Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Plantains.

(Apologies for the delay. I had a paper to write.) 

 So, it's time for another installment of "weird things Kuro found while shopping on Devon Avenue!" After doing an entry on Goya, the giant guinea pig, I came across these chips in Devon market. They're made of plantains, which are not usually found in North American cuisine.

But what exactly is a plantain, anyways?

A plantain (Musa) is kinda like a banana, only smaller and green. They are native to Indiaand Southeast Asia in general. However, they are popularly grown in the Caribbean and Africa as well. They are frequently used in Caribbean, African, Indian, and South American cuisine. Other areas such as the Philippines and some southern states use them as well. 

A plantain looks like a slender, green banana. If you manage to find ripe ones, they will actually be brown; don't let that throw you. They can usually be found in the fresh produce sections of most supermarkets.

Plantains and bananas are indeed closely related, but before you decide to try the other banana out of curiosity, there are a few key differences you should know. For starters, plantains cannot be eaten raw; they must be cooked regardless of what growth stage they are at. If cooking a banana sounds disgusting to you, plantains are a lot starchier than bananas. They are treated more like tubers (i.e. potatoes) when cooked. In short, they're almost vegetables.

Since the plantain is darn close to a potato, plantain chips are a rather popular snack food. They can also be cooked with a variety of spices. There are recipes for plantains from Ghana, Puerto Rico, and India. Yes, they have plantain curry. Pick your favorite way to eat 'em and dig in.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Creature Feature:...Gold Skulltula?

Confession: I am taking my sweet, sweet time with Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the 3DS. Almost to the end of the Shadow Temple, which is...I want to say the second to last. Then there will be mini-quests to do, simply because the game is set in a world almost as awesome as ours.

Just as a reminder, here's a real, live Gold Skulltula:

Kidding. The Gold Skulltulas in Zelda were clearly based off of Argiope savignyi. They can be found from Mexico to Bolivia. They are not necessarily gold; the golden female above was one of several color variations.  For those curious about the generic name, "Savigny" happened to be the last name of Marie Jules Cesar Savigny, the first person to describe the genus Argiope. He was a guy, by the way.

For those of you who do not know spiders, they can be classified in terms of how they weave their webs. Argiope spiders are particularly creative orb-weavers. A. savignyi can weave a number of patterns into its orb web. Among them are a cross-shape and disc-shape. Sometimes, these designs are combined into a super-pattern. The resulting web, regardless of pattern, is very sturdy...which results in one of the few things this spider is known for:

Yes, that is a bat in that spiderweb. Yes, the spider is being a vampire and slowly sucking out its inner juices. Gold Skulltul- I mean A. savignyi is one of the few invertebrate predators of bats. Specifically, they feed on the proboscis bat (Rhynchonycteris naso) - a strange critter in and of itself. These aren't even unhealthy bats - just unlucky bats who don't see the Argiope's web. They are successfully entangled within two hours. Again, pick your favorite; some wouldn't be rooting for the spider or the bat in this instance.

As a friendly reminder: Wild A. savignyi do not grant you magical items every time you kill ten of them. Do not carry a hookshot around in preparation. If you happen to think you have a hookshot at your belt, by the way, please see a therapist or look for "Zelda Addicts Anonymous."

Monday, February 27, 2012

Bio-Art: For the Love of God.

Pop quiz: What do you want to happen to your body after you die? Donate your body to science? Be on display in the Body Worlds exhibit? Get cremated and send your ashes over your favorite place in the world? Some of us wouldn't mind having the carbon from our bodies being compacted into diamonds. Then, well, there's immortality in style:

We will never be done with Damien Hirst. That name should ring a few bells; he did an art piece involving a real dead shark suspended in-vitro and a cow with gold-plated hooves. In case you need a refresher, Hirst is the British artist. That shark of his is the mascot for Britart everywhere.The glittering skull made in 2007, however, may soon replace it.

Now, no doubt some of you saw this and immediately thought "crystal skull!" Your mental jump is justified. The skull was indeed inspired by Meso-American art - specifically, the turquoise skulls made by the Aztecs. Go away, conspiracy theorists. Damien Hirst is not stroking your Mayan alien conspiracies. The title "For the Love of God" supposedly comes from something his mother said, not an offering to the dark lord. Satan would probably be pleased, though.

The skull itself is probably from a European between the 1700's and 1800's. It is covered in 8,601 flawless diamonds, including a giant pink one as the centerpiece. The skull was also encased in platinum before being covered in diamonds. There are few sweeter ways to go out than to have your head used as bling, so one must think the colonial American must be pleased from beyond the grave. Hell, it sold for 50 million British Pounds. You don't need a currency converter to know that's a lot of cash.

Unfortunately, several people are less than happy with the skull and Hirst's success with it. One artist who made a similar crystal skull in 1993 has dubbed For the Love of God plagiarism. Others say that the sale in its entirety was a fake; the buyer was anonymous. Perhaps the sharpest critique was a sculpture called For the Love of Go(l)d- a statue of Hirst shooting himself in the name of money. Nobody would put it beyond him.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Creature Feature: Return of the Burmese Pythons- Morphs + Hybrids.

One entry does not do Burmese pythons justice. Call me obsessed, but they really are cool snakes. I'm going to miss the dent in their population.

Specifically, the Burm ban prevents me from getting my all-time favorite snake: A Borneo Bateater.

The Borneo Bateater is a hybrid between a reticulated python (P. reticulatus) and a Burm (P. m. bivittatus). It was probably not found in the wild, and, if it was, it certainly did not consume bats.  Please; it's the hybrid of two large snakes. Bats would be a poor diet for it.

The Burmese python was one of the snakes that really got the reptile trade started. There was something really special about the first albino Burmese that came over approximately 20 years ago (anyone got a date on this? I used  to know it). It was the white tiger of the snake world, if you will. They were bred so often that, for whatever reason, albino Burmese have a higher fertility rate than their normally-colored counterparts.

Since then, the Burmese python has been bred with no less than ten different color and pattern morphs. These have been mixed and cross to the point where, not only can one have an albino Burm, one can have an albino granite, albino green, albino get it. They all look really nice. The leucistic once thought legendary also proved heritable, so expect to see more hypo crosses, soon. Codominant traits are fun because they show up in the first generation! The people in the business are currently working on dwarf Burms, too, so size will not be such a big issue after a while.

I'll host it myself later...but that is a BEAUTIFUL eye.

Back to the Bateater. This hybrid has to be the most identity-challenged serpent on the face of the planet. Not only is it a hybrid, but it has the pattern and facial markings of a wildcat. Weirder still is that it is capable of breeding back to either parent, creating "jungle Burms" (3/4ths Burm) and "jungle retics" (3/4ths retic). Both of them look substantially different from the original species. Goes to show you what a little bit of experimentation can do.

Burmese pythons can cross into a lot of things, in fact. There are cateaters, which are the ultimate horror story python: African rock x Burmese, leading to a huge and possibly aggressive animal.  Burmese pythons have also been able to mate with ball pythons, leading to this:

Freaky. Trippy. Can I get it in lavender? :D

As for my actually getting a Batater? Too expensive right now. I'd love to have one, but I'm a responsible owner. Current means will not allow the author of this blog to possess a giant snake. Yet.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Creature Feature: Burmese Python - Part 1.

Anybody watching this blog for more than a few weeks knows that I am a snake fanatic. So, of course, I have my own opinions about the latest update to the Lacey Act. As per the revision to the Act, one of the most popular snakes ever, the Burmese python (P. molurus bivittatus), is prohibited from crossing state lines. I personally think it sucks, but also see where the ban is coming from.

But this is not about me. This is about facts. It's about time I spilled the beans about one of my favorite snakes ever in as unbiased a manner as I possibly can.

Burmese pythons are the most notorious and popular giant pythons in existence. They are native to South-Southeast Asia. They can get up to 20 feet long, making them the largest subspecies of Indian python, and have more girth to them than retics. Burmese pythons are usually the go-to "big snake" due to their size and gentle temperament. When someone mentions the word "python," Burmese are the ones that usually come to mind.

If you have ever seen a giant snake on TV or in a photograph, there is a very high chance it was a Burmese python. (Interestingly, Harry Potter's Nagini is an exception; the last time I saw her, she was a retic.)  Burms are the giant snake of choice for many model shoots, TV shows, and art projects. They're big, but are mostly docile.  Unless you happen to smell like a rabbit or otherwise be very stupid, there is a slim chance that a Burmese python will bite you. The people who keep Burmese pythons usually love them to death. (Don't take that literally.)

Burmese pythons are usually the first big snake everyone gets. They may get up to 20 feet, but most stop at around 10-12, which is a bit more manageable. Retics have a (now mostly undeserved) reputation for being aggressive; anacondas are aggro and have hard husbandry requirements. Burmese pythons are easy to keep and, usually, as docile as kittens. Feed and breed them right and you might even be able to make a small profit off of them. If ball pythons are the general ideal pet snake, then Burmese pythons are the ideal big snake.

The leucistic Burmese - so rare it was once called mythical. Then it got proven to be the super form of a hypo. Yes, I know that's probably all Greek to you. It IS Greek.

Therein lies the problem: Many Burmese python owners are irresponsible in one way or another. If all of them kept their Burmese pythons in nice, custom-designed cages, or even secure sweater boxes, that would be great. This is one of those cases where irresponsibility can cost you dearly. Here are the top three reasons why Burmese pythons - snakes that deserve at least as much respect as any large dog or wildcat - tend to wind up with bad owners.

1. People simply don't do their homework. Burmese python babies are adorable, somewhat cheap, and overall a tempting impulse buy. That mouse-eating baby will grow up into a 10-12 foot serpent that can easily swallow a chicken whole. People who do not know crap about Burmese pythons usually wind up either giving their pets to a zoo/rescue or just plain releasing them. Bad situation.

Well, the author thinks they're cute...

2. There is also the simple case of biting off more than one can chew. Some people may know how big Burmese pythons get, but might not be able to take care of them in the long run. Big snakes make big messes, need big cages, and eat big food. How many people do you suppose can afford that for 20-25 years? I have asked people who either have Burms or know about their husbandry; they are costly to keep (especially if you go all-out) and require two people to handle safely. In other words, you will probably have to find a snake-tolerant roommate/lover if you intend to handle big snakes.

3. Sellers of Burmese pythons know full well that they are selling monster snakes, and fail to ask whether the customer knows how big Burms get in hopes of making a sale. Some people can start off just fine with Burmese pythons; others, not so much. A responsible snake owner should at least ask about husbandry requirements unless they have had that same species before. "How big does it get?" should be the next question.

Put it this way: If you do not know your stuff before getting a Burmese python, there is a very good chance your house will be on the news. Escaped snakes get ratings. Burmese pythons have been known to eat neighborhood pets. In one recent instance, a Burm killed the owner's daughter because the owner had a blanket as a cover on the cage. Burmese pythons can be awesome snakes, but you really have to know what you're doing. Ill-aimed bites from these snakes can lead to stitches.

Recently, Burmese pythons have been spotted in the Florida Everglades. This was largely due to a hurricane causing mass-escapes of Burmese pythons from personal collections. (Read: Not ALL of theme were released deliberately.) There, Burms have been not only eating wildlife in an already-fragile ecosystem, but have also been completing with alligators as the apex predator. Florida has all the reason in the world to ban the Burmese python. Here's a quick rundown as to why:

1. Burmese pythons compete for prey with native American alligators. Since alligators are among the most popular residents of Florida, not to mention part of the fragile Everglades ecosystem, any threat to their well-being is taken seriously.

The classic "exploding snake" pic, illustrating the point quite nicely.

2. Burmese pythons have an extra edge over alligators: They can very easily outbreed them. A Burmese python clutch can contain over 80 eggs. In nature, the ones who breed the most usually survive, so there is a very high chance that we will be seeing a lot of pythons. Sorry, the 'gator will probably lose.

3. See the ways that Burmese pythons can get out or otherwise be troublesome up above. No offense to all of you responsible keepers, but some not-so-hardcore snake lovers just want a big python because it's cool.

4. The reptile breeders kiiiinda brought this one upon themselves by having one of the largest reptile conventions in Florida. To be fair, Southern states tend to have extremely loose pet laws, so both parties are to blame.

But wait, the Lacey Act covers rest of the country, too. Isn't that a little harsh? Yes and no. My Environmental Sustainability teacher had a good explanation as to why the Burm got the Lacey Axe.

A caraBurm!

First of all, yes, Burmese Pythons could probably only survive in Florida. It just so happens that Florida has the perfect environment for them - hot and humid, just like Southeast Asia. I have heard some horror stories about Burms possibly making their way north due to either hibernation capabilities or global warming, but those are both more or less speculation. I have heard studies going either way. For now, treat it as mostly Florida's problem.

Even after the Lacey Axe, it would still theoretically be possible to smuggle a Burmese python from another state  into Florida. I have heard something about all Burmese pythons in Florida needing to be registered, otherwise the owner will be in big trouble. I would imagine that, if any Burms escaped in Florida, things would also get pretty hairy for that person. Avoid Florida like the plague, Burm fans.

Python owners believe that the update to the Lacey Act will be the end of the reptile trade as we know it. That is not true. You will still be allowed to keep your snakes. You will definitely still be allowed to trade within your state. Even if you do try to trade in other states, this act is all but impossible to enforce with snakes (as opposed to large mammals, which require huge trucks for transport).  The only thing it is really stopping you from doing business is sending Burmese pythons through the mail. Will it cripple the trade? Sure. Stop it? Certainly not. Still a waste of taxpayer dollars? Most likely.

Reptile keepers have the deck stacked against them when it comes to legislation. A lot of people fear snakes.  Every time a giant snake owner screws up, it makes the responsible owners look even worse. That is what leads to legislation like this. Education is key.

As for my personal thoughts on the Lacey Axe? Yes, the ban sucks, but there are worse bills out there. Worry more about the government tracking your every waking move and probably some sleeping moves, too. It will be a lot easier for them to catch you with giant snakes if they have cameras everywhere. The giant snake laws are just a distraction. Nowhere in the Constitution does it mention giant snakes. Worry about things like free speech first.

(Mmm...still so much I wanted to add.) 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Creature Feature: Sea Otter.

Speaking of sea otters...

Yes, yes, let's get it off our chests now: Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) are adorable. They're like koalas, only more or less bound to the ocean. They look like stuffed animals capable of floating on the water.  It is impossible to stay mad at sea otters. Go ahead and try. Oshawott is officially the exception to the rule.

Adorable-ness aside, sea otters, like all mustelids, are carnivores. They feed on ocean-dwelling invertebrates like bivalve molluscs and sea urchins as well as small fish. Sea otters can be found in the northern parts of the Pacific ocean - i.e. California to Japan.  Japan loves them even more than I do, by the way.

Even their boogers are KAWAII.

Sea otters have a number of behaviors that only add to their cuteness. They swim on their backs and rotate while eating. They use rocks to break open hard-shelled mollusks (yes, using tools). Sea otters have got to be among the most maternal mammals out there; otter moms don't let their pups out of their sight, tether them in kelp while they go out hunting, and, if their pup happens to die, they still huggle the corpse for a few days. What? That's the most adorable use of a corpse ever.

No, I have not gone soft. The sea otter was recently brought to my attention for a very special reason in my Environmental Sustainability class. Specifically, the sea otter is a keystone species in many parts of its range. Allow me to explain exactly what that means:

Long story short, a keystone species is a species so unique that absolutely nothing else in its ecosystem does what it does. That means, if something happens to that keystone species, the whole food web will go out of whack. Guess what happened when the sea otter was nearly hunted to extinction for its plush fur?


Answer: Total ecological chaos. In the sea otter's natural habitat off the coast of California, it was the only thing eating sea urchins. Sea urchins, as I briefly touched upon yesterday, eat kelp - a sophisticated alga (not a plant) at the bottom of the ocean food chain. If the bottom of a food chain/web is effectively removed, everything that centered its life around it is bound to suffer.  Killing the sea otters meant major fish losses for everybody else.

Now, we have become smarter. The sea otter is now listed as an endangered species. It is illegal to hunt sea otters for their fur. It helps that they're so darn cute that they are hard for anyone with a soul to hunt. The problem is slowly being fixed, but not as quickly as we would like. After all, who would mind more sea otters?

Best case scenario!

Mind, the sea otter happens to be a very cute textbook example of a keystone species. There are several other important species out there that require attention and are not nearly as cute.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Sea Urchin.

Sea urchins usually do a pretty good job of making themselves look unappetizing. Look at a sea urchin head-on and you will find a ball of spikes, spikes, spikes. There is a squishy little flesh ball somewhere within that mass of pointy spines, but it is hard to get to. Point is, who thought that eating these was a good idea?

Enter Japan. If it is from the sea, they have found a way to eat it. Urchin sushi, commonly called uni, is probably one of the few ways one can get sea urchin in the non-coastal areas of the world. Despite living right near the sea, Japan imports most of its sea urchins from Korea or the U.S. Surprise, surprise, sea urchins are in sushi - just like almost everything else in the entire ocean.

With sea urchins, however, things go from bad to worse. The sexual organs (gonads) of sea urchins are a delicacy in many parts of the world. It is said to have "the flavor of caviar, the trembly texture of panna cotta and the briny but bracing strangeness that comes with eating live oysters." (link)  They can cost up to 450 USD a kilo. The genitalia are so precious that eating sea urchin corals/roe has raised concerns about preserving coral reefs. Korean women called "haenyo" are sometimes reared from birth just to harvest sea urchins.

Japan, for once, is not the only place enjoying castrating small echinoderms.  Other countries also eat sea urchins. A popular dish in the Mediterranean involves raw sea urchin with lemon. Chile eats sea urchin as well. If a place is around the sea, it has probably found away to eat urchin. An appreciation for urchin can be seen as a sign of a true foodie, so if you happen to be in on any given coast, give it a try.

GOLD! Spiny, orange gold!

Should we be surprised that sea urchin has found its way into sushi and other seaside culinary styles? Of course not. Sea urchin is just one of those things that make one wonder who first thought it was appetizing. We can make an exception for sea otters. Otters eat sea urchins on a regular basis and are impossible to stay mad at.

Look into its eyes and tell it not to eat sea urchins.

Of course, China has done worse with echinoderms...but let's save that for next week.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Creature Feature: Striped Hyena.

Hyenas are many things to many people: Enemies of lions, one of the noblest animals around (until you really look); the jokers of the savannah; the females of spotted hyenas darn near have, umm, lances where it counts. If you thought regular hyenas were crazy, wait until you leave Africa. They get a lot wilder as you head towards India. Seriously, this striped hyena has a mohawk running down its back.

Striped hyenas (Hyaena hyaena) are definitely not the hyenas that the media like to pick on. Their range covers most of northern Africa into the Middle East and India. At one point, they even wandered as far north as France and Germany. That said, they have very nice winter coats. Populations are generally declining, but not quickly enough to place this hyena on the endangered list.

Striped hyenas are a lot smaller than their spotted cousins. They also have a distinctly sloping back and very weak hind limbs.There is no significant sexual dimorphism - a rarity in mammals. The size difference is one thing; at least in striped hyenas, the males and females have normal junk. Overall, they look more distinctly canid than spotted hyenas, even though they are still more closely related to cats than dogs.

The striped hyena, unlike the 'normal' hyena, is a solo scavenger. At most, it hunts in pairs, and may live in groups of up to seven - not large at all. It feeds on small vertebrates and whatever meat it finds. This puts the striped hyena in the position of a detritivore rather than a predator. That's still valuable; you would not want to be in a world without scavengers and decomposers.

Finally, that mane is amazing. When threatened, the striped hyena erects all the hairs along its spinal cord in an effort to make itself look bigger. The mane is also used to communicate between hyenas; it is not a target in combat, even though everything else is fair game. We think making the hyena look like it should be a Fire-type Pokemon was an unintentional side-effect.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Bio-Art: Self.

Making one's self-portrait is usually a necessity in any visual art course. It is often easier said than done, especially for people who have a little bit of self-loathing. The way one draws one's self-portrait can sometimes be used to gauge one's skill as an artist. If, however, one did a portrait like Marc Quinn's Self, one might get expelled for health code violations.

Why? Quinn did his self portrait out of 4.5 liters of his own blood.

Marc Quinn is a Young British Artist (yes, that's a group) at 35. Aside from Self, he has also done a sculpture of a pregnant Alison Lapper, which is on display in Trafalgar Square. He loves working with unorthodox materials, including ice, glass, marble, lead, and, of course, blood.

Blood has a special quality to it. For one thing, unlike other bodily fluids like sweat and urine, blood is generally meant to stay inside the body. Blood samples can be used to determine any number of bodily ailments. "Bloodshed" can be used as a synonym for conflict.  In a mystical sense, blood is almost synonymous with life force.  Of course, red is the color that the human eye pays the most attention to, so it makes for a very catching art piece.

Self is a unique piece because of its medium alone. It was made by filling a cast of Marc's head with blood, then freezing it. Since Marc's head is, in fact, made out of chilled blood, it has to be kept cold while on display. One version of Self was bought by Charles Saatchi; it was later given to a U.S. collector for 1.5 million British pounds, even though it had supposedly melted. The 2006 version of Self is currently in the National Portrait Gallery of London, making everybody else look lame for using paint and silver as their media.

The blood for Self is taken from Marc over a period of five months. Just like many artists who update their self-portraits, Quinn repeats Self every five years. He updates it in accordance to his own physical appearance, of course. That is a hardcore self-portrait if we have ever seen one.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Creature Feature: Velvet Worms.

Velvet worms have come up on this blog before. They are one of those obscure animals that biologists fawn over, but everyone else is nigh-oblivious to. Velvet worms are slowly growing in popularity in the pet trade, so you may well be seeing them soon, but for now, this will be an introductory post into their wonderful, weird world.


Velvet worms are small (10 cm max) invertebrates in the phylum Onychophora (lit. "claw-bearers"). (For those of you unfamiliar with scientific classification, velvet worms having their own phylum means that they're as big a group as arthropods. The phylum most of you are familiar with is probably Chordata - i.e. everything with a spinal cord.) They live in most tropical regions of the world, including (but not limited to) South America, Australia, and parts of Africa. (Yes, these guys are so weird and ubiquitous that even Australia could not make them any weirder.) They are nocturnal hunters that eat other, smaller invertebrates. They are a very big group of invertebrates themselves, so this will be one of my less complete entries.

Velvet worms do indeed look like something out of the Burgess Shale. Those little conical legs and antennae look an awful lot like yesterday's creature, which was as nightmare fuel-ish as Hallucigenia. The body structure of velvet worms has gone virtually unchanged for over 500 million years. Climate change aside, I would call that success.

On the biological side of things, it was once thought that velvet worms were a transition stage between annelid worms and modern day arthropods. Now, in part thanks to genetic testing (most likely), we know that they are actually somewhere between tardigrades (water bears) and insects. This still makes them invaluable to evolutionary science.

Along with being interesting as living fossils, velvet worms have one more creep factor: one of their favorite defenses is to shoot a string of glue into a predator's face. The same gluey string is used to ensnare prey as in the clip above. It even has nice little nozzles to use as miniature glue guns. Velvet worm used String Shot!

Oddly enough, velvet worms are social animals. They live in groups of 15 or more. Velvet worms found together are often closely related - especially the males, since the females are more aggressive (and even feed first!). The mating behavior varies with the species, but in short, the males put their spermatophores on their heads and look for a female that finds their headgear attractive. Their little invertebrate brains are complex enough for elaborate courtship and social interactions. Evolution has treated them very well.

This is just a small sampling of the weirdness that is velvet worms. Now I'm starting to want them as pets, too. Breathe, menagerie is large enough. Expect a sequel entry regardless.

Creature Feature: Aysheaia.

Soft-bodied invertebrates do not preserve well in the fossil record. Their squishy bits rot away, leaving us with very little to guide us in regards to ancient invertebrate life. When we do find them, however, they usually freak us out.

Aysheaia are no exception. Another Cambrian arthropod from the infamous Burgess Shale, Aysheaia were strange, caterpillar-like creatures 1-6 cm long. They lived in the Cambrian seas right alongside Hallucigenia. Yes, your nightmares now have company.

Aysheaia resembled caterpillars or maggots with ten pairs of legs. If that image is not sufficient to freak you out, each of these pudgy legs had two needles sticking out of it. Finally, there were even more spikes around its mouth. If you're thinking that it resembles a parsnip left in the fridge for so long that it grew legs, you're on the right track.


Aysheaia were probably sponge eaters. All fossils of them have been found near sponges. There is not much nutritious about sponges, so it must have needed to spend a lot of time around them. The sponges may also have been providing he caterpillar-worms with protection. It would presumably wander across the seabeds in search of sponges...but that's all we know.

Unlike several other members of the Cambrian seabed, Aysheaia have modern relatives. Velvet worms are one of the oldest types of land-dwelling creatures ever. They are somewhere between water bears and arthropods. Despite being related to two other ubiquitous families, however,velvet worms are limited only to certain tropical regions of the world. More on them tomorrow!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Creature Feature: Giant Ghana Snail.

Normally, there is nothing remotely threatening about snails. Sure, they're slimy and have weird little antennae, but it's not like most snails would make good movie monsters. They have pretty shells and are too slow to be really intimidating. WALK FOR YOUR LIVES!

Actually, wait. That's...kinda terrifying, especially for a snail.

The giant Ghana snail, or, alternatively, giant tiger land snail, is exactly what its name says it is: a giant, terrestrial snail native to western Africa. It just so happens to sport a very attractive shell. It eats any number of plants. Very, very slowly. Luckily, they mean humans no harm.

How big is big? Since slugs are a bit hard to measure, scientists usually measure shell length/diameter. The largest shell ever found was roughly 30 cm long. Average length is around 18 centimeters. Use a converter if you like, but what you really need to know is this:

Did we mention that these are spreading around the world's humid regions? They make decent pets, but, if unleashed, can feed on over 500 different types of plants. They also breed like crazy. They are  frequently quarantined, but have not yet been established in the U.S. Florida is slowly developing a population, but they are not as big a problem as, say, Burmese pythons. India has it much worse; salting the snails is a daily occurrence.

The snails are, however, found almost solely in hot, humid areas - i.e. FLORIDA, the country's magnet for invasive species. French restaurants ought to be rejoicing. Everyone else...not so much.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Cicadas.

Yes, we know this post is way out of time. Cicadas are summer animals. They're the bugs that make summer noisy as all get-out. Maybe writing about them will make Chicago seems warmer (...but we've had worse). This is one of the years of the 13-year cicada, which means we best be armed with a million delicious recipes in which to cook them.

For those of you in areas that lack periodical cicadas (Magicicada), picture this: One summer, you see a large, red-eyed bug resembling a large fly or a particularly airworthy cricket. And then another. And another. And another. They land on you like something out of a horror flick. When periodical cicadas come out, they come out all at once, scaring housewives worse than the infamous mouse.

This mass emergence is one of the most welcome sights in the natural world. Cicadas are towards the bottom of the food web. They live to court, mate, and die soon after. Birds and other animals have learned that this bloom means food - lots of food- and can be seen sniping cicadas like crazy. We are newcomers to the smorgasbord.

Just like every other non-poisonous insect out there, humans have founda million ways to eat cicadas. This includes frying them, sautee-ing them, and dipping them in chocolate. Some bold people in California even put them in ice cream because it was not illegal yet. (Keyword: Yet. As per this article, "it's not really regulated.") Cicadas can be used as a high-protein additive in pretty much anything. Even chocolate chip cookies are fair game.

Eating these guys is anything but new. Everybody, everywhere, ever has eaten cicadas. They are considered a delicacy in East Asia. Artistotle, AKA one of the smartest guys in recorded history, advocated eating cicadas. The problem is that America is paranoid about eating bugs. After hearing the sheer amount of noise they make, believe us: it will be very hard to resist the urge to eat them as a form of culinary revenge. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Creature Feature: Lovebirds!

Happy Love Day! C'mon, don't kid yourselves; nobody cares about St. Valentine. We care about exchanging cutesy cards, chocolate, and flowers. And, of course, love. Take that however you will.


 Awww, lovebirds! Even if you are not a big bird person, you have probably seen lovebirds around. They are popular, herbivorous parrots from Africa. (There is also a feral population in Arizona.) Even their generic name, Agapornis, means "lovebird." The species of lovebird are grouped, however vaguely, by whether they are sexually dimorphic or if they have rings around their eyes. Overall, they are similar enough to lump under one entry. Pick your favorite color palette and go, really.

Now in cute!

Lovebirds are social. They are monogamous and thrive on each others' company. They are intelligent parrots that can bond so deeply with their parents that they preen their favorite humans. Talking is uncommon, but the more interaction your lovebird gets, the better. They also like a variety of foods, ranging from seeds to flowers to bok-choy. Most health foods are perfectly fine for lovebirds, but avoid mushrooms, potatoes, and uncooked onions. Theoretically, the lovebird can eat your table scraps, just like a mammal might.

Lovebirds have some weird nesting habits. Some nest in termite mounds. Others carry bits of nest materials in their feathers. The Masked Lovebird does the sane thing and carries material in its beak. As soon as the nest is built, the lovebirds get busy. One egg is laid until the nest has a clutch of four to six. Awww.

And then you find out how much work a baby parrot can be. These two are named Jellybean and Starburst, but no, they aren't mine.

Before you buy these birds, however, there are a few factors to consider. One, parrots are very talkative. Two, lovebirds in particular need to spend a lot of time bonding with each other and humans. Three, if one of the lovebirds passes on, chances are the other will be very depressed. These are social parrots. They need either you around interacting with them all the time or the TV/radio on all the time. Otherwise, you will wind up with aggressive, unhappy birds. Of course, having each other around helps, too.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Bio-Art: Hawaiian Gyotaku.

What would you do if you caught a creature from the deep, dark abyss? Recoiling in horror would probably be your first reaction. After that, chances are you would either toss it back or take it to a local aquarium to see how it got to the surface. Whatever your response happens to be, we're pretty sure "getting it inked and putting it on a T-shirt" was not on your list of priorities.

In December of last year, one Travis Toyama was casually fishing in one of Hawaii's many tide pools when he prepared to receive the weirdest bite he would ever get. No, it was not from a bearsharktopus. He had caught a slender-horned armored gurnard, an eel-like fish that looks bizarre as all get-out. (There are prettier gurnards out there.)

Instead of tossing the fish back or making it into sushi (Hawaii has SPAM sushi- I put nothing past them), Travis made a surprisingly well-thought move and took his catch to a gyotaku - a fish house.  The internationally-renowned artist had the gurnard inked and put on a T-shirt.

That's not all he did, though. The inked fish was also preserved on a canvas, which Travis intends to hang in his room. He also wants to get the fish to a taxidermist so that he can have a mount of it. That is one hardcore fisher. May he win at whatever championships fishing has.

His reasoning? He wanted to remember it long after its spiny remains decayed. Damn.

Whatever's in the water in Hawaii, I want some. That is one competent kid. He should try out for being a Chinese sage; if all kids thought at his level, they would actually be tolerable.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Creature Feature: Dim?!

Here in America, we will copyright and patent everything. Look at SOPA/PIPA; assuming they were legit acts and not brutal acts of the police state and NWO, even potentially having copyrighted material on a site would be enough to shut it down. There is even an insane person who attempted to patent the stick. Look it up; our culture is copyright crazy.

There was one instance, however, in which nature copied a copyrighted character. Mind, nature used a different color palette, but the point remains that the rhinoceros beetle Dim now has a real-life counterpart.

A Peruvian rhinoceros beetle, Megaceras briansaltini, sports a horn almost exactly like Dim from A Bug's Life. The resemblance is uncanny. No, the bug did not come first; it was discovered years after A Bug's Life was made. If Disney could sue nature for copyright laws, they probably would. The discovery of life copying art like this has been dubbed the "Dim effect" in the blue rhinoceros beetle's honor.

Horn aside, this bug looks like some sort of alien. That face should be on some sort of dragon-insect cross. It's Dim gone horribly, horribly wrong. He came to the dark side for the cookies and you know it!
Clearly the face of an evil mastermind.

Here's the kicker: We honestly do not know if this insect is an actual species or not. For all we know, that copyright-infringing horn was a fluke mutation. Cases like this are why it's really important to save biodiversity hotspots like rainforests, guys. The more species a place has, the better off it is ecologically. Plus, neat stuff like this happens. It's always cool when nature has the potential to drive copyrighters up the wall.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Creature Feature: Red-tailed Pipe Snake.

Google is a wormhole. It is perfectly possible to be looking for one thing and find another thing entirely. I had personally just discovered an albino sunbeam snake (which did not show the iridescence well if it was present at all) when another caught my eye.

This snake confused me. It was, for starters, hard to tell which end was the head and which was the tail. I thought I was looking at a baby cobra for a second. The actual snake turned out to be much more fascinating.

The specimen I had encountered online was a red-tailed pipe snake (Cylindrophis ruffus). They are small snakes (a meter in length at most) that live in China and Southeast Asia. As they are partially aquatic, they eat fish, eels, and frogs. They prefer wet areas like marshes and rice paddies. They aren't venomous, just strange. Seriously, Thailand advertises them.

Pipe snakes are seriously weird, even by snake standards. Along with boas, water snakes, and pure sea snakes, they have live babies. Litters consist of roughly 12 live babies. They are probably the closest relatives to boas, even though there are no boas in Asia (they all moved to America). Neat.

Oh, and the tail is pretty neat, too. Pipe snakes tend to have tails that look a lot like their heads. When a predator approaches, the pipe snake will lower its head and raise its tail, looking for all the world like a little cobra. The added bonus of this trick is that, should a predator still find it appetizing, it is biting the snake's tail instead of its head. Better tails than heads!

Mind, this is just one of several pipe snakes. Yes, they do all resemble the mythical, two-headed amphisbaena, but it would have been hard for the Greeks to know about them.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Creature Feature: Asian Carp.

Hoo boy. This entry's a doozie; it combines one of my civic engagement projects with this blog. You guys are getting a sneak preview of a presentation that will occur on Feb 16th in my Environmental Sustainability course. Consider this studying, for I will be using terms that I have learned in the course!

By sheer luck of the draw, my group project for this course wound up being one of my favorite topics: invasive species.  Yes, many of us are mad about the Burmese Python being effectively banned. However, another invasive species has made itself even more worthy of government attention.

Yes, that is a carp. No, it will not evolve into Gyarados at Level 20. The seven species of "Asian carp" (there are a LOT of carp species, don't make me list them all) are proving to be quite the troublemakers all across the U.S. The main three are the bighead carp (Hypophthalmichthys nobilis), silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix), and black carp (Mylopharyngodon piceus).  The grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella) has also been found, but it is uncertain if they are reproducing. Also, their Splash attack is far from useless.

The Asian carp first came as a means of cleaning catfish farms down south. Unfortunately, when the Mississippi flooded over, the carp spread to other waterways...and ran (swam?) rampant throughout the U.S. This time, the pet trade is not solely to blame, but it certainly does not help that some Asian cultures consider releasing carp a way of bringing good fortune.

But these are carp. Carp. One of the most basic fish in the world. What harm can carp do?

From Sandusky Register.

Actually, carp can be quite damaging. They eat plankton - stuff at the bottom of the food chain. Anyone who knows about the food web or food chains knows that the small things at the bottom are the ones we have to worry about. Plankton are photosynthetic, which means that a lot of things eat them. They cannot endure the strain of native species and these new carp.

On a purely human level, these carp are dangerous. Every time a boat passes by, they jump out of the water en masse. They can weigh up to 110 pounds. No, they have not killed anybody yet, but it's only a matter of time. Murderkarp will become a reality.

No need to wait, actually.

The Asian carp are now trying to get into Chicago and the Great Lakes ecosystem. Holy carp! What are we to do?

There are already a few projects underway to stop the carp. One of them involves an electric barrier. A few more recent ideas by the "Carp Czar" (yes, that is an official title; it currently belongs to one John Goss) suggest poisoning and genetic engineering. My personal favorite, however, is the idea of eating the carp. A lot of the fish in the sea are harvested unsustainably, and how many people really question what kind of fish is in fish sticks? (It's usually pollock, by the way.) Carp goes for about 4 bucks a pound, and if you advertise that the fish sticks are environmentally-friendly and/or locally-farmed, that is sure to attract buyers. Plus, hey, shooting carp is an extreme sport:

Probably the first and last time you will ever hear carp to rock music.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Kusaya.

It's hard to run out of foods that Americans would consider bizarre. We have such a strict perception of food that, if it cannot be wrapped in a bun/tortilla, it is considered at least slightly exotic.  There are also foods considered slightly strange even in their hometowns.

Ah, Japan. If I ever need to look for foods that we Westerners would consider weird, I always look East - and Japan is so far East that they call themselves "The Land of the Rising Sun." The only reason I know about this one at all is because my Japanese teacher told me it existed. (Thank you, Fair-sensei!)

Kusaya is one of the weirdest fish dishes to ever come out of Japan. Yes, the fish above look like  normal dried, grilled fish, but this particular method of cooking fish is only commonly done in a few select regions of Japan (particularly Hachijojima).  Alas, the weirdest thing about kusaya cannot be conveyed over the internet: It reeks.

You should all be very glad the computers cannot carry smells over the internet. Kusaya literally means "smelly fish." It's an apt name; people will notice right away if one of these is around.  Kusaya ranks right up there with natto on the list of "Japanese foods that even the Japanese don't wholly accept." People will notice if you open a package of kusaya on the train. Point is, its name is related to "kuso," "crap," for a reason.

Kusaya's strong smell comes from how it is dried: After the fish is broiled or grilled, it is dunked in fish sauce, which is effectively the parts of the fish that nobody wanted to eat. This fish sauce might not have ever been changed, meaning that not only is stuff rotting, but it is rotting faster with the sun's rays beating down on it from time to time. Let's be fair: Cheese reeks to people in Asia, too.

People usually have a love-hate relationship with kusaya. My Japanese teacher loves it - it's salty, so if you like salty foods, go for it. Other people cannot stand the smell. It is one of those foods that the Japanese will dare American people to eat. It can probably be found in Japanese grocery stores...just open it in private.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Creature Feature: Clearwing Butterfly.

Ah, butterflies. To most people, they're the epitome of innocence. In literature, they almost always symbolize change. There's nothing strange about most butterflies. Then, well, there are those...other...butterflies.

It may take you a bit to see precisely what is wrong with this butterfly. Then you realize that, woah, most butterflies have opaque wings. Congrats; you have just met your first clearwing/glasswing butterfly.

There are over 300 species and 43 genera of clearwing butterflies. No, they do not eat the flesh of small children, but dying flowers are fair game. They are native to the Amazon, a major biodiversity hotspot, as well as Mexico and Central America. We knew they were pretty, but there are videos on YouTube advertising them as the work of Jehovah.

As the name implies, the wings of clearwings lack the scales that makes other butterfly wings so colorful. Some clearwings have almost no scales on their wings; others have 'windows' of clear skin scattered between the scales like stained glass. If you think about it, no matter how good those scales are at camouflage, they will never be able to measure up to the ultimate camouflage of being transparent.

But wait, there's more! Along with being translucent, some clearwings (remember: this is a very big tribe) have a taste to them that is so bad that the scent is noticeable by humans. One scientist named Thomas Belt proved exactly how effective it was by feeding clearwings to almost everything that ate them - monkeys, spiders, birds, you name it - and every time, they were rejected. The secret was in the adult butterflies' diets. The chemicals from, I kid you not, dead plants and daisies are enough to repel most predators. Crazy.

Some species of clearwing, most notably Greta oto, have been observed mating in leks. This means that, just like certain birds and bats, the males 'fight' with each other. In any other type of butterfly, this would be a sight to see. With clearwings, however, it must look a little less spectacular in the air. Then again, it would probably be the only time one could ever see fairies fight.