The 11,000-Year-Old STD That Gives Dogs Cancer
The first thing you should know about canine transmissible venereal tumor is that you should never do a Google image search for “canine transmissible venereal tumor.”
The second thing you should know about canine transmissible venereal tumor, which we’ll shorten to CTVT, is that it’s actually the business end of a contagious cancer that seems to have plagued a small population of dogs for the past 11,000 years. This makes CTVT one of just three cancers we know of that can pass from animal to animal like a rock ’n’ roll-loving demon. The other cases include Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease and a sarcoma scientists infected Syrian hamsters with in the 1960s
But unlike the afflictions of devils and hamsters, CTVT is an STD—a sexually transmitted disease. The cancer spreads when tumor cells are shed by the host during a moment of intimacy and make contact with another canine, at which point they set up shop in the new dog’s private parts. Symptoms of infection range from bleeding genitals to what an early 19th century veterinary practitioner described as “an ulcerous state, accompanied with a fungous excrescence.”
Visualizing Bird “Jizz”
One of the best ways to identify a bird is by the way it flies, especially at a distance when details about its coloration and other field marks are hard to make out. Birders call the way a bird moves the “jizz” of a species, and it can vary dramatically across species.
Information on flight behavior is valuable for field identification, but collecting large amounts of visual data on bird flight is a relatively new scientific practice. This has been part of the inspiration behind a series of videos created by Dennis Hlynsky, head of the film/animation department at the Rhode Island School of Design. Using a time blend effect in Adobe After Effects, Hlynsky slogged through gigabytes of recorded video to visualize flight pattern data for several species, including black vultures, a mixed flock of swallows, and European starlings, famous for their murmuration flight behavior.
You can watch all of his original videos here.
The Biggest Misconception About Birds
When I talk to people about birds, one misunderstanding comes up again and again, one thing that everyone seems to get wrong. Not dumb people, either. Dumb people get a lot of things wrong. These people think of themselves as smart people, and by and large, they are. They’re just not bird people.
What is this avian misconception? I hope you’re sitting down because here it is: Birds don’t sleep in their nests.
They don’t. The mental image is a cute one—a little bird, tuckered out after an early morning of worm-getting, peeling back a tiny leaf blanket in its cozy little nest—but it’s just not the case. Nests (for birds that even make nests—many of them don’t) are for keeping eggs and chicks in place. When nesting season is over, nests are a mess—splattered in the droppings of the fledglings and, in some cases, a dead chick. These messes can attract parasites and predators, and birds just don’t need the nests anymore.
So where do birds sleep?
Missionary Squirrels: The Misguided Campaign to Tame Wild Boys
I shot a gray squirrel once, when I was 12. It took me a week of waiting in the still of the woods before the bushy creature finally frolicked down a tree and into my sights. Afterward, my dad showed me how to flay its skin, salt the pelt, and sauté what little meat the carcass yielded. It was the first animal I ever successfully hunted. And it tasted like dirt—old, chewy dirt.
Obviously, this is not the relationship most Americans share with squirrels. From Maine and Minnesota on down to Texas, the gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is better known as a fearless beggar, common to city parks, golf courses, and college campuses. They’re wild animals, technically, but that doesn’t stop us from offering them peanuts and breadcrumbs without the slightest fear of attack. Hunting urban squirrels seems like it would require little more than a cardboard box, a stick, and a length of twine.
But here’s the weird thing. Unlike rats, raccoons, coyotes, and every other animal that’s learned that living near humans means easy food, most squirrels did not move to the city for handouts. In fact, prior to the early 1800s, almost no gray squirrels scampered through any major American cities. At the same time, the countryside was so inundated with the buggers that many states placed bounties on their heads. Literally. In Tennessee, for instance, the government encouraged adult males to pay some of their taxes in squirrel scalps.
If squirrels were such a pest that rural folk were killing them on sight, you’d think great numbers of the animals would have found their way to the cities. Since they didn’t, how on earth did gray squirrels come to lord over every patch of manicured nature in the East
Because we put them there—for moral reasons.
Scientifically Accurate Animal Superheroes
Last year the team behind the YouTube channel Animation Domination High-Def blessed the Internet with a series of disturbing, hilarious parodies of cartoon theme songs. The videos spoof animal-based superheroes, from Thunder Cats to Spiderman to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and they feature visual references to the original televised themes. What’s really impressive and wonderful about this work is the clever lyrics. Relying on biological facts, the songs present some of the best profanity to come from the animal world.
My own Ninja Turtle fandom didn’t exactly take root in a passion for studying nature—I liked them mostly for their swords and nun chucks, and because Michelangelo was a party dude. The ADHD creative team has swept any such fluff off the table and shown us just how badly the Turtles and indeed most animal-human hybrids would fail at fighting crime. Warning: Though these videos are cartoons, they’re not at all safe for work.
That Viral Video of a Spider Clump Doesn’t Actually Show Spiders
Earlier this month, Vine user Pablo Barroeta of Cholula, Mexico, posted a video showing a seemingly innocuous fuzz ball resting on a blue plastic bin. (We'll embed it at the bottom for those who are brave enough to watch.) After he prods the mustache-like object with his finger, a pulsating mass of what look like spiders suddenly erupts and frenetically scurries down the walls of the bin. The video quickly went viral. Many viewers reacted in horror, and news outlets reported on the “wad of spiders.” But are these creatures really spiders?
No. They are arachnids—the class that includes spiders, scorpions, and ticks—but the creatures in the video are most likely harvestmen, a member of the opiliones order. They’re also referred to as daddy longlegs. Harvestmen are often confused with long-legged spiders, despite some key differences. Harvestmen do not possess silk glands and cannot build webs. They possess only one set of eyes, unlike spiders. Perhaps most reassuringly, no known species of harvestmen—more than 6,500 have been identified—has venom glands, and their bite is nowhere near capable of breaking human skin.
These creepy creatures live on every continent except Antarctica, and in nearly every climate. Other species are entirely troglodytic, living only in damp corners of caves. But Shelob they are not. Two endangered species, Texella reyesi and Texella reddelli, are so adapted to their Central Texas caves that they have no eyes at all, slowly crawling along the cave walls in search of tiny insect prey.
Harvestmen snack on things like lizard tails, feces, decaying plants, and fungus. They carefully drag each of their seven-jointed legs between their jaws to clean up after a meal. When attacked, the daddy longlegs are able to lose limbs and survive.* The detached limb will even twitch for several seconds to distract predators. Harvestmen also emit a stench when threatened, a foul-smelling milky liquid from a special scent gland, warning potential predators that they would not be very tasty. They secrete another liquid to form a scent trail that fellow harvestmen may follow.
So why would harvestmen clump together like those in the viral video? To avoid desiccation and death. In hot, dry climates, harvestmen are known to form groups of up to 70,000 individuals in order to retain moisture and protect against predators. When temperatures cool down at night, the resilient arachnids scatter to scavenge for food. If male daddy longlegs run into one another in the dark, they are known to joust upon meeting. (“Those are my dinner feces, back off!”)
Creepy? Yes. But the friendly harvestman doesn’t deserve your horrified reactions. They can’t bite, they can’t sting, and they even eat some common household pests. Next time you see one, don’t be afraid to pick one up with your hands, look into its tiny little eyes, and say hello. And if you see a giant blob of them, leave them alone! They’re just trying to beat the heat.
Thanks to Theresa Dellinger, diagnostician at Virginia Tech Department of Entomology Insect Identification Lab.
*Correction, Jan. 17, 2014: This post originally misstated that daddy longlegs can regrow lost limbs.
Which Exotic Species are Really Scary?
Some of the world’s biggest and deadliest reptiles have been found in the United States where they don’t belong, including Nile crocodiles, Burmese pythons, and green anacondas. In fact, all of them have been found in Florida alone. The swampy wilderness of south Florida is hot, muggy, and a great spot for reptiles from all over the world to settle in and get comfortable. You might think that it would be difficult for a beast from the jungles of Africa, Asia, or South America to find its way to Florida, but it’s not. In fact, a few hundred of them may have been in the cargo hold of the last airplane you flew on, either smuggled, shipped here legally for the exotic pet trade, or as stowaways. If they escaped, any of them could end up wreaking havoc on native ecosystems and contributing to the $120 billon worth of environmental damage that non-native species cause in the United States each year. Or, they could end up doing nothing at all. Unfortunately, it is very difficult for biologists to tell what risk a non-native species might pose to the United States before it is too late.
Miami International Airport is a major hub for the wild animal trade, legal and otherwise, and make no mistake, the scale of global animal trade is almost beyond comprehension. The organization Defenders of Wildlife estimated that on your average day between 2000 and 2004, “the United States imported… 588,000 individually counted animals plus an additional 3 tons of animals that were weighed, not counted individually.” That’s more than 4 million individual live animals each week plus 21 tons of animals nobody bothered to count. Many are not even identified. Most of the animals caught up in this vast international market are destined to live out their lives as someone’s pet. For others, their last stop is a dinner plate. However, the global trade in animals is so huge and complex that we shouldn’t be surprised when creatures slip through the cracks and disappear into the nearby woods.
Let Them Eat Carcass
We Americans have a funny relationship with food. We may not be apex predators, scientifically speaking, since we augment our meat with grains and plants, but we are predators all the same. But most of us haven't the slightest idea about the magical transformation by which cow becomes beef. The modern supermarket provides us with something called "psychological distance" between ourselves and our food, allowing us to abstract away the cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, fish, and all the other critters at the other end of the meat industry. Few of us know how to butcher a chicken, feathers and feet and all, let alone how to ethically, safely slaughter it.
That psychological distancing has crept into the way we feed our animals as well. Cats, for example, are obligate carnivores, meaning that they need meat to survive. Their domestication began because it was handy to keep them around for their natural rodent-hunting abilities. And yet we'd rather our housecats eat processed food from a can than go hunting. We might think it's gross and unseemly when the cat drags in a dead pigeon or lizard, but cats are predators. So why not provision the housecat with the occasional humanely slaughtered sparrow carcass? Why not let the dog eat an ethically dispatched squirrel?
Setting aside the environmental damage our pets can wreak on local wildlife, maybe our discomfort arises because we don’t want to know all that much about what our carnivorous pets are eating, either.
Our moral condemnation and visceral disgust over animals acting like animals even extends to cats at the zoo. We love seeing the lions and tigers. But do we necessarily want to see them act like lions and tigers?
I Am Not a Pet Parent
The other day, while tearing about in a pre-feeding frenzy, my sweet cat Callie (a calico, of course) ran into my foot—hard—as I was stepping forward to crack open a can of Saucy Seafood Bake. She looked shocked for a second, then hid. And my soul wailed: “I’m a terrible cat mom.”
And then I snapped out of it, realized that the adorable little chucklehead did it to herself, and that I’m not a cat mom. I’m a cat owner, even if at times it seems like my two felines rule the household.
But Big Pet wants to change that. Companies are pushing the phrase “pet parent,” and it needles me as much as Callie’s (not-declawed) paws when she’s kneading my stomach. Take, for instance, this commercial from Blue Buffalo pet food, which seems to be on TV constantly:
Why Do Animals Have Soft White Underbellies?
The phrase “soft white underbelly” describes the anatomy of a broad spectrum of animals ranging from sharks to amphibians to birds and even some mammals. Why is the most notorious biological vulnerability on Earth so ubiquitous?
Pale underbellies are most often found among animals that need to worry about danger from below. Creatures that swim, fly, or climb may blend into the background water or sky above if their bellies are light. Animals can also benefit from a camouflage concept called countershading. By having darker pigment on the part of the body that receives the most light and lighter pigmentation on the part that receives less light, the animal’s appearance tends to flatten out and is less conspicuous.
But what explains the softness?