Sunken whale carcasses create entire marine cities on the ocean floor

Plus other fun facts from The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week.
a whale breaching over the ocean waves
Deposit Photos

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: A bunch of 18th-century dudes hung out in very hot rooms together in the name of science 

By Rachel Feltman

This story comes from a paper I read about in the Public Domain Review called “Experiments and Observations in a Heated Room,” circa 1774, which sounds like the name of a one-act play, and frankly should have been turned into one. 

The paper, by British physician and scientist Charles Blagden, recounts his experience being invited to the home of the scientist George Fordyce to see the man’s very very hot rooms. 

Fordyce had constructed a series of sealed rooms that were basically saunas, with pipes radiating heat into them and thermometers mounted on the walls. According to Blagden’s paper—and the sequel he published in 1775—he and several other gentlemen worked with Fordyce to test the limits of the human body with regard to heat. 

They started out in a 100 degree Fahrenheit room, which is not particularly impressive. But by the time they finished their second bout of experiments in 1775, they’d worked their way up to 260 degrees.

They made a lot of observations that might seem obvious now. They noticed that, at those higher temperatures, it was actually more comfortable to have clothing on than to be naked, since the heat scorched the skin much more quickly than it actually raised core body temperature. Blagden also noted that they could tolerate higher heat in dryer rooms, and correctly surmised that this was because water carried the heat to the body more efficiently than air, and that sweating—which is more effective when the air has more room to take up moisture and evaporate your sweat—was the key to the body’s heat-destroying powers. He was one of the first western scientists to make this connection, though it’s reasonable to assume that people living in hotter climates had probably figured this out by necessity. Keep in mind that the first thermometers designed to measure human temperature only showed up in the 1600s, and they wouldn’t be part of standard clinical medicine until the 1800s

But it is worth pointing out that they were being a bit obtuse about the temperatures previously endured by humankind. In his initial paper, Blagden actually made reference to “the experiments of M. Tillet,”—the botanist and metalworker Mathieu Tillet. In 1760, while trying to figure out how to heat grain enough to kill pests without wrecking the crop, Tillet ran into trouble with his data. He was using a thermometer attached to a long shovel to get the exact temperature inside the sugar-baking ovens he was using, but the temperature went down in the time it took to take it out. The girl tending the oven offered to just walk in and mark the level of the thermometer with a pencil, and told the scientist, at least according to his notes, that she “felt no inconvenience” in the 288 degree furnace. He and his colleague proceeded to basically goof off with a bunch of random items in the oven to see how the heat affected them. Blagden notes that the maid in question endured temperatures of 280 degrees for upwards of 10 minutes, and basically seems to be saying that he thinks girls who work by hot stoves probably get used to working by hot stoves, seemingly as a nod to the very obvious reality that he and his friends did not actually find and test the upper limits of human heat endurance. 

We now know that Blagden was very correct about the importance of moisture in the air: The more humid it is, the less heat we can take before our bodies start breaking down, because we’re not able to dump heat back into the air by way of evaporating sweat. A forecast of 120 degrees in death valley can be as physiologically tolerable as a sub-90 degree day in a swampy area. 

When you see weather reports refer to the “wet bulb” temperature, that’s a measurement of the combo of heat and humidity. Once it gets to 95 F wet bulb, give or take a couple degrees, we’re in trouble. At 100 percent humidity, we can only handle temperatures up to 87 degrees. 

On a lighter note, here’s a quick aside about the guy who built the hot rooms, who was memorialized in a local restaurant guide in the early 1800s for his absolutely bananas diet. 

FACT: When whales die, they create entire cities

By Sabrina Imbler

In 1987, a submersible scanning the seafloor of the Santa Catalina Basin detected something unusually large, 1,240 meters below the surface of the sea. It was a 65-foot-long whale skeleton. The whale had been dead for years, but its remains had become a thriving community on the seafloor, feeding clams, mussels, limpets and snails.

A natural burial for a whale—dying in the ocean and sinking to the seafloor—is called a whale fall. Ecosystems this deep are food limited, and many creatures rely on the constant drizzle of decaying flesh, poop, dust, and snot called marine snow to survive. But a whale fall is like a spontaneous deep-sea banquet that can sustain entire communities for years. Scientists estimate one whale fall is the equivalent of a thousand years of marine snow.

Whale falls are devoured in multiple stages. First, mobile scavengers like sleeper sharks, hagfish, and isopods travel long distances to feast on the carcass. This stage can last for several years until all the soft tissue is chewed away. The next stage is called the enrichment-opportunist stage, where worms, crustaceans, and bacteria feast on the whale nutrients sunken into the surrounding sand. The third, sulfophilic stage, can last for decades. Here, bone-eating Osedax worms and sulfur-oxidizing bacteria break down the fat inside whale bones. The fourth and final stage of a whale fall is called the reef stage, can last somewhat indefinitely. Now, the whale has become hard substrate, where suspension feeders like anemones and sponges can latch on and grow.

Whale falls were much more abundant hundreds of years ago, before whale populations drastically diminished the number of whales sinking to the seafloor. This has likely led to a ripple of extinctions in species that specialize on whale falls and rely on these carcasses to complete their life cycles. One whale researcher suggests about a third of whale fall specialists may have already gone extinct in the North Atlantic, where whaling reduced populations by about 75 percent. It’s only fitting that a creature this awe-inspiring in life would also be so consequential in death.

FACT: Neanderthals couldn’t smell just how stinky they were

By Sara Kiley Watson

You probably have a unique aroma that you can’t smell at all. And in your brain, it’s not that you don’t stink—it’s that you’re so used to your own stink that it doesn’t phase you anymore. In fact your own odor is comfortingly kinda familiar. After all, if you were constantly sniffing yourself, you’d probably have a breakdown from the sensory input of all of the stinks of your microbes, sweat, farts, etc. So–when some of your self produced stink, well, stinks, your nose gets used to it. And really, it’s not just your own stink after a while, eventually you’ll get used to the smell of your pets and family members and favorite foods.

But smelling is unique to all species, and individuals. For a study published in December, scientists looked at 30 different olfactory receptors across the Neanderthal, Denisovian, and ancient homo sapien genomes. They found 11 receptors in the extinct humans that had unique DNA that didn’t appear in humans. 

Via a difference in receptors, Neanderthals had a bit of a superpower. They couldn’t smell body odors as well as their cousins—specifically one neanderthal had a genetic mutation that slimmed their ability to smell androstadienone, a chemical we associate with urine and sweat smells. Considering these guys were living in caves, building complex structures there from around 176,000 years ago, this probably came in handy when it comes to living in a world without deodorant.