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today i learned


August 31, 2009

I had a great weekend with M & D in Milledgeville, GA. One of the highlights is seeing this armadillo by the train tracks. Luckily, I had my little video recorder with me:

From wikipedia:

Armadillos are often used in the study of leprosy, since they, along with mangabey monkeys, rabbits and mice (on their footpads), are among the few known non-human animal species that can contract the disease systemically. They are particularly susceptible due to their unusually low body temperature, which is hospitable to the leprosy bacterium, Mycobacterium leprae. (The leprosy bacterium is difficult to culture and armadillos have a body temperature of 93°F, similar to human skin.)

The Nine-banded Armadillo also serves science through its unusual reproductive system, in which four genetically identical quadruplets are born in each litter.[4][5][6] Because they are always genetically identical, the group of four young provides a good subject for scientific, behavioral or medical tests that need consistent biological and genetic makeup in the test subjects. This is the only reliable manifestation of polyembryony in the class mammalia, and only exists within the genus Dasypus and not in all armadillos, as is commonly believed. Other species which display this trait include parasitoid wasps, certain flatworms and various aquatic invertebrates.[5]

Armadillos (mainly Dasypus) make common roadkill due to their habit of jumping to about fender height when startled (such as by an oncoming car). Wildlife enthusiasts are using the northward march of the armadillo as an opportunity to educate others about the animals, which can be a burrowing nuisance to property owners and managers.[4]

Read more…

Update September 4, 2009
When I saw this armadillo, I was thinking of a passage in a book I read recently (I highly recommend it by the way) called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly:

Animals’ skills are always matched to concrete demands because their minds, such as they are, only contain information about what is actually present in the environment in relation to their bodily states, as determined by instinct. So a hungry lion only perceives what will help it to find a gazelle, while a sated lion concentrates fully on the warmth of the sun. Its mind does not weigh possibilities unavailable at the moment; it neither imagines pleasant alternatives, nor is it disturbed by fears of failure.

Animals suffer just as we do when their biologically programmed goals are frustrated. They feel the pangs of hunger, pain, and unsatisfied sexual urges. Dogs bred to be friends to man grow distraught when left alone by their masters. But animals other than man are not in a position to be the cause of their own suffering; they are not evolved enough to be able to feel confusion and despair even after all their needs are satisfied. When free of externally induced conflicts, they are in harmony with themselves and experience the seamless concentration that in people we call flow.

The psychic entropy peculiar to the human condition involves seeing more to do than one can actually accomplish and feeling able to accomplish more than what conditions allow. But this becomes possible only if one keeps in mind more than one goal at a time, being aware at the same time of conflicting desires. It can happen only when the mind knows not only what is but also what could be. (p. 228)


From a novel I’m reading now called The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermout:

“‘Holothuriae, the ‘mizzen’: they have many names, small galleon, Portuguese man-of-war, sea cucumber’–they have little sails, wide at the bottom, small at the top–listen to this! ‘The mizzen can lower or raise this little sail when it feels the wind and wants to sail. Under water a mass of streamers, four or five feet long, hang down from it; the color is a beautiful blue, through which however something green plays. The body is transparent, as if a crystal bottle had been filled with blue-green aqua fortis.
“‘The sails are milk-white with an upper edge of purple or violet, beautiful to behold, as if the creature were a precious jewel.’
“And this: ‘it is miraculous to see a whole fleet of them, a thousand little ships–all together!'”

I looked online for this creature and of all its names referenced above, the only one that fit the description was the Portuguese man-of-war:

Portuguese man-of-war

I think it rather looks like a human brain! Here is what that website says about this creature (I wonder if this information was known at the time (1955) the above novel was written):

The Man-of-War (also known as a bluebottle) is not one creature, as it is commonly assumed, but a complete colony of numerous polyps…each performing their own functions. There are polyps which do nothing but digest the captured food and distribute nutrients to polyps which are not capable of digestion on their own. There are polyps which produce the Medusa, a disc shaped organism which produces eggs and sperm. This organism breaks away from the main Portuguese Man-of-War and floats off to produce many more polyps which, in turn, gather together to form another complete creature. There could be hundreds of polyps which make up the creature we know as the Portuguese Man-of-War.

So the Portuguese man-of-war is large, it contains multitudes. Also, those streamers are poisonous so avoid.


I was at the Decatur Farmer’s Market (local organic stuff every Wednesdays at Church and Commerce) yesterday and one of the sellers had on a hat with this symbol on it:

I mentioned that it was interesting, and he started telling me about how it is the symbol of a Hindu god named Jagannath… which is also the word that “juggernaut” is derived from because of this ceremony:

The english word juggernaut means “a force regarded as unstoppable, that will crush all in its path.”

Actually the above clip is from Phantom India, which I’ve linked to before on this blog. I guess it keeps coming up.


Today I Learned: Crows

July 28, 2009

Heard this story on NPR this morning about crows. It talks about how humans have not evolved brains that would allow us to distinguish one crow from another. Even crow researchers who have studied them many years cannot tell them apart. They have a test on the site which you can take to see if you can tell one from another. Crows, on the other hand, have a special ability to tell one human from another, and it is based on facial recognition. The scientists say that crows have traditionally had to tell humans apart because some humans were mean to crows and would shoot them while others were nice and would feed them, so it became a survival skill.

Yesterday I learned some things about Joan of Arc after watching La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Dreyer) played in the Acapella parking lot with live backing musicians (Hubcap City). Joan was executed when she was just 19. And she was a key military figure (claiming to recieve directions from God). She led several key French victories in the Hundred Years’ War (which lasted 116 years, off and on) and helped Charles V to the throne. The movie itself was amazing, and now that I know the context more, it makes more sense. Most of the dialogue in the movie was taken directly from records of her actual trial and execution.


I’m starting a new series of posts, one for every day (until I give up like I do most things)… where I’ll post one thing I learned on that day. Hopefully I’ll have learned at least one thing a day, though I reserve the right to not learn anything.

I was reading a webpage about the Flu Pandemic of 1918 today (after reading the excellent book Charlotte Sometimes which is partially set in 1918) and I learned that kids used to sing this rhyme while skipping rope:

I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
And in-flu-enza.