Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pity the Poor Chupacabra

Artwork from How Stuff Works

It seems that not a week goes by that I don't see a report about someone "discovering" a chupacabra. Sometimes they've even killed it and stuffed it in a freezer, in anticipation of the cameras and curious news crews who are sure to want a look.
The interesting thing about all these reports is that the descriptions of the animal are usually rather at odds with the desiccated corpses on display. People often describe the chupacabra (that's a "goat sucker" to you and me) as looking alien, frightening, with a ridge of feathers or scales along its back. Its eyes are said to glow red, and its teeth are supposed to be long... Perfect for sucking the blood out of unsuspecting farm animals. 
What are these reports really describing? I'd say that would be feral dogs, coyotes, and even raccoons with sarcoptic mange. Sad, really, when you look at it that way. The reported "ridge of feathers or scales" is probably just the remnants of the animal's fur, running in tufts along its spine. The only good to come out of people shooting these benighted beasts is that it puts them out of their misery, and miserable you can be sure they are if they are living on a diet of farm animals. Healthy wild animals would rather stay far away from humans, hunting other wild animals. 
Photo from Fox News
Just take a look at the photo on the right of a supposed chupacabra and tell me it doesn't look like a dog without hair. It was found as roadkill by a woman in Texas who claims that it sucked the blood out of 26 of her chickens. Her main basis for this seems to be that it's ugly, and doesn't look like other animals. 
Want to know if something is really a chupacabra? Well, science to the rescue! There are ways to figure things like this out, even if the animal in question has never been seen before. I consulted an article in and found this helpful checklist, compiled by Benjamin Radford, who literally wrote the book on chupacabras:
"1) Was the animal actually seen attacking other animals?
2) If it was, was it seen or videotaped sucking blood from its victim(s)?
3) Was the suspected chupacabra victim autopsied by a qualified veterinarian or medical pathologist?
4) Did this veterinarian or pathologist conclude that blood had actually been extracted from the animal?
5) Does the suspected chupacabra have a mouth structure that would allow it to suck out blood?
6) Has the chupacabra’s saliva been scientifically tested for anti-coagulant and anaesthetic properties?
7) Has the suspected chupacabra’s digestive tract been examined for specialized vampire structures?
8) Has the chupacabra’s stomach contents been examined to determine if it lived on a diet of blood?
9) Have samples of the suspected chupacabra been subjected to DNA sequencing?
10) Has testing of samples of the suspected chupacabra’s skin conclusively ruled out sarcoptic mange?
If you can answer yes to all of the above, you might very well have the world's first scientifically legit chupacabra."
In short, don't forget to bring along some science when you go monster hunting! Think a hairless animal wouldn't fool you, that you could spot a shaved coyote a mile away? Well, check out this critter:

Photo: Belgravia Center Blog
It's a raccoon with alopecia. And it too was at first thought to be a chupacabra!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Wordless Wednesday featuring Franz and Cooper

Book Blitz! Volume 2

The one constant of my life lately is busy, busy, busy. Too busy to read? Never! It was nice to have the plane ride up and back from Seattle though, during which I indulged in some quality time with the written word. If you, like me, enjoy reading about particle physics or possibly-crazy women living in Portland, I've got some books to recommend...

I've been wanting to read Massive ever since I finished Lisa Ranall's Warped Passages. As the subtitle says, it's about  The Missing Particle that Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science. What particle is this? Why, the Higgs boson, of course! The very beast that is the focus of so much press and the target of the huge particle colliders. It's been called the "God particle", a dreadful shorthand which I gather is much despised by most physicists.

Author Ian Sample does a fine job of explaining what this particle probably is and how it might work. Allow me to emphasize might, since we haven't actually proven its existence yet. But if it does exist it's what gives things mass. Let that sink in for a moment: your atoms weigh something. Photons of light do not. That's why photons travel at, well, the speed of light... And why you have to work to travel at all. Why do some particles have mass while others don't? It's a fundamental mystery. It probably has to do with something called the Higgs field, and probably also with symmetry breaking in the very early moments of the universe. Sample walks one through these difficult concepts but doesn't let them bog the narrative down.

The real fun in this book is found when Sample delves into the politics and personalities involved in the construction of the huge particle colliders. It's a wonder that any of them were ever built at all! His biographical sketches of the main players are great too, especially the introduction of the young Peter Higgs. And don't be fooled by the title. No equations needed to parse this tome! A healthy curiosity about the way things work is all the author requires of you.

Now, for something completely different. Well, sort of. Actually, I'm not entirely sure... And that's a very good thing. Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover's Gingerbread Girl isn't available in stores yet. But it is being serialized online over at Top Shelf. You can pre-order a copy now and have the book in your hands in May, but seriously, check it out now!

Coover's art is amazing, and Tobin's story really has to be read to be appreciated. All I know is that it's about Annah, a terrible, lovable tease who may or may not have a sister made out of a piece of her brain. Or she may be crazy. Many bystanders weigh in with bits of information, including her dates, a clerk, a passing pigeon... And if telling you this makes you think you know what this book is like, I promise that it isn't that way at all. Or is it? I don't know, since I've only read as much as is available so far. But I do know that I'll be happily buying the book as soon as I can!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Emerald City, 2011! The Wrap-up

Squid sculpture, spotted in the wild
I'll be the first to admit that I'm not too quick out of the gate with this report from ECCC 2011. It was a couple of weeks ago now, a lifetime, in Con terms. Even C2E2 has come and gone since then!

However, I have a good excuse. I have, in fact, been working. Yes, working at my day job feeding animals, playing with parrots, and raking up bunny poop. But, also writing. For pay! Much as I love this blog, the pay for writing it is rather... Nonexistent. So,  keep your eyes peeled for some fresh non-bloggery coming soon to an anthology near you.

Me, in an actual trench coat!
I love visiting Seattle at any time, and not coincidently the Emerald City Comicon is something I look forward to all year. We came into town a day early and were met with rain. Which was fine with me... It meant I could wear actual chilly weather gear. Our first stop was, of course, The Elliot Bay Book Company. Words can not express how much I love that place. It was about to move the last time we were there so it was a great relief to learn that its new digs are just as cool as the old ones. And the coffee is even better! Luckily we just about sold out of copies of Heathentown at the Con. If we hadn't I don't know how I would have fit all my new books into my luggage. 

We also had time to visit the Seattle Art Museum this trip, which was a lot of fun. Bet you didn't know that there's a whole case or tiny frog sculptures hidden in one corner upstairs. That alone made it worth the trip.

Best costumes. Ever.
This was the first year that ECCC was three days long instead of two, so we didn't know what to expect on the first day. Turns out that attendance was terrific. Our table was in a great place too. Our row was full of talent: Chris Samnee, Jeff Parker, Tom Fowler, Steve Lieber... The list goes on. Gabriel was kept busy with sketches all weekend, but managed to find the time to buy some original art. And some folks even brought us dessert! A full box of cookies, some candy, and coffee all the way from Hawaii. How's that for a warm welcome? I was also happy to meet Kyle Latino and Shane White in person. Kyle and I sat next to each other for most of the weekend, which worked out great since he didn't seem to mind my endless blather about Doctor Who. And that brings me to the most amazing thing: a woman dressed as the TARDIS. I almost knocked Evan Shaner flat while attempting to get a photo of her.

So, I would say the weekend was a success. It resulted in new reading material, a bit of writing work, and a picture of a blue-haird girl dressed as my favorite fictional time machine. We also spent some time hanging out with Paul Tobin and Colleen Cover, the creators behind one of the projects I'm most excited about this year, Gingerbread Girl. If you haven't already, you really should check it out. It's strange and wonderful and completely unexpected. Colleen was even nice enough to do a sketch of one of my favorite characters from their book, Pidgy. Can't wait for ECCC 2012!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Meet the Basking Shark

What could be more frightening than a giant 35 foot shark? A whole lot of things, it turns out, if the shark in question is a basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus).

Photo Credit: NOAA
I was surprised to stumble across this report and video from Panama City, Florida, showing a kayaker's encounter with one these prodigious creatures. Surprised, and also envious. I grew up in Florida, right on the gulf, and never saw anything half that spectacular. Well, aside from the sea turtles I watched nesting one night. And the dolphins we used to watch from the grounds of the Ringling Museum. Oh, and the time a couple of roseate spoonbills flew over our house... Okay, so Florida was a good place to watch wildlife way back when. But the point is, I never got to see a basking shark!

There's a good reason for that: despite the fact that their habitat spans the globe, they are very rare visitors to the waters around Florida. That's because they're usually found in more temperate waters. Which makes sense for an animal that large. Imagine the heat one must generate, even at rest. And while you're at it, try to imagine an animal this huge. Thirty-five feet of living flesh. That's a whole lot of fish!

Photo Credit: Daily Mail
But, unlike some extinct giant sharks, basking sharks are not flesh eaters. They survive instead by filtering plankton from seawater. That's the purpose of that enormous mouth: the more water they can suck in the more plankton they can filter out. Just how wide can they open that mouth? Wide enough for a fair-sized human child to stand up in: nearly four feet!

These peculiar animals, like many denizens of the deep, have been shrouded in mystery until quite recently. But tracking studies have now revealed that they can travel up to 1,500 miles in one day and remain at depths of 3,300 feet for five months at a time. Oh, and they give birth to cute little live sharks, not eggs.

So, a 35 foot shark... That must be the largest fish out there, right? Nope, that honor goes to the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), measured at up to 41 feet long. Sadly, I've never seen one of those either.
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