translating biophilia into a love of life

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Is the pangolin your spirit animal?

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Answer yes or no to these four questions:

  1. You sleep all day and party all night. (Partying may or may not include swinging from trees by your tail and/or eating ants).
  2. When confronted with an awkward situation, you run away and hide.
  3. You’re not so sure about that whole “pairing off” thing. #solitarylife
  4. You get so stressed out that sometimes you could just, I mean, like, die.

If you answered yes to any of these questions then — congratulations! — you might just be a pangolin person.

O hai!

(Originally from John D. Sutter’s post for CNN, “The most trafficked mammal you’ve never heard of”)


Written by morethangray

February 23, 2015 at 7:37 pm

Posted in thoughts, wildlife

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What would the lovechild of Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson look like?

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My two favorite people right now are Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson.  If you know me, it won’t surprise you when I say the natural offshoot of my admiration for these two science heroes was wondering what their child would look like.  And because the internet can do amazing things, my curiosity was soon satisfied.


Being a fan of rigor in all things, I repeated the simulation several times with various combinations of photographs of our heroes.  At least at MorphThing, the various combinations were fairly consistent.

In closing, I’ll leave you with pictures of our heroes in their black-and-white photo days.

Neil, Bill, I salute you.

Written by morethangray

November 13, 2012 at 4:40 pm

Happy puppy day!

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March 23 is National Puppy Day!  This unholiday is the perfect day to admire the ephemeral cuteness of puppies, and by admire I mean click through online photo galleries.  Here are a few puppy pictures (with a gallery link in the caption) to get you started:

Here is my own contribution, a pic of my spaniel when she was 4 months old:


Written by morethangray

March 23, 2012 at 10:28 am

From paper to pangolins

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Awhile ago I came across this fantastic paper sculpture of a human torso, complete with removable organs, built by Horst Kiechle.  The anatomical detail is spectacular, considering Kiechle constructed the sculpture entirely from 200gms/sqm white card.  You can even build your own organs, using instructions found here.

Paper torso, by Horst Kiechle (link)

I soon found that the internet abounds with paper art crafted by science geeks, much of which is origami.  Below are some of the more interesting creations out there.

Origami is derived from the Japanese words “ori” meaning “fold” and “kami” meaning paper.  The traditional concept of origami is folding paper to create objects using only one piece of paper with no cuts or glue.

The Long-Term Effect of an MIT Education, by Brian Chan. Folded from an uncut paper square (link)

DNA (Double Helix) via Instructables (link)

And, while not officially origami (the use of two paperclips and several staples is involved), the Origami Embryo is probably the most clever tutorial on embryonic development I’ve seen.  Using three sheets of paper, Dr. Diana Darnell demonstrates how the ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm fold upon one another to create embryonic organs.  Working through this tutorial would likely help countless biology undergrads who are primarily tactile or visual learners get a better grasp (har har) on early organogenesis.

The Origami Embryo (link)

Finally, an origami post would be incomplete without at least one Eric Joisel (1956-2010) creation.  Here’s to you, beloved pangolin:

Pangolin, by Eric Joisel (link)

Gratuitous pangolin (link)

Written by morethangray

March 21, 2012 at 10:58 am

Could a vaccine aid in conserving great apes?

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Infectious disease has recently joined poaching and habitat loss as a major threat to African apes, especially because they are increasingly restricted to ever-smaller populations.

Apes are subject to “naturally” occurring pathogens like Ebola and Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) as well as some diseases we humans transmit.  Both types of disease are important sources of mortality in wild chimpanzees and gorillas.

In a paper published in PlosOne (December 2011), Dr. Sadie J. Ryan and Dr. Peter D. Walsh present their findings based on an analysis of the consequences of non-intervention for infectious disease in African great apes.  In short: wild great ape recovery from disease is slow, and a single outbreak can devastate a population.

We found that the predicted recovery time for this specific gorilla population from a single outbreak ranged from 5 years for a low mortality (4%) respiratory outbreak, to 131 years for an Ebola outbreak that killed 96% of the population. This shows that mortality rates comparable to those recently reported for disease outbreaks in wild populations are not sustainable.

Given the grave impact a single infectious disease outbreak may have on ape populations, the researchers evaluate how to best impede such outbreaks from occurring.  Both non-interventionist actions, like limiting tourist access to apes and community health programs, as well as more direct actions like vaccination were proposed as ways to protect great apes from disease:

Based on our research here, we suggest that the great ape conservation community should pursue and promote treatment and vaccination, as weapons in the arsenal for fighting the decline of African apes. This should include rigorous assessments of both safety and cost-effectiveness, and should emphasize program sustainability, with particular attention to the training of African veterinary personnel.

Written by morethangray

March 15, 2012 at 4:31 pm

Why we must protect endangered animals

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Rapid loss of sea ice is the major threat to polar bear survival

In the article, “Let the polar bears die, liberals: It’s only your beloved evolution at work” author S.E. Cupp argues that if polar bears (or any other single species) are on track for extinction, we should not interfere.  At one point Cupp asserts that protecting an endangered animal would be meddling with evolution:

“The crass and sometimes violent coming and going of species proves evolution’s central logic. So why, then, do polar bear activists insist that another species – that would be us – tamper with Darwin’s grand design and swoop in to save an animal that simply wasn’t fit enough to make it in the cutthroat world of biological survival?”

I disagree with Cupp that we should forgo the protection of endangered animals in favor of allowing threatened wildlife to become extinct.  Further, the argument that wildlife conservation intrudes on evolution is fallacious, and exposes Cupp’s fundamental misunderstanding of evolution, natural selection and artificial selection.

To take a step back, understanding the difference between evolution, natural selection and human-caused (or artificial) selection is crucial before considering whether to conserve wildlife.  Natural selection and evolution are not synonymous.  Simply put, evolution occurs when a population changes over time in response to pressure from the environment.  Natural selection is how changes can accumulate in an evolving population.  As a result of natural selection, individuals with certain traits survive and reproduce at the expense of their peers.  Evolution by natural selection happens very slowly, as living things respond to their environment over hundreds to thousands of years.

Artificial selection in dogs produced the giant Great Dane and the diminutive Chihuahua

Artificial selection in dogs produced the giant Great Dane and the diminutive Chihuahua

Artificial selection, also known as selective breeding or human-caused selection, was first described by Charles Darwin to distinguish the process from natural selection.  As opposed to natural selection, in which the environment acts as a sieve through which only certain variations can pass, in artificial selection humans favor specific traits and direct their persistence.  Artificial selection — which Cupp mistakenly refers to as “evolution” — is not the result of random, unpredictable events like weather or natural disasters, but is a direct result of our behavior.

Humans have drastically altered the appearance of animals and plants within a few generations by way of artificial selection. Consider the creation of hundreds of distinct dog breeds selected and maintained by humans within the past 150 years or the directed transformation of teosinte into modern cultivars of corn for food.  The rapid evolution of such radical changes in structure and function are unheard of with natural selection.

While it’s true that we have loaded the atmosphere with an unprecedented amount of carbon dioxide and global temperatures are changing as a result, it is not true that we have no control over the situation.  Further, the extreme changes in the composition of atmosphere have taken place within the past 2oo years — a pace exclusive to artificial selection.  When humans accelerate change with artificial selection, the participants of natural selection can, understandably, not keep up.

As humans we have the ability to understand cause and effect.  We are able to think about consequences, make responsible choices about how to behave and when to change the way we do things.  The same cannot be said for nature with its weather and natural disasters.  As sentient beings with a conscience and the ability to make premeditated decisions, it is our responsibility to maintain our planet for future generations — both human and animal.


Written by morethangray

December 22, 2010 at 11:39 am

International tiger protection forum held in St. Petersberg

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The International Tiger Conservation Forum (also called the “Tiger Forum”) kicks off today!  Between 21-24 November, leaders from 13 countries will assemble in St. Petersburg to attend Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Tiger Forum. The goal of the summit is to finalize a plan to double the wild tiger population by 2022.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and government leaders from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, and Vietnam will sign the St. Petersburg Declaration affirming their resolve to save wild tigers from extinction.

Held in the United Nations Year of Biodiversity and the Asian Year of the Tiger, the Forum will endorse a Global Tiger Recovery Program of urgent and comprehensive national and international actions to double the number of tigers across their range, from 3,200 today to 7,000 by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger.

Many would say it is now or never for wild tigers. In the past century, tiger numbers plummeted from 100,000 to about 3,200 and continue to fall. In an organized transnational illegal wildlife trade, criminals earn large profits feeding illicit consumer demand for tiger parts and products; they take advantage of poor people living around tiger reserves to recruit poachers. People hunt the prey tigers need to survive. Adverse human activities, including commercial agriculture and infrastructure development, have replaced vast expanses of the tiger’s habitat and threaten to take it all.

Typically in most countries, the responsibility for wildlife conservation belongs to a single ministry or agency that is often underfunded. But counteracting the diverse threats to wild tigers will take the additional participation of many others, including those devoted to finance, the criminal justice system, land-use planning, and infrastructure development. Public support for protecting tigers and their landscapes is also essential. Thus, the Forum is important because it will signal to officials that political will and commitment exists at the highest level to eliminate these threats before the wild tiger’s extinction become inevitable.

(From Global Tiger Initiative)

Written by morethangray

November 21, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Posted in thoughts, videos

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