Strange but true: Surprising elephant rituals in the wild

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Q: Elephants have a life expectancy of about 70 years, select mates for life, provide collective care for their young, and imbibe alcohol (if given the opportunity). What other surprising ritual do they perform?

A: Like humans, elephants "bury" the dead, including other species. One encounter with a lion found it trapped and unable to retreat, recounts Dale Peterson in "Elephant Reflections." Perhaps as an act of desperation, the lion leaped onto the shoulders of the matriarch, who using her trunk, ripped him away and dashed him against the ground. Then she and other group members pulled off nearby branches and placed them over the carcass.

Another report tells of a rhinoceros killed by elephants, then dragged a considerable distance and buried beneath a pile of vegetation. And when a tiger, accompanied by her cubs, killed a buffalo, an elephant came by and the feeding cats scattered. The elephant then "deliberately broke branches off a nearby tree and used them to cover the buffalo's carcass."

Surprisingly, elephants have even been known to bury people: A photographing tourist to a national park in the old Belgian Congo foolishly moved too close to a large bull elephant, which charged, knocked the man down and stabbed him with a tusk. When the rest of the tourist party returned, "they discovered the hapless photographer's body buried beneath a pile of vegetation."

Q: The world's fastest roller coaster, topping out at 128 mph, used to be Kingda Ka of Six Flags Great Adventure, in New Jersey. What's the current record holder?

A: Formula Rossa, located at Ferrari World, the planet's largest indoor theme park, opened in Abu Dhabi in 2010, reports "Smithsonian" magazine. A hydraulic launch system similar to aircraft carrier catapults drives the coaster, which goes from 0 to 60 mph in two seconds, topping out at 149 mph in five seconds. "In keeping with the Formula One theme, passengers are required to wear goggles."

According to Italian physiology professor Alberto Minetti, at this top speed, "even dust, that is not normally harmful, is. Even dust like when you are sitting at your desk, it's like bullets in a way."

Q: Suffering from age angst as you approach your big 5-0 birthday? Let mathematics come to the rescue.

A: To lessen the dread of those milestone multiple-of-ten birthdays, try expressing your 50th Birthday in a numeral system with a different base, suggests John Allen Paulos in "A Numerate Life: A Mathematician Explores the Vagaries of Life, His Own and Probably Yours." For example, in a base-12 system, Happy 50th Birthday becomes Happy 42nd Birthday — four 12's plus two 1's. "For greater reductions in age-angst, you can express Happy 50th Birthday as Happy 32nd Birthday in a base-16 system (hexadecimal) — three 16's plus two 1's." Feeling better already?

Q: Wool, as you probably know, comes not just from sheep but from alpacas, camels and goats. As "Discover" magazine points out, clothing and other wool items have been found in much of the ancient world, including 3,400-year-old Egyptian yarn. Wool is biodegradable and can absorb and repel water at the same time. Yet one of its more unusual features relates to "explosions." Can you explain.

A: Wool actually has a high natural ignition point of 1,382 degrees F, making it fire-resistant, says the magazine's Margaret Shakespeare. And it doesn't drip or melt when it does catch fire, features that have attracted the interest of the U.S. Army in its search for "clothing designed to protect combat troops from explosive blasts."

Another kind of explosion — "one we actually want" — is found in baseballs used in the Major Leagues. Inside each ball are some 370 yards of tightly wound wool yarn, providing "resilience to withstand the crushing impact of a batter's hit off high-velocity pitches."

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@cs.com


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