Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" Rhinoceros.

Remember when I said that humans will eat megafauna like no tomorrow? I wasn't kidding. Humans have been eating giant animals since Homo sapiens were a thing, still eat giant animals today, and will continue to eat giant animals in the future.Nothing is safe unless it is explicitly poisonous. Even then, fast food is worse for you than rhino meat:

Image by National Geographic. Look at how red it is compared to domestic meat...

Today is no exception. Everything is fair game, including the powerful rhinoceros. As long as rhinos exist, people will hunt them, just like we did to most other megafauna. We will also be eating them to the end of time. Habitat destruction is almost a new one, but this is about the edible side of things, so let's stick to that.

China, of course, is in on rhino meat. Rhinoceros horn has been touted for various medicinal properties, just like almost any other part of almost any other animal. Its main use is as a painkiller, with rhino horns fetching up to $30,000 per kilogram. There is also a concoction involving a rhino skull and coconut oil. All of this has no potency whatsoever.

A lot of people already know about the rhino horn trade. A lot fewer people realize that there is a lot of meat there. The meat itself supposedly has properties as well. It has been touted as a cure for leprosy, diarrhea, and tuberculosis. There is absolutely no basis for this.

Eating rhino is not at all common. Rhinoceroses are big, fierce animals. They're hard to kill, even with rifles and other modern weaponry. Rhino meat is still quite valuable as exotic meat. There are roughly 275 Sumatran rhinos left; we'd like to keep some around, so please don't eat rhino meat or buy...anything rhino-based, really. It may be delaying the inevitable, but let's try to keep megafauna around for as long as we can.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Megafauna Week: Intro + Titanoboa.

 Pinch, punch, last week of the month! You know what that means: It's a Theme Week! This month's theme is MEGAFAUNA. Let me say it in bigger letters:


Megafauna, in general, means "any animal larger than a human that has not been domesticated." The term can apply to both extant and extinct species. The term is usually reserved for giant, extinct animals that were much larger than their modern day counterparts. Giraffes, elephants, and many other famous African animals are also properly megafauna.  Believe it or not, the aurochs, the ancestor to the modern cow, was megafauna. We have bred cattle down a lot, and they're still pretty darn big. 

That said, there will be a lot of extinct creatures this week, too. Megafauna tends to vary inversely with human population - that is, the more humans there are in an area, the less megafauna there will be. There are a number of reasons for this.The most obvious is that humans are a lot like wolves in that anything big against us falls to coordinated effort. Less obvious things include competition for resources and habitat destruction (which kinda falls under "resources," in retrospect). Basically, humans and megafauna do not mix well.

So, without further ado, onto the first member of the heavyweight class:

Surprise, surprise: this week is starting with a giant snake. For those of you who have not seen this monster, its name was Titanoboa and it died out long before humans walked the Earth (so your hands are clean). The only known species, Titanoboa cerrejonensis, was found in the coal mines of Columbia.

Titanoboa was a giant, even among modern giant snakes. It was 48 feet long and weighed over 2,500 pounds. To put things in perspective, the longest snake, the reticulated python, is at least 10 feet shy of that. It was about as wide as a garbage can, if not slightly bigger. As for how dangerous it was, I believe the following demotivator makes the point best:

(Disclaimer: I love giant snakes.)

The discovery of a snake this big tells us a few very important things about its environment. For starters, there had to be prey big enough to accommodate such a large snake; large snakes need large food, after all. Huge reptiles also tend to live in tropical climates, meaning that Columbia was still hot millennia ago.

Before you ask, no, this snake did not eat dinosaurs. Titanoboa appeared in the Paleocene, around 60-58 million years ago. That is the time directly after the period when dinosaurs went extinct. If there were dinosaurs for it to eat, they would have been the stragglers from the KT event that refused to evolve into birds. The Paleocene had plenty of large mammals, birds, and reptiles for Titanoboa to feed on regardless.

Pop culture loves picking on giant snakes, and Titanoboa is no exception. The Smithsonian has a rather extensive page on Titanoboa, including what it would take to support one in a zoo. Primeval: New World also featured a Titanoboa, overlapping it with a Native American legend. Giant snakes are pretty common in folklore; who's to say that someone didn't discover Titanoboa before modern science? 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Bio-Art: Pigs Might Fly.

The phrase "when pigs fly" means that something will never happen. For example: "Sure, I'll vote Republican...when pigs fly." (No offense to any Republicans out there; I was merely using political views as an example of usually-unchangeable things.)  Flying pigs are not expected to exist, ever, but that is not the way science works. "Impossible" is one of those words that science wishes did not exist.

The kicker? Flying pigs could exist if someone really wanted them to. Ever so slowly, the impossible is becoming quite possible. Soon, pigs will be able to fly; conveniently,  a certain bio-artist has made the idea come to life. Well, sort of.

"Pigs Might Fly" is another taxidermy piece by British artist Damien Hirst. It sold in the September of 2008 in an art auction that totaled 198 million dollars - a record for a one-artist auction. For those of you unfamiliar with Hirst's work, this blog has plenty of it. Among his more memorable pieces are a fully-soaked shark, a mother and her calf bisected, and a cow with gold-plated hooves.A flying pig is just another drop in the bucket.

Like many of Hirst's works, this flying piglet is hovering in a bath of formaldehyde. The piglet has pure white dove wings attached, ready to take flight - if only there wasn't a glass wall in the way. The pose of the piglet is stunning, and definitely merits this being art. That is one realistic flying pig; no wonder it sold for so much.

Photo by CBS.

Think that this is something only a taxidermist would dream up? Hardly. There are viruses that rewrite DNA called "retroviruses." Gene splicing is already a thing. Give it time before they make a live flying pig. Hirst has already made the blueprints.

So, pigs can fly. What are we going to say is impossible now?

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Creature Feature: Opabinia.

Has anyone ever wondered why aliens are in everything these days? Only conspiracy theorists, most likely. Has anyone ever wondered why the great majority of them look like little more than humans with makeup? There's the intelligence factor, but the real reason is most likely laziness. If you really want to get creative with aliens, you're going to have to go all the way back to the Cambrian.

Like this thing. Wow, is that even from Earth?

Opabinia above was from an earth waaayyy before the first chordates ever roamed the seas. We're talking the Cambrian (545-525 mya), the first period when life was noticeable in Earth's history. It was found in the Burgress Shale with things like Anomalocaris, so we can assume that these things were at least in British Columbia; a questionable specimen was also found in Australia. It was only about 3 innches long. We don't quite know what this thing ate, in part because of one very obvious trait.

Opabinia had a proboscis that looked and likely worked very much like a jagged elephant trunk. This means it probably ate shell-less, squishy little things from the sea bottom. The wormy schnoz was about a third of the length of this creature's body, and its digestive tract actually did a u-turn inside of its body. Quite twisted for one of the most primitive life forms.

Opabina also had strange limbs. Aside from the gill-covered blades, there are tiny little legs on the underside of the creature's body. They weren't jointed, so Opabinia was not quite an arthropod. The tiny legs may be precursors to arthropod legs, supporting the theory that Opabinia and its kin may be the first steps between annelids (earthworms) and arthropods. Trippy.

There has been some confusion as to Opabinia's family tree. Because of its odd "limbs," people have a hard time classing where exactly Opabinia belongs in the grand scheme of things. All sorts of things have been tossed around: arthropod, annelid-arthropod ancestor, and even the closest living relatives being water bears (tardigrades).
And tardigrades have already been made into aliens.

OPabinia is probably one of the best candidates for an alien design in the entire history of the planet. Ship or creature-get creative. Next time you design an alien race, guys, please be more creative than "generic LGM/human with makeup/reptoid." I've particularly wanted to see an alien with a different, completely inhuman jawline, more like a crow or dolphin. It's fine if you want to put aliens into everything, but think outside the box a little.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Newsflash: Dung Beetles use the Milky Way., that title sounds dirty. If you're too young to have a mind that goes to the gutter, don't worry about what I just said. Just know that almost everything in nature has an amazing sense of navigation compared to the silly humans who use Google Maps.  Like the sailors of old, they often use the stars as a sort of natural map. It turns out that this holds true for dung beetles as well.

Many animals, including birds and humans, use stars for navigation. This is  not the case for some creatures, like pigeons, who use the Earth's magnetic pull. Given that a little insect probably doesn't have great eyesight like birds and humans, it is mind-boggling to see one use the galaxy as a road map.

If Discovery News is correct, dung beetles don't just use the starry sky, but the Milky Way for navigating as they roll their dung balls. Even on a moonless night, a dung beetle will roll its ball of feces in a perfectly straight line. It was a mystery how they could do this without moonlight.

The experiment to test this went along these lines:

 "To test their navigation, researchers watched the beetles in a planetarium under a starry sky, a sky showing only the Milky Way, and an overcast sky. The beetles had no problem maintaining their straight lines under the first two skies, but couldn’t do it when the Milky Way was indistinguishable.

Most stars are probably too dim for the insects’ eyes, the researchers said in the study published online in Current Biology."

Hm. So along with making pyramids, the ancient Egyptians figured out that dung beetles rolled their balls of feces according to the heavens. Maybe they were onto something about scarabs being sacred. I wouldn't sacrifice an animal to that, though.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Fun Spotlight: Big Run Wolf Ranch!

Instead of my usual Creature Feature, today's entry will be a totally different kind of Creature Feature. Much like many bloggers who actually go out and go things, I will provide coverage of any nature-related events I happen to encounter. I'd like to do this seriously one day- it's an awesome idea -  but funds and such will not allow. So, for now, I am limited mostly to events that happen in Illinois.

That said, if you see an event hosted at or by Big Run Wolf Ranch, don't turn it down. They happened to be at my local forest preserve last night (the 24th). That place has a lot more than just wolves, so along with Shanoa, we to see some really wild stuff:

For those of you who have no idea what a groundhog is...there ya go. This is the groundhog we in IL use for our Groundhog Day predictions. 

Skunks make amazingly great pets, even though many people would consider them wild. They also come in colors other than black and white. Kirby II here was a real doll, letting everyone pet and cuddle them. Kids even got to "babysit" him.

 There was a coyote, too. He was skittish, as a real wild coyote would be. Coyotes will not eat humans, but will eat small pets like Chihuahuas. I like them already. Pecos, our coyote, was also used as an example of a desert animal, featuring large ears and small paws. Another good example: Fennecs.

The wolf above, Shanoa, also appeared at Loyola the night we had a wolf showing. The big male, Zeus, was unwilling to come; when unwillingness is backed with a 1400-pound bite, even a wolf handler will listen. Tangent: The porcupine also could not make it.

Now, something that bugs me that did not get answered: it's hard to tell where this guy draws the line between "domesticated" and "tame." As I went into detail in my first essay on breeds, domestication is an iffy issue with no real scientific gauge to back it. I'm curious as to where this guy draws the line; his wolves and many other animals were bred in captivity and tamed.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" Gorilla.

 Many of you probably saw the title of this entry and went "no," or perhaps even decided to avoid it. This column is for the daring. We've done human here, before; surely an ape would surprise no one. I understand if you would like to avoid the idea that humans will, in fact, eat apes as well as monkeys and each other, but this column will attempt to approach gorilla meat with an open mind. Unfortunately, this is very hard to do; there are almost no benefits, and all but one reason for eating gorilla meat is, frankly, stupid.

From National Geographic. I don't think people eat the head...but it gets the point across.

There are exactly 3 reasons that people eat gorilla meat. None of them are good. Let's look at them anyways.

The first and most obvious one is "because gorillas are there." If you are a native African tribesman looking for some grub, there is a slim chance that you will be a picky eater. Plus, hey, you just took down a gorilla. This is the only legitimate reason - it gets worse from here.

Going in ascending order of "Worst Reasons to Eat Gorillas," people in urban areas around these tribes will also see gorilla in restaurants. People with native African ancestry eat gorilla meat because their forefathers in the forest did. This does not mean it is a good idea. See also: lutefisk, creamed herrings, and quite a few other things that stay around because they're "traditional." Just because it's traditional doesn't mean it's good.

The third and worst reason is when Europeans eat it as a unique meat. There is no tribal backing for this at all. Gorilla meat is simply exotic, and worth trying on that merit alone. Gorillas are also trophy animals, so killing a gorilla is like finding a gold mine.  Keep the head, cut a hand off for an ashtray, and get some exotic meat to boot. Reminder: I have nothing against gorillas, but I do know how these people think.

Before you even ask, no, there are absolutely no health benefits to eating gorilla meat. If anything, it will make you very, very sick. Gorillas have a lot of diseases in common with humans, including Ebola. In case you need a reminder, that's the disease that causes bloody sweat, internal bleeding, and other unmentionable hemorrhages. Screw that "save the rainforest" reason to avoid bushmeat - avoid gorilla because they can get killed by and kill us with one of our deadliest diseases.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Creature Feature: Golden Lion Tamarin.

A rather interesting question came to me in the form of a fortune cookie: Which would you rather have as a pet: a pig or a monkey? Both are notably intelligent, messy, and carry diseases that can cross over into humans. It's a fair question; answer it below if you like.

Now, as anyone who follows this blog is aware, I am not the biggest fan of monkeys. My answer to that question would probably be the pig, hands-down, if one particular type of monkey did not exist:

It's called a golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia) (or "golden marmoset" for those of you without any imagination). It can be found in the Brazilian forests along the east coast. This monkey has a diverse diet of fruit, leaves, insects and eggs. Basics done - you may d'aww now.

The golden lion tamarin really looks like a little lion. Although not predatory like a lion, this monkey does have a "mane" of elongated hair along the sides of its face. This color supposedly comes from the carotenoids in their diet, much like flamingo coloration being the result of eating crustaceans. The tamarin also has claws - a rarity in primates, with the notable exception of all other New World monkeys.

Golden lion tamarins are also monogamous. Like wolves, they have a social structure in which the top male and top female mate. They mate for life while everybody else doesn't get any. Aww, just in time for- wait, it's not Valentine's Day, yet. Never mind. 

Alas, the golden lion tamarin is highly endangered, and not because it's darn adorable. A good chunk of its habitat has been chipped away by deforestation. The lion tamarin is considered one of the more popular endangered species - enough so that one of the characters in Tokyo Mew Mew has a tamarin as her animal splice. That said, any attempts to get one as a pet would probably be illegal. Guess I'd pick the pig after all.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Bio-Art (sort of): Dancin' on Sunshine.

This week's Bio-Art isn't particularly biologically-related. Rather, it ties into another bio-art piece I did a while back: making music out of DNA. This is not that. This is a man making music out of photos of the Sun. 

A brief reminder: humans are visual creatures. The idea that an image, or several images, could become sound, or vice-versa, is mind-boggling. To be more precise, however, this data is taken by NASA that they're turning into music. The different element patterns in the Sun are played by different instruments. They convey the same majesty that witnessing a prominence would solely via sonification.

Sonification is, as the word itself might imply, turning data into sound (aside from speech). Virtually any data with a pattern can be made into sound. Functional examples include Geiger counters, sonar, and heart monitors. Sonification is still treated as "experimental," even though it works pretty well most of the time.

Nobody would consider those functional uses art, however. As I said before, humans are visual creatures; there are reasons that we haven't developed "smellovision" or movies in which touch is an important factor. There are a million ways to view the sun using various element filters, and combining them all into soundtracks revealed the patterns more clearly than visual data. Recording the solar cycles as music is artistic, educational, and daring. Bravo.

This could be used to make art out of any number of biological features, including, but not limited to, fish swimming, the wingbeats of a butterfly, and, of course, the human pulse. After you can hear sunlight, anything becomes audible. The Sun: Available at a record store near you! Wait, are record stores still around?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Creature Feature: Picture-Wing Flies.

Flies are really taken for granted. Sure, they land on our food, but it's only because we leave it out for them. Without flies, the world would be covered in dog poop. In more than one sense, they're garbage men for the entire planet - it's a dirty job, but someone's gotta do it.

But did you know that flies can also be gorgeous? As in, comparable to birds-of-paradise?

That is one of several (111) species of picture-wing fly found only on Hawaii. They are closely related to the common fruit flies around the world, and are so named for the patterns that the males have in their lacy wings. Several of these fly species are endangered or threatened, which are in turn important to equally-endangered plant species on the island. Yes, these flies are nectar-drinkers and pollinators- just like hummingbird, butterflies, and fuzzy-wuzzy bumblebees. They're sounding cuter already.

Compared to the 1000-something species of fruit flies in existence, 111 species is not a lot, nor should it be a surprise. It only takes two fruit flies for there to suddenly be millions on an island. If the Center for Biological Diversity is correct, those 111 picture-wing species came to Hawaii only 5 million years ago from one egg-bearing female- even more stunning than if a male had been present. They reproduce faster than rodents.

Fruit flies also have simply amazing genetic potential. That's why they're so horribly popular in genetic studies: they breed like crazy and have a million mutations to play with.  Lek courtship is unusual in insects, and is far more common in birds, which have more potential for elaborate courting rites...or so we thought.

When the rapid breeding rate and genetic potential of the fruit fly is brought to an island, the flies flourish. What were once ravenous pests suddenly become nectar-drinking, dancing insects with beautiful wings. Even humans do not change that radically in such a short amount of time. These must be Beelzebub's personal entertainers, if I must make a reference to Lord of the Flies. Flies may annoy us on the mainland, but they aren't all bad.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Newsflash: TWO New Species Found In Vietnam.

One of the biggest reasons to save the rainforest involves finding new species. National Geographic does not slack in that regard, showing us a few new species that have only been documented in January of 2013. Here are two new herps recently identified in Vietnam:


This colorful fellow is called Calotes bachae. It is an agamid lizard, meaning that it is related to agamas and Uromastyx lizards. Since there are indeed several hundred agamids in Asia, this one is in good company. There are even other light blue ones to keep the male of this new species company.

As per the National Geographic article here, "During mating season, the colors of the male lizards—which can measure up to 11 inches (28 centimeters)—become especially vivid, ranging from cobalt blue to bright turquoise. This serves to attract females and to intimidate other males, said Hartmann.
While by day the lizard's blue and green coloration is striking, at night it appears dark brown, "showing no bright coloration at all," said Hartmann, a Ph.D. candidate at the Herpetology Department at the Museum Koenig in Bonn, Germany." Surprisingly enough, this striking lizard can be found in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, as well as some reserves. 


The other big discovery is Helen's flying frog, named after the researcher Jodi Rowley's mother. Ironically, it was found on a log instead of in the trees.

Flying frogs are pretty cool on their own, but this one has extra adaptations for parachuting from tree to tree. The hands are huge, even by flying frog standards; the hind legs are webbed on almost the entire limb. If this gliding style has kept it from being discovered, it's gotta be pretty effective!

Unfortunately, both of these unusual creatures are threatened by habitat loss and too much contact with humans. Both of them were also found fairly close to civilization. Go outside sometime; you might be surprised what can be found close to your house.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Creature Feature: Perentie.

Blah, porcupines. No matter how neat porcupines and horned gophers are, this blog needs more badassery. Enough about rodents. Let's just dive right into today's dose of badass, shall we?

Crikey! This fine Sheila is called a perentie (Varanus giganteus), and she's native to Australia. Perenties, being monitor lizards, are carnivorous and have astounding forked tongues. Like many monitors, they also have amazing skin patterning.

Crocodile Hunter jokes aside, perenties are the largest lizards in Australia. They can get over 2.5 meters (8 feet) from head to tail. Larger adults can even take down kangaroos, which, it merits reminding, can kick most predators to death and drown others. Perenties will eat virtually any kind of meat, however...including each other.

It looks so chill...then you see the claws.

Some of you are probably wondering why monitors are called "monitors," anyways. The answer lies in one particular behavior that many monitors, including the perentie, exhibit: they can "tripod," i.e. stand on their hind legs using their heavy tails like an extra foot. They do this to "monitor" their surroundings - just like we use a monitor to see what our computers are up to.

Despite their size, perenties would rather run than fight. They are notoriously shy. Perentie claws are meant to dig burrows in a flash. They can also climb trees very well. Excellent camouflage means that, all things considered, they are even hard to see while standing still. Guess that hardcore ecology down under has taught them a thing or two over the eons.

As with other types of monitors, yes, some people keep perenties as pets. They go for roughly 2,000 USD and you definitely need a license to keep one. There is still debate over whether perenties are venomous or not, but given the damage those teeth might do regardless, best leave handling them to people experienced with reptiles. Get a plushie instead.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" Porcupine.

Is there any vertebrate that sounds less appetizing than porcupine? It's big, and there's a lot of meat there, but it has spines, teeth, and claws to deal with. Granted, boars and bulls can be pretty nasty, but their skin won't turn your face into a bloody mess (plus, bacon). Who looks at a porcupine and goes "yeah, that looks delicious?" Well...a fair amount of people, actually.

Wherever there are porcupines, people will eat them. They usually do not want to, though. Native Americans can and will use porcupines as meat during the winter. Kenya had a porcupine crisis in 2005 - the most logical solution, after the porcupines had dug up graves and destroyed crops, was to eat the buggers. This may have been dirty porcupine meat, but there is no greater revenge than eating the ones who ate your food.

Porcupine meat is not just for the non-industrialized, either. Porcupines are assholes, for lack of a better word, on a regular basis. They carry diseases, nibble on everything, stick you or others with their hair-turned-needles, and generally are just unpleasant to have around. Last year, people in Pennsylvania started eating porcupines, too- or at least made hunting them legal in the wake of a porcupine outbreak. Again, revenge.

The practice of eating porcupine is still largely reserved for Native Americans and people with porcupine issues in the West, but China and Vietnam at porcupine regularly. It is so popular over there that porcupines are actually threatened. We knew that Vietnam and China ate almost anything. It seemed unlikely that they would hunt a rodent enough to cause a population decrease of 20 percent. Revenge? Noooo, this is just how Southeast Asia rolls. They even farm porcupines.

So how does it taste? Supposedly...weirdly good. It has been described as being "like duck meat, but with more flavour and very crunchy." That particular person actually liked it better than duck; given what I've seen from people's reactions to duck, that is quite the compliment. Maybe the Vietnamese are onto something.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Creature Feature: Bigfoot Porcupines.

In the vein of speculation about the new Grass-type starter, "porcupine" has come up repeatedly. The idea of getting a massive porcupine as a starter brought to mind a certain "Bigfoot" video that was debunked in a flash. We already had a yeti Pokemon; a porcupine becoming Bigfoot would not be out of the question. I doubt Game Freak will be that creative, but just in case, the stuff connecting porcupines and Bigfoot is pretty crazy anyways.

Late last year, this video was blogged by an ardent cryptozoologist. Unfortunately, not only was it a year or two too late, but the video had been debunked. Not "no way, you're avoiding the truth!" debunked, but legitimately, "OK, yeah, our bad" debunked. It continues to fool people today regardless. So, what was it, really?

A few PhotoShops and de-fuzzes later, "Bigfoot" was revealed to be a rather large North American Porcupine. For those of you who are secretly mole people, porcupines are spiny rodents native to virtually every landmass except Australia and Antarctica. They are herbivores, but are armed with spiny hairs ("quills") which they do not shoot, merely bristle whenever a predator approaches. They are also fairly large, third only to the beaver and capybara in size.

It turns out porcupines can look an awful lot like large primates when they want to. The first instinct of a porcupine is not to turn buttwards towards a mouth of teeth; they would rather run than fight, and resemble rather large, furry, short-tailed monkeys when they climb away from predators. Giant, short-tailed thing? Clearly Bigfoot.

One of the craziest conspiracy theories has a basis in fact: that porcupines may be hiding Bigfoot bones. Macabre as it sounds, porcupines do indeed hoard bones. Bones are the rodent version of vitamin tablets. If a porcupine finds a bone, it may well chew on it in order to gain phosphorous.  Whether Bigfoot wound up in there and absolutely nowhere else or not is another matter entirely. I would suspect the men in black before a porcupine conspiracy.


You didn't see anything.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Bio-Art: Primeval: New World.

Recently, I found out that one of my favorite shows, Primeval, was getting a reboot. In short, it's about a team tracking down anomalies - sparkly holes in time-space that, as Primeval: New World so delicately put it, "spit out dinosaurs." I then proceeded to watch one of the current 8 episodes every day. 

My main thought, so far, is this: It's not as good as the original. Here are just a few reasons why:

First thing's first: The leads are different in ways that affect one's view of the anomalies. Both of our protagonists (Nick in the original, Evan here) lost their wives to an anomaly. (Spoiler: Later in the series, Mack counts here, too.) This is a stable premise that I can't blame them for using again. It's how they used it in the new series that bugs me.

Here's a brief summary of what happened at the start of season one of the original: Nick Cutter, lost his wife Helen under mysterious circumstances eight years ago. After seeing her once again, Nick begins looking into the time-space anomalies for more hints, effectively founds ARC, and meets a team of various scientific professionals. Helen effectively leaves bread crumbs for Nick to follow through time and space as the series progresses. She turns out to be nothing short of an evil genius.

Compare this with the Nick-equivalent, Evan Cross. Evan and his wife wandered into an abandoned cooling area, chasing a magnetic field that made Evan's cell phone go crazy. His wife then got eaten by an Albertosaurus. Since then, Evan has been chasing anomalies with a big company and an odd bunch of scientists and hunters backing him up, including some people from the office who just so happened to take martial arts. His goal is to protect the public from anomalies and the things that come out of them.

So, problems: 1. Evan was an idiot, despite supposedly being a crazy genius at other times; 2. while his approach towards anomalies is understandable, it is not as efficient or sympathetic as in the original. This series was a little bit flawed from the start. It reminds me of "Ghostbusters-" OK, "Dinobusters." There's a bud of an over-arching plot in New World, but whether it will be as amazing as the first series's remains to be seen.

Another problem: I miss Abby. I also miss her Coelurosauravus, Rex, who was the mascot character for the entire series. New World has no mascot character to remind us that these animals need to be taken back home, not necessarily killed. In a series like this, they are almost literally morality pets. The humans have to keep reminding themselves that these things with menacing teeth and claws are just lost. Rage has already led to the death of two Lycanops; this lack of respect will likely get the new team into hot water.

Our "Abby" replacement is a woman in "Predator Control" named Dylan. Although I do see where her skills would come in handy, her know-how with large preds just barely scratches the prowess that the original Primeval team had with Abby and Nick put together. Abby had an extensive knowledge of both handling large animals and animal husbandry; Nick was an evolutionary zoologist, someone with an extensive knowledge of prehistoric life. It's hard to roll both of those into one individual.

Dylan tries to handle both Nick and Abby, researching dinosaurs on the internet and having experience with modern predators. The result either falls flat on its face or works ingeniously, depending on the situation. She is particularly insightful about animal behavior, but sometimes things do not come out right. No competent fan of carnivorids would ever call hyenas canines, unless I severely misunderstood that particular line.

This is not to say that New World is utter junk. It's still Primeval- that is, monsters of the week with quirky characters. Give it time; the previous Primeval was well-crafted. It's up to the two writers of this new, Canadian-based show to outdo it in roughly the same amount of time, which it has not had yet.  The twist at the end of 8 is promising, to say the least.

Is it as good as the original Primeval? No. Is it still good? If you want to understand the basic premise of Primeval and see some cool prehistoric animals, yes. Otherwise, go watch the original and wait for this one to get more episodes. . 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Creature Feature: Horned Gophers.

Looking at the design of one of the latest Pokemon, Chespin, made me notice something: it is really, really hard to make rodents anywhere near badass. Even giant rodents like capybaras are seen as buck-toothed meat. Adding horns and fire to a fuzzy mouse wouldn't make it any more -

Oh, wait a second. That actually looks pretty cool. Still not intimidating, but cool. 

Horned gophers (Ceratogaulus) were once very real, very alive creatures.  There are four species known in the genus, all of which had nasal horns like small, fuzzy rhinos. They lived in burrows, much like modern gophers. Presumably, they were also herbivorous. They lived in what is now the modern U.S. Great Plains, particularly Nebraska, in the Miocene and Pleistocene eras. Everything cool there is dead.

Horned gophers had many things in common with modern rodents and moles, which are not rodents (so please hold your Gurren Lagann jokes). They had flat paws with sharp claws that were perfect for digging, and thus likely spent much of their time in burrows. These gophers were just shy of a foot long, so even if they had facial horns, they were far from terrifying. This makes horned gophers the smallest horned mammals to date. A shame they're all extinct.

To this day, nobody really knows what those horns were for. They're the wrong shape for digging. Moderns rodents similar to these gophers have terrible vision, so a mating display is virtually out of the question. The best guess, judging by the horns' positioning, is that the horns were used as a defense against predators. They even evolved further towards that end as the species progressed.  This rodent had teeth and horns for any preds to deal with. Not bad for a rodent!

The horned gopher's unique look has not gone unnoticed by the media. Although you will never see these guys in Jurassic Park, games like Tiny Zoo offer them as extinct oddities. They are fairly popular as far as small, extinct mammals go. I kinda wish the new Primeval would have one as a mascot character.

Oh, hey, speaking of...

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Newsflash: Neat Footage of a Giant Squid.

In case you haven't seen it already, here's footage of a giant squid that surfaced (ha-ha) some 3-odd days ago: 

This footage was caught in a collaborative effort between Discovery Channel and the NHK, a major Japanese television network. It took over 100 tries to get that video. The two used "ultra-sensitive camera systems with light invisible to squid, bio luminescent lures and secret squid attractants" to get the squid close to their very special camera. Congrats on succeeding!

The unique thing about this footage is that it shows a giant squid in its natural habitat. Prior, we had only found dead specimens. Giant squid live in the abyssal depths of the sea, so they are very hard to catch on film. We knew they existed simply because those carcasses had to come from something. This is the first time we've seen one alive. It's a treat.

The video, combined with a few other dead specimens, has revealed some terrifying things about this sought-after sea monster. For example, it has "eight arms and "two very, very long tentacles which it uses to grasp its prey." Its limbs have suckers lined with sharp teeth." (That article is wrong about Scylla, BTW; the popularization of Scylla as a tentacled monster strays very far from the original woman with dog heads extending from her waist.) This is sounding more and more like nightmare fuel.

So, so far, seamen have been right about sea serpents and giant cephalopods. If a real mermaid (not a dugong) comes up, I'm going to start wanting a swig of their rum. Monsters are real, guys. Oh, and if Cthulhu awakens, causing mass-insanity? Don't say this blog didn't warn you.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Creature Feature: Trilobites- K. brutoni.

Of all things this blog has covered, trilobites have not been among them. We've done Anomalocaris, triops, and various other prehistoric shelled things, but never the classic trilobite. So, for the sake of a trilobite finally having its day in the sun, here:

Cambrian (early) trilobite.

For starters: what is a trilobite, anyways? Trilobites were a huge group of extinct arthropods. They came about before the Cambrian Explosion and lasted until the Permian Extimction (252.28 Ma). They took over the world, or at least the seas, during much of their time on earth; if a landmass was underwater up to the Permian, it'll have trilobites somewhere. We are still not sure whether these bizarre creatures were more closely related to crustaceans or arachnids. This is after finding millions of trilobite specimens. Just treat them as their own thing, for now.

Trilobites are by no means rare. There were millions of them in the prehistoric seas. They had four distinct orders and several hundred genera. It is possible to tell where a fossil formation is from just by looking at the trilobites. They came in all sorts of shapes and sizes, so they were able to fit a million different niches. Now, they're so common in fossil collections that rock shops sometimes sell them for cheap. By fossil standards, anyways.

The kicker is that there were so many different trilobites that I would feel guilty compressing them all into one entry. That said, I picked what I thought was the most...shocking...out of the trilobite species: Koneprusia brutoni. 

This is the TOP of the trilobite. (Credit: Wikimedia.)

K. brutoni was one of the most elaborately-decorated trilobites in existence. It lived during the Devonian in what is now Morocco. Its genus was a member of the order Lichida, which is notorious for spiny trilobites. These spines may have evolved to coincide with the advent of jawed fishes, but nobody really knows. Alas, despite its awesome looks, information on K. brutoni is very, very sparse.

This trilobite just looks badass. You could slap this thing on a heavy metal album cover and it would sell for the sheer WTF. It's one of those trilobites that has spines all over and generally looks like something from Alien. Regrettably, there have been no horror movies about giant it. We need to break the alien/zombie fad going on.

From here. The price is exceptional for this excellent specimen.

So, what happened to all the trilobites, including K. brutoni? They slowly lost their ecological niches as time went on. Some people think that the last remnants might be horseshoe crabs and certain types of abyssal shrimp. Now trilobites are remembered as the generic "prehistoric bug...." and Kabutops, who remembers that trilobites were once badass.

I'll make YOU extinct!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" Glowing Sushi.

Let's be perfectly honest: glowing sushi probably would have made an O.K. bio-art entry, too. Sushi is undeniably edible art, and the creators are, well, creative with it. Glowing sushi, native to this site, combines food and art. It could have gone on either column.

But what really tipped the scales? I could not believe people were actually eating GloFish. I've seen people eat all sorts of gross food, and although I know over half of our food is GMO in America, I never thought of eating GloFish. There are several reasons.

The first one is actually a big problem with eating fish in general: we humans like big fish. With the exceptions of smelts, sardines, and herring (possibly in sour cream...but hopefully not), a lot of the fish humans eat are on the large side. Salmon, tuna, and many other commercial fish (notably not tilapia and basa) are mid-large fish that eat other fish. This is actually pretty bad from an ecological point of view.

To put things in perspective, the land ecosystem equivalent of eating salmon and tuna would be eating snakes and other small predators. This means that bioaccumulation is in effect: any trace poisons in the prey get accumulated in the predators. It's actually beneficial to eat smaller fish, but we avoid them for cultural reasons.

The other? GloFish are the most blatant example of GMO's ever. People are becoming more and more aware of genetically-engineered food. How would they sell this? 

That said, back to glowing sushi. As the site says, GloFish started as lab fish; they weren't meant to be pets. The idea of glowing sushi takes things one step further by using "pet" fish as food fish. Freezing the fish does not denature the glowing protein; cooking it would. Sushi is a happy medium. I still wondered how they would mince such a small fish.

It turns out that they grind the zebrafish into a fine paste, then use the paste as an additional flavoring rather than the main meat of the sushi. What an extremely creative way to use small fish! If it tastes good, so much the better. Still not sure about glowing mouse meat; that one I would have to try.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Creature Feature: Giraffe Weevil.

Insects are automatically nightmare fuel when it comes to creature design. With the possible exception of butterflies, there is no insect on the planet that cannot be made into an object of terror. Even harmless, annoying things can be magnified into monsters. Weevils, which are already terrifying if seen up close, reach the peak of their horror monster potential in this fellow:

This bug-meets-Apatosaurus creature is called a giraffe weevil (Trachelophorus giraffa) . It is native only to Madagascar, second only to Australia for the title of "World's Weirdest Island." They are herbivorous like all weevils, partial to seeds and fruit. New Zealand also has a "giraffe weevil," so just to be clear, this one is from the island with happy lemurs.

The giraffe weevil cannot help but stand out. That long neck on the males is 2-3 times the length of the females. It is almost an inch log - not the record for weevils, but still quite big for one. It has a striking, red and black palette. No, it is not poisonous as far as my sources know. Seeing a giraffe weevil in the wild must be amazing. The bright  color and long neck both make it unforgettable.

This long neck is for one very important purpose: Mating. Specifically, male giraffe weevils fight each other with their long necks. The females have much shorter necks, and referee the neck-fights between the two males. The winner gets laid. Fair enough.

This is not to say that the ladies of the species are not at all interesting. Unusually for insects, the female lays exactly one egg after mating. She then encases it in a tube cut from a leaf. The leaf is then cut such that two edges mesh together-  effectively, primitive Velcro. The leaf nest then drops to the forest floor, where the weevil will hatch, grow, and repeat the process.  Giraffe weevils: males look freaky, females invented Velcro before people.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Bio-Art: The Life of Pi.

It's always hard to pin books down as bio-art. It is even harder to pin them down if they are considered "fantasy." Nonetheless, there are several reasons that Life of Pi by Yann Martel is enjoying this column alongside Jurassic Park and Fragment. Whoever said literature could be excluded from the definition of bio-art? Science fiction usually pre-dates science fact. Truth can indeed be stranger than fiction. If Life of Pi is fantasy, it's hard fantasy- fantasy so close to something that could actually happen that comparing it to regular fantasy is like comparing wine to grape juice. In any case, Life of Pi deserves a mention on this blog, if not this column.

As the title would imply, the book's primary narrator is a young man who goes by Pi - as in, the irrational number. (The book goes into detail as to why he picked that name for himself.) Through a series of mishaps, Pi winds up with an unlikely bunch of friends: a zebra, a hyena, an orangtuan, and, most prominently, a male Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The zebra, orangutan, and eventually hyena all get eaten (with the hyena doing most of the damage).

So, how does Life of Pi make my bio-art column? It's not that the author takes detailed scientific notes on sloths - rather, reading it reminded me a lot of Inside of A Dog. Beneath the tale of a boy trapped on a boat with a tiger is a truckload of animal psychology and, as the critics put it, "a passionate defense of zoos." Honorable mention goes to the island of meerkats and carnivorous algae.

One of the first things the book goes into is animal training. While one could debate whether or not all animals are indeed social animals (and it is a big debate) the author is completely right that omegas of any given animal group are the most malleable. They are also right that a trainer must put him/herself into the animal's world, startling it with loud noises and showing confident, dominant behaviors. Animals can literally smell fear and weakness. Pi used this advice admirably when faced with a tiger as his only companion. Psychology saved him from becoming tiger chow. (I am not sure if the movie gets into detail about these aspects of the book.)

The defense of zoos is outstanding as well. The author cites, for example, numerous instances of zoo animals escaping, then returning to their cages. He compares zoos to 5-star hotels for animals. Zoo animals do indeed have consistent food and water; anyone who has ever owned any pet will tell you that they know what time dinner is. It is easy to tell when an animal is not pleased with its habitat. Again, umwelt in action.

Fiction though it may be, Life of Pi was a very well-researched work.  It is so well-researched that an event towards the end makes one question whether the story was true or false. When Pi is asked to tell somebody his story without including animals, his tale changes to one of cannibalism and mental scarring. The people listening to that story instantly say that they prefer the one with animals - as if humans doing those things would be too gruesome to comprehend. Read it, and make up your mind for yourself.

P.S. - I will make another entry on Primeval: A New World once I have finished with it.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Freak Week IV: White Laboratory Rats.

Sometimes, domesticated animals become so normalized that we forget they're effectively freaks. Dogs are a good example; they can deliver quite a nasty bite and are noisy at night. This is not the case with lab rats. Despite Ratatouille's best intentions, there are still more people who freak out around rats than around dogs.

Before you go "aren't rats exotic?", no, these laboratory rats are most definitely domesticated. They are calmer, have smaller organs, and produce more offspring than their wild counterparts. Despite being able to breed with wild rats, these rats are derived from Victorian fancy rats. Fancy rats have been domesticated since he Victorian era, and even if they hadn't been, someone would have eventually made pet rats simply because of their intelligence and proximity to humans.

Onto albino lab rats - the typical white rats seen in science labs. Rats have been used as test subjects for centuries. The first test done on rats was in 1828. Soon, rats became the first animals deliberately bred for scientific research. They have since been used to test...almost anything that could possibly happen in a human body. Really.

Depending on what factor is being tested, a different white rat may be better than another. The different strains of albino rat are meant to be as genetically identical as rodent-ly possible.  That said, the whole genome of Rattus norvegicus has been very easy to sequence because of this extensive captive breeding.

There are several strains of albino rat used in scientific research. The most common is the Wistar rat, which dates back as far as 1906. It was the original lab rat strain and is still commonly used today. The tail of a Wistar is always shorter than the body, and the head and ears are longer than average. This is the generic "test rat," although there are more genetically-stable, outbred strains that don't have a fancy name.

That said, there are other kinds of lab rats aside from the standard albino varieties. Some are bred to get diabetes. Others have tumors bred into them. A variety of "fuzzy" rat gets kidney failure after one year of life. There is even one strain of rat that is bred to be morbidly obese, just so that people can test diet products on them. The list goes on, and all of them merit an inclusion in Freak Weeks. All of them.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Freak Week IV: GloFish Return!

A while back, I did an entry on GloFish. These little glowing zebrafish have been in Petco for quite a while now, looking unnaturally beautiful in a section already loaded with alien-looking animals. As I spend a decent amount of time there, I began to notice new GloFish. They were, and presumably are, very popular. Why wouldn't they be?

For those of you completely unfamiliar with GloFish, GloFish (TM) are fish spliced with the fluorescent gene from various cnidarians- jellyfish, sea anemones, etc. This gene glows under blacklight - not really "glow in the dark," per se, but close enough. They were originally developed to track certain genes in zebrafish throughout the fish's life cycle. They have caught on in pet stores as well.

Originally, GloFish only came in three colors: reddish pink, neon orange, and electric green. Since then, GloFish have added ("cosmic") blue and ("galactic") purple to their crayon box. These aren't as impressive as the hotter side of the spectrum, but still quite cool. I look forward to seeing what they do next.

Image from

Much to my relief, GloFish has also added tetras to its glowing aquarium.  I have heard some debate over exactly what kind of tetras these are; I've heard "white skirt" (Gymnocorymbus ternetzi) and am going with this. Like danios, these are freshwater fish, so don't worry too much about salinity. Angelfish are supposedly next, but glowing koi would be amazing (and raccoon food). Currently, the tetras only come in Electric Green.

Recently, there has also been some concern about releasing GloFish into a natural environment.  (I will not get into "domesticated" VS "wild" here- it's all very hazy and subjective.) They could be harmful if released, just like any other invasive species. Several countries have banned GloFish for the simple reason that they are genetically engineered. Personally? A bright red danio would probably not stand a chance in the wild. Still your call on whether to take them into your house or not.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Freak Week IV: Rhodesian Ridgeback.

For whatever reason, cops have been killing a lot of puppies, lately. There have been way too many instances of cops shooting family dogs, so yes, the government does kill puppies. This one happened right near where I live...and features a breed that I had not even heard about until this incident: The Rhodesian Ridgeback.

Rhodesian Ridgebacks are one of those "what else would you call it?" dogs. From Rhodesia in Zimbabwe, these strange dogs have been around since the 16th and 17th centuries (when the Cape Colony was being settled). The official standard dates back to 1922.  They are intelligent, mischievous, active dogs that require stimulation, but can be great pets so long as they are handled well.

Rhodesian Ridgebacks get their name for one very obvious trait: a ridge of hair on their spines that grows in the opposite direction from the rest of the hairs on its body. The original Ridgeback from Zimbabwe, as well as the Thai Ridgeback (one of the oldest dog breeds), also have this strange development. It looks like mostly an aesthetic thing that helps cement the breed as opposed to something useful.

PUPPIES! - Source.

Rhodesian Ridgebacks are all-around awesome dogs. They're hunters, retrievers, and great family pets. They're actually called "lion dogs" because they can hunt lions once unleashed in a pack. That said, this dog needs a lot of exercise, and has endurance that would make a marathon runner keel over. They do have issues with hip dyplasia and cancer, so even being a badass otherwise doesn't make them problem-free.

Another downside: Ridgebacks can play a little rough. If you don't assert your dominance, then they can get destructive. Is that any reason to shoot one? No. There is no way for this dog to be confused for a coyote or whatever. Some officer just up and shot a family pet. This is not cool....but on the bright side, it inspired a blog entry. My condolences; that sounded like a great dog.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

They Actually Eat That: Angus Beef.

Everybody these days is advertising Angus beef. People actually care about what they eat now; putting a breed name in front of beef implies a higher standard to the audience's unwitting minds. Does it really, though? If so, why does every fast food chain on the planet suddenly stock it?  Never fear, "They Actually Eat That" is here to put your thoughts to rest!

First of all, what is Angus beef? Angus beef is any meat that comes from Angus cattle, polled (hornless) Scottish cattle. They have been in the U.S. since 1873 at least, when a farmer named George Grant began breeding the British cattle in Kansas. They were bred for and marketed as the ideal beef cow. They rarely let people down by that standard, if you know what kind of Angus meat to get.

Here's the kicker: A cow must be at least 51% black to be considered an Angus. That's it when it comes to labeling something as "Angus." It doesn't even have to technically be an Angus, just a dark cow. Angus are known for their black color, so there's a chance that there's some Angus in a mostly-black cow, but exactly what else is in there is up for debate. Government hoodwinking strikes again!

Real Angus beef is known for its marbling. For those of us who aren't professional chefs, this means that there are strings of fat on the muscle. Although this sounds gross, it helps keep the steak a tiny bit moist when cooking.  If you get meat from something like a Belgian blue, for example, there's no fat there - it just heats up instantly. It does matter where you get your steak from; it stops mattering so much when that meat is stuffed into a sausage lining or made into a patty.

Angus cattle may be known for their meat, but does that mean all Angus meat is good? No! There is such a thing as low-quality Angus beef. All it means is that the meat comes from standard beef cows instead of cows that we don't know the lineage of. In other words, Angus is a buzzword. They're just finally telling consumers that their beef comes from this type of cow as opposed to discarded Holsteins. The Angus burgers and hot dogs floating around could well be made from the discarded bits that weren't prime steak.

Those of you wanting good Angus beef should look for two things: certification and grade.  Certified Angus is exactly what it says: beef that comes from cows that are most definitely Angus cattle. Grade applies to all beef - even Angus. The Angus used in fast food burgers is either the not-Angus beef or Angus beef barely fit for human consumption. Be a smart consumer. It scares the machine.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Freak Week 4: Giant Bunnies.

There was once a little horror story called Year of the Angry Rabbit. It was a flop for one very obvious reason: the monsters featured therein were giant rabbits. That is just about the least terrifying concept ever...even if you happen to see it in real life:

A while back, this photo was posted on Snopes. The New York Post article it was from accurately called Herman a German Giant rabbit. Could German scientists really be breeding giant rabbits, possibly to create the most cuddly-wuddly army ever? Yeah, no. The rabbit, however, is a very real giant bunny, bred mostly for fur. Lots and lots of fur.

There are several breeds of giant rabbit. The most famous, in part thanks to the internet, are the Flemish and German giants. They are common knowledge to rabbit breeders, and have been around since the 16th century at least. They can even occur as freak accidents in regular rabbit breeds.  Anyone who knows bunnies knows about these guys.


As with all giant versions of things, one must ask "how giant is giant?" For rabbits, "giant" is an 18-pound furball. A giant rabbit can get over a meter from twitchy nose to fluffy tail, all the while making onlookers d'aww. Beware: they also eat a lot more than the average bunny. No reports of killer giant rabbits yet, thankfully.

The current record book holder isn't even a giant breed. Humphrey is a French lop, but he's gotten over 3 feet (roughly a meter) long. The Continental Giant Amy is currently larger and heavier, but there is a good chance Humphrey will catch up. Giant bunnies are real, but whether they will become truly monstrous remains to be seen. That would take a lot more selective breeding, for sure.