Friday, February 5, 2010

Strange News Stories, Volume 1

Close encounters with Japan’s ‘living fossil’

Photo Courtesy of Nation Geographic
(Click image for larger view) “This is a dinosaur, this is amazing,” he enthuses.

“We’re talking about salamanders that usually fit in the palm of your hand. This one will chop your hand off.”

As a leader of Conservation International’s (CI) scientific programmes, and co-chair of the Amphibian Specialist Group with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Dr Gascon has seen a fair few frogs and salamanders in his life; but little, he says, to compare with this.

Fortunately for all of our digits, this particular giant salamander is in no position to chop off anything, trapped in a tank in the visitors’ centre in Maniwa City, about 800km west of Tokyo.

But impressive it certainly is: about 1.7m (5ft 6in) long, covered in a leathery skin that speaks of many decades passed, with a massive gnarled head covered in tubercles whose presumed sensitivity to motion probably helped it catch fish by the thousand over its lifetime.

If local legend is to be believed, though, this specimen is a mere tadpole compared with the biggest ever seen around Maniwa.

A 17th Century tale, related to us by cultural heritage officer Takashi Sakata, tells of a salamander (or hanzaki, in local parlance) 10m long that marauded its way across the countryside chomping cows and horses in its tracks.

A local hero was found, one Mitsui Hikoshiro, who allowed the hanzaki to swallow him whole along with his trusty sword – which implement he then used, in the best heroic tradition, to rend the beast from stem to stern.

It proved not to be such a good move, however.

Crops failed, people started dying in mysterious ways – including Mr Hikoshiro himself.

Pretty soon the villagers drew the obvious conclusion that the salamander’s spirit was wreaking revenge from beyond the grave, and must be placated. That is why Maniwa City boasts a shrine to the hanzaki.

The story illustrates the cultural importance that this remarkable creature has in some parts of Japan.

Its scientific importance, meanwhile, lies in two main areas: its “living fossil” identity, and its apparently peaceful co-existence with the chytrid fungus that has devastated so many other amphibian species from Australia to the Andes.

Close family

“The skeleton of this species is almost identical to that of the fossil from 30 million years ago,” recounts Takeyoshi Tochimoto, director of the Hanzaki Institute near Hyogo.

“Therefore it’s called the ‘living fossil’.”

The hanzaki (Andrias japonicus) only has two close living relatives: the Chinese giant salamander (A. davidianus), which is close enough in size and shape and habits that the two can easily cross-breed, and the much smaller hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) of the south-eastern US.

Creatures rather like these were certainly around when dinosaurs dominated life on land, and fossils of the family have been found much further afield than their current tight distribution – in northern Europe, certainly, where scientists presumed the the lineages had gone extinct until tales of the strange Oriental forms made their way back to thescientific burghers of Vienna and Leiden a couple of centuries ago.

“They are thought to be extremely primitive species, partly due to the fact that they are the only salamanders that have external fertilisation,” says Don Church, asalamander specialist with CI.

The fertilisation ritual must be quite some sight.

Into a riverbank den that is usually occupied by the dominant male (the “den-master”) swim several females, and also a few other males.

The den-master and the females release everything they have got, turning incessantly to stir the eggs and spermatozoa round in a roiling mass.

Maybe the lesser males sneak in a package or two as well; their function in the ménage-a-many is not completely clear.

When the waters still, everyone but the den-master leaves; and he alone guards the nest and its juvenile brood.

It is not an ideal method of reproduction.

Research shows that genetic diversity among the hanzaki is smaller than it might be, partly as a result of the repeated polygamy, which in turn leaves them more prone to damage through environmental change.

But for the moment, it seems to work.

Outside the breeding season, the salamander’s life appears to consist of remaining as inconspicuous as possible in the river (whether hiding in leaves, as the small ones do, or under the riverbanks like their larger fellows) and snapping whatever comes within reach, their usual meandering torpor transformed in an instant as the smell of a fish brushes by.

The adults’ jaws are not to be treated lightly.

Among Dr Tochimoto’s extensive collection of photos is one of bloodied human hands; and as he warns: “you may be attacked and injured; please be careful”.

When the chytrid fungus was identified just over a decade ago, indications were that Japan would be an unlikely place to look for its origins.

With the discovery of chytrid on museum specimens of the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis), an out-of-Africa migration spurred by human transportation of amphibians once seemed the simple likelihood.

But just last year, a team of researchers led by Koichi Goka from Japan’s National Institute for Environmental Studies published research showing that certain strains of chytrid were present on Japanesegiant salamanders, and only on Japanese giant salamanders, including museum specimens from a century or so back; and that the relationship seemed benign.

The hanzaki-loving strains of chytrid appear to differ from those that are proving so virulent to amphibians now.

Unravelling all that, says Don Church, might tell us something about the origins and spread of chytrid – and there is so much diversity among Japanese chytrid strains that the country is now being touted as a possible origin, as diversity often implies a long evolutionary timeframe.

More importantly, the discovery might also provide options for treating the infection.

“In the case of the North American salamanders, what was found was that they have bacteria living on their skin that produce peptides that are lethal to the amphibian chytridfungus,” says Dr Church.

“And those bacteria might be able to be transplanted to other species that can’t fight off the fungus.”

This is a line of research that is very much in play in laboratories around the world.

It appears likely now that studies of the Japanese giant salamander can expand the number of chytrid-fighting bacteria known to science, and so extend the options for developing treatments for an infection that currently cannot be controlled in the wild.

But that can only come to pass if the giant salamanders endure; something that is not guaranteed, with the challenges they face in modern Japan including, perhaps, new strains of chytrid itself.

There is as yet no modern hero able to still the pace of habitat loss or prevent invasion from rival species.

(Source: BBC News)


Groundhog Judgment Day: PETA demands a robot Punxsutawney Phil

Graphic courtesy Boston Phoenix
(Click image for larger view)

In the spirit of the season, PETA have momentarily put aside their paint-slinging and nudity-exploiting, opting to set their sights on a new cause: freeing Punxsutawney Phil from a life of enslavement and untold horrors by replacing him with -- wait for it -- an animatronic rodent replica. Phil has been alerting us to the onset of spring for years: a career that PETA believes he was forced into against his will. Not so, argues the Inner Circle of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. William Deeley, president of that very Skull and Bones-sounding society, explains that Phil is treated "better than the average child in Pennsylvania." (Point and case, the firebombing of a house full o' Pennsylvanian tykes back in 1985. Well played, Deeley.)

Now, we have no beef whatsoever with cybernetic creatures designed with creepily lifelike proportions and abilities. In fact, we sort of dig them. But we already have enough trouble wrapping our minds around Phil's preternatural ability to predict the ebb and flow of the seasons with a single twitch of his nose. What sort of eerie, nature-slighting capabilities will the proposed robo-hog possess? The mind boggles.
PETA's executive vice president, Tracy Reiman, maintains that a robotic groundhog would "would attract new and curious tourists." Which, admittedly, might include us. If Phil is forced into early retirement (let's hope he's been receiving a nice 401K package for his 121 years of service), might we suggest the big dogs over at PETA enlist the services of Boston Dynamics? Because, as the creators of the unspeakably terrifying military pack mule Big Dog, they really seem to have a lockdown on the freaky animal-bots.

Will Gobblers Knob be transforming into the Uncanny Valley anytime soon? We can't wait to find out.
(Source: Boston Phoenix)


A UFO landing strip for Harbour Mille? There has been another UFO sighting in Newfoundland and Labrador. According to CBC News, Darlene Stewart spotted an object coming out of the ocean while taking pictures of the sunset over Harbour Mille, on the South Coast.

The object disappeared into the sky trailing flames or smoke. Ms. Stewart called her neighbor, Emmy Pardy, and the two women, along with Stewart's husband, said they saw three similar objects flying through the air minutes apart. Darlene Stewart’s photo shows that the object resembled a rocket!
The RCMP confirmed that there was something in the sky, but that is the extent of the disclosure. Speculation is running rampant – from secret missiles tested by the French government off St. Pierre, to comets, to aliens from outer and inner space – but the sighting remains a mystery.
In a funding announcement speech in St. John’s, Defense Minister Peter MacKay said that there have been no reported missile tests. Jokingly, he announced funding for an alien landing strip at Harbour Mille.
Stories of UFO sightings are compelling. We are at the same time consumed by the overwhelming need to know and the tantalizing fear that there is something out there of which we know nothing. Ever since humans have inhabited this planet, we have imagined we are not alone, but are scared out of our wits to face the unknown.
My personal encounter with a light on the back beach in Lumsden North, as a child, has nourished a dream to get up close and personal with a UFO. Probably the ghost stories, told around the wood stove during the long winter nights, whetted my appetite for more information about the unknown and the supernatural.
One day on the way out from Gander, it was my luck to witness one of those triangular shaped aircrafts that others have said is not from this world. It was flying like a helicopter, but it was triangular shaped and silent. It wasn’t close and personal enough for me to class it as anything other than a strange flying object. And Gander is the crossroads of the world!
There are probably good rational explanations for everything we see that looks strange. But many of us are romantics and like to spin a decent story. Back in the good old days, talk was entertainment and the person who could spin an enjoyable yarn or cuffer was the life of the party, and in great demand.
Conspiracy theories make good stories. The hype around a UFO crashing in Roswell, New Mexico in July 1947, with the alleged recovery of extra-terrestrial debris and bodies, will not go away. Stories about a secret military base 90 miles North of Las Vagas, Nevada, known as Area 51, which may have more information about UFOs than it lets on, capture our imagination and linger in our memories.
The fact that recently the American government has admitted finally that there is actually a base in Nevada, does nothing to dispel the mystery surrounding the base. Rather, it adds to the alien conspiracy theory.
In this age of ‘openness and transparency,’ governments are opening their files on UFOs. The British government began opening its secret files in 2008. According to Nick Pope, a UFO expert who helped the British Ministry of Defense investigate the phenomenon, the most common things that are mistaken for UFOs are “aircraft lights, bright stars, planets, satellites, meteors and airships.” Most sightings are easily explained.
But there are still a few sightings that cannot be clarified by the usual suspects. One prime example happened at an airport in England. At four in the afternoon on April 19, 1984, experienced air traffic controllers on the East Coast of England claimed they had seen an unidentified flying object touch down briefly at the airport and take off again at a terrific speed. What they saw has never been explained.
Can the sightings be attributed to mass hysteria, or something similar, such as the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome? Perhaps … but we can imagine that not many people may feel compelled to say that they have seen a UFO just because someone else has.
Who would want to be labeled a kook? The air traffic controllers chose to remain anonymous for that very reason. The stigma attached to a belief in aliens is a huge barrier to the reporting of many UFO sightings. That may change now that the Catholic Church has performed an about turn on the matter.
Scientific experts studying the possibility of extraterrestrial life for the Vatican have concluded that other intelligent beings could exist in outer space. Are we close to a breakthrough on the subject of Aliens? Perhaps Peter MacKay may have to seriously consider funding that UFO landing strip at Harbour Mille.
We can smile about Aliens, but we would like to be serious about missiles. Senator George Baker and others have said that if French, or other, missiles are being tested, near the province, the Canadian government should know about it and, if they don’t know, they should press world governments for answers. Are answers too much to expect from paternalistic governments?


Paranormal Investigators Receive A Creepy Picture

Photograph supposedly shows spirit of deceased man Matthew Didier and Sue St.Clair’s paranormal blog was sent a chilling image.

As the story goes, a Dr. Kimberly Molto sent the paranormal duo an image in which she believes her dead husband appears.

Dr. Molto’s husband had died in their basement of a massive coronary years before the picture was taken. As always, ghostly images should be carefully analyzed and taken with a grain of salt. All we know about this is the doctor’s story and a submitted blurred image.

Interesting picture nonetheless.

Full source: Sue/Matthew Paranormal Blog

Posted to the story, this was added:

This photo was shared with us over the Christmas holidays by Dr Kimberly Molto a research scientist specializing in neurobiology in Ontario. The photo was taken by a widow in 1938 who identifies the figure seen in the photo as her deceased husband. The photo was taken (according to his widow) several years after he died of a massive coronary in the basement that he had been renovating.

Please note that I cropped the photo during the scanning purpose to center the image.

This is one of those photos where you either believe the photographer’s information or you don’t. I find it to be a very interesting photograph!


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