Category Archives: Animals

Pectoral Fins

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Science [1] has taught us that dolphins are smart. Really smart. Arguably, they’re smarter than elephants, smarter than apes, smarter than dietitians. Dolphins exhibit behaviour previously believed to be exclusive to primates, both within and without the Catholic Church. Dolphins can use tools, they can recognize their own faces in the mirror, they can understand language. Dolphins even exhibit complex social behaviour. Anyone who has ever seen dolphins arguing over who gets to pay the dinner bill knows this.

This is all behaviour Science had previously observed in apes, but dolphins have recently displayed behaviour we once thought was unique to humans. For example, dolphins sometimes pretend to be sick to get out of work, then they update their Facebook statuses from home, forgetting that their boss friended them three months ago. Then they’re all like “OMG! My boss jus fierd me! Looks liek I need a knew job. #sickdayfail”

Dolphins are also bad at spelling.

Once, a person stood looking into the dolphin tank at an aquarium, smoking a cigarette. A dolphin calf watched the person smoke, swam back to its mom, took a sip of her milk, swam back to the person and blew the milk out of its mouth in imitation of the smoker. It would have been cute if it stopped there, but the calf began smoking real cigarettes within a month. It moved on to hard drinking and marijuana by the time it was two years old. After a very dramatic — and very public — breakdown in which it drunkenly swam around the tank in front of a group of elementary school students before collapsing in a pool of its own sick at the feet of its trainer, the calf was sent to rehab. Scientists stated they had never before observed such self destructive in behaviour in any species other than humans [2].

Dolphins’ command of language rivals that of the smartest apes and roughly 50% of thirteen-year-old boys. One dolphin, a four-year-old female called Ponga, used her beak and a sponge dipped in paint to scrawl what turned out to be a novel on the side of her tank at a research center in Bremen, Germany. Graduate research assistant Karl Schreiber witnessed the event. “Her prose was dull, vapid. The characters were two-dimensional. The plot, centering around a watch maker in Victorian England, was filled with anachronisms. But in her defense, she wrote the thing underwater. With her nose. And she’s a dolphin.”

Esther Lang, NPR book critic, disagrees with Schreiber’s assessment. “Ponga’s words strike at the heart of postmodern angst, exposing a festering malaise hidden beneath the crumbling façade of western prosperity, all in a style that is at once poignant and humorous — and, dare I say it, human — without being pretentious.”

When asked to comment, Ponga scrawled on the side of the tank, “Every1’s a cricket.”

Which brings me to pectoral fins.

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The more Science tells us about the intelligence of animals, the clearer it becomes that our position as the dominant species of this planet is far more precarious than we ever realized. If a species other than our own possessed the dangerous combination of intelligence, ambition and thumbs, they could build the machines needed to bring about our demise. Thankfully, no animal possesses the high intelligence/thumbs combo. “What about apes?” I hear your voice echo through the aether of the blogosphere. The most apes have ever thought to accomplish with their thumbs is to eat their own lice and fling their poo at passersby. We have little to worry about from them. No, the most serious threat comes from dolphins, and they’re mercifully saddled with worthless, thumbless pectoral fins.

 

And sometimes actual saddles.

 

The only thing keeping dolphins from building robotic bipedal machines that enable them to walk on land, to stalk our streets for human prey, to take our jobs for less pay, to steal our girlfriends and our boyfriends with their zestful dolphin charm — is a lack of opposable thumbs. Eventually they’ll figure a way around that little hurdle, but for now we can rest assured that our position as top species is secure.

 

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…or is it?

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[1] When I say, “Science,” I do, of course, mean “Douglas Adams.”

[2] This was six years before the Elephant Glue Sniffing Epidemic of ’82.

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The Shape of Things to Come

Darryl Hannah in 'Clan of the Cave Bear'

A while back I wrote about the Urso-Human Wars, back around the time that I, you know, still wrote posts. I don’t want to brag or anything, but it has been said[1] that this blog was solely responsible for alerting humans[2] to the dangers of bearkind. And yet even I was not aware how postscient[3] my words would prove to be…

This very week evidence has come to my attention that sheds new light on the urso-human conflict. Not only is a clash between bears and humans – a clash that will decide the fate of both our races – inevitable, it may have already happened. Scientists believe that when early man moved into the caves of prehistoric Europe, they clashed with the local population of cave bears. The cave bears, proud and curmudgeonly race that they were, were not eager to share their living space with the humans. Not to be denied prime cave-painting real estate, the humans fought back. There was bloodshed. There was the occasional bear-human hug and/or tummy rub too, but mostly there was bloodshed. In the end the humans proved victorious, free now to while away their time finger painting dirty comic strips on their walls in peace.

Luchadors may be humanity's last defense against a bearslaught.

The cave bears, however, went extinct. Scientists aren’t sure if this was a result of the war itself. Some suggest the cave bears simply couldn’t adjust emotionally to living outside of caves. After all, without caves, cave bears are just bears. Some of the cave bears went in search of other caves, never to be seen or heard from again. The cave bear religion even became centered around the notion of The Honey Cave that the Great Sky Bear[4] would lead them to after annihilating the human race at the end of the world. Other cave bears rejected the religion of their fellow bears as baseless superstition, choosing instead to adapt to the times they lived in. These bears believed that for their kind to survive, they had to break with the past and their identity as ‘cave bears’ and integrate themselves into other bear communities: grizzly, polar, black, teddy, gummi, to name a few.

It has yet to be seen if history will repeat itself. Will human and bear find a way to bury the hatchet and live together in harmony, or will bears take revenge on us by moving into our homes and repainting our walls? Is the stealing of our pic-a-nic baskets but a prelude to an all-out bear attack? We’ll have to wait and see, but I trust, my astute reader, that you already know what this awesome-munimentalist thinks.


[1] By me.

[2] About five of them.

[3] postscient – n having or showing knowledge of events after they have taken place

[4] Ursa Major

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The Autumnal Equinox

In recent years, a belief has spread that the Autumnal Equinox is the first day of Fall. This is clearly an urban legend with no basis in truth. Like all such myths, most of the support for this idea is based in tidbits of ‘scientific fact’ gleaned from internet forums and Wikipedia. Its proponents state that the Autumnal Equinox occurs when the axis of the earth is not pointed toward or away from the sun, resulting in roughly equal-length night and day. They also claim that ‘autumnal’ is an adjective meaning ‘pertaining to autumn’ and that ‘equinox’ comes from the Latin aequi meaning ‘equal’ and nox meaning ‘night.’ Such linguistic bamboozlement is a telltale sign of these modern tall tales, and is not to be believed under any circumstances.

Look at this carefully. It doesn't mean anything.

The truth about the Autumnal Equinox is far more interesting, and far older, than the explanation offered by poorly researched chatroom ‘science.’

The Autumnal Equinox is a legendary monster said to live in the ancient forests of Great Britain. The story goes that the  Celts and Anglo-Saxons who inhabited the forests and surrounding farmland lived in peace and security most of the year. But every September, for one night only, the Equinox would appear. The people would hear the ominous cry of the Equinox from the darkest parts of the forest exactly as the sun went down. It was the only warning they ever got. The Equinox would emerge from its secret den to prey upon the human population, gorging itself on the flesh of its victims. And then, just as quickly as it appeared, it would disappear at the crack of dawn, not to be seen or heard from again until the following year on the same night.

The word ‘autumnal’ is believed to originate with the Anglo-Saxon unman, meaning ‘un-man.’ The prefix aut-, from the Greek auto, meaning ‘self,’ was most likely added during the Jacobean period, when it was in vogue to attach Greek and Latin affixes to Anglo-Saxon roots. The overall sense of the word — literally translated ‘self-un-man’ — is of a creature originally human who for some horrible reason has willingly transformed himself into a monster by some agreement with dark forces. You see, the Equinox is no mere monster; it is the worst kind of monster: one that used to be man. It is no wonder, then, that the Autumnal Equinox held a place of special fear for the Celtic and Saxon tribesmen.[i]

The word ‘equinox’ is another example of Jacobean Latin-Saxon pairing. ‘Equi-‘ comes from the Latin equus, meaning ‘horse,’ and ox is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning, well, ox — literally translated, an ‘equine ox.’

A medieval portrayal of an Equinox killing a warrior with its dreaded projectile whatsit.

So the Autumnal Equinox is a monstrous beast — part horse, part ox — that used to be a rational man before he sold his soul to demons and was transformed into a flesh-eating hell beast.

Out of self preservation, the tribesmen started building large fires and holding religious ceremonies in order to ward off the Equinox. Later on a belief arose that if one could manage to balance an egg vertically on the night of the Equinox’s attack, it would act as amulet capable of warding the monster off. The custom continues to this very day.

Eventually, as the population of Britain grew, the forests were cut down, cities spread, technology improved, and the Equinox has scarcely been seen since. The only memory anyone has of it is in the continuing commemoration of the night named after it at the end of every September.

Still, there are those who say that if one is alone in an English wood on this inauspicious night, the ominous keening of the ravenous Equinox can still be heard.

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[i] The only creature more terrible and more feared than the Autumnal Equinox is the Vernal Equinox. ‘Vernal’ here is derived from the same Latin root as infernal, meaning ‘from hell.’

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Narwhal

Denne er narkval.

Children are inherently magical creatures. What sorcerers, witches and necromancers have always laboured to recapture at the expense of their own souls children have been able to accomplish with no more effort than an irreverent giggle at the dinner table. The veil between the possible and the impossible is very thin for children, and it offers no resistance their exuberance cannot tear asunder. For reasons both many and tragic, most of us lose that ability by adulthood.

As children we were content to sit for hours piling up mud and sticks or packing the latest snowfall into an embankment in the yard. And, as far as our parents could tell, all we had for our trouble was a ruined pair of sneakers and a dirty pair of overalls. But we knew better. We knew the truth of our efforts; that we had populated our mud kingdom with all manner of wonderful denizens. In our kingdoms dwelt that which had once been — kings, princesses and warriors; that which might one day be — aliens, spaceships and newly inhabited planets; and that which would never be — griffins, unicorns, goblins and elves. We knew that our grass was in fact lava and that our lawn must be crossed by climbing the picnic table and deftly swinging onto the lower branches of the nearby tree, shimmying across to the rope swing and flying onto the wagon where we could just manage to jump to the safety of the porch.

But then as we grew, we watched each of our flights of fancy die one by one. The most tragic part of it all is that for many of us our disillusionment was engineered. In a painful and untimely lesson in betrayal, our own parents taught us to believe in the reality of the impossible — in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the bogeyman — and then taught us not to believe in them anymore. Unwilling to be hurt again, most children have chosen to put to death their own imaginations in order to become adults.

As adults we know — as surely as we knew before that magic swords could be pulled from stones — that there can be no such thing as magic. There are no dragons nor were there ever. There are no perilous quests for heroes to set out on because there is no real evil to be vanquished. There can be no such creatures as pixies and trolls because scientific taxonomy has no place for them.

That is, until one discovers the Narwhal, the very existence of which confounds the skepticism of the most hard-hearted naturalist. The reality of the narwhal’s existence must be measured, studied and found to live up to scientific scrutiny. It is, in fact, a real creature, Latin name and all (Monodon monoceros). Yet it cannot be explained away as just another animal. It is undeniably and uncompromisingly magical.

Hvor er narkval?

Actually, the Narwhal is more than just magical. It’s a blitz; an attack from the realm of the impossible on the realm of the possible. While every creature we believed to be real as a child — unicorns, centaurs, nymphs — all turned out not to be in spite of all our youthful expectation, the narwhal is a magical creature that turns out to be real in spite of the fact that none of us expected it to exist at all. In any realm. The narwhal blindsided us with its existence by being even stranger than we could have imagined, and suddenly everything has changed.

Those kingdoms we populated with the inklings of our childish imaginations crumbled into the sand and mud we made them with when we were taught not to believe, and were scattered by the wind. The narwhal is the last glittering fragment of those lost kingdoms. And as long as it survives, the whole world of our imagination can be restored. When a grown man or woman sees a whale with a unicorn horn — an honest to goodness, spirally unicorn horn — sticking out of its face, it becomes more and more difficult to deny the impossible. Simply because the narwhal is even weirder than the things we’ve learned to think are impossible. If the narwhal exists,what other impossible creatures could be out there? A unicorn isn’t that strange come to think of it, not now that we’ve discovered there are actual sea unicorns in the world.

The narwhal is an invitation to wonder again. It is a harbinger of magic breaking in on our dull little world. It is a messenger that seems to shout to our former child selves, “Hold fast the hope ye profess! A new dawn is breaking!” And would we but heed the narwhal’s call, we might yet live to see a day when animals talk, when rings are magical, when mirrors are doors to other worlds. A day when air pirates sail the skies and battle the cloud ninja clans. A day when people live side by side with elves, dryads and gnomes and when Santa Claus never fails to polish off the plate of cookies we leave out for him, no matter how many millions of homes he visits that wonderful night.

Lykkelig liten narkval.

Freakazoid. Possibly the greatest man never to live.(i)

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[i] If you don’t know what Freakazoid has to do with this post, I strongly recommend you educate yourself.

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Unsung Heroes: Cool Air

Presumably everyone who reads this blog has skin. If you’re reading this and you don’t have skin, I sincerely apologize.

Unless you’re an android, in which case you don’t understand the concept of remorse. Or contractions, which there have been four of so far, so you’re beyond lost.[i]

But androids aside, I think I have statistics on my side when I say that most of you have skin. So I don’t need to extol to you, O be-dermised reader, the glories of cool air. We all know the refreshing, life-giving feel of a cool breeze on our skin; how it renews body and spirit alike. I could recount for you the many splendours of cool air, but I won’t. Today’s post focuses on an oft-neglected benefit of cool air that, frankly, puts all its other, more obvious charms to utter shame.

We’ve probably all heard some version of the story involving a bush pilot in the Amazon/Congo/Australian Outback/Sumatran jungle/Camden, NJ who swears he saw a snake swallow a cow/water buffalo/bouncer — whole. I’ve never put much stock into such stories. For no other reason, really, than that bush pilots are notoriously unreliable people — blackguards and knaves, the lot of them. That and because if there were snakes that big, one of them would have killed Jon Voight by now.

But there was a time when giant snakes slithered their way across the earth. Snakes so big their midsections would be three or four feet in diameter. Such monsters could easily swallow a cow — and much larger things — whole. Jon Voight wouldn’t stand a chance. And neither would the rest of us.

A life-size papier-mâché replica of a baby prehistoric demon-snake.

Many people like to have pythons and boa constrictors as novelty pets. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it’s because it gives people a taste of danger without any of the nasty drawbacks like injury and death. Pythons and boas are big enough to kill us, but just a bit too small to bother. We wouldn’t quite fit inside. But if the monster snakes of primordial earth were still around, we’d make a tasty treat. Fortunately for us, snakes have gotten much, much smaller since then.

And to what do we owe a debt of eternal gratitude for ridding the world of voracious dino-snakes? Who is this unknown benefactor of the human race? This shrinker of snakes, this defender of Jon Voight.

Cool air.

Angelina Jolie's dad (somehow). Pre-death-by-snake.

Snakes, we all know (especially you, android), are cold-blooded. Cold-blooded animals can’t regulate their own body heat like mammals can. That’s why lizards are always hiding in the shade and then sunning themselves on rocks. It’s how they keep themselves from hypothermia or overheating. The bigger a reptile gets, the higher the ambient temperature it needs to keep its body temperature at a livable level. For reptiles to be as large as they once were, as in the case of dinosaurs and snakes the size of pine trees, the overall temperature of the earth would have to be much higher than it is now. And so it once was, but it has cooled down a lot since reptiles ruled the earth. It’s the very coolness of the air that is keeping reptiles from getting as large as they once were.

That’s why the farther north one goes in the Northern hemisphere, the smaller the reptiles get. It’s also why all those stories about giant snakes swallowing large livestock come out of tropical climes, not the remote forests of Alaska or Tibet, for example.

In short, the only thing keeping you, me, and everyone you love from a painful, slow death in the belly of a slithering behemoth monster-snake is cool, refreshing air. That just makes me want to breathe in its breezy freshness all the more deeply.

And we’d better all hope and pray there’s nothing to this global warming thing, or else Jon Voight’s days are numbered. And while that might not sound all that bad, allow me to remind you that in spite of the full force of reptilian rage being unleashed against her, J-Lo survives. I don’t know about you, but if I have to live in a world where J-Lo survives, I’d prefer it to be one not dominated by predatory über-snakes.

Our future if we take this global warming thing lying down.

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[i] That makes five.

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The Binturong

Chances are you don’t know what a binturong is, and that’s exactly how they like it. The binturong is nature’s reclusive, creepy curmudgeon who lives down the street in the house with all of the junk piled out front who only comes out of his house to pick up the paper and scare the local kids. The binturong isn’t elusive because it’s endangered (because it isn’t) or because it’s stealthy (because it isn’t), but because it just doesn’t like other animals or people. It wants to be left alone so it can nurse both its aching war wound and its seething bitterness. And it would thank you very much to stay the heck off its lawn and let it live its own life in peace.

So jealous is the binturong of its own privacy that everything about this creature is designed to mislead and misinform so that, hopefully, no one will ever find it.

This binturong is just a cub and yet it already appears to be smoking.

Starting with its name, binturong is Malay for “bear cat” even though it is neither a bear nor a cat. If its name doesn’t confuse zealous girl scouts and Census Bureau volunteers enough to keep them looking for bears and/or cats and away from its front door, there is yet another layer of deception hidden within the binturong’s monicker. In Malay bear-cat is the word for binturong, but in Chinese it’s the word for panda. And it just so happens that the binturong is native to China just like the panda. This is no accident. The binturong is pretty much banking on more than a few pandas being snagged in a case of mistaken identity.

If a binturong isn’t a bear or a cat, what is it? It’s a relative of the civet and the genet. And what in the name of great Caesar’s ghost are civets and genets? Exactly. No one’s really sure. And I mean no one. If I had to describe either a civet or a genet, I would say it looks like the cross between a bear and a cat. Seriously.

A civet

And that’s the brilliance of the binturong’s defense techniques. If someone is bent on selling the binturong a subscription to Viverrid Monthly, or killing it and selling its meat and fur at a market, they would be sent around in circles until they gave up. If a person started looking for a binturong based on its name, they’d end up knocking on the door of every bear or cat in the phone book until they might eventually stumble upon a civet or a genet instead. If they realized they’d been duped and they tried to figure out what the heck a civer or a genet is, they’d eventually end up right back at bears and cats.

Eventually, though, a binturong needs to drive to the local gas-n-go to grab another 40 ounce and a pack of smokes. And every once in a while, one of them gets caught and taken to a zoo. The binturong isn’t a dangerous animal when considered on the grand scale of dangerous animals – with bears and dolphins at the most dangerous extreme, and pandas and sugar gliders on the other. Any danger a binturong poses isn’t because it’s fierce as much as because it’s just plain ticked off. Binturongs are even known to pace around cages in zoos angrily grunting to themselves.[i] The look on a captured binturong’s face also resembles less a deer in headlights and more Nick Nolte’s mugshot.

A binturong's mugshot

Nick Nolte's mugshot

The best part about the binturong is also the fakest sounding part: the binturong smells like popcorn; like real, buttered popcorn. And I more than half suspect it’s nature’s way of making sure the binturong can’t be too much of a recluse. The fact that nature’s crankiest loner smells so huggably delicious is entirely fitting. If movies and TV have taught me anything at all besides crime pays and only hot people[ii] crash on islands, it’s that curmudgeons might have a tough exterior, but they’re all lovable softies on the inside. You see, the binturong isn’t a bad or evil creature by any means. It’s not a fierce man eater. It just projects an image of wanting to be left alone when in truth this is only because it doesn’t know how to reach out and be friends. But God has caused this creature to smell like buttered popcorn as a sign of the golden, gooey heart that beats within its off-putting, red eyed exterior.


[i] It’s really true. They do.

[ii] And the occasional fat guy.

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Having 200 Views

One of the most significant moments of my life occurred while I was in university.

I went to a large, urban university. At the time there were almost 40,000 students on one campus, and we were located in Toronto, a city of 3 million people. Because of this and because of how modern my school was, there wasn’t very much green to be found on campus. It was all concrete, sidewalks, statues and steel. There were the occasional clusters of trees that were quickly sat under by weary undergrads in the few short weeks each year when the weather was temperate enough for anyone to be outside; but it was by no means what one would call a beautiful or a natural-looking campus.

I should also explain that in that part of Ontario there are no grey or red squirrels, or at least in the years I was there I never saw any. All of the squirrels I ever saw were black. We didn’t have black squirrels in any of the places I grew up, so it was an unpleasant change to move to Toronto and find that’s all they had. Compared to their red and grey cousins, black squirrels are small — about half the size of grey squirrels – and evil looking. Truth be told, I didn’t trust them. Squirrels can also stand on their hind legs, after all.

One day I was walking back to my dorm via the fine arts college. There existed between the dorm of this college and my own a little walkway lined with trees. It was one of the most pleasant corners of the campus where I could listen to the breeze in the trees, hear some birds sing and feel like I was connecting with nature, even if only for two or three minutes. At the end of this sidwalk was a short staircase down to my dorm. As I descended the staircase on this particular day, I suddenly halted. Because there, across from me, perched atop a trash can was a grey squirrel. The only grey squirrel I had seen in three years. He was a huge squirrel, as well. Easily twice the size of other grey squirrels.

I stared at him in wonder. And then, he looked at me. Our eyes locked for what was probably only two or three seconds, but felt like an hour. This squirrel was no regular squirrel. He had such wisdom, such kindness in his eyes. I almost imagine his eyes twinkled at me, giving the impression of a wink. I like to think this was his way of blessing me. And then, he broke his gaze. The world, which almost seemed to disappear in that moment, came back in around me.

And I knew — like someone knows they are loved by another, or like a girl knows she’s become a woman — that I had just met the King of the Squirrels.

I have never been the same since.

An artist's rendition of His Royal Highness

This moment, gentle reader, is nearly as awesome an experience as that day when I met the King of the Squirrels. And I doubt I would be here had he not blessed me as he did. So I dedicate this small milestone to the King of the Squirrels, may he live long and rule in wisdom .And to you, dear reader, for staying with me these past few months. Here’s to many more years of awesome-compendilating.

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