Bull Shark Bites Off Fisherman's Hand

In Shark Attacks: Inside the Mind of the Ocean's Most Terrifying Predator, I mention the bull shark's habit of removing human hands. Today's news provides another gruesome instance. The story linked below is in Spanish, but Croconut gives us the gist in English:

Tiburón le devora una mano:

In Boca de la Leña, a beach in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, a bull shark attacked a fisherman, biting off his left hand. 

According to Juan Mendoza, the fisherman partner to Benigno, the attacked man, both were diving five meters from the shore, fishing for snook, when suddenly a shark appeared. According to Juan, when he saw the shark, it already had his partner's hand in its mouth; it didn´t return for a second attack-- it "swam away eating his hand". 

After the attack, Juan dragged Benigno out of the water and took him to the hospital, where he remains in critical condition due to blood loss. He could, however, describe the moment of the attack to the press; "I didn´t feel when the shark bit my hand off; we were fishing and I didn´t even see it coming; my partner Juan took me and brought me quickly to the hospital, I was dizzy for all the blood I lost but thank God I'm OK; I will continue fishing because it's the only thing I know and I have a family to maintain". 

This is the first shark attack in a Guerrero beach in four years.

Breakfast Wrap

Photography by D'Arcy Allison-Teasley

Giant Mice Ravage the Land

Ordinary domestic mice, introduced by humans, are wreaking havoc on the bird populations of Gough Island, where no predators can stop them.

Mice in Gough Island killing endangered atlantic petrel bird | Global Animal

"There are about 1.9 million mice on an island that’s just 25 square miles (65 square kilometers). What’s more, the mice on Gough Island now grow 50 percent bigger than normal mice, reaching up to 10 inches (27 centimeters) long, not including the tail.

As other food sources diminish in winter, the mice turn to the huge numbers of bird chicks.

For example, mice have been known to attack and eat chicks of the Tristan albatross, a ground-nesting bird—even though an albatross nestling weighs 300 times more than a mouse."

A Better Mousetrap

Rama/Creative Commons

by guest writer Darlene West

We had been country dwellers for maybe a year when my husband, John, suggested casually one morning on his way out the door that we should pick up some mouse traps.

I drained my cup of coffee, dashed outside, and found him near the Quonset hut, tossing his wire cutters and Gripple tighteners behind the seat of his tractor.

“Did you see one?” I asked.

“See what?”

“A mouse. Did you see a mouse in the house?”

 “Just some droppings,” he said. “In the mud room, inside the basement door.” He grabbed his hearing protectors, hopped on the tractor, and turned the key.

“We’ll just get some traps,” he shouted over the roar of the engine. He slipped the tractor into reverse and looked over his shoulder. Then he guided the rear forks under a stack of wooden bins, picked them up, and drove away. Our Border Collie, who had been asleep under a plum tree near the creek, jumped to his feet and followed.

I sauntered back to the empty house. In my basement office, I turned on my laptop, but I couldn’t focus. Would the mouse stay near the back door, I wondered, or venture deeper into the house? Would it head for the kitchen? A cupboard? A closet? It could be right in my office. I imagined finding the mouse in my desk drawer or taking a book off my shelf and meeting its whiskered face.

Alone in the house, I heard clicks and scratches I’d never noticed before. A heater squeaked, a floorboard cracked, a water softener hissed. Easy for John to be so blasé, driving his tractor through open fields where mice had their own lives and their own space.

My morning was already half wasted. I Googled “mouse extermination.”

When I opened the link to Trusty Rodent Removal a male voice boomed out of my laptop: “If you have mice affecting your property, you’ve come to the right place.”

I lowered the volume and listened to a 60-second spiel on how mice enter a wall cavity and den up in an attic or crawl space to have their young, how the young mice chew on electrical wires causing fires, how they sometimes die, causing odour problems. “Mice, like rats, will often infest a building for years, causing the building to lose its value.”

The Trusty Rodent Removal site had a wild animal information section with a substantial area devoted to mice. A photograph of what I took to be a dead mouse appeared above the caption: “view our mouse photo gallery.” I turned, instead, to the FAQ section, which addressed a dozen or so questions ranging from “What do mice eat?” to “Will mice hurt my dog?”

Mice, I learned, have litters of five to six babies that grow up fast. “They’ll be independent in about a month.”  Multiply that by 5 or 10 litters a year. “You can see how one or two mice in the attic or walls can become 20 in no time.

I couldn’t stop reading. I wanted to read that mice quite often slip in through an open door, hang out near the entry, and leave. Instead, I read how mice get into your house in the fall by climbing right up the wood siding or brick. Or even by jumping or swimming. “Mice will tear into areas of your home or business and haunt it for years to come. Sometimes, so many shack up that the space becomes a mouse hotel.”

On the drive to town, I thought about life in a mouse hotel and felt a sad longing for the person I was before I knew about mice. It was tourist season. I envied the passengers in the cars I passed on the highway. People like me before I became aware that mice enjoy living in large electrical spaces such as the back of ovens. Before I knew that mice will eat anything and are not afraid of trying new foods. Before I learned that once mice get into your walls you can hear them climbing, squeaking, and fighting right above your head. I wished I could send this information back where it came from.

In the hardware store, I picked up a package of Victor conventional wooden mouse traps. On the same shelf, a round, plastic device caught my eye – a better mouse trap, the package said. The idea of the plastic trap was that the top, when shut, would cover the dead mouse so the user would never have to see or touch the body.  I took the better mouse trap as well.

Later that evening we baited the wooden traps with cheese and placed them on window ledges and shelves around the basement where our dog wouldn’t spot them. Some traps were more sensitive than others. They sprung shut with a snap when we set them on the floor and had to be reset. I put the better mouse trap in a closet in a storage room.

The next morning, I was in my office when John got back from an early run and heard a persistent clacking noise that he traced to the storage room in the basement. He opened the door.

A mouse screamed across the floor and thrashed and crashed and tried to climb the wall. The better mouse trap was firmly attached to its tail.

I’d heard the clacking noise, of course. How could I not? Even with all I had read about rodents that racket was hard to believe. But I didn’t budge. I stayed at my desk. You wouldn’t discover a trapped mouse and then just walk away. A rodent would be dealt with by the person who found it.

I was certain that wouldn’t be me.

Gordon's note: Trusty Rodent Removal, whose website is quoted in Darlene's story, is a made-up name for a real company. We found the same scary copy on many exterminators' websites. The claim that mice "will tear into areas of your home or business and haunt it for years to come" appeared on a number of sites, in precisely those words, except that "mice" was often replaced with "rats," "skunks," or even "armadillos." "Trusty" also says that once mice figure out how to get into your house, bees, bats, and chipmunks follow the same route. The company stands ready to handle all of these pests, along with woodpeckers, toads, and wild pigs. 

Darlene West is a photographer and freelance writer; visit her at http://www.darlenewest.ca/. She lives and works on a vineyard in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. 

Next: Giant Mice Ravage the Land

Moose in the Yard

"From Idaho: the crazy moose cow that used to terrorize the yard where I was living. She trapped me in the house one night, because she got angry at the dogs for barking at her and our backdoor was snowed shut at the time. It was kind of funny to me, to call into work and tell them I was going to be late because I was being held hostage by a moose."--Dee Puett, photographer

Coatis Aid Juvenile Delinquents

An interesting behavior, previously unknown except in humans, has turned up in the coati (or coatimundi). It appears that the females sometimes side with unrelated juveniles against their own relatives. 

Females Coatis Help Unrelated Offspring Steal Food | LiveScience

"Coatis, which are found in South America, are a highly social species related to the raccoon and known for being particularly aggressive, especially when it comes to food. They live in cohesive groups of up to 65 individuals that usually include only a single adult male.

Over the course of the three-year study, Hirsch monitored the behavior of 150 individual coatis in four social groups in Iguazu National Park in Argentina. Using genetic data, he found that in 57 percent of the cases in which an adult female helped a juvenile during an aggressive encounter, the female was not the mother of the juvenile."

Great White Shark Bites Off Woman's Leg

Some of the clearest footage I've seen of a serious shark attack:

Video: Great White Shark Takes the Bait

This video has been creating a stir around the web, apparently because people didn't realize sharks go where food is. 

Coyotes and Wolves

Some interesting discussion in the comments for Sunday's Coyote vs. Teen. Croconut posted this comment:

It is interesting that you mention that "emotional reaction" to wolves. In a way, I think I've been guilty of this; when scientists or scientific minded people call dogs "Canis lupus familiaris", I feel it's some kind of sacrilege; when I was a kid and saw a wolf (a huge Canadian wolf) for the first time, it looked right into my eyes and we just stared at each other for a while. It was an impressive experience, just looking into its eyes, and since then, every time I visit the zoo, the wolf is among the animals I spend most time watching. So, when a scientist says that a mop-like lap dog or a chihuahua is a wolf, I just don´t want to believe it :/

There's a question, tho- although I've read many times that the dog is classified as a wolf subspecies, I never knew the coyote had been also classified as such. Care to elaborate on that?

My response:

The idea that the coyote is a form of wolf has been around since at least the Victorian age, but usually as a minority opinion. In the 21st century, the name Canis lupus latrans (species wolf, subspecies coyote) has been floated as a better alternative to the long-standing Canis latrans (coyote as seperate species). The latest reorganization (circa 2009) once again put coyotes outside Canis lupus, though it acknowledged that dogs are a subspecies of lupus. 

Nonetheless, I persist in believing that coyotes are wolves. The most important marker of a species is its breeding boundary. We know that horses and donkeys have diverged into separate species because, even though they can still breed and produce offspring, those offspring are usually sterile. This is not the case with some of the various "species" within the genus Canis. Coyotes interbreed with dogs, producing fertile offspring. (I used to be friendly with a coydog when I was a teenager. He behaved like the other dogs in the neighborhood.) Coyotes also interbreed with gray wolves, as has been proved by genetic analysis in New Brunswick. This is a wild, breeding population of animals, produced without human interference. According to theory, that makes coyotes and wolves members of the same species. And since dogs are now regarded as a subspecies of Canis lupus, their ability to interbreed with coyotes is further evidence that the coyote ought to be included in that species. (Some think the red wolf is also an intergrading between latrans and lupus, though I don't believe that has been proved.)

This really comes down to the question of what constitutes a species. A large part of the basis for separating coyotes is that their evolutionary history seems separate from that of wolves. Canids colonized North America several times, and the coyote as we know it apparently evolved here, separate from the Afro-Eurasian line. That's roughly the story the fossils tell. But there are holes in this story. One is that it assumes, on the basis of location, that the wolf group and the coyote group diverged during their separations. But in fact wolves existed in the American Arctic during the separations, and may, for all we know, have come south on occasion. So it's not certain you have two distinct groups at any point. What is certain is that Old World canids replenished or complicated the North American gene pool repeatedly, and that wolf, dog, and coyote have had plenty of opportunities to interbreed for thousands of years since their last separation.

Another traditional way of defining species has been simply to look at their characters (morphology) and proportions (morphometrics). That's the basis for understanding the very complicated fossil record of Canids in North America (and elsehwere). But imagine looking at a fossil record from our own era. You would see animals as differently built as pugs and greyhounds. These are the same species--but morphometrics would not give you a good basis for figuring that out. It seems to me that the speciation of canids in the fossil record ought to be approached skeptically. 

Another basis for separating species is behavior, and that barrier is crumbling across the kingdom. As discussed in The Book of Deadly Animals, animal behavior, especially among intelligent mammals, is far more variable than we used to think. In the case of wolf and coyote, the social structures tend to differ, with coyotes forming smaller social groups. But this difference seems related to another behavioral difference: that wolves tend to avoid humans, while coyotes are able to co-exist with us in cities. This has always seemed to some zoologists an important difference, but in fact it's a response to conditions, particularly to the behavior of humans. Wolves don't avoid humans everywhere in the world, and they're starting to be less timid around people in North America. Both wolves and coyotes are showing an increasing tendency to approach human habitations for food. They are becoming more like each other because we are behaving differently. Specifically, we are killing them less often.  

Speaking of behavior, Croconut's experience of looking a wolf in the eye is important. It's a moving experience, for some people a mystical one. The reason probably has to do with this very question of species. We are used to certain body language from dogs, and that body language usually includes looking away from a human gaze. To see a similar-looking animal fearlessly return your gaze can be unsettling. It can also induce your respect. This goes to our interactions with other humans. We distrust and disrespect people who won't "face" us. The wolf gains our respect on a subliminal level. (And on a more practical level: if you stare a wolf in the face too long, it may perceive that as a challenge and attack you.)

In The Red Hourglass, I stated that difference as categorical. My cousin argued with me and said her dog would, in fact, look a human in the eye. She put the dog, a fluffy little Scottish terrier, on her lap, and sure, enough, it looked me right in the eye. I realized at that point that this dog had been making me uncomfortable the entire time we'd been in the room together. It didn't behave like a dog, but until my cousin pointed out the staring thing, I hadn't really analyzed it. I decided to experiment. When my cousin wasn't looking, I caught the dog's eye and tried to stare it down. It growled at me and twitched like a speared fish, apparently deciding whether to attack or flee. Pretty much what wolves are said to do. Later, I tried the same experiment on other dogs. All of them looked away; some even put their tails between their legs and rubbed against me so I'd pet them. 

The reasons for that difference in behavior are complicated, and the dog-training people become quite cross with me when I use words like "dominance" to talk about it. Suffice to say that within the range of normal dog behavior, we find both the self-respect we admire in wolves and the predatory instinct we fear. Behavior does not determine the difference between wolf and dog, nor between wolf and coyote. Behavior changes to fit the circumstances and the animal's own past experiences. 

Species is a strange idea, ultimately. It has more to do with our human tendency to think abstractly than with biological reality. In most cases, intergradings between species (which are extremely common) don't bother anybody but biologists. Most people have no practical need to know, for example, whether the Mojave rattlesnake is distinct from the prairie rattlesnake. But the canids are intimately entwined in our own lives. It seems to me that we have so far based our understanding of them not on biology, but on our own uses of them. 

Tiger Sharks Running Thick

Albert Kok/Creative Commons

Among the most gruesome items in my forthcoming Shark Attacks are two headless men. Both men lost their heads in the presence of tiger sharks. Today, guest writer Jon Schwartz describes his own encounter with a tiger shark.

In the July of 2005 I took a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii. It’s a relatively new volcanic island, and the ultra steep drop-offs just offshore and warm deep blue water attract giant fish. Thousand pound “grander” marlin and huge tuna have been caught within 100 yards of shore. That’s why I was there; I wanted to hook into the biggest beast possible.

I had geared myself up for the fight of a lifetime, bringing over a mountain of gear, and thought that I was prepared for any situation. I was wrong. Two local kayakers told me upon my arrival that the tiger sharks had been “running thick” and I needed to have some way of fending them off in case I was approached by one. These sharks can get upwards of 1500 pounds, and they roam close-- very close-- to shore. I had brought over a whole cooler of sushi-quality Norwegian mackerel to use as bait. When I went to a corner store to buy some ice to keep the bait fresh, I glanced at the newspapers, and to my horror saw a headline about tiger shark warnings. They had been spotted in the exact place that I had planned to launch!

The kayakers had told me of two protective devices. One was a primitive bang stick, which made an explosive charge that would get a marauding shark away once it had come within arms reach, but I saw that as a last resort and I didn’t want to hurt any sharks. Plus, who wants to wait until the shark is 2 feet from you? The other was a relatively new device called the “Shark Shield”.

The way it supposedly worked is that it sends out electrical pulses that the wearer can’t feel, but the shark can feel with the jelly-filled sacks in its snout called Ampullae de Lorenzini.

In either case, I had no such protective devices with me, so it was either fish or stay on land. I could have chosen another location to launch, but there was no guarantee that sharks wouldn’t be there either, and in addition, I was more familiar with the currents and winds near the harbor. I decided to fish anyway, and during my entire trip in July, encountered no tiger sharks. The trip turned out wonderfully, and when I returned, I felt a bit guilty that I had gone on such a long journey without my wife, so we made plans to return to the island in August as a couple. We’d do some fishing, and a lot more sightseeing.

As I planned the trip, I began to consider the fact that I would be bringing my wife out on a kayak with me, and that we might be approached by tiger sharks. Of course the first thought that came to mind was that, if we were attacked by sharks, we’d be orphaning our children, so I figured it was a good idea to plunk down the money to invest in a Shark Shield, even if the odds were that we would never see a shark. Thousands of couples kayak the same spots, so what were the chances that we’d run into trouble? To be safe, I bought it, and brought it with us.

Well, when we got there, we planned to launch our kayaks the very next morning. As always, I stayed up late making sure my tackle was all ready, and my wife helped me, even though she was exhausted. She fell asleep many times and then I’d wake her up to help me load my reels with new line and such. I guess I’m a hopeless romantic.

The last thing we took out was the Shark Shield. I figured I’d just take it out, plug it in, and it’d be ready to use in a couple of hours. In fact, since the Shark Shield was there to protect my wife, I assigned her the task of reading up on it, but she was too tired and fell asleep next to the box with the manual in her hands!

Well, when I opened the manual I learned that it takes a series of long charges to get it ready- and we were heading into the “belly of the beast” in 4 hours! So I plugged it in and in the morning we decided to take it with us, but leave it in the back of the kayak, coiled up, ready to deploy if we saw a monster. That’s NOT how you are supposed to use it- they are meant to be worn the entire time you are in the water, but we didn’t have a choice.

We woke up before daybreak and headed out to the launch site. It was a wondrous day on the water-- very sunny and calm. We had rented a stable double kayak that fit us comfortably, and even though my wife was totally new to the sport, she learned quickly, and we synched up our paddling strokes rather well. Much of the time, I’d simply tell her where to paddle and she’d get us going while I tended to the three rods and loads of tackle.

The only thing missing on this perfect day was the fish-- not a bite! And this was in the exact same location where I had landed three huge fish only a month earlier! My wife wanted to give up but I kept saying, “Let’s just give it another hour…” and then we’d be off in another direction. Finally we decided to call it a day, and on our way back, at the entrance to the harbor, I heard a splash….

This could be our lucky break! It must be a mahi mahi (dorado) or an ono (wahoo) or ulua (giant Trevally)! So I said, “Full speed ahead!” and she paddled us over there while I quickly dropped down a giant mackerel bait.

I glanced at my fish finder and noticed a flurry of activity- a predator was obviously herding up the baitfish and they were running scared!

The next events happened in what seemed like slow motion. I yelled, “There is something huge chasing fish here!” and we both looked up simultaneously. Something huge surfaced like a submarine… was it a dolphin? I had surfed enough to have learned to dull my panic reflexes when I saw a fin near me, as they are usually just pods of dolphins playing, so my first reaction was muted.

The problem was, this animal wasn’t moving much, and its skin wasn’t navy blue-- it was a tan color with darker stripes! It couldn’t be, I thought. How many times have we prepared for the worst and it never materializes? But it was… and my wife knew what it was, too. She yelled, “Put that thing in the water! Put it in the water!” and I reached around for the contraption. Thankfully, she had done the job of coiling it up properly. She is very orderly and knows how to pack things properly. If I had packed it, it would have never come out as easily as it did. I grabbed it and threw it as it unfurled with a ker-plunk into the water.

Here’s the wildest part....as I was doing this, the shark, which had surfaced about 12 feet away and perpendicular to us, turned straight at us and began closing in. I reached for the yellow on switch and thought, “This thing better work!” and felt the switch click into the on position, hoping to the powers that be for a quick result.

As soon as it clicked on, the shark acted like it had been annoyed terribly, as if it had hit a force field, and splashed its tail and turned away, gliding back into the depths and out of sight. All of this happened so quickly, but every part of the sequence is clear and fresh in my mind, as if the time had been slowed down by a factor of 10. We started hooting and hollering uncontrollably and going wild.

The next thought I had was, no one is going to believe this! We have to get it on film… maybe we can bait the shark back up again and get it on film… but my wife convinced me otherwise.

On the paddle back, we saw some kids jumping off the jetty into the water. We paddled over to them to warn them, and I started babbling about our encounter. I lifted the device out of the water to show them what had saved us, and ZAP! I got a nasty shock! I had left it on. 

See Jon's photography--and more of his writing--at http://www.bluewaterjon.com/.

Related Post: Jon Schwartz's Famous Photo of a Blue Marlin

Coyote vs. Teen

Boy describes how he fought off attacking coyote - Local - Cape Breton Post

"The animal was quiet at first but began snarling and growling as it jumped on top of him and tried to bite him.

“It got halfway on top of me so I grabbed it by the neck and kneed it in the stomach a couple of times and then it just backed off me. When I got up, I was going to kick it in the ribs, and then it just ran off into the woods.”

The attack left him with a small scratch above his right knee and a larger one on his thigh that bled for about 30 minutes after he made it back home."

Alligator Vs. Scientist (Gator Wins)

Have you noticed that every TV news story includes a witness describing the event as "surreal"?

1816: Lion Attacks Horse in England

A BBC story tells about the nice price a painting brought at auction, which doesn't interest me in the least. What does interest me is the subject: a lion attack in England.

BBC News - Wiltshire lioness attack painting fetches £1,700 at auction:

"The oil painting, a 19th Century copy of a James Pollard work, shows the animal attacking the Exeter Mail Coach on 20 October, 1816, near Salisbury."

An earlier story from the same source tells more about the incident:

"The lioness had escaped from Ballard's travelling menagerie, which had stopped for the night nearby," he said.

"Two of the passengers of the coach fled to the inn and locked themselves inside, blocking the door against the remaining passenger and driver, while the mail guard, attempted to shoot the animal with his blunderbuss."
The lioness was eventually trapped under a granary and its capture was reported in the Salisbury and Winchester Journal.

The newspaper article stated: "Her owner and his assistants… made her lie down upon [a sack]; they then tied her four legs and passed a cord round her mouth, which they secured.

"In this state they drew her out from under the granary, upon the sack, and then she was lifted and carried … the lioness lay as quietly as a lamb during her removal to the caravan."

After the incident, the injured coach horse was bought by the owner of the lionness and displayed "with its wounds" alongside the recaptured lioness.

Fishing Spider

The biggest kind of spider in my Wisconsin woods is the fishing spider. This one had a leg span of about four inches. Fishing spiders dive for their prey, breathing the air trapped in bubbles among their hairs. They can take small fish and tadpoles. 

Photography by Parker Grice.

Water Buffalo Injures 10

Interesting news from Vietnam. The Asian water buffalo can weigh more than a ton. This one looks considerably smaller. Although these animals exist in the wild, this one would seem to have been a domestic run amok. The same thing occasionally occurs with cows in the West, but I don't remember a case with so many casualties caused by a rampaging cow. 

Hue City, Vietnam Buffalo Rampage Injures 10 People: "A water buffalo injured 10 people in central Vietnam while rampaging down crowded streets, across a river and through a house before being gunned down at a kindergarten, an official said Monday.

The young male buffalo, normally a docile species used to plow rice fields, ran wild for about three hours over nearly 20 kilometers (12 miles) in Hue City."

Thanks to Croconut for the news tip.

Conrad and Me on the Radio

I was thrilled to have my first collaboration with James Addison Conrad, "Ebonsong," selected for Nik Nimbus's "Friends and Relations" episode on his Brighton and Hove Community Radio show, alongside great musical acts like like Radio Ray and Krankschaft. You can listen to the show here:


And you can hear this and a couple of our other songs right here:

Do Piranhas Eat People?

In The Book of Deadly Animals, I discussed the alleged man-eating proclivities of the piranhas. Everyone agrees that these fish occasionally bite people, mostly in territorial defense of their nests, and that these bites are no laughing matter. People have lost fingers and toes to them. But I was skeptical that they actually prey on people. In researching Deadly Animals, one of the first claims for anthropophagy I came across was this, from a 1994 edition of the Guinness Book of Records:

"On 19 September 1981 more than 300 people were reportedly killed and eaten when an overloaded passenger-cargo boat capsized and sank as it was docking at the Brazilian port of Obidos. According to one official, only 178 of the boat's passengers survived." 

But this  claim was hard to substantiate. It seems to have originated in a sensationalist newspaper. A later edition of the Guinness Book did not repeat the claim, which seemed a telling omission. A web search turned up dozens of copies of this same brief Guinness Book snippet, often with different numbers. Other stories of mass predation were similarly elusive.

After an earlier post of mine, Croconut mentioned a claim in the River Monsters TV show that piranhas do in fact take children. I watched the episode and found it very interesting, but also frustrating; it is marred by the usual sensationalism of TV documentaries. In one sequence, for example, the show dramatizes a case of piranhas attacking swimmers on a beach in the style of Jaws. In Jaws, of course, people get eaten; in the real-life piranha case, they were merely driven away from piranha nests with sharp nips. I feel the sequence is misleading. Host Jeremy Wade discusses the case of a bus that plunged into a river. As legend has it, many passengers couldn't escape and were eaten by piranhas. To his credit, Wade takes a skeptical approach and concludes the piranhas may have simply scavenged the drowned bodies, rather than preying on live ones. 

The most important part of the show for our purpose is Wade's interview with a man whose two-year-old grandson fell into a river and was eaten by  piranhas. It's also the most frustrating part, because instead of hearing the grandfather's words, we get Wade's emotional summary of them. I hate this kind of stuff. TV producers seem to think we need to see everything filtered through our hero. Why not show the guy who was directly affected and translate his account as plainly as possible? Could it be because the producers don't trust a North American audience to connect with a non-white subject? 

I looked at Wade's book version of River Monsters: True Stories of the Ones that Didn't Get Away and was pleased to see it didn't suffer from the same sort of manipulation. Wade says the image of piranhas skeletonizing their prey in minutes enters  Western culture through Theodore Roosevelt's account, which he briefly cites. Here's Roosevelt's spiel at greater length:

Late on the evening of the second day of our trip, just before midnight, we reached Concepcion. On this day, when we stopped for wood or to get provisions—at picturesque places, where the women from rough mud and thatched cabins were washing clothes in the river, or where ragged horsemen stood gazing at us from the bank, or where dark, well-dressed ranchmen stood in front of red-roofed houses—we caught many fish. They belonged to one of the most formidable genera of fish in the world, the piranha or cannibal fish, the fish that eats men when it can get the chance. Farther north there are species of small piranha that go in schools. At this point on the Paraguay the piranha do not seem to go in regular schools, but they swarm in all the waters and attain a length of eighteen inches or over. They are the most ferocious fish in the world. Even the most formidable fish, the sharks or the barracudas, usually attack things smaller than themselves. But the piranhas habitually attack things much larger than themselves. They will snap a finger off a hand incautiously trailed in the water; they mutilate swimmers—in every river town in Paraguay there are men who have been thus mutilated; they will rend and devour alive any wounded man or beast; for blood in the water excites them to madness. They will tear wounded wild fowl to pieces; and bite off the tails of big fish as they grow exhausted when fighting after being hooked. Miller, before I reached Asuncion, had been badly bitten by one. Those that we caught sometimes bit through the hooks, or the double strands of copper wire that served as leaders, and got away. Those that we hauled on deck lived for many minutes. Most predatory fish are long and slim, like the alligator-gar and pickerel. But the piranha is a short, deep-bodied fish, with a blunt face and a heavily undershot or projecting lower jaw which gapes widely. The razor-edged teeth are wedge-shaped like a shark's, and the jaw muscles possess great power. The rabid, furious snaps drive the teeth through flesh and bone. The head with its short muzzle, staring malignant eyes, and gaping, cruelly armed jaws, is the embodiment of evil ferocity; and the actions of the fish exactly match its looks. I never witnessed an exhibition of such impotent, savage fury as was shown by the piranhas as they flapped on deck. When fresh from the water and thrown on the boards they uttered an extraordinary squealing sound. As they flapped about they bit with vicious eagerness at whatever presented itself. One of them flapped into a cloth and seized it with a bulldog grip. Another grasped one of its fellows; another snapped at a piece of wood, and left the teeth-marks deep therein. They are the pests of the waters, and it is necessary to be exceedingly cautious about either swimming or wading where they are found. If cattle are driven into, or of their own accord enter, the water, they are commonly not molested; but if by chance some unusually big or ferocious specimen of these fearsome fishes does bite an animal—taking off part of an ear, or perhaps of a teat from the udder of a cow—the blood brings up every member of the ravenous throng which is anywhere near, and unless the attacked animal can immediately make its escape from the water it is devoured alive. Here on the Paraguay the natives hold them in much respect, whereas the caymans are not feared at all. The only redeeming feature about them is that they are themselves fairly good to eat, although with too many bones.

It's interesting, but Roosevelt has no specific case of anthropophagy to cite. Presumably he took the claims of local people at face value. 

As in the TV show, Wade debunks the bus wreck as a case of mass predation. He also alludes to the Obidos incident and says he, too, was unable to confirm it. 

And what about the fatal attack on a two-year-old? Wade briefly repeats that story in the book, this time without the TV-emoting. I felt hungry for more information on this incident, but I have no reason to doubt its truth.

Bee Hive

Photography by Dee Puett

Leopard Implicated in Death of Child

Body found, leopard attack suspected - Indian Express

"Police found the body after a resident of Adarsh Nagar village in Aarey Milk Colony at Goregaon (East) informed them about having seen torn clothes and remains of a body when he had gone into the woods to relieve himself.

Police suspect that the child may have been mauled to death by an animal, possibly a leopard."

Hyenas Maul 17

If this really is a single hyena, rabies would be the likely cause for multiple attacks of this sort. The people managed to kill one animal. 

allAfrica.com: Tanzania: Hyenas Wreak Havoc in Karatu, Injure 20: "so far the authorities in Karatu have confirmed that a total of 17 people have been hurt from the weekend ordeal.

The first victim was a lady, Ms Filomena Richard whose house is located adjacent to a deep gorge from which one of the beasts is reported to have emerged from. The hyena reportedly took a bite from Ms Richard's arm before running away when the lady started to scream for help.

When villagers gathered around the house, it was already dark and as they discussed how to start hunting down the animal, there was another attack right within the group as the hyena or a similar beast jumped onto one of the villagers.

After that, the hyena(s) continued to launch attacks to unsuspecting villagers at different times of the night, leaving a trail of nearly 20 victims in the scary weekend night."

Attack of the Ticks

Deer tick, a vector of Lyme disease

by guest writer Kimberlee Smith

You will seize up with fear when your children dive into piles of leaves in autumn.

You will holler at them to stop that right away, because they know better. They know about the ticks. They are taught about Lyme disease in school and at home.  They live at ground zero, one of the densest areas of Lyme disease documentation anywhere.

You will bark at them again for sitting on the century-old low stone wall that you know makes a perfect launching pad for the pernicious arachnid, no larger than the size of a period at the end of a sentence in newsprint. The nearly invisible pest. Nearly, until you undress to soak in the bath and feel an angry, hot burn on your lower hip.  You touch it; it feels like a third degree burn.  It looks like there is a ruby red grapefruit fused to your hip.

You scratch and scratch until it turns purple and furious and now has raging nail marks on the grapefruit skin that is your own body.  You slap at it, the stinging of your flat palm eases some of the searing itch.

You don’t have time to tell anyone.  You race to the town walk-in clinic, a triage center. The elfin doctor with the wide grin might be a woman or a man, but you do not care.  You suggest to the doctor the super-welt might be a spider bite.  The doctor’s frozen smile stays pasted to the doctor’s face.

 The doctor suggests it is a poison ivy rash.  You are highly allergic to poison ivy and know this is not it.  Because you know it well, having taken shots to desensitize your system to the ivy oils since you were a teenager.  Since you went to the bathroom in the woods because you were drinking beer with your friends and wiped yourself with poison ivy.  You did not get a tick bite up your ass, but you did get a severe allergic reaction to poison ivy in every orifice—every one--and a trip to the hospital and weeks of antibiotics. 

So you know it is not that. The doctor prescribes a five-day pack of Zithromax and Prednisone, which you do not, cannot, take, because it makes you crazy angry like a television wrestler with roid rage.

You are staple-gunning plastic sheeting to the frames of the screened in porch.  It is several months since the grapefruit has left your hip. But you are infected. As with most diseases, the symptoms are the alarm bells, and you are at a well-advanced stage of illness that takes aggressive treatment. But you do not know this, not yet.

 Your muscles ache, your joints feel as if all the fluid has drained out and bone rubs against bone, that after 42 years, you might well now begin suffering from migraine.  That you might have the flu.  Mononucleosis? Lupus? Epstein-Barr?  That you should put down the staple gun and have a hot tea. You do, and you sleep. And it hurts.

You call the internist from Yale, referred by one of your many friends who have suffered from Lyme disease. You drive to see him.  He is a specialist. He runs all the tests, vial after vial. He does something called a Western Blot test.  Across the board for autoimmune illnesses.  You think maybe it is AIDS. That you are dying. But it is not, thankfully, and you are not.

The wonderful doctor who is young and handsome and most definitely male puts you on a month of antibiotics and declares without waiting for the test results, that you most probably have Lyme disease.  You want to hug him, you want to cry.

You spend the next two weeks with your children tending to themselves and your home is not unlike a scenario from Lord of the Flies.  You wave from the kitchen window as your children get on the school bus.  You go back to sleep and wake when they come home.  The dogs haven’t been fed, but they shit on the floor anyway because you did not have the energy to let them out.  Your kids eat instant macaroni and cheese and microwave hotdogs.  You assure them you will be fine, but still everyone is scared, and now and then you all cry.

Two weeks later, your mouth is doughy and bleeding from thrush from the antibiotics.  But you wake up. Feeling better, but that feeling better is relative, because you felt like you were run over by a Boeing 777. Slowly.

The test comes back inconclusive.  But it often does, the wonder doctor assures you.  You have Lyme disease, but we will get you better.  We will, together. You love this doctor almost as much as you loved your obstetrician who brought your babies into the world.

You are better. Ish.  But there are cases of relapse.

You are afraid of grass. Bushes. Trees. Shady, verdant spots at which you used to daydream and count clouds, carefree.

You are afraid of outside your own back door. You hate grass and springtime and the great outdoors.  You are furious with it for being a breeding ground for the deer tick, this arachnid that spreads Lyme disease to you.

Your dogs will whimper and whine and dig deep holes in your yard because they are bored. You will cuss at them; maybe give them too many treats.  They will get thick in the middle and become despondent. They miss the hikes in the woods, they miss you kicking the ball in the meadow to them.

You will make sure, if you ever again get up the nerve to hike through the woods right out your back door, you will wear long socks and tuck your pants in to them. And high boots laced so tight your feet go numb. And long sleeves with rubber bands around your wrists so those sneaky little bastards cannot invade you again. A hat.  Gloves.  Head-to-toe DEET spray.  But chances are you will never hike again.

The dogs are immunized against Lyme.  You topically apply a liquid that kills the tick if it latches on your dogs. For you? There is nothing.  Nothing prophylactic, no preventative.  Only treatment once you are infected.  You will always feel afraid it will happen again, you are always going to be vulnerable.  You have so many friends who have contracted Lyme, you know more people who have than who haven’t, living here in rural Connecticut.  You think you should move to the city. 

Instead you worry, you inspect your children, and they, you, looking for that tiny dot that could render you paralyzed and neurologically impaired—potentially irreversibly. You are paranoid, and you should be. Lyme disease is sneaky, and relentless. It rides on the backs of deer, it travels on mice, it lives on dogs.  Mainly, it lives on blood.  Yours, because you know it was there, firsthand.

Related Post: Bug-Bite Slideshow

Giants in the Earth


In this conclusion to a three-part series, guest writer and artist Hodari Nundu looks at the biggest snakes in the history of the planet. 

Even though pythons and boas may have grown larger a few decades ago, even the largest dragons of our days would look like garter snakes compared to some of the monstrous snakes that lived millions of years ago. 

Scientists believe that snakes appeared around 120 million years ago, in the Cretaceous period- the golden age of dinosaurs. Although it is tempting to imagine gigantic snakes coexisting with dinosaurs and giant crocodiles, the truth is that evidence for such creatures is scarce. In fact, to my knowledge, the only giant snake known from the Cretaceous is a species of Madtsoia whose remains were found in Madagascar. 

Madtsoia was a constrictor, like pythons or boas, but it wasn´t closely related to them. Instead, it belonged to its own family, Madtsoiidae, which was seemingly well represented and widely distributed during the late Cretaceous and even survived the mass extinction at the end of said period. Madtsoiids probably looked a lot like pythons, but they were different in several ways, the most important being that their jaws couldn´t unhinge the same way a python’s jaws do. In other words, madtsoiids, even the larger ones, couldn´t swallow prey as huge, relative to their own size, as modern day constrictors. 

Madtsoia tackles Majungasaurus, a 20-foot cannibal of the Cretaceous

Unfortunately for those of us who like to imagine epic prehistoric duels, this means that there were probably no dinosaur-eating snakes, or at least, no giant-dinosaur eaters. Madtsoia madagascariensis is known only from fragmentary fossils, but scientists believe the original specimen was at least 5 meters long- pretty respectable for any snake, and there are vertebrae from other specimens suggesting an even larger potential size for the species- maybe up to 8 meters long. At such size, Madtsoia would probably be able to constrict many large dinosaurs to death, but if it was, as scientists say, unable to swallow large prey, then this seems unlikely to have happened often. Smaller dinosaurs were another story, of course, and there’s some evidence in the fossil record that madtsoiids may have fed on dinosaur eggs and hatchlings; in India, the remains of a 3.5 meter long relative to Madtsoia, named Sanajeh, were found along with the nest of a long necked dinosaur; the snake had seemingly been waiting on the nest for the little dinosaurs to hatch, ready to dine on them.

Madtsoia takes Masiakasaurus, a six-feet flesh-eating dinosaur

The madtsoiid lineage lasted until very recently, geologically speaking; the last member of the family, called Wonambi, stalked the waterholes in the Australian desert until 50,000 years ago, meaning this six meter giant was encountered (and quite possibly, eventually exterminated) by the ancestors of modern day Australian aborigines. Some scientists say that Wonambi itself may have preyed on human children once in a while, partially explaining why even today, aborigines instruct children to keep away from waterholes-- no matter how shallow -- unless accompanied by an adult. Any smallish animal that came close to the water would’ve been fair game for Wonambi. 

But the fossil record has evidence of serpents much bigger than these.

In 1901, the remains of a gigantic snake were found in Egypt. Dating back to 40 million years ago, Gigantophis, as it was named, was the largest snake known to science for a long time. Originally considered to be a “boid,” related to boas and pythons (today pythons are classified as a separate family), Gigantophis is now known to have been a madtsoiid, just like Wonambi. It was, however, much bigger; even though its remains are fragmentary, they suggest a length of at least 10 meters. 

This makes Gigantophis as big as the biggest reported reticulated pythons, and certainly much bigger than any confirmed giant python in modern times. What this giant snake ate is still a mystery. The remains of primitive, pig-sized elephants and other creatures have been found in the same fossil sites, but if Gigantophis was unable to unhinge its jaws like a python, these creatures may have been too much to handle. It is possible that it was a fish eater, though; back then, the region of Egypt where it lived was not a desert, but a coastal swamp. It is possible that Gigantophis spent a lot of time in the water, like modern day anacondas. Alternatively, it may have preyed on water birds or perhaps on other, smaller reptiles. At about the same time, the sea was home to other giant serpents. 

Paleophis vs. Otodus, an ancient shark related to the great white

One of them, Palaeophis, could grow up to 9 meters long, and was probably a denizen of estuaries and coastal waters. A close relative of it, Pterosphenus, was even better adapted to a marine lifestyle, with a laterally flattened tail just like modern day sea snakes. But unlike our venomous sea snakes, related to cobras and kraits, Pterosphenus was probably a non-venomous fish eater, measuring up to 7 meters long-- over three times larger than the largest modern day sea snakes. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know if this giant could obtain part of its oxygen directly from the water, like some modern day sea snakes do.

Neither Palaeophis nor Pterosphenus could slither on land; they were completely transformed into aquatic animals. They were, as we would say in my country, sea serpents with all their letters. 

Liasis dubudingala

All around the world, the fossilized remains of other giant snakes have been found. One of the most interesting is now known as Liasis dubudingala, and was found in Australia. But unlike Wonambi, which coexisted with human beings, L.dubudingala lived 4.5 million years ago, long before humans reached Australia, or even before they evolved at all. This snake still has living relatives today; one of them, the olive python or Liasis olivaceus, is Australia’s second largest snake, measuring up to 4 meters long. But even this respectable snake was dwarfed by its prehistoric relative, which was just as long as Gigantophis- 10 meters long. 

Unlike the heavy, probably aquatic Gigantophis, however, Liasis dubudingala was seemingly a tree dweller; some of its skeletal features are highly reminiscent of those of modern day tree snakes. It is possible that this giant tree python relied on camouflage to hide in the canopy, waiting in ambush for some unfortunate bird or arboreal marsupial to come close to its deadly coils; indeed, the word dubudingala means “strangling ghost.” I am always tempted to imagine it as being bright green, like tree pythons or emerald boas; there is, of course, no way to be sure about this. 

Titanoboa takes a Coryphodont, a primitive mammal

Unfortunately, Australia’s awesome giant tree python was overshadowed by a 2009 discovery; in a coal mine in Colombia, the remains of a snake even bigger than either Gigantophis or Liasis dubudingala were found, and quickly became headlines around the world. Compared to the equivalent bones in a modern day anaconda, those of the Colombian snake were humongous; scientists estimated that, when alive-- 60 million years ago-- this snake was probably between 13 and 15 meters long, being, they said, “the largest snake ever to have existed.” They named the creature Titanoboa, for it was not a python, nor a madtsoiid, but a member of the Boidae family, the same family that includes modern day boa constrictors and anacondas. The implications of this can send shivers down one’s spine; this was a giant snake that could unhinge its jaws and swallow enormous animals. The coal mine even provided a glimpse to the possible menu of Titanoboa; enormous freshwater turtles and crocodiles, suggesting that Titanoboa was probably a water based animal. 

It makes sense if we consider the snake’s incredible weight; up to 1,135 kg. The heaviest snake of our times, the South American green anaconda, weighs only a small fraction of this, and yet it’s so massive that its movements are slow and clumsy on dry land. It is in the water where the anaconda becomes quick and deadly, taking its victims by surprise. Titanoboa may have been the same. 

If we had a time machine and could bring an adult Titanoboa to the modern world, it would be seen as a monster of almost absurd proportions. Scientists themselves have said some pretty fantastic things about it. They have described it as the T-Rex of snakes, and have actually labeled it a worthy foe in a hypothetical fight between these two giant reptiles. They have suggested that it would have trouble to go through a normal sized office door, because of its titanic girth. And a reptile curator from the Smithsonian Institute said that if Titanoboa was alive and kept in captivity, it would probably have to be fed on cows. I myself remember my days as a zookeeper and, considering the strength of modern day pythons and boas, and their proclivity to escape from their terrariums, I think keeping a Titanoboa in captivity would be a catastrophe just waiting to happen. There’s no way any number of keepers could hold a Titanoboa still like we did with Aphrodite. It would simply be too powerful. 


Perhaps the most frightening and awesome part of the story is that, although pretty much every source today describes Titanoboa as the largest snake of all times, the truth is that we know too little about the fossil record to make such claims. 

There may very well be larger monsters out there, fossilized in the rocks, waiting to be discovered. What’s more, we may already have found some of them. Some post-Cretaceous species of Madtsoia have been described as being perhaps as long as Titanoboa, and in 1993, there were rumors that the fossils of a colossal snake had been found in Argentina, surpassing Gigantophis (back then considered the largest snake of all times) and Madtsoia in size. According to at least two paleontologists, this snake, known as Chubutophis grandis, may have reached a mind blowing length of 15 to 20 meters long! There is even one mention of a 29 meter long fossil snake also from Argentina (and potentially the same as Chubutophis), but some paleontologists believe this estimate was due to a typo, and that the author probably meant 20 meters. 

Still, it is hard to imagine the size and might of such a beast, and even harder to imagine what it would feed on. To most of us, such a monster would make more sense in the Age of Dinosaurs, when the size of potential prey was more fitting for such a monstrous predator. But as I say, we only know part of the story.

Both living and extinct, dragons remain mysterious; there’s still a lot to learn about them. They may not fly or breathe fire, or guard treasure; but the point is, they are real. We just gave them a new name, and kept the old one for the legend. 

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