It’s Sunday night. Not much is happening beyond the usual, never-ending political bickering.
Are you in the mood for a mystery?
Among the treasure trove of documents obtained by WikiLeaks is a very curious telegram on August 1, 1973, sent from Buenos Aires, Argentina to the U.S. State Department, concerning the shipment of frozen penguin pineal glands. The telegram says the shipment would arrive in Boston on August 4, 1973.
Below is a screenshot of the telegram:
In August 1973, William P. Rogers was Secretary of State in the Richard Nixon administration.
Penguins are native to the Southern Hemisphere. A common misconception is that penguins are only found in Antarctica. In fact, major populations of penguins are found in Angola, Antarctica, Argentina, Australia, Chile, Namibia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Several penguin species are found in the temperate zone: one species, the Galapagos penguin, lives near the equator!
Two interesting and really cool things about penguins:
- Their flippers have at least three branches of the axillary artery. They limit heat loss from flippers by enabling cold blood to be heated by blood that has already been warmed. This system allows penguins to efficiently use their body heat and explains why such small animals can survive in the extreme cold of Antarctica.
- Penguins can drink salt water because their supraorbital gland filters excess salt from the bloodstream. The salt is then excreted in a concentrated fluid from the nasal passages.
But why was the U.S. State Department so interested in penguin pineal glands? Searching around the net, this is what I found:
- The pineal gland is a small endocrine gland in the brains of nearly all vertebrates. The shape of the gland resembles a pine cone, hence the name “pineal gland”. Located in the epithalamus, near the center of the brain between the two hemispheres, the gland is tucked in a groove where the two halves of the thalamus join.
- From the point of view of evolution, the pineal gland is a kind of atrophied photoreceptor. In the epithalamus of some species of amphibians and reptiles, the gland is linked to a light-sensing organ — the parietal eye, aka pineal or third eye.
- French philosopher René Descartes believed the pineal gland to be the “principal seat of the soul“.
- Function: The primary function of the pineal gland is to produce the hormone melatonin, which helps modulate sleep patterns. Since melatonin production is stimulated by darkness and inhibited by light, the long Antarctica winter would mean the pineal glands of Antarctica penguins produce a lot of melatonin. Studies on rodents suggest that melatonin can protect against neurodegeneration.
- According to a 1975 article in the International Journal of Biometeorology, polar mammals, such as walruses and some seals, possess unusually large pineal glands. The article does not say if polar penguins also have unusually large pineal glands.
- Pineal glands become calcified — the accumulation of calcium salts. Calcification has been observed in children as young as two years of age, and increases with age. Some studies show that the degree of pineal gland calcification is significantly higher in patients with Alzheimer’s disease vs. other types of dementia.
- Pineal glands of mammals like rodents contain Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) — a tryptamine molecule that some call “the spirit molecule”. DMT can be consumed as a powerful psychedelic drug and has historically been used by various cultures for ritual and healing purposes. Illegal in most countries, DMT can be inhaled, injected, or orally ingested. A 2014 study found that DMT has immunomodulatory potential that may have significant anti-inflammatory and tissue regeneration effects.
See also this interesting 8chan thread on pineal glands.