Nature's weirdest events in numbers

One of thousands of blackbirds that fell out of the sky on New Year's Eve lies on the ground in Beebe, Arkansas January 1, 2011 in this handout photograph. Can science explain mass bird deaths and other mysteries?

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As the clock struck 12 and Auld Lang Syne rang out, many breathed a sigh of relief that the new year had arrived without a hitch.

This time last year however, residents of a small town in the US were feeling uneasy after mother nature sent them some seemingly apocalyptic signs.

The town of Beebe in the US state of Arkansas is home to an estimated 1.5 million redwing blackbirds year-round, a species known for flocking in great numbers.

On New Year's Eve 2011, thousands of the birds fell from the sky in a single night.

The proceeding days saw the town overrun with hazmat suited environmental workers and journalists attempting to explain the perplexing "aflockalypse".

After examining the birds' bodies, pathologists found the birds had died from trauma injuries and suggested that they were disturbed from their night roosts by a number of loud bangs, possibly fireworks.

Without good night-vision, the blackbirds simply collided with buildings and fell to the ground dead.

Although such mysterious natural phenomena can often be explained by science, they continue to intrigue us.

These are some of the numbers behind nature's weirdest events.

Tongue biter
Ceratothoa imbricata in Blacktail (c) Nico Smit A tongue replaced by a parasite

Cymothoa exigua are one of the 386 species of isopod or louse known to attach to the tongues fish after entering through the gills.

Once in place, the parasites feed on the fish, eating away their flesh and feeding on their blood supply to become a replacement tongue.

Adult lice can reach up to 4cm (1.57in) in length and are most commonly found off the coast of California.

The first "tongue biter" in the UK was found inside a red snapper at a fishmonger's in London in 2005.

Dr Tammy Horton from the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton says they receive roughly one report of the parasites annually.

They pose no threat to humans but live specimens can deliver a nasty nip with the sharp claws they use to attach to the fish's tongues.

Exploding toads

More than 1,000 dead toads were recorded in Altona, Hamburg, in just a few days over the spring of 2005.

The toads' usual mating site was dubbed the "pond of death" as researchers attempted to explain the strange scene.

Investigation of the dead amphibians revealed each had injuries on its back and its liver had been removed.

Experts deduced that crows had been performing key-hole surgery to remove the nutritious organ without ingesting the toads' toxic skin. The clever corvids had attacked while the toads were preoccupied with mating.

As a natural defence, the toads swelled to 3.5 times their normal size but without a liver to stop their lungs expanding they continued to swell until they exploded.

The resulting explosions spread the animals' entrails up to a metre in distance.

Residents were seeing red over an infestation of ladybirds.

Seeing red

Tens of millions of ladybirds infested a small town in the US state of Colorado, turning trees blood red, in 2009.

It was a bumper year for the insects' food source, aphids, due to a particularly wet spring, with three times the average rainfall in the north of Jefferson county.

The insects swarmed trees to find mates but quickly dispersed once their goal had been achieved.

Freeze frame

In 2011, scientists satellite-tracking musk oxen in Alaska, US were distressed to find their 55 subjects frozen solid.

Musk ox frozen into the ice (c) National Parks Service Only the musk oxen's horns and hides were visible

The animals are Arctic specialists with two layers of fur and can weigh over half a tonne.

But these adaptations were useless when a storm at sea created a tidal surge that cracked the surface of the frozen bay they were crossing, plunging the oxen into the water.

With air temperatures at -30C the surface of the water rapidly refroze, trapping the animals in an icy grave.

Biblical proportions

Last year billions of locusts plagued an area of Australia larger than 500,000 sq km (190,000 square miles), twice the size of Britain.

According to the Australian Plague Locust Commission, individual swarms reached 300sq km in size, with an average of 10 locusts per square metre.

The voracious insects devoured crops From Longreach in Queensland in the north-east to Melbourne and Adelaide in the south in the largest plague in 30 years.

Experts cited flooding earlier in the year as the trigger for the population explosion, because locust eggs need warm moist conditions to fully develop.

Australian Plague Locusts (c) Toby Hudson Conditions were perfect for a locust population explosion

Once hatched, it took 6-8 weeks for the locusts to develop from eggs through nymphs to full-fledged adults.

The adult locusts lived for up to 10 months, terrorising Australian farmers and costing them an estimated A$2bn (US$2.07bn; £1.33bn) as the insects ate their way through pasture and cereal crops.

Tragedy at sea

The bodies of 8,000 sea birds washed up along 300 miles of coastline in the north-western US in 2009.

Rescuers feared an oil spill but the birds were actually scuppered by a naturally occurring foam.

A similar incident in California in 2007 where 600 birds were washed ashore was linked to a "red tide" of algae out at sea.

The algae produced a foam that was not toxic but nevertheless proved deadly for the birds by sticking to their feathers, ruining waterproofing and causing hypothermia as the cold seawater made contact with their skin.

Thanks to the previous investigation, many of the birds in 2009 were rescued, cleaned and returned to the sea.

The common link between harmless ladybirds, boundless locusts and defenceless birds is the natural human curiosity that spurred scientists into investigating mother nature's mysteries.

Whatever the future throws at us, our fascination with past weird phenomena could be the key to explaining the inexplicable.

Chris Packham presents Nature's Weirdest Events on Tuesday 3 January, 20:00 GMT on BBC Two.

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