Tag Archives: halloween

Animal Kingdom’s Halloween – part II

Wolf Crystal cautiously examines her Halloween treat. Photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

Recently I’ve started volunteering at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. The new American Trail exhibit opened last Summer, and expecting a flurry of visitors, the Zoo asked for extra help. The goal of American Trail, as one might expect, is to portray animals native to the US,  like beavers, ravens, sea lions, river otters, a bald eagle, and (my favorite) grey wolves.

Last week, American Trail  celebrated its first Halloween. Meanwhile, I was part of  the Boo at the Zoo event, but this time from a different point of view – zoo staff, instead of a visitor. I chose to talk about the bald eagle to a score of power rangers, princesses, iron men, and Marios – who also lined up for my newly-invented “are you a seal or a sea lion?” game.

From my booth in the Zoo’s main path, I could hear the sea lions barking. Where they responding to the children’s philosophical conundrum of “trick or treat”?

Sea lion Sophie has a treat and a toy at the same time. Photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

Instead, they were busy investigating their own Halloween treats. A collection of photos of the animals and their pumpkins has been posted to the zoo’s Facebook page. Besides being cute and hilarious, the Halloween treats serve the important purpose of enrichment. I’ve talked about this strategy on the blog before, which is an attempt to encourage natural behaviors in captive animals (and some might say, to avoid boredom). Animals will fall back to behaviors they display in the wild, like hunting or scavenging. They exercise their curiosity by investigating the treat (some, like Sophie above and raven Iris, event get a lot of play out of it). Mental abilities are tested as the animals figure out how to open the pumpkin to retrieve the goodies inside.

Selkie feasts on squid she found inside her pumpkin. Photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

Grey wolves Crystal and Coby got their share of treats. They were able to scavenge for meat hidden inside their pumpkins. It is only after Hurricane Sandy left that I can reflect on those events – specially considering DC and the National Zoo came out of it mostly unscathed. But in pre-hurricane times, people’s minds were filled with Halloween. And, with the risk of anthropomorphizing, I believe both animals and infant humans had a great time.

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Animal Kingdom’s Halloween – part I

Vampire bat. Photo credit: Barry Mansell/naturepl.com via NewScientist

Last week I wrote a short piece about bats, which was published on my employer’s website. I was inspired by Halloween, but mainly I wished to talk about something dear to my heart: anticoagulants.

Most of my master’s dissertation revolved around mosquito molecules and the design of anti-clotting drugs. Mosquitos and bats do have a lot in common. You get a Halloween treat if you guessed its because both have a blood-based diet. Below is an excerpt (property of Owen Software) of the post I wrote for work:

The bad reputation of bats stems from their blood-filled diet, even though the vast majority of bat species eat insects or fruit. Out of more than a thousand species, only one drinks blood from other mammals: the aptly named “common vampire bat” (Desmodus rotundus), which preys on cows, pigs, or horses. But did you know these blood-sucking creatures can help scientists design new drugs?
Medical conditions like heart disease and stroke are caused when blood flow is interrupted, in many cases because of a blood clot lodged in an artery. Blood coagulation (or clotting) is a natural process in which blood clots plug wounds and help us recover from injuries and even prevent us from bleeding to death. One way to slow down the clotting process in stroke patients is to dose them with a class of molecules called anticoagulants. Besides halting coagulation, these molecules also dissolve the clot and boost blood flow.
Given the vampire bat’s need for blood, it might seem counterintuitive that those animals can be a source of drugs for heart disease and stroke. Through the course of evolution, vampire bats have developed their own natural anticoagulants. Their saliva is full of anticoagulant molecules that prevent their host’s blood from clotting and allow the bat to drink it. This ingenious feeding solution is not a novelty: in the animal kingdom, many other parasitic species have developed similar mechanisms (e.g, mosquitos, leeches, and ticks). Molecules from the bat’s saliva are the inspiration for new anti-stroke drugs. (…) Fittingly, scientists have paid homage to Halloween when choosing a name for a bat anticoagulant: they called it draculin.
I hope you enjoyed that cross-over of work post into my hobby blog.
Now that hurricane Sandy is gone, a mostly-unaffected Washington DC starts to celebrate Halloween. And that includes the National Zoo and its animals. On Part II of Animal Halloween I will talk about pumpkins treats as enrichments and of my participation on Boo at the Zoo.

A few cheetah-speed* notes

It is now  ~three weeks since I started this blog, and I thought I could give you some quick notes and some insights on what is to come:

  • This week I decided to skip the Terra Nova review. Apparently the dinosaur budget ran out and the last episode was all about littlegirlsaurus. For those still eager, the Bad Astronomer posted his Terra Nova review. In this case the focus is, obviously, on the astronomy depicted by the show (specifically the size of the moon and position of the stars).

  • This came in via James: Terra Nova drinking game. Take a drink when:

Someone leaves compound when they are not supposed to,
Blood and guts in the infirmary,
Teen boy acts put out,
Sixers face off with Novans,
Dinosaurs don’t die when shot with heavy weaponry,
Legless man shows up and says something pithy.

Die of alcohol poisoning.

(I am a health professional so I don’t endorse drinking a shot at each Terra Nova cliche. How about.. eating a vegetable instead?)

Iguana at the National Zoo, photo by the author

  • The Iguana above is not a dinosaur, but after I went to the Smithsonian National Zoo last Sunday, I have a lot to report. Coming up in future posts.

House episode - Transplant

  • This screen shot is a teaser for the review I am preparing of last week’s episode of House, named “Transplant”. I got so caught on the research that I decided to make into a larger post and interview a thoracic surgeon. My sister (the other, actually the first, Dr. Russo in the family) is also collaborating on this post.

  • I am compiling a list of Science, geek and sci-fi Halloween costumes. (Pixar lamp via Marina). It is growing a bit large and I might divide it into two parts. It might help whoever still lacks in ideas..

That’s it for now, coming back tomorrow with more.

*the cheetah is the fastest land animal and can run up to 75 mph!