August 2010

What could be worse than one sickle claw?

Balaur bondoc The dromaeosaurid dinosaur family — which includes such fan favourites as Velociraptor and Deinonychus — continues to offer surprises. Known for the sickle claw on one toe, dromaeosaurids have also been found to have feathers — and quite possibly venom. Now a new, strange dromaeosaur has been discovered in Romania. Balaur bondoc, a close relative of Velociraptor, had two sickle claws on each foot — it re-evolved its big toe: it has four toes on each foot, very unusual for a theropod dinosaur — and gave it a big claw too. Paleontologists were expecting some weird stuff out of late Cretaceous Europe, which was at the time a series of islands — and natural selection gets funny in insular populations. Not this, though. (Frankly, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this turned out to be a case of prehistoric polydactyly — this is just too weird.)

Links: AMNH press release; NSF press release; AP; Discovery News; Grauniad; LiveScience; Not Exactly Rocket Science; Wired Science.

When snakes bite themselves

OM NOM NOM NOM  .... wait.

A few weeks ago, one of our two male Red-sided Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) — the last of the great litter of 2002 — decided to bite himself, at which point he recoiled in alarm and surprise. He and his brother are curious and friendly (albeit very ravenous: they’ll bite your fingers, though it’s not personal; they’re just hungry), but they’re just not very smart.

By no means is that the first time I’ve seen one of my snakes bite itself. Normally it’s something I associate with Common Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis getula); I recall seeing both California and Speckled Kingsnakes chew on themselves. Apparently it’s more than a kingsnake thing.

Last week, though, I was summoned to answer a question on Ask MetaFilter from someone whose son’s California Kingsnake chewed on its own tail on more than one occasion. You can read my answer there; I’m going to flesh it out a bit more (and organize it a bit better) here.

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Colour photos of Imperial Russia

Emir of Bukhara (Prokudin-Gorskii collection)

In 1948, the Library of Congress purchased a collection of colour images taken by Russian photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944). Taken during a series of surveys of the Russian Empire on behalf of the Tsar prior to World War I, these photos were produced by taking a series of black-and-white photos through red, green and blue colour filters; Prokudin-Gorskii created colour images by combining the images with a special projector using the same filters. (This method is still used by astrophotographers, who use specialized monochrome CCDs to take a series of images through special filters.) The result, when processed with modern-day tools (hello, Photoshop), is a series of stunningly vibrant colour photos from a period otherwise remembered in sepia, and from a part of the world not often seen in the West, even at the time. A total of 2,607 images are available in the LOC’s Prokudin-Gorskii Collection; an online exhibition from the LOC and The Big Picture offer some of the more stunning examples. Above: a portrait of the Emir of Bukhara.

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A naughty little song about Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is 90 years old today. Coincidentally, this not-remotely-worksafe video and song celebrating Bradbury (sort of) has been circulating lately — it keeps turning up on the blogs of science fiction writers, who seem jealous that a song like this hasn’t been written about them. (The song is also available on iTunes.) Let me reiterate: Ray Bradbury is 90 years old. (Is she trying to kill him?)

Lillooet council hates freedom

I don’t know what it is about small-town councils that compels them from time to time to issue by-laws that are both ultra vires and unconstitutional, but they never seem to stop doing it. It’s not just teen curfews, either: the council in Lillooet, British Columbia has introduced a by-law that would, among other things, ban “unauthorized performances, marches, meetings and formal gatherings in public places” — a by-law that, according to one civil rights advocate, would not survive a Charter challenge.

If Mayor Dennis Bontron and the councillors of Lillooet District have a problem with paragraph 2(d) of the Charter, which guarantees freedom of peaceful assembly, they should ask the provincial or federal government to invoke the notwithstanding clause. (Good luck with that.) Other than that, they should maybe hire an actual lawyer to look over the drafts of their by-laws so that they don’t make them look like a bunch of drooling, jack-booted busybodies. Honestly, I don’t know why town councils even bother drafting crap that even laypeople can tell is beyond their authority and their competence — are they really this stupid?

The devil frog of Cretaceous Madagascar

Beelzebufo ampinga (Nobu Tamura)

Behold Beelzebufo ampinga, the Devil Frog — a prehistoric frog 40 cm long, larger than any present-day frog. The news of Beelzebufo’s discovery was announced more than two years ago, but I only heard about it last week.

You’ll note that in the above image from Wikimedia Commons by Nobo Tamura, it’s shown eating a small theropod dinosaur — because ancient creatures that could (or did) eat small dinosaurs are inherently interesting for some reason.

Beelzebufo will look familiar to people who know their frogs, because it was a ceratophryine frog: South American horned frogs, sometimes sold as “Pac-Man frogs” in the pet trade, and known for their general belligerence and willingness to nom. But Beelzebufo was different: it was larger, of course; but it lived 65 to 70 million years ago — in Madagascar, and ceratophryines were thought to be native to South America.

As a result, Beelzebufo’s discovery is significant in terms of the timing of the breakup of the Gondwana supercontinent. South America and Madagascar were parts of Gondwana that were isolated from the rest of the world, biologically speaking, until relatively late. India and Africa met Eurasia tens of millions of years ago, but the Great American Interchange only occurred three million years ago when the Panamanian isthmus formed. Prior to that point, South America maintained some deeply weird fauna, some of which is still around.

The neat thing is that there is at least one other group of animals found only in relict areas of Gondwana: boas. More specifically, true boas, such as boa constrictors, rainbow boas, and anacondas. Boas moved into Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean during the Interchange, but they’re also found in Madagascar and Réunion (such as Dumeril’s Boa) and on certain islands in the Pacific (Candoia). There were probably true boas elsewhere in Gondwana, but they’ve since been displaced by pythons.

Compare a boa constrictor and a Dumeril’s boa, and you’d be hard pressed to guess that they were separated by thousands of miles and tens of millions of years of isolation. And they’re not the only ones.

Wasp vs. grasshopper

Wasp and grasshopper

Our yard continues to turn up interesting and surprising inhabitants. On Sunday, Jennifer discovered a couple of great golden digger wasps (Sphex ichneumoneus), and managed to get some pictures. Above, one of these wasps is doing what great golden digger wasps are known for: capturing an insect — in this case, a grasshopper — and paralyzing it, before dragging it back to one of her burrows. There, she will lay an egg on the hapless creature, which will serve as food for the larva once it hatches.

Her photos of another wasp feeding at the oregano flowers turned out a little better, but you have to admit that catching a wasp catching a grasshopper for gruesome purposes is way cooler.