Your Favorite Dinosaur and the Lie Your Science Teachers May Not Have Told You After All.

In 1870, renowned paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope published a description of a newly discovered giant plesiosaur (an extinct aquatic reptile that a reader less informed than you might mistakenly refer to as a dinosaur). Unfortunately, he’d failed to place the head on the right part of the body, sticking the skull to the end of the creature’s long tail.

oc marsh
Othniel Charles Marsh, respected paleontologist, winner of the bone war, and maybe kind of behaved like a squabbling child. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Surely after a while, Cope would have figured out his mistake, but he didn’t manage to do so before renowned paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh (the judgment of whose parents I have to question because they named their kid “Othniel”) gleefully pointed out the mistake for the world to see. The two men weren’t on great terms to begin with, as rumors circulated that Marsh had once paid Cope’s field crew to send anything they found to Marsh instead.

Once insult was added to injury, the great Bone Wars began, with two of the most prominent paleontologists in North America behaving like squabbling children. The rivalry raged for twenty years resulting in great advances in the field, which before this period had discovered only eighteen dinosaur species on the continent. Between the two men, they described and named over 130 new species of dinosaur.

But as beneficial as it may have been, this feverish pace of scientific discovery had some drawbacks, too. The paleontologists’ dig teams were known to spy on each other, steal fossils from one another, vandalize one another’s dig sites, or even dynamite their own to keep anyone else from digging there. And then there were the mistakes of the men themselves that occasionally found their way into work that was rushed to publication.

Edward Drinker Cope, respected paleontologist, second-place in the bone war, and also maybe a little bit of a squabbling child. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Edward Drinker Cope, respected paleontologist, second-place in the bone war, and also maybe behaved like a little bit of a squabbling child. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Marsh “won” the bone wars, discovering about eighty North American dinosaurs to Cope’s fifty between the years of 1870 and 1890, but had the two men lived so long, Cope might have gotten the last laugh. In 1877, Marsh described a long-necked herbivorous dinosaur he called Apatosaurus. Just two years later, he unearthed another long-necked dino he called Brontosaurus. Trouble is that in 1903, paleontologist Elmer Riggs determined Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus were really the same species. I imagine Cope was laughing in Heaven.

Because life isn’t fair, and sometimes parents decide to name their son Othniel, the earlier name had precedent. And so, since the year 1903, there has been no such thing as a brontosaurus. No friendly leaf-eating, lumbering, earth-shaking, and, let’s face it, small-brained brontosaurs. And despite what you may have learned from the Flintstones, no brontosaurus burgers or brontosaurus ribs either.

Brontosaurus (but later Apatosaurus, and now brontosaurus again) skeleton displayed with the wrong head at the Carnegie Natural Museum of Natural History. By Dinosaurs, by William Diller Matthew [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Brontosaurus (but later Apatosaurus, and now brontosaurus again) skeleton displayed with the wrong head.
By Dinosaurs, by William Diller Matthew [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
How can this be? I know, I know, because when I attended elementary school in the 1980’s, Brontosaurus featured prominently in my science books. And the name was featured in museums up until the 1970’s, when paleontologists discovered the head Marsh had placed on his original “Brontosaurus” actually belonged to yet another species. And again, Cope was laughing in Heaven.

Even the US postal service got itself into a heap of trouble when as recently as 1989 it issued a series of stamps featuring popular dinosaurs, including Tyrannosaurus, Stegosaurus, Pteranodon, and Brontosaurus. To be fair, though, the USPS was probably using an elementary school science textbook as a reference.

So why did the name persist for so long? Well, according to Matt Lamanna, paleontologist and curator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Brontosaurus is just a really cool name. It means “thunder lizard,” evoking the ominous thumping and quaking at the creature’s approach. In contrast, Apatosaur means “deceptive lizard,” which I guess evokes the desire for the creature to pose as a different species so it can go by a cooler name.

Personally, I miss the brontosaurus. Or at least I did. Because earlier this week a team of researchers from the Nova University of Lisbon in Portugal revealed that a comprehensive comparative analysis of dino bones has led them to the undeniable conclusion that Brontosaurus was a separate species after all.

Real or not, the "thunder lizard" has captured our imaginations and our hearts. photo credit: brontosaurus in party hat via photopin (license)
Real or not, the “thunder lizard” has captured our imaginations and our hearts. photo credit: brontosaurus in party hat via photopin (license)

So break out the old text books, reissue the dino stamps, and grill up some stoneage burgers, because the Thunder Lizard is back. I guess Cope didn’t get the last laugh after all. Smiling in Heaven now, the indisputable victor of the bone wars is O.C. Marsh, which is how he’s most often referred to in the literature, because it’s a much cooler name than Othniel.

A Shocking Turkey Recipe

The holiday season is nearly upon us, beginning here in the US with Thanksgiving next week. And if, like us, you’re hosting family for the big day that means it’s time to make plans for your turkey. We tend to prefer the Alton Brown brine method at our house, but I bet a fair few hosts are thinking of getting up at the crack of dawn to continually check and baste their birds until they are roasted to golden brown perfection. Other more adventurous sorts may be considering rigging up a deep fryer and spending the holiday at the hospital being treated for third degree burns.

Benjamin Franklin, reviewing his collection of turkey recipes.
Benjamin Franklin, reviewing his collection of turkey recipes.

But history suggests there may be an even better (and possibly more dangerous) way.

In 1750, before he famously tied a key to a kite string and invented the lightning rod, Benjamin Franklin hosted a Christmas dinner party. Interested as he was with exploring the properties of electricity, Franklin decided to educate and entertain as well as feed his guests. His theory was that by electrocuting his roasting turkey, he could produce a more tender meat.

And he wasn’t wrong. In fact, his discovery is still important to the meat industry today, but it did come at a the expense of some personal pain and humiliation. As he was setting up an electrical jack he had designed specifically to meet all of his poultry electrocution needs, the plucky inventor received a pretty good shock himself. The gathering of witnesses to the experiment-gone-wrong reported a flash of light and a loud crack.

Whereas I would have tried to pretend the incident never happened and certainly would never mention it again (okay that’s not true. I’d totally blog about it), Franklin wrote about the failure to his brother just two days later. In the letter, he describes in detail how the event made him feel, which was, more or less, bad. Numb in his arms and on the back of his neck until the next morning and still achy a couple days later, Franklin seems to have decided that electricity, though hilarious, is not necessarily something to trifle with (chalk up one more important discovery for Franklin). He makes no mention as to whether or not he felt tenderized by the experience.

Benjamin Franklin, determined to carry on despite his shocking turkey set-back.
Benjamin Franklin, determined to carry on despite his shocking turkey set-back.

Now I can hear the objections already: “But, Sarah, that can’t be right. Benjamin Franklin was a friend to the turkey. He had great respect for it and even fought for its adoption as the symbol of the United States of America.” I hear you, Dear Reader. And I understand your concern. I, like many of you, was an American school child so I am familiar with that story. If you don’t wish to have your image of Benjamin Franklin as the great turkey advocate shattered, then feel free to stop reading at this point and assume that I’m just full of it.

But for those of you who want to know what’s what, I’m going to share the real story with you. Even though Benjamin Franklin was a part of the original committee charged with choosing a design for the Great Seal of the United States, he recommended a rattlesnake to represent the young nation. Not once did he suggest a turkey.

Franklin also proposed this image of Moses and Pharaoh at the Red Sea for the Great Seal. Imagine the controversy that would have caused!
Franklin also proposed this image of Moses and Pharaoh at the Red Sea for the Great Seal. Imagine the controversy that would have caused!

The idea that he did comes from an unrelated letter to his daughter written some years later when he was serving as an American envoy in Paris. To give some perspective, this was two years after the official adoption of the Great Seal, and six years after Franklin had served on the committee, again, making no mention of the turkey. He wrote the letter in response to his daughter’s question as to his opinion of the newly forming Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternity of officers of the Continental Army.

The society, founded in May of 1783, adopted for its symbol a bald eagle, claimed by some to look somewhat more like a turkey. Though Franklin didn’t oppose the society and eventually accepted an honorary membership in it, what he did not approve was the desire of some to make membership hereditary. This, he claimed, established an “order of hereditary knights,” which contradicted the ideals set forward by the newly formed republic.

But to openly mock or question the intentions of the brave men whose leadership had won the United States its freedom was simply not Benjamin Franklin’s style. Instead he focused on the turkey-eagle:

I am…not displeased that the figure is not known as a bald eagle, but looks more like a turkey. For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird…He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red coat on.

I'm kind of partial to the bald eagle myself.  photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc
I’m kind of partial to the bald eagle myself. photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

I have to assume that despite his reference to the farmyard, Franklin would not wish the symbol of our nation or its high ranking officers to be the comically large-breasted domesticated flightless bird that graces our Thanksgiving tables. Perhaps he meant to suggest wild turkey, which is a full flavored, barrel-aged, American original that tends to give one courage. Or perhaps he meant the wild turkey, which hunters suggest is a slippery foe, difficult to sneak up on and evidently tricky to electrocute.

Whatever his true intentions, I think it is clear that though Benjamin Franklin was certainly a great American who helped to shape the United States and provide all of its half-blind citizens with bifocals, he could also, at times, be a bit of a turkey.

Not a Bear. Not a worm. Not a meteorologist.

This week saw the official beginning of autumn on September 23, and the accompanying loss of productivity that results from

I sure hope you like pumpkin! photo credit: JeepersMedia via photopin cc
I sure hope you like pumpkin! photo credit: JeepersMedia via photopin cc

an adorable Google doodle to mark it. I love this season, as the weather begins to cool, the leaves take on the rich hues of the season, and everything starts to smell (and taste) like pumpkin spice.

It’s been especially beautiful in my corner of the world this week with crisp clear mornings that shake off the chill and settle into pleasant sunny afternoons. And there’s a sense of urgency to soak up every bit of the beauty because before too long the jack-o-lanterns will rot on the front porch and we’ll all have had our fill of apples, raking, and, yes, maybe even those pumpkin-spiced lattes.

Then the long, dark, cold months of winter will settle in. According to some weather “experts” we Midwesterners should indeed be bracing for a long, dark, cold, winter. And by “experts,” of course, I mean the woolly worms.

If you’re in another part of the US you may call these critters “wooly bear” or “fuzzy bear” caterpillars even though they are maybe two inches long and not generally (ever) classified as bears. As they are also not technically worms, I won’t argue with you, but this is my blog post so I’ll be referring to them as “wooly worms.” Because that’s what they’re credit: mattnis via photopin cc
If you’re in another part of the US you may call these critters “woolly bear” or “fuzzy bear” caterpillars even though they are maybe two inches long and not generally (ever) classified as bears. As they are also not technically worms, I won’t argue with you, but this is my blog post so I’ll be referring to them as “woolly worms.” Because that’s what they’re credit: mattnis via photopin cc

That these fuzzy little critters can predict the degree of severity of the coming winter has been known since at least as early as the 1600’s, but it wasn’t until the fall of 1948 that the phenomenon was (kind of) formally studied. This was the year Dr. Howard Curran, then curator of entomology at the American Museum of Natural History took some friends, including a New York Herald Tribune reporter, their wives, and presumably a picnic with a few bottles of pumpkin spice ale and headed to Bear Mountain State Park to examine the woolly worms.

What he hoped to test was the folklore assertion that the wider the orange/brown band in the middle of the woolly worm’s stripe pattern, the milder the winter, and that collecting and examining woolly worms would be a fun way to spend a day with Mrs. Curran and their friends. Evidence suggests that the latter assertion is absolutely true because the group continued their “research” tradition for the next eight years.

As to whether or not the woolly worm can accurately predict the severity of the coming winter, well, Curran’s evidence did seem to jive with the old wives tale and his results were published in the New York Herald Tribune, sparking renewed interest in the tale that has led to woolly worm festivals and celebrations in Ohio, North Carolina, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and even recently in Lion’s Head, Ontario, which just goes to show you that searching out woolly worms really is a fun way to spend a Saturday.

Still, Dr. Curran was careful to note that his sample sizes were small, his technique imprecise, and his results, though delightful, were somewhat suspicious. More recent studies have shown that there really isn’t a correlation between the coloration of woolly worms and the weather pattern of the coming winter.

Definitely not a bear. Rod Allday [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
One of 260 species of Tiger Moth. Definitely not a bear. Rod Allday [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
The stripes instead tell us something of the woolly worm’s age, how long it’s been eating, and which of 260 species of tiger moth (the grown up version of the woolly worm) it might belong to. Entomologists do admit that given all that, the coloration may tell us something about the weather patterns of the previous winter, but then even meteorologists can tell us that information with at least some degree of accuracy, so it really isn’t that impressive.

I wonder which side the woolly worms are nestled on. photo credit: Sister72 via photopin cc
I wonder which side the woolly worms are nestled on. photo credit: Sister72 via photopin cc

Still, I admit that on a recent family bike ride, we noted the coloration of the droves of woolly worms that crossed the bike path. To our untrained eyes, they seemed to indicate a harsh winter ahead. And a lot of meteorologists agree, citing such prediction tools as statistical analysis and computer generated weather models. Seems to me like it would be easier just to grab a few friends and head out on the bike trail or take a picnic up to Bear Mountain and enjoy a nice slice of pumpkin pie, if for no other reason than to soak up the beauty of these autumn days.

Absolute Leisure and Peace

In May of 1906 the Atlantic Monthly published a piece by American nature essayist John Burroughs who wrote of his experience camping in Yellowstone National Park with President Theodore Roosevelt. The trip itself occurred three years earlier in the spring of 1903, but Burroughs begins his essay by explaining that in the time since, he’s not had a moment to sit down and write about it what with all the “stress and strain of [his] life at [home]—administering to the affairs of so many of the wild creatures about [him].”

I can relate to that. I try to post to this blog every Thursday with some new snippet of history and nonsense, but sometimes I don’t make it. And now it has been three weeks since my last post. Summer is especially tough because my sons (7 and 9) are out of school and, well, what with the stress and strain of administering to the affairs of the wild creatures about me, I just hadn’t gotten around to it until now.

But my family just recently returned from a trip through the Western United States, including Yellowstone and since school started this week, I thought I’d finally take a moment to write about it.

We entered the Yellowstone through the North Gate, called the Roosevelt Arch and dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt on his 1903 visit. By Acroterion (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
We entered the Yellowstone through the North Gate, called the Roosevelt Arch and dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt on his 1903 visit. By Acroterion (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
First of all, though my husband has been to the oldest national park in the world several times, the boys and I had never been. Just judging by the variety of license plates we saw and the number of languages we heard, I’m guessing most of you have been. If you haven’t, and you ever have the opportunity, you should go.

Because it’s weird.

Even our travel companion Steve was a little apprehensive.
Even our travel companion Steve was a little apprehensive.

At least that’s all most people told me about it before I went. And they weren’t wrong. It is weird. It bubbles and boils beneath you and vents its acrid steam and then belches great plumes of water before a crowd that can’t help but gasp and cheer even while realizing that the earth here could actually explode and kill us all.

And then there’s the wildlife. Our first night in the park we camped because we wanted our boys to have that experience. We got our tent all set up and attended an evening ranger program where we proceeded to learn all the ways bears, elk, and bison can and will kill you. Then we slept in our tent pitched alongside trees that had been marked by bears, elk, and bison. We spent our remaining nights in a lodge.

We didn't point out the bear markings to the boys until we were packing up the tent the next morning.
We didn’t point out the bear markings to the boys until we were packing up the tent the next morning.

But Roosevelt and his companions largely didn’t. On a brief respite from a westward speaking tour, the president mostly camped in the backcountry. Of course there were no terribly endangered bison to speak of in the park at that time, and as this was early spring, most of the bears were still hibernating, but there were lots of elk and still a fair number of mountain lions and other predators.

It was the animal life that chiefly interested Roosevelt. According to Burroughs, the president, much to the chagrin of those companions charged with his safety, set off by himself as often as he could to enjoy a quiet picnic lunch alongside a wandering herd. Once while coatless and half lathered in the middle of a shave, Roosevelt rushed to the canyon’s edge to watch the treacherous descent of a group of goats headed for a drink from the river below.

Despite the grueling travel over still deep snow in many parts of the park, the sixteen day detour through Yellowstone apparently left Roosevelt refreshed and more determined than ever to advocate for the nation’s natural spaces.

When we were about to leave the park, I admitted to my husband, who had largely planned this trip on his own, that I’d had my doubts about this vacation. It’s not that I don’t like to animal watch and hike. I do, but I wondered if it would hold the attention of our boys or if we would all be tired and cranky and wishing we’d spent a week at the beach instead.

I was pleasantly surprised. They loved it, almost every minute of it. They delighted in the walking past the smelly, gurgling acid pools of a giant super volcano and they loved craning their necks to spot distant elk herds and bird species they’d never seen or bothered to identify.

At times the wildlife was a little closer than we would have liked.
At times the wildlife was a little closer than we would have liked.

We came home refreshed. And I’m delighted to finally take a moment to reflect on the journey. I’m also glad that it didn’t take me the three years it took Burroughs, who defended his slow pace by reminding his readers that he didn’t have the “absolute leisure and peace of the white house” that allowed Roosevelt to write his own reflections shortly after the trip.

Yep. I bet that’s it. If only I were president, I’d have all the time in the world to post. And maybe even to improve my golf swing.

By White House (Pete Souza) / Maison Blanche (Pete Souza) (The Official White House Photostream [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By White House (Pete Souza) / Maison Blanche (Pete Souza) (The Official White House Photostream [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Other

Groundhog Day 2005 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania
Phil the Groundhog surrounded by his Punxsutawney posse, dressed as always in 19th Century garb.

So today is perhaps the strangest holiday on the calendar, the day when otherwise perfectly normal people seek psychic advice from a rodent. Yes, it’s Groundhog Day. Because I realize this “holiday” is somewhat unique to North America (and, really, to Pennsylvania, the University of Dallas, and a few other odd pockets), I’ll go ahead and explain the tradition.

On February 2, the groundhog emerges from his hidey-hole to check the weather. If it’s cloudy, the little guy scrambles out into the wide world and spring is (obviously) “just around the corner.” But if the sun is out and this genius prognosticator can see his shadow, he runs back inside and we can be sure to expect six more weeks of winter.

The most famous of these furry meteorologists is “Phil” of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania (made, if possible, even more famous by the 1993 Bill Murray film) who has been making his predictions since 1886, a curiously long life for a groundhog that should normally live less than 14 years. Since the celebration began, Phil has seen his shadow 100 times. And because no one wants to let go of such a nice round number, this morning he emerged under cloudy skies and predicted a nice short winter.

Cover of "Groundhog Day (15th Anniversary...
A movie that never seems to get better even when you watch it again and again and again.

Of course the practical historian in all of us wonders, I’m sure, from where on earth such a tradition could have come? No one really seems to be sure, but there are a few theories. The one that makes the most sense to me (if one can approach rodent weather prediction sensibly) is that the celebration was born from the clashing of two calendar systems.

While western countries in the Northern Hemisphere recognize the first day of spring as the day the length of daylight finally exceeds the length of night (the Vernal Equinox, which is around 6-7 weeks after Groundhog Day), Celtic tradition places the first day of spring at the cross-quarter day of Imbolc, when it is said that the daylight begins to make significant progress against the night. Probably not coincidentally, Imbolc occurs in Early February (just around the corner from Groundhog Day).

Naturally, people wanted to know when spring really would begin so the most logical thing to do was to seek signs in nature as to when the thaw would begin and the sun would truly emerge. And a tradition was born. Today you can attend Groundhog celebrations in many small towns throughout Pennsylvania, though I should warn you that you’ll need to brush up on your Pennsylvania German because if you speak English during the event, it may cost you up to 25 cents per word.

Of course if you happen to be an alumnus of the University of Dallas, then you know that the party to beat all parties for Groundhog Day is in Groundhog Park in Irving, Texas. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the remarks by University President Dr. Donald Cowan that started the epic celebration: “Think of something to celebrate—celebrate Groundhogs Day, for instance—but whatever you do, do it with style.”

And they have. The Groundhog Day festivities at the school resemble a homecoming celebration with the election of a Groundhog King and Queen, campus-wide sporting events, and crowds of alumni swarming in to join the student body in all-night, semi-controlled, frivolities in the park, which, if I understand correctly, involve quite a bit of heavy drinking.

Now, of course, as a responsible adult and practical historian, I cannot condone such behavior. But as my Pennsylvania German is a little rusty, I was at a loss as to how I could observe the day. Here’s what I decided on:

As with almost all of my creative cool mom ideas, this one come straight from a magazine. You can find cuter ones in the most recent issue of Family Fun.
As with almost all of my creative cool mom ideas, this one comes straight from a magazine. You can find cuter ones in the most recent issue of Family Fun.

All that remains to be determined, then, is whether the Groundhog, or Marmota monax (because my Latin is better than my Pennsylvania German) is a accurate meteorologist. The answers to that question are mixed. According to organizers of the event, Punxsutawney Phil has been right 38% of the time, which probably does make him at least as accurate as the average TV meteorologist. Some studies have given the rodent much more credit, claiming accuracy of 75 to 90% of the time.

I think the discrepancy occurs, though, because the beginning of spring may actually be a fairly subjective thing to measure. Depending, of course, on where you live, spring generally pops up somewhere in the six weeks or so just around the corner from the first few days of February. Maybe, then, what the groundhog is really trying to tell us to be patient because spring is either six weeks away or maybe just half a dozen.

Fat Guy-Sized Footprints in the Sands of Time

The morning of March 22, 1882 dawned crisp and clear as a grief-stricken woman followed a slow procession from the London Zoological Gardens to St. Katherine’s Dock. She carried a mug of beer as a small goodbye token for the gentle giant who would depart that day.

After nearly seventeen years in London, Jumbo the elephant was beginning his trans-Atlantic journey to join Barnum & Bailey’s famous show. Jumbo enjoyed his beer,  and though it was a little bit of a struggle (likely because he’d heard that P.T. Barnum had a strict policy against inebriated elephants), allowed himself to be crated and taken to a boat from which he would later be placed onto the large ocean vessel, Assyrian Monarch.

Werbung von Barnum und Bailey
Werbung von Barnum und Bailey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thousands of fans waved and cheered him, causing Jumbo to become agitated, shifting his weight back and forth, the fortunately heavily ballasted boat swaying right along with him. This marked the end of a battle for the English public which had been outraged over the Zoo’s sale of Jumbo to P.T. Barnum. The February announcement of the sale was followed by a huge surge in visitors to the zoo, people (with their eyes popping out) flocking to see one more time, the nearly 12-foot tall African elephant that had given gentle rides to countless English children over the years.

A letter writing campaign both to the zoo and to Queen Victoria, whose own children had been passengers on the elephant’s back, began almost immediately with irate English citizens demanding that Jumbo remain in London. Jumbo’s biggest fans began a fund to try to save Jumbo from his fate as a circus attraction and soon launched a lawsuit against the sale claiming that it contradicted the Zoo’s bylaws.

Despite these efforts, Jumbo made the journey to America and through the aggressive promotion efforts of Barnum and associates, became an immediate star. Posters and handbills showed Jumbo standing head and shoulders above buildings and allowing wagons to comfortably pass under his belly. Barnum’s advance agent insisted that Jumbo stood 13 feet, 4 inches tall and claimed (oh so elegantly) that his trunk was “the size of an adult crocodile, his tail as big as a cow’s leg, and he made footprints in the sands of time resembling an indentation as if a very fat man had fallen off a very high building.”

Elephants performing at the Ringling Bros. and...
Elephants performing at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course he wasn’t quite that big (though I think you’ve got to admire the salesmanship, examination of the elephant’s skeleton reveal that he was actually 10’9”), but Jumbo proved even more popular on tour in America than he had in London, his name (again thanks to Barnum’s masterful promotion) even seeping into the English language as a descriptor for all kinds of large things (jumbo jets, jumbo-drinks, and jumbo-size packages of disposable diapers to name just a few).

Jumbo captured the public’s interest for a couple reasons. Obviously, he was well-promoted (I imagine if Jumbo were alive today he’d probably have his own twitter account: “ If one more kid tries to feed me a peanut I swear I will step on his foot #elephantskeepingitreal”).  But that’s not all there was to it, because Jumbo was not the first elephant to be shipped to the US and he was certainly not the first to make a lot of money for his owner. People loved elephants. And we still do.

Several weeks ago, my family and I visited the Oregon Zoo in Portland. We headed that way to view the annual Zoo Lights display, but we decided to go early. Actually, that sounds too casual. We rushed to get there in the early afternoon because on Friday, November 30, the zoo had welcomed a new baby Asian elephant who had finally been named (Lily) by public vote and was now on display for brief windows of time.

Lily at the Oregon Zoo
Lily at the Oregon Zoo. So stinkin’ cute!

Because captive elephant breeding programs are not widely successful (though the Oregon Zoo has been more successful than most), Lily’s birth was a big deal. We stood in line a long time to meet her and just before the docent let us in to see her, the keepers took mama and baby out to clean up a bit. That meant we got to enter the building in time to see Lily, a rambunctious 300-pound toddler, rush into the indoor enclosure to find fresh popcorn scattered between the glass from behind which we viewed her, and the bars that provided a walkway for keepers.

Mama (named Rose-Tu) lumbered in after her baby and reached her trunk through the bars calmly sweeping up the popcorn and dropping it into her mouth. Lily mimicked her, though Rose-Tu was pretty deft at sweeping the popcorn away from her baby. Lily’s little trunk (actually much smaller in proportion to the rest of her than you find in adult elephants) wasn’t quite coordinated enough to grab any of the popcorn, though that certainly didn’t stop her from trying.

I laughed (we all did) because not only was it just about the cutest thing you’d ever want to see, but, I think, because any of us who’d ever seen a human baby reaching and grabbing for something they shouldn’t have as Mom or Dad holds them close and keeps them out of trouble, recognized the actions we were watching.  It was undeniable in that moment that this nearly 300 pound creature was, in fact, a baby, in need of protection.

Lily has enjoyed her fair share of promotion just as Jumbo did, but I think we are drawn to elephants for more than just the fanfare (though I guess it is convenient that they come complete with their own trumpets). Our fascination, I think, stems from the fact that this giant among creatures is actually one of the most vulnerable animals on the planet and it needs our help if it is to survive both in the wild and in captivity. What’s more is that elephants, despite their size, are not overwhelmingly aggressive animals and, in fact, with caution, can establish lasting friendships with people (who they believe are people, no matter how small) and have been known on occasion to share their ice cream with small pigs. They also make very faithful babysitters, provided they stay away from the beer.

Horton Hears a Who
I wonder just how much helium it takes to make an elephant float.

Do you smell coconut?

Pod of Hippos (Hippopotamus amphibius) in Luan...

Summer is drawing to a close. The nights are getting cooler and the kids finally head back to school next week. In another month or so, the rainy season will descend upon us here in the Pacific Northwest and so with our last days of yummy summer sun, the boys and I have been doing our best to enjoy the great outdoors while we still can.

But because I have pale-skinned children, this means a thorough slathering in sunscreen before we head into the sunshine, and not only because it makes them smell like coconuts. That’s just a nice bonus.

So I was pretty upset when I started looking into sunscreen guidelines and found the Internet lit up with accusations that sunscreen causes skin cancer. Really? It upset me because it meant that Kurt Vonnegut was in fact wrong in the commencement address he neither wrote nor delivered to the 1997 graduating class of MIT. You probably remember the speech. Originally a column by Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune, it became a hit song beloved by graduates everywhere. The column begins with unquestionably sound advice: “wear sunscreen.”

Wear Sunscreen

So I felt misled. I decided to do a little digging into this substance we call sunscreen. There are a few references to innovative sun protection throughout history. Historians think the Ancient Greeks used sand and oil to protect their skin from sun damage as early as 400 BC and quite a few years later, sun block gets another blurb when Christopher Columbus journals about the paint the natives use to protect their skin from the sun.

The first widely used chemical sunscreen was invented by Benjamin Green, whose “Red Vet Pet” was worn by soldiers in the Pacific during WWII. Green’s early attempt would later become a Coppertone product. A handful of others invented basic sunscreens around the same time and they all had one thing in common. They didn’t work particularly well.

So now skip ahead thirty or forty years of growth and development in the industry and a huge increase in the rate of use in the general public. The other thing you will find is an increase in the rates of melanoma skin cancer.

So if sun exposure causes skin cancer and sunscreen causes skin cancer and we’d really rather think of ourselves as the slim, athletic, outdoorsy type with a healthy sunny glow instead of the overweight, unhealthy, couch potato that most of us probably really are, then what do we do with this information?

First we need to examine exactly what we know. There really haven’t been reliable studies that have shown more than a correlation between the use of sunscreen and an increase in the occurrence of melanoma skin cancer, meaning that what we are probably seeing is that with greater sunscreen use, comes greater overconfidence.

What people tend to forget is that sunscreen is not recommended as the frontline defense for harmful sun exposure, but rather avoidance is the key. Current recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics state that kids (and their parents) should wear tight-weave clothing in the sun, avoid spending much time in the sun during peak hours, wear hats with brims that shade the face and don sunglasses that offer broad spectrum protection.

Sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 15 (and higher is better) is a good idea, too, but studies do show that most of us don’t use it the way we should and relying on it too heavily may encourage people to make poor decisions about sun exposure. It’s more likely those poor decisions that are the real culprits of higher cancer rates. Sunscreen is not designed to be absorbed into the skin and so harmful chemicals leeching into our systems seems improbable and sunscreen in the US is regulated by the FDA, and so is subjected to the same level of testing as the newest drugs for say hypertension, depression, or birth control.

BUT if you still don’t trust it because you can’t pronounce the ingredients, I don’t blame you. A wise physician once said that the best sunscreen is the one a patient will actually use and there may be some more natural options out there.

The most promising natural sunscreens come from the study of biomimicry (imitating nature’s best ideas). It’s pretty ingenious actually. Basically there are some problems that arise from living on this planet and a lot of natural adaptations that make it easier to cope. Biomimicry suggests that nature may already hold some of the best answers to our most perplexing challenges.

In Part 2 of Man vs. Wild’s Indonesia, the Castaway episode, adventure survivor Bear Grylls introduces the use of a mucous produced by the mushroom coral as sunscreen. In the show, Grylls simply picks up one of these unanchored corals, tips it a bit to catch some of the slime, and places the animal gently back into the water, no harm done.  He goes on to slather his already sunburned shoulders with the stuff while explaining that it has an SPF rating of somewhere around 50. And experts agree. It’s great stuff, but given that the mushroom coral is endangered, large quantities might be hard to come by.

Another promising option may come from hippos. These deceptively adorable creatures (they’re actually quite deadly) produce an oily red secretion, referred to as “hippo sweat” that not only provides protection from the sun, but may also serve as a highly effective insect repellant and antibiotic. The main problem with it, of course, is that it’s difficult to pick up a hippo and pour off its sweat.

On an episode of Dangerous Encounters, Brady Barr (National Geographic’s resident crazy animal guy) devised a scheme to collect the allegedly useful “sweat”. Wearing a nearly 200 pound reinforced hippo decoy suit, Barr attempted (spectacularly unsuccessfully) to get close enough to wild hippos to collect a sample. And since a fair few of you probably don’t have a reinforced hippo suit hanging in your closet, this may not be the ideal solution either, but then, I guess, luck favors the prepared.

Still, perhaps the biggest obstacle in marketing “hippo sweat” sunscreen is that it apparently smells like, well, a hippo. Considering that these large animals spend most of their days literally up to their eyeballs in mucky water, I’m guessing they smell less than fresh. At least for now, I’d rather smell like coconut.

By the way, if you would like some better information about skin cancer, check out this great blog created by Katie Wilkes, a 20-something melanoma survivor I recently had the pleasure of meeting. And, yes, I’m pretty sure she smelled like coconut, too.