Questions & Answers

Article excerpt

MYTHICAL MADNESS

Q: I have heard that lemmings are prone to throwing themselves over cliffs. Is there any truth in this or is it just a myth?

A: Since Walt Disney released the 1958 film White Wilderness showing thousands of lemmings hurling themselves off an Arctic cliff this folklore has entered the public imagination. The Norwegian lemming (Lemmus lemmus) migrates up to 100 kilometres each spring and autumn in search of food, especially when populations are high. Lemmings are strong swimmers but in the frantic search for food attempt to cross swift streams and large lakes and in the process die in large numbers. They do not intend to commit mass suicide. P Cooper, Derbyshire

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

Q: Please can you tell me how Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela, Peru and Brazil came to be so named?

A: The name Argentina comes from the Latin, argentum, meaning silver. The origin of this name goes back to the first Spanish conquerors. Juan Diaz de Solis's expedition met indigenous people who gave them silver objects, and in 1524, news spread in Spain of the existence of the legendary Sierra del Plata, a mountain rich in silver. The name Venezuela came about when in 1499, conquistador Alonso de Ojeda travelled inland to Lake Maracaibo and saw houses of the indigenous Indians built on stilts perched over the lake. The country became known as Venezuela meaning `Little Venice.' Paraguay comes from the Guarani Indian language meaning 'water going to the sea'. Meanwhile Uruguay is named after the river linking Argentina and Uruguay and is said to mean 'river of the birds'. To the Quechua Indians, Peru means `land of abundance'.

The respective embassies

A: There are contrasting theories over the etymology of Brazil. The name often appears in western Atlantic legend and in seventh-century manuscripts as the island of Hy-Brafil 'the Isle of the Blessed'. The standard interpretation seems to put its origin with a Latin word brass meaning red and referring to the trees that were been logged on Brazil's Atlantic coast or the red dye they produced. Angus Mitchell, London

LITTLE AND LARGE

Q: Where are the largest and smallest deltas in the world and how were they formed?

A: Delta is the name originally given to the alluvial land crossed by distributaries of the River Nile, and so applied to the more or less triangular floodplains of other rivers. A delta forms when a river deposits solid material at its mouth at a rate faster than it can be removed by currents. As deposits grow, the river splits to make new channels and the distributaries divide and subdivide, each stream depositing its load. The largest is the Ganges Delta, formed by the rivers Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna. …