Monthly Archives: June 2018

Where Did It Go?

Where? I don’t see any butterfly. There’s nothing here but a brown old dead leaf.

Many insect species–and some larger animals, too–are colored to blend into their natural backgrounds and disappear from view. This is one of the best. When endangered, it just closes its wings and disappears. It’s just one more example of what natural selection can do when it has unimaginable lengths of time–many millions of years–to do its work.

Your Microbiome

Microorganisms from a Human Mourh
Microorganisms from a Human Mouth, Magnified About a Zillion Times
How many cells make up your body? It’s actually not all that easy to answer that simple question. But recently, scientists have made a pretty good effort. And their final count is…37.2 trillion.
October 24, 2013


You know that your body is made up of cells. Right? But 37 trillion of them! Who could have guessed? And now that we know, what does it really mean? How many is 37 trillion, anyway? And how did they come up with this number in the first place?

Estimate based on volume, and you get only 15 trillion cells; by weight, you get 70 trillion cells. Unfortunately, nobody has actually counted them all yet. (I wonder why?)

They divided the body into parts and estimated the number of cells in each part, from intestines to knees. This works better because cells are packed more densely in some organs than others. There are 100 billion neuron cells in your brain alone. (Interestingly, these neurons each put out a great number of feelers that link up with, on average, the corresponding feelers from 1,000 other neurons. Altogether, your brain contains a staggering 100 trillion circuits with which to compute your thoughts and feelings.)

The smallest cell in the human body is the sperm; the largest, the egg. The ostrich lays the largest egg of any living bird, weighing up to 3.3 lb and measuring up to 7.0 in × 5.5 in; but the largest cell on the planet is probably the egg of the whale shark, measuring up to 11.8 in × 5.5 in × 3.5 in. That’s one big cell!

But I haven’t even mentioned your microbiome yet. That consists of all the single-celled bacteria, archaea, fungi, and protists that live and make their living on and in your body. The generally accepted figure is that there are ten times more microbes living on and in you than there are of your own human cells in your own human body.

Blood Cells
Blood Cells

This is possible because a human cell can easily have 1,000 times the volume of a bacterial cell, for example. Again, nobody ever sat down one afternoon and counted them. It’s an estimate.

So that’s 372 trillion critters crawling, swimming, and otherwise making their ways around your body, or just sitting still. Many of them are essrntial to your own health. A few are harmful and any number of them may be neutral, neither harming or hurting you. There are so many and they are so tiny and hard to study that it’ll be a long, long time before all that gets sorted out.

So how many is 372 trillion? It’s 372,000,000,000,000. If they were minutes into the past, no animal or plant life had evolved on earth yet. Your ancestors and mine were teensy, tiny, single-celled creatures not terribly different from an amoeba.

If these 372 trillion microbes were inches, they’d reach more than half-way across the galaxy. Any way you look at it, that’s a lot of bugs! All on you.

Wash your hands before you eat.



Kakapo Joy

No wonder the kakapo is the most endangered parrot in the world!

The kakapo here trying to copulate with a man’s head is Sirocco. His species of large, flightless, nocturnal, ground-dwelling parrots endemic to New Zealand is critically endangered because of humans, but not for the reason you may be thinking.

After New Zealand broke off from the supercontinent  Gondwana, around 82 million years ago, any major predators on it became extinct. Among other creatures that survived were a population of parrots, which eventually evolved into several species, including the kakapo.

There were several species of hawk and an owl that occasionally preyed on the kakapo. but nothing on the ground. Even the avian predators are extinct now, except for two species of hawk. The giant Haast’s eagle died out when humans hunted its main prey, the giant moa, another flightless bird which could reach up to twelve feet tall, to extinction.

The bird was of high value to the Maori, who arrived in New Zealand in several waves of canoe voyages beginning about 1250 a.d., bringing with them the rats and other vermin that accompany humans everywhere. They hunted the birds for meat and for their beautiful feathers and sometimes kept them as pets.

Sirocco the Kakapo

Then European settlers came in the seventeenth century, bringing dogs, cats, foxes, ferrets and other beasts that go feral and devour the native fauna and flora. The flightless, ground-nesting birds didn’t have a chance!

The Europeans also hunted them for meat and kept
them as pets. One settler wrote that his kakapo’s behavior toward him and his friends was “more like that of a dog than a bird”.

New Zealand has no native non=marine mammals except bats, for the obvious reason that bats flew there and other mammals couldn’t. Why did they? I dunno. Maybe they got lost. Maybe a storm blew them off course from wherever they intended to go.

Birds often lose the power of flight and grow larger on islands with no predators to escape from, and this is what happened to the kakapo. It’s the largest parrot on earth and accumulates masses of body fat, but it didn’t need to fly until humans came with their vermin. Since there were no predators, it also nested on the ground. Big mistake!

After the Polynesian and European colonizations, the kakapo was almost wiped out. Now, all surviving kakapos are kept on three predator-free islands, where they are closely monitored. Two large islands have been the subject of large-scale ecological restoration to create self-sustaining ecosystems with suitable habitats for the kakapo. As of April 2018, there were 149 known adult kakapos.


The Great Tree of Life

From VisuallyThe Great Tree of Life.

The “Tree of Life,” which shows relationships among all forms of life to the extent we know them, is no longer a tree. It has taken the form of an arc with many thick branches. On seeing it depicted this way, one is inclined to remember Charles Darwin’s words:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us (the laws of nature).

On the Origin of Species (First Edition), by Charles Darwin

It’s all black and white

Believe it or not, the hair and the clothes in the two images are exactly the same shade of gray. Primarily, only the backgrounds are different, and that makes the foregrounds appear different in your own brain. The skin coloring is a little different, too; but I’m not sure why. It doesn’t seem significant.

The point is that you should always be skeptical, even of what you see with your own eyes.