Science! And Careful Notes!

Google’s Science News feed, as usual:

1. Scientist stumbles upon spider eating a puppy

Or something like that. It’s fascinating that all the news services used exactly the same size comparison – the spider is not as big as a cat, or a cantaloupe, but just exactly as big as a puppy. Newfoundland or Dachshund? Inquiring minds want to know.

The spider's leg span is nearly 30 cm, or about one ft.  <span class=meta>(Piotr Naskrecki)</span>
I’m thinking fire ants could take ’em. Heck, looks like dessert after a Burmese python dinner.

I know bear baiting and cock fights are very much frowned upon – but what would be the harm of putting, say a dozen of these spiders loose in a room with, oh, supermodels or congressmen or the White House press corps – and then turning the lights off? Just for a minute?Nobody needs to get hurt or anything, beyond the inevitable years of therapy they’re probably already doing. And the spiders look as though they could take care of themselves.

Just an idea. Get it on film.

2. Could a tsunami destroy Hawaii?

Sure! Why not? Could insectoid space aliens devour all the pineapples? Leave it open ended enough, and what, exactly, *couldn’t* happen.

Yes, I know I’m being a little (little?) pedantic, but can’t headline writers make a little effort at capturing what’s going on? The actual science part of this story: there’s evidence that huge earthquakes have in the past caused much larger tsunamis than planners had been preparing for. So, evacuation plans need to be revised accordingly. Seems to happen about every 1,000 years. ‘Destroy’ is probably a little overstated.

But I guess that won’t drive clicks.

3.  Fishes like to play with objects: Study

So, I suppose we can’t eat them, either, now? Why can’t they discover that kale, for example, engages in some behavior that suggests it’s too much like us for us to eat it? Huh? Why does it always have to be something yummy?

Slightly more seriously, from a science perspective, we have several questionable things going on here. First, what, exactly, is play? I’m pretty sure we could reach broad agreement that fish play if they were to drag out a Monopoly board and while away the hours. But these fish attacked a weeble-style thermometer, that righted itself right after they knocked it over. Is that play?

“Play is repeated behaviour that is incompletely functional in the context or at the age in which it is performed and is initiated voluntarily when the animal or person is in a relaxed or low-stress setting,” said Burghardt.

I think this definition introduces more terms that need defining, for a net loss of understanding. Good effort, though.

I would speculate – and please note that I have not spent a couple years watching a tank of tilapia – that animals that move around and are predator, prey or both, benefit from understanding their environments. Depending on the animal, behaviors that result from this survival advantage are called ‘curiosity’, ‘play’ or maybe ‘boredom’. My son’s corn snake spends some time regularly slithering around his glass house, climbing stuff, checking every square inch of the lid to make sure it’s on good and tight. Is he playing? Curious? Bored? I don’t know, but I can easily imagine that a hunter benefits from knowing its territory, and so this behavior makes sense, given enough food and security to do it.

Another just-so story saves the day!

What if we are like tilapia? Am I delicious if prepared right? The mind boggles.

But calling stuff ‘play’ seems too anthropomorphic. We’d like to think animals play – I think they do, as every one who likes dogs or cats does. But if we’re going to put on the Sacred Lab Coat of Science, we need to be more precise and reserved in our claims. Especially when certain wackjobs enthusiasts will use this information to claim we should treat tilapia with more respect*.

* I treat tilapia with great respect as follows, and they’ve never complained:  Prepare a little cabbage slaw, dressed with mayo into which one or two finely chopped chipotle chilis have been stirred. Set aside some of the mayo mixture. Cut up some tomatoes and fresh cilantro. Warm up a nice pile of corn tortillas.

Cut the tilapia fillets into long strips, salt, pepper and apply red chile powder, then fry lightly in a little oil – only takes a minute. Now, take 4 tortillas – 2 sets of 2 – and spread a little of the mayo mixture in a strip down the middle of each set; add a strip or two of fish; apply slaw, tomatoes and cilantro. You can squeeze a little fresh lime on it if that sounds good.

Margaritas or Mexican beer go good with this.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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