Saturday, February 28, 2009

Angraecum Erratum

Well, now I feel silly. I got all excited because our Darwin's Orchid bloomed. But with further research, I discovered that our orchid is actually another species that is closely related to Darwin's Orchid. Ours is an Angraecum eburneum, and the orchid that prompted Darwin to make his famous moth prediction was an Angraecum sesquipedale. Sheesh!

Same genus, though, and both are native to Madagascar, and both have that elongated nectary spur.

I feel a lot better now that I've cleared that up.

Anyway, I still feel that an exceptionally long proboscis would be necessary for any moth to get it's way with our Angraecum eburneum.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Darwin's Orchid

I believe that there are times when the greatest fulfillment comes from letting tangents and coincidence guide one's attention. Well, coincident with the attention given to Darwin's two-hundredth birthday, my wife's specimen of Darwin's Orchid decided to bloom, and so it cried out for a snapshot today.

This genus is native to Madagascar. It has an elongated nectary - up to a foot long - extending from the back of the flower. Nectar is contained in the tip of the nectary. Darwin reasoned that there must be some species of moth with a proboscis long enough to reach the length of the nectary, but this hypothesis was ridiculed by others in his day.

The idea that such a long-tongued moth would have evolved is no longer considered ridiculous. Such a moth was indeed discovered years later.

This fascinating video from a Nature episode shows the moth in action with Darwin's Orchid:


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dogs Shaping Human Evolution

The Bark just published a good article on Darwin and dogs by Mark Derr. It's an interesting read, and Derr's description of the often-misconstrued concept of natural selection is nice and clear.

It's pretty obvious in Darwin's thinking - and in the view of today's naturalists - that humans have influenced the evolution of the domestic dog. But an equally interesting hypothesis is Darwin's belief in the power of dogs to shape human evolution.

Derr quotes Darwin from The Descent of Man:
"The strongest and most vigorous men—those who could best defend and hunt for their families, who were provided with the best weapons and possessed the most property, such as a large number of dogs or other animals—would succeed in rearing a greater average number of offspring than the weaker and poorer members of the same tribes. There can, also, be no doubt that such men would generally be able to select the more attractive women."

I am curious to hear what my wife's thoughts will be.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hey, Nice Ecosystem!

So, we have this domestic dog species hanging around with humans since the Stone Age, and it theoretically descended from wolves, and it shows high intelligence and devotion. Wolves and dogs are also predatory and territorial species that show some capacity for aggression (though not as offensive as some humans, one could argue). In this context, I found an interesting National Geographic video documenting domestic dogs' key role in restoring ecological/economic harmony for wolves and ranchers in rural Spain. It's a beautiful story. Here's the brief video:

The earth trembled and a great rift appeared, separating the first man and woman from the rest of the animal kingdom. As the chasm grew deeper and wider, all the other creatures, afraid for their lives, returned to the forest - except for the dog, who after much consideration leapt the perilous rift to stay with the humans on the other side. His love for humanity was greater than his bond to other creatures, he explained, and he willingly forfeited his place in paradise to prove it.
- Native American folktale, quoted in The Lost History of the Canine Race by Mary E. Thurston

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Canine Heroism

Our friend and fellow blogger mouse pointed us to a video which shows a dog in Chile saving the life of another dog who had just been struck by a car on a busy highway. The video is difficult to watch, but it ends with the news anchor announcing that the injured dog survived (thanks to having been pulled to safety across heavy traffic by the fellow dog). You can view this amazing video here.

In my web surfing, I came across more videos showing dogs rescuing humans or other dogs. Of course, there are some videos that may have been staged, and others like the one above that are certainly genuine. Here's a video in which a dog saves a bullfighter from a bull (whatever you think of bullfighting - I don't like it at all - this small dog shows some big heroism):

I think that there are many more stories of animal heroism that get less play in the news compared to tragedies like the chimpanzee attack in Connecticut this week or the cases of dog attacks that occasionally get media attention. The amazing thing to me about the heroic incidents is that, in many cases, the animal never received specific training to perform such actions, but nevertheless risked his/her own safety for that of a fellow being. That's something that really must come from deep in the heart.

Sometimes when a man's alone, all you got is your dog.
- Mickey Rourke (saying this as he thanked all his dogs, living and dead, after winning the Golden Globe for Best Actor this year).

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Bonaparte's Retreat

Today I was talking with a musician friend about dog themes in music (something about which I will post future entries), and he told me about Emmylou Harris' love of dogs. Her story is very touching. I did not know this story until today, but a couple of years ago Emmylou established a sanctuary in Nashville for dogs that are otherwise unadoptable. She founded Bonaparte's Retreat - named after her companion of ten years who died suddenly in 2002. Here is an article about this in The Bark, which also includes a video of the beautiful song, Not Enough, that she wrote for Bonaparte.

Among God's creatures two, the dog and the guitar, have taken all the sizes and all the shapes, in order not to be separated from the man.
- Andrés Segovia (1893-1987), classical guitarist

Monday, February 16, 2009

Why We Love Cats and Dogs

Last night the PBS station in my area showed the Nature episode "Why We Love Cats and Dogs." I was touched by the stories of how people's bonds with pets can sustain them through difficult times. Most poignant to me was the story of Jerry, a German Shepherd dog, whose family really made the most of his short time with them after Jerry was diagnosed with cancer.

The show raised fascinating issues about the nature of empathy between humans and pets. Among other nuggets in this episode, Marc Bekoff speculated that cells in the brains of humans and other animals, called "mirror neurons," allow us to appreciate each others' states of mind (what researchers call "theory of mind").

As I type at my keyboard, what Kasey knows is that if he keeps dropping toys at my feet, then I will probably turn away from the keyboard and.....

I'm looking more like my dogs every day — it must be the shaggy fringe and the ears.
- Christine McVie (b. 1943), musician

Friday, February 13, 2009

Friday Play

It was another Friday off from work. Sasha, Kasey, and I enjoyed a day of play, and we all appreciated the sight of grass appearing from beneath the receding snow.

Another reason that I am glad about taking the day off was that it gave me an opportunity to phone a question in to Partricia McConnell, an ethologist specializing in dog behavior, and an author of several books about human/dog relationships. Dr. McConnell was interviewed by Susan Frank on "Wild About Pets." It's an interesting discussion for anyone who interacts with dogs, or for anyone who wonders what their dog really thinks about those affectionate hugs they get from humans. Go here to listen to the interview (and my brush with greatness).

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Darwin and Lincoln

This Thursday is the 200th birthday of both Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. Everyone knows that both Darwin and Lincoln are figures of unmatched historical importance in our culture. The coincidence of their birth has been a point of interest for biographers who have noted a number of parallels in their lives, and on this subject, a brief article today in The Chicago Tribune is a nice read. More to the point of this post, a bit of web surfing reveals, not surprisingly, that both men were lovers of animals, and were lovers of dogs especially.

In Darwin's case, he showed an affinity for dogs and a talent for naturalistic observation in his youth. Although family status and tradition compelled the young Charles to begin studying for a career in medicine, he soon abandoned that course to the disappointment of his father. Darwin recalled his father once telling him that "You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family." Years after Darwin's legendary voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, the traits of domestic dogs figured prominently in Darwin's writings on evolution by natural selection (as notably evident from the first chapter of his landmark book, On The Origin of Species), and domestic dogs' behavioral traits provided much of the material from which Darwin developed his thoughts concerning The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals.

Although Lincoln is obviously more celebrated for his statesmanship and heroism in matters of politics and human rights, he was certainly a good friend of animals. There is a story of how a young Lincoln waded barefoot through icy waters to rescue his dog during a family relocation trip. In another story recounted by historians, the newly elected president decided that his dog Fido would best be left in the care of family friends in Springfield, Illinois, instead of taking him to Washington. For the dog's comfort, the Lincoln family left their horsehair sofa for Fido to use in his new home. He is thought to have been the first dog of a president to be photographed (photo at top of post). After Lincoln was assassinated, Fido watched the funeral procession in Springfield. Tragically, within a year, Fido met with a violent death when he was stabbed by a drunk man who was enraged at the dog for having dirtied his clothing.

Biographers note that Darwin was an opponent of slavery, and that from his home in Britain he followed the news from the U.S. pertaining to Lincoln's presidency and the conflict between the states. Lincoln, conversely, appears not to have expressed much awareness of Darwin's work. Nevertheless, according to Lincoln's law partner, Lincoln read with interest some earlier writings from another naturalist who had theorized the evolution of species, though the mechanism of natural selection had not yet been well described in the literature before Darwin. We do not know whether the concept of evolution influenced Lincoln's politics, but historians might consider that question to be a bit narrow. What is more important is that the works of Darwin and Lincoln marked a change in the perception of man's place in nature. The views among naturalists and statesmen began to shift away from a position in which humans are "above" nature (and one race considered to be "above" another), and moved closer to a view of humans as part of nature along with other animals. The shift continued through the twentieth century, and is continuing today, and it is the legacy of two great lovers of dogs.

It is scarcely possible to doubt that the love of man has become instinctive in the dog.
- Charles Darwin

I care not for a man's religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it.
- Abraham Lincoln

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Soul of a Philosopher

A dog has the soul of a philosopher.
- Plato (c. 427–347 B.C.), Greek philosopher

Friday, February 6, 2009


I am taking off from work each Friday from now until April 1, because administrative rules say that I would lose the extra vacation time that I've accumulated and haven't used until now. What does the accumulation of unused vacation time say about one's character, or one's style of adjusting to this stage of life, etc., as an old friend and mentor of mine would ask?

Well, I had time and some energy to blog today, and since I started this blog not long ago, I've thought that I would share some very cutting-edge thinking and research about the domestic dog's evolution and behavior, and about humans' special relationship with the dog. But today, instead, I believe that I will spend the time venturing out into the snow with one of my own (Oh Dog, when will Winter end?), and leave you with the following blogging thought:


Questers of the truth, that’s who dogs are; seekers after the invisible scent of another being’s authentic core.
- Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (b.1941), author, animal rights advocate