Grip the Raven

Charles Dickens’s pet raven Grip helped inspire Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven.

In the first half of the 19th century Charles Dickens had a pet raven named Grip who, by all accounts, was quite the handful. Grip was talkative, bossy, and aggressive. She intimidated the family’s mastiff Turk (she would steal food from his bowl) and would also bite the Dickens children. Eventually Dickens exiled Grip to the shed where, being a mischievous raven, she got into a can of white paint (which contained lead). On March 12, 1841 Dickens wrote to his friend, the illustrator Daniel Maclise, that Grip had died.

Because he loved Grip Dickens had her stuffed and mounted in a case complete with a woodland setting of branches and leaves. He also had Maclise create a portrait of her. Despite Grip’s difficult personality it didn’t put Dickens off to having more ravens as pets, the next of which he also named Grip (who, according to Dickens’s daughter Mamie, was also a handful).

Grip the raven inspired Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe.

Quoth the Raven …

In 1842 Dickens and his wife traveled to America. As part of his tour around the states he met with Edgar Allan Poe who had favorably reviewed Dickens’s 1841 novel Barnaby Rudge. In the novel the titular character of Barnaby Rudge has a talkative pet raven whose name just happens to be Grip. Poe was particularly interested in Grip, whom he described as “intensely amusing” and liked that Grip the character was based on Dickens’s own real pet Grip.

A few years after learning about Grip, Poe would write his most defining work, 1845’s The Raven. In the poem a raven flies into the room of the grief-stricken narrator, tormenting him that he will never be reunited with his lost love. It’s widely believed by Poe scholars that the inspiration for the bird in the poem was Grip the raven (both the real Grip and the fictional Grip). There are numerous similarities between the bird in The Raven and Grip the raven in Barnaby Rudge.

the Free Library of Philadelphia

After Dickens died in 1870 Grip was sold at auction. She was eventually bought by Colonel Richard Gimbel (a wealthy member of the Philadelphia department store family) who was an avid collector of both Dickens and Poe. He also purchased the Philadelphia home of Edgar Allan Poe which was later donated to the National Park Service. Grip, as well as the rest of the Gimbel collection of Dickens and Poe artifacts (including the only known copy of The Raven written in Poe’s hand), were bequeathed to the Free Library of Philadelphia in 1971. Today Grip can be found, still in her case, at the end of a series of hallways on the 3rd floor of the Central Library in the Rare Books department.

Grip at the end of the 3rd floor hallway in the Rare Books department of the Philadelphia Free Library
Grip sits in her case at the end of the hallways in the Rare Books department of the Philadelphia Free Library central branch on Vine Street.
Plaque from the Friends of Libraries

Grip the mischievous raven inspired two literary giants. The Raven the poem then went on to inspire untold others including the naming of the Baltimore Ravens (the only football team named after a piece of literature).

Added info: Grip was not the only Dickens pet that had a life after death. After Bob the family cat died Dickens had one of his paws turned into a letter opener.

Also, while crows and ravens are fairly similar there are some easy ways to tell them apart. It’s frequently written that “ravens are larger than crows” but without seeing the two side-by-side it can be difficult if you haven’t previously seen both species. Perhaps the easiest way is the tail feathers which, when in flight, the feathers of a raven come to a point like a “V” (like the “v” in “raven”). A crow’s tail feathers are more of a straight line.

Color Blindness

The visual condition that changes what colors you see, which is mostly found in men and is mostly hereditary.

To start, being color blind almost never means someone is blind to color, as if they’re living in a black & white movie. “Color blind” usually just means someone doesn’t see the full spectrum of colors like the rest of us. To understand color blindness we have to understand two concepts: light and our eyes.

Let there be light

The colors that we see are photons moving at different wavelengths/frequencies. They’re part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The full electromagnetic spectrum ranges from Gamma rays (the shortest, highest frequency waves – quite dangerous) to radio waves (the longest, lowest frequency waves – not so dangerous). What we call visible light is radiation in a particular range of wavelengths. Within this bandwidth the colors of violet and blue have the shortest wavelengths while oranges and reds have the longest. Through evolution we have developed two small biological machines capable of detecting this range of wavelengths … our eyes.

the electromagnetic spectrum
The electromagnetic spectrum ranges from gamma rays to radio waves, photons moving at a variety of wavelengths & frequencies.

Doctor My Eyes

Our retinas have two kinds of photoreceptive cells: rods and cones. Rods see light & dark while cones see color. We have about 120 million rods per eye and but only 6-7 million cones per eye. Instead of just one kind of cone cell we have three and each kind is tuned to a certain range of wavelengths (short, medium, and long). To put it another way, our three kinds of cone cells are each tuned to see certain ranges of colors – blues (short), greens (medium), reds (long).

Bringing it all together, color blindness is when one (or more) of your cone cell types are either defective or missing entirely. The result is that you are unable to properly see certain wavelengths of colors.

Color Blindness

Why does color blindness happen? While color blindness can be an acquired condition most of the time it’s genetic. The most common forms of color blindness are carried on the X chromosome and because men only have one X chromosome, if it’s defective they’re out of luck. This is why men are more commonly color blind than women. Women have two X chromosomes so a functioning X chromosome will compensate for a defective one. As a result around 8% of men are color blind compared to only around 0.5% of women. That said color blindness isn’t evenly distributed across men – it has a higher prevalence amongst Caucasian men than other ethnicities.

red-green color blindness is the most common form of color blindness
Red-green color blindness is a group of different kinds of color blindness. It’s the most common form of color blindness.

Because cones come in three varieties, and those cones can be defective or absent, the various combinations of factors means there are many forms of color blindness. The most common type is “red-green” color blind (which is a few kinds grouped together) where reds and greens aren’t seen properly and shift to look more like yellows and browns. This is the result of the medium and long (green and red) cone cells being defective or absent. Red-green color blindness accounts for about 99% of all color blindness with about 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women having it.

Blue-yellow color blindness is where blues and greens aren’t seen properly. It’s also genetic but it’s not carried on the X chromosome so men and women are affected relatively evenly. It’s quite rare – around 0.01% of men and women are blue-yellow color blind.

Are you seeing what I’m seeing?

The effects of color blindness range from the benign to the dangerous. Accidentally wearing clothes that don’t match can be embarrassing but confusing “stop” for “go” on a traffic light can be dangerous. Color blind individuals can have difficulty determining the ripeness of fruits & vegetables. They can see sports jerseys as similar and have difficulty tracking games. The designer shorthand that red means error/bad while green means success/good (the traffic light analogy) can make a variety of safety features, dashboards, and websites more difficult to use. One positive is that color blind individuals may be better at detecting camouflage.

What do other animals see?

The concept of “color blindness” is relative. What most humans consider normal is not what most bees would consider normal, or dogs, or any other species. So when people say that most other animals are color blind, it’s just that they can’t see the same spectrum of colors that humans normally see.

To start, most mammals are red-green color blind (which to them is normal). They tend to only have two cone cell types, lacking the third we have to see a wider range of colors. So when a dog can’t find the green tennis ball in the green grass, it’s probably because they really can’t see it (especially if it has stopped rolling). Dogs rely on movement to distinguish between things more than we do. That said dogs have more rods than humans so when it seems like they’re looking at something in the dark, and you can’t see anything, they’re probably seeing something beyond your vision.

The old idea that bulls dislike the color red is untrue – they’re red-green color blind. When a matador waves a red/pink cape to attract a bull the bull is responding to the motion of the cape, not the color. Dolphins and other marine animals see even less due to having only the long wavelength cone type and are monochromatic. Deer are red-green color blind but can see more shorter wavelength colors than we can including some amount of ultraviolet which to us is invisible. Some laundry detergents contain brightening agents that are intended to brighten the colors of your clothes but can make clothes look bright blue to deer. The result is that, even if your clothes are camouflaged, the deer probably saw you long before you saw the deer.

Even beyond seeing ultraviolet, some animals can detect/see the Earth’s magnetic fields. It’s believed that robins can see magnetic field lines as a darker shading on the normal colors they already see, but they can only see it through their right eyes and only on clear days. When cryptochrome molecules in their right eyes are struck by blue light the molecules become active and allow robins to see magnetic fields which they can use to navigate as they migrate north & south. Interestingly, non-migratory bird species seem to have less sensitivity to magnetic fields than migratory birds.

Finally, contrary to popular misconception, bats are not blind and some actually have quite decent sight. While they are red-green color blind like most other mammals they have an ultraviolet sensitivity that helps them hunt as well as detect predators. All of this in addition to echolocation means they are quite capable of seeing and navigating the world around them. That said, some species of bats as well as other nocturnal animals have no cones at all and are really truly color blind.

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.

The Aristocats features two white cats with blue eyes, but neither is deaf.

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.

Who is flying the sled?

Reindeer are a species of deer and, 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). They graze primarily on lichen which is found a bit south of the North Pole. Their ability to see ultraviolet light, an ability shared with other deer, 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 once mating season has ended but female reindeer keep their antlers until late May (giving expecting reindeer mothers the ability to defend food sources throughout the winter). That said, castrated male reindeer will retain their antlers February or March. Therefore all of Santa’s reindeer are either females or castrated males.

As for Rudolph, who could 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 Amanita muscaria (aka the Fly Agaric) hallucinogenic mushrooms.

On their own the Fly Agaric mushrooms are 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 sometimes 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 may have thought their reindeer were flying before their eyes.

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, giving the appearance that they’re still on the lookout.

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) which 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 may have 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 venomous and 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. They are predators that use venom to incapacitate their prey.

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 blow darts).

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 the result is 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 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 a rarity in that it is both venomous and poisonous

Lobster Immortality

Lobsters are not immortal, but are 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 fishing, how do lobsters die?

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 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 damaged chromosomes during cell division. Having undamaged chromosomes allows lobsters to avoid the effects of old age and to 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 larger 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 their 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 typically 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