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If you ran into me at Glastonbury, I may have looked a bit frazzled. Don’t mind me – I was just a bit broken.

The Decontamination Unit inside Shangri La – Glastonbury’s two-storey after-hours pleasure city of sin and sleaze – was by far the most ambitious event my side project Guerilla Science had ever attempted, and definitely the most experimental.

Hundreds of unwitting punters found themselves face-to-face with a zoo of their own bacteria.

Then counseled by a team of bona fide psychiatrists. It was intense.

Read more about the Unit in my post for The Guardian, see more pics on the Guerilla Science flickr site, and get a feel for what it was like in this video by Oscar Sharpe for GS.

I can say without a moment’s hesitation that no group of scientists have ever attempted anything like this before.

Naturalist and wildlife photographer Kalyan Varma has snapped some fantastic new pics of the frog Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis, the purple frog (sometimes called the pignose frog), a “squat, grumpy blob” (as this BBC news piece aptly describes it) that was discovered in India just in 2003.

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The frog spends 50 weeks a year burrowed underground, which explains why scientists have never seen it before. Biologists have described N. sahyadrensis as “a living fossil” because it resembles (in some ways) some of the earliest frogs like few other living species. It is the closest living relative of the Sooglossidae, which live in the Seychelles. N. sahyadrensis split from that family 130 million years ago, and went along its own evolutionary path, resulting in the bizarre little amphibian you see before you.

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Like I always say: frogs are cool. Go on – tell me that isn’t one kick-ass frog. Find me a mammal that looks so weird.

Congrats to Varma for snapping these pics – I cannot imagine how thrilling that must have been. Kudos.

Previously I posted about shrimpoluminescence, small bursts of light created by pistol shrimp when they snap their claws shut – the only known case of animals producing sonoluminescence (light created by bubbles when excited by sound). For the full explanation of the fantastic phenomenon read the old post here.

I have no idea why I didn’t come across this before, but a friend just passed me this highly cheesified video, which was just too camp to pass up. If, like me, you love histrionic British narrators that inject as much drama as possible into every sentence, you’ll enjoy this.

And in case you were wondering – no, a pistol shrimp’s claw opening and shutting doesn’t actually sound like a 12-gauge shotgun being loaded and fired.

So you heard about the giant hog that was supposedly shot by an 11-year-old boy in Alabama, supposedly weighing more than 1000 pounds and supposedly more than 9 feet long?

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Now, I’d be inclined to think it a hoax – but a National Geographic study of the remains of the famed “Hogzilla,” shot in Georgia, USA in 2004, confirmed that that swine weighed more than 800 pounds and was about 8 feet long. Truth, as I like to say, is stranger than fiction.

So it’s entirely possible that the boy did nail a 9-foot hog.

But here’s the f’ed up part: while wild boars rarely exceed 500 pounds, domestic pigs routinely can be grown to over 1000 pounds.

… Christ on a goddamn bike. 1000 pound piggies? The limits of our animal husbandry are just insane.

OK. That’s all I have to say about that. I’d like to have more to say, but I’m still exhausted from hospital visits. So I’m taking a much needed break for the next five days at the Sunrise Celebration, a music festival run almost entirely on renewable energy, complete with 1oo per cent organic food and biodegradable cutlery. Yes, I am a giant hippy at heart.

So my grandmother just had bowel surgery, and is recovering in the hospital, and I’ve been visiting her two hours a day. I never realized until now how incredibly physically and mentally draining it is to spend time with a sick person in the hospital – just two hours with her (plus the total three hours of travel time there and back) has left me totally drained, hence no blog entries in a week. I guess it’s having to be positive and cheerful and not show any sadness (even when your gran is sitting there with tubes coming out of her arms every which way, plus one coming out her nose… poor girl), in order to be supportive, that is so draining.

Anyways, I’d love to be able to write something right now about the importance of getting regular colon checks, or the state of public health care in the UK, or about the physiological changes that occur in someone who is sick when a loved one is nearby – but I’m just too tired. And I need a chuckle.

So instead, I’m going to post a smattering of some fun facts I read about recently and a few fun videos. I don’t have the energy to offer some witty, insightful commentary on each one – but all these things are neat/funny so I guess that should be entertaining enough.

Here are some short and sweet offerings from Zoetic:

1. Here’s a video of an African battle: Lions Vs. Water buffalo Vs. Crocodiles.

(You may want to put it on mute to block out the annoying commentary of the American tourists, repeatedly pointing out the obvious, as American tourists tend to do.)

2. A hammerhead shark in Nebraska has become the first shark to have a “virgin” birth, a phenomenon known as parthenogenesis. This has been seen before in reptiles, amphibians, and bony fishes (plus it’s fairly routine in all sorts of invertebrates), but this is the first confirmed case of a shark fertilizing her own eggs.

By the by, if you haven’t heard of whiptail lizards, you want to: some species of these plain-looking lizards live in all-female colonies (no doubt, reptilian utopias), with no males whatsoever – each female produces offspring that are clones of herself. What’s more, females will copulate with each other (they switch the role of bottom and top position the next time they mate), which it seems triggers the production of fertilized eggs.

3. Here’s a Discovery Channel segment on drunk monkeys, who were brought to the Caribbean from Africa and developed a taste for fermented sugar cane. Now they steal booze from tourists:

And here’s another great drunken animal video, featuring African beasties feasting on the fruit of the famous amarula tree (clearly narrated by the guy who narrates The Gods Must Be Crazy):

4.  There is a fish called the black arse cod.

I wish there were more fish with the word ‘arse’ in the name.

You’d think a cod with the word arse in the name would hail from the waters near Newfoundland, but alas, this one comes from Australia.

5.  German police are collecting smell samples from lefty activists, in the lead-up to the big smash-up that the G8 summit promises to be.

(I can’t find a photo of a smell sample… but we all know what we think of when we hear the word “G8″ – masked riot police beating the shit out of students.)

Apparently the East German Stasi collected thousands of smell samples (each one of us has a unique smell, don’tcha know) from suspect citizens, so that the sample could at some point be used with a keen-nosed sniffer dog to find the suspect individual in a crowd.

6. Like me, you probably had a very sweet, sentimental story emailed to you about a mother tiger whose cubs died being given piglets (clad in tiger skin spandex) to raise instead.

Hopefully you found a bit more information about the supposed angelic tiger mum, or had a correction emailed to you. The union of tigers and pigs is apparently just one of many weird zoological stunts they perform for crowds at a Thai zoo, including basketball-playing elephants and “lady crocodile wrestling.” The tiger was actually suckled herself by a pig as a cub, like these kitties here.

The whole zoo is run on interspecies experiments to draw in alcohol-fueled, short attention-spanned, and no-doubt ketamine-riddled tourists. Good little summary of the zoo – and with the text from the saccharine email – here.

… I hate to admit it, this still is pretty f’in cute:

When it comes to being unappreciated, I think octopuses have it pretty bad (and FYI, it’s octopuses, not “octopi,” despite the assertions of various wiki-based dictionaries). They are so much cooler than you might think.

Lately squid have been getting a lot of attention – what with the first photos of a giant squid being captured last in 2005, and then the first video a few months later. It is understandable, giant squid are pretty damn cool – I actually said a little prayer as a little girl that I would live to see the first video of one.

But people forget how cool octopuses are.

For example, check out this news story from New Zealand, where keepers at an aquarium report that their octopus can unscrew bottles. This isn’t news – all you have to do is google the word “octopus” and “unscrew” and you get more than 11,000 hits. You can watch unscrewing in action in this video of Violet the octopus unscrewing a bottle to get a crab inside (or you can read the blog entry by her keepers). People keep re-discovering this feat, however, because people are always surprised that something with no backbone could be so clever.

Octopuses are really, really smart – undoubtedly the most intelligent invertebrates out there, and it seems more intelligent than a lot of vertebrates (and certainly more intelligent than a lot of people).

Experiments indicate that they have both long and short term memory, can navigate mazes, solve puzzles, and appear to play with their keepers and with toys sometimes. They can escape from their holding tanks, and there have been a number of reports of giant pacific octopuses climbing onto fishing boats and raiding catches. I’ve even heard zoologists claim that they are as intelligent as dogs (although you can’t really compare apples and oranges like that – but that’s another story…).

They are also masters of camouflage. Cuttlefish hold the top spot for changing colour, but octopuses can do some pretty amazing visual feats too. Check out this little dude, camouflaged with what looks like some seaweed:

If you thought that was cool, consider the mimic octopus: this species was only discovered in 1998, and wasn’t formally described until 2001, because divers simply never saw it before. It was just that good at imitating lionfish, sea snakes, brittle stars and more than a dozen other creatures. I can’t seem to find any really good footage of these awesome creatures, but this one imitating a flounder isn’t bad:

Octopuses, even big ones, can also squeeze through tiny, tiny holes – this video has some pretty cool footage of captive octopuses squeezing themselves through tubes the diameter of a quarter:

Perhaps most surprising of all is how strong octopuses are – apparently a one-pound octopus can lift at least 40 pounds of weight. I’m not sure if this is true, but they are seriously strong animals. If you don’t believe me, just consider what happened at the Seattle Aquarium many years ago. Sharks kept vanishing from their tank for weeks, and the keepers were stumped. They decided to put up a camera overnight to see what was going on – and discovered that the sharks were being devoured by a giant pacific octopus:

If that isn’t scary-looking enough, check out this poor diver being assaulted by an octopus, which manages to rip off his mask:

And last, but certainly not least, my favourite octopus video of the day:

Ouch! Nothing like a good ol’ random Japanese game show, eh?

PS: Kudos to the author of Dirtygames, who brought the shark vs. octopus video to my attention. Dirtygames is devoted to foul play in politics, media and sports. This video made it onto that blog because it pretty accurately symbolizes the match-up between the San Jose Sharks and the Detroit Red Wings (whose fans, for some reason, throw octopuses onto the ice at games). Sports is not exactly one of my areas of interest – but I always find time for Dirtygames. Good writing is good writing, no matter the topic. And who doesn’t love a good rant about the misadventures of Courtney Love? No one, I tell you.

Speaking of crustaceans, I learned something very cool the other day. This isn’t exactly news – it was reported in Nature in 2001 – but it’s news to me so I’m going to assume it’s probably news to most of you too.

One of the loudest sounds in the sea – quite possibly the loudest – is made not by any of the biggest creatures, such as whales, which is what you’d expect. No, that honour goes to a small species of pistol shrimp – Alpheus heterochaelis – no bigger than your finger.

The shrimp has one oversized claw, which creates an incredibly loud noise when it snaps it shut – about 200 decibels in volume. To put this in perspective, a jet engine at full blast is about 120 decibels. The shrimp use the sound to imobilize (and presumably deafen) their prey. A whole colony of the shrimp snapping together is loud enough to interfere with sonar equipment.

Scientists used to think that the noise was simply created by the snapping of the claw – but in 2000 they discovered that in fact the noise is created in a far more outlandish and fantastic way.

When the shrimp snaps its claw shut, it expels a jet of water from a hole in the claw, which can shoot out at up to 100 km an hour. A low pressure bubble is generated in the wake of this jet of water. When the bubble collapses under the pressure of the water around it, it produces intense sound waves (I believe this is known as inertial cavitation – but my understanding of fluid mechanics is pretty poor so don’t quote me on this).

But here’s the really cool thing: in 2001 researchers discovered that the bubbles collapse with such force that they produce tiny flashes of light.

Bubbles emitting light is nothing new – the phenomenon is known as sonoluminescence and it was first discovered in the 1930s, when physicists discovered by accident that subjecting small bubbles to ultrasound can create bursts of light.

But actual living creatures creating light in this way was new – biologists had never seen anything like it before (which is understandable considering that the light produced by the shrimp is not actually visible to the naked eye, and the whole process only lasts about 300 microseconds). Moreover, the laws of physics would dictate that the temperature inside the bubble is at least 5,000 degrees Celsius – as hot as the surface of the sun.

The researchers dubbed the phenomenon “shrimpoluminescence” – a cute play on the word sonoluminescence, and you can get more detailed descriptions of their experiments, plus photos and videos on their website.

The researchers told National Geographic that they don’t think the light bursts are of any biological significance, and are probably just an unintended side effect. That is most likely the case, and I don’t have any reason to believe that the light serves any real purpose (or that the shrimp themselves can even see it).

But still, I’m going to keep an open mind: nature is constantly surprising us, and I wouldn’t put anything past the inventive genius of evolution.

Like I always say – never underestimate the Chinese for accomplishing the impossible.

Yesterday the Chinese announced that they had created the world’s first artificial snowfall. Not with snow machines, like they have at ski resorts (and will no doubt be using more in the future as the climate warms). With tiny particles of silver iodide, which they sprinkled into clouds over Tibet. The particles acted like nucleation sites, encouraging the growth of ice crystals on their surfaces, which then fell as snow on the Tibetan plateau. Apparently they generated about 1cm of snow. It’s not much – but it’s certainly a start for anyone hoping to generate big mounds of the white stuff in this way. Which it seems they may be planning on doing, as many of the glaciers in the Himalayas have disappeared in the past century due to global warming. (Although, how they’re going to keep the snow from melting once they’ve created it is another question.)

The Chinese have actually been creating artificial rain in this way for years – they do it in order to dissipate air pollution with big downpours before public holidays. Apparently they plan to use this technique a great deal before the 2008 Olympics.

You know, something about this doesn’t quite sit right with me. I’m not quite sure why. There’s something about changing the weather – not just incidentally with pollution and deforestation – but deliberately that just seems… weird.

I like to learn at least one thing everyday – at least one. That way when I spend an hour absorbed by the anthropological field experiement that is Flavor of Love, I can feel that I did at least one worthwhile thing that day.

Today I learned that chimps can go bald.

Cinder

This is Cinder. She lives at the St. Louis Zoo. I came across her photo when I googled “smoke” and “chimp,” in my quest to find the perfect pic of a chimp smoking a cigar, circa 1950, to use as my avatar.

Cinder has alopecia areata, a skin condition that makes some (or, in this case, all) of an animal’s hair and fur fall out. About 1.7 per cent of all humans have the exact same condition, including (apparently) Humphrey Bogart, Billy Zane, Christopher Reeve, and Charlie Villanueva, a basketball player who used to play for the Toronto Raptors who founded his own charity for kids who have to grow up bald.

Chimps always look like people to me – but this photo is certainly the most human-like I’ve ever seen an ape look. And she certainly looks like an awfully good-natured chimp. Her sweet dewey eyes look unmistakeably friendly.

Wouldn’t you think she’d be pissed off to be bald – and cold? Apparently not. Zookeepers say she gets long just fine with her troop. Not one chimp seems to care that she has no fur – even when she looks so dramatically different from the rest. It certainly didn’t bother her parents – she was apparently so doted on that the zookeepers considered her “spoiled.”

The chimp on the right in this pic, I’m pretty sure, is Tammy, Cinder’s foster sister. When the new little chimp arrived at the zoo, according to their website, “Tammy was immediately taken with Cinder and spent a lot of her time with her hairless sister. Even new chimpanzees didn’t care that Cinder had no hair.”

Altogether now: aaaawwww…

Chimps might be the most violent of all the apes (second only to humans – that honour will forever be ours). They might even get drunk and kill babies. But at least they don’t care about what they look like. Wish I could say the same about us.

A Chinese court has ruled that 443 chickens were killed by – wait for it – a little boy’s screams. They decided that the most logical explanation for the death of the poultry was a stampede, caused by the child crying and screaming next to the hen house, and made the father of the boy pay the farmer for his losses.

K. I’m not saying that the boy’s screams didn’t cause those hens to stampede – I’m sure that’s entirely plausible.

What I am saying is that if I was a poultry farmer in Asia, and my flock had become infected with Avian flu, I wouldn’t tell anybody the birds had the flu – I’d come up with another story. Any story.

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