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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

"They Actually Eat That:" Gelatin.



Admit it: Unless you were raised in a family with a special diet, you have, at one point, eaten Jell-O or some other gelatin product. Perhaps it was not as fancy as the pretty lemon slices up there, but you still had the wiggly stuff. It is also in marshmallows, gummi candies, and Altoids, so there is almost no escape from the almighty gelatin.

Do you really wanna know where it comes from? Really?

OK then. As per Wikipedia, gelatin comes from "...the boiled bones, connective tissues, organs and some intestines of animals such as domesticated cattle, and pigs." The skins of various animals are the most common ingredient. Horns and hooves are usually not used (although I have heard horror stories from someone who has seen a gelatin factory) and, more recently, fish has been added into the mix to make Kosher gelatin. Not that we can tell.

Gelatin and hot dogs have a lot in common. Both originated as ways to use up parts of the animal that people did not want to eat. One of the oldest types of gelatin, hartshorn, comes from deer antlers, of all things. The discovery of gelatin probably spawned from the strange meat jelly called aspic which...well...how DOES this look appetizing?

This looks more like modern art than something edible.













There are a ton of religious issues that come up around gelatin. For example, Islam and certain Jewish customs forbid eating pork, a very common ingredient in gelatin. Gypsies also have to be careful; certain gypsy practices forbid the eating of horse, which, by the way, is also found in gelatin. Have fun with that image. 

To put it in a different light, animal-derived paste is like rough gelatin. What did we tell you about eating paste?!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Bio-Art: Ken Sugimori's Advice: Go to the Zoo!

SO sorry. Classes are starting soon, Splice didn't finish downloading (I'm a baaaad girl), and I'm on edge because one of the classes I was REALLY looking forward to got cancelled. It's official: I'm not a scholar, I'm a knowledge junkie. There's a difference.

Here's something interesting I found to make up for it.

 

Way back when Gen V first started, there was a huge rift in the fanbase. Some people loved the new designs; others hated them. An interview from March 1 reveals that Ken Sugimori took his co-workers to the zoo to help inspire the Generation V designs. He used the experience to expose his design team to different animals.

This should be standard protocol for all monster designers.  We do not care HOW much you like dragons. If you have no experience around real animals, your designs will always feel subpar. The real magic of monster design is making your creatures come to life. You cannot do that without seeing different animals and enjoying them as living things.

So, sci-fi and fantasy creature buffs, how about it? Go to the zoo one day. Bring a notepad and/or a camera. We promise that you will come home with at least a hundred ideas in your head. (This blog is for a rainy day when one cannot get to the zoo, but still seeks inspiration from the natural world. K? K.)

And yet this was still the first Pokemon designed for Gen V. Shows where things are going.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Myth Week: Unicorns.

 

Unicorns used to be solid badasses. Neither masculine nor feminine, the unicorn was able to cure any poison with its horn. Unicorns were lustful and wild, only able to be placated by a virgin girl. If you were not a virgin, you could safely be prepared for some serious pain. (The Eastern qilin is a different beast.)

Then My Little Pony and Lisa Frank got a hold on unicorns. No longer were they able to gore the knights of old even faster than a dragon. They were forever stamped on little girls' binders, notebooks, and customized by rabid MLP fans.

So much for badassitude.
 

But how did the unicorn get started, anyways? Was there really a one-horned ungulate that could cure poison AND kick ass?

In a word, no. Most unicorn horns (alicorn) came from a sea creature called a narwhal, which has already had its own entry. Other sources of alicorn included walrus tusks and the horns of various ungulates. It was basically a sugar pill for anyone hoping for a poison cure. Different story if their issue was a calcium deficiency.

1500 USD for a yearling pair of this nigh-extinct animal!


The particular ungulate that inspired the unicorn was probably the scimitar-horned oryx, which, when seen from the side, looks like it has only one horn. This creature is now only found on American game preserves, and has its own entry if you are more curious about it. Honorable mention goes to the rhinoceros, which Marco Polo mistook for a unicorn, and the aurochs, which, as the word "re'em," is frequently mistranslated as "unicorn" in the Bible.



Then there are instances of "unicorn deer." The roe deer above has a rare mutation that gives it only one antler. Having the 'horn' smack dab in the center is even rarer. We don't know if it can cure poison or has a lust for virgin women, but slap a white coat on a deer like that and it would look a lot like a unicorn. One researcher, Gilberto Tozzi, said that the unicorn deer was literally a "fantasy made real" - thus finally giving meaning to the title of this blog!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Myth Week: Will o' Wisps (and Other Strange Lights).



Suppose you saw one of those strange lights hovering above a lake one night. What would you think it was? A fairy? A soul? The breath of an underwater dragon? A spirit luring you into the lake in hopes that you will drown? These are all perfectly valid traditions surrounding strange lights called will-o'-the-wisps, demon fire, foxfire, corpse fire, fool's fire, or "those creepy flames."

Strange lights have been spotted all around the world, often appearing above bodies of water or in graveyards. They do not burn their surroundings and may appear colored differently from regular flames. Sometimes they even occur regularly at the same time every year, spurring events like the Naga Fireball Festival at the Khong River:



What exactly are these strange lights? They are among those things that science has trouble explaining- but tries to decipher nonetheless.

Science's favorite explanation for mysterious lights is "swamp gas." Theory has it that decomposing organic matter emits a self-combusting gas that reacts at a lower temperature than usual, thus explaining the lights' presence around swamps and dead bodies. Although wisps have been supposedly replicated in a lab, most of us are not firmly convinced.

What do you think they are? Chances are that someone, somewhere will agree with whatever you say.

 

Another type of strange light, St. Elmo's Fire, has a far more plausible explanation. St. Elmo's Fire occurs on the higher, pointier parts of ships, almost like supernatural lightning drawn to a rod. It makes even the most antiquated ship look armed with spectral flamethrowers.

St. Elmo's fire is simply a continuous spark. As the pointy parts of the ship, such as the mast, drag through the air, the charged atmosphere starts discharging around the pointed areas. It's the same principle found in neon. No, this neon is not advertising porn or booze. It is, however, on a mother-**cking boat. 

Unlike wisps,  St. Elmo's Fire has a positive connotation. Since the flares are usually seen towards the end of a storm, sailors see these neon lights as a welcome occurrence. It is still just as hard to find good photographs of these lights as it is of the wisps!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Myth Week: Chimeras

We apologize for yesterday's entry. The mere topic of dragons is usually enough to send the authoress into a fit of blind rage. We know we offended people, but this apology is more about the relative incompleteness of the article in question. Truly, it is a monstrous chimera of the authoress's rage and actual research.

Oh, and speaking of chimeras? Those are real. 

 

Science has not yet created a lion-goat-snake hybrid as described in Greek mythology. The term, however, has stuck. "Chimera" can be used to describe any creature with the genetic material of two different organisms in the same body. That said, we agree with science here and will be using the term loosely to describe any composite beast.

Chimeras are not hybrids. A hybrid is a homogeneous blend of two organisms' genes, i.e. every single cell of a hybrid has the DNA of two different organisms. Chimeras do not have every single cell fused like that; instead, some cells belong to one organism, and some to another. The result is a noticeably mismatched animal, such as the geep.

Note the wooly parts separated from the hairy parts.


All chimerae, including the geep, are made at the embryonic level. The most common natural chimeras are formed by two sperm reaching, penetrating, and fertilizing the same egg (called "tetrogametic chimerism" for you science-y types). Instead of the joint effort forming nonidentical twins, the two form one organism with different DNA in different parts of its body. The results of this can be funky; for example, when it comes to parental DNA testing, or in some cases of hermaphroditism in which both sets of genitalia are present. There is another "chimera" in the anglerfish, but we will cover that when that fish gets its day. Plants have their own natural chimerae as well.

Chimerae like the geep are important to developmental studies. Geep, for example, are recognized as both sheep and goats by an animal's immune system; they can gestate properly in either species. This could come in handy for reviving endangered species with just enough modern DNA. A "remixed" mammoth is in the near future if this research keeps up.

People tend to draw a strange line when it comes to playing with human embryos. Science, however, cannot resist playing around with them just a little bit. Splicers in China created the first chimeric embryo out of human skin cells and dead rabbit eggs in 2003.  Numerous attempts have been made to put human DNA into cow eggs. Congrats, science: You are inches away from creating a minotaur.

Took ya long enough!
 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Myth Week: Dragons.

Let me start by saying one thing: I do not hate dragons. Rather, I hate the bloated, child-friendly monstrosities they have become.  The dragon mythos has been blown so far out of proportion that it's both sad and funny. Instead of being menacing enemies, dragons have become the domesticated dogs of the fantasy industry. Just like how dog people claim that there's a dog for everyone, the fantasy industry churns out dragons so much that there is, in theory, a dragon for everyone. It has become clearer and clearer in modern entertainment that dragons are intended to be super-powered pets.

Case in point.


To put things in perspective: I have asked people to define a dragon. The answers have ranged from "it has horns and wings and flies" to "furry wank." If even the fans cannot properly define a dragon, then who the hell can tell what a dragon is and what it is not?

Enough about the crazy fans. Let's look at all the things that inspired the original dragon stories instead of the modern, fire-breathing pussycats the media have turned them into. That last sentence may have some basis in truth.


Dragons As Snakes. 

The most obvious and widespread inspiration for the dragon is the snake. Although this may sound unbelievable at first, let's play a word game for a little bit. "Wyvern" is derived from "viper." "Zmey" is a feminine form of "zmaj," "snake." Finally, the English word "dragon" looks strikingly similar to the Greek "drakon," a word that means both "dragon" and "snake." Naja are usually depicted as snakes and have etymological similarities dictating such. Orochi, the major Japanese dragon, is "big snake," both literally and physically. Dragon-slaying is not universal. Snake-slaying is.

Dear Apollo: African Rock Pythons are mean, so by all means, kill this one if she bites you.
 

The problem with slaying snakes is that not many of them are very big. Pythons, some boas, and cobras are the only truly giant snakes around. They are naturally exaggerated into big, scary monsters with even more venom, maybe even fire, even though small size and stealth is often what grants REAL snakes success! Christianity took this idea a step further by giving the snake wings, a spaded tail, and talons - kinda like Satan. Not that dragon fans will ever admit that their precious creatures were deliberately designed to look hellish.

Eastern cultures are more accepting of the snake parallel than anyone pushing Western dragons. The Chinese dragon is frequently acknowledged as a composite beast, sometimes of the other 11 Chinese zodiac animals. One Chinese friend on Twitter told me that snakes are seen as "baby dragons." This gels with the Korean imugi perfectly, but I refuse to make another D-War reference here. Instead, there's another take on the Eastern dragon just as interesting as the deal with the serpent.

Dragons As Fish. 

Eastern dragons, and it feels like only Eastern dragons, have deliberate traces of fish in their mythical lineage. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean dragons are more associated with water than fire, complete with an abyssal palace of the Dragon God beneath the sea. Every now and then, some of his children wash up upon the beaches...



...or a carp, through its own determination, jumps over the Dragon Gate waterfall and becomes a dragon itself:

 

Eastern cultures are very big on dragons being fish. Fish touted as dragonfish (such as the arowana) are at least lucky and at most magical. Take a look at carp swimming upstream (they must be doing SOMETHING!), an arowana, or a beached oarfish to see where the inspiration came from.

Dragons As Mammals. 

I'll give you a minute to clean up any soda you might have spit out upon reading that. K? Done? All right.

If one buys a book on dragons, one of the most surprising recurring concepts is that dragons are scaly mammals. This is not just Dragonology stuff; one of the most prominent dragon artists in existence, Ciruelo, said the same thing in his own book on dragons.

At first, I thought this was BS as well. Then I realized exactly how much sense it made on a scientific level. Dragons are repeatedly depicted with mammalian traits such as external ears, differentiated teeth, and the vertical limb positioning of a carnivorid. Scales on mammals are totally possible (thanks, pangolin!).

People will usually admit some mammalian traits with Chinese and other Eastern dragons; they are less keen to admit the artistic inspiration for 90% of all Western dragons. Kudos to the Russian zmey; it is one of the few dragons that gets reptilian limb positioning anywhere near right (consistently!). 

This guy and Salamence have a very special bond.


A lot of old art of Western dragons is of a serpentine creature (see blurb 1) traced over a pose common to a mammal or mammal hybrid. The most famous of these is the classic image of Saint George slaying the dragon, which is so blatant a tracing of Bellerophon slaying the chimaera that people might call it plagiarism. Coincidentally, the chimaera one of the mythical creatures in that lore that breathed fire. Fancy that.

Every St. George image ever.


Finally, dragons sport mammalian junk in numerous places. If you consider Mesopotamian Tiamat a dragon (which people seem to, regardless of how gryphonlike she looks), she had "lower parts that jiggle" - either a particularly fat belly or an actual udder. Your modern dragons are castrated. Have fun with that image.

Uncensored for your enjoyment.


They don't look like they move like reptiles at all. If dragons existed, they were even further away from reptiles than dinosaurs and other archosaurs.

Speaking of...


Dragons As Dinosaurs and Other Archosaurs.

Out of all the explanations above, the syncretization of dinosaurs and dragons has survived the test of popular culture. Dinosaurs and dragons are symbolically fused numerous times. Dinosaurs are almost mythical monsters like dragons, only we have skulls to prove they existed.

 

As such, dinosaur and archosaur fossils are sometimes called "dragon bones." It is quite easy to picture an ancient person looking at a T-Rex skull, making up stories about what the creature was like and how he killed it. If you buy that some dinosaurs survived into the modern era, perhaps accounts of dragon-slaying were really dinosaur-slaying!

There are times when this parallel gets...murky, to say the least. In modern media, dragons have started to look like super-dinosaurs, and stylized dinosaurs have started to look like dragons. There are also some rather strange 'dragons' (Lati@s, I'm looking at you) which seem to prey on the flexibility of the word "dragon." The question of "just what IS a dragon, anyways?" is getting harder and harder to answer as it becomes yet another hot-button marketing word.

 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Myth Week/"They Actually Eat That:" Mermaids?!

We are as shocked to see mermaids on "They Actually Eat That" as you are. Hell, it's even hard to see the logic in eating things like sea cows, the bases for mermaids as we know them. Let's not get into eating people with sirenomelia, either.

Please don't eat me!
 They Actually Eat That?! 

So let's say that mermaids do exist. Yes, people would eat them. Sorry, Ariel, but Japan loves picking on almost anything that swims in the sea. Humans do not spare dolphins or sharks. Mermaids are fair game.

Mermaids are among the few mythological creatures famous for being eaten. Sure, there are plenty of stories about people drinking dragon or unicorn blood (drinking dragon blood in particular SHOULD be a staple of the genre, but more on that later), but have you ever heard of anyone eating the flesh of a phoenix, dragon, or unicorn? It just sounds weird.

Or deep-fried monkey-fish.
 

In Japan, mermaids (ningyo) are quite different from the attractive fish maidens we in the West have come to expect. They look more like the stitched-together Fiji Mermaid: part primate, part fish, all uncanny valley. Ningyo supposedly have scales that glitter like gold and beautiful voices, and if one washes up on the beach, expect a war. They are also apparently REALLY tasty if you don't toss them back in sheer WTF.

To put things in perspective, even their PET fish have human faces sometimes.
 

 To be fair, Japan has a lot of weird things in its waters. A surprising amount of abyssal sea life, including frilled sharks, oarfish, and chimeras, has washed up in Japan. Even their koi sometimes come out with strangely human faces. They have reason to think that something out of the sea might not only look humanoid, but also have flesh to die for. Oh, if only.

Besides tasting good, mermaid flesh has a surprising side-effect: It makes one nigh-immortal. Legend has it that one man took mermaid flesh home to his daughter after getting a tiiiny bit drunk at a party. She ate some and did not age beyond 16 for over 800 years. The girl had many children, but it broke her heart to repeatedly see her friends and family age and perish while she stayed youthful. She eventually became a nun and died in a cave. She is known in legend as Yao Bikuni- the 800 year-old nun.



We are not endorsing mermaid sushi. If anything, stay the hell away from eating monkey-fish or ningyo. Or just watch Rumiko Takahashi's Mermaid Forest, a series that tells a different story about eating mermaid meat. Then think about trying mermaids again.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Myth Week: Werewolves.

Against my better judgment, I one day went onto Transfur. For those of you curious about seeing how creative furries can be, they have the transformation sequences there divided into scientifically-described species and classifications. Impressive!

Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly) wolves dominate over all other species on the entire site. So much for creativity.




Wolves have a strange, mystical hold over the minds of "nature lovers." I use that in quotes because many people who claim to love nature, particularly wolves, see it through even rosier glasses than I do. People claim to love wolves because they're wild, but, in their minds, wolves are just puppy dogs with bigger teeth, complete dominance over their food chain, and just enough human characteristics to make them idealized, furry people.

This mindset has been around for ages. Generally speaking, if a place has wolves, they have some form of werewolf- a creature that can shift between human and wolf either freely, by moonlight, or with a special ritual. Some unfortunate souls, such as Lycaon from Greco-Roman legend, get turned into wolves by an outside force. Regardless of how it happens, the idea of a person getting turned into a wolf remains a strong motif in folklore.



But is it really possible for any sort of shapeshifting like that to occur? Short answer, no; long answer, we haven't done it yet, but there are some cases where it's easy to see where werewolf legends might have come from.

The most subtle explanation for transformation, especially during the full moon, is a possible  psychological change that occurs as the moon reaches full light. This is the origin of the term 'lunatic.' There is some debate over whether this "lunar effect" exists or not, but if nothing else, more people are prone to noticing strange things during that time. There are also some other weird things that happen in humans during lunar cycles such as, ah, menstruation.

More true than you think.


For those of you looking for something crazier than a man's exaggeration of his wife's PMS, you're in luck: Lycanthropy is a diagnosable mental disorder. Clinical lycanthropy (therianthropy for non-wolves) is a psychological condition in which someone believes that he or she has been an animal at one point. Wolves are far from the only creatures represented by this disorder. Even bees and frogs have been reported from patients with clinical therianthropy.

No insanity involved, as far as we know.
 

Remember the amputee who said that her body just didn't feel right with all her limbs? It's like that, only people feel that they are really becoming animals. The right sections of the brain fire off and everything. There are also a few nutballs who think that having sharp eyeteeth makes one a werewolf, but that's an unrelated delusion called "stupidity."



Finally, we have the most obvious real-world explanation for werewolves: Hypertrichosis. Unfortunately, this blog already covered this strange accelerated hair growth during The Human Freak. Read more about freak show "werewolves" here!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Bio-Art/Myth Week: Shiki.

Permit me to nerd out for more than a minute. Yes, Kuro is an anime fan, and yes, some anime qualifies as bio-art in the simple definition that it combines life sciences with art.



Such is the case with Shiki, a novel written by Fuyumi Ono and manga-fied by Ryuu Fujisaki. Semi-long story short, Sotoba, a rural town in Middle of Nowhere, Japan, suddenly gets an epidemic of summer colds caused by vampire bites. The local doctor soon figures out that the strange cases of anemia going around the village are not a 'natural' occurrence. Shit hits the fan and scatters in EVERY direction. That trope "Anyone Can Die?" We mean it here.

Hoo boy, are there a lot of ways to dissect Shiki (pun not intended). I've looked at it as a Japanese take on a normally Western creature; I've looked at it as an encounter between two sentient races (as expected, it does not end well); I've watched it several times just to take (horribly detailed) notes on this particular type of vampire; hell, there's even a way to look at it as a massive, supernatural analogy for the music industry. This will focus on the science, but no doubt some other things will slip through as well.

Pictured: SCIENCE!


The scientific facets of Shiki hit the reader/viewer hard from day one. Although most vampire stories have an occult doctor (a staple of the genre since Carmilla - a lesbian vampire story which predates Dracula), Toshio Ozaki goes above and beyond by giving us extremely descriptive details of exactly what these vampires are doing. Two different types of anemia and the term "hematocrit" come up within the first two episodes. One of the vampires tries to excuse her nocturnal behavior by passing it off as a form of lupus. Daaang.

Is having pitch-black eyes part of your skin condition, too? All right then!



Just about the only thing dubious about the research that went into this series is Toshio's repeated diagnosis of "bug bites;" vampire bites look a loooot more like pit viper bites, and Japan's most common snake is the hemotoxic mamushi. No reason not to TRY the antivenin, which is supposedly so common that police boxes have it. Nobody tries to make a vaccine throughout the series, either. A few of the reactions were off, but the research was solid.

That was all just background for the only vampires I have ever seen work. Ever.

Left: Anime screenshots. Right: Actual Plasmodium falciparum.


Shiki are caused by a parasite that looks and acts a lot like Plasmodium falciparum - the organism responsible for 90% of all fatal malaria cases. The main differences are the tweaked incubation period (4 in the living body and 4 in the corpse - still a total of 8 before it really takes over) and that P. shiki has flipped the mosquito the bird. Wow, mosquitoes, even malaria hates you now.

"Fuck off!"- sincerely, Plasmodium.
 

There are a number of reasons why something might evolve away from using a mosquito as a vector. Bats eat you, dragonflies eat you, and all it takes is one good bug net to keep you out. There is also some sort of weird internal clock that times things such that the Plasmodia all burst out of the red blood cells at the exact time of night the human body's fever is at its highest and pray that the scheduled mosquito has not been eaten by a bat. Otherwise, it cannot continue its life cycle properly. Screw that.

The (fictional) Plasmodium shiki has taken the mosquito out of the equation by using a human corpse as a vector instead. This would logically have started with a mind-numbed corpse (either resurrected by slowly rewiring circuitry or numbed a la datura) only capable of biting other humans as a means of furthering the parasite's reproductive cycle. Over time, the species would have been selected to keep the memories and personality of its host. Easy food is easy.



Almost everything strange about vampires can be explained by the behavior of a Plasmodium parasite. Plasmodia are blood-borne; the resulting organism has a modified, thinner integument that burns easily in sunlight; the weakness to stakes is, well...almost anything would die by being staked or beheaded. That internal timer was set to shut off as soon as the sun rises, then reactivate when the sun sets.

There are a number of things that are still a touch hard to explain. For example, no extant mammal has retractable injecting teeth. The parasite either recalls ancient genes (atavism- it happens) or constructs the fangs itself via differentiation. Also, we don't know how the parasite does this, but it has activated infrared vision in human corpses (which makes sense; mosquitoes and vampire bats both use infrared to detect warm-blooded prey). There are still a few fantastic elements, but they can be figured out well enough to make solid bio-art/hard fantasy.

Teeth BEHIND the corpse's.


As an anime series in particular, Shiki's pacing is horrible. Do not be fooled by the Shounen Jump label; the additions to the series that make it, ah, shounen-friendly are noticeable. There are some cultural things that the average person will miss, but are fun Easter eggs for those with eyes to see. I'd be lying if I said I didn't thoroughly enjoy Shiki. Swear my parasite nerdiness and Chizuru's rack are not the only reasons.

I'm onto your blood-perfume, Gaga.


Now, if you all will excuse me, I have a tin hat to put on. Google is watching me sleep.

Theme Week: Myth Week!

This blog started with the idea that truth could be stranger than fiction. Long story short, I saw all of the escapism rampant in the modern psyche. It made me sad. Humans were taking their own amazing world for granted. While video games and such can be cool (Kuro's a Pokemaniac, remember?), just how badly do you want the world of Avatar, WoW, or Dungeons and Dragons to be real, exactly?

A recurring theme in my works - this blog included - is a sort of "Monkey's Paw" regarding such escapist wishes. Are you sure you really want what you wish for? What price will you pay for such a thing? There will always be a price; are you willing to pay it?

To pick on one of my favorites, suppose dragons did exist at one point. Dragons would have been eradicated by people with glorified knives; what chance would they have against sniper rifles and missiles? We have evolved to kill all threats until they're dead, dead, dead. Unfortunately, our minds have not caught up with this newfangled notion of being completely without predators, so we make some. That's why we enjoy monsters and horror flicks so much.

Would it really be that cool if dragons existed? How would a risen corpse like a zombie or vampire evolve? Are there real werewolves out there somewhere? All these and more will be answered this week. Even "They Actually Eat That" will feature a mythological creature you'd never expect. Hang on tight; this blog is finally living up to the fantasy in its URL!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Creature Feature: Atlas Moth.

Moths are underrated. Sure, everybody loves butterflies, but moths? Moths are the sneaky cousins of butterflies that hang out at night, eat your carpets as larvae, and don't have pretty colors. People make gardens to attract butterflies, but get all sorts of foul-smelling treatments to remove moths. Hell, a moth wound up on the cover of Silence of the Lambs. You could not do that with a butterfly.

This does not mean that moths cannot be interesting, beautiful creatures. Most folks will say that luna and comet moths look almost like butterflies, for example. Hummingbird moths look like little tiny bird-bug hybrids. Then there's this magnificent specimen, actual size not properly viewable on this blog:

So here's the moth compared to human hands.



The Atlas Moth (Attacus atlas) ranges from India to just above Australia. Its English name comes from its size or the wings resembling a simple map; its Cantonese name, "snake's head moth," comes from the weird tips on its forewings. The caterpillars are fond of several pleasant trees, including cherry and cinnamon. They do not eat at all as adults.



The Atlas Moth has the largest surface area of any lepidopteran. It may be outmatched in wingspan by another moth, but the wings are, we kid you not, as wide and high as a dinner plate (anywhere from 10-12 inches). This leaves the Atlas moth with 62 square inches of surface area to boast about. Females are larger than males, by the way, making all record-holders in this species women.



As if size was not enough to make this moth interesting, people have found uses for its silk as well. The silk is broken in Atlas Moths, but is nonetheless used to make Indian Fagara silk - said to be sturdier than most others. In Taiwan, women use the cocoons straight to make pocket purses. Stop complaining about moths; they make silk.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Creature Feature: Quagga.

Last night, we discussed the ever-intrusive zebra mussel. It is slowly being replaced by something called a quagga mussel. Well, OK. We know what a zebra is. What's a quagga, again?

 

Extinct mammals are the "uncanny valley" of dead beasts. The quagga (Equus quagga quagga) looked like something between a zebra and a horse while being its own creature at a glance. The term has been used to describe a 'not quite zebra' look with faded stripes, as on the quagga mussel. Quaggas used to live in the drier parts of southern Africa. The last specimen died in Amsterdam in 1883.

Quaggas get their name, supposedly, from their call. They were first discovered in 1778 in Africa. Many other zebras soon followed. The quagga was studied extensively over the next 50 years, but as one can probably tell from the dates, it barely lasted a century from a Western perspective. This means the native peoples of Africa had already done a fine job denting the population before we came along.



The quagga is like the aurochs in many ways: both are related to domestic animals, and both went extinct in the modern era. Science has tried to resurrect both species via gene sequencing and back-breeding. The real subtle difference between the two was the difficulty There was so much confusion over exactly what the quagga was that it was hunted to extinction for its meat, hides, and to feed other domesticated animals. Nice work, science.

Quaggas, however, lack the mystique of the aurochs. The quagga has been confirmed as the first described species of plains zebra (Equus burchelli). By the laws of scientific nomenclature, which are starting to look like a YGO ruling webpage, the plains zebra should be called a quagga. HOWEVER, the name has stuck so well that zebra shall stay, giving kids an animal by which to remember the letter 'z' for years to come. 

Q is for quagga. Almost!





The good news is that the quagga got around. Zebras and horses interbreed already; the result is called a zorse. There are tons of reports of horse-quagga hybrids, really just glorified zorses with a slightly different subspecies, but who knows? Maybe that horse on Michigan Avenue contains the last blood of an extinct race in his veins.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Creature Feature: Zebra Mussels.

All too often, this blog will feature something awesome and cool that is going extinct. The rarest, most beautiful things in nature tend to be the things that humans wipe out.

This post will be different. You are invited to kill today's creature in any way you like.



Ladies and gentlemen, meet the zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha). Zebra mussels are small bivalves no larger than two inches in length, native to the Caspian and Black Seas in Eurasia. Although unremarkable to look at, here in Chicago, they are quite common...and shouldn't be. Go back to Russia!

Much like the Japanese beetles, zebra mussels are a problematic invasive species. They arrive on boat hulls and spawn quickly, easily encrusting pipes and anything else their microscopic larvae happen to land on. They have not only taken over the Great Lakes, but have also been sighted in Britain, France, Ireland, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Sweden. Soon they will take over the world and there will not be much that we can do about it.
In Soviet Russia, mussel eats you.



Zebras mussels hurt ecosystems primarily by replacing existing mussel species. They spawn easily and quickly with fresh additions to the gene pool from passing ships. This strips native species of resources and leaves too much food for predators of said native species to handle. They're like new neighbors who play loud music at night, no matter how many people yell at them.

Putting the fishes aside for now, the zebra mussels get into human equipment. They encrust boats, docks, power plants, and anything else that touches their lake. Water purification plants are hit particularly hard, with the estimated damages in Britain being over 500,000 pounds. You don't need a currency converter to know that's a lot of damage.

No, they don't EAT metal, just make it unusable.


Crush them. Eat them. Set them on fire. We don't hate them, but they really shouldn't be in these ecosystems! The good news is that they are slowly being overridden by the quagga mussel...

...wait, that isn't good news!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Creature Feature: Garden Eels.

 

Woah. Wow. What the hell happened to the water, there? It's like the sea went into apocalypse mode, leaving only strange, weird worms in the place of colorful flora and fauna. There's no way that setting could be perfectly natural, right?

The creatures above are actually a type of eel. They are collectively called garden eels (genus Heteroconger)  and are members of the conger family. All garden eels are native to the warmer Pacific waters, especially the area around the Philippines. They are very shy carnivores that can vanish into their burrows in a flash. They're also as cute as an eel can feasibly get once you get over their general weirdness.



Colonies of garden eels can be seen along the Pacific floor. They hide most of their bodies in burrows. The eels have a hard back end which allows them to burrow backwards to begin with, and the mucous coatings on their bodies stabilize the burrows. Most of the time, one will only ever see 1/4th of the eel's body above the ground. This makes them the eel equivalent of whack-a-mole.




Some animals have naturally taken advantage of the garden eels' strange habits. For example, another type of eel called a snake eel has evolved to whip through the garden eels' burrows and attack them from beneath. In captive tanks, they are shy enough to be continuously bullied by other fish. Garden eels may be uncanny carnivores, but they are far from menacing.

For your own sake, do not attempt to procure these strange little eels as pets. They exist in the aquarium trade, but require such specific husbandry requirements that even experts have issues with them. The most obvious of these requirements is, of course, the extra substrate necessary to give them burrowing room. The Shedd seems to be handling them just fine, but that does not mean you should try it at home.