18 August 2011

Reptilia

Firstly, I forgot to mention something crucial in that last post! Along with the 4 courses I'm officially taking this semester, I'm sitting in on the Human Evolution course for funsies. I wish I could properly take it and actually be registered for it but a) I don't have space and b) it'd be silly because it technically won't help my degree much. But that's not the point! What a brilliant course! The convener, Becky Ackerman, is so amazing. She gave us a few lectures on human evolution in first year biology but here she has a whole course of her own! It's so interesting and she's a great lecturer. Plus she's apparently uploaded a bunch of articles on why creationism is nonsense. Evolution is such a beautiful thing to study. More on that in the next post though :)

The Animals course, gosh. It's still amazing and Mike Picker is still the most passionate lecturer I've seen (showed amazing footage of a cicada moulting today!), but these pracs are going to get harder for me I think... We had to dissect a nice, big, red and poisonous locust on Monday. Three hours of holding it, cutting away at exoskeleton and organs :S I've mentioned before that I have a teensy insect phobia. This course should hopefully be the end of that. Absolutely terrifying. I got told off by Mike for swearing when I first had to pick it up with my hand. But all that aside, I actually enjoy dissections. When it comes to vertebrates I do have some ethical issues with it (huge grey area, still undecided), like when we did the frog last year, but with invertebrates, it's icky at first but once you've cut away all the things that make it look like a living thing, it's actually fascinating. And for someone who wants to throw up/cry before every dissection I'm kind of good at them weirdly...

Anyway, around this time last month I was in India, sick in bed and watching Animal Planet for hours when this Donald Schultz documentary came on. I don't know much about him since I've only seen his stuff a couple of times, but he's one of those Austin Stevens/Jeff Corwin adventure types. He's South African and mostly seems to work with snakes, got a bit of a Bear Grylls vibe about him except he's actually cool (I hate Bear Grylls!). From what I've seen he always seems to be on these quests to find some dangerous/rare animal for scientific purposes like to milk for venom, get tissue samples etc. For anyone who doesn't know, I'm a bit of a reptile freak. Big cats, sharks and snakes are generally my thing so these documentaries excite me. What I loved about this show was that he was exploring the deserts in Iran, somewhere no one ever goes. He found this stunning desert monitor, the picture below shows one, absolutely beautiful animal.


What I really want to talk about though is venom. Venom, not poison!! It does my head in when people mix up the terms. If it's injected into the bloodstream with fangs or any other way, it's called venom. It's poison when it's ingested or absorbed. So there is no such thing as a poisonous snake! That's such a huge pet peeve of mine. Yes I'm a dork :) Anyway, it's generally always been thought that snakes were the only venomous reptiles, with the exception of two lizards; the gila monster and Mexican beaded lizard. Over the last few years though, they've been finding a whole bunch of lizard species that are actually venomous. This article's actually really old but I only found it after watching this show and Donald Schultz said that these desert monitors could in fact be venomous. Till now it's always been assumed that the side-effects of lizard bites were just because of all the bacteria in their saliva. A classic example being the Komodo Dragon. There are so many documented cases of how their saliva is so full of bacteria that when they hunt, the infection from their bite is guaranteed to kill the prey within a couple of days. So they bite, wait for the bacteria to do it's work, and follow the buffalo or whatever prey around until it dies. Wrong. Well, partially. Their mouth definitely is full of bacteria and all sorts of nasty stuff, but it turns out they have venom too. So if a Komodo dragon wasn't already intimidating enough, it's venomous too. They've found that most of the venomous lizards are in the iguana and monitor families. Even the bearded dragon, a popular pet, has been found to be mildly venomous. It really makes you think about the evolution of these reptiles. I've always thought of venom as quite an advanced and recent adaptation but if the ancestors of modern monitors could have venom, what about venomous dinosaurs? I'd never thought about the possibility before.It's amazing. Read those two articles and if you're interested in venomous things, have a look at some of the other work Bryan Fry has done. He makes a lot of random appearances on Animal Planet and Nat Geo but I've just rediscovered him now with this, must have a look at the site myself...So interesting. I love reptiles. I'm trying to convince my dad to let me do this snake handling course but I don't think he'd be so excited about giving me money to play with Cape cobras... 

Actually since I'm on the topic of venomous snakes. This is my favourite -

Bitis gabonica
The Gaboon viper, such a remarkable snake! Such perfect geometrical markings - impeccable camouflage, the two little horns on it's nose, it's the heaviest of all the viper species with the longest fangs and biggest venom yield of any venomous snake. They used to have this beautiful one at the Jo'burg zoo, I saw it presumably just after it had shed and its skin looked almost velvety. But they don't do very well in captivity so it's not around anymore :S But they did get a rhinoceros viper instead. Actually the two are very closely related. Rhino viper, another favourite, they're smaller but look quite similar to Gaboon vipers. Their colours are brilliant though, and so varying depending on their habitat. I'm going to stop there because it's too easy for me to go on about snakes.

And speaking of herpetology, let's end with a happy article about a rainbow toad that's been rediscovered after it was thought to be extinct :)



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14 August 2011

Re-Inspiration Take 2

Good lord. I've had this draft post sitting here for over a month. So much for recommitting to my blog!

I'm back at uni now after a holiday that was really too short and quite enjoying this semester, though it's a work load. I've got four courses - stats, Life on Land: Animals, Life in the Sea and Contemporary Urban Challenges. Life in the Sea has a lot of overlap with last semester's oceanography material but lots of zoology thrown in. So far it hasn't been too exciting but it should pick up soon. Contemporary Urban Challenges is a course I really haven't been looking forward to but it's compulsory to take if you want to major in EGS. It's all about urbanisation and sustainable cities which is great, I love learning the concepts and applying it to Indian cities for instance, but it's very South Africa focused, which is a bit annoying. It's also quite boring at times but let's see how that goes...The Animals course however, I'm absolutely LOVING. The course convener, Mike Picker, is Southern Africa's main entomologist and such a brilliant lecturer (see Ecosystem Engineers). His life's work is all about insects and he's so enthusiastic, his passion is inspiring. Plus his knowledge is just overwhelming. It's not an easy field to know inside out but he's like an encyclopaedia. I love him. The course is split into invertebrates this term and vertebrates next term, after camp. Another camp, Namaqualand, SO excited :D The bulk of the inverts section is all about insects and in spite of my little phobia, I'm loving it. God knows why, because it's actually quite dull, but I'm really enjoying learning about insect classification. For some reason all the phylogeny stuff is really fascinating. It got me thinking about the tree of life but that's for another post ;) The only squeamish bit is the practicals where we have to examine and identify all these preserved specimens. This week is apparently a  dissection which I'm not too chuffed about :S

Another amazing thing this semester has brought already - Jane Goodall in person. On my first Monday back from India she did a talk at Bishops (thank you Ky!). She basically spoke about her own work in conservation, mostly with the chimps. It was different to Attenborough (yeah that's right, Sir David Attenborough and Dr. Jane Goodall in one year :P) in that his was on a more focused topic while her's was a kind of motivational conservation talk. But she's amazing. There's something so sweet and innocent about her, you just want to hug her. She's just so inspiring, I can't describe it. If hearing her speak wasn't enough, we met her after the talk and she signed my book :D

my new most prized possession

Anyway, back to business. This was meant to be a whole post about the IWC after the meeting that happened last month because I love to write about whaling issues and all that bureaucracy (Life, Times and Japanese Whaling). At least I used to. It was an issue I followed so closely but now it just gets more and more difficult to keep track of... I wanted to blog about the meeting but it wasn't all that fruitful so there's not much to talk about.

Last year they tried to reach a compromise between anti-whaling nations and pro-whaling nations. Of course in a body like the IWC, compromise means a country like Japan will agree to stop it's hunt in the Southern Ocean on the grounds that it is allowed to dabble in a bit of commercial whaling off of its own coast. Commercial whaling is banned, just by the way. Fortunately, in the time between last year's meeting and the current one, some developments have been made. For one, last year, Japan suspended it's whaling season saying they could no longer cope with Sea Shepherd's increased harassment (victory!). On top of that (not that I'm happy about the tragedy that came with it, but it's definitely welcomed damage to the whaling fleet) one of their main ports was destroyed by the March tsunami. Since then, their whaling policy has (finally) been under review. This is something I was hoping to hear more about, but unfortunately it looks like they will be returning to the Southern Ocean this year.

Not only has Japan been under scrutiny but so has the IWC itself. There has been pressure on the organisation to get its act together and put an end to the corruption that plagues it. When the IWC started in the 1940s, it's main purpose was to regulate whaling and ensure proper whaling practices (if such a thing exists) and management of whale stocks. Whaling has long since been accepted as a barbaric activity. As the practice of whaling has become outdated, the initial purpose of the IWC too has become redundant. The commission now consists primarily of countries opposed to whaling, and has effectively become a body for whale conservation. It needs to evolve with the times and make sure that its signatories do the same.

The outcomes of this year's meeting haven't really got much substance to them. The focus of the meetings always come back to the bureaucracy and the whales are pushed aside. Here's a little summary on some of what went down at the meeting: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-14110079. Beyond that there's not much to say..

For fun here's a little article about how the male competition in sparrows' songs makes it very similar to a rap battle! It's the most amazing, bizarre thing I've ever read. Also an incredible parallel to draw between bird and (such a random little aspect of) human societies. Brilliant :)

And to end, here's some pretty sunset pictures from McLeod Ganj. Just before leaving India, I went up for a weekend with a few family friends. What a stunning little place. All hill stations in India have this amazing vibe. The people are so friendly and calm, there's fresh mountain air, new birds, lush green valleys and these quaint little towns. I love the mountains in India so much. I've decided I'm going to open a coffee shop/bed and breakfast in the hills with my mum some day :)





By the way - I reorganised the blog last month to make things a little more ordered but it's looking quite dull now so it's still under construction. Also I've realised what an idiot I am. Whenever I do have lots to blog about, I do it all in one ridiculously long post and then vanish for a month because I'm all blogged out - stupid. So even though I have lots of other stuff to ramble about at the moment, I've kept them for other posts. Intelligent me :p More to come!


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