What does ambergris look like?

Ambergris is often referred to as "whale vomit", but that's not really correct. A more accurate analogy would be to say that ambergris is like the whale equivalent of a hairball. It's produced in the whale digestive tract, possibly to protect intestines from the sharp, pointy beaks of squid — you'll often find squid beaks embedded in the stuff. Most of it gets pooped out. But the big chunks of ambergris have to exit the other direction. In the human world, these lumps — which have the consistency of soft rock or thickly packed potting soil — are famous because we use them to make things like perfume. The ambergris washes up on beaches, people collect it, and sell it to make cosmetics.

Anyway, that's what usually happens. Recently, a dead sperm whale washed up on a beach in Holland and the conservationists who dissected it found a huge quantity of ambergris in the animal's intestines.

That news made me realize that I'd never actually seen a picture of ambergris before, so I went hunting around to see what the stuff looked like. That's a photo of a lump of ambergris, above. But it's not really indicative of what ambergris looks like all the time. In fact, as far as I can tell, the stuff comes in a wide variety of shapes and colors — ranging from stuff that looks like small brown pebbles to yellow-green globs covered in bubbly nodules. The diversity is worth perusing. This website, for a company that buys and sells ambergris, has several nice photos. And Google image search turned up a plethora of pics that really capture how different one lump of ambergris can be from another.

Dinner’s Revenge: mealworms that survive in the stomach, then eat their way out of predators

“Within ten to twenty seconds,” came the report, “the mealworm is chewing out of the animal’s stomach.”

Read the rest

The scientific field with the best obituaries

Everybody dies. But naturalists — the people who study animals and plants in those species' natural environments — well, they die interestingly. Some recent causes of death in this scientific field include: Elephant charge, being eaten by caimans (assumed), and the plague.

Surviving a massive wildfire

In 2011, the Pagami Creek Fire burned through 92,000 acres of Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area. At Outside magazine, Frank Bures tells the story of two kayakers caught in the inferno. Includes some amazing photos taken by one of the kayakers.

Brazilian Birds: ambient internet radio station of bird calls in the Amazon

My new ambient-sound-while-working internet radio jam: Brazilian Birds.

(Photo: Toucan eye, a Creative Commons image from doug88888's photostream)

Meet Pando, the world's oldest living organism

Pando is 80,000 years old. Pando is grove of aspen trees in Utah. Tremble before Pando.

Ant wars: Battle of the invasive species

There's a war on in America, pitting invasive ant against invasive ant in a fight to the finish. It's sort of like Alien vs. Predator, in a way, because whoever wins ... we lose. Argentine ants (the reigning champions) have wiped out native ant species in many of the environments they've invaded over the years, affecting the survival of other animals that used to feed on those ants. Worse, they have a fondness for certain agricultural pests, like aphids. In places with lots of Argentine ants, aphids do very well — and plants do worse.

But now the Argentines are facing a serious challenge in the form of Asian needle ants, another invasive species that — for reasons nobody really understands — have suddenly gone from minor player to major threat in the last decade. The big downside to Asian needle ants: They sting. They sting us. And, right now, it looks like they're winning.

John Roach tells the story at NBC News. But you can get a good idea of what this matchup looks like by checking out the work of insect photographer Alex Wild. That's his picture above, showing an Argentine ant on the left and an Asian needle ant on the right.

I will trade you 12 sheep for 1 barrel of non-renewable hydrocarbons

What would Settlers of Catan be like if you added oil wells to the already potent resource mix of sheep, wood, ore, brick, and grain? The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds out when reporter Ann Griswold sits in on a game of Catan: Oil Springs.

Medical cures from the mouth of a mamba

Here, scientists suck all the dignity out of a Jameson’s mamba — a snake capable of killing a human in just a few, painful hours. The photo is part of a story in the February issue of National Geographic, exploring the potential medical uses of venom. There are also more photos. And you will meet cobra farmers.

© Mattias Klum /National Geographic

WTF, evolution?

A blog which offers helpful critiques of some of the weirder parts of nature.

Crime Against Nature: Beautifully illustrated children's book explores what "natural" really means

This is a book about "doin' what comes naturally". Which is to say, sex. But what kind of sex? With whom? And to what purpose? At what point do things like gender expression, sex, reproduction, and child-rearing stop being "normal and natural" and start being something weird that humans do because we are diverse/perverted/sinful/creative (depending on your personal point of view)?

In reality, the word "natural" is mainly how we tell each other which behaviors and traits are the socially correct ones. Calling something natural is often more about specific human cultural standards than it is about what actually happens in nature. Crime Against Nature is artist Gwenn Seemel's attempt to correct that mistake. Filled with gorgeous, Klimt-esque illustrations, Seemel's book shows readers just how diverse nature can be and just how often it fails to conform to our ideas of what is normal — from girls who are bigger and tougher than boys; to boys who give birth; to boys and girls that don't have sex or reproduce at all (and don't seem to mind one bit).

The issues at play here are hefty and potentially uncomfortable, but the book itself is light, playful, and pleasantly un-preachy. It's also set up in a way that allows it to evolve with kids as their reading skills improve — pairing simple statements like "Boys can be the pretty ones" with longer but still easy-to-read paragraphs explaining, for instance, the most recent scientific theories about why male peacocks are so much more colorful than females.

Overall, the book is a great reminder that there are lots of ways to be a girl and lots of ways to be a boy. Nature is chock full of role models for every kid (and every adult). Just because you don't conform to the version of your gender that you see on TV it doesn't mean that you're defective. Last month, my husband and I navigated aisle after aisle of noxiously gendered toys, trying to find things for our niece and nephew that reflected those individual kids, rather than telling them who they were supposed to be and what they were supposed to like. In a world where even Legos come in pink boxes (with instructions for building cute little houses) and blue boxes (with instructions for building race cars), Crime Against Nature is a much-needed breath of fresh air.

You can buy a print version of Crime Against Nature from Gwenn Seemel for $32.

Alternately, you can download the digital version for free (or for a donation of your choice!)

Sand spider builds a burrow

Six-eyed sand spiders make their living by hiding, burrowing into the sand where they lie in wait of passing prey. Given that, it's a bit surprising how ... cute ... the process of burrowing looks. All I could think while watching this video was, "Awww, who's a happy spider?"

Via Brian Malow

What birds are doing with your cigarette butts

Nicotine is one of nature's bug zappers. Seriously. Lots of plants have evolved to produce bug-repelling chemicals as part of their defense mechanisms and tobacco happens to be one of those plants.

So when city-dwelling birds use the fluffy, nicotine-soaked material from discarded cigarette butts to build their nests it might not be the unmitigated ecological disaster that most of us imagine when we hear that "birds are building nests out of discarded cigarette butts". Researchers at Mexico’s Autonomous University of Tlaxcala think the nicotine in the cigarettes might help keep chicks healthy — essentially serving as an urban substitute for the parasite-repelling plants the birds would have used in the wild.

At Culturing Science, Hannah Waters explains the idea...

But birds are actually quite fond of the chemicals found in some smelly plants, otherwise known as aromatics, from which “essential oils” are derived. Aromatic plants produce these chemicals to defend themselves against insects and other animals that would take them for food—but birds have their own use for them. Some nest-building species, including starlings and blue tits, regularly replenish their nests with fresh aromatics, and scientists hypothesize that the birds use these chemicals as parenting tools.

How would plant-derived chemicals help birds raise their chicks? It’s possible that the chemicals boost the immune systems or development of the chicks so that they survive better after they leave the nest; this is known as the “drug hypothesis.” Alternatively, the “nest protection” hypothesis suggests that the plant chemicals act as insecticides, driving parasites and other harmful insects from the nest.

Nicotine is an insecticide, although we don’t often think of it that way. Tobacco plants generate nicotine because it defends against herbivorous beetles that would otherwise devour the plants–which means a smoker’s buzz is caused by a plant’s chemical defense mechanism. Some remnants of that insecticide remains in cigarette butts left in city streets, which are then transported into bird nests.

Read the full story

A house sparrow stands near a cigarette butt in Mexico City. Photo Credit: © Víctor Argaez

Maui, 10,000 feet above the sea (photo)

My, but Boing Boing readers are a talented lot. Shared in the Boing Boing Flickr pool today, this stunning photograph by Carlos26 of mountains in Hawaii, some 10K ft. above sea level. Notice the clouds *below*.

The Milky Way

A wonderful night-sky photo shared in the BB Flickr Pool by Dave Hensley: "Unadjusted jpg made from 16bit/channel tiff created by a linux stacking script I wrote; operating on a series of images I captured over vacation."