Saturday, July 28, 2012

Animal idioms hard to pin down

As featured July 21, 2012, at

“Runs like a scalded dog,” the words jumped out from a column of classified advertisements.
Having never seen a scalded dog run, and having never heard the phrase, the only logical conclusion to be reached was that the owner of the pickup truck in question was boasting that the truck was fast.
Either that or the truck yelped and whined while it ran.
It’s hard to imagine where a saying such as that one originated but obviously somebody at some point saw a scalded dog run and was struck enough by the moment to turn around and put the experience to use.
Animals just seem to find themselves the subject of idioms, and often the creative sayings take on a life of their own with origins so far removed, they’re virtually impossible to pin down.
For instance, in place of “wonderful” someone might use the phrase, “The bee’s knees.”
But the saying didn’t necessarily start out with that meaning, first used as a joking expression for something non-existent, i.e. sending someone on an errand to the store to pick up some, “bees knees.”
Eventually the phrase evolved to mean the best of something, perhaps based on the fact that bees carry pollen on their legs, or possibly even popularized in the 1920s by the fast-moving knees of Bee Jackson, a World Champion Charleston dancer.
Of course everybody knows that skunks don’t imbibe, yet intoxicated people get compared to them all the time. A leading theory is that the saying came around because a skunk and an intoxicated person often have their respective odors, but what’s more likely is just the simple fact that the words rhyme and are easy to say together.
It's hard to imagine that anyone ever actually tried to harness a cart in front of a horse instead of the other way around, yet the saying was born nonetheless.
And it was born a really long time ago at that, with the philosopher Cicero using the analogy as early as first century B.C.
The ancient Egyptians and Romans gave us the “dog days of summer,” though in reality the saying has little to do with actual dogs.
Rather, it stems from the fact that in the hottest days of the year, July and August, the star Sirius, also known as the “Dog Star” appeared close to the sun, which was believed to cause the high heat.
Eventually, the Romans did end up involving real dogs, sacrificing a brown dog each year in the hopes that by appeasing Sirius they might have a mild summer.
Other historical dogs got off the hook just a little easier in the fact that all that was wanted from them was their hair, if they were biters that is.
In medieval times, it was believed that if someone was bitten by a rabid dog, they could be cured by applying hair from the animal that bit them to their wound. A couple hundred years latter the concept was applied to the aftermath of a bout of drinking and, “the hair of the dog,” became known as a hangover cure.
Cat lovers may be glad to know that felines were probably not swung around to measure rooms. It's origins are uncertain, but the saying “no room to swing a cat” is believed to be a naval phrase, possibly referring to a whip which was used to punish sailors who misbehaved on British ships.
A person may have never had a goat, but that doesn't mean someone can't “get” it.
There are mixed schools of thought on where “got your goat” comes from. One theory roots the saying at the race track where goats are sometimes kept with temperamental horses to calm them. If a rival wanted to increase their odds, they stole their opposition's goat, upsetting the rival horse before race day. Another theory is that the saying emerged in the early 1900's, when goat was slang for anger.
Thankfully, in most cases, the figures of speech that make it into everyday language are just that — figures of speech. Besides, with the advent of speedometers and tape measures, swinging cats and scalded dogs are somewhat obsolete.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Pets help build immune system in children

As featured July 14, 2012, at

Germs: They do a body good. Finally, a study has surfaced espousing the value of good old dirt and grime and yes, even bacteria.
And apparently, dirt is even good for kids, especially when carried into the house by that "nasty ol' dog," if researchers theories are correct.
It's sad, but it happens — the new, precious, squeaky-clean baby arrives and the dog starts getting squeezed out of the picture.
If lucky, the dog only has to endure more baths than normal, but the less lucky find themselves looking forlorn through the back window, watching the family inside the house that used to be theirs too.
There has for decades been a school of thought that children needed to be sheltered from germy animals or they might get sick or even develop allergies and other long-term issues.
However, gaining widespread attention this week, a soon-to-be released article in the Journal of Pediatrics just might vindicate back-porch pooches.
Essentially, a team of Finnish researchers studied babies over the course of their first year and found that those living in households with pets had lower incidents of infection and in general showed higher resilience when they did become sick.
Not only was there a marked difference for kids in homes with pets, but the more contact they had with the animals, the better their immunity seemed to be and even more, there was a noticeable difference in kids that lived around dogs, particularly dogs that spent significant time outside.
While the reason was not scientifically explained in the study, researchers have said they have a theory and it's pretty simple.
Dogs are just a tad dirtier than cats and therefore, more likely to carry the icky stuff into the house on their paws and fur.
The information is consistent with other studies in recent years, which lean toward exposure to indoor pets in the early years as helpful to reducing allergies and sensitivities later in life.
A 2010 article in the Journal of Pediatrics looked at the link between child eczema and pets and a team of doctors concluded that while there's still much work to be done on the topic, it's probably not fair to blame the dog. In fact, they noted researchers have found exposure to pets in the early years could actually protect a child from developing eczema at rates of 20-30 percent.
It almost seems silly that a study is needed to show that kids need animals, but hey, if it takes science to prove it then so be it.
The dogs and kids already have it all figured out anyway — they know they are made for each other.
Heck, they even share the same interests.
They both like squeaky toys and stuffed animals, they are close to the ground, have vacuum tendencies when they encounter things on the carpet, and they could care less about dirt — in fact they kind of seem to like it.
Turn your back for second, and Fido and Junior will be licking the same rawhide or dipping their noses in the same water dish.
Come to think of it, choking hazards notwithstanding, maybe it's a partial explanation for why little kids have to touch and taste everything, something well-intentioned parents keep interfering with even as the list of conditions and ailments out there seems to grow daily.
Who knows, future studies may even find that nature has hard-wired kids without an ick-meter for the purpose of helping them build immunity.
Actually, when you look at it like that, perhaps an equally appropriate study would be to measure how living in a home with a child impacts a dog's health.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Bees, flowers have different kind of romance

As featured June 7, 2012, at

Exploring a patch of thistles, bloom after bloom, the picture was the same.
A big, round bee behind protruded from within each purple head, looking as if the rotund creatures had flown so fast at the flowers, they had crashed and become permanently imbedded face-first.
But of course they weren’t stuck, and, as soon as the sound of footsteps reach their buried heads, they popped out and took to the air, buzzing in irritation.
Some of the most beautiful flowers to be seen in early summer on the eastern plains, thistles might be nice to look at, but in all their prickliness they don’t exactly go out of their way to be approachable.
Or do they...
If recent research is correct, thistles could actually be working overtime to be inviting, though being put into vases isn’t exactly the angle of their ambition.
In fact, not only is it OK if they’re prickly and abrasive, it might be better and certainly explains the bee behinds that seem to appear as soon as they open.
It appears the romance between bees and flowers isn’t defined by color and fragrance quite like it is between humans and petals.
Rather, it’s texture that helps a flower woo a bee and win the pollen, according to a recently published study conducted by scientists at the University of Cambridge.
Presenting bees with petunias whose petals had both smooth and conical cell structure, researchers found that time and time again, bees went to the flowers with the rougher surface.
The reason is quite simple — grip.
Valuable like slip-stop stickers on the bottom of the bathtub, the cone-shaped cell structure of some petals provides bees a near Velcro hold as they make their way to the center of a flower in search of nectar.
And it’s a good thing, because moving flowers are the ones that best attract the 3D eyes of a bee, a point proven in the lab when scientists put flower boxes containing plants on mechanized “shaking” tables to simulate stems swaying in the breeze. Consistently, they documented the bees zooming to the textured plants.
It makes a lot of sense really, since trying to hang on to a slick moving bloom while working would just take far too much energy if there’s another option.
So you may love your fancy snapdragons, but their ups and downs and angles and curves just don’t convey the same message to a bee, especially if there’s a rough-petaled petunia nearby.
Particularly in our neck of the woods, where breezy days bend thin trees to the ground.
Also intriguing is the fact the favored petals with textured cells are generally more subdued in color because they absorb, rather than reflect light.
But that’s alright because fuchsia would probably be wasted on a bee anyway.
While the color scheme of the grasslands may seem drab to the human eye, strong light basically strips bee vision to black and white, so they don’t even get to enjoy the occasional purple thistle in a sea of brown.
Needless to say, while the research doesn’t change a thing for bees and their buds, it does debunk some common misconceptions that the wild flowers of the world have had the inside scoop on for a while — a glowing complexion, alluring smell and smashing hues aren’t always the quickest route to the prize.
But as luck would have it, pragmatic bees aren’t the only game in town, so fair flowers need not despair — the hummingbirds still love them.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Toads ingrained in New Mexico

As featured June 30, 2012, at

Walking outside after the sun goes down they scatter before you like proverbial cockroaches under a light.
Such was the case when I killed my first.
Stepping down from the edge of the porch, I was in mid-motion when I saw it sitting there directly under my lowering shoe. Carrying a full water dish at the time, I cringed and wished but could not stop my foot from landing squarely on top of it.
Of course as soon as I regained my balance, I nudged at the toad with the tip of my shoe – its lack of response confirming the moment had been fast and final.
Then there was the mower incident.
It bears mentioning that no matter how you try to flush them out before you mow — I have tried — they refuse to be herded and inevitably end right back in the path of the blades.
This large fella was no exception.
I heard it, caught a glimpse of flying toad out of the corner of my eye, and again cringed.
And, as in years past, there are the pancake toads in the driveway and the occasional mummified toads in the barn and garage.
Recent-ly, toads came up in casual conversation and a woman remarked that she too is frustrated by them not, per say, by their presence, but more because she has a heck of a time cleaning the messes they leave around the house.
Having always found it curious that so many toads appear in the hot months, in what typically a pretty dry climate, it seemed an appropriate time for a little toad 101.
Among the first interesting facts out there is that toads and frogs are in the same family, but for the most part, toads, which we find lined up under our porch lights most nights, have fat bodies and dry, warty skin.
And, who would have thought it, the spadefoot toad (with shovel-like hind feet, thankfully they look nothing like the ones that met unfortunate ends at my place) is the New Mexico state amphibian.
Not only has the pungent-enough-to-make-you cry peanut-scented toad made its way to distinction by the state (competing with other toads, frogs and salamanders for the title), it is one of at least 15 types of toads found in the state — incidentally, a pretty good sampling considering there are only 21 types in North America.
The toad is so ingrained in the state, they even have roads named after them.
But how do they appear so quickly in the summer time, one might wonder, especially in those years with little-to-no water.
Well, they work fast, and, as do many New Mexico residents, they live for those few rain storms in the warm months.
And all it takes can be one little shower to kick off their population for the year.
Laying egg masses in the temporary puddles after rain, spadefoot tadpoles are deprived of their childhoods, having about two days to hatch and move 'em out before the puddles disappear.
In light of the puddle scenario, it stands to reason that the more rain, the more toads. It's a good thing they are ironically hatching in the same puddles that spawn pesky mosquitoes and a single toad can eat up to 10,000 insects in a summer, according to the USDA.
Mowers and walking people not withstanding, a toad's life can be a fairly long one, sometimes even up to 15 years, and being resourceful, they dig in and hibernate through winter, emerging to do it all again the next year – which also means more toads.
In fact, it seems running over one with the mower or stepping on one isn't so surprising after all. To the contrary — perhaps a collateral blessing of being nocturnal — it's a little more shocking they aren't getting squished in droves.