Feed my fishies!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Member's Night Special: Pokemon in Science!

Hello, it's been a while. Again, I keep intending to post things and never getting around to it. This, however, was too awesome not to post.

Go back through my blog archives. Find the "Who's That Pokemon?" tag. Now, imagine getting up close and personal with some of those creatures.

That was my idea for this year's Members' Night at the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History. Mind, our choices were limited to reptiles and amphibians (I do work in herps, after all), but it was still a fun set up. We will definitely be doing it next year, too, possibly with a few modifications!

Now, I have to admit that the flyers were a little misleading. Initially, we had planned for both more Pokemon and live animals (leopard gecko, tiger salamander, and/or Pudge the Frog - a painted narrowmouth toad (Kaloula picta)). I made fanmade Pokemon for the setup, which will be available for viewing on my DeviantArt account (kurokarasu.deviantart.com). For now, though, let's focus on the setup itself and some of the critters covered on it.

First off, I'd like to apologize for the relatively narrow spectrum, again. For those of you who got the guide, I'm sorry that we didn't have room for Tyranitar, who makes an awesome armadillo lizard, as well as a few other Pokemon we talked about in the ad, but simply couldn't include. The setup still got plenty of attention (nothing quite got my own ear like when a kid walking by yelled "Pokemon!" - that happened a lot), so we did some things right. (I had to correct the setup above, by the way: Tirtouga is the Archelon, Squirtle's kind of a sea turtle like that hawksbill, and that is definitely a Torkoal shell, up there.)

See those critters in baggies? That's what we do in the lab when we don't want to use jars to send things. I got to heat-seal some of these, and they encouraged more interaction with the animals than just having them in glass jars.

I didn't take a photo of this, but one of the stars of the show was a preserved axolotl. For the uninformed, the Pokemon Wooper's name comes from the Japanese word for the axolotl, "wooper looper." Pick your favorite funny-sounding word for the eternally-young, indestructible salamander!

One of the more creative displays from the older staff was a section on Haunter and a cleared and stained horned lizard. Although the idea was the creepiness of the transparent body, it's always worth mentioning that the horned lizard cries high-pressure blood at its enemies. Emos, meet your spirit animal. Alas, I apparently didn't get a good photo of this on my digital camera.

It's hard to say which of these three displays is my baby. Anyone who's known me for a long time knows that I have a huuuuge thing about Serperior being a Baron's Racer (Philodryas baroni), but will not deny that there's probably vine snake in there. The habu and Draco maximus up there were really well-selected, though; if you look carefully on the habu, you can even see its fangs.

Overall, this exhibit was just a ton of fun to design! Two teachers want me to design Pokemon-based lesson plans for their kids, and since ACen hit yesterday (and okay, fine, today) as well, I'm tempted to do a panel on Pokemon as it relates to natural science. It's not something a lot of people think about, and seems to be a hit on more than one front. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Happy Year of the Sheep! The Bezoar Goat.

Happy Chinese New Year, everybody! What better way to start off the Year of the Goat…Sheep…Geep? with a goat? Just look at this thing: 


That goat is called a bezoar goat/ibex (Capra aegagrus aegagrus), and it is the stuff Gogoats (it's year of the Wood Goat, by the by) are made of. It's native to the Middle East, including Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan - all those fun places! There are a few places where it's been introduced, but what you really need to know is that this: 

…came from this: 


Although nobody's really sure how much the bezoar goat contributed to the domestic goat gene pool, it's either a direct descendant or a hefty percentage. Along with making them smaller and tame, bezoar goats lost their razor-sharp horns, gained curly tails, and now, some breeds have floppy ears. Also, some of them have been bred to faint, but that's not the fault of a goat with razor horns. Yeah, goat horns used to have a sharp, inner edge like a badass sword. 

Bezoar goats are very well adapted to mountainous, sometimes cold regions. At night, the temperature of places like Turkey sometimes drops drastically; wool is a good countermeasure to that. A goat's feet are also spongy and relatively narrow, allowing them to climb around in rocky areas. Have I sung the praises of those beautiful horns enough? No? Well, those are both sexy (to other goats, mind) and a great defense mechanism. 

At this point, some of you are probably wondering: isn't a "bezoar" something out of Harry Potter? Yes, and it does indeed come from a goat…or any other number of things, really. A bezoar is basically a stone of miscellany that didn't get digested, and thus wound up lodged in an animal's digestive tract. Goats are far from the only animals that have them; humans can get bezoars as well. Their poison-curing properties are greatly exaggerated, with only curing arsenic poisoning anywhere near consistently (and only with treatment). 

Oh, right, back on the topic of the wild goat. Another nasty thing that happens with domestication is the relative scarcity of the wild counterpart. The bezoar is technically only "Threatened," and then mostly due to habitat loss. Game hunting of these goats has also increased. Wolves and the aurochs are so very, very jealous right now, regardless. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

You Shouldn't Eat That: Flamboyant Cuttlefish.

I should really do more of these. The internet is a wonderful place, bombing us with weird nature facts all the time. In particular, I'm a fan of the work of Zefrank1 on YouTube. Here, have one of his videos on cuttlefish: 

For those of you who are not already aware, cuttlefish are total bosses. Along with octopus and squid, they rank among the smartest of mollusks. Their brains are larger than their bodies - referring to the squishy 'head' and tentacles, in case you were confused exactly how that works. Also, their amazingly sharp eyes look like someone's marbles that got lost in the ocean. If need be, they can, like squid, jet themselves away from danger. They are masters of changing color and texture to blend in anywhere - even in darkness that the human eye cannot see. 

And then there is this thing: 

Credit to Monterey Bay Aquarium for the image. 

It's called a flamboyant cuttlefish, or Pfeffer's flamboyant cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi) if you wanna give credit where credit is due. It's found in the warmer waters of the Philippines, Indonesia, and Australia (which should just start advertising itself as real World of Warcraft already - oh, and no respawn). Like all cuttlefish, it is predatory, eating things like crab and fish. Since this is a very small cuttlefish - only about 3 inches long - it only eats very small things. 

Again, I'm sure I've done things on cuttlefish before, but it's been a while. Normally, cuttlefish hover above coral or whatever their prey happens to be on. They can do that because of the thick, inner shell called a cuttlebone that helps with buoyancy. The flamboyant cuttlefish has a proportionately tiny cuttlebone, meaning that it can only stay afloat for a short time. 

Without that cuttlebone to keep it afloat like a UFO, what does it do? It struts around like a dinosaur on the bottom of the ocean floor while tasting the rainbow. This...is not camouflage. We humans think it's amusing that anything walks like people, or even tries to, but being bipedal and flashy on the sands of the ocean floor is not a survival strategy in and of itself. 

So, let's recap: this thing is tiny, cannot swim well, eats whatever small thing it can find, changes color, has a brain bigger than the rest of its body...and yet it waltzes around like nothing on earth is going to hurt it. (Disclaimer: the writer is not factoring in alien species, and cuttlefish are darn close to aliens.) What's the catch? 

For once, it's okay to be purple. 

It is terrifyingly poisonous. 

I've heard and read mixed things about cephalopods being poisonous in general. The video I linked above, for example, mentions that all cephalopods have some level of venom. They do, from what I can tell, but in most cases, it's not at all threatening to humans. The flamboyant cuttlefish will actually kill you if you eat it. It is on par with the blue-ringed octopus in terms of how poisonous it is. By this, I mean it'll kill you dead in a matter of minutes if you catch it on a bad day. Eating one is always a bad day. 

Did I mention that cuttlefish, including these flamboyant ones, sometimes use their colorful, magical powers to 'crossdress?' Sort of like with anacondas, the female cuttlefish mate with many males at a time, and some smaller males sneak into the orgy by pretending to be females. Bring that up at Valentine's Day (or Turkey Day) and see how many people you impress. 

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:


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.


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.