November 30, 2016

10 Things You Didn't Know About Whales

Whale Flickr-Guarda La`
I have always been fascinated by whales and indeed they are one of the reasons my family and I went to the seaside this month (we weren't lucky, by the way, although we did get a glimpse of dolphins). But despite my purported love for them, I didn't even know how astonishing these creatures are. I'm again referencing Diane Ackerman's amazing collection of essays 'The Moon by Whale Light...' (which has been one of my favourite reads so far this year) in order to support my astonishment and awe of these creatures and the natural world that allows us to share this earth with us.

I'll start off with this thought-provoking quote:
We ache to know of other forms of equally intelligent life in the universe and yet here are creatures as unknown as extraterrestrials right among us, moving in a slow-motion ballet under the ocean. [112]
Ackerman's essays are filled with sentiments such as these bemoaning humankind's skewed value systems.

These are the 10 most interesting facts about whales that I uncovered in her essay.

1. Whales have the largest brains on Earth. While this might not come as much of a surprise, considering how large some of them become, it is not a matter of matching size: their brains are as complex as ours, probably even more so.


2. There are two types of whales. Toothed whales use echolocation and have a single blowhole. Dolphins, which are cetaceans just like all whales, fall into this category along with orcas and porpoises. Baleen whales are all the larger whales that eat by filtering their food through baleen plates. These whales have two blowholes, just like our nostrils.

3. Anyone can guess why the Right Whale was so named: it was literally the 'right' one to kill, as its body did not sink and it was also relatively docile. If sanctions had not been placed on whaling, this would have been the only animal found all over the world to have been extincted by humankind.

Blue Whale
4. When a Blue Whale is vertical to the ocean floor, its body experiences three different atmospheres.

5. A whale's body, because of its size, generates so much heat that when dead, and even if in icy water, the flesh burns and chars the bones. Whales' bodies thus have to be harvested of all important parts before it becomes a 'burnt whale'.

6. When a whale sings, no air is released from its lungs or anywhere else.

7. Whales sometimes balance their tails out of the water for fun.

8. Whales are made of 97% water and thus babies will hear their mothers perfectly for the entire year of their gestation.

9. At the time of the book's publication, the actual act of copulation between humpback whales had never been seen or filmed. However, the first photograph of these whales mating was taken in 2010 and only released in 2012 after a study was being completed.

10. Humpback whales, known for their hauntingly beautiful underwater songs, use rhyme to remember long songs, which are copied and adapted amongst the males of the species, a complex idea that not simply any organism could understand.

If you'd like to try spot some whales this year, check out this list of spots where you can spot whales in South Africa before the end of December.

{Image credits: 
Lead: Flickr/Guarda La` [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Species branching: By Jérôme Spitz , Andrew W. Trites, Vanessa Becquet, Anik Brind'Amour, Yves Cherel, Robert Galois, Vincent Ridoux [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Blue Whale: By NOAA Photo Library - anim1754, Public Domain, Link}
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November 26, 2016

The Disrespect of Pardoning a Turkey

The festival of Thanksgiving has ended and an annual precursor to these celebrations, the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation, which includes the 'pardoning' of two turkeys, took place the day before. While there have been many articles talking about the true history of thanksgiving in terms of the colonisation of North America and thanksgiving as mourning on the part of Native Americans, there are hardly any in the mainstream media considering the ethics of mutilating and consuming 46 million turkeys every year.

Every media house however did, aside from listing the many, many ways that a turkey can be cooked, cover the traditional 'pardoning' of the turkey, and I suddenly wondered what exactly was the turkey being pardoned for? Crimes against the State? Using up more space in its cramped, dark shed than it should? Rallying a group of activists to call for equal rights (or rights, period)?

After some research I discovered that the first turkey pardon was actually a frustrated and snide joke. Ronald Reagan is the first American president on record to 'pardon' a turkey, after hitting out at criticism over the Iran-Contra affair and whether or not he would be pardoning someone for allegedly being involved. So the original pardon had nothing to do with ethics or compassion - it was just a joke. It was disrespectful.

George HW Bush then instituted the turkey pardoning as an official annual event as a response to the efforts of animal rights activists, in an effort to show that the State can indeed be empathic and caring. Wow, really? One whole turkey out of millions? (Well, I'm not certain of the number of turkeys slain in 1989, but it was likely a lot - especially after Bush popularised the turkey as the cornerstone of the Thanksgiving meal.) I hope the activists weren't satisfied with such a response, as it was thoughtless and disrespectful.

Since then, two turkeys have been pardoned every year, being sent to wonderland locations around the country. Like Disney Land.

It's all such a farce. It's misdirection. These turkeys are mutilated and tortured: they are debeaked, have their claws slashed off, and males have their snoods cut off - without anaesthetic. They live in sheds among thousands of other turkeys, walking in their own droppings and sometimes resorting to cannibalism. They are very likely to die during transport to slaughter due to stress. And, worst of all, they are not recognised (in the US) as applying to the Humane Slaughter Act. This means they can have their throats slit, be pummelled on the head, be singed in a steamer, be plucked, and who knows what else while still alive and conscious. To treat any living being in such a way is disrespectful.

Oh, but this is alright because two turkeys have been pardoned for what would appear to be nothing but the mere fact of their existence to feed us humans, apex predators that we are. 

Personally, I cannot imagine a bird the same weight as my three-and-a-half-year-old toddler lying on my table and being the centre of a meal about being thankful. 

Certainly we humans can be thankful it is not we who make the centrepiece of a dinner spread, because we have rights.

Further Reading:

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November 24, 2016

Dad Embracing Fatherhood = No Troubled Teen. What?!

According to a study carried out in the United Kingdom, trouble with unruly teenagers can largely be avoided if fathers embrace their fatherhood and have a positive attitude towards it, and it does not matter whether or not said father assists in childcare, spends time with children, or helps out around the house. Well, that's the basic tenet of the study, the focus of an article on The Guardian. However, I find this conclusion problematic.

In no way am I disputing the fact that a positive attitude in a father towards his role in his children's lives will have an equally positive effect on their development. I would, however, like to point out some issues I have with the conclusion insofar as it may create the incorrect assumptions about troubled teens and parenting.

First of all, the participation of either parent in the study was different. The mothers were only asked about their children's behaviour, such as their ability to share and social skills - answers which I believe can be fairly objective on the part of the mothers as observers. The fathers, on the other hand, were asked questions that could largely be answered subjectively: how they felt about fatherhood, how confident they were as a parent, and whether or not they enjoyed spending time with their children. Researchers admitted the study relied mainly on self-reporting and from this we can see there must be quite an emotional response underlying the answers.

Also, the fathers were asked how much they helped around the house, and the mothers were not; we can thus infer that there is an implicit bias in the study: mothers are the main caregivers and thus do, or are expected to do, all the housework.

Most studies heretofore have focused on a mother's role in the positive development of their children and this study has been praised for putting the focus on the fathers, who are overlooked much of the time. I agree with this statement: fathers are often not viewed as particularly capable when looking after children and sometimes are seen as completely useless and any time they spend looking after children is sweet (take a look at these comments comparing how mothers and fathers are treated when caregiving).

However, a study that determines that legions of teens are troubled because they simply did not have committed fathers is not considering all the aspects that are involved when raising children. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I see the study as finding that the father needs to do nothing at all but be positive towards his child and confident in his own capabilities. He does not need to spend time with his children; he does not need to help the mother in caregiving or housecleaning; he does not even need to engage with them. As long as he is confident as a father.

This rings incredibly hollow to me and I can see it working for a nuclear family where the mother is not depressed, not lonely, and perfectly happy to be the only one to engage with the children. But picture this: the father - who is confident as a father and enjoys being with his kids - goes to work and the mother cares for the child. She does everything during the day, from cleaning up and wiping bums to teaching the alphabet or counting, reading a bedtime story, and tucking the kids in for the night. The father comes home and relaxes. The mother is exhausted, making her short-tempered and impatient with the children and not at all invested in doing activities with them. She is not happy and her emotions seep into her children.Perhaps the father's unwillingness to help with the chores frustrates the mother even more, resulting in screaming arguments. Or perhaps throw in a father who enjoys overindulging in alcohol after getting home from work and tends to get rowdy and perhaps a bit rough. He still likes being a parent though. And the study is telling me that these children will still end up as untroubled teens?

We are told that maternal love activates cognitive development. We are told that a depressed mother can repress this development. We are told the mother is the centre of the family, that her feelings of stability, her relationships, and her parenting can make or break a happy home. If the mother is not experiencing feelings of security in the different aspects of her life, the child's cognitive development is at risk. But it's all good and dandy as long as the father is happy? Because then the kids won't be troubled? They may be less clever but they won't be troubled.

Thus should the study in question not be focusing on the confidence and happiness of both parents? Surely the happiness of a child heading into their teen years depends on an array of aspects, from tension between parents, depression of parents or child, secret physical or sexual abuse, bullying, the loss of a loved one, drug or alcohol abuse (by child or parent), or peer pressure. It certainly isn't enough to say that a father confident in fatherhood equals a happy teen.

As a mother, if this is true, it is disheartening to think that all the effort I put into raising my child will be for nought unless my husband continues to be confident in his fatherly skills and happy as a dad.

Perhaps I'm jumping the gun as I have not read the study in its entirety and I also don't know what variables were used to decide who would take part in the study, aside from families where the parents were still together until the child was eight months of age. Also, I don't think that only 10 440 children are really statistically valuable or accurate. After all, there are over 11 million children under the age of 18 in England (as of 2014). But hey, I don't know anything about statistics.

{Image credits: 
Header: Flickr/Mindaugas Danys [CC BY 2.0]
Inset: Flickr/Stuart [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]}
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November 11, 2016

10 Things You Didn't Know About Alligators

The only thing that comes to mind when someone mentions alligators is the swamps and marshes of Miami and the fatal attacks that take place there. Imaginations run wild and we assume dozens of people are taken by the crocodilians every year when the reality is only 23 people have been killed by alligators in the whole of Florida since 1948.

Like every creature on Earth, knowledge about these fascinating creatures can only inspire astonishment, respect and further interest, much as it was for me with tarantulas. Crocodilians and alligators are no different and it is quite amazing what you don't know until you do some research. After reading Diane Ackerman's 'The Moon by Whale Light and other adventures among bats, penguins, crocodilians, and whales', I decided to do a series of posts on facts about the four creatures she meets - the first was about bats - because it was amazing how an animal lover like myself had no idea about these animals.

Here are 10 jaw-dropping facts about alligators:

1. It is the female who instigates courtship. The male is so focused on guarding his territory that she literally has to smash into him, climb on him, and basically make a nuisance of herself until he reciprocates. I use the word 'smash' because, for us, that's what it is - it looks soft and gentle as an observer but our delicate bodies would be crushed by the force. In essence, this groping serves for both parties to test each other's strength.

2. The male also has his part in the mating ritual: the water dance. When he bellows, inaudible sound waves vibrate the water around his body, making the water around him look like miniature fountains. While the bellowing scares other males, the females also seem to enjoy it.

3. Alligators can jump. They don't do it often, but they can. They can also climb fences.

4. Their eyes are in possession of football-shaped pupils that remain vertical to the horizon all the time - like a gyroscope. This is most likely the reason alligator-handlers put alligators on their back (most likely before they put their hands in their mouths), because moving them literally disorients them. It has nothing to do with strength or taming the creature and everything to do with the fact that the poor alligator feels like it's been thrown off a building. [Read about why some animals have vertical pupils here.]

alligator-eye5. Female alligators have a clitoris, large enough to be confused with a penis. No one, however, knows if they can have an orgasm, as it's a bit difficult to do with a 2.6 metre toothed deathtrap in a science lab...

6. In certain atmospheric conditions and temperatures, it may look as though crocodilians are emitting vapour from their noses when they bluster. In this case, they could truly look like dragons blowing smoke out their nostrils.

7. Alligators measure their prey by height, so one way to scare one off if it wants to attack you is to stand upright. (Don't take my word for it!)

8. Alligators live to 30 years in the wild.

9. Large alligators bite down with 1342,6kg of force. It's one of the most powerful ever recorded.

10. Alligators also eat fruit when they have the opportunity and they are possibly important dispersers of plant seeds.

As a final thought from Ackerman's book:
That a creature so beautiful, wild and mysterious could be turned into a handbag or pair of shoes gave me a slow chill. [79]

{Image credits:
Lead: By Kate Perez - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link
Alligator eye: By Everglades NPS from Homestead, Florida, United States (Alligator Eye, NPSphoto, G.Gardner) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Florida Memory Project}
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November 4, 2016

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Bats

Bats are an incredibly important part of every ecosystem on earth and it can be argued that humanity depends on them quite a lot; and yet they are one of the most hated and stigmatised creatures on the planet.

A lot of the modern fear for bats has to do, I think, with a lack of knowledge about them. It is very rare for us metropolitan dwellers to encounter a bat aside from perhaps seeing them flitting about at dusk, distinctly different from birds only in their frantic flapping and seemingly chaotic flight patterns, and as a result we’ve only met them in popular culture: as the familiars of witches, the alternate form of vampires, creatures who purposefully tangle themselves up in women’s hair, animals who carry the rabies virus and suckle blood from unsuspecting sleeping cows. When we are asked to picture a bat, we see a darkness filled with grimacing and angry creatures with a sinister purpose, not their diversity, nor their need for society and dependence on one another, and certainly not their potential to affect humanity.

I hope that my list of the most amazing facts about bats found in Diane Ackerman’s essay ‘In Praise of Bats is an attempt at demystifying and destigmatising the misunderstood creatures:

1. A colony of bats can consume 150 tonnes, or 150,000kg, of small insects a night. That is a lot of mosquitoes. One has to wonder what the bat populations are like where the Zika virus or malaria are rampant? Hint: Worse than they should be. [Brazil | Africa]

2. Bats live for more than 30 years and are thus the longest-living mammal in relation to their size.

3. Bats only have one pup a year, so you can imagine how long it would take a population to replenish itself after a colony is destroyed. An entire colony can be destroyed in one go by irresponsible or misinformed persons, since millions of these creatures gather together in vulnerability.

4. The Vampire Bat is thought to be monogamous, and the male and female share child-rearing responsibilities. They are also altruistic, doing favours for others; they also remember those who have helped them before so they can return the favour.
Big eared townsend bat
5. A single bat will eat so much food in one night that it will weigh 50% more than it did at dusk. The Little Brown Bat in America can eat around 1,000 mosquitoe-sized insects in an hour.

6. There are two types of bats: microbats and megabats. The former are usually echolocators (that is, they trace their food using sonar) and the latter are usually fruit bats. The largest of the megabats can reach a wingspan of 1.7m. The smallest bat, the Kitti's hog-nosed bat (also known as the bumblebee bat), is only a maximum of 170mm in size.

7. A pup's voice is so unique that its mother will hear them in the nursery, often made up of thousands of little bodies.

8. There are some bats that feed on nectar and the plants they harvest their nectar from have evolved specifically so they can be fed on by the bats. Bats are thus important pollinators for species such as bananas, peaches, baobab, guavos, avocados, and organ-pipe cacti.

9. Bats are equipped with the same skill as migrating birds, sometimes flying for miles for winter hibernation. Echolocators can usually only recognise topography within a few metres so this is an amazing skill. Even blind bats can make the journey.

10. Bats have been useful to humankind in many ways: they have aided in the development of vaccines, birth control, navigational aids for the blind, surgery in low temperatures, and artificial insemination techniques. They are also a top fertiliser provider and help keep insect populations down. For a South African example, hundreds of thousands of bats live in the De Hoop Cave and it is thought farmers in the region don't spend as much on insecticides because of their contribution.

Golden crowned fruit bat
As a final statement, I would like to leave you with this quote from Ackerman's essay:
The gray bat went from filling the night skies to having to be officially listed as endangered a few years ago. In the Southwest, the freetailed bat...has declined by as much as 99.9% in some places... How  far does a bat [population] have to decline before it's declared endangered? An even more important question is: How many bats are essential to maintain the balance of nature? [46]
By the time a animal is declared endangered, the ecosystem has already been irreparably damaged and the population is too small to have any major effect.

{Image credits: 
Main: Flickr/guilherme jofili [CC BY-SA 2.0]
Big eared townsend bat: Wikipedia
Golden crowned fruit bat: By The original uploader was Latorilla at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0,}

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