All posts by Stuart Rogers

Toxicity: Natures nuclear arms race

So we just had an election here in the UK and its just been the 70th anniversary of VE day (end of WW2) so I figured I’d try and be really clever and write something topical even if it is slightly late.

In the lead up to the UK general election one of the most hotly contested discussion points was the renewal of Trident- the UKs submarine nuclear weapon system.

On the one hand you have people putting forward the anti-nuke argument that lots of countries like Spain,Norway and Italy don’t have nukes and seem to manage fine and that the world is not made any safer by having weapons that are designed to incinerate mankind in it. Also at £100 billion it aint cheap and we cant really afford it.

On the other hand the pro-nuke argument is that the post WW2 global political stability the western world lives in is only possible because the existence of nukes makes conventional war impossible.

It is worth noting that the famously mild mannered Vladimir Putin paraded his nukes about in front of the world last week in a WW2 style military ritual so it might be a good idea for us to keep ours. Ukraine disbanded its nuclear capability and found itself becoming Russia.

 

Regardless of weather you are anti or pro nuke we can all agree on one thing: nuclear weapons are the very definition of overkill, the great arms race of the early 1940s has produced a weapon that is way more powerful that it needs to be .Just like this banana coloured character below.

Before you accuse me of a radical change of subject this tiny frog is  representative of natures version of our nuclear arms race.

It is called the golden poison frog or the more ominous sounding  phyllobates terribilis in Latin and it is widely considered to be the most poisonous animal in existence. It is the original poison dart frog– although the tribe that used to use the poison to soak their darts changed to guns because they are safer to operate. Even after three years since a dart has been dipped in the poison it can still kill a fully grown jaguar.

These frogs are not venomous, but poisonous; venomous animals use their toxins to kill their prey e.g. snakes and spiders. Like all dart frogs terribilis uses the poison only  for a self-defence and not as a mechanism for killing prey.

What is interesting is that to produce the poison they have to eat specific species of beetles,ants and mites to obtain the chemical raw materials to produce the poison. It is the fastest acting neurotoxin in the world and works by shutting down your sodium receptors resulting in paralysis and death by suffocation (you would remain concious through this short process).

They are only an inch and a half long but one of these frogs produces enough toxin to kill two fully grown bull elephants (combined weight of 15,000 KG)  in three minutes flat.

Kinda overkill.

As I am sure you know- elephants don’t eat frogs, so why have they evolved such a stupidly potent and powerful poison?

Well is because they got caught up in an arms race with these snakes that has lasted missions of years.

This aptly named fire belly snake has evolved a resistance to the toxic compounds in the frogs poison- enabling it to eat the frog and survive, because it is the only animal equipped with this toxic resistance it essentially enables it to enter its own ecological niche. However as a result of this selective pressure the frogs evolved to become more and more toxic to try to surpass the snakes poison resistance and in turn the snake evolves to become more and more resistant to the frogs toxins.

And after millions of years of the snakes and the frogs trying to best each other we end up with a frog that is toxic as fuck.

The similarities to our nuclear arms race here is obvious- modern nuclear weapons are way more powerful than they need to be, just like poison arrow frogs. Nature has had its own nuclear arms race, although it is unlikely that frogs  will trigger an apocalypse.

It does say something about the speed of human technological advancement that we entered WW2 with explosive delivery systems that could destroy a house and ended it with ones that could destroy a city.

If all the shit does hit the fan and we have a nuclear war then you can at least find some solace in the fact that although humans and many other animals will be obliterated to extinction, tardigrades wouldn’t even notice.

More on these guys next month.

Anteaters: The eco gangsters of the animal kingdom

The internet s favourite animal seems to be cats, with owls coming a close second, these animals are cool but anteaters are way cooler.

By the end of this post I will convince you that ant eaters are the best animal on the internet.

I am going to start off by subjecting you to a series of ant eater memes.

Other animals getting in on the trend.

Sloth’s are jealous.

Ok that’s enough memes.

As you may of noticed a primary asset to the overall gangster quality of ant eaters is that they can stand on two legs, they do this to warn of predators.Now you might be forgiven for thinking that this strategy wouldn’t be particularly effective against something like a cougar(not Courtney Cox a 80 KG jungle cat). However you would be wrong in this assumption.

Anteaters have gigantic claws that are so big they have to walk on their knuckles (another gangster point there) and if standing on two legs doesn’t scare off the big cat they pack a mean claw assisted punch which can kill fully grown cougars.

So anteaters  rising up into bipedal stance is their  way of saying-

“listen bro, if you don’t leave me alone to eat my ants in peace I am going to mess your shit right up”

 

2pac was also a biped.

So we have the gangster bit covered, what about the eco part?

Well as I am sure you are aware ant eaters eat ants, what you may not know is that they do it in a self regulating environmentally sustainable way.

Giant ant eaters need to consume around 35,000 insects everyday so they spend most of there time chowing down on ants like a stoner on monster munch. Ants are an ultra low calorie snack resulting in ant eaters having a very slow metabolism and the lowest core body temperature of any mammal.

So what’s so sustainable about eating ants?

Well when they stroll up to an ants nest they only eat a certain quota of them and try to only destroy the minimum amount of the mounds ant made structures as possible before moving on to another mound.

This allows the ant mound to survive because although their numbers will of been depleted the anteater left enough of them left to rebuild and repopulate their mound.Due to this the ant eater can come back and repeat the process again and again, effectively turning the ant mound into an self replenishing fuel station.

This practice is something human beings need to learn from, super trawlers are decimating fish stocks globally – its hard to think of a more directly destructive impact on the marine ecosystem. If we do not drastically reduce the amount of fish we are taking out of the water the population might not be capable of recovering.

As I am sure you are aware fishing is just one problem of many but unfortunately the environment is a low concern of the overpowering modern capitalist agenda, we should maybe put anteaters in charge to see if they can implement a more sustainable approach.

You should now be convinced that anteaters are the best animal on the internet but just in case you aren’t  I am going to Finnish with a  clip of an anteater squaring off against a kangaroo.

Enjoy.

 

Mankind on the menu: Life in the Sunderbands

We have it pretty easy here in the UK, we enjoy world class healthcare, education and  an  overall high standard of living. It is pretty unlikely that you will be mauled to death by a 300 kg super predator in the middle of the night.

Well if you live in the Sunderbands it is just one of the things you have to live with.

The Sunderbands is a mangrove forest in the south of bangladesh, the area is characterised by dense jungle and meandering waterways that the residents frequently traverse by canoe. It is also home to the largest remaining population of Bengal tigers and what is unusual about these particular animals is that they unlike other tiger populations in India are regular man eaters.

Individual man eaters have been recorded in many species, however they are normally found to have some kind of dental problem or other injury that stops them being effective at hunting their natural prey. In the Sunderbands the entire population of tigers seem to be prone to attacks on humans, they don’t even always consume their victims after an attack. In one case a tiger dragged three men one by one off a boat, (yes they can swim) killing them on the shore and leaving the bodies.

File:Ghost boat.jpg

A typical canoe in the Sunderbands

It’s just not tigers that the residents have to deal with, deaths from mugger crocodiles and bull sharks are also common and to top it all off the area is also frequently ravaged by cyclones and tropical storms, killing thousands.

Here in Britain the media freaks out over a few sightings of harmless spiders.

#pussies

The spiders are spreading from the capital to the suberbs

Britain under siege

Officially tigers kill around 250 people per year in the Sunderbands but the actual number could be much higher. Many of the attacks happen when the residents are gathering honey illegally (they use smoke to scare of the bees and the tigers attack at this time when viability is poor) and they are reluctant to report deaths as this would alert the authorities to their poaching.

The big question asked by zoologists is why does this particular population of tigers attack and kill humans so regularly? Well there are a few theory’s, but before I go through them lets look at some information about the animal we are dealing with.

I am sure you have all seen pictures on Facebook of people cuddling live tigers, this is only possible if you load them up on Ketamine and other sedative drugs, in the wild these animals are beyond ferocious.

 

Stoned out of its box

I am going to list some facts on what is essentially a stripy fucking super weapon or SFSW for short.

Tigers can weigh up to 350 KG (more than 100 KG heavier than lions)

They can swim at speeds up to 18 mph (Michael Phelps top speed is 4.7 mph) and are reported to sneak up on canoes in the night and drag people off them, there are even accounts of them sinking canoes by smashing holes in them with their claws.

File:Panthera tigris altaica (27.08.2012).JPG

There are cases of single tigers attacking and killing multiple lions in zoos.

Their claws are so powerful they can puncture and scale solid concrete walls.

An estimated 373,000 people have been killed by tiger attacks between 1800 and 2009.

A tigress in Nepal killed over 200 people before the country literally declared  war on the animal and mobilised  their armed forces to kill the mass murdering feline. They managed to chase the tigress into India where she killed another 200 people before she was capped by a British hunter, the animal had killed 432 people at this point.

Tigers are known to kill and eat bears, sharks and crocodiles.

I think its fair to consider wild tigers as the most formidable animal that we share our planet with.

But as I said previously, most modern tiger populations avoid humans wherever possible, the Sunderbands is the last place on earth where they are a regular menace to the local populace. There are a few theories on why this could be.

Human corpses from storms

The area is prone to cyclonic depressions resulting in tragic mass loss of life from the human populace, cyclone Sidr for example is estimated to have killed up to 10,000 people in 2007. Some experts propose that the tigers have aquired a taste for human flesh by consuming the corpses from such storms over the years.

Salt water

Tigers are a semi aquatic cat (they actually have webbed feet) but all other populations inhabit fresh water areas whereas Sunderbands tigers inhabit a salt-water mangrove.The theory here is that the salt water stings and aggravates the animals butting them in a bad mood and leading them to be highly aggressive towards people.

However this was disproved after they built giant freshwater artificial lakes in the area so the tigers could bathe  but they made no impact on attack frequency.

Isolated population

I think this is perhaps the most credible theory, if we look at historical records it seems that tigers have always attacked people in India. This changed in the 1900s when the British lead a mass nation wide tiger  cull across India, using rifles and elephants to slaughter them on mass.

After this tigers learned to fear and avoid humans, apart from in the sunderbands where the wilderness and terrain was too inhospitable for the marauding British to penetrate. The result is that these tigers are the only ones left that do not fear humans in the same way other populations do.

Just in case you aren’t feeling sorry enough for the Sunderbands natives  I should inform you that because the tigers are endangered they are not allowed to kill the animals even if they are being attacked, here are the approved methods of dealing with a tiger attack.

Pray

The populace believe the tigers are daemons from the underworld and before they venture out into the forest they perform sacred rituals to protect them from being attacked. This does not work.

Flare guns

Sometimes can scare the tigers off, not great but better than praying (real guns are only legal with a special licence).

Masks

These actually worked for a while, tigers like to sneak up on people so making the back of your head look like a face discouraged the tigers to attack. But after a year they figured out the ruse and the attacks resumed.

Dogs

This is the most recent strategy, they train packs of dogs to bark at tigers when they come near a village which seems to deter them from entering villages.

The Sunderbands presents a unique conflict between human rights and species conservation which is very difficult to manage, on the one hand you have an impoverished human population facing a whole host of dangers and problems from their environment. There are also cultural problems to contend with – for example, widowed woman struggle to survive after a fatal attack on their spouse because they have lost their source of income and the other villagers believe them to be cursed, resulting in them being ostracised form the community.

But you also have the responsibility to protect a species that is circling the drain, wild tiger populations have dropped from 100,000 to 3,200 in the last 100 years. Urgent action is required by the global community to save these iconic animals from extinction in the wild.

Recent improvements to wildlife management strategies (such as using guard dogs) in the Sunderbands are allowing people to live along side the tigers with less conflict.

If you are on team people, donate here to tiger widows of the Sunderbands charity.

If you are on team Tiger, donate here to help fund tiger conservation programmes.

Parasites and Parachutes: The role of Toxoplasma Gondi

If you have not seen the short clip named ‘grinding the crack’ then you should. No it’s not porn, it’s a 3 minute video of a guy named Jeb Corliss descending a Swedish mountain via wingsuit.

Here is the clip if you haven’t seen it before:

Amazing clip, but there may be more at play here than thrill seeking. I am going to jump subject for a bit but I will come back to the video in a bit I promise.

Parasites are animals that find another animal (its host) and instead of killing it outright and consuming it like your average predator, it thrives inside the animal taking away just enough of the hosts energy (normally via blood) to sustain itself without killing the host. Some parasites will have numerous host animals in their life span as the animal they are inside gets eaten by another animal and the parasite infects the animal that consumed their previous host.

Parasites sometimes need to go though numerous animals before they are able to reproduce, this is called completing their life cycle.

What’s remarkable is that these parasites can actually change the behaviour and appearance of their host to increase the likely hood of them getting chomped by another animal so they can complete their life cycle; here are a couple examples of this.

Parasites are known to turn shrimp from transparent to coloured so that they are more likely to be spotted and therefore eaten by fish.

Ants climb to the top of blades of grass by controlling their brains so they get eaten by cows grazing on the grass.

These are just two examples of the type of control parasites can exert on their host animals, so how does this link in with a crazy guy flying down the side of a mountain?

Well there is a  parasite called Toxoplasma Gondi that cycles between infecting rats and cats. When the parasite is in rats, it  affects certain parts of their brains and manages to distort their natural fear responses. The actual mechanisms of how they do this are unclear but it is known that they increase the rats testosterone levels which can make them more brazen, it may even cause the rat to be sexually aroused by the smell of cats urine! Whatever the mechanism, the rats have no fear of cats and will even run directly towards them.

The result is this behaviour is the poor rat ending up as lunch and the parasite accomplishes its mission of infecting a cat and completing its life cycle.

toxo

Thug life.

Here is a diagram of the parasites life cycle if you are interested.

toxo pic

So can this parasite infect human beings? , the answer is yes it can and yes it does. A study by Global Health estimates that 22.5 % of Americans have toxoplasma infections and infection rates in some parts of the world can be as high as 95 %.

The primary source of infection is from eating undercooked meat, and although global infection rates are high it is normally symptomless and inactive in a human host. This is because our immune system promptly kicks the shit out of it shortly after the initial infection and the parasite goes into hiding.

However if the individual has a weak immune system the parasite can become active.

We know that the parasite removes the instinctual fear in rats, but what is unnerving is that it may also alter and influence certain natural neurological process is humans and ultimately our natural fear instincts as well. On a fundamental level our brains are very similar to rats and scientists claim that this parasite could affect us in a very similar manner.

It could perhaps explain how someone is capable of launching themselves of a cliff like some kind of giant bat at 122 mph!

However, some people might just be dumb like this crazy bastard.

Fuck that for a laugh.

This extreme risk taking behaviour could be related to an active infection of toxoplasma Gondi removing our fear instinct and what is more startling is that it also might also be related to suicide rates in humans.

Studies have indicated that people with an active toxoplasma infection could by 54% more likely to attempt suicide.

It is certainly biologically plausible that a parasite messing with your body’s natural fear of death at a time of immense difficulty and trauma in a person’s life could play a role in a person’s decision to commit suicide. The parasite is also known to cause potential complications in pregnant woman.

The good news is that a toxoplasma infection is easily treatable with antibiotics and although around a third of the global population is infected (infection rates vary drastically with location, only 7% of Brits carry the parasite compared to a much larger 67% of Brazilians) and in the vast majority of cases it is not active and symptomless.

For more information on toxoplasmosis symptoms and treatment click here.

 

Natures Olympics: Five things humans do better than any other animal

As humans we often marvel at the natural abilities of animals, from the incredible ability of an octopus to change the colour and texture of its skin to the manta shrimp, which is equipped with special clubs that can punch so hard they briefly turn the surrounding water to temperatures as hot as the surface of the sun.

Dont mess.

Nature documentaries are based around showcasing these incredible abilities of animals, but what I would like to explore is the amazing natural abilities of human beings.

Intelligence

This one is obvious, while some other animals such as dogs, dolphins , chimps and octopus can show impressive displays of cognition and problem solving there is still a massive gulf in the intellectual prowess of other animals in comparison to humans. Neuroscientists attribute this to overly large neocortex present in the brains of humans. What is interesting is that it seems our large brains evolved in a very short period of time (around 2 million years).

There are many contrasting theories speculating on the mechanisms for this evolving so fast but one thing is certain, our large brains gave us a massive advantage in surviving and thriving in the natural world.

Running

Humans can out run horses, antelopes and in theory even cheetahs.

Before you start calling bullshit on me, what is important here is the distance.

In a short race humans kinda suck, however we will beat many animals over a long distance, we can do this because bipedal locomotion (walking on two legs) is much more efficient that four legged movement over long distances. Our physiology is also very good at controlling our temperature while running through sweating so we don’t over heat.

As long as the human can track the animal sufficiently (so it cant hide and elude capture) homo-sapiens will out run, exhaust and kill many different prey animals as seen in this clip.

Throwing

women-javelin-throw_93955-1400x1050

The old saying “don’t take a knife to a gun fight” holds  massive truth in combat and ultimately survival. A ranged attack is devastating to an opponent who is restricted to close combat weapons. Humans are awesome throwers due to our bipedal stance and the unique way our ligaments and tendons are attached (we are kind of like a walking rubber band).

None of the other great apes come close to our range ,power and accuracy. It is by this ability a 75 KG human can bring down a 3 tonne woolly mammoth (provided they have enough spears to throw).

Throwing may of also been an integral factor in how homo-sapiens killed off most of the Neanderthals (a rival species of human) as it is thought that their joints and cartilage where not suited for throwing spears and therefore where limited to close range attacks.

Communication

Humans are capable of making a vast array of sounds and no other animals comes close to this diverse sound making ability. Humans are so good at making sounds that we can even accurately mimic animal calls.

This obviously allowed us to create languages and communicate complex hunting strategies to each other.

Dexterity

No one is going to argue that the other great apes (gorillas, chimps and orang-outangs) are much stronger than humans, the reason for this is because humans traded their strength for fine motor skills and dexterity. 

These fine motor skills allowed us to make and use tools, and combined with our intelligence and communication skills we started to manipulate our environment like no other species before us.

These five combined abilities lead us into the human dominated geological epoch named the anthropycyene and we are now at the point where we have become victims of our own success and we need to work globally to find a safe operating space for humanity.

X Mass special: Psychedelics and Santa

We all know the enduring Christmas story of Santa Claus flying through the night sky being towed by magical reindeer delivering presents to children all over the world.

The origin of this  well-known story may surprise you, and what’s more is that it contains information that may be a benefit to medical science.

This story starts quite unsurprisingly with reindeer in Finland, what you may not know about these wintry beasts is that they consume large amounts of fly agaric mushrooms (also known as Amantia Muscaria) which are known to contain various psychedelic compounds. As I mentioned in this previous article , animals altering their state of consciousness by deliberately ingesting drugs is well documented but poorly understood.

Image from http://nutmeg.zenfolio.com

So we have reindeer getting high, but where does Santa come in?

Well historically humans have practiced the drinking of the reindeer urine as a safe method of ingesting the psychoactive compounds from the mushrooms as the deer’s metabolism filters out most of the mushrooms toxicity.

Vikings are rumoured to have drank the reindeer urine before battle and would apparently also drink each other’s piss to pass on the hallucinogenic effects though other Vikings lower than them in their social hierarchy.

Basically it would suck to be an intern in the Viking world.

Finnish shamans (the Laps) also used to practice the drinking of reindeer urine as they see this as a way to access the spirit world. Apparently the particular psychedelic effect of fly agaric mushrooms is inducing a hallucinogenic feeling/experience of flying.

And what did these shamans used to use to transport themselves across the frozen Siberian/Finnish landscape? ………. a sled of course!

Santa’s Ho-Ho-Ho, the red hue on his cheeks and placing presents under a tree (bit of a stretch on that last one) are all attributed to this practice. The fly agaric mushrooms themselves also used to be featured on Christmas cards.

And if all this isn’t enough to convince you, here is a picture of a Lapp shaman.

christmas, siberian shamanism, santa claus, santa, amanita muscaria, fly agaric, christmas mushrooms, christmas design

So the origin of the much loved and publicised Santa story is a dude getting out of his fucking tree on shrooms and going on a joy ride on his sled toed by reindeer. The rest was done by marketing from Coca-Cola, I got no idea where the elves and other shit came from though.

Here is a short BBC clip demonstrating the psychedelic origin of Santa.

Historically psychedelics have been used by many human cultures across the world and until recently their medicinal properties have not been recognised by the medical community. Studies lead by Harbor UCLA Medical Center  have shown they may be highly effective in treating post traumatic stress disorder and depression, they may also boost the brains creative potential.

Here is a short clip by Reset.me that summarises these findings.

Have a good Christmas.

 

Dynamic DNA: Anti-vaccination explained

While delivering a presentation on clinical pharmaceutical trials I came face to face with what is known to the scientific community as an ‘Anti-Vaxer’.

If you have not heard of this term before you may be forgiven for thinking that I’d had an encounter with some kind of malevolent demonic entity.

No an anti-vaxer is not an evil being from an alternative hellish dimension, it is a person who, despite overwhelming scientific evidence, jeopardizes public heath by refusing to have their child vaccinated for a whole load of reasons. Despite the overwhelming evidence supporting vaccination as an effective way to save lives and improve the health and well-being of the human population there is a significant amount of people who reject it.

The anti vaccination movement is not alone in their point-blank refusal to reject overwhelming evidence, there are lots of examples of groups of people who reject the scientific evidence over their unwavering belief in their cause. Maybe the best example of this is the Flat Earth society.

Yes that’s right, there are people who are still adamant that the earth is flat, despite an inordinate amount of scientific to confirm that it is an oblate spheroid. Including actual pictures of the earth taken from space by Apollo 17.

Looks pretty fucking round to me.

Here is a link to the Flat earth society podcast if you feel like adding a bit of bat shit crazy to your day.

And here is a link to buy a Flat earth society t-shirt if you feel like looking bat shit crazy.

Anyway, back to the anti vaxer. As my mind was puzzling with frustration as to how this individual can justify their position I started to think back to one of my first year lectures at university; and in doing this I may have stumbled upon a possible logical explanation for this seemingly stupid phenomenon.

Human beings come in all shapes and sizes, even the way our brains work varies from person to person. The reason for this is that because we reproduce sexually, we create genetic diversity. This diversity makes us less likely to become extinct as it creates a population with a whole range of strengths and weakness and we are therefore able to adapt to our environment.

The abiotic (non-living) environment is incredibly random, some days nothing happens and other days it throws a gigantic fucking 10 meter high tsunami wave at you. A population with a range of abilities is more likely to survive random changes in its environment; in short – Genetic diversity in both behavioural and physiological traits is a vital characteristic for populations of species to survive in this crazy world.

What does this have to do with anti-vaccination and flat earth society people?

I propose that these seemly illogical  beliefs are the manifestation of an evolutionary fail safe that prevents all human beings in a population agreeing with each other 100% despite overwhelming support from evidence for them to do so.  Just like genetic variation, a disparity in opinion, beliefs and therefore physical practice means a population is more likely to survive.

Vaccination is a safe procedure; however if it wasn’t and it turned out to be fatal (it isn’t but lets just say it was) not all of the human population would die because of the people who rejected the practice.

Maybe I am just trying to hard to find some sense  in the arguments of these movements but I think its possible that there might be some logic in acting illogically.

Sorry Spock.

I prefer the old school Spock.

 

 

Enter the Anthropocene : Just how F@#*£d are we?

The defining issue of our era is that human beings  are unable to stop their grossly detrimental  effect on our planet’s ecosystems.

Between climate change, ocean acidification, fracking, landfills and deforestation, the natural environment is being choke-slammed by the homosapien menace.

If the collective human race had to apply to live on a new planet, this is what our CV/resume might look like:

Personal information Bidedal ape with over-developed neocortex.
Skills Making tools , abstract thought , planking.
Personal statement YOLO.
Reference Mr Dodo – Not available for comment.

 

We probably wouldn’t get an interview.

This human dominated era we live in has been awarded its own Geological time period: The anthropocene. Scientists agree that this era began just after the industrial revolution in 1760 and for the first time in known history a single species is causing massive and catastrophic changes in our planet’s climate and ecosystems.

The short clip below, from Arlind Boshnjaku, gives an excellent (if a bit terrifying) visual summary of human caused environmental changes over the last 300 years.

Take a look at this graph of the global human population from the United States census bureau.

World Population Against Time
World population (in billions) against time

 

It’s hard to be optimistic about the future of the planet when the vandals responsible for destroying it are breeding exponentially. We may be about to trigger what’s known as a mass extinction event.

What makes this issue even more frustrating is that we are aware of what’s happening but collectively as race we seem unable to stop our adverse behaviour. Environmental initiatives continue to come up short against the might of the fossil fuel industry.

I hate to quote Russell Brand but we really are in need of an “environmental revolution“.

While it is easy to throw blame at corporate industry, we are all part of this problem. It seems humans are only programmed to care about events no further than 60-70 years in the future, we have lots of things thrown at us in life and people find it hard to care about what kind of world we will leave for our grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren.

Before you think I am trying to ruin your day with all this depressing shit, you may be reassured to learn that the planet has dealt with mass extinctions before.

There are 5 mass extinctions in the fossil record, they are periods of time where over 50% of species have gone extinct (in the case of the End-Ordovician mass extinction it was around 82-88%). These events where probably caused by a sharp change in environmental conditions such as volcanic activity or a gigantic  7 mile wide space rock slamming into the earth with 100 million megatons of force. That’s two million times more powerful than the largest nuke bomb ever developed.

It also may surprise you to learn that more than 99% of all species that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct; it is a completely normal process that happens for a variety of natural reasons.

Life on our planet has been through a hell of a lot and still managed to prosper in an incredibly diverse manner, spreading to all but the most inhospitable areas of the globe.

However my point isn’t that we can be complacent about this.

For all the mass extinction events that have happened in the past, this one could be the most catastrophic, and it really could be the end of the human species as well as so many others which are perhaps less deserving of obliteration.

As I said before I am with Brand on this, we are in need of an environmental revolution. It is just reassuring to know that biological life in its unfathomable diversity will almost certainly recover no matter how bad we fuck everything up.

At least until the sun goes supernova.

i

Magic Millipedes: Battling bites or getting high?

As a Scottish native and an avid camper I can tell you first hand that midges are bastards.

(if you are being pedantic, it is only the females that bite so, bitches is the correct term)

At certain times of the year along the West Coast they are almost unbearable! These winged scourges are annoying enough to warrant scientists at Edinburgh University spending millions developing a Midge killing machine. This may seem a bit extreme, however studies have shown that they cost the Scottish tourism industry  around £286 million every year. While we humans are able to develop equipment  to deter and mass murder this blood sucking menace, other animals are not so fortunate; sheep, cattle and deer are among the poor animals that are haplessly bitten at will.

 

You may be wondering where I am going with this?

Well, I just learned humans may not be alone when it comes to developing non-physiological (built in natural defences) insect repellents.

Last weekend I attended a nature live talk on poisonous invertebrates at the Natural History museum  and I was very interested to learn something regarding millipedes. Millipedes are very slow creatures and due to their inability to bite or sting, they have developed an interesting defence mechanism. They emit various foul-smelling liquid secretions through microscopic holes along there body. These secretions include many different chemicals including hydrogen cyanide, Some of these substances can burn the exoskeleton of ants and other insects and the skin and eyes of larger predators.

This is interesting in its own right but what really grabbed my attention was how rainforest dwelling Monkeys and Lemurs use the millipedes defence mechanism to their advantage.

Capsaicin Monkeys and some species of lemurs use the millipedes as insect repellent!

The furry smart alecks do this by grabbing a millipede and giving it a gentle bite to activate its toxic gas emitting defence mechanism and then rub the toxin over their fur. This acts as an insect repellent preventing the primates from being bitten by insects and studies have shown that it has anti parasite and anti fungal properties as well. They then release the millipede relativity unharmed.

So there you go, natural insect repellent!

It is amazing to see an animal utilise its environment in such a complex fashion. However before you nominate them for the genius award there may be a different motivation other than insect repellent for this behaviour explained in this video.

Like humans, some animals like to trip balls.

In case you can’t view the footage it shows that the toxic millipede excretion gets the lemur stoned, they even pass the hapless invertebrate around like a joint to share with their fellow lemurs.

From dolphins chewing on  puffer fish to jaguars eating ayahuasca lots of animals like to get high, so this is nothing new.

Speculating about the routes of  this behaviour in animals deserves its own blog post so I wont go into it just now, but I would like to finish with a question.

Has this millipede rubbing behaviour been adopted by primates to repel insects and getting high is a side effect, or is it vice versa?

In other words what’s more important to a primate, battling bites or getting high?

 

Science of the sasquatch: The search for Bigfoot

As part of my job I deliver presentations to a range of audiences on the topic of primate cognition. Every now and again in the Q&A section I get asked by a bold audience member what my take is on the legend of Bigfoot.

To some the existence of Bigfoot may seem a ridiculous thing to even discuss but It is always a fun question to answer so I have decided to stray into the realms of Crypto-zoology in this post to look at the possibility of this guy (pictured below) lurking in the wilderness.

People are often surprised to learn that Bigfoot (also referred to as sasquatch) is actually part of the fossil record; the Gigantopithecus Blacki was a prehistoric ape that stood at three meters tall and weighed an estimated 540kg.

Looks pretty mean eh?

Considering that a 1.7m tall Chimpanzee is reported to be several times stronger than your average Human the Gigantopithecus Blacki would have been a formidable animal that our ancestors may have had the misfortune of encountering. Paleontological records suggest that they became extinct around 100,000 years ago meaning that they would have co-existed with Homo Erectus (a precursor to Homo Sapian) 

It is unlikely that the animal was bipedal (walked on two legs) however it may have been able to do this for short periods of time.

So we know that a Bigfoot type animal did exist; but is it still out there?

There are two cases that are relevant here.

The first is from 1938 when a museum curator discovered a living Coelacanth fish in the waters of South America. You may be wondering what the significance of this is until I tell you that this animal was believed to have become extinct during the Cretaceous period (145 Million years ago). Although it may be easier for prehistoric animals to remain undiscovered in the deep ocean than for animals living on land, the fact remains that an animal thought to have died out 145 million years ago was found to be thriving in our present day oceans.

The second case that bears relevance is the Discovery of Homo Floresiensis (also called the hobbit man) in Indonesia in 2003.  Scientists accept that the Homo Floresiensis was a separate species of human that stood around 1m tall when fully grown and could have lived as recently as 12,000 years ago (very recently in the world of palaeontology).

So we have a fish that we thought became extinct 145 Million years ago and a separate species of human living in an isolated island of Indonesia unknown to the modern world until the bones were discovered in 2003.

These cases could be used to argue the continued existence of living Gigantopithecus Blacki populations.

However despite these points there are two gaping omissions for anyone who proposes the existence of Bigfoot.

1) No recent dead specimens.

2) No credible photographic evidence.

Claims of Bigfoot sightings are not rare, hundreds are reported every year across the U.S.A and Canada. The beast has been claimed to of been captured on film before, for example the famous footage from 1967, however this has been proven to be a hoax.  Camera traps have been set up in alleged Bigfoot hotspots but have never managed to capture credible footage of the elusive primate. The picture below is claimed by believers be a roaming Sasquatch however zoologists propose that it is a juvenile bear with a severe case of Mange disease.

Sunplus

From satellites to camera phones we live in an era of surveillance (Monkeys have even started to take their own selfies) and it’s hard to justify that this animal still exists when it has never been recorded or recovered.

What is interesting though is that the Bigfoot legend is part of folklore from two geographically separate cultures.

The Native Americans refer  to the creature as Sasquatch and the people of Nepal name the mystery ape the Yeti. This could just be a coincidence but it is possible that populations of Gigantopithecus Blacki survived in isolated pockets on the globe until far more recently than currently thought (in a similar manner to Homo Floresiensis) .If this is true the animal would have co existed with modern cultures of humans (native Americans and the Napali) and gives a possible explanation to the origin of the beast in their folklore and in turn the modern legend of Bigfoot.

As far as claimed encounters go, I am going to summarise them as one of the following.

A: Crazy people.

B: People on Bath salts.

C: Mistaken identity.

D:  All of the above