Saturday, July 31, 2010

Creature Feature: Freak Week - Sphynx Cats.

(I'm still not sure what kind of Sphynx this is.)

If you thought dogs looked hellish without fur, wait until you see a hairless cat. Sphynxes (to use the term collectively) are unanimously associated with evil in the media. Seriously, the only time I have ever seen a sympathetic Sphynx was in Pet Shop of Horrors - a manga that asks its readers to rethink the world in general. They are very affectionate cats, albeit weird to hold and look at.

Dr. Evil described the sensation of holding a hairless cat as "holding somebody's ass." Lovely imagery.

There are three breeds of hairless cat, or 'Sphynx.' None of them come from Egypt, one of the few places where being hairless would be beneficial; one was born spontaneously in a Canadian litter, and the other two breeds - the Peterbald and Don Sphynx - are both native to Russia. The Russian breeds' hairlessness is a dominant trait while the Canadian version is simple recessive, so crossing the two will not necessarily guarantee a hairless litter. Outbreeding is forbidden in the Canadian Sphynx regardless.

There is also one hairless cat native to the Ukraine that has yet to become an official breed, but looks even freakier than the regular Sphynxes do.

Oh, Russia...or little country that used to be part of Russia, anyways.

Hairless cats still have very fine hair, often described as feeling like peach fuzz or Chamois leather. Unlike hairless dogs, hairless cats are far from ideal for those suffering from cat allergies; many allergies to cats come from the oils on their skin, not from their fur. Some individuals may have overcome their allergen through sheer willpower after acquiring a Sphynx, but by no means are they truly hypoallergenic.

So ends Freak Week...version 1.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Creature Feature: Freak Week - Barb Pigeons.

Pigeons have some of the freakiest breeds in the avian world. If you thought the Polish Chicken was freaky, think back to my pigeon article. There was a picture of a Jacobin there - a pigeon breed that looks like its head exploded into a mess of feathers.


The Jacobin is not the weirdest pigeon in the coop. An even more bizarre breed, the barb, exists. It can only be described as a pigeon who was trying to be a vulture for Halloween and failed. Miserably.

The video does not do those wattles justice.

This...bizarre breed been around for 400 years in Europe. The barb has been featured in the works of Shakespeare and Darwin's Origin of Species. Darwin himself was a pigeon breeder. No doubt that experience impacted one of the most important works of literature ever.

A lot of scientific discoveries are not made by men in sterile white labs. Darwin not only bred pigeons as a hobby, but also went to the Galapagos himself. Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, worked in a monastery growing peas as a hobby. It is one thing to read about evolution, and another to steer it yourself...even if the results seem more odd than beautiful.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Creature Feature: Freak Week - Japanese Bobtail.

If you have ever seen a cat like the maneki neko above, then you have seen a Japanese Bobtail (Felis catus). As their name would imply, these cats are native to Japan, and have very short tails. They usually come in three colors (making them mikeneko- three-furred cats), but one- or two- colored specimens exist. (Given that calico/tortoiseshell patterns occur almost entirely in female cats, there better be some bicolored males out there!)

Now, being Japanese cats, of course there are interesting stories about them. The maneki neko supposedly made after a rich feudal lord was taking shelter under a tree during a thunderstorm. He saw the beckoning cat in the window of the temple, and went in. A minute later, the tree was struck by lightning. The beckoning cat became a symbol of good luck after the real cat had passed on.

There are also a few stories addressing the stunted tail of the Japanese Bobtail. One of my favorites involves the split-tailed nekomata, a monster cat which can raise and impersonate the dead. In order to prevent more of these monster cats from appearing, the bobtails were bred to have little to no tail - you can't split what isn't there, supernatural forces!

Besides a unique look, Japanese bobtails sport winning personalities. They are very people-oriented cats; like Siamese, they will generally speak when spoken to. They also love babysitting and watching their humans (if you have a cat, you KNOW this is accurate) clean the house for them. They can be leash-trained and taught how to play fetch. Unlike the similar Manx breed, their short tails come with no nasty defects...except, perhaps, hopping like bunnies.

The Shiba-Inu is supposedly one of the most catlike dog breeds. The Japanese Bobtail sounds like one of the most doglike cat breeds. Ladies and gentleman, even the pets are crazy in Japan.

Do I even NEED to mention that Hello Kitty is a Bobtail?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"They Actually Eat That": Xoloitzcuintle.

The Xoloitzcuintle - also called the "Xolo" or "Mexican Hairless"- is a breed of hairless dog from Mexico. Unlike Chinese Crested dogs, Xolos developed their hairlessness naturally - it may have been beneficial to have less hair to endure the hot tropical climate, even though dog skin has all the issues that human skin does. The Xolo has a counterpart in, but different standards from, another hairless breed in Peru.

In Mexico, hairless dogs were considered sacred messengers of the Aztec god Xolotl. They could guide souls through the underworld, and, like cats in Egypt, were mummified and buried with their masters. Even today, they are thought to heal the sick better than a regular therapy dog, and are kept as companions all across Mexico. The Xolo is Mexico's national dog.

They were also bred for meat.

They Actually Eat That?!

I'm not 100% sure on this, actually. Despite its shocking nature, no one seems to have any images of modern Xolo meat. Americans usually think of eating dogs as being limited to China, but quite a few accounts from conquering Spaniards mention Xolos being served at banquets (possibly with corn). Xolo-killing was done en masse for fancy parties, religious rituals or as, ahem, yet another virility potion. Seriously, what WON'T people do to put junk in their trunk?

At the very least, they actually ate that. I am not sure if they still do or not. The internet has failed me when it comes to proving or disproving this claim. It might just be churned in from the rumor mill, but either way would not surprise me.

Creature Feature: Freak Week - Hairless Dogs.

It is very, very easy to make a mammal - any mammal - look creepy as all get-out. Cats and dogs are only cute because they have fur. Without fur, they look weird as all hell...and, somehow, sinister. All you have to do is remove a dog's hair to make it look like something out of a survival horror video game:

If you saw this in a desert wasteland, admit it: You'd run screaming.

There are many breeds of hairless dogs. A large portion of them, including the African hairless breeds, are officially extinct. Some would say there is a good reason for that.

A fair amount of hairless breeds still remain. The three that most people know about are the Chinese Cresteds, Peruvian Inca Orchids, and Xolos (AKA Mexican Hairless), but there are a few others, such as the American Hairless Terrier. The Chinese Crested in particular has been a strong contender in "World's Ugliest Dog" contests. (There's a nice video with them here, but just as funny are the links to a Katy Perry interview.)

All hairless dogs come in a haired variety. The trait for hairlessness is lethal if two of the same allele is present; the haired version is recessive in its presence. Therefore, all hairless dogs must be heterozygous for both hairy and hairless puppies.

This is a Chinese Crested WITH fur. They call it a powderpuff.

Along with lacking fur, hairless dogs always have some version of odd dentition (as noticed by Darwin). It is usually not present in their rr haired counterparts. Other health disorders vary with the breed; for example, the Xolo has almost no breed defects beyond dentition, but the Chinese Crested suffers from all the same ailments as other toy dogs.

One allele leads to an impressive creature! There is some general appeal in owning a hairless dog, but the Central American varieties have some particularly interesting lore associated with them. More on that in...well, you'll see.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Creature Feature: Freak Week - Puli.

Does anyone else remember Crimp n' Curl Cabbage Patch Kids dolls/ponies? They had this weird, ropey hair that would hold its shape for a little bit, but would ultimately be re-shapable over and over and over again.

Coming soon to a toy store near you for your daughters to torment. This one did not escape with its dignity.

The Hungarian Puli (Canis lupus familiaris) looks a lot like one of those dolls with a Rastafarian angle. Or a reggae-loving mop with legs. Or...well, comments on a Sun Times post about a Puli dog speak for themselves:

"I think it's really cute :-) "

"BLESS..he even looks dirty like my floormop!!"

"Thats unhappy does that dog look!!!
y would you want to make your dog look like that!"

Ordinarily, the Puli's pelt would keep it nearly completely waterproof. The pelt requires a lot of grooming, so if you are looking for an low-maintenance dog, stay away. They are also not recommended for city-dwellers. The breed started as country dogs, so they require a lot of space and activity.

Pulik (the proper plural) make good watchdogs, herders, and athletes beneath their moppy coats. They are surprisingly agile; as shown in the picture above, the dreadlocks fluff around the dog when it runs.

I wonder if they also clean floors while walking?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Creature Feature: Freak Week- Polish Chicken.

Being Polish sucks. Your heritage becomes associated with idiocy, sausage, little dumplings, and a language with way too many consonants than is sane for a tongue utilizing the Roman alphabet. Just about the only cool thing going for Poland is that its name is associated with a rather badass chicken.

...Yeah, that's too cool to be from Poland. The Polish chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) was standardized in the Netherlands, even though they came to Poland through Mongolia first. Way to mooch Poland's one awesome thing.

Born to rock!

Polish chickens (sometimes simply called "Polands") sport a big, poofy crest of feathers on their heads (in both hens and cocks). They are actually coneheads, making the crest poof up like so many celebrity coats and hairstyles. As with most chickens whose color is not a breed standard, the Polish chicken comes in a variety of colors, and can even work with other breeds of chicken to make them even fluffier:

Though originally bred for eggs, Polish chickens have clearly become showbirds. Their eggs are still praised for whiteness, but that comes second to looking like the guy from Labyrinth.

If your main job was to look like a rock star that made teenage girls swoon and commanded goblins, everything else would come second, too.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Creature Feature: Freak Week - Belgian Blues.

Was I the only one who just went "COW SMASH!?"

These Hulk-esque cows are not the result of gamma rays gone awry (they aren't green, silly). Belgian Blues (a variety of Bos taurus) are selectively bred to be huge, muscular cows thanks to a single defective gene.

This gene's purpose in life is to regulate muscle mass and simultaneously trim down fat. It has parallels in mice and, yes, humans. Normally, a gene making the protein myostatin would keep the muscle mass down; when it malfunctions, the result is called 'double muscling.' It makes the meat of the Belgian Blue leaner, enough so that one barely has to cook it to get all the fat off. Check out the stats alongside supermarket meat and chicken breasts - WOW!

There are, of course, reasons that such a muscle-inhibiting gene exists. Although being beefy like that cow may sound like a good idea to some of my readers, the babies of that cow are so big that the mother cows have to be repeatedly C-sectioned to get the calf out. The birth canal in a Blue cow is also narrower than usual, so even when she is bred to a 'normal' bull, she has trouble being a breeder.

Selective breeding does not have to be nearly as complex as the video makes it sound. All it means is that people are breeding animals for a specific trait. That means regulating reproduction for great awesomeness...or great freakishness. We will be seeing plenty of both this week, depending on your perspective.

Breeds VS Species.

Hello, everyone! Welcome to Freak Week- a week devoted entirely to animals that makes NATURE spit her soda out in sheer WTF at. Although nature has made some pretty darn weird stuff herself, this week will be devoted to the most freakish breeds that mankind has mustered thus far.

Breeds. Not species.

"Wait, those are different?" you ask. Yes, they are. They are very different terms with different implications in modern society. They are different in terms of where they are found. Hell, they are even different on a linguistic level. Have a demonstration:

Imagine, for a second, that someone wanted to ban a certain breed of animal - say, pit bulls - from a certain area in the U.S. OK, no big deal - pit bulls are just one breed of dog, and they just so happen to be a breed specifically bred to fight in arenas. Dog fighting is illegal in most states. Since pit bulls are named and bred for that sport, a ban on pit bulls is a (horribly failed) attempt to curb illegal dog fighting. Normally, only pit bull owners and dog lovers will care about such a thing. After all, it's only one breed of dog, right?

Now for a contrasting scenario, imagine a ban on all species in the genus Python. That 2000-dollar piebald ball python (P. regius) that will never ever get more than 6 feet in length is suddenly put on the same level as the Burmese python (P. molurus bivittatus), which is only related at the generic level. The two do not share dietary habits, natural habitat, or sexual compatibility on a regular basis. They are not the same species. This came VERY close to happening, in part because of the confusion between "breed" and "species."

"Breed" denotes a certain type of domesticated animal. They are standardized, showed, and recorded. For example, Golden Retrievers and Labradors are both breeds of domesticated dog - Canis lupus familiaris. Holstein and Jersey are both different breeds of cattle. My tabby cats are a different breed from the hairless cats seen in Austin Powers and Lady GaGa's "Bad Romance" video. They are the same species of animal, but different breeds.

I still cannot tell whether this is a Canadian or Russian hairless. The ears don't look big enough to be a Russian, but part of me hopes that GaGa did her homework. No, I could not resist using a "Bad Romance" cap.

For a more technical definition: " A breed is a group of domestic animals or plants with a homogeneous appearance, behavior, and other characteristics that distinguish it from other animals of the same species. When bred together, animals of the same breed pass on these uniform traits to their offspring, and this ability—known as "breeding true"—is a definitive requirement for a breed."

Thanks, Wikipedia. So, what does that mean in real life?

If you breed, say, two Scottie dogs together, you will get nothing but Scottie dogs. No retrievers. No dogs that look like wolves. No Labradors. Just little, yappy black dogs that look like they were pulled off of a flapper girl's skirt. They look like Scotties, walk like Scotties, and bark like Scotties. You're pretty damn sure that you have a family of Scottie dogs on your hands, with all the temperaments, quirks, and appearances of their parents.

Scotties can mate with any of those breeds mentioned above, as well as wolves. On a regular basis. With no decrease in fertility. In the 'wild,' i.e. the dog park. This compatibility is, in part, what makes Scotties their own breed rather than their own species. Even then, they would be a subspecies of the subspecies Canis lupus familiaris - yes, the domesticated dog is still a wolf, albeit a subspecies.

Here's why: Not only are dogs descended from wolves to begin with, but they can interbreed with ease, and the hybrid pups show no decrease in fertility. Any dog with any wolf in them within 5 generations is technically considered a wolfdog. The same is true with dingoes, another Canis lupus subspecies (which is technically a domestic dog turned feral). This is NOT true with coyotes, who not only have a premating barrier VS dogs, but whose bastard pups tend not to be very fertile. (I have heard conflicting info concerning coydogs in particular, but whatever the case, they don't do it very often.)

Yes, this is all about mating and survival of the fittest - just like Darwin's Origin of Species. There are, however, some differences between the selections that make a species and the selections that make a breed.

Let's look at the definition of 'breed' again, this time in PowerPoint form:

1. The animal in question has to be considered domesticated.
2. It has to look and behave differently from others of its species.
3. It has to breed true. I don't want a wolf in my litter of Scottie dogs.

Now, in greater detail:

1. Your mileage may vary on the term "domesticated." I have heard anything from 'has to be able to breed in captivity' to 'must be trainable and submissive (e.g. have some form of social hierarchy, allowing humans to be recognized as a 'leader')' to be considered domesticated.' In many cases, the domesticated form of a species differs greatly from, and sometimes replaces, the wild ancestor (as in the case of Bos taurus). For example, a Russian scientist bred silver fox (Vulpes vulpes) kits that were the least afraid of humans together; the results paralleled the changes that had occurred between C.lupus lupus and C. lupus familiaris.

2. This is really broad. For this, you need to find the 'wild-type'- i.e. the form and type most commonly found in the animal's natural habitat. Then, compare it with a captive specimen. Using out Scotties as an example again, let us put a Scottie alongside a gray wolf. The two look and act differently, but they would still be sexually compatible. There might be a size issue, but that would almost be like saying that a normal person can't make out with a dwarf.

3. When I breed Scottie dogs, I WILL get Scottie dogs. There was someone that I once met on my bike route who had lost a purebred Scottie in the past; she wanted nothing except another Scottie dog to fill the hole in her heart, even though it would cost a LOT more to purchase than a random shelter dog. The Scottie's personality, physical characteristics, and other differences from other dog breeds out there all had a hand in her decision. She knew how a Scottie dog would act, how big it would get, what it would look like, and how to take care of it. She could not have done this with any other dog, even though they are all Canis lupus familiaris. Even a Scottie cross would not do; breeding out cuts down the predictability of traits.

This is different from speciation on a number of levels. The definition of 'breed' is limited to domesticated animals - again, your mileage may vary on that term. Breeds are deliberately created for certain qualities, both physical and temperamental. They are substantially different from their wild counterparts, but not differentiated enough so as to prevent sexual compatibility.

I have been using Scotties thus far as an example of a 'breed.' It is a well-known breed with a decent amount of crosses, and has had good exposure in pop culture. I have had an experience in which someone wanted a Scottie and nothing else - a testament to its status as a true breed, not a mutt.

Let us look at a few things that are not breeds, and then at what makes a species a species and not a 'breed,' shall we?

Morphs are the traits most commonly mislabeled as 'breeds.' An albino animal is not that different from a wild-type member of the same species - it is a horse of a different color and nothing more or less.

As an example, Labradors can come in many colors (such as golden, chocolate and black, to name a few). These are all color morphs. In the wild, color morphs can vary with locality or be a simple recessive, dominant, or co-dominant trait. By definition, a morph must exist in the same wild population as at least one other morph.

In captive populations, when a morph deviates from a breed standard, as is the case with Holstein cattle, the morph may branch off into its own breed. It's pretty much a paint job most of the time.

Always putting the red folk down...

Although the Greek word 'morph' means 'form,' more often than not, the term is applied to some sort of color variation. In any case, the morph is usually one trait (although many traits are linked to some other trait, such as crossed eyes in white tigers). Breeds have many, many traits associated with them. That is why furred hairless dogs are still considered the same breed; there are other traits that make the breed. (Also, the heritability of hairlessness means that SOME furred puppies are inevitable.) Morphs can be one part of a breed, just like eggs are one ingredient in a cake.

Hybrids are also not, technically, breeds. I do not mean 'hybrids' like a Scottie-whatever mix; I mean mules, wolfdogs, coydogs, beefalo, zorses, ligers, jungle corn snakes (corn x king), Borneo Bateaters (retic x Burm), and other such crosses. Those are either species crosses or subspecies crosses. While they may have been induced in captivity (lions and tigers no longer share territory in the wild), they are still not breeds.

A Borneo Bateater, a fertile hybrid between Burmese and reticulated pythons. There is some debate over whether it is a natural intergrade or not...but DAMN if it isn't awesome!

Remember criterion 3: It has to breed true to be considered a breed. Some of those hybrids do not breed period, or have reduced fertility, mostly because of chromosomal differences. Even in hybrids that can breed, the abnormal ratio of parental DNA means that they will not necessarily look exactly like their parents, nor that their natures can be determined with consistency. Generally, hybrids are a one-time deal, and the results afterward are by no means steadfast. They are not themselves considered breeds, but can, like morphs, be grouped within breeds (e.g. German Shepherd x coyote).

Subspecies, although genetically compatible with other members of the species, are also not usually considered 'breeds.' Although they do breed true and differ sufficiently from other subspecies (there is never only one subspecies; the term is reserved for two or more), they are often not domesticated, and never seen as captive breeds. Unlike breeds, they are recognized as a scientific class due to their differences - for example, Morelia spilota cheynei VS Morelia spilota spilota.

A species refers to, again as per Wikipedia, "a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring." I would personally add "in their natural environment," or "frequently," but there is really not much to be said beyond that. Sure, there are DNA sequencing methods of determining species, but if you really want to debate whether Burmese and ball pythons are the same species or some such, just remember that they have different habits, live in COMPLETELY different environments, and only one is sold at Petco these days (with good reason).


To be fair, the albino Burmese python (P. molurus bivitattus) is close to the 'breed' title. Not only are they sweet enough to cause diabetes, but they exhibit higher fertility than most other types of Burmese python, as well as having the 'calm white snake' demeanor that seems to be consistent throughout snake species (as seen in the video below).

Even unrelated snake species, such as corn snakes (Pantherophis guttatus/Elaphe guttata), have very docile albinos. The increased fecundity, however, is not consistent between different species. This is probably due to the albino Burm's nature as one of the first snake morphs on the market. (And why not? I'm not saying that EVERYBODY should have a giant pet snake, but Burmese pythons are impressive and docile. Even a wild-type Burmese python can be sweet as a kitten.)

In my reticulated python entry, I mentioned that retics were actually one of the better candidates for domestication (even by the strict definition - retics are the closest snakes have to ANYTHING with a social hierarchy). I also mentioned that Tiger retics seemed to be more docile than their wild-type counterparts. This is an excellent example of correlated traits - it does not seem like the retic has lost its intelligence or famous/notorious ability to recognize its owner, and has less of a temper than other morphs. People who own and handle retics well often get attached to them (and, to some degree, vice-versa).

Now, if only they didn't get 30 feet long as adults. Oh, wait, there are a few subspecies of dwarf retic from various little islands...that are hyper and aggressive. This correlation between small size and scrappy nature deters many a potential owner from getting a dwarf specimen. They're also more expensive than solid gold caviar, and that doesn't even exist. It will be a while before snakes develop genuine breeds, if ever.

Please, please, please do not get the terms 'breed' and 'species' mixed up! Although it may be comforting to think of all of nature as one big happy family, it is not. Burmese pythons are different from reticulated pythons, which are different from ball pythons. Not all squirrels are the same species. Cows do not only come in black and white; they come in a rainbow of shapes and a variety of sizes, and they are all the same species (be on the lookout for Bos taurus). Your macaw is not that closely related to your parakeet, even though they look like darn similar birds sometimes. If it is not 'domesticated,' it is not a breed.

With that said...On with the freak show.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Creature Feature: Jyorou-gumo (Nephila clavata)

Every culture has its own version of the succubus: A sexy, sultry she-devil who lures men into her bed, then either drains their energy or eats them afterward. In Europe, she has the typical, goatlike demonic traits when in her true form; the Greek lamia evolved into a seductive snake-woman; foxes in Korea, Japan, and China have long been known to use lovers for their own evil ends.

Oh, come on. You have to help this fox take over the world.

Japan has as big a thing for man-eating, seductive female monsters as Greece and Rome did (count the Greek monsters with racks. Hurry!). Besides kitsune (foxes), the yuki-onna ("snow woman"), hone-onna ("bone woman"), and several other female youkai prey on the libido of human men. The spider-lady jyorou-gumo (also written as 'jorogumo,' 'joro spider,' or 女郎蜘蛛) is one of the few seductive creatures with a basis in fact. (Fun fact: When the word is written in katakana, it is always referring to the arachnid.)

"I told you that she's hot as Hell..." The screencap is from CLAMP's xxxHOLiC, and the lyrics are from Lady GaGa's "Monster." It will become relevant very soon. (Plus, I'd hit that.)

Although many youkai come from real animals, there may be a particular reason that this spider wound up as a seductress. Like the black widow, the female jyorou-gumo is more brightly colored and several times larger than the male. After mating, the jyorou-gumo may try to eat him - the smaller the male, the more likely he is to escape.

The pretty one is the lady, this time.

The "prostitute spider" is just as notorious in Japan as the black widow is in the West, possibly for the same habit of sexual cannibalism. It is nonetheless viewed favorably; N. clavata is a gorgeous spider, and its golden thread is strong enough to make socks and bulletproof vests. Seriously.

Japan has another, vaguer youkai called the tsuchigumo ("ground spider") with a slightly different web to spin. Like jyorou-gumo, she is frequently portrayed as an attractive spider demoness, but her name is derived from a tribe of cave-dwelling dwarves in the Japanese Alps. She is not even consistently female; many stories feature male tsuchigumo. Other times it is simply a giant spider. This creature shares its name with the ground spider (Atypus karschi). The ground spider is not as beautiful as N. clavata, but I am sure that a spider fanatic can tell me how interesting it is. ;)

More on youkai: The Obakemono Project.

(YAY, my first spider article!)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Creature Feature: Butcherbirds.

Awww, isn't that the cutest little songbird that you've ever seen? It's a loggerhead shrike (Lanius ludovicianus). Instead of being flashy or having a pretty voice, the shrike attracts his mates with presents that he's hoarded.

These "presents" include dead animals that have been skewered on thorns, barbed wire, or anything else pointed. Their prey ranges from insects (including the lubber grasshopper, whose poison deteriorates after baking) to lizards, all skewered and waiting to be eaten. The genus of shrikes is, after all, called Lanius - Latin for "butcher." Check out how they hunt in Israel...and the end result!

They also like shiny things, but who cares?

Shrikes are not the only birds to utilize this technique. The real butcherbirds are the members of Cracticus, which resemble Australian magpies. Even its scientific name sounds, well..cracked. Look up any member of the genus and you find stuff like this:

These butcherbirds are native to Australia and Asia, which of course led to at least one pop culture reference:

From Devil Lady episode 15. Since the show is not only Japanese but also refers to crows, it is DEFINITELY talking about the Cracticus butcherbirds.

What? Nobody would ever do that for real because it is so darn twisted? Think again. Vlad the Impaler, a Romanian prince, was known for torturing people by leaving them to die on stakes. Most of you probably know about him via Bram Stoker's Dracula - the price's real last name.

He must have been a shrike in a past life, not a bat.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Creature Feature: Sea Angel

(The video says it all.)

Many people do not immediately think "cute" whenever they see a slug. Sea angels (clade Gymnosomata), a type of shell-less marine snail, look adorable. They are found in frigid waters, also earning them the name "ice angel."

Instead of using a pseudopod to get around like most snails, their 'foot' has evolved into a pair of gelatinous wings. Aww.

Try and say no to those wings. That pudgy body. The reddish organs that resemble a heart. They look like something from a glass shop, only squishy.

If it's cute enough for Pokemon and Hello Kitty, it's cute enough for the rest of the world.

Then you see them eat. Yes, something this cute is a predator. It goes from a pixie to a Lovecraftian nightmare as soon as food (usually a sea snail) comes along. Check out Bogleech's page to see an animation! (Yeah, I admire Bogleech enough not to mooch from him.)

No wonder my friend's Manaphy kicked ass...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Creature Feature: Spotted Hyenas.

Well, that was the most vile "They Actually Eat That" I've ever done. It delayed my post about another scavenger with far more sanitary eating habits.

Hyenas (specifically the spotted hyena, Crocuta crocuta) are a fairly common animal to see in popular culture. They are most often set against lions as an 'evil dog' of sorts and/or used for comedic effect. There is some truth in this; lions and hyenas do indeed hate each other, with hyenas going so far as to kill lion cubs on a regular basis.

Besides their rivalry with lions, hyenas are known for their whooping calls resembling human laughter. These calls are just as multifaceted as bird songs, telling the age, mood, and social standing of any hyena in question. Unlike wolves, which howl in unison to show their strength as a pack, hyenas will call alone. It's almost language! (Thanks a lot, Noam Chomsky...stunting the field of animal language studies...)

Nearly all cartoons fail to tell you that hyenas are not related to dogs. They are more closely related to cats and mongooses, even if they do have some features that make them seem canine. They are also adept hunters, relying on keen vision as opposed to scent or hearing. (This is not as true for other hyena species - spotted hyenas have special teeth designed for both scavenging and hunting. Other hyenas do not.)

Not particular to EITHER common branch of carnivora is the hyena's unique social system, which largely derives its rules from the female's dick.

Wait. What?

Female hyenas have an enlarged clitoris, which looks an AWFUL lot like a penis. They urinate, screw, and give birth through this pseudo-penis. They are also one of the few mammals in which the female is larger than the male (and rightfully so, given that their babies are the biggest relative to the mother). This makes mating considerably more difficult, but also gives the female more choosing power in the process. (It also looks really awkward when they do it, but look that up on your own.)

Yes, that is a FEMALE hyena. Imagine giving birth through that!

Spotted hyena clans are matriarchal, and function a lot more like primate clans than wolf packs or lion prides. Hyenas among the most intelligent carnivorids, outperforming chimpanzees on problem-solving tests.

The real test: Can they outperform THIS chimpanzee?

"They Actually Eat That:" Roadkill.

America has really low food standards. We don't know half the crap that's in our Big Macs, hot dogs, cheese, or even vegetables. All we do is pick unwittingly pick up said crap at the grocery store, fast food joints, and so on. High class restaurants are not exempt; they cut corners, too.

Some Americans actually choose to eat crap. I am not talking about 2Girls1Cup. (Don't look that up if you do not already know what it is, by the way.)

America is covered by a network of highways, which in turn supports a huge car industry (that people sweat buckets about in this economy). These highways run along forests, fields, and farms. This proximity to nature does make for awesome road trips, but also leads to many, many animals getting killed by traffic.

They actually eat that?!

Yep. Once an animal is killed, its meat has to be scraped off the road and taken to some place where people know how to cook it. There are a number of roadkill cafes, and a fair amount of individuals cook roadkill in their own homes.

(If Britain took it over, it has roadkill cafes. Russia uses roadkill in stew as well.)

Some roadkill chefs even lure animals with treats just to turn them into roadkill; you may as well shoot them at that point. The main difference is that EVERYONE owns a car, but only some people own guns.

Of all the weird foods I have looked at so far, this is the one that makes me go "why?" the most. OK, so the meat is leaner if it comes from a wild animal...but that does not change that it was not only run over by a car carrying GODDESS KNOWS WHAT kind of dirt on its wheels, could be full of worms and nasty bacteria, and...need I say anything more? There are reasons why roadkill cuisine has such precise cooking directions.

The sad thing is, it's probably cleaner than anything at an American McDonald's. That is how low the food standards are in the U.S. Roadkill is better for you than almost anything you will find at a given fast food joint...but be careful how you cook it.

(Sorry about the lack of pictures in this week's entry, by the way. Roadkill is not visually interesting at all - more often than not, as in the video, roadkill gets chopped into some miscellaneous stew, deep-fried, or is otherwise made indistinguishable as roadkill.)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Creature Feature: Ichneumoninae.

Although many vertebrates may take on the pattern of "big, impressive male, small female," insects tend to see the world a bit differently. Many of you have probably heard of the praying mantis eating the male after mating (which, again, makes PERFECT sense to me), and of ant/bee queens. Sexual dimorphism in favor of the female is not a hard and fast rule for insects, but seems to be pretty solid in the order Hymenoptera - the order containing ants, bees, wasps, sawflies, and hornets.

This brings us to ichneumonoid wasps. If you thought the reproductive system from the Alien movies was weird, bear in mind that the Xenomorph's way of doin' it was based LARGELY on this particular sort of insect (with later nods to eusociality).

If the earlier entry on botflies did not tip you off, chest-bursters are very, very real in the cruel world of nature. There are a number of ways that they can theoretically happen, but, in the case of ichneumon wasps, they deposit the eggs via a whip.

"If I be waspish, best beware my sting..." Yeah, I'm sure I butchered that Shakespeare quote, but stingers ARE derived from ovipositors. Way to lace an extra innuendo in there, Bard.

The females of Megarhyssa and Rhyssa in particular are equipped with slender, narrow ovipositors (tubes for depositing eggs). Although many insects have ovipositors of some sort, ichneumon wasps have ovipositors that curl over like scorpion tails. This has given them the nickname of "scorpion wasps."

Why does the female need such a long ovipositor? Ichneumonoid wasps lay their eggs inside other insect larvae. The infected larvae are, slowly but surely, eaten alive.

Despite their creepy appearance and alien reproductive habits, these wasps are quite efficient at pest reduction (like the giant hornets are). They also use polydnaviruses to suppress the host's immune response, which is more than can be said for the Xenomorphs.

Just pest control. Nothing personal.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Creature Feature: Indian Muntjac.

Some of you are probably wondering why I have never done any deer on this blog. Their mating displays are at least as impressive as those of the pretty male birds I keep showcasing, right? Hell, the Irish Elk supposedly went extinct because of its huge, elaborate antlers!

THAT is a nice rack!

"Females are sad, males are AWESOME" is not restricted to birds. It is a lame, repetitive formula that one can easily get bored of, but common in nature that it is almost impossible to avoid. Many lizards, mammals, and insects also use this formula. Birds just so happen to be my forte, and, unlike deer, are spread across many genera.

In mammals, the difference between sexes tends to be greater than that in other classes. Not only are the females less elaborate, but, due to CRAZY mammalian sexual dimorphism, are usually smaller (even though they have to bear live young and provide them with nutrients...why?). I will have to look up exactly why the size difference exists sometime. All I know is that it bites worse for mammalian females than avian ones.

This deer is no exception to that rule...but, evidently, female deer have the same taste as female humans do in vampires.

(It burned my eyes just to Google this.)

The Indian muntjac (Muntiacus muntjak), also known as the barking deer, is native to pretty much all areas of South Asia. It is one of the oldest known species of deer, and among the first to evolve antlers.

Child of Baphomet, or reminder of a time long past? You decide.

The male of the species has unusual headgear to show for this change. His are stacked on top of bony nubs, making him look...well...demonic.

Of course, any mammal looks demonic when it is not covered in fur.

They also have fangs. Tusks my ass; they may not have venom, but they certainly do NOT look like the tusks of swine, elephants, or anything else besides other primitive deer. Those teeth are not just for show; male muntjacs fight with them. They are not used to suck blood, even if they really, really look the part.

I vant to kick your ass!

That's not all. Muntjacs are also called "barking deer." Yes, in order to warn other deer, a muntjac barks. As in, "woof woof." Why choose between vampire and werewolf? This little deer can play both!

Screw Edward and Jacob. I'm on Team Muntjac.

Creature Feature: Last Lizard - Jesus Christ.

Yes, you read that title right. There is nothing in the Bible that says Jesus Christ was not a lizard. Lizards can regenerate faster than people can, walk on walls, give virgin birth, and have awesome color-changing skin. That list alone grants lizards divine being potential.

David Icke would have a field day.

They can also walk on water.

There are a number of species in the genus Basiliscus, a group called "Jesus Christ lizards" because of their ability to run on water. To be perfectly fair, they are also called "Mystic Lizards" and "Devil's Lizards," but those did not go over as well.

Although the generic name denotes a highly toxic 'king of reptiles' that can turn people to stone with its gaze and poisons flowers with its breath, the real lizards are harmless (unless you are an insect). They are fairly big at a meter from head to tail, and range from Mexico down to Panama.

(This is actually my favorite lizard of all! I love its colors, its eyes, its ability to walk on water...AND its spinal ridge!

The basilisk walks on water using slight webs on its feet to create air pockets. Its long tail helps it balance on its hind legs as it makes a mad dash across the surface of the water. A basilisk can walk on water for up to 14.8 feet before needing to swim.

Water-walking aside, basilisks look like little dinosaurs (especially the plumed basilisk, B. plumifrons)! What a way to end Lizard Week; there will be a really weird mammal tomorrow. Praise Raptor Jesus!

Eh, close enough. :D Someone needs to make a Jesus Lizard joke like this...