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 podcast. The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week hits Apple, Spotify, YouTube, 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: John Edmonstone is one of very few Black taxidermists remembered by history—and he had a huge impact
By Divya Anantharaman
Born in 1790 in Guyana, a British colony at the time, he began life as an enslaved person at a timber plantation owned by Charles Edmonstone. Not much is documented about his early life, but we know when he met with the naturalist Charles Waterton-a friend and later an in-law of Charles Edmonstone. In 1812, Waterton was in town to gather and study birds from the Guyanese jungle-a major task since there are over 700 confirmed species! So as an accomplished and eccentric taxidermist (https://wakefieldmuseumsandlibraries.blogspot.com/2014/03/charles-watertons-creations-museumweek_25.html) he taught John Edmonstone the scientific art of taxidermy.
In 1817, Charles Edmonstone returned to Scotland and John came with him. We don’t know if he was already emancipated before he arrived, but he would have been automatically upon entering Scotland due to the changing laws of the time. By 1824, John Edmonstone settled in Edinburgh, and started working for the University of Edinburgh’s zoological museum. Taxidermy was a lucrative business at the time, both scientifically and culturally, so John’s skills were much in demand. He also taught taxidermy classes to students at the nearby Edinburgh university. One of these students was a 16 year old Charles Darwin. He started the taxidermy classes as a bit of a diversion from the unpleasantries of studying medicine, but soon found it nurtured his love of nature. So much that five years later, Darwin was on the HMS Beagle as the ship’s naturalist. Thanks to Edmonstone’s teachings, he was equipped with the skills to preserve specimens, providing in the flesh evidence to help prove his theory of evolution.
John Edmonstone led a remarkable life, and reminds us that history is very much dependent on who keeps it-most of what we know about him comes from anecdotes in Darwin’s journals and biography. While many know Darwin’s name, I hope more will now know Edmonstone’s.
FACT: Chimps go through menopause
By Rachel Feltman
Like having hair on just the top of your head or engaging in capitalism, menopause is one of those rare traits that’s pretty unique to humans. Up until now, just four other species have been shown to live much longer than they can reproduce. They’re all mammals, and except for us, they all live in the ocean: beluga whales, narwhals, orcas, and short-finned pilot whales.
But a new study finds evidence for “the change” in a sixth species. And unsurprisingly, it’s one very close to us on the evolutionary tree: chimps.
It’s long been assumed that female chimps die off a few years after their reproductivity drops, as is the case for most mammals. But researchers found something different when they spent 21 years observing the Ngogo chimp community in Uganda. This social group is the largest chimp community ever reported. Their habitat is protected and they’ve become pretty used to human observers, so they’re our best source of long-term data on chimp biology and behavior.
After researchers anecdotally noticed some pretty old female chimps hanging around, they decided to track mortality and fertility among 185 females for as long as they could. They found that fertility declined after the animals turned 30, and none of them gave birth after turning 50. But 16 of the females they observed lived past the age of 50. On average, about 20 percent of a female chimp’s adulthood happened after fertility went away. That’s around half as long as human hunter-gatherers.
When they analyzed urine samples from a few dozen chimps, they found that the females experienced hormonal shifts that mirror human menopause.
Maybe Ngogo chimps live so freakishly long because of their plush situation that they’re the only chimps to ever do this. But there’s a dark side to that hypothesis: Maybe menopause was common in chimps before humans started logging forests, spreading disease, poaching, and otherwise disrupting primate lifespans.
Listen to this week’s episode to find out more about what this might mean for our evolutionary understanding of menopause!
FACT: In the 1600s, one town in the Netherlands literally ate the rich
By Sara Kiley Watson
The Netherlands is known today as the land of bike-loving people and delicious desserts. But in the 1600’s, it wasn’t stroopwafels and poffertjes cooking—it was political disaster. Turns out the leader of one of Europe’s then-sparse democracies was briefly on the menu… literally. Right smack dab in the center of The Hague, now known as the international city of peace and justice, an Orangist militia killed and cannibalized their Grand Pensionary. Nothing is more lekker than delicious Dutch drama.