November 18 – Zoo Is It?

Today’s factismal: The first modern zoo was created in 1826.

Odds are that on some sunny weekend you’ve found yourself wandering the paths at your local zoo, staring at the monkeys and trying to out-roar the lions. (And if you haven’t, you should have!) But have you ever wondered where zoos came from? It turns out, as is so often the case, that we have the Romans to thank.

The Roman Coliseum where menageries would go to die (My camera)

The Roman Coliseum where menageries would go to die
(My camera)

People have always kept animals, for food, for pets, and for show. Egyptians had cats and hippopotamuses. Ancient Chinese had “houses of deer”. Andalusians had horses. But until the Roman Empire, most people only had a few animals and only from the area nearby. But under Rome all of that changed. Thanks to Rome’s control of the Mediterranean ocean and its constantly conquering armies, a steady supply of animals from all over came to Italy where they were showed to the public as proof of Rome’s might. Their menageries included lions, tigers, and bears (oh, my!), bulls, elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotami, giraffes, bulls, stags, crocodiles, and serpents and a host of other animals, all of which would be displayed for a short time before being sent to die in bloody combat as part of the Roman Games.

Feeding the giraffes is a popular zoo activity with people and giraffes alike (My camera)

Feeding the giraffes is a popular zoo activity with people and giraffes alike
(My camera)

Why were the animals killed? Because the Romans had no idea of how to keep them alive. And that problem would continue through the ages. During the Dark Ages, kings and emperors would have menageries of their own, filled with exotic animals that would die exotic deaths (and sometimes be used in exotic cooking). And during the Renaissance, kings and emperors would have menageries of their own that would add “dissected (sometimes alive)” to what was done during the Dark Ages. An example of those menageries is Tiergarten Schönbrunn which was created in 1540, expanded in 1752, and opened to the public in 1779; many consider it to be the first “public zoo”.

Zoos are where many people encounter exotic animals for the first time (My camera)

Zoos are where many people encounter exotic animals for the first time
(My camera)

That wouldn’t change until 1826 when a group of English scientists decided that they’d like to study animals for as long as they could without the trouble of going to another country. And so the London Zoological Society was born; two years later, they opened their zoo for research – but not to the public! They studied how animals lived, what they ate, where they hid, how they hunted, and a host of other things that we are still studying today. It would take another two decades before they would start allowing the public in to view the animals (and defray some of the research costs).

Many zoos rehabilitate wild animals, like this bald eagle that was shot by a hunter (My camera)

Many zoos rehabilitate wild animals, like this bald eagle that was shot by a hunter
(My camera)

Today there are zoos in every country across the globe, most of which subscribe to a set of rules designed to keep the animals healthy and happy for as long as possible. And research happens at most of those zoos, with an increased emphasis on preserving endangered species. Interestingly, a lot of the best zoo research nowadays doesn’t happen at the zoo; it happens in the field where scientists use trap cameras to capture images of the animals in their native habitat acting the way they do when nobody is watching. (Anyone who has ever sung in the shower can understand that last bit.) And, just as the first modern zoo was built to keep the scientists from having to travel, the research can be done by you without having to go to the zoo (but you really should; it’s all happening there). If you go to the Toledo Zoo Wild Shots site, you can classify the pictures by getting rid of those without animals and by saying what animal you think is present. To learn more, head over to:

December 14 – On Donder

Today’s factismal: The word “reindeer” means “deer deer”.

It is beginning to look a lot like Xmas and one of the most important parts of that look is the number of reindeer that are sprouting up. You can see them as lawn ornaments, on Christmas cards, and standing patiently by Santa’s sleigh. But what you can’t see is that their popularity is relatively recent. While Santa Claus has been a part of Christmas since the 1400’s, the reindeer only date to Clement Moore’s famous poem in 1823.

A reindeer standing next to somebody's sleigh (My camera)

A reindeer standing next to somebody’s sleigh
(My camera)

Though they may be relatively new to the Christmas biz, reindeer have a much longer history than that. They were well-known to such ancient scientists as Aristotle (who called them “tarandos” or “draggers” for their habit of dragging their feet in the snow to look for food) and were domesticated for milk and meat by people in the snowier parts of Europe as far back as 3,000 BC; even today, reindeer meatballs are a popular food in much of Scandinavia. And that ancient relationship with people helps explain why they are known by so many names. In Canada and parts of Alaska, they are called caribou (“snow shoveler”) while in other parts of Alaska they are called tuktu. In Scandinavia, they are called reindeer (“deer deer”). And in the Russian steppes, they are called pücö (“cattle”).

"You want to call me what?" (My camera)

“You want to call me what?”
(My camera)

No matter what you call them, reindeer are magnificent animals. They are typically about seven feet long and weigh upwards of 350 pounds, with the males being slightly bigger than the females. Unfortunately for armchair biologists, both the males and the females grow antlers every year (unusual for deer) which makes telling the sex of a reindeer difficult to anyone who isn’t a reindeer. And, in a fascinating example of adaptation, the reindeer’s feet change depending on the season. During the summer when the tundra turns marshy, the pad on their feet expands to give them more stable traction. But during the winter, the pad retracts so that the horny hooves are exposed for gripping the ice and snow. Another of their cold-weather adaptations is that they can see into the ultraviolet which allows them to spy the scat of other reindeer and the fur of predators that would blend into the snow otherwise. And though they live in vast herds of animals, it is rare that you will see a reindeer in the wild. Much like any other wild or even domesticated animal, they spend much of their time in places that a human wouldn’t enjoy (e.g., in a blizzard looking for food).

So what should you do if you do see a reindeer (or any other wild animal)? First, think about how lucky you are; most people wouldn’t have the chance to see something that big in the wild. Next, use your phone or camera to take a picture of it so that you will always remember the moment. And finally, report what you saw on Wildlife Sightings. This web site was set up specifically to allow citizen scientists like you to report the animals that they see; the data that you collect is then used by scientists around the world to measure biodiversity (which tells us how healthy an area is) and to discover new species and track old ones. To participate, head on over to:

December 7 – A Huge Problem

Today’s factismal: Browsing animals, like mastodons, eat leaves from shrubs and trees and grazing animals, like wooly mammoths, eat grasses and other things from the ground.

To a biologist, where an animals eats is often as important as what it eats. That’s because the animal’s food source tells scientists a lot about the environment. For example, a browsing animal such as a mastodon wouldn’t do well in an open prairie environment because it wouldn’t have anything to eat. And that tells the biologist what other animals to look for when they find a pile of mastodon bones; there won’t be many miracinonyx (fast cheetah-like prairie cats) or titanis (eight foot tall flightless birds that could run 65 mph), but there would be plenty of smilodons (that’s “sabre-tooth tiger” to you) and castorides (an eight foot tall beaver). From that information, a paleontologist can soon construct a model of the environment.

A mastodon smiles for his close-up (My camera)

A mastodon smiles for his close-up
(My camera)

And that model is important, because it tells them what else to look for (and where to look!). By modeling the environment, paleontologists can understand how different types of animals respond to changes and answer questions such as: what animals thrive as the world warms? what happens when a wetland turns into a prairie? how quickly can animals adapt when a food source vanishes? The answer to those questions then tell us a lot about how life has changed over the course of Earth’s history and give us insight into biological processes; they also often tell us a lot about the animal that we started to study in the first place.

A mastodon in the Houston Museum of Natural History reminds the humans who is the boss (My camera)

A mastodon in the Houston Museum of Natural History reminds the humans who is the boss
(My camera)

If you’d like to try your hand at gathering some information on large browing and grazing animals, why not join mammalMAP? For more information, head over to their web site!

November 9 – Singing In The Brain

Today’s factismal: In 1992, Thomas School yodeled 22 tones in one second, setting a new world’s record.

Let’s suppose that it is 1500 and you live on an Alpine meadow where you herd your goats, and that your best friend lives on an Alpine meadow across the valley where he herds his goats. Now let’s suppose that you just thought of the world’s funniest joke and want to tell it to him. You could pull out your cell phone, except that they haven’t been invented yet. You could walk over to tell it to him, but it is an all day journey down into the valley and back up. You could try to tell it to him by semaphore except he may not see you waving your arms. Or you could sing it to him.

Believe it or not, that’s exactly what the people in the Alps do. Over the years, they have developed a way to call across the mountains by singing. And they aren’t alone; yodeling is used by tribes in Africa, groups in Pakistan, and even field hands in America. By using a series of musical tones to carry information, the goatherds and other folks were able to send the information clearly and easily. Where words would blur and become confused by echoes, musical tones remain clear and easy to understand.

Today, the goatherds have cellular phones and yodeling is mostly found on country and western albums. But it still remains as a reminder of what life was like back when the only way to talk to a friend was to sing.

If you’d like to help anthropologists as they learn more about the ways we communicate, then head on over to the Open Anthropology Project:

November 2 – All’s Weddell That Ends Weddell

Today’s factismal: The southern-most mammal in the world is the Weddell Seal.

If you were to set your WABAC machine to London in 1819, you’d find the entire town was abuzz over the discovery of a set of islands located below South America’s Cape Horn. Known as the South Shetland Islands, these lonely rocks were (and are) covered with moss, grass, and blood algae and serve as a home to giant petrels, arctic terns, and (most importantly) seals. Those seals were covered in blubber which meant that they were rich in the oil that Londoners (and others) needed to keep their lamps burning. And given that the supply of whales was getting a bit low, a new hunting ground for seals was just what the doctor ordered. So an intrepid sealer by the name of James Weddell decided to head south to see what seals the sea might render.

A Weddell Seal, asleep on the ice (My camera)

A Weddell seal, asleep on the shore ice
(My camera)

When he got there, Weddell discovered an entirely new type of seal. Being a modest man, he decided to give the seal the best name he could think of – his own! (He also named the area where he found them “the Weddell sea”. Yep, that guy was certainly full of humility.) His seals were fairly large; an adult Weddell seal is about ten feet long and weighs about 1,000 pounds. They have long whiskers like a cat and great big eyes that they use to sense fish in the deep, dark waters near Antarctica.

The Weddell seal uses its whiskers to sense the motion of fish in the dark water (My camera)

The Weddell seal uses its whiskers to sense the motion of fish in the dark water
(My camera)

And they were fairly easy to catch; unlike other seals, the Weddell seal prefers to “haul out” on shore ice in the summer instead of lying about on free-floating icebergs. During the winter they actually stay in the water all the time as it is warmer than being up on the ice! As a result, Weddell and those who followed him (all of whom came during the summer because they weren’t stupid) killed hundreds of thousands of Weddell seals over the next few decades.

The mottled coat is characteristic of a Weddell seal (My camera)

The mottled coat is characteristic of a Weddell seal
(My camera)

But time and the discovery of kerosene changed matters. Today the Weddell seal is once more abundant, with nearly 800,000 individuals living around Antarctica. And because they live on the Southern continent, they are protected by law which means that the only thing they have to worry about now is a hungry orca or leopard seal (who eat the young). And because they live all the way down to McMurdo Sound at 77°S, which is farther south than any other mammal, they are the southernmost mammal in the world!

Being the southernmost mammal makes them one of the most interesting and least-studied mammals in the world. And that’s where you can help! The University of Minnesota is asking citizen scientists, especially those in classrooms, to help them count Weddell seals seen on satellite pictures. By learning how many seals live in an area, they hope to learn more about the ecological health of the region. To learn more about the project, swim on over to:

October 19 – A Tale of the Ragged Mountains

Today’s factismal: The dingo was introduced to Australia 4,000 years ago by Polynesian traders.

Invasive animals and plants are a problem everywhere, but they are particularly pernicious in Australia. That’s because the “island continent” has been isolated from the rest of the world for so long that most of its species lack defenses against the invaders. To make a bad situation worse, many of the invaders come from regions with more intense evolutionary competition and so have learned to do more with less; as a result, they simply out-compete the native species.

A baby cane toad (My camera)

A baby cane toad
(My camera)

That’s why rabbits have run rampant across southern Australia and why camels clomp through the western deserts. (Amusing side note: the camels in Australia are such pure breeds that they are imported into Arabia where the camels suffer from in-breeding.) That’s why cane toads are wrecking the rain forest and why feral cats have become public health menace number one in the cities. And it is especially why dingoes have wiped out so many native species.

A dingo in the wild (Image courtesy Henry Whitehead)

A dingo in the wild
(Image courtesy Henry Whitehead)

The dingo is a feral dog that has evolved over the 4,000 years since it was accidentally introduced to Australia by passing Polynesians. It has adapted well to Australia’s drier regions, developing fluffier ears to screen out the sand and a sandy brown coat to blend in with the background. And, over the years since it first appeared on Australia’s shores, it has adapted very well to hunting the local wildlife. Though it will attack sheep and cattle (two more introduced species that verge on being invasive), it really likes to munch on rabbits (yeah) and kangaroos (boo) making both a boon and a bane. Indeed, there are actually a few programs devoted to preserving the dingo which is in danger of being driven out of some parts of Australia.

Of course, Australia isn’t the only place with invasive species. If you’d like to find out if that new weed is an invasive or would like to report an invasive species, then head on over to My Invasive:

October 26 – The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether

Today’s factismal: Pavlov used both children and dogs in his famous experiments.

If there’s one joke that all Introductory Psychology students know, it is “Do you know Pavlov? The name rings a bell!” That’s because Pavlov was one of the founders of modern psychology who helped change it from a purely descriptive and qualitative science into an experimental and quantitative one. But what many of those students don’t realize is that Pavlov did his work on children as well as dogs!

To understand how Pavlov could have used children in an experiment, you first need to remember that he worked in the late 1800s and early 1900s when experimental conditions were much looser and “informed consent” wasn’t even a gleam in a regulator’s eye. (And he was hardly the worst offender; consider Watson’s “Little Albert” experiment or the even more problematic Tuskegee Syphilis experiment.) Indeed, Pavlov’s work was considered to be a giant step forward because he didn’t kill his animals as part of the work!

Pavlov during his heyday (Image courtesy National Institute of Medicine)

Pavlov during his heyday
(Image courtesy National Institute of Medicine)

And his work produced amazing results. As with so many scientific discoveries, it happened when he noticed something odd while looking for something completely different. Pavlov was researching the chemical makeup of saliva in dogs when he noticed that they would begin to salivate before they got the food. He reasoned that they had begun to associate the sounds of food preparation with the food itself (anyone who has ever opened a can of tuna near a cat will understand this), which then led to the salivation. He tested his idea by presenting the dogs with a variety of stimuli, ranging from the clang of tuning forks to the sight of a picture; in every case, the dogs soon began to associate the stimulus with the food and would salivate on cue.

Pavlov then took his work to the next level by running the same tests on children. Sure enough, they would associate the stimulus with the promise of food and begin to salivate before the food actually arrived (anyone who has heard kids complain about being hungry after they’ve seen the “Golden Arches” on a road trip can understand this). In essence, Pavlov proved that some things that had been thought of as involuntary reflexes in people could actually be created or destroyed by the appropriate training.

What is interesting is that language is one of those things that can train a person. (If you doubt this, consider what happens when you hear your mother call you by your entire name.) And there is a group of scientists trying to describe the verbs in speech so that they can do a better job of training computers; they do it by getting citizen scientists like you to play games with words. If that sounds like fun, then head over to VerbCorner and give it a go!