STRANGE BUT TRUE- Say cheese: Smile, critters, you're on candid cam


Q. What's that clipped to a shark's fin, collared to a bear, or attached to a crow's tail? The device has come of age, taking biologists deeper into the secret world of animals. –C. Stuart

A. It's one of the new generation of Crittercams, or wildlife cameras, worn by the animals themselves and capable of providing hours of footage and audio, along with a host of other scientific data, says Michael Greenwood in "Biophotonics International" magazine. The old version was eight pounds and two feet long, but today's varieties go as light as a pound and a half for large terrestrial animals, a few ounces for birds and weightless in effect for marine animals as the cameras float in water.

Using an infrared headlight, the Crittercam beams a real-time signal up to three miles in color or black and white, revealing the animal's home environment. (There's a smaller system for house cats, birds, etc.) More than 60 species have been Crittercammed, from a lioness in Africa to a humpback whale in Alaska, providing images that in many cases have never been seen before. Generally, the target animals have reacted well, though one shark thrashed about so aggressively it knocked off the camera and had to be released for its own safety. On the other hand, when a camera was affixed to a lion in Kenya, the animal actually groomed itself and cleaned the lens for the researchers! 

It gives us the animal's-eye view of the world, says, and what we learn helps us protect the very animals that wear the Crittercams.

Q. When the neurobiology prof encountered a student who had plagiarized her entire paper from one of his class lectures, what punishment did he mete out? An F? Expulsion from the class? –J. Jane

A. A lesser teacher might have but not this one, says Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. When the prof called the student into his office, something didn't add up: She didn't seem the type to cheat or lie so he played a hunch, asking her if she happened to have a photographic memory. "Why, yes, sort of like that," she replied. "I can remember anything if I put it to music." She then sang back to him whole sections of his lecture. And quite prettily, he added. "I was flabbergasted."

This got Sacks thinking about the countless cultural songs and rhymes to help kids learn the alphabet, numbers and other lists. Even as adults we may have to sing the "ABC song" internally to recall the entire alphabet. Especially in preliterate cultures, music has held power in oral traditions of storytelling, liturgy, prayer. Whole books can be held in memory–"The Iliad" and "The Odyssey"–

with their music-like rhythm and rhyme. All of this may have much to do with why we humans took to music to the extent we have.

Q. "To be on cloud 9" is to be sky high with happiness, yet probably more of us have been under cloud 9. But how about cloud 10? What apparel might be appropriate in that case? –W. Wordsworth

A. Likely umbrellas, raincoats and galoshes, since cloud 10 replaced the designation of cloud 9 in the 2nd edition of The International Cloud Atlas of 1896, to signify cumulonimbus clouds, or thunderclouds, the tallest of the cloud types, says Andrew Robinson in The Story of Measurement. The 10 of course never caught on in popular lingo. Scientific cloud typing itself got started in 1802 when Luke Howard, drawing on an even older system, coined the names cumulus, stratus, cirrus, and nimbus (the last no longer still in use).

Q. How do "proximodistal" and "cephalocaudal" tell much about your developmental life as fetus and beyond? –U.G. Turner

A. The first means "from the body's center outward," as fetal development starts with the tiny elongated mass of cells along the neural groove that become the spinal column, say V. Gregory Payne and Larry D. Isaacs in "Human Motor Development–A Lifespan Approach." Then the body builds generally outward toward the periphery, until even the fingers and toes are complete. Cephalocaudal means "from the head to the tail (feet)," the human built from the top down. The head of the fetus or infant is proportionately huge, later the rest of the body catches up.

Infant movement follows a similar path, with conscious control over head liftings coming first. Also, in learning to walk, baby starts on stiff legs and flat feet and only later, gaining command of the knees and ankles, achieves the adult walking style. "Interestingly, as a person ages and movement ability begins to regress, the cephalocaudal and proximodistal processes reverse."

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