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.”

[...]

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.

These could sit up like a woodchuck and run a lot faster

Wednesday, April 10th, 2019

Dunlap had some experience with the local fauna in Egypt:

The Lieutenant and I usually had Lugers stuck in our back pockets, and always went armed after we ran into a pair of horned vipers at the butts. The day that happened I sent the medic in to the hospital for a snake-bite kit and instructions, etc. (we always had an ambulance and a couple of Medical Corps men in it, as part of the range equipment, just in case). He came back and said nobody knew nothin’. However, our report of the vipers stirred up some action and we did get quite a lot of dope on snakes in a day or two, as well as medicine, etc. These vipers are a short heavy snake, with horns and extremely potent venom. They can move under loose sand, and one of the first two I saw popped its head up out of the desert, like a turtle’s head in the water when he’s trying to get a good look around. No one ever got bitten, but I don’t know why, for there were plenty of the snakes around. It turned out that Egypt has quite a few dangerous reptiles, though I am still amused over finding out about Cleopatra’s asp. You know the cute little critter she is always holding in the pictures? Forget it; the Egyptian asp is a six-foot water-snake, living around canals and rivers. The viper is the bad little one. Snakes and lizards were the only wild life out by our range and we polished off quite a few via Luger and Springfield. The lizards were very repulsive, but harmless characters looking more like a long-legged miniature alligator rather than the usual little chameleon-type sleek reptiles. These could sit up like a woodchuck and run a lot faster. Only grew to about 30 inches long and most were shorter than that.

[...]

British soldiers used to try to tame them and keep them around their tents, saying they ate all the fleas and bugs.

It’s rare to see joint as well as bone growth

Thursday, April 4th, 2019

Having previously regenerated bone in mice using the BMP2 protein, scientists then added BMP9:

When using the combination on mice with amputated toes, over 60 percent of the stump bones formed a layer of cartilage within three days. Without the proteins, the amputated toes would’ve healed over as normal.

That cartilage is a key part of joints, and shows definite progress in limb regeneration. Even in animals who can naturally regrow lost limbs, it’s rare to see joint as well as bone growth.

“These studies provide evidence that treatment of growth factors can be used to engineer a regeneration response from a non-regenerating amputation wound,” explain the researchers in their paper.

The results of the study showed that the regeneration process was most advanced when BMP2 was applied first, with BMP9 added a week after – in this case it led to the growth of more complete joint structures, even with some connections to the bone.

Jackals moved north because wolves were eradicated

Thursday, February 21st, 2019

Jackals now vastly outnumber wolves in Europe:

Smaller than North American coyotes, the golden jackal weighs an average 20 pounds. It is native to the Middle East and southern Asia, ranging as far east as Thailand and inhabiting Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

The species arrived at the southern edge of Central and Eastern Europe about 8,000 years ago, fossil evidence suggests, and started to expand slowly in the 19th century. But the current boom really began in the 1950s and has accelerated over the past 20 years.

Jackals are one of the least studied canine predators. Like wolves and coyotes, jackals have family-based packs, but the groups tend to be smaller, with four to six animals, while wolf packs may include 15 animals.

A monogamous pair of jackals forms the core of a pack; the young may stay with the parents, or leave to establish their own packs.

Jackals are not as prominent in tales and proverbs as some other animals, although there’s an old quote, variously attributed, that it is better to live like a lion for a day than a jackal for 100 years. Hemingway described “personal columnists” as jackals, which no doubt refers to their scavenging habits.

Jackals did have one moment of past glory. The Egyptian god Anubis was sometimes said to have a jackal’s head. That claim to fame has been lost: The North African animal that may have inspired the sculptures of Anubis has been reclassified as the African wolf.

Golden Jackal in Croatia

Substantial populations of jackals now live in a number of European countries, including Greece, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, Austria, Italy, and above all, Bulgaria, which has the largest population.

Jackal wanderers — or advance scouts — have been found in France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Belarus, Estonia, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Scientists think jackals began to move north because wolves were targeted for eradication, particularly in the Balkans. That opened a door, since jackals seem to avoid areas well populated by wolves.

[...]

The jackals’ expansion is a huge natural experiment, similar to but more surprising than the spread of coyotes in North America. Coyotes were well established in the West and Southwest before they started arriving in the Northeast and Southeast, and lately in Mexico.

The clinging death

Saturday, February 16th, 2019

In Jack London’s White Fang, the wolf-dog goes through an ugly episode under the ownership of the ironically nicknamed Beauty Smith, an ugly man, inside and out:

At irregular intervals, whenever a fight could be arranged, he was taken out of his cage and led off into the woods a few miles from town.  Usually this occurred at night, so as to avoid interference from the mounted police of the Territory.  After a few hours of waiting, when daylight had come, the audience and the dog with which he was to fight arrived.  In this manner it came about that he fought all sizes and breeds of dogs.  It was a savage land, the men were savage, and the fights were usually to the death.

Since White Fang continued to fight, it is obvious that it was the other dogs that died.  He never knew defeat.  His early training, when he fought with Lip-lip and the whole puppy-pack, stood him in good stead.  There was the tenacity with which he clung to the earth.  No dog could make him lose his footing.  This was the favourite trick of the wolf breeds — to rush in upon him, either directly or with an unexpected swerve, in the hope of striking his shoulder and overthrowing him.  Mackenzie hounds, Eskimo and Labrador dogs, huskies and Malemutes — all tried it on him, and all failed.  He was never known to lose his footing.  Men told this to one another, and looked each time to see it happen; but White Fang always disappointed them.

Then there was his lightning quickness.  It gave him a tremendous advantage over his antagonists.  No matter what their fighting experience, they had never encountered a dog that moved so swiftly as he.  Also to be reckoned with, was the immediateness of his attack.  The average dog was accustomed to the preliminaries of snarling and bristling and growling, and the average dog was knocked off his feet and finished before he had begun to fight or recovered from his surprise.  So often did this happen, that it became the custom to hold White Fang until the other dog went through its preliminaries, was good and ready, and even made the first attack.

But greatest of all the advantages in White Fang’s favour, was his experience.  He knew more about fighting than did any of the dogs that faced him.  He had fought more fights, knew how to meet more tricks and methods, and had more tricks himself, while his own method was scarcely to be improved upon.

As the time went by, he had fewer and fewer fights.  Men despaired of matching him with an equal, and Beauty Smith was compelled to pit wolves against him.  These were trapped by the Indians for the purpose, and a fight between White Fang and a wolf was always sure to draw a crowd.  Once, a full-grown female lynx was secured, and this time White Fang fought for his life.  Her quickness matched his; her ferocity equalled his; while he fought with his fangs alone, and she fought with her sharp-clawed feet as well.

But after the lynx, all fighting ceased for White Fang.  There were no more animals with which to fight — at least, there was none considered worthy of fighting with him.  So he remained on exhibition until spring, when one Tim Keenan, a faro-dealer, arrived in the land.  With him came the first bull-dog that had ever entered the Klondike.  That this dog and White Fang should come together was inevitable, and for a week the anticipated fight was the mainspring of conversation in certain quarters of the town.

Then comes the clinging death:

Beauty Smith slipped the chain from his neck and stepped back.

For once White Fang did not make an immediate attack. He stood still, ears pricked forward, alert and curious, surveying the strange animal that faced him. He had never seen such a dog before. Tim Keenan shoved the bull-dog forward with a muttered “Go to it.” The animal waddled toward the centre of the circle, short and squat and ungainly. He came to a stop and blinked across at White Fang.

There were cries from the crowd of, “Go to him, Cherokee! Sick ’m, Cherokee! Eat ’m up!”

But Cherokee did not seem anxious to fight. He turned his head and blinked at the men who shouted, at the same time wagging his stump of a tail good-naturedly. He was not afraid, but merely lazy. Besides, it did not seem to him that it was intended he should fight with the dog he saw before him. He was not used to fighting with that kind of dog, and he was waiting for them to bring on the real dog.

Tim Keenan stepped in and bent over Cherokee, fondling him on both sides of the shoulders with hands that rubbed against the grain of the hair and that made slight, pushing-forward movements. These were so many suggestions. Also, their effect was irritating, for Cherokee began to growl, very softly, deep down in his throat. There was a correspondence in rhythm between the growls and the movements of the man’s hands. The growl rose in the throat with the culmination of each forward-pushing movement, and ebbed down to start up afresh with the beginning of the next movement. The end of each movement was the accent of the rhythm, the movement ending abruptly and the growling rising with a jerk.

This was not without its effect on White Fang. The hair began to rise on his neck and across the shoulders. Tim Keenan gave a final shove forward and stepped back again. As the impetus that carried Cherokee forward died down, he continued to go forward of his own volition, in a swift, bow-legged run. Then White Fang struck. A cry of startled admiration went up. He had covered the distance and gone in more like a cat than a dog; and with the same cat-like swiftness he had slashed with his fangs and leaped clear.

The bull-dog was bleeding back of one ear from a rip in his thick neck. He gave no sign, did not even snarl, but turned and followed after White Fang. The display on both sides, the quickness of the one and the steadiness of the other, had excited the partisan spirit of the crowd, and the men were making new bets and increasing original bets. Again, and yet again, White Fang sprang in, slashed, and got away untouched, and still his strange foe followed after him, without too great haste, not slowly, but deliberately and determinedly, in a businesslike sort of way. There was purpose in his method — something for him to do that he was intent upon doing and from which nothing could distract him.

His whole demeanour, every action, was stamped with this purpose. It puzzled White Fang. Never had he seen such a dog. It had no hair protection. It was soft, and bled easily. There was no thick mat of fur to baffle White Fang’s teeth as they were often baffled by dogs of his own breed. Each time that his teeth struck they sank easily into the yielding flesh, while the animal did not seem able to defend itself. Another disconcerting thing was that it made no outcry, such as he had been accustomed to with the other dogs he had fought. Beyond a growl or a grunt, the dog took its punishment silently. And never did it flag in its pursuit of him.

Not that Cherokee was slow. He could turn and whirl swiftly enough, but White Fang was never there. Cherokee was puzzled, too. He had never fought before with a dog with which he could not close. The desire to close had always been mutual. But here was a dog that kept at a distance, dancing and dodging here and there and all about. And when it did get its teeth into him, it did not hold on but let go instantly and darted away again.

But White Fang could not get at the soft underside of the throat. The bull-dog stood too short, while its massive jaws were an added protection. White Fang darted in and out unscathed, while Cherokee’s wounds increased. Both sides of his neck and head were ripped and slashed. He bled freely, but showed no signs of being disconcerted. He continued his plodding pursuit, though once, for the moment baffled, he came to a full stop and blinked at the men who looked on, at the same time wagging his stump of a tail as an expression of his willingness to fight.

In that moment White Fang was in upon him and out, in passing ripping his trimmed remnant of an ear. With a slight manifestation of anger, Cherokee took up the pursuit again, running on the inside of the circle White Fang was making, and striving to fasten his deadly grip on White Fang’s throat. The bull-dog missed by a hair’s-breadth, and cries of praise went up as White Fang doubled suddenly out of danger in the opposite direction.

The time went by. White Fang still danced on, dodging and doubling, leaping in and out, and ever inflicting damage. And still the bull-dog, with grim certitude, toiled after him. Sooner or later he would accomplish his purpose, get the grip that would win the battle. In the meantime, he accepted all the punishment the other could deal him. His tufts of ears had become tassels, his neck and shoulders were slashed in a score of places, and his very lips were cut and bleeding — all from these lightning snaps that were beyond his foreseeing and guarding.

Time and again White Fang had attempted to knock Cherokee off his feet; but the difference in their height was too great. Cherokee was too squat, too close to the ground. White Fang tried the trick once too often. The chance came in one of his quick doublings and counter-circlings. He caught Cherokee with head turned away as he whirled more slowly. His shoulder was exposed. White Fang drove in upon it: but his own shoulder was high above, while he struck with such force that his momentum carried him on across over the other’s body. For the first time in his fighting history, men saw White Fang lose his footing. His body turned a half-somersault in the air, and he would have landed on his back had he not twisted, catlike, still in the air, in the effort to bring his feet to the earth. As it was, he struck heavily on his side. The next instant he was on his feet, but in that instant Cherokee’s teeth closed on his throat.

It was not a good grip, being too low down toward the chest; but Cherokee held on. White Fang sprang to his feet and tore wildly around, trying to shake off the bull-dog’s body. It made him frantic, this clinging, dragging weight. It bound his movements, restricted his freedom. It was like the trap, and all his instinct resented it and revolted against it. It was a mad revolt. For several minutes he was to all intents insane. The basic life that was in him took charge of him. The will to exist of his body surged over him. He was dominated by this mere flesh-love of life. All intelligence was gone. It was as though he had no brain. His reason was unseated by the blind yearning of the flesh to exist and move, at all hazards to move, to continue to move, for movement was the expression of its existence.

Round and round he went, whirling and turning and reversing, trying to shake off the fifty-pound weight that dragged at his throat. The bull-dog did little but keep his grip. Sometimes, and rarely, he managed to get his feet to the earth and for a moment to brace himself against White Fang. But the next moment his footing would be lost and he would be dragging around in the whirl of one of White Fang’s mad gyrations. Cherokee identified himself with his instinct. He knew that he was doing the right thing by holding on, and there came to him certain blissful thrills of satisfaction. At such moments he even closed his eyes and allowed his body to be hurled hither and thither, willy-nilly, careless of any hurt that might thereby come to it. That did not count. The grip was the thing, and the grip he kept.

White Fang ceased only when he had tired himself out. He could do nothing, and he could not understand. Never, in all his fighting, had this thing happened. The dogs he had fought with did not fight that way. With them it was snap and slash and get away, snap and slash and get away. He lay partly on his side, panting for breath. Cherokee still holding his grip, urged against him, trying to get him over entirely on his side. White Fang resisted, and he could feel the jaws shifting their grip, slightly relaxing and coming together again in a chewing movement. Each shift brought the grip closer to his throat. The bull-dog’s method was to hold what he had, and when opportunity favoured to work in for more. Opportunity favoured when White Fang remained quiet. When White Fang struggled, Cherokee was content merely to hold on.

The bulging back of Cherokee’s neck was the only portion of his body that White Fang’s teeth could reach. He got hold toward the base where the neck comes out from the shoulders; but he did not know the chewing method of fighting, nor were his jaws adapted to it. He spasmodically ripped and tore with his fangs for a space. Then a change in their position diverted him. The bull-dog had managed to roll him over on his back, and still hanging on to his throat, was on top of him. Like a cat, White Fang bowed his hind-quarters in, and, with the feet digging into his enemy’s abdomen above him, he began to claw with long tearing-strokes. Cherokee might well have been disembowelled had he not quickly pivoted on his grip and got his body off of White Fang’s and at right angles to it.

There was no escaping that grip. It was like Fate itself, and as inexorable. Slowly it shifted up along the jugular. All that saved White Fang from death was the loose skin of his neck and the thick fur that covered it. This served to form a large roll in Cherokee’s mouth, the fur of which well-nigh defied his teeth. But bit by bit, whenever the chance offered, he was getting more of the loose skin and fur in his mouth. The result was that he was slowly throttling White Fang. The latter’s breath was drawn with greater and greater difficulty as the moments went by.

It began to look as though the battle were over. The backers of Cherokee waxed jubilant and offered ridiculous odds. White Fang’s backers were correspondingly depressed, and refused bets of ten to one and twenty to one, though one man was rash enough to close a wager of fifty to one. This man was Beauty Smith. He took a step into the ring and pointed his finger at White Fang. Then he began to laugh derisively and scornfully. This produced the desired effect. White Fang went wild with rage. He called up his reserves of strength, and gained his feet. As he struggled around the ring, the fifty pounds of his foe ever dragging on his throat, his anger passed on into panic. The basic life of him dominated him again, and his intelligence fled before the will of his flesh to live. Round and round and back again, stumbling and falling and rising, even uprearing at times on his hind-legs and lifting his foe clear of the earth, he struggled vainly to shake off the clinging death.

At last he fell, toppling backward, exhausted; and the bull-dog promptly shifted his grip, getting in closer, mangling more and more of the fur-folded flesh, throttling White Fang more severely than ever. Shouts of applause went up for the victor, and there were many cries of “Cherokee!” “Cherokee!” To this Cherokee responded by vigorous wagging of the stump of his tail. But the clamour of approval did not distract him. There was no sympathetic relation between his tail and his massive jaws. The one might wag, but the others held their terrible grip on White Fang’s throat.

I don’t think London would’ve been too surprised by those early UFCs.

Almost a vampire story, but with dogs

Thursday, February 14th, 2019

I recently listened to an audiobook version of Jack London’s White Fang and was surprised by how much the opening chapters resemble a horror story:

The pale light of the short sunless day was beginning to fade, when a faint far cry arose on the still air. It soared upward with a swift rush, till it reached its topmost note, where it persisted, palpitant and tense, and then slowly died away. It might have been a lost soul wailing, had it not been invested with a certain sad fierceness and hungry eagerness. The front man turned his head until his eyes met the eyes of the man behind. And then, across the narrow oblong box, each nodded to the other.

A second cry arose, piercing the silence with needle-like shrillness. Both men located the sound. It was to the rear, somewhere in the snow expanse they had just traversed. A third and answering cry arose, also to the rear and to the left of the second cry.

“They’re after us, Bill,” said the man at the front.

His voice sounded hoarse and unreal, and he had spoken with apparent effort.

“Meat is scarce,” answered his comrade. “I ain’t seen a rabbit sign for days.”

Thereafter they spoke no more, though their ears were keen for the hunting-cries that continued to rise behind them.

At the fall of darkness they swung the dogs into a cluster of spruce trees on the edge of the waterway and made a camp. The coffin, at the side of the fire, served for seat and table. The wolf-dogs, clustered on the far side of the fire, snarled and bickered among themselves, but evinced no inclination to stray off into the darkness.

“Seems to me, Henry, they’re stayin’ remarkable close to camp,” Bill commented.

Henry, squatting over the fire and settling the pot of coffee with a piece of ice, nodded. Nor did he speak till he had taken his seat on the coffin and begun to eat.

“They know where their hides is safe,” he said. “They’d sooner eat grub than be grub. They’re pretty wise, them dogs.”

Bill shook his head. “Oh, I don’t know.”

His comrade looked at him curiously. “First time I ever heard you say anything about their not bein’ wise.”

“Henry,” said the other, munching with deliberation the beans he was eating, “did you happen to notice the way them dogs kicked up when I was a-feedin’ ’em?”

“They did cut up more’n usual,” Henry acknowledged.

“How many dogs ’ve we got, Henry?”

“Six.”

“Well, Henry . . . ” Bill stopped for a moment, in order that his words might gain greater significance. “As I was sayin’, Henry, we’ve got six dogs. I took six fish out of the bag. I gave one fish to each dog, an’, Henry, I was one fish short.”

“You counted wrong.”

“We’ve got six dogs,” the other reiterated dispassionately. “I took out six fish. One Ear didn’t get no fish. I came back to the bag afterward an’ got ’m his fish.”

“We’ve only got six dogs,” Henry said.

“Henry,” Bill went on. “I won’t say they was all dogs, but there was seven of ’m that got fish.”

Henry stopped eating to glance across the fire and count the dogs.

“There’s only six now,” he said.

“I saw the other one run off across the snow,” Bill announced with cool positiveness. “I saw seven.”

Henry looked at him commiseratingly, and said, “I’ll be almighty glad when this trip’s over.”

Go ahead and read the first three chapters. They’re their own short story — almost a vampire story, but with dogs.

The sensation of a continuous sharp trill

Tuesday, January 8th, 2019

The US embassy in Havana halved its staff when diplomats came under sonic attack:

The mysterious wave of illness fuelled speculation that the staff had been targeted by an acoustic weapon. It was an explanation that appeared to gain weight when an audio recording of a persistent, high-pitched drone made by US personnel in Cuba was released to the Associated Press.

But a fresh analysis of the audio recording has revealed what scientists in the UK and the US now believe is the true source of the piercing din: it is the song of the Indies short-tailed cricket, known formally as Anurogryllus celerinictus.

“The recording is definitively a cricket that belongs to the same group,” said Fernando Montealegre-Zapata, a professor of sensory biology at the University of Lincoln. “The call of this Caribbean species is about 7 kHz, and is delivered at an unusually high rate, which gives humans the sensation of a continuous sharp trill.”

Scott Adams adds his hypnotist perspective:

If you tell a hundred random people they were attacked by a sonic device, twenty will have symptoms. You can test it without the noise.

Your family pet is a secret badass

Sunday, November 4th, 2018

When screenwriter Zack Stentz was a little kid, he was obsessed by the Chuck Jones adaptation of Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi“:

I think the idea that your family pet is a secret badass who will fight cobras to protect you at night spoke to me on a deep level.

I remember loving it too, so I was surprised when someone mentioned another Chuck Jones-animated adaptation of a Kipling story, “The White Seal.”

Chuck Jones is a fascinating character — as you might expect of the guy who created the Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Pepé Le Pew, and Marvin Martian — and I remember enjoying his memoir, Chuck Amuck. I distinctly remember one anecdote.

Chuck’s father kept starting businesses, and each time he started a new business, he bought lots of letterhead. When the business soon failed, his kids were encouraged to use up the paper as fast as possible — so young Chuck got lots and lots of practice drawing.

Chuck’s grandson seems to have inherited a bit of the animator’s spirit, judging from this look at how Chuck studied seals for “The White Seal”: