Every Halloween promises to be full of spooky shapeshifters, the undead, and abominations of nature. Before you head out trick-or-treating, here’s some science behind five ghastly things that go bump in the night.
Yeti, the abominable snowman, sasquatch, migyhur... these big hairy beast-men go by a lot of names, but in reality, they can be explained by just bears, dogs, and your everyday farm animals and woodland critters. This summer, researchers published a genetic analysis of 30 hair samples that supposedly came from so-called “anomalous primates.”
After meticulously ridding the samples of contaminants and amplifying DNA fragments, the Oxford team compared the sequences with GenBank data and got a perfect match for each one. Most were identified as known species living in their normal geographic range -- the only exceptions were two Himalayan samples that ended up coming from a relative of an ancient, Paleolithic polar bear.
Howling at the full moon in the middle of the night can be clarified by science, too. A combination of several known medical conditions might explain some werewolf traits and behaviors. First there’s hypertricosis, which causes excessive hair growth. Extreme cases -- where abnormal amounts of hair grow all over the body -- have previously been nicknamed Werewolf Syndrome. The causes of hypertricosis aren’t well understood, though changes to the hair cycle are probably involved: In this case, the anagen phase of hair growth just keeps going and going.
As for the insomnia, hallucinations, hypersalivation, and agitation, the most plausible explanation is the rabies virus, which affects lots of wildlife and even farm dogs (so sadly), causing disease in the brain. And it’s transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal, so biting a victim turns them into one also.
3. Alien Goblins
One word: owls. No, really. Not all unidentified flying objects are owls, of course (many are secret weapons and planes testing). I’m thinking about the Kelly-Hopkinsville alien invaders. At a Kentucky farmhouse in August of 1955, about a dozen people reported seeing unidentified creatures. These silvery, meter-high goblins had round heads, pointy ears, talons, and round, glowing eyes. Other witnesses say they saw lights in the sky and heard strange sounds.
Decades later, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) determined the most likely explanation was a meteor and pair of great horned owls. Whoo, whoo-hoo, whooo, whooo. Owls fit the description, right down to their yellow stare and long ear tufts. They’re also known for their ferocity, especially when guarding their nests -- which would be filled with fledglings begging their parents for food throughout the summer with piercing calls. (For the record, Mothman was probably an owl too.)
This jackrabbit–antelope hybrid is myth based on fact. Fuzzy bunnies with antlers do roam the American West (you can see a pretty graphic picture here). The horrifying truth is that they have the bunny version of HPV, called the cottontail rabbit papillomavirus (CRPV) or the Shope papillomavirus. (“Papilla” means “nipple” in Latin.) The human papillomavirus causes about 90 percent of all genital wart cases in people and is associated with several cancers.
In the 1930s, Richard Shope of Rockefeller Institute examined rabbits with horns growing out of their heads and faces; he discovered that those giant growths were created by viruses and that those protuberances were made of infected cells. These tumors, as disfiguring as they can be, are typically benign. However, a couple more decades of research revealed that they could progress to malignant carcinomas. Francis Peyton Rous will go on to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine for making this connection between viruses with cancer.
Here’s a possible diagnosis for movie bloodsuckers like Dracula and Nosferatu: Their extreme sensitivity to sunlight -- to the point where it causes a burning pain -- and the physiological need for a certain red blood cell protein are symptoms of a group of genetic disorders known as porphyrias. With this inherited enzyme deficiency, natural chemicals called porphyrins aren’t properly converted into heme, the pigment that gives blood its red color. Each of the eight steps involved in making heme is controlled by a particular enzyme, and the enzyme that’s deficient determines what type of porphyria that person has.
All eight types result in the buildup of prophyrin in the liver or bone marrow. Heme is composed of iron, and most of our body’s heme is in the form of hemoglobin, the red blood cell’s oxygen-carrying protein. One of the treatments for porphyria includes giving the patient heme intravenously. Other symptoms range from fragile skin and blisters to insomnia and hallucinations.
Images (top to bottom): Count Orlok climbing up a staircase in Nosferatu via Wikimedia, Amit Patel via Flickr CC BY 2.0, "The Hairy Man" by Joris Hoefnagel via Wikimedia, vastateparksstaff via Flickr CC BY 2.0, Jimsy2 via Wikimedia, Vampire Bat by Animal Diversity Web Staff CC BY-NC-SA 3.0