33. Rats and fleas formed a deadly duo that spread the Black Death in 1347, killing 50 million people
The Black Death killed 50 million people in the 14th Century. That’s 60% of Europe’s population! Medieval people thought God’s anger, the movements of planets, or a Jewish conspiracy caused the Black Death. In fact, Black Death (bubonic plague) is a disease caused by Yersinia pestis, a bacterium living on rats. Rats die of bubonic plague in a few days, and the fleas living on them have to find new hosts. Often, the new host isn’t a rat, but humans. Between them, therefore, rats and fleas wiped out millions. The population deficit also changed the medieval social structure forever.
32. In 1925, a dog named Balto saved the city of Nome, Alaska from diphtheria
In January 1925, doctors in the isolated Alaskan city of Nome saw signs of an impending diphtheria outbreak. The nearest anti-diphtheria serum was 500 miles away in Anchorage. At the heart of winter, getting the serum seemed all but impossible. In such thick snow, only sled dogs could make the journey. Volunteers set up a relay of sled teams to make the journey as quick as possible, called the ‘Great Race of Mercy‘. The final stage of the journey saw Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog, Balto, arrive in Nome in the nick of time, saving the city from deadly disease.
31. A greyhound helped cause the English Reformation
King Henry VIII of England wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon because she couldn’t give him a male heir. In Catholic England, this posed a delicate challenge. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey traveled to petition Pope Clement VII, and for some reason took his beloved greyhound, Urian, with him. Unfortunately, when Clement extended his foot for Wolsey to kiss, Urian leaped forward and bit him. Wolsey didn’t want to put his lips on Urian’s slobber, and refused the gesture. Whether this insolence determined Clement’s decision or not, he refused Wolsey’s request, and Henry later broke with Rome altogether to get his divorce.
30. In 1783, a sheep called Montauciel became the first land mammal to fly
In September 1783, the Montgolfier brothers invented the hot air balloon. Harnessing the power of flight represented a huge step forward, but a dangerous one. Before trying it out themselves, the Montgolfiers staged a public exhibition in Versailles with some unusual passengers. Heading where no man had ever gone, a sheep, a duck, and a cockerel climbed into the basket. The balloon flew for 8 minutes before crashing a few kilometers away. All the animals survived, but the survival of Montauciel the sheep provided the crucial assurance of the craft’s safety. The Montgolfier brothers followed in Montauciel’s hoofprints weeks later.
29. A turbot helped Britain win the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801
When Norway and Denmark insisted on trading with Revolutionary France in 1801, the British declared war. The combined Danish-Norwegian fleet lay near Copenhagen, but Admiral Hyde Parker felt reluctant to attack. His Vice-Admiral, Horatio Nelson, had other ideas and wanted to launch a full-on assault. Still, Parker dilly-dallied, until one of Nelson’s men caught a turbot. Knowing Parker loved fine food, Nelson sent the fish over to his ship. The unexpected gift seems to have changed Parker’s mind, and he let Nelson lead a daring offensive. Nelson’s aggressive strategy paid off, and British defeated the Danish-Norwegian fleet.
28. In 1859, a pig started a war between the US and Britain
On June, 15, 1859, a British pig wandered onto the American Lyman Cutlar’s land on San Juan Island, near Vancouver. The pig ate some potatoes, and Cutlar shot it. Incredibly, this pig’s love of potatoes escalated into the Pig War. Both Britain and the US claimed to own the island, and this incident provided the catalyst for hostilities. Local British and American forces entered tense a stand-off involving over 2,500 men, 5 warships, and 84 cannons. When their flabbergasted superiors got wind of the situation, they hurriedly agreed on a truce. The war ended with casualties of one pig.
After spending most of his life pulling milk wagons through the streets of St Louis, Jim the horse changed his career. Chemists once injected horses with the diphtheria toxin because of their immunity to the disease. This produced an anti-diphtheria toxin, which could then be given to human sufferers. Jim produced 7.5 gallons of diphtheria serum in his career. However, people noticed in 1901 that Jim had tetanus, but it was already too late. Jim’s serum caused 13 children to die of tetanus. In response, the US Government passed the 1902 Biologics Control Act, to regulate biologics and created the FDA.
26. The death of Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon in the world, helped create the conservationist movement
The Passenger Pigeon lived abundantly alongside Native Americans until European settlers arrived. By 1900, exhaustive hunting and habitat loss made the bird extinct in the wild. A few survived in captivity, but ‘experts’ bungled attempts to save the species, and soon only one remained. Martha, named after George Washington’s wife, lived in the Cincinnati Zoo between 1885 and 1914. As the last of her species, people flocked from far and wide to see Martha. The zoo even offered $1000 for a mate for her. Her death helped to create the conservation movement, and she is still a conservation icon today.
25. A chimp named David Greybeard changed the definition of a human in 1960
Post-Darwin, scientists spent a lot of time trying to figure out how we differed from other animals. One of the most popular theories held that only humans could use tools. In 1960, a chimpanzee named David Greybeard blew the argument out of the water. The ingenious chimp flabbergasted famous primatologist Jane Goodall by using a grass stalk to extract termites from their mound. This proved to be the tip of the iceberg: Goodall witnessed the Gombe chimps make weapons and objects for grooming. David Greybeard transformed our understanding not only of chimpanzees but of human beings.
24. William of Orange’s horse tripped on a molehill, killing him to the delight of Jacobites
William of Orange overthrew King James II of England during the Glorious Revolution. As an impostor and a foreigner, many people hated his guts. One day, William was riding in Hampton Court Palace’s grounds when his horse tripped on a molehill. The resulting fall broke his collarbone, exacerbating his long-term respiratory problems, and he died of pneumonia. Anne, James II’s daughter, succeeded the childless William. Up in Scotland, the Jacobites – who wanted James II back on the throne – were delighted. In the deadly mole’s honour, Jacobites introduced a toast ‘to the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat’.
23. In 1932, Australia went to war with emus, and lost
When World War I veterans returned to Australia, the government rewarded them with farmland. Unfortunately, no one told the local emus these men were heroes. 20,000 of the large, flightless birds feasted on wheat crops, decimating whole farms. The veterans, many of them trained marksmen, couldn’t cope. In 1932, the government sent in the Australian military. However, emus proved to be very smart and surprisingly hard to shoot. It took on average 10 bullets to down a single bird. With no real reduction in the emu population, the Australians surrendered: the emus won the Great Emu War!
22. In the late 19th century, Tibbles the Cat exterminated the Stephen Island Wren, alerting New Zealanders to their ecological impact
In 1894, David Lyall moved to Stephens Island, just off South Island, New Zealand. While Lyall manned the lighthouse, his cat, Tibbles, went hunting, and always brought back the same type of bird. Intrigued, Lyall sent the birds off to ornithologists, who proclaimed it a new species. Too late: within a year, Tibbles had hunted the Stephens Island Wren to extinction! Evidence has subsequently shown it once lived across New Zealand. Having evolved in a world without predators, it didn’t stand a chance when settlers arrived with cats and dogs. The wren’s extermination alerted New Zealanders to their ecological impact.
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.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: