Friday, November 29, 2013

Gobble, Gobble.

Thanksgiving Day has passed and if you live in the U.S. or Canada, you’re probably still recovering from turkey overload. Yesterday we commemorated that mythical feast between the Pilgrims and Native Americans, where they all sat down to share in this land’s bounty. (“Would you like some smallpox with your gravy?”)
Actually, Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday. Fall is a wonderful time of year and turkey day is tucked nicely between Halloween and Christmas, resulting in a blissful holiday trifecta. I’ve already compared the human circulatory system to a fire engine (April’s Anatomy of a Fire Truck), but to commemorate Thanksgiving, I thought we’d have some more fun with comparative anatomy and see how much we share in common with our feathered friends. Let’s begin with a glimpse at our genealogies.

Birds evolved from small carnivorous dinosaurs around 170 million years ago. This ancient ancestry accounts for the many different bird species that exist today; around ten thousand at last count. Humans, on the other hand, split from our last common ancestor (LCA, if you want to sound savvy) a mere six million years ago, give or take a million. Birds beat us on scene by a long shot.
Feathers evolved, not for flight, but probably for insulation or display. Only later were they commandeered as part of the airborne assemblage. Turkeys sport an impressive array - over thirty-five hundred. We, on the other hand, lack these colorful adornments and can only grow hair, although there are some among us who could give Sasquatch a run for his money.

Turkeys, like us, are vertebrates. Thus, we share many of the same bones, although theirs have been modified for flight. Most birds have hollow bones compared to ours, which are thicker and heavier. Hollow bones make for a lighter skeleton, which is essential if you intend to get off the ground. Penguins are the exception, but their chunky little bodies have evolved for swimming, resulting in a very non-birdlike anatomy.
Like us, turkeys rely on vision over smell. In fact, turkeys can detect movement from a hundred yards out. And contrary to popular opinion, they are fairly intelligent (unlike many humans). They are keenly aware of their surroundings and can be quite friendly. Even early Europeans commented on the cordiality of the turkeys they encountered when they arrived in the New World. The birds would strut right up and cluck “howdy” just before they were clunked on the head and thrown on the fire.

Turkeys were first domesticated by the Aztecs of Central Mexico who not only bred them but also worshiped them. The ancients relied on their meat, eggs, and feathers, but also believed turkeys were the physical manifestation of one of their gods, Tescatlipoca, and held celebrations in their honor. Once the Spanish clobbered the Aztecs, they loaded their ships with turkeys and sailed back to Spain. The birds were then domesticated throughout Europe. Ironically, the Pilgrims toted the birds back to the New World aboard the Mayflower. These are some well-travelled birds.
Ben Franklin was enamored of the turkey. He referred to it as a “bird of courage” and tried to convince his fellow Founding Fathers to adopt it as the symbol for the new U.S. of A. But his contemporaries didn’t share his enthusiasm and instead, nominated the eagle. Wise choice. It’d be hard to kick ass around the world if your national symbol was a gobbler.

And speaking of prowess… Turkeys and humans also share many similarities in their courtship rituals. Their males, like ours, puff themselves up so they appear bigger and stronger. They prance around, grunting and vibrating their bodies in order to entice the hens. And this can go on for some time until the female finally grows bored and submits (sometimes it’s simply easier). The males will also mate with multiple females, if given the opportunity. Turkeys, like men, rarely turn down a chance of tail.
So enjoy those turkey leftovers. As you munch your turkey sandwich or slurp your turkey soup, take a moment to appreciate this magnificent bird. But before you chuck the carcass, think of the long history that brought this bird to your table and how each of our bodies tells its own evolutionary tale.
Bon app├ętit!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Humans... tasty, tasty.

It’s good to be a human. After a few million years of evolution, we’ve finally made it. We’ve conquered land, sea, and space. We’ve invented medicines, phones, and computers. And we’ve inhabited every square inch of the planet (although you can still get a deal on real estate at either pole). Humans are pretty awesome.
Humans are also masterful hunters. If it weren’t for hunting, we probably wouldn’t be here. Scientists are just starting to appreciate the role meat eating, and subsequently, cooking, played in making humans the intelligent (for the most part) and progressive species they are today.

We tend to envision ourselves at the top of the food chain. We can haul in game fish as fast as we can bait our hooks, blast our way through a herd of elk, and slay even the largest of carnivores, thanks to modern weaponry. But that doesn’t mean our fellow critters don’t occasionally get revenge. Let’s check out some of the ways humans end up on the menu.
I live along the beautiful east coast of Florida, and guess what! Our little peninsula led the way last year in shark attacks in the United States. (Suck it, Hawaii!)  Of course, sharks aren’t the only happy man-eaters that inhabit the Sunshine State. We boast over a million alligators, which, on occasion, have been known to munch on a human. Surprisingly, the last fatality was way back in 2007 when a car thief in Miami jumped into a pond to elude the cops and was greeted by a belligerent gator. Like they say, crime doesn’t pay…

There were a plethora of bear attacks in the U.S. this past year. A couple of hikers in Yellowstone National Park were foolish enough to approach a passel of grizzly cubs before momma bear gave chase and subsequently bit one of the hikers on the ass. Kinda’ serves him right. If you’re foolish enough to flirt with a grizzly, you deserve to lose a bit of tail. Experts say if you’re confronted by an angry bear, curl up in a defensive ball. Seems in that position you’re just asking for an ass bite.
The mountain lion (aka, cougar, puma, panther) is another carnivore that seems to fancy a human from time to time. Many attacks take place along the west coast, where lions patrol paths frequented by hikers and bikers. According to the Mountain Lion Foundation, these agile cats can leap fifteen feet into trees, jump twelve-foot foot fences, and reach speeds of 50 mph. What to do if attacked? Instead of rolling in a ball and getting bit on the ass, as you would in an encounter with a grizzly, they actually advise confronting the feisty feline! Maintain eye contact, flap your arms to appear bigger, and make noise. Worst case scenario, chuck your granola bar in its direction. It turns out many people have avoided becoming lunch simply by mimicking a crazed chicken and fighting back.

Some animal attacks are brought on by humans themselves. These folks fall into the category of “exotic pet owner” or, as I prefer to think of them, trauma patients. These “pets” include tigers, wolves, leopards, and apes. Why people think they can domesticate a wild animal and magically suppress its natural tendency for meat (any form of meat) is beyond me. 

Here’s a fundamental principle of domestication: never domesticate anything that can eat you. There’s a reason ancient herdsmen chose cattle, pigs, and sheep. Your chances of being mauled by a goat are pretty slim.
There is one domesticate that regularly attacks humans: the dog. In 2012, there were thirty-eight fatal attacks in the U.S. The majority of these were from pit bulls;sixty-one percent%, in fact. Ironically, pit bulls account for only five percent of the U.S. dog population. According to, pit bulls killed 151 Americans between 2005 and 2012; about one fatality every nineteen days. But we can’t fault the dogs. Pit bulls are commonly bred for aggressiveness and this, combined with their powerful jaws, makes for a lethal combination. And here’s an interesting tidbit: dogs typically out-kill sharks by twenty-six percent, which means you’re safer snorkeling among a school of great whites than you are walking outside to check your mail.

So remember: even though you relish your role as master of the universe, there are still plenty of bigger and badder creatures out there that can take you down. After all, we possess the same juicy cuts of meat as our friends on the hoof and, in the eyes of a carnivore, we’re all fair game. Be safe out there.

If you haven't already, please check out my new novel and feel free to share it (poor man's marketing)!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Anatomy of a Hangover

Howdy from the hills of North Carolina, where I’ve escaped for a week of isolation among the lush beauty of the Smoky Mountains. Dense clouds are skirting their peaks and a grey sky is spitting snow, so I’ve settled before the fire to warm my cold-intolerant blood.
I’ve been coming here for years. The topography provides dramatic contrast to the flatness of Florida and it’s nice to witness the change of seasons. The week is usually spent indulging in two of my favorites: gin and bacon (if only they made bacon-flavored gin… or gin-flavored bacon!).

I’ve been a gin drinker since my early years on the fire department. In fact, it was a fellow firefighter who introduced me to that magical libation. Gin is not intended for the novice. It creates a blissful burn as it goes down, akin to swallowing an ecstasy-laced razorblade, and the effects are intense and immediate. Fortunately, following a long apprenticeship, I am now a proficient consumer. I know just when to cut myself off before the inevitable penalty sets in: the hangover.
We’ve all been there. The hammering head, the nausea, the shaking, the thirst… And although you can take meds to minimize the symptoms, you simply have to wait it out. It’s a slow form of punishment that sets its own pace.

So let’s examine just how alcohol ushers in this suite of symptoms and the next time you reach for that fourth or fifth cocktail, you might just take heed.
Although alcohol is technically a depressant, the initial effect is a blissful lightheadedness. Alcohol’s effects are based on several factors – what you’re drinking, your body size, how much you’ve had to eat, and how fast you’re drinking. A few quick shots on an empty stomach can produce intoxication in no time, especially for individuals unused to heavy consumption (aka, "lightweights").

As you drink, the alcohol enters your stomach where it is absorbed by the bloodstream and circulated throughout the body. Because drinking lowers your inhibitions, you tend to disregard the warning signs and keep on drinking. It’s a vicious cycle and before you know it, you’re smashed.
Enter Mr. Hangover.
Alcohol wreaks havoc on your body. Even when you manage to make it home and into bed, the fun has just begun, for here come the spins. Those miserable bed spins are caused by the alcohol affecting the fluid of your inner ear. The disruption sends signals to the brain, telling it the body is moving, when in reality, you’re simply hanging on for dear life, trying not to hurl. Word of warning: the spins are even worse if you add weed to the mix.  

As you’re busy spinning, the alcohol is toying with other bodily components. Urine output increases, which can lead to dehydration (dizziness, thirst, and lightheadedness). Your stomach lining becomes irritated, which contributes to nausea and vomiting. Blood vessels expand, causing your head to throb. And blood sugar can drop, which brings on the shakes.
On a broader scale, alcohol can trigger an inflammatory response, which your body combats via the immune system. The agents released by your immune system can cause a decrease in appetite, loss of memory, and an inability to concentrate. Alcohol also affects quality of sleep, which can intensify each of these symptoms, leaving you cranky and fatigued.

With all these ill effects, why do we continue to drink?? 

Because it’s so damn fun. Humans have been consuming alcohol for therapeutic, ceremonial, and recreational purposes for thousands of years. Evidence for alcohol dates back over nine thousand years in China’s Henan Province, where folks enjoyed a “wine-and-beer-like beverage” made from fermented grapes, rice, honey, and hawthorn fruit. Using residue analysis from pottery fragments, modern concoctors were able to recreate this brew, which went on to win a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2009. 
Science is awesome!
And the Chinese weren’t the only ones raising a glass (or vessel, I should say, since glass wasn’t invented until the Bronze Age). Ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Turks, and Mayans were also imbibing. And wherever there has been drinking, there has been overdrinking.

So the next time you overindulge, picture our ancient brethren in the same situation, for as long as there’s been alcohol, hangovers have lurked just around the corner.

Drink wisely and stay safe! Next week I’ll be writing from the great city of Chicago, where hundreds of fellow nerds and I will be gathering for the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting.
I’ll be sure to pack my flask…
Here's a great read on the history of drinking.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Size Matters

Think about your favorite sports. What do you like about them? Is it the speed, the precision, the intensity, the beauty? Is it a sport you enjoy playing or simply a sport you like to watch? Do you watch it for the sheer brutality (boxing) or the skimpy uniforms (women’s beach volleyball)? There are numerous reasons for liking the sports we like.
My favorite sport to watch is hockey. Although I’ve never played hockey, have never even put on skates, and am positive I would end up with a serious head injury if I tried either one, I am truly mesmerized by the game (although I abhor the fighting). Any sport in which big burly men race around bashing into each other and chasing a puck, while performing the entire feat on skates, ranks as phenomenal in my book.

The biomechanics of hockey are astounding. The grace with which the players move, combined with the physical intensity of the sport, make for a strange and beautiful combination. It’s hard to tell much about these players’ builds. Their bulky uniforms disguise the bodies beneath (although I spend considerable time imagining them out of their uniforms ), but it takes a highly muscular frame to perform the lightning fast, bone crushing maneuvers that make up this wonderful game.
Biomechanics - the forces exerted on the skeleton by muscles and gravity – are a fundamental aspect of any sport and some sports demand a certain type of body. So let’s explore some sport-specific bodies and see how size and shape enable athletes to excel in their chosen games.

Let’s start small. Professional jockeys must be tiny.  Although there is no height restriction in the world of horse racing, the average jockey is less than five-and-a-half feet tall (that’s about 1.7 meters for all you non-Americans). A jockey’s success is restricted by his weight. The lighter the horse (including its cargo), the faster the horse, and every ounce counts. The average jockey weighs between 108 and 118 pounds (around fifty kilos). If you want to ride in the Kentucky Derby, you can’t exceed 126 pounds, but that includes all your equipment (no naked bareback riding allowed). Although jockeys are remarkably small, the weight restrictions are a constant battle, especially as jockeys age. This has led to a dysfunctional culture of weight loss, where these little guys starve, sweat, and puke their way to feather weight. I’d never make it as a jockey…
What about the opposite extreme? The tallest players in the NBA stand over seven feet tall.  An alligator of similar size could easily swallow a goat. Since regulation nets are ten feet off the ground, these skyscraper players, with their gangly arms, can easily dunk the ball; that is, if they’re not blocked by a totem pole from the other team. The average height of a WNBA player is around six feet, although Margot Dydek, the tallest woman to play professional basketball, was 7’2". That’s a lot o’ woman. 

There are exceptions to the rule. The shortest player in the NBA was teeny-tiny Tyrone Bogues. At just over five feet tall, “Muggsy” made up for his lack of height with lightning speed and went on to play for fourteen seasons. Miracles come in small packages…

Gymnastics is another sport that necessitates a certain frame, namely, one that’s compact, flexible, and incredibly muscular. You’ll never see a seven-foot-tall gymnast; there’s no way to tuck that much body into a ball. Can you imagine the carnage on the uneven bars? Gymnastics is a youthful sport and puberty serves as a double-edged sword. For male gymnasts, it means increases in testosterone, which enhance the athlete’s ability to perform those gravity-defying feats. For women, puberty is accompanied by an increase in body fat as the body prepares for childbearing – not good for someone whose primary job is tumbling. That’s why most females hang up the leotard once they hit their twenties. But the constant wear and tear on joints and muscles limits even the men. There’s no such thing as a middle-aged gymnast.
Granted, there are some sports that simply require technique, irrespective of the size or shape of the athlete. The exciting world of professional bowling comes to mind… Golfers are another group that falls into the “muscles optional” category (and their nerdy clothes don’t help matters). I’ve also noticed how chunky many of those baseball players are. I guess the ability to scratch and spit has no correlation to pants size.

Bodies come in all shapes and sizes and sometimes size and shape are dictated by the sport. Want to be a lineman in the NFL? You'd better tip the scales at three hundred. Heart set on becoming the world’s greatest Sumo wrestler? Better be able to consume twenty thousand calories a day. Our bodies can facilitate or impede the goals we set. 

Speaking from the standpoint of a female firefighter, the physical demands are a constant challenge, and most women in the fire service have to work twice as hard to achieve the same results as our male counterparts. But drive and determination make for powerful fuel, so set realistic goals and go for it. You’ll never know what you’re capable of until you give it a shot.

What a coincidence... this week's blog ties in with the title of my new novel. Now how did that happen??

Here's a shameless plug:
The Mass of Men explores the conflicts and bonds among a group of firefighter cadets as they move through their training. I've tried to capture the drama, humor, and intensity of an academy and what it takes to make it as a firefighter. 
Please check it out and help me spread the word.
Thanks for reading!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Body Bandits

Don’t tell me… you went out last night to celebrate Halloween, decked out in some silly costume, you drank too much, made a fool of yourself, and this morning, you’re nursing a haunting hangover. Am I right?
Well, for those of you who misbehaved last night, I’ll speak softly. For my responsible readers who dragged their kids from house to house and turned in early with a bellyful of candy, I’ll squeeze the last bit of life out of the Halloween season by discussing a curious piece of ghoulish history.

In keeping with last month’s scary theme, we tackled sex with the dead (Dead and Lovin’ It), the essence of smell (Something Smells), and the investigation of blood (A Bloody History). To tie it all together, let’s discuss a topic that involves each of these subjects: digging up the dead.
You don’t hear much about grave robbing these days. It seems to have faded from culture, kind of like the outhouse and Lance Armstrong. Today’s modern grave robbers are typically called “looters” – those cretins who pillage archaeological sites for artifacts and bones. I can speak for all archaeologists when I say these criminals should be pummeled.

So instead of focusing on contemporary looters, let’s have some fun and go back in time… Let’s visit 19th century England and explore the lurid history of the body snatchers.
The grave-robbing industry was born of necessity. As medicine evolved from hocus-pocus to actual science, medical students needed cadavers on which to explore the inner workings of the body. As a former medic, I can assure you no textbook comes close to providing the up-close-and-personal experience of investigating a corpse. Autopsies were part of our paramedic curriculum (see April’s Musings on an Autopsy). And nothing beats the real thing.

But if you were an English medical student in the 1800s, there were few textbooks available. Dissection was in its infancy in this region of the world and cadavers were in short supply.
The legal system tried to remedy the problem. In 1751, they passed “The Act for Better Preventing the Horrid Crime of Murder” (even English laws sound fancy), which proclaimed that anyone convicted of murder would be executed. The murderer' corpse would then be turned over to the medical students for dissection. The law served two purposes: it deterred crime (since no one wanted to end up on the dissecting slab), while also providing fresh meat for the students.

The problem was there simply weren’t enough murderers to go around. In fact, in 1831, there were over nine hundred med students in England champing at the bit for a corpse, but only eleven convicted killers. To make matters worse, few women were put to death. Between 1800 and 1832, only seven females were executed. This meant most docs graduated from medical school having never worked on a female body (unless they were lucky enough to have an accommodating spouse or sister). When the rare female was put to death, the dissection turned into a morbid free-for-all. The body was typically cut into pieces as desperate students inspected every square inch of her anatomy. Special attention was paid to the lady-bits, since unmarried students (especially the less attractive ones) rarely had the opportunity to explore a woman’s nether regions.

Enter the resurrectionists. These entrepreneurs were well-versed in supply-side economics. If the med schools needed bodies, they knew just where to find them. Thus, the era of grave robbing was born.

The bandits would sneak into graveyards at night, target fresh graves, and hastily disinter the bodies. The more ambitious agents even posted scouts, who stood lookout for funeral processions. The public quickly caught on, devising elaborate tombs to protect their dearly departed. Fences, locked vaults, and mortar slabs were just a few of the deterrents put in place to try to keep the resurrectionists out. Friends and families even kept vigil for the first few days, to insure decomposition could set in, since putrid bodies were less desirable.
With grave robbing on the rise, the government intervened once again in an attempt to provide cadavers. In 1832, The Anatomy Act was passed, which not only relegated executed criminals to the dissecting table, but also included unclaimed bodies from area hospitals. These were typically the poor or destitute who died in obscurity. As for other patients, family members quickly learned to stand guard over their loved ones. If a body wasn’t claimed within forty-eight hours, it was handed over to the med schools. The schools even went as far as posting “clerks,” who would roam the hospital corridors, waiting and watching for a fresh corpse.

But the most famous body snatchers heralded from further north, in Edinburgh, Scotland. William Burke and William Hare went into business together, robbing graves by night and selling the bodies to anatomist Robert Knox by day. But grave robbing was hard work. They soon realized killing was easier than digging, so they abandoned their nightly excavations and turned to murder. 

Their preferred method was suffocation, since it made for a tidier corpse, and they typically targeted prostitutes, since the disappearance of a hooker was unlikely to arouse suspicion. The killing spree, which became known as the “West Port Murders,” tallied sixteen victims before the Williams were finally caught. Their “Burking” days were over and in an ironic twist of fate, Hare turned snitch and testified against Burke, who was found guilty, put to death, and subsequently dissected. Ah, sweet justice!
So with this brief history of body snatching, our Halloween season draws to a close. Fall marches on and before we know it, we’ll be celebrating every pilgrim’s favorite holiday, Thanksgiving. The trick will be to devise a way to incorporate turkey anatomy into the blog. Stay tuned!

Have a great week and thanks for reading. See you next Friday.

A great read on the subject!