Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Fungus Among Us: Basket Stinkhorns.

Still don't think fungi can be made into art? Well, sometimes, nature decides to do the work for us. There are some fungi that look like pieces from a modern art museum, only alive and spontaneously making the landscape a little weirder.

Stinkhorns, particularly those in the Clathus genus, resemble some sort of weird, alien art. Most of the time, they just look strangely like mammalian genitalia. Clathrus ruber, however, has a fruiting body that is bright red and would not look out of place in a museum of modern art. It is also called the basket stinkhorn. Although originally native to Europe, it has since spread to every continent bar Antarctica.

In the case of basket stinkhorns, you guessed it, the fruiting body looks like a basket. It starts looking like a sort of egg on the ground, but blossoms into the strange, netlike structure after some time. Like something out of a sci-fi story, a greenish, spore-filled goop called "gleba "coats the inside of this structure with spores. Just about the only thing creepier would be an alien fetus resting within that net.

Wait, no. There is something creepier than an alien fetus in that net. As the name 'stinkhorn' might indicate, this fungus reeks of rotten meat. This scent, combined with the latticed structure and bright colors, lures flies into the cage to help spread the spores. Luckily, this only lasts 24 hours after the 'egg' ruptures, so threat of a massive alien invasion are unlikely. The coming of the Lord of the Flies is another story.

For centuries, there have been superstitions about simply touching this fungus leading to illness. It's called "witch's heart" in Yugoslavia. Nobody knows if it's really edible or not; the eggs might be, but the one person who was daring enough to try a 'blossomed' basket wound up getting sick. Something that smells like rotten meat would probably not be good to eat by the smell alone; China's tried anyways.

But is it art? 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Bio-Art/Fungus Among Us: Mold Garden.

Yes, it's that time of the month. No, it's not werewolf or PMS time - it's Theme Week time! This week's theme is FUNGI, mostly because they get very little press on this blog. It's a shame; they happen to be fascinating plant...animal...things. Yeah, fungi are fungi, sorry. They're their own thing.

So what makes a fungus a fungus? It's almost like a plant...but not. Fungi reproduce by spores, lack chlorophyll, and have cell walls toughened by chitin - a common polymer also found in the shells of insects and crustaceans. They usually feed on decaying matter, but some have amazing symbiotic relationships with plants and animals. The only part of the fungus we usually see are the fruiting bodies - yes, those giant portobello mushrooms are mushroom naughty bits. You're welcome. 


Fungi are everywhere. Open your refrigerator, for example. If something has started turning fuzzy, that's a fungus.Athlete's foot? That's a fungus, too. Of course, mushrooms are fungi. The yeast used in making bread is a fungus as well. Cheese inevitably contains at least one kind of fungus - sometimes many. Hmm...does that mean that the mushroom sandwich that they used to have at Panera is technically X-rated? Sooo many fruiting bodies.

With fungi being just about everywhere, it's no wonder that people have started making art with them. Some of it is absolutely beautiful and stunning; you'd be amazed how much moldy cream cheese looks like a cosmological phenomenon. Others are just depressing.

My personal favorite among them, however, are Stacy Levy's Mold Garden pieces. Each panel consists of a sandblasted image of an actual mold culture. If that wasn't cool enough, Stacy put real mold on those images to grow. Is this life mimicking art, or art mimicking life? Whatever you call it, it's neat.

Please support the artist here.

Mold: It's not just for science projects anymore. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Rare White Bison In Connecticut.

July 28th marks the naming of a white bison calf born in Connecticut. His official sacred name is now "Yellow Medicine Dancing Boy," which will probably get old to either the townspeople or the buffalo after a while. It's probably one of the coolest things that has ever happened in Connecticut, so of course people are excited.

White buffalo are rare. The National Bison Association estimates that only 1 in 10 million buffalo are born white. That's more than one in a million. No wonder people are lining up to see it; genuine white buffalo are a very rare thing. There have been a few other white buffalo in America, the most notable being Miracle in 1994.

There are several ways to get a white buffalo. Albinism and leucism are both in the species. In recent years, a third form has popped up: white produced by cross-breeding with cattle. The baby born in Connecticut will be gene tested just to make sure he is a pure white buffalo. Even so, several native American tribes have paid the buffalo a visit.

Before you ask, yes, people have tried to breed white buffalo. In the instance that someone managed to breed a bunch of purebred white buffalo, it looks as though their particular white strain was dominant (with brown fathers yielding white calves through one white female). I'm not so sure about other populations. These are still pretty rare animals.

Another awesome thing: White buffalo are an excellent example of what this blog originally intended to advertise:A mythic creature brought to life. Yes, seriously.

Several Native American tribes treat a white buffalo like a magical creature. The one in the news at the moment is the Lakota. Here is just one of the tales surrounding the sacredness of the white bison:

One summer a long time ago, the seven sacred council fires of the Lakota Sioux came together and camped. The sun was strong and the people were starving for there was no game. 

Two young men went out to hunt. Along the way, the two men met a beautiful young woman dressed in white who floated as she walked. One man had bad desires for the woman and tried to touch her, but was consumed by a cloud and turned into a pile of bones. 

The woman spoke to the second young man and said, "Return to your people and tell them I am coming." This holy woman brought a wrapped bundle to the people. She unwrapped the bundle giving to the people a sacred pipe and teaching them how to use it to pray. 

"With this holy pipe, you will walk like a living prayer," she said. The holy woman told the Sioux about the value of the buffalo, the women and the children. 

"You are from Mother Earth," she told the women, "What you are doing is as great as the warriors do." 

Before she left, she told the people she would return. As she walked away, she rolled over four times, turning into a white female buffalo calf. It is said after that day the Lakota honored their pipe, and buffalo were plentiful. (from John Lame Deer's telling in 1967). 

Even today, the white buffalo strikes the Lakota as a symbol of peace, hope, and rebirth.  Let's hope they're right; if so, the world might not end in December.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Creature Feature: Troodon (or "Reptoids for Dummies.")

It's 2012. That means you all are probably sick of hearing about the apocalypse, the New World Order, or how you're going to Hell for listening to Lady Gaga. There's even the crazy idea that the world is secretly run by a bunch of lizard-people, perhaps explaining some of what The Lizard did during the Spider-Man movie.

Enter reptoid theory- the idea that, somehow or another, we ended up being the puppets of humanoid reptiles. Some say they're from the constellation Draco or another dimension; others say they evolved from dinosaurs like Troodon.

Troodon as a genus contains several species, all of whom were native to North America. They were theropods like the ever-popular Velociraptor, and were only about 2 meters long from snout to tail. Although they were probably carnivorous most of the time, the way their teeth are worn suggests that there may have been vegetation on the menu as well. We think they went extinct in the Late Cretaceous.

As the name would suggest, Troodon had very strange teeth.Unlike most theropods, their teeth were edged like a saw. This has led to a few confusing things: for example, originally, all we had of these guys were the teeth. They were slated alongside pachycephalosaurs (i.e. those dinosaurs with crash helmets) until more complete specimens of Stenonychosaurus were discovered. This dinosaur was later renamed Troodon, but the whole genus is rather shaky. We still don't know why the teeth of a carnivorous dinosaur are serrated like that, but Troodon may have eaten plants, too.

The Troodon we know today also had extremely dextrous hands. Exactly what it used this dexterity for remains a mystery. If it ever used tools, well, we wouldn't be surprised. If it washed fruit with them, so much for being a carnivore.

Remember that entry on Carnotaur? Binocular vision was another one of Troodon's bonuses. This critter is leaning more and more toward the predator side, even though the odd jaw and teeth suggest plant matter as well. Okay, now this is just getting creepy.

So we have an omnivorous dinosaur with dextrous hands, binocular vision, and possibly an omnivorous diet. That's right: They were pretty much the raccoons of the dinosaur age. 

Troodon was also the Einstein of dinosaurs. There's a little something called the EQ- basically, a brain-to-body weight ratio - that theoretically determines how intelligent something was/is. Troodon had an EQ six times higher than that of any other known dinosaur. As per a statement by National Museum  of Canada curator Dave Russell in 1982, if they hadn't gone extinct when they did, they probably would have evolved into a creature similar to humans - perhaps so similar that they would have evolved a placenta. Also, if any dinosaur was capable of surviving a mass-extinction event, it would probably have been a Troodon.

Russell's models.

Suddenly, global warming and the prevalence of reptoids in media make a lot of sense, don't they? Just a thought.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Mapo Tofu.

No offense to Mexico and Louisiana, but Asian cuisine has any North American chow beat when it comes to being spicy. In the East, they have turned spicy into an art. Nowhere is that truer than in the case of mapo tofu.

Mapo tofu supposedly originated from the recipe of one pock-marked old lady in China. One night, ai wealthy businessman was caught in a storm and went into the old lady's house for shelter.  She then made him some delicious tofu. He liked it so much that he told all his friends about her place. She then had millions of people coming to eat her tofu. Bear in mind that this was in the days before Facebook and Seamless, so it's a miracle that her tofu became that popular. She would have had a lot of Likes if she did not call the people using Facebook whippersnappers.

Now, if you've had American mapo tofu, you're probably going, "hey, it's not that bad." Oh, you poor souls. Mapo tofu is usually diluted for local tastes. The real, Sichuan mapo tofu is so spicy that it numbs your mouth. If you've had it anywhere else, it is  just as butchered as any other Chinese dish you've ever had (outside of Chinatown).

How do they get it so spicy? Like I said, they have it down to an art. The main two active ingredients are Sichuan peppercorns and chili bean paste, both of which involve the nastily-spicy seeds of hot peppers. The chili bean paste can be found at any supermarket with an Asian food section; Sichuan peppercorn merits a trip to Chinatown. That's probably the only place where you'll find authentic mapo tofu, by the way.

Don't try this at home, by the way. Mapo tofu is a lot more complex than it sounds. A lot of people who insist on burning their mouths in the safety of their own homes use a mix as opposed to making the spicy base from scratch. If you (or the mix people) did it right, the result should be scorching.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Creature Feature: Temple Viper.

There is no creature more prevalent in mythology than the snake. If a culture is near snakes, they've got stories about them. The snake is simultaneously hated and revered, cursed and respected. They are so different from humans that they must be magic. No wonder everybody talks about them!

Then there are some serpentine coincidences that cannot simply be dismissed as coincidences. The white snakes in Iwakuni are a good example; Japan is loaded with eagles, cats, and a million other things that would love to munch an easily-visible snake, but there managed to be a lot of Shirohebi in one place. The Temple of the Azure Cloud in Malaysia has a similar, much more deadly tale to tell...

...thanks to being the home of dozens of Wagler's vipers (Tropidolaemus wagleri), AKA "temple vipers." They are native to Thailand, Sumatra, and Malaysia. Arboreal snakes, they eat rodents, birds, and lizards. They are in the same viper group as rattlesnakes, which should give you an idea of how nasty a bite can be.

Temple vipers come in a million different color phases. Some are brown; some are orange; some are bright green. They used to be classified as subspecies, but now they're treated more like morphs. In temple vipers, the females are a lot larger (up to a meter long) than the males, so they're nice and easy to sex, too. Y'know, just in case you want the gender of the snake that bit you.

 I've gone into the neat adaptations of pit vipers before. Their teeth are organic syringes. They hunt you by heat and scent, both things that mammals have trouble concealing. This snake also has camouflage on its side, coupled with a nice strike that can probably catch birds in mid-flight.  The venom is hemotoxic, which is is own brand of hemorrhagic nastiness. On the bright side, I kid you not, some people think this snake's venom has the potential to remove wrinkles. Whatever floats your boat.

So, why are these snakes at the temple? Legend has it that a Buddhist monk decided to give shelter to the snakes of the jungle. Indeed, there are more snakes there than just the temple viper. Some of them have been defanged, but do you really want to risk messing with one that just got its teeth back in? Yes, snake fangs grow back. Just another reason that mammals are screwed by our own global warming issues.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Bio-Art: Ginger Snaps.

Disclaimer: Official movie poster. Screenshots taken by me for this review. 

When I wrote the entry on Shiki for this blog, I covered how vampires could theoretically be made possible. Malaria has to be one of the most creative routes I've ever seen for making vampirism real. I also said in my wolfsbane entry that it was very unlikely that a werewolf could ever be made plausible. 

So is it actually possible to create a 'realistic' werewolf? Ginger Snaps (the movie, not the cookie) certainly tries.


In the middle of nowhere (here called "Bailey Downs"),  Ginger and her sister Brigitte have a fateful encounter with a strange, wolfllike creature. Slowly, they piece together that they do in fact have a real werewolf on their hands....and that Ginger's changes are far from anything a normal teenage girl would go through! Brigitte tries to find a cure with help from a hippie as her sister becomes more and more of a literal sexual predator. Without too many spoilers, it does not end well.

The encounter with the werewolf takes place right before a biology class on viruses. As the symptoms of lycanthropy proceed, Ginger realizes that's exactly what her new changes are: a virus. Before you say that this is impossible, bear in mind that the last few disease scares have been about cross-species viruses. Some viruses, called retroviruses, also rewrite DNA by definition; HIV is the most popular retrovirus out there. You're welcome.

THIS is how it would really be - a claw here, some fur there.

Unlike in most werewolf movies, Ginger's transformation does not happen all at once. It happens very slowly; she gains fur, dewclaws, and a tail over a month as opposed to all at once. She also feels the very real fear and shock that would come with even a slow change like that. Keeping the change a secret becomes harder and harder as the movie goes on. This is far more realistic than the "all at once" transformation that most movies go for. It really does progress like a terminal illness, getting steadily worse until...

I've read in several places that lycanthropy is always an analogue for puberty: growing hair, changing voice, general bodily changes, and, most importantly, a rise in animal urges. Ginger Snaps picks on one particular part of female puberty, menstruation, and runs with it. For example, one of the symptoms of this form of lycanthropy is bloody urine; this creates a rather funny scene after a male contracts the curse. Although wolves usually aren't associated with menstruation (snakes have an amazing amount of lore to that effect), the coincidence of modern werewolf lore with the period makes it work.

To recap: I'm not a werewolf fan, but I am interested in virtually anything with the potential to cross the human-animal barrier. As such, I have met my share of absolutely terrible writing and films. This is not among them. Ginger Snaps was refreshing on a number of levels. It not only used a woman as the main wolf in the movie (which has a number of interesting implications!), but provided a possible werewolf model for those of us into semi-realism. Surprisingly, very few people into werewolves have taken this route; I don't know what that proves except that it's yet another form of escapism. Woe to them should they ever be cursed for real...

...yes, it hurts that much.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Little Shop of Horrors: Lithops/Living Stones.

It's about time I did another plant. I'm sure the botanists are all raging at me for focusing on the cool animals instead of giving plants more room. It's actually a pretty big problem in ecological sciences; people go into biology to learn about animals, so botany is shunted aside in favor of zoology. Fie upon me for not doing more plants. You rock, you stone, you worse than senseless...


Yes, I swear by Arceus, Ra, and all the various deities that exist that that is a plant. It's called "living stone," "pebble plant," or just plain Lithops. It is native to Nambia and South Africa and has never become invasive. There are some 400-odd populations, each with their own unique colors.

For a plant, Lithops does a very good job of being a rock.  Most of the time, it's not even green. Those rocklike projections can come in as many different colors as rocks themselves: blue, brown, red, you name it. During droughts, they cannot be seen at all, so you never know when living rocks will randomly pop up. Lithops has some of the best camouflage ever -seriously, it was discovered when a scientist wanted to pick up a strange pebble.

Those stonelike bodies are modified leaves. Between them is a very small stem. Occasionally, you will see a yellow or white flower poking up in between the leaves. These plants do yield fruit, but it is capsule-like and probably not edible. They're mostly there to look weird and store water in the scorching desert.

You can find Lithops at your local garden store. Be warned that these are desert plants and require special soil - cactus formula will do. Do not over-water. Too much sunlight will actually burn the plant.  Keep all these things in mind and you will have the best pet rock ever - a plant.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Creature Feature: Pygmy Marmoset.

Monkeys are another group of animals that gets very little press on this blog. With a few rare exceptions, they were never really a favorite animal of mine. It's really about time we had another on this blog; even if I don't like them, I know that a lot of people find monkeys adorable.

...and this is one adorable monkey! It's a pygmy marmoset (Cebuella pygmaea), one of the smallest primates in existence! It is native to the rainforests of Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru, presumably existing to make the scientists there turn into piles of mush. It also has nicknames like "little lion" or "pocket monkey" in Portuguese. Yes, it's that cute.

Pygmy marmosets are the smallest monkeys in the world. They are only 14-16 centimeters long, excluding the tail (20cm). In American terms, this monkey does not even reach the six inch mark if you don't count the tail. Despite this, they are capable of jumping around 16 feet (5 meters) - quite a lot for a little monkey! The babies, umm...just look below. Really.

This pic says it all.

The pygmy marmoset feeds exclusively on tree gum. It gnaws holes in trees with its specialized teeth, then laps the resulting syrup out of the tree. It shares a habitat (and tree juice) with monkeys called Brown-mantled tamarins, who are far less cute. If the trees there run out of delicious sugar, the marmosets will move to sate their sugar cravings. Nature combined the cuteness of a monkey with a diet of nothing but sugar and shrunk it, just to make people squeal at the adorable furball; it's safe to say she hit a weak point.

Pygmy marmosets are very social creatures. They're born as twins, meaning that they've always got a sibling to keep them company. They communicate using every means possible, including scents and a variety of vocalizations.  They may even have the beginnings of language; certain calls are only used in certain situations, such as a particular trill used to communicate over long distances and a chitter if danger approaches. If confronted with a predator, they can and will mob it in an attempt to scare it away. Cute just got serious.

Hi! :D

Pet pygmy marmosets are a thing. This does not mean they are a good idea. The babies require feeding every two hours, you cannot keep just one marmoset, and they, like many monkeys, may throw feces at you. Most importantly, you need a permit to even own one legally. Just get a plushie  instead - it's much easier to take care of and will not get you arrested.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Creature Feature: Cayman Blue Iguana.

If my entry on blue raspberry did not make it clear, it's really rare to find blue things on land. It's just not a color that rolls well on land. Most mammals can't even see blue. As many of you following this blog well know, however, reptiles skew the natural expectations of color so much that blue should be no surprise.

From Telegraph.co.uk.

The blue iguana (Cyclura lewisi)  is one of the relatively few naturally-blue creatures out there. It is also called the Cayman Island iguana; for those of you who have no idea where that is, Grand Cayman a large island in the Caribbean. These iguanas can only be found on that one island. Just like green iguanas, these iguanas are mostly herbivorous.

Aside from being blue, blue iguanas are pretty neat creatures. They can live well into their sixties, making them possibly the most long-lived of any lizard given the right conditions. Their eggs are among the largest of any lizard. They are also capable of seeing ultraviolet wavelengths, but have poor nighttime vision. Neat.

The iguana's probably wondering what Jack Sparrow is doing on his island.

Blue iguanas also have a more or less working third eye. Their parietal gland is capable of seeing light and dark- simple, but functional. The only other creature with a third eye anywhere near that good is the tuatara - a reptile so bizarre it has its own category. Perhaps the association of lizards with spiritual enlightenment wasn't too far off; after all, few animals can hold the claim to a working third eye.

The blue iguana is probably one of the rarest reptiles in existence. Only 15 individuals were recorded in the wild in 2003. The reasons for this are entirely the fault of European colonization: one, feral cats and dogs apparently have a thing for iguana meat, and two, cattle farming decimated the iguanas' natural habitat. There are several non-profits devoted to its preservation, along with a few captive breeding programs. Look forward to more on that that in October most likely. For now, know that the population is recovering. It's still one of the most endangered animals on Earth.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

"They Actually Eat That: " Human Sushi?!

Japan has been seen as the land of, and I quote, the "weirdest sh*t since EVER" for a long time. This is not limited to porn. They eat anything that comes from the sea. Sushi wasn't weird enough - they had to go and make it square.

But would they seriously stoop to sanctioning cannibalism? Well....not really, but what they actually do comes pretty close. Allow us to present to you one of the most creative ways of playing with one's food: body sushi.

First of all, the title's misleading. This is not a human body cut up into bits and served as sushi.  This is sushi served on a human being - called nyotaimori if served on a woman ("female body presentation") and nantaimori ("male body presentation") if served on a man. The practice dates back to either geisha entertainment or yakuza meetings, depending upon whom you ask.  It's still rare, but not unheard of in Japanese culture and select Japanese restaurants around the world.

Being a living sushi platter takes intense training. You have to be completely still for hours. If this sounds easy, bear in mind that cold food is also involved. Don't worry about sanitation; every model who does this gets a sanitizing bath beforehand. Point is, even though the models are doing nothing, this is easily the hardest job involving doing absolutely nothing ever. You're covered in sushi and don't get to eat any of it.

There are varying thoughts on the practice of eating sushi off of human beings. China has banned it for health reasons. Quite a few people are freaked out by it. Participants say it's an artform; feminists think it objectifies women. That second point was brought to a head in South Africa, saying it damaged the integrity of the women down there. The practice is not going away regardless.

And if that wasn't weird enough? Confuse your inner psychopath with Cannibalistic Sushi. In the same vein as nyo/nantaimori, a realistic human body made entirely out of sushi is wheeled out before the entire table. Realistic "blood" gushes from the skin as soon as it's pierced with chopsticks; all of the innards are edible. Insofar as I know, CS is the only place that does this. So, umm, dig in; there's no risk of getting prions, just the occasional tapeworm.  Trust me, the tapeworm is the lesser of the two evils.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Creature Feature: Elephant Seal.

If you haven't noticed, there are some groups of animals I just tend to...avoid. As stated in my ribbon seal entry, pinnipeds are one of those groups. That's kind of a shame; plenty of them are strange enough to warrant entries. Some people would consider the simple fact that seals and whales are not related at all mind-blowing. (For those curious: Whales are related to ungulates such as pigs, sheep, and cattle, whereas seals are closer to other carnivorids.) That said, I'm not kidding: some seals really are that weird.

Elephant seals (Mirounga) come to mind as the weird seal. Most seals are at least slightly cute, especially as pups; they have that adorable baby mammal face that yields a collective "awwwww." There are two species of elephant seal, both of which sport the signature nose.  They eat fish and cephalopods - no surprises there. One (the Southern elephant seal, M. leonina) lives in the Antarctic Circle; the other (Northern, M. angustirostris) can be found around the lower part of California. How this happened, I have NO idea.

Nature does not give seals weird noses just to make humans freak out. The elephant seal's funny nose has two distinct, equally-awesome functions. One use is to amplify the male seals' roar; this theoretically keeps weaker males away from the big guy's harem of 40-50 females, but many encounters get bloody regardless.The other use is to help them conserve water; male elephant seals do not leave the beach during the entirety of mating season, so they conserve some moisture from every breath in that nose. If you had a harem of 40 women, you wouldn't leave the beach, either. Admit it.

"Hey, baby...room for one more..."

Not only do the males of the species have those weird noses, but Southern elephant seals are the largest seals in the world. Females get around 10 feet; males get around 20 feet from head to tail. They can weigh up to 4,000 kg or 6.600 pounds- take your pick, both of those numbers are in the thousands. They really do earn that "elephant" title.

These seals have one more stunning thing about them: They are the best divers of any mammal, discounting dolphins and whales. Thanks to a special stash of myoglobin, the elephant seal can stay underwater for two hours. They dive up to 1550 meters below the surface to search for food. Although they aren't related to dolphins and whales,  the elephant seal may be an evolutionary step in that direction.

(For the record, by the way: National Geographic has politely informed me (i.e. asked for a donation by telling me) that there are now officially more tigers in captivity than there are in the wild. Again, I'm not saying this is a good thing - wild tigers are still awesome - but given that the areas with said tigers probably have some corrupt politics going on preventing the wild tiger population from flourishing, isn't it good that we have a plan B?)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Bio-Art: War Horse.

There's something called the "Uncanny Valley" in CGI art and robotics. In short, when they try to make something as human as possible, the non-human or unnatural aspects of that work stick out. Although the term "Uncanny Valley" is usually limited to humans, I say, "why?" Animals can have the 'uncanny' dissonance, too.

Ladies and gents, I present to you the Uncanny Valley - horse version:

Meet Joey, one of the puppets of the War Horse theatrical production. The actual play tells a story about a boy and his horse at the start of WWI; if that sounds familiar, it was based off of a novel and has a film version of the same name. Our focus, however, is on the riveting horse puppet that has captivated audiences worldwide.

If it walks like a horse and talks like a horse, ummm...never mind.

Joey and several other lifelike puppets were made by the puppet company Handspring. It is managed by two men in South Africa. They and a few other people dodged army service in favor of art and culture. Aside from Joey, they have articulated a rhino, a giraffe, a few humanoids, and a goose. The list probably goes on. 

(Pretty sure this is their doing, too.)

Joey acts very much like a real horse. The actors within the puppet frame can  make him paw the ground, rear, and even whinny realistically. Considering that there are three people operating him - one on the head, one in the front legs, and one in the rear - this coordination is quite a feat. He's made from cloth, cane, and aluminum, but despite the simple design, this puppet horse manages to act a lot like the real thing.

The key to making the puppet horse come to life was extensive study of equine body language. The production team studied horses in about a million different ways, including YouTube and trips with mounted police, just to get every single hoofbeat down. They want you to hear the horse, see the horse, and feel the horse entirely by the movement of the life-size puppet.  For those of you who have never seen a bunraku play, know that the puppeteers there exhibit a similar level of skill, going so far as to make their puppets breathe.


If you want to see Joey on stage, fear not. Any place with a theatrical inclination will be making room for the horses soon. It started in London, but is on a tour in North America. It might already be on Broadway.If you think they look weird, just bear in mind that they'

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Creature Feature: Queen Triggerfish.

It is really important to know every little thing about every little fish you want to put in an aquarium. Some fish are friendly. Other fish look nice, but have a mean streak a mile wide. Not all pretty fish are good tank fish.

Welcome to the world of triggerfish, a whole group that usually doesn't play nice with others. Several of these fish are popular in the aquarium trade, but today we'll focus on the queen triggerfish (Balistes vetula). It's native to the warm waters of the Caribbean Islands, Florida, and other awesome vacation spots in the Atlantic Ocean. It eats mostly sea urchins, which grants it a few auto-badass points.

This fish just looks impressive. It's big, for one thing - about two feet at adult size. Unlike many big fish, actually has the coloration to make it look good. Its palette is a combination of gold, turquoise, and royal blue. As with all triggerfish, there is a spike-like fin that is  functional as well as fashionable; it can lock the fish in a hole in case a predator tries to pull it out.

What's even more amazing is how this fish eats sea urchins in the wild. There are two that have been recorded: in one, the triggerfish picks up a single spine of the sea urchin in its (very strong) mouth, then drops it so that the urchin lands belly-up; in another, the queen triggerfish uses Water Gun to get the urchin into a more vulnerable position. Remember, this fish lacks the limbs to break 'em open like a cute little otter. Craftier, stealthier means must be employed.

Queen triggerfish are just about the worst triggerfish to try and keep in an aquarium.  Sea urchins aren't easy to come by unless you happen to have a fresh fish market down the street; instead, feed captive specimens a mix of krill, shrimp, octopus, and squid - the whole invertebrate sushi menu, basically. Queens get roughly two feet in length, which is enough to turn away most beginners. They are also aggressive as all get-out and can inflict very nasty bites on humans, too. Even other triggerfish have nothing on the queen. Long live the queen, and unless you're really experienced, keep her in the wild!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Creature Feature: Rainbow Agama.

You know what I hate? Every time there's a nature show host, they're always dressed in khakis. Yeah, yeah, OK, khaki's a very earthy color, and thus kinda goes with what they're saying, but really? It's gotta be one of the least eye-catching outfits in existence.  Nature's a lot more colorful than that, guys. You could totally get away with showing a little flash.

Enter the rainbow agama (Agama agama). It's also called the red-headed agama or common agama. It's native to sub-Saharan Africa.  Its diet consists of insects and the occasional small mammal. It can often be seen in broad daylight, which is a real treat if you happen to catch a male at the right time in the year.

Hooo boy does that name say a lot. During mating season, the males go from being relatively drab brown and black to bright blue with an orange-red head. The tail has some rings on it. Overall, it looks like some kid went nuts coloring an outline of a lizard. A shame it's only for a short portion of the year; this would be stunning year-round. Like a boss.

Agamids in general have some pretty neat features,  too. As the color change in the male agamas might have hinted, the whole group is related to chameleons; they also have things like the strange teeth and sticky (but not long) tongues of their sinister cousins. Before you ask, no, they can't regenerate as well as geckos; they regenerate a little, but not much.  Bearded dragons and Uromastyx are in this group, so if you want a good look at the common agama's relatives, check at your local pet shop.

Before you ask: Yes, the rainbow agamas are available in captivity. No, they are not a good lizard for beginners. They require a fairly large cage (4' x 2' x 2'), a really consistent lighting cycle, and a few other peculiar requirements. Like some other lizards, they need calcium supplements on their crickets. Beware even buying one of these things; I'm sure reputable breeders exist somewhere, but fecal sample testings are advised simply because a lot of them come from the wild. Know where your lizards are coming from...

...then enjoy the acid trip. Groovy.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Creature Feature: Giant Eland.

Nature shows focus too much on big preds, blah blah blah. Seriously, film crews have to spend hours getting those successful hunts on film.  More often than not, the herbivore survives. Predators kill off the weak, very young, or sick. That way both species stay healthy as a whole.

With that in mind, there are some herbivores that are pretty impressive to look at, even without a lion chasing them. The giant eland (Taurotragus derbianus) is one of them. It is native to central and western Africa. Like most antelope, it's an herbivore. What, did you think it had the potential to eat you, too?

The giant eland is impressive on a number of levels. It's fast, capable of reaching speeds of up to 43 mph. A height of almost 6 feet at the shoulder makes it the largest antelope in the world. The babies grow fast. Also, those horns look pretty darn awesome. (Luckily, they're also pretty docile.)

Badass, even when chillin'.

Both sexes of eland have twisting, V-shaped horns. The bulls lock them during courtship, as might be expected. They are also useful for knocking down branches. You will never forget those horns after seeing them once Many antelope have nice headgear, but the eland has to be at least in the top 5 when it comes to having awesome horns.

Despite being listed as "least concern," the giant eland is increasingly threatened by human hunting. This is just not for a very impressive trophy head; the meat of the eland is also packed with nutrition. The milk of an eland also contains twice the protein and three times the content of regular cow milk. They also require a lot less water than cattle. Luckily, there have been quite a few instances of domestic giant elands, so they should be around no matter how desperate Africa gets. Then again...behold the fate of the aurochs:


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Worms.

Eating worms is usually a gag in American culture. There will always be that one kid who ate earthworms on the playground. There's even a dessert using gummy worms and Oreo crumbs to platy with the novelty of eating worms.

But could eating worms seriously be good for you?

According to scientists (including an old teacher of mine), sure! Worms of all types come into contact with bacteria that support a healthy immune system. Actually, the act of putting all kinds of foreign objects in one's mouth helps build a healthy immune system - especially during childhood. That kid who ate worms was onto something.

Our  industrialized society has the curse of being too clean for its own good. Children are told not to put things in their mouths, whether it be dog crap or something they left on the floor. This prevents them from getting exposure to foreign things -bacteria and the like- to which they can build an immunity.  Furthermore, the use of too many soaps and disinfectants creates antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. There is such a thing as too clean, and it's a lot more widespread than lutefisk.

Aside from eating regular worms to prevent immune problems later in life, eating other worms has its own benefits. Hookworm therapy is becoming a huge thing. Don't worry, species that regularly infect inhuman animals are used. Again, this works because industrialized society is too clean for its own good. Not saying go back a century, but don't try to sterilize your world, either.

How does it work? A protein called IgE can be held responsible for many autoimmune diseases, including allergies,  arthritis, and even a few cancers. The same protein is responsible for handling parasites. By introducing a harmless parasite into the body, these immune proteins have a target to attack. One man went all the way to Thailand just to get some worm eggs. It saved him from a premature death via a malfunction in another protein. Overall, it might not be bad to be infected.

So, go ahead. The earthworms aren't going to hurt you. Grab a few and try some.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Creature Feature: Macrotrema/Swamp Eels.

A lot of people will probably see me as crazy, immature, or both for secretly liking Yu-Gi-Oh! The game is a broken mess of OTK's and shiny cards that are way too hard to get, ZeXal scares me proper, and yet cool monsters are cool enough to keep me intrigued. Admittedly, now it's become a game of humans and dragons, but it used to have an amazing amount of monster variety. This one in particular got me thinking:

OK, I get the point that it's a fish, but what's a "macrotrema," anyways? YGO tends to pick on weird fish, but this one was so weird that I had to look it up. After I looked it up, I kept the card for a bit as a sort of "well, that was interesting" trophy.

It turns out there are several things with "macrotrema" in their names. Given that the card was called "big eel" in the Japanese game, however, I'm inclined to believe that the creators were going off of the Macrotrema eels native to Asia. There is only one species, Macrotrema caligans, but since it is horribly hard to find information on (seriously, most of the hits for "Macrotrema" are of the trading card), this entry will also cover some other members of Synbranchidae. They are also called "mud eels" and "swamp eels," hinting that it would be darn near impossible to find a real deep-sea Macrotrema. As the name "mud eel" would imply, this weird pink fish lives in the muddy beds of estuaries in Asia. The whole family Synbranchidae has members in Mexico, South America, Africa, and in Asia from India to China, making the Ganges River slightly creepier than it already was.

Not a Macrotrema. Still a swamp eel and probably close enough.

Swamp eels resemble worms with spinal cords more than any type of fish. They're pink, live in mud, and barely have fins as adults. As with most cave-dwelling animals, the eyes are small; when you live in mud, sight is not a big issue. They're even proper hermaphrodites, starting their lives as ladies and becoming male after four years. (For the record, a whole group of creatures, tunicates, does the same thing.)  In other words, they're weird even by eel standards, and eels are already darn weird.

Nobody is really sure how far swamp eels go back in the fossil record, but they probably resemble some of the first air-breathing fish that gave rise to amphibians. Although they start life with skin that takes in oxygen (sound familiar?) and fins, both of these features regress as the fish matures.  The throat of a swamp eel is adapted into a primitive, but efficient lung. Like mudskippers, swamp eels can even slither around on land if the soil is wet enough.

Since this entry wound up bleeding into Wednesday, I may as well say it: yes, this eel is edible. China, one of the few places infamous for eating anything,  uses swamp eels in stir-fries with garlic and soy sauce. Given its distribution, it is probably enjoyed in other parts of the world as well.

I'm not sure what to think about most peoples' knowledge of swamp eels coming from a single trading card. Konami didn't have accuracy in mind, but, to be honest, they made these not-lungfish look cooler than their real-life counterparts. The real Macrotrema and swamp eels in general are pretty neat animals, too.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Bio-Art: The Holy Virgin Mary.

Remember that cow pat paperweight from a previous bio-art review? Yeaaah, after thinking about it, there were several people who would like that. Scat fetishists aside, there are fascinating things about animal feces.  Some artists even use dung as an artistic medium.

Yeah. Y'know what? I'm sure you can see where this is going. After that paragraph and a quick glance at the title, you have to realize that this is leading nowhere good fast. Brace yourself for the black virgin Mary plastered with elephant dung and naughty bits.

This, umm...art piece...was made by one Chris Ofili. Ofili is a Nigerian artist born in Manchester, England. He had a Catholic education and went to two art colleges. Along with elephant dung, he has plastered pornographic images upon the sacred virgin. It's properly called The Holy Virgin Mary and was on display in a gallery called Sensation until it entered a private collection. It is now on display again in the Museum of New and Old Art in Hobart, Tasmania.

Elephant dung is a recurring medium in Ofili's works. It's not quite splattered; many times, Ofili uses the dung almost like paint or to create a certain texture. Sometimes the dung is even holding the painting up.  It's not like the guy isn't being creative when he uses it in his work. That is at least creative. Elephant dung itself is a versatile material that has been used to make paper; no shit.

One of Mr. Ellie Poo's notebooks, made using the fiber from elephant dung.

For the record, the Black Mary is definitely a thing when she is not covered in elephant dung, too. She is particularly popular in African cultures and among feminists. African Christians like her for obvious reasons; feminists believe that the Black Madonna has a mystique and power that white Mary does not. Some also trace her to pre-Christian cults like the several revolving around Cybele, a Greek earth goddess who had a chariot of lions at her disposal. Kickass.

Regardless of your stance on Black Mary, the virgin Mary is one of the most sacred images in the Catholic church. Here she is with elephant dung and genitalia scattered about. Surely there must be some profoud meaning behind mixing the sacred and profane like that, right?

Umm...nope. Not unless you consider trolling the First Amendment hard in any way philosophical. 

Unfortunately, this piece was made for all the wrong reasons. I would like to say that this has some deep, far-reaching message - I really would - but the sole purpose of this mess's existence is to push the boundaries of free speech.  This thing was shown at a gallery called Sensation- a title which begs both "WTF for the sake of WTF" and "ASK ME WHAT IT MEANS! ASK ME WHAT IT MEANS!" Is that all it takes to be art? I'm not questioning Ofili's choice of medium, artistic talent, or anything else. The sole purpose of this piece is to push the system to its very limits. I'm wondering if that's really art or not. At least it's making me think.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Creature Feature: African House Snakes.

After being pissed off at a certain statement, I decided that this blog needed to show off more cute scaly things. I just heard today that a ball python was in the news; snakes are getting a worse and worse rap every day. Time to fix that.

"House snake" can refer to any snake in the genus Lamprophis - literally "shiny snake." Unlike the extremely diverse python family, house snakes are all mid-size snakes (a little smaller than a corn snake - another common snake in captivity) native to most of sub-Saharan Africa. They eat rodents and other small land animals.

There is a lot of confusion over who's in what species; house snakes are poorly-researched, leaving much of the work to be done by captive breeders. Even the captive breeding results vary when it comes to hatching hybridized babies. To make matters even stickier, they are frequently mislabeled in the trade; almost everything is Lamprophis fulginosus. Thus, as much as I hate doing this, the whole genus will be covered in one entry.

The aurora house snake is a bit harder to find than other species.

Species classification aside, house snakes have a lot in common. House snakes are not venomous. They come in a lot of colors, often sporting iridescence. They only get around five feet long, if that. A million things eat them. Just about the only thing remotely terrifying about these guys are their slit pupils, which most hobbyists find cool.

African house snakes are the definition of cartoon snake: Green or brown, random markings, slit pupils, and otherwise a generic colubrid.  They're just cute like that, even as adults. I realize some people are ophidiophobes by default, but for those of us with the potential to like snakes, house snakes are as charming as they come.

And the albinos look awesome.

I'm honestly surprised that house snakes aren't more popular in the pet trade. They don't get too big, come in several color patterns and morphs (including albino), and are a great first snake. They can take a high temp range. No extra lighting required; they can breed with normal day sh normal light cycling. Everybody has corns and ball pythons; not many people have house snakes.  The only issue is that some hatchlings need their first few meals lizard-scented. The species thing is another problem entirely; let the pros deal with that one. 

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Bio-Art Mini-Post: Thoughts on The Amazing Spider-Man.

(To put things in perspective for how tired a single visit with my brother's family can make me: I tried COFFEE and DDR MUSIC was out like a light.) 

What? A bio-art entry on Saturday instead of Monday? Preposterous!

Thing is, I wanted to get this down while it was fresh. I saw The Amazing Spider-Man today and wanted to jot down my thoughts before they floated away. Rather than waiting 'til Monday, I figured, hey, this movie is actually wicked relevant to right now. It deserves its own entry ASAP.


So, let's get to it. I won't reintroduce the Spider-Man story since almost everybody knows it. Average guy Peter Parker is bitten by special spider, saves NY on a regular basis, yadda yadda.  What this new movie introduced, however, was a ton of neat science-related stuff that was meant to bring the setting up to date...but does it?

One of the big themes in The Amazing Spider-Man is cross-species genetics.  Both the 'radioactive' spider that bit Peter Parker and the Lizard resulted from genetic engineering. I will say that I actually like this change with the spider; saying that it was genetically spliced was a lot more plausible than anything radioactive. (Seriously, if it was, cancer would have been involved at some stage in the game.) Genetic engineering is obviously a favorite of sci-fi writers for creating really cool genetic freaks and filling in plotholes ("it's genetically-engineered, we can do whatever we want!").

Because I know people will ask,  no, geneticists do not work with spiffy holo-screens like they do at Oscorp. They have to test things over and over again on many, many little lab rats before even attempting human testing. Genes are also usually injected at the embryonic stage as opposed to during life. That one of the three-legged mice actually took a gene warp during life was a miracle in itself.

That said, some of the things related to cross-species genetics in the movie are outdated. "Fact or fiction?" Cross-species genetics is fact now, guys. It's been fact for a very long time. Transgenic foods stock our grocery shelves. GloFish are available at Petco. Ruppy exists, meaning that transgenic humans are getting closer and closer to existence. Designer babies are a thing. For a movie that uses Google and smartphones, it's stuck in the past. This could have been a really powerful statement about all the things that could go wrong with gene splicing, but we've come too far to go back to questioning whether things are fact or fiction. The line gets blurrier every day.

Then there's the Lizard himself. Let's get a few things straight with the Lizard: He was an amalgam of several different lizards (the creators keep citing "Komodo dragon," but they also say amphibians have scales and I know Komodos can't climb walls), the specimen shown in the splicing was some sort of agamid (likely an attempted green anole?), probably should have been using axolotl or planaria instead of lizards (they're far superior in terms of regenerative capabilities),  and despite being a herpetologist in canon, at least one thing he said was blatantly incorrect. This last point worries me the most: 

"Reptiles are usually the top predators in their ecosystem." 

Umm, no. That is blatantly not true, Mr. Herpetologist. I want to say roughly one-third of all reptile species are apex predators - that is, they have no natural predators as adults. The actual amount of reptilian apex predators is probably more like 1/4th, if not less, and then largely restricted to warmer climates. That is definitely not the majority of reptiles. I want to say this statement is so wrong that it just plain goes against common sense, but since common sense is not so common, here's a shining example of what I mean:

Take a good, long look at the flag of Mexico, sometime. It's a pretty darn well-known fact that eagles and other birds of prey eat snakes to the point where it is a staple in mythology around the world. Mongooses and honey badgers eat cobras, the most popular, intimidating snake in the world, on a regular basis. Apex predators they are not. The statement about most reptiles being superpreds is wrong on so many levels.

Do your research. This could have been a well-said reply about how reptiles dominated the Earth for a good long time, and still manage to be pretty effective today, relying on a combination of stealth, trickery, and power to survive. See? That's an epic answer to the same question. There was literally no reason to get this wrong, especially since the very adaptation that The Lizard was using to regrow limbs was a defense against predators. Why would a top-tier creature need to cut off its own tail and regenerate it?

The roadrunner says "meep meep" to your logic, movie.

What worries me about this is, of course, the implications in relation to the Burmese python problem. There is currently a turf war between two apex predator reptiles that is making all reptiles in captivity look really bad. If, suddenly, millions of people see all reptiles as dangerous, the results could be disastrous for the pet trade. I like to think that people have more common sense than that, - something, somewhere has to eat leopard geckos with how tiny and cute they are - but have learned not to get my hopes up. Someone wrote that line with the flag of Mexico against them. I would almost forgive them if it was meant to sound delusional. Almost.

Overall: Go see it (in 3-D!) as a solid introduction to Spidey, but don't expect super-accurate information. This is Spider-man's 50th anniversary, and it kinda shows. Still a good movie, but the inaccuracies and dated information jarred me.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Creature Feature: Giant Cloud Rat.

If reading about insular gigantism scared you, worry not. Not every giant animal on an island  is going to eat you. Here, let us show you:

From biolib.cz. Cutest pic I could find.

OK, bad example. I know some people are terrified of rats. Still, the giant cloud rat - and cloud rats in general- are at least as fascinating as Darwin's finches. They're all native to the Philippines, just like giant crocodiles. The main difference is that, unlike crocs, giant cloud rats would make great plushies.

All cloud rats are leaf-eating, nocturnal rodents that spend most of their time in trees.  There are a total of six species of cloud rats that are in turn divided into two genera. The "giant" ones in question are the North and South Luzon cloud rats, both of the genus Phloeomys. Again, aren't they cute? No? Fine, rat-haters.

Also very cute!

The giant cloud rat is the largest type of cloud rat in the Philippine forests. It is also the largest species of rat in the entire world. We're talking a 7-pound rat with teeth an inch long. That's a rat that would give a cat a run for its money. Being so big also makes it good meat, of course, and Filipinos have indeed been known to eat them. (Rodents are whole food. Really.)

Despite being unique species, not much study has been done on cloud rats. The only reason I even know about them is because one scientist at the Field Museum is studying these weird insular rats. Only three zoos have any kind of cloud rat in their collections, so even that's not a good bet if you want to gawk at a live giant rat.

Want a giant cloud rat as a plush- I mean pet? They're rare, but in the exotic pet trade nonetheless. A few of them are reliable breeders, so you should be seeing more captive-bred specimens soon.  They are marketed as the replacement for the Gambian Pouched Rat, which, while also large, is less cuddly.  Cuteness and legislation are together on this one, plus the giant cloud rat actually needs to be researched.