Holographic elephants shine new light on tradition—and other innovations

From high-tech circus animals to sultry orchids, these discoveries question age-old assumptions.

This story appears in the December 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Glowing new acts to see under the big top

At Circus Roncalli, based in Cologne, Germany, the dancing elephant is 20 feet tall. Such a behemoth should weigh more than 10 tons, but this creature is weightless—and slightly translucent. It’s a three-dimensional hologram, a six-million-pixel creation that performs thanks to 15 engineers, more than 3,000 processors, and 11 laser beams. The spectacle is “a combination of nostalgic circus with modern elements,” says founder and director Bernhard Paul. The circus animates holographic fish and horses as well as elephants but bills itself as “otherwise animal free.” The innovation has been applauded for respecting both circus tradition and animal protection. —Claire Wolters

Read our guidelines for ethical animal encounters.

In orchids, myth and folk medicine meet

The word of the day: orchis. It’s a genus of the orchid plant. It’s the Greek word for testicle (which some orchid tubers ostensibly resemble). And in Greek mythology Orchis was a brute whose punishment for assaulting a priestess was to be torn into pieces—from which sprouted a plant with testicle-like tubers. Since ancient times, orchids have been “associated with sexuality,” says the Journal of Cultural Heritage. In some societies people still consume the plant, hoping that their own anatomy will benefit. Orchid tubers are eaten as impotence fighters in Israel; bulbs, as aphrodisiacs in Turkey. Even the flowers were once consumed in Italy, where species include the anatomically explicit Orchis italica—aka the naked man orchid. —Patricia Edmonds

If ticks bite, opossums bite back

Black-legged ticks, which spread Lyme disease in much of North America, feed on various hosts. One, the opossum, is a tick-eliminating champ, grooming away 96 percent of tick larvae that infest it, a research study says. Preserving Earth’s biodiversity helps keep this and other natural pest traps on the job, the study concludes. —PE

Learn more about illnesses spread by ticks and other insects—a trend experts say will continue as the climate warms.

Worked to the bone in antiquity

In millennia-old bones, scientists can see how the sexes divided chores. A U.K. study of prehistoric agriculturalists’ remains found signs in men’s arm and leg bones that they did hard labor. But women’s arm bones also showed signs of manual labor and impressive strength—up to 40 percent greater than a control group of modern women. Anthropologist Alison Macintosh Murray says the findings refute the idea that women didn’t do “as much as the men.” —PE

Read more about why prehistoric women had stronger arms than modern athletes.

Editor's note: This story has been updated. The article originally misstated that the performance of the late rock star Prince at the 2018 Super Bowl was a hologram. It was a projection onto a screen.

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