Category: Nature Factoids

old yeller poster rabies

Rabies poster child from Disney. Disney: tragically killing animals since 1957

by chelsea schuyler

The Zombie Apocalypse Was SO 131 Years Ago

rabid man

Besides agitation, hallucinations, loss of motor control, and death, rabies can also cause panic in association with water (hence the old name ‘hydrophobia’), as swallowing induces horribly painful spasms. The virus spreads through saliva from biting, so swallowing = less saliva = unpatriotic to the zombie cause.

While an excess of movies and books have been preparing us to meet an inevitable zombie apocalypse, fear not. We’ve actually been facing it for thousands of years, and are now simply in a post-apocalyptic residue phase.

Why? Because zombies are in fact tiny, itty-bitty viruses that eat brains and cause zombification, known more commonly as: rabies.

Think about it – super aggressive, no longer recognizable, frothing at the mouth, walking and moving all weird – total zombie. It even affects multiple mammals, just like I am Legend, Resident Evil, 28 Days Later, and other equally authoritative sources have shown.

Walk like a (rabid) Egyptian

Walk like a (rabid) Egyptian

Rabies is well described in writings by Egyptians dating back to 2300 B.C., but a vaccine was found in 1885.  So, slightly anticlimactically, this apocalypse has already happened, and now we’re left twitching and scarred to the tune of 55,000 people a year still getting it (mostly in Africa and Asia).

The Golden Years



But let me offer you a story of simpler times – a glorious age of “viper’s venom, crayfish eyes, and the liver of a mad dog.” The perfect witch’s brew? Why no, rabies treatments of course! Well, alternative treatments anyway. Naturally, the standard treatment was a red-hot iron at the site of the bite, which usually did nothing and the person died anyway.

This is why we all miss the old days, which was filled with dandy perks like pre-death scaldings, leeches, and blood-letting. Name an obscure animal part or barbaric practice – anything goes (went)!

But then a boring old white guy had to ruin it for everyone with ‘science’ or whatever. The story:

Rabies Cure Origin Story

Joseph Meister rabies survivor

Joseph “fiest” Meister himself

One day in October of 1885, in a town just like this one (not really), a small boy just about your age and size (if you are a 9 yr old French boy) was sent to town to fetch ingredients for his father’s bakery.

As little Joseph Meister made his way, he encountered a terrifying rabid dog that bit his hand and legs a total of 14 times. Luckily, a locksmith beat the dog away with an iron bar (locksmiths are SO handy!).

Who needs arrows and swords when you have locksmiths?

“Call the locksmith!” Takes on a whole new meaning.

The doctor came later that afternoon. You know, after the mini-zombies had had plenty of time to populate the body, establish a government, and draw up plans for a fully funded, full-scale brain takeover.

Here, let me just rabies that for you

Here, let me just rabies that for you

The doctor uselessly cauterized all 14 wounds, and left – because the horrific pain of being mauled by drooly fangs isn’t complete without the searing sensation of your own bludgeoned skin melting together. Don’t forget the lack of pain medication folks. Fun times all around!

The boy’s options at this point were a horrible slow death, or to be suffocated between mattresses – which was sometimes used to put victims out of their misery. It just gets better and better right? Simpler days…

Here, let me just mattress death that for you

Here, let me just death that for you

Luckily, rumor had it that a guy in Paris could help. Word spread to the parents, and the mangled, blistered boy was on the next bumpy wagon to the city of romance, a doubtlessly comfortable and restful trip.

Got Milk Disease?

MEANWHILE IN PARIS: people were not big fans of medical facilities – who needs science when you’ve got home visits from doctors with lava sticks at the ready?

Louis Pasteur with rabbit spine

Pasteur with the infinitely coolor science equipment of back in the day

So, scientists like Louis Pasteur had to make do with little money, but he did okay by figuring out how to prevent wine from ‘disease’ (going bad). Pasteur had suspected that a living organism was the culprit, and not a spontaneous generation of badness (the generally accepted idea).

He realized that if he heated the wine to a certain temperature he could kill it off. This procedure was passed on to milk (etc.) as well, and we now know it as ‘pasteurization’.

But because saving millions of people from botulism and the like is never enough, Louis Pasteur wanted to continue his work on little organisms and apply it to human disease.

Rabid Rabbits, Happy People

Though someone had made a smallpox vaccine, nobody really knew why it worked. Pasteur, however, was beginning to put two and two together (horrifying disease, tiny creatures (zombies)).

Louis Pasteur with rabbits

Pasteur and his hare-raising experiments. (Halloween pun – CHECK)

Pasteur grew rabies in the brains of a bunch of adorable rabbits (like you do), then killed the rabbits and dried out the tissue to ‘weaken’ the virus.

He tried out the new vaccine on dogs with much success (because when you’re already brutalizing bunnies, why not generate more compassion from the public by throwing in a few puppies?).

Enter a terrified Madame Meister and a mutilated, sickly boy. Though unlicensed to practice medicine, Pasteur was persuaded to treat the boy, and it worked. The people rejoiced, forgave his malpractice, poured money into the lab, and came from all over the world to receive the rabies treatment. ‘Institut Pasteur’ thrives to this day as a non-profit studying micro-organisms, diseases, and vaccines.

Institut Pasteur

Epic gate of which Meister became the keeper (keymaster unknown).


Happily: The boy grew up, sold the family bakery, and became the gatekeeper at the very Institute that saved his life. He married and had a couple of daughters.

Unhappily: When the Germans invaded France in 1940, Meister heard that his family had been killed in the bombings, and so committed suicide with gas. His wife and daughters returned just hours later, safe.

Nothing says Halloween like epic tragedy, eh?!

oregon rabies map

Best. Map. Ever. Fox has appealed to be removed from the legend due to lack of involvement.


Rabies Today

Rabies is still everywhere here in the US – in the saliva of usually wild animals, especially bats.

The only sure method for determining if an animal has rabies is to look for the virus in the brain. Which, I can say from veterinary experience, is done by literally cutting off the head with tree clippers (standard zombie kill treatment!!) and mailing it to a lab. Good to know that some barbarism still thrives.

Batman and any others whose primary workspace is a cave is advised to be vaccinated.

Batman and any whose primary workspace is a cave are advised to be vaccinated.

You can get the vaccine, but it’s expensive and you have to do it three times. So, only do so if you’re a vet or a field biologist. Or if you’re just really, really into bat-riddled cave exploration.

The frugal spelunker like myself can take comfort in the fact that you can get the vaccine even after being bitten by a suspicious animal. But be quick about it.

Oh, and by the way, according to the WHO, “Human-to-human transmission by bite is theoretically possible but has never been confirmed.”‘ Yet, my friends…yet.

Thanks to Danielle who requested this topic!

Photos are in the public domain except:
Crayfish: photo by Monica R., CC by 2.0
Institute gate: photo by Lamiot, CC by 3.0

Leper hand bones. “Your wrist bone’s connected to your, well, let’s just stop there”

leper man

Actual leper, despite looking just like those holographic Halloween pictures.

by Chelsea Schuyler

Lepers Still Roam

Happy Halloween! This year I bring you leprosy. Because the deadening of hands and feet while simultaneously turning into a molting lizard just feels right this time of year.

Though we cringe, we can’t help but be fascinated – how can you slough off bits of yourself and still live to tell the tale?

To be fair, you really don’t. Nothing falls off of you, you just get scaley,.. and suffer nerve damage and deformities, ..and get a fever and angry inflammation of the skin, eyes, and joints. And you know that’s bad, cuz inflammation isn’t exactly known for general contentment. Scientists, you had me at ‘angry’…

Finger-lickin good!

Finger-lickin good!

That’s IF you don’t treat it, which is easy (except that it takes 6-24 months).

Despite 95% of humanity being immune, people here in the states STILL contract it – about a hundred a year. Though now it’s called Hansen’s disease to avoid stigma (because WHO GETS LEPROSY THESE DAYS?) and to pay awkward tribute to the man who discovered the bacterium in 1873.

Where are these victims? The South of course, because all evil originates in swamps, so if you’re not too busy being riddled with Yellow Fever or birthing tiny-headed offspring which are later eaten by alligators at Disneyland, you might notice your hands have turned into leprotic finger nubbins.

You Two Have So Much in Common


Actual armadillo I followed in the Barataria Preserve off New Orleans, Louisiana. It’s so blind and the leaves it was pawing in so loud it couldn’t detect me – I even pet it once or twice!

Said swamp contains the only other creature susceptible to the disease. Mosquitoes? You’d think, but no.

arthur tv show

Arthur, no!


Those adorable living-dinosaur pinecones?! Why??

Note: Only the nine-banded armadillo is known to carry the disease. So the next time you’re hugging your neighborhood armadillo, count the bands just to make sure. But be subtle about it, no need to insult the thing.


Yep, 9 bands. = I have leprosy.

The bacteria that causes leprosy is incredibly weak and pathetic (yet takes 2 years to kill??), and can only live in things with a low internal body temperature. Which feels somewhat ironic that a creature that grows its own protective ninja-shield has a War of the Worlds Achile’s heel of a tepid temperature and breezy bowels.

But don’t go hatin’ on armadillos, it’s not their fault. Originally, we gave it to them.

cat sleepling in

Cuddle warming is real!

(How is the human 98.6 degrees considered low, you ask? Spend a few years putting thermometers in dog and cat anuses like I have – and you’ll discover their norm is 102. It makes a difference – hence them being so nice to cuddle up to in winter.)

History of Leprosy

Prevalent in India back in the day, leprosy victims were sometimes assisted by families to suicide, which was considered an exception to the suicide-is-a-sin rule in Hinduism.


Leper colony members no doubt about to pounce on each other

As the English Christians strutted in, they saw a disease of Biblical proportions, and sent WTF?! notes back to Britain. Answering to the fears for the motherland, the colonial government isolated those diagnosed in 1898, separating men from women. Because leper reproduction – so hot.

Even the US had a leper colony – on some gorgeous peninsula in Hawaii. Reason enough to contract it I say. Wait, so, we sent the Native Americans to dry, desolate wastelands but the lepers get a tropical paradise? I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again, lepers have all the luck.

Many depressing decades later, we figured out a nice multi-drug therapy, which the WHO still offers for free. So when you remember the 80s, know that you were either:

the fly

The Fly: ‘Woops! An error occurred.’ ‘404, this animal not found.’ And other coding jokes…’

  • An unaffected leper gentile (leptile?) flocking in droves to watch Jeff Goldblum turn into a fly, which, let’s face it, was symptomatically a case of extreme leprosy rather than anything fly-related.
  • Minding your own business in your transport pod where, unbeknownst to you, an armadillo was present, and now you’re turning into one, scales and all. But huzzah, there’s a cure!

However, leprosy still affects people in India, especially due to poverty (compromised immune system), deeply ingrained stigma, and a hesitance toward Western medicine.

This despite Gandhi, who never ceases to be awesome, who took in a scholar outcast with leprosy, and massaged his feet daily. Someone took a picture, and it became a stamp that said ‘Leprosy is Curable’ to try to educate the world.

Mahatma Gandhi nursing the leper patient Parchure Shastri, Sevagram Ashram, 1939. Mahatma Gandhi bei der Behandlung des Lepra-Patienten Parchure Shastri im Sevagram-Aschram, 1939.

Leprosy continues despite Ghandi.

Yeah, yeah, somethin about millions of humans. What about the armadillos??

But Back to Armadillos

pink fairy armadillo

This 5-6″, adorable meme wannabe is leprosy-free. You can just tell.

Luckily the rare pink fairy armadillo – which amazingly is totally a thing, yet so rare  that even internet videos of it are just desperate image montages – remains unaffected, as it only lives in a tiny section of Argentina, dies quickly in captivity, and therefore is effectively the unicorn of armadillos. And as everyone knows, unicorns are pretty and therefore leprosy-free.

CBS reported a study done on the link between armadillos and leprosy, in which they quoted the lead researcher saying “Leave the animals alone.”

Let's definitely ask a continent that doesn't have armadillos their opinion.

Let’s definitely ask a continent that doesn’t have armadillos their opinion.

Sure, makes sense, but then they quoted Dr. Warwick Britton of Sydney, Australia, “who had no connection with the study”, as saying: “I would not cuddle armadillos.”

So basically, CBS was like, ‘Who else can we quote? Someone funny. I know, call Australia.’

And note that it doesn’t say why Dr. Warwick Britton (a name that just screams ‘formerly British’) wouldn’t cuddle armadillos. Maybe it doesn’t have to do with leprosy. People generally don’t want to cuddle things with ‘armor’ literally in the name. Or maybe he’s a cuddle warming denier.


Ridiculously giant glyptodon, terrorizer of early humans and assumed inspiration for Mario’s ‘buzzy beetle’ villains.

Or perhaps it’s because he knows they’re descended from the uncuddable Glyptodon, an animal from the ice age the size of friggin car. Concluding that all ancestors were giant and terrifying and haunt us even today in smaller, cuter, bacteria-ridden form.

So, Happy Halloween everyone! Especially the South and subsequently Hawaii.

Photos are in the public domain except:
Leper bones – photo by B.jehle, CC BY 4.0
Leper fingers – photo by B.jehle, CC BY 3.0
Armadillo in leaves 1 and 2 – taken by me
Pink Armadillo – photo by CC BY 2.0

Plankton Confessional


Default plankton.

by chelsea schuyler

Your Definition of Plankton

plankton silhouette


Plankton – the little floaty things in the ocean that whales eat, right? So much more. For example: chalk. You heard me.

I submit that the reason I didn’t really know what plankton is is because nobody ever told me all the COOL stuff about it. Cool commenceth here.

Actual & Greek Definition of Plankton

Plankton = ocean creatures that drift around and cannot swim against a current.

different races running a race

The minority on the right is totally gonna win.

It’s a wicked biological catch-all – for when you’re just too lazy to be specific or taxonomically technical. Like ‘dinosaurs’ or…‘minorities’.

Plankton officially comes from the Greek word ‘planktos’ for ‘wanderer.’ Which I think is a bit of stretch – I mean, are you really ‘wandering’ if you can only kinda flail around? And only maybe in a direction if it’s nice and calm out? Like, are limbless people ‘wanderers’? Or people in hot air balloons?

air balloons like plankton

Pretty sure all those who planktos are lost.

Or is ‘wander’ really just a euphemism to make it sound like being scared out of our minds includes some kind of spiritual openness, like, again, being in a hot air balloon, or being eaten by a whale (I’m lookin’ at you krill,…and Jonah).

They say mosquitoes can’t fly against a breeze (air plankton!) but they are definitely not ‘wandering’. They are out to do evil. They are eviling.



But I digress…

Plankton can be plant-like (phytoplankton) or animal-like (zooplankton), and some are only considered plankton for part of their lives. Like small children caught in the undertow.



Just because you’re plankton doesn’t mean you can’t be a brainless brain-destroyer mildly reminiscent of an atom bomb.

Zooplankton are the animal-like ones that have to find food for themselves. The largest official plankton – jellyfish. Amazing right? Making ‘jellyfish’ neither a jelly, nor a fish. Discuss.

But it’s true, jellyfish are plankton, as though they can swim in a direction, they could not stand up to a flipper’s worth of current.

In my mind, they sit a little easier at the plankton table because they have no bones or brain. Ironic that something with no brain would contain a neurotoxin (eats brains!) in their tentacles.

Enough about animal-likes, let’s talk about the plant-likes.

Phytoplankton = Chalk

Phytoplankton have chlorophyll in them, so they can get their energy from the sun. They tend, therefore, to hang out near the surface where they provide food for shrimp, snails, whales, and ironically, jellyfish (it’s like the blind eating the blind!).

One type of phytoplankton is a teenie weeny thing called a coccolithophore (pronounced: Co-co for Cocoa Puffs LIT-oh-four). For protection it iron mans itself by making limestone plates all around it in a shell of scales. Cuz that’s a thing.

coccoliths and puzzle ball

Coccolithophores’ worthy aspiration.

But I suppose limestone is just calcium, carbon, and oxygen, which are all present in the ocean. No doubt just waiting to become like one of those plastic puzzle balls that you can throw against a wall and shatter, then put back together. Like that. Only stone and awesome.

When these creatures die or make extra (or someone goes on a throwing spree), the plates fall to the bottom of the ocean. That oceans recedes, and the exposed rock is covered in the remains, which is this white powdery stuff that we call chalk!

colored death sticks

colored death sticks

Friggin chalk! Which in the 1900s we then gathered, refined, formed into cylinders, baked (#ScientistsAreBakersToo) and then scrawled on blackboards which were black because they were made from actual slate rock. Rock on rock = bleeding ears. It’s all coming together…

The White Cliffs of Dover in England. Because chalk!

The White Cliffs of Dover in England. Because chalk!

If you have a microscope, you should immediately look at some chalk dust. You might need a powerful one though, as these shells, or coccoliths as they are called, are only 3 one-thousandths of a millimeter. Each coccolithophore has about 30. Which means the number of these dead creatures in the ocean is in the bajillion million, impossibillion scale.

Phytoplankton = Magic

If chalk doesn’t impress you, it being dead n’all, how about dinoflagellates (pronounced: mag-ic)? These plankton have tails (flagella) that help them swim about as well as a pool noodle would serve as an oar. Better yet though, these plankton are bioluminescent, which mean they light up perdy (to learn how this really works, check out my post I’ll Luminate Your Essence).

The theory goes that they flash to confuse predators, or warn others. But they’re easily scared, so anything that disturbs them, like waves, will set them off. Hence amazing waves:

Phytoplankton = Flea Killer


Diatoms – best Christmas decorations ever

Another major group of phytoplankton are diatoms. These are the single-celled snowflakes of the ocean. Instead of surrounding themselves with a limestone shell, these guys have a silica (glass-like stuff) based covering, which makes them unique and gorgeous.

They also leave their shells behind after death, and their powdery remains are called diatomaceous earth. You may have heard of this as an alternative flea control. How does it work?

diatomaceous earth

diatomaceous chex mix will destroy your flea family

Well, diatomaceous earth is like a bunch of microscopic death shards. If it touches a flea, the flea’s exoskeleton is cut open, and the super absorbent power sucks out their fluids and dehydrates them to death.

Kind of like if you threw a human into a vat of diamonds and lined the bottom with paper towels. The only problem is, to use it you basically have to white powder bomb your house and hope it’s getting to every last flea.

I am nothing if not here to educate, so hopefully you will walk away with the knowledge that plankton is a magical, chalky, snowflake flea death. The truth shall prevail.

Photos are in the public domain except:
plankton collage: photo by Kils, CC by SA 3.0
coccolithophore: photo by Alison R. Taylor, CC by 2.5
diatoms b/w: photo by Dawid Siodlak, CC by SA 4.0

Really not sure what this is suppose to be indicative of, but it seemed appropriate

Really not sure what this is supposed to be indicative of, but it seemed appropriate

by chelsea schuyler

How Does the Body Do Hot?

Have you ever wondered how your body makes you hotter when you have a fever?

tribesmen making fire

Adorable tribal people attempt to ‘make’ fire

As a privileged first worlder, I know how to make something hot, and that’s by turning on my fire device (oven, lighter, camp stove) or cranking the thermostat. I’m pretty confident those are the only ways, though I have heard a cute tribal story about sticks.

Yet without any of those conveniences, how does the body heat up on it’s own?


This image has changed your life.

Turns out, the body goes for the thermostat option. It’s called the hypothalamus, which is a little nubbin at the base of your brain. I’ve included a picture but really, since when have brain-location-pictures ever helped anyone? They’re all just globular curves with a highlighted bit. Just imagine a box of neurons somewhere that complain all day long about the temperature outside.

The hypothalamus is the one that decides whether to engage in making you colder or hotter – called thermoregulation. This is to prevent hyperthermia or hypothermia, which, after a long enough time, is referred to as “incompatible with life.”

I love that phrase. It’s so nice – like saying, “Oh, sorry Hypothermia, we’re just not compatible. Don’t worry, you’ll find someone, there are plenty of fish in the sea.”


Moss piglet (right and left).

(By the way, that other fish is called the moss piglet, aka water bear or tardigrade, which is hypothermia’s soulmate because it can survive in temperatures pushing -459°F; -273°C otherwise known as absolute zero! …Not actually a fish. Stay with me here.)

How Does the Hypothalamus Work?

Before we get into the heat overload of fever, let’s talk about how it works normally. The thermostat in your house works because magic. In your body however, it gets all biology-test-complicated.

citric acid cycle

I see no reason anyone would forget this.

Remember the Kreb’s Cycle? Citric Acid Cycle? No one does. Basically, picture a series of Dr. Seuss machines all working in your body, crunching, breaking down, and reforming food behind colorful curtains. Out pops energy on the other side. All those old school machines – that room would get pretty hot. When you metabolize food, the series of processes releases heat as a byproduct.

So if you’re cold, your hypothalamus cracks the whip on your metabolism and tells it to pump up your jam (or ham. Sandwich). You can also:

  • Shiver – tiny muscles do little wiggy dances for you, which expends energy and therefore releases heat.
  • Sit in the sun – Enjoy one of the three forms of heat transfer called radiation. Effort free! Unless finding the sun is hard.
  • unbias, uncute, strictly scientific example of conduction heating.

    Strictly scientific example of conduction heating absent of cuteness or pro-lemur bias

    Cuddle up with your partner – Another form called conduction (heat from touch)! Effort free but somewhat situational and culturally sensitive.

Okay, what if you’re too hot? You can slow down your metabolism, or you can:

  • Sweat – promote evaporation! The change from liquid to vapor ends up in heat loss, which has a cooling effect. (If you’re in a humid area you’re screwed. Sorry New Orleans!)
  • Sit in the shade! = less radiation. Effort free! Unless finding a tree is hard.
  • Convection from a human hand, or a distortion of my hand set on fire. Either justified for science.

    Convection from a human hand, or I set this guy’s hand on fire. Either justified for science.

    Um, convect? Convection is the third form of heat flow. It’s when the motion of a fluid (air or water) carries the heat away from the source (b/c heat rises. Think a pot of boiling water). Typically for us, air comes near us, grabs the heat and runs! Stay still and it will absorb your heat, but then just stay. Hence goosebumps that make your hair stand out and trap air so that it can’t run away with your heat. It’s also why blankets and wet suits work to keep us warm. So if you’re hot, take off your wet suit and blanket. Perv.

Jungle (and Other Biomes) Fever

But fevers are more than comfort zoning, it’s a biological weapon of sorts against bacteria that make you sick. So how does your body translate the presence of bad bacteria into heat overdrive? Here’s how it goes down:

Cells go out with a bang not a whimper

Cells go out with a bang not a whimper

Okay, so a bunch of bacteria sneaks in and kills off some of your cells. Vanity of vanities! But wait, twas not in vain – your dead cells have a secret weapon. Upon perishment they squirt out a bunch of death juice. This putrid concoction includes a bunch of floaties called pyrogens (‘pyro-‘ = fire, ‘-gen’ = generate. See where this is going?).

The pyrogens book it to the hypothalamus and excite cold-sensing neurons, tricking the thermostat into thinking “Jesus it’s friggin’ cold in here” and so cranks the heat. White blood cells of the immune system love heat, so they start breeding like rabbits and attacking bacteria left and right.


Dragons are incessantly riddled with pyrogens and immune to bacteria

Meanwhile, hopefully, the temperature-sensitive bacteria and viruses stall out or die in the newfound sauna.

Extra meanwhile, you’re brain is thoroughly entertained by the Netflix binge you feel fully justified in allowing your quarantined self.

Treatment – Feed or Starve?

cowbell and christopher walken

the only prescription

So, should you eat when you have a fever? “Feed a fever, starve a cold” and all that? Or was it “starve a fever, feed a cold“? Luckily, they’re both wrong, you should feed both, feed everything – feasts all around!

Now, this does of course mean healthful food. Cheetos aren’t gonna be doing you no favors. And don’t eat if you really don’t feel like it. But do force water, cuz you’re likely sweating like a piglet. (Though the hypothalamus turns a blind eye, the sweat glands are firm believers in lowering the effects of climate change).

Chicken soup is good for fever (and colds) because it’s healthy (calories + liquid), unless your grandma’s slackin’ and bought a tin of  chicken byproduct and hydrogenated corn syrup. Also, steam helps break up dry mucus (showers and tea would like a shout out as well).

Will You Die?

No, raw foodists, this is not pizza.

Adorable raw foodists ‘make’ pizza. Note: real pizza does not cause fever. Eat at will.

Yes, technically a fever could kill you. Enough heat and you start denaturing proteins, as raw foodists will happily tell you repeatedly in their ironic ‘cook’books.

In the body, this can result in possible brain cell damage, convulsions, and a little ditty called death. You can treat fever by using cold compresses, avoiding excess clothing (go nekkid!), or taking Tylenol or whatever, but remember that treating the underlying issue is more important.

Commune with your inner immunity army and get the Spanish inquisition on that infection!

Photos are in the public domain except:
tardigrade: BS8236 via photopin (license)
Citric Cycle: photo by Narayanese et al, CC BY-SA 3.0,
hand: photo by Gary Settles, CC BY-SA 3.0,
pizza: photo by Martin Pool CC BY 2.0
cowbell: Schoppernau Cow via photopin (license)
Walken: photo by John Harrison, CC BY-SA 3.0

chelsea schuyler conifer post

Subliminal message: EAT CONIFER NOW

by chelsea schuyler

Why Does Nothing Eat Conifers?

Hungry? Why not satiate your pallet with the heavenly bitterness of the spiny, hostile conifer?

Because no one would ever do that. And neither would anything else with teeth or tastebuds or the desire to live. No self-respecting herbivore really goes near them. But evergreens are everywhere, how can nature ignore such a huge niche of available food?

Dinosaurs Ruin It For Everyone

Well, grandkids, it wasn’t always this way. Back when I was walking uphill both ways to school in the snow, dinosaurs were downing coniferous leaves like there was no tomorrow (which, arguably, there wasn’t). Why so many takers then and not now? Because back then:

1) There really wasn’t anything else to eat. Flowering plants did establish themselves during the dinosaurs’ reign, but not until the Cretaceous, the third and last section of the great dinosaur party 144 – 65mya, (the 1 – 4am rockers).

2) Conifers weren’t as full of hate and jaded bitterness in their culinary design. In other words, they probably tasted half decent.

The front leg of a brachiosarus. Neck not included. Me at bottom for scale.

The front leg of a brachiosarus. Neck not included. Me at bottom for scale.

So what happened? An evolutionary arms race. As dinosaurs spread, they ate more and more plants. Plant defense strategists, unable to physically avoid dinosaurs, tried anyway. They got taller and taller, trying to out-height their munchers, but those brachiosaur bitches just kept matching their step.

So instead of just physical avoidance, they added physical distaste. Harsh textures, painful thorns, and finally downright toxicity. They slowly developed an acidity to try and be outright disgusting.

godz memeBy the time the big bad meteor blew the dinosaurs’ taxonomic house down, angiosperms (flowering plants) were everywhere. They were tastier and a lot easier to reach. With dinosaurs out of the picture, the evergreens had no godzillas to deal with.

As mammals took over, they had a long way to go to be even near big enough to benefit from a conifer.

When You Can’t Be Big

WoftheW drawingOkay, nature’s got an empty niche of giant, razor sharp, acid-filled conifers, what do you do? Remember children, what we learned from War of the Worlds (besides the gullibility of 1930s America). You are faced with giant, killer, alien mo-fos, what do you do? Military? Weapons? Giant hammer or other sizable construction? Nay. Bacteria. The tiny twist ending, ‘Twas bacteria killed the beast.’

king kong

sad kong

(One could argue that King Kong suffered a similar fate, as love is similar to bacteria in that it gets under the skin, through to the heart, and causes seemingly unexplained behavioral changes).

But bacteria eats (or lives within) everything, so that’s not very satisfying. Surely something in our same domain (higher even than kingdom) can make use?

Indeed, when all else fails – The number one enemy that out-does humans both in number, creepiness, and sheer bizarreness: the insect.

Insidious Insects

Because insects can just fly or crawl to the leaves of the conifer, how tall they are doesn’t matter. Pine butterflies, pine sawflies, and pine needle weevils all feast on those string greens we find so cheek puckering.

The soft, supple flesh of the insta-snack, the pinecone

The soft, supple flesh of the insta-snack, the pinecone

Insects are nothing new to the conifer of course, they were around since the dinosaurs too. They’re part of the reason the trees’ seeds are so protected in armored, grenade-like death cones (though some of that pointy pain is probably geared toward deterring bird and squirrel type creatures).

Unphazed by the meteor, the insects kept on planticiding. So though evolving height was off the table, the plants’ toxicity has diversified into tens of thousands of varieties.

tertpentine orchard

Doubtless totally equal white and black turpentine farmers

All conifers make a resin and most of that resin is made from a chemical called terpene. Trees ooze this viscous liquid throughout their leaves and wood, so that should any beetle decide to burrow in, the ooze will trap and kill the insect. Some are so copiously endowed that we humans tap them to make turpentine (of paint thinner fame). Mmm, turpentine. “You gonna eat that?” said no human to an insect ever.

Okay, But Would It Really Kill You?

Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree stump image

We’re all better off.

How toxic, you ask? Surely, since you’ve had pine tea (8 parts sugar to one part needle), it must be fine? Well:

  • Eating of the ponderosa pine can induce abortions in pregnant cattle. Cuz that’s something someone found out.
  • Eating just three seeds of the Yew berry can kill you in hours, sometimes without any symptoms! However, the flesh of the berry is fine. So go ahead and add that appetizer to the puffer fish entrée.
  • The Norfolk pine can cause “vomiting and depression in dogs and cats.” Kind of a chicken and the egg there though. I’d get depressed too if you kept feeding me trees just to see what would happen.

So hippies, tea carefully.


Goats and goat Mufasas, are a creation of man only

Goats and goat Mufasas, are the creation of mankind only

For those of you wondering, what about goats? My answer is this: While goats have been known to eat conifers, it’s only the domesticated goats that have been bred to tolerate such awkward and sour fare. Goat’s wild ancestor the ibex, does not partake.

Deer and rabbits also have been known to eat new shoots of needles, as those haven’t developed the acidic taste of their older, darker needled kin, but again, it’s not a major food source.

Photos are in the public domain or taken by me except:

the godzilla meme, by Utkezabanje
cartoon tree stump: from The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
Goat Mufasa: ?

rainbow dinosaur

Rainboraptor. You don’t know.

by chelsea schuyler

Last blog I teased you for the second time by denying you rainbow animals so you could appreciate the amazitude of structural coloration. Enough of my nonprofit independent yet corporate-esque false advertising. Taste the rainbow!

Oriental dwarf kingfisher (top left), lilac breasted roller (center), rainbow lorikeet (top right), Gouldian finch (lower right)

Oriental dwarf kingfisher (top left), lilac breasted roller (center), rainbow lorikeet (top right), Gouldian finch (lower right)


Birds have rainbow down pat. Interestingly, though we always think of male birds evolving more and more unique and beautiful colors to attract females, studies are showing that actually both sexes started flashy, and females evolved into duller colors because they don’t need to be flashy. Males, according to the Smithsonian “continued to be dandies to ensure the longevity of their lines.” The next evolutionary question is why the word “dandies” was lost to the common lexicon, despite it clearly being the best most adorable word ever.


Rainbow gum tree

Eucalyptus deglupta. Because Indonesia has all the cool stuff.

Rainbow Gum Tree – Birds sure, but trees? Witness the Rainbow Eucalyptus of Indonesia and the Philippines. Okay, this isn’t technically a rainbow animal, but are we gonna get all semantics on a friggin’ rainbow tree?

With the potential of a 6 foot diameter, this tree doubles its size every year until topping out at 250 feet. Unless you decide to grow it yourself for the low low price of 70$, as it barely reaches 100 ft away from its natural home. Can’t keep Great Whites in a cage without death, can’t grow rainbows away from home without shrinkage.


The ultimate dentures reuse program


The rainbow parrotfish – Most commonly photographed by amateur waterproof camera owners, these fish display a myriad of color. However, it’s difficult to appreciate because of their unsettlingly human-like teeth. Those are full on straight, flat, white teeth over there. This is where dentures go when they die. But if you can get over that, grab your snorkel and go for an underwater rainbow.


Synchiropus splendidus and no I didn’t make that name up

Also, witness the amazing mandarinfish. After all that talk about how vertebrates can’t make blue, this little fish may be one of two species (the other one is also a mandarinfish) that can make its own blue pigment. The chemicals are listed as ‘unknown chemical composition’. WTF?

These fish are named after the apparently showy robes of imperial Chinese officers (called ‘mandarins’). Besides color, the most bizarre feature is that they have no scales. They are instead covered in a slimy, smelly (worse than regular fish smell?) mucous that I guess does wonders for keeping away parasites and being distasteful to predators. Down, supplement industry!

rainbow beetle

Oops, my car leaked on this beetle…


The Rainbow Leaf Beetle – In unicorn world this is what happens to animals in an oil spill. Yay! These beauty beetles live in Britain on “plants growing in crevices, and beneath stones.” So, on Britain then. It eats wild thyme, which is just so Masterpiece Theater right now. “Oh, yes, well you know, as a British bug I only dine on the finest spices. Not like those filthy dung beetles in less civilized lands…”

um, not science

witness the opposite of science

Butterflies – Here I’m afraid I can’t help you. In trying to find out if there are any rainbow butterflies, I discovered that Wow are butterflies, as a trend, not dead. Researching ‘butterfly’ is bad enough, but ‘rainbow butterfly’ is just asking for it. I might as well look up ‘adorable glitter kittens’ and expect science.

So, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t get through all the cutesy, tattooy, clip arty, butcheries of biology to find out if there is, in fact, a rainbow butterfly. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was though, because butterflies are show offs.

kenyan rock agama

Rock agama, rockin the rock, rainbow style


Some lizards love to dazzle us with color. Others are brown as the desert is hot. My personal first rainbow lizard was the Kenyan Rock Agama, bobbing their heads furiously on the -wait for it – rocks of Kenya. Twist ending!

Chameleons take the cake by being able to change color, but it’s not quiet as controlled as you might think. Now, an octopus has total command of their outside ensemble. Cephalopods such as the octopus can stretch out certain cells that contain pigment. For example, if they have three cells, one red, one white, and one green, they can stretch out green and shrinkify the others, making the whole section look green.

panther chameleon

Dear panther chameleon, what emotion are you?

The Cephs use complex organs controlled by muscles to do this, whereas chameleons can do the stretchy thing, but they can’t control it at will. They can only do it when they get certain signals from hormones or neurotransmitters that get uppity from changes in mood, temperature, stress, or visible changes in the surrounding environment.

Octopus color change = cunning display of strategic ingenuity and experience;
Chameleon color change = PMS


The incredible Acanthastrea coral. Remember, coral is an animal. Supposedly. I can never remember why but Sir David Attenborough said so on Blue Planet and the Sir shall not be challenged.

Rainbow coral Acanthastrea

This rainbow anaconda Acanthastrea coral don’t want none unless you got buns hon.

Did you know you can ‘breed’ coral by taking off a hunk, and rubber banding your new fragment (or ‘frag’ as it’s known in the elitist saltwater community)  to a rock where it will eventually become permanently attached? Science!


You don’t know. They are birds’ ancestors after all. And actually, to make all our childhood fantasies come true, they are starting to figure out what colors dinosaurs exhibited. Now that we know some dinosaurs had feathers, we can look at the structure of the feathers and identify melanosomes – little organelles that had different shapes depending on which pigment it made. Staying tuned on that one.

The brilliant rainbow male

The brilliant rainbow male


Birds, trees, insects, reptiles, coral, dinosaurs. Not seeing a lotta mammal in that list. What’s the deal? Well evolutionary tricks aren’t available to everyone. Structure is complicated, blue just wasn’t in the cards for us, and therefore, neither was rainbow.

vervet monkey, mandrill

There really is nothing like a blue scrotum, I suggest you try it

We’ve sort of been able to manage blue in the testicles of vervet monkeys and the butts of the baboon-like mandrills. If Nature is at all metaphorical, she might just be allowing the mammals a Blue-Can-Shove-Its-You-Know-What You-Know-Where display.

sonic the hedgehog

Hedgehogs: neither blue nor capable of sonic speed

Otherwise, we just stretch the truth in fits of denial (Blue whale = gray, Russian blue cat = gray)

Side Rant on Blue Eyes

Ooo, except human eyes. Some of us fancy favored types (no author bias here) have blue eyes. In actuality, all humans have blue eyes, in that they all have the structure on the iris (named after Iris, goddess of nature and therefore the rainbow – just sayin) for blue.

blue eyeHowever, if you get certain genes that demand brown or green pigment, they will overshadow that blueness. 6,000 – 10,000 thousand years ago (good times), one person in the human race got a mutation to their melanin gene. It didn’t turn off melanin completely (albinism), but merely made it so there was less brown pigment in the eyes, making the blue visible to the naked eye (see what I did there?).

Photos are public domain except:

kingfisher: photo by pkhum CC BY-SA 3.0
gouldian: photo by martin pot CC BY-SA 3.0
large tree: photo by chad podoski CC NC-ND-2.0
small tree: photo by amaderson2 CC BY 2.0
parrot fish: photo by Vincent Chen CC BY-SA 3.0
beetle: no source given,
agama: photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson CC BY-SA 3.0
mandarinfish: photo by I, Luc Viatour CC BY-SA 3.0
vervet: photo by Yoky CC BY-SA 3.0
baboon: photo by Robert Young CC BY 2.0
human eye: photo by Michael Phillips CC BY 2.0

Do transparent ants of Southern India count?

Do transparent ants of Southern India count? No. (photo by Dr. Mohamed Babu)

by chelsea schuyler

Blue Prerequisite

Last blog, I promised you rainbow animals. Due to a tangent on purple’s validity, I did not deliver. But in this age of informed voting, I feel the public should be well-informed of the colors they are considering. After all that purple = blue hubbub, surely blue should be required in a rainbow animal?

julius caesar

Et tu Blu-e?

Blue too, is an impostor. You heard me, Blue! If that IS it’s real name. Witness what the animal has to do to get it, just so we can have rainbow animals. It’s tangent time…

What Is Color?

What causes color? Pigment, right? Which is…? I used to think pigment was a dust or liquid that just sort of was a specific color (thanks ‘art’ classes), but scientifically, pigment is just a chemical that reflects light. So what determines which color is reflected?

pigment powder

Consider next time you’re choosing a major.

Electrons. Those little things in atoms that orbit the nucleus.

Picture each electron as a coiled spring with a stereo on its shoulder (also – picture springs with shoulders). This spring is bouncing up and down in perfect rhythm to its stereo’s particular jam. This is vibrational frequency.

floyd dream

Different wavelengths = different frequencies

Each color of light also has a stereo, playing a different tune (frequency). Red has a different frequency from orange, which is different from yellow, etc. When light and the electrons of a thing interact, color is born.

Let’s take (spoiler alert) a green leaf for example. The leaf has a bajillion chlorophylls, which all have electrons bouncing away to their particular frequency (rock and roll). When red light shines down, the frequencies match.  In other words, the electron’s stereo and light’s stereo are playing the same beat (like from any two Nickelback songs), so they party down and the room heats up with some serious jamming.

Oh which Nickelback song is that? All of them.

Oh which Nickelback song is that? Um, all of them.

The same happens with all the other colors, the vibrations amplify each other, so the light is absorbed and turned into heat. All the other colors, that is, except green. Green is listening to classical music, which does not and cannot jam with rock and roll.

chelsea schuyler's made image

Electron (left) and green light (right) in stereo. Groove impossible.

beauty in death

death looks great on you

So the leaf electron is like “um, that is distinctly unrockin.” The vibrations are totally off, and the offending green part of the spectrum is kicked out, or reflected back, leaving us passersby to see a leaf as green.

(What about in autumn? Well, there are other atoms in a leaf that reflect orange and yellow, but there’s so much chlorophyll reflecting green that green dominates. That is, until fall when all that chlorophyll dies off, leaving yellow and orange to take over and glorify our deciduous forests. Science!)

What Has Pigment?

glowworms: F the sun

glowworms: “F the sun”

Tons of things have cells that make pigment: plants, animals, rocks, clay, soil, etc. Color is all about light, which is why when it’s dark out, everything looks black (except like glowworms or squid which emit their own light in an attempt to reduce dependency on foreign sun. Buy local!).

Plants are big on pigments like:

  • chlorophyll (green)
  • carotenoids (yellow, orange, red)
  • flavonoids (red, purple, or blue)

Think blueberries, carrots, eggplant, and flowers. Or just think blueberries, because that’s all the greatness one mind need contain.

pigment flamingo

Flamingo baby refuses to eat her brine shrimp.

Animals are big on:

  • melanin (black, brown, reddish brown, sandy, tan, and other names for brown that make us feel interesting)

That’s pretty much it. Sometimes they can cheat by eating pigment—cardinals are red from eating berries; flamingos are pink from eating brine shrimp (which are pink because of eating algae).

But blue comes from pigment too right? Well, in plants and rocks maybe, but animals missed the Noah’s boat on that one. Vertebrates cannot make blue. Not even by cheating and eating blueberries – the pigment breaks down too fast.

The poison dart frog's ritual back-turning on pigment

The poison dart frogs’ ritual back-turning on pigment

But wait, blue vertebrates are everywhere! Fish, frogs, lizards, snakes, –and birds? my god, you can’t throw a rock and not hit two blue birds with one stone. (I’m looking at you western/eastern/mountain bluebird, blue/scrub/Stellar’s jay, parakeet, macaw, kingfisher, hummingbird, sunbird, turaco, blue footed boobie, blue-eared starling, blue waxbill, peacock, blue finch, kookaburra, lazuli bunting, blue-billed duck, blue heron, …look I’m running out of stones here).


It’s (responsible for) a bird! It’s (instrumental in building) a plane! It’s physics!

How do animals do it then? Well, when chemistry fails, try physics.

Structural Coloration

Turns out, if you contort your microscopic skin to have really tiny (shall I say ‘superfine’?) coiled nanostructures, you can force blue to reflect back. It’s called structural coloration.

structural layering

this cell is stacked

If you make the outer walls of your cells stack on top of each other, making the distance between each layer about half the length of a blue light wave, the light will bounce back in perfect sync with other blue waves bouncing back, and amplify itself in constructive interference.

constructive and destructive interferenceOther colors will either pass through or cancel out due to destructive interference. It’s like if two people put two buoys in still water and start bobbing them up and down. If they bob together, the ripples in the water will combine and become even bigger than they would with only one buoy. But if they bob off time, the ripples will cancel each other out, effectively flat-lining the surface. Do not come in, because the water is NOT fine.


suck it goldfish

This works so well that the chosen light reflects with an incredible brightness, and because the color depends on  angle, it will change as you alter your stance, i.e. be iridescent. Hence the supershininess of peacock feathers, scarab beetles, Betta fish, etc.

Insects are big on this structural coloration. Take the blue Morpho butterfly. If you took a wing of this incredible creature, and pour isopropanol on it (like you do), you will fill in all the spaces in the nano structures, the light will now bounce of the isopropanol instead of the structures. The wing loses its blue appearance and turns its pigmenty brown. A few moments later, the beauty killer evaporates and the wing shines blue again.

morpho structural coloration

Iso Morpho – Thanks SmarterEveryDay video – click the image to watch!

It’s not just blue – every color of light has a wavelength, so you can make structural coloration for every color. Or you can even combine pigment and structure.

Take the Smooth Green Snake. This snake has a yellow pigment but skin structure for blue. The yellow and blue combine to make green. However, pigments break down after death, while structural coloration can remain for decades. So kill this green snake, and it will turn blue.

Smooth green snake structural coloring

Even Nature is like, ‘okay, that’s cool.’

Pollia condensata blue berry group


Plants do it too. The Pollia condensata plant has little berries that reflect 30% of the light, making it the most reflective and brilliant living thing on Earth. They’re not even edible, but the thought is that their pixelated shine makes them irresistible to birds who decorate their nests with them (dead berries are still blue – blue like a snake) and therefore spread the seed.

decorative pillows

Americans often display pillows of a gaudy, cumbersome, and uncomfortable nature (see also sequins and bedazzling) to adorn their mating areas, replacing them after every disheveling sleeping event despite the added and endless effort. Reason unknown.

This is the same method by which the functionless decorative pillow reproduces in the United States.

SO in order to be a rainbow animal, I declare that you must have pigment and structural coloration combos so that purple and blue are represented. Who’s up to it? Tune in next week…

*This blog is not implying that electrons enjoy Nickelback.


photos are public domain or created by me except:
Rainbow ants: photo by Dr. Mohamed Babu
Indian pigment: photo by Dan Brady CC BY 2.0
Nickelback: photo by Stuart Sevastos CC BY 2.0
Glowworm: photo by Markrosenrosen
Flamingo: photo by Nathan Rupert CC BY NC-ND-2.0
Blue Frogs: photo by Wildfeuer CC BY SA 3.0
Betta fish: photo by Rafael Medina CC BY NC-ND-2.0
Green snake: photo by Zack CC BY NC-SA-2.0
Green snake (blue): photo by Rurality
Berries: photo by Juliano Costa CC BY SA 3.0

rainbow narwhale unicornby chelsea schuyler

Are There Rainbow Animals?



Rainbow animals! Not just for your child’s fridge drawings anymore! It happens, and way more often than you might think.

When I say “rainbow animal” what do you think of? A random sampling of my friends mostly said macaw and the ever vague, “I don’t know, fish?”kid fish tissue

Would you believe: lizard, coral, beetle, tree? …I have such awesome photos for you…

Define Rainbow Colored

But wait, what counts as rainbow-colored? At first, I was adamant that any rainbow-colored animal must include the color purple. And so I rejected the macaw based on its totally unwarranted boycott on purple. HaroldNot that they aren’t amazing, but a line must be drawn, and I’m choosing Harold to draw it.

However, it turns out I should forget about purple, because, as I discovered, purple is not a color of the rainbow. What? What is this purple poppycosh? This vocal violet vandalism??

Why Purple Dissed the Rainbow

Here’s the reasoning: When Isaac Newton split light into its colors with a prism, he labelled them: isaac newton and the prismRed, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet (ROYGBIV). Apparently he only included “indigo” so that the number of color names would match the western musical scale (do rey me fa so la ti).

We think that’s sort of dumb and irrelevant now, and so we ignore indigo because physicists have nothing to prove to musicians. Also, “indigo” sounds so pretentious and doesn’t deserve a whole category of blueness equivalent to a giant, simple category like Red. Notice we don’t include “currant” or “garnet.”

So okay, throw out indigo. Rainbows are still red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. Yeah, violet, as in purple, right? Wrong. Back in Isaac’s day “blue” meant light blue, like cyan or sky blue, and “violet” actually meant dark blue, like in the navy.

Therefore, there is no purple in the rainbow. (In other news, there is no Santa Claus!)

Willy Wonka accuracy: Violet was indeed turning violet.

Willy Wonka actually got it right: Violet was indeed turning violet.


Roses are red, violets are blue, this song proves nothing, I blame you…Crayon.

This whole violet thing is misrepresented ALL THE TIME in diagrams and everyday items in catalogs. It’s very understandable that I, I mean, you, might have been confused.

But I’ve Seen Purple in a Rainbow!

And yet- the next time you see a rainbow, you might notice that that last ring is definitely purple, not this weak sauce, dark blue that is no substitute. Why? You might say. WHY?! You’re not crazy, you are in fact seeing purple. Let’s break it down…

Rainbow Basics: wavelength colorsRainbows result when the light travels through a raindrop, bends, and then reflects back out at an angle off the back of the drop. Each wavelength bends slightly differently than the other because of their different lengths, and that’s why we can see each color now separated into a rainbow. one color one droplet

Interesting Fact: we can only see one color per droplet, because each color is beaming out at different angles, and our eyes are only in one place. (mind = poof)

Rainbows’ Dark (purple) Secret: Because of constructive interference, raindrops are actually creating multiple rainbows: one bright outer one that we see, then very light inner ones, called supernumerary bows. When the raindrops in the air are just the right size and uniformity, we can actually just barely see the second rainbow overlapping onto the first, red onto blue. And what do red and blue make? Purple.

Thank you MinutePhysics

Thank you MinutePhysics video!

Supernumerary bow, with the purple and pink and light green

Supernumerary bow, with the purple and pink and light green

Whatever, I say rainbow animals still have to include purple. The macaw counts ONLY IF a second macaw flies underneath the first, overlapping its feathers and appearing purple to the human passerby.

Glad we got the rules cleared up. But wait, did you know that the blue of an animal is not actually blue? So, should that count? To be continued…

Global Worming

genius in subtlety

genius in subtlety

by chelsea schuyler

National Geographic's HD full color detail helps us understand worms in comparison to what it really comes down to. Teacups.

Thank you National Geographic. We all understand now.

sandworm-size-chartBehold the earthworm. I would like today to focus on this serpentine slime beast and point out some oddly unknown, awesome facts.

You mean, besides having FIVE hearts and yet never featuring on Valentine’s Day cards? besides being the only ones who know exactly what it’s like in a wormhole yet are never asked? besides grossing people out instead of getting respect for their role in the general health of basically All Land Everywhere? Yes.


a wormwhat? a whathole?

A friend asked me “When it rains and the sidewalk is besieged by worms, are they trying to escape drowning in mud or are they happy for the opportunity to go swimming across the sidewalk?” As usual, I had never considered this. So I dun looked it up.

Indeed, the common thought was that earthworms came up because they are trying to avoid drowning. Turns out this is a common mammalian, lung-centric assumption. Earthworms breathe through their skin, getting oxygen through diffusion, a process requiring moisture, so it’s actually being too dry that will make them suffocate. They can live submerged in water for days, even weeks. (Which I’m sure was discovered in a totally PETA approved experiment.)

Yet, didn’t we know this already? Fisherfolks, back me up here, if we can throw a worm into a river for hours and expect them to squirm for fish, whilst being speared with a metal hook no less, wouldn’t they be okay with a little moisture in their tubes?

Anyway, whatever, the point is we don’t think it’s a drowning thing anymore. Nor do we think they’re using the chance to mate cuz only a few species mate above ground (you wanna do it, up there? in front of god and everyone? Have some decency woman!).

mouth, hearts, and multiple genitalia, all up front

mouth, hearts, and multiple genitalia, all up front

(Remember that joke about the indecent feminine worm? Good times. But I should point out that earthworms are hermaphroditic, having both the girl parts and the guy parts, so leave your slut shaming comments to a min. kthanxbai)

My friend’s latter hypothesis turns out to be a pretty astute speculation. Our guess now is that rain time is a worm’s best chance to get around without a bunch of pesky dirt to chew through or sunshine to incinerate in.

Where no worm has swept the floor

Where no worm has lawned before

This is the superhighway of wormland, their continuing mission, to explore uncramped worlds and nontunneled civilizations–space being, indeed, the final frontier. Unfortunately, a lot of that space has been paved by cement-happy humans, which I think is the only sidewalk connection.

you went up to the surface again didn't you?

you went up to the surface again didn’t you?

But then again, I don’t get that we have the real motivation here, cuz it’s not like they never come out otherwise. They feed on plant litter at night, hence the early bird getting the worm, it’s still dark enough that the worms are out. And hence the alternate name, “nightcrawler.” So why all the craze when it rains? Wouldn’t they rather sleep in? A couple ideas:

  • Sure they can survive for days in water, but maybe it’s totally uncomfortable being in suspended animation for that long.
  • Though worms are without eyes, there is still a sensor in their heads that can sense light so they won’t go vaporize themselves during the day. Maybe when it rains, the cloud cover makes it dark enough that they know a party on the surface is gonna rock.
  • Over-oxygenation. Ironically, scientists think that perhaps the worms are sensitive to the rush of oxygenated water. An ironic opposite of drowning.
  • Maybe they just got places to be. A guy’s gotta go to the grocery once in awhile you know?
Mole McWhack: not it

Mole McWhack: not it

One theory we can rule out, scientists assure us, is

  • moles.

And thank god for that.

Did You Know: that if you shove a stick into the ground, then rake a flat piece of metal over the protruding end, over and over, the earthworms will sprint out of their holes like rats to a pied piper? It’s called worm-grunting, and there are festivals and competitions for it in Florida that got so out of hand they had to regulate it with permits to make sure they didn’t kill off all the worms in the state.

Sopchoppy, where the fun don't stop choppy

Sopchoppy, where the fun don’t stop choppy

Ah, Florida.

Anyway, it works because the vibration mimics the sound of a worm’s top enemy, the mole. How fisherman accidentally discovered this trick without knowledge of the mole factor is a mystery, but at least we can clear the proposed practice round to Whack-a-Mole, “Whisper-a-Worm,” for fact-checked accuracy.

Once scientists verified that worms erupt like fireworks in the presence of a mole, they wondered, What if raindrops also sound like mole vibrations, and confuse the worms into emerging? But when they created rain onto worm-bins with 300 worms, only 6 emerged. After 24 hours of the soil being completely saturated with standing water on the surface, they examined the worms and all appeared to be healthy. Not afraid of drowning, and not thinking that rain was a mole. To which worms responded, “yeah, shocking. Screw you guys.” To which humans responded, “dude, you thought a stick was a mole.” To which worms responded, “suck it, it’s uncanny!”

deep thoughts

deep thoughts

Speaking of mysterious motivations, the really interesting thing that scientists discovered is that worms make group decisions. Belgian PhD student Lara Zirbes, et al aimed to study how worms interact with microorganisms, but noticed meanwhile, that the worms often moved together after touching.

So naturally they put a bunch of worms into a central chamber that had two arms extending out in different directions. After squirming all over each other, the worms almost always went together to one side of the chamber over the other. It’s the first documented, collective orientation of any animal influenced by touch.

They're moving in herds. They do move in herds...

They’re moving in herds. They do move in herds…

“We can consider the earthworm behavior as the equivalent of a herd or swarm.”

Whoa, let’s go with herd. ‘Swarm’ may not have the best, non-panic inducing connotations, and earthworms have enough PR problems as it is.

Herd         Swarm

Herd                                                                                               Swarm

The next question they want to pursue is the why. Individuals of these Belgian worms secrete fluids that contain antibacterial properties and a yellow goo that puts off the predatory flatworm. Safety in mucousy numbers? Or maybe it’s just lonely being blind, deaf, and stuck in a dark hole all the time. I don’t know, too lung-centric?

Dead-EndOne final buzzkill before I go – if you cut a worm in half it doesn’t turn into two worms. The part with the head might live through it and grow back, but the butt end, that’s just gone. That myth was kind of a dead end. It won’t ever grow to its full potential. But its got a good head on its shoulders.

Mighty Mouse Mitochondria

Mighty Mouse Mitochondria and it's inevitably underrated sidekick Chlora the Explorer Chloroplast

Mighty Mouse Mitochondrion and Chlora the Explorer Chloroplast

by chelsea schuyler

the old us

the old us

I have this vague memory from high school Natural History of mitochondria being crazy amazing, so I looked into it and will now drag you with me.

Refresher course: Mitochondria are those little bean things inside all animal, plant, and fungi cells, providing truckloads of energy from oxygen. Chloroplasts are the little green blobs inside all plant cells that make energy from the sun.

Before we had mitochondria, we were just piddly little simple cells called prokaryotes. Then we got them and became complicated, multi-cellular stuffs called eukaryotes.  So how did we get us one of those?

symbol of america's low expectation of high standards

jesus never did THIS

Nautilis magazine says “The transition from the classic prokaryotic model to the deluxe eukaryotic one is arguably the most important event in the history of life on Earth.” Wow, the most important event in the history of life, and it isn’t LIFE? This better be good. Like sliced bread, but times at least 5.

So, IN THE BEGINNING, life happened!

always start your Earth out right

always start your Earth out right

Followed by a billion years of single-celled blah. What was there to eat at such a time?  Well, a few million of these pajama’d prokaryotes stumbled into the kitchen, held the primordial fridge door open, and stared at the emptiness. Recall that this was a desolate time, no oxygen in the air, no coffee in the pot.

zuul was a slightly different problem

slightly different fridge problem

Eventually they just stirred up a roux of carbon dioxide and hydrogen. And since everybody poops (even then), they pooped out methane. And because everything is funnier when named after poop, they were called methanogens.

slightly different potential energy

slightly different potential energy

An hour later, a million prokaryotic roommates rolled out of bed and were like, “Dude, way to eat all the half decent gases, methanogen, what am I supposed to do?” But then they went to the window and said, “Hey look, sun.”

And so they began photosynthesizing, eating the sun’s light and pooping out oxygen. (Scientists say “exhaling” and they have a right to their wrong opinion). They were called cyanobacteria.

Wait, you say, I thought there was no oxygen in the early atmosphere, but if cyanobacteria is spewing it out everywhere, what gives?

The thing is, it can be difficult to get free oxygen in any atmosphere because oxygen is the slut of the Periodic Table. It will get together with almost any element. It sees a little Carbon, bam, CO2. Sees a little Hydrogen, bam, H2O. So though Cyanobacteria was releasing oxygen, it ran off with that motorcycle-riding hooligan, methane (1 carbon, 4 hydrogen) and changed into carbon dioxide and water.

So all seems in balance as methane, like their dinosaur proteges, ruled the world. But then, (spoiler alert) the Earth shot up from .01% oxygen in the atmosphere to 21%, turned into a giant snowball and everybody died! Almost. It’s called the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE) or if you’re feeling more dramatic, the Oxygen Catastrophe!/Oxygen Crisis!/Oxygen Revolution!

GOE caused the Huronian Glaciation, a "snowball Earth event." Because if you've only got a snowball's chance, you might as well go whole hog.

Bummer. The GOE caused the Huronian Glaciation, a “snowball Earth event.” Because if you’ve only got a snowball’s chance in hell, you might as well become the snowball..

There are a few theories to explain the GOE, because it wouldn’t be science if we didn’t argue furiously.

My favorite theory for no justifiable reason is the Nickel Famine Theory. One little detail I forgot to mention is that methanogens need nickel to help their metabolic process. This probably involves “organic chemistry,” which no one can do, so we won’t go into it here. Anyway the Earth was cooling, and there was a lull in volcanic activity, lessening the amount of available nickel. Hence the Nickel Famine (which particularly affected the methanogens off the Irish coast).

early irish nickel famine.  yeah, I went there.

Irish nickel famine. Too early?

Man, if methaogens had a nickel for every time that happened…

As the amount of methane reduced, Oxygen increased,  but Oxygen is so slutty that it even binds with itself, to make O3, ozone. I may have also neglected to mention that in order for oxygen to react with methane, it needs UV rays from the sun. An ozone layer would have blocked UV rays from getting through. No rays, no methane reactions.

arrogantThere’s a lot of other ideas too, but i’m trying to talk about mitochondria here. Remember the most important event in the history of life? Tryin’ to get to that.

So, yadda yadda, the Great Oxygenation Event happens, spurring the atmosphere into toxicity and causing both the first major extinction and the first known ice age for 300 million years, whatever. To explain the epic moment when eukaryotes appeared, we need to introduce the three main characters.

  1. bird pacmanBasic prokaryote – eats other prokaryotes. We’ll call it Pac-Man

  2. tall ghostsNew! – Aerobic Prokaryote – figures out how to take in oxygen and make energy. We’ll call it Inky.

  3. Classic model – Cyanobacteria – still making oxygen from the sun. We’ll call it Blinky.

Trust me, this will end well.

So the basic prokaryote, Pac-Man, is chillin’, eating fruity, pellety prokaryotes, thinking nothing of being the ancestor to every eukaryote known to future Earth, when it comes across oxygen-eating Inky. It eats Inky, but Inky is badass and doesn’t die, it just sits inside the Pac-Man’s body. Eventually, Pac-Man realizes that it can use the extra energy that Inky makes to become awesome, like eating the mushroom and becoming big Mario. Oh god, double video game analogy.  I’ll stop.

prokaryote mario  eukaryote mario

prokaryotic mario          eukaryotic mario

In Science-Nerd terms, a prokaryote literally engulfed the aerobic prokaryote, and they eventually evolved to benefit each other. Soon the aerobic prokaryote became dependent on its host and gave up its free-moving lifestyle altogether to become, mitochondria. The result? Eukaryotes, i.e., animals. Not like, giraffes or anything yet but future animals.

Player One Ready!

Player One Ready!

Not long later, mutated Pac-Man ate Blinky too, and the little sun-eating cyanobacteria also became dependent on its host, gave up its free-moving lifestyle and became chloroplasts. i.e. plants. (again, future plants.)


Science. Because women.

This origin story is known as Pac-Man-itude, or more commonly, the Endosymbiotic Theory.

How do we know this? Scientist Lynn Margulis (and the first wife of Carl Sagan) worked tirelessly to prove this theory in the 1960s. We used to think that mitochondria just evolved from other parts of the cell, but she was all Free Love man, and wrote a radical paper arguing for cells engulfing each other and living in harmony.

phylo treeHer idea was rejected, as it had been when others considered it decades earlier, but she persevered with evidence. Mitochondria and chloroplasts not only look like prokaryotes, but they reproduce independently of the cells they live in, dividing by fission instead of mitosis (just like prokaryotes). What really sealed the deal though was when they were discovered to have their own DNA, not the double helix kind like ours, but a wonky, circular kind, just like the ones prokaryotes have.  Colonel Mustard in the Library!

hans and franz approve

hans and franz approve

So why do eukaryotes get to be cool, multi-cellular animals n stuff and prokaryotes have to stay as tiny, simplified things? Well, to be big and complex you need instructions to tell you how to do it, in other words, genes. Prokaryotes have some DNA, but barely (up to 10,000 times fewer than euks). That’s because copying DNA and then making the corresponding proteins is friggin exhausting, and without mitochondria to pump, them up, they gotta stay as girlie men.

Back to early Earth. The thing is, though the atmosphere now had oxygen, and eukaryotes were kickin it, the ocean (where life lived) was still pretty oxygen-less. For a long, unexciting billion years, literally called “the boring billion” by scientists, evolution was pretty much at a standstill.


Iron banding Rocks--why anyone at all knows anything at all

Iron banding
Rocks–why anyone at all knows anything at all

The ocean was full of iron, so any oxygen around saw it, and bam, Fe2O3 (iron oxide) leaving iron bands on the rock.  But eventually the iron ran out, other elements and minerals shifted around, and the ocean became oxygenated.

With oxygen to fuel the success of the mitochondrial mutates, the boring finally ended as a massive diversification of plants and animals took over the ocean and partied like it was going to be 1999.

    550 mya -The Cambrian Explosion! Where stuff had cool names like trilobite and pakaia!

550 mya -The Cambrian Explosion! Where stuff had cool names like trilobite and pakaia!

selloutsThe coolest thing? This magical engulfing happened only one time. Lots of things in evolution happened multiple times, called convergent evolution. In other words, different species evolve basically the same trait without having to be descended from the first one to do it. Eyes, wings, even purring evolved multiple times in different cat species.

But not the prokaryotic merger. That came down to a single cell able to protect itself from the total freakiness of engulfing another cell and neither of them being completely annihilated. Happy ultimate father’s day.




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