Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" Inarizushi.

A lot of people are not adventurous eaters. Just today, I met with someone who had a bad experience with sushi prior to our meeting. He was a bit hesitant to try eel and shied away from sea urchin sushi (which only made me shy due to how pricey it was - see my entry on sea urchin for why). It's not the first time I've met someone shy like that.

Actually, as far as "weird" food goes, sushi is rather tame. This depends on what's in it- for example, fugu is not for the uninitiated. Most "standard" sushi rolls are just fine for people curious. Adventurous eaters will be please by the array of artistic sushi that has been created, even outside of Japan.  For now, let's look at something simple:

This is inari, inali, or inarizushi. Many a sushi place will have it. It is likely the safest sushi for those who do not believe anything with the "sushi" label could possibly be good.

Inarizushi is so named for one, or both, of two reasons. One, Japanese foxes (kitsune) are said to be highly fond of fried tofu. Two, inari are usually cut into triangles like fox ears. Three, Inari is the Japanese god of rice and closely associated with benevolent foxes, who are said to be his messengers. What? Whaddya mean, that was three reasons?

Inari rolls are made of rice wrapped in tofu skin. That's all an inari roll is: rice and tofu. The skin is fried in a sweet sauce, but really, tofu tastes like whatever it's been dipped in. It's a packet of tofu skin with rice stuffed into it. It's nothing nasty like raw fish. If you can handle Chinese food, you can handle inari. It's as safe as sushi gets.

Packaged inarizushi.

So, please don't be too intimidated by my weird food columns. A lot of it tastes just fine, but isn't something that "normal" American people try. Hell, Americans have done things with sushi that the Japanese would likely find disgusting, including putting cream cheese in anything. Try some of it; you might like it. 

Now, back to your regularly-scheduled pterosaurs. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Pterosaur Week: Will the Real Pterodactyl Please Stand Up?

As you all may know, I am a huge fan of pterosaurs. Always have been, hopefully always will be. Why not devote the last week of February to them, then? After all, there's one thing that I was bound to cover here, sooner or later...

Clip art found here.


Insofar as my knowledge of pterosaurs goes, no pterosaur that we know about has both a bony crest and a long tail. Rhamphorhynchus was once suspected of having a very small crest, but this was later proven false.What remains is a strange hodgepodge of a pterosaur called a "pterodactyl" that looks a lot more like someone just felt like making a "dragon" (or "wyvern") out of old pterosaur parts. This can be done by combining Quetzalcoatlus, Rhamphorhynchus, and Pteranodon in any way you like. Pterodactylus was something almost entirely different from this nonexistent monstrosity.

Pterodactylus was the first pterosaur ever discovered (1784). It was around during the Late Jurassic, so no, it never got to hang with T-Rex. It likely ate fish and other small animals, and could walk on all fours if need be. Most specimens have been found in Germany.

As you've probably noticed after dissecting the common mishmashed pterosaur, a million different pterosaurs get lumped under the label "pterodactyl." One could make an argument that most pterosaurs fall into the subfamily Pteradactyloidea, but that relationship is farther back than that of foxes and wolves. Technically, "pterodactyl" means "wing-finger," so any pterosaur with a wing-finger (hint: they all have it) could theoretically be called a "pterodactyl." It's technically correct, but you'd have to be even nitpickier than I usually am. It's still not genus Pterodactylus, whatever it is. There are indeed a lot of things in that genus.

Pterodactylus is a waste taxon. Whenever a random pterosaur comes up that doesn't belong to anything else, it goes there. Anything that doesn't belong anywhere else and is not distinctive enough to make scientists go "woah, we really have something different" gets called a pterodactyl. It is literally the most generic pterosaur in existence. It is also the most misrepresented.

Pterodactyls - real Pterodactyli, not the hodgepodge mess- distinguish themselves by not really having any distinguishing features. In general, they are small-sized pterosaurs with no bells or whistles. What many people think of as a "pterodactyl" is likely a Pteranodon or some bastardization thereof. Real pterodactyls were tiny by comparison. We're talking roughly a yard's worth of wingspan. It was tiny.

Love you, Wikipedia.

The image most people have of "pterodactyl" properly belongs to Pteranodon, the large pterosaur with a crest and amazing wingspan. The real Pterodactylus is not in the least bit impressive aside from being the first pterosaur discovered. Don't worry, though; plenty of other "pterodactyls" exist to compensate for the lack of presence. It is still uncanny that the genus that the "pterodactyl" originated from gets so very little presence.

Whew. Rant decades in the making, finally done. This week is going to be a blast.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Bio-Art: Art Course in Chicago.

By now, some of you are probably wondering: "How do you know about all this bio-art stuff, anyways?" The short answer is that I took a course at Loyola. If you go on Loyola University Chicago's webpage, they might have it up. The course covers all of the visual pieces cited on this blog, and then some, or at the very least introduced me to the artists who made them.

A Google search revealed to me that the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) acknowledged that bio-art was a thing and had a course for it. It's called Bio-Art Studio; more information can be found here. I had no idea SAIC had bio-art classes! Here's the official description:

"This class introduces students to BioArt as a studio practice and art form. We will recreate selected BioArt works and engage in harmless laboratory projects. Students will learn safety techniques and participate in classroom exercises exploring the manipulation of living material on a variety of levels. Rudimentary procedures will serve as departure points for study of more sophisticated and advanced techniques utilized by artists as well as commercial entities. Subject matter will include core concepts of Food, Fuel and Fun. Under “food” we will look at commercial uses of genetically modified organisms and significant cultural/artistic engagement with genetic manipulation. “Fuel” will encompass microbial engineering and synthetic biology. “Fun” entails studying amateur/hobbyist movements and non-commercial uses of biotechnology. Specific projects will include plant cloning, DNA extraction and fingerprinting, gel electrophoresis, harmless microbial culturing, nutrient agar plating, bioinformatics analysis and general lab rules among others."

 The bio-art course I took at Loyola went a little bit farther than that. Along with lab-based art, we covered traditional art related to relevant scientific questions. This is what guides a decent portion of my personal bio-art entries. One shouldn't have to be a scientist to pursue scientific inquiries or, at the very least, question where science is going. 

Again, this makes once question the exact definition of bio-art, but more on a literary level than anything. There's no denying that the stuff they do in this SAIC course qualifies as bio-art. For those of you not in Chicago, look around; chances are someone has a bio-art course ready and waiting. I wonder if the Art Institute will eventually have an exhibition on bio-art, given its rising prevalence?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Wild Fest 2013 Coverage!

Today was the 2013 Wild Fest! I had no idea how to get there or how big it would be. It turned out to be relatively easy to find and a small exhibit that fit into a Sunday afternoon nicely. A lot of wildlife centers in IL were present. So, without further!

SOAR (Save Our American Raptors) had a booth at the show. FYI, "raptors" here means "Birds of prey" - let's not go Jurassic Park here. They had a lot of owls, a peregrine falcon (the fastest animal in the world) and a bald eagle. While we were not allowed to touch the raptors, they were still awesome to see. How often do you get up-close and personal with a bald eagle, after all?

Animals for Awareness had a lot. Parrots, hedgehogs, and an albino male boa were pretty much par for the course. What I did not expect was the kinkajou - a smallish Central and South American mammal related to raccoons. She was very active, so unfortunately, my pictures sucked. Fret not; I will call them about volunteering opportunities.

Incredible Bats was just that: A bunch of awesome fruit bats that people could see right in front of them. Both species (Egyptian and Straw-Colored) were from Africa, which is usually not praised fro its fruit bats. Alas, bats are nocturnal, and these guys were not very interested in the fruit we offered them.

Jim Nesci is something of a legend among reptile people. He uses exotic reptiles for a lot of educational shows and appears regularly at ReptileFest and NARBC. We just missed his big display involving an albino Burmese python. BUBBA was there, too; check out the little girl getting a ride on an alligator's back!

Finally, Big Run Wolf Ranch made it to this awesome exhibition. Neither Shanoa nor Zeus wanted to show up; instead of the standard gray wolf, we got to see Canuck (sp?), a British Columbian wolf. These wolves are actually the ranch owner's favorite, sparting dark coats, brilliant yellow-green eyes, and a white mark on the chest. It's a shame I couldn't figure out how to get my camera to shoot right. Kirby II was there as well.

This was a pretty awesome event, if small. With only so much space to work with and so much time, it's pretty easy to see everything in an hour. Stick around for a show; you won't regret it.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Newsflash: Manipulation of Monarch Butterflies.

It's almost March. That means Spring will be coming soon. This also means that several other animals, such as monarch butterflies, will soon be flourishing in our lawns. 

For those of you who know nothing about monarch butterflies aside from what they look like, you are missing out. Monarchs migrate from the cooler parts of North America down to Mexico as soon as winter hits. They give birth there, then die. The new monarchs that result then fly their way back up north when things get warmer. They are the only insects that migrate 2,500 miles a year. One of the classic butterflies happens to be one of the most impressive in several regards.

One mechanism has been found to play a tole in this intense migration: monarch butterflies have an uncanny genetic instinct to migrate to the exact same spot every year. The monarchs mate, then die, leaving their offspring to navigate the exact same path. That's 2,500 miles, all wrapped into genes like the world's finest GPS. Beat that, Google Maps.

Now, scientists have found what makes these butterflies tick. Here's the deal:

"Until now, researchers didn’t know what triggered the trek north. They suspected environmental factors such as temperature or changing day length could cue the monarchs. To find out, Reppert’s team studied southward-migrating monarchs captured in the eastern United States. The scientists housed one group of migrants in an incubator for 24 days and turned down the temperature to 4° Celsius during dark “night” periods and 11° C during light “day” periods — the average temperatures in the wintertime butterfly roosts. The team exposed a second group of butterflies to the same temperatures while also simulating the subtle increase in daylight that monarchs see over the winter while in Mexico.

Then the researchers took the two groups outside and tethered them one by one inside a flight simulator — a white plastic barrel that gauges flight bearings. In both experimental groups, the lab-wintered butterflies flew north. In fact, Reppert says, “the data were identical.”
Also, southern-migrating monarchs that had been captured in Texas and kept in the lab under fall conditions — with no pulse of nightly cold temperature — continued to head south when hooked up to the flight simulator.

“It’s astounding,” says ecologist Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota, who supplied captured butterflies to Reppert’s team. She’s convinced that just 24 days of cold temperature is enough to switch butterflies’ flight direction from south to north. But she’s also curious about the effects of day length alone.

Reppert says the direction trigger might be modified by changes in day length, but “clearly coldness is the main factor.” Next, his team hopes to figure out exactly how the monarchs sense temperature."

Source + more here. 

This is neat stuff.A lot of people don't really think about seasonal cycles in wild animals. We're kinda used to animals, including humans, mating all the time. In reality, animal mating cycles are fine-tuned such that mommy only gives birth when there is an abundance of food available. Humans and domestic animals usually don't have to worry about that.

More importantly, however, this revelation on the impact of temperature may mean that the monarch is in trouble. If global climate change messes with their migration patterns, the species could die out. Enjoy the magnificent butterflies while we have them; if these findings are any indication, we might not have them around much longer.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Creature Feature: Longhorn Cowfish.

The idea of "you can slap any word onto 'fish' and it's probably a thing" makes for a rather funny game. Triggerfish are subtle; there is a trigger there, but it's not obvious unless you're looking for it. Surgeonfish? Yeah, I don't get it, either, but I wouldn't trust it with open-heart operations either way. Squirrelfish do not look like squirrels - period. Then there are cowfish...


...yeah, that one works pretty well, actually.

Cowfish are members of the boxfish family, which are closely related to pufferfish. Yes, like fugu, these fish are poisonous. They are native to tropical waters; many of them can be found in the Indo-Pacific. They eat crustaceans, like fish and crabs, as well as plants like algae. The longhorn cowfish ( Lactoria cornuta) is the most popular.

Cowfish are best known for, well, looking like cows. They have boxy bodies and long horns coming out of their heads. Like cows, they are also tanks; the scales on this fish's body are fused into a tough shell. They are slow swimmers and grunt when captured. We'll cut the fish some slack because a mooing fish would be just crazy, and they look enough like cows without sounding like pigs. Moo.

Cowfish have another defense aside from looking like cows: if irritated, they excrete a nasty poison. It is called ostracitoxin and cannot be broken down as it is not a protein. It is hell-bent on destroying other fish, and is hemolytic to boot. It kills sharks. Even other boxfish are not immune to one PO'd cow. The meat is also poisonous. No cowfish steaks for you!

Good gods, cowfish are popular in captivity. They are available at Petco if the online search results are any indication.  This does not mean they are beginner fish - it means that you need to read directions. Cowfish are generally peaceful, easy-going fish that take their time and do not like stress from having a lot of tankmates.  Failing to acclimate them properly may result in poisoning your whole tank. Popular, but still not for beginners, so if you're a newbie, don't get a cow, man.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" Pigs in China.

Today's entry is one of our more 'different' food features. Instead of looking at downright weird food, this entry will focus on China's new version of "normal" food. The Chinese love meat, for sure. That includes relatively mundane meat, like pork...which they are crazy about.

Yes, despite being a nation of "we'll eat anything," China is particularly fond of pork. There are a whole slew of reasons for this, including pigs serving as garbage disposals in traditional households. There is one angle that is particularly pertinent to this column: meat is a triumph over China's other weird food.

This blog covers a lot of weird foods. One of the main reasons people eat weird foods is because it's traditional. The case holds for China, the nation of "everything we can land chopsticks on," as well. Eating many foods is good for humans, but there are cultural stigmas and the like that make certain foods taboo, or, otherwise, convey status.

That is exactly the situation with pork in China: it's a status thing. The Chinese see eating meat as a triumph over poverty. Thus meat, particularly pork, is seeing an amazing rise in popularity. This also correlates with the increasing amount of money in China's collective pocket. While eating anything may attract tourists, China loves pork so much that half of the world's swine live there. More and more people are eating them every day.

This increased demand for pork has led to severe environmental damage. As any of us who have seen The Simpsons Movie know, pigs are among the most environmentally-unfriendly farm animals in existence. Respiratory infections and awful smells follow in the wake of a pig farm. Oh, and yes, overdosing pigs on antibiotics leads to antibiotic resistant bacteria ("superbugs") in the pigs' feces.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Creature Feature: Spiny Leaf Insect.

There is a rather bizarre game that I like to play in the shower at my local health club. For whatever reason, there are a strange number of small flies in the women's locker room - usually one or two to a stall. (I haven't said anything; they've been there for as long as I can remember, and I'd presume the various renovations they've done would have fixed something.) My goal, as soon as I hit the shower, is to go fly-hunting. I show no mercy; rather, the night is not complete without swatting one fly on the marble. After all, I'm only selecting out the flies who aren't fast or clever enough to camouflage themselves, right?

That said, some insects, like this spiny leaf insect (Extatosoma tiaratum), have stunning camouflage. It is so good at camouflage that it is also called "Macleay's Spectre." This insect is native to Australia and possibly New Guinea. It is related to walking sticks despite looking a fair amount like a mantis, and is not a true leaf insect at all.

One word can sum up the spiny leaf insect: Impressive. It's large, for a bug, able to stretch across a grown man's fingers. Both sexes will occasionally curl their long abdomens like scorpion tails when threatened, creating a sort of mantid-scorpion look. Again, that camouflage is a real treat; it even has thorns. 

There are a number of interesting things about spiny leaf insect reproduction. For example, the males can fly, and only the females have that godly camouflage. The females, after getting knocked up, flick their eggs out of their bodies and onto the forest floor. These eggs hatch better in cooler temperatures, - under 25 degrees Celsius. Also, the girls are parthenogenic- that is, they can produce other female progeny without a male.

Know what's awesome? These unique insects make excellent pets. They can be found in schools and laboratories as test animals, and are very good for the first-time insect fancier. They are vegetarians, and can feed on any number of plants. Find a care sheet on them if you're interested; I'm sure they're around. It would be hard to find a better pet or display insect, if that's up your unique alley. Look closely at that tree branch- it might be a bug.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Bio-Art: Away from the Flock (Divided).

There is a phrase called "starving artist." To make a lot of money, artists have to keep doing controversial things. When the controversial becomes expected, however, is it still controversial? Apparently so. After all, people with way too much time and money on their hands pay millions for art like this:

Pic from

Damien Hirst has done it again: he has dunked an animal in formaldehyde and called it art. "Away From the Flock (Divided)" features a bisected lamb split between two tanks. One of Hirst's other works, "Mother and Child (Divided)", has a similar theme. Nonetheless, the split sheep remains a trademark of Damien Hirst's style. It was sold at a Christie's auction for 3.3 million dollars, but was expected to hit 3.8. That's a lot of preserved mutton.

Just to be clear, I am aware that there is some skill present in this piece and others like it. It can't be easy to bisect a lamb that neatly. It also can't be easy to put both halves in formaldehyde without spilling lamb entrails everywhere. These, I will admit, qualify as art. Whether it is worth millions and worth replacing (even preserved animals don't last forever) is another issue entirely.

Hirst's logic for splitting a lamb in two and dunking both halves in formaldehyde? It's a statement about God.  There are a tons of lines calling humans God's little sheep, which becomes more disturbing the more you think about it. If you want to extend the metaphor, the split sheep could represent a religious schism. It really is just a matter of perspective. One man's bisected lamb is another man's religious statement.

But can Hirst keep up the shock value? If the difference between the projected price and the actual price is any indication, the demand has gone down for Hirst's work.Eventually, putting dead animals in glass and calling it art is not going to work anymore. Yes, it's cool to have a style, but shock pieces get old after a while. Animal in a tank? We've seen that before. Next?

Creature Feature:

Ever think about how huge an honor it must be to name a dinosaur? The result is then recorded for generations to come- at least, until somebody finds that it belongs to an existing species and needs to be merged. Oh well.

Michael Crichton received the honor of being named after a dinosaur in 2002 when an ankylosaur was dug up in China. The ankylosaur was named Crichtonsaurus bohlini; a second species in the genus was found in 2007. Crichtonsaurus was around during the Late Cretaceous- the last period before the KT event, which wiped out the vast majority of dinos. On the plus side, at least it got to hang with T-Rex, Triceratops, and a bunch of other popular dinos we all know and love.

Don't know who Crichton is? Of course you do. He's the guy who wrote Jurassic Park! Without him, many of us would not be into dinosaurs. Many of us would also not own pet reptiles; Jurassic Park made owning lizards, particularly the frilled dragon, very fashionable. The world would not be the same place without Crichton. He deserves a dinosaur.

Crichtonsaurus was technically a nodosaur, not an ankylosaur. The general idea is still the same: an armored, herbivorous mass of scale and plates. Many ankylosaurs also had a club on their tails which could be used like a mace. They're neat creatures, and this blog needs more of them. It's still far from what one would expect if they heard that the author of Jurassic Park got his own dinosaur.

We want something that'll look cool on a logo, darnit!

Really, though? It doesn't matter if this dinosaur was a clunky, herbivorous tank instead of a massive predator like T-Rex. If anyone deserved a dinosaur named after them, it was the author of Jurassic Park. Without him, the world would be a very different place.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Newsflash: It Is Delicious Data, You Must Taste It.

 Humans are visual creatures. Most of our media are devoted to the sense of sight: posters, video, T.V., and so on. Vision is by far humanity's strongest sense, and easily the one that causes the most impact. Just look at how well preying on vision alone worked for Avatar.

Enter a new device that lets you taste data. Well, not really - you won't be able to taste Domino's latest fat-laden pizza creation, for example. Rather, data is sent in the form of electric tongue tingles as opposed to anything audio or visual. Good chance that tasting data is not too far off if this takes flight, though.

Here's the scoop:

"Gershon Dublon of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology devised a small pad containing electrodes in a 5 × 5 grid. Users put the pad, which Gershon calls Tongueduino, on their tongue. When hooked up to an electronic sensor, the pad converts signals from the sensor into small pulses of electric current across the grid, which the tongue "reads" as a pattern of tingles.

Dublon says the brain quickly adapts to new stimuli on the tongue and integrates them into our senses. For example, if Tongueduino is attached to a sensor that detects Earth's magnetic field, users can learn to use their tongue as a compass. "You might not have to train much," he says. "You could just put this on and start to perceive."

Dublon has been testing Tongueduino on himself for the past year using a range of environmental sensors. He will now try the device out on 12 volunteers.

Blair MacIntyre at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta says a wireless version of Tongueduino could prove useful in augmented reality applications that deliver information to users inconspicuously, without interfering with their vision or hearing. "There's a need for forms of awareness that aren't socially intrusive," he says. Even Google's much-publicised Project Glass will involve wearing a headset, he points out."

Just gathering data by following the tongue tingles...

I dunno. I think sticking out one's tongue to taste random things is a bit socially-intrusive. On the plus side, it might be neat to taste things in video games. Floor ice cream restores health! 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Creature Feature: Major Mitchell's Cockatoo.

Who wants something more friendly than an entry on eating hearts? You know you do. Something bright and colorful makes winter nice. So, here is a healthy dose of pink:

From Wikipedia.

 Rounding off Valentine's Day is the peachy-pink Major Mitchell's Cockatoo (Lophochroa leadbeateri). It is also called the Leadbeater's Cockatoo, or, simply, "pink cockatoo." It is native to central and western Australia, which is a semi-arid climate.

The above picture has not been altered: Mitchell's cockatoos are really pink, red, white, and yellow. They stand out.  Pink cockatoos are widely considered the most beautiful of all cockatoo species, even by the guy who named them. Sir Major Thomas Mitchell - as in, the guy the bird was named after -  said that, "Few birds more enliven the monotonous hues of the Australian forest than this beautiful species whose pink-coloured wings and flowing crest might have embellished the air of a more voluptuous region". There's no region I can think of where a bright pink parrot wouldn't stand out.

Strangely, these giant pink birds are probably among the most primitive of all cockatoos. It shares a yodeling cry with the corella parrot, which is definitely not a cockatoo. The rounded wing shape is more or less unique to cockatoos, but this bird has the pink plumage and pale bill of other Australian parrots. It's a sort of transition cockatoo.

Anyone who has ever owned a non-Petco parrot will tell you that parrots can be very long-lived. One such parrot happens to be a Mitchell's Cockatoo named Cookie, who is now 79 years old. He is the only surviving member of the zoo's original set of animals from 1934. Unfortunately, Cookie has officially been taken off-display as of June 2012; it's a shame that I couldn't snap a good photo of him for this blog. If there was ever a candidate for a real phoenix, this parrot might be a good base.

No, these beautiful parrots do not make good pets. Parrots - big parrots, not cute little parakeets - are horribly high-maintenance birds, requiring tons of socialization and cleaning. Cockatoos are considered particularly poor pets. Major Mitchell's is not exception, but if you must get one, get a female. Make sure the bird was captive-bred; although not threatened, these birds are on the decline due to habitat fragmentation. Keep the pink cockatoos alive, mate!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

"They Actually Eat That" Special: Hearts.

Oh, it's Valentine's Day! How joyous! Love is in the air, couples are getting it on, and cheesy hearts are plastered everywhere. For those of us who want a more intense Valentine's Day, however, there are dishes of actual hearts waiting to be tried:

Yes, like almost every other organ, humans have found ways of eating hearts. Deer hearts, pork hearts, beef hearts- you name it, someone has taken out its heart and found a way to cook it. It is more or less universal to eat most parts of whatever animals are around, so there are a million ways to cook it.

So, why is there a sort of revulsion when it comes to eating something's heart? For ages, the heart was considered the core of something's being. Now we know that the brain does all that, but the cultural connotation remains.  It is still not a very popular item at grocery stores; check your local butcher instead.

A lot of people attempting to eat heart worry that it will taste like liver. If cooked properly (i.e. slowly) and cleaned thoroughly, the sanguine taste can be all but completely washed out. It's very cheap, mineral-rich meat, and, as stated repeatedly, can be cooked with almost any culinary region in mind. If you find you like heart, don't be afraid to try other organs as well; these are all very cheap cuts and good if you're saving pennies. 

Now, has someone out there eaten a human heart? Yes, but I wouldn't expect to see it on many menus. Cannibalism is frowned upon by many societies, but those that do partake in it may well enjoy heart meat on a symbolic level- absorbing the other person's essence, if you will. Otherwise, never take the phrase "eat your heart out" literally. Enjoy your Valentine's Day!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Creature Feature: Mycoplasma laboratorium.

People love reading and writing about artificial life. Predating Frankenstein was the idea of a homunculus - an artificial lifeform made by alchemists. Frankenstein made the concept even more popular. Since then, man-made creatures have been speculated time and time again. They will likely remain a fixture in art and literature for years to come.

Well, guess what? Science fiction is edging ever closer to science fact. Behold the first man-made creature!

In 2010, one Craig Venter announced the first artificial genome ever created. Its name is Mycoplasma laboratorium. Technically, only the genome was 100% synthetic, forming one circular chromosome. The genome has since been transplanted into another cell of the same genus. It is the first man-made life form ever.

That's not entirely correct, however. M. laboratorium is made from reconstructed DNA- that is, it still uses nature's blueprints. It can be more properly said that M. laboratorium is the most synthetic organism to date. It can supposedly reproduce just like a regular, parasitic bacterium, containing all the essential coding for life.

M. laboratorium's basis is a bacterium called M.genitalium. As the name would suggest, it resides in the genital and respiratory tracts of primates, including humans. It has the smallest known genome that can still be called a cell. That, and it must be very easy to acquire, being inside humans and all.

They have also done something which I'm not sure to praise or shun: they have watermarked this bacterium.This sounds similar to Eduardo Kac's messages involving DNA. The actual encoding system remains undisclosed, but the base text is pretty much English. No doubt someone will crack it eventually.

Even with this organism being mostly synthetic, the uproar surrounding the project has been substantial. The Vatican has not condemned this new creature, saying that it is not really new life. Expect more artificial life in the future; the same team that made M.laboratorium has been hired by Exxon Mobil to design algae for diesel fuel. Now if only more creative minds focused on solving the world's problems instead of making video games and movies.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Bio-Art: Lagoglyphs.

A while back, this blog did an entry on a piece called GFP Bunny. For those of you unfamiliar, an artist named Eduardo Kac commissioned a bunny with GFP running through her veins. The rabbit was never allowed to leave the lab, and supposedly died. Kac was mad, starting a "free Alba!" campaign and everything. As per the rest of the art project, the bunny was supposed to integrate with a human household. In protest, Kac made a rather sweet flag with a green bunny on it and put it outside his home. Cute.

This week's entry is not art of the actual rabbit. This is a spin-off that shows just how crazy things got over Alba. Kac, we know you loved your bunny, but a rabbit-based writing system is pushing it.

From Kac's site - more here.

Lagoglyphs are just that - pictograms (I think?) of rabbits printed on silkscreen. Each black drawing is overlayed with a green marking to allude to Alba's GFP-ness.  There are twelve bunnies per sheet, and 12 sheets total, making for a grand count of 144 rabbits. That's a lot of bunnies.

Just to clarify: No, Kac did not create a language based around rabbits. There is no spoken word to accompany these glyphs. There is no cipher to these rabbits. Each rabbit does not equal a phoneme. A writing system is not a language. Kac's a little off for drawing a dozen's dozen of bunnies, but he's not crazy enough to make rabbit-ese.

So, why did Kac do this? It is supposed to "allude to meaning but resist interpretation." Specifically, this piece is the counter to the hubbub generated around Alba. If I'm reading this right, it's basically an attempt to block out the noise- artistically. La la la la, these bunny rants mean nothing!

In a sense, however, Eduardo Kac's dream of having a genetically-engineered organism integrated with a household is slowly becoming a reality. GloFish spring immediately to mind; although not as interactive as a bunny, they're still pets.Glowing rodents are also a thing, and have supposedly been marketed as pets as well. (I saw a site that was supposedly selling glowing mice. It has since ceased to exist.)  How long will it be before Kac is finally reunited with his beloved Alba? Who knows. Just know that it'll happen with the way things are going.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Creature Feature: Chinese False Cobra.

Well!  Today is the first official day of the Chinese Year of the Snake! What better way to celebrate than do kick things off with a Chinese snake, eh?

chinese false cobra 045
(This photograph belongs to its rightful owner. They are very lucky to have such a gorgeous, rare snake!)

This will probably be the first look at a Chinese False Cobra (Pseudoxenodon bambusicola) for many of you. It's native to the cool mountain forests of China. The species is rear-fanged venomous, so handle with care. In the wild, it feeds almost exclusively on frogs. This habit carries over into captivity.

The reasoning behind it being a false cobra is simple: like a cobra, this snake can flatten out a few ribs and raise its head. As Tom Crutchfield, one of the few people who works with these snakes, says, they're "the best monocled cobra mimics. Ever." 

Other than that, this snake is hard to find information on. This is largely because it's all but unheard of in the pet trade. You really have to know someone who's seen one, then done the homework, go to China and pray to Nuwa (China's local snake-bodied deity) that you can snap a pic, or randomly find it in a reptile magazine. Some Indian reptile guides also cover this species. Other than basic field information, very little is known.

These are not beginner's snakes. For starters, yes, they are venomous. There are only a select few people who will breed them, which means either spending a lot of money or getting parasitized wild imports. Finally, they only eat frogs, and nobody has found a way around it. That means no buying mousecicles for Chinese false cobras. Even pros have trouble keeping this shy, fairly docile snake alive. Please try something like a kingsnake or ball python before getting into cobras of any kind!

Just between you and me, I should have done a blue or more black snake for this entry. Happy Year of the Snake- don't worry, snakes guard your money like dragons do their treasure!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Newsflash: Curiosity Rover Lands On Mars.

Ever wonder if there's life on other planets? Think the conspiracy theorists might be onto something about aliens engineering human beings? Well, depending on what NASA finds out about Mars, you all may have some questions answered, Just today, the Mars rover Curiosity drilled its first sample out of the Gale Crater- an area that may have once been a riverbed. Here's more:

"Drilling down 2.5 inches into a patch of sedimentary bedrock, Curiosity collected the rock powder left by the drill and will analyze it using its own laboratory instruments, NASA said in a statement. This is the first time a robot has drilled to collect a Martian sample.

Images of the hole, along with a shallower test hole nearby, can be seen here .

"The most advanced planetary robot ever designed is now a fully operating analytical laboratory on Mars," said John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for the agency's Science Mission Directorate.

Curiosity drilled into a rock called "John Klein," named for a Mars Science Laboratory deputy project manager who died in 2011.

In the next few days, ground controllers will command the rover's arm to process the sample by delivering bits of it to the instruments inside Curiosity.
Before the rock powder is analyzed, some will be used to scour traces of material that may have been deposited onto the hardware while the rover was still on Earth, despite thorough cleaning before launch, NASA said.

The drilling and analysis is part of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project, which is using the Curiosity rover to figure out whether an area in Mars' Gale Crater ever offered a hospitable environment for life."

Source and images. 

Some of you are probably wondering: Why Mars? There are a number of reasons. It is very similar in size, composition, and distance from the Sun to Earth. All of these provided Earth with adequate sunlight and surface area for the millions of flora and fauna covered on this blog. Most importantly, Mars has ice on its surface, and water is necessary for life. The monster stories came after the fact.

That's what the Rover drilling is about: finding water. If we find water, we find what caused Mars to dry out, or perhaps even micro-organisms. The Gale Crater may It would make us not so alone in the universe, if you will.

Disclaimer: I do not endorse putting aliens in every little thing. The discovery of life on another planet could have big implications for life science as well as science fiction. If Mars once had life, we would be more compelled to save the life on this planet.

So, as cool as Earth is, keep watching the skies. If Curiosity does indeed turn up with Martian water,  bacteria, or some such, you will learn of it here. Then it will only be a matter of time before the aliens take over. Whoops, this isn't a conspiracy site, but we've all seen what even the most innocent invasive species can do.

P.S.- in a twist of "They Actually Eat That," I did something exceptional today and tried rabbit.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Creature Feature: Irritator.

You are not misreading that header. It is not Pokemon Week again. There really is something with the simple name of "Irritator." Let us show you.

I'll show YOU irritating - try being DEAD for a couple million years! - from Wiki.

This is a dinosaur named Irritator challengeri. It was found in Brazil in 1996. Like other spinosaurids, it was either carnivorous or piscivorous - there's still a fair amount of debate on that regarding spinosaurids in general. It lived in the early Cretaceous, which means it did not quite coincide with Tyrannosaurus and a great amount of the most popular dinosaurs.

Before you mention that this sounds like Latin done by a moron who was trying to sound smart, no, it was made by scientists after racking their brains trying to figure out what exactly this thing was. It was first classified as a raptor for some very questionable reasons, including that the snout had been lengthened just to make the specimen more impressive. It might even be the same thing as Angaturama, another spinosaurid found in the same time and place. Irritating indeed.

Despite being named by scientists, Irritator was not discovered by scientists. They named it, but they were not the ones to dig the skull up. The skull - the only part we have - was found through the illegal fossil trade. As mentioned above, it was doctored to look more impressive, making scientists ball up paper in frustration. The good news? It's still the most complete spinosaurid skull today.

Now for what you really came to see: Irritator in the flesh. Contrary to its mildly-annoying name, Irritator was a beast. Imagine a crocodile walking on two legs. Now imagine that it weighs 2-3 tons and is 8 meters long from head to tip of the tail. Imagine that it had a neat-looking fin and could all but breathe underwater with its nostrils located towards the top and back of the jaw. That was Irritator, AKA "Jaws meets Jurassic Park."

Irritator has not had much love in popular culture. To its credit, however, the "Dinosaurs Alive!" attraction at King's Island starts with Irritator. It's hard to imagine a Vivosaur more trollicious than Dimorph in Fossil Fighters, but if Irritator ever made the cut, I'm sure he would live up to his name. Don't expect to see him as a Jurassic Park threat, least, not with a name like that.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" Escolar.

If you ever pick up a sushi menu, you will see some strange stuff. There are things like sea urchin and eel alongside common salmon, tuna, and shrimp. Then there are simply odd uses for regular fish, like taking their eggs.

But "escolar?" That sounds like it might be English. What is it, anyways?

Escolar (Lepidocybium flavobrunneum) is found in deep, tropical waters around the world. It is related to oilfish. It is often mislabeled, leading to caveat emptor around anything labelled "butterfish." In fact, it can be mislabelled as almost any other fish on the planet. It is possibly the most dangerous fish on the market.  Oh my. 

 Escolar has a serious consequences if eaten in excess. The technical term for it is keriorrhea. In English, that means you get nasty bowel movements and urinate yellow oil. Escolar do not metabolize oil as well as some, so we get stuck excreting it instead. For the record, the safe amount is 6 ounces.

The good news: it can taste really good. As a fattier fish, it tastes very rich. It has been described as having a laxative effect. Despite the side-effects, escolar remains popular due to the taste and other effects.  In other words, it's the illegal drug of the fish trade.

The irony? Escolar is banned in Japan and Italy. The Japanese government considers escolar toxic, and these are the people who eat fugu.If a roll has escolar on it, it sure as hell isn't traditional. It's tricky; escolar is often mislabelled as white tuna, Atlantic cod, or other fishy things. It is usually either illegal or issued a fact sheet...except in the United States. Even Hong Kong has limits on it, and they make low-quality stuff on a regular basis. Enjoy illegal sushi!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Creature Feature: Apple Snail.

I apologize in advance for the video I am about to show you:

Yes, snails can actually be interesting to watch. I had the pleasure of seeing one of these up close and active. These are apple snails (family Ampullaridae), and they are among the most popular freshwater aquarium snails in the trade. The 6 genera in the family can be found in the freshwater areas of South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the lower parts of North America.  They are also marketed as "mystery snails," which is a complete marketing gimmick. These snails are far from a mystery, but still quite cool. We'll focus on Pomacea for now; other apple snails are fascinating in their own rights.

Apple snails are among the few truly amphibious snails. They have both primitive lungs and gills.  The mantle - the part of the body that yields a shell - is actually divided between the two types of respiration. Thankfully, most apple snails can stay aquatic; only if food runs out in the water will they move onto land. They have survived for over 50 million years for a reason.

The shell even looks apple-y.

That said, if you intend to breed apple snails, it is not as easy as it is with some other snails. Unlike most snails, apple snails have sexes - they aren't hermaphrodites. Each species of apple snail has its own egg-laying style and preferences, so adjust accordingly. We wish there was a cute Valentine's Day pic with snails, but these guys and girls sound difficult to sex properly.  If taken care of, some snails can get shells up to 6 inches in diameter.

Apple snails have mixed effects when introduced to non-native ecologies. In Taiwan, apple snails were marketed as a protein source, but fell flat on their not-faces and escaped into the wild after being unprofitable. The population then exploded; remember, these are versatile, adaptable creatures. Before they were bred in captivity, many apple snails were actually unwelcome hitchhikers in aquaria. Times change.

 Other people deliberately introduce apple snails (but not Pomacea) to out-compete and even eat more harmful snails that are vectors for parasites - some deadly, some just annoying. They are even eaten in Mexico. Mystery snails no more; apple snails are here to stay, but we make no promises about keeping the doctor away.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Bio-Art: Explaining the Uncanny Valley.

 3-D animation and robotics are getting more advanced every day. As technology advances, the line between human and inhuman will become blurred. Nerds foretell the robot apocalypse for a reason. Just look at some of the robots Japan has:

Enter the uncanny valley. As robots and animation become more advanced, you will be seeing this word more and more. It's worth knowing what it's all about.

First of all, just what is this valley that is so uncanny? The word "uncanny valley" comes from a strange dip on a graph. The graph basically says that as robots get more and more human, the viewers of those robots should come to sympathize with them - except they don't. There's a certain point on the graph where viewers start to feel revulsion towards the robot. That point - that sudden dip into "that freaks me out" - is the uncanny valley. The term was coined by Japanese robotic expert Masahiro Mori, who had definitely experienced its effects firsthand.

The uncanny valley is totally natural. The current theory about the uncanny valley is that it stems from a human instinct to avoid mating with the sick. These slightly-abnormal elements tip us off that the "person" we are looking at may not be all right. It's just that: uncanny.

Spoiler: Emily here is CGI.

The uncanny valley does not just apply to robots. Next time you see a zombie flick and feel like someone in the main cast is going to go nomming brains, you know what sense is tipping you off. It's that "this person is not acting normal" feeling and is perfectly natural. Pay attention: If it isn't a robot apocalypse, it'll be a zombie apocalypse, so keep your Uncanny Goggles (TM)  on.

Although not a proven scientific idea and very hard to define, the uncanny valley is taken very seriously by filmmakers and, in particular, animators. Back before Toy Story, Pixar made a short called Tin Toy. YouTube it if you like. The baby in the film is so realistic that it's creepy (if babies don't creep you out already). The Polar Express has also been accused of hitting the valley. Nonetheless, the powers that be will strive on to make the robots as human as possible. Except...y'know...thinging.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Megafauna Week: Baluchitherium.

This is it. This is the big one. No, really, I've ended this week with one of the biggest mammals of all time. Anyone who knows their paleos probably saw the grand finale coming from a mile away. For those of you who have no idea what Baluchitherium is, however, feast your eyes:

The behemoth above is a titan among titans. It is one of perhaps a few different indricotheres, or "holy CARP that is a big mammal." Just like with the Elasmotherium, indricotheres were related to rhinoceroses. We're pretty sure this one was a browser, making this gigantic beast the unofficial bastard child of a rhinoceros and a giraffe. Its name comes from the first specimen being discovered in Baluchistan, Pakistan. It lived during the Oligocene epoch- 34-23 million years ago. It probably inspired a great deal of monsters if any survived alongside humans.

The first thing that one will notice when researching indricotheres is that the classification is very, very hazy. The species are distinguished by subtle skeletal differences. Paleontologists debate whether this is sexual dimorphism, maturity, or indeed different species from the same genus. Thus the same creature (more or less) has different names, including Baluchitherium, Paraceratherium, and Indricotherium. It's hard to identify distinct species when they can't make babies anymore. We think they're all the same genus.

Baluchitherium was the largest land mammal known. It averaged 5 meters (16 feet) at the shoulder and 8 meters (~26 feet) from nose to rear. The image above showed exactly how small a human was relative to this beast. No matter how many measurements I give, it will not do this creature justice. Just...look at this thing:

From Wiki, and apparently taken at the Tokyo Natural History Museum. Japan really does have giant monsters.

As the largest land mammal ever, Baluchitherium has made quite a dent in popular culture. It has been featured on prehistoric nature shows, sure, but the influence extends beyond that. This behemoth was the inspiration for the AT-AT Walkers in Star Wars, and it shows. The Digimon "SkullBaluchimon" is unfortunately a misnomer; it just barely looks like Baluchitherium, although its backstory as being made of counterfeit fossils justifies the dissimilarity. Does this mean we would be any less scared to encounter a Baluchitherium, much less a digital skeleton of one, in a dark alley? Of course we'd still be scared shitless! This is the biggest mammal in Earth's history, dead or alive.

It'll haunt you in your nightmares, too.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Newsflash: Tapeworm Eggs Found In Prehistoric Sharks.

Although it's easy to focus on giant mammals for an entire week, here's a small reprieve: parasites have been around even longer. (Actually, I couldn't find too many newsworthy things related to ancient mammals.) Tapeworms have been found in the body of a shark from the Permian, a time when mammal-like reptiles were a thing. That was before the dinosaurs, in case you aren't up to snuff with your periods of Earth's history.

The tapeworm cysts were found in the gut of  a 270-million-year-old fossil shark. Given the presence of Brazilian journals, we can safely assume that it was found somewhere in South America.

"Remains of such parasites in vertebrates from this era are rare- of 500 samples examined, only one revealed the tapeworm eggs. This particular discovery helps establish a timeline for the evolution of present-day parasitic tapeworms that occur in foods like pork, fish and beef.

The fossilized eggs were found in a cluster very similar to those laid by modern tapeworms. Some of them are un-hatched and one contains what appears to be a developing larva. According to the study, "This discovery shows that the fossil record of vertebrate intestinal parasites is much older than was previously known and occurred at least 270-300 million years ago."

The fossil described in this study is from Middle-Late Permian times, a period followed by the largest mass extinction known, when nearly 90% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial species died out."- source.

It's kind of humbling to know that tapeworms have lived so long. If you know absolutely nothing about parasites, you know that some parasites have super-specific life cycles. Tapeworms have survived so long precisely because they are simple. Humans can get fish tapeworms, pork tapeworms, beef name it. The tapeworm is not picky, which explains its amazing endurance over eons.Versatility tends to win out in the long run.

Parasite fanaticism over. Back to your regularly-scheduled mammals. Speaking of, happy Groundhog Day!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Megafauna Week: Elasmotherium.

Ah, unicorns.  What would be cooler than meeting a unicorn? Wouldn't it be awesome if unicorns were, y'know, real? Then that unicorns VS zombies book would actually have some merit, and bronies would not be up in our faces anymore.

The good news: Macro Polo saw one. Here's what he wrote:

They have wild elephants and plenty of unicorns, which are scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant’s. They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead . . . They are very ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins, but clean contrary to our notions.

It has long since been decided that Marco Polo was describing a rhinoceros, not a pretty white unicorn found on some chick's binder. Still, fossil evidence suggests that the traveler may have been onto something:


If the narwhal and oryx were not inspiration for the unicorn, one might suggest fossil evidence of the Elasmotherium, a relative of the rhinoceros. It lived from the Pliocene to the Pleistocene, and may have been around as recently as 50,000 years ago - old enough for a few people to have seen it and drawn it in caves. They spanned much of Asia and into Europe.

The most outstanding trait of this giant herbivore was the single horn on its face. Although "unicorn" or "monoceros" may refer to almost anything with one horn, only Elasmotherium has the horn placed right where the modern notion of "unicorn" has it - on the forehead. It was characterized as being capable of galloping based on having longer legs than most rhinoceros-like animals. We think it ate grass like a horse, too. Even with narwhals and oryx around, the Elasmotherium strikes one as a very likely basis for unicorns indeed.

Cave drawing from France.

So just how big was the real unicorn? Think 15-16 feet from head to tail. A basketball player could barely reach the top of its shoulder. It weighed 3-4 tons. Although far from the petite, slender creature depicted everywhere nowadays, Elasmotherium was still pretty amazing as far as unicorns go. Sorry, Twilight Sparkle was completely made up.

Cheer up, fantasy fans. Unicorns were once real. Sure, they weren't the prancing ponies we know today, but they were still around. The best part is, you'll never see a Christian arguing that unicorns never existed; they're in the Bible.