Archive for: January, 2007

>Circus of the Spineless #17: The Symbology of Invertebrates

>Welcome to the 17th Circus of the Spineless, the only blog carnival devoted to all things invertebrate. This is the third carnival hosted this month at The Voltage Gate, and since the semester has started, the last one for a while.

Other animals have always meant something to Homo sapiens. Today they (and we) are like living libraries, holding the secrets of life's origins on Earth, essential in learning what it is to be alive and live in communities. In ancient times - and to some degree, today - tribal cultures regarded animals as messengers and talismans of good and evil, actors in a cosmic play where human beings took center stage.

Demonized or analyzed, animals - invertebrates in particular, for our part - have always been symbols of psychological and philosophical meaning for us. For this edition of CotS, we'll discuss some of the more obscure mythology related to the submissions I've received, and relate a fraction of the stories told before the dawn of science. What stories do we tell today?

Cephalopods Octopi, squid and cuttlefish are commonly described as bearing aspects of fire or the infernal in folklore around the world. Most of us are familiar with the Norwegian tales of the Kraken, but in the traditions of the Native American Nootka tribe, the cuttlefish was the keeper of fire (stolen by a deer; a more or less Promethean story). In a Hawaiian myth, the god Kanaloa is depicted as a squid or octopus, causing storms or other aberrant phenomena.

Much of Cephalopod life is still a mystery to us, though science has woven a much more tapestry of their traits. PZ Myers shares a neat video displaying the near flawless camouflage of an octopus and from Deep Sea News, CR McClain reveals the broad range of body size in cephalopods and the rest of the mollusks.

Shrimp Not much has been recorded in the way of shrimp folklore, but there is a reference to the mythical first people of Hawaii (the Menehune) being gifted a single fresh water shrimp apiece for their efforts in digging the famed Menehune Ditch for King Ola:

After the king gave a shrimp to every menehune, there were two shrimp left, one for the menehune king and one for king Ola. King Ola gave the last shrimp to the menehune king. Then the menehune disappeared.

Who knew shrimp were so valuable? Coturnix from A Blog Around the Clock points us in the right direction.

Snails Perhaps the most important aspect of the snail in folklore is the helical nature of the shell, the motif of the spiral. It represents "motion outwards from a fixed point [...] cyclical but progressive continuity and rotational creation." The spiral (a structure inherent in nature), and therefore the snail, were used to represent the evolution of life and the individual. At Snail's Tales, Aydin tells us a bit about the aquatic snail Theodoxus fluviatilis.

Spiders The amount of literature covering spiders in mythology is staggering, but spiders are most often mentioned with regard to web spinning, as in the Greek myth of Arachne. The idea of the web is also essential in grasping the fundamentals of certain forms of Hinduism and Buddhism (typically called Brahmanism), which teach that all reality is like a web of illusion (Maya), hiding the truth; that we are all one in the same, a Drop (Atman) temporarily outside of the Waterfall (Brahman).

The spiders themselves are much more beautiful: Bev from the Burning Silo shares the habits of the Goldenrod crab spider complete with a handful of vivid pictures, while Grrl Scientist from Living the Scientific Life is all fired up about the visual range of the jumping spider. Mites might not be a forerunner in the ideals of beauty, but Matt from Behavioral Ecology Blog seems to think so with this picture of a velvet mite (yeah, not a spider, but you try to find some lore about mites).

Butterfly Another invertebrate with millennia of mythology behind it, most of it referring to the butterfly's metamorphic abilities, with the chrysalis representing a latent self, or the death of self, only to resurrect or become enlightened upon emergence. The Japanese have long held butterflies to be a symbol of womanhood, with two butterflies representing the unity of a happy marriage. Thingfish23 of Taming of the Band-Aid is looking forward to witnessing a swallowtail's metamorphosis on a Dutchman's Pipe in the backyard.

Bees A symbol of royalty to the ancient peoples of Sudan, Niger and Egypt, for obvious reasons. Napoleon later adopted the bee as a symbol of his empire. The bee, along with the ant, is the quintessential social animal and worker both in mythology and in the animal kingdom. MC from Neurophilosophy discusses social behavior of bees and how a certain chemical may be responsible for their dancing, while RPM from evolgen reviews aspects of sex determination in the Hymenoptera (specifically wasps).

Cricket To the Chinese, the cricket represented the a threefold symbol of life, death and resurrection, since it lays eggs in the ground, lives there as a larva and rises from the depths as an adult. Singing crickets were considered good luck charms and kept in little cages. This little cricket, a beach cricket from Earth, Wind and Water by Tai Haku, is avoiding capture well with its clever coloration.

Mantis The shamanic !Kung people of Namibia, Botswana and Angola regard the mantis as a trickster god, bending (sometimes breaking) the instituted rules of the culture in order to prove a point: Rules are not always hard and fast. Other cultures have a special attachment to the mantis as well:

In France people believed a praying mantis would point a lost child home. In Arab and Turkish cultures a mantis was thought to point toward Mecca, a site of considerable religious interest. In Africa they were thought to bring good luck to whomever they landed on, and could even restore life into the dead. Here in the U.S. they were thought to blind men and kill horses. Europeans believed they were highly reverent to god since they always seemed to be praying. And in China, nothing cured bedwetting better than roasted mantid eggs (Sargent 4).

Mantises are perhaps best known for their deadly embrace. Nic shares some pics from KeesKennis.

Flies The ancient Syrian deity Beelzebub, meaning "Lord of things that fly" was supposedly distorted by the Hebrews and interpreted to mean "Lord of the Flies" (implying that the god was lord of animals that eat dung). It was later equated with Baal, and became synonymous for Satan. Budak, from The Annotated Budak, asks us to look beyond the bad reputation of Dipterans and consider their benign majority.

Worms In Icelandic tradition, the death of the frost giant Ymir signaled the beginning of life for man. His corpse served as the raw material for the Earth (Midgard), and the gods called forth the worms from Ymir's depths to rise and become men. We are all made of worms. Except for Lori Witzel of Chatoyance, however, who requests our discerning eyes; can you find the worm?

Mystery Bugs Care to give a hint as to what these bugs are: A giant crawly from KeesKennis and a dead hanger from The Blog Pound.

That does it for CotS #17. Number 18 will be hosted by PZ at the end of February, so start sending in your submissions. Thanks to all the contributors and readers.

For more carnival goodness, Tangled Bank #72 is up today at Ouroboros. Chris did a wonderful job, so check it out.


The Praying Mantis, by Dan Feldman

The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, by Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant

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>I Look Like... Usher?

Jan 31 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

>I was tagged by Matt.

Rad. I look like a couple of popstars, a soccer player, a supermodel, Angel, a Nobel Peace Prize winning biochemist. a gnome-like Misfit and da man himself. You think it's funny? Funny how?

With the beard I still looked like Boreanaz (its the big nose, I think) but I also scored a famous yogi too.

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>Ctenophore & Hermit Crab Videos

Jan 30 2007 Published by under Invertebrates, Zoos

>From my trip to the National Zoo, ctenophores (Mnemiopsis leidyi) and a hungry giant hermit crab (Petrochirus diogenes?):

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>Two Hours Until Deadline...

Jan 30 2007 Published by under Carnivals, Invertebrates

>...for Circus of the Spineless #17. I'll be posting it tomorrow, after noon.

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>Darth Vader Goofs Off at Work

Jan 29 2007 Published by under Science Fiction

>A friend of mine showed me this last night. Hilarious:

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>Dinosaurs and the Mystery of Body Temperature III: Intertial Homeothermy

Jan 28 2007 Published by under Animals, Evolution, Links, Paleontology, Physiology

>Body size is an important factor in the debate over whether dinosaurs were cold or warm blooded (or something in between). When you have a land animal 42 feet long weighing nearly as much as a blue whale, temperature models tend to break down. If the dinosaurs were ectotherms, relying on the environment for heat, they may lack the surface area to sufficiently heat the blood pumping directly beneath the skin. If dinosaurs are endotherms, and internally heated by its own metabolism, it may not have enough surface area to expel excess heat from the depths of its massive body.

The following chart shows this principle a little more clearly.

As you can see, the second two cubes have the exact same volume (body size), but the surface areas are vastly different. Large animals like dinosaurs and blue whales are like the middle cube with the smaller ratio; it becomes difficult to use surface area to heat/cool its insides. Also, the more massive an animal is, the more heat it produces/requires, generally speaking.

The reason blue whales get away with being the most massive animal to ever live (so far) is that temperature exchange with their environment is rapid. The ambient temperature of the ocean is on average much lower than ambient temperatures on land, allowing the whale to circulate heat through the thinner parts of its body and allowing the cold water to carry away the excess. Plus, the whale's 100 tons is spread out along 100 feet of body as well.

You can see how a creature on land weighing as much as the blue whale, compacted into 40 or 50 feet and lacking the might present a particular problem for scientists to figure out, especially in the absence of direct evidence.

But, the creature did exist. We're just now picking up the pieces, so to speak.

And recently, scientists put those pieces to good use. By simulating the ontogenetic development of eight different dinos using data from recent bone analyses, they were able to determine that the internal temperature of dinos depended on size. Smaller dinosaurs maintained a lower body temperature and probably grew at a rate consistent with extant reptiles, while the larger dinos maintained a higher body temperature, like today's birds and mammals.

The largest animal studied, Sauroposeidon proteles, was estimated to have an internal temperature of 48 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit), a few degrees higher than what was thought to be the upper limit of temperature tolerance for animals. Because of this extremity, the authors believe that temperature may have been the ultimate cap on body size.

Ultimately, this study was transposing a state called "inertial homeothermy," which is observed in ectotherms like crocodiles and the Galapagos tortoise that can maintain their internal temperatures by adjusting their internal physiological conditions, much like endotherms. The researchers performed the same tests on crocodiles of similar size (when they could; there are no crocs alive today to compare with the larger dinos):

Perhaps, if time allows in the near future, I'll detail a bit more about all the thermies: poikilo, homeo, hetero, ecto and endo.

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>Bala the Sloth Bear's First Birthday

Jan 27 2007 Published by under Animals, Art, Conservation, Zoos

>I finally fixed my camera and was able to pull some photos from our trip to the National Zoo earlier this month. The day we went was a special one; it was the first birthday of Balawat, the zoo's newly relocated sloth bear cub. The zoo finished a new Asia Trail last October, and the sloth bear family made the move to two modern enclosures (not to mention the fishing cats, clawed otters, red pandas and giant pandas - including little sleepy Tai Shan).

They had a birthday card to sign,

and Heather oblidged with a little portrait.

Meanwhile, Bala celebrated with some good, old fashioned mischief:

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>The Origin of the Yellow Rectangle

Jan 27 2007 Published by under Publishing

>The National Geographic Society was founded on this day in 1888. But when and where did that iconic yellow rectangle originate? Its history is pretty simple and straightforward, actually:

Changes in the design of National Geographic magazine's cover during the 1970s indicated their understanding of the prevalence and power of their readers' collective visual literacy. By the time I arrived at the Society as a student intern, its practitioners were well into reformulations and associated debates about the magazine's "voice". The publishers had decided to update the design of the magazine, moving toward a crisper, more modern graphic style overall. One aspect of the change was that the intricate floral pattern that had decorated the margins of the magazine's cover for so many years would be replaced by the now-familiar plain yellow rectangle, which was to become not just the new border for the magazine but also the new logo for the Society overall.

The publishers understood that this change would not be trivial to effect, however. The magazine's readership was doggedly faithful, and readers associated the distinguished botanical motif with an air of sophistication and authority that the Society had managed to achieve. The move from etched laurels to rectilinear yellow would be jarring indeed. So the producers decided to effect the transition piecemeal over several years. Issue by issue they removed parts of the floral margin literally bit-by-bit until it was gone, leaving the margins border-free for a while – with just a ghost line of the laurel-encircled globe at top center. Then, over time, they built up the yellow margins, ultimately arriving at the rectilinear border that we recognize now.

National Geographic's evolution also reveals another aspect of the craft of caption-making. Its producers understood that there was more than one way to read the magazine. Some people would read it cover-to-cover; others would choose particular articles of interest; others would merely flip through the pages, looking at the pictures and reading the captions. This manner of reading was not to be disdained or taken lightly: it constituted a significant manner of readership, so much so that it warranted employing a distinct group of people as caption-writers. They worked with the researchers, writers, and designers to create pithy accompaniments to the pictures. Captions were to speak directly to the image, not being redundant with the meaning of the image but supplementing it by explaining ambiguities, adding detail, and so on. Flipping through the magazine to look at the pictures and read the short text blocks could indeed be a rich, informative experience in its own right.

The rectangle is a frame for content. Ingenious, really. National Geographic stands out among other publications for keeping things very visual, with large print, large captions, easy to read all in a relatively small package. I've learned a thing or two from studying their design techniques.

Next week at this time I'll be staring at a QuarkXpress template, trying to get all the pieces to fit. But I'm looking forward to what the semester brings, especially since it's my last. We always come up with a few gems.

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>Who Knew Venn Diagrams Could Be Funny?

Jan 26 2007 Published by under Links, Paleontology

>What do dodos, tyrannosaurs and grandpa all have in common? Natural history.

tip: Phillip

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>Blogging, Criticism and Writing Angry

Jan 26 2007 Published by under Blogging, Editing, Journalism, Links, Publishing, Writing

>I waited a few days to let things cool off a bit at Scienceblogs and related sites before I threw my two cents in about the now infamous Scienceblogs reviewer (if you haven't heard, you can read a couple posts about it, here and here, or just search Scienceblogs).

It is completely natural to be upset when someone is, in effect, dissing your pursuits. However, I think that bloggers, in general, have a tendency to blow things out of proportion. The bloggers that were reviewed who have made minimal comment regarding the reviewing process have made the best choice, I believe. The reviewer, after all, is just another blogger. One man, with one opinion.

Refuting him seems to be a futile gesture. There are only so many reasons one can give for liking anything until you come down to "I just like him/her/it." Furthermore, what is there to prove? We're not talking about research. We're talking about personal tastes.

I speak with a bit of experience gained over the past few years. I am an editor/columnist at a small town university newspaper, but I potentially reach almost 5,000 students, faculty, staff members, and residents every week with my words and opinions. Over the past few years, I have been hounded, confronted, criticized and trivialized by those same students, faculty, staff members and residents, from English professors to administrators, from the Office of International Studies to a pair of disgruntled Christian students from Campus Crusade for Christ.

But that's the business, babe. That's what happens when you put yourself out there.

Info travels so fast on the 'sphere that things can become frenzied. We've all seen it in the science blogosphere with evolution/creationism arguments, ID, atheist/religious propaganda, global warming denial, the latest political transgression on science, etc. Most of these subjects need to be addressed, and a solid scientific response is necessary; by nature, science bloggers cannot allow pseudoscience to go unchallenged.

What I don't like, however, are blogs that concentrate on little else. Evolution has been amply defended at this point, and except for minor points, there are websites that address all of the main arguments. I think that time would be better spent posting about evolution in a positive way; all the negativity can only add to people's distaste. I'm not the only one who feels this way.

The Just Science proposition is a good step, though I think it is delayed and ought to be a more or less permanent solution.

I would much rather blog about pandas and spiders than present my "latest smackdown" (tip: Coturnix) of IDers/creationists. But that's just me. Some people thrive on argumentation and negativity.

Bloggers (myself included, at times) need to start taking a deep breath before punching that "publish" button. If there's one thing I've learned in my limited years as a student journalist, it is to never publish anything that was written in anger. Write angry, get it out, then go back and make it palatable. Your point is often much better made this way.

Science bloggers everywhere: your time and energy is much more valuable than this! Let's talk about sharks instead:

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