Category Archives: Nature

Clearly Confused Kitty

My late wife, Betty, and I used to wonder whether or not our four dogs and our old cat, John, could see the television shows we watched. We didn’t expect them to understand the shows. We just wondered if they could even see the pictures. After all, we understood there were really no pictures on the screen. There were just repeating lines of dark and light and color, changing 30 times a second, that our eyes registered and our brains interpreted as moving pictures.

Would the eyes and brains of our pets recognize the same pictures we saw, we wondered?

We saw little indication at the time that our animals were aware anything was happening. They almost never noticed the sounds from the set, either. There was only one exception that we were aware of to that. One time, we noticed our long-haired, silver bitch’s ears perk up when a dog on television barked; but her interest was gone in an instant. Lady, Sheila, Taka, and John didn’t seem to hear it.

Since then I have become aware that not all animals are as insensitive to television as ours were. I still don’t know why ours never seemed to notice anything on the screen.

Well, it doesn’t matter. This video shows a computer monitor; not a television screen. I realize the details are different, but the principle is the same.

In this short video, the cat appears to recognize a toy ball on the screen. She paws the screen as if to play with it, not recognizing the picture of her younger self playing with the ball in real life.

When she can’t touch the ball, but the kitten on the screen tosses it around, she quickly looks up as if to ask, “What’s going on here? Are you playing tricks on me?” Then she examines the back of the screen, apparently trying to find the ball.

I believe it was Aristotle (Or was it Socrates? No, Aristotle, I think.) who wrote that animals are like automatons, moving in a fog, and having no thought of what is actually happening around them. For almost the next 2000 years, philosophers and naturalists accepted this is as fact, just because Aristotle said so. Thankfully, modern scientists don’t do that. They make observations and they experiment to find out the truth. They have finally begun to realize what animal lovers knew long-ago — that mammals, birds, and at least some other animals are indeed intelligent and aware.

Nevertheless, their brains are not the same as ours, and their intelligence and awareness are not the same as ours. It is very difficult to understand their minds without anthropomorphizing them. That is, assuming that they are like our own.

Videos like this show us some of the similarities and some of the differences between their minds and ours.

Aiden: Future Zoologist

This young man’s name is Aiden. I don’t know anything else about him except the very little I was able to glean from Yotube and Go Fund Me. I just found the video on Youtube a few hours ago.

According to his Go  Fund Me page, his older sister is accepting contributions for his college fund. I cannot vouch for this. I have no  idea whether or not it is legitimate. For what it’s worth, here’s the text from there.

Aiden has a passion for animals and nature and dreams of being a zoologist in the future. I noticed all the support and love he’s getting from the video, so I decided to start a college fund for him early so that he can be set in the future and choose from whatever college he dreams of attending! This is a college fund for Aiden being raised by his older sister, donors are those he has inspired with his nature videos on YouTube and Twitter.

It mentions Miramar, Florida,  so I assume that’s where he lives.

Aiden’s knowledge of backyard wildlife is phenomenal, as well as his language skills and vocabulary and the ease with which he shows us the things most of us always missed in our own backyards.

He wants to be a zoologist. He might be the Richard Dawkins of his generation. In fact, now that I think of it. Dawkins says he wasn’t even unusually Interested in nature until he was in college, so this young man has a big head start on him.

With George Bush’s awesome sounding No Child Left Behind Program, we’ve spent so many resources trying to educate kids that will wear diapers all their lives and never learn to read–kids who perhaps should indeed have been left behind–that we have little left for  kids like Aiden. Our public school system can’t even begin to meet their educational needs. (And now our President and his Education Secretary want to gut the system instead of improving it. But that’s another story for another day.)

I hope, for the future of humanity, that Aiden is able to get the education he needs. It is young people like him who will build our tomorrows.



“God is watching over us.” Really?

Devastation from Saturday's tornado in and near DallasViolent storms ripped through the North Texas area late Saturday, spawning tornadoes that killed 11 people, damaged more than 100 homes, and destroyed at least 39 others. Destruction was widespread and terrible in Dallas, GarlandRowlett, and nearby areas.

I found this post on Facebook, and it expresses my thoughts perfectly.

Joyce Rutter quote from Facebook

I couldn’t find the quote, but I have no doubt somebody said it. It’s the kind of stupid thing somebody always says.

Tornado damage Decembr 27, 2015 in Rowlett, TXGod gets thanks but not blame?

A tornado kills people and wrecks homes and property and God gets thanks because it wasn’t worse. People forget God is reputedly the One Who sent the tornado in the first place.

If He gets credit for the good, why doesn’t He get blame for the devastation He apparently sent?
Heavily damaged area in Rowlett, TX December 2, 2015If God was “watching over” somebody, it must not have been those eleven people who died. Or the many more who were injured. Or those who lost their homes.

An all-powerful god who could help a few people could just as easily have saved everybody, if He wanted to. So the question has to become, “Why didn’t He want to?”Debris of homes after tornado in Garland, TX December 27, 2015

Why did God only “watch over” some people?

Isn’t He supposed to be a god of love? Well, do loving people let other people suffer and die when they could easily prevent it?

And that’s not all.

Heavily damaged residence is seen December 27, 2015 in the aftermath of a tornado in Rowlett, TX

Days of violent storms caused chaos on highways across the South and raised the death toll to at least a total of 28.

Yeah, God was watching over us, all right.

If a loving, all-powerful god had been watching out for us, there would have been no tornado. Any 8-year-old ought to understand that.

Car in a flooded drainage ditch after Saturday's tornado in Rowlett, TX, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015

Yet leaders and followers alike feel their faith has been strengthened after every disaster. Why? Because THEY didn’t die. So they “know” their Imaginary Friend was looking out for them.

Just them, and nobody else? Well, them and whoever else was lucky enough to have survived.

Damaged mobile home park after Saturday's tornado in Garland, TX, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015

Most of us were just lucky. That’s all.

Why can’t people just realize they were lucky? Lots of people were lucky, but others suffered and died. No loving God watched over North Texas Saturday night.

In fact, there is not the slightest shred of convincing evidence that any god even exists.



Chiton: The Animal with Hundreds of Teeny, Tiny Eyes in It’s Armor

Lined Chiton, Tonicella lineata
Lined Chiton, Tonicella lineata

The brightly colored sea creature above is a Tonicella lineata chiton, commonly known as a “lined chiton.” The picture was taken at about 50 feet depth on the west side of Whidbey Island, Washington. (Wikipedia)

The lined chiton is one of about 940 known extant species and 430 fossil species of the class Polyplacophora. This particular species grows to about two inches (5 cm) in length and has hundreds of tiny eyes, each less than a tenth of a millimeter across, embedded in the shell on its back. Each eye contains a lens, a light-sensitive retina, and a layer of pigment, just as your eyes and mine do. But they are much smaller, and they are scattered around the shell in all directions. No other armor in nature is known to be like this.

Closeup of chiton shell, showing black eyes
Closeup of chiton shell, showing black eyes

To imagine how very small these eyes are, first imagine the length of an inch. It’s very roughly the size of your second finger bone, just behind the tip. It takes 25 millimeters to make an inch, and each of this animal’s eyes is only a tenth of a millimeter wide. So you could fit 250 of them or so in a very thin line along your finger between the joints. I’d say those are tiny eyes! You could fit maybe a couple of hundred of them on the head of a straight pin, but they wouldn’t dance like angels are said to do.

The lenses are made from a mineral called aragonite, a crystalline form of calcium carbonate or limestone, which dissolves easily in acid. It is, in fact, the same mineral that pearls and abalone shells are made of. These animals literally peer at the world through lenses made of rock that erode as the animals age and have to be continuously replaced like shark’s teeth.

Armadillidium vulgare pill bug
Crustacean wood louse

Chitons are mollusks, related to snails, clams, and octopuses; but their oval bodies are covered by hard shells, each consisting of eight overlapping plates that give some of them the general appearance of wood lice.

Wood lice, also known as ball bugs, pill bugs, or roly-polies, are interesting in their own right, since they are the only group of crustaceans — think shrimp, crabs, lobsters, and barnacles — to have left the water and colonized the continents. It’s fascinating to me that this group of molluscs look so much like that group of crustaceans that we usually think of as filthy “bugs.”

But I digress. In fact, I’m often prone to digression. You may have noticed. Things are just so incredibly, wonderfully, marvelously fascinating it’s hard to stay focused on just one thing!

And people think science is dull? And boooring?!? Don’t ever believe it!

Two individuals of Acanthopleura granulata chitons on a rock at high tide level in Guadeloupe
Two less colorful mollusc chitons

Anyway, chitons live in salt water pretty much worldwide, but mostly in the tropics. The valves, or plates, of different species are variously colored, patterned, smooth, or sculptured; so some have been given colorful names like “sea cradles” and “coat-of-mail shells.”

Most chiton species live on hard surfaces, on or under rocks, or in rock crevices, in intertidal or subtidal zones. Some species actually live quite high in the intertidal zone and are exposed to air and light for long periods. Only a few species live in the deep ocean. Some of  the larger species can grow up to 13 inches (33 cm) long.

Daniel Speiser, then a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, dissected the lenses from the eyes of a West Indian fuzzy chiton, and dunked them into an acid bath to clean them. But they didn’t get clean. They just disappeared. That’s when he discovered they were mineral instead of organic, and had simply dissolved in his acid.

The underside of the gumboot chiton, Cryptochiton stelleri, showing the foot in the center, surrounded by the gills and mantle- The mouth is visible to the left in this image.
Underside of gumboot chiton

He later teamed up with Ling Li and Matthew Connors, two graduate students from MIT, who tested the individual eyes to see if they could actually form images. They can, but not very clear ones. Because each eye is too small to have very many photosensitive cells, they form blurry, heavily pixellated images; but each eye is capable of detecting the shape of an 8 inch (20 cm) fish from a few yards away. This should be good enough to help with predator avoidance. (Though just how the slow-moving animals can use the information to avoid predation is still in question.)

Chitons have a dorsal shell — i.e., a shell on their back — which is composed of eight separate plates. These plates overlap a little at the front and back edges, but articulate well. Because of this, although the plates provide good protection for impacts from above, they still permit the chiton to flex upward to move over uneven surfaces. They also allow the animal to curl up into a ball, like the “ball bug” mentioned above.

Many species are edible and are enjoyed by various peoples around the world. (However, don’t try eating the ball bugs some of them look like.)


Asian Elephant Rescues Caretaker

This 17 year old Asian elephant, Thongsri, comes to the aid of her caretaker.

Elephants — both African and Asian — are some of the most intelligent and emotionally complex animals on earth. In the wild, they live in matriarchal groups consisting of one or a few adult females (usually close relatives) and their young offspring. Adult males are mostly solitary.

A group of females and their young form strong social bonds and are very loyal to each other. Domesticated ones can include their caretakers as ‘members’ of their group.

Elephant Rescues Caretaker

When Thongsri, a 17-year-old female living at a sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand, saw her caretaker apparently being attacked, she rushed to his rescue.

I suspect it’s a good thing the mock attacker left in a hurry.


Kimbetopsalis simmonsae: Newly discovered mammal species survived dinosaur extinction

reconstruction of Kimbetopsalis simmonsae

Kimbetopsalis simmonsae discovered

Paleontologists recently found a species of mammal that survived the extinction of the dinosaurs and named it Kimbetopsalis simmonsae, meaning “Simmon’s cutting shears of Kimbeto Wash,” in honor of the scientist who found the fossils, the place where they were found, and the snipping front teeth of the beast.

The deadly asteroid almost six miles across struck the earth at several tens of thousands of miles per hour, producing a greater explosive force than a billion Hiroshima bombs and creating worldwide earthquakes and tsunamis. About the same time, huge lava flows in and around India (maybe also caused by the impact) filled the atmosphere with suffocating and poison gasses. Fires started by the impact and its ejecta and by the lava spread around the planet, filling the air with particulates and more gasses. Particles blocked the sun, cooling the world and cutting off photosynthesis for years. Over half of all life on Earth was wiped out.

Plants that were not destroyed in the initial cataclysm died from cold and lack of sunshine. Animal herbivores starved without plants to feed upon. Carnivores starved without herbivores to feed upon. Within probably a year, most life on earth had died. Before it was over, all non-avian dinosaurs and three quarters of earth’s other species were extinct.

It was not a good time to be alive, and most species made a swift exit from the global stage: Vegetation withered. Ocean life gasped for air and energy, then collapsed. Gone were the fearsome Tyrannosaurus, the winged Pterosaurs, the massive Triceratops with its three horns and bony neck frill. The dinosaurs’ 100 million-year reign had ended. And when the smoke cleared, a new hero had taken over.

Washington Post

That new “hero” was the mammal.

Kimbetopsalis simmonsae, the newly discovered species, was a plant-eating mammal that resembled a beaver. More specifically, it was a multituberculate, a superficially rodent-like order of extinct mammals named for the numerous cusps, or tubercles, found on their teeth. They lived another 30 million years after the extinction.

Those teeth may have been their secret of success in the wake of the mass-extinction. The anatomy of their jaws gave them “a grinding-focused chewing stroke,” according to the report. Together with their snipping incisor teeth, these allowed them to eat a large variety of whatever vegetation was available.

This particular species lived about 64.5 million years ago in what is now the San Juan Basin of northern New Mexico. Estimated at around three feet long and over 22 pounds. That’s quite large when one considers that most mammals living in the age of dinosaurs were about the size of a mouse.

The world had been wrecked. An asteroid impact in Mexico compounded by colossal volcanism in India 66 million years ago had killed about three-quarters of Earth’s species including the dinosaurs.

But relatively soon afterward, a plucky critter that looked like a beaver was thriving, exemplifying the resilience of the mammals that would arise from the margins of the animal kingdom to become Earth’s dominant land creatures.

Scientists on Monday announced the discovery in northwestern New Mexico’s badlands of the fossil remains of Kimbetopsalis simmonsae, a plant-eating, rodent-like mammal boasting buck-toothed incisors like a beaver that lived just a few hundred thousand years after the mass extinction, a blink of the eye in geological time.

Kimbetopsalis, estimated at 1 metre, would have been covered in fur and possessed large molar teeth with rows of cusps used to grind down plants.

Asked what someone’s impression of Kimbetopsalis might be, New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science curator of paleontology Thomas Williamson said, “They would probably think something like, ‘Hey, look at that little beaver! Why doesn’t it have a flat tail?”

Dr Stephen Brusatte from the University of Edinburgh told how Carissa Raymond, a student on his team, found the fossils of Kimbetopsalis simmonsae while prospecting at a site in New Mexico. The Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society published it.

While Earth’s ecosystems struggled to recover from the catastrophe, New Mexico became a lush area of forests, rivers, streams and lakes. Kimbetopsalis grew from the size of a mouse to the size of a very large beaver over the course of just 500,000 years — a mere blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. It had a beaver’s broad face and chunky frame, but probably no paddle-like tail. It is known from a partial skull and parts of the upper jaws, including teeth still in their sockets.

Mammals originated from early dinosaurs.

 jaws of Kimbetopsalis simmonsae

Mammals had originated about the same time as the dinosaurs got their start; but nearly all of them remained very small until the dinosaurs were superseded by rodents. With the “terrible lizard” predators gone, they were finally free to grow larger without being eaten.

Multituberculates were one of evolution’s greatest success stories. That may seem odd to say now, being that they’ve been extinct for over 30 million years, but that’s why a Deep Time perspective is essential to comprehending Life. As New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science paleontologist Thomas Williamson and colleagues write at the top of their latest paper on the beasts, multituberculates originated and thrived while the dinosaurs still gripped the world in their claws, survived the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous, and again proliferated during the “Age of Mammals” for tens of millions of years before finally expiring. And thanks to some pieces of skull found in northern New Mexico, Williamson and colleagues have identified one of the pioneering “multis” that evolved soon after the dinosaurs had global dominance wrested from them.

National Geographic (Phenomena:Laelaps)

The mass extinction not only killed all the dinosaurs except for the specific lineage that was already evolving into birds; it also devastated the world’s biodiversity. But it gave mammals an opportunity to quickly fill the niches left by the reptiles, and for a particular group of them to evolve into you and me.


Another amazing whale rescue!

This is amazing! The great humpback whale was given its life back.

This is even more dramatic than the other cetacean rescues I’ve reported on here and here. They thought this humpback whale was dead until, after several minutes, it broke the surface for a gasp of air.

Then the photographers discovered it was trapped in a large amount of fishnet, so much its fins were pinned to its sides and back and its tail fluke was bound. It couldn’t swim. It could hardly move and soon would have been dead.

They spent an hour cutting huge amounts of fishing net from the whale’s body, ending up with a boat load of the trash.

When it was all over, the whale put on a show for them. Like the other whale rescue that I posted about, this great humpback whale seems to be expressing its gratitude.

humpback whale
humpback whale


Super Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse Redux

In case you missed the “Super Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse” Sunday night, as I did, here’s a five-second replay. All four hours of it condensed for quick viewing.

I went out three times to see the event and maybe take some pictures, but the cloud cover was too complete. The moon was just a hazy glow from my apartment in Fort Worth.

Enjoy this replay. Be sure to watch it full size.

Super Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse

A moderately rare “super blood moon” lunar eclipse will be viewable in the sky tonight for those living in North and South America. However, the word “super” should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. It’ll be slightly larger than average because of its position in orbit, but you probably won’t notice the difference. What you will notice is the reddish color.

Here’s the schedule for Americans again. For most of the country, the moon will be low above the eastern horizon. For people in Colorado, it’ll be in eclipse when it rises. It’ll begin to move into the earth’s shadow at 9:07 P.M. Eastern Time. The eclipse will begin with a bite out of its lower left side.

Note: The previous paragraph should have said “west of Colorado” instead of “in Colorado.”

It’ll take just over an hour for the moon to pass completely into earth’s shadow, and its last sliver will slip into darkness at 10:11. It’ll stay dark for more than an hour; then start to lighten again at 11:23, and be completely out of earth’s shadow at 27 minutes after midnight. Don’t forget to adjust for your time zone.

People in Europe and Africa can see the eclipse in the early hours after midnight.

super blood moon lunar eclipse over water
super blood moon lunar eclipse over water

A blood moon is a special lunar eclipse. It happens when Earth completely blocks sunlight from reaching the moon except for a ring of light refracting through the atmosphere. Instead of going dark, the moon is lit by that refracted light that leaks around the planet, essentially reflecting all of Earth’s sunsets and sunrises onto the surface of the moon at once and giving it its reddish color.

A super moon is when the moon is nearest Earth in its orbit, so it appears as much as 14% larger in area than average. When the two events happen together, we call it a super blood moon lunar eclipse.

See my previous post here for more info.

If you miss it for any reason, you can view it here later: Video: Missed the Blood Moon? Watch the Event Unfold Through NASA’s Footage.

The next total lunar eclipse won’t happen until January 2018.


  • NASA
  • Bill’s Blog

Smart Racoon

“Rocksy the Racoon” raids and empties the cat food bowl. Then she knocks on the door for a refill. She has lived in the same yard for years, but nobody seems to know how she figured out how to knock. Even more amazing is that she has learned her soft paws won’t make enough noise, so she knocks gently on the glass door with a rock! Thus her name. And look how persistent she is!