Saturday, June 30, 2012

Food Week: Tamales.

Confession: No matter how much I write about liking weird, exotic food, I cannot stand Mexican cuisine. Cumin does mot sit well with me. There's something about that culinary style, even without cumin, that just...bugs my taste buds.

Enter a food truck called Tamale Spaceship.  Out of sheer curiosity, I decided to try one...and had a hard time figuring out how to eat it. Even when I did finally figure it out, I was not particularly impressed. Maybe I was still doing it wrong.

For starters, the idea of wrapping food in leaves of any kind is weird to Americans. This is a shame; leaves are nature's convenient, recyclable wrapping and often less messy than plastic or wax paper in other ways. Point is, we aren't really used to seeing things wrapped in leaves, no matter how delicious they may be. It's pretty common elsewhere.

Tamales have been around since the ancient Mayans. They can be found from Mexico downwards as well as in Southeast Asia. They consist of meat, veggies, cheese, whatever you like, rolled into a dough called masa. Masa is a sort of starchy corn dough that corn. The whole shabang is then boiled or fried in a corn leaf. Corn, corn, corn. Yep, there's a lot of corn in tamales. Sometimes, banana leaves are used instead, but when you have corn, use it.

That said, one of the thinfs I did wrong was trying to eat the thing with the leaf still on. Unlike Greek dolma or other leaf-wrapped yummies, you do take the leaf wrapper off of tamales. Not doing so means not enjoying them properly. I doubt the corn leaves will kill you, but it just plain won't taste as good with them on.

Unfortunately, I really can't recommend tamales outside of "try it if you like Mexican." If you like Mexican food already, then you'll probably think that tamales are really neat. If not, then avoid them; you probably won't be impressed. If you've never had Mexican, tamales are as good a dish as any to see if you like traditional Mexican cuisine. They're probably better than Taco Bell in any case.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Food Week: Iwakuni Sushi.

Sushi is already a god among weird foods. Raw fish is weird enough to some people. Turning raw fish into art is weirder. The things Americans do with sushi is weirder still. Yet, in one small Japanese town, they have even stretched the definition of sushi...somehow.

Enter the unique sushi of Iwakuni, a small village near Hiroshima, Japan. Among other things, including one helluva cool samurai castle, white snakes, and a hot spring, Iwakuni is home to massive, square sushi. Reread that last bit a few times to let it sink in: "Massive, square sushi."

Iwakuni sushi is not what people think of when they think "sushi" in the States. There is no seaweed involved. It's square as opposed to on any sort of roll. The main ingredients are raw fish and egg. It looks more like a sandwich than sushi. This style is properly called "oshi sushi" and can be found in a few other regions as well. Iwakuni's is just among the most famous, and justly so; it's so big that cutting it looks like something samurai did after epic battles.

Suddenly, working as a sushi chef sounds awesome.

Legend has it that Iwakuni sushi was invented some 380 years ago. It's cut to be more portable than your average sushi, which also led to it looking an awful lot like lasagna. This has made it a favorite among the various military presences that occupied Iwakuni throughout history, including samurai and U.S. soldiers. Tourists are rather fond of it, too.

Alas, I did not get to try this rather strange sushi on my own rather brief trip to Iwakuni. It doesn't sound too bad, though. Strange, but not bad.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Food Week: Crayfish Etoufee.

The friend of mine who suggested this whole food week happened to be from Louisiana. Lousiana's got plenty of unique cuisine, including gumbo, jambalaya, and a few other things with funny names. Among those was his personal choice for the week: Crayfish etouffee.

Etouffee ("stuffed" in French- yes, my accents suck) is basically any shellfish served over rice in a sort of stew. Vegetables and a tomato-based sauce are givens. common in both Cajun and creole cuisine. It is more popular in the southern parts of Louisiana than up north. The shellfish of choice in Louisiana is, of course, crayfish.

Crayfish is another one of those things that make me wonder, "who thought this was a good idea, again?" Crayfish are the smaller, more voracious cousins of the lobster. Put two in a tank and one of them will eventually eat the other. Then again, humans do eat anything.

These guys love food. They just don't like BEING food.

Another weird part of etouffee is something called roux. Roux is a thickening agent commonly found in French cooking. It's usually equal parts fat and flour. Depending on the kind of flavor desired, a blond or brown roux may be used in etouffee. Lighter roux creates a nuttier flavor while a darker roux enhances the flavors that are already there.

For those curious, crayfish etouffee was supposedly invented some 70 years ago in Beaux Bridge, Louisiana. Since then, it spread to New Orleans and cities across the state. It is consistently one of any given restaurant's most popular dishes. There are plenty of recipes if you click around online. A lot of people just use packaged mixes, but it still comes out great. I've never been to Louisiana, but will definitely give etouffee a try!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Food Week: Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza.

During local food week, I cannot avoid Chicago cuisine. Chicago is known for two foods: Steak and pizza. I cannot speak for the steak. Chicago pizza, however, I know very well.

Apparently, there are two kinds of Chicago pizza: The huge, party-size kind that is usually cut into squares, and the deep dish kind. Although huge pizza is convenient, I doubt anybody really wants to take credit for it's invention; it's not that impressive, taste-wise. Nonetheless, it is worth mentioning that there are apparently two (maybe even three?)  kinds of Chi-town pizza. Somehow. Usually, however, the term "Chicago pizza" is referring to deep dish.

Deep dish is impressive. Even though it's certainly not wider that the average pizza, it's thick. The fist thing one sees is a layer of tomato sauce laid in a cornbread crust an inch or three deep. It's almost like a reverse pizza in that the tomato sauce is on the ingredients. Beneath that layer of tomato sauce could be anything - meat, veggies, or just plain cheese.

Nobody really knows who 'invented' deep dish. Uno's was probably the first to patent it in 1956, although even there, exactly who at Uno's created it is up for debate. Since then, every pizza place in the area has been copying the idea of a pre-baked crust stacked with truckloads of toppings. Gino's East, my personal favorite, claims to be the 'original' like everybody else. It doesn't really matter who invented it except as a claim to fame; as long as you can handle inches of toppings on your pizza, you'll love deep dish.

Even if the veggies sound wholesome, if you're on a diet, avoid deep dish. It has a million calories. Those inches of cornbread crust might contain nothing but cheese.  You will be stuffed after eating it. Do not attempt alone, but try it at least once if you happen to be in Chicago. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Bio-Art: El Bulli.

Welcome to Food Week, a week wholly devoted to "They Actually Eat That"-esque entries. No, Mother Nature has not run out of weird things; it was simply a friend's suggestion for the next theme week, and hey, who doesn't enjoy the occasional weird food column?  You'd think it'd be hard to integrate this into a bio-art column, but really, almost every nicely-prepared dish is a chemistry project.

Cooking is an art, no matter how much Dunkin' Donuts and Mickey D's would like us to forget. In many restaurants, presentation is just as important as taste.The Japanese show the rest of the world up in this regard by having artistic lunchboxes every day. There's also designer sushi, but that's a trend that will get its own entry later this week.

Then there are food artists who are so creative that they shut down just to think up 500 new dishes and serve 26+ courses. Yes, really.

The only one of its kind, El Bulli is the place for different cuisine. It's located in Cala Monjoy, Spain, but you'll probably have to plan a special trip to Europe just to go there - don't plan a tour of castles that you can visit any time. Only 1% of would-be diners actually get reservations. This place is the highest of high cuisine simply because they do things nobody has done yet. (The keyword there is 'yet'- the fruity caviar above has since been imitated insofar as I can tell.)

El Bulli is the most innovative restaurant on the planet. They are closed six months out of the year just concocting a new menu. If they've done it before, they will not do it again. As per the owner's own words, "We have one rule here: It has to be new."  Here are a few examples, which should be enough to pique one's interest if not incite a Pavlovian salivation response.

Without spoiling any secret recipes, El Bulli makes dishes that combine the scientific with the tasty. All your favorite foods have been puffed into spheres, liquefied, and sprinkled with only the finest ingredients. It's like eating a pre-taste-tested lab experiment that has also been made visually appealing. For those of you wondering, yes, this is the place The Simpsons made fun of in the episode centering around foodie subculture.

El Bulli's offerings are all about calculation and presentation. Food is decorated in gold caramel, puffed into a foam, and delivered in jewelry boxes. No forks needed; this place is all about sensing what they've done in the kitchen - err, laboratory. Many of the dishes are one-bite wonders that are to be eaten just-so, with each dish precisely calculated to leave enough room for the next. Dinner is a show for all the senses. Enjoy it to the end!

As with many of the entries this week, here's the big question: Is it worth it? There is no price listing, but even with the supposed high price, El Bulli barely breaks even. It sounds like it tastes great, but there is probably a reason that the prices aren't listed. If any of you go there, tell me what you had! :D

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Creature Feature: Red-Winged Blackbird.

So yeah. Yesterday consisted of 75 miles of country road, Gatorade, water, and lots and lots of bikes. I'm still a bit tired and sunburned from that, but regular updates to this blog will resume starting now.

That's a Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), which I saw in abundance in 75 miles' worth of farmland. (No,that is not my pic.)  The RWB ranges from Alaska to Guatemala, covering all of the U.S. down to Mexico. It is an omnivore, eating insects and seeds. Far from being on the endangered list, it is probably the most common and well-documented bird in North America.If you live in North America, you've probably already seen it. There are several subspecies, so your local blackbird may not match the pic above.

Just because the RWB is common doesn't mean it's not neat. The female and male Red-winged blackbird look absolutely nothing alike. The female almost looks like a very large sparrow - very brown with dark brown markings - in sharp contrast with the male's striking colors. One would not even think they were the same species at first glance. Point is, if you see a black bird with red shoulders, 1) it's probably a RWB, 2. it's a male for sure. Some just look brighter than others.

Let's talk about those cool feathers for a bit. The rings of red and yellow are properly called "epaulets" and vary in the amount of red and/or yellow with the subspecies. I'm thinking this little blackbird has monster potential- maybe as a Fire/Flying Pokemon with insane sexual dimorphism, but more likely a mechanical sunbird that either has the discs on fire or uses them as a frame for mechanical feathers. It's already got phoeniceus in the species name- perfect fodder is perfect.

Like most birds, RWB's also sing. Instead of being melodious, however, it sounds like a machine trying to make music. I can't picture an instrument playing its song. I really don't even know how to describe it, so please turn to the YT video below for a soundbyte. It's a very distinct call that, knowing birds, probably varies heavily with region and/or function.

Does being common stop birds like this from being cool? Nope! That song makes me turn my head any time I hear it. Plus, cardinals are cute, but a bit overrated; why aren't more states using this bird to show off? (I'm seriously tired. Really. This entry barely became a thing.)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Reminder + Good GODS I'm tired.

First off...DAYUMN. a five hour-plus bike ride is insane. It gave me some good blog fodder, but it's insane. The entry will be on something I saw in those five hours, K?

Point the second: Always open to local food entry ideas, but next week (Monday) has a week full of them. Two slots have already been clocked in. Get creative.

[Placeholder entry is placeholder.]

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Creature Feature: Wildebeest.

Ah, antelope. The mere word antelope conjures images of wild, open areas and elegant, deerlike animals. Home, home on the range and all that. Screw wolves, antelope should be the ones being called "majestic." Google Image a Thompson's gazelle, one of the most popular prey species for lions on nature documentaries. Look at those horns, that leap, that...

...wait a sec, what the EFF is that?!

That, dear friends, is a wildebeest (Connochaetes). You might know it a little better as the gnu. There are two species: the blue wildebeest (C. gnou)and the black wildebeest (C. gnou). Both of them are equally weird and native to Africa. They are among the least charismatic mammals on that continent. Granted, the blue wildebeest is still on the Serengeti, so the 'beest gets some screentime from that alone.

The wildebeest is probably the least enchanting of the antelope living on the African savannah. They look more like oxen than antelope, what with their wide faces, curved horns, and bulky builds. They have squarish pupils like goats, eyes that range from brown to deep red, and have faces that are slender rectangles as opposed to any other shape.  In other words, they're probably the best visible proof that antelope are, in fact, more closely related to cattle than to deer. Even cows don't have spinal ridges like that. The short 'mane' and hump call to mind the 'bad guy' of the savannah, the hyena. Yes, we're still talking about an herbivore.

This one just looks BADASS.

Wildebeest have exactly two presentations in popular culture: As food or as something utterly terrifying. Most of us probably first learned of wildebeest from The Lion King, in which - spoiler alert - a stampede of red-eyed, horned faces tramples poor Simba's father. I can see a number of reasons for them to pick wildebeest as opposed to some other ungulate, but the one that sticks out the most is that wildebeest and those hyenas both have a menacing, brutish hump that just makes them look evil. They're even colored similarly. Even though wildebeest themselves are completely benign, they can easily be sold as the most menacing antelope ever.

Interestingly, the wildebeest stampede in The Lion King may have been based off of an actual event.  Every year, massive herds of wildebeest and zebra migrate away from the Serengeti, the most filmed place on the planet. (Note how, even in the movie about this epic migration, the wildebeest are slated as prey for a cheetah- not that it isn't realistic.) Scientists think that this is due to the availability of surface water. They have also observed a sort of collective intelligence among the migrating herd - a hive mind that makes them conquer the obstacles on their path as one. (Humans seem to have the opposite mentality, acting more like idiots when in a group.) Horns, check; sinister eyes, check; evil hunch, check; hive mind, check.

Have a black wildebeest. Black makes EVERYTHING more evil!

The wildebeest is so famously monsterlike that ancient people actually made a monster out of it. Going back as far as ancient Greece, the wilderbeest of Ethiopia (itself kinda legendary) was mutated into the legendary catoblepas- a monster with the head of a boar and the body of a buffalo. It was forever doomed to look downward thanks to its heavy head. Pliny the Elder thought that the catoblepas's down-turned head was a rather fortunate adaptation, given that anything that made eye contact with it turned to stone. Another Roman historian disagreed about the beast's infamous stone gaze, but gave it toxic breath as compensation. Either way, the wildebeest, a real animal, was suddenly on par with the infamous basilisk. The main differences: catoblepas had the decency to keep its head down and could run you over if its breath and gaze did not do the job. Wildebeest have no such superpowers, but they are weird-looking enough to make one wonder.

And if they do have superpowers? There is no benevolent deity out there. Period. They already killed Mufasa unintentionally. We're next. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"They Actually Eat That" - Starfish + A Mission.

Some foods on this column are cool. Some of them look gross, but I've actually tried them and they're quite good.  Some things are ordinary stuff you didn't know was gross. Then, there are weird foods that we don't have in the States or consider bizarre on other counts...which is most things, really.

Among this last group, usually, are the things that make me go "why?" Maybe I'm just culturally-unaware of something, but there are just some things people eat that make me question their motivation for doing so. This is one of them.


Starfish is one of those things that makes me go "why?" Who would look at a starfish and go, "hey, that might be good?" They're probably more appealing while alive, and it's convenient that they have a fairly simple body plan, but there's nothing about them that screams "eat me." As with sea urchins, they just look unappealing. It's an excellent survival tactic.

The upside is that starfish are not as bad for you as, say, regular fish (which have their own horror stories). After pawing through a few videos, it does look like the starfish have some meat on them. One could almost call sea urchin logic on this one (after all, they're related). That tough skin is usually protecting something. Plus, sea otters crack echinoderms all the time, right? They must be eating something in that shell...while looking adorable.

Then again, China. Just...China. I've said so much about China putting everything on a stick that there is not much more to say. They cook the starfish, at least. The most popular methods include sun-drying and just plain frying. I have yet to see starfish sold raw, but it probably exists. Probably.

That said, do not go hunting for starfish yourself and put them on sticks. Some starfish are poisonous. Eating starfish already shows that you have daring taste buds. No need to add venom into that mix. If you're really that eager to get poisoned...fugu. That is all.

Actually, that's NOT all. I have a mission for you, the readers. Starting next week, YOU get to pick the entries for a whole theme week of local specialties. It'll be a whole week of weird, unique foods. Deep-dish pizza will be the only entry I will forcefully add in there. 

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Find a local specialty near you and post a description of it here. Get crackin'...and eatin'!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Creature Feature: Giant Water Bug.

It's been a while since we did something creepy. No, I do not mean "rip you face off" terrifying, but genuinely, skin-crawlingly creepy. It's been a while since I did something like that. Brace yourself:

Giant water bugs are exactly what they say on the label: giant bugs that live in water. They can be found in the slow-moving streams of almost every place except Africa, Europe, and India. They are big and strong enough to take down everything from insects to crustaceans to fish, frogs, and reptiles. This entry is unfortunately going to focus on the entire family Belostomadidae simply because there's more to say about them.

As with most things with "giant" in their names, one must ask "how giant is giant?" It depends on the species. Specimens range from 1.5 inches to 4 inches solid. The picture up there gives one a very good idea of how big that is without using a measurement converter. For a water bug, that's pretty big.

Water bugs have some impressive hunting tactics. They have evolved to hunt entirely underwater. They look exactly like a dead leaf from above. While lying in wait for prey, they breathe through a natural snorkel. When something tasty comes around, they quickly spring with their powerful front legs and inject enzymes into their quarry with piercing mouthparts. Sometimes they mistake human toes for salamanders, leading to the nickname "toe-biter."

Remember how I said these water bugs could take down vertebrates? They do that with the most painful bite in the insect world. In other words, they're everywhere and they sting like little bastards. Do not pick up a dead one unless you want to be hurt - they can play possum. The bite has no harmful side-effects, it just hurts.

Happy belated Father's Day!

Many giant water bug species have a parental care system rivaled in weirdness only by that of seahorses. For starters, the females do all the courting; the opposite is usually the case. After copulation, the female lays her many eggs on the father's back. The male cannot mate while he's got eggs on his back; that would be awkward on so many levels. It's like everything Discovery Channel told you has been turned upside-down.

Giant water bugs are also eaten. They are particularly popular in Thailand, where they are served as a snack food. People draw them in with blacklights during breeding season, catch them, then, well, heat them. For more on that, use the handy-dandy search function to find a very old "They Actually Eat That" entry.  Bon appetit!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Bio-Art: Move 36.

The possibilities of technology are terrifying. We're afraid of either a robot apocalypse, in which the robots dominate humanity in every way, or a zombie apocalypse, in which the general populace will have even less free will than usual. Given that our cell phones and computers know every little detail about us, the former is actually more likely.

Computers are smart. Very smart. They're so smart that, in an epic chess match between chess champion Gary Kasparov and the computer Deep Blue, the computer made a subtle move that ultimately won the game instead of a faster move that would have resulted in short-term gain. Commentators and viewers were both stunned. That match in 1997 went down in history as the match between "the greatest chess player who ever lived and the greatest chess player who never lived." It was ended by the historical "Move 36."

From Kac's website.

Then Eduardo Kac made an art piece (2004), also called "Move 36," to showcase the terrifying possibility of technology rising above humanity. Wait, what? That's a plant. It's a plant on a chessboard made of sand and dirt with screens showing trippy visuals and nice lighting. Aside from the plant's positioning on the chessboard, it doesn't look like it has much to do with tech surpassing its creator.

Fear is truly skin deep with this piece. The wild type of that plant has straight leaves. Kac created a gene that made the leaves curl using a binary version of Descartes's "Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am)." The Latin phrase was translated into binary, then four two-digit combos were linked with a nitrogen base in DNA. This single gene is what makes the piece truly work.

Descartes was the thinker largely responsible for the idea that the body and mind were separate. He called the body a "machine" that the mind was operating. (This has in turn caused a massive psychosis in Western culture, but I won't talk about the aftershock here.) It was planted right where man lost to the machine and itself blurs the boundary between animate and inanimate. On another level, having a plant with "I think therefore I am" in its veins is kinda scary in itself.No, the plant can't far as we know.

Yeah, you BETTER start worrying about vegetable rights!

Although it may seem like an abstract piece, "Move 36" is quite logical...after elaboration. There's so much explanation required that, even after hearing it, I am inclined to call this one of Kac's less-impressive pieces. It's like the rule of thumb that if you need to explain a joke, it's a bad joke; an art piece that needs explanation is barely art. The lighting is really good, and the chessboard is well-designed, but without that explanation, I sense a few head scratches. Glowing, green bunny? Awesome, I want one! RFID chip? OK, that's kinda creepy. Plant on a chessboard? Umm...whatever you say, Kac. Whatever you say.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Creature Feature: Otter Shrew.

Wait a second. Wait just a doggone second. You already did otters. Sure, those were sea otters and this looks more like a river otter, and otters are always a ton of fun to watch, but still.

Thing is, this isn't an otter. It's not even related to otters aside from being a mammal. The creature up there is a giant otter shrew (Potamogale velox), which is neither an otter nor a shrew. It is properly a tenrec, native to the forest streams of sub-Saharan Africa. As one might expect, it is a piscivorous, freshwater mammal. Rodent or mustelid it is not.

For those of you who do not recall my Madagascar Week, tenrecs are the weirdest and most diverse members of Afrotheria. They are known for mimicking other, 'normal' animals uncannily well. Unlike most mammals, tenrecs have cloacae (a single opening for defecating, urinating, and birthing) and sport unusually low body temperatures. They're like the marsupials of Madagascar.

The otter shrew is a miracle of convergent evolution. Tenrecs are known for filling a lot of niches, but the otter shrew takes the cake by looking like a river otter, eating like a river otter, and basically being a river otter in every way except genetics and dentition. Tenrecs can mimic the niches and looks of several "normal" animals, but the otter shrew is just insane at how well it copies an otter.

That said, the parts that aren't distinctly otterlike stick out. Unlike otters - hell, unlike marine mammals like dolphins and manatees (to whom the tenrecs are related) - the otter shrew's spine moves side to side like a crocodile's while it's swimming. It also has a crazy skull that looks almost like it belongs on a crocodile more than any sort of mammal. The primitive side of tenrecs is crystal clear beneath that otter facade.

Tenrecs are among those animals that I simply cannot comprehend people not loving. There's a certain charm to a group of animals so like 'normal' animals, but so very far away on a genetic level. Oh, and this one might be more like Pikachu than a rodent, too.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Creature Feature: Carnotaurus

OK, I gipped you guys yesterday and the day before. Here's a cool entry to make up for my doing nothing but quoting a newspaper and a disgusting YouTube video.

Let's look at Dinosaur Satan for a minute. Dinosaur Satan, properly called Carnotaurus sastrei, was found in an Argentinian deposit dating back to the Late Cretaceous. As the name "meat-eating bull" would indicate, it was a giant, carnivorous beast with pointy horns. It was roughly 8 meters from head to tail and a little over 3 meters high. We don't know what it ate beyond "meat," but large sauropods may have been on the menu.

The Carnotaurus is probably the last dinosaur you would ever want to see in a dark alley. It's big, its mouth is full of teeth, and it can turn its head unlike any other theropod. It had binocular vision, which means, yes, both eyes would be sizing you up like a cheeseburger. Oh, and then there are those horns. Nobody knows what those horns were for, but after the teeth and the front-facing eyes, would you really want to risk being skewered by them? Didn't think so.

Then it would come out farther and you'd see its hands. Carnotaurus had the most useless forelimbs of any dinosaur, even compared to the weird two-fingered hands of T.rex. They had four digits total, but only two were functional. Even those lacked claws and were largely vestigial in nature. One may have been a combat spur, but the range would be very poor.The limbs on Carnotaurus do not even have joints.

What Carnotaurus lacked in dexterity it made up for in speed. Look at a good drawing and it's easy to see that Carnotaurus was built like an ostrich. Long neck, legs, and tail mean that it was built for speed. There's a chance that it was the fastest non-avian dino to ever walk the earth, running at up to speeds of 31 m.p.h (50 km/h).

Although Carnotaurus had a lot in common with feathered dinosaurs, we actually have a good record of this dinosaur's skin.  Unlike some other large carnivores, the sample of Carnotaurus skin we have is rough and bumpy - more like a lizard's than a bird's. Like the skin of an alien crocodile, This thing was not only fast, it was armored. In other words, Carny is prime dragon fodder.

This potential has not gone unnoticed by filmmakers. The main antagonist in Dinosaur was a Carnotaurus. Jurassic Park II, the book only,  also had a Carnotaurus in it. Alas, it lacks the 'true terror' far.

Friday, June 15, 2012

There Are No Words.

Remember when I did an entry on bacon for "They Actually Eat That?" This...this is what I was talking about. Does Burger King really think this will sell just because of BACON?! I seriously wonder if there's a special Ring of Hell reserved for bacon fanatics. This has gone far enough.

There are no more words I can say to describe exactly how gross this is. Have a nice night and enjoy this mini-entry.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Yet Another Depressing Thing.

Here's a challenge: Look up what a 'tenrec' is. The question here is, "Would you have known that tenrecs even existed if I had not told you to look them up just then?"

According to studies regarding other scientific studies, probably not. As I tried to hammer in on the giant salamander entry, big or furry animals dominate the endangered species marketing. It turns out that the same mode of thinking applies to studying species period, leading a large number of creatures to go unnoticed in the eyes of science.

Quoted from

"When it comes to a beauty contest, the African manatee, a bloated sea cow that grazes the coastal waters off west Africa, will never win any prizes. But should an unprepossessing mugshot condemn a species to extinction?

According to a new study, rampant bias exists among researchers towards "cuter and more interesting" animals. The meerkat has clocked up more than 100 published studies since 1994. The manatee has been the subject of just 14, and academic neglect may be a vital factor in its currently parlous position. "Scientists are people too," says Morgan Trimble, a conservation scientist at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, who carried out the study. "And many of them want to work with the big and furry stuff."

For years, conservationists have wrestled with the problem that high-profile species draw the most attention, and therefore the most money. It is no accident that conservation group WWF is known by its distinctive panda logo.

Supporters of this approach argue that "charismatic mega-fauna" attract much-needed funds for other species too. Sally Wren of the Zoological Society of London argues: "Charismatic species can be used as flagships to help protect areas and reduce threats, the effect of which often also benefits the less compelling species in the same region."

Critics, including the founders of a website called Endangered Ugly Things, point out that some less glamorous creatures fall through the conservation net as a result. "There has been a long-standing debate about the conservation of charismatic species such as gorillas and elephants over others. We wanted to see if this was a deeper problem and if it applied to scientific research and funding," says Trimble. "The bottom line is that there is not enough money to go around and what we choose to learn about could influence what we conserve."

With her University of Pretoria colleague Rudi van Aarde, Trimble surveyed scientific papers published from 1994 to 2008, looking for mentions of almost 2,000 species found across southern Africa. They combined this information with a global list produced by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which classifies each animal according to its endangered status.

Writing in the latest issue of the journal Conservation Biology, the scientists say their study shows that: "In the eyes of science, all species are not created equal." They add: "A few species commanded a great proportion of scientific attention, whereas for many species, information that might inform conservation is virtually non-existent."

Threatened large mammals dominated the studies, appearing in 500 times as many published papers as threatened amphibians. Threatened reptiles, birds and small mammals also received much less attention. The most studied animals were chimpanzees, with 1,855 mentions, and leopards, with 1,241 mentions. Even within the relatively well-studied group of threatened large animals, more than two-thirds of scientific effort went on less than a third of species. For threatened reptiles, some 98% of research studied less than a quarter of species.

The scientists, who call such disparities "disconcerting", say: "It is unlikely that these figures represent the relative importance of these animal groups from the perspective of ecosystem conservation... it is time for a proper evaluation of scientific investments."

Trimble said research on animals was skewed for more reasons than the appeal of charismatic species. Meerkats live in complex social groups and chimps are our closest relative. Commercial factors can also play a role. Some of the most studied small mammals draw attention because they are pets, while the three most studied amphibians are also kept as pets. Scientists may also be interested in animals that occur near to them, which may explain why the new study showed that lower-risk species of amphibians and small mammals received more attention than threatened species.
The study suggests skewed research has led conservationists to overlook the extinction of ignored species. Wren says this may be exaggerated. "But it has had a large impact on our response to diversity loss. The less well-known species, which might have been easy conservation wins, have often been neglected as efforts are directed elsewhere."

Colin Butfield, head of campaigns at WWF-UK, said: "There is no point in saving one species when we are losing whole habitats. We would like to see more research looking at the health of entire ecosystems to determine the underlying cause of species' extinction."

That explains a lot, actually. When I asked my Environmental Sustainability professor about this very problem, he cited the "big species have big territories" reason. The approach has its pitfalls, though. Try as we might, we can't save the polar bear at the rate things are going. We were too late for the Baiji dolphin. Those are both 'cute' mammals. 

The good news is that this kinda favors the exotic pet trade. The more people we have working with these animals, the more we know about them.  There are several people with endangered reptiles and birds in their collections that could theoretically serve as a "Noah's Ark" if their wild counterparts ever vanish completely.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Larks.

Ah, spring. OK, it's going into summer, but the weather is warm, the air is fresh, and the birds are still singing. Red-winged blackbirds usually greet me on my bike rides, but Europe has another bird with a much more beautiful song...that just so happens to be a delicacy.

Can you identify a lark bird from a long way away?

For those of you who are not disgusted enough by a songbird appearing in this column, that is a lark. Yes, larks are probably the most widely-eaten songbird in existence. Nearly every culture in Europe has some record of eating larks, from the Romans to the British. Lark tongues were always seen as particularly valuable (perhaps because the birds sing well). It's not like the rest of the bird was wasted, though; oh, far from it.

The traditional way to eat a lark is to eat it whole - bones and all. I would advise de-feathering and cooking it first. If this sounds familiar, look up "ortolan." Just think of the larks as mini-chickens once you're past the "oh my gods, I'm eating a cute little birdie!" stage and bite after they've been out of the oven for a bit.  Or you could always put them in pies.

This is a pigeon pie. The recipe is basically the same.

Lark pie is one of those very, very old-fashioned dishes that people love to collect recipes for. The idea is the same as any given meat pie, so if you know how to make that, good for you. If not, there are plenty of recipes. Depending on what recipe you pick, you may be asked to hunt down anywhere from nine to three dozen larks. Also, if you like, put a bit of liver forcemeat in the larks - as if handling dead larks was not mortifying enough.

Also, "lark's tongue in aspic"is a legend - even I'm not sure if this one is real or not. Somebody attempted to make it using oyster as a substitute for rare lark meat. It would not surprise me if, in the days when larks were plentiful, someone had indeed made lark's tongue in aspic. This would involve a lot of larks to pull tongues out of, however, and that's darn near impossible to do today.

It's a little hard to find lark today if you want to try it. We have so much meat now that we have little need to eat songbirds. Larks themselves are also becoming rare due to habitat loss. There are, however, still a few markets and restaurants in Italy (and Southern Europe) that make lark dishes. Good luck finding them; it felt like Google was trolling me while attempting research for this entry. Lark Creek Steakhouse does not serve lark, unfortunately.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Creature Feature: Chinese Giant Salamander.

All too often, endangered animals are glamorized. I've ranted about how the less-impressive endangered species get so little press before. Sometimes, however, this favoritism is wholly unjustified.

Hello, Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus)! Hello, amphibian that's on the critical list! Hello, highly endangered animal that never seems to get any press outside of Year of the Frog!

There's a lot that you probably gathered from this thing's name already. It's a salamander, it's giant, and it's from the rocky streams and lakes in China. Its only living relatives are the Japanese giant salamander and the hellbender. It's so big that frogs and fish are on the menu as well as insects.

How big is big? A little over a meter. A yard and eight inches. You get the idea: this salamander is about the same length and weight as a medium-sized dog, if not a little longer. There are even reports of them once achieving lengths of 6 feet - roughly 2 meters. That's a lot of salamander. Hell, that's a record for amphibians.

Size is not the only thing unique about this river monster. Chinese giant salamanders are also among the few salamanders that make noise. They can whine, hiss, and bark; they may even sound like human babies to some Chinese people. They also have special sensory nodes that run from head to tail in compensation for awful eyesight. Neat.

The Chinese giant salamander is among the most underrated endangered species in the world. This particular point relates to something called the EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered)  list. To get on this list, a species has to be more or less unique in every way - particularly from an evolutionary viewpoint, meaning that there are very few extant relatives to the species in question. It also has to be critically endangered to make it into the top ten.  This salamander is literally right beneath the Yangtze river dolphin (which recently went extinct as we know it) in that regard, holding the #2 position on the entire "world's most evolutionarily distinct and endangered animals" list. Read: Not the panda or any other cute mammal, but a giant salamander is among the most threatened, unique animals in the entire world. The panda is way farther down the list.

Aside from being an amphibian and therefore more susceptible to environmental changes by default, the Chinese giant salamander has a few other things making it go from just plain "endangered" to "critically endangered." China isn't just polluted - it's the most polluted nation in the world and, as evidenced by the extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin, has the most toxic waters as well. Oh, and this salamander's from China, meaning that it's also on the menu.  (When cobras and tigers aren't prominent threats, nothing is spared.) The Chinese giant salamander is one of those awesomely unique animals that has so many strikes against it that we're amazed it isn't extinct already.

Honestly? I'm sure someone, somewhere, could find a way to market the giant salamander. Salamanders tend to have natural, dopey "derp" looks on their faces that could be shilled for cute points. Last time we tried using a mammal to  encourage conservation of these waterways - a dolphin, no less - it failed. Time to milk the amphibian - so long as doing so doesn't cause more damage, of course.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Bio-Art: Cool Things on eBay.

I have a little philosophy regarding any form of art involving animals or their parts: If it isn't real, don't buy it. While I am not an advocate of animal cruelty, a lot of meaning is lost if something like, say, a shark tooth necklace doesn't even have real shark teeth. It's not like shark teeth are hard to find. It's not like real dead bugs or fish are hard to find, either. Luckily, China does a lot of cool things with dead animals, even if some of them are rather morbid.

 OK, so this one isn't a real centipede. Shoot me. Still, I did not know centipedes were in vogue right now. This would be awesome to see with a real bug. Cut up a centipede into,  say, 5 pieces, enclose them all in lucite, and mount them on a leather band like that. That would be hardcore.

Wolf's teeth pendants have also been popping up a lot.I'm not sure how 'traditional' or 'Tibetan' these are, but if they're made of real wolf's teeth, people are sure to snap them up for so many reasons. Don't get sobby on me, wolfaboos; grey wolves are plentiful in most of the world. Besides, I'm sure werewolf fanatics won't use these to attempt sympathetic magic with the wolves...right?

Yes, that is exactly what it looks like: A paperweight with a real dead bat in it. I'd buy it in a heartbeat if they managed to stuff a painted bat in there (Kerivoula picta), but otherwise, no sell. Still a pretty cool paperweight for the inner goth that resides in every cube dweller's soul. Look up Gaofudev if curious.

This has to be one of the weirdest things I've ever seen on eBay, and I've seen a lot of weird things on eBay. Again, that's exactly what it looks like: a paperweight with a cow plop in it. I'm all for bringing some of the country into the city, but that's pushing it. I'm having trouble rationalizing the existence of this. Comment below if you have any good ideas as to why this might have come into being.

Finally, if wearing tribal lizard bracelets or live snakes wasn't edgy about turtle bling? No? Whaddya mean, "turtles aren't deadly enough?" That's still a fully-preserved baby turtle (red-eared slider) in there.  Surely that counts for something. (This also comes in glow in the dark, by the way.)

Still haven't found that green rose chafer block clock. I'm sure the aquarium mouse I wanted to put up here will resurface as well (ha ha). Next week will get a little more artistic than a lucite paperweight with cow dung in it, I promise.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Creature Feature: Featherless Chickens.

Going green is a huge deal nowadays. Basically, we've realized that a whole lot of Earth's resources - fossil fuels, fresh water, wood - are finite, especially if we keep using them at the rate we have been. The meat industry happens to be one of the least green industries out there, responsible for as much greenhouse gases as public transportation (if not more). So, if we told you that some scientists had designed a greener, more energy-efficient chicken, you would assume that there was some horrible catch, right?

Umm...does a chicken with a big "fry me" sign written on it due to lack of feathers strike you as a  "horrible catch?"

The "featherless" or "naked" chickens were developed by scientists at the Rehovot Agronomy Institute located near Tel Aviv, Israel in the early 2000's. They are not genetically spliced with something that makes 'em lose their feathers. They have been selectively bred that way without the use of other organisms, so no complaining about Frankenfood. We would nonetheless like to add "zombiebird" to the list of potential names for the rooster above.

This chicken is not only easy to cook, but it is supposedly greener than your average chicken. Supposedly, it grows faster and is more energy efficient. Overheating is a real problem for chickens, especially in hotter climates. Too much heat might even lead to ugly, irregular molting, so the next best idea after turning up the A/C is to breed a chicken that doesn't have feathers to begin with.They are also supposedly low-fat.

Breeding a featherless chicken also saves considerable time and water on the part of farmers. If you have ever skinned, de-scaled, or de-feathered a fresh kill, you know that it is very time-consuming. On large-scale farms, the feathers are washed off, so breeding for no feathers curbs the fresh water issue, too. Sounds almost too good to be true, doesn't it?

There are some cons to having no feathers, obviously. These birds can live in exactly one climate: Hot and dry. Everywhere else, they have problems. No feathers means no protection from cold, parasites, or even the pecking of other chickens. Speaking of other chickens, plumage is also an important part of chicken mating rituals. I don't know what the human equivalent of this would be; it's just plain unattractive to be a featherless chicken.

Can selective breeding for exactly one trait really have that much impact on the farming potential of one animal? Sure. Anything with "Angora" in its name tends to do better in Ankara, Turkey, than anywhere else. Those animals are mainly bred for extremely long hair and are clearly meant for that climate. These chickens are also meant for a specific climate. If we see chicken meat coming in from Israel, we'll know that their zombiebird project was a success.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Creature Feature: Neon Tetras.

At the Lit Fair today, one author who wrote a book about shapeshifters and other superpowers got into a convo with me about GloFish. She herself was a bio major at Northwestern, so she got a huge kick out of us now being able to make zebra danios in every color of the rainbow. She thought her son would get a kick out of them, too. Well, whatever it takes to possibly make glowing rats (or snakes!) into pets works, I suppose.

For those of us who aren't so keen on Frankenfish, there are neon tetras. Neon tetras are among the most popular and manageable aquarium fish around, along with being beautiful to boot. Most specimens in the U.S. are imported from Thailand or Hong Kong, but the fish is actually native to South America. This entry is just about the neon tetra Paracheirodon innesi - any other 'neon tetras' don't count, here.

Now, to be fair, neon tetras do not glow like GloFish. They instead have a bright blue, iridescent stripe running along their bodies. This evolved so that other neon tetras can recognize them in the darkwater rivers of Brazil, Peru, and Colombia.  The stripe and red marking actually become duller when the fish rests - a neat color-changing trick rarely seen on land. Still, this is probably as close as you're going to get to a 'natural' GloFish, especially if you're on a budget.  Buy a school of them; they'll be happier and more colorful that way.

Neon tetras are omnivorous. While they will do fine on flake food in captivity, some meatier things like brine shrimp are also recommended.  Some special pellet foods even contain supplements to enhance the tetras' natural coloration. Bear in mind that they'll still dull a little when stressed or tired. They may not be what most people think of when they hear "Omnivorous fish," but they won't be happy on fish flakes. They also get along well with other tetras and guppies. (Do your research, as usual.)

Although generally seen as a 'starter fish' for tropical fishkeeping, neon tetras have one nasty disease. It's simply called "Neon Tetra Disease" and is characterized by restlessness, loss of color, cysts, and difficulty swimming. Despite tetras being a very popular fish, there is no cure for the disease.  Since tetras are hard to breed (again, despite their popularity), you will likely have to dispose of all the tetras and buy more from Thailand if they get hit with NTD. Tetras are beautiful fish, but beauty is far from permanent.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Creature Feature: Baryonyx.

For those of you following my Twitter...yes, I got into Fossil Fighters (Champions) again. No, I do not intend to get as competitive with FFC as I am with Pokemon. Apparently the hardcore fanbase demands that you not only excavate a gold fossil perfectly for your team, but also demands that it be attached to a Tyranno to make a T-Rex Lord.

Everybody wants the T. rex. Rex this, rex that, rexrexrexrexrex seems to be what draws people, whether they're deep into dinosaurs or not. I know that comparing a long-extinct predator to Charizard (i.e. cool, powerful, but overrated) is poor showmanship, but if the glove fits, well...OK, T. rex is one finger short of wearing Charizard's glove perfectly. Thing is, as much as I respect T. rex (I come from the city with SUE, for crying out loud) dinosaurs are still dinosaurs. Seeing any thunderlizard in the modern day would be quite terrifying. No need to focus on the 'rex so much.

I wish I knew who did this.

Most carnivorous dinos would be just as terrifying as a 'rex, especially this thing. Seriously, this dino looks freaky. Hell, it isn't even going to eat us (we hope), but who wouldn't run screaming after seeing those claws, that mouthful of hooklike teeth, and a build that looks a lot more streamlined than good ol' T.rex?

The monster has a name: Baryonyx, literally "heavy claw." There has only been one species discovered, so it's safe to just call it by the generic name. It was discovered near Dorking, England. The specimen there was 28 feet from head to tail and probably weighed around 3,700 pounds, but it might not even have been fully grown. However big it was, it lived in the Early Cretaceous (130-125 m.y.a.), a smidge earlier than T.rex. It was most closely related to Spinosaurus, another large, carnivorous dinosaur that tends to be overshadowed by the 'rex, and Suchomimus, the only other piscivorous dino on record. 

Right off the bat, Baryonyx has mean-looking claws. We think it used these digits to hunt much like a modern grizzly bear - wait for fish, then strike. Worse still, Baryonyx had thumbs. Claws and thumbs? If the scientists who made Jurassic Park ever become real, we should tell them not to resurrect Baryonyx. These fishers were supposedly pretty intelligent, too, adding yet another fear factor.

Aside from its claws, Baryonyx also had teeth that makes anyone looking at them either freeze or run. It's almost as if a crocodile's mouth got slapped onto the body of a land-walking dinosaur, then made plausible by the creature's long, straight neck and fishhook claws. Baryonyx had 96 teeth in total- almost twice as many as Tyrannosaurus - and each and every one of them was serrated like a finely-edged saw. .Like its menacing claws, these teeth were used solely to catch fish. We're actually pretty sure about that...although Baryonyx have been found near Iguanadon skeletons as well. We might be more screwed than we thought.

Again, who did this?

Just to reiterate: T.rex is still awesome, but there are plenty of other things that could easily be just as terrifying. We cool, Sue? I'm going to get out of here before limbs get lost.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Arugula.

"Arugula?" Well, the name certainly sounds exotic enough. It's also called "rocket," which can cause some befuddlement on English-language menus. These look an awful lot like dandelions to Americans, but they definitely are not. Dandelions are an all-American plant and are totally different. :)

Arugula (eruca, rocket, or roqette elsewhere; Eruca sativa) is a plant native to the Mediterranean, ranging from Morocco to Turkey. It has been used in Mediterranean salads for ages. The taste of arugula spread as far as India in the East and has also been very popular in Brazil. Only recently, however, has it become common enough in the U.S. to make it onto grocery store shelves.

Arugula is particularly popular in Italy. The Romans have been using it as a garnish, salad, and aphrodisiac since the days of the empire. Down in the Gulf of Naples, they even make digestive liquor out of arugula. Oh, and since Italian pizzas are totally in right now, you'll be seeing a lot more of it. (Before you say that's redundant: Italy has several unique pizzas that the U.S. is in the process of butchering.)

Arugula has a strong flavor for a leafy veggie. Spinach has a flavor, too, but arugula's stronger.  It has been described as "peppery," or "like cress," which I suppose suffices for those who have never tried it, but in the end, arugula is arugula. Trust me, if your salad has arugula and you've tasted it once before, you'll know it's in there. It's distinct from every other green out there.

Arugula is rich in potassium and Vitamin D. It also has a lot if dietary fiber and protein, so if you've been trying to stay away from meat, look into it. Just bear in mind that this particular green veggie does have a flavor all its own. Try it on a freshly-baked pizza; you might like it. :)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Green Tree Python and Emerald Tree Boa.

I know, I know - another snake entry. You're probably getting sick of these, but this is an entry I've owed you all for almost two years, now. To sweeten the deal, it's a double header...with good reason.

Look at the two snakes below. Tell me if you can tell that they aren't the same species.

Despite looking very, very, very similar, the two snakes above are not even the same type of snake. The one on the left is a green tree python (Morelia viridis); the one on the right (with the large white stripes) is an emerald tree boa (Corallus caninus). The GTP is native to the rainforests of Indonesia and Australia; the ETB is native to the rainforests of South America.

So, fact blitz: Both the ETB and GTP are green, arboreal constrictors that get roughly 6 feet long as adults. The young ones are usually either red or yellow in color, changing to bright green within a year. Both snakes will also loop a coil or two over a branch and set their heads dead center. In captivity, it can be really, really hard to tell them apart.

Remember when I said that snakes had some crazy convergent evolution goin' on? This is exactly what I meant. These two snakes live nowhere near each other. Unlike lions and tigers, which are genetically close enough to reproduce even though they've been separated for thousands of years, ETB's and GTP's aren't genetically compatible. Their similarity is solely based on the evolutionary process; because they adapted to the same environments, eat the same food, and so forth, they evolved similar adaptations. In this case, they happen to be creepily similar.

Yeah, umm...I'd wear a glove, too. This is an ETB.

Similar does not mean identical. For example, the emerald tree boa has, proportionately, the largest fangs of any non-venomous snake. The ETB eats birds to warrant these super-long fangs; for whatever reason, GTPs do not. ETB's also have more apparent white on them than do GTP's as a rule. Also, GTP's are a lot more common in captivity in general, even sporting a blue morph.

A few handy tricks if you're stuck identifying a random green snake in a tree and somebody asks, "hey, what is that?":

~ Emerald Tree Boas are from South America. GTPs are from Asia and Australia. Location is one of the main dividing points, here.

~Boas have live babies; pythons lay eggs. Even if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's gotta give birth like a duck to really be a duck.

~ Those TEETH. We do not advise testing this in the wild by sticking your hand over the snake's head. Hell, we don't even advise trying this at home. Messing with those fangs sounds like a Jackass bit waiting to happen.

~ Both of these are rather thick-bodied. If the snake in question is slender, it's probably one of the many types of vine snakes or some other colubrid. Some people apparently do not know the difference, so there ya go.

A blue GTP. More here.

Both the emerald tree boa and green tree python have a strong following in the exotic pet trade. GTP's in particular have a huge fanbase, both because of their diverse color morphs as adults and their cross-compatibility with another Morelia complex known as carpet pythons (who also SO deserve their own entry!). The ETB base is a bit smaller, but they are nonetheless particularly popular in the Netherlands. Both of these species are intermediate-level snakes requiring elaborate enclosures with humidity setups etc. These are not snakes you take out and play with; these are snakes that you spend thousands on a nice, realistic terrarium setup for, then show your friends that.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Bio-Art: Bodyworlds.

And now for something completely different: The parts of the body.

No, you are not hallucinating or looking at a very unique anatomy book. The above is one of the figures in Body Worlds, a traveling exhibit that puts human corpses on display without the use of formaldehyde. It's like looking at one of those books with flip-over anatomical charts...only it's 3-D and you're forbidden to touch it.

The plastination process used on these bodies was invented by one Gunther von Hagens. He got the idea from a research project in which he was required to slice human kidneys. In a story that sounds straight out of some horror movie, von Hagens began experimenting with the kidney further. He first attempted to preserve it in plexiglass with mediocre results. A complex process involving three baths in silicon and a lab kiln resulted in the first-ever plastinated organ. The full extent of the process is secret; otherwise, we're sure Damien Hirst would have made a flying plastic pig by now and called it "original." We suspect something along the lines of "It's AALLIIIIVE!" cropped up somewhere in the process, but don't quote us on it.

Since then, plastination has been used to put bodies into strange, amazing poses. Name a sport; these people have a body posed in it. Hell, someone even managed to squeeze someone on horseback into a silicon-posed sculpture. There was also a controversial piece with a pregnant woman...showing her plasticized baby for all to see. This exhibit is not for the faint of heart.

Body Worlds is constantly traveling and updating its selection of preserved bodies. To see when/if a Body Worlds exhibit is coming to a museum near you, please click here. To donate a body...well, there's a link for that, too. Honestly, aside from the whole "not being buried" thing (it was a big deal in ancient Greece),  it's not a bad use for one's body. Sorta like a postmortem rock concert, if ya will.

That this art? I would certainly say so. Even though von Hagens has explicitly said that he never intends sensation to overshadow the educational aspects of his work, he does admit that he has to make controversial pieces - just like an artist. My only lament is that they haven't really gone the freak show route and made a few sculptures devoted to mythical hybrids, like a bull's head on a man's body or a plasticized centaur. They've already got a full guy on a full horse; how hard could it be? Get creative!