Monday, December 31, 2012

Bio-Art: Georgia O' Keeffe.

Every artist, scientific or not, has his or her individual style.  It's when certain elements of one's style start forming a pattern that makes

Many of you have probably heard of Georgia O'Keeffe. She was an American artist born on November 15th, 1887; she died in the March of 1986. During her extremely long life, she produced a number of interesting paintings. Yes, she also did a few things that merit looking at on this column.

"Flower of Life II." Remember that title.

Georgia O' Keeffe was not a scientist. She did, however, do a number of works, most notably flowers. Hyper-detailed, fully-colored macro shots of flowers. She also did a lot of images of New Mexico, but the flowers are more common in art museums. Gee, I wonder why?

In stark contrast to the innocence of flowers, O'Keeffe also painted a lot of skulls. She has images of stag, ram, and bull skulls floating over New Mexico, a setting that she was obsessed with. Sometimes, as if to hint at a certain something, she even did skulls alongside flowers. Eros and Thanatos were at home in one piece...but what if there was a deeper connection?

The creepy thing is why she did bull skulls alongside flowers. The answer, it turns out, is purely scientific:

Flowers and skulls are both....feminine. A flower looks like a vulva; an ungulate skull, the inner workings of the feminine reproductive system. Given that skulls are outstanding in O'Keeffe's work, she must have known about that relationship. It's creepy, but at the same time amazing.If this were not a clearly intentional relationship, I would not be pointing it out here.

The strange thing is how I came about this revelation. There was once a book called The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, which equated alphabets with masculinity and left-brain thinking. Much of the book is a pile of bullplop as far as learning about writing systems is concerned, but how it was written shows that the book was written by a surgeon. He found the relationship between Cretan bull worship and the feminine reproductive tract easily. That one little grain was the best part of the entire book; now you don't have to buy it, and you got to enjoy some trippy art for the new year. :) 

But enough morbidity. On with Freak Week 4!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Creature Feature: Monito del Monte.

In the rudimentary biology classes that most American schools offer, we are taught very few things about marsupials. They basically cover kangaroos, koalas, and maybe wombats. Marsupials give birth to babies that develop in pouches. All of them are native to Australia. That is the extent of our weird mammal knowledge.

Well, the weird can always get weirder, right?

Sourcing is cool.

This is a monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides). It is a mouse-sized mammal native to South America, but is not a "little mountain monkey" as the name would suggest. Specifically, it is only native to the Andes Mountains of Chile and Argentina, which are not usually talked about when it comes to unique species. Its diet consists of insects and fruit- more on the fruit later. It has nothing to do with the brand of canned fruit on American grocery shelves.

So, why am I mentioning a South American mammal after that shtick about our limited knowledge about marsupials? Monito del monte is a marsupial. A South American marsupial. Consider your mind blown if you thought all marsupials were only in Australia's immediate vicinity. The opossum is commonly taught as an exception to the rule; monito del monte is not.

But it should be!

How did this happen? Long story short, Australia and the southwestern edge of South America were once very close together on a supercontinent called Gondwanaland.  For a long time, biogeologists were expecting to find ancestral marsupials in South America. They found the bones of a small marsupial, dubbed Djarthia,  in Queensland, but never found a living specimen until they found the monito del monte. Genetic evidence proved that the 11 million-year-old bones and the monito were almost the same organism. Fascinating, no?

The unique features of the monito del monte keep piling on. It is the only mammal that stores fat in its prehensile tail. It hibernates in little nests of waterproof leaves and moss when the weather gets too nippy in the mountains.  This is sounding more and more like a gecko; remember how cresties were once thought extinct? Are we sure the Geico gecko isn't wearing a fursuit? (Actually, finding a gecko in that area would be even more surprising!) Talk about weird, primitive animals!

This little fuzzball is also important for a plant called Tristerix corymbosus, a type of mistletoe native to the same area. The monito del monte eats the fruit of the plant. When the fruit is digested, out comes a seed of that particular mistletoe. The monito del monte is the only thing that disperses the seeds of this plant; it would likely go extinct along with the marsupial. Although the monito del monte is not in critical danger, it is near-threatened...but look at that face. Someone has to be captive breeding these...right? Right?

(P.S. - Apologies - these last few days have been spent with relatives in Minnesota.)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Newsflash: Dragonflies Capable of Primate-Level Cognition.

"Insect" and "complex" rarely appear in the same sentence.  Generally, we think of them as simple, primitive animals that largely exist to be eaten by other animals or squished by primate boots. No matter how often we call ants "eusocial," we can't help but get a little bothered when they come to share our picnic. 

But are they really that much lower than us? The ant has long been hailed for its mechanical work ethic. Despite how much some of us loathe fleas and roaches, they are among the world's finest survivors. The very progression and reproduction rate of humanity has been compared to that of rodents, viruses, and insects. It should be no surprise that we use them so much as examples, especially since some insects have brains on par with primates. Yes, the Insect Apocalypse is nigh.

At the very least, it has been found that dragonflies are capable of something called "selective attention." Basically, a dragonfly can hone in on one thing while there are a million things going on around it. Every other insect has ADD by comparison. Full article below:

"By: Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior Writer
Published: 12/27/2012 07:03 PM EST on LiveScience

Dragonflies lack humans' big brains, but they still get the job done, according to new research that suggests that these insects have brain cells capable of feats previously seen only in primates.

Specifically, the dragonflies can screen out useless visual information to focus on a target, a process called selective attention. The new study, published Dec. 20 in the journal Current Biology, is the first to find brain cells devoted to selective attention in an invertebrate animal.
Selective attention is crucial for responding to one stimulus among the dozens of distractions that clamor for notice at any given time, said Steven Wiederman of the University of Adelaide in Australia.

"Imagine a tennis player having to pick out a small ball from the crowd when it's traveling at almost 200 kilometers an hour," Wiederman said in a statement. "You need selective attention in order to hit that ball back into play."

But little is known about how the brain locks onto its targets and ignores all else. To find out, Wiederman, who is from the university's Center for Neuroscience Research, and his colleague David O'Carroll turned to an unlikely animal. The researchers have long studied insect vision, and the dragonfly turns out to be quite adept in that arena. [Photos: Dew-Covered Dragonflies & Other Sparkling Insects]
"The dragonfly hunts for other insects, and these might be part of a swarm — they're all tiny moving objects," Wiederman said. "Once the dragonfly has selected a target, its neuron activity filters out all other potential prey. The dragonfly then swoops in on its prey — they get it right 97 percent of the time."

Using a glass probe with a tip 1,500 times smaller than a human hair, the researchers measured the neuronal activity that enables such amazing aerial hunting. A similar process is at work in the primate brain, O'Carroll said in a statement, but researchers weren't expecting to see the same thing in an insect that evolved 325 million years ago.

"We believe our work will appeal to neuroscientists and engineers alike," O'Carroll said. "For example, it could be used as a model system for robotic vision. Because the insect brain is simple and accessible, future work may allow us to fully understand the underlying network of neurons and copy it into intelligent robots."" - Full article here.

Bogleech has been going on and on about the eventual total domination of the human race by insects. I'm starting to think he was onto something.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Creature Feature: Dugong.

Ever wonder how stories of mermaids got started? Like, who decided to put a hot lady on a fish's body? It was obviously someone very drunk and/or creative. It's not like a normal person could look at any sea mammal and go, "hey, that looks like a woman with a tail! I should say hi."


Oh, hell. With a tail like that and a little bit of liquor, that could totally pass for a mermaid.

That, by the way, is a dugong (Dugong dugon). No, not Dewgong- the animal came first. Dugongs are sirenids, making them related to manatees and, more loosely, elephants, tenrecs, and hyraxes. They live in most of the warmer waters around the world, including those around Africa, Australia, China, and the islands around those areas. They are mostly herbivorous, but some populations are omnivores, munching on invertebrates when grass is not available.

For those of you curious about the nomenclature, the odd name comes from the Malayan word for "mermaid." The idea seems pretty universal, with people all the way in Kenya considering dugongs feminine. Indonesians even consider them reincarnations of women. If any sea mammal can be considered a basis or mermaids, this is the one. Instant mermaid: just add rum.

(c) Mandy Episton.

That said, outside of being mermaids, dugongs are fascinating creatures. The tail is fluked like that of a whale or dolphin; this allows it to 'stand' in shallower waters and keep its head above the sea in order to take a breath. Speaking of, dugong lungs are very long, extending all the way down to their kidneys. This arrangement helps balance out the dugong's buoyant blubber.

The dugong is always culturally-significant in the areas in which it is found. Catching a dugong can be seen as either good or bad luck, depending on where you go. In Thailand, the tears are an aphrodisiac; the Indians are more rational and use its meat for sexual potency. The list of things dugong can be used for goes on, possibly into the Bible.

Under the sea, under the sea~

Alas, the dugong is nearing endangered status, and it's entirely our fault. Its meat, oil, skin, and bones are all valuable. They are big, docile, and slow-moving, making them easy targets.  Let's not even get into how humans are polluting the ocean and cutting up sea cows with boats. Once you learn that everybody eats dugong meat, all other reasons seem miniscule by comparison. Luckily, most areas with dugongs have some regulations on hunting them. Good luck enforcing that.

Oh, and yes, dugong has a Poke-sona in Dewgong, the evolution of Seel. Real dugongs, however, cannot handle icy water period, let alone swim through it at high speeds. Sorry, but this Water-Type will not be learning Ice Beam aaaany time soon. Still, save the mermaids!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

They Actually Eat That: Herring in Sour Cream.

We do not have many traditional foods at Christmas in my household. This is largely due to my own dislike of Polish (we can't get czarnina) and Nordic foods (that aren't awesome cookies). This time, there was a little bit of a lapse, and something odd made its way to the table for a bit of nostalgia on my mom's part: pickled herrings in sour cream.

Anybody with an appetite can probably tell why this thing wound up on "They Actually Eat That" from the name alone. Herring and dill might not sound too bad together, but throwing it in sour cream and stuffing it in the fridge has a certain degree of chilling nastiness lurking beneath it. So, why do people eat it aside from it being a clearly acquired taste? Let's find out!

Pickled herring is fairly common throughout Europe. In Nordic countries, however, they go insane with preserving things. Pickled herring in sour cream is just one of the ways they go a little overboard with preserved fish. It is frequently eaten around Christmastime. Dear gods, this is already sounding on par with lutefisk.

Having not tried this thing, I cannot give an accurate description of how it tastes or its texture. The general descriptions are disgusting enough to deter me.  I can imagine it tasting like fish, cream, and dill pickles, but most written descriptions sound way worse. The texture of it is something like meat, but not, cold, springy, and generally unpleasant. If you must eat herring, try it another way.

And no, I did not actually eat that. This was one I passed on simply because of a first impression. Even after that, my dad said it was strange. One critic called it "the most fucking disgusting shit I have ever eaten." I am willing to take her word for it. Go cut down a tree with the herrings instead of doing this with them.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Special: Amanita Mushrooms.

Have you ever realized how many things about Christmas just don't add up? Who would really put presents under an evergreen tree? Who gave a fat old man the right to enter houses in the presence of kids, anyways?Why do we have Christmas trees?

Well, there's a perfectly logical explanation for all of this:


Yep: Stoner mushrooms. In this case, the specific mushroom in question is Amanita muscaria. They are native to most places in the northen hemisphere, particularly in areas with pine trees. A fair amount of X-mas loops back to these mushrooms. Jesus was never involved in Christmas; the makers of the calendar just decided to celebrate it around the day the pagans were celebrating solstice. It was a marketing move to sync Jesus with 'shrooms, in other words.

Amanita muscaria is also called "fly agaric." The reasons for this are rather strange, but the most common is that one could sprinkle some of the mushroom in milk to ward off flies.We can't tell exactly where this practice originated (possibly Germany or Sweden), but it's strange. Flies can actually get high just by landing on the caps of Amanita muscaria.  Just another reason to pick up mushrooms.

Its most notorious use, however, is as a potent hallucinogen. The culprit is muscimol, with ibotenic acid helping it along. The effects are so varied that it would be madness to say that there are any standards beyond "tripping the eff out." Symptoms usually wear off after 24 hours. Severe poisoning only occurs after 15 caps or so; nobody has gone on record dying from these. When other types of hallucinogenic mushrooms get banned, Amanita suddenly becomes popular. Get on your cloaks and start flipping tree skirts!

So, how does this tie in with Christmas? Amanita muscaria mushrooms are commonly found beneath fir and evergreen trees. Replace "mushrooms" with "gifts." Link it with the solstice for good measure. Boom, Christmas.

 Oh, and guess what else likes Amanita mushrooms? Reindeer. Yes, they also get high off of the 'shrooms, causing them to leap about like giddy idiots - that's the origin of flying reindeer. Other possible origins include the flying sensation and hallucinations (sometimes of winged reindeer) brought about by the mushroom.  People can also get high off of the remaining active toxins in reindeer (or human) urine, which is actually safer than taking the mushrooms straight. Yes, I just said that drinking reindeer piss is safer than eating a mushroom off of the ground. (That said, A. muscaria are edible with proper cooking.)

After this, things start to get a little hazy.  We aren't sure whether Santa has any real shamanic basis or not. It is, however, awfully suspicious that St. Nicholas is usually pictured with A. muscaria colors, that he laughs oddly, and that his Coca-Cola-designed image is almost too flushed to be sober. A fluffy coat like that also seems like a good idea when mushroom-hunting in the winter, although whether it's really red and white could be debated. Use a critical eye when browsing these theories.

Of course, A. muscaria's fame extends well beyond Christmas. All of the mushrooms in Mario-land look like Amanita. Pokemon also makes some use of them, with "Amanita" being the name of the storage system manager in B/W and the two new mushroom Pokemon slightly resembling red Amanita. There was also a dancing mushroom sequence in Fantasia, which speaks for itself.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a stoned night! It's traditional! (Actually, I DID get a mushroom garden for Christmas...)

Monday, December 24, 2012

Bio-Art: The Flesh Machine.

Raise your hand now if you asked for something with a computer chip in it for Christmas.  Yes? Almost everyone? Well, I hate to be a bummer, but you have just fed the Flesh Machine.

The Flesh Machine is a free book by the Critical Arts Entourage. It introduces a critique upon what it calls the "flesh machine" - basically, transgenics, eugenics, and anything else that pushes the natural-artificial boundary. The book is available for free download here. (Warning: 5 may be hard to read.)

The premise of the book is that society is run by machines. There are three machines total: The War Machine, the Sight Machine, and the Flesh Machine. The War Machine is exactly what it sounds like: Perfecting the art of destruction. It seems like we're always making stronger weapons - or at least trying to. This machine is likely almost done. Almost.

The second machine is the Sight Machine. The idea of the Sight Machine is to be able to see every square inch of the Earth at all times. Even sea trenches and space must be mapped. Every house must have a camera. Every move must be mapped.  See also: Skype, Google Earth.

These first two machines work hand-in-hand with each other. The idea is, "If I can see it, it's dead." Once everything is in the Sight Machine, the powers that be can theoretically destroy anything in the world. Anything that doesn't further the agenda of the powers that be must be eliminated.

The Flesh Machine is a whole different can of worms compared to the above two machines. There are many reasons why, say, catgirls are not yet a reality.  It's not because flesh is so terribly hard to manipulate - for example, it is quite easy to change sex simply by manipulating a few hormones. It is something of a miracle that cross-species genetics hasn't advanced that far. Why not?

The answer is simple: The Flesh Machine demands that we become cyborgs. Not robots - cyborgs. We still need a degree of emotion to feed the machines, and enough social sense to want to go along with what is normal. Indeed, "normal" is a standard made by the spectacle - a not-machine that is designed to both mask the intent of the machines and make them appealing.

Thus why catgirls have not been made real yet: Animals are nowhere near as predictable as robots, and thus hybrids remain a thing of fantasy. The Flesh Machine is not interested in allowing us to choose our physical bodies. They basically want us to spawn desirable drones for an insane system. Catgirls aren't desirable for office labor, unless they could be used for keeping morale up. Otherwise, they just plain aren't cyborg-y enough to fit.

That said, it is easy to sell things like cybernetic enhancements to soldiers (part of the War Machine). It is more difficult to convince civilians to accept cybernetic implantations and more implicit alterations, such as drugs that induce "normalcy." Normal = cyborg.

This does not mean that we are not slowly moving towards being full-fledged cyborgs. Watch any cell phone commercial.  The ones that first come to mind for me are anything for Droid phones; the words "entertainment machine" got my attention at first, but the latest Droid promises to "change your DNA." Alluring as that may sound to some people, anyone with an iota of rationality knows that the only way a cell phone can change DNA is by subtle radiation poisoning, and even that's a stretch.  You can take a cell phone with you, any time, anywhere - perfect for becoming a part of the Machine at every waking moment. The only issue is that we're not born with such devices. Until we are born with iPhones, the Flesh Machine will not be complete.

The issue then comes with producing these cyborgs. All three machines need human bodies to work for them, which means people need to reproduce. Thus the nuclear family: mom, dad, and one or two "normal" kids. Society today favors a child that will fit the system. Things like designer babies and the nuclear family encourage the breeding of such automata.

This, in turn, leads to eugenics. The population is conditioned into desiring "fit' offspring - in other words, "normal," "fit" people with a high productivity rate in the workplace. Children will eventually be engineered to fit the system. It'll be like GATTACA, only real.

This trinity of War, Flesh, and Sight Machines is self-destructive. If it continues, humanity will blow itself up, probably literally. Worst case scenario is a slow death due to a horrible species bottleneck. 
If you must be a cyborg, be a smart cyborg; most of your devices are little pieces of silicon made to keep tabs on you and keep you working at all times - 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Ditch 'em as much as possible. This machine's gonna run out of fuel eventually.

Merry Christmas! Now go play with your i-whatevers. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Creature Feature: Uromastyx.

So I saw War Horse today. It was amazingly moving, enough so that I spent 80 bucks on a book on the history of Handspring. Those are some awesome horse puppets, and the story is great, too. Go see it, even if you don't normally like theater.

However, it was still winter in Chicago. That means that outside is freaking cold. Quick, I need a desert animal to warm up!'s about time we got to this one. Uromastyx lizards are agamids native to northern Africa into the Middle East and India. There are approximately 13 species in the genus. They are wholly herbivorous. Males are larger than brighter than females, FYI. The largest Uromastyx, the Egyptian (U. aegyptia) is almost a yard long.

For those of you curious about the name, "uromastyx" literally means "whiptail" or "scourgetail." No, these guys are not as lesbian as the other whiptails.  They are named for the torture weapon of a tail common to all  Uromastyx species. I think "mace-tail" or "rape-tail "would have suited it better than "whiptail," but to each horny scientist his own. If you don't get that joke...don't think about it too much. Just go with "scourgetail." That sounds like the name of a badass video game boss and you know it. Say it with me: Scourgetail. 

That spiky tail is nothing more or less than a weapon. A threatened Uromastyx will turn towards the enemy with that tail, puffing and hissing open-mouthed all the while. They also sleep with that spiked tail facing out, just in case. Scourgetail indeed.

Uromastyx lizards, or mastigures, have a few more tricks besides that tail. Most of their time is spent underground, making them hard to find. They change color, darkening themselves while basking. Also, these are desert lizards; that means they get most of the water from the food they eat.

Mastigures are uncommon in the exotic pet trade. Although they have been difficult to keep in the past, people's knowledge has improved. The Mali Uromastyx is the best captive scourgetail. They are now common enough that most exotics shops (i.e. reptile stores that aren't Petco) will know what you're talking about. Though accessible, they do have some advanced care requirements; please, be smart and do your research if you think they're neat.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Newsflash: Mass Squid Beaching - A Sign of the End!

OK, I've been bad. It would be downright cruel to you all if I didn't do something relating to the apocalypse. December 21st, 2012 has come and gone, but nothing happened on that day. Some weird stuff happened before that day, but, with the exception of it being Friday (and therefore awesome by default), nothing happened.

Were there still signs of the end times? Sure. North Korea launched a "satellite" up into space. There were two mass shootings on the opposite sides of the country (no offense meant). Oh, and this, which happened on December 11th, 2012:

"Hundreds of squid intentionally stranded themselves on the shores of California and scientists only have guesses as to why. The Santa Cruz coastline is littered with squid carcasses. Sure, but what does the Bible say about this? Check the Book of Revelations...Nothing!?... Seriously!?...Ok... Check the Mayan Calendar...What, that doesn't say anything about this either?!...Fine, ask a Stanford professor...Oh. They say there's nothing to worry about? Probably just normal. Cool. That's great."


I knew it was going to be Cthulhu. Even when people were ranting about the Four Horsemen and Judgement Day, global warming, and massive spiritual revelations, the most realistic answer turned out to be that Cthulhu is waking up from his millennia-long nap at the bottom of the ocean. Enjoy your sanity while it lasts, because it won't be around much longer.

Don't know who Cthulhu is (or why I bring him up around weird cephalopods)? You will...after looking him up on Wikipedia. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Creature Feature: Zebra Sharks.

Sharks don't get enough love. Along with snakes and wolves, they are among the moat falsely-demonized animals in the modern media. Nothing makes people scatter quite like a triangluar fin above the surface of the water.  Thanks, Jaws - thanks a lot.


Zebra sharks (Stegostoma fasciatum) are among the awesome sharks that do not deserve a Jaws reputation. They can be found in the Indo-Pacific, or "anywhere from South Africa to Australia."  They eat fish, molluscs, crustaceans, and maybe even sea snakes. These sharks are nocturnal, so unless you happen to enjoy diving at night, don't expect to see one moving around much. They can usually be found chilling on the bottom of the sand near some coral.

At first glance, the zebra shark has none of the "sleek predator" features that Great Whites or tiger sharks have. The zebra shark is a carpet shark; along with having a nice pattern, it spends most of its time on the bottom instead of swimming menacingly up top. The location of the mouth on the bottom of its body and its overall appearance almost make it look more like a catfish than a shark.  It doesn't even swim like Jaws -it swims like an eel.


By the way, wondering why a spotted shark is called a "zebra?" The shark pups are striped, that's why! The young zebra sharks look more like young whale sharks than anything. The white lines and black bars soon make way for an almost cheetah-like look as the shark grows older. The young sharks look so different from their parents, in fact, that science thought that mother and child were two different species.


Zebra sharks are 100% harmless to humans. In many areas of the shark's range, they are even marketed as scuba diving attractions. It is perfectly possible to touch a wild zebra shark, just because they're chill like that. Just don't do anything stupid; people who try to ride the sharks can still get bitten. Jumping the sharks doesn't sound like a wise move, either. You don't have to tell your friends that zebra sharks are harmless; just say "I touched a shark" and watch their eyes widen.

Remember when we had an entry on eating sharks? In part because of their docility, zebra sharks are the most eaten sharks on the planet. These are the sharks used in the infamous shark fin soup. The liver is also used medicinally. This over-hunting has nudged the zebra shark onto the "vulnerable" status, but worry not; these docile sharks have a super-strong presence in captivity. You've got plenty of time to pet a shark.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Ass.

Sometimes, something makes it onto this column because it is gross. Still other times, it is simply our narrow definition of "food" in the United States that makes something qualify for this list. Today's dish definitely falls under the last category: "Why aren't we eating this, again?"

Donkeys are like funny-looking horses: long ears, long face, funny teeth, shorter legs. We laugh at donkeys. They are, for all intents and purposes, solid beasts of burden and a "poor man's horse." The donkey doesn't have the same majesty as a horse...but not many people in the States would consider it meat, either.

Well, yeah. Donkeys are around. Why not eat them? China has been enjoying it for over 300 years; donkey meat is fairly popular in Europe; if people have donkeys, they have probably found a way to eat donkeys. It just kinda happens when you're another species hanging out with humanity.

The thing is, Equus asinus is not usually considered food in the U.S. of A. Unlike with horses, it's not that most Americans would have an objection to eating donkey- it's simply that we haven't thought of that because our cultural definition of food is pretty narrow. Donkey meat tends to cause a scandal, over here.


That said, the cultures that do handle donkey meat handle it much like other meats. There is a sadistic donkey recipe in China, but it's so mind-bogglingly simple that it's barely a recipe. Tie a donkey down and eat it. Easy enough. No animal is safe in China, silly ass. Several other places enjoy donkey meat as well, but it's really common in China. It's literally subway snack stand common.

So, if you haven't tried donkey meat, give it a shot. It's rich in iron, calcium, and phosphates, along with being leaner than most store meats because donkeys eat grass. It is probably better for you than most meats on the market.  If it makes you feel any better, pretend that the meat before you is a certain talking donkey that won't shut up about parfaits and waffles. You know the one. You're welcome.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Creature Feature: Cream-Colored Giant Squirrel.

Any environmentalist  will tell you that every animal alive today has its place in the world. Every single species is a special little snowflake and a piece of a much bigger puzzle. This blog was made to celebrate how wicked awesome other species are. If you've been reading this blog, this paragraph was a broken record to you.

Then there are some animals that make us go, "the fark, nature? Why is this thing still alive?" The panda bear is on that list. So is this:

The Cream-colored Giant Squirrel (Ratufa affinis) is one of those animals. It can be found only in Thailand, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia. It eats seeds, leaves, bark, and insects. It is almost completely arboreal. It is thought extinct in Singapore and Vietnam, making the stamp above very ironic. 

So, let's get some facts down. The Cream-colored Giant Squirrel ("creamy-squirrel") is exactly what it says on the tin: a pale squirrel that is giant. It can get almost a yard long from the tip of its nose to the end of its long, bushy tail, which helps it balance like a tripod while eating. Along with being pale, these giant squirrels are usually boldly marked. The name alone says that this animal should not survive.

Surprise surprise: It just barely lives. OK, so it's not on the Endangered List  yet, but it is near-threatened. These squirrels are easy to hunt and prone to deforestation. As arboreal animals, even sustainable logging might be a threat. What else is new? Well...

Along with human interference, the creamy-squirrel has competition from the giant black squirrel. In most of its range, these two squirrels share habitat. The only place where creamy-squirrel is truly safe is in Borneo, where it is the only giant squirrel. The main difference is that creamy-squirrels do not so much as go to the ground to feed, whereas the black squirrels leave the trees every now and then; otherwise, the creamy-squirrels have no real niche. Regardless of how many enemies the cream-colored squirrel has, I bet this is one of the few times you will ever hear of a squirrel going extinct.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Bio-Art: GenTerra.

Confession: I've been using Kac and SymbioticA as solid defaults for this column. Sure, occasionally I'll look at other indie artists dabbling with biological fluids, but there are a few big names that keep coming up. It turns out I've been forgetting a rather big one: Critical Art Ensemble. 

Critical Art Ensemble is a small group with big ideas. Their art is based around critical theory - that is, criticism of society and culture using sociology and the humanities as bases. They cover the potential impacts and implications of technology, politics, and, of course, bio-art in their works. They have been criticizing since 1988 and show no signs of stopping.

GenTerra was an installation of theirs. The audience got an up-close and personal encounter with some transgenic bacteria. This serves two purposes: one, it demystifies the process of gene splicing, and two, it makes information widely available. Let's take a little look!

Mind, the scientists in this video are all performers. They still really know their stuff. This removes a problem that tends to occur with professionals: they don't communicate with laymen well, resorting to Greco-Latin jargon that looks like alphabet soup to the average guy on the street. The little kid gets it. That's great.

They also wrote a completely free book called Flesh Machine.It dives into the powers that be and what they intend to do with designer babies and the like. The short answer is that eugenics will come back into play. I will not take advantage of CAE's "please steal this" and C/P the whole thing, but I will review it next week.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Creature Feature: Harris Hawk.

When we think "pack hunters," or even "social animals," wolves are usually the first things that pop into people's heads. Next up are dolphins and, by a stretch, Velociraptors. Sure, our image of the Velociraptor has changed over time, but we're still pretty sure they hunted in packs.

But wait a sec. Raptors -the dinosaurs, not the birds - used to be extremely effective pack hunters. Dinosaurs evolved into birds, right? Why aren't there any birds who hunt like that?


The good news is that there is one type of hawk, the Harris's Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus), that hunts as a family pack. It is native from the southwestern  U.S. of A. down to Chile and Argentina. The name comes from Edward Harris, a friend of the famous John James Audubon. Birds of a feather flock together, yes?

Harris's hawks are nicknamed "wolves of the sky." They are the only birds of prey that hunt in groups. By that, I do not mean that they mob an animal and call it a pack hunt. We're talking actual, calculated attacks that even groups of humans have trouble pulling off. Here's a look at one hunt courtesy of National Geographic.

Let's look at a little play-by-play of this video: First, one Harris's Hawk sees the jackrabbit. The same hawk then chases the rabbit out of wherever it's hiding. By some clever signaling, another hawk knows exactly where that bunny will run, and has its razor-sharp talons ready and waiting. Bravo, let's have dinner.

Compare this to the lupine strategy. Both wolves and the Harris's Hawks will make their prey run. The stamina of a wolf allows it to run prey down until it is exhausted; the Harris's Hawk knows exactly what direction its prey will flee in. Your mileage may vary on which is more impressive, but I will say this: the genes for pack hunting have been with archosaurs a lot longer than they have been with canids.

Worry not, Jurassic Park fans. Your intelligent, group-coordinating Velociraptors are alive and well. That same cunning and coordination has, as with many traits of dinosaurs, taken to the skies. If you're looking into falconry, yes, Harris's Hawks are easily tamed and very popular; you can get a raptor of your very own.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Newsflash: Gold-Mining Termites.

If you walk down a street or turn on the radio, there is a good chance you will hear/see at least one  advertisement offering "cash for gold." The idea is basically selling your jewelry and antiques to get money.

The thing is, gold is actually useful. Aside from being decorative and having a loooong history as a status symbol, gold is used in computers. It's a better conductor than copper. Functional and fashionable? How wouldn't that lead to money?

Looking for a way to get some easy gold? Well, it turns out that ants and termites are natural treasure hunters. Here's the scoop from National Geographic:

"New experiments in West Australia reveal that termites "mine" and stockpile the precious metal while they're collecting subterranean material for their nests.

For the study, entomologist Aaron Stewart, with Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, and colleagues took samples from several termite nests and compared the nest material to nearby soil samples from varying depths.

By using a mass spectrometer—an instrument that measures molecules' chemical makeup—they discovered that the termite nests were richer in gold than termite nests farther away from the metal, Stewart said in an email. (Also see "Battling Termites? Just Add Sugar.")

"That social insect colonies can selectively accumulate metals from their environment has been known for some time," Robert Matthews, a professor emeritus of entomology at the University of Georgia, noted by email.

"Some have even suggested that ant and termite nests could be analyzed productively when searching for potential mining sites for precious metals" such as gold, he said.

Those are Stewart's thoughts exactly. Gold deposits are usually hidden a few meters below the surface, making them tough for people to locate. But insects could essentially act as indicators of this buried treasure, said Stewart, whose study appeared recently in the journal Geochemistry: Exploration, Environment, Analysis.

"Drilling is expensive. If termites can help narrow down the area that needs to be drilled, then exploration companies could save a lot of money."

~National Geographic. Source and more here.

The question is why the termites are hoarding gold. Zinc, as the article later details,  helps keep insect armor tough. Gold would seem to be far less useful to them, but who knows? Maybe the termites really regulate their mounds via supercomputers, or perhaps they just like shiny things despite being almost blind. So much like us!

By the way, don't sell your gold objects. Ever since the U.S. ditched the gold standard, the dollar has been backed up by faith. Faith in the government...riiiiight.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Creature Feature: Unicorn Tang.

While I was in San Antonio, a strange, white fish with a horn caught my attention in the Rainforest Cafe's fish tank. I posted a pic of it on my Twitter; no luck with identifiication. A month later, in Houston, I finally got a name for it: unicorn tang. No, Rarity from My Little Pony is not sponsoring the orange juice of astronauts, although that would be funny.

The unicorn tang (Naso unicornis) is a surgeonfish sporting a single strange horn above its nose.  It is native to most warm, tropical waters, including those around Hawaii and Polynesia. It is a herbivore, feeding on algae.It may also pick on bits of meat in captivity.

There are a few types of unicorn tang, but they all have one thing in common: a horn above their noses. The horn starts growing when the tang hits the six inch mark (in N. unicornus). It breaks off against coral and nets. Nobody knows what this horn is used for. We do, however, know that it doesn't heal the sick like the horn of a 'real' unicorn.

Perhaps more impressive, than the horn are the hidden spikes above the fish's tail. Each unicorn tang has two sets of these blades, making them double trouble if mishandled. These tail blades are used for defending themselves and protecting their territory. This unicorn packs a kick, and it doesn't even have legs.

Unicorn tangs are uncommon in the exotic pet trade. They need at least 180 gallons, if not more, to be comfortable. This big fish maxes out around 2 feet, making it unsuitable for most home tanks. Unicorn tangs are considered peaceful most of the time, but can be aggressive with other tangs. There are currently regulations on catching unicorn fish; This does not stop people from doing it. Ask where your aquarium specialist got his fish on, please.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

I Actually Ate That: Basa.

If you are ever in Houston and like fish, check out the Kemah Boardwalk. They have a restaurant there called "The Aquarium." It delivers what it promises: a giant aquarium makes up the centerpiece of each level, with smaller aquaria along the sides and a pillar aquarium along the stairwell. O.K., plug over.

They also had an exotic Asian fish on the menu that, as it turns out, is debatably-legal:


The "whitefish" hidden beneath a mountain  of fruit and breadcrumbs was a Vietnamese fish called basa (Pangasius bocourti). It's native to the Mekong River delta. This fish is wholly herbivorous, making it actually a bit healthier and easier to farm than most fish on the market. Several other fish may be erroneously labeled as basa, so have your wits about you at the fish market. Basa are also called "panga," "bocourti," or "river cobbler," so...just ask the right questions.

Here's where the sketchiness comes in: basa cannot be legally labeled as catfish. (The menu called it "Asian whitefish;" I pressed for more details.)  Even though they are technically catfish, there have been a few SNAFU's when it comes to labeling this oriental fish.  People in the U.S. and Britain seem to have a really hard time deciding what to name this fish.

The U.S. has a particular concern with this one. There was a "catfish war" in the early 2000's. In short, the Vietnamese were accused of flooding the market with basa and marketing it as "catfish" - also the name for the whiskered fish native to North America. Catfish farmers and the USDA were worried that basa might interrupt the profits of the native American catfish, so basa sellers were forever banned from using that word. They have to use other words instead.

Luckily, a rose by any other name indeed tastes as good. The taste if largely neutral to most people (another selling point), but 75% of taste-testers preferred basa to catfish.Whether it is ethical or not is another matter; I am unsure on the veracity of this thread, but given what we know about factory farming fish in Asia, no surprises there. The U.S. is not any better in this regard; nearly all fish farms have skeletons in their closets. Sorry, catfish farmers; best be graceful in defeat this round. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Creature Feature: Purple Burrowing Frog.

With the exception of designer reptiles, it's really hard to color-coordinate things with animals. Purple is particularly rare in nature, despite it allowing creatures to blend in with flora. In some cases, however, it just makes us humans wonder what nature was on.

Why this purple burrowing frog (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis) is, well, purple, is a complete mystery. It is native to southern India and feeds exclusively on underground insects. Although numbers in the wild are still unknown, we are currently working under the assumption that the frog is endangered.

For the record, nobody seems to know exactly why this frog is purple. It does not seem to be camouflage; this frog spends 90% of its time underground. The color is actually the least interesting thing about the purple burrowing frog, in any case.

Since its (re)discovery in 2003, the frog was treated as being in its own family. Looking at skeletal evidence tells otherwise. Looking at fossil evidence, the purple burrowing frog looks very similar to the extinct Seychelles frogs, which were last seen 120 million years ago on Gondawanaland. The purple frog would have evolved independently from there; in other words, the purple frog is a living fossil. Always cool to have more of those. 

So, how did this frog evade scientists for so long? Short answer: It didn't. Almost a century before the adults were discovered in 2003, the tadpoles had been described in 1918. These are weird little buggers with suckers to help them deal with turbulent river currents. The adult frog was not visible at that time, so the chubby purple freak did not go on record until recently. 

The reason for the delay is that the adult frogs spend their whole adult lives underground. They surface only to mate in monsoon season. Otherwise, they're feeding on underground insects (particularly termites). Locals and lesser herpetologists had already known of the frog for decades; scientific literature had a hard time catching up. I guess "pig-faced purple frog" just sounded too crazy for them.

Found on Wikipedia. License unclear.

By the way, if you happen to see two purple frogs getting it on? The male is on top of the female, and he is tiny.

Unfortunately, this bizarre frog is also highly endangered. Less than 200 have been found by science. The main actual risk lies in deforestation. There is a very low chance that these frogs will be bred in captivity, although no doubt scientists are trying. If they get popular enough, they might even get their own color shade.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Bio-Art: Cypher.

Have you ever wanted to make a piece of bio-art yourself? Worried that you won't be able to do it without a sophisticated  medical degree? Don't worry; the technology to make things like that happen is becoming more and more accessible in high schools and colleges. For the rest of us, "bio-art" as science defines it has been more or less inaccessible...until now.

Pic credit: Eduardo Kac. 


Coming soon, to an educational store near you: CYPHERCypher is a transgenics kit containing everything you need to make your own transgenic bacteria. Follow the step-by-step instructions and make the bacteria glow red with renowned bio-artist Eduardo Kac's special gene. You won't believe how easy it is! It's the perfect gift for everyone on your Christmas list!

But that's not all! The DNA in the bacteria is encoded with a poem that Kac wrote specifically for Cypher.  Aside from the usual 4 bases, Kac added in six extra letters, just for this project. These extra letters are absolutely integral to the poem. Don't just create genetic freaks; create mutating, evolving art!\

Ooooh! (Another Kac photo.)

Call 1-800-CYPHER1 today to order your kit for only 199.99! Supplies are limited; act now and receive a bonus transgenic rodent with your order! (Disclaimer: May not be a real number. You may receive an evil  robot monkey instead.)


In all seriousness? Cypher was a project created by Kac in 2009 for the Rurart exhibition in France. The idea was to put the power to create life into an artist's hands; again, Kac likes playing God, or at least trolling him. The scientific tools within are arranged like a briefcase or, better yet, an artist's toolkit. It also really works, from what I've read.

By the way: No, you cannot buy these. Insofar as I can tell, only one has ever been made. Time will tell, however; remember when microscopes were only found in science labs?  The same may soon happen with gene splicing and other scientific advances. It's scary, but also exciting...and is guaranteed to sell like hotcakes.

P.S. - You may have noticed that I've expanded the definition of "bio-art" for some of my entries. Simply put, these works tend to either a) use scientific records to postulate their own scientific theories in an artistic fashion, or b) are simply under-recognized. Not all of us can afford expensive biology degrees. Anybody can think about a scientific issue, then make art based around it. It's still creativity in the name of science.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Mollusc Week: I've saved the best for last.

Hoo boy, it's been a weird week. Molluscs are strange creatures in general, and picking out exceptionally strange or obscure ones makes them look even weirder. Cephalopods are slowly taking over the world. So, what could possibly top flying squid?

Tell me if this doesn't sound like crack to you: Antarctic oysters that can change sex.

Belongs to the Smithsonian. Yep, that's an oyster, all right.

Lissarca miliaris is far from an impressive oyster.  It's small, unassuming, and lives in a place that most sane people would dare not venture to. If it involves Antarctica and not penguins, people just plain won't go; this says nothing about one's willingness to dive beneath the ice for shellfish. Again, not penguins. Only marine biologists acknowledge this thing's existence.

These weird little oysters follow the same reproductive strategy that tunicates and some fish have: they start out as fertile males, then mature into egg-bearing females. They may also go back to being males when brooding their young. At first, researchers were only looking at breeding females; then they found males with the mollusc equivalent of "junk" as well as eggs. Yep, these little molluscs are genuine, natural, breeding hermaphrodites.

Of course, there is a natural advantage to changing sex. Antarctica is a harsh environment.  The more viable mating partners there are, the better; mating at a young age is also a good idea in such an environ. These oysters have all the reason in the world to be natural transexuals. Why should we think of them as freaks for it?

So yeah. There's your awesome week of molluscs! They solve mazes, stick really hard to rocks, fly, and now change sex! A few of them also taste terrible, but most of them can be seen at your local sushi bar. In case of mollusc world takeover,  prepare the tempura batter and chopsticks.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Mollusc Week: Japanese Flying Squid.

You knewJapan was going to make it on here. Somehow, somewhere, the oceans around Japan, AKA the Weirdness Archipelago, would turn up a mollusc so weird that this blog would have to cover it. Remember, the Japanese culture eats everything it possibly can from the sea; weird is on the menu. One could not expect, however, that Japan would be weird enough to yield baby eldritch overlords.

Baby Cthulhu, AKA the Japanese/Pacific Flying Squid (Todarodes pacificus), is exactly what it says on the label: A squid native to the Pacific Ocean around Japan down to Vietnam that, of all things, flies. All squid are predatory, so if you happen to see one of these hovering above you, your brains may not be safe. Squid have never been known to eat human organs, but there's always a first time. 

Now, like many "flying" animals, flying squid do not actually fly. The extended fins on their mantles are not capable of powered flight. They can glide up to 50 meters to avoid predators; while not impressive compared to arboreal creatures, that's still pretty far for whatever was trying to eat the squid. They also glide looking backwards, a feat that mammals and fish have only thought of in their wildest dreams. Wildest, stoned dreams.

They are, however, jet-powered gliders. The squid gets in the air via the same mechanic that it shoots out ink: jet propulsion. These squid simply get the eff out of the area instead of shooting ink. While this squid may not actually be able to fly, it's closer than most gliding animals simply by having a built-in engine. Rocky the flying squirrel doesn't count.

Worry not. These are small squid that are easily confused for flying fish. They only fly to far as we know. The cephalopod apocalypse is not near, but if we see bigger squid flying? Godzilla might be necessary. Also, get all the sushi chefs on this, pronto.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Mollusc Week: True Limpets.

As this clip demonstrates, some things in nature are more filmable than others. Guess what? We have to cover at least one boring mollusc here because, hey, it's weird and most of us probably never heard of it outside of science class or a Monty Python clip.

These are star limpets (Patelloida sacchroides). Source here will tell you more.

Meet the true limpet, i.e. any member of the large family Patellogastropoda. As the lengthy name might imply, limpets are related to snails and slugs, and true limpets can only be found on rocky coasts near the sea. The other limpets can be marine or freshwater, and some have even adapted their mantles to breathe air or survive intense conditions around hydrothermal vents. The big difference seems to be who has gills and who has 'lungs,' but there are so many false limpets that there may be more subtleties in the classification than that.  One would think that the false limpets would be far more interesting than the true limpets, which are about as active as presented in the "documentary" and are therefore very rarely covered on television.

Limpets are marine slugs with very odd houses. The shell of a true limpet is like a flat cone, making it blend in very well with whatever rock the limpet sees fit to adhere to. Some stay stuck so long that they get algae growing on their shells. The last time we saw that was with the three-toed sloth; algae is great camouflage.

Not sure how "true" these are. Please correct me if they're fakes. Source.

Limpets make sloths look active. They don't move very much, lest they dry out in the sun. When they do move, it is to scrape off algae from the rocks. This, too, is done very slowly. MOst of them are also under 3 inches long, so not only are they slow, they're small. Yep, that's Grade A documentary material, there.

Here's the kicker: Once a limpet really clamps down, it is impossible to remove through force alone.  The limpet would rather die than leave its rock - seriously, limpets will break if you try to pull them off. It's as futile as trying to pry a hardcore WoW addict away from his computer. They can even adjust their strategy to the type of predator. On the plus side, next time you meet a particularly stubborn person, call him/her a "limpet;" the joke may well be lost on them, but you can laugh to yourself.

And yes, finally, limpets can be eaten. The largest true limpet, the Mexican Giant Limpet (Patella mexicana,), is actually under threat from overharvesting. If limpets are around, people The shells of limpets are also valuable to some collectors, so as long as you can get them off the rock, a limpet can become a gold mine. Consider that every time you need help getting motivated; limpets are awesome once they let go of the rock.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Chiton.

There are so many ways that people eat molluscs. Many of them are delicious; molluscs have only mild flavor on their own, so any cream, butter, or garlic makes them taste pretty good most of the time. It should be no surprise that we've tried to eat every squishy thing with a shell, right?

Chiton does not usually appear on menus in the mainland U.S. restaurants. It is, however, quite common in Caribbean and Alaskan cuisine. Native Americans in the U.S. also enjoy chiton. In other words, the main reason this is unusual is because "regular" people in the U.S. have a narrow definition of "food."

First off, I did not mention this in the chiton entry, but chitons can get huge.The Giant Pacific Chiton (or "gumboot"), enjoyed in the North American northwest, can get up to a foot (300 mm) long. A lot of it is guts and shell. Believe it or not, there is relatively little meat in this big thing here:

VIa Wikipedia.

The rules for eating chiton are about the same as eating abalone. This does not mean it is advised; chitons yield very little meat and have tough, rubbery hides. They are usually reserved for times of famine because of it, and please have a Native (no offense, guys) prepare your chiton for you should you still wish to eat one. Oh, and apparently "abalone" is the mollusc equivalent of "chicken;" everything is compared to it. 

Chitons have very interesting shells. They have eyes in there, for example. The last blog entry on chitons talked about how awesome that shell was. Underneath that awesome shell is a blob of meat waiting to be devoured. It should be absolutely no surprise that someone noticed the meat beneath the armor and tried to eat it. It's snail logic, basically.

Chiton: It's like snail, only with even less shell.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Mollusc Week: Giant Octopus + Octopus Wonders.

In the interests of givig xhitons and their squishy brethren their due, this blog proudly presents Mollusc Week! Yes, molluscs are weird, wonderful creatures that inhabit most types of water. They have soft bodies and have shells, not exoskeletons: (Fun fact: If you get a whole squid at a restaurant near a port, they might leave the small, iridescent, internal shell in for you.) Of course, not all of them have apparent shells, like today's number:

The Giant Pacific Octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) is exactly what it says on the can: a big octopus found in the Pacific Ocean. These particular octopuses prefer temperate waters. Like all octopuses, it is carnivorous, using a sharp beak to snatch and tear fish. The main distinguishing trait of these octopuses is their odd skin, which looks almost like leaves.

So, how giant is giant? The legs on a giant octopus can get 30 feet (9.1 meters) across. They could easily tentacle rape somebody with their arms (which is the correct term), but are by no means the krakens that people love marketing. They are, however, still impressive enough to be among the most filmed octopuses in the world. They never reach the massive sizes of giant far as we know.

More importantly, however, octopuses (in general)  are the magicians of the sea creature world. They can disappear into the background, escape from almost any prison that isn't entirely enclosed, and, of course, use the classic ink vanishing act. They can also solve mazes and open jars. A lot of octopus feats are better witnessed than described; how does that amazing brain fit through a tiny hole?!

Probably not a giant. Still impressive.

The only limit to an octopus's awesomeness is how big its beak is. In general, they are intelligent creatures who manage to do things that we thought only vertebrates could do. Yeah, chimps suddenly look really boring by comparison, don't they?

By the way, in case you were curious, octopuses make horrible pets. They are very sensitive to their environments, making them strongly affected by climate change and pollution. Also, they are escape artists. Please leave them either in the ocean or to real aquarium experts. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Bio-Art: Inside of A Dog.

For those of you who have not been keeping up with my entries, especially during Freak Weeks, I am not a dog person. This doesn't mean that I haven't looked into them as animals  - far from it. When I found a book called Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz, I got it. Not a bad deal for 6 bucks, to say the least, even though I've never had a dog.

So now you're probably wondering: Why would I investigate a book called Inside of a Dog? The simple answer is that I like looking at things from different angles. Animal behavior is fascinating; it reminds us that, hey, other animals besides humans have lives, perceptions, and so forth. Plus, in case I ever do get a dog, I want to know what makes the most bizarre non-human animal in the world tick.  Doubtless some dog owners wonder this as well. 

Inside of a Dog:What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, is not some gross book about canine anatomy. Rather, it's about the canine mind. What does a canine smile mean? What do barks, and the different kinds of barks, really mean? Do dogs see humans as another species, or as other dogs?  These are all fascinating questions that go all-but-unanswered by serious scientific studies. Inside of A Dog compiles nearly every study done on canine behavior, and then some, into a comprehensible format.

The book proposes to immerse us so thoroughly into a dog's mind that "we become honorary dogs ourselves." It does this by highlighting both scientific experiments upon dog psychology and the author's personal observations of her own dog, Pumpernickel. She watched tapes upon tapes of dogs playing to observe every nuance in their behavior. Her desire was to see into a dog's umwelt - a sort of private world that dogs can only experience because they're dogs. Seriously, we, with our pathetic noses, have no idea how much information is being exchanged when one dog sniffs another's butt.

Sound like a lot to take in? Don't worry. For the most part, the book is accessible. That's the real key to its success: It speaks to the layman without being at all condescending.  The dog's inner world is brought to light in regular, human terms, such as comparing the dog's mind to stages of human development. All scientific jargon is explained.

Despite not being a dog person, I do agree with the book on at least one count: the author's whole thesis works around breaking the strange anthropomorphy that people have with dogs. Dogs have their own umwelten; they see their world completely differently from humans, especially in regards to smell. If you want to understand dogs as something more than "low-class people," buy Inside of a Dog right now. Or heck, Christmas is coming; go ahead and get it for the literate dog lover in your life. Sit. Stay. Read.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Creature Feature: Chitons.

Some people really like the idea of techno-organic lifeforms. I don't just mean cyborgs - I mean, theoretically, lifeforms that are mechanical, but reproduce like normal organisms. How this would work, I have very little idea. On one level, however, nature has already beaten them to the punch:

Chitons (Polyplacophores) are a large group of molluscs that, once again, I feel guilty lumping into one entry. I am quite certain that they are all individually fascinating. Chitons are all marine and can be found in virtually any ocean, eating algae off of rocks with a sort of toothy tongue called a radula. The lined chiton (Tonicella lineata) above actually looks pretty trippy. Mollusc-lovers, please don't kill me.

Chitons are a lot like pillbugs. They roll up in defense and can ever roll away from predators. The 8-piece shell is still flexible enough to let the squishy creature beneath it climb up rocks and the like. When a chiton dies, its shells can be washed up on the shore; these are sometimes called "butterfly shells," but they look too edgy to be butterflies. 

This does not look real. Source.

Chiton shells contain a lot of the mineral aragonite. For those of you who know absolutely nothing about organic chemistry, aragonite is not a common organic compound. It's made of calcium, carbon, and oxygen, which are all pretty common, but it is a rock.

Although a lot of mollusc shells are blessed with aragonite in their structures, chitons are the only molluscs that use it like a suit of armor, curling up into calcerous balls while still being allowed to move freely when not under threat. That makes this mollusc the closest thing to a real-life golem on the planet. Sure, it's not quite a robot, but look at it. It's a footfall away from being the next Hex Bug. Get one on your Christmas list today!


That's not all. Chitons have done something that no other mollusc has ever done with their aragonite: evolved eyes in their shells. The aragonite in chiton shells forms simple lenses that can see light and dark above the armored little slug (again: please don't kill me, mollusc-lovers). THey can, amazingly enough, see equally well above or below water. The most ancient chitons do not have these eyes; if the fossil record is correct, this makes these pseudo-eyes the most recently-evolved eyes in existence. They're almost inorganic eyes.  Tell that to your eye doctor next time you need new glasses!

Although not quite cybernetic, it would be extremely easy to create a mechanical chiton with "eyes" in its metallic shell. Hell add something in there to strengthen the calcium; then we would have a real armored mollusc. The only issue would be making sure the fleshy part could reproduce. Just another thing for science to work on.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Newsflash: Airborne Ebola?

Remember when I cited Ebola as a sign that there was not a loving God? It turns out that it was a lot worse than I thought. Thanks in large part to conspiracy theorists believing that the elite are using human populations in Africa to test out biological weapons, this little gem found its way onto my screen:

"Canadian scientists have shown that the deadliest form of the ebola virus could be transmitted by air between species.

In experiments, they demonstrated that the virus was transmitted from pigs to monkeys without any direct contact between them.

The researchers say they believe that limited airborne transmission might be contributing to the spread of the disease in some parts of Africa. They are concerned that pigs might be a natural host for the lethal infection.

Ebola viruses cause fatal haemorrhagic fevers in humans and many other species of non human primates.
Details of the research were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the infection gets into humans through close contact with the blood, secretions, organs and other bodily fluids from a number of species including chimpanzees, gorillas and forest antelope. 

The fruit bat has long been considered the natural reservoir of the infection. But a growing body of experimental evidence suggests that pigs, both wild and domestic, could be a hidden source of Ebola Zaire - the most deadly form of the virus. 

Now, researchers from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the country's Public Health Agency have shown that pigs infected with this form of Ebola can pass the disease on to macaques without any direct contact between the species. 

In their experiments, the pigs carrying the virus were housed in pens with the monkeys in close proximity but separated by a wire barrier. After eight days, some of the macaques were showing clinical signs typical of ebola and were euthanised. 

One possibility is that the monkeys became infected by inhaling large aerosol droplets produced from the respiratory tracts of the pigs.

What we suspect is happening is large droplets - they can stay in the air, but not long, they don't go far. But they can be absorbed in the airway.”- Dr. Gary Kobinger, Public Health Agency of Canada." - Source. More there.

So, basically, it turns out that pigs can carry Ebola too, and they might be able to get it through minimal contact with exhaled bodily fluids. Bear in mind that pigs are also very susceptible to respiratory infections.

This is another reason why one should watch where one's meats come from. Pigs can carry a lot of human diseases, not just Ebola, because they are so biologically-similar to humans. We eat them and make medicine out of them. We also ship them everywhere - not all farms are in the U.S. Pigs are already pretty bad environmentally; this is one nasty addition to the damage they can do.

That said, I do wonder why this hasn't been publicized more. Ebola's kind of a big deal.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Creature Feature: Black-and-Rufous-Sengi.

There are very, very few animal "combinations" that have not been done. You can slap almost any animal onto "fish" and there's probably one or two combinations for it. This is a lot rarer with mammals, but "deermouse" is a notable exception. "Elephant shrew" is a strange, almost contradictory name, which it made complete sense to change.


This is a black-and-rufous sengi (Rhynchocyon petersi). Sengis, also known as elephant shrews, are all native to Africa; there are 16 species total. This one is native to Tanzania and Kenya. Despite its looks, is perfectly capable of eating rodents as well as insects and vegetation. They are not shrews, but have flexible, sensitive noses like elephants, hence the old name.

Elephant shrews are more closely related to elephants than to shrews. They're part of that weird group of mammals called Afrotherians, which, again, has nothing to do with big, poofy hair. Rather, it has to do with elephants, aardvarks, and rodent-like creatures being each other's great, great, greatgreatgreatgreat grandparents, twice removed. It's unbelievable stuff that has been covered several times on this blog.


The weirdness does not stop at elephant shrews/sengis in general. The black-and-rufous sengi is one of the larger sengis, averaging about a foot long from head to rump. The tail can be up to ten inches long.  It is also one of the more colorful sengis, sporting an attractive red and black coat.They are standouts in a group that's already pretty weird.

The black-and-rufous sengi is also on the "vulnerable" list. This is more due to habitat loss than any other factor. Several zoos have breeding programs, most notably the one in Philedelphia, Pennsylvania. Two brothers are born in the National Zoo in Washington D.C. as well. There's no immediate danger, so we'll be able to enjoy these weird little rascals for a long time to come.