Museum curators are hoarders by nature. But spitballs? Really? At Harvard they've got drawers full of ancient spit wads. The wads of chewed up yucca (I kid you not, you couldn't make that up)are called quids. Scientists think this was prehistoric chewing gum--or more likely for toothaches, because yucca tastes, well--yucky. The real question is, who saves this stuff? I thought I had trouble throwing things out…
Ancient Egyptian texts reference a worm that comes from contaminated drinking water. Its scientific name has the word Dracula in it--for good reason--it lives off human hosts. It grows to three feet long inside the human body until it finally works its way out--usually poking out of the lower leg. When its ready to emerge from your leg, the site swells to the size of a tennis ball, then a tangle of "fiery serpent" bursts free. To avoid this painful exit, people remove the worm by wrapping it around a stick and slowly pulling it out--inch by inch--which can take weeks.
King Louis XVI’s magnificent palace at Versailles stood 12 miles west of Paris, but even palaces have their icky bit side, especially in the 1700’s. The private bathroom is a relatively modern convenience. Most residents of Versailles used chamber pots for nighttime nature calls. And in the morning servants tossed the contents out of the windows. The raining excrement led to a wise recommendation to always carry a leather umbrella when strolling around Versailles. Queen Marie Antoinette was splattered more than once.
Princess d’Harcourt relieved herself in her skirts as she strolled along the palace corridors and courtyards trailing a mess for the servants to mop up. One foreign visitor commented with disgust at the, “people laying their nastiness in such quantities that it was equally offensive to the sight and smell.”
The palace’s only flush toilets, or “English places” as they were called, were installed in the King’s and Queen’s chambers. The height of luxury, the bowls were crafted from porcelain and the seats from mahogany. Servants kept them spotless. So immaculate, in fact, that the King’s cat often curled into a ball and slept in the cool, clean bowl. Once Louis XVI sat down to take care of business without noticing the cat. No sooner had the purpose of the King’s mission begun than the terrified cat attacked the King from below, sending him leaping into the air and charging through his chamber yanking bell pulls all the way.
Maggots love to munch on rotting flesh. The fact that they don’t care for healthy tissue makes them great for healing wounds. Doctors in Caesar's army used maggots to clean gashes, often saving gangrenous limbs from amputation. Maggot use went out of favor with the discovery of penicillin (really? who wouldn’t want a maggot-infested wound? jam-packed with writhing wormy little buggers?). Today, maggots are enjoying a comeback. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are no match for the slimy diseased-flesh eaters. In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved maggot therapy.
Imagine a nursery made of poop. For the dung beetle you’ve not only just imagined the perfect place to lay their precious babies, you’ve imagined—lunch. That’s right, dung beetles eat the feces of other animals. It makes you wonder why they were sacred to the ancient Egyptians. Maybe it was their strength. Some dung beetles can pull a hunk of feces more than 1,100 times their body weight. That’s like you pulling a pile of poop that weighs the same as 12 school busses full of kids. Then again why would you do that? Of course the fact that they roll their ball of poop home navigating by the Milky Way is pretty amazing. I can’t navigate my backyard by the Milky Way. Still, it’s an icky bit.
Ants tend to be very orderly, industrious insects—until they are attacked by parasitic fungi that turn them into zombies. The infected ant will stumble about, leaving the rigid order of its nest and--directed by the fungi—walk in a trance-like state to the underside of a leaf. At precisely solar noon--still controlled by the fungi--the ant bites into the main vein of the leaf and dies. No sooner has the ant perished than a stalk sprouts out of the back of its head. The stalk releases spores into the air that rain down on the ants below, turning them into zombies. It’s a real-life cross between Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Alien.
If you’ve ever been bitten by a fire ant then you know how they got their name. One can only imagine this nightmare—in the early 1500s the Spanish plantations in the New World were overrun by fire ants—so thick they blackened the ceilings and floors. The Spaniards tried to keep them out of their beds by putting the bed legs into bowls of water. It got so bad in Santo Domingo that the people abandoned their plantations, leaving them to the swarms of fire ants.
Obsessed without out-doing his rival Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo worked for two and a half years straight on the sculpture David, rarely sleeping or eating and never bathing. Eventually the leather of his boots fell apart, peeling the skin of his feet off with it.