Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Thing about Bats

Batty Koda from Ferngully.


     I suppose if I hurry this weekend with a short entry I can get a one in for July. This will at least mean I have done one post a month in the last two months.  We have finished moving and finally settled in enough to have the internet and a path to the computer.  This is one topic that deserves way more time and intellect than I have for it, but hopefully you will come away with a better understanding of bats and the peril they face in the US today.


     Bats today play a much more important role than just helping with the open scenes of Scooby Doo.  Though greatly misunderstood and demonized they actually work hard as pollinators for a great many number of plants.  Some species are only pollinated by bats, I do not recall which ones but I remember hearing it from Sir David Attenborough, so I stake it a reliable source.

    There are over 1200 species in the order Chiroptera ("hand wing"-luckily these things sound better in Greek). As a matter of mathematics that represents about 1/5th of the world's classified mammals. They range in size from the one inch (2.5 cm) Kitti's Hog-nosed bat to the 13 inch (32.5 cm) or so Giant Golden-crowned Flying fox.  Their wingspans range from nearly 6 inches (15 cm) to almost 5 feet. (1.5 meters).  All the other fellows fall into line somewhere in between.

Kitti's hog-nosed bat. Couresy of Arkive.org  great site or wildlife images

Giant Golden-crowned Flying-fox.  Luckily he is only a frugivore.

Bit o' scale for the flying fox.  


    Nearly 70% of bats are insectivores. Zipping along erratically using their echolocation to follow some bug or another.  Most of the remaining 30% are frugivores, dining on fruits which very seldom have erratic flight-paths.  Still the remaining like the fish eating bat, eat, well, fish.  Again, the people in charge of bat naming are a creative lot.  These bats also eat crustaceans such as the "squat lobster" (not making that up), so let us be glad that they are not called the fish and crustacean eating bat.  The remaining bat is classified as the only mammalian parasite.-the Vampire bat.

     Vilified by Bram Stroker, this small bad makes its living feeding on the blood of larger animals, usually cows and other livestock.  The bat will slice a small slit in the animals skin and lick the trickling blood.  The whole process is aided by a type of coagulant that is part of the the chemical composition of the vampire bat's saliva. Luckily however with this new version of sparkling vampires, maybe the small vampire bat can go back to its life of obscurity.

     The most important thing that bats are facing these days are a lot more serious than bad literature.  In America there has been a recent outbreak of a fungus.  "White-nose syndrome" as it is known, gets its name from the white fungus growing around the nose and ears of infected bats.  The mortality rate has hit 90-100% in certain caves in the American Northeast.  The disease is troubling the endangered Indiana bat but studies and preliminary accounts believe that it might even drive some of the most numerous bat species in America to extinction.
Small bats infected with White-nose syndrome. Source cavingnovascotia.org


      To save time and space, as I am told repeatedly that aides the popularity of a blog I will include the link to a Smithsonian magazine article on the disease.  What's killing the bats?  is out in the August 2011 issue of the magazine and follows the work of scientist trying to outpace, outwit, and overtake the fungus.  The interesting thing that you should get from the article if you don't read it or the link dies in the future is that according to genetic studies, something similar happened in Europe many, many years before.  Think of it as a Black Death of bats.  Thousands perished but the ones that survived have an immunity to the new fungus.
February 2006 at Howes Cave, west of Albany, New York. Source: christinatongues.com
Her entry in Jan. 2011 indicate that "they" whoever "they" are believe the fungus is just a symptom
 but not the cause of the deaths. There was one comment on here entry: 

“Researchers increasingly suspect the fungus is not the primary cause of the die-offs, but a symptom of a larger, unidentified problem.”
Upon what do you base this statement? As someone involved since the beginning in this investigation, exactly the opposite is true: that despite Koch’s Postulates not being proven yet, the fungus is clearly believed to be the cause. The most recently published research documents the wing damage to bats by the tissue-eating fungus, which the scientists believe affects the bats’ ability to fly, forage, nurse, and cool their bodies; the latter temperature regulation being a key to fending off the fungus.


     The fungus still exists in Europe but the extant bats are not as bothered as the ones in the States.  So maybe some future cross Atlantic breeding will help the immune systems of an iconic flying mammal.  Another interesting theory is that the fungus was brought stateside by spelunking tourists.  Cavers who explored American caves with tainted european equipment. I am sure it was not done on purpose but the bats are dead just the same.  The bats are seen flying out in full daylight, and during winter when they should be hibernating.  This is a full blown outbreak, but luckily very well trained scientist have been battling it from its onset.  To paraphrase the researcher in the Smithsonian interview: hopefully they will be able to actively fight off the disease and not just be documenting an extinction.  Good luck to all those involved, and good luck to the bats.
'09 Map of confirmed and likely breakouts of the fungus. Source: Northernwoodlands.org

    In conclusion, ladies and jellyspoons, the bat may be going extinct under our very eyes. Many don't know, and I am sure many more do not care. The few that are fighting the whole outbreak are repeatedly coming up against brick walls.  But, think for a moment, whether you like bats or hate them, what the world would be like if there were none, or even decidedly fewer.  Ecosystems depend on them, they are a keystone species in some areas, and important culturally around the world.

    We should at least care. If you cannot find any other reason than to feel compassion for these creatures, I can only offer you two things.  They were the inspiration for one of the most popular crime fighters in all of comicdom, and they give us the perfect way to explain how someone has lost all their faculties and might possibly be on the verge of some kind of mental, critical and existential breakdown. I mean imagine a world without Batman.  Also imagine what you could call someone besides "batshit crazy"  in order to get your point across immediately.




Bartok the Magnificent from Anastasia

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Ant and the Aardvark, er, um Anteater

   My apologies to my reader(s) about the long drought of blog material.  Many people I know would say this was just a time to gather information with which to wow my readers with; this however, is not the case.  Moving, class, and money have all gotten in the way of actually sharing points to ponder with the world at large.  Hopefully, when I get my laptops repaired, or my desktop close enough to a wifi station to access the internet, the posts will take on some sort of rhythm and actually combine to make some kind of tangible, coherent thought phase. I wouldn't hold my breath.

     I have taken some constructive criticism from one semi-loyal reader who possesses the attention span of a gerbil.  With that in mind, I will try and make these nature musings more curt and to the point with brevity.  Again, I wouldn't hold my breath.

      Edentates have always fascinated me, and anyone interested in life should look into their habits and lifestyles.   They are one of the larger enigmas in the fossil record due to their lack of teeth.  The great thing about studying mammalian fossils is that the teeth are the hardest part of the organism, and therefore more likely to become fossilized.  The beauty of that luck is that mammalian teeth are extremely diagnostic.  Whole species and some genera have been classed based on teeth alone.  Anteaters have no teeth.  Their skull ends with a long bony tube that holds their tongue.  So the anteater fossil record is pretty sparse.  That is not what I want to tell you today.  I want to clear up a little misunderstanding that toy companies, among many others have about anteaters and aardvarks.

      I like odd things, and this will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me.  So I went looking for a plush anteater.  I found two, one is huge, for stuffed animal proportions.  He is about two feet long, grey with the signature black stripe across his side.  The tag in his ear is filled with information regarding "The Anteater." This information includes habitat, diet, etc.  This larger anteater follows the normal studies of the Anteater:  South and Central America, ants, grubs, etc., one pup that rides on its mothers back for nearly a year, and all that other cute cuddly information that one needs to know when purchasing a plus 22" anteater.

Large anteater Plush Toy

     I bought a smaller one as well, to put on my desk at work. Same body style, about half the size, this one is brown instead of grey.  The tag conveniently contains information on "The Aardvark."  African savanna habitat, nearly the same diet though, young, etc.  So now everyone that buys this particular plush toy will receive the wrong idea of the Anteater, or Aardvark.

small "aardvark" plush toy 


     This confusion stems back to the 60s when the DePatie-Freleng team added The Ant and the Aardvark  to their Pink Panther lineup.

Screen Capture from the DVD 

     Innocently enough, all the write-ups reveal that this show follows the life of an "aardvark" chasing an ant.   No harm, no foul, right?  In this case, and I am not expecting great biology from cartoon maker, there is a bit to be confused about.  Do not get me wrong I absolutely love this cartoon and Depatie-Freleng works in general, but this has got some people screwed up in the general knowledge sector.  I present to you the following:
Giant Anteater
The Aardvark

    Which of these guys does Aardvark most resemble?  Exactly.  Arguments may be made that he is an amalgam of both species.  He has the anteater's long snout, but is not as furry, perhaps he is covered in (blue?) coarse fur. Most of the cartoons take place in Africa, or a savannah like setting. He is drawn with teeth, but he can also talk so that might be irrelevant.  The list goes on and on of differences between the two, aardvarks are nocturnal, anteaters are not. Aardvarks have teeth, anteaters do not. Except that one from Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital.

Screenshot from Kingdom Hospital

      The toothed God-like anteater of Stephen King's psyche is not that made up. Horror film enthusiast will remember the human form of this anteater was a pale individual with an Ankh necklace. This is pretty interesting because there is a group of individuals who propose that the Egyptian God Set was depicted as, at least, part aardvark.

     There are so many other things to consider when studying both species here, but I hope this short primer will reveal that the confusion over anteaters and aardvarks goes way back and is prominent in even successful ventures.  The confusion expounds exponentially when arboreal anteaters are introduced to the discussion as well as "common" names given to species around the world, "antbear" is one that falls on the aardvark as well as the anteater. Even the binomial nomenclature can sometimes be a misnomer. The giant anteater is known as the Myrmecophaga tridactyla, Greek for "three-fingered ant-eater" drawing on its prominent "three toes."  The anteaters have five digits on each foot.

     All this being said, I hope that it does not take the magic out of cartoons, or a movie, or anything else.  What I hope it does is that it might draw your attention to things as they are not really being what they are, and that if something seems strange to look into it farther.  I have found that most times, the truth that I find is many times more fascinating than any of the mistakes that are represented.

   I would like to leave you with what started me on this strange, pointless quest: here is the pilot episode of The Ant and the Aardvark: (The Ant and the Anteater, just doesn't roll off the tongue with the same ring, so kudos to Depatie and Freleng.)



Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Great Northern Penguin and other bird brains

      There are no penguins in the arctic, at least not anymore.  In the 1960s Robert Silverberg wrote a hat trick of books about natural history and science.  Funny thing, when I ordered them from Amazon they came discarded from Jr. High libraries.  After reading two of them I realized that Jr. High students must have been capable of much higher degrees of thinking than the standard secondary children are forced to endure today.  They are written in a plain spoken and easy to understand manner, that in no way detracts from their scholarly contribution to knowledge.  But enough about the state of education in the 21st century, back to the northern penguins.

     The penguins of the north are more commonly known as the Great Auk.  This flightless bird was nearly 3 feet tall and weighted in a bit over ten pounds.  Early European explorers found them a very convenient food source.  See where this is going?


     Nomenclature has always been terribly interesting to me, and these are no exceptions.  According to one story recounted by Silverberg says the fishermen of Brittany gave the bird a Celtic name, pen-gwyn, which translates to "white-head." Others argue that it comes from the Latin pinguis which means fat.  A third school of thought has something to do with pinioning which basically means making a bird unable to fly.  Either way they name took hold and was reason enough, according to Silverberg, for Sir Frances Drake and other voyagers in the late sixteenth century, to call the different black and white flightless seabirds "southern penguins"

    They eventually became rare on the rocky Islands of the Northern Atlantic where they would breed.  Silverberg says that between 1833 and 1844 they were systematically removed from the Island of Eldey off Iceland. One by one brought back and sold to some eager Museum representative.

    One paragraph from the book I will repeat here in full. (I take some interest in whether this is the first time Silverberg's work has been uploaded in a blog but that is neither here nor there:

On June 4, 1844, three fishermen named Jon Brandesson, Sigurdr Islefesson, and Ketil Ketilsson made a trip to Eldey.  They had been hired by an Icelandicbird collector named Carl Siemsen, who wanted auk specimens.  Jon Brandssonfound an auk and killed it.  Sigurdr Islefesson found another and did the same.  KetilKetilsson had to return empty-handed, because his two companions had just 
completed the extinction of the Great Auk. 
(p. 94, The Auk, the Dodo, and the Oryx. Robert Silverberg, 1967) 

     As short as that was I feel that I should offer you a twofer here.  For some readers this means you can stop here and come back later, for the rest of the story. (only without Paul Harvey)

   Per request I dug back through some posted articles to find something interesting on crows, magpies, ravens, etc.  Not hard, these guys are more than meets the eye. That does not mean they turn into monster trucks or tanks and attack one another. But, that they are pretty good problem solvers. 

   I am going to this the lazy way and post the links for the studies.  I have other things, which are more pressing for my education, even if they are extremely less interesting than this blog. Hopefully that changes soon, but whatever.  

   Back in May of 2009 Rebecca Marelle reported for the BBC about Rooks making tools. There are a couple of videos in the article.  Basically it shows rooks using tools, not unlike the chimps using grass to catch termites, and you know how we all swoon over chimp termite catching. 

    

   Rooks are part of the corvids, the same group as new caledonian crows. Both of which are known for their tool use prowess. This Sciencedaily article reveals just how well the crows can use tools, and how many they can use at a time.   Apparently they can use up to three tools in proper sequence without being trained.  This is similar to another article I read in BBC knowledge where they could choose.  There was one straw, too short to reach the food in a wooden cage, and another straw long enough, but behind another cage like barricade. The birds used the short straw to get the long one, and then use the long one to get the food.  

    Another article about rooks show them actually making tools. Again back in 2009 this study shows rooks making a hook to get food from a graduated cylinder looking device.  

   Maybe Aesop was right, maybe they even use rocks to raise the water level to drink.  Food for thought.  I leave you with another tidbit I read in BBC knowledge but cannot find a link to.  Magpies have a self awareness at least on par with some mammals.  Most bird will attack a reflection of themselves.  Exceptions in this case would be parakeets who love the company of their reflection and play with it affectionately.  Magpies in the study were given the "dot test." I am unsure the technical name for this test but they place a small colored (usually red) disc sticker on the bird and then present the subject with it's reflection.  The magpies to a man (bird) all attempted to remove the colored discs from themselves. They recognize that they were the bird in the looking glass.  Cognitive abilities. Amazing to watch, too.  

    I will leave this mostly scientific and scholarly post with two of the best examples of how intelligent magpies can be: 



 Finally one on the teamwork prowess and brotherhood that unites crows everywhere: 






Monday, February 7, 2011

And now a word from our sponsor.

     I do not like football. That is no secret among those that know me. So whenever the most important game comes around, I usually sit it out quietly with a good book.  Before the days of instant knowledge and the internet I would occasionally sit through part of a game just to see how well the beer commercials were getting along.  Now, thanks to youtube and other related internet phenomena, I no longer have to do that.

     Talk around the water cooler today will no doubt turn to that game, but more importantly, it will turn to the commercials.  So I might as well jump on this band wagon, since I do not care in the least that the Pittsburgh Penguins lost to the Indiana Pacers. (for the record I know it was the steelers and the packers from Green Bay that played, but I markedly do not care enough to mix sports affiliations and cities. I did not capitalize them on purpose, I do not think they are work it. 

    I will start with a couple of fun, yet completely unrelated to the rest of this blog commercial.  I will say that the beer commercial writes were a little off this year.  Hold me closer tiny dancer was more of a shock than funny. I will say I watched it to the end. So, too, was coke's offering.  The world of warcraft-esque one was very nicely done, but not on the favorite list. Coke's border one had to look good on paper, I bet it even sounded good out loud, but something was lost in the editing. 

     Doritos was okay, but not their A-game.  The dead granpa one was best, the pug attack, slightly funny, the cheese freak guy in the office was just creepy. I do not mean creepy-funny either, I mean flat out did-he-just-really-do-that creepy. The guys at E-trade need to get more creative, at least Geico new when it was time to retire the cavemen. That way their cameos are still funny. The baby has fulfilled his use, please move on. 

     The Carfax I'm as happy as a... ad was good, but not worth putting up here. Really it was good to show that even nerds at conventions have similes.  How great was it to see Ozzy functioning.  How much greater was it to have Ozzy make fun of what's his name? Great, and Ozzy may be out of touch, but he is still Ozzy, and not that little rat fink, I would have written an new Ozzy meets Old Ozzy gig. In fact take the space-time vortex that Kia has, shove that girly-kid through and have Ozzy bite off his head at the concert, and it even saves the life of a bat. If that is not a win-win situation, then I do not know what is. 

    I will give kudos out to Chrysler for the Detroit commercial, it was very well done. I went in thinking M&M really? what could this possibly have going for it.  But it was very tasteful, and you do hope Detroit gets back on track. 

      First up, my not related to nature or dodos fan pick goes to snickers, last year they brought Betty White back and years ago they brought us the KC "Chefs" (great googley-moogley) and this year they gave Richard Lewis an industrial chain saw and employ him with lumberjacks.  AND if that was not enough, they bring out Roseanne, and then, the best part--pummel her with a huge portion of tree. Maybe this is nature related. 

video


     What could super bowl ads possibly have to do with a nature/history blog?  The most common answer to this would have to be nothing.  However, something this year stepped away from the growing trend that sex sells (all but the Skechers commercials, whom I am sure are reveling in growing stock this morning.) to a more natural approach.  

    Collected here are 6 of the 50 odd commercials that came through for your enjoyment that I thought had some think tank value.  Some are directly related to history and nature, some more obscure and just good ole fashioned fun.  

    First up, has little to do with football, less to do with history and science. What it has going for it is posh, and a not unimportant role for that of a Dodo. Albeit, it is only a stuffed specimen, but that brings something up of interest: Why is a stuffed Dodo a sign of luxury, old or otherwise?  Are they a luxurious item due to their rarity, or is it because of their association with learned men of science that frequent the old stuffy museums?  Who knows. Fact is, the writers could have chosen any numerous, random thing to hold a gate open for an escape from Club Fed, but it was, very poignantly, a Dodo.  Almost a tearing up sensation for any self-respecting Dodo. So here is the top of the list and probably greatest stretch the Audi Commercial: 

video
    
    Moving on from that little gem, I find that apparently out of work anthropologist are writing commercial material for Kia.  There 3 million clam  ad spot contains a bit of James Bondery, the sea god Posiedon, an Alien abduction and subsequent joy ride, (thus rendering Kia the only model that can maintain proper air/fuel mixture in a non oxygenated atmosphere--go Kia.) A space-time vortex from another planet to I am assuming an ancient Aztec ritual back on Earth.  If you want to get anal then one could say the motorcycle cop was from Terminator 2, and the giant Yacht belonged to Marcellus Wallace. This one I took less seriously than the Audi, but it was a fun ride.

video

     From strictly a historical perspective, the 125 years of Mercedes Benz was fantastic. The only drawback was that it showed how much more awesome MB vehicles were in the past.  I welcome the new Benz on the block, but my money is on some of the older generation models for shows of class, cool, and style.  This following is the extended clip, with more footage of the awesome Mercedes of yesteryear.  Not a bad touch to have the beginning of the ad startup with Joplin either, it almost balanced out having that other guy in there. I can only think of two questions for the execs over at MB: 1) Why don't they offer older body styles and release them as Redux editions?, and B) Why did they feel the need to put any humans in that commercial at all? ( I will grant safe conduct for the Museum guard and the toll attendant.) 

video

   A little closer to home in the land of History of Science, comes the aspiring Chevy Volt commercial.  Looks like Chevy and BMW were in a race to see who could spend the most on advertising during super bowl 2011.  That being said, the volt commercial had a lot to love for anyone who did not sleep completely through their history courses in school, There was Franklin, and Edison, the television, Apollo (the rocket missions, not the theatre)  and even computing nerds short circuiting the garage. Not sure on how well electric cars are going to be accepted in rural-commute-to-work areas, but they tried.  Every time I see one of these commercials I think about the car charging "hydrants" that were a large part of The Watchmen graphic novel. 


video

    Filling out the final two entries in my short list, are another car commercial, and a company who oversees, quite literally, where the rubber meets the road.  I had not seen the teaser trailer for this commercial (which a teaser for a 30 second spot seems a tad overzealous, but that is what drives the public these days, apparently) before, but was still delighted with the outcome.  Post commercial I went back and discovered that is was all about "carma." I have heard a few people claim this as their favorite, and why not, Human beings as a whole would like to believe what goes around comes around, it makes us feel better about ourselves, and it offers hope that one day that guy in the jacked up truck who swerved to hit a turtle, will burn in hell. 

video

    Finally, last but not least, I will submit my favorite commercial from the super bowl of 2011. As a nature writer I am biased, but I know my biases so that makes it okay.  The battle for the best by general consensus and popular vote really only comes down to two, and both are Volkswagen commercials.  I will admit, the young Darth Vader's intense focus, and equally intense surprise at the end was very nice. However, one must remain true to the "force" that is within, and quite frankly, my "force" does not choke baby dolls, or move peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, It hauls ass. 

video



Friday, February 4, 2011

Stripes aren't all bad or all stripes aren't bad

     Last post we looked into two prominent species that have went extinct after the introduction of Europeans to their habitat.  Both animals displayed a striped pattern on one end of their body or the other.  If that was a singular example, one wonders why stripes do not indicate points on the dart board. However, there is one animal that is not totally striped (as for now the zebra seems safe, although Tigers are having a rough go) that seems to be rather stable. In fact, it is not as rare as you may think: The Okapi.


   The IUCN Red book lists these guys are "near threatened." Last account I heard on a nature show indicated that there are estimated around 10,000 to 20,000 in the wild. Zoo Basel (zoobasel.ch) shows about 160 in captivity, making them "reasonably common" in zoos.

    The discovery of this animal by Europeans is somewhat of an adventure story. The entire write up in the American review of reviews can be read here, but I will give a brief high point synopsis.

     The animal was rumored to exist in popular press accounts of Stanley's adventures in Africa in 1887. Okapi remains found their way to london in 1901 creating a sensation.  The remains were sent by the British Governor of Uganda Sir Henry Johnston. Johnston's connection to the Okapi is even more strange.  Apparently the Governor was alerted, or in some other manner made known, of a pygmy smuggling operation within his jurisdiction.

     Apparently a German showman was in the Congo capturing pygmies for exhibition in a traveling show. (circus, perhaps?)  I have done quite a bit of research on zoos and specimen collecting, the most prominent German showman was Carl Hagenbeck, but I have not seen any references that it was eitehr he or his associates that were doing the "collecting." That is not to say they did not, but Hagenbeck is a topic for another post.

    Sir Henry daringly rescued the captive pygmies. (I have no idea whether he daringly or bravely did anything, for all I know it was a Scooby-Doo trap that went awry and somehow managed to work out in the end.) Anyway the grateful, now rescued, pygmies told Johnston more about this mythical creature mentioned in Stanley's accounts.  I am unsure whether it is pygmy custom to tell stories when you have been rescued or if the Okapi just came up in polite conversation.

These are NOT the grateful rescued pygmies, neither is this Sir Henry. They are full grown adults and he is your typical run-of-the-mill British explorer to the Congo. (Photo: wikipedia, and that is why I do not know more about it.)

       Now let us assume the grateful rescued pygmies were slightly happier than he ones in the above photograph.  They continued to tell Johnson about the Okapi. Some tribes and people even began to refer to it as the "African unicorn." This is more for its cleverness at remaining hidden and less from the fact that it had one horn. Fact is, most, if not all, eyewitness accounts involved fleeting glimpses of an Okapi backside racing into the rainforest. Any explorer would be remiss in guessing that it had a head,  no matter the number of horns upon it. 

    Sir Henry Johnston never saw the okapi for himself, but managed to obtain some striped skin, and eventually a skull.  I imagine that these both came from the local tribe of pygmies that Johnson remained close too.  The skull arrived in London in 1901.  After thorough examination the Okapi was placed within the same family as the giraffe.  Thanks to a bungling German pygmy catcher, an aware British colonial governor, and grateful rescued pygmies the world was at last aware of a large mammal living in the Congo.   A rare feat, even in the very earliest part of the 20th century.  The Okapi now bears the name of its "founder" : Okapi johnstoni.


     Some argued at first that the okapi must be related to the zebra, given that it has stripes. Not the soundest science I have ever heard, but I have heard stranger reasonings for more simple things.  But later genetic analysis confirmed the skull placement in the giraffe family.  The okapi has a much shorter neck, but the same sizes tongue.  The tongue is long enough to wash its own eyelids and clean its ears, inside and out.  

    Based on the striped-so-related-to-zebra reports, many trackers went into the congo looking for the Okapi.  Most were complete dumbfounded when they found no horse  like tracks in the rainforest. Instead, if they were lucky enough to come across a track is was the track of a cloven-hoof individual.  

    Given that such a large mammal remained hidden form man (at this point I mean white european man) for so long gave the Okapi an honored place as the International Society of Cryptozoology's emblem.  The society is now largely defunct.  Some reports believe that the okapi is depicted on 2,500 year old Egyptian hieroglyphs as a gift from the Ethiopians to the Achaemenid Kingdom. 


    The name Okapi comes from two words in the Lese language. These are the pygmy people that we have become so familiar with.  first oka which means "to cut" and kpi which is the name of a design.  When an arrow is wrapped in bark and scorched with fire it leaves a striped patter on the arrow, this is called kpi.  Lese legend says that the Okapi decorate their legs with this pattern adding to their great camouflage.  I hope that either a Lese, or a Lese historian/ethnographer wrote that in the article I read, otherwise this whole last paragraph is complete bunk. I cannot substantiate it as I know no Leses (Lesi), or any pygmies, grateful, rescued or otherwise. But, it is a nice story.  


    I will say this, the okapi is mention in a book.  In fact the first time I had ever heard of this thing was in Douglas Adams' Restaurant at the End of the Universe.  Apparently Arthur Dent's brother was "nibbled to death by an Okapi."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Tiger's Pouch and Equid DNA: the Danger of Wearing Stripes.

There is no survivor, there is no future, there is no life to be recreated in this form again.  We are looking upon the uttermost finality which can be written, glimpsing the darkness which will not know another ray of light. We are in touch with the reality of extinction.
--  Henry B. Hough,  Domesday Book   

  The largest part of being a graduate student is writing.  Many times you take the same class as 15 undergraduates. What sets you apart from them is usually an extra paper. If you are lucky you get to do a research paper. If you are me you get to write a historiography.  I will go on a tangent here briefly about why I hate these things and find them a complete waste of time. As a finished product, historiographies are hyped up literature reviews.  They are a collection of summaries of works done on a topic. You (or me in this case) have to try and go beyond the original authors interpretations, and form your own.

     Maybe it is because I have really only written historiographies on topics that I know relatively little about that I cannot seem to make that leap into forming my own. I could have formed many more interpretations had I been given clearance to research a topic thoroughly and not just look at how other people looked at it before.  I think they are bunk, and unless I have to write one I will not.  But, I have to.

     The trick to graduate school is to use all these extra papers to build towards your thesis.  I am working on wild animal collecting for the Nation Zoo in D.C. in the early 20th century, so I theoretically, I would try and pick topics that would allow me to run towards that.  I sort of have one for the circus paper, but I will talk about that one later.

     The reality is most of the time you cannot.  I took a seminar course over the holocaust course last semester and wrote (a lot) over something that has nothing to do with animals, zoos, museums, or any of the other scores of interests that I have.  I learned about source material and memoirs versus history approaches to things, so I do not chalk it a total loss.

     So getting to take a course over the British Empire should offer loads of things to study.  Oh, how it would if I did not have to write another stupid historiography.  Sources, and hopefully contradicting or argumentative sources are the key.  So trudging through the library that I live in I came up with things that happened during the reign of the Crown.

     I could write on the Piltdown Man, the Cardiff Giant hoax, Alfred Wallace and Darwin's co-discovery, or any other number of things.  Great topics for research seldom make great topics of historiography.  So I chose something sort of related to animals, and now I have to, in some form or fashion, collect it into a coherent work in a manner that I disdain.

     Enough whining about that though, the thing that has piqued my interest is extinction.  For the purposes of this paper I will look at extinctions within the empire.  Specifically I will look at two. One from South Africa, another from Australia.  The passenger pigeon does not count for this. I will also add one that was 'discovered' relatively recently for a large mammal.


     First, the Quagga, this is the sand colored horse with the zebra striped head. The last one died in an Amsterdam zoo in 1883.


All accounts I can find say her name was Jane.

      The short story for the Quagga is that there was always a contention among scientist as to whether or not they were a distinct species of zebra or a subspecies.  Most likely the last wild Quagga was killed in the 1870s. The creature had disappeared before they could determine if it was a separate species or not.   However, the Quagga was the first extinct organism to have its DNA studied and researchers at the Smithsonian Institution discovered that it was not a new species but simple a special variant of the regular plains zebra.
    
     The Quagga Project began selectively breeding plains zebra in 1987. As of 2004, through fits, starts, and relocation there are over 80 zebra in nearly a dozen localities around Cape Town. This whole study brings up another argument over the difference in subspecies and what we would call "breeds". Below is a VofA news report of the Quagga Project.

video

     The problem that I foresee with this is not one of science, but of perception. As mentioned in the video, this must not give people that feeling that it is okay if something goes extinct now, we can just recreate it in a lab somewhere. While that is amazing that we can do that, it is ecologically a moot point.  That way of thinking is prevalent in today's youth and public. We live with a "fix-it later" mentality. For some species there is no later. 

     Once these animals are gone, there can be attempts made by brilliant people to restore what they can, but they are extinct.  That word, like so many others, has been thrown around and attributed to so many things that the depth and reality of what is means to be extinct is sadly gone.  

     There are two people I always think about when I study the Quagga, one is the hunter in South Africa that killed the last remaining one in the wild. What did he think, how did he feel?  Don't get me wrong, I am a hunter. I am not trying to ban hunting, but did he know there were fewer and fewer or did he not care? Maybe it was business as usual and he thought he could kill one today and then go out and kill another tomorrow or next week. 

     The other fellow I feel for is the zookeeper in Amsterdam who came into work on August 12, 1883 and found Jane.  The last of her kind, the last of her species. (actually a subspecies, but our zookeeper wound not have known that) She would have either been dead that morning, or not been put on display and died while they were tending to her. What kind of finality would that be to feel? This is the end of the Quagga, there never will be another one.  

    Another incident occurred in another realm of the British Empire, Australia. Specifically Tasmania.  The Thylacine held on a bit longer than the Quagga. That may be said this way: Europeans arrived later in Tasmania.  While the Quagga was hunted for food, skins, and to lessen competition for grazing land, the Tasmanian Tiger was hunted due to its bad reputation with farmers.  The famous, or infamous, photo below was widely circulated to help encourage the removal of this 'problem' species. 


     So the farmers and settlers did their level best to protect their livestock from the dog-headed-pouched-one. 


     Problem was, man is a very good hunter, and eventually all the hunts, and trophies, and collections came down to this: 


      This here is one, Wilf Batty, who gallantly bagged the very last known wild Thylacine in existence. 
There is no Thylacine Project akin to the one for Quaggas. The Tasmanian Tiger's claim to fame has been recent "sightings" around southern Tasmania.  The south is still sparsely populated and some are hopeful that the Thylacine has escaped there and remained hidden.  If one is discovered that would be great, we would get to see it one more time. Finding a breeding population would be a miracle, and many are highly doubtful that it will ever happen. For now the Tasmanian Tiger has fallen not even to a realm of hope that genetics and DNA offers, but is inhabits the world of the cryptids. 

    Something else that is different between the two is that politics had time to get involved. Too little, too late seems to sum it up nicely. Robert Paddle's book The Last Tasmanian Tiger: The History and Extinction of the Thylacine explains in great detail and with more clarity that I can. One point that I do want to make from this book is this: There had been a conservation movement pressing for thylacine protection since 1901. This cause was lead mostly due to it becoming increasingly difficult to obtain specimens for overseas collections.  Political difficulties prevented any protection from coming into force until 1936. 

     Official protection of the species by the Tasmanian government was introduced on July 10, 1936, 59 days before the last known specimen died in captivity.  

    In fact, the Thylacine unfairly bridges the gap within the cryptozoology world between true cryptids that are not known to have ever existed, (or with some existed into modern times coexisting with mankind) and those that humans have seen (helped) off the planet. Maybe that is the draw.  

    Fun coincidence if you noticed in the photographs, the Quagga's head is striped while the rear of the Tiger is.  Maybe human being hate strips.  Morphologically the Thylacine is interesting too, both sexes have a pouch. The only other marsupial that does is the water opossum. The tiger's pouch is also reversed compared to other marsupials. Their pouch faces the rear and not the head as it does on a kangaroo.  

     Back to the stripes thing, there is a species that still exists and it might not be as endangered as you might think.  I will talk more about the Okapi in the next post, how it was discovered and how that even links into my circus studies. Pygmies are involved.  

Photos were ripped lovingly from wikipedia.org.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Pigeons and Goldfish or Taxonomic Rebate

    Last Thursday BBC news,  and other sources I am sure, reported on a scientific finding about pigeons and their sense of smell. Pigeons sniff their way home reveals a study on how pigeons use scent to navigate.  The study also involved stopping up one pigeon nostril. Sources do not reveal if this was done with small corks or if some graduate assistant had the arduous task of rolling up toilet paper to stick in the bird's nose.
Study photo from the BBC, note the GPS pack,
or is that the sardine can the Bernand and Bianca
flew in in The Rescuers?

     What they discovered was birds that could not breath through their right nostril took a "more tortuous route" home and stopped more frequently than the other tested birds.  They at least made the 40km trek and none were severely injured or killed due to their non working nasal passage.  None, at least, were reported, and in today's psyche well, that is just as good.

    I have always had a fascination with pigeons. Most people I know call them rats with wings. Having wings, and more importantly not having a long then hairless tail, makes these creature a bit more endearing to the public as a whole.  I did a paper on pigeons in the third grade. Here is where english is important, I did the report when I was in the third grade, not the pigeons.

     What I found out was that they were all descended from the common rock dove. Scientific discoveries of this magnitude must be shared, sometimes forcefully, with relatives that raise doves.  So, for some time I was embattled with my aunt referring to all her doves as pigeons and giving the common street pigeons a nicer moniker of dove.

     We, and by we I mean my family while I was growing up, had all manner of feathered beings about our place.  We raised chickens, guineas, quail, turkeys, peacocks, chukar partridges, emus, and a cockatiel.  One of our suppliers had fan-tail pigeons.  I was enamored with them.  To this day I am not sure if my dad got them because I was interested in them, or if because he wanted them. Either way we came home with ten pair.

     20 strutting, cooing, displaying fan tail pigeons are quite a site.  The variety of color and markings was amazing.  As they reared young, something interesting began to happen.  Each successive generation feathered out with less color and more white.  Phenotypic results for genetics. A lesser controlled study than Mendel's peas, but more fun to watch.

     Years later I discovered that Charles Darwin was a pigeon fancier himself.  His interest in the specific breeding techniques that lead from the rock dove to the elegant and sometimes gaudy displays of modern pigeons led him in part to think about things differently.  In fact, animal husbandry of all types, full well known by Darwin, in no small part contributed to his theory.

     Now how fun it is for me to know that by my dad getting pigeons for me, at least that is how I think of it, and that is what counts, I got to see the same generational changes that Charles Darwin did.  But, you say, those are fancy pigeons, with their fan tail and not-pigeon-colored plumage.  What about the common street pigeon?

     My dad worked at a refinery, the same one my grandfather worked in the lab for, and the same one that he was determined that I would not work in.  They have reboilers, towers, and units all around that are conducive to street pigeon fare. On two separate occasion they found a young bird who had fallen, or was pushed, out of his nest.  We never ascertained which happened, either they were klutzes and semi ashamed or their siblings were of the worst sort. In either case their mothers had not hatched any stool-pigeons.

    They were fed a modest diet of slightly whisked eggs and smashed grapes, (the pigeons not the refinery workers) until they were old and strong enough to make the trip to our house.  They rode in the car, with neither nostril plugged.  They both took up residence within the realm of the fan-tails. They made the same noises, their strut was a bit the same, but they lacked the Carnivale plumage and over developed sense of self that came with their over-developed-absolutely-horrible-for-flying fan-tails  of their companions.

     Taxonomically they are the same species, but are different breeds.  Similar to how all modern dogs are Canus domesticus whether they are a Graat Dane or a chihuahua.  The dodo is taxonomically related to modern pigeons, although farther back than the Genus, I believe.  A large flightless pigeon growing some three feet tall, that is essentially the dodo. Where it fits into my life and way of thinking comes later.

    We also had horses, registered American Quarterhorse horses, papered, documented, bloodlined horses. Basically same as the pigeons just controlled breeding for regisration sake. Much less cooing and slightly less strutting involved as well. I am not here to talk about the horses.  The horses had to drink, and being of an industrious people we had a huge vat to water them from.

     In life, this vat was used for creosoting telephone polls, or at least that is was I remember being told.  Large enough to hold enough water for the horses in the pasture, and large enough that we routed a water spicket out to it rather than move it again. You would think that registered pure-bred horses would have bettter manners, but they do not, they still drink with their mouths full. A horse trough equivalent of bread crumbs in the water pitcher presents its own challenges.

      Enter the small beings that could eat some of the deposited horse food that was deposited at the trough.

     I said the small beings. Ours never got that big, although some did get nearly 10 inches long, none weighed 30 lbs, as this one supposedly did.  If you want to read more about this monster from a lake in southern France, and all the argumentative comments on its authenticity and photoshop one link is here.

     Interestingly enough, and how they fit into this stream of consciousness, the koi started showing the same phenotypic changes as the pigeons: more of the new generation's feathers were white than the previous.  All were well on their way to plain vanilla koi.  The interim generations were marked with a gold and white holstein cow or paint horse pattern.
This is not our horse trough the water was never that clear
Just an example of the interim patterning I was talking about

     My point is, if there is even a point, that all the evidence is there, one just has to look at it and put the pieces together. One first glance what do fan-tail pigeons have to do with goldfish that live in a horse trough?  The answer is apparently more than you think.  I was lucky enough to see things like that and become part of that natural changing world.  The most profound answers can be found in the most humble of places.  I miss being a part of that.

     What I do not miss is having to feed that menagerie between getting home from school and doing my homework.  Actually, that is probably not as true as I would like it to be.  Animals to be are the most wondrous of things to watch.  I mean animals besides ball fetching pooches and @&#^ eating kitties.  Animals that interact without you. You feed them and they are happy with that and go about their required animal tasks dutifully.

    The only place that can come close to that experience in the human realm is International airports.  Thousands of people buzzing around, all you have to do is feed them and they go about their tasks as if you are unimportant or do not exist.  Interesting, yes, but not the same almost "divine" experience you get from living among troops, flocks, crashes, and pods of animals.  The International airports smell worse than farms too.

      Now that you have waded, trudged, and sloshed through that muck I will explain my title choice of this blog. In fact, this is something I have had in the planning stages of artwork for awhile now.  A large family coat of arms featuring prominately the platypus and the dodo.  The shield would contain images of exploration and education, maps, compass roses, books, and quill pins. While the shield itself is made of fossil bones and tusks.

    What makes these two animals perfect for my way of thinking and looking at nature is that on the one hand, here is an animal that, at the very least taxonomically should not exist, and does. On the other is an animal that should exist and does not.

     One is the marvel that is great change, a venomous mammal that lays eggs.  Once those eggs hatch the young nurse on milk from a mother with no nipples.  The milk, like yours is produced in specialized sweat glands and secreted just like sweat.  The platypus just has not given itself a nipple yet.  So the next time you see someone eating cereal of having a great big glass of cold milk, or you see those ads in magazines, thing to yourself, nay, offer up your hopes to the drinker that they enjoy that refreshing glass of cow sweat.
From a NSF press release about the decoded genome of
the Platypus. Read it here


     The other, the portly feathered inhabitant of Mauritius who sings about a Jolly caucus race to Alice, the world symbol of extinction. Why is that, do you think? Dinosaurs should certainly be that poster child, after all they have been extinct for much much longer. No, it is the fact that humans, learned, traveling, reading, civilized(?), non-pooh-slinging (again?) humans, new of this animal, saw it, captured it (it was held, alive for a time, in King Rudolf II's great sceintarium in  Prague.) introduced it to rats, dogs, and weasels, and for the first time we watched a species disappear form the planet.  We also knew irrevocably that it was our fault.



     For me, life is this dichotomy of what nature is capable of producing, and what mankind are capable of destroying. We are completely out of harmony with our world.  I am not advocating paleo-diets or a return to hunting and gathering. We did after all slaughter our own swine, and beef on the same farm.
We are outcompeting nature to the detriment of our future.  Yes the world did not cease to spin when the last dodo died, nor did the sky blacken and fall with the demise of the carolina parakeet, the passenger pigeon, or the tasmanian lion.  But we did lose something, a bit of wonder, we are becoming a world that is replacing natural magic with cgi.  While cgi is great for reconstructions, they are not alive, they will always be a far second best.