6 of the World’s Most Dangerous Birds

In 1963 Alfred Hitchcock released The Birds, one of his most iconic thrillers. The movie considered what would happen if flocks of birds, animals that linger in the background of many of our daily lives, suddenly rose up and attacked a small coastal town in California. The film was inspired by a real-life event, namely an attack by sooty shearwaters on Capitola, California, in 1961. It was linked to diatompoisoning of the anchovies eaten by the birds. The shearwaters crashed into rooftops, and their carcasses were found on the streets and throughout the town.

Movies like The Birds (1963) or The Happening (2008) that explore the possibility of nature suddenly becoming vindictive pop into theaters from time to time, but the prospect of injuries and even deaths caused by aggressive birds is not fiction. Territoriality and defending young from predators remains serious business, and even the smallest birds will lash out at threats. The list below highlights some of the world’s most dangerous birds.


  • Cassowary (Casuarius)

    The cassowary (genus Casuarius)
    © Javarman/Fotolia

    Cassowaries are the only members of the family Casuariidae and belong to the order Casuariiformes, which also includes the emu. Three species (counted by some experts as six), each with several races, live in habitats that span parts of Australia and New Guinea. The cassowary has been known to kill human beings with slashing blows of its feet, as the innermost of its three toes bears a long daggerlike nail. The bird has been observed moving rapidly along narrow tracks in the bush, sprinting as fast as 50 km (31 miles) per hour.

    Cassowaries are curious, and they do attack from time to time, but attacks on humans are relatively rare. Those attacks that do occur overwhelmingly involve soliciting food from people. One of the most recent incidents came in 2012, when a tourist in Queensland, Australia, was kicked by a cassowary off a ledge and into a body of water but remained unharmed otherwise. One of the most famous attacks (and the only one known to result in a confirmed death) occurred in 1926: one member of a group of teenaged boys hunting cassowaries was killed after a cassowary leapt upon him while he was on the ground. The bird slashed the boy’s jugular vein with its long toenail.

  • Ostrich (Struthio camelus)

    Male ostrich, (Struthio camelus). (bird; flightless bird; African animal; African bird; ratites)
    © Xavier Marchant/Fotolia

    Ostriches are flightless birds found only in open country in Africa. The largest living birds, adult males may be 2.75 meters (about 9 feet) tall—almost half of that height being in the neck—and weigh more than 150 kilograms (330 pounds). Ostriches are seen individually, in pairs, in small flocks, or in large aggregations, depending on the season. The ostrich relies on its strong legs—uniquely two-toed, with the main toe developed almost as a hoof—to escape its enemies, chiefly humans and the larger carnivores. A frightened ostrich can achieve a speed of 72.5 kilometers (45 miles) per hour. If cornered, it can deliver dangerous kicks capable of killing lions and other large predators. Deaths from kicks and slashes are rare, with most attacks resulting from humans provoking the birds.

    One of the most interesting ostrich-attack stories involved the American musician Johnny Cash, who kept an exotic animal park with ostriches on his property. Cash encountered an aggressive male ostrich several times during his walks in the woods in 1981. On one occasion, Cash brandished a 6-foot stick and swung it at the bird, who dodged the swipe and slashed at Cash with its foot. Cash noted that the blow struck him in the stomach, and if it weren’t for a strong belt buckle, he said that the ostrich’s toe claw would have cut his abdomen open and killed him.

  • Emu (Dromaius [or Dromiceiusnovaehollandiae)

    Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) with chicks in the outback, Australia. Flightless bird mother with young
    Shmenny50—iStock/Thinkstock

    The common emu, the only survivor of several forms exterminated by settlers, is stout-bodied and long-legged like its relative the cassowary. Emus can dash away at nearly 50 km (30 miles) per hour; if cornered, they kick with their big three-toed feet. Like cassowaries and ostriches, the toe claws of emus are capable of eviscerating animals under the right conditions; however, human fatalities are extremely rare. Reports of emu attacks resulting in a range of injuries in Australia and in wild-animal parks, emu farms, and zoos across the world are not uncommon, with more than 100 occurring in 2009 alone.

  • Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus)

    Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus)
    Paul Johnsgard—Root Resources/Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

    Lammergeiers, which are also called bearded vultures, are big eaglelike vultures of the Old World (family Accipitridae). These birds often reach lengths of more than 1 meter (40 inches), with a wingspread of nearly 3 meters (10 feet). They inhabit mountainous regions from Central Asia and eastern Africa to Spain and dine on carrion, especially bones, which they drop from heights as great as 80 meters (260 feet) onto flat rocks below. This cracks open the victim’s bones and allows the birds access to the marrow. Attacks on humans are either rare or even anecdotal; however, the Athenian dramatist Aeschylus is said to have died at Gela (on Sicily’s south coast) when a lammergeier dropped a tortoise on his bald head after mistaking it for a stone. Although Aeschylus did die at Gela, experts believe that the story describing the strange cause of his death was fabricated by a later comic writer.

  • Great horned owl (Bubo virginianus)

    Great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) landing in meadow.
    © bigshotd3/Fotolia

    Owls of all kinds have been known to attack people when defending their young, their mates, or their territories. Frequent targets include unsuspecting joggers and hikers. Often victims escape without injury, and deaths from owl attacks are extremely rare. Great horned owls (Bubo virginianus) and barred owls (Strix varia), in particular, have received attention from high-profile attacks.

    In 2012 a number of people in a Seattle-area park reported being attacked by a great horned owl that swooped down from the trees. A similar swooping attack occurred in Salem, Oregon, in 2015 when a great horned owl repeatedly struck the scalp of a jogger, who ran and later escaped. Great horned owls are powerful predators that often grow to more than 2 feet (60 cm) in length, with wingspans that often approach 200 cm (80 inches). These owls, which are found across the Americas, usually eat small rodents and birds but have been known to carry off larger prey. The clutching force of their talons can be as strong as 500 psi (which is similar to the bite of a large guard dog and thus great enough to permanently disfigure, blind, or kill). Great horned owls, like most owl species, tend to concentrate on the face and head in battles with larger animals.

  • Barred Owl (Strix varia)

    Barred owl (Strix varia)
    Karl H. Maslowski

    Barred owls, whose habitat includes much of the eastern United States and southeastern Canada, are smaller than great horned owls. They weigh between 630 and 800 grams (1.4 to 1.8 pounds) and have a wingspan of about 110 cm (43 inches). Attacks by barred owls on hikers have been reported from Texas to British Columbia.

    A barred owl was thought to have played a part in a bizarre high-profile North Carolina murder case. In 2003 a man was convicted of murdering his second wife with a fireplace blow poke. In 2011, after the man had served several years in prison, a judge tossed out the forensic evidence related to the murder weapon. Shortly thereafter, news of barred-owl attacks in the Pacific Northwest, combined with a reexamination of the wounds on the victim’s scalp, face, and wrists, prompted the defendant’s attorneys to suggest that a barred owl was to blame for the victim’s death. The defense argued that the victim, who was under the influence of pain medication and alcohol at the time, was attacked by a barred owl in her front yard. The owl had become entangled in the victim’s hair and continued to scratch and peck before the victim was able to fight it off and free it as she ran into the house. After climbing the stairs to the second floor, the attorneys suggested that the victim had then fallen backwards down the stairs to her death, breaking her neck. In 2017 the defendant plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter, which allowed him to maintain his innocence.

    WRITTEN BY:  John P. Rafferty 

How Service Animals Help Humans Live Fuller Lives

Guide dog is helping a blind man in the city, service dog, service animal, labrador
© Stieber/Shutterstock.com

An earlier version of this article was published on the Britannica blog Advocacy for Animals.

The partnership between humans and animals dates back to the first domestication of animals in the Stone Age, as long as 9,000 years ago. But never have animals provided such dedicated and particular help to humans as they do today in the form of trained service, or assistance, to people with disabilities. These animals, usually dogs, help people accomplish tasks that would otherwise be prohibitively difficult or simply impossible. Service animals are not pets but working animals doing a job. Thus, legislation—such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) in the United States and the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) in the United Kingdom—makes service animals exempt from rules that prohibit animals from public places and businesses.

The most familiar service animals are guide dogs who help visually impaired people move about safely. Systematic training of guide dogs originated in Germany during World War I to aid blindedveterans. In the late 1920s Dorothy Harrison Eustis, an American dog trainer living in Switzerland, heard of the program and wrote a magazine article about it. The publicity led her to her first student, Morris Frank, with whose help she established a similar training school in the United States in 1929, the Seeing Eye (now located in Morristown, New Jersey).

Puppies are often bred for the purpose by the various organizations that train guide dogs. German shepherdsLabrador retrievers, and Labrador-golden retriever crosses are the most widely used breeds because of their calm temperaments, intelligence, natural desire to be helpful, and good constitutions. Puppies spend their first year with foster families who socialize them and prepare them for later training by teaching them basic obedience skills. At the age of approximately 18 months, guide dogs enter formal training, which lasts from about three to five months. During this period the dogs learn to adjust to a harness, stop at curbs, gauge the human partner’s height when traveling in low or obstructed places, and disobey a command when obedience will endanger the person.

In recent years, hearing dogs have become increasingly common. These dogs, usually mixed-breed rescues from animal shelters, are trained to alert their human partners to ordinary sounds, such as an alarm clock, a baby’s cry, or a telephone. The dogs raise the alert by touching the partner with a paw and then leading him or her to the source of the sound. They are also trained to recognize danger signals—such as fire alarms and sounds of intruders—and to raise the alert by touching with a paw and then lying down in a special “alert” posture, at which time the human partner can take appropriate action.

Dogs can be trained for a great variety of assistance purposes. For example, Service Dogs for America (SDA)/Great Plains Assistance Dogs Foundation, Inc., trains several categories of assistance animals, including service dogs who help people who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices; hearing dogs; seizure-alert or seizure-response dogs, who help persons with seizure disorders by activating an electronic alert system when symptoms occur (some can even predict the onset of a seizure); and therapeutic companion dogs, who provide emotional support for people in hospices, hospitals, and other situations in which loneliness and lack of stimulation are continual problems. There are many programs that train and certify pet animals, especially dogs and cats, as therapy animals who visit such institutions and bring much-welcomed companionship to patients.

Animals are also used in programs such as animal-assisted therapy (AAT). In the words of the Australia-based Delta Society, AAT is a “goal-directed intervention” that utilizes the motivating and rewarding presence of animals, facilitated by trained human professionals, to help patients make cognitive and physical improvements. For example, an elderly patient in a nursing home might be given the task of buckling a dog’s collar or feeding small treats to a cat, activities that enhance fine motor skills. Goals are set for the patients, and their progress is measured.

Dogs and cats are not the only animals who can assist humans with disabilities. Capuchin monkeys—small, quick, and intelligent—can help people who are paralyzed or have other severe impairments to their mobility, such as multiple sclerosis. These monkeys perform essential tasks such as turning on lights and picking up dropped objects. One of the more unusual assistance animals is the guide horse. An experimental program in the United States trains miniature horses to guide the visually impaired in the same way that guide dogs do. The tiny horses may be an alternative for people who are allergic to dogs or who have equestrian backgrounds and are more comfortable with horses.

Certain dogs and other animals have special skills similar to those of the seizure-assistance dogs, such as the ability to detect a diabetic’s drop in blood sugar and alert the person before danger occurs. The sometimes uncanny natural abilities of animals can benefit humans in many ways. Reputable organizations that train assistance animals also take steps to ensure that the animals are cherished and lead rewarding, enjoyable, and healthy lives. When the animals’ helping careers are over, provision is made for their well-deserved retirement.

Plastic Disaster: How Your Bags, Bottles, and Body Wash Pollute the Oceans

Environmental problem of plastic rubbish pollution in ocean
© Rich Carey/Shutterstock.com

Plastic is cheap and durable and has revolutionized human activity. Modern life is addicted to and dependent on this versatile substance, which is found in everything from computers to medical equipment to food packaging. Unfortunately, an estimated 19 billion pounds (more than 8.5 million metric tons) of plastic waste ends up in our oceans every year. Much of this plastic comes from single-use packaging, such as soda bottles and produce bags, and from other single-use products such as straws and disposable diapers. One study suggested that by the year 2050 there will be more plastic by weight in the oceans than fish!

Plastic pollution is more than unsightly. It has a deadly and direct effect on wildlife. Many marine organisms get physically entangled in plastic trash and either drown or slowly starve to death. Others eat the plastics, mistaking the ubiquitous materials for food. Leatherback sea turtles often confuse plastic bags for their jellyfish prey and asphyxiate. Seabirds, especially albatrosses, and other birds that scoop food from the sea have been found dead on their nests, their bellies too full of plastics to survive. A recent study found plastic trash in 90 percent of seabirds, with pieces ranging from bottle caps to rice-sized fragments that look like seeds.

Perhaps even more worrisome is microplastic pollution. The vast majority of plastics are not biodegradable, meaning they break down into smaller and smaller particles but never leave the environment entirely. Pieces smaller than 5 mm (0.2 inch) are classified as microplastics, and it is estimated that a significant portion of all plastic pollution in the oceans is now in this category. Microplastics also come from cosmetics, body washes, and toothpastes, which use tiny pieces of plastics as exfoliants and abrasives, and from items of synthetic clothing that shed minute fibers each time they are washed. These particles and fibers are too small for waste management systemsto filter and are directly discharged into the oceans. There is concern that these microplastics and/or the endocrine-disrupting chemicals they contain will bioaccumulate (become progressively more concentrated in the bodies of organisms up the food chain), since they are about the same size as plankton that serve as the base of the food chain. Many marine organisms have already been found with microplastics in their bodies. Studies on marine worms and oysters have found that microplastics disrupt their feeding and reproduction, causing a failure to thrive. These tiny fragments could also contaminate humans directly, as microplastics have been found in sea salt sold for human consumption.

Disturbingly, global plastic production doubles every 11 years, meaning the amount of plastic pollution will only continue to increase without drastic changes. To help battle this dire problem, be aware of your consumption of single-use plastics—it will likely shock you to realize how seemingly everything comes in plastic. Reduce your consumption of these products and reuse the containers whenever possible. Avoid health and beauty products that use plastic microbeads. Buy reusable bags, straws, and glass or metal beverage containers. Buy pantry basics, like rice and beans, in bulk, and avoid putting your produce in plastic bags for the short trip home. Recycle the plastic you do use, but be aware that not every plastic can be recycled. Participate in beach, river, or lake cleanups and help raise awareness of the problem. Encourage your employer and the companies and restaurants you patronize to facilitate greener options, such as paper products over plastic disposables. Support legislation that targets plastic pollution and the fossil fuels from which they are made. The challenge is huge, but, like plastics themselves, small actions accumulate.

How Did the Sperm Whale Get Its Name?

Sperm whale

Sperm whales (Physeter catodon), or cachalots, are the largest of the toothed whales, with males up to 19 meters (62 feet) long—more than five times the length of a large elephant—and females up to 12 meters (39 feet) in length. They are easily recognized by their enormous square head and narrow lower jaw. Probably the most famous sperm whale was Moby Dick, the great white whale from Herman Melville’s classic novel of the same name. (As far as we can tell, Moby Dick was the only sperm whale that delivered a unique brand of karmic justice to one-legged sea captains bent on vengeance.) Despite the public’s passing familiarity with sperm whales, many people have wondered why they are so named. Are they called sperm whales because their body shape is similar to that of male sex cells, or is there another reason?

The whale’s common name originated during the heyday of the commercial whaling industry, from the end of the 18th century through the 19th century. The head of the sperm whale contains an enormous fluid-filled organ (which whalers called the case). During whale harvests, this organ, now called the spermaceti organ, was discovered to contain a white liquid that whalers mistook for the sperm of the whale. The spermaceti organ is unique to sperm whales, although bottlenose whales possess a similar organ. It has a volume as large as 2,000 liters (530 gallons) and can extend through 40 percent of the whale’s length.

Whalers valued spermaceti (the name of the material within the spermaceti organ) because it could be cooled into a wax that could be made into ointments, cosmetic creams, fine wax candles, pomades, textile finishing products, and industrial lubricants. The whale’s spermaceti organ and blubber also hold sperm oil, a pale yellow oil that was used as a superior lighting oil and later as a lubricant and in soap manufacturing.

WRITTEN BY:  John P. Rafferty 

Dinosaur Shocker

Red blood cells (© Science) 

Neatly dressed in blue Capri pants and a sleeveless top, long hair flowing over her bare shoulders, Mary Schweitzer sits at a microscope in a dim lab, her face lit only by a glowing computer screen showing a network of thin, branching vessels. That’s right, blood vessels. From a dinosaur. “Ho-ho-ho, I am excite-e-e-e-d,” she chuckles. “I am, like, really excited.”

After 68 million years in the ground, a Tyrannosaurus rex found in Montana was dug up, its leg bone was broken in pieces, and fragments were dissolved in acid in Schweitzer’s laboratory at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “Cool beans,” she says, looking at the image on the screen.

It was big news indeed last year when Schweitzer announced she had discovered blood vessels and structures that looked like whole cells inside that T. rex bone—the first observation of its kind. The finding amazed colleagues, who had never imagined that even a trace of still-soft dinosaur tissue could survive. After all, as any textbook will tell you, when an animal dies, soft tissues such as blood vessels, muscle and skin decay and disappear over time, while hard tissues like bone may gradually acquire minerals from the environment and become fossils. Schweitzer, one of the first scientists to use the tools of modern cell biology to study dinosaurs, has upended the conventional wisdom by showing that some rock-hard fossils tens of millions of years old may have remnants of soft tissues hidden away in their interiors. “The reason it hasn’t been discovered before is no right-thinking paleontologist would do what Mary did with her specimens. We don’t go to all this effort to dig this stuff out of the ground to then destroy it in acid,” says dinosaur paleontologist Thomas Holtz Jr., of the University of Maryland. “It’s great science.” The observations could shed new light on how dinosaurs evolved and how their muscles and blood vessels worked. And the new findings might help settle a long-running debate about whether dinosaurs were warmblooded, coldblooded—or both.

Meanwhile, Schweitzer’s research has been hijacked by “young earth” creationists, who insist that dinosaur soft tissue couldn’t possibly survive millions of years. They claim her discoveries support their belief, based on their interpretation of Genesis, that the earth is only a few thousand years old. Of course, it’s not unusual for a paleontologist to differ with creationists. But when creationists misrepresent Schweitzer’s data, she takes it personally: she describes herself as “a complete and total Christian.” On a shelf in her office is a plaque bearing an Old Testament verse: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

It may be that Schweitzer’s unorthodox approach to paleontology can be traced to her roundabout career path. Growing up in Helena, Montana, she went through a phase when, like many kids, she was fascinated by dinosaurs. In fact, at age 5 she announced she was going to be a paleontologist. But first she got a college degree in communicative disorders, married, had three children and briefly taught remedial biology to high schoolers. In 1989, a dozen years after she graduated from college, she sat in on a class at Montana State University taught by paleontologist Jack Horner, of the Museum of the Rockies, now an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. The lectures reignited her passion for dinosaurs. Soon after, she talked her way into a volunteer position in Horner’s lab and began to pursue a doctorate in paleontology.

She initially thought she would study how the microscopic structure of dinosaur bones differs depending on how much the animal weighs. But then came the incident with the red spots.

In 1991, Schweitzer was trying to study thin slices of bones from a 65-million-year-old T. rex. She was having a hard time getting the slices to stick to a glass slide, so she sought help from a molecular biologist at the university. The biologist, Gayle Callis, happened to take the slides to a veterinary conference, where she set up the ancient samples for others to look at. One of the vets went up to Callis and said, “Do you know you have red blood cells in that bone?” Sure enough, under a microscope, it appeared that the bone was filled with red disks. Later, Schweitzer recalls, “I looked at this and I looked at this and I thought, this can’t be. Red blood cells don’t preserve.”
Schweitzer showed the slide to Horner. “When she first found the red-blood-cell-looking structures, I said, Yep, that’s what they look like,” her mentor recalls. He thought it was possible they were red blood cells, but he gave her some advice: “Now see if you can find some evidence to show that that’s not what they are.”

What she found instead was evidence of heme in the bones—additional support for the idea that they were red blood cells. Heme is a part of hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in the blood and gives red blood cells their color. “It got me real curious as to exceptional preservation,” she says. If particles of that one dinosaur were able to hang around for 65 million years, maybe the textbooks were wrong about fossilization.

Schweitzer tends to be self-deprecating, claiming to be hopeless at computers, lab work and talking to strangers. But colleagues admire her, saying she’s determined and hard-working and has mastered a number of complex laboratory techniques that are beyond the skills of most paleontologists. And asking unusual questions took a lot of nerve. “If you point her in a direction and say, don’t go that way, she’s the kind of person who’ll say, Why?—and she goes and tests it herself,” says Gregory Erickson, a paleobiologist at Florida State University. Schweitzer takes risks, says Karen Chin, a University of Colorado paleontologist. “It could be a big payoff or it could just be kind of a ho-hum research project.”

In 2000, Bob Harmon, a field crew chief from the Museum of the Rockies, was eating his lunch in a remote Montana canyon when he looked up and saw a bone sticking out of a rock wall. That bone turned out to be part of what may be the best preserved T. rex in the world. Over the next three summers, workers chipped away at the dinosaur, gradually removing it from the cliff face. They called it B. rex in Harmon’s honor and nicknamed it Bob. In 2001, they encased a section of the dinosaur and the surrounding dirt in plaster to protect it. The package weighed more than 2,000 pounds, which turned out to be just above their helicopter’s capacity, so they split it in half. One of B. rex’s leg bones was broken into two big pieces and several fragments—just what Schweitzer needed for her micro-scale explorations.

It turned out Bob had been misnamed. “It’s a girl and she’s pregnant,” Schweitzer recalls telling her lab technician when she looked at the fragments. On the hollow inside surface of the femur, Schweitzer had found scraps of bone that gave a surprising amount of information about the dinosaur that made them. Bones may seem as steady as stone, but they’re actually constantly in flux. Pregnant women use calcium from their bones to build the skeleton of a developing fetus. Before female birds start to lay eggs, they form a calcium-rich structure called medullary bone on the inside of their leg and other bones; they draw on it during the breeding season to make eggshells. Schweitzer had studied birds, so she knew about medullary bone, and that’s what she figured she was seeing in that T. rex specimen.

Most paleontologists now agree that birds are the dinosaurs’ closest living relatives. In fact, they say that birds are dinosaurs—colorful, incredibly diverse, cute little feathered dinosaurs. The theropod of the Jurassic forests lives on in the goldfinch visiting the backyard feeder, the toucans of the tropics and the ostriches loping across the African savanna.

To understand her dinosaur bone, Schweitzer turned to two of the most primitive living birds: ostriches and emus. In the summer of 2004, she asked several ostrich breeders for female bones. A farmer called, months later. “Y’all still need that lady ostrich?” The dead bird had been in the farmer’s backhoe bucket for several days in the North Carolina heat. Schweitzer and two colleagues collected a leg from the fragrant carcass and drove it back to Raleigh.

As far as anyone can tell, Schweitzer was right: Bob the dinosaur really did have a store of medullary bone when she died. A paper published in Science last June presents microscope pictures of medullary bone from ostrich and emu side by side with dinosaur bone, showing near-identical features.

In the course of testing a B. rex bone fragment further, Schweitzer asked her lab technician, Jennifer Wittmeyer, to put it in weak acid, which slowly dissolves bone, including fossilized bone—but not soft tissues. One Friday night in January 2004, Wittmeyer was in the lab as usual. She took out a fossil chip that had been in the acid for three days and put it under the microscope to take a picture. “[The chip] was curved so much, I couldn’t get it in focus,” Wittmeyer recalls. She used forceps to flatten it. “My forceps kind of sunk into it, made a little indentation and it curled back up. I was like, stop it!” Finally, through her irritation, she realized what she had: a fragment of dinosaur soft tissue left behind when the mineral bone around it had dissolved. Suddenly Schweitzer and Wittmeyer were dealing with something no one else had ever seen. For a couple of weeks, Wittmeyer said, it was like Christmas every day.

In the lab, Wittmeyer now takes out a dish with six compartments, each holding a little brown dab of tissue in clear liquid, and puts it under the microscope lens. Inside each specimen is a fine network of almost-clear branching vessels—the tissue of a female Tyrannosaurus rex that strode through the forests 68 million years ago, preparing to lay eggs. Close up, the blood vessels from that T. rex and her ostrich cousins look remarkably alike. Inside the dinosaur vessels are things Schweitzer diplomatically calls “round microstructures” in the journal article, out of an abundance of scientific caution, but they are red and round, and she and other scientists suspect that they are red blood cells.

Of course, what everyone wants to know is whether DNA might be lurking in that tissue. Wittmeyer, from much experience with the press since the discovery, calls this “the awful question”—whether Schweitzer’s work is paving the road to a real-life version of science fiction’s Jurassic Park, where dinosaurs were regenerated from DNA preserved in amber. But DNA, which carries the genetic script for an animal, is a very fragile molecule. It’s also ridiculously hard to study because it is so easily contaminated with modern biological material, such as microbes or skin cells, while buried or after being dug up. Instead, Schweitzer has been testing her dinosaur tissue samples for proteins, which are a bit hardier and more readily distinguished from contaminants. Specifically, she’s been looking for collagen, elastin and hemoglobin. Collagen makes up much of the bone scaffolding, elastin is wrapped around blood vessels and hemoglobin carries oxygen inside red blood cells.

Because the chemical makeup of proteins changes through evolution, scientists can study protein sequences to learn more about how dinosaurs evolved. And because proteins do all the work in the body, studying them could someday help scientists understand dinosaur physiology—how their muscles and blood vessels worked, for example.

Proteins are much too tiny to pick out with a microscope. To look for them, Schweitzer uses antibodies, immune system molecules that recognize and bind to specific sections of proteins. Schweitzer and Wittmeyer have been using antibodies to chicken collagen, cow elastin and ostrich hemoglobin to search for similar molecules in the dinosaur tissue. At an October 2005 paleontology conference, Schweitzer presented preliminary evidence that she has detected real dinosaur proteins in her specimens.

Further discoveries in the past year have shown that the discovery of soft tissue in B. rex wasn’t just a fluke. Schweitzer and Wittmeyer have now found probable blood vessels, bone-building cells and connective tissue in another T. rex, in a theropod from Argentina and in a 300,000-year-old woolly mammoth fossil. Schweitzer’s work is “showing us we really don’t understand decay,” Holtz says. “There’s a lot of really basic stuff in nature that people just make assumptions about.”

Young-earth creationists also see Schweitzer’s work as revolutionary, but in an entirely different way. They first seized upon Schweitzer’s work after she wrote an article for the popular science magazine Earth in 1997 about possible red blood cells in her dinosaur specimens. Creation magazine claimed that Schweitzer’s research was “powerful testimony against the whole idea of dinosaurs living millions of years ago. It speaks volumes for the Bible’s account of a recent creation.”

This drives Schweitzer crazy. Geologists have established that the Hell Creek Formation, where B. rex was found, is 68 million years old, and so are the bones buried in it. She’s horrified that some Christians accuse her of hiding the true meaning of her data. “They treat you really bad,” she says. “They twist your words and they manipulate your data.” For her, science and religion represent two different ways of looking at the world; invoking the hand of God to explain natural phenomena breaks the rules of science. After all, she says, what God asks is faith, not evidence. “If you have all this evidence and proof positive that God exists, you don’t need faith. I think he kind of designed it so that we’d never be able to prove his existence. And I think that’s really cool.”

By definition, there is a lot that scientists don’t know, because the whole point of science is to explore the unknown. By being clear that scientists haven’t explained everything, Schweitzer leaves room for other explanations. “I think that we’re always wise to leave certain doors open,” she says.

But schweitzer’s interest in the long-term preservation of molecules and cells does have an otherworldly dimension: she’s collaborating with NASA scientists on the search for evidence of possible past life on Mars, Saturn’s moon Titan, and other heavenly bodies. (Scientists announced this spring, for instance, that Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus appears to have liquid water, a probable precondition for life.)

Astrobiology is one of the wackier branches of biology, dealing in life that might or might not exist and might or might not take any recognizable form. “For almost everybody who works on NASA stuff, they are just in hog heaven, working on astrobiology questions,” Schweitzer says. Her NASA research involves using antibodies to probe for signs of life in unexpected places. “For me, it’s the means to an end. I really want to know about my dinosaurs.”

To that purpose, Schweitzer, with Wittmeyer, spends hours in front of microscopes in dark rooms. To a fourth-generation Montanan, even the relatively laid-back Raleigh area is a big city. She reminisces wistfully about scouting for field sites on horseback in Montana. “Paleontology by microscope is not that fun,” she says. “I’d much rather be out tromping around.”

“My eyeballs are just absolutely fried,” Schweitzer says after hours of gazing through the microscope’s eyepieces at glowing vessels and blobs. You could call it the price she pays for not being typical.

The bug collecting boy that went on to invent Pokémon

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Pokémon is one of the biggest game franchises ever created. With over 20 films, 122 games, and over 800 creatures to capture, the Pokémon series has been highly influential in gaming culture across the globe.

The origins of Pokémon may be surprising for some, because it begins with one man’s love for bug-catching.

Satoshi Tajiri, founder of the game company Game Freak, grew up in Machida, Japan. Machida was still widely rural when he was a boy and he would spend his time exploring the wilderness, catching bugs as a hobby.

This love of bug catching would become a favorite hobby of his and would inspire him to create the Pokémon game. With urbanization taking place in his home city, he began to realize that the children of the future wouldn’t get the chance to interact with bugs and nature as he did. This realization would stay with him as he grew older.

Satoshi’s fascination with bugs was only eclipsed by his fascination with computers and arcade games. While his parents looked down on his obsession with playing games at the arcade, mainly because it led him to skip school, Satoshi saw games as more than just a hobby. He saw them as a valuable part of life.

So deep was Satoshi’s obsession with games that he began his own magazine called Game Freak, which contained tips, cheats, and articles about different popular games.

With the assistance of artist Ken Sugimori, Game Freak became a briskly selling magazine and would attract other like-minded individuals to the team.

 Over time, Satoshi and his team would realize that they didn’t simply want to write about games, they wanted to create them. In 1989, they formed the company Game Freak and set about creating games such as Yoshi, and Mario & Wario.

These games would prove to Nintendo that Game Freak was serious about game design and they were competent enough for a big project.

Satoshi, still thinking about the joys of bug collecting and wanting to bring it to the world so that children anywhere could have the same experience as him, began to develop the idea of Pokémon in 1990.

The Game Boy was an excellent choice of console because of the fact that Game Boys could be linked together. This would inspire Satoshi to come up with the concept of trading, a concept that Pokémon is famous for.

With Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto guiding Satoshi through the process of creating the Pokémon game design, Game Freak was cleared to begin production for Pokémon. This would be a tumultuous six-year process for Satoshi and his team, as making the game was a costly and long endeavor.

Pokemon pikachu cake

With the production taking so long, Game Freak almost went bankrupt, Creatures Inc., of Mother fame, made a decision to invest in the company, saving it from dying. In exchange for the investment money, Creatures Inc. would receive a third of rights to the Pokémon franchise.

In 1996, Pokémon Red and Green would release in Japan, achieving a staggering 10 million copies sold within the year. Game Freak was no longer threatened by bankruptcy and Nintendo would go on to create their own subsidiary, known as The Pokémon Company, in 1998.

The first two games, Red and Green (although released in the United States as Red and Blue), would ultimately end up selling over 31 million copies during its run.

The game was well received not only by game consumers but also by game critics as well. They liked the simplicity, the clever use of the trading mechanic, as well as the “gotta catch em all” system which encouraged completion in the game.

To this day, Pokémon Red and Blue are considered to be one of the most influential games to have been made during the 1990s.

In the end, thanks to Satoshi’s love of bugs and collecting, he was able to create a game franchise that would go on to become a multi-billion-dollar industry.

This industry would do more than just create video games and sell products, it would spark the imaginations of a generation, giving them fond memories of their favorite pocket monsters.

J Andrew Pourciaux


Andrew Pourciaux is a novelist hailing from sunny Sarasota, Florida, where he spends the majority of his time writing and podcasting

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