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Picked up on this one over at Living the Scientific Life. The photo really speaks for itself:


(Photo of Lil’Bit the two-faced cat pinched from the Daily Mail.)

Not only does this cat have two faces — because his faces can sneeze, eat, and sleep separately, his veterinarians think Lil’Bit has two independently functioning brains.

At seven months old, he seems to be faring pretty well, considering his condition. He does have some trouble with the litter box, but his (very obliging) owner has solved that problem with diapers designed for premature babies.

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Genital Arousal Disorder Adversely Impacts Women’s Lives

Some of you have probably heard me rambling over the past year about the Writer in Residence fellowship at Exeter. It’s a sweet deal — room and board, a stipend, and nine months of total freedom to finish your first book. In exchange, you act as an informal mentor to students interested in writing. Stanford, meanwhile, has a fellowship with a slightly different emphasis. It also provides the time and the means to work on a book, but includes weekly workshops with other fellows and spans two years.

I’ve been working over a book idea in the back (and occasionally front) of my mind since January, and I’ve decided quite at the last minute to crank out the first 50 pages in time to apply for these fellowships. It’s fiction with science, which is a thing quite different from science fiction, and which really needs a catchier name.

Accordingly, as the deadline is Friday and I have 25 pages to go, my posts here will be a little anemic this week.

I know most of us have visions of turkey dancing in our heads right now, but picture instead a lobster. Just your average run-of-the-mill fresh-from-the-pot dinner lobster. Now picture a lobster twice that size — say a foot and a half long. Now picture a lobster claw that’s a foot and a half long. Can you visualize the lobster it would belong to?

University of Bristol researchers recently stumbled upon a 1.5-foot-long fossilized claw from an ancient sea scorpion — a giant aquatic arthropod that roamed the floors of lakes and rivers 400 million years ago. The lobster analogy actually doesn’t properly convey this thing’s hugeness, because sea scorpion claws are proportionately smaller than lobster claws. Based on the size of the claw, and the relatively constant claw to body length ratio among sea scorpions, they were able to infer that the scorpion was about 8 feet 2 inches long.

An 8’2″ scorpion. Eesh. That’s just 9 inches short of the world’s tallest man.

“They would probably lie in wait,” Simon Braddy, one of the researchers, told Nature News. “When another animal went in front of it, it would lurch forward and capture it. … These things would tear their prey to shreds and then eat the little pieces.”

They’re calling it Jaekelopterus rhenaniae, and it’s the largest arthropod ever. For now.

Here’s a photo of the claw, from Nature News:

Giant sea scorpion claw


(Image pilfered from Vikusik on Flickr.)

Imagine what it would be like if this cute little dragonfly, cruising around your backyard, had a two-foot wingspan. It’s not sci-fi — it’s ancient history. Such giant dragonflies were a common sight in the swamps and coal forests of the Paleozoic era. Five-foot long millipedes, too.

Recent research gives clues as to why, and the answer may surprise you:

It’s a series of tubes.

Beetle air tubes

(A series of beetle tubes. Called tracheal tubes, these are the insect’s way of breathing. Bugs don’t bother with lungs. They just absorb air directly through their tracheal tubes, which penetrate throughout their bodies. Image stolen from an Argonne press release.)

To find out what the series of tubes has to do with the size of an insect, <shameless plug> check out my article about it in Discover </shameless plug>. Hint: it has to do with atmospheric oxygen concentration.

And if this makes you wish with all your heart that you could time travel back to the Paleozoic to see those 2-foot-wingspan dragonflies, you might try to get your hands on the WowWee DragonFly. It has a paltry 1-foot wingspan — but you get to control its flight.

One of the joys of being a scientist — particularly in a field that’s exploding — is that you get to name the things you discover. Maybe if I’d lingered longer in the lab before fleeing to a writerly career there would be a Jocelynetensium ricensis bacterium flagella-whipping its way across some bio student’s glass slide. But alas. Now my only option is to hound some generous scientist and make him like me so much that he wants to name something after me. Something really important.

In the meantime, here’s a roundup of scientific whatnots with names — some eponymous, some not — that make you stop and ask, really? They got away with that?

The list of asteroid names reads, for the most part, like a mashup between a phone book, a history of science textbook, and an encyclopedia of Greek and Roman mythology. But nestled in among the Aphrodites and Persephones, the Fouriers and Feynmans, the 52 names starting with “David,” “Dave,” or “Davy” and the 20 starting with “Bob,” are a few odd nuggets:

  • Adamcarolla and Drewpinsky. These two dispensed raunchy advice that I found both riotously funny and Very Important… when I was 13. But I’m not sure any of it — or even all of it combined — is worth an asteroid.
  • Bacon. Okay wait. Are we talking Sir Francis Bacon? Kevin Bacon? Or greasy sizzling strips of porky goodness? If it’s the latter, I’m completely on board.
  • Forbes. Can an asteroid be sponsored? What if that asteroid then collides with earth? Is the sponsor held resposible?
  • GNU. All hail recursive acronyms. What about ASTEROID, for Asteroids Still Terrify Everyone Regardless Of Improbable Destruction?
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I like the duck-billed platypus
Because it is anomalous.
I like the way it raises its family,
Partly birdly, partly mammaly.
I like its independent attitude.
Let no one call it a duck-billed platitude.

-Ogden Nash, “The Duck-billed Platypus,” in Beastly Poetry

Duck-billed platypus

(Duck-billed platypus; Image filched from WikiMedia Commons)

The duck-billed platypus is special. No, really. It’s special. And not just because it lays eggs, has venomous feet, and hunts using electric fields. Kate Jones of the Zoological Society of London and her colleagues developed a quantitative method to rank how “special” a mammalian species is, and the duck-billed platypus is number one on the list. Of all mammals. That’s right, the platypus is the most special mammal of all.

How is specialness calculated? Well, the technical term for special, in this context, is “evolutionarily distinct.”

[DISCLAIMER: if you don’t read on, you’ll miss the four-headed spiny anteater penis. Just so you know.] Read the rest of this entry »

I’m too lazy to write a useful new post because I just spent 3 hours going through a messy divorce with iWeb and moving all my furniture and possessions to the house of my rebound boyfriend, WordPress. So here, instead, is a half-wet elephant. Or maybe it’s two-thirds wet. Wait, are we talking volume or surface area? What’s the surface area of an elephant, anyway?

Half-wet elephant

(Photo by Jeremy Tucker, who has a whole website full of gorgeous photographs: check it out.)

EDIT: Er, it looks like someone (okay, two someones: K.P. Sreekumar and G. Nirmalan) has actually published scholarly research on how to estimate the surface area of an elephant. The paper is called “Estimation of the total surface area in Indian elephants” and it ran in a 1990 issue of Veterinary Research Communications. Their formula is:

S = -8.245 + 6.807H + 7.073FFC

Where S is surface area in square meters, H is shoulder height in meters, and FFC is forefoot circumference in meters. The BBC tells us that Indian elephants have a shoulder height of 2.5 to 3 meters — let’s go with 2.75. And a PBS classroom resource tells us that forefoot circumference is equal to about half of an elephant’s height, so we’ll call it 1.375. That works out to about 20 square meters, or 215 square feet.

So I guess that’s my answer. An average Indian elephant has a surface area (albeit crudely estimated) of 215 square feet.

ANOTHER EDIT: My tape measure says that’s twice the size of my bedroom.

Spider head

I took this scanning electron micrograph of a spider head back at Smith. It’s a little bleached-out-looking (I hadn’t really mastered the instrument) but nonetheless gorgeous and creepy.

Before you image a biological specimen, you have to dry it using a gizmo called a critical point drier. Simply evaporating off the water doesn’t do the trick, because the surface tension at the interface between water and air damages the spider as it dries out and you end up with a wrinkly specimen — not so pretty. If you bring water to its so-called critical point, where the density of water and air are the same, you can avoid the surface tension issue. But then you have a really-dangerous-conditions issue: the critical point for water occurs at 374 degrees C (705 degrees F) and 3,212 psi (about 219 times the atmospheric pressure at sea level). The poor little arachnid corpse isn’t likely to make it through that experience intact. Read the rest of this entry »

Just wanted to toss out a quick enthusiastic plug for Barbara Kingsolver‘s fantastic newest, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. I’m almost constitutionally incapable of recommending a book with “Miracle” in the title but as they say, don’t judge a book by its etc.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

(Image poached from

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