(: the best of :) THURSDAY: The “Air Shark” – The Tigerfish Flies & The Fish’s “Choice”

24 January 2014

Africa’s Tigerfish was caught jumping out of the water . . . into the air . . . catching a bird . . .  in flight . . . and taking it home for dinner.

[video] tigerfish dining alfresco

It’s bad enough that sea creatures can attack us when we go into the water.  About 40 years ago, the film, Jaws, scared movie-goers to the point that people stopped going to beaches for fear of being attacked by sharks — but only if the swimmers went in the water! The next film, Jaws II, had promotional trailers warning:  “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.” But at least you were safe on dry land.

Poster: Jaws Film: Jaws

Poster: Jaws II

In 1975, the first in a series of SNL sketches took away that last safe place – dry land.  The Saturday Night Live writers introduced the world to the “Land Shark” — a predator that could strike on land or sea.   In each sketch, a city-dweller would hear a knock at the door and a voice would call out, “telegram,” “plumber,” etc.  When the door was opened, in plunged the “Land Shark” (or a giant foam rubber version of the “Land Shark”).

Saturday Night Live/SNL

Land Shark” [image][video]

Like a few other fictional villains, the “Land Shark” developed a real life copycat, the “Land Catfish.” Introduced to France’s River Tarn, about 20 years ago, a common species of catfish was starving as its food of choice, crayfish, decreased in numbers.  Most species would have the good graces to continue to starve and die out.  Not these catfish.  Instead, they made a different choice and “learned” to do something no member of their species has ever done before – catch and eat land animals.

Hovering in the water, near flocks of pigeons, these catfish wait for one of the birds to get “too close” to the water.  Then, these (sometimes, four-foot long) cats jump out of the water, grab a pigeon and take it home for dinner.

Fisherman, who saw the Land Catfish at work, found it – really creepy.  And, so do I.  Underwater creatures intentionally jumping out of the water to grab some land animal, drag it back into the water, and eat it?  I’ve seen stuff like this in old horror movies!

“Catfish grabs pigeon” [video]

Catfish hunt pigeons in France

Oh, Dear God No: Here Are Some Catfish Hunting And Eating Pigeons

Study of these Land Catfish revealed another upsetting fact.  Those catfish that learned to hunt “land prey” developed a taste for land animals.  These fish stopped eating their usual crayfish and started eating almost nothing but land animals.   Being a land animal, myself, I don’t find any of this comforting . . . at all!

Also, in the last year, we found out about another sea creature that just won’t stay in the sea.  A few months ago, an octopus was caught crawling out of the ocean and leisurely shopping for snacks on a California beach.  But, unlike the catfish, the octopus didn’t suddenly “choose” to start hunting on land in the last week or so.

Octopus Walks on Land at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

Octopus crawls out of water and walks on dry land

Octopus experts say that octopuses have always done this.  These creatures jump out of the water onto land all the time.  (I don’t know that I wanted to know that.)  The only thing that was unusual was that the octopus starring in the video was shopping on the beach during the day.  Usually, octopuses crawl out of the sea and go trolling for a meal on land — in the dark of night.  Well, that’s the end of my evening strolls on the beach!  But, it gets worse.  Octopuses even jump onto crab-fishing boats, climb into barrels of crabs (their favorite food), and pig-out.

Land-Walking Octopus Explained

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

But just as this “year of discovery” of the real Land Sharks was ending, another safe place was invaded by predator fish.

Welcome the “Air Shark.”

A Tigerfish was caught on video jumping out of the water . . . into the air . . . and catching birds in flight.  The Tiger is just the sort of fish you don’t want jumping out of the water and catching passing . . . animals.  Who knows what else it might catch when it’s up there — water-skiers, parasailers, . . .  small aircraft?

Fish Can Catch and Eat Flying Birds [African Tigerfish]

Called the “African piranha” the Tigerfish has no winning smile, but it sure has a toothy grin.  [image]  Hoping for some comfort, I looked up the tigerfish on Wikipedia.  After saying that game fisherman call these fish “the African piranhas,” the entry goes on, reassuringly, to say that the two fish aren’t so much alike because the tigerfish and piranha are two different species.  (I sigh with relief.)

But, then, the entry goes on to say that tigerfish and piranhas do have just a few things in common.   Both have “interlocking, razor-sharp teeth”, “are … extremely aggressive … predators”, and “often hunt in groups.”  Oh, don’t let me forget to mention that each member of  the tigerfish “pack” weighs about 110 pounds.  And another thing, tigerfish have been known to attack humans.

Really makes you want to book that ski vacation at Africa’s Lake Malawi, doesn’t it?


Unlike the Land Catfish, the “Air Shark”/Tigerfish didn’t just choose to start hunting flying birds — yesterday.  There have been stories of this fish jumping out the water and grabbing birds in flight since the 1940’s.  But, like the octopus’s strolls on the beach, the flight of the tigerfish was never caught on video until this year.

Nico Smit, director of the Unit for Environmental Sciences and Management at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa, was part of the team that caught the “Air Shark” catching a quick bite.  He said that the whole “event,” (meal for the fish, “big sleep” for the bird) happens so fast that it took a while before the researchers were sure what they were seeing.

It didn’t just happen fast.  It happened often.  They saw 20 “catches” the first day and about 300 during the next two weeks.  The “event” was caught on video for the first time by team member Francois Jacobs.  The team’s findings were published in the Journal of Fish Biology and Nature.com.

Tigerfish catches bird video shocks scientists worldwide

National Geographic

With this report, yet another element of our environment, the air, is threatened by killer fish.  I can hear someone say, “Yeah, but unless you’re a bird flying over a lake in Africa you’re safe.”  Well, 20 years ago, French pigeons thought they were safe from catfish attacks on the shore of the River Tarn.  Then, one fine day, a catfish just “chose” to become a Land Catfish and start jumping out of the water, onto land, to grab and eat the nearest animal.  You wouldn’t have wanted to be the next unlucky pigeon that went to get a drink of water from the river!

This “choosing” thing worries me.  Now, animals just “choose” to eat completely different things than they’ve been eating for the last few thousand years.  Just a couple of weeks after I heard about the Land Catfish, I visited an evening holiday light display at the Missouri Botanical Garden.  In the freezing cold, I walked along the dark paths admiring the beautiful lights.  I thought back to the Garden, in the summer, with giant koi fish in the large pond surrounded by the Japanese Garden.  You can feed these large fish as they gather around the bridges and shoreline to gobble up food pellets.

Gee, I thought, those fish must have rough time under the frozen ice.  They go for months with little food.  I bet they get really hungry.  Looking out into the pitch blackness a few yards off the path, I wondered how close I was to the water.   No, I reassured myself.  I’m safe.  After all . . . koi fish couldn’t be dangerous.  These fish look like giant goldfish.  The only difference is some have those whisker-looking things.  You know, . . . like . . .  catfish!?  Those clever, predatory, and hungry river-beasts that are scarfing down pigeons in France!

I stuck to the paths farthest from the water.

Missouri Botanical Garden

Koi Fish [image]

I didn’t like this new trend toward “choice” with fish deciding to leave the water and eat anything that happened by.  But I didn’t think it was a too big a problem until I stumbled across a story about another sea animal.  One that jumps out of the water regularly and sails through the air.  Everyone says this creature just jumps out of the water and dives back into the water without “eating an in-flight meal.” But, now, I know that sea creatures can just “choose” to change their feeding habits any time.

Jun Yamamoto of Hokkaido University and his team were tracking squid in the ocean east of Tokyo when 20 of these ten-legged creatures flew out of the water for a distance of about 30 meters.  They like to fly.  They spread out their fins and legs like wings to stay in the air.  They’ve even been seen flapping their fins to stay in the air a little longer!

Same story, different day – there were rumors about flying squid for years, but this was the first time they’ve been caught on film.  Yamamoto said, “[W]e should no longer consider squid as things that live only in the water.” [!]

Welcome the Air Squid.

Flying Squid [image] [video]

Squids ‘can fly 100 feet through the air’

Everyone’s worried about the safety of the flying squid.  Birds might eat them while they’re flying through the air.  Sure, but what happens to the birds when the flying squid decide they’re hungry?   “Oh, but these flying squid don’t eat birds or . . . (glup) . . . water-skiers.”  Of course, not.  Not yet.  Not until, like the French Land Catfish, they “choose” to start eating birds, people, . . . small aerial drones.  Who knows?

Some will say, “But only small squid fly.”  “It’s not like the flying squid were those giant 12 foot long, 330 pound squid that live deep in the ocean.”  Correction: Just because they’ve never been caught on video, doesn’t mean giant squid don’t fly.  And, even if they’ve never flown before, what make you so sure they won’t choose to fly in the future.  Suppose they do.   And suppose they choose to flap their fins so fast that they start flying like birds.  That’s all we need — giant flying squid trolling the air above the water like a bunch a pterodactyls.

First, there was Jaws with its great white shark.

Don’t go in the water!

Then, the Land Shark “inspired” imitators — the Land Catfish and Land Octopus.

Don’t go near the water!

Finally, the Tigerfish becomes the “Air Shark.”

Don’t fly above the water!

The End?

M Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri

& Belleville, Illinois

About the Author
























THURSDAY: Over the Rainbow . . . on Venus?

27 March 2014

Venus in the News Image

How do you remember those strange formulas for science class? One trick for remembering one formula was this poem:

Little Timmy took a drink,

but he will drink no more.

For what he thought was H2O

was H2SO4.

The rhyme helps you remember the formula, but the poem makes a point.  There’s a big difference between water ( H2O) and sulfuric acid ( H2SO4).  Who would have guessed that rainbows appear not only in an atmosphere filled with water (H2O) vapor but, also, in an atmosphere filled with sulfuric acid (H2SO4) vapor?  Yes, the vapor of this highly caustic acid works as well, or better, than water vapor for producing rainbows.  But it doesn’t work half so well for producing a pleasant atmosphere. On earth, we’re happy enough with our water vapor. And the planet Venus gets by with its sulfuric acid vapor.


But this left a mystery. Researchers have known for some time that sulfuric acid vapor is great for producing rainbows. And they’ve also known that the atmosphere of Venus is full of sulfuric acid.  So, when we looked at Venus, we should have seen some rainbows.  But we didn’t.

So, why would the atmosphere of the planet Venus, an atmosphere filled with sulfuric acid vapor, never produce a rainbow? Most suspected that there was something else in the air. Something that absorbed the light before it could be reflected out of the vapor as a rainbow. No one could figure out what this (ultraviolet) “uv absorber” was.

But we need a word about words. A rainbow isn’t just white light passing through water vapor to create a half circle of colors in the sky. Whether something is a rainbow or not depends on where you are when you see it. If you’re standing on the ground looking up after a light rain, it’s a rainbow. If you’re looking down, at the same thing, from above – let’s say you’re an aviator flying high in the air, an astronaut orbiting the earth, or a satellite sending back pictures – you’ll see a full circle of colors.   And, instead of a rainbow, it’s called a “glory.”

No one has every stood on the surface of Venus. No probe has successfully landed on the planet’s surface and, then, aimed its camera up into the sky.   So, there’s really no chance of seeing “a rainbow” on Venus. But, whether through the lens of an earth telescope or a camera on a probe orbiting the second planet, the view from above should have revealed a glory.

In 2011, as reported in the Journal, Icarus, Wojciech Markiewicz, of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany, and his colleagues maneuvered the European Space Agency’s Venus Express spacecraft in an effort to find a glory. And maneuvering was needed.  To see a glory, you not only have to be watching from above, but the sun must be directly behind you.  So, if you’re not looking down with the sun to your back, there’s no chance you’ll see a glory..

On July 24, 2011, after more than a little maneuvering, the group found and photographed the first rainbow (glory) ever seen on Venus. Still, no one is sure why they are so hard to find. With the sulfuric acid in the atmosphere, they should be a relatively common thing. Again, it may be that other elements in the atmosphere affect the reflectivity and refraction of the vapor.

Venus, our nearest neighbor in the solar system, seems to get little attention in comparison to the red planet Mars.  Maybe, this is because its solid surface is a less than friendly place to visit with a fairly constant temperature between 400 and 500 degrees. Venus is about the size of the earth and actually passes closer to the earth than Mars.   While Venus rotates around the sun is the same direction as the earth and all the other planets, it’s rotation on its axis is reversed.   So, to someone standing on the planet’s surface, the sun appears to rise in the west and set in the east.

Viewed from the earth, Venus appears to have a bluish cast. But the second planet from the sun is actually white, or at least, white is the color of this planet’s constant, thick cloud-cover.   Like all the planets, but particularly the moon, Venus reflects the light of the sun.   So, with a telescope, or just binoculars, Venus is seen in a crescent phase. This bright point of light in sky is easy to mistake for an aircraft. Venus enjoyed something of a notorious reputation during the 50’s and 60’s as an official or “stock” explanation for reports of UFO sightings.

This apparently bluish star is so large that, even with the naked eye, you can almost make out the spherical shape of the planet.   Night or day, Venus is the third brightest thing in the sky – only the sun and moon are brighter. Never too far from the sun, Venus appears sometimes above the eastern horizon before the sunrise and sometimes above the western horizon shortly after sunset.


(: the best of :) THURSDAY: Mark Grossmann: The Nano Hummingbird – The Original Bird ‘Bot

12 December 2013

[Nano Hummer Video]

On 17 February 2011, DARPA announced the development of the first fully functional robotic bird. [1]  The “Nano Hummingbird” or, as it is also less imaginatively called, the “Nano Air Vehicle” (“NAV”), was the successful result of a project started in 2006 by AeroVironment, Inc. under the direction of DARPA. [1] Robots, by definition, must “do work.”  And the Nano-Hummer was the first fully functional bird-drone designed and able to perform surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

This robotic hummingbird can remain aloft for 11 minutes and attain a speed of 11 mph. [1]   With a skeleton of hollow carbon-fiber rods wrapped in fiber mesh, coated in a polyvinyl fluoride film, [5] and carrying “batteries, motors, and communications systems; as well as the video camera payload,” the robo-hummer weighs just .67 ounces. [1]

Designed to be deployed in urban environments or on battlefields, this drone is can “perch on windowsills or power lines” and even “enter buildings to observe and its surroundings” while relaying a continuous video back to its “pilot.” [video] [1]

In terms of appearance, the Nano-Hummer was, and is, quite like a hummingbird.    Although larger than the typical hummingbird, Nano-Hummer, is well within the size range of the species and is, actually, smaller than the largest of real hummingbirds. [1]   With a facade both shaped and colored to resemble the real bird, the Nano-Hummer presents the viewer with a remarkable likeness of a hummingbird. [1]

The Nano-Hummer isn’t stealth in the sense of evading radar.  Nor is it “cryptic,” that type of camouflage that blends, or disappears, into the surrounding terrain.  Rather, with the appearance of a hummingbird, the designers used a type of camouflage called “mimesis,” also termed “masquerade,” as concealment.  A camouflaged object is said to be “masqueraded” when the object can be clearly seen, but looks like something else, which is of no special interest to the observer.  And such camouflage is important to a mini-drone with the primary purpose of surveillance and reconnaissance. [1]

Designing this drone on the “hummingbird model,” however, was not done only for the purpose of camouflage.  The project’s objective included biomimicry, that is, biologically inspired engineering. [8] With the hummingbird, its amazingly diverse flight maneuvers were the object of imitation.  However, UAV’s head researcher, Matt Keennon, admits that a perfect replica of what “nature has done” was too daunting. [5]  For example, the Nano-Hummer only beats its wings 20 times a second, which is slow motion compared to the real hummingbird’s 80 beats per second. [video] [5]

Whatever the technical shortfalls, this bird-bot replicates much of the real hummingbird’s flight performance. [5]  Not only can it perform rolls and backflips [video] but, most important of all, it can hover like the real thing. [video] [5]  Part of the importance of the ability hover relates to its reconnaissance and surveillance functions.  Hovering allows the video camera to select and observe stationary targets.  However, the “hover” of both hummingbirds and bees attracts so much attention from developers of drone technology because it assures success in the most difficult flight maneuver of all — landing.  In fact, landing is the most complex part of flight, and the maneuver most likely to result in accident or disaster.

When landing, a flying object must attain the slowest speed possible before touching down.  Hovering resolves the problem neatly by assuring that the robot can stop in midair and, therefore, touch the ground or perch as zero speed.  Observe the relatively compact helicopter landing port in contrast to the long landing strip required by an airplane which must maintain forward motion when airborne.

The drone has a remarkable range of movement in flight much like the real hummingbird. [1] Nano-Hummer “can climb and descend vertically; fly sideways left and right; forward and backward; rotate clockwise and counter-clockwise; and hover in mid-air.” [1]  Both propulsion and altitude control are entirely provided by the drone’s flapping wings. [video] [1]

This remote controlled mini-drone can be maneuvered by the “pilot” without direct visual observation using the video stream alone. [1] With its small camera, this drone can relay back video images of its location. [1] The camera angle is defined by the drone’s pitch.  In forward motion, the camera provides a continuous view of the ground.  Hovering provides the best camera angle for surveying rooms. [video] [5]

To DARPA, it was particularly important that this drone demonstrate the ability to hover in a 5 mph side-wind without drift of more than one meter. [1]  The CIA’s “insectothopter,” a robotic dragonfly was developed in the 1970’s. [image] [3] This unmanned aerial vehicle “was the size of a dragonfly, and was hand-painted to look like one.” [3]  Powered by a small gasoline engine, the insectothopter proved unusable due to its inability to withstand even moderate wind gusts. [video] [3]

The Nano-Hummingbird was named by Time Magazine as one of the 50 best inventions of 2011 [4] and has paved the way for the development of a whole generation of bird inspired ‘bots, including Prioria’s “Maverick,” [image] [video] and, the even more “bird-like,” Robo-Raven, which is still in development by the Army Research Laboratory. [image 1] [video] [video] Also, the development of this first small bird-bot brought the U.S. Air Force one step closer to one of the goals on its wish list: “flocks of small drones.” [7]

A flock of small drones sounds really cool – as long as the flock isn’t after me.

Mark Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri & Belleville, Illinois
About the Author































THURSDAY: The Earth’s Umbrella – A Shield against Solar Storms

27 March 2014

Solar flares regularly burst out of the sun shooting out in all directions. The earth is a small target, so we don’t get hit that often. Usually, when the earth does take a hit, most of us don’t even notice. Solar flares are a real danger to astronauts. But, here on earth, not only does our atmosphere protect us, but we’re finding out that it’s been proactive in its protection of the earth from these solar lightning bolts.

In 1859, the earth was struck by a really big solar flare of a particularly powerful type: a CME – coronal mass ejection. We know from the study of ancient ice cores, that a CME that big only hits the earth about once every 500 years. Still, if this particular CME had hit the earth a hundred years earlier, most people would have hardly noticed.

But there’s always one effect that’s hard to miss. When a CME hits the earth, it creates a big, bright, and spectacular event – the aurora borealis — better known in the northern hemisphere as the Northern Lights. When that 1859 solar flare hit the earth, there was an amazing light show. Usually the northern lights are not visible too far south of the arctic and are rarely seen in the 48 United States. But on September 1, 1859, the Lights could be seen in all the 48 states, Mexico, Central America and, even, on the northern coast of South America. People in New York could read newspapers in the middle of the night because the Northern Lights were so bright.

If the Carrington Event had happened a hundred years earlier, that’s all anyone would have noticed. But in 1859, we had telegraphs. And telegraphs used electricity. And electrical power was the problem. A CME this strong supercharges the earth’s atmosphere with electrical energy. When you charge anything with that much energy, it becomes “conductive” – in other words, electricity leaves wires and passes right through the air and into the ground.

Some telegraph operators found their equipment lost power. Stranger still, when that much electricity flows through the air, it can jump into electrical systems, even if they aren’t plugged in. So one telegraph operator disconnected his equipment from its power source only to have it throw sparks and shock him. Another operator disconnected his equipment and found that it didn’t make any difference. Even turned off, the telegraph continued to receive messages. And he found that he could respond by telegraphing outgoing messages without any power source at all.

We’ve never had a solar flare that strong since. But, even if later flares weren’t that strong, they caused more trouble. Why? Because we were, and are, using more and more electrical equipment. Solar flares, of the CME variety, don’t get along with electrical equipment at all.   In November of 1882, a telegraph office caught fire. In May of 1921, all telegraph traffic was brought to a complete stop.  Power grids throughout the Northeast failed with resulting blackouts.  In 1989, a CME caused a massive black out in Canada.

Solution? There actually is a simple solution to most of the problems caused by CME’s — turn everything off before the flare gets here.  Since solar flares are easy to detect, and the sun is a long way off, we generally know “when one is coming.”  And when it does, we can power down almost everything. Almost everything?

Yes.   You can power down almost, but not quite, everything.

Hospitals, emergency services, and aircraft in flight can’t power-down all of their equipment. Some believe we should install really expensive shielding equipment to protect everything. Honestly, it would be too expensive to protect everything. Powering down is actually a good and economical solution. But that expensive shielding equipment is a really good idea for equipment used in emergency services, critical communications, and air travel to name just three examples.

We’ve always thought that, when a solar flare strikes, the earth just sits in space and “takes it.” But, now, we find out that the earth has been protecting us all along. We really would have got something a lot worse if the earth hadn’t been raising its umbrella with each approaching storm.

The earth withstands a vast and constant flow of energetic particles from the sun — the solar wind.  But earth isn’t just a rock floating in space — protected only by a thin layer of gas – our atmosphere.   Energy constantly flows out and away from the sun. But the earth has its own energy envelope — as anyone knows who’s ever used a compass. The consistent pointing of the compass needle to the north demonstrates the constant flow of a sea of energetic around our planet.

You might say that the earth has its own “aura” – a fairly constant electromagnetic envelope that withstands the energetic force of the relentless solar wind.   And holding its own against the solar wind isn’t always easy. If you could see the earth’s energy envelope, you’d be surprised to find that the earth has an ever-present “tail” – sort of like a comet. The tail always extends from the earth and out in space in the direction opposite the sun. Why? Because the solar wind is blowing the earth’s energy envelop behind our planet like a loose garment flapping behind a person walking in a strong wind.

To realize what the earth is doing, you have to remember that the earth has a bunch of “spheres.” The atmosphere is composed of layers of gas. But there are other “spheres” like the ionosphere and magnetosphere. These “spheres” are purely energetic – composed entirely of charged particles – and have nothing to do with gas.   The magnetosphere is a flow of charged particles that forms a layer of energy around the earth. That layer, in turn, forms a boundary between the earth’s own magnetic envelope and the ever-rushing solar wind.

Researchers have long known that it was just these layers — fields of charged particles — that minimize the harmful effects of major solar outbursts like solar flares.  Solar flares can, and do, cause a lot of electrical problems on earth, but were it not for our own energy envelope, all life on earth would be on the receiving end of deadly blasts of solar radiation.

But what came as a surprise was the discovery that the earth engages in what seems like an active defense — raising a special umbrella in response to the impact of particularly powerful solar flares.

The earth is surrounded by a magnetic envelope, the magnetosphere — sort of like a donut. But this donut is so fat with covers pretty much the entire planet. The donut is formed by the swirl of the earth’s own charged particles flowing out into space until they lose momentum and fall together to form the outside wall of that giant donut.  As more changed particles flow out from the earth, they are caught by this layer and thrown back — swirling toward the earth’s surface.

But the magnetosphere isn’t alone. A bit closer to the earth, and just “under” the magnetosphere, is another “sphere.” The plasmasphere is formed when the ultraviolent light from the sun charges the earth’s upper atmosphere. Plasma is actually something between a gas and a liquid.  And that “something” is always highly charged with energy.  The earth’s plasma forms another donut just inside the magnetosphere.

Even alone, magnetosphere does a pretty good job of holding back the worst of what the solar wind throws at us. But the solar wind is only one thing.   Solar flares are something else.  The energy of these flares is so powerful that it tears small holes in the earth’s magnetic envelop – the donut-shaped magnetosphere.   Then, a flood of highly charged particles seep through these holes to reach the earth’s surface and disrupt “all things electrical.”

But not always.  Sometimes, the earth fights back.

In January of 2013, Brian Walsh and his colleagues at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland witnessed something amazing. Ground sensors mapped a “tendril” of highly charged particles moving from the North Pole out toward the sun. What did it mean? Well, it meant that a plume of plasma was leaving the earth and heading toward the sun. But why? Most charged particles are blown back, in the direction opposite the sun, by the powerful solar wind. Why was a plume of highly charged plasma moving in toward the sun?

The explanation was even more amazing. A strong blast of solar energy had hit the earth so hard that it tore a hole in the magnetosphere. Passing through the earth’s outer energy barrier of protection, the energy from the solar flare, then, hit the plasmasphere — which reacted by . . . hitting back!

Although torn by the first contact, the plasmasphere not only resisted the blast of solar energy, but formed a plume of plasma.  The plume flowed toward the opening, the area of damage, in the magnetosphere to “plug the hole.”  The plasma “plug” can slow or stop the seeping flow of the flare’s charged particles toward the earth.

A researcher, Joe Borovsky, at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, commented, “[The] Earth doesn’t just sit there and take whatever the solar wind gives it, it can actually fight back.”

THURSDAY: The Ostrich – the Biggest and the Fastest

20 March 2014

Australia has its emu, and America has its rhea. You only have to look at an emu or rhea to recognize these large birds as the cousins of the familiar ostrich.  And Africa’s ostrich is the biggest and the fastest.

[Ostrich image]

The common ostrich is the biggest bird on earth growing as tall as 9 feet and weighing up to 240 pounds.  Faster than either of its cousins, ostriches have been clocked at 43 mph.  At that speed, the ostrich isn’t just the fastest bird on earth; it’s the fastest of any land animal on the planet.  Perhaps, speed compensates for flight.  Like the other members of its intercontinental family, the ostrich is a flightless bird.

[Ostrich video]

The ostrich has flashier feathers than either of its cousins.  Adult male ostriches are black with a white wing tips and white tail feathers.  Females and young males have grayish-brown feathers – similar to those of their American cousin, the rhea.  The head and neck of the ostrich . . . well, . . . it looks like the bird is going bald — with only a sparse cover of “down.”   But, instead of a comb-over, the ostrich’s thin hair stands straight up.  It looks like it had a crew cut and, then, let it grow out.

Nature has given the ostrich all it needs to keep an eye on things.   The bird’s head rises 9-feet into the air.  Its eyes are 2 inches wide — the largest eyes of any land vertebrate (land animal with a back-bone).

Ostriches spend most of their time roaming in pairs.   Sometimes, during dry spells, these large birds form flocks.  Ostriches eat plants, but will also chow-down on some insects.  You’d expect the ostrich to be a daytime-animal like most birds.   But, if you’re wandering around in the wilds of Africa, on a moonlit night, you might meet an ostrich.  The moon gives enough light to make the ostrich comfortable enough for a nocturnal prowl.

When threatened, the ostrich will lie flat on the ground to fool passers-by into thinking it is nothing more than a bump on the ground.  But there’s one old story about the ostrich that isn’t true: this bird never hides its head in the sand.  When threatened, ostriches seem to prefer to just hide – as a first line of defense.  But, when push comes to shove, these birds are more than able to defend themselves.  Ostriches use their powerful legs to kick.  And they have quite a kick.  It can be fatal.

Speaking of legs, no discussion of the ostrich would be complete without a discussion of this bird’s toes.  Yes, toes.  The ostrich’s relatives, the emu and the rhea, are both unusual birds because they have only three toes.  Most birds have four toes – three forward and one “opposing” toe.  The opposing toe is used to help the bird hang on to branches and other perches in the wild.    Of course, if you’re a bird, and you don’t fly, you don’t perch.  Flightless birds like the emu and rhea use their feet to walk and run.  To a running bird, a fourth toe would be nothing but an irritation.

It seems only logical that the ostrich should also have three toes, but it’s hard to count the number of ways in which this particular family of birds is unusual.  And, if you count the toes, you’ll find that the ostrich has only two.  Also, you’d think if you had toes, they’d be a bit alike.   Again, this family is unusual.  One toe has an enormous nail that resembles a hoof.   The other toe has no nail at all.  The best guess is that this “reduced number of toes” helps the ostrich run even faster.

[Ostrich feet]

But before we leave the subject of the ostrich’s legs, we need to say a few words about predators.  Africa is no place for any animal that can’t defend itself.  Aside from the famous “king of the jungle,” the lion, the rest of the list includes cheetahs, leopards, and hyenas as just a few of the most ferocious predators from which the ostrich has to defend itself.  Surprisingly, this bird does an amazingly good job of defending itself and can more than hold its own in the jungle.  How, does it manage?  With its legs.  The ostrich uses its legs to defend itself in two very different ways.

First, “he who fights and runs away will live to fight another day.”  The ostrich often runs away from predators.  As the fastest land animal on earth, it’s got a built-in advantage in this department.   Unfortunately, young ostriches, which haven’t grown up to their full speed, are particularly vulnerable to predators that the adult birds can easily outrun.  Sometimes, predators succeed by ambushing the ostrich – hiding and pouncing on an unsuspecting bird.  The cheetah is not as fast as an ostrich but, sometimes, is fast enough to catch an ostrich before the bird can build-up to full speed.

Second, the ostrich can use its legs to fight.  When an ostrich can’t retreat, especially when defending its nest, it will use its legs against an attacker.  With all of its running, you might get the impression that the ostrich isn’t an effective fighter.  It almost seems inaccurate to say the ostrich uses its legs to defend itself, because its legs are so often fatal to its adversary.  Maybe it’s enough to say that ostriches can, and do, kill lions with their legs.

In the wild, ostriches avoid humans as potential predators.  Maybe it’s a good thing for humans that the ostrich prefers to run away.  Ostriches in the wild, and sometime in captivity, can attack humans if these birds feel threatened.  Human deaths occur each year from massive injuries from a single kick of a leg and a single swipe of a claw.  These birds are big and tough.

Of the members of this family, the ostrich, emu, and rhea, the mating behavior of the ostrich is “about in the middle” in terms of strangeness.  Like the rhea, during mating season, a single ostrich male will mate with as few as 2 or as many as 7 females.  Although the male mates with several females, it will form a couple – a bond – with only one of the females in the group.

The strangeness of ostrich mating involves its rituals.  The male will repeat a loud, booming call while doing a kind of dance in which it flaps one wing a few times and, then, the other a few times.  The female will run in a circle around the male, while the male winds his head in a spiral motion. Disturbingly, ostriches raised entirely by humans will direct these same rituals toward their human keepers.

Females lay their eggs in a shared nest.  Ostriches lay the largest eggs of any bird at about 6 inches in length and 3 pounds in weight.  The males sit on the eggs at night and, then, the females sit on the eggs during the day.   The eggs hatch in about 40 days.  The male principally defends the hatchlings and teaches them to feed, but both the male and female raise their young together.

[Ostrich family on a walk]

The young ostriches will not reach full maturity in less than 2 years and, if they survive predators until they reach adulthood, a large number can expect to live for many more years.  Ostriches have been known to live past 60 years of age.

Ostriches have always been a focus of human fascination.  Use of their feathers for ornamentation extends back almost to the beginning of recorded history.  However, only in the 19th century did commercial ostrich farming for feathers develop.   These giant birds where tamed by capturing baby ostriches and raising them in captivity.  Ostriches, by the way, aren’t plucked, but sort of sheared.  A new crop of feathers re-grows about every 8 months.  The ostrich industry was only about feathers until the 1970’s when ostrich skin/leather and ostrich meat became profitable products.

Also, ostrich racing is catching on.  In Africa, people race ostriches while riding on the birds’ backs.  The “riding-birds” are specially fitted with saddles, reins, and bits for the purpose.  In the United States, ostrich racing began in Jacksonville, Florida, with the ostriches pulling draw-carts with human occupants.  Now, races are not only held in Florida, but also in Arizona, Nevada, and Minnesota.

[Ostrich racing]

THURSDAY: The Emu – Green Eggs, But No Ham

20 March  2014


Africa has its ostrich, and America has its, lesser known, rhea.  But Australia has its emu.  On first sight, this large, grey-brown bird is unmistakably the close relative of both the ostrich and rhea.  However, the emu is the “character” of the family — the odd one in this not so typical family of birds.


Like its cousins, the emu is a flightless bird.  And, also, like it cousins, it’s fast.  So, even if it can’t fly, it can run faster than any other animal in Australia.  At 31 miles per hour, the emu ranks as the second fasted bird on earth — second only to its African cousin, the ostrich.  At a height reaching up to a bit over six-and-a-half feet and weighing as much as 130 pounds, the emu enjoys the distinction of being the largest bird in Australia.  But, again, in terms of size, the emu is only the second largest bird in the world.  The largest?  You guessed it.  Cousin Ostrich.

Although sharing the ostrich’s unmistakable form and profile, in terms of appearance, the emu is not only smaller than its African cousin, but has brown colored plumage –  just a touch drabber than the grey-brown feathers of its other cousin, the Rhea.  Maybe to make up for its drab feathers, nature has favored the emu with a blue neck.   This relatively bright “collar” give the bird a bit of color while allowing it to conceal itself by lowering its head and neck for purposes of camouflage.

Camouflage?  This bird is over 6 feet tall.  Who’s going to mess with it?  Actually, the emu has predators in the wild, unpopulated “Outback” of Australia.   Both eagles and hawks attack emus from the air.   But there’s a catch.  The emus that are grabbed and carried off by eagles and hawks are young birds that have not yet reached their adult height and weight.

Could a flying bird carry off a full grown emu?  Well, even in the Out-est of the Outback, there are no birds that big.  The young victims have few defenses beyond their speed and a peculiar swerving run they share with Cousin Rhea.  At times, Emus extend their relatively small wings to keep their balance as the run in an evasive swerving pattern.

Dingos, a member of the grey wolf family, are the only predator of the full grown bird.  Even if emu’s lose some fights for survival with this free ranging dog of the Outback, the emu brings a serious weapon to the fight – its feet.

Like Cousin Rhea, the emu has 3 toes on its clawed feet.  This is unusual for birds, which often have a fourth “opposing” toe used to grip branches and other natural perches.   Three toe, tridactyl, clawed feet are found in birds that, like the emu, walk and run on flat ground instead of flying.  And the emu has really big, mean clawed feet.  Mean?  Yes, mean.  Emus have been known to use their feet to rip through wire fences.  You really don’t want to get these birds angry or get in their way when they’re going somewhere.


And emus like to get where they’re going.  Not favoring flocks, these birds often travel in pairs.  They run at high speed and are unruffled by water.  When a body of water comes between an emu and where it wants to go, it just jumps in and swims.

When these birds aren’t running or swimming, they pause to feed on a variety of insects and plants.  They have excellent eye-sight.  When they’re not eating, they like to groom or “preen” their “plumage” or look around and “investigate.”

Noted for their curiosity, emus will approach humans – especially if they see movement or a colorful piece of clothing.  These birds have been known to follow and watch humans in the wild.  And, once you attract an emu’s attention, it might not be so easy to give an interested bird “the slip.”   Hoping that an emu will go away if you “just ignore it” doesn’t always work.   And, be warned: emus seem to have a sense of humor.  They have been known to approach humans and other animals and poke them with their beak and, then, run away.  Observers have the impression that this is a kind of “game” for the large bird.

The emu’s “call” is not like a bird’s call at all.  The emu makes a loud drumming or thumping sound.  That’s all.  And . . .  did I say it was loud?  It can be heard a little over a mile away.  The emu’s call enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame on the animated television series, King of the Hill .   In one episode, (Season 6, Episode 17, “Fun with Jane and Jane”), the emus “sing” the theme song with the closing credits.  Of course, there’s no music involved.  The animated birds simply intone a series of loud thumps in lieu of the regular theme.

Although there is no recognizable difference in appearance that distinguishes the male from the female.   But emus generally roam in pairs.  The pair consists of one male and one female.  But this pairing ends, more or less, with mating season.  Wait . . . the male-female pairing ends with mating season?  Yes.  It’s strange.  But that’s only the beginning of the strangeness.

Emus don’t abandon the male-female stereotypes in mating.  They reverse them.

During mating season, the females become aggressive and begin to court the relatively passive males.  A female will circle around the potential male mate drawing closer and closer.  If another passing female develops an attraction for the same male, it may, and often does, start a fight.  During mating season, fights among females are common with a single fight sometimes lasting for hours.

After mating, the male builds its nest.  And it is the male’s nest.  The female will lay eggs in the nest, but not sit on the eggs.  The male cares completely for eggs, and will lose about a third of his body-weight because of its inability to leave the nest and obtain food.   After laying her eggs, the mating female will often seek out another male, mating with as many males as possible during the mating season.

The emu’s eggs are . . . interesting . . . because they are large: over 5 inches long and weighing as much as 2 pounds.  Also, they are green.  When freshly laid, the emu’s eggs are a light green.  You might ask, “Then, they turn white, right?”  No, they don’t.  They get greener and greener until they reach the shade of an avocado.


The eggs hatch about 56 days after they are laid.  The newly hatched chicks weigh a little over a pound and are about 5 inches tall.  They can leave the nest within days, but will stay with their defending father for about 6 or 7 months learning how to find food and reaching their full adult size.  However, the young can spend as long as a year in this family circle before taking off on their own.  An emu can live as long as 20 years.


Emus are raised for meat in Australia, the United States, Peru, and China. The USDA classifies emu as red, poultry meat.  Emu skin is used to produce a distinctive type of leather.  Oil from emu fat is used for cosmetics and dietary supplements.  Although emu oil has a long history of use as an anti-inflammatory, therapeutic product, the US FDA has classified emu oil as an “unapproved drug.”

The emu is prized as a cultural icon in Australia appearing with the red kangaroo on the Coat of arms of Australia and the Australian 50 cent coin.   The bird has been featured on a number of Australian postage stamps and is the namesake of mountains, lakes, towns and even a brand of beer.

(: the best of :) THURSDAY: Meet the “Air Shark” – Tigerfish Catch Birds in Flight

24 January 2014

African Tigerfish jump out of the water . . . into the air . . . and catch birds in flight.  Tigerfish, in a storage lake for the Schroda Dam in South Africa, were caught, on video, grabbing barn swallows out of the air.


Sometimes called the “African piranha,” the tigerfish is a scary looking fish.  [image]  However, the tigerfish and piranha are two different species with the tigerfish winning contest as the bigger and meaner of the two.   Like piranhas, tigerfish have “interlocking, razor-sharp teeth”, “are … extremely aggressive … predators”, and “often hunt in groups.”  Both species have been known to attack humans.  But unlike the relatively small piranha, an individual tigerfish weighs about 110 pounds.


The story of the tigerfish jumping out the water and grabbing birds, in flight, has been around since the 1940’s.  But, for the first time, an “air-feeding” tigerfish has been caught on video.

Nico Smit, director of the Unit for Environmental Sciences and Management at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa, was part of the team that caught the tigerfish feeding on birds.  He said that the whole “event” happens so fast that it took a while before the researchers were sure what they were seeing.

It didn’t just happen fast.  It happened often.  They saw 20 “catches” the first day and about 300 during the next two weeks.  The “event” was caught on video for the first time by team member Francois Jacobs.  The team’s findings were published in the Journal of Fish Biology and Nature.com.

Tigerfish catches bird video shocks scientists worldwide

The tigerfish favors the twilight as the time of day for hunting birds in flight.  This fish has two varied approaches to the hunt.  Sometimes, the tiger will swim near the surface of the water following the birds, in flight, before jumping up into the air to make a catch.  Other times, the fish will lurk in the deeper water tracking the birds.  Then, it will leap out of the water and ambush a bird as it flies by.

Smit is amazed at the skill displayed by the fish in spotting and pacing the birds from the water.  Not only does the fish have to estimate and exceed the birds’ speed, but the tiger has to compensate for the light refraction in water.  This is quite a trick. The angle of the light changes when it passes from the air into the water.  This makes estimating the location and speed of objects in the air a lot tougher.

This has been quite a year for videos catching aquatic animals feeding out of the water.  First, Julien Cucherousset of Paul Sabatier University caught catfish on video in France’s River Tarn as they practiced their recently acquired skill of jumping out of the water to grab and eat pigeons wandering on shore.  Then, an octopus was caught on video leaving the ocean for a stroll on a California beach in search of meal.  And, now, a fish leaps into the air to catch birds — in flight!

Catfish hunt pigeons in France

Octopus Walks on Land at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

Where will it end?

Maybe it hasn’t.

In another recent “photo first,” Jun Yamamoto of Hokkaido University and his team recorded squid leaping out of the ocean just off the coast of Japan.  These “flying” squid travel almost 100 feet before reentering their water.  Not only do these flyers extend their legs and gills, like wings, to stay airborne, but they actually flap their fins for some added “bird-like” lift.

Flying Squid [image] [video]

Squids ‘can fly 100 feet through the air’

You have to wonder (or worry) what’s going to be walking or flying out of the water next.

M Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri

& Belleville, Illinois

About the Author




















THURSDAY: How do the Bees Feel?

13 March 2014

Researchers are asking a lot of questions about animals lately.  Are animals self-aware?  Do they think?  And these questions are reaching beyond animals to insects as well.  Do bees have personalities?  And, now, do bees have feelings?

It’s no surprise that this type of research tends to raise more questions than it answers.  Tests seem to show that bumblebees have no individual personality.  But even if bumblebees are conformists to a fault, could honeybees be non-conformists?  And, even if honeybees don’t have individual personalities, could hives or even swarms of bees have distinct personalities?   The idea of a group of bees having a personality seems “way out there” until you find out that beekeepers have always reported that, as a group, the bees of different hives, in many ways, behave quite differently from the bees of neighboring hives.

But the question of bees having feelings seems like a tough one to test.  However, finding out whether or not bees become moody may not be as tough as we thought.  It turns out that when human beings and animals are in bad moods, they tend to make negative judgments.  In other words, we’re all a bit pessimistic when we’re in a bad mood.

But let’s begin at the beginning.  One characteristic of feelings is that they change.  If a person or animal always feels exactly the same way, they can’t really be said to have feelings.  Now, let’s substitute the word “mood” for feeling.  Why?  Moods, by definition, change.  So, the word “mood” is a little more precise than the word “feeling.”

Now, how can you tell if an insect has moods?  Maybe, by using the same test that is used with animals.

The trick of the test involves negative judgments.  Human beings and animals evaluate and react to situations differently when we’re in a good mood than when we’re in a bad mood.  A good example is a decision based even odds – a coin toss.  Would you bet on a toss of a coin?  Your odds are exactly as good as they are bad.

I’ll guess that if you’re asked to bet money, but trying to be frugal, going through hard times, and are a bit short of cash, you’ll pass on the bet.  On the other hand, if you’ve got plenty of money and have just had a few really good breaks, you might just take the bet.  Why?  Your mood.  You’re feeling lucky.

So, for our test, we need four things.  First, we need to find the equivalent of a coin toss for bees.  Second, we have to offer the bet to the bees and see how many take the bet and how many refuse the bet.   Third, we have to find a way to change the bees’ moods.  And fourth, we have to offer those same bees the same bet, again, and see if their changed moods affects their willingness to take a chance..

As tough as all this sounds, Geraldine Wright and her colleagues at Newcastle University in the UK found a way.

Bees have an excellent sense of smell and are quickly and easily trained to associate particular smells with particular things.  Wright’s team, headed by Melissa Bateson, first, found something honeybees love, surcose (sugar), and something bees hate, quinine.  Then, they found two substances with very different smells, octanone and hexanol.  The octanone was paired with the much loved sugar and the hexanol with the hated quinine.  The bees were trained to associate the smells with the substances that they loved and hated.

Then, the researchers combined the chemical smells.  When the well-trained bees were exposed to a combination of half octnone (lovable sugar) and half hexanol (hated quinine) half the bees “took a chance” and tasted what they hoped was sugar.  The other half passed, not willing to risk licking the hated quinine.

The researchers had their “coin toss” – a choice with even odds.  Now, that the bees’ reaction to the half and half solution was known, the next trick was to put the same bees in a bad mood.  This isn’t as hard as it sounds because there are different types of bad moods.  It wasn’t necessary to depress the bees by having them watch a sad movie.  Substantial stress will produce a bad mood more surely than anything else.

Labs have chemical mixers mounted to benches.  These mixers are machines that violently vibrate/shake containers to mix their contents.  With the menacing name, vortexer, I get the impression that these machines are a bit like paint mixing machines at the local hardware store.  Few could disagree that shaking a group of bees in a container in one of those mixers would leave the insects quite “stressed” – a very bad mood.

After a stay in the mixer, the bees were presented with the half and half solution again.  Many more bees passed on the “chance” for sugar than had before.  So, changing the bee’s mood, changed their “feelings” about taking a 50/50 chance to get some food.   After the “mixing,” the bee’s weren’t so anxious to take the risk.  This seems to indicate that bees have moods – feelings.

Of course, there are a lot of questions about the reliability of the results.  Could the apparent “mood” be an automatic response based on hormonal changes or hard-wired neurological reactions?  These researchers, however, expressed cautious confidence in their results.   Also, the researchers made a surprisingly compelling argument that much of the doubt about the “feelings” of bees may be the result of a subtle prejudice.

The researchers pointed out that if, instead of bees, the subjects of the experiment had been dogs, cats, horses, parrots, cows, or pigs, the conclusion that the experimental subjects had feelings would have gone unquestioned.   Why?    Well, when testing animals with which human beings have had a close historical relationship, not only are results indicating emotion and intelligence readily accepted, but researchers are willing to make far reaching assumptions based on little more than their personal instincts about particular behaviors.

Jason Castro in his excellent article, Do Bees Have Feelings, refers to this argument as a plea for consistency.  We often ascribe emotions to dogs, such as happiness, fear, or anxiety with little, or only intuitive, “evidence.”  However, even strong evidence indicating that an insect has feelings is met with hairsplitting reservations.

The conventional wisdom has always been expressed as follows:  Unless we discover a way to speak directly with animals, we can never be sure if animals experience emotions in the way that human beings do.   However, whether I am in a good mood or a bad mood, I’m less pessimistic about finding the answer to the question of animal and, even, insect emotion.  I think that there is a preponderance of evidence sufficient to accept the hypothesis that certain animals experience certain emotions.  And, although more research is needed, these first tests, alone, strongly argue that insects, honeybees, experience moods.

(: the best of :) THURSDAY: Sunshine — Not As Bad As We Thought?

18 July 2013

In an episode of the animated television series, King of the Hill, one of the characters says, “Truth is like sunlight.  People used to think it was good for you.”  Probably, your great-grandmother would have said that you should always tell the truth and that you should stay healthy by getting outdoors in the sunlight.

For the last 50 years, however, most of us have been splashing on sunscreen, wearing special sunglasses and opaque outerwear in an effort to avoid the sun’s rays.  In other words, we have been avoiding unfiltered sunlight like the plague.  The plague we were avoiding was skin cancer.  However, recent research seems to indicate that there is a cost to our sunless lifestyle.  Perhaps, “cost” is the wrong word.  A better word is “tradeoff.”

In the UK, and throughout the world, greater numbers of both children and adults are suffering serious Vitamin D deficiencies.  Human beings and animals naturally make Vitamin D when solar UV (ultraviolet) rays shine on our exposed skin.  When we started hiding from the sun, dietary supplements were supposed to provide the daily nutritional requirement once supplied almost exclusively by the sun’s rays.  However, for many, oral supplements do not seem to be providing even the minimum Vitamin D needed to maintain health.

Throughout the organic world, sunlight is closely related to the production of Vitamin D.  Exposing organic substances to direct sunlight is the primary method used to produce Vitamin D for human supplements.  Milk, when exposed to sunlight, develops an extremely effective form of the vitamin called D3.

Normal levels of Vitamin D do more than prevent a malformation of the bones called rickets.  Vitamin D deficiency is linked to hypertension, depression, obesity, dementia, cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and, the biggest of them all, heart disease.

University of Edinburgh scientists discovered that our skin, when exposed to sunlight, releases nitric oxide into our blood, which helps lower blood pressure and protect the heart from disease, cardiac arrest, strokes, and attacks.  Statistically, our reduced exposure to sunlight may have increased heart disease more than it decreased skin disease.  Indeed, rates of skin cancer have continued to increase even as our exposure to potentially carcinogenic UV rays has decreased.

Certainly, there are disadvantages to avoiding sunlight.  After all, human beings as a species have lived and thrived for thousands of years with direct exposure to substantial levels of UV rays.  So, maybe sunlight is good for us.  Or . . . maybe it isn’t.

As we hear the latest discoveries describing the benefits of sunlight, it is important to remember that UV rays are also used to sterilize medical instruments.  There are even special UV lamps that are placed in heating and cooling ducts to kill mold, bacteria, and viruses in the air.  These must be installed deep within the ductwork to avoid exposing people to the direct light of these lamps.  But why does this kind of lamp light pose a danger to people?

What we call sunlight contains a particular range of the UV radiation that seriously damages the DNA of bacteria and viruses.  The damage can be so severe that these small organisms cannot successfully reproduce.  So they die.  That is how UV radiation kills germs.  That same range of UV radiation can do the same thing to human skin cells.  The light damages the cell’s DNA causing cell death or genetic mutation, which can lead to the development of skin cancer.  The potentially carcinogenic effects of UV radiation are both direct and well understood.  It would be unwise to ignore this danger.

So, what is the answer?  Do we bask in the sun or avoid the sun?  Without giving medical advice, as I am not qualified to do so, I’ll venture a guess.  Perhaps neither seeking nor avoiding the sun is the answer.  Rather, what is needed is moderation.  Based on your skin type, and with consideration of your individual risk factors, moderate exposure to sunlight is probably healthy and less risky than is generally thought.  So, exposure to a moderate amount of unfiltered sunshine is a good thing.  However, if you regularly work or play outdoors, the prolonged exposure is probably less healthy and more risky.  So, break out the sunscreen, UV sunglasses, and protective outerwear.  With prolonged UV exposure, these precautions just make good sense.

Also, keep in mind that excessive sunlight has unfortunate cosmetic effects causing premature aging of the skin.  The word “tan,” to describe the effects of sunlight on human skin, also describes the process used to produce leather goods.  Leather shoes look good.  Leather faces do not.

On a lighter and stranger note, a woman in Seattle, Navenna Shine, is planning to live on sunshine.  She hopes to survive on light without any food other than water and tea.  Her “Living on Light Experiment” is based on an Indian regimen practiced by a group called inediates, who live without food.  Correction: Inediates “say” they live without food.  It is widely reported that modern practitioners of this ancient discipline have almost all been caught cheating.  Reportedly, one was even caught in a fast food restaurant.  Of course, we should be sympathetic.  If, as most suspect, living without food is fatal, sneaking an occasional Happy Meal isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.

Selected Sources:

Sunlight Could Reduce Death Rate From All Causes

Scared of the Sun – the Global Pandemic of Vitamin D Deficiency

Information on Vitamin D

5 Amazing Properties of Sunlight You’ve Never Heard About

Radiation: A Sterilization Method

Disinfection: An Overview – Ultraviolet Radiation Ultraviolet Radiation

Can People Live on Only Sunlight and Water?

“Truth is like sunlight.  People used to think it was good for you.”

King of the Hill, Season 2: Episode 14 “Remember Mono”

[n9] Am I deficient in Vitamin D? | Vitamin D Council


[n10] Hypovitaminosis D – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


[n11] Time in the Sun: How Much Is Needed for Vitamin D? – US News and World Report


[n12] How do I get the vitamin D my body needs? | Vitamin D Council


[n13] How Much Sun Exposure Do I Need for Vitamin D?

















THURSDAY: The Bee Rescue – Some Old Solutions to Some New Problems

13 March 2014

In an effort to maintain the population of bees and other pollinators, the United States Department of Agriculture has budgeted $3 million.  Most of the money will go to ranchers, farmers and beekeepers in a conservation effort to preserve and expand pollinator habitat.


Bee populations have been declining for over 7 years now. First, termed a “disappearance,” then, a “die-off.” the continuing depopulation is, now, formally referred to as “Colony Collapse Disorder.” The continuing decline has been both rapid and widespread affecting perhaps the entire world.

Bees get a lot of scientific attention because they are vital to American agriculture, which is vital to the American economy. Without bees, production of some of our most profitable crops would be impossible. Every few weeks, a news article announces the discovery of “the cause” of the threatened bee “extinction.”  In fact, there probably isn’t a single cause. The current die-off seems to be the result of several factors working together.

The puzzle goes like this. A bee (1) has a parasite like varroa mites; (2) is exhausted by transport over long distances; and (3) is exposed to a particular pesticide. Alone, none of these factors would kill a bee. Even all of these put together wouldn’t kill a bee. However, all of these put together might weaken the bee’s immune system. Then, with a compromised immune system, the bee contracts, and dies from, a completely unrelated disease. That disease is the final cause the bee’s death. However, the underlying cause is an immune system compromised, not by one factor, but by a particular combination of several factors. For now, that combination remains a mystery.


Modern agriculture has come to be dominated by a particular style called monoculture.  The modern farm is a study in intensive land use with about every square foot of available soil used for the continuous cultivation of crops – or more precisely a signal crop.  This modern style has little in common with the traditional agriculture of even a generation ago.

In the past, the typical farm included a fair number of fallow (unplanted) tracts of land in which wild brush and unmown grass were allowed to grow.  These tracts served several purposes.  They provided “breaks,” uncultivated buffer areas between cultivated fields of crops.  First, breaks slowed or prevented the spread of disease from field to field.  And, second, breaks prevented the seeds of one kind of crop from creeping into fields planted with another.  The third purpose of keeping some land fallow (unused) was to prevent soil depletion.  The practice of letting some fields “rest” for an a season was called crop rotation, which helped prevent a loss of, or restore,  fertility to tracts of land.

Traditional agriculture had always avoided modern monoculture’s practice of planting only one kind of crop.  The traditional reason for planting several different kinds of crops was, again, a sort of insurance against the spread of disease.  While one kind of crop might fall victim to disease, another would be less susceptible and survive to produce a much-needed yield at harvest.

What happened to traditional agriculture?  Advances in chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides have dramatically reduced the need for crop rotation and fallow tracks of land as buffers.  But this created another problem.  The modern farm needs bees just as much as the traditional farm it replaced.  And bees need habitat.


When we think of bees, we tend to think of the hive-dwelling honeybee.  The honeybee seemed to fit in perfectly with modern monoculture.  Like everything else needed by the modern industrial farm, when you need bees, you just order them “brought in.”  Beekeepers truck bees, sometimes hundreds of miles, to various locations during pollination season.  Then, the bees are trucked out when pollination is over.  At least, that was the plan before CCD and honeybee depopulation became a reality.

But, with or without depopulation, what’s with “habitat?”  The only thing honeybees need is a hive, a beekeeper, and the beekeeper’s truck.  Right?  Well, not quite.  Honeybees aren’t the only pollinators.  Worse, honeybees can’t pollinate some cash crops including certain varieties of tomatoes, cranberries, almonds, apples, zucchinis, avocados, and plums.  For these crops you need bumblebees.

So, why not truck-in some bumblebee hives?  And there’s the problem. Bumblebees don’t live in hives.  The plump bumblebee is the nearest thing to a loner within its social species.  Bumblebees don’t build permanent hives.  They build nests that are deserted for a new location on a yearly basis.  The bumblebees don’t forage (search for and find food) in swarms, but wander alone from flower to flower in open grasslands.

On the traditional farm, these wild bees made their nests in fallow tracks of grass lands or break areas between cultivated fields.  Because the bumblebee’s service as a pollinator is only needed seasonally, these bees survived during the rest of the year by foraging in the same wild grasslands in which they built their nests.


Monoculture changed all that.  Fallow tracts, breaks, and buffers vanished with every yard of available soil planted with a crop.  Even the small islands of wild grass along the farms paths and roadways were pressed into service.  And the bumblebees left.

What did we lose?  A lot.  The bumble’s unique style of pollination is required, and accounts, for about 3 billion dollars in produce each year.

Fresh off the farm, the bumblebee made its way to the city or, at least, to more populated areas to find the welcome mat missing.  Modern urban and highway landscaping favors a neatly manicured look that requires the elimination of the wild grasslands required by the bumblebee’s lifestyle.  In parks and even around highway overpasses, that great enemy of bumblebee habitat, the lawn mower, doesn’t destroy the grass, but prevents the appearance the blooms and blossoms on which the bumblebees depend for food.  And worse, the lawn mower is the arch-enemy of bumblebee nests.

When the habitat vanished, so did the bumblebee.  Beginning in the late 1990’s, these bees all but disappeared from a vast area of their range extending from the Pacific Coast of California north into British Columbia.  Only recently have there been sightings of even a single bumblebee in several states that once supported an enormous population.


It is said that those who felt uncomfortable in “civilization” used to become trappers and wander into the mountains — earning the name “mountain men.”  Well, maybe bumblebees did the same.  As these bees almost completely disappeared from their lowland range, their numbers were, and are, unaffected in the North American Rockies where they continue to live and thrive.  Mountains are not favored for agriculture and the rough beauty of mountainous areas is only enhanced by wild growing grasslands.  The mountain habitat is well within the bumblebees comfort zone.


With all the developments in the efficiency of modern agriculture, it is a little surprising to read of a USDA spokesman discussing the use of cover crops, rangeland, pasture management and other practices that dropped out of modern agriculture decades ago.  But the purpose behind the reintroduction of crop rotation, breaks, and buffers makes sense if the purpose is to preserve native pollinators, most prominently the often forgotten bumblebee.

Without effective pollinators, there will be no harvest in spite of the most intensive and efficient use of the available land.  The USDA spokesman explained that these “new” practices “are expected to provide quality forage and habitat for honey bees and other pollinators, as well as habitat for other wildlife.”

THURSDAY: Toy Robot Spiders — As If the Real Things Weren’t Enough

6 March 2014

“The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.”

Oscar Wilde

Before we go, we have to get some definitions out of the way.

A robotic purist will explain that there’s no such thing as a toy robot.  The words “toy” and “robot,” used together, form an oxymoron.  In other words, by definition, a toy isn’t a robot, and a robot isn’t a toy. A robot is a machine that “does work.”  A toy is a machine, but not a machine that does work.

An animatronic device is a machine that moves like a living creature.  Animatronic devices are used for entertainment.

But these aren’t robots. Right?

Is entertainment work?

Well, uh . . . .   Let’s get back to robots.

No one can play with a robot. Right?

Well, I have to admit that children can play with anything including (and especially) the cardboard box their “toy” came in.

So, if a child plays with a robot, does it become a toy? Well, if a tree falls in the forest . . .

Let’s forget the purist definitions.

There are toy robot spiders. They are really cool.

Inside Adam Savage’s Cave: Awesome Robot Spider!


In addition to the animatronic spider, the Robugtix line includes a hexapod (6-legged) robot for those who are not “spider purists” demanding the full 8-legs of the “octopodal” arachnid.

[video] iitsii the Hexapod Robot

These animatronic devices are produced by Amoeba Robotics Ltd., a research, engineering, and design company.  Founded in 2010, this Hong Kong based concern focuses on “providing innovative robotics systems for professional and educational use.”  I can’t resist including another video of the “T8.” [video]

Watching these animatronic devices, you might pause to wonder what their working counterparts, the “robots,” must look like.  And there you might get a surprise.  Working robots, like their animatronic/entertainment counterparts, are being designed to resemble animals and even people.


As soon as engineers began developing sophisticated robotics, they ran into some problems.  You may have seen those sleek glass and metal robots from those 1950’s sci-fi movies.  In those days, there was an idea that robots would have to be, somehow, completely different from organic life forms.  And this idea carried over into early, “real-world” technology.  But there were problems.  These “unlife-like” robots didn’t work so well.

The reason was obvious.  Most often, we don’t need robots to do weird, strange, or superhuman tasks.  We really need robots that do exactly what human beings (and a variety of common animals and even insects) do. What’s more, the tasks we want robots to do aren’t necessarily complicated. Often we need robots that do common, everyday tasks. Tasks that are simple, but time consuming and repetitive,

So, for about the past decade, most robots have been developed to imitate animals and human beings.  And, not surprisingly, these robots are becoming more animatronic – life-like — in their movements and, even, appearance.

Sometimes, this is intended as in the Army Research Laboratory’s Robo-Raven. This aerial drone is designed to fly and maneuver with movements so much like a bird that it actually fools real birds. [image] [video]

The “animatronic” appearance and movement aren’t the result of idle tinkering.   Instead, it’s part of this aerial drone’s camouflage.  This particular “application” of camouflage is called mimesis or “masquerade.”  The goal is to create an aerial drone that the observer mistakes for — just a bird flying by.  But the bird is a flying drone relaying sound and video back to another, concealed observer. [video]. So, the “bird-watcher” is the one being watched.