Monday, December 21, 2009

Let is Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow

In celebration of the light dusting of snow Virginia Beach received last Saturday, I give you another lyrical science piece written during a beautiful snowstorm in Montreal last year. Enjoy.

The rapidly approaching Christmas frenzy and the cooling of the exterior air stimulates, in most northern dwelling people, a euphoric feeling and expectancy that can only be heightened by the arrival of snow. Even in my earliest childhood memories, the first snow fall is always accompanied with joyful leaps and spontaneous outbursts of festive song. The effect of snow on children is such that teachers can often predict an upcoming storm without the help of high tech instruments, simply by evaluating the restlessness of the classroom.

SnowflakeImage by Vlastula via Flickr
As snowflakes gently float down from above, lightly dusting the ground below, one might wonder what magic lies behind these intricate shapes. Snow and rain falls generally occur after a warmer period; water molecules evaporate and condense in the sky gathering together to form the fluffy white clouds. As they dance upon the wind, these molecules will encounter other particles like dust, bacteria, and other water molecules with which they shall form bonds and, if the temperature is low enough, they will crystallize. 

Water takes on a hexagonal conformation in its crystalline state and additional molecules will adhere in a six sided fashion creating the characteristic snowflake shape. When their combined weight exceeds the elevating strength of the wind, they tumble through the air masses towards the earth. If the air temperature remains cold throughout their descent, the crystals will remain, if not, they shall return to liquid or semi-liquid form.

Flocked TreeImage by Liralen Li via Flickr
As snow falls gently upon your bundled up form, dimming sounds and prompting the appearance of a healthy glow on exposed areas, take a moment to observe the intricate beauty of their translucent shapes. You should rejoice and be amazed by the abundance of shapes, sizes and patterns, a vivid testimony to nature's creativity. The accumulation of their individuality upon the sleeping land appears as a blanket of downy whiteness to our eyes because of the light reflecting and refracting through their crystalline bodies. Rest assured that the light blue tinge, which freshly fallen snow sometime takes on, is not a trick of your mind,but is linked to the slight preference of the ice crystal lattice to absorb red light and refract blue. (Yellow snow is a whole other ball game.)

White Christmas (film)Image via Wikipedia
In the past years, the snow fall and accumulation has diminished and has been replaced with increasing rain and sleet. Knowledgeable scientists associate this reduction with the increasing heat capturing capacity of our atmosphere; crystals are still forming in the sky but they cannot maintain their form on falling, to our greatest desolation when we awaken to a green and rainy Christmas morn. Bringing more meaning to the classic Christmas song "White Christmas" by Bing Crosby. 

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, 
just like the ones I used to know... 

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Six Geese a Laying

On the sixth day of Christmas, 
my true love gave to me:
Six Geese a laying,
Five Gold Rings,
Four Colly Birds,
Three French Hens,
Two turtle doves, and
A partridge in a pear tree.

For the sake of those paying attention, yes, I skipped over the fifth day of Christmas. Gold rings, although made from a naturally occurring precious metal, I'm no Geologist; I'll just stick to what I know - plants and animals. Day six, showers us with yet another animal based gift. Not only are we receiving six Geese, but they are laying. Geese, as you may know, are also a somewhat domesticated fowl that one would keep for its meat and eggs. Contrarily to the hens, which have a repetitive and short egg cycle, geese only lay eggs once a year and it takes them a while (between 1 and 2 years) to reach a size worthy of the table. However, by giving this cumbersome gift of soon to be overprotective snapping females, this person's true love is yet prooving his worth as a provider but also improving the social status of the receiver - the bigger the gaggle of geese, the wealthier the owner is. As interesting as this may be, I could not identify a specific species, so here is my favorite fun goose fact.

A large goose can snap your arm with a beat of it's wing.

Take care!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tool Wielding Octopi

The octopus is by far my favorite animal. It is considered the most intelligent invertebrate in the world and I think it's the cutest.

Veined octopusImage by Borneo-Aquanerds via Flickr
My friend sent my this link to this amazing video of a Indonesian Veined Octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus) using coconut husks to build itself a shelter. Not only is this octopus shown building a shelter, it's also shown transporting the coconuts from one place to another. It can no longer be considered an impromptu utilization of its environment; some cognitive decision was made.  
The use of tools is frequently used to separated the "higher organisms" like humans and primates from the rest.

Click the following link to watch the video :

Yeah for Octopi!
Take care!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Four Calling Birds

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

Four Calling Birds,
Three French Hens,
Two Turtle Doves, and
A partridge in a pear tree.

Calling birds is an Americanization of the traditional English Colly birds. "Colly" is a dialect word meaning "black as coal". Colly bird or Black bird most likely refers to the Common Blackbird, Turdus merula.

The Common Blackbird is an old world thrush native to Europe, Asia and North Africa. It was successfully
Common Blackbird, also called Eurasian Blackbi...Image via Wikipedia
introduced to Australia and New Zealand.The male of this species is black with yellow eye rings and bill. The female and juvenile, like most passerine birds, have dark brown mottled plumage.

Both male and female and territorial and will defend their carefully built, mud-lined, cup shaped nest.
It has a pleasant and distinctive song - a medley of chirps and whistles - and various warning calls.

I found this Youtube video by a patient birdwatcher. You can hear and see a Common Blackbird from Szlovákia. 

Take care!

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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Three French Hen

On the third day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Three French Hens,

This is a tough one seeing that French Hen's aren't a particular species. It's most probably a reference to a variety of chicken that was developed in France. There are three main varieties of French Chicken that may have inspired this song, the Crevecoeur, the Houdans, and the La Fleche.

The chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) is thought to have first been domesticated in Vietnam. It is the most common and widespread domesticated animal. Chicken's live in flocks and are omnivorous ground feeders. Their flying ability is limited but they are good runner. They will chase you ferociously and for a considerable distance if angered and their peck is painful.

The Crevecoeur is a black crested bird probably derived from a Polish breed. It originated is Normandy and is reputed as not being very friendly. It's egg and meat production is average and therefore this breed is mainly used for show. 
It's name, in French, literally translated means Break/Rupture Heart - maybe because they are not very nice.

The Houdans are appreciated for their meat and large white eggs. They differ morphologically from the Crevecoeur by their mottled black and white colouration (in some cases pure white), a fifth toe and a beard.They are named after the place they were bred. qualifies them as docile and easy the find and raise in the States. Like the Crevecoeur, the Houdan is qualified as ornamental.

Last but not least, the La Fleche - meaning the arrow in french. The La Fleche is black with white cheeks.  This breed is very rare and is distinguished from other ornamental chicken's by the pair of spikes instead of the usual comb (they look like little devil horns).
A La Flèche chicken.Image via Wikipedia

I close this post with a entry from the Guiness Book of World Records, the oldest chicken was female and died of a heart attack at the ripe of age of 16. No information was provided to whether the chicken was eaten or not.

After all this, I still do not care much for chickens, the only thing they have got going for them is how cute and fuzzy they look as chicks.

 Take care!

Two Turtle Doves

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:
Two Turtle Doves and

The Turtle dove, Streptopelia turtur, is a recognized emblem of love since the species is renoun for it's strong pair bond. Contrarily to most illustrations of this second verse, the Turtle dove, strickly speaking, is not white.  However, the name Turtle dove is sometimes mistakenly used for the Ring-neck dove (S. capicola) and the Collard dove (S. decaocto). Such confusion strengthens my resolve about the importance of latin names. S. turtur is native to Europe and North Africa, between which it migrates back and forth.

Turtle_DoveImage via Wikipedia
The Turtle dove is brownish with dark and white specks across it's wings and the side of it's neck. This pattern that vaguely recalls a turtle's shell may be responsible for this bird's common name. It's latin name, S. turtur, refers to the call it makes during the male's mating display.
It's tail is wedge shaped. The central feathers are dark with white tips and framed with white feathers on either side. The tail feathers are frequently flaired during flight, displaying the stunning colouration for the pleasure of onlookers.

I have never had the pleasure to observe a Turtle dove in the wild, I therefore leave you with this pretty painting Wikipedia so gratiously presented to me. 
The Turtle DoveImage via Wikipedia

Take care!

P.S. For the sake of my insatiable curiosity, do you have an advent calendar and if so, do you prefer it to hold daily chocolates?

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Twelve Days of Christmas

                                                                                                                                       Thanks for the image

The official Twelve Days of Christmas begin on December 25th and end January 5th, right before Epiphany. I am beginning on December 1st because this song popped into my head this afternoon as hubster and I were debating whether a Norfolk pine could substitute for our traditional Balsam Fir Christmas Tree (although the latter is not native to Virginia, it's smell is essential for my enjoyment of this festive time, the topic is still up for debate). Each lyric of this text holds mnemonic clues for the basic teachings of Christian faith. This song is reputed to have been created in the 16th century to enable the secret transmission of Christian instruction to the children of England during the reformation. However, there is no hard evidence in this matter. You may read about the hidden Christian Teachings here. Other sources say that this song comes from a translation from the french which in turn came from a translation from the Greek and much of the lyrics are translation errors or linked to Greek mythology. Which ever origin you choose to believe makes little to no difference for the following posts as I shall be looking at today's song from a scientific/biological point-of-view.
Let's begin shall we. 

On the first day of Christmas,
my true love gave to me                   
A partridge in a Pear Tree

The partridge is a non-migratory, ground-nesting bird native to Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle-East. The specific partridge illustrated in most illustrations related to this song is most probably the Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix) as it is the most common species. It has been successfully introduced to North-America and is a favoured hunting target.

Grey PartridgeImage via Wikipedia
This bird does fly although not as gracefully as the swallow and generally only for short boubts generally brought on by being scared or flushed from bushes. Although it does not build it's nest in trees, it can find refuge in tree branches if the need be.
 They are related to the bigger and more commonly known and more colourful pheasant.

Partridge annecdote, I travelled by bus from St-Andrew's Scotland to Ullapool - approximately a 4hr trip if I remember correctly - and during this trip, three partridges managed to fly directly into the bus.

The pear tree is native to coastal areas of western Europe all the way to Asia including the north Africa. They are medium size trees comparable to the apple tree. Most species are cold hardy which allows them to be cultivated in Quebec, Canada where winter temperatures can drop below -40 degrees Celsius. Pears have been cultivated in China for over 3000 years. The Romans also cultivated pears, however, they did not eat them raw. China, Italy and the United States are the present days main pear producers and exporters.

w:Pear blossoms, California, unknown variety
The pear, is botanically referred to as a pome, same for the apple. The five petaled flower of the pear tree is generally white, rarely tinted pink or yellow. It is, at time, impossible to tell a pear tree from an apple tree without tasting it's fruit; the pear has a gritty texture because of the presence of sclerids or stone cells - structural cells with a hardened secondary wall.
Pears are a good source of fiber which helps with the regulation of intestinal absorption of glucose and digested fats in addition to preventing constipation.

Summer Beauty pear - watercolor 1893
Pears ripen from the inside out which explains why you and I have frequently found ourself biting into what we believed to be a wonderfully juicy pear only to find it to be rotten at the core. You can avoid these situations, test for ripeness by gently pressing near the stem with your thumb. If it's soft, the pear is most probably ready to eat. Pears don't ripen on the tree, they are harvested before that happens. To speed up the ripening on a pear (or any fruit), place it in a brown paper bag for a couple days. This closed environment will capture the ripening gas, ethylene, produced by the fruit and it's increased concentration will cause the fruit to ripen faster. The more fruit in the bag together, the faster the ripening process will be (to a certain point). To keep a pear slightly longer, keep in a cool open space. Now, if only pears traveled better, they might compete with the apple as my favored on the go snack. 
Take care!
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