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.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Seals vs. Sea Lions

Although they both look like overweight dogs with flippers, seals and sea lions are a bit different from one another. Both are classified in the superfamily of Pinnipeds. But then they break into three groups; Phocidae (true seals), Otariidae (sea lions and fur seals), and Odobenidae (walruses).

(True) Seals: Animals belonging to the Phodicae branch are considered "true" seals. They have ear holes (no external ears), furry front flippers, and use their back flippers to power themselves through the water. Members of this group include; harp seals, harbor seals, hooded seals, monk seals, and leopard seals. They are cute, blubbery, and dislike club-wielding Canadians.
Save me from Canadians
I eat penguins

Sea Lions (and Fur Seals): These guys are Otariids. This group has external ears, hairless flippers, and propel themselves using their foreflippers. They can also maneuver better on land using their large foreflippers. Sea Lions include: the California and Stellar sea lion. Fur Seals include; the Galapagos fur seal, the Antarctic fur seal, and the Northern fur seal. Otariids enjoy ballancing balls on the ends of their noses, and jumping into expensive yachts in the Newport Beach Harbor.
A common sea lion task

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show

As we all know, the Arabian horse is the greatest breed of horse ever to grace humanity with its presence. This is a fact proven by science* and I love science. As a fangirl of the Arabian, the Scottsdale show was my Comicon. This is perhaps the largest Arabian horse show in the world, and it was full of the good, the bad, and the … well, Arabians are never ugly. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Arabian horses (and I pity your sad, sad souls), the Arabian is the oldest breed of horse (the breed goes back nearly 4,000 years). Originally bred by the Bedouins, these horses are known for their stamina, heat tolerance, intelligence, beauty, and loyalty to people. The Arabian is also one of the most easily identifiable horses with its high-set tail, dished head, large nostrils, arched neck, and short back. Their faces are expressive; their eyes are large and dark. Because the Arabian horse was so important to Bedouin war and life, it was regarded with the highest honor and respect. With the arrival of Islam, the Arabian horse gained status as a gift from God.

Now back to Scottsdale. Some of the classes I got to watch were Reining, English Pleasure, Hunter, Native Costume, Halter, Liberty, Dressage, and Sport Horse in Hand. Because I was only there for two days, I missed a lot (the show lasts for two weeks). Nevertheless, I learned a lot.

General Observations: Overall, I had a great time. The horses were gorgeous and in wonderful condition. Westworld, where the show was held, was spectacular. It is a HUGE facility. Even so, the show was crowded. It was nice to see so many non-Arabian horse people too. The competitors and barn representatives were a tight-lipped group that didn’t exude hospitality (the exception was Sheila Varian, of Varian Arabians, who is an equestrian Saint and High Priestess of Awesome). I was a bit disappointed that people weren’t as warm to visitors. I can’t really blame these people though, I mean, showing horses is stressful. On a philosophical note, I’m worried that the breed is getting too niche-oriented; halter horses only do halter, western horses only do western, etc. We are starting to see a major phenotypical divergence between say, park horses (who are starting to resemble Saddlebreds) and halter horses (who look like the offspring of angels and swans). One of the reasons I love the Arabian breed so much is that it can rock the performance world while still looking good. I just hope we can keep that up. A halter horse that can’t be ridden is almost useless; a park horse that moves, acts, and looks like a Saddlebred is…a Saddlebred with an Arabian pedigree.

Halter stance...but I liked this stallion. He didn't win...
Individual Classes: I didn’t get to see much dressage, reining or hunter, but what I did see was enjoyable. I found the English pleasure and park type classes to be fascinating, but I’m not too familiar with this style of riding to pass any judgments. It looked like people in tuxedos and bowler hats were riding horse-shaped rockets. Native costume was super fun to watch, definitely a crowd-pleaser. Liberty (where they let the horse loose in the arena for two minutes and watch it run around to music) was also popular, although I think the wrong horse won. Sport horse in-hand was really neat. I got to see the purebred gelding class compete and I found these horses to be of very high caliber. This class is a bit like halter, but focuses more on traditional sport horse movement (hunter, dressage, etc.) and sound conformation. The horses are presented in English bridles with their manes and tails braided. It is lower-energy than the “regular” halter classes, but I was impressed by the horses. Overall, they were solid, athletic horses who managed to keep Arabian “type.” The Sport horse handlers were also a bit more conversational. As for “regular” halter, I have a love/hate relationship with the event. I love how much energy and exuberance it exhibits. I hate how much rough handling went on and how much politics played a role in the rankings. By “rough handling,” I mean constant yanking on the lead rope and threatening with the whip. A number of the horses (yearlings especially) looked tense and frightened. Any incorrect movement, such as breaking into a canter or having the incorrect stance during lineup, would bring a crank on the lead and a snap on the back legs with the whip. I do not think this shows the breed in the best light. Outsiders don’t understand what’s going on or what the judges are looking for. A number of spectators asked me about judging criteria because they had NO IDEA based on what they were watching. And this is where politics comes in. To be fair, I can understand that the Big Name Trainers are going to get the Big Name Horses. This makes sense. But there is something amiss when I can name the top three places in any halter class based solely on who holds the lead line. Give me a list of the handlers/trainers and I’ll tell you which horses are going to place…I don’t need to see the horses. Okay, rant from the peanut gallery is over, time for pictures!
Native Costume
I could'a been a contender.
Halter Action
The crowd favorite.
Won his class and got Reserve Champion for Junior  Stallions. 

Nothing says "Arabian Horse Show" like an owl.
Yearling Halter


The Boggs himself. One of the top 3 halter trainers

Sport Horse. This handler lady was nice to me.
Half-Arab Native Costume

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Not T-Rex

This may come as a shock to many people, but there were more dinosaurs than Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and those long-necked ones (and for goodness sake, pterodactyl was NOT a dinosaur). It’s true. You see, T-Rex was the hot, popular, talented, athletic girl (or guy) of Mesozoic High (their mascot was the Trojan, oddly enough). Everyone knew her and wanted to be her, date her, or burn her (or, him, etc.). But let’s not forget the other cast of characters. Who could forget that super-geek-turned-billionaire-by-30, Troodon. Or that star quarterback who secretly wrote poetry, Lusotitan. Or that super-annoying drama student, Therizinosaurus, who went from hall to hall gesticulating and quoting Mamet. I’m going to end this stupid metaphor now. But the point is, there are a lot of interesting yet relatively unheard-of dinosaurs out there just waiting for a walk-on role in a Spielberg movie. Sorry for that metaphor too.

Below a handful of the other (not T-Rex) big carnivorous dinosaurs;

Carnotaurus: This mid-Cretaceous carnivore grew to 25ft and weighed up to a ton. They were impressive, but also hilarious. You see, Carnotaurus had a short, yet tall head with horns over each eye. They also had stumpy arms…super stumpy arms. Carnotaurus arms make Tyrannosaur arms seem willowy by comparison. Plus their arms were fatter. They were still badass though. I mean, something with a name like “meat-eating bull” is going to be pretty badass.
 Allosaurus: I’m a fan of Allosaurus. Good old Al was a big player in the late Jurassic. This 45ft long theropod was widely distributed and is now one of the most well-studied dinosaurs. Allosaurus was smaller than a T-Rex, but still an apex predator. Its three-fingered arms were usable too! Plus it had a ridge-like crest in front of each eye, giving it a dash of exoticism, without the silliness of a flashier feature, like a sail on its back.
 Acrocanthosaurus: Speaking of things with sails on its back, Acrocanthosaurus was an early Cretaceous predator. I’m glad I wasn’t born in the early Cretaceous, because as soon as I would spot Acrocanthosaurus with its Allosaur-like body and thick fin down its back, I would laugh. Then I would be eaten. I just can’t take the sail-dinos seriously (Spinosaurus and I aren’t talking anymore).
 Megalosaurus: Megalosaurus was the first dinosaur to be discovered and properly (scientifically) studied. Because it was the first, it got the lamest name, which means “big lizard.” Personally, I think that name sucks. Another indignity this big lizard suffered was being the dumping ground of mistakenly-assigned Jurassic bones found in Europe. Fortunately, we haven’t been using this genus as a wastebasket in more recent years. You’re welcome, Megalosaurus. 
Updated Version
Victorian Version

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Sexy Studs of Science: Dr. Robert Bakker

When you first see him he looks rugged with his wide-brimmed hat and magnificent grey beard. But look closer. Look into those eyes. You’ll find the soul of the rock-star of paleontology. Men want to have a beer with him and women…want to have a beer with him. His name is Robert Bakker – man, myth, legend – and he kicks ass.

Bakker, paleontologist extraordinaire, along with his mentor, Dr. John Ostrom, sparked the “Dinosaur Renaissance” which continues to this day. He helped popularize the concept that dinosaurs were warm-blooded, that dinosaurs had feathers, found evidence that Allosaurus cared for their young, and worked as an advisor for Jurassic Park. Currently, he is Curator of Paleontology for the Houston Museum of Natural Science. He is also a sexy, sexy man.

Born in New Jersey in 1945, Bakker is no ordinary paleontologist. He is also an artist, writer (he wrote the FANTASTIC novel, Raptor Red), and Christian minister. That’s right; he is a paleontologist and a minister! Personally, I think that makes him magical. He finds no conflict between evolutionary science and faith.  I’m pretty sure he is the offspring of Gandalf and Indiana Jones.

As far as his personal life goes, he has supposedly been married four times. I’m not sure if he is currently married, but if not, hooray! Now sit back and enjoy some photos of the super-sexy scientist!
I love this man.
Even Gorgosaurus loves him. 
Just look into those eyes.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Lesser-Known Geniuses

Dolphins and chimps seem to get all the limelight, what with their fancy self-recognition and sign language abilities. But they aren’t the only animals smarter than your toddler, oh no! If dolphins are the NASA spokespeople of the animal world, then the following creatures are the homelier engineers and astrophysicists that do the real work. Please forgive these analogies.

Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos): These grim-looking eaters of carrion are highly intelligent. Studies have shown that they can identify human faces, use tools to catch food, and learn by observation. Crows in Australia have been able to hunt the poison-skinned cane toads by flipping the amphibians onto their backs and eating their innards. This practice has spread from group to group via observation. It is also thought that crows have episodic memory. So the next time you look into the black eyes of the crow in front of your house, remember that it probably recognizes you.
I'm constantly watching you.
Pigs (Sus scrofa domesticus): These hideous and thoroughly un-kosher beasts are surprisingly intelligent. Pigs crave novelty and love investigating things with their snouts. As pets, they can learn tricks and are often compared to dogs. They can also be trained to hunt truffles, much as a bloodhound is trained to hunt murder victims. So, the next time you eat bacon, remember that you’re eating an animal that is likely smarter than your dog.
Smarter than your dalmatian.
Octopuses (Octopus vulgaris): Yes! The plural of octopus is octopuses and NOT octopi! Now that we know that we can move one. These eight-legged freaks of the deep are super smart, which scares me. They have both long and short-term memory and can learn to navigate mazes. In labs, they can identify different objects and shapes. They also seem to enjoy playing with toys. Unlike any other known invertebrate, octopuses can use tools. In aquariums, they are notorious escape artists. Perhaps the creepiest aspect of octopus intelligence is the fact they learn little from their parents. They just seem to know things.

In my garden, under the sea.

Other smarty-pants animals include; mockingbirds, elephants, and rats. Hooray!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Inbreeding, its a Bad Thing

The above statement may seem obvious enough, but many animal breeders practice it with alarming frequency. The topic of inbreeding (or “linebreeding” if the baby turns out okay) has been on my mind for a while now. I know it was utilized to “fix” desirable traits in many registered purebred horses, but I didn’t really ponder the frequency of inbreeding until recently. And it’s not just horses. The family tree of most purebred dogs is now a bush. A tiny, tiny bush. The BBC documentary, “Pedigree Dogs Exposed,” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJQdYG2WHoE&feature=related) really opened my eyes to the problems of severe inbreeding in dogs. These problems include; bone and joint disorders (German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Great Danes, many more), obsessive compulsive disorder (Dobermans), epilepsy (Boxers and others),  Mitral valve dysplasia (King Charles Spaniels), brachycephalic airway obstruction syndrome (Boston Terriers, Pugs, Pekingese), deafness (Dalmatians), Dermoid sinus (Rhodesian Ridgebacks), and many types of cancer. Wonderful. An article in this month’s National Geographic Magazine about dog traits proved to be quite illuminating. Discussing genetic disease, the article states that “because dogs have been genetically segregated into breeds developed from just a few original individuals, each breed has a much smaller set of errant genes – often only one or two – underlying the disease.” The article continues by stating “the possibilities are especially abundant for cancer, certain types of which can show up as often as 60 percent of the time in some dog breeds but only once in every 10,000 humans.” A 60 percent cancer rate? That is CRAZY! Can’t we do some outcrossing here to improve the health of dogs? Will the world end if we cross our German Shepherds with a few Belgian Malinois to boost genetic diversity? I admit, I am not a dog person, so I’ll leave it up to the dog fans to figure out what sort of breeds should be “genetically expanded” with what.
A German Shepherd show dog. Look at those back legs.
What the German Shepherd used to look like. 
Back to horses. My favorite breed, the Arabian, exhibits lots of “linebreeding” in certain horse families. Egyptian Arabians are particularly linebred. Trying to find an Egyptian Arabian without Nazeer (a popular stallion who produced other popular stallions) in its pedigree is like trying to find a skinny person in Houston – they exist, but just barely. Most linebred horses turn out fine. Others are not so lucky. SCIDS (severe combined immune deficiency disorder) crops up from time to time within the Arabian breed, as does CA (Cerebellar Abiotrophy). Now, disease and disorders will exist up in any group of animals, but inbreeding tends to increase the frequency of problems. If a mare has X disorder and is bred to an unrelated stallion without the disorder, the baby may be healthy (depending on the disorder). But if we breed that same mare with her grandfather who also happens to be a carrier of X, then the resulting foal is more likely to inherit the disease. This is an oversimplification, of course. Determining the likelihood of disorders depends upon many more variables.
Nazeer, the "Father Abraham" of Egyptian Arabians.
Let’s turn to Quarter Horses now. HERDA (Hereditary Equine Regional Dermal Asthenia) is a disease that affects this breed (and related breeds). This disease causes the skin to separate between the superficial and deep dermal layers…which means the skin stretches and sloughs off! That is nasty. The disease is caused by a homozygous recessive gene that has been traced back to ONE stallion, Poco Bueno. A horse must have two copies of the gene in order to express the horrifying skin condition. Another genetic horror story that plagues Quarter Horses is HYPP (Hyperkalemic periodic paralysis). This condition is similar to epilepsy and can be traced to another popular stallion, Impressive. This condition is dominant, so even one copy of the gene will cause symptoms. Apparently, HYPP occurs in one in fifty Quarter Horses. All of these horses can be traced back to the same stallion. Fortunately for Quarter Horses, they are the most popular breed in the world and have numbers on their side. It should be fairly easy to find outcross pedigrees to breed with. Egyptian Arabians aren’t so lucky. I’m glad Nazeer didn’t carry any of these diseases or the Egyptian Arabian would be in hot water.
Boco Bueno
Are there solutions to these genetic problems? An obvious answer is outcrossing. Simply breed more non-related or super-distantly related individuals. Horse and dog breeders should also utilize the wonders of modern science and get their breeding stock tested for genetic disorders. All of the above-mentioned horse disorders can be discovered through DNA testing. Testing animals will cost a little bit more money, but the health of the animal is worth it. Plus, no one said horse breeding was a cheap hobby.  Rant over…for now.