Friday, July 24, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #115: Tortoises (and Turtles)

The other day the dude and I went swimming at the lake and whilst undergoing the grueling several-minute hike from the parking lot to the swimming beach, we crossed paths with a couple of his friends, having a picnic with their respective pets. This was interesting because one of the pets was a bird of some kind (I can’t remember what species, but it was tropical; guess I should’ve taken notes), and the other pet was a red-footed tortoise. It was surprisingly adorable, and now I want one.

Unfortunately, over-collection has made this species vulnerable to extinction.
Red-footed tortoise by user OldUncleMe from

Until today, I thought that tortoises stayed on land and turtles live in the water. I must have thought that because l spent too much time hanging around with British people (ha, as if such a thing were possible) because that’s consistent with British usage. In American usage, however, “tortoise” is used to describe slow-moving, land-dwelling turtles, specifically those of the order Testudines. Examples include the Aldabra giant tortoise, one of the world’s largest tortoise species, which is native to the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles.

“Turtle,” on the other hand, is a general term referring to all members of the order, whether land or water-dwelling. Box turtles, for example, are not tortoises, but dwell on land.

Speaking of box turtles, did you know that they can die if you take them away from their territory? A box turtle that is removed from the area in which it lives may “wander aimlessly” in an attempt to return home, until it expires. You heard it here first, people – don’t pick up box turtles and carry them off to release in your back yard or whatever. It kills them.

"Don't kill me!"

Also, you should probably not keep a box turtle as a pet, or if you do, do your research first and don’t get it as a pet for a child. Box turtles are pretty hard to care for. They need to hibernate in the winter and require a varied diet consisting of earth worms, insects, millipedes, fruits, berries, and vegetation. Box turtles need to spend time in an outdoor enclosure, so they can get sunlight. Pressure from the pet trade is threatening box turtle populations in many areas. As many as half of box turtles captured in the wild die in captivity before making it to market. In many states, it’s illegal to collect box turtles from the wild, and your state may require a permit for these animals.

While box turtles live for an average of 50 years, it’s more than possible for these turtles to live for more than 100 years. As you may already know, tortoises (and turtles) are some of the longest-lived animals. Individual tortoises have been known to live longer than 150 years. Green sea turtles can live for 80 to 100 years or longer. The oldest known tortoise that ever lived was called Tu’i Malila. It was a radiated tortoise that lived from 1777 to 1965, or 188 years, and was allegedly a gift from Captain James Cook to the royal family of Tonga. The body of the tortoise is supposedly preserved on display at the Tongan National Center on the island of Tongatapu. Only one other vertebrate has been confirmed to have lived longer than Tu’i Malila, a koi named Hanako who died in July 1977 at the age of 226.

But you can't get a goldfish to live for a week.

Adwaita, an Aldabra giant tortoise that lived in India’s Alipore Zoo, was another extremely elderly tortoise. Adwaita took up residence in the zoo when its keeper, Lord Wellesley, gave it to the Alipur Zoological Gardens in 1875. Zoo records confirm that the tortoise was at least 150 years old, but unspecified “other evidence” suggests that the tortoise may have been as much as 250 years old. A Seychelles giant tortoise, Jonathan, currently living on St. Helena, may be between 178 and 182 years old, making him the oldest living animal on the planet.

Here he is as a young tortoise of 70 years.

When I was a little girl, a man in the neighborhood killed a snapping turtle and brought it to my grandparents. Grandpa apparently loved to eat snapping turtle, and in his excitement, he showed me how to butcher the animal. I fear Grandpa wasted his time, because I have never felt the need to eat a turtle and, barring an apocalypse, I never will. I hope there isn’t an apocalypse because I don’t really remember much of that long-ago lesson, but I do remember Grandpa removing the snapping turtle’s heart from its body and placing it in my hands, with the words, “A snappin’ turtle’s heart keeps beatin’ for hours after its death.” And yes, friends, that snapping turtle’s little heart sat there in my palm and pumped away for no reason at all.

I mention that because 17th century Italian naturalist (that’s that they called scientists back then) Francesco Redi performed an experiment in which he removed a tortoise’s brain, presumably to see how long it lived. It lived for six months.

I'll show myself out.

Monday, July 20, 2015

5 Drawbacks of Working from Home No One Talks About

I’ve been working at home for going on seven years now, and now I’m just going to take a minute because holy shit, that’s longer than I’ve done anything. Wow.

Everyone’s super jealous that I get to work from home, and sure, it’s got it’s upsides – no getting up at unholy hours, no hellish commute, less wear and tear on the car, smaller gas budget. But working from home has its drawbacks, and yes, most of them involve the lack of sick days, vacation days, or other benefits of any kind. There are lots of other things that you don’t see coming, however, until you're right in the middle of them.

5) You Start Getting Fat

I didn’t really start getting fat until after I moved back to America, quit smoking, and started taking antidepressants, so I’m 100% certain that those things played a significant role in my unprecedented weight gain. When you have access to your kitchen all day long, you have to be careful not to abuse it, because writing is surprisingly hungry work. I suspect it has something to do with how the brain needs glucose to function.

Also, when I lived in France, people didn’t show up to my house with multiple cakes they apparently expected me to sit and eat by myself, as I complained about recently. French people don’t try to make you eat yourself to death, inadvertently or otherwise. As my friend Kelly pointed out, I don’t have an office full of co-workers who can eat leftover desserts for me. I was going to say those cakes won’t eat themselves, but I guess they might if I leave them in the fridge long enough.

I'd feed them to the woodland creatures, but you don't want to know what sugar does to that woodchuck.

4) Running Errands Becomes a Real Mission

When other people need to pick up a jug of milk, they do it on the way home from work. When I need to pick up a jug of milk, I drink black coffee for two weeks until I finally break down and make a Special Trip to get a jug of milk. Then I get so irritated over having spent a huge chunk of my evening driving from my house, in the middle of nowhere, to the shops, in the middle of somewhere, that I contemplate buying my own cow.

Still not any easier, tbh.

And if I have to go to the bank, well, I don’t go to the bank. The president of the cat rescue I used to volunteer with can back me up on that, because I supervised the Sunday adoption events sometimes and collected a bunch of money in cat adoption fees, and then kept the money at home for two weeks until the president texted to nag me about it. I can’t stop at the bank on the way home from work until they open a branch office in my spare bedroom, which they’re not going to do, no matter how many sternly-worded letters I write them about it.

3) You Work Your Ass Off, but No One Realizes It

By now you’re probably thinking, “What do you mean you can’t find time to run errands, you work from home! Why can’t you just go to bank whenever you want? What do you do all day?”

Well, in answer to your question, Gentle Reader and/or People at Bars and/or All of My Extended Relatives, freaking work is what I do all day. Most people appear shocked to discover that I actually do have to complete specific assignments by a certain time each day, if I want to keep getting paid. 

I can either run around doing personal errands and meeting friends and relatives for leisurely lunches, or I can work. There isn’t time in the average day for both. This is a simple concept that lots of people can’t seem to grasp when they’re calling me up at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday to see if I can drop everything and meet them for ice cream. When anyone else says, “Sorry, can’t, got to work,” it’s accepted without question, but when I say it, it leads to twenty-minute argument about whether I or not I really need to work at that specific moment.

2) You Have More Pajamas Than Real Clothes

It seems like every freelance-writing, work-from-home-advice blogger has to write at least seven obligatory posts about how you shouldn’t work from home in your pajamas. You should put on proper, business-casual attire, do your hair, put on makeup, and coordinate your accessories. This, the (presumably) well-meaning bloggers say, will put you in a “businesslike” mood, make you feel “ready to take on the day,” and ensure that you’re prepared in case you have to hurry out for a last-minute, emergency client meeting.

Well, if you’re considering getting into freelance writing, I can tell you that no one really expects you to wear pantsuits. In all the years I've been freelancing, I’ve had to personally meet with a client exactly once, and he was happy to schedule a meeting at my convenience and did not demand that I hang up the phone and rush out to meet him in my pajamas. If I needed to wake up an hour earlier to go through the rigmarole of hair, makeup, and uncomfortable clothes to “get in the mood for work,” I daresay I would not have what it takes to succeed in this business. Besides, if I'm not getting health insurance, paid time off, or a 401(k), you can bet your sweet ass I'm going to take full advantage of those perks I do have, namely, "wearing whatever I damn well please or nothing at all if that's what strikes my fancy." Screw you, work-from-home-advice bloggers.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t get out of bed, feed the cats, and shuffle into my office wearing the same pair of pajamas that you probably imagine I’ve been wearing for days on end. No, each morning I change out of my night pajamas and into my day pajamas. That’s a lot of pajamas. And yes, once in a while I do forget and wear them to Walmart. Whatevs, everyone else in Walmart is wearing pajamas, too.

1) Dear God, So Lonely

If you’ve never worked from home before, I’m here to tell you that you don’t realize how important your daily interactions with coworkers and customers can be when it comes to not going batshit insane. Being anintrovert, I foolishly thought that I’d make a smooth transition to working from home, alone, in silence, all by myself, all day long, but I took to it about as well as a fish takes to water when the water is in fact vodka.

So...not very well.
Image by torbakhopper from Flickr.

All those little “hellos” and “how are yous” and “would you like some cakes” add up, man. Of course, having been at this for several years, I can say that once you do go batshit insane, it all gets a lot easier.


Friday, July 17, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #114: How Do Bumblebees Fly?

If you’re a person who exists, you’ve heard the urban legend that bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly. Ignore the empirical evidence presented by thine eyes, plebe, for almighty Science declares that bumblebee flight defies the laws of physics! Those scientists, always with their laws and theories! When will they ever learn!

As you may have guessed, bumblebee flight does not defy the laws of physics. No one is quite sure how this urban legend got started, but its proponents insist that it was birthed from the mind of either a mathematician or an engineer at a party in the 1930s. That this unnamed but truly hard-hitting scientist was probably drunk at the time is conveniently left out of the stories.

Seriously, though, some accounts do attempt to name the scientists responsible for starting the rumor that bumblebee flight is a physical impossibility. The rumor has been pinned on German aerodynamicist Ludwig Prandtl, who lived from 1875 to 1953 and taught at the University of Gottingen. Others blame Swiss aeronautical engineer Jakob Ackeret.

A perhaps more credible theory is that the assertion first appeared in French entomologist Antoine Magnan’s 1934 book, The Flight of Insects. Magnan referenced calculations supposedly made by French mathematician André Sainte-Lague when he made the assertion that the flight of insects – not just bumblebees, but insects in general – should be scientifically impossible. No one knows how bumblebees, specifically, got stuck with the burden of impossible flight, but perhaps it’s just a natural consequence of being so fat and derpy and having such tiny, tiny wings.

Bumblebee in flight by Pahazzard from Wikimedia Commons.

However, Saint-Lague made at least one crucial mistake on the way to concluding that bees can’t fly – he based his calculations on the principles of fixed-wing aerodynamics, which you may recognize as the science of airplane flight. Bumblebees are not planes. Of course, if bumblebees were planes – with rigid, smooth, fixed wings – they wouldn’t be able to fly. Their bodies would be too big and they wouldn’t be able to generate enough lift.

But bumblebees aren’t planes, and they don’t have rigid, fixed wings. Their wings are flexible. Bumblebees don’t glide; they obviously flap their wings. But how does a bumblebee generate enough lift to take flight and stay aloft? Bumblebees’ wings aren’t long enough to generate adequate lift by flapping up and down, the way birds’ wings do. Instead, bumblebees flap their wings back and forth, in a horizontal figure-of-eight motion. That motion creates vortices, described as tiny hurricanes, above the bee’s wings. Because the air pressure is lower in these vortices than in the surrounding air, the bee is able to stay aloft.

How did scientists figure this out? In one experiment, Chinese researcher Lijang Zeng of Tsinghua University and his team strapped tiny mirrors onto bumblebees and then fired lasers at them. I am not even making this up. Somehow, this allowed the scientists to create precise models of natural bee flight that were more accurate than those created in previous experiments, for which scientists were forced to use tethered bees. Tethered bees apparently don’t fly right, for some reason. 

I'll leave it up to you to imagine how they attached the tethers to the bees. 

Friday, July 3, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #113: How Did Dinosaurs Become Birds?

I just saw Jurassic World tonight, and was disappointed to see that none of the dinosaurs were depicted as having had feathers. But that’s Hollywood for you, I guess. Historical accuracy doesn’t sell movie tickets. Abraham Lincoln hunting vampires sells movie tickets.
Also, if scientists did go too far and bring dinosaurs back to life for profit, they’d probably go ahead and tweak the genome to remove the feathers. You’ve got to give the people what they want, and the people want two things: naked, leathery behemoths, and, occasionally, to get eaten.

I heard about the birds-evolved-from-dinosaurs thing when I was a kid, and I’ve always sort of wondered how that happened. Researchers have only recently been able to put together a complete picture of the evolution of birds. For a long time, scientists knew of only one evolutionary link between large, land-bound dinosaurs like the T. rex and the tiny, feathered creatures that seem to line up and take turns going at my birdfeeder (ooh, that reminds me, I’d better fill up my birdfeeder). That link was Archaeopteryx, a birdlike dinosaur that lived about 150 million years ago and weighed about 1.7 lbs (0.8 kg).

Image by Nobu Tamara from Wikipedia.

While researchers previously assumed that Archaeopteryx represented a sudden and mysterious evolutionary jump of just 10 million years, a plethora of fossil evidence uncovered in the last decade has revealed that Archaeopteryx and other early birds were the result of a much more normal, slower progression. Instead of birdlike dinosaurs emerging suddenly about 150 million years ago, dinosaurs began evolving birdlike traits pretty much from the time they first emerged on Earth about 245 million years ago. Modern birds evolved from the maniraptoran theropods, of which the velociraptor is one. As the millennia passed, theropods developed increasingly birdlike traits. The dinosaurs that would eventually become birds also got smaller and smaller over about a 50 million year period. The earliest bird ancestors weighed around 359 lbs (163 kg), but they would eventually shrink down to the size of the smallest modern songbirds.

Birds slowly became birdier, and when the basic components of birdiness – hollow bones, birdlike pelvises, three-fingered hands, wishbones, fully articulated quill feathers, and small size – came together in the Archaeopteryx, conditions were finally ripe for bird evolution to take off. As early birds began learning to fly, they started shrinking faster, and the smaller they became, they more adept they were at flight – large winged animals can glide, but true flight requires the right ratio of weight to wing size. The lineage that would become birds proved itself to be far more adaptable than other dinosaur lines, and shrank 160 times faster than other lines were growing.

The earliest birds also pulled an evolutionary trick that has helped other animals, such as humans, nurture greater intelligence: paedomorphosis. Paedomorphosis occurs when an animal stops developing physically at an earlier stage of its life than its predecessors, in a way proves advantageous from an evolutionary standpoint. Dinosaur embryos had larger, rounder skulls and shorter faces, and as birds evolved, they began to retain that larger, rounder skull shape into adulthood. This allowed adult birds to develop bigger skulls and bigger brains to fill them. It also allowed birds to ditch their ancestral snouts and start developing beaks, which would rapidly become specialized to the needs of each species.

As seen here.
Image by L. Shyamal from Wikimedia Commons.

Their newly small size must have provided dinosaur-birds with an evolutionary advantage, since it allowed them to fill ecological niches left unexplored by their larger cousins. Of course, when a six-mile-wide asteroid slammed into the Earth about 65 million years ago, the small, easily adaptable birds, with their powers of flight and their significantly reduced nutritional needs, were able to ride out the cataclysm, while their enormous cousins dropped dead all around them. And that, friends, is why we have chickens.  

And that, friends, is why we have chickens.
Image by misha3637 from Wikimedia Commons.