April 1, 2014

Flying Penguins and Bigons

        Happy April Fools’ Day!  I confess to being rather ambivalent about hoaxes and tricks since I can’t help worrying about all the people who get hurt by “harmless” pranks.  Still, many hoaxes through the ages have undoubtedly been cleverly done, and sci fi and fantasy topics are among the most popular subjects to feed to a gullible public.  Here are a few fabulous creatures and inventions that we first learned about on April 1.
        The hotheaded naked ice borer is about six inches long and lives in labyrinthine tunnels in the Antarctic ice.  Its body temperature is very high, and extra blood vessels line the skin of a bony plate on its forehead, allowing it to melt ice in its path.  It travels in packs, hunting penguins by melting the ice out below their feet so that they sink down into the feeding frenzy.  The hotheaded naked ice borer was discovered in 1995 by Dr April Pazzo.  (Read the full Discover article here.)
        Of course, hotheaded naked ice borers don’t manage to catch many of the rare flying penguins.  These flying Adélie penguins were discovered by camera crews filming the BBC’s natural history series “Miracles of Evolution” in 2008.  Watch the video!
        The Tasmanian mock walrus was a popular housepet in Florida in the early 80’s.  Four inches long with the temperament of a hamster, it purrs, it can be litter trained, and it eats enough cockroaches to clean out a house.  Unfortunately, Dean Johnson reported in The Orlando Sentinel in 1984, the pest-control lobby was pressuring the government to ban these lovable pets.  They must have succeeded, because that was the last anyone heard of the Tasmanian mock walrus.  (See the article here.)
         Unfortunately, many wonderful creatures aren’t discovered until they’re dead, like the Derbyshire fairy photographed by Dan Baines in 2007.  The small mummified remains had been found by an old man walking his dog.  (I assume that means the dog is actually the one who found it, old men and dogs being what they are.)  No living fairies of this species have ever been documented.  (Hear from Dan Baines here.)
        Also discovered dead - and presumably long extinct - was a winged theropod dinosaur.  The journal Nature reported in 1999 that the near-complete skeleton of this flying monster was  found by Randy Sepulchrave of the University of Southern North Dakota.  In addition to having membranous wings, the Velociraptor-like dinosaur had neck vertebrae showing signs of extensive and repeated exposure to flame.  Its scientific name is Smaugia volans.  (Read the full article here.)
        And here’s one that I’m happy to report was a complete hoax.  The Loch Ness Monster that was discovered dead by a team of Yorkshire scientists in 1972 was not, I repeat not, an actual Loch Ness Monster.  It was in fact a bull elephant seal that had died and been frozen, transported to the lake, and left to bob mysteriously under the noses of the scientists.  And that can mean only one thing: the real Nessie is still alive!  (Details here.)
        In addition to discoveries, April 1 is also an auspicious date for technological innovations.  In 1878 the New York Graphic unveiled Thomas Edison’s Food Creator, which could manufacture “biscuit, meat, vegetables and wine out of air, water and common earth.”
        In 1934 engineer Ottfried Koycher demonstrated a new machine allowing him to fly with lung power.  The apparatus used the carbon dioxide in his breath to power a small motor.  (The story was first carried in the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, and unfortunately many US newspapers which covered the story got the details of both his name and his technology wrong.)
        In 1981 the Guardian reported that scientists had developed a machine to control the weather.  Dr Chisholm-Downright explained that Britain would henceforth have “long summers, with rainfall only at night, and the Continent will have whatever [the research lab in] Pershore decides to send it.”
        In 1996 Discover announced Dr Albert Manque’s discovery of a new fundamental particle of matter.  The Bigon materializes for mere millionths of a second, but is as big as a bowling ball.  It may be responsible for many mysterious phenomena including spontaneous human combustion.
        These are just a few highlights.  Many of the greatest scientific discoveries of the past two centuries have occurred on or been reported on the first of April.  What are the odds?  It just goes to show how badly we want to believe that incredible, magical, fantastical things really do happen.

[Pictures: Mummified fairy, photo by Dan Baines, 2007;
The First Human-powered Flight Succeeds, from Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, April 1, 1934 (Image from The Museum of Hoaxes.)]


Pax said...

What fun! Thanks. These are much better than having my bed short-sheeted or salt put in the sugar bowl. But what about the mysterious leprechaun of Borneo? What is announced on April 1 or March 17?

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

That was a St Patrick's Day discovery, not April 1. =) You can review the facts here.