Calls and Cries from the Digital Jungle (Link round-up, 2/4/11 edition)

- Roland Kays, curator of mammals at the New York State Museum, writes about how snow affects field biologists and animals they study in the New York Times. He also describes the magic of camera traps: “[they’re] like a mix of fishing and Christmas. Finding pictures of common things like deer and squirrels is fun, like catching bluegills, but there’s always a chance of catching the big one — for example, a coyote, fisher or other rare species.”

- highlights some of the conflicts that occur when the worlds of wild macaques and urban humans collide. “Aggressive encounters with macaques are common in urban areas…humans [unintentionally] contribute to the problem by leaving garbage for them to raid.”

- President Obama cracked a joke about the complexity of federal fish regulations during his State of the Union address last week (I missed it because I was, well, gutting fish). Is government oversight of salmon as complicated as he’d have you believe? Slate’s Explainer explains.

- I did some explaining myself the other week at mental_floss, and talked about why we have flat and Phillips head screwdrivers and how the Duck Hunt Zapper works.

- Also at mental_floss, my co-blogger Rob provides an in-depth history of Rescue 911. Can’t wait for him to do one on Cops.

- Brian Switek talks about the armor of glyptodonts, the prehistoric, badass cousins of modern armadillos.

- Ed Yong reports on the spread of facepalming gestures in a group of captive mandrills. The pictures alone will make your day.

- The International Year of Chemistry launched the other day here in Philadelphia. David Kroll has a quick rundown of why the IYC is celebrated and where and when the Philly events are, as well as a shout out to the awesome Chemical Heritage Foundation museum.

-Five words: Baby elephant frolics on beach

- Robert Kurzban wonders why there’s a biased sex ratio in a certain spider species. The answer, as it so often is, is that parasites manipulate everything we do.

- Emperor penguins might use a coat of air bubbles to reduce drag and launch themselves out of the water and onto land.

- When it comes to love, it’s not just humans have to settle for what they can get.

- Conjoined tilapia twins give new meaning to “synchronized swimming.”

- Frog leg mustache!


The werewolf is dead, long live the werewolf, or: The co-existence of lycanthropy and Cotard’s syndrome This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for
“I speak, breathe and eat but I am dead,” said the patient.

The symptoms had started two years earlier, and his family finally brought the patient, a 32-year-old high school dropout, laborer and family man, to the Kerman Psychiatric Hospital in southern Iran after he refused to go to work for two straight weeks. At first, he just felt restless and sensed a subtle, strange feeling in his body, like a faint electric shock. Soon he felt as if his whole body had changed and, finally, he concluded that he was dead and that his death was caused by his sins during life. He said that after his death, sometimes his jaw moved automatically and concluded that he had been transformed into a dog. His wife had suffered the same fate. His three daughters had also died and were transformed into sheep and the scent of their urine made him restless. He could smell their it even then, in the hospital, far away from his family.

He started having trouble sleeping and then felt no need for it. At night, he laid far away from his family, afraid of sexually assaulting his daughters while they slept. He had, after all, had a sexual relationship with a sheep during his life as a human and still could not get over the guilt from it. He also refused sexual contact with his wife, as he believed his sins were so grave that he should never look at any woman again.

He began to accuse his friends of harming him. When they asked why he thought that and how they had supposedly harmed him, he gave no explanation, but did not worry either. He believed that God protected him, even in death, and that no poisons could hurt him. He explained that his relatives and friends repeatedly poisoned his tea with cyanide but that he had not been harmed.

The man and the beast were dead, but would live forever. Having suffered for their sins, they were now protected by the hand of God.

The man met DSM-IV criteria for mixed-type bipolar mood disorder with psychotic features. In addition, he displayed delusions that DSM-IV criteria could not explain. Lycanthropy in folklore and horror movies is applied to humans who change into wolves. In the psychiatric literature, though, it is a rare belief or delusion that one has transformed into an animal, or the exhibition of behavior suggesting that belief. Cotard’s syndrome is another rare condition in which the afflicted has nihilistic delusions that lead them to deny their own existence or that of the external world. The syndrome also involves the paradoxical ideation of immortality. He presented a typical case of Cotard’s syndrome, having both delusions of being dead and of immortality. His lycanthropy was a rare variant in which both the patient and others were transformed into animals, a delusion reported only once before.

How could these two conditions co-exist in one patient? The man’s caretakers found several ties that bound them to each other. Immortality is a common symptom of both lycanthropy and Cotard’s syndrome. His sins in life, one of them being sexual contact with a sheep, were explained as the cause of his death, and zoophilia and bizarre and chaotic sexuality in general are often expressed in a primitive way by lycanthropes (the prevalence rate of zoophilia – both actual sexual contact and sexual fantasies – is significantly higher among psychiatric patients, 55%, than control groups, 10 and 15%). In addition to the paradoxical pairing of the delusions of being dead and immortal in Cotard’s syndrome, the man’s lycanthropy presented its own paradox. In Persian folklore, the dog is both a symbol of loyalty and a symbol of impureness. The man’s sexual history with sheep, coupled with his desire to protect his sheep-daughters and many dogs’ roles as herders and protectors of flocks, adds another layer of paradox. It was concluded that zoophilic orientation associated with a sense of guilt was a driving factor in causing his delusions.

The man was given medication and six sessions of electro-convulsive therapy and after two weeks, the main symptoms were relieved. The sheep, though…the sheep would never be the same.

(Note: This post has been edited from it’s original version in an effort to make the information in the first two paragraphs flow more easily. Info was moved around and rewritten slightly, but no information was removed, nor additional information added).

Reference: Nejad AG, & Toofani K (2005). Co-existence of lycanthropy and Cotard’s syndrome in a single case. Acta psychiatrica Scandinavica, 111 (3) PMID: 15701110

Image: German woodcut of werewolf, 1722.


This is a test. Keep calm and carry on.



The Batronaut, A True American Hero

The Batronaut, a free-tailed bat whose age was unknown, passed away on Sunday, March 15 near his perch on the north side of the Space Shuttle Discovery’s external fuel tank at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The cause of death is believed to be the 1400°C exhaust of the shuttle’s rocket boosters.

The Batronaut is believed to have been a resident of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and enjoyed sleeping upside down and eating bugs.

The Batronaut will be fondly remembered by America as the bat that almost made it into space. An account of his final hours, “Interim Problem Report 119V-0080,” has been written by NASA’s Systems Engineering and Integration team.

In lieu of flowers, please build a bat house.


Here it is…

The best science reporting of 2008!


U.N. is watering the garden (of Eden)

In any history class you’ve ever taken, the first thing you probably talked about was the Fertile Crescent. The half-moon shaped chunk of land in the Middle East, watered by the Nile, Euphrates and Tigris rivers, was the birthplace of human civilization. Today, we associate the area with endless deserts, oil and improvised explosive devices.

But that’s about to change. The endless desert part, anyway. Last Friday, the United Nations announced a plan to restore Iraq’s wetlands (according to some scholars, the site of the Garden of Eden) and list them as a World Heritage Site.

The Iraqi wetlands (saying it over and over doesn’t make the idea seem any less weird, does it?) once covered a tens of thousands of square miles and were home to snakes, lizards, frogs, fish, water buffalo, gazelles, jerboa, birds and tribes of people known as the Marsh Arabs or Ma ˤdān (‘dweller in the plains,” a disparaging name given to them by desert tribes).

Today, the wetlands are mostly decimated. First, fighting during the Iran-Iraq War spilled into the area. Then, in the 1990s, Saddam Hussein began draining the area and diverting water flow in order to expand military access to the land, gain more political control over the Marsh Arabs and flush out rebels after a failed Shia uprising.

When U.S. forces invaded in 2003, only some 400 square miles of marsh remained. Once Hussein’s regime was brought down, locals began destroying the dams that held water back and allowed the wetlands to flood again. Today, more than half the original wetlands have been restored, and thousands of birds and fish, as well as the Marsh Arabs, have returned to the land.

The U.N.’s project, which is being partially funded by Italy, will concentrate providing safe drinking water and renewable energy for the Marsh Arabs, planting reed banks and beds and managing the re-flooded areas to ensure the return of plant life. If all goes well, Iraq could be able to approach the World Heritage Committee for listing in two years.

Image: “Marsh Arabs poling a traditional mashoof in the marshes of southern Iraq.” Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library


Blue Whales going to farther depths

When you enjoy the simple pleasures that I do – heavy metal, zombie movies, all things Batman – it’s not often that life imitates art in a way that you can appreciate. Sometimes, though, Mother Earth will surprise me with just how cool she is.

Case in point: Generations of musicians have been taking Black Sabbath-esque riffs and dragging them to lower, slower depths. We’re at the point now where some of the best guitar riffs are just a single chord degrading over the course of a few minutes at 32Hz.

The songs of male blue whales, long thought to be the way they attract mates, have likewise been getting lower over the last 40 years, and in some populations have dropped in frequency by as much as 30 percent (mind you that whale songs were already mostly too low for human ears to hear).

Besides a desire to jump on the drone bandwagon before the Next Big Thing comes along, what could be prompting the whales to lower their songs so much, so quickly?

The scientists researching the trend can’t explain it, but hypothesize that it might be because the whale population is rebounding after years of commercial whaling bans, and with more whales around, a lower song gives a male an edge when attracting a mate.