Saturday, April 19, 2014

Q is for Quetzacoatl

Q is for Quetzacoatl.

Questzacoatl is the feathered serpent of Aztec mythology.  According to the story, he was not only God of the morning star, but the giver of books, and the one who introduced corn.

When I was a kid, I learned in school that Cortes pretty much rolled over the Aztecs like a steamroller through daffodils because Montezuma believed he was the returning god, Quetzaocoatl.  (Silly Aztecs!  Ha-ha!)  Turns out though, this may have been only propaganda from Cortes himself proving how gullible the natives were.  In reality, the Aztecs were not so easily fooled.  "You, Quetzacoatl?  You're nothing like Quetzacoatl.  For one thing, he's a snake.  For another thing, feathers."

Mormons believe Quetzacoatl was actually Jesus Christ, who according to their religion, visited the Americas after his resurrection.  Again, the Aztecs would be like, "Jesus, Quetzacoatl?  Jesus is nothing like Quetzaoatl.  For one thing, he's not a snake.  For another thing, feathers."

What Quetzacoatl clearly resembles to yours truly is a Chinese dragon.  What to make of that, however, I have no idea.

Friday, April 18, 2014

P is for Piranha

P is for Piranha.

Teddy Roosevelt visited the Amazon where the natives had rigged up a show for him.  They threw a bull into the river where piranha ripped it to shreds.  Teddy was mightily impressed and later wrote that the piranha was more vicious than the shark or barracuda.  What the natives didn't tell Teddy was they'd blocked off the river beforehand and been starving the piranhas for days.  Even guppies would get a little feisty in that predicament.

Nevertheless, a piranha is no guppy.  There have been numerous documented human attacks - some fatal - over the past few years, including groups of fifteen to one hundred bathers.  Adding up all the folks involved in piranha attacks since 2011, according to Wikipedia, I get the number 287.  Damn.  For shark attacks in the same period, again, using Wikipedia, I come up with 225.  Number of alligator attacks?  About 9.

Okay.  So piranha may not have been quite the monsters TR thought, but they're still pretty impressive.  And here's one final fact I find kind of creepy.  What makes piranha so formidable is they hunt in schools.  But they don't do that to make them more effective hunters, oh, no.  They do it because they're afraid.  They're protecting themselves from things that eat them.  So next time you're swimming in the Amazon, remember, it's not just the piranha you have to watch for, it's all the things that eat piranha.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

O is for Opossum

O is for Opossum.

It is not the same as a possum, which is a marsupial native to Australia.  It is a marsupial, however, and the only marsupial in the Americas.  Opossums do have semi-prehensile tails, but not nearly prehensile enough to hang from a branch like they do in Disney movies.  They also do "play possum," and their act is much more convincing than you may have thought.  When hissing and baring its teeth don't do the trick, the opossum not only goes completely immobile - in a creepily realistic impression of rigor mortis - it excretes a green fluid from its anus that smells like rotting flesh.

Opossum is edible, if you're hungry enough, but bear in mind it will poop itself with green slime somewhere along the way.  According to the Joy of Cooking, the opossum should be caged for ten days and fed on milk and cereal.  Then it should be cleaned but not skinned; Joy of Cooking is very specific on this part.  Then put it in simmering water until the hair plucks out easily, and then scrape off the skin.

Hungry yet?

Remove the small red glands from under the legs and shoulder blades.  Parblanch for about twenty minutes, then roast as you would for rabbit.

On second thought, don't bother.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

N is for Neanderthal

N is for Neanderthal.

Neanderthals dominated Europe for tens of thousands of years.  Then, about 60,000 years ago, when humans emerged from Africa, the Neanderthals began to die out, which scientists find mysterious.  (Hint: It has to do with humans emerging from Africa.)

Although there are traces of Neanderthal DNA among humans, the Neanderthal was not our ancestor but a whole nother species.  It would be nice to believe that humans overwhelmed them with superior brainpower, but the reality is we probably just had a much faster reproduction rate.  We weren't smarter, just hornier.

Contrary to what you might think, Neanderthals weren't hairy creatures that walked bent over and grunted at each other.  They stood upright, had a language, and used tools.  If you saw a Neanderthal walking by dressed in modern clothes, you would not notice anything particularly strange.

Neanderthals cared for their sick and buried their dead.  On the other hand, at least one scientist says they raped and killed humans and weren't above eating human flesh.  So all in all, they weren't all that different from us.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

M is for Mule

M is for Mule.

When a daddy donkey, or jack, and a mommy horse, mare, love each other very, very much, God gives them a little baby mule to take care of.  A daddy horse, or stallion, can also love a mommy donkey, or jenny, very, very much, but God isn't nearly as likely to give them a baby if they do.  Even better, zebras sometimes love horses or donkeys, creating sporty mules called zedonks.  I am not making this up, so help me.

The mule, except in very rare instances, cannot have babies of its own.  It is considered as sturdy, sure-footed, and patient as a donkey, but as fast and strong as a horse.  Plus it never takes maternity leave, so it's pretty much a win-win unless you're a mule.  Basically a mule is an animal with absolutely no purpose in life but to do what humans tell it.

The reason mules are sterile is that a horse has 64 chromosomes and a donkey 62.  The mule compromises at 63 chromosomes which evidently is a bad number if you're looking for off-spring.  A zebra has between 32 and 36 chromosomes.  And since you're probably wondering, a human has 46, putting us closer to the zebra end of the spectrum than that horse.  I have no idea what horses are doing with all those extra chromosomes.

A male mule might be sterile, but it's not impotent, and a stud mule - there is such a thing - is notoriously mean, and have to be fixed.  The mules themselves do not feel they were broken in the first place.

Monday, April 14, 2014

L is for Lemming

L is for Lemming.

The lemming lives in the arctic tundra.  You probably already know that lemmings don't really commit mass suicide, but it sure looks that way.  They have a very high reproduction rate but at the same time are surrounded by animals who like to eat lemmings.  For these reasons, their population varies widely.  One moment, it's like, hey, where did all the lemmings go?  And the next, it's like, damn, enough with the lemmings already.

When lemmings get too numerous - and after all, how many lemmings do you really need anyway? - they set off for new places to live.  Some of these new places are on the other sides of bodies of water, such as rivers.  Fortunately, lemmings are excellent swimmers.  Well, some of them are excellent swimmers, some of them are only so-so.  Bottom line, the good swimmers make it, and the so-so swimmers don't.  This is the source of the mass suicide myth.  Bad thing is, if you're a lemming, you don't know what kind of swimmer you are until you jump in the river and give it a try.

That's pretty much a metaphor for life in general.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Bonus Letter: A is for Amoeba

A is for Amoeba.

Owing to the rules of the A-to-Z blogging challenge, I'm not required to post on Sundays; nevertheless, here's a bonus blog about my friend, the amoeba.

Even if you don't know a rotifer from a gastrotrich, you've heard of amoebas.  They are the rock-stars of protozoans.  The name amoeba means change, because their shape is so fluid.

Amoebas have a contractile vacuole, but that's kind of what you'd expect.  No surprises there.  Their genome has 290 billion base pairs, which contrasts to a measly 29 billion pairs in the human genome; it seems kind of insulting such a simple animal would have so much genetic information, but that's the way it is.  Amoebas eat by phagocytosis, which is a fancy way of saying the amoeba just engulfs its food, surrounds it.  Since the amoeba doesn't have a mouth, it's all mouth.  If a great big amoeba tries to hug you, watch out.

Scientists used to think amoebas had always produced asexually, but it turns out a long time ago, there were mommy amoebas and daddy amoebas, and when they loved each other very, very much, you got little baby amoebas.  After a few million years or so, however, the amoebas decided it just wasn't worth the effort and it made a lot more sense reproducing without getting into the whole, "You forgot our anniversary" and "do these vacuoles make my protist look fat?" thing.  What this means is, while we used to believe that sexual reproduction represented an advance over asexual, in fact, it's the other way around.  This news is disappointing to the rest of us who still view sex as at least mildly entertaining, but maybe when you've been on the planet as long as amoeba have, you start to see things differently.