Monday, 28 March 2011

Little Green Bee-eaters (Merops orientalis) sandbathing, Gujarat Province, India. Picture by J. M. Garg. This image has a creative commons attribution 3.0 licence.

The Week, The Liben Lark and Using Snail Slime to Treat Wrinkles

Hi. Welcome (back) to Weirdbeautiful.

Quote of the week this week is from "The Week" the news-recapping magazine-

"Until last week, I'd never heard of the Liben lark, a diminutive songbird living in a remote corner of Southern Ethiopea, but its fate, according to the naturalist Michael McCarthy may mark "a milestone in our destruction of the planet". For there are now fewer than 100 Liben larks left and it's very likely that within five years, there'll be none....the Liben lark is set to become the first bird from Africa to go extinct in recorded history. McCarthy guesses that some 200 species of birds have disappeared over the last 500 years, from the dodo to the great auk. But mainland Africa is so vast and robust that "at least in ornithological terms, it has been able to soak up the punishment [that] we humans have increasingly inflicted on its ecosystems."....A week ago, the Ethiopean ambassador to London (sic) was presented with a cheque for £242,000 raised by last year's British Birdwatching Fair in Rutland, to fund general conservation work on the Liben plain...."
-Jolyon Connell published in The Week, 19th March 2011)

The Liben lark is also known as the Sidamo Lark, Heteromirafra sidamoensis. You can find out more about it [HERE].

Today's other link is both weird and- potentially beautiful- the use of Snail slime
as an anti-wrinkle cream.... Now admittedly, this was published in a tabloid newspaper, so I make no guarantees about its accuracy or truthfulness, but it is an interesting story-

Monday, 14 March 2011

Science Communication, CNN and the Fukushima power plant incident

Hi. Welcome (back) to Weirdbeautiful

Today's first link is about the nuclear incident in Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan. The reason I am posting this particular news piece is that it is a beautiful example of really good science communication. In Britain, the tv news has been attacked/lampooned several recently for its over-simplification of technical stories and for patronising its viewers; this applies to economic and political stories but especially to science stories. This is CNN's take on the Fukishima incident- the news reader paraphrases the expert's oppinions so perfectly it is -well- just a beautiful example of really good science communication-

Hydrogen explosion, Fukushima Daiichi Power plant, Japan, picture from Ctv, Winnipeg (licence details [here])

You can find wikipedia's coverage of the Fukushima incidents here-

For comparison it is interesting to look at the corresponding articles on the Three Mile Island Accident-

the Windscale Fire*-

and the more severe Chernobyl accident-

Chernobyl nuclear reactor, as seen from Pripyat, public domain image by Jason Minshull

*I should probably mention that there are one or two minor problems with the Wikipedia Windscale fire article- it states that "the fire has been described as the worst reactor accident until Three Mile Island in 1979. Epidemiological estimates put the number of additional cancers caused by the Three Mile Island accident at not more than one; only Chernobyl produced immediate casualties"- this and especially its implication that Windscale did not result in additional cancer cases is arguable. Earlier in the same article, the following sentence appears "It had previously been estimated that the incident caused 200 additional cancer cases, although this figure has recently been revised upwards to 240.". In other words, Windscale did lead to an increase in cancer incidence, Three Mile Island did not. This contradicts the idea that Windscale was less severe than Three Mile Island.

In 2001, The Scientific Illustrator Cornelia Hesse-Hornegger published a really great book looking at the effects of radiation on insect populations in various areas. It is called "Heteroptera: the beautiful and the Other, or Images of a Mutating World"
and its central argument is that even supposedly sub-clinical/ non-significant levels of radioactivity do produce noticeable increases in mutations in living creatures. The book is not scientifically rigourous- in its current state, it would certainly not stand up to scientific peer review, but that is not really its objective. As it stands, there is not enough evidence for the book's central idea, but it does raise some very interesting questions. Hesse-Honegger may well be right - I would be very interested indeed to see it thoroughly investigated. The book has other attributes, however, and not just the stunning illustrations it contains; the accounts of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident it relates are particularly interesting. Local people described feeling and intense and sudden burning sensation on their skin, like sunburn, and tasting a metallic taste in their mouths as the radiation reached them. This strange taste associated with radioactive elements is not unusual- the chemist Louis Slotin described experiencing a bitter taste in his mouth (and had a strong burning feeling in his left hand), during the nuclear accident that later killed him.

I confess to having a (possibly macabre) fascination with nuclear physics, nuclear accidents and radiation: the science behind it is really interesting, complex and subtle. Partly for this reason, it took a while before the events at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were fully understood. In due course, we -the world public- will, no doubt, discover exactly what is occuring at this very moment in the Fukushima nuclear power plant. For the sake of Japan's people and ecosystems, we can only hope that the plant's current problems are safely resolved.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Romulus Whitaker

Earlier this week, I had the pleaure of interviewing (e-interviewing in this case) the Indian conservationalist and herpteologist Romulus Whitaker. Whenever I interview people, I take some time to read about their career and track down at least the abstracts, and often the full texts of their publications. In this case, I came across this article from 1994 about Romulus Whitaker by his (then) wife Zai Whitaker-
"I married a croc man"

It's a nice piece of science writing and an insight into the enviably eccentric life that a career in biology can bring.

Today, Rom is perhaps best known for his work with the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station: a fascinating-sounding place that combines research, conservation and public educational roles.

The interview will appear in the next issue of "Practical Reptile Keeping" magazine (pub: Kelsey).

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Banana Slugs, Freaky Phenomena and Fake-Tongue Lice

Good morning and Welcome (back) to Weirdbeautiful.

Things have been a little quiet on this blog for the past couple of weeks because I have been busy writing a new book and finishing off a coffee-table book of botanical photographs. The new book- "Demons and Jellyfish" is an anecdotal popular science book about the 10 years I spent studying animals across 19 countries and 4 continents. It is- loosely- written in the style of Dan Walsh/Gervasse Phinn/ David Feinberg/ David Sedaris et al. The photobook is a short coffee-table book called "Where Flowers Bloom". It is a mixture of calming pictures and loosely philosophical quotes by famous people- mostly about relaxation, flowers, happiness and life in general. I will post more information about both books on this blog when they are finished/ published, respectively*.

One of the creatures that comes up, in the "Demons and Jellyfish" book, in the chapter on California, is the Banana slug, Ariolimax spp. -the lurid yellow mollusc in the picture above. This strange beast is actually the mascot of the University of California in Santa Cruz. This morning, I was given a copy of "Freaky Phenomena" by Joel Levy; it is probably aimed at older children and teenagers, but it is a fairly entertaining read; one of the book's claims is that the slime of the banana slug tastes of bananas. I have no idea if this is true or not. It seems more likely that the creature's name comes from its colouration, but, then again, the taste theory, sounds like the kind of thing that drunk students would have investigated.... In any case, we do know that the slime contains pheremones that attract other slugs for mating purposes. There's more on the banana slug [here]

One of the other amusing (or disturbing, at any rate) entries in the "Freaky Phenomena " book is this section on the fake tongue louse, Cymothoa exigua:

"[The] fake tongue a parasite that lives in the rose snapper fish. It gets into its host's mouth, eats away the tongue and then sits in its place, pretending to be the fish's own tongue and feeding on particles of food the fish catches."

There was an image of a fake tongue louse by Matthew R. Gilligan here -this image was reproduced from WIKIPEDIA, WHERE IT WAS LISTED AS A PUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGE. Unbeknown to me, this image was incorrectly listed and has now (late September 2011) been flagged on wikipedia as not public domain. Rather than notifying me of this fact, somebody has complained about this image being posted here. You might have thought that the complainant would have had the common good manners of assuming good faith on my part and/or informing me of the wikipedia mistake, before a) before casting aspersions in my direction and b) rushing to report this blog to the DCMA. You might assume that, but, unfortunately, you would be giving him/her too much credit, whoever he/she is. I enjoy giving good free publicity to people doing nice work and to companies selling that work, so it is always a shame when that is snubbed.

Wikipedia offers some more information on the fake tongue louse-

"This parasite enters through the gills, and then attaches itself at the base of the spotted rose snapper's (Lutjanus guttatus) tongue. It extracts blood through the claws on its front, causing the tongue to atrophy from lack of blood. The parasite then replaces the fish's tongue by attaching its own body to the muscles of the tongue stub. The fish is able to use the parasite just like a normal tongue. It appears that the parasite does not cause any other damage to the host fish. Once C. exigua replaces the tongue, some feed on the host's blood and many others feed on fish mucus. This is the only known case of a parasite functionally replacing a host organ." (-full article [here])

I'd like to link to the original scientific paper that first described this behaviour, but, unfortunately, it is held by JStore, who sell the rights to view the article. The reference is "Tongue Replacement in a Marine Fish (Lutjanus guttatus) by a Parasitic Isopod" by Richard C. Brusca and Matthew R. Gilligan and it was published in "Copeia" Vol. 1983, No. 3 (Aug. 16, 1983), pp. 813-816


*If you want advance notification, you can join the book notification mailing list by sending an e mail to with the title of the book you want information on in the subject line. Your e mail will not be passed on or sold to third parties or otherwise abused: we hate spam as much as you do.