If you live in the United States, then odds are that today, you’re eating turkey. It’s Thanksgiving — that’s what we Americans do. Some fifty million turkeys are consumed in the states every year on Thanksgiving, keeping with a centuries-old tradition started by the first Europeans to come to this land. But the land has changed since the pilgrims shot their first wild turkey; forests have been clear-cut, making way for agricultural fields and urban centers. Rivers have been dammed and diverted, and many of the beasts and birds that once dominated the landscape have been depleted or exterminated. Even the turkeys have changed — they’ve nearly doubled in size from selective breeding, with breasts so large that they cannot fly or mate, needing human hands to perform the act of insemination using a device ironically akin to a baster.
According to scientists at the University of Manchester, over 25 lbs of carbon dioxide emissions are produced to raise each chubby bird we consume. That means we pay for our Thanksgiving feast by releasing over 1.25 billion pounds of climate changing carbon dioxide into our already carbon-laden atmosphere.
But there is another way. Rather than turkey for your holiday feasts, consider instead the delicious flesh of the turkeyfish.
Wednesday, KHON2 published a news report about a snake sighting in Honolulu. The original post was brief: “The state Department of Agriculture is investigating a report of a snake spotted in Nuuanu,” it began. It went on to say that the unwelcome tourist was spotted near a place called Morgan’s Corner on Nuuanu Pali Drive — less than three miles from my house — so naturally, my interest was piqued. But it wasn’t just that someone spotted a snake in Hawaii that caught my eye. After all, just two years ago, a five foot long boa constrictor was killed on the highway in the same area, presumably a released/escaped pet. It was the photo accompanying the story that really struck me, allegedly of the sighted snake before it slithered off into the rainforest:
The second I saw it, my stomach clenched: that is a king cobra. A KING COBRA. That’s no ball python or little pet snake — that’s the world’s longest venomous snake, capable of delivering up to seven milliliters (or almost a tablespoon) of venom with its long fangs. It’s estimated that 50-60% of king cobra bites are fatal — a combination of the potent toxins and the overwhelming volume.
It can’t be a king cobra, I told myself. Not in Hawaii! So I asked my boyfriend Jake Buehler (who I lovingly call “Jakeapedia”), what he thought. “Looks like a king cobra.” So I turned to venom expert and snake guru (and friend of mine), Bryan Fry, a professor at the University of Queensland. “That is one seriously underweight king,” he told me. I looked closer at the photo, searching for any signs it could be something else. I reached out on Twitter, asking for IDs. I kept getting the same answer. What if it’s not a king cobra? I exasperatedly asked Bryan, providing hopeful alternative suggestions. “Nah, definitely a king. I’d recognize that head anywhere.”
A king cobra slithering around Nuuanu means two things. 1) that there’s a very dangerous snake on the loose. And 2) that someone is smuggling large, highly venomous snakes into the islands. The odds that a king cobra would accidentally arrive here are infinitesimally small. They’re native to India and Southeast Asia, and seeing as several thousand miles of water separate our islands from all continents, it didn’t swim here. They live in forests, not terribly close to most airports with direct flights to Honolulu, and they are ground-dwellers, which means they’re not likely to climb up into a wheel well of a plane anyway. No, if a king cobra arrived in Honolulu, someone intended for it to do so. And who even knows how they were feeding it — these huge serpents are snake-eaters primarily, taking the occasional lizard if necessary. Hawaii has no native terrestrial reptiles, and our introduced ones are small — not much to feed such a lengthy snake. Then again, maybe that’s why it looks so skinny... Read More
Lurking in the muddy waters of the Amazon is a fish that has fascinated some of the greatest scientists in history, including Darwin and Faraday. The electric eel (Electrophorus electrics) is one of the most notorious species on the planet, and yet, there is still much to be learned about these elusive fish.
Despite the name, electric eels aren’t actually eels at all — they’re the only species in the genus Electrophorus, a member of the knifefishes (order Gymnotiformes). These slender shockers can grow to lengths in excess of 7 feet and weigh almost 50 pounds, and are one of the top predators in the muddy South American waters they call home. Their name comes from the current-producing cells that coat roughly two-thirds of their body, called electrocytes, which can collectively discharge more than five times the voltage of a US power socket.
In humans, the shock produced by electric eels feels much like that of a stun gun, causing brief, painful paralysis by overactivation of muscles. And since the discovery that these slippery fishes can cause such a strong electrical pulse, it has generally been assumed that they use their weaponized electricity to stun prey, using their electric organs to produce taser-like shocks. But neurobiologist Kenneth Catania wasn’t sure that was the whole story. While the eels’ shock is enough to take out the small goldfish fed to them in captivity, Catania wasn’t sure that it would work on the diversity of invertebrates and fishes that could comprise the eels’ natural diet. He was curious what would happen if the eel were presented with larger, less easily subdued meal choices. Read More
It’s estimated that somewhere between one and five million people are bitten by snakes every year, with around 1/5 of those resulting in death. That number is a lot lower than it once was — several decades ago, antivenoms for deadly snakes were few and far between, so people frequently succumbed to bites. One such victim was American herpetologist Karl P. Schmidt. Read More
She came out of nowhere.
All of a sudden, you are set upon by a flying nightmare whose body shines iridescent green. Limbs intertwine as she fights to subdue you. You struggle; every muscle in your body tenses and flexes as you try to fling the emerald harpy off your back, but you feel her jaws clamp down, and she remains attached.
Terrified, you helplessly twist and contort, unable to shake her. Then you feel it — she stabs her needle-like stinger into your abdomen. Your legs tingle, then fail. The paralysis won’t last long, but it’s long enough for your venomous assailant to carefully line up the next jab. She places the point of her stinger sharp on your neck, then drills it deep. You feel a prolonged burning pain as she feels around with her stinger and slowly pumps venom over the next minute into different parts of your brain. Then, as quickly as she came, your attacker is gone. Read More
Life as a damselfish is hard. These small species are common on tropical reefs worldwide, eating tasty plankton and nipping at other fish. They’re known for their attitude and their beauty, and are often found in stunning schools that cluster around coral heads. But while they’re abundant and vibrant, what they lack are good defenses — no spines, no toxins. Indeed, they are the perfect morsel for other fish-eating fish, and they know it. The moment a predator is detected, they’ll dart for cover, their speed and agility their only hope of survival.
As perpetual menu items, damselfish have developed multiple mechanisms for detecting danger. They can even “smell” danger — when damselfish’s skin is injured, certain chemical compounds leech into the surrounding water. Other damsels can sense these chemicals — essentially “smelling” them — and when a damselfish catches a whiff of Eau de Injury, it runs and hides. But while these chemical alarms seem to benefit fellow damselfish, scientists have long debated whether the injured fish has anything to gain from sending out chemical cues. Are the compounds simply a byproduct of the physical damage? Or do they serve some greater purpose to the fish under attack?
Now, an international team of scientists have published the first evidence of an individual fish benefitting from releasing these chemical alarm cues in a new paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Read More
Poison dart frogs are some of the most stunning species on Earth. But their vivid colors aren’t for aesthetics: they’re meant as a warning to potential predators. For while these frogs are visually stimulating, they are also armed with potent toxins. The poisons in their skin are so powerful that local tribes have been known to create deadly darts simply by rubbing them on the frogs’ backs — hence the name.
One might expect that the evolution of such a successful defense would allow these frogs to diversify faster than their relatives and outcompete their kin for resources and habitats — and, according to a study published in the early edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, their toxins do give them a speciation advantage. But, their defenses don’t come cheap: poisonous frog species also go extinct at a faster rate. Read More
At the time, it seemed like the logical thing to do. Australian farmers were desperate. It was the 1930s, and beetles were tearing through their crops, especially sugar cane. Word spread of a toad that loved to gorge itself on the problem pests, which had been successfully brought to Hawaii to manage beetles in sugarcane fields. The Australians could have turned to pesticides, sure, but pesticides are expensive and often harmful to people and the environment. And if the toad could be introduced once, why not again? Why shouldn’t they fix their bug problem once and for all with a harmless little amphibian? So in 1935, two suitcases of cane toads (Rhinella marina; formerly Bufo marinus) arrived in Australia.
I have spent more hours than I want to admit scrolling through #CuteOff on Twitter. The hashtag (following on the heels of the much more R-rated #JunkOff) is a competition of sorts between tweeps to see who can post the cutest animal photo. But as I was sitting on the couch the other day, showing pic after pic to fellow biologist and science writer (and my boyfriend) Jake Buehler, we started to notice that vertebrates — animals, like us, with backbones — were highly overrepresented. Invertebrate species make up more than 95% of the diversity of animal life on this planet, including all of the major groups of animals (called phyla), yet there were choice few to be found in #CuteOff. The discussion went a little something like this…
J: It’s just not fair!
C: Well, I don’t know… most inverts are pretty… gross-looking.
J: You’re gross looking — to a ribbon worm!
J: Just kidding. But being serious: there are lots of adorable inverts out there that deserve a little love.
C: Hm… You think so? Care to make a wager?
J: I’m listening.
C: How about we take the major phyla of animals, split them down the middle, and see who can assemble the cutest arsenal of inverts?
J: What does the winner get?
C: Bragging rights.
J: You’re on.
So we looked up a quick phylogeny of animals and decided to take turns starting with what is traditionally considered the most basal multicellular group: phylum Porifera. I drew the short straw, which meant I had to go first.
C: You ready for this?
J: I was born ready. Read More
Two years ago, a newspaper story about a couple from North Carolina heading to Hawaii for a “dolphin-assisted birth” caught my attention on Twitter. Now “spiritual healer” Dorina Rosin is planning a similar stunt, believing the birth will be more relaxing and natural than one in a hospital. She also believes that her child will be able to speak dolphin. Her birth is to be featured on a British documentary Extreme Births.
So far, there’s no info on whether the mother-to-be has gone through with the at-sea birth or not. For that matter, no one knows what happened to the couple from NC — as far as I can tell, no one has ever actually gone through with a wild dolphin-assisted birth. I was able to find one grainy video of what appears to be a birth with a live dolphin, but it’s clear that this woman is in a pool with a captive dolphin, not the ocean.
Update 9/2: According to the documentary, Dorina did not go through with her watery plans. She went into labor at night, and thus had a natural birth on land. But, she did say she could feel the dolphins ‘sending positive energy’.
Below is my original commentary on the practice of dolphin-assisted births, from 2013. But the tl;dr version: Dolphins are wild animals. Wild animals do not make good midwives.