Monday, April 24, 2006

Animal of the Week April 24, 2006 -- George and the Komodo

1. For not acknowledging the wonderful source journal Nature for AOTW April 10 (Tiktaalik roseae)
2. For not warning y'all that I'd take Easter Monday off... sorry

Yesterday was the day of St George, England's patron saint, I marked the day by having a lie in, buying some tomato plants, some breadmaking, and listening to folk music on Radio 3. And today I extend the festivities by choosing as the animal of the week the dragon.... er, Varanus komodoensis (Komodo dragon) that is!

The fire-breathing dragon that crusader George slayed held the pagan people of some distant land to ransom by taking up residence in the spring from whence they obtained their water. To get the dragon to move on, the local monarch had to give up his daughter, but just as the dragon was about to eat the princess, valiant George turned up and showed the dragon what for with his lance. Everyone was so glad for what George had done they converted to Christianity.

Komodo dragons can't breath fire, don't much care to hold wells to ransom, and aren't mythical allegories for Satan; however, they can be quite terrifying—weighing over 160 kg and growing to over 3·5 m long they are the largest lizards in the whole world (note, crocodiles, alligators, and turtles are not lizards). These outsize monitor lizards are the top predators on the Indonesian islands of Flores, Rintja, Padar, and Komodo where they eat anything that moves including goats, horses, buffalo, other komodo dragons, and sometimes people. Before people reached these islands wiping out native fauna and bringing in the smorgasbord listed above, Komodo dragons' diets probably comprised giant rats, dwarf elephants, and er, dwarf proto-humans.

Komodo dragons do enjoy carrion, but they are also well-equipped hunters, adept at both ambush and the chase. Their best trick though is having over 50 species of bacteria in their saliva, which means that all they need to do is give a prey animal a little nip and the victim will rapidly be overcome by septicaemia. Lovely!

In this picture a komodo dragon is receiving acupuncture... perhaps the whole George-dragon-lance story is a misunderstanding.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Animal of the Week April 10, 2006 -- Tiktaalik roseae

Well, I don't know if you've ever sensed that I've been clutching at straws in my selection of animal of the week—some weeks it's tricky. But this week, for choice I have been well and truly spoiled. Now, I could do the dead swan, but I don't see why "Bird flew" is news, you don't hear "Man walked", "Bunny hopped", "Fish swam" making headlines on the Today programme, do you? But "Fish walked", well, that's news isn't it? And because, as a boy I once spent three months in a tiny basement room hunched over a fossilised fish (please don't ask; or do if you'd like, I've still got the slides and would be happy to do a quick presentation), well there was a clear favourite this week: Tiktaalik roseae.

T roseae helps to fill in the gaps between our finned and limbed ancestors. With scales, a fishy mouth, and rayed fins, this inhabitant of a tropical delta in the upper Devonian period (360–385 million years ago) was very much a fish. But with shoulders separated from head by a neck and increasingly bony upper portions to its forelimbs, T roseae was looking a little amphibian about the gills (actually, it didn't even have gills). These adaptations would likely have helped T roseae lift itself above the surface of the water to breath, navigate weed choked channels, and even haul itself between pools should one look to be drying up.

"Missing links" always cause quite a stir. Archaeopteryx, Homo erectus, and Eohippus are some of the most famous found links, but in truth, there are still missing links between T roseae (a fish) and amphibians, between Archaeopteryx (a bird) and reptiles, and so on. Anhyoo, here's to Tiktaalik rosaea and other links yet to be found: the lamprey–fish–shark links, the bird–dinosaur links, my tigers-eye cuff links.

Because I have too much time on my hands, I devised an alternative animal of the week, but fear that you might not have time to digest it all, so I wrote this too (I do have a life honest). Anyway, if you've got the time, the attached is nonsensical drivvel.


Peter Hayward
Head Keeper
Animal of the Week

You may have been added to the AOTW mailing list because a friend nominated you, or I felt you would like to receive animal news. If you no longer wish to receive these mails, please reply to this email putting the words "Don't monkey me no more, you fool" in the subject line. Counterclockwise, if you would like to nominate a friend (or enemy) to receive animal pleasure, reply with their address in the body of the email and the words "Monkey this badass, too" in the subject line.

[A benign looking white haired, crinkly faced gentleman waits in the wings as the studio lights are turned down silencing the expectant audience (a mixture of septuagenarians, young couples, and groups of young women who may well be Young Conservatives on hen nights—all sporting the sort of vacant grin that can only be induced by a former yellow-coat warm-up comedian and a free glass of cava laced with Ritalin). The lights go up, the house band strike up the signature tune, the floor assistant holds up a cue card reading "APPLAUSE/CLAP/CHEER". To the sound of the audience obediently 'going wild', our host strides out on stage desperately trying to disguise the arthritic pain in his left knee (he is an 'elder statesman' not an 'old man' of tv). The band ends the signature tune and the applause dies down.]

Parkinson: [A warm yorkshire accent tempered by years of broadcasting] Welcome, welcome, welcome. What a great night we've got for you tonight. Later on in the show we'll be joined by an actress with a list of television credentials seemingly too long for her tender years, Tamsin Outhwaite, who'll be telling us about her new police drama. We're also joined by my favourite comedian, the Big Yin himself, Billy Connolly who'll once again not have anything funny to say but will have a purple beard and make us laugh by shouting. And we've music by great young jazz pianist and singer Jamie Cullum, who will be reinterpreting a classic track by Joy Division. But my first guest is very special, he made headlines across the world this week when discovered on a remote windblasted plain in northern Canada. Please welcome, Tiktaalik roseae.

[House band plays brass-heavy version of Three Little Fishes. A young man wheels out a large tank containing some muddy water, something resembling a cross between a salmon and an alligator can be seen half submerged. Audience applause begins and ends on queue]

Parkinson: Can I just say how marvellous it is to have you here?

Tiktaalik: [Canadian accent] Thank you. It's great to be here, eh.

Parkinson: So, you've been billed the news as a sort of link between fish and limbed animals such as frogs and ourselves, but you’re actually a fish aren't you?

Tiktaalik: Yes, that's right, I'm a fish: scales, fins, a fishy tail [splashes said tail], but I've several characteristics found in limbed animals too. My ears aren't like those of fish, I have a neck, that sort of thing.

Parkinson: Yes, I see, and can I just say I really like your humerus, radius, and ulna; in fact, all your arm bones are really great.

Tiktaalik: Thank you.

Parkinson: But there's something about your forelimb, it's different, and I can't quite put my finger on it [eyes twinkle knowingly, mischievously into the camera]

Tiktaalik: [with a gurgling chuckle] Indeed, and neither can I, eh. I haven't got any. [Audience erupts with appreciative laughter]. I am a fish after all, and contrary to what Captain Birdseye might say, fish don't have fingers. [Studio is in inexplicable hysterics. Somewhere in the audience a Tena lady reaches capacity].

Parkinson: And your hind legs they're not up to much.

Tiktaalik: No, it's going to be a few hundred million years before we get to Shania Twain.

Parkinson: Yes, yes, I suppose so. So, how do all these innovations help you?

Tiktaalik: Well, you see, in the shallow delta pools 375 million years ago near the equator, sometimes it was difficult to breath as water and oxygen levels dropped, and we're in this muddy water looking up at all the air and we're thinking we'd like some of that, eh. So we raise ourselves up on our arms to take a gulp of air. The neck helps us get up there too. These flexible fins are great for moving weeds out of the way too.

Parkinson: Marvellous, marvellous, and what's next for you?

Tiktaalik: Sometimes, if the water level drops a lot, we haul out and drag our piscine selves to some other pool, now we wouldn't be able to do that without these limbs. But we see all these plants and insects, and I'm thinking, the food up here looks pretty good, eh. So, maybe if we would work on these legs, and do something about the end of these fins, someday, my children's children's children's children's children's children can really take advantage of those opportunities.

Parkinson: Well, thank you very much and you will stick around to meet my other guests wont you.

Tiktaalik: For sure.

Parkinson: [To camera] And don't you go anywhere either, after the break we'll be joined by Tamsin Outhwaite, Billy Connolly, and Jamie Cullum. [Band. Applause]

Tiktaalik: [Unfortunately Sound have not killed the fish's microphone] Someone fetch me some earplugs, eh.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Animal of the Week April 03, 2006 -- Cry "Havoc" and let slip the bats of war

The parts played by animals throughout the history of human conflict have been great and varied, from carrier pigeons and dogs delivering messages in the world wars to Hannibal riding a bunch of elephants over the Alps to attack the Romans in 218 BC (Predictably one member of the Team was absent, as he succinctly put it: I aint gettin' on no goddam pachyderm, fool! [Head Keeper gets coat]).

One of the more surprising attempts involved this week's animal Tadarida brasiliensis (Brazilian free-tailed bat, Mexican free-tailed bat, guano bat). During the second world war, US$2 million was invested in the Bat Bomb. The US Airforce planned to attach incendiary devices to Mexican free-tailed bat and load them into containers that would be parachuted on to Japanese cities. Upon landing, the canister would open and the timers on the incendiary devices would be activated, the bats would then seek out a roost in the wooden eaves of various buildings and 30 minutes later tiny fires would break out throughout the city. The project suffered several setbacks, sometimes bats failed to wake up on landing a simply fried in the container. Most memorably, however, during one test at Carlsbad, New Mexico, incendiary-laden bats escaped and set fire to the Auxiliary Army Air Base. Although the project was passed from the Airforce to the Navy, bats were never deployed in combat and the project was abandoned in 1944 in favour of alternative methods of laying waste to Japanese cities.

These migratory, new world, insect-eating bats live in the largest colonies of any mammal—up to 20 million of them inhabit the most densely populated breeding caves in Texas. The bats are remarkable, flying at heights greater than 10 000 feet (the highest flying bat) and at speeds of over 60 mph. Each year in Texas these bats may consume up to 18 000 tons of insects. These insects are processed into vast amounts of guano, in the early 1900s this excellent organic fertiliser was the Lonestar State's greatest mineral export ahead of oil. [Insert joke about the early 2000s and excrement from Texas]

And I don't do mythical animals, but want to share this with you. If you've got a couple of minutes it is well worth reading for humorous bad Russian-English translation and, well, just and, read it all...