Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Creature Feature: Goya the Giant Guinea Pig.

Before I actually get started with this post, a funny story: In an attempt to get used to what will be my new address for a few months, I suggested that a friend and I do a 'guinea pig' trade. My friend then linked me to an adorable, but slightly overpriced guinea pig figurine made by Safari Ltd.- a company that prides itself on super-detailed, anatomically-accurate models. Still, unless it was a giant guinea pig, it might not have been worth seven bucks.

Hey, come to think of it, a giant guinea pig would be kinda awesome.

Copyright Science/Carin L. Cain. It's the only pic out there.

At one point, giant guinea pigs (Phoberomys pattersoni ) were actually a thing. They lived in South America (specifically Venezuela) during the Miocene. The area is now desert, but back when Pigzilla would have been around, it would have been a lot wetter and greener. It also would have been loaded with giant predatory birds and crocodiles itching to eat a giant fuzzball.

To be fair, Goya, as the archaeologists affectionately called it, is different from the modern guinea pig in several ways. Imagine a guinea pig the size of a buffalo. Give it a long tail and situate it along a riverbank. It may even have been a herd animal; let's add a few more into your mental image for good measure. Oh, and it was able to walk on its hind legs, most likely. This adds up to a rodent that was approximately 3 meters long and weighed 700 kg, making it the largest rodent ever. The capybara has nothing on a giant guinea pig.

Strangely, there was only one skeleton of this monstrous rodent ever found. The only known specimen was found in Urumaco, Venezuela as a remarkably complete skeleton. Sure, the giant guinea pigs had predators, but it is still unlikely to find only one of this giant creature ever. Can we call 'alien interference' on this one? Maybe; I'm not ruling it out.

A post about giant rodents would not have been complete without Ultra-Peepi.

But really? I know what you're all thinking: When can we get Jurassic Park technology, clone this thing, and make it into one of the best-selling pets ever? It's not that regular guinea pigs aren't cute - we just want one that will give us piggy-back rides for carrots. That is all we ask.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Bio-Art: DNA Music.

Normally, this column would cover visual art. After all, that's what blogs that are not about celebrities are good for: sharing photos around the world. This time, however, the target of the column is...music.

That sound byte is not just any music. It was made using DNA - the stuff that makes you you. Besides the YouTube video above, there are several sites and institutions playing with turning your unique genetics into musical pieces. You have over 25,000 distinct genes. Pick your fave and put it on your iPod. 

So, how do they do it? Let's talk a little bit about DNA first: Deoxyribonucleic acid is twisted into nice, neat little double helices in every single cell of your body. Within these twists are the nitrogen bases adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine. (In RNA, thymine is replaced with uracil.)  When these bases are strung together in a certain pattern, they code for amino acids. A bunch of amino acids creates a protein. A protein, or rather several proteins, make you who you are. Got it? Good; it'll be on the quiz. 

The basic idea behind all forms of DNA music is the same: Take the proteins and use them to create music. This gives you four notes to work with in the nitrogen bases. While this may not seem like a lot, it has a lot more creative potential than one would originally give it credit for. The YouTube video above speaks volumes in that regard.

Now, I've played with the software used to make DNA music. One gene can actually be quite complex; for example, the code for snake venom, for example, can go on for at least ten seconds in musical form. The four nitrogen bases can also be modified to be played by any number of instruments, allowing for a good variety of possible sounds. There are also ways to mix it like one would any other sound file. In the end, you can create music that is very much you...as long as you know the magical sequences of four letters that make it so.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Big In Japan: Shirohebi.

Final entry of the week! After sooo many mammals, it's about time we did something at least slightly creepy, no?

Property of www.shirohebi.com.

...What? Some people I know are terrified of snakes. They will not come anywhere near Eros, my snow corn, who looks like she was pulled off of a Valentine's Day card. Color means absolutely nothing to ophidiophobes. Culture, especially Asian culture, would tend to disagree with such people, especially in regard to white snakes.

Even though snakes are usually vilified, there are two that tend to be exceptions to the rule: cobras and pure white snakes. Cobras have the badass hood (and king cobras eat other snakes for breakfast); white animals in general have this sense of holiness attached to them, in part because white animals rarely last more than two seconds in the wild. White snakes are no exception. China and Japan both love them.

The DVD cover for a box set of a TV series retelling the story of "Madame White Snake" - a Taiwanese folktale that evolved from a horror story to epic spirit romance. Not Japan. Still a kickass white snake.

In Japan, white snakes are considered lucky. They are seen as messengers of the goddess of love and fortune, Benzaiten, who was adapted from the Hindu Sarasvati. Depending on who you ask, Benzaiten either has a dragon (read: magic snake) as her consort or slew him (if you follow the Sarasvati tradition). Regardless, the close affinity between her and various serpents led her to be pictured with a white snake on several occasions. Seeing a white snake is almost as good as catching a leprechaun in Japan...only better, because Iwakuni, a small town near Hiroshima, is chock full of them.

Shirohebi are an albino variation of the Japanese rat snake (Elaphe climacophora). The regular E. climacophora, or aodaisho ("blue general") is one of the most common rat snakes in Japan- sort of like their version of the corn snake. (I have, however, seen it mistranslated as 'garter snake.')  Iwakuni is the only place with 'official' Shirohebi, although one can still buy albino climacs from Kunisir Island. Nobody quite knows why the white population has flourished (there are still a LOT of cats there), but having the misty atmosphere from Lord of the Rings is a good start. I call divine intervention.

So, what is one to do with a town full of white snakes? Make it a tourist trap, of course! I have personally been to Iwakuni, the only place in Japan with a wild albino Elaphe climacophora population, and they love their white snakes. The Shirohebi charm I got there still lives on my phone. Businessmen really do go there to pray to the snakes. They even have Shirohebi parades. Snake-lovers, Benzaiten has heard your wishes.

Shirohebi are nationally protected. Like the Iriomote Cat, they are listed as a national treasure. People are not supposed to take the white snakes out of Iwakuni, but they do anyways. This protected population is shrinking (again). There are still some wild Shirohebi, and captive breeders are doing their best, but please do not take anymore out of Iwakuni. Steal from that little island that's not quite Russia instead.

Go to Russia or face Kanako's wrath. (BTW, anyone know who drew this?)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Big In Japan: Iriomote Cat.

Japan is notorious for many things: A hard language (which really ISN'T that hard), animated porn, sushi, giant robots, more animated porn, and decent beef, to name a few. One of the lesser talked-about aspects (usually within animated porn) is catgirls. Catgirls have come up a few times on this blog, usually as "what has science done?" examples. That, and the author finds them kinda adorable.

For today's animal, however, the catgirl serves a different purpose: Ichigo, the almost nauseatingly-cute catgirl above, is based off of a very rare Japanese wildcat. After looking into it a bit more, the author of this blog found that Ichigo just barely looked like the Iriomote Cat, but making a tribute to such a rare animal was still a lovely gesture. Apparently the same cat also made a cameo in Azumanga Daioh with more accurate markings. 


And here's a real one.

The Iriomote Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis iriomotensis) is a small wildcat that does, indeed, look a lot like a regular housecat.As its name indicates, it is found exclusively on the (tiny!) Japanese island of Iriomote. It is an opportunistic predator that can usually be found near water. (Unlike domestic cats, they love water and catch their own seafood.) The Iriomote Cat looks a little strange, but it'd be easy enough to confuse one of these kitties for somebody's pet.

The Iriomote Cat may look like a normal house cat, but don't let size fool you. The Iriomote Cat is, genetically, probably one of the first felids to ever walk the earth. It has weird teeth and non-retractable claws as well. It has been called a "living fossil" and sports the status of "national treasure" along with tomorrow's creature. Precious cat is precious.

Unfortunately, the Iriomote Cat is getting more and more elusive. There are less than 250 individuals alive today, meaning that it definitely merits its "Critically Endangered" status.  That number is only shrinking as feral cats mate with these wild cats, diluting the gene pool. Human habitation and road-building are also causing problems. There is no captive breeding population, so, like the panda, this cat has an extremely low chance of surviving past this century. Maybe an Iriomote Catgirl is not such a bad idea after all...just watch out for those claws!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Big In Japan: Japanese Macaque.

We've said it several times: This blog does not have enough monkeys. The author is not particularly fond of most of them. So, when an interesting monkey comes along, you know it had better be a darn cool monkey.

The Japanese macaque is, in fact, the coolest monkey. Besides being from Japan (which is already pretty cool), it is not on the endangered list, can eat almost anything, and enjoys plenty of popularity in Japan's native culture. Yes, we know the Chinese Zodiac was made in China, and so was Journey to the West- the basis for the ever popular Dragon Ball series. They are, however, featured in a few Japanese folktales and can be used to describe particularly affectionate or horny people.

Japanese macaques are the only primates native to a cold climate. Aside from humans, no other primate lives as far north as the macaques. (Seriously, look on a map - Japan is pretty far north compared to Africa and the Amazon, two other places famous for monkeys.) Japanese macaques can be seen huddling together in blizzards for warmth, although we are pretty sure that having fur helps, too. The constant use of their wintery image has sometimes led to them being called "snow monkeys."

The snow monkeys also happen to be super intelligent - even by monkey standards. They have been observed washing food like raccoons - repeatedly. Groups of macaques mere miles apart can have amazingly different dialects. As play is a sign of intelligence, these monkeys have been known to roll in the snow and make snowballs (which are far more sanitary to throw than certain other things). By the way, these monkeys also like hot springs in winter- just like people!

Much to the delight of feminists everywhere, Japanese macaque groups are matrilineal. Everything in a macaque clan centers around the female. When time comes to mate, the female decides, making, ah, nonconsensual sex apparently nonexistent. They can and will mate with multiple males when the time is right.  They're even more vocal; like women at a beauty parlor, these monkeys will chatter to each other while grooming. Before you ask: Yes, these monkeys do have lesbians.

Prior to WWII, the biggest threat to these monkeys was habitat loss. As civilization continues to expand, humans will encroach upon the territories of these monkeys. Macaques on the edge of civilization have completely lost their fear of humans. There was one instance of a monkey living in central Tokyo for months. Whether this newly-found proximity is a good or bad thing remains to be seen. Let's hope that they do not become as naughty as the Japanese crows...

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Dolphin.

Japanese schools used to have a fine diet plan: "Something from the mountains and something from the sea." Japan does "something from the sea" wayyyy too well for its own good. If it is from the sea, they have tried to eat it. We've already covered fugu and eel, probably the weirdest things that Japan is known for eating...

Oh, right. Totally forgot about dolphin. Yes, there are some people in Japan that treat the stars of "So Long and Thanks For All the Fish" as yet another thing from the seas to be eaten. Just to be fair, Peru and the Solomon Islands also hunt dolphin. Dolphins can be either netted by accident or driven onto beaches by boats. Either way is pretty sick, so feel free to use your imagination on this one...although the latter is more common for systematic slaughter. 

The good news: The practice of eating dolphin is not widespread in Japan. Only a few poor fishing regions eat dolphin on a regular basis. Even then, dolphin is not cuisine by any means. It is certainly not shark fin soup. It is really only popular in one place, but people outside of that place love dolphins so much that pics like the one below are all over.

Exactly one town, Taiji, is enthusiastic about hunting dolphins to the point where they tried to popularize it. There were a number of reasons that they failed, the least of which is that dolphins are the most adorable rapists ever. Eating cetaceans is such a big thing for them that they have dolphin sashimi and humpback whale bacon. The kids in Taiji grow up with favorite dolphin and whale meats. They see dolphins as swimming beef, basically, and are irked by foreigners who do not respect the traditional Taiji diet. Most other people in Japan are horrified at what goes on in Taiji - assuming they learn about it at all.


Some seafood companies, likely netting a few unfortunate dolphins by accident, figured out that  dolphin meat could be passed off as a cheap substitute for whale meat, which is more frequently consumed and quite expensive. This is probably as low as such companies can get. Oh, and consuming dolphin or whale meat is potentially dangerous.

Yep, screw humanity.

Cute factor aside, dolphin meat is not even safe to consume. Not only is the sea around East Asia horribly polluted, but dolphins have a lethal amount of mercury in their bodies thanks to bio-accumulation. (We do not know how the Taiji people are still living; they had 6 times the amount of mercury in their systems as the average Japanese person.) DDT, the same pesticide that pushed raptors to the brink of extinction, has also been found in dolphin and whale meat. Karma? You tell me.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Big In Japan: The Japanese Wolves.

Is there any animal more overrated than wolves? We mean this in the best and worst senses: either wolves are the meanest, nastiest, most powerful nemeses around, or they are sweet, gentle, timid creatures that were as unfairly persecuted as Native Americans. There is no middle ground. Oh, and by the way, Balto lied to us as kids on so many levels. (When we make an entry on wolfdogs, we will cover him more thoroughly.)

Now, to be fair, wolves are among the few animals that humans have attempted to eradicate. Teddy Roosevelt unleashed a mange-carrying parasite among American wolves that quickly spread from one wolf to the rest of the pack. (Among other animals with systematic eradication policies are snakes (many people down South will kill a snake on sight - regardless of species), invasive Australian rabbits, and the Tasmanian Tiger (which we realized was awesome too late.)) "Wolfaboos" will often cite eradication of wolves as evidence for us to love them. We have to admit: Infecting a lot of them with sarcoptic mange was pretty mean. Now we know how important wolves are. Get off our backs about it.

In present-day Japan, wolves are darn near divine. This is largely because both of the wolves Japan had are officially extinct (although the shrines to them likely predate at least one extinction). Calling the wolves ookami (a homophone for "great god") is their way of saying  "we're very sorry."

Did we mention Japan loves homophones?

Unlike the Western Big Bad Wolf, the ōkami is generally a benevolent spirit. If dealt with wisely, it can be an honest, pure creature that protects its new friend from other wolves. Other wolves that encounter stupider humans may become the same man-eating monsters as found in Grimm's fairy tales. People protected by the ōkami will generally leave it an offering of beans and rice. Disclaimer: THE AUTHOR DOES NOT ENDORSE TRYING THIS WITH CORPOREAL WOLVES AND IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY LIMBS LOST.

We do, however, admit that both of the Japanese wolf subspecies were hunted down like their American counterparts. The reasoning is also similar to the situation in the U.S.: ranchers had issues with the wolves eating their animals. In the Meiji Period, the government officially used chemical warfare against the Hokkaidō Wolf (C.l.hattai), which was already suffering from habitat loss. It was officially declared extinct in the late 1800's.

The other Japanese wolf, the Honshū Wolf (C.l.hodophilax), was a much smaller variety and is considered the Japanese wolf. Hardly a threat to ranchers at a little over a foot high, environmental threats pushed it closer and closer to human habitation. Farmers still shot the mini-wolves if they got too close. Many of them also acquired rabies in 1732. The chibi-wolf was officially declared extinct in 1905. It lives on in spirit, but not in body. In other words, Wolf's Rain already happened.

Not too sure about the human form thing, though. Or the albino chick.

As with the sightings of the Tasmanian Tiger, there exist sightings of Japanese wolves. This entry is not about saving the wolves, however; as long as we aren't eradicating them, they will be just fine. Relax.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Bio-Spot: The Meguro Parasite Museum.

Hello, Monday! Monday is Bio-Art day, but this Monday also starts "Big In Japan Week." That means every single entry will relate to something from Japan. This entry is no exception. (I decided to change it from "bio-art" to "bio-spot" for this one simply because not everyone would consider gift shop trinkets and a folded giant tapeworm artwork.)

As Bogleech rightfully pointed out, Japan is more fascinated with life than any other nation I've been to. Both the adults and kids were excited to see "Lion-san" at the Ueno Zoo. Apparently, they have a stronger science curriculum as well, covering all sorts of life forms that schools in the U.S. will not touch. They also possess the world's only known parasite museum. 

 Meguro is a suburb of Tokyo that has spectacular cherry blossoms every year, but the Meguro Parasitological Museum by itself attracts attention. It was established entirely by doctor Satoru Kamegai in 1953. Since then, it has been grossing out Westerners while proving one of Japan's most popular date spots. Only in Japan would they consider posing near a giant (8.8 meter) tapeworm an idea for a good date.


The museum is divided into two floors. The first has maps showing where certain parasites come from, as well as a general overview of parasites. The second sports all sorts of parasite specimens, showing their various life cycles and, sometimes, fully-preserved hosts. Somewhere, there is also a cafeteria with sushi. We do not think they deliberately put anything in there to go along with the theme, but after seeing the sorts of things that live in fish, it may be better not to eat the sushi. No offense meant.

So, where does the 'art' come into this? Parasites are extremely hard to take care of in a laboratory setting. That means that many specimens have to be mounted, which Japan happens to be good at. That tapeworm is more impressive folded like that than it would be in a jar, right? Plus, hey, they made a tapeworm T-shirt and sealed actual parasites into plastic. Stop making me want to go back to Japan, Meguro.

As the official site says: "Try to think about parasites without a feeling of fear, and take the time to learn about their wondrous and resourceful way of life." Good advice!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Creature Feature: Andean Cock-of-the-Rock.

When it comes to names, birds really get the short end of the stick. Even if you are not related to chickens, if you happen to be a brightly-colored male bird, you may get called a cock. This will cause teenagers with dirty minds to snicker at you, and your name will be censored on internet forums. Tough cookies; the tits and boobies of the world share your pain.

The Andean Cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruviana) is one of the few passerines (songbirds) to be compared to a rooster. It lives in the Andean cloud forests of South America. Cocks and hens of the rock are rather shy birds, so whatever data we have of them must have been taken by quiet, patient people. It is also the national bird of Peru.

As usual, the male is the looker of the two sexes. He has a bright red-orange comb and a piercing yellow eye that makes the ladies go wild. Some women we know might go crazy for a disk of orange feathers, too. Point is, this guy is one of the flashier songbirds out there...and how.

Andean cocks are also among the few types of animals to have a mating pattern called a "lek." The males all gather in one area to strut their stuff. The males then fight each other, and, as the female approaches, 'fight' for show. The fight escalates into a brightly-colored cacophony until the female finally picks a mate. Even then, she will not be the only one giving him eggs; like many birds, CotRs are polygamous, and do not tend to the young at all.

Even if it is not quite a rooster, the Andean Cock-of-the-rock does have a fair amount in common with them. The crest and the sheer amount of noise they make when in a lek are probably good indicators of how it got its name. Should one wish for a name without censoring, try "Gallito de Roca" - we're pretty sure the internet censorship rules haven't caught on to Spanish, yet.

Blanket Placeholder Post.

Sorry, guys. I had an essay due for one of my classes. That said, please do bear in mind that my studies take priority over this blog. If there is something lengthy due, or if a test is the next day, the blog may be delayed. Oh, and Friday is my official day off/makeup day, so if I -really- screw up, expect a post or three then. :)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Creature Feature: Haast's Eagle.

My current Environmental Sustainability professor specializes in invasive species. He was on the committee for the update to the Lacey Act that covered Burmese and rock pythons alongside the yellow anaconda. Here in Chicago, we also have Japanese beetles and Asian carp. For some reason, we do allow mutant rats with shirts to run around the streets like crazy, but I digress.

A lot of people overlook what happens when humans become an invasive species. Let's not even count the animals that humans bring with. In gaming terms, humans, as a species, are broken - that is, overpowered. Even amazingly cool things can be disrupted by the presence of one human tribe. Humans rarely travel alone, after all. 

New Zealand and Australia were among the hardest places hit by human invasion. The moa, one particular type of ratite found on New Zealand, was the main prey item of a very, very, very large eagle:


The Haast's Eagle (Harpagornis moorei) was the biggest eagle that ever lived. It had a 2-3 meter wingspan, was approximately a meter and a half from head to tail, and stood higher than most dogs. The wings were actually a bit short for a bird that big, but they allowed the eagle to maneuver in its forest habitat. Regardless, it came down so hard and fast upon moa that they did not know what hit them. It was said to attack as fast as 80 km/h (or 50 mph). Big, fast, and deadly, this thing would make a good "deadliest animal" opponent versus, oh...a lioness, maybe? Wish I had a simulator.

Hell, if Maori legend is correct, this bird may have killed humans. There are no confirmed reports, but if it can take on a bird many times it size and possibly eat the whole kill, it could certainly kill off an idiot with his iPod. Gandalf's eagle? Yeah, it was kinda like the Haast's Eagle, and still native to New Zealand.

NOW I know why white mages can use necromancy. Nicely done, Gandalf!

The reason for this bird's extinction was the introduction of men who did not yet have iPods to distract them. Even without modern tech, humanity effectively wiped out the moa, the Haast's eagle's main source of food. Moas were the rough equivalent of deer or other large herbivorous mammals on other continents. There were several species, all of which were completely wingless. This is entry is not about them, but bear with me.

The arrival of humans was a two-pronged attack on the moa population: one, moa were about as intelligent and delicious as giant chickens, and two, the Maori needed to clear the forest for slash-and-burn agriculture. Deforestation and hunting moa were what killed most of the species off in less than a century. This was done by one of the 'innocent' native tribes, remember. No Europeans were involved, but to be fair, they did not help the New Zealand ecology any. 

Europeans were the unnecessary crotch kick to the bird-based ecology of New Zealand. We, the Caucasians, likely contributed to the moa going extinct - and, by extension, the Haast's Eagle by 1400. We also brought over small mammals, which screwed things up further. To be fair, we also realized that the kakapo were adorable and endangered, so the white man gets a few brownie points.

One predator so efficiently killing off the moa doomed the Haast's Eagle to extinction. Had this been in any other era, there would be wildlife federations protecting this bird. They could totally have used the Lord of the Rings series to raise awareness that, yes, New Zealand did in fact have giant eagles. Also, there is a high chance that someone would have figured out how to domesticate moa, and thus we would have wingless chocobos. "Giant eagles and chocobos" sounds like a good time. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Creature Feature: Ribbon Seal.

This blog does not get many pinnipeds. It's not that we don't like them, it's more like they simply are not the author's specialty. When something pinniped-related does get our attention, it usually requires a bit of research on our part.

Hi ma!

One woman in Seattle recently saw this seal resting on her dock. She snapped a photo of the strange-looking seal and sent it to her local wildlife commission. The district supervisor of the USDA in Washington, Matthew Cleland, correctly identified the animal as a ribbon seal - a seal found waaayyy farther north on a more regular basis.

Ribbon seals (Histriophoca fasciata) are usually seen in the Arctic regions of Alaska and Russia. Like most seals, they eat fish. They spend almost all of their time in open water, making them hard for naturalists to track. They only stop on ice for a few months to mate and give birth, so seeing one as far south as Washington is mind-blowing. Starbucks isn't that great.

These seals do not start life with their striking black and white patterning. Younger ribbon seals look a lot like harp seals, a species commonly hunted for their fur. This led to many seal pups being killed as if they were harp seals - that is, until people thought it fishy that a harp seal would be swimming solo. The hunting of ribbon seals was banned in Russia in 1969. Only adult seals are confused for mammalian penguins.

This appearance in Washington is not the first time ribbon seals have decided to take vacations. One male wandered all the way down to California. The seal was found at Morrow Bay, a small town north of Los Angeles. Although it was taken to a local aquarium, it died a month later. Sightings as far south as the continental U.S. are not unheard of, but still very rare.

Ribbon seals are currently in the purgatory called "Vulnerable." Something can only be considered endangered once we know how many individuals are out there.We know that the Alaskan population numbers around 250,000 individuals, but, even with hunting restricted, global climate change may present another threat. Even if these seals aren't quite endangered,they my fall there very, very soon.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Parrot Fish.

This parrot fish is no more. It has ceased to be. It has expired and gone to be someone's dinner. It's a stiff, bereft of life. THIS is an ex-parrot fish!

Yes, they actually eat parrot fish. China and Korea will eat almost anything; small surprise to find parrot fish in a few other countries in East Asia, e.g. the Philippines and Malaysia. It has spread to markets in the United States, including some places in San Diego and Chicago. That people eat parrot fish is hardly surprising, but still enough to make people who appreciate how colorful and awesome parrot fish are a little bit teary.

One can probably guess that parrot fish is particularly popular on islands. According to National Geographic, parrot fish is considered a delicacy in Polynesia. Filipino food may also use parrot fish. Hawaii just loves them, and they can catch them locally, too!

Certain Chinese (and likely Korean) restaurants may also cook parrot fish for you. It is likely an obscure item along the lines of zombie jellyfish, however, so not many places will have it. Still, if you seek this colorful fish, try Asian markets. It probably helps if you know someone who already speaks Chinese or Korean.

As for what it tastes like? Parrot fish has been described as white, delicate, and very chewy. Until I actually find some parrot fish for myself, I will not be able to confirm or deny whether or not it constitutes a delicacy.  I may be taking a trip to a Korean grocery store, soon, but if you have personally ever eaten parrot fish, let us know!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


You may have noticed that sites like Wikipedia and Google are "censoring" themselves in order to protect SOPA and PIPA - both bills proposed to make the internet as friendly for Americans as it is for the Chinese. Being an American, it's about time I did my own post about this. In a nutshell, here's what's going on:

Both SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) are bills designed to give big corporations the right to shut down any site suspected of having infringing content. They don't even need evidence.
 They can just plain shut any site down on a whim. This video can explain it a lot better than I can:

Unrelated: I now know an ecologist personally. Brace yourselves for fun entries!

Creature Feature: Parrotfish.

[Internet blackout day entry. Expect colors.]

It occurred to us that, after making the banner, we had not done all of the creatures it featured. It's about time we fixed that; as cyan goes, the ocean sports it pretty well. The cyan in my banner, however, belongs to a parrotfish.

 Parrotfish are large, colorful members of the wrasse group. Their own family, Scaridae, has several genera. They can be found in most tropical waters. There are a fair amount of different species in a variety of sizes, but they are all living acid trips. Every single one.

Parrotfish are some of the most colorful fish in the sea. They do not even have the same colors throughout their lives, even though almost every stage properly resembles an acid trip. Due to the radical ontogenic color changes that can take place, scientists once had around 350 parrotfish species on record; the actual number is somewhere around 80.

This is a GUY.


That is not the limit of the parrot fish's weirdness. Like many saltwater fish, parrot fish can change sex if the need arises.Parrot fish have a harem system - that is, one male with several females. If that one male dies, the highest female in the group starts making some rather manly hormones and steals his throne. If this sounds familiar, it's because clownfish do something similar.


Parrot fish eat coral. More specifically, the fish eats the algae inside the gooey little polyps that make up coral reefs. Those teeth up there, aside from looking like a Grateful Dead cover gone horribly wrong, are used to crunch through the calcified skeletons of the tiny cnidarians that build the reefs. The end result, by the way, is that parrot fish excrete sand. You're welcome.

Did we mention that parrotfish, although diurnal, sleep in mucous cocoons like some sort of metamorphosing alien during the night? No? All right then. Beware of the gnashing teeth in your nightmares. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Bio-Art: Lady Gaga.

Any Monsters reading this blog should have seen this one coming a mile away. The beautiful, dirty, rich pop star has used her fame to create several pieces that combine art and biology. Everybody is (or at least was) watching her like paparazzi, but she still deserves an entry all to herself.

First and foremost, the video Born This Way revolves around the biological birthing process...and how that process is changing. What starts as a visceral ritual birth becomes a sanitized, artificial cloning process. When the birth of evil takes place, the dancing humans form a human skull. There are numerous ungulate skull -slash- uterus images present throughout the video. Towards the end, it even gets slimy...and we see Zombie Boy again. :)

Gaga was doing bio-art before Born This Way, too. Various explanations have been given for the meat dress Lady Gaga wore at the 2010 VMA's. The reason that the artist herself gave was "I am not meat." (Gaga, if you are what you wear, you are meat. Sorry.) Others think that she was just doing it for shock value. Most people are probably not aware that it has been done before. She's not THAT original.

We'd love to talk about Lady Gaga's blood and semen perfume, too. Supposedly, the artist used her own blood sample to create a similar compound for the fragrance. We don't know, nor do we want to know, where she got the semen from (that's her business, not ours). It is supposed to smell like "an expensive hooker."  The release date is supposedly Spring 2012. Although there are some mock-up bottles, that's all we've got. There's nothing more we can say on the matter without sounding insane.

We are quite sure that there are some examples that did not make this blog (her ammonite/nautilus getup was probably lost on people). Of course, there will  probably be more to come- her concert in Japan featured a giant spider, so the sky's the limit. This is barring a 2012 conspiracy theory. In that case, we're onto the real implications of your blood perfume, Illuminati!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Little Shop of Horrors: Mandrakes.

From www.columbia.edu.

If you are familiar with the fantasy genre, the mandrake (or mandragora) is one of the most notorious plants you will ever come across. The mandrake, a plant with a humanoid root, screams very loudly whenever it is pulled from the ground, enough so that all who hear the scream die instantly. It is, however, magically potent, so people have devised all sorts of crazy tricks to get one. This, for example:

"A furrow must be dug around the root until its lower part is exposed, then a dog is tied to it, after which the person tying the dog must get away. The dog then endeavours to follow him, and so easily pulls up the root, but dies suddenly instead of his master. After this the root can be handled without fear."

Yep. People would kill puppies to get a mandrake. Mandrakes do exist, but they are not worth killing anything over. 

The plant is actually rather pretty.

Real mandrakes are plants of the genus Mandragora. It is in the nightshade family, meaning that it is related to (obviously) nightshade, tomatoes, eggplants, tittyfruit, datura, and at least one other weird plant on this blog. The type species is Mandragora officinarum, which has been around in Europe (and Israel?) since time began. All parts of the mandrake plant are toxic and should be handled with care.

No, plants have not become so freaky that they have evolved the capacity to scream. Mandrake roots, however, can sometimes look uncannily like people. The way the roots split sometimes create a 'stick figure.' They are not alone in this regard; a few other plants, namely ginger and ginseng, also tend to look like people. Pythagoras, the creator of the Pythagorean Theorem, was such a staunch vegetarian that he refused to eat beans because they resembled human fetuses. Imagine how he would react to a mandrake!


The 'magic' effects of mandrake probably originate from the chemical cocktail found in every part of the plant. Along with several other compounds such as scolopomine and atropine (both trippy on their own), mandrakes have their own substance called mandragorin. Mandragorin produces a hallucinogenic, dreamlike state of mind; in spiritual terms, this is a shortcut to astral plane. They have also been used as medicine for infertility (magic man-plant, remember?) and as a painkiller by many an ancient physician. The jury is still out on whether or not mandrakes have the same zombie-making potential as datura.

Mandrakes are still used in modern tweaks on ancient religions such as Wicca. Bear in mind that some of the mandrakes talked about in ancient texts may instead be referring to things like ginseng and ginger- plants that also have roots that look eerily like people.We really cannot blame them for the mistake (the resemblance to people is uncanny) but please do not take a draft of mandrake to put more junk in the trunk. You might not wake up.

Go catch an Oddish instead.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Creature Feature: Philippine Tarsier.

Soo tired from all the moving going on. I need something to keep me awake. (Read: The entries for Sunday and Monday will VERY LIKELY be delayed due to my not having my own 'net access for a bit.)

...O.K., maybe not THAT awake.Whatever that is, I'll be seeing it in my nightmares. Then, because it IS a nightmare, I will wake up and only bring it up around dream interpreters.

The cute-ugly critter above is called a Philippine tarsier (Tarsius syrichta). Tarsiers are primates like monkeys, apes, and humans (yes, you're in this group, too), but have had all of the charm squeezed out of them - painfully, if that image is any indication. As the name implies, this strange primate is native to the Philippine islands. It eats any small living thing it can, from bugs to small birds. An adult tarsier can fit comfortably in a human hand. It would be cute if not for...

It was all fun and games until we got that one wet...

It is darn near impossible to find a photograph of one of these guys without thinking that the primate is in a very bad mood. If you manage to catch one with its huge eyes open, it looks almost as bad as the aye-aye, but there are no pop stars ugly enough to compare it to. If its eyes are closed, it looks like a very grumpy rat with thumbs. There is no way to win, here.

Its immobile eyes contribute to the strange blend of cute and ugly. Unlike other primates, the Philippine tarsier's gigantic eyes are locked in its skull. Those eyes are also the biggest, proportionately, of any mammal. To compensate, the tarsier has a modified neck that allows it to turn its head 180 degrees. Anime eyes suddenly look sane by comparison. This primate, my friends, is cute gone horribly wrong.

On the bright side, tarsiers represent a valuable evolutionary turning point between rodentlike primates (such as lemurs) and more monkey-like primates. 45 million years ago, tarsiers were on all seven continents.  Now they are restricted to Southeast Asia, much to the disappointment of primatologists. Almost everybody else can rest easy knowing that they will not be stalked by the large-eyed, nocturnal primates that probe the Uncanny Valley of cute.


Philippine tarsiers are, depending on whom you ask, either critically endangered or just vulnerable. Habitat loss and the pet trade (tarsiers do HORRIBLY in captivity) are the main reasons cited for the tarsier's decline. The people of the Philippines seem to love the little thing, touting it as an ancient, tiny monkey. Wait a minute - where have I heard something like that before?


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Creature Feature: Servals.

When most people think Africa, they think big animals: Lions, elephants, wildebeest, gorillas, occasionally hyenas, and other creatures generally treated as "big game." In spite of this, Africa also has some of the most fascinating smaller animals out there, including meerkats, ball pythons (yes, that was a plug), and, of course, smaller cats.

Servals (Leptailurus serval - also Felis serval) are among Africa's lesser-known felines. They are not big cats (considered "medium-size" -approx. 3 feet long), meaning that, like smaller cats, they can chirp and purr.  They are native to a good portion of Africa, including Tanzania, Angola, and Ethiopia. There are several subspecies, although exactly how many depends on who you ask. They eat any vertebrate small enough to fit in their mouths, although there are some reports of them taking down game as big as gazelle. They are not endangered at all, but that does not make them any less special than the other African big-shots. It's fairly hard to find a zoo with servals in the U.S.

Servals are well-adapted to hunting on the African savannah. They have the longest legs (proportionately) of any feline, allowing them to jump up to 3 meters high and see over tall grasses with ease. Their large, erect ears let them hear the tiny scritchings of small prey, sort of like fennecs. Although mainly nocturnal, you will find several serval pics with excellent lighting.

The serval is definitely not related to Nyancat.

Serval coats can fetch a very high price on the black market. They are often sold as young cheetah or leopard pelts. The demand for their fur plus their tendency to sneak into chicken coops (they're smart like foxes!) makes them targets for hunters. As such, servals are rarely seen around populated areas...with one exception.

Look at the rest of the page for your daily dose of cute.

Finally, yes, servals can be kept as pets. If you so desire, you can even breed them with a regular cat and get a hybrid called a Savannah. These were covered briefly in my not-quite-breed week, but here's a refresher: A cat that acts almost like a dog to the point of being leash-trainable, eats raw meat, and is by far the largest domesticated cat breed around. Servals themselves are adept problem solvers and  come in black and white phases, just in case you want to be even MORE different. Even if zoos are a little short on servals, there are plenty around in the U.S. Just know your laws, mmkay?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Lotus.

We get so much into the strange animal foods every week that we tend to overlook plants. Veggies can be strange, too. One can learn a lot about cultural values by what plants they eat - for example, there was a time and place when it was forbidden to eat root vegetables because they were underground. Also, some places just plain don't have certain plants.

Lotuses (Nelumbo nucifera) are among those plants that some places do not eat simply because they are not native. To many Asian cultures, the lotus is a symbol of enlightenment because it emerges from grimy pond bottoms to float atop the water. It can also be interpreted as a symbol of chastity because it comes up so cleanly from the dirt. The Indian name "Padma" and its derivatives all come from the lotus. It's a very popular plant, to say the least. (Read: this is just scratching the surface of the lotus's cultural significance!) 

The popularity of lotuses extends into cuisine, albeit for more practical than spiritual reasons. The flowers, roots, seeds, and young leaves of the lotus are all edible. Nearly everywhere lotuses grow, people have found ways to eat them. Some cultures pop the seeds like popcorn; the not-very-edible stems can be used to flavor tea; the roots have a multitude of uses. (Yes, I have actually eaten lotus root.)

Lotus root is uncommon if not outright difficult to find in the U.S. It is easily identified by its lacy pattern and round shape. The root is crisp, crunchy, and often seasoned. Put them in salad, broil them, pickle them...eat them however you like! Lotus roots are very nutritious, particularly if one does not have enough fiber in one's diet. Buddhism and other religions that recommend vegan/vegetarianism should be flocking to lotus root and/or konjac. Remember, the latter is illegal in the United States.

Just because a plant is seen as pure and holy certainly does not mean it cannot be eaten. One could almost call it sacrelicious, but there are no prohibitions against eating lotus. It's just a little strange to most of us. Then again, in the West, a certain major religion encourages the symbolic practice of eating the flesh and blood of a certain magic individual, so we should be the last ones to judge other faiths.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Creature Feature: Nyctosaurids.

Pterosaurs are my favorite prehistoric creatures ever, in part because they are so goshdarn strange. They could fly, a feature that has only evolved in vertebrates three separate times. They had fur. Many of them had crazy head. (The generic pterosaur with a crest, a long neck, and a long tail did not exist, by the way.) Pterosaurs were also the origin of wyverns, the basis for the ever-so-popular British dragon.

The pterosaur genus Nyctosaurus probably takes the cake for weirdness, even for pterosaurs.  They were relatively large pterosaurs with two-meter wingspans. All Nyctosaur specimens come from exactly one deposit (the Niobrara Formation) in Kansas, U.S.A. It lived in the Cretaceous like its relative Pteranodon, but it did not live nearly as long.

First off, what's in a name? "Nyctosaur" means "night lizard" or "bat lizard." By default, it and Stygimoloch should be mascots for a death metal band, or at least a brand of alcohol. Why Fossil Fighters made this particular pterosaur bright green instead of giving it a darker palette and a black wyvern super form is beyond me. That's right, I know you know Greek. Don't be scared to flaunt it!

 Part of the reason they got their goth-friendly name was because, unlike all other pterosaurs, Nyctosaurus had only one digit on each wing. This made its wing structure more like a bat's than like the wings of other pterosaurs. Most pterosaurs had four digits total on each wing: three claws and a long, thick wing digit. Nyctosaurus was all wing and no hand. We are not even sure how it landed.

Pterosaurs in general have some pretty weird headgear, but Nyctosaurus puts them all to shame with its antler. Although not present in all nyctosaurid specimens, many skulls sport a crest about a foot high with a horizontal prong that's almost as long. The crest is roughly three times as big as the pterosaur's actual head. If this projection had a flap of skin between the two, it may have been used like a sail to steer the creature. There is also the possibility that, sail or no, it was used in courtship...which may explain why the nyctosaurids did not live very long.

This just LOOKS awkward.

Alas, Nyctosaurus lived for maybe a million years, and only in one location. Compared to other paleo-beasts, its life was short and sweet. Is anybody reading this really surprised? It's trippy to know that something like this existed, but there are a few aspects of Nyctosaurus that are impractical, to say the least. Darwinism: It works.