Monthly Archives: June 2008

Spider Wasp

If ever a member of Kingdom Animalia was in need of a massive rebranding campaign, it’s the spider wasp (Family Pompilidae). As a first order of a business, a name change might be overdue, as its current moniker is pretty much an abridged list of mankind’s most common phobias. What’s its middle name – airplane crash?

Sure, not everyone can go by the name ‘Yorkshire Terrier’ or ‘Creme D’Argent’ (a breed of fancy show rabbits). But as Professor E. Jerome McCarthy of Harvard Business School described in the early 1960s, there are Four P’s in marketing: Product, Price, Place, and Please Don’t Call It A Spider Wasp.

Who wants to see a picture of a spider wasp? Nobody.

But even if a massive relaunch of the spider wasp with a friendlier name (e.g. ‘Cupcake Bug’) allowed it to finally make some friends, it’s doubtful it would keep those friends after they got to know the cupcake bug. This is because, whatever its name, the worst thing about the spider wasp is that it’s a spider wasp. That is to say, the scientifically-verified day-to-day activities of this loathsome creature far exceed any possible expectation, and even were we to call it a cupcake bug, we’d probably eventually start calling it a spider wasp behind it’s back. Even if it changed its named to Free iPod Wasp it would still be worth stepping on, headphones and all.

A disclaimer: if you’re easily disgusted, it’s not too late to visit this site instead:

http://www.rabbitweb.net/

Alright then. Let’s do this.

On we go. The female spider wasp spends its day hunting around the bases of trees for spiders. When it spots one, it descends from the skies, thrusts its stinger into the spider and injects it with a painful, paralyzing venom that renders the spider’s years of Tae Kwon Do training useless.

Of course, this seems like it should, by all accounts, be the end of the story. And it would if the spider were dead now. Alas, this is just the beginning for this poor creature that never thought its first trip to Makeout Point would be its last.

Don’t worry, it gets way worse.

With its prey alive and conscious but unable to move, the spider wasp drags the spider along the ground and tosses it into a pre-fabricated burrow*. There, it lays a single egg on the spider’s abdomen and leaves. And there the spider stays, paralyzed, alone in the dark, with a veiny, pulsing wasp egg glued to its stomach. But it’s not what you think though – it’s actually really unpleasant for the spider.

About now, you’ve probably figured out where this horror story is headed. But, being a well-trained moviegoer, you still might hold out hope for the spider. And being a well-trained moviegoer, you know this is false hope. And still, you can’t look away.

Seriously, what’s wrong with you?

You can guess the rest: the wasp larva hatches and slowly begins to feed on the paralyzed spider’s insides — leaving its vital organs for last, in an instinctively cruel effort to keep the spider alive as long as possible to ensure what its eating is fresh. Because spider wasps have surprisingly sensitive stomachs? No, because spider wasps have surprisingly absent souls.

Here. To get that last image out of your head.

The spider eventually dies and the baby wasp feasts some more before spinning a cocoon in what remains of the spider’s body. It emerges the following summer and heads out into the sunlight to work on the sequel, though it’s been seen having lunch with M. Night Shyamalan so don’t hold your breath.

No matter how much you hate spiders, you have to admit, when it comes to awful, the spider wasp takes the cake.**

Then it also probably tries to paralyze the cake and lay a wasp egg on it.
.
GRADE: Animal Review refuses to issue the spider wasp a grade of any kind on moral grounds.

*In a truly sociopathic display of sadism, many spider wasp species make the spider watch as they build a burrow. Whoa.

**Which really makes one wonder why, in 1989, another member of the family Pompilidae (i.e. a spider wasp called the ‘Tarantula Hawk’ who has a similar M.O.) was named the Official State Insect of New Mexico. We’re not making this stuff up. Nor are we making up that U.S. state legislatures vote on ‘official insects.’ Elections matter, everyone. So when you’re selecting a candidate, please do find out their positions on spider wasps first.

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Yeti Crab

The Yeti Crab (Kiwa hirsuta, trans. ‘WTF?’) was discovered in early 2005 near a hydrothermal vent on the bottom of the South Pacific Ocean. At first, it was believed to be the first benthic muppet ever found, but jubilation quickly turned to disappointment when it became obvious that whatever this thing was, it clearly couldn’t count to ten. So, like nearly every new species discovery, this too was absolutely pointless.

Why am I here?

Let’s be frank. K. hirsuta encapsulates everything wrong with science: it never gets its priorities straight. We are already tasked with learning almost two million classified animal species – and that’s enough. We’re good. We’re all set. And unless a new species is something that might eat us, we don’t need to know about it.

But scientists rarely see the forests for the trees. Eager to justify their PhDs and research grants, they live to find a new species – however ridiculous – and give it a name, thus securing their place in the Pantheon of Nerds for all time.

You might want to make flash cards.

And ridiculous the Yeti Crab is. First, it’s blind. This may have to do with its living on the bottom of the ocean floor, but it’s just another reason that we have nothing to fear from it and thus no reason to be bothered with its existence. Second, it has hair-like filaments that some scientists think it might use to trap bacteria. Or not. The point is, who cares? What is important is this: crustaceans shouldn’t have hair. It’s confusing. So if you’re a scientist bobbing around the bottom of the ocean floor in a deep-sea submersible and you see something like this – keep it to yourself. Maybe run it over first, then keep it to yourself. Regardless, don’t tell anyone. Nobody needs to know.

Speaking of submersibles, the vehicle used to discover the Yeti Crab is called Alvin. It was actually used in 1966 to find and retrieve a hydrogen bomb that had been lost after an American B-52 crashed over the Mediterranean Sea. If science had its priorities straight, Alvin would be used 99% of the time for locating nuclear bombs and less than 1% of the time for looking for another stupid new species. In reality, most of that 1% would actually just go into maintenance — and should no maintenance be required, we could conveniently lose another hydrogen bomb. If all went well, literally no pointless research would go on aboard the Alvin.

Like this excerpt from pointless research:

Although it is often referred to as the “furry lobster” outside the scientific literature, Kiwa hirsuta is not a true lobster but is more closely related to squat lobsters and hermit crabs.

Two things here:

1. Yick.
2. WTF, Science?

Anyway, if this your first introduction to the Yeti Crab and you hadn’t heard of it before – sorry.

You were definitely better off without this knowledge in your brain.

GRADE: D+

Goldfish

Moving on, then, to another pet. People have been unintentionally barbaric to the goldfish, Carassius auratus, for quite some time. Not bothering to learn even a little about oxygen diffusion rates, pH, ammonia and nitrogenous compounds in solution prior to an impulsive pet purchase, we set up adorable goldfish bowls on our kitchen counters, toss in a delightful mock treasure chest, and call it a day. What fun we will surely have watching goldfish exist! This line of reasoning is all fine and dandy until the brutish, unforgiving laws of water chemistry come riding into town with their long leather coats and menacing facial hair. Inevitably, we’re left confused when poor Flippy goes belly up, gripped by an aggressive white fungus that raises new concerns as we carry the bowl to the bathroom with ungloved hands.

Listen. I can tolerate a pH range of 6.5 to 8.25. Do you understand this? pH? It’s a logarithmic scale that expresses the acidity or alkalinity of…you know what…nevermind. I’ll see you in hell.

Our collective ability to stamp out goldfish is all the more spectacular given that goldfish are actually fairly hearty creatures and will usually thrive for years if properly cared for. Yeah, like that’s going to happen. But there’s always hope.

In fact, the relative durability of the goldfish is exactly why the Chinese had so much success domesticating them over 1000 years ago. And the story is actually kind of interesting. Roughly paraphrased, the goldfish saga goes something like this: In the mid-to-late first millennium A.D., the Chinese began to dam rivers and trap colorful, ornamental carp in ponds. The Chinese people then started breeding the carp willy-nilly until the Empress of the Song Dynasty (c. 1162) officially decreed:

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, everybody. Stop breeding the yellow carp. Yellow is the Imperial Color. And, as you well know, I forbid you to own yellow possessions because I am a serious micromanager, which I’m working on, but the yellow thing is a deal-breaker. By the way, this includes, but is not limited to, pet fish. Ok, go to it. Oh – and the Chinese word for ‘problem’ is the same as the word for ‘opportunity.’ I just wanted to be the first of one billion people to point out this useless platitude. Anyway. No yellow possessions or I’ll kill you!”

Ah, the subtle shades of injustice.

Eager to get on with their lives, the Chinese commoners obeyed the demands of their Empress and took to breeding carp of the golden orange variety which were close enough to Imperial Yellow to be hip, but just different enough to avoid legal troubles. A wonderful solution indeed. As the Empress was fond of saying, the Chinese word for problem is the same as the word for opportunity.

An image found using the search term ‘Carp.’ After a little investigation, we discovered the tattoo says ‘Carpe Diem.’ On her lower back. Way to go.

As it turns out, the common people enjoyed keeping their gold-colored carp temporarily in ornamental jars in their homes (and then putting them back in the pond so as not to kill them like you did/do/will do). So it makes sense to think the carp were systematically selected for smaller and golder-er, and thus the new goldfish species was artificially extracted from the carp population.

Skipping ahead a few centuries, these so-called ‘goldfish’ were eventually exported to Europe and finally the United States, where a majority would meet tragedy after the cruel hand of fate guided the trajectory of a ping-pong ball into their bowls at the fair.

Ooof. Now that all that’s mercifully behind us, let’s move on to some interesting aspects of the modern goldfish.

First up: The word used to denote a group of same animals is called a collective noun. You might know this. So does everyone. But to review, you would say a ‘pod’ of whales, a ‘gaggle’ of geese, or a ‘bunch’ of jerks, for example. The collective noun for goldfish is a ‘troubling.’ True story. It’s not clear if that refers to the situations goldfish often find themselves in (e.g. under the exclusive care of a nine-year-old). But is it clear that the Chinese word for ‘problem’ is the same as the word for ‘opportunity’? You heard it here.

Also, you’ve probably heard that a goldfish can eat itself to death. Well, that’s true. Many fancy goldfish varieties will keep devouring fish flakes until their intestines rupture or they die from some similarly embarrassing medical complications related to binging. Knowing the many daily mistakes of man with respect to goldfish, this raises the difficult question of blame: are we overfeeding the goldfish – or are the goldfish overeating?

There’s one for you, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Hey, great Thanksgiving dinner! Who’s up for some tacos?

Now you might think that this suicidal eating makes the goldfish look dumb. And probably it does, though it’s worth pointing out two things: 1) If overeating makes you dumb, then color this Animal Reviewer dumb, and 2) the Chinese word for ‘problem’ is the same as the word for ‘opportunity.’

Moreover, the data rushes to the support of goldfish. It’s been proven that goldfish can navigate mazes, recognize individual people and hold memories for up to three months. And they can be trained to tell the time. Scientists demonstrated this by rigging a lever, connected to a food reward, that worked during specific times of the day. The goldfish learned to use the lever only at the appropriate intervals. Though perhaps this was simply because there was food involved. And we all know where goldfish come down on that topic.

Finally, there’s the genetic freak factor to consider. In mid 2003, the first genetically engineered fish hit the retail aquarium market. These were Night Pearls designed to glow in the dark, via the insertion into their genome of a gene fragment coding for fluorescence that came from a jellyfish. Now scientists are working on goldfish that will glow in different colors depending on the temperature of their water (i.e. blue for too cold, red for too hot, you get the idea). Great work, Science. Now get back to AIDS.

It’s amazing, but this expensive and pointless research continues, even after scientists have been informed that a decent aquarium thermometer costs about twelve bucks. It should also be noted that one can keep aquarium thermometers in tanks without the risk of turning goldfish into transgenic monsters with an insatiable desire for human flesh. It has long been the belief of Animal Review that Common Sense should be a chapter in every Molecular Biology textbook, and it bears repeating that the Chinese word for ‘problem’ is the same as the word for ‘opportunity.’

So. Based on surprising smarts (like the parrot), a relatively interesting history, and the undeniable cruelty bestowed upon them by man, woman, child and scientist, goldfish will catch a small break here.

Though, in the interest of full disclosure, that devouring-until-they-die thing cost them dearly. That’s just ridiculous. Get a hold of yourself already.

GRADE: C

Parrots

Make no mistake, birds are among the smartest animals.* They have been shown to understand concepts such as cause and effect (crows have been observed placing nuts in the paths of oncoming cars in order to crack them) and intent (hiding food somewhere while aware that another bird is watching, and then coming back later to place it somewhere else). Also, they figured out how to fly, which took humans thousands of years to do and is something monkeys are still working on.

The most advanced monkey airplane prototype lacks wings, controls, and an engine. But they’ll get there.

The best way to describe parrots is probably to say that in Bird School, parrots are in the magnet program with crows, jays, and magpies. That’s the simplest and clearest way. Of course, ornithologists have much more complicated rankings and ways of describing a bird’s intelligence, but it would probably be best if they just got on board with the magnet program metaphor and let everyone else get on with their lives already.

Oooh, look, it’s a rare…oh who cares.

There are over 350 species of parrots within the order Psittaciformes, most found in warm and tropical regions. These are further divided into two families: Psittacidae (aka ‘true parrots’) and Cacatuidae (aka ‘cockatoos’ or ‘fake parrots’). The exact phylogeny of parrots is still being debated, which is the case far more often than one might otherwise imagine, and has resulted in such ‘improvements’ as six Kingdoms instead of the previous five, which does little more than just create another big hassle for freshman biology majors to deal with.

While all parrots are intelligent, the African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus, lit. ‘Polly’) may be the smartest of all, a trait often attributed to an evolutionary history of cooperative feeding in central Africa, as well as a cultural emphasis on learning and going to the ‘right’ schools.**

One African Grey named Alex did the following: with a vocabulary of 150 words, Alex could distinguish and articulate the concepts of bigger, smaller, same, and different; identify an object’s color, shape, and material; and when he was tired, he would say “I’m gonna go away.” If the researcher looked annoyed, Alex would say, “I’m sorry.” If Alex said “Wanna banana” and got a nut instead, he would throw the nut at the researcher and then stare in stony silence. This is all completely true, and what’s also completely true is that if this doesn’t freak you out, nothing will.

On September 6th, 2007, Alex died in a mysterious skydiving accident at the age of 31.

RIP Alex The Upsettingly Smart Parrot, 1976-2007

Usually, however, parrots live extremely long lives.*** For instance, a parrot named Charlie in England, well over 100 years old and, some claim, once the pet of Winston Churchill. Historians and members of the Churchill family dispute this claim, though Charlie indisputably cursed the Nazis and Hitler, which, at the very least, shows that parrots also have developed the ability to make simple moral judgments.

The big problem with parrots, ultimately, is the people who own them. Not only in the illegal parrot trade that threatens them with extinction, but even legally-owned parrots bring a certain unspoken weirdness to any situation. While a parrot made a great deal of sense as a pet for, say, a pirate, nowadays they are almost exclusively owned by people with psychological problems. Although to be fair, many pirates, in retrospect, would probably have been excellent candidates for mood stabilizing drugs. Anyway, for whatever reason, people who own a parrot these days rarely disappoint in the crazy department. Though it’s unclear why people with a questionable grip on reality are attracted to large colorful talking birds…wait…nevermind.

Just as many animals offer obvious warnings to stay away (i.e. a porcupine’s quills or a rattlesnake’s rattle), so too do some pets represent obvious warnings to stay away from the owners who buy them. Parrots are like crystals worn around the necks of new-age people. They tell you everything you need to know in a glance. When you see a parrot (or a crystal) just smile, nod, and avoid.

Keep back.

Plus, common sense would tell you that anything that can talk – and hasn’t committed a crime – probably shouldn’t be in a cage. But on the other hand, if you let yourself get caught, maybe you ain’t as smart as you are always demonstrating in lab experiments, Psittacidae.

Parrots are colorful, both inside and out, and this makes them difficult to judge. They are undeniably intelligent, but – let’s be honest – the talking is super creepy. It crosses some important human-animal border that Nature never meant to be be broken. And their likewise creepy owners and aficionados make matters all the more unsettling. But they haven’t ever unleashed any major diseases, and the talking does show a certain willingness to try. And they do fly. But so do most birds. And so on. It never ends.

Parrots and their relative merits and demerits are likely to be debated for centuries to come, and not just on Animal Review (though probably mostly on Animal Review). In the meantime, the path of least resistance is, as is often the case, the best one.

GRADE: C+

*To be sure, there are dumb birds as well. Apparently Australia’s emu isn’t exactly the sharpest beak in the drawer, and, as has been noted, the ostrich is at least very good at making itself look dumb.

**There was a big controversy a few years ago when it emerged that several Ivy League schools put caps on the number of African Grey Parrots they admit every year. Their argument was that if they went purely by the numbers, well over half the student body would be African Grey Parrot.

***This has created a lot of problems when a parrot’s owner passes away, leaving the family to argue over who has to take care of it. Eventually, Uncle Ted just releases it into the wild, which is partially why there are wild parrot populations around the world where there shouldn’t be. Parrots, like alligators, have a big ‘Whoops’ factor as pets.

*UPDATE* – Pandas

This weekend marks the release of the animated movie Kung Fu Panda, and if early reviews are any indication, Ailuropoda melanoleuca (see Pandas, 4 May) yet again proves to have a truly excellent publicist.

The utter balderdash of the movie’s plot – wherein a panda does something other than not mate and learns a martial art – is not so much inspirational as it is insulting to bears who would have been well-cast in a movie about tough bears. Kung Fu Kodiak, anyone?

Please do not go see this movie or allow children – whether yours or those of strangers – to see it. It will only lengthen the panda’s already overextended stay on Planet Earth.

King Cobra

Let’s begin by giving the King Cobra its final grade: A+.

There are two reasons for this: 1) This is the single most obvious grade to be given out for anything ever in the history of grades being given out for things, and 2) Like you’re going to be the person who gives King Cobra an A-. Yeah, good luck with that one.

For most other animals, it would define absurdity to dispense a grade prior to the actual ‘review,’ but then again, most animals aren’t King Cobra. And that, friends, is very good news for everyone. Because if most animals were King Cobra, the animals that weren’t King Cobra would soon be dead from fright. And venom.

Hey what’s up?

Granted, the King Cobra is not the absolutely most venomous snake in the world*, but it’s better not to bring this up in the company of King Cobra. One bite from King Cobra is enough to kill 25 people or drop an elephant. Sometimes King Cobra does this as a party trick.

King Cobra’s other party trick is to raise up to one-third of its body off the ground and scare the living hell out of everyone at the party. Being the world’s longest venomous snake, and having been recorded in the wild at up to 18 ½ feet, King Cobra can then look a full-grown man in the eye. King Cobra will then let out a bone-chilling hiss that sounds something like a growling dog. King Cobra has ruined many a party with his so-called ‘tricks.’

But please don’t anyone tell King Cobra that nobody likes his party tricks. That dude gets weird.

I can also tie a cherry stem in a knot with my forked tongue.

By taking the name King Cobra, King Cobra has backed itself into a corner where it constantly has to prove itself. Its Latinate name, Ophiophagus hannah, literally means ‘snake eater,’ a name King Cobra picked during first-year Latin class to let the other snakes know what’s up. Now King Cobra’s diet consists of other snakes, including large pythons and, yes, smaller King Cobras. To say that King Cobra has an ‘ appetite for destruction’ is not just a terrible play on words – it’s also deadly accurate (from neurotoxic venom).

King Cobra does what King Cobra wants, when King Cobra wants. Like building nests. King Cobra is the only snake known to build nests for its eggs. King Cobra also likes to dance to flutes. And to shed its skin wherever it wants and leave it there as a reminder: ‘King Cobra was here.’

I like nests. You have a problem with that?

If anyone ever tells you that maybe King Cobra is trying to overcompensate for a complete lack of appendages, stay away from that person. You don’t want King Cobra lumping you in with them if that gets around.

King Cobra is currently working on time travel and invisibility.

GRADE: A+

* This is actually fairly difficult to determine definitively, because one must consider the toxicity of said venom (which is either a neuro- or hemotoxin or both, and is always a polypeptide), the amount of venom a snake carries (King Cobra carries a ton because King Cobra is so massive), and a snake’s relative aggressiveness. Still, the late, great Steve Irwin did a special on the world’s deadliest snakes (six of which are in Australia, so, you know, don’t go there) and pronounced the Fierce Snake (Australia, of course) the deadliest. That said, it’s really up to the individual animal to decide what kind of deadly venom they want to get bit with.

Clams

The clams fall under phylum Mollusca (aka ‘The Mollusks’), class Bivalvia (aka ‘The Bivalves!’) and have no head, no legs, no thumbs, and no anything very noteworthy, except a simple digestive tract and a small heart to power it (though via an open circulatory system, so let’s not go nuts about that ‘heart’). In short, the clam is a mouth and an anus with a faint pulse that lives in a shell. Even so, many people like to pair clams with sauvignon blanc.

Phylum Mollusca, class Bivalvia, as viewed from the top of the food chain.

When they’re not being delicious, clams serve a bigger purpose that often goes unnoticed. They give us perspective.

There is one clam in particular that best illustrates this point. A clam named Ming. To understand Ming the Clam is to know all clams. Not that you really care to, but let’s assume you do. And then we’ll go from there.

Anyway.

The epic story of Ming the Clam ended abruptly in October of 2007, when researchers working off the coast of Iceland found him in their dredge nets and estimated he was, get this, between 405 to 410 years of age. Ming the Clam is the oldest living creature ever discovered on Earth*. This the researchers could tell only after they killed Ming and counted the growth rings on his shell. Science is funny sometimes.

In any event, this was one anus wrapped in calcium carbonate that had surely seen some things.

In fact, Ming was alive towards the tail end of the Ming Dynasty in China (hence the name). He was around when the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Ming the Clam was here when Galileo Galilei peered into his telescope and said, ‘Uh…dudes? Somebody take the geocentric model out of the foyer.’ This clam witnessed the first spark of electricity, the birth of computers, and he was around when a crack team of American geeks put robots on the planet Mars and cried on television.

While all of this madness was happening topside, Ming the Clam sat on the frigid ocean floor near Iceland, silently filter-feeding at his entry-level filtering job. He didn’t have a desk, didn’t get a paycheck. Nor did he take a day off to drive up to wine country for a long weekend. Nope, Ming just worked and worked and worked at the plankton. Day in and day out.

August 6, 1951. Ming takes a five-minute smoke break. Moments later, he returned to the sea and got reprimanded.

Okay, so Ming was an old clam with a boring existence. You get it. But imagine: 400 plus years of going to work at a mindless filtering gig and never once getting any recognition whatsoever. Not even a certificate of merit, a most-improved trophy, bivalve of the month, or any of those acknowledgements that make you feel a little appreciated and, at the same time, a little sad to win them.

Not even a simple token appreciation.

Without a word of encouragement, Ming filtered on for centuries. In the end, all he received for his years of grueling labor was a one-way ride to the surface and a fine welcome from a shucking tool on the deck of a filthy research vessel. As Ming would say, ‘Thanks for the memories.’

To this, giant clams nod their non-existent heads in empathy. With an average lifespan of 100 years and a job harboring photosynthetic algae, they know more than anyone what it is to live long, unfulfilling lives, however record-setting they may be.

The lesson in all of this is simple: Ming the Clam might never have come out of his shell (except when he was ripped from said shell; see above), but even Ming’s apparent life of quiet desperation can make us feel better about ourselves. For we too may be underappreciated at work. At times, we may even believe our careers are stagnant and devoid of meaning. But, thanks to clams, we can at least take some comfort in the fact we won’t be sitting in the same cubicle in the year 2398. Happy as a clam? Surely, we can do better than that.

In closing, clams should be rewarded for such a valuable demonstration. This added to the fact they’re quite tasty in garlic and butter earn them the acknowledgement they so desperately deserve – a passing grade. Congratulations, clams.

GRADE: C

* According to Telegraph.co.uk, Ming was about 31 years older than the last animal thought to hold the world age record – another clam. Go figure.