Sunday, June 23, 2013

Goldilocks and the Three HOLY CRAP THAT IS A BIG BEAR

This was the birthday post of Mark Neher! Happy birthday, father! If you have a birthday coming up, just email me the date at with the date and your favorite animals, and I will do my best to get a post in! And if you like what you are reading, please feel free to follow us here or via Facebook!

Credit for the photos used throughout this post goes to:
-Grace Albers

Mr. Bones Visits the Morrison Natural History Museum!

Yesterday, Mr. Bones, a local dinosaur enthusiast who's created some amazing looking dinosaur skeleton suits, visited the Morrison Natural History Museum!  The museum was also visited by Greg and Meredith Tally and their children, the fantastic people who are renovating the Best Western Denver Southwest to be a dinosaur-themed hotel!  All of these folks were here to make a brief teaser sort of thing to promote both the dinosaur hotel and the Morrison Museum!  I took a little bit of video, as well as some pictures, so make sure to check them out here!
 Greg Tally is attacked by Mr. Bones!
 Running is useless!
 Just a little too big for the door!
Below, we have a picture of Greg Tally helping out with the cameraman and Mr. Bones!
If you want to see some video of the museum's encounter with Mr. Bones, check out the video below!
Here, we have some shots of Mr. Bones taking a swipe at the museum sign out on the road!
Kids LOVE Mr. Bones!
 One of his other suits, a Utahraptor!  All of the other shots are of him wearing his "Kindergarten Tyrannosaurus rex" suit!
 A size comparison between the two suits.
 Mr. Bones goes in for the kill!

The Bazinga Bee: In Honor of the Big Bang Theory

Recently on The Natural World, we've been doing our fair share of yakking about bees: FIRST, we talked about the house in Utah with the ENORMOUS beehive in it! THEN, just a few days ago, we talked about Bumblebee! (Granted, Bumblebee is a giant silicon-based alien lifeform from outerspace, still counts).  Today, I'm going to introduce you to a brand new bee: Bazinga!!

For those of you who enjoy the Big Bang Theory, you might think that I just pulled a joke: after all, the star of the show, Sheldon Cooper, always utters that catchphrase following one of his "classic pranks!"  However, this is no joke: in honor of the hilarious show, a bunch of Brazilian brainiacs have betrothed this bee with the brand Bazinga!!

With a full scientific name of Euglossa bazinga, the Bazinga bee is one of many creatures over the years whose scientific name references or honors someone or something. (We actually did a post on some of my favorites awhile back, and HERE is a link to that post.)  Not only does the name give honor, it also helps to draw attention to the animal. According to Dr. André Nemésio“Many orchid-bee species inhabit forested areas that may soon vanish and, as a consequence, it is possible that the bees might disappear, too,” Nemésio said.

Dr. Nemésio went on to say that, “For many areas and many species, only a strong action from the society can reverse the extinction process. So, I think it is also a valid way to make people know about these wonderful creatures and the situation concerning their conservation status.”

The executive producer of the show, Steve Molaro, stated in a press release that “We are always extremely flattered when the science community embraces our show. Sheldon would be honored to know that Euglossa bazinga was inspired by him. In fact, after ‘Mothra’ and griffins, bees are his third-favorite flying creatures.”

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Salton Sea

The Salton Sea in southern California has a very interesting history.  Today, it is California's largest lake, is 200 feet below sea level, and is more than 25% saltier than the Pacific Ocean.  But it wasn't always like this: it used to be as dry as the surrounding desert!

Around 2,000 year ago, the Salton Sink and the Imperial Valley (the vast basing that today holds the Salton Sea) was home to Lake Cahuilla, a much larger body of water than the present Salton Sea.  Over time, it was naturally drained, and the area then turned into a hot, dry desert.  This process has happened numerous times over the years, as the Salton Sea is, according to a brochure that I got from there, a "landlocked extension" of the Gulf of California to the south.  The last time the Salton Sink was dry was around the early 1900s.  But it wouldn't stay that way for long.

The year was 1901.  In order for water to reach the Salton Sink and Mexico, the Colorado River was diverted from Yuma, Arizona, through Mexico, and into the sink for agriculture.  Four years later, in 1905, a diversion structure failed, and caused the entire might of the Colorado River to flood into the Imperial Valley.  For two years, from 1905 to 1907, the massive outflow of the Colorado River slowly built up in that natural basin, resulting in what we today call the Salton Sea!  (It would suck to be the dudes who made THAT boo-boo).  Since the basin (and thus the sea) are both landlocked, as well as below sealevel, that means that the sole means of exit for the water in the basin is through evaporation.  And since minerals and salts don't can probably see where this is going.

The Salton Sea, as I have mentioned before, is 25% saltier than the Pacific Ocean with the level of salinity in excess of 40,000 parts per million.  Many of the native fish that were washed or swam into the newly created body of water were unable to cope with the continued increase of salinity, and have died out.  Some marine fish, such as Gulf croaker, orange-mouth corvina, and sargo have been introduced and established, as well as tilapia.  However, they too will most likely end up going extinct in the basin, unable to cope with the ever-increasing levels of salinity.

When we visited there, not only did it stink, but there were dead fish skeletons everywhere.  And when I say everywhere, I really mean everywhere.  Interspersed amongst the rotting fish carcasses were the remains of an enormous number of gulls and other sea birds that will visit the Salton Sea.

Now the picture I am painting you is a grim one: "Why would I ever want to visit this place?" you're probably wondering.  Well, according to the brochures, the Salton Sea is one of the world's "most important winter stops for birds traveling the Pacific flyway."  Some of the many birds that can be found on the shores of the Salton Sea include a personal favorite of mine, the black skimmer, white pelicans, yellow-footed gulls, Caspian terns, Canada geese, pintail ducks, marbled godwits, snow geese, osprey, American avocets, Yuma clapper rail, black-bellied plover, black-bellied, whistling duck, wood storks, roadrunners, great blue heron, and brown pelicans, along with many, many other birds!  We of course didn't see all of these birds when we were there, but we certainly saw a large number of birds!  I would definitely recommend checking this place out if ever you are in the area, the natural history of the place, combined with the bird watching, makes it well worth the trip!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Zanzibar Leopard: A Lesson in Island Dwarfism....and Extinction

Very few people have heard of the Zanzibar leopard, unless of course you are a person from Zanzibar, an island ecologist interested in insular leopard populations, or you are another Zanzibar leopard.  (Which might be problematic, being another Zanzibar leopard, but we'll get to that later.)  In the meantime, let's look at what makes the Zanzibar leopard so special: its size.

When a population of animals becomes trapped on an island, they have to adapt or die: it's just that simple.  While many populations simply succumb to death, other populations of animals can sometimes shrink over the course of many generations, eventually becoming dwarfs of their former selves.  It's called island dwarfism, and it's happened many, many times throughout the history of life: the dwarf dinosaurs of Hațeg; the Channel Islands pygmy mammoth and the Channel Islands fox; the Cozumel Island fox and the Cozumel Island raccoon; and many, many others.  The subject of today's post is (you guessed it!) the Zanzibar leopard and, as you also might have already guessed, this particular leopard is an island dwarf!  

The leopard (Panthera pardus) is simply a fascinating animal.  Able to drag prey weighing more than three times its own weight in some cases, this mid-sized feline is the midnight stalker of the African savannah.  An occasional man-eater, there are numerous sub-species of the leopard, although no one can quite agree just how many there actually are.  While some people claim that there are just a few sub-species, others have claimed that there are around thirty!  However, most scientists agree that, at least for now, there are only eight or nine sub-species.  For regular readers of the blog, you've actually met a few of these sub-species already!  Probably the most famous, the African leopard (P. pardus pardus), was featured in a post about a year ago, entitled "Predators of Baby Leopards: You Might Be Surprised," in which we talked about....well, just read the post for yourself!  More recently, we met the Amur leopard (P. p. orientalis) in a post entitled "An Amur Leopard Upchucks."  I'm pretty sure you can figure out what that post is about all on your own.

There is some debate about whether the Zanzibar leopard is simply a separate population of the African leopard (P. p. pardus), or whether it is a distinct population defined by genetics.  When it is defined as a separate sub-species, the Zanzibar leopard has the scientific name of Panthera pardus adersi.  We'll talk more about this genetic confusion later: but that's enough about the genetics,  let's get to the interesting stuff!

Scientists think that the Zanzibar leopard has been isolated from the rest of the African leopard population on the mainland since the end of the last Ice Age, at which point global sea levels would have risen, cutting off the two main islands of the Zanzibar Archipelago, Unguja and Pemba, from the mainland.  Unguja, which is informally known as Zanzibar, is where the Zanzibar leopard can be found: at least, it used to be found there.

Remember when we were talking about how scientists can't really agree on whether the Zanzibar leopard is a distinct sub-species or not?  Well, their research is not aided by the fact that the Zanzibar leopard seems to be extinct.  Following the Zanzibar revolution in 1964, the government began a program to eradicate the Zanzibar leopard, both to stop apparent live-stock killings attributed to the cat, as well as to eliminate the leopard as an apparent source of witchcraft.  Research conducted in 1996 indicated that the leopard still survived on the island, but more recent research in 2002 has found no sign of the leopard.

Adapt or die: that's the mantra of the island animal.  When you throw humans into the mix, unfortunately its the second option that seems to occur most often.  Thousands of island animals have been exterminated by humans as their habitat is destroyed in the name of progress.  With nowhere else to go, they die out, leaving behind a legacy of destruction.

This was the birthday post of Ted Neher! Happy birthday, Grandpa! If you have a birthday coming up, just email me the date at with the date and your favorite animals, and I will do my best to get a post in! And if you like what you are reading, please feel free to follow us here or via Facebook!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Big @$$ Eyes

I recently acquired a laptop for my graduation gift, and have been enjoying the crazy pictures that you can take on the Photo Booth!  I think my favorite way to mess with the pictures is by making our eyes ENORMOUS!  Incidentally, some of my favorite animals are those with gigantic eyes, and after coming to this realization, I sensed a post in the making!  Today, we're just going to take a look at a few of my favorites, but you can be sure that we'll be taking a look at other big-eyed creatures in the future!

The spookfish is an absolutely terrifying fish.  Do I need to say anything more?  I suppose I'll say a little more.  The spookfish is the only vertebrate animal known to ever have evolved mirrors instead of lenses in its eyes.  OK, that's enough, it's really starting to creep me out now.  Time we moved on.

Next we have another oceanic animal: the giant squid!  The record for the largest eyes in the animal kingdom is held by this animal, at around 10 inches in diameter: the size of a dinner plate!  WHAT THE HECK!  These animals live at extreme depths and, and where other animals would fail to see spectacularly, the giant squid is able to live and see quite comfortably!

The only extinct animal that I have included in this post, Opthalmosaurus was literally named after its enormous eyes: its name means "eye lizard" in Greek!  Although it looks a heck of a lot like a dolphin, Opthalmosaurus was a type of marine reptile called an ichthyosaur that swam the oceans during the Jurassic Period.  A bony ring called the scleral ring in the eye of the animal helped to keep the eye from collapsing under the intense pressure of the ocean!

Let's move out of the ocean now, and into the trees: meet the tarsier!  The tarsier is a terrifying little primate that is native to southeast Asia and HOLY CRAP.  I JUST LOOKED UP A PICTURE OF THE SIZE OF THE TARSIERS EYES AND LOOK.  AT THAT PICTURE.  BELOW.


That is really, terribly creepy.  My goodness.  I....I don't even know what to say.  Let's move on now.

Another arboreal primate, the aye-aye is one of my favorite animals of all time!  Native to Madagascar, this lemur is nocturnal (of course, given the eyes), and as you can see in the picture below, definitely doesn't like having its picture taken with the flash!

Flying above the ocean and the trees are the birds, and the creepiest birds with the biggest eyes are the owls.  The owls and the tarsier both share something in common: their eyes are so big in comparison to their head that their eyes are unable to move in their sockets!  That's why both of these animals have such an enormous range of motion in their neck: to look to either side, they have to move their entire head around!

Craziest Animal Fathers

Today, in honor of Father's Day, we are going to be looking at a few animal fathers who go above and beyond to help raise their children, or do so in a surprising way!  Let's start with one of the most famous animal fathers: the seahorse!

One myth regarding the seahorse is that the male seahorse actually becomes pregnant with the babies.  This is not really true: it's more accurate to say that the male seahorse is the surrogate mother for his own babies!  The female seahorse deposits her eggs, up to 2,000 of them, into the male's special pouch, where he hangs onto them during the 10 - 25 day pregnancy.

The African namaqua sandgrouse father actually has its babies drink water from its belly!  Let me explain a little further: the belly feathers of the sandgrouse have evolved to retain water.  When its chicks are thirsty, the poppa sandgrouse finds a watering hole and dunks his belly into it.  Then, he goes back to his nest, summons his children, and lets them drink from his belly!

Marmoset fathers also are quite involved when it comes to their children, mostly due to the fact that the babies require so much energy from their mother.  Before their birth, the babies may compose up to around 25% of their mother's body weight.  To compare this to a human female, if the pregnant female weighed around 120 pounds, then the newborn baby would weigh around 30 pounds!!

Just like the heavy energy investment required of the marmoset babies, so too do some birds invest a great deal of energy into their offspring.  One of these is the large flightless bird called the rhea, related to the ostrich and the emu.  Native to South America, the male rhea will make the nest, incubate the eggs (sometimes up to fifty of them), and will chase away any animals that approach the nest (including the females!)

Next, we have a fascinating fish called the arowana.  The arowana, like many other animals, is a mouthbrooder, which means that one of the parents incubates the babies in its mouth!  In the case of the arowana, the female layes the eggs on the ground, and the male scoops them up, where he incubates them for 4 - 6 weeks!

Our second to last animal father is the barking frog.  Native to Texas, the male barking frog will guard his offspring, urinating on them periodically to keep them wet.  Male frogs often invest a great deal of energy into their young, with some of them practicing mouth brooding like the arowana, and others carrying the babies around on their backs!

Finally, our last animal father is quite possibly the most famous of all time (other than humans), whose incredible feat of strength is known by millions of people world-wide: the emperor penguin!  For around four months, the male emperor penguin will sit on its egg in the coldest and most inhospitable place on the planet: the frigid desert of the Antarctic.  During this four month period, the males huddle together, slowly running through their limited food supply: they don't eat that entire time!  I have often wondered how such a complicated behavior could have evolved!

Happy Father's Day to my father, Mark Neher!  You have had to put up with a lot over the years!  Thanks again!

Top Ten Pokémon Inspired By Real Animals

Many of you are probably familiar with the popular video game and TV series "Pokémon."  While I myself never got into it, a few months ago, I did a post about the axolotl, a fascinating little salamander. While I was researching the post (which you can view by clicking HERE), I found that a Pokémon called Wooper was based off of the axolotl.  I thought this was pretty funny, as I thought that no one had ever really heard of the axolotl, much less based a video game character after it!  The more digging I did, the more I realized that this is a fairly common theme: a great many Pokémon are based off of real animals, both living and dead!  So I thought that for the birthday post of my good friend Masaki Kleinkopf, we could look at the Top Ten Pokémon Inspired By Real Animals!

1.  Farfetch'd - Duck

According to my Pokémon sources (AKA the Internet), the Farfetch'd is supposed to live in and around water, just like a real duck!  It's also supposed to taste pretty good: again, like a real duck!

2.  Lanturn - Anglerfish

Probably one of the freakiest animals in the animal kingdom, the deep-sea loving anglerfish bait other fish closer with the so-called "esca" on its head.  The little fish swim closer, attracted to the bioluminescence emanating from the esca, and then the anglerfish snaps them up.  The name of this Pokémon is clearly an homage to this glowing appendage.

3.  Shieldon - Ceratopsian

The ceratopsians are a large group of dinosaurs containing one of the most famous dinosaurs of all time: Triceratops.  Although most sources state that Shieldon is based off of Triceratops, the Pokémon differs in that it has no horns.  This makes a more likely candidate for the origin of Shieldon another, more primitive ceratopsian called Protoceratops.  If you click on the link to a post HERE and scroll down to the second picture, you can see a picture of the skull of Protoceratops.

4.  Sandslash - Pangolin

The Pokémon called Sandslash is clearly based off of a funny, but quite fascinating, animal called the pangolin.  Sandlash features the dermal armor of the pangolin (a fancy way of saying "armor formed from hardened skin, akin to the armadillo"), as well as the massive claws.  The claws, in both the pangolin and, apparently, Sandslash, can be used to attack potential threats, as well as burrowing.  The pangolin uses its claws to burrow into termite mounds, consuming them by the thousands.  Sandslash can also roll into a ball to defend itself from attack, just like the pangolin: however, I don't think that the pangolin can roll away from its attacker while in "ball mode."  For a song about dermal armor that features, amongst many other things, the pangolin, click HERE!

5.  Relicanth - Coelacanth

Relicanth is based off of a very unassuming, but entirely fascinating, fish called the coelacanth.  For many, many years, conventional wisdom had dictated that the coelacanth went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous Period, along with the non-avian dinosaurs, the pterosaurs, and the massive marine reptiles. This assumed extinction was backed up by the fact that no fossils had been discovered, at least none that had been positively attributed to the coelacanth.  It wasn't until 1938, when a live coelacanth was pulled up off the coast of Madagascar, that scientists realized that perhaps the coelacanth wasn't quite as dead as they thought it was.  Since then, other sites along the coast of Africa, as well as in Indonesia, have yielded live coelacanths, giving the prehistoric fish a title it very much deserves: a living fossil.  According to the Pokédex in the game (a sort of encyclopedia that talks all about the different Pokémon), the Relicanth was also recently discovered, and is also labeled as a "living fossil."

6.  Tirtouga - Archelon

So apparently, some Pokémon can evolve, which is another cool and clever way of adding science into video games without making the video games dumb and boring.  Apparently, the Pokémon Tirtouga isn't necessarily based off of the massive sea turtle Archelon, but Tirtouga actually evolved into another Pokémon called Carracosta that is based off of Archelon.  Tirtouga appears to be based off of either the extant (still living, opposite of extinct) leatherback sea turtle, or perhaps another extinct sea turtle called Protostega.  Either way, all three sea turtles look pretty much the same!

7.  Archen - Archaeopteryx

It's in the name: clearly, the name Archen is based off of the name Archaeopteryx, a fossil bird that is widely considered to be the missing link (at least the first in a long line of links) between dinosaurs and birds.  First discovered in the 1800s, the feathered fossil of Archaeopteryx helped famed naturalist Charles Darwin and his followers to promote his ideas about evolution and natural selection.  According to the Pokédex, Archen is not able to fly, leading people to speculate that Archen is also based partly off of other, non-flying feathered dinosaurs, such as Velociraptor or Deinonychus.

8.  Lileep - Crinoids

Up until last week, I'd never devoted a whole lot of thought to the evolutionary relationships of a fascinating group of creatures called crinoids.  In my mind, if they look like plants, they're probably plants!  Well, I was wrong: the crinoids are actually echinoderms, just like sea urchins and sea stars, and are actually animals!  I also didn't realize that crinoids were still around today: I knew that there were a ton of them in the past, but I didn't realize that some of them had survived to the present day!  Many people believe that Lileep is based off of these strange animals, and it's not too hard to see the resemblance!

9.  Cranidos - Pachycephalosaurus

Of all of the pachycephalosaurs, Pachycephalosaurus seems like the most likely candidate for the inspiration of the strange Pokémon called Cranidos.  The main means of attack of this Pokémon is by head-butting its opponents, a means of combat long attributed to the pachycephalosaurs.  This head-butting is currently under a lot of scrutiny, with some paleontologists saying that yes, of course pachycephalosaurs head-butted each other, in the same fashion that bighorn sheep do today.  On the other hand, some paleontologists say that there is no way these guys could head-butt each other, as their necks would simply snap after a few impacts.  Other paleontologists believe that they did use their heads for head-butting, but not in the way that the previous two groups were hypothesizing: instead of getting a running start and then cracking heads, bighorn sheep style, they would instead just lock heads without the running start, like many types of deer and elk that spar today.  Still others propose that maybe these dinosaurs were smacking each other in the side or in the flank.  Like many facets of paleontology, we may never know what, exactly, they did with their craniums. 

10.  Anorith - Anomalocaris

This is the Pokémon that really inspired me to do a post like this.  Anomalocaris is one of my favorite animals because it is just so weird looking!  Living in the Cambrian Period, about 500 million years ago (MYA), Anomalocaris is definitely one of those animals that does not get a lot of the limelight.  Often found amongst the various and assorted crazies from the Burgess Shale in Canada, Anomalocaris is definitely something that I never expected to be in a video game!  Nevertheless, here it is!

This was the birthday post of Masaki Kleinkopf! Happy birthday, Masaki! If you have a birthday coming up, just email me the date at with the date and your favorite animals, and I will do my best to get a post in! And if you like what you are reading, please feel free to follow us here or via Facebook!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Xiphactinus: The Inception Fossil

If you were to travel back 100 million years from where I live in Colorado, the face of a very, very different planet would emerge.  I suppose emerge isn't necessarily the best word in this context: submerged is more of an adequate description!  You see, unlike the mountains you would see in Colorado todayLate Cretaceous Colorado was even flatter than present-day Kansas....and a whole lot closer to sea level!  Between about 100 and 70 million years ago (MYA), an enormous seaway stretched northwards from the Gulf of Mexico, and southwards from the Arctic.  Within these waters, hundreds, perhaps thousands of animals flourished, many of which we have nothing like today.  Massive sea turtles like Archelon slowly swam through the waters, while the long-necked plesiosaurs cruised around, snapping up fish before they even knew they were there.  While sharks and mosasaurs were probably the most impressive denizens of the seaway, these massive carnivores fed on fish as well.  And the subject of today's post is one of those fish: a 17-foot long beastie called Xiphactinus.

Due to the numerous pictures uploaded to Pinterest by the Best Western Denver Southwest hotel (read more about it HERE), I'm going to be using a lot of pictures from this site!  Make sure you check it out by clicking HERE!  Unless otherwise noted, photo credit for all of the pictures in this post goes to that Pinterest page!

Why did I call Xiphactinus (pronounced zye-FACT-un-us) "The Inception Fossil?"  Well, that's a description that I came up with (don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise!) that has to do with one of the most interesting things about Xiphactinus: numerous specimens of the fish have been found with the remains of other fish in its stomach!  Just as the premise behind Inception is "a dream within a dream," so too are specimens of Xiphactinus sometimes "fish within a fish!"  The specimen below is a thirteen foot Xiphactinus that died with a fish known as Gillicus arcuatus in its stomach!

Unlike sharks, Xiphactinus would have been unable to bite off chunks of flesh from its prey, and instead would have had to swallow its prey whole, which is what makes the Inception Fossils so spectacular!  Some paleontologists propose that this lack of chewing may have been what killed some of these Xiphactinus specimens, and that they actually choked to death on their last meal!  I suppose it's possible, but I don't actually know enough about these specimens to be a very good authority on them!

The next three pictures below are pictures that I took of a specimen that I saw a week or so ago.  Long story short, my friends Isabel and Sam Lippincott and I had gone to a presentation given by paleontologist Dr. Ian Miller about the Snowmastodon Project a few months back, and he was impressed with Sam's paleo drawings when we showed him after the lecture.  He invited us to come on down to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science so that he could show us around behind the scenes, which he very kindly did a few weeks ago!  These are pictures I took of the 80 MY old Mancos Shale specimen of Xiphactinus, which was discovered in 1966 by some kids who had been hunting with their dad near Snowmass in Colorado.  They had stumbled across the rib cage of the animal, and had notified the Denver Museum.  The next summer, the museum excavated the remarkably complete, 13-foot specimen, taking it back to the museum, where it has been stored to this day!
Here are some more cool pictures from the Pinterest page!  This is a diorama of paleontologist Charles Sternberg caught in the act of discovering one of his "Inception fossils!"

And here are another pair of reconstructions of Xiphactinus!

Make sure to check out the Pinterest page of the Best Western Denver Southwest by clicking HERE!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Not Enough Bacteria, Too Many Allergies

If you were to hear someone say "by making our world more sterile, we're actually making ourselves sicker," you might think they were full of it: initially, it sure doesn't sound like it makes any sense. Interestingly, however, it seems as if this may, in fact, be true: our attempts to make our world a cleaner place, we are slowly and steadily weakening our own immune systems!

It all started yesterday as I was working at the Morrison Natural History Museum, watering and destroying the angiosperms from the Jurassic Garden with "extreme prejudice," as angiosperms do not appear to have inhabited Colorado during the Jurassic Period. I started wondering why there was so much dead plant material around the base of the plants in the garden, and, for lack of a better conclusion, decided that it was probably because the bacteria that would normally digest these plants didn't actually live here. (I still don't know whether that is true or not). The topic of bacteria triggered my brain to start thinking about digestive bacteria: I was quite hungry, you see. It had been brought to my attention in the past that, even if humans were somehow able to miraculously clone a dinosaur, we almost certainly couldn't keep them alive. Each animal on the planet has its own, unique set of bacteria that helps it to digest its food. With the extinction of the dinosaurs, it is almost certain that the bacteria that constantly accompanied them in their digest tracts went extinct, as well.

This line of thought made me think about the passing of bacteria from the parents to their offspring. How is it done? I assumed that they weren't born with it, but I wasn't sure. I ended up thinking that perhaps, in animals that regurgitate food into the mouths of their young (like penguins), perhaps this was how the bacteria was passed. With perfect timing, out came Matt Mossbrucker, the director and curator at the Morrison Museum. I asked him whether it was, indeed, regurgitation that passed the bacteria on, and he said yes: partially. You know how many animals (such as your dog and cat at home) will eat poop? That's at least part of the reason: they're trying to get bacteria from the poop to help them digest their food!

After thinking about it for a few seconds, I realized that humans (most of us, anyways) neither regurgitate our food for our young 'uns, nor do we eat each others poop. So I asked Matt whether humans get this bacteria through breast milk: turns out, we don't. So how do we get the bacteria?

According to recent research, humans aren't getting enough bacteria to digest their food. Much of this research seems to indicate that perhaps this is the reason why so many humans have digestive issues, allergies, and the like. Matt also said that, just like I said in the introduction, "by making our world more sterile, we're actually making ourselves sicker." Still sound paradoxical? Well, ultimately, humans are trying so dang hard to sterilize their world with hand sanitizer, bleach, alcohol, and soap, that we aren't being exposed to as many pathogens. While in some cases this is a good thing, in other cases, our immune systems, just like the six-pack of someone who doesn't exercise, slowly weaken.  And, of course, a weak immune system is good for no one!

So is the moral of the story to stop washing your hands?  No, of course not.  It's to go out there and eat poop.  See you later, everyone!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Whales In Music: An Interview With Alex Shapiro, Composer

So a month or two ago, I went down to Greeley, Colorado to see my good friend Masaki Kleinkopf perfom in the All State Concert Band.  One of the songs that they played there was a piece by composer Alex Shapiro entitled "Immersion."  One of the movements in the piece was entitled "Beneath," and it was particularly interesting!  In it, the band played with one of the most musical animals in the world: the whale!  I was very interested in this piece and the work that went into it, so I contacted the composer and asked her a few questions, and she was kind enough to oblige!  I found her answers very, very interesting, and I hope you guys find them as interesting too!
Alex Shapiro!  Photo Credit: Paul Chepikian
The Natural World:  What made you decide on including whale song in the piece?

Alex Shapiro:  Interestingly, the choice wasn't pre-meditated; the song found me, and I welcomed it in unexpectedly. To back-track for a moment, BENEATH-- for symphonic wind band and prerecorded electronics-- was originally a far more intimate piece for contrabass flute and that very same prerecorded electronic track, titled BELOW. Anyone curious can hear excerpts from both versions of the music: the original solo piece for contrabass flute and prerecorded electronics, BELOW:

And the version I later created, using the exact same track, for symphonic wind band, titled BENEATH:

Around the same time that I was beginning to think about a commission from the wonderful flutist Peter Sheridan for what ended up becoming BELOW, I happened to be poking around on the NOAA Vents Program website (, fascinated by the sounds from our oceans. If I weren't a musician, I might have become a marine biologist, and I also have a fascination with the geology of the ocean floor. I found-- and ended up using to open and close the piece-- a recording of a volcanic eruption from the floor of the Pacific. Perusing the NOAA website, I clicked through to the area with whale songs ( and from there, I found my way to many other websites with marine mammal audio files. And that's how I discovered the whale who I realized would be a perfect duet partner with Peter. The song was so haunting, I just had to use it as the centerpiece of the music.

TNW:  What specific whale did you choose?

AS:  The recording I use is that of a male Pacific Humpback whale; I'm told that they're the ones who do the best singing. I actually listened to a couple of hundred whale songs from seven or eight different kinds of whales before I came across this heart-wrenchingly beautiful song. I became adept at hearing the differences in the vocalizations of each species, and could identify a Minke from a Blue from a Sperm just from the audio. Orcas-- the most familiar whales where I live on San Juan Island, Washington, are easy to discern because, as members of the dolphin family, they make high-pitched chirps. Like the Orcas, many whales don't have a song that lends itself as well to human composition needs when it comes to melody (I place the blame for this on the limitation of our musical language, not theirs!). Too many short blasts, pulses, and other non-linear sounds (all of which are great for rhythm, though!). But the Humpback really does sound much more like a human voice, and when I found this particular song, I was mesmerized. I went over to my piano and began improvising with it. Amazingly, the whale was perfectly pitched with my well-tempered instrument, and I immediately found harmonies that worked beautifully (thus making it a whale-tempered piece!). The only audio editing I needed to do was to use filters and equalization to "clean up" the sound of the audio file, so that the blanket of low-humming water noises picked up by the hydrophones that recorded the animal, didn't overpower the higher pitch of the song itself.

TNW:  Are you planning on incorporating nature motifs into any later pieces?

AS:  Absolutely! I'm often recording the sounds around me-- from nature, and even from my travels through and across nature, such as last week when I was on the ferry from Friday Harbor to Anacortes, on Fidalgo Island, and used my iPhone to capture a hypnotic rhythmic passage created by the boat engine that I'll use in an upcoming work. And one of my upcoming 2014 symphonic wind band commissions will be centered around recording the sounds of the state of Wyoming, and using them in the digital audio track I create to accompany the band. The possibilities are endless, and inspiring.

TNW: Where did you get the idea to do a piece about Wyoming? Have you already come up with the ideas for the sounds you are going to use?

AS: The piece is an upcoming commission for wind band and prerecorded electronics, commissioned in part by a grant from The Biodiversity Institute, a division of the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming, to be premiered by conductor Bob Belser and the University of Wyoming Symphonic Band, that will entail me returning to Wyoming to capture the sonic essence of the environment. U of Wyoming gave a beautiful performance of IMMERSION last year (the piece that includes BENEATH, with the whale), and and you can imagine, this new piece is a perfect fit for me!

And again, anyone curious can hear excerpts from both versions of the music: the original solo piece for contrabass flute and prerecorded electronics, BELOW:

And the version I later created, using the exact same track, for symphonic wind band, titled BENEATH:

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Ms. Shapiro for taking the time out of her busy schedule to chat with me!  Hopefully we can ask a few more questions for her once her Wyoming piece is released!  I feel as if I speak for all of us when I say we look forward to hearing more from her in the future, both blog-wise and music-wise!
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