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Curiousities: Fakers and snot palaces

Police: Man faked wife’s disappearance so she’d avoid prison

GRANDVIEW, W. Va. (AP) — A West Virginia woman and her husband faked her disappearance by pretending she plummeted from an overlook as part of a scheme to keep her out of having to go to prison, authorities said.

Julie Wheeler and Rodney Wheeler were arrested Tuesday on multiple charges including conspiracy and giving false information to West Virginia State Police.

State police said Julie Wheeler was reported missing Sunday by her husband and 17-year-old son.

The family claimed Julie Wheeler had fallen from the main overlook at the New River Gorge National River, National Park Service Ranger Leah Perkowski-Sisk said.

Authorities searched for Julie Wheeler for days but found her Tuesday “alive and well” hiding in a closet in her home.

A criminal complaint said Rodney Wheeler and his son planted items at the Grandview Overlook to fake Julie Wheeler’s disappearance. It’s unclear whether the son will face criminal charges.

Julie Wheeler pleaded guilty to federal health care fraud in February after an investigation into “pill mill” clinic operations. She’ll be sentenced for that charge on June 17.

It’s unclear whether the couple have an attorney who could comment on their behalf.


Scientists learn how tiny critters make ocean ‘snot palaces’

KENSINGTON, Maryland (AP) — Master builders of the sea construct the equivalent of a complex five-story house that protects them from predators and funnels and filters food for them — all from snot coming out of their heads.

And when these delicate mucus homes get clogged, the tadpole-looking critters — called giant larvaceans — build a new one. Usually every day or so.

These so-called “snot palaces” could possibly help human construction if scientists manage to crack the mucus architectural code, said Kakani Katija, a bioengineer at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

Her team took a step toward solving the mystery of the snot houses and maybe someday even replicating them, according to a study in Wednesday’s journal Nature.

The creatures inside these houses may be small — the biggest are around 4 inches — but they are smart and crucial to Earth’s environment. Found globally, they are the closest relatives to humans without a backbone, Katija and other scientists said.

Together with their houses “they are like an alien life form, made almost entirely out of water, yet crafted with complexity and purpose,” said Dalhousie University marine biologist Boris Worm, who wasn’t part of the study. “They remind me of a cross between a living veil and a high tech filter pump.”

Also, when they abandon their clogged homes about every day, the creatures collectively drop millions of tons of carbon to the seafloor, where it stays, preventing further global warming, Worm said. They also take microplastics out of the water column and dump it on the sea floor. And if that’s not enough, the other waste in their abandoned houses is eaten by the ocean’s bottom dwellers.

But it’s what they build that fascinates and mystifies scientists. Because the snot houses are so delicate, researchers haven’t often been able to take them to the lab to study them. So Katija and team used a remote submarine, cameras and lasers to watch these creatures in water about 650 to 1300 feet deep off Monterey Bay in Northern California.

These mucus structures aren’t simple. They include two heart-like chambers that act as a maze for the food that drifts in, except there’s only one way for it to go: into the larvacean’s mouth. The snot houses often are nearly transparent and flow all around the critter that looks like a tadpole, but isn’t.

And the houses are comparatively big — about 10 times bigger than the critters themselves — reaching more than three feet wide. It would be the equivalent of a person making a five-story house, Katija said.

Water can flow through the structure so that when it moves through the water it doesn’t give much of a motion detectable by predatory fish. That, Katija said, essentially masks the house from whatever wants to eat the larvaceans.

None of this could be done in the lab. Katija’s team used 3D laser scan technology to virtually fly through the inner chambers of the snot palaces, then recreated them with software to model the inner-workings of the structure.

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