Monday, December 22, 2008

DIY Realistic Paper Animal Sculptures

Japan is famous for paper, but did you also know Japan produces some of the coolest patterns for making your own paper sculptures? I didn't until I found a kit to make a mountain gorilla in a nifty store in Japan. Today I stumbled on a website, sponsored by Yamaha (as in Yamaha Motors) that offers the patterns and instructions for FREE! All you need to do is download the PDFs, print, cut and assemble.

Gorillas, ring-tailed lemurs, okapi, sloths, even bugs.

Don't like animals? No problem - they've got patterns for engines and whole motorcycles too.

I love what the company has to say about why they're doing this:
"All work and no play would make for a very dull company in any area of business, but when your products deliver as much excitement as ours, it seems only right to support them with an equally exciting range of entertainment options."

For "Rare Animals of the World" pattern choices click here.
For a full list of the patterns, including Christmas ones like sleighs and reindeer, click here.

What a perfect craft project to team up on with a bored 10-year old!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Perfect Snow Dog Day!

We have more snow now than I have ever seen here before. We must have 18 inches piled high on our back porch roof and every morning there has been more! The dogs are living it up. They beg and cry to go outside to play in the snow. Then they come inside.. after an eternity.. and then ten minutes later, literally, they are at the back door asking to go out again. Crazy newfs! They really, really love snow. This afternoon they actually begged and cried for me to throw snowballs at them. Katy loves to try to catch them in the air and Yuki just wants to have them hit her face. I drenched her in snow and she kept coming at me asking for more. If only I had time to post some video. Until then, here's Katy newfing it up.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Unusual Finding: Elephants live longer in wild than zoos

More often than not, a life in captivity is associated with longevity. Not so for elephants.

A new study has found that wild elephants outlive their captive counterparts — dramatically so.
Researchers found that the life span for wild African elephants in Kenya's Amboseli National Park is about 56 years. However for elephants kept in European zoos it was just 17 years.

As for the more endangered Asian elephants, wild elephants In Myanmar (formerly Burma) live about 42 years compared with Asian elephants in European zoos who live only 20 years.

According to the researcher, Georgia Mason of the University of Guelph in Canada, there are about 1,200 elephants in zoos. Half live in European zoos. The research involved primarily female elephants because they make up 80 percent of the zoo population.

Asked why captive elephants don't live as long, she noted that zoos usually lack large grazing areas and the elephants are often either alone or with only one or two other elephants that are unrelated. This marks a significant difference compared with elephant lifestyles in the wild where they roam large grassy areas and live in groups of 8-12 relatives.

In addition to the shorter lifespan in captivity, zoo elephants also have a 2-3 times higher infant mortality rate. Mason isn't sure why.

I have to admit that although I love going to zoos to see the monkeys and apes, who often have good enough habitats that I don't leave with a sick taste in my mouth, I have a totally different experience viewing some other animals. The big cats, bears and elephants are among the worst kept critters in zoos in my observation. Their habitats never seem to be adequate for maintaining their mental health, let alone their physical health. I think it's just their greater need to roam that is responsible. Perhaps primates can much more easily adapt to a more sedentary life.

Heartaches are heroes when their pockets are full

One of the classic studies from Evolutionary Psychology, one that gets mentioned in all the textbooks and is known to all students of the field, perfectly illustrates a line from the Rosanne Cash song Seven Year Ache: Heartaches are heroes when their pockets are full.

It's best known as the "Burger King study." The researcher, John Marshall Townsend, an anthropology professor at Syracuse University, dressed the same man in two different ways. One was a Burger King uniform, and the other was a white shirt with nice tie and watch and a navy blazer. He had women look a photo of the man and evaluate to what extent they would: like to have coffee with him, date him, have 'uncommitted sex' with him (a favorite question of EP), have a serious involvement with him, have a serious sexual relationship, and marry him (another favorite EP question). Unsurprisingly, women across the board rated the nicely dressed man higher.

Perhaps a better song and line to pair with it is ZZ Top's Sharp Dressed Man: Every girl's crazy 'bout a sharp-dressed man.

The real question then becomes why? Why do women prefer a sharp-dressed man. Ah, sure, women want a good provider. But why? The answer depends on who you ask. Ask an evolutionary psychologist and they'll tell you it's because ancestral women who chose men to mate with who showed signs of status and wealth left more offspring than women who were indifferent to wealth. Ask a member of the "Flat Earth Society," what some evolutionary psychologists call women's studies departments, and they'll say it's because women learn to prefer wealthy men because that's what our culture values. I say it's what our culture values for a good reason: Those values helped us thrive as a species.

The need for women to prefer wealthy men has a lot, I think, to do with the ecological conditions women have customarily faced, namely, lower status. Another significant one is having babies that are metabolically costly and also incredibly difficult to care for, compared to other species. Human babies are basically born before they should be. They come out of the womb much less developed and far more dependent on mom than other primate babies, including other great apes, who also have very dependent babies. Human babies require significantly more care and that is made a lot easier with the help of another parent who can provide food, shelter and protection. The higher status the helper, the better fed the baby and the more likely to survive. That's how the theory goes.

There are some feminist evolutionary psychologists who doubt whether that helper actually was a male sexual partner. The other helper (or helpers most likely) could have been a mother, grandmother or other females raising babies cooperatively.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Not for feint of heart: The Guinea Worm

Former President Jimmy Carter's charitable foundation announced today that it looks like the eradication of the guinea worm parasite may soon become the second infection to be eliminated from the world. Smallpox was the first.

I still wouldn't drink the water yet in Mali.

People catch guinea worm from drinking water infected with the parasite, a worm. It grows under people's skin and over the course of a year, the worm can grow 3 feet long. Wow! And, GROSS! Like the bot fly larvae I learned about when I visited Belize years ago, the guinea worm slowly erupts from the skin, literally, growing right out of your arm, leg, foot. Evidently it causes much pain and debilitation but is not usually fatal.

There is no cure or even treatment for the parasite. The only thing you can do is prevent it, or live with it, waiting for it to emerge completely. Ew.

The map below from The Carter Center shows the extent of the parasite.

It all just reminds me how very fortunate we are to have clean, safe drinking water — something lacking in many parts of the world. Even in places like Tunisia, Belize and Guatemala, which were all fairly well developed for tourism, I drank bottled water which was expensive. In Guatemala we figured out pretty quickly that beer was actually cheaper.

You can learn more about the guinea worm and how it's being eradicated here.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Pygmy tarsier, a monkey that defies categorization, not extinct afterall!

With a tail like a rat, sticky fingers like a gecko, frog-like legs, a head that rotates all the way around like an owl, bat-like ears and the plump face of a baby, the tarsier definitely counts among the most bizarre animals on earth. And it's also a primate! The smallest kind of tarsier was believed to be extinct until it was found last month on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Sometimes called the world's smallest monkey, the pygmy tarsier is neither a monkey nor even the smallest primate. The tiny dwarf lemur of Madagascar gets that honor. And, primatologists say the tarsier falls somewhere between the prosimians (lemurs, busbabies) and monkeys on the evolutionary scale. They are not quite monkeys, but not quite prosimians either. They have qualities of both. One classification system puts them with monkeys, another with prosimians, but yet another gives them a category all their own. I like that one best. A unique creature should gets its own special spot.

Tarsier traits in common with lemurs, busbabies and other prosimians:
  • grooming claw: This is a sharp nail, usually just one on each hand or foot, and often only on the hands or the feet. It's used for keeping clean.
  • bicornate uterus: Rather one pouch for growing babies, these guy have a uterus that is V shaped, providing two pouches. This makes it much easier to have more than one baby at a time, though like monkeys, tarsiers usually one have one baby at a time.
  • two pairs of nipples: Only the top set is functional. The other is vestigial and doesn't produce milk.
  • small body size: Prosimians tend to be noticeably smaller than monkeys and apes.
  • nocturnal: Tarsiers are creatures of the night. They have the large eyes to prove it too.
Tarsier traits in common with monkeys:
  • no tapetum: The tapetum is a layer of the eye that reflects light. It helps nocturnal animals see better in the dark by amplifying light. When animal eyes glow at night when light hits them, it is the tapetum you're seeing. Monkeys, apes, and tarsiers don't have a tapetum. Tarsiers lack a tapetum even though they are nocturnal which suggests that tarsiers may have once been diurnal and became nocturnal in response to some change in their ecology, for example, the addition of new predators or competitors. They now occupy the same ecological niche that owls do.
  • dry nose: Monkeys and apes belong to the group called 'haplorhines' as opposed to the 'strepsirhines' or wet-nosed primates (the prosimians). Tarsiers have dry noses.
  • central fovea: The part of the eye's retina used for high-acuity and color vision.
  • reduced olfactory bulbs: A part of the brain specialized for processing scent. Prosimians communicate with smelly secretions much more than monkeys do. Scent isn't totally irrelevant for monkeys and apes, it's just that visual and vocal communication take precedence. Perhaps this is because at night, when most prosimians are active, it is either impossible to communicate visually or downright dangerous to communicate out loud. Singals may not be seen through the dark of night or may be heard by predators. It's much more stealthy to communicate with scent.
  • flexible upper lip: This greater freedom of movement, due to more as well as more complex muscles, allows monkeys and apes to make facial expressions. This is one of the big reasons why people see reflections of humanity in their primate relatives. The look of joy, boredom, anger and more can all be seen displayed on the faces of monkeys, tarsiers included.
Anthropologist Sharon Gursky-Doyen of Texas A&M University found the presumed lost species in the mountains of Sulawesi Island. It hadn't been spotted in the wild for 80 years.

"They always look like they have a perpetual smile on their face, which adds to the attraction," she said in an interview. To me, they look almost exactly like Furbees, that fuzzy, robotic toy that was insanely popular about a decade ago. I think even my grandma had one.

The cute yet enigmatic little primate, neither monkey nor proto-monkey, weighs a mere 2 ounces and eats mostly insects. They are also known to eat snakes.