Ode to Lizards

Grandma's LizardThey don’t really like to cuddle, or gaze longingly into your eyes, and unconditional love is no guarantee. So what is going on with those lizard-loving freaks — like me? First off, I would venture to say that there probably aren’t that many of us out there. Dog and cat people rule the planet. Even smelly hamsters may have more followers — they do kind of look like little teddy bears.

But lizard lovers are extreme. My favorite example is a man I encountered at a café in West Hollywood. I was having brunch with my husband, when I looked over to see a Chinese Water Dragon reclining on a miniature, purple lounge chair. It must be fake, I thought, but then the lizard, with one hand propped delicately behind his head in the most relaxed of poses, moved. I just had to go talk to the owner, who turned out to be Henry Lizardlover, a guy who legally changed his name to honor his reptilian passions. Henry lives with dozens of lizards — iguanas seem to be his favorite — and has made several television appearances with his scaly roommates. He also captures entertaining photos of lizards in human-like poses.

I’m personally fascinated by lizards because they are so wildly different from us human beings. They are like little aliens from a sandy, desert planet. It’s fun to think about what lizards would be like if they evolved intelligence, which just might have happened if an asteroid hadn’t killed the dinosaurs. I might be typing away right now with big scaly hands and manicured claws painted pink. And if my tail got caught in the chair, and broke off, I could just grow a new one!

Lizards can regenerate their tails as you may have heard, and some can even do the trick more than once even though cartilage grows back instead of bone. The severed tails are designed to keep wriggling around in the mouth of a predator, fooling them into thinking they’ve still got a hold of their food.

Lizard tails can come in vivid colors too as a way of attracting prey to replaceable parts, and away from the out-of-stock heads. Flatworms may be able to make a new head, but lizards, unfortunately, cannot. Humans can’t even regenerate a finger (except in some cases), but we can regrow a liver. Check out the striking colors and tails of the Agama lizard family.

As different as lizards are from us, it’s still fun to imbue them with human traits. Henry Lizardlover says his friendly iguanas return to his car after a stroll in the park, ready to go home. I used to have a Bearded Dragon, and I swear he liked to cuddle with me on the couch. Okay, so maybe he just liked the heat. But there’s something oddly satisfying about something so different from us also being so similar.

 

Ice Balls Forever

Cocktail with Ice BallYou may (or may not) know how this nightmare goes. You’re at a party, and after rummaging around the kitchen looking for a drink, you convince somebody making cocktails to stir you up a piece of perfection. Whether it be a margarita with fresh lime and Cointreau, a crisp vodka tonic or an exotic creation with some kind of herb, you’re set. You get to chatting, and then WTF! In what seems like minutes, your drink is warm and dull. The ice has already melted!

What can be done about this travesty? I started wondering which ice cubes last the absolute longest, and did some research. The answer: giant balls!

Ice cubes are trendy these days, coming in all sorts of shapes and sizes. You can even get ice cubes shaped like guitars and Legos. I think it’s safe to say nobody likes those tiny ice bits that shoot out of some refrigerators. They’re gone the second they hit the drink. Might as well just add cool water.

Why do the ice bits melt faster than the big spheres? You may have guessed already — it has to do with surface area. All those ice bits have a much greater combined surface area than a single sphere. That means more of the ice surface is exposed to warmer temperatures, which causes the melting.

Water molecules in ice are more tightly bound than those in liquid or air. They’re bonded together like a bunch of hippie dancers holding hands. When they feel the heat, they jiggle around and the strongest of bonds are broken. But don’t worry, the molecules are still full of peace and love as they flow around in a fluid.

Those big square ice cubes are also a better deal than the ice bits, but they can’t beat the spheres. A cube has more surface area per volume than a ball, so it would melt faster. Science is everywhere, even in your jalapeño margarita.

 

Plants Aren’t So Sexy

Flowers in Boxes

Not too long ago, I was shocked to learn that some plants can generate a whole new plant from a piece of themselves — even with just a tiny bit of stem. It’s like growing a baby by chopping off a finger and sticking it in a pot of soil. Well, not exactly and sorry you had to picture a bloody stub.

Some of you probably know all about plant “cuttings” already. Perhaps growing up in apartments most of my life explains why it took me so long to learn about plant sex. The main way plants make babies is sexually, as we humans do. Pollen, which is kind of like the sperm but not exactly, finds its way into a flower’s ovary. If it hits the jackpot, a fruit is born. Seriously, crazy stuff! To be honest, I only learned that flowers turn into fruit a few years ago. Again, blame it on apartment living.

Or, plants reproduce asexually, without the need of partner (I bet some of you are thinking that could be nice). This is the regenerative technique, where plants make babies from their own tissue. They produce exact copies of themselves, or “mini-me’s.”

Why on Earth would a plant do that? I did some reading, and it seems that it can be advantageous in some environments to spit out copies of yourself. While sexual reproduction is essential for creating genetic diversity, and adapting to changing environments, nixing the sexual partners is useful for rapidly making babies in stable environments. You’re really at your best if you can do both.

Just ask the Komodo dragons, those huge lizards on an island in Indonesia. Like other species of lizards, they can make babies from themselves in a process called parthenogenesis. Researchers even theorize that a single female lizard could make a male baby, and then switch back to sexual reproduction and have sex with her male clone. (Remind me later to write a sci-fi movie where a sexy alien does this.)

I also read that there can be entire species of female “whiptail” lizards! It’s a “girls’ night out” party all the time. Sign me up. I’ll bring the wigs.

Peeling Your Face Off is Good for You

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When you hear the word “skin peel,” images of beauty and shrunken pores may not come to mind. I actually think of that guy’s melting face from Raiders of the Lost Ark — you know the one who stupidly opened the ark and looked right in. Nowadays skin, or chemical, peels are usually mild. You can do them at home or at your dermatologist office, and if you’re lucky your medical insurance may even cover them. Why? They remove pre-cancerous cells! That’s right, for once you can feel good about a silly beauty treatment. You’re not really that vain, just being proactive about your health (wink).

The mild peels, which can be done with a variety of different acids, remove a portion of the top layer of your skin, called the epidermis. This is our skin’s “bouncer,” serving to protect us against bad guys (infections, for example) and keep the party going smoothly inside. (The party is of course the complex network of body functions in your body.)

Below the epidermis is the dermis. This is where the collagen and elastin lie, keeping skin taut and flexible like that annoying girl in yoga class who can do all the hard moves.

The top portion of the epidermis naturally renews itself about every two weeks. Dead cells slough right off, making way for the new generation underneath. When you get a peel, you are speeding up this process, rushing the oldest, dullest skin cells out the door. But the peels also dig a little deeper into the skin, removing a layer of cells that normally stays put. It is this layer that houses the age spots and discolorations from pigment cells. Sayonara blotchy skin. In addition to improving the evenness of skin tone, peels also smooth fine wrinkles and improve acne.

Also thrown out in the skin-peel trash are potentially pre-cancerous cells. You never know where cancer could be lurking in its early stages. Sometimes it’s in the top layers of skin. A cell is damaged but hasn’t spread the bad vibes too far. Peels remove some of these possible party-killers, but only the “good” kind not the melanomas. It’s like giving the obnoxious guy at a party the boot but not the serial killer. Melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, forms in an even deeper layer of the epidermis and is not removed in mild skin peels. To protect against melanoma, you’ll need to slather on that sunscreen and check your moles!

Eyes Like a Butterfly

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The year is 2067, and I can see billions of colors! I used a home Lasik kit to correct my own vision a few years back, and now I’ve just undergone a simple outpatient procedure to boost my color vision. What used to be an ordinary rainbow of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple has exploded into a dizzying array of exotic colors. It turns out that I look best in a new, distinct shade of grellow, and I almost passed out with excitement at the endless options for decorating my couch with colorful throw pillows.

I’m fantasizing again, naturally, but this time it may not be so far-fetched. Recently, I came across an article from Optics and Photonics News, suggesting that a gene therapy procedure could, in the future, be used to correct color blindness, and, more frivolously, to enhance normal vision with new dimensions of color. I swear I’m not on acid.

Normal human vision stems from three different cell types called cones, which detect red, green and blue light. Light from a red tomato hits the red receptor, which your brain then translates into what you see. A yellow banana’s light hits the green and red receptors and your brain says: hello yellow!

Some creatures have more than three channels. Birds and fish have four, with the fourth channel being ultraviolet light, a hue to which us humans are not privy. Butterflies have five channels, and the mantis shrimp has at least 12. Jealous!

The article cited above says that humans can normally distinguish up to a million or so distinct shades of color. But pentachromats — or animals that have five color channels such as butterflies — could, in theory, make out 10 billion colors! That even sounds overwhelming to my color-crazed self, like being buried alive in rainbows.

The rub here is that butterflies, and other critters well endowed with extra color receptors, don’t have the mental capacity to process all those colors. Their little brains can’t turn multiple color signals into new, distinct hues. So why do butterflies have five color channels? It may be that they need the extra channels to see even just a fraction of the colors we see, precisely because they don’t have the brain power.

Could humans be engineered in the future to have pentachromat eyes with the ability to distinguish 10 billion colors? Would the world look more beautiful? I tend to think so myself. And I bet “Double rainbow guy” would pass out in ecstasy.

 

Yellow Blood in Baja

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My husband and I rented a Jeep in Baja, Mexico, and drove up the coast to a sleepy town called Todos Santos. The drive was even prettier than usual thanks to a recent, unexpected deluge of rain. Desert shrubs, with a mix of sand and cactii, were in full bloom, and almost glowed with green. Blue-ish mountains lay to one side, and the turquoise sea glistened ahead. Making the picture all the more alien and complete were the lovely splatters of yellow blood.

Some kind of insect was rupturing in front of our eyes, spilling out almost-neon yellow blood onto our windshield. It was as if the insects knew their brilliant yellow blood was the one color missing from our surreal desert palette and said what the heck, let’s make the sacrifice for the sake of art. I’m not really sure what type of insects they were, but we noticed yellow butterflies floating about the region. Aha, yellow butterflies must be hitting our car and dying in big yellow mess! Or, it could have been the boring ol’ flies.

What I do know for certain after doing some reading is that all insects have yellow, and sometimes green, blood. The reason it’s not red like ours is that it lacks iron, which looks red when paired with oxygen. The surface of Mars and rust are also red due to iron and oxygen.

We humans have lungs and a heart that work together to pump oxygen efficiently all around our body: to our brains, organs, cells and even our little toes. The helpful molecule that carries the oxygen around is called hemoglobin, which contains iron. The iron in our blood is a juicy red when bound with oxygen; without oxygen, our blood is a darker maroon. Incidentally, veins look blue because red light from the blood is absorbed by our skin, while blue light, which has shorter wavelengths, travels through.

If somebody were to bleed blue blood, you would know right away they are not human — and perhaps some form of crab. Crabs and other creatures use a different molecule to shepherd oxygen around their bodies, hemocyanin, which uses copper instead of iron. The cool thing about copper is that is turns blue when the mood is right.

Insects don’t need blood to breathe. They have openings all over their bodies called tracheae that allow the air to rush in to the cells and organs that need the oxygen. Instead, their blood sloshes around their bodies, transporting fluids and waste. This fluid is typically a pale yellow or green.

By the way, if you see a fly bleed red, don’t be confused. The red substance is actually from a pigment in their eyes. Somehow that’s grosser than blood.

So why were the insects sacrificed on our jeep loaded with such a vivid yellow fluid? I know why it isn’t red, but I couldn’t find anything online to explain what precise substance is behind the yellow hue. If you know the answer, please do tell. Or if you happen to squash any insects that explode with neon yellow blood, please send photos — just for fun.

Links:

Nice article on mollusks and blue blood at The Straight Dope.

 

How to Make a Mummy

BlurrymummyVampires are so out, and zombies are quickly becoming passé. What’s the next fashionable, supernatural creature? How about mummies! They aren’t really supernatural, at least the ones we’ve dug up on Earth. But they could be, once resurrected. Before you know it, they’d surely be full of angst and stuck in some kind of teen mummy romance. And it wouldn’t be that hard to make a sexy mummy — just unravel some of those white strips.

So what is a mummy anyway? Why is it that their bodies don’t turn to bones but retain their skin? And why are they so gross? It comes down to an animal at the bottom of the food chain: bacteria. Bacteria feed off dead human tissue, nibbling away at everything soft with no appetite for the hard bones. So, in order to keep a dead body’s squishy parts around, i.e. create a mummy, the bacteria need to be kept at bay. This is possible if the environment is harsh enough — no water, no oxygen or freezing-cold temperatures. That’s the great thing about making a mummy. You don’t have to worry about keeping the human alive and can entomb it in deadly conditions.

To make an Egyptian mummy, you’d first remove all the organs. Organs eat away at themselves right after a person dies, and they contain water, so it’s good to chuck them out. The next big job is to dry the body out, getting rid of all the other wet places where bacteria would want to hang out. This is usually done with heaps of salt, and further aided by those white linen strips. At this stage, feel free to stuff the body with herbs to plump the thing back up and make it look more human-like. Once you’ve wrapped the body up (that part is probably the funnest), then you adorn away. Actually, who I am kidding, the decorating would be the funnest part.

Mummies can happen naturally too. For example, preserved humans have been found in ice and mossy boggs lacking oxygen. The oldest known accidental mummy dates back to 6,000 years ago. And it consists of nothing else but well-preserved, decapitated head. Ack!

If you want to mummify yourself, you’ll probably need help. Apparently, ancient Buddhists actually turned themselves into mummies by meditating in boxes of salt. That sounds pretty tough, so you could find a company to help you. There actually is one, named Summun after its founder, which specializes in “modern mummification.” The idea is partly to keep your DNA in tact for future cloning. If this really works, you could find yourself waking up in the future inside a brand new body, or perhaps some kind of machine-like pod. I wonder what supernatural creature will be all the rage then? Maybe vampires will have made a big-time comeback.

If you need further instructions in making a mummy, check out this adorable video for kids.