"Python" swallows "Hippo"

I've been seeing this spectacular video around the web for a couple of years now, usually labeled as a python vomiting up a hippopotamus.

But, as a close look at the feet of the prey makes clear, that's no hippo. It appears that this is actually an anaconda vomiting a capybara. The capybara is an immense rodent, the largest kind in the world, but, at a top weight of around 140 pounds, it's smaller than all but the youngest infant hippos. Big constricting snakes typically regurgitate large meals when they are harrassed, since it's hard for them to flee when laden.

Here's a different video of an anaconda preying on a capybara:

Blister Beetle

Nik Nimbus sends this video from a graveyard in England. The blister beetle is so named because it exudes an unpleasant chemical to ward off predators--though Nik says that, to his human nose, it actually smells like an agreeable incense. This particular kind of blister beetle lives by a sort of con game. Its larvae attract a male digger bee with pheromones. They board the lascivious male and use him as transport until he finds a female bee. She's the next leg of the trip. In her burrow, the beetle larvae feast on the pollen she's stored--and then on her young.

Grice at OSU

I'll be speaking at Oklahoma State University tonight at 7PM in the Browsing Room of the library. Hope to see some of you there!

A Closer Look at That Turkey

Sure, it tasted good, but these photos make me wonder why I ate it.

Photography by Parker Grice

A Keeper's Tale, Conclusion: Hope

Green Anaconda (Steven G. Johnson/Creative Commons)

by guest writer Hodari Nundu

Because of that newly found respect for the life of insects and rodents, I couldn´t help but feel uneasy while cleaning the rat cages.

It turned out that my friend who was scared of tarantulas was also not particularly fond of rats. I couldn´t help but laugh at this, but I agreed to be the “rat handler” (the one who would take the rats out of the cages and into boxes during the cleaning) in exchange for him dealing with the piles of rat excrement that were a lot less appealing to me.

We spent hours cleaning the rat cages and during all that time, I couldn´t help but to notice that the rats would stand up on their hind legs and look at me with great attention, following my every move. I wondered what was going through their minds. Where they expecting to be fed? Or maybe they realized we were new? Whatever was in their minds, I couldn´t help but think that they were rather cute. It was a shame that all of them would end up as snake food.

I wondered if the rats had any idea of what was going to happen to them. And then I realized that I was talking to them. Whenever I moved a female rat out of the cage, I would tell it that it was OK, that I wouldn´t harm its pups, and that they would be reunited as soon as I cleaned the cage. I would also announce that I had fresh, clean water for them. And then I would enjoy the sight of them happily drinking the clean water.

My friend, busy with the excrement and the huge garbage bin in the other side of the room, wasn´t paying attention -- but I realized that I was being nice to the rats, and then it struck me that when the time came to get them out of the cages and break their necks. . .  well, it would feel like treason. Maybe not for the rats, because they were killed very quickly and painlessly (or at least that’s what Salvador told us). But to me, it would be worse than beating them to death with the dustpan. I had cared for them and provided food and water for them, and even comforted them when they were scared. After all of that, killing them didn´t feel right at all. Yes, I knew and accepted the fact that in this world, some creatures have to eat others to survive. It is the way of nature. But at least in the wild the rat had a chance to escape. Here, they had no way of avoiding their grisly fate.

There was no point in lying to myself. I was not meant for this job.

Burmese Python (Hodari Nundu)

The moment came to tell Salvador the truth. I wasn´t willing to kill rats to feed the snakes. I knew that it had to be done- I just didn´t want to be the one to do it.

I must confess I felt kind of embarrassed. For an adventurous teenager like I was, it felt like being weak. I also expected him to be irritated; after all, if you go to a zoo asking to be a zookeeper, you’re supposed to be ready to kill a few feeder rats, right?

But he was actually quite nice about it. He told me that he understood, and he even allowed me to stay and become sort of a “presenter” for the reptile house.

From that moment on, my job consisted basically in carrying a huge Burmese python over my shoulders and talking to visitors about snakes, their importance, and how they weren´t slimy monsters created by the Devil to torment human kind. I must say I really enjoyed this job. It made me feel like I was actually doing something important.

Mexico is still the richest country in the world when it comes to reptiles. However, at the same time, it is a very bad place to live if you are one. People kill harmless snakes and lizards out of fear and ignorance. Attacks on humans by crocodiles (even attacks caused by the humans themselves) are often followed by petitions to have the ancient reptiles culled. Many reptiles are endangered, or have already gone extinct. Some people believe it is too late to save our wildlife. Cities are growing fast, jungles and forests are being devastated; the future looks grim for many creatures.

Then again, some people are too quick to give up.

I always felt this way whenever I saw children looking at the Burmese python in awe, touching its skin, wanting to learn everything there was to know about it. There was a lot of interest- especially from the younger visitors. Older people seemed less enthusiastic about changing their minds about the animals they had learned to fear and despise, but children were easily fascinated by the cold blooded creatures.

A ten year old boy surprised me one day with his near-encyclopedic knowledge on pythons. We spent over an hour talking about the biggest Reticulated Pythons ever found, and about the snakes’ amazing senses, hunting techniques and anatomical traits. I don´t think I ever had such a fluent conversation with an adult as I had that day with that kid. Nothing of what I told him was new to him. Likewise, nothing of what he said was new to me, but I think he actually liked that. He probably had never spoken to another person who enjoyed learning about snakes as much as he did.

Eventually, I had to take the python back to its enclosure when it became a little bit too interested in the boy’s face. His grandfather was terrified, but the kid was exultant. When I asked the old man how did the boy know so much about snakes, he said  “They’re his passion. He is always reading about them”.

Some time later, I was standing in front of the Green Anaconda’s enclosure. A little girl and her father were besides me. The girl read the information sign besides the snake’s terrarium, and asked her father:

“What does endangered mean?”

“It means that there are very few of them left” said the man.


“Well, because people have hunted them too much”.

The girl looked at her father, then at the thick, heavy, motionless green snake coiled in the corner of the terrarium. She looked at her father again.

“That’s terrible!” she said “We have to save them!”

I couldn´t help but to smile.

If little boys read tons about pythons, and little girls want to save the anaconda from extinction, then there must be hope for the rest of the creatures.

It is not too late at all.


A Keeper's Tale, Part 4 of 5:: Hot Herps

Cantil--a hot herp. Photo by Hodari Nundu

by guest writer Hodari Nundu

Salvador took us on a private “tour” of the reptile house, to show us how to feed and handle the different snake species he kept.

Most of them were harmless, but some were extremely dangerous. The most intimidating was without a doubt, the Green Rattlesnake, also known as the West Coast Rattlesnake. Found only in Western Mexico, it is easily the largest rattlesnake in the country, sometimes rivaling even the Eastern Diamondback in size. It is a particularly ill tempered snake, and because of its large size, the amount of venom it can inject into its victim is impressive. Even though, being “hot herps,” the rattlesnakes were off limits for beginners, Salvador allowed us to join him in the enclosure to show us how to feed them, as long as we stayed behind him.

The snakes weren´t happy to see us. There were several of them in the enclosure, and every single one of them adopted an attack posture and started rattling its tail. The sound was amazingly loud, and incredibly intimidating.

A couple years later, I would read that the effect of a rattlesnake’s warning sound may be more powerful than we suspected. People who had never heard it before, and even people who didn´t know what a rattlesnake was, would become equally alarmed the moment they heard it.

But as intimidating as the rattlers were to my friend and me, they were not particularly scary to Salvador, who had worked with some of the deadliest species in the world.

He particularly remembered King Cobras. “They were very scary” he said “even to an experienced snake handler. Some of them would rise their heads vertically and look right at our eyes. And they can growl. They growl like a turbine when they’re mad”.

He also had close calls with mambas and Gaboon vipers. The zoo where he worked had both species together in the same enclosure. The keepers refered to that enclosure as “the terrarium of death.”

But although a mamba once slithered up his back and into his shoulder, forcing him to remain completely motionless for over half an hour before the snake decided to climb down, he was never bitten by any of those African species.

When I asked him what was the snake he feared the most, he didn´t hesitate.

“I have kept all kinds of snakes, and I can tell you something” he said “I would prefer to work with cobras or mambas anyday rather than with lanceheads”.


The Spanish name for the lancehead snake is nauyaca real, which can be roughly translated as “royal pitviper”. Its scientific name, infamous among herpetologists, is Bothrops asper.

It is the most dangerous snake in Latin America, and kills more people in Mexico than any other species. It has every trait that makes a snake dangerous: an aggressive, nervous temperament, a potent venom, the habit of approaching human settlements in search of rodents, and a proclivity to bite many times in a single attack, thus injecting huge amounts of venom. In rural areas where medical attention is difficult to get, most people bitten by this snake die, and those who survive are left horribly scarred or lose entire limbs to the creature’s highly necrotic venom.

There’s a legend, often repeated among snake enthusiasts around here, about a gigantic venomous snake (according to some versions, it was eight meters long), that was kept in the Guadalajara zoo and managed to injure or kill three keepers in a matter of seconds.

When my friend and I asked Salvador about this, he smiled.

“It was a lancehead, actually” he said “and it is true that it bit three handlers within seconds. They were trying to force-feed it, but they forgot that these snakes can bite even with their mouths closed. The fangs are very long and retractable, so they can stick them out of the mouth. That’s what this lancehead did; it used one of its fangs to scratch the handler that was grabbing its neck. The man released it in alarm, and the snake immediately turned in the air at the man grabbing the middle section of its body and bit his hand. When he let go, the snake fell to the ground and bit the third man who had been holding its tail. It was all over in seconds. All of the handlers lived, but one lost his hand. So in a way, the legend is true. The only part that was added was the bit about the snake being gigantic”.

After this conversation, Salvador showed us how to kill a rat to feed it to a snake. Live rodents are rarely given to snakes in zoos; rodents are more than capable of biting snakes and causing them serious injury. This rarely happens in the wild, where the rodent has the much preferable option of running away. In a small enclosure, however, rodents are no wimps. They will fight to the death to save themselves.

Before continuing I should probably mention that I don´t enjoy killing animals at all. I used to, though, when I was a kid. Me and my cat Pinky (in my defense, it was my sister who named him) would often team up to hunt insects in the house. I would swat the insects and Pinky would eat the corpses. Whenever we encountered a dangerous specimen, like a scorpion (scorpions kill hundreds of people in Mexico every year), Pinky would replace me as the main hunter and deal with the creature himself. Somehow, he always managed to avoid being stung. Together, we were the perfect pest-management team during those rainy months when insects of all sorts wandered into the house.

I would also capture insects for a collection I had. I would take the hapless insect and dip it into a jar with alcohol, alive. The insect would struggle for a few moments before going still. Eventually, I had a small museum of pickled cicadas, earwigs, scorpions and other arthropods, and would proudly show it to all my friends until my cat decided that it would be fun to smash all the jars and spill the foul-smelling contents all over my bed.

This all changed when I was 13, and a mouse wandered into our house. I immediately went after it, along with the cats. I don´t know how, but I got to the mouse before the cats did, and then, I used a dustpan to beat the unfortunate rodent to death.

Once it was death, I just sat there, staring at the motionless body. Before that moment, all the lives I had taken had belonged to insects. It is relatively easy to kill insects. They are small, they don´t have facial expressions and they usually don´t make a sound when you squish them to death. Yet the mouse, despite being small, was much more similar to a human. It bled profusely, and it squeaked in fear and in pain when I struck it with the dustpan.

It made me feel terrible about myself. Had my cats caught the mouse, its fate wouldn´t have been much better; Pinky, in particular, enjoyed playing with live mice before eating them. But at least he was meant to kill mice. He was a cat after all. I had no need to kill the mouse. Not in such a brutal manner, anyways.

That episode got me thinking about death a lot. Even insect collecting seemed wrong now. Insects, I figured, had naturally short lifespans, and it didn´t seem right to make them even shorter just so I could show their pickled corpses to people who really didn´t enjoy the sight anyways.

That was the end of my insect-collecting days. Nowadays, whenever I go hunting for bugs, it is with a camera. I must say, getting a good picture of a fantastic looking insect and then letting it fly away is much more rewarding than putting it into alcohol.

As for mice, whenever one gets into my house, well, that’s what cats are for. I just hope they don´t start feeling remorse too one day. 

 Next: Hope

A Keeper's Tale, Part 3 of 5: Crocodiles and Caimans

by guest writer Hodari Nundu

I should probably say a few things about crocodiles in Mexico. We have four species of crocodilians. One of them is most familiar for Americans-- the American alligator. Officially, gators have been extinct in Mexico since the nineteenth century. However, a few of them are seen and even photographed every now and then in the country’s northernmost rivers and lakes.

In the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas lives a more common, but still seldom encountered relative to the alligator. It is the spectacled caiman, which can grow up to three meters long and is notoriously able to change color- although its ability to do so is very limited compared to that of say, a chameleon.

Caimans are usually considered to be harmless to people under normal circumstances; they rarely grow large enough to devour an adult human. However, they have quick reflexes and their teeth are sharper than a crocodile’s; they are, as all wild predators, better left alone.

In the southeastern states lives the Mexican crocodile, also known as Morelet’s crocodile. Once on the verge of extinction due to hunting, it is now a protected species, and its population is on the rise. Recently, a swimmer was attacked by one near a popular touristic destination. However, most attacks by these crocs are territorial, or triggered by a female’s maternal instinct. Indeed, Morelet’s crocs are ferociously protective of their nests and young.

I learned this during a trip to a crocodile breeding center in Colima. The area was natural American croc habitat; there was a lake where you could see the larger crocodiles -- the males -- patrolling for potential intruders.

There were also Morelet’s crocodiles, but since they weren´t native to the area, they were kept in enclosures to keep them apart.

I noticed that one of the female Morelet’s had a nest, and got an idea for a little experiment. You see, one of my secret talents is mimicking animal calls. I am particularly proud of my American alligator mating call -- which I certainly do not intend to use in gator country. Although some people have praised my mockingbird-like talents, truth is I appreciate critiques by animals even more. I took it as a compliment when I managed to frighten the zoo’s chital deer by mimicking their tiger alarm, or when I caused a male leopard to go ballistic after mimicking the big cat’s territorial call. Because the leopard had seemed ready to leap out of its enclosure that time, I had promised myself to stop mimicking animal calls in front of the real things.

But that day in the crocodile breeding center I simply couldn´t resist. Seeing that the mother crocodile was basking besides its nest, I started imitating the chirping call of a baby crocodile.

The female’s reaction was explosive. I don´t know what went through her mind; maybe that her babies were about to be born, and that the human standing beside her enclosure had to be frightened away immediately. Or maybe she assumed that I had abducted one of her babies, seeing as the sound came from outside the enclosure. I also considered the possibility that she might have recognized my call as a fake, and was angered at my vocal incompetence to the point of charging the fence, slamming her heavy armored head against it  and letting out a very loud warning hiss.

I didn´t bother her further after that. I was lucky there was a fence between her jaws and me!

The fourth and largest crocodile species in Mexico is the American crocodile. In Spanish, it is often called the “cocodrilo de río”, meaning “river crocodile”, whereas the Morelet’s crocodile is called “cocodrilo de pantano”, “swamp crocodile”. However, these names can lead to confusion as both species can be found in either rivers or swamps. In fact, the American crocodile is not very picky about where it lives. It has been seen even in the sea, and recently a man was attacked by one while repairing his yatch in the Pacific coast. This is why it is also known as the “American saltwater crocodile”.

When Steve Irwin visited Mexico, he expressed his surprise at the docility of American crocodiles. But although they may seem mellow when compared to their infamous Australian relatives, American crocs are not to be underestimated. In the US, where crocodiles are extremely rare, attacks on humans were unknown until very recently. In Mexico, it is a very different story. American crocodiles are numerous and widespread -- protected by the law, they have recovered after decades of ruthless extermination. Attacks on humans, many of them fatal, have been recorded along both coasts of the country. Usually the victims are drunken men who ignore warning signs and go for a swim in crocodile-infested rivers. Sometimes, it is playing children who get snatched. Livestock, including horses and cattle, are also taken.

American crocodiles are responsible for most predatory attacks on humans in the country. Compared to them, American black bears, jaguars and cougars seem rather shy.

Although the eight-meter long individuals reported by a famous zoologist from Chiapas seem to be a thing of the past, large males measuring over five meters are still found regularly. The same breeding center where I provoked the female Morelet’s used to be home to a six and a half-meter long American crocodile, said by the gamekeepers to be possibly over a hundred years old.

Unfortunately, this giant was murdered when it wandered away from the lake and into the woods, where it was found by hunters.

The breeding center kept the giant crocodile’s skull as a reminder of the huge size attained by these reptiles, provided they are given the opportunity to grow up in peace.

It was this largest, most aggressive species we’d be working with at the park. But before we were allowed into the croc enclosure, we had to start with other, less dangerous reptiles.

Top photo: Morelet's Crocodile/Hodari Nundu
Bottom photo: American Crocodile/Hodari Nundu

A Keeper's Tale, Part 2 of 5: Iguana-Infested Woods

Wayne T. Allison

by guest writer Hodari Nundu

Being rejected as a shark keeper meant that I had to find another job. That’s when I got the cartoonist job at the local newspaper. I actually had applied to be an article writer, but the director told me that they didn´t need any at the moment-- they were instead looking for a political cartoonist.

Now, I hate politics. I don´t even believe in democracy. This doesn´t mean I don´t like the concept- I just think true democracy can never be achieved. When I was in highschool, I wrote an essay on that. I think it was called The Evolutionary Reasons for Democracy Being a Utopia, or something like that.  My teachers hated it. They also hated me for a while.

But I really needed a job, and I could draw, so I thought, “what the heck? Let’s give it a shot”.

I took the job, and the cartoons, as ugly as they were, became an instant hit. Even the local politicians being spoofed asked me for the originals to frame them on their office walls! My boss was so happy with my work that he gave me a raise in my second week.

At about the same time, I was trying to figure out what career to study. A friend of mine suggested that I studied the same as him; graphic design. After all, it would be easy for me, seeing as I could draw very well already.

I wasn´t so sure about this, because I knew graphic design involved more technical drawing (which I always sucked at). However, I had no idea what other thing to study. Zoology and paleontology don´t exist as careers around here. So I eventually agreed to travel to my friend’s hometown and become his roommate.

His hometown was the city of Colima, near the coast of the Pacific. Foreigners perhaps know about Colima because it’s near Manzanillo, a popular tourist destination which claims to be “the sailfish capital of the world” (although I’m told certain American cities make the same claim).

Anyways, I had always lived in relatively colder places, so living in Colima was a complete change for me. The heat was almost unbearable; so much in fact that we barely went out of the house during daytime. The good news was that, being a tropical place, Colima was much richer when it came to creepy crawlies of all kinds. My friend wasn´t very happy about it. One day, we found a Mexican Red-Knee Tarantula near the garbage bins outside the house. My friend couldn´t believe it when I picked the hand-sized spider up and allowed it to crawl over my shoulders and neck. “It’s really not that dangerous,” I said. “Its venom is weak. The worst thing it could do would be to send its saetae  into your eyes. That would be nasty but, it won´t do it unless it feels threatened”.

Hodari Nundu

That wasn´t very comforting to him. He was relieved when I released the tarantula in the iguana-infested woods near the house.

Seeing as my friend was scared of a relatively harmless tarantula often kept as a pet by small children, it may seem ironic that he was madly in love with crocodiles. In fact, it was he who invited me to try my luck as a zookeeper once again, when he found out that a local park kept American crocodiles (the largest species in the country, reaching up to six meters long, sometimes more).

“We could both apply for a job there,” he said. “It’s not very far away”.

Of course, I loved the idea.

The park was not very large. In fact, there were very few animals in the zoo -- a couple male lions in a cage, a jaguarundi with a broken-tail, some spider monkeys, and tons of rabbits. As I would later find out, the rabbits weren´t really meant to be an exhibit. They were bred as reptile fodder.

My friend and I immediately went to the reptile house. There were two crocodiles in an enclosure, both were about three meters long. Small for an American crocodile, but big enough to overpower a man.

There were almost no visitors in the park, and it wasn´t hard to find the chief zookeeper- who was also the chief vet and resident biologist. He had worked once in the same zoo where I had tried to become a shark keeper, and after moving to Colima, he had founded his own reptile house. Reptiles, he told us, where his passion.

“So, are you guys studying Biology?” he asked.

“No,” we said nervously. We immediately assumed he only took Biology students as assistants.

However, he didn´t seem disappointed. “It’s OK. My only assistant right now is actually a computer programmer,” he said, referring to a guy we had seen offering advice to a ball python owner whose pet wouldn´t touch its food.

Salvador (that was his name) told us that he couldn´t pay us a lot, but that he would be happy to accept us as assistant zookeepers.

“There’s one thing, though,” he warned. “Lions are off limits for beginners. So are hot herps (very venomous snakes).”

“What about crocodiles?” I asked.

Surprisingly, he said crocodiles were fine, as long as he was there to guide our every step. And that’s how my brief career as an assistant zookeeper began.

A Keeper's Tale, Part 1 of 5: Sharks

by guest writer Hodari Nundu

I am kind of an artist. I’ve been drawing since I was three years old. That’s also about the time I became obsessed with dinosaurs and all sorts of wildlife both living and extinct. Most of my drawings depicted dinosaurs, rattlesnakes with impossibly long rattles, and sharks, along with comically square cars with oversized radio antennae. Today, I believe I am pretty good at drawing dinosaurs, rattlesnakes and sharks- my cars still look the same, though.

I have a job as a cartoonist in a newspaper and I draw a lot when I have free time. Also, I write- both fiction and non-fiction. In other words, I use my fingers quite a lot. This is the reason why, despite wishing to become a zookeeper since age 15, I always hesitated a bit.

Anyone who has read anything about wild animals in captivity knows that being a zookeeper is no joke. All young boys and girls who dream of being zookeepers or animal trainers seem to operate under the impression that they will magically develop a close bond or relationship with their animal charges, and that it will be awesome to have a ferocious tiger or gigantic killer whale following your commands and being as loving and obedient as a puppy as the crowd watches in awe. 

But I always knew reality was nothing like that. I knew that zookeepers had a dangerous job. They were often mauled, envenomated, trampled, even crippled or killed. Although wild animals are indeed capable of bonding with their keepers, provided they are treated with respect and that their needs are fulfilled as much as possible, that doesn´t mean they become puppies. A leopard cannot change its spots. And leopards have been eating humans since prehistory. Even years of training can´t beat millions of years of predatory instincts.

What worried me the most, as a teenager trying to figure out what he wanted to do in the future, was not the (very real) danger of being mauled to death by a zoo animal. I wasn´t very afraid of death at the time. I was more worried about my fingers. I had been told that one of the most common injuries zookeepers suffered was the amputation of fingers. Either directly, due to the bite of an animal (and a surprising number of finger-choppers were not even predatory), or indirectly, as a desperate measure to save someone from dying a painful death. A friend of my father’s had worked at the local zoo. He too was an artist- he painted the jungle-mimicking backgrounds to the snake enclosures in the reptile house. He told us that an unfortunate snake-keeper had been bitten in a hand by a Gaboon viper- one of the deadliest snakes in the world, and the record-holder when it comes to the longest fangs of any snake.

Gaboon Viper (Ltshears/Creative Commons)

There was no antivenom available at the time, and so they had to chop the man’s hand with an axe to prevent the venom from spreading to his body. He lived, but his story was scary enough for me to think twice about my wild dream. After all, as much as I loved animals, I loved drawing and writing just as much, and I needed my hands and fingers intact to do that.

For a little while, I forgot about the zookeeping dream. Then,  one day, the local zoo made an announcement. The exhibit formerly known as the Nocturnarium was to be closed permanently, and all the animals in it- which had been caught in a nearby natural preserve- were to be released back into the wild, except, unfortunately, for the vampire bats, since the risk of having them infect the wild ones with a disease was too high (it had to do with the vampire habit of regurgitating blood meals into the mouths of hungry mates).

The good news was, the Nocturnarium building would be adapted into an Aquarium. And there were going to be sharks.

Now, sharks are among my favorite animals. When I was a kid, a group of friends and I found a requiem shark’s severed head in a beach. Some believed that the shark had been beheaded with a machete, perhaps by a fisherman. However, it made little sense to me, as I figured a fisherman who takes the time to hack a shark’s head off would probably keep the head instead of throwing it away. Besides, it didn´t look like it had been cut off with a machete. In fact, the head bore every sign of having been bitten off by another, bigger shark. I asked a local diving guide if there were any large sharks around. He said the biggest he had seen were about four meters long.

However, my favorite encounter with a shark, although not very close, was when my family and I went on a brief tour in Puerto Vallarta on board of a small yatch. The yatch was taking us to a small island nearby (which, as we eventually learned, was teeming with leeches). It was the journey to the island that was interesting. I saw hundreds of bright blue Man’O’War and jellyfish, and a pod of bottlenose and spotted dolphins swam besides the yatch for a while.

Also, we saw a shark. I couldn´t tell what species it was. All I know is that it was too busy feeding on a huge fish shoal to pay us any attention. But even the brief glimpses of its dark, triangular dorsal fin were enough to hypnotize me. I had seen a shark, alive, in its natural habitat. My fascination with these animals was even greater since that day.

So of course, as soon as the sharks arrived to the newly-inaugurated Aquarium, I went to visit. Once again, I was captivated by their beauty, their elegance, the way they glided through the water effortlessly, almost as if they were ingravid creatures from another dimension. I spent over two hours standing in front of the tank, ignoring the noisy children around me, and the desperate guard who kept telling people, to no avail, that it was forbidden to touch or hit the glass. After a while, I decided that I wanted to be a shark keeper. I knew it was dangerous and I suspected that no self-respecting zoo would allow an unexperienced boy to deal with such umpredictable animals without previous training. But I still wanted to try my luck. I went looking for the Aquarium managers and asked them many questions about the sharks. I was told that all of the Aquarium’s sandbar sharks were females (although I had already deduced this by looking at their pelvic fins), and that they all had names. The names were all rather comical- it is a part of Mexican culture to make a joke out of everything. Unfortunately, I have forgotten the names. They also told me that the keepers only went into the tank when it was absolutely necessary.

When I asked them if I could apply to be a shark keeper, they told me just what I expected. I needed previous experience working with animals. The zoo was very strict about who got to work with the creatures. Only vets and veteran biologists had that privilege. Of course, they said, I could always apply for a more normal job at the zoo- a cleaner, for example.

Needless to say, I didn´t even consider it. Not because I think being a cleaner is demeaning-- but because what I wanted was to be in the water with the sharks, to look at their eyes and touch them and feed them, hopefully with some other creature’s flesh instead of mine.

I was a little bit disappointed but at the same time, I was relieved. My hands weren´t in danger of being bitten off for the time being.

I still dream of swimming with wild sharks, or going on one of those cage-diving trips to Isla Guadalupe, an island in the Gulf of California which is known as one of the best spots to see great white sharks up close. To date, none of my friends or relatives understand why I would want to go into the water with a two-ton predator known to bite human limbs off as if they were made of butter.

I really don´t know the answer, to be honest. Maybe I’m just an adrenaline junkie. Maybe I’m just madly in love. I am terrified of death, but there is one thing that terrifies me even more; the idea that the great white shark may go extinct before I get to look directly into its dark blue eyes.  Somehow, I feel I will not be complete until I do.

Grice Comes Home to OSU

I'll be returning to my alma mater, Oklahoma State University, next week! Monday night (7PM in the library's Browsing Room), I'll read something thrilling from my books. It's free and open to the general public. Tuesday morning, I'll join OSU's own distinguished nonfiction writers for a panel discussion. (I imagine that one's just for OSU students and faculty, but I won't tell anyone if you sneak in.)

Video: Spider Monkeys vs. Drunk

Video: Drunk zoo visitor attacked by monkeys - Telegraph:

"Joao Leite Dos Santos, a mechanic from Sao Paulo, decided it would be fun to join a colony of spider monkeys in their enclosure to see if they wanted to play.

After climbing the fence he waded across the dividing pool where a group of the primates gathered on the bank. Thinking that they were inviting him to join them, Mr Dos Santos reached out to touch them. But [one of] the fiercely territorial monkeys bit his wrist, while another bit and clawed his elbow and shoulder."

Dos Santos has admitted to drinking before his adventure.

The Importance of Alpo

Starved Dogs Devour Owner

Interesting news report from Indonesia:

A neighborhood guard was curious when he saw luggage lined up at the front of Andre Lumboga's house, days after the 50-year old arrived back home. He approached the house, smelled something foul and called the police, according to a report.

"His skull was found in the kitchen, and his body was found in the front of his house," Eriyana, a local police chief in Batam, an island off Sumatra, told VIVAnews website.

Thanks to Faye for the news tip.  


Photography by D'Arcy Allison-Teasley

Documentaries on Exotic Animals in the US

This documentary, The Elephant in the Living Room, sounds interesting. Anybody seen it?

Another film with similar concerns is The Tiger Next Door. I haven't seen it yet either.  (Thanks to Jay for putting me onto this one.)

Pet Hippo Kills Owner

South African farmer killed by pet hippopotamus - Telegraph:

"Marius Els, 41, was attacked by Humphrey on Saturday night. The farmer’s mutilated body was discovered submerged in a river running through his 400 acres in rural South Africa.

Earlier this year Mr Els was pictured happily riding on his pet bull hippo’s back.

'Humphrey’s like a son to me, he’s just like a human,' he said at the time.

'There’s a relationship between me and Humphrey and that’s what some people don’t understand.'"

Weird Deer: The Beautiful and the Damned, Part 2


Dee's day at La Cygne wasn't all so disturbing. She also photographed this white deer. There are "ghost deer" in Wisconsin, and a whole herd in New York state, but I didn't know about any in Kansas. The Wisconsin and New York ghosts are simply variants of the native white-tailed deer. 

I asked the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks about this unusual animal, and the biologists there were concerned. They identified this as a fallow deer, which is native to Europe and Asia. White is one of several common colors for the fallow deer. Invasive species can wreak havoc with an ecosystem; in Georgia, for example, imported fallow deer damage the trees -- and all the organisms that depend on them. So the biologists weren't pleased to see this one loose in a state conservation area. Dee was able to help them locate the farm this privately owned deer escaped from. It's been returned.

Photography by Dee Puett

White Deer of New York:

Weird Deer: The Beautiful and the Damned, Part 1

At the La Cygne conservation area [see correction below] in Kansas, my correspondent Dee Puett photographed some unusual deer. First, there's this mangy-looking doe:

The whole herd looked small, and many had scabs like the ones on this doe's face and neck. Dee fears that unhealthy appearance could be a sign of chronic wasting disease. Deer afflicted with CWD lose weight, develop odd neurological symptoms (like drooling and walking in circles), and eventually die.

CWD is one of an unusual group of diseases called “transmissible spongiform encephalopathies,” caused by prions. A prion is a molecule of a normal brain protein bent into an abnormal shape. In the central nervous system of a mammal, it converts its fellows to its own shape. These malcontent molecules stop doing their work and cause neurons to fracture and die. At an autopsy, the brain tissue of one so affected is spongy, full of cavities, as if blasted with birdshot.

It appears that most people are immune, or at least genetically inclined toward resistance. The rare infection is glacial, taking years or even decades to make itself apparent. Once it does manifest, the victim has only a few months to live. His nervous system will gradually fail. The first signs in humans are clumsiness, tremors, and slurred speech. Next may come bizarre laughter, mood swings, dementia, and uncontrollable movements, as if he were occasionally receiving an electric shock. Finally the body stops responding to the mind; incontinence, paralysis, coma, and—inevitably—death ensue.

Prions can occur because of a mutant gene, which may kill the possessor and his children. In another scenario, a person may spontaneously develop prion infection—a brief quirk of his biochemistry leads, years later, to his death. The third way to get a prion disease is by contamination: surgical instruments, grafts, and even human growth hormone have transmitted the infection from one human to another. The Fore people of New Guinea used to pass a spongiform disease called kuru by eating their own dead. (Among the world’s diverse cultures, cannibalism of one sort of another is not an especially unusual funerary practice.)

Eating other animals is another way to get infected. People have known scrapie, the prion disease of sheep and goats, for centuries, though it does not seem to pass directly to humans. But a change in rendering methods may have caused this infection to pass to cattle, where it manifested as the notorious mad cow disease, known to scientists as bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Hundreds of thousands of domestic cattle fell to this disease in the 1980s and 90s; the practice of turning cattle organ meat into food for other cattle magnified the incidence of the otherwise rare disease. More than 130 cases passed from cattle to human consumers. In the human victims, this particular prion disease is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Various spongiform diseases have turned up in other animals—minks, deer, antelope, cats. So far, there is little to suggest that these pose any danger to humans. Some doctors have proposed that eating squirrel brains can cause a spongiform disease, but solid evidence of this has not yet appeared. The widespread occurrence of CWD in North America—it’s been found in a dozen US states and two Canadian provinces, in moose, elk, white-tailed deer, and mule deer—raises the question of whether people can get sick from eating the venison. So far, we don’t know.

Meanwhile, my correspondent D'Arcy Allison-Teasley spotted this deer in her own yard early one morning. (It looks hazy because there wasn't much light yet.) D'Arcy noted the odd growths on the deer. Our Wisconsin DNR told her this viral fibromatosis is not especially harmful to the deer, but I wonder whether it affects their chances of getting a date to the spring cotillion.

I'd like to hope that this disease, or something equally minor, is behind the unhealthy appearance of the Kansas deer.

Update: Dee writes with a correction and further (chilling) information:

Hey, just wanted to let you know that the place I shot those deer photos isn't a conservation area. It is called Lake La Cygne, and it is part of the Linn County Park. I never heard back from anyone I wrote to about the deer. My personal thoughts are that the herds are probably poisoned from the sludge ponds from the power plant that sets just opposite of the park. There are signs all over the place that say "Do Not Swim" and warnings to get off the lake if the warning siren sounds at the plant. It is a coal generator, not nuclear and the sludge ponds for the waste are just a few scant feet from the lake. The power station itself was listed number 16 on the most polluting power plants in the US.

More Dragonflies

Photography by Dee Puett

Fishing Cat: New Uses for Your Bathtub

Near Lucknow, Uttar Predesh, India in 2009, some sort of feline was responsible for a series of attacks on humans. Some theorized the culprit was a leopard; others blamed a fishing cat. 

The fishing cat, as you'll see in these photos, is a beautifully patterned animal about twice the size of a house cat. My correspondent Croconut tells me there are other reports of fishing cats snatching children in Southeast Asia. Beacham's Guide to International Endangered Species says they are "ferocious and dangerous. Even for Felidae, fishing cats are especially powerful and are known to be able to drive off a pack of dogs; one in captivity broke out of its enclosure into one holding a female leopard and killed the leopard, which was twice its size. They can do significant harm to humans or other large animals they deem threatening."

Croconut also pointed me to these fascinating photos of a fishing cat kept as a pet by a Russian family. The link has more. 

Хуясе КОТИК (PHOTO) - 10 Февраля 2008 - Здесь всё что Вам нужно!:

Related Post: Jungle Cats

Metamorphosis of a Monarch

We caught a couple of monarch butterfly caterpillars and put them in a cage.

After a few days, they hung themselves by the tails and curled up.

At first the chrysalises they spun were green with gold trim.

Soon, we could see the butterflies' colors showing through.

Each chrysalis grew dark.

It became easy to see the precise pattern of the butterflies' wings.

They emerged with crumpled wings.
. . . but the wings soon straightened.

When we released them, this one crawled onto my hand, looking for a higher spot to fly from.

It landed in a pine tree before flying away for good. 

Photography by Parker Grice

Edgar Allan Poe's Trees

from a photo by Jerzy Strzelecki

Since I've been posting about trees the last couple of days, here's an interesting passage from Poe's "The Island of the Fay." Poe's better known for horror and mystery, of course, but I like his nature writing too. ("Fay" means fairy.)

It was during one of my lonely journeyings, amid a far distant region of mountain locked within mountain, and sad rivers and melancholy tarn writhing or sleeping within all—that I chanced upon a certain rivulet and island. I came upon them suddenly in the leafy June, and threw myself upon the turf, beneath the branches of an unknown odorous shrub, that I might doze as I contemplated the scene. I felt that thus only should I look upon it—such was the character of phantasm which it wore.

On all sides—save to the west, where the sun was about sinking—arose the verdant walls of the forest. The little river which turned sharply in its course, and was thus immediately lost to sight, seemed to have no exit from its prison, but to be absorbed by the deep green foliage of the trees to the east—while in the opposite quarter (so it appeared to me as I lay at length and glanced upward) there poured down noiselessly and continuously into the valley, a rich golden and crimson waterfall from the sunset fountains of the sky.

About midway in the short vista which my dreamy vision took in, one small circular island, profusely verdured, reposed upon the bosom of the stream.

So blended bank and shadow there
That each seemed pendulous in air

—so mirror-like was the glassy water, that it was scarcely possible to say at what point upon the slope of the emerald turf its crystal dominion began.

My position enabled me to include in a single view both the eastern and western extremities of the islet; and I observed a singularly-marked difference in their aspects. The latter was all one radiant harem of garden beauties. It glowed and blushed beneath the eyes of the slant sunlight, and fairly laughed with flowers. The grass was short, springy, sweet-scented, and Asphodel-interspersed. The trees were lithe, mirthful, erect—bright, slender, and graceful,—of eastern figure and foliage, with bark smooth, glossy, and parti-colored. There seemed a deep sense of life and joy about all; and although no airs blew from out the heavens, yet every thing had motion through the gentle sweepings to and fro of innumerable butterflies, that might have been mistaken for tulips with wings.

The other or eastern end of the isle was whelmed in the blackest shade. A sombre, yet beautiful and peaceful gloom here pervaded all things. The trees were dark in color, and mournful in form and attitude, wreathing themselves into sad, solemn, and spectral shapes that conveyed ideas of mortal sorrow and untimely death. The grass wore the deep tint of the cypress, and the heads of its blades hung droopingly, and hither and thither among it were many small unsightly hillocks, low and narrow, and not very long, that had the aspect of graves, but were not; although over and all about them the rue and the rosemary clambered. The shade of the trees fell heavily upon the water, and seemed to bury itself therein, impregnating the depths of the element with darkness. I fancied that each shadow, as the sun descended lower and lower, separated itself sullenly from the trunk that gave it birth, and thus became absorbed by the stream; while other shadows issued momently from the trees, taking the place of their predecessors thus entombed.

This idea, having once seized upon my fancy, greatly excited it, and I lost myself forthwith in revery. "If ever island were enchanted," said I to myself, "this is it. This is the haunt of the few gentle Fays who remain from the wreck of the race. Are these green tombs theirs?—or do they yield up their sweet lives as mankind yield up their own? In dying, do they not rather waste away mournfully, rendering unto God, little by little, their existence, as these trees render up shadow after shadow, exhausting their substance unto dissolution? What the wasting tree is to the water that imbibes its shade, growing thus blacker by what it preys upon, may not the life of the Fay be to the death which engulfs it?"

As I thus mused, with half-shut eyes, while the sun sank rapidly to rest, and eddying currents careered round and round the island, bearing upon their bosom large, dazzling, white flakes of the bark of the sycamore-flakes which, in their multiform positions upon the water, a quick imagination might have converted into any thing it pleased, while I thus mused, it appeared to me that the form of one of those very Fays about whom I had been pondering made its way slowly into the darkness from out the light at the western end of the island. She stood erect in a singularly fragile canoe, and urged it with the mere phantom of an oar. While within the influence of the lingering sunbeams, her attitude seemed indicative of joy—but sorrow deformed it as she passed within the shade. Slowly she glided along, and at length rounded the islet and re-entered the region of light. "The revolution which has just been made by the Fay," continued I, musingly, "is the cycle of the brief year of her life. She has floated through her winter and through her summer. She is a year nearer unto Death; for I did not fail to see that, as she came into the shade, her shadow fell from her, and was swallowed up in the dark water, making its blackness more black."

And again the boat appeared and the Fay, but about the attitude of the latter there was more of care and uncertainty and less of elastic joy. She floated again from out the light and into the gloom (which deepened momently) and again her shadow fell from her into the ebony water, and became absorbed into its blackness. And again and again she made the circuit of the island, (while the sun rushed down to his slumbers), and at each issuing into the light there was more sorrow about her person, while it grew feebler and far fainter and more indistinct, and at each passage into the gloom there fell from her a darker shade, which became whelmed in a shadow more black. But at length when the sun had utterly departed, the Fay, now the mere ghost of her former self, went disconsolately with her boat into the region of the ebony flood, and that she issued thence at all I cannot say, for darkness fell over an things and I beheld her magical figure no more.
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