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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Creature Feature: Upside-down Jellyfish.

Cnidarians, as creatures, are underrated. Sure, they don't have claws, teeth, or even spinal cords, but that does not make them any less fascinating than large predatory mammals. The only two biologically-immortal animals in existence are cnidarians. All those pretty fluorescent proteins used in labs come from jellyfish and anemones. A box jellyfish will kill you more quickly than a tiger. Hell, cnidarians even have a sort of agriculture.



Cassiopea jellyfish are also aptly called upside-down jellyfish. They are found in swamps and mudflats of hot, humid areas like Florida, Hawaii, and Southeast Asia. Instead of stinging like normal jellies, they secrete their venom into a mucous cloud above them; said fluid is extremely itchy to swim through. They are not born upside-down, but do eventually spend their lives as living, tentacled pancakes secreting itchy fluid into the water.

Upside-down jellyfish often have algae growing on their tentacles. Specifically, zooxanthellae, a type of protist algae (as opposed to stuff like cyanobacteria), take up residence in the jellies' tentacles, making them look more like flora than fauna. The algae get a more or less safe place while the jellyfish get food. They even get free water circulation from the Cassiopea's pulsating bell. It all works out.



Of course, some things take advantage of these jellies' unusual anatomy. Sea urchin crabs steal them and put them on their backs as goofy-looking, living protection. Loggerhead sea turtles and ocean sunfish love these jellies (they're probably whole foods!). Admittedly, when you look like a salad bar, you are asking to be food no matter how toxic you are.

Cnidarians: Is there anything they can't do? Yes, we're pretty sure they can do tentacle rape, too.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"They Actually Eat That:" Imitation Crab.

Remember the 90's? Back then, we had all sorts of chemically-processed sh*t disguised as food and drink. Things like Hi-C and Sunny D were only such-and-such percent juice. Cheese slices were not necessarily cheese. Artificial colors were everywhere, and gave kids unnecessary cases of ADD that made psychologists money. The food industry is still very, very fake...even in 'fresh' foods like sushi.

Usually, if a sushi roll has crab in it, it will be something called 'crab stick.' Crab stick is that strange white substance wrapped in red. It is often accompanied by various vegetables in the standard California roll. Chances are you will not know it is crab stick and not actual crab unless A) you have an extremely acute sense of taste or B) read the label on your sushi.

Yes, I just said that crab stick has no actual crab in it. It's not called "imitation crab" without reason.

 

Crab stick is mostly made of the miscellaneous whitefish called "Alaskan pollock." This fish is technically a type of cod, and is considered one of the few remaining palatable and sustainable fish in the world. Just so that we do not get the wrong idea here, Japan has a fair amount of processed whitefish products called kamaboko, but this seems to be the only one intentionally imitating another type of meat.

One of the other common ingredients in crab stick is egg whites. After fish and egg whites, there is usually a fancy-sounding binding agent such as the enzyme transglutaminase, to hold it all together. Slap some red food coloring on and presto! Instant "crab."

I can't tell if that's real crab or not. Probably not.
 

Notice how none of the above ingredients are even remotely related to crab. Even the canned lobster from what? Two-three weeks ago? is not good enough to get into fake crab. At most, crab sticks contain crab flavoring. Not only are crab sticks not crab, they are not even made of crustaceans

Remember: No crabs were harmed in the making of your sushi. Probably. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Creature Feature: Slavemaker Ants.

Of all the insects in the world, there are two that society does not hate: Ants and bees. (Butterflies are also likely on this list.) In the Western world at least, ants (and bees, but particularly ants, here) are characterized as hardworking, cute little fellows who only get the slightest taste of human wrath when they invade our picnic tables. Aesop, one of the most famous fable-makers of all time, treated the ant as the ideal worker (with bees having a similar connotation in a certain poem about women).

Ants have to be one of the most over-anthropomorphized insects of all time.  Yes, they are social animals like we are. Yes, they have cute little job classes like we do. Yes, we more or less gave the big female in charge the name of 'queen,' but what would you call the only ant who ever gets to mate (and how!)? They're still insects, and their colonies follow slightly different rules of conduct from human societies. It's not baseless, but still pushing the bar. After all, it's not like they wage war or take prisoners...

...oh, wait. They totally do.

 

There are some ants outright called "slavemaker ants." Most of them are found in Europe, with Ravoux's slavemaker ant (Myrmoxenus ravouxi) native to just Europe and the not necessarily evil Formica sanguinea reaching all the way to Japan. There are a few others as well. These ants all use similar processes in their survival; the one with "slavemaker" in its name is one of the few inherently evil insects on the planet. This blog has covered Japanese hornets; these ants are worse.

First, the queen of a slavemaker ant colony has a lot of very good sex back at the old anthill. Then, she slips into another ant colony, either by playing dead or by pheromone manipulation. Her sole goal in life is to kill the other colony's queen, then usurp the throne.



She then bathes herself in the old queen's pheromones like an insectoid version of Countess Bathory. Since pheromones mean quite a lot to insects, the workers are none the wiser as the new queen takes over. Naturally, she proceeds to lay her own eggs therein.

Other species of ants go on all-out invasions of other colonies, very much like human warfare. It's actually kind of creepy that ants and bees are called "eusocial" - does that mean that scientists consider their warlike habits a mark of a good society?

I'm watching you.
 








Monday, September 26, 2011

Bio-Art: Fraken Fran.

(Disclaimer: The images used in this entry belong to the mangaka and/or scanlators. It just strikes me as silly to talk about a series without visual aids.)

Science fact is catching up faster and faster with science fiction. It won't be long before we can all live out our dreams of having senses greater than those of the average human, being able to have kids without an awkward nine-month pregnancy, and indulging any furry fantasies we may have. Biotechnology is getting close to making even the most outlandish science fiction seem downright plausible.

 

Enter Fran, the creation of Dr. Madaraki, one of the finest biologists of the era. After he suddenly went missing, Fran took over the good doctor's work: Using science to grant people's fondest wishes, often in the form of cosmetic surgery. It's no fault of hers that what they wished for is not exactly what they thought it would be!

Franken Fran is a more or less episodic manga series by Katsuhisa Kigitsu.  It centers around the  strange surgeries that Fran gives her patients and clients. These range from relatively simple procedures, such as weight loss surgery, to raising the dead, chimera splicing, and making flesh-and-blood mascots for an amusement park. One story even involves a girl getting surgery to make her look like a manga character (META POWERS AWAY!). Fran's the doctor that can do anything, no matter how bizarre the request.

But how plausible are these procedures, really? Although all of these strange events (I do mean every single bizarre thing that happens) have a basis in scientific fact, I doubt that some of the things Fran does will come to pass. For example, fattening someone will not result in that person undergoing mitosis...although, given how evolution is favoring the fat and/or stupid, they may as well be multiplying like that. Although cool, it is also unlikely that we will ever be able to replicate/swap the eyes of a mantis shrimp for our own. There are just some things that make me go "really?" This does not daunt the fun of a good dark piece of sci-fi.

Do not let Fran's almost-innocent look fool you: Franken Fran does not beat around the bushes when it comes to the terrifying possibilities of science. It has squick, a little bit of philosophy, and tasty tidbits of real scientific knowledge at the end of every book. Those of you who are faint of heart, stay far, far away. Science can be messy business.

THIS is how close paws are to human digits, furries!


My final thoughts are going to sound very familiar: If you can handle seeing science gone wrong, give Franken Fran a try.  It's like Splice in that it dives into truth being close to, and maybe stranger than, fiction, only Franken Fran actually goes there.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Freak Week III: Ankara Kedisi.

Ah, time for the hardest part of Freak Week: that one last entry to round it all out. Since last Freak Week, I have found a lot of breeds that would have made for interesting entries. The two candidates for today's entry were another cow and a certain very precious type of cat.

That said, have a kitten snapped with my own camera:

Before you gasp at how inhumane it is to put a cat in a cage like that, that little white kitten is very special. He and his cagemates are pure white, and considered precious and rare enough that the Ankara Zoo has a breeding program just to keep the cats alive. If the name "Ankara" was not enough of an indication, yes, that little fuzzball will one day become an elegant Turkish Angora cat.

 

The Turkish Angora was developed in central Turkey sometime between the 14th and 16th centuries. This cat is most known for its long, silky coat and plumed tail. It was bred with Persians (those longhair cats that look like they have run face-first into brick walls) to the point where the breed almost died out. They were recognized as an official breed in 1973.

Although Angora cats can come in almost any color, for a long time, only the pure white Angora was showable. If you have been keeping up with my 'white animal' entries, the usual drawbacks to being white include deafness, impaired vision, or both. Some Angora cats are deaf; in cats with heterochromatic eyes, only the side with the blue eye will be deaf. Many Angora cats can hear just fine, and even deaf Angoras can lead perfectly normal indoor cat lives. (The same CANNOT be said of Dalmatians, by the way.)

These cats are actually creepy after a while.


The Turkish LOVE their Angora cats. White cats like the kitten at the zoo have been considered a national treasure by the Turkish government since the 20th century. Especially prized are those cats with one blue eye and one eye of another color. All over Ankara, there are giant statues of furries Angora cats, all white with odd eyes. Even the logo for Ankara exemplifies its unique cats.




At least they know how to market themselves.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Freak Week III: Egyptian Mau.

"Thousands of years ago, cats were worshipped as gods. Cats have never forgotten this."-  Unknown. 

 

Most people who like cats know that the Egyptians loved cats. Along with being the first people to 'domesticate' the cat, they had a cat goddess named Bastet. Keenly aware that the cat was still a wild animal, Bastet had a dark side, the lioness Sekhmet. Say what you will about the incest in their pantheon, but they had cats right on the money. 

 

Without getting into hybrid cats, Egyptian Maus are easily the most exotic-looking breed of cat around.  They are the only naturally spotted breed of cat, possessing cheetah-like spots even beneath their fur. They also run like little cheetahs - up to 36 miles per hour, which, for reference, is about as fast as a giraffe. 

Besides a nearly unchanged look compared to ancient Egyptian depictions, the Mau has several genetic and behavioral differences that suggest a wilder ancestry. The Mau distinctly prefers hotter temperatures, much like its native climate. Besides meowing, Maus can also chirp and chortle. Like ancient dog breeds, Maus are very loyal and intelligent, but usually only bond with one or two people. Finally, they are excellent ratters - as well as snake-hunters if the image below is any indication.



Like most breeds of animal, Maus can be put up for show. However, only the bronze, silver,and smoke can be shown (because markings must be visible). The eyes must be green. Black and pewter are still used in breeding. If you want a cheap, but still classy-looking Mau, go for a black one. It will look more like the modern perception of Bast - spotless. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Freak Week III: Shar-Pei.



Wait. Wait. You said Thursday would have a tough dog, right? That is not a big, mean, tough dog like a Rottweiler or pit bull. That is a giant Beanie Baby made real.

Actually, the Shar-pei is one of the most ancient dog breeds in existence. As the name might suggest,  this breed originated in China, and has a black tongue like the Chow Chow. Shar-pei are known for their baggy skin (especially as puppies), courage, and rarity. This does not mean that there are no puppies waiting to be hugged.




Adorable though those wrinkly puppies may be, they still show the Shar-Pei's fighting lineage when playing. The loose, rough skin of the Shar-pei allows the dog to bite back if the skin is grabbed, giving it an advantage in the dog pits. Fighting Shar-pei was reserved for the upper classes in China; among peasants, the Shar-pei was used as a guard dog, cowherd, and boar hunter. That thick skin has multiple applications!

The Shar-pei's unique skin is a mutant form of the gene coding for hyaluronic acid, a substance found in the skin, connective tissues, and brain matter.  A similar malfunction can occur in humans, also leading to excessive wrinkles. This sounds like the best job ever .

As one might imagine, overbreeding for wrinkles causes considerable problems. The "Western" Shar-pei is known to have its own disease, Familial Shar-Pei fever, due to overbreeding for adult wrinkles. They are also notoriously allergic to any grain-based dog foods, again probably due to that strange skin. It is important to find a good Shar-pei breeder if you wish to acquire one of these strange dogs, so research research research!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"They Actually Eat That:" Truffles.

Forgive my lateness. Had to stay up at campus a little later on Wednesday, but don't worry, I would never miss a chance to show you all some seriously weird food. This is a little bit hard during Breed Week - whoever would admit that certain breeds are good for food? Even if they are, most of them are not remotely weird. (The Belgian Blue is an obvious exception.)

So this is something different and tangentially-related to domesticated animals.

 

Connoiseurs of my blog have probably heard of the fungi called truffles. Besides being a delicious chocolate treat, truffles are a type of fungus usually found near the bases of various trees, particularly oak, beech, hazel, and pine. The European black and white truffles are delicious, but very, very expensive. Chinese truffles are often used as a cheap substitute.

Truffles are not domesticated, per se. They can be farmed (Australia has had the best luck), but are not sufficiently differentiated enough from their wild counterparts to be considered breeds. Truffle fields return to wildness easily, sending the search for easy truffles back to square one. These things are so hard to find that humans need special animals just to discover them, thus explaining the price tag...



...even though piggies can find them no problem.

The classic way to find truffles is to get a healthy sow and take her out for a little walk. Since truffles smell like a horny boar's saliva, the pig's sensitive nose will pick up the scent. Sows can smell the fungi up to three feet underground. We can only imagine that her desire would be doubled if she herself wanted some lovin'. As one might expect, pigs do sometimes eat the truffles. If your Playboys came with a hamburger inside the pages, you probably would, too.

Japan has the right idea.


Of course, pigs are not the only animals with a keen sense of smell. Dogs, specifically the Lagotto Romangolo (Romagna Water Dog) can also be trained to sniff for truffles. The Lagotto breed has been in the business for only 100 years, which is a short time compared to ancient Roman truffle hogs.

You can also tell it's hypoallergenic because of its poodle-ish fur.


For the record, yes, I have actually eaten truffles. If you want to try some good ones, they have truffles in everything in Piazza Navona, a certain square in Rome. They put truffles on pizza, in fettucine, and have a godly gelato called tartufo- no real truffles involved, just using the name. Truffles are delicious, but I personally would not go into any pig sties after eating them!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Freak Week III: Pit Bulls.

Pitting animals against each other has been around since the dawn of man. It probably started when one man said, "dude, let's start placing bets on what ram's gonna butt the other harder" or some such similar wager. Soon this evolved into putting domesticated animals against each other in high-stakes matches. Modern examples include monkey fighting, various types of bug-fighting and cockfighting.

Oh, and dog fighting. Can't forget that.



The American Pit Bull Terrier has become the Western world's poster child for dog fighting. Although the title says "American," the founding stock is from the United Kingdom. The term "pit bull" can technically vary in meaning depending on the area, ranging from the APBT to any dog in the molosser group. For now, we will be discussing only the APBT, which is most easily identified by its bigger-than-average head.

My head's not big!



In its early stages, the pit bull breed was used in bull- and bear-baiting. "Baiting" of these animals consisted of many dogs ganging up on the larger, enraged beast, which was usually tied to a pole just to be sure the dogs would win. After these sports were effectively outlawed, rat baiting and dog fighting became more popular, resulting in the pit bull we see today. Pit bulls have also been historically used for herding and delivering messages in both World Wars, and can be fine, loyal, perfectly gentle family pets.

Pit bulls, even mixes, have a reputation for being vicious. After their popularity as pets declined, their reputation as fighting dogs skyrocketed. This is not entirely unjustified; pit bulls and pit bull mixes take home the dubious award of having the most dog attacks to their name (and this year isn't over!). If pitties scored higher than Golden Retrievers on temperament tests, we sure don't want to get in the way of a Golden.

This does not mean that they are bad dogs. 



 I have met pure pit bulls. They act just like every other puppy as puppies. Even the adult pits I have met were not bad dogs. As per Wikipedia, fighting dogs are bred to be gentle around humans, but vicious towards other animals - emphasis on "gentle around humans."  This more or less coincides with my own experiences with pits and pit mixes.

Alas, it's not that simple. Pit bulls were bred to fight, and, although it is fine if you do not raise yours to fight, realize that some people buy pit bulls because they were bred to fight.  For example: The one pit bull I did see with a full butcher shop was owned by a guy sporting tattoos and piercings. I am not saying that he was a professional dog fighter or anything, but he certainly wanted to look tough. (I have also heard that some people refuse to neuter their pets because it feels like they are castrating themselves.) The owners of (pure) pit bulls may well be looking for tough dogs, whether they intend to fight them or not.

Go ahead. TRY and ban this face!
 

This coincides with "there are no bad dogs, only bad owners." Pit bulls used to be perfectly fine to keep as pets, but after their popularity declined, they became seen as fighters more than lovers. The reputation that pit bulls currently have is enough to make one worry around them - especially if one sees a pitty with his junk still in tact (there are a number of rather unsavory explanations for that). It's not that the dogs themselves are bad, but one must wonder what the owners intend for them.

Banning will not stop anything that supposedly comes with pit bulls. There will always be blood sports, no matter what legislation you make. There will always be people using their dogs to prove that they, as people, are superior. Even if pit bulls were banned, chances are that things like Rottweilers would become their replacement as a "tough dog" with aaaalllll the strings attached.  

Well, Rottweilers...or Thursday's furry freak.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Freak Week III/Bio-Art: The Breed (2006)

Heeeey! Guess what time it is? Freak Week III time! That means we're going to be looking at vicious, strange animals made not by nature, but by...MAN! Yes, Freak Weeks are all about the crazy breeds made by humans. They are usually inbred as all get-out for traits not normally found in their wild counterparts, so yes, all breeds are freaks by definition.



What better way to kick off this week than with a look at a movie titled The Breed? True to the title, The Breed centers around a special breed of dog selected for aggressive behavior, not to mention being genetically-enhanced. The project is soon abandoned by the military, leaving the island desolate and the dogs running wild.

Some time later, a group of college students decide to crash on the island for a few days. No sooner are they all settled in when a vicious, angry beast attacks them...



...AWWWWWW! At least, that's the general response from the college students until the puppy's pack members find it and shit hits the fan. The rest of the movie is the college students running from the dogs, which are honestly way smarter than even a wolf pack would be. We're talking dolphin-level smart. Either that, or the humans were bigger idiots than I first thought.



According to the director, the point of The Breed was to make the audience see dogs in a new way. One could argue that Cujo had already done that. The point of both was to make something familiar and normally docile, Canis lupus familiaris, into a terrifying monster even worse than the wolf. Since mythology had been doing this for centuries, I was keen on seeing a modern take.

The dogs in The Breed look like one would expect aggressive dogs to look: Pointed ears, big, not fond of being held, and no flashy piebaldism. The vet-to-be confused one of the feral puppies for a large German Shepherd. Some of them almost looked like African Wild Dogs at first. They all looked like dogs bred for kicking ass and eating it, too, even if they were a little variable for one breed. Kudos to whomever picked the attack dogs for the movie!

This is not one of them; this is a wolfdog.


To demonstrate exactly how much the dog has been bred down, several people have bred wolfdogs. Add the smallest drop of wolf into a doggie gene pool and dogs start to go crazy. They howl. They become more intelligent. They are more curious, and thus more destructive. Overall, they are not predictable. The Breed made its point: All it takes is one breeder (or animal abuser) to bring back the wolf in the domestic dog. If only college life was not in the way!

Just because it struck me as passably interesting does not mean it was a good movie. The writing in this thing is terrible. Seeing college students being college students while killer dogs are roaming an abandoned island does not make a good movie. (Maybe that's me; I have ZERO sympathy for college students whose sole aim in life is to get wasted and laid.) It still manages to make its point, especially since someone did get injured while making the film. Cujo probably does it better. Watch it for kicks - nothing more, nothing less. I would love to see Film Brain tear this apart.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Creature Feature: Asiatic Lion.

Anyone who knows anything about lions knows that they live in Africa. Depending on your source, they either have a strangely anthropomorphic family or a harem system in which the big guy gets all the women. Lions are probably the most filmed predators on the African savannah.

So when one hears a story about lions in places like, say, Greece and India, brows go up. Where did the Nemean Lion (and, come to think of it, half of all Greek monsters) come from if Greece had no lions? Doesn't India have tigers instead? Hey, come to think of it, did the lions that devoured ancient Christians really come all the way from Kenya?

The Arabic text says "get in the car."


A not-so-long time ago, two species of lion roamed the lands: The African lion and the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica). The African lion gets thousands of documentaries every year and two charming animated films; the Asiatic lion gets this entry and a place on the Endangered Species list.

Asiatic and African lions differ almost solely by location. The African lion is, well, African; the Asiatic lion once spanned Europe (including Greece and Italy), the Arabian Peninsula, and India.  Fossil records suggest that they may even have been in Alaska.

Asiatic on the bottom.


At a glance, there are a few subtle anatomical differences between the Asiatic and African species that only lion-otakus can really pick out; look them up if you really must nitpick. The species are so close they can interbreed, leading to debatable species conservation practices. With only 400-odd Asiatic lions in the wild, genetic purity matters.

Yes, the population of Asiatic lions declined from thousands to only four hundred. Currently, habitat loss and hunting livestock are the main threats to their survival. All four hundred of them are thought to be somewhere around Gir Forest, India, which remains the only natural habitat of the Asiatic lion. (No, that is not a typo, Invader Zim fans.)

Even with the Asiatic lion's wide range, there were never lions in China. The "lions" found in Chinese lore are composite, nigh-mythical beasts that look more like dogs than lions to most Westerners. This happened because the only lions ever received came in the form of Asiatic lion pelts from India. A certain Chinese monk used his imagination and used the few images of lions he had to create the ultimate lucky beast:

 

...whatever that monk was on, we want some.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Creature Feature: Harpy Eagle.

Is anyone else annoyed by bald eagles being the only eagles ever portrayed in art? I have respect for the birds - nothing wrong with them as birds - but it feels like, whenever any source mentions an eagle, screenwriters immediately find a baldie for the role. If you want an ubiquitous eagle, look for a golden eagle. Clash of the Titans had a bald eagle, and that was set in Greece. Greece, not America, the only place where bald eagles actually live. No, I will not get over how terrible that movie was no less than five seconds in. 

Anyways.

Eagles are majestic birds, bald or not. They are usually considered the kings of the skies and are are often associated with divinities. Many such tales come from places without bald eagles, movie producers. Spread your wings a little.

 

Queen among kings is the Harpy Eagle (Harpia harpyja). This impressive bird is native to the rainforest areas of Mexico, Central America, and South America.

Yes, speak of the devil: the bird is named after the hybrid bird-women that tormented King Phineas by eating his food and befouling the rest. They were also tormentors in Hades, a tradition which carried on in Dante's Inferno. Ask the right person and being tortured by naked bird-women sounds like heaven instead of hell, but to each his own.

Eons ago, you could have been that rabbit. Just sayin'.


Harpy Eagles are impressive birds, even if they are not as freakish as their mythical namesake. The Harpy Eagle bears the title of the largest and heaviest eagle in the world. As with most raptors, females are larger than males, allowing different sexes to catch different prey. The heaviest recorded female, a captive specimen named "Jezebel," weighed 12.3 kg (27 pounds). Trust us, this is pretty heavy for a flying bird, and a heavy bird can catch heavy prey.

Big birds need big prey. The rainforests of Central and South America have plenty of larger animals in the form of sloths, monkeys, kinkajous, and other tree-dwelling mammals. Larger monkeys are also fair game. Just so one can appreciate HOW deadly these eagles can be, here is what happened to an unwary sloth:


Suddenly staying in the trees does NOT sound like a good idea.

Yeah. It is totally relevant that "harpy" translates to "snatcher" in Greek.

On a note only tangentially related to Greek mythology, the Harpy Eagle was the basis for Fawkes, the phoenix from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. You probably did not recognize the phoenix without his red CGI and pheasant tail feathers. Finally, the largest eagle in the world got its due.

 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Creature Feature: Pipefish.

It is possible to take almost any word, attach "fish" to it, and, lo and behold, it will be a real animal. One of the few words that do not work with this is "peach." Other words beginning with the letter "p," like "pipe" and "parrot," are just fine. Don't believe me? Here's a pipefish:



Pipefish are long, slender fish covered in armored plates. As their strange jaws suggest, they are related to seahorses. Their diet consists largely of copepods - small crustaceans. They are native to tropical ocean waters, with only a few of the 200-odd species being freshwater fish. They are quite popular in reef aquaria and on snorkeling expeditions.

The name of the pipefish subfamily, "Sygnathidae," refers to the fishes' fused, tubular jaws. With a tube like that, the pipefish feed like one might expect: As living Dust Devils. They create a suction in their mouths that sucks in little copepods and smaller fish.

 

Pipefish, like seahorses, have the male adapted to give birth to the babies. "You knocked me up, so YOU get to raise these guys" - sounds like a good philosophy to me! The snark stops there; pipefish are independent from birth, and may even be considered food by their parents. 

 

For those of you into Pokemon, the pipefish has a digital friend in Gorebyss. Bogleech says that Gorebyss is more like a deep sea chimera (also very cool fish!), but there is definitely some pipefish in there, too. No, real pipefish are not as bloody as Gorebyss is implied to be. Gen V players will be seeing a lot of Gorebyss, so best get familiar with its real relatives as well.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"They Actually Eat That:" Lobster.

So on a whim -or because it's normal for you, I don't know - you decide to have dinner at a seafood place. They have various dishes with shrimp, salmon, and some other familiar fish, but the only one with the label "market price" is lobster. For those of you unfamiliar with restaurant slang, "market price" means something so expensive that they do not want to tell you what it costs. Lobster usually has this attached.



Umm, why? I've had lobster. It is not my favorite shellfish, but can be nice if prepared well. It gets most of its flavor from the butter and sauce used upon it. No offense if you like it, but is it really worth "market price" in every restaurant that serves it?

Long story short, no.  No, it is not.

Prior to the mid-19th century, one could not find an American who would consider lobster the fancy dish it is today. Lobster was considered a food for the impoverished. Hell, it was barely even food- lobster was used as fish bait and fertilizer most of the time. Think about what else goes into fertilizer for a bit, then tell me if (North American) lobster still sounds appetizing.

 

So, what made it popular? The people along the East Coast gained a taste for it. The desire to eat lobster fresh was popularized in New York and Boston - places which have easy access to lobster already. The catch is, of course, that they do have fine lobster waiting to be caught. The canned stuff does not taste nearly as good, and, in fancy restaurants, the lobster may be more about presentation than taste.


From foodnetwork.com. Yeah, we need TV and computers to tell us how to eat, now.

One could also get into the latest animal rights fad sweeping the nation: Rights for lobsters. The classic way to prepare lobster is to boil the crustacean alive. While this blog agrees that, maybe, such a practice is a little extreme, several places (including Italy) have fines for boiling lobsters alive. If PETA's next stunt is letting dogs vote, I will buy a hat and eat it; we do not need squeaky toys in campaign ads.

Oh, and by the way, lobsters are waaayyy overfished. We have tried to breed them, but lobster farms have not proven successful. Not only is lobster expensive for no real reason, it's damaging the ecosystem.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Creature Feature: Pac-Man Frogs.

Frogs are usually pretty positive creatures. Kermit's awesome, and even Mr. Toad from Wind in the Willows was a fun character. Name one evil frog. The poisonous ones from South America do not count.

Albino shown. It just LOOKED more like Pac-Man.
 

The Argentine Horned Frog (Ceratophrys ornata) is not particularly poisonous, but still sinister. It is called a Pacman frog for a reason. The big mouth, the round body, the yellow coloration as an albino...why is it not devouring jellyfish, again?

Pacman frogs are, for frogs, voracious. They can be fed on any number of store-bought insects and fish, which is more or less what one would expect a frog to eat. After mating, however, the mates will sometimes attempt to eat each other, making Mrs. Pac-Man a whole lot more disturbing. Large females can even swallow rats. These things are so hungry that they will even try to eat things bigger than their heads, resulting in death by gluttony.



Argentine Horned Frogs are readily available in the exotic pet industry. They can be kept in a ten-gallon aquarium all their lives. For the frogs' own safety, do not house multiple specimens in the same tank. We have no word on what happens to jellyfish if one of these guys eats a larger-than-normal pellet.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Bio-Art: Alba.

Transgenic life is inevitable. Our food is spliced several times over with genes that promote growth and prevent pests. Even organic tomatoes are considerably modified from their wild counterparts. It was only a matter of time before our pets got into the splicing craze.

Image from Kac's site. Hope he doesn't mind the free advertising!


Meet Alba. She was made by French scientists under commission from Eduardo Kac, whose specialty is using science to make beautiful things. Under normal light, she is a perfectly healthy-looking lab rabbit. There is no way to tell that Kac ever intended for her to be anything besides a pet.

Then the blacklight comes on and she starts to glow bright green.

How you can tell this image is fake: The pupil isn't glowing.


Alba contains the GFP protein from crystal jellyfish (Aequorea victoria) in her veins. The protein is usually used to track certain traits, such as disorders, in organisms (namely fruit flies). Who are we kidding? Science just loves making things glow crazy colors.

Alba was created purely for aesthetic pleasure. We are unsure of HOW much she glows - most of the photos have been altered to exaggerate how bright Alba is - but somewhere, beneath all that white, fluffy fur, she will glow as green as The Hulk in the proper lighting. It helps that Alba lacks pigment, but even so, she will not glow as brightly as the image shows.

Making the bunny glow was just one part of a bigger "GFP Bunny" project. Her designer, Eduardo Kac, wished to make a creature outside of nature, then integrate it into his household as a pet. This unfortunately happened with GloFish before Alba ever made it into Kac's home.

 

No sooner was Alba revealed when controversy came hard and fast. In the mid 2000's, Kac tried to take his bunny home, but the French lab insisted that she stay at the facility. This led to a back-and-forth conflict between the labs, Kac, and the news media covering the cute little glowing bunny.

Ultimately, Eduardo Kac's project never came to its conclusion (especially with the sketchiness of Alba's whereabouts today). Kac probably still has his "Free Alba" flag flying outside his house, waiting for the rest of us to accept that a glowing animal can be just as fine a pet as any other. Hey, we accept Chihuahuas fairly readily.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Creature Feature: Brittle Star.

Echinoderms are darn strange compared to what we usually think of as animals. They have pentaradial  symmetry (that is, the creature is split into 5 even sides instead of two), mouths on the bottom of their bodies, no real cephalization to speak of, and have "tentacle rape" written all over them. Or "Facehugger," take your pick.

In conclusion: This blog needs more starfish, dammit!


(Yes, they can be legally kept as pets.)

That's a rather strange starfish, no? Brittle stars (Ophiuroidea) do not look like Patrick or any other friendly starfish you can name. With their spindly legs, quick movements, and bands, they almost look more like five snakes joined at the cloaca (those stars above have "serpent" in their name, for example). They are found everywhere in the ocean, from reefs to the deepsea abyss. A few even live in brackish water. Some of the abyssal ones glow in the dark!

No two are exactly alike!
 

Brittle stars are so named because their arms are, well...brittle. Unlike more fleshy starfish, the arms of brittle stars are covered in segmented armor. These arms have no tube feet, and can break off easily to allow the star to escape.

These starfish are the unholy eldritch lords of regeneration. Starfish, as a general rule, can regenerate their limbs. Brittle stars are the masters of this, being able to regenerate segment-by-segment unless all arms are lost. A certain group of brittle stars called Amphiuridae can regenerate sexual organs and innards. Some can even perform binary fission with little harm. In other words, brittle stars make themselves very hard to kill.
MWAHAHA, they're gonna take over the world!


Fun fact: Although brittle stars are not toxic, they are among the few animals that humans have not yet found a way to eat. Trust us, the list is very small.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Creature Feature: Stephens Island Wren.

One of the cries against exotic pets is, frequently, that they will become invasive species. The biggest, baddest anti-reptile bill recently was HR669, a bill that forbade ownership of any animal that was not a cat, dog, fish, or farm animal. This bill was, of course, shut down by herpers and ferret lovers alike. It does not make sense to make an "environmentally-conscious" bill while leaving off swine, cows, and cats and dogs. The most domesticated animals are often the most damaging to a local ecology. Let's not even get into humans as an invasive species.

Mind, the origin of this bill was a lady in Guam. Guam is an island that is technically U.S. territory,  but not quite Illuminati enough to make it into the United States. Island ecologies tend to be a zero-sum game when it comes to animals, exotic or otherwise, living on the island. Either the invading fauna kicks the island's ass or everything on said island is out to kill you. Yes, koalas, we know you have extremely sharp claws.

Australia's smaller cousin New Zealand was not as lucky when it came to tolerating human settlers (it took Hobbits much better). Australia had vicious predators with teeth that would make humans piss themselves, spiders that would kill you in your sleep, and kangaroos that, though herbivores, could definitely beat you at kickboxing if challenged. (That last one would be your own fault. Apologies to anyone drunk enough to try that.)

New Zealand had...birds. Very strange birds.



If it were still alive, we would ask you to meet the Stephens Island Wren. It was not really a wren, more like a member of an extinct group of flightless songbirds. Only in New Zealand would that EVER work. All of New Zealand's ecology was based on birds.

Then an unknown Western ship came over with a cat on it. Do I really need to say more?

This without the cage, for those of you without imagination.
 

The Stephens Island Wren is a legend among animals going extinct. Word has it that the cat of a lighthouse owner single-handedly wiped out every "wren" on the island. The owner's assistant, David Lyall, brought the strange looking bird to the scientific community's attention after seeing what the cat (nicknamed "Tibbles") was doing. It was too late; the wren was down to the last few members of its species. The species had probably gone extinct in the winter of 1895.

This is very unlikely. The far more plausible causes for the "wren"'s extinction were being eaten by the Maori as unfried KFC and the introduction of a pregnant cat on board an unknown ship. By the time "Tibbles" emerged, there would have been several feral cats already around the island, picking off lesser birds like people at a buffet.  There are no "exotic" pets to blame here - just humans, cats, and several very lazy birds.



And if you don't think dogs can be damaging? Dingoes. Just...dingoes.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Creature Feature: Kuro's Worst Enemy.

This entry was supposed to be in the next Freak Week. After reading my latest issue of Reptiles, however, I was reminded (by tangential thoughts, not the magazine itself) that perhaps my greatest, fiercest arch-enemy yet should get his own entry sooner rather than later.

No, this is not about the brown recluse spider again. This is about a far, far more intimidating foe...




...the Chihuahua.

For those of you not exposed at all to Western culture, Chihuahuas are the world's smallest breed of dog. The origins of the Chihuahua are blurry, with most believing that they came from Mexico, but several more ancient sources cite very similar dogs from the Mediterranean. The original Chihuahuas were probably larger than the pint-sized pooches in purses seen today. They also probably looked a little less like rats.

No, I am not picking on the Chihuahua because of its looks. I do see the appeal in small dogs. Chihuahuas are particularly strange looking small dogs to the point where I have seen numerous descriptions of them as "mutant rats." I have, however, met some longhair Chihuahuas that barely look like Chihuahuas, so looks are not a factor in my labeling them as my greatest nemesis.

Look! It still has some dignity left!
 

The Chihuahua breed should not exist. Toy breeds in general have defects, usually hip dysplasia, that make them suffer plenty alongside the treatment that comes from being a small dog (more on that later). Chihuahuas have a laundry list of disorders, including low blood sugar (i.e. born diabetic), collapsed trachea, chronic bronchitis, obesity (largely due to eating people food), hydrocephaly, numerous dental issues, and, unique to Chihuahuas, being born with an incomplete skull. If the defective individuals were culled in Chihuahuas like they would be in most breeds, the breed would go extinct. They should have been Darwinized out of the system ages ago. 

Oh, but things eating the poor, precious Chihuahuas tends to upset people. This sucks when it happens with a wild animal, but when (as an example) your neighbor has a Burmese python and your Chihuahua goes missing, who is the most likely suspect? Sure, it could have been a coyote or a car, but the person with the Burmese python is the bigger, easier target. People worry like crazy for 1. kids and 2. thoroughly domesticated pets whenever someone has a decently-sized exotic animal. Since cats often have their wits about them (and/or claws), small dogs are usually the first target for such predators. Nature is trying to get rid of this monstrosity in any way she can, but exotic pet owners are the first target if a Chihuahua goes missing. If you own any pet aside from a cat or dog, beware the Chihuahuas.

This is a fennec fox - another naturally-small mammal. Go get one instead of a Chihuahua.


Moreover, Chihuahuas are almost exotic pets themselves. Some vets refuse to work on Chihuahuas  because they come with so many defects. They have problems with birthing due to their small size. The veterinary costs alone explain the price tag of the breed, although belonging to high-class bitches contributes as well. When you buy a purebred, you buy a status symbol and an alternate form of self expression. A Chihuahua (especially the shorthair) says that either A) you are from Mexico, or B) you want to be classier than you actually are. Enjoy the guilt trip that comes from not buying a dog with a much milder temperament and fewer health problems. Also enjoy the people who have ferrets, naturally small carnivorids, instead of Chihuahuas.

Chihuahuas should be bred with good temperaments - emphasis on should. They have a more or less justified reputation for being yappy little dogs because either the parents were not selected for docility or the human messed the dog up. It is way too easy for a human to screw up a Chihuahua (or any other small dog) by over-anthropomorphizing it, thereby allowing the dog to express dominant behaviors. The result of this is called Small Dog Syndrome; long story short, the Chihuahua becomes the alpha dog.

EXACTLY like this.


It only gets worse from there. The standard weight for a Chihuahua is 6-8 pounds - that's less than most cats. Breeders may try to sell off their runts as "teacup" Chihuahuas, ultimately leading to smaller and smaller dogs. I do see the appeal of small dogs, but Chihuahuas are small to the point where it is hurting the animal to an insane degree.

Also, comments like this tell us that, just maybe, we should be working on making Chihuahuas illegal before pitbulls:

"chihuahuas aren't dogs. they are fucking science experiments gone wrong. i fucking hate em. they have a piercing bark, they're always hyper active, they can never chill the fuck out, they're always shaking like little bitches, and they are brainless. the next one i see i'm going to grab and fucking punt off the side of a building."

In other words, "Kill it with fire."