STRANGEBUTTRUE- Wolf & woof: Not always a stark line between them

Q. Can you spell out the difference between a wolf and a "woof"? Can we even be sure they're not the same species? –M. Perkins

A. Dogs are descended from wolves, probably the gray wolf, and some scientists argue that because dogs and wolves do interbreed, they shouldn't be considered separate species at all, says Pat Shipman in American Scientist. 

Although the ability to produce fertile offspring suggests varieties of a single species, the reality is more nuanced: "We cannot know whether dog-wolf hybrids will thrive and survive, or die out, in the long run," he says.

Certainly, distinguishing a dog from a wolf is something we expect to be able to do. Domestic dogs are wildly variable in size and shape, thanks to several hundred years of selective breeding. Their most telling feature is the snout, shorter and wider than wolves' snouts. Only a few breeds such as Irish wolfhounds with extremely elongated, slender noses, surpass wolves in "snoutiness." Also, domesticated dogs are genetically disposed to seek out human attention and accept human leadership; wolves are not. 

Probably in the distant past, adopted cubs that were aggressive were cast out, while the more agreeable ones were fed and kept around for their keen noses and hunting skills. From wolf to woof under the watchful human eye, but not (we trust) under the same roof!

Q. Obesity's health effects are bad enough, but what about its "toxic" social side effects? Fat chance you're going to like the answer to this one. –J. Craig

A. Begin with the unfair stereotype of the overweight as slow, lazy, sloppy, says David G. Myers in Psychology in Everyday Life. When people's images are made artificially bigger on a video monitor, observers suddenly rate them as less sincere and friendly, meaner and more obnoxious. As for money, in one study of 370 obese 16- to 24-year-old women, two-thirds were still obese seven years later and were earning $7,000 a year less than an equally intelligent comparison group of 5,000 non-obese women. In fact, overweight applicants are less likely to be hired, less likely to receive a promotion or to get compensation in tough times. 

Anti-fat prejudice even extends to job seekers who are seen with an obese person. To top all of this, the overweight are also less likely to eventually marry.

So why don't the obese drop that excess baggage? Because, says Myers, their bodies fight back by swelling the number and size of fat cells and by shifting into pseudo-starvation mode with a slowing of the body's metabolism. In other words, our genes have a lot to do with the size of our jeans as heredity often becomes weight destiny.

Q. What if there were a pill that could trick people into believing they were eating dessert when they were really eating salad with lemon or vinegar? Wouldn't that be a shot in the arm for frustrated dieters? –D. Aller

A. Such a subterfuge has been attributed to a substance called "miraculin," commercially available for a time. It fools the eater into believing that even acids are sweet, says James Kalat in Biological Psychology.

The stuff– tasteless itself– comes from the "miracle berry" of West Africa. Kalat describes an evening he and a colleague spent experimenting with the berries: "We drank straight lemon juice, sauerkraut juice, even vinegar. All tasted extremely sweet. Somehow we forgot how acidic these substances are. We awoke the next day to find our mouths full of ulcers."

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

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