Friday, November 30, 2012

Creature Feature: Black-and-Rufous-Sengi.

There are very, very few animal "combinations" that have not been done. You can slap almost any animal onto "fish" and there's probably one or two combinations for it. This is a lot rarer with mammals, but "deermouse" is a notable exception. "Elephant shrew" is a strange, almost contradictory name, which it made complete sense to change.


This is a black-and-rufous sengi (Rhynchocyon petersi). Sengis, also known as elephant shrews, are all native to Africa; there are 16 species total. This one is native to Tanzania and Kenya. Despite its looks, is perfectly capable of eating rodents as well as insects and vegetation. They are not shrews, but have flexible, sensitive noses like elephants, hence the old name.

Elephant shrews are more closely related to elephants than to shrews. They're part of that weird group of mammals called Afrotherians, which, again, has nothing to do with big, poofy hair. Rather, it has to do with elephants, aardvarks, and rodent-like creatures being each other's great, great, greatgreatgreatgreat grandparents, twice removed. It's unbelievable stuff that has been covered several times on this blog.


The weirdness does not stop at elephant shrews/sengis in general. The black-and-rufous sengi is one of the larger sengis, averaging about a foot long from head to rump. The tail can be up to ten inches long.  It is also one of the more colorful sengis, sporting an attractive red and black coat.They are standouts in a group that's already pretty weird.

The black-and-rufous sengi is also on the "vulnerable" list. This is more due to habitat loss than any other factor. Several zoos have breeding programs, most notably the one in Philedelphia, Pennsylvania. Two brothers are born in the National Zoo in Washington D.C. as well. There's no immediate danger, so we'll be able to enjoy these weird little rascals for a long time to come.


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Surstromming.

We've looked at some pretty nasty things on this column. Most of them involve eating animals that we Americans would find unpalatable, but the ultimate point remains the same: Humans will eat anything. There are even humans who put wolves to shame by eating things so rotten that we're pretty sure a wolf would drop dead from the mere odor. Not that anyone's tried, but this one would give the legendary jaws and stomachs of the wild a run for their nonexistent money.

The crowning achievement of smelly, fermented food is a type of canned fish called surströmming. It is often eaten with "thin bread" and enjoyed with light beers. It is found in Sweden - presumably only in Sweden, as will be discussed later. Specifically, it originates from the High Coast (Hoga Kusten) in northern Sweden, which also has a museum devoted to surströmming. There are several cute origin stories for it, but it probably came about as an alternative to brining.

Surströmming is one of many fermented foods from around the world. When something is fermented, that means it is effectively rotten, having been eaten away by bacteria. The herring in surströmming are left to ferment for a couple of months in slightly-salted barrels before they are put into cans. In this case,  Haloanaerobium bacteria produce CO2, making the can swell up. The reactions going on in the also produce odors similar to vinegar, rotten eggs, and rancid butter. This makes the can an effective stink bomb, as well as being high cuisine.


Surströmming is notoriously smelly, even by fermented food standards. It is so smelly that people have been evicted from their apartments without prior notice for spreading it around. The German food critic Wolfgang Fassbender once wrote that "the biggest challenge when eating surströmming is to vomit only after the first bite, as opposed to before." It is largely considered an acquired taste; if that critic's words have any merit, then that taste is hard to acquire. 

Still think surströmming isn't the king of one-whiff repulsion? It is banned on several major airlines, including Air France and British Airways. The reason they gave was that the puffed can was at risk of exploding, covering everything in a fishy mess; they probably just wanted to avoid some drunk Swede opening it in the cabin (no offense to any Swedish members of the audience). It already breaks several international toxicity regulations, and Sweden is constantly buying exceptions for its beloved surströmming. It is apparently popular enough in Sweden to warrant its own party and a lot of political SNAFUs.

Of course, this blog entry may well be proven wrong. Someone will probably come up with a smellier food, although surströmming has a pretty colorful history to beat. At least lutefisk smells like soap.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Creature Feature: Bennu Heron.

Sometimes, it's really hard to tell how a myth got started. Where did mermaids come from, for example? Not all of us are going to buy that sailors were drunk enough to think that manatees were alluring sirens. Luckily, the origins of the Egyptian phoenix, or Bennu, are traceable to a single, extinct species of heron. Fancy that.

The origin of the Bennu is known only from the bones of a large heron species, dubbed Ardea bennuides after the phoenix. Another likely base is the Goliath Heron, even though it looks absolutely nothing like the sketches. Although the bird was indeed around in the age of man, it had an ironically-short lifespan; there are no Bennu Herons in this day and age. 

The mythical Bennu was the archetypal firebird: there was only one in existence, and it was certainly immortal. The sacred stone it perched upon, the ben-ben, was said to have been around since the dawn of creation, thus linking the Bennu with time - a sort of avian sundial. It was even linked to the Nile's flood cycle.More than just an immortal firebird, the Bennu was also thought to be the soul of Ra, the (main) Egyptian sun god. In later times, the simple hieroglyph of the Bennu was used to represent Ra. So, yes, it was a very potent symbol.


Unfortunately, much less is known about the Bennu Heron. What we do know is that it was larger than the Goliath Heron. It probably had similar nesting habits to other herons in the area. Although the two-plumed crest of Osiris was likely exaggerated, nearly all drawings of it emphasize the symmetrical plumes. It was likely gray-blue on the top and white on the bottom. Mind, these are all from ancient Egyptian drawings, so it's not like they could go into PhotoShop and take a spin on the color wheel.

This is, for once, not a case of "OMG humans wiped a mythical bird out!" This heron's remains were found in areas dating 2500-2000 BCE in the United Arab Emirates. If it was wiped out by humans, they weren't killing it in any of the modern ways. Nobody knows how it died. For now, its bones have revealed the root of one of the most beloved legends of all time. Let's see if more bits of evidence rise from the ashes.

Until then, however, please have this Moltres. ;)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Bio-Art: The Meatrix.

A while back - like, all the way back in May - I did a huge entry on GreenFest 2012. Although there were several entries that did make it into bio-art spots, surprisingly, The Meatrix was not one of them, even though I bought buttons and everything. Fixing that mistake now!

The Meatrix is a series of short Flash movies detailing where our meat, dairy, and eggs come from. It was made by and Free Range Studios in the early 2000's, and two and a half more have been made since then. The points made in Food, Inc. are spelled out for you in nice little green bullets at the bottom of the screen. It's Food, Inc., condensed...only it's funny?!

Yes, The Meatrix is funny for a movie series sporting sickness, animal cruelty, and disturbing truths. While being informative, it's witty, cute, and has some funny moments (like a pig flying through the air in slow-mo). They also make a few references to the good ol' Matrix series, so if you're a fan, enjoy.  Just don't enjoy it while eating Mickey D's; that might cause a major guilt trip.

The site for The Meatrix takes things one step further. They have pages where you can look for stores that sell products from local farmers. They really are dedicated to slow food, organic farming, and so forth. It's probably closer than you think. All you have to do is look for and support it.

So I'm doing exactly what the film said: spreading the word. This is already pretty well-known, but after Food Inc., it's good to know that somebody's targeting the younger demographic. This is the film (series) about factory farming that you can show to almost anybody, regardless of how squeamish they tend to be. The message is still the same: we decide what we eat, and you show your support with your dollar.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Creature Feature: Frogspawn.

Corals are pretty strange as far as animals go. Supposedly they're alive and slightly poisonous, but a lot of people treat them like rocks anyways. They make jewelry out of coral, making it effectively the most macabre jewelry ingredient after bones and claws. There are, however, soft-bodied corals...and then there are corals like this:

This coral, Euphylla divisa, goes by the charming common name of "frogspawn." It's native to the Indo-Pacific and can be readily found in the aquarium trade. It's also called the Wall, Octopus, or Honey coral. They're pretty much living acid trips in terms of color possibilities. Y'know, as if crazy tentacles weren't enough to suggest drug use.

Just as a little refresher: Corals are usually made of thousands of teeny-tiny polyps. Said polyps live on the calcified remains of their ancestors. A single "head" of coral is also made up of genetically-identical individuals. It's as if that one church in the Czech Republic was made entirely out of the bones of one, cloned individual. That said, Corsola, you scary.

I live on the bodies of my dead brethren! :D

Frogspawn is still a stony coral, but it has exceptionally-large polyps. These polyps are bubbly, green things that resemble frog or fish eggs, hence the name. The main identifying trait, however, is that the polyp is bifurcated. This distinguishes it from a few other species, most notably grape coral (which has only one, unified tentacle as opposed to split).

There is some concern about over-collection from the wild. Frogspawn is a very common coral in the trade, so there's not much need to get a wild-snagged specimen. They take two years to propagate in the wild. Just make sure that 1) you know how to handle a reef tank and 2) you ask where the corals came from. No need to harm reef systems to look at a living work of art anymore.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

TIME FOR ZOMBIES! Thank you, Vice!

For your Saturday and Sunday viewing pleasure, here's a look at a topic that I've brought up numerous times on this blog: Zombies. I love Vice, so if something comes up that fits with this blog of natural goodness, expect a friendly cross-post.

The quest that our favorite druggie is on concerns the "zombie" potion mentioned in Wade Davis's The Serpent and the Rainbow. I have brought it up a few times when detailing tetraodontiform fish (such as fuuuuguuuu) and anything in the nightshade family.

As the documentary explains, our very notion of a zombie comes from Haiti. In The Serpent and the Rainbow, a Haitian shaman, or bokor, created an "undead" servant using a potent cocktail of macabre ingredients. Among those ingredients were datura (which contains scopolamine, the drug known for brainwashing people) and pufferfish poison (which has "risen the dead" several times). These two combined would theoretically make a "zombie" - a "risen corpse" that could be ordered to do a shaman's bidding.

I've made mention of everything in the documentary before. There have been entries on fugu and datura - look them up. Here's a little bit of extra FYI: TTX can also be found in triggerfish, and datura is related to nightshade, "devil's breath," and tomatoes. You will never think of tomatoes the same way again. You're welcome.

Spoiler alert: At the end of this documentary, we learn that the "weapon" Hamilton was given was made of inert substances. When it was taken to a lab for analysis, the powder did not contain any sort of poison except maybe some stuff found in cosmetics. Either this is one hell of a placebo (which I would not put past Haiti) or Vice just got duped. My money is on the latter.

While there is something to be said for a placebo effect, I think it's pretty obvious that Hamilton got trolled. No smart sorcerer/poison maker would allow his claim to fame to be taken back to the U.S. for analysis so easily. Could it still be a con job, even in its native Haiti? Sure. The way Crescent was behaving makes me think that he duped our intrepid reporter on purpose, however. The zombie poison is still out there.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Ummm....NSFW.

(Warning: This entry may not be suitable for younger readers. Oh, who'm I kidding? It's cleaner than a lot of the other things on the internet.) 

Happy Thanksgiving! what I would like to say. Hate to break it to you, but the whole holiday of Thanksgiving is a big, fat lie - almost literally. The story of pilgrims and natives getting together and having a nice big feast is bullplop. Nobody likes being as bloated as people get after Thanksgiving dinner. Between Halloween ("Official Eat Lots of Candy Day") and Christmas ("Feast and Candy Day"), America has three total holidays centered around pigging out, one on top of the other. As far as I'm concerned, Turkey Day can suck it.

The sign says it all. have one of the things that I don't think makes it onto any Turkey Day table: animal penis meat.

Surprised? Don't be. Often, the genitals of food animals are tossed aside...but why? Sure, they're "naughty bits," but given the general quality of food in America, animal junk would probably be cleaner than most of our fast food.  Eating penis is still largely restricted to China, even though there's plenty of meat there to work with.

First off, a brief reminder of what a penis is: meat around bone (there's a reason it's called a "boner") that just so happens to be used for urinating and making out.  It's like if you took a sausage and mixed it with ribs. Of course, as with most meats, penises are usually de-boned before being served. You're welcome.

Now for the obvious bit: Yes, the Chinese believe that eating penis has a ton of benefits for men. Again, we should not be surprised that they are used to enhance libido. Surprisingly, however, it may also have several benefits for women. Penis contains gelatinous albumen, which is supposed to help with one's complexion. Penis: it's for everyone! Well, OK, anyone who's gone through puberty already.

Although I have seen a few pics of dog penis in markets, nobody has mastered the art of eating naughty bits like Guolizhang, a restaurant in Beijing. Not only do they serve penis, they serve it like cuisine - cut fancy, on lettuce platters, the works. They also serve it such that one can see the whole length. People under the age of 15 are not allowed to eat at this restaurant, which has 4 locations in Beijing alone. There is also apparently one in the Chinatown of Atlanta, Georgia. Be on the lookout for a penis restaurant near you!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Creature Feature: Pakicetus.

Yeah, no "They Actually Eat That" today. That's for tomorrow, when everybody in America will be bloated on the disgustingly-fattening food served on Thanksgiving, including corn. You're welcome.

For now, please have something far more pleasant: Fossil Fighters's answer to Vaporeon:

Except...wait, this is Fossil Fighters. Does this mean that Vaporeon were once real?

Ahaha, no. Paki up there is a Pakicetus, a prehistoric mammal that is considered a direct link between mesonychids (badass carnivorous ungulates). It was found in Pakistan (hence the name) with a number of other whale fossils and whale relatives, and lived around 50 million years ago in the Eocene. As one might expect, it was a piscivore. The creature was first identified as a whale relative by its earbones, in case you were wondering.

The first mysterious thing about this creature is where it was found. Pakistan, a place that is largely desert, has an abundance of ancient whale skeletons. The simple answer to why: Land shifts. The land evolved, and so did the life on it. Pakistan was once coastal. This led to a bunch of well-preserved whale skeletons as whales evolved from carnivorous ungulates. Neat.

Pakicetus is the first obvious transition animal between whales and land-bound mammals. The eyes are located on top of the skull, making it look almost like a crocodile. It lived on a coastal region in its time, leading to a theory that it may have first hunted in tide pools. There are a million different speculations about how Pakicetus lived - largely related to exactly how water-bound this whale of a mammal was.

There are debates over how aquatic Pakicetus was. The heavy bones suggest that it was at least partially-aquatic. The ears are more favored for hearing in air, but that didn't stop paleontologists from placing it near whales on the Tree of Life. Others have called it "no more aquatic than a tapir." Whatever the case, we're pretty sure it didn't have a tail fluke...although that would be awesome.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Creature Feature: Rose-ringed Parakeet.

As Black Friday edges ever closer, be on the lookout for "robo-pets." These are cute, often remote-controlled amusements that will sate one's interest for a while, but generally get boring fast. They never quite have the thrill of a real animal; alas, moms generally will not buy their kids real tigers and cheetahs.

Wait a sec. That's a real bird?

Yep. He's a ringnecked, or rose-ringed, parakeet (Psittacula krameri). Specifically, he's most likely an Indian Ringneck Parakeet (P. krameri manillensis), the most common in the trade. These parrots are native to a small little ribbon in Africa and a much larger proportion of India, hence the name. There are several subspecies in this relatively wide range, which is only getting wider with time.

Unlike many common pet parrots, female and male rose-ringed parakeets are easy to tell apart: the male has a ring and the female doesn't. This is only visible in adult birds, however. Both make equally good pets, although it's usually said that male birds will talk more readily. For your convenience, they come in many colors, including blue, green, yellow (lutino) and albino. That said, please don't get one without doing your research; parrots are fairly high-maintenance as far as pets go.

Ringnecks are probably the oldest species of domesticated parrot. They go back to at least 200 B.C., when Indian religious leaders began keeping them for their ability to mimic human speech. The Greeks and Romans were also fond of the various ringnecks, meaning that keeping them goes back even farther in India. The ringnecks became even more popular in the 1920's, when birdkeepers started to breed them for the bright color palette seen above. Of course, the birds' intelligent, charming temperament helped in maintaining their popularity.

That said, this popularity has yielded an expected, yet still somehow surprising, result: Feral parrots. Everywhere. The U.S., Japan, South Africa (which isn't too far from home, really), Italy, and the war-torn Middle East all have thriving feral parrot populations. Even Australia has these guys. These birds are that hardy and adaptive to human "disturbances," plus they get so much yummy bird seed in those feeders. One wouldn't expect to see them in the U.K., but there ya go. India's revenge on the Brits is cute and feathery. No word on anything Hitchcock would write, though.

They still seem to be conspiring against us...

Monday, November 19, 2012

Bio-Art: Black Sheep.

So, I've promised you all something from the famous Weta Workshop. Luckily, they've provided creatures for a film that speaks very directly to this column: 

Black Sheep was a horror-comedy creature feature made in 2007. Everything about the film screams "New Zealand," from the setting to the actors to Weta Workshop. Reception was generally positive, and if you enjoy silly horror movies that are obviously silly horror movies, you should get a kick out of it.  Plus, you get to see sheep attack people; when was the last time that made it onto a screen?

The protagonist of the film, Henry Oldfield, once worked on a farm. Certain events gave him a phobia of sheep. Eventually, he decides to take up the old family business of sheep-keeping, which means paying a visit to his brother Angus. Angus is still in the business...and is having way too much fun with his work in a number of senses.

Henry isn't the only one paying the Oldfield Farm a visit. A pair of environmentalists, one of whom is a girl named "Experience," busts into the farm and takes a fetal lamb as evidence. As they escape, the fetus is let out of its container; the surprisingly-able lamb then turns to bite the man of the pair on the ear, as well as infect every other sheep on the farm. It turns out that the farm's secret ingredient in its sheep is human DNA- and that Angus, its current owner, is too fond of sheep.

Lovely work from Weta.

For some reason, this gene splicing causes all the sheep (even a fetal lamb) to go crazy, turning them all into sadistic thrill-killers. Whoever doesn't die by the sheep's teeth becomes a terrifying weresheep. No, really, the effects on the weresheep are actually pretty good. Henry and Experience  do, of course, manage to find a cure for weresheep-ness. This is not enough to save the people who have been disemboweled by sheep, obviously.

Although clearly intended to be funny, Black Sheep addresses the growing concern of GMO's. At the same time, it makes fun of the environmentalists trying to prevent GMO's from existing (a character named "Experience" speaks volumes). In the end, however, it does side with organic farming...with the uneasy undertone that GMO's will probably always be out there. If GMO's led to man-eating sheep, would you buy them?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Creature Feature: Giant Weta Bug.

You know what people like Greenpeace say about protecting the rainforest? That there might be a million different species there that we've never seen before, and some of them might cure cancer or whatever deadly disease have you? They're right. 100% right. New species are discovered every day, and while it's not likely that one will magically have a cure for AIDS or whatnot, there is always that one weird species that will break records.

This bug is a Little Barrier Island Giant Weta (Deinacrida heteracantha). She is infamous for potentially displacing the African Goliath Beetle for the title of "world's largest insect."  All wetas are native to New Zealand, and this girl is no exception. Giants wetas in general are highly endangered. They fill the niche of rodents where native; you decide which is scarier.

First off, what is a weta, anyways?  There are roughly 70 different kinds of weta, all of which are native to the islands of New Zealand.The name is Maori for, umm, this particular type of bug.  They used to be much more plentiful, with fossil records extending into Eurasia. Now, the island weta are under threat by rats and other introduced mammals brought by European settlers.

The giant weta in particular is the largest, or at least heaviest, insect in the world. It weighs 71g, tops. For those of you who either hate metric (why?) or need a better idea of how heavy that is...that's three mice. For something that doesn't even have a spinal cord and lives on land, that's pretty big. Yes, this is yet another example of insular gigantism.

This particular female giant weta broke records in 2011. She's the chart-topper at 71g. Granted, she was carrying eggs, but giant wetas in general are still pretty big bugs. Most adult Goliath beetles top out at around If any bug steals limelight from Africa's Goliath beetle, it'd be a giant weta. If nothing else, it's the largest weta. Goliath beetles still average 80g as larvae.

 The good news? This bug is a vegetarian. Or, at the very least, the heavy female found in 2011 had a particular fondness for carrots. Giant wetas are seriously docile; even when food is not present, they will allow themselves to be handled. There are a lot more "perfectly safe" creatures in New Zealand than in Australia, and this giant, cricket-like creature is among them. Funny how that works, isn't it?

Oh, and then there's Weta Workshop....but more on one of their works tomorrow. ;)

P.S.- In honor of Thanksgiving, "They Actually Eat That" will take place on Thursday of this week instead of Wednesday.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Newsflash: A White Humpback Whale?!

Well, here's something refreshing. This blog rarely covers whales and dolphins, so when a friend showed me this, I had to show it to you all:

"Mariners who spend lots of time at sea are witness to all sorts of amazing sights, but very rarely does one get to witness the almost mythical white whale. Dan Fisher has seen and documented this animal. While crewing aboard the three-masted SV Antigua in August, in the waters of Norway's Svalbard Archipelago, Fisher made the sighting of what looks to be a pure white humpback whale from high on the mast. (For whatever reason, Fisher waited until recently to release his footage and share his story. These are his images, Wildlife Extra

The whale first appeared as a white hump on the horizon, and was swimming with other humpbacks.

"As I realized it was a white whale, I was amazed," Fisher told the Daily Mail. "I quickly climbed the mast to get a good vantage point and captured these pictures. Afterwards we were all talking and decided to dub him Willow the white whale."

News of the sighting began circulating on the Internet this week.

White whales are rare and the most famous among them, of course, is Moby Dick, a fictional sperm whale in the 1851 Herman Melville classic novel of the same name.

More recently, a white humpback known as Migaloo has been spotted sporadically off Queensland, Australia. A white humpback calf also has been seen off Queensland. According to Wildlife Extra there have been reports of white killer whales off Alaska and Russia (possibly the same animal), white right whale calves off South Australia and an albino dolphin off Louisiana.

The white humpback spotted by Fisher, who is Welsh, is either an albino or its coloration could be the result of a condition known as leucism, in which pigmentation cells fail to properly develop. Albinos are totally white and usually have red or pink eyes.

Fisher, 32, who for the past 10 years has worked as a maritime engineer, referred to the sighting as a "once-in-a-lifetime spot" and added: "I saw lots of humpbacks this year, but nothing as spectacular as this one.""
~ From

Just to clarify: there is a good chance that these white humpback whales are leucistic, not albino. There are several differences between the two, including eye color (albinos have pink eyes, sometimes blue) and vulnerability to UV rays. Similar result, but not the same thing. Don't call a whale albino unless you're looking it in the eye.

Either case of suddenly abundant white whales speaks to a potential problem: a shrinking gene pool. Whaling in the old days made huge dents in whale populations.  Modern-day pollution can't be good for them, either. When creatures as large as whales are vanishing, the ecosystem in general and the cetacean gene pool are both adversely affected. Could the rise in white humpback whales be due to a shortage of breeding partners?

Mind, white whales have been around for quite a while. The story Moby Dick detailed one man's constant pursuit of a white sperm whale; since it's conception, the term "white whale" has come to mean something elusive to the point of being irritating. Still, to find a real white whale is very rare indeed. Let's hope it stays that way, no matter how awesome these white whales look.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Creature Feature: Paradise Tree Snake.

Flying serpents are one of the staples of mythology around the world. Every place seems to have some sort of sky snake, possibly representing a rainbow. Even the Greeks had a few heavenly sun-snakes that pulled Medea's chariot.  Just ask conspiracy theorists: serpent deities are clear proof of our reptilian overlords, right?

But that's impossible. Something can't fly without limbs, ri- 

What the flying fark?!

That airborne serpent is a paradise tree snake. The paradise tree snake is one of a genus of snakes that can glide. It and its relatives are all native to the rainforests of Southeast Asia. It is a diurnal predator, feeding on birds, rodents, and lizards. It also has a fair amount of predators, being a relatively small snake.

Oh, and it can fly. Technically, it can glide for over 79 feet. Yep.

To those of you who blinked and missed it: To start gliding, the snake The people in this video honestly do a better job of explaining the physics behind this snake's gliding than I ever could, but in layman's terms, how many of you know of flying rings? Yeah, it's kinda like that, only alive. 

As if a flying snake was not enough to scare quite a few people, these gliding snakes are able to steer. To put into perspective how hard this is, other gliding animals with limbs have a hard time steering in mid-air. Precisely because these snakes slither through the sky, they have excellent control.  Cool...if you're a snake person, that is.

Paradise tree snakes are not readily available in the exotic pet trade. They're around, sure, but by no means common. Dietary questions come up; anoles and pinkies are usually the answer. Beware of any of these that you find at herp shows. Even the snake in the video had some nasty parasites. They are also rear-fanged venomous, so please check your local laws before buying!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Roaches.

An interesting special was on the news yesterday: China, the most populated nation on the planet, is eating more and more meat by the day. They see it as "revenge" after living in poverty for so long, even though (like American factory farm meat) the meat there is potentially toxic unless you happen to be an elite. This new interest in meat means that China is headed towards more pollution problems, as if they did not have enough already.

Huh. That's funny. In America, we're working on fixing that problem by eating insects. The "impoverished" parts of the world make better use of the bugs around them than we do of the pig, and we make damn good use of the pig. What we and other countries do with cockroaches is especially cool.

First off, yes, Thailand is on this list. Given that China manages to turn anything into cuisine, there is a good chance that you can find them at night markets there, too. (For those curious, I've eaten a few insects; they taste, for the most part, like chicken.)  They are also popular in certain types of African cuisine (including Botsawanan) and Caribbean cuisine. If 50 Ways to Cook a Cockroach actually has any cockroach recipes in it, good on them.

For the most part, cockroaches are still an "eww" food in America, despite being excellent sources of protein. The Titan roller coaster in Texas, however, offers edible  Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches to kids if they want to skip to the front of the line. With entomophagy enjoying a popularity boom, cockroach recipes have also hit the internet and a few restaurants. Careful, though; there are also some recipes for cockroach killer out there. If it can kill an animal notorious for surviving anything, it can kill you.

Now, please note that I am not encouraging you to try eating cockroaches at home. You don't know where they've been; unless you intend to cook them, I can't recommend eating them. Just know that, in the event that you are the only survivor of a nuclear apocalypse, the roaches will still be around while the cows, pigs, and chickens will all perish. Just sayin'.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Creature Feature: Burrowing Owl.

Aside from being nocturnal, owls are often depicted as the most human of birds. They have forward-facing eyes and round heads, just like people. Hell, they look almost like natural anime characters with their big eyes and tiny beaks; what's not to love? Sure, the Romans thought they were bloodsucking vampire birds of doom, but at the same time, they were a mascot of Athena/Minerva.

Burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) have to be the cutest of the cute owls. They are only slightly bigger than a robin - a large-ish songbird, for those of you not in the States. That said, they are still predators, feeding on rodents and invertebrates. Burrowing owls can be found anywhere in the Americas, so there's a good chance you can find adorable owls near you.

These owls are exactly what they say on the can: owls that live in burrows.  More specifically, they form monogamous family units and raise babies in burrows. Instead of digging their own burrows they move into the homes of ground squirrels and prairie dogs, or whatever small burrowing mammal happens to be in the area. They will also use man-made objects such as pipe as a home. If push comes to shove, yes, they can dig their own burrows. They are nothing if not adaptable.

Although no species of burrowing owl are properly endangered, the arrival of Europeans did not treat them well. Cats and dogs are the greatest enemies of earth-dwelling owl. Nonetheless, the owls have adapted well enough to live on golf courses and airports.  They are tough little birds, even if their range has gotten a lot smaller.

Although burrowing owls frequently make cameos, the book/movie Hoot is all about them. In Hoot, a group of schoolchildren discovers a colony of burrowing owls on the site of a pancake restaurant, and the kids try to save the owls from being killed by development. They have also appeared in Guardians of Gahoole and Rango. Popular little birds indeed, but still not as ubiquitous as Hedwig. Ah, well.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Bio-Art: Victimless Leather.

After playing more Pokemon White 2, I was once again reminded of PETA. For eff's sake, humans are omnivores, but does that really mean that we need to use animals for clothes? We in the modern world like to think that we're a bit more advanced than that. 

Well, it turns out that we're a lot more advanced than that. This is a miniature leather jacket...grown from rodent stem cells.It is two inches long and lives in a bio-reactor that serves as a "body" to keep it from decaying.Surprise surprise, it was done by the Australian SymbioticA as part of their Tissue Culture and Art Project.

Along with "Disembodied Cuisine," "Worry Dolls," and "Pig Wings," "Victimless Leather" is part of a series on PETA's dream world: a futuristic vision in which no animals are harmed except for the occasional lab rat or frog. It puts viewers into direct confrontation with the fact that, yes, humans use animals for weird things like clothes. It also puts forth the idea of a living garment - albeit one that can only survive in that little bubble up there.

The jacket itself consists of living mouse tissue over a polymer modeled after a coat. Once the polymer base has degraded, the flesh retains the shape it was mounted on. In theory, this could at least create sheets of victimless animal skin for sewing, if not remove the need for sewing altogether. It would save people a ton on sewing supplies, if not alleviate some suffering in the world.

Could this really replace leather, though? Leather has been a sign of prosperity for some time now. It's expensive, and cows are also useful for meat and milk. I also have to admit that there's a certain thrill to having something genuinely made from a dead animal. Until the elite stop wearing leather and start wearing coats made out of mouse cells, leather will retain its status as a classy fabric. Sorry, PETA.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Creature Feature: Texas Longhorn.

Honesty time: I tried to resist doing this one. Texas Longhorns are awesome, but at first I thought them better for Freak Week. The juices simply refused to flow for bald cypress (a moderately interesting swamp conifer), and I'd already done cochineal in the OLD entry on scale insects. Cotton might have been interesting, but c''s Texas.

Texas Longhorns are, no kidding, a cattle breed native to Texas. Thanks to mixing with feral cattle, Texas Longhorns have no specific patterning - just huge horns. The closest related breeds are in Portugal; the Longhorn breed itself was established in the 1500's. The highest ever paid for a Longhorn was 140,000 USD, and exceptionally good lines can still fetch into the 40,000's. Even the cows of this breed have amazing horns.

The most obvious feature to pick on is, of course, the longhorn's headgear. Although not as impressive as Ankole-Watutsi horns, a Texas Longhorn's signature horns can get up to 7 feet long from tip to tip. As morbid as this sounds, their skulls do look amazing in a den. That said, they're pricey.

Longhorn cattle are very tough cows. They can find food and shelter all on their own in case of emergencies. They calve easily, which is one of the reasons to add them to breeding stock.This hardiness led to them being popular until the 1900's, at which point environmental durability and lean meat were no longer selling factors. With the demand for lean or free-range meat on the rise, Texas Longhorns have seen another surge in popularity.

The Texas Longhorn, alongside the Holstein, has to be among the most recognized cattle out there. Nothing says "southwest" like a bovine head with those horns. Texas uses them as a mascot for everything, even a women's basketball team. If you haven't seen a Texas Longhorn and live in the U.S., you must be living under a rock...or just unaware of exactly what you're looking at in those old westerns.

This looks awesome. People mess with horses; they do not mess with 7 feet of horn.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Creature Feature: Mexican Jumping Beans.

In Texas, every souvenir shop has something made out of a weird, dead animal. Hotlix are everywhere. Quite a few places had longhorn cow skulls. Leather exists there- very good leather. One of the most bizarre, however, just so happens to be quite common: the Mexican jumping beans. 

The beans actually 'jump' thanks to the larva of a moth called Cydia deshaisiana, or the "Mexican jumping bean moth." As per the name, they are native to Mexico and the southwestern United States. There are actually a number of shrubs, and a number of moths, that can make "jumping beans," but for now we will focus on the kind sold in random tourist junk shops.

The larval moth spends its entire life in the seed capsule (not bean) of a Sebastiana plant. An adult  C. deshiasana lays an egg on the seed, and the larva burrows in shortly after. If the seed is cracked, the little creature uses silk to repair it. The bean, if nothing else, is a source of food and shelter all at once. Not a bad home if you happen to be a caterpillar.

The "jumping" in jumping beans happens when the larva has eaten all of the inside of the bean. Then, for no explicable reason, they begin pulling silk around the inside of the bean, causing it to roll and fidget if not jump. They jump as an attempt to regulate their body temperatures - it's hot down south!

 Of course, the jumping bean larva cannot stay inside the bean forever. It pupates inside bean, meaning that the frail adult moth will have a hard time getting out. To escape, the larva forms a "trap door" in the bean- a small, round hole that it can push its way out of. This small hole is sometimes marketed as well, even though it defies the point of a jumping bean.

The adult moth is a small, gray, unimpressive creature. It's one of those bugs that reaches maturity only to mate; it doesn't even have jaws. In the span of a few days, it must mate, find an immature Sebastiana seed, and lay eggs. Thus the cycle of touristy crap begins again...but look on the bright side: other, related moths do this to seeds we actually eat.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Creature Feature: Nine-Banded Armadillo.

 That said, armadillos are fascinating creatures. Really, what's not to love about a mammalian pillbug with an anteater face, bunny ears, and sharp, pointy claws? Its native name means "turtle-rabbit," meaning that the armadillo is officially the bastard offspring of the Tortoise and the Hare; apparently they got along reaaaally well after that race.

Armadillos in general are mammals belonging to the super-weird superorder Xenarthra, which also includes sloths and anteaters. They eat invertebrates, particularly ants and termites.The nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) is the only species native to North America; the other 19 species are all farther south. This is largely because the armadillo has few predators up here.

Let's look at the obvious first: Armadillos are scaly mammals. Much like the pangolin, these scales are made of keratin- the same thing that makes up your hair and fingernails. (The same is true of porcupines; Sandslash suddenly makes a great deal of sense.)  As in turtles, the segments of an armadillo's spine are fused with the carapace. There are folds of skin, also scaly, between the main sections of armor in most armadillo species; these are easy ways of classifying armadillos. By the way, no, our nine-banded armadillo can't curl into a ball.

Armadillos spend most of their time underground, digging with those gnarly claws. A single armadillo can have up to 12 burrows in its range, each getting around 8 feet deep. If startled while out of the burrow (probably at night), they can jump up to four feet in the air and run surprisingly fast - prime roadkill fodder.

 Get this: aside from looking freakish, armadillos are also the only (multi-cellular) animals to achieve natural cloning. One single, fertilized egg leads to 3-4 genetically-identical offspring; take that, conservatives. They can also suspend their pregnancy for up to two years - y'know, in case the armadillo in question isn't quite ready to have kids yet.  That said, baby armadillos are adorable.

The nine-banded armadillo is the state small mammal of Texas. It is, however, considered a pest and common roadkill even in its 'home' state. Oh, and they can also catch human leprosy. It's funny how such a famous, strange animal can be treated like vermin in Texas...but we love them anyways. They're popular for a reason.

STFU, 02-haters. You knew Armadillomon would make it here someday.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Armadillo.

For those of you who do not watch my Twitter or dA, I will be in Texas until Saturday. The next few days will thus be related, in some way, shape, or form, to the Lone Star State. What better way to kick this off than with Texas's state mammal, the armadillo?

Wait. This is Wednesday. Do people really eat armadillo?

Answer: Yep. Armadillos, aside from looking a little bit like crazy reptilian mammals, are available year-round, fairly low on the food chain, and legal to hunt everywhere. They range from the lower half of the U.S. into South America, so if you live anywhere near there, there's probably an armadillo into your backyard. And, yes, armadillos are eaten throughout their range.

Armadillos have been eaten since at least the days of the pioneers. They have been eaten by Florida Crackers for at least 100 years. Armadillo is also very popular in Argentina. Cook them just like you would any other meat; frying is better for smaller armadillos, and slow-cooking works more for larger ones.

There are two ways to get armadillo meat. One, as you probably guessed, is to trap a little armored one yourself. Regular animal traps work, but if you wanna be a pro, stick a six-inch PVC pipe into a burrow and wait for the armadillo to get stuck in it. Alternatively, armadillos can also be farm-raised...on CORN.

One of the most ridiculous rumors surrounding armadillo meat is that it can give you leprosy. This is not entirely unfounded, but still rather silly. Armadillos are the only mammals besides humans that can get leprosy, and hey, they're pretty scaly for mammals.  Still, armadillos rarely have leprosy, and if the meat is handled properly, you have no chance of getting it.

That said, if I see armadillo on the menu down here, this post will be updated. There are a million restaurants on the San Antonio riverwalk, and I'd bet money that one of them has armadillo. I'll be sure to let you all know where I find it!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Creature Feature: Dung Beetles.

Animals do all sorts of weird things involving stuff that humans wouldn't touch. THis has largely to do with that animal's personal world - for example, urine is an excellent indicator of scent (and most of the animal world does see by scent) and rabbits eat their own droppings so as to eat the extra nutrients. It all makes sense in the animal's own view of the world.

That said, dung beetles must be one of the most baffling species in the world to humans. All dung beetles are scarabid beetles, and they can be found on every continent except Antarctica.  Trying to name off every single species would be an exercise in futility. They eat and lay eggs in feces. Gross, right?

What's gross to us is really quite monumental in the beetle's own little world. Dung beetles are amazing. The dung balls that the beetles make are either a) massive food stores or b) nests made of quite a convenient material. The balls of feces they accumulate can be up to ten times their weight, so rolling one is like a single human pushing 6 buses full of people! Also, it's kind of funny that the males are usually the ones doing the rolling- make jokes about THAT at will.

It's a small world, after all.

This use of dung is quite a valuable service. Rolling the dung means rolling foul-smelling excrement away from whatever made it, refertilizing the soil and keeping pests away at the same time. Dung beetles save the U.S. cattle industry somewhere around 38 million dollars every year. Seriously, it's a good thing that somebody is handling the dung; we humans do not want to deal with it ourselves.

Finally, what would an entry on dung beetles be without at least mentioning ancient Egypt? The Egyptians, for all their pyramids, agricultural advances, and nifty inventions believed that the sun was rolled across the sky like a dung beetle rolling excrement. It was also believed that all dung beetles were male and that they reproduced by masturbating into a dung ball. We can understand falcons, ibises, crocodiles, and jackals being impressive. The dung beetles are actually pretty cool, too, but giving them the sun might be pushing it.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Bio-Art: Organic Scaffolding.

Getting older sucks.  Everything starts wearing down. You know those bodily functions like urination? Those are problems, now. So, too, is cartilage.

For those of you who have no idea what cartilage is, cartilage is what your nose is made of.  It is also found in between bones as a cushion of sorts. As one can imagine, this cushioning, or lack thereof, becomes quite noticeable as the years wear on. Cartilage transplants are particularly painful and heal excruciatingly slowly.

Well, maybe there's some hope for a new, easier way to heal cartilage in the future. The living hyaline cartilage graft, made in early 2012, offers an easier way to fix at least one body issue. It's hard to tell which came first: The artistic graft above, made by Frank Moutos and Farshid Guilak of Duke Medical Center in North Carolina, or the LHCG made...where, again? The names behind the LHCG look Korean, but it was tested in New Zealand.

There are a number of problems with organ transplants and anything like them. The first, most obvious one is rejection; sterile or not, this is a foreign item in the body.The second is that any foreign object insertion leaves the recipient prone to bacterial infection. In the case of the woven scaffold above, this risk is magnified times ten; the process is tedious, and any ins and outs of a weaving needle allow for bacteria.

How is this problem fixed? By growing the cartilage, then putting it into a sanitary gel. This graft is made entirely out of living cartilage. This living cartilage had no immune rejection whatsoever when tested in rabbits. If repeated, this technique could be used to replicate things like muscle tissue or pits of bone. Good news!

But is it art? Yes, it's a marvelous advance in science, but says nothing beyond that. There's nothing really aesthetic about it aside from the weave. Whether it deserved to win the award at the bio-art convention in May or not, it is cool that cartilage transplants will be more successful.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Blasphemy Week: Pustulated Carrion Beetle.

What could possibly be worse than the Irukandji? It's really hard to beat an invisible, tentacled blob of poison when it comes to blasphemy. I really hope none of you are eating anything while reading this. This is...icky.


The Pustulated Carrion Beetle (Nicrophorus pustulatus) is almost exactly what it sounds like: a beetle that mates and lays eggs on carrion, i.e. a corpse. The pustulated carrion beetle, however, ups the ante from mating on corpses to regular brood parasitism. It is native to North America, including much of the U.S. and Canada.

"Brood parasitism" does not involve any internal squick. No, this is parasitism done outside of the body, which actually opens itself up to more horror. Basically, "brood parasitism" is when an animal is forced to raise another animal's young - knowingly or not. Probably the most well-known example of this is the cuckoo bird, who has brood parasitism so down-pat that cuckoos will attack birds that refuse to raise their young. N. pustulatus is the pimp of brood parasitism, letting its young be reared by a number of insect species...oh, and snakes


Now, I realize not many people are sympathetic to snakes. A lot of you probably think that snakes are terrible parents, leaving their young as soon as they're out of the eggs. This is not necessarily true; quite a few snakes, most notably Burmese pythons, are very protective of their clutches and may even raise the temperature around their eggs with muscular contractions. King cobras build nests. (In species where the snakes give live birth, well, there's considerable parental investment already.) Point is, as creatures who do tend to young, we should be terrified.

N. pustulatus is the first known insect brood parasite of a vertebrate, in this case the Black Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta) and a few other species (including the Gray Rat Snake, which is becoming endangered). The beetle lays her eggs directly proportionately to the amount of eggs in momma rat snake's nest (so no, it never wipes out a nest). Unaware that her babies are literally being devoured from the inside-out, the rat snake guards her nest while the beetle tends her larvae alongside. Look on the bright side: the beetles don't have a mafia.

If the idea of finding beetle larvae in snake eggs is not unholy enough to warrant a spot in this week, the implications of it sure are. Imagine a brood parasite of, say, humans along the lines of what these beetles do to snakes. (Before you say anything about that being impossible, there are wasps that lay eggs inside caterpillars; human skin would be no issue, and this is all hypothetical anyways.) You're welcome.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Blasphemy Week: Irukandji.

There is no better way to disprove "Jesus loves you" than to look at Australia. Kangaroos? They're smart enough to drown dogs. Speaking of dogs, dingoes- you know, the canids that eat babies - originated from the pet dogs brought over by Aborigines. See that koala? That'll kill you, too. Australia is the monster ballad of "HUMANS SHOULDN'T BE HERE," as if an island of venomous snakes was not bad enough. Oh, Australia has those, too, by the way.

So how do you choose one unholy terror in an island chock-full of demonic wildlife? You go a little bit outside the island and into the ocean. Then you die, because you didn't count on this thing giving you a tap on the shoulder:


That little jellyfish is called an Irukandji. It is found only in the waters of Northern Australia - y'know, as if the rest of the island wasn't trying to kill you already. There are several species in at least two different genera, meaning that those waters are a breeding ground for a number of unknown, lethal jellies. It eats fish, but incidentally, anything that touches it dies.

Yes, it really is that small- only 2.5 centimeters at the bell. Since this is a jellyfish we're talking about, it's also that invisible; you don't even see the thing coming. Its tentacles are finer than human hair and can get up to a meter long. Good luck detecting it. And, yes, it is also that venomous.


The Irukandji is officially the most venomous animal on the planet. Five minutes in, most humans (y'know, the ones without mongoose blood coursing through their veins) start feeling achy in the back, muscles, and generally all over, as well as sweating, anxiety, and other ill signs. If left untreated, it becomes a pain so excruciating that survivors tell doctors to kill them.  Even morphine fails to dull the pain this little jelly dishes out.

So we have a tiny little creature that is not only invisible, but also manages to encapsulate sadism so thoroughly that people beg for a merciful death. This creature was actually horrifying enough to make it into Franken Fran. Still think that there's a loving God? The jellyfish disagrees.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Blasphemy Week: Golden Lanceheads.

Y'know how I keep saying "if you want to stop the exotic animal trade, stop humans from living there?" It turns out there is indeed a place where humans are not allowed, and that still doesn't stop people from taking venomous, hermaphroditic snakes off the island.

Wait, what?

Bothrops insularis, or the golden lancehead, is found on exactly one island in the entire world: Ilha da Queimada Grande, located off the coast of Sao Paulo, Brazil. It eats birds and lizards as an adult, and is occasionally cannibalistic. The island supposedly gets its name from a plotted banana plantation that did not go through thanks to one very obvious thing: There is at least one snake for every square meter of the place.

The golden lancehead is the only species of snake on this island. What it lacks in biodiversity it makes up for in sheer numbers. Locals say that there are 5 snakes per square meter on that island. Discovery Channel says there is really only one. The point is, everywhere you turn, there's a snake. It's amazing that good pics of this thing exist; most people would probably drop their cameras.

Think the brown tree snakes are more terrifying? Golden lanceheads are highly venomous. The snakes' closest relative is the jararaca, another lancehead whose venom's ACE inhibitors have recently been used in medicine to treat hypertension. The golden lancehead's venom is at least 5 times as potent as the jararaca's, and the fastest-acting of any lancehead. Luckily, no bites have been reported...yet.

Unless you have a deathwish or are a herpetologist, DO NOT GO HERE. (Source)

Oh, and no humans are allowed on the island. Period. The Brazilian Navy will arrest you if you are there without a waiver. The population is said to consist of exactly one human in a lighthouse and the occasional herpetologists that get waivers to go on the island. Even the natives avoid this place. There are no human settlements there except to warn people that they might land upon an island of venomous snakes. Lovely.

A lot of golden lanceheads are also intersexed. In not-so-polite terms, they're shemales, hermaphrodites, or chicks with dicks. They contain the sexual organs of both sexes, which usually results in infertility. Usually. Apparently some can breed, but regardless, this questionable sexuality is the result of extreme inbreeding.

In case you haven't guessed: Yes, these snakes are critically-endangered. The island is still farm potential, but as we all know, island ecosystems are fragile. That includes island ecosystems containing creatures of hermaphroditic, scaly death. They're terrifying, but goodness knows what'll happen if this one snake gets taken out of the great Jenga tower called nature.

And yet we somehow have photographs of these beautiful hellsnakes, as well as a few specimens in captivity. OK, fine- the reptile lover in me is showing her scales. I do, however, realize that an island full of poisonous snakes would be terrifying to most people, so there you have it. As for why it exists to begin with...either there's a holy relic there or God is a sadistic SOB.