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May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1997

By Elizabeth Royte

In late summer and fall, why do so many bugs end up dead on their backs, with their feet in the air?
Mark Luke, Goleta, California

Bugs are out there dying all the time, of course, all summer long. But when the first cold snap comes, they start dying in exponentially greater numbers. Insects, being cold-blooded creatures, whose body heat closely mirrors the outside temperature, generally start shutting down below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. They thump about, but their hearts aren't in it anymore. A hard freeze and they're goners. As for how bugs lie in state: Because their legs are light and spindly, most bugs are top-heavy. If they die in a tree or on the wing, they tend to land heavy side down, not unlike a slice of toast loaded with jam. Even when one expires right side up, the wind will blow its carcass around until it ends up as gravity prefers: Flat on its back. A sadder scenario involves those ill-fated bugs, especially beetles, that get flipped on their backs and can't right themselves. Luckily, many bugs can wave their legs or flex their wing covers until terra again becomes firma. The click beetle can simply spring into the air; the firefly uses its bendable thorax to perform a somersault, postponing (for now) the bottoms-up fate of its many Volkswagen-shaped peers.

Do camels exist anywhere in the wild?
Curt Cowan, New York, New York

Yes, but sadly they appear to be headed the way of, well, Joe Camel. The genus Camelus originated in North America 40 million years ago, give or take a few weeks. It was a smallish animal then, about the size of a hare, and humpless. Over time, some took the land bridge to Asia; others moseyed down to South America, where they evolved into guanacos, vicu˜as, alpacas, and llamas-and spent their free time learning how to spit. For unknown reasons, the North American prototype became extinct 10,000 years ago. Today, thanks to its usefulness to man, the one-humped (dromedary) camel survives only in domesticated form. But in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia and western China, about 1,000 two-humped (Bactrian) camels still live in the wild. They're endangered, though, mostly because humans are constantly taming them. It's easy to understand why. With shorter legs and thicker hair than their Arabian counterparts, Bactrians are valuable beasts-the Toyota trucks of the Gobi-capable of hauling up to a thousand pounds of people, cargo, and Chinese takeout.

I've heard that Ecuador's Mount Chimborazo is higher than Everest. Am I missing something?
Robert Ratcliffe, Tokyo, Japan

Though cartographers strictly measure a mountain's height above mean sea level, some people get caught up in more esoteric definitions, such as the distance between a

mountain's summit and its base. By this yardstick, Hawaii's Mauna Kea volcano, whose 13,796-foot summit rises about 46,600 feet from its base on the sea floor, is significantly taller than Everest. Chimborazo poses a third definitional subtlety. First you need to understand that Earth isn't perfectly round; the equator bulges 13.3 miles farther out into space than the poles do. Hence the base of a mountain near the equator is actually farther from the center of the planet than the base of a mountain elsewhere. Chimborazo rises to 20,561 feet, which makes it the world's 99th-tallest mountain by standard measure, underwhelming to say the least. But because it's located just 100 miles south of the equator, Chimborazo beats the Himalayan peak hands down.

So are world-class mountaineers forsaking Everest in droves to go conquer Chimborazo? "No," says David Doyle, senior scientist at the National Geodetic Survey. "You don't start climbing a mountain from the center of the Earth-not unless you're Jules Verne.

If you happen to find yourself in Australia, New Zealand, or the South Pacific, enjoy the partial solar eclipse that opens the month. The rest of us, on the tenth, can savor the homey pleasures of the Harvest Moon — the full Moon nearest the time of the autumnal equinox, which occurs on the evening of the 22d and marks the beginning of fall in the Northern Hemisphere. On the 17th, the Moon will be near Saturn and will occult the ringed planet if you're in Hawaii or along the Pacific Coast of North America. Finally, September will be an excellent month for viewing Mercury. Look for it in the pre-dawn sky — especially on the 14th, when it will achieve its most intense brightness of the year. — David N. Schramm

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