Spot the mantis!

Reader Mark Sturtevant has another “spot the. . ” picture. Click the photo to enlarge, and I’ll reveal the answer at 11 a.m. Chicago time. (I’d classify this one as “hard”.) As always, try not to give it away in the comments below, though you can say whether you spotted it.

Mark’s notes:

This summer has been a summer full of photographic adventures, and it included a multitude of mantises, which is great because there is nothing in the insect world like a preying mantis. The lady hiding in this scene was a big one, perhaps the largest of this species that I have come across. I will let the readers identify her, and that will not be hard once she is spotted.

She stayed with me for about a week, and I have plenty of candid shots to show of her later. Some of those are gruesome since she was always hungry. In any case, here I have released her again near where I found her. Can the sharp-eyed readers of WEIT find her? She is lurking in there somewhere, and woe to any grasshopper or katydid that gets in her line of sight!


Readers’ wildlife photos (and videos)

Reader Lou Jost has some spectacular photos and videos from a recent foray into the rain forest. There will be several parts of this trip spread over the next week. Lou’s notes are indented:

Tambopata Research Center Part 1: Clay licks


Scarlet and Red-and-green Macaws on Rio Tambopata Clay Lick

Scarlet and Red-and-green Macaws on Rio Tambopata Clay Lick

I’ve just come back from a visit to a remote part of the Peruvian Amazon, which humans have not yet messed up too badly (though they are trying hard). Big animals and birds that are rare and shy near humans are abundant and unafraid here.

The best places to find these animals are the clay licks along certain rivers. Large numbers of parrots, macaws, and some herbivorous mammals visit these exposed banks of soil every day. Researchers speculate that they come either for sodium or because the clay neutralizes toxic substances in the plants they eat.

Blue-headed and Orange-cheeked Parrots

Blue-headed and Orange-cheeked Parrots

About 12 species of psittacids (parrots, macaws, parakeets, and parrotlets) come to these clay banks. The ones we saw most often were Blue-headed Parrots (Pionus menstruus), Mealy Amazons (Amazona farinosa), Orange-cheeked Parrots (Pyrilia barrabandi), Scarlet Macaws (Ara macao), Blue-and-yellow Macaws (Ara ararauna), and the very large-headed Red-and-green Macaws (Ara chloroptera), known locally as “Cabezon” (“Big Head”). The Red-and-green Macaws were a special treat to see in such numbers. Back in 1990 I sometimes saw them at Rio Napo clay licks in Amazonian Ecuador, but they had disappeared there by 1995.They seem especially vulnerable to human encroachment.
Blue-and-yellow Macaws

Blue-and-yellow Macaws


Friday: Hili dialogue

It’s September 23, 2016, a Friday, and National White Chocolate Day, a useless comestible that perhaps finds its best instantiation in white chocolate macadamia nut cookies. On this day in 1642 occurred the first commencement at Harvard University, now ranked the best university in the world (suck it up, Oggsford–you’re #10!).  On this day in 1980, Bob Marley played his last concert, in Pittsburgh. He died of melanoma the next year at the age of 36.

Notables born on this day include Walter Lippmann (1889), Mickey Rooney (1920), and Bruce Springsteen (1949, just a tad older than I am). Those who died on this day include Wilkie Collins (1889), Sigmund Freud (1939, jaw cancer from too many cigars), Pablo Neruda (1973), and limnologist Ruth Patrick (2013). Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili has a bit of an enigmatic dialogue, lying as she is on the kitchen floor. I asked Malgorzata for an explanation and got this:

People are praying for peace, people are fasting to please God so he would give the world peace. Hili decided to add her own effort; but the impact of Hili’s fasting on the world’s peace is absolutely equal to the effort of millions praying people, including the Pope and all possible clerics. So, why not? One of our readers already asked Hili how many minutes she intends to fast for.
A: What are you doing here?
Hili: I’m fasting for peace.
In Polish:
Ja: Co tu robisz?
Hili: Poszczę dla pokoju.
As lagniappe, we have the lovely Blue Jay of Happiness (Cyanocitta cristata), sent from Montreal by Anne-Marie Cournoyer. Look at the lovely pattern!

Texas blind salamander has optic nerves but no real eyes

This is the kind of post I originally intended to go on this site. When I started this website, I thought that every few weeks I’d publish a bit of new (or old) evidence for evolution, supporting Why Evolution Is True, which was a new book in 2009. Well, as you see, things kind of got out of hand. . .

But here is some information and links imparted by reader Charleen about the famous Texas blind salamanderEurycea rathbuni. As you might suspect from its name, it lives in dark underground abysses, caves, and artisian wells, and has retained into adulthood its juvenile gills. It’s also lost pigmentation, as is the case for many cave-dwellers. Finally, it’s endangered, its distribution limited to the Balcones Escarpment near San Marcos, Hays County, Texas You can find this animal only in the green area below; it’s been listed as endangered since 1967. As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) notes:

The Texas blind salamander has been listed as endangered since 1967. It remains vulnerable, says San Marcos ARC director, Dr. Ken Ostrand. “They are impossible for scientists to sample underground, so we collect them in nets when they pop out in wells and springs, young ones, too small to fight currents,” said Ostrand. The young go into captivity at San Marcos ARC where they are held in refugia as a guard against potential harm that could come in the wild. Ostrand says their habitats, which he describes as a ‘limestone honey-combed sponge,’ are quick to recharge with surface precipitation, which could be accidentally laden with unwanted chemicals or spills. Preserving Texas blind salamanders in captivity is a security measure.


Here’s what they looks like:



Behold it in its habitat; the first salamander shows up at 3:44. What weird creatures they are!

The USFWS has just put out an information sheet about the species, first discovered in the 1890s, giving notes about its morphology, behavior, and adding that 135 of these beasts are being kept at the San Marcos Aquatic Resources Center.

What’s relevant for our purposes is the salamander’s vestigial eyes, which appear to be small black dots of pigment below the skin, accompanied by a vestigial optic nerve that doesn’t appear to carry any impulses to the brain. As the USFWS notes:

Recent research on the salamander has yielded other useful information. San Marcos ARC scientists collaborated with Texas State University faculty on a study of eye development in the Texas blind salamander and two other salamander species that live in the Guadalupe watershed: the San Marcos salamander and Barton Springs salamander, both of which are sighted animals that live near sunlight.  Both are held in refugium at the ARC as well.

The research revealed that the blind salamanders retained a vestigial optic nerve with no eyes while the other species had well-developed eyes with structures for focus and variable light adaptation. The findings will be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, and have already yielded a master’s thesis.

It’s hard to imagine anything but evolution that would explain the presence of these vestigial eyes and nerves. Here are three photos I found of the pigment-spot “eyes,” which, like many vestigial traits, vary in their degree of development (e.g., human wisdom teeth and ear muscles).




The last one has no visible eyespots at all.  Now I could write some more about eye loss and how it gives evidence for evolution, but I’ll ask you, the readers, to answer two questions:

  1. If you were a creationist trying to show that the vestigial eyes were not evidence for evolution, what would you say? I can think of at least three responses.
  2. Assuming, as is certainly the case, that the eyes have become vestigial via evolutionary processes, how do you think it happened? We don’t know for sure, of course, but I can think of at least three ways.

Put your answers below; there is no prize save the joy of thinking.

Straight talk about Islam in the Los Angeles Times

You don’t often see an op-ed on Islam this straightforward, especially in a major newspaper like the L.A. Times. So the September 9 op-ed by Shadi Hamid, “From burkinis to the Koran: Why Islam isn’t like other faiths,” is refreshingly candid—albeit worrisome. The refreshing bit is that it doesn’t pull any punches about the nature of Islam. The worrisome bit is also that it doesn’t pull any punches about the nature of Islam.

Hamid is described by the Times as “a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World.”  Because the Brookings Institution, a think tank, is on the liberal side, this makes the editorial especially compelling.

At any rate, Hami singles out two aspects of Islam that, he says, make it qualitatively different from other religions. We’re familiar with both of these, but it’s unusual to see them expressed so openly and their implications for acculturation of Muslims into Western societies made so plain.

The first is the literalism of the Qur’an, still widely accepted among Muslims:

Contrary to what many think, there is no Christian equivalent to Koranic “inerrancy,” even among far-right evangelicals. Muslims believe the Koran is not only God’s word, but God’s actual speech — in other words, every single letter and word in the Koran comes directly from God. This seemingly semantic difference has profound implications. If the Koran is God’s speech, and God is unchanging and perfect, then so is his speech. To question the divine origin of the Koran, then, is to question God himself, and God is not easily put in a box, well away from the public sphere.

This fundamentalism is worrisome, as it seems, at least now, recalcitrant to change. If you’ve read Ayaan Hirsi’s latest book Heretic, you’ll see that among the five solutions she requires for a “reformation” of Islam is the abandonment of Qur’anic literalism. Yet for now this is a futile request given the ubiquity of such literalism, shown in the chart below from the 2012 Pew Survey of the World’s Muslims (survey involved Muslim-majority countries, and didn’t include some like Yemen and Iran):


And many believe there’s only a single way to interpret God’s word:


How much better is it in the U.S? Well 50% of American Muslims are still Qur’anic literalists, and 90% believe in angels (a higher proportion of Christians, which I think is about 65%).


The second brute fact about Islam emphasized by Hamid is its fusion of religious dictates with civil governance:

Differences between Christianity and Islam also are evident in each faith’s central figure. Unlike Jesus, who was a dissident, Muhammad was both prophet and politician. And more than just any politician, he was a state-builder as well as a head of state. Not only were the religious and political functions intertwined in the person of Muhammad, they were meant to be intertwined. To argue for the separation of religion from politics, then, is to argue against the model of the very man Muslims most admire and seek to emulate.

Ergo the large proportion of Muslims who feel that sharia law should be the law of the land (I don’t have data for the U.S. or U.K.):


Hamid only makes one error, I think: when he insists that the hijab is worn largely as a matter of choice, even in places where it’s clearly not:

If you’re a Muslim woman who wears the hijab — covering the hair and most of the body — you can’t wear just any swimsuit. Some women, of course, are pressured or even legally mandated to wear the hijab (as in Saudi Arabia and Iran), but most choose to do so; it’s about their personal relationship with God.

. . .The hijab, by contrast, is ubiquitous in Muslim communities, and in some Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Jordan, the majority of Muslim women cover their hair. Again, this is often a conscious choice: Many Muslims take their religion so seriously that they want to observe seemingly restrictive and pre-modern dress codes. This is the case even in Turkey, where millions of women cover their hair despite decades of secular government and forced unveiling in state institutions.

I think Hamid needs to take a more expansive view of “choice” here, especially given the pressure that Muslim women are under, even in places like Turkey, to conform to the standards of their peers and family by covering their hair. The question of choice boils down to this: if wearing the hijab is a “conscious choice,” not compelled by social pressure, then no opprobrium will fall upon those who choose not to wear it.”  Take a look via Google Image of “women, Cairo, 1970”, and then again using 2015 as the date. You will be enlightened.

To his great credit, though, Hamid doesn’t soft-pedal these results as most American journalists would. His interpretations don’t bode well for the full assimilation of Muslims into Western democratic states:

I realize that some of my fellow American Muslims will view such arguments as inconvenient, portraying Islam in a not-so-positive light. But it is not my job to make Islam look good, and it helps no one to maintain fictions that make us feel better but don’t truly reflect the power and relevance of religion.

In the West, the common response to the challenge of theological diversity has been banal statements of religious “universality.” All too often, interfaith dialogue, however well-intentioned, is about papering over what makes us — or at least our beliefs — different. It is a tenet of our American faith that we’re all basically the same and ultimately want the same things. This is true in some ways, but not in every way.

The crisis of culture and identity — one that sees the rise of the far-right and white nativism in our own country — makes it clear that our differences and divides are real. We would all be better off acknowledging — and addressing — those differences rather than pretending they don’t exist.

I think that some of our politicians, especially Democrats, need to recognize this. The Republicans already do, but unfortunately combine it with calls for banning immigration and for the demonization of Muslims as a whole. But it won’t help matters by hiding our heads in the sand.

Here’s a 70-minute dialogue between Hamid and Leon Wieseltier. I haven’t listened to all of it yet, but it seems to be an explication of his book’s thesis, and that book sounds well worth reading, and not at all to the liking of people like Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald. (Note that Wieseltier is wearing his signature cowboy boots, made by Pablo Jass of Lampasas, Texas.)


Conspiracy theories among Trump-ites

When Grania sent me this tw**t this morning, I thought for sure the guy’s statements were a joke:

Well, never underestimate the credulousness of those who support Trump. Even I couldn’t believe some of the stuff you’re about to hear:

Here’s Jordan Klepper from yesterday’s Daily Show interviewing some attendees at a Trump rally, including the guy in the tw**t above. Their ignorance and willingness to believe conspiracy theories is unbelievable, but remember: half of Americans are dumber than average.  (I must admit that I have some worries about Hillary Clinton’s health, but not enough to prevent me from voting for her.) At least I know why Barack Obama wasn’t in the Oval Office on 9/11!

I’ll be in Hong Kong on Election Day, but have already ordered my absentee ballot.

h/t: Grania

Matthew visits Newton’s house

Matthew emailed me that he was lecturing at Isaac Newton’s house today, and would send a picture of the apple tree that supposedly inspired the theory of gravity. I responded that I thought the story was apocryphal, and here was Matthew’s response (along with two photos):

“Yes, the tree. And here’s the window the light came through that he split with a prism.”


I’ve never seen Matthew this dressed up!


UPDATE: How do we know that this is the window? Matthew says that the distances given in Newton’s own drawing of the experiment match that of his bedroom above. Here’s the drawing, which is included in Patricia Fara’s Roy. Soc. paper on Newton’s experiment:


Newton’s House, Woolsthorpe Manor (pictured below), is in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, near Grantham, Lincolnshire, England. This is where Newton was born and then, when Cambridge University closed in 1666 due to the plague, Newton repaired home. And it was here that he did many of his famous experiments, including the splitting of light with a prism. I still think the apple-falling incident is apocryphal, but readers are welcome to weigh in.



Readers’ wildlife photographs

Today we have some snaps by reader Susan Heller, as well as some d*g pictures proffered after popular demand. Susan’s notes are indented:

Here are a couple of photos from the Best Coast; doing a little local natural history. We finally got some RAIN for the first time in months.

Beach at Torrey Pines State Reserve north of San Diego on a rare rainy day:


Fighting Willets (Tringa semipalmata) on the beach (one has the other’s leg in its beak!)


Lovely Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa):


Marbled Godwit digging for lunch:


They can really get that beak deep into the sand!


All that hard work deserves a good stretch.


And yesterday reader Eli, in the Readers’ Wildlife Photography comments section, made this plea:

As always, gorgeous pictures. Thanks. But, um, at the risk of d*g shaming, could we have a picture of Deets, soon? I love Hili and all the other cats but I adore d*gs, too, and especially border collies and especially Deets.

Well, here at WEIT we aim to please, so, even though it’s a d*g, it’s also an honorary cat, and here are two photos of Deets furnished by Stephen Barnard in response to Eli’s request:

1. Deets is being chased by a moose.


2. Deets excited and pleased to help me release some pheasants.


Thursday: Hili dialogue

It’s September 22, the autumnal equinox in the northern hemisphere, and thus the first day of fall. If you live on the bottom part of the world, it’s the vernal equinox and the first day of spring. It’s also the 265th day of the year, which means we have only 100 days to go until 2017 is here.  And, in the U.S., it’s National Ice Cream Cone Day.

On this day in 1776, Nathan Hale was hanged by the British for spying for the Continental Army. On Sept. 22, 1823, Joseph Smith claimed that he first found the golden plates pointed out by the angel Moroni; those plates were, of course, duplicitously “translated” into the Book of Mormon. And, on this day in 1980, Iraq invaded Iran at the beginning of a long and bloody war. It was, of course, due to Western colonialism.

Notables born on this day include Michael Faraday (1791) and Joan Jett (1958). Those who died on this day include, besides Nathan Hale, Irving Berlin (1989), Dorothy Lamour (1996), George C. “Patton” Scott (1999), and Yogi Berra (2015). In remembrance of Scott, here’s his mesmerizing opening speech in “Patton” (note: don’t bother going on about militarism). The movie won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1971, and Scott nabbed Best Actor Oscar, but he declined it. It truly is one of the best biographical performances on film.

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, there’s a bad drought, but Hili just chuckles at the useless umbrellas sitting on the porch:

Hili: Nothing makes me laugh like an umbrella.
A: Why?
Hili: I don’t know, maybe because of this fierce drought.

In Polish:
Hili: Nic mnie tak nie śmieszy jak parasol.
Ja: Dlaczego?
Hili: Nie wiem, może z powodu tej wściekłej suszy.
Ssshhhhhh. . . . Gus is sleeping on the unmade bed, saving his staff the trouble of making it:

The FBI and terrorism: a satire

This clip was produced by a group of Israelis who did satirical cabaret, making fun of sacred cows. (The language is Hebrew with English subtitles.) The cow in this short video is the FBI’s attitudes toward Islamic terrorism; the Boston FBI locale and Chechen perpetrators make clear that this is about the Boston Marathon bombing. (The video was also made in 2013).

This film, in fact, couldn’t be shown on Israeli television, which by and large is so Regressive Leftist that it wouldn’t countenance this kind of satire. But it’s funny, and certainly has a grain of truth. Malgorzata found it and put the subtitles in Polish, which you can see, if you wish, by pressing the cc button.