Category Archives: Wildlife

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. 

BRIAN BLESSED! 

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. 
“Allen..Allen…Allen”
“Steve!”



      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.”

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)

Salamander
Mole

      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 nps.gov

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.

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: 

January 14, 2011 at 5:11 am“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

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.)

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: 

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. 

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.”