Culture Nature

Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin

Oliver Sacks fans will remember Temple Grandin as the autistic slaughterhouse designer in An Anthropologist on Mars. She has a particular affinity with animals and has used her talent for understanding them to help her design corrals, feedlots and slaughterhouses which are less stressful for the animals.

The subtitle of Animals in Translation is ‘Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior’. Grandin uses her insights as an autistic person to help explain how animals behave and in the process explores the nature of autism itself. That means the book is operating at the intersection of a whole range of different subjects — evolution, selective breeding, autism, animal behaviour, slaughterhouse design, stock handling, animal training — which all shed interesting light on each other. I didn’t come out of it thinking “Ah, now my perception of animals has been transformed!” but I did find it was full of interesting insights. For example, she says that it’s difficult to tell how much pain or distress is being suffered by prey animals (cows, sheep, goats); they try to disguise it, since a sickly animal is likely to be a target for a passing wolf. Predator animals, on the other hand, have no such tendency and will, if anything, exaggerate their pain. As you’ll know if you’ve ever stepped on a cat’s paw.

It’s good. One of those books where you keep reading bits out to people. And if you haven’t read any Oliver Sacks you should read those too.

Culture Nature

Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture

I was looking for an internet copy of Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director (which is a large collection of the most elegant and useful designs of household furniture in the Gothic, Chinese and modern taste) and found the University of Wisconsin’s Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture. Not only does it have complete scans of the Chippendale, it also has Owen Jones’s The Grammar of Ornament, and lots of similar stuff like Temple of Flora, or, Garden of the botanist, poet, painter, and philosopher, The City and Country Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Designs, or, The art of drawing and working the ornamental parts of architecture, and A New Treatise on Flower Painting, or, Every lady her own drawing master: containing familiar and easy instructions for acquiring a perfect knowledge of drawing flowers with accuracy and taste: Also complete directions for producing the various tints.

And while I’m posting links to that kind of thing, I can’t resist adding one to Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur.


After 200 million years of abstinence…

An interesting story about darwinulids. As far as anyone could tell, darwinulids (a type of crustacean) had been reproducing exclusively asexually for 200,000,000 years, but now a researcher has found 3 male specimens, which implies that at least one darwinulid species has sex.

Sex is a bit mysterious in evolutionary terms because it’s so much more efficient to reproduce asexually. Quite apart from the time-consuming business of finding a mate, sexual reproduction needs twice as many adults to produce the same number of offspring, and when you do breed, only half your own genes end up in the child anyway. That’s a huge reproductive disadvantage; yet pretty much all animals have sex. So it must offer some kind of dramatic short-term advantage to compensate for that reduced breeding rate. Even animals like aphids, which mainly breed asexually (aphids are born pregnant!) occasionally produce a few males and breed sexually as well.

The most popular theory is apparently that it helps fight disease and parasites – read The Red Queen by Matt Ridley for the details – but certainly its omnipresence implies that sex serves some kind of vital role. Which makes it hard to explain the few groups of animals that seem to have been merrily getting along without for tens of millions of years. If it is confirmed that darwinulids have been secretly shagging away somewhere all along, it removes an anomaly. That still leaves the marvellously named bdelloid rotifers, who have apparently been holding out for 40,000,000 years.

Nature Other

Government ‘harassment’

I came across an animal liberation website which stated that “government harassment of activists has continued to increase this year”. Harassment in this case seemed to mainly consist of people being convicted of arson, criminal damage, blackmail and so on. Describing that as ‘harassment’ just seems so… whiny. Sometimes it’s right to decide that you know better than the law, and that the claims of morality are more important. But if you’re going to knowingly break the law in support of what you believe is a noble cause, you can hardly claim ‘harassment’ when the criminal justice system does its thing.

I also find the focus on animal testing peculiar since, for me, the hundreds of milions of chickens raised intensively every year are a much bigger animal welfare issue than the two or three million animals used in testing.

FWIW: I support suitably regulated animal testing and eat meat, but I do try and only buy organically-raised chicken and pork.


Top ten animals – #1, Giant Squid

I said there was an invertebrate on my list, and here it is, what I thought was the world’s largest mollusc and the owner of the largest eyeball known to science: the Giant Squid, Architeuthis dux. Even the Latin name has a poetry to it. Except I discovered, while searching out details for this post, that Architeuthis is almost certainly not the largest species of squid. There’s a bulkier species called Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni. Teuthologists (isn’t that a great word) used to think that the Giant Squid was at least longer, but the discovery of a huge but still not fully-grown specimen of Mesonychoteuthis means even that probably isn’t true. You can read a detailed comparison here.

We’re in the realms of dodgy records and informed guess-work. Giant Squid are pretty hard to find, but at least you can get partially digested specimens out of the stomachs of sperm whales. Mesonychoteuthis – which they’re now calling the Colossal Squid – live in the Antarctic oceans, futher south than the whales normally travel, and specimens are considerably rarer than mere gold-dust.

Out of sentimental attachment, I’m going to pick the Giant Squid as my #1 animal, even if it is only 13 metres long. The only photos of a Giant Squid in the wild are from last year. This is one of them:

Pretty much any other photo you ever see will be of a blob of red stuff stretched out on a lab bench. Not ideal viewing conditions. So here’s a photo (from the Cephalopod Page) of some completely different squid, the Caribbean Reef Squid. If you’ve ever been snorkelling or diving in the caribbean, you may have seen these guys.

These are two males and a female. The male in the middle has changed one side of his body to an aggressive ‘zebra display’ aimed at the other male while signalling something different to the female. The way these things change colour is like magic. Octopuses will change both the colour and texture of their skin to improve their camouflage. Can the Giant Squid flash different colours? I don’t suppose anyone knows.

Cephalopods are fabulous. 13m cephalopods are mindboggling. And all that’s quite apart from the fact that, to see them, you’d have to go in a deep-sea submersible; which would fulfil a lifetime ambition in itself, even if I only saw a few comb-jellies and ratfish.


Top ten animals – #2, Snow Leopard

What actually got me started thinking about this top ten animals list was a documentary about the Snow Leopard, Uncia uncia. Two film-makers had spent three years in Kashmir and managed to get about two minutes of what of the kind of action footage you’d normally expect from a wildlife programme – the cats hunting, courting, and at their prey. Apart from a few shots of snow leopards walking through rocks, and film of the film makers not finding leopards, most of the rest of the hour-long documentary was filled out with footage taken by automatic cameras set up to be triggered by motion sensors. But the only places they could rely on the cats being were the sites where they marked their territories, so it was basically a whole hour of snow leopards pissing. Which they do surprisingly elegantly.

People just don’t see these animals. They live in incredibly inaccessible areas, they can have territories stretching hundreds of square miles, and even if you do happen to pass within a few hundred feet of one, they’re so well camouflaged for rocky terrain that you’ll probably not notice it.

Here’s a snow leopard in Mongolia:

Photo by Fritz Polking. Courtesy of Snow Leopard Trust, where you can also see some video of snow leopards.

I think that they’re also the most beautiful of the big cats. Look at the colouring! Look at the tail!