Snot Otters! and Other News of the Week

Ozark hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis...

The Ozark Hellbender (Image by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Midwest Region via Flickr)

NPR was a font of interesting biological information this week.

First up: How the Saint Louis Zoo plans to use its new honeymoon resort to give the plummeting Ozark hellbender population a boost. Affectionately known as snot otters because of their slimy skin, flat heads, and frilly sides, hellbenders have been disappearing at an alarming rate from the rivers of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Rapidly dwindling habitat, pollution, disease, and a hot market for snot otters in the illegal pet trade have left very few young hellbenders left in the wild. To counter the trend, the Saint Louis Zoo has built two 40-foot long riverways, complete with concrete salamander-sized man caves where male hellbenders can settle in, fertilize and guard eggs to their hearts’ content.

The experiment appears to be working. At NPR press time, 185 hellbenders had been hatched in captivity. Another 1000 have been brought in from the wild to be raised in the zoo’s pollution- and predator-free environment. Zookeepers plan to release the salamanders back into the wild in six or seven years to give the local populations a boost–and give scientists time to figure out how to fix what’s gone wrong with the snot otter’s Ozark hellbender’s natural habitat.

Snot Otters! continues below the fold with:

  • why your cat craves mushrooms
  • another reason to hate that I’m turning 40 this year

Why your cat craves mushrooms: Nancy Shute of NPR’s Food Blog solves the pesky mystery of why Felix keeps making off with the mushrooms on your pizza.  Apparently mushrooms contain lots of glutamate, an amino acid that tickles the same umami taste buds as protein. Glutamate gives mushrooms their rich savory flavor. It’s also what tricks your cat into thinking he’s eating beef, and not the relatively undigestible (for cats) fungi.

Another reason to hate that I’m turning 40 this year: A scurrilous report on NPR’s Health Blog asserts that middle-aged brains are past their prime, and worse, that I may have just shy of half a decade left before I will be smacked upside the head with an intellectual decline of my own. (Just in time for The Four-Year-Old to enter her tweens. Fabulous.)

Memory, verbal fluency, cognitive reasoning, comprehension, it’s all going to go, and at a rate that will only increase as my forties get further behind me. I hate this story.  The only glimmer of hope I have is that as my mental acuity fades, my sense of well-being will escalate. Apparently, ignorance really is bliss, and now there’s a 7,390-person study in the British Medical Journal to prove it.

So, what about you? What caught your eye this week?

About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book will focus on science, and how parents without a science degree can answer their curious child's questions without enrolling in a college level refresher course. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Eleven-Year-Old at, chatting about books and the writing life at, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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2 Responses to Snot Otters! and Other News of the Week

  1. Sara says:

    Oh, don’t buy everything those “you start getting senile at 45 people tell you.” Read this instead:


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