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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Mythbusters: El Chupacabra.

Imagine, for a minute, that you're a poor farmer in Chile. You have a nice little chicken coop outside your house that provides meat and eggs for your whole family, along with some surplus to share with the neighbors. Sure, you may not be the richest people in your town, but you do know where your food's coming from.

Then, one morning, your rooster doesn't crow. Wondering exactly what is going on with that lazy bird, you take a walk over to the chicken coop...only to find every single chicken dead on the ground. The bizarre thing? They have been completely drained of blood with only two circular wounds to show for it. Looks like Dracula's switched to white meat for some reason.

Image belongs to the internet. I have no idea who did this one first.


Well, Dracula or the creature above. That ugly mug belongs to el chupacabras, AKA the "goatsucker" or just "chupacabra." The name is a little bit misleading; although termed "goatsucker," most forms of livestock are fair game, goats and sheep included. It is said to range from Florida and Texas all the way down into Chile; hell, some would even say Maine has a chupacabra. Let us refresh your memory for a second: Maine is where every Stephen King novel ever takes place.

Part of the ambiguity of its range comes from the various descriptions of a chupacabra. The 'original' chupacabra was described as a half-human vampiric creature in the 1950's. This slowly evolved into not one, but two bestial forms: One is a sort of anthropomorphic, spiny lizard about a meter tall with red glowing eyes (literally straight out of Species) and the other is a hairless hellhound with a pronounced spine and, again, glowing eyes. Both are creatures that we would not want to encounter in a dark alley...or in our chicken coops!

The main unifying factor of a 'chupacabra' remains that, whatever it is, its calling card is leaving vampire marks on dead livestock.There are debates over whether the victims are completely drained of blood or not, but the two marks are always an indicator of a chupacabra as opposed to anything else. As long as nobody designs a chupacabra that sparkles, we have reason to believe that those marks are as similar to vampires as they get.

I've seen Chinese Cresteds that looked more like chupacabras..Pic belongs to NewsOne.


As with, oh, every cryptid this week except the big cats, chupacabras are one of those things that we are unsure of the existence of. We have caught numerous mutant or ill coyotes and dogs that are sometimes called "chupacabras." No word yet on the lizard-like creature. There have also been several fake chupacabras as seen in the initial mugshot.

Yes, that's Jackie Chan getting thrashed by a chupacabra-luchador.


Although the chupacabra does not receive as good of press as Nessie, it still remains one of the more popular cryptids. There have been several chupacabra movies, including titles such as Scooby-Doo and The Monster of Mexico and Chupacabra: Dark Seas. Monster-of-the-Week series love the chupacabra. Invader Zim's "paranormal investigator" Dib mentioned a chupacabra at one point ("but there's not a goat to feed on for miles"). The Jackie Chan Adventures chupacabra really takes the cake, combining the vampiric creature with some aspects of a werewolf. Neat way to avoid capture, goatsucker.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Belated They Actually Eat That: Wooly Mammoths.

Sorry that I got into all-out cryptozoologist mode yesterday. Having a wonky sleep schedule and a semi-important assignment due the next day made me forget what day it was. Maybe I'll switch the two entries around just so that people think I have a sense of time. Maybe.

That said, it's hard to coordinate "They Actually Eat That" with something as obscure as a week covering animals that may or may not exist. What, have people actually eaten Bigfoot? Given that humans eat anything, we would not be surprised if some drunk hunter shot Bigfoot and thought the furry thing might be good eatin', but that is not today's entry.


 

Most of you will not be at all surprised to hear that humans have eaten prehistoric megafauna like mammoths and mastodons (yes, there's a difference). We were definitely around in the same approximate time frame. There is an inverse relationship between human populations and ancient megafauna for a reason. A good mammoth could probably feed the whole tribe for a while if properly preserved; where's the reason not to kill these guys, again? Remember, this is humanity we're talking about.

The shocker is not that prehistoric humans were eating steaks made of mammoth instead of cow. The surprise comes when one learns that eating mammoth continued even after several other types of animal had been domesticated. There are several instances of modern humans eating frozen mammoth carcasses. And here you thought you left things in the freezer too long.

Mammoth is a very, very rare meat. As such, it has wound up in foodie fests only once in a blue moon. An annual dinner of Garth: The Explorers Club in 1951 is one of the few situations in which mammoth meat was actually presented at a banquet. Even then, it was probably in small chunks.

Most instances of eating mammoth occur when adventurers get curious. There are plenty of old reports concerning paleontologists who lived on mammoth meat for a bit - or at least tried it. This happens in the modern day as well. The most recent report is from the 2001 book Mammoth. A Siberian zoologist featured therein said, "it tasted awful...like meat left too long in the freezer."

Yum?
 

Even if one is lucky enough to find mammoth meat, it usually tastes horrible if it's edible at all. Most mammoth carcasses smell so bad that only wild dogs and other scavengers will eat it. The meat, when edible, can be generally described as "old and dry," even if it looks all right. Pretty much the only reason (aside from starvation) to eat mammoth is to say you have eaten mammoth. Admittedly, not many people can say that...just make sure the meat is not rotten if you get the chance.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mythbusters: Alien Big Cats.

Now, here's a question: When does a cryptid stop being a cryptid? By definition, a cryptid's existence has to be disputed by science. Science disputes a lot of things; hell, take a look at quantum physics and String Theory sometime. Nitpicking is super-common in scientific circles, and cryptozoology is no exception.



Within the (unrecognized) discipline of cryptozoology, sightings of big cats outside of their native ranges qualify as cryptids. They are called "Alien Big Cats" (ABCs) or "Phantom Cats." ABC's have been found in most areas of the world. They often generate local legends, given enough time. Some are considered Ice Age "living fossils," but most of them can be traced to extant species. I know what you're thinking: Extraterrestrial cats would be pretty awesome, too.

Although found throughout the world, Great Britain seems like a real hotspot for ABC's. They are usually pumas, panthers, or general large black cats. The first sighting of a 'weird' big cat in Britain was a report of a North American lynx in 1760. The sightings really hit a boom in the 1960's, and then again after a law made in 1976 banned the keeping of several wild animals, including most big cats. This could easily have led to a mass-release of a genetically-diverse population.

According to the ten definitions of a cryptid by a man named Eberhart, Alien Big Cats fall under the "distribution anomaly" type of cryptid. Bless this man for trying to make a method to the madness that is cryptozoology. Note, however, one of the disqualifiers: "Erratics. "The out-of-place alligator […] that turns up in an odd spot, undoubtedly through human agency, is not a zoological mystery […]" The recent sightings in the 20th century speak of human release. The Scottish wildcat hybridizing with normal cats is also a common source of ABC's.



When it comes to ABCs, we know what we're dealing with. These aren't mythical creatures. These aren't even extinct creatures. These are mostly non-native species with full documentation. The only mystery is how the cats got there. Human intervention can easily be assumed, especially since many big cats wind up with irresponsible owners. Is every invasive species and escaped exotic pet on par with Nessie and Bigfoot, now?

Granted, there are some truly mysterious Alien Big Cats. India has a gray phantom cat, the Pogeyan,  that we really do not know much about. One ABC even turned out to be a canine. Some mythology buffs like to think that the sightings of black cats are a modern variation on Britain's legendary black dogs (which should be familiar to Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes fans). I'm not doubting whether these Alien Big Cats exist or not; I'm questioning how science classifies them.

Mythbusters: The Loch Ness Monster.

Now this blog finally gets to live up to its once-relevant URL: tracking mythological monsters and seeing how they could be possible in real life.  Luckily for this week, a lot of cryptoids are quite possible. That is what makes them cryptoids as opposed to acid nightmares. Cryptoids are simply animals whose existence has not yet been proven. Plausible animals, mind.

We're starting this week off with one of the best-known cryptids in existence: A lake monster. There are lake-dwelling leviathans found all over the world. It all probably loops back to our instinctive fear of the unknown and things dwelling in the icy cold depths in which the human eye cannot see. For those of us interested in sea monsters of more questionable existence than the dwellers of the lightless sea trenches, we have the Loch Ness Monster:

The Surgeon's Photograph: a confirmed fake, yet people still say it's real.


Nessie, for those of you living beneath rocks, is a lake monster native to Loch Ness, Scotland. The main evidence for its existence comes from numerous photographs and video footage. It is generally agreed that Nessie is a very long, semi-amphibious creature that spends most of its time in the lake. It is always described with a very long, slender neck and a body with anywhere from 1-3 humps.

Nessie as we know it was first spotted in the 1930's, although reports of water monsters in the River Ness date back to the 6th century.  The first semi-reliable account of Nessie comes from the Spicers in 1933. The husband and wife were driving along the loch one night when they saw a creature with a neck as long as a Burmese Python and a body a little over a meter in height crossing in front of their vehicle.

Aside from photographs, eyewitness reports, and odd ripples, sonar hunts have been done in search of Nessie. One search in the December of 1954 yielded results 146 meters beneath the surface, keeping up with the boat. The other, a more formal study done by the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau in 1968, picked up large creatures moving at approximately 12 mph. Another study done a year later came back with huge echoes. These are not fish, whatever they are.



The most obvious candidate for Nessie's true identity is some form of plesiosaur. Although plesiosaurs were not true dinosaurs, they did live around the same time, and describing them as "brontosaurus with flippers and sharp teeth" tends to simplify things. That said, they ate fish and other animals, not kelp, so if you do encounter a prehistoric beast in Loch Ness, approach with caution. They also had live babies, thus the lack of Nessie eggs.

To this day, we are not certain if there is anything in Loch Ness.  There are even some people theorizing that Nessie died a while back. Before you get on my case about how the government likes to cover things up, bear in mind that lakes are enclosed bodies of water. It is generally easier to find things that live in such a small range. Granted, Loch Ness is fairly deep and there are a bunch of unexplored areas, including underwater caverns. If Nessie does exist, it is doing a decent job at hiding.



Whether it exists or not, Nessie remains very popular in media. The Simpsons and South Park both had episodes mentioning Nessie. The Pokemon Lapras supposedly had the name "Ness" before the dubbers went with "Lapras." Then, of course, there is the CGI-fest called Water Horse - Legend of the Deep - a story which combines the legend of Nessie with that of the kelpie,  a magical Celtic creature. (J.K. Rowling suggested that, too.). Even if it isn't real, Nessie has made its mark.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Bio-Art: Cloverfield.

The poll is now closed; the official winner is the "Mythbusters" theme, which means we get to dig up some creatures of debatable existence and let you all weigh the odds of their veracity for yourselves. There are some creatures coming up this week that will definitely make one wonder. Others are, well, a little bit more logical.

That said, we will dip into the pseudozoology of some of these creatures a little bit.  It's hard to truly dissect the habits and such of something that may or may not exist, but that doesn't mean that creature freaks can't try. After all, creature artists and pseudobiologists get to make movie monsters. What better way to start a week of cryptoids off than with one of the most infamous aliens in recent memory?



Now, of all monster movies, why revisit Cloverfield? It was as the Nostalgia Critic said: Just a monster. A monster with a rabid fanbase and a lot of work we never really noticed. More got covered in Cloverfield/Kishin - a prequel manga that sounds a lot better than the actual movie. What can we say? Japan is used to having its cities ransacked by giant monsters.

The fact is, a whole assload of work apparently went into the creation of Clover, the pet name for the monster in Cloverfield. Although the movie was not that great as a movie, countless hours were spent on making Clover a believable creature. We just couldn't tell beneath all the shaky-cam. We do, however, realize that the lack of information was intentional. The question is, does being mysterious like Jaws (which we kinda knew was a shark) work for a monster we know nothing about?



Clover, the 25-story behemoth that goes on a rampage in New York, is a baby. According to the designer Neville Page and other members of the studio team, the young Clover is a newborn suffering from separation anxiety. The gangly limbs in the Clover we know are meant to be sort of like the too-slender legs of a fawn or calf;  Page also added that the adults of Clover's species might actually be bipedal. We don't know what the adults look like, but they must be huge.

Page had a biological way of thinking from the get-go. He designed cheek pouches that inflate when the creature is agitated. The extra limbs on Clover's chest lead directly to its (extendable) esophagus. The limbs, aside from being eerily gangly, also have some seriously weird digits. It's hard to get a good glimpse of all of Clover in the movie, but when you do see it in full, it looks like something that could evolve. There was almost no need to make it an alien.



As for the little scurrying monsters that some would argue are the real terrors of the film? Those are perfectly normal ectoparasites for Clover's species. They were being shed as part of a "post-birth ritual." While I do think that, OK, they were added mostly to add more terror to an already-crazy rampage, I have to give the creators credit for realizing that even invaders come with invaders. You have thousands of bacteria and other lovely organisms crawling on your skin riiiight now.

Granted, even with all this background to the design of one of the most creative monsters of the decade, there are things that don't make sense. Why would parasites from another planet have a venom that explodes human abdomens? Why did Clover land on Earth, and how far away is the rest of its kind? Hell, if this thing's an alien, how can it stand our atmosphere and gravity to begin with? We understand what the film was going for by not explaining everything, but it feels like, unlike in Avatar, a lot of the effort that went into Clover was effectively wasted. Clover is weird-looking, but unlike classic monsters like Godzilla and King Kong, it is so confused that it is a bit hard to like beyond "WTF is that?" It takes rewatching to see the method behind Clover's madness. The one thing that was really effective about Cloverfield aside from the monster was the marketing. If you want a more compelling modern monster movie, go see The Host.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Creature Feature: Styracosaurus.

I went to the Field Museum yesterday. That was where I was reminded of mollusks with hats. It was part of "Evolving Planet," a massive exhibit showing life on earth since time began. A couple of guys in the section with dinosaurs rightfully pointed out that, man, some dinosaurs would make amazing wall decorations. Seriously, if the meteorite hadn't killed them, humans would be showing off ceratopsian heads like this:



That fine skull belongs to Styracosaurus, by the way. Styracosaurs were giant ceratopsians found in Cretaceous Canada. Like all ceratopsians, they were herbivores (although exactly what they ate is up in the air). Styracosaurs were up to 28 feet (5.5 meters) long and probably weighed around 3 tons.

Styracosaurus has one of the most distinctive skulls of all ceratopsians. Along with the usual nasal horns, Styracosaurus had horns around almost all of its skull. There were even horns on its cheeks - everything but horns on horns! As with other ceratopsians, nobody knows what these horns were for. They looked amazing regardless.



We also do not know much about the social habits of Styracosaurus. Like many horned and indeed a lot of herbivorous dinosaurs in general, it is assumed that they were herd animals. In the case of Styracosaurus, there were indeed a lot of individuals gathered in one place. Nobody really knows why; for all we know, the dinos were just taking a nice drink in a water hole and happened to die together. Again, nobody knows for real.

With such elaborate headgear, Styracosaurus is quite popular in dino-related media. Big franchises like Dinosaur King and Power Rangers have featured Styracosaurus and its amazing headgear. A 1933 King Kong movie featured a Styracosaurus as an enemy - did nobody tell the movie people that those were herbivores? Yeah, we're pretty much mounting them posthumously.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Creature Feature: Scenella.

Hello, and welcome to another entry set in the Cambrian shallow seas. Before we start today's entry, we would like to remind you all that this blog does not condone the use of psychoactive drugs. That means that everything we post from the Cambrian Period definitely existed. We're sorry if this disappoints any of you.

That said, mollusks with hats.

 

Scenella was one of several strange mollusks in the shallow Cambrian seas. It has been found in Asia, Antarctica, Europe, and North America. There have also been some theories that it was related to floating hydrozoans like the Portuguese man-o'-war, although several things say it's an ancient mollusk. 

Scenella were small, shelled creatures. They often hung around in groups if the Burgess Shale is any indication. They were probably eaten by larger, faster things like Opabinia and Ottonia - both of which are trippy in their own right. Scenella themselves probably ate algae and small bits of debris. In other words, they were the zebra mussels of their time.



Despite probably bearing many similarities to small, modern mollusks, Scenella remains strange. That hat-like shell makes it look like an ancient limpet (which probably could use an entry in and of itself), which would line up with it being a mollusk rather than an oddly-developed hydrozoan. An affinity to gastropods (snails and slugs) is likely due to how the muscles were attached. Show me the evidence for these guys being hydrozoans and we will gladly hear you out.

Remember, kids, seeing things out of your nightmares and acid trips on this blog is A-OK. It's all right in museums and labs, too. If, however, you are walking along and see a troupe of hat-wearing mollusks crossing the road, you may wish to see a shrink.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Creature Feature: Golden Toad.

Picture a toad for a minute. Chances are you just pictured a brown, lumpy little amphibian with warty skin. We are generally socialized that toads are the ugly ones used in witches' brews and that frogs are happy little fellows who sing in swamps.

But that doesn't mean they can't be friends!
 

Actually, there is no difference at all between a frog and a toad. The differences between the anurans we call frogs and toads are purely cosmetic. Only members of the genus Bufo are treated as "true toads." That's why we have toads that are pretty like the fire-bellied sort found in pet shops, as well as awesomely-colored specimens like this.



Yes, that is a toad. Or, rather, it was. This toad is no more. It has ceased to be. It used to live only in Monte Verde, Costa Rica, and went by the names Golden Toad (Bufo perigienes), Monte Verde toad, and a few other, more obscure names. It lived in exactly one part of one forest preserve.  It presumably ate insects like most other amphibians.

The most outstanding thing about the golden toad was, of course, its coloration. It has been described as being "Day-Glo" golden orange - certainly a treat for any researcher lucky enough to see one. The males had the bright gold, but the females had red and black coloration. Hey, for herpers, it's a relief when things are easy to sex.

Ultimate bachelor party.


Unfortunately, very little is known about this frog, toad, whatever. We have seen them mating and very little else. We think they spent most of their time underground, but have no confirmation. The population was short-lived, first being seen in 1966 and declining sharply over the next twenty or so years.The last of these amphibians was seen in 1989. Deforestation, climate change, and chytrid fungal infection are all cited as causes for the frog's extinction.

We've said it again and again:amphibians are important when it comes to environmental monitoring. Water purity in particular affects them big time. This representative just so happened to be a looker. It's a shame that more of us will not be able to encounter this awesomely-colored amphibian.

At least, that's what we think.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Bacon EVERYTHING.

Every so often, a chance for "They Actually Eat That" pops up not because the food itself is particularly obscure, but because of how a certain food is used in a certain place. The entry on pork rinds was a good example; indeed, every part of the pig can be used except the squeal. This is one of those entries. The food in question is not particularly odd, but some uses of it sure are!

In this case, that food is bacon. I do not personally eat pork (or any animal on land, for that matter - not that seafood is sin-free), but I have talked to many people who do.  They have a mantra that bacon makes everything taste better.I do not know if that mantra is correct, nor if it will somehow lead one to bacon nirvana. It will probably lead to a heart attack.

Bacon, once seen only as a staple of American breakfasts, apparently has a cult following. "Everything is better with bacon" has been taken to extremes. If foods could have memes, bacon would be going viral. It starts with relatively tame things like bacon macaroni & cheese and bacon burgers, then devolves into bacon desserts. Here are just a few examples of bacon-related craziness:



At least it's still breakfast?



Behold the "bacone:" most of what Americans consider 'breakfast' wrapped in bacon.  I'll let the description on the Bacon Wikia do all the talking: "It consists of bacon shaped into a cone, filled with scrambled eggs, hash browns, and cheese with a layer of country gravy and topped with a biscuit."Apparently it is only around 500 calories.


The Vosges site doesn't like me stealing pics, so I will say it right out: bacon chocolate. 

From Uncrate.


You are not hallucinating. That is, in fact, a combo pack of bacon popcorn, bacon gravy, bacon lip balm ("kiss me, I'm bacon?") and bacon soda. I will not tell you which of those options is the most disgusting.




Not going to lie: This is one of those things that made me laugh, then made me wonder why I was laughing. It scares me deep down. I was, however, waiting for something silly like this to come out of the '08 logo.

At this point, we would not be surprised if bacon spontaneously developed its own religion. It already has its own Wikia and several dozen T-shirts to show one's passion for bacon. It's getting to the point where I wonder if Beggin' Strips ads would work on people, too. Disclaimer: Kuro does not endorse buying dog treats when low on bacon.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Creature Feature: Mountain Pine Beetle.

Sometimes the deadliest things in the world are the ones we don't even see. For example, until today's class, I had no idea a certain beetle species existed. It turned out to be a native species that, thanks to subtle human activity, was running absolutely wild.




The mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) is native to western North America. It ranges from British Columbia, Canada, all the way down to Mexico. True to its name, it bores into many a pine species in order to lay its eggs.

How the MPB lays eggs in pine trees is particularly nasty: first, obviously, the female beetle makes a hole in the tree. Then, she lays her eggs in there. They are not alone: they are accompanied by a fungus called "blue stain fungus" that shields the eggs from the tree's immune system. Once the larvae hatch, they spend the bulk of their lives beneath the bark, only emerging as adults to start the cycle all over again. They're also hard to detect; pine trees can remain green for a year after being infested.

Despite being native, this beetle has been wreaking havoc on North American forests. Normally, these beetles would only target damaged or dead trees. Now that there are no more cool temperatures to keep them at bay, they have to lay in live trees. After causing damage in its native range, it has moved onto other temperate forests. It makes the Japanese beetle problem look tiny by comparison.



Let's put those two into perspective, shall we? The Japanese beetle eats leaves from a variety of plants. The mountain pine beetle kills trees from the inside-out. Only the latter will result in more ground erosion, leading to the total collapse of North American forests. We have sparrows and other birds taking Japanese beetle blooms as a shiny green smorgasbord; the mountain pine beetle, however, will only diminish in numbers when it runs out of pine trees to eat. It has predators, but they likely will not be able to keep up.

This invasion has a mean ripple effect. Remember, climate change caused these beetles to overpopulate to begin with. Trees keep CO2 down. Less trees means more CO2, which means more climate change, which might mean more beetles. Even with pheromone baits and various pesticides being used to control these things, "we're screwed" is the appropriate reaction.

All too often, the media focuses on damaging species that freak us out. This is understandable since journalists are out to sell news. This little bug is bigger than giant pythons in terms of potential damage.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Bio-Art: Edunias.

Ah, Eduardo Kac. Whenever I miss the chance to see a bio-related movie, I know I can always count on you to monkey with nature in ways that make us question the definitions of things like "art"and "hubris." For those of you new to this column, Kac's specialty is bio-engineered art. The thoughts behind this art are usually pretty cool.



One of Kac's more recent pieces is the Edunia- or, if you prefer, Natural History of the Enigma. Each flower has a sample of Kac's DNA in its veins via a single protein. The idea behind these flowers was to create a man-plant hybrid that did not exist in nature. Way to go Moreau on us.

The Edunia contains Eduardo Kac's flesh and blood...in a way. It actually has a genetic marker in it from Kac's DNA that makes the fluids in the plant's veins turn red. The idea was that the pink petals of the flower and the red of the veins would be analogous to Kac's own flesh and blood. Creepy? Yes. Art? Your mileage may vary.







Wait a second. This sounds familiar. Wasn't there a monster that was part plant, part-human? We're sure Japan has several, but the one that comes to mind is Biollante - a rose created out of plant DNA, Godzilla gene scraps, and the life essence of a botanist's dead daughter. If Kac's stuff gets anywhere beyond a basic gene marker, we're screwed.

The fun does not stop at crazy hybrid flowers, no siree! Kac also made six seed packs, each designed to look pretty and house mutant plant seeds of doom. There were six packets made for the Weis,man Art Museum (Minneapolis, MN)  in 2009. They are not available to the public insofar as I know, but the mere thought of the Edunia breeding is enough to scare me after Biollante. Do not want man-plants.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Creature Feature: Rhinoceros Rat Snake.

So, I should be polishing my field report on my trip to Wat Dhammaran, a Thai Buddhist temple in Chicago. It's strange how at-ease I feel around Asian temples. This one's favorite theme was the image of Buddha enthroned and sheltered by nagas. That alone was enough to put me in heaven.

For those of you who have been corrupted by the internet, nagas are the rough Hindu/Buddhist equivalent of dragons - both the East and West kinds. They are often based off of cobras, which are themselves revered as the kings among serpents. They can also be hybrids of snakes and humans. Nagas are often respected as deities of water, with their own special type of water-borne fire in Thailand's Mekong River. That's not the only thing unique about them...

Nagas! on Twitpic

Remember how I said nagas are usually based off of cobras? Thai nagas are very not cobra-like. They have hoods if you squint, but that crest of 'fire' takes all of the attention away. It is almost as if they combined a cobra with an oarfish. Aside from the oarfish, however, there is one other animal that these giant dragon-snakes remind me of:



It's a living naga! Sort of. It's actually a Rhinoceros Rat Snake (Rhynchophis boulengeri). These snakes are native to China and Vietnam - no, not quite Thailand, but perhaps close enough to provide inspiration. They eat rodents, birds, and other small vertebrates.

The most outstanding thing about this colubrid is, of course, the scaly formation on the nose. It is excellent camouflage; see vine snakes and Baron's Racer for other examples of eerily-pointy snakes. It has green scales, too, so it'll look even more like part of the scenery.



Rhino rat snakes are expensive and among the more delicate captives. They are slightly tricky to breed, but not impossible. The females in particular are being bred for more blue in their palette. If you're an experienced keeper and are looking for something to add to your already-exotic collection, it's harder to get weirder than a unicorn-snake.

P.S.- new poll up! I'm equally fond of all of the ideas, but voted "La Vie En Blanc" just so that I could see what others were voting. XP

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Styx Writes a Blog Post (or, Tortoiseshell Cats).

As you may have noticed with Kimba the white lion, there are some things that didn't quite make it into Freak Week 3.5, but are still weird enough to cover in this blog. I decided to do something a little bit different for tortoiseshell cats; seeing as people on the internet seem to like talking cats, the remainder of this post will be Styx's translated writings about her own color morph. 


Little Guardian Beast. by ~KuroKarasu on deviantART

Hi! I'm Styx and Kuro is my human. She lives in my apartment making clicky noises on a weird silver thing a lot of the time. She says there are people who like what she does on the clicky thing. So, umm, hi, people. :3 


Anyways, Kuro wanted me to tell you about myself.  I don't know much about what kind of cat I am (except that it's the kind that reigns above humans- which is all of them), but mommy says that I'm a tortoiseshell. That means I have black and orange patches with a tiny bit of white. She acts like that is a very special thing. 

Tortoiseshell is just a color pattern, not a fancy-pants breed. It's kinda like calico with less white. Like calicos, boys either don't have tortie-ness or wind up not having babies. The chance of a male tortie is one in three thousand, meaning that, even if they're sterile, those cats are worth a lot. It has something to do with my two X chromosomes making my weird colors possible; since males only have one X, no cool paintjob for them!

Apparently, we tortoiseshell cats are considered lucky in some cultures. We are often referred to as 'money cats' in the U.S. Calicos get most of the love in that regard, though. :( We torties just bring good luck or something, especially to sailors wanting fair weather. I wonder if that means more fishies? :3 I want more fishies.
Not me. Still cute.



Mommy also says I have a "tortitude." That means I'm very active, fiery, independent, vocal, and protective of my human. I hate it when she leaves the room for more than a few hours! :< And I also have to wake her up every morning. She usually takes advantage of that by giving me cuddles under the covers. I am too dignified for that and squirm out after a minute! 
It's MY apartment. Let no one tell you otherwise!



Now mommy must give me meaty foodings. See you all! :3

Friday, March 16, 2012

Creature Feature: Red River Hog.

You know what else is in Africa, but nowhere near as well known as white lions? A lot of things. They have lots of cool birds, millions of not-so-huge herbivores, and even some smaller carnivores that get slighted in favor of larger animals. A lot of animals get pushed to the side in favor of rip-roaring big cats or, for lack of a better catch-all, pachyderms. After all, who would care about something as obscure as red pigs?

 

Meet the red river hog, a type of wild pig native to southwest and central Africa. Its habitat centers around the rainforests in Guinea and Congo. As its name indicates, it favors areas around rivers. It will eat anything that is remotely tasty and can fit in its mouth. Even roots are not off limit with its nose and excellent digging capabilities.



The boars of this species are only slightly bigger than the females. Like many pigs, they have tusks. They also have harems; these pigs roam the night in groups of up to 20, and the dominant boar will viciously defend his harem. Leopards are the pigs' main predator, so it really benefits them to be in a huge group!

Red river hogs are pretty snazzy-looking pigs. Along with the red fur, they have a sleek white stripe running down their backs. Their faces look like they belong to some sort of old, wise mythical creature - those of you wishing for a pig dragon for some reason, try using this hog as a basis for the face. If hogs had fashion shows that allowed wild contestants, we would be expecting to see these guys on the runway.

Red river hogs are by no means endangered. Unlike wild bovids, it is hard to find a species of pig under threat. We humans may think of swine as meat, but they are actually really hardy survivors. The biggest threat to these piggies comes from human encroachment upon their habitat. The second? Pigs will eat anything, including garden crops.  The good news is, red river hogs can be clicker trained, so maybe this proximity will have a happy ending.

Happy endings include piglets.


(Note: This one is short because tomorrow's going to be a little special. :3)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Creature Feature: Kimba!



Those of you who are old and/or nerdy enough may remember Osamu Tezuka's classic cartoon, Kimba the White Lion. (It's the same thing as Leo the Lion.)  Basically, the series was about a white lion cub who escaped from a poacher's ship, went back to Africa, and became king of the beasts. He proceeded to nudge everybody into getting along, even though, given the nature of some beasts, many of his solutions would never work. Hell, he even tried to patch up the human-animal rift. Yes, this is still the cartoon that people have accused Disney of basing The Lion King off of.




But surely a white lion like that would never survive, right? Yeah, it's still got teeth and claws, but white animals rarely make the cut in nature...



...except in this case. Not only do white lions exist, there is a whole population of white African lions.

First off, let me make a few things clear about lions in general:

1. Lions are primarily savannah hunters. Sure, the name card reads "King of the Jungle," but they're mostly in places with not a lot of trees. The females do the hunting, the males tend to sit there being fabulous.

2. Lions have harems. No matter how touching Simba and Nala were in The Lion King, Simba had hookers. Lions will kill the cubs of another male just to make sure their own young survive. Hell, I've heard of male lions killing their own cubs just to bring a lioness into heat again.

3. The only place lions and tigers have ever met in the wild would possibly be in India. Rule of thumb is lions = Africa, tigers = Asia. Europe also had lions at one point. Europe had a lot of cool things at one point.

That said, wild white lions are a morph of Krueger's lion, a subspecies of lion (Panthera leo krugeri) native to Timbavati, South Africa. They are usually found on reserves, but some wild specimens have been reported. Several zoos also boast white lions in their collection. Trust me, you'll know if your zoo has one; they usually put it on the news. 

The gene that creates white lions is, once again, the chinchilla mutation. I have heard so many things about this gene that I do not know what to believe anymore. Whatever it is, it's apparently the same 'white' gene found in tigers, meaning that it's either leucism or not quite albinism. Supposedly, this gene was proven to not be albinism in 1997, but even www.whitelions.org says that there are still some genetic uncertainties concerning these big cats. Nobody has yet attempted a white liger, but if they did, it would be interesting to see how the two genes intersected. 

White lions have a surprising range of shades. Their coats can range anywhere from very pale tan ("blond") to snow white. They can have eyes that are hazel, green, or blue. The most stunning specimens are, of course, pure white with blue eyes. This is uncommon in the wild, but can be bred in captivity.

Kimba was not available for comment.


Despite being a white morph of one of the world's most revered animals, none remain in the wild (outside of preserves). The first sighting of a white lion occurred in 1938. Since then, numerous specimens were taken to zoos and hunted because "DUDE it's a white lion!" The last wild (non-reserve) specimen was seen in 1994. They were doing just fine before their 'discovery' if ancient African folklore is anything to go by.

(Now I'm wondering: would any of you like a week's worth of "La Vie En Blanche?" There are so many awesome white animals out there. Some of them just look cool; others have cultural significance like the Shirohebi.)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Basil Soda.

Soft drinks are an underrated part of culture. Although the world is quickly becoming homogenized by Coke and Pepsi, there is always a niche market for indigenous soft drinks. It may sound totally silly at first, but you are what you drink just like you are what you eat.

 

Enter the basil drink made by DeDe. It's not carbonated soda insofar as I can tell, but it's still liquid tooth rot that isn't juice or coffee, so I hope nobody minds my use of the term. Besides being outright strange to look at, if my Japanese teacher is telling me correctly, this also falls under the "things found on Devon Avenue" category. She was the one who got me the bottle above; praise her. There is also a Central American market of some sort that I need to check out, but I digress.

Those little dots in the soda are not strange, alien spawn; they are basil seeds.The seeds swell in the water, making them look like eggs. They have a texture reportedly like the tapioca or eating watermelon (those strike me as different textures, but whatever). Hopefully, I will be able to find out for myself!

Most of us would not consider putting basil seeds in a soda. Drinks with basil seeds are, however, a common part of Thai cuisine, so it's no shock to find them in a Thai soda. Check out your nearest Asian or Middle Eastern grocery store for this exotic soda; my teacher says it's surprisingly good. Most online reviewers seem to agree. Chances are I'll hunt this one down and see what it's like. 

 

There are a number of exotic sodas on the market. If you guys know of any more, please don't hesitate to comment. I don't mind tooth rot if it's for science!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Bio-Art: Menstrala et al.

(Deepest apologies: I had a paper due on Tuesday that did not save right the first time, so I was rewriting it at lightning speed instead of working on this blog. That said, Friday will have an extra entry this week to compensate the difference. We cool, blog hamsters? Please don't gnaw my face off.) 

For those of you who are not women, let me tell you this from personal experience: There is a very nasty, messy time of the month that most of us simply refer to as a period. It's that time of the month when the uterus decides to shed itself instead of being reabsorbed into the body (as in most competent mammals), leading to a massive release of blood that makes a woman look like an axe murderer after going to the bathroom. Guys, you've been warned.

This. Once a month. Minus the knife, but don't push your luck.


So, what to do with all that blood? Well, if the woman has it in mind to use a catcher cup on her monthly cycle, she can do some pretty cool tricks with her blood. We aren't talking anything too kinky. Just, umm, art.



Vanessa Tiegs is a dancer/artist/photographer (from New York?). She graduated from Smith College with a Master's Degree in Women's Spirituality. Her master's thesis covered women's reactions to their monthly cycles. She graduated with the full intent of turning her monthly period into art.

The video is just a small sampling of her Menstrala series. The whole thing contains 88 tiny pictures, all done entirely in menstrual blood. The designs were first plotted as white-on-black drawings, then redrawn with the artist's own monthly blood. They were done over the span of three years, which, for an artist, is amazing output. As of right now, there are ten available for viewing. She is currently remixing Menstrala with photographs that curve with the paintings.

Tiegs is far from the only person to draw with menstrual blood. The medium has a cult following, complete with hippies calling it "moon blood." There are also people who say that nothing at all justifies painting with menstrual blood...not even a darn good drawing of MegaMan.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Freak Week 3.5: English Parakeets.

Now, here's a good question: Why, of all the creatures in the world, has the ever-popular budgerigar escaped this blog? Sure, they aren't very strange, but they are amazing in their own right and the author has personally kept several. Alas, it's hard to fit them in. Parakeets/budgies have very little going for them in terms of breeds, and even regular budgie hobbyists have mixed feelings about the one true breed budgies have:



That big, fluffy head means that the parakeet above is an English budgerigar. Isn't it British enough for you? Carry on. Stop in for tea and crumpets later!

English budgies are characterized by that big, poofy head, extended mask spots, and being twice the size of a normal budgerigar. The skull is not any bigger, proportionately - all those feathers are just feathers. They are not good flyers and will usually squat on perches for long amounts of time.

Blue British, green normal. From The Budgie Place.


English budgies are the only budgies with vague show standards. Breeders are supposedly meticulously clean about their birdies before an exhibition, going so far as to trim the mask and fluffy feathers so that everything looks nice and neat. No doubt dog enthusiasts take their precious pooches to the groomer's before a show...but birds do not have that luxury.

Unfortunately, these birds, much like overly-fluffy dogs, have issues. They have been so extensively bred that their lifespan is virtually cut in half (a good budgie will live 15-20 years if properly cared for; an English, 7-11). Breeding too many English budgies can also result in what are called  "feather dusters." Feather dusters are so fluffy that they only live for a few months.




Budgies seem to be at that critical crossroads where owners are fully aware that breeds exist, but wonder if they're really the right thing for the species as a whole. Nobody has a problem breeding for simple color variations. It's when British budgies - a breed so different from regular budgies it's uncanny - show up that people start raising eyebrows. Bird owners are not like dog owners were eons ago. They realize that the English budgie has a weak gene pool to work with, and will probably fade out of existence in the long run.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Freak Week 3.5: Designer Raccoons.

Now, here's where we wander into that .5 territory. There are some things that aren't quite considered domesticated, don't have show standards, but are still considered pets by some people. They are slowly developing breeds whether fans of regular domesticated animals want them to or not.

Looking for something more unusual than a cat or dog? Look no further than designer raccoons:



Yes, people keep raccoons as pets. Someone was bound to do it eventually. After all, they adapt extremely well to human habitation and have been farmed for their fur already. It's not like this is an animal that people do not know about. Everybody in America knows what raccoons are capable of after a single trash raid.

Raccoons actually come in a surprising variety of colors. Some places have white raccoons so tame that they come right up to humans without biting. In captivity, one also sees subtle variations like cinnamon, chocolate and blond. If you were in the market for a red panda, the cinnamon raccoon comes pretty darn close (if a few shades too light).

 

Raccoons are intelligent creatures with dextrous hands. As one breeder put it, you have to child-proof everything. Keep them away from cat food; eating too much commercial pet food can lead to gout in raccoons. They like to play with toys just like people do (but avoid Beanie Babies; the PVC pellets aren't good for them). People say that having a dog is a lot like having a kid; given the intelligence of raccoons, the same advice applies.

No matter how cute they look, raccoons are not without risk. They come with a potentially nasty parasite, Baylisascaris procyonis, which can lead to neurological damage if the latrine of the raccoon is cleaned without breathing protection on. The presence of Toxoplasma in cat feces does not seem to daunt most people, so your mileage may vary.  (Read: Get experience with carnivorid mammals, first.) You may need to get a permit to keep a raccoon, so please check your local laws before purchasing one. Yes, we know they're almost too cute to resist.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Freak Week 3.5: Siamese Mice.

As stated in the rabbit entry, there are several easier animals to breed than carnivores. Sometime after we got a handle on the mouse problem, we began breeding them in captivity. It was not a very hard task at all (but still smelly), leading to the blossoming of many a captive mouse breed. The most famous of these, of course, are the albino mice frequently used in lab experiments. (Or are they doing experiments on us?)

Aside from the white mice, mice have as many coat colors as most dog and cat breeds. Besides the usual black, brown, and grey found in most mammals, they come in various piebald patterns, merle, brindle...

Oh, and Siamese.



No, that image is not the Photoshopped wet dream of a fancy mouse enthusiast. It's the "super" form of a "Himalayan" mutation found in mice - basically, much lighter, smaller points. The "Siamese" points are also found in rabbits, rats...and white tigers. 

Regardless of species, Siamese-ness is a weird form of albinism. It is also called "chinchilla albinism." In short, it restricts melanin to the colder areas of the mammal's body. (This has actually been tested by placing cold packs on Siamese kittens.) The result is often red or blue eyes, but in mice, the eyes can be dark as well. Other than that, they look exactly like little Siamese cats!




Most mouse breeds are little more than coat colors with standards to make them look as appealing as possible. There are also several coat traits that breeders like playing with.. Fancy mice in general are bred to be larger than both lab and other pet mice. They nonetheless have show standards that make them a breed, including point darkness and range. The only reason that they aren't as popular as cats and dogs as show animals is, well...they're still mice.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Freak Week 3.5: Your Pet Will Actually Eat That.

Well, I had a wake-up call today.  My cat likes licking my dishes after I'm done eating, so I gave her my mac and cheese plate after lunch. Then, due to a nagging feeling in the back of my mind, I looked up the two ingredients that had been tossed into that mac n' cheese: Onions and tomatoes.

It turns out that onions are poisonous to cats (and, to a lesser degree, dogs). Tomatoes aren't too good, either, but not as ugly in terms of the consequences. The kitty seems fine, but I will be watching acutely for any symptoms of hemolytic anemia in her system. No more people food for you, Styx!

The tomatoes I sort of suspected (they're related to nightshade, after all), but the onions caught me by surprise. So, for all of you people out there with inbred domesticated freaks cats and dogs, here is a small list of common foods that your pets should DEFINITELY not eat:




1. CHOCOLATE. This is becoming common knowledge, but chocolate is not good for our carnivorid friends (not too sure about birds et al.). The culprit is theobromine - literally, "food of the gods." Caffeine in all forms is also toxic, so no coffee, either.  Point is, leave no chocolate out. I have had at least one cat who thought Halloween candy was great fun.


2. Grapes/Raisins. Apparently, at one point, grapes were used as dog treats. Then we got wise and figured out that grapes actually make dogs get kidney diseases. (The same seems to apply for cats, which worries me; Styx will bat anything around, including grapes.) Chocolate-covered raisins are to dogs what cigarettes are to humans: poison coated in poison. Keep all grapes out of reach.


3. Onions. Onions and garlic contain a toxin that leads to a very nasty form of hemolytic anemia in cats and dogs. Symptoms include lethargy, vomiting, shortness of breath, lack of appetite, and general weakness. No, this poison does not go away when cooked. Several sites I read were very clear on that.


4. Alcohol. Yes, to us it seems funny when dogs drink beer, but they really shouldn't. Alcohol is a poison, even to humans. Poison tends to circulate more quickly in smaller animals. Keep your pets away from your booze; they have their own things to get high on, like toads and catnip. Dogs also have their own beer, now.

Canine wasteland...



5. Peaches, plums, and probably almonds. Remember when I did an entry on how almonds contain a certain amount of cyanide compounds? Remember how poisons can be amplified in smaller animals? Peach and plum pits have similar chemicals as almonds, so please do not let your dog eat the pits.

Remember, humans are the exception rather than the rule whenever it comes to diets in the animal kingdom. Your cats and dogs were designed to eat meat and very little else. Unlike you, they are specialized. Going too far out of that specialty will endanger their lives. We may be able to eat everything under the sun, but our pets cannot.