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North Devon in 100 Objects: 35. Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?

A hairball from a cow.

We often bring this rather beautiful object out as a “Mystery Object” when giving talks to local societies or for visiting groups.  What can it be?  Suggestions in the past have included a cannon ball (too light); a tropical seed (too plain); or a toy (but made of what?).  This is not animal, vegetable or mineral, but a mixture of all three.

Cows have ruminant digestive systems. Unlike humans, who have one stomach for digestion, cows have four, allowing them to eat tough, fibrous grass which is broken down by bacterial action as it passes from stomach to stomach. In the process, foreign items can easily become stuck inside and cows don’t have the ability to vomit them up.

Some of the foreign items commonly found inside cows are hairballs. These masses eventually clump together, forming smooth spheres. Unfortunately, the spheres can prove deadly. As they grow larger, they make the stomach non-functional, blocking food from traveling or digesting properly. By the time a hairball reaches four inches in diameter, a cow will become emaciated and seek to drink massive amounts of water. Cow hairballs are often only discovered after the animal has died. Foreign masses found in intestines are called “bezoars”; they are found in many animals including humans.  Small bezoars have been used as semi-precious stone jewellery; others were thought to be an antidote to any poison.  Ox bezoars (gall stones) are used in Chinese medicine where they are believed to remove toxins from the body.

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