Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

One-Eyed Shark Fetuses and Other Animal Wonders

If I recall Hamlet's lines to his chum Horatio, it was something like, "Yo, Ratio-dude, there's like a crapload of things in heaven and earth - especially earth - way more than are even dreamed about in your Plato 'n shit." (William Shakespeare, Hamlet Unplugged, New Revised Edition for the victims of Unistat's secondary school system)

And Hamlet might produce as Exhibit A, this:

Caught off Baja California, a victim (?) of a genetic condition called "cyclopia," which apparently can afflict humans also. I do not want to see that picture; this one was disturbing enough. I found Marty Feldman quite enough for my tastes. But this? It's like Nature imitating Art, namely The Simpsons, and the Fukushima jokes were flowing like irradiated sake yesterday when this critter emerged and flopped all over the decks of the Internet. Chime in with the best pun or joke you've heard about in the comments, if you wish.

Wild Lighting Among Scorpions (and Other Critters)
An enchanting aspect of life is animals that give off light themselves, as if they had captured some sun and are radiating it back so we can see them propel through the oceans or scurry along the lands or flit through the warm summer fields. The more biology-based term is bioluminescence, and very many animals and smaller organisms and even some mushrooms have it. Biologists theorize that this light-emitting property evolved for many "reasons," namely as a communication device, to repulse foes, to attract partners, and as camouflage.

It works when a chemical in the body called - appropriately - luciferin reacts with oxygen and gives off energy in the form of light on the electromagnetic spectrum such that we humans can see them with our naked eyes. Marine biologists estimate that in the darkest depths of the ocean up to 90% of the odd critters bioluminesce to some degree. And many species of squid shine their inner lights, too. But closer to home, fireflies, glow-worms, and some spiders "do it" too.

Check out this scorpion, as seen under blacklight at night in California's Mojave Desert. I can't tell if this is due to luciferin or not, but it sure gives me pause:

It appears that geneticists have learned quite a lot about this complex process, and I imagine the psychedelic uses when they have genetically engineered Christmas trees that already light up on their own. This is apparently a very real possibility. There's an idea for planting trees that give off their own light along dark stretches of road, so as to save on electricity. There will be crops and houseplants that start glowing when they need water. Foods will light up when they've been contaminated by bacteria. The creepiest suggestion I've seen along these lines: using bio-luminescent markers for possible escaped convicts or mental patients. For more on this phenomenon, and proof that I wasn't yankin' your chain with the Christmas tree and escaped convicts and all, see this informative article.

O! Brave new world that has such freaky stuff in it! (Okay, that'll be all from my quote-manglings of The Bard for this blogspew, I promise.)

Zombified Ants and Moths: The Curse of the Fungi! The Dread of the Virus!
This eerie science fiction-y horror mechanism really kills me, because when I lived in Los Angeles I used to love to visit a tiny place called The Museum of Jurassic Technology, which one of Unistat's best non-fiction writers, Lawrence Weschler, wrote an entire book about, called Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder. The Wilson here is David Wilson, an Irishman with a devastating wit, and a MacArthur "Genius" Award under his belt. When I first read Weschler and then visited the MJT, I realized the museum was one big work of guerrilla ontology: it seemed like a real museum, but the claims made, the very choice of exhibits, made you wonder very deeply if your leg was being pulled, or to what extent it was being pulled, and when. Some of the stuff was so weird I felt Wilson had to be putting me/us on. Other stuff seemed reasonably plausible, if exceedingly odd (like the exhibit of microminiaturized art by "Hagop Sandaljian," who apparently "really" existed and did this stuff, after he developed a new way of playing the violin. But I digress...

Each time I returned to this magical place, I felt I "knew" which exhibits were based on "real" things, which ones were wildly imaginative fakes meant to confound us, and which ones were just "strange but true" verifiable "facts." But I was never totally sure of myself. The feeling of not being quite sure is the test, the crux, the heart of the matter, I now feel. It's like a test of a person's "negative capability." I think Wilson's impish humor mesmerizing.

One exhibit I felt was too fantastical to (maybe?) be real was the impressive visual display of the Stink Ant from Cameroon, which supposedly had its brain infected by some fungal spores, which made it climb to the top of tall trees in the rain forest, nail itself to a leaf, then die and rain down spores onto the forest floor for other ants to get infected and repeat the same zombifying dynamic, over and over.

                                          Here the fungus Ophlocordyceps camponoti-balzani grows directly out 
                                          of the head of its zombified host ant in the Brazilian rain forest. For more, here.

I thought Wilson was really fucking with me on that one. It plays into our deep-seated paranoia of being invisibly, indiscernibly invaded from without and being deprived of autonomy and agency, like the great Manchurian Candidate-ish Communist scare, the "chemtrails" you read about in conspiracy books, the Illuminati that have brainwashed the entire population, and you're the only one who can see through it! You must wake up the Others, somehow!...this is a long list, folks. Needless to say: etc, etc, etc.

But it turns out Wilson was on the up-and-up with this story. There's a moth in the Brazilian rain forest that, instead of mixing in with safe tree-bark, gets infected by a virus (a baculovirus), whereby it climbs to the top of the tree, to be eaten by birds, or if not eaten, dies, liquefies, and rains down virus to the underlying foliage or the forest floor, to be picked up by other unsuspecting moths, and the story repeated. Biologists working on this problem don't know the exact story, but they're working on it. It does happen! The mechanism is understood, but as scientists sometimes say, not well understood.

The Cameroonian Stink Ant story from the Museum of Jurassic Technology is HERE, sketched out. I didn't believe it. If you live near LA, I strongly encourage you to visit this little museum, which is a work of art in itself.

This bizarre zombification happens to other ants, too. A fungus in the area emits spores, which get into an ant's system, and instead of a worker ant going through his absurdly strict meta-communist life of working his pre-programmed routine doing what he does for the good of the hive and then dying, the spore zombifies the ant, and he leaves his comrades, climbs up a tree to a leaf that is 30 centimeters off the ground, with the sun alighting on the leaf just so. The ant clamps his jaws to a vein on the underside of the leaf, then the fungus's chemical attack totally overwhelms the ant's nervous system: the ant's body turns into a spore-producing factory as its carcass continues to emit infectious spores for up to a year.

One scientist says the fungus in this case is the same fungus that gave rise to LSD, so ponder that for a few long moments, friends! (I have done LSD and was "never the same," but I assess the changes as wholly positive. Hmmm...If this isn't cosmically hilarious, I don't know what is!)

If "God" created everything, He/She/It had an exceedingly bizarre sense of humor, I must say! (Maybe even a "devilish" sense of humor? Muahahaha!...Hey! It's almost Halloween. Humor me?)

To further your reading on this exceeding weirdness, maybe start HERE and HERE. Good pics there, too. BREAKING NEWS: As I was finishing this bit, Wired Science came in with this one. Wow!

How Your Cat Subliminally Manipulates You
I have two male cats, one an indoor-outdoor "tough guy" who likes to share his prey with us by leaving half-eaten mice, rats, gophers, and even birds on our doorstep. He's actually a really sweet guy, very easy to get along with. He sits patiently by the door and stares until we notice him, then we let him out.

The other cat is 16 and about 95% indoor. I fell in love with him at first sight when someone was giving away kittens. He's all-black, with long hair, sorta like a Maine Coon. Here's a typical Main Coon. My guy is all-black with a huge furry tail and probably has some Maine Coon in him:

When my guy - Mister Jinx, if you must know his name - was around six or seven, he began to seem like a spoiled brat. And I blamed myself. I gave him everything he ever wanted, whenever he wanted it. It seems his two favorite things in life were eating and sitting on my lap late at night when I watched old movies, like the films noir I wrote about recently.

Then I began to notice his crying demands were becoming overly annoying. He'd developed a sort of meow-cry-purr that demanded I drop whatever I was engaged in and feed him. Or sometimes he just wanted my attention, to be picked up and held.

Then, one day, I stumbled onto an article that provided that "Ah-Ha!" moment most of us reader-types find so delightful. It turns out this is a common thing: cats develop a strategy of crying out in just such a way that it activates something subliminally parental in us, probably evolved over millennia to keep us attentive to our human children. Here's a short report on this.
I find wonders in the animal-human-plant symbiotic world contain innumerable opportunities for moments of transcendence, and at times the astonishment at how wonderfully weird "reality" seems to lead to what the Greeks called ekstasis, or "standing outside one's self."

If you have any favorite animal-plant-human stories along these lines, feel free to turn me on!

                                          Bioluminescence, by Rachel Anderson. So far scientists  
                                                                have found no mermaids. So far...

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