Sunday, November 4, 2012

Art Imitates Nature

Or perhaps it is the other way around.  In the case of this frog, which was unknown to scientist as well as Stan Lee, it appears to be a case of convergent evolution. Below is the "Wolverine Frog." A frog that has a boney claw that it can extend to hold its position when mating as well as for using it in battle. 

There are actually two kinds of frogs that do something similar. 

The Otton Frog from Japan

This one, hails from Japan, which is appropriate for other reasons, and pushes an existing boney spine through its hand. The other however, actually breaks the bones in its hand and pushes the broekn in through its soft toe pads. The fact that that males grow visceral hair on each side gives this species as much claim to the Wolverine lineage as the Japanese one. 

The Hairy Frog from Central Africa
The broken bones protrude through the tips of the finger pads

If you think breaking your hands for clawing purposes or unsheathing a boney spine through your hand sounds about as painful as anything there is another amphibian who might claim top prize for protection involving self-mutilation. The Spanish or Iberian ribbed newt pushes its ribs through its sides as a means of defense. Not only do the sharp points on the ribs stick through the newts side, but they get coated with a poisonous secretion making this one of the most dynamic protection processes ever to evolve. 

                     When annoyed the newt moves its ribs forward                                                  

tomography shows the sharp points on the ribs

The poisonous secretion that coat the rib tips

poisonous rob barbs sticking through to
discourage even the hungriest of predators

Dear Marvel, 
     If history is any indication, you are currently gearing up for a new altered reality of all the characters we have grown familiar with. In this alternate universe, reality, reboot, new timeline, fee free to take a few notes from the above newt and lets have some side-spliting poison barbs show up at some point.  If nothing else it will give your writers a great challenge coming up with the sound effects for protruding ribs. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Original Blue-Bloods

I recently had the great fortune to deal with those kind individuals who help you move all your earthly possessions to another part of the globe.  U-HAUL has a neat little program of ignoring how much stress you are under and creating more annoyances for you to deal with.  But, they can be forgiven for their extemporaneous (and large) decals they smear on the sides of there water resistant (not water-proof) trucks. These include all kinds of Americana facts, many have great places to visit, sightseeing, famous happenings, etc. We got the one featuring the Hagerman Fossil Site in Idaho.  There are others however and one that got me thinking of something to share with the world at large is that of the Horseshoe crab: how it's magical blood is helping the pharmaceutical companies test their products, and how it has been around since at least the second day of creation. (I made that up) But these guys have been around for at least 300 million years generally not giving a damn about human beings for most of that time.

Generally humans gave little damns about them as well. Fishermen use them as bait when fishing for conch, but other than that, they remained as black and white photos decorating your local Red Lobster. However, once tests were run on the copper based blood (ours, and pretty much everything else's is an iron based red, except that royal family in the movie Stardust, they apparently bleed blue as well), some scientist got the vapors.  The extremely primitive immune system of the crab works in an extremely simple manner: if the animal receives an injury or a cut and bacteria or some other toxins attempt to infiltrate the animal, the blood congeals and forms a gelatinous barrier that protects the crab from infection. Think about that the next time you eat grape jell-o.  So now scientists, and pharmacuticalists, and other interested ists "harvest" horseshoe crabs (obviously they are related to wheat?) drain about 1/3 of their blood and return them to the wild to be caught by those same conch fishermen before. Studies guess that there is only a 10% mortality rate for the blood donors, but who really knows. I mean, 100% of the ones used as bait expire. So, do they carry donor cards and have fishermen release them until their 30 day replenishing is up? Doubtful. But that is the sacrifice they make, bloodletting to help a species that has only been around a fraction of their species' time on this planet.

 Maybe we should blame the sand piper birds, after all they are the ones that fly in and devour millions of horseshoe crap eggs ever year at the annual horseshoe crab beach orgy. This has even been shown around National Geographic and Planet something narrated by Sir David Attenborough. Interestingly enough, there is a new book out about these guys written by retired paleontologist Richard Fortey. Put it on your summer reading list, read it at the beach and then tell your kids about how awesome that leggy writhing beach rock with a sharp tale actually is, and make sure to bring some blue jell-o.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

For the Birds Part Two

  Another bird made the theatres recently.  This one may seem a bit more dark compared to the light hearted Dodo/scientist adventures; it is.  So, death by Poe story, I said when it came out that the premise was Saw for smart people.  The movie is more than that though. 
Studies reveal that ravens are incredibly intelligent, tool using creatures.

Again, this movie will be overshadowed by comicdom, but it shouldn't.  The literary connections aside, the movie is as well done a whodunit as I have seen in awhile.  The plot keeps you guessing, and characters are pretty believable.

That's what the bird says, you say all these other parts. 
 The characters are pretty well developed, notwithstanding historical inaccuracies, but this is not a documentary.  Cusack captures the arrogance, the poverty, the brilliance, and the addiction of Poe as well as anyone probably could have.  Although the goatee, not sure.

splashed with mud adds insult to injury
 There are many who know more about Poe than I do. A well respected literary historian airs his disagreements here.  But for the most part, the Poe that has made his way into popular culture is more Poe than Poe was. Poor Poe.
How many times did I use Poe in one sentence? 
Couldn't find a photo of my favorite scenes.  Poe with his pet raccoon.  I particularly enjoyed this piece of the film, as in addition to Poe being one of my muses, I grew up with a pet raccoon on two separate occasions, and felt a nice warm connection between myself and one of my favorite authors. The fact that he might not have had a pet raccoon does not diminish that feeling.  

Back when newspapers mattered
All in all it is a period piece and they are generally always fun.  The music was good, the costumes were great, the dialogue was very good.  Anytime someone calls out a mouth breather is a good time.  Professional historians aside, (as they tend to take themselves entirely too seriously to enjoy a film with) I think The Raven is worth a see. Probably twice.  The second time you will be trying to see if the director or actors give away anything to reveal the killer(s).  If you have read Poe, go see it for the joy(?) of his stories coming alive, plus the added bonus of getting several asides that the general public will miss.  If not, go see if for the mystery.  Don't take your history from hollywood though. Maybe this will drive you to research the father of horror writing, and stem more than a little pride for an American author trying desperately to make a name for himself when very little of anything coming out go the United States was respected.  You may also find out why copyright laws are such a big issue these days.

Of all the ones I have seen, this is the best movie poster

There are a couple other reasons to go see this thriller.  

1.) Luke Evans' portrayal of the inspector is quite good.
Brillaint performance actually. Though still damnably difficult to run in a top hat.
...and B.) Alice Eve is quite nice to look at.

If you like a fresh look at old cliches and never take historical fiction too seriously, you should enjoy this film. However, if you see it your duty to go through life correcting everything then you will be an annoyance to anyone that takes you to see this film, and perhaps you should be stuffed into a chimney.  You probably read Longfellow too. 

For the Birds: Part One

After a dreadfully long absence from the blogging scene, I return with something a bit out of character for the presets of this blog. At least on the surface.  As I have been writing and rewriting my Master's Thesis, things have been a bit back burner lately.  However in todays riveting episode I will be talking about two movies that ARE NOT the Avengers.  Not that I am knocking the Avengers, I just never got up to the fever (okay, any) pitch to go see it. These two, however, did pique my interest some time ago. Shall we begin? Part I.

Firstly we went to see the latest in stop motion animation by the incomparable Peter Lord Aardman and co.  Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists (or "Band of misfits" as they dumbed it down for the states.*eye-roll*) The adventure is based loosely on the absolutely hilarious book by Gideon Defoe:

There are more as more or less a serial.  They are all literally laugh out loud funny. They are a bit more adult than the "family" movie portrays.  Not in a bad way, just more of the literature jokes are geared toward a high capacity of thought.  The take for the movie is quite good. Without revealing any of the secret nuances of the film I will stick with how it related to this blog: Polly.

She's the one on the right.

Polly is a Dodo. The last one it seems. Hilarity ensues. To see the Victorian fascination with the extinct is part of the joy that is the movie.  It's just a fun movie will all the wit and humour that make Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run so enjoyable.

There is also a bit of victorian fun poking going on as well. 

Here we see a young Charles Darwin aboard the Beagle. Baboon Kidneys and all.
 He shares a great interest in Polly, but does not love her the way the crew does.

The Pirate Captain commonly refers to his new friend as Chuck.  For some reason this is funnier than when Peppermint Patty does it to Charlie Brown.  As I chose the UK title more because I like scientists more than misfits, I will say as a historian of science I found the scientific references and underhandedness quite funny. 
Rampant monocle dropping ensued.
Another Americanism that made its way in differed from the trailer.  Don't go to American theatres looking for the "complete pants" remark.  Instead, we get (and I quote:) "a load of crap." Still funny when you find out what the reference is to, but I suppose people in the U.S. don't get underwear jokes.
 Either way, there is a great and gallant crew (in the street sense, yo) always supporting the Pirate Captain. As well as an overly zealous Queen Victoria. The movie is worth going to see and the books are worth more to read. Just use care when reading on the bus or train as boisterous laughter may get you some stares.
Pretty sure they raided Keith Richards closet for the zebra print captain's jacket.

If nothing I have said will help you fence sitters decide whether or not to go and see Aardman's latest barrel of fun I will leave you with this small token from the Pirate King. 


Saturday, February 4, 2012

The day of the whistlepig

      I had fully intended a post on woodchucks on the second as is customary for Groundhog day, however a death in my wife's family has put me a few days behind.  With all the services ending today, it is nice to be able to sit and talk of nothing by pointless nature facts and look up pictures of groundhogs on the internet.

So here is goes. I will spare you the redundant mythos about shadows and sly references to Bill Murray and just go with a short, sweet introduction to marmots.

Personally, I think he looks as trustworthy as any meteorologist.

     Groundhogs, whistlepigs, woodchucks, or the land-beaver, the latter of which sounds like some villain from the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle series, are all the same animal.  Their relatives all prefer the highlands and rocky heights, whereas these guys are the lowland plains and fringe forest dwellers.  Being lowland means they have slightly different ties to their Clans and an almost understandable accent.   (--scottish jokes, groundhogs are not racists, and kilt jokes are hard to make on animals with such short legs. Also google could not find a single image of a woodchuck in a kilt, therefore one must not exist.)

     Groundhogs are nicely sealed against their habitat. They are painted with two coats.  They have a grey undercoat with a nice arrangement of "guard hairs"that give them the "frosted" appearance, i.e. natural highlights.  They are also proficient burrowers moving roughly a cubic meter of soil (about 710 lbs (320 kg)) when getting down to business. There are several active members in the groundhog local that are pushing for the 500 lbs work week, but the rallies have yet to draw up much support.  Burrows, in which extended family can all dwell,  separately of course, groundhogs are keen on their own space.  Be it ever so humble, small burrows usually have a front and back door.  Larger estates may have up to five means of entrance and egress.  Most whistlepig flats contain about 14 meters (46ft) of hallways, and can reach as far as 1.5 meters (5ft) underground. In unfortunate situations these homes may undermine building foundations.  Burrows are not the only confusions with prairie dogs. 


      When out and about, they remain ever on alert.  If the sentries see any suspicious characters they will let out a high-pitched whistle as a warning. Hence, whistlepig.  They may emit low barks, or chatter there teeth.  Squeals usually indicate fighting, serious injury, or capture. When frightened the hair on their tails will stand straight up giving it a brush like appearance. Evidently all major predatory animals have an innate fear of hairbrushes, this is second only to the natural fear of fire.  Although an animal that when frightened could set its tail on fire would be incredible.

The last few seconds you can hear the whistle.

Shadow, schmadow, I can see my house from here.
      So these large hole dwelling fiends are not much good outside a burrow you say?  They are actually quite good swimmers and can climb trees when escaping danger.  They do prefer to retreat to a burrow for the home field advantage and will defend themselves with they extremely sharp claws and "big, pointy teeth" (technical term, +10 for you if you know the source.) Groundhogs are territorial and tend to be agonistic, that is they tend to search for their own truths in the word, no, no, no, wait they are agonistic, NOT agnostic.  That just means they tend to fight amongst themselves to determine dominance and the true path, so maybe they are Baptist. In that case they usually disagree about minutiae interpretation of Groundhogdom  and take half of their congregation and start a new burrow.

         Groundhogs do build separate burrows, but it has nothing to do with differences in theology.  Groundhogs are some of the only animals that truly hibernate, and the separate burrow is for sleeping purposes. In most areas they sleep from October to April. In more temperate areas they can hibernate for as little as three months.  I am not sure if Pennsylvania is considered temperate, I hope so, otherwise people wake them up early for no other reason than to determine if they see there shadow, and they are given no coffee or hot chocolate.   

      A few more random points of interest:  They are used in medical research on Hepatitus B-induced liver cancer.  Once infected they are at 100% risk of developing liver cancer.  They are using them as models for testing Hepatitis B and liver cancer therapies.  Some woodchucks decided to not take the medical school rout and instead became Archaeologist.  Groundhogs are known to have revealed at least one archaeological site in the U.S.  The Ufferman Site in Ohio has never been excavated by humans, instead, numerous artifacts have been found in the midden piles of the local groundhogs.  Their diggings have surfaced significant numbers of human and animal bones, pottery, and bits of stone.  

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck? Aside from Geico commercials they don't actually chuck wood. They play jai-lai.  The etymology of woodchucking might relate to the Algonquian (some argue Narragansett, and by "some" I mean "wikipedia") name of the animal: wuchak. Given the explorers penchant for bastardizing native languages (and people, ahem, different post) it should be little wonder that we don't wonder how much wu could a wuchak chak, if indeed a wuchak could chak wu.

Some wuchaks don't bother chaking wu, some are gentle
poets who take the time for the small things in life.
Although given their aggressive behavior, they are little old contrarians.
This photo says everything: "Stop and smell the flowers, dammit."

   I hope that this short reading will give shed a new light on an overexposed and under-appreciated little mammal. I also sincerely hope that if you will never be able to hear that tongue-twister again without at least thinking of the phrasr "chaking wu."

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Mole.

     My wife and I chanced to have dinner and a movie with some dear friends of ours.  Briefly, the film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is far from the edge of your seat thriller.  My friend's wife slept through it all, my wife tried to, and my friend said that he had seen many independent movies and that this was particularly hard to follow.  I enjoyed it for what it was. That being said, the movie was dreadfully slow and painfully precise.  Since I am neck deep in thesis material I haven't had time to read the book so I called my grandfather.
     He said he had figured it out by the second or third chapter, and that it was incredibly slooowwww (the drawn out emphasis is his).  I had hoped the book would have been better but, alas, perhaps no. Now, I told you all that to tell you this: The premise of this story began my gears whirring anew. Why are spies within organizations called "moles" anyway? (I haven't found out yet) For that matter why isn't there more attention paid to moles in the natural world? And, why, oh why do I end up thinking about these things after watching movies? (I haven't found that out yet either.)

An Eastern Mole.  Look at those hands.
Think how dramatic a molian facepalm would be.

     My first positive relationship with a mole was the fictional Moley in Kenneth Graham's Wind in the Willows, which is and forever will be my favorite book.  Of all the animated/action renditions my hat has always been off to the folks at Rankin/Bass for their portrayal.

Always have to appreciate it when he tells Ratty he
"Can't say I really love duck poems"

A side note: Roddy McDowell's Ratty is the reason that I have always pronounced the world ad-VERT-isment and not ad-ver-TISE-ment. But, back to Moles. I also tried Pate de foie gras once just to see.  I wouldn't sing about it, but I tried it thanks to this song. I guess animation works on impressionable children. I tried pate, I never bought anything from Acme.

     But, back to moles.  My first relationship with moles were as pest in the yards of my grandparents.  They would burrow everywhere and destroy their garden.  They would set mole traps and if I was visiting I would go with them to check the traps.  Mole fur is incredibly soft, if you have never felt one.  I also remember being confused at my great grandparents calling moles "salamanders" but I never questioned them, I just quietly kept my knowing better to myself. (that was once the m.o. for all children)

      I don't know much about the fossil record of moles. Given the little research I plinked through for this update, that may be due to the lack of an extensive fossil record.  You would think that a burrowing animal would be more likely to become a fossil since it was buried in its burrow upon death.  Apparently there is a burrow patrol among moledom that facilitates the removal of any deceased parties and rendering any extra chance at fossilization null and void.
     There is a late Miocene (somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 m.y.a) mole fossil from Idaho that shows characteristics similar to the modern coast mole. They are so similar in fact that they are lumped into the same genus: Scapanus.  Scapanus hagermanensis hails from the Hagerman Fossil beds in Idaho.

Scapanus hagermanensis

    There are also phylogenic complications within the realm of the mole. Oh, are there some interesting connections here. 

The Golden Mole:

A Golden Mole
The golden moles belong to the same branch on the tree of life as the tenrecs, called Tenrecomorpha or Afrosoricida which in turn stems from a main branch of placental mammals called the Afrosoricida. Not so scientifically interesting, but in the words of Hamlet, "Aye, there lies the rub." This means that they share a closer common ancestor with such existing Afrosoricids as Elephants, Manatees and Aardvarks than they do with other placental mammals. Genetics. Wow. The Mole apparently falls a long way from the tree. 

The Marsupial Mole:

This has got to be one of the most awesome nature photographs ever. 

The marsupial mole's awesomeness is two-fold. First and far most, this little critter looks more eccentric than anything that ever haunted George Lucas or Peter Jackson's nightmares.  Secondly there is some genetic marsupial connection that make it interesting to other people. As marsupials, these moles are even more distantly related to true talpidae moles than golden moles, (think rich-great-granduncle twice removed) both of which are placental mammals. So what does this mean? This means that Marsupial Moles are more closely related to such existing Australian marsupials, kangaroos or koalas, and even to a lesser extent to American marsupials such as opossums than they are to placental mammals such as Golden Moles or Talpidae moles.

They may also be the Studebakers if their genus,
as it is difficult to tell the direction of travel based on their shape
    In 2010 the Marsupial Mole again stood some folks on their ears. A fossil find indicated that they likely evolved in rainforests than in the deserts they call home today.  That fascinating article can be be found in Australian Geographic.

Moles ran amok in Scotland for a time and would have been just another plague on the isle had Queen Alexandra not ordered a mole fur garment and set off a craze.  (Not unlike Kate's wedding dress phenomenon.)  I am tempted to draw a parallel with my young life and that of the queen.  Did the queen, on visits to her grandparents wander with them to check the mole traps? Did she inspect the perished vermin intently, gently rubbing its soft fur? Did she in the back of her mind think, "when I am queen I shall have a garment of this?" Probably not.  I guess there is no parallel,  I never thought I would be Queen. 

   So, we leave the stately mole, with a passing mention of the Star-nose mole that can smell underwater by blowing air bubbles  and snorting them back in. Great little creature there too.  

The Star-nosed Mole. For obvious reasons. 

I doubt there will ever be a save the mole foundation, but I hope people will take it a bit farther to ponder on these creatures a bit. As more than mere infiltrating spies, nasty dangling growths on your aunt's neck, or the namesake for the journals that so many of us use. There are greatly adapted for their environments and go unnoticed by some, cursed by many, and understood by few.  

General knowledge of the mole. From

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Considerate Mongoose.

Apologies to my follower(s) Graduate School, applications for PhD programs and other diversions have led me astray of my blogging duties, but I take a break from writing thesis to share with the interverse this little gem. 

Following is an article from the New York Times dated June 5, 1906. Anyone with an interest in wordplay, or the english language should take a moment and read this. I came across it working on my thesis. Enjoy... 

The Considerate Mongoose
     "This Republic was until Saturday, the embarrassed possessor of two mong--, that is, it had one mongoose at the Bronx Zoological Park, and another mongoose at the Rock Creek Zoo. The Rock Creek specimen considerately died on Saturday, thus relegating to the academic shades the infuriating and perfectly insoluble question of the plural. With one mongoose we can get along; two consitued a linguistic anomaly, and were certain source of profitless dispute and harrowing doubt.
"Send me a tailor's goose, and eleven others just like it," was the form finally adopted by the retail hardware dealer after successive rejections of tailor's geese and tailor's gooses. What is the plural of moose? It is not meese, of course, and nobody would say mooses. The statement of a tenderfoot who should declare that he saw seventeen moose in teh forest would be instantly questioned by the experienced hunter, but not on grammatical grounds. Moose goes as plural. But mongoose?

I want to be a mongoose,
And with the mongeese stand.

     A proper and laudable aspiration, but the unlamented little beast of the Rock Creek Zoo kne he mustn't do it. You can't stop there. The anserine anaology bears you irresistably on to the mongoose and her mate, the mongander. The tribe of mongoose would never "stand for" that. The Rock Creek animal was driven back upon the metaphysical device of the ego and the non-ego. I, this mongoose, who sit here vainly barking up the grammar tree, and the other mong-- there it goes again. In the intervals of pursuing his favorite preym the boot-haunting ophidia, the mongoose of Rock Creek, thought much and deeply on yjis subject. Condemned to a life of loneliness for in English-speaking countries must never be seen in company with another mongoose, he was unspeakably miserable, and he saw no way out. His accomplishments went for nothing. He could rob a henroost with a silent deftness that left the feathered ones spared quite unaware of their bereavement. He possessed consummate skill in the art of depleting an eggshell of its contents by that method in which the common law of repartee assumes ever man's grandmother to be an expert. But what of that, if, so long as there was another one, he had no place in the structure of English speech? It made mongoose-flesh come out all over him. Let his martyred bones, whereve they mayy lie, be a warnin to those who henceforth may enrich our fauna by this addition of alien vertebrates, that they must import an animal from the language of his nativity a practicable plural."

Stand with the Mongeese!

 This article is 105 years old. Just something to think about.