Worm Salad

December 15, 2008, 11:22 am
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I am done with my papers, kids! Just three finals and I am free as a bird.

Which is to say, expect me to get back to my regular blogging schedule soon.


Finals Week
December 11, 2008, 2:17 pm
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…is killing me. Hang in there. I guess this wasn’t the best month to promise daily posting. Sorry, kids. I’ll be back on track soon, but I still have a paper to write on Christine de Pizan.

Remarkable Reptile #5
December 10, 2008, 2:55 am
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One of my secret, silly passions in life is the history of biology, and from that rich and varied history, one of my favorite parts is the medieval bestiary. For those of you who have never seen one, a bestiary was a richly illustrated textbook somewhere between Animal Planet and Sunday School. Illustrations of animals would be accompanied by text that described, in greater or lesser detail, their natural history, and what religious lessons could be drawn from these animals and their lives: Pelicans, for example, said to feed their young on their own blood, represented the incredible mercy and self-sacrifice of Christ, while serpents, of any kind, generally represented the devil.

Now, medieval bestiaries were written by monks, who very rarely got into the fresh air, and while they might have been fairly familiar with the habits of common barnyard dogs and cats, they had to take a little license and a lot of faith when describing animals they had never seen; like crocodiles, elephants and giraffes. Understandably, they didn’t always get things right: while we might, today, associate the giraffe with the fabulous camelopard, it’s a far cry from its description today, and no one has yet found a living unicorn or (my personal favorite) bonnacon.

That being said, sometimes natural history has a way of sneaking back on you and asserting itself in the strangest of medieval legends. Take the following passage from Isidore of Seville (my very rough translation follows, and better classicists than me are invited to tell me that I have failed).

Amphisbaena dicta, eo quod duo capita habeat, unum in loco suo, alterum in cauda, currens ex utroque capite, tractu corporis circulato. Haec sola serpentium frigori se committit […] Cuius oculi lucent veluti lucernae.

Etymologies, Book 12

It is said of the Amphisbaena that it is a serpent with two heads, one in its proper place, the other on the tail. It can run in the direction of either head, moving its body in a circular motion. This is the only snake able to live in the cold. His eyes shine like lamps.

Like I said, I’m no classicist, and the translation is a pretty rough one. (I know enough to get the gist of a text, not enough to stake my life on knowing what it says.) But, what’s interesting is that there’s a real-life beast called an amphisbaenian, named after the mythological monster.

The Amphisbaena, courtesy of bestiary.ca

The Amphisbaena, courtesy of bestiary.ca

And while they don’t look exactly like their medieval counterparts, they are more similar than you might think. We’re going to take a look at one particularly unique member of the group. So, by all means, read on to find out more. Continue reading

Family Business
December 9, 2008, 4:14 pm
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I am not planning to turn this into a blog about my family — mainly because they’d murder me if they saw their faces plastered all over the internet — but sometimes, I am reminded of just how important they are to me; and it’s not always in the best way. My little sister is currently away at the United States Merchant Marine Academy, and, as part of her cadet experience, has to spend a year at sea. Currently, she’s working on an Alaskan ferry (and, yes, she can see Russia from her house), but starting on January first, she’s going to be taking a container ship that will sail from Europe to Australia. Sounds like an adventure, right?

Well, I wish it were. With all the news of piracy that’s been cropping up lately in the news; I can’t help but be worried. And now, a recent CNN article has stated that the company for which she will be working, Hapag-Lloyd, has started to fly cruise ship passengers across the Gulf of Aden because of the risk from piracy. Nothing could be scarier to me. After all, as part of the working crew on a  container ship, she won’t have the option to just fly her way out of Somali waters. My worry is probably needless, and if she ever reads this post, she’ll roll my eyes at my needless concern, but, still, it’s scary to think that events a world away could so thoroughly rip into my own life.

Okay, enough moping. I’ll blog reptiles later, but right now, it’s off to class.

Oy vey
December 9, 2008, 4:00 pm
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I’m being a bad blogger. My excuse is that it’s the week before finals, and I have two papers due. I got so caught up in writing about reconstructionist pagan revivals last night that I totally forgot that I have an awesome reptile to blog.

Fear not, I won’t let you down today.

Well, not unless my paper on Christine de Pizan gets totally out of hand.

And, it’s done!
December 8, 2008, 2:01 am
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For all of you patient enough to stick around during my haitus (and everyone else, too) I have a new page on the blog: Taenia’s Pets, where I put up a picture and little blurb about every single animal that shares my house. Check it out, and please tell me what you think!

Remarkable Reptile #6
December 7, 2008, 9:48 pm
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Okay, so fair warning — this post might get very long, since it’s all about the group that I am currently studying. And while I’m passionate to ramble about reptiles for thousand-word posts, when it comes to today’s subject, I’m good to ramble for, well, years probably. But, well, it wouldn’t be fair to list off a group of remarkable reptiles without including at least one crocodilian, and, of course, I picked the world’s most unique crocodile as my subject of study.

Crocodiles really are my favorite animals. People will tell you that they’re living fossils and that they have remained unchanged since the Jurassic, and while that’s sort-of true in that there’s a generalized ‘croc-shape’ that crocodiles tend to fall back on (and there certainly aren’t as many around as there used to be), it ignores the incredible fossil diversity of crocodiles through time. There are crocodiles that became terrestrial herbivores and crocodiles that took to an exclusively marine life and crocodiles that evolved mammal-life teeth and crocodiles that grew to forty feet. The ancestors of crocodiles were lithe, upright little predators with long legs who lived only on land, while the more typical crocodilian niche was occupied by their close-relatives: phytosaurs … which looked pretty much like a modern croc, except that they had their nostrils between their eyes.

See, look, I knew I would digress. The point is that crocodilian diversity is amazing, and even if they aren’t as diverse as they once were, their current diversity is amazing: from the five-foot long dwarf caiman of South America to Nile Crocodiles who live in marginal environments on the edge of the Sahara and their fossil diversity is beyond incredible. Their closest living relatives are birds, and, depending on who you ask, they might be very closely related to turtles. They differ from birds, though, in the morphology of their ankle — while bird ankle joints allow for a very limited front-back flexion, crocodile ankles, like yours, can rotate. This has some pretty interesting implications for their gait: basically it allows them to adopt a variety of different walking stances — they can walk upright like a mammal, sprawl like a lizard and can even gallop. The crocodilian biology database has a really fantastic page with videos of all the exciting forms of croc locomotion.

Nile Crocodile by padiyan on Flickr, used under CC license

Nile Crocodile, Crocodylus niloticus

Look, I’m digressing again. At this rate, we’ll never get to my remarkable crocodilian. Why don’t you just read on to find out what he is, before I get completely distracted. Continue reading