Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Z is for Zebra

So we enter the last day of the A-Z challenge with a whimper rather than a bang. It was good to meet some great new people who I hope will follow Brits for the rest of time. Thanks so much. You have been better at hopping than me. No pressure.

So how does one feel at the end of the challenge?

"Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge."

Maybe Wilfred Owen was a bit overdramatic for the circumstances, particularly as it describes a poison gas attack. Right now I feel deflated and underwhelmed. Will I do it next year? Probably not. I said that last year, though. Today I am having a hard time making up my mind on whether I am indecisive.

For Z I could have gone for something zany as opposed to the animal that every kid can think of. Oh sod it - it's the stripy horse.

Zebras look pretty damn cool but the rule of thumb here is don't try to ride them. There are three species of zebras: the plains zebra, the Grévy's zebra and the mountain zebra. The Grévy's zebra looks more like a stripy ass while the other two are horses; think nasty stretch pants at Wal-Mart.

So here's the burning question when it comes to zebras. Are they white with black stripes or black with white stripes?

It was previously thought zebras were white animals with black stripes, because some zebras have white underbellies. Embryological evidence, however, shows that the animal's background color is black and the white stripes and bellies are additions. So there.

 Mountain zebras and plains zebras, which are  live in groups, known as 'harems', consisting of one stallion with up to six mares and their foals. Giddy up partner...

Most attempts to ride zebras have failed because the zebra is more prone to panic under stress. However, zebras are more resistant to African diseases than traditional horses. In England, the zoological collector Walter Rothschild frequently used zebras to draw a carriage. And in 1907, Rosendo Ribeiro, the first doctor in Nairobi, Kenya, used a riding zebra for house calls.

Useless Fact About the Zebra

A zebra's stripes may be useful for warding off predators. When they mass together the patterns can confuse attackers. Experiments by researchers suggest the stripes are effective in attracting fewer flies, including blood-sucking tsetse flies and tabanid horseflies.

What Not to Say to a Zebra

It'll be all white on the night

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Y is for Yellow Rat Snake

Snakes are cool and pretty and few of them are better looking than the sleek yellow rat snake which is a medium sized constrictor found in the northern hemisphere.

This ice cool, smoking boy could slither into a mellow jazz club and, ala the Fast Show, the night would be great, wonderful..

Rat snakes come in lots of different colors and shades. While our old friend the angler fish comes in lots of shades of ugly, that rat snake comes in many hues of pretty. The Mandarin Rat Snake and the Red Tailed Green Rat Snake are just two of them.

Rat snakes make good pets. Somewhat importantly they aren't very venomous. Rat snakes were for a long time thought to be completely nonvenomous, but recent studies have shown that some Old World species do possess small amounts of venom, although the levels are negligible for humans. Indeed one type of rat snake - the corn snake - is the most popular reptilian pet in the world. In other words you will have a lot more trouble with a Jack Russell, believe me you will.

Not all snakes make good pets. There is always the risk of owner consumption or mortality among some species, although snakes generally get a bad rap. There are many more non venomous species than venomous ones. Snakes are found on all continents of the world. Curiously, there are some islands that are snake free including New Zealand and Ireland. Saint Patrick is said to have banished all snakes from Ireland but, in reality, there is no evidence any ever lived here. The reference is said to have referred to pagans.

Snakes are lizards that lost their legs some time ago. It doesn't seem to have impeded them much. Many species have skulls with many more joints than their lizard ancestors, enabling them to devour prey much larger than their heads with highly mobile jaws. Even unfortunate humans have been found in the bellies of big pythons. Due to their their narrow bodies, snakes' paired organs (such as kidneys) appear one in front of the other instead of side by side, and many of them have just one functioning lung.

Three snakes feature in a recent list of the 25 most dangerous animals in the world with the carpet viper taking the much coveted number 7 slot.

The most dangerous snake in the world uses a hemotoxin that disables blood clotting. Sadly, most of the bites occur in areas that lack modern medical facilities so the victims slowly bleed to death over the course of several weeks.

Snakes are not actually slimy, despite the popular misconception. They have dry, scaly skin which they shed up to four times a year. Snakes' eyes are covered by scales and are always open.

The phobia of snakes is widespread. As many as a third of all adults are freaked out by them. It's called ophiophobia. I'm not freaked out by snakes the way I am by spiders, which is just as well as I often seem to encounter snakes; most recently after reading the Beware of the Cottonmouths signs in a state park, and saying 'what are the chances of seeing one? before almost stepping on one in the middle of the main drag.

If you suffer from ophiophobia you might not want to watch this video. Just saying.

Snakes have held a mystical place in literature, folklore and religion for a long time. In ancient Egypt  the snake played a key role and the Nile Cobra adorned the crown of the pharaoh in ancient time. Cleopatra is said to have died by inducing a deadly cobra to bite her.

India is often described as the land of snakes and is steeped in tradition regarding snakes.They are worshipped as gods even today in some parts of India with some women pouring milk on snake pits, even though serpents are not partial to milk, not even a milk snake.

Useless Fact About the Yellow Rat Snake

Yellow Rat Snakes will spend much of their lives underground searching for rodents but will climb as high as 60 feet up trees in search of a tasty bird.

What Not To Say to a Yellow Rat Snakes

Who gives a rats?

Saturday, April 27, 2013

X is for Xiphosura

Harbor Island was sun swept. Even early in the morning the glare came in relentless through the wide glass panes, turning the wood on the veranda too hot to walk on, bringing out the smell of the brine and the paint and the newness that is America.

But there was no newness down in Beaufort where the plantation houses moldered away quietly under Spanish moss. She had told me about the cemeteries when all was new, but I had half forgotten the passion of an afternoon under the eaves a long time ago.

So already I cut a solitary figure as I wandered on the beach, my track like the cusps of the waves. Until I saw the horseshoe crabs marooned on their backs, half alive, half dead as the sun climbed in the sky.

The Chinese woman posed and Jack took her photo. Her face a picture of love or vanity or the shallowness that is possession, all in a Kodak moment - sallow and two dimensional, washed out in the morning sun.

I was glad when he went away with his daughter and left her there, asking nagging questions, although it was a brief lull in her vanity. A man in his prime with the sand falling swift through his veins, although he never realized it then.

One day, sooner than I would ever know after the day on the beach he would inch his way to the piano in the hospice foyer and play "When you Wish on a Star," for the last time, his voice a deathly gasp from the undertow. And he'd look around at the able bodied nurses and the visitors as they strode in and realize he was stranded too. A horse shoe crab on its back midway between life and death.

So where was I, I wonder now. All these years a cold star in a blue constellation, far away in time and space where nobody could reach me...

Well my X was a bit different from the rest, but isn't x always like that? It's a bit edgy, its x-rated. It can see through your skin into your bones.

Xiphosura, the horseshoe crab is an arthropod that lives primarily in and around shallow ocean waters on soft sandy or muddy bottoms. They are a common sight on the beaches of America. The crabs occasionally come onto shore to mate and then they get into trouble. Well don't we all.

They are commonly used as bait and in fertilizer which is no great epitaph.

The entire body of the horseshoe crab is protected by a hard shell. It has two primary compouns eyes and seven secondary simple eyes, two on the underside. Its multiple eyes remind me of a spider,and it looks like a spider under the shell.  It has five pairs of legs for walking, swimming, and moving food into the mouth. Its long, straight, rigid tail can be used to flip itself over if turned upside down, so a horseshoe crab with a broken tail is more susceptible to being attacked and eaten.

Useless Fact About the Xiphorusa

Although they are not Royality, their blood is blue. Unlike vertebrates, horseshoe crabs do not have hemoglobin in their blood, but instead use hemocyanin to carry oxygen around their bodies. Because of the copper present in hemocyanin, their blood is blue.

What Not To Say to a Xiphosura

Want to go fishing?

Friday, April 26, 2013

W is for Walrus

Walruses are the frat boys of the animal kingdom. They are like a herd of unruly blubber boys on spring break in Myrtle Beach.

They are "extremely sociable, prone to loudly bellowing and snorting at one another, but are aggressive during mating season," states National Geographic.

Perhaps when you hang out in the Arctic Circle on blocks of ice you need a party and walruses certainly know how to play and fight. You mess with them at your peril. Walruses have only two main predators - Polar bears and Orca whales, and even Polar bears have been known to limp away in pain after a tusk has been shoved where the sun don't shine.

Walruses can grow very large with some oversized Pacific males weighing as much as 4,400 pounds.

Tusks play a rather important part in the life of a walrus. They are not just for tusking Polar Bears up the backside.

Here walruses take part in ice island Survivor

Walruses use them to haul their enormous bodies out of frigid waters, giving them  their "tooth-walking" label, and to break breathing holes into ice from below. Their tusks can extend to about three feet and males and females have them.

Despite their size and sometimes aggressive nature walruses have been powerless against the actions of hunters and numbers have decreased.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the walrus was heavily exploited by sealers, almost to the point of extinction. . Commercial walrus harvesting is now outlawed although some indigenous people are permitted to kill them in small numbers.

Traditional hunters used all parts of the walrus which served as a kind of Arctic Wal-Mart.  The meat, often preserved, is an important winter nutrition source; flippers were fermented and stored as a delicacy until spring; bone and tusks were used for tools, as well as material for handicrafts; the oil was used for warmth and light and the tough hide made rope and house and boat coverings. Even the intestines and guts had a use as they were made into made waterproof parkas.

The warlus appears in opular culture. The "walrus" in the odd Beatles song I Am the Walrus is a reference to the Lewis Carroll poem The Walrus and the Carpenter.

Useless Fact About the Walrus

Their moustaches are in no way linked to a Village People audition. Walruses use their extremely sensitive whiskers, called mustacial vibrissae, as detection devices for tasty raw shellfish delicacies.

What Not to Say to a Walrus

Want to come shopping for parkas?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

V is for Vulture

Normally when vultures descend it isn't a good sign. Vultures survive by scavenging carcasses. If they are swooping low it may mean you are on your last legs.

A case in point is a participant in the A-Z challenge. By the time we reach V we are twitching and muttering and heading under darkening skies down the crow road. Here I am mixing metaphors and scavengers but it's all the path of death.

Culture Vulture (H Zell)

In my novel Red Savannah, which is presently languishing in the waste baskets of half a dozen agents who I got round to sending it to, the vultures are seen low in the sky as an African adventure turns tragic.

In reality I'm not so sure if vultures can sense the approach of death, although they can certainly hone in on it once it has occurred. However, it's not unknown for vultures to attack sick and dying animals and they swarm over battlefields in large numbers.

They are also attuned to the demise of careers such as that of Rolf Harris

There are essentially two kinds of vultures - Old World Vultures associated with Asia and Africa and New World Vultures found in the Americas.

Old World vultures are not closely related to the New World Vultures. While the American vultures detect carrion by their keen sense of smell, which kicks in as far as a mile away, the Old World Vultures rely on eyesight.

A particular characteristic of many vultures is their bald heads, devoid of feathers. This helps the vulture remain clean when its head is shoved in a zebra carcass. Anything dead, really.

The largest of vultures is the Andean Condor which has a wingspan of up to 10.5 feet. I can never think of the Andean Condor without a mental image of folks wearing brightly colors blankets and blowing pan pipes coming to mind.

The Condor (Ester Inbar)

There are a few misconceptions about vultures but I'm not going to tell you they aren't badass. Get a budgie if you have any doubts.

And while it's not true that vultures' projectile vomit' on their attacker as a deliberate defense, this may be a distraction technique and it's a lot easier to fly away after jettisoning your lunch. Don't try this on Delta, even though you may want to when you see what's on the menu.

Vultures have played a part in some funerary rites. In the Zoroastrian tradition, the dead were put in towers, later described as the 'Towers of Silence' by an Englishman, and pecked by the vultures. This tradition continued into the 20th Century in Bombay.

Little Known Fact About the Vulture

A project called "Vulture Restaurant" is presently underway in Nepal to address the dwindling number of vultures. The "restaurant" is an open grassy area where naturally dying, sick, and old cows are fed to the vultures

What Not To Say to a Vulture

I'm dying to go to lunch

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

U is for Unau

It's appropriate that I should be writing about the unau, otherwise known as the two toed sloth today, because I can't be bothered to write an A to Z challenge post. Last night I dreamed the challenge had returned to A and we were stuck in a Groundhog day kind of scenario in which we never got to escape.

On sunny afternoons there would be few things better than hanging from a tree all afternoon; well lying on a hammock would be considerably better. Ideally with a steady supply of cocktails.

Although similar to the somewhat smaller and generally slower moving three-toed sloths, there is not a very close relationship between two-toed sloths and three toed sloths.

 You don't need to be Sir David Attenborough to realize the two-toed sloth received its name because it has two toes - at least on its front feet.

The unau are also larger than three-toed sloths. Other distinguishing features include a more prominent snout, longer fur, and the absence of a tail.

Sloths, Wikipedia points out "move only when necessary and even they very slowly; they have about a quarter as much muscle tissue as other animals of similar weight."

Any likenesses to that woman down at City Hall who waddles slowly between disgruntled customers muttering to herself, is purely coincidental. Sloths are Xenarthra, that include anteaters and armadillos. The earliest xenarthrans had fused pelvises, stubby teeth and small brains. Matters don't seem to have improved much since.

Generally sloths don't do much and certainly very little of any interest. It is commonly believed they sleep 15 to 18 hours a day but a recent German study in which a group of rather serious Germans stood under trees and counted how long they sleep, indicated sloths sleep just under 10 hours a day.

 The Bible doesn't seem very keen on the qualities displayed by the sloth. Proverbs says. "The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor."

However, your average sloth seems not to give a rats about this dire prediction.

Sloths hang out in South America. Given that up to two thirds of an amply fed sloth's body weight consists of its stomach contents, the digestive process can take a month to complete. Sloths have been known to continue hanging on trees, even when they are dead.

Time for a well earned nap, I am thinking.

Useless Fact About the Unau Sloth

Sloths only urinate or defecate once a week. More than that would get in the way of hanging out time. They go to the ground to spend a penny, making them vulnerable to predators.

What Not To Say to a Sloth

Want to go for a run?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

T is for Tiger

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake

The tiger is the biggest of the big cats and the most striking. Its body reaches a total body length of up to 3.3 m (11 ft) and can weigh up to 306 kg. It's also the third largest land carnivore behind the polar bear and the brown bear.

Like many other animals in this series tigers have lost much of their habitat and are now endangered. Even since the 1990s the tiger has lost 40 percent of its domain.

Still, even in zoos these powerful predators retain much of their mystique. They're like domestic cats on steroids.

The Bengal tiger is the most commonly found but numbers in India have now declined to about 2,500. The Sumatran tiger is critically endangered while the population of the Siberian tiger has plummeted. Siberian tigers are the biggest of big cats to have ever existed, weighing as much as 500 pounds. White tigers are widely bred in zoos and are an ideal fashion accessory for cheesy entertainers such as Siegfried & Roy.

Unfortuantely in 2003 the act went somewhat awry when a white tiger bit Roy's neck and almost killed him.

 A couple of gasps went up in the crowd, though many people thought the incident was part of the act. “It wasn’t like he grabbed him viciously,” audience member Andrew Cushman, was reported as saying in Reader's Digest. “He just grabbed him by the throat and walked offstage.”

Although tigers are solitary creatures, research suggests they share a kill amicably unlike lions who squabble.

While tigers will often shun human they are are thought to be responsible for more human deaths through direct attack than any other wild mammal.

Most man eater are older tigers missing teeth. This was the case in the Champawat Tiger, a tigress in India and Nepal that was responsible for an estimated 430 human deaths, the most attacks known to be perpetrated by a single wild animal per the Guinness Book, by the time she was shot dead in 1907.

Useless Fact About the Tiger

The pattern of stripes is unique to each animal, and can be used to identify them just as fingerprints are used to identify humans.

What Not To Say to a Tiger

Fancy a glass of milk kitty?

Monday, April 22, 2013

S is for Spider

Perhaps we were jealous of Matty. He had a car and a private school education, even though his establishment was considered second tier in the English system. He had a job lined up in the Navy, was skilled at rugby and had a string of women in tow.

Backyard spider (David Macaulay)

We were the spotty nerds who inhabited the same living space for a while. He reluctantly allowed us to share the same air. But Matty had an Achilles Heel that showed itself one night when we were entertaining the girls from the flat upstairs in our grubby student kitchen. We heard a high pitched scream and saw a flash of rugby player torso moving fast down the corridor. Matty was quivering by the door with just a towel to cover his modesty, pointing and jabbering in the direction of the shower room.

We followed his sign and walked into the bathroom. The fan had cut out and there was a deadly quiet. Then we saw it; a large and venomous looking house spider sitting on the shower head.

We thought it best to leave if there for a couple of weeks.

British house spiders aren't harmful to humans but they can get big and certainly look unpleasant. If any creature is likely to instil fear, it's the spider. Studies suggest 10 percent of men and 50 percent of women suffer from arachnophobia. I'm sure the figure for men is higher than this.

Spiders are air-breathing arthropods that have eight legs and chelicerae with fangs that inject venom. If you are really keen to avoid them you might be out of luck. There are 43,678 spider species out there.

They also vary a lot in size from the tiny Patu digua Colombia which reaches 0.39 mm, to the big tarantulas such as the Goliath Bird Eating Spider which can have body lengths up to 90 mm (3.5 in) and leg spans up to 250 mm.  They are certainly big enough for you to know about it if one is crawling on your chest at night.

Chicken tonight ? The Bird Eating spider is the biggest of the bunch

As in most species, but particularly in spiders, the lot of the male spider is not a happy one. Male spiders have a wide array of a courtship rituals which are intented to avoid being eaten by the females. They are not always successful.

Males of most species survive a few matings,before they become a quick post coital snack. Females weave silk egg-cases, each of which can contain hundreds of eggs.They may care for their young by carrying them around or by sharing food with them. A few species of spider hang out in large communal webs which can house as many as 50,000 of them but the communal gig is not the accepted pattern.

Spiders have been around for 400 million years and are among the most successful carnivores in the history of the planet. Spiders are a good reason for not being reincarnated as a fly; that and having to eat poop.

Despite their fearsome reputation spiders kill far fewer humans than snakes and scorpions. Although tarantulas look creepy, their bite is unlikely to prove fatal unless you have an allergy. The Brown Recluse is one of the most deadly spiders, although most people who claim to be bitten by them in the United States, have been attacked by something else. Alarmingly the black widow, a little black critter with a sinister red hourglass marking, poses a bigger threat to humans. Every time I see a spider in the garage I managed to convince myself it's a black widow, thus leading to a cancellation of the lawn mowing.

The Sydney Funnel Web Spider is more aggressive than the brown recluse and the black widow. However, since funnel-web antivenin arrived on the scene in 1980 nobody has died from a bite. Like most of the world's deadliest creatures, this spider hangs out in Australia. The Brazilian Wandering Spider is another one to watch for - if you are in Brazil at least. As its name suggests, it tends to wander.

Interestingly, the venom of the Brazilian Wandering Spider is being studied for a possible cure for erectile disfunction. As well as pain and cold sweats, men who have been bitten by this spider end up having erections. Sooo if he appears to be pleased to see you, but isn't feeling so good, it may be he has been bitten by a wandering spider, if you are anywhere near Rio...

Spiders have spawned numerous depictions in literature and film from the nursery rhyme Little Miss Muffet to J.R.R. Tolkien's hideous Shelob in The Lord of the Rings.

In Greek mythology Arachne was a weaver who wove a tapestry featuring 21 episodes of infidelity amongst the Gods of Olympus, which made Athena a trifle miffed. The goddess destroyed Arachne's tapestry and loom and cursed Arachne to live with extreme guilt. Out of sadness, Arachne soon hanged herself. Athena took pity on her and brought her back to life as a spider, making sure that the spider forever after retained Arachne's weaving abilities.

Spiderman, took the web spinning qualities of the spider to a comic book level, whereas there are numerous horror flicks of spiders or giant spiders on the rampage, such as Kingdom of the Spiders and Arachnophobia.

A recent email hoax described attacks by the South American Blush Spider in public toilets. The alleged spider's scientific name Arachnius gluteus translates as "butt spider."

Tarantulas are eaten in parts of south east Asia. They taste like chicken.

When in Cambodia and all that...

Useless Fact About the Spider

 Spiders often have eight eyes as wel as eight legs. The jumping spider has a telephoto-like series  of lenses, a four-layer retina and the ability to swivel its eyes and integrate images from different stages in the scan. However, its scanning and integrating processes are relatively slow.

What not to Say to a Spider

Bite me you eight legged freak

Saturday, April 20, 2013

R is for Rhinoceros

A couple of years ago in Z is for Zoo, I described those beloved days at zoological parks. I have always found zoos to be like theme parks. I arrive excitedly clutching a map, like Clark Griswald, all pumped up about seeing the world's largest ball of twine. Then half an hour later disillusion sets in.

Anyone who has ever been to Vegas may know the feeling. After wandering down the Strip passing the faux Eiffel Tower of the Parisian and the canals of the Venetian Hotel, I find myself longing to be in the real Paris or Venice. Now while the Okavango exhibit at Virginia Zoo may be tastefully done, notwithstanding the plastic rocks, I start to feel empty and find myself imagining the majestic delta as it radiates through Botswana.

White rhino (David Macaulay)

Recently the zoo held a behind the scenes event for the media which I tagged along on. I was disappointed to find out much of the visit entailed a tour of emergency exits, but there was one highlight while I was standing in an area behind the pens, where the general public isn't allowed.

I heard a stomping noise, looked behind me and saw a gigantic white rhinoceros, separated from me by a flimsy metal fence. The rhino appeared to be docile and we crowded around it. "Can I ride it?" one girl asked a member of staff.

I shot one of those looks in the direction of her neat blonde bob, concluding she must have been a TV reporter. This wasn't exactly pony corner.

"They're not for riding," said the member of staff.

I'm not sure which rhino it was. The zoo used to have Rufus and Alfred, two males that had to be kept apart because they showed few signs of male bonding. Unfortunately, in 2008 a zookeeper failed to shut a gate and they charged each other. Two ton Rufus died from a ruptured liver, the local newspaper reported. Maybe I was staring at Alfred.

In 2004 Jesse, a female white rhino died at the zoo, when she was chased into a moat by a zebra and drowned.

The sad reality for the rhino is they face even greater danger in the wild, even though they have few natural predators.

The white rhino which lives in Africa is actually gray. The northern subspecies is critically endangered with as few as four remaining. White rhinos have been recorded weighing as much as 10,000 pounds.

The black rhino also lives in Africa. It's gray too but smaller than the white rhino and more bad tempered. Its head isn't as square. Numbers of the species declined from about 70,000 in the late 1960s to just over 2,400 in 1995.

A Rhino gets irritated with a tour bus

The Indian rhinoceros is the largest sub species in Asia. The Javan and Sumatran rhinos are smaller and the Sumatran is hairier. Neither attribute have saved them from the poachers. The demise of the rhinoceros is testimony to the greed and hubris of mankind.

Practitioners of Chinese medicine consider the horn an effective medicine against fever, although the aphrodisiac theory is largely myth.  There's no evidence that the powdered horn alleviates fever and convulsion.  In the meantime it seems this impressive animal has to die in large numbers to fuel a dubious theory that it might improve the well being of humans. Conscience doesn't come into the equation where there's a buck to be made. Almost 450 rhinos were killed for their horns in 2010 in South Africa alone. In Vietnam one horn can fetch a quarter of a million dollars. It's perhaps no coincidence that the Javan rhino is almost extinct in Vietnam.

A lot of people think rhinos are among the most dangerous animals in the world. A recent list of the most dangerous 25 lists them at number 23, one place below the tiny cone snail, a little bugger whose venom can end 20 lives in one shot.

The fact rhinos can weigh 2 tons; have poor eye sight and can reach speeds of 40 mph means it's not a great idea to run up behind them and let off a party popper in their armored rear ends. However, rhinos kill far fewer people than horrible hippos and African elephants.

Of course there are also fewer of them. The sobering reality is at some time in the future zoos are likely to be the only place we can see a rhinoceros.

Useless Fact About the Rhino

An odd legend that rhinos stop out fires has been doing the rounds in south east Asia for decades. The rhino has a mystical name that relates to fire in Malay. In the film The Gods Must be Crazy, an African rhino stomps out two fires. Reports that the Prodigy will be featuring a rhino in their new release Fire Stomper are yet to be confirmed.

What Not To Say to a Rhino

Maybe we should get the guys together.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Q is for Qinling Panda

The Qinling Panda is not like any old run of the mill panda. It's a sub species. The last time I was at Peking House I was rather upset not to be able to order Qinling Panda chop suey.

That's probably just as well because people tend to like pandas because they are black and white and look cuddly. While the whole teddy bear concept is a bit misleading because bears are notoriously aggressive, the cuddly thing is more appropriate about pandas up to a point.

The Qinling Panda

"Though the panda is often assumed to be docile, it has been known to attack humans, presumably out of irritation rather than aggression," states Wikipedia.

Oh that's OK then.

The Qinling panda is restricted to the Qinlin Mountains of China. It differs from the more familiar panda because it has a smaller skull and dark brown and light brown (rather than black and white) fur. There are an estimated 200–300 Qinling pandas living in the wild.

All types of panda are endangered. A 2007 report estimated there were 239 pandas living in captivity inside China and another 27 outside the country. There are about 2,000 living in the wild, which is not many considering the size of China.

Giant pandas are generally solitary and the females get pissy in more ways than one. Pandas communicate by marking territory by urinating. A female is not tolerant of other females in her range. Intruders have been known to receive black eyes.

As in the case of orangutans, the male pandas tend to leave child rearing to the females. The panda's diet is 99 percent bamboo which may explain why it gets irritated, and gives rise to the crude sex joke about the panda that eats, shoots and leaves.

In reality pandas don't seem to be into sex much, particularly in captivity. As soon as pandas were in the zoo, they lost all interest in mating, leading to artificial insemination programs, Viagra and even showing dirty panda vids of giant pandas mating. Getting them to breed was about as successful as getting Victoria Beckham to crack a smile. I'm not sure if the mating vids were in black and white. In the wild it doesn't help that when twins are born, only one survives.

Pandas are increasingly becoming the national symbol of China. They have even been used in diplomacy.

Loans of giant pandas to zoos in Japan and the US formed an important part of the diplomacy of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the 1970s, making cultural exchanges This practice has been termed "Panda diplomacy". However, in more recent years China has retreated from the idea of gifts and demanded large loan payments. Sounds familiar that.

Useless Fact About the Qinling Panda

Like all pandas its a herbivore but it has the digestive system of a carnivore. It derives little energy or protein from bamboo. There's a bear roaring to get out but for the most part the panda just ambles off in search of a new type of bamboo.

What Not To Say to a Panda

Fancy a quick one

Thursday, April 18, 2013

P is for Puffer Fish

Let's face it. We have all had a puffer fish moment at some time or another. You know the kind of thing. You are at an Indian restaurant; you woof down too many poppadoms followed by a heavy duty Madras and enough naan bread to sink a small penguin (my other P option). Then you glug down a Kingfisher or two. At some point in the evening you waddle to the bathroom and catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror.

The thing that stares back at you is no longer human. It's a puffer fish.

The puffer fish is known for its ability to expand its body and puff up when threatened, revealing its spikes. Now should you ever see this phenomenon, it's not a great idea to pet the fish uttering the words: "Here puffer, puffer."

More specifically, there's nothing wrong with uttering the words, beyond the fact you will look like an idiot and be shunned by other folks. But petting the puffer is definitely a foolhardy course of action. The puffer is the second most poisonous creature in the world after the Golden Poison Frog. Given that there are a lot of species out there, this is something of an achievement.

There are 120 known species of puffer fish alone and they are found in tropical waters. When not puffed up they can be hard to identify, coming in many shapes and colors. Generally they resemble oversized tadoples with bulging eyes. Puffer fish also have a shed load of names. The family is called etradonidae and they may also be known as puffers, balloonfish, blowfish, bubblefish, globefish, swellfish, toadfish, honey toads, toadies, sugar toads and sea squab.

The only other advice I can give is don't hire a puffer fish as a driving instructor. See the episode of Sponge Bob where aforementioned yellow sponge drives Mrs. Puff nuts.

Oh and don't eat them, of course....

Except people do. The Japanese have eaten fugu (which means river pig and is yet another name for the puffer) for centuries, despite the fact its toxins can paralyze the victim while still conscious as asphyxia sets in, a process that can severely curtail one's interest in dessert.

There's a rather strict system now in place if you want to sell fugu to the public. Chefs have to undergo an apprenticeship of up to three years. There's a written test and a fish-identification test as well as a practical test and the chance to eat the fish. Only 35 percent of applicants pass. A small percentage pass out for good.

Despite the precautions, which extend to puffer knives being kept in a separate place, about six people die a year from eating the puffer fish in Japan and up to 64 are hospitalized. Oh and you can pay as much as $50 per serving for the pleasure of dining on puffer. A famous victim was the actor Bandō Mitsugorō who died in 1975 after consuming four large liver portions. The liver is one of the most risky parts of the puffer to eat.

I'm not sure if puffer tastes like chicken. But, all in all, sticking to chicken is probably the way to fly. Call me boring and all that...

Useless Fact About the Puffer Fish

Wade Davis, who wrote about the famous Clairvius Narcisse case of becoming a 'zombie,' claimed that puffer fish toxin, made a person seem to be dead and later a zombie. Now some people think that Narcisse was simply mentally ill, and Davis had coached or at least been too willing to believe his story.

What Not To Say to a Puffer Fish

I'd like to eat your liver with some fava beans and a Chianti

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

O is for Orangutan

OK this is surely the point in which the A-Z challenge has caught up with me and kicked me up the backside. I saw Juliette's post called overload, and thought this challenge overwhelm what it referred to but it wasn't.

You know you are slipping under when you groan at the thought of writing about big red monkeys on a Wednesday afternoon. My hump day is haunted by the thought of them, sticking out their rubbery lips and sucking their toes - and they're not even monkeys, they're apes.

Orangutans are my favorite apes. While gorillas can be scary and chimps are a pain in the backside when not advertising tea, orangutans are solitary and intelligent as well as terribly endangered. They are also fun to watch at the zoo where their mournful faces and bum scratching routines can keep kids amused for hours. They are also disconcerting to watch at times because their characteristics can appear a little too human for comfort.

Orangutans are found in Sumatra and Borneo, great forested islands in which their habitat is being destroyed by the day. If it's worth your while becoming Sting and banging on about the rain forest or hanging out there unwashed for a few decades for any species, it's worth it for this one.

Much became known about these creatures due to the work of Birutė Galdikas, a leading primatologist who hung out for 30 years in a primitive bark hut in Borneo, dubbed Camp Leakey - because it probably did - for 30 years.

She became an outspoken advocate for orangutans and the saving of their rainforest habitat, which is rapidly being devastated by loggers, palm oil plantations, gold miners and forest fires.

Orangutans are known for their solitary behavior and the close link between mothers and children. In contrast, fathers have little interest in child support.

Many studies have pointed to the intelligence of orangutans which suggest they may be having the last laugh at the kids who stare at them scratching their bottoms for two hours at the zoo.

For instance, a 2008 study of two orangutans at the Leipzig Zoo showed these apes can use 'calculated reciprocity', which involves weighing the costs and benefits of gift exchanges and keeping track of these over time.  They have also been known to use tools and to develop linguistics. Indeed, my recent efforts to fit blinds compare unfavorably with those of an orangutan.

Useless Fact About the Orangutan

There are many folklore theories relating to interaction with humans. In central Borneo, some traditional folk beliefs claim it's bad luck to look in the face of an orangutan. There are even folk tales of orangutans mating with and kidnapping humans and stories of hunters being seduced by female orangutans, which seem a bit far-fetched to say the least.

What Not To Say to an Orangutan

Come on baby light my (forest) fire.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

N is for Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat

Pity the poor northern hairy nosed wombat. Unlike my last creature - the mosquito - the hairy nosed wombat (known to his pals as the HNW) is crtitically endangered. And he hasn't done anything to hurt anyone, being in appearance rather like an oddly misshappen teddy bear.

Yep the HNW is this year's must-have fasion accessory. Paris Hilton would have one, but she's last year's fashion accessory so who cares. At least the HNW would be the hot ticket item if you could get your paws on the northern variety for love or money.

There are, in fact, three types of wombat. The northern hairy-nosed wombat is similar to the southern hairy-nosed wombat, but hangs out up north instead of down south and its nose isn't as long. It's still hairy, though. And by oop north I'm talking about northern Austrialia. The other species in the Vombatidae family, the common wombat, has longer ears and, funnily enough, has managed to find itself some nose haired clippers.  The common wombat is distinguished from both types of hairy nosed wombats in that it has a bald nose ie. it's not hairy. I feel I am over laboring this point.

Northern hairy-nosed wombats can grow up to 35 cm high, and can be a meter long and weigh up to 40 kg. The females are slightly bigger than the males because they have an extra layer of fat. The northern hairy-nosed wombat's nose is said to be very important for its survival because they have very poor eyesight so they can smell their food in the dark. It can take a northern hairy nose a full day to dig a burrow, which makes me think they should be employed by Virginia Department of Transportation.

Sadly the HNW doesn't have a much of a nose for survival. Its numbers are presently restricted to one place, the Epping Forest National Park in Queensland. In 2003 the total population copmprised just 113 hairy nosed individuals, including only around 30 breeding females.

Opinions differ as to why the northern hairy nose is facing tough times. The Queensland Department of the Environment says: "It might have already been in decline when Europeans settled, and was probably the least common of the three wombat species at that time.

"Since then, competition for food from introduced grazing animals, such as sheep, cattle and rabbits - particularly during droughts – has been the main reason for the species rapid decline since European arrival in Australia."

So yeah - basically you can blame the Europeans again...

Useless Fact about the Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat

You know when you cough politely when someone is in your way. Well while much communication between wombats occurs through olfaction and scent marking, wombats will emit rough coughing noises when they waddle past each other.

What Not To Say to a Hairy Nosed Wombat

Fancy a hairy nosed barbie Bruce?

Monday, April 15, 2013

M is for Mosquito

One time in Montenegro we thumbed a lift and were dropped off by an old walled town called Kotor.

Kotor is set on a deeply indented bay surrounded by towering mountains. Its walls crumble quietly into the surroundings and there are old churches and fortifications. It was gloriously undiscovered, almost too much so, as we found when we located a ramshackle courtyard cafe that served nothing more than Coke in rusty old cans.

It was before the war and old men muttered darkly about conflict in Kosovo. In the event the conflict arrived closer to the Adriatic at first, in Croatia and then Bosnia.

In the former Yugoslavia in those days it was never hard to find accommodation. Women would crowd you as soon as you got off the bus offering to put you up in their places. We chose a pleasant home down on the shore and crashed out for the night. But about 30 minutes into my sleep I was woken up by an unpleasant buzzing in my ear. I swatted something away but it returned again just as sleep came on.

I switched on the light and saw small black specs on the wall. The whole room was infested with mosquitoes.

For the next two hours I declared war on the mosquitoes, killing droves of them with a rolled up newspaper from my bed. Yet, every time I returned to sleep, the pesky buzzing would return to my ear, as they sought to suck my blood. It wasn't the most pleasant night's sleep I had ever had.

Which brings me to mosquitoes. These insects are a family of small, midge-like flies: the Culicidae.

Unlike most of the other creatures featured here, mosquitoes have absolutely nothing good going for them.  The mosquito is, in fact, the most deadly of creatures.

It has been estimated that mosquitoes transmit diseases to almost 700 million people annually resulting in 2 to 3 million deaths every year.

Those itchy, pesky bites are due to an immune response from the binding of IgG and IgE antibodies to antigens in the mosquito's saliva, apparently.

Some of the goodies transmitted by mosquitoes include:

  • Viral diseases, such as yellow fever, dengue fever and Chikungunya.
  • The parasitic diseases collectively called malaria.
  • Lymphatic filariasis - the main cause of elephantiasis.
  • West Nile Virus, which occurs in the United States as well as other places.
  • Eastern Equine Encephalitis Virus
  • Tulaemina

  • I am particularly paranoid about mosquitoes, particularly after reading this. Mosquitoes like my skin. I'm looking around me nervously as I write this, even though I'm in Starbucks.

    Useless Fact About the Mosquito

    The females are the ones to watch for, not that you can really tell gender if one is on your skin. In many species, the female has to obtain nutrients from a blood meal before she can produce eggs. For female mosquitoes  to risk their lives on blood sucking while bloke mosquitoes abstain, also occurs in some other insect families, such as the Tabanidae.

    What Not to Say to a Mosquito

    Come on. Do your worst sucker.

    Saturday, April 13, 2013

    L Is For Lemming

    Anyone ever had this conversation at work by the water cooler?

    You: What are you going to do this weekend?

    Colleague: I think me and the wife might take a nice trip to the coast, get out of the car and jump off a 200 foot cliff.

    You: Sounds like a good idea. Think I'll jump off a cliff too.

    Colleague: Actually my cousins are visiting. They'll certainly want to jump off a cliff this weekend.

    So might go the typical work water cooler conversation of a lemming, one of the most curious of rodents.

    Lemmings are small rodents that live in tundra biomes near the Arctic. They are most famous for their acts of mass suicide, although it's not clear if this is down to suffering SAD due to the lack of light in the Norwegian winters, or just for the hell of it.

    Lemmings see wild population fluctuations. The Norway lemming and the brown lemming reproduce so rapidly they suffer sudden populations fluctuations, going from population explosions to near extinction.

    The near extinction problem is not helped by the mass suicides, although there's some evidence this is an urban, or rather a treeless wilderness myth.

    Those good old lemming misconceptions date back to the 1530s when the Swiss geographer Zeigler of Strasbourg proposed the theory the lemmings fell from the sky in stormy weather. By all accounts he would stroke his long beard and proclaim: "It's raining cats, dogs and lemmings."

    A similar theory was proposed in the folklore of the Inupiat/Yupik at Norton Sound. Later this theory was modified to that of mass suicide. When one lemming jumped off a cliff, the others follow, the theory went. However, the reality is more about mass migration than depression.

    When the lemming population goes nuts there's a major urge to get out of Dodge City. During these crazed migrations they may attempt to swim across water that's too wide and drown en masse in the process.

    Disney is much to blame for the mass suicide myth. The 1955 adventure comic "The Lemming with the Locket" showed the creature jumping in large numbers off cliffs in Norway, while the 1958 film White Wilderness  features staged footage of lemmings jumping off cliffs. It turns out they were being flicked into the air via a turntable by the kindly lemming lovers at Disney.

    Lemming behavior is now associated with people who go along unquestioning with a dumb decision or idea which is detrimental to them. 

    Useless Fact About the Lemming

    Although they are depicted as being passive the brightly colored lemmings can behave aggressively toward predators and even humans.

    What Not to Say to a Lemming

    Fancy a Cliff bar?

    Friday, April 12, 2013

    K is for Komodo Dragon

    I've done nice lizard in I is for Iguana so it's swiftly on to nasty lizard. The Komodo Dragon is the biggest and baddest lizard doing the rounds on the lizard block. If the Iguana will casually sip a cocktail on a balcony, the Komodo will guzzle a pint of super strong lager and then smash the glass in yer face.

    This member of the monitor lizard family, is probably the nearest thing you will find to a dinosaur. It can grow as large as 10 feet long and weight 150 lb. Fortunately, you are not likely to come across one in the United States, or indeed Britain, unless you are close to a nuclear facility.

     Komodo dragons are fun at the zoo (Bodlina)

    The Komodo is only found on the Indonesian islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores, Gili Motang, and Padar. Its size is due to a phenomenon called "island gigantism." There are no other carnivorous animals, so the meat eaters fill the void. Island gigantism is found in other species such as rugby players from Tonga.

    Attacks on humans are documented but rare. You are in more danger from a croc. Still you are well advised not to shoot it the bird. The Komodo dragon is able to see as far away as 980 feet.

    The Komodo dragon uses its tongue to smell and is a voracious eater. Although they eat mostly carrion, they will sneak up to prey and attack. They can hone in on the smell of a dead or dying animal from a distance of six miles. It's a good idea not to die anywhere near a Komodo dragon.

    If you are unwise enough to do lunch with a Komodo, avoid anywhere with Michelin stars.  In fact there is probably nowhere you could take them, apart from Applebee's.

    "Komodo dragons eat by tearing large chunks of flesh and swallowing them whole while holding the carcass down with their forelegs. For smaller prey up to the size of a goat, their loosely articulated jaws, flexible skulls, and expandable stomachs allow them to swallow prey whole," states Wikipedia. They can swallow 80 percent of their body weight in one sitting and like to cover their meal in the red saliva that is often blood-tinged, because their teeth are almost completely covered by gingival tissue that is naturally lacerated during feeding.

    Mating is also a less than pleasant affair. The males fight for the females, frequently vomiting and defecating as the ground is prepared for the fight.

    "The winner of the fight will then flick his long tongue at the female to gain information about her receptivity," states Wikipedia.

    Perhaps vexed that he didn't say it with flowers - merely defecation and chucking up -  the female will attack the male with her claws during mating.

    The whole Komodo thing really makes me think wistfully of donkeys. Komodos don't even make good handbags, apparently.

    Useless Fact About the Komodo Dragon

    Phil Bronstein, the former husband of Casino star Sharon Stone, was bitten on the foot by one at Los Angeles zoo.  The keeper had told him to take off his white shoes and socks, because they could excite the animal as they were the same color as the white rats that were lunch. Bronstein had to have several tendons in his foot surgically reattached.

    What Not to Say to a Komodo Dragon

    Do you want me to take my shoes off?

    Wednesday, April 10, 2013

    J is for Jackass

    A jackass is a male donkey. Unlike many of the animals I have featured in this A to Z challenge such as sharks and hippos, most of us have experienced this animal at close quarters, at some time or another. We may have even ridden on one. When you grew up in Britain and the highlight of your summer is a chilly day at Weston-Super-Mud, the donkey ride may have been the highlight of your childhood possibly.

    At least until the donkey refused to move. And you ended up with a complex that was with you for the rest of your life. I digress. Candy floss is also a very traumatic thing.

    (Oscar Panther)

    There are actually 40 million domestic donkeys in the world and they are seen as the poor man's fashion accessory, even more so than owning a Yugo.

    A male donkey or ass is called a jack, a female is called a jenny or jennet. Jack donkeys and female horses are used to produce mules. All of them can be pretty stubborn, a quality I see as admirable. If you know a couple called Jack and Jenny, you can bet they'll be asses. I'm not sure where Jill comes into the picture.

    Donkeys have been domesticated since 3000 BC or thereabouts. The ancestors of the modern donkey are the Nubian and Somalian subspecies of African wild ass. In ancient Egypt the number you owned was a sign of prosperity.

    Donkeys are widely used in agriculture and even in warfare. The New Zealand Medical Corps used donkeys to rescue wounded soldiers from the battlefield at Gallipoli, during World War One. The Italian army, never the finest fighting force since the days of ancient Rome, used them widely. Although it's said an army marches on its stomach, in this case the soldiers marched on their asses, because the donkeys were also used for meat.

    The Jewish people wouldn't approve because donkeys aren't considered Kosher. But they play a prominent role in the Bible.

    An Old Testament prophesy, has the Messiah arriving on a donkey: "Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey!" it says.

    "With the rise of Christianity, some believers came to see the cross-shaped marking present on donkeys' backs and shoulders as a symbol of the animal's bearing Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, " states Wikipedia. "During the Middle Ages, Europeans used hairs from this cross (or contact with a donkey) as folk remedies to cure illness, including measles and whooping cough.

    Donkeys (Rylee Isitt)

    In the 15th Century one doctor even listed riding backwards on a donkey as a cure for scorpion stings, tempting me to make the obvious ass backwards joke.

    There are too many references to donkeys in literature and film to list here. Shakespeare derided them as stupid in a Midsummer Night's Dream; Cervantes Don Quixote puts a better spin on them and the dour Eeyore in Winnie the Poo is perhaps the most famous literary donkey of them all.

    Donkeys also feature in politics. Opponents and satirists depicted U.S. President Andrew Jackson as a "Jackass." Jackson liked the insult and the donkey later became the symbol of the Democratic party. See J is for Jacksonian, Jackass.

    Useless Fact About the Jackass

    The word donkey replaced ass from 18th century, as society became more polite. Rooster also replaced cock at this time.

    What Not to Say to a Jackass

    Are you feeling a little hoarse?

    Tuesday, April 9, 2013

    I is for Iguana

    It's not much fun when you find yourself waking up in the night screaming and crawling up the walls. But this happened to me last night, I afraid to say.

    There was a voice in my head - the same one that usually goes on about chocolate at 2 a.m. But this time it had a deranged tone. It informed me of something I had known for some time but had not dared to admit, for the shame of bringing it out of my subconscious and exposing it for the world to see.

    Iguanas at a zoo in Sweden (Bjoertvedt)

    I had made it to I on the A to Z challenge without featuring a single reptile....

    Pause as the full horror of those words sinks in. My blood runs cold. Then I move swiftly onto Iguanas.

    Actually I like Iguanas. They are funky and come in all shapes, sizes and colors. I would gladly swap a dog that is still hyperactive notwithstanding the strategic removal of certain parts, for one of these cool reptiles which are not scary in the slightest.

    The Green Iguana Society informs me: "Because reptiles are vertebrates, they are chordates. Phyla are also divided up into many smaller groups, called classes."


    Anyhow. Did I tell you they are funky.

    The Iguana is a type of herbivorous lizards  that lives in tropical parts of Mexico, Central America and islands such as Fiji and Tonga in the the Pacific as well as the Caribbean. This lounge lizard has impeccable taste and can be found supping cocktails in places such as Martinique.

    The genus was first described back in 1768 by Austrian naturalist Josephus Nicolaus Laurenti in his popular best seller Specimen Medicum, Exhibens Synopsin Reptilium Emendatam cum Experimentis circa Venena.

    Um OK. The two main types are the Green Iguana and the Lesser Antillean iguana, which is endangered due to the destruction of its habitat.

    The Galapagos Islands of South America are known for their distinctive iguanas. Back in the 19th Century naturalist Charles Darwin found so many of them here, he remarked it was impossible to pitch a tent because there were so many iguanas. A distinctive pink morph was identified.

    Darwin described the Galapagos land iguana as "ugly animals, of a yellowish orange beneath, and of a brownish-red colour above: from their low facial angle they have a singularly stupid appeararance."

    This description makes me wonder whether he was not actually, in fact, making notes in 7-Eleven.

    Useless Fact About Iguanas

    Some species have a symbiotic relationship with the local bird population; the birds remove parasite and ticks, making life a good deal better of the iguanas and providing a tasty lunch for the birds.

    What Not to Say to an Iguana

    Can I borrow your scales?

    Monday, April 8, 2013

    H is for Hippopotamus

    Hippos can be jolly chaps and chapesses at the movies and in entertainment. The Disney film Fantasia featured a ballerina hippopotamus dancing to the opera La Gioconda, while the hippopotamus characters "Happy Hippos" were created in 1988 by the French designer Andre Roche.

    This idea of cuddly hippos, in reality, is far of the mark. Hippos are big, bad and dangerous to know. They are also very ugly and one time at the zoo when a hippo unleashed its vast mouth to yawn served to remind yours truly and onlookers within a radius of two miles that hippos have halitosis the like of nobody's business. Don't waste your money on Altoids, folks.

    (Peter Lindren)

    The purpose of my A to Z series on animals seems to be to gross out people as much as possible, although, I didn't start out with that intention. Still from baboons' bums to sharks cannibalising each other in the womb, it seems to have happened hasn't it?

    I'm not sure if I can better that with hippos, although I can confirm hippos mark their territory by spinning their tails while defecating to distribute their excrement over a greater area. They pee backwards for the same reason. Realtors beware. If you are trying to sell a house to a hippo, run for the hills long before he tells you he'll buy.

    Hippos live in sub Saharan Africa and are big, weighing 3 to 9 tons. In fact, only two land animals are bigger - the elephant and the rhinoceros.

    Although many people think they are related to pigs, given their resemblance to pigs, their closest living relatives are, in fact,  cetaceans which include whales and porpoises, although the species went their separate ways 55 million years ago.

    Hippos are also rather badass. They are very aggressive animals, even though they are herbivores. Think of the most scary vegan you know, and add 200 Big Macs (stuffed full of soy), permi PMS and a devotion to Charles Manson.

    Hippos kill about 200 people a year, which is more than double that of sharks, although more people are killed by elephants. They even scare the hell out of crocodiles. Wikipedia notes they are "very aggressive towards humans, whom they commonly attack whether in boats or on land with no apparent provocation. They are widely considered to be one of the most dangerous large animals in Africa."

    Zulu warriors preferred to be as brave as a hippopotamus; even lions were not considered as fearsome.

    Another notable fact about hippos is men and lady hippos just about look the same; which has led a few foolhardy entrepreneurs to market hippo handbags to females, with varying degrees of success.

    Useless Fact About the Hippopotamus

    Infamous Colombian drug warlord Pablo Escobar, a man who brought in more money than the GDP of Colombia through coke sales, also had a thing for importing hippos.  Managing the aggressive hippos, commonly referred to as the "cocaine hippos," has become a major issue for the Colombian government since the death of Escobar because the big old hippos are on the rampage with no known predators.

    What Not To Say to a Hippo

    You really float my boat

    G is for Great White Shark

    Certainly regaining the momentum for the A to Z challenge was proving difficult. After the weekend high of proving the doubters wrong and successfully hanging four sets of blinds, there is really little left in life to aspire to. Still I go on. Sigh.

    I will endeavor. In the words of Margaret Thatcher who sadly died today: "I am extraordinarily patient, provided I get my own way in the end."

    Margaret Thatcher was somewhat ruthless but effective. As an animal she would probably be a Great White Shark.

    The only time I have ever seen Margaret Thatcher was in the House of Commons tea room. I saw a figure who looked vaguely familiar, albeit a shadow of the woman who had loomed large across the eighties. She was frail but when she caught my eye there was the same steeliness. The look a Great White gives you when you are trapped in a cage under the sea.

    The Great White is among the largest of sharks. The largest individuals known to have approached or exceeded 6 m (20 ft) in length. They are associated with the waters off California, Mexico, South Africa and Australia as well as other places such as Japan and Chile.

    According to a recent study, California great whites have migrated to an area between Baja California in Mexico and Hawaii known as the White Shark Café. You probably don't want to wind up here as you may open up the menu and find you are on it.

    Although this big bad fish has a big bad rap, humans are not at the top of its menu. For example, research in the Mediterranean has shown there have been 31 confirmed attacks against humans in the last two centuries, most of which were non-fatal.  Often sharks prefer a "test bite" to see how yummy we are - or not. Which makes me feel much better..

    The Great White's scary reputation is in no small part due to Peter Benchley's best selling novel Jaws and Steven Spielberg's 1975 film of the same name that gave the great white shark the image of being a "man eater" in the public mind. In reality far more humans are killed by angry hamsters.

    Who can forget the scene when they are out there alone with the mad Irish captain waiting for the mother of all sharks to attack.

    Useless Fact About Great Whites

    They'll eat just about anything that moves including fellow Great Whites. Cannibalism starts early. The unborn sharks participate in intrauterine cannibalism; stronger pups consume their weaker mates. According to reports a 3 m (9.8 ft) long great white shark was nearly bitten into two by a reportedly 6 m (20 ft) long great white shark in Stradbroke Island, near Brisbane in Australia.

    What Not to Say to  Great White

    Want to be my womb mate.

    Forget the goldfish bowl. You're going to need a bigger boat....

    Saturday, April 6, 2013

    F is for Flying Squirrel

    F is traditionally a phase in the A-Z challenge when the initial enthusiasm dies, fewer people start hopping and commenting and it's the first time you find yourself thinking f it....

    Traditionally in these kinds of scenarios, we regroup, herd together the few remaining brain cells that are left and try to cobble together a few lines about flying squirrels. Rude not to really...

    In my research on flying squirrels I draw lightly on flyingsquirrels.com which was conceived and developed  to make people more aware of "North America's two species of these fascinating, nocturnal, tree dwelling, forest dependent gliding mammals."

    Also Steve Patterson from flyingsquirrels.com says if you don't cite him he'll get all squirrely.

    "Leave the copying of other folk's work to the 'Homer and Bart Simpsons" of this world. Plagarism will hurt YOU far more than anyone else!" warns Steve, making me wonder if he has an army of flying squirrels at his disposal poised to clinically attack the nuts of evil plagirisers, as effectively as Veruca Salt is dealt with by the squirrels in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

    Steve's love of flying squirrels may not be universal. "Flying squirrel damage includes accumulated droppings, urine stains, chewing and gnawing on wood, and degradation of insulation.," warns one pest control website. Flying squirrels may look cute but they don't make great pets.

    Flying squirrels don't really fly either, at least not like birds. They glide between trees They are smaller than the grey squirrels we usually see squinting evilly at us from trees and can be found in North America and Siberia. The direction and speed of the squirrels in midair is varied by changing the positions of its two arms and legs, largely controlled by small cartilaginous wrist bones. Wikipedia states flying squirrels only need to attend flying school for a few weeks to get their wings.

    "At birth, flying squirrels are mostly hairless, apart from their whiskers, and most of their senses are not present. By week five of their lives, they are almost fully developed. At that point, they can respond to their environment and start to develop a mind of their own. Through the upcoming weeks of their lives, they practice leaping and gliding. After two and a half months, their gliding skills are perfected, they are ready to leave their nest and are capable of independent survival."

    It now occurs to me I am really rather bored with flying squirrels.

    Useless Fact About Flying Squirrels.

    They have been known to fly as far as 90 meters (295 feet). This makes them great for blog hopping.

    What Not To Say to a Flying Squirrel

    Any chance of an upgrade?

    Friday, April 5, 2013

    E is for Emu

    The Emu is a large flightless bird that lives in Australia. Whenever I have seen them in a zoo, I have been rather glad they have been on the other side of the fence. The Emu has a beady eye and a pecky beak. It would gladly take a stab at you for the hell of it.

    Feeling peckish? (LT Shears)

    As it happens, the Emu loomed large and terrifying over my childhood thanks to a rather unfunny man called Rod Hull who spent much of his life with his hand up the backside of a puppet called Emu that attacked folks on live TV.

    Later on there was speculation that Hull was a bit pervy and used Emu to grope people. I mentioned this in passing in a previous blog.

    In his biography the ex darts player, Eric Bristow, who was admittedly seeking publicity, told the Sun, Hull was a pervert.

    "He used the puppet to feel up women and stick his hand between people's legs. It was out of order," said Bristow, who went on to launch into a diatribe about how he would knock him out cold on live TV if his "f..... silly bird" came anywhere near him.

    Hull drew 11 million viewers at the peak of his fame with his show. He died penniless in 1999 after he fell off a roof during a botched repair.

    The Emu is the second tallest bird in the world after the Ostrich, another bird that can't fly, thank God.

    Emus, by their nature, are curious birds who Emus do not sleep through the night but get their kips in several short stints sitting down. Emus are farmed for their meat, oil and leather. The toe and claw of an Emu are 15 centimetres wide and their feet alone remind me of those of a raptor in Jurassic Park.

    Useless Fact About an Emu.

    Females are more aggressive and angry than males during the courting period, often fighting one another off for access to mates. Scientists have found thise behavior in few other places outside the Emu population of Eastern Australia, and some nightclubs in the north of England.

    What Not to Say to An Emu

    Bet ya can't peck me baby.

    Wednesday, April 3, 2013

    D is for Duck Billed Platypus

    The DBP is something of a WTF creature, if you know what I mean. The platypus lives in Eastern Australia and is quirky in the way you will only find in a country where folks throw bent sticks in the air so as they can come back to them, as a passtime.

    The platypus is a mammal. It has a flat, streamlined body. But in some ways it's as if its creator decided to use little bits of other creatures and was having a laugh.

    The platypus has a muzzle shaped like the bill of a duck, webbed feet, and a tail like that of a beaver. The bill may look like a duck's but it is not hard like that of a bird. It is actually an elongated muzzle covered with a leathery skin rather than a hard beak. The bill and feet of a platypus are dark black while the fur is usually a dark brown color. The platypus also possesses a spur on it hind legs that can be used to inject venom into another creature. In humans this can cause agonizing pain so platypets are not a great idea. It can be fatal to smaller creatures.

    If you are not confused enough already this is one of only five mammals to lay eggs, rather than giving birth to its young live. The platypus also walks like a reptile. It's one mixed up bunny.

    Platypuses also have a sense of electroreception: they locate their prey in part by detecting electric fields generated by muscular contractions. Platypuses have been heard to emit a low growl when disturbed and a range of other vocalisations have been reported in specimens in captivity, although the rumor that they can sing like the Bee Gees is just that. Much is muddled about these creatures. There's not even an accepted plural in relation to them; is it Platipuses or Platipi - who knows?

    Despite, or maybe because of their quirkiness, these animals have featured heavily in popular culture. Syd the platypus was one of the three mascots chosen for the Sydney 2000 Olympics. There's a Green Day song "Platypus (I Hate You)", Robin Williams refers to them as proof that God has a sense of humor in Dogma, and I find it hard to escape from Perry the Platypus from Phineas and Ferb.

    Useless Fact About the Duck Billed Platypus

    They don't have passports. Once they are taken out of Oz they never do well. As of 2013, there are apparently no platypuses in captivity outside of Australia. Three unsuccessful attempts were made to bring the animals to the Bronx Zoo, in 1922, 1947, and 1958; of these, only two of the three animals introduced back in 1947 survived longer than 18 months. Fair dinkum mate - they wouldn't give a XXXX for any place outside Oz.

    What Not To Say to a Platypus

    Here's some bread ducky, ducky

    Lost by the Sea

     A tiny tragedy in an ocean of sadness makes barely a ripple. Still, I was taken aback to receive an email from a former wife (the one I nev...