The Wild File

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Aug 1, 2004
Outside Magazine

Q) Who answers 911 calls made on a satellite phone?
David Langston
Harrisburg, PA

Unless you're a GlobalStar customer, dialing 911 from a sat phone will get you nothing but silence. There's no emergency number that works all over the globe, and zero will not get you an English operator. So play it smart:
» Bring the number of a local rescue authority, and have a contact you can reach at home who knows how to get through to the locals. (As Everest guide Eric Simonson notes, calls from the Himalayas to the U.S. are often clearer than calls within the country.)
» Better yet, subscribe to a private emergency service like International SOS ($245 a year); they speak English and can set up a rescue with local services.
» But before...

Q) Do any of our household vegetables still grow in the wild?
Mike Pitassi, Rancho Cucamonga, CA

Modern veggies are the result of thousands of years of artificial selection, which humans practiced in the old days by replanting the seeds they liked best and, in the past 200 years, through horticulture and genetic tinkering. Most of today's produce has an ancestor that still exists in nature, but aside from a few wild potatoes and onions, nothing you find out there will resemble your tabletop carrots and celery. Take the wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea), which still grows along the Mediterranean. About 2,500 years ago, says Frank Mangan, a horticulturist at the University of Massachusetts, the Greeks developed this foul little weed into the thing we now call cabbage. By the first century, the Romans had engineered it into kale and collard greens. A preference for the cabbage's immature flower buds led to the breeding of cauliflower, broccoli, and, in the 18th century, Brussels sprouts. As any kid will attest, you just can't get away from the stuff.

Q) What's the origin of the term "horse latitudes"?
Lewis Lansford, Durham, England

Not to be confused with the doldrums (they're near the equator), the horse latitudes are two bands of high pressure—at roughly 30 to 35 degrees north and south—known for their maddeningly light, fitful winds. The Oxford English Dictionary calls the genesis of the term "uncertain," but many experts think it was inspired by the name Spanish mariners gave to the waters southwest of their country: El Golfo de las Yeguas, "the Mares' Sea," possibly a nod to the capriciousness of those animals. The first known use of the term was by a G. Forrester, who in 1777 wrote that the area was "fatal to horses and other cattle" en route to the Americas. Why? To lighten loads or save water, the thinking goes, crews would toss horses overboard. Take your pick, but if you go sailing there, bring a motor—with plenty of horsepower.

Q) Can an African elephant and an Asian elephant mate?
Lenard Milich, BALI, INDONESIA

Different species can sometimes produce offspring together, as in the case of a mule, the sexually sterile creation of a horse and a donkey. It's much more difficult for the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), which are not just different species but different genera. As Lori Eggert, a conservation geneticist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, explains, these two heavyweights, which separated five million years ago, still share the same number of chromosomes, 56, so the math works out. But with important genes in different places, it's a "less than perfect match." Case in point: Motty, a male hybrid born in 1978 at the Chester Zoo, in Chester, England. The only known crossover elephant, Motty died after 12 days, succumbing to an intestinal infection that may or may not have been caused by bad genes.

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