When the term "dead fish" became a top Google search Wednesday, soaring past the likes of Lindsay Lohan and leaving Justin Bieber in its scaly wake, it looked as if the end were near.
That's what everyone was saying, anyway.
After millions of tiny fish went belly up in the Chesapeake Bay this week, the populace immediately dismissed the official scientific explanation (the water was just too darn cold). What made more sense, they reasoned?
The approaching apocalypse. Of course.
The troubling fish kill, coming as it did on top of reports of birds in Arkansas and Louisiana falling from the sky en masse, had some scratching their heads. And jumping to conclusions.
"Is American Wildlife Cursed?" AOL asked in a headline over a story that began: "Maybe it's time to start storing those emergency food rations." Conspiracy theories raged on blogs, Facebook and Twitter. People sent countless panicky tweets, including:
• "So they['re] blaming dead birds on loud noises and dead fish on the water being too cold... Are we supposed to believe that?!?"
•"Between all these dead birds and fish around the USA, I think 2012 may be it after all, drink up gang."
Some were more to the point:
•"WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!"
Though officials in Maryland immediately explained what caused the deaths of millions of spot and croaker, people weren't willing to buy "cold-water stress" — not with so much other environmental upheaval under way.
First, in Arkansas, 83,000 dead drum fish washed up along the Arkansas River. Then, on New Year's Day over the small town of Beebe, Ark., which is about 100 miles away from the dead fish, as many as 5,000 red-winged blackbirds fell to the ground, dead.
Alfred Hitchcock himself might have envied the austere shots of horror captured on film — all those still birds lying on highways, sidewalks and the brown grass of people's winter lawns. The cause of their deaths only ratcheted up people's unease: blunt force trauma.
Blunt force trauma? What?
Then, a couple of days later in Louisiana, hundreds more birds — blackbirds, starlings, brown-headed cowbirds and grackles — expired in a similarly bizarre fashion.
Theories about how that could happen, not just once but twice, flew faster than feathers. Hail. Lightning. Power lines. New Year's Eve fireworks.
Here's the disturbing account John Fitzpatrick, the director of Cornell University's ornithology lab in Ithaca, N.Y., offered reporters: "It's probable that thousands of birds were asleep, roosting in a single tree, when a 'washing machine-type thunderstorm' sucked them up into the air, disoriented them, and even fatally soaked and chilled them."
Science fiction, top that.
George Washington University religion professor Paul Duff, who has studied the Book of Revelation and the apocalypse, didn't seem particularly alarmed about all this when reached by The Baltimore Sun on Wednesday afternoon. In fact, he wasn't even gathering food rations; he was catching up on work in his office.
"There has not been a generation that has not cried, 'The end is near,'" he said dryly.
Duff said the disturbing nature of the wildlife deaths, combined with the unanswered questions behind some of them, create the perfect climate for a doomsday plot.
"When people are in anxious situations, situations that are unsettling, that gives rise to these kinds of beliefs that the end is near," he said. "When birds fall out of the sky in massive numbers, this can provoke anxiety, right? When you add this to a fish kill, we're living in a very anxious time."
But even if all these poor birds and rotting fish portend nothing in the end, Duff has little doubt that the apocalyptically inclined won't drop their case.
"When they expect [doomsday] to come and it doesn't, they don't give up that belief," he says. They'll just recalculate. And push [the date] forward again."
Dick Horne, the former curator of Baltimore's now-closed freaky Dime Museum, fancies strange phenomenon more than the average person. Needless to say, even if it ultimately means nothing, he's been loving this.
"This is the kind of thing that makes life interesting," he says. "Everybody needs mystery, things to lie awake at night and wonder about. I hope they never find the definitive answer. Then the conspiracy can go on and on and on ..."