Pupa in Trinidad mimics snake (and moves!)

This piece, from nerdist. com, describes one of the more amazing cases of mimicry I’ve seen. Look at the picture below, and see what you think it is:


It’s not a snake, despite the very snake-y appearance of the thing. It has eyes (fake), the eyes even have a “glint” in them (fake), it has a fake mouth, and even fake “scales”.

It’s from Trinidad, and it’s one of the life stages of a lepidopteran. In fact, it’s the pupal case of the Daring-Owl butterfly Dynastor darius darius, a subspecies from Trinidad (the species D. darius is found in Central and South America).

Here’s a picture of an adult of another subspecies, D. darius stygianus:

Dynastor_darius_062705_COSTA_RICA_HEREDIA_PROV._La_Selva_Biological_Station_Sarapiqui_27-VI-2005_Yahaira_Rojas_Duran_3And the caterpillar of D. darius darius, which is weird looking but not nearly as weird as the pupa:


It’s when this caterpillar becomes a pupa that it turns into a snake mimic, and the mimicry, as you can see above, is amazing. Here are a few more photos:



This is what the predator would see. Look at those eyes!


Now remember that the pupa is stuck in one place, which raises the question of why it mimics a snake. After all, a potential predator (likely a bird) inspecting the pupa might discover that it can’t move, and then nom it. But, as the article notes, the selective advantage of mimicking a snake doesn’t require movement or the ability to escape a predator once you’ve been spotted. The predator, seeing what looks like a snake, could simply flee without closer inspection.

But there’s more, for the pupa apparently can move—violently—when disturbed. A 1978 paper in Psyche by Annette Aiello and Bob Silberglied reports this in a few tantalizing words:

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I’d really like more information on how a pupa can “wave violently back and forth”, how it detects the predator, and what the movement is like. I believe the authors’ claim, for I knew both of them at Harvard, and they were scrupulous researchers (tragically, Bob was one of the victims of the 1980 crash of an Air Florida plane in Washington, D. C.). A mimetic and moving pupa like this is a remarkable product of natural selection.
There’s one more issue: the nerdist article notes this:
For 13 days, D. darius destroys and reforms itself inside what looks like the head of a Gaboon pit viper (though the snakes aren’t native to Trinidad).
And indeed, it does look like a Gaboon pit viper (Bitis gabonica):
The problem is that this snake is found only in west central Africa, and it’s unlikely that the pupa, found in the Americas, is mimicking it. For such mimicy to work, a potential predator must have had some kind of experience (either direct or through genes inherited from its ancestors) with the viper, which can’t be true in this case. The prediction, then, is that there must be some venomous snake in the range of D. darius that looks like the pupa, endowing a selective advantage to mimicry.  I’m not a herpetologist, but I know some of you out there will be able to pinpoint the potential “model.”
Credits: Pictures of Dynastor darius pupae from Andreas Kay; that of the Dyanstor daruis caterpillar from deviantArt//LuciRamms

h/t: Audrey

My Slate article on the dangers of faith healing

I’ve been meaning to write this piece for Slate for a while, but couldn’t get to it because of The Albatross. As it turns out, the piece, about the unconscionable exemptions from prosecution given to religious people when they injure their children by using faith “healing” instead of western medicine, deals with themes in the last chapter of FvF.

This is one of the more palpable dangers of faith, since it’s resulted in the deaths of hundreds (probably thousands) of children—not to mention adults.  And, as I’ve said before, it’s not just these benighted parents who are at fault, for the initial laws mandating religious exemptions were set up by the U.S. government in 1974 (it was a condition for states receiving money for child protection), so this is on us. It’s our responsibility to rescind these murderous laws. As CHILD (Children’s Healthcare is a Legal Duty, a wonderful organization that lobbies against religious exemptions from medical care and vaccination) notes:

In response to Christian Science church lobbying, the federal government began requiring states to enact religious exemptions from child abuse and neglect charges in 1974. CHILD founders Rita and Douglas Swan lobbied for several years against this regulation. The federal government rescinded it in 1983.

In 1996, however, Congress enacted a law stating that the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) did not include “a Federal requirement that a parent or guardian provide a child any medical service or treatment against the religious beliefs of the parent or guardian.” 42 USC 5106i Furthermore, Sen. Dan Coats, R-Indiana, and Congressman Bill Goodling, R-Pennsylvania, claimed during floor discussion that parents have a First Amendment right to withhold medical care from children.

The exemptions also hold for vaccinations: 48 of the 50 U.S. states allow parents to let their children go unvaccinated for religious reasons. That’s a danger not just to the children, but to society at large.

Further, judges and juries tend to let off parents lightly because of respect for “faith” (you don’t get this kind of pass if you withhold medical care for nonreligious reasons), so there too more moderate believers are to blame. In FvF I tell the story of Ashley King, the 12-year-old daughter of Christian Scientists in Phoenix (a middle-class family), who died a horrible death from bone cancer because her parents refused to get her treatment. She died in agony after ineffectual prayers. (Had she been taken to a doctor early on, they estimate a 60% chance she could have been cured.) Ashley’s parents were let off with unsupervised probation.

Severe punishment for killing one’s children through faith healing is needed as a deterrent, because parents who get off lightly often allow subsequent children to die untreated. Remember, too, that “alternative medicine”, like homeopathy, is also a form of faith-healing, although (except for indigenous peoples in Canada), that’s doesn’t confer exemptions on parents who use it on their kids.

The rest of the information is in my new piece on Slate, “Faith healing kills children.” I feel strongly about this issue, as these deaths are totally preventable, so please share the information.

Also, don’t forget that although adults are allowed to refuse medical care because they’re presumed to be able to make “mature” decisions, many of these adults were inculcated in the faith when they were young, and so are forced into faith-healing because of early environmental influences.

I’ve looked only briefly at the comments on the Slate piece, but you might be amused or horrified at some people’s attacks on what is a very reasonable point. Some folks apparently want religious parents to be able to substitute prayer for medical care of their sick children. Their arguments are stunningly inane.

NPR sort-of disses euthanasia

The National Public Radio (NPR) “Health” site has a sad article about a young mother in California terminally ill with scleroderma, and near the end of her life.  It’s going to be a pretty grim death as her lungs first give out, and then her heart.  But the mother, Stephanie Packer, is religious, and has decided against assisted dying because only God has the right to end someone’s life. As the article notes,

 She and husband Brian, 36, are devout Catholics. They agree with their church that doctors should never hasten death.

“We’re a faith-based family,” he says. “God put us here on earth and only God can take us away. And he has a master plan for us, and if suffering is part of that plan, which it seems to be, then so be it.”

That is her choice, though if you’re an unbeliever you’re relieved of the burden of “letting God decide,” and can die when you so choose. But Packer goes further, criticizing a new California bill that allows terminal patients to receive “end of life” medications.

They also believe if California legislation called SB 128 passes, it would create the potential for abuse. Pressure to end one’s life, they fear, could become a dangerous norm, especially in a world defined by high-cost medical care.

Instead of fatal medication, Stephanie says she hopes other terminally ill people consider existing palliative medicine and hospice care.

“Death can be beautiful and peaceful,” she says. “It’s a natural process that should be allowed to happen on its own.” Even, she says, when it poses uncomfortable challenges.

Sadly, as any doctor knows, death isn’t always “beautiful and peaceful” (ALS is one example) and a fair number of people would prefer to take a fatal dose of morphine (often given anyway by concerned doctors) or barbiturates rather than suffer needlessly.  Of course Packer has the right to give her opinion about the bill, but trying to prevent its passage is a way of forcing one’s religious beliefs on those who don’t share them. Not all of us believe in God, and even some believers don’t feel that they have to wait for God to take them.  Further, the “slippery-slope” argument simply hasn’t panned out in states and countries that allow assisted dying.

It’s interesting to compare this story with NPR’s treatment of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman with incurable brain cancer who moved from California to Oregon so she could end her life when she wanted. (She passed away on November 1 of last year.) After Brittany explained her reasons in the article, NPR decided to give the arguments against assisted dying:

But this is a complicated topic. As The Washington Post reports, just as [Maynard] had support for her decision, there were others who tried to persuade her to live:

“Ira Byock, chief medical officer of the Institute for Human Caring of Providence Health and Services, spoke loudly against the practice.

“‘When doctor-induced death becomes an accepted response to the suffering of dying people, logical extensions grease the slippery slope,’ he wrote in a New York Times op-ed. He cited statistics in Holland, where the practice is permitted, that claim more than 40 people sought and received doctor-assisted death for depression and other mental disorders. ‘Even the psychiatrist who began this practice in the 90′s recently declared the situation had gone “off the rails.”

“‘Moral outrage is appropriate and needed to fix the sorry state of dying in America. Legalizing assisted suicide fixes nothing. The principle that doctors must not kill patients stands.'”

Note that both sides are presented in the article about Brittany Maynard, but only one side, against assisted-dying, in the piece on Stephanie Packer (and the paragraphs right above are basically the end of the piece).

Is this more coddling of faith by NPR? I don’t know, but the journalistic treatment of the two cases is hardly comparable.

h/t: Cindy

Readers’ wildlife photos

We have a rara avis today from reader Mal Morrison, who is too self-denigrating about his photo:

You may not want to use this because it’s not a great photo but I thought I’d send it because the bird is quite rare. It’s a male Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undata). According to the RSPB there are about 3000 breeding pairs and numbers are going down again after having recovered from the winter of 1962/63 when it was reduced to double figures [JAC: Wikipedia says only 10 pair]. I saw this one on Aylesbeare Common, a very small RSPB reserve of heathland, south of Exeter in Devon.


To add a closeup, here’s a photo by Richard Bond from Surfbirds.com. How many readers have seen one of these?


And from Stephen Barnard in Idaho, whom I hope to visit (along with many other readers) on the Big Road Trip, we have an Altercation in Nature:

This Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni) pissed off the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) by getting too close to the nest.





That’s one angry eagle!!

His finest hour. . . .

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Thursday: Hili dialogue

It is Thursday, and I must give a book talk today, which means donning fancy apparel. I hope I get lunch along with the listeners! Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is commenting on the upcoming election in Poland, but it’s enigmatic. As Malgorzata said (Andrzej writes the dialogues):

This is again about the election this Sunday but do not ask me why “teeth”. Your guess is as good as mine.
If anyone knows, by all means enlighten us!
Hili: I’m voting for the lesser evil.
A: And how will you recognize it?
Hili: By its teeth.
In Polish:
Hili: Wybieram mniejsze zło.
Ja: A po czym je poznajesz?
Hili: Po zębach.


Cat gets a brain freeze

This is a minimalist cat video, but it’s one of the best I’ve seen. The cat, named Napo, is having some ice cream.

Now brain freeze, also called the “ice cream headache,” is a real phenomenon, and scientists have theories about how it works. For one explanation, go here, and for a general overview go here.

h/t: Adrian

You think YOU have problems?

Here’s a sad photograph from Piotr Naskrecki’s Facebook page, which you should join as it’s chock full of great photographs. This is one he took in Mozambique. It’s also worth following his website, The Smaller Majority.

Piotr’s caption:

You think you have problems? Imagine that you have to live with a chicken-sized, blood-sucking parasite attached to your head. This poor Miniopterus bat that we caught during the biodiversity survey of Gorongosa National Park has to endure living with a wingless fly Penicillidia, which never leaves its body and loves to hang out on the top of its head.


Note that that is a fly! Matthew, a connoisseur of odd flies, will be over the moon.

I hope Piotr removed the fly, but I don’t know.


Upcoming book-related events and talks

Please excuse a bit of self-promotion: there will be an inordinate number of book-related announcements this week, just to keep people up to date.  This is a list of upcoming events, and I’ll add others when they materialize:

Thursday, May 21: Tomorrow I’ll be speaking at noon at the spiffy University Club of Chicago (76 E. Monroe St.). I believe tickets are $25, but that includes lunch. You can get more information at (312) 726-2840. There will be a book signing, I believe. The magic word to get a cat drawn in your book, as it will be for this whole series of talks, is “Maru.”

Friday, May 22: In two days I’ll be doing a reddit AMA (“Ask me anything”) event from 1 p.m. to at least 3 p.m. Eastern Time, and it may go on longer. You can post questions (in advance) or observe the goings-on here. The occasion of the conversation is the book, but the theme is, of course, that every issue is fair game. It’s your chance to ask about evolution, religion, or anything else; I’ll do my best to answer the substantive questions. (Don’t ask about boots!)

Wednesday, May 27: I’ll be giving a short (20-30 min) talk about the genesis of my book (excuse the pun) and a precis of the contents at the famous Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. The event (details here) is at 7 p.m., and there will be both a Q&A and a book-signing afterwards.

Sunday, June 7: I’ll be speaking at 10 a.m. at the Imagine No Religion 5 meeting in Vancouver (june 5-7), sandwiched between Harriet Hall and Lawrence Krauss. My topic won’t be science vs. religion, but “You don’t have free will.” The conference has a terrific line-up, with lots of science, but unfortunately the tickets are sold out and the waitlist is closed. Faith vs. Fact will be on sale, and I’ll be glad to sign it.

Wednesday, June 10: The Centre for Inquiry Canada is sponsoring a book talk in Toronto at 7:30 p.m.  Information is here; there will be a Q&A after the talk and then a book-signing (“Maru”).

And two pictures sent by readers. First, the book in Montreal, as a staff selection!:


And in the “new releases” section of Powell’s in Portland, the hippest bookstore around. I’m right beneath Underwater Babies!


My conversation with Sam Harris

A few weeks ago Brother Sam was kind enough to have an hour’s discussion with me about my new book. Well, that was the intention, but it quickly turned into a discursive conversation about many other things: Islam, political correctness, theology, free will, and so on. That was fine with me: after all, I’ll do plenty of talking about the Albatross in the next few weeks.

Sam’s posted the podcast on his site, and you can listen to it here. I won’t be doing that, as I can’t bear to hear the sound of my own voice in these situations! The audio (a Skype call) was wonky, but I suspect Sam has edited out the parts where I couldn’t hear him.


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