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The Coelacanth And The Mysteries Of The Deep

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At first glance, the coelacanth (pronounced SEE-le-kanth) kind of just looks like any other fish in the sea. It’s got a fishy head, fishy eyes, fishy fins. Many people might look at one and assume it’s unremarkable. Why should anyone care about this particular denizen of the deep when there are great white sharks and electric eels out there? 2,200-pound sunfish and lightning fast marlins? Well, behind its unassuming appearance, the coelacanth is maybe the most remarkable fish in the entire ocean.

Distant Cousins

Let’s start with the basics. Coelacanths are deep-water fish that live in the ocean’s “twilight zone,” about 500 to 800 feet down. They reside in underwater caves formed by volcanic islands, feeding on any small fish unlucky enough to swim too close. Modern coelacanths grow to be around six feet long, can weigh over 200 pounds, and are covered in huge, armored scales. They are also of next to no commercial value to humans—their meat tastes awful and can even make humans ill, and no one in their right mind would go out of their way to catch one.

OK, I’ll admit, that doesn’t exactly paint the picture of the most remarkable fish in the entire ocean—but what if I told you that the coelacanth is actually more closely related to you and me than it is to 99% of fish in the sea? Would that be a start?

To explain that little bombshell, let’s back up for a second and talk about fish as a whole. There are two broad categories of fish in the sea. The “cartilaginous fish,” like sharks and rays, have skeletons made entirely of cartilage, the same stuff that your nose is made of. While the cartilaginous fish feature some of the most impressive fish in the sea (think whale sharks, manta rays and great whites), they’re seriously outnumbered by the “bony fish,” which have, you guessed it, skeletons made of bone.

To make things just a bit more complicated, the bony fish themselves are then split once again into two categories. First, there are the ray-finned fishes, which constitute the vast, vast majority of all fish in the sea. If I told you to picture a fish, there’s a 99.99% chance you’re picturing a ray-finned fish. There are, after all, nearly 30,000 kinds of them. Goldfish, sunfish, clownfish, catfish. Salmon, trout, tuna, carp, cod. Moray eels, seahorses, great groupers. One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. They’re all ray-finned.

But there’s another group of bony fish: the lobe-finned fishes, the group that the coelacanth belongs to. While you could fill a textbook with ray-fins, you can count all the living lobe-fin species on your fingers. But while this extremely ancient lineage of fish may not have the advantage of numbers, they are still extremely important in the history of life. After all, we wouldn’t be here without them.

The untrained eye might struggle to notice the difference between a ray-finned fish and a lobe-finned fish like the coelacanth (I’ll admit I couldn’t really tell for years), so I’ll do my best to explain it to you. While the former’s fins are attached directly to the fish’s side, the latter’s fins are attached to strange, fleshy lobes that extend from its body. If you still struggle to tell the difference, don’t worry, you’re not going to come across too many lobe-finned fish in your life, but there’s one very important thing to know about those lobes: They are supported by bones. That makes them, in effect, arms and legs, something that no other fish have—and it was upon those proto-arms and legs that, hundreds of millions of years ago, lobe-finned fish first hauled themselves onto land.

That’s why the coelacanth is more closely related to every dinosaur, every elephant, and every human being than it is to the goldfish in your aquarium. Its fleshy fins that sway through the water in a conspicuous “walking-like” motion are a living clue to how life managed to colonize the lands of the Earth. Those early lobe-finned pioneers eventually evolved into amphibians, which in turn diversified into reptiles, birds, and mammals like you and me.

Now, for a phylogeny nerd like me, that’s pretty darn remarkable—but don’t worry, the coelacanth’s odd, stumpy fins aren’t the only reason that this particular fish is worth your time. That’s not why one scientist said “a bomb seemed to burst in [his] brain” when he received a crude sketch of what looked like a coelacanth in the mail. His reaction happened because when one lucky woman discovered a dead coelacanth in South Africa, it was the equivalent of finding a T-Rex hiding in the jungle: it was supposed to have been dead for almost 70 million years.

Back From the Dead

Science has known about coelacanths for over a century, but we initially only knew about them from fossils. They first appeared nearly 400 million years ago, but they disappeared from the fossil record completely about 70 million years ago—around the time that the dinosaurs went extinct.

So in 1938 when Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a natural history museum curator, sent a drawing of a strange fish carcass to chemistry professor J.L.B. Smith, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The instant he received Courtenay-Latimer’s letter, he sent back an urgent telegram: “MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS [OF] FISH DESCRIBED.” Could it really be a fossil come to life?

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer

In their subsequent correspondence, Smith could not contain his anxious excitement. He wrote to her, saying:

“Your fish is occasioning me much worry and sleepless nights. It is most aggravating being so far away. I cannot help but mourn that the soft parts of the fish were not preserved even had they been almost putrid. I am sorry to say that I think their loss represents one of the greatest tragedies of zoology, since I am more than ever convinced on reflection that your fish is a more primitive form than has yet been discovered.”

Finally, after many days of anticipation, Smith was able to see the preserved fish for himself, and his suspicions were confirmed—this was a coelacanth, dredged back from the brink of existence. He could barely contain his excitement. After all, it’s not every day that you discover a Lazarus taxon, a species (like the Bible’s Lazarus) seemingly back from the dead. It truly was as if Courtenay-Latimer had discovered a dinosaur or a wooly mammoth in the flesh.

So how was the supposedly prehistoric coelacanth—a link between us and the ocean-dwellers we came from—able to rise again? Why did they completely disappear from the fossil record, while some populations were clearly still alive and well? As with so many mysteries, the answer lies at the bottom of the ocean.

The Mysterious Abyss

When coelacanths were in their prime hundreds of millions of years ago, they came in many different shapes and sizes. Some were formidable, agile predators; some were giant; some even lived in freshwater rivers and lakes. These fish occupied many different habitats, and not all habitats have the same pressure to evolve. The deep sea, for instance, is an extreme, relatively unchanging environment. Deep-sea Coelacanths were perfectly adapted to living there millions of years ago, and they’re still perfectly adapted to living there today.

The modern coelacanth looks almost identical to the 70 million-year-old fossils that we’ve found because there was no real selective pressure driving it to change. No particularly threatening predators or drastically changing climate. The deep sea back then was, for all intents and purposes, quite similar to the deep sea today, so why fix what ain’t broken?

The deep-sea environment can also explain why no palaeontologist had found a coelacanth fossil from the last 70 million years. The bottom of the ocean very rarely sees the conditions required for an animal’s remains to fossilize, and since the only remaining coelacanths have resided there for all this time, it’s little wonder that they “disappeared.” Palaeontology is, unfortunately, an imperfect science because the fossil record never tells the whole story. Scientists can only read into what Mother Nature has deigned to leave them, and she’s nothing if not an unreliable narrator.

So while the coelacanth may appear to be like many other fish in the sea, it is so much more than that. It is an extremely rare hint at our origins. It is a glimpse at the prehistoric world, a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth and ocean. But it also represents something else.

The ocean is by far the largest habitat on earth. There is unfathomable room for life to hide and thrive beneath the waves. And if the coelacanth, a creature we assumed went extinct millions of years ago, could have survived in seclusion for all this time, who knows what other mysteries might remain for us to discover in some distant corner of the sea?

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Why Do Dogs Howl? Inside Your Dog’s Mind

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Why do dogs howl? Many dog behaviors can be stressful, but the howl is unique. There’s a haunting quality to a dog’s howl that makes it impossible to ignore. All dog owners have felt a pang of regret after putting their pooch in their crate, but when they begin to howl that ear-splitting, mournful keen, it almost instantly becomes unbearable. So, why do dogs howl? Aren’t they supposed to be man’s best friend?

A howl might come out as a yip, or a bark-howl, or a prolonged baying. They all mean different things, but they all come from the same place. To answer the question “why do dogs howl?” we have to remember that inside every dog, from the smallest chihuahua on up, is a wolf. They may have changed a lot since their days in the wild, but their genes hold a memory of that time, and sometimes it has to come out.


The Howling Beast Inside

Wolves and dogs may look extremely different today—picture a wolf, now picture a dachshund—but scientifically, they’re still very similar creatures. The genes of dogs and wolves started to diverge between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago—a blink of an eye as far as evolution is concerned.

It’s almost impossible to say when the first dogs appeared; the path from wolf to dog was extremely gradual. First, relatively docile wolves likely began following around nomadic human hunter-gatherers, feasting off the remains of the large carcasses that humans left behind them. After what was likely millennia, this relationship grew even closer.

As the humans moved around, these wolves followed them. Eventually, their gene pool began to split off from the wolves who stayed in their territories. The human-friendly wolves, who already likely had lower stress-thresholds and flight responses, began to change physically. Their snouts got shorter. Their teeth got smaller. The differences between them and their wolf brethren became more and more distinct.

Man’s Best Friend

Looking at wolves today, they may seem like a far cry from man’s best friend, but they were actually the perfect candidates for domestication. Wolves were around the right size that they could still be controlled, but they were big enough that they could aid in the hunt—and perhaps most importantly, they were extremely social animals.

Even today, wolves live in complex social groups, and they communicate with a vast array of sounds. This trait made them particularly well-suited to understanding and following human commands—but it’s also why our beloved Fidos and Rexes howl, no matter how much we wish they’d stop.

What’s in a Howl?

Amongst their various types of yips and barks, wolves also use howls to communicate a wide variety of things. They howl to assemble their pack before or after a hunt; to raise the alarm if the den is threatened; and to locate each other while in strange territory. Each howl is different. Wolves will also sometimes howl together, harmonizing to make it seem like they’re more numerous than they appear.

This level of communication and cooperation is what makes wolves such effective hunters. It’s baked into their DNA, and while it’s been a while since dogs split off from their wolf ancestors, it hasn’t been long enough for these traits to disappear completely.

Wild and Howling at Heart

The first dog appeared about 14,000 years ago—though to be fair, if you saw that pup today, it would still look a lot like a wolf. It wasn’t until the Victorian Era, when selective breeding really took off, that we got the hundreds of distinct breeds we see today. For thousands of years, the line between dog and wolf was blurry. To a certain extent, it remains so today.

As Raymond Pierotti, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, put it, ” ‘wild’ and ‘domesticated’ exist as concepts along a continuum, and the boundary between them is often blurred—and, at least in the case of wolves, it was never clear to begin with.”

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The Howling Call of the Wild

Just like wolves, modern dogs have many different reasons for howling. If your dog is a howler, they might be trying to call you to come to them. Either that, or they might be signalling toward something they’ve found. They might also be trying to bond with a pack (even if that “pack” is just an ambulance or fire truck siren).

Dogs might howl if they’re hurt or sick, or if they’re feeling separation anxiety. And like so many dog behaviors, they might simply howl to get your attention. But it’s no coincidence that the dogs who share more DNA with wolves also happen to howl more often than other canines.

For all this, modern dogs do not need to howl. For wolves, a successful hunt might be the difference between life and death. For our comfy, cozy dogs…not so much. So while they may have many different reasons and instincts for howling, none of these reasons really answers the question, “Why do dogs howl?”

No, the answer to that quandary lies thousands of years in the past, with their wolf ancestors and the unique process of domestication that led to the creation of man’s best friend. Dogs howl because they’re man-made, and, like so many man-made things, they can’t be divorced from their wilder origins. Selective breeding over thousands of years has made types of dogs that are suited for a wide variety of things—from hunting to herding and more—but they’re still too closely related to their ancestors for the heart of a wolf to have disappeared completely.

In that way, a dog’s howl really is exactly what it sounds like: The call of the wild.

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Real Or Fake? Found Footage Horror And The Staging of Controversy

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In a time before the internet, when entertainment options were limited to what could be found on the shelves of video rental stores, you might hear whispers among groups of friends about a film that couldn’t be found in your local Blockbuster, and could only be passed around among friends—because it was allegedly real footage of a team of filmmakers being stalked and massacred by a tribe of killers in the Amazon rainforest.

It Begins

That film was Cannibal Holocaust, and the morbid fascination it sparked has to do not only with the fact that it purports to be made of found footage, but also that it was banned in many countries after its release. The film, released in 1980, is about an anthropologist tasked with finding a missing American documentary film crew who had been working in the Amazon rainforest. The story of the anthropologist’s journey acts as something of a framing device for the “main attraction”—graphic, purported “found” footage that exposes the documentary crew’s practice of staging horrific scenes, and also depicts the crew attacking and murdering a girl from the local tribe, only to be massacred in retaliation. The misdeeds of the documentary crew, along with the commentary by the anthropologist character are used as a way of attempting to make the film a critique of exploitative journalism. The director, Ruggero Deodate, was said to be influenced by the infamous Italian Red Brigades—he believed that the media had staged some of the more dramatic incidents of terrorism that they’d shown.

For obvious reasons, Cannibal Holocaust garnered a lot of attention and controversy when it was released, due to its graphic nature and its purported use of found footage. After its massive success on the first weekend it was released, Italian authorities attempted to confiscate the film, but Deodato had arranged to have it covertly distributed to other countries. Deodato was arrested on obscenity charges, and later even was brought in on murder charges when persistent rumors that the film featured real live murders became too much for police to ignore. Although those charges were dropped, the graphic nature of the film led to it being banned in multiple countries.

Controversy Leads To Dollars

Of course, all of the abovementioned incidents only served to draw more attention to the film, and the filmmakers courted this controversy as a means of marketing the film. In order to make the “found footage” portion seem as real as possible, the actors portraying the documentary crew had a clause in their contracts which stipulated that they not appear in other movies for a year following the film’s release, leading to questions about their whereabouts and lending veracity to claims that they had, in fact, died on camera. In order to prove that he’d not harmed the cast members, Deodato ended up putting investigators in contact with the (very much alive) actors and having to testify as to how certain gruesome special effects were orchestrated. He also went on to challenge bans of the film for years after its release.

Despite the disproval of the film’s claim to having been composed of found footage, in a time before Wikipedia, salacious rumors about the content of the film spread like wildfire, giving it instant cult status and driving people to find and share bootleg copies of it, including alternate or edited versions. The mystique surrounding the film was undeniable—and it was only a matter of time until it was recreated.

Who Decides What’s Real?

Much as it did in Cannibal Holocaust, the idea of presenting “found footage” as real found its niche in the horror genre, where it was able to present the most shocking, salacious, and graphic content of all as real, increasing the effect of the onscreen violence on the credulous viewer. Of course, how well that effect actually worked depended on the film, and for many years, the found
footage trope was primarily used in little-seen B-horror films, including such creatively titled gems like Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County and Guinea Pig 2: Flower of Flesh and Blood. In the early 90s, Charlie Sheen was given a copy of Guinea Pig 2, and reported it to the FBI, as he believed what he was watching on screen was real. Much as Deodato had once been forced to the do the same, producer Hideshi Hino was forced to prove that the killing featured onscreen was an act.

The genre didn’t get much further attention until the dawn of the age of the internet—the era of HTML 2.0, when usage was expanding rapidly among family households, but before the web was dominated by Google, Amazon, and assorted social media networks. It wasn’t uncommon for film distributors to set up websites for upcoming releases—hello, famously still existent Space Jam site—but one film set itself apart from the rest in that period, using the mystique of the found footage genre and the power of the internet to become a marketing juggernaut: 1999’s The Blair Witch Project.

A Global Phenomenon

The conceit of The Blair Witch Project is well-known—a team of documentary filmmakers goes missing while investigating a figure of local renown called the Blair Witch, and the footage they left behind is later found and cobbled together by investigators searching for clues about their fate. The filmmakers emphasized the supposed veracity of the found footage during every party of the filmmaking process, from casting unknown actors to the marketing touch of the official website featuring fake police reports that “documented” the disappearances. When the film screened at Sundance, missing persons posters were produced with the casts’ faces. The Blair Witch filmmakers also produced a short “documentary” about the legend that the crew in the film investigates which aired before The Blair Witch Project was released.

The overall effect was that the film became a huge success—the website and the questions over the reality of it all made it a viral success before the word “viral” was ever used in that context. Its legacy is as impressive as its financial and critical success, as it inspired numerous other films in the horror genre, including Paranormal Activity, REC, and V/H/S. Of course, there’s also the scores of less successful B-level “found footage” horror films that it spawned in its wake, as well as its two underwhelming sequels.

While the “hype” around the idea of these purported found footage films has died down in the 20 years since the release of The Blair Witch Project, the interest in films like this speaks to the audience’s desire for something real and authentic in their scares—something new, that they’ve never seen before, something more life-changing than your regular haunted house, creepy doll, or simply jump scare. These found footage films represented a new possibility—but whether it’s one that ultimately failed or succeeded will be decided by whether the conceit continues to be used or is replaced in the future of horror films.

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How To Tell If Someone Is Lying: Tips From The Experts

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How To Tell If Someone Is Lying

Catching a liar is an age-old problem. We’re limited by the complex mysteries of the human brain. As a result, our inner thoughts are often inscrutable to others, and vice versa.

So, can we really tell if someone is lying, even if the fibber is someone we love and have known for years? There’s good news and bad news. We can all learn how to read the signs for when even the best liar is telling a huge whopper—but beware; lie detection takes a lot of practice, and it’s not always reliable.

There are, however, things you can learn to improve your lie-detecting abilities. Without further ado (and with no word of a lie) here are the ways some truth experts employ to tell if someone is lying.

No Means Yes When You’re a Liar

How can you catch a liar? Sometimes our body language gives us away when we’re telling a white lie, a small fib, or a big whopper of untruth. One frequent way this happens is when someone accidentally nods their head “Yes” even when they’re saying “No.”

Granted, considering many cultures have opposite head movements for “Yes” and “No,” you’re going to want to make sure you know who you’re talking to with this tip before you accuse them of lying.

How To Tell If Someone Is Lying

Hiding and Lying

Another way to tell if someone is lying is to see if they cover their mouth and their eyes while they’re telling the fib. This may be an unconscious reaction to “cover” the lie up, and to keep any potential listeners from “unearthing” the truth.

Sometimes, liars might even close their eyes while telling a lie, or else look away—after all, the eyes are the windows to the (liar’s) soul.

I’ve Got a Lie in My Throat

Liars get choked up too—and that’s actually another way to tell if someone is lying. We all get a tickle in our throats from time to time, but when a liar is in the middle of telling a fib, they will sometimes loudly clear their throats, or even swallow hard. That’s a sign that a lie is in the making.

This might be yet another subconscious tick, or perhaps lying just gives some guilty parties a dry throat.

The Fibber Caught Red-Handed

A further way to tell if someone is lying is to watch if they consistently put their hand to their face. Just as liars will sometimes cover up their mouth or eyes, they might also use their hands to touch their face excessively, like pulling at their ears or touching their lips. Sometimes, liars might also bite or lick their lips, or otherwise perform anxious lying gestures.

This excessive fidgeting happens because lying creates a spike in our anxiety, even if we happen to be a seasoned liar. This rise in anxiety often drains the blood from our extremities, causing itching or a need to fidget. The liar might even start fidgeting with their hands, which is yet another sign of a lie.

How To Tell If Someone Is Lying

A Well-Groomed Deception

One more for the lie detection bank: This anxiety might also cause the liar to perform grooming gestures on themselves, whether it be to sort out their clothes, wipe the (lying) sweat off of their foreheads, or re-straighten some of their surroundings, like an errant pencil lying on a table.

Lying experts consider all of this a potential indication of a lie, and you should be on the lookout for it when you confront your own liar.

Has This All Been a Lie?

So, now you’ve got a great body language toolkit to expose the liars in your life—but it’s time for a bit of a reality check. Although expert researchers can use these signs to sniff out a liar and their lies, a lot of these body languages are notoriously difficult to notice and then diagnose—and a lot of times, even the experts are wrong.

One alternative—but still unpredictable—way to tell if someone is lying has less to do with the liar’s body language and more to do with the form and content of their lie, since body cues can be weak, or so fleeting as to be unnoticeable.

The Deceiver’s Pause

One other good way to tell if someone is lying, for example, is to wait and see if they pause before answering your question. While you might think that pausing means someone is lying, it’s actually the opposite: a pause might mean they’re telling the truth, and a fluid response indicates they could be lying.

Think about it: how well do you remember every detail of what you did yesterday? If someone asked you to tell the truth about it, you’d probably have to take a moment to collect your thoughts.

Liars, on the other hand, often don’t need pauses in their speech when answering questions because they’ve already got their fib locked and loaded. So if your loved one doesn’t pause when you ask, “Where were you last night?” they might very well be lying.

If their nose grows as they speak, that’s probably a sign as well.

The Contempt Is a Lie

There are also clues in what the liar is saying. If the person is vague about the details of their story or speaks only in incoherent fragments, you may have a lie on your hands. Other content clues that a lie is afoot: The liar uses “qualifying language” like “I swear to God,” or “in all honesty” to try to get you to believe the lie by overemphasizing “truth.” In the same vein, liars also like to use superlatives such as “totally” and “absolutely” when telling their lies.

The liar might also refuse to give you any material to work with, shutting down the conversation and keeping himself or herself from being caught in a lie. Otherwise, even if they do keep talking, they might do so with disdain, making you feel as if you are the one in the wrong for thinking they are lying.

But don’t lose hope if the liar gets upset, there is also one last, great trick most experts use to tell if someone is lying…

Tell That Lie to Me Again

To tell if someone is lying, many researchers ask them to tell their lie backward. This forces the liar to work harder to remember their narrative. If someone is telling the truth, they will have very little difficulty doing this. After all, it actually happened, so the memory is cemented in our brains.

But if it’s all a lie and it didn’t actually take place, it’s also more difficult to “remember”—and this extra degree of difficulty can open up the liar to making mistakes or even confessing their lies.

So with this last genius trick, now you know what to do the next time you meet a really good liar.

Caught In The Act

In the end, catching a liar red-handed in their lie is difficult to do. Even when examining both body language and content recall, we can still fail to really nail the liar. In fact, sometimes the sign of a skilled liar is their lack of tells. They may act super disinterested and still, offer up no body language cues, or else they may have rehearsed their story so that they know it backwards and forwards, with very little pauses or confused chronology.

In cases like these, you have one final weapon in your arsenal: your gut. In fact, studies have shown that our gut feelings about lying and liars are actually often right. So take a good, long look at that (possibly) lying loved one and ask yourself: do you believe them?

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