Monday, March 30, 2009

Animal of the Week -- March 30, 2009

So yeah, I realise that over the past two years I have been about as regular as a Russian gymnast. I guess since I last sent one out you'll all have new jobs and new emails and won't get this. I know I have, and won't.

Anyway, I am going to plough on, but as I try to revive this whole animal of the week thing -- bringing it back from the brink of extinction by transplanting the DNA from hair follicle found stuck to a bottle of gin in my freezer into the nucleus of a closely related blog and hoping that the resulting embryos survive to term -- I'll try to keep this brief.

For one reason or another this Sunday, I missed Yellowstone, the BBC series about the world's first national park, but when I got home that evening I went straight to the iPlayer thinking I would find it there. But on the front page of said tool was an invitation I couldn't resist. Fish! A Japanese Love Story. Part of BBC4's Japan season, this hour and a half documentary followed a British angler exploring the Japanese passion for fish. From a flayed snapper flapping on a plate of its own sushi, to koi carp worth millions and a whale barbecue, the show was a real delight -- if somewhat gruesome.

One of the most highly prized food fish in Japan is this weeks animal of the week, Takifugu rubripes (fugu, Japanese pufferfish). So highly poisonous that, like his forefathers into the mists of time, Emperor Akihito is not allowed to eat it lest he succumb, the flesh of fugu can only be prepared by licensed sushi chefs, and several people every year die from having eaten poorly prepared fugu. Assimilating neurotoxins from bacteria in the animals it eats, the livers and ovaries of these fish, if eaten, leave the victim completely conscious but totally paralysed until he or she dies of asphyxiation -- the toxin is several times more potent than cyanide. But the small amounts of the toxin found in the skin and flesh of the fish produce a pleasant numbness when eaten.

Farmed fugu that are completely non-toxic, are now available, although the Japanese Fugu Association apparently still bans the consumption of their livers, and the emperor has yet to taste. Fugu are a model organism in genetics with their genomes having been entirely sequenced. For some reason, fugu lack much extraneous genetic material and have about the bare minimum DNA for a vertebrate to function.

Be warned that various bits of the excellent BBC documentary (!_A_Japanese_Obsession/) are quite gruesome, especially the sections on preparing snapper and fugu -- while the Japanese clearly love fish, cultural views of the importance of animal welfare vary throughout the world. Sounds a bit too much for you to stomach? Whenever I think of fugu, I think of the episode of the Simpsons in which Homer eats some and is convinced he will die; the restaurant in which he eats the fugu naturally has a karaoke bar, in which Bart and Lisa do an excellent rendition of the Theme From Shaft (

I thought I was keeping it brief? Oh!

Peter Hayward
Head Keeper
Animal of the Week

Labels: , , ,