Science

How We Can “Breathe” Through Our Butts & Why Wolves Keep Our Roads Safer

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Let’s try something a little different today. I had so much fun talking about plants the other day that I wanted to do another science-focused video, but I have TWO fun new papers that I don’t have a ton to say about. I just want to kind of present them to you, to bring you a little joy and weirdness. The theme, if we need one, is mammals doing incredible things.

Let me start with the most important breaking news: mammals can breathe through our buttholes. You weren’t expecting that, were you? No one expects butt breathing. Okay, despite some headlines I’ve seen, that’s not explicitly true but it IS still a cool thing so let’s talk about it.

There are several animals out there who regularly breathe through their buttholes, which is technically known as the “hindgut” but I’m going to continue saying butthole. In dire circumstances, creatures like loaches, catfish, sea cucumbers, and orb-weaving spiders can draw oxygen in through their buttholes. This is particularly interesting because most people have no idea that sea cucumbers even have buttholes, but they do. They do not have brains, making the sea cucumber the best animal to bring up in conversation at a party when an awkward silence sets in. “Did you know the sea cucumber has no brain? Did you know the sea cucumber has a butthole? And did you know the sea cucumber can breathe through its butthole when it is otherwise deprived of oxygen?” I bet there are more fascinating sea cucumber facts but if that doesn’t get the conversation going again, it’s probably hopeless.

Anyway, the fact that some animals can breathe through their butthole led Japanese scientists to see if they could deliver oxygen either as a gas or a liquid into mice, rats, and pigs via the butthole. Please see this extremely helpful figure that they included in their paper. They found that both methods were effective at increasing oxygenation, which is good because if it was only gas we’d be in trouble since to get the gas in they had to “prepare the lining of the rectum by rubbing it to cause inflammation and increase blood flow…such a preparation requirement would be unacceptable for human patients.” I’ll say.

So no, you can’t start breathing through your butthole if, say, you start choking on your peanuts. But for patients in respiratory distress who can’t get oxygen the, um, usual way, now doctors may have a backup plan to safely keep them oxygenated until the problem can be corrected.

In other fun animal news, a new paper published in my favorite journal, PNAS, found that wolves help keep people safe while they’re driving. While the people are driving, not the wolves. Wolves cannot drive and please note that this study did NOT find that wolf-driving cars are safer. If a wolf asks to drive you somewhere please do not get in the car.

But it IS true that wolves make our roads safer. How? Well, if you grew up in a rural area like I did, you probably already know the answer: they do it by preying upon deer.

This topic came up on one of my livestreams last week, in which some viewers were surprised to hear me say that hunters are often conservationists, and that there are definitely situations where hunters can improve the environment. I don’t eat most meat but I still respect the fact that in areas where we’ve destroyed the food chain by removing apex predators, it is now extremely beneficial to have people who cull animal populations before they can spread disease or starve to death or, well, throw themselves in front of our cars. The insurance company State Farm says they got 1.5 million claims last year due to people colliding their cars into deer. And deer do a TON of damage to cars. They’re much bigger than you might imagine.

(Note that I’m not always in favor of hunting — a few years back I talked about why humans should NOT cull the coyote population, because killing coyotes actually leads coyotes to reproduce even more. Go watch that video for more fun coyote facts!)

So deer cause a lot of danger on the roads — why don’t we just hunt them more? Wolves, after all, are scary! Wolves can eat people if they really want. I’m no dummy, I saw The Grey. It was terrible but I saw it.

In fact, it’s actually extremely rare for a wolf to attack a human, though to be fair that might be in part because humans murdered most of the wolves. But the fear is still there, and also the very real fear that they could attack and kill our pets and our livestock. Because of that, there are currently several laws being passed to legalize the hunting of more wolves.

And that’s why this study is actually really interesting: these researchers looked at the reintroduction of wolves into Wisconsin, and they found that wolves reduced deer–vehicle collisions (DVCs) “by 24%, yielding an economic benefit that is 63 times greater than the costs of verified wolf predation on livestock.” No one wants a wolf to eat your precious cat, but your cat should be kept inside first of all, and second of all we finally have a solid economic argument for restoring a predator to an area.

“But Rebecca,” you ask, “why can’t we just use human hunters for that? They will kill the deer and NOT kill my darling Mr. Fuzzybottoms, who, yes, I now understand should be kept inside due to the fact that cats are the number one direct, human-caused threat to birds in the United States and Canada, killing 2.4 billion birds each year.”

And that’s where this study gets really cool, because they found that wolves prevent deer-vehicle collisions at a rate human hunters cannot match, because it’s not JUST due to the number of deer the wolves kill. It’s also due to the wolves establishing a “landscape of fear” that forces the deer to change their behavior and become less likely to hurl themselves in front of your Yaris. A “LANDSCAPE OF FEAR.” How baller!

So that’s it — humans may be able to get oxygen through our buttholes and wolves may do a better job than humans at stopping deer from destroying our cars. Go forth, get vaccinated, and attend a dinner party armed with some truly great ice breakers.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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2 Comments

  1. Even more sea cucumber anus related trivia! Pearlfish can live in a sea cucumber’s anus. When the sea cucumber opens its anus to breath the fish just swims right in and makes itself at home.

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