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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

February 29 is International Underlings Day

international underlings dayFeeling a little bored by Leap Day? Fear not: there is another. International Underlings Day was created in 1984 by Peter D. Morris to recognize those not honored by National Boss Day, Administrative Professional Day, Programmers’ Day, Professional Speakers Day, International Working Women’s Day—the list goes on. And on. And on.

Here’s a pop quiz to see if International Underlings Day is tailor-made for you:

Do you sometimes feel like work is a cosmic joke, that the ladder of success has a few broken rungs?

Do you know how everyone else likes their coffee, lunch, and dry cleaning?

Have you ever delivered bagels to a roomful of executives going through trust exercises?

Have you ever felt paralyzed by fear as you watched a coworker get fired for making a paperclip chain? Did you then feel:

a) relief that it wasn’t you
b) shame for feeling relieved
c) resentment that you’re still stuck in your crappy job
d) envy when you imagine that person walking around outside, free

     Have you ever quit a job, confident you would never work in such an insane asylum again, only to end up in progressively more horrifying       workplaces?

If you answered yes to any or all of the above questions, you might be an underling. Congratulations: you have a day. Unfortunately, but perhaps fittingly, that day falls on February 29th, which occurs once every four years. That makes 2020 only the tenth celebration of this holiday.

Have a happy International Underlings Day. You deserve it. Just don’t expect cake.

Copyright 2020 Worldwide Weird Holidays

 

January 22 is National Hot Sauce Day

national hot sauce day

Today is National Hot Sauce Day. It celebrates the birthday in 1865 of Wilbur Scoville, who created a method to determine a pepper’s spiciness that is still in use today.

Scoville, an American chemist, devised the system in 1912. It measures the concentration of capsaicin, the active component that gives chilies their spicy taste, using Scoville Heat Units (SHU). Ratings range from 0 for a bell pepper to 16,000,000 for pure capsaicin.

Capsaicin content, which causes a burning sensation when it comes in contact with any tissue, is measured by dissolving a pepper in alcohol to extract its capsaicin oil, then diluting the oil in sugar water.

If a panel of five testers detects any spiciness, the mixture is diluted again until three of the five cannot discern any hotness. Heat level is measured by how many dilutions are necessary. Every instance increases the SHU, since hotter chilies must be weakened many times for no heat to be detected.

In 2013, The Guinness World Record for hottest chili pepper went to the Carolina Reaper, a cross between a ghost pepper and a red habanero created by Ed Currie of the aptly named PuckerButt Pepper Company. The Reaper’s official heat level is 1,569,300 SHU but ranges up to 2,200,000. (By comparison, Tabasco sauce has a level 0f 2,500 to 5,000.)

The Reaper was bested in 2017 by Dragon’s Breath, which clocked in at 2,480,000 SHU. Currie surged back with Pepper X, a Frankenstein’s monster at 3,180,000 SHU. Unlike Dragon’s Breath, which will only be used for medicinal purposes, Pepper X is available as a sauce dubbed The Last Dab.

Studies have shown that heat levels evoke the same pain response in spice lovers and haters and everyone in between. So why do so many of us like it? Could it predict other risk-taking behaviors? Check out this TED Ed lesson for answers.

Happy National Hot Sauce Day!

Copyright 2020 Worldwide Weird Holidays

October 14 is national lowercase day

National Lowercase Day alphabetWhile English majors past, present, and future may grind their teeth in frustration, freewheeling texters will love today’s holiday: national lowercase day! This is the day to turn your back on the rules of capitalization if you were ever facing them at all.

This fun, unofficial holiday has no clear author or point of origin. We could only trace it back to 2011.

Fun fact: Poet E.E. Cummings often wrote and signed his name in lowercase; he also omitted the punctuation. e e cummings was a rebel, bending the language to his own liking.

Fun fact: While trying to find an example of the use of lowercase letters, I remembered the poet E.E. Cummings’ apparent penchant for using lowercase initials. After cursory research that appeared to confirm this, I wrote the now-stricken sentences. My thanks go to John Cowan for pointing out my error. I have no desire to add more misinformation to the internet. Author Norman Friedman writes here about Cummings’ widow’s reaction to his book being published without “E.E.” properly capitalized.

If shunning capitalization is not your cup of tea, you’ll be happy to know it is also National Dessert Day!

Tomorrow, we return to normalcy. If you’re looking for more information about capitalization and just about everything else, you can’t go wrong with The Chicago Manual of Style.

Happy national lowercase day!

Copyright © 2019 Worldwide Weird Holidays