STRANGE BUT TRUE- Eat my...: Recycling poop for safety

Q. "In the animal kingdom, feces may either be repulsive or a resource," says one biologist. A resource? –J. Mead

A. In some species, passage through the alimentary canal (aka gut) may leave many compounds undigested, so what is dropped at the other end still contains valuable minerals and food calories, says Washington State University's Kenneth Kardong. Ergo: In a world often of scarce resources, it makes practical sense to recycle. 

Some birds, rabbits, hares, many rodents and even gorillas eat their nutritious feces, taking a second crack at missed vitamins, amino and fatty acids– a behavior termed "coprophagy." Among Australian koala bears, feces are eaten by the growing youngsters as a transitional food between milk and leaves.

Also, since the odor from feces can alert a predator to the presence of vulnerable young, for many herbivores (plant eaters) the juvenile animal does not pass waste until it is licked by its mother, which stimulates elimination. Then the mother eats the droppings to hide any telltale odor, says Kardong. Many young birds "bundle" their feces in an internal mucous bag that the parents then carry off– both for safety and good housekeeping around the nest.

Q. Discovered by airmen during World War II, these move at up to 370 km/hour (230 mph) at heights from 10-15 km (6-9 miles), in narrow bands where the troposphere meets the stratosphere. Their energy comes from the heat differential from equator to poles, bestowing this planetary "free ride in the sky," averaging 100 mph in winter, 50 in summer. What are they, and what was their role in the War? –H. Hughes

A. They're the "jet streams," generally blowing out of the west, often thousands of kilometers long, hundreds wide. Pilots know them as a potential helpful tailwind, the prime reason it usually takes about an hour longer to fly from New York to Los Angeles than from Los Angeles to New York.

The existence of jet streams became evident during World War II, from trying to understand why propeller-driven military aircraft sometimes reached their destinations well ahead of schedule, and at other times were significantly late, says Warren Blier of the National Weather Service. Obviously, during wartime such questions were momentous indeed.

The Japanese military took advantage of the jet streams by wind-floating thousands of "fire balloons" across the Pacific. Some 300 did in fact hit the U.S., though with minimal damage. But an expanded program could have had serious effects both directly and psychologically.

"So the U.S. government persuaded the media to make no mention of any of this, to convince the Japanese their efforts were ineffective. Seeing no newspaper stories on the balloons, the Japanese concluded just that and discontinued the program."

Q. Baseball brainiacs, can you name the dozen ways a hitter can get on base? Then add a 13th for a player. –G. Bagby

A. A single, double, triple or homer count as #1, then a walk, a fielder's error, a fielder's choice on a ground ball, being hit by a pitch, reaching first after a wild pitch on strike three, reaching first after a passed ball on strike three, a call of catcher's interference, a call of first baseman's interference (impeding the runner), a fair ground ball or line drive that hits a runner (runner is out), a fair ground ball untouched by a fielder and that hits an umpire (scored a hit), and a fielder's throw of his glove or cap that hits a batted ball (ruled a triple).

That's the dozen, though from an official scorer's point of view, a few of these are duplications. For #13, a substitute player gets on base by coming in as a pinch runner. How many did you get?

Q. Reading to the unborn is popular today, but how could anybody ever tell if the fetus is listening? –M. Esselman

A. Researchers had Moms-to-be read The Cat in the Hat aloud twice daily during the last six weeks of pregnancy, says Robert Baron in Psychology. At the end of this period, fetal heart rates were monitored as both this story and a new one were read. Outcome: The familiar story produced a slightly lower heart rate, indicative of increased attention and that the babies-to-be had already become discriminating listeners.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at