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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Natural Freaks

<ture is, for lack of a better word, weird. Vicious behavior like mating rituals where one or both parties end up dead, unexpected actions like those of the Venus flytrap and other carnivorous plants, and horrifyingly gross-looking creatures like mole rats can leave us shuddering at how freaky the non-human world is. But gross or not, natural freaks exert a powerful hold over the human imagination, and we rarely tire of hearing about them—we even create some ourselves! (Example: gross little hairless dogs. Someone actually bred them to be that way.) This week, science brought some animal and plant freaks to light.

What’s your beauty routine? When it comes to personal grooming, most of us use at least the basics: soap and shampoo, deodorant and moisturizer. Others add conditioner, hair gel, and makeup to the list. But what if you could throw all those bottles out the window, replacing them with a single product that both makes your complexion bright and brings shine to your hair? Hint: you may not want to use it unless you’re a flamingo.

A new Spanish study has observed flamingos using a “product” from their preen glands, which contain both oil and the same pigments that give flamingo feathers their characteristic pink color—but these glands are in a less than pretty place: flamingos’ rumps.

In order to enhance the color of their feathers, and thus advertise their genetic quality to better attract mates, flamingos have to kiss their own butts. Specifically, they rub their cheeks against their preen glands, then use their faces as paintbrushes to smear the colored oil over their bodies. This time-consuming rubbing behavior increases leading up to the mating season, when the brightness of a bird’s plumage advertises that it’s healthy enough to draw pigments from its food and secrete them in its feathers and preen glands. After mating, flamingos’ preening behavior ceases, and their feathers fade back to a lighter color.

I’d argue that rubbing your face in your rear just to look attractive is pretty freaky behavior (and possibly has united a fetish community on the internet). But is the preening of a flamingo all that different from our own habits? Like humans putting on makeup, flamingos can enhance their natural genetic gifts with effort, but can’t hide the fact that some flamingos are genetically brighter than others. As in the human world, female flamingos spend more time making themselves beautiful than males do. Plus, pretty creatures, both bird and human, benefit from more than just attracting the opposite sex. More colorful birds not only end up mating first, but even more colorful).

Okay, so like flamingos we wear makeup to look prettier, which helps attract mates, among other benefits (according to 30 Rock, “the bubble” protects attractive people from the cruelty of reality). But at least we don’t get our makeup from our derrieres…right? Well, human beauty products may not be derived from preen glands, but some of them comes from gross places—crushed cochineal beetles in lipstick, whale vomit in the perfume base called ambergris, fish scales in the shampoo and nail polish ingredient known as guanine, and let’s not forget the neurotoxin Botox. I could write an entire article about the gross components that we smear on (and inject into) our faces and bodies to look and smell nice. Maybe flamingos aren’t so freaky after all.

Bats, on the other hand, have traditionally been seen as real freaks. We know them as symbols of Halloween, manifestations of traditional vampires, and the mascot of a certain grim superhero. Outside of popular culture, however, bats are struggling.

About two years ago, a fungus began targeting bats. Known as white nose fungus for causing that clearly identifiable symptom, it has destroyed bat communities at an unprecedented rate by preventing bats from sleeping soundly through their hibernation period. Each time the bats wake, they burn fat, until their caloric reserves are so diminished that they freeze or starve to death. Scientists are struggling to understand how this threat spreads so quickly, and how to protect bats from it. Biologists have turned to expensive, high-tech equipment like ultrasonic microphones, high-speed and thermal video cameras, tracking dots, and specialized software to track the small mammals’ movements and study the effect of the fungus.

In the popular imagination, it’s unusual to think up a scenario where bats aren’t freaks, but in this case, it’s white nose fungus that’s the crazy. This summer, a study posited that the regional population of a species called little brown bats might drop to 1% of their current number over the next 16 years. The idea that a pathogen could arise and threaten to wipe out an entire species in such a short amount of time is both unexpected and terrifying, and has driven not only scientists, but also the Army Corps of Engineers to study this phenomenon.

So flamingos’ makeup routines are no freakier than humans’, and bats’ threatened status may erode our image of them as creepy freaks. How about an undeniably weird natural being? Let’s take a look at some freaky pumpkins.Specifically, a record-breakingly amazing pumpkin: the 1,811-pound behemoth recently recognized by Guinness World Records. Growing normal pumpkins seems straightforward—just plant the seeds and water occasionally. So how do we go from moderately sized gourds to giant pumpkins? Scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology studied just that.

The Georgia Tech team took to smashing pumpkins, slowly compressing the gourds until they broke in order to determine their capacity for stress. Below a certain stress threshold, the stress effect was reversible and plastic, allowing the pumpkins to stretch but not rupturing them. This stretching encourages pumpkins to grow larger, enabling them to add up to 50 pounds in a single day.

What’s exerting stress on the largest of pumpkins to elevate them to giant status? Here’s where the mega-gourd gets even freakier: its own weight is creating the tension that allows the pumpkin to reach enormous proportions. Only the Atlantic Giant pumpkin seed produces giant fruit. These gourds naturally grow to about 220 pounds before the stress effect kicks in. After reaching this weight, the pumpkin can no longer sustain its spherical shape and begins to slowly flatten under its own mass, exerting a force that pulls apart its cells and stimulates new growth. Finally, if it’s a very freaky fruit, it may win a record.

Not everything we consider a freak really qualifies as such, and sometimes, the real freaks are the ones that we humans actually cultivate. I guess we can’t help ourselves—it’s hard to resist the appeal of the freakish.

-Sophie Bushwick is a Carletonian columnist.

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