Biology/ Zoology links

We have always known about the parthenogenetic (but mating, and reproducing, sometimes in the yard–see below) hybrid whiptail lizards of New Mexico, some of which live in our yard, known as Aspidoscelis (formerly Cnemidiphorus) neavesi, or more rudely, if correctly, as lesbian clone lizards. They are indeed a species of all- female virgin clones that reproduce after sexual behavior.

But now scientists have bred dual hybrid versions, tetraploid in chromosome number. What the hell are they? And do they exist in the wild?

Tardigrades exist in your local stagnant pond, in outer space, and in cult science fiction stories of the seventies.; they are everywhere. Nevertheless, they make clone lizards seem mundane.

Here is a model:

Next (tomorrow): Italian gun trends and esthetics…

Happy Birthday 2

…  to Dr John Burchard, scientist, man of letters, scholar, adventurer in far places, and one of the best tellers of tales I know. As the old saying has it, he has forgotten more about “salukiformes” and falconry than almost anyone else in our time has ever learned. Like me, he was a Massachusetts boy born: a little north and to the west, in Burlington. Like me, he kept pigeons and snakes and all manner of small fauna to feed his biophilia, a practice I am told is now frowned upon. He went to Princeton, got a PhD, did post-graduate work at the Max Planck when Konrad Lorenz was the “shaman -in-charge” (he kept goshawks there, and in Paris). Later, he taught at the American University in Beirut, and in Nigeria, before his life-changing years in the back country of the Arabian peninsula with the still-tribal Bedouin. He was the ecologist for ARAMCO, but he spent his spare time traveling with the tribes, flying sakers and running salukis. Likely, no one else will ever see the things he saw. At one time his household there consisted of a wolf, a cockatoo, and several Saker falcons as well as his innumerable salukis. I believe all but the cockatoo slept in the bed with John and his wife.

I want him to write his memoirs more than anyone else I have ever known. I
threaten him with the fact that I have going on 300 pages of letters
and emails from him, and can construct something of one myself, but it
would not be the same.

John lives these days in
Alpaugh, California, the last curious bastion of coursing in a state
that is becoming increasingly “anti”- not just anti-hunting, but against
all interactions with animals. He is over 80 – how many years, John? —
but as one of our tazi group says, he obviously believes in “use it or
lose it”. I will consider myself fortunate if I am still pursuing field
sports over 80, but his example makes me determined to try. I am pleased
to call him a mentor, honored that he runs two dogs of my breeding, and
delighted to call him a friend. Happy birthday, John!


Is the Honeyguide the most gruesome nest parasite alive? The video is not for the faint- hearted, but check out the little blind monster hanging fby its bill from the naturalist’s finger in the still pics.

That it will grow into a pretty if nondescript bird that eats wax and guides humans  and honey badgers to beehives so it can feed on broken combs is only slightly less weird…

A plug for a good beer: when we were at Deep Springs Jack introduced me to “Icky Ale” with the dolphin- like reptile (so to speak) on the package. Many designer beers and ales seem to put more energy into their labels than their product, but this one is delicious .

The Ichthyosaurs are from the famous “arranged” site that was interpreted at least half- seriously as being “art” from a giant squid or Kraken.

This infuriated some paleontologists, but stimulated others to play with the idea. A LOT of scientists appear to be H P Lovecraft fans, and the word was never far away. Mark Witton’s blog took time off from Pterosaurs to do a genuinely original Chthulhu, flickering interdimensionally rather than just sitting there like a winged man with a cephalopod’s head.

The best, and the scariest, video I have ever seen of desert flash floods.

Over 20– almost 30 years ago, at about this time of year, Floyd Mansell, his then teenaged son Phil, Betsy Huntington, and I were shooting doves north of town and were cut off by such a creek. Phil was amazed by my amazement. “Doesn’t the water do that in Massatooshetts?” Nope, and you don’t lose pickup trucks in it either, as you might if you attempted fording this one.

One more selected bit of eclectic weirdness from the world and the web: a functioning wooden model of a Desert Eagle autopistol.

Science Links

I could publish a whole blog on that subject (as could Walter Hingley, who sends me many good ones, more than I have time to use). But then I could run one on books, or wildlife art or bird ancetsors or the Pleistocene– and have NO time…

But some demand attention. I know, this short report from Science News looks like pure geekery, worse than my pigeon obsessions. Who cares about the “reassignment” of the jellyfish- like comb jellies? But look at the cladograms.

This may be the greatest rethinking of the family tree since “they'”separated Bacteria from Archaea. And yeah, that’s big.

My other note comes with an apology– three weeks or more ago, my Explorers Club associate Jut Wynne sent me this YouTube of his recent talk to science fiction writers comparing parasitoids to (the movie) Alien, and  taking his ideas to search for life on Mars and further. I finally read it this morning and wanted to race over to Flagstaff and badger him with questions…

Among other things, I need to ask him about Strepsipterans, strange insects with an even stranger sex life and cycle than his wasps… but that will be another post.

Why Quammen’s Spillover is worth Your Time

David Quammen’s new book Spillover, on emergent diseases; or more specifically, on emergent zoonoses, came out a few months ago to a series of middling good but somehow lukewarm reviews. I vehemently disagree, but it takes a bit of unfolding. Why do some readers find such a book fascinating while others find it dull?

First: I think any literate biologist will find it fascinating, a journalistic War and Peace with many adventurous protagonists, viruses as antagonists, mysterious hosts (you will learn why so many turn out to be bats, and why the source of the legendary Ebola— which should scare you a lot less than bird flu– probably is).

But you must understand evolution as an organizing principle of all nature to follow it. What is more, Quammen travels round the world, from northern Australia, where a disease you have likely never heard of jumps from fruit bat to horse to veterinarian, to the familiar (to his readers) rain forests of equatorial Africa, home of gorilla and chimp and bonobo, of war and bushmeat, Ebola and Marburg and AIDS. He looks at Lyme disease (not a virus by the way). He visits Bengladesh (who else bothers?) to trap flying foxes while wearing a biohazard suit, and sees a scary combination of a dense population inhabiting a semi- submerged land with poor sanitation as well as a sweet bucolic tropical nation. He goes to southern China, home of the briefly appearing SARS, which I was checked for once on a Mongolian flight from China, and where the proximity of humans, ducks, and pigs may make for the next human pandemic in the form of an unstoppable flu.

You must be patient, because  none of this has a normal narrative line. Quammen is delightfully anecdotal, but unlike in Richard Preston’s entertaining and Stephen King- terrifying The Hot Zone, he is not penning a novelistic thriller that happens to be non- fiction. His aim is to have the reader understand all the origins of the diseases he writes about, that is, their evolutionary roots. He wants you to know what a virus is, and how the main kinds of virus differ, and how they evolve without being “alive”. He wants you to know how and why some kind of outbreak is mathematically virtually inevitable. But nobody “explodes”; in fact, I thought that given his gentle reprimand to Preston over his using that verb re Ebola, the Saturday Wall Street Journal‘s giving the assignment to review the book to him was at least tactless. Preston acquitted himself as a gentleman, giving the book a mostly favorable review, but that unmentioned paragraph hung uncomfortably in the air.

Quammen ends the book by writing vividly about what a unique situation our human biosphere is, merely in its sheer mass and number of ubiquitous large mammals and their congener species. It is a subject I have only seen in science fiction. And then he closes with a description of a plague of tent caterpillars in Bozeman Montana, and what happened to them. If you read that far, and I think even non- science nerds may be captivated by then, you may finally feel your flesh creep.

Two rather biological quotes

From William Hamilton, the eccentric genius whose new biography is on the way, and from our old neighbor David Quammen, who chronicled Bill’s demise from the complications of malaria meds in his Spillover,  review on deck at last…

Hamilton, from volume 3 of his collected works:

“For me it seems that the universe only needs to be beautiful, my ‘science’ no more consistent or less tragic than Antigone’s story or her sculpted head.”

And David’s rejoinder, to a scientist collecting bat samples in Uganda in hopes of finding Marburg and Ebola:

“Wait a minute, lemme get this straight: You’re in a cave in Uganda, surrounded by Marburg and rabies and black forest cobras, wading through a slurry of dead bats, getting hit in the face by live ones like Tippi Hedren in The Birds, and the walls are alive with thirsty ticks, and you can hardly breathe, and you can hardly see, and…you’ve got time to be claustrophic?

More from both these sources coming.

Art, Science, Insect Hunting, and Nabokov

John Wilson’s butterfly photos remind me of one of the great neglected stories of 20th century intellectual life; that Vladimir Nabokov was not just a writer and teacher but a great taxonomist, this despite being denigrated as a dilettante in his time.

Joseph Conrad is legitimately revered for becoming a great English novelist in his second language but the prickly and egotistical Nabokov is not always grated the same status. Yet he wrote as well in English as he did in Russian (and French) and will be remembered for everything from Lolita (one of the three great fifties “Road” books– search earlier posts) to, at a minimum, the poignantly funny Pnin, the pioneeringly PoMo but accessible Pale Fire, The Gift (first written in Russian, with butterflies, unlike the others) and the autobiographical Speak, Memory. His sometimes perverse but minutely analytical lectures on writers Russian and not are IMAO priceless for other writers and students of literature. Not bad for a repeatedly exiled refugee…

He also collected and studied butterflies all his life. His studies of the widespread little “Blues”, which he carried on at Harvard, were often dismissed during his lifetime. Using traditional taxonomic methods of close observation and measurement (he was particularly fascinated by the “lock and key” variations in butterfly genitalia*), he developed a theory suggesting that the Blues came over the Bering Straits to Alaska from Asia and spread south to the Andes, branching and diversifying as they went.

He was right, as recent DNA studies have shown. And here is a more “literary” treatment.

Two good books cover the whole background, though both came out before his vindication: Nabokov’s Blues, which tells of his years of study, and the omnibus Nabokov’s Butterflies.

And here are a couple of local blues from John Wilson, who started the ball rolling… the western pygmy blue, Brephidium exile, and the Acmon blue, Plebejus acmon

*This is not as unusual as one might think. A few summers ago I had a contract to collect hundreds of micro bees at the Sevilleta refuge and mount each one with extracted but attached genitalia displayed. I think it is safe to add this was BEFORE Parkinson’s! Got many geek points for discussing such at parties with my boss, the lovely Karen (Wetherill) Wright, below in two guises after sample bee box and me as bee wrangler….