Hello, you beautiful minds. Let’s take some brain candy, shall we? So put down your game controls for a brief yet splendid moment, and stuff your brain with tasty tidbits of information.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Eight Tiny Cervids

I felt obligated to write some sort of holiday-themed post, so here goes nothing. Every year (in the western world) we are bombarded by images of a fat man in a flying sleigh pulled by eight members of the Cervidae family. You may tell your children that these eight flying creatures are “reindeer,” and refer to pictures like these:

I am here to tell you that you are lying to your children. That’s right. You are a liar. You lie to children. How are we supposed to count on these creatures (the children, not the reindeer) to be our future if we can’t even tell them simple truths? The sad truth is, most of the Christmas depictions of Santa’s livestock we see are blatant fallacies. I know a reindeer when I see one. And these are not reindeer:

 White Tail                                                                     Fallow Deer

This is a reindeer:

Can't you tell the difference? Reindeer are also known as caribou. According to Merriam-Webster, “Caribou are a large gregarious deer (Rangifer tarandus) of Holarctic taiga and tundra that usually has palmate antlers in both sexes —used especially for one of the New World —called also reindeer.” So, now we know what a reindeer is and isn’t, no one should ever get the Cervids mixed up again. Ever. Excellent. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Oh, the Places You Won't Go!

Feel like taking a nice vacation (or, holiday for you foreigners) this year? Maybe you want to bring the kids along and go camping, or bring the significant other on a romantic spa getaway. Maybe you are just so tired of your monotonous and vapid existence that the next town over seems like an exotic dreamland (I’m looking at you, Tustin). Well, pack your bags and/or backpacks and get going! But remember to avoid a few places. Seriously, even Tustin, CA is better than these places. Below are (in my humble yet accurate opinion) the worst possible places to be in each continent.

North America - Juarez, Mexico:
Just across the Rio Grande from El Paso lies Juarez, Mexico, a desiccated hellscape of poverty, rape, murder and disappearances. Juarez is a place where pollution is masked by a constant barrage of bullets in the air. That’s the good part. Sort of. There isn’t really a good part about Juarez. It’s a city completely controlled by drug barons who bribe, bully, and kill their way to power. And the police only make matters worse because they resemble people who should have responsibility or maybe a conscience. Unfortunately, the police just got paid to dump the body of your son into the desert because he looked like he was thinking about not cowering enough to a drug lord. So that’s Juarez. It needs to be bulldozed.

Australia – Directly Inside a Swarm of Box Jellyfish, Australia:
Sorry to disappoint anyone, but Australia just doesn’t have a town or city or region full of enough abject horror to include on this list. I’m sure there are some lame places, don’t get me wrong. But these lame places are just not high up enough on the terror scale to list. I might be bored and uncomfortably warm in Goodooga, but at least I won’t have the constant fear of being kidnapped, chopped into pieces, and sent back to my family over the course of a year in a gesture of warning from the local genocidal leader. Box jellyfish are scary though, but Goodooga is inland.

South America – A tie between Columbia and Venezuela:
Sure, Columbia is probably the first bad place you think of when you think of bad places in South America, but Venezuela is up there too! I understand that when people think of Columbia, they think of cocaine plantations, child labor, and children working on cocaine plantations, but Venezuela has bad stuff also. I mean, Venezuela has managed to increase its poverty rate by 300% since the 1970s! That’s no small task! I think Venezuela deserves a little more consideration. Just don’t go there. Not to either country. Not even for cocaine.

Europe – Albania:

According to The Onion, Albania is the Haiti of Europe. I wouldn’t want to go to the Haiti of Anywhere, so I won’t be going to Albania. I suggest you avoid it as well. Another place to avoid would be Dagestan, which is apparently a federal subject of Russia…so I guess that makes it part of Europe in a roundabout way. This place has been having a lesser-known Islamic insurgency complete with suicide bombings, Sharia Law, and dead public officials for the past twenty years. So it’s like a lesser-publicized Chechnya.

Asia – Afghanistan:
Well, Afghanistan is at an advantage on this list because there is a big war going on there. But even before the war the place sucked, especially if you were female. It had a HUGE female suicide rate. Probably because they were forced to observe Sharia Law x 1,000. Women were covered head to toe, uneducated, received little to no medical care, had no rights, couldn’t go out of the house without a male escort, forbidden from work, forced into marriages, and probably couldn’t sneeze without permission from their husbands. Then it got worse. Or better, since war creates excellent opportunities for suicide.

Africa – The Democratic Republic of Congo:
This place takes the misery cake. The DRC (which is neither Democratic nor a true Republic) makes Somalia look good by comparison. The only comfort the souls of the damned receive in Hell is the knowledge that they aren’t in the Congo. It’s like the apocalypse already happened over there – starvation, roving gangs, children with machine guns, babies on spears. It’s the rape capitol of the world. There is no economy because the various militias destroy everything in an almost locust-like manner – if locusts raped, maimed, and killed people for sport. Getting shot in the head is considered lucky over there. As if that weren’t enough, it is also home to the Ebola virus. F***.

Antarctica –Meh:
So…Antarctica is a continent, but there isn’t much going on there. It’s cold. You can go there if you want to though. Chill with some Norwegian researchers, say hello to The Thing, smell penguin poop. No big deal.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

There's A Book For That: Skepticism

This is random, but I feel like recommending some books for all you literate types. One of my favorite genres of nonfiction is what I shall call “Skepticism/Debunking books.” They tackle the falsities of pseudo-science and related silliness in an easy-to-read way. Personally, I can’t get enough of these types of books, although I’m not much of a Dawkins fan. Don’t get me wrong, he is an intelligent and highly respected skeptic, but I find him off-putting.  I prefer the more respectful tact of Carl Sagan and James Randi. If I want an offense, I’ll choose Penn Jillette (the Penn of Penn and Teller). At least Penn is funny, Sagan is a sage, and Randi is adorable.

Flim-Flam: Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and other Delusions, by James Randi, is a fun read (although I disagree with his views on unicorns). Randi had a long and exciting career as a conjurer (he was the Amazing Randi back then) but is now better known for his skepticism. He had a brief T.V. show where he allowed supposed psychics, astrology experts, telepaths, etc. to prove their talents. They ended up debunking themselves. This book basically debunks various frivolities from psychic surgery to dowsing. It was originally published in 1982 but is still very pertinent today. Oh, and just in case any of you have supernatural powers, the James Randi Educational Foundation offers a $1 million prize to anyone who can prove, under proper observable conditions, any paranormal power. The prize has been offered for over 20 years. Many hundreds have applied. Not one person has yet to pass the preliminary tests. Good luck!   

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, written by the immortal (in the figurative sense) Carl Sagan, is part of the cannon of skeptical literature. Sagan was a world-renowned astrophysicist and author. A staunch promoter of scientific skepticism, Sagan nevertheless treats religion with respect, which I really appreciate. Sagan is known for his work on the Cosmos television program, as well as his frequent appearances on The Tonight Show with Jonny Carson. This particular book of his is eloquently written and very approachable. You can be a bit slow on the uptake and read it. I know this because I read it. Always a proponent of scientific education, Sagan creates a strong argument for reason. The back cover of his book reads, “How can we make intelligent decisions about our increasingly technology-driven lives if we don’t understand the difference between the myths of pseudoscience, New Age thinking, and fundamentalist zealotry and the testable hypothesis of science?” How indeed.

Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? is an important book in the fight against Holocaust denial. Written by Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman, it is a book that explores the phenomenon of denial and arms readers against it. Michael Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and Alex Grobman is president of the Institute for Contemporary Jewish Life. A collaboration between these two men must be important. And it is. Growing up in a town with a large Jewish population (ma shelomkha Irvine?), I never truly realized that there are still people who deny the Holocaust. This book was an eye-opener. It pokes holes in the arguments of “Holocaust revisionists (that term can be loosely translated as “f@*%^ng bastard, anti-Semitic sons of bitches),” and gives rational people the knowledge they need to refute illogical claims.

So there we go. Give someone the gift of reason this Chanukah/ Christmas. Woot woot. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Pleistocene Park

I was about to start a totally different topic but then I found this:

Wholly Mammoths

That's right, we (well, Russia and Japan) are one step closer to cloning the mammoth. Not going to lie, I am extremely excited about this. So excited, in fact, that I want to expand this cloning trend to other extinct or nearly  extinct animals. I realize that there are plenty of ethical issues to deal with here, but to those I say, "C'mon! It's a freaking MAMMOTH! I wanna see it!!!" Forget sheep and dogs, let's clone mammoths. This needs to happen within my lifetime. If I were a crazy billionaire, I would bathe these scientists in money...and I would get the first ticket to visit Pleistocene Park. I realize there are some striking parallels to Jurassic Park here, but we should still move forward on this. John Hammond had a dream and it was beautiful (and deadly, but mostly beautiful). Let's hope that the next step for science (besides finding places to colonize in space) will be the resurrection of the dinosaurs. Bad idea? Maybe. Awesome idea? Definitely. 

"I wish I weren't extinct. Won't somebody please clone me?"

"Bringing me back to life will in no way be a bad idea."

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Occam’s Razor and Little Green Men

Warning: this will be a long post.

We’ve all heard the stories. They tend to go something like this:
I left late that night; the drive was very dark and lonely. Suddenly, I saw a strange light in the sky through my rearview mirror that kept following me.

Or this:
I was camping out in the desert when I saw some strange things flying in a V formation in the distance. They were heading south, toward that military base. The creepy thing is, they were silent, unlike a jet or a plane.

Or this:
I woke from sleep unable to move. I felt a weight pressing against my chest, yet weightless at the same time. My room lights were off, yet everything was illuminated. I couldn’t breathe or call out for help. I don’t know how long that lasted, but everything became normal again after a while.

Now, I will probably piss a lot of people off with my opinion, but here it goes: There is no reasonable, scientific proof (so far) to suggest that we have been visited by intelligent beings from space. Shocking, I know. The issue here is reasonable, scientific, proof. Exceptional claims require exceptional proof, and the burden of proof is on the shoulders of the one who makes the claim. Before we go any further, let me say that I am not completely against the idea of life “out there,” I just don’t think the green creature that supposedly kidnapped the meth-head down the street counts.  

Most UFO/Alien stories are based on eyewitness accounts. Unfortunately, first-hand accounts do not count for much in science. Memories can be manipulated, distorted, misunderstood, etc. Plus, some people just make crap up. Even when a person honestly believes their own story, they are probably interpreting the situation incorrectly. As astrophysicist Dr. Philip Plait says in his book, Bad Astronomy, “A need for wonder, and an all-too-easy ability to be fooled account for the vast majority of UFO sightings.”  It is human nature to try to find an explanation for things we see. Many of these explanations are simply wrong. Plait goes on to say, “A lot of people claim to see strange things in the sky – moving lights, changing colors, objects that follow them. But…how many people are really familiar with the sky? I have found that there are things that happen in the sky about which people are completely unaware. Many have no idea you can see planets and satellites with the naked eye…If someone is not familiar with things that are in the sky all the time, how can they be sure they are seeing something unusual?” The sky appears to do strange things, that doesn’t mean those things are beyond the realm of rational explanation. It is also interesting to note that no (to my knowledge) astronomers ever mention alien spacecraft sightings. I mean, these people are always looking at the sky, logically they should be the ones reporting flying saucers, but they don’t. They must not be looking hard enough.

It is now time to bring up that pesky little rule called Occam’s Razor. According to Merriam-Webster, Occam’s Razor is: a scientific and philosophic rule that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily which is interpreted as requiring that the simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex or that explanations of unknown phenomena be sought first in terms of known quantities.

So how does Occam’s shaving device work in the context of supposed alien spacecraft? Exceedingly well! Let’s take the story of the person being followed by a light in the sky. Seems creepy, right? I mean, I don’t like anything trying to follow me around at night, let alone an illuminated thing. But consider this: the planet Venus is visible at night and often appears to be “following” the viewer. Venus is the third brightest thing in the sky after the sun and the moon, so it makes an impact. If is often low on the horizon and seems to change color due to earth’s atmosphere. What is a more reasonable explanation; aliens traversed the vacuum of space with super-duper cool technology and are now slowly following your car just to mess with you, or you are mistaking the planet Venus for a spacecraft? Aliens aren’t stalking you, Venus is...and so am I.

What about those things in a V formation flying silently toward a military base? Is it alien technology that the government is hiding from us? Maybe, or it could be a flock of birds seen at a strange angle. Birds usually don’t make too much noise when they fly, at least not when they are far away. And they are going towards the military base because it is south. Birds often fly in that direction, especially before winter.  A funny yet familiar story happened to the abovementioned astrophysicist while watching a shuttle launch. He saw a strange flying V formation coming towards him and couldn’t tell that it was birds until they were very close. If birds can confuse an astrophysicist, they can confuse you.

A special note on Roswell: I really don’t understand the big hoopla over the Roswell cover-up. I mean, an experimental military balloon project mishap is going to be covered up. Duh. Things get classified for good reasons, like keeping important information about advances from the enemy. It has nothing to do with aliens. In fact, the military would probably rather people focused on aliens – that way the real, important information gets overlooked. You know, when I was interning in Port Townsend, WA, I went to the walk-in clinic about some random (most likely hippie-bourn) illness. The nurse there proceeded to tell me about how she saw strange lights in the sky above the local state park. Now, Port Townsend is close to an active military base (it is also full of crazy people who don’t believe the moon landing was real). Could it be that those lights had something to do with that? Or could they have been related to the active shipping lines of the Strait of Juan de Fuca? No. It MUST have been aliens…and this woman has been trained in the sciences. We are all doomed.

Moving on, let’s tackle that abduction case. I know we have all heard that supposed cases of abduction are probably due to sleep paralysis, that’s probably because nearly all of those abduction cases are due to sleep paralysis. Either that, or drugs, alcohol, active dreams, or some combination of the four. Sleep paralysis isn’t really that rare. It isn’t even new. And, it’s completely natural! Hooray. It usually happens just before or just after sleep. It causes temporary paralysis (duh), often making it hard to breathe (almost like something pressing on your chest!), and can cause hallucinations. This happens to perfectly sane people who don’t normally hallucinate. I even have a friend who suffers from this from time to time. He knows what it is, but it is still very terrifying because calling for help is very difficult.

Another strange thing about abductions is the people that the supposed aliens take. I mean, they never take the President or the Pope or some other logical figure. Heck, they don’t even take Vice President Biden, even though nobody would mind (Democrats and Republicans both agree on this).

So, eyewitness testimony to UFO sightings is not scientific or reliable. What else do people use to “prove” the visits of aliens? Photos, videos, crop circles, implants, etc.

Let’s start with photos and videos. An amateur photographer or videographer tends to get things wrong. Things like shaking the camera (which makes objects appear to move) or mistaking a piece of flint exaggerated by a nearby light source as a spacecraft. Many photos and videos can also be doctored. I don’t know of a single piece of photo or taped footage that has been scientifically evaluated by credentialed, unbiased, professionals that has been determined to be an alien spacecraft. Things may be unidentified, but there is no proof that they are extraterrestrial in origin. If something is unidentified in a photo, its origin is probably mundane. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. A weird smudge in a photo is not extraordinary.

Crop circles are easily made. No joke, I could do some with you if you know of a suitable field that doesn’t belong to a farmer with a gun. Or, if you want to make it a surprise, this site should help you out: http://www.circlemakers.org/guide.html. The point is; there is nothing supernatural about crop circles. Occam’s Razor would favor the human-made explanation rather than the “aliens did it to communicate with us” one. Why don’t they just send a message to the President about their arrival on earth? Or even a senator? If I can send my senator hate mail, so can aliens.

Implants are tricky, because I don’t really care that much about them. I don’t know what it is. I mean…somebody finds some random crap jammed up their nose. So? It happens to toddlers all the time. Maybe it’s a tumor, or that piece of pencil led you never removed as a kid. It isn’t either of those? Then why don’t you go to a doctor, have it removed, and then give it to a (credible and unbiased) scientist to examine? Oh wait, that would ruin the whole UFO story. Anyone know of any credible scientist or doctor who has come forth publically claiming to have found an alien implant? Neither have I. Have any major (again, reputable) science or medical publications presented articles about finding an alien tracking device? No. I will acknowledge that doctors probably find strange and maybe even unidentifiable things in people’s bodies all the time. That does not give credit to the theory of alien implantation. The human body can be full of foreign objects (more so if the person is especially kinky); bullets, knife tips, toys, parts of pencils or pens, shrapnel, other people’s body parts, plastic, bags of cocaine, marble, strange metals, etc. None of these things are unexplainable; they are just weird (and possibly illegal).

So let’s calm down, shall we?  Maybe we will find aliens some day! When/if that happens, cool (or uncool, depending on the aliens)! Until then, let’s not kick our brains out the door. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Occupy the Lungs

If you have been following the news or the paper or your neighbor’s T.V. lately, then you are probably aware of the Occupy [fill in location] phenomenon. It consists of groups of people who have legitimate concerns about where the economy is headed, homeless people, and hippies. These people camp out in front of government buildings, holding signs and educating the public. So, with all of this going on in the news I thought I would blog about Tuberculosis (the artist formerly known as Consumption). It’s a horrible, horrible disease that has been popping up amid the Occupy Atlanta protests.  You see, Tuberculosis, or TB, loves a good group. Especially a group that is cold, wet, and tired (immune systems may be on overload). And because TB is airborne, it can fly out of a hippie’s nose and be inhaled by anyone in the general vicinity (depending on what the wind is up to). Fortunately, TB is treatable in the modern world. A latent (think dormant) infection can be kept at bay with drugs. An active infection can be fought off with lots more drugs. Unfortunately, there are drug-resistant strains. These strains REALLY, REALLY suck. Without proper treatment, TB is deadly.
            Historically, a TB or “consumption” infection meant a slow and agonizing death. The patient is weak, feverish, and coughs up blood. And, because it could take them years to die, sufferers were often considered burdens to their families. TB was very common, and was frequently alluded to in Victorian novels. Remember that beautiful yet weakly lady on the couch with the cough and chills? TB. Remember that random side character who had to take care of her dearly ill mother? TB. Remember that lover writing home to his sweetheart from treatment in a warm climate? TB. For soldiers, death on the battlefield could be considered lucky compared to catching TB in camp. Prior to the 20th century, far more soldiers died of illness than of enemy attack.
            Modern drugs and frequent use of the TB test have helped developed societies keep TB in check. In the US and Europe, it is considered a thing of the past. However, as we have learned from Atlanta, it raises its ugly head every so often. So, don’t hang out with coughing people, wash your hands, and try not to congregate in disease-prone environs.

Below are some famous people who suffered from Tuberculosis:  

Alexander Graham Bell 
John Keats                               
Paul Gauguin
Eleanor Roosevelt
Louis Braille
"Doc" Holliday
Vivien Leigh
Ho Chi Minh

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Sky Is Falling!

No, it isn't, but crap from outer space tends to fall into our atmosphere. We call this crap a meteor. Don't worry, it isn't composed of literal crap. Meteors are mostly composed of iron and stones (sometimes they have BOTH). But let's complicate things. Technically, that clump of space stuff is called a meteoroid while it is wandering through space. It doesn't become a meteor until it enters our atmosphere. Once it lands, it's called a meteorite. So, let's try to remember these terms.


This is a clump of space rock hurling through the galaxy. It leads a cold and lonely existence and can sometimes be seen with the help of a telescope. We can remember this term by thinking that the oid part of meteoroid sounds alien to us...and aliens are from space...just like a meteoroid.


The space clump has entered the atmosphere and is starting to get hot. It may just burn up and die. This is the easiest term to remember because a bunch of falling meteors is called a meteor shower. That's a term we are used to. Meteors are also sometimes called falling stars but this is an inaccurate portrayal and is considered offensive to most meteors.


These are the clumps that actually make contact with the earth. They hang out, cleverly disguised as rocks (one could argue that they are rocks, but again, that is offensive to meteorites), until they are found by someone. If that someone is a child, that meteorite may fly once again and then crash into the neighbors window. If a scientist finds it, the meteorite might just get named and put on display somewhere. Or it might get sold. Whatever.

Meteoroid meteor meteorite

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Unloved Miocene

When you think about the Miocene epoch (roughly 23 – 5 million years ago, snuggled between the Oligocene and the Pliocene), what comes to mind? Probably nothing and that makes me sad. We’ve all heard about the Cretaceous, the Jurassic, and the Pleistocene (at least we better have) but not necessarily the Miocene. This has to change, because the Miocene has lots of very nice things to share with the world. Things like the formation of mountains, the spread of grasslands, and kelp forests. The Miocene also had really cool animals running around; the grazing variety of horses, early dogs, and giant birds. And humans weren’t really around yet, which appeals to me. Clearly, the Miocene was a pretty neat time to be around. Not like the stupid Ordovician period. Nobody cares about the Ordovician period.
            Now, the Miocene wasn’t just fun and games, some treetop browsers, such as early camels and giraffes, had a hard time due to the spread of grasslands. But they persisted and eventually flourished again in later times.
            Other animals had a better time of it. Horses really got to stretch their legs during the Miocene. Originally confined to forests during the Eocene, horses were able to evolve into much larger, faster animals during the grassy Miocene. A large variety of horses began to evolve, many of which ditched those out-of-date extra toes in favor of the sleek, minimalist-hooved look.

            Another cool Miocene inhabitant was Deinotherium, a rather silly-looking elephant relative with downward-pointing tusks. But don’t tell them that, because they could mess you up. Standing at 14.5ft at the shoulder, Deinotherium was the second largest land mammal ever (second to Paraceratherium, a rhino-relative). Other elephant-like beasts that lived during the Miocene include Gomphotherium, a four-tusked primitive mastodon, and Platybelodon, an early mastodon with shovel-like tusks.

 With all these super-duper cool animals walking around, doesn't the Miocene deserve our praise? I think so. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sheep vs. Goats: More to It than Just Wool

Sorry for the delay, I was away for three weeks. It has become quite clear to me that most people don’t know a thing about animals – animals besides dogs and cats, that is. Just listen to what people tell their children at the zoo. Lies. A zebra isn’t a striped horse and that antelope is a gerenuk, NOT an impala. But let’s start with something simple. What’s the difference between a sheep and a goat? I’ll give you a hint, wool is only the tip of the barnyard iceberg.

I’ll start with the similarities. Both sheep and goats are ruminants (herbivores that have a rumen, the first compartment of their stomach, and regurgitate their food for re-chewing), have roughly the same body shape and size, and have been domesticated. They also both tend to have horns (although not all breeds are horned), creepy looking pupils, and voices that sound like baaahhh or muuuugh or aaaahhhgh depending on their mood. But, did you know that not all sheep breeds have wool? I bet that just blew your mind! Also, some breeds of goats were developed for fiber production. Woah! It’s true. The so-called “hair sheep” breeds don’t have wool and are bred for meat or even milk production (although wool breeds are also bred for these reasons). “Hair” breeds such as the katahdin and Barbados blackbelly are often easier to raise because they don’t require shearing, which often costs more than the price of wool. These sheep are often mistaken for goats. On the goat-y side of the equation, breeds such as the angora and pygora are bred for their fiber production. They are covered with curly white hair (called mohair) which makes them appear very sheepish (forgive me for that pun). Confused yet? Of course not.

Hair Sheep                                           Angora Goat

The Differences:

1. Horns – There are subtle yet important differences between the horns of sheep and those of goats (when they are a horned breed, of course). Sheep have the classic “rams horns” – tightly curling horns that tend to wrap around in a Princess Leia fashion. Goat horns tend to curve more slightly and arch back, rather than to the sides. Some goat horns are somewhat spiraled, almost like those of an antelope.

2. Tails – Goats have naturally short tails, sheep have longer tails. The reason they both look similar, however, is that most sheep have their tails docked at a young age.

3. Beards – Some goats have beards, sheep do not.

4. Glands – Male goats have scent glands under their tails. This is one of the main reasons male goats smell so awful. Rams (male sheep) are less odorous and have glands near their eyes (as do many antelope) and sometimes on their feet.

5. Behavior – Behaviorally speaking, sheep and goats are as different as cats and dogs…according to me anyway. Goats are more outgoing and hilarious than sheep. Goats are more independent than sheep, while sheep have a strong flocking instinct. While feeding, goats are browsers while sheep are grazers. Goats eat vines, shrubs, twigs, and leaves while sheep stick to grass. While fighting, rams will charge at each other head first, while bucks (male goats) will rear and then butt heads.

And now we know the differences between sheep and goats. Hooray!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Actually, I AM From Around Here

I’m feeling patriotic at the moment, and there is no better way to celebrate the United States of America than by taking a look at the amazing animals that evolved here in the long, long ago. This is a fact. So let’s meet these all-American all-stars!


Horses (well, equines in general) evolved in North America. I AM SO HAPPY ABOUT THIS. Each time a ten year old girl wins a ribbon at her local Pony Club show, the terrorists lose and America wins. Horses have been in North America since the Eocene (with a brief absence of about 9,500 years after the Pleistocene extinction). They started out as little bitty things and then evolved to bigger things. Technically speaking, the genus equus (horses, asses, zebras, etc.) evolved during the Pliocene – so zebras are also American…as are donkeys. So horses are American heroes and we should acknowledge them as such


That’s right, camels are American. Like horses, they evolved in North America in the long, long ago times. Camels and llamas were more similar back then, and the two groups didn’t really branch off until the Pleistocene (they separated due to artistic differences but remained friends). Camels went across the Bering Land Bridge to Asia while llamas moved South America (although many camels and llamas remained in North America until the Pleistocene extinction). So the next time you see Lawrence of Arabia, remember that you are looking at Americans.


This one is not as much of a surprise. The wolf and the coyote both evolved in North America and spread throughout much of the world via aforementioned land bridge.  


These strange rainforest dwellers are now only found in Central and South America, and in Southeast Asia. However, they too evolved in North America. Tapirs migrated south during the Great American Interchange (when North and South America joined at Panama) about 3 million years ago. Up until recently (10,000 years ago) tapirs were common in North America. I think we should bring them back because they are super cute.

Oddly enough, neither bison nor deer evolved in North America. They came over from Eurasia. Bison in general haven’t fared very well. They were hunted almost to extinction in both North America and Europe. The North American bison, however, has made somewhat of a comeback, while the wisent (European bison) has remained extremely endangered. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Tale of Two Cats

We’ve heard of the term “big cats,” but what does it mean exactly? Is it solely a size classification? If so, where do we draw the line? The lion is certainly big, but a clouded leopard is of a more moderate build, and an ocelot, while smaller, is still larger than the household tabby. If poundage alone is the factor, then Fat- Ass McFluff down the road could be considered wild game. Like many confusing terms, the classification between “big cat” and “small cat” is an informal one. So “big cat” isn’t truly an academic term. But we hear it often enough, so we should know what it means.

The main differences between the two groups are size (duh) and the ability to roar. Yep. “Big cats” are big and “small cats” are small (sort of). But only the “big cats” roar (with the exception of the snow leopard, silly baby). Roars are generated by an elongated larynx; the longer the larynx, the bigger the roar. Oddly enough, the snow leopard has a similar larynx but still cannot roar.

Some big ones: lion, tiger, leopard, cheetah
Some small ones: ocelot, margay, lynx

Panthera tigris tigrisOcelot

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Prions, How Do They Work?

Also, what the hell are they? To be honest, before researching this blog entry, my image of a prion consisted of a small ball with a happy face on it that gave you mad-cow (as it turns out, I wasn’t too far off).
Happy smiley face
According to American Heritage Dictionary, a prion is “a microscopic protein particle similar to a virus but lacking nucleic acid, possibly the infectious agent responsible for scrapie and other degenerative diseases of the nervous system.” Thanks, the internet! Now I know exactly what a prion is! I am so happy about that.

But what does a prion do? For this answer, I turn to a more serious-faced resource, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (remember the CDC? It’s been mentioned in movies). The CDC doesn’t like prions. They say all sorts of bad things about them. This is probably because prions cause horrible, debilitating diseases that end in agonizing death. Here’s what they have to say about the matter:

A prion is an abnormal, transmissible agent that is able to induce abnormal folding of normal cellular prion proteins in the brain, leading to brain damage and the characteristic signs and symptoms of the disease. Prion diseases are usually rapidly progressive and always fatal.

That sounds bad. It sounds bad because it is bad. Prions basically eat our brains. Here is the CDC’s list of diseases for which prions are thought to be responsible:

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD)
Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD)
Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker Syndrome
Fatal Familial Insomnia
Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)
Transmissible mink encephalopathy
Feline spongiform encephalopathy
Ungulate spongiform encephalopathy

So, my original idea of a prion being a smiling ball that kills has been revised. A prion is an evil squiggly line that kills. Here is an artistic rendering using 3-D technology: 

BOVINE PRION PROTEIN 1dx0 asym r 500

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Fowl Reign of Terror

Forgive me for my hideous pun. Now, imagine a land of giant, flightless, predatory birds. Paradise, right? If you’re a bird. If you’re a mammal, you may be stalked, run down, and killed by a sharp beak to the skull. This is how life was like in North and South America 5-2 million years ago. The Phorusrhacids, commonly known as “terror birds,” were apex predators. Their ancestors evolved in South America and migrated north – the only giant predator to do so during the Great American Interchange (when North and South America were joined via what is now Panama). This jolly group of birds stood between 3-10 feet tall and could run an estimated 30mph. Isn’t that nice? I think so. Another fun factoid: the Kelenken, a member of the Phorusrhacidae, had the largest skull of any known bird. The beak was 18in long. So the next time you see an ostrich, just be glad it isn’t a terror bird. 

Paraphysornis skeleton 

Monday, August 1, 2011

Wild vs. Feral

By now you have probably realized that I am a stickler for correct terminology. Today’s subject will be dedicated to the difference between the terms “wild” and “feral.” We tend to use them interchangeably, with a certain preference for “wild” when describing things like mustangs (“wild” horses), dromedary camels (“wild” camels), and Courtney Love (“wild” child). None of these things are technically wild. Real wild things have never gone through domestication by humans. When something that has been domesticated is subsequently released or escapes from captivity, it and its descendants are feral. Feral animals (as in the case of pigeons and Courtney Love) are often considered pests. In some instances (as with mustangs), however, this labeling is unjustified as feral animals often take the ecological place left by their extinct or endangered wild counterparts. Let’s start with the dictionary definition of both words as shown on dictionary.com:

1.      living in a state of nature; not tamed or domesticated: a wild animal; wild geese.

2.      having reverted to the wild state, as from domestication: a pack of feral dogs roaming the woods.

Now it’s time for some fun examples!

Przewalski horse


Bactrian camel

Dromedary camel

African wild dog

Feral dog

Scottish wild cat

Feral cat

Mourning dove


Taylor from “Planet of the Apes”

Kurt Cobain

Monday, July 25, 2011

Paleoastrology: Columbi, July 23 - August 22

Today’s post commences a monthly paleoastrological horoscope. This horoscope is similar to the generic one except that it is much older, and therefore, more mystical. We shall explore the earth’s alignment to the stars and its influence on our lives through ancient Pleistocene animal constellations. It is all very scientific, I assure you. My cat I have reincarnated through each successive sign and am therefore quite qualified to speak on the matter.
Forget Leo, this is the zodiacal month of Columbi, the trumpeting Columbian mammoth in the sky. The stars do not lie, what you see below is clearly a giant Columbian mammoth.
People born under the sign of Columbi are leaders, and excel in strictly structured surroundings, as found in academia and the military. They are intelligent, charismatic, and outgoing, but become very dangerous when provoked. Columbi are late-bloomers, and are most vulnerable when young. As adults, however, they are nearly invincible. The most apt protectors of all the star signs, Columbi are formidable opponents. They are also well-traveled, but their migratory nature makes it hard for them to put down roots. Columbi get along well with most other star signs, but remain wary of Smilodon and Dirus, the dire wolf. Famous Columbi include: Amelia Earhart, Alexandre Dumas, Benito Mussolini, Emily Bronte, Henry Ford, Rasputin, Arnold Schwarzennegger, Peter O’Toole, Yassar Arafat, Annie Oakley, Fidel Castro, Alfred Hitchcock, Davey Crockett, T.E. Lawrence, and Napoleon.