The Shape of Things to Come

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water. . .

An eBook short. Coming June 5 from Gordon Grice and National Geographic Books

Piranhas Attack Bathers

Piranhas attack bathers in Brazil: report | World | DAWN.COM: "BRASILIA:Carnivorous fish attacked bathers in a river in southern Brazil, leaving about 20 of them with bite wounds on their hands and feet, a news website said Monday, citing lifeguards."

As mentioned in The Book of Deadly Animals, piranhas don't deserve their reputation as unstoppable eating machines. But they do sometimes take a nip, and this time a lot of them did. 

Grice and His Deer on Gizmodo

Photo by Dee Puett

I've been meaning to link this for a while. It's a free sample of The Book of Deadly Animals that ran on Gizmodo. The subject is deer:

Book Excerpts News, Videos, Reviews and Gossip - Gizmodo

"When it walked, the muscles rolled beneath its hide. Its antlers had eight points – nine, if I counted one broken short, its splintered end showed like the tip of a whittled stick. The darker fur on its neck looked like five o'clock shadow. Its eyes focused on two-year-old"


On a related note, here's an interesting article about a field study of animal personality, with elk as the focus:

The elk shrink: With parks under siege, one researcher tries to unravel ungulate personalities:

"In the past 30 years, more than 600 people have reported being attacked or chased by ornery elk in those mountain parks. Thirty-six of them had to be treated for serious injuries.

Elk also attract wolves and cougars, which can be a problem when such prey species spend a good part of their time in schoolyards, parks and green spaces along the perimeters of town."

Famous Dingo Case in the News Again

New inquest into baby's 'dingo' death -

"In a dusty campsite in central Australia more than 30 years ago, a mother's cries of "a dingo's got my baby" set the stage for one of the country's most intriguing murder mysteries.

The final scenes are set to be played out in court on Friday when a coroner will hear new evidence that her parents hope will once and for all confirm Azaria Chamberlain's official cause of death.

"We want a finding that Azaria was taken by a dingo," said Stuart Tipple, the lawyer representing Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton and her former husband Michael."

Pythons Probably Aren't the Problem

The recent study that blamed imported pythons and boas for devastating local mammal species is weak science, according to experts quoted in this Reuters article.

Are pythons overrunning the Everglades? Some experts now say no | Reuters:

"Heflin criticizes the authors of the study for failing to fully investigate and dispose of other factors that could account for their observations, including a decade-long drought, cyclical population fluctuations, increased development and pollution."

Photo: The yellow anaconda, one of the large constrictors recently banned from import and interstate sale in the US. Alina Zienowicz/Creative Commons.

Animal Attack Movies: King Kong

King Kong (the original). 1933. 

Plot: Filmmakers sail to uncharted island, meet incredibly racist stereotypes. Said stereotypes try to sacrifice the ingenue to a giant gorilla, which is pretty much how I react when people invade my home. Gorilla gets in fights with prehistoric animals of various sorts. Eventually he goes to New York and gets in fights with modern gadgets like trains and aeroplanes. 

Attack Quotient: Among the highest of all movies. Whereas most films waste time with tedious set-ups between attacks, this rolls irresistibly from one antagonist to the next, and the giant gorilla is as likely to get attacked as the humans. 

Cheese Factor: Massive. The premise is obviously pure fantasy, but also, the acting is stagy and the dialog melodramatic. 

By all accounts, the most horrific scene in the film was the one where men are knocked into a crevasse, only to be devoured by giant spiders and other such pesky fellows. Audiences reacted so strongly that the filmmakers cut the scene. It was subsequently lost. Above, we have a recreation of it by Peter Jackson. 

Return of the Giant Blue Marlin

Here’s a popular photo I showcased a while back and have wanted to show again. It’s by writer, educator, and photographer Jon Schwartz, whose work appears here.

In 2010, Jon was covering a billfishing tournament in Hawaii. He wasn’t there to compete, but a line trawled from the press boat hooked this 550-pound monster. If they could bring it alongside the boat, the crew meant to tag and release it. In a long battle, the blue marlin rammed the boat and then went under it. A crewman managed to bring it nearly to the surface, but the hook broke and it escaped.

(Jon is currently giving away a couple of his amazing photos on Facebook.)

Swallows' Nest

Photography by Dee Puett

Doe Attacked by Golden Eagle

This is a domesticated eagle, which probably means this shouldn't be taken as its usual behavior. The deer escaped by running under a fence. 

Doe attacked by golden eagle - Telegraph:
"The eagle amazed watchers by dive-bombing the deer and trying to fly off with it."

A Beast for Perseus

Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hooves in the receiving Earth.
William Shakespeare

Aphorisms from On Horsemanship
Xenophon (431-354 BCE)

In the hour of danger, it is certain, the owner has to consign himself, life and limb, to the safekeeping of his horse. 

The golden rule in dealing with a horse is never to approach him angrily.

The hollow hoof rings like a cymbal against the solid earth.

It is the long steady course rather than the frequent turn which tends to calm a horse.

What a horse does under compulsion he does blindly, and his performance is no more beautiful than would be that of a dancer taught by whip and goad.
The majesty of men themselves is best discovered in the graceful handling of horses.
A prancing horse is a thing of beauty, a wonder and a marvel, riveting the gaze of all who see him, young and graybeards alike. So long as he displays his splendid action, I venture to predict, they will never turn their backs or weary of their gazing.

The Runaway
Robert Frost

Once when the snow of the year was beginning to fall,
We stopped by a mountain pasture to say, "Whose colt?"
A little Morgan had one forefoot on the wall,
The other curled at his breast. He dipped his head
And snorted to us. And then we saw him bolt.
We heard the miniature thunder where he fled,
And we saw him, or thought we saw him, dim and gray,
Like a shadow across instead of behind the flakes.
The little fellow's afraid of the falling snow.
He never saw it before. It isn't play
With the little fellow at all. He's running away.
He wouldn't believe when his mother told him, 'Sakes,
It's only weather.' He thought she didn't know!
So this is something he has to bear alone
And now he comes again with a clatter of stone,
He mounts the wall again with whited eyes
And all his tail that isn’t hair up straight.
He shudders his coat as if to throw off flies.
"Whoever it is that leaves him out so late,
When all other creatures have gone to stall and bin,
Ought to be told to come and take him in."

from "The Horse Show"
William Dean Howells

In all times the horse has been the supreme expression of aristocracy. They had distinction; they were patrician; they were swell. They felt it, they showed it, they rejoiced in it; and the most reluctant observer could not deny them the glory of blood, of birth, which the thoroughbred horse has expressed in all lands and ages. Their lordly port was a thing that no one could dispute, and for an aristocracy I suppose that they had a high average of intelligence, though there might be two minds about this. They made me think of mettled youths and haughty dames; they abashed the humble spirit of the beholder with the pride of their high-stepping, their curveting and caracoling, as they jingled in their shining harness around the long ring.

from "Evolution of the Horse"
Thomas Huxley

Among the works of human ingenuity it cannot be said that there is any locomotive so perfectly adapted to its purposes, doing so much work with so small a quantity of fuel, as this machine of nature's manufacture—the horse. And, as a necessary consequence of any sort of perfection, of mechanical perfection as of others, you find that the horse is a beautiful creature, one of the most beautiful of all land animals. Look at the perfect balance of its form, and the rhythm and force of its action.

adapted from Henry V
William Shakespeare

I will not change my horse with any that treads but on four pasterns. Aha! He bounds from the Earth, as if his entrails were hares: the flying horse, the Pegasus with breath of fire. When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk. He trots the air; the Earth sings when he touches it; the basest horn of his hoof is more musical than the pipe of Hermes.

He's of the color of nutmeg and of the heat of ginger. It is a beast for Perseus; he is pure air and fire; and the dull elements of earth and water never appear in him, but only in patient stillness while his rider mounts him; he is indeed a horse, and all other jades you may call beasts. It is the prince of palfreys, his neigh is like the bidding of a monarch, and his countenance enforces homage.

The man hath no wit that cannot from the rising of the lark to the lodging of the lamb vary deserved praise on my palfrey; it is a theme as fluent as the sea. Turn the sands into eloquent tongues, and my horse is argument for them all. 'Tis a subject for a sovereign to reason on, and for a sovereign's sovereign to ride on, and for the world, familiar to us and unknown, to lay apart their particular functions, and wonder at him.

Photography by Wayne T. Allison

A Quiet Rattlesnake

Reader Bob Haynie photographed this rattlesnake near his home in Washington state. It was near some water Bob leaves out for birds. The snake was not aggressive and didn't even rattle as it retreated from Bob's presence--though its posture here does seem defensive. 

Bear Attack Leads Florida Woman to Her Dog

Interesting article on a Field and Stream blog. A stolen dog reunited with its owner because of a bear attack.

Bear Attack Leads Florida Woman to Stolen Champion Hound | Field & Stream:

"Despite the IVs, Hosker was able to identify George from the white markings on his chest. The irony: Had George not been injured, Rhodes probably would not have returned to the website and seen Hosker’s ad. Rhodes said he had been hunting bear with George over the July 4 weekend. George, a “bay” dog who surrounds the game and barks to send the bear up a tree, was charged by the animal instead. "

Animal Attack Movies: Terror Is a Man

Croconut asked me for my top ten animal attack movies. I'm having a hard time narrowing it down. For openers, though, there's Terror Is a Man, a 1959 take on The Island of Dr. Moreau. Beautiful photography and inventive direction more than compensate for a low budget and a slice of cheese. Grab some popcorn. Here's the whole movie:

More dangerous nature movies soon. 

Big Crocodile of Zimbabwe

Jessica pointed me to this impressive photo, which has apparently been circulating on the web for more than a year. At a glance, this Nile crocodile seems shockingly large. To get an idea of its true size, look just at the front row of people. That trick reveals that it's not really as long as dozens of people standing side by side. To my eye, it looks about fifteen people long. An article reprinted on mentions estimates of fifteen or sixteen feet, which is well within the normal range for a Nile croc. Some sources claim they can reach twenty feet. 

The article also mentions that this animal was shot because it was killing cattle. 

The Nature of Edgar Allan Poe

Poe's classic story of nature and super-nature. Read by James Addison Conrad; principle photography by Parker Grice.

Most people don’t think of Edgar Allan Poe as a nature writer, but he often was. His most famous piece, “The Raven,” is about what I consider the central question of nature writing: how much of the world is in our perceptions, and how much objectively true? “Silence” considers another aspect of our relationship with nature. Or, maybe it's just some weird stuff involving hippos.   


Silence: A Fable


by Edgar Allan Poe

The mountain pinnacles slumber; valleys, crags and caves are silent.

"LISTEN to me," said the Demon as he placed his hand upon my head. "The region of which I speak is a dreary region in Libya, by the borders of the river Zaire. And there is no quiet there, nor silence.

"The waters of the river have a saffron and sickly hue; and they flow not onwards to the sea, but palpitate forever and forever beneath the red eye of the sun with a tumultuous and convulsive motion. For many miles on either side of the river's oozy bed is a pale desert of gigantic water-lilies. They sigh one unto the other in that solitude, and stretch towards the heaven their long and ghastly necks, and nod to and fro their everlasting heads. And there is an indistinct murmur which cometh out from among them like the rushing of subterrene water. And they sigh one unto the other.

"But there is a boundary to their realm--the boundary of the dark, horrible, lofty forest. There, like the waves about the Hebrides, the low underwood is agitated continually. But there is no wind throughout the heaven. And the tall primeval trees rock eternally hither and thither with a crashing and mighty sound. And from their high summits, one by one, drop everlasting dews. And at the roots strange poisonous flowers lie writhing in perturbed slumber. And overhead, with a rustling and loud noise, the gray clouds rush westwardly forever, until they roll, a cataract, over the fiery wall of the horizon. But there is no wind throughout the heaven. And by the shores of the river Zaire there is neither quiet nor silence.

"It was night, and the rain fell; and falling, it was rain, but, having fallen, it was blood. And I stood in the morass among the tall and the rain fell upon my head --and the lilies sighed one unto the other in the solemnity of their desolation.

"And, all at once, the moon arose through the thin ghastly mist, and was crimson in color. And mine eyes fell upon a huge gray rock which stood by the shore of the river, and was lighted by the light of the moon. And the rock was gray, and ghastly, and tall, --and the rock was gray. Upon its front were characters engraven in the stone; and I walked through the morass of water-lilies, until I came close unto the shore, that I might read the characters upon the stone. But I could not decypher them. And I was going back into the morass, when the moon shone with a fuller red, and I turned and looked again upon the rock, and upon the characters;--and the characters were DESOLATION.

"And I looked upwards, and there stood a man upon the summit of the rock; and I hid myself among the water-lilies that I might discover the actions of the man. And the man was tall and stately in form, and was wrapped up from his shoulders to his feet in the toga of old Rome. And the outlines of his figure were indistinct--but his features were the features of a deity; for the mantle of the night, and of the mist, and of the moon, and of the dew, had left uncovered the features of his face. And his brow was lofty with thought, and his eye wild with care; and, in the few furrows upon his cheek I read the fables of sorrow, and weariness, and disgust with mankind, and a longing after solitude.

"And the man sat upon the rock, and leaned his head upon his hand, and looked out upon the desolation. He looked down into the low unquiet shrubbery, and up into the tall primeval trees, and up higher at the rustling heaven, and into the crimson moon. And I lay close within shelter of the lilies, and observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled in the solitude; --but the night waned, and he sat upon the rock.

"And the man turned his attention from the heaven, and looked out upon the dreary river Zaire, and upon the yellow ghastly waters, and upon the pale legions of the water-lilies. And the man listened to the sighs of the water-lilies, and to the murmur that came up from among them. And I lay close within my covert and observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled in the solitude; --but the night waned and he sat upon the rock.

"Then I went down into the recesses of the morass, and waded afar in among the wilderness of the lilies, and called unto the hippopotami which dwelt among the fens in the recesses of the morass. And the hippopotami heard my call, and came, with the behemoth, unto the foot of the rock, and roared loudly and fearfully beneath the moon. And I lay close within my covert and observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled in the solitude; --but the night waned and he sat upon the rock.

"Then I cursed the elements with the curse of tumult; and a frightful tempest gathered in the heaven where, before, there had been no wind. And the heaven became livid with the violence of the tempest --and the rain beat upon the head of the man --and the floods of the river came down --and the river was tormented into foam --and the water-lilies shrieked within their beds --and the forest crumbled before the wind --and the thunder rolled --and the lightning fell --and the rock rocked to its foundation. And I lay close within my covert and observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled in the solitude; --but the night waned and he sat upon the rock.

"Then I grew angry and cursed, with the curse of silence, the river, and the lilies, and the wind, and the forest, and the heaven, and the thunder, and the sighs of the water-lilies. And they became accursed, and were still. And the moon ceased to totter up its pathway to heaven --and the thunder died away --and the lightning did not flash --and the clouds hung motionless --and the waters sunk to their level and remained --and the trees ceased to rock --and the water-lilies sighed no more --and the murmur was heard no longer from among them, nor any shadow of sound throughout the vast illimitable desert. And I looked upon the characters of the rock, and they were changed; --and the characters were SILENCE.

"And mine eyes fell upon the countenance of the man, and his countenance was wan with terror. And, hurriedly, he raised his head from his hand, and stood forth upon the rock and listened. But there was no voice throughout the vast illimitable desert, and the characters upon the rock were SILENCE. And the man shuddered, and turned his face away, and fled afar off, in haste, so that I beheld him no more."

Now there are fine tales in the volumes of the Magi --in the iron-bound, melancholy volumes of the Magi. Therein, I say, are glorious histories of the Heaven, and of the Earth, and of the mighty sea --and of the Genii that over-ruled the sea, and the earth, and the lofty heaven. There was much lore too in the sayings which were said by the Sybils; and holy, holy things were heard of old by the dim leaves that trembled around Dodona --but, as Allah liveth, that fable which the Demon told me as he sat by my side in the shadow of the tomb, I hold to be the most wonderful of all! And as the Demon made an end of his story, he fell back within the cavity of the tomb and laughed. And I could not laugh with the Demon, and he cursed me because I could not laugh. And the lynx which dwelleth forever in the tomb, came out therefrom, and lay down at the feet of the Demon, and looked at him steadily in the face.

Exotic Animal Documentaries

A while back I mentioned a couple of recent films about exotic animals in the US. I've now had a chance to see  them. Both are very impressive. 

The Elephant in the Living Room follows an officer whose job is to cope with escaped exotics. He tells about a colleague who died from the bite of his own venomous snake. The movie mentions many species, but its focus, despite the title, is mainly on a man who keeps lions. What impressed me most about the film is the compassion it shows for both main characters. It's clearly on the side of the officer, but the lion owner is treated with respect. 

The Tiger Next Door is surprisingly similar. It, too, takes a largely sympathetic view of an exotic animal owner, even though the filmmakers clearly disagree with him. He raises tigers, and his story gives us the chance to hear several viewpoints about the responsibilities of humans to wild animals. 

Trailers for both movies are in this earlier post.

Sloth Bear Kills 2

Shayamal/Creative Commons

Sloth bear kills 2 in MP, beaten to death - Indian Express:

"A sloth bear that killed two villagers and left a policeman fighting for his life was beaten to death by villagers in Venkatnagar village in Anuppur district on Saturday.

So violent was the animal’s attack that Madanlal Yadav died on the spot in a field while Ravi Yadav who tried to rescue him died on way to hospital.

When constable Sudhir Singh went to the spot, barely a few hundred metres from the Chhattisgarh border, the animal attacked him as well before villagers rescued him.

Relatives and villagers then killed the animal out of fear and anger and unsuccessfully tried to set it afire."

Man-Eating Leopards of Nepal

Man-Eating Leopard Stalks Village : Discovery News:

"A leopard dragged away and devoured a 14-year-old girl in western Nepal in what is thought to be the fifth deadly attack by the same animal in just two months, police said.

The youngster was cutting grass in the forest near her home in Baitadi district, on the border with India, when she was attacked by the animal, said Bishnu Bahadur Karki, a local deputy superintendent of police.

"The locals found the body torn into pieces and eaten below the neck at the forest area yesterday," he told AFP."

Attack of the Roosters

In Mississippi, roosters are attacking children. This is another of those items that could only be news in our modern, urbanized world. In all other times and places, the dangers of a rooster would seem obvious. Our grandparents would have solved this with a skillet.

Extreme Close-Up: Tree Frog

Photography by D'Arcy Allison-Teasley

Whale Shark Washes Up

Reuters reported that this whale shark washed up dead at Karachi, Pakistan Tuesday.

Tigers Attack Tour Bus

At a wildlife park in China, tigers attacked a tour bus, puncturing tires and breaking the windshield. The predators weren't able to reach the people, so there were no serious injuries.

New Discovery in Bee Collapse

A maggot emerges from the body of a dead bee (between the head and the thorax)

Bee hives have been dying in droves the last few years. So far, scientists have suggested viruses, fungi, and mites as causes. A new discovery shows that parasitic flies have infected many hives in California. The flies somehow insert their eggs into the bee; the maggots that hatch from the eggs take over the bee's body, consuming it and leading it to self-destructive behavior. 

"Zombie" Fly Parasite Killing Honeybees - Yahoo! News: "The parasitic fly lays eggs in a bee’s abdomen. Several days later, the parasitized bee bumbles out of the hives often at night on a solo mission to nowhere. These bees often fly toward light and wind up unable to control their own bodies. After a bee dies, as many as 13 fly larvae crawl out from the bee’s neck. "

Related Post: Maggots in a Carcass

Bite of the Black Widow

There's an interesting mention of the Mediterranean black widow spider, or malmignatte, in Jean-Henri Fabre's 1913 classic Life of the Spider:

A few spiders are to be feared; and foremost among these is the Malmignatte, the terror of the Corsican peasantry.  I have seen her settle in the furrows, lay out her web and rush boldly at insects larger than herself; I have admired her garb of black velvet speckled with carmine-red; above all, I have heard most disquieting stories told about her.  Around Ajaccio and Bonifacio, her bite is reputed very dangerous, sometimes mortal.  The countryman declares this for a fact and the doctor does not always dare deny it.

Of course the widows were soon proved venomous to everybody's satisfaction when Dr. Alan Blair experimented with a US species. Blair's triumph was also his sorrow. Here, from The Red Hourglass, is my account of his experiment:

Blair had been keeping widows in his laboratory for experiments on animals. (One of his experiments proved even the widow's eggs are toxic to mice.) He and his colleagues and assistants had collected the spiders from the wild; widows were plentiful around Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Blair captured Spider 111.33 in a rock pile near his own home on October 25, 1933. Like the other captive widows in Blair's laboratory, she was kept in a jar and provided with live insects. A water beetle became her last meal before the experiment. Then she went hungry for two weeks. Since earlier experimenters, like Baerg, had sometimes found it difficult to provoke a widow into biting, Blair wanted his spider hungry and irritable before he made any attempt to get bitten. (Incidentally, two weeks without food is a cakewalk for a widow. Other scientists working with a similar setup--many numbered widows in jars on shelves--once found that they had misplaced one widow at the back of a shelf for nine months. When they found her, she was still alive and eager to eat.)

On November 12, Spider 111.33 was, in Blair's words, "of moderate size, active and glossy black, with characteristic adult markings"--he means the red hourglass--"and appeared to be in excellent condition." Blair described himself as "aged 32, weighing 168 pounds...athletically inclined and in excellent health." A former college football player, Blair had just won the university's faculty tennis championship. He had monitored his body for a week and found his condition "normal." He had no particular sensitivity to mosquitoes or bees.

At ten forty-five in the morning, Blair used a small forceps to pick Spider 111.33 up by the abdomen and place her on his left hand. Without being prompted, she immediately bit him near the tip of his little finger, "twisting the cephalothorax from side to side as though to sink the claws of the chelicerae deeper into the flesh." The bite felt like a needle prick and a burn at the same time. Blair let the spider bite him for ten seconds, the burning growing more intense all the while. He removed the widow, putting it back into its jar unharmed.

A drop of "whitish fluid, slightly streaked with brown" beaded at the wound--venom laced with Blair's blood. The wound itself was so small that Blair couldn't see it even with a magnifying glass.

Blair's right hand was busy taking notes. Two minutes after the bite, he recorded a "bluish, pinpoint mark" where he had been bitten; the mark was surrounded by a disk of white skin. The finger was "burning." Soon the tip of the finger turned red, except for the pale area around the bite. The pain became "throbbing, lancinating."

Fifteen minutes after the bite, the pain had spread past the base of Blair's little finger. The side of his hand felt a bit numb. The area around the bite was sweating. The pain quickly traveled up his hand and arm, but it still was worst at the tip of his finger, which had swollen into a purple-red sausage.

At the twenty-two-minute mark, the vanguard of the pain had spread to Blair's chest, and the worst of it had progressed to his armpit, though the finger continued to throb. Noting the pain in the lymph node near his elbow, Blair deduced that the toxin had traveled through his lymphatic system.

Fifty minutes after the bite, Blair realized that the toxin was traveling in his blood. He felt "dull, drowsy, lethargic"; his blood pressure dropped; his pulse weakened; his breathing seemed deep. His white count began the steep climb it would continue throughout that day and night. His blood pressure and pulse continued to worsen.

Soon he felt flushed and had a headache and a pain in his upper belly. Malaise and pain in the neck muscles developed. Blair turned the note-taking duties over to his assistants. Shortly after noon, he noted that his legs felt "flushed, trembly" and his belly ached and was "tense." A rigid, pain-racked abdomen is a classic black widow symptom, as Blair knew from his study of other doctors' cases. He must have suspected he was about to experience pain much, much worse than he already felt. He asked to be taken to the hospital, which was three miles away. The ride took fifteen minutes, during which, as they say in politics, the situation deteriorated.

At half-past noon, Blair was at the hospital. His pulse was "weak and thready." His belly was rigid and racked with pain. His lower back ached. His chest hurt and felt "constricted." "Speech was difficult and jerky," he wrote later, adding in the detached tone obligatory for the medical journal in which he published his results, "respirations were rapid and labored, with a sharp brisk expiration accompanied by an audible grunt."

Blair's pains made it difficult for him to lie down for electrocardiograms--in fact, an assistant dutifully wrote down that he described it as "torture"--but he managed to lie still, and the EKGs proved normal. Hearing about the painful EKGs later, newspaper reporters wrongly assumed the venom had injured Blair's heart. That myth was repeated and embroidered in the press for decades, giving the widow's danger a spurious explanation easier for casual readers to grasp: heart attack.

Two hours after the bite, Blair lay on his side in fetal position. The pain had reached his legs. His "respirations were labored, with a gasping inspiration and a sharp, jerky expiration accompanied by an uncontrollable, loud, groaning grunt." He could not straighten his body, which was rigid and trembling; he certainly couldn't stand. His skin was pale and "ashy" and slick with clammy sweat. In short, he had fallen into deep shock. The bitten finger had turned blue.

Folk remedies reported from places as diverse as Madagascar and southern Europe involved the use of heat, and some doctors had reported hot baths and hot compresses helpful. William Baerg had attested the pain-relieving power of hot baths during his stay in the hospital. Blair decided to try this treatment on himself. As soon as his body was immersed, he felt an almost miraculous reduction of his pain, though it was still severe. His breath laboring, his forearms and hands jerking spastically, he allowed a nurse to take his blood pressure and pulse. His systolic pressure was 75; the diastolic pressure was too faint to determine with a cuff and stethoscope. His pulse remained weak and rapid--too rapid to count.

Forty-five minutes after Blair had arrived at the hospital, his colleague J. M. Forney arrived to take care of him. Forney found Blair lying in the bathtub, gasping for breath, his face contorted into the sweat-slick, heavy-lidded mask that has since come to be recognized as a typical symptom of widow bite. Blair said he felt dizzy. Forney later commented, "I do not recall having seen more abject pain manifested in any other medical or surgical condition."

After soaking for more than half an hour, Blair was removed from the bath, red as a boiled lobster. His breathing, like his pains, had improved as a result of the bath. Fifteen minutes later, both the ragged breathing and the pain were back at full force. Blair writhed in the hospital bed. Hot water bottles were packed against his back and belly, again reducing his pain. Perspiration poured from him, drenching his sheets. His blood pressure was 80 over 50. His pulse was a weak 120. He accepted an injection of morphine to help with the pain.

Blair continued to gulp down water. Sweat poured out of him and would for days, leaving him little moisture for producing urine. A red streak appeared on his left hand. He vomited and had diarrhea; he couldn't eat. In the evening of the first day, his blood pressure rebounded to 154 over 92; it stayed high for a week. His face swelled; his eyes were bloodshot and watery.

The night was terrible. He felt restless and could not sleep. The pain persisted. He had chills. A dose of barbiturates didn't help. He was in and out of hot baths all night. Sometime in that night the worst part came. Blair felt he couldn't endure any more pain. He said he was about to go insane; he was holding on only by an effort of his steadily weakening will. His caregivers injected him with morphine again.

The next day, his hands trembling, his arm broken out in a knobby rash, his breath stinking, his features distorted by swelling, Blair was still in pain, but he knew he was-getting better. In the evening, as he sat guzzling orange juice, sweat pouring from his body, his worst symptom was pain in the legs.

By the third day, Blair was able to sleep and eat a little. His boardlike abdomen had finally relaxed. He was beginning to look like himself again as his swollen face returned to its normal proportions. He went home that day. It took about a week for all the serious symptoms to vanish. After that, his body itched for two more weeks, and the skin on his hands and feet peeled as if burned.

Blair later returned to his native Saskatchewan, where he had an illustrious career in cancer treatment and research. When he died of heart trouble at age forty-seven, prime ministers and other public figures eulogized him. The story of his black widow experiment, which the wire service had named one of the top ten human interest stories of 1933, was retold in the papers at his death, and one more accretion of myth was added to the story when his heart trouble was falsely attributed to the bite of the black widow sixteen years before.

Blair's ordeal convinced the skeptics the widow's bite is toxic and potentially deadly. Thousands of cases of latrodectism, as widow poisoning is called, have been documented since then. The variation in symptoms from one person to the next is remarkable, making some cases hard to diagnose. The constant is pain, usually all over the body but concentrated in the belly, legs, and lower back. Often the soles of the feet hurt--one woman said she felt as if someone were ripping off her toenails or taking an iron to her feet.

Some doctors trying to diagnose an uncertain case ask, "Is this the worst pain you've ever felt?" A "yes" suggests a diagnosis of black widow bite. Several doctors have made remarks similar to Forney's, about the widow causing the worst human suffering they ever witnessed (though one ranked the widow's bite second to tetanus, which is sometimes a complication of widow bite). One of the questions Blair had in mind when he began his experiment was whether people acquire immunity over successive bites. He never answered this question because, as he frankly admitted, he was afraid of having another experience like his first.

Besides pain, several other symptoms appear regularly in widow victims, and Blair's suffering provided examples of most of them: a rigid abdomen, the "mask of latrodectism" (a distorted face caused by pain and involuntary contraction of muscles), intense sweating (the body's attempt to purge the toxin), nausea, vomiting, swelling. A multitude of other symptoms have occurred in widow bite cases, including convulsions, fainting, paralysis, and amnesia. Baerg and a number of other victims reported nightmares and sleep disturbances after the life-threatening phase of their reactions had passed.

Blair's fear for his sanity was not unusual either. Other patients have expressed similar fears, and some, like Baerg, have lapsed into delirium. Some have tried to kill themselves to stop the pain. (A few people have intentionally tried to get bitten as a method of suicide. It would be hard to imagine a method at once so uncertain and so painful.)

The venom contains a neurotoxin that accounts for the pain and the system-wide effects like roller-coaster blood pressure. But this chemical explanation only opens the door to deeper mysteries. A dose of the venom contains only a few molecules of the neurotoxin, which has a high molecular weight--in fact, the molecules are large enough to be seen under an ordinary microscope. How do these few molecules manage to affect the entire body of an animal weighing hundreds or even thousands of pounds? No one has explained the specific mechanism. It seems to involve a neural cascade, a series of reactions initiated by the toxin, but with the toxin not directly involved in any but the first steps of the process. The toxin somehow flips a switch that activates a self-torture mechanism.

Animal Control Workers Make Super Bowl Sweep

"For what seems an eternity (at least to those of us who would rather undergo a transorbital leukotomy with an ice pick than the protracted brain death of pregame hype), our cultural conversation is preempted by a live feed from the jock unconscious of Team America," writes Mark Dery in his new book I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams. "The chattering class act as if we're one big happy congregation gathered in solemn veneration of the Gipper's jockstrap." Remarks like this are only one reason why I'm a fan of Dery's essays. Readers of this blog will remember Dery as the author of a startling account of Jerusalem crickets that ran here a while back. 

Anyway, for those who are interested in the Super Bowl, rest assured that the animal attack situation in Indianapolis is well in hand:

Animal Control Workers Make Super Bowl Sweep - Indiana News Story - WRTV Indianapolis:

"INDIANAPOLIS -- Animal control officers combed Indianapolis streets for dangerous dogs ahead of Super Bowl week to prevent bites, attacks and traffic crashes during the festivities. Indianapolis Animal Care and Control workers said public safety is their first priority and they’re targeting neighborhoods surrounding Lucas Oil Stadium."

Purse Web Spider

I've always been interested in this species, though my range happens not to overlap its. I learned about it from books when I was a child, and was immediately fascinated by its habit of living inside a sort of silken sock. When an insect treads on the sock, the spider bites through the silk for the kill. Perhaps that's why the spider needs that massive set of chelicerae. 

Incidentally, the purse web spider is altogether more civilized about romance than certain widow spiders frequently mentioned here. Male and female often cohabit peacefully. It's only after the male dies of old age that the female eats him. 

Video by Nik Nimbus:

Further info (and spectacular photos) on Nik's blog

Grice on The Grey (from Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy)

Are Wolves Really as Dangerous as They Are in 'The Grey'? - Speakeasy - WSJ: "How afraid should we be of wolves? Judging by the new film, “The Grey,” very. But is that really true? Gordon Grice, the author of “The Book of Deadly Animals,” sets the record straight in an essay in Q&A form."

Fungal Interlude #1

Photography by Parker Grice

India: Monkey Attacks Four

A monkey, having already attacked three others, has now bitten the toe off an elderly woman.

60-year-old gets 60 stitches after monkey attack - Times Of India:

"Locals said that the monkey has been running amok in the area and has attacked four people in the past few days. In fact, an NRG woman had to postpone her departure for the UK after she was attacked by the monkey. Dipti said that they have alerted the zoo authorities, who, however, have not been catch the wayward simian."

Thanks to Croconut for the news tip.

Hunger on the Wing (Conclusion)

(An expanded version of a story from The Book of Deadly AnimalsGo to the beginning of this story.)

One afternoon I looked in on the six or seven grasshoppers I had in separate jars and found that they had done something interesting. Wet orange strands, about the thickness and texture of a braided bootlace, lay in their jars. A day or two later, I saw one of my captives in the act of producing such a strand. It pressed its hind end against the floor of the jar and arched its back, as if exerting downward pressure, and an orange strand squeezed out from the rear, like toothpaste from a tube. This strand looked slimier and smoother than the others I'd seen but was recognizably the same thing. By the next day it had dried to look exactly like the other hoppers' strands, the pattern of its texture emerging as it dried. A day later it was dry enough to see that what had appeared to be individual strands woven together were merely dozens of pieces, shaped like sesame seeds, arranged in an orderly overlap—eggs, of course.

In Missouri in the 1870s, the egg masses of Rocky Mountain locusts lay so thick in the beds of rivers and creeks that authorities offered a five-dollar bounty per bushel of them. This species, the only grasshopper in North America that typically shifted into the locust phase, had swarmed for hundreds of years, as proved by layers of locusts in glaciers dated at around 750 years old. Presumably, they had swarmed for millennia before that. But around 1880 the swarms abruptly ceased, and the species went extinct. The last live specimens were collected in 1902.

No one knows why the Rocky Mountain grasshopper vanished, but changes in habitat are the most likely reason. In the late 19th century, the bison was virtually exterminated, as were the native peoples. Settlers drastically reduced the numbers of beaver in the Rocky Mountains, removing an important control on flooding. Cattle brought in by ranchers grazed and trampled the riversides, and farmers plowed up their fertile soil. To fight off the locusts, farmers tried all sorts of control measures, from contraptions called "hopperdozers" and controlled fires to fasting and prayer. What actually worked was to carry on farming. Plowing devastated the Rocky Mountain locust population, as did the planting of exotic trees, which brought in many new predatory birds.

Hundreds of other grasshopper species thrived despite, or even because of, these habitat changes. But according to Jeff Lockwood, an entomologist at the University of Wyoming, the Rocky Mountain grasshopper's nesting habits made it particularly vulnerable. (Many species prefer grassy hillsides for nesting sites.) The Rocky Mountain locust's boom-and-bust population cycles also put it at risk. Despite the vast areas attacked by swarms—from Manitoba to Texas and from Wisconsin almost to the West Coast—the locust's home base, the area where it could always be found in plague years as well as other times, was a much smaller area in the northern Rockies. European-American settlement there quickly dispatched the species. It's the only known case of a pest species exterminated by human action, and it was an accident.

The extinction went unnoticed for a few decades—that such a fecund creature could abruptly vanish was counterintuitive—and unmourned. The focus of 19th-century science was killing pests, not appreciating them. We still don't know what effect the extinction has had. The swarms caused widespread nutrient recycling and large-scale habitat disruption. Charles Bomar, an insect ecologist at the University of Wisconsin at Stout, has speculated that they served as some sort of cyclic ground clearing, much like forest fires. But specific effects are difficult to substantiate, and no one has proved any related extinctions.

Even the basic facts are in dispute. Daniel Otte, the curator of entomology at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, suggests the Rocky Mountain locust is not extinct at all but has simply refrained from swarming in recent times, perhaps because of encroaching agriculture. Otte points out that almost no one can distinguish closely related grasshopper species by sight. In fact, the integrity of the Rocky Mountain locust, Melanoplus spretus, as a distinct species has only recently been demonstrated through genetic analysis. The characteristics that distinguish M. spretus from its close, and still living, cousin Melanoplus sanguinipes (the migratory grasshopper) are its proportions. Identifying an M. spretus involves taking its measurements—the length of the various leg segments, for example—and comparing them with published figures derived from statistical analysis. To complicate this problem, no one is sure what the solitary phase of M. spretus looked like. The very idea of grasshoppers shifting phases came about just as M. spretus was dying out. It's possible, Otte says, that Rocky Mountain locusts are nibbling at your lawn right now, unrecognized. More likely, they're hidden in remote river valleys, reduced in number but still thriving.

This apparent extinction, far from creating a domino effect of further losses, may have created an opportunity for other grasshopper species. The red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum), which was responsible for newsworthy outbreaks in Idaho in 2001, thrives on ground broken by agriculture and other human endeavors. Its numbers have grown much larger since the extinction of its cousin. In 2002, patchy outbreaks of clear-winged grasshoppers (Camnulla pellucida) in Colorado attained densities of 200 per square yard; a tenth of this number is considered a danger to crops. Scientists have had some success in developing toxins and parasite-laden baits to combat grasshopper outbreaks. But applying pesticides on broad stretches of land has rarely proved cost-effective. Some pesticides seem to make future outbreaks worse, because the predator and parasite populations they affect don't recover from the poisoning as fast as the grasshoppers do.

Even though existing North American grasshopper species don't migrate as readily as the Rocky Mountain locust did, some of them do swarm in less dramatic migrations. And their swarming potential may have more to do with circumstances than with any inherent limitations. Bomar suggests these other species, especially the red-legged grasshopper and the migratory grasshopper, are stepping into the niche the Rocky Mountain locust vacated. His suggestion brings back uncomfortable memories of the giant I found in my driveway. "The potential for swarms is there," Bomar says. "Eventually, one of these micropopulations is going to move out." He's intrigued by the scientific opportunity such an event would present. For the rest of us, it may be the return of an ancestral nightmare.

African locusts herded into a trap

A pitful awaiting immolation 

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