Cabinet of Curiosities Episode 4 Fact File

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I’ve recently been making a documentary miniseries and podcast called “The Cabinet of Curiosities,” looking at the wonderful stories behind items in my own natural history collections. In the course of researching these shows, I’ve come across many a wonderful fact, so I thought I’d share a few in the days and weeks to follow. I very much hope you enjoy:

Fact: According to folklore, the only way to kill a salamander is to lock it in a small box until it poisons itself.

This I picked up from Édouard Brasey's La Petite Encyclopédie du merveilleux, which is a brilliant book (although I'm not sure if there is an English version available. It would seem that the French had a particular fascination with the creatures, and so are the source for many of the strangest beliefs. Another is that a Salamander's breath is enough to swell a man or cow until their skin gave way, earning it the wonderful name of "soufflet souffle" or bellow's breath. According to contemporary accounts, it was so feared in some parts of the country (Brittany in particular) that locals refused to say its name ("salamandre") for fear it would hear and be drawn to the sound.

Good old Pliny the Elder (the Roman scientist/historian) gets a lot of the blame for originating such beliefs, but whilst he recorded them he also expressed skepticism about them later in his Naturalis Historiae. His writings seem mainly to concern the golden Apline salamander, recording popular beliefs that they could quench fire and poison fruit trees by their mere presence on the trunk below. Leonardo da Vinci may have been more gullible, with a line from his notebook reading: "This [the salamander] has no digestive organs, and gets no food but from the fire, in which it constantly renews its scaly skin." Whether he truly believed this is unknown.

Fact: Slime moulds have mapped out Tokyo's rail system and the UK's major highways. They do it better than humans.

Slime mould looks a little like moving marmalade, but it can solve the most complex of mazes that you or I would struggle with. Despite being essentially a brainless mass of goo, it forms memories and can problem-solve quite readily.

The above fact emerged when scientists presented it with models similar to those found in town planning. A colony was started on some agar gell with small food piles representing cities. The mould then grows to fit the optimum pathway between each, building in resilience measures in case links are broken and arriving always in the shortest possible time. For well-designed human systems, the slime mould will replicate it closely.

It gets even better than that, because there’s a type of slime mould that forms slimy civilizations to ensure its success. Spending most of their life as tiny free-swimming creatures, at certain intervals one will send a signal that causes tens or hundreds of thousands to gather into a large slug-like form. Somehow they coordinate their actions and movements so perfectly that they are able to operate as a single body. The ‘slug’ then transforms into a long stalk with a spore-emitting ball on top. All the slime mould creatures making up the stalk sacrifice themselves to allow those on top to reproduce: insects carry them off as the start of a new generation, and the remarkable life-cycles repeats.

This should be highly implausible if not impossible according to evolutionary theory. Those making up the stalk don't pass on their genes, so lose out as a result of their cooperation. Then again, sea sponges (another 's') can reassemble themselves after being broken down to individual cells. Sometimes these alien animals just get passed off as weird and science doesn't have to answer for it!