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10 Unexplained Quirks of Biology

The living world is full of weirdness. Just look at goblin sharks and platypuses. Biology can account for a whole lot of why things are the way they are, but every once in a while something happens that leaves biologists shrugging their shoulders. 

10. Handedness

left hand

Are you a lefty or a righty? A whopping 90% of people are right-handed, so if you’re a lefty, consider yourself a bit of an anomaly. Now ask yourself why you’re either one. If you can’t think of an answer, don’t worry. Science can’t think of one either.

The notion of handedness is a little quirk of human evolution that seems to prove nothing at all. Why should one hand be dominant in your everyday activities? It’s not a conscious choice by any means and it looks to be not just biological but genetic. But that still doesn’t cut to the room of why it happens at all.

One theory deals with speech and language centers in the brain. They’re in the left hemisphere and that hemisphere also controls the right hand. We use our hands in communication, in particular for writing, and, therefore, the right hand became dominant in most of us as part of this evolution of communication. 

Different gene alleles may also explain how handedness occurs and why, despite that first theory, there are still left handed people out there. If a person is born with a certain gene allele, then they could go left or right. However, this is still theoretical and not definite by any means. 

9. The Devil’s Cigar

Not only does the Devil’s Cigar mushroom have a cool name, it’s also given scientists a problem to solve by virtue of where it grows in the world. The mushroom can be found in Texas and Japan. There have also been a few found in Oklahoma.

And that’s it.

The fact that the Japanese and Texas varieties seem to have split from each other, genetically speaking, about 19 million years ago makes this a really weird quirk indeed.

The mystery of exactly how and why these mushrooms only grow where they do is unknown. The Japanese variety has shown some ability to be cultivated and grown indoors, but the Texas variety does not. They’re not edible, so it’s not like someone was ever trying to establish a crop of these things and, again, it would have been 19 million years ago, so no one was around.

The mushrooms grow on almost the same latitude in both Japan and Texas, but there’s 11,000 miles, including an ocean separating them. 

8. Genes

dna 1

Genetics is a fascinating branch of biology and uncovering the human genome has given us a lot of insight into why we develop the way we do, not to mention how and why some diseases develop and also how we can treat them. 

It’s estimated humans have somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 genes. A tomato, on the other hand, has around 31,760 genes. So how come a tomato seems to be more genetically complex than a human?

Humans, it turns out, have about as many genes as nematode worms. The prevailing idea in the past was that the more complex the organism, the more genes it should have, but obviously this isn’t the case.

Now we’re considering the idea that a tomato may just have more genes as a result of how it evolved. They branched out from an early ancestor in several forms and that means several kinds of genes being developed that over time were not necessarily needed for anything. A human’s genes are still more complex, just more efficient. We get by with less because they work better, so to speak. But all of this is still speculation and the quirk of why seemingly simple organisms are genetically complex continues to be studied. 

7. A Cat’s Purr


Cats were domesticated close to 9,500 years ago, so we’ve had a long time to try to understand why they do what they do. And, if you’ve watched enough cat videos online, you’ll know that we have made pretty much no progress. 

One area that mystifies science is the cat’s purr. We know how a cat purrs – the muscles in a cat’s larynx will constrict and dilate, causing the air within to vibrate, creating a purr sound. So that’s the mechanism, but what is the purpose?

Most of us would say a cat purrs to show happiness, but that’s not always the case. Cats have been observed purring in high stress situations and even while they’re dying. Some cats never purr and other cats will purr at the drop of a hat. If you leave a cat in a room with a camera and no stimulation at all, it’s very possible you’d film it purring all by itself for seemingly no reason.

It’s possible purring covers a wide range of explanations. Kittens purr when they’re feeding and it’s been observed that cats will purr more loudly when they’re hungry and trying to get humans to feed them. They purr while they’re grooming each other and it may offer a kind of self-soothing function as well. But that;s a lot of maybes and few solid answers, so, for now, we’ll have to be content with the idea that it mostly happens when they’re happy, even if it means 100 other things as well. 

6. Cow Orientation


How often do you watch cows when they’re grazing? Most of us don’t and that’s probably why most of us have never noticed that the vast majority of cows orient themselves north to south. In fact, based on satellite imagery from all around the planet, researchers have observed that upwards of 70% of all cows will constantly be found in the north/south orientation. In every country on every continent where you can find cattle, you’ll find them facing the same direction, which has led some to speculate cows have a compass.

Animals with internal compasses is not an unusual idea, it’s speculated many migratory animals have some kind of similar ability. But that’s just a guess for cows. It could be something as simple as them wanting to sit so the broadest part of their bodies are being hit by the sun or avoiding it for the sake of comfort.

It’s not that cows have to face this direction, as 30% will be doing something else. On windy days, the cows tend to face into the wind wherever it’s coming from. But the researchers were able to help discount weather effects in their findings to show that, barring anything else influencing them, this is how most cows like to hang out. 

5. Yawning


For most of us, three things are guaranteed to produce a yawn. Being tired, being bored, or seeing someone else yawn. The first two seem sort of related and the third one is just that insidious, contagious yawn thing that no one likes. But regardless of what’s going on when you start yawning, it’s worth noting that, from a biological standpoint, that yawn makes no sense.

Both humans and animals share yawning as a common behavior and even if it does indicate you’re tired, the reason why it would do that is a mystery. What would be the point of this wide-mouthed gesture in dealing with being tired?

Hormones released when yawning provide a very brief increase in heart rate which gives a slight pick me up when you’re tired, which is a confusing effect of a gesture that indicates sleepiness. The fact you yawn when you wake up as well as when you’re ready for sleep makes this all the more confusing. So the actual function of a yawn has not been adequately nailed down at all. 

4. How Tylenol Relieves Pain

Most people have taken acetaminophen at one time or another to reduce pain. It dates all the way back to the 1800s and has been one of the most reliable and widespread medications in the world for mild pain and headache control. It’s also one of the leading causes of liver failure thanks to people taking too much of it, but that’s neither here nor there.

As a painkiller, it’s definitely in the weaker category. That’s part of the reason it’s an over-the-counter medication and readily available at corner stores. It’s mainly for minor aches and pains and the method by which it does this is weirdly unknown.

You’d think science would know how medication affects the biology of a human, especially with a widespread medication. But the method through which Tylenol eases pain is up for debate. 

Most non-opioid analgesics, of which Tylenol is one along with other painkillers like aspirin and ibuprofen, ease pain by blocking production of an enzyme called cyclooxygenase. But Tylenol doesn’t do that. It is unable to reduce inflammation like those other painkillers as a result, and whatever it does do is still unclear. Obviously it works, and maybe it prevents a kind of cyclooxygenase from forming, but maybe not.

3. Why We Cry


When you’re a baby, you’ll cry if your onesie tugs your elbow funny. As a child, you’ll cry when you get a skinned knee and even the best of us weep over onions, but that’s just because of the chemicals released. For a baby that crying gets attention and they need it. Babies can’t do much for themselves, so that’s how they get attention. But why does a sad movie make us cry?

Emotional tears, from a biological standpoint, don’t make sense. They don’t do anything for us. You can argue that crying is cathartic and releases those chemicals that make you feel comforted or safe or whatever after the fact. But the tears themselves don’t do that, and they aren’t needed for that. 

You can cry tears of rage or fear or sadness. But whatever the emotion that brought them on, science doesn’t have much of an explanation for why it happens at all. Physically, all they do is lubricate your eye. They get contaminants out of there and keep things clean. Beyond that, who’s to say?

2. The Dancing Forest

Pine trees are some of the most widespread trees in the world. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, chances are you live near one. They’re found in the United States, Canada, Russia, China and pretty much everywhere else in the North as well. And, in general, they all look the same as trees are wont to do. Except in one place.

Russia is home to a place called the Dancing Forest. Lots of pine trees grow here but, unlike anywhere else in the world, the trunks grow in bizarre and contorted ways. They twist and curl and spiral upwards like someone was tying them in knots. 

The trees in question were planted in the 1960s and they weren’t meant to be unusual. There are theories about how they formed so oddly, from the loose sandy soil to the idea that certain caterpillars damage their early buds and make them grow wonky. Other theories have included wind and just some clever, covert arborist manipulating the trees as they grow. So far, however, nothing definitive has been determined.  

1. Why Do We Have Fingerprints?


The first use of fingerprinting science to help convict a criminal dates all the way back to 1910. An Argentine police officer is credited with starting the first fingerprint database as far back as 1891. So we’ve understood the uniqueness of fingerprints for years. But we don’t have them expressly for the purpose of getting us caught for committing crimes. In fact, no one really knows why we have them.

As far as quirks go, it’s hard to find a more unusual one. Everyone in the world has a unique fingerprint pattern and not a single one of us can explain what they do. For many years, the prevailing theory was that they helped us grip things. Except, when this theory is tested, it doesn’t hold up. The texture of a fingerprint does not actually lend itself to creating friction between our fingers and objects we’re holding. If anything, fingerprints reduce friction and make it harder to grip things than smooth skin would because the valleys between ridges don’t make contact, thus limiting the surface area. 

The other theory about fingerprints is that they aid in perception. Your fingers are very sensitive to textures and other sensations. We can identify things as rotten or stale, just with a touch sometimes. No doubt you’ve noticed that you’re able to glean a good deal of tactile information just by touching a thing. But is that what their purpose is? To help us learn more about objects when we touch them? “Maybe” is the best answer we have.

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