21. A pigeon ended Nikola Tesla’s scientific career in 1922
Nikola Tesla spent his life inventing and experimenting with electricity. We owe him a lot in the modern world, but not many people know how much he loved pigeons. Tesla never married, fearing a wife would distract him from his work, but allowed himself to be sentimental about pigeons. One night in 1922, Tesla’s favorite pigeon flew into his hotel room, and promptly died. Tesla believed it came to tell him of its impending death, and at that moment decided his scientific career had also died. Spookily, Tesla said the dying bird’s eyes shone brighter than any light he’d seen…
20. Lobo the wolf inspired the US to protect its wildlife at the turn of the 20th century
Lobo, ‘the King of Currumpaw’, is another conservation icon. In Wild Animals I Have Known (1898), Ernest Thompson Seton told how he tried to kill Lobo for a bounty. Deprived of their natural prey, Lobo and his pack had turned to livestock. Seton only caught the pugnacious Lobo alive after killing the rest of his pack. But, touched by Lobo’s bravery, evident grief, and sentience, Seton couldn’t kill him. Instead, Lobo died ‘of a broken heart’, looking out across his former kingdom. Lobo’s story helped change attitudes towards wolves, and influenced the founding of the US conservation movement.
19. Clever Hans the counting horse changed the scientific method forever in 1907
In the early 20th century, Clever Hans the horse amazed people across Germany. Touring the country with his trainer, Wilhelm von Osten, Hans showed a staggering intellectual ability. People watched, mouths agape, as Hans added, subtracted, divided, and multiplied. He also read, spelled words, and understood German. Eventually, the intelligentsia took note, and examined Hans and Wilhelm. Led by Oskar Pfungst, the Hans Commission found that Hans actually responded to his trainer’s unconscious visual cues. Though Hans didn’t turn out to be as clever as people thought, his story changed the scientific method. Ever since, psychological tests have been double-blind.
18. The domestication of dogs 14,000 years ago changed the course of history
When our ancestors first flung scraps to habituated wolves lurking by their campfires, they unwittingly changed the course of history. These domesticated wolves, over many generations, radically changed the human story. First, they helped us hunt more successfully, stopping us from starving to death. At the same time, they protected us from predators, allowing us to flourish in greater numbers. When humans began farming, they kept predators away from livestock. Quite simply, without dogs, the agricultural revolution wouldn’t have happened. From this more settled way of life, 14,000 years ago, civilization developed, and the rest is, quite frankly, history…
17. Likewise, 10,000 years ago cats helped the development of agriculture
Alongside their frequent canine antagonists, domesticated cats also made a significant contribution to human history. Their primary use came from arable farmers. Whilst dogs proved really good at guarding settlements and chasing off predators, they weren’t so effective against rodents. Enter the cat, quite literally: DNA evidence shows cats lived alongside humans without being domesticated for thousands of years. They first saw off the greedy rodents that ate crops 10,000 years ago, before gradually becoming domesticated. Without cats, keeping harvested crops would have been near-impossible, and the world would look very different indeed.
16. The American Bison helped European settlers to colonize North America
Long before the arrival of European settlers, the American Bison made up an important part of the Native American diet. When the settlers arrived, Bison steak was once again on the menu, and helped fuel the settlers’ exploration. The tracks they’d used for thousands of years scarred the Great Plains, and gave Europeans ready-made highways to use. Many later became railroad tracks, as the enormous country took its modern form. On a more sinister note, the US government in the 19th century encouraged Bison hunting for sport to cut off a major part of the Native American diet.
15. The market for beaver skins saw Native American tribes wiped out by war and disease in the 18th century
Through the High Middle Ages and Early Modern Period, Europeans hunted beavers for fur and castoreum, making them near-extinct. However, when they began to colonize North America, they found beavers in abundance. Soon Britain and France became fierce rivals in the lucrative beaver-skin trade. Skins fetched high prices back in Europe. Native Americans had killed beavers for fur and meat for centuries, and thus came into conflict with the immigrants. Some Native Americans entered into the trade, but contact with Europeans came at a high price. As well as spreading disease, Europeans also mercilessly slaughtered tribes interfering with their trade.
14. Smoky the Yorkshire Terrier helped build a crucial US Air Force base in World War II
In February 1944, American soldiers stationed in Papua New Guinea found a tiny Yorkshire Terrier whimpering in an abandoned foxhole. Naming her Smoky, the enamored soldiers adopted the tiny dog. Smoky wound up accompanying Corporal William A. Wynne for the rest of World War II. Her finest hour came when Wynne’s squadron moved to the Philippines. When a telegraph wire needed to be installed in a narrow, 21-meter pipe at Luzon airbase, Smoky saved the day. Attached to a wire, Smoky ran the length of the pipe. This ensured the strategically-vital air base remained safe and operational.
13. Cleopatra, the ruler of Egypt, died after being bitten by a snake, and the country became a Roman Province
Cleopatra (c.69-30BC) became co-ruler of Egypt when her father died. With support from her lover, Julius Caesar, she deposed her brother, Ptolemy XIII, who’d forced Cleopatra into exile. When Brutus murdered Caesar in 44BC, Cleopatra allied herself with the general, Mark Antony, and they fell in love. Their relationship, and Antony’s territorial concessions to Cleopatra, didn’t go down well in Rome. Roman forces defeated their combined army, and both committed suicide. According to Classical writers, Cleopatra killed herself by letting an asp bite her. With the snake’s bite, Egypt ceased to be independent and became a Roman Province.
12. Studying Galapagos Tortoises and mockingbirds led Charles Darwin to come up with the theory of evolution in the 1830s
In 1831, a 22-year-old naturalist named Charles Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle on a long voyage circumnavigating the world. Darwin collected many specimens during the nearly 5-year expedition, including tortoises and mockingbirds from the Galapagos Islands. He noticed slight variations in specimens from different islands, but everyone told him they were different species. But just six months after returning to England, Darwin looked at the specimens again. He began to wonder whether ‘one species does change into another’. Eventually, this thought turned into the full-blown theory of evolution. The Galapagos tortoises and mockingbirds changed how we understand the world forever.
Between the mid-18th and mid-19th century, thousands of Scottish people were forced from their ancestral homes by heartless aristocrats. Some resisted: officials burned their homes or physically chased them with vicious dogs. Many fled to America; most who stayed on their new, infertile lands starved to death. So why did this disgraceful episode happen? Simple: sheep. After the Agricultural Revolution, small, individual farms no longer had economic value. The new way saw vast areas of land dedicated to raising huge flocks of sheep for their wool. Effectively, sheep had more rights than people in the eyes of greedy landowners.
10. In 1899, man-eating lions stopped the construction of a railway in Kenya
Between March and December 1898, work on the Kenya-Uganda Railway ground to a shuddering halt. Workers, most from very poor families, simply downed tools and went home. The British Parliament even discussed the issue. The British Empire had been halted in its tracks… by two lions. The pair, known as the Maneaters of Tsavo, killed around 28 workers in 1898. After numerous attempts to kill them failed, workers began to suspect the lions were, in fact, demons, and fled. Operations resumed only when the engineer in charge of the railway bridge across the Tsavo River finally managed to kill them.
9. In 1392, a wild boar killed the widely-loathed Robert de Vere, Duke of Ireland
King Richard II’s favorite, Robert de Vere, backed the wrong horse. He loyally attempted (and failed) to defeat Richard’s enemies, a group of nobles who dominated the English government. In 1387, after defeat at Radcot Bridge, he fled to the continent, where a wild boar killed him near Louvain. This had dire consequences for Richard. Robert’s death left him completely at the mercy of the aptly-named Merciless Parliament. Parliament curtailed Richard’s power, and relentlessly bullied him. His reign never recovered. After being deposed as king by Henry Bolingbroke he starved to death while imprisoned at Pontefract Castle in 1400.
8. G.I. Joe, a pigeon, saved 1,000 soldiers from friendly fire in World War II
G.I. Joe, the pigeon received the Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross, with good reason. In 1943, he managed to relay a message to save an entire village and occupying troops. British soldiers had just seized Calvi Vecchia from the Germans, but a prearranged air strike was imminent. Joe flew 20 miles in 20 minutes to pass on the message to abort, seconds before the bombers took flight. Joe’s speed saved the lives of around 1,000 people. Furthermore, the air strike would have handed Calvi Vecchia right back to the retreating German army. Well done, G.I. Joe!
7. Echo the elephant became a celebrity in the late 20th century, and her story has protected elephants ever since
Like David Greybeard, Echo the elephant transformed how we view her species. Scientists began studying Echo, an African Bush Elephant (the largest living land mammal), in 1973. They studied Echo for the next 33 years, garnering pioneering insights into elephant behavior. Echo’s most startling contribution to history, however, came from her celebrity. Many documentary crews filmed her with the herd she led, and altered permanently how ordinary people viewed elephants. Echo’s celebrity gave crucial momentum to the elephant conservation movement. Unwittingly, Echo’s life secured the future of her species in Africa and improved the welfare of captive elephants.
6. King Henry I of England died after eating ‘a surfeit of Lampreys’, causing a civil war
After Henry I’s male heir died in 1120, he spent many years trying to have another. When success looked increasingly unlikely, he made the controversial move of naming his daughter, Matilda, as his heir. He got all his barons to swear loyalty to her and thought the matter settled. In November 1135, Henry followed a day’s hunting with a hearty dinner. But after gorging himself on lampreys, an eel-like fish, he died. The official cause of death: ‘a surfeit of lampreys’. Perhaps inevitably, many barons broke their promise to support Matilda, and a long and brutal civil war erupted.
5. A Newfoundland dog saved Napoleon from drowning in 1815
In 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, was in exile on Elba, off the coast of Italy. He’d been sent there in 1814 as part of the Treaty of Fontainbleau, brokered with Revolutionary France’s many enemies. But he couldn’t stay away from France for long, and escaped Elba within a year. Sailing over rough seas on the Inconstant, Napoleon fell overboard. Luckily for him, a Newfoundland dog jumped in after him, and saved his life. The dog’s intervention meant Napoleon seized control of France once more, albeit for a brief few months. Defeat at Waterloo that June forced his abdication.
4. Two doves helped Fidel Castro consolidate power in 1959
The bloody Cuban revolution ended early on New Year’s Day 1959. A week later, the revolutionaries’ leader, Fidel Castro, made his first speech in Havana. He faced the hard task of inspiring Cubans weary after years of civil war. Just as he promised to solve all of Cuba’s problems without shedding a drop of blood, a miracle happened. Two white doves, international symbols of peace, landed on him and the podium! To superstitious Cubans, this seemed a divine sign. Historians are skeptical about how ‘accidental’ this really was. Either way, Castro became Prime Minister soon afterward, and led Cuba until 2008.
3. The domestication of the horse led to the spread of civilization
Humans first domesticated the horse 5,000 years ago on the Russian Steppes. Things have never been the same. The speed and strength of the horse effectively shrunk the world, making long journeys possible. Produce could be carried long distances and sold. Increased mobility brought different peoples into contact, and with this came war and expansion. Culture spread this way, and riding horses itself became a cultural activity. Hunting and herding became far easier on a horse’s back. Although we have cheaper and more efficient transport today, where would we be without 5,000 years of horsepower?
2. A pig killed King Philip of France, and his successor launched the disastrous Second Crusade
King Philip (1116-31) ruled France with his father, Louis the Fat (c.1081-1137). Like many teenagers, he refused to listen to his dad, or anyone else, really. One day, as he rode his horse along the River Seine in Paris, a little black pig ran out from a dung heap. Philip’s horse tripped over it and crashed to the ground. Philip hit his head, and never regained consciousness. Louis VII succeeded Philip and helped launch the Second Crusade, in which many thousands of people died horribly. If only that ruddy pig had stayed put in the dung heap…
1. The Asian Honey Bee helped the Vietcong fight off the US invasion in the Vietnam War
The Asian Honey Bee is the stuff of nightmares. Measuring up to 2cm long, they are notoriously aggressive. As well as having a painful sting, they can also cause bowel gangrene and even death. During the Vietnam War, US soldiers found them a menace that only compounded the horrific conditions in the jungle. Bee attacks were so common rumors spread that the Vietcong were moving hives to routes taken by US infantry. Whether they did or not, the bees in their own way helped to fight the war, lowering US morale and making life even tougher for the beleaguered troops.
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