, and the plume created by the eruption was 16 kilometers high in the air.

Diagram of a subduction zone and stratovolcano

Diagram of a subduction zone and stratovolcano

So, what exactly is so depressing about Mt. Mihara? Well, the story starts in the 1920’s, when several people committed suicide at the volcano. From a certain point at the top of it, it was actually possible to jump straight into the lava. In 1933, a young student named Kiyoko Matsumoto also committed suicide by leaping into it, and this sparked a horrifying trend.

Within the year, almost 1000 people had committed suicide at Mt. Mihara, and when this trend continued for a few more years, Izu Ōshima became known as the ‘Suicide Island’. Eventually, Japanese authorities had to build a large wire fence around the jumping-off point, to prevent any more suicides.

Satellite image of Izu Ōshima. Mt. Mihara is visible as the darker area

Satellite image of Izu Ōshima. Mt. Mihara is visible as the darker area

Lava is so dense that if you jumped into it, you would not sink directly into it; instead, you would float. It is so hot that a person would essentially be cooked to death in their own steam, which is created from the body’s water vaporizing as it comes into contact with the lava flow.

That sounds like an incredibly awful way to die, and I have no idea why it became such a trend! Let’s hope that it doesn’t start up again.

%d bloggers like this: