American hippopotamus ranching almost took off 100 years ago

Plus other weird things we learned this week.
a hippo in the water opening its jaws

What’s the weirdest thing you learned this week? Well, whatever it is, we promise you’ll have an even weirder answer if you listen to PopSci’s hit podcastThe Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week hits AppleSpotifyYouTube, and everywhere else you listen to podcasts every-other Wednesday morning. It’s your new favorite source for the strangest science-adjacent facts, figures, and Wikipedia spirals the editors of Popular Science can muster. If you like the stories in this post, we guarantee you’ll love the show.

FACT: Einstein’s brain got stolen, then got lost, then got used for some terrible “science” 

By Rachel Feltman

I’ve wanted to talk about Einstein’s noggin for a while, but I decided to finally take the leap because my hometown haunt the Mütter Museum has been in the news. The Mütter Museum is where medical students, history nerds and hot goth girls alike go to learn about the history of medicine through the lens of creepy and beautiful displays that include soapified corpses, phrenology skull collections, watermelon-sized ovarian cysts and fetuses with deadly congenital disorders.

I won’t go too deep into the current controversy, but the Mütter, which has been collecting and displaying medical paraphernalia and human remains since 1863, is under new management and overdue for an ethics review—and a lot of people are freaking out. You can hear my own rambling thoughts on the issue by listening to this week’s episode, but this piece by artist Riva Lehrer gets at the heart of the issue better than I ever could. 

One of the Mütter’s most commonly praised specimens is more ethically dubious than most visitors realize. It’s the brain of none other than Albert Einstein

First things first: Albert Einstein’s brain was straight up stolen. Einstein wanted to be cremated, but when he died of an aortic aneurysm in Princeton, New Jersey in 1955, the pathologist who presided over his autopsy, one Thomas Harvey, was like “surely he didn’t mean his brain” and just… kept it! When Einstein’s son Hans Albert found out, Harvey apparently convinced him that the scientific value of his father’s brain was such that cremating it would be a tragedy, and Hans demurred. But this happened after Einstein’s ashes had been scattered in a private moment by his family somewhere along the Delaware River, so you have to imagine Hans might have had a different answer if there had still been time to put the brain back with the rest of him. 

But despite Harvey’s big talk about using Einstein’s brain to unlock the secrets of genius, it would mostly get carried around the country for the next 30-odd years

Harvey lost his job at Princeton Hospital, then spent some time in Philadelphia, where he had the brain dissected into hundreds of blocks and mounted on thousands of slides. He then traveled throughout the midwest, occasionally giving universities some slivers of brain to study, apparently often carrying them in a beer cooler. But no one would actually publish research on Einstein’s brain until 1985. Several studies have cropped up since then, but they’ve all reached pretty dubious conclusions. To find out more about how Einstein’s actually-pretty-unremarkable brain has revealed our misguided obsession with innate intelligence, check out this week’s episode. 

FACT: A Miami county is fighting peacock overpopulation by giving the birds vasectomies

By Sandra Gutierrez

Parts of Miami-Dade county have been positively overrun by peacocks. This invasive species was brought from India and commercialized as “exotic yard ornaments” in the 1920s and 30s. They have since become sort of a symbol of Miami—they’re part of the scenery and people love them. 

But peacocks are not the brightest and can be kind of jerks. They’re known to peck and scratch dark-colored vehicles because they see their reflection and think it’s another male. There have also been reports of these colorful birds harassing kids holding food, and getting extremely territorial around mating season. To add insult to injury, peacocks poop everywhere, their feathers clog AC units, and they are very vocal—Miami residents have been complaining about the birds waking them up in the middle of the night and interrupting their Zoom calls with all their squawking.  

Controlling the peafowl overpopulation has been a challenge. Catching them can be somewhat  of a dangerous sport since they can grow to be up to 4-feet tall, and there’s regulation protecting the birds from being killed or captured. This is the context in which Pinecrest, a Miami-Dade county municipality, pitched a vasectomy initiative to wane the presence of peafowl within its borders. For every procedure, they’ll prevent up to 7 females from laying fertilized eggs, which is efficient but also expensive and labor-intensive. 

Avian vasectomies are pretty similar to human ones, as the anatomy is very similar. Unlike ducks, geese, and swans, peacocks don’t have a penis. Instead, they have a small bump of erectile tissue on the back wall of their cloaca called papilla. Just like in humans, vasectomies don’t prevent the release of seminal fluid, only of sperm, so the bird can continue to act as a dominant male.

We don’t know if this is going to solve the peacock problem at Miami-Dade, but research shows that just like what happens in humans and other mammals, avian vasectomies are safe and overall, don’t have reported negative effects: they don’t change breeding behavior, hormonal levels stay the same, and courtship and copulation post-surgery remain unaltered, so the peacocks should be just fine.

FACT: Hippos were nearly farmed in the US for meat

By Sarah Gailey

If you like Beyond Meat patties, wait’ll you try this beef alternative. In 1910, America had two big problems to solve: a shortage of meat, and an abundance of invasive water hyacinth choking off the Mississippi river delta. Congressman Robert Broussard proposed a bold solution—he suggested the importation of exotic livestock, including hippopotami, into the US. Broussard’s proposal would have resulted in one of the biggest land grabs in United States history, along with one of the most disastrous ecological and economic collapses in the world. Listen to find out just how big a bullet we dodged, and how close we came to being a nation overrun by feral, furious tanks made of ham. We also discuss the legacy of cocaine in Central America, the growth behaviors of one of the most invasive plants in the world, and (of course) the question of how hard it would be to castrate an unwilling hippo. Supplemental reading material includes Jon Mooallem’s deep dive and my book, American Hippo, an alternate history asking what kind of cowboys we might need to tame a hippopotamus-infested frontier.