Sunday, June 30, 2013

Creature Feature: Dwarf Fox.

As the previous entry hinted, low temperatures means relatively poor biodiversity. This makes a good portion of North America a wasteland compared to say, a rainforest. Does this mean we're completely bereft of unique, amazing creatures? Of course not. Here is just the thing to make you all feel good before Monday:

That is a dwarf fox, AKA island fox. It is native to exactly 6 of the 8 Channel Islands in California, with a unique subspecies for every island. Small predators eat small prey, like rodents, crabs, and fish. Interestingly, they can be found active during both day and night, depending on season.

Yes, these foxes are small. They weigh 6.2 pounds, tops. They are frequently smaller than a house cat. Invasive species not withstanding, they are the largest land animals in the Channel Islands. It's the biggest fish in a small pond with very small fish. That's insular dwarfism for you.

Science has proven that wolves have the closest thing in nature to a human family, but dwarf foxes give wolves a run for their money. They stay with one partner all their lives, and their young stay 1-2 years with mommy and daddy. Next Valentine's Day, make your lover a card with dwarf foxes on it. It'll be even cuter if you explain that these foxes are monogamous and keep their kits for a relatively long time. 

You know what makes these guys even more awesome? They're living proof that humans can restore endangered species if they really try hard enough. I detailed the decimation of the bald eagle roughly a year or two ago; the baldies around the Channel Islands were keeping the foxes from being eaten by golden eagles, who are larger. Like on many islands, feral domesticated animals were also at fault; these were eventually removed via hunting programs. Canine distemper cut one population by 90%. The fox was driven to numbers as low as 15 in the 1990's.

Today? 2,500 dwarf foxes. Conservation efforts did these little furballs wonders. The species is still listed as critical, but that recovery is amazing. That should brighten your get back to work. ;)

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Newsflash: North America, Why No Monkeys?

I've said it countless times: I am not a monkey person. That does not mean the monkeys will not be covered on this blog. They just are not my cup of tea. Every so often, however, I feel obligated to do something related to monkeys because a lot of people think monkeys make everything better- even blogs.

So, for all you monkey people out there, have you ever wondered why North America has no monkeys? Well, Popular Science did an awesome article explaining exactly why: 

"I spoke to Dr. John Flynn, a paleontologist and expert on mammalian evolution at the American Museum of Natural History, to find out why the US is stuck with lame squirrels and pigeons and stuff rather than cool monkeys. "In terms of modern primates, that's a true observation," he said. "But 50 million years ago, there were primates here." It turns out there are lots of reasons why the ancient primates that inhabited what is now the United States--and even Canada!--no longer call those areas home.

Primates came to the New World (meaning North and South America) from, we think, Africa. As improbable as it sounds, scientists think early primates crossed the Atlantic Ocean and landed on the shores of both continents tens of millions of years ago, probably on some kind of vegetation raft. That's how most plants and animals get to isolated islands--which the Americas were, at the time. Fossils have been recovered of early primates in Texas a whopping 43 million years ago, the oldest primate fossil ever found in North America. But the continents looked very different then, compared to now; most importantly, North and South America were completely different islands. The Isthmus of Panama, which we now refer to as Central America, didn't appear until much later, by which time the climate on both Americas was very different from when the primates first landed there.
When they did first land here, the climate was much warmer than it is now, and the primates evolved and diversified to take advantage of that.

When they did first land here, the climate was much warmer than it is now, and the primates evolved and diversified to take advantage of that. During the Eocene, lasting from 56 to 33.9 million years ago, the planet warmed to an incredible degree. We've found evidence of palm trees in Alaska from that era. The entire planet, besides the very tips of the Arctic and Antarctic, was probably covered in rainforests, much of it tropical. For a monkey coming over from Africa, North America would have looked just great.

 Early primates thrived on both continents, with no contact between them. In North America, there were two main families of these primates: the omomyids and the adapids. There's some variation in size, behavior and diet, but in general, these were small, tarsier-like creatures with grasping hands and claws, large eyes, and bodies adapted to eat fruits, leaves, and insects. There's a lot of debate about the modern-day relatives to these primates; some think they're strepsirrhines, the family including lemurs, lorises, and bushbabies, but others think they're basal relatives of the tarsiers (which are primates, but not closely related to other monkeys).

Then the planet began to cool, and cool quickly. Forests died out. The poles covered with ice. Many of the flora and fauna that had populated the planet during the Eocene just couldn't survive in the new, colder world. This event is called the Grande Coupure--occurring about 33.9 million years ago, it was a mass extinction of animals, in which most of the world's creatures (aside from a precious few, like the Virginia opossum and the dormouse) were unable to adapt to the new climate and perished. It hit the primate family especially hard. In the New World, the primate population shrunk significantly. Any primate living in, say, the Great Lakes region simply went extinct, unable to cope with the new Wisconsin winters. " - Source with more. 

In other words, North America has no native monkeys for the same reason Paris and London are not crawling with monkeys. On some level, we have to sympathize; being relatively hairless primates, we wouldn't like living in Wisconsin winters, either.

Friday, June 28, 2013

A Note and A Thank You!

First off, an apology. My schedule was thrown out of whack with Bike MS. I tried to get stuff done, but failed overall. Consider it the blog's week off.

Plus, this blog has over 1000 posts! Thank you all for reading! Perhaps it needed a little break. Don't worry; things will be back to normal tomorrow. I found a lot of entry fodder this week, so next week's will be just fine. One a day, 6 days a week!

So I'm going to encourage you all to do something during the weekend: Next time you're hanging out with your friends, family, whatever, instead of talking about the news, weather, sports, or whatever, ask the folks at the table what the most interesting animal is. The answers will probably surprise you and generate a lot of interesting conversation.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Little Shop of Horrors: Burro Tail.

Remember how I said that there would be more weird plants now that summer has hit? I was right. Lo and behold, there was something very weird at a farmer's market in Frankfort. The lady at the stand called it "burro tail."

Burro tail is an odd one indeed. It's also called "donkey tail," but so are a few other things, so we'll still with "burro tail" or Sedum morganianum, thanks.  Like the chimeric "coral cactus" from earlier, it's a succulent, meaning that the plant's very wet on the inside as a means of surviving in dry climates. In this case, that means Ecuador and Mexico.

Burro tails are one type of trailing sedum - that is, they can get long. One of the most popular ways to present this houseplant is via hanging basket. As the plant grows, the "tails" drip down over the sides of the basket. These tails can get up to 24 inches - that's 2 feet- long. That's pretty impressive, especially after looking at its fleshy leaves.

This plant is weird in part because nobody is quite sure where it came from. Specifically, we aren't sure whether burro's tail is a domesticated subspecies of S. morganianum or a true cultivar. This is not weird compared to, say, Saliva divinorum, and there is no loss in fertility as would be expected of a hybrid, so at least it's stable regardless. It's a breedable plant, all right, but also sort of alien.

Y'know that advice I keep giving about how desert animals are easy to keep? That applies to plants, too. You can forget to water burro tails once or twice and they will do just fine. They also love sunlight, so keep succulents like this in a sunny spot with high temperatures. They're very hard to kill and look out of this world.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Creature Feature: Amargasaurus

Despite the strange subconscious connection between dragons and snakes, there is a very strong idea that dragons were either the last few remaining dinosaurs or based off of dinosaur bones. It's a valid theory to explain where the idea of dragons (and gryphons!) came from, even if snakes share a loooot of symbolism in the collective subconscious as guardian serpents. After all, who's to say that some dinosaurs didn't survive into medieval times? Then, well, humans were dicks and killed off the dinosaurs that weren't from the Congo. We're probably the meanest species ever, and wasps that lay eggs in caterpillars are a thing.

Anyways, dragons.

This is an Amargasaurus. It was found in La Amarga Arroyo, Argentina. The name simply refers to the area in which it was found. Like all sauropods, it was an herbivore, and lived in the Cretaceous Period with 95% of the other popular dinosaurs. It was relatively small, being only 30 feet (~10 meters) long. Yes, "as long as a school bus" is indeed small by sauropod standards.

Amargasaurus is probably the dinosaur that looks the most like a dragon. The long neck. The spikes. Since this is a sauropod we're talking about, it might even have given rise to lake/river monsters with only the head and tail visible beneath the water. It would indeed have looked like a bizarre giant snake. If there is any dinosaur that screams "dragon," it's Amargasaurus.

Disclaimer: May not be correct.

As of this entry, Amargasaurus is the only sauropod to ever flaunt spikes. Nobody knows what these neck and back spikes were for. A while back, it was popular to depict Amargasaurus with a sail spanning those spikes; this has since gone out of fashion, making it the most boss-looking longneck ever instead. Other theories include a mating display and, well, defense. Spikes are quite the fitting way to protect the most vulnerable part on a sauropod's body, no?

Despite looking a loooot like a Western dragon without the wings, Amargasaurus hasn't had very much screentime. Sure, it pops up in Fossil Fighters and Jurassic Park games, but that's about it. It suffers from the same syndrome all duckbills that aren't Parasaurolophus and all pterosaurs that aren't Pteranodon do: it doesn't fit the "modern analogy" mold and doesn't look a damn thing like the Apatosaurus or Brachiosaurus, AKA the "default" sauropods. It's also not as big as either of those two sauropods, making it possibly the most underrated sauropod ever. Try calling it a dragon; people will totally buy it.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" Hibiscus.

 Every so often, a new 'superfood' suddenly floods the market. Usually, it's something only a small amount of people have heard of, comes with a fancy Greco-Roman science word attached, and has a long history of being medicinal from the ancient past. Recently, the buzzword has become "antioxidants," and acai and pomegranates are leading the way in that regard. Here's what is slowly becoming the next "superfood:"

This flower should look familiar to a lot of you. It's a type of flower called hibiscus, and is probably the most marketable superfood yet. Yeah, that flower on tacky Hawaiian shirts? That's hibiscus. Hibiscus iced tea is becoming more and more popular, popping up in Starbucks, Argo Tea, and Panera. It has "from Asia" and "might have antioxidants" going for it already.

But is it actually edible?

First off, the nectar and tea are usually pretty safe. Hibiscus has been used as a tea for centuries in Asia and Nile Valley Africa. The tea has been believed to cure everything from high blood pressure to cancer.  I've had hibiscus tea and nectar plenty of times with no adverse reactions. The only confirmed medicinal effect of hibiscus is as a diuretic, but people are looking into antioxidants.

The diuretic effect is particularly noticeable if animals eat it. I've heard varying reports, but the general consensus is that hibiscus plants are toxic to cats, dogs, and horses. It probably isn't the end of the world after one little bite, but just to be safe, hibiscus is on the list of "plants that are not pet-friendly." If your pet starts acting odd after eating hibiscus, call poison control.

As for actually eating hibiscus, there are dos and don'ts. Some hibiscus varieties are not edible, period. Others, like Hibiscus sabdariffa, can be eaten in salads and stir-fries like red spinach (which is its own thing). Most restaurant chains and such will not be using the poisonous varieties of hibiscus, so please enjoy the summer's latest iced tea craze. Just don't use it to cure cancer or give it to your dog, OK?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Little Shop of Horrors: Coral Cactus.

Now that summer has hit, various home improvement stores and sections are stocking all sorts of weird plants. Be on the lookout for celosia ("brain flowers"), geops, and a number of other weird plants that one can probably find at one's local nursery. It was almost inevitable that at least one odd, potted plant would wind up on this blog, but I had no idea it would be this odd:

This is a coral cactus. No, there's no scientific name for this oddball. It's 100% created by people. If I had not done glowing marmosets yesterday, I totally would have done this thing; it's a really impressive graft of two completely different plants. Oh, and neither of those plants are cacti, even if they're both still succulents. Both are also almost worth their own entries.

The coral-like crest comes from a plant called Euphorbia lactea, AKA mottled spurge or elkhorn.  Specifically, the coral part comes from a frilly mutation of elkhorn, which is propagated for this exact purpose. Otherwise, elkhorn is another houseplant with some medicinal potential in India. The milky latex on elkhorn is poisonous, as is the entirety of the plant. Keep coral cacti away from children and pets with this in mind.

The stem is from another species of Euphorbia, usually E. neriifolia. It's also called the "Indian spurge tree." Both of these plants have similar climate requirements, so it's no surprise that a graft of the two should be sustainable. It's still impossible to breed them, mind, but you can keep a coral cactus alive like most cacti. Weird? Yes. Difficult? Not really.

Where can you get this bizarre thing? Wal-Mart. These chimera plants are sold for relatively cheap at the world's most infamous big box store. We would not be surprised if the shop Audrey II came from suddenly started carrying these. If weird plants in one of the largest chains in the world is not a plot for botanical world domination, please tell me what is.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Bio-Art: Glowing Monkeys.

I've been looking into a book called Frankenstein's Cat. It details the advances made in mixing organic lifeforms with technology, covering everything from GloFish to Roachbots. In other words, it gels very nicely with this little column. It is so named because, hey, we've made a cat that glows green in the name of curing lethal diseases.

It's weird -maybe even cute - when cats and danios get turned green, but what if science did a GFP splice that really hit home?

Source: PopSci.

Well, Japan did. In May 2009, Erika Sasaki of the Central Institute for Experimental Aninals in Japan injected marmoset embryos with GFP. That's right: we've made a monkey glow green.Or, rather, we've made twin monkeys glow green, and it's 100% heritable. As with most of these experiments involving GFP, the scientists hope to track the genetics of Parkinson's, Huntington's, and many other hereditary diseases.

Marmosets, for the record, are probably the ideal lab monkey. (Rhesus monkeys are the other big monkey you need to know.) They reproduce at a young age, and are juuust distant enough from humans to avoid any really sticky ethical issues. Experiments have been done to make monkeys glow in the past, but this is the first time that the trait has been heritable. The last monkeys did not pass it on to their offspring, or else suffered genetic lottery fail.

Kei and Kou are the first F2 glowing marmosets. They were made by effectively cloning a male glowing marmoset's sperm into the egg of a normal female marmoset. Although not as well-expressed as one might think, the little monkeys do indeed glow in the dark beneath their fur. If nothing else, their underpaws glow green, showing the transgenics at work. Since then, they have gone on to sire many a glowing monkey, creating the first glowing primate founding stock.

Here's the kicker: even monkeys aren't close enough to humans to track some diseases. Soon, we will need to splice human embryos if we want to cure diseases that can only affect people in a certain way. Ethical concerns aside, it should be easy to find some crazy mom who would want a bright green baby, so long as "will not look like The Grinch" was part of the contract. This isn't art yet, but look for gene spliced kids in the future. It'll happen.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Creature Feature: Lumpsucker.

 Happy Father's Day! After yesterday's news, it's time for something positive about dads...right?

Unfortunately, in much of the animal world, dads are dicks. I'm not even going to sugar-coat that. They mate, knock up a female, then move on. The vast majority of the time, babies are given no paternal care - and before you say "that's only reptiles blah blah blah," one, both parents leave after the eggs hatch in reptiles, and two, mammals tend to mate and run just as fast.

That said, there are some great animal dads, like this fellow:

Along with being awesome dads, lumpsuckers probably win the award for "weirdest fish you never heard of." There are 27 species of "lumpsucker, but the titular fish is Cyclopterus lumpus- yes, "lumpus" is apparently a Latin word, now. C. lumpus can be found in the colder, rockier parts of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans. (Worth noting: the Pacific Spiny Lumpsucker is extremely popular, and merits its own entry.) Their closest relatives are lionfish, which almost everybody who has ever been to an aquarium or exotic pet store has probably seen at least once, and perch, which are a pretty common fish. They look nothing like the scaleless ping-pong balls called lumpsuckers.

Yet, surprisingly, these little weirdos make relatively good dads by fish standards. In lumpsuckers, the male almost does more work than the female. The male makes the nest, for example. After eggs are laid, he guards the brood. Considering lumpsuckers make cheap caviar, it's a good thing someone's guarding those eggs. It helps that his pelvic fin has evolved into a suction cup, leading to the rather amusing image here:

From Wikipedia. Too cute!

Now, here's why they're called "lumpsuckers." They look like little lumps and have pelvic disc suckers. Yes, lumpsuckers, like some weird Pokemon GameFreak never came up with, have suction cups on the bottom. This thing looks terrifying when seen from beneath, but also makes for some of the cutest fish images on the entire internet. It's similar to the suction that remoras have, but is used for the less badass purpose of clinging to anything that happens to be around while it munches slow-swimming, bottom-dwelling stuff. This thing has evolved the laziness adaptation nerds never could.

Also, guess what? They actually eat that! Apparently lumpfish is not only popular as caviar, but as meat as well. Iceland loves it so much that whole fisheries have been founded on lumpfish.Then again, considering their habit of preserving fish in horrible, maddening ways...we'll let lumpfish slide. We cool, Iceland?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Newsflash: Fatty Diets Lead to Obese Children.

In literature, there is a trope called "Lamarck Was Right." This trope originates from the idea that Jean-Baptistse Lamarck, a predecessor of Darwin, believed that traits animals acquired during their lifetimes could be passed on to their offspring. The classic example is Lamarck's giraffe: giraffes grew longer and longer necks after stretching to get their food. No Mendelian inheritance involved, nope.

Well, it turns out Lamarck might have been onto something. A new lab study done on mice found that dads who were fed a high-fat diet were more likely to have obese children. While this might seem like a no-brainer, it means that some changes in an animal's lifetime can be passed on to their offspring. More below:

"Male mice who were fed a high-fat diet and became obese were more likely to father offspring who also had higher levels of body fat, a new Ohio University study finds.

The effect was observed primarily in male offspring, despite their consumption of a low-fat diet, scientists reported today at the annual meeting of The Endocrine Society in San Francisco, Calif.
"We've identified a number of traits that may affect metabolism and behavior of offspring dependent on the pre-conception diet of the father," said Felicia Nowak, an associate professor of biomedical sciences in Ohio University's Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine who is lead author on the study.

The researchers point to epigenetics -- the way genes are expressed, as opposed to mutations in DNA that are "hard-wired into the genes" -- as a possible cause of these inherited traits. Because gene expression is impacted by environmental and lifestyle factors, this finding suggests that individuals with obese fathers may be able to proactively address health concerns.

The effect of parents' diet and weight on children has been well-established in humans, Nowak explained, but scientists have been studying the issue in mice to learn more about the biological mechanisms behind the phenomenon. The Ohio University team studied the impact of the high-fat diet only with male mice parents, as most of the previous research had focused on female mice parents.

To conduct the study, the researchers fed male mice a high-fat diet for 13 weeks before mating. (The female mates were fed a matched low-fat diet.) Male and female offspring were fed a standard low-fat diet and studied at 20 days, six weeks and at six and 12 months.

Compared with offspring from control mice (who were fed the low-fat diet), the male offspring of paternal mice with diet-induced obesity had higher body weight at six weeks of age. They also were more obese at the six- and 12-month study markers. In addition, the male offspring of obese fathers had different patterns of body fat composition -- a marker for health and propensity for disease -- than the control mice." Source with more.

On the plus side, these same obese mice babies were actually more active than the average mouse. Quite a twist! So, a question for the readers: was Lamarck really right?

Friday, June 14, 2013

Creature Feature: Fishing Cat.

Most pet-owners in the world are either cat people or dog people. Me, I'm a cat person, and there are some really fascinating cats out there. Whether they are domesticated or not is of only mild relevance. Here's a cat I'd love to take home if red tape were not involved:

This is a fishing cat. It is one of roughly four species in Prionailurus, a group of small, spotted wildcats found in Asia. The fisher cat has spotty distribution in India and Southeast Asia and is endangered due to human activity. It is primarily found in wetlands and near running water, fishing for, well, fish. Rumor has it, however, that their very varied diet may also include certain carnivores- including dogs. Reminder: this is a small cat.

Doubtless, some cat lovers have noticed that cats like fish, but hate getting their paws wet. The fisher cat has its fish and eats it, too. They first lure fish with a tap of the paw upon the water, then scoop up the unwary little fishy before it knows what hit it. The fishing cat can also swim, sporting waterproof fur and a tail like a rudder. They can also dive for fish if need be. In summary, the fishing cat really loves water, unlike most cats who flinch at getting wet.

Now, here's one major difference between cat and dog people: dog people generally see inbreeding to create insane dog breeds as OK, but frown upon outcrossing with wolves and coyotes; cat people, on the other hand, will outcross with other small cats like crazy in order to create new breeds. The difference is in part genetic; dogs have 39 pairs of chromosomes, leading to an extremely versatile genome and a surprising amount of relatively stable dog breeds. Cats have a smaller genome, with only 19 pairs of chromosomes. (For the curious, humans have 23 pairs, meaning that chromosome count means jack in regards to intelligence.) What this means is that dog breeders have had a very extensive genetic palette to create living artwork over millennia, while the cat people simply do not have that range of genetic color. Cat people have gotten around that by breeding domestic cats to wild felines.

From here.

I recall someone once trying to equate comparing dogs with wolves to comparing cats with lions. This is BS for so many reasons, and the argument really deserves a sucker-punch to the gut, but the rule of thumb is that domestic cats can mate with a lot of small cats - including the fisher cat. The resulting hybrid cat is called a "jambi," and it's apparently brand new. Will these fishing cat hybrids be as hydrophilic as their wild counterparts? Who knows.

"They Actually Eat That:" Hummus.

Just to prove that I don't play favorites, the U.S. has some pretty gross foods, too. The crowning achievement, as of late, has to be Dunkin's newest breakfast sandwich. It consists of bacon and egg...on a glazed doughnut. Original, yet sickening.

Luckily, some of us have realized that foreign diets are pretty much unanimously better than the American "diet." Mediterranean food, from Greek yogurt to gyros, has always been pretty popular and is only getting more so as time goes on. One of the newer things from that area to hit the scene is hummus, which is unfortunately also greasy. Not as nasty as some of the things on this blog,  but certainly messy and interesting.

Biggest hummus dish EVER.

So, what is hummus, anyways? In short, it's a chickpea dip. Nobody knows when it started, but it has been around in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Egypt since time immemorial. The first recorded instance of hummus as we know it comes from 13th century Cairo. The dip consists of lemon, mashed chickpeas, olive oil, salt, garlic, and something called tahini (sesame paste). It is also usually served with pita chips, so chips n' dip go back farther than you might think!

Hummus is one of the healthiest foods ever. It makes something called a "complete protein" with bread, making it ideal for vegetarian and vegan diets. This is even better if one happens to be allergic to tree nuts. There are several commercial brands available in the States.  Strange as it may be, it's actually good that it's getting popularized.

You can also get creative with hummus!

Now, some people like the taste of hummus. That's fine. It does not change that it's still a greasy mess to clean, not to mention adds the scent of garlic to one's breath for the rest of the day. (This one's from personal experience.) So long as you don't have any important events to go to, enjoy your hummus. It's one of the few dips that's actually good for you.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Gone Viral: Bluetongue Disease.

My apologies to the shepherds in Africa. The disease covered in the entry is really no laughing matter, yet I have the hardest time taking it seriously. I mean no offense to anybody, but when the name of a potentially-lethal disease is reminiscent of the effect of blue raspberry candy in one's mouth, it's a little hard to not giggle.


This sheep has been affected with bluetongue disease, a Reovirus that pretty much goes wherever sheep happen to be. It started in Africa, then spread to Europe, the U.S., Australia, and other places with sheep. It's also called catarrhal fever. The disease affects mostly sheep, but can also hit cattle, deer, goats, and almost any other ruminant. It does not affect humans at all. Still, upon finding it, it was too weird not to write something about.

Bluetongue disease is carried by a small insect called a midge (Culicoides). This means that BTV season  coincides with midge season, which is usually summer/fall. This also means that it's not really transmitted from sheep to sheep; kill the bugs and it won't happen. Since it is very, very hard to eradicate every midge in the area, it's advised that sheep be kept indoors around dusk, when the bugs are most active.

The main symptoms of this thing are fever, swelling of the face, excessive salivation, and, sometimes, a blue tongue (called "cyanosis" if you want to be really technical). Some cases also involve foot lesions, giving it the nickname "dancing disease." Mind, the virus does not turn sheep tongues bright blue. The effect of cyanosis is more like a bruise-blue than any artificial blue one can think of, making the whole thing less attractive. It also happens that not every case involves a blue tongue anyways. 

 As one can probably imagine, there are cures for this disease. Many sheep die within a week of getting it; others can be treated with vaccines from local strains. Recovery takes months. Regardless, this is one blue tongue that is not so fun to have. Please stick to blue raspberry things, and do not give them to sheep.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Bio-Art: Roachbots.

I'm going to let the video do the introducing this time:

Now, WTF was that? A company called "Backyard Brains" has released a series of kits related to neurology and cockroaches. Some of them just feature moving cockroach legs with a few wires. The more impressive kits allow one to brainwash cockroaches. No, you do not need a degree of any kind to do this; that's the whole point.

As the site itself puts it, "Backyard Brains enables anyone to be a neuroscientist."  The site has a series of experiments, all of which can be dome with their kits and a few things found in most households. Another famous invention of theirs is the "SpikerBox," which amplifies the sound of neurons to an audible level. It's all pretty cool, and a lot of it will be fuel for future entries.

The "RoboRoach" involves stimulating the antenna nerves of cockroaches so that one can have a brainwashed roach puppet for a few minutes. The whole thing is done via a "backpack" that fills the antennae with fine wire, which in turn tells the cockroach where to move via nerve pulses. You can only tell it to do things like move left and right, but that's still pretty nifty. Same basic idea as RatBot, only less precise and using an icky roach instead of a cute rat.

It's not that this idea has not been touched on before. There was an old cartoon involving robot roaches. One also appeared on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but do note that these RoboRoaches will not become the roachinator above.  Roachbot is not a real cockroach; it still works just as good as RoboRoach for freaking out your friends. Have fun messing with household pests!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Shark Week: Goblin Shark.

OK, let's be honest: I haven't shown off any particularly strange sharks. Sure, it's kinda neat that the nurse shark can sleep and sucks stuff up from the sea bottom, but that's not too odd unless you're a real fish nerd. Hongeohoe? That's a skate, not a shark. Allow me to compensate: 

If you thought regular sharks looked nasty, the goblin shark (Mitsukurina owstoni) could win almost any "ugly shark" contest if such a thing existed. It has been around and gone nearly unchanged since Cretaceous, i.e. 125 million years ago. Go figure, it's an abyss-dweller. Unlike the orange roughy, however, these sharks are rarely caught. We presume Dagon would not want us to catch this particular Lovecraftian nightmare regardless.

The goblin shark gets its name because of its funny "nose," which greatly resembles the crowlike noses of Japanese goblins ("tengu"). Much like the bill of a platypus and the hammerhead's titular head, this nose has "ampullae of Lorenzini," which allow the shark to sense electromagnetic waves from the bodies of animals hiding near the bottom. Aesthetically, it just contributes to our fears that something very nasty must be lurking at the bottom of the sea.

Aside from the snout, the goblin shark has one other really bizarre feature: its jaws. Like something out of Alien, the goblin shark can extend its jaws almost to the end of its snout. Words cannot justify how strange this looks. Here's a video instead:

Luckily, this freak is probably one of the laziest sharks on the planet. It's believed to be sluggish, snagging crustaceans, fish, and other deep sea crunchies with its massive alien jaws instead of swimming after them with its stubby fins. It avoids human contact, most of the time, in part because it lives in the dark abyss. You may have noticed that there's a lot of "data deficient" spots on this entry; this is why.

Did I mention that these sharks can get as long as a car? No? Have fun sleeping.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Shark Week/Newsflash: A Real-Life Jaws?!

Sometimes, things just click into place. This is one of those times; the perfect, Jaws-related tidbit of news came to light during Shark Week. This was too good not to use:

"BOSTON (Reuters) - A 13-foot great white shark off the coast of Cape Cod prompted Massachusetts officials on Friday to warn beachgoers to be aware of their surroundings and to use common sense when swimming.

State biologists located the shark, which had been tagged with an acoustic transmitter, near Cape Cod island of Monomoy on May 28. White shark sightings have been on the rise off the Massachusetts coast, the setting for the 1970s shark movie, "Jaws".

The Department of Marine Fisheries advised people to avoid swimming at dawn and dusk, to stay close to the shore and to avoid areas where seals congregate.

Massachusetts has been compiling data on great white sharks since 1987. Experts have said the sharks are attracted to that coast by a growing population of gray seals.

There have been eight recorded shark attacks in Massachusetts, two of which were fatal, according to Shark Attack File, which compiles data on shark attacks worldwide." - Source and more. 

 For the record, great whites and other sharks usually do not see humans as dinner. If you happen to be stupid and punch the shark in the face or something, that gives the shark an excuse to eat you. Likewise, swimming with cuts is never a good idea. The ocean's full of sharks; not all of them are lethal.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Shark Week: Pet Sharks?

Some people like menageries. They love having exotic animals that nobody else on the street has, and they happen to show off a lot of them. 

So what if one of those animals happens to be a shark?

It's hard to find a shark that will not get at least ten feet long.  You're looking at a whole room's worth of an aquarium. Oh, and you should have handled saltwater tanks before; the best sharks are in the oceans, and for regular fish, saltwater tanks are hard enough to maintain. How about feeding a shark? They aren't going to take fish flakes. In other words, for pretty much any shark, you're looking at a millionaire's investment.

So, let's say you do have the insane funds to provide for a shark. What types of sharks are good for relative beginners, seeing as some undoubtedly make better pets than others?

Well, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that there's no "ball python" to the nurse shark's "Burmese." In English: there is no pet shark that the average person can keep on a whim. There are freshwater fish called "sharks," but those are not true sharks. The good news is that there are some sharks that make better pets than others. Don't start with a great white, now.

This handy little site has some details on the best types of "starter" sharks. I'm going to save you all some research and post a little bit more on its recommendations...with pics.

Source. This image is amazing.

Wobbegongs: I want to say that this blog has already done an entry on wobbegong sharks. To my great surprise, these oddball sharks from the waters of the Pacific and Indonesia are some of the best pet sharks for the average, research-loving schmuck. Some wobbegong sharks get only 4.1 feet long, and they have slow metabolisms, needing only to be fed twice a week. Not a bad deal if you want to say you own a shark, but still requires some aquarium knowledge. The tasseled wobbegong (Eucrossorhinus dasypogon) above is one of the better wobbegongs, if a shark suits your fancy. Alas, it looks more like a bunch of seaweed than an actual shark.

Bamboo sharks: Again, these are bottom-dwelling sharks from the Indo-Pacific like wobbegongs, except they look a lot more like miniature sharks. They can "walk" on the bottom of the sea, or your tank, with their surprisingly dextrous fins. The largest species is roughly 4 feet in length. FYI, the shark the wobbegong is eating is a bamboo shark, but here's a better pic of the thing while it's alive.


  Epaulette sharks: THESE are so worth their own entry in the future! I'm just looking at a video and being totally charmed by it. The ocelli (big black "eye" spots) above the pectoral fins make these sharks very pleasing to the eye. These are, again, Indo-Pacific bottom-feeders. They can be fed raw shrimp, which is fairly easy to acquire and handle. They are not as small as wobbegongs and Bamboo sharks, however, so please make sure you can handle these slender sharks before taking one home!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" Hongeohoe.

You thought this week would be out of shark-related stuff because I did hakarl last week, didn't you? The good news is you were half-right; I had originally intended to do shark liver oil, then found something grosser, yet still slightly shark-related. The bad news? It is grosser than liver oil, and almost as nasty as hakarl. Oh, and you'll have to learn something, too.

The pink stuff may look like regular fish, but looks are deceiving. Hongeohoe is a Korean dish consisting of fermented Korean skate, which -

Wait. What's a "skate" in this context?

Skates, like stingrays, are related to sharks. They usually dwell in deep waters and can actually taste quite good if prepared correctly. Being cartilaginous fish (i.e. not having real bones), sharks, rays, and skates are all related. (Deepsea chimeras also fall here, but are so distantly related that they are usually given their own family.) Basically, if you imagine a stingray with a sturdier tail and less wing, you've got a skate.

Like hakarl, hongeohoe involves a fermented fish. In this case, the raw skate is wrapped in rice stalks and dung, then allowed to rot for several weeks. It supposedly came about by accident when Korean sailors let the fish rot and found it was still edible, possessing a "stinging" flavor. Yeah, that already sounds pleasant, doesn't it?

Hongeohoe tastes very much like hakarl - or, rather, like ammonia. Sharks urinate through their skin, apparently, so when a shark dies, the urine becomrs ammonia.Ammonia is found in most households as a cleaning fluid and is a frequent by-product of many biological reactions. If you want to try some, please don't try too much. As with hakarl, hongeohoe is very much an acquired taste and is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. 

So, how bad is it? Andrew Zimmern was only able to stomach one piece. Some lucky people have been able to eat three. A wash with rice wine is recommended afterwards. Yes, hongeohoe is indeed the Asian answer to hakarl, even if a shark is not technically involved. Some things remain constant within humanity; apparently fermenting shark/skate is one of those things. (And yes, I know other cultures see cheese as rotten milk.)

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Shark Week: Nurse Shark.

This is a weird shark week. That means we'll be going off the beaten path, looking at sharks you never knew existed. Not every shark can be Jaws, so how about we switch to something more docile, yes?

This is a nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum). Nurse sharks are fond of shallow, warm waters in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. They aren't dangerous to humans unless you disturb them, in which case prepare for a nasty bite from thousands of needle teeth. Small stuff on the bottom, be it fish, crustacean, or mollusc, is not so lucky. Their barbs function much like the whiskers on a catfish, meaning that stuff beneath the sand is not safe.

Nobody really knows why these sharks are called nurse sharks. They don't take particularly good care of their (!live) babies. The name could come from the shark's docile nature or how it "nurses" the sea bottom with its mouth, but the most likely explanation is the Old English "hurse," meaning this particular type of bottom-dwelling sea shark. In other words, name change via spell check. We've all been there.

Now, here's a puzzle: How do bottom-dwelling sharks, well, stay on the bottom? Most sharks need to swim constantly to circulate water across their gills.Nurse sharks circulate water by pumping it through their mouths. These sharks do rest a lot, sometimes on top of each other. They can be seen sleeping in masses of up to 30-40 members in one spot, meaning that these are relatively social sharks. How far removed is that from a terrifying great white?

In many ways, nurse sharks are the "Burmese pythons" of the saltwater aquarium trade. People see a cute juvenile, don't think it'll get very big, then wind up with a 10+ foot shark that no tank will hold. Good luck finding a home for a shark; most aquariums will not take them. Please do your homework before taking home any animal, especially a shark!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Shark Week/Bio-Art: Neat Shark Stuff.

Now that summer's here, or should be, some of you will probably be going on vacation.  That means you'll see touristy crap, and one of the most touristy things at most beach spots are these shark tooth necklaces:

And y'know what? Aside from sharks being in the water and therefore on beaches, shark tooth necklaces have a reason for being,

Sharks are majorly important in many island cultures. Shark teeth are used for arrowheads, cutting tools, and decor. Sharks are so significant that these island cultures have a number of shark deities, some of whom have stories that would be fun to play with if a certain movie shark needs a reboot. When fishing for sharks, some Polynesian tribes use human flesh because darnit, sharks love mana, and human bodies are full of it. In other words, Jaws was onto something.

The good news is that sharks shed their pointy teeth all the time. By buying a shark tooth, you aren't hurting a darn thing unless the people making them are exceptionally cruel to the sharks. The teeth grow back throughout the shark's lifetime. A shark tooth is pretty much the most badass accessory you can get without actually harming an animal.

Award for "The Biggest Shark Tooth" naturally goes to Megalodon, one of the biggest sharks to ever live. Its name means "big teeth." Cheap Megalodon teeth can be as low as 15 dollars -  perfect for starting a fossil collection. More hardcore collectors may pay over 2000 USD for a well-preserved tooth in the front of the mouth. Think carefully before buying the tooth. It could take a bite out of your wallet if you don't know your stuff.

Whole rows of fossilized teeth have also been used for bling. Fossilized shark teeth were believed to have come from dragons, and were called "tongue stones." The teeth were believed to be petrified snake/dragon tongues, which sounds a little stupid just to talk about; soft tissue does not fossilize well. Chalk up another "dragons are fish" point for Asia.

Now. esotericism aside? Let's look at some cool sharks.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Creature Feature: Basking Shark.

So, wait a tic. Is hakarl made of basking shark or Greenland shark? Actually, this is where the video got something wrong: basking sharks aren't poisonous. They can still be used for hakarl, but the curing does little more than make the meat extra-pungent. What is a basking shark, anyways, because the image of a shark basking sounds like something off of a cheap beach souvenir?


This is what a basking shark looks like. It is native to all the seven seas, presumably following the  plankton by smell. Being large, slow-moving, and calm, it has been a fishery staple for quite some time. It is the second largest fish in the world after the whale shark.

These sharks are big. You thought 23 feet was big? Nah, the basking shark can get up to 40 feet long. To reuse a bad joke, that's a lotta fish; it makes sense that some Vikings would want to preserve that. Numbers like that have not been seen for a while, but remember that the basking shark is kind of like a whale shark. Yes, it is similar to something with whale in is name for so many reasons.

Source: BBC, but sharks aren't mammals, silly network.

The basking shark, like the whale shark, is a filter-feeding shark. It eats whatever small things it swims through. That means it is only a threat to the tiny little creatures (zooplankton) that get caught in the basking shark's super-large mouth. Even though it may look a lot like a great white, it's not going to bite you. I would not, however, suggest going up to random large sharks and testing this.

Alas, this is another one of those creatures that is at risk of going extinct. Shark fin soup can come from these sharks, too. Shark liver oil was once popular, and Japan uses parts of this shark as an aphrodisiac. Basking sharks were once so common that they were thought pests. Now some areas ban catching them while others seem to have lost them entirely. If you see one of those sea monsters, look on at it in awe; unless you live at sea, they're an uncommon sight.

Maybe it's about time I did my own version of Shark Week...hmm...

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Newsflash: Animal Planet and Mermaids.

A while back, I saw a small blurb about Animal Planet's change of logo. The writer argued that the tagline "Surprisingly Human" would affect the content on Animal Planet negatively. Specifically, there were arguments about misrepresenting nature, likely by overanthropomorphizing. I wish I could find that article again; it would seem that this argument has reached its peak.

Recently, Animal Planet did a pseudo-documentary on mermaids. A friend of mine insists that I see it, which I will. I loved the thing they did on dragons aside from a few nitpicks. The mermaid thing will probably be fun as well.

Some of us are not amused. Yahoo! News reports:

Animal Planet has raised quite a furor over its airing of the "speculative" documentary "Mermaids: The New Evidence." Capping its annual Monster Week, a network once known for safari shows and puppy bowls is turning over increasing amounts of its broadcast time to cryptozoology shows like "Lost Tapes," "Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real," and "Finding Bigfoot". 

In fact, "Finding Bigfoot" was at the center of another, similar, controversy reported last year by Entertainment Weekly as TV critics turned skeptics, forced Animal Planet president Marjorie Kaplan to offer a vague defense of the show as "an exploration of the secret corners of the planet," since it lacks anything approaching hard evidence.

Should They Have Aired It?

Animal Planet has 3.6 million reasons (as in viewers!) why they should've.
There's really nothing wrong with using actors to re-enact scenes for a documentary. But where is the line? "Unsolved Mysteries" gives a framework for its actors to pretend they were criminals, but actors on "Mermaids" pretend they're scientists with nothing but a tiny caveat in the credits to suggest it's anything but 100% fact. 

Animal Planet's first "Mermaids" installment, "Mermaids: The Body Found," garnered 3.4 million views during its U.S. telecast premiere on Sunday, May 27, 2012. After the airing, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had to release an official statement putting it, in unequivocal terms, "No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found." Marine biologist David Shiffman wrote an article for Slate explaining why we should stop worrying about mythical sea life and focus on the damage being done to the sea life we know exists. He talks about fisheries where up to 90 percent of a catch is made up of unintended victims. Not the commercial fish, but "endangered sea turtles and sea birds as well as marine mammals."- Source with more.

I have no objection to things like "Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real" or this new mermaid documentary. Pseudo-documentaries like this are fun, creative uses of art and science. The documentary itself causes no harm, with the mild exception of some people believing it to be real at first glance. Hint-hint: I know a friend.

So, here's the real problem: Animal Planet used to be about facts. It used to have educational programming. The mermaid documentary is akin to Avatar in that it looks at a fictional creature in a realistic ecology. It's fine if you make something like this and other things on cryptids, but at this point, you aren't talking about real animals anymore. Make that its own pseudo-science channel, perhaps? I'd watch it; I'd also watch Animal Planet. The old Animal Planet.