THURSDAY: “Blood Moons,” Eclipses & Tetrads

24 April 2014

Well, the moon’s been in the news lately.  Just a few nights ago, I was outside and looked up to see the moon almost covered by a dark grey shadow.  But even through the shadow, I could see the silhouette of the round moon, but it was dark red.

I checked the internet and found a few stories about the “Blood Moon.”

Blood moon: Lunar eclipse gazers mesmerized as red hue lights up sky

So, what’s a “Blood Moon?”  Even though I’ve been an amateur astronomer for many, many years, I don’t get a lot of chances to look up into the sky, and this latest eclipse took me surprise.  Even more surprising was a strange new name for an eclipse: “Blood Moon.”

“Blood Moon” is a new term.  I know it sounds old and mythological or like something from an ancient legend, but the “Blood Moon” is something new.  There’ve been a few novels and stories with the words “blood” and “moon” in the titles. But I’ve never heard of the term used to describe an eclipse before.

As near as I can tell, this is the first time anyone has called an eclipse a blood moon.  But considering that the eclipsed moon always appears to be dark red, maybe “Blood Moon” isn’t such a bad name.  But, before I go on . . .

A lunar eclipse happens when the earth comes between the sun and moon.  The earth literally casts a shadow directly on the moon.  Considering the speed of the moon, the shadow steals over the moon suddenly.  The whole process can be over in less than two hours.  A lunar eclipse always happens at the time of the full moon, so the sudden darkening of the moon stands out.

Lunar Eclipse -Wikipedia

During a lunar eclipse, the moon is “said” to disappear.  But it never does.  You see something that looks like a thick dark grey cloud suddenly begin to cover the moon.  But, after the moon is covered, if you look carefully, you’ll notice that you can always see the round circle of the moon.  But the eclipsed moon is very dark and always distinctly red-ish.  In other words, all eclipses produce a red moon.

Next question.  What’s a “tetrad?”  Well, I’ve been an amateur astronomer for many years, and I’d never heard of a “tetrad” before.  Tetrad means “four” of something, but I’d never heard the words applied to the moon or lunar eclipses.  There are some good definitions of a “tetrad” of lunar eclipses, but they were just a bit hard to find.

The “tetrad,” refers to four eclipses: the first one just happened and there are three more to come.  What makes these four eclipses so special?  It’s the timing.  After last week’s lunar eclipse, there will be six full moons.  Then, during the seventh full moon, there will be another lunar eclipse.  Then, after this second lunar eclipse, there will, again, be another six full moons.  Then, during the seventh full moon, there will be a third lunar eclipse.  After this third eclipse, there will be another six full moons.  Then, during the seventh full moon, (you guessed it,) there will another, the fourth, lunar eclipse.

So, we have four eclipses with exactly six full moons between each eclipse.  And there are no, even partial, eclipses in between each of the four.  That’s “the tetrad.”  We assume that, after the fourth eclipse of the tetrad, the next eclipse will break the pattern.  If, of course, there’s another eclipse after this tetrad is over.

What would stop future eclipses?  The end of time.

The term “Blood Moon” has never been used to describe an eclipse or a tetrad before.  But two Christian pastors, Mark Blitz and John Hagee, have described the eclipses of this tetrad as the “Blood Moons.”  Maybe that’s why the term has started popping up.  One of the two, John Hagee, has written the book, Four Blood Moons: Something is About to Change.  Apparently, the moon is supposed to turn blood red just before the end of time.

I, for one, hope that we’re not all heading for our “final” three eclipses.  But, one way or another, mark you calendars:

1st Eclipse:    April 14-15, 2014

2nd Eclipse:  October 7-8, 2014

3rd Eclipse:   April 4, 2015

4th Eclipse:   September 28, 2015


THURSDAY: What is the Eastern Carpenter Bee?

24 April 2014


A native of the eastern United States, the eastern carpenter bee (formally, xylocopa virginica) is one of several species of carpenter bees native to North America.    The “Eastern” carpenter is black except for a furry yellow abdomen.  But the male “Eastern” has a patch of white or yellow on his face.  Both males and females have a shiny black abdomen, which clearly distinguishes “Eastern’s” from the furry bumble bee.

Although all bees are social, the carpenter, like the bumble bee, is the nearest thing to a “loner” bee.  These bees don’t fly in groups when they’re searching for flowers.  A lone carpenter flies alone wandering (“foraging”) from flower to flower gathering pollen and eating nectar.

Like most other types of carpenters, the Eastern is an important pollinator of open face flowers.  Most bees draw nectar up and out of the blossom, but  the Eastern can be a “nectar robber.”   These bees “rob nectar” by tunneling into the sides of flowers in the same way they tunnel into wood to build their nests.

And it’s this tunneling behavior that earns these bees the name “carpenter.”  Easterns, like all carpenters, build their nests in the hollow areas they create in soft wood.  They have a reputation for damaging wooden structures that is not completely deserved.  Woodpeckers seek out carpenter bee larvae for food and frequently “do most of the damage” when they peck on the wood near the carpenter bees’ nest.

THURSDAY: What is the Valley Carpenter Bee?

24 April 2014


A native of the Pacific Coast of the United States and Mexico, the Valley Carpenter Bee (formally, xylocopa varipuncta) is one of several species of Carpenter bees native to North America.  The “valley” female is black, but the male stands out with his yellow color and green eyes.  Like all carpenter bees, the “valley” looks furry like a bumblebee.   But, unlike a bumble bee, the “valley” has a bare, shiny spot on its upper stomach.

Although all bees are social, the carpenter, like the bumble bee, is the nearest thing to a “loner” bee.  When searching for flowers, these bees don’t fly in groups.  A single bee will fly alone wandering (“foraging”) from flower to flower gathering pollen and eating nectar.  The “valley” likes “yellow composite flowers” such as the Aster, Daisy or Sunflower (members of the Asteraceae family).

These bees are called “carpenters” because they hollow out spaces in wood to build their nests.  “Valley’s” like to locate their nests in old agave stalks or any rotting limb (soft wood).  They’ve been known to build nests in telephone poles.  But they avoid painted or stained wood.

Valley’s share North America with several other species of carpenter bees.  They are easy to confuse with the bumble bee, but carpenters stand out as much larger than the small honey bees that live in hives.

(: the best of :) THURSDAY: A Different Flavor – Just How Smart Are Octopuses*?

[*Note: In response to a surprising number of comments.  The word “octopus” is Greek, not Latin.  So, the Latin rules of pluralization could not apply.   Consequently, the pleural form of “octopus” could not be “octopi.”

Actually, the Greek pleural is “octopodes.”  However, the English language rule requires that, if another language changes the singular root word to form the pleural, English retains the singular root and adds an “s” or “es.”  Hence, “octopuses.”]

28 November 2013

Octopuses have a rather creepy reputation.   Let’s just say that, what the creeping spider is to dry land, the eight-tentacled octopus is to the sea — a “monster” of the deep.  These creatures have thousands of suckers on their eight “arms,” squirt dark ink, change color, and can squeeze their, sometimes, large bodies through amazingly small holes.  Also, they can move when they want to move having the ability to propel themselves by producing a jet of water in the same way jet engines propel aircraft through the air.

The octopus is a celebrated predator.   Well equipped for the hunt, the octopus has a parrot-like beak, a tongue covered with teeth, and poisonous venom.  Superficially, there’s nothing about the octopus that would put anyone in a warm or cuddly mood.  But like some seemingly forbidding people you may have met, it seems that the better you get to know the octopus, the more favorable (and friendlier) your opinion becomes.

Scientists have recently discovered that octopuses might be intelligent – much more intelligent than anyone had ever suspected.  However, this is one of those discoveries that seems like “yesterday’s news.”  When you read accounts of octopus behavior, the fact that octopuses are intelligent is like the proverbial “elephant in the living room.”  How could anyone have missed it?

Consider Otto, an octopus resident at the Sea Star Aquarium in Coburg, Germany.  Otto shares a large tank with hermit crabs, which he probably traumatizes on a regular basis with his ideas of fun.  Among other activities, Otto likes to juggle the helpless crabs, throwing them, not in the air, but up above him into the tank’s water.  Being repeatedly tossed by a two-handed juggler would be bad enough, but you can only cringe at the thought of the experience with eight-hands.

Otto’s behavior isn’t particularly unusual.  In an experiment, Roland Anderson, gave octopuses small pill bottles, each of a different color, to evaluate the creatures’ color preferences. Most of the octopuses lost interest when they realized the bottles weren’t food, but one blew a “modulated” jet of water at the bottle sending it swirling to the other end of the tank and back to the sender – repeating this action 20 times.  Anderson compared the action to the human version of bouncing a ball.  Another octopus, in the same group, was caught using its water jet to propel its bottle back and forth over the surface of the water.

What’s so significant about all this?  It’s play.  Anderson’s observations appeared in the Journal of Comparative Psychology. “Only intelligent animals play—animals like crows and chimps, dogs and humans.”

Although, sometimes, Otto seems more like a candidate for the staring role in an upcoming documentary, “When Good Octopuses Go Bad,” he demonstrates a mastery of tool-use when he throws stones into front glass of his tank (damaging the aquarium glass several times).  In spite of Otto’s disruptions and vandalism, his behaviors are clearly intelligent.

Octopuses gather building materials as part of what is, sometimes, called their fortress behaviors.  These creatures tend to settle in a location and fortify the perimeter with a variety of building materials.  And, in the act of collecting these building materials, the octopus displays one of its most amazing characteristics.  Most animals either use or discard an item that is of no immediate use.  In other words, most animals have no ability to delay gratification and, therefore, do not appreciate the need to find, hold, or transport items that may be of value at a later time.

The Veined Octopus, however, retrieves discarded coconut shells, transports them over a distance, and reassembles them to build a shelter.  This behavior demonstrates selection of a tool and, then, holding the tool exclusively for a later use.

You might think of this behavior as resembling grocery shopping.  When you go to the store, you don’t eat the food you want straight off the shelves and, then, leave without taking any food with you.  Rather, you gather food, groceries, and take it home for future use.

And, it so happens that octopuses often gather food in a way not so different from human grocery shopping.  As it hunts, this creature picks up all the food it can carry and transports the load home.  It will eat the food, at its leisure, later.  With eight arms, an octopus can carry a lot of food, but sometimes its eyes are bigger than its eight-armed carrying capacity.  If it finds its load is too heavy for the trip home, it simply makes an unscheduled stop, eats its “groceries” down to a portable volume and, then, continues home with what’s left.

But octopuses demonstrate other intelligent behaviors.  They are also problem solvers. Wilson Menashi designed a puzzle consisting of three plexiglas cubes each with a different type of latch.  When food was placed in the first box and given to an octopus, the creature quickly managed to figure out how to open the box.  Then, the first box was locked in the second box.  Again, the octopus quickly learned to open both boxes to get to the food.  The same swift mastery followed the addition of a third box.  Sadly, when the octopus’s food of choice, crab, is unavailable, some octopuses turn their problem solving abilities to crime.  That is, octopuses sometimes rob lobster traps, which they learn to open with relative ease.

So, you would never want to snooze on the beach with a crab in your pocket.  That crab would be awfully tempting to passing octopus.  Oh, . . . you thought you’d be safe because you weren’t in the water?  Surprise!  Many octopuses seem never to have learned that they are sea-dwelling creatures.  They tend to jump onto land at the least provocation.

An octopus was recently, not just caught on land, but also caught on video grabbing a snack on the beach — completely out of the water.  These creatures like to eat crabs so much that they have been known to climb on board fishing boats, jump into containers of dead crabs, and pig-out. As a matter of fact, aquariums sometimes have difficulty keeping these creatures in the water.

Otto, for example, thought the overhead light in the Sea Star Aquarium was too bright, and his irritation was only relieved by occasional mysterious power failures.  While the failures gave Otto a break from the bright light, the cessation in the filtration systems in the aquarium’s tanks was a positive danger.  When the power outages became more frequent, the staff organized a stake-out of the area, day and night, to find the cause.  On the third night, Otto climbed out of his tank and directed his jet-stream of water at the irritating light above his tank and continued to do so until the system shorted and the power failed.  The light has been re-installed in a location beyond the range of Otto’s water-jet.

Octopuses frequently put their water-jets to other creative uses.  Octopus Truman of the New England Aquarium developed an aversion to one volunteer and used his water-jet to soak her with salt water at every opportunity.  She eventually quit her volunteer position, but returned for a visit a few months later.  As she entered the lab she was drenched in saltwater by Truman’s jet.  Apparently, Truman remembered her.  He had not sprayed anyone with water since her departure months earlier.

Researching her senior thesis in the octopus lab at Middlebury College, Alexa Warburton often struggled to remove reluctant octopuses from their tanks. The creatures had mastered all the skills I employed on a particular day when I tried to avoid attending the first grade.  The octopuses would hide in the corners of their tanks or hold on to objects and not let go. In fact, octopuses in captivity escape their tanks with great frequency.  When the creatures were removed from their tank, a few used the net as a kind of trampoline bouncing off the net and onto the floor.  Then, they’d make a run for it.  And they’d “run,” Warburton emphasized, “You’d chase them under the tank, back and forth, like you were chasing a cat.”  “It’s so weird!”

When you understand how octopuses behave, it’s tough to understand how their intelligence could have been overlooked for so long.  Perhaps, in the past, science has been too physiologically minded.

For example, several species of birds have recently demonstrated remarkably high levels of intelligence and even self-awareness.  The last common ancestor of human beings and birds roamed the earth about 300 million years ago.  During the last 300 million years, the brains of birds and mammals developed along separate lines.  Scientists were sure that the mammalian brain’s neocortex made certain species, including human beings, self-aware (i.e., conscious).  Problem.  Several species of birds pass all the self-awareness tests with flying colors, but their brains are the size of walnuts and they have no neocortex.

Then, there’s the octopus.  Octopuses are mollusks, invertebrates, closely related to the clam.  Clams don’t even have brains.  The last common ancestor of human beings and octopuses lived between 500 and 700 million years ago.  From that point on, human and octopus brains developed along separate lines in quite different environments.  The octopus brain is about the size of a walnut with only about 130 million neurons compared to the 100 billion of the typical human brain.  However, you don’t need these numbers to see some staggering differences.  For example, humans have one brain, but “three-fifths of the octopus’s neurons” are in the octopus’s arms and not their “head.”  It seems that intelligence doesn’t have as much to do with brain size as was once supposed.

Perhaps, the intelligence of octopuses was overlooked because of their lack of social behavior.  These creatures are one of the most unsocial animals you could imagine.  Their contacts with their fellow creatures result in either one octopus eating the other or mating.  There are no other social encounters with their peers.  Period.  In the first instance, predation, one octopus dies when it’s eaten.  In the second, mating, both octopuses die because disorientation and death follow swiftly.

Much of our appraisal of the intelligence of any animal is based on observation of social interaction.  But, in the case of the unsocial octopus, you have to observe its relationship with its inanimate, physical environment to appreciate its intelligent behavior and evaluate the scope of its intelligence.  Strangely, the captive octopuses that are the subject of study in laboratories seem to enjoy a richer relationship with their human captors, than any of their own species.  But, perhaps, even this relationship is the simple result of the dependence of the captive octopuses on their human captors for survival (food).

Maybe it’s the plain strangeness of both the octopus and its intelligence that so long delayed the “discovery” of the creature’s intelligent behavior.  Philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith compared encountering the octopus with “meeting an intelligent alien.”  And, indeed, everything seems so “out-of-whack” when you learn about the octopus.  For example, octopus communication is limited to changes of color.  An octopus uses color changes to camouflage itself, express emotions, and warn off (frighten) predators.  But the octopus’s use of a wide range of color displays becomes confusing when you discover that these creatures are colorblind.  But, then, you discover that octopus “skin contains gene sequences usually expressed only in the light-sensing retina of the eye.”  So, octopuses may be able to see color with their skin.

In the end, what can we say about the octopus as an intelligent being?  It is an alien.  An immensely ancient alien that evolved on the ocean floor — the oldest and most enduring environment provided by the hydrosphere we call Earth.  However, “alien” is a relative term.  Compared to the octopus, we are the newcomers.  We are one of a group of strange, and relatively new, life forms that live on those limited peaks that rise above and beyond the more natural aquatic environment.  Those peaks rise up into a strange rarefied level of atmosphere—a level, not of water, but composed entirely of gases, nitrogen and oxygen.

As intelligent beings, we continue to confront the all too obvious evidence that “we are not alone.”  But I’m not talking about intelligent life on other planets.  “We are not alone” on our own planet.  The creatures around us have developed intelligence and self-awareness but, often, not “on our terms.”  These “others” have developed out of their own environmental and physiological roots.  Our planet is home to more and stranger environments (worlds) than we regularly or comfortably imagine.   It seems that intelligence and self-awareness are not a single, defined point at one end of a yard stick.  Rather, as Dr. Jennifer Mather of the University of Lethbridge suggests, intelligence and self-awareness may come “in flavors.”

Mark Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri & Belleville, Illinois

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THURSDAY: What is a “Harvest Moon?”

24 April 2014
The Short Answer (TSA)

The Harvest Moon happens in the autumn and is the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox (the first day of fall — around September 23rd).

But hold on!

I grew up in farm country. We talked about Harvest Moons without ever figuring out the date of the equinox. In fact, to many, the Harvest Moon is about the color of the Moon as much as it’s about the timing of the Moon.

A Harvest Moon is orange in color. Orange full moons are more common in the fall around harvest time. One reason for the orange moon is that, during the fall, the timing and the angle of the moon-rises keeps the Moon low in the sky. When the Moon is low, it’s more likely to have an orange or yellow color.

Another reason for the orange moon is the harvest. When the Moon is low in the sky, it gets an even deeper orange color if the air is full of particles and dust. During the fall, with many farmers harvesting their crops, the air is filled with dust from the disturbed earth and the shearing of crops in the harvesting process. So, in farm country, the autumn full (and almost full) moons tend to be particularly orange in color.

So, the Harvest Moon is also a large orange moon low in the fall night sky.

Mark Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri

Thursday 24 April 2014


Mark Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri

Thursday 24 April 2014

THURSDAY: What is a “Blood Moon”?

Blood Moon24 April 2014


No one is exactly sure what a “Blood Moon” is.  The term sounds like it must come from ancient mythology or legends, but it doesn’t.  Actually, it’s quite new.  With the recent lunar eclipse, the term “Blood Moon” suddenly became “all the rage” with everyone describing the eclipse as a “Blood Moon.”

Blood moon: Lunar eclipse gazers mesmerized as red hue lights up sky  [story & video]

A lunar eclipse is a sudden darkening of the, otherwise, full moon caused by the earth coming between the Sun and the Moon.  In other words, the earth casts a shadow on the moon causing it to suddenly “disappear”

But not quite.

Those of us who’ve seen a few lunar eclipses can tell you that the moon never completely disappears during an eclipse.  First, a thick, dark grey, smoky-looking shadow creeps over the moon.  But just behind the edge of the creeping darkness you can make out a dim, but distinctly visible, round moon.  But this darkened moon always has a dark reddish color.  So, every eclipse produces a very dim and dark-red moon.

Even though no one has ever called it a “Blood Moon” before, the name is catching on.  But, to be accurate, there has been at least one special significance given to the name “Blood Moon.”  Two Christian Pastors have pointed to a biblical prophecy in which the appearance of a series of blood-red moons signals the end of time.   See: Four Blood Moons: Something Is about to Change

(: the best of :) THURSDAY: What Do the Birds Think?

3 October 2013

While observing western scrub jays in the wild, UC Davis researchers were surprised to witness what appeared to be a bird funeral.  When a dead jay was spotted on the ground, another jay immediately began shouting out alarm calls to the other members of the flock.  This seemed to make sense.  If the discovery of a dead bird was interpreted as danger, the first bird “on the scene” might call out an alarm to the rest of the flock to warn them that a jay-killing predator was in the area.

However, what happened next was puzzling.  Instead of fleeing, the first bird landed beside the dead bird’s body while continuing its call.  The rest of the birds joined the calling jay with the whole flock gathering until they formed a circle around the body of the dead jay.

This seemed odd.  If a dead bird meant a predator was in the area, you’d expect the rest of the flock to retreat.  Instead, the flock gathered at the very location of the possible attack.  Stranger still, the surviving jays stopped foraging for food for the rest of the day.  The observers had to ask: Is this a funeral?  Is fasting for the remainder of the day a kind of mourning?  It sort of looked that way.

The researchers were so intrigued that they experimented by placing other objects in the area of the flock to observe the reaction.  Colored pieces of wood were ignored.  A stuffed jay was mobbed receiving the same treatment as a competitor from another flock.  More interesting was the reaction to a stuffed Great Horn Owl, the jay’s chief predator.  With the sighting of the owl, the birds made alarm calls and the flock gathered together — just as they had for the “funeral.”  However, once gathered together, the group attacked the stuffed owl, more or less, swooping down on it repeatedly.

So, perhaps the gathering wasn’t a funeral, but massing for a possible attack.  It may be that jays don’t flee or hide from predators.  Rather they locate the threat, call their numbers together, and counterattack.  But, that still leaves one question unanswered.  After the flock found the dead jay, why did they stop eating for the rest of the day?

The researchers admit that they don’t know what this behavior means.  All they can say is that “the jays see the presence of a dead bird as information to be publicly shared, just as they do the presence of a predator.”

Whether you call it animal intelligence, thought, self-awareness, or consciousness, the question is:  How do you know if an animal has “it.”

Forgive me for saying that the philosophical approach to the question seems the least enlightening.  Frankly, whenever philosophers define animal consciousness, their definition requires the animal to have an advanced degree in philosophy to make the cut.  I’m joking — but only a little.

My first encounter with the formal theory of animal intelligence came after I unexpectedly came into possession of two guinea pigs.  When I read up on the animals, I was shocked to discover that experts agreed that a guinea pig could never learn to recognize its own name.  I was surprised because my pigs, apparently, did know their own names.  At least, when I said one of their names, that particular pig’s nose would immediately poke up into the air, and I would get a direct look.  The other pig — the one I hadn’t called by name — would go about its business without any response.

A few months later, at a social gathering, I had an opportunity to speak to a credentialed “expert” on the philosophical theories of animal intelligence. When I described my pigs’ behavior and their, apparent, ability to recognize their own names, my expert laughed, condescendingly, at my “understandable,” but “naïve,” assumptions.

He explained what was “really” happening.  Each pig had developed a sort of conditioned reflex specifically to the sound of its spoken name.  Based on repeated experiences, each animal came to associate a particular sound with certain events.  When I spoke a pig’s name, that animal had become conditioned to expect me to pick it up, pet it, feed it, remove it from its pen, etc.  Of course, if my tone was harsh, the animal had become conditioned to stop whatever it was doing and put its head down — out of sight.

I was confused by this explanation because, as far as I could tell, this expert had just described “name recognition,” human or animal, to a tee.  Sensing my confusion, my expert quickly disabused me of my false notion.  In order to understand one’s name, I was told, one had a to have the conceptual ability to understand, not only abstraction but, the process of abstracting.  In other words, the animal would have to understand that the sound of a particular word was an abstract formulation intended to represent the animal, itself, as it existed within, though distinct from, its environment.

He continued with his explanation for a while.  Then, excusing myself to get refreshments, I avoided him for the rest of the evening.

Inspired by this experience, I hope the reader will forgive me if I avoid any further philosophical discussion of animal intelligence, and take a more visceral approach to the question of what the birds might be thinking.

Let’s begin with the mirror test.  If you check out a pet shop, you’ll find that small mirrors are sold as amusement devices for caged birds.  I used to think that a mirror might fool a bird into thinking it had a companion.  This may work with some birds, but not with others.

What can a mirror tell us about self-awareness?  The test is surprisingly easy.  What would you do if you passed a mirror and saw a dark smudge on your face?  You’d wipe it off.  Well, researcher Gordon G. Gallup marked the skin, hair, or feathers of an animal with a mark that couldn’t be directly seen, at least, not without looking in a mirror.

Then, the animal is observed as it observes its own reflection in a mirror.  If the animal begins grooming behavior directed at the mark — tries to remove it — this means that the animal is aware of itself.  In other words, the animal knows it’s looking at itself in the mirror and recognizes the image as its own reflection, rather than, another animal.

Chimpanzees, orangutans, pygmy chimpanzees, and gorillas, dolphins, elephants and, among birds, magpies pass this test.  Magpies were chosen for study because researchers already suspected that these birds might be self-aware.  Their suspicions were based on the magpie’s lifestyle and apparent displays of empathetic behavior, which is thought to be a precursor to self-awareness.

The mirror test has come under criticism, not because it’s not rigorous enough, but because of its anthropocentric bias: over-emphasis on vision as a criterion for self-awareness.  So, if the mirror only tests animals with a sharp eye, what about animal speech.

Researchers have listened to the speech (and sounds) of young children and infants in their cribs hoping to learn their thoughts and levels of consciousness.  This method of study is being adapted for the study of animal speech.  Some researchers propose that by passively listening to an animal’s voluntary speech, it is possible to learn about its thoughts and determine whether the animal is conscious.  These studies have tended to focus on one species of bird, the loquacious Macaw.  However, I’ve heard no word on the progress made by those scientists attempting to learn the Macaw language.

Another proposed criterion of self- awareness is suffering.  However, there is no agreement on the answers to two basic questions.  What is suffering?  — and — Does suffering demonstrate consciousness?  Until researchers can agree on the answers, there’s no “yard stick” with which to measure results.

So, research based on “suffering” provides speculative conclusions.  Some scientists believe that even plants have consciousness.  One researcher draws the line between shrimp and oysters.  Apparently, shrimp know what’s going on, but oysters are permanently out of the consciousness loop. Another researcher has gone so far as to speak of “the inner life of cockroaches.”

Using suffering as a test for consciousness is a problem because suffering is easily confused with the more universal experience of pain, which can be experienced without self-awareness.

On the other hand, the over-estimation of animal self-awareness is, perhaps, a reaction against the “official truth” of the past.  Until recently, scientific opinion confirmed that all animals were biological robots thoughtlessly moving through their daily activities.

When we think of consciousness, let’s start with the “gold standard.”  We humans haven’t lost our place at the top.  The sheer extent of human consciousness is unparalleled in the rest of the animal kingdom.  Even if some animals are “more conscious” than we thought, none can hold a candle to human beings when it comes to consciousness.  So much so, that the degree of human self-awareness is one of the primary characteristics that differentiate our species from every other species on earth.

So, when looking for consciousness in animals, we would expect other anthropoids, chimps, orangutans, or gorillas, to be the likely candidates.  But, there are, also, several bird species registering at the high end on “the consciousness meter.”  And, the self-awareness of birds is as interesting as it is unexpected.  You’d have go back almost 300 million years to find a common ancestor of both mammals and birds.  And during the last 300 million years, mammals and birds have developed very different types of brains.

The mammalian neocortex was once thought to be the neurological structure that was absolutely necessary to consciousness.  However, birds don’t have a neocortex.  So, based on our current understanding of brain structure, birds shouldn’t be conscious at all.  However, our fine feathered friends go right on demonstrating high levels of consciousness.

Researcher Irene Pepperberg has worked with captive African Gray Parrots.  One of the birds, Alex, has scientifically demonstrated the ability to associate a few human words with meaning.  These birds have also demonstrated the ability to work intelligently with abstract concepts of shape, color, and number.

According to Pepperberg and others, African Gray Parrots compare favorably in the performance of cognitive tasks with dolphins, chimpanzees and, even, human toddlers.

Of course, those who spend a lot of time with animals, or even one animal, have known for centuries that animals possess a degree of conscious self-awareness.

In 2012, at the The Francis Crick Memorial Conference, in Cambridge England, a number of scientists presented evidence that lead to The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness confirming that “Humans are not the only conscious beings; other animals, specifically mammals and birds, are indeed conscious, too.”

Dr. Marc Bekoff commented on the Declaration in an article most appropriately titled, “Scientists Finally Conclude Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious Beings.  Didn’t we already know this?  Yes, we did.”  I particularly appreciated the article’s reemphasis of the obvious with the comment, “It’s difficult to believe that those who have shared their homes with companion animals didn’t already know this.”

I’ve heard it said that Sir Isaac Newton “discovered” gravity — complete with the story of an apple falling down out of a tree.  However, Newton didn’t discover gravity.  Everyone already knew that objects fall down and not up.  Rather, Newton discovered a reliable scientific description of the laws of gravity.

Just as everyone knew about gravity before Newton, so most of us knew animals were conscious long before the Cambridge Declaration.  However, the Declaration is a landmark moment.  It affirms that the weight of formal scientific evidence has established that certain animals are conscious.

To most of us, the discussion of animal consciousness, self-awareness, and intelligence is both interesting and entertaining.  But the Cambridge Declaration isn’t just a decorative bow on top of a package of research findings.  The Declaration has potential ethical implications regarding the treatment of animals.  Specifically, the use and treatment of animals in scientific experimentation and animal husbandry must, now, be reviewed and evaluated in light of the scientific determination that certain animals are conscious.

But, even with the results of all this research, it’s still difficult to know exactly what’s going on in an animal’s head.  Some animals take notice of their dead.  Giraffes and elephants, for example, have been observed lingering near the body of a “recently deceased close relative.”  This suggests that animals may have a mental concept of death.  They may mourn the passing of those “close to them.”  But the question remains: What do the birds think?  Do jays hold funerals for their dead?

See also:

[12/26/13] Crows – Organic Arial Surveillance Vehicles.

Also of Interest:

SoundEagle in Debating Animal Artistry and Musicality




































THURSDAY: What is a “Blue Moon”?

24 April 2014


A “Blue Moon” can be one of 3 things.

First, a “Blue Moon” is an expression meaning a really rare event.  The phrase, “once in a blue moon,” refers to a rare event that happens only once in a great while.

Second, a “Blue Moon” is a somewhat rare event involving the actual Moon.  A full moon happens ever 29 days.  “Rarely,” two full moons will happen in the same month.  Since this doesn’t happen often, the second full moon in a month is called a “Blue Moon.”

Also, there are 12 full moons in the usual year.  But, after the 12th full moon, there is still about 11 days left in the year.  So, the extra 11 days adds up to be an extra 22 days after 2 years, and 33 days after 3 years.  So, every 3 to 4 years, there are 13, instead of 12, full moons in a year.  That extra, 13th, full moon is called a “blue moon” because it doesn’t happen every year.

Third, there’s a full moon that’s actually the color blue.  Major volcanic eruptions or forest fires can fill the atmosphere with so much grey dust that moon will seem to have a blue-ish tinge.  A blue moon.

The next time there will be 2 full moons in a single month will be in July of 2015 with full moons on July 2nd and July 31st.

THURSDAY: Australia’s Megafauna — The Forgotten Giants of Prehistory

8 August 2013

Everyone remembers the dinosaurs, but what happened after the dinosaurs went extinct?  They left a vacuum filled by giant and often forgotten animals: the megafauna.  The term megafauna, “big animals,” covers several groups of giant creatures.  However, naturalist Richard Owen honored only the oldest members of the group with the special name, “dinosaur.”  The remaining giants, those that roamed the earth between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago, are known by the (too general) term “megafauna.”

Today, Australia boasts a unique collection of animals.  Not only do these creatures look exceptional, they are also exceptional in terms scientific classification.  The duck billed platypus is classified as a mammal, but has a much lower body temperature than other mammals and lays eggs–earning it a special mention whenever biologists formulate a list of standard mammalian characteristics.  Indeed, the platypus is so “different” that the first reports of its discovery were denounced as “a fraud.”

Australia, also, has a large variety of marsupials, a group of animals that carry their immature young in a pouch for a period of time after birth.  Not surprisingly, the prehistoric Australian megafauna also include a wide variety of now-extinct marsupials.

Throughout millennia, arid periods threatened the survival of Australia’s megafauna, but one particular arid period, their last, coincided with the arrival of homo sapiens.  There is intense debate about whether climate or human interference caused the extinction.  Perhaps, it was some of both.

However, extinction is not necessarily the same as “dying out.”  The megafauna are no more, but many of their direct descendants roam Australia today–miniature versions of their ancient ancestors.  The modern kangaroo and wombat are direct descendants, “distant children,” of monstrously huge versions of themselves.  And huge they were.  New and more precise methods of calculating the size of the ancient mammals has revealed that they may have been much larger than previously thought.

Prehistoric Australia’s strange collection of giant wildlife included Diprotodon, the Giant Wombat. Unlike its relatively petite, modern descendant, this wombat weighed as much as two tons.  The remains of these giant creatures have been found all over Australia.

The Giant Short-Faced Kangaroo, Procoptodon, the largest known kangaroo that ever existed, stood about 7 feet tall and weighed 500 pounds.  Its feet looked a bit like horse hooves having only one large toe on each foot.  Each of its front paws had two long fingers with large claws. A full-size, lifelike replica is on permanent display, along with other ancient Australian animals, at the Australian Museum.

The Marsupial Lion, Thylacoleo, was not quite as big as the modern lion, but had just as strong a bite.  In fact, this creature had the strongest bite for its size of any known mammal species, living or dead.  Its long muscular tail was similar to that of a kangaroo, and it may even have been able to climb trees.  The Marsupial Lion is thought to have hunted large animals such as the giant wombat and giant kangaroo.

The Demon Duck of Doom, Bullockornis, is older than the typical megafauna species.  Although living closer to the age of dinosaurs, it was just too unusual to omit.  This flightless bird was about 8 feet tall and weighed about 500 pounds.  Thought to be carnivorous, Bullockornis had a huge beak, suitable for “shearing,” which probably explains its threatening name.

The giant turtle, Meiolania, had disturbingly devilish horns making its head almost 2 feet wide (measured from the tip of each horn).  The horns prevented the giant turtle from withdrawing its head into its shell–but who was going to mess with it anyway.  Pulling its tail was not a good idea either.  The tail was ringed with armor-like skin and was tipped with spikes.  At about 8 feet long, most animals probably just got out of this turtle’s way as it crawled across the prehistoric landscape.

One cannot research these giant creatures without stumbling across the fact that all continents had megafauna–not just Australia.  North America had one of the most famous species and one of the last to go extinct, the Wooly Mammoth.  This enormous version of the modern elephant roamed the northern extremes of North America about 12,000 years ago.

At one-ton (2,000 pounds), Andrewsarchus was the largest carnivorous land mammal that ever lived.  Bearing a resemblance to the hyena, on which it preyed, it might be the biggest dog-like creature that ever lived.  It was certainly larger than the than biggest prehistoric dog, Canis Diris, the Dire Wolf.  At 150 pounds, the Dire Wolf was a featherweight compared to Audrewsarchus, but more than a heavyweight compared to its descendant, the modern wolf.  Remains of the Dire Wolf have been found alongside those of the Saber Toothed Tiger in the La Brea Tar Pits of Los Angeles.

Perhaps the species that suffered the most indignity at human hands was a giant version of the modern armadillo, Glyptodon.  It lumbered through the forests of South America and was about the size of a modern VW bug.  Slow and meaty, human hunters had both the patience and ingenuity to hunt and kill this strange creature.  Not only was its meat used for food, its shell was used as a kind of prefabricated living shelter.  In terms of size, its shell provided something like the Torrid Zone equivalent of an igloo.  As human food and housing demands increased, the number of giant armadillos decreased until the prehistoric housing bubble burst when this natural producer of “prefabricated housing solutions” went extinct.

Image Links:

The Giant Wombat, Diprotodon

Giant Kangaroo, Procoptodon

The Marsupial Lion, Thylacoleo

Demon Duck of Doom, Bullockorn

The Giant Turtle, Meiolania

Wooly Mammoth


Dire Wolf

The Giant Armadillo, Glyptodon

Selected Links & References:

Austrailian MegaFauna & Museums

Australian mega fauna

Australian Museum

Museum Victoria

Queensland Museum

10 Giant Mammals that Succeeded the Dinosaurs

Australia’s extinct animals–Australian Museum

Australia’s Megafauna

Australian Megafauna A-Z

Australia’s Lost Giants – National Geographic Magazine

Australia’s Lost Giants – Photo Gallery – National Geographic Magazine

Mega Fauna of the World & Museums

Prehistoric Megafauna – The Giant Mammals and Megafauna of the Cenozoic Era

Giant mammals cause prehistory rethink › News in Science (ABC Science)

Ice Age Animals

Mammalian megafauna | UCL UCL Museums & Collections Ice Age – Megafauna

Megafauna! : DenverMuseum of Nature & Science

Prehistoric Megafauna exhibits in museums on the east coast?(US)

10 Giant Mammals that Succeeded the Dinosaurs

List of megafauna discovered in modern times – Wikipedia

History and Continuing Study

What does megafauna mean?: Museum Victoria

RichardOwen  NaturalHistoryMuseum

Studying megafauna fossils

Studying Megafauna Fossils: MelbourneMuseum

OZ fossils – The Age of the Megafauna – The Fauna – Fauna found at the Naracoorte Fossil site

Studying Megafauna Fossils: MelbourneMuseum

Art & Speculation

Super Scary Megafauna

Strange Ice Age Mammals

14 extinct animals that could be resurrected: Fit to be cloned




















THURSDAY: The Giant Alligator Snapping Turtle – the Perfect Pet!?

17 April 2014

It was just typical day browsing on the Internet. A story caught my eye. It was about a Louisiana man named Travis Lewis. When he was outside his home, something caught his eye. At first, he thought he saw an unusually large log in a nearby canal.

But with a closer look, he realized that, what he thought was a log, was actually a giant turtle. A giant turtle. It had a head the size of a football and was about 4 feet long. It was, in fact, an alligator snapping turtle. The turtle was wedged in a culvert – stuck.

What does an alligator snapping turtle look like? Well, let’s just say that a dinosaur could mistake one of these turtles for its cousin. Really, just look at the pictures below.

The alligator snapping turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in North America.  It has a spiked shell and a beak-like jaw. These turtles can reach 250 pounds and live for almost 200 years. They enjoy hanging out at the bottom of lakes, rivers, and canals.  This turtle has no natural predators other than human beings. They, themselves, eat snakes, clams, and other turtles.

This snapping turtle can close its jaw with incredible speed. But, as one article explained, reassuringly, many other snapping turtles have a more powerful bite than the alligator snapping turtle. In fact, relative to its size, this turtle’s bite is no more powerful than that of a human being. The source went on to add, cheerfully, that these turtles can bite through bone.


If I’d seen this turtle in a nearby canal, my next steps would have been to go inside my home, call animal control, and lock my door and windows.   But in Louisiana, a giant, prehistoric-looking turtle with a bone-crushing bite inspires a different reaction.

Travis Lewis immediately called for his friend, Martin LeBlanc. When LeBlanc got there, he saw the giant turtle with the football-sized head. Was he worried?  No, of course not.  His first thought?  Dinner.

Yeah, I bet that critter could have fed the whole neighborhood. (Or fed on the whole neighborhood.)

Again, the turtle was stuck – wedged tight in a culvert. The two called a third friend.   Did the newcomer call animal control?   No way.   “Friend # 3,” Louisiana’s answer to Steve Irwin, jumped right into the culvert. The first two followed. Within 45 minutes, the four-foot long snapping turtle was free. Travis casually commented that the group did take care to “stay clear . . . of the business end” of the turtle because “[o]nce it latches on to you, it’s going to take whatever it bites with it.”

See:  Enormous alligator snapping turtle rescued from drainage culvert

A little puzzled by the men’s attitude toward this giant bone-crushing snapping turtle, I did an internet search on the “alligator snapping turtle.”  I was in for a surprise.

In the 1930’s, a man named Dale Carnegie wrote a book called, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” If Mr. Carnegie were alive today, he would be studying the giant alligator snapping turtle. Why?  Because whatever this turtle is doing, it sure seems to be a hit with everybody.

The first thing I turned up was a set of instructions on how to care for your giant alligator snapping turtle. A little more surprised, I went on searching.  What did I find?  More care and feeding instructions.

Care Sheet – Alligator Snapping Turtle

So, you know what’s happening at your local Humane Society? Rover is waiting in a cage, with a dozen other dogs, hoping to find a home. But the Society has waiting list a mile long for giant alligator snapping turtles.  Sure. That makes sense. We’re talking about a giant snapping turtle with a bone-crushing bite who seems to always be photographed with its beak-like mouth wide open waiting to take your hand or foot off.  Gee, who wouldn’t want to own one?

I used to read stories about the loyalty and heroism of dogs, but I didn’t find anything like that. Instead I found the “heart-warming” story of “Crunch” an alligator snapping turtle. With that bite, you’ve got to wonder how an animal like this got the nickname  “Crunch.”  . . .   Anyway, Crunch was rescued from certain death in a commercial fishery and, now, not only survives, but enjoys a comfortable retirement at the Blackwater Turtle Refuge.

See:  “Crunch” — Historyvideo: 150 plus year old Alligator Snapping Turtle (“Crunch’)

Speaking of survival, the rescuers of our Louisiana turtle are planning to release it in a spot where it can roam free.   We are assured that the turtle has nothing to fear from rescuer Martin LeBlanc’s turtle soup pot. And you’d need a lot more than pot to cook this four-footer. He’d barely fit in a bathtub.

Enormous alligator snapping turtle rescued from drainage culvert

Mark Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri

See also:

Alligator Snapping Turtle – National Zoo FONZ

Alligator Snapping Turtles, Alligator Snapping Turtle Pictures, Alligator Snapping Turtle Facts – National Geographic