Fact Archive

An archive of the now defunct Weekly Science Facts feature:

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October 17th, 2012

The oldest living organism is a bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) in the White Mountains of California. Nicknamed “Methuselah” after a long-lived biblical figure, it is over 4000 years old (much older than its namesake’s given age).

From: The Private Life of Plants, BBC Documentary

October 10th, 2012

To test if a plant contains urushiol (the active compound in poison ivy), carefully wrap a piece of white paper around a leaf or stem without touching it, and crush the plant against the paper. If the irritant is present, a brown spot will appear on the paper, and will turn black within a few hours.

From: Wicked Plants, by Amy N. Stewart

October 3rd, 2012

Each one of us has more bacteria living in our body than there are people on the planet.

From: The History of the World in Two Hours

September 26th, 2012

“Flower clocks” provided a unique way of telling time in some nineteenth century European gardens. A series of flower beds was laid out to form a clock face, with each bed representing a daytime hour. The beds were planted with flowers known to open or close at the prescribed hours. On a sunny day, the time on a flower clock could be determined to within half an hour. (Is that clever, or what?)

From: Isaac Asimov’s Book of Facts, by Isaac Asimov

September 19th, 2012

Orcas and bottlenose dolphins appear to not sleep at all during the first few months of life.

From: HowStuffWorks.com

September 12th, 2012

The largest egg ever laid by any creature we know of was that of the extinct Great Elephant Bird (genus Aepyornis) of Madagascar. The egg was 24cm wide and 33cm long. It had a volume of nearly nine litres.

From: Isaac Asimov’s Book of Facts, by Isaac Asimov

September 5th, 2012

Together, algae and photosynthetic bacteria produce about half of the oxygen we breathe.

From: Planet of Viruses, by Carl Zimmer

August 19th, 2012

Modern cattle were domesticated from a wild mammal called an auroch (Bos primigenius), which was declared extinct in the year 1627.

From: Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond

August 12th, 2012

The White Cliffs of Dover on the Southeast coast of England are made up primarily of the chalky shells of single-celled organisms called coccolithophores.

From: Planet of Viruses, by Carl Zimmer

August 5th, 2012

Wild almonds not only taste terrible, but contain enough cyanide (in the form of a precursor called amygdalin) that a few dozen would be lethal to a human.

From: Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond

July 29th, 2012

Celery was one of the plants used as a decoration in the tomb of King Tut when he died in 1323 B.C.

From: Domestication of Plants in the Old World, by D. Zohary & M. Hopf

July 22nd, 2012

There are an estimated 37,000 types of edible plant on Earth. Just eleven of these (maize, rice, wheat, potatoes, cassava, sorghum, millet, beans, barley, rye, and oats) make up 93% of the human diet.

From: At Home, by Bill Bryson

July 15th, 2012

The mushroom Coprinopsis atramentaria, commonly known as Tippler’s Bane, while edible, causes severe nausea, vomiting, and heart palpitations if alcohol is consumed within several days of the mushroom’s ingestion.

From: Wicked Plants, by Amy N. Stewart

July 8th, 2012

Peas were domesticated around 8000 B.C. – ten thousand years ago – whereas strawberries were not domesticated until the Middle Ages, and pecans not until the mid-1800s.

From: Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond

July 1st, 2012

Termites can build towers out of mud which, in proportion to their size, are taller than New York skyscrapers.

From: Life in the Undergrowth, BBC Documentary

June 24th, 2012

In the wild, red flowers are unlikely to have any odour, as they are usually bird pollinated, and birds do not depend on scent to find nectar.

From: The Private Life of Plants, BBC Documentary

June 17th, 2012

A rhinovirus, the virus which causes the common cold, has only 10 genes, compared to approximately 20,000 in humans.

From: Planet of Viruses, by Carl Zimmer

June 10th, 2012

Sequoiadendron giganteum, the Giant Sequoia, grows for 175-200 years before it first flowers, the most delayed sexual maturity in all nature.

From: Isaac Asimov’s Book of Facts, by Isaac Asimov

June 3rd, 2012

The human larynx is situated deeper in the throat than any other mammal. This is what gives us our unique capacity for speech, but also our unique capacity to choke on food- other mammals have no contact between their airways and esophagi.

From: The Mother Tongue, by Bill Bryson

May 27th, 2012

If you were to put all the viruses in the oceans on a scale, they would equal the weight of seventy-five million blue whales.

From: Planet of Viruses, by Carl Zimmer

May 20th, 2012

A female pigeon cannot lay eggs if she is alone. In order for her ovaries to function, she must be able to see another pigeon. If no other pigeon is available, her own reflection in a mirror will suffice.

From: Asimov’s Book of Facts, by Isaac Asimov

May 13th, 2012

Birds are the origin of not just ‘bird flu’, but all flu viruses; birds carry all known strains of human influenza viruses, along with a vast diversity of other flu viruses that don’t infect humans.

From: Planet of Viruses, by Carl Zimmer

May 6th, 2012

A 70 foot (~21m) sycamore can pump 100 gallons (378L) of water PER HOUR out of the earth, 90% of which is lost to transpiration.

From: The Private Life of Plants, BBC Documentary

April 29th, 2012

Parasites may outnumber free-living species by as much as four to one.

From: Parasite Rex, by Carl Zimmer

April 22nd, 2012

In parts of West Africa prior to the 19th century, poisonous beans were used to determine the outcome of a trial. If the accused immediately vomited up the bean, he or she was considered to be innocent. Death as a result of poisoning, however, indicated guilt.

From: Wicked Plants, by Amy N. Stewart

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