Saturday, March 31, 2012

Mother nature always repackaging creatures

As featured March 23, 2012, on

Traipsing through dense plants while swatting at exotic blood-sucking insects and side-stepping vipers, some guy in a floppy hat stops to flip over a chunk of rotting wood and BINGO!
A new species is added to the list.
In the daily grind of alarm clock-drive-work-drive-chores-dinner-TV-lights out-alarm clock, it's easy to believe everything is all figured out, everything that exists is named and “new” is defined by smaller, faster circuitry.
But people aren't the only ones who are creative, and for all our innovation, we certainly have a lot to learn about our world.
Take, for instance, the downright adorable and newly discovered “Brookesia Micra.”
At roughly an inch, the insect sized chameleon has to take a couple steps to make it from one side of a finger tip to the other – so take that Silicon Valley!
Miniaturized to a level of perfection that would have further inspired Lewis Carroll, the reptile was discovered in northern Madagascar, known for its threatened, yet diverse chameleon populations.
What might be even more intriguing about the little guy (and yes, it is the male in the species that boasts the smallest size) is that its size is most likely a direct response to a small environment, a phenomenon called “island dwarfism” in which the size of some creatures adapts to limited land and resources.
Did Charles Darwin figure out everything the Galapagos Islands had to offer and the rest is history?
Not exactly... Actually, not even close.
Recently, deep sea diving scientists discovered a new foot-long catshark species around the volcanic islands almost 200 years after the HMS Beagle conveyed Darwin to their shores for his brief exploration there.
And the experts think they've barely scratched the surface of yet-undiscovered life existing on and around the 3,000 square miles or so of land framed by the South Pacific Ocean.
In a cave near the Black Sea, more than a mile from the closest sun rays, a team of researchers recently discovered eyeless springtails, a type of arthropod which they believe to be the deepest animal known to live below the surface of the earth.
Admittedly a bit creepy looking, the legless and slithery Chikilidae appears to be a Jurassic country cousin within the frog family, was recently discovered in India. Making up for its looks, matronly love is a redeeming quality of the unattractive Chikilidae, with mom spending more than two months wrapped around her eggs without budging, not even to eat.
New types of frogs are one of the more commonly discovered critters with the Cowboy frog (it wears spurs) included in a group of 46 new species discovered during recent expeditions in South America, and the worlds smallest frog in New Guinea, the Paedophryne amauensis, which is small enough to fit on a dime and sounds like a cricket.
But perhaps the most astounding was a new type of leopard frog discovered when it croaked, not in the jungles of the rainforest but rather in the exotic concrete jungles of America, more specifically, Yankee Stadium of all places. Turns out there's a lot of them and they call the Bronx home.
So rest assured, while there may be nothing new under the sun, there's no shortage of new old stuff to be found and with her tendency to adapt things and rearrange the furniture, Mother Nature is always repackaging old stuff in new ways.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Animals go wild on spring break

As featured March 16, 2012, on

You don't need a calendar to know that spring is around the corner when you have critters around.
Us humans aren't the only ones who get cranky and restless when the weather is oppressive, but while we live mired in the dark days of winter convinced that it will never end, somewhere deep in their marrow they know sunny days are coming.
And they start pinging.
The dogs were the first to bust loose.
All winter long they contentedly went through their routines peacefully, never showing even the slightest inkling of restlessness – until the spring spark kindled.
And fences, well it appears they're no match for the spark.
One went under, one over, and while their adventure only took them one field away, they seemed to think they were on a world class vacation.
It would have been fine had it just been a canine bug, but no, apparently it infected everyone.
Next the filly caught the fever and went through the fence, its jolt apparently no match for the spark.
Luckily her stomach dominated and she never made it past the first sprig of green she saw... all three times she ran away.
But the real shocker was the chicken.
The first time she bobbled under the fence and went on a walkabout, making it a couple hundred yards down the road before the sound of the feed room opening won out and brought her zigzagging back at top speed.
Sadly a full belly of corn only weighed her down till the next day, incidentally about the time the wind kicked in again.
While she had clearly chosen a poor day to go on another walkabout, since she was nowhere in sight there was nothing to do but toss some corn on the ground and hope she made it back in time to roost.
By the second day – which dawned on the same, unrelenting winds – still no chicken and no daily egg. It seemed she might have made the mistake of stretching her wings and been blown away, joining the eastward-bound tumbleweed pilgrimage.
Nothing left to do, the only hope was that perhaps she would emerge from some hidey hole when the wind stopped, or at least begin gifting some lucky Texas family with her morning egg as thanks for taking her in as she tumbled by.
Three days passed and the winds finally calmed, but still no chicken. The only thing that even indicated she had ever existed were long black feathers scattered on the floor – not a good sign.
Just as it seemed sure she must have been preyed upon, there was a scurrying sound in the roof.
Grabbing a length of wood, I used it to jab at the ceiling, satisfied to hear the killer scrambling away in terror.
And then the sounds of garbled, panicked clucking followed the racing feet.
Elation was short lived as a quick inspection revealed no openings through which she could have crawled, or through which to bring her back.
How she got into the ceiling is a secret that will likely stay trapped with the eggs that are no doubt wedged between the rafters where she huddled for three days.
It took a ladder and a crowbar to get her free, and of course, like nothing had ever happened, she resumed scratching as soon as her feet hit the ground.
The fever must have run its course and it appears it was just the thought of spring that revved everybody up, with the reality of hot sun rays turning them into scatter rugs with feet... scatter rugs with twinkling eyes who are no doubt already planning for their next spring break.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Humans determined to harness time

As featured March 9, 2012, on

Oh, so you think you're a zeitgeber, well who the heck gave you the right to control the universe?
After all, you may not get it, but every pet knows full well the world orbits that bowl on the floor in the kitchen – the rising, and setting, of the sun determined by it being filled in a timely manner.
Now – Sunday to be exact – us humans are about to change the course of things... Again.
Sure, you'll be waxing eternal to your boss Monday morning as you run for the car with mismatched socks and fly away hair, but will you tell the dog sorry, not likely.
Instead he'll be waiting by his bowl at the “real” 5 o'clock, while you spend the next couple weeks in woe-is-me, yawn punctuated whining that you've lost sleep.
Do you have any idea how long an hour is in the dog world when there's food hanging in the balance?
Long, real long.
Of course now the bowl is filled an hour earlier in the morning, but by evening that hardly seems to matter as the anxious minutes of that final hour reveal the torture of it all and it's not just the pooches and kitties.
Come Sunday evening, fence lines throughout this country will be dotted with the forlorn faces of cattle who made their way in from the fields just to look like extras in the opening scene of some Armageddon type movie – not a farmer in sight.
That's nothing, however, compared to the inevitable surprise of raccoons and bears, when, in those last bits of darkness before morning, they get busted dumpster diving – you know, that time when you're SUPPOSED to be sleeping!
In the natural world there are these elements most all creatures respond to that direct the rhythm of the day. They're called “zeitgebers” German for “time givers,” and it's a power humans seem bound and determined to try and harness for themselves.
Why we play this little time game is as simple as it is complicated.
Starting in the first decade of the 1900's western nations began fiddling with the hands on the clock in the interest of maximizing efficiency and minimizing resource consumption, needs compounded with the onset of World War I.
The U.S. was late to the time changing game, finally taking steps to save the day in 1918 – incidentally during an era where Taylorism and Fordism were already looking for spaces to pencil in more hours on the clock and world markets wanted more time for commerce – though that was just a first step toward controlling time as laws proceeded to be written and rescinded, lobbied, and amended.
Even though us American mammals have adapted (accepted may be a better word) and forgotten when times were different, times, they've been a changin' off and on ever since.
Of course there are consequences to playing with time, not the least of which are broadening derriere's and atrophied muscles.
Yep, confused cows, interrupted scavengers, and neglected pups aside, experts say our season of efficiency is counterbalanced by the off-season and electricity isn’t the only energy we conserve thanks to the shorter days – Our couches, on the other hand, work overtime.
The debate continues, with many arguing that Daylight Saving Time, and its longer days, should be extended or even made permanent, to stimulate commerce but also, activity because of the laziness that comes from shorter days the rest of the year. Case in point, in 2005, President Bush signed a law that went into effect in 2007, adding an additional month to Daylight Saving Time in most states.
Of course not a factor in such discussions are the critters that share our homes and inherit their schedules from ours, however, even though they don't need us to tell them what time it is, that doesn't mean they 're completely opposed to “spring forward” time.
Because if the experts are right, while the pup may have to wait a little longer for his kibble during the adjustment period, theoretically that extra hour of daylight means you're off the couch and going for an evening jog or tossing a ball in the yard... theoretically anyway.
So don't forget to move the hands forward Sunday, and if you must play zeitgeber, remember, your dog would probably love some too.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Gadgets not limited to humans

As featured March 2, 2012, on

It was around the 14th Century or so when some anonymous irreverent farmer took a highly prized religious implement and hung it from the neck of his best sheep – and thus the precious bell was transferred down from the upper echelons of the priesthood, literally to the herd.
No doubt that must have ruffled some robes at the time, but it just goes to show no one escapes progress, not even members of the animal world.
In fact, it seems just like keeping track of the sheep all those years ago, one of the first areas ingenuity gets channeled is toward animals and when humans have technology coming out their ears, we end up with things like texting cows.
Yep, it took about 700 years since the first cowbell was donned, but now the herder doesn't even have to be within earshot to know what his or her cows are doing.
Passing Wii technology from the hands of children to the necks of cattle, a newly developed collar records a cow's movements and activity patterns and sends texts to farmers letting them know when their cows are in distress, in labor or even ready to breed.
Not quite as communicative but practical none the less, a UK developer has introduced a pet collar that can be read with a smart phone bar code scanner app, giving the pet owner the ability to program a unique, “Return my dog,” message.
Shh.... Did you hear that? It was a sigh of relief from cattle ‘round the world as they wait anxiously for the test tube T-bone to mature.
While the stem cell based beef grows in a Netherlands petri dish – apparently it takes a long time, its muscles also have to be “exercised” with electric current and they’re still working to give it palatable color – “Invitro-meat” developers are coming up ceramic faux bones to complete the presentation.
Researchers hope to carve out a first bite this summer with the goal their lab-made meat will eventually eliminate animal farming.
And if you thought it was bad when you saw your kids' multi-hundred dollar techno-Christmas lists this year, just wait till Fido puts in his gadget order.
Oh no, don't laugh just yet... You may be surprised to know that dogs have been using touch screens longer than most of us.
In 2007, Austrian researchers taught dogs to navigate classification and matching drills using touch screen computers, about three years or so before you downloaded your first app.
One-upping the dogs, for months, orangutans at a Milwaukee zoo have been playing iPad games through the bars of their cages, while in Toronto another group of orangutans aren’t just using iPads, they’re also Skyping family members in nearby enclosures and will eventually be part of a nationwide orangutan Skype network.
No doubt the day will come where members of the public get added to their contact lists.
In fact, if current talks are any indication, the zoo of your childhood is nothing like the ones your grandchildren will visit.
It seems like cloning extinct animals is almost a foregone conclusion for the future of zoos – though the experts believe only those made extinct by mankind should be brought back, well, with the except of the irresistible woolly mammoth that is, simply because the DNA samples are so pristine.
But future zoo visitors will also get to interact, using brainwave reading devices to communicate with dolphins or wolves, according to ideas tossed around by zoo professionals during a conference earlier this month.
Without a doubt, whether we impose technology on them, do it for them or simply share it with them, animals are right there with us, benefiting and sometimes even adapting to the modern world.
Who knows, before long the family dog may be even better at programing the remote control than the 3-year-old in the house, and if the technology curve holds true, they'll both be better at it than us.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Animals have own ways of dealing with wind

As featured February 24, 2012, on

Since the dawn of man, the spring season has been celebrated, often because it's a pleasant exit from winter and also because it is the season that represents life's potential.
In between the intermittent cold and warm spells, green shoots sprout from little dried up bits of plants that nature seemed to have discarded in the cold of winter and dried bits of grass and shreds of trash once hidden by snow are scavenged to build nests.
Life starts to buzz again, the air and ground become host to a flurry of activity in anticipation of the babies that will be coming soon. The earth begins its process too with cool drizzles that wash away the gloom of past months and longer days of sun give a hint of warmth to the air.
All of it converges to introduce the reality of the season whose memory got you through the brutal cold and short dark days of winter.
Unless, of course, you live on the High Plains.
Sure, just like everyone else around the country, we're running stuffy-headed to the corner drug store for antihistamines, but not because of the rising pollen count.
Oh no... for us it's got a little more to do with the brown air that swirls around us as we fight to keep our car doors from bashing into the car beside us at the grocery.
And the fact that somehow in the two minutes it took you to get inside the store – head tucked toward the ground, torso angled forward – you managed to inhale a sampling of all the real estate in town and possibly a bit of Texas too.
Yep, wind. That's our reward for completing another winter.
While people in other areas lay down big bucks at the spa for microdermabrasion treatments so they can sport their summer wardrobes, we all know that nothing quite sloughs and freshens the skin like a 60 mph dirt storm.
Somehow Mother Nature still pulls of the spring miracle anyway, with this being one of the rare places on earth where birds master the art of flying backwards, still managing to build their nests in time to make hatching day.
In fact, we are not alone, and animals in lands across the world – arctic, tundra, alpine and desert biomes share our woes – have unique ways of dealing with overpowering wind.
  • Elephants are known to face downward on windy days and extend their ears to cool hot arteries in their ears.
  • Camels can open and close their noses so they don't suck in the geography and they have long luxurious lashes, not only because they make for great “come hither” glances across the desert, but because they also keep the sand out.
  • Groups of 6,000 or more penguins have been known to huddle together to shield en mass against up to 125 mph arctic winds.
  • Coastal critters protect themselves from being battered by wind and washed away by the resulting waves by clinging onto rocks and other items.
  • The horse-sized arctic Musk oxen lies down in high winds facing their backs toward the wind.
  • The Portuguese Man-of-War actually does little fighting and sails across the sea, ending up where ever the wind takes it.
  • The desert addax digs out depressions near boulders and hunkers down.
  • While resting, flamingos actually face the wind and, as only true yoga masters could do, sway while they sleep.
Well, if they can survive the wind, we can too.
So put on thick mascara, huddle with pals, hunker down, grab onto something that won't blow away, take a nap on one leg and sway, put your back into it, sail to far off lands, or if all else fails, make like a tumble weed and just roll with it.