This Week in Zoology: Out of Sci-Fi and Into a Journal

I’m sure you’ve come across the phrase “stranger than fiction” before. This week, I came across a paper that I think fits this description perfectly. If you had seen this in a movie you would probably roll your eyes at it, unless it was the most wild of sci-fi.

And yet, it seems as though it happened.

Scientists decided to send some planarian worms to space. After 5 weeks at the international space station they returned to Earth.

And one of them came back with two heads. They tried chopping them off, but they just grew back. That worm has decided to remain a two-headed for the rest of its life now. So… that happened.

OK, we’re going to need a little more context here I think. Why did they do this in the first place? What is a planarian worm, and what is the relevance of all of this?

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Why The Fuss About Wolves?

There is an ongoing discussion among conservationists when it comes to which species to protect, and which ones to allow to die out. As conservation efforts have limited resources, and as larger and larger portions of the planet are being developed to meet the needs of human population growth, the idea that we can try to save all species that face extinction is, unfortunately, quite naive. One such animal that finds itself in the center of this debate is the panda, which costs a fortune to keep alive and breeding with little to no chance of their numbers becoming stable in the wild again. Some argue that we shouldn’t spend such enormous amounts of money on keeping the panda alive when those resources could be better spent elsewhere, just because it is cute and cuddly. Others argue that it’s cuteness is precisely why so many people donate to keep it alive in the first place, and thus it should be protected in order to encourage enthusiasm towards conservation efforts.

I have heard similar arguments made not by conservationsists, but by laypeople in regards to wolves. Many, even those who are not enthusiastic about conservation, have heard and one point or another people discussing wolf populations, either efforts to reintroduce them into places where they have been extinct for decades, or decrying countries like Norway for allowing hunters to kill off huge percentages of their wild wolf population legally.

What, I am often asked, is the reason behind all of this fuss over wolves? I mean, they are predators! They kill other animals, they are just one more danger to humans, and farmers hate them because they kill off the odd sheep as well. Why spend all of this money and make such an effort to reintroduce a couple dozen wolves into places where no one wants them, when other species could be protected instead?

Recently, I came across a video that summarizes the case study of Yellowstone National Park very nicely. In just a few minutes, you can see what a huge impact wolves can have on their ecosystem.

Despite their villanous representation in cartoons or certain nature documentaries, top predators are essential to the balance of life as we have enjoyed it for centuries. Wolves are incredibly important, and can do wonders for their ecosystems.

And, let’s not forget that without wolves, we would have never had dogs. And without dogs, videos like this would never have existed, and what a tragedy that would have been for all of us.


This Week In Zoology: What an Ugly Baby

There is an evolutionary reason why most people find the infant version of most animals adorable. The large eyes and large heads evoke sympathy in humans by exploiting a deep instinct to protect they young of the group, and to recognize them by their body’s proportions.

Given this instinct, it is obvious why the “babies” of pretty much any animal are so much cuter than the adult version. This is a general rule, but goddamn do pigeons violate it.

It had never occurred to me that I had no idea what pigeon chicks look like, despite having grown up in a city that is full of them. I have never liked pigeons, always considering them to be the true “rats with wings” rather than bats, which I find charming and dead useful. So when I came across an article on IFLScience entitled “Why Do You Never See Baby Pigeons?” I clicked on it, realizing that I had never asked myself that question before.

I mean, I never really thought about it because it was always clear by their behavior that they roost in very high places. Pigeons are not ducks, which lay their eggs on the ground, and thus produce young that waddle along behind them. The baby pigeons are in the nest, aren’t they?

Reading the article confirmed what I expected.

“Only if you can see into a nest would you be likely to see baby pigeons,” Debra Kriensky, a conservation biologist with NYC Audubon Society, explained to IFLScience. “By the time they leave the nest, they are already quite large and resemble adult birds more than they do chicks.”

It’s also worth considering that pigeon chicks fledge (leave the nest) within just 25 to 32 days. So, unless you catch them in this brief period at the top of a building, then you’re unlikely to see them.

I bring this article up because the real shocker was not the explanation as to why you never see baby pigeons, but rather it was the picture of the baby rock dove, of which the city pigeon is a subspecies. Truly these birds could not be further from ducks, which produce some of the most adorable babies ever to  come out of the Aves class.

Brace yourself. Baby rock doves and pigeons reside below the fold.

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Bad Science: Say That Twice, With A Straight Face

Some bad science writers just make it too easy.

The other day, I come across an article that someone posted on Facebook. It was entitled Science Finally Confirms That People Absorb Energy From Others!

Of course you do not have to be a scientist to know that is complete bullshit. Oh dear, I thought, this is one of those rabbit holes that I cannot resist falling into. What new study has been twisted and perverted to fit this narrative today, I wonder? Will they name the scientist that “made the discovery”? Will they just give the name of an institute, and I’ll have to comb through their publications to find the culprit? Or perhaps is the aforementioned “science” performed by just some quack in a yurt in Arizona somewhere?

Where is this article going to fall on my 1-10 Bad Science Bullshit-o-Meter? So, I clicked on it. Of course I did.

If you don’t want to click on it I get it, so let me just quote the first two lines, because that’s the absolute best part.

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This Week In Zoology: What Causes Irukandji Syndrome?

For decades, a mysterious illness cropped up in the Australian summer months. People would fall prey to Nature’s Cruciatus Curse, an indescribable pain, a feeling like you are burning from the inside out and, at times, a conviction that you’re going to die that is so strong that you beg those around you to just kill you. This syndrome would last anywhere between 12 hours and 3 days, and then it would pass. While Irukandji syndrome was very rarely fatal, it was still scary enough that no one much wanted to have to go through it.

This mystery persisted until the 1960s, when physician and toxinocologist Jack Barnes told the world that this devastating syndrome was caused by the sting of a tiny, barely noticeable jellyfish.



As you can imagine, this was a tough sell. How do you convince the country and the world that this incredibly painful day from Hell could come from a little creature that you barely even notice when it stings you? So, how do you prove this far-fetched theory?

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This Week In Zoology: Weirdo Caterpillars

When it comes to extremely odd looking creatures, marine life is usually our best source of inspiration, especially those found in the deep sea. This is partially because the support that water gives allows for more extravagant body plans than land does, and partially because we don’t see marine creatures every day, and so they have not had as much chance to become “normal” to our eyes.

When it comes to terrestrial creatures, however, I think that caterpillars are strong contenders for the “weirdest looking critters” award. This video gives some examples, and many of you might be asking yourselves, WTF are those, and WHY THOR WHYYY do they look like that?



Well, here goes. I’ll identify for you those caterpillars that I recognize from this video, and give you a short explanation as to why evolution allowed them to become the fuzzy little weirdos you see in this video today. Sorry Creationists, the answer is not “God predicted the existence of viral videos and wanted to have a laugh”.

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This Week In Zoology Meets Sunday Cooking With Crys

It’s winter, and for those of us who do not live smack in the middle of a giant metropolis, it is always nice to help the birds who did not migrate to warmer climates make it through the season. You can buy those funny smelling balls of birdfeed and hang them in your garden to give them a boost, but for those of you who live in countries in which they are not so widely sold, did you know that you can also make your own?

Well I didn’t know until today, but I came across a great recipe for what I am now calling birdfeed balls on a conservation and animal rights website.

The recipe is in Italian, however, so I have translated it for you here. I happen to have all of these ingredients in my house already save one, so I think I might be cooking for the birds this Christmas too, because why not.

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That Includes You, Milo

Yet another article that has made me define 2016 as April Fool’s Year. True, I do not usually hate myself enough to put myself through regularly reading things written by Milo Yiannopoulos, nor much of anything that is posted on Breitbart, and I am sure that there are many things there that I would find ridiculous enough to double check the date on my calendar. But when I saw a shared article entitled Animals That Are Not Delicious or Useful Deserve to Be Extinct, I simply couldn’t help myself.

Step 1: Source check. It is not the Onion, nor the Daily Mash, but rather Breitbart. O.K.

Step 2: Date check. It was originally posted in August. Oh well… here goes.

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April Fool’s Year

I can say with quite a bit of certainty that 2016 has turned out to be the most bizarre year of my lifetime, thus far. Whether politically in the wake of Brexit and the Trump Presidency, or personally in the face of a string of mindboggling incidents in the lab that defy logic and the laws of probability. I have found myself numerous times, and throughout the entire year, pausing and checking that it is not April Fool’s Day, from January to November.

One such day was when I read an IFLS title: 10,000 Endangered Scrotum Frogs Have Died Near Lake Titicaca. Which, of course, in my mind read as “Loads of Ballsack Frogs Died Near Lake BoobyShit”.

I check my calendar. It’s late October. OK IFLS, you got me, I’m clicking on the link. Why, pray tell, have the ballsack frogs perished so?

There’s something strange going on near Lake Titicaca with its scrotum frogs (and it didn’t happen on April 1).

Oh good, so it’s not just me who thought that was a title worthy of an April Fool’s prank. Please, do go on.

At least 10,000 of these fat, wrinkly, and very rare frogs have mysteriously died in Peru. Thousands of the frogs were discovered floating in the river Coata by members of the Committee Against the Pollution of the Coata River. The river flows into Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, which straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia.

Speaking to IFLScience, Arturo Muñoz of the Bolivian Amphibian Initiative explained what was behind previous mass-deaths in Bolivia between May and April 2015. 

“We found sulfide levels were very high in the lake,” Muñoz told IFLScience. He added that heavy rains and strong winds could have released sulfides from the bottom of the lakes and rivers, which subsequently might have killed the frogs.

The frogs maybe far uglier than the ballsacks they’re named after, but that is still very sad. More than anything else, they seem to be an indicator for some major pollution concerns in the area.

According to the locals, they have been concerned about the unchecked pollution for a while, and have been largely ignored, until they brought the dead frogs to their protests as evidence of what is happening in their communities.

Quite apart from chuckling at their funny names, the fact that this is a fun story to write about could actually bring a little international attention to a very real and hereto largely ignored problem in Peru. Who knows, if enough people follow the story in the hopes of learning more about the scrotum frog, authorities in the area might feel pressured to investigate and respond a bit more than they have so far. Already, in the light of these mass frog deaths, they seem to be giving at least a token response to the outcry.

This is one of those posts that embodies the Italian phrase da ridere per non piangere, which literally means, to laugh so as not to cry. You have a choice, cry over the ever worsening state of our environment and pollution levels, or laugh because you just learned that there is such a thing as a scrotum frog, which lives in lake Titicaca.