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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Creature Design Post: Poison Running Through My Veins.

First off, I apologize for updating this less frequently. The biggest factor, by far, is my own moving away from my old e-mail account, and therefore my Blogger. It's not like my interest in life has been demolished, I've just been lazy about switching accounts. There were also a lot of trips in September! 

I've also been thinking about a new type of article. See, this blog started with the intent of being inspiration food. I'm a huge fan of creature designs, to the the point where they tend to overwhelm other parts of my work. I love monsters, especially ones that a) eat people and b) derive from nature. The way I see it, I may as well tell the world more about what I like using examples from both nature and other media. I want to inspire people using everything nature and art has to offer. 

In particular, I love animals that use poison! Goodness knows why, but I find it a very interesting, unique bioweapon. It's usually a "big things come in small packages" deal that sometimes even looks cool. Thus, it kinda cheeses me off when people just palette swap a creature and say one color is poisonous without taking in other structural ideas. 

So, without further ado…three tips for designing your own toxic beasts!

If this thing was a Pokemon, I'd catch the hell out of it. And it's invasive, so that would be okay. 


1. Picking Your Poison. 

Or, if you prefer, "the nitty-gritty details- how and why?"  

I apologize for starting with something so boring. However, it is a rather important part of why certain animals have poison while others do not, and help you, as a designer, gauge how poisonous a creature should be. Aside from the aesthetic of a poisonous thing, why something is poisonous should be the first things you think about. 

The truth is, that's how you have to think of poison. A toxin is not a horn or claw. It's not visually appealing in and of itself. Whereas one can easily brush off a horn as, say, a mating display, one cannot do that for poison. Poison has to have a bigger point than that. 

So, why does your thing have poison? Is it hunting prey, or just defending itself? While poison's a pretty versatile weapon, this will affect your design. The rule of thumb is that venomous creatures use their poison to hunt, while poisonous creatures use it as a defense. What kind of animal are you making?

Nobody ever suspects...the BUTTERFLY!



Probably the most classic poisonous animal to pick on is the monarch butterfly. The caterpillar of the monarch butterfly eats milkweed, a mildly toxic plant. By doing so, the caterpillar itself becomes bad-tasting, and birds learn to avoid them from that point on. The butterflies are likewise poisonous, and the circle of life continues when they pollinate the poisonous milkweed. A lot of prey animals do this - even the notorious poison dart frogs, which eat toxic beetles to make themselves toxic. Very, very toxic, in fact.

Venomous creatures are another can of worms. A venomous creature is usually a slower predator, often of the ambush variety, that naturally makes its own toxins. It is usually well-camouflaged, sporting a swift strike. This thing is definitely poisoning to kill, meaning that one strike should hurt a lot. Bad taste won't cut it, even if it is still considered toxic. Venomous creatures like our lionfish (from the start of the article) are both predator and prey, thus the vibrant markings. 

Why things do not have poison is just as important as why things do have poison. For example…ever wonder why there are so few poisonous mammals known to science?

Put bluntly: they don't need it. Why invest in poison when you have massive teeth, claws, hooves, or long legs? Mind, there are a few oddball mammals that still have poison, but there's a reason that they are exceptions rather than the rule. For example, a toxic lion would be redundant; one, they aren't prey for anything, two, cats kill with a death-bite to the neck. 

Here are a few reasons why something might evolve poison: it's slow; it's small; it doesn't have sharp claws, wings, or horns to defend itself. The vast majority of poisonous mammals are shrews, i.e. small furry things, or shrew-like solenodons; in a remarkable display of sadism for such small creatures, shrews use venom to render prey comatose while they cache it for winter. Solenodons have it because they are the closest mammalian things to reptiles after monotremes, and simply saw no need to evolve out of their toxic fangs.
Solenodons are weird, by the way. T-Rex would have seen this guy! 


Most mammals have claws, fangs, or massive size that they can use to their advantage. They don't need to slowly weaken things. They don't even need toxic skin to defend themselves. It's the smaller, slower, more vulnerable animals that are more likely to have poison. If you can't cause a lot of damage or run like the wind already, you might just be a good candidate for toxins.

And then, oh, the plethora of toxins out there. There are toxins that paralyze, toxins that cause internal bleeding, toxins that attack muscle, and that's just naming a few. It's not simple to create an antidote for every venom out there, just because of the variety. I could stress again and again that these things tend to be tiny, yet potent, so whichever route you design best be worth it. 

Of course, when you're making man-eaters, tiny is not an option. Slow is also usually a pretty bad idea, but toxins can still compensate like they do in nature.  Monster Hunter has my eternal respect for having several very well-designed poisonous beasts in a number of regards. My personal favorites of MH 3 Ultimate, Lucent Nargacuga and Gigginox, are both venomous, but Gigginox is a real gem. It's slow, blind, breeds more than rabbits, and flings poison lugies at you. Perhaps size aside, it's one of the best-designed toxic creatures ever!

Or you could just go, "here's a thing, here's that thing again, only purple. The purple one is poisonous." Ah, recolors - the bane of my existence in cases like this. 

2. It's All in the Delivery. 

Here's another bugger concerning poisonous critters: how do you get your poison in? 

The evolution of venom in snakes is a long and hole-filled one. We do not know when or how lizards went from having four legs to none, whether it was related to water or earth, or if those lizards were poisonous. We also don't know how certain lizards evolved poison, or if any snakes can truly, 100% be called "nonvenomous." Science is still split on the Komodo dragon, but poison or bacteria, a bite from that thing is deadly. 

What we do know, however, is that the poison glands in snakes evolved long before they had the fangs to properly inject the stuff. Duvernoy's gland, the sac that produces venom, is found in seemingly harmless colubrids. There are also snakes dubbed "rear-fanged venomous." 

Yes. Let's talk about those for a bit.

Rattler left, cobra right. 


If one looks at the skull of a rattlesnake or cobra, one will notice two very obvious things: one, the skulls have very different styles of fangs, meaning that the images of cobras with massive fangs are really a load of BS; two, despite the differences between the fangs, they are both situated towards the front of the mouth. This only makes sense; after all, where better to put a weapon for injecting poison into prey? 

The venom-injecting fang did not start there. Evolution is an awkward mistress who tends to make a ton of mistakes before getting it right. The injection fang was situated towards the eye, closer to the gland, before the efficient venomous snakes we know today. These snakes still have and make poison, but can't get it into a squirming, potentially biting, kicking prey item.

The boomslang - embarrassingly known better as a Harry Potter potions class ingredient than a snake that can kill you by opening its mouth 180 degrees. 


This says nothing about how lethal the poison is, just that it's harder to get into a nice, warm rodent. Pretty crazy tricks have to be done just to get the point across (ha ha) if the machinery isn't there. The boomslang is one of the more noteworthy rear-fanged venomous snakes out there, but it doesn't have the huge fangs of a rattler, or even the fixed fangs of a cobra at the front of the mouth. It has three fangs for injecting venom, located right beneath Duvernoy's gland. It can almost open its jaws in a straight line in order to deliver its lethal bite; most rear-fanged snakes are not so lucky, and have to chew their venom into their prey to get it in at all

This is, of course, largely concerning venom. When you're poisoning something to kill it, of course you want the most efficient delivery system possible. If the poison is defensive, however, chances are a predator will be doing half of your work for you - usually touching the skin. Both the pufferfish and poison dart frog varieties have this right, with the pufferfish sporting death needles and dart frogs having a coating so poisonous that merely touching it causes at least a tingle."Your mouth is on my skin- sucks to be you" is very different from sticking fangs into an unsuspecting mouse. Needles, spurs, and toxic coatings are all cool ways to go about it. Delivery isn't as big a problem when the pred's doing your work for you. 

Point is, it doesn't matter how nasty your poison is if you can't get it in. It's like putting medicine in a bottle you can't open. In nature, there are no "much stronger people" who will open that bottle for you, so best make sure you can open it yourself. 

3. Acid Trip! 

Poisonous things can be among the most gorgeous beasts in the animal kingdom! A lot of poisonous (not always venomous) animals are very colorful as a warning, even though most of nature sees in black and white. Poison dart frogs are a classic example of this. Really, this guy blends in exactly nowhere:

The Frog Formerly Known As Azureus. He was never a Prince. 


Dart frogs aside, nature has another warning method: stripes. There's a trinity of red, yellow, and black that can be found on a lot of poisonous animals, including coral snakes and wasps. One could even add skunks to the "stripy and kind of bad for you" pile. Even to black and white vision, the stripy pattern stands out. The fancy term is "aposematic coloration" for the things that just taste bad.


Then there are the posers. 

For every genuinely toxic animal, there is at least one mimic- not usually venomous or poisonous, but darn if they don't dress the part. Coral snakes copy a far less deadly species (they're prey, too, remember?), but kingsnakes and milksnakes are known for mimicking the lethal coral snakes. ("Red next to yellow will kill a fellow, red next to black is a friend of Jack" stops once you cross the southern U.S. border, by the way.)  There are several very good bee mimics, including the hummingbird moth. The mimic octopus steals from everybody, making anything else trying to copy a venomous creature a futile cosplay attempt by comparison:


(I'm poisonous! Really! I am ALL AND EVERY POISONOUS YOU WILL EVER KNOOOWWW!) 

There is a visual aspect to poison, it just isn't necessarily purple. If anything, poison's colors are red, yellow, and black. RPG's have lied to you!

In conclusion...

...I hate palette swaps. And bad design that doesn't give a flip about how poison works in nature, or how to properly portray it aside from the color purple, but mostly, I don't like how people arbitrarily add poison onto anything without thinking about it. Pokemon and MonHunt have you beat already. There are a ton of creative ways to use poison. 


Friday, July 4, 2014

Creature Feature: MONGOOSE!

So I'm in Hawaii, right now. There is flora and fauna that I've never seen anywhere else everywhere. Oh, and I've also caught a few glimpses of a species that one does not expect to see in Hawaii: the mongoose.

Source.


How did I not do the mongoose before? Mongooses are weird little carnivores that  are related to civets and hyenas- yeah, picture that family reunion for a sec. Like hyenas, they are more closely related to cats than dogs. Even the names "mongoose" and "ichneumon" are weird.  Although the Indian grey mongoose is the most well-known, there are some 33-odd species of mongooses, including the meerkat- which I did cover a very long time ago. Mongoose species are native to Africa and southern Eurasia, including India.

Like the honey badger, the mongoose is a badass. Its greatest achievement is taking down cobras. Mongooses are so well-known for this that Rudyard Kipling, the author of the Jungle Book (and the white man's burden) wrote "Rikki -Tikki-Tavi," an adorable little story about a mongoose saving a family of humans from a family of cobras. Seeing as mongooses are cute, fuzzy little things and cobras are cobras, it's obvious whom the audience will root for.

Nom nom nom nom nom....bring the kiddies. 


There's a bit of conflicting evidence about whether mongooses are technically immune to cobra venom or not. Almost everybody will cite that the mongoose has a thicker hide than most fuzzy animals. Most people will also cite a chemical immunity to at least part of a cobra's venom. Regardless, there's not much a snake can do against a mongoose. It's really not a fair match.

This snake-killing reputation has gone so far that researchers will consciously ignore everything else in order to sic a mongoose on snakes. There were efforts to curb the Okinawan habu, another venomous snake, by introducing the mongoose. Instead, it turned out that the two species were not even active at the same time, so the mongooses helped themselves to the native bird life. This incident was so famous that it remains a roadshow staple, and even got woven into Pokemon's Zangoose and Seviper. Y'know, even though it was an epic failure.


Image cropped from a Bulbapedia scan. N.B.- Zangoose has Immunity, and an overall better stat spread than Seviper. Once again, this is not a fair match.

Speaking of epic fail, introducing a mongoose to an island for any reason is a bad idea 99% of the time. Even if your excuse is rodent or snake control, mongooses are versatile little buggers. They don't really look to kill snakes as much as honey badgers do; if there's easier prey, they'll take it. Although they can kill venomous snakes pretty easily, the same really goes for almost anything smaller than the mongoose. The Hawaiian o'-o', among other birds, fell prey to the mongoose because they had no defenses against any predators. They had originally been brought over to kill rats and other vermin, but screw that- those birds had nothing to protect them. It's like choosing from a pre-packaged steak or getting out there and shooting the cow yourself. Maybe people trying to control pests should think of things that way!

Thing is, Hawaii also has Stitch. Mongooses are pretty awesome, but Stitch is immune to everything but water. Game, set, match, mongoose.

[Unfortunately, I could not find an image of Stitch VS a mongoose. You'll have to use your imagination. ]

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Creature Feature: Zorilla.

You've all heard something like this before: "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck." If something has all the makings of something you know, it probably is something you know. That's usually pretty good advice to follow. 

The problem is, nature loves trolling us. There are nonpoisonous snakes that look like poisonous ones, spiders that look almost exactly like flowers, and hell, even butterflies that are really good at looking like dead leaves. 

And then there are furry little animals that look like skunks and stink like skunks, but aren't really skunks: 



This is a zorilla (Ictonyx striatus). It's a polecat (mustelid, similar to a ferret) native to most of Africa. It eats birds, rodents, eggs, lizards, and pretty much any running thing it can sink its pointy little teeth into. They can kill after only nine weeks of being in the world. For those of you who know Spanish, we realize zorillas look almost nothing like "little foxes" and almost everything like skunks. 

Even though it's related to skunks about as much as sea otters are, the zorilla is a really, really good example of convergent evolution. Those black and white stripes warn of the exact same thing a skunk is known for: its stench. A zorilla will turn buttward before firing, so you've got fair warning. The musk is supposedly less pungent than the musk of a skunk; haven't gotten to try this one personally, sorry. Other people claim that its scent can be smelled up to half a mile away, making it the world's smelliest animal. Still, it's not a coincidence that the zorilla looks like a skunk mixed with a Petco ferret; striking markings aren't a good sign. 


(No word on whether these guys make good pets or not, by the way.) 

Zorillas are also very communicative animals. Along with turning their tails towards you before spraying, they will growl and scream before firing. Baby zorillas even have different cries for when mommy is there or not. It doesn't sound as complex as bird song, but still very neat. 

The zorilla may not really be a skunk, but it does a darn good job posing as one. Hell, skunks aren't even in the same area, and the zorilla does the same thing. It's got its work cut out for it. So, umm, even though it's not really a skunk, can't we just call it even and treat it like one, anyways? 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

They Actually Eat That: Oysters.

Well, it's been a while since I did this column! I recently got back from New Orleans, AKA "foodie heaven." It's the best place ever if you want to try something you have never eaten before. I looove crawfish, and had my first taste of creole, which is its own thing. Alligator meat is...where else? Florida? A few farms? Basically, New Orleans is not Chicago, which could only ever win awards for "most poisonous junk food." There's really good, unique stuff, there.

Oh, and oysters. I can say I've had oysters, now.



Oysters are everywhere in New Orleans. It's hard to walk down a street there without seeing at least one oyster bar, or at least someplace selling oysters, on your way. Oyster shells can be picked up off the ground, if you have a good eye. Bourbon and Royal Streets, both interesting in their own rights, have their fair share of oyster bars as well as other fun things to look at (every sin known to man and antique stores, respectively).

It's not that oysters are as unique as alligator meat, but, rather, that New Orleans has a lot of them. New Orleans is located right along an estuary - a place where fresh and saltwater mix. This creates a home so ideal for the eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) that several oyster reefs can be found right near New Orleans.

An oyster reef (or, confusingly, "oyster bar") is an area where successive generations of oysters thrive. There have been approximately 5,895 oysters recorded with in a single square yard of reef - that's 45 bushels, for the culinarily curious. Flatworms, small fish, and other molluscs all make their home in these massive oyster beds. Other things, such as cow-nose rays, also prey upon the oysters. There are plenty to go around, at least.

Source: Eatyourworld.com


So, how do they taste? It depends on how you eat them. If you coat them in butter, seasonings, or anything else, they'll almost inevitably taste like that dressing. It's a little hard to pick out the taste beneath that - I would call it more subtle than mussel. Eaten raw, they supposedly taste exactly like fresh and salt water - both at once. Eat them while you're in New Orleans, for sure.

A bonus point: raw oysters are a scientifically-proven aphrodisiac. Raw, and only raw, oysters, contain zinc and other minerals that boost sperm count. Casanova's secret is backed by scientific fact, so, while raw oysters sound good on a hot day anyways, don't be surprised to find more junk downstairs. If you feel the sudden urge to go down Bourbon St. after slipping in some raw oysters, nobody will blame you. I repeat: It is OK to have fun. 

New Orleans has a lot of creative food options. That said, I still haven't gotten bold enough to try escolar, which I did an entry on a while back. It's illegal in a lot of places, but my favorite N'awlins sushi haunt (Ginger Lime - Google map it if you're there!) is not one of them. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

NARBC Spring 2014!

Confession time: The reason I've not been updating as much is simply because I've been using my other Gmail account more. Having both switchable at the ready is nice. Never fear; more entries are coming, and they'll be juicier and meatier than ever before!

This entry focuses on North American Reptile Breeders' Convention (NARBC) Spring 2014 (Mar 15-6). I love these - there's so much cool stuff to take photos of! These went on my Twitter (@kurokarasu), so some people got a live feed of this entry as it was being made. ;) Most things are way out of my price range, but there are also some really great bargains that remind one how expensive pet stores can be. You'll also see a lot of species that one would not ordinarily see, like...



...yes, that's a hognose (H. nasicus). They're really cool, little rear-fanged snakes that are only mildly venomous. Nobody has ever died from a hognose bite; the worst that's happened is an allergic reaction. I've complained about how hard they are to get in IL before, but all one really needs is a permit.



So, how can these people even touch poison dart frogs? Captive-bred poison dart frogs aren't poisonous. The poison needs a few things before it can activate: bacteria on the frog, UV light, and a certain species of insect. We can take that last one away, at least, meaning that these frogs are OK to handle. Still, wash your hands after handling. These are mostly display frogs, anyways.




Someone on my Twitter commented that these ball pythons (P. regius) were on the pricey side. Um...no, not for ball python morphs, they are not. Here are a few non-slashed (or very slightly discounted) ball python morphs for your gawking pleasure:










Yes, I deliberately took photos of acid trips for you. Bear in mind that your regular ball pythons (usually "loser males") can be purchased for 30-50 bucks from a reptile specialty store.



A leucistic rainbow boa! A shame it looks almost like every other white snake on the market. If there was any of the species' namesake iridescence in these guys, the light was not showing it well.



This is a legless lizard. It was hard to get a good look at its eyes, but several other features made me believe it anyways. I'd like to think someone at a reptile convention would correct the owner if he was BS'ing us.



Hypo Burms! One of them was sold as I was walking around. People acted like they were having trouble getting rid of them. Given the abundance of laws surrounding giant snakes, I understand why.



I absolutely love dwarf reticulated pythons! This picture also happens to be for science; I'm working on a paper concerning what makes for a good domesticated animal, and dwarf retics are actually a really good candidate for a domesticated snake. I asked if they retained their legendary intelligence (by snake standards) even when dwarfs; the seller said yes. Regardless, it was amazing to hold one of these beauties.



Finally, my own acquisition: A GFP axolotl! This little guy (or girl, we don't know) glows green under black light, just like a GloFish. His/her working name is "Fran," short for both "Frankenstein" and "Francesca/Francisco"- we aren't sure, yet. Once the little salamander grows a bit, the males get bulges near the base of the tail. We shall see! 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Creature Feature: Thread Snakes.

This picture is MINE...but was done with Field Museum equipment, and is for their use.  

Now for something I actually did: This is the head of a silver snake (Leptotyphlops albifrons), a type of thread snake from Argentina. It took forever to get a picture this good! The (dead) specimen had curled such that the head was hard to spread flat, but great side shots like this were still possible. It even shows the cute white spot at the front of the snake - handy, since the tail and head look very much alike on thread snakes. Just one of the many interesting things one can do by volunteering at the Field Museum!

Thread snakes in general are pretty neat, too. There are a few different families of thread snake, but they have enough in common to comfortably be called the same thing and share an entry page. Collectively, are found almost everywhere except Europe and some of the colder parts of northern Asia. Seeing them at all is a problem; these are secretive, quiet creatures that live in the soil and under rocks. Prepare to get your hands dirty. 

Thread snakes are also called "worm snakes" or "blind snakes," and with good reason. These snakes look like worms, if not burnt noodles. They are not slimy like worms; that should be your first clue if you happen to pick one up. As seen beneath a microscope, however, these snakes have scales, eyes, nostrils, and a spinal cord, just like every other snake in existence. All of them eat eusocial insects, particularly ants and termites, at all stages of life. Some may also be parthenogenic - capable of reproducing entirely without a male. More on that particular thread snake in another entry, though.

From National Geographic. Probably the only pic out there. 


Thread snakes are the tiniest snakes in the world. The smallest snake currently on record is the Barbados thread snake (L.carlae). As the name implies, this species is only native to Barbados, an island in the Caribbean. It is so small that it feeds on termites and their larvae. The adult is small enough to, well, fit comfortably on a quarter. The snake may be on the verge of extinction due to habitat threat, but not very much is known about it at all. It was just discovered and identified in 2008, so give it a bit longer.

Oddly enough, these snakes have the proportionately largest eggs of any snake type. The mother lays only one egg...which hatches into a baby almost half her size. Scientists think that, if the babies were any smaller, they would not be able to eat. The opposite case is true with giant pythons, who can lay clutches of hundreds! Size matters - just ask the people who take home Burmese pythons without realizing how monstrously huge they get.

Source. 


I love volunteering at the Field. I get inspired for so many entries, but only a few of them make the cut. Now, if only I could actually get paid to do things like that photo up top. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Happy New Year:Glowing Cockroaches For All!

 So let's start a new yearly tradition: Find our favorite new species discovered this past year. There were a lot of cool things, including a tyrannosaurid and a smallish extinct felid from Tibet. My pick, however, goes to...

Via Pintrest.


...a cockroach. An adorable, glow-in-the-dark cockroach, but still a cockroach. It has been dubbed  Luchihormetica luckae, with no good common name. We'll just call him "Lucky" for the rest of this entry; nobody wants to write that name out ten plus times, and face it, this is one of the more likeable cockroaches out there. Just don't get any ideas about stealing his Lucky Charms. He really doesn't like that.

Here's why this little cockroach of glowy awesomeness was picked over a T-Rex relative: I have never seen anything like Lucky! It's apparently mimicking another toxic, glow in the dark insect called a click beetle. This beetle is toxic; that paint job is warning colors. This is the only known instance of a glow being used as mimicry. Yeah, these guys will survive the apocalypse just fine.

Bioluminescent bugs are rare. The most commonly-known ones are glow worms and fireflies. Along with glowing on its body, the "eyes" on its glowy outline are pools of bioluminescent bacteria. Don't "ew" that - if you didn't have E.coli in your gut, let's just say digestion would be a lot harder. It's exciting to have another glowing bug to add to the short list!

Lucky was found in the rainforests of Ecuador near an active volcano. That's a pretty bizarre environment if you think about it. There cannot be too many rainforests like that around, meaning that this cockroach might only be able to live in that one area. Save the rainforest - it has neon roaches! It sounds weird to use a cockroach as a reason to protect the rainforest, but darnit, this is a gorgeous one!

Happy New Year! May many new species be discovered in 2014!