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What are you strange blue creature?

Last weekend I was walking my dog along the beach, an almost daily ritual for me and my very energetic canine. While he runs around sniffing (and attempts snarfling) everything he can find and trying to engage every dog (and sometimes human) he can find in a rousing game of chase, I

What are you and why are you so pretty/strange looking?! Photo by yours truly

What are you and why are you so pretty/strange looking?! Photo by yours truly

usually occupy my time looking for squid eggs along the water line or chiton plates by the tide pools. This time though, I didn’t have to look very hard for something interesting to look at. Mixed in with the kelp and debris usually found on the beach were tons of these weird 3-4 inch long blue squishy things with what seemed like a piece of plastic jammed in the top. I had never seen anything like it. Immediately the phone came out, pictures were taken and sent to fellow marine biologists, squishy things were poked, and guesses were made. Egg sac? Weirdly deformed limpet? Finally a friend responded that they were some type of cnidarian but she couldn’t remember the name. Hmmm…cnidarian did you say?

For those of you who may not know, cnidaria is the group that jellyfish and sea anemones belong to. But my brilliant blue friends were neither jellyfish nor anemone. They belong to another group within cnidaria called hydrozoa. Many of you have heard of a hydrozoan before, but you might have always thought it was a jellyfish. The Portuguese man o’ war known for its extremely painful sting (and is coincidentally, also blue) is not a jellyfish but is in fact a hydrozoan. What’s the difference you ask? A jellyfish is one animal, while a hydrozoan is a colony of lots of little individuals.

So what sort of hydrozoan are these little guys? In times like these I say thank goodness for the internet. They are Velella velella, also known as by-the-wind sailors, because they use that plastic headpiece as a sail and must, quite literally, go where the wind takes them. So while no one is certain why so many of these guys are washing up right now, it is probably due to the way the wind blows. And if you see these little critters on the beach not to worry, they don’t sting humans. They prefer delicious little plankton. So feel free to give them a poke!


30,000 year old virus can still kill…amoebae

Amoebae, run for your lives! (Actually, amoebas can only fake run, because they only have fake feet). All jokes aside, this could actually be a big deal. French biologists were able to thaw out a 30,000 year old virus that has sat frozen in Siberian ice like John Carpenter’s The Thing just waiting for unsuspecting scientists to release is from its frozen tomb so it can wreak havoc on the amoeba population (its target of choice). The crazy thing is, it is still infectious.

Amoebae know what evils lurk here

Amoebae know what evils lurk here

This is actually the biggest virus ever found, and is part of a group called, get this, giant viruses. And while this particular virus is not dangerous to us, could there be more viruses out there? Bigger? Deadlier? Hungrier for human flesh? Another virologist finds it unlikely. Dr. Suttle of the University of British Columbia told Scientific American he thought the idea of ancient viruses from ice melting as a result of global warming infecting the masses “stretches the scientific rationality to the breaking point.”

But I’m not sure this should be written off so quickly. Somewhere in Antarctica sits a shape shifting alien menace just waiting for the melting ice caps to set it free.

Death of snake handler highlights the dangers of dangerous animals

This Saturday pastor Jamie Coots, well known for his habit of handling snakes as a way to show his relationship with god, was killed by a snakebite. Now, I do my best not to insult other people’s religious beliefs, and the point I want to make here goes way beyond religion. Frankly, it is amazing (I won’t dare say miracle) that Coots wasn’t killed before. There is a reason why owning

A snake handler at the Pentecostal Church in Kentucky in 1946. This practice has gone on in the Appalachian region since it was first introduced in the early 1900s.

A snake handler at the Pentecostal Church in Kentucky in 1946. This practice has gone on in the Appalachian region since it was first introduced in the early 1900s.

and handling the snakes he used is illegal, and I feel like this should be rather obvious, and those who agree with me may feel free to skip this particular post.

I would attribute Coots’ success not to divine intervention, but rather to an in-depth knowledge of snake behavior. As a third generation snake handler I’m betting his family taught Coots the tricks of the trade, though I don’t doubt that Coots truly believed his faith kept him safe. But the problem is that no matter how well you understand animal behavior when it comes to wild animals, nothing is certain.

Take Steve Irwin, my childhood hero. I’m not sure there was another person on earth who understood animals better than he did. He handled every dangerous animal you could imagine, but just one small mistake with a stingray cost him his life. And then there’s Siegfried and Roy, who performed magic shows with white tigers and lions for over 30 years before the horrifying moment when Roy was almost killed by a white tiger during a show. No matter how well you know an animal, if doesn’t have the genetic ability (called domestication) to learn to interact with humans there is always a chance it could accidentally, or intentionally hurt someone.

This is why, when my friend forwarded me the video of the man who hugs lions my mind immediately raced from “Wow that’s crazy!” to “Oh god this cannot end well.” Because while I do believe it is amazing and kind of wonderful that this man was able to develop this sort of relationship with these wild animals, there is every chance he will end up as another Grizzly Man.

When I first heard about Jamie Coots my first thought was that while sad, perhaps his death could show other religious snake handlers that religious faith is not enough to protect you from these unpredictable and lethal animals. But then I found an article saying the exact opposite, that preachers expect his death to inspire more people to handle venomous snakes as a display of faith. I won’t get into how backwards I find this logic. And honestly, if you want to do something foolish that could very well end in your death, ordinarily I would say that’s your decision. But when an animal causes human injury or death, it is usually the animal that is blamed regardless of the circumstances, and it is usually the animal that is punished. I don’t mean to get preachy (sorry, couldn’t help myself) and I know some people might get sick of these talks always coming back to being about animal welfare, but someone needs to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. And because the message still hasn’t sunk in. Animals do not speak our language, and they aren’t malicious or spiteful. All they can do is react to the situations they are in the only way they know how.

Is that snow, or is it plastic? (It’s snow)

So once again my mom has proven much better than me at finding cool blog post ideas. The newest craze that has “gone viral” as the kids say, is the idea that the unusual snowfall in Georgia is…duh duh duh!… not real snow! There are several do it yourself experiments being demonstrated all over Youtube to prove this theory. Let’s take a look.

In this video for example, the man exclaims “Where is the water!” as he holds first a lighter, then a blowtorch to some snow he

Georgia, 1902. Back then the chemtrails were produced via carrier pigeons.

Georgia, 1902. Back then the chemtrails were produced via carrier pigeons.

had just collected outside his house. He believes the government (or somebody) is spraying chemicals (known as chemtrails) to make snow to slow down “global warming” (his quotation marks) and this is the result. He does multiple tests, proves the lighter is real, then shows what happens when you do the same thing to an ice-cube.

What we have here folks is an example of people taking solid scientific concepts that they don’t fully understand and coming to the wrong conclusion as a result of it. On the face of it, he does seem to be conducting his experiment objectively, with an experimental group (snow) and a control group (ice). But he doesn’t take into account the subtle but important differences between snow and ice cubes: density. Basically, density refers to how much of something there is compared to its size. In and ice-cube, there is a lot of ice and very little air. In snow, there is a lot of air and very little water.  Ergo, ice is denser than snow, and it’s why when you melt snow in your mouth (which is something I still do impulsively anytime I see snow anywhere) you get a lot less water compared to how much snow you scooped up. And it’s why you wouldn’t expect melted snow to create as much water as an ice-cube.

“But wait!” the people at Fox News are calling out to me, “There wasn’t ANY water when he melted the snow!”

Not true, but as explained in this Slate article, the rest of the snow absorbs the melting water. If you look closely, you can see the snow becoming more clear and shiny both after the lighter and the blowtorch. That would be water. Other articles (yes, I know this one is from a government website, that doesn’t make it a conspiracy) explain a process called sublimation, where the melting step is skipped over and a solid goes straight to gas.

Now what about this video? This one is a bit more convincing. This time, the snow does not melt (at least not very quickly), and it turns black where the lighter touches it. The star of the film also claims to smell burning plastic. Well, some parts of this are easier for me to explain than others. The blackness on the snow is easy. This is most likely impurities from the lighter collecting on the snow. Most fuels (especially those in barbecue lighters) are not pure. When you burn them, you release the impurities. Sometimes you see these as smoke or soot. It’s why anything that has been near a lot of open flame starts to turn black, like chimneys. Again, we have the water being absorbed by snow to explain the lack of melting. The plastic smell? I’m guessing it’s either from the lighter itself or she singed her gloves.

But let’s ignore what I have to say about the matter. For a moment, don’t trust anything I just said, and think about these questions instead. If this is in fact plastic snow that CANNOT melt when held against a flame, how will the people behind the conspiracy keep it up when temperatures get above freezing? Normal snow would start melting above 32 degrees Fahrenheit. That is a lot colder than that lighter. I think people will notice when we’re halfway through June and the snow hasn’t gone anywhere. And if it does just turn straight to gas as some people are claiming, even people in Atlanta will notice that the snow isn’t first turning to slush, then puddles, then disappearing all together. And don’t you think all my snow eating brethren will notice if the snow tastes like plastic? It just doesn’t hold up.

Here’s the thing, I am VERY against the excessive use of chemicals. I buy organic, I don’t like pesticides, I’m pretty much into all that hippie dippie nonsense. And I’m not an idiot, I know the government is probably doing a lot of stuff we don’t know about. I watch The X-Files, I know the truth is out there. I just don’t think this particular conspiracy theory makes one lick of sense. With half our government refusing to even acknowledge that climate change exists, how are they going to get the money or approval to use chemtrails to create snow? AND even if there is a secret government lab at President Obama’s bidding, climate change doesn’t seem to be a top priority of his right now. AND even if that is a ruse too and it is secretly his sole mission to reverse climate change through chemical warfare on the planet it would be way, WAY better than this. You would not know. No home science experiment could uncover the lies. If there was an army of scientists trying to trick you into believing in the polar vortex, you would have absolutely no way of proving otherwise.

But I do want to leave you with one last thought. I think it is awesome that these people are at home, testing these ideas for themselves. I just wish they would do all the research instead of just jumping on the conclusion that fits with an idea they had going in. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and even established scientists are not immune. But I just wish it didn’t take the idea of a government conspiracy to get people to start exploring the world around them. If we would all take a little more time to see and understand this world, then we wouldn’t be as quick to believe every wild tale that came our way.

Whither thou goest, I will go

It seems like more and more often in the news you hear stories of whales getting stranded on beaches. But here’s something you don’t see every day: conjoined whale twins (what do you call that, a pair of conjoined twins? I feel like that sounds like four twins) washed up on a beach in on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. The whales were joined at the hip which, while cut for some twins, did not work out so well for them. The whales (which from behind look kind of like they tried to get Ursula to make them human, but I guess that spell only works on species that are half human to begin with) each had separate tails and separate heads.

When you look at the twins, it’s kind of hard to imagine that these guys ever had a fighting chance. But then again, there are some pretty amazing success stories out there. A couple of years ago I went to the Mutter Museum with a couple of college friends. We later found out that we were perhaps a little too squeamish for the experience. For those of you who aren’t familiar, the Mutter Museum is this quaint little building in Philadelphia that houses the most grotesque things you could possibly imagine. There was an entire wall with pictures of eye diseases. EYE DISEASES!!! As a person who has spent most of her life with a bit of a phobia for eye damage, this was kind of a living hell.

But next to all the deformed fetuses in jars and pictures of disgusting skin infections was one of the most interesting

The Bunker families in 1865. The smile wasn't invented until 1920.

The Bunker families in 1865. The smile wasn’t invented until 1920. US-PD

stories I’ve ever heard. This was, of course, the story of Chang and Eng Bunker, twins who spent their entire lives conjoined at the abdomen. And when I say life, I don’t just mean they ate, slept, and performed as side-show freaks. These guys had lives. They married sisters (because they had to at least do something cliché) and had 21 kids between the two of them. They each had their own farms, switching back and forth every few days.

But here’s the real kicker. The twins had very different personalities. According to the museum’s display, one of the twins (I can’t remember which) was pretty quiet and laid back. The other one has quite the temper and also happened to be an alcoholic. Let me let that sink in a bit. One of the conjoined twins was an alcoholic, and they SHARED A FREAKING LIVER! Apologies for the superfluous use of caps lock but seriously, how is this even possible? I am flummoxed.

It’s just too bad the baby whales did not get to live such full and enriching lives.

The nature of wildfires

A smokey haze covers Monterey and gives some beautiful colors as the sun just begins to set

Poor visibility is hardly unusually in the Monterey Bay. In fact, it is the area’s trademark fog that allows the stunning and odd-looking cypress tress to make the area their home. However, the haze that has descended over the bay today is not the typical fog. That becomes obvious the moment you step outside. Instead of the damp ocean smell that is typical of the area, you instead find yourself sniffing curiously at the dry, sweet scent of wood smoke. Yes, even an hour north of the Big Sur fire we can see the effects in brilliant sun rises and sun sets, and smell the destruction miles away.

Wildfires are hardly uncommon in California. Early this fall the media was buzzing over the Rim Fire which threatened many beloved areas of Yosemite National Park. However, since wildfire season is usually over this time of year, the Big Sur fire was a bit of surprise. Many are commenting on how this is a demonstration of how dry conditions in California have been.

Wildfires always draw a lot of attention and resources because they often threaten human communities. The Big Sur fire has already destroyed at least 15 homes and caused 100 people to evacuate. This is why so much effort is put in containing and preventing forest fires. The problem is, forest fires are an important part of the natural process. They clear out brush and debris, and the destruction is crucial for the life cycle of many birds and plants. Fires have been getting worse over the years not just because of drought condition, but also because forest fire prevention has caused a buildup of highly flammable brush that should have been cleared out by other, probably smaller fires.

So when it comes down to it the problem isn’t forest fires, it’s our constant need to build where we really shouldn’t. People keep rebuilding after fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes destroy them. Humans seem to have a constant need to fight nature rather than work with it. It is a difficult problem, many feel that the rarity of these events and the beauty and benefits of living in at risk locations outweigh the potential dangers. I live in an area that could be wiped out by an earthquake or a tsunami at any minute, but it is an excellent place for marine biology research and so I think that makes it worth it. But still, we can’t be surprised when nature runs its course and we find ourselves smack in the middle of it. Because in the end despite our disproportional influence, we are all still just a small piece of this planet.