Category: Wildlife

Ren & Stimpy lives on in all my explanations

by chelsea schuyler

Red Button of the White House

Today we answer the ever nagging question: Should you press the red button?

There has been much speculation about whether there actually is a red button, from which the president in his infinite stable genius wisdom could launch a nuclear weapon.

Luckily for humanity, there is no such nuclear button. However, there IS a button available to the president, and it IS red. I have included an image of the White House’s Resolute Desk below. Included is Barack Obama looking under said desk, for scale (and the memory of better times).

Resolute Desk red buttonHistory Fun Fact!

This desk was made from wood from the HMS Resolute, a drifting British ship that the Americans found. They were like ‘poor chaps’ and gave it back to the British in the spirit of good will. The Queen was like ‘Aww!’ and commissioned a fancy desk to give to America in 1880. Drinks all around!

So what does this White House button in fact do? Turns out it’s just for calling the valet to get a coke or something. Seagulls are in full support of this practice, and if we want to commune with them, we should probably start here.

The Dutch – “Do You Even Science Bro?”

European herring gull

Larus argentatus, the European version of default seagull

If there were a red button available for nuclear destruction, seagulls would press it, because they are completely wired to do so. At least, when they’re young.

How do we know this? Well, there was once a Dutch scientist  Niko Tinbergen, who studied Herring Gulls. (Remember the Dutch? We love them for their babies and their Brothers coffee, and of course, their airplane attendants’ ability to pronounce my last name.)

dutch baby, dutch brothers, niko tinbergen

Top 3 reasons to approve of the Dutch: Dutch baby, Dutch Brothers, and Niko Tinbergen.

Anyway, at the time Tinbergen was studying, scientists were completely obsessed with behaviorism, the idea that everything was learned or could be taught (a la Pavlov). Nothing could possibly be innate they said.

Well, Tinergen’s experiment with birds  basically said, “You don’t know Shinola from seagulls.”

shinola shoe polish

Shinola was a shoe polish brand. Now you know s@!# from Shinola AND from seagulls

Seagull’s Shape and Gender

Tinbergen studied Herring gulls. There’s a lot of species and regions and blah blah, but at heart they are your basic default seagulls, so we’re just going to say that from now on.

If you live in North America or Europe you’ve no doubt you’ve seen these beasts in town or on your various beach trips, but have you ever noticed the red spot? It’s on their bottom lip-beak (mandible) and resembles sloppy joe dribble.

Both males and females have them. A note on seagull sex – males and females look basically the same. It’s the juveniles that are the mottled brown gulls you see hanging out with them – which you may have mistaken for females, because I may have told you as much, because I may have/was definitely wrong, and I blame mallard ducks entirely.

mallard ducks

female brown, male colorful dammit

The female is in fact, slightly duller than the males, which we can barely see, but they have no problem seeing. While we have three cones in our eyes (seeing red, green, and blue), the seagull has four, the fourth capable of seeing UV light. To them the males stand out like a french fry held off a boat.

Tinbergen’s Experiment

Why the spot? Well, that little dribble is a target for baby seagulls. When the adult returns to the nest, the chicks peck at the red spot, which stimulates the parent to regurgitate food in that time-honored, revolting tradition of so many animals.

seagull herring gull baby

Yeah, you’re cute now, but you’ll be pushing my buttons soon enough.

How do we know this? Well, Tinbergen gathered his best experimental supplies, the very same ones our own children run to the fastest – cardboard and sticks!

Approaching seagull chicks on the coast, he held a seagull-shaped disembodied head with the white face and the red beak. Somehow not horribly traumatized, the chicks pecked at the spot.

Okay, so far so good.  What about just a head and beak with no spot? No pecks. What about other colors? Nope, red only please. Okay, what if we just waved a stick with a red spot on it? Pecking resumes.

red spot experiment tinbergen


And the best part – what about a stick with three red lines on it? Pecking frenzy!

Apparently, nature uses minimal wiring in the chick’s brain to save energy (in the biological sense), so its neurons simply know that red = peck = food.

seagull chick

Putting the ‘gull’ in ‘gullible’

Cardboard red dot? Sure. Thick red lines? Superbeak!! It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet so peck like there’s no tomorrow!

Thus proving that some behavior is innate, Tinbergen championed a new field – ethology, the study of animal behavior that evolves as part of adaptation. He won a Nobel Prize for his contributions in 1973.

Meanwhile, we know what the seagull would say about pressing the red button. You say push and it says ‘how red?’

Thank You Robert Sapolsky

The idea for this blog was brought to you by a tiny footnote in the book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by my hero Robert Sapolsky:

behave robert sapolsky

Don’t skip the appendices

700 microscopically thin pages of genius that will teach you neurobiology basics through really cool case studies and relatable examples. I heart you Robert Sapolsky.

Photos in the public domain except:
seagulls drinking – photo by John Haslam, CC by 2.0
dutch baby- photo by Jengod, CC by SA 3.0
niko tinsbergen– photo by Rob Mieremet, CC by SA 3.0
dutch brothers – photo by M.O. Stevens, CC by SA 3.0
baby gull – photo by Byron Chin, CC by NC-SA 2.0
Behave – BUY IT so that promoting it will let me off the copyright hook?


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

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 rainbow 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 your 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.

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 passersbys 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 the color of) 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 seriously 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 poured 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

hummingbird-flyingby chelsea schuyler

hum helmet

not a busy man

I have never met a person who doesn’t admire the hummingbird. I have met several people however that despise statistics.  Probably because numbers often feel irrelevant, and are easy to manipulate. I freely admit that the following statistics about hummingbirds have been engineered for the sole purpose of blowing your mind (vote hummingbird):

A hummingbird’s brain is 4.2 % of its body weight, more than any other bird (human brain = 2 %).

A hummingbird’s feet are so weak they cannot walk on them, only perch.

A hummingbird has virtually no sense of smell.

dive! dive! dive!

dive! dive! dive!

A male hummingbird dives in mid-air to impress a female, moving 400 body lengths a second. Relative to size, that’s faster than the re-entry of a space shuttle into Earth’s atmosphere.

hummingbird's like "what? oh I'm sorry, did you think that was fast?"

hummingbird’s like “oh I’m sorry, did you think that was fast?”

The rufous hummingbird weighs a mere 3 grams.
3g = 0.1 oz
1 pinch = 0.013 oz (Yes, a “pinch,” say, of salt, is an actual measurement)
1 hummingbird = 8 pinches. or 3/4 teaspoon ish.

Add 1/8th hummingbird

Add 1/8th hummingbird

What’s great about these facts is you will not remember them. You will tell a friend “Man, I just learned that hummingbirds weigh like…some crazy, tiny amount of salt.” Your friend will then raise their eyebrow while simultaneously reevaluating your sanity and also the degree to which they would like to be seen with you in public. And then you will have to send them to my blog to prove you’re not exaggerating and their mind can be blown in precisely the same way.

However, if I were to tell a hummingbird these statistics, it would probably remember them, because it turns out, they have a crazy high amount of memory. How much amount? you ask?

Well, because hummingbirds are so spastic fast, but still warm-blooded, they need to eat (a lot) to maintain their metabolism. But spending a ton of time foraging for food wastes precious energy. The heart of a hummingbird beats 250 times a minute at rest, but during flight it escalates to over 1200 times a minute. So, how to maximize the efficiency of searching for food?

Answer: be a Ninja.

Answer: become a Ninja.

Hummingbirds are nectarivores (actual word), they depend on the sugar-high from flowers for their diet. Those flowers, once sucked dry, replenish their nectar after a certain time. The problem is, the amount of time it takes to replenish is different with every flower.

Houston the hummingbird has a problem

Houston the hummingbird has a problem

Imagine the advantage it would be to a hummingbird to just know which flowers have replenished their nectar already instead of wasting energy trying at random. Are you there yet? Are you there yet? How about now? And…I’m exhausted. And…I’m dead. And…I’m extinct.

Turns out, they do know, all from memory (ninja). To demonstrate how awesome this is, scientist chicks and dudes in Alberta, Canada (Henderson, et al) decided to mess with a bunch of wild rufous hummingbirds. They set up sets of 8 fake flowers in multiple male hummingbird territories.

to make flower you will need, cardboard, one cork, a syringe, and an adult

to make flower you will need, cardboard, one cork, a syringe, and an adult

Four of the flowers were refilled 10 minutes after being emptied.
The other four, in 20 minutes.
Each flower was a different color and pattern and the 10 minute and 20 minute flowers were mixed together. The hummingbirds therefore, had to figure out how long it took for which flower in which location to refill.

Spoiler alert, they did, but it’s not just that they figured out the times. Remember these are wild hummingbirds, and they got business to take care of. Example:

hum sticks

hum sticks

It’s dawn (insert William Tell Overture here), and Humphrey the hummingbird is hanging in his space. He sees the 8 hideous flowers nature did not smile upon, knowing which one takes how long (he learned yesterday). So he visits a few, and empties them. Let’s say he visited two 10 minute flowers, and two 20 minute flowers. He goes on to real flowers too, and then resumes his perch. Somewhere in his mind, 4 timers have started counting down, two to 10 minutes, two to 20.

8:05, he visits the remaining 4 fake flowers. Four new timers start.

8:10, The first two 10 minutes flowers are ready, but just then a rival male shows up, and Humphrey has to chase him off. It’s now 8:13, so he visits the two 10 minute flowers, and resets those two timers to 10 minutes, remembering that the two original 20 minute flowers will be ready in 7 minutes, but the second set of 10 minute flowers in 3 minutes, and the remaining…oh look, a female, must impress with my crazy fast dive! Okay, so now the second set of 2 is past ready, and I have 2 minutes for…have you gone cross eyed yet?

yeah, color not so helpful. location location, location

yeah, color not so helpful. location location, location

Each hummingbird not only remembered the refill rates of each flower, but also where each was and when he emptied them last. (Other experiments show that hummingbirds actually depend on location before they depend on color, relying on color only when mad scientists kept moving the friggin flowers around all the time.)

It’s not quite as to the minute as I have made it sound in the example, but it’s pretty dang close. This kind of when and where timing has never been shown to occur in the animal kingdom before to this degree, and was thought to be a human trait.

Human trait? I can’t even cook one pot of rice without the oven timer. This would be like having eight different pots of rice, with different cook times, with different start times, and then having to go buy stamps at the post office in between, arriving back late, and resetting whichever ones, but not others,.. I would starve basically.



The even more mind-blowing thing? These hummingbirds were proven to keep track of eight flowers. But the average hummingbird territory can contain two thousand. …4.2% brain…

Dung Ho

dung starby chelsea schuyler

dung beetle of my south african travels does kung fu

dung beetle of my south african travels does kung fu

Dung beetles.  The little critters that roll the excrement of others into a ball and push it around.  Somehow, this is awesome, and they are properly admired.  I saw some about an inch and a half long in South Africa, and I was pleased.  Until I discovered that they can be as small as a millimeter, and as I picture mini-beetles making adorable, bedazzle beads of bowels, I can’t help but feel a bit cheated. Oh well, new goals.

Poop is a very competitive market.  Not only is it their food and water, but their young’s food as well.  Adults lay eggs inside a buried dungball so when they hatch and pupate they’ll have a stockpile waiting.

diagram There are six thousand species of dung beetle, on all continents but Antarctica.  How to keep track of which species is which?  Luckily, they’re packed into three convenient, ziplock bag categories: tunnellers, rollers, and dwellers. Tunnellers find the mudpie, dig a tunnel directly underneath it, and drag some of that fine pooppourri with them.  Rollers find the mudpie, roll it into a ball, and then make a bee(tle)line away from the pile, pushing the ball with their back feet, to bury it elsewhere. Dwellers are like F that, and just set up shop right in the pile.

In this article we’ll only be talking about rollers, cuz that’s just the way I…

atlasSpherical enthusiasm is not a rollers only interesting feature.  It’s how they get their sense of direction that is the really impressive part.  See, after a male finds a steaming pile of rhino roca and sculpts it into a ball, he has to get it away as fast as possible before lazy, freeloader dung beetles move in and steal his hard earned Atlas impression, forcing him to start all over and lose the girl.  A straight line away from the dung pile is the fastest way to escape, but how it is that they know what straight is and don’t accidentally curve right back around to the pile?

Well, first scientists discovered that they have special photoreceptors in their eyes that make them able to see a symmetrical pattern of polarized light around the sun (we, less cool, can’t see it), and go off of that.  This is common in insects.  But what about at night?  Well, the moon.  Right?

also not needed.

also not needed.

To find out more, Marie Dacke and Eric Warrent took a team of scientists and went to South Africa to study them, but to their astonishment, when there was no moon in the sky, the beetles were unaffected.  They didn’t need no stinkin moon. What does that leave?  Stars?! Sure, humans and seals and birds use the stars, but insects? Never before have insects been known to use stars for navigation.

Baffled, the scientists built a giant table with dung in the middle, and a dry moat all around it to catch the dung beetles as they Myth of Sisyphused their way off the table. Also, there were walls to rule out the use of terrestrial landmarks. The dung beetles performed normally.  Then, according to National Geographic, “the team put little cardboard hats on the study beetles’ heads, blocking their view of the sky.”

Mandatory moment of meditation.  Push away all thoughts, all worries; focus on nothing but little cardboard hats on dung beetle heads…Nirvana achieved. …

Indeed, with the sky the-inside-of-a-cereal-box black, the dung beetles flailed in their direction, going every which way.

who knows what lies within the darkness...

who knows what lies within the darkness…

Now keep in mind, this is science, so you can’t just go around putting hats on beetles without a control group. It becomes necessary to also put clear hats on a few, to show that it was not simply the act of wearing a hat that totally freaked them out and Death Starred all their dung maneuvering hopes.

But, though doubtless humiliated, the now clear-visored Dig Dougs were still straight shooters, unaffected by the headgear.

Experimental beetle: Darth Vader #8, Control beetle, Starfighter reject #?

Experimental beetle: Darth Vader #8                                    Control beetle: Starfighter reject #?

Hmm, looks like stars must be it.  But stars aren’t really that bright, in fact the brightest thing in the night sky is the Milky Way Galaxy.  Only one thing to do. The scientists gathered up some dung beetles, and brought them to the Johannesburg planetarium.

The Milky Way as viewed from the surface of Mars

The Milky Way as viewed from the surface of Mars

How to test dung beetle navigation in the most awesome way possible:

1) Take said dung beetles to the local planetarium.
2) The end.

The scientists set up their little diorama of dung in the now worst smelling planetarium ever, and programmed the ceiling to take away all the stars except those in the Milky Way galaxy.  Straight lines all around.  Then, they took away the Milky Way galaxy, and left only the stars. National Geographic reports, “Those beetles just rolled around and around aimlessly.”

humans. discuss.

humans. discuss.

Man, if aliens descended right now and chose these particular humans to study…  “Well Herboxon, they appear to have to built a giant dome where they can obsess over an insect that rolls s#@! into balls!” “Yes, Miffzin, and if the creatures run in nonlinear fashion it is cause for international news! Bizarre these humans….”

So, the first creature we know in the world to use the Milky Way Galaxy as a reference point (thanks to Michelle for this awesome blog idea!) Scientists think this could be more common, that moths too may possess the same skill.

Just wait, in 20 years all the thrift shops are going to be filled with tiny, vintage, insect hats. Available in pizza box brown or broken window clear!50_banner

Dolphin Birthright

mammals or whatever

mammals or whatever

by chelsea schuyler

the various stages of whoa

the various stages of whoa

I was once asked, “How do dolphins deal with umbilical cords?” and I was not unlike Keanu Reeves in staring blanking and thinking, “Whoa.”  How does that work?

To answer this question, we have to go back to class. The Mammalian class that is, of King Phillip fame. (Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family Genus Species , or King Phillip Came Over For Good Spaghetti (or Soup. But who would choose soup over spaghetti? No king certainly). So what is a mammal?

Emeril Lagasse, mammal treasurer

Emeril Lagasse, BAM treasurer

Join the club, Be A Mammal! (BAM!)

Welcome to BAM.  If you do not observe the following, you are in the wrong class, please see the principle(s of biological classification).

Three tenants of the official Be a Mammal Club:
1) have hair or fur
2) give birth to live, air-breathing young
3) nurse young with milk

Umbilical cords suddenly seem like the least of a dolphin’s problems.  Lets see:
1) Hair.  FAIL
2) Air-breathing.  Habitat = opposite of air.  FAIL
3) Nurse with milk.  No boobs, no lips.  FAIL

Yet they remain mammals. How DO they do it?

note vestigial pelvis, so cool

note vestigial pelvis, so cool

Turns out underwater mammals went through a lot to hold their place in the ever important mammal phone tree. To be clear, I’m talking about the hard core underwater mammals, the cetaceans.  The whales, dolphins, and porpoises who hopped onto land, thought “..oh, heelll no” and jumped right back into the sea. I will not be discussing those on-again, off-again, land/water indecisives like walrus, seals, or sea lions, belonging to suborder Pinnipedia (fin-footed creatures / named after the even less reliable, Sea Wikipedia [cetacean needed]).  Anyway…

Hair – So, here the cetaceans slide by on a technicality.  They are actually hairy when they’re born. Not like Yeti hairy, but baby’s bottom, invisible butt fuzz hairy that ends up falling off by adulthood. In fact, the dolphin sheds its outer layer of skin every two hours in tiny, dandruffy, not part-of-a-balanced-breakfast flakes.


this photo does not reflect the views of BAM or its affiliates, who would like to extend their support to Yeti’s if they should so choose to exist

Why? Well, according to The Telegraph, we think it helps them to be fast.  “Scientists have long known that dolphins evolved streamlined bodies to reduce the pressure and friction from water as they swim at between 15 and 20 knots… [the] constant shedding of skin flakes disturb[s] the tiny vortices – or whirlpool currents – that occur in the flow of water around a swimming dolphin and slow it down.”

First of all, no one knows what a “knot” is so don’t tell me scientists have long been aware. Secondly, shampoos are sittin’ on a gold mine (I’m looking at you Head n Shoulders), so buy stock.  The REAL reason the Dow is having record highs…

dude it IS a nose!

dude, it IS a nose!

2) Air.  Living underwater means you gotta optimize where your holes are.  Noses? USELESS.  Unless…you creepily migrate it somewhere… Answer: Blowholes = noses.  It’s the ultimate nose job.  Both minds and noses of Los Angeles = blown.

mammary slits

mammary slits

3) Nursing with milk. Two problems here – boobs and lips. (that’s what he said?)  Again with the sneaky, dolphin moms actually do have boobs, well, nipples anyway, hidden in two little slits on their belly.

tongue roll. And for my next trick, i will kill you

tongue roll. And for my next trick, i will kill you

To make up for the lack of lips, the calf sticks its snout inside and makes a straw by curling its tongue and setting it against the roof of its mouth.  Muscles around the mammary slit tighten around the calf’s mouth as well, and so milk is saved from spraying out everywhere and diluting in the ocean to beyond even a homeopath’s standard, denying poor baby Ecco his essential nutrients and mammalian status.


Ecco calls for his homeopathic milk

Ecco calls for his homeopathic milk

So, back to the question of the umbilical cord.  A human’s umbilical cord is long and thin, and we usually tie it off sterile like.  If we didn’t, nothing bad would happen, it’s just sort of gross.  This is something hippies do, called having a “lotus child” or “lotus birth.”


euphemism alert

The placenta and umbilical cord remain attached to the baby until they fall off naturally, which can take days or longer.  Scientists say this is disgusting and their opinion is wrong.

Even if you do tie it off, you still have to wait a few weeks for the stub to dry up and fall off.  You aren’t even supposed to bathe your child in a bathtub until this happens.  Sponge baths only.  Hellooooo nurse. It’s good be infantile.

look who's not talking

look who’s not a hippie

Dolphins have found a way around mandatory hippiedom even without hands or the word “Stat.” A dolphin’s umbilical cord is short and dense, and has a natural weakest link, so when the calf is born, it immediately breaks off.  If it doesn’t, the “auntie” (male or female dolphin that is the only dolphin the mother will let near her, acting as a sort of midwife) just does a quick nosing or love bite and that will do the trick.

Hours later the placenta is evacuated from the mother and ignored because dolphins know better than to keep a useless bloody flesh sack around for a few days because it’s “magical.” tech ecco

Hippies, you know I love you and follow many of your tenants, but I got to tie off the line somewhere.

Look Closely My Pupils

Guess the eye!

Guess the eye!  left to right top to bottom: caiman, husky, gecko, crocodile, frog, python, squid, toucan, goat

by chelsea schuyler

My eye, my eye!  Which is also the exact pronunciation of “mayai”, the word for “eggs” in Swahili. So if you stab our own eye in East Africa, people will think you are screaming “EGGS! EGGS!”


Otocinclus Catfish. Seriously?

Otocinclus Catfish. Seriously?

vinesnake.  okay, if you're already freaky, you're not allowed to change freaky

vinesnake. okay, if you’re already freaky, you’re not allowed to add freaky

What is with all those differently shaped pupils?  I mean horizontal rectangles, what?  Circular pupils, slit pupils, string of pearls pupils, annular pupils…they say that pupils are specialized for different niches, allowing more depth perception, light absorption, or wider field of view for predators, prey, diurnal, or nocturnal animals.  But I think it’s just a way for one species to creep out another.

kinda awkward to point to nothing

illustrating the nothing

Pupils do not exist as a physical thing.  It’s the name for a hole (I said A-hole) that allows light to pass through, and is entirely shaped by the iris, the colorful musculature surrounding it.

*insert squee-gee sound*

*insert squee-gee sound*

It’s like the automatic doors of Star Trek (also as varied in shape as the pupil).  The doors are the iris, the hole that happens when they separate is the pupil, allowing the light image of William Shatner or other captain of your choice to pass through.  So really we should be saying look at all those differently shaped irises! Or at least differently shaped door holes.

octopus eyehorse diaHorses have horizontal pupils, like most hooved animals (and, because they weren’t weird enough, octopuses).  Horizontal pupils allow for a greater horizontal field of view, important for a prey animal.  Horses have the largest eyes of any terrestrial mammal and can see 350 degrees around them (humans = 180 degrees), their only blind spots are right ahead of them and right behind them. right now

so…active right now

Cat’s pupils are round when dilated, and slits when constricted.  Cats hunt at night, their eyes can alter the intensity of light 135 times (humans = 10 times).  But cats are also active during the day (actively lying about on the couch), and slits allow the least amount of light in, protecting these extremely sensitive eyes during the bright sunlight.

Birds, lizards, and many daytime mammals like squirrels and humans declared “screw sensitivity we need detailed images.”  So we went all HD in our eyes, and round pupils suffice.  Depth perception varies within these groups, predators generally having a wide degree of binocular vision (where both eyes see an object) and prey having mostly monocular vision, trading a wider field of view for depth perception.



not so yipe

not so yipe

pigeon vs owl

These prey animals use parallax motion to figure out how far away things are, which is like when you’re in a car and you can tell that the world’s largest ball of string is closer than the mountain range because the range appears to move slower.  This is likely why many birds move their heads so often, to determine how far the bird feeder is in comparison to the cat.

dandelions love bees more than us

our version.            bee’s version.

Insects are just crazy all around.  They have compound eyes.  Multiple, solid (instead of liquid based), six-sided lenses that allow them to see everywhere at once.  They don’t get much for focus, but they get to see UV light, which some plants have capitalized on by making themselves essentially bullseyes. prayingInsects don’t have pupils at all, the little black spot you sometimes see (like on a praying mantis) is an optical illusion (literally!) called a “psuedopupil”. An almost nothing, a fake hole, it’s a weird effect of reflection on the compound eyes.  The dot seems to follow you everywhere you go, another reason to be legitimately terrified of invertebrates.



But the winner for by far the most bizarre pupil goes to: the cuttlefish. Its pupils are W-shaped, representing the “w” in “wtf”. Cephalopods like cuttlefish and octopuses can change color AND texture.  When our eyes change focus, the lenses changes shape.  The cuttlefish, preferring to show off, instead reshapes its entire friggin eye.  Cuttlefish have the most dazzling light displays, straight out of Las Vegas. Here’s a sampling of their awesome.  (If you haven’t yet seen Nova’s Kings of Camouflage you can watch it here.)  They can turn from a plain bluish black smooth creature, to a yellow and brown feathery coral shaped creature.  Probably the best camouflage in the natural kingdom, and the thing is colorblind. The cuttlefish responds to its environment via visual cues, so how does it know what colors to turn if it can’t perceive color?  My favorite answer: we don’t know!  Rest assured the best marine nerds are on it.

xmen laserDedicated to Patrick’s laser surgery, good luck.  Because if we can’t do it naturally, we’ll damn well do it with lasers.

Not For the Faint of Stomach

Carmel Apple Surprise!

by Chelsea Schuyler

October invites the creepy. So I thought, what in Nature makes us cringe? Like really gets to us, I’m talking something so innately disturbing, so physically revolting that we can actually feel our stomachs churn at the very idea of its existence?

the least disturbing image I could find. I don't recommend a Google search

Maggots. Isn’t the word itself fantastically appropriate? Instantly infused with grotesque associations of rotting and disease, wriggling, chewing mouth parts deep inside the flesh of a body dead or alive (!) that, as Neil Gaiman once put it, just looks wrong. Scientifically, the term “maggot” officially referes to fly larvae, but for the purposes of this blog, any translucent, wormy minion of the devil counts, as I’m pretty sure our worst nightmares don’t differentiate.

I feel that society is for once justified in demonizing the maggot. Any creature in this stage of its life cycle should simply not be on-the-outside. I don’t care how species-centric we are, if our fetuses were on-the-outside it would be heinously disgusting, see exaggerated and misleading pro-life posters. But even a natural talent for being atrociously slimy grubs of mucous could be forgiven if they didn’t just happen to be direct signs of death and disease in plague proportions.


The Freeloader


Ahh, sigh of relief. Happy fluttering in sunny fields of flowers and cheer. We call their fetuses-on-the-outside ‘caterpillars,’ a friendly, enigmatic term—it’s amazing what a healthy layer of hairs can do for common nomenclature and the human psyche. But it’s a harsh world Attenborough lovers, and the butterflies are just as susceptible to the dark side as we. Today I’d like to talk about how a particular butterfly figured out how to cheat the system. And just what happens to those who cheat the system.

baby imposter transport

The Cheat: The beautiful European Alcon blue butterfly lays its eggs in the leaves of a plant. The egg hatches, and a little pink, almost hairless caterpillar (gateway maggot) falls to the ground. But they aren’t going to go around fending for themselves like a respectable insect, no. They have spent all their evolution changing their pheromones to smell just like an ant larvae. So before long, an ant finds the little bundle of joy, is confused by the mimicking surface chemicals and says “What?! Baby Herman get your bitch ass back to the nest, jesus, what would the Queen say…” and takes it back to the nest. The caterpillars even mimic the sounds that real ant larvae make to beg for food, and the ants are only too happy to acquiesce. Baby butterfly is set up.

suddenly, ew

The Horror: The caterpillars are bigger than the ant larvae, and therefore need more sustenance than the ants provide. So what else is there to eat around here but the fat little white ant larvae next door, which is really too close for cannibalism comfort if you ask me.  If all goes well, eventually the caterpillar makes its chrysalis right there among the brood, pupates, and walks right out of the nest to dry its wings and become the idyllic creature we all revere, oblivious to their creepy, thieving, silence-of-the-ants rise to success.

All’s fair in love and insects though, and if a butterfly can do it, a wasp can probably do it better.

The Master...

The Competition: today’s predator is called the Ichneumon wasp, pronounced Ig-neuman (in honor of Toby, who suggested a parasite blog ages ago, thanks Tobe!).  Actually a parasitoid (= only the larval form is a parasite), this wasp figures the best care for its little egglet is to jump on the freeloader bandwagon.  But it’s going to take breaking into the nest of its nemesis, the ant.  So how is one wasp going to go up against hundreds of ants on their home turf?

The Sting: the wasp barges into the ant saloon with the wooden door flapping wildly behind it, the piano music thunders to a startling halt, someone’s glass shatters on the floor, and all the ants turn and say, “hello,…Ig-newman.” But right as they charge to attack, the wasp secretes a unique chemical compound, and one whiff makes all the ants turn on each other and a dramatic bar brawl of chaos ensues. As the ants fight, the wasp sneaks down to the nursery, sniffs out the subtle difference between ant larvae and a caterpillar, and injects an egg into its squirming body. The ants still biting their brethren, the wasp walks out scott free. The air eventually clears, and the nest returns to normal. The caterpillars go on as usual, feeding and developing, but some with a painful nagging in their side. They form their chrysalis, and months later some will emerge a beautiful, if hypocritical, Alcon blue butterfly, and others an ominous, but honest, Ichneumon wasp, the maggot having eaten the caterpillar from the inside out and used its host’s own chrysalis to develop into its dark adult form.

good witch

bad witch

An apt ending to a vicious cycle, the parasite becomes the parasitized, and both continue on cheating their way up the evolutionary ladder and screwing over the ants in the process.

Happy October everyone! Eat your maggots!

plush maggot!

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