Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Creature Feature: Micronesian (Guam) Kingfisher.

First off: I owe you all a theme week. I had one in mind, but a trip to the San Antonio Zoo made me second-guess. That place is awesome, and I took lots of pictures that will totally get their own entry come Thursday. Everywhere I go, I must check out the zoo. Always!

One of the things the San Antonio Zoo had was an awesome bird house. Among its inhabitants were Micronesian kingfisher (Todiramphus cinnamomina cinnamomina). They are largely piscivorous and live in forested habitats. As per the internet, there are three subspecies of Micronesian kingfisher, all of which are native to the Pacific Islands. According to the zoo, however,  they are extinct in the wild, just like the scimitar-horned oryx. 

First off, this is a nice-looking kingfisher. All Micronesian kingfishers have some combination of deep orange and blue plumage. The subspecies have different ratios. Otherwise, they are all but indistinguishable from each other. Wait a tic- an extinct species having subspecies is a little strange, isn't it?


To be frank, the zoo was overstating the endangered nature of this kingfisher. What they really meant to say was that the population on Guam had been wiped out by brown tree snakes. (For future reference, the snakes were nobody's fault - any exotic pet legislation citing that case is a load of bullplop.) This is more like a subspecies going extinct than an entire species. The way the placard put it, it was as if the whole species had gone extinct in the wild. That is not the case. There are plenty of Micronesian kingfishers waiting to repopulate Guam, both in the wild and in captivity. The tree snakes need to leave regardless.

This entry blends oddly well with the polar bear misinformation discussed on Sunday. Although these kingfishers are pretty charismatic by themselves, their "extinct in the wild" status adds a sense of rarity. It's still pretty impressive that the zoo has Guam kingfishers, which are indeed an EW subspecies. The other two subspecies are treated as "least concern," although threats loom in the distance. Overstatement, or early warning? You decide.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Bio-Art: Brainbow.

A good friend of mine once suggested that paleontologists were exercising an inborn urge to pose dinosaur skeletons. This was in response to a comment I had made about scientists just plain wanting to make things glow in the dark for fun. Nowhere is this more firmly visible than in the "brainbow." That is not a misspelling - it's exactly what it sounds like.


That, friends, is a "brainbow." It is a photograph of the brain of a genetically-engineered mouse. The rodent houses several different GFP types in its DNA. No PhotoShop was used in his image; it really does look like something one could see in a museum of modern art.

CBS Labs went even farther than GloFish in terms of making a single organism have perfect camouflage for a rave party. Anything with a "brainbow" has each neuron color-coded with a different fluorescent protein, each of which is derived from GFP. The end result looks like something a stoner would see at Christmas.

There is indeed a method to this psychedelic madness. By color-coding each neuron, it is possible to trace individual neuron pathways. Who said art was useless? This is functional and fashionable. Whether it is properly art or not is another issue entirely.

So, the question is once again if this is really art. The brainbow at the very least looks awesome. It does not ask anything by itself. This is your brain; this is your brain on a trip. That the trip happens to look awesome is more of a side-effect than anything, although no doubt the idea arose because someone thought it would look pretty. Chicken or the egg? You decide. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Newsflash: Polar Bears Not As Threatened As We Thought?

Since global warming was made a thing by Al Gore, the polar bear has been its spokesperson. We were, well, not thrilled to see the polar bear put on the endangered species list, but kind of glad it got there so as to raise awareness of global climate change.

But are they really that threatened?

It sounds like a silly question. After all, the polar bear is an environmentalism mascot, just like pandas, tigers, and whales. They're one of those animals every zoo either has or tries to get because the species is going out of fashion in the natural world.

Then this tidbit came up on NPR. Recently, a writer went to the Arctic to write about polar bears. While there, he found an honest scientist who kindly showed him some polar bear droppings.The droppings revealed that the polar bear, which according to the interwebs has a diet consisting largely of seals, was also fond of goose meat and reindeer- Christmas dinner, if you will. (If we had more citations, we would give them.)

And yet, we cannot find this blurb on the internet. It made it to National Public Radio, but the surprisingly diverse diet of the polar bear has not yet crept onto the interwebs. Consider it crawling around, now. Treat it as a rumor if you like; it will get confirmed/debunked eventually.
The absence of this information on the internet baffles us, even when it shouldn't. Considering how many places say that the polar bear mainly eats seals, surely this would revolutionize something.

There are a few reasons why this hasn't gotten out, assuming its truth to begin with.  Facilities who have polar bears want to make them as big a draw as possible, which means making the bears sound rarer and more fragile than they actually are. Hell, zoos have a special "polar bear diet" that I'm pretty sure does not consist entirely of seal meat (Google it). There's something shady going on.

Don't get us wrong. The polar bear is still under legitimate threat from global warming. It's just not quite as bad as we thought.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Creature Feature: Chevrotain.

Life is interesting. Sometimes it even completely surprises you, unearthing things you never thought possible.  Then there are things that come right the eff out of nowhere and make you wonder what you're on. That's what this blog is all about: freeing your mind with stuff you never knew was there.

This, good followers, is a mouse-deer (Tragulidae). It is also called a "chevrotain," which sounds like Chevy's latest attempt to appeal solely to the female demographic. There are four extant genera, with more being discovered and named every so often. Locations include Asia, Africa, and India. The English name "chevrotain" is actually French meaning "little goat." An Indian word means "deer and a pig." That's how crazy this thing is. It can't even decide what animal it's most like.

And why should it? Chevrotain are very primitive creatures, having not changed in over 34 million years. Chevrotain are probably close to what the first ruminant ungulate looked like. Ruminants include deer, cattle, sheep, and most cloven-hoofed animals except swine. Whales were once ungulates, too, so this little guy is related to Flipper. Sure, it's distant, but the little chevrotain like water enough to make it a distinct possibility.

Keen readers will notice that pigs are not ruminants. The chevrotain, being a transitional beast, has some piglike traits. Like pigs, both sexes of chevrotain have elongated canine teeth and no horns. The herbivore parts are there, but not quite complete. Chevrotain will also scavenge meat alongside botanical diets. They're "deer and pigs" as in India. Somebody got it right.

I wonder how many creationists know about this thing? It looks like the fossil record may well fill itself if this keeps up. Evidence of life being amazing happens every day. Look around for it.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" Orange Roughy.

If you live near any big city, there is a fine chance that there is an aquarium near you. Aquariums tend to have handy little pocket guides for what seafood is safe and sustainable and what is not. If you can get a hold of such a chart, I can promise you this fellow will be on the "avoid" list. Not the guy, the fish:


The fish above is an orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus). It is a deep-sea fish, much like the anglerfish and other glowing creatures. The red-orange color comes from eating crustaceans, just like with pink flamingoes. It is also called a "slimehead" or "deepsea perch." "Slimehead"- what a lovely name. It makes "roughy" sound appealing by comparison. 

Here's the kicker: every single orange roughy is wild-caught. Certain restaurants might even market this fact. There are no orange roughy farms, yet tilapia and salmon pile themselves upon grocery shelves. It seems to be a fairly popular fish, so why hasn't anybody tried to farm them?

Here's a little-known facet of what makes an animal good for domestication: the reproductive age must be equal to or less than that of a human. Humans start becoming reproductively-capable in their teens; most pet and farm animals take two years, if that, until they are ready to reproduce. The orange roughy takes anywhere from thirty-three years to fifty. 

Yes, this popular food fish takes fifty years to become sexually mature. Anyone who wanted to breed orange roughy would be in for a very long wait. Even if someone possessed that amazing level of dedication, they would not be able to keep up with the demand for this fish. The orange roughy on one's plate could be around 150 years old - most humans do not live that long. No wonder the stocks around Australia and New Zealand are depleted -  they're trying to feed creatures that multiply like rodents. Never mind the mercury; orange roughy is on that "avoid" list for a very good reason.

Personal preference time:I have tried orange roughy, unsustainable though it may be. I absolutely love this fish. It ranks up there with halibut and certain forms of salmon as one of my favorite food fish. Aside from sweets, this fish is among my guiltiest of guilty pleasures. Now I'm going to feel even guiltier about ordering it at a certain Greek restaurant.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Creature Feature: Tropicbird.

If you've ever been on Cracked.com, you will see constantly-updated lists of real things that are not PhotoShopped. Well, now it's time for one of our own. Your mileage may vary:


This is a red-billed tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus). There are only three species of tropicbirds, all of which focus around, well, tropical islands. They are usually cited alongside frigatebirds and boobies as some of the many odd birds of the Galapagos. Being seabirds, fish and squid are on the menu. They were once lumped in with pelicans, but really have no extant relatives.

Tropicbirds do not look like real birds. They look like the birds that would happen if someone who only had the vaguest idea of what a bird was designed a bird. The feet are small and positioned far to the back of the bird's body, with all four toes webbed. The white tail is long. It's a "derp here's a bird" design, if that makes any sense. Tail, feet, wings, beak, and almost no regard for proper avian anatomy. Yet it works.

Tropicbirds are meant to fly and swim. Aside from their wings looking undersized, much of their time is spent at sea. Their strange feet don't just look odd; they are all but useless, making the tropicbird barely able to waddle on land. They dive, get back up in the sky, then dive again. Those feet really are useless. Remember how the bird-of-paradise was once considered "footless?" Title claimed by the tropicbird instead.

As one might imagine, tropicbird chicks have it rough. They might not eat for days at a time, which is  why they have evolved fat stores. Unfortunately, this means the little tropicbirds have to hobble into the ocean and fast the fat off. Whaddya know? Binge diets are natural.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Bio-Art/Newsflash: The Repercussions of Bio-Art.

So, this column has been deprived of a Newsflash owing to events last week. We also need a bio-art thing for this week. Hey, let's kill two birds with one stone!

Conveniently, SymbioticA, who has done a lot of entries on this very column, has said a few things regarding the consequences of bio-art and what it represents. That includes its symbolism now and what it means for the future of art, science, and artsy science.  I will be annotating things throughout this article, sticking blurbs in and bolding certain points.

Let's reblog!

"The panelists focused heavily on the way we categorise forms of life that would not exist without human intervention. Phil Ross, a bio-artist in the San Francisco area, emphasised the importance of incorporating these new organisms into the taxonomy of the natural world. He touted the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Center for PostNatural History, which is dedicated to organisms intentionally altered by humans, as an institution attempting to tackle the profound difficulties associated with such classifications.

Catts took the point a step further, noting that our catalogue systems have transitioned from the taxidermy animals that fill natural history museums to DNA libraries, which supposedly capture the essence of the animal. But removed from context, he argued, the DNA means next to nothing. “It’s not just new life forms we can’t classify,” he said, “but a new approach to life we can’t come to terms with.”

(In English: With human-engineered species constantly breaking the laws established by natural species, they don't fit into the already-established boxes that science loves to use.) 

Engineered cell cultures were not the only life forms the panelists struggled to classify. It turns out that putting bio-artists in a category is a challenge in itself. Tami Spector, an organic chemist at the University of San Francisco, pointed out how competitive the scientific field often is, especially when it comes to being “scooped”. Could engaging with science in such an intimate way, using its materials and methods, encourage the same degree of competition in artists?

Ross thought so, and added that because of his facility with microscopy and other highly technical methods, he suddenly has a voice as valid as that of anyone else in the scientific process. “You can dabble at the edge of science and suddenly you’re a scientist,” he said. Yet not everyone agreed. Catts, for one, insisted that he would never call himself a scientist by virtue of his art.

All this overlap between the technical methods and emotional motivations of scientists and artists culminated in a profound question: in the world of bio-art, where does science end and art begin? 

Ross, along with artist and writer Meredith Tromble of the San Francisco Art Institute, emphasised the importance of context. Tromble described her recent experiences working with computer programmers, and how her unique demands of them sometimes cast their own problems in a fresh light. Ross related similar experiences, saying that artists have the essential freedom to do the wrong thing or raise the ignorant question. “This very dumb question often belies the truth of what we do or don’t know,” he said.

Catts, though, was eager to keep art in its own category. Though some of the projects the fellows at SymbioticA take on do yield information that interests research scientists, Catts estimates they make up only about 5 per cent of the projects. But even then, these “secondary outcomes” are measured by something other than artistic merit, and Catts is concerned that if artists and scientists start to emphasise data over artistic value, the data will become the focus, to the detriment of the art.
The only function he was willing to concede to his art is its ability to stir conversation about important issues surrounding how we define and behave towards life. Beyond that, Catts insisted that art is defined by its uselessness. “My role as an artist is to maintain this last bastion of futility,” he said." - Source.

We've noticed this disparity, too, not just with bio-art, but with art in general. Art is not a very useful skill - or so it seems. Companies use artists, after all; it's not entirely useless. So, where are we drawing the line between art and science? Aesthetics are a factor, but useless? Tell that to GloFish.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Creature Feature: Swimming Sea Cucumber.

Ah, sea cucumbers. We could do endless entries simply about how weird sea cucumbers in general are. These turds of the sea are related to starfish, can excrete their bowels to ward off predators, and are animate despite looking like Shamu's waste. Yet, stray outside of the typical sea cucumbers and there is a whole other level of bizarre.

This is a swimming sea cucumber (Enypniastes). They are found in abyssal waters, presumably wherever the sea gets deep enough. It's harmless to humans, although exactly how many humans have seen one up close is a different matter. Not all sea cucumbers are created equal, that's for sure; a lot of the deep sea ones are quite strange. 

Already, there is something unusual about these sea cucumbers: they swim. Both the front and back ends sport rings of webbing that let the sea cucumber move up and down in the sea. Plus, almost anything is better than being compared to a vegetable or animal dropping; pink, swimming blob is a nice step up.

There is much more to this sea cucumber than meets the eye, although it is pretty neat to look at. Like many deep-sea creatures, this holothurian can glow in the dark - or, to use the scientific term, bioluminesce. If a predator attacks this relatively helpless invertebrate, it sheds a layer of glowing skin onto the attacker while making its escape. Not only does the sea cucumber get away, its assailant is now marked with a glowing, neon band screaming "EAT ME." (Source: Field Museum, "Creatures of Light" exhibit. See it now.)

Alas, as with much abyssal life, we don't know much about these odd creatures. There are probably even more strange sea cucumbers waiting to come to light.  After all, who knew sea cucumbers favored bright pink?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Creature Feature: Myrmarachnids.

Not many people like spiders. The awesome lady with the spider jewelry last night was more an exception to the rule than anything. They are, however, fascinating creatures that really deserve more entries on this blog.

Look out, here comes the Spider-Ant! Actually, it's an ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria), but close enough. It's native to Africa, with relatives in many places.

In all seriousness, though, there are a number of jumping spiders who have ants as alter-egos. They span at least two genera, and are native to most tropical parts of the world. A few live in temperate regions. Yes, they eat insects, like most other spiders. Despite awesome mimicry, this is not cannibalism. There are an amazing amount of these spiders. Cue mass-entry guilt.

For those of you who know nothing about arthropod anatomy, here's a little primer. Insects have three body segments and six legs. Spiders have two body segments and eight legs, plus two pedipalps. A number of tricks are used to pull off that visual trickery, including raising the forelegs like antennae and making the pedipalps look eerily close to an ant's head. It's a darn good job.

Why the spiders do this is something of a mystery. Always suspecting the worst of a venomous creature, scientists first thought that spider-ants were infiltrating anthills by going in undercover. This turned out not to be the case for many, but not all, ant-mimics. Unbeknownst to most humans, ants taste bad, and can also sting with formic acid. Not a bad thing to disguise oneself as.

Of course, this won't protect them from humans who hate ants, too...and there are quite a lot of those. You fooled nobody with A Bug's Life, Disney - ants are crafty little buggers who wind up in my bathroom every spring. Yeah, disguising yourself as an ant won't work well all the time.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Member's Night Event Coverage.

Whooosh! Long night, that was. Members' Nights at the Field Museum are always epic affairs, though. The main attraction is the behind-the-scenes stuff that you don't get to see during normal museum hours. 

Ever wonder how scientists store their samples?  In little tiny tubes, very carefully. Question answered!

Snakes in jars. Lots of snakes in lots of jars.

The department of entomology was pretty neat this time around, too.  Plenty of cool spiders, with some amazing blog fodder coming up. I did not know that all male spiders had bigger, "boxing glove" pedipalps when fully mature! The above photo is of a researcher's pet tarantula's molt...and an equally-cool necklace.

So many cool invertebrates to touch! There were a ton of shells on display, including these angel wings - which are like geoducks in that they have extremely long bodies. Have fun imagining an adorable white, pearly mollusk open up into something out of Japanese porn.

I got to feel an octopus at this display. Alas, it reeked of formaldehyde. Still cool.

They really outdid themselves with the icthyology department this time, in part because "Creatures of Light" covers abyssal fish. How many people do you know who have touched a viperfish? Probably none unless you work there.

They even did face painting. This guy had an amazing anglerfish on his face- wonder how long it took?

A Quetzalcoatl puppet! Not every day you see one of those. He was one of the many puppets roaming the main level this time around. Fun.

There was also someone dressed up in a T-Rex costume.  Funny, and definitely obligatory for a museum.

On a non-photographable note, one of the employees was playing Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate for the 3DS. I apologize if my character sucks right now, Leo. It'll be a lot better next year.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" "Cheese."

Ah, Kraft. How many childhoods have been shaped by your cheesy products? Alas, many of us are still using Philadelphia cream cheese because it's just that damn good. This entry focuses on another American classic: Kraft Singles.

For those of you unaware, Kraft singles are the typical cheese slices used to make grilled cheese sandwiches. They have been popular in the States since World War II. If we recall, there are even directions on the back of the package. There are a bunch of knock-offs, too, but the Kraft Singles are really known for making grilled cheese a trend. Other sandwiches use them extensively as well...but are they really cheese?

It's a weird question, but here's the ingredients list on a package of Kraft Singles:  


Note how the closest thing resembling "cheese" is the "cheese culture," and it's way at the bottom of the list. For something to qualify as cheese, it must contain at least 51% cheese. Kraft Singles are not technically cheese. Nor are "American Slices." Unless "cheese" is high on the ingredient list, it isn't cheese.

For those of you who know dairy, yes, whey is a by-product of cheesemaking. Cheesemaking itself is a pretty gross business if you don't have the stomach for slime and fungi.  Whey is the milky stuff separated from the cheese curds. It's still not cheese; it's a by-product of cheese.

Please read your cheese slices before using them in your sandwich. Using actual cheese will taste better than any not-cheese you will find, and is definitely more worth the calories. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Creature Feature: Glyptodon.

Cool though MonHunt may be, the majority of its monsters are reptilian. This tends to be a running theme with monsters in general; insectoids and reptiles are strange enough to scare most people, so, with the oddball exception of wolves, mammals don't show up in many horror movies. Maybe it's about time we fixed that.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Well, here's a strange mammal for you! It's a Glyptodon, and was native to South America in the Pleistocene Epoch. That's the same time when all the mammals we know and love, including people, were in odd, freakish proto-forms. Luckily, we're petty sure this one's an herbivore. There were four species in the genus, each of which can be identified by the patterns on the shell.

Armadillos are already strange little things. This is a prehistoric armadillo- that usually means it's bigger and even freakier. Glyptodon was about the size and weight of a Volkswagon Beetle. Let that sink in a minute: an armadillo the size and weight of a small car. OK, minute over.

Unlike modern armadillos, Glyptodon did not have a flexible shell. Its shell was so rigid that its spine was fused to the thing, much like a modern-day turtle's. Glyptodon was capable of tucking its armored head and tail over its vulnerable underbelly, making itself an unappetizing rock of a mammal. This is considered convergent evolution, as ankylosaurs and turtles share similar adaptations.

One thing we aren't sure on concerning this beast is its face. There's a space in its skull for a nose, but we aren't sure what kind of nose it had. The best guess is a tapir-ish trunk. Soft tissue doesn't preserve well, so a proboscis like that is a legitimate guess. Have fun seeing it in your nightmares.

The Glyptodon probably went extinct because of humans. As we've said before, wherever humans live, megafauna tends to die. It's nothing personal - it just tends to happen. Since humans were around for this, you'd expect drawings...but nope. Plushies, however, are a thing:


Don't be afraid to think outside the box. There were Glyptodon in Ice Age, and we're sure GameFreak could make a Pokemon out of this. There are plenty of strange mammals, both living and dead. Not everything has to be bugs and reptiles.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Bio-Art: Case Study- Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate.

You knew we would get to Monster Hunter at some point. It's not quite as scientific as most of the other bio-art entries, and such things might eventually merit a blog of their own, but a lot of the monsters in this game are exactly what this blog is trying to encourage: realistic, freaky creatures that make one realistically shit one's pants.  Really, it was inevitable; this blog has loads of amazing monster potential, and nothing has realistic monsters quite like the ones found in Monster Hunter.  (That said, all of the images here belong to Capcom et al., and are being utilized to review and advertise the game. Buy it. I did.)

For those of you unfamiliar with Monster Hunter, it is the child of Cabela's big game hunting simulators and Dungeons and Dragons. The jist is that you play a monster hunter, and are required to hunt monsters for fame, fortune, and resources. The more you hunt, the better you get, and the more things you unlock in-game. There's a plot, but most of your time is not spent getting intimate with it.

So, why is it being featured here? There are a few reasons. The first is, obviously, that we were blown away by how beautiful the art was in general. This is a gorgeous game that saps the power of one's 3DS like nothing else. It is also crack after a bit.

The second? So much effort went into these creatures that somebody, somewhere, did some serious research. Mating habits are detailed. These monsters have ecological niches to fill. They even death twitch after being killed. I actually see a lot of monsters sporting parts from animals found on this blog, so creature lovers, take note. Using real creatures as a basis works. These all look possible...for the most part.

That said, onto what we all came to see: MONSTERS!

First thing's first: There are a lot of dinosaurs in this game. They're usually referred to as wyverns, but "Call a Smeep a Rabbit" and all that. "Wyvern" seems to mean "anything big with scales" here; it may in part be a "lost in translation" deal, but yeah, dinos are dragons and dragons are dragons. The dino-dragon above is called a Jaggi, and sports traits of the Jurassic Park Diplocaulus (which in turn got its frill from the frilled dragon of Australia) and various small theropods, including raptors. Behaviorally, they act very canine, with Great Jaggi sounding like a wolf at one point.

The Jaggi is just one example. Another interesting not-dino, Aptonoth, looks like a mix between a Parasaurolophus, ankylosaurid,  and Chasmosaurus. It's a docile herbivore that doesn't attack you on sight, so take as many notes as you like. There is also one in the marina as a pet.

Arzuros is supposed to be a bear - sort of like Winnie the Pooh if he got hit by gamma radiation and ran out of honey. It also contains the distinct look of the ever popular honey badger, particularly in the golden fur.  If you know absolutely nothing about honey badgers, know that they don't give a darn about anything and eat cobras for fun. Throw in a tortoise and you get Arzuros. Why Transformers Beast Wars Fuzors never made this combination is beyond me; seems like something they might do.

Altaroth are almost direct imitations of honey pot ants. Not much more to say. Korea and Japan seem to love the creatures, though. Now you know what they're based off of - who says you can't learn stuff from video games?

Of course, we went ahead and did research beyond the first few quests. Meet Deviljho or "Evil Joe," one of the most terrifying bosses in the entire game. He looks like a tyrannosaurid mixed with Anhanguera. We'd like to think this guy's tail was inspired by Uromastyx, but geckos (like the leopard gecko) and gators are far more likely sources.

Design aside, Deviljho is...funny. He's supposed to be intimidating, but it's hard to make "it ate EVERYBODY" realistic. Humans aside, such a creature could not feasibly survive; the creators tried to combat this by making it nomadic, which is a decent way out that also adds randomness to Jho's appearance. Regardless of the occasional silliness, many of the MH3U designs are refreshingly realistic, intimidating, and very well-done.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

ReptileFest2013 Coverage.

Argus monitors...and how big they get.

It's a tigertic! For those of you who do not speak snake breeder, that means this fully-mature retic has a tiger gene. IT HAS TIGER BLOOD!

Me with a boa. :) And yes, I can wear a winter coat in 70-ish weather. It was cold enough outside.

Albino corns, but no porn.

A fairly standard garter snake. These are actually really cool little colubrids that deserve an entry or two if I haven't done so already.

Interesting ad.

Leucistic Texas Rat Snake. There were like...three. Maybe more.

Snakeskin jewelry!

A photo of a pink katydid, taken right here in IL.

Snake eggs!

Surprise retic. These usually aren't out for touching at the 'fest.
A few other things that were there, but escaped my pic run:

~A snappy dwarf caiman. I have the pic of him somewhere, but something happened that made him (I think?) turn around and snap at his handler. I heard it was a bathroom break. Still could have ended nasty.

~Red-tailed ratsnakes. I did get a few shots of these, but they weren't very good. For the record, those are not beginner snakes at all, and are usually wild-caught. Hundred-Flower ratsnakes have similar issues, being very hard to take care of. Still cool reptiles, but not good pics.

~A giant tortoise that I should have gotten the species name of. My bad that I didn't. It really was an impressive animal, carrying kids on its back and all.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

So While I Figure Out DropBox...

...have a video of amazing rat tricks. Because, yes, rodents are trainable.

Tomorrow's post will be pic-heavy. Very, very pic-heavy.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Creature Feature: Liopleurodon.

"It's a magical Liopleurodon!"

If you live on the internet, the above phrase should be strikingly familiar to you. It comes from the extremely odd Flash movie called Charlie the Unicorn. The first of the series features a Liopleurodon sprawled across a giant rock. So, what is a Liopleurodon, anyways?

Liopleurodon is a genus of extinct, short-necked pleisiosaur (pliosaur) containing two species. These marine reptiles lived during the Jurassic Period, joining Stegosaurus as one of the few well-known archosaurs from that time frame. They have been found mostly in England and France, which you'd think would merit a more uppity-sounding name.

Liopleurodon was one of the big ones.  The biggest specimen of L.ferox was roughly 21 feet long. People trying to cash in on Liopleurodon will tell you otherwise, sometimes replacing "feet" with "meters" to create a sea monster of gargantuan proportions. There were bigger pliosaurs. For some reason, the misconception of a giant Liopleurodon has stuck.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Pliosaurs, including Liopleurodon, had very powerful bites. Look at that huge jaw on a stocky neck - it's like a crocodile mixed with a pit bull. The exact opposite applies to plesiosaurs normally; Nessie, for example, has a tiny head on a long neck. One pliosaur was thought to be capable of biting through granite, but unfortunately, we have no means of testing.

Liopleurodon is one of paleontology's sweethearts. It's a giant carnivore, and has been treated like one in series such as Walking With Dinosaurs (which got its size grossly wrong). There's also a neat bit with a Lio versus a Megalodon- a giant, extinct shark. Oh, and when Liopleurodon is not being a killer, it shows magical unicorns the way to candy mountain. Y'know, even though it didn't say anything.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

They Actually Eat That: "Revenge of the Bacon."

Bacon love has gotten crazy. The greasy, probably delicious pork has taken America by storm in the last few years. It's fast, cheap, easy, and supposedly goes with anything. It's pretty much the transition point between meat and junk food. Oh boy, does that ever sound like the pinnacle of American cuisine.

And, once again, it stuns us how crazy people have gotten over bacon. For the most part, the pics will do the talking.

This massive peppered bacon burger is part of a promotion at Denny's called "Baconalia."The idea behind Baconalia is, as Denny's puts it, "give in to your bacon obsession." It is possible to have a three-course meal with every course including bacon. Seriously, it would not surprise anybody if bacon got the same treatment as pizza somewhere around the line. Bacon counts as meat!

Speaking of restaurant chains cashing in on bacon, Jack-In-The-Box once had this: a bacon milkshake. It was offered for a very limited time and was a sort of secret menu item, costing one roughly 1000 calories as a large shake. It was also revealed to contain no real bacon. Fear does not describe the sensation running down our spines right now. No, that sensation is that of the sudden awareness that the FDA does not exist. If they did, why is this milkshake a thing? For that matter, why was MarryBacon.com a thing?

Belongs to the YGO peeps. Obviously.

Finally, bacon zombies are apparently a thing. Yep. This has gone way too far. No wonder America's the fattest nation on the planet. Hey, how about giving kids in Africa bacon? No? Screw you, bacon fad.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Creature Feature: Jacanas.

Ever notice that animals seem capable of miracles? Axoltols and planaria can heal at astounding rates. Ants can lift millions of times their weight.  Then there's this bird, who almost pulls off the basilisk's ability to walk on water:
Jesus bird? Hardly. That's an African Jacana (Actophilornis africana), a bird also called a lily-trotter. Technically, it's walking on lilypads, not the surface of the water itself. Jacanas of various sorts (in a few genera) can be found throughout the tropics, eating snails, insects, and other small critters while striding above the surface.

First off, even if these guys are not walking on water, you will see them. The younger ones are white and brown; older jacanas usually have striking patterns of brown, white, and black.  That may not sound too stunning, but it's a high-contrast design. There are lots of different types of jacana, and they all have pretty striking colors. Jacana eggs are glossy, dappled things that look more fake than real. There's even a pheasant-tailed jacana, which is exactly what it sounds like:


Jacanas have the ability to walk on water flora. They do this using very long, slender legs and wide feet, which distributes their weight so that the birds do not sink. This gives the illusion of walking on water. They can also swim, which is less impressive, but still cool.

Jacanas also have a few interesting mating habits. Unlike many birds, which mate using many females and one male, jacanas do it the opposite way.  The guy also does all of the work raising the chicks. The female is off philandering and reproducing as much as possible. Talk about your double-standard...turned on its head.

Source: San Diego Zoo webpage.

Remember, for every miracle, there's usually a more logical explanation. Science is all about finding out what those explanations are. In this case, it's a bird walking on lily pads instead of water- not as miraculous, but still quite astounding.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Bio-Art: THe Unfeathered Bird.

Last week, this column highlighted a relatively new book called The Unfeathered Bird. It is a brand shiny new publication by Katrina van Grouw. The cover features a "naked" peacock except for the tailfeathers, showing what to expect: a head-turning look at the inner structures that make birds tick.  This is indeed trying to sell the book, but we will be keeping this image-light so as to avoid legal shiznit. 

From the artist's site.

First off, apologies. Last week, we said that this book had all sorts of glorious bird insides for your brain to chew on. We were half-wrong about that. There aren't any guts. Muscles and bones are as squicky as things get. You never see anything that a taxidermist would not have to deal with. Actually, take that back- taxidermists have to deal with more disgusting things, like flesh-eating beetles. This book is pretty mild by comparison.

This book is a solid course in avian anatomy,  taxidermy-style. Did you know that all mammals have seven neck vertebrae? Did you know that all birds have more neck vertebrae, and that the rest of their spinal cords are pretty much rigid? Now you know, and knowing is half the battle. You can also see every one of those vertebrae in the artist's amazing renditions of bones, muscles, and feathers when necessary. The sketches are woven in with well-researched information to explain what you are seeing.

The best part is how it presents its information. We've said it before and will say it again: scientific literature is written so dryly that it sometimes hurts to read. Scientific documents tend to be loaded with jargon and spacing that really only makes sense if you have a degree in biology. This book does not hurt to read, and contains some well-done pictures to boot. The author has acknowledged the difficulty in reading scientific literature and made sure that her work was not like that. Major props.

Even when chock-full of astounding facts, this is an art book at heart. It's really here to show and explain the drawings. The drawings do merit explanation, especially since very few Americans could recognize the inside of a chicken, the most commonly-eaten bird in the world. Said drawings are so realistic that a splash of color would give one the illusion of touching actual bones and muscle. This is an art book well-worth your time.

It's really hard to go wrong with The Unfeathered Bird. You get what you pay for, and then some. Biology students, artists, and bird-lovers alike will find this book fascinating. Prepare to have your mind blown. "Possibly the best book inspired by a dead duck" indeed.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Creature Feature: Springtails.

By request of one of our readers, we began looking stuff up on insect evolution. It's not covered too often, so the request was more than welcome. This led to our discovery of the oldest insect in the world, Rhyniognathus hirsti.


Wait a sec. What is that? Not in this blog's usual WTF way, but really, that fossil's hard to see. 
So here's the next best thing: a living fossil of an insect called a springtail.


Actually, we aren't even sure if springtails are insects. Some people think that they diverged from insects a while back, and thus deserve their own class (Entognatha). They have most of the right stuff- six legs, exoskeleton, etc. - but also have some traits that stick out. Unlike most insects, they never really metamorphose, and don't have external mouthparts. Also, as per the name, springtails possess a long structure in their rears (called a "furcula") that lets them jump. That last one doesn't keep them from being insects - it's just cool.

Springtails go way back. They go so far back that the first bug ever was first thought to be Rhyiella praecursor - a basal springtail. The same chert section with R. praecursor held the fossil first mentioned up above. This makes springtails among the first arthropods to ever walk on land. No wonder their taxonomy is confused.

Springtails may be creepy, but are they harmful? Yes and no. They are agricultural pests at worst, a title shared with many insects. They are, however, sensitive to herbicides and many other soil alterations. One springtail in particular is used as a model organism to test for potentially-toxic soil. See? They're not all bad.

If you wish to find springtails, well, this was an entry covering a whole class of bizarre little arthropods. Springtails are tiny, but can be found beneath leaves and in other humid places. As shown above, they are tiny, and frequently confused with fleas. They eat decaying matter and keep microoorganisms in check. Plus, they bounce; there's not much to hate, even though some people thing any creepy crawly is legitimately creepy.