Real Monsters – The Cockatrice

cockatrice_jlweb

In medieval bestiaries, entries portrayed the cockatrice as a rooster with the tail of a snake. It’s said to hatch from the egg of a cockerel that’s been brooded by a snake or toad. Often interchanged with the basilisk, only a weasel (or Harry Potter) can kill it.

cockatrice_manuscript

Wow. Crazy, right?  Maybe not so much.

Could poultry grow a snake-ish tail? Considering the evolutionary history of birds and embryonic development, yes. Birds are the last surviving descendants of dinosaurs, and early birds (evolutionarily speaking, not the worm-getting kind) had long tails. Over time, shorter-tailed members of the group prevailed as they flew unimpeded, and with better control, among brush and between branches. Vertebrae that once grew, fused as random genetic mutations delivered more successful flight. Genetically, just a few genes (possibly just one), activated early in development, control vertebral growth and tail elongation (1). So if you can stop that gene from turning on, you might just get a tail.

The second aspect of the cockatrice/basilisk story involved being born from a rooster’s egg. Now, that can’t be true – only hens lay eggs. Well, just like in humans, sex can be confusing. Primary sexual characteristics include sexual organs. In order to lay an egg, the bird would need an ovary. But most people identify hens and roosters by secondary sexual characteristics like coloration, size, and the presence of a comb and wattle. These traits develop because of hormones. If a female bird receives a dose of male hormone, she can produce rooster-like traits. This situation is actually not so rare. Because birds only use one gonad, a disease on the ovary would cause the other to develop. Since testes and ovaries develop from the same structure, the hen could get a dose of male hormone, producing rooster-like traits, and still lay an egg (2).

Brooding by a snake or toad wouldn’t help a chicken egg hatch. However, it’s not unusual to find a snake in a nest. Snakes of course eat eggs, and some birds even use snakes as partners to protect their nests from parasites or rodents.

As for death-by-weasel, the cockatrice/basilisk story is probably getting mixed with a cobra (3). The mongoose, which looks similar to a weasel, has an amazing cellular adaptation that makes them resistant to cobra venom. Many Greek and Egyptian stories (as well as the modern tale of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi) glorify the snake-killing abilities of the mongoose.

So next time you hear of a mystical beast that couldn’t possibly be real, give it a chance. And if you’d like to read more about the cockatrice and its devilish ties, visit awingandaway.

 

  1. Rashid DJ, Chapman SC, Larsson HCE, Organ CL, Bebin A-G, Merzdorf CS, Bradley R, and Horner JR 2014. From dinosaurs to birds: a tail of evolution. EvoDevo 2(25)
  2. Jacob J and Mather FB. 2000. Sex reversal in chickens. UFL-IFAS. FactSheet PS-53. http://ufdc.ufl.edu/IR00003037/00001
  3. Alexander, RM 1963. The evolution of the basilisk. Greece & Rome. 10(2) 170-181.

The Firefly and the Apes

firefly

An old Philippine folktale pits a firefly against a troop of apes. One day, an ape asks the firefly why he carries a lantern. The firefly replies that he uses the light to see mosquitoes and defend himself. The ape laughs and calls the firefly a coward. Insulted, the insect challenges the ape (and all his friends) to a fight. The next day, the firefly faces 1000 apes with large clubs, all lined up against him. The firefly lands on the first ape’s nose and the second ape swings his club to squash the insect. But the lightning bug flits away and the ape’s blow kills his companion instead. Then the firefly alights on the second ape’s nose. A club is swung and the second ape is dead. On and on until the firefly reaches the last ape, who piteously surrenders. The folktale ends, “Since that time, the apes have been in mortal terror of the fireflies.” (1)

Despite folktales consistently portraying apes as fools, we all know they’re actually pretty smart. The Philippine tale is one account of why apes avoid fireflies. But could there be a biological reason for this aversion? Maybe it’s because fireflies are noxious.

One firefly can kill a bearded dragon (Pogona sp.), a fairly large lizard that can grow up to 2 feet long (2). For mammals like apes, well, they probably just taste really bad. Most animals that eat fireflies spit them out or throw them up.

Fireflies do try to warn their would-be attackers through their coloration. Light and dark stripes and red markings are examples of aposematic coloration – both are found on this lightning bug. Don’t say he didn’t warn you!

 

  1. Millington, WH and BL Maxfield. 1907. Visayan Folk-Tales. Journal of American Folklore. 20(79) 311-318.
  2. Knight, M et al. 1999. Firefly Toxicosis in Lizards. Journal of Chemical Ecology. 25(9)

Snowbird Shape-shifters

snowbirds850_JML

Those small slate-and-white sparrows hopping across the frozen ground are true snowbirds. They spend summer in Canada and move south to the U.S. during the winter. Some, like their human counterparts, even migrate to Florida.

In the late 1800s, R.W. Shufeldt wrote of two birds called “snowbirds.” One medium-sized bird, the Snow Bunting, became known as the “snowflake.” The smaller bird, the Dark-eyed Junco, was unequivocally called the “snowbird.” Shufeldt expressed his displeasure at the bird’s new moniker “junco” – he tried to determine, unsuccessfully, the etymology of the word (it means “reeds or rushes”) since the Dark-eyed Junco does not live among reeds or rushes.

Shufeldt’s article also referenced Alexander Wilson’s description of Junco folklore. New Englanders told Wilson that Dark-eyed Juncos change their plumage to become the Chipping Sparrows of summer. Before you laugh (or after you’re through), many birds significantly alter their plumage during the breeding season… although the Dark-eyed Junco does not. These two birds are both sparrows, trill similar songs, and feed on the ground.

While Dark-eyed Juncos do not morph into Chipping Sparrows, they have their own form of transmutation. Those round balls of bird aren’t fat, they’re fluffy. Feathers trap air, an excellent insulator. The birds puff up their feathers, a downy winter coat, keeping them toasty warm.

p.s. Red and the Peanut wrote a great post about the name “snowbird.” I recommend it!

Wildflower Stories: Part 1

ATwildflowers_agrimonyThe wildflowers along the Appalachian Trail impressed the heck out of me during a recent hike. My inner biologist began counting the number of plant families represented. The artist inside distracted my count with constant “ooo, pretty!” comments. This drawing highlights just a few of the flowers from the trip – and launches the first of a host of posts.

 AGRIMONY (Agrimonia sp.)

Once upon a time, Agrimony was a go-to herb for the local physician. It was reported* to cure or alleviate eye and liver problems, intestinal troubles, back pain, gunshot wounds, snakebites, sore feet, pimples and coughs. The most horrifying treatment combined Agrimony with “a mixture of pounded frogs and human blood, as a remedy for all internal haemorrhages.”1

We’ve come a long way (thank you, Scientific Method). While Agrimony may contain compounds beneficial to our health, rigorous controlled studies are lacking or do not show the benefits claimed above. Still, Agrimony is sold today as an herbal remedy.agrimony_flower_close

A lack of data doesn’t mean Agrimony won’t help ailments – it doesn’t mean it will either. As a member of the Rose family (the flowers’ many stamens clued me into its familial origins), Agrimony shares traits with apples, lemons, nectarines, almonds, and of course roses. So it’s in good company with a lot of wonderful foods that offer beneficial properties and nutrients.

*This blog does not endorse the use of Agrimony to treat any of these ailments.

1. A Modern Herbal by M. Grieve. 1971. Dover Publications, New York.

Summertime Blues

dragonfly_bluDragonflies hover, swoop and twirl but never walk. They use their legs to trap their insect prey in a tiny six-barred prison before devouring them head-first. When guarding its territory along the water’s edge, this Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) grasps a reed or blade of grass and waves his blue abdomen as a warning for other males. Females, in general, aren’t blue at all; they’re black with yellow lines running down their bodies While the name “dragonfly” may be confusing, other names – “snake doctor” or “devil’s darning needle”, for instance – are equally perplexing. No, dragonflies do not treat ailing snakes (or bring them back to life) and the insects don’t sew up any parts of you (although my Grandmother convinced me not to lie with the threat that dragonflies would sew my lips shut if I did). And in case you were wondering about that species name, it means “long wings”… not what you were thinking.

Warts & All

American Toad (Bufo americanus)Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire, burn; and cauldron, bubble.

Shakespeare’s witches open Macbeth by tossing a toad into their cauldron, along with parts of snakes, newts, bats and other dejected, unfortunate creatures. Why such a bad rap? After all, people LOVE frogs – they turn into princes, they have good tasting legs, and some cultures consider them lucky. But toads? Feared, reviled. What’s the big difference?

Toads tend to live in drier environments than frogs. In the frog’s aquatic environment, escape is just a hop away. For toads, though, warts are the key to survival. The two large “warts” on a toad, just behind the head, are glands that secrete a substance toxic to the toad’s predators.

Ay, there’s the rub – Toads are associated with poison. They actually produce three kinds of toxins: two affect the heart and one can produce hallucinations. Some cultures have used these chemicals for medical purposes. Perhaps those Shakespearean hags were just brewing up a treatment for edema.

Protect toads! While the American Toad is not threatened or endangered, many other populations of amphibians are experiencing sharp declines.

Learn more about the American Toad (Bufo americanus) and hear it call at http://www.herpsofnc.org/herps_of_NC/anurans/Bufame/Buf_ame.html