Credit: Houston Zoo Blogs.

The Secret Superpower of the World’s Cutest Animal

Venom is generally thought to be the property of snakes, lizards, and various creepy-crawlies. But they don’t have exclusive rights, and mammals are not to be outdone. Some members of our hairy brethren have also shown a propensity for envenomating the unlucky. These would-be poisoners include the American shrew, the Haitian solenodon, and the most famous venomous mammal, the platypus.

The Haitian solenodon is a curious looking critter.

The Haitian solenodon is a curious looking critter. Credit: Eladio Fernandez

The playtpus, and other venomous mammals, are a little weird looking – weird enough that their poisonous bites (or elbow spurs, for the platypus) don’t seem too out of character. But the other venomous mammal? The new kid on the block? It’s not odd-looking – in fact, it’s probably the cutest animal on the entire planet: the slow loris.

Credit: Houston Zoo Blogs.

Credit: Houston Zoo Blogs.

Slow lorises are a collection of primate species that live in South East Asia. Currently, there are eight recognized species (up from one not too long ago), and the number will likely increase again as more research is done on them. They are a comparatively old genus of primate, related to lemurs and galagos (the adorable weirdos of the Primate order). They’re nocturnal, mostly solitary, and move (slowly) through the trees of tropical rainforests, and increasingly, fields of crops, feeding on insects and generally minding their own business.

They’re not monkeys, and will be sad if you call them monkeys, so please don’t.

Do you know what else makes slow lorises sad? Captivity.

Do you know what else makes slow lorises sad? Captivity.

Slow lorises have been in the news recently, thanks to singer Rihanna’s ill-informed decision to pose for a photo with one in Thailand, and then post it on Instagram (which led to the arrest of the people smuggling them, so that’s a happy ending for everyone who isn’t going to a Thai jail now). Prior to that, slow lorises were probably best known for that YouTube video of a loris being ‘tickled’. I’m not going to link to it, because that guy doesn’t really need anymore attention, but if you watch it, you should know that the loris isn’t raising its arms because it wants to be tickled – it’s raising its arms as a defense mechanism.

Now, as far as a defense mechanism goes, surrendering is not necessarily a winning strategy in the “red in tooth-and-claw” natural kingdom. But the slow loris has a trump card – its not raising its arms to surrender, but to access its venom glands.

In the wild, this sort of behaviour generally just gets you eaten.

In the wild, this sort of behaviour generally just gets you eaten…

On the arms of a slow loris, about where you’d get a bicep tattoo (if you were that sort of person), there are venom glands. These glands secrete Part A of the slow lorises venom. But there are problems with your body constantly leaking venom – for example, it makes cuddling difficult. So for the venom to become active, slow lorises mix it with their saliva (Part B). By licking the glands on their arms, slow lorises activate the venom, giving themselves a toxic bite.

...unless you have venomous armpits. Credit: Helga Schulze, in Krane et al 2003.

…unless you have venomous armpits. Credit: Helga Schulze, in Krane et al 2003.

And it can be a nasty bite, for such an adorable little animal. There has been at least one reported human death from a slow loris bite, and even if you don’t die, it is going to swell, pus, bleed, fester, and hurt for a long time. Which serves you right for trying to harass them. When smugglers catch slow lorises for the pet trade, they surgically remove the teeth to prevent bites to the  privileged idiots who illegally buy the animals later on.

The venom serves a number of purposes. It is strong enough to kill small prey, although loris teeth likely do that just as well. During the mating season, male lorises fight violently for access to females, and use their venomous bite to cause serious damage to one another. But again, their teeth would get the job done just as well. Producing venom is energetically-expensive, and would be difficult to favour evolutionarily without it providing a major survival or reproductive advantage at some point in a lorises lifetime. And if there’s one advantage a slow loris is always looking for, its how to not be eaten.

No, it's not trying to seduce you. It's loading up on venom (which you can see glistening around the nose). Credit: Anna Nekaris

No, it’s not trying to seduce you. It’s loading up on venom (which you can see glistening around the nose). Credit: Anna Nekaris

Lorises are small, slow, and vulnerable to many predators. They prefer to avoid confrontation, but that’s not always possible. So when travelling through the forest, the lorises will coat their fur in a layer of venom by licking themselves all over. Predators can smell the venom-wash, and are encouraged to find something else to eat. It’s so effective that slow lorises can saunter casually past the baleful glare of a jungle cat or a sunbear without fear – something that all tiny herbivores wish they could pull off with such aplomb. Rather than being an offensive weapon, the venom of a slow loris is defensive in function.

On the other hand, they shouldn’t get too cocky. While cats and bears shy away from the scent of slow loris venom, orangutans – another predator of lorises – seem to treat it like a healthy dollop of hot sauce on-top of a cute little appetizer. Sometimes even the cutest animal in the world can’t catch a break.

Oops. Credit: Madeleine Hardus.

Oops. Credit: Madeleine Hardus.

Featured photo by Houston Zoo Blogs


Dufton, Mark J. “Venomous Mammals.” Pharmacology & Therapeutics 53, no. 2 (1992): 199–215.

Klotz, John H., Stephen A. Klotz, and Jacob L. Pinnas. “Animal Bites and Stings with Anaphylactic Potential.” The Journal of Emergency Medicine 36, no. 2 (February 2009): 148–156. doi:10.1016/j.jemermed.2007.06.018.

Nekaris, Anne-Isola, Richard S Moore, Johanna Rode, and Bryan G Fry. “Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: The Biochemistry, Ecology and Evolution of Slow Loris Venom.” Journal of Venomous Animals and Toxins Including Tropical Diseases 19, no. 1 (2013): 21. doi:10.1186/1678-9199-19-21.

Whittington, C. M., A. T. Papenfuss, P. Bansal, A. M. Torres, E. S.W. Wong, J. E. Deakin, T. Graves, et al. “Defensins and the Convergent Evolution of Platypus and Reptile Venom Genes.” Genome Research 18, no. 6 (May 7, 2008): 986–994. doi:10.1101/gr.7149808.


Sunday Poem: Fall, Sierra Nevada

Fall, Sierra Nevada

by Kenneth Rexroth

excerpted from “Toward an Organic Philosophy”

This morning the hermit thrush was absent at breakfast,
His place was taken by a family of chickadees;
At noon a flock of hummingbirds passed south,
Whirling in the wind up over the saddle between
Ritter and Banner, following the migration lane
Of the Sierra crest southward to Guatemala.
All day cloud shadows have moved over the face of the mountain,
The shadow of a golden eagle weaving between them
Over the face of the glacier.
At sunset the half-moon rides on the bent back of the Scorpion,
The Great Bear kneels on the mountain.
Ten degrees below the moon
Venus sets in the haze arising from the Great Valley.
Jupiter, in opposition to the sun, rises in the alpenglow
Between the burnt peaks. The ventriloquial belling
Of an owl mingles with the bells of the waterfall.
Now there is distant thunder on the east wind.
The east face of the mountain above me
Is lit with far off lightnings and the sky
Above the pass blazes momentarily like an aurora.
Is is storming in the White Mountains,
On the arid fourteen-thousand-foot peaks;
Rain is falling on the narrow gray ranges
And dark sedge meadows and white salt flats of Nevada.
Just before moonset a small dense cumulus cloud,
Gleaming like a grape cluster of metal,
Moves over the Sierra crest and grows down the westward slope.
Frost, the color and quality of the cloud,
Lies over all the marsh below my campsite.
The wiry clumps of dwarfed whitebark pines
Are smoky and indistinct in the moonlight,
Only their shadows are really visible.
The lake is immobile and holds the stars
And the peaks deep in itself without a quiver.
In the shallows the geometrical tendrils of ice
Spread their wonderful mathematics in silence.
All night the eyes of deer shine for an instant
As they cross the radius of my firelight.
In the morning the trail will look like a sheep driveway,
All the tracks will point down to the lower canyon.
“Thus”, says Tyndall, “the concerns of this little place
Are changed and fashioned by the obliquity of the earth’s axis,
The chain of dependence which runs through creation,
And links the roll of a planet alike with the interests
Of marmots and of men.”


“Toward an Organic Philosophy” from The Collected Shorter Poems. Copyright © 1966 by Kenneth Rexroth.

Featured photo by Neil Griffin


Decoding the Honey Bee’s Dance

The careful insect ‘midst his works I view,
Now from the flowers exhaust the fragrant dew,
With golden treasures load his little thighs,
And steer his distant journey through the skies.

– John Gay, Rural Sports (canto I, l. 82)

In the summer of 1944, as World War 2 reached its climax, one man in the German country-side was turning his eyes away from the shattered world of men and looking towards a more orderly universe: that of the honey bee. Dr Karl von Frisch was an Austrian zoologist. Originally trained as a medical doctor, he found his true calling in animal behaviour. (I also went to university thinking I’d be a doctor, and somehow stumbled into animal behaviour – but the similarities end there). He basically invented the field of ethology (studying animal behaviour), and went on to win a Nobel Prize in 1973, all through the study of the humble honeybee.

Von Frisch had been studying the behaviour of honeybees for over 20 years, his fascination beginning as a post-doctorate student in 1914. At that time, received wisdom held that bees and other insects were simple creatures with poorly developed senses – colourblind automatons that buzzed to and fro in a random, endless search for flowers. von Frisch, rightfully, thought this idea was nonsense: “the bright colours of flowers,” he noted, “can be understood only as an adaptation to color-sensitive visitors.” So, following in the footsteps of all good iconoclasts, von Frisch decided to upend conventional wisdom.

Using a series of elegant experiments, von Frisch set out to prove that honeybees had colour vision – and he accidentally stumbled on to far more. First, von Frisch acquired a beehive with a glass wall, enabling him to observe the activity of the bees within the hive. Then, he captured a number of foraging bees and marked them with paint so that he could tell them apart. He then trained those foraging bees to associate a specific colour – blue – with the presence of food. The forager bees quickly learned to search only food bowls associated with the colour blue, and to ignore food bowls placed on grey or black pieces of paper. This proved that honey bees had some ability to differentiate between colours – and later, using the same methods von Frisch proved that bees can also differentiate red and yellow (completely unsurprising to anyone who has stood in a field of wild flowers).

But von Frisch noticed something else. When his scout bees found a blue dish full of nectar, they would return to the hive. After a short time, entire groups of foraging bees would leave the hive, and head directly for the blue dish – often in a group without the original scout bee. Somehow, the original bee was communicating to the rest of the hive – she was able to tell the rest of the group exactly where they would find food. Somehow, the bees were speaking with one another.

He observed the scout bees as they returned from their foraging expeditions. How did they act when they entered the hive? He found that upon returning to the hive, the foraging bee appears to dance:

“The foraging bee…begins to perform a kind of “round dance”. On the part of the comb where she is sitting she starts whirling around in a narrow circle, constantly changing her direction, turning now right, now left, dancing clockwise and anti-clockwise, in quick succession, describing between one and two circles in each direction. This dance is performed among the thickest bustle of the hive. What makes it so particularly striking and attractive is the way it infects the surrounding bees; those sitting next to the dancer start tripping after her, always trying to keep their outstretched feelers on close contact with the tip of her abdomen….They take part in each of her manoeuvrings so that the dancer herself, in her mad wheeling movements, appears to carry behind her a perpetual comet’s tail of bees.”

The scout bee whirls in circles; her infectious energy sends waves of excitement through the beehive, notifying them that the scout has found food somewhere near the hive. This “round dance”, coupled with the scent of a specific flower trapped in the leg-hairs of the scout bee, alerts the hive to the proximity and type of food available. Other bees then leave the hive, and search the immediate area to find the food source. von Frisch had proved that bees were more complex than anyone (except probably beekeepers) had previously thought, but future research would have to wait. The aftermath of WWI, the crippling effects of the Treaty of Versailles, the rise of Nazi Germany, and the onset of WWII meant that Karl von Frisch would be kept away from his beloved bees for nearly 20 years.

And then, in 1944, they were reunited.

Years later, during his Nobel prize speech, von Frisch said of his younger self, “in 1923,…I believed I knew the language of the bees.” He went on to ruefully acknowledge, “the most beautiful part had escaped [him].” During his early experiments on honeybee behaviour, von Frisch had always kept the experimental food sources close to the hives – within 50m. This time, he tried something different. Setting the food sources hundreds of metres away from the hive, he was astonished to see “the recruits immediately started foraging at that great distance.” von Frisch wondered, “could they possess a signal for distance?”

He began a series of experiments, moving the experimental food sources incrementally further away from the hive. von Frisch found that the ‘round dance’ was used up to 50m. Within a 50m radius of the hive, honeybees communicated the location of food sources by dancing in a circle. But when the food source was moved outside that radius, the bees communicated in a different way – the ‘waggle dance’.

Within a short distance of a hive, honeybees don’t need to be given explicit directions to locate a food source. They’ll find it relatively quickly just by searching the area. But when the distance increases, random searching becomes too inefficient. In discovering the ‘waggle dance’, von Frisch discovered how honeybees give pinpoint locations to distant food sources, and forever changed our understanding of the complexities of insect behaviour.

The waggle dance works like this. A foraging bee returns to the hive, and takes its place in the centre of the honeycomb. Other, eager bees, gather around it. The foraging bee then begins to move in a figure-eight pattern. It moves through the straight part of the figure eight waggling its tail, and then peels off to the left or right to complete the figure eight, before cycling again through the waggling straight phase. Each completed figure eight is called a ‘circuit’, and an individual dance is composed of between 1 and 100 circuits. Each of these two phases, the tail waggling straight phase, and the completing the figure eight’s circles, gives different information to the other bees.

The tail-waggling phase tells the other bees in the hives how far away the food source is. The further away the food source, the more slowly the bee travels through the straight phase. von Frisch said that, “for distances from 200 to 4500m, they increase from about 0.5 second to 4.5 second.” The intensity of the waggling also tells the other bees something – a more frantic waggle indicates a more bountiful food source.

The dancing bee’s movement through the circles of the figure eight tells the other bees what direction to search in. The bee arranges itself along the central vertical axis of the hive, facing directly upward the middle of the hive. If the figure eight is evenly placed across this axis, then the food source is directly in-line with the position of the sun outside. As the bee tilts the figure eight away from the central axis, it indicates that the food source is similarly displaced from the position of the sun. The angle of difference between the figure eight and the central axis of the hive is the same as the angle of difference between the sun and the direction of the food source.

This requires a degree of trigonometry I am almost certainly incapable of doing, and I like to think I’m cleverer than a bee.

But honeybees are capable of something even more remarkable. The sun, obviously, changes position throughout the course of the day. And it takes a foraging bee quite some time to get back to the hive – especially if it has found a food source four kilometres away. The sun may have changed position by the time the foraging bee starts dancing, which would lead it sharing an incorrect direction.

Luckily, bees are better dancers and better mathematicians than most of us. They account for the movement of the sun, and adjust the angle of their dance accordingly to maintain the correct direction. This is about the equivalent of a human in Calgary shaking their ass and running in a circle to tell someone how to get to the McDonalds in Lethbridge. Try that next time someone asks you for directions, and see how far you get.

Originally posted at

Featured image by flickr user Scott Kinmartin


The Weird World of Prehistoric Mammals

Scientifically inclined children tend to fall into one of two camps: space or dinosaurs (with some outliers appearing in the maternally-disapproved areas of ‘bugs’ and ‘reptiles’). They’re either hanging models of the solar system in their room and building model rockets, or digging in the dirt and insisting every oddly coloured rock is a newly discovered fossil animal. They’re reciting the names of Saturn’s major moons, in declining order of their orbital period,[1] at the dinner table, or etching long Latin names into their desks[2] (and, somehow, still only getting 7/10 on spelling tests).

I was undoubtedly a dinosaur kid. Space held no interest for me, but I developed (and still quietly nurture) dreams of paleontology. The release of Jurassic Park surely helped this, as did growing up near the badlands of Alberta and visiting the premier dinosaur museum on the planet – the Royal Tyrell Museum. I would stump around in dry, dusty riverbeds in the hot prairie summer imagining that every crack in the mud, or every exposed cliff face, held a footprint or a rib bone – or better yet, a raptor claw – just waiting to be discovered


Then I grew up, and travelled to Africa for the first time, and learned that living animals could be just as weird and wonderful as the extinct ones[3]. Except, not quite. Living animals can be strange looking. And the dinosaurs, of course, were sublime. But one group of underrepresented animals transcends them all in their bizarre otherworldliness – the failed experiments of the early Cenozoic Era.

The Cenozoic Era is the span of geologic time extending from 68 million years ago through the present day, beginning with the extinction of the dinosaurs. Colloquially (at least, as colloquially as geologic eras can be known), it’s called the Age of Mammals. The standard narrative (though currently up for debate) is that the extinction of the dinosaurs opened up new ecological niches for mammals to exploit. In the absence of big, scary lizards, mammals were able to take over the world.

This "feathered dinosaur" thing has really done some damage to their credibility as terrible lizards. From  Godefroit, Demuynck, Dyke, Hu, Escuillié & Claeys, 2013.

This “feathered dinosaur” thing has really done some damage to their credibility as terrible lizards. From Godefroit, Demuynck, Dyke, Hu, Escuillié & Claeys, 2013.

This early, rapid evolution of mammal species led to a whole lot of tinkering. Not all of it was successful, but much of it was spectacular. In no particular order, here are some of the strangest of evolution’s early experiments in mammals.

1. The Dawn Horse

Let’s start small. Contemporary horses range in side from the small (and faintly ridiculous) miniature horse, to the tall, sturdy draught horses that stand about 6 ft. But the ancestor of the horse makes even a miniature horse look like a giant. The earliest Equid, Eohippus validus, stood a mere 12-18 inches high. A newborn baby would tower over it. Presumably, the ancestors of squirrels rode it.


Credit: Henrich Harder

2. Glyptodon

Armadillos are strange. I think that’s a fairly uncontroversial thing to say. They’re small, nearly blind mammals best known for their leathery shell, which cartoons have taught us allow them to roll into little balls to protect them from predators, or to be used as balls in a game of croquet. The contemporary armadillo can be used for this purpose[4] because they’re relatively small. But their ancestor, Glyptodon, was a different story altogether. The ancestral armadillo Glyptodon was nearly 12 ft. long, and weighed up to 2 tons – it was the size of a VW Beetle (and far, far cooler). Rather than using it for croquet, early humans hunted it – and then used its protective shell as a house.


Credit: Pavel Riha

3. Amebelodon

Elephant tusks serve a number of purposes: part weapon, part tool, and part method of bothering your older siblings. Learning to use them properly takes time, but when correctly utilized, tusks are a key part of an elephant’s survival strategy. When elephants lose tusks, to disease, fighting, or old age, their chance of surviving the next dry season decreases significantly. So they’re useful now, in their current form. But it took some tinkering to get there – and some tusks were created more equal than others.

Amebelodon was a member of the gomphotheres, a lineage of primitive mammal that eventually led to elephants. Like elephants, they were large bodied, terrestrial herbivores. And, like elephants, they had tusks. But Amebelodon took things to extremes. It had two upper tusks, like an elephant, but on its lower jaw (which is tuskless in elephants), Amebelodon had two long, flattened teeth, which gives it its name, the shovel-tusked gomphothere.

Fossil evidence from the shovels indicates that they were probably used in the same way as elephant tusks. But unlike the elephant, which is a noble, proud animal[5], Amebelodon was simply too silly looking to be allowed to live, and natural selection weeded it out.

That mouth is more than a little frightening.

That mouth is more than a little frightening.

4. Megatherium

What are the largest land mammals to ever live? Elephants? Check. Mammoths? Sort-of elephants, but I’ll give you a half mark. Whales? You didn’t read the question. Sloths?

Now we’re talking.

Sloths today are known as beloved members of childhood films, stars of viral videos, and the butt of jokes. But one genus of sloth, Megatherium, once ruled the Earth (or at least South America). Megatherium, the giant ground sloth, was the size of an elephant, and probably the largest species existing in its time. It dwelt on the ground, and lived in groups. While probably herbivorous, some renegade paleontologists have suggested it might have been at least partially carnivorous, and able to chase saber-toothed cats off their kills. In case you needed fuel for nightmares, hopefully that helps: a pack-living, elephant-sized carnivorous ground sloth.

I kind-of wish this one still existed.


5. The Terror Bird

This seems like a cheat, because it’s not a mammal, but it’s only a half-cheat. The Terror Bird, or Phorusrhacos, was an 8 ft. tall, 300 lb., carnivorous bird. It couldn’t fly, but hardly needed to. It ran down small (child-sized) mammals, grabbed them in its taloned feet, and then smashed them into the ground until they died.

As for why it’s only a half-cheat: the story goes that the paleontologist who discovered it assumed, based on its size, that it must’ve been a mammal, and gave it the name Phorusrhacos – which lacks the ending traditionally ascribed to bird names. “Terror Bird” is much catchier, anyways.

The terror bird, proud owner of one of the greatest names in the animal kingdom.

The terror bird, proud owner of one of the greatest names in the animal kingdom.

[1] For the curious: Iapetus, Titan, Rhea, Dione, Tethys, Enceladus, and Mimas.

[2] ‘Micropachycephalosaurus’ currently holding the dubious honour of longest dinosaur name.

[3] Have you ever really looked at an elephant? Or a giraffe? Those things are weird.

[4] No they can’t, please don’t try.

[5] Ignore what I said earlier about them looking weird.


Sunday Poem – The Book of the Dead Man (Fungi)

The Book of the Dead Man (Fungi)

by  Marvin Bell

Live as if you were already dead – Zen admonition

I. The Dead Man and Fungi

The dead man has changed his mind about the moss and mold.
About mildew and yeast.
About rust and smut, about soot and ash.
Whereas once he turned from the sour and the decomposed, now he
breathes deeply in the underbelly of the earth.
Of mushrooms, baker’s yeast, fungi of wood decay, and the dogs
preceding their masters to the burnt acre of morels.
And the little seasonals themselves, stuck on their wobbly pin stems.
For in the pan they float without crisping.
For they are not without the hint of the sublime, nor the curl of a hand.
These are the caps and hairdos, the mini-umbrellas, the zeppelins of a
world in which human beings are heavy-footed mammoths.
Puffballs and saucers, recurrent, recumbent, they fill the encyclopedia.
Not wrought for the pressed eternity of flowers or butterflies.
Loners and armies alike appearing overnight at the point of return.
They live fast, they die young, they will be back.

2. More About the Dead Man and Fungi

Fruit of the fungi, a mushroom’s birthing is an arrow from below.
It is because of Zeno’s Paradox that one cannot get there by half-measures.
It is the fault of having anything else to do.
The dead man prefers the mushroom of the gatherer to that of the farmer.
Gilled or ungilled, stemmed or stemless, woody or leathery, the mushroom is secretive, yes, by
Each mushroom was a button, each a flowering, some glow in the dark.
Medicinal or toxic, each was lopped from the stump of eternity.
The dead man has seen them take the shapes of cups and saucers, of sponges, logs and bird nests.
The dead man probes the shadows, he fingers the crannies and undersides, he spots the mushroom
underfoot just in time.
When the dead man saw a mushrooming cloud above Hiroshima, he knew.
He saw that death was beautiful from afar.
He saw that nature is equidistant from the nourishing and the poisonous, the good and the bad,
the beginning and the end.
He knew the littlest mushroom, shivering on its first day, was a signal.


Featured photo by Emily Mitic.

Copyright © 2009 by Marvin Bell.


What’s in a Name? Juliet’s Rose and the Science of Naming

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.
– Romeo and Juliet, (II, ii, 47-48)

Juliet may have been on to something here, lamenting Romeo’s familial allegiances while he skulks below her in the shadows. “What’s Montague?” she says, “it is nor hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man” (II, ii, 45-46). This attitude, a willingness to look past her family’s prejudices and see the man that Romeo is, beyond his name, makes Juliet a great romantic.

But it would’ve made her an awful scientist.

Good science, and by extension good scientific writing, occludes confusion by being tediously specific. Scientific writing tends to be devoid of metaphor, simile, or any other forms of figurative language. Most scientists are even a little bit afraid of a good evocative verb (although we’re allowed to write ‘masticate’ instead of ‘chew’, which is sort-of fun). The purpose of this fuss-budget writing, other than to make scientific papers blindingly boring to read, is to avoid confusion. A sentence should have only one meaning and not be open to interpretation.

So when it comes to science, everything is in a name. Every species on Earth has a name, which applies to it, and to no other species. These names all take on the same, two-part structure: Genus species. The first part of the name gives the genus to which the species belongs, for example Homo. The second part of the name identifies a specific species within that genus, for example sapiens. Combined together, this two-part name grants a unique identifying tag to every species, which is universally identifiable by scientists regardless of their native language. For example, Homo sapiens – humans.

This system, called ‘binomial nomenclature’, allows scientists to communicate about specific species. This is important because many different species have the same common name. As an example, lets consider Juliet’s rose. Roses, as we think of them, are not a species but a genus – the genus Rosa. All roses are identified by the traits that they share. Some of these are obvious (sickle-shaped thorns, the number of petals, and the type of fruit – a rosehip), and some of them are the sorts of thing that only excite botanists (alternate pinnate leaves with serrated leaflets and basal stipules. Yawn.). Those are traits shared by all roses in the genus Rosa.

But within that genus, there are at least 100 species of rose.

What type of rose was Juliet talking about? The play is set in Verona, in Northern Italy, so maybe Juliet was speaking about Rosa gallica, the French Rose. It was (and remains today) a widely cultivated species native to southern Europe. She was probably not referring to Rosa californica, native to, obviously, California. In Romeo and Juliet it doesn’t really matter. But scientists need to be able to determine exactly which species their colleagues are referring to – a problem that took over a thousand years to be solved.

Beginning with Aristotle, natural historians struggled to label species in a way that was both descriptive and simple. The problem of the roses arose (hah) quickly; it wasn’t long before the people categorizing organisms realized that the same local name was used in many different places to refer to many different species. So scientists gave up on the idea of trying to be simple, and focused on being descriptive: species were given polynomial names that became increasingly more complex as more species were discovered.

Unique or strange species would be easy to name. For example, if we were to make up a descriptive name for the aye-aye, we could call it “long-fingered nocturnal lemur”. The animal is strange enough, and shares few enough traits with other species, that it is easy to hone in on a unique identifier. But that becomes more difficult when considering species that have fewer uncommon characteristics. Consider the hoary plantain, a small flower native to Western Europe. The hoary plantain illustrates both the problem of common names – it is in no way related to plantains, the banana-type vegetable that is a staple food item throughout the Tropics – and the problems that arose with polynomial names.

The hoary plantain looks a lot like just about every other small flower in Western Europe. Finding a unique identifier is extremely difficult. So in the days before binomial nomenclature, the hoary plantain was identified using an absurdly long and complex polynomial name: Plantago foliis ovato-lanceolatus pubescentibus, spica cylindrica, scapo tereti. Meaning, of course, “Plantain with pubescent ovate-lanceolate leaves, a cylindric spike and a terete scape”. The need for these complex names made classifying an ever-growing number of species virtually impossible.

And then along came Carl Linnaeus.

Carl, who later got carried away with his own brilliance and Latinized his name to Carolus, was a Swedish botanist who revolutionized biology and invented modern taxonomy (the classification of species). He grew up in Sweden, and lived most of his life there, teaching botany during the week, and rampaging through the countryside collecting plants and animals in his spare time. (I’ve seen the field kit he used to collect samples and it looks like a portable version of Frankenstein’s lab). He lived abroad between 1735 and 1738, before returning home to Sweden for the rest of his life. But it was while he was away from Sweden and living in Amsterdam that Linnaeus made his first major contribution to science.

Linnaeus was a popular lecturer and a dedicated teacher, and like many scientists, a bit fussy. The polynomial system of names frustrated him: it was inefficient and inaccurate. In his travels around Sweden, he had begun to develop a new way of categorizing plants by subdividing them into categories based on shared physical characteristics. On one of these trips, he found the jawbone of a small animal and experienced a revelation: the same categorization could be applied to animals too, based on number and structure of teeth.

In Amsterdam, Linnaeus began compiling these categorizations into a book, the Systema Naturae. He listed the species of animal and plants he was familiar with alongside their complex, polynomial names. Then, beside each name, he wrote a simple binomial name – one generic term (the genus), and one specific (the species). These he then lumped into higher categories according to their physical characteristics. The first edition of Systema Naturea, published using a loan from a friend in 1735, was only 12 pages long.

But it was a hit. The simple way of classifying animals, and the strict consistency of Linnaeus’s naming, became instantly popular in the scientific community. Scientists, students, and natural historians fanned out across the globe, sending Linnaeus samples of plants and animals to be included in his naming scheme. When the 10th edition of Systema Naturae was released in 1758, Linnaeus had classified over 7000 species of plant and over 4000 species of animal, and invented the hierarchical system of organization that biologists still use today: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.

Under Linnaeus’s scheme, the hoary plantain became Plantago media, and life got a whole lot simpler. Scientific names today are the best place for researchers to actually indulge in a little creativity. Sometimes they’re clever (Apopyllus now, a species of sac spider found on Curacao), sometimes they’re juvenile (Batrachuperus longdongensis, a salamander), and sometimes they’re oxymoronic (Mammuthus exilis, the pygmy mammoth), but they’re always unique to one individual species.

Binomial nomenclature allowed scientists to begin categorizing, and from there understanding, the organization of life. It is one of the most important inventions in the history of science. But we should be glad Shakespeare never heard of it. “That which we call a Rosa gallica by any other word would smell as sweet” isn’t very poetic.


Originally posted at

Featured photo by flickr user Fotos4RR


The Mouse in the Granary

Many people with a Western education are likely familiar with Aesop’s Fables, and particularly the story of Lion and the Mouse. In that fable, a small, frail mouse accidentally wakes up a lion. The lion, being not a morning person, is understandably grumpy, and threatens to eat the mouse. The mouse pleads forgiveness, points out that a he is a little bit small to be breakfast for a lion – and breakfast is the most important meal of the day – and promises that if the lion spares him, the mouse will repay the favour one day. The lion is bemused by the presumptuousness of the mouse: how could something so small aid something so mighty? But he feels merciful, and lets the mouse leave.

A few days later, the lion is caught in a hunter’s net, and, of course, the mouse is nearby. The mouse is able to chew through the ropes, setting the lion free. The moral of the story is first, be merciful. And second: there is no creature so great that it cannot have its very life changed by something small.

So with that in mind, I’d like to tell another story – the story of the Mouse in the Granary.

Wheat is one of the most common staple food items in the world. It’s grown on 15% of the arable land on the planet, and is one of the three foods (the others being maize and rice) that make up 60% of the world’s energy intake. As a species, humans are incredibly reliant on wheat (unfortunate, for the gluten-intolerant). Wheat, Triticum aestivum L., is a hybrid of a few naturally growing grains that arose a number of times independently during the Neolithic Revolution – a period of rapid cultural development that humans in the Fertile Crescent underwent about 12,000 years ago.

Today, wheat comes broadly in two types: “hard” or “soft”, depending on the consistency of the kernel. But the majority of wheat eaten around the world comes from hard kernels. This is strange, because soft kernel wheat is the ‘natural’ state – hard kernel wheat relies on the expression of several genetic mutations that grant it no benefits when it comes to surviving and reproducing in a field.  So why, then, is most wheat hard kernel?

Because that little mouse, once he was done helping the lion, decided to put his paw-print on humanity too.

One of the great (great meaning major, not necessarily good) outcomes of the Neolithic Revolution was the advent of agriculture. Humans invented irrigation, animal and plant husbandry, and learned how to deliberately plant, grow, and harvest food. This allowed them to create surpluses, and stockpile food for the first time – they could trade it, save it for a rainy day, or use the stockpiles to sustain them while they did something else: for instance, create art, or music, or invent and administer a government (only the real sickos did that).

But that food stockpile needed to go somewhere, so humans built granaries and storehouses. Into these granaries they threw the wheat they didn’t use: hard kernels and soft kernels alike – but mostly soft kernels.  Unfortunately, about 10 minutes after the first granary was built and filled, the first house mouse discovered it was an endless supply of food.

The house mouse (Mus musculus L.) is one of the most abundant rodent species on Earth, and is intimately tied with humanity. Wherever we go, mice are sure to follow. They likely originated in Asia, but since then have appeared anywhere that human settlements have begun to stockpile food.

Mice eat a lot of things (including their own feces), but they love grains. And they especially love wheat. That first mouse, in that first granary, in the Fertile Crescent 12,000 years ago was in proverbial rodent heaven. But being spoiled for choice, and with all winter to gorge himself, he could afford to be picky. So he was – he only ate the soft kernels.

At first this was easy, because the soft kernels so widely outnumbered the hard kernels. But as the years and centuries passed, and the mice and his descendants followed the spread of wheat around the world, it got more difficult. Hard kernel wheat became more common – the mice caused the frequency of hard kernel wheat to increase more than 10 times. In the end, the mice have been so effective at selecting against soft kernel wheat, that up to a third of all the human population on Earth relies today on hard kernel wheat.

So if you ate toast this morning, or a sandwich for lunch, pause for a moment, and think of the little house mouse – a tiny creature that has somehow managed to shape the cultural evolution of humanity.



Morris et al. 2013. Did the house mouse (Mus musculus L.) shape the evolutionary trajectory of wheat (Triticum aestivum L.)? Ecology and Evolution 3(10): 3447 − 3454.

Featured picture by Evgenii Rachev.


Sunday Poem – Wild Geese

Wild Geese

by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

“Wild Geese”, from Wild Geese: Selected Poems. Copyright © 1993 by Mary Oliver.

Featured photo from


The Life and Death of the Largest Tree in the World

“The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.”

– John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

On March 24th, 1991, in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California, a tremendous crash rent the quiet spring air. Park rangers over a mile away feared the worst. Had a train derailed? The rail bridge over the Eel River had seen better days, and most of the tracks were in need of repair. Rangers, park stuff, and curious onlookers rushed to the site of the noise. The bridge was intact, and there was no sign of a derailed train. But just south of the river a giant had fallen. The Dyerville Giant, a California coast redwood, and probably the largest tree in the world, had reached the end of its life.

The Dyerville Giant had been having a bad week. It was the rainy season, and the soil in the forest was saturated with water, creating a shifting, roiling, muddy base for the tree to stand in. The shallow root system it used to anchor itself in the ground was becoming exposed, and the winds whipping around its canopy – 370 ft above the forest floor – pulled and pushed 24 hours a day. A smaller tree had given up a few days earlier, crashing to the forest floor, but not before knocking other trees into precarious positions, like a gigantic domino. One of those dominos was left teetering ominously towards the Dyerville Giant. On March 24th, the leaning tree fell, and took the giant down with it.

The scene of the fallen giant must have looked, as well as sounded, like a train wreck. The shockwave created by the impact had disturbed the forest up to four hundred feet away, and splattered mud and debris nearly three storeys high on the trunks of surrounding trees. In the blink of an eye, the largest tree in the world was down. At the time it fell, the Dyerville Giant was 372 ft tall – far taller than the Statute of Liberty (a petite 150 feet), and taller even than Niagara Falls. It was of another age, at least 1600 years old when it fell. When the Dyerville Giant was a seedling, pushing its way through the soil for the first time, the Visigoths were sacking Rome, and the Roman Empire was beginning its final decline.

As a sapling (at 65 ft, a tall sapling), while it struggled for light and nutrients in a forest crowded with taller relatives, Liu Yan was establishing the Han Dynasty in China, and a Hindu philosopher in India was writing the Kama Sutra. Every year, if growing conditions were right, it grew up to another six feet. It grew steadily through the years, as kingdoms of men appeared, expanded, grew corrupt, and fell apart. Great works of literature were written and lost. Art was produced, and burned. The Dyerville Giant stretched inexorably upwards.

In the 1860s, as the newly created country of America sought to tame the wildness of the American West, for the first time in its life the Dyerville Giant faced a threat other than wind and fire. Settlers in California quickly established the value of the coast redwood. The wood is light but strong, and resists decay. Its red sheen is beautiful, and perhaps most importantly, the wood doesn’t catch fire easily. In 1863, the Pacific Lumber Company was created, and its owners, A. W. McPherson and Henry Wetherbee purchased 6,000 acres of good redwood forest at $1.25 an acre. By 1882, the PLC was the largest employer in the area, and solely responsible for the growth and development of towns springing up all along the valleys of Northern California. By 1895, McPherson and Wetherbee had sold a controlling share in the company to a Detroit millionaire named Simon J. Murphy. The Murphy family would steward the Pacific Lumber Company for the next 100 years, and demonstrate a rare sense of ethical corporate management.

At the beginning of the 1900s, cosmopolitan Americans in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, were developing the first idea of a conservation ethic, focused on preserving some of the wildness of the American frontier. As a young country, America had a love-hate relationship with its untamed parts. The boundless forest and unexplored mountain ranges both mesmerized and frightened Americans. For pioneers, the wildness was an ugly thing to be tamed and controlled, but latter generations recognized that America’s wildness could be what established it as a unique country all of its own. Let Europe have its cathedrals and ruins, America’s forests would be its cathedrals; its mountains would be castles.

In 1917, the Save-the-Redwoods League travelled from San Francisco to Humboldt County to witness the majesty of the redwood forests. Amazed by what they saw, the League raised money and in 1921, Humboldt Redwoods State Park was established. Other companies might have seen this as an infringement, but Pacific Lumber worked with the conservationists. It both sold, and donated, land to the League for far less than it would have been made if they had cut the trees down. In the 1950s, Pacific Lumber pioneered the idea of selective logging and sustainable yield – rather than clear-cutting; they cut down only mature trees, allowing young trees to continue growing. The bulk of today’s Humboldt State Park is made up of the Pacific Lumber Company’s holdings.

It was at this time that the Dyerville Giant got its name. Dyerville had been a small town at the confluence of the North and South forks of the Eel River, just north of the giant. In the 1920s it was the site of the park headquarters, and beginning in the 1930s also the site of a Civilian Conservation Camp, established as part of the New Deal. The fortunes of the small community ebbed and flowed over the next 40 years, but its fate was decided decisively in 1964, when the Eel River overflowed its banks and swept the town downstream. Dyerville was never rebuilt, but the giant tree in the area gained a name, and today a plaque and a picnic area commemorate the former town site. By the time it was named, the growth of the giant had slowed considerably, and its height was estimated at around 360 feet.

On September 30, 1985, after a week of aggressive stock purchases, Pacific Lumber was taken over by Charles Hurwitz and Maxxam Inc., of Texas. Following the completion of the hostile takeover, the Murphy family resigned, and PLC took on a vastly different form. Hurwitz and Maxxam immediately reinstated clear-cutting. Environmental activists were outraged, and in 1990 Maxxam and the redwoods became a boiling point for protest. In an embarrassing collusion between government and industry, the FBI tried hard to label the protest group, Earth First!, a terrorist organization (a label that has remained largely successful). Protests continued against Maxxam’s clear-cutting for over a decade, to little effect. Eventually, karma had enough and stepped in – Pacific Lumber filed for bankruptcy. In twenty short-years, Hurwitz and Maxxam’s aggressive and unsustainable forestry had undone the Pacific Lumber’s reputation and dismantled the company that the Murphy family worked so hard to build.

The Dyerville Giant, of course, wasn’t around to see the end of Pacific Lumber. It fell in 1991, during the angriest years of the protest. It will lie where it fell for another 400 years, slowly decaying and returning its nutrients to the soil. While it decomposes, it will provide a home for over 4000 species of birds, plants, fungi, insects and animals – a diverse ecosystem in its own right, and essentially ensuring that the Dyerville Giant will live forever. As Edward Munch wrote, “From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”

Originally posted at

Featured image by: Craig Wolf


How the Right Whale Gets By

Conservation biologists are a twitchy bunch, fluctuating wildly between nervous and excited depending on the current status of their preferred species. They have nightmares in which robotic Paul Bunyan-types maraud through woodlands cutting down the homes of small brown birds, and celebrate with almost perverse ecstasy if two endangered tortoises deign to mate. Conservation biologists are the Victorian ladies of the science community: their corsets are cinched just a little too tight, making them prone to fainting spells1. And fewer things can cause them to swoon more quickly than the threat of a small population size.

"Oh heavens, the new IUCN Red List has been released."

“Oh heavens, the new IUCN Red List has been released.”

When endangered or threatened species fall to a critically low population level, conservation biologists get nervous. Very nervous. Small populations – below 500 individuals is a good enough estimate for now – carry with them the looming specter of the ‘extinction vortex’. The extinction vortex occurs when a species begins to circle the drain of existence, and gets trapped in its own downward-spiraling momentum, ever less likely to escape. As a population of animals gets smaller, every negative influence becomes exacerbated.

Imagine two species, one with 1000 animals remaining, and one with 10. Now, just because you’re feeling malicious, imagine a natural disaster wiping out half of each population. The population with 1000 individuals is still sitting pretty at 500: they’re likely to survive. But that small population? It’s down to five now, and in trouble.

Every process that can affect the growth of a population – immigration, emigration, disease, birth rates, natural disasters, and inbreeding – has a disproportionately stronger effect on small populations. Inbreeding can be particularly insidious. Inbreeding rapidly causes a multiplicative effect on unhealthy mutations. Most organisms carry within them a few alleles – gene copies – for dangerous or lethal syndromes. Luckily they tend to be recessive – they don’t show up unless both copies of the gene (you have two of each, one from each parent) are identical.

Mutant redneck murder family is not on the list, but zombie redneck torture family is fairly similar.

Mutant redneck murder family is not on the list, but zombie redneck torture family is conceptually similar.

But there is a good chance that your closest relatives share those dangerous alleles. If you breed with strangers, your bad alleles and their bad alleles probably won’t match, and everything is swell. However, if you’re keeping it in the family, you increase the chances that your offspring are going to end up with two copies of the bad allele, and turn into some sort of mutant redneck murder family.

Case in point: the Florida panther. The Florida panther used to be part of a large population of cougars that roamed most of the Americas. It interbred freely, and was healthy (and presumably happy). But habitat fragmentation and development as left a small population of cougars stranded in Florida, along with senior citizens and members of the Bush family. Over time, the Florida panther has become terribly inbred (unlike the senior citizens, but the jury is still out on the Bush family). The inbreeding has led to kinked tails, weird looking testicles, and reduced survivability.

You can't pin the blame for this one on inbreeding though. Poor drafting, maybe.

You can’t pin the blame for this one on inbreeding though. Poor drafting, maybe.

All of that is to say that small populations make conservation biologists nervous. But they can rest easy, because some unlikely species have figured out the ‘right’2 way to handle the situation all on their own.

The North Atlantic right3 whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is, you guessed it, a whale (no prize for guessing where it lives). Its name is popularly thought to derive from whaling: it was supposedly the ‘right’ whale to hunt, because it spends much of its time on the surface and has a high oil content. But the name probably comes from an alternate meaning of the word ‘right’. Not ‘correct’, but ‘proper’ – the right whale is a good, proper whale: the sort of whale all whales should aspire to be.

That upright moral character and inspirational whale-ness haven’t really helped it though – centuries of whaling, banned only in the 1960s, have left the North Atlantic right whale as one of the most endangered whale species on earth, with between 400 and 500 individuals still alive. Coupled with their long lifespans, slow reproductive rates, and low levels of genetic diversity, it’s enough to give whale biologists a conniption. Which is a bit rude, and not at all a right or proper thing to do.

They're not really an attractive whale, but looks don't count in the kingdom of the cetaceans, I guess.

They’re not really an attractive whale, but looks don’t count in the kingdom of the cetaceans, I guess.

Luckily, right whales have taken pity on the poor biologists, and figured out their own way to cope with such a small population. If a female mates with a male too genetically similar to her, some part of her body says “no way buddy4”, and fertilization fails. This results in slightly lower overall reproductive rights for right whales: if its too late in the mating season, she won’t get another chance to mate with a male her body finds more appropriate. But it’s better than the alternative of rampant inbreeding in a small population.

Females have another trick up their…’sleeve’ too. Females tend to mate with multiple males. The best way for a male to insure that his sperm reaches the egg is to produce as much sperm as possible (the so-called, and slightly gross, “lottery principle” – if you buy more tickets, you have a better chance of winning). To aid him in this goal, right whales have the largest testicle size-to-body-size ratio of any mammal. But unfortunately for him, the female might have a say too. Females can store the sperm of multiple males in their reproductive tract, and scientists think they may be able to ‘choose’ which sperm fertilizes an egg. In essence, they may be able to scan for the most genetically dissimilar sperm, and use it to fertilize their egg, thereby minimizing the chance of inbreeding.

The point is, that instead of North Atlantic right whales becoming more-and-more inbred, as scientists had feared, they are actually increasing in genetic diversity – a feat almost unheard of in small populations without extensive human management. That’s not to say the right whale will definitely be okay. Four hundred is still a dangerously low population, and some countries in the world retain a bizarre enthusiasm for whaling (*cough* Japan *cough*). But for now, at least, the right whale has confounded expectations and proven that, as Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, “nature finds a way.”

If you had the largest testicle-to-body-size ratio of any mammal, you'd only be able to breach this far out of the water too. Credit:

If you had the largest testicle-to-body-size ratio of any mammal, you’d only be able to breach this far out of the water too. Credit:


Frasier TR et al. 2013. Postcopulatory selection for dissimilar gametes maintains heterozygosity in the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Ecology and Evolution doi: 10.1002/ece3.738.

Featured photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission 

1 Lest this sound a little too harsh, please note that I’d count myself among them.

2 You’re going to hate me for that in a second.

3 See? Sorry.

4 This is how a uterus would talk, if it could