At least a tortoise didn't fall on my head. In the annals of memorable mishaps, few incidents can match the bizarre wildlife accident that allegedly killed Aeschylus, the first writer of Greek tragedies. He is said to have died when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his bald pate, mistaking that shiny outcrop for a rock on which to crack open the animal's shell.
Certain animals—sea gulls, vultures, even giant, tree-climbing, Pacific Island-dwelling coconut crabs—do drop what we might call unprocessed food (living mussels, clams, coconuts and yes, tortoises) on hard objects in order to break them open. Whether Aeschylus really died from the impact of a falling Ninja Turtle seems questionable, but I have seen a David Attenborough-narrated video of a golden eagle dropping a tortoise onto a rock to kill it. So it's theoretically possible. And as the clip below illustrates (do NOT watch it if you might find it disturbing), eagles can drop creatures heavier than a tortoise. Might Aeschylus's final tragedy in fact have been a fatal collision with a plummeting goat?
The tale of my broken toe is, by comparison, pedestrian. As I headed to the kitchen in the early-morning darkness the other day, my shoeless right foot encountered a heavy maple desktop that we'd temporarily set on the floor. Ouch. Major, roll-on-the-floor, this-hurts-a-lot-more-than-the-usual-stubbed-toe ouch.
To my credit, I had picked an impressively unforgiving object to place-kick. Scientists measure wood hardness on the Janka scale, invented in 1906 by an Austrian wood researcher named Gabriel Janka. I love this scale. It measures how much force is needed to embed a ball bearing in a piece of wood—the sort of viscerally satisfying test that could just as well have been dreamed up by an adolescent boy. On the Janka hardness scale, white ash, the wood most commonly used for baseball bats, scores 1320. White oak, a source of hardwood flooring, earns a 1360. Maple, the wood I'd blindly booted, is harder than either of those, registering a 1450. (Small consolation: The desk wasn't made of Australian bull-oak, the world's hardest wood, whose Janka rating is a whopping 5060.)
So the second toe on my right foot immediately swelled up and turned purple, along with a couple of its neighbors. An X-ray confirmed a clean break. I was left hobbled but curious. What was happening inside my foot? How would my body heal the bone? How does a body even know that it has suffered a broken bone and not just a sprain or bruise?
We don't adequately appreciate our bones until we fracture one. They make up one-fifth of our weight, manufacture our blood cells, store minerals, give our body its structure and serve as the armor that shields our brains, our spinal column and our internal organs. In zoological terms, our backbones distinguish us (and other vertebrates) from the planet's more than 1.3 million known invertebrate species, spineless wonders that include insects, mollusks and crustaceans. Biologists use our toes to categorize us too: They distinguish between animals that walk on their toes (called digitigrades, such as cats, dogs and ground birds), those that walk on their soles (plantigrades, including humans, bears, raccoons, rabbits and rats) and those that walk on the tips of their toes, usually hooves (includings horses, zebras, deer, rhinos, hippos and giraffes). Biologists have theorized that humans evolved much shorter toes than other primates (even than our closest relatives, chimps and bonobos) to help enable us to run farther while chasing down large animals in our prehistoric days.
So be proud when you look at your toes. They have a noble heritage. They help distinguish you from jellyfish and cockroaches. And you probably wouldn't be alive if they hadn't evolved the way they did.
The odds of breaking a toe are pretty good: Of the 206 bones in an adult body, 52 reside in our feet, and 28 of those are in the toes. (We're born with more than 300 bones in our bodies, but some fuse together as we grow.) Fortunately for klutzes like me, bones constantly rebuild themselves. Imagine two sets of microscopic construction workers. One set tears apart old bone cells. The other fabricates new bone cells. They work on your bones all the time. These two crews of demolition and construction cells replace one-tenth of your skeleton with new bone every year even if you don't fracture a toe.
When I kicked that desk, my nerves sent a 200 mph message up my spine to the toe-repair dispatcher's office, a.k.a., my brain, which informed me that I was now in excruciating pain and ought to crumple to the floor in a fetal position and loudly curse my own stupidity. The brain can distinguish a fracture from a non-fracture and therefore sent the bone-building crew an emergency work order. Inside the toe, tiny damaged vessels leaked blood and soon turned the area purple.
The doctor told me that all I could do was tape the cracked toe to the ones next to it and wear stiff-soled shoes or sandals. The fracture will heal in six weeks, he said. So there you have it. We may fancy ourselves the pinnacle of intelligence, but I bet we're the only animals on Earth who leave obstacles in our own path, run into them and break our own bones.
Yes, A Moose Walked Through Bar Harbor This Week (watch below)
Cat Chemistry Jokes
Q: What do you do with a dead chemist?
Did you year about the comedian who told a chemistry joke? There was no reaction.
For more, click on the link below. Some of the jokes do require some knowledge of chemical symbols and, of course, a tolerance for punnery. http://icanhascheezburger.com/2011/07/26/funny-pictures-chemistry-cat-science-puns/
Add an S to the six-letter words below, then rearrange the letters to create a new seven-letter word from each:
WILTED HEATED HANGED (Look for the answer in our next blog post.)
BirthdaysGerald Durrell, the popular British conservationist, nature broadcaster and prolific author of often humorous wildlife books, would have turned 87 this week. Pamelia and I once visited the Durrell Wildlife Preservation Trust, which he started on Jersey, one of England's Channel Islands, located just off the coast of France. The trust focuses on preserving and breeding rare and endangered species. We went into a darkened room to observe an aye-aye, a type of lemur with huge eyes for nocturnal vision and long, specially evolved middle fingers that it uses to pull grubs out of trees. The aye-aye nearly went extinct because people in Madagascar, where it lives, thought it was an omen of death.They killed every one they saw. As I noted earlier, we humans are truly the pinnacle of intelligence.
Christian Jurgensen Thomsen, the Danish archaeologist who popularized the division of human civilizations into the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages based on the materials used for tools in each period, would have turned 223 this past week. I'm not sure how broadly to define today's "tools," but will our era someday be known (literally and metaphorically) as the Plastic Age? (Cue those famous lines in which Dustin Hoffman receives career advice from Mr. McGuire in The Graduate: "I just want to say one word to you....Plastics...")