A clever new hypothesis about insect mimicry

Over the years I’ve written here about several kinds of mimicry. The most common subjects have been Batesian mimicry, in which the evolutionary scenario involves three species: an easily identifiable and noxious or toxic model, a predator that learns (or has evolved) to avoid the model (signal receiver), and an edible mimic that evolves to resemble the model. You can easily see how an edible species would leave more offspring if it accumulated mutations that made it resemble the model, for it would be avoided by the predator more often. Here’s one example: a harmless and edible fly that mimics a bee, almost certainly to avoid bird predation:

The second form of mimicry I’ve often discussed is Müllerian mimicry, in which a group of easily identifiable species, all of them toxic or unpalatable, evolve to “converge,” or resemble each other. Such mutual resemblance gives members of the similar-looking species an advantage, for it’s easier for the predator to learn and avoid one pattern rather than several.

Here’s one example, a group of butterflies in the genus Acraea,  Such mimicry needn’t just involve one group of organisms: similar patterns have been described in mimicry “rings” that involve butterflies, beetles, “true bugs” (Hemiptera), and wasps. All of them can achieve some protection from predation by adopting similar colors and patterns.

For both sorts of mimicry to evolve, the signal receiver must encounter both model and mimic, so they all have to live in the same area. (There is one scenario in which model and mimic can live in different areas, but I’ll leave you to figure out how that works.)

A classic case of what was thought to be Batesian mimicry involves moths or butterflies that look like bees or wasps. The resemblance between model and putative mimic is sometimes astonishingly precise. Here’s a moth that for all the world looks like a wasp. Note all the features of the moth that have evolved to resemble the wasp: the wings are clear, are folded longitudinally like those of a wasp, the body is narrow, striped and colored like that of a wasp, and has a very thin constriction between thorax and abdomen (“petiole”) that regular moths don’t have. Believe me, if you saw this, you would mistake it for a wasp and avoid it, just like predators do.

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(From Boppré et al. paper): Not a stinging wasp but a harmless day-flying moth (Lepidoptera: Erebidae: Arctiinae: Pseudosphex laticincta). These moths are “sheep in wolves’ clothing” and simulate their predators—this is not necessarily a case of classical mimicry. Photograph © courtesy of Hannes Freitag (FZE)

But this may not be a classic case of Batesian mimicry, or so claims a new paper in Ecology and Evolution by Michael Boppré et al.  (reference below, free download). There may not be a “signal receiver” that has learned to avoid the moth because it resembles a stinging wasp. Rather, as Boppé et al. suggest, the predator is said to be the “model” itself: a predatory wasp, and the scenario involves innate avoidance rather than learning.

Here’s how it works. The wasps in question, yellowjackets (wasps in the genera Vespula and Dolichovespula) are abundant social insects that make their living as predators (and scavengers) of other insects.  Here’s a yellowjacket attacking a praying mantis:

We know that on their hunting expeditions yellowjackets won’t attack members of their own species; that, after all, would be a maladaptive behavior, since members of your own species may well be members of your own nest. Further, if you attack another yellowjacket, you yourself could get stung to death.

Besides this observation, the authors noted that the mimicry between palatable moths like the one above and the yellowjackets is astonishingly precise: far too precise, they say, to have evolved to fool birds. (They argue that birds will avoid a prey simply by longer-distance recognition of general patterns like color and striping.)  Here’s are two more examples of the precision (read the caption); the first photo shows two species of wasps and a moth. Can you tell which is which? (Hint: the antennae are a giveaway).

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(From paper):  Two species of eusocial wasps and a “wasp-moth” from Costa Rica—but which is which? The moth simulates not only the striped abdomen but also transparent and folded wings, petiolate abdomen, and patterned thorax of the wasps. Its true identity is revealed by its proboscis and pectinate antennae. (a) Mischocyttarus sp., (b) Polybia sp. (Hymenoptera: Vespidae), (c) Pseudosphex laticincta (Lepidoptera: Erebidae: Arctiinae)

And here’s another example of precise mimicry of body shape, color, and pattern. Again, inspection of the antennae shows that the wasp is on the left and the moth on the right:

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(From paper): case of accurate resemblance between a black eusocial wasp (a, Hymenoptera: Vespidae: Parachartergus apicalis) and a neotropical moth (b, Lepidoptera: Erebidae: Arctiinae: Myrmecopsis strigosa), showing the very same simulated features (abdomen, wings, petiole, thorax) discussed for yellow jackets (Figures 2 and 3). This exemplifies that the hypothesis discussed at length for yellow jackets can also be applied to understand accurate simulation of other color patterns. (The wing folding of the moth is incomplete in this photograph.)

The authors’ hypothesis is both clever and simple–so clever and simple that, in fact, I’m surprised that nobody has suggested it before. It is this:

The moths aren’t mimicking the wasps to fool birds; they’re mimicking the wasps to fool the wasps themselves. That’s because the wasps are predators, and will avoid attacking any insect that looks very similar to their nestmates, because you don’t get a food reward by attacking another wasp. 

In other words, the predatory wasps have an innate aversion toward attacking animals whose appearance they’ve evolved to recognize (presumably because they’re eusocial and live in groups where they help each other); and the “model” takes advantage of this, evolving a precise resemblance to the wasp. The authors like this hypothesis because they think that the wasps scrutinize potential prey much more closely than do birds, a trait that “forces” the models to evolve a very precise resemblance—a resemblance that, they say, couldn’t be explained by the scrutiny of birds alone.

The difference between this and “classic” Batesian mimicry is that a.) the signal receiver and the model are the same species: the wasp; and b.) there is no learning involved: wasp recognition of its self-pattern is an evolved trait, probably evolved the same way most animals develop a recognition of members of their own species.

This hypothesis is clever, and when I read the paper I had the same reaction that Thomas Henry Huxley had after reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” After all, we’ve known about mimicry since shortly after The Origin was published, and yet it took people over 150 years to come up with this simple idea.

Yes, it’s a clever idea, and may well be right, especially if the chance of predation by a wasp is much higher than by a bird. But is the hypothesis true? What’s the evidence for it?

Sadly, there isn’t much yet beyond the authors’ speculation that mimicry this precise could not be mediated by visual bird predation, but requires the acute vision of a wasp. Further, the authors describe yellowjacket wasps preying on moths in the wild but not on other yellowjackets or on moths mimicking yellowjackets. (This leads to the idea that the similar black-and-yellow striped pattern of different wasp species could be a case of “quasi-Müllerian” mimicry, but one in which they’ve evolved to resemble each other because it’s injurious to attack each other. In this case again, there is no predator learning involved, nor any signal receiver.)

Now the authors’ hypothesis doesn’t rule out that this is also a case of true Batesian mimicry: that selection occurred both by wasps avoiding attacks on prey that look like themselves, and also by birds having learned to avoid attacking anything that looks like a wasp. Both factors could be involved, and I suspect are. But how do you test whether yellowjacket predation was a driving force of selection?

The authors note that it’s hard to test that:

However, it seems likely that (2) general, visually oriented predators such as birds are additional selecting agents shaping similarity of other insects to wasps. Thus, in “wasp mimicry” two sorts of selecting agents (with different life-styles) are plausibly acting. Then, the relative abundance of predatory wasps (individuals and species) that recognize look-alikes as non-food versus various predators that learn through experience could explain the accuracy and non-accuracy of potentially profitable mimics. We would observe combinations of innate protective masquerade and learned Batesian and Müllerian mimicry, and recognize different sorts of selecting agents, namely those which respond innately and those which learn by experience. Thus, accurate mimics would be protected against both wasps and birds, whereas inaccurate mimics would be protected mainly against educated birds (which to a certain extent generalize a learned pattern) but not so well against wasps. In theory, proof could only come from studies in habitats where wasps prey on insects but learning predators do not occur—however, such places cannot be found.

But you could think of other tests. For example, put mimetic moths and non-mimetic moths in a cage with yellowjackets. If the mimetic moths are attacked less often, that would support the authors’ hypothesis. Or you could efface certain parts of the mimics’ pattern with paint and see if they get attacked more often.  I’m sure that, with some thought, other tests are possible. Here’s one I just thought of: if a palatable moth resembles something that doesn’t attack it, like a bumblebee, then it’s likely that this is a case of true Batesian mimicry rather than the new form of mimicry (not given a new name) described by Boppré et al. And in such cases you’d expect the mimicry to be less precise than that of yellowjacket mimics, because (according to the authors), birds don’t need to look as closely at potential prey as do yellowjackets.

A final point: the authors note that sometimes the moths themselves may be toxic: some species eat plants and, like monarch butterflies, sequester the unpalatable alkaloid compounds in their bodies. If this were the case (and that would be relatively easy to test), then the mimicry becomes more complicated, and harder to understand. Why wouldn’t the wasp predators evolve to recognize whatever pattern a toxic moth had in the first place—that is, why did such precise mimicry evolve? Perhaps in this case it would prevent the initial strike of the moth that kills the mimic, even if the moth then recognizes that the mimic isn’t fit to eat. Or, the authors could be wrong about how birds recognize potential prey: birds may be more sharp-sighted than we think.

At any rate, this is a novel hypothesis and well worth considering in the case of mimics that look like their predators. I was once fooled by one of these moths that had gotten into my house in Maryland, and I had to get my fly net to catch it as I was afraid of getting stung. Only after I caught it did I realize the ruse. If a moth can fool someone who works with insects, it’s likely that it can fool a predatory wasp or bee.

h/t: Matthew Cobb

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 Boppré, M., R. I. Vane-Wright, and W. Wickler. 2017. A hypothesis to explain accuracy of wasp resemblances. Ecology and Evolution 7:73-81.

Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader Robert Lang sent a bunch of photos with a “baby African mammal” theme. His notes are indented:

As penance for my last posting of a Nile crocodile’s dinner of gnu, I offer this collection of cute babies, from the same trip, which took in Amboseli National Park, Samburu National Reserve, and Masai Mara National Reserve, all in Kenya. No animals harmed here, I promise! (Plus: there’s kittehs.)

First we have two baboon mother-and-baby pairs. These are either olive babboons (Papio anubis) or yellow baboons (Papio cynocephalus); I can’t tell the difference, perhaps a reader with more expertise can help.

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And continuing the mother-and-child theme, hippos and calf (Hippopotamus amphibius, on the banks of the Mara River).

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And, similarly sized (but a lot less common): the White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) and calf.

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Of course, no Africa trip is complete without the African elephant (Loxodonta africana):

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And now for some smaller fare. A warthog piglet (Phacochoerus africanus):

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And onto some serious cuteness. A spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) mom and pup:

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Even though they look like d*gs, they’re more closely related to felines, so I hope it’s OK to post a second one.

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And speaking of d*g-like carnivores, the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is definitely a cat, but sometimes the other cats give it a hard time because it doesn’t have retractable claws.

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But we need a true cat, I suppose, and so, we’ll close with a lion cub (Panthera leo), of course.

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Sunday: Hili dialogue (with extra Hili!)

Good morning on Sunday, February 26 (2017), and in Chicago the temperature is currently a chilly 26°F, or -3°C. (The high today is predicted to be 47° F, or 8° C.) It’s National Pistachio Day, honoring my second favorite nut (the first is the macadamia). Wikipedia editors: please correct the February 26 entry to reflect that it is NOT National Wear Red Day (calling attention to heart disease) in the UK, at least this year: it falls on June 9. Instead, it really is The Day of Remembrance for Victims of Khojaly massacre in Azerbaijan.

On this day in 1616, Galileo was banned by the Catholic Church from teaching or promulgating the idea that the Earth goes around the Sun. (Nothing to do with religion, of course!) In 1815, Napoleon escaped from Elba, and, on this day in 1919, Grand Canyon National Park was established by order of President Woodrow Wilson. Exactly ten years later, Calvin Coolidge established the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. On February 26, 1980, Egypt and Israel established diplomatic relations, and, in 1993, the first World Trade Center bombing took place, killing six and injuring over a thousand people.

Notables born on this day include Victor Hugo (1802), Levi Strauss (1829, we probably would not have jeans without him), Buffalo Bill (1846), John Kellogg (1852, we probably would not have cornflakes without him), Jackie Gleason (1916), Theodore Sturgeon (1919), Fats Domino (1926), and Johnny Cash (1932). Those who died on this day include jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge (1989).

Here’s a great jam session featuring not only Eldridge, but the great saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.  This was in 1958, and most of these guys had seen better days, but they’re still great, and such video footage is rare. Hawk comes in at 3:50, and Eldridge at 7:50. There are many other legends here, including Cozy Cole and Johnny Johnny Guarnieri. You can hear one of my favorite Eldridge solos, “Rocking Chair,” here.

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili has curled herself into a ball. There is virtually no position a cat can’t sleep in!:

A: Are you here again?
Hili: Yes, I’m inscribing myself into a wheel of history.
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In Polish:
Ja: Znowu tu jesteś?
Hili: Tak, wpisuję się w koło historii.
And we have three bonus photos of Hili from Sarah Lawson:
Hili supervising the production of the website Listy:
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Hili staring at Cyrus:
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. . . and Hili chilling on the bed:
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Trump won’t attend White House correspondents’ dinner

From my CNN news feed:

President Donald Trump announced on Twitter on Saturday that he will not attend this year’s White House correspondents’ Dinner.

“I will not be attending the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner this year,” the President tweeted. “Please wish everyone well and have a great evening!”

Here’s the damn tweet:

There’s no more information than this. I can’t recall any other President skipping this dinner, which of course is a lighthearted but sarcastic affair, with comedians and others taking the podium to make fun of the President.

Trump, of course, is a narcissist, and narcissists can’t take criticism, especially when they’re sitting there having to listen to it. And this expresses further disdain for the press, which I find reprehensible in a democracy.

Stay classy, Donald!

Tigers versus drone: no contest!

Here’s a bunch of Siberian tigers (Panthera tigris altaica: there’s only one species of tiger; all the named versions are subspecies) in a Chinese “tiger park” being photographed by a drone. Although they’re largely fat and out of shape, they take the gadget down handily in the last bit of the video.

I wish they didn’t fence in these magnificent beasts, which have large territories in the wild. Perhaps they’d go extinct without this kind of captivity, but sometimes I think that would be the best alternative if they or their descendants can never be put back in the wild.

Here’s the snake!

I’ve circled the snake from today’s earlier “spot the ____” puzzle, and enlarged it. Did you find it? Do you know the species?

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Good news: U.S.’s biggest retailer of Christian books and merchandise closed after bankruptcy

Reader Alexander sent a link to an article in Publisher’s Weekly (PW), which Wikipedia describes as “an American weekly trade news magazine targeted at publishers, librarians, booksellers and literary agents. Published continuously since 1872, it has carried the tagline, “The International News Magazine of Book Publishing and Bookselling”. With 51 issues a year, the emphasis today is on book reviews.”

The report on that site is about the retail chain Family Christian Stores, formerly America’s largest chain of stores purveying Christian merchandise (books, jewelry, movies, geegaws and the like) I say “formerly” because the chain is closing. (You can read the CEO’s official announcement here, signed “In His Service”.) After declaring bankruptcy in 2015, the chain is shutting down: lock, stock, and barrel. And it’s no small chain, either, as it has 240 stores in 36 states. As PW reports:

Family Christian Stores, the largest retailer of Christian books and merchandise in the country, is closing all of its outlets. The chain, which went through a bankruptcy proceeding in 2015, cited changing consumer behavior and declining sales when it announced its decision to shutter on Thursday. FCS operates 240 stores in 36 states.

According to various sources, a board meeting was held at FCS’s Grand Rapids, Mich., headquarters on Wednesday afternoon to determine whether the beleaguered retailer would close or finance another year. To continue, sources said, board members said that they needed to see a path to profitability by 2018.

. . . “We prepared for this,” said Jonathan Merkh, v-p and publisher at Howard Books. The planning, though, doesn’t take away the sting. “Financially, it may not affect the industry in the short run, but it will in the long run. There are 240 less stores selling books.”

Mark D. Taylor, chairman and CEO of Tyndale House Publishers, told PW that it will be hard to lose a company which has been a cornerstone of the segment for so long. “The entire Christian community—indeed the entire nation—will be poorer as a result of this pending closure,” he said.

The Christian community may be the poorer, but I think the nation will be the richer, for this not on facilitates the secularization of the U.S., but is a strong sign of that secularization. People just don’t want to buy Christian stuff any more, and that coincides with the rise of the “nones”: those Americans who don’t identify with an established church. While people like Rodney Stark keep claiming that Christianity is doing better than ever, they’re like the captain of a ship proclaiming how sound the vessel is as it’s going down

By the way, here’s PW’s list of subject editors. It’s supposed to deal with the entire publishing industry, but notice that there are three religion editors and no science editors! We still have a way to go.

SENIOR NEWS EDITOR
Calvin Reid

ASSISTANT NEWS EDITOR
John Maher

CHILDREN’S BOOKS
Diane Roback, Children’s Book Editor
John A. Sellers, Children’s Reviews Editor
Emma Kantor, Associate Editor
Matia Burnett, Assistant Editor

Please contact Matia Burnett for queries concerning review submissions of children’s books.

FEATURES EDITOR
Carolyn Juris

RELIGION
Seth Satterlee, Religion Reviews Editor
Emma Koonse
Lynn Garrett

DEPUTY REVIEWS EDITOR
Gabe Habash

SENIOR REVIEWS EDITORS
Peter Cannon
Rose Fox

REVIEWS EDITORS
Alex Crowley
Annie Coreno
Everett Jones

BOOKLIFE EDITOR
Adam Boretz

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This is an ex store. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. it’s kicked the bucket, shuffled off the mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible!!

New National Security advisor rejects connection between Islam and terrorism

On February 13, Michael Flynn resigned as Trump’s National Security Advisor, and he’s now been replaced by H. R. (Herbert Raymond) McMaster. Nobody can argue that McMaster is not qualified, what with his extensive experience in the military and as a security specialist in the Middle East. Even Slate approves of him, calling him “the Army’s smartest officer,” though noting that McMaster has little experience in Washington and, as a renegade of sorts (i.e., he doesn’t favor torture), he may not have free reign to diverge from Trump’s plans.

As yesterday’s New York Times reports, McMaster also differs from Trump on the issue of “Islamic terrorism,” taking the apologists’ view that groups like ISIS, or those who practice terrorism in the name of faith, are “perverting Islam”:

President Trump’s newly appointed national security adviser has told his staff that Muslims who commit terrorist acts are perverting their religion, rejecting a key ideological view of other senior Trump advisers and signaling a potentially more moderate approach to the Islamic world.

The adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, told the staff of the National Security Council on Thursday, in his first “all hands” staff meeting, that the label “radical Islamic terrorism” was not helpful because terrorists are “un-Islamic,” according to people who were in the meeting.

That is a repudiation of the language regularly used by both the president and General McMaster’s predecessor, Michael T. Flynn, who resigned last week after admitting that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about a phone call with a Russian diplomat.

It is also a sign that General McMaster, a veteran of the Iraq war known for his sense of history and independent streak, might move the council away from the ideologically charged views of Mr. Flynn, who was also a three-star Army general before retiring.

Well, we know why previous administrations have rejected the connection between Islam and terrorism, despite groups like ISIS explicitly drawing that connection—groups that certainly wouldn’t consider themselves as un-Islamic. One reason is simply to privilege religion in general and Islam in particular: it’s a rule of American government that religion of any sort must not be criticized. Further, some Islamic states give us oil or let us use their land for military bases, and presumably would be angered if Islam were dissed in any way. The Times gives a third reason, one connected to the second:

In his language, General McMaster is closer to the positions of former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Both took pains to separate acts of terrorism from Islamic teaching, in part because they argued that the United States needed the help of Muslim allies to hunt down terrorists.

“This is very much a repudiation of his new boss’s lexicon and worldview,” said William McCants, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “The ISIS Apocalypse.”

I have to say that on this one issue, I think that Trump is closer to the truth than is McMaster, at least acknowledging a connection between Islam and terrorism, even though people like McMaster and Obama were, as we all knew, playing a semantic game. (I’m not, by the way, endorsing the totality of Trump’s views on Muslims or Islam!) But it still puzzles me that even Shia Islamic states like Iraq, who are constantly under religiously-based attack by Sunni Muslims, must also play the game, pretending that religion has nothing to do with these internecine battles. (The possibility that they’d be angered by invoking Islam is what, the Times says, has kept the issue euphemistic.)

In the end, the failure to acknowledge the religious roots of hatred and terrorism will impede a solution. Why, for example, should we turn to moderate or ex-Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Maajid Nawaz as a strategy for to de-fanging extremist Islamism if the problems have nothing to do with Islam? A whole group of strategies becomes off-limits if you rule out a priori that religion plays some rule in terrorism.

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(From the NYT): President Trump appointed Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, left, as national security adviser on Monday. Credit Al Drago/The New York Times

h/t: Eli

Caturday felid trifecta: Cinnamon, an elderly cat; a guide to cats at the Milwaukee Art Museum; and a “nurse cat” from Poland

We have another three felid-related items today; the first is the 6-minute story of an elderly cat who, after losing her owners and then being abused, found a forever home—even if she won’t last that long. It was sent by reader Diane G., who wrote the following:

I have a strange feeling I should be cynical about this, but I don’t know why…Meanwhile, taken at face value it’s simultaneously the most heartbreaking and, ultimately, uplifting vid I’ve seen in a long time.

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If you’re like me, when you’re in an art museum you eventually ask, “Where are the cat paintings/statues/icons?” Well, the Milwaukee Art Museum anticipated the needs of ailurophiles, and prepared  “A comprehensive guide to finding cats at the Milwaukee Art Museum.” Every Museum, especially big one like the Louvre, needs one of these. It shows what cat stuff is on display and where it is. Here are five paintings, with captions showing what they are:

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Mihaly Munkacsy’s “The Rivals (Little Kittens)”

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Two sculptures

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“Tea Service,” a 1756 painting by Charles-Eloi Asselin

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Drossos P. Skyllas’ 1955 oil painting “Young Girl With A Cat”

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Jean-Leon Gerome’s 1883 painting, “The Two Majesties,”

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From Bored Panda we have the story of a “nurse cat”. It’s hard to believe that this cat is doing this, but Malgorzata and Andrzej tells me that the cat is famous in Poland:

Radamenes, an angelic little black cat in Bydgoszcz, Poland, has come through hell and high water to help the animals at the veterinary center there get better. After the veterinary center brought him back from death’s door, he’s returning the favor by cuddling with, massaging and sometimes even cleaning other animals convalescing from their wounds and operations.

Radamenes has become a local attraction, and people have begun visiting him at the center for good luck!

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He even helps d*gs!

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The people at the office call him a “full time nurse”. What say you—is this cat really dispensing empathy to sick animals?

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h/t: Gregory, Diane G., Alexandra M.

Today’s Google Doodle: The Bravest Woman in America

Today’s Google Doodle celebrates someone I’d never heard of, but should have: Ida Lewis (1842-1911). She tended the Lime Rock Lighthouse off Newport Rhode Island, and saved many lives, winning her the monicker of “the bravest woman in America.”

The Doodle (click on screenshot below to see it) gives ten scenes from her life, which you can see by clicking on the arrows to advance the pictures:

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Here’s a bit of her biography from Wikipedia:

Ida Lewis was born in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest of four children of Captain Hosea Lewis of the Revenue Cutter Service. Her father was transferred to the Lighthouse Service and appointed keeper of Lime Rock Light on Lime Rock in Newport in 1854, taking his family to live on the rock in 1857. When he had been at Lime Rock for less than four months, he had a stroke and became disabled. Ida expanded her domestic duties to include caring for him and a seriously ill sister and also, with her mother’s assistance, tending the light: filling the lamp with oil at sundown and again at midnight, trimming the wick, polishing carbon off the reflectors, and extinguishing the light at dawn.

Since Lime Rock was completely surrounded by water, the only way to reach the mainland was by boat. By the age of 15 Ida had become known as the best swimmer in Newport. She rowed her younger siblings to school every weekday and fetched supplies from town as they were needed. She became very skillful at handling the heavy rowboat. Responding to criticism that it was unladylike for women to row boats, Ida said that “None – but a donkey, would consider it “un-feminine”, to save lives.”

Ida and her mother tended the Lime Rock Light for her father from 1857 until 1873, when he died. Her mother was then appointed keeper, although Ida continued to do the keeper’s work. By 1877, her mother’s health was failing, leaving Ida with increased housekeeping and care-giving responsibilities. Her mother eventually died of cancer in 1878. Ida finally received the official appointment as keeper in 1879, largely through the efforts of an admirer, General Ambrose Everett Burnside, a Civil War hero who became a Rhode Island governor and United States senator. With a salary of $750 per year, Ida was for a time the highest-paid lighthouse keeper in the nation. The extra pay was given “in consideration of the remarkable services of Mrs. Wilson in the saving of lives”.

Lewis made her first rescue in 1854, coming to the assistance of four men whose boat had capsized. She was 12 years old.

Her most famous rescue occurred on March 29, 1869. Two soldiers, Sgt. James Adams and Pvt. John McLaughlin, were passing through Newport Harbor toward Fort Adams in a small boat, guided by a 14-year-old boy who claimed to know his way through the harbor. A snowstorm was churning the harbor’s waters, and the boat overturned. The two soldiers clung to it, while the boy was lost in the icy water. Ida’s mother saw the two in the water and called to Ida, who was suffering from a cold. Ida ran to her boat without taking the time to put on a coat or shoes. With the help of her younger brother, she was able to haul the two men into her boat and bring them to the lighthouse. One of them later gave a gold watch to Ida, and for her heroism she became the first woman to receive a gold Congressional medal for lifesaving. The soldiers at Fort Adams showed their appreciation by collecting $218 for her.

Because of her many rescues, Ida Lewis became the best-known lighthouse keeper of her day. During her 54 years on Lime Rock, she is credited with saving 18 lives, although unofficial reports suggest the number may have been as high as 36. She kept no records of her lifesaving exploits. Ida’s fame spread quickly after an 1869 rescue, as a reporter was sent from the New York Tribune to record her deeds. Articles also appeared in Harper’s Weekly and, Leslie’s magazine, among others. The Life Saving Benevolent Association, of New York, sent her a silver medal. A parade was held in her honor, in Newport, on Independence Day, followed by the presentation of a sleek, mahogany rowboat with red velvet cushions, gold braid around the gunwales, and gold-plated oar-locks. When she was 64, Ida became a life beneficiary of the Carnegie Hero Fund, receiving a monthly pension of $30.

Here’s Ida:

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And here’s the lighthouse. The house was 13 feet tall, and the light was 40 feet above the water, but rested on a small island:

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