Monthly Archives: July 2008

Tarsiers

If you’ve never seen a tarsier (pronounced tar-see-a, from the French meaning ‘a small animal called a tarsier’) you’re in for a real treat. To put it kindly, tarsiers are beyond funny looking, and as is often the case with animals, their aesthetic bad luck is humanity’s boon. Tarsier’s wear an expression that suggests an uncomfortable and persistent state of surprise that makes you feel as if you’re constantly walking in on them at the worst possible moment.

Sorry. Is now a bad time?

Although it’s often billed to gullible tourists as ‘the world’s smallest monkey,’ technically speaking, the tarsier is not quite a monkey. It’s not quite clear what it is, which you can probably guess from a glance. Some scientists classify tarsiers in a taxonomic suborder of primates. Others pound their fists and insist they are prosimians, like lemurs and lorises. Then the DNA experts take the floor and announce that tarsiers share no common ancestors with lemurs and lorises…so they can’t be prosimians. This is usually about the time the laser pointers are set down and the switchblades come out.

Here’s the thing: everyone gets into the taxonomic game to make a name for themselves, and so agreeing with someone else isn’t very helpful. So it’s better to argue – a lot – and hope that one of the hot taxonomic girls notices your turgid prose in the scientific journal Nature and asks if you’d like to co-author a paper on new DNA sequencing techniques.

That being said, we’re happy to report there are some universally-accepted facts about tarsiers. For example, they are very, very small (a tarsier can fit in the palm of your hand, or your hip pocket, and a shoe box is like a whole mansion to them) and they live primarily in the islands of South East Asia in the sort of gorgeous tropical places where you get bile-vomiting sick on vacations that you immediately regret taking (e.g. the Philippines, Sumatra and Borneo). It’s also been established that tarsiers are fiercely arboreal, mainly because they have these huge long legs that work beautifully in the trees but become enormous liabilities otherwise. On the ground, a tarsier is less than useless, so they prefer to do everything up in the canopy: eat, sleep, mate, give birth, raise young, get divorced and eventually seek out bars patronized by an older crowd.

Can you step out of the car please, sir?

Judging from appearances, you wouldn’t guess the tarsier is much of an athlete. For example, if Nature had to assemble a softball team out of prosimians and primates, it’s easy to think the tarsier would be picked last (after the wooly lemur) and sent out to right field. There it would scurry forward at the crack of the bat, pause in confusion as the ball sailed over its head, and finally turn to give chase, stopping to adjust its suspenders and pick up its enormous reading glasses along the way.

This is all true perhaps, but also unfair, only because softball is played on the ground and tarsiers absolutely suck at everything on the ground (except beach volleyball) thanks to those crazy hind legs. Up in the trees, however, these little dudes are proof that looks can be deceiving.

You know things ain’t good when you’re the ugly Tarsier brother.

Consider that tarsiers are nocturnal insectivores and part-time carnivores. They hunt insects by leaping from tree to tree (at night and – mind you – completely intoxicated) and snagging them in mid-air. They’ve also been known to catch small birds in flight using the same technique. So while they may not be adapted to turning two from their knees at the edge of the infield, tarsiers have far better hand-eye coordination than most professional athletes and all coed office softball players. Even the girls with the long striped socks who played fast-pitch in college.

When all is said and done, however, tarsiers look pretty silly – and at the risk of sounding superficial – it is going to affect their final grade. No word on how they taste. We’ll get back to you on that one.

GRADE: C+/B-

Great White Shark

Perhaps no animal is more poorly understood than the Great White Shark, and probably no animal’s reputation is more at odds with reality. Horrible dictu, the media has created and popularized numerous misconceptions about Carcharodon carcharias (trans. ‘The Banality of Evil’). Probably none of these many misconceptions is more inaccurate than the notion that they’re not constantly trying to eat us.

Even as Discovery Channel tells us over and over that the Great White is not a natural predator of man, the reality is that Great Whites account for more human fatalities annually than every other animal and non-animal cause of death combined. Smoking, heart disease, cobra bites – these numbers pale next to the havoc wreaked by Nature’s perfect killing machine (the Great White Shark).

Cause of Deaths Annually, by Percentage

Simply put, most of us will at some point in our lives be eaten by a Great White Shark. Those of us who aren’t will know someone who is. Millions upon millions of people every year are eaten as the Great White makes its way through the oceans in an unfurled bloodlust.

Teeth? Check. Jaw? Check. Cold, dead eyes? Double check.

The Great White Shark (AKA the White Shark, White Death, The Devil’s Teeth, White Pointer, El Tiburon Blanco, Weisshai, Grand Requin Blanc, Kelb al-Bahr, Simak al-Qarsh al-Abyud al-Kbir, Great White Shark, White Shark, White Pointer, Tiburon Blanco, Great White Shark, White Shark, Great White Shark, Great White Shark, etc) is the largest predatory fish, holding the title of apex predator no matter where it roams (which is everywhere, with a large and deadly concentration in South Africa, Australia, California, and your bathtub).

I have a pick-up order for human flesh?

Given how often they eat us, remarkably little is known about the Great White. They have never been filmed mating, for instance, because they have standing orders to eat people who film them doing anything. Nor is it clear why they swim across entire oceans pretty regularly, though, again, it probably has something to do with eating people. What is certain is that the Great White’s skin can get a suntan. No kidding. It’s important to look good while terrorizing bathers. They also have razor-sharp, serrated teeth in their massive mouths, which is their primary tool of attack (followed by crossbow). They have five rows of teeth in various stages of development, the last two rows being completely unnecessary and entirely just for show. If one tooth falls out, another, larger tooth takes its place, and over the course of its life a Great White will go through thousands of teeth. Eating people is hard work.

Now you’re just asking for it.

Great Whites can weigh as much as 3,000 kg (300,000 lbs) and be up to 6.4 meters (38 feet) in length. They can detect the smallest trace amounts of blood in the water, which is often an indication that there’s something (or, as they prefer, someone) to eat nearby. We also know that Great Whites have ampullae of Lorenzini, which are a series of sensing organs that detect electromagnetic fields of potential prey. These can detect 5/1,000,000,000 of a Volt, which means that if you’re within a mile and a half of a Great White, it knows you’re there and where you are. To paraphrase Sarah Conner, everything about the Great White is designed to make it a more effective Terminator.

I have detailed files on human anatomy

The one redeeming feature of the Great White? Their lateral line system, which they use to detect vibrations in the water. Again, this makes them better hunters. Why exactly this makes for a redeeming quality, nobody knows. We’re really trying to find some positives here.

In the world of sharks, Great Whites are just different. They’re the most terrifying, the most awful, and the most terrifyingly graceful. Once the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California got a hold of a baby Great White that a fisherman caught in his net, apparently after being possessed of some kind of death wish. Watching even a five-foot Great White prowling a massive tank, surrounded by other species of shark and fish, one could not help but stare in complete awe as its terrifying beauty emerged from the far shadows of the tank and swam by the glass, unmolested and unperturbed in its role as Nature’s perfect predator. It sailed along like a bored airplane, strong and graceful. That very same shark later killed everyone at the zoo and escaped to Mexico.

The Great White is one of two shark species* that can breech the water, which is a consequence both of its speed and of its interest in seeing if there’s anything to eat in the air. Great Whites have been known to take out low-flying Cessnas.

I promise I’m not up to anything.

But still, no matter how much of its time the Great White spends looking for people to eat (78%), for an animal that does one thing (hunting/killing), it does it really well. Perhaps a little too well. Or a lot too well. You see, in many ways the Great White is a one-trick pony – but it’s a really good trick. And instead of a pony, it’s a deadly shark with no feelings.

One last thing you should know: Great Whites make terrible pets. Just awful, awful pets.

GRADE: A+

*The other is the Mako Shark, which is also the fastest shark, though only with respect to lateral forward motion, whereas the Great White is the fastest eater.

REFERENCES

Close to Shore by Michael Capuzzo. A terrifying-yet-informative recounting of the 1916 Jersey Shore Great White attacks, wherein a confused Great White actually swam up Matawan Creek to do some more eating.

The Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey. An equally terrifying-yet-informative book about the Great White research that takes place on the nearly-barren Farallon Islands, 30 miles off San Francisco. The gist is that Great Whites are amazing creatures, and also they want to eat you.

American Mastodon

Mammut americanum, the American mastodon, was a large prehistoric herbivore that resembled a modern-day elephant. It emerged onto the plains of North America 3.75 million years ago, witnessed the arrival of man to the Americas about 13,000 years ago, had a bad feeling about it, witnessed man hunting them obsessively,* and went extinct about 10,000 years ago.

Sorry about that, fella. We were cold and hungry.

Probably not how it wanted to be remembered.

Long, tedious, boring – but wonderfully interesting studies of mastodon bones suggest tuberculosis may also have played a role in their extinction. Experts believe the disease was rampant among Ice Age fauna. That must have been fun for the mastodon. The next time you have a cold and you’re sneezing and feeling sorry for yourself – just imagine if your nose were six feet long. Plus you have tuberculosis. Plus little hairy people are trying to spear you. And this is all 10,000 years before the advent of Airborne**, or even Kleenex for that matter.

Such was the life of Mammut americanum.

By the by, there was also a European version of the mastodon, Mammut borsoni. It’s name even sounds Italian. So it certainly dressed well, spoke like eight languages fluently and knew American history much better than its elephantine friends in America. (In other words, European Mastodon was the one sipping grappa and quoting the Federalist Papers while looking effortlessly stylish as American Mastodon nervously picked at the label on his Milwaukee’s Best. Though, as one alert reader pointed out, European Mastodon hadn’t showered in over a week and was making all the lady mastodons uncomfortable with blatant over-staring).

Anyway, let’s keep this simple and stick to the American mastodon.

The overwhelming majority of stuff you hear about American mastodons could not be any more boring. A typical museum plaque might go on, forever and ever, about dentition, probable diet and vestigial tusks to the point where kids and teachers alike begin to wonder if the field trip was such a hot idea after all.

Never thought she’d look forward to diagramming sentences.

Strangely, paleontologists and professional museum plaque writers always miss the best fact about mastodons. Sure, they’ll tell you that the mastodon was a member of the Pleistocene megafauna – a group of now-extinct animals that lived during the Pleistocene epoch. Thanks for that little tidbit of conversation. Yet what’s never mentioned – and this a profoundly important animal fact is that among this group of Pleistocene megafauna there existed a disproportionately large number of animals that had awesome names for metal bands. Mastodon included.

The Pleistocene megafauna is stunning in this regard. No other animal group in the history of planet Earth comes close to touching it. Even ‘Pleistocene megafauna’ is itself a pretty decent metal band name. And it just gets better.

Here are some actual animals from the Pleistocene epoch that would also make awesome metal band names:

Mastodon

Megatherium

Megalania

Toxodon

Marsupial Lion

Dire Wolf

(n.b. Mastodon and Dire Wolf are currently being used by awesome metal bands. Both available on iTunes.)

Mastodon, live in Atlanta. Hells yeah.

The only issue remaining for science is the burning question of who would open for whom. Perhaps Toxodon (a hippo-like beast) would have primed the crowd for Megalania (a giant monitor lizard). Whatever the case, Mastodon was definitely a headliner. We don’t need no fancy paleontologists to tell us that.

As we contemplate the final mark, it should go without saying that the mastodon and his Pleistocene megafauna pals have contributed a great deal to mankind, even after we speared them into the marbled hallways of natural history.

Rock on, Mammut americanum.

GRADE: B+

* How much did our ancestors get a kick out of going mastodon hunting? Well, in September 2007, scientist Mark Holleysaid, who works as an underwater archeologist (also a good euphemism for a plumber) found a rock in Lake Michigan with what looked to be prehistoric carvings of a mastodon with a spear in its side. Well, it’s either that or it’s a smudge. Time will tell.

**A cold medicine developed by a second-grade school teacher. Uh, oh-kay. Any organic chemists care to weigh in on this ‘formula’? Everyone else – go google ‘placebo effect.’

Capybara

The South American capybara, Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris, is the world’s largest living rodent. It can weigh up to 140 pounds, but what’s really interesting is that it bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Spock from Star Trek.

Wait for it…

There it is.

Photo credit: Uhura

Luckily for everyone involved, capybaras are herbivores, a fact that offsets the discomfort with both their size and their genetic ties to the rodentia crime family. Plus, the really horrifyingly large rodents are long gone: in early 2008 the BBC, fresh out of news, reported that a fossilized skull belonging to Josephoartigasia monesi (two to four million years ago, give or take a few minutes) was recently found in Uruguay. Some scientists estimate this rodent species would likely have been about 5 feet tall, 10 feet long and weighed up to 2200 pounds. Some other scientists speculate that it probably also had atrocious gas. Long story short, good luck getting a dead one of those out of your storm drain.

‘Howdy ma’am. You have a what now?’

But J. Monesi is long since extinct (thank you, Saber Toothed Tiger) leaving the capybara as the poor man’s freakishly large rodent.

Today, capybaras can be found in the wild throughout most of the South American continent, where they spend their days annoying the daylights out of ranchers with their competitive grazing.

When not being nuisances, their skin makes nice leather and their meat apparently resembles pork. If you need any other reason to see one (you really don’t), they also have webbed feet that allow them to swim like the dickens, and they can hold their breath for five minutes (give or take two million years). This is why, in South America, they say, ‘Check your pool before you go swimming, because there might be a capybara in there holding it’s breath, waiting to scare you.’ This sounds much more profound in Spanish.

Como estas? Capybaras often use the formal form of the verb estar incorrectly…

The name ‘capybara’ comes from Guarani, a language of indigenous people in South America. It means ‘master of the grasses,’ which does little to dispel the stereotype that indigenous people tend to overstate things. Meanwhile, the capybara’s Greek name, Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris, means ‘water hog.’ Guess which nomenclature scheme these animals prefer.

Let’s skip gestation periods and social interaction and say this: the capybara deserves a little credit for refusing to scurry into the trash can when people turn on the lights. Instead, at 140 pounds of rodent, the capybara has really embraced the whole ‘being a rat’ thing. If criminals followed their lead, we’d have much less crime. What’s more, they’re not ashamed to do their Mr. Spock impression.

GRADE: B-

*UPDATE* – Wildebeest

The holiday weekend in America reminds us that, in many ways, every day is the Fourth of July for wildebeests.

If that doesn’t make sense to you, you should stop drinking diet soda.

Sea Cucumbers

The sea cucumber is the broad category for about 1,200 echinoderm species within class Holothuroidea. Most inhabit the benthic zone of the world’s oceans, scavenging detritus from the sea floor and eating tiny algae particles. Like all members of phylum Echinodermata, sea cucumbers have an endoskeleton just below the skin. Oh – and when threatened, many a sea cucumber will shoot its organs out of its anus. In shallow water, they can form dense populations and comprise most of an ecosystem’s biomass. They sometimes send their own innards shooting out their anuses. The top skin covers microscopic pieces of skeleton called spicules. Just to make sure you got this, they defend themselves by defecating their own internal organs. And how they came up with this strategy is anyone’s guess.

It’s all you, dude.

Choosing to defecate its own organs as a defense technique is surprising and would appear, prima facie, to be much less useful than, say, actually doing something. Apparently the goal is to make a predator, no matter how famished, sick to its stomach and lose its appetite. Failing that, shooting its very own guts out of its very own anus is just so pathetic that even the hardest of predatory fish will give it an awkward pat on the back before making up an excuse to just get the hell out of there.

I’m gonna go.

Interestingly, the blood of sea cucumbers is yellow in color because as much as ten percent of its blood cell pigment is vanadium.* This was discovered when a scientist startled a sea cucumber and got an unexpected view of its entire insides.

The sea cucumber can also reproduce both sexually and asexually. However, given that its one and only trick is defecating its innards, we’re guessing it’s mostly asexual.

As with all disgusting ocean creatures, the sea cucumber is considered a delicacy in Asia. And if you happen to get one that just shot its guts out its anus – well, you can imagine the excitement.

Oh it’s disgusting and horrible? I’ll take three.

Basically, the sea cucumber digs around looking for dirt to eat, and when something bothers it, it shoots its guts out. It’s like if you spent your life lying in the grass at a park looking for leftover chips to eat, and when the cops came to ask you what you were doing you promptly started kicking yourself in the crotch and vomiting up kidneys. Actually, that would probably work pretty well. But good luck finding work after that.

GRADE: D

*Vanabins are a group of proteins that bind the metal vanadium; the few organisms that have vanabins in their blood are able to bind vanadium at levels 100 times that of seawater. Currently it is a mystery as to exactly why sea cucumbers and other organisms collect vanadium. Another mystery is why sea cucumbers shoot their organs from their anuses.