Friday, December 31, 2010

Creature Feature: Astrovirus.

Happy New Year's, everyone! Or, well, it will be 2011 tomorrow if it isn't where you are already. In any case, have some fireworks:

Or astroviruses (family Astroviridae).

Surprisingly pretty, aren't they? A lot of viruses, deadly though they may be, look like they would make good lighting fixtures once seen individually. Astroviruses are so named because they have little stars (with either 5 or 6 points) covering the surfaces of their shells. There are a number of them between several bird and mammal species.

Astroviruses are the viruses that ruin your holidays - the most common symptom of an astrovirus is, in a word, stomach flu.There are a number of other things that can cause stomach flu; the sort spread by astroviruses is only the 4th most common, and is usually spread in childcare facilities and military living arrangements. Otherwise, they're so light a group that Wikipedia has their species names in English, not Latin.

Happy holidays, all! Keep your hands clean to prevent the spread of firework viruses!

(Does anyone know the name of this one bug with 'fireworks' shooting out of its ass? I tried to find it and failed. Short improv entry was short.)

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Creature Feature: Kentrosaurus.

Have you ever looked at a spine? Really looked at it? Simple drawings and photographs cannot capture how truly weird and wonderful it is to see a fish's spine literally in the flesh as you're eating it; although we like to think of spines as smooth and linear, they aren't. They're knobby bits of bone on a nerve cord which have cool things like fins, ribs, and spikes sticking out of them. Hell, several dinosaurs can be distinguished from the spine alone.

Wait. That looks like a Stegosaurus, but...what? Did a Hallucigenia get tacked onto its backside like some crazy prehistoric gryphon part? How did it end up with shoulder spikes that look like they belong on a Pokemon? Explain, science, explain!


Kentrosaurus (lit. "prickly lizard") evolved naturally as a small stegosaurian. "Small" means 15 feet/4.5 meters as an adult dinosaur. It was first found in modern Tanzania and lived in the Late Jurassic. If Jurassic Park (or whatever name a real dinosaur-themed amusement park would use) resurrected these guys, they would not try to eat us. Like all stegosaurians, they were herbivores.


Keen observers will realize that Kentrosaurus looks somehow off-balance. It's like the hind legs are too long and its forelegs are struggling to touch the ground. It's not your imagination - this dinosaur really does have more emphasis on its hindquarters. Given that those hindquarters are holding a long tail edged with pointy spikes, this cannot be a good thing.

(Well, OK, it's a good thing for Kentrosaurus.)

Since Kentro's tail had 40 caudal vertebrae (about the same as a modern crocodile), it was relatively flexible as far as giant reptilian tails go. That hip emphasis combined with this flexibility allowed Kentrosaurus to swing its tail with an amazingly good range for a stegosaurian. (Some sauropods supposedly used their own tails as whips; I can make no promises outside of Stegosauria.) In short, anything that messed with Kentro wound up with its head on a pike - or osteoderm. (Yes, those spikes have a name.) Ouch.

Kentrosaurus is what happens when nature is without an uber-species that wipes out herbivores for fun and profit. Y'know, as opposed to food. Hunting only for food apparently leads to twisted badassery.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"They Actually Eat That:" Ortolan.

The French have some really weird cuisine. Most of it tastes good (y'know, unlike 'cuisine' in America, which is a death sentence if one can taste trans fats), but really, some of the things that France considers cuisine -as well as how said things are prepared- are enough to keep people off of meat and/or join PETA.

Ortolan's name does not immediately clue one in on what it is. That is, of course, unless one is French; the word "ortolan," deriving from the Latin word for "garden" ("hortus," see "horticulture") can refer to many species of bunting, a type of songbird similar to (but distinct from) finches.  The particular species used for Ortolan is Emberiza hortulana, simply called the "Ortolan" or "Ortolan Bunting."

They Actually Eat That?!

Take off an Ortolan's feathers and you get this:

Or, rather, catch the wild bird in a net, fatten it up overnight, then drown it in brandy and bake it for 5 minutes. Add a potato. Then you get that. The taste is often described as being a little gamey, like quail, but with bones and blood to go along with it. Ortolan is so good that the bird that is killed for it is protected by law due to overhunting and cannot be legally sold anywhere in Europe.

What? You think I'm just an American raging at Ortolan because it's different? Even the BBC - the British Broadcasting Company - had a complaint with this one. Argue all you like that it's just because they're British, too; part of the ritual of eating Ortolan involves covering one's face with a napkin to hide one's disgrace from God (among other explanations, including "nobody wants to see you eat a songbird"). You can't say that a dish is sane when God disapproves.

I can't see what you're doing beneath that napkin! 

This is the first time that one of my reviewed dishes has been considered unholy.  Illegal, sure; cruel, yes (factory farming is a LOT worse than Ortolan, as are lobster and ikizukuri); possibly an invention of Satan? That's a first. You don't have to be religious to agree with this one.

Creature (err...plant) Feature: Bromeliads (part 2)

So, suppose you're an insect. You're just flying along, looking for something fun to do like, I dunno, pollinate a flower. With your UV-sensing vision, you see something that looks unexpectedly attractive: A giant, shiny green cup of bromeliad leaves.

Oh, hey, a bromeliad! That must be one of those awesome plants with an entire ecosystem in its water cup! It even smells nice, just like the flower that you were intending to pollinate. You land on it, hoping for a free hotel with some free nectar involved...

...then you start to slip. No matter how much you try to get a footing, those glossy leaves make sure that you slide not into a simple pool of water, but into a pool of water, bacteria and maybe simple digestive enzymes. You have fallen prey to one of the few carnivorous bromeliads:  Brocchinia reducta.

Reducta? No sh*t; this plant has a very small range. It is found in the nutrient-poor soil in Venezuela, Brazil, and Guyana. That's it. Nowhere else. Like all carnivorous plants, it only grows in poor soil. There is one other species of definitely carnivorous bromeliad, but botanists don't know/care whether they are actually separate. They hybridize anyways.

Although relatively little research has been done on this plant, people debate over whether B. reducta is really carnivorous at all.  There have been some chemicals that might help with digesting insects in that sheltered pool, but it seems like the bacteria do more work than the plant. Still, the plant does benefit from it. It still counts as a carnivore in a roundabout way.

(I really need to do stones sometime, don't I?)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Creature Feature: Bromeliads (Part 1).

Every day, something new gets discovered. Just recently, hundreds of frog species were found in the Himalayas, of all places; pygmy seahorses were discovered by complete accident; as deepsea cameras and fishing get more and more advanced, countless monsters are found dwelling deep in the ocean. Humans like to think of themselves as the conquerors of the world, but given the sheer amount of discoveries still waiting to be made, it is impossible to declare mastery.

How do these things go so long without being found? The shortest answer is that life has a way of fitting everywhere. That does not mean that humans fit everywhere; that means that, no matter where on Earth you go, something has found a way to live there.

Some animals even live in plants. This is just as cute as it sounds.

All plants of the bromeliad family, which includes pineapples, have special leaves. Some are just waxy; others contain trichomes, which are the plant's only means of getting water; others are amazingly colorful. They are all native to the tropical Americas, which explains Europe's surprise when the Conquistadors brought back a pineapple. There was a lot more where that came from; bromeliads are versatile plants.

This is NOT a flower. Really.

The most stunning thing about bromeliads, however, is that their leaves can hold water amazingly well. This is usually common in epiphytic (tree-dwelling) bromeliad species. These bromeliads form little (or not so little) water tanks at the bases of their waxy leaves. These can hold as much as twelve gallons depending on the particular variety of bromeliad. This not only helps the plant get water if it does not already have a good root system, but creates a home for many other lifeforms.

Suddenly, living in a pineapple seems like a plausible idea.

Frogs (which could be any of MANY rain forest frog species, including the various dart frogs) are the most popular example of life in bromeliads. Some of them spend their whole lives in bromeliad pools, from swimming in the water pools and eating anything tasty that drops in to living in the leaves as adults. 

Frogs are just the beginning. There is a snake called a "bromeliad boa;" the Jamaican bromeliad holds a specific type of crab in its leaves; the damselfly larvae that eat the young crabs live in bromeliads;  snails, flatworms, and other squishy things also call a bromeliad home. Even other bromeliads live in bromeliads. By all standards, these plants contain their own miniature ecosystems. 

This is how it works.

Of course, not all bromeliads are so hospitable... 

Monday, December 27, 2010

Creature Feature: Frilled Shark.

Sharks are ancient creatures. Take any biology course that covers ancient life and they will tell you that  sharks have been around for a darn long time. They do not technically have bones and thus, like lampreys, are considered very primitive fish. They have had thousands of years to perfect the art of devouring anything stupid enough to drip a single drop of blood into the water.

But even Jaws had an older relative. A much creepier, much older relative:

Frilled sharks (Chlamydoselachus anguineus) are rarely-seen, but when they turn up, they cause a stir.  No wonder;  that shark can reach up to two meters in length and looks like something found only by staring into the abyss too much. That is not too far from the truth - frilled sharks live mostly in the deeper waters where humans dare to tread, but are caught more frequently and at shallower depths in Suruga Bay, Japan. Go figure; it's found in the two places known for monsters.

Don't look in its eyes...

One glance is enough to tell you that the frilled shark is not a normal shark. Its namesake gills look somewhere between a regular shark's and a salamander's; it lacks the triangular dorsal finand streamlined build that most people associate with sharks; even the head looks off, with those teeth like small pine trees, that strange bluntness, and dead eyes that freeze your soul. It eats fish, cephalopods, and other smaller swimming things in a style befitting a snake. This thing is not just a living fossil; it is a fossil given Lovecraftian reanimation treatment, then set loose in the depths of the ocean for kicks.

Clearly, this is what happened.

That said, it really is that old. Sharks in general have skeletons made out of cartilage instead of bona fide bone; this shark barely has distinct vertebrae. Those gills make the operculum look like an awesome invention. This shark is just barely a genuine fish, even if it has evolved slightly in the past few millennia.  (Oh, and by the way, it's one of those sharks that gives birth to live babies just to freak you out more.) The frilled shark makes the coelacanth look like a newborn.

Forget Jaws. This is the shark that will be haunting your nightmares from now on.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Creature Feature: Portia Spiders.

Everybody thinks that mammals are smart. It has to do with not only humans being mammals, but also seeing intelligence by mammalian standards. Then, there are some people who ignore those standards and say that their cuddly little Foofiekins of a Pomeranian is smart because he learned how to sit; science says that pigs are smarter than dogs, guys. (Now vomit up your Christmas ham.)

And he gets good grades in school! Mummy just wuvs him!

Ahem. Sorry, but this is about spiders, not powderpuffs with legs.

Portia spiders would like to say hello to mammal-lovers everywhere. They (as a genus) are small jumping spiders that live everywhere except the New World, Europe, and extremely cold regions in general. They do tricks that put dogs to shame.

What? When was the last time your dog mimicked a trapped fly in order to catch a spider as prey?

Portia spiders have evolved psychopathy. They catch other spiders up to twice their size using a simple trick: They get in the spider's web and mimic the vibrations of a struggling fly (or mating partner). Since web-building spiders depend primarily on vibrations along the web instead of eyesight to find their food, they go ahead and check it out. Instead, the spider that made the web is the one that gets eaten. This is like somebody ringing your doorbell with a loaded gun in their free hand and is not even the full extent of Portia's cleverness.

Nom nom nom...

Before you say, "Oh, that's instinctive," only the douchebaggery is programmed. It does not matter if a Portia has never seen your friendly neighborhood web-spinners before; it will observe other spider species and, through trial and error, see what makes them tick. Portia spiders are fast learners; part of us wonders whether we are performing experiments on the Portia or the Portia is secretly experimenting on us, just waiting to see what kind of spider we are.

I'll find a way to eat you...someday...

If Portia treatment sounds like something that you' wish on your enemies, Portia is with you there, too. Spitting spiders eat jumping spiders on a regular basis, but Portia have dealt with those in a terrifying manner as well. They attack spitting spiders from the rear or the front, depending on whether said spitting spider has eggs or not. I do not know how many humans would kill their enemies if they were pregnant, but spiders do not care. They fight head-on. 

For the record, Portia's dickishness only shows that God is a mean-spirited being. 

Besides eating other spiders, Portia also eat each other. If you thought black widows cannibalized too much, Portia can kill either before or after banging. They mate in mid-air, but the male does not get to enjoy that for long. Love bites.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Creature Feature: Arctic Fox.

Merry Christmas, everyone! Ho ho ho and all that! Celebrate the season with Coca-Cola, even though it's available all year round and the company thinks that all cold-friendly animals live on the North Pole!

(They live, literally, on  opposite sides  of the world...but it's STILL SO CUTE!)

Ever notice how much hubbub there is around the polar bear? Sure, it is tragic to lose an apex predator to global warming, and global warming is more likely than not (only) our problem, but what about those other cool animals that live up North? They have all had to adapt to a cold, unforgiving environment. If you thought that humans having to deal with malaria in Africa sucked, try living in a place where the sun doesn't shine for a month.

Also, look at the marketing potential for this pretty critter! BEAUTIFUL!

Amidst snow leopards, polar bears, and wolves, the Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus) is often forgotten as a cold-weather predator. Given the rising population of foxes (which are almost all Reds - don't be fooled just because they're from Japan!), they should be getting more attention.

I know what you're thinking: "It's a fox and it's white. So what?"

It's not even white all the time.

"So what?" That's like saying "polar bears are just white bears." Arctic foxes have a number of other differences from normal foxes, such as body proportions (they're chubby) and large feet similar to those of snowshoe hares that keep them from sinking into the snow. They have extremely acute hearing that allows them to hear prey beneath the snow. These are foxes so well-adapted to the Arctic climate that they are the only land mammals native to Iceland.

Foxes are predators. Arctic Foxes will eat almost any mammals they can find, including snowshoe hares, as well as carrion and polar bear feces, but are especially fond of lemmings. They can eat dozens of lemmings every day. Disney did not need to kill off all the lemmings that they did; the foxes do a pretty good job. No fancy filmwork required.


Like the polar bear, the Arctic Fox is slowly disappearing. Besides global warming affecting its habitat, the larger Red Fox has taken over some of its territory (thanks largely to the decreased wolf population). They are also all but gone from areas in which humans have settled. One subpopulation was nearly eradicated by a dog tick. Blah, blah, blah, humans suck and wiped out a perfectly good recessive trait. At least the endangered-ness is restricted to only a few select populations.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Creature Feature: Pygmy Seahorse.

Does anyone else remember the children's book series Where's Waldo? If not, the goal was to find a guy named Waldo (or Wally, depending on your region) in a crowd. He usually blended in pretty well either the crowd or other red-and-white things in the picture. The challenge was to find Waldo and/or his friends in the extremely-crowded image.

Now for a twist on that - find the seahorse:

OK, now for an easier one:

Still don't see it?

That adorable little sprite, dressed in red and white (or very light blue-gray) for the holidays, is a pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus bargibanti). They are native to the coral reefs around Japan, Australia, Indonesia and New Caledonia. There are two subspecies, each specifically evolved to blend in closely with a particular type of gorgonian coral (AKA sea fans). Their camouflage is both super-effective and adorable.

If you missed the seahorse more than once in the images above, you are not alone. This tiny seahorse was unknown to science for a looong time. They were first discovered by pure accident when their coral host was brought into an aquarium.

Pygmy seahorses are one of the smallest vertebrates alive. From head to twisty tail, they only stretch 2.4 cm - approximately one inch in America. (For those curious, the smallest vertebrate is a small relative of carps and minnows, also from Indonesia.) They are so small that there are probably many more subspecies and species waiting to be discovered.  Many species of pygmy seahorse have only been discovered within the last ten years. The Waldo of all seahorses will have us looking for a very long time.

(Happy Christmas Eve! Hope you all get lots of good presents tomorrow!)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"They Actually Eat That:" Czarnina et al.

Most of my family is Polish. My friend's family also has Polish (among other things), so during our Christmas lunch at a rather fancy German place called the Berghoff, Polish cuisine came up in conversation. There were two things I had never heard of, but were supposedly obligatory for being truly Polish: A certain type of sausage made of all the pig parts that nobody wanted to eat and a soup called "czarnina."

In a Dutch cup, for some reason.

Czarnina is the only Polish dish that has ever gotten my interest for one simple reason: S'blood.

They Actually Eat That?! 

 Czarnina is soup made from a duck's blood. Seasonings and fruity flavoring are usually added to make it taste less like a fresh wound and more like actual food. Noodles, dumplings, and pieces of fruit are often thrown in as well.

The Poles are not the only ones with duck's blood soup. Sweden, Vietnam and China all have similar dishes. There are also various sorts of blood puddings, sausages, and even blood tofu (i.e. a one-inch-deep pan of blood allowed to congeal, then cut into rectangular slices).

The blood substitute of choice for vegetarian vampires everywhere. 

 The acceptance of blood-based foods depends largely on culture. In Poland, for example, duck's blood soup is a plot device in one of their epics. It is also typically served to young men if his girlfriend's parents didn't like him. REJECTED never seemed so sanguine.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Creature Feature: Bandicoots.

In Australia, nothing is as it seems. Humans and dingos are far from native. There are giant birds that look like dinosaurs and can gauge your guts out with nasty, long claws. Even the happy-looking, hopping national animal of Australia is perfectly capable of drowning your dog like some sadistic, pouched psychopath.

I keel you.

The most normal animals in Australia are bandicoots (order Peramelemorphia). They are small, furry critters that eat almost anything. Bandicoots are distinguished from another group of small marsupials by their tendencies towards eating grass as opposed to animals, as well as their shorter legs. The word "bandicoot" came from a word that roughly translates as "pig-rat"- an adequate name for a long-nosed, small mammal like that.

 "Anteater-rat" would also have worked. This is the aptly-named long-nosed bandicoot (Peremeles nasuta).

Bandicoots exhibit the closest thing that marsupials have to normal births: Instead of being pouched, baby bandicoots stay in the womb, attached via a small psuedo-placenta. This is pretty close to the placenta found in placental mammals, but not close enough to move the bandicoots out of marsupials.

A fair amount of bandicoot species are threatened by (as one might expect) introduced species. Cats have a field day with not-quite-mice. Foxes, adaptable as they are, see no problems with eating any furry things that they can catch. Many bandicoots are now considered endangered. 

Despite being the most normal mammals native to Australia, bandicoots are still portrayed as being not quite right in the head. The most popular example is, of course, Crash from the Crash Bandicoot games. Really, does this look like a sane animal to you?

Then again, he's also supposed to be a genetically-engineered freak. That explains that.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Creature Feature: Roadrunner.

"*GASP* Roadrunners are real!" - Homer Simpson.

Ya rly!

If you have never heard the word "Roadrunner" before, you must have been living in a hole for the past century or so. Warner Bros. has done a good job popularizing this bird with a blue Looney Tunes character known only for saying "beep beep!" and outrunning a coyote.

Real roadrunners have a wider vocabulary.

Real roadrunners are birds native to the hotter areas of North and Central America. Like peacocks and seriamas, they are cursorial predators, but also opportunistic omnivores. Specifically, the Lesser Roadrunner eats mostly insects while the Greater Roadrunner ( Geococcyx californianus) has a more varied diet. Said varied diet includes rattlesnakes and tarantula hawk wasps, by the way.

The Geico gecko failed to sell THIS creature car insurance. (Kidding, that's an anole of some sort.)

Roadrunners are members of the cuckoo family. This grants them not only a blank check for lunacy, but also the unique honor of being the only cursorial hunters with zygodactyl feet. For those of you not in the know, that means that a roadrunner's foot has two toes facing forward, two facing back. They can run up to 20 mph (32 km/h), so they're doing something right.

Of course, most of us care more about the roadrunner as seen in popular culture. Besides being a popular cartoon character, the roadrunner is the state bird of New Mexico, the mascot of a number of athletic teams down south, and even the logo for a line of energy foods.

At least, I'm pretty darn sure this is a roadrunner.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Creature Feature: Coelacanth.

Some people contemplate what it would be like if dinosaurs still walked the Earth. Such wishes lead to things like Jurassic Park, Dinotopia, and people believing that dragons once existed on land. *Is immediately shot by a million dragonhumpers for saying so.*

How about resurrecting something harmless first? Y'know, like a fish...

...oh, wait. Nature's already done that.

The coelacanth (genus Latimeria) is the most widely-known example of a living fossil. Up until the 20th century, it was thought that the coelacanth, a fish whose fossil record goes all the way back to the Devonian period, had literally died with the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Period.

An old coelacanth relative. MUCH older than any of yours, seeing as it's extinct. 

Then, in 1938, one was pulled up by accident off the coast of South Africa. More and more of the strange fish began popping up around that area, Madgascar, and, strangely enough, Indonesia. The African and Indonesian coelacanths are separate species, leaving at least one whole genus of coelacanth somewhere beneath the ocean. Ocean trawling may dig up more (but that's not a good thing; after all, it means more dead coelacanths and less live ones).

Besides being a living fossil, coelacanths are valuable missing links. Those fins look an awful lot like the beginnings of legs; coelacanths are closer to tetrapods (i.e. anything with a spine that ISN'T in the water) than ray-finned fish, and are related to lungfish. The only thing closer would be a live Tiktaalik.

Too funny not to link. Tiktaalik will get its own entry, soon.

Coelacanths have a number of other weird biological features that set them apart from other fish. Aside from the lobe-fins, they also sport a tail fin divided into three lobes. They have a number of other weird organs such as a brain case mostly filled with fat, a tubular heart, and a singular kidney. A strange electroreceptive body called a rostral organ on the fish's head allows it to swim upside-down and backwards in order to locate the soft-bodied sea creatures that they eat. To round off the weirdness, they also give birth to live babies.

If only we had more of these.

It would be great if people somehow found a way to breed these. Really, a million museums and aquariums would love to have an actual coelacanth specimen to work with. Despite being of HUGE interest to scientists around the world, very few places have a real coelacanth, dead or alive, on display. The fish is not good for eating, just for sticking in museums and zoos, but hooo boy would it make a mint for anyone willing to try. Like the tuatara, coelacanths' relatively slow reproductive rate (sexually mature at 20 years...just like the tuatara) makes them hard to breed in captivity. They would likely also outlive their breeders (again, like the tuatara).

Plus, it has its own Pokemon. And Castlevania monster.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Creature Feature: Sugar Glider.




Too many people are still against exotic pets. NOTHING cheeses me off more when an innocent question about how much an unusual pet costs is answered with, "if you want a small carnivore, get a cat or dog." Congrats; you just missed the whole point of wanting an exotic pet.

The poster who wanted to know how much a raccoon was was clearly not looking for a cat or dog. That person was probably seeking something cute, furry, and unique. You know, something like this:

Whatever it is, I didn't do it!

That furry little creature up there is not a flying squirrel. It is Australia's pouched, nectar-drinking, bug -eating version of the flying squirrel, the sugar glider (Pretaurus breviceps).

You may remember this fellow from the momonga entry a while back. These little guys are also called "momonga" in Japan due to their resemblance to a flying squirrel. Anything with a placenta is instantly a freak on Australia; sugar gliders are not squirrels at all. They are a type of possum. Like all possums, they give birth to underdeveloped young that stay in the female's pouch before venturing out into the world.

A certain someone will like this vid JUST for Adam Lambert. 

Like flying squirrels, sugar gliders glide using flaps of skin in between their forepaws. They can glide anywhere from 50-100 meters, adjusting direction using either the patagium itself or its slightly-prehensile tail. It also looks just plain adorable while airborne, so get a cage with space.

Although I have put a few creatures on this blog just because they are adorable, the sugar glider is also legitimately strange. When the conditions grow harsh in Australia, their body temperature drops substantially; they eventually go into a deep rest (up to 23 hours) called torpor. They are also one of the few mammals that has a bifurcated penis. Should you ever need to sex a sugar glider, the male has a convenient bald spot on his head.

Yes, you can have a sugar glider as a pet. Their popularity as pets has led to many a sugar glider being plucked from the wild; as always, get a captive bred baby if at all possible. Do your research and prepare accordingly. Since these creatures are nocturnal, invest in a red light to watch their nightttime activities. There are a number of sugar glider diets on the market to satisfy their odd nutritional requirements. Breeders (being breeders) have taken what little color palette that mammals have to offer and ran with it.

With adorable results. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Creature Feature: Torosaurus

Herbivorous dinosaurs are underrated. Much like animals in Africa, nearly everybody wants to see the giant carnivores - Tyrannosaurus rex, Allosaurus, Velociraptor, etc. - instead of the big plant eaters that can be just as spectacular. A few, however, break the mold; this is one of them.

"Hey, that's Triceratops, right?"

Not quite. Although Torosaurus ("wide-perforated lizard" or, mistranslated, "bull lizard") looks quite a lot like one of the most iconic herbivorous dinosaurs, the story is twisting the other direction. Triceratops and Torosaurus looked so similar that paleontologists were starting to suspect something.

All those Triceratops specimens you saw growing up were immature Torosaurus specimens. Yes, really. 

An adult Torosaurus was one massive beast. It reached 25 feet (7.6 meters) from head to tail. The skull alone was the size of a compact car (8.5 feet/2.6 meters). The name Torosaurus probably came from the holes in its massive frill, but the common mistranslation of "bull dinosaur" is a bit more fun. Not all dinosaur names come from Latin; let us call the giant herbivore with pointy horns a bull.

Toro, toro!

Torosaurus was distinguished from Triceratops primarily by its size. Otherwise, that three-horned face looks almost exactly like good ol' Triceratops. After cross-examining lots of specimens, specifically a bunch found at Hell Creek, Montana, paleontologists finally came to the conclusion that Triceratops and Torosaurus were just different growth stages of the same dinosaur.

What does this mean? For one thing, either Triceratops or Torosaurus is going to go extinct. The Cretaceous was not big enough for the both of them; this discovery proves that dinosaur diversity was down during the time of T.rex and Triceratops. (Sorry, Stegosaurus fans, but they were from the Jurassic.) Low species diversity is never a good thing; don't let it happen to us.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"They Actually Eat That:" Escargot.

Humans really are omnivores. Pica (i.e. eating random stuff) aside, there is almost nothing that our stomachs cannot handle. Numerous zoo exhibits have pointed out that, despite the fact that we should be eating leaves with all the other Great Apes, we have evolved systems to work with meat as part of our diets. Screw pigs and goats; humans should be used as the classic "eats anything" animal.

If you watch the video of a goat eating a textbook on YT, the goat only takes a few pages before realizing that law texts do not even taste good.

This has been stated a million times and will never grow old: People eat what's around them. If there is a not-so-appetizing something around, chances are that we will try to eat it, no matter how poisonous it may be. (No doubt the toxicity of poison dart frogs was discovered the hard way.) We can do that; we're omnivores.

That means that we will even eat things that regularly feed on things that are already dead. Things like snails:

They Actually Eat That?!

And it's classy. Really, really classy. You probably know snail meat by the French name of "escargot," but many places eat land snails, from the U.S. to France to Laos and Vietnam. They rank up there with frogs in the category of "notorious French foods," despite their universal appeal.

The snails themselves are usually some species of the genus Helix (which in turn led to snail farming being called "heliciculture"). Eating snails goes back to the prehistoric days (hey, shells preserve well), proving that even ancient humans ate more different things than goats.

Helix pomatia, the Roman snail. Yes, the Romans loved snails, too.

Snails eat carrion, rotten plants, and leaves.  If just listening to some of those made you want to throw up, worry not; farmed escargot are fed grain and have all the toxins 'purged' out of them. Purging can consist of either feeding them grain like other livestock or, umm, starving them.

Escargot, like all molluscs, is low in fat and high in protein. This is, of course, barring any additions; usually, the sauce adds a couple hundred calories by itself. To get REALLY nutritious snails, one would probably have to boil and eat the poor snails oneself. (Also, avoid the canned snails at any cost; they supposedly taste TERRIBLE.) They provide a good "beginner's step" into 'weird' food regardless of their nutritional value.

(I will be giving these snails a try sometime in December-early January. Expect a video! Wish me luck on my THREE finals tomorrow, guys!)