Sunday, July 28, 2013

Creature Feature: Sebastopol Goose.

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

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

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

From Breed Savers.

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

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

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Newsflash: Guard Geese?!

For centuries, dogs have been used to guard houses. The instinct of a dog to protect its pack has been honed to perfection. Indeed, the bark of a large dog still makes me jump a little. It's hard to think that anything would change something so normalized.

There seems to be a revolution in thought, however. Recently, in China, the typical guard dog has been geese. Chinese police stations now use geese instead of dogs to guard their stations at night. Supposedly, it works well enough that National Geographic decided to look into it further. They likely got stared down by some irate waterfowl in the process.

What're you lookin' at, punk?  (Source.)

Could geese actually be better guard dogs than, well, guard dogs? According to National Geographic, the short answer is yes:

"Would geese make good guards?
They have amazing hearing. And almost all birds have amazing eyesight. Not only do they see better at a distance than humans do, they can also see things up close [better than we do].
Our eyes have three different color sensors that combine to build the picture in our brain. Birds add a fourth—ultraviolet. They have a much wider range of wavelengths they can view. Things are going to look sharper. And they can pick out smaller things [as well as movement].

And I guess they're not shy when an intruder is sighted?
In terms of alerting people to activity, yeah, they're very vigilant. They're territorial. And certain species can be quite loud, especially the barnyard varieties.

So they're just really good watchdogs.
That's the beauty of it: It's instinct for them. They're territorial. They could fly off anywhere they want to, but they hang around their home. That's just the way a lot of geese act. Certain of them can be rather vigilant in defending their territory." - Source with more.

They also brought up the idea of guard swans. For the record, although swans may look pretty, they  are aggressive bastards. I can see why someone would think that they might be a good idea.

The one thing geese don't do better than dogs is bite. Yes, a nip from a goose hurts, but still not as much as the bite of a Rottweiler or German Shepherd. Geese simply aren't meant to bite like that, which is probably why the idea won't catch on. Yes, they're louder, but they won't necessarily attack with the same fury as a dog.  To each his own, and if it works, don't fix it.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Creature Feature: Corn Snakes!

Remember when I said I had experience handling reptiles? Well...

These are all my hatchling corn snakes (Pantherophis guttatus; formerly Elaphe guttata). All of the above eggs hatched except for one, which unfortunately could not get out of its shell. They're rather neat little snakes, and one of the more common ones in the pet trade. It's totally worth doing an entry about them, if only because most people won't know what a corn snake is at a glance.

Corn snakes are mid-sized colubrids from the eastern United States, particularly the Carolinas and Florida. Like many snakes, they eat rodents. They are red, orange, and black, with speckled bellies that give corns Despite being called "red rat snakes," they are actually closely related to kingsnakes - one of the most beneficial snakes around, even according to people who hate snakes. They are also quite beautiful, even without a paintjob like my albino hatchies.

BEAUTIFUL normal from Ian's Vivarium!

Hey, speaking of paintjobs, you might notice that the wild-type ("normal") babies I hatched don't quite look like the awesome specimen above. That's because corn snakes exhibit something called "ontogenic color change." In laymen's terms, that means that they change color when they get older. It carries over into other morphs (color phases) too, so one really has to be patient to see what the adults will look like. Those drab normal babies will become bright red and orange in no time; that's part of the fun of corn snakes!

While ball python people have scores of morphs to mess with (the list is terrifying), corn snakes have a plethora of hybrids. "Jungle corns" are used to describe any mix between a corn snake and a kingsnake, and there are a lot of kingsnakes to choose from. One of the most common crosses, however, is with Emoryi's rat snake, leading to what are called "creamsicle" corns. It's almost as if, while insane breeding of ball pythons might narrow the gene pool to the point of being undesirable, the corn snake gene pool is expanding by incorporating other species. Dogs and cats, all over again. I can guarantee that we'll make a blue or green corn snake before a blue ball python, in any case.

That said, however, I still recommend a ball python for the first-time snake owner. There are several reasons for this, and they all come from personal experience. My first corn snake escaped from me and was never found again; likewise, colubrids are generally harder to catch than constrictors, being able to squeeze into a million tiny places. Especially if you have kids who might forget to lock the cage, balls are a better choice. There are millions of unwanted normal males out there for anyone wanting a first snake. Then, color your world with corns.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" Mastika.

I do not talk about it frequently on this blog, but every Monday, I go down to Greektown (Chicago) and volunteer at the Hellenic Museum. This exposes me to all sorts of Greek foods and drinks on a regular basis. A lot of people know about stuff like baklava, spanakopita, and ouzo, but there are some very traditional Greek things that no doubt some people avoid because they haven't heard of it. This entry is devoted to one of those things.

Greece- no, Europe- loves a drink/gum/flavoring called mastika. It is so named for being made from mastic ("tooth-gnashing") gum. In Greece, it is frequently served with appetizers (meze) and almond-based desserts. I'm fairly sure that this was what I had as "medicine" in Greece the one time I went there. It's also popular in Romania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria.

Mastika is made from mastic gum, which is made of the resin of Pistacia lenticus. P. lenticus is an evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean region. It has been produced since ancient times on the island of Chios in Greece, which is so famous that it has its own variety of mastika. For this reason, "mastic" is often synonymous with "gum." Should you find yourself near an actual mastic shrub, the sap drips off from the tree in "tears," and the result is sold as a yellowish, crystallized droplet. 

Source with more.

Mastika can be described as tasting like anise or licorice. I personally see it as having a taste all its own. If you've ever had Riesen candy, there's a little bit of that flavor, too. It's worrisome that it's 50% alcohol - people with low tolerance, stay away. The tiny medicinal dose given my Greek place likely won't hurt you, but be warned that it's strong stuff and indeed has a flavor.

For all you teetotalers out there, it is possible to find mastic gum by itself. The Hellenic Museum has mastic candies, both hard and gummy like Turkish delight. Mastic itself is fine chewing gum, albeit expensive. It's good for you, sporting antioxidant and antibacterial properties. Try some if you get the chance; traditional Greek food and liquor stores might carry mastika, or, better still, hard candies flavored with the stuff. Have your gum and chew it, too...for hours.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Creature Feature: (Drunk) Vervet Monkeys.

There are a lot of awkward things about humans. The feet and spine are far from ideal for a biped. We can eat meat even if we really shouldn't. For some reason, liquor has been a part of human civilization since forever. If the Aquatic Ape Theory is a thing, why not a Drunk Ape Theory?

OK, fine. Those aren't apes, they're vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus).Vervet monkeys are small monkeys native to the Eastern coast of Africa. Some populations also exist on Saint Kitts, Barbados, and Nevis as a result of the African slave trade. They eat mostly vegetation. Oh, and given the chance, they will also indulge in liquor. It's not uncommon amongst primates, really. Evolution is a thing!

These particular vervet monkeys are residents of Saint Kitts Island in the Caribbean. Since their introduction, the monkeys have taken to the drinks offered at Caribbean resorts. Scientists studied the monkeys for two years. They found shockingly close parallels with human behavior that, aside from signs of blatant drunkenness, would not be obvious to the casual observer. The ratios of, say, drinkers to teetotalers are exactly the same between the vervets and humans, for example. The drunken monkeys also seem to be the popular ones, but don't give yourself alcohol poisoning trying to prove this one in humans.

Hi, I'm Lori, and my monkey's an alcoholic. Disclaimer: this ranch probably does not give its monkeys booze.

But wait! These monkeys are pretty cool when they aren't drunk, too! They have hypertension and anxiety disorders exactly as found in humans. They are also among the few animals in nature who are actually spiteful, destroying the food sources of competitors instead of consuming it themselves. Primates: so much like us, in all the wrong ways. Your mileage may vary.

Vervet monkeys are also very vocal. They are among the few non-human animals to have something resembling words: specific alarm calls for specific predators. They have a different call for snakes than they do for eagles, a different call for eagles than baboons, and so on. I don't think anybody has tried to test the effect of liquor on these calls, but it would be funny to see.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Bio-Art: Mermaids: The Body Found.

A while back, there was a huge controversy about how Animal Planet had gone from being an educational channel to more of an entertainment channel. This sentiment reached its peak with Mermaids: The Body Found, a pseudo-documentary (2012) that worked around making mermaids as realistic as possible. They did such a good job that people were fooled into believing it was real. So just how do you make such a realistic pseudo-documentary, anyways?

Here's a hint: start with facts. The documentary opens with mention of conspiracy theories, and how even conspiracy theories need evidence. In particular, it mentions two events: the "bloop," a mysterious noise heard on sonar, and whale beachings brought about by sonar testing. These are both real.Pseudo-science, you're doing it right.

Throughout the film, the narrator details how mermaids could have evolved from a humanlike ancestor, taking to the sea instead of staying on land. Now, marine mammals are not my forte, but in spite of much of the documentary being fake, I'm going to give Animal Planet the benefit of the doubt when it talks about marine mammal evolution. The stuff about whales coming from wolflike (!UNGULATE) ancestors is definitely true. Point is, I didn't see any obvious flaws like I did in Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real. If mermaids did indeed wind up being real, this is some pretty solid reasoning of how they could have evolved.

The documentary also mentions the Aquatic Ape Theory. This is a thing, not something made by Animal Planet. Due to having little hair, a certain balance of body fat, and requirements like iodine for healthy brain function, the theory posits that part of mankind's evolutionary history happened in a marine environment. Unfortunately, even a mere glance at the linked site will tell one that a lot of this stuff has been discredited. It was still used well in the documentary, so I'll give it the paragraph it deserves.

Suffice it to say, the mermaids look amazing. As if the tail was not enough, the creators also factored in brain composition, communication (with dolphins!), sensory adaptations for life in the deep sea, and other features that one would usually not think of on the average mermaid. The transition stages are also pretty believable, with ancestors sporting tails like pinniped fins at one point. Neat.

Granted, there is one huge flaw almost unrelated to the content: the pacing of this thing is awful. It's one thing if you're trying the "American Godzilla" approach of not letting us see the monster without us seeing the movie. It's another when you advertise "Mermaids: The Body Found" and the first hour or so of the 1 hour and 21 minutes deals with bits and pieces and random, apelike creatures that are not the body promised. The word "mermaid" does not even come up until like 50 minutes in. In my personal opinion, that's a little bit too late for something advertising mermaids. This is in-character for science, which would indeed be in denial about such a subject. At least Dragons showed us the body right out of the gate; the mermaid "body" is a mess when we see it. Talk about beating around the bush.

That said, it's still a great documentary, and I'd advise anyone interested in pseudo-science or mermaids to give it a look. It's not quite as good as Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real (which still has flaws), but in the same vein and an enjoyable, if uncanny, watch. The mermaids themselves look believable.  The people making it did a darn good job.  Check it out, and do as the documentary advises: continue to treat mermaids as mythical creatures, even if they are out there.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Creature Feature: Rufous-backed Kingfisher.

Some readers are bound to ask: what's the deal with the URL of this blog? Originally, it was intended to push the boundaries of fantasy and reality, showing how "mythological" things could either be real or have a solid basis in reality. Since this blog has covered phoenix bases in the past, I feel pretty safe putting this little bird up:

This is a rufous-backed kingfisher (Cyex rufidorsa), so named for its reddish back. It's native to Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. It eats fish, insects, frogs, and reptiles. The bird is small enough to fit in one's hand.  Unlike many entries from steamy rainforests, this little bird is not even remotely endangered. The only threat it faces is a slight decline due to habitat destruction.

The rufous-backed kingfisher does not seem real. It's bright red and purple, like a little phoenix. Its head is disproportionately large compared to its body. The bill is particularly huge. It's adorable and psychedelic. This should be a Pokemon; make it a baby Moltres and it'll sell like hotcakes (pun totally intended).

The rufous-backed kingfisher's appetite is just as extraordinary as its coloration. Thesebirds will hunt a number of things from high perches overlooking water, then dive in after them; that's how kingfishers roll and should be no surprise. What's more surprising is that it's not afraid to eat things twice its size. How does it pack all that fish into its little stomach? Probably very carefully.

There is some confusion when classifying this kingfisher. Another species, Ceyx erithaca, was discovered first. Both are properly "Oriental Dwarf Kingfishers," depending on whom you ask. They also overlap in some areas, leaving one to wonder if there's a difference aside from color. Whatever you call it, it's quite remarkable for a little bird, no?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Bio-Art: Crazy Chameleon Tattoo Ink.

Oh, tattoos. I've been told that tattoos are "edgy as a padded watermelon." The fact is, tattoos are still art, and have a lot of social significance. Over the ages, a lot of natural dyes, including cobra venom, have beenused to add designs to the relatively bland human skin. It's embarrassing that this section hasn't covered it before; how more bio-art can you get than injections of color?

Well, it turns out art has evolved with science once again. Tattoos have become more techy than ever. Conspiracies about barcodes and injected computer chips aside, tattoos are probably the most techy from of illegal art around. While some people have 3-D tattoos thanks to silicon injections, this entry will cover something far less disturbing than silicon bumps painted with boobs: blacklight tattoos.

Found on a blog, from the official site.

This is a tattoo done in Crazy Chameleon tattoo ink. The Crazy Chameleon shop is located in Pittsfield, MA. The ink, however, can be found in many local tattoo shops or ordered. It is also the number one tattoo ink that one should look for when it comes to blacklight tattoos. It is important to note that any "glow-in-the-dark" ink is not safe. Blacklight is...safer.

All blacklight tattoo inks, as well as tattoo inks in general, are not screened by any health testing ever. Crazy Chameleon ink is the exception to the rule. It is the only blacklight tattoo ink to be approved by the FDA in tracking invasive species. With everything else, one risks carcinogens and a few other nasty side-effects. Always make sure those needles are clean, too.

Crazy Chameleon ink does not use GFP, unfortunately. Instead, a fluorescent particle is coated in something called polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA). PMMA is used in medicine, so it's certainly safe for human injections. Sure, it's not jellyfish DNA, but probably as close as we'll get until Batman Beyond splicing becomes a thing.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Creature Feature: Maned Wolf.

Aww, wolves! The internet either loves or hates wolves, now.  If you love wolves, you're in good company; people will gladly roleplay wolves and/or werewolves with you. Hate them, likely due to the sheer romanticism, and a million users with "wolf" in their names will be down your throat in a torrent of furry fury. Try to look at the wolf without any bias, and you'll still have plenty of friends, but it's like carrying a match around in a room of dynamite. Wolves are cool, and I respect them as much as I do any other animal.

Wait a minute. That is not a wolf. That is a mutant fox.

Actually, it's a maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus). They are only loosely related to the "regular" wolf and slightly closer to the common red fox. Maned wolves can be found over much of South America, where they are the largest wild canid. By the way, they're carnivores, eating small animals such as rabbits, mice, and fish, but roughly half of this canine's diet is vegetable matter. Figure that one out.

The maned wolf is almost a species isolate. Its closest relative, the Falkland Islands wolf, went extinct in the late 1800's. The bush dog, also from South America, is the next best thing. Both of these canids are exotic and interesting enough to merit their own entries. There are plenty of wonderfully weird canids out there, yet most will not think outside foxes, wolves (including the domestic dog), and occasionally coyotes. Canids like the maned wolf are eye-openers to how interesting the family really is.

These wolves do not behave like gray wolves at all. They hunt solo. Those long legs are an adaptation to grasslands, unlike the stocky, cold climate build of the gray wolf.  They have a mane to buff up their profile if threatened. This is not the wolf we know; it's its own creature. Watch someone make a fursona out of it and get slammed by wolfaboos.

Snap, they're coming! Pic found on Wiki.

Along with looking bizarre, the maned wolf smells funny. It has also been called the "skunk wolf" because the scent is so distinct. Both sexes talk with their urine; a lot of animals talk with urine, but this urine has a very distinct scent. Thanks to a chemical in the urine (likely a pyrozine), the wolf tends to smell like hops, the plant used for beer, or cannabis, AKA weed. In short: These are already party animals, if the smell is any indication. The police have been fooled at least once by the scent.

The maned wolf is considered near-threatened. In the past, it has been suspected as a threat to livestock, particularly chickens. Its eyes were once considered good luck charms; one can only wonder where this idea came from. Measures by the Brazilian government have since alerted people that the wolves are not a threat and should not be hunted for their eyeballs; feral dogs remain a threat. There are a number of good captive breeding programs, so this odd canine will be around for many years to come. They are possible to keep with the proper licenses, but ask yourself: do you want your house to smell like weed and beer?

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Newsflash: U.S. Military's Latest Weapon: Cyber-Bugs!

Remember when this blog covered the Robo-roach? It turns out that the military thought that was a good idea, too. They have now made sophisticated beetle cyborgs, capable of watching you in your sleep, or naked in front of your PC.

...Y'know, as if purely mechanical drones weren't enough. More on the how and why below:

"Facing problems in its efforts to train insects or build robots that can mimic their flying abilities, the U.S. military now wants to develop "insect cyborgs" that can go where its soldiers cannot.
The Pentagon is seeking applications from researchers to help them develop technology that can be implanted into living insects to control their movement and transmit video or other sensory data back to their handlers.

In an announcement posted on government Web sites last week, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, says it is seeking "innovative proposals to develop technology to create insect cyborgs," by implanting tiny devices into insect bodies while the animals are in their pupal stage.

As an insect metamorphoses from a larva to an adult, the solicitation notice says, its "body goes through a renewal process that can heal wounds and reposition internal organs around foreign objects, including tiny (mechanical) structures that might be present."

The goal is to create technology that can achieve "the delivery of an insect within five meters of a specific target located at hundred meters away, using electronic remote control, and/or global positioning system." Once at the target, "the insect must remain stationary either indefinitely or until otherwise instructed ... (and) must also be able to transmit data from (Department of Defense) relevant sensors ... includ(ing) gas sensors, microphones, video, etc."

The move follows challenges the agency says it has encountered in its efforts to train insects to detect explosives or other chemical compounds, and to mimic their flight and movement patterns using small robots.

Several years ago, DARPA launched a $3 million project to train honeybees to find landmines. According to a report by the American Forces Press Service, scientists used sugar-soaked sponges treated with explosives to get the bees to identify the smell as a possible food source." -Source with more. Now you'll be carrying a flyswatter wherever you go...just in case.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Little Shop of Horrors: Queen Anne's Lace.

Did you know you might have wild carrots growing in your backyard? It's true. Most flower guides, however, will not mention that the plants are in fact carrots. If you've ever wondered what carrot flowers look like, wonder no more. Anyone who's taken a hike through dry fields or alongside roads  may well have seen this bloom around:


 This is Queen Anne's lace, AKA the wild carrot (Daucus carota). It originated in Europe, but has since become wild in the United States and Australia. It is relatively easy to identify by its many clusters of small, white flowers in a lacy, overturned umbrella. It's largely considered a weed, but more on that later.

The plant supposedly gets its name from one or both of two Queen Annes: one from Denmark, who was in turn the mother of Anne, Queen of Britain. Legend has it that the red flower in the center is from an accidental prick of the needle when Queen Anne was weaving said lace. Of course, its real purpose is to attract insects, but that's not nearly as fascinating, is it?

Although a close relative of the domestic carrot, the wild carrot can be considered either helpful or harmful. Mostly, it is a wild weed perfectly capable of consuming one's garden. However, certain plants such as tomatoes may actually grow better in the presence of Queen Anne's lace. Queen Anne's lace is also used for several medicinal purposes, including general skin issues (burns and the like) and, surprisingly, anything relating to menstruation. If carrots can cure that time of the month and/or be a contraceptive, I'm on board.

That said, it is not advised that you attempt to eat wild Queen Anne's lace for a number of reasons. The first is that it strongly resembles poison hemlock, so a misidentification could be lethal. The other is that wild carrot roots are not nearly as tasty as the carrots one finds in the supermarket. The root becomes woody after a very short amount of time, and even then, there isn't much there to eat. It'll save you

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" Purple Carrot.

Purple and red seem to be "in" health food colors these days. One, red is the most attractive color to the human eye; why not market it? Two, ever since pomegranates, almost anything red or deep blue can be labeled as having antioxidants - chemicals that supposedly bust trans fat (best avoided to begin with) and slow cellular decay. That said, is it any surprise that I found a food drink with purple carrots in it?

You should buy these. Right now.

Yes, carrots come in purple. The result looks like the ultimate, tie-dye hippie food above. It's also totally true that one can turn orange if one eats too many carrots.This has less to do with the color of the root and more with the vitamin content - in this case, beta carotene. Purple carrots still have beta carotine in there, so you'll turn orange, not purple, if you eat too many!

Actually, all carrots used to be purple. That was true of corn at first, too. The original carrots, grown in Afghanistan some 5 millennia ago, were reddish-purple roots with splashes of orange. Wild carrots remain purple, have more of a stem, and are more bitter than their orange counterparts. In short, they are less tasty, but still potentially edible - and very good for you.

Like many other popular purple and red foods, purple carrots have anthocynanins, a type of antioxidant. Antioxidants, along with busting trans-fats, are the modern panacea. They do everything from weight management to memory enhancement to preventing heart attacks, depending on who you ask. Overall, purple carrots really seem like a superfood made better. There are plenty of captive-bred varieties that blend the best of both worlds. 

The orange carrots we know and love today were cultivated by the Dutch in the 17th century. They were cultivated to be more, well, edible than their wild counterparts. The root has more meat, less woody stem, and is overall more food for one's buck. The orange may have also become popular because of the Dutch House of Orange. Even if they don't have anthocynanins, eat up- they do indeed help your eyes and still have a lot of good in there.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Human Foot: an Ode to Unintelligent Design.

So, I've seen some people who think the human form is a thing of perfection. Indeed, a lot of people see the human form as beautiful. Most of the art done over the ages has been of humans. We happen to be the most powerful species on the planet right now. How could something actually be wrong?

My answer to them? Just look at the human foot.


The human foot is a marvel of inefficiency. Look at all those segments. Look at those too-flexible joints. There are exactly 26 bones and 33 joints in the human foot - by foot standards, that's a lot.  There is a reason humans are susceptible to sprained ankles, arch pains, and so on. We have not really evolved to walk as well as some things. Beauty is only on the surface; the human skeleton, including the foot, is a right mess- and proof that evolution is a thing.

For starters, humans are plantigrades - the slowest type of terrestrial movement aside from, oh, slugs. The other two common forms of tetrapod movement, digitigrade and unguligrade (paws and hooves, respectively) both have fewer digits and overall less surface area on the ground. The fewer digits you have on the ground, the faster you move. Ungulates walk on their nails; that is why a horse will always be faster than you. Period.

Kangaroos are pretty much the only fast-moving plantigrades in existence. Most of their movement consists of hopping instead of walking. Kangaroos have dealt with being semi-bipedal and plantigrade pretty well; look at the foot above and how similar it is to that of an ostrich, which is probably the most efficient bipedal foot in existence. That is how far behind we are compared to say, birds. Seriously, just look at a (digitigrade) T-Rex foot compared to our messy human foot:

Our feet are messed-up as they are for a reason. Great apes, our closest relatives, have feet very much like hands- meant for grasping, with all five digits in tact and flexible joints. This is not the ideal form for a terrestrial foot, let alone a bipedal foot. We like to think our hands and feet are sufficiently differentiated. In reality, they're not; there's a lot of arboreal ape hand-foot still left in there. Ow.

The reason it isn't gone? Foot fetishists. Or, rather, there was no reason for this horribly inefficient foot to leave. It wasn't really hindering our survival, just being a nuisance. If anything, there is positive sexual selection for feet that look the way they do right now. Especially in cultures where women are covered from the waist down, the ankles and feet are downright attractive. If this attraction was absent and we had, say, predators to flee from, rest assured the foot would be a more beautiful thing.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Bio-Art: Prima Materia.

Bio-art is a developing field. There are, as of right now, no real restraints on what is or is not bio-art. For example, in the class we had, even the use of things like X-ray shots was considered bio-art. Photomanips could be considered bio-art. The 'official' definition extends to art utilizing living tissues. It is, however, slowly gaining a following...and broadening its definition a little.

Bio-art, however you choose to define it, has an amazing following in Finland. Finland has its own Bioart Society, in fact. In 2012, the group hosted one of the weirdest galleries that the medium has ever known: Prima Materia - Four Artistic Positions on Ecology. While this definitely has the "bio" side going, some of the time, I kept trying to see the "art."

That presentation included this bizarre little number: 

Sea: it's what's for dinner!

That is soup stock, sort of like bullion cubes that one can find at the supermarket. The catch? It's made from the water of the Baltic Sea. All the stuff floating around in the sea was condensed into a soup block and rehydrated to be edible. Definitely not the tastiest soup on earth, but watch brains break when people say they've eaten the sea. The soup was served by one of the artists and a professional chef.

The reason I bring this one up is that it struck me as the most artistic (culinarily artistic, at that) of the lot. Making soup stock out of the organic matter in the Baltic Sea sounds like fun, if nothing else. You got to eat the sea if you went to this exhibition. The other three just didn't grab me. Also, I cannot read Finnish, so some of the impact may have been lost.

For the curious, there was at least one other project monitoring the Baltic seawater. Someone else tried a technique of whitening rhubarb that supposedly made for smashing Swedish food, but failed. Another project involved geomanipulation using an odd white shield (albedo) - anyone know more about this? Although some of the photos were really nice, I'm still wondering if anything except the soup qualifies as art. Hmm...Lake Michigan soup... 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Week of Hogwash: Warthogs.

How on Earth could this blog possibly do a week of pigs without covering the warthog (Phacochoerus africanus)? Outside of the wild boar, warthogs are among the most famous of wild swine. I'm amazed this pig wasn't covered already, seeing as I'm a fan of Disney's Lion King. Consider this entry an insight into Pumbaa's secret life.

Talking meerkat not included.

The team behind the Lion King was not as collectively stupid as some generic "jungle animal" film producers and actually picked a wild pig that lived in Africa. Warthogs are the only pigs adapted to savannah life, being able to graze and eat darn well anything they come across (including insects - the movie got that right, too). They are so named for the "warts" on the sides of their very odd-looking faces, which are at the very least a lot stranger than the wild boar's. No prizes for beauty contests, but impressive nonetheless. There are a few species of warthog spread across the savannah of Africa, making the whole species not threatened.

Wild pigs always have very impressive heads, and warthogs are no exception. The namesake "warts" are globs of fat used for surviving tough weather and added protection when fighting fellow male warthogs. The tusks of a warthog, which curve in crescents over the snout, are sometimes used to make tourist trinkets instead of elephant ivory. The lower pair of tusks is constantly rubbing against the upper pair, whetting them like little daggers all the time. Woe to any predator in the mood for pork chops.

The warthog is more than just a not-so-pretty face. They are also quite adaptable, despite having no protection from extreme heat or cold. A warthog is able to go up for a week without water. Those fatty warts are good if food ever becomes scarce. Speaking of food, a warthog can "kneel" on its front legs to get the lowest little bits of grub. They are pigs that can go without excessive food and water - neat.

As opposed to the downright vicious wild boar, warthogs would rather run than fight. They usually flee into a burrow - either their own or someone else's - and effectively block the entrance with their visages. Four tusks are a pretty good threat. Cowardly? Maybe. Effective? Well, considering that wombats do the same thing with their butts, a head armed with pointy tusks is a step up. Good on you, Pumbaa.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Newsflash: U.S.A. Going Hog Wild.

Oh, hey, speaking of feral superhogs, wild pigs just hit a new record. They have been problematic in the Unites States for a long time, being fertile, intelligent, adaptable omnivores (sound familiar?). Bacon lovers rejoice: soon, you will be able to hunt your own. 

"Digging up fields and lawns, killing livestock and spreading disease, wild pigs have gone from a regional nuisance to one rapidly spreading across the nation.

The animals have razor-sharp tusks, a bottomless appetite and no natural predators, and experts say the invasion of the feral pigs has become a major problem that is moving north.

“This truly is becoming a national crisis,’’ John Mayer, the manager of environmental science at the Savannah River (S.C.) National Laboratory, told TODAY on Friday.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that wild hogs, which can weigh more than 200 pounds, are responsible for more than $1.5 billion in agriculture damage and destruction every year. TODAY’s Kerry Sanders took a ride in a helicopter to see them firsthand, watching dozens on the run across the 2,000-acre South Fork Ranch in Okeechobee, Fla.

“It’s like having a rat in your house,’’ Southfork Land and Cattle Company’s Bill Wallace told Sanders. “They’re just not a good thing.”

In 1987, there were an estimated two million wild pigs in about 20 states, primarily in the South and concentrated in Texas and Florida. Now there are an estimated six to eight million wild pigs roaming 47 states.

“This increase that we’ve seen in wild pigs is unquestionably dramatic,’’ Mayer said. “We don’t have another species here in the U.S. that has increased at this same rate.”

Experts say the explosion in the wild pig population is partially due to hunters transporting them across state lines, plus some escaping from hunting preserves. The animals also produce two litters a year, rapidly swelling their numbers." - TODAY News.

Friday, July 5, 2013

A Week of Hogwash: What Is It With Wild Boars?

If you look through old mythology, you'll notice one common thing: wild boars can be terrifying, awesome creatures. Boars were one of the mascots of Ares; whole war helmets have been made out of boar bits. Freyr, another warlike deity, has a metallic boar, Gullinbursti, as a pet. The Celts acknowledged the male boar's courage and the female boar's generosity and fecundity. They are pretty much universally acknowledged as badasses. As a reminder, they also spawned the domestic pig.


This is what piggies (Sus scrofa) used to look like. Wild boar are native to Europe and Asia, but have since been turned loose in North America and Australia. Unlike the aurochs and wolves, wild boar are not under any threat whatsoever, being extremely fecund. They have also been domesticated since time immemorial, although exactly who decided taming hundreds of pounds of vicious pig was a good idea remains up for debate. They are omnivores and scavengers, just like most domestic pigs are.

Although the official size record for "world's largest pig species" goes to the giant forest hog, some populations of wild boar can outdo them in terms of size. European wild boar can get up to 700 pounds. Again, they also have razor-sharp tusks, charge swiftly, don't back down, and are covered in tough bristles as opposed to the relative hairlessness on domestic swine. As put it, "boars will circle a human adversary, charge rampantly and attack from behind." Put a few hundred pounds onto that and you have something terrifying.

And now the part at least some of you have been waiting for: yes, wild boar hybridize freely with domestic swine. "Hogzilla" is the most famous example of a boar-pig hybrid, weighing 800 pounds and growing roughly 8 feet long. Thus far, this is still the biggest hybrid out there - and likely the biggest pig on record. Feral swine can get massive and retain all their wild behaviors; the pig is far less removed from its wild relative than, say, the dog or cow. You will never see ham the same way again.

The wild boar remains probably the most intimidating wild beast with a domesticated counterpart. A boar, male or female, will fiercely protect its piglets and charge with surprising vigor. The Year of the Pig is frequently changed to Year of the Boar in the wild counterpart's honor. The boar can still be seen on heraldic crests because it is one badass pig.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

They Actually Eat That/A Week of Hogwash: Head Cheese.

Originally, this entry was going to be dedicated to Hormel. Not only are they probably awful factory farmers, depriving piggies of their natural well-being, but they will put everything and anything ham-related into a can. That includes canned bacon and taquitos. Look it up if you're curious; I'm just going to sigh, say "oh, Hormel," and move on to something even more disgusting than canned bacon. 

This is commonly known in the U.S. as "head cheese." It is also called "souse" or "brawn" if one simply must make it sound more classy to offset exactly what sort of meat is in question. As one can probably guess, it is made from the head of the pig, sheep, or calf. It has been around since the Middle Ages as a European peasant food. Gee, I wonder why?

Let's think about that for a moment.  There are plenty of meaty parts on an animal's body. The head is not one of them unless the animal in question happens to be a whale or dolphin. Feel your own head for a minute and imagine someone thinking, "hey, there might be meat, there." You'd probably think they were the stupidest, sickest people on earth, right? So, how does that relatively thin skin even remotely qualify as food?

Hey, remember aspic? How about gelatin? Head cheese is usually in a meat gel like that. The meat around the skull naturally gels that way to some degree. Head cheese can look like perfectly OK loaves of mystery meat (see also: meat glue), or it can look like modern food/art gone horribly wrong. Some people think it looks really beautiful; while I can see why they think that, I do not necessarily agree.

OK, this one from the Houston Press does look nice.

Who would do such a thing? Everybody. China does it, every country in Europe does it, and America does it by default. It's a good way to use up parts of a pig that nobody would otherwise eat, even if it happens to be from the 2nd ring of Hell. If a culture eats pigs, it has head cheese in some form. Now enjoy your 4th of July barbeque if you happen to be in the United States. :)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Week of Hogwash: Kunekune Pigs.

Pigs are one of the more common domesticated animals on the planet. They have been kept by humans since at least 11,400 B.C.E., and have had two independent instances of domestication. Able to eat almost anything, the Chinese used them almost like a garbage disposal for table scraps. With all that history, we have to have at least one weird pig breed out there...right?

Source. With piggies for sale.

Ta-da! It's a bunch of Kunekune piglets! They are all members of a rare breed from New Zealand. The breed supposedly spawned from Asian pigs brought to the Maori in the 19th century. They are known for being fuzzy, easy to handle, and surprisingly colorful for swine. The word "kunekune" means "fat and round" - an apt name for any pig, really.

Less charming as adults.

There are two main features of the Kunekune: its fur and its wattles. Unlike the more common farm swine, Kunekune are furry like wild pigs. They come in a variety of colors, including black, ginger, and white with black spots. Some Kunekune pigs also have fleshy protrusions called piri piri. They're reminiscent of the wattles on goats, but are kinda rare in pigs.

As this video from Animal Kingdom indicates, Kunekune pigs are very popular at petting zoos. They can also live just fine on grass, as opposed to foraging and tearing up lawns. It helps further that they are miniature by pig standards- they weigh 240 pounds, tops. Yes, that is indeed small for a pig. It also makes them one of the ideal pet pigs if you are so inclined.

Alas, as far as pigs go, Kunekune pigs are rare. The breed went nearly extinct in the 1980's. Breeding programs in New Zealand and the United Kingdom are the only reason Kunekune pigs are still around. If a prospective pig owner can find one, great - they're intelligent (like most pigs!) and easy to train. Just be prepared, unlike a certain member of the Simpson family - Spider-Pig does not a good pet make. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Bio-Art/A Week of Hogwash: Tattooed Pigs.

Whew, back on track! For the record, me collapsing on Monday nights is indeed normal. Luckily, this week promises to be fun. It's a whole week of hogwash, or awesome pigs you never thought you'd meet.

Belgian tattoo artist Wim Delvoye has found new meaning in life: tattooing pigs. He started tattooing pig carcasses while working at a slaughterhouse, then proceeded to tattoo live, sedated pigs in 1994. There is now a massive gallery of tattooed swine. They are found only in Art Farm China and, occasionally, in museums. 

So, why pigs? "They grow fast and are so much better to tattoo than fish," says Delvoye. It's also nice that we can see the ink on the pigs because their hairs are so fine. As the artist points out, it is also fascinating to see a tattoo on a young pig blossom into a massive artwork on a full-grown hog. Then, when the pig's time has come to go to the sty in the sky, the tattooed skin remains.

Even if you put fashionable tattoos on a pig, it's still a pig.

Interested in having a pig as a pet? How about an inked pig? Art Farm does indeed intend to sell its swine, probably for a pretty piggy penny, somewhere down the line. For now, however, it is possible to buy an inked pigskin or stuffed pig. They are also occasionally on display in various art galleries, so be on the lookout for tattooed pigs in a museum near you.

Or not! Some people have amazingly strong reactions to these pigs, calling the inking a violation of animal rights. Delvoye claims that the pigs actually feel less pain than humans on the skin - in part because pigs were wild at one point and aren't known for having flimsy skin in the first place (think "football"). Regardless, the topic of tattooed swine tends to carry mental outrage in its wake. Unless every single protestor has never touched bacon, however, they are probably just as "hypocritical" as the vegetarian artist is; you do not wanna know what goes on at pig farms where the porkers aren't inked.