Wednesday, September 21, 2011 1:16 PM
This post originally appeared at Care2.com.
Using human stem cells to reproduce highly specialized cells such as blood, nerve or muscle cells has been the source of much controversy because of the moral and ethical issues involved.
But what about using non-human stem cells to save endangered species?
For the first time ever, cells from the highly endangered white rhino (pictured above) and drill (an African primate) were transformed into stem cells that could hold the key to the future of their respective species.
The procedure, detailed in a recently published edition of Nature Methods, theorizes that induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) may eventually facilitate reintroduction of genetic material into breeding populations.
In endangered populations, there are too few reproductively capable animals to maintain adequate genetic diversity. Even when these species are kept in protective environments, there’s no guarantee that males and females will mate, or that the offspring will survive.
Because of this, the researchers could not use stem cells from fertilized embryos. Instead, stem cells were created by “re-programming” frozen skin cells (ARKive).
That’s why the success of this experiment is so significant.
In addition to medicinal applications, the stem cells could also potentially be used to make eggs and sperm, which could be used to create “test-tube” offspring of white rhinos, drills and other endangered species. If appropriate cells are preserved now, even species that go extinct in the next few years might not be lost forever.
But the technique is far from perfected, and quite expensive. Many experts say that it should only be thought of as a complement to conservation, not an alternative
“The prospects for using these techniques for continuing the genetic lineages of the last few individuals of a species will be a last-ditch effort, after we have failed to protect the species in earlier, simpler, cheaper, and more effective ways,” said Robert Lacy, a conservation scientist at the Chicago Zoological Society.
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Wednesday, September 14, 2011 11:08 AM
If you know even a little bit about the natural world, you’ll find Aelian’s On the Nature of Animals quite ridiculous. Here are some of the “facts” presented in the newly released first English translation of this ancient bestiary, written by a Roman-empire scribe named Aelian in the first century C.E.:
When cranes squawk, they bring on rain showers. So it is said—and also, that cranes have some sort of power which arouses women and causes them to dispense sexual favors. I take this at the word of those who have seen it happen.
The horned ray is born in mud. It is very small at birth, but it grows to a huge size. Its belly is white; its back, head, and sides are inky black. Its mouth, though, is small, and you cannot see its teeth. It is very long and flat. It eats great quantities of fish, but its favorite food is human flesh. It has little strength, but its size gives it courage. When it sees a man swimming or diving, it rises to the surface, arches its back, and slams down on him with all its might, extending its length over the unfortunate man like a roof and keeping him from rising to breathe. The man dies, and the ray greedily enjoys its feast.
Boeotia has no moles. They do not enter from the neighboring province of Leabadeia, and if one arrives by accident it dies.
The octopus is greedy, sneaky, and voracious, and it will eat anything. It is probably the most omnivorous creature in the sea. Here is the proof: in times of hunger, it will eat one of its own tentacles, thus making up for a lack of prey. When better times come, it grows back the missing limb. Nature thus gives it a ready meal in moments of want.
At first, reading On the Nature of Animals provides a smug sense of amusement, like encountering a modern conservative fundamentalist tract on creationism or climate: utterly at odds with the findings of post-Enlightenment science, driven more by whimsy than logic, and with an occasionally breathtaking unbelievability.
But of course, it’s wholly unfair for me to toss a first-century author in with the anti-science leaders of the 21st century U.S. Republican Party: After all, Aelian “knew as much as any person of his day about animals,” writes the book’s translator Greg McNamee in his introduction, and likely relied on the best sources he could find. The anti-science modern conservative, on the other hand, deliberately overlooks centuries of established science in order to reach back to a simpler, more ignorant time for politically convenient “truths.”
Besides, even Aelian didn’t seem to believe all his own bullshit, to use a modern English colloquialism. He often took care to attribute his more outlandish “facts” to observers, and he sometime flat-out undercut them: “the Egyptians say—though I don’t believe them for a minute—that … .”
Ultimately, McNamee sees Aelian as being far before his time in crediting mere beasts with possessing qualities usually seen as human:
Often we find these entries amusing, and rightly so. Often we find them outlandish, foolish, primitive. Yet I suspect that not so long from now—if there is a not so long from now for us busily habitat-devouring humans—scientists will wonder at our own naivete and arrogance, at the thought that language, emotion, and even reason are gifts of humans alone.
Source: On the Nature of Animals
Friday, July 01, 2011 1:48 PM
E.B. White is one of my favorite nature writers who’s not necessarily known as a nature writer. His classic essay collection One Man’s Meat, chronicling his life on a Maine farm, sits on my bookshelf near Muir, Lopez, and Leopold for its concise elegance in detailing a life lived close to the land.
A large part of that life, Michael Sims reminds us in The Chronicle Review, was White’s relationship with creatures. Sims, the author of a new book on White’s “eccentric life in nature” that led to the creation of the children’s classic Charlotte’s Web, found during his research that “nothing else about [White] caught my own imagination more than his attitude toward animals.”
In everyday life, White saw animals with the view of a farmer and an amateur naturalist. He knew how to increase egg production among his chickens, how to dock a lamb's tail, how to give a pig an enema. Yet, apparently without a flicker of what a psychologist would call cognitive dissonance, he also saw animals as personality-rich companions on his own fanciful journey. He interpreted a Boston terrier’s bark as, “I’m in love and I’m going crazy." When his henhouse’s brooder stove burned itself out, he said he found the chicks “standing round with their collars turned up, blowing on their hands and looking like a snow-removal gang under the El on a bitter winter’s midnight.” Of his legendarily stubborn dachshund, Fred, White wrote, “And when I answer his peremptory scratch at the door and hold the door open for him to walk through, he stops in the middle and lights a cigarette, just to hold me up.”
The talking animals in White’s children’s books—the spider Charlotte, the mouse Stuart Little, a family of swans in The Trumpet of the Swan—were precursors to today’s pop-culture “babel of talking animals,” writes Sims, but to accuse White of mere anthropomorphism for its own sake, as Paul Theroux once did, is to miss the point:
I disagree that his anthropomorphism resulted in a deficiency of observation. I think that, contrary to Theroux’s indictment, for White personification was a form of empathy—his way of bridging the gap between self and other—that made him more aware of other creatures’ reality, not less.
White researched animal behavior intensely and incorporated natural science facts into his writing. Moreover, Sims contends, animal characters allowed White to convey more than he himself could sometimes muster, especially when he sat down to pen Charlotte’s Web, “a seemingly innocent tale of talking animals that, paradoxically, would be haunted by mortality’s scythe from the very first sentence”:
To write about the most important issues in his life, this emotionally complex and timid man, who had turned 50 before he dived into Charlotte’s Web, returned to the voice that had served him in the past. He hid behind animals, his favorite people.
Read more articles on our relationships with animals in the current issue of Utne Reader.
Source: The Chronicle Review
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Tuesday, June 21, 2011 2:07 PM
The reintroduction of wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains has gotten caught up in a culture war, James William Gibson reports in Earth Island Journal—and the controversy is not even necessarily all about the wolves. It’s about the big, bad government keeping a good man down. Writes Gibson:
For decades, the Rocky Mountain states have been the center of an extreme right-wing culture that celebrates the image of man as “warrior,” recognizes only local and state governance as legitimate, and advocates resistance—even armed resistance—against the federal government. To members of this culture, wolf reintroduction became a galvanizing symbol of perceived assaults on their personal freedom. Resistance was imperative. But whereas attacking the federal government could lead to prison, killing wolves was a political goal within reach—something the individual warrior could do. So advocating for the killing of wolves became a proxy battle, an organizing tool to reach out to all those angry about environmental regulations, gun laws, and public land policies. Since the early 2000s, and with increasing virulence since 2009, anti-wolf activists have promoted the image of wolves as demons—disease-ridden, dangerous, and foreign.
Gibson describes how Western anti-wolf forces have operated through misinformation, threats, and intimidation, including anonymous acts such as mailing pictures of dead wolf pups to pro-wolf advocates. Such tactics, he says, have virtually silenced local wolf advocates, allowing wolf haters to portray the issue as a locals-versus-outsiders battle.
Though Gibson’s story focuses on the West, some Midwestern states are grappling with many of the same wolf-management issues, apparently in a less politically and personally charged atmosphere. Just last week, public hearings in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and Marquette, Michigan, attracted hundreds of people, nearly all of them in favor of removing federal endangered species protections for wolves—a move already made in five Northern Rockies states and now being considered in the Great Lakes region.
To judge from limited news accounts of these two wolf hearings, they were not especially contentious or charged: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Minnesota and Michigan departments of natural resources, and most of the attendees agreed that wolves have recovered to the point where they can be managed to avoid conflicts between wolves and humans. Absent the polarizing rhetoric and partisan posturing, it appears that perhaps reason can rule the day in some areas.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comments on the Great Lakes region wolf proposal through July 5.
Source: Earth Island Journal, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
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Wednesday, March 02, 2011 11:49 AM
Scientists who study wild animals have long faced a dilemma: In order to study their subjects, they must get very close to the animals, sometimes even capturing or tranquilizing them to do diagnostics or attach a tag or radio transmitter. And this can harm the animal.
Many of these measures yield valuable information. For instance, tagging birds with leg bands is a long established tool in assessing and tracking bird populations, and radio telemetry and satellite tracking are turning up rich data on all sorts of sea and land animals. But sometimes the scientists’ interventions can significantly affect the animals—even killing them—and there’s long been tension between animal advocates and wildlife researchers over the ethics of this type of research. Sometimes there’s even disagreement among scientists themselves.
Last month, for instance, a scientist announced that his long-running study found that flipper bands, widely used to study all sorts of penguins, are harmful to king penguins. Penguins wearing the bands produced fewer chicks and were more likely to die than were penguins with no bands, reports Science magazine.
The scientist who did the study, Yvon la Maho, was prompted by long-standing concerns in the science community about the flipper bands’ effects, as well as a host of inconclusive or contradictory studies on the subject. His finding has only strengthened his view that scientists should use an alternative: tiny RFID tags that are injected under the animals’ skin.
I imagine that some animal advocates find this an unsatisfactory alternative: After all, you’re still catching, restraining, and forcibly injecting a man-made object into the bird’s body. And one marine ecologist tells Science that RFID chips can’t do everything that banding can do. But perhaps a few researchers who can move to RFID tags will do so, thus sparing some king penguins the most unroyal indignity of suffering and even dying for science.
Meanwhile, ethical dilemmas will only grow as technology allows more ways to tap animals in to our data-driven world. See Science News for a striking photo of an elephant seal with a satellite transmitter or “tag” glued to its head with epoxy. As the story points out, scientists are thrilled that these transmitters are helping them to map the ocean floor—but I don’t suspect this creature is particularly excited to be a part of the project. The researchers behind the seal-tagging tell the Santa Cruz Sentinel that the devices will be shed along with the animal’s fur during annual molting.
For a scientists’-eye view of how tagged ocean predators—including elephant seals—are helping us learn more about sea life, see the website of TOPP, Tagging of Pacific Predators.
Science, Science News, Santa Cruz Sentinel, Tagging of Pacific Predators
Public domain image from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association photo library, Ends of the Earth collection.
Tuesday, January 04, 2011 2:15 PM
In a recent post, Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman highlighted the increasingly popular occurrence of “canned hunts,” a pay-to-shoot experience, where hunters kill tame animals in enclosed areas. The practice is disturbing to anyone who knows hunters who have respect for the act of hunting and for the animals they kill. Writing for Vermont’s Local Banquet, Robert F. Smith counts himself among such hunters. His exploration into why he hunts is reverent and voices like his are important when you see videos like the one Keith posted, where pseudo-hunters get some sort of thrill out of killing what amount to large pets. “[W]hy hunt?” Smith asks,
Hunting is often portrayed as barbaric and cruel, and hunters are presented as ignorant yahoos with a blood lust… . Some of the televised hunting shows do little to help that image, with their canned hunts on fenced-in game ranches where hunters are driven to a stand and then pick and shoot one of dozens of trophy bucks that are drawn in to special feeding stations. I don’t know that kind of hunting… .
A hunter taps into the very core of what we are as a species. We’re the product of 2 million years of evolution as a genus, a branch off the australopithicenes, and about 400,000 years as the distinct species homo sapiens. We evolved as hunters, and have become the most effective, most adaptable and successful predators on the planet.
Hunters like Smith are of the type I grew up with, so his logic and reasoning are familiar to me. He does take the discussion a step further, though, arguing that the hunter/gatherer system that predated agriculture led to equality, while the farms and labor it takes to keep them up has led us to the class system we find today:
Hunting a deer or antelope or harvesting wild berries or nuts is only a few hours of intensive work for several days’ worth of food, while raising, feeding, watering, and protecting a herd of sheep or goats, or planting, cultivating, and harvesting a field of grain, is unending labor. While the tribal system of hunter/gatherers led to equality and leisure time, agriculture brought in slavery, religion, caste and class systems, and the plight of poor peasants and field workers that continues today around the world.
Ultimately, though, the answer to the question “Why hunt” is elemental for Smith. It’s who we are; it’s part of what makes us human: “Hunting is an ancient dance as old as life itself, written into the very core of what we are as humans.”
Source: Vermont’s Local Banquet
Image by Benimoto, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, November 30, 2010 12:04 PM
If hunting is largely about the thrill of the chase, “canned hunts” don’t offer much opportunity for thrill: In these increasingly popular pay-to-shoot events, hunters kill tame or semi-tame animals that have been put in enclosures. Audubon columnist Ted Williams describes the phenomenon in “Real Hunters Don’t Shoot Pets” in the magazine’s November-December issue:
Canned hunts are great for folks on tight schedules or who lack energy or outdoor skills. Microchip transponder implants for game not immediately visible are available for the [game farm] proprietor whose clients are on really tight schedules. And because trophies are plied with drugs, minerals, vitamins, specially processed feeds, and sometimes growth hormones, they are way bigger than anything available in the wild. Often the animals have names, and you pay in advance for the one you’d like to kill, selecting your trophy from a photo or directly from its cage.
Canned hunts are hardly new. Williams first wrote about them for Audubon in 1992, but he notes that they have grown more popular, and their critics increasingly include not just animal-rights advocates but also ethical hunters who consider fair chase essential to the sport and its reputation.
Because the general public has scant understanding of canned hunting, it frequently doesn’t differentiate it from real hunting. “If we don’t protect our image, we may not have a heritage,” says the Colorado Wildlife Federation’s treasurer and board member, Kent Ingram, a leader in the recent well-fought but failed battle to ban canned hunts in the state.
Other states have banned them, namely Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming. In 2009, Vermont and Tennessee banned new canned mammal hunts but allowed existing ones to keep operating. In November, North Dakotans voted down a proposed law to ban canned mammal hunts.
Of course, bans without firm enforcement and prosecution don’t mean much, as one Minnesota incident demonstrates. Troy Gentry of the country duo Montgomery Gentry shot a docile captive bear named Cubby at the Minnesota Wildlife Connection game farm in 2004, and as the online activist platform Change.org reports:
Gentry was charged with a felony but pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor of falsely registering the tag from the hunt. He was fined $15,000 and not allowed to hunt in Minnesota for five years. The taxidermied body of Cubby and the bow used to kill Cubby were taken from Gentry.
This isn’t the first time Minnesota Wildlife Connection’s owner Lee Greenly has been in trouble with the law. He has several previous felony charges for wildlife-related crimes under his belt, but avoided convictions. For his role in Cubby’s death, Greenly pleaded guilty to two felony charges—yet somehow walked away with only probation.
To see what canned hunting looks like, check out the following two-part video of Gentry’s bear kill. It was posted on YouTube last month after being obtained by the animal-rights group Showing Animals Respect and Kindness in a three-year lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The narrator’s snide tone is understandable but unnecessary, since the images pretty clearly speak for themselves:
Friday, October 15, 2010 10:52 AM
It’s easy to get discouraged about the state of the environment, but the book A Reenchanted World by James William Gibson, published this spring in paperback, offers some succor to despairing souls.
Gibson meticulously builds a case that we are in the midst of “a wave of spiritual interest in nature,” a cultural shift that finds us treasuring human-animal connections, untrammeled landscapes, and all of nature’s vast wonder in our films, books, media, and personal lives. Writes Gibson:
The current change is much broader, deeper, and more varied than what has come before. Virtually every part of contemporary culture, from the highest realms of science, theology, art, and literature to the mundane world of commercial television programming, has experienced its revolutionary influence. … The ultimate goal of this sweeping change, which I call “the culture of enchantment,” is nothing less than the reinvestment of nature with spirit. Flatly rejecting modernity’s reduction of animals, plants, places, and natural forces to either matter or utilitarian resource, the culture of enchantment attempts to make nature sacred once again. …
People respond to the culture of enchantment because it offers them something they need (and cannot find elsewhere in consumerist America): transcendence, a sense of mystery and meaning, glimpses of a numinous world beyond our own. The spiritual connections made to animals and landscapes almost invariably lead—often intentionally, sometimes not—to a new relationship to nature in general. And nature perceived as “sacred” is allowed to exist on its own terms, for its own sake, valuable simply because it is there.
Source: A Reenchanted World
Image by suburbanbloke, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, March 22, 2010 11:15 AM
Tucked away in the new issue of Small Farmer’s Journal, among discussions of sprouted horse feed and asparagus beetles, is Vermont farmer Suzanne Lupien’s lovely remembrance of Nell, “the funniest, happiest cow that ever lived.”
What a hard day to have to say goodbye to that gem of a Jersey I’d milked for 12 years, enjoying her marvelous personality as well as her creamy yellow milk. I hand-milk my six or eight cows, and have come to value the time spent by their sides on the milk stool. Especially Nell! Her personality was so exuberant and fun, and so easy to read!
Nell was something of a rescue animal, as Lupien explains—injured, emaciated, a “little waif of a cow” when she joined Lupien’s small farm—but she flourished, calved, produced wheel upon wheel of top-of-the-line camembert, and lived to be 19. All with a great deal of personality, too:
Not only was she as fit as a fat fiddle, she was HAPPY, and she never stopped expressing her enjoyment of and gratitude for all the good that came her way. Good hay! Apples and pumpkins! Rearing her own calf! Wonderful brushings! Fields and woods! Plus she had the cutest Jersey face and everyone loved her.
Open House potluck? She’d hone right in on the bowl of corn chips and suck them down before you could think of intercepting. Bread making in the outdoor oven? She knew when it was Friday and she’d sashay over to the bread table and inhale 20 lb. of bread dough and any warm loaves of bread stacked in baskets for the farmers market. Opportunities and ideas sprang up in her mind as fast as dandelions in a field.
You know how a cow behaves in spring finding herself in a lush green field for the first time? Twirling and jumping? She was the Ginger Rogers of the Fields. And when she was younger she didn’t limit her performances to that initial turnout day—she did it anytime. It was impossible not to notice her exuberance, her glee: always coming when I called her, always ready for anything.
Lupien’s appreciation of her funny, spunky cow is quite beautiful, the sort of lively gem I love finding in Small Farmer’s Journal, an oversized quarterly in which practical advice shares space with personal experiences like Lupien’s.
Goodbye, dear Nell. Thanks for being the best four-legged friend I’ve ever had! I’ve got three lovely Jerseys to milk still, but it will never be the same without you.
Source: Small Farmer’s Journal (article not available online)
Monday, February 22, 2010 11:53 AM
According to Natural History, animal species rarely go out of their way to save one another from risky or dangerous situations. In the animal kingdom, these life-saving interventions have only been observed among dolphins, capuchin monkeys and ants. Recently, however, research biologists Robert L. Pitman and John W. Durban witnessed a remarkable act of interspecies compassion in Arctic waters. On two separate occasions they found humpback whales acting as body guards for seals under killer whale attack. In one instance, a humpback flipped over onto its back, scooped the threatened seal onto its belly and arched its back, lifting the seal high above the water and out of killer whale reach. It's a fascinating read.
Source: Natural History
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Wednesday, September 23, 2009 9:33 AM
Mark Twain wasn’t just a riverboat pilot, a raconteur, a mustache pioneer, and one of the great early American celebrity-authors: He was also an animal rights activist. The new Twain compilation Mark Twain’s Book of Animals (University of California Press) explores Twain’s treatment of animals —in literature and in life—throughout his career and arrives at an inescapable conclusion: He was a softie when it came to the beasts. Twain may have come to largely despise what he famously called “the damned human race,” yet he turned into a puddle of mush at the sight of a kitten.
In her introduction, editor Shelley Fisher Fishkin traces Twain’s sympathy for animals to his youth and especially to his mother, who kept a house full of cats with names like Blatherskite and Belchazar and once soundly berated a man in the street for beating his horse. Fisher Fishkin also digs up evidence that a formative experience for Twain was his shooting of a bird as a child, an act he deeply regretted. In the previously unpublished “Family Sketch,” he writes:
. . . I shot a bird that sat in a high tree, with its head tilted back, and pouring out a grateful song from an innocent heart. It toppled from its perch and came floating down limp and forlorn and fell at my feet, its song quenched and its unoffending life extinguished. I had not needed that harmless creature, I had destroyed it wantonly, and I felt all that an assassin feels, of grief and remorse when his deed comes home to him and he wishes he could undo it and have his hands and his soul clean again from accusing blood.
Fisher Fishkin goes on to follow the threads of Twain’s animal fascinations and sympathies in his writings, from his early celebrated story “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” to his “Letter to the London Anti-Vivisection Society,” which is perhaps the best known expression of his views on animal cruelty. “From 1899 until his death in 1910,” writes Fisher Fishkin, “Mark Twain lent his pen to reform efforts on both sides of the Atlantic and became the best-known American author—and, indeed, the most famous American celebrity in any field—to give outspoken, public support to agitation for animal welfare.”
Source: Mark Twain’s Book of Animals
Wednesday, July 22, 2009 2:44 PM
When we blogged about rogue taxidermist Sarina Brewer, we thought we had bumped up against the outer limits of the taxidermist universe. We were wrong. Meet WTF Taxidermy, an online community organized on Livejournal to "discuss and share photos of taxidermy at its worst—funny anatomical abominations, ridiculous eBay auctions, cheesy novelty mounts, and just plain bad taxidermy! We also want to showcase the best and most unusual taxidermy mounts, including highly realistic or imaginative mounts as well as rogue taxidermy and mythological animals."
(Thanks, Art Fag City.)
Image courtesy of
Thursday, July 02, 2009 3:13 PM
Fireworks: Who could hate them? Plenty of people, it turns out:
Chris Conway hates fireworks for their “toxic consequences to our personal and environmental health.”
Troy Patterson at Slate hates fireworks for their “pomposity, aggression, triumphalism, and hubris.”
The U.K. campaign Ban the Bang hates fireworks because “all kinds of wild and domestic animals, but also children, the elderly and those of a nervous disposition can be seriously affected by modern, excessive fireworks.”
And finally, the blogger TexasLiberal hates fireworks because they’re dangerous, there’s a drought in his area (Houston), and you ought to be reading a book instead.
Or making fireworks out of yarn.
Happy Fourth of July. Kaboom!
Sources: Toxic Fireworks, Slate, Ban the Bang, TexasLiberal, Craft
Image courtesy of Chris Conway.
Friday, June 12, 2009 1:30 PM
Some people never leave home without their phone or wallet. Minneapolis artist Sarina Brewer never leaves home without a cooler, a hacksaw, and rubber gloves. That’s because she’s always at the ready to find road kill and other “pet casualties” to use as art subjects for her special brand of “rogue taxidermy,” which includes winged monkeys, conjoined squirrels and rabbits, and even a chicken-carp-lamb combo, Bust magazine reports.
She essentially creates fanciful, often irreverent sculptures by splicing together the bodies of various taxidermic animals, or, in other instances, transforming the creature into a freak-show mutant by adding an extra head, leg, or other body part....
Unlike traditional taxidermists, who preserve only animal hides, Brewer tries to avoid wasting the innards. As a consequence, she makes a fair amount of carcass art, which she creates by chemically treating muscle tissue before fashioning them into a whimsical pose—like a sculpture of dancing squirrel guts.
Brewer herself is fascinating, having grown up in a family so fond of their deceased pets that they relocated the remains whenever they moved. That same sense of memorializing has been a key influence in her work. The article isn’t online, but you can at least check out some of Brewer’s mutant creations in Bust's mini-mag if you scroll to pages 52-55.
Image courtesy of Sarina Brewer.
Tuesday, June 02, 2009 3:32 PM
DAPRA-funded Berkeley researchers have tricked out a beetle with tiny electrodes that allow them to control its flight, reports California. Next step: Outfitting the insect with onboard sensors that relay information back to mission control. Hello, coleopteran espionage!
This certainly isn’t the first time animals have been “pressed into military service,” the University of Berkeley alumni magazine reports. The cyborg beetle is merely the latest in a line of distinguished (also often disastrous and no doubt PETA-enraging) military critters. California did us the courtesy of a recap. Here are a couple of my tragicomic favorites:
The common gerbil. “With their unique ability to smell increased adrenaline in sweat, gerbils had been slated to detect spies and terrorists since WWII. The Israeli internal security force put gerbils to work at the Tel Aviv airport, but cancelled the project when the furry creatures implicated innocent passengers who were just anxious about flying.”
The domestic cat. “The CIA inserted a transmitter and battery pack in a cat and put a microphone in its ear and an antenna on its tail, to eavesdrop on the Soviets during the Cold War. On its first test run, the cat was run over by a taxi before reaching the intended target.”
Image by wildxplorer, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009 11:08 AM
The majestic whooping crane and the adorable polar bear tend to get plenty of attention from conservationists. Less charismatic animals, like the Choctawhatchee beach mouse (pictured left), need attention, too. In a photo essay for Audubon magazine, photographer Joel Sartore calls attention to the neglected endangered species, including insects, ugly fish, and the American crocodile. “At the heart of the story is this,” Sartore told Audubon, “Do we as a society treat the least among us with dignity and respect?”
Photo courtesy of Joel Sartore.
Monday, April 20, 2009 8:47 AM
When parents talk about the birds and the bees, it’s usually a metaphor. When scientists talk about the sex lives of animals, the conversation tends to get interesting.
Researchers recently discovered that male chimpanzees give pieces of meat to females in exchange for sex, the BBC reports. For some time, scientists hypothesized about food-for-sex deals, but previous studies tended to look for short-term, payment-on-delivery exchanges. The researchers form the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany found that such exchanges can take place over time. Researcher Cristina Gomes told the BBC that males “might share meat with a female one day, and only copulate with her a day or two later.”
The researchers found that male chimpanzees who shared food with females were able to mate twice as often as the more selfish apes. Gomes thinks the findings could give clues into human evolution, and may provide a link between “good hunting skills and reproductive success.”
Similar food-for-sex exchanges have also been observed in flies. In fact, according to National Geographic, male flies have been known to cheat the system by presenting females with worthless gifts—wrapped up to look like food—to fool females into copulation. The strategy may work in the short-term, but the National Geographic reports: “the female dance flies that received the largest nutritious gifts copulated for a significantly longer amount of time than when given either a small nutritious gift or a larger worthless one.”
Though the strategies are similar, flies tend to be more indiscriminate about their sex lives than the chimpanzees. In Green Porno, Isabella Rossellini said flies “have sex several times a day: any opportunity, any female.”
To see Rossellini’s exploration into the sexual lives of flies, watch the video.
Thursday, December 18, 2008 12:33 PM
The Encyclopedia of Life, a website that came out earlier this year and crashed almost immediately from a flood of visitors, is a “project to organize and make available via the Internet virtually all information about life present on earth.” With approximately 1.8 million known species on earth, this is a great tool for scientists and students, and it grants open access to anyone who wants to brush up on their knowledge of earth’s creatures, from seals to viruses and everything else in between.
Sounds great, right? Well, Randy Malamud, writing in The Chronicle Review (subscription or pass required), sees more going on here than an eight-eyed jumping spider, and asks if the digital nature of EOL will “encourage us to appreciate plants and animals more, or spend more time surfing online?” He suggests that the more we cite and arrange plants and animals the less we care about them in their environment—that taxonomy parallels destruction.
He also thinks the animals are out of their element, if you will, as a pin-up for each individual entry. All animals in life are affected by and play a role in their ecosystems. We should consider the role in history they play with human interaction, and their importance of place. An example he gives is Australian Aborigines' use of the imperial blue butterfly. Their host plant, the acacia, provides seeds to the natives as food and its gum as an adhesive for tool building. The butterfly then, is an integral part of the Aborigines' culture, but it's not referenced on the EOL website.
Who is classifying the animals, Malamud argues, tells you more about the human environment than the exotic outside world. "Structuring the natural world meshes with the structure of imperial power," he writes, and he quotes MIT historian Harriet Ritvo: "The classification of animals, is apt to tell us as much about the classifiers as the classified."
Any ecologist will tell you that life on earth is about ecosystems. Malamud thinks one step in the right direction for the website's success may be that “the EOL might take a cue from Facebook or Myspace for an enhanced sense of connectivity.”
Monday, March 10, 2008 5:44 PM
Like fish and chips, cell phones and cameras, James Bond’s Aston Martin and stinger missiles, if something works in Great Britain, it might work even better paired with something else. Zoo animals are the same way. Sure, they’re cute, but they’re often desperate-looking and covered in feces. Thermal cameras can help, turning spiders and lions into the Predator-style pictures, featured recently in the British newspaper Telegraph. The critters have a hyper-colored shimmer, and there isn’t a single visible clump of mussed hair. The pictures were taken by an amateur photographer, and can help the zoo’s staff understand how their animals regulate body temperature, but more importantly, they look really cool.
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