Monday, January 31, 2011

Creature Feature: Giant Blue Earthworm.

What? You thought we were making stuff up? That really is a giant blue earthworm, and it really does release glow-in-the-dark mucus. Its more official name is not "tentacle rape in Australia," but the more worksafe "Giant Gippsland Earthworm (Megascolides australis)." It is one of the few things in Australia that does not want to suck your intestines far as we know. It's big enough to possibly do that.

How giant is giant? Nobody is really sure, but reports range from 2-3 meters in length for adult specimens. The largest ever was supposedly 4 meters (around 13 feet). They can be found in the colorful clay soils of Gippsland, Australia. That land is protected to keep these rare worms alive; as of right now, they are the only Australian worm classified as "vulnerable."

You thought the deepsea was unknown? We don't even know how these strange worms reproduce. Like David Attenborough up there said, we have their egg cocoons and can hear them squishing underground, but know very little about them otherwise.

In retrospect, that might be a good thing.  I don't want to know why this scientist named hers 'Bitey.'

Tomorrow: After this and the yeti crab, you deserve a cute. A cute that can smash your face with its butt!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Creature Feature: Yeti Crab.

Every year, more and more new species are found. Some of these are in unexpected places, like those frogs recently discovered in the Himalayas; others are in places that mankind simply has not poked around in, yet. The deepsea abyss is one of those places.

In our narrow-minded perception, life cannot exist without sunlight. Plants need sunlight, and plants feed everything else; therefore, all life needs sunlight. It makes sense to us on the surface world, therefore we make the sun a god and all that jazz. There's no way that anything else could be the case...right?


It turns out there there is a whole ecosystem that gets along just fine without any hint of sunlight. New organisms are discovered every time we take another look down there. The yeti crab (Kiwa hirsuta) is one of the more recent ones.

The yeti crab was discovered in the South Pacific by Monterey Bay Aquarium specialists in 2005. Seen via submarine (the pressure down there kills humans), this crustacean was found along the Pacific-Antarctic ridge near geothermal vents. In surface world terms, this is a couple thousand miles away from Easter Island. The discovery was officially announced on March 7th, 2006. 

Yeti crabs get their name from the furry setae on their legs and pincers. The fuzz contains bacteria that may help detoxify the water around geothermal vents. It is assumed that this crab is carnivorous, perhaps feeding on other geothermal-friendly bacteria, but more likely eating bigger prey.

Just like a real yeti!

Other than that, nobody really knows much about this fuzzy crab; it has only been known to science for a little over four years. Sheldon knows that they will be around for a long, long time to come, so we'll have plenty of chances to learn more. Our surface world seems pretty insignificant now, doesn't it?

Tomorrow: Giant blue earthworms? That sounds like a bad porno.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Creature Feature: White Tent-Making Bats.

Deep in the tropical rain forests of Central America dwells a special kind of bat. In a surprising feat of chiropteran architecture, they fashion tents out of the giant leaves of Heliconia plants...

...and look ADORABLE. If you thought bats were creepy little mice with wings before, these cotton balls will make you think otherwise. Mind, they are not white and fuzzy to appeal to us humans; they are white so that they are less visible inside their tents. (Green does not exist as a mammalian pigment, science.)

Tent-making is simple: the bats nibble along the edge of a plantain plant leaf's stem to make it fold over like a canvas.  The leaf is also perforated along the sides to give the bats a better foothold. A few snips here, a few folds there, add some punctures to make it easier to hang from, and presto. One tent, perfect for concealing flying cotton balls!

How could the Pokeymanz based off of this bat be LESS cute?

There are a grand total of 15 species of bats that make tents in Latin America, and a few in tropical India and Southeast Asia as well. The most popular is the Honduran White Bat, Ectophylla alba. It lives in Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and is likely the most photogenic tent bat around. It is harmless; at least some of its diet consists of fruit. Besides being fuzzy and adorable, these bats will not fly away unless the main stem of their tent is disturbed, thus making for a lot of great photo opportunities.

The Honduran White's tent usually contains one male and several females (a harem system, in other words). What? If you're gonna make a tent, may as well party in it. Bring on the marshmallow bats!

Party in the house!

(Tomorrow: A crab with fur?!)

Friday, January 28, 2011

Creature Feature: Gorgonopsids.

Oh, furries. Why is it that your fursonas, despite being so "varied," tend to loop back to felids, canids, raptors and dragons? If you really want to be intimidating and predatory, go for something so weird, yet close enough to a modern carnivore that it creates an 'Uncanny Valley' effect.

Uncanny Valley'd!

Like this thing. What the hell is this thing?

That menacing-looking beast is a gorgonopsid (family Gorgonopsidae). Like Dimetrodon, it was not a dinosaur, but a mammal-like reptile called a synapsid. Synapsids were the way, way ancient ancestors of every mammal known today. Gorgonopsids were one family of many mammal-like reptiles present throughout ancient history. Every single one of them looked like something out of a horror flick.

Even though the name "gorgonopsid" literally means "gorgon-eyed," with jaws like that, who cares about the eyes? Gorgons also had huge tusks (which is not usually acknowledged in most modern media); gorgonopsids have saber-teeth and long, sturdy jaws to work with them. Their sizes ranged from being dog-sized carnivores to bear-sized behemoths (e.g. Inostrancevia); regardless of how big they were, those jaws would have torn a nice chunk out of their prey. As stated in my Dimetrodon entry, differentiated teeth like this are usually a sign that a given skull is at least a proto-mammal.

Gorgonopsids were wiped out in the Permian-Triassic extinction. In case you do not know your history of the world, the Triassic period was the first chunk of the Mesozoic, featuring relatively small dinosaurs. Gorgonopsids went extinct before that; despite being in the 'prehistoric animal' category, they never met a dinosaur. These creatures never got to compete with the big dinosaurs that most people know and love (or even the little ones). 

Synapsids are often overlooked in the modern media, but gorgonopsids got a fair amount of screentime on the British television show Primeval. It looks like a neat show, to say the least. Past and future superpredators entering the present day and causing damage? Count us in.

One of these. Black with bright purple stripes. Nobody knows what skin covering this creature had, so feel free to go nuts with fur, skin, and scales. GOGOGO, furry community!

Next time: A bat? Sure. Why not?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Creature Feature: Sydney Funnel-web Spider.

Remember when we said that Australia had too much extant badass for a scorpion that shoots salad dressing out of its rear? That is because everything in Australia is equipped with something that can put a man in the hospital without difficulty. Even when we brought puppies over, they evolved to have an appetite for human babies. When the ecology is enough to turn a domesticated dog into a baby-killer in a relatively short span of time, you know something is hardcore about that place.

Everything in Australia is trying to kill you. Every. Living. Thing. The 'average' creepy-crawlies over there are no exception.

Look up any "world's deadliest spiders" list and the Sydney funnel-web spider  (Atrax robustus) will definitely be on it- probably at the top. The name says a lot: It's native to the area around Sydney, one of Australia's biggest cities, although it has gotten as far as England (likely thanks to imported goods). The spider lives in a special silk-lined burrow, thus "funnel web."

Sydney funnel-webs are medium-large spiders and look almost like Halloween decorations: Large, black, huge fangs, and would look darn scary dangling from a piece of twine. There are no special markings to tell you "don't touch this spider." All one has to know is that it, like everything else in Australia, is out for your blood.

Those giant fangs are not just for show. Unlike most arthropod pincers, they are designed to pierce. To use them, the funnel-web spider rears up, then strikes repeatedly at whatever is threatening it, injecting a lot of venom.

The male funnel-web's venom, atracotoxin, is a powerful neurotoxin that fucks with the sodium gates in the nervous system. It specifically attacks motor neurons, causing the twitch mentioned in the video. The spider gains no benefit from attacking humans except a killer reputation; this venom was originally intended to harm insect prey in the same way.

Seek medical attention immediately if bitten. Symptoms include tingling around the mouth, muscle spasms, excessive salivation, and, eventually, respiratory failure. A single bite can kill in 15 minutes, but if an antivenin is administered, it is not even a threat. They have gotten good at curing that deadly bite down under.

The good news is, once you know what a funnel-web looks like, they are easy to pick out and hit with a newspaper (or avoid). The bad news? They're everywhere around Sydney and Canberra. The males will wander during the warmer months of the year to find a mate. Their attraction to water often leads them to swimming pools; they can survive being drowned, and will bite if taken out of the pool by hand. One site said that the female sucks a little bit of the male's brain out during mating, which would make him a real-life zombie spider. Way to go, Australia: You've found a way to make the undead.

Tomorrow: It's a dinosaur! It's a bear! It's...neither of the above, but it has HUGE teeth!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"They Actually Eat That:" Scorpions.

We cannot top pica. Period. The only thing that can top a disorder that makes people stuff everything in their mouths are the people who can digest everything. Those individuals are few and far between, but they might make it onto this blog if we ever do an "X-Men Week." Professor Xavier has a human goat somewhere in his school, right?


For now, back to China. Sure, it's not as intense as snake venom medicine, but eating scorpions is still pretty darn weird:

Oh, China. If we ever need any more weird food ideas, we know where to turn. 

Eating scorpions is about as popular as eating/drinking venomous snakes for the exact same reasons: It takes balls to eat something with deadly venom and doing so makes one some sort of insane sex god. Hell, scorpions are often added to snake wine, in itself a knockout aphrodisiac.

If you drink this stuff and LIVE, you deserve to get laid.

This one is actually not restricted to China. People in Thailand and Afghanistan also eat scorpions. In North Africa, they are often used in folk medicine. If you really, really want to try scorpions without learning Chinese, eHow has a handy guide on how to catch your own edible, venomous arachnid. It is still not recommended.

Creature Feature: Vinegarroon.

So, how do you like your scorpions? Live? Fried? Boiled? With a little bit of salad dressing?

Thank you, Japan, for proving that you can literally find "anything VS anything" on YouTube.

Actually, if you like your bugs with a little bit of tang, nature has several all ready and waiting for you. Arachnophobes stay away; the whip scorpions of the order Thelyphonida, more commonly known as vinegarroons, look like a cross between a spider and a scorpion. They are carnivorous and native to every dry tropical environ except those in Africa (though they have been introduced there) and Australia, which has too much badass for this arachnid to handle.

The vinegarroon is strange even by arachnid standards. Like scorpions, it has ten appendages: Eight legs and two pedipalps that have evolved into pincer-tipped appendages. It only uses six of its eight legs for walking; the remaining two have become sensory organs akin to antennae on insects. If limbs becoming antennae and mouthparts becoming limbs were not weird enough, vinegarroons also have that tail.

The whiplike tail on the vinegarroon does not have the same venom as the more menacing tails of true scorpions. Special glands near the vinegarroon's rear secrete acetic acid, the same chemical that gives vinegar its smell and flavor, and octanoic acid, a compound found in the milk of several mammals (including goats). When the vinegarroon feels threatened, it aims its tail towards the attacker's eyes, squirting this delicious sounding concoction into a place where the predator cannot enjoy it. The resulting spray smells like vinegar (hence the name "vinegarroon").

This thing should taste like a Greek salad.

 To be perfectly honest, we are not sure whether anyone has tried eating vinegarroons or not. Seeing as they come with their own marinade, one would think that somebody, somewhere, would have tried eating this weird-ass arachnid. This looks to be one of the few arachnids that never get eaten, even if they are kept as pets by Linkin Park fanboys. (Watch. We'll be proven wrong within the hour.)

Thought this was terrifying? Have an actual spider tomorrow. SPIIIDDEEEERS! 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Creature Feature: Jararacussu.

Go take a look in your medicine cabinet. Go. I'll wait.

Everything that you just saw came from something in nature. Most medicines are derived from plant barks, oils, etc. Some medicines, such as insulin, are human bodily fluids grown in other animals. Vampire bat saliva has one of the best anticoagulants out there. Medicine can come from all sorts of weird sources.

The snake doesn't like where this is going.

Surprise, surprise: there are even a select few medicines that are derived from snake venom. We are not talking antivenins; there is a medicine called lisinopril (among a few other ACE inhibitors) that are derived from the venom of the Jararacussu (Bothrops jararaca), a pit viper native to Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina.

"Pit viper" should set off a few alarms. That alone tells one that this snake is not only poisonous, but it has those heat-sensing pits that humans can only hope to simulate. It is very common throughout its range and is one of the leading causes of death by snakebite in South America.

Jarara venom has an effect that would make any goth happy if it were not lethal: It keeps blood from coagulating. When this snake bites, not only do unpleasant symptoms such as shock and renal failure occur, but the bite just keeps bleeding. It's hemophilia in a bite!

This venom is not used as the best murder weapon ever. Its effects on the bloodstream have led it to be used as medicine for hypertension (AKA high blood pressure) and for preventing the retinal and renal complications of diabetes. In short, Americans are taking snake venom to deal with being fatasses.

Pick your poison wisely.

The compound mentioned earlier, lisinopril, has the anticoagulant enzyme from the venom and then some. It is prescription-only (thank you) and should not be taken by people with kidney problems. Period. There are about a million things that can and do go wrong with this medicine.

Ever hear a medicine commercial with "side effects may include..." and a laundry list that does more damage than the actual medicine could ever hope to cure? That is the case here. Side effects include blurred vision, muscle cramps, a bad case of diarrhea, rapid weight gain, infection, chest pain or tightness, increased insulin sensitivity, and sexual dysfunction. Those are just the effects that contradict the medicine's whole purpose (except the last one; that just sucks in general). There are more where that came from. (Foamy has a VERY good rant on this.)No, hallucination is not on the list.

China, you look GREAT in the face of this snake's venom being used as medicine. Seriously, go kill more tigers; at least that's a fairly harmless placebo. Sure, a few tigers will bite the dust, but at least the Chinese are not seeing Elvis in their refrigerators.

(Speaking of China, yes, they will be on "They Actually Eat That?!" again. Also, a scorpion that squirts salad dressing?!)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Creature Feature: Prions.

Yesterday's zombie entry was the second time I had mentioned the strange little things called prions. If you have a good memory, you might remember that the first time I mentioned prions was the entry on human cannibalism. Surprise, surprise, kuru is a prion-triggered disease that comes from eating human brains. Or listening to too much Ke$ha.

Apparently Ke$ha advocates people getting kuru, now. Congrats: Your plot to have a hoard of drooling zombie slaves at your command worked.

Braaaiiins? Zombie is prion victim? The symptoms of prion-caused diseases (in this case, mad cow disease) include: 

"...rapidly progressive dementia, leading to memory loss, personality changes and hallucinations. This is accompanied by physical problems such as speech impairment, jerky movements (myoclonus), balance and coordination dysfunction (ataxia), changes in gait, rigid posture, and seizures." You tell me if this sounds like zombie behavior or not.

The most distinctive hint that an unknown disease might be caused by a prion is that, yes, they all attack the brain. Mad cow disease (which has a different name when spread to humans), kuru, and scrapies (the sheep version of mad cow) are all caused by prions. There are various ways to contract prion-based diseases, included eating affected neural matter. Several of them are also hereditary and nearly always lethal.

This is not salami. It is, however, headcheese.

Many prion-caused diseases have at least one name using the words "spongiform encephalopathy."  This is a fancy way of saying, "it turns a brain into Swiss cheese (or Spongebob)," which is what causes all of the quoted symptoms.

But what exactly are prions? The current theory is that prions are, or at least encourage the replication of, deformed proteins in the brain. An individual prion has as much DNA as a rubber stamp (i.e. none) and a similar function: To propagate its misshapen self onto an animal's brain cells. (Fungi get off just fine.)

Essentially, they're that wrench in the gears that shuts down the whole power plant. They are the one 0  that should have been a 1 in a computer program. They're that paper jam that happens the night you have a term paper due. Prions are that sort of simple, glitchy thing that makes everything go wrong.  Oh, and despite being inanimate, they can multiply like YouTube videos.

Prions are not alive, but they are capable of self-replication. They do not have DNA/RNA like viruses. They just act like a rubber stamp on other neural proteins. This makes scientists wonder what the hell nature was thinking. (Personally, we think she has just decided to flip humanity the bird and given us an enemy that we cannot attack without screwing ourselves over.) Unlike viruses, they are clearly not alive, but no less deadly.

She's going to be sent to the slaughterhouse...then Mickey D's. Think about that.

Be afraid. Be very, very afraid. When scientists start making medicine that affects protein synthesis in the human body, I would be willing to bet 100 bucks that, for every ten lives saved with science's next miracle medicine, one person will become a crazed zombie thanks to that one protein that decided to be a douchebag in the office and order multiple photocopies of its rear end.

Tomorrow: Speaking of crack medicine, can Brazilian pit viper venom provide a cure for diabetes, or does it just make things worse?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Creature (...plant) Feature: Datura.

Zombies are everywhere these days. Possibly due to the whole "2012" thing, the zombie has become one of the most popular movie monsters of the modern era. They are generally characterized as being hard to kill (for good), having an infectious bite, and, most importantly, craving human brains.

Usually, some sort of virus is to blame for a zombie apocalypse, although there are a few other possibilities. The most popular virus is the Solanum Virus, a fictional virus made by Max Brooks that a million people still think is real. There are a number of reasons to call it BS, the first being that, if zombies take over, it'll more likely be due to a prion or parasite than a virus (because when was the last time you felt like eating brains from a flu or cold? Mad cow seems a TINY bit more likely to cause zombies; beware the burgers).

Clearly poison.

 Truth is stranger than fiction, in this case.  The Solanum Virus is named after the family containing the plant genus Datura, a type of plant used in zombie creation rites on the island of Haiti. Yes, zombies are Caribbean monsters, and yes, Disney is taking advantage of this fact.

Datura poison was part of a zombie-making concoction in Wade Davis's documentary, The Serpent and the Rainbow. Like many authors, he complained about numerous inaccuracies when his book was made into a movie. He was not a nerd behind a computer - he was an ethnobotanist, someone who studies how people interact with plants.  Get it right.

Come to think of it, this DOES look kinda creepy.

Despite some severe scientific criticisms, Davis insisted that a Haitian man named Clairvius Narcisse was turned into a living zombie via two separate, deadly powders that induced a deathlike state. The first included tetrodotoxin, the poison that makes fugu risky; the second, datura, among other dissociative drugs. By using these drugs, a Haitian sorcerer called a bokor could get a 'living corpse' to do their bidding. People subjected to these drugs only thought they were dead; after being bombarded with this poison cocktail, they were buried and reeducated into zombiehood. One can only presume that the training consisted of "go fetch me a double tall mocha latte," among other mind-numbing orders.

Would you like brains with that?

Datura plants are closely related to nightshade and a number of other major agricultural crops, such as  tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants. All of the above are at least slightly poisonous if picked at the wrong time. Datura is also very widely cultivated, giving no hints as to where it actually came from. The name is Hindi, meaning, rather generically, "plant." Such a demure name belies exactly what Datura can do.

Every single plant in the genus Datura has toxins powerful enough to send one to the hospital. Datura is the suicide poison of choice for over 2,000 people...and that's just in India. Its ability to kill is only the tip of the iceberg; other symptoms include delirium, the inability to distinguish fantasy from reality, an increased heart rate, photophobia (a fear of light), hyperthermia, and, much of the time, amnesia. Before you buy some, ask the seller if he remembers what happened last night. He likely will not.

Nobody really knows whether Davis's Datura and fugu combo works or not. Datura has a mighty fine history of driving people crazy; a particular variety called "Jimson Weed" (or "Jamestown Weed" if you are wondering where to find it) was used to drug British soldiers during Bacon's Rebellion. It drove them batshit insane. Careful what your boss gives you at your next physical; we cannot think of a corporation around that would not want a zombie slave. Watch out.

Tomorrow: Just what the hell is a prion, anyways? 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

OMG SHINY! - Moldavite


We end a week of shiny things with the Holy Grail of all rocks. No, seriously; before the Holy Grail was ever considered a cup, the Druids were using that term to describe a very unusual rock that may or may not have been magic. All they knew was that moldavite came from outer space and that it was therefore awesome.

Yes, moldavite, the green stone up there, has similar pockmarks as meteorites. It was first classified as an igneous rock (i.e. a rock made by volcanic activity), but this was later proven false. Moldavite is now definitely considered a tektite - a glassy rock formed by the impact of a meteor upon the Earth's surface.

Most moldavite can be traced to one meteorite that crashed 15 million years ago in western Bavaria, an event that created a giant-ass hole called the "Nördlinger Ries" in Bavaria, Germany. Moldavite from this event can be found in Bavaria, other parts of Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, and, true to its name, the Republic of Moldova. Hardcore moldavite fanatics will tell you that, if it is NOT from Europe, it is probably a fake.

That last paragraph is all that science knows for sure. From then on, one has to look into New Age crackpot websites about moldavite's magical properties. Nearly every page will mention that it is, somehow, linked to the Christian Holy Grail, in part because it is the only green stone to ever fall from the sky. They are not the only ones to think that this weird space rock is something special; as stated earlier, the Druids thought it was cool, too.

As with various animal parts in Chinese medicine, moldavite is almost a panacea, except that it works more on the soul than on the body. Many people describe feeling a "vibe" when holding moldavite, regardless of how much they believe in the supernatural. Due to moldavite's rarity and mystical properties, even small 'flowers' of moldavite range into the hundreds of USD.

Or maybe you will just have to know the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow to get your hands on some real moldavite. We do not know anything about swallows carrying coconuts, either, so if anybody asks, we're listening to Lady Gaga and our telephone's kinda busy.

Tomorrow: A drug that can turn humans into zombies?! We'll see about that...

Friday, January 21, 2011

OMG SHINY! - Watermelon Tourmaline.

If you were ever a kid -and you were, admit it- you have seen 'rainbow' lollipops, popsicles, and other forms of tooth rot layered with colorful bands. This barrage of artificial colors and/or flavors is extremely appealing to humans, possibly because we are among the few mammals (yes, I'm ragging on mammals during SHINY WEEK) able to see color. Plus, sugar is sugar.

Disco sticks?

 Nature has beaten humanity to the 'banded things that should not be' punch yet again. Imagine how easily one could mistake this stone for a particularly decorative piece of rock candy:

All one would have to do is wrap that in plastic and slap a "watermelon" flavor label on it. Scientists have not been stupid enough to do the former, in part because they would get sued, but they do call that crystal "watermelon tourmaline." Gee, I wonder why?

Tourmaline contains boron, silicon, and any number of trace elements. It was first discovered in Sri Lanka and brought to Europe. We presume that it was colorful tourmaline like the watermelon specimen above; tourmaline was actually a lot more common than Europe thought it was for one simple reason.

Not all tourmaline is as pretty as the watermelon slice up there. Ninety-five percent of tourmaline is bland. Very bland. The most common type of tourmaline, schorl (which sounds like something out of a RPG), is gray, only slightly shiny, and makes Rice Krispies seem exciting. Other species of tourmaline are far more colorful. Most of them can be found in Brazil.

C'mon, Willy Wonka, make tourmaline candy. While you're at it, agates and several other stones would make great gummi slices, and snowflake obsidian would make excellent licorice. Take rock candy to a whole new level!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

OMG SHINY! - Amber.

In Jurassic Park, many a giant thunderlizard was brought back from the stony grave using ancient dinosaur blood. The idea was that mosquitoes preserved in amber would have well-preserved dinosaur blood, and thus DNA viable for cloning, in their bodies. This is bull; the DNA would likely be mixed with the blood of several other animals, including the mosquito herself. Even with frogs to fill in the gaps, there would have been more problems with resurrecting dinosaurs via mosquitoes than just the chaos theory. 

Now for the burning question: How did a bug get into a stone in the first place?

Like pearls, amber has an organic source: Tree resin (not sap). Amber, which has been used in jewelry and folk medicine since the Neolithic, is really fossilized tree resin. Besides being a valuable find for both science and fashion, amber has also been used as perfume; if your amber piece does not give off the scent of Pine-Sol when burned, it's fake (and probably smells a lot nastier).

Amber usually comes from trees similar to either the Australian Agathis evergreens or American Hymenea legumes. Although this may look restrictive, bear in mind that Mesozoic botanical distribution was very different from what it is today. Amber can be found in many sediments from when dinosaurs roamed the earth, dating from the Jurassic to Cretaceous and not giving a flip about where its relatives wound up. (There are quite a few earlier amber deposits, but nobody knows what strange plants made them. They are nonetheless valuable scientific discoveries.) Today, most (around 90%) of the world's extractable amber can be found in Russia and the Dominican Republic (one of the only sources of blue amber).

 In Soviet Russia, amber discovers you!

Real amber usually yields interesting finds. The level of preservation via amber is exceptional; liquid water and whole animals have been found in amber. Amber thus allows paleontologists to get a better look at ecology during the time of the dinosaurs; remember, microfauna, flora, and insects are huge in ecosystems. One bad mosquito bite could have killed Barney (not that we would know anything about that).

Ever since people have been picking up shiny stones, amber has been given special treatment. It has been used as jewelry, perfumes, medicine, and even as a flavoring in liquor. Pliny the Elder was one of the first to theorize that amber had once been liquid; given that there are many ways to return amber to a liquid state, there should be no surprises that the thought was floating around.

Even though amber is very cool and this entry only scratches the surface of its awesomeness, it still cannot resurrect dinosaurs. Don't hold your breath on that one...oh, and using frogs instead of birds to fill in the gaps in dino DNA was stupid, too.

Unless it was -this- frog. No, wait, that's still stupid.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"They Actually Eat That:" Seriously ANYTHING.


Forget goats; humans should be the poster child for the omnivorous animal. Goats stop after they realize that a law school book is unpalatable. Humans eat veggies, which would be expected of an ape our size, as well as giant ungulates, galliformes, fish, insects and crustaceans. Basically, if we can grab it, we try to eat it. Goats have nothing on Homo sapiens sapiens.

Despite our versatile diet, we think goats are weird for trying to eat paper and tin cans. As you can probably guess, the kicker is that humans eat plenty of weirder things than goats, including cans, paper, dirt, spoons, razor blades, toothbrushes, gum, pencils, name it, somebody has stuck it in their mouth and tried to eat it. Those little pellet bags in shoe boxes have "do not eat" stamped all over them for a reason (i.e. somebody tried and the shoe company got sued).

Remember last week when I said that, if humans did not get the proper nutrients, they would go crazy? That's what pica is.

No, not Pika. Although, now that I think about it, rodents are towards the bottom of the food chain...

They Actually Eat That?! 

I will let this picture do most of the talking:

This woman, who was understandably condemned to a nuthouse in life, swallowed a lot of things that people should not eat ever: buttons, safety pins, coins, screws, a few thimbles, and other things in a diet that most people would say befits a goat more than a human. Whether this puts the Dutch woman who ate a whole Williams-Sonoma store minus the knives to shame or not is up to you.

Look at these two cases for more than a minute and you will find that they have at least two things in common: One, both of the women in question were, in fact, women, and two, there were a lot of metal objects involved. This is no coincidence - pica is more common in women (especially pregnant women; pica is possibly linked to those cravings you hear new moms talking about) and children than it is in men. It is also linked to nutritional deficiencies, especially those from diets lacking iron.

Or Cthulhu. IA IA!

Believe it or not, there is an explanation for wanting to eat strange things aside from insanity. Humans and other animals (dogs and cats come to mind) naturally seek out the elements they are lacking in their diet. Eating strange things completes them, so to speak. As for the women and children, there is such a thing as being too clean; pregnant women and young children might, subconsciously, be trying to improve their immune systems by getting acquainted with certain microbes early. 

Or maybe humans are just batshit crazy. Your call.

OMG SHINY! - Hematite.

Less spectacular than peacock ore but slightly more interesting is a metallic stone called hematite. Chances are that you have seen this black, shiny stone on jewelry. In that setting, it resembles something between a rock and a metal (as it should - the formula for hematite is Fe2O3, iron and oxygen).

Wait, iron and oxygen? Doesn't that usually lead to rust?

Ohhh yes. The name "hematite" comes from the Greek word for "blood."All hematite has at least one rust-red streak in it, thus the colorful association. The element iron makes both hematite and human blood red; what a fitting name, science!

Don't let the shiny metallic appearance fool you; hematite has been used for rich red coloration throughout much of human history. Hematite-rich clay, called ochre, has been used to turn things red since the idea of "dye" first entered human consciousness. The earliest use of a hematite compound as a pigment goes back to the Middle Stone Age. Hematite's the real bloodstone - fuck that other bloodstone that's supposedly the birthstone for March.

"Christmas tree stone" should be just as valid.

The crazy thing: Hematite is a waste product. It is very easy to get hematite via simple chemistry (such as steelwork). It is a common by-product in iron mines as well. Nobody deliberately makes hematite; nobody really has to.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

OMG SHINY! - Peacock Ore.

I wanna see your...

It finally happened: I found a pop song that disgusted me to the core of my very being. Katy Perry was tolerable before I heard "Peacock;" put bluntly, she has turned a bird forever associated with majesty and divinity into an innuendo on par with the common chicken. Seriously, Katy Perry, what did peacocks ever do to you?

Peacock ore, however, does not ruin the peacock's majesty:

Peacock ore, AKA bornite, is a sulfide with the chemical formula Cu5FeS4 - that is, it contains both copper and iron, both very colorful minerals in their own rights. Iron usually gives things a reddish hue (but be careful-other things can do this, too); copper usually gives something a blue-green color. The result when they're mixed is a copper ore with one of the prettiest lusters of any industrial stone out there.

Bornite is around 63% copper, the single most colorful metal on the planet. This makes it a valuable ore for, well, anyone interested in working with copper. It is also popular for jewelry despite its industrial uses. (See tomorrow's entry for yet another extremely common ore used in jewelry.) It is also used in crystal mysticism to inspire and amplify the crown chakra (associated with the color purple). The stone keeps the peacock's spirit, at least.

Peacock ore does the bird justice. Keep Katy Perry's song away from me.

Monday, January 17, 2011

OMG SHINY! - Pearls.

Speaking of precious, colorless shiny things...

Diamonds and pearls are often placed alongside each other even though they are hardly related stones. They are both shiny, colorless, rare gems that can be used to denote something valuable. Despite this parallel usage, pearls are very different from diamonds in a number of ways.

That did not stop Nintendo.

A pearl is formed when an irritant - an overlarge particle, parasite, something organic and annoying - enters the shell of a bivalve (usually some type of oyster). The mantle of the mollusk releases a mixture of calcium carbonates and conchiolin (three guesses where that name came from) to envelop the irritant in shiny nacre (which makes up mother-of-pearl). When you get a pearl, it's almost like receiving a particularly pretty mollusk scab.

There are three types of pearls to be aware of: Cultured, natural, and, of course, fakes. The differences between natural and cultured pearls require either cutting the pearl or sending it to a gemologist to be x-rayed. Natural pearls will show rings akin to a tree's growth rings - layers upon layers of nacre applied upon a pesky parasite - while cultured pearls will be solid in the center.

Fakes can be distinguished by a number of (expensive) testing methods. X-rays and trips to experienced gemologists will work, yes, but far cheaper home testing methods include holding the pearls in sunlight (natural pearls won't match colors and have imperfections) and the rather unreliable method of feeling the gritty nacre in between one's teeth.

There are even more distinctions, such as whether the pearl in question came from a fresh- or saltwater mollusk, as well as different types such as the keshi pearls (cultured, but occur semi-randomly). A really good jeweler will know if a pearl falls under one of these other classifications; if they can name the exact species of mollusk the pearl came from, they deserve a raise.

Natural pearls are indeed rare. The value is determined by factors such as size, iridescence, shape and color. Black pearls are particularly valuable; there is no good way to produce them in a culture, and even with the specific requirements met, something tends to go wrong in the process. In short, nature says no.

Jack Sparrow says yes.

Then there are pearls that are not really pearls by most people's standards. They are formed the same way that real pearls are (that is, by an annoyed mollusk), but usually lack the luster and other desirable properties of gem-quality pearls. Many types of mollusks make "calcareous concretions;" some conches, for example, produce pink 'pearls' of this nature. The most famous of these concretions is the Pearl of Lao Tzu; if that name sounds familiar, it's because this hardened emu dropping pearl came from a giant clam.

It still looks like a turd to me.