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May 2 is Tuatara Day

Today is Tuatara Day. On May 2, 1867, scientists first recognized that the tuatara, a reptile found only in New Zealand, is not a lizard (Squamata) as originally thought. Why is this important? Like Tigger and the Highlander, there can be only one. The tuatara is the sole surviving representative of its own group (Rhynchocephalia), which existed alongside dinosaurs.

tuatara on rock

Photo credit: Alison Cree

Although Rhyncocephalia is the closest living relative of Squamata, which includes both lizards and snakes, the two groups diverged about 250 million years ago. To put that family relationship into perspective, a human is more closely related to, say, a kangaroo, than the tuatara is to a lizard.

Tuatara Day evolutionary chart

Illustration: Marc E H Jones

Tuatara is a Māori name meaning “peaks on the back,” a reference to its spiny crest, and the species has been identified by the Māori people as a taonga (treasure). It is nocturnally active and spends its days basking in the sun or in a burrow. Although capable of digging the burrow itself, it prefers to use those made by birds.

Unlike a lizard, it has two rows of teeth on the top, which are fused to the jawbone. When feeding, the bottom row bites between the upper rows of teeth, then slides forward in a shearing motion that allows it to decapitate its prey, as evidenced by reports of birds’ headless bodies found outside their lairs. Not a nice way to treat one’s landlord, certainly.

Tuatara reach sexual maturity around age 14 and have been known to live up to 70 years in the wild and much longer in captivity. The male’s lack of external genitalia makes it useful to research into the evolution of the phallus in amniotes (mammals, birds, and reptiles). Because females only breed every two to five years, producing six to ten eggs that require incubation for up to a year, population numbers are low and protected, making it nearly impossible to obtain embryos for study.

In 2015, researchers used 3-D technology to virtually reconstruct an embryo from slides that had been prepared in 1909 and left in a collection at Harvard University ever since. Their finding that the embryo possessed genital buds suggests a single evolutionary origin of amniote external genitalia. As researcher Thomas J. Sanger wrote, “Without access to these museum specimens we would have no way of knowing the secrets of the tuatara penis.” Author’s note: As a layperson, while I found the subject fascinating, I began to feel I was, at the very least, invading the tuatara’s privacy, and at worst, straying into reptile porn territory. I’m pretty sure my Google search history has been flagged.

Once plentiful, tuatara numbers have decreased since the arrival of humans, dogs, and Pacific rats about 800 years ago. Rats, in particular, have decimated the number of tuatara, most likely due to competition for food and/or predation on eggs and juveniles. Rats, as well as possums and stoats, are being exterminated as part of a government initiative called Predator Free 2050 to save the tuatara and other native species from extinction. The cat, another introduced species, has apparently been exempted from the culling thus far. PETA remains strangely silent on New Zealand’s rodenticide.

Climate change is another threat to the tuatara, who exhibit temperature-dependent sex determination. The warmer an egg’s environment, the more likely the hatchling will be male. As temperatures rise, conservationists are taking steps, such as carefully relocating tuatara to milder areas to keep the ratio from skewing so male that the population collapses.

Although Tuatara Day was first celebrated in 2017 on the 150th anniversary of the scientists’ recognition, boasting its own hashtag, #150NotALizard, on social media, one tuatara had been making headlines since 2009. That’s when Henry, a tuatara living at New Zealand’s Southland Museum, achieved celebrity status after becoming a first-time parent at the ripe old age of 111.

His mate Mildred, a tuatara in her seventies, had apparently forgiven Henry for their disastrous first date 25 years earlier when he’d bitten off her tail, and she seemed unconcerned by their age difference. (We don’t like to use the phrase “robbing the cradle” since tuatara sometimes eat their young. It’s a bit of a sore subject.) Mildred laid 12 eggs and on January 25, 2009, after 223 days of incubation, 11 baby tuatara hatched.

Tuatara Day Prince Harry with Henry

Photo credit: Tim Rooke (Shutterstock)

Seven years later, Henry met Prince Harry on the then royal’s tour of New Zealand. There’s no mention of whether Mildred and the kids were in attendance, too. I was able to reach David Dudfield, Curator Manager at Southland Museum, who let me know that Henry is still going strong and recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of his arrival there. He and Mildred have had so many more babies that the randy couple has been separated while staff work to find homes in the wild for some of their offspring.

No word on how he feels about Megxit.

Happy Tuatara Day!

Copyright 2020 Worldwide Weird Holidays

 

Sources:
Tuatara – Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 23
Evolution: One Penis After All – Current Biology, Volume 26, Issue 1
Not a lizard nor a dinosaur, tuatara is the sole survivor of a once-widespread reptile group – The Conversation
Reproduction of a Rare New Zealand Reptile, the Tuatara Sphenodon punctatus, on Rat‐Free and Rat‐Inhabited Islands – The Society for Conservation Biology
Resurrecting embryos of the tuatara, Sphenodon punctatus, to resolve vertebrate phallus evolution – Royal Society
Predator Free 2050 – New Zealand Department of Conservation
Predator Free 2050: New Zealand ramps up plan to purge all pests – BBC News
When a species can’t stand the heat – Science News for Students
Henry the tuatara is a dad at 111 – The Independent
Prince Harry strokes 118 year-old Tuatara reptile en route to New Zealand’s Stewart Island – The Telegraph

October 23 is National Mole Day

National Mole Day is not a time to pay tribute to cute furry diggers, secret agents, Mexican sauces, freckles or skin tags. (By the way, you really ought to have that thing checked out.)national mole day

Once a year on October 23 from 6:02 a.m. to 6:02 p.m., National Mole Day celebrates Avogadro’s Number (6.02 x 1023), a unit of measurement in chemistry. Mole Day originated in an article from The Science Teacher in the early 1980s. Inspired by the article, a chemistry teacher in Wisconsin created the National Mole Day Foundation on May 15, 1991.

In 1811, Lorenzo Romano Amedeo Carlo Avogadro di Quaregna e di Cerreto—Amadeo Carlo Avogadro to his parents—proposed a law stating that equal volume of all gasses, at the same temperature and pressure, have the same number of molecules.

Avogadro contradicted better-known scientists of his time, didn’t publish his work in highly regarded journals and hailed from Italy, which had fallen out of favor as a site of scientific innovation. It took almost a hundred years for the scientific community to catch on. Chemist and Nobel laureate Jean Baptiste Perrin proposed in 1909 that the total number of particles contained in one mole be called the Avogadro Constant.

6.02×10^23

One mole is a mass (in grams) whose number is equal to the molar mass of the molecule. Because atoms are so small, they can only be measured in enormous numbers, on the scale of Avogadro’s number.

1 Mole = ∼ 602,200,000,000,000,000,000,000

It ‘s hard to imagine such a large number. Oklahoma State University has some useful analogies to help envision it:

  • Astronomers estimate that there is a mole (6.02 x 1023) of stars in the universe.
  • Water flows over Niagara Falls at about 650,000 kL (172,500,000 gallons) per minute. It would take 134,000 years for one mole of water drops to flow over Niagara Falls.
  • One mole of marbles, each 2 cm in diameter, would form a mountain 116 times higher than Mount Everest. The base of the marble mountain would be slightly larger than the area of the USA.

National Mole Day has always been about fostering interest in chemistry. It has been celebrated by teachers, students and schools for decades and inspires participants to create activities, thought experiments and even music videos to make learning about Avogadro’s Number fun.

Avogadro would be so proud!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

September 9 is Tester’s Day

Today is Tester’s Day. This unofficial holiday for technicians everywhere is not without controversy.

The Story

On September 9, 1945, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist at Harvard University, was running tests on the Mark II Calculator (designed by Howard Aiken) when she found a moth that had landed between two solenoid contacts, shorting out an electromechanical relay.

Hopper removed the squashed bug—no one knows if she dispatched it herself—and taped it to the project’s logbook with the notation: “First actual case of bug being found.” Hopper had carried out the first “debugging” and coined the term that would become synonymous with the identification and elimination of the frustrating glitches that cause computers to malfunction.

Tester's Day

Flies in the Ointment

This story doesn’t pass muster for a few reasons.

1. The Mark II came online in 1947, two years later. That’s easy enough to explain: looking at the photo of the logbook, anyone can see that the time and date are included, but not the year. Fix that and the story’s hunky dory, right? Not really.

2. Hopper’s own description indicates that she didn’t invent the usage of “bug.” “First actual case of bug” [emphasis ours] implies that the term was already in use in a figurative sense. Nitpicky? Perhaps. The usage can be traced back at least as far as 1878, when Thomas Edison used the word in a letter to Theodore Puskas, a fellow inventor.

“‘Bugs’ — as such little faults and difficulties are called — show themselves and months of intense watching, study and labor are requisite before commercial success or failure is certainly reached.”

The meaning was also included in Webster’s Second International Dictionary, published in 1934. Okay, maybe Hopper wasn’t the first person to call a glitch a “bug.” But didn’t she find that moth, whether it was in 1945 or 1947? Probably not.

3. In 2007, the Smithsonian Institution honored the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the bug. Curator Peggy Kidwell, who included the logbook page in the exhibit, noticed that the notation wasn’t made in Hopper’s handwriting.

Ingrid Newkirk, director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), objected to the display, urging people not to use animals’ names as pejoratives, stating:

“We discourage people from saying things like ‘kill two birds with one stone.’ The manner in which we’ve been taught to think of animals is mostly negative. We need to be more respectful.”

PETA is concerned about the defamation of insects, an important part of our ecosystem. So Newkirk is essentially telling the Smithsonian, “You give bugs a bad name.” We imagine her leaving the museum to deliver a speech touting all the good things about, say, hookworms. They probably don’t get enough good press.

Amazing Grace

In our opinion, none of the nonsense above detracts from the accomplishments of Grace Hopper. In 1943, she left her job teaching mathematics at Vassar College to join the Navy. She was turned down but was admitted to the Naval Reserve after receiving special permission: She weighed 15 pounds less than the Navy’s 120-pound minimum.

After the war, she helped program the Mark I, predecessor to the Mark II of bug fame. She co-authored three papers about the computer, also known as the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, with designer Howard Aiken.

She later joined the group building the UNIVAC I. In 1952, she invented the first compiler, for use with the A-O computer language, but had difficulty convincing anyone it would work. “I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it,” she said later.”They told me computers could only do arithmetic.” Ultimately she prevailed and was given her own team, which produced programming languages MATH-MATIC and FLOW-MATIC.

In 1959, Hopper served as a technical consultant to the committee that defined the new language COmmon Business-Oriented Language (COBOL). Her conviction that programs should be written in a language resembling English, rather than machine code, helped COBOL go on to be the most-used business language in history.

image of Grace Hopper

In 1967, she was named the director of the Navy Programming Languages Group, developing software and a compiler as part of the COBOL standardization program for the entire Navy.

She reached the rank of Rear Admiral in 1985. The following year, she was forced to retire after having remained on active duty many years beyond mandatory retirement age by special permission of Congress. At a ceremony held on the USS Constitution, Hopper received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the highest non-combat-related honor awarded by the Department of Defense.

She also wrote several programming books and lectured until her death on January 1, 1992, at the age of 85. She was buried with full military honors at Arlington Cemetery. The Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class missile destroyer USS Hopper (DDG-70) is named for her, as is the Cray XE6 “Hopper” supercomputer at The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center.

She once said:

“The most important thing I’ve accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, ‘Do you think we can do this?’ I say, ‘Try it.’ And I back ’em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir ’em up at intervals so they don’t forget to take chances.”

Thank you, Grace. We don’t give a hoot whether you found that silly—sorry, PETA, we mean noble—bug or not!

Update

In 1933, Yale University named a residential college after John C. Calhoun, an 1804 graduate who was an enthusiastic supporter of slavery. In 2017, after years of pressure, protests and vandalism of artwork depicting slaves,  the university changed the name from Calhoun to Grace Hopper College. (She earned her Ph.D. in mathematics at Yale in 1934.) Although it has nothing to do with Tester’s Day, we mention it because it brings attention to Hopper’s accomplishments.

Happy Tester’s Day!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

 

August 27 is National Petroleum Day

national petroleum dayToday is National Petroleum Day, also known as Oil and Gas Industry Appreciation Day.

Crude oil was first pumped from the ground in China’s Sichuan Province 2,500 years ago. Its discovery in the U.S. is credited to Edwin L. Drake who, on August 27, 1859, struck oil 70 feet below the surface of Titusville, PA.

The word “petroleum” translates as “rock oil,” derived from the Greek word petra (rock) and oleum (oil). The combination of liquid crude oil and natural gas is called a fossil fuel because it has been created by the decomposition of organic matter over millions of years, formed in sedimentary rock under intense heat and pressure.

Petroleum is an integral part of modern life. Some of the world’s largest businesses extract and process it while others create products that use hydrocarbons or are petroleum-based: asphalt, plastics, fertilizers, car tires, candles, ammonia, CDs, crayons, perfumes, deodorant, heart valves, pharmaceuticals, synthetic fabrics and bubble gum, to name a few.

Saudi Arabia produces 8.1 million barrels of oil per day and has the largest amount of reserves at 267 billion barrels. The U.S. consumes 19.4 million barrels per day, more than any other country. It has the 11th largest reserve at 21 billion barrels—enough to last for up to eight years at current consumption levels.

The U.S. has 4 percent of the world’s population but uses 25 percent of the world’s oil. Approximately half of that is utilized by the transportation industry. U.S. drivers use almost twice as much oil as drivers in China and India combined.

Because fossil fuels have taken millions of years to form, they are a non-renewable resource. Eventually, we will run out. Petroleum use has had a negative impact on the environment as carbon is released into the atmosphere, increasing temperatures and accelerating global warming. Many products made with petroleum derivatives don’t biodegrade quickly, while fertilizer runoff can damage the water table.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the largest in history, spilled 4.2 million barrels into the Gulf of Mexico. But spills account for only about 5 percent of the oil that enters the world’s oceans. According to the Coast Guard, sewage treatment plants discharge twice as much oil into U.S. waters each year as tanker spills.

On National Petroleum Day, let’s consider all the ways petroleum has enhanced our lives while coming to terms with the fact that it won’t last forever. The strides we make now toward finding alternatives will make a better world for our children, their children and their children’s children.

Happy National Petroleum Day!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays