Monday, May 29, 2006

Animal of the Week May 29, 2006 -- Potter dragon dinosaur simon and garfunkel

Oh my god, this is amazing! A flat-headed pachycephalosaur from the late cretaceous of North America. They've only been found in Asia before. And that's one in the eye for all the people who think that the flat headed type preceded the dome heads! What...?! You're not interested in that? Are you crazy?! Oh, OK then, we'll appropriate a name from some wildly popular cultural phenomenon... cool, lets say it looks like a dragon from the Harry Potter series and name it Dracorex hogwartsia. Now you're interested right?

I'm sure you're all reading Proust, Cervantes, and selected essays by Hazlitt rather than kids' books (unless you're a kid, although nephew, Thomas, is most likely reading some weighty tome about dinosaurs), so I'll explain that Hogwarts is the school of wizardry at which Harry Potter is annoyingly successful at everything, is inexplicably excused all manner of misdemeanours, and despite being a despicable sycophant remains popular with staff and peers -- so I am told.

This newly discovered dinosaur lived 66 million years ago, the twilight years of the dinosaurs, in South Dakota, the twighlight state of the USA. Its thick skull and collection of bumps, knobs, and spikes suggest that like other pachycephalosaurs D hogwartsia fought by head-butting. The ornamentation of their heads led to comparisons to a dragon described in one of Rowling's books and hence the name given by palaeontologist Robert Bakker.

Bakker has form so to speak, other dinosaurs he has named include Attenborosaurus (after David), Bambiraptor (after Disney's deer), and Drinker nisti (after the National Institutes of Standards and Technology -- part of the US Dept of Commerce). Still, Bakker is by no means the worst offender for such tomfoolery, Leigh Van Valen spent much of the 70s naming extinct mammals of North America after obscure characters and objects from The Lord of the Rings. My present favourite examples of naming species after things are two trilobites (extinct sea creatures) in the genus Avalanchurus with the species names simoni and garfunkeli. Should I ever have a child I will call it Garfunkeli.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Animal of the Week May 22, 2006 -- Marriage special, the most metaphorical animal

Marriage special
In honour of the impending nuptials of my sister and my soon to be brother-in-tax break *ducks to avoid clips round the ear*, this week's animal is one of the classic examples of monogamy, an albatross, Diomedea epomophora (royal albatross) to be specific.

Like other albatrosses, royals pair for life. Within the first 10 years of their lives they'll arrive at a breeding ground, a single boy albatross and a single girl albatross will furtively glance at each other, he'll sidle up to her or she to he in these enlightened times, they'll do a courtship dance: head nodding, pointing their bills to the sky, braying, stretching out their wings and strutting around, sometimes flying in tandem, occasionally exchanging gifts of fish, then they will be married—S&D, is it too late to change the ceremony?

They'll immediately leave the breeding island and feed for a few weeks, building up their reserves on a piscivorous honeymoon. On returning to the island the female lays an enormous egg and will immediately fly out to sea to replenish the energy put into the egg. The male will incubate the egg until the female returns to take over the duties. The adults exchange egg and chick duties for the next year or so. Eventually, when the chick is old enough, they'll desert it, returning to the open ocean. The chick eventually fledges when hunger drives it to flight.

Every two years the pair will return to the same nest site, consolidate their bond with a replica of their marriage dance and repeat. These birds might live for over sixty years, so remain faithful to their partners for upwards of fifty. That is as long as they don't get snagged by a longline fishing vessel.

So, while not a model to replicate in your marriage (the months at sea may be difficult to manage), this one's for you S&D, wishing you the best for Saturday and beyond (what a present, eh? No-one else has got you this *gleefully puts away credit card and logs out of the wedding list*).

Monday, May 15, 2006

Animal of the Week May 15, 2006 -- Brown rabbit

Oh wow... what a weekend I had! I went to this crazy music festival on the south coast of England at a Pontin’s holiday camp. It was like Hi-Di-Hi but with Ruth Maddock, Paul Shane, Sue Pollard and the rest replaced by avant-garde folk and rock musicians... And it was wow so much fun, the music was great and the good-times rolled well into the evenings.

One evening I was sat up looking at the stars. And you know how it is when you look at the stars and you stare at the nearest and the brightest and then when you've focused on them you, like, see another layer behind them, and then you focus on those, and behind them, there are even more stars even further away and even smaller. But when you've been staring for a couple of hours it seems that the once inky-black night sky is just a carpet of white starlight travelling millions of billions of trillions of miles into your eyes. And I felt really small, like so small that I may as well not even have existed. But my hands felt so big, like they were reaching off into the universe, my interplanetary pinky poking Pluto and the thumb on the same hand shooting out through the Milky Way. With my fingertips I could feel the ripples of the big bang.

I was looking at the stars and lying on a sand dune and suddenly, I saw The Oryctolagus cuniculus (The Rabbit), staring at the stars too. I say The Oryctolagus cuniculus, because this was the first rabbit brought here by the Romans (hence the Latin name). She is about 2000 years old and the origin of all the bunnies in the UK, a rabbit god. And she turned to me and said. "Let me tell you a story", and I was like, "OK". And she said "Once, I was here sat watching one of my children eating grass minding its own business, but behind a tree there was a cat stalking the rabbit, the rabbit was oblivious to the cat's presence, and the cat was biding it's time, I could see the muscle tension in the cat's hind legs coiling in preparation for the pounce. But, unknown to the cat, behind another tree there was a badger, hungry and old, it had seen the cat and thought it might try its luck. But the badger was oblivious to the lynx, which still lived here then, behind the tree, eyeing up old brock. And the tufty ears was not conscious of the wolf, and the wolf unaware of the bear, and the bear had not noticed the angry old cow bison wanting to exact revenge for too many lost calves. Just as the kitty was about to pounce, badger dived upon the cat, the lynx leapt on the badger, the wolf jumped the lynx, the bear grabbed the wolf, and the bison trampled the bear. Ancient, and old, and finally at peace the bison lay down and died. And the only animal left was the rabbit, which grew old and had many kittens who would come and gorge themselves on the grass that grew rich where the all the bodies had decayed."

I was like, "Wow, that's an amazing story", and The Rabbit was like,"I know". And then I asked The Rabbit why she spoke with a Mexican accent. But she just formed a lagomorphic pyramid with her rabbit kin and they skipped away, The Rabbit on top juggling tiny moons.

How was your weekend?My summary: Nu-folk musicians touched=4. Favourite apple=Cox.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Animal of the Week May 8, 2006 -- Mayflies

"What a difference a day makes, 24 little hours..." Dinah Washington new what she was singing about, she was singing about Ephemeroptera (mayflies). I know I normally do a single species and not a whole order of animals, but really, as if I am going to want to cover mayflies in AOTW again...*

There are over 2000 species of mayflies, and this group is one of the most ancient of insect orders. All mayflies are characterised by a short adult life lasting, in most cases, no more than a day; although they have a larval stage or nymph that lasts from a few weeks to several years. The nymphs live in fresh water rivers or streams, feedings and preparing for a frenetic adulthood. Commonly huge swarms explode from rivers over a very short period, at this time fish, birds, and, in some parts of the world, humans gorge themselves on the glut of crunchy goodness. In temperate Europe and North America most of the hatches happen between April and July. So any day now folks. Nuclear reactor workers do well to prepare for the hatchings as the masses of dead mayflies have been known to block the intake of water for cooling.

People thinking of eating mayflies should remain mindful of the story of Deichtine. In Irish myth, the god Lugh, in the form of a mayfly, landed in Deichtine's drink and after being swallowed made her pregnant with Setanta (who later adopted the name Cuchulainn and became one of the great heroes of Ulster). Not sure if that can really happen, but it's probably best to cover your mouth if beholding the spectacle of a mayfly hatch.

The mayfly in this picture is Ephemera danica, the UK's biggest mayfly and a popular model for fishermen's flies.
What a difference a day made
Twenty-four little hours
Brought the sun and the mayflies
Where there used to be rain
My yesterday was blue, dear
Today I'm part of you, dear
My lonely nights are through, dear
Since you said you were mine
What a difference a day makes
There's a rainbow before me
Skies above can't be full of mayflies
Since that moment of bliss, that thrilling kiss
It's heaven when you find mayflies on your menu
What a difference a day made
And the difference is mayflies

*Oh yeah, next May

Monday, May 01, 2006

Animal of the Week May 1, 2006 -- Probably the rarest mammal in the world

Happy Summer (Or winter for those in the antipodes, if you're non-seasonal, lucky you)

Some animals make me doubt my faith in evolution and wonder whether some prankster has been guiding the development of at least a few species. For example, pandas, on a branch of the family tree sprouted somewhere bears and raccoons (two generally adaptable groups of animals), the ancestors of this large should-be carnivore decided to ditch the meat eating and become veggie. Not only did they choose to foresake highly nutritious viands, but they decided to subsist solely on a diet of a highly un-nutritious grass of which they would eat only selected shoots that appear every few years.

Similarly, river dolphins... in the oceans of the world, dolphin species travel in enormous numbers, sometimes gathering in groups of thousands, frolicking abundantly in vast, clear, fish-packed waters. But on several occasions in Asia and South America a couple of dolphins have looked at the murky silt-choked effluent of major rivers and thought "I know, I'll try my luck". And so, this week's animal of the week, the possibly extinct Lipotes vexillifer (Baiji, Yangtze river dolphin), probably the world's rarest mammal.

Like other river dolphins, Baijis have very poor vision, they use echolocation and their long slightly upturned beak to search for fish in riverbed silt. Never the most abundant animal, commercial and illegal fishing practices along the Yangtze depleted the population, and damming has further adversely affected fish stock; chemical and noise pollution have also made life hard for the baijis. A few years ago, a survey found only 13 individuals, and a preliminary study, the reults of which were released last week, found no signs of these cetaceans. In November this year, a larger study hopes to find some remnant groups... but it looks very likely that the baiji will become the first whale or dolphin to become extinct in the modern era. Various groups are trying to conserve this species, but it seems they may already have lost their porpoise *Hayward gets coat*.

PS, as I was typing last week's AOTW, a couple of hundred yards away London Zoo were preparing to release the news of the virgin birth of four Komodo dragons. Hatched from eggs laid by a female with no male consort for two years, the paternity of these baby dragons remains a mystery. But welcome little Christ-lizards, welcome to Camden!