Sunday, October 31, 2010

Creature Feature: Painted Bat.

Happy Halloween, everyone! What better way to celebrate America's most goth-friendly holiday than with a bat?

Yes, that bat is 100% real. The Painted Bat (Kerivoula picta) is native to much of Asia, including India, China, Indonesia, Nepal and Vietnam. In other words, the places with the most Halloween-friendly animal in the world do not even properly celebrate the holiday. Boo.

Alas, there is not much unique about this little bat besides its coloring. The fur on the bat's body can be either bright orange or scarlet; the wings are orange around the fingers and black everywhere else.  It is otherwise a fairly normal microbat that uses sonar to catch insects at night. Painted bats also have nuclear family units -that is, a mother, a father, and young. Hunting flights last around 1-2 hours.

Even if it does not have any weird habits, I demand Halloween toys based on this bat. Nature has already done most of the work for us. C'mon, greedy merchants; you know you can sell this!


Saturday, October 30, 2010

Creature Feature: Giant Panda.

For the record, the original Sifl and Olly song involved sock puppets. Pick your poison.

Yes, on the night before Halloween, this blog will cover the horror that is...THE PANDA (Ailuropoda melanoleuca)!

The more I think about it, the more awesome a panda rock band sounds. 

Seriously, though? Pandas are overrated.

For starters, the dubious camouflage. I know that most animals see in black and white, but still.

A brief recap for those of you who know absolutely nothing about pandas: The Giant Panda is native to the bamboo forests of China. It eats almost nothing but bamboo and fruit despite being a carnivore. Contrary to older evidence, pandas are indeed bears; they are most closely related to the Spectacled Bear (Tremarctos ornatus) of South America.

To be fair, pandas are somewhat weird in their own right. They have 'thumbs;'  a mutated seismoid bone helps the panda eat bamboo. It also has a tail 4-6 inches (approximately 10-15 centimeters) long, making it the second longest tail of all bear species. Hell, even an herbivorous bear is weird; most bears are omnivores with a slight preference for flesh. They are also rare as all get-out with around 3,000 individuals in the wild, if that.

But really? People only want to save the panda because it looks adorable. It is not commonly used in Chinese medicine or ancient Chinese art. As soon as China learned that the West wanted to capitalize on the giant stuffed toy called the panda bear, they started loaning the bears to zoos. Whenever they appear in captivity, they are a huge attraction; the panda cage at Ueno Zoo had a HUGE crowd around it when I was in Japan.  

Yet, despite mankind's best efforts, the panda is one of those creatures that nature wants to kill off. Pandas are working with a carnivore's teeth and, for the most part, digestive tract. They are lethargic and have a very low metabolic rate thanks to their preferred diet. Pandas generally avoid other pandas and refrain from physical activity as much as possible since they derive so little energy from bamboo. They will eat meat, eggs and fish if offered. Who can blame them?

Pandas are so lazy that they are not even particularly interested in making love. Their mating period is very short, even in the wild, and a number of crazy methods have been used to get them to mate in captivity. These include making them watch panda porn and giving the males Viagra. Yes, really.

When a mommy and daddy panda love each other very, very, really, junior. Being a whore will kill you.

Wow. Pandas sound like worthless man-children that have never gotten laid and do nothing but play video games all day while eating sugary snacks. Yeah, save that species. [/sarcasm] put it best: "The panda is nature's loser."

 Yes, pandas are rare. Yes, they eat bamboo. Yes, deforestation is horrible, but the panda's situation was pretty bleak as it was. The panda is really the sort of creature that would die out eventually regardless of what we did. Is it really worth preserving?

Creature Feature: Brain Coral.

Nature loves repeating her designs. Take a look at some of the barren trees in the fall, then at some fan coral, and then at the veins in your hand. They all have a similar branched look. When you have a good design, you reuse it over and over again.

Sometimes, when nature reuses designs, it is creepy. It was creepy/awesome with celosia and it is creepy/awesome with coral:

The bane of zombies everywhere.

Brain coral (family Faviidae) is an animal, yes. Corals are cnidarians, just like anemones, jellyfish, Man-o'-Wars, and hydras. Corals in particular are classified as anthozoans -  literally, "flower-animals." They are closely related to sea anemones, and, like them, spend their entire lives in polyp form.

Brain corals in particular are nocturnal feeders. They extend their tentacles at night and feed on anything small passing by. One genus of brain coral, Favia, is semi-aggressive; it will sting other corals with its long tentacles during the night. If that does not sound like a Japanese porno comic to you, you clearly do not know how the Japanese do their porn.

This is your brain on drugs.

A whole head (yes, it is actually called that) of brain coral is formed out of thousands of clones of one individual. When brain corals die, their bodies become the corrugated, calcified structure that gives the coral its name. A single head can get up to two meters high and live for over 900 years. Mind, this is a colony of clones building on top of the dead bodies of their brethren.

Of course, when humans make houses out of bones, it's considered creepy. Hmph. Whippersnappers.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Creature Feature: Bombardier Beetle.

Before you say anything, yes, that beetle just shot boiling liquid and vapor out of its ass. That was a bombardier beetle, which means it is from any of several tribes of ground beetle. Although the beetle in the video was probably African from what I have read, bombardier beetles are found worldwide. In German, they have been given the awesome-sounding name of
Bombardierkäfer. That should be a Rammstein song.

FEUER FREI! Bang bang! 

This beetle has one of the most stunning defense mechanisms in the animal kingdom. Without getting into too many chemical details, it has one chamber in its rear for hydrogen peroxide and another for hydroquinone. When threatened, it releases both chemicals at once. The result is a messy, smelly, smoky explosion not unlike the sort found in chemistry classes.

Valid shirt is valid.

The heat created from the chemical reaction can reach up to 100 degrees Celsius - the temperature at which water boils. About a fifth of this nasty solution is vaporized, scaring off many potential predators. Some of the bombardiers in Africa can even tuck their abdomens beneath their legs to make their aim more accurate. This was the bug that Animal Planet cited for for making their dragons' firebreath plausible, but given the series of fast pulses necessary to keep this insect from burning its rear end, making anything breathe a solid stream of fire still isn't a good idea. Just give it a gatling gun instead.

Much more plausible than a regular dragon. Really.

Also, they are carnivorous. This means that, should one grow to immense size, we are not safe from its jaws or acid-squirting rear. It would make an excellent kaiju or Pokemon, but nooooo...

 Oh, c'mon. You made a MOVE called "Boiling Water," Nintendo.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"They Actually Eat That:" Lampreys.

We could, of course, eat the invasive bloodsucking fish.

Before you get grossed out, I must once again reinforce that America eats shit. Thanks to our low standards of what, exactly, defines "food," we have literal crap in our burgers and farm enough to save a hundred starving kids in Africa. Despite this, the idea of Koreans eating dog for dinner guarantees a shiver from almost every American, even though dogs are easier to farm than cattle (just head over to your local shelter for proof). I'm personally still reeling over hagfish as a food; OK, I can understand eating what's around you, but hagfish are pretty much universally gross. Thanks, Korea. Thanks a bunch.

The notion of eating one of these will haunt my nightmares.

The thing is, lampreys are not food for some poor nation with lower standards of living. They are haut cuisine.

Lampreys have been eaten in Europe since at least the ancient Romans. Legend has it that, as punishment, the emperor Augustus sent a slave into his lamprey-filled fishpond for breaking a single crystal glass. Those lampreys were not just torture devices. The Romans loved eating those little bloodsuckers.

Ever since then, they have been considered a food for the wealthy. They were so popular during medieval times that one king supposedly died from eating too much lamprey. Since lampreys are much meatier than bony fish, they were also eaten during times of fasting.

"That was then, and this is now," right? Nope. In Spain, Portugal and France, lampreys are still considered a delicacy. They are also eaten in Finland (after lutefisk, are you surprised?), Russia, and, of course, South Korea. Hell, in some of these areas, lampreys are over-fished. Alaska has also jumped on the lamprey bandwagon.

I'm not sure what this soccer mom thinks of Yukon lamprey. Probably the same thing she thinks of other Alaskan wildlife. *Twitch.*

You want a solution to the lamprey problem? Try fishing for and selling the lampreys. It'll be more genuinely European than pizza. The not-eels are rapidly going extinct because lamprey is apparently that damn good.

Creature Feature: Lampreys.

If you thought hagfish were creepy, you ain't seen nothing yet. Imagine a hagfish with eyes, two extra invisible pseudo-eyes, and, well...this:

This mouth has been Photoshopped to hell and back as the spiritual successor of "lotus boob." There are now lamprey fingers, lamprey feet, lamprey boobs (that's not as hot as it sounds) and other things that sport that toothy mouth.

Hell's chorus line.

You know what's insane? There are no jaws for those teeth. Lampreys belong to the class Agnatha (literally, "no jaw). (Yes, hagfish are also in this group; lampreys in particular belong to the family Petromyzontidae) They do not have stomachs, either - just a single, long gut that runs throughout their entire bodies. Instead of having their gills covered by an operculum like most fish do, lampreys have seven circular gill slits, a trait so distinct that it makes me wonder why Nintendo included it on Milotic:

I LOVE that they made a beautiful lamprey, even if she only has 3 gill slits. There's also some oarfish in there, but I'm saving that one for another day. Those of you arguing that Milotic is an eel and not a lamprey would do well to notice Milo's lack of pectoral fins.

Lampreys resemble eels on the outside. On the inside, they have those teeth, no jaw, and a cartilaginous skeleton. Modern lampreys have no scales, although some ancient lampreys did. They are found in most temperate waters. (I bet Milotic has been turned into a case of Fridge Horror.)

Lampreys are also bloodsuckers. With that crazy mouth, they latch on to a swimming fish and can stay hooked for as long as they need to. Their mouths provide a suction cup that keeps the parasite attached; the teeth and tongue cut the fish and allow the lamprey to drink blood. They're kinda like leeches, version 2.0. (This, by the way, is adorable!)

They're harmless to humans. For now.

Although normally harmless, lampreys are considered pests in the Great Lakes. They have no natural predators around Chicago and prey on commercial species like lake trout. Once again, people only give a damn because money is involved.

There is, however, one thing we could do with them...

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Creature Feature: Slime Molds.

Don't bitch at me for not doing an animal today. There is no animal quite as freaky as this crazy...thing:

The video above is sped up; slime molds do move, but they move slowly (or quickly for little organisms, take your pick). 1 millimeter per hour is not very fast, but it is something; some lucky slime molds can win marathons at 2 cm per hour. Most fungi do not move at all.

Unless you happen to be on 'shrooms. Then you can tell the purple unicorn in your bedroom that we said hi.

Slime molds are not molds. They are...themselves (the ones visible to the naked eye are myxomycetes). Nobody really knows where to put them; they used to be fungi, then were moved into their own taxonomic category. When all is said and done, they will still probably be classified as eccentric fungi or protists (which is sort of a catch-all category).

Or discarded bubble gum. There's another one called "dog vomit."

Slime molds start life as amoeboid, single-celled organisms. They eat bacteria, so, like most fungi, they can often be found on decaying logs. When they encounter an individual of the opposite mating type (sorry, not all tiny critters are as gay as rotifers), they form zygotes and soon become long, sticky plasmodia.

The plasmodia stage is what gives slime molds their name. In this stage, slimy, multinucleic threads start feeding like crazy. technically, this huge mass is a single cell with many nuclei. Eventually, the slimy mass forms fruiting bodies similar to larger versions of the sporangia found on regular molds. The cycle begins anew after that.

Not remotely like Japanese porn.

Still not creeped out? Slime mold feeding bodies can get several meters in diameter (and they are not even the largest unicellular organisms). They can pick the shortest road out of a maze despite lacking a nervous system, much less a brain. In the future, they might even evolve into something like this:

If you're slightly less optimistic, they may also evolve into giant blobs.

(P.S. - Like my fish? :D)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Creature Feature: Mexican Mole Lizard.

What do you get when you cross a worm and a lizard? Something like this:


The Mexican mole lizard (Bipes biporus) looks like a worm, acts like a worm, and, except for its two foreclaws, looks helluva lot like a worm. Like the tuatara, mole lizards aren't quite lizards. They are about as closely related to lizards as snakes are (which is fairly close), and boy, does it show.

Amphisbaena is the order of lizard-like reptiles (squamates) containing reptiles dubbed "worm lizards." The order name "amphisbaena" comes from a mythical serpent with a head at each end - a surprisingly universal motif in cultures around the world. The real lizards do not have two heads as the name implies, but they are legless and their heads resemble their tails (down to the head barely having eyes in some species). The exception to the rule of this already strange group of squamates is the ajolotes, the group that Bipes biporus belongs to.


All ajolotes are found only in Mexico and the lower parts of California. They are carnivorous, burrowing reptiles that use their forelimbs exactly like a mole's for digging. These things look almost exactly like mole paws, but wait. It gets weirder.

Unlike snakes, mole lizards move via peristalsis- the same scrunchy motion that worms use to move. They even have rings around their bodies like earthworms. They live and breed entirely underground and only come out when it rains or is dark, just like a real worm.

You know that giant worm monster that keeps appearing in your nightmares? Now that worms are vertebrates, it's possible, and has evolved killer claws to boot.

The future. Totally. 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Creature Feature: Pink Fairy Armadillo.

If you burst out laughing at the image of an armadillo with a frilly pink tutu, magic wand with a star on the tip or little glassy bug wings, you are probably in good company. "Pink" and "fairy" are not commonly used in the same sentence as "armadillo..."perhaps with good reason.  

OK, so I can see where they got "pink" from. 

The Pink Fairy Armadillo (Chlamyphorus truncatus) resembles a cross between an American armadillo and a mole with a pastel palette. It is  the smallest armadillo - only 4.5 inches (115 mm) long at maximum. This armadillo is native only to the plains areas of central Argentina. It's also just plain adorable, but your mileage may vary.

The Pink Fairy Armadillo is a nocturnal sand-swimmer. When moving, it agitates the sand so that it can swim through it as if it were water. It spends most of its time swimming underground, munching on ants and ant larvae. It can also eat various other small invertebrates and plants. If a predator approaches, it can vanish underground within seconds.

Although not technically endangered anymore, the Pink Fairy Armadillo is still treated as a species worth preserving. Originally, it was listed as such due to habitat loss; now, nobody is sure how many of these armadillos remain. Fairy Armadillos are still protected on both the national and provincial levels. I do not know how the guy above got one as a pet; they supposedly do not live long in captivity.

Damn if they aren't cute, though.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Creature Feature: Tri-Color Milksnakes.

There has not been a snake entry this whole month. Something must be wrong. Time to remedy this!

I swear to gods that snake is not venomous. It does, however, want you to think that it is; tri-color milk snakes (Lampropeltis triangulum, various subspecies) utilize Batesian mimicry, copying the venomous coral snake's banded pattern. The milk snake itself is not venomous; it is a beneficial snake that not only kills rodents, but, like many king snakes, eats other snakes. (If you want to see a California king snake (L. getula) doing what it does best, click this link.) Milk snakes are found in forests and biology books throughout the U.S., parts of Canada, and Central America.

As you can see, this little snake is not venomous. Either that, or the guy holding it is crazy.

It is suspected that, due to the coral snake's fatal venom (thus eliminating any animal stupid enough to touch it), both coral snakes and milk snakes are instead copying a less-venomous species. (This is refuted by the mimicry of other milk snakes to other venomous species; maybe my textbook was outdated and/or wrong. It is, however, supported by the idea that most Batesian mimics copy distasteful/painful species rather than venomous ones. I'm really on the fence, here.) Milk snakes aren't the only ones in on this banded mimicry deal, either; there is one type of caterpillar that bears a striking (...bad pun) resemblance to a coral snake (from Asia, apparently). There are copies of copies of copies of this banded pattern in nature - hint hint, gaming companies.

THIS can kill you.

So, how do you tell the non-toxic snakes from the poisonous ones? If you are from the U.S., you might already know this one: "Red next to yellow will kill a fellow; red next to black is a friend of Jack." There are a few other mnemonic devices, but the basic idea is that red next to black is safe. You can also look at things like band width, but really, it's better to just leave the snake alone. Coral snakes, despite being deadly, are reclusive creatures and prefer not to be disturbed; milk snakes are helpful and should be left to their own devices.

Milk snakes are so called because they are easy to find around barns, and were once thought to suck milk from a cow's udders. Don't try that at home; even though the Greeks and Romans left out offerings of milk for snakes, it really is not good for them and the milk snake cannot suck milk out of cow udders. Plus, what did I say about cows and milk when I did aurochs?

Milk snakes are also popular in the exotic pet trade. Milk snakes can hybridize with corn snakes (a risky venture, given that they even eat their own species), other milk snakes and king snakes for some really trippy combos. More importantly, within milk snakes (especially the Pueblan milk snake), you have albino, tangerine, 'Oreo' and 'Halloween' color morphs.

From I swear I would have self-hosted if Blogger pic hosting was not so slow.

Happy early Halloween, all! I have something even trippier for Halloween Day!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Creature Feature: Tuatara.

Nature often creates things that have more to them than meets the eye. This is one of them:

What? Were you expecting something more spectacular? That is a tuatara, which is, in itself, a whole new group of reptiles (order Sphenodontia). That makes it about as close to lizards as crocodiles and snakes. They're an old line of reptiles. A really old line.

Tuataras are not living fossils. Despite being of a distinctly ancient lineage, tuataras have changed a lot since the Mesozoic. They are, however, the most unspecialized living amniotes; they have hearts and brains like amphibians, only one chamber to their lungs (if you have ever taken a look inside the human body, you KNOW how significant that is), and move more like salamanders than lizards.

They also have surprisingly uniform skulls when compared to their fossil record. Unlike lizards, they do not have ears; they hear more like turtles than anything with external ear holes. Their spines are linked more like that of a fish than that of a reptile. Speaking of, the little spikes on their backs do look classy, don't they?

In other words, the tuatara is one of those things that looks like a duck, but does not quack like one or walk like one. Or have organs like one.

As if tuatara were not freaky enough, they have third eyes. You have a third eye, too, but it is not nearly as sophisticated as the tuatara's. I want you to do something very simple before I go on: Find you pineal gland.

(If you can't find that but know where the third eye chakra is, that's cool, too.)

Right there (relatively, of course), many reptiles have something called a parietal eye. In most species, the eye does very little besides detect light. In the tuatara, it has rods, cones, a retina and other structures your eye doctor probably told you about if you have ever gone in for an eye exam. It probably came from a real third eye. Of all the things to do with a third eye, the tuatara uses it to gather vitamin D from the sun.

I seeee you.

Fascinating though they may be, tuataras are vulnerable. Many of them were wiped out thanks to Polynesian rats. Get the image of a rat in a grass skirt out of your head; rats are a serious invasive species that tends to cause a ton of ecological damage if previously unestablished.

Alas, tuataras are nigh-on impossible to breed in captivity. One of the requirements for a species to be considered domesticable is a reasonable breeding period relative to humans - that is, a higher maturation and reproductive rate than people. The tuatara takes ten years to become sexually mature; they can breed well into their 60's and live over a hundred years. That's right, when humans are having trouble reproducing, the tuataras are having no problems at all. No Viagra necessary!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Creature Feature: Six-Winged Darter.

I can't use this pic 'cause it's copyrighted, but - oh, hell with it. This picture really speaks for itself:
Yes, that dragonfly really does have six wings. It is called a Six-Winged Darter or Sympetrum sepenni. It went extinct in Sweden during the last Ice Age, but as of right now is one of the few badass things to ever exist in Poland (along with the aurochs). 

Where badass creatures go to die and/or be resurrected.

Why does this dragonfly have six wings? As one can probably imagine, the wings help it maneuver in the air (although this was not so helpful during the big freeze). They are also used to attract mates; when mating season arrives, the third pair of wings changes color to red/black. Faeries live; deal with it.

Sorry, no pic here.

The Six-Winged Darter is the only nocturnal dragonfly species known to date. It sees infrared wavelengths -i.e. heat vision-  like many insects, so the darkness is not a problem. This dragonfly might be able to hunt in packs, but the reports are so rare that it has to be chalked up to rumor. 

Whatever. It's still awesome. It's also all from one guy's notes, since even Wikipedia does not acknowledge this insect's existence.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Creature Feature: Blobfish.

Oh, crap. That lutefisk stuff you were talking about earlier came to life and mutated, didn't it?

No, actually. This creature is completely natural. The only tampering humans did was to take it out of the water; when submersed, the blobfish (Psychrolutes marcidus) looks relatively normal.

Keyword: relatively.

The blobfish is native only to the abyssal waters around Australia and Tasmania. It lives so far down in the ocean that it cannot afford the luxuries of scales and a swim bladder; instead, it glides through the water, using its gelatinous flesh to keep it from sinking to the ocean floor. It eats whatever floats into its mouth as it drifts along in the water (kinda like some fat people who eat anything that passes by).

This weird fish has all the reason in the world to be miserable: It is likely going extinct. Blobfish drift at the same depths as lobsters and crabs. Although the blobfish itself is not edible, bottom trawling can bring it to the surface alongside far tastier sea life. The area in which the blobfish is known to reside is only about the size of Paris; it would be very, very easy to accidentally over-fish it to extinction.

Normally, I'd be all for wiping out a species that cannot even swim. This poor fellow looks so sad that I cannot help but feel at least a little sorry for it. 

Next time you eat crab, this face will be there to haunt your soul.

(This needs to be a Pokemon before it goes extinct, Nintendo.)

"They Actually Eat That:" Civet Poop Coffee.

Remember how, last week, I said that the fast food industry was trying to rip you off? I didn't even cover all of it. Starbucks and other premium coffee brands are trying to rip you off, too; they're literally selling you crap.

O hai.

Or, well, they would like to. They would really, really like to sell you beans that have gone through the gut of an Indonesian animal called a palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus). The palm civet is a natural coffee afficionado; it only eats the choicest coffee berries.

Of course, the civet craps the leftovers out. People then harvest the half-digested beans; who first thought this was a good idea, I do not know, nor do I want to find out. The enzymes in the civet's digestive tract, and possibly its anal musk glands (which look like testicles on both sexes) as well, make the coffee very flavorful.

They Actually Eat That?! 

Civet coffee ("kopi luwak") is said to have, as per a coffee connoisseur's tongue:

"The aroma is rich and strong, and the coffee is incredibly full bodied, almost syrupy. It's thick with a hint of chocolate, and lingers on the tongue with a long, clean aftertaste. It's definitely one of the most interesting and unusual cups I've ever had." 

Look for kopi luwak next time you are at a gourmet coffee or tea place. If you think Starbucks is expensive, get a load of the price tag on this stuff: $600 per pound or sometimes $30 per cup.  This is a big enough industry to have fakers, so use your tongue instead of your eyes. The University of Florida is working on getting cheaper imitation civet crap in stores, but only time will tell if they can compete with the real McCoy.

"Good to the last dropping!" These coffee growers are also witty. ;)

The civet is not the only coffee-lover whose crap gets harvested. Remember the muntjac, that vampire deer? Coffee comes from his excrement, too. It's all fair-trade, so you can feel good about drinking something that has been eaten once already.