We all seem to know this, starting at birth. We like to be held and touched by those we care about. Dogs know this. Cats might know this. It doesn’t even have to be with your own species. People like cuddling with dogs and cats. Sometimes, cats and dogs even cuddle with each other—what is the world coming to?! Holding hands is good. Snuggling in bed is good, even when we are asleep and unaware we are snuggling… it’s still good. Playing footsie is good. And hugs are good, unless you’re a politician, then people of the opposing party will label you as creepy.
I seem to be addicted to hugs and handholding with Trish. It is almost as if I need a certain number of hugs each day to keep me in balance. We hold hands when we are traveling in the car or watching a movie. And lots of other people are like us. Think of all the little cooties and bacteria gleefully leaping from one person to the next. Yet, most people still crave such contact. Weird.
As it turns out, there is more to this than our desire to diversify our own cootie communities. The most obvious effect of hugs is due to this type of touch being a form of communication. Someone you care about is intentionally signaling to you that they care about you. That’s good. There is plenty of research showing that being touched in a loving and caring way not only decreases stress but also helps the recipient heal, recover, and grow. It’s a psychological thing. There is also a biological aspect—hugs release oxytocin, which is often called the cuddle hormone. It's released when we cuddle or bond, and it helps us relax.
There you have it. Hug your loved ones. Hug strangers if you so desire. The world needs more hugs.
Did you know the kiwi (the bird, not the fruit) has really strong, muscular legs that make up a third of the bird's weight?
Kiwis are chicken-sized flightless birds that live only in New Zealand. Kiwis are ratites, along with emus, ostriches, cassowaries, and rheas. There are five living kiwi species.
Of course, without functional wings for flight, kiwis rely on their legs for moving around and escaping danger, but they also use their legs to kick logs apart to find the bugs inside, which they like to eat. They can deliver a wicked kick and run off possums that are trying to attack and eat their chicks. Male kiwis are territorial, and they often get into fierce fights with other male intruders, sometimes even resulting in injury or death. They even use their powerful legs and claws to dig the burrows in which they live.
Although a kiwi looks rather like a fat, furry pear, it can outrun a human.
In addition to tearing apart logs, kiwis hunt for bugs and worms by walking quietly through the forest at night (they are nocturnal) and tapping the ground with their sensitive beak. They are the only birds that have nostrils at the very end of their beak. When they detect a bug or worm under the surface, they jab their beak into the soil and pluck it out.
You know what I’m talking about. Mosquitoes don’t mess around with buzzing your toes, or your buttocks, because that would not be nearly as annoying. A female mosquito beats her wings at about 500 flaps per second. That’s a lot of hard work. She doesn’t want to waste all that hard work unless she can really annoy you and make you slap your own face in your attempts to make the buzzing go away.
Well, as it turns out, there is more to the story than sheer pugnaciousness. You see, female mosquitoes need to drink blood. One good way to find blood is to follow the scent of carbon dioxide. Warm-blooded creatures happen to breathe out a lot of carbon dioxide, and we all know that warm blood is the tastiest blood, right? So, female mosquitoes zero in on the scent of CO2. That brings them close to our heads (because we don’t breathe carbon dioxide out our butts… that’s mainly hydrogen, methane, and hydrogen sulfide… the stuff that makes our farts smelly).
Once the female mosquito is in the vicinity of your face, she then begins to smell something else that gets her tiny little heart pounding with excitement—the odor of ear wax. Ear wax emits a smell that mosquitoes love.
Thus, I have finally solved the mystery, but this doesn’t really prevent me from slapping my own face to get rid of the annoying sound.
- Mosquito sucking blood - DepositPhotos
We have a juvenile barred owl that is making itself at home in the vicinity of our deck. This youngster is still making the funny whistling call that juvenile barred owls make to contact their parents, probably when they want to be fed. This bird is obviously trying to learn to hunt. It sits in the trees next to our deck and stares at the birds and squirrels that come to our feeders. We haven't seen it try to catch one yet, but I hope to witness that soon (Trish told me to say only if it's one of those darn squirrels). I think it's trying to work up the nerve to dive at one of them.
If you aren't sure you have barred owls in your area, maybe you've heard their calls (which I love hearing). The adults have a distinctive baritone call that sounds like they are saying, "Who cooks, who cooks for youuuuuu?"
Below is a photo of our squirrel watcher. Notice it still has a bit of downy fuzz around the head.
Maybe a better question is… why does my younger brother’s hair NOT turn gray as he gets older?
My first thought was that this is the universe’s way of letting everybody know that I am no longer a salubrious young man. After all, people need to know not to ask me to help them carry a couch up to their third-floor apartment.
Another thought I had was that my life is full of stress. I’ve heard stress causes hair to turn gray. Maybe I’m kind of like Barack Obama—his hair turned gray during his presidency. But actually, my life is pretty cushy and undemanding, so that can't be it.
As it turns out, human hair does not really turn gray due to stress. And in reality, hair doesn’t turn gray at all. Once a hair follicle produces hair, the color is set, and it never changes. Well, unless you color your hair, of course.
However, as we get older, our hair follicles produce less color. So, as our hair goes through its natural cycle of dying (dying, as in dead, not dyeing as in coloring) and being replaced with new hairs, the new hairs are more likely to grow in gray, at least after we turn 35 or so.
So, why doesn’t my brother have gray hair like mine? Because we are two different people, with different genetics. Yes, we share 50% of our genes, but that leaves plenty of room for variation, and his genetic makeup happens to delay his new hairs growing in gray until much later. Unfortunately for him, people will be asking him to help carry couches up flights of stairs for many years to come.
- Gray hair - DepositPhotos
One more post in the category of animals that like to get high or drunk.
Did you know rough-toothed dolphins might enjoy getting intoxicated from pufferfish toxin? By the way, compared to the more common bottlenose dolphin, the rough-toothed dolphin has more white markings on its beak and sides.
This intoxication behavior was observed for the first time in 1995 by marine biologist Lisa Steiner. She was observing a group of about 60 dolphins. They appeared to be feeding, but they were acting strange. They didn't seem to have much energy. A few of them were feeding lazily, but most were just swimming around—slowly. Then Steiner saw four inflated pufferfish among the dolphins. In fact, the dolphins were pushing the pufferfish around with their beaks. Since then, this behavior has been observed by other biologists.
You may know that pufferfish produce a dangerous toxin. This toxin, called tetrodotoxin, is actually one of the deadliest compounds known to science. It is 120,000 times more deadly than cocaine, and is hundreds of times more deadly than the venom of a black mamba or a black widow spider. In small sublethal doses, such as what a dolphin might get from gently pushing an inflated pufferfish, the toxin induces numbness, similar to what was observed in the dolphins.
Now, I need to make it clear that some biologists do not believe the dolphins are doing this on purpose (or should I say, on porpoise? haha). Dolphins are curious animals, and they may like to play with or explore pufferfish. After all, an inflated pufferfish is a pretty strange sight to see. The dolphins may unintentionally dose themselves with the toxin during the process of investigating these weird, balloon-like fish.
Inflated pufferfish - DepositPhotos
Continuing with the theme of animals that like to get high or drunk.
Did you know cats are irresistibly drawn to the plant Nepeta cataria? Of course, I'm talking about catnip. This one might seem obvious, but perhaps you don't know the whole story.
This plant also affects many wild cats, including lions and tigers, though the effects haven't been widely studied in wild cats.
Catnip, a plant in the mint family, is native to Europe, Asia, and Africa, and was brought to North America (and other places) by settlers. Now it grows in many areas around the world as a weed and in people's herb gardens.
Catnip contains an oil called nepetalactone, which enters a cat's nasal tissues and stimulate's the sensory neurons. These cells then send messages to neurons in the olfactory bulb, which then sends signals to two areas of the brain, the amygdala and hypothalamus. The amygdala helps control the cat's behaviors, and the hypothalamus stimulates a sexual response in the cat.
Basically, this causes the cat to display behaviors of a female in heat (even if the cat is male). The cat will rub its head on the plant, roll around on the ground, make sexy cat sounds, and salivate. This lasts for about ten minutes, then the cat becomes immune to the effects for about thirty minutes, after which it may start all over if the cat still has access to the plant.
Interestingly, this response is genetic, and it happens to only about 75% of cats. It is not thought to be dangerous to the cat and is not addictive.
Well, perhaps it's not physically addictive, but cats are repeatedly attracted to catnip, and they seem to enjoy the effect.
By the way... don't bother trying. Catnip does not affect humans.
- Cat and catnip - DepositPhotos
Continuing with the theme of animals that like to get high or drunk.
Did you know black lemurs like to get high on millipedes? The lemurs bite the millipedes, resulting in a narcotic effect.
Madagascar has some pretty big arthropods (ever hear of the Madagascan hissing cockroach?), including some large millipedes. Lemurs typically eat fruit, but sometimes they will capture a large millipede and gently bite it, not even hard enough to kill it.
This bite causes the millipede to squirt out defense chemicals from glands in its legs (millipedes have a lot of legs). The lemur then discards the millipede and rubs the defense chemicals all over its fur. The millipede's toxic secretions contain cyanide and benzoquinone, which act as insect repellent on the lemur's body. This in itself is fascinating—an animal using natural insect repellent, not only preventing the discomfort of insect bites but also preventing insect-borne diseases such as malaria.
But wait, there's more to the story. The toxins also have a narcotic effect on the lemur, and the lemur starts drooling and goes into an intoxicated state, in which it appears to be lethargic and blissful.
Hmm... is this why the lemurs on the movie Madagascar seem so goofy?
Below are male and female black lemurs.
- Female and male black lemurs - DepositPhotos
I'm continuing with the theme of animals that like to get high or drunk. After all, why would humans be the only creatures craving the recreational effects of mind-altering drugs? Here's another example.
Did you know VERVET MONKEYS introduced to some Caribbean islands 300 years ago have developed a taste for alcohol? These monkeys originated in Africa, but slavers took them across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, where the monkeys either escaped or were released on several islands. They thrived and formed stable populations.
For the last 300 years, these vervet monkeys have been living on islands where sugar cane is the dominant crop grown by farmers. Before being harvested, the sugar cane will sometimes ferment. The vervet monkeys discovered the fermented cane juice and have considered it a treat ever since. Basically, they developed a taste for the alcoholic cane juice and the resulting effects.
Recent studies have shown that about 20% of the monkeys now prefer to drink sugar water mixed with alcohol over plain sugar water. But the research doesn't stop there. Interestingly, younger monkeys (the equivalent of teenagers) do most of the drinking. The researchers suggest that the older monkeys avoid the alcohol because they have to be "more alert and perceptive of the social dynamics of the group." So, the monkeys apparently reach a point in their lives where they decide to leave behind the heavy drinking and awful hangovers. Hmm... perhaps there is a lesson in there somewhere.
There are numerous stories from Caribbean islands of sneaky vervet monkeys stealing colorful cocktails from distracted tourists and happily guzzling them.
- Vervet monkeys - DepositPhotos
Have you ever wondered if other animals besides humans like to get high? Or drunk? Seriously, think about it. Why would humans be the only creatures craving the recreational effects of mind-altering drugs? In my next few posts, we'll take a look.
Did you know many dogs have become addicted to the toxic, hallucinogenic substance secreted by marine toads? Marine toads, which are the largest of all toads and can grow to almost 10 inches (25 cm) from snout to butt, originated in South America but have been introduced in many tropical areas around the world, mainly to control pest insects.
Marine toads, as well as some other types of toads, protect themselves by secreting a toxic substance from poison glands in their skin. If consumed, this toxin can be deadly, even to humans and other large animals such as dogs. In nonlethal doses, a substance in the toxin called bufotenine can cause hallucinogenic effects similar to those caused by LSD and mescaline.
Some humans have actually become addicted to this substance after repeatedly consuming it... a process commonly called "toad licking."
Uh... no thanks.
Actually, a guy named Albert Most founded the Church of the Toad of Light, the main purpose of which is to promote recreational toad licking.
Okay, so where do dogs come into the picture? Dogs are curious. They like to sniff, lick, and chew on things, especially other animals. Many dogs have been poisoned by eating marine toads, and those that don't die from the poison experience hallucinations. As a result, many of those dogs learn to hunt for marine toads and lick them just to experience the "high" over and over again. They become addicted. And it doesn't help that the toads' secretions taste sweet.
This happens everywhere marine toads live, but it has become a really common problem in Queensland, Australia. Veterinarians in the area are increasingly reporting dogs that are repeat offenders... they call them "serial lickers."
Unfortunately, these dog addicts are playing a dangerous game—a deadly overdose can happen at any time.
Marine toad - Stan C. Smith
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