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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.


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!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas Special: Christmas Tinner.

I could have done a lot of entries for Christmas. There are plenty of weird Christmas foods, including pig feet, lamb heads, and KFC, eaten around the world. Some places even omit meat entirely.  Oh, and I'm never out of winter creatures; I've just run out of Christmasy ones.

Alas, there's a new Christmas dinner on the block. It's "holiday special," "They Actually Eat That," and "Newsflash" all at once. Its name? "Christmas Tinner."


Yes, "tinner." As in, dinner. In a tin can. No matter where you go, Christmas dinner is a lot of food. That means somebody managed to compact a full-course meal in a tin can. Dear gods, what is this?

"A Christmas dinner with turkey, potatoes, roast carrots and broccoli sounds quite nice. Unless it's all served in a can, that is. The "Christmas Tinner," created by graphic designer Chris Godfrey, features a nine-course Christmas meal, layered into one tin can.

This dinner monstrosity is in all likelihood fake -- Godfrey created a similar meal-in-a-can project earlier this year. Currently, the can is supposedly sold out on GAME, a UK-based website for video gamers.

"The GAME Christmas Tinner is the ultimate innovation for gamers across the nation who can’t tear themselves away from their new consoles and games on Christmas Day," the website reads." -via Huffington Post.

Of course, it could all be fake- the creator's a graphic designer, after all. On the plus side, if anybody is left after the apocalypse, this is one holiday feast that'll still be around. Either way would not surprise me at this point!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Why Petco Is A Rip-Off- Ball Pythons, Genetics, and You!

So, yeah. Still no job. Petco rejected me. I can nigh-guarantee that I know more about snakes than anybody else they're willing to hire, but since they did not want that, I will instead expose why you're pretty much guaranteed to get ripped off if you buy a snake from them - specifically, a ball python.

I'm going to venture a guess that the majority of ball pythons in Petco's tanks are normal, male ball pythons. They will probably cost anywhere from 50-80 USD. I will now be very blunt and say that you should be paying significantly less for the very same, if not a better, snake.

Why do I say this? Ball pythons are so overbred that they have been called the "dogs of the reptile world." Of all the ball pythons out there, the most useless, genetically, are the normal males. People will thus try to get rid of them as soon as possible, even going so far as selling them in bulk.

A brief refresher on how genetics work: Each parent has two alleles for any given gene. Both mommy and daddy pass on one allele each to the offspring. Each baby carries one allele from each parent, so no two babies will be exactly alike. There are a bunch of different ways to inherit traits (mostly recessive and co-dominant), but we will be focused on the almighty "co-dominant."

Ball python breeders, and snake breeders in general, love the word "co-dominant." It means that you can get something cool out of one breeding. Recessive traits like albinism are more widely-known, but take a grand total of 4-6 years to see the results of if you start with het babies. There is no way to tell whether the babies are het or not; this gets more problematic in future breeding, when you get things like "66% het." Co-dominance is favored because your first clutch might yield a baby that looks almost exactly like one of the parents. If you breed two co-dominants, expect even more craziness, but we won't be doing that. Instead, let's look at everybody's first python breeding: normal x pastel.

Square by NERD. Visit them for more awesome co-dominants!

This is a Punnett square for any normal x codominant ball python trait. For those of you who do not know what a Punnett square is, it is a grid showing potential offspring of two parents. In this case, the normal (probably the mom) is on the vertical axis, the pastel is horizontal, and the potential offspring are in the boxes.

NERD was awesome and used a subtle (or not so subtle, depending on your strain) color enhancer called "pastel" for their example. Pastels are ball pythons with the brightness/contrast messed with to the point where they look anywhere from bright lemon yellow to a slightly cleaner than usual normal. They are the cheapest of the co-dominant morphs. A lot of ball python traits, including the platinum and legendary banana ball, are co-dominant as well; if you're interested in those, simply copy-paste this Punnett with whatever fancy trait you like. Most of the good ones are co-dominant or dominant, and will thus pass their traits on in the first generation. This can lead to some amazing clutches!

That one normal in the back looks...kinda sad.

So, let's assume this clutch contained 4 ball python eggs with an even gender split. Four eggs, 2 male, 2 female. From what I've heard, this would actually be a pretty awesome clutch; four is OK for a first time ball clutch. The better size is 8-10, but let's keep it at 4 for simplicity's sake. Breeders breed so many of them that it seems like there are always more than enough. What we're looking for, here, is that codominant gene and the sex.

We have a 50% chance of getting another pastel ball just breeding a male pastel to a normal female. That one pastel could be male or female. The other members of this clutch could also be male or female. The pastels there can be bred/sold regardless. The normals might not be so lucky.

If one of the pastels is female, wow, we were lucky, right? Let's breed her back to daddy after a few years and see if we can get a super-pastel. Better still, cross her with a spider, pinstripe, mojave - whatever! Co-dominant traits blend excellently with each other and themselves. NERD has some 4-morph combos. I'm sure their prices range into the thousands, and if this sounds appealing to you, bear in mind that you're going to have to start with one trait like the pastel. With a female pastel, you're well on your way!


If we're assuming everything came out with a nice, even split, this leaves us with two magical mystery balls. These, like the pastels, could be either male or female. Remember how co-dominance and simple dominance work: you've either got it or ya don't. In other words, barring any hidden recessive traits, any normal males are useless for breeding.

If both pastels turned out to be male, however, we would lose the dreaded normal male. Then we would wind up with two pastel males and two perfectly good females. Remember, it doesn't matter whether the females are pastel or not; as long as one copy of the pastel gene is passed on, the offspring will still have the pastel trait. Sure, it'd be a bummer to not have a female pastel, but those two females can still be sold for a decent price, and can be used in future breedings. "Breeder-size" females do sell. Normal males do not...unless you're smart.

Snake breeders will get rid of their loser males ASAP.  If you see a tank of normal ball pythons in a pet store, I will bet you money that 90% of that tank, if not all of it, will be composed of dud males. This site is selling them for 25 bucks. Compare that to whatever Petco's selling them for. It's just another reason to buy locally instead of not knowing where you snake's coming from, too.

You might also see beautiful babies like these from Genetic Gems.

In short, unless you are breeding super forms to super forms, every day, all day, you will get a normal male ball python. He will not be a good stud, but he will satisfy the kid down the street who's just itching for a pet snake because you happened to have one (or twenty). Normal males can potentially come out of every breeding, they won't sell very well, and thus, there are a million floating around in miscellaneous pet stores for people who just want a good pet snake.

Now, this is fine if you just want a pet ball python. If, however, you do a little homework and look for reptile conventions, I can guarantee that you will get a better deal on a male ball. These make fine pets and are absolutely ideal for beginners. Also, Petco.com says that they sometimes have co-dominant ball python morphs in stock; I have never seen these, so if you happen to find one for a decent price, snap it up.

P.S. - For those of you who might be interested, I still have baby corn snakes for sale! E-mail the_last_hetaira@yahoo.com