Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"What Does The Fox Say?"

First off, let me just say that the song I am referencing in the title is very silly. "Stupid" would imply that I hate it, which is not 100% true; I appreciate a catchy hook for what it is. The video is also okay. It is, however, still a very silly song in that it is about a guy wondering what foxes say, and why there is no convenient onomatopoeia for it like "moo," "woof," or "meow."

What? You don't know what "onomatopoeia" is? Let's fix that!

"Onomatopoeia" is the fancy, English major word for "sound effects" in word form. Words that represent sounds like "bang," "wham," or "zoom" are onomatopoeia. They have no meaning aside from the sound they are representing. There, you've learned something.

Foxes actually have a great variety of calls. For all you dog and cat owners out there, no doubt you have noticed different noises for when your pet wants to play, is hungry, or is not in the mood for much of anything. Foxes have an extremely versatile vocal range. Your dog is a singing bum on the street compared to the vocal rock stars foxes are.

Take a lookie here:

That's a lot of very distinct sounds for one animal, no? No wonder nobody really knows what the fox said; they probably didn't even know it was a fox. 

Here's the "Vixen's Scream" they mentioned, complete with facial expressions:

Oh, and for all you Pokemon fans, here's what your Fennekin sounds like when it is happy:


So, you tell me: What does the fox say? Write your own onomatopoeia for what the fox says below. I'm sure Ylvis got it right somewhere. He said too many different things for one of them not to hit the mark.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Newsflash: Proteins and Dinosaurs with Funny Names!

So, I know a few people taking biology, organic chemistry, and other such things. It came up that the only reasons a Classics degree like mine was good were 1. it stokes your imagination like crazy and 2. it helps you name things for science. This led to a discussion about how things are named, including the rather bizarre Dracorex hogwartsia.

Dracorex hogwartsia was an herbivorous pachycephalosaur  ("thick-headed" dinosaurs). Like a certain other pachy who will definitely be getting some limelight this Halloween, it was discovered in the Hell Creek Formation in South Dakota.

Indeed, this dinosaur does look a fair bit like a dragon. The dome found on most pachies is reduced in Dracorex, leading to a very dragonlike skull. Primeval took advantage of the similarity: in one episode, a knight and a "dragon" crossed a time gap; they went so far as to give the Dracorex little fins, furthering the "dragon" idea.

But "hogwartsia?" Really, science? Forgive my use of internet slang, but "LOL."J.K. Rowling was, of course, thrilled to have a dinosaur name inspired by her work. Warning: people who know Latin tend to know science, and Rowling knows helluva lot of Latin.

Dracorex's odd pseudo-Latin is nothing compared to what some scientists have done with proteins, however. No matter how many pop culture references are named in dinosaurs, they cannot compete with how scientists have named genes and proteins lately. There have been a number of proteins named after video games or video game characters, proving just how nerdy scientists really are.

This is fanart. Not mine, just adorable.

Hey, weren't the new Pokemon games released this month? Why haven't I done anything on Pikachurin - the electric protein named after the most iconic Pokemon in existence? (There was also a carcinogenic gene that Nintendo sued over - this is not that gene.)

Pikachurin is a protein that helps the perception of light in mammalian eyes. Thisprotein is also known by the equally funny-sounding name EGFLAM ("EGF-like, fibronectin type-III and laminin G-like domain-containing protein")- we'll stick with Pikachu, thanks. It was named after Pikachu because it moved "lightning fast" and conducted electricity from the eyes to the brain. It's pretty much necessary for the human eye to function. Not a bad thing to name after a colorful electric rodent, although I'm sure the protein being discovered in Osaka, Japan had something to do with it.

Pikachu was not the first video game mascot to get his own protein. That honor goes to the sonic hedgehog protein. It is one of three genes in the "hedgehog" protein channel, with the other two being "desert hedgehog" and "Indian hedgehog." Sonic is the best studied, and with good reason: this protein has an impact on anything from brain development to the growth of digits and limbs. It's responsible for limb regulation in cetaceans, so if you ever see a dolphin with unearthly feet near the base of its tail, blame Sonic for that.

There have been some objections to naming a gene "sonic hedgehog," namely that it removes some of the sobriety that science is so well-known for. Me? I think once you've named a protein channel "hedgehog," you've already opened yourself to jokes. It's just a slippery slope like that.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Creature Feature: White Gators! and Wild Gators!

There are a number of advantages to visiting places that naturally have cool wild animals. One, you get to see wild animals in their natural habitats instead of behind glass. Two, the specimens that are behind glass are usually pretty cool. I tend to make it a point to visit the zoo whenever I go somewhere else; it's usually a good indication of how well-informed people are about exotics. The Audubon Zoo in NOLA had quite a treat, and I did not even get to see all of the grounds.

 Louisiana's zoo has a pair of leucistic American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis). Apparently they have wild white gators, too, but these were probably captive bred. These particular white gators are celebrities anyways.

A brief course in Alligators 101:the American alligator is native to most of the southern United States, from the Carolinas into Louisiana. These massive reptiles can get 999 lbs for males (who are indeed larger) and 13 feet long. As one could probably guess, most alligators are black- olive green, not white. They have powerful tails, can move faster than a human on land (25 MPH), and are armed with lots of teeth.

So, why is the gator above not albino? Take a close look. The eyes are black, and there is black speckling on the nose. An albino would have pink (or blue?) eyes and no black at all. Regardless, it looks like the swamps of Louisiana might be a "weird gene reservoir" like Florida is for corn snakes. They might also be intentionally protected like the Shirohebi of Iwakuni, but I wouldn't put money on that; the zoo got those white gators from somewhere, then probably bred them.

Along with seeing these unique gators in the zoo, I got to get up close and personal with wild alligators in the Louisiana bayou. Our savvy tour guide knew exactly where the gators were and fed  them marshmallows. (Our tour guide, by the way, was apparently the inspiration for a certain firefly in The Princess and the Frog.) Don't take a fan-powered boat; those things move so fast that I'd be amazed if you saw anything. We got to see gators snapping up marshmallows like nothing else. A waste of jaw power? Maybe, but it got us some incredible shots!

Unlike the whaling trip, on which I saw no whales, this tour boat had a guaranteed way to see an alligator: the boat had a baby on board! These gators are released into the wild when they get to be around two feet long. Imagine having an adult gator on a tour boat; at least you'd get your money's worth!

By the way, Louisiana is known as "hunter's paradise" for a reason. Alligator hunting is not only permitted, but encouraged. Some people also farm alligators (which have their own tours). Alligators certainly aren't an endangered species, and the Louisiana government allows a certain amount of them to be hunted. Don't worry about taking a tooth, paw, or gator head home; if any state knows what to do with alligators, it's Louisiana. Enjoy gator meat while you're there, too.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Little Shop of Horrors: Welwitschia.

Look at the above image. What do you see?

If you think that's washed-up seaweed, take note of how this image doesn't look like it's near the ocean. Trash off a truck? A plausible theory. Litter? Haha, no. A sign that the Great Old Ones are coming? I dunno; ask Bogleech about that one. If you said it's a Welwitschia, you either read the title or happen to be a botanist.

 Welwitschia mirabilis is a bizarre plant found on the Atlantic coast of Angola and Namibia, who has the odd plant on its coat of arms. The plant can only live in arid environments with occasional fog. It is named for the Austrian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch, who also discovered a few other botanical oddities in his lifetime. This particular plant happens to be a living fossil, going virtually unchanged since the Mesozoic. The Welwitschia's closest relatives are, of all things, pine trees. Yeah, bring a Welwitschia over next Christmas; I'm sure it'll go over well with the relatives. (Actually, you can grow your own!)

Welwitschia are amazingly odd plants. The 'mess' of leaves is actually just two very large leaves. These are the exact same leaves that the plant had as a seedling, and have grown very large over time. They have simply been shredded with wear. These two leaves are all the plant grows during its entire, very long life. There's not much beyond these leaves, either - just a stem and roots. Suddenly the most basic of plants has become a strange thing.

How long is its life, anyways? Oh, one or two millennia. A single Welwitschia can be anywhere from 1,000-2,000 years old. We're used to trees living that long- not displaced patches of seaweed. Bear in mind that this thing is still just a stem, roots, and two leaves. Yes, it's always just two throughout thousands of years. During that time, it can also grow huge.

Disclaimer: May eat old ladies.

The relatives of Welwitschia dominated Late Paleozoic and Mesozoic fauna. The tattered dregs in the sand are all that remains of this unique genus. It can still live for thousands of years. If nothing else, Welwitschia proves one thing: sometimes the simplest answer is the best.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

I Actually Ate That: Crawfish.

 For those who do not keep up with my dA page, I have been traveling. A lot. This time, I got to head down south to New Orleans - a city known for sex, drugs, and...smooth jazz? Oh, and excellent food. This was what my adventurous tongue took on my first night in town:

This was a massive platter consisting of crayfish etouffee (the stew-ish stuff), au gratin, dressing balls, and crayfish tails served like popcorn shrimp. They did not tell us that the dish would be very heavily spiced, but that's just what you have to expect in NOLA. That, and Bourbon Street being full of sex and liquor every night.

Crayfish are like lobsters, but smaller. They generally inhabit unpolluted, freshwater areas of all sorts. They will eat anything you put in their tank- even other crayfish. There are some that do make good aquarium pets; please do research if you find crayfish interesting animals and wish to keep one rather than eat it. Otherwise, crayfish of the less friendly sorts are available at bait shops. More on that later.

Not all crayfish are created equal. Almost all of them are sensitive to polluted water. On the flipside, crayfish used as bait or farmed as food can decimate local crayfish populations if they get loose- they eat each other, remember? North American crayfish introduced a nasty water mould, Aphanomyces astaci, into European crayfih populations; the resistant American crayfish (like the signal crayfish below) have taken over. Eating invasive crayfish is a happy solution. Circle of life, now let's eat these guys!

There are a million ways to prepare crayfish, and Louisiana offers a good portion of them in one state. Crayfish tails look almost exactly like popcorn shrimp when breaded, but taste nothing alike. They can be boiled, put in gumbo, served au gratin like lobster, and a million other culinary styles. I've even had crayfish sushi. If you can handle other decapods, crayfish will be no problem for you. 

So, what did I think of the four dishes above? I'm not the best judge on land meat; I do, however, like seafood. Without a doubt, crayfish is the best crustacean I have had so far. It has no aftertaste like lobster, is more noticeable than shrimp, and doesn't taste like crab. In cajun cuisine, however, the spices tend to be piled on so thickly that you can't taste much of anything beneath them. I highly recommend etouffee if you want some genuine Louisiana crawdad, and au gratin or as little "popcorn" crayfish tails if you actually want to taste the stuff. The "dressing balls" were almost entirely spices. If you like shellfish already, you'll probably appreciate this Southern favorite. Alligator meat is also pretty abundant, so if that's your ticket, come into the bayou.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

I Actually Ate That: Turtle.

So, while in Vancouver's Chinatown, there were a million food markets showcasing a million foods that Americans would consider "weird." Snakes and (Tokay) geckos on a stick come to mind immediately. There were a few large mushrooms I could not identify. They had tanks of live sole, tilapia, lobster, and crabs. For future reference, the smells mean freshness!

Oh, and I got to try turtle.

Those are turtle balls. Haha, no, they did not go inside a turtle and take out its junk. That's just turtle meat rolled up into a ball as an appetizer! I quite liked them, even if the sauce was something that I could not quite place (soy? probably). Turtle had a strange taste that I'm having trouble describing, but could probably pick out again. Despite being deep-fried, turtle was actually the most healthful of the dim-sum offered at the beginning of the meal.

Turtle has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries. You've heard the shtick several times on this column: you eat an animal, you gain its superpowers. Turtles are among the most long-lived of reptiles, with the record-holder for chelonians being Harriet at 179 years old- that's over twice the lifespan of the average human. Although that was a Galapagos tortoise and not a soft-shell turtle as is commonly used in cuisine, chelonians in general have an almost sage look to them with lifespans to match. It's not unreasonable to think that they might grant anybody who eats their flesh considerable longevity - maybe even youthfulness.

The kicker is that the Chinese were right about this one. Turtle meat has a number of health benefits according to Western science, too! It's significantly lower in calories than beef, albeit with less protein. It's also rich in vitamins A, B1, B2, and B6, which help make food processing easier. The minerals calcium, phosphorus, and zinc are also abundant in turtle meat. The stuff is pretty much its own vitamin shop if you do rigorous activity, and certainly makes a welcome alternative to your standard meats.

Another, odder turtle product called guilinggao is said to be a miracle worker for the skin. It's a strange jelly made from the plastron (tough belly) of a turtle (preferably the three-lined box or "golden coin" turtle, Cuora trifasciata) and a few other botanical ingredients. It's actually a jelly dessert, thought to be good for the skin. A word of warning for foodies everywhere: not all guilinggao contains actual turtle, despite what you see on the can.

Japan has another version of turtle meat still known as suppon. It's expensive, and usually packaged in plastic wrap like in the above screenie from Railgun S. Like most turtle meat, it's made from soft-shell turtle. Its uses are more cosmetic than medicinal; supposedly, its meat is high in collagen, which any lady out there will remember as being great for the skin. Its blood also supposedly tastes great with wine mixed in. The things people do for beauty, I guess.

Next time you go to Chinatown, take a good look around. Stop into a good restaurant and see what's on the native Chinese menu. They know how to make their food good, regardless of "weird" ingredients. Some of it is even great for you! I also could have tried snake soup, but decided against it...because I'm not really fond of soup, snake or no.