Pangolins and Water Bears, Oh My!

“Dad, what’s your favorite animal?”

Unlike most of my posts so far, I don’t have a specific anecdote to go with this one. My son, like most five-year-olds, loves animals. Dinosaurs and cheetahs and sharks in particular, but I don’t think there’s an animal he doesn’t like. He asks me this sort of question quite frequently, and he doesn’t care for answers like “I like them all”. He rightly calls me out on that, with a response that generally boils down to: “No. You have to pick one.”

So, I’m picking one. Two, actually, because one is ridiculously tiny.

First of all, let’s talk about the pangolin. That’s one of these:

Really, do I need to give you any more details? I mean, look at it. It looks like a dinosaur, or something from another planet. What’s not to love?

Depending on the exact species, pangolins can range from one to three feet in length and three to seventy pounds in weight. They’re bipeds, using their tails to balance their heads as they walk on their hind legs. The armored scales are made of keratin (the same stuff as fingernails and rhino horns). They don’t have teeth, so they use their claws and long tongues to dig up ground insects like termites and ants, which are ground up by stones in their gizzard. For defense they roll into armored balls. Sadly, they are also critically endangered.

My *other* current favorite is the tardigrave, also known as the water bear and moss pig, which is a half-millimeter-long… uhm… thing.

It’s an animal, really! As you can see from the picture up there, they look sort of like eight-legged pigs and mostly like something out of a John Carpenter movie. You’ll mostly find them in water drops, but they’ve been seen everywhere. We’ve fired them into space, where they survived dehydration exposure to hard vacuum and to UV radiation doses of “more than 7000 [kiloJoules per centimeter]”. (For the record, that’s 7000 times greater than the recommended safe explsure limit listed by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, the first resource I found on the subject.) Also, it turns out that 17.5% of their DNA derives from other life forms – bacteria, plants, fungi, and Archaea – through horizontal gene transfer. Which is significantly more than most other animals (which average at less than 1%).

I love wierd things. What can I say?

Addendum, 24 December 2015

Just a little more on the Tardigrave.

As scientists are wont to do, another team of researchers tried to sequence the Tardigrave genome.  They were unable to reproduce the results of the other team, finding only about 500 foreign genes – about 1.5% of their DNA.  They estimate that as much as 30% of the DNA sequenced in the original study came from contamination.

So, they aren’t DNA pirates.  But Tardigraves make up for it by secreting glass.  They have genes that code for something called “intrinsically disordered proteins” (IDPs).  These proteins are shapeless and highly flexible under normal conditions, but harden into a solid biological glass when dried out.  The IDP bioglass helps protect essential cell parts until the animal is exposed to water once more.

What Happened To Squanto?

It’s the Thanksgiving season here in the US, and my son’s preschool is doing what most of them do:  telling the traditional story of the First Thanksgiving. My son’s sitting in his car seat in the back of the car, telling me that Squabto was nice, and that he helped the Pilgrims (or as he pronounces it, “Pillbims”) when they were hungry, and generally telling me what a great guy he was. The mist ringing endorsement was when he declared “Squanto was really nice. If I meet him, I’ll give him a hug!”

High praise indeed, from a five-year-old.

Now, I’m currently reading Germs, Guns, and Steel, and my wife’s undergraduate degree is Anthropology with a concentration in Native American Studies, and mine is History (and Conputer Science). So I’m trying to negotiate the horrors of what happened (and was done) to the Native Americans, being honest with him about things, and still not dropping heavy concepts like “genocide” on him. Mostly by sticking to making impressed noises as he tells his story. But then he hits me with The Question:

“Daddy, what happened to Squanto?”

Beats me. It’s been decades since I’ve thought about that story. Heck, for all I know, he’s a myth. So, as is my wont, I turn to the Internet.

First off, he’s real.  Which was probably a safe assumption, but you never know. His actual name was Tisquantum, and he was born in the Wampanoag Confederation, sometime around 1580.  He learned English by getting captured to be sold into slavery multiple times, finally making it home in 1619 to find out that most of his people had been wiped out by disease.  A year later, he met the Ouritans and made history.

What happened next?  Well, a few things.  He was the official Puritan interpreter when they negotiated peace with the Wampanoag. Then, in 1622, he contracted something called “Indian Fever” and died.

So, yeah. Probably not a story to lay on a five-year-old. Happy Thanksgiving!

Thor’s Hammer

When my son was six months old, I bought him a Nerf Thor’s Hammer. Why? Because I love the character of Thor, both in the comics and in Norse myth. I’m a huge nerd. My wife thought I was crazy. Not because she isn’t a huge nerd (she doesn’t like comics as much as I do, but she still likes them), but because he was six months old. And we did have to take it away from him for a while, right after he learned to walk. Because the hammer became his “doggie wacker”.

Skip forward about four and a half years, now. I’m getting ready to do my exercises for the night. My son’s excited about this, because he enjoys “helping” me with my exercises – something that, in his mind, means “doing them with daddy, or running in circles around daddy while he does them, or playing in the same room”. But he’s swinging his hammer around, and he declares: “I’m going to exercise with this!”

I chuckle. “You’re going to exercise with Mjollnir?”

“No,” he corrects me. “I’m going to exercise with Thor’s hammer!”

I laugh at that. “Thor’s hammer is named Mjollnir.”

He stops and looks at me. “Why?”

To try and answer that, I started by going to the closest things to primary sources I could think of: the Elder (Poetic) Edda and the Younger (Prose) Edda. Sadly, although they mention Mjollnir in several places, they don’t tell the meaning of the name. The closest they get is the Skaldskaparmal () in the Prose Edda, which describes the creation of the hammer and describes it’s properties:

Then he gave the hammer to Thor, and said that Thor might smite as hard as he desired, whatsoever might be before him, and the hammer would not fail; and if he threw it at anything, it would never miss, and never fly so far as not to return to his hand; and if be desired, he might keep it in his sark, it was so small; but indeed it was a flaw in the hammer that the fore-haft was somewhat short.

Since that didn’t help, I started searching. The Online Etymology Dictionary provided this:

Odin’s eldest son, strongest of the gods though not the wisest, c.1020, from Old Norse Þorr, literally “thunder,” from *þunroz, related to Old English þunor (see ‘thunder’ (n.)). His weapon was the hammer mjölnir (“crusher”).”

“Crusher”. That’s promising, but it doesn’t really say where the name came from. But there’s this reference from Lightning: Nature and Culture, written by Doctor Derek M. Elsom, Emeritus Professor at Oxford Brookes University:

In Norse mythology Thor’s hammer is known as Mjolnir (or Mjollnir), a distinctively shaped weapon more akin to an axe than a hammer. The etymology of ‘Mjolnir’ is uncertain, but it is probably related to Old Norse mala (meaning grind), or molva (meaning crush), with possible cognates in the Russian molnija or Welsh mellt (both refer to lightning). Lightning is associated with the hammer, although the mythical narratives focus on the striking blow it delivers and the powers it possesses rather than the fire or light of lightning.

So, that seems to verify the meaning as “grinder” or “crusher” as well as anything can, although Norse Mythology for Smart People speculates it could “also be related to the Icelandic words mjöll, ‘new snow,’ and mjalli, ‘white,’ the color of lightning and a potential symbol of purity.” Which is interesting, in light of this further quote from Dr. Elsom’s book:

For many Scandinavians the protective powers of Mjolnir were considered so special that Thor’s axe became a symbol used in the blessing of objects (such as ships), births, marriages, deaths and the binding of oaths. Even after Christianity replaced the old gods, it was customary in some parts of Scandinavia for the groom to carry an axe at his wedding ceremony and in Germany it was auspicious for the bride if a thunderstorm occurred during the ceremony.

Interestingly, Wikipedia states that the name Mjolnir is “derived from a Proto-Germanic form *meldunjaz, from the Germanic root of *malanan ‘to grind’ (*melwan, Old Icelandic meldr, mjǫll, mjǫl ‘meal, flour’), yielding an interpretation of ‘the grinder; crusher’.” That tallies well with the fact that “Thor ruled over all the features of the atmosphere, not just thunder, lightning and storms, but the life-giving rains and the winds that propelled ships across the seas” (Dr. Elsom, again).

So here’s my totally-not-a-linguist-or-expert-in-Norse-religion take on it:  Mjolnir was probably a thunderstone, one of the flint arrowheads and axes that were believed to have fallen from the skies. Because Thor was associated with life-giving rains as well as storms, the stones became associated with grindstones as well. So, next time you eat bread, imagine lightning striking the grain to make flour. It’ll make your peanut butter sandwich far more epic.

(I really don’t have the time to get into [i]that[/i] here, but if you’re curious a good place to start is The Thunderweapon in Religion and Folklore: A Study in Comparative Archaeology. It’s a dated but fascinating read.)

Is Rudolph Real?

It’s story time, right before bedtime, and my wife and my son and I are all reclining on our bed. We’ve just finished up “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” by Dr. Seuss, so there’s no reason to expect the question my son decides to drop on me. But he sits up, looks at his mother, and asks “Is Rudolph really real?”

Man, what. You’re five. Stop asking questions like that.

My wife hems and haws for a second. Normally she’s great at questions like this, but she looks like she’s been caught off guard. So I step in. “He’s every bit as real as Santa,” I tell him. Which is, strictly speaking, true. My son grins, and my wife smiles at me, and he goes back to being a contented and happy five-year-old.

But it made me wonder:  is there a “historical” Rudolph?

Well, according to Robert May Tells How Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Came Into Being, there actually was. Sort of. The article was written for the December 22, 1975 issue of The Gettysburg Times, and is Mr. May’s story about how he ended up writing the poem. In it, he says:

“That night, I wondered about what kind of animal it should be. Christmas. Santa. Reindeer? Of course: It must be a reindeer – Barbara, my four-year-old daughter, loved the deer down at the zoo.”

The inspiration for Rudolph wasn’t a single, specific reindeer, it seems. He was inspired by the idea of a reindeer, and by a four-year-old girl’s affection for the animals. And by the tradtional American conception of Santa Claus, of course. But why the red nose? Well, the same article says this in the next few paragraphs:

“But what could a little reindeer teach children?

Suppose he were an underdog – a loser, yet triumphant in the end. But what kind of underdog?

Certainly a reindeer’s dream would be to pull Santa’s sleigh.

Outside, the fog swirled in from Lake Michigan, dimming the street lights. Light. Something to help Santa find his way on a night like this.

Suddenly, I had it! A nose! A bright red nose that would shine thrugh fog like a floodlight.”

Based on a story published in the St. Petersburg Times on December 19, 1948, some of the story may also have been a way for Mr. May to deali with his wife’s terminal cancer. She died while he was working on the poem, and he would read the drafts to Barbara:

“She was my guinea pig,” May recalled. “I tried the words on her for size.”

The creation of Rudolph, then, was a bittersweet thing. But as Barbara said in an article published after her father’s death:

“He felt that Rudolph was something like him as a little boy, sort of scrawny and not quite accepted by the other kids on the block…. But he knew that a person had to keep going and that, somehow, perseverance and tolerance would win out.”

Can you think of a better message for Christmas, or for life in general?

(Incidentally, the song also led to the accidental creation of another new reindeer named Olive. Apparently, the line “all of the other reindeer” can be misheard as “Olive the other reindeer”…)

Whale-eating Sharks?

I’m giving my son a bath last night, and we’re cheerfully splashing and making a mess. As we play, we get to talking about stuff. Over the course of talking and playing, I ask him if he knows what the biggest animal ever is. He say “no”, so I tell him it’s the blue whale.

His eyes get big, but then his imagination kicks in and he starts telling me about the “blue shark whale”. This shark, he assures me, hunts and eats blue whales. It eats them up, and gets bigger and bigger until there’s nothing bigger in the whole world.

“Really?” I ask.

“It’s true,” he says, gravely. “It’s really, really true.”

No it’s not, but you have to love his imagination. So I decided to spend a little time looking up sharks. There is a blue shark (Prionace glauca), which is rumored to get up to 20 feet long – although males are generally 6-9 feet and females 7-10 feet.  So, not precisely the whale-eating shark of my son’s imagination.

There is also a whale shark (Rhincodon typus), which can grow up to around 40 feet in length (with unconfirmed reports of longer).  It’s a filter feeder, though, eating plankton and krill and unlucky small fish. A blue whale wouldn’t fit in it’s mouth, so it isn’t my son’s whale-eating shark either.

The megaladon (Carcharodon megaladon), a predatory shark that could grow up to 54 feet, could have fit the bill. Sadly(?), they died out no later than 2.6 million years ago (the Discovery channel notwithstanding).

Generally speaking, blue whales have almost no predators.  A pod of killer whales will attack them, but it’s rare for sharks large enough to threaten a blue whale to hunt in packs.  So I guess I’ll need to get my son to obsess on Orcas instead.

What Eats Poop?

You just have to love the questions kids ask.

I’m eating dinner last night, and my son is watching Wild Kratts on PBS Kids. Normally, we have him sitting at the table with us for dinner. But I got home late, and so I’m pretty much eating by myself, and I’m not paying attention to the show. But then, he pipes up with a question. “When all of the animals go potty, what eats it?”

Well, I think to myself as I take a bite of my calzone, that came out of nowhere. So I wrack my brain. “Uhm… bugs?”

“No, daddy!” he declares. “Porcupines!”

Honestly? I’ve got no idea here.  Bugs.  I’m pretty sure bugs eat dung.  I’ve got no idea about porcupines.  Maybe the Wild Kratts taught him a valuable life lesson about mammalian poop consumption. I don’t know. But, when you get right down to it, that’s the point of this blog. So, brace yourselves as we start off with your new word of the day: Coprophagia.

According to, cophropagia is the noun version of the adjective “coprophagous”, meaning “feeding on dung, as certain beetles”. And, from what I can find, it’s common not just in beetles and other invertebrates, but among mammals as well. Young herbivorous mammals use it as a way to obtain the starters for the gut bacteria that help them digest vegetation (cellulose doesn’t digest easily). The dung of herbivores also contains a significant quantity of semi-digested plant matter, so many herbivores will eat (re-eat?) it to gain greater access to any nutrients still contained in the waste. Heck, it turns out that even our close cousins – gorillas and chimpanzees – engage in this behavior.

In humans, coprophagia is considered a symptom of a few different mental illnesses. But that’s a comparatively recent development. As recently as the 18th century, a juice derived from boiled cow or sheep dung was used as cough syrup in the United States. And even now, although doctors strongly recommend that you do not consume poop, there is a thing called bacteriotherapy () (also known as fecal transplantation), which is used to replenish gut bacteria in humans who have been through significant antibiotic treatments.

But, back to my son’s point, what about the porcupines?  Well, according to The North American Porcupine Second Edition, by Uldis Roze:

Unlike rabbits and beavers, who also have large caeca, the porcupine is not normally coprophagous (it does not re-ingest feces for a second round of nutrient extraction). That means that the bacteria in the caecum are not themselves used as food sources. The porcupine’s relatively long large intestine, which serves to absorb the fermentation products, partially compensates.
page 47

Dr. Uldis Roze is a Professor Emeritus, in the Department of Biology, Queens College at the City University of New York.  According to his web site, he’s “interested in the anatomy, ecology, and natural history of the North American porcupine”.  Quite literally, he wrote the book on the subject.  So if he says they aren’t normally coprophagous I’ll assume he knows what he’s talking about.

Aren’t you glad you read this entry?

When will you go to Heaven?

As I may have mentioned before, my son is five. And, like most of the five-year-olds I’ve met, he’s interested in and puzzled about death. Not in a morbid, death-obsessed way. He just doesn’t understand it, and he keeps asking questions because he’s curious. So one day – it’s been a while, so I don’t remember the exact circumstances – he looks up and asks “When will you go to Heaven, daddy?”

No matter what, that sort of thing catches you off guard. But I just shrugged and tried not to get super emotional as I look at him and say “not for a long, long time”. He looks at me and says “I’ll come visit you, so you don’t get lonely.” At that point, feeling myself tear up, I hugged him and changed the subject. Soon enough, we were chattering away about superheros. Really, it wasn’t a conversation I was prepared to have.

But awkward questions, often enough, are also great questions. For an answer to this one – how long am I likely to live – I turned to the Actuarial Life Tables of the United States Social Security Administration. To begin with, an actuarial table (also known as a life table) is a statistical tool used to predict average life expectancies. And at the time I’m writing this (at the age of 43.87 years old), the Social Security Administration expects me to live another 35.71 years (to an age of 79.58). The table also indicates that I have a 5.4844% chance of dying before I reach 80.

I’ll take those odds. I play D&D, so I know that a 1-in-20 chance of failure (or, in this case, death) isn’t too bad. And besides, if I make it to 80 the SSA predicts I have another 8.13 years in me. That gets me to the age of 88. At 88, I have a 13.7126% chance of dying before age 89 – still not too shabby. That’s only a little worse than 1-in-8 chance of death. And if I don’t die, the SSA predicts another 4.65 years of life. So, call my age 93 at that point.

At age 93, I’ve got a 22.4931% chance of death. That’s about 2-in-9 odds of dying. And they predict another 3.19 years of life, getting me to 96. 96 gets me to a 28.7218% chance of death (about 1-in-3), and another 2.61 years if I “roll well”. That puts me at 98, and my odds of death don’t change too terribly (32.4599%) – with another 2.33 years if I’m still alive. And that makes me 100.

HOw does that compare to my family? Hmmm… my dad died of cancer at the age of 41, and it still gives me chills that I’ve outlived him. My paternal grandfather died of cancer in his mid-sixties, and my maternal grandfather lived to his late eighties. So, honestly, that 80 to 88 range looks perfectly doable. But, well, like I said: I play D&D. I’ll risk the odds, and plan to max out the SSA table at age 119.