A Japanese study classified fish-shaped soy sauce containers into species

The fish-shaped soy sauce container

A Japanese entomologist has ventured from his area of expertise to delve into the taxonomy of these plastic fish and he has actually sorted them into distinct families and genera. You may wonder, why? Perhaps it is an ode to the humble soy sauce container, perhaps another outlet for a taxonomist to channel OCD, or perhaps just because.

The author of the book, Yoshihisa Sawada, is an expert in Japanese insect taxonomy and has worked at the Museum of Nature and Human Activities in Hyogo, having published several scientific papers in this field. He took his taxonomic expertise and applied it to an unlikely subject, seemingly below his expertise: plastic fish-shaped soy sauce bottles. He applies his same methodology and treats his subject with all the reverence and seriousness of an actual taxonomic study on living animals. The book was published in 2012 and, alas, is only available in Japanese. The rough translation of the title into English is “Soy sauce sea bream”. “Bream” refers to freshwater and marine fish from a variety of genera that are typically narrow and deep-bodied.

More on fish: Europe’s only fish tannery, did Danny DeVito eat a real fish in Batman Returns, and the vantafish that absorbs nearly all light.

(via ZME Science, h/t Alex Cassidy on Twitter)

Bees' brain cell density is higher than birds

This from New Scientist about bees:

Many bees have a brain cell density greater than that of small birds – but most ant brains contain a far lower density of neurons. The difference may be down to the insects’ lifestyles: because bees fly, they may need more brain cells than ants do in order to process visual information […]

However, the difference in the insects’ brain cell counts probably has little to do with intelligence, says team member Wulfila Gronenberg, also at the University of Arizona. The researchers think flying insects probably need more neurons to power the enhanced vision they need for flight, an idea that they will test in future.

See also: stingless bees and murder hornets

(via New Scientist)

Tam Tam: the cutest baby pygmy hippo in Japan

Tam Tam, the pygmy hippo looking at the camera

Tam Tam is a pygmy hippo from Osaka, Japan. He was born in February 2019.

As pygmy hippos are classed as Endangered, it’s remarkable to see newborns anywhere, let alone Far East Asia where they aren’t native. But the World Conservation Union estimates that fewer than 3,000 pygmy hippos are left in the wild so captivity is unfortunately the safest place for them.

The video below shows Tam Tam at swimming in the pool showing his growing teeth and nursing underwater. But above all else, it shows him being the cutest baby pygmy hippo in Japan.

Stream it below and consider a donation to the Pygmy Hippo Foundation.

ミニカバの赤ちゃん 手乗りサイズだったけど大きくなりました! / Adorable baby pygmy hippo at Japanese aquarium

Hippo related: Pablo Escobar’s hippos and 10 hippos from cartoons, literature, and other media.

The 'vantafish' that absorbs nearly all light that hits it

Last year, a Smithsonian marine biologist called Karen Osborn and her colleagues found a unique specimen while hauling deep-sea fish. But when she tried to use strobe lights to take a photo for cataloguing, she could only make out its outline. It was as if the fish was absorbing the light. Except it was.

But wait a second, Osborn figured. “I had tried to take pictures of deep-sea fish before and got nothing but these really horrible pictures, where you can’t see any detail,” she says. “How is it that I can shine two strobe lights at them and all that light just disappears?”

It disappears because the fangtooth, along with 15 other species that Osborn and her colleagues have found so far, camouflage themselves with “ultra-black” skin, the deep-sea version of Vantablack, the famous human-made material that absorbs almost all the light you shine at it. These fish have evolved a different and devilishly clever way of going ultra-black with incredible efficiency: One species the researchers found absorbs 99.956 percent of the light that hits it, making it nearly as black as Vantablack.

99.956% is as good as 100% to the naked eye so “Vantafish” seems like the perfect name.

Colour and fish related: Anish Kapoor banned from colour-changing paint, fish leather, and gefilte fish!

(via Wired; photograph: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian)

Dwindling animal populations as dot density images

A Redditor by the name of WhiteCheeks (lol) posted some images he made from a script that “builds the face of an animal based on the population number of the species”.

Each dot represents a single animal, as the population numbers rise and fall the image will either become more legible or disappear completely.

He did so using data from the WWF and created the script using P5.js. We often hear the numbers attached to dwindling animal populations but having visuals really puts the message across. After all, in an article I wrote last May, a million species are already close to extinction.

We need to do more.

The emerald cockroach wasp: a true parasite

The emerald cockroach wasp: a true parasite

(Content warning: this article contains bugs and nasty stuff they do)

Yesterday, I wrote about the concept of parasitic architecture and questioned how parasitic it was. After all, it didn’t really “feed” off its host as such; it was more of an extension and had benefits for people needing places to live. And then I found out about a true parasite and just how wild they can be.

The emerald cockroach wasp aka the jewel wasp aka Ampulex compressa is a parasitoid wasp that feeds off cockroaches in order to reproduce and survive. Parasitoids aren’t uncommon in nature or films (see the Alien series and, to a certain extent, The Thing) but the emerald cockroach wasp is fascinating to me. Here’s how it reproduces:

  1. A female wasp stings a cockroach and its venom paralyses its front legs
  2. Then, the wasp stings it again in its brain, specifically in the area that controls the escape reflex.
  3. Once the host is immobilised, the wasp chews off some of its antennae and then begins feed on the hemolymph (a blood-like substance) that comes out.
  4. The wasp “walks” the roach to its burrow by dragging it in by the remaining antennae. Then, it lays one or two eggs between the roach’s legs.
  5. The roach (which is still alive at this point by the way) rests in the burrow while the eggs hatch, which takes about 3 days. But that’s the start of the end for the roach as the larva then feed off the insides of the roach for the next 4–5 days.
  6. After a week or so, the larva will have eaten all of the roach’s internal organs and go into its cocoon.
  7. After that process, the wasp emerges from the roach’s body and starts adulthood.

I’m not super squeamish but even that turned my stomach. The mating process is efficient too. Time is of the essence as adults only live for a few months and, in line with that, mating only takes a minute (Missy Elliott probably wouldn’t be a fan). One session is all it takes for a female wasp to successfully parasitize several dozen roaches.

One of the most unique ways it uses its venom isn’t to immobilise and then eat but to alter the host’s ability to escape and nothing else. It can still technically fly and flip over. If only the roach could just believe in itself!

Emerald cockroach wasps live in tropical regions, mostly Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific islands. Some are found in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro as well. They were introduced to Hawaii in 1941 as a form of pest control but that didn’t work out. I guess Edgar the Bug would have been grateful for that too.

Stingless bees make healthy honey

stingless bees

What a wild year 2020 has been. First, we had (or still have) murder hornets in the news and now we have stingless bees making headlines in the science community. But unlike their Hymenopteran relatives, they could be a help rather than a hindrance.

Scientists from Australia and Malaysia have found trehalulose, a rare sugar in honey made by stingless bees with “many reported health benefits”. Researchers tested five species from Australia, Malaysia, and Brazil and found the sugar amongst 85% of those analysed. Honey is also said to fend off liver cancer symptoms and keep one healthy.

Trehalulose is made up of fructose and glucose bound together. The trehalulose found in these stingless bees had a low glycaemic index (GI), meaning it digests slower and causes a lower and slower rise in blood glucose. In other words, it’d be better for diabetics and people with high blood pressure. It’s also non-cariogenic, which means it doesn’t cause tooth decay and I’m sure 5/5 dentists would agree.

“Keeping native stingless bees is gaining in popularity in Australia, for their role as pollinators as well as for their unique honey. As well as having health benefits, stingless bee honey is valued for its flavor and is in high demand from chefs.:

Dr. Mary Fletcher, an organic chemist at the University of Queensland

You can read the full study in Scientific Reports, hosted by Nature.com.

Are Pablo Escobar's hippos good for Colombia's ecosystem?

Pablo Escobar's hippos

Spoiler alert: I love hippos. I even have a “hippos” Google Alert which is how I found out about this story from, believe it or not, Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

The story goes that Pablo Escobar acquired four hippos for his zoo in 1981. But in 1993, he was murdered and the government couldn’t maintain his zoo so the animals were sent away. Except for the hippos. They were left to their own devices in the Colombian wilderness and 4 became about 100. The hippos have been a source of debate, dubbed “cocaine hippos” and seen as invasive creatures. But on the other side, people are asking whether the hippos are a benefit to Colombia’s ecosystem.

Hippos are nocturnal herbivores and often graze on grass at night. And when it’s time to go to the hippo potty, they do so in rivers and lakes which is an essential feeding source for fishes that live in the water too. And so the food chain cycle continues. But that works in places where hippos are native and the ecosystem depends on that behaviour. In Colombia, that might not be the case and scientists fear fishes may actually die and water flow may be affected.

But—another but—a paper published in March suggests hippos might be doing what they should have from the beginning. Animals similar to hippos, known as notoungulates, used to live in South America and provided much-needed nutrients to the area, alongside the giant llama.

So the crux of the debate is: are the hippos invading land that should never have been theirs or are they restoring natural order? After all, the reason why Colombia’s ecosystem is the way it is (for good or bad) is because of humans. Modern animal extinction is often due to humans killing them for sport, meat, and the hell of it. So I’m all for Pablo Escobar’s hippos living their best lives.

The rise of the murder hornets

The Asian giant hornet aka murder hornet

If 2020 wasn’t enough of a hell year with the COVID-19 pandemic and major resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, there are now murder hornets. But what the hell are they?

Murder hornets aka Asian giant hornets

The Asian giant hornet is the world’s largest hornet wasp, native to East, South and Mainland Southeast Asia, and parts of Russia. Unfortunately for people in the Pacific Northwest of North America, some of them made their way across with four sightings this year.

They live in mountains and forests, away from high altitudes and eat on larger insects, tree sap, and honey from honey bees.

A hornet by any other name

The name “murder hornet” is a relatively new invention. In Korea, it is called 장수말벌 or general officer hornet, in China the “giant tiger head bee”, in Japan, the ōsuzumebachi or “giant sparrow bee”. But in 2008, Japanese media outlets gave it a more sinister name – satsujin suzumebachi or “murder hornet”. 12 years later, a NYT reporter picked up the name and the rest is history.

Why they’re called “murder” hornets

In April, Washington authorities told the public to be on the lookout for any Asian giant hornets. The name wasn’t for show. If they started growing in numbers, they had the potential to destroy bee colonies in the US and would be near impossible to get rid of.

“This is our window to keep it from establishing. If we can’t do it in the next couple of years, it probably can’t be done.”

Chris Looney, an entomologist at the Washington State Department of Agriculture

Besides their invasive nature, they also pack a mean sting. The hornets deliver venom that contains a neurotoxin called mandaratoxin through their quarter-inch stinger. One might not kill but multiple certainly will. Jun-ichi Takahashi, a researcher at Kyoto Sangyo University in Japan, bore the brunt of it when he got stung.

“The next day, his legs were aching, as if he had the flu. Of the thousands of times he has been stung in his lifetime of work, he said, the Asian giant hornet stings were the most painful.”

Quote from The New York Times

How to kill a murder hornet

There are ways to reduce numbers of Asian giant hornets if you act quickly and stop them spreading. The following methods were created in 1973 from “A Bionomic Sketch of the Giant Hornet, Vespa mandarinia, a Serious Pest for Japanese Apiculture (With 12 Text-figures and 5 Tables)”:

1. Crush them

Animal lovers, look away now. You can flatten murder hornets with “wooden sticks with flat heads”. It’s very much a whack-a-mole approach so not the most effective or efficient.

2. Remove the nest

Getting them at the source by destroying their nests with fires or poison can kill the colonies. This works well… if you can find the nests. Those underground are difficult to locate but the most common way is to bait them with meat, usually frog or fish.

3. Trap them with bait

Simply place the bait traps in the apiaries. The baits use a jelly or sugar solution mixed with vinegar or some kind of intoxicant.

4. Poison them

After the bait, they are then poisoned with a toxin called malathion. If successful, it should kill them within 24 hours.

5. Trap them

The traps are inefficient as some hornets can escape past them but attaching them to the front of their hives can work. How well they work depends on how effective they are at actually trapping hornets and letting the innocent bees get through unscathed.

6. Block them

Things like wire, weeds, and fishing nets limit the hornets’ ability to escape but with the right protective screen, honey bees can make it through. But hornets are smart and cotton on to the tactic so this works better with traps rather than on their own.

Hope in the hive

There is light at the end of the tunnel. Washington State Department of Agriculture claim to have trapped a murder hornet in the state for the first time. They trapped the hornet on 14th July and identified it two weeks later. So it looks like traps worked on this occasion.

WSDA’s next steps are to search for nests using infrared cameras and place additional traps in order to catch live Asian giant hornet specimens. WSDA Pest Program staff will deploy special traps intended to trap hornets but keep them alive. If they catch live hornets, the department will attempt to tag and track them back to their colony. Once located, the agency will eradicate the colony.

From WSDA’s news release

We’ll beekeep you updated. And if you have issues with bees, hornets, or wasps in your house, this guide will help you safely remove their nests.

Update: The First Living Asian Giant ‘Murder’ Hornet of 2021 Has Been Found in Washington State

10 hippos from cartoons, literature, and other media

Hippo

I want to start by saying I’m writing this because I love hippos. I donate to a pygmy hippo charity every month and I think they’re wonderful creatures. Unfortunately, the common hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) is classed as Vulnerable (pygmy hippos are Endangered) which absolutely sucks because they’re wonderful creatures and they’re being killed for meat, their tusks, and “sport”.

But this is a positive article and it’s dedicated to ten hippos from cartoons, literature, animated movies, and anything else I could think of.

Dirk Dickerdack from Tom Poes

Dirk Dickerdack from Tom Poes
Dirk Dickerdack from Tom Poes

Tom Poes (or Tom Puss in English) was a Dutch comic launched in 1941. Its author, Marten Toonder wrote the comic until it was discontinued in 1986 and it became one of the Big Three of Dutch comics.

The main characters were Tom Puss, a little white cat, and his friend Oliver B. Bumble, a big brown bear who was the lord of a castle. Dirk Dickerdack was an affluent hippo who was mayor of Rommeldam, their home town. Unfortunately, he seemed to suffer from affluenza and cared more about the town than those who lived in it.

Hyacinth Hippo from Fantasia

Hyacinth Hippo from Fantasia
Hyacinth Hippo from Fantasia

Hyacinth made her first appearance in Disney’s Fantasia back in 1941. She was a ballet dancer who appeared in the segment, Dance of the Hours. She represented the 12th hour, or “noon”. She also made a cameo appearance in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Her only line was “Oh, excuse me,” when she passed Eddie Valiant. She was voiced by Mary T. Radford in the movie.

Hilda Hippo from The Busy World of Richard Scarry

Hilda Hippo
Hilda Hippo

Not to be confused with Hilda Hippo from Mickey and the Roadster Racers (voiced by April Winchell, daughter of Paul Winchell who used to voice Tigger from Winnie the Pooh). Hilda was awkward but pleasant and was allergic to roses. She appeared in numerous forms of Richard Scarry media, including the animated series which I loved as a kid.

George from Rainbow

George from Rainbow
George from Rainbow

British readers will almost certainly know George, the pink hippo from Rainbow. His shyness was said to represent shyness and introversion shown in children, as a way to relate to viewers. He was also a little camp which may have been linked to his pink exterior.

George and Martha from George and Martha

George and Martha
George and Martha

George and Martha were a pair of friendly hippos from a book series of the same name, illustrated by James Marshall between 1972 and 1988. They were later transformed into an animated children’s series in 1999, and spawned a musical in 2011. Nathan Lane and Andrea Martin voiced George and Martha.

Gloria the Hippo from Madagascar

Gloria the Hippo from Madagascar
Gloria the Hippo from Madagascar

One of the biggest hippo characters in recent times, Gloria (voiced by Jada Pinkett-Smith) was part of the gang who were taken from their home in Central Park Zoo and flown to Madagascar by mistake, where they had to learn to adapt in the wild. Gloria was the one who put the other animals straight in true Jada Pinkett-Smith style. Her daughter, Willow, voiced Gloria as a baby hippo in Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.

Peter Potamus from The Peter Potamus Show and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law

Peter Potamus
Peter Potamus

I never saw The Peter Potamus Show so I only know him from Harvey Birdman but he was a sleazy hippo in that. He was also lazy despite his status and success and had a weird obsession with sandwiches and strippers. His catchphrase was “Did you get that thing I sent you?”

Tillie Hippo from Cats Don’t Dance

Tillie Hippo
Tillie Hippo

A more obscure hippo, Tillie starred in animated movie Cats Don’t Dance. She was voiced by Kathy Najimy (Sister Act, Hocus Pocus, King of the Hill) and played a “happy-go-lucky hippopotamus who tries to find the best in every situation”. In many ways, she was like Sister Mary Patrick from Sister Act with her penchant for giggling.

The hippo from Silentnight

The hippo from Silentnight
The hippo from Silentnight

When I was younger, I used to stare at the hippo and chick from the Silentnight logo on my parents’ mattress. The hippo was dressed in his stripey pyjamas and I always thought he was so cute. Then, Silentnight started making TV adverts and gave him a deep Northern accent which made him even cuter (I’m Northern too so I’m biased).

Hugo the Hippo from Hugo the Hippo

Hugo the Hippo
Hugo the Hippo

The final hippo of the list might be one of the most obscure hippos of them all, from a global perspective. In 1975, a Hungarian animated film called Hugo the Hippo was released in the US and a year later in Hungary. It had a budget of $1m and the English-speaking version starred the likes of Jimmy and Marie Osmond.

The film was about a hippo called Hugo who escapes captivity in Zanzibar and flees to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Meanwhile, an advisor to the Sultan of Zanzibar tries to catch him. Interestingly, the US production of the film was run by Brut Productions, a subsidiary of Fabergé cosmetics – the same brand that made the ornamental eggs.

From fishin' to fashion: how fish skin is used for leather

Salmon skin

There are certain ethical issues with leather but perhaps this is a better solution.

Steinunn Gunnsteinsdóttir is the sales manager of Atlantic Leather, an Icelandic company that owns the only fish tannery in Europe. They’ve been making leather from the skins of salmon and cod (amongst other types) since 1994 and produce nearly a tonne of leather every month.

If that sounds like a lot, consider the fact this is all done by only 19 employees and the whole process takes nearly four weeks. There are advantages to using fish skin rather than the cow or lamb hide, as Gunnsteinsdóttir explains:

Fish leather’s actually nine times stronger than lamb or cow leather of similar thickness. This is because the fibres in fish skin criss-cross rather than (go) just up and down… it makes it much more durable leather for products that have to be really strong like shoes, belts and bags.

Snake and alligator skin are used for leather before but fish is a new one on me and it helps reduce use of the endangered species. But not for fashion houses Jimmy Choo and Dior who Atlantic Leather supply.

They aren’t the only fish leather makers in the world. Kenya is home to Victorian Foods where perch skin is the main material, fished from the largest desert lake in the world. Of course, it’s important that this practice doesn’t contribute to overfishing which has a dangerous effect on the marine wildlife and food for the populations that need it. But right now, it looks like a great alternative.

Fish Leather Development process at KIRDI Western Region Campus (KWRC), Kenya

(image credit: Ella Gordon)

The UN reports a million species are close to extinction

Elephants could be close to extinction in a matter of years

In a new report from the IPBES, one million species are threatened with extinction. The IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services is said to be the most comprehensive ever and also says the current global response is “insufficient”.

Some other takes:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions have doubled since 1980, “raising average global temperatures by at least 0.7°C (33.26°F)
  • Over a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production.
  • Plastic pollution has increased 10x since 1980

The report is lengthy but, in a nutshell, human beings are gonna fuck the planet up before the Sun, a giant asteroid, or an alien invasion will. My concern is governments will blame the general public and demand they do things differently via taxes and legislation without looking at the rich and how they are so wasteful and pollute the planet.

Major corporations contribute significantly to the problem but are often overlooked for reproach. Instead, countries with large populations of people of colour (Brazil, India, and many African nations) are blamed as well as overpopulation which is a smokescreen ideology perpetuated by the West. Yes, we can all make changes to keep the planet from dying but that energy has to be balanced and right now it hampers the working class and favours the rich (especially when tax breaks are offered for minimal effort in the cause). Michael Jackson told us in 1995.

You can read the full report and the media release (which abridges everything) on the IPBES website.

Michael Jackson - Earth Song (Official Video)

Go Dutch with tulip vodka

Tulips, the main ingredient in tulip vodka

Other than windmills, clogs, canals, and Johan Cruijff, tulips are a quintessential part of Dutch culture. And thanks to the versatility of vodka, there’s a new brand made of the national flower.

The origins of tulip vodka

Most vodka is made from grain or potatoes but tulip vodka is created using the bulb. Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius grew the flowers in his university garden when it was brought over in the 16th century and a distillery bearing his name make the drink with fermented tulip bulbs.

Two types of tulip tipple

Two types are made:

  • Dutch Tulip Vodka Pure – comprised of water and 350 fermented tulip bulbs
  • Dutch Premium Blend – blended with grain spirits and uses only 40 bulbs

However, as only a few retailers stock the vodka in the Netherlands, prices aren’t cheap. The “Pure” blend costs €295 but the “Premium” blend is more reasonable at €48.

Did you know: The clusia plant, native to tropical America, is named after Carolus Clusius.

Alcohol for the palate and the hands

Like many distillers, the makers of Clusius Tulip Vodka are giving away free bottles of Clusius hand sanitizer with every bottle of their vodka. If you’re curious as to why, here’s the reason behind it:

To survive the crisis, Clusius Craft Distillers switched to the production of hand sanitizer alcohol. Normally the distillery makes vodka from tulip bulbs. The tulip vodka is mostly served in cocktail bars and sold at Schiphol airport. At the moment these parties have been shut down and sales numbers have fallen for Clusius. The (online) liquor stores are still open but are also facing a hard time.

Remember when a bee sting turned Bear Grylls into Benedict Cumberbatch?

Remember when a bee sting turned Bear Grylls into Benedict Cumberbatch?

Bear Grylls loves a bit of danger and feels no way putting his body through hell in the name of survival. It’s what early humans did after all. Except this is the 21st century and you can get honey from a supermarket for about £2 (or the DVD starring Jessica Alba for about £3 on Amazon). But don’t be silly, I hear you cry, he’s in the wilderness and he needed to aggravate some bees in order to get some sweet honey. Winnie the Pooh he ain’t.

Born Survivor - Bee Sting