Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" (Pattypan) Squash.

Luckily, today's "They Actually Eat That" isn't too terrifying. In the face of a week of things that will leave your mind reeling with how terrifying they are, squash seems relatively tame. But hey: It's Halloween. Pumpkins happen to be a type of squash. Deal.

First off, cool as pumpkins may be, there are a lot of cool squashes out there. Squashes in general are New World fruits, and are considered one of the Three Sisters (major crops) along with the corn and beans cultivated by Native Americans.That said, they probably also fall under the category of "things used in foreign cuisine that you didn't know were from the Americas." Hey, that's actually a good article idea.

For purposes of this blog, however, a lot of squashes just look weird. They're knobbly, bumpy, twisty things. There are some advertised as looking like snakes. They're almost like the token alien fruit. You could paint a squash blue, stick it in a sci-fi B movie, and nobody would ever be able to tell that fruit was from Earth.

Pattypan squash (Curcurbita pepo)  just looks like a UFO. As the name would imply, these are small squash that can be fried in the same size pan as a hamburger patty. This actually led me to buy some out of curiosity. There were a few recipes online, and I thought that some sort of unique flavor would come with the unique appearance.

I was wrong: pattypan squash has no taste whatsoever. Pumpkin and zucchini have flavors; pattypan has a flavor so faint it's an anti-flavor. All of the flavoring comes from whatever you drench it in. The recipes are good because of the butter and herbs added to the squash. Not that I liked squashes to begin with, but I was expecting...a flavor. It's one of those things that I'm stunned people eat simply because it did not agree with me. (For the record, I don't like pumpkin either, but I can see why people like the flavor; here, it's more like liking the sauce than the squash itself.)  No offense meant; the fruit still looks amazing, and would make an awesome decoration.

 I think I'm starting to get a grudge against the whole squash family. Be right back; Christmas mint spree is just around the corner.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Blasphemy Week: Ebola.

So I have to step it up. Although I usually rant on and on about how beautiful the world is, this is Halloween. I did just about the only thing I could think of that this blog has not done: Have a week full of things that disprove the existence of a loving God.

The keyword there is "loving." I'm OK with God or what have you being the bang-zoom that got the universe started. Nature, however, is a bloody, mangled, violent venture. One could argue that natural selection, which is pretty darn hard to disprove, ultimately makes a species 'better,' but that's still a lot of blood lost for one 'perfect' individual that will eventually die anyways - hardly 'loving' in any sense of the word. These are the things in nature that would make Saw sleep with his lights on asking "why?"

The squiggle that kills millions.

That said, onto our first monster of the week: Ebola haemorrhagic fever, AKA the Ebola virus. There are five species, each of which named more for its regional distribution than anything else.  All of them are rather nasty, although some are slightly nicer than others. The fatality rate can be up to 90% in an outbreak, and it is not a merciful death. The most common vectors are African fruit bats, but a fair amount of mammals, including humans, can pass it to people. If one person in an African village gets Ebola, that village is usually screwed.

This virus attacks everything. It starts as a general malaise, including fever, then escalates into a flu. Things quickly get worse with headaches, muscle and joint aches, diarrhea, sore throat, and stomach pain. Strangely enough, hiccups are also a symptom. Headaches indicate an attack on the central nervous system. Yeah, no part of the body is safe from this thing.

You must be at least THAT covered to approach Ebola.

The word "haemorrhagic" should be enough to tell you that the mild flulike symptoms get even worse. Someone with Ebola bleeds from everywhere. Any place with a mucous membrane (most notably nose and nether regions) starts gushing with blood. Their body gets covered in bleeding rashes, effectively making them sweat blood. On the plus side, this allows the virus to replicate itself further; contact with bodily fluid from anybody with Ebola is enough to spread it.  Small wonder Ebola is treated as a Class A Bio-weapon- it makes people suffer.

The good news is, Ebola happens mostly in underdeveloped countries in Africa. It rarely crosses over into places with proper sanitation.  The people really have enough to deal with, including starvation, military control, malaria, and vicious animals that are commonly shown on nature programs. There is an amazing amount of trouble there already. If the meek were really blessed, why create a disease that makes one bleed from all orifices? Not the work of a loving deity, there.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Bio-Art: E.T.

Am I the only one who has noticed that aliens are everywhere, nowadays? Hell, we have alien Pokemon - not that the implications of Pokemon coming from space weren't present since Gen I. It figures that extraterrestrials would eventually be in our base, stealin' our pop music:

(Mad props to the original creators.) 

Now, if you're into conspiracy theories, you'll probably know that "E.T." is pushing not only alien invasions, but the transhuman agenda. Basically, any monkeying with a human's natural capabilities can be considered "transhumanism." That includes cloning humans, making babies glow in the dark, and so on and so forth.

And hoooo boy, does this video monkey.

The title and outer space setting are misleading (but very pretty). Whatever Katy is, she is highly impacted by the flashing videos of life on Earth. With the swirling clothes, it's not even clear that she has a stable body.  It's hard to tell what sort of thing Katy is at first, but whatever she is, it becomes something entirely different by the end.

Enter embryology. The video doesn't start with a live alien; it starts with a camera shot into what we later learn is some sort of life capsule. The first Katy we see is undefined, just like an embryo. That's why we can get stem cells, or cells that can grow into any organ, from an undeveloped fetus. I may be stretching it, but it makes more sense than "OMG A RANDOM ALIEN FELL TO EARTH!" which is a wholly shallow, exoteric interpretation.

The use of videos within a video intrigued me. They cover the whole spectacle of nature, from flowers to cheetahs. Rewatching it, I saw more and more recognizable images that actually helped the microcosm grow and develop. Somebody put a lot of thought into exactly what clips went where.

These videos are not random. Most, if not all, of the video clips become obvious parts of the chimerified Katy. The order is also symbolic; the video starts with plants, a primitive form of land life, then moves onto birds (living dinosaurs) before flashing to mammals (and one lizard?). There is also a jarring instance of the Circle of Life in which a fawn is shown right before a barely-alive antelope; again, this loops back to death and rebirth, and our little embryology lesson (our body actually kills off cells as it develops). The mating monkeys toward the end speaks for itself, but has an extra meaning when shown in the context of the video. The "alien" from the start of the video becomes a strange composite of earthly beings, including humans, animals, and maybe plants.

The future shot at the end is also worth talking about. In this apocalyptic scenario, even the pigeons have gone extinct, making Katy the last reservoir for natural life. The man she finds is an android who only finds a body with the touch of an 'alien'  that happens to resemble a divine nature spirit. Presumably, life blossoms again when her and her new boyfriend do the nasty. It also shows a possible consequence of transhumanism: that humans will be so good at preserving themselves that nothing else will be left.

There are a number of ways to symbolically slice "E.T." It definitely advocates accepting the strange. It is probably pushing the 'transhuman' agenda, if only by getting us used to chimeras. At the same time, it shows us a consequence of our own dabbling: A completely barren Earth with only a few survivors. Of course, this is an interpretation; the official artist probably said something that was torn apart by conspiracy dogs.

Also, please, ignore Kanye West. He offers absolutely nothing of note and detracts from something that is otherwise interesting. Thank you.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Creature Feature: Tentacled Snake.

Look at that title. Really, look at that title and use your imagination. There are a million ways to get creative from the title alone. Did a snake do it with an octopus, and is this entry devoted to their unholy lovechild? No. Is it the ultimate in tentacle pronz? No. It's just a water snake that just so happens to have tentacles on its face.

The tentacled snake (Erpeton tentaculatum) is a rear-fanged water snake native to Southeast Asia. It is wholly piscivorous. Its entire life is spent in muddy lakes and rice paddies. Some even venture into seawater.  Unlike some snakes, which come in a rainbow, tentacled snakes are only striped or blotched. Like many water snakes, they have live babies. 

The tentacled snake was not science's most creative naming venture. The most prominent thing about this water snake is that, yes, it has tentacles. These tentacles detect fish better than the snake's tongue ever would. They use a blend of sight and touch - yes, these tentacles loop back to the vision center of the snake's brain. Imagine sticking your tongue out periodically underwater; that is why they evolved tentacles.

The evolution of tentacles is far from this snake's most impressive feat; how it uses them is just as cool as their existence: 

The way the tentacled snake manages to catch the fish is a whole different matter. In the video above, you can see the snake bending its body right after it detects the fish. This motion is enough to trigger the C-start (escape) reflex of the fish, sending it straight into the jaws of death. This snake is predicting what its prey will do next. That's pretty impressive.

Most of us think of the reptile brain as primitive. The revelation that snakes can meter out their venom and the behavior of the tentacled snake above should be enough to make one wonder how intelligent snakes really are. This one just so happens to have tentacles, making it either cooler or creepier. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Creature Feature: Sapo.

I am hard-pressed to find something terrifying that fits here and not in the theme week, "Proof That There Is No God." Yes, next week covers things so terrifying that we cannot believe that a merciful god exists anymore.

So here's a frog that gets you plastered. Enjoy!

The giant leaf frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor), or just Sapo, is a toad native to the Amazon rainforest. It is nocturnal, meaning that frog hunts must be done at night or in the early morning. The frog sings only after it rains. Presumably, it eats some of the many insects that fly rampant throughout the Amazon.

The five-dollar question: How giant is giant?  I'll put it this way instead of giving you numbers: It does not fit comfortably in a human hand. It was called a "beautiful, giant thing" by Vice Magazine.  Some people have also felt psychoactive effects just by touching it, so not only is it huge, it gets you high as a kite.

We have to presume you are not buzzed while holding this.

Before you ask: No, these are not toads you lick. The Sapo is a toad that the Mayoruna and Matses natives tie up with grass, then torment until the venom forms a gelantinous teal coating on the toad's skin. The venom is then put on sticks that are burned into a shaman's skin.

And then they get high on the frog venom. The frog affects everybody differently. It can lead to sedation, stimulation, hallucinations, anorexia, and apparently spiritual experiences. It reacts to the same receptors opium does, but the burn probably deters people from using it as often as opium. It almost makes you wonder "who tried this first and how long did he live?" Seriously, who thought this was a good idea?

As one might have guessed, the Sapo is the target of considerable research. Aside from being a great drug, the waxy venom might be able to cure cancer and AIDS. There have been a few attempts to patent Sapo venom compounds, but no headway has been made in the research department. Hmm...I wonder why? Could they have achieved spiritual enlightenment and gone "Screw patents?"

Friday, October 26, 2012

Creature Feature: Pacific Salmon.

 When most people think of salmon, they think of one of two things: 1. pink fish meat, 2. the crayon named after pink fish meat, 3. a generic fish that gets caught by grizzlies on nature programs. If only the life of the salmon was emphasized instead; they're really more fascinating than their rather mundane status as a food fish lets on.

Pacific salmon are salmonids in the genus Oncorhynchus. They breed in the Pacific Ocean, ut spawn in freshwater- exactly how awesome this is will be detailed later. There are a lot of different types of Pacific Salmon out there (7-odd species). They have a fair amount in common, so I hope nobody minds if I use a video of sockeye salmon at one point and Coho at another.

The rule of thumb in fishing is that salmon migrate and trout stay in one place. While not 100% true, salmon are known for an extensive migratory route, called a salmon run. They spawn in freshwater, then the adults die. The young (fry) then migrate upriver in an epic journey to the ocean, where they meet up with the other adult salmon lucky enough to make the journey. Then the cycle starts again, with adult salmon swimming downriver, using scent to find their way back to the place where they were born.That's right: These fish change from being saltwater to freshwater and back again, and swim back to the exact location where they were born using scent trails alone. Consider your mind blown.

But wait. It gets better. 

During this migration, male salmon undergo a mutation unlike that of any other fish. They develop menacing jaws, which have the specific term "kype." These all look like they swam straight out of the icy bowels of Cocytus and wish to eat your face off. Being bright red-pink does not keep those jaws from being terrifying. The hunch is also a bit disturbing. Aside from sex change, this is the most drastic change in any male fish over its lifetime.

Hatchery impact on salmon mostly comes into play in the ocean. Adult fish are harvested from the ocean, with females being gutted for their eggs. Multiple males are then forced to, umm, fertilize the eggs to ensure genetic diversity. The young are raised at a building until they're mature enough to swim in the streams. The impact has been severe enough to endanger wild salmon populations; hatcheries are both responsible for the decline and capable of preserving some of the more at-risk species. Pollution doesn't help, but it is really hard to legislate fishing. Hatcheries may soon be the only source of salmon, so be careful of what you're eating.

Salmon is one of the healthiest fish to consume, being a good source of protein and Omega-3 fatty acids. Remember that salmon lead interesting lives, and that mature male salmon pack a terrifying face that will haunt your nightmares. You're welcome.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

They Actually Eat That: Tilapia.

Fish has a weird cultural line going on with it. Some people consider it meat; others don't. There's a thing called "pescetarian" in which fish is OK but other meat is not. It's a weird line, and, as time goes on, an easily crossable one. As people learn of the horrors of factory farming, more and more of them will avoid meat. That leaves seafood as the next target to exploit.

Tilapia is the most common labeled fish on supermarket shelves. Originally, they are a type of cichlid native to various parts of Africa, probably making them the most populous African cichlid in the world. Dismiss your images of people hooking wild-caught tilapia right now; this omnipresence reeks of "bad for you." Let's see why, shall we?

First off, all fish has some level of mercury in it. While fish can still be seen as an alternative to white meat, it is no longer the holy grail of healthy flesh that it was once thought to be. Tilapia in particular has low levels of the things that make fish good for you, like Omega-3 fatty acids. It's just a tasteless white that sells well in cafeterias and schools. Brain food it is not.

Onto tilapia, then. If you buy fish sticks or any other "mystery fish," chances are that it is either tilapia or Alaskan pollock. I hesitate to say anything about Alaskan pollock. Both fish taste like white. Both fish probably have the same problems. This aaaalllllll loops back to corn, guys.

Most tilapia are farmed. The farms are usually located in places like Malaysia or Honduras - far away areas where people will do all sorts of not-quite-ethical things to make a living. The difference is that pigs, cows, and chickens are cute, and fish are generally not.

Tilapia are so plentiful because they feed really, really well on corn and soy. They take pellet food regularly, and, like every other farm animal, gain weight quickly. They are factory farmed, just like chickens. Hell, they've been called "aquatic chickens" because their white meat is really just about as good as chicken is for you.

It gets worse: They're trying to get salmon to feed on corn, too. Neither salmon nor tilapia are meat to eat grass, let alone the mutant grass we call maize. Go ahead, look at a mature male salmon and tell me that this thing is meant to eat corn. I dare you.

If you just evacuated your bowels, my work here is done.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Creature Feature: Brown Tree Snake.

Ever wonder where some laws come from? There are whole webpages devoted to cataloging unique laws that make no sense in other countries.

There are also some crazy laws that don't make it past the House and Senate. Thank goodness HR669 was one of them. HR669 would, in short, have made it illegal to keep any "exotic" animal - even things as small and cute as parakeets and chinchillas. When you think about where the law came from, it makes a modicum of sense...but that doesn't mean it needs to apply to the rest of the world.

This law originated from Guam. In case that means nothing to you, Guam has a snake problem. A big, brown snake problem that has killed off 90% of Guam's native fauna. While someone from Guam has perfect reason to be afraid of snakes in particular, their brown tree snake situation is insane. Let me show you.

From NatGeo. Actually kinda cute.

This is a brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis). It's a slender colubrid (i.e. not a boa, python, elapid, or true viper) that can get around ten feet long in extreme cases. It actually looks really cool for something with such a mundane name, and has very mild venom. The brown tree snake is endemic to northern Australia, Papua New Guinea, and that general area.  It has also been naturalized on Guam...and this introduction is consequently proof that there is no God.

The snakes were not consciously brought to Guam. They hitchhiked in some wood on a military boat sometime after WWII (some places say 1948). From there, one gravid female hit the jackpot: her babies now had a supply of food that rarely happens in nature. How bad was it for the ecology on Guam? Let me express it in numbers.

There used to be 18 species of birds on Guam. Fifteen of those 18 species are extinct. All lizards save the (also invasive) house gecko have also been devoured. This was an island with almost no natural predators, let alone any defenses against venomous, Australian snakes. 

All species of endemic mammals on Guam are now functionally extinct if they are not outright gone. There were only three mammals endemic to Guam, and they were all bats. To a snake's mind, a bat is a cross between a bird and a mouse. Those three bats were definitely on the menu.

Oh, and forget Burmese pythons being man-eating monsters. Brown tree snakes have absolutely no fear of humans. The snakes cause power outages, of all things. Although there is absolutely no way that a brown tree snake could fit its mouth around a human infant, some have tried. This was not an accidental feeding error of any kind; these snakes fully, 100% intended to eat human children. There have been at least 11 cases of this between 1983 and 1993. That's more than the recorded amount of man-eating python incidents. Nothing is safe from brown tree snakes.

Before you suggest anything about stopping these snakes, it's too little, too late. Repeated introductions of mongoose onto snake-invaded islands have actually proven to hurt bird species more than snakes (I'll get into why when I cover habu- I've already done them as food). Guam is slowly becoming an island of the snakes. Since it's a transportation hub, however, it could easily spread to other islands like Okinawa...and apparently also Texas. Even with dogs sniffing the snakes out, it sounds like Guam itself is pretty screwed.

That's the thing about Guam's situation: It's the exception rather than the rule. Not every introduced species will flourish like this. The worst invasions are accidental introductions like this. Illegalizing the pet trade will not stop the problem. At least we know what we're shipping. You wanna stop Guam from happening again? Ban humans.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Bio-Art :A-Positive.

Admit it: the robot apocalypse is nigh. Google replaces some of your brain; everybody has an iPhone or a Samsung something or other; eventually, we will all be barcoded and scannable. We may even be approaching something called the "Singularity" - a point when every mind on Earth exists not only in the flesh, but also as a digital copy. Once this happens, say goodbye to free will. Just be glad the robots aren't after our blood....

...oh, snap. Thanks, Eduardo Kac. Thanks a bunch.

The robot above is part of a setup called A-positive.  It was done by Eduardo Kac and Ed Bennett in September of 1997. It was made for the ISEA art exhibition in Chicago. They call it art; I call it another reason to avoid needles and robots.

A-positive is the only robot with a working circulatory system. In exchange for human blood, it injects humans intravenously with dextrose (sugar). The oxygen broken down in the process fuels a tiny flame symbolizing the force of life.  It needs a human donor to keep the 'nanoflame' stable.

The idea behind A-positive was not only to think about the technological penetrating flesh, but to show that a human-robot relationship is not necessarily apocalyptic. Instead, this robot is symbiotic with humans; the robot gets blood, the human gets sugar. If anything A-positive works in the human's favor - that flame needs human blood to burn, but dextrose is just one of the many sugars we can metabolize.

This brings up an interesting question: Is the robot apocalypse really inevitable? If the Singularity does occur, might not the replicated hive mind have a sense of ethics? Can a machine have ethics and morals if it really does advance beyond humans? All good food for thought!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Creature Feature: Spotted Seal.

This blog has a lack of pinnipeds for no apparent reason.  Plus, I felt bad about delaying yesterday's entry, soooo....


...have a spotted seal. :)

The spotted seal (Phoca largha) is the quintessential 'seal.' It eats fish as an adult and smaller crustacean sas a pup. It is native to the north Pacific Ocean, including Japan, Russia, China, and Alaska.Althogh very similar to the harbor seal in appearance, the main distinguishing factor of the spotted seal is its irregular spots.

The spotted seal is one of those "puppy dog cute" animals. Excepting the carnivore teeth, this seal has no sharp parts. Sure, it weighs anywhere from 180-240 pounds and gets over two meters long, but that doesn't stop it from being adorable. It's even got a pointed face like a dog. What's not to like?


When they aren't swimming, spotted seals spend almost all their time on ice floes. They are usually solitary, but gather in huge crowds during mating season. They are among the few animals to temporarily exhibit a nuclear family (mom, dad, and baby) while rearing a pup. Otherwise, they are off on their own, diving up to 1,000 feet (300 meters) for their fishy prey.

Normally, the spotted seal is not endangered. It's so common that its There is an exception in China, where the seals from South Korea gather to breed. Not only are they China's only pinniped, but spotted seal meat and, umm, genitalia supposedly have medicinal properties. What? Were you expecting the Chinese not to eat seals?

Yes, that is a seal in a race car. OH JAPAN- copyright the folks at Digimon.

Of course,  since these seals are native to Japan, they have been Japanified. Japan takes anything remotely cute (or not) and turns it into colorful toys for all. The spotted seal, or gomafu azarashi,  is no exception; there are plushie spotted seals that one can hang from one's cell phone, a pet mamegoma video game, and other doses of KAWAII that overload most circuits. Most of us probably know Gomamon, the Digimon character, a lot better than anything else spotted seal-related from Japan. If it's weird and wonderful enough to wind up as part of the main cast in Digimon, it's weird enough to be on this blog, right?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Creature Feature: Bookworms/Common Furniture Beetle.

A lot of people reading this have probably heard the phrase "bookworm." For those of you who haven't, one, you're probably living under a rock, and two, it means someone who really likes books - a bibliophile. They are most often depicted as nerdy little worms of some sort, often comically reading a random book. So are bookworms a real, actual species of insect?

Answer: Yes and no. There are a number of insects and invertebrates that could be called 'bookworms.' Silverfish and cockroaches are quite fond of hiding in between pages of old books and taking a bite. There are bugs called "booklice" which are not really lice at all, instead being flying insects that have been around since the Permian. Even rodents occasionally chew on books. Some of them are interested in the glue; others tunnel through the pages like wood; rodents will gnaw on anything to keep their teeth filed down. Really, especially in the modern age, a book is a very safe hiding place with some food lying around. There's no reason for bugs not to invade such a place.


All sorts of things can eat books, but the term 'bookworm' usually refers to the larvae of one of two beetle species: the common furniture beetle (Anobium punctatum) and the death watch beetle (Xestobium rufovillosum).  Even then, these two are usually more interested in the wood around the books than the book itself. Books are made from trees just like wood, and so happen to be on the menu. They are like junk food to these baby beetles.

On that note, take bookworms seriously, especially if the larvae in question belong to the common furniture beetle. Beetles called "bookworms" will fly in through any little crevice and lay their eggs near books. These are, however, wood-boring beetles; any wood that isn't made from "heartwood" (the inner wood of the tree) is prone to infestation, as is any untreated wood. 


The most obvious signs of bookworms are, of course, little larvae and tunnels in your books. Look for 'dust' on your bookshelves if you think your wood might be infested. To prevent them to begin with, keep your books in a clean, dry place. If you think you have a whole library's worth of little grubs, there are a few chemicals, including tobacco, that you can use to fumigate the area. Do your homework before trying to get rid of other bookworms.

Although some of the cartoony bookworm characters are quite benign and adorable, this is definitely not the case in real life. Real bookworms can wreck an entire library without checking out anything. Nature sees paper as "very thin, dead trees." Why shouldn't stuff take advantage of it?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Creature Feature: Australian Hopping Mouse.

Australia is both the land of weird and the one place where everything is out to kill you. Seriously, even the koalas and kangaroos are capable of leaving nasty marks, and there are few more humiliating deaths than "head smashed by a wombat's rump." Dingoes- you know, the things that eat babies - started out as dogs brought over by Aborigines, which then went right back to being wolves. The rule of thumb is, if it has a placenta, it doesn't belong in Australia. That includes humans.

Thing is, there are exceptions to every rule.

There are roughly five species of hopping mouse (genus Notomys), with five others completely extinct. Several are vulnerable. All are herbivores, feeding on whatever seeds, roots, and leaves they can find. They live in most arid areas of Australia.

Australian hopping mice are actually mice. As in, rodents. As in, they have a placenta and did not come there as stowaways with humans. That makes them weird by Australian standards. Although not the only native placentals there, these jumping mice are among the few.

Of course, this is Australia. Everything that comes to or lives on Australia becomes weird, aggressive, or both. Since diverging from the common ancestor with normal mice, hopping mice have become larger and, well, hoppier. The good news is that they reproduce a little more slowly than other rodents. Insofar as we know, they have not killed anybody, even with unintentional parasites.

A Dusky Hopping Mouse. I promise, it won't bite.

In this case, the hopping mice have several similar rodents to call distant cousins. The kangaroo rat and jerboa are both desert rodents with parallel adaptations. It's not that somewhere along the line, kangaroo rats were transported to Oz; this is another cool example of convergent evolution.  Desert mice suddenly becoming bipedal seems to be a trend.

Hopping mice, like jerboas and kangaroo rats, are capable of surviving on very little water. They do not drink. They also have larger ears than most rodents; as in jackrabbits, these large ears help redistribute heat. Their urine has less fluid than that of the average mouse. Plus, they're adorable. Chalk another one up for convergent evolution.

Hopping mice are so adorable, in fact, that Australia will let people keep some of them as pets. The two species up for consideration are the Mitchell's Hopping Mouse and the Spinifex Hopping Mouse (which can already be kept as a pet in New South Wales). This study from 2010 favors keeping the Mitchell's as a pet in order to preserve the species. That's right: Even Australian customs might be letting this one slide. YAY.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

You SHOULD Eat That: Beanitos.

Every Wednesday, I cover something that we should be shocked that people actually eat. I never really go into what we should be eating, culturally or nutritionally.

Well, here's an actual recommendation: Beanitos.

Beanitos are bean chips. They have been around since January of 2010. There are a few flavors to choose from, including black bean, pinto bean and flax, cheddar, and BBQ. My friend says that they have just the right crunch to them. They're newish, so they might cost a bit more than the average bag of chips, but they sound amazing. Think of them as corn chips without the corn. 

And guess what? There's no corn in them! Their company policy is to be 100% corn-free. Mind, soy is the second most overproduced crop in the world, but no corn is at least a step in the right direction. They even advocate the labeling of all food as GMO or organic.

Finally, no, I have not tried these yet. A friend of mine is a huge fan of them. I still support their sentiment as long as they are honest about it. Buy them if you support organic food, proper food labeling, and the busting of the food factory that dominates the U.S. Vote with your dollar; big companies listen. This is not a matter of my personal taste so much as it is "rage against the food machine."

Support the cause these guys have going. Your dollar matters. Whether they taste good or not is a matter of personal preference. Point is, give beans a chance!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Creature Feature: Alala (Hawaiian Crow.)

Picking up where my rant on the strangely positive silver lining of the exotic pet trade left off, a nice video on YouTube just added another member to the list of "extinct in the wild, but has a breeding captive population." Surprise, surprise, it's...a crow?!

Yes, the Hawaiian Crow (Corvus hawaiiensis), AKA the 'Alalā, is one of the most endangered animals in the entire world. Like most crows, these are omnivores with a preference for eggs and insects. They are usually heard making a bizarre caw mixed with a meow, but that weird call is being heard a lot less lately. The crow is sometimes treated as a deified ancestor; that has not kept it from going nearly extinct.

All of the Hawaiian Crows in Hawaii today have been captive-bred. Even then, 21 of the 27 CB crows died almost as soon as they were returned to the wild. They're so rare that they're extinct in the wild except for the sparse captives that have been released. Those are at risk of being food for Hawaiian hawks, so really, the population's still under considerable threat. Yes, these are still versatile, resourceful, intelligent crows we're talking about.


The strange thing? Nobody knows exactly why this crow has gone completely extinct in the wild. Feral pigs, rats, and mongoose have all been cited as culprits. Microscopic nemeses include avian malaria, fowlpox, and Toxoplasma gondii, AKA the protist that causes crazy cat ladies.The Hawaiian hawk also eats these birds, but that's a natural predator.

As people who are not on islands, we tend to take crows for granted.  They really are valuable scavengers. Even disease-bags can be hit with nasty parasites, eaten, and have their habitat destroyed. Don't take any animal we have for granted. You never know what might affect them.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Bio-Art: Herpaintology.

Along with a lot of awesome reptiles, I met an artist who makes jewelry  NARBC. Her name is Jessica and she makes jewelry out of "dragonhide"- specially-treated reptile sheds. I'm not sure if she keeps any reptiles of her own, but she has a ton of experience handling their skins!

Now, just to be clear: No reptiles were harmed in the making of these necklaces. Reptiles shed their skin in papery bits in the case of lizards, and papery tubes in the case of snakes. A fresh, bright skin is underneath.

These are really awesome up-close. Even with, say, a red heart beneath the snake's natural texture, it's easy to tell what snake the shed came from. This one with an iguana spinal ridge is particularly eye-popping. Don't buy snake leather- buy these!

I also got to see her making a few trinkets. While I could not get a full, in-depth look at the crafting process (trade secret!), what I managed to see reminded me of papier mache. I can't say anything beyond that except... them. I donated a few sheds to the cause of awesome jewelry. Eclair's sheds are among them; the artist is trying to get sheds from 50 different species by the end of this year and was missing a rosy boa. Her website is at, but I would recommend checking out her Etsy page instead. Everything's nice and organized, there.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Ethics Week: The Exotic Pet Trade.

(WARNING: Long article is LONG.) 

"The exotic pet trade is the most profitable trade after drugs." While true, this statement aligns something debateably bad with something almost definitely bad. Although, yes, a lot of exotic pet owners do not know what they're doing, the knowledge about the care of  exotic animals is now more accessible than ever. Exotic pets, including fish, birds, and reptiles, are usually available in shops in the developed world; people tend to worry more about large snakes, wolves, and big cats being handled by people without adequate resources.

That said, a warning: Beware of Stampy.

For those of you who do not know the earlier episodes of The Simpsons, Stampy was Bart's former pet elephant. Stampy was won from KBBL radio thanks to a lucky phone call. The prize was supposed to be a thousand dollars, but Bart insisted on picking the African elephant - a joke prize - over the actual money. The radio station was forced to acknowledge the deal, and managed to send the family a full-grown African elephant, whom Bart christened "Stampy." The end result was an animal that the family could not afford to keep and was certainly not happy in suburbia. Luckily, Springfield happened to have an elephant sanctuary. Stampy, now a partially-tame elephant, was then referenced on at least two separate occasions in subsequent episodes.

Bart and Stampy's situation is a legit exotic pet lover's worst nightmare: a giant animal kept in horrible conditions without any research done beforehand. Indeed, a lot of pets are bought on impulse without any forethought whatsoever. In the case of exotic pets, this mistake can be quite damaging. The owners of such pets are lucky if they can find a shelter willing to take exotic animals. For convenience, I will refer to people in this situation as "Stampies."

The exotic pet trade has been going on since time immemorial. For ages, kings and emperors had things called "menageries" - collections of animals so extensive that they were basically private zoos. The first official menagerie supposedly started with Charlemagne in the 8th century, although cheetahs and other 'exotics' had been kept as royal pets long before that. The aristocratic menagerie later evolved into the modern zoo.


Oh, gods...old zoos sucked. If you have ever seen the old, old pictures of animals in cages just barely big enough to fit them, that is exactly what they were like. Zoo exhibits now are actually quite nice compared to the boxes animals used to be stuck with. I'm not saying that all tigers should be kept in captivity, but eventually, that may be all we have. We might as well give them a good home while their old habitat is being destroyed.

Exotics can be seen as nature's last refuge. The Spix's macaw and scimitar-horned oryx come to mind; both of these species are now extinct in the wild, and are being bred in captivity so that they may be reintroduced once their habitats recover. Although the initial intent may have been for pets or sport, the result remains positive. If there are any Spix's macaws left, they number less than 50, if not 0. 71 (the number of Spix's in captivity) is a bigger number than 0.

The counterargument is that the exotics trade encourages capture from the wild; while this may be true in the initial phases, as time goes on, people will eventually prefer animals that are slightly socialized to be around humans, come free of parasites, and will overall be cheaper than going into the wild and catching them. The main issue is always habitat destruction, but who's to say that exotic pets can't be spokes-animals?

The exotic pet trade has been around for a long time. Things have gotten better, not worse, with that time. (Individual cases vary; on the whole, things have gotten better.) A lot of the exotic animals that you'll find in zoos have been bred in captivity. Thanks to how long it's been going on and, with improvements in technology, potential exotic pet owners can now become educated. There's a chance to go, "How much will this elephant really cost me?" before buying it. Should one go forward with getting an exotic, parasites and other issues with wild-caught specimens will be less of a burden.  Stampies are now easily preventable.  If that is not a good thing, I don't know what is.

Another thing that many people against the exotic pet trade don't realize is that Stampies occur regardless of the legality of the pet. There is always someone who will buy a big dog to make themselves feel tougher, only to realize that they got more than they bargained for. Siamese cats are very loud and can keep people up in the middle of the night, but don't they look so cute as kittens? That's why purebreds in particular wind up in shelters. People get too relaxed and don't do research. Don't think you can handle a Great Dane just because it's a dog, and hey, you've got a friend with dogs.


The examples above stem from ignorance, just like most of the reports of Burms and retics escaping on the news. The main difference is that there are plenty of people willing to take in a Great Dane or Siamese, and a lot fewer people willing to handle a giant snake. People abandon dogs and let dogs escape all the time; does it ever make the news? Not usually. We've just grown that accustomed to dogs.

Another thing that tends to come up regarding the pet trade is the possibility of invasive species. The worst animal invasions do not come from the exotic pet trade at all.  Any introduction of any foreign species can be devastating to an ecology, regardless of intent. Nobody wanted to bring Japanese beetles into the U.S., or Brown Tree Snakes into Guam; they got there by accident. Rabbits and cats are pretty much domesticated, yet they wreak havoc in Australia and did the same thing in Hawaii. Although not necessary invasive, cows are unintentionally the most environmentally-destructive animals in the world; rainforests die just so that Mickey D's can sell hamburgers, and cows produce methane, one of the leading greenhouse gases. Whether an animal is 'exotic' or not doesn't mean a darn thing. Humans will touch almost anything in nature. If you really want to protect a place's ecology, ban humans.

This is not to say that the trade should go completely unregulated. Rather, if exotic legislation was based on rationale instead of fear of the strange, we would see a lot less of it. Places like Hawaii and Australia naturally have a lot more laws than other areas; domestic animals and stowaways have already wreaked havoc on the ecosystems there. Florida has issues not only because of the ecology being perfect for giant snakes like the Burmese python, but also because the Miami airport cannot handle exotic imports very well. The Lizard King has more details on the politics therein if you feel inclined to research them. Point is, they actually have reasons for the laws as opposed to, say, a nationwide ban on all pythons. Yes, that almost passed.

Even then, some creatures that could be considered 'exotic' are now almost in the realm of normalcy. Ball pythons and parakeets (budgies) come to mind. In states where they are legal, ferrets are now recognized as a sort of 'domestic exotic' (nobody knows where pet ferrets came from, but at the same time, not everybody has one and they aren't legal everywhere).  More and more species formerly called 'exotic' are now common sights. I'm going to go out on a limb and call this man-made biodiversity a good thing; more options means more learning opportunities, and more chances to connect with the big, wide world that people tend to take for granted. 

Am I saying that everybody should have a wolf or tiger? No. Am I saying that nobody should dive into a pet period? Yes. It just so happens that some pets are more 'normal' than others, and it is not uncommon for people to bite off more than they can chew regardless of how normal a pet is. Research something before you buy it, whether it's a cat, dog, steppe runner, or anaconda. (That last one is a horrible idea unless you've been keeping reptiles for at least a decade, by the way.) If there's a law preventing you from keeping something, look into why. No matter how much I advocate Darwin Awards, a happy pet-human relationship is preferable to death.

Results not typical...but very cute.

NARBC 2012 Coverage.

First off, the turnout was more impressive than last year in some ways, but a letdown in others. The biggest bummer is that there's a frozen rodent shortage going around.  Literally nobody was selling mice. That sucked, to say the least.

So, here were the highlights:

Cold-Blooded Creatures had a display outside the hall.  Among their offerings was the legendary super-tame alligator, Bubba. Disclaimer: Results with alligators are not typical. It's obvious that the people who tamed Bubba had a ton of experience with alligators before handling him. RESULTS NOT TYPICAL; do not try this at home. 

The first thing I saw upon entry into the actual convention hall: So. Many. LEOS! Actually, they had a few fat-tails, too. I'm still intrigued by lizards after seeing so many wild ones in Rome. Leos have a ton of colors, including eye morphs. I will most likely get a lizard in the future, but exactly what kind remains to be seen. Leos are a good starter bet, though.

This woman had a baby leopard tortoise in her hand. People do that at these cons - you can find a few new owners showing off their catches to other collectors. I wouldn't recommend letting people who have been touching unknown reptiles handle your new pet, though. You don't know where those hands have been.

In case I never touched on them before, NERD (New England Reptile Distributors) is one of the biggest ball python breeders in the world. They invented the spider morph and use it frequently in their projects. The 'next big project' involves a new gene called "Lucifer." Someone loooooves them balls.

To put things in perspective: these hatchies (also from NERD) were probably in the 10,000 dollar range. For real.

Retics! I can't get enough of the wacky paint jobs that people give the largest snakes in the world. I know balls are the ideal pet snake in several aspects and have a plethora of colors and patterns, but there's something about retic patterns that keeps making me go "wow." These guys are a different type of albino than my usual, though...

...that's better. :)

Like most geckos, crested geckos can drop their tails to distract a potential predator. Unlike with most geckos, however, the tails do not grow back. The result is a cute little lizard with a very stumpy tail at a discount price. Don't worry- the stumpy tail is not genetic.

This yellow monitor seemed rather stressed in its little plastic display box. Don't worry - wherever it winds up, it'll have more space.

This seller had few more random lizards, including a basilisk - my personal favorite lizard, but not for beginners. I'm a little bit wary of this particular vendor, who has been here every year. The beauty snake I checked out there once looked like it may have been a wild-caught import...but on the flip-side, they always have some really cool, unique stuff.

 This skink was so cute! Another con purchase being shown the world by her new owner, this girl was sooo sweet! She liked being scratched behind the ears to the point where she would cuddle right into your hand for more. Unfortunately, she never showed her blue tongue to the camera.

Aaaand my own personal catch from the convention: a female hypo boa. She was sold for only 40 bucks by people donating money to help save an endangered Siamese crocodile. Boa constrictors are a sort of standard introductory 'big snake' for people who aren't sure if they can handle a Burm, but still want to lean towards larger reptiles. They're also extremely photogenic; if you see a beautiful woman with a large snake, chances are it's a boa or Burmese python. So, yes, I am well aware of how big a boa can get.

P.S. - another bio-artist was sighted. She will get a free plug Monday. ;)

Friday, October 12, 2012

Ethics Week: PETAmon!

 Tomorrow is the North American Reptile Breeders Conference. That mans there will be a huge post with pics on Saturday. Sunday will have a closing article discussing the ethics of exotics. In the meantime, "Ethics Week" fodder keeps throwing itself at me.

So, before that mess, one thing:  I don't like PETA, but I really have to admit that they have outdone themselves on this one.  I mean, someone at PETA actually played the Pokemon Black/White game; there's a spoiler in there in case you haven't played Pokemon Black/White, yet. Also, they utilized the almighty Mudkip overlord, for which I am eternally grateful.

(Hint: Use the pink attacks. They work miracles.)

Normally, I would not want anything to do with PETA. Yes, animal testing and abuse are both horrible. There are, however, some groups so highly against humans being within a mile radius of any sort of domestic animal that they wish humans to stop touching animals entirely. Fact is, the human species has benefited greatly from utilizing animals in testing to the point where this photo is quite true:

Basically, if you have ever had a medical emergency, you probably owe a lab rat (a literal one) your life. Yes, there are humans taking some 'lab rat' jobs, nowadays; the main reason for using mice and rats is that it is a looooot faster to get results. With medicine in particular, it's a good idea to test on something inhuman first; skewing the dosage just a tiny bit can result in killing someone. When you really get down to it? Yes, I can go on record saying that a human life is just a tiny bit more valuable than the life of a little white mouse, especially when people expect to be paid for drug testing.

This is not to say that I condone any and all cruelty. Factory farms are still crossing the line; circuses are still brutal to their animals. There is a line there that PETA is notorious for crossing. (The HSUS is another organization like this.) At least they know when they are being made fun of in a multi-million dollar franchise...and respond in good spirits.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Ethics Week: Kraft Foods Bust in Idaho.

As many of you probably know, a dairy farm belonging to the Kraft Foods corporation was called out on numerous animal cruelty charges. Here's the scoop on that in case you haven't heard (in which case you are either not in the U.S. or under a rock):

"Workers viciously punch, kick, jump atop and stomp on cows held in restraints as the animals scream in pain in a video shot with a hidden camera. 

In other scenes from the video released Wednesday, the cows are mercilessly beaten with canes and shocked with electric prods as they struggle to keep their balance on the slippery and unsanitary feces-covered floors of holding sheds.

The footage filmed at Bettencourt Dairies’ Dry Creek Dairy in Idaho — one of the largest dairy farms in the nation — has led to charges of criminal cruelty to animals against three workers and put heat on Northfield-based Kraft Foods, the fourth-largest food manufacturer in North America.

Bettencourt supplies milk to a cheese processor for Kraft, according to Mercy for Animals, the animal-rights group responsible for the video. The group showed the video at a news conference Wednesday at the downtown Embassy Suites Chicago.

Bettencourt also sells milk to cheese suppliers for the Wendy’s burger chain. Wendy’s said Wednesday that it had demanded that its supplier sever ties with Bettencourt immediately.
Bettencourt is an indirect supplier to Burger King, the world’s second-largest burger chain, which said it had launched an investigation that could result in similar action.

Kraft said it had no plans to sever ties to its cheese supplier, Davisco.

“Kraft condemns the handling behaviors shown in this video. They are both upsetting and unacceptable. We have long believed high-quality dairy products begin with quality animal care,” Kraft spokeswoman Angela Wiggins said. 

“It is important to note that Kraft does not have direct supplier relationship with Bettencourt Dairies,” she said. “However, we have made it clear to [cheese supplier Davisco] that these types of incidents are both deplorable and unacceptable.”

Mercy for Animals said it had hoped the video would persuade all three companies to stop using milk from Bettencourt.

That would send a message to the dairy industry, where abuses such as those seen in the video run rampant, said the group, which wants the companies to require suppliers to establish policies on care and treatment of cattle.

“Due to Kraft’s complete lack of meaningful animal-welfare standards, blatant and sadistic animal cruelty was allowed to flourish at this factory farm,” Rebecca Frye, director of education for Mercy for Animals, said at the news conference. 

“No socially responsible corporation should support dairy operations that beat, kick, mutilate, confine and neglect animals. Kraft must take immediate actions to prevent further abuse at its suppliers,” Frye said. 

The video, which was shot by a member of the group who got a job at Bettencourt this summer, includes footage of workers violently twisting cows’ tails and dragging a cow by a chain around its neck and shows sick or injured cows suffering without veterinary care.

Misdemeanor charges were filed in August against two workers and a manager, who face a fine of up to $5,000 and six months in jail.

Bettencourt Dairy’s owners said in a statement that after being confronted with the video by the Idaho Department of Agriculture, they fired five workers, installed video cameras and retrained staff.
The farm houses about 60,000 milk cows."

~From the Sun Times. Graphic video therein.

A lot of people will not understand exactly how big a blow this is. Yes, Kraft Foods is a huge corporation, but do you really know how huge it is? Kraft is one of the three most powerful food companies in the entire world. Here are a few things that you probably never suspected were made by Kraft (because we all know about the mac 'n cheese):

Jell-O (gelatin dessert)
DiGiorno (pizza)
Crystal Light
Nabisco (including Oreo, Ritz, etc.)
Seven Seas (salad dressings)
Starbucks (grocery items)

 ...and much, much more. (Thanks to Vigilant Citizen for the helpful list.)  So, yes, you probably have eaten something made by the corporation that allowed this to happen.

I for one do not buy Kraft's apologetic attitude towards this incident. Factory farming has been the industry standard for years. There are exactly three companies (Nestle, PepsiCo, and Kraft) dominating the industry. They are the standard. Search more of Kraft's dairy sources and most of them will probably be factory farms. They might treat their animals only a tiny bit more kindly than the video linked in the article. Mercy For Animals has the right idea.

For those of you who don't already know, a call-out like this is a biiiig hit to Kraft's reputation. Reputation is important to companies; if people don't like you, they probably won't buy your stuff. Kraft really needs to put their foot down on this one, or else a lot of mac n' cheese might be going on clearance.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Ethics Week?: Sensitive Plant.

Well, OK. This month is probably going to be short a theme week. Luckily, it seems to have warped itself into a sort of "ethics week" devoted to making you think. That problem smoothed itself out. Enjoy...or don't, depending on whether you enjoy thinking or not.

One of the chief tenets of animal rights is that animals feel pain. They suffer just like humans, and as a rule, it's good to minimize suffering.  Animals used for meat lead particularly dreadful lives in factory farms unless stated otherwise. Again: Suffering = bad, especially since humans have consciences.

So what do we do if plants can feel pain?

Mimosa pudica is usually marketed as a "sensitive plant." Numerous other names are cited in the video. Outside of novelty marketing, it is native to tropical Central and South America. It has since been spread to every other place with that climate as well.

M. pudica exhibits rapid plant movement. Like something out of Avatar, those leaves fold inward when faced with any sort of stimulus. Just touching these plants is enough to make the leaves curl. The reaction to fire is particularly dramatic. Nobody knows exactly why the plant evolved this way, but the current theory is that it is some sort of predator deterrent.

M. pudica has uses beyond being fast. Chemicals in mimosa have been found to be helpful against larvae of the roundworm Strongyloides stercoralis, which causes abdominal pain and diarrhea in infected individuals. Aqueous solutions may also dull the effects of the chemicals found in the venom of the monocled cobra. Freakish and can cure snakebite? HM, I may have to invest in some.

Not all plants are as sensitive as Mimosa pudica. Does this mean that they can't feel like a sensitive plant? They probably can, but they do not react as quickly. Letting dogs vote sounds pretty ridiculous; will "let corn vote" be next? Honestly, their vote would outweigh the entire population of the United States and count for about as much!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Bio-Art: Elephant Painting.

Many of us probably see art as a human thing. Creativity is one of the things that make our species special. We probably shouldn't be surprised that another mammal can make art...and it's not a chimpanzee.

Believe what you see: That is indeed a real elephant drawing a painting of an elephant with a flower in its trunk. Six elephants have been trained to paint other elephants at an elephant camp in Thailand. The one pictured here is one of the older females. Cool, isn't it?

Now, let's get a few things straight: the female elephant shown here has been trained to paint. The training took about a month, which is enough to prove that elephants are super-smart animals; say what you will about creativity, but a month is a short time for an animal to learn something. Dogs go to obedience school if they can't learn to sit; elephants can make art in the same amount of time.  It was all done with positive reinforcement, so any elephant-made paintings are humane as well as unique.

Does being made by a trained elephant mean it's not art? Oh, it's art. Elephant-made paintings can be found in a few art galleries. You can also buy prints of them online here. Being human is not longer a requirement for making art, although the abilities to abstract and use opposable thumbs help considerably. (Speaking of, chimpanzees are supposedly HORRIBLE artists by comparison.)

On an artistic note: An elephant could not be a Western artist. One of the key differences between Western art and Eastern art is that Eastern art practices economy of line. Western art seeks to capture every little detail in an attempt to make a photorealistic image; Eastern art would rather use just enough lines to capture the subject's spirit. The elephant in the video could not replicate Van Gogh, but I would say she captured the spirit of the elephant very well.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Creature Feature: Indian Cobra.

Looking at the title, one or both of two things are probably running through your head: one, this is totally typical of me, and two, why am I picking on such a well-known animal? The answer might surprise you: In the wake of yesterday's little video on morality, is it possible for evolution to occur via religion?

As a rule of thumb, humans do not kill animals that they like. Chances are, if you eat meat and live in the U.S., you do not personally know the cow that your hamburger came from, and you would not eat your own cat or dog unless it came down to survival. Culture decides which animals go and which ones stay. In stark contrast to America's picky eating habits, we have China, where the best way to absorb an animal's qualities is to eat it. If something is considered sacred to a culture, it will usually be left alone.

Everybody reading this probably knows something about the Indian cobra, AKA Spectacled Cobra (Naja naja). The first name comes from being found in India; the second, from the marks on its hood. It eats rodents, birds, frogs, and, yes, other snakes.  This is often the cobra used in snake charming, so you've probably at least seen a bad caricature of one.

India is practically known for snake worship. Buddha is sometimes seen shielded by a multi-headed cobra;  numerous deities show the cobra like a protective talisman; snake charming happened in India and almost nowhere else for a reason. India is the only place with an official 'Big 4' of poisonous snakes (although Australia probably has something similar). They have whole festivals in hopes of not getting bitten. They also have an interesting story to explain how the venomous Indian cobra got such interesting markings on its hood.


Legend has it that Krishna, one of the biggest, most powerful gods in the Hindu pantheon, was asked by some cowherds to detoxify a river. All living things that drank from that river died, so yes, it was a pretty big deal. The source of the poisoning was the naga (big cobra) Kaliya, who, in some versions, was hiding from Garuda, a half-bird half-man that was the mortal enemy of nagas. Krishna still had to get the snake out of the river, and gave the cobra a stomping. Those footprints remain on the snake's flattened hood to this day. Another origin story reflects the pattern's similarity to the 'om' mudra, but that's far less exciting than a snake getting trampled.

The Indian cobra already has some respect for being in India's Big 4; that and the cobra's visually-impressive display were enough to get it deified. That has, intentionally or not, been taken a step further by selecting which snakes should live by the markings on their hoods. Although Indian culture is generally wary of killing any cobra, their neighbors in Pakistan are not so kind, and actually discriminate against cobras with hood marks and cobras without.

This really does look like footprints! Source:Wikipedia.

Pakistani culture (i.e. a culture in an area very close to India- no, I am not accusing the two of being the same) treats marked and unmarked cobras differently. As per Secrets of the Snake Charmer, black Indian cobras are called "Caro," "fierce," while the ones with hood markings are called "Padam," peaceful. Supposedly, a fierce cobra lives for 125 years before becoming 'peaceful.' Pure black cobras are usually killed; the ones with the footprints of Krishna on their hoods are spared. It is thus probable, although not really provable, that something similar could have happened in India.

If this is selective breeding, it is selective breeding of a most unusual sort. It's not like the snakes are being bred in a facility to have the most elaborate hood markings possible (although no doubt some have tried). It's more like snakes with the marks have a carte blanche to live fuller, happier lives than their unstamped counterparts.

Could India be unintentionally breeding cobras for hood markings? It seems likely. Now, what about other hood markings? You'd think that looking like a bull's-eye would be a bad thing.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Video: The End of Morality?

A lot of people will probably not like this video. Hear the guy out; he knows that wolves and even creatures as simple as bacteria have an organized social system and thus a sense of morality. I'm surprised he didn't bring up whales and dolphins.

Dolphins are a particularly interesting example of "morality." On one hand, they have a complex social structure and can show an amazing amount of compassion for and comprehension of other species; on the other, dolphins rape, murder, and kill porpoises for fun. They show both the black and white of the morality Oreo. Take note of how there is usually more black than white in said Oreos.

Chimpanzees are also not sparkly-clean examples of morality.  As I said in a previous entry, they wage war, kidnap, and eat young chimps. Chimps are brutal animals by human standards. If the argument for Darwinistic morality is all based on altruism, someone hasn't done their research on chimps.

This eventually dips into the issue of animal rights. The Amazing Atheist doesn't go that far, but it's an issue whether animals can actually have morals or not. I'm with him in thinking that humans ONLY have morals is pure egotism. You?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Creature Feature: Indus River Dolphin.

Is there anything happier than a dolphin? Really, name one creature that lights up a room more than a giggling, clicking, smiling dolphin. As Cracked put it, "no animal is more closely associated with Day-Glo rainbows."

Then we get into river dolphins. River dolphins are Flipper turned nightmarish. I won't go into a more thorough description than that. Just...

...that. Just that. You would not want that to save you while drowning. (Well, maybe Bogleech would.) This dolphin warps our perception of dolphin so well it's awesome.

"That," in this case, is an Indus River dolphin (Platanista minor). The Indus and Ganges River dolphins are technically the same species, although how scientists decided this is anybody's guess (how would you breed these two?). It eats shrimp, carp, and catfish, among any other small seafood unfortunate enough to get caught in those teeth. It is native to the Indus River in Pakistan, joining leopard geckos and sand cats on the "cool animals that can be found in war-torn areas" list.

When it comes to river dolphins, all things that make dolphins cute go downstream. That goofy smile is replaced with an elongated grin full of teeth that show even when the jaw is closed. There are no sympathetic eyes to look into.  Instead of being sleek and grey, this dolphin looks like a mottled pink dolphin corpse sent to float down the Ganges.

All dolphins echolocate, but the Indus River dolphin is entirely dependent on sonar. Its eyes are almost nonexistent; the most they can do is detect light and shadow, if that. It doesn't even have a lens in those rudimentary eyes. It is one of the rare mammals that is completely blind. Yeah, we're pretty sure this has to have some mythological relative - maybe the makara. A legless, scaleless makara.

An animal THIS weird MUST be a messenger of the gods! 

Like all river dolphins, the Indus River dolphin is highly endangered. Dams, industrial runoff, and irrigation have all hurt these creatures. Aside from habitat fragmentation, they are also hunted, and not because they look like creatures out of H.P. Lovecraft. Apparently some people are well-aware that dolphins are really horny bastards; the meat and oil can be used as an aphrodisiac. They can also be used as catfish bait - take your pick. Even if they freak us out, that doesn't mean we should kill them. They have enough problems.