Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian was a German born Swiss naturalist, entomologist, botanical artist & all around BADASS woman born in 1647. One of the first naturalists to observe insects directly (as opposed to dead specimens), she collected live insects & created detailed drawings to illustrate insect metamorphosis. In her time, it was very unusual that someone would be genuinely interested in insects, which had a bad reputation & were considered vile & disgusting.

In 1699, the city of Amsterdam granted Merian permission to travel to Suriname in South America (a Dutch colony at the time), along with her younger daughter Dorothea Maria, to study & illustrate new species of insects.  Scientific expeditions at this period of time were not common. It was also almost unheard of for a woman to travel any great distance, especially without the accompaniment of a man. Only men received government funding for trips, so Merian financed the entire mission herself by selling 255 of her own paintings. 

In her lifetime, Merian described the life cycles of 186 insect species, amassing evidence that contradicted the contemporary notion that insects were "born of mud" by spontaneous generation. She not only described the insects she found, but also noted their habitat & habits, as well as many other details of the evolution & life cycles of the insects she observed. For example, she showed that each stage of the change from caterpillar to butterfly depended on a small number of plants for its nourishment. She noted that as a consequence, the eggs were laid near these plants. Almost two centuries before the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term Oecologie—ecology—Merian published plates that depicted ecological communities.

Published books of engravings:
Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung. 1679
Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium. 1705

Hand water-colored copper plate engravings by Maria Sibylla Merian & her daughters:

merian_Citron with Monkey Slug Moth and Harlequin Beetle.jpg

Information compiled from HERE, HERE, HERE & HERE
Images from HERE & HERE

Crazy Cat Lady: Why You Shouldn't Eat Cat Poo

Reilly Allen, a great friend of mine, came to visit me a few months ago. She promptly accused my cats of harboring a parasite that would make her go crazy. (as if anything could make her go more crazy…)

Toxoplasma gondii, or T. gondii, is a parasitic protozoan that can infect all warm blooded animals. T. gondii is primarily a feline parasite because only in the intestines of a cat, can the parasite sexually reproduce, and the parasite is transmitted through the cat’s feces.  Asexual reproduction is possible in all other mammals, but they will only be clones of the initial parasite. The parasite can also be sexually transmitted in some animals. If a human is infected with T. gondii, he or she can develop a potentially deadly disease called toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasmosis is only really harmful to infants and people with weakened immune systems. If a healthy human is infected with T. gondii, they will experience flu-like symptoms for a bit and then the parasite goes “dormant”…in their brain cells.

This is where it gets bizarre, it’s possible that a dormant T. gondii in humans is not so dormant. According to Czech scientist, Jaroslav Flegr, it’s possible that this “laten parasite quietly tweeks connections between neurons.” It changes our responses to trust, how outgoing we are, scent preference, and can even be the cause of car crashes, suicides, and schizophrenia. He claims that 1 million people die a year due to these tiny tweeks. Apparently about 1/3 of the world’s population carry the Toxoplasma infection.

He and other notable scientists have done extensive research on Toxoplasma gondii. Here’s a long, but very interesting article on the whole matter.

One might say that the main purpose for an organism’s life is to reproduce. Well, it seems as though the brain manipulation done by T. gondii is all executed so that it can return to a feline host and sexually reproduce.

Scientists have done a lot of research on T. gondii using lab rats. Rats infected with T. gondii were not only less cautious of the threat of a cat predator, but actually attracted and sexually aroused by the scent of the predator’s urine; which led the rats right into the mouth of a hungry feline!

Through these studies, scientists have also found that T. gondii jacks up dopamine levels in warm-blooded animals. Dopamine highly attributes to the feelings of fear, pleasure, and to attention.

I don’t believe that T. gondii has found a way to mind control a human into getting a cat to eat him or her, but there has been research done that T. gondii does affect the human brain and the way it works.

Flegr's tests on humans have shown that males who are infected with T. gondii were more “introverted, suspicious, oblivious to other people’s opinions of them, inclined to disregard rules, [and] had less friends.” On the other hand, women infected with T. gondii were more “outgoing, trusting, image-conscious, rule-abiding, [and] had more friends.”

“After consulting the psychological literature, [Flegr] started to suspect that heightened anxiety might be the common denominator underlying their responses. When under emotional strain, he read, women seek solace through social bonding and nurturing… Anxious men, on the other hand, typically respond by withdrawing and becoming hostile or antisocial.”

Lots of research has been done between the connection of T. gondii and schizophrenia as well. People who have schizophrenia and test positive for T. gondii have way less grey matter in their brain than other individuals. T. gondii is also thought to be a trigger for schizophrenia.

But, with all that, Squirrel and Harry ain’t goin’ nowhere! Apparently indoor cats don’t pose a threat, because they don’t carry the parasite. Outdoor cats only really have the parasite for 3 weeks while they are young and first hunting. It seems like most humans catch T. gondii through consumption of other contaminated mammals, vegetables, and water. So, if you keep your counters and table tops clean, scrub your veggies before you eat them, drink purified water, and either cook your meat fully or freeze it before it’s cooked, it’s alllll gravy. No parasite for you!

Not Just Wood: Tree Anatomy

I feel as though we are not properly taught about plants. But really, I don’t think we really know about plants like we think we do. We just think we know, but we have no idea; True Life, PLANTS.

What I mean by that is, I grew up and learned about trees as these green and brown things that existed in the world. They grew, shed their leaves, grew some more, and then we cut them down to build stuff. I never thought of them as MOVING, COMMUNICATING, and HAVING LIFE. Or maybe I just wasn’t a very sensitive child?

So, in this post I’m going to layout some of the anatomy of a tree, which may help you understand that it is a living thing, just like youuuu and meeeeee.  Respect.

First I’m going to start with the trunk.  The trunk is not just wood. It is an amalgamation of cells adapted to serve different purposes, like strength, resistance to decay and injury, transport of liquids and minerals, and for storage.

The first thing you see when you look at the trunk is the OUTER BARK. It serves as the tree's primary protection and is continually renewed, much like our skin. Then we have the inner bark, or PHLOEM. This is the pipeline that transports food and hormones throughout the tree. It soon dies and becomes cork which eventually becomes the outer bark. Next there is another thin layer called the CAMBIUM. The cambium is the growing part of the trunk. It responds to the hormones that are passed and annually produces new bark and new wood.

The XYLEM makes up the “wood” of the tree. Within the xylem you have the next layer, which is SAPWOOD. This is the pipeline for water to get from the roots to the leaves. This layer is able to form anti-microbial substances to respond to injury, much like antibodies! It is also the new wood of the tree. As newer rings of sapwood are laid out, the inner rings lose their vitality and eventually turn to the next layer, which is the HEARTWOOD. The heartwood is the central support. It is dead and discolored, but is very very strong and keeps the tree standing. And finally, at the most central point, you may (in some species) find the PITH. This is a Styrofoam-y material left over from the primary tissue that was the twig. In some species it goes away as the tree gets older.

If you go upwards from the trunk and through the branches you’ll reach the tips of the twigs. These form buds in the spring which is where those hormones I mentioned before come from. These hormones help the tree to go. (sound familiar?) These buds also produce leaves. The leaves are basically spongy cells that connect the air- to the tree- to the roots. Leaves create  food for the tree. They take carbon dioxide from the air and water from the roots and convert it to sugar, then send it down the phloem to the roots. In order for the roots to use that sugar to grow, they need oxygen. They search for oxygen in pockets between the soil. The roots then return the favor to the leaves by sucking up water and minerals and sending it back up to the leaves via the sapwood. The leaves use that water to create the food, and send it back down to the roots, and back and forth, back and forth.  

And that's only part of what we know! There's a great PBS documentary called "What Plants Talk About," that discusses communication between one plant to another, and plants to insects and animals. CRAY.