Rodents rely on restaurants for food

Sunday, May 24th, 2020

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is warning that rodents are becoming increasingly aggressive as they scavenge for food:

In an advisory posted to its website, the health agency noted that rodents rely on food and waste generated at commercial establishments such as restaurants. Closures and limits on service have caused rodents to search for new sources of food and to exhibit more erratic behavior.

They have been forced to watch in frustration as the insects devoured their farms and gardens

Friday, May 1st, 2020

This has been quite a year. Now Africa is expecting a record wave of locusts:

First came the floods. The waters swamped bean and corn fields and created a breeding ground for a swarm of desert locusts the size of Manhattan that fanned out and destroyed a swath of farmland across eight East African nations as large as Oklahoma earlier this year.

Now their offspring are threatening a historic infestation—a second wave of locusts, 20 times as large as the first, that the U.N. warns could chew their way through 2 million square miles of pastureland, farms and gardens, around half the size of Western Europe.

The swarms, which would be by far the largest on record, are expected to descend as the new coronavirus accelerates across East Africa, raising the prospect of a double-shock to some of the world’s poorest and most heavily-indebted economies.

[...]

Compounding the problem, Gen. Kavuma’s unit also spends much of its time on the lookout for people violating stay-at-home orders as Ugandan authorities attempt to halt the spread of the transmission of the coronavirus. Uganda’s lockdown is one of the world’s strictest. During the previous infestation, farmers banged drums, whistled and threw stones to protect their crops. But in recent days they have been forced to watch in frustration as the insects devoured their farms and gardens, trapped inside by fear of the virus and the security forces enforcing the lockdown.

Farmers are trapped inside?

Leave bats, in particular, the hell alone

Tuesday, March 24th, 2020

David Quammen’s 2012 book Spillover charts the ecology and spread of “zoonoses,” diseases transmitted between animals and humans, and makes these four points:

Prepare for the worst, while hoping for the best.

Zoonotic spillovers will keep coming, as long as we drag wild animals to us and split them open.

A tropical forest, with its vast diversity of visible creatures and microbes, is like a beautiful old barn: knock it over with a bulldozer and viruses will rise in the air like dust.

Leave bats, in particular, the hell alone.

Salamanders and other amphibians glow green when bathed in blue light

Thursday, March 5th, 2020

Salamanders and other amphibians glow green when bathed in blue light:

Amphibians fluoresce green to yellow in response to blue (440–460?nm) (Figs. 1 and 2) and ultra-violet excitation light (360–380?nm) (Supplementary Fig. 2), but the biofluorescent light emitted under blue excitation is more intense than when excited by ultra-violet light (Supplementary Fig. 2). Fluorescent green coloration in response to blue excitation light is strikingly widespread across the amphibian radiation (Figs. 1 and 2) and is the focus of this survey. Every amphibian species and life stage we examined, including aquatic larvae, is biofluorescent (Supplementary Table 1). Peak fluorescent emissions coming from these amphibians (Fig. 2) fall within the spectrum of green light (ca. 520–560?nm). The intensities of fluorescent light we recorded were variable among taxa (Figs. 1 and 2) and weakest for those that lacked bright or reflective pigments (i.e., yellows, oranges, whites).

Salamanders and other amphibians are aglow with biofluorescence 1

The bird’s fingers are important for steering

Sunday, January 19th, 2020

Birds change the shape of their wings far more than planes do, and David Lentink, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University, and his team explored this while creating their PigeonBot:

The researchers used common pigeon cadavers to try to figure out the mechanics of how birds control the motion of their feathers during flight. Scientists had thought the feathers might be controlled by individual muscles. But they learned that some aspects of bird wing motion are simpler than they expected.

Lentink says that several doctoral students realized that simply by moving the birds’ “wrist” and “finger,” the feathers would fall into place. When the bird’s wrist and finger moves, “all the feathers move, too, and they do this automatically,” he said. “And that’s really cool.”

The findings are some of the first evidence that the bird’s fingers are important for steering. The team replicated the bird’s wing on the PigeonBot using 40 pigeon feathers, springs and rubber bands connected to a wrist and finger structure. When the wrist and finger move, all the feathers move, too.

The researchers used a wind tunnel to see how the feather-and-rubber band design worked under turbulent conditions. “Most aerospace engineers would say this is not going to work well, but it turned out to be incredibly robust,” Lentink says.

They also pinpointed something interesting about how the feathers work together that helps most birds fly in turbulent conditions. At certain moments during flight, such as when a bird is extending its wings, tiny hooks on the feathers lock together like Velcro.

“These tiny, microscopic micro-structures that are between feathers lock them together as soon as they separate too far apart, and a gap is about to form. And it’s really spectacular,” Lentink adds. “It requires an enormous force to separate them.”

These tiny hooks are so small that they’re hard to see even through a microscope. Then, when a bird tucks its wing back in, the feathers unlock automatically, like directional Velcro. Separating the locked feathers makes an audible sound for most birds. The team published this finding in a separate paper in the journal Science.

It’s worth noting that the PigeonBot doesn’t incorporate something you might associate with birds’ wings – flapping. The designers were focused on incorporating the more subtle wrist-and-finger motions of the wings, so the bot appears to be gliding through the air while it’s in flight.

I guess Dune‘s ornithopters might not be so fanciful after all, and we might see a better human-power ornithopter, too.

Dogs follow a strict code of conduct

Tuesday, January 14th, 2020

Canids (members of the dog family) follow a strict code of conduct when they play:

1. Ask first and communicate clearly. Many nonhumans announce that they want to play and not fight or mate. Canids punctuate play sequences using a bow to solicit play, crouching on their forelimbs while standing on their hind legs. Bows are used almost exclusively during play and are highly stereotyped — that is, they always look the same — so the message “Come play with me” or “I still want to play” is clear. Play bows are honest signals, a sign of trust.

Even when an individual follows a play bow with seemingly aggressive actions such as baring teeth, growling or biting, their companions demonstrate submission or avoidance only around 15% of the time, which suggests they trust the bow’s message that whatever follows is meant in fun. Trust in one another’s honest communication is vital for fair play and a smoothly functioning social group.

2. Mind your manners. Animals consider their play partners’ abilities and engage in self-handicapping and role reversing to create and maintain equal footing. For instance, a coyote might not bite their play partner as hard as they can, handicapping themselves to keep things fair. And a dominant pack member might perform a role reversal, rolling over on their back (a sign of submission that they would never offer during real aggression) to let their lower-status play partner take a turn at “winning.”

Human children also behave this way when they play, for instance, taking turns overpowering each other in a mock wrestling match. By keeping things fair in this manner, every member of the group can play with every other member, building bonds that keep the group cohesive and strong.

3. Admit when you are wrong. Even when everyone wants to keep things fair, play can sometimes get out of hand. When an animal misbehaves or accidentally hurts his play partner, they typically apologize, just like a human would. After an intense bite, a bow sends the message, “Sorry I bit you so hard — this is still play regardless of what I just did. Don’t leave; I’ll play fair.” For play to continue, the other individual must forgive the wrongdoing. And forgiveness is almost always offered; understanding and tolerance are abundant during play as well as in daily pack life.

4. Be honest. An apology, like an invitation to play, must be sincere. Individuals who continue to play unfairly or send dishonest signals often quickly find themselves ostracized. This has far greater consequences than simply reduced playtime. For example, my long-term field research shows that juvenile coyotes who do not play fair often end up leaving their pack and are up to four times more likely to die than those individuals who remain with others. There are substantial risks associated with dispersal by young coyotes, and violating social norms, established during play, is not good for perpetuating one’s genes.

[...]

A few people have asked me if dogs always play fair, mentioning a few examples in which play escalated into an encounter that seemed to be aggressive or it seemed like this was going to happen. I explain that this is extremely rare, and tell them about a study by Melissa Shyan and her colleagues in which it was reported that fewer than 0.5 percent of play fights in dogs developed into conflict, and only half of these were clearly aggressive encounters.

That place is like Africa Light

Monday, January 13th, 2020

Greg Ellifritz just got back from Africa, where not quite everything went to plan:

Before leaving the airport, I tried three different ATMs to get local currency. All three rejected my card. My ATM card wouldn’t work at all in South Africa. That’s the first country I’ve been to (besides Cuba) where my ATM card didn’t work. That made life challenging, but I was smart enough to bring an emergency stash of American cash that I was able to exchange in a dodgy black market currency transaction (arranged by a taxi driver) for some local South African Rand.

I can understand why some folks don’t like traveling.

He booked a room in a guest house on a farm outside of Jo-burg:

Outside, there was an eight foot cement wall topped with an additional four feet of electric fence surrounding the entire property. It’s was crazy to see that every rural house was a completely walled estate. The South Africans really like barbed wire and electric fences. Almost every house was enclosed by a wall with an electrified fence.

[...]

On my third day, I hired a private tour guide (recommended by the owner of my guesthouse) to give me a tour of some of the grittier parts of Jo-burg. That was an education just as potent as the Apartheid museum.

There are entire parts of the city classified as “no-go” zones. If you don’t live there, you are not welcome. There are constant protests, roadblocks and tires burning in the streets of some neighborhoods. The downtown area of Jo-burg is a wasteland. Most of the skyscrapers are empty as large corporations have fled to the safer suburbs. Many buildings have no utilities, but were nonetheless inhabited by squatters.

I’ve never seen so many homeless people in one place. There were thousands of homeless people squatting in dozens of buildings without any electricity or running water. People defecated openly by the side of the road. There were huge trash drum fires and lots of people aimlessly hanging out in the streets.

While driving through the downtown area, we had to keep changing routes due to large amounts of rubble placed in the roadway as a roadblock during recent protests. I’ve been a lot of places. Downtown Jo-burg looked more apocalyptic than any other location I’ve visited and gave me an idea of what things would look like if our power grid fails. It wasn’t a happy thought.

Following the tour of downtown, we drove into some of the “townships” or slum areas. The most famous Jo-berg township is SOWETO (South Western Township) where Nelson Mandela lived. The townships had lots of ramshackle buildings, but the people seemed much more organized than the squatters living downtown. People were poor, but worked, had families and a purpose for existence. The townships I visited didn’t seem dangerous at all. The townships were kind of like the favelas of Rio de Janeiro without all the open air drug sales.

Ellifritz is a cop, and he carefully notes how gun laws and law enforcement work in other countries:

My tour guide was a former soldier, a gun owner, and an avid shooter. He explained that residents of South Africa could own a handgun and two hunting rifles with the proper permits. He owned a Glock 17 that he bought for 7000 Rand (about $500 US). Concealed carry was theoretically possible, but my guide didn’t know anyone who actually had the necessary permits to carry legally.

The cops in Jo-berg wore external plate body armor and often carried long guns (R-4 or R-5 rifles that are South African Galil variants). I only saw two cops armed with handguns. Both carried Beretta 92s. One was carried in a cheap nylon IWB holster that placed the gun so deeply in the beltline, that the grip was barely visible. The other carried his Beretta in a 1990s vintage Uncle Mikes “twist draw” retention holster on a duty belt with a big can of pepper spray.

I didn’t see any support gear like handcuffs or batons carried by the local cops. That fact might be a useful fact for you travelers to notice. When the cops aren’t carrying handcuffs, they clearly expect criminals to either submit to arrest without incident or be shot. No half measures.

No thanks. I’m good. I prefer to stay far away from cops who don’t train and carry less lethal weapons.

After Kruger, they made their way to the Karongwe Wildlife Reserve:

The monkeys in camp were an absolute menace. A group of about 20 raided our camp and began grabbing people. As I was trying to clear them off a neighbor’s porch, they tried an ambush attack.

I actually had a Mexican standoff with a growling monkey as I had my OC spray ready to hose him down. He kept growling and advancing. As soon as I pointed the OC canister at him, he stopped, stared at me for a few seconds, and then walked away.

He righteously should have gotten some spicy treats, but I didn’t want to forever be known as the dude who pepper sprays monkeys. The vervet monkeys are such a problem in some parks, that the government employs people armed with paintball guns and slingshots to keep them away from tourists.

At Karongwe they were also able to take a hike in the bush:

Since all of the “Big Five” most dangerous African game animals live on the property, we had to be accompanied by a guide and a “gun bearer.”

The gun bearer walked up to our group. He had a beat-to-shit CZ .458 Win Mag bolt gun. There was absolutely no finish left on the barrel. The wood stock looked like some small varmint had chewed on it.

The rifle was unloaded. The bolt wasn’t in the gun. The gun bearer was carrying the bolt stuck behind this belt in the appendix position. He was wearing a leather loop cartridge holder full of 10 rifle rounds at the four o’clock position behind his hip.

I thought: “Wow, they are actually sending us out into the bush with our ‘protection’ carrying a disassembled and unloaded rifle. What could possibly go wrong?”

We walked about 100 meters away from the camp and the gun bearer installed the rifle bolt and loaded it with five rounds. He took the rounds from the most forward cartridge loops, thereby guaranteeing that he would have to reach far behind his back to access the remaining cartridges should he have to reload in a hurry. Brilliant.

The gun bearer made an elaborate show of loading each round into the magazine. He then pushed the cartridges down with his thumb and moved the bolt forward. Once the bolt was over the top of the cartridges in the magazine, he closed and locked the bolt with a flourish, stating “Now we are ready.”

I normally shut my mouth in the evidence of such stupidity, but I couldn’t hold back.

“There’s no round in the chamber. You aren’t ‘ready.’ The gun is in a better condition to fire now as compared to when you brought it out unloaded, but you are far from ‘ready’.“

He kind of looked at me sheepishly. I continued:

“Don’t worry. When the lion attacks you while you are trying to get the gun in play, I’ll be there. I know how to run that bolt. I’ll pick up your rifle off the ground, chamber a round and shoot the lion off your corpse.

It’s great having a plan. Now we’re ‘ready.’”

Neither he nor the guide really had too much to say after that.

Absolutely frightening muzzle discipline displayed during the whole hike. When the guide talked, the gun bearer stood with the rifle butt placed on his boot, leaning forward with both hands covering his muzzle. He was essentially using the muzzle of a loaded .458 Win Mag as a hand rest.

Then they went to Zimbabwe:

A passenger on the flight from South Africa to Zimbabwe said the following as we were disembarking and walking into the sweltering airport:

“We aren’t in South Africa anymore. That place is like ‘Africa Light.’ Now we are in the real deal.”

That’s a quality analysis.

It’s a very vulnerable point, and plants have targeted it

Wednesday, October 9th, 2019

Monarch butterflies eat only milkweed, a poisonous plant that should kill them, and even store the toxins in their own bodies as a defense against hungry birds:

Only three genetic mutations were necessary to turn the butterflies from vulnerable to resistant, the researchers reported in the journal Nature. They were able to introduce these mutations into fruit flies, and suddenly they were able to eat milkweed, too.

[...]

Insects began dining on plants over 400 million years ago, spurring the evolution of many botanical defenses, including harsh chemicals. Certain plants, including milkweed, make particularly nasty toxins known as cardiac glycosides.

The right dose can stop a beating heart or disrupt the nervous system. For thousands of years, African hunters have put these poisons on the tips of arrows. Agatha Christie wrote a murder mystery featuring foxglove, which produces cardiac glycosides.

The toxins gum up so-called sodium pumps, an essential component of all animal cells. “It’s a very vulnerable point, and plants have targeted it,” said Susanne Dobler, a molecular biologist at the University of Hamburg in Germany.

These pumps move positively charged sodium atoms out of cells, giving their interiors a negative charge. Heart cells need sodium pumps to build enough electrical charge to deliver a heartbeat. Nerves use the pumps to produce signals to the brain. If the pumps fail, then those functions come to a halt.

[...]

The researchers compared the genes that serve as blueprints for the sodium pump in poison-resistant species, like the milkweed beetle and the milkweed bug. Most of these species, it turned out, had gained the same three mutations.

[...]

Monarchs share one of the mutations with a related butterfly that doesn’t eat milkweed, and a second mutation with a closer relative that eats milkweed but doesn’t store cardiac glycosides in its wings. The third mutation arose in an even more recent ancestor.

Gaining these mutations gradually altered the sodium pumps in the monarchs’ cells, Dr. Dobler suspected, so that the cardiac glycosides couldn’t disrupt them. As the butterflies became more resistant, they were able to enjoy a new supply of food untouched by most other insects.

[...]

Noah Whiteman, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, led the effort to test this hypothesis. “These three mutations may be the thing that unlocked the door” for the butterflies, he said.

He and his colleagues figured out how to use Crispr, the gene-editing technology, to introduce the mutations into fruit flies. The flies survive on rotting fruit, and even a small dose of cardiac glycosides can be deadly to them.

The researchers began by giving the flies the first mutation to arise in the ancestors of monarchs. The larvae that carried this mutation were able to survive on a diet of yeast laced with low levels of cardiac glycosides.

The second mutation let the flies withstand even more toxins, and the third made them entirely resistant. With all three mutations, the flies even ate dried milkweed powder.

The third mutation had another striking effect. When the flies with the gene developed into adults, their bodies carried low levels of cardiac glycoside, useful as a defense against predation.

O brave new world that has such insects in it!

When he’s beaten, something chemical happens

Thursday, August 22nd, 2019

I was recently reminded of a story I first heard maybe 17 years ago, which NPR describes as why we need grandpas and grandmas, but which I always thought of as why young men need gym teachers and drill sergeants:

Our tale begins in Kruger National Park, a giant game reserve on the plains of South Africa, one of the world’s most famous and visited nature preserves. Kruger is home to 8,000 elephants — or, rather, 8,000 is the optimum population for the park. But the elephants, unaware of this, have a tendency to make more elephants, and the population keeps swelling, which upsets the natural balance, and so for years, park rangers have had to “cull” the surplus, which they did by darting the older animals from the air, and then shooting them to death on the ground, often in front of younger members of the herd.

Gamekeepers, I’m sure, couldn’t have liked this part of their job. So it was decided, back in 1994, to round up some of the surplus animals and ship them to other parks — to sort of spread the elephants around rather than eliminating them.

And that is why, in the 1990s, about 40 young elephants were taken a few hundred miles closer to Johannesburg, to a newly constructed nature reserve called Pilanesberg National Park, where they were to establish a new herd. Time passed, and after about ten years, rangers and biologists began reporting what science writer J.B. MacKinnon calls a “novel situation.”

The male elephants that had been transferred became unusually violent. They were attacking each other much more frequently, sometimes attacking people, pushing cars off the road (which, in a tourist center, is more than a little concerning), but most of all, rebuffed by older females, they were going after female white rhinos, the largest available pachyderm in the neighborhood, and raping them. Then killing them.

The New York Times reported that in one month in Pilanesberg Park, officials “shot three young male elephants who were responsible for the killings of 63 rhinos, as well as attacks on people in safari vehicles.”

Park biologists tried to figure out what was going on, and while some scientists believe this is a case of youngsters permanently changed by watching their parents “culled,” others have decided something simpler is going on.

When young male elephants approach sexual maturity, they go through a phase called “musth,” where testosterone floods in at up to 60 times the usual levels, making them highly aggressive, irritable and dangerous. This usually lasts a short time — but not for the Pilanesberg Park males: They entered musth earlier and stayed in it longer, much, much longer. Instead of weeks, their frenzies lasted months — in one case for “as many as five months,” reports J.B. MacKinnon. Why were these episodes happening for so long? Why weren’t they un-happening?

That’s when elephant scientists had a suggestion. In ordinary herds — where there are lots of big, older, respected male bull elephants around — when a teenager goes through his wild phase, he will get slapped down by a larger, older male. The younger male will attack, and when he’s beaten … something chemical happens …

Says J.B.MacKinnon: “After standing down to a dominant bull, the rush of hormones in the younger male stops, in some cases in a matter of minutes.” The cue to turn off the testosterone comes from getting bonked. So biologists suggested reintroducing a group of elders into Pilanesberg.

Six older elephants arrived, did what oldsters do to rambunctious youngsters, and not long thereafter, says MacKinnon, “the killing of rhinoceroses stopped.” The verdict: The young elephants went wild mostly because there were no older elephants around to keep them in check.

I remember having the same thought when I was just out of college, and some high school kid would puff up to fill the aisle at Tower Records, rather than step aside. He’s practically demanding to be smacked down, and it seems biological, unconscious, but modern society doesn’t let us smack him down.

The true identity of this snake has been a puzzle

Monday, July 1st, 2019

I’ve been listening to Stephen Fry’s narrations of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I came to “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” where the murder weapon is — spoiler alert! — a swamp adder:

The name swamp adder is an invented one, and the scientific treatises of Doyle’s time do not mention any kind of adder of India. To fans of Sherlock Holmes who enjoy treating the stories as altered accounts of real events, the true identity of this snake has been a puzzle since the publication of the story, even to professional herpetologists. Many species of snakes have been proposed for it, and Richard Lancelyn Green concludes the Indian Cobra (Naja naja) is the snake which it most closely resembles, rather than Boa constrictor, which is not venomous. The Indian cobra has black and white speckled marks, and is one of the most lethal of the Indian venomous snakes with a neurotoxin which will often kill in a few minutes. It is also a good climber and is used by snake charmers in India. Snakes are deaf in the conventional sense but have vestiges to sense vibrations and low-frequency airborne sounds, making it remotely plausible to signal a snake by whistling.

In The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, the deafness inconsistency (while not the others) was solved by Dr. Roylott (suspecting the deafness of snakes) softly knocking on the wall in addition to whistling. While snakes are deaf, they are sensitive to vibration.

Bitis arietans from Africa, Russell’s viper and saw-scaled viper also bear resemblance to the swamp adder of the story, but they have hemotoxin — slow working venoms.

The herpetologist Laurence Monroe Klauber proposed, in a tongue-in-cheek article which blames Dr. Watson for getting the name of the snake wrong, a theory that the swamp adder was an artificial hybrid between the Mexican Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum) and Naja naja. His speculation suggests that Doyle might have hidden a double-meaning in Holmes’ words. What Holmes said, reported by Watson, was “It is a swamp adder, the deadliest snake in India”; but Klauber suggested what Holmes really said was “It is a samp-aderm, the deadliest skink in India.” Samp-aderm can be translated “snake-Gila-monster”: Samp is Hindi for snake, and the suffix aderm is derived from heloderm, the common or vernacular name of the Gila monster generally used by European naturalists. Skinks are lizards of the family Scincidae, many of which are snake-like in form. Such a hybrid reptile will have a venom incomparably strengthened by hybridization, assuring the almost instant demise of the victim. And it will also have ears like any lizard, so it could hear the whistle, and legs and claws allowing it to run up and down the bell cord with a swift ease.

Focus just on birds and airplanes

Tuesday, June 25th, 2019

Jared Diamond shares a story (Upheaval) about how two nations, which don’t get along, were nonetheless able to solve a problem:

Israel has invaded and partially occupied Lebanon. Lebanon has served as a base for launching rocket attacks into Israel. Nevertheless, bird-watchers of those two countries succeeded in reaching a milestone agreement. Eagles and other large birds migrating seasonally between Europe and Africa fly south from Lebanon through Israel every autumn, then north again from Israel through Lebanon every spring. When aircraft collide with those large birds, the result is often mutual destruction. (I write this sentence a year after my family and I survived the collision of our small chartered plane with an eagle, which dented but didn’t bring down our plane; the eagle died.) Such collisions had been a leading cause of fatal plane accidents in Lebanon and Israel. That stimulated bird-watchers of those two countries to establish a mutual warning system. In the autumn Lebanese bird-watchers warn their Israeli counterparts and Israeli air traffic controllers when they see a flock of large birds over Lebanon heading south towards Israel, and in the spring Israeli bird-watchers warn of birds heading north. While it’s obvious that this agreement is mutually advantageous, it required years of discussions to overcome prevailing hatreds, and to focus just on birds and airplanes.

Everything which is incomprehensible to the Indians, they call big medicine

Monday, May 27th, 2019

According to Lewis and Clark: Linguistic Pioneers, a 1940 study by Elijah Criswell, more than one thousand words appeared in print for the first time in Lewis and Clark’s journals:

Alan H. Hartley, author of the 2004 book Lewis and Clark Lexicon of Discovery, notes that without word creation skills, “it would have been difficult for them to discuss their discoveries amongst themselves, and even more difficult to convey and explain the discoveries to their sponsors — who had, in many cases, not been far inland from the eastern seaboard.” Carefully worded descriptions were essential.

One of Lewis and Clark’s primary methods for creating new terms was naming animals or plants according to some salient feature, whether physical, behavioral, or otherwise. The explorers noticed “a curious kind of deer,” in Clark’s words, “its ears large and long,” that was obviously different from eastern deer. Lewis explains in his journal how they chose a name for it: “The ear and tail of this animal … so well comported with those of the mule … that we have … adapted the appellation of the mule deer.” Lewis called a small swan that he spotted along the Pacific coast the whistling swan because it made “a kind of whistling sound.” A mountain ram with unusually large, twisted horns was named bighorn. Other animals they noticed include tumble-bug (dung beetle), tiger cat (lynx), and leather-wing bat. Plants that received similar treatment include the red elm and the snowberry (“a globular berry … as white as wax”).

Occasionally, Lewis and Clark picked up a name from the French trappers who crisscrossed the region. Few of the terms stuck, but one that did is Yellowstone. Although they started by using the French, they eventually switched to an English translation. Clark uses both the French and the English versions in this line from his journal: “Capt. Lewis concluded to go by land as far as the Rochejhone [roche jaune, ‘yellow rock’] or yellow stone river.”

Lewis and Clark based some terms on where they found a plant or an animal—sand-hill crane, Osage apple, and various denizens of the prairie, such as prairie lark, prairie hen, prairie wolf (coyote), and prairie dog. They also noted when items were found in buffalo territory. Since the 18th century, Americans had been calling bison buffalo (a word that originally referred to oxen), and Lewis and Clark used that term for the bison they saw on the plains. They created or recorded several words connected with that animal—for example, buffalo grass (where buffalo graze), buffalo berry (found on the upper Missouri in buffalo territory), and buffalo robe (made from buffalo skins).

The explorers often went to great lengths to study a creature closely before deciding what to name it. “Though not self-proclaimed naturalists,” says Hartley, “they were keen observers and de facto naturalists.” They also knew that Jefferson wanted meticulous details. For instance, while the Corps overwintered in Oregon from 1805 to 1806, Lewis spotted what he suspected was a different kind of deer from the mule deer found on the plains, although it looked similar. He writes, “The Black-tailed fallow deer are peculiar to this coast.” The ears, he notes, are “rather larger… than the common deer,” and the horns resemble those of the mule deer. The tail is white, but the hair of the sides and top is “quite black.” Concluding that these deer were a distinct type, he labeled them black-tailed deer. Lewis’s instincts were right. Zoologists later classified the Columbian black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) as a subspecies of the mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus).

Before deciding what to call the grizzly bear, Lewis and Clark studied several pelts and consulted with indigenous people. The men first mention grizzlies in their journals while in present-day Montana. Lewis initially calls them brown or yellow bears, saying their color is “yellowish brown.” Others in the party describe the bear as “whiteish,” and Clark sometimes refers to the creatures as “white bears.” After the men had shot several and taken a close-up look, they realized that the fur was variegated, often featuring silvery tips. Clark started calling the bear grizzly, a word for gray, and Lewis eventually followed suit. Lewis recounts a discussion with a band of Nez Perce in Idaho, who studied “several skins of the bear which we had killed” and concurred that they were members of the species the explorers named grizzly. Lewis concludes in his notes that the bears they had been calling brown or yellow, whiteish, and grizzly are all “the same species or family of bears, which assumes all those colors at different ages and seasons of the year.”

[...]

Lewis and Clark also gave English names to several Native American cultural items. They called a tribe’s meeting house a council house, and the place for taking steam baths a sweat lodge or sweat house. “I saw near an old Indian encampment a sweat house covered with earth,” writes Clark in his journal. They also adopted a specific meaning for medicine—something with magical powers—which was probably a translation of the Ojibwe word mashkiki. Lewis writes, “Everything which is incomprehensible to the Indians, they call big medicine.” The word appears in the journals in several combinations, including medicine man, medicine bag, medicine dance, and war medicine. Clark records that some of the party went to see a ceremonial “war medicine” dance while the Corps was camped among the Mandan tribe.

My favorite bit of “big medicine” is Lewis and Clark’s air rifle.

Bamboo looks like a kind of meat

Monday, May 6th, 2019

The Giant Panda is a closet carnivore:

The giant panda, a consummate vegetarian, belongs to a group of mammals called Carnivora, so-called because almost all of them — dogs, cats, hyenas, weasels, mongooses, raccoons, and more — eat meat. But the giant panda’s diet of bamboo, and little else, makes it a vegetarian.

At least, outwardly.

Yonggang Nie and Fuwen Wei of the Chinese Academy of Sciences have spent years tracking wild pandas, analyzing exactly what kinds of bamboo they eat, and measuring the chemicals within those mouthfuls. And they found that the nutrient profile of a panda’s all-bamboo diet — very high in protein, and low in carbohydrates — is much closer to that of a typical carnivore than to that of other plant-eating mammals. “It was a surprise,” Wei says. Nutritionally, “bamboo looks like a kind of meat.”

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Plant-eating mammals almost always have enlarged, elongated guts to slow the passage of food, and to give their inner bacteria more time to digest their meals. The panda, however, has the short, vanilla gut of a carnivore. Even its gut microbes are closer to a bear’s than, say, a cow’s or deer’s. Nie and Wei’s study makes sense of this paradoxical combination of traits. The giant panda has the plumbing of a half-committed herbivore because it has the diet of a closet carnivore.

The little creatures have unlimited courage

Friday, May 3rd, 2019

Dunlap and the other American soldiers liked the local spider monkeys:

For some reason the monkeys all disliked the Filipinos and would attack them every chance they got. Their mouths are so small they cannot do much damage unless they can get a loose fold of skin or flesh but the little creatures have unlimited courage and do not hesitate to attack anyone they get angry at. And it was easy to “sic” them on any particular person. Just a little moral backing and one of those six or eight pound monks would tackle a tank.

White sharks will immediately vacate their preferred hunting ground

Friday, April 19th, 2019

A recent study finds that great white sharks clear out when killer whales arrive:

“When confronted by orcas, white sharks will immediately vacate their preferred hunting ground and will not return for up to a year, even though the orcas are only passing through,” said marine ecologist Salvador Jorgensen of Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The team collected data from two sources: the comings and goings of 165 great white sharks GPS tagged between 2006 and 2013; and 27 years of population data of orcas, sharks and seals collected by Point Blue Conservation Science at Southeast Farallon Island off the coast of San Francisco.

Great White Shark with Liver Eaten by Orca

In addition, orcas have been observed preying on great white sharks around the world, including near the Farallon Islands. It’s still a little unclear why, but the orca-killed sharks that wash ashore (one is pictured at the top of the page) are missing their livers — their delicious, oil-rich, full-of-vitamins livers.