Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas Special: Christmas Tinner.

I could have done a lot of entries for Christmas. There are plenty of weird Christmas foods, including pig feet, lamb heads, and KFC, eaten around the world. Some places even omit meat entirely.  Oh, and I'm never out of winter creatures; I've just run out of Christmasy ones.

Alas, there's a new Christmas dinner on the block. It's "holiday special," "They Actually Eat That," and "Newsflash" all at once. Its name? "Christmas Tinner."


Yes, "tinner." As in, dinner. In a tin can. No matter where you go, Christmas dinner is a lot of food. That means somebody managed to compact a full-course meal in a tin can. Dear gods, what is this?

"A Christmas dinner with turkey, potatoes, roast carrots and broccoli sounds quite nice. Unless it's all served in a can, that is. The "Christmas Tinner," created by graphic designer Chris Godfrey, features a nine-course Christmas meal, layered into one tin can.

This dinner monstrosity is in all likelihood fake -- Godfrey created a similar meal-in-a-can project earlier this year. Currently, the can is supposedly sold out on GAME, a UK-based website for video gamers.

"The GAME Christmas Tinner is the ultimate innovation for gamers across the nation who can’t tear themselves away from their new consoles and games on Christmas Day," the website reads." -via Huffington Post.

Of course, it could all be fake- the creator's a graphic designer, after all. On the plus side, if anybody is left after the apocalypse, this is one holiday feast that'll still be around. Either way would not surprise me at this point!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Why Petco Is A Rip-Off- Ball Pythons, Genetics, and You!

So, yeah. Still no job. Petco rejected me. I can nigh-guarantee that I know more about snakes than anybody else they're willing to hire, but since they did not want that, I will instead expose why you're pretty much guaranteed to get ripped off if you buy a snake from them - specifically, a ball python.

I'm going to venture a guess that the majority of ball pythons in Petco's tanks are normal, male ball pythons. They will probably cost anywhere from 50-80 USD. I will now be very blunt and say that you should be paying significantly less for the very same, if not a better, snake.

Why do I say this? Ball pythons are so overbred that they have been called the "dogs of the reptile world." Of all the ball pythons out there, the most useless, genetically, are the normal males. People will thus try to get rid of them as soon as possible, even going so far as selling them in bulk.

A brief refresher on how genetics work: Each parent has two alleles for any given gene. Both mommy and daddy pass on one allele each to the offspring. Each baby carries one allele from each parent, so no two babies will be exactly alike. There are a bunch of different ways to inherit traits (mostly recessive and co-dominant), but we will be focused on the almighty "co-dominant."

Ball python breeders, and snake breeders in general, love the word "co-dominant." It means that you can get something cool out of one breeding. Recessive traits like albinism are more widely-known, but take a grand total of 4-6 years to see the results of if you start with het babies. There is no way to tell whether the babies are het or not; this gets more problematic in future breeding, when you get things like "66% het." Co-dominance is favored because your first clutch might yield a baby that looks almost exactly like one of the parents. If you breed two co-dominants, expect even more craziness, but we won't be doing that. Instead, let's look at everybody's first python breeding: normal x pastel.

Square by NERD. Visit them for more awesome co-dominants!

This is a Punnett square for any normal x codominant ball python trait. For those of you who do not know what a Punnett square is, it is a grid showing potential offspring of two parents. In this case, the normal (probably the mom) is on the vertical axis, the pastel is horizontal, and the potential offspring are in the boxes.

NERD was awesome and used a subtle (or not so subtle, depending on your strain) color enhancer called "pastel" for their example. Pastels are ball pythons with the brightness/contrast messed with to the point where they look anywhere from bright lemon yellow to a slightly cleaner than usual normal. They are the cheapest of the co-dominant morphs. A lot of ball python traits, including the platinum and legendary banana ball, are co-dominant as well; if you're interested in those, simply copy-paste this Punnett with whatever fancy trait you like. Most of the good ones are co-dominant or dominant, and will thus pass their traits on in the first generation. This can lead to some amazing clutches!

That one normal in the back looks...kinda sad.

So, let's assume this clutch contained 4 ball python eggs with an even gender split. Four eggs, 2 male, 2 female. From what I've heard, this would actually be a pretty awesome clutch; four is OK for a first time ball clutch. The better size is 8-10, but let's keep it at 4 for simplicity's sake. Breeders breed so many of them that it seems like there are always more than enough. What we're looking for, here, is that codominant gene and the sex.

We have a 50% chance of getting another pastel ball just breeding a male pastel to a normal female. That one pastel could be male or female. The other members of this clutch could also be male or female. The pastels there can be bred/sold regardless. The normals might not be so lucky.

If one of the pastels is female, wow, we were lucky, right? Let's breed her back to daddy after a few years and see if we can get a super-pastel. Better still, cross her with a spider, pinstripe, mojave - whatever! Co-dominant traits blend excellently with each other and themselves. NERD has some 4-morph combos. I'm sure their prices range into the thousands, and if this sounds appealing to you, bear in mind that you're going to have to start with one trait like the pastel. With a female pastel, you're well on your way!


If we're assuming everything came out with a nice, even split, this leaves us with two magical mystery balls. These, like the pastels, could be either male or female. Remember how co-dominance and simple dominance work: you've either got it or ya don't. In other words, barring any hidden recessive traits, any normal males are useless for breeding.

If both pastels turned out to be male, however, we would lose the dreaded normal male. Then we would wind up with two pastel males and two perfectly good females. Remember, it doesn't matter whether the females are pastel or not; as long as one copy of the pastel gene is passed on, the offspring will still have the pastel trait. Sure, it'd be a bummer to not have a female pastel, but those two females can still be sold for a decent price, and can be used in future breedings. "Breeder-size" females do sell. Normal males do not...unless you're smart.

Snake breeders will get rid of their loser males ASAP.  If you see a tank of normal ball pythons in a pet store, I will bet you money that 90% of that tank, if not all of it, will be composed of dud males. This site is selling them for 25 bucks. Compare that to whatever Petco's selling them for. It's just another reason to buy locally instead of not knowing where you snake's coming from, too.

You might also see beautiful babies like these from Genetic Gems.

In short, unless you are breeding super forms to super forms, every day, all day, you will get a normal male ball python. He will not be a good stud, but he will satisfy the kid down the street who's just itching for a pet snake because you happened to have one (or twenty). Normal males can potentially come out of every breeding, they won't sell very well, and thus, there are a million floating around in miscellaneous pet stores for people who just want a good pet snake.

Now, this is fine if you just want a pet ball python. If, however, you do a little homework and look for reptile conventions, I can guarantee that you will get a better deal on a male ball. These make fine pets and are absolutely ideal for beginners. Also, says that they sometimes have co-dominant ball python morphs in stock; I have never seen these, so if you happen to find one for a decent price, snap it up.

P.S. - For those of you who might be interested, I still have baby corn snakes for sale! E-mail

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Creature Feature: Horned Screamer.

Well, it turns out I won't be getting a job this season because I won't be able to work Black Friday. There's always Christmas, but for now, I am formulating my revenge in the form of math and punnett squares. I'm not good at math, but reptiles will be involved. I do not mean snakes in mailboxes. For now, have an awesome bird:


This odd, not-pheasant is called a "Horned Screamer" (Anhima cornuta). It is the only member of the genus Anhima. It can be found in most of the top half of South America, specifically in lowlands and marshes. Despite their pheasant-like appearance, screamers are more closely related to ducks and geese than to chickens.

Right off the bat, the horned screamer is a weird bird. It looks kinda like a pheasant, but has slightly webbed feet. It's also huge- a little over a meter long. If a goose and a pheasant somehow managed to mate, you would get a screamer. Somehow. I'll get into the interesting-ness of avian genitalia at some point.

The Horned Screamer is odd by screamer standards, too. It is the one of the very few birds that has a horn - an actual piece of keratin loosely attached to the skull. The wings have very similar projections, making it look like an already-weird bird with batlike claws. These are fragile bits, and the tips are often broken off. Nobody really knows why it has this horn and apparently those claws, but it sure looks unique.

So why is this thing called a screamer? Let's go to YouTube and find out!

Well, it makes just as much sense as whatever the hell the fox says, right? I'm not sure I would call it "screaming," but what would you call that?

Oh, and by the way, this odd bird is not under any threats aside from perhaps habitat loss. Even though they are fairly easy to hunt, screamers don't make good eating. Their flesh is airy and overall unpalatable - in short, anyone who isn't starving doesn't actually eat that. Sort of a relief.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Halloween Bio-Art: The Centaur of Tymfi.

It's been a while since I did one of these. Vacations and a certain piece punched a ton of holes in my sense of time sense of duty, and I've actually all-but-landed a real job! My next post will probably talk about reptiles more; look forward to that. :)


Wait a sec....was that a real centaur skeleton?

No. It's a fake made for the International Wildlife Museum in Tuscon by sculptor and zoologist Bill Willers. The whole point of the exhibit is to make people question how we know what we know. That centaur looks pretty darn real, and, doubtless, some silly internet ad with "Real Or Fake?" will pop up. Don't even click that; it's a very well-made fake, but a fake nonetheless.

Everything about this centaur is a brilliiant piece of psuedo-science. "Tymfi" is not a real city in Greece, but it sounds Greek enough to make people buy it. The whole history of the centaur's excavation is fake, but adds more flesh on the bones, if you will. The exhibit tries its hardest to make you believe that centaurs once existed. It will be leaving in 2014, so if you happen to be around Tuscon (AZ?), check it out while you can.

The exhibit also features a few real skulls and bones. These are all tied into the whole "explaining myths" idea. For example, like the Field once did, they cite the Protoceratops as the likely inspiration for the gryphon, a mythical lion-eagle hybrid. They have also added a "cyclops" in the form of a Mastodon skull and a few other such specimens. Neat.

Museums do this sort of thing all the time. New York's Museum of Natural History had a "Mythic Creatures" exhibit that got extended by popular demand. The Field had something similar. Fantastic creatures are a huge draw, to the point where one wonders if such a thing is really OK for museums.

At some point, I likely mentioned the idea that it was not OK to put things like white tigers in zoos. The argument goes that white tigers are not natural, and thus do not belong in an exhibit detailing what tigers are really like. On some level, I agree with this; white tigers are indeed exceptionally bastardized, and are only found very rarely in the wild. Better there than in somebody's backyard regardless.

Unlike with, say, white tigers in zoos, mythological animals like centaurs and griffins are A-OK in museums. At one time, people thought chimaeras and dragons were real. It just goes to prove that science, and our perceptions of it, are constantly changing. I particularly like this quote emphasizing Willers's intent behind the centaur:

"I want to trigger that belief and extend it, to trigger a feeling of wonder that connects people to the natural world, to see a person like themselves as a wild animal," says Willers.

Does he succeed? Post below. :) 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"What Does The Fox Say?"

First off, let me just say that the song I am referencing in the title is very silly. "Stupid" would imply that I hate it, which is not 100% true; I appreciate a catchy hook for what it is. The video is also okay. It is, however, still a very silly song in that it is about a guy wondering what foxes say, and why there is no convenient onomatopoeia for it like "moo," "woof," or "meow."

What? You don't know what "onomatopoeia" is? Let's fix that!

"Onomatopoeia" is the fancy, English major word for "sound effects" in word form. Words that represent sounds like "bang," "wham," or "zoom" are onomatopoeia. They have no meaning aside from the sound they are representing. There, you've learned something.

Foxes actually have a great variety of calls. For all you dog and cat owners out there, no doubt you have noticed different noises for when your pet wants to play, is hungry, or is not in the mood for much of anything. Foxes have an extremely versatile vocal range. Your dog is a singing bum on the street compared to the vocal rock stars foxes are.

Take a lookie here:

That's a lot of very distinct sounds for one animal, no? No wonder nobody really knows what the fox said; they probably didn't even know it was a fox. 

Here's the "Vixen's Scream" they mentioned, complete with facial expressions:

Oh, and for all you Pokemon fans, here's what your Fennekin sounds like when it is happy:


So, you tell me: What does the fox say? Write your own onomatopoeia for what the fox says below. I'm sure Ylvis got it right somewhere. He said too many different things for one of them not to hit the mark.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Newsflash: Proteins and Dinosaurs with Funny Names!

So, I know a few people taking biology, organic chemistry, and other such things. It came up that the only reasons a Classics degree like mine was good were 1. it stokes your imagination like crazy and 2. it helps you name things for science. This led to a discussion about how things are named, including the rather bizarre Dracorex hogwartsia.

Dracorex hogwartsia was an herbivorous pachycephalosaur  ("thick-headed" dinosaurs). Like a certain other pachy who will definitely be getting some limelight this Halloween, it was discovered in the Hell Creek Formation in South Dakota.

Indeed, this dinosaur does look a fair bit like a dragon. The dome found on most pachies is reduced in Dracorex, leading to a very dragonlike skull. Primeval took advantage of the similarity: in one episode, a knight and a "dragon" crossed a time gap; they went so far as to give the Dracorex little fins, furthering the "dragon" idea.

But "hogwartsia?" Really, science? Forgive my use of internet slang, but "LOL."J.K. Rowling was, of course, thrilled to have a dinosaur name inspired by her work. Warning: people who know Latin tend to know science, and Rowling knows helluva lot of Latin.

Dracorex's odd pseudo-Latin is nothing compared to what some scientists have done with proteins, however. No matter how many pop culture references are named in dinosaurs, they cannot compete with how scientists have named genes and proteins lately. There have been a number of proteins named after video games or video game characters, proving just how nerdy scientists really are.

This is fanart. Not mine, just adorable.

Hey, weren't the new Pokemon games released this month? Why haven't I done anything on Pikachurin - the electric protein named after the most iconic Pokemon in existence? (There was also a carcinogenic gene that Nintendo sued over - this is not that gene.)

Pikachurin is a protein that helps the perception of light in mammalian eyes. Thisprotein is also known by the equally funny-sounding name EGFLAM ("EGF-like, fibronectin type-III and laminin G-like domain-containing protein")- we'll stick with Pikachu, thanks. It was named after Pikachu because it moved "lightning fast" and conducted electricity from the eyes to the brain. It's pretty much necessary for the human eye to function. Not a bad thing to name after a colorful electric rodent, although I'm sure the protein being discovered in Osaka, Japan had something to do with it.

Pikachu was not the first video game mascot to get his own protein. That honor goes to the sonic hedgehog protein. It is one of three genes in the "hedgehog" protein channel, with the other two being "desert hedgehog" and "Indian hedgehog." Sonic is the best studied, and with good reason: this protein has an impact on anything from brain development to the growth of digits and limbs. It's responsible for limb regulation in cetaceans, so if you ever see a dolphin with unearthly feet near the base of its tail, blame Sonic for that.

There have been some objections to naming a gene "sonic hedgehog," namely that it removes some of the sobriety that science is so well-known for. Me? I think once you've named a protein channel "hedgehog," you've already opened yourself to jokes. It's just a slippery slope like that.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Creature Feature: White Gators! and Wild Gators!

There are a number of advantages to visiting places that naturally have cool wild animals. One, you get to see wild animals in their natural habitats instead of behind glass. Two, the specimens that are behind glass are usually pretty cool. I tend to make it a point to visit the zoo whenever I go somewhere else; it's usually a good indication of how well-informed people are about exotics. The Audubon Zoo in NOLA had quite a treat, and I did not even get to see all of the grounds.

 Louisiana's zoo has a pair of leucistic American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis). Apparently they have wild white gators, too, but these were probably captive bred. These particular white gators are celebrities anyways.

A brief course in Alligators 101:the American alligator is native to most of the southern United States, from the Carolinas into Louisiana. These massive reptiles can get 999 lbs for males (who are indeed larger) and 13 feet long. As one could probably guess, most alligators are black- olive green, not white. They have powerful tails, can move faster than a human on land (25 MPH), and are armed with lots of teeth.

So, why is the gator above not albino? Take a close look. The eyes are black, and there is black speckling on the nose. An albino would have pink (or blue?) eyes and no black at all. Regardless, it looks like the swamps of Louisiana might be a "weird gene reservoir" like Florida is for corn snakes. They might also be intentionally protected like the Shirohebi of Iwakuni, but I wouldn't put money on that; the zoo got those white gators from somewhere, then probably bred them.

Along with seeing these unique gators in the zoo, I got to get up close and personal with wild alligators in the Louisiana bayou. Our savvy tour guide knew exactly where the gators were and fed  them marshmallows. (Our tour guide, by the way, was apparently the inspiration for a certain firefly in The Princess and the Frog.) Don't take a fan-powered boat; those things move so fast that I'd be amazed if you saw anything. We got to see gators snapping up marshmallows like nothing else. A waste of jaw power? Maybe, but it got us some incredible shots!

Unlike the whaling trip, on which I saw no whales, this tour boat had a guaranteed way to see an alligator: the boat had a baby on board! These gators are released into the wild when they get to be around two feet long. Imagine having an adult gator on a tour boat; at least you'd get your money's worth!

By the way, Louisiana is known as "hunter's paradise" for a reason. Alligator hunting is not only permitted, but encouraged. Some people also farm alligators (which have their own tours). Alligators certainly aren't an endangered species, and the Louisiana government allows a certain amount of them to be hunted. Don't worry about taking a tooth, paw, or gator head home; if any state knows what to do with alligators, it's Louisiana. Enjoy gator meat while you're there, too.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Little Shop of Horrors: Welwitschia.

Look at the above image. What do you see?

If you think that's washed-up seaweed, take note of how this image doesn't look like it's near the ocean. Trash off a truck? A plausible theory. Litter? Haha, no. A sign that the Great Old Ones are coming? I dunno; ask Bogleech about that one. If you said it's a Welwitschia, you either read the title or happen to be a botanist.

 Welwitschia mirabilis is a bizarre plant found on the Atlantic coast of Angola and Namibia, who has the odd plant on its coat of arms. The plant can only live in arid environments with occasional fog. It is named for the Austrian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch, who also discovered a few other botanical oddities in his lifetime. This particular plant happens to be a living fossil, going virtually unchanged since the Mesozoic. The Welwitschia's closest relatives are, of all things, pine trees. Yeah, bring a Welwitschia over next Christmas; I'm sure it'll go over well with the relatives. (Actually, you can grow your own!)

Welwitschia are amazingly odd plants. The 'mess' of leaves is actually just two very large leaves. These are the exact same leaves that the plant had as a seedling, and have grown very large over time. They have simply been shredded with wear. These two leaves are all the plant grows during its entire, very long life. There's not much beyond these leaves, either - just a stem and roots. Suddenly the most basic of plants has become a strange thing.

How long is its life, anyways? Oh, one or two millennia. A single Welwitschia can be anywhere from 1,000-2,000 years old. We're used to trees living that long- not displaced patches of seaweed. Bear in mind that this thing is still just a stem, roots, and two leaves. Yes, it's always just two throughout thousands of years. During that time, it can also grow huge.

Disclaimer: May eat old ladies.

The relatives of Welwitschia dominated Late Paleozoic and Mesozoic fauna. The tattered dregs in the sand are all that remains of this unique genus. It can still live for thousands of years. If nothing else, Welwitschia proves one thing: sometimes the simplest answer is the best.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

I Actually Ate That: Crawfish.

 For those who do not keep up with my dA page, I have been traveling. A lot. This time, I got to head down south to New Orleans - a city known for sex, drugs, and...smooth jazz? Oh, and excellent food. This was what my adventurous tongue took on my first night in town:

This was a massive platter consisting of crayfish etouffee (the stew-ish stuff), au gratin, dressing balls, and crayfish tails served like popcorn shrimp. They did not tell us that the dish would be very heavily spiced, but that's just what you have to expect in NOLA. That, and Bourbon Street being full of sex and liquor every night.

Crayfish are like lobsters, but smaller. They generally inhabit unpolluted, freshwater areas of all sorts. They will eat anything you put in their tank- even other crayfish. There are some that do make good aquarium pets; please do research if you find crayfish interesting animals and wish to keep one rather than eat it. Otherwise, crayfish of the less friendly sorts are available at bait shops. More on that later.

Not all crayfish are created equal. Almost all of them are sensitive to polluted water. On the flipside, crayfish used as bait or farmed as food can decimate local crayfish populations if they get loose- they eat each other, remember? North American crayfish introduced a nasty water mould, Aphanomyces astaci, into European crayfih populations; the resistant American crayfish (like the signal crayfish below) have taken over. Eating invasive crayfish is a happy solution. Circle of life, now let's eat these guys!

There are a million ways to prepare crayfish, and Louisiana offers a good portion of them in one state. Crayfish tails look almost exactly like popcorn shrimp when breaded, but taste nothing alike. They can be boiled, put in gumbo, served au gratin like lobster, and a million other culinary styles. I've even had crayfish sushi. If you can handle other decapods, crayfish will be no problem for you. 

So, what did I think of the four dishes above? I'm not the best judge on land meat; I do, however, like seafood. Without a doubt, crayfish is the best crustacean I have had so far. It has no aftertaste like lobster, is more noticeable than shrimp, and doesn't taste like crab. In cajun cuisine, however, the spices tend to be piled on so thickly that you can't taste much of anything beneath them. I highly recommend etouffee if you want some genuine Louisiana crawdad, and au gratin or as little "popcorn" crayfish tails if you actually want to taste the stuff. The "dressing balls" were almost entirely spices. If you like shellfish already, you'll probably appreciate this Southern favorite. Alligator meat is also pretty abundant, so if that's your ticket, come into the bayou.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

I Actually Ate That: Turtle.

So, while in Vancouver's Chinatown, there were a million food markets showcasing a million foods that Americans would consider "weird." Snakes and (Tokay) geckos on a stick come to mind immediately. There were a few large mushrooms I could not identify. They had tanks of live sole, tilapia, lobster, and crabs. For future reference, the smells mean freshness!

Oh, and I got to try turtle.

Those are turtle balls. Haha, no, they did not go inside a turtle and take out its junk. That's just turtle meat rolled up into a ball as an appetizer! I quite liked them, even if the sauce was something that I could not quite place (soy? probably). Turtle had a strange taste that I'm having trouble describing, but could probably pick out again. Despite being deep-fried, turtle was actually the most healthful of the dim-sum offered at the beginning of the meal.

Turtle has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries. You've heard the shtick several times on this column: you eat an animal, you gain its superpowers. Turtles are among the most long-lived of reptiles, with the record-holder for chelonians being Harriet at 179 years old- that's over twice the lifespan of the average human. Although that was a Galapagos tortoise and not a soft-shell turtle as is commonly used in cuisine, chelonians in general have an almost sage look to them with lifespans to match. It's not unreasonable to think that they might grant anybody who eats their flesh considerable longevity - maybe even youthfulness.

The kicker is that the Chinese were right about this one. Turtle meat has a number of health benefits according to Western science, too! It's significantly lower in calories than beef, albeit with less protein. It's also rich in vitamins A, B1, B2, and B6, which help make food processing easier. The minerals calcium, phosphorus, and zinc are also abundant in turtle meat. The stuff is pretty much its own vitamin shop if you do rigorous activity, and certainly makes a welcome alternative to your standard meats.

Another, odder turtle product called guilinggao is said to be a miracle worker for the skin. It's a strange jelly made from the plastron (tough belly) of a turtle (preferably the three-lined box or "golden coin" turtle, Cuora trifasciata) and a few other botanical ingredients. It's actually a jelly dessert, thought to be good for the skin. A word of warning for foodies everywhere: not all guilinggao contains actual turtle, despite what you see on the can.

Japan has another version of turtle meat still known as suppon. It's expensive, and usually packaged in plastic wrap like in the above screenie from Railgun S. Like most turtle meat, it's made from soft-shell turtle. Its uses are more cosmetic than medicinal; supposedly, its meat is high in collagen, which any lady out there will remember as being great for the skin. Its blood also supposedly tastes great with wine mixed in. The things people do for beauty, I guess.

Next time you go to Chinatown, take a good look around. Stop into a good restaurant and see what's on the native Chinese menu. They know how to make their food good, regardless of "weird" ingredients. Some of it is even great for you! I also could have tried snake soup, but decided against it...because I'm not really fond of soup, snake or no.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Bio-Art: Lisa Black.

So, before I went to Canada, I ditched my smart phone. At first, it felt like I was a little lost at sea, but then I realized something: no, I was not lost, I had been freed. Since then, I've felt more creative and happy without the phone than I was with it. The experience has also made me more aware that more and more people are slowly becoming little more than cyborgs, unable to lead normal lives without some electronic whosiwhatzit.

Then Lisa Black reminded me that I will be assimilated, and resistance is futile.

Hasta la vista, Bambi. 

Born in Auckland, New Zealand in 1982, Lisa Black does plenty of work that reminds us how terrifying or beautiful the future can be. The idea behind many of her pieces forces viewers to question the relationship between, and eventual integration of, nature with technology. This does not mean animals with iPods. It means that we have to face the inevitable reconsideration of our definition of "natural."

There are two main types of cyborg animals on Lisa Black's production line: "Departed" and "Fixed." The "Departed" pieces feature various animal skulls with various cybernetic bits - gears, wires, etc. - attached. The "Fixed" series hits a bit harder, integrating various mechanical parts with more or less whole animal bodies. The very use of the word "Fixed" also suggests that what was already natural wasn't 100% perfect to begin with - and, admittedly, it usually isn't.

Another thing Lisa Black does involves found butterflies preserved forever as jewelry. While not as jarring as her cyborgs, these are still pretty cool pieces. For those not aware, dead butterflies are extremely fragile creatures. They are nonetheless beautiful, causing many a butterfly to be put behind glass in order to preserve it. At least they get out there as wearables, here. See them and more at this page, which also shows off the cyborg beasts and skulls. 

I'm going to (mis)quote my bio-art book when I say, "mankind has evolved to manipulate evolution." Indeed, maybe a reconsideration of nature's sanctity is in order after these dozens of millennia mankind has been on Earth. Dogs aren't really natural given how much we've meddled with them; neither is corn.That still doesn't mean that we should all be glued to our iPhones just because they're the future.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Creature Feature: Vasa Parrots.

Oh! A Creature Feature! It's been a while, hasn't it? Let's look at the weirdest parrot you've eeeeveer seen:

This long-legged, uncanny parrot is a Greater Vasa parrot (Coracopsis vasa). Vasa parrots of all species are native to Madagascar (AKA "that African island with lemurs that got a movie series." Yes, you can get them as pets, but please do your homework.

First of all, these parrots are black. Not gray like an African Gray, not iridescent - gray-black. It's not glossy black, like a crow, but more of a matte black - charcoal black, if you will. That's virtually the last color one expects from a parrot. The pinkish bill stands out, too, making for a striking bird on the whole.

Vasas are thought to be among the most primitive of parrots. Some of you who keep up with animal news might remember a deal a while back when it was found that not all "raptors" - that is, eagles, falcons, hawks, and owls - were related. In fact, parrots are quite closely related to falcons, and the vasa's got some pretty good evidence of this, starting with being a hunting parrot. Females are also larger and dominant, as they are in birds of prey. They also have another very primitive trait that I will get to later, but

Then these parrots start showing their mating colors. What, do I mean that the black suddenly erupts into multicolored plumage? Oh, I wish; vasa parrots have a much stranger mating patterns. Mating groups are open, to say the least, with any given female having 3-8 males in her non-exclusive manharem. The skin of the female turns yellow-orange beneath her feathers while she's tending young...and then she becomes bald so that everybody can see it:

Vasa are also the only parrots to have hemipenes. The cloaca, usually dickless, everts when the birds are mating. The lock can last for up to an hour. That's probably more than you ever wanted to know about parrot sex, but there you go. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Bio-Art: Omnivore.

Remember the bargain bin ?I found another thing in the same bin that proved to have enough merit for an entry. Piers Anthony's Omnivore is marketed as a sci-fi classic, but I had never heard of it, and thought it could not be that bad for just a couple bucks.

Omnivore tells the story of a government agent seeking information on a certain alien planet. To find this information, he ventures into a small community near a forest. There he finds the last three survivors of a trip to Nacre, an alien planet with a unique ecology, who slowly divulge more and more about their experiences. It was written in 1968, and is the first in a trilogy.

"Alien ecology?" Sign me up! Let's take a look at Nacre's ecology and see what we can see. 

The ecology of Nacre is interesting, to say the least. There are no plants. Almost everything is some sort of fungus. They still need water (and can hold it, as a spongy fungus demonstrates), but that's still creative. A lot of research went into creating something so creative and believable, yet alien. Props to the author; you can learn a lot about yeasts, drugs, and Earth ecology by reading Omnivore.

The other lifeforms on the planet are, well, far more bizarre. The animals have all evolved to have amazing eyesight in their one eye, and have exactly one foot. The only herbivores are little, fluffy things with gills that help them process the spore-saturated air. The main carnivores, the "mantas," are strange, manta-like creatures that can flatten themselves into discs and fly in the thicker air as if it were water. The titular omnivore is a nightmarish creature with tentacles and an eyeless snake of a tail. What they lack in diversity, they compensate for in strangeness and creativity.

Compare this to, say, Pandora. There's a lot of life there, but it's all identifiable. Everything there is very Earth-like. There's even a gorgeous humanoid species for us to identify with. It's more like Pandora's an idealized Earth...with dragons. It's really up to you which type of alien ecology you prefer, but I have to give Anthony a cookie for trying something truly different. It's certainly alien.

Unfortunately, Omnivore has something in common with Avatar: both are really heavy on the environmentalism. Factory farming comes up in Omnivore. It's pretty darn clear that humans being omnivores is a bad thing. Conspiracy theorists will find plenty to chew on. Even if the ecology isn't diverse, the messages get across pretty clearly, with very little to get in the way and a lot to think about. It's worth a read, if nothing else. Orn, the next book in the series, has been considered an improvement regardless.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" Japan and Soft Serve Ice Cream.

While in Quebec, there was certainly plenty of weird food to pick on. They had pate of elk and bison. Among my finds was maple syrup soft serve ice cream, located alongside maple syrup everything else. Not only was it delicious, but it brought back memories of Japan, of all places.

If China is the nation that eats everything, Japan is the nation that puts everything in ice cream. Specifically, they love soft-serve ice cream - and when I say love, I mean 大好きです!Yes, they are so fond of soft-serve ice cream in particular that "soft cream" has its own holiday. It has a million flavors to choose from, but a few of them are definitely only in Japan.

Let me make this perfectly clear: I do not hate any of the flavors presented below. In fact, I have tried quite a few of them and have to admit that Japan may be onto something. Soft serve in Japan is a very happy memory for me. Even the cheap flavors in the kiosks work quite well. Behold: vanilla, sweet potato, and green tea soft serve!

Source, but these are not hard to find.

Weird though some of the flavors may be, Japan knows what it is doing when it comes to ice cream. Most of the mixes they make actually taste good. Green tea, for example, is actually not bad mixed with cream and vanilla; think a green tea Frappucino in ice cream form. Even flavors like scallop can be pretty good. Yes, you read that right: scallop-flavored ice cream.

The source says it's pretty good, too.

There may actually be a reason beyond weird for these ice cream flavors, however. Often, these "weird" flavors pop up in rural areas. Local flavors of whatever suddenly become local flavors of ice cream as a sort of advertising for tourists. This accumulation of weird flavors in the countryside is very true; my trip to Iwakuni yielded an ice cream shop with 99 flavors, among other things.

Unlike some things that Japan does, I hope this catches on. It's harmless, delicious, and helps support local businesses. Please don't make ice cream out of Chicago deep dish or hot dogs, though. Just make a Garrett's soft serve blend with bits of popcorn in and all will be well. I'd totally buy that- hint hint.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" Poutine.

Early on Friday, I'll be headed into Canada. Specifically, I'll be in Quebec, putting years of French into practice. They also seem to have some exotic meats, including things like reindeer, so expect an entry on whatever my curious tongue happens to find. Thanks to the interwebs, I have a fair amount of Canadian friends, too. One of them recommended this:

My first thought: "You sure this isn't from Wisconsin? Looks like something they'd do."
Poutine is not from Wisconsin, but is a distinctly Quebecois dish. The recipe is simple: fries, cheese curds, gravy on the whole thing. It started somewhere in rural Quebec, then spread throughout Canada. Even people who don't like French people love poutine. 

Indeed, poutine is not French. Even though French fries are, well, not quite French (they were invented in Belgium, but French cuisine does use them), one look at this dish tells me that poutine is American. One of the popular origins of the word "poutine" is "pudding" - as in, this is a dish that makes you fat. Another is linked to the idea that the food will make a big mess - again, not something I can picture the French advertising. It also just looks so darn close to our disgusting cheese fries that I cannot unsee the similarity. Hopefully it tastes a lot better, using fresh cheese curds instead of artificially-colored "cheese."

The exact origins of poutine are a mystery. Everybody and their mother claims that they thought of poutine. We think it came from Drummondville, Quebec. At least, that's one of the places with a yearly festival devoted to cheese, gravy, and fries. The term has been used to describe gravy, cheese, and fries since 1978.

Then the dish became insanely popular. In a poll of the top ten Canadian inventions, poutine was ranked at #10, beating out the BlackBerry and the electron microscope. Canadians seek out poutine whenever they travel. It may as well be Canada's national junk food at this point.

Even if you can't make it to Canada, chances are there's a variation of cheese fries around you if you live in the Western hemisphere. It sounds good, if fattening, and I look forward to trying it.  It may be 740 calories, but sounds well worth trying at least once. I'm not saying it's bad; I'm saying I haven't tried it yet.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tunicate Week: Sea Tulips.

Back to tunicates. Tunicates are sessile chordates that make everything else go "WTF?" with their sheer bizarre lifestyles. They start as tadpole-like larvae, find a place to settle down, then, umm, reabsorb their primitive spinal chords and brains. They also use cellulose to build the advertised "tunic." In fact, if they didn't eat things and have larvae, we'd be darn sure tunicates were plants.

Apparently linked to Calvinism, somehow?

...weird plants that prove that Hell is probably underwater. Yep.

Those strange, stalky things are sea tulips. Like all tunicates, sea tulips are effectively spineless vertebrates, siphoning in plankton through one hole and pushing water out through the other.  If you wish to tiptoe through the sea tulips, head to the waters around Australia and New Zealand. Sea tulips are actually among the friendlier things there, so please watch out for the other toxic fauna instead.

Sea tulips are the largest individual tunicates out there. They can get up to a meter (roughly a yard for us Americans) long. It's worth noting, however, that some free-swimming tunicates can form longer chains. For something without a true spinal cord, a meter is still pretty impressive.

Clearly the easiest underwater photograph ever. Source.

Sea tulips are symbiotic with another strange, sessile animal: the sea sponge. Many sponges, including the symbiotes present on these tunicates, have predator deterrents - bad taste, poison, and so on. Remember that both sponges and sea tulips lack teeth, so chemical defense is the best bet for both of them. These sponges also provide a lovely array of colors for your viewing pleasure.

Indeed, that seems to be the main purpose of these things: They look really neat. They also lend some credence to the ancient idea that everything on land has a counterpart somewhere in the ocean. If nothing else, sea tulips make for a neat, living bit of undersea scenery that should really be used more often. Even the fields of the sea have strange, filter-feeding flowers.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Bio-Art: Fur Is Alive.

"Fur is murder!" is the rallying cry of PETA and animal-lovers everywhere. Indeed, the fur industry is one of the most controversial parts of the fashion industry. Most people who buy fur are not swayed by animal rights activists at all, but in general, there's a weird disconnect when it comes to humans using animals for meat or hide.

Well, Cecilia Valentine intends to put an end to that mindset. Her "Fur Is Alive" series proposes that fashion involving animals can be humane. In contrast to skinning an animal alive for fur, Fur Is Alive uses live animals and plants without actually harming them. Yes, this is still considered high fashion.

Cecilia Valentine designed Fur Is Alive with one idea in mind: the reconnection that things like fur and meat were once living, breathing creatures. This blog has posted numerous times about how disconnected Americans are from their food - particularly meat products. We're the same way with fashion fur. By and large, the people who buy fur are oblivious to what's really going on.

Here are a few shockers for you:

"Garment or accessory labels cannot always be relied upon to accurately identify the type of animal fur used in an item. Born Free USA advises erring on the side of caution and compassion by not buying items that you cannot verify are fur-free." 

"With nearly $1.3 billion in retail sales, the fur industry makes a substantial contribution to the U.S. economy. The fur industry in the U.S. provides full-time employment for over 32,000 workers and seasonal or part-time employment for an additional 155,000+ workers. Over 12,500 workers in fields such as marketing, banking and insurance also owe their livelihood in part to the fur industry."

 "As any pet owner knows, the condition of an animal's coat is one of the clearest indications of the care it is receiving. A fur farmer's livelihood depends upon assuring that his animals receive the best possible feeding, sanitary housing and care. Killing methods used on fur farms are similar to those commonly used in humane society shelters."

..."synthetics are generally made from petroleum products which are non-renewable resources and not biodegradable. From an environmental perspective, as long as trapping is well regulated, it is far preferable to use natural furs. Fur is renewable, long lasting, biodegradable, and it is warmer than any synthetic product." 

"During the 2009-2010 season, more than 67,000 seal pups were killed for their fur, genitalia and Omega 3 oils. The fur is used to make clothing, boots and garment trim; genitals are widely used as an aphrodisiac in traditional Chinese medicine; and the oils are used as a supplement for human consumption. The majority of the seals are skinned alive and are between the ages of 12 days and 12 months old. Others are left to suffer after being clubbed until a hunter returns to skin them. "

Notice that I am including both sides of the argument in these facts. Fur trading is one of the oldest trades in existence, and we should not expect it to die anytime soon. Beaver pelts were a fairly popular commodity when the New World was still being colonized. Human beings would not be alive if we hadn't learned to use the hides of animals as clothing. Synthetic fabrics have not been around since the dawn of time. Like it or not, we owe the fur industry and all of the animals who lost their lives to make sure the human species lived to have iPhones.

Another, more personal reason for watching both sides of this argument is my own experience with reptile legislation. For big bills banning, say, pythons, reptile owners can and will use the fashion industry to prove their point. They are against snakeskin farming during the other 364 days in the year. It's an interesting bit of hypocrisy, highlighting sides of skinning that PETA-pushers rarely consider. Snakes don't even have to be skinned to be in the fashion industry, so the case is particularly interesting for that reason as well. Plus, reptiles already make great living jewelry.

Back on topic! Cecilia Valentine's series consists of animals and plants on or in attractive-looking lattices. I particularly like the rodent in a necklace, in part because it actually has fur. These designs were made on a 3-D printer, allowing for testing of templates. The hamster was compensated for his time, by the way.

Unfortunately, the project looks to still be in the concept stage. The bird, for example, was photoshop'd in. None of this stuff is on the market, but I hope it's a hit when it gets released. This is a truly eye-opening idea. No matter what side of the argument you're on, when was the last time you saw a hamster cage necklace?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

They Actually Eat That + Creature Feature: Living Rocks.

Apologies for the lack of entries. There are two reasons for it: one, vacation in Minnesota and summer in general made a mess of my schedule; two,  I've had a hard time getting motivated. No more of that! This is probably the weirdest creature I've ever seen. Behold...


...the not-so-giant rock!

Yes, that rock is alive. It's called Pyura chilensis - "piure" for short in Spanish. It's part of the extremely weird group of creatures called tunicates/sea squirts- primitive vertebrates that are free-swimming when young, then become stationary blobs as adults. In this case, the blob looks like a giant rock and lives off the coast of Chile and Peru. As with all other mature tunicates, it is a filter feeder, feeding on any microorganisms that find their way into its rocky, yet surprisingly squishy insides before squirting that water back out.

Yeah, maybe it's time for a refresher on what a tunicate is. Tunicates, sea squirts, and sea salps are, collectively, the weirdest chordates in existence. They start life as free-swimming, tadpole-like creatures with brains, spines, and other very vertebrate traits. When they mature, however, they change entirely, eating their primitive spinal chord and becoming little more than jellyfish or sponges. In this case, the piura becomes a living rock as an adult. Can it have the "best camouflage ever" award? It pretty much ate its brain for it.

Like all tunicates, the living rock is a sequential hermaphrodite. It's born male, then becomes female as it gets older.When it's on the edge of becoming female, it releases both sperm and eggs into a messy cloud in the water. Yes, the living rock can effectively mate with itself if the need arises. Consider your mind blown.

You may have noticed that this is also a "They Actually Eat That" entry. Yes, the living rock is actually edible, and quite popular at that. Peoples in coastal Central and South America are in fact quite fond of eating this tunicate. It has also taken on some popularity in Sweden and Japan. I'm personally more surprised about Sweden than Japan in this instance. It's described as being "bitter and soapy," but supposedly goes great on rice or as fried tunicate meat. Whose idea it was to break apart a rock for food in the first place

There are, however, some concerns about eating piura. For whatever reason, piura meat contains an exceedingly high amount of vanadium- look it up on the periodic chart if you've never even heard of that metal (it probably was not on your chemistry exam). The concentration of vanadium in a single rocky tunicate is ten million times that of the surrounding seawater. Vanadium has been suspected of causing liver damage in high amounts. This has not stopped people from going along the coast and picking up living rocks underwater.

This entry was so weird and strange that I may just go ahead and do a tunicate theme 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

I Actually Ate That: Alligator.

There is actually a reason for the delay in posts, this week: Starting Thursday, I've been in Minnesota with my brother's family. That's 400+ miles away from my usual post in a place with terrible internet. I have not been able to post on Twitter from my phone because of one or more factors. Also, in summary, I do not like PC's. Stupid ads that get around my popup blockers...

The good news is that we came during the opening weekend of Minnesota's Renaissance Fair. Among the fair food? Alligator. I have no idea what gators have to do with the European Renaissance - they're an American crocodilian - but could not resist trying gator for the sake of trying gator.

And y'know what? I really like it. I normally don't eat land animals, but gator got me. Maybe I was just that hungry, or maybe there was some special sauce or spices, but whatever they did to the thing, they did it right. If you see gator on a stick around, by all means give it a try. It will not be what you're expecting.

What I was expecting: "It tastes like chicken." It's been a long time since I had chicken, but I do still remember how it tastes. I certainly remember how it smells. Gator tastes nothing like that, or at least not like the chicken that I remember. Some people think it tastes like veal, others like pork, and pretty much everything except beef and lamb. I'm also tempted to compare it to rabbit simply because of how lean the stuff is.

What I got: A meat that I had never tasted before. I'm firmly in the camp that alligator only tastes like alligator, because after having too much chicken soup as a child, I'd know if it tasted like chicken. It does not. I will grant that it tastes more like chicken than like, umm, beef or lamb. Predatory chicken soaked in the blood of innocents? Maybe. Not many meat is soaked in the blood of innocents. Fish aside, humans rarely eat predators - with good reason.

Now, I'm willing to bet money that the gator I had was farmed. Gator farms are a thing.  Gatorskin has been popular for a long time, and gator meat is a natural  follow-up.

 So, yes, I'm very glad I broke my land animal abstinence for gator. It's not something UI'll have often, but it was definitely worth trying. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" Donut Peaches.

If you can, go to a farmer's market sometime. They usually have stuff that is not only interesting, but edible. You won't find these weird things in a grocery store, so keep your eyes peeled and your tongue curious. Never know what you'll find.

Yeah, I demanded to know what these were as soon as I laid eyes on them in Daley Plaza.. They are donut peaches, also called "Saturn peaches." They looked like peaches, but flatter and rounder. They also seem to be the next big thing for people who like peaches. Hey, I like peaches, so I got a basket.

Donut peaches have been around in China for centuries (1100 BCE), but they were only introduced to the U.S. in 1869. They became popular in the 1990's, faded out, and now, ten years later, the seeds of this popularity are finally bearing fruit.They are harvested late spring until the end of summer, so if you didn't get them already, get 'em now.

I tried one of these for myself. They certainly aren't bad, and the round pit is cute. Although some have recommended them as a travel snack, be warned that they are on the messy side of things. Apricots are smaller and cleaner, but if you simply must have a peach in your pocket, go nuts. They also have something called a "honey gene" that makes peaches sweeter.

 Be warned , however, that they taste more like almonds than most peaches, and probably have more of whatever it is that triggers almond allergies. Overall, they're an enjoyable little treat. Check for them at your local farmer's market. If you happen to live in California, several restaurants have them as well. This is one fruit that will surely get more popular with time. Try it before everybody else.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Creature Feature: Lake Titicaca Frog.

Some things in life are just funny.  For example, Lake Titicaca? That just sounds dirty. We know it's a Quecha word, but it sounds sexy, dirty, or both depending on what other languages you happen to speak. It doesn't help that some pretty darn weird creatures live there, too.

Source: Weirdimals.

This is a Lake Titicaca water frog (Telmatobeus culeus). It is entirely aquatic, spending all of its life in a relatively isolated lake. It lives only in Lake Titicaca and looks just as silly as one would expect of something living in such a hilariously-named lake. Its scientific name translates to "aquatic scrotum." Apt, scientists.

The Titicaca frog has a reason for looking like a nutsack. Lake Titicaca is 4,000 feet above the ground, making oxygen a bit hard to come by. The folded skin is effectively one giant gill for the frog. That doesn't mean we land-dwellers cannot make fun of it. At least it has a cute face. Seriously, take away the folded skin and this frog doesn't look half bad. 

Why are you laughing at me? You can't even stay underwater for an hour!

The Lake Titicaca water frog is also a pretty big frog. The famous diver Jacques Cousteau once went diving in Lake Titicaca, finding thousands of fairly large, wrinkly frogs. They used to get up to 50cm long - that's roughly 20 inches, or "almost as long as two footlong sandwiches." It's not even the largest aquatic frog, but that's still impressive. 

Also, we eat this guy. Surprise, surprise, people eat frogs, but this particular frog is sometimes juiced into a Peruvian aphrodisiac. The frog is skinned alive, then put in a blender with some honey and roots. I realize it looks like a scrotum, but...fine, that's more logical rationale than some aphrodisiacs. You win this round, Peru, but it's still not cool to hunt frogs just to put junk in your trunk.

Aphrodisiacs aside, the Lake Titicaca frog faces a number of other environmental threats. Trout were introduced to Lake Titicaca's ecosystem, upsetting the who ecosystem therein, but specifically eating this frog's tadpoles. Tribal people occasionally catch the frogs and put them in jars in hopes that the heavens with take pity on the scrotum frog and allow it to return to the water by making the jar overflow. If the gods somehow bring this frog back from being critically endangered, thank the Denver Zoo and whatever otherworldly entities made the Nazca lines.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Bio-Art: Meat Dresses.

It's odd that there hasn't been too much about Lady Gaga for a while. She used to be the biggest thing since sliced bread, but you don't even see her on magazine covers anymore. Still, she was known for wearing crazy stuff like this:

This blog entry is not necessarily about her, however. Meat dresses are not a shiny new thing that Gaga introduced. In fact, the (likely) original meat dress caused just as much controversy and had a much clearer message behind it.

This is Jana Sterbak's Vanitas: Flesh Dress For An Albino Anorectic. In 1991, this meat dress was put on display so as to show the contrast between our obsession with youthful physical appearances and eventual death. It consisted of 50 pounds' and approximately 300 dollars' worth of steak sewn into a dress. The dress was displayed, unrefrigerated, on a hanger next to a photo of a woman wearing the dress in the National Museum of Canada.

Wait. Unrefrigerated? Yes, this dress was just hanging there, decomposing in front of a large audience. It had to be replaced after 6 weeks of being on display. Slightly cheaper meat was used for the replacement, totaling 260 bucks instead of 300. Talk about a temporary exhibit.

The backlash to this piece was insane. Countless protestors sent in food scraps to the museum. Goodness knows where those all went, but I daresay anybody on staff with a dog had a happy pooch by the time this was over. It's fairly hard to send raw stuff through the U.S. mail, so someone in Canada must have really gone above and beyond.

As much as I like Gaga, I must admit that Sterbak's meat dress is more profound. Gaga's description of her own outfit sounded, well, like it had been cobbled together by her marketing team. Like many of her outfits, the meat dress was a sensation piece. It works just fine regardless of the generation it appears in. It's not like meat will ever be high fashion or anythi-

...kill me now.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Newsflash: Avatar Land At Animal Kingdom?!

Let me tell you all a story. When Disney's Animal Kingdom first opened, there was a huge promotion going on at McDonald's. The toys and Happy Meal box both advertised a dragon. Yes, it was a pretty obvious cash grab, but I was young at the time and wanted to see the dragon when I went to Disney World.

Much to my disappointment, the dragon was no longer there when I arrived- or, rather, it had never really been there. The area focusing on mythical creatures had been removed in favor of providing the real creatures with better care. The park was still fun, and the dragon remained a toy in my reptile drawer and little more.

Now they're at risk of doing that again. Behold, project Avatar Land:

Let me make one point perfectly clear: I am not objecting to an Avatar theme park. Given that Avatar had an extremely impressive world, it makes perfect sense to make a theme park around that.  However, it does not belong in Animal Kingdom, despite having spectacular otherworldly fauna and a strong conservation message. Both of these points would backfire, potentially costing Disney just as much as the dragon would have. Assuming they have the same rationale as before, they should not go ahead with Avatar Land.

It is not that I do not see why Disney decided to put Avatar in Animal Kingdom to begin with. There are two reasons that I can see Avatar fitting in at Animal Kingdom: the pseudoscience that went into Pandora and the conservation message present in the movie. I cover pseudoscience a la Mermaids: The Body Found on this blog, which one could argue Avatar is an extension of. Even so, both of these reasons fall flat when one considers that this is Avatar we are dealing with.

As many previous entries may tell you, I love pseudoscience. Avatar is loaded with amazing pseudoscience that no doubt had thousands of hours funneled into it. They thought long and hard about almost everything, from Na'vi traditions to animal habits to evolutionary things and skeletons. Banshees, for example, evolved from a fishlike ancestor, and the evidence can be found in their odd jaws. That's pretty cool. So, let's say it again: pseudoscience is fun.

The problem is that it is indeed Avatar we are dealing with. Much of the pseudoscience behind Avatar is based on either extinct life or deepsea life. Bioluminescence, while not impossible to come by in shallow waters, is largely reserved for abyssal creatures. Said creatures do not do well on land, and cannot be kept in normal fishtanks. The use of an extinct or nonexistent animal to support conservation speaks for itself. (Yes, save the endangered dragon!) While they could put in, say, a black leopard because it's similar to Thanator, the point still might not come across; ultimately, we're talking about different creatures. Pandora is its own world with its own ecology. In short, this point bites itself nicely on its own rear end.

Going back to the point earlier, then, about the area on mythical creatures that was scrapped: I'm still bummed about it, but agree with Animal Kingdom's decision to retcon it in favor of providing a better experience for the animals. It's hard to use mythical animals to push any sort of environmental theme. Yes, I've used mythical creatures to help illustrate a point or two, usually citing real creatures as a basis for, say, wyverns. With Avatar, it's a tiny bit harder to do that; try and explain to a kid that a flying fish in a tank is a potential ancestor for the Banshee. (That said, it would be kind of awesome if they used Stitch to help preserve the unique flora and fauna of Hawaii. That I could see working much better than Avatar, if only because Stitch started as an alien lifeform and found true happiness on good ol' Earth. "Help keep Stitch's home beautiful!"- watch, kids will be throwing pennies in and recycling like crazy.) As long as you can make the connection really, really well, it's still doable...but Avatar has been confirmed not to do it.

The other point, conservation, has an ironic hypocrisy that is not related to the use of nonexistent species at all. Contrary to Cameron's intent, Pandora made people care less about the environment, perhaps in part because the message was so poorly delivered. People committed suicide because they felt their world was "gray" in comparison to Pandora. That should be enough to tell someone that their message isn't getting across. The message did not get across, and the writers were beating the audience over the head with it. That is how poorly-communicated it was. People didn't start planting trees after seeing the movie; they wondered when Avatar the MMO was coming out. The world was actually so awesome that the message to save our world almost got lost.

How could it fail? One reviewer said that Avatar was an event, like when Star Wars first appeared in theaters. This is more or less true. We were meant to experience Pandora as opposed to paying attention to the thin storyline or characters. That was the biggest strength of the movie. This makes it prime amusement park fodder...but its ideal setting is most likely not Animal Kingdom.

Rather, the better bet may have been to pitch the idea to Universal Studios. Not only does Universal already have some deals with 20th Century Fox under their belts, but the whole theme of the park is "ride the movies." I have zero doubt that this is exactly what Avatar Land would entail - the experience of Pandora all over again, complete with riding a Banshee in an awesome flight simulator. That would be cool, and I would be all for it. As for Disney? Look into making working Keyblades for VR Kingdom Hearts.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Creature Feature: Black Swallower.

It's about time I got back into the swing of things. That means more cool creatures, hopefully with another 6-day week of entries at a faster pace. There is still more weird stuff out there, and I intend to cover a lot of it. In this case, a friend of mine was awesome enough to send me a real monstrosity:

The black fish above is a black swallower (Chiasmodon niger). These small (10 inch) fish are restricted to dark, tropical and subtropical waters.  They themselves are rather dark, being brown and scaleless like many non-glowing abyssal animals. They eat bony fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Yes, we are still talking about the tiny black fish - not the pearly blue fish it attempted to eat.

Oh, and yes, the thing did indeed swallow something larger than its entire body up there. It can swallow prey over twice its length and ten times its mass. The black swallower doesn't bother to chew them, either - just swallows them whole, presumably jaw-walking over them from the tail up just to fit it all in. Nobody has ever seen this taking place. This is almost like a human swallowing a whole cow without chewing, regardless. Have fun with that image.

To help with this insane capacity to swallow, the black swallower's stomach is so stretchy that it makes python skin look like plastic. Things are enclosed whole in the stomach lining, which can stretch so thin that it looks like a bubble waiting to be popped. As one can imagine, this doesn't work 100% of the time; many black swallowers have been found with their stomachs popped like fleshy bubbles.

It's a miracle that almost nobody has done anything in pop culture with this weird little fish. Its strange eating habits sound like the perfect setup for a monster. Combine it with certain other abyssal creatures and we might have a terror of the deep on par with Jaws. Better still, its young have been found near Bermuda. Hm...I sense a new B-horror flick coming on.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Bio-Art: So Human An Animal.

If possible, go check out the bargain bin at a book store, or the book sales at a local library. Books make better friends than cell phones, 3DS's, or any other electronic device on a plane, so it never hurts to have a good book or two when traveling. Bargain bins are an awesome source for good books, if a little worn. You never know what you'll find.

I managed to find this at a discount book sale: So Human An Animal by Rene Dubos. Its whole argument is that, as technology progresses, humanity will start to lose what makes it human. In order to retain our humanity, we must get back to nature on some level. Published in 1968, many of its ideas are now outdated...because we implemented them.

First of all, let me say that this book is well-written. The writer was a French immigrant who did not have English as his native language. Even so, the imagery is excellent, the text well-supported with a million citations (in the back of the book), and the points crystal clear. He writes better than most English-speakers I know. It's pretty enough that I'm calling it art; there is definite skill and beauty, even though it's nonfiction.

Wikipedia does not so much as give one a summary of this Pulitzer-winning book, so the burden falls on li'l old me. In short, the book thoroughly details the influence the environment has on an individual - physically, psychologically, and psychosomatically. The urban environment is particularly toxic, harboring numerous pollutants, overcrowding, and, most importantly, removal from nature. The mindset of "produce more so we can consume more so that we can produce even more" does indeed not make sense, and is a vicious cycle that needs to stop.

And y'know what? We've made steps towards that...or have tried. LEED certified buildings are, for example, both a triumph and an epic fail. They economize on energy, but LEED-certified buildings also tend to abuse glass to help their eco-friendly goals. Birds do not realize there is glass; thus, a lot of bird crashes occur around LEED buildings. Farmer's markets are now fairly frequent in cities, even if the food still comes from far away. Finally, yes, even office buildings are now dotted with greenery to make the area more bearable. Given the prominence of this book, it would not be surprising if many such ideas came directly from it.

So Human An Animal is one of those books that helped shape the modern world as we know it. Aside from perhaps Silent Spring and Thoreau's diary from Walden Pond, no book has had so much to say about man's relationship with nature. It's awesome that I was able to find it in a bargain bin.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Newsflash: Name That Fish and Win A Trip!

There's an unconscious gap between scientists and laypeople. Usually, the average Joe has nothing to do with labs and such. We're just the consumers of science; we don't make it. That's up to smart people in labs with white coats...right?

Well, National Geographic is doing something about that. A new fish has been discovered, and it's up to you and I to give it a common name. The scientists have their hands full tracing the fish's taxonomic history, but anyone can give it a common name. From July 31 to August 26th, National Geographic is giving one of us non-science-y folks a chance to name a colorful fish cited off the coast of Chile. More below:

"What's in a name? Whether you're star-crossed lovers in a Shakespeare play or researchers exploring the ends of the Earth, names can be everything. A proper name can transcend languages and cultures, allowing anyone around the world to know who or what you're talking about.

Now, folks have a chance to help give a mystery fish a new identity—and for one lucky contest winner, a chance to go on a ten-day trip to the Galápagos.

Discovered in February in the seas surrounding the Desventuradas Islands (the "unfortunate" islands in Spanish) off the coast of Chile, experts say this fish (pictured) could be a new species.
The National Geographic Society is holding a contest from July 31 to August 26 to give this mystery fish a common name. People can enter their submissions in the comment box below. (Learn more about the contest rules.)

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala came upon the four-inch (ten-centimeter) creature while exploring a seamount near San Félix Island (map) in the eastern Pacific Ocean.
While maneuvering a submersible 436 feet (133 meters) down a basalt wall, Sala and colleagues spotted several brightly colored spots hovering near the rock. "We got closer and tried to focus and zoom our video camera to get a closer look, but the spots darted into a hole and disappeared as soon as our submarine lights were on them," Sala wrote in an email." Source and entry page here.

All you have to do is comment with a name on the page linked above. Then you'll be automatically entered into the drawing. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to name an animal; take it. The trip to the Galapagos is a nice bonus, too. Have fun, get creative, and good luck!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Creature Feature: Sebastopol Goose.

Hey, come to think of it, we've never looked at domestic geese on this blog. This is my fault entirely; there simply hasn't been a goose breed that has gotten my attention. Just looking at domestic geese for one little pic, however, led me to quite a strange goose indeed:

This is a Sebastopol/Danubian goose (Anser anser domesticus).  The breed originated in Ireland from the wild Greylag goose. It only became popular in the 19th century in Europe, and is considered a rare breed. They used to be common everywhere around the Black Sea, and came to England by way of a port in Sebastopol (now in the Ukraine) sometime in the late 1800's. The typical coloration is white with blue eyes and orange feet, but others are available.

The most outstanding trait of the Sebastopol goose is, obviously, the feathers. A similar trait has been found in parakeets. The feathers are so curled that the goose cannot fly. They do, however, make lovely feathers for pillows and quills. Nonetheless, the trait is considered bad for the goose, and it is recommended that curly feathers be kept off the goose's chest so as to avoid wing deformities. (Compare: the taboo against breeding Harlequin Dane x Harlequin, so as to avoid deafness in the puppies.)

From Breed Savers.

Other than the feathers, this goose looks...fairly average. It's frequently crossed with another common goose breed, the Embden, which is one of the more typical "farm" geese. Both are typically bred with a white body and orange legs. It also heavily resembles the Roman goose in color and stature. One trait makes these geese stand out from all the rest, but it's a doozy.

Who knew geese could be so interesting? Perhaps there are more bizarre geese out there waiting to be made into good entries. Hmm...a whole theme week of geese? It's very possible, especially since not many aside from goose enthusiasts will ever see the weird ones. Keep watching!