In 1764, a young woman herding cattle in Gevaudan, France, told the story of how she was attacked by a giant, fearsome beast. She reported that the beast charged towards her, but was only stopped by the bulls that defended her. The beast was described as being as big as a calf, with a large dog-like head with exposed very large fangs and dark reddish fur with black streaks. Not long after this story, a young boy living nearby was violently killed, with his throat torn out. The number of people attacked and killed by this mysterious beast grew and grew. The population of Gevaudan was terrified. No wolf or dog had been known to be as large as the beast reported by survivors, nor as vicious as this.
The story of the so-called “Beast of Gevaudan” was heard by Louis XV, who responded by dispatching professional wolf-hunters to Gevaudan to slay the beast. One of these men was called Francois Antoine – a veteran wolfhunter. Over the coming months, he hunted several large wolves, but the attacks continued.
On September 21, 1765, Antoine finally encountered the beast. It was a ferocious wolf-like animal, about 1.8m long and 70cm tall. Antoine shot it several times, in the eye, shoulder and side. The beast withstood the first couple of shots and finally fell to the ground after the third. But as Antoine and his colleagues cheered, the beast stood back up and charged Antoine. It took two more shots to finally slay the beast. Survivors of attacks were able to identify the beast as the true Beast of Gevaudan. The beast was embalmed and stuffed for display and the populace of Gevaudan celebrated the end of the terror, with Antoine being celebrated as a hero and expert wolfslayer.
However, the story did not end there. Attacks continued for years even after the Wolf of Chazes was slain. The ultimate end to the story is credited to a hunter named Jean Chastel, who shot and killed a large wolf-like beast in 1767, after which the attacks stopped. Some say that he used a blessed silver bullet – possibly originating the myth that werewolves can only be killed by silver bullets.
It is still unclear what exactly the Beast of Gevaudan was. Some believe it to be a large wolf, but most historians agree that it was likely a wolf-dog hybrid given its large size, unusual ferocity and distinct coloured fur. Other theories include the beast being a large red mastiff, an Asian hyena or a pack of wolves, which is likely given the sheer number of attacks in such a short space of time. All in all, the final kill count of the Beast of Gevaudan is estimated between 80 to 120 people, with a further 49 injuries.
In the movie The Lion King, Simba’s father Mufasa is killed when he is trampled by a wildebeest stampede. Stampedes are a common behaviour in herd animals such as cattle, horses, wildebeests and elephants. When one animal is startled by something, it shows a fear response which then startles the animals around it. This startle propagates rapidly through the herd and the entire herd begins running away from whatever caused the first startle. They run with no clear reason or direction – it is a mindless rush of fear. Because of this, anything in the path of a stampede is crushed to death as the herd blindly rushes forward with impressive power and energy.
The destructive nature of a stampede not only affects whatever is in the path of the herd, but the herd itself. Native Americans are well-known for their buffalo jumpstyle of hunting, where they would herd wild bison then trigger a stampede. They would direct the stampede towards a cliff and the frightened bison would blindly jump off the cliff to their deaths.
As deadly as a bison or wildebeest stampede may be, there is a species that causes far greater damage to humans when they stampede: us. Human stampedes are a well-known phenomenon documented throughout history, from crowds rushing away from a city being bombed to religious pilgrimages to sports games. Just like animals, when there is a large enough crowd of people, a simple spark of fear can cause mass panic.
This is described as the “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theatre” effect. In 1941, 4000 people were killed when the Japanese army bombed the Chinese city of Chongqing, causing a mass panic at an air raid shelter. More famously, 96 people were killed in the Hillsborough stadium crush in England, 1989, when crowds of people attending a soccer match squeezed into a tunnel blocked at the other end. There have been several incidents during the pilgrimage to Mecca where hundreds of people were killed during stampedes.
In human stampedes, death is not usually caused by trampling but by compressive asphyxiation. The sheer force of people pressing on each other limits chest expansion, making breathing impossible. The force of a panicked crowd can be great enough to bend steel bars. This phenomenon is also called crowd crush.
When you see a person of the opposite sex for the first time, what part do you see first? Each person may give a different body part such as face, shoulders, legs or breasts, but the universal truth is that most people will unconsciously look at the person’s eyes first. The eyes are literally “windows to the soul”, providing valuable information about the person’s state of mood and mind.
Eye contact is an important part of social life. Looking directly into someone’s eyes conveys the message of “I am interested in what you are saying and you have my attention”, as if a bridge is made between the two people’s minds. Strong eye contact is a common feature of two people in love, as they communicate non-verbally to share their feelings of attraction. Good eye contact is seen as “socially appropriate”, giving the person an air of confidence and helping them build better rapport with the person they are talking to as the other person feels listened to and that they matter.
However, eye contact may not always be a good thing. If eye contact is too intense, the other person will become uncomfortable as they may feel that they are being probed and their privacy is being invaded. This is why people in crowds, such as in the subway, avoid eye contact with each other as to protect their privacy.
In Eastern cultures, direct eye contact may be seen as disrespectful, especially when speaking to a superior or a person older than you. To show respect, the person lower in hierarchy lowers their gaze.
Certain psychiatric disorders can result in poor eye contact. It is common for patients with depression or social anxiety to avert eye contact, minimising the social connection that comes from it. Autistic children are particularly famous for finding it extremely difficult to make eye contact with others as it unsettles them. The poor eye contact gives these people a cold, uncaring, weak image which may be criticised by other people.
Unlike modern humans, many animals perceive eye contact as a threat or a sign of aggression. It is very dangerous to maintain eye contact with an aggressive monkey or dog as it will increase your chance of being attacked.
Yawning is a reflex that we usually associate with tiredness or boredom. When we feel quite sleepy or feel that it is bedtime, we will involuntarily take a deep breath in and stretch our muscles. It used to be believed that yawning is the brain’s response to lack of oxygen, which seems logical as we take a deep breath in during a yawn. However, studies have shown that yawning actually decreases the level of oxygen in the brain. The reason for yawning is still a mystery, but there are many theories suggesting that it cools the brain or to keep the muscles stretched and ready. It may even be a primitive reflex designed to display dominance and signal that they are not threatened by an incoming danger.
An interesting thing about yawning is that it is extremely contagious. It is thought that yawn contagiousness serves a social purpose. Our brains contain certain types of neurons called mirror neurons, that are responsible for copying an action that we see (hence the proverb “monkey see, monkey do”). It has been suggested that by copying the yawn of another member in the group, a sense of camaraderie is established, acting as a social lubricant (much like mirroring to build rapport). The contagiousness is surprisingly strong, even working when you see a video of a person yawning or even reading about yawning. It spreads to animals as well, such as other primates (e.g. monkeys, apes) and dogs. Interestingly, autistic children are less likely to yawn when someone nearby yawns, suggesting that there is indeed a social element to yawning.
Mirrors are perhaps one of the most useful yet underrated inventions that we use every day. From shaving in the morning to fixing make-up during lunch, the modern man or woman will use a mirror (or some other reflective surface) at least once a day. Mirrors show us an accurate reflection of the world that we cannot see. We can only look forwards and need a mirror to reflect light going the opposite way to see behind us or – more importantly – ourselves. To do this, a mirror must directly reflect every photon (particles that make up light) at exactly the right angle so the image is not distorted. If the mirror is not completely flat or perfectly polished, light will not be reflected at the exact angle and we will see a distorted image – much like looking into a mirror at the circus. Therefore, one could say that a perfectly flat, clean mirror is absolutely honest, as it will reflect exactly as it sees.
However, this statement is not entirely true as what you see in the mirror is a mirror image of reality. This may seem trivial, but it has significant consequences. This is most obvious when you hold a book up to a mirror. Without training, it is very difficult to read something that is mirrored. This is why Leonardo da Vinci wrote his notes in mirror image. This phenomenon of something becoming completely different is also seen in chemistry. Because of the way molecules are arranged, it is possible to have a property called chirality – where two molecules with the same elemental composition are built in the mirror image of one another. Essentially, it is as if the molecule can be either left- or right-handed. It turns out that even if the composition is the same, two molecules of different chirality (called enantiomers) can act completely differently. This effect may be as simple as changing the way a liquid polarises light to making a drug completely inert or even toxic. For example, the amino acid carvone that gives the spearmint taste only tastes like spearmint if it is L-carvone (“left-handed”), whereas D-carvone (“right-handed”) is tasteless despite having the same molecular formula.
Since the topic of chirality is rather technical and hard to understand, let us move on to the field of literature. One of the best examples of how mirrors can completely change something is seen in Lewis Carroll’s novel Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Lewis Carroll understood the significance of mirror images in chemistry and wrote this novel to portray how quirky and strange a “mirror world” may be. Through the Looking Glass is a sequel to the famous book Alice in Wonderland and describes a world that is the mirror image of Wonderland. Carroll cleverly wrote the first book so that it would be the opposite of the first book. The first book starts outdoors, is set in the summer, uses changes in size as a plot device and focuses on the theme of trump cards. The second book starts indoors, is set in the winter, uses changes in direction as a plot device and draws on the theme of chess. There are even characters such as Hatta and Haigha who are the mirror images of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare from the previous book. Although they are very similar, they are just not the same and hence Alice does not recognise them. Perhaps the line that best shows Carroll’s understanding of the dangers of mirror worlds is this: “Perhaps Looking-glass milk isn’t good to drink”.
The field of psychology is also heavily interested in mirrors. It is a well-known fact that our brains recognise the purpose of mirrors. If you put a mirror in front of someone, you know that the person will examine themselves, groom themselves or simply make funny poses. A simple experiment shows how used to mirrors we are. If you angle two mirrors at right angles and fit a transparent sheet of glass in front of the two to make a prism shape, the image you see through the glass is a reflection that is not mirrored. Because it is not mirrored, you can hold up a book to it and still read it fine. This is known as a non-reflecting mirror. An interesting experiment shows that if you make people use this kind of mirror, they become incredibly confused as they are too used to using a mirror image to see themselves. Even though the reflection they see is a “truer” image, because their brain automatically flips the mirrored image, they become uncoordinated and keep moving their hands in the opposite direction.
As mentioned at the start, mirrors are a human invention. Although reflection occurs in nature, such as on a clear surface of water, animals generally are incapable of using mirrors. This is such a universal fact that animal psychologists use a mirror test to determine whether a specie of animal is self-aware or not. The test is done by showing an animal a mirror. Most animals will see their reflection and automatically believe that it is another animal, as they are incapable of thinking that it is a reflection of themselves. Hence, they will try to threaten, attack or flee from the image they see. But if you show a higher-order animal such as an ape or dolphin a mirror, they will start to groom themselves as they realize that the mirror is simply showing themselves.
This is what sets us apart from animals. Not only are we capable of recognizing ourselves in a mirror, but we have the ability to go one step further and reflect on ourselves using the mirror of our minds. Some people may take a look at the person in this mirror and be content with who they are. But some will gaze into the mirror and, much like the animals in the mirror test experiments, see a completely different person they do not recognise. This may cause disappointment, frustration or even disgust as we realize that we are not who we think we are or aspire to be. Then again, sometimes you will gaze into the mirror and see a person that has strengths such as courage – a person you could be if you realized your true potential. The most frightening realisation would be to discover that there is no one in the mirror.
Lastly, we could consider the mirror of behaviour. Goethe said that “behaviour is a mirror in which everyone displays his own image”. The corollary to this is that human beings read behaviour to try and interpret another person’s character. One can use this to greatly improve the relationship and connection with another person. Mirroring is the act of subtly copying the other person’s behaviour to build rapport– where an empathic bridge is constructed between two people. Rapport is particularly useful in jobs that involve earning the trust of strangers in a short time, such as in healthcare or business. By matching the other person’s body language, such as posture or actions like taking a sip of water, the other person will open up more easily to you. The same applies to verbal and emotional mirroring where you subtly reuse the words the other person spoke and reflect their emotions such as excitement. Obviously, one must be subtle with mirroring as a direct imitation will appear mocking and strange. If you are able to subtly copy their behaviour, the other person’s subconscious mind will be tricked into thinking that you are similar in character and trust you more. This skill is extremely useful in improving your interpersonal and social skills.
A mirror is a paradoxical object that is absolutely honest yet relatively deceitful. Reflections in the mirror are true yet completely different. If you take a peek into the mirror of your mind, perhaps you will see the person you think you are now or the person you could be in a mirror world. If you are happy with what you see, then cherish that and be proud of who you are. Otherwise, you can always do what Alice did and jump through the looking-glass to find an alternate you – the best you that you can be.
What is the best or easiest way to protect yourself from an alligator attack? Obvious answers aside (such as avoiding them), it is to use something like an elastic band or a rope to tie their snout shut. Alligators have the strongest bite in the natural world – clocking in at about 2125 pounds of force (about 966kg). The sheer force of the bite is enough to crush the victim and kill them instantly. Even if the victim survives, there is a serious risk of being left with a permanent disability or die from an infected wound.
Although the force of the bite is incredible thanks to its extremely strong jaw muscles, alligators do not have nearly enough the same strength when opening their jaws. This means that a simple elastic band is enough to keep their jaws shut, leaving the alligator helpless and giving you a chance to run before its friends come to find you.
How do honeybees share the location of a food source, such as a flower, to other bees of their colony? An Austrian biologist named Karl Von Frisch devised an experiment to learn how the honeybees communicated with each other. He set up two different food sources and tagged every bee that came to pot A green and bees that came to pot B red. He then studied the behaviour of these bees back at the hive. What he discovered was fascinating.
For millennia, beekeepers have noticed that some honeybees have a tendency of moving in a peculiar yet methodical way once they returned to their hive after foraging for flowers. The bees would move in a straight line while waggling their bottom (moving side-to-side), then walk in a semicircle back to where they started. They would then waggle in the same direction, then move in a semicircle on the opposite side, completing a figure-eight path. This is called a waggle dance.
Frisch noticed that bees with green spots and the bees with red spots both did the waggle dance once they returned to the hive, but in different directions. All bees with green spots danced so that the straight line pointed a certain direction, while the bees with red spots danced the same dance except pointing another direction. Amazingly, the angle between these two directions was exactly the same as the angle separating pot A and B (with the hive as a point of origin). Frisch deduced that the waggle dance was the language of honeybees.
Through further experimentation, Frisch was able to tease out the details of this “language”.
Honeybees’ eyes can see ultraviolet and polarised light, which allows them to see where the sun is in the sky at all times. This is because sunlight polarises so that it points towards the sun and honeybees can see this direction. Therefore, the bee’s eyes act as a solar compass that tracks the exact location of the sun in real-time.
Bees have a finely-tuned internal clock that allows them to predict exactly where the sun should be depending on time, season and latitude, as the sun moves through the sky.
Another point of reference that is used in the bees’ language is gravity. Gravity is a constant that does not change, meaning all bees know which direction is “up” and which is “down”. This also means they can use a vertical, perpendicular line as a standard zero-point.
By pairing the two global constants, gravity and the location of the sun, the bees can accurately signal to other bees the direction they should fly in to find the food source. If a bee does a waggle dance that points 60° right from the vertical “up” direction (as defined by gravity), it signals that the bees should fly 60° right from the direction of the sun. If the angle is 0°, the bees should fly directly towards the sun, and if the angle is 180°, the bees should fly directly away from the sun. The bees use their internal clock to calibrate the direction depending on the time of the day.
The straight line “waggle” part of the dance gives the information of distance. The longer the duration of the straight line, the further away the flower is. As a general rule of thumb, the duration of the straight line increases by 1 second for every 1 kilometre. When the food is within about 60m of the hive, the 8-shape waggle dance turns into an O-shape round dance. The bee deduces the distance by the energy required to fly to the location.
By encoding the two variables “direction” and “distance”, a bee can effectively use the waggle dance to accurately pinpoint the location of a food source. It is amazing to see that animals that we consider “primitive” such as bees have such an intricate method of communication.
In 1972, John B. Calhoun designed a very specific mice cage called Universe 25, also known as the Mortality-Inhibiting Environment for Mice. Universe 25 was designed as a practical utopia for mice. It was constantly replenished with food and water, each wall had an intricate grid of nesting boxes connected by mesh tunnels and stairwells (like an apartment) and the cage was cleaned periodically. There were no predators, the temperature was set at a comfortable level and all mice resident were disease-free. In all ways, Universe 25 was an idyllic home for the mice.
Calhoun’s aim of this experiment was the same as the countless experiments before Universe 25: to see the effects of abundance on a population, and the consequences of that. Biologically speaking, a population only grows to the point that the environment can sustain it and then plateaus. So if the environment is completely abundant, the population will grow and grow without limitations (other than space). Thus, Calhoun’s main focus was overpopulation in societies. What did he find?
At the start of the experiment, four breeding pairs of mice were introduced to Universe 25. They began reproducing after 104 days of familiarisation and the population increased exponentially. The mice flourished in the prosperous environment. Around day 315, population growth slowed. By this stage, the mice population had grown to over 600, which made Universe 25 very crowded. Although there were still plenty of resources, the problem of overpopulation still remained. As the population grew and space became limited, male mice found it too difficult to defend their territory and eventually gave up doing so. The mice began losing their ability to form social bonds and these mice (“failures”) began congregating at the centre of the cage. This group of mice gave up on all normal social behaviour, leading to constant violence. The violence soon spread throughout the cage, with the mice society descending into chaos. The females, stressed and confused by the violence, attacked and cannibalised their own young, after which they retreated to the highest nest boxes where they isolated themselves. Certain males (termed “the beautiful ones” by Calhoun) did not show violence or any interest in females, choosing only to eat, sleep and groom themselves, wrapped in narcissistic introspection. Because of these two isolated groups, procreation slumped and population growth slowed. Elsewhere, in the “inner city” group at the middle of the cage, cannibalism, pansexualism and violence became common. The entire society had collapsed.
On day 560, the population ceased to grow at a peak population of 2200. After this, the number of pregnancies dwindled to nothing and no young survived past infancy. Adult mice were also affected, with mortality rates skyrocketing at all ages and increased rates of diseases. It was clear that the population was headed towards extinction. Even after the population dwindled down to a much more sustainable number, the mice were incapable of (or chose not to) reproducing to regenerate the population. Not only did mice society die, but the mice themselves met a grim fate as well.
This result was repeated in all of Calhoun’s experiments, conclusively showing that overpopulation leads to the demise of a society. Calhoun described this as “crowding into the behavioural sink”. He explained that the mice served as a warning to what human societies are headed towards if we do not solve the problem of overpopulation. We can already see the effect overpopulation has on societies. It is a known fact that people living in the inner areas of a city are more prone to poverty, crime, violence and a lower quality of life. However, Calhoun was not a nihilist. Instead of saying “humanity is doomed”, he explored different ways of resolving the problem. The most effective idea he came up with was space colonisation.
There once lived a community of mice in the attic of a house. The mice would sneak into kitchens, gnaw holes in the walls and run about freely. The owners were so fed up that they brought in a cat, causing the mice to all hide in fear. The terrified mice eventually held a meeting to discuss how they would sneak around the house without getting caught by the cat. One mouse suggested: “What if we put a bell around the neck of the cat? Then we can hear it coming and run away.”. The mice unanimously agreed that it was a brilliant idea. However, when they came to decide who would bell the cat, no mouse was brave enough to step forward and the plan was never carried out.
What would actually happen if a cat was belled? Without a doubt, the cat would take it as a cruel, cruel punishment. Not because it cannot catch mice, but because the sound of the bell ringing every time it moves will be extremely loud for the cat. A cat’s hearing is six times better than a human’s. With this excellent hearing, the constant sound of bells attacking its eardrums would be physical torture for the cat.
Furthermore, a cat can hear frequencies as high as 40,000Hz. A person can only hear up to 20,000Hz, meaning a cat hears over twice the range of sounds we can. This combined with the boosted volume results in the cat living in a very noisy world. Ergo, putting a bell around a cat’s neck is an extremely atrocious thing to do.
For decades, there have been case reports by farmers who found mysteriously dead cattle with strange, surgically precise wounds. Strangely, these corpses were split open and most of their soft organs (e.g. eyes, tongues, intestine, genitals) had been removed. Even stranger, the corpses were completely drained of blood.
The mysterious, mutilated cattle corpses set off a diverse range of conspiracies of what could have caused such a bizarre phenomena. The most popular theories included: alien experimentation (explaining the surgical precision and lack of blood and organs), sacrifice by cults, vampires and the El Chupacabra (a mythological vampiric beast).
Cattle mutilation became so well-known that during the 70’s, it was properly investigated by the FBI. Of course, no evidence was found of aliens and vampires. As with most supernatural phenomena, cattle mutilation could be logically explained by science.
It was found that the cattle had simply died of natural causes, with no foul play involved (other than the occasional psychopaths attacking cattle). But how could natural death cause the surgical wounds, the missing organs and lack of blood? The answer is obvious when one thinks of what happens to animals after they die.
Scavengers such as foxes and buzzards often feast on decomposing corpses, cleanly removing the soft organs before they rot away (organs are the first to spoil). As scavengers usually bite into the corpses, this does not explain the clean wounds. This phenomena is due to insects also feasting on the corpse – a key part in putrefaction. Insects prefer softer tissue such as organs and ragged wounds, so after the insects are finished, wounds often look extremely clean. Also, putrefaction of tissue leads to massive gas production, causing bloating. Once this reaches a peak, the cattle corpse bursts like a balloon, causing clean tears in the abdomen. Lastly, the flies that were involved in cleaning away organs lay eggs, which hatch into maggots. Maggots immediately eat away the dead flesh and organs, even sucking up the blood that pooled at the bottom of the corpse. All of these factors combined results in what appears to be a mysterious alien bovine autopsy.
Although this may sound crazier than Chupacabras, the theory was actually tested in 1979 by a sheriff who kept receiving complaints about cattle mutilation. He took a dead cow, left it on a field and filmed it for 48 hours. The video clearly showed each step described above, proving that cattle mutilation was simply Mother Nature’s cruel, vicious way of returning a corpse back to the soil.