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In Brief

Mystery Behind 'Into the Wild' Death Solved

Denali National Park
The crown jewel of Denali's national park stands head and shoulders above the rest. (Image credit: NPS)

On Sept. 6, 1992, a young man named Chris McCandless was found dead inside a rusted bus in the wilderness just north of Alaska's Denali National Park by moose hunters. Author Jon Krakauer wrote a book about McCandless' life entited "Into the Wild," in which he speculated that eating too many seeds of the wild potato plant, Hedysarum alpinum, had made McCandless too weak to collect enough food to survive. Krakauer came to this conclusion in part because McCandless had written in his diary that he was "extremely weak. Fault of pot[ato] seed. Much trouble just to stand up," Krakauer wrote in a recent blog post for The New Yorker.

That suggestion touched off a controversy over the real cause of McCandless' death that has continued to this day, since nobody had definitively proven that the seeds of the wild potato were dangerous. But an independent researcher found evidence that seeds of this plant had poisoned thousands during the Holocaust, and subsequent testing by Krakauer found high levels of a neurotoxin in the seeds. The neurotoxin, which was not the original way that Krakauer thought the seeds had poisoned McCandless, seems to be poisonous only to young men who are eating few calories and undergoing strenous physical exertion, just as McCandless was.

Read the full story of how the case of McCandless' death was solved at The New Yorker.  

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Douglas Main
Douglas Main loves the weird and wonderful world of science, digging into amazing Planet Earth discoveries and wacky animal findings (from marsupials mating themselves to death to zombie worms to tear-drinking butterflies) for Live Science. Follow Doug on Google+.