hugabug 9: Peregrine falcon

One of the peregrine falcons that lives on the University of Michigan campus
photo by Barb Baldinger

Peregrine falcons hunt by dive-bombing their prey at 200 miles per hour. Some live on the campus of the University of Michigan.
Listen to find out more.

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Music and other sound in this show:
1. Peregrine falcons (filmed by the Raptor Resource Project)
2. Spoek Mathambo, “Put some red on it”
3. Of Montreal, “Our spring is sweet not fleeting”
4. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)

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Supposedly, on the campus of the University of Michigan, peregrine falcons have nested at the top of the clock tower. I’m skeptical only because I’ve never seen nor heard them myself, but several very smart people assure me that the peregrine falcons are there. Plus, sometimes when you look on the sidewalk around the base of the clock tower, you’ll find dismembered heads and feet, feathers, and other bits and pieces of unfortunate birds–victims of the falcons up there, which eat their meals 10 stories above the ground.

The menu for a peregrine falcon might include pigeons, doves, woodcocks, rails, woodpeckers, yellow- and black-billed cuckoos, and red-winged blackbirds. So what’s with all the bird carcasses? Why don’t the falcons go for the fat, lumbering squirrels that make easy targets on campus?

Peregrine falcons are very good at hunting in mid-air. They’re amazing flyers that, just by shrugging a shoulder, can initiate the smoothest barrel roll.

photo by Alan Benson

Peregrine falcons hunt by dive-bombing their prey at 200 miles per hour; they hunt by bludgeoning with their feet. Bumping a creature mid-air with their talons either stuns the prey or kills it instantly. For larger prey, like a duck, the peregrine falcon will curl its talons into fists and collide into the duck, breaking its back. If that doesn’t work, the falcon will use its beak to sever the duck’s spine.

Then, the falcon plucks the feathers from its victim and eats.

They’re such effective hunters that sometimes they are used at airports to scare away the birds that could otherwise cause accidents on the runway. They also served in World War II. Peregrine falcons were specially trained to intercept the homing pigeons that carried German spy messages.

But their mode of mid-air hunting doesn’t work as well for something like a fat squirrel. If a peregrine falcon descended upon a rodent at 200 miles per hour, the impact with a tree or the ground would be a painful mess.

So the falcons on campus opt to hunt things that fly, mainly along the Huron River and in marshes around town.

Another danger of whipping through the air at incredible speeds is dust. Even the tiniest debris could damage their eyeballs. Peregrine falcons avoid that danger by using windshields–one on each eye.

Nictitating membrane (part of it, anyway) in a Harris hawk
photo by Steven Hyatt

These translucent extra eyelids are called nictitating membranes. The nictitating membranes slide across their eyeballs to protect against wind; dust; the beaks, wings, and claws of flailing victims; even the sharp beaks of the falcons’ own chicks during feeding time at the nest.

Other animals have nictitating membranes, too, for similar reasons. Sharks, for example–their nictitating membranes protect their eyes in a thrashing attack.

The falcons on campus love the view from the top of the clock tower. But year after year, they could not build a successful nest. Heavy storms would wipe out their attempts every summer. These days, the peregrine falcons use a nest box built for them and installed on the roof of the University Hospital. If you’re lucky, you can spot them there, or at the clock tower, where they sometimes still perch.

If you’re luckier, you may find on the sidewalk near the clock tower the wing ripped from a sorry victim, or its dismembered head, or discarded feet–the scraps of a mid-air meal that a peregrine falcon would call delicious.

Thank you to wonderful people in Ann Arbor and at the University of Michigan for hugging birds. There are plenty more opportunities on campus to hug bugs. Do that, too. Hug a bug, wherever you are.

This week, special thank you to Kenneth Elgersma and Janet Hinshaw for their help in making this episode.

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Bonus info is available on the internets:

Peregrine falcons helped intercept German spy messages, but are the falcons spies, themselves?

The Museum of Zoology at the University of Michigan has kept tabs on the campus falcons since they arrived.

This one is said to fly at 242 miles per hour.

Video of 2 peregrine falcons visiting a nest box, filmed by the Raptor Resource Project.

hugabug 8: Whale shark megamamma

photo by Alex Mustard

A whale shark known to science as the “megamamma supreme” carried a belly full of over 300 babies.
Listen to find out how and why.

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Music in this show:
1. King Kong, “Scooba dooba diver”
2. Arnold McCuller, “The whale have swallowed me”
3. Hazmat Modine, “The tide”
4. Björk, “Moon”
5. Raymond Scott, “Space mystery (montage)”
6. Monster Rally, “Surf Erie”
7. Raymond Scott, “Space mystery (montage)”
8. Gaby Kerpel, “Toritos”
9. Arnold McCuller, “Don’t go nowhere”
10. King Kong, “Scooba dooba diver”
11. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)

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This episode of hugabug is dedicated to moms, who know how it feels to carry an organism to term in their belly. That sounds tough. But let me just tell you this–

Whale sharks have been known to carry a belly full of over 300 babies.

Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the world. But despite their large size, they’re mysteriously hard to observe. And they’ve kept their love life private; no one has ever witnessed whale shark sex.

A single immensely pregnant whale shark taught us almost everything we know about reproduction in the species. She’s known to science as the “megamamma supreme” [1]. Fishermen harpooned her off the coast of Taiwan when hunting whale sharks was legal there, back in 1995.

The megamamma was a hefty pregnant whale shark. Although she wasn’t quite as big as a school bus, a peek into her stomach showed that more than 300 baby whale sharks traveled inside her belly. No, the megamamma’s pregnant belly would not suddenly deflate as hundreds of baby sharks popped out simultaneously. The whale shark pups shared the same womb, but they weren’t all the same age.

from Baughman 1955 (Copeia)

And it’s a good thing that whale sharks are not the bitey kind. In the pregnant bellies of the more vicious and toothy shark species, an embryo will eat its brothers and sisters in the womb, and only the most aggressive will emerge. But as the most gigantic fish in the ocean, the whale shark eats the smallest creatures without using any teeth. So whale shark pups were safe from cannibals inside the megamamma.

Outside of her belly, though, in the open ocean, there was danger. The enormous number of babies she carried probably indicates that not many of them would survive.

All 300 shark pups had the same father and probably were conceived in a single mating event. And because the brothers and sisters in the megamamma’s belly were different ages, it looks like the megamamma supreme stored the sperm and used it gradually to produce over 300 babies.

For a whale shark, saving sperm is a useful talent when romance happens rarely in the open ocean.

Now honor the endurance it must take to carry one–let alone 300–babies in a belly. Give your megamamma supreme a whale-shark-sized hug. Then swim to the surface, dry yourself off, and hug a bug.

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Learn more by exploring the internet:

Great footage of whale sharks

It’s a long video of a swell shark (not a whale shark), but this one is great if you want to know what a shark egg looks like.

Regardless of what anyone says, I remain skeptical that this underwater photo shoot, involving whale sharks and swimming models, really happened.

photo by Shawn Heinrichs

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If you’re looking for a good place to go snorkel with whale sharks and SCUBA dive with manta rays, gotta tell you that I love staying at my cousin’s resort in the Philippines. I swam with a male whale shark (dove under his belly to see the cookie-dough-tube-sized claspers) for 15 or 20 minutes. We saw 7 whale sharks on that day; on a previous day, we spotted 2.

Swimming with a whale shark is the best gift you can give yourself.

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[1] ^ Seriously. Joung et al. 1996 (Environmental Biology of Fishes)

hugabug 7: Animals in space

Ham the chimpanzee

The United States of America launched a chimpanzee into space, and he came back to Earth with a bruise on his nose.
Listen to find out how and why.

Right-click or Command+click to download

Music in this show:
1. NASA space recordings of Earth
2. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)
3. John Williams, “The conversation”

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It’s January, 1961. We know nothing about how to travel in outer space, or whether it’s even possible. The closest to outer space we’ve reached is the top of Mount Everest–just recently, in 1953!

And the trip up the mountain was very, very difficult–physically and mentally. Climbing to high altitudes makes the strongest among us weak in the body and impaired in the mind. Outer space is 11 times higher than Mount Everest, the highest place on Earth.

Can an astronaut go as high as outer space without dying or going insane? In 1961, we had no idea.

Actually, we figured that an astronaut could physically survive a trip to space. We tested that idea by launching a whole bunch of animals in rockets. Mice, fruit flies, hamsters, rats, rabbits, cats, dogs, goldfish, monkeys, guinea pigs, chicken eggs, frogs. Most of them died, but we saw that it’s possible to leave the earth and come back alive. Still, we had no clue whether our brain could function in outer space.

Baker the space monkey

So, how do you test mental capabilities in outer space without risking a person’s life? Ham the chimpanzee.

Ham learned complex tasks in a lab on Earth. The lights and levers in Ham’s training resembled, as closely as possible, the controls that an astronaut would use in spaceflight. If Ham could replicate complex behavior equally well in a rocket ship as in a lab, we figured that a person could do it.

The experiment with Ham was crucial because he was not just a passenger.

Ham was fitted with monitors measuring his temperature, heartbeat, and breathing. He experienced weightlessness…and Ham made it! He flew out to space, returned to Earth, and survived–with just a bruise on his nose. Ham performed his complex tasks in the rocket, showing that it would be possible for the first human American astronaut to travel and function in space, just a few months later.

Ham survived to a ripe old age, and his cremains are buried in New Mexico, where he’d been trained for his space mission. People still leave bananas on his grave.

Click on a pic!

The unknown grows less scary, the more we learn about it. Go where no person has gone before! Get out there and hug a bug.

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Not to be missed elsewhere in the inter-stellar-net:

This mini-documentary produced by the Air Force

Or, if you prefer, you can learn English while listening to French music and watching old-school footage of Ham, the space-traveling chimpanzee.

A slideshow of pictures from LIFE Magazine of chimpanzees being trained for spaceflight

Video of a shuttle launch

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(and if you’ve been trying to figure out a good way to tell The Liz how much you love the show…get her one of these shirts!)

hugabug 6: Bed bug sex

photo by Rickard Ignell

A female bed bug’s vagina is never used during sex.
Listen to find out how and why.

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Music in this show:
1. Don Argott, “Cramming for college”
2. Laceration, “Traumatic insemination”
3. DJ Casper, “Cha-cha slide”
4. The Dust Brothers, “Try your luck”
5. The Upstroke, “Sweet juices”
6. Bessie Smith, “Mean old bed bug blues”
7. TriBeCaStan, “Bed bugs”
8. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)

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(This show is broadcast on WCBN-FM Ann Arbor at 9am Eastern every Friday morning. That’s early, right…?)


A female bed bug’s vagina is never used in sex. How can that be? Traumatic insemination. When you’ve got a penis as hard and sharp as a knife, no vagina is necessary. Here’s what sex is like for a bed bug–

A female bed bug is stuffed after sucking blood from your sleeping body. She ate enough of your blood to be about 4 times fatter than she was earlier that afternoon.

Before the blood meal:


photos by Richard Naylor

Now that she’s pleasantly plump, this lady looks pretty sexy to a male bed bug. No flirtation is necessary–a male climbs onto the female’s back. BAM! His penis stabs through the female’s belly and ejaculates. The sperm travel through the female’s blood, reach her oviducts, and fertilize her eggs. After a few minutes, the penis-stabbing mercifully stops.

The male doesn’t guard his mate. He just walks away after the deed is done. This leaves the female vulnerable to more sexual encounters.


A female bed bug can expect about 5 stab wounds after each meal. From 5 different males.

You can tell whether a female bed bug is a virgin by checking for scars on her stomach. Actually, you can see how many times a female has mated by counting her stab wounds. Not all the time, though. Sometimes the scars are too many to count.

from Siva-Jothy 2006 (Philosophical Transactions B)

Bed bugs densely populate your mattress, so a female encounters tons of male bed bugs no matter where she goes. A female bed bug has no control over her own sex life. Males impose themselves on her far more often than is practical. All this penis-stabbing into the abdomen is unhealthy for a female bed bug–too much or too clumsy sex is fatal. A female bed bug that survives needs to heal her stab wounds, and those wounds can become infected. One study[1] mentioned that “[r]ecently mated females were occasionally found dead with ruptured guts.”

Not to spread rumors[2], but male bed bugs often don’t discriminate between male and female partners. Regarding male-on-male events, some scientists speculate that the penis-stabbing male’s semen stays in the wounded male’s body, so the wounded male ejaculates his attacker’s semen when he finds his own partner to stab in the belly with his own genitalia. In other words, a bed bug doesn’t even need to stab a female in the stomach to get her pregnant; some other dude can do it for him.

from Siva-Jothy 2006 (Philosophical Transactions B)
(Click the pic to see it up close)

Yes, bed bugs suck your blood, raise welts on your skin, and make you itch. Sure, bed bugs are persistent little bloodsuckers that can and will hide anywhere, making them almost impossible to eradicate. It’s true–bed bugs have wreaked their havoc from the hiding spot of one man’s prosthetic leg.

But here’s the silver lining–the happy ending to a bed bug story:
Bed bugs do not kill you. They don’t transmit any scary diseases.

Yeah, I know. That’s not enough for you to fall in love with them or stab them in the stomach (speaking figuratively) (and romantically). But you know you want to hug a bug!

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The following video is a public service announcement sponsored by bed bugs:

Green Porno with Isabella Rossellini

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just a couple References:

[1] ^ Reinhardt & Siva-Jothy 2007 (Annual Review of Entomology)

[2] ^ Siva-Jothy (2006) dismissed the proposed evolutionary explanation for male-on-male bed bug sex as “an urban myth among zoologists”. In any event, here’s how entomologist and ecologist extraordinaire, May Berenbaum, has described apparent homosexuality in bed bugs: “With no elaborate courtship ritual, males in a frenzied pursuit of sexual congress often blunder into and puncture the bodies of other males, occasionally inflicting fatal wounds.”

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Further reading:

Did you know that bed bugs have played an important role in the history of furniture design? Beds, specifically.

Also, a natural method exists to eradicate bed bugs!

hugabug 5: Honeypot ants

The honeypot ant has junk in her trunk.
Listen to find out how and why.

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Music in this show:
1. Ani Difranco, “Manhole”
2. Eddie Murphy, “Boogie in your butt”
3. Daleduro, “La poli”
4. Beatles, “Wild honey pie”
5. end credits from Bob’s Burgers
6. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)

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If you walk past a honey ant colony, you probably won’t notice it at all, because the only evidence of its existence is a small hole in the ground, which is surrounded by tiny dry clods of dirt or sand. If your scientific eye does spot the honey ant colony, though, you probably won’t notice anything different about most of the honey ants…unless you dig several feet under the hard-packed desert ground.

There, you’ll find hundreds of amber globes dangling from the domed roof of the nest, light from the hole you dug glistening in the hanging orbs. Wait a minute–those globes are dangling ant asses.

The honeypot ant has junk in her trunk.

Honeypot humong-asses grow to be the size of grapes or cherries, which is like a 2-year-old child having a butt the size of a refrigerator. And that’s exactly what these honeypots are: living refrigerators.

Honey ants live in dry areas around the world (usually deserts), in Australia, Mexico, South Africa, Arizona, Utah, California, Colorado. The lifestyle in a desert can be summed up pretty simply–feast and famine. During feast times (like the rainy season, when plants are growing and food is plentiful), ants have access to more food than they can eat.


Everyone knows that the good times don’t last forever, so worker ants plan ahead by bringing extra food to the nest. There, extra food can be stored for times of drought and famine. Stored right there in the humong-asses of live honeypot ants.


The sweet sweet junk in her trunk.

Worker ants in the colony tap these delish-asses when resources are scarce. The honeypot regurgitates what’s in her butt into the mouth of a hungry ant friend.

Two regurgitations actually have to happen so that food can be stored and retrieved with the honeypots. First, a worker collects nectar or animal guts from aboveground and returns to the nest to vomit the goods into a honeypot’s mouth. Next, when food is scarce later in the year, the honeypot vomits up the stored food–drop by delicious drop–into a hungry supplicant’s mouth.

The junk in a honeypot trunk might really be junk, in a sense. Sometimes worker ants harvest the guts, fats, and body fluids from worms and other scavenged animals. Most often, though, honeypots contain the sweet stuff, like nectar from flowers, fruits, and extrafloral nectaries, or the sugars produced by aphids, galls, and scale insects.

A honeypot has one function–to serve as a living refrigerator–so she has license to do nothing but dangle from the roof of the nest and sleep all day long, while her backside becomes oversize.

Sweet nectars last in her delish-ass storage space because the honeypot digests barely any food. Turns out that being lazy and dangling requires very few calories.

The nectars are so delish-ass that people eat them. Raw. You can pinch one by the head and legs, bite her butt off, and let the sweet nectar dribble into your mouth.

Australian Aborigines exhume the honeypots to satisfy their sweet tooth. During the Spanish conquest of Mexico, honeypots were sold individually in the markets of Mexico City. Honeypot nectar used to be fermented into an alcoholic drink. Badgers, coyotes, and other animals eat honeypots, too. In fact, other ant colonies sometimes raid honey ant nests and kidnap the honeypots! I wonder how the honeypots feel about imprisonment…

Like many other things in nature, once the function of a honeypot has been fulfilled, she becomes unnecessary. disposable. obsolete. In this case, when the nectar is drained from an enormass by hungry nestmates, the shrunken, withered butt never recovers, and the shriveled honeypot dies.

With that in mind, hug a bug, would you?

photo by Mike Gillam

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Worth checking out around the internet:

An adventure in pictures–a filmmaker finds honey ants in the Arizona desert.

hugabug 4: Cicada rain

by T. Nathan Mundhenk

Liquid waste from cicada anus will wet your head if you wander under a tree covered with the bugs.

Right-click or Command+click to download

Music in this show:
1. Rodgers & Hammerstein, “March of the Siamese children”
2. Bang on a Can All Stars, “Sein Chit Tee A Mhat Ta Ya”
3. Hot Chip, “Over & Over”
4. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)

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from Lafcadio Hearn 1919 (Shadowings)

Every 13 or 17 years–on the dot–millions of cicadas emerge from the ground simultaneously. When you walk under a tree full of cicadas–that wetness? It’s not rain. Those are rectal squirts.

It’s true–liquid waste from cicada anus will wet your head if you wander under a tree covered with these bugs. Because they suck tree juice that’s low in nutrients but high in water content, cicadas keep the nutrients but expel most of the water as urine in jet streams of anal squirts, otherwise known as “cicada rain”.

A periodical cicada lives underground for either 13 or 17 years straight. The cicada barely moves from one small spot in the soil, buried just 1 or 2 feet under the forest floor or your lawn.

After exactly 13 or 17 years, somehow the cicada knows when to dig a tunnel to the soil surface and join literally millions and millions of other cicadas that also somehow knew that all the other bugs finally were poking their heads aboveground pretty much simultaneously. All these millions of cicadas cover trees, bushes, houses, telephone poles–every vertical surface.

If you find yourself amid millions upon millions of these bugs, you’ll see that it’s impossible to move without stepping on dozens of their little bodies. It’s impossible to speak without yelling, because the males sing loudly, incessantly, begging the female cicadas to mate with them. The deafening symphony of millions of cicadas reaches the same volume as a jackhammer or a subway train.

And birds love it; they eat it up. These bugs crawl everywhere as a free buffet of slow, little, defenseless bodies that don’t even scatter when a bird attacks. But gluttonous birds can’t eat even half of the cicadas in these outbreaks. Most of the cicadas survive, pee on your head, and make babies. That’s the beauty and genius of it all! It’s an effective tactic of safety in numbers.

And cicadas are a brilliant natural lesson in prime numbers. Millions of cicadas simultaneously tunnel out of the soil at indivisible intervals of 13 and 17 years. The more typical 2- or 4-year life cycle of birds doesn’t match well with the atypical lifestyle of these cicadas.

Graphic designers can use a similar trick. They can make a repeating visual pattern seem organically random by repeating the pattern in prime-numbered intervals.

This mathematical strategy also helps you buy things online. The internet keeps your credit card information secret by encrypting it using prime numbers.

The 13- and 17-year cicadas live only in North America, but ancient Chinese, Greek, and Japanese cultures revered other cicadas for a long, long time. Small bronze model cicadas were used as currency in China, and the bugs show up on ancient Greek coins.

All that, even though cicadas pee on your head.

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WCBN-FM Ann Arbor concludes its annual fundraiser this weekend. If cicadas can count to prime numbers, you can do the math: WCBN needs your donation to survive. Donate to WCBN in the name of insects. Keep the predators at bay, so we can keep making noise.

from H.A. Ramsden 1914 (Model-Insect Money of Ancient China)

And hug a bug. Hug millions of periodical cicadas, why don’t you. Every 13 and 17 years.

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These videos may help you understand what cicadas are like:

A fantastic cartoon about a cicada

Here’s an idea of what you can expect when millions and millions of cicadas emerge outside your house.

More and even more “cicada rain”.

The mesmerizing molt of a cicada

David Attenborough woos a male cicada. The video contains a nice time-lapse video of a cicada molting. Note: The sound effects at the beginning of the video are just that–for effect. When cicadas emerge from the soil, their sound-making organs (tymbals) actually have not developed yet. Males can sing only after their final molt. Also note: Cicadas are incredibly loud.

from H. Garman 1903 (Agricultural Experiment Station of the State College of Kentucky, Bulletin No. 107)

hugabug 3: Sea cucumbers puke their guts out

Above: photo by Graeme A. Barber
Below: Byrne 2001 (Journal of Experimental Biology)

The internal organs of a sea cucumber explode out of its body, and the sea cucumber survives.
Listen to find out how and why.

Right-click or Command+click to download

Music in this show:
1. Sara Tavares, “Sumanai”
2. Bernie Krause, “Fish wrap”
3. from Donald in Mathmagic Land
4. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)
5. Battles, “Inchworm”

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Actually, a sea cucumber explodes repeatedly in the 10 years it’s alive. And all of its guts regenerate.

Two things can happen. Scenario 1: A sea cucumber is wandering around on the sea floor. A predator attacks, and the sea cucumber pukes up all of its guts, maybe tangling the enemy in a sticky mess of intestines, or the predator may be distracted by the free meal of delicious entrails, allowing the empty sac of sea cucumber skin–still alive!–to crawl away to safety.

Scenario 2: A sea cucumber has been living its life on the sea floor for yet another year. Maybe poop wastes have filled the nooks and crannies of its digestive system. Maybe an uncomfortable number of parasites have invaded the sea cucumber’s internal organs. Maybe the guts are just old enough, now, to be discarded.

First, the sea cucumber stops eating. It gets all lazy and sits around instead of being active. Then, the front end of the sea cucumber expands like a balloon, as muscle spasms push all the intestines and repiratory organs and gonads all up into the front of the body, and BOOM! The front end of the sea cucumber pops like a piñata full of guts. Either that, or sometimes, BOOM! All the guts just spill out of the sea cucumber’s butt.

What’s crazy is that this is not a destructive process.

from Alvarado 2000 (Bioessays)

More muscle contractions seal off the explosion holes, and the sea cucumber rests for about a month, while its internal organs regenerate. And there you have it. The sea cucumber is alive another day with a brand new, clean set of organs. And it starts eating again.

Along similar lines, did you know that a starfish pukes up its stomach to eat? A starfish will approach another animal that looks delicious–sometimes a sea cucumber, sometimes a clam or a mussel–and just kind of sit on the creature. That way, the starfish mouth is pressed up against its prey. The starfish wraps a delicious creature in the pouches of its regurgitated stomach. It oozes digestive juices, rendering its prey a blob of mostly-digested flesh. Then, the starfish eats its own stomach again, and the stomach folds up and tucks back into the starfish’s mouth.

Now, let’s say the starfish stomach gets caught on the rough edges of a mussel shell and tears off or gets damaged. Like the sea cucumber, a starfish can regenerate its own stomach.

Not only that–some species of sharks also can puke up their stomachs if they accidentally bite into any “large objects of dubious digestibility” [1]. These visceral acrobatics involve the shark turning its own stomach inside-out and pushing the stomach through its mouth. Once the accidentally eaten boot (or whatever) is expelled, the stomach can be pulled back into place, into the belly of the beast.

And some sharks, like the hammerhead–from time to time, it expels its intestines through its butt, then pulls those guts right back in through the anus.

But anyway, the point is–the extraordinary sea cucumber explodes its guts out and lives to tell the tale.

You may be wondering, “How come people can’t do that?” Well, to some extent, a very small extent, we actually can, sort of. Our livers are pretty good at regenerating after injury. More experiments with sea cucumbers may lead to human health discoveries. For example, the sea cucumber digestive tube expresses a couple genes associated with cancer and tumor growth in humans. By figuring out how gut regeneration stops in sea cucumbers once their guts are fully formed, maybe we can stop tumors from growing in human cancer patients.

from Brockes 1997 (Science)

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Don’t miss this crazy stuff elsewhere on the internet:

The music is unfortunate, but the visuals are awesome in this video of a sea cucumber gut piñata exploding. Just put it on mute and provide a personalized soundtrack.

There are so very many things to learn about starfish (sea stars, if you prefer). For instance:
Time-lapse movie of a starfish feeding on the side of an aquarium
– Front-row seat for the regurgitation of a starfish stomach–the view from the inside of a mussel shell
– Grisly time-lapse footage of starfish and other creatures feasting on a dead seal
Pure entertainment with photoshop

from J. Arthur Thomson, (The Outline of Science, Vol. 1)

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Fun-razor is the time of year when you can show your support for WCBN-FM Ann Arbor by flashing some cash. It’s the student-run community radio station at the University of Michigan, serving as a safe and educational haven for the kids and oldsters, alike. You can keep the dream alive! You know? And we’ll toss a T-shirt or other good swag your way in appreciation.

Call (734) 763-3500 or click here to donate. Thanks!

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[1] ^ An article by Eugenie Clark (a.k.a., The Shark Lady). Clark, E. 1992. Whale sharks: gentle monsters of the deep. National Geographic, 180(6):120-139.

hugabug 2: Turtles cry

Mr Andrew Murray kindly shared this photo

Turtles cry, and butterflies lick the tears.
Listen to find out how and why.

Right-click or Command+click to download

Music in this show:
1. Monster Rally, “Chaska beach”
2. Monster Rally, “The new optimism”
3. Arif Sağ, “Osman Pehlivan”
4. Prince, “When doves cry”
5. Elvis Costello, “Deep dark truthful mirror”
6. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)

— — — — —


A sea turtle may need a hug from you. Because why? Because sea turtles cry.

The poetic explanation for turtle tears is that females laying their eggs on the beach can’t bear to abandon their eggs in a nest of sand, forcing their babies to grow up alone in this harsh world of sharks and ships and desiccation. Yet they must. Thus, they cry.

OK, it’s an unlikely scene. But we can’t really exclude the sentimental possibility, because who are we to say how a turtle feels? But there may be a more likely reason why turtles cry.

For one, the moist, viscous lubricant of turtle tears could protect the eyes of females as they dig immense piles of sand to lay their eggs.

And this here is the perfect time to review one of the major rules of being shipwrecked: If you find yourself lost at sea, do not drink the saltwater, no matter how thirsty you get. If you become so parched that you throw all logic to the wind and gulp down the salty water surrounding your life raft, you can damage your brain and go insane.


Sea turtles, however. Sea turtles drink saltwater! Not because they love salt, but because sea turtles can get rid of all that extra salt, which is so harmful to their bodies. Similar to humans, turtle kidneys are useless for the purposes of drinking saltwater. Their kidneys can’t produce pee that is concentrated enough to excrete the enormous amounts of salt acquired through drinking saltwater and eating very salty foods like algae and jellyfish.

To compensate for their useless kidneys, sea turtles have giant modified tear glands, one behind each eyeball. These glands are rather large. They’re much bigger than the turtle’s brain. These are salt glands; they cause turtles to cry salt.


(Click the picture to enlarge)

Other animals in the sea have their own ways of getting rid of excess salt. The salt glands in other animals are similar, but certainly different. Snakes have salivary glands, and crocodiles have tongue glands. Snakes and crocodiles thus drool to get rid of salt. Sharks have rectal glands; their salty wastes exit through the butt. Lizards have nasal glands, giving them salty snot. Some birds, too, have salty runny noses, but some birds also cry, like sea turtles, with modified tear glands.

You know what’s even more weird? Butterflies and moths drink the tears of other animals. A bee was spotted hovering around a turtle in the Amazon, maybe doing the same thing. You can see beautiful pictures of insect tear-drinkers all over the internet.

When butterflies hover around a turtle’s face, they may be gathering minerals that they can’t find anywhere else. Male butterflies sometimes give these extra minerals to females as an incentive to mate.

So the turtle is not crying because it is sad. Its eyeballs are just dripping salt after the turtle has gulped its fill of thirst-quenching seawater. Hug a turtle anyway.

And better yet, hug a bug. Bugs don’t get much love.

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There’s more to see:

A butterfly and a bee commandeer each eye of a spectacled caiman, probably to imbibe extra minerals: Youtube it!

Talented wonderwoman Oliva Walch created a comic about turtle tears:

from Olivia’s Methods comic series

hugabug 1: Bombardier beetle

from Eisner & Aneshansley 1999 (PNAS)

Bombardier beetles fart to escape predators.
Listen to find out how and why.

Right-click or Command+click to download

Music in this show:
1. Goldfinger, “King for a day”
2. TriBeCaStan, “Bed bugs”
3. from Donald in Mathmagic Land
4. Vignatis, “Catnip swing”
5. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)

— — — — —



This here’s the first episode of hugabug, where we hug bugs instead of squishing them. Unless the bug is toxic or aggressive.

There’s this beetle that farts to escape predators. It’s called the bombardier beetle. It’s got wings, but the wings don’t work. It’s a ground beetle, so it lumbers around kind of slowly. This beetle can’t fly, and it can’t run, so when it’s threatened by death, it farts.

Wet farts would be more accurate, but explosive diarrhea actually sums up most precisely what goes on with this beetle.

Bombardier beetles have these glands on each side of their butt. I’ve heard them called “tailpipes”, but they’re glands. One gland holds nasty chemicals that smell foul and burn your eyeballs, and they’re gross. The chemicals are meant for defense against enemies; it’s like carrying mace in a creepy part of town. The other gland holds enzymes, which are like fuel for the fire–when the enzymes hit the nasty chemicals, there’s this immediate reaction that lets the beetle rip out a big, nasty, chemical fart.

You actually can hear it. People say it sounds like a pop.

What the beetle does is it squeezes the horrible chemicals into a reaction chamber of enzymes, this firing chamber, this explosion chamber. All this pressure builds up in the explosion chamber from the reaction and the release of oxygen that the whole chemical mess just spews out of the beetle’s butt and into the face of whatever’s attacking.

That’s if they’re attacking from behind; but even if the attack comes from the front, the bombardier beetle can swivel its glands and spray forward, 500 bursts of chemical reactions per second.

So imagine an ant looking for a vulnerable victim to eat. The ant finds this slow-moving beetle on the forest floor, just walking around on an old log, and the ant sinks in its mandibles.

The beetle sprays in the ant’s face, and the ant can’t even get angry and come back with rage because the spray evaporates really quickly, and a chemical cloud surrounding the beetle ensures that ants stay away, at least for a while.

Plus, there’s a chemical residue that lingers on the beetle’s butt and legs. The beetle wipes away the droplets, essentially rubbing itself with insect repellent. Which it created. In its own butt.

The toxic cocktail is bad news for other bugs and spiders and even larger animals. And if the toxic chemicals don’t hurt an attacker, the heat will get them.

Bombardier beetles shoot out scalding hot streams the temperature of boiling water. These are high-velocity scalding jets at 500 painful squirts per second. People say that it hurts.

Legend has it that Charles Darwin–Mr. Evolution himself–came across a bombardier beetle. He’s a naturalist, so he’s the kind of guy that hunts around for rocks and animals; he was looking for beetles on this particular day. I guess he didn’t bring containers, or maybe he couldn’t reach them in his pockets, because he had two valuable beetle species–one in each hand. He spotted another bug that must have been too beautiful to let go, and he had to act quick to get it, so he stuck one of the beetles in his mouth and reached for the third. The following is paraphrased from one of Darwin’s letters to a friend[1]: “…so that in despair I gently seized one of the [beetles] between my teeth, when to my unspeakable disgust & pain the little inconsiderate beast squirted his acid down my throat & I lost [all 3 bugs].” So you may not want to try and catch these guys with your bare hands, and especially not with your mouth.

All of this is true. We have been talking about the real world here, but in our own lives, these bombardier beetles actually show up, somehow, in ways you maybe wouldn’t expect.

The mechanism of the bombardier beetle’s wet fart is actually similar to a weapon from World War II. The German “buzz” bomb (the V-1, it’s called) uses pulse jet propulsion that’s similar to the beetle’s rapid butt-spray. Both the beetle and the bomb produce a pulsed jet through these “microexplosions”, which are intermittent chemical reactions.

Plus, some researchers built an experimental contraption that mimics the spray action of the bombardier beetle. Such technology can make your shaving cream warm as you spray it out of the can and is designed to “administer a lather that is pleasantly hot”[2].

And that is the story of the beetle that farts to defend itself.

I don’t know whether a beetle like this can get bamboozled by its enemy into being eaten. Maybe if it’s caught by such surprise, or maybe if it’s old and frail, or already dead or something. Nor do I know how this beetle survives the scalding hot toxic mess that must splash onto itself in these desperate situations. But it’s something to think about.

This is a snack–not a meal–of science, but it is all you will get on hugabug this week. You just remember–hug a bug.

from Dean et al. 1990 (Science)

(Click the picture to see it larger)

— — — — —

Other related things around the internet:

Video of a bombardier beetle spraying an ant. Action starts at 0:50; includes a great fart noise at 1:58.

What the heck, NPR? An artist’s rendering of the bombardier beetle and its attacker, a beetle’s-eye view.

Tom Eisner, entomologist extraordinaire, invited Mira Sorvino to teach one of his classes at Cornell University. Eisner named a beetle chemical after her.

— — — — —

just a couple References:

[1] ^ Darwin Correspondence Project

[2] ^ Aneshansley & Eisner 1969 (Science)

A to B 14: Allie and Maddie

Right-click or Command+click to download

Music in this show:
1. Architecture in Helsinki, “The owls go”
2. Gaby Kerpel, “Se que no vas a volver”
3. Zap Mama, “Zap bébés”
4. Yppah, “Blue Schwinn”
5. Raymond Scott, “The toy trumpet”
6. Human Skab, “Bein’ bad”
7. Regina Spektor, “Consequence of sounds”
8. Amanda, “Incantation”
9. Gotye, “Smoke and mirrors”
10. Mucca Pazza, “The centennial”
11. Architecture in Helsinki, “The owls go”
12. Gaby Kerpel, “Gabytok”
13. Breathe Owl Breathe, “Lions jaw”
14. Raymond Scott, “Lady Gaylord”


This show, Point A to Point B, is a way to examine how people got from A to B in their lives, often to reach a point where they are successful and comfortable. This show is a search for wise words and lessons learned, which you and I can apply to maybe steer away from bad decisions or toward smoother roads.

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past 3 months. I hopped in my motor home (the turtle), and suddenly I had the time to pursue projects like this show…and other things I’ve postponed, like saving my backlog of favorite voicemails as digital files.

I don’t know about you, but my voicemail regularly fills up, and I get complaints. Maybe you’re the type who doesn’t listen to messages at all; if you’re like me, though, you just can’t erase some of the gems. I tend to keep the ones that make me laugh, and I’ve got messages in my voicemailbox from years ago. When I finally saved my favorites to the computer, I found birthday messages from my little nieces, which were recorded a year apart. It tickled me how different they sounded. It felt like opening a treasure chest of cute. It was almost like hearing them grow.

So let’s say there’s the point A of being a kid and the point B of adulthood. And of course, there are all the landmarks along the way. To record and remember the growth of their kids, parents take fancy family portraits every couple years. School photos memorialize a kid’s cowlick on picture day, or gigantic glasses, or missing teeth. Older parents used to coat with bronze their kids’ first shoes; remember that? The shoe-bronzing tradition seems like it’s gone out of style, but in any case, these items are visually striking ways to note the progress of a child through development and life. It’s less common for us to hear the sound of a growing child. And hearing children grow is much different from seeing the timeline in pictures.

So it struck me that I had a record of children growing in the form of annual birthday voicemails, and I wonder why audio records of the growth of children are so rare. It’s a thrill for parents to hear their kids’ first words, which is why it’s surprising that so few record the sound of their kids early in life.

Maybe pictures are just easier to store and display.

Could be that something about seeing a person develop is easier to understand.

Or maybe it’s rare that a compelling story–with all the ingredients of plot, tension, and drama–comes together in a kid’s sound bites.

Maybe pictures reflect parents more than audio would. Maybe pictures allow parents to see themselves in their children in a way that’s very different, or even nonexistent, via audio.

In some way, a kid can create using audio, rather than being depicted. Being photographed largely is a passive process, so maybe audio gives a kid more power than photography does.

And it occurred to me–
Non-rhetorical question of the week:
What if the prevalence of pictures and the lack of audio is evidence indicating that children most often are expected to be seen and not heard?

Listening to a kid is a powerful way to hear how ideas develop. It’s important to listen to what they say, and it’s helpful for everybody. Plus, it’s cute and hilarious a lot of the time.

There’s this cliché in storytelling that the end actually brings the characters and the audience back to the beginning. Thinking about going from point A to point B in terms of childhood to adulthood, I kind of hope that the cliché turns out to be true–that you can get to point B without ever leaving point A, in a sense. That you can reach adulthood without abandoning childhood.

— — — — —

This is the last episode of Point A to Point B, at least in its once-a-week incarnation. Archives (and new, albeit sporadic, episodes) will be available online, now and forever, in the same spot on the interweb!

The A to B series serves as a record of how these people I bumped into across the country conceive of the roads they’ve chosen through the years. It’s a timeline that you can revisit, hopefully with new insights each time you listen. And the show also is a sort of record of my adventure in the turtle, in terms of places, people, ideas, and communicating all that stuff.

Thanks for listening. I hope you get to where you’re going.

AND stay tuned in the coming weeks for a show called “hugabug”, where we hug bugs instead of squishing them (unless they’re toxic or aggressive). It’ll be about the weirdness of animals!

— — — — —

Other related enjoyable things around the internet:
(be sure to see the links in the music list above, too)

The Scared is scared of things you like.

Dutch people speaking their age from 1 to 100

The best video on the internet of a drunk baby trashing a bar, guaranteed.

“Death of a Turtle” is a fantastic recording by Tony Schwartz.

Eyeball Skeleton

This American Life, “How to Talk to Kids”
This American Life, “Kid Logic”

aww. From TAL’s web site: When Aric Knuth was a little kid, his dad would leave for six months at a time. He was a merchant marine. And Aric would record cassettes of himself and send them. He’d leave one side blank, for his father to record a response. But he never did, even though Aric asked him to on every tape. Aric talks to host Ira Glass about what it was like to finally ask his dad why.