Sunday, 28 February 2010

Macro Monday Mystery

So, what do you think made these tiny little sand balls, each with a diameter of approximately 0.5cm? Here is a secondo shot, from further away, to give you the bigger picture. These tracks and sand balls were found on a beach in the Galapagos.

I might regret posting this one, and I might be getting some irate comments from such bloggers as Baino, who seem to be getting a little frustrated with posts such as this and the weekly Macro Monday puzzle from Jay, over at the Depp Effect. But, to be honest, I am in New Orleans right now and so I have other things to do - did you know that you can get "gentlemen" to give you a string of beads if you show them your boobs on Bourbon Street. Well, I didn't, and trust me, I will not be getting any beads tonight! But I can hardly sit in my room all night composing blog posts, can I?

For more Macro Monday posts, go here.

Oh, and I guess that I should tell you that I don't actually know what made the sand balls. I have my suspicions, but I am really hoping that one of you bright sparks out there can actually tell me. So, please don't get upset when I can't give you the answer on Tuesday. You have been warned.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Macro Monday - Fact or Fiction?

Every-so-often, as I am messing about in Photoshop, I stumble across an image that I love. But the question is, where does photography end and art begin? When do you cross the line between fact and fiction, truth versus lie, real or fake? Generally speaking, I am on the reality side of the line - I use Photoshop to enhance the photos that I have taken, but keep them realistic and true to the subject. But occasionally I cross the line; I leave the realm of real and enter the territory of art. I think that this is OK, but what do you think? Do people go too far with Photoshop?

Here is the "real" photo - the first photo is this one inverted.

For more Macro Monday, go here.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

And the Gold Goes to........

So, I am just a little bit curious as to how the world is viewing the Winter Olympics here in Beautiful British Columbia. I only ask, because I seem to hear a lot of whinging and whining, complaints and negative press here in Vancouver. The hydraulics not working during the opening ceremonies, the lack of snow at Cypress Mountain, the bad weather, the delays, the malfunctioning of the Olympia ice machine (they have bought in a replacement Zamboni from Calgary – I can imagine it driving along Highway 1, leaving a beautiful, smooth and shiny surface on the pass through the Rocky Mountains, cars and trucks spinning out of control, flying off the road behind it), the demonstrations and disruptions by anti Olympic protestors, the barrier preventing people approaching the Olympic flame, incompetent security.......I could go on, but I won’t. Let’s face it, the only really serious issue was the death of the Georgian luge competitor, Nodar Kumaritashvili. While this was indeed tragic, nobody could ever argue that a sport where you hurtle down a track at 90 mph on a tea tray can ever be 100% safe. As for the weather, well, that is hardly anyone’s fault, is it, although you could argue that holding events at Cypress Mountain, which is only 1000m above sea level, was rather foolish. We often gets years when the mountain is shut down due to lack of snow and too much rain. Now, being British, I should be used to lots of complaining and finding fault in everything, but I have to say that Canada is giving Britain a run for its money on the whinging front, and could even win the gold this year. Besides, the British really should be careful with its criticisms, since they are holding the Summer Olympics next, and there are a whole lot more things that can go wrong in a Summer Olympics.

Having said all that, today the sun is shining and the world is seeing Vancouver in all its glory. When you see the city surrounded by shiny, bright white mountain peaks and the deep blue-green ocean, the sun sparkling off the rippling water, reflecting off the glass towers, highlighting the sails of Canada Place, you will all want to come and live here (but please don’t, house prices are already far too high). So quit your whinging and your whining and enjoy the Games!

Since I am trying to encompass the Olympic spirit, I thought that I would see if I could find any animal winter Olympians. Here are my choices for medal winners:

And the bronze goes to Japan, with its snow monkeys of Honshū. Also known as the Japanese macaque, these are the most northern living and most polar living non-human primate. These guys are not stupid and they know a good thing when they see one. While the outside temperature can drop below -15oC, the temperature of these hot water springs remains toasty warm all year long. Out of the water, the macaques are kept warm by their incredibly thick fur. Between bouts of looking for food and messing about in the snow, rolling, but not throwing, snowballs, they head back to their hot tub to relax and chill out. All this one needs to complete his bliss is a nice cold glass of Sapporo.

And the silver goes to the U.S.A, represented by the red fox, Vulpes vulpes. This fox is the most abundant and widespread of all foxes, living across a diverse range of habitats in North America and all across Eurasia. It can be found in coastal marshes, deserts, forests and open grasslands all the way to the tundra of Northern Europe and Canada. The fox is known for its amazing adaptiveness and is quite at home in towns and cities. In this Winter Olympics, it has won its silver medal for its fantastic senses and ability to locate food beneath two feet of snow. Just look at those ears, look at that intense concentration as the fox pinpoints its unfortunate prey beneath the snow. And then the pounce. The grace, the style and that oh-so-bushy tail. OK, so the finish is not exactly dignified, but he did get his lunch and I am guessing that he put a smile on your face, didn’t he?

And the gold goes to...........

CANADA! O Canada! Our home and native land!
The winning competitor is the wood frog, Rana sylvatica. OK, so it is not all cute and fluffy and it does not exhibit any particularly amazing athletic feats. But it does do something that neither you, nor I can do. In fact it does something that very few other animals can do. Believe it or not, this little guy can actually freeze solid. Yep, that is how it survives the harsh winters of this cold and frigid land. It doesn’t just slow its heart rate or lower its metabolism, it stops them completely. You could say that this is in fact a dead frog. It is deceased, pushing up the daisies, its metabolic processes are now 'istory! 'E's off the twig! 'E's kicked the bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisibile!! THIS IS AN EX-FROG!! But wait, once the Spring has sprung and the temperatures creep up above freezing, a miracle occurs. Our little ex-frog slowly thaws. His heart starts to pump again. He is alive! Most animals cannot do this, since ice crystals form in their cells and disrupt their integrity. The wood frog avoids this by flooding its cells with high concentrations of urea and glucose, both natural antifreezes. These cryoprotectants prevent ice crystals from forming, so prevent cell damage when the frog freezes solid.

Now, come on, you have to admit that that is truly amazing and a feat worthy of the gold medal. Go, Canada, go!

If you know of any other animals that are deserving of a place on my Winter Olympic podium, please let me know.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Macro Monday Mystery

Apparently, I only have time to post once a week, which means that from now on all of my posts will be Macro Monday posts! This week, I have even less time than usual, since I am very busy watching the Vancouver Winter Olympics. I might even have to pop down there sometime next week. So, I shall post a photo and then it is up to you, dear readers, to do the work.

The question is, what is it?

Answers on a postcard, please - or you can just send your answer via the comments. Since I don't think that this is too difficult (well, I wouldn't, would I, since I know what it is), I shall not be giving any clues just yet. If no one gets it by tomorrow, I shall give a few hints.

For more Macro Monday, go here.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Macro Monday Blues

This little beauty is a silver-studded blue, Plebejus acmon, photographed somewhere along the Southern Californian coast between San Diego and Los Angeles. To be honest, it is more commonly known as an acmon blue, but I thought the alternative name was much nicer.

I love these little blue butterflies. They are so delicate and yet so hardy, able to survive in the harsh windy and arid environment of the Californian coastline. Their markings are exquisite and who wouldn’t want such a gorgeous pair of stripy antennae? They do have a few survival tactics up their scaly wings. The most interesting one is an association that they have with ants. You see, ants are a very sociable bunch and though they are small, there is strength and safety in numbers. One ant is not a problem, but who wants to take on a whole army of them, what with their bitey jaws and stinging backsides? So, what the defenceless little blue caterpillars do (the caterpillars are actually brownish yellow, if we are going to be accurate here) is to pay the ants for some protection. Each caterpillar is equipped with a honey gland which emits a sugary solution which is to the ants' liking. The ants will protect the caterpillars from predation and then go to the ant for the payoff – a nice large droplet of sugar solution. The caterpillars can go one step further and even call for help if required. They have a pair of tubercles on their abdomens that can emit a chemical that mimics an ant alarm pheromone. This makes the ants think that they are under attack and so they all rush to the aid of the caterpillar, resulting in a frenzied and aggressive defence. Everyone is happy, everyone is a winner (well, except for the would-be predator of the caterpillar, who loses out on lunch and gets terrorised by ants). Nature, all cosy and cooperative.

I could leave it there, letting you all swan off believing in the benevolence of Nature, but let’s keep things in perspective. Where Nature is concerned, it is every species for itself and each species will do what benefits it the most. For the silver-studded blue and the ants, the alliance is holding strong. But, as in all alliances, it relies on both partners cooperating fully and equally. And, as in all alliances, there is always the chance that one side might betray the other - come on, you all must have seen this happen time and time again on Survivor. In the ant / blue butterfly alliance, there are some very good examples of where the flirty, flighty, innocent-looking butterfly has become the ant’s worst nightmare. One example is the large blue butterfly, Maculinea arion, of England. This gorgeous creature was declared extinct in England in 1979, but has since been reintroduced to several sites in Southern England. The caterpillars begin life feeding on the flowers of wild thyme, but after several moults, they fall to the ground where they pretend to be ant grubs. If they are lucky, some unsuspecting ant will come along and, after much scrutinising, will decide that some poor baby ant has lost its way, pick it up and take it back to its nest. The caterpillar deceives the ant both visually, by rearing up on its legs to look like an ant grub and chemically, by emitting a chemical soup that makes it smells just like an ant. Once the caterpillar makes it back to the ant’s nest, life is good. It spends its time pretending to be an ant, being looked after and protected by the ants while dining away on the ant’s real offspring. This is one of the few examples of a carnivorous caterpillar. The chemical deception continues as the caterpillar pupates and transforms into the lovely adult, which, once it emerges from the pupa, hightails it out of the nest before it expands its wings and flutters away.

Of course, the butterfly does not have it all its own way. One of the reasons for all this trickery is to get below ground into the safety of the ants’ nest, out of sight of potential predators. However, some predators are so good they can still sniff them out no matter where they are. In this case, there is a parasitoid wasp that is able to find the blue caterpillars. It is able to track them down into the ant’s nest. Once it reaches the nest, it too douses itself with ant pheromones so that it does not get attacked by the ants. It then enters the nest and is able to pick out the caterpillars from the ant grubs. No-one knows quite how it achieves this amazing olfactory feat, but it does. Once a target has been identified, it injects an egg into the caterpillar. This egg will then hatch and the wasp grub will grow inside the caterpillar, slowly eating it from the inside out, leaving the most vital organs until last to ensure the meal stays aliveand fresh for as long as possible. The wasp grub then pupates inside the caterpillar, nice and safe from the ants, to later emerge as a shiny new adult, which also hightails it out of the nest as quick as it can.

Nature - beautiful, magnificent, glorious and delightful.

Nature - sinister, deadly, macabre, and unforgiving. Survival of the fittest indeed.

For more Macro Monday, go here.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Cat Therapy

Cat therapy ............ or should I say cat torture? No wait! Before you all rush off to the SPCA, I am not talking about torturing the cat, but the cat torturing me. It always starts as therapy and nearly always ends as torture.

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that Mr DBM and I are trying to sell our house and buy a new one. This is turning out to be rather more stressful than planned. We have had two offers on our townhouse; both of them good offers, but both of them were then withdrawn, due to issues with the buyers selling their houses. As for the buying part, well, this is proving to be even more difficult. Apparently, I only choose houses that are owned by crazy people and it seems that negotiating a fair price on a house with a mad person is very difficult. Notice the word fair. We wouldn’t have a problem buying a house, as long as we either agreed to a ridiculous price or to some hair-brained subject to, whereby the seller can pull out at any point in the next six months if they can’t find a house that they quite fancy. So, English Mum, don’t book your holiday to Canada just yet. In amongst all this, there was a devastating earthquake in Haiti, and nothing seemed very important after that. But that is a very dangerous view to take on life and life does go on. And so the house hunt goes on and so my roller coaster ride of emotions goes on. Looks like I might be in some need of some relaxation therapy. Cue the cats.

Any of you that have been around my blog for a while knows that I have two cats – Willow and Tess. They are gorgeous, obviously, but they are also a source of much irritation. They leave fur everywhere, and what they don’t shed in puffs of fluff that roll endlessly across my dining room floor, they throw up in copious amounts of cat vomit all over my basement carpet, and my bedroom carpet, and my hall carpet, and my stair carpet. I do have a lot of laminate and tile flooring, but they always seem to miss that. Did I mention my nice living room rug or my lovely, expensive duvet cover? Did I mention that they do this very loudly at 2am in the morning, or right before we are due to have the house shown to some prospective buyer? I am guessing that stepping in a large protein spill does not encourage one to buy a house.

They also have other irritating issues. Willow insists on being let out of the backdoor, legging it round to the front door and then staring in at the window until you let her in. She then eats one piece of food and repeats the whole exercise, over and over again. She insists on being the world’s friendliest cat, but only between the hours of 2am and 5am, after which she has no interest in humans what-so-ever, unless they are feeding her tuna or letting her in or out. She also has fur issues. The fur that she does not shed or throw up proceeds to form into large clumps, making her look like a charity case that needs rescuing from the SPCA. I know, as a responsible owner I should be grooming her regularly. But, as an owner who is fond of her facial features and likes to keep her blood inside her body, this has proven to be rather tricky and rather expensive, since even the vet deemed that she needed sedation before she could be groomed.

Tess is less worrying and less expensive on a day-to-day basis, mainly because she doesn’t really do anything. There is no terrorising the local rodent and avian populations and so no mouse livers or bird heads left on the path outside the back door (again, putting off anyone who might be interested in purchasing the house) and no fears of internal parasites that said victims may have been harbouring. She is unlikely to get eaten by roving packs of coyotes, since she never leaves the safety of the house. Her fur is sleek and smooth and she does not try to kill me if she sees me with a brush or comb. She may be a little bit stout, but I just tell everyone that is just because she is fluffy. However, I do have worries in the mental department. You see, I fear little Tess is a little bit crazy. This may be due to the consumption of copious quantities of catnip or it may have something to do with oxygen deprivation in the womb. She was the last to be born and was a little bit slow coming into this world. She has been a little bit slow ever since. She really is a bit of a basket case. Just the other day, she proved this to be literally true when I found her rolling around with her head inside one of our wicker waste paper baskets. She also snores, a lot, and she has found the perfect position on the bed where I can’t quite reach her to kick her.

So, what is the point of having these two fairly useless lumps of feline fluff around the house? Where is my relaxation therapy when I need it?

Imagine going into a quiet, slightly darkened room and lying down on a bed. Now curl up into a foetal position and start to stroke the smoothest, silkiest surface in the entire world. Imagine your fingers flowing over this soft, pliable surface; your tactile sense is stimulated to a new level of bliss. Your cares and worries start to flow out through your fingertips; the warmth emanating from this living, breathing creature starts to lighten your mood. Your breathing slows and your stress starts to drain away. As you start to drift off into a world full of feathers and snowflakes, fluffy bunnies and down duvets, a vibration begins from deep within this miraculous animal. As the purring resonates through your body, pulsing through your skin and your muscles, reaching all the way to your heart, you finally relax. Your breathing slows further, your heart rate drops. You have just discovered nature’s answer to all that is chaotic and stressful in this world full of craziness. Your eyes are now starting to close as the purring intensifies. You can feel soft paws starting to massage your weary neck and head, you have just about reached a blissful state of ultimate relaxation and then...............

OMFG – The PAIN! All of a sudden it feels as though tiny, curved pins have been stapled into your head. You know that they are curved because they don’t pull out again. Instead they embed themselves into your scalp and then pulsate back and forth, ripping holes into your skin. WTF!?! What happened to my massage? What happened to my bliss? I want my peace, my calm, my serene state back. I don’t want this drooling monster sucking on my head, piercing my skull with her needle-sharp claws over and over and over again. Oh yes, she is still purring, but how is that helping me now as drool starts to roll down my neck and soak my pillow and my nerve endings start to scream out for mercy. If I try to pull away, one of her claws invariably gets stuck in my head and I lose another chunk of scalp and let lose another couple of swear words. Why oh why does Tess derive so much pleasure from sucking on my hair, and why does she have to torture me while doing it? The other one is no better – Willow just targets my boobs instead. Seriously, if you need to interrogate anyone in the near future, just let me know. Sod the waterboarding, I can just hire you a couple of cats and you will soon have your victim squealing for mercy, begging for the pain to stop, willing to tell you the whereabouts of the Holy Grail, the combination to the safe or where he has hidden the marshmallows to prevent you from eating them all in one sitting. They are evil, I tell you, evil.

Having said all of that, I do love them dearly. As I type this, Willow has just walked into the room, sat down and is now just looking at me. I don’t know what she wants, or what she is thinking. It is all a mystery to me. I have no idea what is going on in her walnut-sized brain most of the time. But, no matter how much they bug me, I do know one thing. Every time I see them, I smile. It is a smile that reaches my heart and heals my soul.

P.S. The cats are available for hire – for relaxation or torture, depending on your needs.