Updates no more

dimanche 31 août 2014

Animals that don't Exist

The Fire Eater

The fire eater, Tuckerella flamma, is a little known member of the Acari subclass. Unlike its better knowns cousins, the ticks, the fire eater does not feed on living beings. Neither does it feed of off fire, but rather, it finds its nourishment in the ashes left behind after a fire.
Although little known by most pundits, the fire eater is an essential component of the development of many ecosystems. Mainly found in dry and hot climates, the fire eater fulfills a crucial step in the recolonization of fire-struck environments. By digesting the ashes, it filters out most of the toxic products of combustion, which it stores in special cells called toxocytes. This makes fire eaters extremely toxic, and protects them from predation. At the same time, it allows other animals and plants to colonize the ash-ridden ground after a forest fire that much faster. It is believed that most ecosystems that regularly experience forest fires would not be able to recuperate fast enough without the fire eater.
Until the appearance of Christianity, fire eaters have been considered largely beneficial animals. The old tribes believed that they actually ate the fire, and stopped it spreading too far. Thus, fire eaters were praised, and considered a good omen. However, after the appearance of the Christian religion, they were considered Satan's spawn, the only creature able to survive god's purifying flames. Whether or not they were appreciated by humans had little impact on the fire eater population.
In the latter half of the XXth century, it seemed as if a new strain of fire eaters was evolving. Indeed, there was much discussion regarding Tuckerella flamma urbanus, a new sub-species of fire eaters found manly in ashtrays.
The abundance of smoking in those days created the first urban habitat for fire eaters, and they spread rapidly through the world, adapting to their new environment with incredible speed. However, since smoking laws have become stricter in the last decade, the number of homes for this sub-species has diminished drastically. As populations became more isolated from each other, they soon started dwindling, and at the current speed, urbanus will be extinct in another twenty years.
Meanwhile, the original fire eater seems to have found a good standing with humans once more, and it has become increasingly common that posh people keep a population of the small animals in their fireplace.

jeudi 28 août 2014

Animals that don't Exist

The Depressing Duck

The depressing duck, Anas depressidae, is one of the most fearsome hunters of modern times. Closely related to the common mallard, Anas platyrhynchos, it has differentiated from its cousin about five million years ago, just as its prey had started to evolve into its modern form. Indeed, the depressing duck hunts almost exclusively humans.
First of all, let us clear up one common misconception: the depressing duck is not, itself, depressed. It is, however, extremely depressing for people to see a depressing duck. Why that is the case remains unclear, despite numerous studies on the subject.
In fact, the depressing duck is one of the most studied animals on the planet, and yet, one of the least understood. One reason is that all those who have studied it have fallen into deep depression. As a consequence thereof, their accounts often deviate significantly from a rigorous scientific analysis of their subject. Take, for example, this short introduction to his exposé on the depressing duck by the late Chuck Chummy, former student at ULCA (he committed suicide shortly after the completion of said introduction):

The depressing duck... really... Why can't people see? Can't you see how pointless it all is? Nothing will ever work out anyway! She doesn't love me, don't you get it? Its all empty words! Promises that will never be kept! And nobody understands that it won't ever change! We'd be better off dead!”

This is one of the more informative pieces of scientific literature written about the depressing duck, since it at least mentions the animal's full name. It is believed that many more studies of the species have ended up in the literary section of the library than in the scientific one, due to the authors spending more time lamenting their fate than talking about the duck.
The recent genetic studies of the depressing duck have been conducted purely on samples that were obtained through automated trapping of animals. Of course, before analysis, scientists could not be sure from which species they had a sample, but cross-referencing and multiple comparison over several thousand samples have allowed them to reconstitute the genetic history of the depressing duck.
Even though nobody, as of yet, knows how the depressing duck is so depressing, the why has been common knowledge since long ago. The depressing duck depresses its victims, and follows them until they commit suicide. Once they are dead, he then feasts on their corpse. A human body can sustain a fully grown depressing duck for up to two months, or so it is believed, after Max Tournier, of the New York Center for the Study of Completely Crazy Stuff (NYC-SCCS) has made a complex multi-factorial analysis of suicide rates cross-referenced with duck migration patterns.
The depressing duck has been classified a class A dangerous creature, and governments around the world are expending an enormous amount of money and effort to eradicate it. However, it was not always so.
In Nordic cultures, the depressing duck was venerated as a portal to the gods, and was believed to allow humans to glance at the truth of the universe. The depressing side-effects, the Scandinavian tribes believed, were due to the fact that mere humans could not contemplate the truth without going mad.
In France, during the “Siècle des Lumières” (XVIII century, give or take depending on the source), the depressing duck was a constant companion to more than a few famous artists. Even today, it is not uncommon to see young people in search of inspiration willingly fall prey to this most devious creature.

mardi 26 août 2014


I am.

Sludgy mucus rasps onomatopeously against swollen sinuses, sucking noises grasping my ears. Throat sore and aching itches as bacterias spread, my vicinity and incubator for those too foolish to stay away.

Paper fills with brain-sludge as my heart pounds against my head with every sneeze. My body curls up tight against the cold and the woes of old seem near at hand.

What it must have been like, in a shabby little cottage, wet and moldy, with no honey in your tea and no tea in your water, drinking molten ice in rusty cups. Getting a kick in the arse for lying around when there is nothing else you can do, slouching achingly towards the door, feeling as if leaving forever more.

But even if it was worse before, today too, I hate being sick.

dimanche 24 août 2014

Animals that don't Exist

The Cloud Eater

The cloud eater, Passer vesconimbus, is related to the common house sparrow, Passer domesticus. Although the species has only been discovered recently, sightings of the cloud eater have been reported for over a thousand years, if only sporadically. In Europe, they were believed to protect the people from floods, and were thought to be messengers of God, since they lived so close to him. In the more arid parts of Africa, they were welcomed as the bringers of rain, and the first sightings of cloud eaters would be the signal to start the rain festivals that announced the beginning of the new harvest.
In the beginning of the XVIIth century, as the renaissance started, and people began to rely more on science, the myths surrounding the cloud eater, and the existence of the species, begun to be dismissed as superstition. It would take another three hundred years to conclusively prove its existence.
Just as his name indicates, the cloud eater eats, well, clouds. Or, to be more precise, the cloud eater eats the tiny organisms that live inside the clouds. These organisms, which often have been imported into the cloud through evaporation, and stay within the water vapor thanks to Brownian motion, have an effect on cloud formations and eventual precipitation. And by eating them and regulating their population, so does the cloud eater.
Due mostly to the increased pollution levels found in the atmosphere, as well as the direct interference by planes that has increased drastically these past years, cloud eater populations are on decline around the globe. And it seems that there absence is having a dramatic effect on precipitations around the world.
The diminution of cloud eater populations means an increase of microbial life in the clouds. This increase, in turn, means that the effect of said microbial populations on cloud formation and precipitation events is increased. Given that these microbes act mainly as catalysts to precipitation, their increase has led to shorter half-life times for clouds, meaning that precipitations occur much sooner in the cloud's life-cycle. Concretely, what this means is that places with little precipitation will have even less from now on, since clouds will tend to “pour out” their water sooner. This will lead to a marked skew in precipitation throughout the world, causing floods in places close to cloud-forming events, and droughts in those far away.
Even though not only biologists, but the whole of the scientific community has stressed the importance of the cloud eater in regulating water flow, conservation efforts are still remarkably feeble in comparison to the increased pollution that we see.
In some parts of the world, it is now believed that the clouds are mourning the passing of their friends, and that is why they cannot stop crying.

jeudi 21 août 2014

Animals that don't Exist

The Underdog

The underdog, Canis basus, is a species of the Canidae that is found exclusively in urban habitats. In contrast to other members of the same family, the underdog is a solitary creature, living mostly in basements and sewers, and seldom seen in the light of day.
The origin of the species is unknown, but it is believed that the underdog separated from the common dog, Canus lupus familiaris, about two thousand years ago. Although this timespan is extremely short for pronounced speciation in a mammal, behavioral, morphological and genetic analysis leave no doubt that the underdog is indeed a separate species.
Its body is smaller than that of other dogs, and its teeth are more adapted to a diet consisting exclusively of carrion and leftovers. Genetic differences can be observed in the nuclear as well as mitochondrial DNA, and are believed to be responsible for the underdog’s extremely efficient metabolism. Indeed, and underdog can survive on one hundred grams of fetid meat (3.5 oz.) for several days without showing any signs of fatigue or reduced activity.
A recently emitted theory for the appearance of the underdog suggests that the species separated from the dog mainly because of behavioral traits, namely its reduced social affinity. The individuals that separated from the group would mate with each other, reinforcing the genetic disparity between the two species-to-be. Morphological and genetic changes would follow to account for the solitary lifestyle.
The example of the underdog does illustrate the importance of behavioral differences in speciation quite nicely. Often overlooked by pundits, behavioral differences are the first signs of speciation, and differences therein are considered one of the main factors for reproductive isolation in early speciation events that happen without physical separation of individuals.

Even today, it is believed that singing birds living in urban areas are becoming reproductively isolated from those in more rural settings, because they adapt their singing to be heard over the noise of the town. This difference in tune prohibits them from attracting, or being attracted to, their rural cousins.

dimanche 17 août 2014

Animals that don't Exist

The Drunken Gnu

The drunken gnu, Connochaetes inhebris, is not, as commonly assumed, an inebriated Linux user. Rather, it is a nomadic species of even-toed beasts in Africa.
The drunken gnu, close relative to the blue wildebeest, Connochaetes taurinus, is found mostly in central Africa, where it follows the seasonal ripening of fruits, feeding on whatever is available, and migrating in accordance with the rains. Except that, in opposition to other species, of which most have the same migratory pattern, the drunken gnu is, so to say, late.
Arriving always one or two weeks after the ideal period, the drunken gnus eat mostly old fruits, partially rotten, in which fermentation has already begun. Hence their name.
A herd of drunken gnus that has just left a feeding place can be scary to behold. The members of the herd will stumble, and sometimes even fall, as they keep on advancing, copulating here and there.
Even the young gnus participate in the orgy of rotten fruit, and excessive consummation of alcohol is believed to be the major cause of death in drunken gnus. Only during the heaviest of rains do they drink water, and eat grass, as their cousins are wont to do.
In African culture, the drunken gnus have held a rather polemic place. Most communities, especially Islamic villages in the northern parts of central Africa, hold the drunken gnus in contempt for their abuse of alcohol, and consider them an abomination of nature. Ironically, this very condemnation might have saved the drunken gnus, since they are neither eaten nor hunted by the people of the north, but simply shunned.
In the south, however, opinions are more nuanced. Even though there are those who think the beasts savage and do not approach them, a cult has developed around the drunken gnus.
Some villages send their young adults on a pilgrimage, where they need to follow the gnus for a year, before they can truly claim to be adults. Others simply partake of rotten fruit at predetermined times, to revel in the effect. Even in Europe and northern America, the rite of the drunken gnu is observed zealously by some.

Sadly, due to disturbances in the rainfall pattern over the last years, as well as human destruction of its habitat, the drunken gnu is not faring well in recent times. In support to the beasts, the Queen of England has ordered a thousand bottles of scotch be delivered to them each year, in an effort to allow them to continue their normal life cycle.

jeudi 14 août 2014

Animals that don't Exist

The Egg-Plant

The egg-plant, Ovus plantus (not to be confused with the eggplant, Solanum melongena), is one of the curiosities that make biology interesting, and prove that real life will always refuse to fit into the categories we provide.
First discovered in Sri-Lanka in 1857, the egg-plant has been largely ignored by the scientific community, mainly because of the challenge of classifying it accurately. On the few occasions that it was mentioned, the utter lack of description on part of the authors (“...often found near the rather peculiar plant that the locals refer to as egg-plant.”for example, is the only mention made of it by what is otherwise considered a reference in tropical botany, Vegétation Sri-Lankaise by Jean-Bouis de la Foune, Éd. Gaillard, 1905) led people to believe they had simply misspelled “eggplant”. In recent years, however, a few biologists have taken a new look at this extravagant organism.
The egg-plant, as its name suggests, is a plant that has, well, eggs. Instead of fruits, its flower will produce between twenty and thirty eggs. Approximately one week after flowering, the eggs will hatch, birthing tiny organisms which resemble snails. These “snails” will then disperse, and, once they have found an appropriate habitat (the egg-plant prefers soils rich in decomposing matter), burrow into the soil and germinate. A year later, they will bear a flower in turn, and the process starts over.
Event though its “adult” form suggests plant-like nutrient absorption, the egg-plant takes its nourishment from decomposing animal carcasses. Its roots exude a powerful smell, which will attract the organisms in the soil. Upon contact, however, they release a strong neurotoxine, immobilizing, and then killing, their prey. Ingestion of the egg-plant is fatal even in small doses.
Early approaches at classification placed the egg-plant next to other toxic plants of the region, notably Adenia hondala. More recent studies, however, involving genetic analysis, have disproved this classification, and determined once and for all that the egg-plant is, in fact, no plant at all.
Despite what its greenish coloring may lead to believe, the egg-plant does not contain any chloroplasts. Instead, it stores little “bags” of pigments in its cells, which have been mistaken for chloroplasts by earlier scientists, partly because of less powerful microscopes, and partly because they fit into conventional thinking. But as has now been proven, egg-plants are closely related to jellyfish.
Jellyfish spend their life in two states: free-swimming (the jellyfish, or medusa) and stationary (the polyp). It was this resemblances in life-cycles that first led Jack Russel, from the California Institute of Lost Species (CALS), to look in the right direction.
After a lengthy study of the species, which involved genetic analyses of over two-thousand specimens, it has now been determined that the egg-plant is indeed a descendant of the jellyfish, who has made the leap from the sea to the land almost sixty million years ago, shortly after the dinosaurs were wiped from the face of the earth.
Despite its toxicity, or maybe because of it, the egg-plant holds a special place in Sri-Lankan culture, where it is both revered and feared. Revered because areas around it are mostly clean of vermin, who do not go near it due to its toxicity (or end up being eaten by it), and feared because of the lethal effect of its poison. A number of accounts confirm that at one point, human sacrifices were made in its honor, since people believed that planting and egg-plant on top of a fresh corpse would enhance its powers. Technically speaking, they were right.

mardi 12 août 2014

Random Showers

At eight a.m., the sun peaks shyly through the clouds. Rain gently drips through green leaves, and although we're closer to autumn, for a few minutes it feels like spring.

At eleven a.m., the sky is dark and ominous. Rain falls mournfully from the clouds, and it feels like summer is over.

At four p.m., lightening flashes in the sky. A heavy downpour batters the ground like a summer storm.

At nine p.m., the sun has already set. Icy drizzle falls from the sky, a messenger of winter.

As I look out from behind my glass pane, the seasons change in a matter of hours. And I'm thinking I should have taken my jacket after all.

dimanche 10 août 2014

Animals that don't Exist

The Nazi Mosquito

The nazi mosquito, Culex nazius, is one of the lesser-known experimental leftovers of World War II. Other than the massive loss of human live and a complete lack of humanity, the second World War is also known for its strange experiments, ranging from the absurdly cruel to the simply hilarious. It seems governments were ready to try anything that might give them a military edge. And they often did.
The fact that Nazi Scientists at Dachau were studying methods to effectively air-drop malaria-carrying mosquitoes into enemy territory is no secret anymore. Both the Allies and the Japanese were conducting research into biological warfare at the time, and it is no surprise the Nazis did the same, even though Hitler publicly prohibited such activities. Whether these programs operated with or without the Führer's consent is as of yet unknown. But the fact of the matter is, air-dropping Anopheles was but one of several practical uses of mosquitoes that was being studied.
The origin of the nazi mosquito resided in one simple fact: mosquitoes are annoying. More than one front had reported being unable to operate properly due to the presence of mosquitoes. Soldiers became unable to sleep due to the constant buzzing, and the itching bites sapped moral, and transmitted diseases. In short, mosquitoes were a pest. Up to this point, however, they were equally so for friend and foe. But if mosquitoes could be trained to attack one camp more than the other, the advantage would be enormous.
The exact files on how the Nazi scientists tried to train mosquitoes have been lost, but it is believed that natural selection would have been the main means of creating a desired breed, genetic manipulation not having been perfected yet. One way or another, the result was a sub-species of mosquitoes much more ferocious in its blood-sucking habits, although still unable to differentiate between friend and foe. As the war ended and facilities were abandoned, it seems that the nazi mosquito escaped the confines of the laboratory were it had been created.
Due to its voracious nature, it propagated throughout Europe with amazing speed. Displacing local mosquito populations, it quickly flourished in the war-torn remnants of towns and villages. The constant comings and goings of overseas war personnel allowed it to colonize the whole world in a matter of years, and today, the nazi mosquito is the most widespread species of Culicidae on the planet.
In addition to being more of a pest than other species in and of itself, the nazi mosquito's savage competition for resources has led other species around the globe to increase in virulence as well, and it is believed that the spread of the nazi mosquito is the reason for the steep increase in diseases spread by mosquitoes worldwide.
Since its discovery in 2007 (mostly due to the recovery of lost research files, as well as analysis of mosquito behavior throughout the world, since morphological differences do not permit a definitive identification), scientists have been desperate to find a way to reverse, or at least stop, the spread of the nazi mosquito, and the dangerous consequences it has on its cousins. It is thanks to these efforts that John Whatitsworth, Phd at the Insect Institute of America (IIA) has discovered that, when confronted with a person raising its right hand and shouting “Sieg Heil!”, the nazi mosquito will turn away. The results are encouraging, if not conclusive, and dr. Whatitsworth hopes to conduct a mass study with several thousand participants to test his hypothesis in a statistically significant setting.

jeudi 7 août 2014

Animals that don't Exist

The Singing Spider

The singing spider, Misumena cantante, is a rather peculiar species of crab spider found throughout Spain, Italy and the south of France. Like most crab spiders, it is an ambush predator, waiting for its prey to stray within its reach. Except that when the prey does, the singing spider does not pounce. It starts to sing.
Singing spiders emit a high-pitched sound, which immobilizes their prey. Depending on the prey, they modulate the sound in four to five different patterns, which vary with the region they inhabit. While continuing to “sing”, the singing spider “dances” around its prey to tie it up with its silk. Once they prey is securely tied up, it then proceeds to inject its venom.
The hunting method of the singing spider might be long-winded in comparison with that of other crab spiders (the singing spider's “performance” can last up to thirty minutes, whereas other species of the same family only need a couple of seconds to kill their prey), but it allows them to catch much bigger prey than they could otherwise. A fully-grown female singing spider measures around 1 cm (0.39 inches), and is capable of capturing invertebrates of up to 5 cm (2 inches). Although the males are distinctively smaller than the females, they too can catch prey of up to 5 times their body size.
Morphological studies at the “Institut de Recherche de la Musicalité Insectoïde” (IRMI), in Toulouse, have shown that a series of openings in the underside of the thorax, which can be closed and opened, and that are connected to the trachea in the abdomen, and through which they can pump air through muscular contraction, are used to produce the paralyzing sound. In other spiders, no muscular contraction is used for breathing, which is why doctor Louis de la Raignée, the lead scientist for the IRMI study, believes that this mechanism has evolved solely for the purpose of “singing”.
It has been observed that it will only “sing” to prey that is at least three times its size. Otherwise, it either hides in a hole it digs in the ground, or, if the prey is small enough, catches it with its chelicerae. This is probably due to the high risk of detection by predators during capture. The size of the prey is directly related to the trade-off between risk and benefits, and it has been shown that depending on perceived risk of predation, minimum “singing” size will change in a predictable manner. Since maximum size does not change, it is believed that the increase in effort for capture of prey increases less than the payoff. Thus, the upper maximum must be related to the tensile strength of the silk.
Curiously, the different patterns of singing spiders are closely related to the “traditional” music of the regions in which they live. It has been observed that singing spiders in captivity will modify their patterns depending on the music they listen to (which can greatly influence their hunting success rate). Although this seems to indicate that the spiders are the ones adapting to their environment, genetic studies by the IRMI show that the dispersion of the singing spider, originating in Italy, precedes the spread of Italian music during the Renaissance by an estimated ten to twenty years.

mardi 5 août 2014

To Fast to Feel

The speed of a neural signal can be up to 322 km/h (200 mph). When we are thinking, we are firing off signals at 20-30 meters per second (70 to 100 feet per second). It is an extremely fast process, especially when we take in sceneries that we see for the first time.
On the other hand, hormones spread through diffusion, and with the help of the bloodstream. It is a much slower physical process. And hormones are known to play an important role in our emotional state.
In a world where everything is moving faster and faster, when even our brain is barely keeping up, how are we supposed to feel?

dimanche 3 août 2014

Animals that don't Exist

The Magic Scorpion

The magic scorpion, Hottentotta opius, is closely related to the Indian red scorpion, Hottentotta tamulus, considered to be the worlds most toxic scorpion. However, although its poison is indeed strong, the magic scorpion has an entirely different class of toxins than tamalus.
Indeed, the magic scorpion's poison is much closer in its molecular composition to an opiate cocktail, rather than the usual toxic proteins found in other scorpions. This is probably due to the fact that the magic scorpion is often found near poppy plants, Papaver somniferum. Like all scorpions, the magic scorpion stores waste and other toxic by-products of its metabolism in its stinger. Given its omnivorous nature, it is believed that repeated ingestion of insects feeding on the poppy plants is the cause of the high opiate concentration in its venom.
Despite the fact that scorpions are feared the world over for their toxicity, the magic scorpion has always enjoyed a high standing in Indian culture, especially before the arrival of synthesized pain-killers. Used in religious ceremonies as well as primitive medicine, it has been considered as a gift from the goods in Hindu culture, allowing the shamans to attain nirvana, and relieving the suffering of the people. The rarity of the animal, which has been recently classified as a red-list endangered species, has made sure that abuse of its venom is kept to a minimum.
Having been mostly forgotten after the arrival of synthetic drugs, except in very traditional communities, the magic scorpion has recently known a revival of its fame. Western tourists see it as a way to experience the “authentic” Indian meditation, and black trade of the animals has flourished in recent years. It is those same tourists who have coined its vernacular name in the west, in allusion to the hallucinogenic properties of magic mushrooms.
The black market combined with the destruction of their natural habitat, has reduced the numbers of magic scorpions found in the wild to an alarming level. The animals experienced a brief rest on the road to extinction when the opium trade was in full swing, and poppy fields were common in numerous parts of the world. However, the appearance of the seemingly dangerous animals pushed poppy farmers to use a large amount of pesticides, which caused not only the animals to disappear, but which also render the end product, opium, much more toxic that it would otherwise be.
Today, it seems the last chance for the survival of the species lies with western tourists, some of which have recently begun attempts to farm the animal. Legislation on the sale and use of magic scorpions is unclear as of yet, and it remains to be seen whether or not the animals will become the next “legal high”.