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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Wizard Did It/"They Actually Eat That:" Semi-Living Steak and Disembodied Cuisine.

If you are reading this, chances are you know a vegetarian. We aren't being picky, here - anyone who avoids meat of any sort is some type of vegetarian. One of the reasons they will most likely cite in their reasons for vegetarianism is that eating meat is cruel to animals...which, given how most meat is farmed, is perfectly reasonable.

"Depressing" doesn't even begin to cover it.
 

The question is, what's the alternative? It's not like there's some magical product of science that is, in a way, cruelty-free...



...oh, wait. There totally is. Sort of.

Although not mass-marketed (as far as we know), the Tissue Culture and Art Project has made meat grown in a petri dish several times. The Semi-Living Steak, for example, was a culture of pre-natal lamb meat (don't get me started with "life begins at conception"). The sample was from an animal that had not yet been born; your mileage may vary as to whether this process solves the cruelty issue or not. The meat was grown on an edible polymer. Regardless of how it was grown, meat is meat; insofar as I can tell, the scientists tried to eat it. It was made in Harvard's Tissue Engineering and Organ Fabrication Laboratory, so you know it's good. Nothing says fresh like an Ivy League college!



That steak was just the beginning. The real big, bio-engineered meat project TC&A made was Disembodied Cuisine, an art installation shown in France (2003). Semi-living frog steaks were cultured, then eaten in a "nouvelle cuisine" -style dinner. Live frogs were there to laugh at the French people watching. (The frogs were later released into a botanical garden, presumably still laughing.) The whole thing was designed to spit in France's face; of all the European countries, nobody hates engineered food quite like the French. Small surprise that most people spat it out.

These projects were not just freaky food. Even though the meat itself was cultured, several animal products were used in their formation. There are still victims, but the public does not really know about them. We dream of a victimless utopia in which there is no suffering at all, but then what? The food chain still needs to exist on some level.We hate to say this, but animals suffer plenty in nature, too. This 'meat' is intentionally ironic. Most news crews missed the joke.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Wizard Did It: Levitation.

What would you give for a flying car? Or to fly like Superman? Or...hell, making anything fly would be pretty cool. Alas, unlike Arthur Weasley or anyone else from Potterland, we are unable to make cars, or much of anything else, fly. Shame on us.


Remember where we parked.



Kidding! Science has actually found ways to make things levitate. The flying cars from The Jetsons are coming soon! WE PROMISE!

There are several ways that science can make things levitate, including sound and wind, but the favorite method uses magnets. The most common way that scientists levitate things involves superconductors in a process called diamagnetism. Diamagnetism creates a little sandwich of similar magnetic fields, making the two repel. This process has been used most famously with a very confused frog, but also grasshoppers, various minerals, and mice. That's right: After mice, we will become very close to levitating humans.



As for the flying cars, we already have flying trains. There are several trains around the world dubbed "maglevs" because they levitate using super-magnets. (For those curious, the JR-Maglevappears to be the only one still running.)  Maglev creates another magnetic 'sandwich' in which a criss-cross of magnetic fields keeps the train stable and slightly above the ground. It's not quite diamagnetism, but still levitating with magnets. Not only does this keep the tracks really clean, it reduces the amount of energy necessary to run the trains. It's a win-win situation.



For those of you into parapsychology, levitation does sometimes happen to people...only they are (usually) unable to control when and how. It is often embarrassing when it happens. As an example of how unpredictable things can get, poltergeist activity can often be linked to unconscious telekinesis from teenage girls. It's that random if it ever happens.

Although some people may have the power to levitate objects and/or themselves, there is a good chance that 1. they are faking it (like almost every yogi in India) or 2. the power is extremely spontaneous and difficult to record. There has only been one recorded, controlled, and repeated test of levitation, and even that has been put under criticism. You're better off ghost hunting if you really want to see levitation or any sort of telekinesis in action.

Theme Week: A Wizard Did It!

Here at Wonderful World, we try to showcase all the strange things nature has to offer. Sometimes, however, a certain segment of that gets cropped out: Humans!

Yes, humans are part of nature, too! Homo sapiens sapiens is actually a very strange part of nature, and thus deserves one or two theme weeks. We've already done The Human Freak, which shows that, hey, nature does still affect us. It is equally interesting to see how we bend nature to our whims. One could even call it...magic.

Asa very sage website once put it, "Science is magic explained." Half of the spells in Harry Potter have real world counterparts. You probably should not try them at home, but the point is that they can be done.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Bio-Art: MEART the semi-living artist.

Ask any (successful) artist and they will tell you that art is a lot harder than it looks. It takes skill, practice, and creativity. In general, art is seen as something that only higher-level beings can perform...



...so could a robot potentially make art?

According to the three creators of MEART, sure, why not? The MEART project, created by two teams of scientists in Georgia and Australia, endeavors to answer some of the most pressing questions surrounding the production of art and creativity. Names to know include Douglas J. Bakkum1, Philip M. Gamblen2, Guy Ben-Ary2, Zenas C. Chao1 and Steve M. Potter1,* all of whom are either part of the Georgia Institute of Technology or SymbioticA, the School of Biology in Perth, Australia. They have, together, made the first ever robot designed to draw. The result looks like the art that elephants make, but it's still art!



MEART's robotic body is linked to a culture of rat neurons on a MEA (multi-electrode array) in Atlanta Georgia. The electrical signals are transported around the world, including Australia, the U.S., Russia, and China, and communicated in real-time via the internet. People have been watching rat-controlled robotic hands playing with markers for the last five years.

Technically, MEART is a working cyborg. That in itself is controversial. People who hate the idea of transhumanism will loathe projects like MEART, which use sophisticated technology to accurately replicate natural thoughts and movements. The MEART masters prefer to use the term 'hybrot' to avoid the extant connotation, but it still treads Uncanny waters.


More importantly, however, MEART is a sign of the coming robot apocalypse. If semi-artificial intelligence can be creative, who knows what its limits might be? Imagine if there were human brain cells instead of rat neurons in that little petri dish. This technology has amazing potential for anyone in need of a limb replacement. Hell, even that crappy "CyTran" idea would be doable if they rethought a little and used this tech instead of Lovecraftian brain transplants. Prepare your bladder for imminent release.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Creature Feature: Electric Ant.

A lot of people in the United States are freaking out about Burmese Pythons in Florida. While escaped giant snakes often make the news anyways, the problem in Florida is that a lot of them escaped and are breeding. This puts the native alligator population in considerable danger. It doesn't help that these particular snakes now have a reputation for being man-eaters after one devoured somebody's daughter.  Thing is, even with these points, there are always damaging invasive species wherever humans travel...and they don't have to be very big to cause a lot of damage.

 

The ant above is called the electric ant or little fire ant (Wasmannia auropunctata). As both common names imply, these ants sting like a bitch. They have a distinctly brassy color so that, should you see them on your food, you know to run the eff away. They are native to Central and South America. Ants are among the few species besides humans that wage war, but this ant takes the term "invasive species" to a whole new level.

See, along with Central and South America, these ants can be found in New Caledonia, Australia, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the Galapagos, Africa, Israel, North America, and everywhere else where things do not freeze over. Presumably, this includes Hell. Wherever they land, they wreak unholy havoc on the local wildlife. Take, for example, this charming excerpt concerning what they do to Galapagos tortoises:

"...it eats the hatchlings of tortoises and attacks the eyes and cloacae of the adult tortoises. It is considered to be perhaps the greatest ant species threat in the Pacific region."

In English: It eats the tortoises' babies. As if that was not nuts enough, it goes for the eyes, the most vulnerable part of any animal, and the tortoises' junk. Your furry pets are definitely not safe, either - these ants will consistently go for the eyes and junk. Research is currently being done to see if these ants are affecting the eyes of Floridians or not, but given that the ants seem to be dicks, we would not be surprised. Even native ants - you know, the kinds of ants that HAVE queens and small armies - cannot usually fight these guys off. Hooo boy.



Did we mention that even the workers can reproduce in this species? No? Well, both male and female electric ants are capable of clonal, parthenogenic reproduction. All it takes is one ant hitchhiking to wreak havoc. Still worried about those massive pythons?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Creature Feature: Crested Gecko.

Has anyone else ever noticed the strange double standard going on between lizards and snakes? Bring a snake into a room, and people will run away screaming. Bring a lizard into the room, and people might actually pet it. Sure, there are some people who hate both, but lizards are generally more accepted than snakes...even though chameleons are the embodiments of Satan in Madagascar and there is a gecko called "satanic."



This is not that gecko. It is, however, one of the cutest lizards in existence.

The New Caledonian Crested Gecko (Rhacodactylus ciliatus) is native to, umm, New Caledonia, a group of French-speaking islands off the coast of Australia. They are small lizards that get only slightly bigger than a human hand when fully grown. As per their name, they have a crest that runs across their large eyes and down their backs. They are nocturnal; some owners have even noticed their pets getting brighter colors at night. Unlike most geckos, which are carnivores, cresties are omnivorous - a trait that pet keepers have been keen to take advantage of.

From thegeckospot.net.


Like several other sorts of geckos, cresties have special pads on their toes and tails that let them 'stick' to almost any surface. These areas are covered with smalls hairs called setae. Through van der Waals bonds, the same type of bonding that binds chlorine molecules together, the gecko can scale any surface. Just in case, it also has small claws to help it grab on to any gaps. This is not quite unique to the crestie, but still fascinating.

What is truly weird about these geckos is that, until 1994, they were thought extinct. Then, suddenly, several of them were found after a tropical storm. We guess that whatever power that is has a weakness for cute lizards. Of all things, the biggest threat to these geckos is an introduced species of ant. (That bugger is really worth an entry in itself.) How's that for a braintwist?



Despite being on the endangered species list, cresties have quite a presence in the exotic pet trade. Enough of them got out before the banhammer came down on their exportation. They now come in a variety of colors, have specialized diets, and are so common that even big box pet stores like Petco sometimes carry them. They are, however, pricey compared to leopard geckos and bearded dragons, especially when one gets into high-end morphs. Said morphs may not even show up until the gecko has matured. The price more than compensates for the amiable nature of these lizards, which is just...D'AWWWW!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Creature Feature: Velociraptors.

 

Raise your hand if you have ever seen Jurassic Park. Although the Tyrannosaurus was flaunted as the 'big predator' of the movie, everybody knew that the real terrors came in the form of the smart, human-sized Velociraptors. They could open doors. They hunted in packs. No matter how scary that T-Rex was, the raptors were more chilling.


Alas, the raptors we remember were not the real McCoy. They were closer to the scythe-clawed Deinonychus in terms of size and general design. (Deinonychus was not in the same genus as Velociraptor, but, at the time, it was still considered a raptor.) True Velociraptors were about 6 feet long from snout to tail and probably weighed around 35 pounds. As later Jurassic Park films would add, real Velociraptors had feathers. That Thanksgiving turkey just got badass, didn't it?

Velociraptors, like many feathered dinosaurs, were first discovered in Mongolia - a footfall away from China, the land where dragons come from.  There are two species in the genus and plenty of fossilized specimens. Like most cool dinosaurs, Velociraptors lived during the Late Cretaceous period - right before a meteor drove them to extinction. Hey, all the cool kids were doing it.



Like Deinonychus, Velociraptor had raised dewclaws. They were not nearly as menacing as the clicking nails in Jurassic Park. Although they may have been used to slash at each other (much like the spurs on cockerels), they were weak and more or less vestigial. Nobody knows much about how Velociraptors hunted, or even if they attacked in packs, but they were likely at least social enough to have death-matches between individuals. Tooth marks have been found on a (probably scavenged) Protoceratops as well as other Velociraptors.

Velociraptors were almost like roadrunners or secretary birds in terms of how developed their feathers were. A fossil of a Velociraptor limb showed very clear quill knobs, meaning that there were some very big feathers. Most paleontologists assume that the Velociraptor was flightless, but no flightless bird today has large enough quill knobs to prove it. The feathers may also have served another purpose, such as thermoregulation or courtship displays. Remember, kids: that turkey was far more badass a few million years ago.

 

Yes, I still hate Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"They Actually Eat That:" Turducken.

I hate Thanksgiving.

You want to know why America has the highest obesity rate in the world? We have a candy feast at the end of October, a completely needless feast towards the end of November, then Christmas, which is the amassed consumer spirit of the whole year- including giant food binges. During Thanksgiving in particular, people usually gather around the table or TV and do not get any exercise the whole day. Compound this with seeing relatives you don't like for two months in a row and you have a recipe for stress. Obesity: it's TRADITIONAL!

To be perfectly honest, I don't even like the food at Thanksgiving. That's right, I'll eat jellyfish and eel, but keep turkey and 90% of all other Thanksgiving foods away from me. Also, keep Polish food away from me. Keep THIS horrendous piece of work away as well, even though I've never seen it up close in my life:



That, my friends, is a turducken. Turducken is a de-boned chicken in a de-boned duck in a de-boned turkey. The gaps between the birds are usually filled with sausage or seasoned breadcrumbs. A few turducken also include bacon, which, according to every meat-eater I've talked to, makes everything taste better. Although nested birds like this have been around since the ancient Romans at least, this particular matryoshka of a dish was invented in Louisiana.

If you think that turducken up there actually looks OK for being a frankenbird, think again. Inside that resewn skin is pate. It looks like something my cats would eat. Don't believe me? Here:

What part of this is appetizing?
Bear in mind that, unlike things like lutefisk and dog, turducken is not the product of poor people making use of what they have. Perhaps, if you do not eat fish, you do not realize how much of a pain in the rear it is to de-bone something. Turducken involves de-boning and de-feathering three different birds. That's not something the impoverished can afford to do. It's like pate- even if you have the animals,  turning them into meaty paste is reserved for the rich. Turducken is supposed to be cuisine.

Turducken achieved its popularity largely thanks to football player John Madden. He carved one with his bare hands on CBS, and then handled it again on Fox when a turducken was awarded to the winner of the Thanksgiving Bowl. This is probably the most verifiable marker that turducken was pulled from the abysses of Hell: it's promoted by Fox and football. If you're into numerology at all, the letters in "Fox" add up to 666. You see where this is going.



Happy Turkey Day from Baphomet! If your turkey and/or turducken starts dancing on the table, you'll know why!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Creature Feature: Diictodon.

Sometimes I laugh at Bulbapedia. The people there must only look at names once before adding origin trivia to an entry. A royal/ball python looks nothing like Serperior, even though it has "royal" in the name. I admit that finding what was most likely the true basis for that Pokemon took time, but man oh man, is the knowledge of the general public limited if they take Bulbapedia as god.

(For those of you who are curious, look up a snake called "Baron's Racer." The only reason I know that snake exists is because I found it on kingsnake.com. There's also probably some vine snake in there, but hi, Snivy line!)

That's part of the reason I made this blog: Maybe this is a tiny bit of an overstatement, but in general, it does not look like people are curious enough to look up things for themselves. I could spend hours just Googling things that are mildly intriguing, then making them into blog entries for the general public to enjoy.



For this entry, let us look at one of the oldest entries in the Pokedex: Nidorino (magenta, male)/Nidorina (blue, female). They are both plain Poison-Types and were the first Pokemon to sport biological sex and gender. (Yes, those two terms are VERY different according to the scientific community.) Most people would be in general agreement that the two Nidoran base forms resemble rodents with extra spikes, but look closely at Nidorina in particular. No extant mammal has a body structure quite like that. Those pointy teeth don't look too rodent-y, either.

Know what, though? An extinct proto-mammal did. Ken Sugimori did not pull Nidorina's design out of nowhere; before the dinosaurs existed, there was a creature called a Diictodon.

Mwahaha!


Diictodon (a genus, mind) were among the many synapsids (mammal-like reptiles) that lived during the Late Permian (255 million years ago). They had small, tusklike teeth and beaky skulls. So that those of you who only know dinosaurs do not get confused, this was before the Triassic Period, the first period to feature small dinosaurs. Fossils of these not-mammals are found in Asia and Africa, with the great majority of South African fossils being Diictodon. Like the Nidoran line, however, they were only distantly related to mammals when all was said and done.

 

Diictodon were small, burrowing mammals that would not have stood knee-high to a human. They had short, stocky limbs with five fingers on each hand.  Insofar as fossil records can tell us, they were social animals, but not colonial like prairie dogs. (A few Pokedex entries also mention Nidorina burrowing.) They probably lived, ate, and burrowed like gophers.




Besides the obvious Pokemon analog, Diictodon have had a small presence in popular culture. They were featured in Walking With Monsters as well as Primeval. In Primeval, they were chewing up electrical cables inside a hospital, and the crew managed to send all but two of them back to their own time. The remaining two were kept as pets along with the show's other mascot character, Rex. They were first described as "beaver-things," which makes me wonder why no one has yet to update Bulbapedia with their presence. Really, it's been over ten years since Red and Green and we still haven't realized that the Nido family is full of synapsids?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Bio-Art: Byte.

The first forays that man ever made into making science into art undoubtedly came from breeding animals. We wanted animals that not only served a practical function, but looked aesthetically-pleasing and were docile around humans. (If you have read any articles on the silver fox project in Russia, then you already know that aesthetics and temperament are related.) Some animals, like koi and Chihuahuas, really have no function other than aesthetics. If you want Bio-Art that you can easily do at home, pick an animal and breed it for something specific.

Even if you have no idea how inbred ball pythons are, they ARE good examples of home breeding projects.
 

Scientists frequently experiment with breeding as an art form. For example, Christopher Ebener and Uli Winters selectively bred mice for one purpose: To chew through electric wires. They called their project BYTE.

The idea of the project was simple: Pick the mice most likely to tear through wires, then breed them so that their offspring would be even more prone to doing so. They would be conditioned via a Skinner box system to be given food whenever they chewed through cables. The project was installed at Ars Electronica in 1989. Yes, people paid to see mice chew through electronic cables.

Same thing we do every night, Pinky...
 

Alas, there is not much information on the fate of the piece since then. It is difficult to find out if these mice are any different from regular lab rodents in any way aside from their tendency to chew on wires. With experiments like the silver fox project in Russia, there were definite physical changes alongside the increased docility of the foxes. There are no such reports from BYTE.

Although BYTE is not as questionable as, say, Cloaca, it still makes one wonder what art really is and if this actually qualifies. More importantly, however, the BYTE mice are a fine tribute to how nature can adapt. If these mice got loose, they would cause goodness knows how much damage.  Mice and snakes will be around on this planet long after humanity is gone, especially if they can chew through wires.They would be like a mix of Pinky and the Brain and gremlins.

Actually, that's not a bad idea. FUND IT.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Creature Feature: Bleeding Heart Pigeon.

We've said it before and will say it again: Pigeons are underrated. They go far beyond the feathered rodents that can now be found around the world. Hell, doves and pigeons are the same thing, only one is white and the other is shiny. That is how little people really seem to know about pigeons: to most people, a pigeon is a feathered disease-bag, but, if it's white, it's suddenly the embodiment of Jesus.

This is saying nothing about wild pigeons. The amount of stunningly beautiful wild pigeons is staggering. The last of these we covered was the Gaga-cuno pigeon, AKA the Victoria Crowned Pigeon. In the interest of breaking up the mammalian monotony, here's another:

 

Wait! Who shot an innocent pigeon like that? Can we find a picture of this bird where it didn't get shot in the chest? No? Huh.

The bird in that picture is an aptly-named Luzon Bleeding-heart (Gallicolumba luzonica). It is native only to the Philippenes. In contrast to most bird species with fancy markings, both sexes have the namesake red patch on their chests. They are slightly iridescent on top as well.

 

Unlike city pigeons, Bleeding-hearts prefer to walk on the ground. There they pick up seeds and insects. They look very much like chickens until one realizes that, yes, that bird is in fact a pigeon.  They do not have "chicken-dove" in their generic name for nothing; they occupy roughly the same ecological niche as Galliformes.


(FromNarellerobinson.com)

As one can probably imagine, the Bleeding-heart pigeon is present in the pet trade. A fair amount of them are trapped and either sold as pets or eaten. There are a fair amount of captive birds available, so please be sure to buy yours from a reputable breeder should you so desire one. They require special aviaries (NO wire floors!) and are definitely long-term commitments. Some of these birds have lived almost thirty years!




Saturday, November 19, 2011

Creature Feature: Wholphin.

Sometimes, we just have to wonder what science has done. We make freaks almost solely because we can. Even if we say we are making mice glow green to cure Parkinson's, c'mon. Scientists just want to make stuff glow in the dark, just like paleontologists get a kick out of posing dinosaur skeletons in battle postures.

Well, this freak is not quite the result of science. All we had to do for this one was put two animals in the same tank; the freakish offspring was an accident. The following is the result of two different species of toothed whales loving each other very, very much:



This Uncanny Valley-ish creature is called a "wholphin" (or "wolphin").  It is the hybrid of a bottlenose dolphin (Turisops truncatus) and a lesser known cetacean called a false killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens). Although there have been some reports of wild wholphins, they have only been confirmed to occur in captivity.

At first glance, you might not see what is wrong with the dolphin in that video. Unlike ligers, where the public is very well aware of both hybrid species, not many people know about false killer whales. All you, the readers, really need to know is that they eat other marine mammals like orca whales and are a lot bigger than regular dolphins. To give you an idea of how different the two species are, here they are, side by side, in Enoshima, Japan:

Perhaps, in Japan, another wholphin will be born. I fear for its life.


A lot of the rules that can be applied to ligers can be applied to wholphins as well. Wholphins, like ligers, are bigger than their parents. They grow faster and have been described (by eyewitnesses) as "giant dolphins." They have teeth smack dab between those of dolphins and false killer whales: dolphins have 88, FKW's have 44, and wholphins have 66. Like many hybrids, they have fertility issues; the first wholphin did not have a stable calf until 2004, when she yielded a baby with a bottlenose sire. The young wholphin reached the size of a year-old bottlenose within a few months.

From Pinhole's flickr. :)
 

Unfortunately - or fortunately, depending on where you stand on hybrids - there are currently only two wholphins in existence. They are both at Sea Life Park, Hawaii, which is one of the last places you would expect an exotic animal hybridization to take place. Keikaimalu, the original female, still performs at Sea Life Park. Hey, at least she's in Hawaii.

The question now is this: When will scientists really get cracking and make a wolf-dolphin hybrid? Or a gryphon? Hey, if we're going to make abominations, we may as well make awesome ones. Whatever you believe about hybrids, so long, and thanks for all the fish!


Thursday, November 17, 2011

Creature Feature: Dhole.

Wolves are overrated. Yes, they are cool animals, and yes, they are the closest relatives to the domestic dog, but they aren't endangered, aren't the most powerful predators around, and are overanthropomorphized like crazy. They are not even endangered anymore, so wolf-lovers cannot use the generic "it's endangered so it must be cool!" defense. There, I said it.

Instead, how about investing your collective energy into canids that do need love and are actually rebellious? Dholes fit the bill nicely, and probably look just wild enough to incite the inner rebel that we all have during our teenage years.

From the University of Massachusetts.



Dholes (Cuon alpinus) are a type of wild dog native to South and Southeast Asia. They are called red wolves, red dogs, whistling dogs, chennai, and mountain wolves. The main differences between these dogs and official members of the genus Canis (wolves and domestic dogs) are the amount of teats and teeth. Yes, mammal classifications are that subtle.



 Dholes have a few other, more visible traits that sets them apart from wolves. For example, they always let their puppies eat first at a kill. As in the video above, they also whistle to talk to each other; it is a much more pleasant sound than barking. This creature should be instant mammal fan fodder, looking like a wolf mixed with a fox, but nope. No love. 

Dholes, like honey badgers, show almost no fear. Once they get in a pack, anything except humans becomes fair game.  They will attack boars, wildebeests, and even other big predators like tigers and leopards. Although instances of taking on tigers are rare and always come with casualties to the pack, dholes have been known to chase tigers into trees. Tigers that run rather than fight are nearly always killed. When was the last time one saw a wolf doing that?



Unlike wolves, even native cultures have nothing good to say about dholes. Until dholes were officially protected in 1972, farmers shot them in the name of protecting livestock. Their pelts were also valuable in China, but still had no "OMG DIVINE STATUS" like wolves tend to get, especially in modern times. In various European sources, such as the French passion plays and gothic sagas, dholes are characterized as hellhounds. Even Rudyard Kipling cut the dhole no slack in Red Dog, and he's the guy who made a giant python into a believable, fun character.

Alas, the dhole's range has shrunk considerably since prehistoric times. If art is any indication, the dhole once ranged across most of Eurasia. Now, its habitat is limited to India, Indonesia, and parts of China.  They have been shot by hunters and have niche competition with domestic dogs. (See, anti-exotic people? Even domesticated animals can cause ecological damage.) Sometimes, domestic dogs slip into dhole packs, just because, making things even more confusing.

By the way, dholes do not domesticate. At all. Go with the silver foxes from Russia.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"They Actually Eat That:" Jellyfish.

Or, if you prefer,"I Actually Ate That: Jellyfish Salad."



Those brown stringy bits on top of diced cucumbers are none other than 100% genuine jellyfish. They came from an authentic Chinese restaurant near Chicago's Chinatown. They tasted all right - in short, like the dressing on the salad - and are easily the wiggliest thing I will ever try. Unless, of course, I manage to get my mitts on ikizurkuri...no, wait. Even then, these disembodied strips of cnidarian would out-wiggle a death-twitching fish.

The creepy thing is, even with all that wiggling, there was a good chance that the jellyfish I had was dried before it reached my plate. After looking around at recipes, it turns out that dried jellyfish is commonly found in Korean and Chinese marketplaces. The jellyfish are rehydrated before being cut into strips. So...wait a minute. I was eating zombie jellyfish

Besides jellyfish, common ingredients in a jellyfish salad include cucumber, dried prawns, and sesame. It is very easy to prepare and always served cold. One recipe usually serves 2-4 people depending on how much one intends to eat. That's a lot of re-soaked cnidarian.

Additional testimony confirms my thoughts about what it is actually like to eat jellyfish: Slimy, scrunchy, and just barely an animal. Jellyfish has a texture all its own. If some just so happens to find its way into your fish sticks, you'll know. Believe me, there is nothing like eating jellyfish. They are becoming more and more common, so expect this trend to catch on...

Peanut butter and jellyfish from Deep End Dining.


So, should you try jellyfish, if you get the chance? Sure. It's worth trying, and definitely fun to watch wiggle in your chopsticks. If you can find a place that has jellyfish, by all means dig in and try some cnidarian.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Creature Feature: Numbat.

Say farewell to the nightmare fuel from the deep sea abyss. We have tormented you with enough freaks to fill Davy Jones's locker. It's really about time that we did something cute, fuzzy, and on land. We owe you guys for those sleeping pills, right?

So, to make up for the mind-scarring, have a cute:

 

Wait. There's a horrible string attached to that cute, isn't there?

The creature above is called a numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus). Before you all say "that sounds weird," it's native to Australia. At first glance, it looks like one of the less-deadly species in Australia, but remember how crazy Afrotheria got? If the scientists are right, the numbat's closest relative was the Tasmanian Tiger. (At least there's some family resemblance this time!) They are also (erroneously) called banded anteaters and are the only fully diurnal marsupials.

Numbats are one of Australia's least threatening creatures. They are 1-2 feet long, have no intention of eating other mammals, and would make better purse pets than a Chihuahua. Numbats have a fair amount of aerial predators (read: any bird of prey) and are eaten by carpet pythons as well. Just about the only things they are remotely threatening to are termites.

 

May the great Rainbow Serpent help you if you are a termite around a numbat. Numbats eat termites. Just termites. An adult numbat can eat up to 20,000 termites per day. They dig into the earth with those cute little claws, then use their sticky tongues to lap the buggers and gnash them with their teeth. Numbats even have their days scheduled around termites, much like some of us around TV schedules.

Numbats are, however, relatively rare. Unless you happen to have a termite mound in your Australian backyard, you probably will not see them at all. They were fairly abundant until European hunters came down under and unleashed red foxes upon the wild. By the 1970's, there were fewer than 1,000 individuals remaining in the wild. The best areas to see numbats today are in Western Australia.



Endangered species bumpers often cite major mammalian predators as 'warning signs,' but we think numbats deserve to stand out on that list, too. They're a prime example of what happens when non-native species are not kept in check. Maybe, if they ever get off the endangered species list, they will join sugar gliders, Children's pythons, budgerigars, and cockatiels as yet another adorable pet from Australia. You know you'd want one. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Bio-Art: Cloaca.

Medical science seems to have a solution to every problem under the sun if an organ is defective. Lost a leg? Get a metal one. Arm? Same. Weak heart? We have organ donors for that. Then there are things like this for the digestive system that will likely be available in the near future:



Cloaca is an art piece made by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye. It was unveiled in 2000 at the Museum voor Hedendaagse Kunst in Antwerp, then traveled the world. Another version of Cloaca is located at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania. It has also been on display in Dusseldorf, where people "make sacrifices" to it.

Its purpose: It poops.

After eight years of research, Wim Delvoye successfully created a massive installation that replicated the digestive processes in human bodies. It is fed through a translucent mouth. Every acid is there and works on the food just like it would in a stomach. The result is real, foul-smelling, richly colored feces that are darn close to human. Delvoye is always keen to feed Cloaca new things, just to see how the crap will turn out. People gather at Cloaca at 14:30 to see fine food come out as feces and 16:30 to feed it.

 

The inspiration behind Cloaca was the sheer impracticality of most modern devices. Delvoye set out to create one of the most useless machines ever, knowing full well that making a machine that poops would be a relative waste of his talent. He compared it to a rich guy playing golf: he spends all that time just to get a ball into a hole with very little self-benefit involved.

He also made another point: Cloaca cost millions to make, yet we, as organisms, produce crap on a regular basis. Turds from this machine cost 1,000 USD. Do you realize how expensive your excrement is to make? You do now.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Week of the Abyss Cont'd.: Walking batfish.



Yes, that is a fish...and it's walking.  Creationists beware: You have found your proof that Darwin was right.

Just when you thought anglerfish could get no weirder, the walking batfish crawls up and says "hello." They are native to nearly all oceans, and can also be found in shallower waters. More on those varieties later.

Fish-people are inevitable.
 

The walking batfish (Family Ogcocephalidae) barely looks like a fish at first glance. Its pectoral fins have been modified to walk on the ocean floor. With limbs so adapted for walking, batfish are poor swimmers. They are also proof that Dagon is, in fact, raising an army in the depths. Shh, keep that one a secret between us.

All species of batfish are predatory. Like other anglerfish, they have a lure (properly called an "esca") at the end of their long noses. Instead of using light like most other species, however, this lure emits a chemical bait. Abyssal hunters tend to be very lazy; all the fish has to do is snap prey up. They usually eat worms, fish, and small crustaceans.

I'm Batfish. And


Several species of New World batfish live in shallower waters. These species are...colorful, to say the least. One could honestly wonder whether the fish above was a poor PhotoShop job. One species, the Louisiana Pancake Batfish, was damaged by the Gulf spill early last year, so please pay it a visit while you still can. People who know about this weird fish have been bemoaning its decline thanks to the spill.

Oh, and by the way: This is one of the few abyssal creatures that one can actually keep as a pet. There are several videos of these fish walking in aquaria and a few care sheets floating around. The requirements for batfish are kind of specific, but we almost guarantee that nobody else on the block will have one.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Week of the Abyss cont'd.: Comb Jellies.



The video speaks for itself: UFOs are officially underwater. The blinking lights look more fit for a spaceship than a living thing. Yet, we swear to whatever god exists, the video above is footage of a living creature.

 

Comb jellies are not even tangentially related to true jellyfish. They have their own phylum, Ctenophora, making this entry one of the biggest 'blanket entries' on this blog. The phylum is somewhere between sponges and cnidarians. They are quite abundant, spanning all marine environments at virtually all depths. That includes the deep, where they are particularly common.

Comb jellies (and their phylum) derive their name from the rows of cilia along their bodies. They are the largest animals that move via cilia (see also: Paramecium). Most modern comb jellies have 8 rows of cilia, allowing them to move like oversized protozoans while sparkling. They do not technically glow in the dark...but you could've fooled us, nature.

Hey, it gets the ladies.
 

All comb jellies are predatory. They will eat roughly anything that fits in their pitcher plant-ish mouth. That includes fish larvae, jellies, other comb jellies, and the ever-popular copepods. The hunting technique varies with the species: some lie in wait, others chase, and still others use tentacles like spider webs. That said, they wreck ecosystems when they are accidentally introduced; the Black Sea got hit with a North Atlantic comb jelly that will likely get its own entry.

Comb jellies one of the oldest animal groups known to man. They have been around since at least the Devonian according to a remarkable fossil record. Some ctenophores were found in the Burgess Shale, which sported many specimens of sea life from the mid-Cambrian Period (505 m.y.a). From these preserved specimens, we know that older comb jellies had more mounted combs than their modern counterparts, and that some of them had very big mouths. There is no say on whether these comb jellies glowed like UFO's or not.



We personally hope they did.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Week of the Abyss cont'd: Giant Isopods.

There's more to the deep sea abyss than long teeth and pretty lights. Although the great majority of the abyssal fish we've covered so far are relatively small, the abyss is home to some true monsters. There is a concept called "deep sea gigantism" that posits that many deep sea animals are larger than their shallow-water counterparts. Nobody really knows why except in the case of tube worms, which are...special.

For everything else, we must assume that the deep sea abyss exists to make us humans believe that there is a hell, and that it is filled with things like this:

 

Actually, that's kinda cute. What is it?

Giant isopods (genus Bathynomus; Bathynomus giganteus is a favorite) are the abyss's version of the roly-poly, woodlouse, or pillbug. They are native to all oceans with very little difference between species. If you took one of those little stunted millipedes (actually crustaceans), then supersized it to a little over a foot in length, you would have a giant isopod. It's an isopod and it's giant.

Giant isopods are vicious scavengers. They prefer meat, but will take what they can get in the depths of the sea. Once they find a good chunk of meat -say, a whale carcass - they will gorge themselves to the point of being rendered immobile. On the surface world, they will still eat anything they can get, including Doritos.

 

These oversized pillbugs actually do remarkably well on land. This allows them to be easily studied in comparison to other types of abyssal life. We know that the peak mating time for giant isopods is between winter and spring. Most of them are caught in the Americas, and then put in aquaria with relatively few issues. Given that most abyssal things with spinal cords do not last a day in aquaria, this is quite a feat.

The giant isopod holds the unique honor of being the most memetastic of all abyssal life forms. Not only do they have a lot of funny pictures (both PhotoShopped and real), they have a whole CD's worth of songs. Sure, there are only 5 songs, but this is the most random crustacean-related music I've seen since I heard "Triops Has Three Eyes."

This is a thing.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

"They Actually Eat That:" Chewing Gum.

"Stop chewing gum in class!" It's bad for your teeth, usually contains aspartame, and so on and so forth. It's also a godsend for those of us who have trouble keeping our mouths shut. Whether you love or hate gum-chewers, one must wonder if they truly know what they are eating. After all, there has to be a reason that chewing gum does not digest.

 

Chewing gum as we know it originated from chicle, the hardened sap from a certain tree (Manikara chicle) native to Mexico and Central America. After being defeated in Texas, Mexican general Santa Anna moved to New York and shared a bit of chicle with his friend Thomas Adams. Thomas Adams tried to use the substance as rubber for toys, masks, and rain boots, but did not experience any success until he chewed some of the leftover substance in his mouth. Chewing gum, as the product would thereafter be called, was officially invented in 1870. Put things in your mouth, kids - it makes you famous!

The problem with chewing gum is that it is essentially food-grade plastic. Take a break, go outside, and walk to 7-Eleven, a gas station, or a drug store. Pick up your favorite brand of chewing gum. Look for one ingredient in English on the label. You are not chewing chicle anymore - it's 90% chemicals, now.

And if you take the blue-red pill, you can have gum from an ACTUAL TREE!


If you think that sounds bad, bubble gum is chewing gum's mutant cousin. Like chewing gum, the invention of bubble gum was a freak accident: A gum maker named Walter E. Diemer noticed one tiny thing wrong with his latest batch of gum - namely that it produced bubbles - and immediately began to market the stuff. A five-pound wad of Diemer's gum sold out in a single afternoon.

I am not sure what to think about the future of gum. Chances are there will be even more chemicals,  more freak accidents, and, maybe, giant radioactive squirrels who accidentally nibbled the wad. The only part of that which sounds fun are the potential Hulk-squirrels. Have fun chewing gum...but remember where it came from!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Week of the Abyss cont'd.:Viperfish.

We've said it before and we'll say it again: If you add "fish" onto almost every word in the English dictionary, there is probably a real creature to match. Some of these matches are justified. Others not so much. The viperfish most certainly is, even though it is not venomous in the least. Just...



...what else WOULD you call this?

Viperfish (genus Chauliodus) range from 1-2 feet (30-60 cm) in length and, yes, are fierce predators. They are native to tropical waters. Their lifespan is uncertain, with speculations ranging from 30-40 years in the wild.  Again, this is the week of the abyss continued; viperfish spend the majority of their time in pitch darkness, but venture up to lighter depths occasionally. Both sharks and dolphins have been known to prey upon viperfish.



The most striking thing about this fish are, of course, those disproportionately huge teeth. The bottom teeth on this fish are so big that they curve behind the fish's head. Like many abyssal predators, the viperfish uses a light lure to get little fishies curious before immobilizing prey with its long teeth, meaning that the viperfish does not need to swim far or fast to get a meal.

That is not all the light lure is used for. Unlike anglerfish, viperfish have been shown communicating with each other using their natural lamps. Does this show pack hunting - perhaps even intelligent behavior- within the depths of darkness?  Perhaps their name ought to be changed to "raptorfish" if they show coordinated attacks. There is still much to learn.

Although not as well-received as the anglerfish in popular culture, the viperfish is a fairly popular deepsea fish. Artists absolutely love this thing - after all, what says "fierce" better than a mouth with teeth so big that they barely fit? This is probably the most kickass head tattoo I have ever seen - not that I would EVER do something like that myself.