Saggy Cat Bellies

The saggy skin in front of a cat’s legs is an evolutionary feature, not a sign of an out of shape cat.

The primordial pouch is the formal name for the saggy belly cats have. Some breeds have a more prominent pouch than others, but from big cats to house cats they all have it. It’s a loose flap of skin & fat which is the result of evolution and not the because of spaying or neutering (again, big cats such as lions and tigers have it too and they aren’t spayed or neutered).

One use for this extra belly skin is abdominal protection from the rear paw kicks of other cats. Another benefit is it gives cats greater flexibility (especially when they sprint or jump). It is also theorized that when early cats would find a meal this skin would stretch to allow the belly to expand and hold more food.

cat jumping fully stretched out, another cat standing with its primordial pouch hanging down
When sprinting or jumping the primordial pouch stretches out allowing greater flexibility. When standing around however the pouch hangs below the cat.

Salamanders & Fire

Contrary to folklore salamanders are not born in fire, they aren’t fireproof, nor do they have any affinity for fire.

For thousands of years salamanders have been associated with fire. Aristotle believed that salamanders were so cold they could extinguish fire (a claim later repeated – with skepticism at least – by Pliny the Elder). This claim was later specifically applied to extinguishing the fires of blacksmith forges. The Talmud claimed that smearing the blood of a salamander on yourself could make you immune to the dangers of fire. Leonardo Da Vinci said that salamanders got their sustenance from fire which was also how they repaired their skin. Related to their skin, the Persians claimed that asbestos was the fur of salamanders (Persians would also clean cloth made of asbestos by throwing it into the fire, bringing it back out white again). Alchemists and occultists also associated the element of fire with salamanders. But why?

A collection of salamanders & fire seen over the centuries.

Throw another log on the fire

Being amphibians, most salamanders prefer cool damp places and have no interest in fire. The connection between fire and salamanders is most likely because salamanders hide & hibernate in logs (among other places). People would accidentally use these logs as firewood and, as the salamanders found their habitat suddenly on fire, would scurry from the flames. Not knowing the creatures were hiding in the logs in the first place people interpreted this sudden appearance of salamanders as though they were born in the fire, that they were fireproof, or that they had some special connection to fire, etc. In actuality the salamanders were just running for their lives and most definitely had no special protection from fire.

Symbols

Because of this association with fire, salamanders were sometimes an emblem for blacksmiths. European heraldry also featured a variety of salamanders in fire – sometimes looking like actual salamanders, sometimes looking more like dog lizard hybrids. Heraldic salamanders were used to represent a wide range of attributes from sacrifice, to courage, to resilience, to faith.

Fast-forward to modern day and the association with fire lives on in heating companies and heating unit names. It also lives on in literature such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 where the firemen have the symbol of a salamander on their uniforms.

Zebra Domestication

Zebras have too many characteristics that make them poor candidates for domestication.

Zebras are in the genus Equus, the same genus as horses and donkeys. There are three species of zebras, which roam wild in grasslands, woodlands, and mountainous areas of southern Africa. Given that their Equus cousins (horses & donkeys) have been domesticated, it is logical to think that zebras could also be similarly domesticated. However, zebras have some characteristics that make them poor candidates for domestication.

Domestication

Domestication of a wild species has to be worth the effort (is the juice worth the squeeze?). If the costs are too great then there’s little point in doing it.

Some of the keys to domestication are:
Diet – Is their food inexpensive? are they picky eaters?
Growth rate – Will they grow big quickly?
Reproduction – Will they reproduce in captivity?
Social hierarchy – Do they naturally form a chain of command? Will they take orders from a human?
Fight or flight response – When spooked what do they do?
Temperament – How nice are they in general?

As it turns out, zebras are not the most happy-go-lucky animals.

Horses and donkeys came from Eurasia which had relatively few apex predators and so these animals tend to be fairly docile. Zebras however were/are surrounded by lions and other very dangerous predators. As such zebras adapted to survive by any means necessary. This survival instinct means that sometimes a zebra will flee from a threat, but it also means that they’re ready to fight. They can kick so hard they’re able to break a lion’s jaw. Zebras are not flashy looking donkeys – they bite, they kick, and they tend to see humans as a threat. All of this adds up to why zebras have not been domesticated. They aren’t people-friendly, they don’t want to be managed, and they don’t want to do your work.

Attempts have been made

This is not to say people haven’t tried. As white settlers of Africa encountered zebras they frequently wondered why the local people had’t already domesticate them. It certainly would have made matters easier for the colonizers since zebras were already resistant to tsetse flies, they wouldn’t have to import horses, etc. The Dutch Boers tried but quickly learned that zebras didn’t want to be domesticated.

Sometimes you see a few zebras that have been tamed, but a few tame zebras isn’t the same as domesticating the species. Baron Lionel Walter de Rothschild of Victorian England had a carriage drawn by four tamed zebras that he would ride through London. He wanted to show that zebras could be tamed, but given that we never saw many other carriages pulled by zebras, he may have proved the opposite.

In general, zebras do not respond well to attempts at domestication — they don’t have the temperament and at this point there is no need.

Added info: While the domestication of zebras has never worked, the crossbreeding of them has. Some zebra hybrids include: Zorse (horse + zebra) and Zonkey (donkey + zebra).

Deaf White Cats

White cats with blue eyes are usually deaf.

Pure white cats only make up about 5% of the overall cat population. Of these white cats however, 72% are deaf. In cat genetics, the gene that gives a pure white cat its white fur is also linked to the development of its ears and eyes. This is especially important for white cats with blue eyes.

More frequently than any other eye color, 65-85% of blue eyed white cats are deaf. Blue eyes and deafness are closely related in white cats, a trait observed by Charles Darwin in his 1868 book The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. Even more interesting, in heterochromatic white cats (cats with two different eye colors) when one eye is blue the ear on that side of the head will most likely be deaf. The non-blue eye’s side of the head will have normal hearing.

This is only true of pure white cats, those with entirely white fur. Cat’s that are mostly white but have colored markings, pointed patterns, etc. don’t count as being pure white cats and there is no connection between their eye color and their hearing. Siamese cats for instance are mostly white but they aren’t pure white cats and so there is no genetic relationship between their blue eyes and their hearing.

Added info: Interesting side fact, the pigmentation in the coat of Siamese cat is heat sensitive and changes color based on the temperature. The colder parts of their bodies (their extremities: feet, ears, nose, tail) are usually darker while the warmer parts of their bodies are lighter. If you send a Siamese cat outside in the cold winter months they will get darker, and upon returning to a warm house they will get lighter.

Also, in the 1970 Disney film The Aristocats the mother cat Duchess and her kitten daughter Marie beat the odds and are both white cats, with blue eyes, but normal hearing.

In The Aristocats both Duchess and her daughter Marie beat the odds by being white cats, with blue eyes, but normal hearing.

Santa’s Reindeer

Santa’s reindeer are all female and possibly on drugs.

Our primary source of information regarding Santa’s reindeer is the 1823 Clement Clarke Moore poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (aka ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas). As one of the most influential cultural artifacts regarding Santa Claus, the poem tells us that Santa’s sleigh is pulled through the air by eight reindeer. Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer, is optionally added to the front of the team based on the Robert Lewis May 1939 story.

All Female Crew

Reindeer are a species of deer native to the northernmost regions of the planet. As an Arctic and sub-Arctic animal they are well-suited to assist Santa at the frigid North Pole even though they are not naturally found at the pole. Reindeer (or caribou as they are known in North America) graze primarily on lichen which is found a bit south of the North Pole. Their ability to see ultraviolet light, an ability beyond our human visual spectrum, allow reindeer to spot food, predators, and mates more easily amongst the highly reflective snow.

Christmas greeting card from 1921 featuring Santa and his flying antlered reindeer.

In pop-culture Santa’s reindeer are almost always depicted as having antlers. Both male and female reindeer grow, shed, and regrow their antlers. Male reindeer shed their antlers around November, female reindeer in late May. Given this time frame, all of Santa’s antlered reindeer must be female.

As for Rudolph, who would confusingly be a female reindeer with a male name, his/her red nose could be attributed to the reindeer nasal system which contains nasoturbinal bones. This system of curled bones increases the surface area with thin tissue inside reindeer noses which helps to warm air on the way in and recapture moisture when breathing out. It may not be glowing red, but for ordinary reindeer their noses are an evolutionary feature that enable them to live in harsh winter conditions.

The Amanita muscaria, aka the Fly Agaric mushroom, is the iconic mushroom featured throughout pop culture, which is native to Northern Europe.

Magic Mushrooms

In any of the original stories of Saint Nicholas his mode of transportation would have been a horse or a donkey. The introduction of reindeer moves the story, and Santa Claus, to the frosty areas of Northern Europe/Asia. As for flying reindeer, the ability to fly is not commonly found in reindeer. One theory for this association comes from the shamanistic religions of these northern cultures.

Due to the historically migratory nature of Laplanders they did not have a regular supply of alcohol until the recent past. It would have been fairly cumbersome to move alcohol production on a regular basis, let alone the challenge of keeping the yeast alive & active in the extreme cold. So instead as a way to come closer to God, or just go out of their minds, they had the Amanita muscaria, aka the Fly Agaric, aka hallucinogenic mushrooms.

On its own the Fly Agaric is hallucinogenic but poisonous. To reduce the toxic poisonous effects, but still get the hallucinogenic benefit, you have to process them. Outside of just eating lichen, reindeer will also eat the Fly Agaric mushroom. The people of these northern regions learned you could “process” the mushrooms through the reindeer. After the animals had eaten the mushrooms people would collect and ingest the reindeer urine to receive the psychoactive benefits of the mushrooms with less of the toxic effects. Interestingly they would also “process” the mushrooms through other humans, which has a long (and fairly disgusting) history of people drinking the urine of others to get high.

As for flying reindeer, when the reindeer are high on the mushrooms their movements are erratic (but not flying). When humans are on the mushrooms however, they have reported taking shamanistic journeys with winged reindeer transporting them to the highest branches of the World Tree. Less dramatically, sitting around high on mushrooms, people thought their reindeer were flying before their eyes.

Added info: The reindeer ability to see ultraviolet is a feature shared with their deer relatives. As such, for hunters wearing new blue jeans, deer probably see you coming long before you see them, negating any orange or camouflage you may be wearing on the rest of your body. The blue hues of new jeans stand out as especially vibrant for animals who can see ultraviolet.

Imitation Eyes

Eyespot mimicry is used throughout nature to defend against predators

Mimicry is a useful method of disguise employed by a variety of species for both offensive and defensive reasons. Eyespot mimicry is frequently used defensively where a decoy set of eyes are used to help a vulnerable species. This is especially true of creatures lower down the food chain but you can find it higher up as well. Tigers have spots on their ears that look like eyes when they vulnerably lean over to drink water.

Sometimes the decoy eyes serve as a scare tactic, such as in Batesian mimicry. The owl butterfly has owl-like eyes on its wings. It’s believed that in being able to flash the eyes of an owl, the owl butterfly is able to scare small predator birds into thinking a large owl (who eats such birds) is present. In other species the eyespots are a distraction. In flashing a set of eyes a species can surprise & confuse a predator just long enough to escape. Some species use eyespots to draw attention away from their more critical body parts. The foureye butterflyfish for example has dark eyespots near its tail (which is less important) and draws attention away from its head (which is very important). When feeling threatened it can even swim backwards, making its tail seem more like the head and vice versa.

The owl butterfly whose eyespots mimic that of an owl to frighten away predators.
The foureye butterflyfish, eyespots by its tail.

Eyes looking out, for you

The northern pygmy owl of North America has eyespots on the back of its head, helping to mislead predators into thinking they are being closely watched. In 2016 an experiment was conducted in Botswana of painting eyes on the rumps of cows to prevent lion attacks. The cows with painted eyespots were less susceptible to predation by lion attacks than normal cows, as the lions felt they were being watched.

Finally, for those who believe in the supernatural malevolent force of the “evil eye”, you have some options of magical defensive eyespots. The nazar (a blue & white eye-like amulet) has been used for thousands of years from Turkey through to India and elsewhere. Similarly the hamsa (which also features an eye but sitting in the palm of a hand) has been used around the Middle East for a similarly extended period of time.

Both symbols are said to attract the negative energy of evil eye attacks, and destroy/repel them. If your nazar is cracked then it’s “proof” that it has worked, and of course you’re supposed to buy a new one. After all, you have to keep your magical eyespot functional.

Left: the hamsa. Right: the nazar.

Venomous vs Poisonous

Venomous species are aggressively toxic while poisonous species are defensively toxic.

The difference between things that are venomous and things that are poisonous is a difference of evolutionary strategies. It’s a difference of offense vs defense, actively toxic vs passively toxic.

Venomous

Venomous species use an active strategy to inflict toxins. As such they always have some sort of toxin delivery system such as fangs, barbs, stingers, spurs, etc as a way to inject their venom. Predators use venom to incapacitate their prey to various degrees.

Poisonous

Poisonous species defensively pass on their toxins when they are touched or eaten. This passive approach is why toxic plants are categorized as poisonous because … well, most plants don’t actively move around trying to attack prey. As for poisonous animals the poison is frequently secreted through their skin as in the case of the poison dart frog (who got their name because their poison was sometimes used by indigenous tribes of Central/South America to make poisonous blowdarts).

Poisonous species use their toxin to deter predation. Sometimes a predator only needs to be poisoned once to learn to never attack that poisonous species again. For others, a particular poison doesn’t leave the predator with the option of a second attack as it results in death.

In Short:

  • Venomous: when something toxic bites/touches you
  • Poisonous: when you bite/touch something that is toxic

Added info: While generally mutually exclusive, there are a few species that are both venomous and poisonous. One example is the Tiger Keelback snake (Rhabdophis tigrinus) of East Asia. It has fangs to inject toxin but more frequently it employs a defensive strategy and stores toxin in nuchal glands. Any predator that bites into the snake’s neck will be poisoned. The toxin they use for either strategy is not produced by the snake, but rather it’s acquired by eating poisonous toads.

The Tiger Keelback is both venomous and poisonous

Lobster Immortality

Lobsters are not immortal, but still pretty special

To point out that lobsters aren’t immortal may seem unnecessary unless you’ve previously seen internet buzz stories that lobsters might be able to live forever. Different species of lobsters have different lifespans but male European lobsters typically live around 31 years and females live around 54 years. This is far from forever. Aside from being killed by disease and fishing, how do lobsters die?

To understand the longevity of lobsters there are a few things to understand. To start, one of the remarkable things about lobsters is that, unlike humans and most other animals, lobsters continue to get bigger as they get older. Humans get to an adult size and stop getting taller, but for lobsters there is no upper limit on how large they can grow to be. Another remarkable thing about lobsters is that as they age they don’t show many signs of aging like we do. They don’t get weak, or slow down, or stop reproducing as they get older. Part of this longevity is how their cells divide. Unlike humans, lobsters continue to produce an enzyme called telomerase which helps repair chromosomes damaged during cell division. Having undamaged chromosomes likely leads to not feeling the effects of old age, and so lobsters just keep living normal lives … until they don’t.

Moulting

Lobsters are invertebrates with exoskeletons. In order for a lobster to get larger as it ages, it has to shed its current exoskeleton and grow a new one. It basically runs out of room in its shell and needs to start a new roomier one. Therein lies the problem. While there may be no physical upper limit as to how large a lobster can get, every moulting takes more energy than the time before and eventually a lobster just doesn’t have the energy to shed its exoskeleton. 10-15% of lobsters die during the moulting process because they run out of energy. For those older lobsters who just stop moulting, they begin to accumulate damage to the shells and eventually die.

An added bonus: Another question the internet seems to ask is if lobsters feel pain. Yes they do, and being boiled alive is not enjoyable for lobsters (it’s illegal to boil a lobster alive in New Zealand, Switzerland, and parts of Italy).

To end on a high note, while most lobsters are dark bluish greens and greenish browns, genetic mutations can produce some really spectacular looking lobsters. Similar to most animals, albinos are very rare (1 in 100 million). Unlike most other animals though, lobsters have another extremely rare coloration (1 in 100 million) where the lobster is pastel blues & subtle pinks called “cotton candy”.

lobster

Lightning Bugs

Lightning bugs glow for a variety of reasons through a chemical reaction

Lightning bugs, fireflies, glowworms, or whatever else you may call them based on where you live, are beetles (not bugs) known for their summertime bioluminescent light shows. There is a great deal of diversity among lightning bug species. Most are nocturnal (but not all), most can create bioluminescent light (but not all). In some species both the males & females can glow (but in others only one or the other can glow). They also produce different colors (light green, yellow green, red), depending on the species.

Light show

Lightning bugs have a special organ to produce light, which happens when luciferin (a chemical compound) and luciferase (an enzyme) mix. Both luciferin & luciferase are named after Lucifer, which is the Latin name for the planet Venus meaning “light bringer”, because Venus can appear just before dawn in the night sky. Only later did Lucifer also come to mean Satan, but back to lightning bugs.

Why lightning bugs glow varies by species as well as age. In larvae they can glow as a warning to predators telling them “I don’t taste good, don’t eat me.” In adults it’s primarily for mating purposes. Adult males puts on a light show to attract females. Females reciprocate with a glow of their own.

It’s worth noting that the females of the Photuris genus of lightning bugs, are also known as the “femme fatale lightning bugs” because they imitate the light pattern of other species to attract & then eat the males. Of this genus, the species Photuris pensylvanica is the state insect of Pennsylvania.

The Hippos of Pablo Escobar

In the Colombian jungle, Escobar’s hippos wander.

During his reign as the head of the Medellín Cartel drug empire, Pablo Escobar’s net worth was in the tens of billions of dollars. As such, Escobar could & did purchase a variety of extravagant items. He also spread the money around the local community. The venn diagram of these types of spending overlap with his personal zoo.

In the 1980s Pablo Escobar built a zoo for himself at his countryside estate Hacienda Napoles. He allowed schoolchildren to see the animals on class trips. After Escobar was killed, and Hacienda Napoles was confiscated by the government, most of the animals were dispersed to other (actual) zoos. All of the animals found new homes except 4 hippos which continued to thrive and today have fruitfully multiplied to over 80 hippos. These wild Colombian hippos are becoming a real problem in the region because they aren’t easily contained to just one area, they eat and poop in large quantities, they don’t have many predators, and any solution to the problem (aside from killing them, which the general public doesn’t want) costs money that the government doesn’t want to spend.