Thursday, May 31, 2012

Who's That Pokemon - Unova Edition: Carracosta.

Gen V was not blessed with good fossil Pokemon. One of them, Archen/Archeops, is an Archeopteryx with a terrible ability that halves some of its stats when low on health. Tirtouga/Carracosta, the other fossil, is close to being a good wall and learns Shell Smash, the best stat booster in the game. It is never ever leaving the NU tier simply because, like all turtles, it is very slow.

But it's just a sea turtle, you say? Not that sea turtles aren't amazing creatures, but this turtle's a fossil. That means it's based off of an extinct turtle.  If we want to get really technical, Tirtouga is based off of the ancient Protostega gigas while Carracosta's got more aspects of Archelon ischryos - the largest turtle that ever lived. Archelon was more impressive, so let's hope Protostega fans don't get offended.

Archelon (only one species known) was a huge sea turtle that lived during the Late Cretaceous Period, the time when T-Rex and Triceratops were having epic battles on land and Pteranodon roamed the skies. There is a wide range of things it could have eaten depending on jaw strength - speculation ranges from squid to jellyfish to potentially being an omnivore.  The closest living relatives of Archelon are modern leatherback sea turtles. Most of them have been found in Wyoming and South Dakota.

Archelon was one huge turtle. The largest of them measures 13 feet (4 meters) from head to tail and 16 feet (almost 5 meters) from flipper to flipper. It weighed somewhere around 4,900 pounds (2,200 kg) when alive. Flash back to our turtle soup entry - that's a lot of soup.

Aside from sheer size, Archelon has one more distinctive trait: its shell is, in a way, incomplete. Modern turtles have their backbones fused into their shells, which are also bony - seriously, that whole shell has bone under it. It's like they have an exoskeleton. The Archelon had either leather or detatched bone covering its shell. Someone, somewhere, has probably tracked turtle evolution; it must be fascinating to see a netlike shell like Archelon's become solid over time.

Nobody knows how long individual Archelon lived. Supposedly, there was one that lived around a hundred years.  They may have either slept on the seabeds of North America or brumated depending on the weather. They all went extinct with the dinosaurs regardless. For now, we must make due with digital Archelon and sea turtles. Now if only I could get an Adamant one with awesome IV's... *Crosses fingers.*

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Bouffalant.

OK, no, people don't really eat Pokemon. We do, however, eat buffalo (Bison bison).

Since man first found buffalo (or bison, take your pick), man has known that the animal was good for eating. The Native Americans used every part of the bison from meat to coats to eyeballs. The eyeballs were a treat for the young'uns. We said every part and we meant it.

The first settlers on the plains also discovered that bison were good eating. Instead of trying to economize the bison and make sure some still lived, however,  the settlers proceeded to ravage the native population. There were only a few hundred left by the mid-1880's. Whether this was because they came in droves, because they didn't know a thing about the environment they had entered, or because bison meat was just that damn good is not certain. There was also a huge demand for anything bison in Europe, further spurring the animal toward extinction.

The bison were not amused.

Of all the things the European settlers did, nearly annihilating the bison was the second worst. (The first was the collection of anti-Native events, obviously.) Bison were the only creatures the plains had that kept the prairie grasses at a manageable level. If you mess with tier 1 of the food pyramid, the whole thing collapses. Way to go, free market.

There were exactly four herds of bison that managed to survive to this day. The most famous was a herd started from exactly five wild calves caught by James "Scotty" Philip in South Dakota. Another was brought by boat to Antelope Island, Utah, and is today one of the largest publicly-owned herds in North America. A third breeder in Texas bottle-fed a few bison calves and now has the third captive herd. The only truly wild bison herd is the one in Yellowstone, Wyoming. To summarize: Responsible captive breeding was just about the only thing saving North America from severe ecological damage.

So, after this little fiasco, you'd think we'd have learned our lesson and stopped hunting bison, right? Nope. Hunting is still legal, albeit tightly controlled, in Utah. Eating buffalo is still a thing. We just know what we're doing, now. The bison we eat are all (or, mostly) farmed. Hell, we've even been able to hybridize them with cows. They're called "beefalo." They were bred solely to be eaten, so don't look so shocked when you see buffalo on the menu.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Who's That Pokemon - Unova Edition: Cubchoo/Beartic.

Usually, I try to avoid doing the "usual suspects" on this blog. By "usual suspects," I mean animals that every tree-hugging organization and its grandma are pimping. This is limited almost entirely to large, carnivorous mammals (with the occasional giant herbivore), so it's pretty easy to think outside of the box. People already know most of those animals, so, wonderful though they may be, I tend to avoid them.

That said, it's really about time that this blog covered the inspiration for Cubchoo and Beartic: the polar bear.


Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are giant, white bears that typically feed on seals, whale carcasses, and sometimes human garbage. Despite being born on land, they spend most of their time at sea, swimming and/or waiting for seals to poke their heads above water. They live only in the Arctic Circle, not the Antarctic, so any images you see of penguins and polar bears chillin' in the same place is completely fake. I'm looking at you, Coke.

American culture in particular has this weird dual stance when it comes to bears. On one hand, the bear - any bear - could rip your arm off with its claws, teeth, or both. On the other, awwwww, lookit those cute widdle ears and that fluffy-wuffy fur! And that little bobby tail! Never mind the hundreds of pounds of teeth, claws, and muscle. We find bears unbearably cute. By default, that makes them among the most marketable of the "usual suspects." (Pokemon actually addressed this side of bear-hugging in one anime episode featuring Teddiursa, but it's a minor point.)

Polar bears are the largest land carnivores period. They're twice as large as a Siberian tiger. Males are bigger than females, with the largest specimen weighing 1,002 kg - a little over 2,000 pounds in U.S. measurements. The paws can spread a foot from toe to toe in large adults. Did we mention that this bear has the most thoroughly carnivorous teeth of any bear? Watch this magnificent animal from a distance.

The polar bear is also warmer than your average bear.  Not only does it have a thick layer of fat like many animals that live in cold regions, but the bear has more fur than normal - even on the paws! The skin beneath the bear's translucent fur is actually black. No, I don't know what brave soul decided to shave a polar bear and find out what color the skin was for themselves, but they're probably missing a limb.

The polar bear is now officially on the "vulnerable" list, but may be too little, too late depending upon whom you ask. Oil drilling in Alaska, along with several other harmful environmental practices, is still perfectly legal. As one conservation group put it, "the bear's in the E.R., and they're just leaving it to die." Other people insist that the bear is in no danger at all. The polar bear's case is not something simple like "don't shoot the wolves" or "Chinese medicine kills tigers." There are a number of factors that will likely soon place the polar bear in the same situation as the scimitar-horned oryx: Only alive in captivity with an off-chance of being reintroduced to the wild. In the case of the polar bear, however, there will be no wild left for it to return to. Enjoy real-live Cubchoo like Knut while you can.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Bio-Art: Pokemon?

Look up at the title. Then look back down there.  Yep, it's time for another Pokemon-related theme week, this time "Who's That Pokemon: Unova Edition." It then occurred to me that some of my readers might not have a very good sense of what Pokemon is - either because they did not grow up in the 90's or because they're only familiar with the POS of an anime that the fans of the game are now stuck with. This entry exists for your convenience.

There was a bunch of cute...then, Gyarados.

Pokemon was conceptualized in 1996 by one Satoshi Tajiri. He wished to bring his childhood hobby of bug catching in the grasses of Machida, Tokyo to the youth of increasingly urban environments. He furthered the idea when he had a vision of a bug crossing the cable between two linked Game Boy systems. Of course, people also fight bugs in Japan, so taking tradeable monsters to those heights was a logical conclusion. Since then, it has evolved into a massive franchise that eats other monster franchises from the inside-out like a cute, cuddly virus, all the while being crack in Pikachu form.

I'm a little on the fence about whether Pokemon is bio-art or not. It's more like an obscure training tool for budding field scientists mixed with monster battling. It's based off of real things that happen in nature, but it's gotten so fantastic that one wonders whether it can still be considered science (or even pseudoscience). Aside from things like breathing fire and manifesting things like levitation, however, Pokemon is actually pseudo-scientific. Pokemon really boils down to collecting data, selective breeding, and getting a real kick out of doing it all with cockfighting monsters.

It's a chicken, I tell ya! A fighting chicken!

Let's put aside the monster battling aspect for a bit. When one focuses on the catching and breeding aspects (which intertwine according to the best of trainers), Pokemon suddenly becomes less fantasy and more science. The anime is absolutely horrible at presenting this side of things, so we'll have to pretend it doesn't exist for the bulk of this entry. Instead, we'll focus on the games.

Each of the games start with a professor explaining the world they live in. In this world, people live in harmony with super-powered animals called Pokemon - "Pocket Monsters" if you happen to live in Japan. They will go on to explain that people play with Pokemon, keep them as pets, or, most popularly, battle with them. In the first few minutes of the game, you meet this professor again, and are presented with something called a "Pokedex" that records information on the Pokemon you've seen or caught. Bear in mind that seeing something grants only its image in the Pokedex; you have to actually catch a Pokemon to get its data in your Pokedex.

To recap: The real goal of this game is to collect live specimens and data for a professor. Welcome to the thankless work of an intern! 

The mini-series Electric Tale of Pikachu goes into more depth of what it might be like to live with Pokemon than any other adaptation - even the original games. Pikachu, the cute little rodent mascot of the franchise, gnaws on wires just like a real rat or rabbit. Trainers (read: ten-year-olds) have to take a competence test to handle superpowered monsters. The Pokemon in this mini-series actually bleed in battle and otherwise look kickass. If you want to get your friends hooked on Pokemon, start here or with the games. Period.

One would think that the relationship between monster battling and science stops there, right? Wrong! A lot of Pokedex entries have semi-detailed biological information. For example, Pikachu's electric sacs are in its cheeks. Flareon has a fire sac that lets it breathe fire. Spoink's heart stops beating if it ever stops bouncing on its swirly tail. There is an explanation for why Latias can take human form, but I don't quite buy it, and it's kinda creepy how interested she was in a relationship with Ash in Movie 5.

Pokemon are also breedable, meaning that if you have a compatible male and female, you can breed them into even more efficient fighters. There's a whole system of Pokemon genetics that affects how good a particular monster is. No two Pokemon are exactly alike.

Pokemon are among the few battling monsters that actually have genetics. These come in the form of Individual Variations (IV's). Until Gen IV (HeartGold and SoulSilver, to be precise), it was not easy to breed good IV's onto the offspring; one had to, to quote a friend of mine, "pray to the random number gods" in order to get a good Pokemon before that. Since IVs are now linked to personality traits ("characteristics"), it could be argued that we're now breeding for temperament as well. It's just like with real animals, only color changes are now completely uninheritable (which makes NO sense).

Although I may debate whether or not Pokemon relates directly to our science, Pokemon certainly has its own science - a science in which dragons, strange growth stages, and psychic powers are all more or less commonplace. It's based off of a hobby that most of us should do more often: Go outside and look at all the wonderful animals. It's such a shame that Tajiri's plan backfired; now, more people know about Pokemon than the backyard critters they were based off of. Let's fix that right now, shall we?

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Creature Feature: Sea Hares.

Not enough good things can be said about sea slugs. Really, our land slugs might not be that pretty (and even then, there are a few exceptions), but sea slugs are almost uniformly gorgeous. Even if they aren't breathtakingly pretty, even species as simple as sea hares have their own unique charm.

Aplysia parvula looks quite fetching here. :)

The term "sea hare" covers a few genera, most notably Aplysia. Sea hares are closely related to snails, but the shell, if any, only covers important organs. They eat seaweed, so don't worry about getting bitten by monster slugs should you encounter one. They can be found in the warm waters of California, northern Mexico, and Florida - or, at least, the major ones can be found there. Others can be found in temperate and tropical waters around the world.

As is the norm with invertebrates, there are so many different sorts of sea hares out there that they could almost get their own month on this blog. We will try to focus on the two varieties of California sea hare, simply because they are the two most commonly used in science (Aplysia vaccaria and Aplysia californica).

Sea hares get their name from the pointy rhinophores sticking up out of their heads. They look like rabbit ears, but they aren't for hearing. They allow the slug to smell and taste. Some sea hares ever have extra projections that look like a little bunny tail, just to make the similarity even clearer. Maybe the old tales of everything on land having a parallel in the sea were not so far off, after all.

Sea hares,  like cephalopods, are capable of expelling ink to deter predators. This ink is colored dark red like blood, making it a gross-out factor for anything thinking of eating the slug. A few of them are also poisonous to dogs and fish, just in case the ink is not enough of a deterrent. A. vaccia does not have this ink; the A. californica above clearly does.

Sea hares are the largest gastropods in the world. Looking just at our two model species, A. californica can get some 30 inches (75 cm) from head to rear when fully extended. A. vaccia has topped at 99 centimeters, again when fully extended, and has been recorded at 14 kilos - that's more than 20 pounds in U.S. measurements and quite a lot of escargot.

Sea hares, specifically A. californica, are valuable model organisms in science. On the dissecting table, they have large, brightly-colored neurons that are easy for beginning students of neuroscience to pick out. Despite this simplicity, sea hares can be conditioned and taught simple tricks. The whole genome is being sequenced as we speak. It's just a tiny bit disturbing to know that some of the tricks in human cognition go all the way back to sea slugs, but at the same time, it's pretty cool.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Creature Feature: FLEAS.

Hooo boy. For those of you with cats and dogs out there, flea season has started in the northern hemisphere. Expect to see a lot more scratching than usual. Be prepared for vet visits and flea sprays/soaps. You've been warned.

That said, fleas (order Siphonoptera) are fascinating as creatures. Because of their prevalence on birds and mammals, there have been extensive studies done on fleas. They are found virtually everywhere, so there is no shortage of specimens. Roughly 2000 species have been identified, each of which has its favorite host. Yes, humans can have fleas, too. The ones that infest pets are in the genus Ctenocephalides.

As most of us who have furry friends have no doubt noticed, fleas are fast. They can jump up to 18cm vertically and 33cm horizontally - that's 1200-2200 times their own body length. They are slender, too, making them very aerodynamic. No matter how much of a nuisance they are, that's pretty impressive, especially for an insect.

Along with being fast, fleas are very hard to kill. They have evolved super tough, bristly exoskeletons. Remember, this is an animal designed to hang on while being scratched by an angry dog or cat. Even human fingertips can't squish these guys. The best ways to kill fleas are tape, wax, and somehow managing to catch the flea in your fingernails. Oh, and of course, flea removal products (which even then require killing at two stages in the life cycle). Did we mention that fleas can reproduce asexually? No? Now you know.

Fleas feed exclusively on blood. They seek warm-blooded animals like birds and mammals, like most hematophages prefer. Even as larvae, they eat the sanguine feces of the adult fleas, making one wonder how this vicious cycle got started. With over 2000 species, each one can pick on a very specific host. Cat fleas are different from dog fleas are different from human fleas, so no, your dog's fleas won't get to you.

It is usually very easy to tell whether your pet has fleas or not. They start scratching like crazy to the point where they may lose patches of hair. Basically, if your cat or dog starts acting abnormal and scratches a lot, fleas are probably to blame. In the worst-case scenarios, they may develop anemia. Still, if flea-crippling products do not suffice, please take your pet to the vet. It could be allergies or mange if it isn't fleas.

Of course, fleas are fairly popular in movies and TV...mostly as nuisances. They are often imagined as having little, anthropomorphized populations on dogs or cats. Some, like P.T. Flea from A Bug's Life  or The Flea from Los Luchadores, have more important roles than chewing on a dog's rear. Like it or not, fleas do impact human life quite a bit, and they're probably here to stay.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Creature Feature: Hill Myna.

Birds are, without a doubt, nature's original artists. Although some of them may be rather morbid, they had colors before we did (and make better use of them), created music as we know it, and, we aren't even kidding, have complex enough songs that many songbirds have dialects - i.e. even though they're the same species, the songs are so dissimilar that two birds from different areas can't understand each other. Even today, what artist of any discipline has not felt the urge to fly into the great blue on wings or in song? Hell, even the great Beethoven kept a mynah bird.

The common hill myna (Gracula religiosa), or mynah, is one of the most famous talking birds in existence. It is native to South and Southeast Asia, ranging from India to Indonesia, and is most closely related to starlings. There are eight or so subtle subspecies which are mostly differentiated by the wattles on their necks. They eat fruit, nectar, and insects in the wild. There are several other species of mynah, but this is the one that most people are referring to.

Mynahs are among the several birds known for being excellent mimics. In their natural range, they can have anywhere from 3-13 calls per bird. The calls completely change within miles of each other. It's things like this that make us wonder if birds had language before people did, along with nearly every other art form.

So, just how well can mynahs talk? They're amazing. Parrots have a sort of 'parrot dialect' whenever they speak; mynahs have no such thing. If we didn't know that the clip below was a bird, we might've very well mistaken it for a monotonous screenplay:

Mynahs are listed as 'least concern' according to CITES, but populations have been declining in recent years. The only place in SE Asia in which the mynah is not plentiful is Bangladesh, due to both habitat destruction and over-hunting for the pet trade. They are so easy to breed otherwise that they have established feral populations in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Australia (with disastrous results). If you do want a myna bird, I'm sure there are people breeding them in captivity in the States, and several farmers in India have learned the right time to take the young out of the nest in the wild. Who knows? Get a mynah bird and you might write the next great symphony.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Hamburgers.

Summer's here, and that means that a lot of us in the States are hosting barbeques. Barbeques usually consist of meat, meat, and more meat grilled over charcoal for a smoky flavor.  Hamburgers and hot dogs are popular fare. I've already implied how disgusting hot dogs are several times. Burgers, well...

Burgers embody everything bad about American cuisine: grease, meat (in this case, beef), and drive-thrus. Be especially wary of the ones from fast-food chains; they have somewhere around a thousand calories each (OK, more like 500) and are usually dirt cheap. What could possibly go wrong?

For starters, the beef industry in general has had real problems since Day 1. I mean it - since cows were first domesticated, they were farting methane into the atmosphere. We then began farming those cows into masses of meat, milk, and other potentially delicious things beginning with the letter "m." This has lead to global warming for two reasons: one, people cut down natural forests to make room for cattle grazing; two, methane from livestock degrades the atmosphere in more ways than one. Even without factory farming, it is really hard to farm cattle sustainably.

Things only got worse when the Industrial Revolution took place, which allowed cows to be shipped and slaughtered en masse. Old-timey slaughterhouses were messy, smelly places that were exposed handily in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Even today, the process is messy. It's cleaner only because it's done by machines. I'd link something, but then I'd have to hope nobody was eating at the moment.

Aside from hot dogs and other various sausages, hamburger meat is the most well-known mystery meat. Nobody knows where the meat in your burger has been. Unless we grind our own beef, most of us never see the conditions that the meat was in before it was ground up. For all we know, it might have come into contact with stuff from another cow's intestine - thus E.coli and a bunch of other bugs that should be nowhere else except one's intestine get into our food. The sanitation of hamburger meat is so frequently questioned that the FDA has an official Q&A page for hamburgers/ground beef. It has its own page. That's a bad enough sign.

This process does, of course, open the meat to all sorts of contamination. To say nothing of the grisly conditions of Mickey D's slaughterhouses, the mere process of grinding beef exposes more of the meat to bacteria (as per the FDA's own Q&A listing for hamburgers/ground beef). Some of these can be killed by temperatures of 160 degrees Fahrenheit, but ground beef also has a short shelf life. Be careful, man.

Now for the real question: Do you want fries with that?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Creature Feature: Stumpy the Duck.

And now for something completely the same: A duck with four legs. 

Wait a second. Yesterday's entry was on hokey taxidermy; this duck has gotta be a hoax, right?

Nope. Stumpy the duck is a very real, farm-raised duck that just so happened to be born with four feet instead of two. He was hatched at Warrawee Duck Farm in Hampshire, Britain in February of 2007. Four legs on ducklings is not an unheard of condition, but what's amazing is that, unlike other malformed ducklings, Stumpy actually lived to adulthood.

As soon as Stumpy was hatched, scientists were interested in him. Stumpy's owner sent a tissue sample to a professor at the University of Chicago. They hope to use Stumpy's weird as hell genetics to cure genetic mutations in humans. We'd kinda like to know exactly which mutations they have in mind for this. It would let us know if they have eugenics and/or super-soldiers in mind.

Stumpy got his official name when he became a full-grown drake. The first leg got caught in a fence and had to be taken off, leaving only a stump; the second fell off naturally soon after. This is one of those freaks of nature that sorted itself out. We're sure that the Creationists are very pleased...or are they?

Stumpy is currently living as a normal duck would (unless he has been made into pate at this point). He has a girlfriend, Alice, and will hopefully yield many little ducklings. Will they be ugly ducklings like their daddy? Only time will tell. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

OLD Bio-Art: P.T. Barnum.

Long before bio-art was considered a thing, people were messing with dead animal bits and calling it art. Or, rather, it was masqueraded like a display of deceased freaks that were once alive. I'm still calling it art simply because some of these are indeed works of art. Others are just monstrosities. Regardless, taxidermists still have a lot of fun constructing mythical animals out of spare parts today, so let's go to the freakshow.

 The most famous (but not only) exhibitioner of creative taxidermy was P.T. Barnum. All of his 'freak' taxidermies were "gaffs" ("fakes" in normal English). Nonetheless, it is common practice for exhibitioners to pass off their fakes as the real McCoy - even if they get in trouble for it. They seem to have a lot of fun making monsters...almost real.

From the Peabody Museum. Is it the real one?

The most popular and notorious fake taxidermy is, of course, the Fiji Mermaid. It was made from half of a baby monkey, half of a fish, and a papier-mache bridge in between them. It was brought to P.T. Barnum by another showman, Moses Kimball, in 1842. Since then, 'mermaids' like it have been a staple of freak shows and Ripley's Believe It Or Not!. Don't believe any of the signs claiming that your local mermaid is the original; they're probably lying.

P.T. Barnum also exhibited the world's first 'unicorn' skeleton. This model in particular is a weird blend of ungulate and narwhal. It was fashioned out of a horse's skull and various other miscellaneous, fossilized bones, including mammoth parts. Considering that one-horned artiodactyls come pretty darn close to unicorns,  it's no surprise that this skeleton was dismissed as a fake pretty quickly.


Punks, or pickled human fetuses, are also common to sideshows. Many of them feature fetuses with various deformities, such as Siamese twins. One show was lucky enough to get a fetus that had lithified in the womb - a condition that has supposedly occurred exactly 290 times. These days, most punks are rubber/wax copies called "bouncers"- there are way too many laws about transporting and exhibiting human remains nowadays. I'm not really sure if this qualifies as art, but punks are put on display as often as taxidermic freaks.

Whether you considered the Fiji Mermaid and pickled fetuses art or not, they are certainly displayed like it. People pay to see freaks. One can argue that man did not create things like Siamese twins, but taxidermies and punks are almost certainly fabricated. If it's in a gallery and evokes enough emotion that people have been seeing it for decades, is that enough to make it art?

Blanket Disclaimer.

Unless stated otherwise, the images on this blog are not mine. I try to use open source images as much as possible, but sometimes, there's that one shot that exemplifies the point I'm trying to make. Please, if you would like for me to take something down or give you credit, reply to this entry, ping me on Twitter or e-mail me at I'm all for pimping more talented photographers than I.

After all, the main point of this blog is letting people know things exist. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Now, That's Just Depressing: Harry Potter Fans and Owls.

It is a proven fact that people will buy pets based on what they see in the movies. It is slightly less provable that Harry Potter fans are insane as a rule - they have not done anything on par with the near-felonies that the Twilight fanbase is notorious for. At least, that was what I thought until this rather unpleasant piece of news hit the internet: 

"Pam Toothill, of the Owlcentre in Corwen, North Wales, said: “Before the films were out I had six owls, now it’s 100. It’s all down to ­Harry Potter.

“People saw ­Harry’s owl in the movies and thought how cute and cuddly they looked. Now they are bored and fed-up with all the work involved looking after an owl.

“They are quite costly to look after. Ideally you need a 20ft aviary, and that costs about £900.

“I know it’s not JK Rowling’s fault, but people didn’t think enough about buying an owl before getting one.

“Owls need enough space to be able to flap their wings five times before landing back on a perch, or they get a chest ­infection.

“But we had one lady who was keeping two owls in her bedside cabinet in her ­bedroom.

“And there was a chap with a ­European Eagle Owl, which has a 5ft wingspan, in his one-­bedroom flat. It’s insane.”

It is perfectly legal to keep an owl and no licence is needed. But anyone caught releasing a captive owl faces six months in jail or a £5,000 fine.

Thirty unwanted barn owls are among the 170 creatures being cared for at the Sanctuary Wildlife Care Centre at Ulgham, near Morpeth, Northumberland.

Owner Kim Olson said: “When people saw Harry Potter loads of them wanted an owl. They’ve kept them in their shed or garage for a bit and now they’ve got bored and they hand them in to us.

“It’s illegal to release an owl into the wild because they would take over from the native wild owls, but obviously a lot of people have ­ignored that law.”

Harry Potter author JK Rowling has pleaded with fans not to follow their hero and keep an owl as a pet.

“If anybody has been influenced by my books to think an owl would be happiest shut in a small cage and kept in a house, I would like to take this opportunity to say as forcefully as I can, ‘you are wrong’,” she has said.

“If your ­owl-mania seeks concrete ­expression, why not sponsor an owl at a bird ­sanctuary where you can visit and know that you have secured him or her a happy, healthy life.”

The Harry Potter owl craze echoes that of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle film in the early 1990s, when thousands of ­unwanted pet terrapins were dumped in Britain’s rivers, canals and lakes. "


I honestly did not think people could be this stupid. I can understand impulse-buying a Dalmation after seeing 101 Dalmations, or a clownfish after watching Finding Nemo. Hell, I can understand buying a Burmese python more than what these people did. Owls aren't exactly common pets, nor were they a standard impulse buy like the occasional puppy, fish, or even python until Harry Potter came along. One would think that most people would be aware that owls have a specific diet and require a lot more space than a large parrot. This gives exotic pet owners and Potterheads alike a bad name.

Seriously, guys? J.K. Rowling was not writing a guide for owl husbandry when she wrote the books. The author has spoken against keeping owls like Harry Potter does. If you can't listen to the author's own wishes, what will you listen to?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Creature Feature: Black Skimmer.

With all of the 'weird' animals in Africa, Asia, and Australia, it's easy to take far more local birds for granted. After all, everything in nature has to be unique. Here's a weird one that can be found right in the U.S. of A.:

Those slick-looking birds are black skimmers (Rynchops niger). Skimmers are a small family of birds native to North America, South America, South Asia, and Africa. The family has been considered both a sister group to terns (who are actually pretty awesome in their own right) and gulls. They are total piscivores, possessing one very specific tool for eating fish in a unique way.

Two words: That beak. Keen observers will notice that the black skimmer's beak is just slightly longer on the bottom than on the top. This is so that they can skim fish quickly from the surface of the water. Skimmers are the only birds with this weird little under bite, so they really stand out even among other fishing birds. That's just scratching the visual surface.

Most birds are diurnal, and seabirds are no exception. The black skimmer is one of the few crepuscular fishing birds - that is, it hunts mostly at dawn and dusk. Since skimmers hunt mostly by touch, they can hunt in low light as well. This way of feeding has been called "unworldly" by one R.C. Murphy, who further compared them to aerial beagles hunting aerial rabbits. What an interesting, uncanny image!

Weirder still, black skimmers are the only known species of bird to have slit-shaped pupils like cats, lizards, and snakes. This, again, ties with being able to function in low light. Just a little more tweaking and this bird could be quite the monster. Get on it, creature designers; we could use things that aren't dragons around.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Creature Feature: Loa loa.

Part of the reason these entries have been so very delayed has been my fairly sudden, but completely foreseeable, interest in the Shin Megami Tensei franchise. That series has a whole compendium's worth of monsters from around the world, including the loa, a spirit from African folklore and voodoo rituals.


No, not all loa look like that. After a quick glance, loa are a lot like Greek daimones or angels - spirits between humans and God. I have yet to see a description of a loa resembling a bad goth tattoo attempting to be edgy, but if such a loa does exist, it would explain why Loa loa is the scientific name of the African eye worm.

Infinitely more terrifying than a skull-snake. Thank

Yes, that is exactly what it looks like: A worm in a person's eye. Loa loa is a parasitic roundworm spread through horsefly bites. It is mostly found in Africa and India; please bring bug spray if you ever go to either of those places.The best way to avoid Loa loa is to avoid the bites, obviously.

Loa loa is spread entirely via fly bites. Specifically, they love using horseflies and deerflies (which are a type of horsefly) as vectors. Deerflies are vampiric like mosquitoes, yet suffer only a fraction of the hate. An infected fly bites a human, the larvae develop in the human, and another fly gets the same stage inside it. Then that fly infects another human. We're just the daycare center for those little worms while they breed. Even without the eye thing, that's a little bit nasty.

Because in your eye and blood is a LOT creepier than through your skull.

The presence of a Loa loa traveling through the eye is usually one of the first signs that somebody is infected. Otherwise, the most they feel is joint pain, called Calabar swellings, when the little larvae get stuck in one place. There are also some subtle disturbances in the lymphatic system and lungs in intense infestations. Like most parasites, Loa loa tend to be subtle. Until, of course, the worm appears in somebody's eyeball.

If symptoms persist, the host may die, but most of us are sensible enough to see a doctor for a freakin' worm in the eye. Really, that moment is not a good time to be a belonephobe. The worms can be surgically removed and/or slowly killed by diethylcarbamazine or Ivermectin. That doesn't mean that being infested with worms will not make one suspect voodoo afoot.

"They Actually Eat That:" Cat Food.

Maybe I was a little harsh on dog owners. After all, I've seen clothes for cats, too. It's not like cat owners don't have some deep, dark secrets as well....

Cat food is one of the less pleasant parts of having a cat. Regardless of whether one is a carnivore or not, it stinks. It is just barely food, containing various, miscellaneous animal bits with only dashes of whatever flavor is one the can. There are several tiers of quality in cat food, but unless you cook a gourmet dinner for your cat every night, chances are that canned food is mystery meat. It's like a hot dog without the wrapping - you don't know where most of the stuff in your cat's food came from.

Oh, and cat food is taste-tested by people. Yeeep.

There are no words.

Wait a minute. Let's go look at a cat food can label. Hmm...yep. "Not suitable for human consumption," right on the can. Isn't that also kinda backwards? I mean, humans aren't going to be eating this food. What's going on, here? 

Cats have extremely sensitive palettes. It's not possible to ask a cat's opinion on how something tastes, so we have humans test them, instead. Cat food companies have tried testing their formulae with cats. It's just really hard to record data from an animal that thinks it's better than you. We also know we're the cats' pitiful slaves already, so it is our implicit duty to taste their food like a servant would for a king in the old days.

Back to work, slave!

We may not know exactly what a cat is tasting, but we can guess. We know, for example, that cats cannot taste sweet, so the tasters will not be looking for that particular sense. Pet food connoisseurs have been given a few criteria -such as "burnt," "rancid," "bitter," and "prawny" - used exclusively to describe the taste of cat food. Interestingly, the "burnt" and "rancid" cans supposedly taste best to human palettes. Bear in mind that these taste testers have no idea where that meat is coming from.

Some people who are hopefully paid for this job actually wind up liking cat food. Some people who do this job even develop favorite flavors. That said, I would still not advise trying it at home.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Taking a day off because...


Don't worry, I have a GREAT "They Actually Eat That" planned. ;)

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Why Are Dog Owners Crazy?

For the last year or so, I've been considering getting a dog. Specifically, I have plots to breed a bully whippet to a hairless dog and remind people that dogs can be seriously freaky animals. Of course, I need to understand how dogs work before doing that; I know how the genetics behind those two traits work, at least. Whether the breeding actually happens will come with time.

Then I see stuff like this and go, "Hm, maybe a dog isn't such a good idea after all."

It would seem that some dog owners are just as displeased as I am about the relatively narrow color palette mammals have to work with. They also have doggie 'weddings,' doggie yoga, and probably the infamous doggie nail polishing, too. This show is unfortunately the tip of the iceberg.

I will admit that dogs (or, rather, wolves) have the benefit of a diverse genome and having many behaviors in common with humans. It's really no surprise at all that dogs were the first domesticated animals. Dogs have been great service animals over the years. Even though they're essentially retarded wolves, they're pretty cool animals.

That doesn't mean some dog owners don't completely cross the line at times. There are some things, like the extreme examples mentioned above, that make dog owners look crazy. Here are a few more where that came from:

Dog clothes aren't anything new. Some breeds, like the Chinese Crested, may even need clothes when the weather gets harsh. That doesn't make them any less humiliating when used for a purpose outside of protecting a dog from the temperature. It goes so far that dogs actually have shoes. In the immortal words of Jay Leno, "your dog will not wear that." Granted, they tolerate it better than cats.

Hey, while you're at the groomer's, why not give your dog a full salon treatment? Sure, maybe dying your dog to look like a panda isn't in anymore, but nail polish never gets old! OPI has made a special brand called "Pawlish" that's safe for dogs in case they lick their nails. They have a few helpful tips for applying it. At least it dries quickly.

This might be a shocker to some of you, but celebrating birthdays is a cultural thing. It is not done the same way everywhere, if it is done in a place at all. McDonald's is largely to thank for the popularity of birthdays and birthday cake in Asia. Not all humans really 'get' birthdays - what on earth makes dog people think that their furry friends will grasp such a distinct cultural concept? Regardless, dog birthday cakes are a thing. Back when Chicago still had Three Dog Bakery, they were cited as a glaring economic frivolity by the book Naked Economics. The dogs nonetheless recognize food as a good thing, so I suppose there's no harm done...

Then there's dog-friendly beer. You read that right: Dog beer. Apparently, we like dogs so much that we consider them drinking buddies. Apologies if you spat some regular beer out upon reading this paragraph.

As should be obvious, these items are treatments are the result of extreme anthropomorphizing. This is common in dogs to the point where it causes problems. The human thinks the dog is a human baby. The dog thinks it is a wolf. You see the difficulty.

The situation is different with exotic pet owners. Yes, snake owners anthropomorphize, too, but at least we don't put clothes on our animals. Or buy them birthday cakes. Or make special lizard beer. We're a little more aware that our pets are another species.

To reiterate: Yes, dogs are cool animals. Things like fancy treat dispensers and water fountains are fine; what animal doesn't like treats and free water? You dog will still not understand the idea of a birthday cake beyond, "oh, hey, free treat today!" Putting clothes on a dog is understandable when it's for, say, bad weather or to let people know that your Labrador's doing the seeing for you, but otherwise, clothes are for people. Your dog does not support your favorite sports team no matter how many doggie beers you give him during the Super Bowl.Wolves may have some behaviors in common with humans, but there is a limit to how much anthropomorphizing you can do before scarring a puppy for life.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Bio-Art: Mother and Child, Divided.

Happy belated Mother's Day, everyone! I hope you had a great time hanging out with your mothers. I know that sounds weird to say. As today's art piece shows, not everybody is so lucky. 

Disclaimer: Art and pic belong to Hirst.

Hello again, Damien Hirst. Fancy seeing you on this column with yet another formaldehyde piece. Mother and Child, Divided features a fully-immersed cow and calf separated by a number of barriers - including one gruesome twist.  This time, quite a lot is in the name.

Mother and Child, Divided is a fitting title in more ways than one. Not only are the cow and calf lamenting being separated postmortem, the displays themselves are bisected. The full setup contains a total of four tanks, each containing half of a cow or calf. Both mother and child are bisected. They are set up so that museum-goers can walk between the halves and see what the cows really look like inside.  How the organs do not randomly float around in the formaldehyde, I have no idea. The cows also have to be replaced from time to time.

This piece caused quite a stir when it was brought to Japan (the land of Godzilla, ninjas, and tentacle porn) for an art exhibition in 2008.  Japan had a ban on British beef out of fear of mad cow disease. It was quite a hassle not only transporting the containers, but explaining that these cows were not for eating. I don't think the Japanese would try that anyways, but am nonetheless sure there is porn of it. It's the internet.

This is one piece that, despite previous questioning of Hirst's work, is definitely art in my mind. It is a very real, but often unacknowledged fact that cows are frequently separated from their young on factory farms. The only thing that could have made this sadder would have been to have the mother and child facing each other. Clearly, some thought went behind this formaldehyde-laden work.

Or maybe Hirst just wanted to mess with cow corpses for some other reason. Anyways, happy belated Mother's Day!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Creature Feature: Oilbirds.

Birds and bats tend to have opposite connotations. Birds, as diurnal, innocent creatures that sing pretty songs, are the epitome of innocence; bats are nocturnal mice with wings that spread disease and suck blood. The uncanny resemblance (and true parallel) of a bat wing to a human hand probably doesn't help the divide. Just about the only birds with bad reputations are crows and vultures. Hell, the only real difference between an angel and a demon is the wings.

So what happens when a mad scientist decides to mix a bird and a bat? This, apparently:


The oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) is a bird a little over a foot and a half long, and is native to the southern Caribbean and South America. They used to have a much wider range, with fossils going back as far as 50 million years in Wyoming; now they're in a family all their own (Steatornithidae). They feed on the fruits of tropical laurels, avocados, and Oil Palms. Diet has nothing to do with the name; their name comes from a rather morbid history that will be mentioned later.

Oilbirds honestly think that they are bats. They nest in caves and fly out at night en masse. They nest in colonies hanging above their droppings, effectively oilbird guano. Their claws' only purpose is to allow them to hang from cave walls. Oilbirds are, for all intents and purposes, bats trapped in the bodies of birds.

There are even more similarities where that came from. Oilbirds are the only nocturnal birds that echolocate.This echolocation, unlike most natural sonar, is audible to the human ear. It has been described as sounding like the screams of tortured human beings (leading it to be called "diabolotin," "little devil," in Trinidad). Listen for yourself and post what you hear:

It gets worse. This bird's name comes from how fat it is. It gets chubby from eating, well, oily foods (with very good oils; avocado's awesome like that). meaning that it was once excellent torch-lighting fodder. The babies, which are even chubbier, were once used as fuel for torches. Nonetheless, this bird is not endangered at all, and, with the decline in torches, will prosper as time goes on. Hopefully.

P.S.- Hope you all had a great Mother's Day! :D

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Little Shop of Horrors: Wolfsbane.

Am I the only one getting ads about this one "werewolf VS vampire" MMO? It's getting old. It's not that I don't like both of them, but both are overused, no matter how cool they are. Really, once one realizes that werewolves and vampires are both metaphors for different types of sex, there's nothing to talk about anymore. Still, I may as well sate  the werewolf fans out there by covering one of the few aspects of their fandom that actually exists:

Wolfsbane, also known as acontium, can be used to describe any of the various species of monkshood (genus Acontium).  It is usually used in reference to Aconitum vulparia, one of the varieties found in Europe. The internet has confirmed the complication in Ginger Snaps that monkshood (in general) grows virtually everywhere, but blooms mostly in the spring (perennial). Of all things, it is closely related to buttercups.

Wolfsbane originally had little to do with werewolves. The plant was probably used to kill wolves, and may have been used to ward off werewolves, but that's the extent of it. Wolfsbane only became popular from Universal's Wolf Man movies - as did the full moon transformation, silver bullets, and a million other modern werewolf conventions.  FYI, the Universal Studios version of Dracula was repelled by wolfsbane as well. Maybe they're not so different after all, eh?

Can't we all just get along? Or at least not have blood feuds?

Along with being associated with werewolves, wolfsbane has certain other occult applications. The plant was considered sacred to Hecate, the Greco-Roman goddess of witchcraft and crossroads. It's also linked to the planet Mars, both for its helmet-like shape and because of its heat-inducing toxin. Legend has it that witches dipped their flints in wolfsbane and threw them at enemies. This was the Wiccan equivalent of poison daggers, and considering they were tipped in wolfsbane, these shards were not to be taken lightly.

By the way, yes, wolfsbane is very poisonous to humans. Do not ingest it unless you reaaaallly think you're becoming a wolf - in which case, all you're doing is sparing the rest of us from your wolfish agony.  Monkshood works almost like tetrodotoxin - you know, the stuff that makes fugu so notoriously poisonous. Even handling wolfsbane requires gloves and hand-washing. Some people in China and Taiwan have tried eating monkshood, but one wrong step in the cooking and things turn deadly. Point goes to vampires for having a doable, if still dark, way of playing in real life. You can't even play werewolf unless, well...

 ...but let's not go there.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Creature Feature: Tibetan Antelope.

Nobody likes talking about Tibet. Everybody's mad that they'll piss off China by doing so, so a lot of notions to free Tibet are swept under the rug. Shame; it's an interesting place, geologically. It's got a lot of water, strangely enough, and a bunch of unique fauna to boot.

Aside from the Dalai Lama, high altitudes, and a lot of rivers for a place that's practically a desert, Tibet also has this cute little fellow. He is simply called a Tibetan antelope or chiru (Pantholops hodgsonii). Tibetan antelopes eat what little vegetation there is, leading to many conflicts with local herders and humans.

These antelope are small. They get roughly a meter at shoulder height. The males are slightly bigger, sport horns, and have black striping on their legs. Overall, if one was going to pick an antelope to keep, these seem like an OK choice. Only the dik-dik could possibly be cuter.

The chiru is said to be one of the closest antelope to goats. It looks more goatlike than most antelope (people who are NOT heavily into artiodactyls will probably notice something a little wrong) and molecular evidence supports putting it into its own genus, if not subfamily.  Its closest relative lived during the Pleistocene in Tibet, so this little guy is almost a living fossil. Almost.


Tibetan antelope are highly endangered. The indigenous peoples  of Tibet use the antelopes' wool for something called shahtoosh. It might ring a bell; the wool is often smuggled through Nepal into Kashmir and India. Although the wool can be harvested without killing the adorable little antelope, many natives do it anyways. The antelope now live primarily on a single nature reserve, which is protected such that domestic animals and humans cannot use the antelopes' land.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Lizards.

So, after my workout today, I caught a commercial for Geico car insurance. I love that little gecko. He has yet to sucker me into buying car insurance, but I still love him. Call me crazy, but I find lizards cute, especially when they're telling me how to save money.

Suddenly, I wondered: Would people in the modern day have the heart to eat such a creature? I could understand, say, China eating lizards (everything's on the menu there), but what about places that don't have such a knack for weird food?

Surprise, surprise. Lizard is actually a pretty popular food animal around the world. This is particularly so in places like Nicaragua, where eating lizards is so much a part of the culture that several species are threatened with extinction in the name of cuisine. They are believed to help people recover from illnesses. Oh, folk medicine, the species that will be lost because of you.

It turns out that Spain, of all places, has a thing for lizard cuisine. They make a dish with the ocellated lizard in Extremadura, Spain. It's called lagarto con tomate - lizard with tomatoes. It involves slicing up the lizards, frying them in olive oil, and then stewing them with tomatoes and onions. I hate to admit it, but this one actually sounds really good!

Let's not leave China out of this. I mean, really, it's not like we didn't see China coming, but they do eat lizards. Lizards, after all, are alive and plentiful in China. That's enough to put them on the menu. Granted, we in America are probably the weird ones for not eating lizards.

Sorry, but they sell us car insurance. Cutely.