STRANGE BUT TRUE- Unless cooped: Elephants are boxy but fast


DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

Q. How does the largest animal still walking the Earth today cope? –J. Merrick

 A. An elephant needs pillars for legs, an acre of lung surface for oxygen absorption, an eight-foot trunk for snaring food, a massive heart, plus foliage and grass enough for its 16 daily hours of browsing, says Guy Murchie in The Seven Mysteries of Life.

True "king of the [land] beasts" by dint of size, an elephant might yet be panicked by a horse or small dog. Count seasickness, colds, pneumonia, mumps, and diabetes among his human-like afflictions. An unadroit runner, he can be cooped in by a mere 7-foot trench, even if his stride measures 6 feet. Yet enraged and charging, he might muster almost 20 mph.

Size has its advantage, says Murchie, but of the hundreds of species of proboscideans (mastodons, mammoths, etc.) known to roam the Earth over the last few million years, only the elephant survives.

Q. What happens when someone with rare inherited "paramyotonia congenita" goes out into winter cold? –F. T. Snowman

A. When the temperature drops, sufferers become paralyzed, unable even to release their grip on a snow shovel or the cold metal handlebars of a bicycle, says Frances Ashcroft in Life at the Extremes: The Science of Survival. Even just drinking iced tea or eating ice cream can bring on stiffness of the tongue and slurred speech.  

These patients have a mutation in a gene that codes for a protein critical for the conduction of electrical signals along muscle fibers. "The condition is not life- threatening– it does not paralyze the respiratory muscles– but it is undoubtedly very inconvenient," Ashcroft notes.

Q. True or false: In spite of the great white shark's reputation as a "man-eater" a la ‘Jaws,' aren't people rarely attacked, and don't they usually survive? –H. Spencer

A. True enough. Most of the shark's attacks on humans are probably in defense of territory or are cases of mistaken identity, i.e., it thinks the person is a seal or sea lion, preferred prey. This may explain why, as one study showed, most victims are swimmers wearing either black (75 percent of cases) or blue suits (14 percent) suits. Moreover, attacks almost always occur near the surface and when the swimmer or diver is alone or off from the group, just as stray seals are most likely to be targeted.

Stalking from deep below, the shark speeds surfaceward and hits with such ferocity that the victim is pushed up out of the water and carried along for a short distance, then dropped and left to die. The idea is quick delivery of a serious wound, then retreat to avoid injury from the huge claws of the dying seal or sea lion. It is during this waiting period that most human victims are pulled to safety.

Q. How bad can a person's memory get? –A. Alzheimer

A. There are sad and touching tales of extreme forgetfulness, such as amnesic patients sitting down to a second and even a third meal, not remembering they've already eaten. One golfer with Alzheimer's still understood the rules and strategies of the game but could never remember how many strokes he had taken, and would tee off, then wait for the next person to tee off, then tee off again, says psychologist James W. Kalat.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks describes a brain-damaged man named "Jimmy" whose memory for events seemed to have stopped in 1945. When asked who was president, he would reply, "FDR's dead. Truman's at the helm." When Jimmy gave his age as 19, Sacks directed, "Look in the mirror and tell me what you see. Is that a 19-year-old looking out from the mirror?" 

Frantic, Jimmy insisted "What's going on? What's happened to me? Am I crazy?" 

Then, his attention diverted to a children's game of baseball, Jimmy abruptly forgot the mirror and his sense of panic passed.

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

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