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. 

     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: 

    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.

     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.) 

   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. 

    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. 

    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. 

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 ( 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.

     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