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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 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

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.

Why Do Earthworms Come Out in the Rain?

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

sandworm-size-chartYou 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 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.


a wormwhat? a whathole?

Hypothesis 1: Avoiding Drowning

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)

Hypothesis 2: Exploration

My friend’s latter hypothesis (that worms just want to swim on sidewalks) 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:

Hypothesis 3, 4, 5, 6:

  • 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

Non-Hypothesis: Moles

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.

Rain Experiment: Fail

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

But Wait, Worms are Awesome Experiment: Success

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?

Worm MythBuster

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.

Mad, Mad Mirth

first picby chelsea schuyler

On Rudolpha!

On Rudolpha!

Reason’s greetings everyone! In trying to think of what to post for Christmas this year, I was looking over past posts, and found that I have been slowly spiraling into celebratory celibacy.

I started out okay, in 2010 we learned that Santa’s reindeer are all female, but after that, topics began to have no holiday relation at all like fighting fossils and Spanish moss. Then last year there was nothing! Until in early January when we learned about Myths, which may have had a Freudian quality to it, but bore no mention of the precious and sacred reason for the season. (Axial tilt). Where’s my atheistic war on Christmas spirit?

dbWell, I’m shaping up this year. I’m getting excited about the most nature-based aspect of the holiday, the christmas tree. I’m puttin’ the HR back in christmas to research the most commonly culturally absorbed tradition of winter’s history.

If there’s anything we in the northern hemisphere can agree on, past and present, religious and non, it is this: winter is depressing. The light of day is short, it’s frickin freezing, and everything is dead. Everything except the evergreen tree. Long before Christianity, the ancients would take branches of this hardy evolutionary marvel and decorate their houses to bring a little life and color into an otherwise snowed in and barren world.

We all noticed the shortest day of the year, the solstice on December 21st or 22nd , and fashioned our beliefs around it to explain things.

Sun God Ra has to sit this one out

Sun God Ra has to sit this one out

The Egyptians believed their sun god Ra had become ill, and brought palm rushes into their homes for solstice to celebrate the triumph of life over death as Ra began to recover from illness. The Celts decked their temple halls with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life, and the Romans had days, sometimes weeks long festivities called Saturnalia, honoring the god of agriculture, and bringing much merriment. Slaves swapped clothes with masters and sat at the head of the table, families gave gifts, and greenery and wreaths were hung. There was singing, dancing, and drinking. Lots of drinking.

Ruins of the Temple of Saturn

Ruins of the Temple of Saturn

so cheerful right now

so cheerful right now

So yeah, pagans all over the globe liked christmas before it was cool. Religious takeover of pagan festivities is nothing new, it helps ease the transition of new thoughts and regimes. But Christmas was actually quite the fight, not with the pagans, but the Christians. They didn’t want it. BBC reports, festivities “yo-yoed in and out of favor with Churches because of its association with the more debauched side of pagan festivals like Saturnalia.”

Yes, down with debauchery! Because nothing brings cheer to a comatose landscape like stern solemnity.

Meanwhile, the evergreens were ever green regardless of which god we were or were not celebrating.

Wilt Stop. Keep your xmas tree alive the way the ancients did, with this bottle of water. Now in a spray!

Wilt Stop. Keep your tree alive the way the ancients did, with this bottle of water. Now in a spray!

Many evergreens can use chemicals in their leaves to act as antifreeze, and photosynthesis can still take place a few degrees past freezing. Their biggest concern is not so much freezing to death, but dying of thirst. Their leathery leaves help retain moisture, and snow can actually help reduce ground evaporation and provide shelter from drying winds.

What is this, a science blog? Back to the history. As Christianity took over Europe and the amount of fun was hotly debated, Christian Germans bumped it up a gnarled notch and went from bringing branches in the house to whole trees. The first documentation of an actual Christmas tree was in 1605, when an anonymous writer recorded festive indoor trees decorated with nuts, sugar wafers, colored paper, apples, and gold-foil.

Oh yew...

Oh yew…

When a German girl name Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was married to King George of England in the 1700s, she brought her Yew bough decorating traditions with her to the royal court, and so the Brits were introduced.

joseph letterMeanwhile, in most of Europe and America too, haters gonna hate. You think we atheists have a war on Christmas cuz we don’t appreciate naïveté scenes, I mean, nativity scenes, on public land? Check out this hell rant from theologian Tertullian against christmas laurel boughs:

“Let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. …If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple. I have said too little. If you have renounced stews, clothe not your own house with the appearance of a new brothel.” Hah!

Or Oliver Cromwell, who, when not busy slaughtering the Irish, said that “heathen traditions” of christmas desecrated “that sacred event.”

Et tu Beeblay?

Et tu Beeblay?

Even the Bible has a confusing passage, that some Christians quoth in protest to the tree: “Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen…. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.” – Jeremiah 10:2-4

And the puritans, ever the Captain Bring-Downs of our American foundations, did their part. Cotton Mather of New England in 1712:

“The feast of Christ’s nativity is spent in reveling, dicing, carding, masking, and in all licentious liberty…by mad mirth, by long eating, by hard drinking, by lewd gaming, by rude reveling!” Oh the antagonistic alliterations of animosity! Take that Santa! Where your Ho’s at now? In my stewed-up brothel house that’s where!puritan

Rude reveler can't breathe

Rude reveler can’t breathe

It got so bad that Massachusetts actually criminalized celebrating and attached hefty fines for anyone caught decorating.

America would remain in its puritanical boredom until Fashion, that ever powerful force, that swayer of minds and hips, came along to save them.



Illustrated London Times pic from 1848, Windsor Castle tree

Illustrated London Times pic from 1848, Windsor Castle tree

Everyone-wants-to-be-her Queen Victoria had taken Queen Charlotte’s influence, and encouraged her German husband Prince Albert to bring Christmas trees to the royal house. A sketch of her family standing around their decked out tree made it into the Illustrated London Times, which was devoured by fashion-hungry East Coasters, and suddenly the tree was all the rage. Eventually, America ran out the puritanical view with its other worthless inhabitants (looking at you native americans).

So where did christmas lights come from? Well, candles on the tree had been done for centuries, rumored to have been started by Martin Luther, who was supposedly inspired by seeing stars through the winter trees as he walked home. Actual christmas lights wouldn’t come into play until the 1900s.

First christmas lights, cool!

First christmas lights, cool!

Whoever invented Christmas should be nailed to a cross

Whoever invented Christmas should be nailed to a cross

Thomas Edison invented the first strand of electric lights in 1880, but due to a general mistrust of electricity, they would not be popular until a few decades later. Because when it comes to illuminating drying pine leaves, always fall back to actual flames just to be safe.

So, as another atheist taking back the christmas tree from the Christians who took it from pagans who took it straight from Nature, let’s not fight. To celebrate is to be human, and we all celebrate different things for different reasons. I’ll make fun of your traditions, you’ll make fun of mine, but let’s all drink to the tree, and promise to be there to help when the other’s house is burning down from those sketchy Edison inventions.

Happy Solstice/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa and a very Merry Christmas to you all! Ho³!

Trick or Death

old timeyby chelsea schuyler

It’s very important to instill in your children an appreciation for the exception to a rule. If you feel you have failed horribly at indoctrinating this moral imperative, Halloween is a great opportunity to reverse your parental ineptitude.

Say to your children, “Children, never, ever, ever take candy from strangers. Except on this one day where you should actively seek out as many strangers as possible, the sketchier looking their personal appearance and living quarters, the better.

suspect nothing

suspect nothing

And why shouldn’t they? Poisoned candy and razor blades are myths. …or are they?

In the words of the cowering child of Aliens, “mostly.”

mostly annoying

mostly annoying

In all fairness to the paranoid, razor blades or pins have made an appearance once in awhile in the last half century. However, (chicken and the egg here) the majority of those were hoaxes inspired by the myth, either pranks by kids to their parents (GENIUS) or parents to their kids (dear god, what is wrong with you people?!).

look at all the good that's come

look at all the good that’s come

And no one was severely harmed. Cuz biting down on metal is something you sort of notice before it reaches the soft innards of your gastrointestinal delicates.

As for poisoned candy, the evidence (provided by Dr. Joel Best) denies it ever happening. …At least by strangers to strangers.

Addictive powder through a straw. Start em young.

Addictive powder through a straw. Start em young.

There was a guy in Detroit in 1974 named Ronald Clark O’Bryan who poisoned Pixie Sticks and gave them to his son. His son died, and he blamed it on the neighbors’ tainted candy. His Fail was being behind the times. Hello, no one gives out Pixie Sticks anymore, as the police found when investigating the neighbors, just before they noticed that he had just taken a huge life insurance policy out on his son. A classic.

In 1970 a poor kid ate heroin-laced Halloween candy and died of an overdose…so the media said.

Aw, remember the media?

Aw, remember the media?

But it turned out that the kid had actually discovered his uncle’s heroin stash, and his parents sprinkled it onto his Halloween candy to shirk the blame. (I don’t wanna be handing out Darwin awards in the wake of tragedy (no I do), but how appetizing is heroin powder you could ingest enough to die from it? Something else going on there methinks.)

who wouldn't want balls of steel?

who wouldn’t want balls of steel?

Those are the sad stories. The better stories come from legendary greats like Helen Pfeil in 1964, who gave out dog biscuits, steel wool, and (clearly marked) ant poison to teenagers she felt were too old to be trick or treating. Which makes me want to start ringing doorbells, because, dude, free steel wool.



Unfortunately, the public didn’t appreciate Helen’s message to these freeloading slackers, EVEN THOUGH she told the kids what they were getting and no one tried eating any of it. She pleaded guilty immediately and her sentence was suspended. Dr. Best thinks this may be the origin of the myths.

Another gem occurred in 2000, when parents found their kids’ Snickers bars to be hollowed out wrappers crammed with weed. The cops traced it back to a certain homeowner who was extremely confused. Turns out he worked in the dead letter department of the post office, and found a bag of Snickers in the lost packages. shipment_of_fail-300x225Someone’s epic fail at smuggling pot was brought to this guy, who, having lived in a dark hole for the majority of his life, didn’t notice what must have been a significant weight difference in the candies. Deciding to save a few bucks this year, he brought them home and gave them out to the innocent children. Who, doubtless, are now addicts and sadists, having their had their first taste of the notorious gateway drug.

um, yes?

um, yes?

So there you have it. The real victim here? The candy itself. Used and abused time and again for hoaxes, last minute cover ups, or naïve postmen. Eat your candy folks, it won’t harm you. I can’t speak for your greedy, drug addicted, psychopathic family members, but the goods are all good.

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.





of which this is obviously not one

of which this is obviously not one

by chelsea schuyler

I think it’s high time I discussed some nature-related myths. I feel like while I often suspect a myth, I have no idea what the actual truth is. Here are 5 debunked myths, in order of relevancy.


leapin' lemmings (screen shot from "White Wilderness)

leapin’ lemmings (screen shot from “White Wilderness”)

That lemmings follow each other over cliffs to their deaths has been a myth since the 1500s. Shockingly, they don’t. What does happen is about every four years certain lemming populations explode. Predators flock in for the buffet until numbers go back down again. This isn’t like a slight increase either, this is a boom of cicada-like proportions. Snowy owl parents have been known to bring back 50 lemmings a DAY to feed their young during these times. Anyway, numbers plummet, the now fat predators leave, and the few surviving lemmings start the whole cycle again.

During the boom, populations do expand, and lemmings have been known to attempt river crossings where many may drown. But it would be like saying that the wildebeest in the Great Migration commit mass suicide crossing the river cuz some get eaten by crocodiles. Stuff just dies when trying to do stuff.

White_WildernessWhat’s REALLY interesting about this is that the lemming myth was strengthened in the 1950s when Disney made a “documentary” called “White Wilderness,” in which lemmings are shown leaping off of cliffs into the ocean (clip here). The narrator doesn’t call it suicide, but implies that they are taken by a sort of “frenzy” that nature uses to control their numbers.

shocked Eskimo child never intended for this to happen to Lui and Lois Lemming

shocked Eskimo child never intended for this to happen

But in the 1980s a Canadian show called “Cruel Camera” reported that clever angles were used to obscure lemmings being actually herded off a cliff into the water (actually a river, not the ocean) using a lazy susan-like device. The species used weren’t even native to the area, and were asserted to have been purchased from local Eskimo children.

"Lemmings." Game of lies.

Game of lies.

In 2003, the Disney spokeswoman did not deny these claims, ”We have done extensive research into what happened more than 40 years ago,” she said, ”but have been unable to determine exactly what techniques were used in producing ‘White Wilderness.’ The standards and techniques were certainly different then than they are now.”

Well that’s true. But Disney is not alone. Video game “Lemmings” used pixelated images to further perpetuate the myth. Can nothing be trusted?

Myth #2: DOG YEARS

A common myth (whose origin is so elusive it appears to be genetically instinctive since the 1960s) is that a year in a dog’s life is equivalent to 7 human years. To be fair, this is sort of barely true ish. It’s an extreme average (though 6 years might be a more accurate inaccuracy). But really the first two years of the dog and size of the dog changes this number substantially.

Small dogs live longer than large dogs, but reach sexual maturity faster. So, weirdly, a smaller dog is “older” in its first two years and “younger” at five. This is a unique phenomenon, and may be because no other animal has as much size diversity within its own species (i.e no other animal has been so jovially messed with by humans).



Scientists speculate that if we made a 20lb cow (Hey China, do us a favor?) we would see the same aging discrepancy compared to the 2000lb ones.

Yeah whatever, so how old is my dog? You can enter your dog’s breed and age in the BBC dog calculator, or refer to this chart:

For first two years

  • 12.5 years per human year for small dogs
  • 10.5 years per human year for medium-sized dogs
  • 9 years per human year for large dogs

For years 3+:

  • Small:
    Dachshund (Miniature) 4.32,
    Border Terrier 4.47,
    Lhasa Apso 4.49,
    Shih Tzu 4.78,
    Whippet Medium 5.30,
    Chihuahua 4.87,
    West Highland White Terrier 4.96,
    Beagle 5.20,
    Miniature Schnauzer 5.46,
    Spaniel (Cocker) 5.55,
    Cavalier King Charles 5.77,
    Pug 5.95,
    French Bulldog 7.65
  • chow chow panda

    chow chow pandas change nothing

    Spaniel 5.46,
    Retriever (Labrador) 5.74,
    Golden Retriever 5.74,
    Staffordshire Bull Terrier 5.33,
    Bulldog 13.42

  • Large:
    German Shepherd 7.84,
    Boxer 8.90

NOTE: dying your dog to look like a Panda will not increase its life expectancy.

Erwin Schrodinger. Not helpful.

Erwin Schrodinger. Not helpful.

By the way, somehow the dog years formula has transferred over to cats. I really wanted to give a chart for that too, but unfortunately I could find no reputable sources, and I tried medium hard! Everyone is using a chart that says the first year equals 15 human years, and then you basically add 4 years for each year after that. But again, couldn’t find a scientific source for this. Because scientists hate cats.

brains! the organ that let you believe in lemming suicide

Brains!  The  organ  that  let  you  believe  in lemming  suicide


I kinda think most people have figured out that this is a dumb. Turns out there are times like when we’re resting that we may only be using 10% of our brain, but “Evidence would show over a day you use 100 percent of the brain,” says John Henley, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic. So if you trust the folks who specialize in egg-based condiments, and I know I do, it’s definitely a myth.

Neurologists-- Real experts.  Real Mayo.

Neurologists–    Real experts.    Real Mayo.

If you’re just fond of 10 percents of things, only 10% of the brain is made up of neurons, the cells that fire and do stuff and make us layfolk nod because we’ve definitely heard that word before. The other 90% are glial cells, which are the mechanics/handymen/storage units that maintain the neurons, but we’re a little peach fuzzy on them. So really, we only understand 10% of our brains, and even that is probably an overestimation.


How could I have doubted you??

How could I have doubted you??

This is one of my favorite myths, that NASA spent millions of dollars engineering a pen that would work in space when Russia solved the same problem by using a pencil. I bought into this one for awhile, until one day I used 3% of my brain to think: NASA got rovers to Mars, should I really believe they sank to such duh-itude over writing tools?

Of course no. Both NASA and Russian cosmonauts used pencils originally.  NASA was guilty of buying mechanical pencils at 130 dollars a pop in 1965, provoking outrage in Congress and the public at the time, forcing NASA to go back to common-man, back-to-school-sales pencils.

But then in 1967, the Apollo 1 test run went horribly wrong. A wire sparked and caused a fire, aided by a pure Oxygen atmosphere and multiple flammable materials within the shuttle.  Three astronauts were tragically killed.

This may or may not be why I doubted you...

This may have been why I doubted you…

NASA then changed their shuttles to be a tad less of a fire waiting to happen. They reduced the Oxygen in the atmosphere to 34% instead of 100%, and they removed velcro and other flammable materials from the interior. But pencils were a problem because of the flammable wood and the graphite bits that could be inhaled by astronauts or infiltrate equipment.

fisher price shuttle of death

Not to be confused with Fisher Price’s shuttle of death

Meanwhile, Paul Fisher of Fisher Pen Co. decided to invest his own money (about 1 million) to design a pen that was pressure-based instead of gravity-based, and would work from -50F to 400F (though the blue ink will turn green when too hot, which is cool. Moral = blue pens are superior to black because NASA). Both Russia and NASA buy these pens for a few dollars each (bulk price). There, everyone wins.  So get off their backs, you don’t pen case

Mini-Myth #5:
HUMANS ARE (insert number here)%  WATER

Another victim of over-averaging and people’s inability to remember statistics (guilty). I had to add this one because it was bothering me hearing anything from 40 – 95% water (95, really? come on people).

USGS. Taking a break from predicting devastating earthquakes to settle your inane curiousity

USGS. Taking a break from predicting devastating earthquakes to settle your inane curiosity

According to the US Geological Survey, babies are 78% water, male adults 60%, and female adults 55% (because fat cells have less water in them and women have more fat cells than men). Also subject to the physical fitness of the person, age, and other factors, and no one really cares cuz even cavemen knew water’s important and don’t remind us of how we’re never drinking enough of it.

Well, that’s all the myths there are. Everything else is true.  Drink water!

Molasses Disastess

actually 21 dead and 150 injured all told

actually 21 dead and 150 injured all told

by chelsea schuyler

The Great Molasses Flood

Happy Halloween everyone!!

This year I would like to dedicate my blog to one of the oddest forms of death: drowning. In Molasses.

refined death

message in a death

The most famous account of which is of course the Great Molasses Flood (aka Boston Molasses Disaster) of January, 1919. An enormous vat of molasses five stories high split open, spilling 2.3 million gallons of molasses and dangerous debris into the streets.

no sir, i don't like it

no sir, i don’t like it

A wave 22 feet high surged through town at 35 miles an hour, killing 21 people and injuring 150. Twenty horses also perished.

The Science

The thing about molasses is that it flows nothing like water. It is a non-Newtonian fluid (see “Quick, Sand” blog) and according to Scientific American, can be significantly more devastating than a tsunami.

Molasses is 5000-10,000 times more viscous than water (depending on its production), making it impossible to survive an encounter of such freakish proportions especially if you might be feeling at all panicked.

The Culprit

Why did the tank explode?  Maybe because it was filled to the brink 6 months earlier, leaving little room for the carbon dioxide gas released by likely fermentation.

the horror of whatever this was!

the horror of whatever this was!

The courts also blamed the owners of the tank for turning a blind eye to structural instability. Rumors say they even painted the entire thing brown to hide the leak stains.

It was also an unusually warm day that January, causing a dramatic shift in temperature inside the tank.  But no pressure, tank.

The memory of the deceased will never be forgotten. There are dozens of photos of confusing wreckage where you can’t really see any molasses or know what the scale is but it’s no doubt tragi-cal.

Those who lost their lives are also commemorated on the following tiny, tiny plaque for all carrying a magnifying glass to see.

tiny plaque

Molasses Disasters in Hawaii, Ozarks, Mexico

Freak as the whole incident seems, it’s apparently not that uncommon. We humans just can’t get a handle on molasses, and tend to drop a few hundred thousand gallons here and there.

hawaiiLike just last month when a faulty pipe transferring molasses to a California-bound ship leaked 1400 tons (230,000 gallons) of molasses into the waters near Waikiki, killing 26,000 fish and other animals and wreaking as yet unknown extents of havoc on coral reefs.

Don’t worry hundreds of species of little fish. There’s plenty of fish in the s—…well.

oh, is that how it works? woops!

oh, is that how it works? woops!

And then in 2004, when Purina Mills (of dog food fame) hired a company to dispose of their 50,000 gallons of spoiled molasses. But instead of taking it to a treatment plant, the guy dumped it all into a sinkhole, which he did not realize would filter down into the pristine Ozark water supply and flow out of two springs which lead into the nearby, and ironically named, Clear Creek. Many fish were killed and citizens were outraged.

mMolasses struck again in July of this year when a small village in Jalisco, Mexico was the victim of molasses dumping from an industrial cattle farm 12 kilometers away. Villagers and restaurant owners depend on fish and tourism for their livelihoods, so 500 tons worth of dead, molasses soaked fish aren’t so much helpful.

How To Explain it to Your Children

So, molasses, what a hoot!  But there’s more!  If you’re like me, and I know I am, when you think horrifically odd tragedy you think, Children’s book!

further reading

further reading

Follow Patrick as his craving for molasses leads him to take the family molasses pail (was that a thing?) to the market, when boom! A wacky explosion covers him head to toe with molasses.

When he gets home, his mother, who apparently lives in a hole in the ground at the edge of town, doesn’t believe him and sends him to bed with a scolding until father comes home looking the same way.

What a caper! In the sequels, Patrick can look forward to years of therapy dealing with the trauma of the town’s death toll and the self-confidence-shattering of his own mother’s Molasses-Holocaust denial.denial

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