Atlas Obscura - Latest Articles and Places
Sibiu's Houses with Eyes in Sibiu, Romania
October 19th, 2017, 07:33 PM

Houses with eyes.

While walking around Sibiu, Romania, you’ll start to notice something a bit odd. You may even get the sense that someone—or something—is watching you. While you gaze at the city’s architecture, you’ll start to realize the houses are staring back.

Many of the houses on the south and east sides of the city look as though they have eyes peering from their roofs. These cartoonish features give the impression that the buildings (much like Sibiu’s notorious party crowd) never sleep.

Though the eyes may look like some sort of sinister Big Brother surveillance program, they’re actually just oddly shaped windows. Houses use them as a cooling system for their attics. Most of the “eyes” were built between the 15th and 19th centuries.

Despite their practical purposes, some like to claim these peepers were built to instill fear in people, letting them know they were always being watched and to behave accordingly. When dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was in power, this architectural detail felt extra disturbing to the citizens. It wasn't enough that phones were being tapped, people were being questioned, and families were blacklisted. It’s as if the houses were watching their every move, too.

And now, though Ceauşescu is long gone, the eyes are still there, as they have been for centuries. Unblinking, unmoving, and always observing.

Garavice Memorial Park in Bihać, Bosnia and Herzegovina
October 19th, 2017, 07:33 PM

Just outside the town of Bihać, in Bosnia, a somber memorial park marks the place where 12,000 ethnic Serbs and Jews were executed by fascist forces during the Second World War.

Axis forces controlled much of the Balkans during the war, and as borders were redrawn the town of Bihać became a part of the fascist-aligned Independent State of Croatia.

In June 1941 the new mayor of Bihać, Ljubomir Kvaternik, moved towards homogenizing the town, ruling that all ethnic Serbs and Jews had to leave their homes. Many did, but a great number ignored the order. In July, the mayor called for the arrest of all those who remained. Between July and August that year, thousands of Jewish and Serb civilians of all ages were taken to sites outside the town and executed en masse.

One of the largest places of execution was on Garavice Hill—and it was here, decades later, that socialist Yugoslavia would build a monument to the dead.

The Garavice Memorial Park to the Victims of Fascist Terror was designed by renowned architect Bogdan Bogdanović, and completed in 1981. It consists of 15 stone columns placed around the crest of Garavice Hill, roughly 15 feet in height and each formed from a series of carved stone blocks. Engravings on the blocks show curious patterns and abstract designs, reminiscent of local folk art.

Today, the memorial park is poorly maintained. Some of the pillars were damaged during the conflict in the 1990s, while graffiti stains many of the stones. Unlike other monuments in the nations of former Yugoslavia, where fresh flowers often indicate their contemporary use as memorial sites, the Garavice Memorial Park appears to be largely forgotten.

Its antifascist message remains a powerful one though, for those who still choose to visit; and an engraved script on a stone near the entrance to the park reads:

"Life is stronger than death,

Justice is stronger than crime,

Love is stronger than hate."

In China, Ghosts Demand the Finer Things in Life
October 19th, 2017, 07:33 PM

There’s a pretty clear, well-defined set of traits that make up a ghost in the Western world—from the mushy green slimers of Ghostbusters to translucent, pudgy Casper to the myriad diaphanous denizens of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. They’re immaterial, legless floaters that often care little for the material concerns of the living. It’s mostly a reflection of the Western conception of the afterlife, as place above (or below) the living world. But ghosts in other parts of the world can be rather different. In China, for example, ghosts experience the same desires and, quite literally, appetites of the living. And it's in our best interests to give them what they want.

“The traditional view of death in China is different from the traditional view of death in the West,” says Nick Tackett, an historian from University of California, Berkeley, who studies traditional Chinese death rituals, especially those from Song and Liao periods. The spirit of the deceased separates into two parts, which one might call two souls. One of which resides—and ideally remains—in the tomb, and one of which resides in the ancestral tablet,” a plaque kept in shrines in homes or temples. After burial, souls need to be fed constantly, Tackett explains. “Regular offerings at the ancestral altar and periodic offerings at the grave helped satiate the souls of the deceased.”


But if something goes awry—forgetful relatives who neglect their feeding duties, an improper burial, or some unfinished business on Earth—a dead person’s soul can wander out of the tomb, hungry. These ghosts rarely meddle in the affairs of the living, but starting on the 15th day of the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar—roughly sometime in July/August—the gates of the underworld unlock, allowing flocks of hungry ghosts to roam freely for a month, the appropriately titled Ghost Month (鬼月), also known as the Yulan or Zhongyuan Festival.

The origins of this belief are thought to go back to a third-century tale about a Buddhist monk, Mulian, whose deceased mother came back to haunt him as a thin-throated, huge-stomached, ravenous apparition. Mulian desperately wanted to satisfy her, but he was unable. The more he fed her, the hungrier she became. It turns out she had been too greedy during her lifetime, leaving her insatiable in death. So the monk turned to Buddha for advice and learned that, on a particular auspicious day, he could visit the temple with food, money, and all sort of goodies to fill the ghost’s appetite. It worked, and the “Hungry Ghost” tradition was born.


Of course, the true origins of the ghost rituals are a little more complex. They developed out of a centuries-long process of mixing and matching of local folk traditions, Taoism, and Buddhism, dating to well before the third century. “Although the Ghost Festival is found only in East Asia in medieval times, many of its rituals and mythological components derive from lands to the West of China, not only India but the many kingdoms and trading centers of central Asia so crucial in the dissemination of Indic and Aryan culture to the east,” writes Stephen S. Teiser, a scholar of Buddhism and religion at Princeton University, in The Ghost Festival in Medieval China.

But Mulian’s tale is a significant part of the practice today. “Hungry ghosts are the spirits of people who always wanted more than they had, were never grateful for what they were given, and cannot find peace in the afterlife any more than they could when they lived,” according to writer Emily Mark in the Ancient History Encyclopedia. “They are often depicted as people with enormous stomachs but tiny mouths and necks which no amount of food could ever fill.”


On top of being rather hangry, these ghosts have some particular preferences during their month-long wandering on Earth. There is a long list of things that the living should avoid during Ghost Month. Whistling attracts ghosts. Leaving clothes out to dry tempts ghosts to try them on. Staying up late courts possession. Getting married or starting a relationship is a bad idea, as it is not likely to end well. And whatever you do, don’t buy a home or apartment during Ghost Month. It will be haunted forever. These beliefs actually have real life repercussions, as shown in a 2015 study by Agarwal Sumit and his colleagues at the National University of Singapore. During Ghost Month, they found, demand for housing goes down, which opens up good real estate deals for nonbelievers.


Now that you know what not to do, here’s what you should do to avoid the ire of hungry ghosts. Just like Buddha’s recommendations to Mulian, most of these rituals revolve around the provision of material goods. “There were numerous ways in which the dead seem to have benefited from a sort of ‘virtual reality,’" says Tackett. “Within the tomb, the soul of the deceased could enjoy an afterlife banquet represented in tomb murals. Similarly, fake paper money was as useful as real money.”

Archeological evidence suggests that paper offerings, known as zhizha, or “hell money,” date as far back as 1000 B.C. The idea is that through the act of burning, this fake money is transported to the underworld, where ghosts can squander it as they see fit. “It is implicitly agreed that if a person received proper burial and sacrifice, the ghost of this person will not come back to harm people,” writes Mu-chou Poo, a historian at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, in Rethinking Ghosts in World Religions. During the Song Dynasty (960–1279) other goods started to be made into a form of zhizha for ghost rituals. Paper effigies of clothes, houses, horses, and even servants were burned to send these items to the underworld’s lavish economy.


The desires of hungry ghosts have evolved with the times. “The festival, and the wider act of burning items to send to one’s ancestors in the underworld, reveals the cultural flows of globalization, and the consumption habits of individuals,” says Terence Hang, a sociologist at Singapore Institute of Technology who studies the festival’s visual culture. “Individuals now purchase and burn whatever is fashionable to consume in a contemporary, globalized society. One can get hold of paper iPads, paper credit cards, paper Rolls Royces, and more.”


“The idea is that you try to update their lifestyle to match your modern comfort,” says Xiaoxia Zhou from China Institute in America, a nonprofit organization that promotes Chinese culture. “Your ancestors should have the same things you have, read the same things you read. So people now burn paper TVs, paper fridges, [and] in some cases—taking female objectification to its extreme—even a beautiful mistress or a secretary.”

There was a moment when this centuries-long tradition seemed to be on its way out. It has long been tied the Chinese concept of filial piety (孝, xiao), which asserts that sons and daughters should take care of their parents the best they can. The 1911 revolution sought to do away with such ideas and practices. "Ghost Festival rituals or other manifestations of xiao were seens as backward folklore that was preventing China from modernizing,” says Zhou. Decades later, Mao Zedong, then a librarian, integrated this sentiment into his Cultural Revolution.


But the Ghost Festival was entrenched in Chinese culture. Not only has it survived, but now the Chinese government considers it part of the country’s intangible cultural heritage. Zhou explains that the tradition is strong in rural areas and southern provinces, but less so in China’s burgeoning urban centers. Some urban communities are now trying to make the centuries-old festival more relevant to young, Western-influenced city dwellers. In 2015 a community in Hong Kong launched the first Ghost Festival costume contest. "It can be just like Halloween," Anven Wu Yim-chung, director at the Federation of Hong Kong Chiu Chow Community Organizations, told the South China Morning Post. The competition welcomed both traditional Chinese ghost options and anime characters. The 2016 edition added a ghost grappling competition and ghost opera.


And as the Hungry Ghost Festival loses some ground among the young, so does the centuries-long craft of making traditional zhizha paper effigies, which have been replaced by cheap, mass-produced versions available online rather than in traditional shops. But the ancient craft does endure. After graduating from design school in the early 1990s, Au Yeung Ping-chi decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and learn how to twist and turn thin sheets of bamboo paper to make evocative ghost effigies.

Ping-chi, who runs his workshop in Hong Kong’s Sham Shui Po district, made a name of himself as an “unconventional” effigy maker after he crafted a ghost guitar for the spirit of Koma Wong Ka-kui of renowned Hong-Kong rock band Beyond, who died after falling from a stage in Japan in 1993.


Since then he’s taken on a variety of commissions for unusual effigies, according to Zolima magazine: an Xbox, a skateboard, a nail clipper, a tamagotchi. Ghost food is another popular option. Ping-chi makes great ghost chicken wings and ghost dumplings. And the largest effigy he ever made was a full-scale fishing pole.

His father Wai-kin worries a bit about the direction the practice has taken. “The appearance of our effigies ... have to be equivalent to what the living used, so the underworld can experience progress too,” he told the South China Post. “But some popular products now deviate from that principle.” One has to wonder what a hungry ghost would need an iPhone for anyway.

Can Fake Coyotes Scare Off Sea Lions?
October 19th, 2017, 07:33 PM

Newport Beach, California, has a sea lion problem. The sleek beasts have an annoying habit of climbing aboard the docks and private boats in the harbor and sunning themselves, creating a dangerous situation (for human and sea lion) when the boats’ owners come to take their vessels out. So in an effort to combat this plague of sea lions, Newport Beach has turned to an unlikely ally: fake coyotes.

According to Mary Locey, a representative of the City of Newport Beach who spoke to local news station ABC 7, they got the idea from the harbor yacht club, who have had some success with the concept.

The city installed eight plastic coyote statues on parts of the harbor where the animals have been known to gather. Each coyote is depicted in a fearsome crouch, as if it might be ready to attack.

Locey also suggested that people fill the empty spaces on the boats and docks with potted plants or lawn chairs to make them less inviting. The NOAA’s official guide to acceptable sea lion deterrents also lists a number of potential options including using balloons or pinwheels as visual deterrents, loud noises such as firecrackers or banging pots together, or even spraying them with squirt guns.

The use of fake coyotes is not listed as an officially approved method of deterrent, but then again they don’t say not to either.

Statue of Liberty's Original Torch in New York, New York
October 19th, 2017, 07:33 PM

The original torch was replaced in 1986.

Towering over a tiny chunk of land in New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty has greeted millions of tourists and immigrants that come to the United States through New York City. The iconic Lady Liberty clutches a torch in her raised hand, which symbolizes enlightenment. But the light she holds up as a beacon today isn't the original.

Dedicated in 1886 as a gift from France, the last 100-odd years of weathering the elements has taken its toll on the monument. Its color changed from copper to blue-green, and even its signature accessory has been replaced.

The original torch held in Lady Liberty's raised hand was swapped for a newer, more efficient design in 1984. Fortunately, the original torch was not thrown out when the current version took its place two years later. Rather, it was placed in the museum below, in the statue pedestal. A tour to the pedestal should take you through the museum and directly past the original torch. 

The Battle Between Baseball and Cricket for American Sporting Supremacy
October 19th, 2017, 07:33 PM

In early summer 1859, St. George’s Cricket Club found itself at an existential crossroads. Established in 1838, the Manhattan-based organization had for decades worked assiduously to, in the words of an 1859 club pamphlet, “see Cricket more generally established, better understood, and more regularly practiced” in America. In this quest, the club had initially benefited from its sport’s old-world cachet. Cricket offered American sportsmen a uniform and replicable product. Conversely, its chief competitor—“Base Ball”—had until recently remained provincial and largely underdeveloped.

This advantage had long kept cricket competitive in a battle for supremacy in New York, which was far more hotly contested than modern sports fans might think. “In the mid-1850s baseball and cricket were reasonable contenders for the title,” says John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball. “The press often referred to them [in the plural] as America’s ‘national pastimes.’”

In those years, however, baseball had taken significant strides. In 1854, New York’s most prominent clubs, led by a team known as the Knickerbockers, had begun to codify basic rules. The sport’s popularity grew exponentially after an 1857 conference established many of the standards that remain in place today. With new clubs sprouting monthly across the northeast United States, St. George’s and other cricket organizations now searched for something, anything, to stave baseball’s momentum.


On June 9, 1859, they found it. For years, St. George’s, along with a peer club in Montreal, had tried to lure the All-England Eleven—a world-renowned all-star team of British cricketers—to North America. On this day, the club received word that their efforts had finally paid off. The team, spearheaded by George Parr, “the great Leviathan of Batters,” had committed to October fixtures against clubs at Montreal, New York City, Philadelphia, and Hamilton.

Founded by William Clarke in 1840, the All-England Eleven included several of the era’s most famous players. In addition to Parr, the Eleven included such notable personalities as James Grundy, who in July 1857 had famously scored 108 runs in six straight hours; Robert Carpenter, a fielding wizard “as active and playful as a young colt turned loose in his pasture”; and John Jackson, a man “notorious for the terrific celebrity of his bowling.”

Intrigued to see their countrymen take on such storied talent, Americans went suddenly mad for cricket. Newspapers as far away as Louisiana and Wisconsin promoted the matches, alongside basic rules, terms, and strategies for the sport. As one member of St. George’s later recalled: “No arrival in this country from England could have produced greater excitement than these celebrated Cricketers have done, except a visit from Queen Victoria herself.”


Of the four fixtures, the New York match stood out as the main event. Dominated by members of St. George’s, the squad there brimmed with experienced players—most notably Harry Wright, whose father, Samuel, had been a professional cricketer in Sheffield, England. Wright, who would later manage America’s first fully professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, already boasted enough of a reputation in New York to inspire hope for a legendary upset.

By October 3, game day, anticipation reached a fever pitch. According to St. George’s account of the match, attendees filled all 5,000 seats set up at Hoboken’s Elysian Fields, and “a large number were standing about in every eligible position from which a view of the ground could be obtained.” By the time the match commenced, “young men and maidens, old men and children” watched on with bated breath.

In a two-inning match, the umpires allowed the American side 22 batters. The English side batted the traditional 11. In their first inning, the Americans managed 38 runs before their final batter was out. The first two English batters alone put up 59. By inning’s end, the Eleven had scored 156 runs. The Americans did better in the second, notching 54 runs the next day. Still, they fell far short of the 118 needed to prolong the match.

Despite the thrashing, St. George’s spun the fixture as a success. Noting that the event had drawn “the largest array of spectators that had ever previously been congregated for such an object in this country,” the group later wrote that the young American players needed “only the right practice to equal ere long in expertness, any men or set of men from the parent country.”


To the club’s dismay, however, control of the post-match narrative soon slipped out of its fingers. Shortly after the Eleven defeated another opponent in Philadelphia, rumors proliferated that American clubs had challenged the cricketers to a game of baseball. The New York Herald reported on Oct. 13 that the Eleven had declined for the present, but had “obtained books of instruction and a specimen bat, and during the winter and spring [would] practice the game.” The following year, the paper continued, the club would “change position with their American friends, and become students instead of professors.”

The match never came to fruition. Still, the ensuing media blitz marked an important stage in the development of organized sports in America. For perhaps the first time in its young history, organized baseball found itself on the front page of a major American newspaper.

On October 16, 1859, the Herald ran a lengthy essay entitled, “Cricket and Base Ball: The English Cricketers and the Proposed Base Ball Match—the Two Games Described and Compared.” Intended for the uninitiated, it described both sports in the simplest of terms.

“Baseball,” the paper reported, “is so called from the game being played by a ball struck with a bat, whereupon the striker runs to points called ‘bases,’ of which there are four, at the four corners of a square, placed diagonally or diamond wise.”

After describing baseball’s basic rules, the article detailed recent innovations, including the expansion of foul territory, the requisite 90 feet between bases, and, notably, force outs: “Formerly it was sufficient to strike the adversary with the ball by throwing it at him. This practice is now abolished, as it was dangerous and unnecessary to the game.”

Unfortunately for St. George’s, the Herald didn’t stop there. The paper went on to choose sides in a debate then raging about whether cricket or baseball had the most potential to draw paying crowds. “In the points on which it differs from cricket, [baseball] is more suited to the genius of the people,” it argued. “Even if there were no base ball in existence cricket could never become a national sport in America—it is too slow, intricate and plodding a game for our go-ahead people.”


Declaring baseball much livelier than its competition and admiring how the sport could be played in a single afternoon rather than cricket’s two to five days, the paper then delivered an incisive line, which spelled doom for cricket in a post-Jacksonian America. “Cricket seems very tame and dull after looking at a game of base ball,” the paper declared. “It is suited to the aristocracy, who have leisure and love ease; base ball is suited to the people.”

Despite such coverage, St. George’s patrons remained hopeful. The tour of the All-England Eleven had proven a resounding financial success. Assuming, perhaps correctly, that the Eleven would never risk embarrassing itself in a baseball match, St. George’s wrote off reports of an exhibition match as unfounded rumors. The club hoped to lure Parr and his all-stars back across the pond as soon as possible. Should American squads make a better showing during a rematch, the club might restoke the excitement that had preceded the Eleven’s arrival.

Unfortunately, such plans soon fell victim to the whims of history. Initially, St. George’s had eyed dates in 1861 as reasonable options for a return visit. “The Civil War made this impossible,” Thorn says, “not only for logistical reasons, but also because it enflamed anti-England sentiment.” New Yorkers, like many northerners, resented Great Britain for continuing to buy Southern cotton during the war.

By the end of the conflict, interest in cricket had waned. While the sport remained respectable, it was too foreign, too British, to appeal to a divided populace desperately searching for a new national identity. As the reunited states pieced themselves back together in subsequent years, it became clear there was only one game perfectly suited for American sensibilities.

“What cricket is to an Englishman so base ball is to an American,” the Herald wrote in its preview of the 1867 season. “Each look upon their national game as the very perfection of a sport; and nothing would be better adapted to the peculiar characteristics of the two nationalities than these very games.”

We Now Have Evidence That Birds Preened Their Plumage 48 Million Years Ago
October 19th, 2017, 07:33 PM

Most birds have a small gland on the top of their tails, hidden under their feathers. The uropygial gland, it's called, secretes a waxy, fatty substance called preen oil that birds slather all over themselves using their beaks and sometimes their feet. Preen oil offers critical protection against water and microbes, and even has cosmetic benefits—flamingos use their carotenoid-laden preen oil like make-up to make their feathers even more pink. Despite how common the gland is in birds, and how important it can be to their health and survival, we actually don't know whether their ancestors—the dinosaurs—had such glands too. Fossilized soft tissue is extremely rare, so that question remains unanswered. But new research has uncovered the oldest example of a uropygial gland yet, and demonstrates that we may be able to identify one if we ever find the right dinosaur fossil.

A former lake in Germany, the Messel Pit Fossil Site, contains an exceptional number of fossils that preserve some imprint or remnant of soft tissue. An international team of researchers took a closer look at a bird specimen excavated from the site that appears to hold evidence of a uropygial gland. It's not the first specimen found with the gland, but it could be the oldest—at 48 million years old. To confirm that what they saw in the fossil really was the gland (and not some other structure), the team looked for evidence of preen oil at the molecular level.

They compared samples of the fossilized gland, the surrounding rock, fossilized feathers, and preen oil from modern birds. The fossilized gland was distinctly different from the rocks and fossilized feathers around it, and the scientists found molecules in the gland that are very similar to ones from modern preen oil. "The lipids have kept their original chemical composition, at least in part," said George Mayr, one of the coauthors of the report, in a statement. Mayr and his colleagues aren't sure why the lipids survived for so long, but they think preen oil's antimicrobial properties may have protected the uropygial gland's soft tissue from breaking down too quickly to be preserved.

"If we find more of these lipids, we will be able to better reconstruct the lifestyle of these animals," said coauthor Jakob Vinther in a statement. "For example, it would be interesting to find out whether feathered dinosaurs, as the ancestors of birds, already possessed uropygial glands and preened their plumages."

One Artist's Lifelong Quest to Create a Hidden Kingdom Called Rocaterrania
October 19th, 2017, 07:33 PM

Renaldo Kuhler lived on his own terms. He loved bathtubs, he eschewed cars and computers, he played a plywood violin, and he sometimes wore a uniform of his own design, which showed off his long, strong legs. “Renaldo drank a lot, smoked a lot, talked a lot—to me, to himself, and to anyone within earshot,” writes Brett Ingram, author of The Secret World of Renaldo Kuhler. The one thing Kuhler did not talk about, not for decades, not to anyone, was Rocaterrania, the hidden kingdom he had created as a young man.

Over the course of his life, Kuhler made thousands of drawings—maps, portraits, landscapes, propaganda—illustrating the history of Rocaterrania. After Ingram started filming him for a documentary, Kuhler started to reveal the story of his secret land, a place of intrigues and revolutions, heroes and villains. The Secret World of Renaldo Kuhler, to be published this October, might be thought of as the first history of Rocaterrania. It collects Kuhler’s fascinating art and tells, for the first time in print, the full, epic story of the world he created.


Rocaterrania was founded in 1931, when two wealthy American immigrants bought an expanse of land north of the Adirondacks, extending up to the Canadian border. Rocaterrania's first leaders were monarchs, Phillippe and Catherine, who had little use for democracy. Their new country resembled old Europe, with streets that resembled Paris, an opera house in the capital, and a hard-working lower class of immigrant farmers and miners. As Rocaterrania’s population grew, the country developed its own culture, with its own language, based on Spanish, Yiddish, German, and English, and its own religion, Ojallaism, which drew from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The people of Rocaterrania, though, were unhappy with monarchical rule, and the country’s history was marked with revolts. The monarchy was forced to recognize an autonomous region, New Serbia, and was eventually overthrown by socialist rebels, who held democratic elections.


Under this new political order, innovation and culture flourished in Rocaterrania. The environmentally minded government created systems to recycle waste into fertilizer and created a Rocaterranian Conservation Corps that helped build up the country’s infrastructure. Rocaterranians started their own version of the Olympics, and a film industry blossomed.

The history concludes: “It took many hard years of struggle, dark days and night, for Rocaterrania to become the nice place it is today but, no question about it, they made it.”


Kuhler dreamed up Rocaterrania as a young man, discontented with the rule of his parents. He was born Ronald L. Kuhler in 1931, to European immigrants in New Jersey. He spent his childhood in New York’s Rockland County before his father moved the family to a cattle ranch in Colorado. Isolated, uninterested in becoming a cowboy, intrigued by art, music, language, and history, Kuhler escaped into an imaginary world.

Even after leaving home, he continued to spool out the story of Rocaterreania while working as a historian in Washington State and a scientific illustrator in Raleigh, North Carolina, where Ingram met him. Rocaterrenia wasn’t just a made-up world; it became a metaphorical history of his life. “Rocaterrania is not a utopia,” he told Ingram. “It is not a fairyland or dreamland. What it is, it indirectly tells the story of my life and my struggle to become what I am today. I am Rocaterrania, and my troubles within me and everything else, the events of my life.”


Read the history with that understanding and the undercurrents of Kuhler’s personal story start to emerge. When Phillippe, the first emperor, is described as a “benevolent, if somewhat inscrutable, monarch” and Catherine, the first empress, as “rather domineering,” Kuhler’s feelings about his parents come into focus. When an early rebellion gives one part of the country “substantial autonomy to govern their own affairs,” it maps onto the moment when Kuhler’s parents let him live in his own cabin on the ranch, granting him a partial freedom.

Kuhler’s tastes map onto Rocaterrania, too. Ingram writes that Kuhler donated generously to environmental causes; Rocaterranians are avid environmentalists. He played the violin; Rocaterranians revere the opera. Like Kuhler, the early monarchs loved trains, and they built a lasting system of urban transit and long-distance rail, so the country never developed a car culture. It’s even possible to read certain characters as aspects of Kuhler himself, too, and eventually a Ronald L. Kuhler and his twin sister, Renalda Kuhler, immigrate to Rocaterrania. Ronald quickly falls in love with one of the daughters of a well-regarded Rocaterranian family, and Renalda purses a career as an enterprising journalist.


As Rocaterrania matures as a country, its people find greater creativity and freedom. By the time Ingram met Kuhler, in the 1990s, he had found some of that same freedom. Kuhler “was unabashedly, unapologetically, incorrigibly himself as a moral imperative,” Ingram writes. The project of creating Rocaterrania and recording its history helped him realize a more fully expressive life for himself. Kuhler passed away in 2013, five years after Ingram completed his documentary, Rocaterrania. “The ability to fantasize is the ability to survive,” he told the filmmaker. Rocaterrania made that possible for Renaldo Kuhler.

The Mountain Sphinx in Bușteni, Romania
October 19th, 2017, 07:33 PM

The Sphinx, Busteni, Romania.

In the Bucegi Mountains of Romania there lies a rock formation shrouded in mystery and conspiracy theories. From a certain angle, its outline resembles that of Egypt's Great Sphinx of Giza.

The odd formation is one of the “Seven Wonders of Romania.” Over millions of years, the elements carved the nearly 40-foot-tall rock until it resembled something akin to a woman’s face. But the figure’s human-like appearance isn’t the main attraction that draws people to it.

The Mountain Sphinx is a hotbed of folklore and conspiracy theories. Some say it’s a strong energetic force field, one of the Earth’s supposed chakras. Others say an ancient civilization carved it to represent some sort of supreme god. And, as with most mysterious places, there are people who claim aliens are somehow involved.

Still others say it sits atop a cave guarded by an impenetrable force field, which may possibly hold anything from a library to an abandoned uranium mine to crystals containing all of humankind’s knowledge. People have even gone so far as to claim that the CIA and Romanian secret forces have attempted to penetrate whatever treasures the rock allegedly guards.

Whether you decide to believe any of the legends or not, the Sphinx will still be there waiting, perched atop the mountain as it has been for millennia. And as for the supposed energy field, you'll just have to feel it for yourself!

National Astronomical Observatory of Chile in Santiago, Chile
October 19th, 2017, 07:33 PM

National Astronomical Observatory of Chile.

An old story claims that Bernardo O'Higgins, a leader who freed Chile from Spanish rule in the Chilean War of Independence, wrote on his deathbed a letter to Chilean president Manuel Bulnes requesting that his estate be sold to fund an astronomical observatory on Santa Lucía Hill in the center of Santiago.

There’s no real evidence to support the story, but not long after O’Higgins died, Lieutenant James Melville Gilliss selected the hilltop site for an observatory during an expedition in 1849.

Gilliss went to Chile after establishing the U.S. Naval Observatory, the first in the States. After finishing the Santa Lucia Hill Observatory in 1852 Gilliss went back to the U.S., but left a staff behind to manage it. He later sold the site to the Chilean government, and it was renamed the National Astronomical Observatory of Chile.

Thanks to many large areas with little or no light pollution, low precipitation, and somewhere around 200 cloudless nights every year, Chile is Earth's unofficial astronomy capital. By 2020 it's set to have 70 percent of the world's astronomical infrastructure. It's home to many professional, amateur, and international astronomical institutions, and more than 10 observatories, including Las Campanas Observatory which houses one of the world's most powerful telescopes, the Giant Magellan.

In 1929 the University of Chile took over management of the National Astronomical Observatory. A few decades later, in the 1960s, when the observatory was moved about 10 miles east to Cerro Calán, the Soviet Union sent astronomers and telescopes to help establish the new location. They withdrew after the 1973 coup, when the Soviets severed all diplomatic relations with Chile. 

The National Astronomical Observatory contains a number of exceptional telescopes including a 47-inch Millimeter-wave Telescope (identical to one located at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) and an 18-inch Cassegrain reflector from the Japanese government. Though it's generally thought to have been completed in 1962 when the observatory moved to Cerro Calán, it's been in operation for over 160 years.

Rescuing a Fancy Chicken on the Appalachian Trail
October 19th, 2017, 07:33 PM

Heather Bolint has been thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail since late June. She's about halfway done, and she figured she had a pretty good handle on things. But on Tuesday, October 10, around 10:30 in the morning, about half a mile north of the Maryland border, she ran into a surprise.

"I was going along listening to an audiobook, in the zone," she says. "And I just see this crazy-looking rooster on the trail."

Although neither knew it at that moment, this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, forged during an adventure that would span 48 hours, 42 miles, and two state parks.


The rooster—later named Mason, since he was discovered so near the Mason-Dixon line—is indeed crazy-looking. He is a "fancy chicken," with orange coloration, an impressive tail, and a feather-duster head.

At first, Bolint filed the bird away as one of the trail's many curiosities. "I immediately took out my phone and filmed him, thinking I'd show my friends," she says. "He just kind of stuck around nearby, scratching at the ground and doing his little rooster thing."

But Bolint is a caring person and a bird lover—her friend gave her the trail name "Mama Duck"—and after a few minutes, those instincts kicked in. "We were out in the middle of the woods," she says. "There weren't any houses or fields around. It dawned on me that he probably wasn't where he was supposed to be."

At that moment, she says, "I decided I would take him with me."


Bolint carried Mason under her arm, his feet dangling down. When it was hot, she sweated all over him. When it rained, she tucked him into her coat. Throughout, he proved a calm traveling companion, sitting quietly during bathroom breaks, sleeping in the tent, and updating her on his mood with the occasional soft cluck. "He was a trooper for sure," she says.

She was, too: in order to get Mason to safety, she says, she covered about twice as many miles as she's used to. The two hiked until sunset, camped for a few hours, and took off again at midnight, hiking through dawn and into the late morning. Bolint's boyfriend met them in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and drove them to Poplar Spring, a farm animal sanctuary in Western Maryland.

Along the way, they made a lot of friends: a fellow hiker who gave Mason some kibble; a woman on a park bench who held him while Bolint re-upped on water. "I loved talking with people about chickens," she says. "When I got to Harpers Ferry, literally every single person stopped to talk with me and pet him."


News of the traveling rooster also spread up and down the trail. Hostel owners recognize Bolint, and she has been rechristened "Mama Cluck." Other hikers have told her they also spotted Mason in that area, starting about a week before she found him. (No one has yet explained how he got there, though.)

Bolint is confident he'll be well taken care of at Poplar Spring. "He's got a little section of the barn put aside for him," she says, and he's already been to the vet. (He was a little underweight.) She plans to keep checking in on him via text as she completes her own journey, and maybe someday—when her life is in one place—she'll adopt him. They could even go hiking together. "I feel like he could be a little adventure chicken," she says.

Below are more pictures of Bolint and Mason, for obvious reasons.


Every day, we track down a fleeting wonder—something amazing that’s only happening right now. Have a tip for us? Tell us about it! Send your temporary miracles to

The Most Beautiful Space Images on Earth
October 19th, 2017, 07:33 PM

In February 1984, high above the Earth’s atmosphere, astronaut Bruce McCandless exited the Challenger space shuttle. He wore only a spacesuit and a Manned Maneuvering Unit—a propulsion device that enabled him to move away from the spacecraft unencumbered by any lines. Over the course of six hours and 45 minutes, he moved as far as 320 feet away from the shuttle. Fellow astronaut Robert L. Gibson captured the moment with an image that has since become iconic. It shows McCandless adrift over a blue-and-white Earth, small against the infinite blackness of space.

Images like that one are historical documents, but also reminders of our place in the universe, which is one of the themes explored in the new book Universe: Exploring the Astronomical World. It features more than 300 depictions of the universe from throughout history, all with one common thread: how we as humans respond and relate to space. "Although the images come from a wide range of sources, they are all in their own way records of the same quest: that of understanding the heavens and what they tell us about ourselves," writes Paul Murdin, of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, in the introduction.


For much of history, humans have viewed the skies above as a mystical realm, a place where eclipses and comets are portents, or as a home to divine beings. In addition to NASA images and artistic renderings, the book also includes a 12th-century mosiac from Monreale Cathedral in Italy, in which God places the sun into the heavens; "The Angel Ruh Holding the Celestial Spheres," from the 16th-century Persian manuscript The Marvels of Creation and the Oddities of Existence; and a zodiac chart from 19th-century Mongolia.

In 2017, a set of extraordinary new images of space has appeared: the view from Saturn’s rings, the orbit of newly discovered binary asteroids, a close-up of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. And yet, even as revelations from far beyond Earth pour in, Gibson's photograph of the untethered spacewalk continues to amaze. Commenting years later on the photograph, McCandless said he is glad that his face was obscured by his reflective visor, and added, “my anonymity means people can imagine themselves doing the same thing.”

For those dreaming of space, Atlas Obscura has a selection of images from the book.

Watch Ophelia's Winds Send a Cumbrian Waterfall Into the Sky
October 19th, 2017, 07:33 PM

If it weren't for modern meteorology, people across Europe might well have assumed that the end was nigh. Birds have been wheeling madly overhead. Skies have gone red with Saharan dust. Wildfires have raged across the Iberian Peninsula. And a town in Lancashire, England, was covered with blobby white sea-foam. All of these odd phenomena were caused or impacted by Ophelia, the storm that started as a hurricane—the eastern-most on record—and evolved into a post-tropical cyclone as it swept across the British Isles and into the North Sea. In Cumbria, in northwest England, Ophelia had a curiously surreal effect. Its winds made a waterfall in the Mallerstang Valley reverse course, shooting spray into the sky as if gravity had gone topsy-turvy.

It's so unusual for a storm such as Ophelia to hit the United Kingdom and Ireland that tracking it actually transcended the boundaries of the U.S. National Hurricane Center's map graphics. But upended waterfalls aren't quite so rare—any particularly strong gust on a modest waterfall could do it. On the cliffside those winds must have been terrifying—but the video itself is quite soothing to watch. Sometimes, the end of things can look surprisingly wonderful.

South Texas Man’s $1.2 Million Fajita Heist Foiled After 9 Years
October 19th, 2017, 07:33 PM

Some people find ways to cheat the system, and others own it altogether. Gilberto Escamilla, a government employee in South Texas, recently found himself behind bars for stealing $1.2 million worth of fajitas over nine years. Escamilla might have kept it up for longer, too, had his coworker not picked up the phone one day.

Escamilla took a day off from his job at the Cameron County Juvenile Justice Department in San Benito, Texas, to go to a doctor’s appointment on August 7. That day, his replacement received a phone call from a Labatt Food Service driver to confirm an 800-pound fajita delivery.

The only problem? The Juvenile Justice Department doesn’t serve fajitas. Yet the driver insisted that Labatt had indeed supplied them with fajitas for the past nine years. The next day, when Escamilla’s supervisor confronted him, he fessed up to stealing fajitas for nearly a decade.

Initially, investigators believed that Escamilla stole between $2,500 and $30,000 worth of fajitas. In August, after finding fajita packets at Escamilla’s house, authorities booked him. Escamilla made bail, but he was arrested again earlier this week, this time on first-degree theft felony charges. As The Brownsville Herald reports, his fajita haul clocked in closer to $1,251,578. "If it wasn't so serious, you'd think it was a Saturday Night Live skit," Luis V. Saenz, the Cameron County District Attorney, told the paper.

By poring over invoices, purchase orders, and vouchers, investigators also found that Escamilla had a streamlined system: He delivered fajitas to buyers the very same day he ordered them.


The practice of reselling stolen meat has ticked up in recent years, and is thought to be partially due to rising beef prices. It even prompted a 2011 sting operation from the Austin Police Department entitled Operation Meat Locker, aimed at combatting the “growing crime” of people stealing grocery store meat and reselling it to restaurants. According to KUT, several officers went undercover as meat thieves and attempted to sell stolen meat to Austin-area restaurants. They found that over $5,000 worth of stolen meat was re-sold to three restaurants, all of which had their licenses revoked.

While Escamilla’s meat heist is particularly large, how he masterminded a fajita black market (right under the government’s nose) for almost a decade remains a mystery. Saenz conceded that the lack of oversight constituted a “total failure” on the juvenile department’s part. Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Rose Gomez, of the Cameron County Juvenile Justice Department, said in a statement that they are now formally reviewing the department’s policies―presumably before anyone starts, or in this case, takes, any more beef.

We’re launching a food section! Gastro Obscura will cover the world’s most wondrous food and drink. Sign up for our weekly email to get an early look.

Sharpshooter's Tree in Washington, D.C.
October 19th, 2017, 07:33 PM

Sharpshooter tree memorial

A pair of modest plaques on the Walter Reed Army Hospital are all that’s left of an infamous tree that almost brought down a presidency. During the Civil War, Confederate sharpshooters hid among its poplar branches and tried to shoot at Abraham Lincoln, the first and only time that a sitting president has come under battlefield fire.

Confederate General Jubal A. Early lead a surprise blitz against the Northern capital on July 11, 1864 in an effort to snatch a surprise victory while the majority of Union Forces were arrayed elsewhere against the cities of Petersburg and Richmond. The ensuing Battle of Fort Stevens indecisively pitted exhausted Confederate pickets against a rag tag bunch of inexperienced and convalescent defenders in the Circle Forts around Washington.

President Lincoln rode up to the hilltop Fort Stevens to observe the skirmishing that afternoon, and was very nearly hit by a lucky shot. A Confederate sharpshooter had hidden himself atop a towering 150 foot poplar near the fort, and began popping off shots at Lincoln’s immediately recognizable stovetop hat. Lincoln emerged unscathed, but one of the rounds hit an Army surgeon next to him, after which Mrs. Lincoln fainted and a young future supreme court justice advised him to “Get down, you damn fool!”

The sharpshooter’s tree was actually hit by a cannon ball during the battle, which it miraculously survived. The sharpshooter was less lucky  Mary W. Standlee’s history of the Walter Reed Medical Center notes that he was “wounded by an equally good Union marksman of his kind, [and] died on the grounds of the Beall farm.”

Day one of the Battle of Fort Stevens was a draw, but masses of Union reinforcements were pouring into the city by that evening, which flipped the battlefield math in their favor. Confederate General Early later recalled that the morning of the 12th he awoke to find “the parapet lined with troops” and “decided to give up all hopes of capturing Washington.”

The Sharpshooter’s Tree lived on for another 60 years until it was struck by lightning in a December storm in 1920. A boulder and plaque were erected to mark the hallowed ground, and in 1963 two battlefield cannon balls were added to the monument, which came along with a second plaque.

Besides one extant Fort Stevens parapat, little remains of the battlefield amidst 20th-century suburban development. The present-day location of the Sharpshooter's Tree inside an army hospital campus makes for a fitting historical bookend to the violence of 1864.

Telliskivi Creative City in Tallinn, Estonia
October 19th, 2017, 07:33 PM

Art within the creative city.

The Telliskivi Creative City is Estonia’s largest creative center. Though it’s about a 15 minute walk from the historic Old Town, it’s worth the slight detour to wander through and see what the thriving artistic community has to offer.

The creative city, which consists of 10 buildings that hold over 200 businesses and organizations, has an easygoing bohemian vibe. Each individual business is at liberty to design its space as it sees fit. The eclectic array of mismatched decor creates a vibrant, artistic atmosphere.

You don't have to go to Telliskivi to do something particular—it's a lovely spot just to kill some free time. It’s a perfect place for hanging out and meeting locals. There are many restaurants, cafes, and shops for different budgets and tastes. There’s also a yoga studio, a concert hall, and even a massage studio.

It's also the place where many events are held. On Saturdays Telliskivi hosts the biggest flea market in Tallinn, where you can spend hours browsing through selections of artwork, antiques, and oddities. There’s also a massive annual food festival that draws in thousands of people.

Telliskivi allowed Tallinn’s artists and free spirits to reclaim a neglected part of their city. The Telliskivi Creative City breathed new life into a drab former factory complex that originally popped up around the old Baltic Railway tracks.

Surf Snowdonia in Dolgarrog, Wales
October 19th, 2017, 07:33 PM

Surfing at the finals of Red Bull Unleashed.

The mountains of Snowdonia in Wales are a beautiful destination for hiking and camping—or surfing, if you're up for something a bit different from the typical terrestrial activities.

The artificial wave pool at Surf Snowdonia is the first manmade commercial surfing lake in Great Britain. The freshwater pool can generate a 6.7-foot that can last 16 seconds and travel a distance of 490 feet, which the park claims is the world’s longest artificial surf wave.

The pool contains a wave-generating mechanism that’s based on a prototype built in San Sebastian in Spain’s Basque Country. It can produce three different sized waves at a rate of one per minute. 

Pristine rainwater from reservoirs in the nearby hills fill the pool, which, at just under 1,000 feet long and 360 feet wide can hold up to 52 surfers at a time. The water passes through the hydropower station to extract its energy before it’s used in the pool, which holds some 6 million gallons of water. 

The Welsh town was previously home to the Dolgarrog Aluminium Works, which closed in 2007. After other proposed developments to take its place failed, plans for this unique inland surfing attraction were unveiled in 2013.

Because of its century-long use as an industrial site, reopening it as an adventure park required much decontamination. Construction cost a total of £12 million. When the site opened to the public on August 1, 2015, 14,000 people visited in its first two weeks of operation. Around 3,500 people surfed in the pool.

Pig Monument in Tennille, Georgia
October 19th, 2017, 07:33 PM

In the middle of rural Georgia, near the tiny town of Oconee, a group of neighbors banded together amid the trials of the Great Depression to help a farmer rescue his pig from a collapsed dry well.

This moment is enshrined for future generations with a 6-foot stone monument in front of the old dry well in question, located off of Georgia State Route 272 in Oconee. Getting there involves trudging roughly 20 feet off the highway, through the forest and underbrush, guided by a worn pathway and a simple roadway sign signaling "Pig Monument."

The humble stone monument is an odd yet charming glimpse into Americana and the enduring community spirit amid one of the most trying national hardships. Created and maintained by the descendants of local families going back generations, as well as several professors from Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia, this curio offers silent reflection of what we can all do to help our fellow humans. Pig emergencies notwithstanding.

Found: A Stolen Soldier's Jacket From World War II
October 19th, 2017, 07:33 PM

In Forest Lake, Minnesota, just outside Minneapolis, Matt Stone was looking through the racks at a local Goodwill, on the hunt for relics of World War II. On a rack of hats, he spotted the golden button of a solider’s cap. Later, he found another clue—the woolen sleeve of a soldier’s jacket.

There was something unusual about the jacket, though, as KARE reports. It was still decorated with ribbons and insignia, which made Stone wonder if it was supposed to be at the thrift store, on sale for $4.99, at all.

There was one more clue to follow—a name, Martin Makkyla, written on the inside of the jacket.

Stone’s great-grandfather served in World War II, and hearing those war stories inspired him to become a collector of World War II memorabilia. It’s not so uncommon for old uniforms to show up in thrift shops, although often they’re in bad shape. But occasionally these uniforms are in good condition and of interest to the soldiers' families. Earlier this summer, for instance, a military historian found a colonel’s uniform in a Washington State thrift store and traced it back to a man in Baltimore, whose granddaughter had been researching his life. In 2015, a uniform found in Arizona made it back to the original owner’s family.

With the help of KARE, his local news station, Stone was able to find Makkyla’s family. Makkyla never had children of his own, but his nieces remembered the uniform. Stone’s instincts were correct. The uniform was never meant to be in a Goodwill. According to Makkyla’s family, it had been stolen many years ago, and they had given it up for lost. Now, Stone plans to return the uniform to where it should have been all along.

Grassy Point Railroad Bridge in Duluth, Minnesota
October 19th, 2017, 07:33 PM

A strange and eerie row of teddy bears, clowns dolls, beanie babies, and stuffed Disney characters hang along the timbers of this rotating truss bridge, nailed up by their bunny ears and stuffed paws a few feet above the St. Louis River at Duluth-Superior Harbor.

Some of the items appear brand new, while others are matted, decomposing, faceless, bursting at the seams, faded and discolored from years in the sun. Spider webs have been spun and re-spun between their legs and moss has grown up over their glass eyes. All that remains of some are limp, detached ears, arms, and heads. 

Accessible only by watercraft, this bizarre, unsettling display was first created by Rick McDonald, who operated the bridge between Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin for many years from the now-deteriorating building that sits just above it.

McDonald began purchasing secondhand stuffed animals and fastening them to the wooden beams that supported the bridge. Even the other operators were not certain why he began this odd collection, though it was assumed it was for the entertainment of himself and the boaters that passed by. Since McDonald's retirement and later his passing in 2006, boaters have continued to make their own additions to the eerie assembly, making it an ever-changing exhibition.

Many of these secondhand toys must bear untold stories from Christmas mornings and baby cribs and childrens' playtimes, making them all the more forlorn and mysterious. They'll dangle there, a few feet above the murky river, rotting and molding and keeping one another and passing boaters company until they've decayed too much for their rusted nails to hold them up and they're finally swallowed up by the silty estuary. 

Monument to the Detachment in Brezovica Forest in Novo Selo Palanječko, Croatia
October 19th, 2017, 07:33 PM

Monument to the Detachment in Brezovica Forest

Hidden in a quiet forest clearing in Croatia, a 65-foot memorial tower marks the spot where Yugoslavia began its organized resistance against the invading Nazi forces.

In Soviet history books, World War II began in June 1941 when Nazi Germany broke the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (the treaty of non-aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union), and began advancing towards Moscow on the Eastern Front.

Soviet allies and other Communist groups across Eastern Europe began preparing for the worst; and in Sisak, modern-day Croatia, members of the Yugoslav Communist Party formed the region’s first anti-fascist fighting brigade: the 1st Sisak Partisan Detachment.

According to the stories, these early Yugoslav partisans met in secret in the forest, beneath the shadow of an old elm tree. As the Nazis advanced on the Balkans, the group would go on to play an important role in Yugoslavia’s National Liberation Movement, destroying bridges, ammo stores, and disrupting Nazi supply lines.

Immediately after the war, a commemorative plaque was set beneath the elm tree outside Sisak. In time the tree died, but in the 1970s plans were made to create a larger, more impressive memorial complex commemorating the spot where it had stood.

The architect Želimir Janeš designed the main memorial structure, a 65-foot tower whose abstract shape was intended to resemble an elm tree. The memorial park was completed in 1981 with the main structure surrounded by smaller monuments, stones and memorial panels.

During the last decade of socialist Yugoslav the Sisak Memorial Park was a popular destination, visited by domestic tourists and educational school trips alike. This all came to an end in the 1990s however, when Yugoslavia disintegrated and the region was ravaged by bloody wars fought along ethnic and religious fault lines.

Since then, the site has fallen into neglect. Many of the smaller memorial features have disappeared, and plaques around the clearing show signs of damage by gunfire. The central tower still stands, however—and fresh white paint on one side of the monument shows that at least someone in these parts still cares for the place. 

Waterbuck-Scented Cologne Can Protect Cows From Tsetse Fly Bites
October 18th, 2017, 07:33 PM

Sleeping sickness can be a devastating disease for humans throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and animals can also be infected by the protozoan parasites. In cows, the disease is known as nagana. Scientists around the world have been working on ways to thwart tsetse flies, which spread the disease when they bite animals and people. Now, a report in the journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases describes a new way for cattle to avoid these potentially deadly fly bites, by tricking tsetse flies into thinking cows aren't cows at all.

Waterbucks are a species of antelope found in the same regions where tsetse flies transmit nagana. While they're susceptible to a range of other diseases and parasites, waterbucks simply aren't of much interest to tsetse flies. Researchers from Kenya, the United Kingdom, and Germany identified five compounds that give waterbucks their characteristic scent—and found that they can help repel the flies. To turn cattle into "cows in waterbuck clothing," as the researchers call them, they developed a special collar that releases a steady supply of the waterbuck scent compounds.


To test the new repellant system, the team outfitted 1,100 cows in coastal Kenya with the collars, and tracked them for two years as they encountered tsetse flies naturally. The collars were effective at preventing infections, which in turn allowed the cows' owners to plow more land and improve their food security. Now, the researchers write, the farmers are enthusiastic adopters.

This Tiny Volcanic Island Is the Ultimate Natural Laboratory
October 18th, 2017, 07:33 PM

A plume of steam and ash burst suddenly from the North Atlantic Ocean on November 14, 1963, and for the next three-and-a-half years, a series of eruptions produced a new island of basalt and ash about 20 miles from Icelands's southern coast. The new speck of land was dubbed Surtsey Island, after a black fire giant of Norse mythology. Today, it's one of the few places on Earth that has remained relatively pristine and untouched by humans.

Early on, scientists recognized that Surtsey offered a unique opportunity to observe the infancy of a new volcanic island. What would be the first life to arrive, and how would it get there? How would the rock change as the ocean beat against its shores? Iceland's government declared the island off-limits to anyone but just a few researchers granted permission to study the evolution of Surtsey.


Even today, researchers must get government approval before venturing to Surtsey and once they are on the island, must follow strict rules to avoid contaminating it with seeds or chemicals. A drilling expedition earlier this year perfectly illustrates the lengths to which scientists must go. "We went to enormous efforts to protect the island from any sort of contamination at all," says Marie Jackson, a geologist at the University of Utah and one of the leaders of the expedition.

All the equipment was brought to the island in pieces by boat or helicopter—more than 90 helicopter lifts for the drilling setup alone—and then assembled on the island. The researchers went to great lengths to avoid fuel spills, and had to dig out the drilling site by hand. Every meal was prepared in advance, and included an extra two week's supply, in case weather prevented them from leaving the island on schedule. The scientists and technical staff were all trained on how to avoid bringing new plants or animals to Surtsey, which includes checking clothing and other gear for hitchhikers such as seeds. They also had to stick to established paths and couldn't explore other areas of the half-square-mile island. And once they had collected the core samples they came for, says Jackson, "literally everything we did, we took off the island." That included their waste.


Trips to Surtsey also have to be timed to avoid disturbing the animals that have taken up residence. Jackson's expedition was right after nesting season for some of the island's birds had ended in July, and they had to wrap up before seals and their young came to live on Surtsey for the season in September. Visiting scientists must collect data and samples, and then do their analyses elsewhere. Jackson's team took their cores to nearby Heimaey Island to image and analyze rock samples.

All that careful planning has been worth it—Surtsey remains more or less pristine, and still allows scientists to learn about how life establishes itself on a new island, how a new ecological community evolves, and even how life affects geologic processes.


Life came to Surtsey within a year of its birth. A 1964 New York Times article notes that plants, birds, and even a mosquito had already shown up. Spiders were blown to the island, while some other insects arrived by floating across the ocean's surface. Perhaps expectedly, birds were some of the first inhabitants of Surtsey, and a number of species have been spotted since, including some squacco herons typically only seen in Southern Europe.

Recent research has focused on smaller residents. Jackson's expedition was drilling cores from Surtsey's interior to look for signs of microbial life in the young basalt, which could help scientists understand an important geologic process. Basalt is one of the oldest types of rocks on Earth, and its creation "is a process that has been going on in the Earth's crust for billions of years," says Jackson. "But we know very little about the first things that happen in freshly erupted basalt on the seafloor. Surtsey is giving us a window to study this."


Drilling on the seafloor is a complex process, and bringing up samples of rock that aren't contaminated by ocean water—and all the microbes it contains—is near impossible. The eruptions that created Surtsey, on the other hand, brought freshly erupted basalt to a much more accessible place. "Surtsey gives us a very different platform—we can put the drill on real land," says Jackson. This gives them more control over the drilling process, which can include a sterilized system to preserve the microbes. Such microbes are capable of changing the chemical composition of rocks, and even their magnetic properties. "It's a unique opportunity to look at the very, very beginning of these processes," she says.

The cores might also help researchers understand why Surtsey looks the way it does. "Surtsey is very, very young," says Jackson. "It's a fraction of a second in geologic time. But on the surface, it looks very old." Erosion has shaped Surtsey's surface. Lava flows are breaking apart to form boulders, for example. The constant battering of the ocean has shaped the shoreline, too, shrinking the island by about 50 percent. "We're trying to understand what processes are contributing to this accelerated aging."


Surtsey was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, which adds another layer of official protection to help keep the island pristine. And for the foreseeable future, the only way to visit will still be as a member of a research team—one that treads very, very lightly.

Meteorological Pillar of the 19th Century in Salzburg, Austria
October 18th, 2017, 07:33 PM

Meteorological station in Residenplatz

A beautiful example of artistry and science is located in a corner of the Alter Markt (Old Market) of Salzburg. The tiny weather station is covered in splendid, ornate decor.

The pillar looks as though it belongs in a palace rather than out on the street. Gold Baroque flourishes adorn the base, sides, and top. Intricate details, including little sculptures, carvings, and a weather vane crown the structure.

Measuring devices on the three sides give the temperature, the barometric pressure, and the humidity of Salzburg. A bronze plaque on the lower portion of one side lists the altitude as being 425.25 meters (1395.18 feet) above the Adriatic Sea.

According to its plaque, the column is titled the Meteorological Pillar of the 19th century and dates to 1888. It was given to the city by the Stadtverein Salzburg, a civic association responsible for urban development. It’s now the most popular geocache in Salzburg and also the second most popular in all of Austria.