Sunday, September 30, 2012

Creature Feature: Musasabi.

Before you immediately assume that the title above is some sort of Japanese liquor, consider the following: 1. you know this blog only covers "LET'S BREW!" topics on Wednesdays, and 2. Japan is a chain of islands with a bunch of unique wildlife by default. Did you really think that their weird mythology just happened? Nooo, their wildlife inspired a lot of it, just to make things extra-disturbing!

Nocturnal = shiny eyes. The squirrel is not far as we know.

The musasabi (Petaurista leucogenys) is known as the "Japanese giant flying squirrel" in English. Specifically, it lives in Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku in the Japanese archipelago, as well as Guangzhou in China. It eats fruits and nuts. They can be found fairly close to civilization, with Mt, Takao being only an hour away from Tokyo.

Once again, the question is "how giant is giant?" This video actually gives you a pretty good idea. For those of you who prefer stats, it can weigh up to 1500 grams and can be up to 90cm long including the tail. Aside from being a darn big squirrel, the musasabi can also glide up to 160 meters. It's almost as big as a cat, and it can all but fly. Japan has fine nightmare fuel indeed.

From here.

The weird does not stop at its size. Like something out of a hentai, the musasabi plugs the female's vagina with a sticky protein called a coitus plug after sex. There could be a number of reasons for this, such as increasing chances of fertilization. It also prevents other males from mating with the plugged female. Supposedly, they're monogamous, too. Between these guys and raccoon-dogs with overlarge testicles, we should not be surprised that Japan has a reputation for weird porn.

Although not as well-loved as the momonga, the musasabi does have some representation in Japanese culture. It can be found at Japanese exotic pet conventions, although, aside from having an easy diet, I cannot see these squirrels being good captives. There is also a popular Italian restaurant on the Keio line called "Musasabi." The mususabi, like the momonga, also has the rather funny honor of being a Kaiyodo sculpture and featured on a children's trading card:

Frankly, we're surprised that the electric momonga in Gen V doesn't evolve into this monster-squirrel. That would be kinda cool. FUND IT.

MYTHBUSTER OP: Five-Headed Snakes?!

Last night, a friend told me something interesting. A live, five-headed serpent had been found in the wild, alive and well. The radio shows described the image as looking "freaky." Supposedly, the polycephalous snake was taken into a temple because it was thought divine.

Aside from this report from Argentina, I have not seen anything that would cement this snake's existence as fact. I try to keep an open mind; after all, this blog covers a million 'impossibilities' that actually happen right under our noses. Five-headed snakes are also consistent enough in mythology that one must wonder if they can indeed occur in nature. It would not surprise me if they could exist, but actually seeing a good photograph of one strikes me as unlikely.

That said, every image of a five-headed snake I have ever seen has been a fake. The snake above is unfortunately a bad copy-paste job. It's obvious that the scales don't flow right, and it just looks bad. Others are more convincing, but none of them are the real McCoy.  Just because some are nicely done doesn't mean any of them are real. 

This is not to say that a five-headed snake is completely impossible. Two-headed snakes happen all the time. For whatever reason, turtles and snakes have a higher than normal track record of having two functional, separate heads. Hydras and genbu already have plausible reasons to exist.  A report of an amphisbaena surfaced recently as well. Five is unheard of, but there's always a first time. I have hope.

So now we have a rumored news report of a live, wild, five-headed snake. Can anybody confirm or deny this? There are certainly plenty of fakes out there. If a real 'naga king' has been found, it should be making world news.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Creature Feature: Mourning Cloak.

It definitely feels like fall here in Chicago. Things are getting colder. Leaves are falling. Halloween stuff is available in stores everywhere. I can't hate fall because I really hate winter, but it is when things start to get depressing.

Then I see one of these, and still can't help but wow. That's a Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), a large butterfly native to North America and northern Europe. There have been some reports of them in Britain, but they are few and far between.They can be found far outside of their range during migration.

A flutter-by look does not do this butterfly justice. Not only are Mourning Cloaks big with distinct markings, but they're part of a group of butterflies called "brushfoot butterflies." If you look at a Mourning Cloak in detail, it looks like they have only four feet. The last two are there, but so vestigial that they have been reduced to brushes. Don't worry, nobody plucked them off.


If you don't think the butterfly is impressive, the caterpillar certainly is. It is also called the "spiny elm caterpillar." Like many caterpillars, the spiny elm puts all Hot Topic customers to shame with its spikes and outlandish orange spots. They often feed in groups, defoliating whole leaves before moving on to the next. Although, hey, nobody likes having their trees nibbled, these caterpillars are rarely problematic enough to warrant pest control. Just remember that they become awesome butterflies.

Winter does not do a thing to Mourning Cloaks. Like less-masculine bears, they enter diapause (i.e. hibernate, effectively) until spring warms things up. They are literally among the few insects to survive winter in the Midwest. Instead of flower sap, they feed on tree sap after awakening. Clever butterfly is clever and has found a niche all its own. Good going, Mourning Cloak; now keep impressing me until winter hits!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Corn. In EVERYTHING.

Along with the horrors of the beef industry, Food, Inc. also covered the most menacing thing on the farm: corn. Corn, which began as an innocent grain being cultured by native peoples, turned into the cheapest, easiest thing to grow. Big corporations pounced on it like foxes on a lame chicken. What the movie had to say about this supercrop blew my mind.


If you live in America, 95% of your diet loops back to corn. Chickens eat corn. Cows eat corn. The buns and dressings at Mickey D's utilize high-fructose corn syrup like nothing else. We're even training salmon to eat corn, now. Let's not forget popcorn and corn on the cob.  Nobody is safe from the corn monster. There are ways to tell how much corn is in one's diet by testing the DNA of a single strand of hair. Creepy.

While we're looking at corn, let's revisit high-fructose corn syrup. Just from the name, you can tell that it comes from corn. You can also tell by the word "syrup" that it is sweet; those of us more proficient in the sciences will know that "fructose" is a sugar. By deciphering the name alone, we can tell that this product is effectively "high sugar sugar, which just so happens to come from corn." We're going to ignore the possible mercury contamination for now and just think of "high sugar sugar" as pretty scary.

Remember, anything ending in "-ose"  is a sugar. Maltose, dextrose, and anything else with that ending is a sugar, and probably comes from corn. There is a 99% chance that everything ending in that dreaded "-ose" comes from corn. We could probably call them "children of the corn," but it's not like they'll be killi- oh, wait. Obesity epidemic. Right.

The problem is, corn works too well. We now have a surplus of corn. A lot of that corn is being used for ethanol, which takes more energy to make than it actually yields. We have biodegradable corn plastic. There are corn packing peanuts out there that taste exactly like unflavored Cheetos. Corn is literally in everything. Good gods, what if corn allergies started popping up?

Oh, and 85% of all corn in the United States has been spliced, mad scientist-style, into a grainy monster. Sleep well.

Creature Feature: Spider-tailed Viper.

"Spider ball, spider ball...does whatever a spider ball does..." 

The above snippet is thesong that I must resist singing every time I pass by a spider ball python in the reptile store.For the uninformed, the spider ball is a pattern and color variation of ball python; the black bands are so narrow that they resemble a spider's webbing, and the overall snake looks a lot lighter as well. This entry is not about them, but, rather, a different sort of mix of spider and snake.

Mad props to Omid Mozaffari.

The spider-tailed viper (Pseudocerastes urarachnoides) is a new-ish snake that was only recognized as a species in 2006.  It was found in Iran - y'know, one of those areas in the Middle East with a lot of desert. It eats birds and probably munches rodents as well. The rule of thumb with vipers is "it can kill you," so unfortunately anyone wanting one as a pet probably has a death wish as well.

First, a little bit about tail lures. There are several species of snake that use their tails to mimic a worm or some other appetizing invertebrate. The idea is that a bird or other animal will think that lure is a meal. Then, down come those jaws in a blur of teeth and poison. Mammals have absolutely nothing like this; as far as I know, it's purely a reptile thing. (Please correct me if I'm wrong!)

Same pic, emphasis on the lure.

That said, the spider-tailed viper is the unholy god of tail lures. It's one thing to move the tail like a worm, and quite another to copy something that has legs and distinct body segments. If you were not looking for a snake, you would think that it was indeed a desert spider. Hell, there are things that look almost like that in my basement. This snake is doing a really good job of bringing arachnophobes and ophidophobes together. High-Octane Nightmare Fuel, much?

The "spider" is made by strange scales that look like a spider's legs and abdomen. Birds, mammals, and quite a few lizards are visual hunters, watching for movement in order to hunt; this snake takes things up a notch by making its tail have the shape of a spider, too.All the snake has to do is wiggle its spider-tail just right and BAM! Bird in the jaws.  Given how long it took for this snake to be properly identified, birds were not the only ones fooled.

"Spider-tail, spider-tail...does whatever a spider-tail does...."

Feel free to shoot me for that one.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Bio-Art: Food Inc.

Have you ever gone into a grocery store and wondered what kind of life your steak once had?  How about where those nice tomatoes in produce come from? Why can we make fresh, leafy stuff available year-round? If you're curious about all of the above, then you should watch Food, Inc.

Food, Inc., a documentary made by Robert Kenner, is all about the pastoral illusion and exactly why it is an illusion. The food industry is feeding you this image of an old-fashioned farm with a red barn, smiling farmer, and well-tended animals. That particular cake is a lie. That farm on your milk carton? Yeah, it doesn't look like that. It looks more like this:


"But I've already heard about factory farms!" you say. Several other organizations have done a good job covering factory farms. Some of them even do it better than Food, Inc. "Blah blah blah, meat is bad" is now a cross that carnivores must bear. We get it: 99.9% of all meat is poison. Just about the only thing that those of us well-versed in PETA-ese will learn in relation to meat is the story of Kevin. It's even worse than it sounds, and losing a kid to E.coli is already pretty bad.

Are vegetarians safe? Hell no. Corn and soy are usually genetically-engineered like crazy. If you see a fancy Greco-Latin name on something, it probably translates to "corn." Gods, sometimes I hate being in the nation's bread basket; Indiana, which is nothing but corn, is just a footstep out my door (not literally.) There have been several crazy people on the internet saying that corn is attempting world domination, but there's little difference between a faceless corporation and world takeover.

Now that food is a business, it follows that some companies want a monopoly. The two the movie mentioned were Beef Products Incorporated and Monsanto. BPI literally has cows all over the U.S., monitored by satellite and fed corn (which cows are not supposed to eat - they're supposed to graze).  Monsanto will investigate and arrest you if they suspect you of trying to break their beloved soybean monopoly. Monsanto's GMOs are already having adverse effects in lab rats. Not cool.

My favorite part, however, was the end. Not only do we learn that organic farming is a great alternative, but it assures us that our thoughts count. This is why the movie was not more popular: it does not support the machine. The higher-ups want a stupid, poor population. Do not give them one. Vote with your dollar. Watch Food Inc. the next time somebody tells you meat is murder; the ending is a real ray of hope.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Creature Feature: Queen Conch.

Picking up shells on the beach is fun. You aren't supposed to do it, but it's fun anyways. Often, one gets so preoccupied in the shells that the original owners get ignored. For example, ever stop to wonder what's inside a conch shell?

Scary drawing a la Wikipedia. True to life.

...An eldritch horror, that's what. Say hello to the queen conch (Lobatus gigas / Strombus gigas), one of the most alien-looking snails ever. It is native to the Atlantic waters from Florida down to the top part of South America. Thankfully, it is an herbivore and only eats various types of seagrass - particularly turtle grass.

Fear factor 1: Queen conches are big.  They can get up to a foot (30cm) long after just a few years. Adult queens weigh about 5 pounds - way more than a paperweight. The expected lifespan of a single conch is 20-30 years, but age 40 is suspected. Oh, and they breed readily, too.

Found here. Will reappear in my nightmares.

Fear factor 2: Look into its eyes. Along with being huge as with the rest of the snail, queen conches have the most developed eyes of any gastropod. They have a fully-functioning lens and gold iris. It's like they have a vertebrate eye on the end of each stalk. Not even gonna mention that it's got a snout that looks an awful lot like a tentacle between those eyes. Nope.

Queen conches are popular snails. They can be found as captive-bred specimens in the exotic pet trade. They're treated as a delicacy in the Caribbean. Over-harvesting has upped their protection level on CITES, but they aren't endangered (yet). The good news is, this alien-looking snail (snailien?) is no threat. It is, in fact, perfectly edible so long as you mind the laws. Totally puts a new spin on shell-hunting, doesn't it? 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Creature Feature: Spotted Bat.

Is it me, or is the wonderful group of Chiroptera horribly underrepresented? If there is a bat in a movie, chances are it is one of the following: 1. a fruit bat, 2. a vampire bat, 3. a random microbat that we're supposed to believe is a vampire bat. There are so many other neat bats out there. Why no love? It's the rabies thing, isn't it? C'mon, you can be honest, here.

The spotted bat (Euderma maculatum) is one of the bats that should get more attention. It is a microbat, meaning that it uses echolocation to hunt for insects. These bats are native to the American southwest.  They aren't too big, they don't drink blood, and they won't get in your hair. They're just cute fluffballs with a trippy pattern that eat mosquitoes for fun and nutrients.

I know you're all tired of me saying this, but...look at it. It's fluffy with three white spots on a black coat. It has amazingly large ears - the largest, proportionately, of any bat. We like big ears on kittens, so why not bats? This is probably as colorful and cute as bats get.

The exact abundance of spotted bats is unknown. When it was first discovered in 1865, only 35 specimens had been catalogued. It was thought to be endangered. DDT supposedly added another nail in the bat's coffin. Now, we think that the bat is far more abundant than previously supposed.

This is a bat that should be a cute cartoon character. I'm not ashamed at all to have a plushie of it. Bats can be cute flying fluffballs (see Woobat) or just nasty rodents with wings. Remember, any bat that gets in your hair got there by accident- they aren't all rabid, malicious bloodsuckers.

P.S.- if you ever happen to be in Rome at night, look near the lamps. It's quite fun to "batwatch" there. No spotted bats, but still.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Creature Feature: Assassin Bug.

Some of you have probably noticed little ads on YouTube or Blip for a cartoon whose tagline is "nature is dirty."Yes, nature is dirty on every single level. It's all about screwing, killing, mind control, and getting high - you know, things that one would expect from the mafia. That said, nature even comes equipped with its own band of assassins...

Photo by Debbie Roos.

...who just so happen to be insects.

There are a lot of leafhopper-ish bugs under the big happy family of assassin bugs. They get their name from being ambush predators, mostly of other insects, but also vertebrates. They all belong to the family Reduviidae, which is related to water bugs. I really hate doing single entries on whole families of things, but this really is an interesting bunch. There are about 7000 species in total. This is not doing the whole family justice.

All assassin bugs have venom. For those of you out there who aren't toxicologists, most types of venom contain digestive enzymes. Assassin bugs inject a mix of these enzymes and an anaesthetic into  the skin of their target. In the case of insects, the internal tissues are also liquefied. The resulting juice is then sucked up through the assassin bug's strawlike rostrum like some horrible smoothie.


Since there are so many kinds of assassin bugs, it's hard to make any sort of generalization about them. You can probably find an assassin bug near you, but whether it will be after your blood or not depends on exactly where you are. Some kill unwanted pests, like roaches, moths, Japanese beetles, and mosquitoes; others drink mammalian blood just like mosquitoes. There is a chance that bloodsuckers in South America might harbor a particularly nasty disease simply called "Chagas' disease"- gross stuff comes with the hematophage territory. 

Chagas' disease is carried by assassin bugs in the tropical Americas. Actually, if you want to be technical, Chagas' disease is caused by a parasite on the assassin bug called Trypanosoma cruzi  - a parasite of a parasite, if you will. It is deposited in the bug's feces, which easily gets into human skin with but a scratch. The most obvious sign of the disease is localized swelling around where the bug's feces were deposited, but if left untreated, the protists strike the muscles and heart. The bloodsucking assassin is just a vector in this protist's life; I'd say "don't shoot the messenger," but that's really the best way to stop the bug from spreading feces. Like I said, nature is dirty. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Talk Like a Pirate Day: What Pirates Actually Ate.

Ahoy! Today be September 19th, unofficially known as National Talk Like A Pirate Day! It also be Wednesday, the fateful day that this blog be coverin' strange foods from around the seven seas. This be an unfortunate intersection, so please be enjoyin' the things that pirates actually ate. ARR!

When ye be thinkin' of pirates, ye be thinkin' rum. Our favorite be a drink called bumboo, a mix of water, sugar,  nutmeg, and of course, rum! Just plain water and rum be called 'grog.' Pirates popularized the drink sangria, also called "sangaree." We be havin' barrels of alcohol on every vessel. That much is true, lads!

The first couple o' weeks at sea be dandy. We be havin' fine dining. The livestock on board - usually chickens and cows - be giving us milk and eggs. We be gettin' new foods from every ship we raid and every island we stop at.  For the first few weeks, life be a blast!

Then things be goin' sour. Since we be sailin' for days on end, our food be gettin' covered in mold, slime, and maggots. The only stuff anywhere near appetizing is the salted meat, beans, and veggies - things that don't go a-spoilin' easily. Be warned, for a pirate's life be not as glamorous as those movies portray it!

From here.

Sea biscuits be a standard when ye be on the sea. Also called "hardtack," these dry scroungin's can stay good for up to a year! They be tastin' o' cardboard, lads, and bugs still be gettin' at 'em. There still be recipes floatin' in the internet about what ye must do if yer wantin' to try some authentic pirate fare. Ahoy!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Creature Feature: Diplocaulus.

"Dinosaur" has been somewhat of a "generic extinct animal" category since I was in preschool. Packages containing dinosaurs have also contained cavemen, mammoths, and saber-toothed tigers. We can forgive Dimetrodon; at least it looks kind of like Spinosaurus. Then we have this: \

This strange, boomerang-headed creature is called Diplocaulus. This thing was around in the Permian, which means that, like Dimetrodon, it was properly around before the dinosaurs. It was a giant, meter-long amphibian similar to a salamander- not a lizard at all! Most Diplocaulus fossils have been found inthe good ol' U.S. of A., particularly Texas. It probably ate insects, but we don't have a time machine to prove it.

Diplocaulus has remained a mainstay of "here, have some random prehistoric stuff" packages for one simple reason: That head. Diplocaulus had a distinctive, arrow-shaped skull. Possible reasons for this skull include burrowing, making it hard to swallow, and a hydrodynamic feature. Some museums draw Diplocaulus with a flap of skin running from its arrowhead to its tail, allowing it to undulate through its watery domain. Nobody really knows what Diplocaulus's head was for, but it's marketable as hell.

Now in origami for your enjoyment.

Alas, if you want a Diplocaulus or something similar as a pet, I cannot help you. The Diplocaulus has no living relatives.  Nothing has evolved a head quite like Diplocaulus, which adds more mystery to the beast. It's still sad that no lizard has evolved headgear this cool.

Next time you find a random box of "dinosaurs," take a good look. Dimetrodon should not be there. Wooly mammoths should not be there. Technically, pterodactyls shouldn't be there (they're pterosaurs, not dinosaurs). Diplocaudus definitely shouldn't be there, even if it does look neat. Now you know what it's called and can brag about it to fellow nerds. :)

Bio-Art: A Tribute to BOGLEECH.

A few years ago, I was inspired to make a blog dedicated to all the cool things in the natural world. By no means, however, was I the first to make a site showcasing the strange.  My thanks for this whole project goes to one site in particular: The Insidious Bogleech.

Click here to enter the site! is a site devoted to anything and everything monstrous.  It is run by one Jonathan Wojcik, who should totally have a degree in zoology if he does not yet already have one. The site has been making the internet lose its lunch for over ten years. I've got some catching up to do.

Bogleech is a fan of the bizarre. His site is chock-full of neat creatures that you probably never knew existed. He adores abyssal sealife, flies, parasites, leeches, and other things that would make "normal" people run screaming.  If it's creepy, crawly, or just plain weird, it's probably on his site.

By no means is Bogleech limited to the natural world. His love for weird extends into popular culture. He has done several articles on Pokemon, including some pretty good ideas for new ones (****YES CASSOWARY POKEMON!). I'm tempted to say, "screw Bulbapedia, I have Bogleech," but there are some things he misses out on (that even Bulbapedia wouldn't know). He covered absolutely all bases concerning Trubbish/Garbodor, though. 

Bogleech also does his own art. Of particular note are the Mortasheen, his own squicky versions of Pokemon, and his flash movie series The Fear Hole. I'm particularly fond of an episode starring his own cute-thulhu. Many of his designs are available as shirts in his shop; the tapeworm shirt, it taunts me.

This blog would not even be here if not for Bogleech. All hail the Bogleech. We all bow down. Buy his stuff here.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Creature Feature: Alpine Salamander.

Life has away of situating itself where we least expect it. There are bacteria in literally every environment.  Tiger mosquitoes came to us in tire shipments. Crested geckos went extinct for a few years, then suddenly reappeared. Frogs are surprisingly abundant in the Himalayas. The list goes on.

So why should we be surprised that there is a unique sort of salamander in the Alps? The alpine salamander (Salamandra atra) also happens to be completely black.  It is found at altitudes above 700 meters - pretty darn high up - in the Central, Eastern, and Dinaric Alps. For those of you bad with geography, that's Switzerland, Austria, Italy, France, and more obscure places like Bosnia and Croatia.

Let's put this in perspective. Salamanders, and amphibians in general, are usually associated with hotter climates. The Alps? The Alps are where the Sound of Music took place. There is a lot of snow in mountains in general. Personal experience has also taught me that altitude alone makes things cold. Discovering a neat salamander in such a place is, well, something to write about.

These salamanders are among the few wholly terrestrial amphibians. As if in rebellion against the name "amphibian," alpine salamanders spend their whole lives on land. Most salamanders mate, lay eggs, and spend part of their lives in the water. These do not, leading to a phrase you will never see anywhere else: pregnant salamander. Yep, these guys have live babies.

Belongs to Wikipedia. Still a cute salamander.

Baby alpine salamanders are born much like baby sharks or boas: they have an egg at one point, but it hatches inside the mother. The eggs eventually melt into a nutrient (vitelline) mass that all the embryos share. Like all babies, the salamanders also have gills in the 'womb' as they develop; in the case of these salamanders, however, the gills link them to the mother's blood supply. They've evolved a womb without really evolving a womb. Neat.

The freaky part: Alpine salamanders have a long gestation period, even by mammalian standards. It takes them 2-3 years to give birth, depending on subspecies. That makes the longest gestation period of any known animal. This is probably the reason that some subspecies of alpine salamander are critically endangered - that, and being amphibians. Not-endangered varieties aside, these salamanders are decently abundant and simply very good at not being seen.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Creature Feature: Bed Bugs.

"Good night. Sleep tight. Don't let the bed bugs bite!"

Hahaha. As I've been finding out recently, easier said than done. We have bedbugs or something else. I want to say that it's some sort of mite, but for now, let's look at bed bugs. (I will make another entry on mites if need be.) There is more to them than meets the eye.

The term "bed bug" usually refers to Cimex lectularius, the common bed bug that feeds on human blood. It can, however, refer to any member of the genus Cimex or even the whole family Cimicidae. Bed bugs are found everywhere and have been feeding on humans for millennia. Don't feel too bad about finding them in your house - you're just a few generations behind.

The bed bug has to be one of the most durable little insects ever. They do not really care how hot or cold things are; too cold and they just hibernate. Bed bugs do not care whether your house is clean or dirty. All they want is your blood and a place to hide and reproduce in. That's really all they need: Food, shelter, and sex.

Oh wow. Yes, let's talk about bedbug reproduction for a moment. It's...special.

Pic by Rickard Ignell.

All bed bugs mate through something called "traumatic insemination." While taking that literally might just translate as "rape" to most people, it is a very special kind of rape in scientific circles. Some animals do not have openings for a penis to go into, so the male inserts himself wherever he pleases into the female's flesh (and thus blood). That is how bedbugs get knocked up: by having the male pierce the female's exoskeleton with his hard-on. Face it: Even the kinkiest people wouldn't find that kind of penetration sexy.

So, how do you know if you have bed bugs in your house? Well, seeing one or getting repeated blisters for no good reason are fairly sound signs. Dead bed bugs apparently smell like raspberries, so if you aren't a fan of raspberries and randomly smell them, that's a pretty good hint, too. Get an exterminator; they might even bring a bed bug-sniffing dog along. Bed bug attacks have been on rise rise, so have the number handy. Just remember that the females get a really raw deal.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Creature Feature: Silky Simpona.

Y'know what this blog needs? More lemurs. They're primates, but so weird that it's hard to tell. Insular isolation has made them rather unique by primate standards. They still have muzzles, for instance...not that it makes them any less cute. Fuzzy is still fuzzy.
From Cactus Juice.

Is there anything weirder than a white lemur? Yes: a whole species of white lemurs. This particular lemur, the silky sifaka/simpona (Propithecus candidus), is almost entirely white. Like all lemurs, it can only be found on the African island of Madagascar, which is like Australia's little cousin in terms of how weird wildlife can get. It is wholly herbivorous.

Simponas have several different vocalizations. Their weirdest one by far is a "zzuss" sneeze. The "zzuss" is a general alarm call. It can also be used to locate other simponas that have strayed from the large group. Simponas also "roar," chatter, squeal, and hum. They are social to the point where most mature simponas take care of the babies, so of course they have a lot to chat about.

Dr. Erik Patel with a silky. Lucky guy!

This lemur is rare. It is considered one of the rarest mammals in the entire world and is definitely in the top 25 most endangered primates. This is largely because it is the primate that gets laid the least; unlike most animals which have a mating season, female simponas only mate one day a year, usually in December or January.  They give birth only once every year, if not once every two years. Oh, and deforestation doesn't help. There is also nothing stopping people from eating these lemurs. This is one of those species that will probably go extinct within the next ten years, so enjoy it while you can.

Insular species are always more vulnerable to extinction, but the simpona is an extreme example. A low breeding rate combined with habitat destruction and human predation make it one of the rarest mammals on Earth. They are already called "ghosts of the forest" because of their scarcity and white coloration. There may be fewer than 1,000 left. All animals are important; it helps that this one is cute.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Kiviak.

A lot of people seem to think that humans have weak stomachs.We hear that wolves can eat things that have been dead for weeks and go "ooooh." This gasp of awedoes not take into account the sheer variety of things that humans can eat. Chocolate is poisonous to most other animals, for example.

Well, guess what? We can eat things that are rotten. We just call it "fermented." We don't just eat rotten things - we eat rotten art! Cheese and wine are fine examples. There are some that sound far less savory, however...

Kiviak is a Christmas, wedding, and birthday dish from Greenland. From this alone, one can tell that 1. this will not be "normal" meat and 2. it is definitely cuisine. It is eaten by Inuit peoples around the Greenland area in the wintertime. Hoo boy is it special, too.

Kiviak has a simple, yet somehow utterly disturbing recipe: 1. Skin a seal;  2. catch 400-500 auks and sew them into the skin of said seal;  3. wait several months, then remove the seal from the rock you hid it under. Yes, that's what kiviak is: auks stuffed in a seal skin, hidden under a rock for a looong time. I've gotta wonder who first went "hey, let's put birds in a seal carcass for seven months and see what happens!", but that's the tip of the iceberg when it comes to kiviak.

The other nasty part is how you eat the auks: bite off the heads and suck out the guts. The innards have, by this point, been liquefied into a tart pulp that can easily be slurped. It supposedly reeks just as much as some types of cheese, but luckily, tastes pretty good, too. After taking birds out of a dead seal, it's hard to get any nastier, so we're glad there's a silver lining to the seal skin.

People have been doing fermented cuisine like this for a looong time. There are whole catalogues of fermented foods, many of which smell awful. It's a method of preserving food, which is always nice to develop. Given the choice between this and lutefisk for preservation, well...kiviak is all-natural.

P.S.- This entry has been brought to you by Moyashimon, the unholy master of all things fermented.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Datura Revisited - Scopolamine and Brugmansia.

A while back, this blog covered a genus of plants called Datura. All Datura species are highly poisonous in every single part. It's related to nightshade and...tomatoes. Yeah, be very afraid of tomatoes.

Datura was also mentioned in a book called The Serpent and the Rainbow. The Serpent and the Rainbow centered around the creation of zombies through drug use. Datura was one of those substances. Recent investigation suggests that Datura may be all that is needed to create a zombie mind slave.
Datura is closely related to the trees mentioned above. The video is slightly incorrect in that the plant in question is in Brugmansia, not Datura. The plant is so feared in Columbia that children are discouraged from sleeping under it. Apparently the plant can also be found in New Zealand, where people just plain don't touch it because of the horror stories. Yeeep.

Scopolamine, the active chemical in Brugmansia, is notorious amongst conspiracy theorists. The Czech police, and supposedly the U.S. government as well, have used it as a truth serum of sorts. However, this may not have been the best idea; the victim, while suggestible, is still tripping. In theory, they could answer "how many fingers am I holding up?" wrong.  Greeeat truth serum, guys.

Now, as per Wikipedia, scopolamine can be used for things besides carrying out crimes using another person's body. It is mostly used for treating things like motion sickness and seasickness. Some people do use it for tripping, but by no means is it a regular thing. Most people stick with the dozens of other drugs available in those parts.

As I noticed, though, the data in the video is slightly off. The interviews seem legit, so it's probably not the drug dealers' fault that they got the genera mixed up. A drug that inhibits free will like that sounds unbelievable, but since when has anything been impossible in this world? Who knows? Truth might be stranger than fiction this time around.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Bio-Art: Moyashimon (1) Review.

So, before I started Dog Week, I did a Bio-Art feature on Moyashimon. I told you that there would be a review up as soon as I finished the series. Now that I've seen all of the first season, I owe you all said review. Here goes.

Gotta catch 'em all!

Let's make something clear from the get-go: Moyashimon is not a kids' show. Despite the cute Hello Kitty-style microbes,  Moyashimon is aimed at people college age and above. The little buggers are cute, but a lot of the series is comprised of the most KAWAII science class ever, drinking and/or eating weird things, and contemplating what one ought to do with one's life. There's also corny college humor and some adult jokes what, while not too dirty, would fly right over kids' heads like so many microbes. In other words, it's for people who have been, are in, or will soon be in college. You have been warned.

That said, I got a real kick out of Moyashimon.What I thought would be a fest of microbes acting like moeblobs turned out to be a funny show with characters more or less typical of a college campus. Along with learning about all the cool things microbes do in our daily lives, we get to see these people develop, make important decisions, etc. Also, there's a scientist who's a true sadist - complete with a whip in Moyashimon Returns. Yes, I'm into that.


Moyashimon makes its points very nicely. One, microbes are everywhere and perform a multitude of functions in our everyday lives, some good and some bad (but mostly good!); college is when you find your real niche in life, even if it's not what you expected; agriculture can actually be a great bonding experience; aphrodisiacs (usually) don't work. It's a lot deeper than one would expect a comedy with cute microbes would be.

Overall verdict? Watch it if college is near and you think microbes can be cute. It is educational, and having an interest in biology is highly recommended. They have a Moyashi-rap in Returns, which brings back memories of the ol' Pokeymanz days. I wish PBS had something this cool. We'll brew you next time!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Who Let The Dogs Out?: Wolfdogs.

So, maybe after pugs, you're thinking that we humans have gone too far. Hell, it feels like society has forgotten that dogs are, in fact, carnivores. Maybe we should take a step back and introduce some wolf into the dog.

 Oh, wait. That's a thing.

When a dog happen to meet at the right time of month, they make a wolfdog. There is no "one size fits all" description for a wolfdog - every one of them will be different. It's just like with mixed breed dogs. In fact, wolf dogs are almost the exact same thing as mixed-breed dogs, with all the unpredictability and hybrid vigor therein.

First off, a reminder: The scientific definition of "species" is based on "can this thing get it on with this thing?" It has absolutely nothing to do with the human perceptions concerning dogs and wolves. To science, if something can mate and produce 100% fertile offspring with something else, those two things are the same species. There may be behavioral difference between wolves and dogs, but that doesn't stop them from doing it like they do on the Discovery Channel...successfully.

STILL look adorable.

As the silver fox study shows, most of the traits that we treasure so much in domestic dogs come from breeding just for docility. That includes floppy ears, wagging tails, and general obedience. The wolf is not bred at all - rather, it undoes a few stitches of whatever breeding went into the dog. Even with all the variability wolfdogs have, the tendency is toward timidity, not aggression. That does not mean you should keep one without doing your homework.

Let's look at some testimonials from people with wolfdog experience:

 "I have a friend that has three. Not judging, just fact.

He got a puppy last year to go with his two older dolves..

His puppy chewed up his cabinets. Like, not a little bit that you could cover up with some trim. THE SIDES.

HARDWOOD FLOORING in his kitchen, which was her area while he was at work or whatever. He lets his dogs out at regular intervals, and other than his preoccupation with wolf/dog hybrids, he's a great pet owner.

His puppy has not one but TWO genetic defects, too (something about intestinal adhesions and her kidneys aren't in the right spots)."

"high (wolf) contents are often very difficult to handle and actually tend to fare BETTER as mostly outside dogs. they need a lot more everything all around. get a real high content hybrid and its an average 14 or 15 year commitment riddled with high insurance, expensive fencing, oftentime an animal who HAS to be fed raw, little to no travel(traveling with a wolfdog is practically impossible), the threat of your dogs being seized, and a lot of concerns that go above and beyond just owning a dog." 

And finally, someone found this helpful little sheet on determining whether a wolfdog is right for you or not. This was honestly the least biased thing I could find about wolfdogs. I'm not necessarily advocating wolfdogs, but the behavior there seemed chillingly different to anything I have ever found when asking about reptiles. Call it a vibe; I could tell some people there just hated wolfdogs. I don't, but you should know what you're getting into.

Although some breeds, such as the Czech Wolfdog, deliberately have wolf infused into them, bad things happen when wild wolves cross with stray dogs. The resulting hybrids might have no fear of humans - y'know, one of the things that had to be bred out of the domestic dog. You have domestic dogs to thank for pure black wolves, by the way.

For those of you curious, Balto, the most popular wolfdog ever, might not have been a wolfdog. He was most likely a purebred Siberian Huskie. Rumor has it, however, that Iditarod racers are contemplating breeding wolf into their stock to give their dogs more endurance, speed, etc. That's what wolves are slowly becoming: Dogs on steroids.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Who Let The Dogs Out: Komondor.

You may have noticed a trend for this week: Small dogs tend to be weird. Versatile as the canid genome may be, abusing it is not without its faults. The weirdest dogs also tend to be from China, but that's beside the point.

As if to prove that not all weird dogs are small, we have the Komondor. This guy looks similar to the Puli, another Hungarian dog with a mop for fur, but is quite a bit larger. The breed has been recognized by the AKC since 1937. Although not quite Chinese, the Komondor's ancestors do hail from Tibet.  It's still cool enough to be one of Hungary's national treasures.

The Komondor's coat consists of white cords that look like albino dreadlocks. This was originally used to prevent bites from wolves that would attack sheep flocks; no matter how cool wolves are, they just can't bite through an organic mop. The moppy coat can only be white in a Komondor, so if you want black or grey, try a Puli. No, they do not come in pastel pink or any other color that would suggest that they can be treated like Crimp n' Curl Cabbage Patch Dogs. Even the Puli would be slightly offended by that; Komondors are even more serious business.

They look more like poodles as puppies. Laugh while you can.

Komondors are guard dogs. They do not even need to be told to guard sheep and cattle. There is a saying that a Komondor might let an intruder into the house, but will never let them out, leaving the helpless soul pinned under the dog's weight (which can be upwards of 80 pounds). They are always wary of strangers. That said, early socialization of these dogs is a must.

Aside from their protective temperament, Komondors have very few health problems compared to every toy breed ever. The main problems are with the eyes, including cataracts and inversion of the eyelid. Bloat is a problem in all large dogs. Due to the heavy coat, parasites are common. That coat also requires a lot of maintenance. Budget accordingly. 

Komondors may look silly to us, but they are not goofballs. The breed has the ability to think independently and has been praised for its strength, valor and courage over the centuries. They are still pretty popular today, especially for shows and livestock hunting. Don't let the haircut fool you; this dog will not back down from wolves.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Who Let The Dogs Out?: Pugs.

Humans have a very weird definition of "cute." Generally, if it has big eyes, a nearly-flat face, and a short body, it fits this definition. Animators figured this out a long time ago. There are several guides which can tell you, in scientific detail, how to design a cute character. It's really kind of creepy how well they have this pegged.

Thing is, animation rules don't always translate to real life. Case in point, pugs.

Pugs are wrinkled, little dogs who fall under the "toy" header. Generally speaking, they are small, stocky, "squarish" dogs with wrinkly faces and almost no snout. We're pretty sure pugs came from China; they may go back to 551 BCE if Confucius was indeed describing a pug. Some records say that they've been around even longer.They look a lot like the same "lion" that the Pekingese were pointed towards, only not as furry and not as spoiled by a certain empress dowager. No, they were meant to guard Buddhist monasteries.

The pug is usually summarized thus: multum in parvum, or "a lot in a little." They have a lot of personality for a small dog. They are outgoing, playful, and eager to please. They can, however, be rather stubborn as well, and require a healthy amount of exercise. Personality-wise, they are a good match for most people.

So, what's not cute about that? The combination of facial folds and large, bulging eyes creates an uncanny effect. Also, if you look at clips on YouTube, you hear pugs snorting. Indeed, pugs do have respiratory issues; they also have a million eye problems from the shortened skull and overheat really easily. There are also a few pug-exclusive diseases, including necrotizing meningencephslitis - inflammation of the brain and central nervous system. Cute comes at a price.

Pugs are one of those dogs that I, personally, look at and go, "are these really worth it?" These guys are not as notoriously aggressive as Chihuahuas, but they do come with a laundry list of problems. They sounds like good companion dogs...if you can handle the extra care involved. You mileage may vary on cuteness. Still not too bad for a dog made in China.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

"They Actually Eat That"/Who Let The Dogs Out: Hot Dogs and Dachshunds.

You're probably thinking that this entry is some sort of bad joke. I already did an entry on eating dogs, after all. This was just my corny attempt to fit "They Actually Eat That" in with the theme week. I don't need to make many more bad jokes; dachshund owners do it for me.

For those of you who assumed "wiener dog" could not possibly be the right name for a dog breed, the proper title for sausage-like dogs is "dachshund."  The breed could date all the way back to ancient Egypt, but the first confirmed dachshund was recorded in the 1700's. They are now so closely associated with Germany that the 1972 summer Olympics in Germany created a dachshund mascot.

Waldi, the too-colorful dachshund mascot.

The dachshund's shape is deliberate. It was meant to hunt badgers (with the name meaning "badger hound"). That long, narrow, pointy shape fits perfectly into a badger burrow. The front paws even help for digging! There are also some mini-hot dogs bred to hunt rabbits. The pet dachshunds are usually "tweenies," or wiener dogs somewhere in the middle of the two sizes.

Believe it or not, there actually is a relationship between dachshunds and hot dogs. A German concession seller at the polo grounds in New York first called sausages in a bun "Dachshund sandwiches" sometime in the early 1900's. Supposedly, a New York Post cartoonist could not spell "dachshund," so the name "hot dog" stuck instead. That said, hot dogs themselves are mystery meat coated in bacteria that might make you sick if not cooked and cause cancer if consumed too often, so please avoid them whenever possible.

Also avoid putting them on your dog. Seriously, it looks ashamed.

The strange shape of the dachshund is not without its price. There is a spinal disc malfunction so specific to dachshunds that it's dubbed "Dachshund Paralysis" by most people. Dachshunds are lazy in old age, leading to obesity, diabetes, and all those other nice things doctors warn you about. Demeanor-wise, they are also prone to being brave to the point of recklessness, disobedient, and downright aggressive if not properly amused. E.B. White had quite an experience with his own dachshund, Fred, who "even disobeys me when I instruct him in something he wants to do." Not a beginner's dog by any means.

So, next time you see a furry little sausage at the park, bear the following in mind: 1. Dachshunds  were meant to hunt badgers, easily among the meanest furry mammals on the planet; 2. they are almost synonymous with Germany, a place known for meat, beer, and Rammstein; 3. they are aggressive, assertive little buggers who do not know what it means when you are bigger than them. Have fun sticking them in hot dog buns, now.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Who Let the Dogs Out: Pekingese.

Domesticity aside, dogs are usually considered masculine animals. You rarely, if ever, see puppies on birthday cards intended for girls. Dog meat contains a lot of yang (masculine) energy. "Bitch," the term for a female dog, denotes a woman acting like a man. No matter how cute a dog is, it's still masculine.

There are still some dogs that would make people question that perception. Toy dogs with long hair, like the Pekingese above, tend to be seen not as fully feminine, but definitely effeminate in American culture. This is not so in China, where the Pekingese is associated with royalty and, umm, this:

Pekingese dogs are based off of the Chinese perception of a lion (also called a Foo Dog or shishi). Not a real lion - a creature the Chinese made up out of every awesome animal on the planet after hearing stories about lions. China has never had lions, but they heard that whatever a lion was, it was the king of beasts. They also presumably had to get in the car - err, rickshaw - if a lion ever came around. 

The Chinese soon began breeding dogs on their idea of "lion." The "lion" had poofy hair; check. The monkey face, well, they improvised by making the Pekingese's face as flat as possible. (British show standards later outright said, "muzzle must be apparent." Good show!) Other origin stories say that the Pekingese was a cross between a lion and a monkey (or some other small animal). Whatever the case, the Pekingese was treated as a being so sacred that it could chase away demons - and foreigners.

RAWR! >:3

For the longest time, Pekingese could only be owned by members of the Chinese Imperial Palace. In particular, the Empress Dowager Cixi was very fond of Pekingese and kept several in her palace - supposedly, one for every outfit she could manage. For those of you who do not know Chinese history, Cixi was one of the many reasons China hated female rulers; she was basically their Marie Antoinette. As if building a giant jade boat instead of giving her country a decent military was not enough of a slap in the face, she also set the standards for the Pekingese breed. Charming. 

As the Pekingese became even more popular outside of the court and spread to other countries, another disturbing trend came into fashion: "Sleeve Pekingese." Pekingese were bred to be extra-small so that they could fit inside the flowy sleeves of the Chinese nobility. Thus concealed, they could be used for assassinations. Given how bitey a small dog can be, that should not be a surprise. Breeding for these mini-dogs of mini-dogs was eventually outlawed by another Chinese empress; this act alone makes her more palatable than Cixi.

Some dogs were born too late to directly benefit from Empress Tzu Hsi's kindness.

In general, breeding for small size in dogs is not the best idea. Toy dogs in general die from trauma more than anything else. Both the cardiovascular and neurological systems are at high risk. Flexible though the wolf genome may be, it has its limits.

The Pekingese also has some specific health requirements. The fur needs daily combing. The same coat that makes Pekes attractive can also lead to overheating. The flat face comes with its own issues, such as major eye problems and a high risk of respiratory disorders. There is virtually no way to screen for any of these.

You wanna know something really disturbing? Pekingese are one of the oldest breeds of dog. They go back at least 2,000 years. Genetically, they have more in common with wolves than Huskies. That just goes to show you how versatile the canine genome was before we started playing with it...and how easy it was to play with. The question is not, "can we do this?", but "should we?"

Monday, September 3, 2012

Theme Week for September: Who Let The Dogs Out?!


For those of you who have not been following this blog for very long, I am not a dog person. In fact, I think there are some examples of severe insanity among dog owners in particular.  The video above covers just one of my major bitches (pun intended) with dog people. It's like dogs are Jesus or something. There, I said it; props to the random person on Twitter who put my bile for the dog's seeming Mary Sue-ness in our society into one succinct phrase. It's not that I hate dogs, it's that people get insane concerning dogs.

Now, mind, I know a few people with dogs. Some of them are perfectly nice people. My best friend still talks about her deceased dog Bruno just like Foamy described; that's an issue, but I would call it the tip of the iceberg. No, it's these people I have a real problem with:

In recent years, the dog has become a total commodity. We now have a wealth of products assuring you that your dog can color-coordinate with whatever you happen to be wearing: doggy clothes; doggy birthday cakes; doggy nail polish; doggy hair dye. Dog yoga is also apparently a thing ("doga"). I'm fine with giving dogs treats, but this is disturbing when you think about it. It's overanthropomorphizing to an unhealthy degree. Yes, all pet owners do this on some level, but it borders on madness with dogs. As if to add insult to injury, this is especially prevalent on smaller dogs- dogs that already come with problems.

Mind, the early people got really lucky when they managed to domesticate the first wolf. They happened to find an animal that could not only recognize people as alpha, but had quite a few other behaviors in common as well. It also happened that wolves had an extremely versatile genome (bigger than the human genome by a LOT- 23 chromosome pairs in humans versus 39 pairs in dogs) that allowed for a great variety of breeds to flourish over the centuries.

But where did we get off turning wolves into this?

I swear there is a dog beneath all that fur.

There are some dog breeds that just make me go "why?" I've already done an entry on Chihuahuas, the most "why would you do that?" dog in the entire world,  but there are still so many more dog breeds out there that make my mind reel with WTF. Many of them have already been covered. This is just picking up more freakish scraps. Just because we can mess with the canine genome doesn't mean we should.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Creature Feature: Caracal.

The average human psyche has exactly two images in mind in regards to felines: big cats, like lions and tigers, and domestic cats. The small- and mid-sized wildcats are often overlooked. That's a shame, because a lot of them are really neat.

Enter the caracal, one of the most striking of the little cats. If you took a lynx and exaggerated its ears and tail, you would get something that looks like a caracal. Caracals are native to much of Africa and the Middle East, and the name derives from a Turkish word meaning "black ear." Although it looks related to lynxes, it is closer, genetically-speaking, to the African Golden Cat and the tabby cat down the street.

The ears are the most noticeable part of the caracal. They have long tufts that make lynxes jealous. Although nobody knows the exact purpose of those tufts,we have several theories as to why they exist. On lynxes, the ear tufts function almost like radio antennae, helping the cat to hear. They might also help break up the outline of the caracal's head.

There's more to caracals than just the ears. Their paws have stiff hairs that probably allow them to walk on the sand, sort of like snowshoes. The caracal is also known for snatching birds in mid-flight - sometimes many birds at once! They also get most of their water from their prey, and domesticate surprisingly well.

Caracals have been in human company since ancient times. India and Iran both have a good history with these cats. The Persians were fond of using them to hunt pigeons. They can kill up to ten pigeons in one hunt! Yes, these cats have been exotic pets for a very long time, and remain pretty popular today.

Keen observers probably noticed a while back that caracals look a looot like house cats; yes, the two can make babies.The Moscow Zoo tried it, and caracal-cat hybrids can be found in captivity as well. "Caracats" have many of the same traits Savannah cats do - larger size (12-14 inches at the shoulder, 25-30 pounds) and fertility issues in the males. (For those curious, yes, servals and caracals can breed, too.) They usually use Abyssinians as a domestic base. F2 (second generation) caracats still have the attractive ears of their wild relatives and make better pets than F1 hybrids. Above is a caracat kitten for your squeeing pleasure.

That said, this month's Theme Week is going to be a doozy. I'm a cat person,  darnit!