The Perfect Swarm

An interesting idea about protein consumption and weight gain’s possible relationship to climate change.

Source: The Perfect Swarm

I Hate To Keep Bringing This Shit Up

Whale Shit

Whale Shit

Turns out the expression “lower than whale shit” is totally inaccurate.  Who knew?

There’s no getting the iron to the top unless a whale dives way down and gets it…by eating something iron-rich like squid. There’s too much pressure at the bottom of the ocean to allow whales to poop, so they have to hold it until they come up for air, and then they let fly, and do so abundantly. Now there’s a crapload of iron at the surface.  Read, learn, be amused all to hell…


Along the east coast of Florida, the ridge down the center of the state, and the Big Bend and Panhandle, we find the “scrub country,” meaning that it includes among its beaches, orange groves, sand- and phosphate-mining pits and fishing camps the remnants of a huge semi-arid scrub habitat that reached all the way around the Gulf coast to northern Mexico a couple of million years ago. The contiguity of the habitat has long since been interrupted by rising sea levels that produced, among other things, the bayou country. What remains are islands of similar plants and animals that have been separated from their brethren for a long time. The independent changes that have occurred in the fragmented plant and animal species are of tremendous interest to biologists and zoologists, and the information about mutations and short-term evolutionary changes could (and does) fill numerous books.


[Example: a species of jay called the Scrub Jay that’s genetically identical to its relatives elsewhere, but whose courting rituals have changed to a point of no longer facilitating breeding with birds from outside its own area. They could make babies, but instead ignore each other’s courting displays. Basically, they just don’t get the “come on”. This discovery alone has altered the definition of “species” throughout zoology.]

Well, unfortunately for the scrub in central Florida and along the east coast where another isolated stretch occurs, it’s not exactly prepossessing real estate. The predominant trees are dwarfed and shriveled-looking scrub oaks, some pines that tend to grow close to the ground and lean a lot, and pignut hickory. Beneath those are found some truly vicious cacti called “prickly pears” that sport four-inch thorns like needles, equipped with microscopic barbs that take a couple of cc’s of your flesh along with them when they’re pulled out. (Trust me on that.) In between the patches of cacti are scrub rosemary and all sorts of less noticeable plants. Dominant animal species tend to be exciting things like gopher tortoises (who eat the prickly pears) odd-looking striped lizards, the aforementioned jays, and numerous insects and other small critters. Foxes, cottontail rabbits and bobcats occasionally visit from surrounding lowlands. Essentially, it’s a pretty useless-looking place.

However, the scrub is home to more rare and endangered plants and animals in one area than most anywhere else in the continental US. These include the tortoises, lizards and–among the plants–the only known flowering plant in the world that spends its entire life underground, facilitated by the translucent quartz sand that allows light to penetrate the few centimeters to where the plant lives. Only the blossom of the tiny plant protrudes above the surface for a short time each year to allow pollination.

Historically, the well-drained and geologically stable scrub regions have been seen as prime locations for orange groves, highway and railroad rights-of-way, industrial areas, quartz sand mines and similar intrusions. Arid habitats are fragile, and despite the average 50 inches of annual rainfall in that part of Florida, the scrub is dry most of the time. Plants adapted to such environments grow slowly. A set of tire tracks from a model T Ford, laid down in the 1920’s, might still be visible in the disturbed ground cover. Once the system has been completely disrupted by–say–an orange grove, it will never exist again in its original form regardless of efforts to achieve that end.

Another issue is the need for fire. The smaller plants and trees of the scrub, including the sand pines and oaks that help to stabilize the soil, are adapted to periodic burning (usually caused by lightning strikes in this, the thunderstorm capital of the world.) The seeds of the sand pines won’t even germinate unless they’ve been subjected to high heat. Generally speaking, fires in areas of orange groves and housing developments are frowned upon. Thus the necessary periodic burns are rarely permitted to happen. As much as that bodes ill for survival of the ecosystem, it gets even worse. Vines and bushes, unburned, get too big, grow up too far on the trees, create too much easily-burnable undergrowth, and when the inevitable fires finally do occur they burn so hot and high that they permanently kill the plants they ought to be helping. And once an arid or semi-arid habitat is gone, whether Florida scrub or Tibetan high desert, it’s simply gone. Finis. Never to return.

Why is this important? Simple. We find uses every day for plants and animals that were never dreamed of previously–not the uses, and often not even the organisms. Who knows what is being destroyed in the scrub? A cure for cancer? The answer to questions about genetics and heredity that might lead to valuable knowledge about human behavior? An ability observed in one of those highly specialized lizards that might lead to our being able to live on (or in) the arid surface of Mars? We never know from what source the next discovery will spring. In the case of the scrub habitats some discoveries will never be made. Others are at risk. So are thousands of undiscovered species and their undiscovered benefits elsewhere around the world, from the rain forests of Indonesia and the Amazon to the windy deserts high on the slopes of the Himalaya and Alaska Ranges. We evolved on this planet. It’s only logical that many of the living things we evolved with could be of use to us, if we knew about them. If we ever know about them.

Learn about scrub from the experts… 

Solstice Greetings

Now that we’re over the Mayan Apocalypse frenzy, here’s a look at the current holiday season from a more cheerful and rather more factual angle.

For whatever reasons, we humasunrise-evergreensns have relationships with the annual cycles that surpass pure science and combine, with the observable facts, a mystical component that causes us to view the wheel of the year with more than simply analytical interest.

Winter Holidays, celebrating the point at which the warmth of the sun ceases its annual recession — the time when the days begin, imperceptibly at first, to become longer and to promise the warmth and riches of spring and summer — are universal in human civilizations. Doubtless it has been that way for thousands of generations (or three hundred, if you prefer). We give our holidays names like Hanukkah, Christmas, Yule, Ramadan, Kwanzaa, Bodhi Day, and so forth. We hang upon them the trappings of thousands of years of religious implication, and often attribute their origin to reasons other than the mere turning of the seasons. We invent new holidays, because we don’t want to celebrate other people’s holidays.

Humans have been around for quite a while. Even if you accept Bishop Usher’s figure of 6016 years ago (as of October 22nd) for the date of Creation, there have been 300 generations of us. If you prefer evolution, the figure expands to at least 7,500 generations in the case of Homo sapiens, and much longer if you include the Homo-this-and-thats and others who preceded us.

The main thing distinguishing us from the other members of the hominid family is our big brain. Not only has it permitted us to develop intellectually, it has also set certain constraints. For one thing, we require more energy to operate our brains than any other animal that has yet been studied. Our brains use nearly 25% of the energy from our food as they direct the operation of our bodies and process information. In contrast, chimps — our closest living relatives — use less than 10% of their energy to run their masses of gray protein jelly.

These energy requirements led to forks in the path of our development such as walking upright, which provides more efficient locomotion and better body cooling: less energy used ~ less heat to get rid of. That, in turn, freed up our forlimbs for other things. Our higher energy consumption required a diet rich in animal foods, as opposed to the largely vegetarian diet of our cousins. That, in turn, required that we live our lives in reasonable proximity to such a food supply, have teeth and digestive systems suited to that kind of diet, and so forth.

Before the days of firearms, humans depended on a combination of food-gathering skills comprised, in the case of protein, mostly of stealth and knowledge of animal behavior. Whenever possible we hunted herd animals, because herds offer a greater percentage of successful hunts for the energy expended. There are always the young, the aged and the sick or injured that are more vulnerable to creatures such as we, who are unable to outrun and overpower our prey. Herd animals tend also to be larger, and provide more food in exchange for the energy it takes to hunt them.

Herds follow seasonal changes in vegetation, controlled by the angle of the sun and heralded by the positions of the stars and moon at night. Thus, early on, we developed a critical dependence on the seasons. We slowly began to understand the movements of the heavenly bodies, and realized that those relationships had just as much to do with our survival as did our kinship with the people in our little groups. When the herds left, we had to be ready to follow. When the stars and sun told us that cold weather was imminent, we had to prepare. If we waited too long to leave for warmer climes we might be overtaken by bad weather, or be outdistanced by our food. We became intimately involved with seasons and, as a result, with the motions of celestial bodies.

Given the human characteristic of looking for answers rather than just going with the flow, it isn’t surprising that some of us developed a detailed knowledge of basic astronomy and its relationship to the passage of time, the seasons, and survival. Probably quite early on, Long-nose or Three Toes or someone else with a talent for association and a good memory realized that things in the sky happened over and over again, year after year, with identifiable relationships to animal migration and events such as berry-ripening and local fruit production.

He (or she) probably tried to get that idea across to others, but may have lacked the vocabulary to do it (perhaps, at that time, lacking speech altogether), or was simply ignored. “Hah! Here comes Three Toes with that star stuff again. He must have an evil spirit or something. See if you can hit him with that rock!”

Nonetheless, Three Toes and those who learned from him would have become, over time, the go-to guys when it came to figuring out and planning the group’s migrations and many other activities, simply because they were right a lot.  It wouldn’t take very long for Three Toes, or one of his successors, to realize that they had a good thing going. When you have knowledge, you have power. If you can tell people important things that they can’t figure out for themselves (and if you’re right often enough, or they think you are), they have to be nice to you. They give you things. Their maidens come to your hut. If you’re smart, and more-or-less by definition Long-Nose, Three Toes and their colleagues were smarter than the average hominid, you keep that knowledge to yourself and rock the power.

If you’re worried that people might figure out your secrets, you protect your power by camouflaging the secrets with other ideas. Perhaps you even believe the new ideas, if they fit in with your personal conception of reality. Since you and your people have long attributed things you didn’t understand to some sort of Other Force or Forces (unwilling to believe that things just happen), perhaps you combine your knowledge with superstition, get folks to believe it, and become the first priest.

In any case, the mid-winter festivals are, in most civilizations, the most joyous and auspicious. The Spring and Summer holidays, celebrating the first crops and the harvest time, are important, but the Winter Holidays tell us to be thankful for the return of light — the return of life itself.

The Winter Holidays are about hope.

I hope yours are everything you hope they’ll be. Merry Holidays, and a happy, prosperous and — most of all — peaceful New Year to all us hominids, wherever and whoever we are.

‘Extinct’ tortoises may still be roaming a Galapagos island –

A giant tortoise species studied by Charles Darwin and believed to be extinct for more than 150 years may be alive and well, an ambitious genetic survey has revealed.

Blood sampling of more than 1,600 tortoises on the largest Galapagos island, Isabela, has revealed that about 84 of them had at least one purebred parent from a supposedly extinct species that once lived at the other end of the archipelago.

‘Extinct’ tortoises may still be roaming a Galapagos island –

Best Blog Line Of The Week:

We haven’t been here very long, geologically speaking. Even less long, if your religious tradition requires you to subscribe to the best science available to goatherds three thousand years ago.  –  Murrmurrs

Too Bad…

When us big-brained apes kill ourselves off it will be no big loss to evolution.  We’re just the current catastrophe, more or less equivalent to an asteroid or methane release.  But it’s a shame we’re going to take so many other critters with us.