The Lizard Makes a Friend

Back in the summer I came across a dead copperhead in the park one day. It startled me until I figured out it was dead.

Dead Copperhead

Then I did the only sensible thing- I packed it up and took it home with me, thinking that this was a sign that I should learn snake taxidermy. The skinning part was pretty intuitive and the hide was very pretty.

Skinned hide

After that I didn’t really know what to do with it, except to see what the folks at taxidermy.net had to say about rattlesnake taxidermy, which was close enough. The helpful suggestion they had was to pin the hide to a flat surface, then paint it with a mixture of four parts ethanol, two parts glycerol and one part formalin. I happen to have all these things and just a few weeks ago I finally got around to tanning the hide, while that incredibly creepy deer I found in the woods looked on. I eventually had to cover the deer with a garbage bag while I was working because he was distracting.

Mascot

After the tanning part came the mounting part, and this is where taxidermy.net was unhelpful. They suggested stuffing the snake with vermiculite. What the heck is vermiculite? I guess it’s come kind of silicate material that people throw in their gardens for some reason, because I found it in gardening supplies on Amazon. But taxidermy.net had no further suggestions on exactly how to stuff a long, narrow, damp leathery thing with something that has the consistency of sand mixed with ground-up styrofoam. It was impossible! it kept sticking to my gloves and sticking to the sides of the snake and getting all over the place, everywhere except inside the snake. It was also not possible to sew up the snake around a pile of dust. It was pretty hopeless and I gave up.

I did have some self-hardening clay, though, and fitted the skin over a model of the snake, which was easy. It was also fun to roll out a perfectly straight snake-stick.

Snake Stick

Another reason this was way better than trying to stuff the thing with vermiculite is that a clay snake is easy to pose, and with self-hardening clay, it would dry in that position.

And so I was done! Krtko was the first to meet my new snake. They got along just fine.

Krtko Snake

But you know who else would be fun to introduce to the snake? How about The Lizard? She loves meeting new reptiles!

Remember when she met that little box turtle we found?
Hates Turtle

When The Lizard is upset, she doesn’t hesitate to let you know it. Her beard turns black and she gives you her best Lizard-Face.
Hate Lizzie

However, it’s very hard to upset her. She’s pretty even keel most of the time. In fact, the only thing we’ve ever found that really pisses her off is meeting other reptiles. Or even other things that resemble reptiles. She was not pleased to be in the same room with my Grow-a-Gator, even before the gator grew big.

Lizard hates crocodile

So I had my new copperhead ready and my camera in the other hand, with Jon assisting. We were preparing to take a cool picture of The Lizard and The Venomous Snake facing off in an epic battle. Here we go!

Lizzie Unimpressed 1

Well, that’s underwhelming. All we get from The Lizard is a sidelong glance in the copperhead’s general direction? Apparently The Lizard does not see the copperhead as a threat, only a minor annoyance. She did manage to glance up at me disdainfully, wondering why I was insulting her with this positively amateur snake taxidermy.

Lizzie Unimpressed 2

Well, I thought it was pretty decent for my first attempt, but according to The Lizard it was less realistic than the Grow-a-Gator. I guess I’ll have to try harder next time.

For display only

For Christmas I gave Jon a GoPro camera and 30 grams of gallium.

He gave me a geologist’s hammer and a skull of a little tiny man.

Squirrel Monkey

For real, it’s a squirrel monkey skull. I have some history with squirrel monkeys. I once interviewed, and got offered, a job feeding squirrel monkeys grapes and training them to sit in a little chair. Sadly, I really wanted the job but could not take it because the salary offered was…not enough for me to afford to eat.

They’re without a doubt the cutest of all monkeys, and possibly of all living things. Here’s what they look like when they have skin over their skulls.
squirrel-monkey

I once had a job that involved squirrel monkeys every now and then. Periodically the entire squirrel monkey colony would require a complete physical and TB test. The squirrel monkeys had to be sedated in order for them to be safely handled, and all the vet techs and vet students would fight over who got to carry the sleeping squirrel monkeys back to their cages after the physical. There’s a specific SOP in place on how to properly carry a monkey, and every single person doing so would defy that SOP and carry the monkey like a baby, including me. When I put sleeping cagemates back in together, I would take one arm of one monkey and make them hug eachother in their sleep. Then I would curse not being allowed to take pictures.

Some other fun facts about squirrel monkeys is that they’re really small. Some of the monkeys we weighed during the physicals were just over 500 grams- barely over a pound. You could almost fit your thumb and forefinger around their waist. But despite being small, they have the largest brains of all primates relative to their size. I can see that in my squirrel monkey skull- his brain case is gigantic, like a tiny, domed alien skull.

The best fact is that the female squirrel monkeys have a pseudo-penis, which is rare in mammals. I discovered this first hand at work. I was examining a monkey that the chart said was female and noticed something small and funny on her. I said to the vet “Hey, this chart is wrong. This monkey is a male…” Nope, he said. That’s a female. “Really? But she has a…”- I wanted to be all proper and say phallus, but it was so tiny and silly-looking that the term “wee-wee” or “doodle” seemed like a more appropriate term.

The vet explained the idea of the pseudo-penis (females hyenas have then too) and in some social animals, the females have dominance hierarchies just like the males and the pseudo-penis is for dominance display. Weird, huh? It seemed funny to think that this tiny girl’s monkey-doodle would intimidate anyone.

There’s no way to know whether my skull belonged to a male or a female, though. But he or she probably had some equipment regardless.

My other gift? The geoogist’s hammer? I love it. I can’t wait to smash up rock formations. In the meantime, I had to make do with pretend-geology. I was tooling around the Pokey Formation recently, chipping away layers of clay, and I did come across this mysterious fossil.

Fossil

Enter Dinosaurland

And of course our holiday voyage to the north resulted in a long, tedious return trip. We do a 14-hour drive from New Jersey to Atlanta and it gets pretty dull. This year, however, Jon was able to jazz it up with one last sightseeing stop before the Gaffney Peach.

This time it was a stop on Stonewall Jackson Highway, in White Post, Virginia. Sometimes when we sightsee and take pictures, they end up reminiscent of other pictures, from other places up to thousands of miles away. This was no exception, and some aspects of it looked familiar.

Take this abandoned Catholic Theme park in Waterbury, CT:

Holy Land

Kinda similar, this place in Virginia looked, huh?
Dinosaurland

At first I was worried that this was a tacky creationist “museum”. We were in rural Virginia, after all. But much to their credit, there was nary a Flood reference to be found, and the descriptive and educational signs next to all the dinosaurs were reasonably accurate and stated clearly that these dinosaurs lived millions of years ago, and not alongside cavemen. There wasn’t a cross anywhere. Well, maybe a few in the gift shop, but that’s forgivable.

It may have started off a little slow. The boring dinosaurs came first. Case in point, protoceratops, the world’s most boring dinosaur. Too boring a ceratopsian to even have horns.
Boring Protoceratops

This is not the first time Jon has been photographed yawning next to a boring, low tech and somewhat crude protoceratops. Jon was also bored by a protoceratops in South Dakota in 2009. Weird how he can’t seem to get away from these guys.

South D Protoceratops

And here is another boring one. Nobody ever says that coelophysis is their favorite dinosaur.

Coelophysis

I’m a dinosaur hipster, though. I love coelophysis. I’m too cool to list T. rex or triceratops as my favorite. Cretaceous dinosaurs are way too mainstream, but coelophysis is a Triassic dinosaur, and one of the earliest of all therapods. It was wicked influential, and was an early form of a lineage that later gave rise to the overrated Tyrannosaurus. Really, I just like coelophysis because he was a scrappy little guy who was hugely successful in his time.

Before things started to get interesting, Dinosaurland had to get the inaccurate stuff out of its system. Here’s dimetrodon:
Dimetrodon

As any paleohipster can lecture you, dimetron was not a dinosaur! It was a synapsid, a mammal-like reptile that was long extinct several million years before the first dinosaur appeared on earth.
So I had to wag my finger and scold at the sign.
Not a dinosaur

No! Not a dinosaur! Neither is moschops:

Moschops

Again, like dimetrodon, moschops was a synapsid who lived during the Permian period, so 45 million years before the first dinosaur ever existed. No! No! No!

But we moved on, and then it got epic. I even got caught in the crossfire of an EPIC BATTLE!
Epic Battle

For some sauropods, however, the epic battle was over.
Dying

Yes, this time T. rex was the Conquering Carnivore:
Conquering Carnivore

Dinosaurland didn’t let a lack of ocean neglect them from showcasing the colossal sea reptiles of the day. Unfortunately, a beached tylosaurus can’t survive for very long out of the water.

Beached Tylosaurus

Did you read a lot of dinosaur books as a kid? I would look at you funny if you said no. Well, did you ever notice in the illustrations that certain dinosaurs were always, always paired in constant combat with specific pre-selected opponents? If you grew up reading dinosaur books, you would get the impression that triceratops never did anything ever except fight tyrannosaurs. Glad to see Dinosaurland kept the tradition alive.
Triceratops with T-rex

My childhood dinosaur books, however, never said anything about T. rex grabbing pterosaurs out of the sky like dogs catching Frisbees. I hope that really happened every now and then during the Cretaceous.

On the wing

After the climactic conquering carnivore, the park gave up on dinosaurs and moved in on post-cretaceous ancient birds and mammals.

The coolest of those birds of course was the terror bird. It was kind of moldy and slimy.
Terror Bird

Also moldy and slimy was the megatherium, although from what I gather about the Pleistocene giant sloth, being moldy and slimy was accurate and the norm for this animal.
Megatherium

The final stretch was the gigantic and horrifying beasts of modern times.

Aiee! A giant cobra!
Cobra

Eeek! Help me! A gigantopithecus!
Gorilla

Zoiks! A giant praying mantis!
Praying mantis

Highest Evolved

The highest evolved of all insects, huh? Don’t you think eusocial, complex, colony-forming Hymenopterids such as ants and bees might have something to say about that?

No matter. This was the highlight of our long, otherwise monotonous 14-hour driving day. Oh, and there was also this thing.
This thing

Cthulhu is really hard to spell

After all the family and presents and candy for breakfast, Jon and I headed up to Boston on Christmas Day. We wanted to do some sightseeing, something more culturally enriching than Pigeon Forge, TN.

It’s hard to find anything in Boston that we hadn’t visited already, but we did come up with one thing. In Copp’s Hill Cemetery in the North End, the family grave of Increase and Cotton Mather could be found. It’s in a hard-to-get-to neighborhood where it’s impossible to park and a pain in the ass to drive to- unless it’s Christmas Day and there’s virtually no traffic all over the city. Hence this was the perfect day to visit Cotton and Increase Mather for the first time.

Increase Mather was like, the King of Boston in his time, around the 1670’s or so. Increase’s son, Cotton, was more or less the King of Salem during the witch trials of 1690.

They weren’t terribly hard to find, but I was slightly disappointed in the condition of the tomb. I know it’s 300 years old and all, but it’s the family tomb of the most prominent dynasty of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Ah, well. Some people had given the Mathers some gifts. Now, we’ve visited a lot of notable tombstones in our time together, and it’s not unusual to see graves where people have left some kind of gift for the deceased.

For example, here’s Miss Baker the Monkey’s grave at the Huntsville US Space and Rocket Center. Lots of people had left her gifts.

MIss Baker

Another time we were at the grave of an unknown Wampanoag Indian woman on the Great Island Trail in Cape Cod. Her grave was showered with beautiful gifts on a daily basis:
Wampanoag Woman

But this was Increase and Cotton Mather’s tomb:
The Mathers

No flowers, bananas nor seabird bones for the Mathers. All they get are a couple of crummy pebbles. Even so, I wonder who was so moved by the lives of Cotton and/or Increase Mather to be moved to give them crappy gifts? Cotton especially, played an influential role in the torture, imprisonment and executions of lonely people branded as witches, guilty of not much more than being elderly or unpopular and thus easy targets for crowd persecution. Maybe the rocks were left there not as gifts, but as reminders of their roles in executions like that of Giles Corey, the man pressed to death by rocks on his chest.

The somewhat disappointing tomb of the Mathers was made up for by a discovery by Jon on a different tombstone. Remember this odd-looking grave in Duxbury, MA?

Wiswall

The Reverend Ichabod Wiswall was featured in a lot of internets three years ago, with people wondering what a Cthulhu was doing on a 300-year-old tombstone. When I found out that this tombstone was in Duxbury, one town over from my hometown, we went to find it.

But here at Copp’s Hill, on a tombstone only one year younger than Ichabod’s, was another Cthulhu tombstone. Man, that guy really got around in the first decade of the 1700s.
Cthuhlu

So, that was how we spent Christmas Day this year. Along with great times with family and Boston-friends, and a lucky visit from some Atlanta friends who happened to be in Boston that day as well. Really, that part was way better than our cold graveyard visit, but the pictures from those parts are kind of blurry. And lacking in cephalopods. But we had a wonderful visit this year and it was great to see everybody.

Remember guys, we’re parked under the Sunsphere.

It seems that our love of roadtrips has converted us from plane travel to road travel when going up north during the holidays. This year, we made a stop in Tennessee.

First was Knoxville, to visit the Sunsphere. We had no trouble whatsoever with parking or crowds. In fact, for an unseasonably mild Saturday afternoon, it was eerily deserted. Here’s Jon standing right in the middle of the main road by the Sunsphere. We had plenty of time to compose the shot.

Rapture

We figured that maybe the Rapture had occurred a few weeks ago. Atlanta isn’t especially religious, so the difference wasn’t obvious to us back home. Knoxville, on the other hand, must be very pious because the only people left below in Knoxville were these three creepy guys in the Sunsphere observatory who had agreed to meet up there to conduct some kind of transaction. It’s free to take the elevator up and there’s no attendant or anything. Unfortunately, The Simpsons lied to us and there’s no wig store at the top. Not one that we could access, anyway.

Also, it appeared to be growing out of Jon’s head.
Sunsphere 1

That was about it for sights to see in Knoxville, other than an empty Holiday Inn that housed The World’s Largest Rubik’s Cube.

World's Largest Rubik's Cube

Yeah, I know. The World’s Largest Things aren’t always all that big.

Our next stop was Pigeon Forge, which had the World’s Largest Collection of World’s Largest things. One such large thing was the World’s Largest Fake Mt. Rushmore:

Hollywood

Wax Museum Nose

I can’t take him anywhere.

There was the World’s Largest Upside-Down House. How’d they do that? The best part if that gravity has reversed polarity inside, so when you enter you immediately fly up and land on the ceiling/floor.
Wonderworks

And The World’s Largest Titanic Exhibit. I even got a flattened penny outside that boasts “Pigeon Forge: Home of The World’s Largest Titanic Exhibit.”

But it’s a dumb exhibition. It’s $25 apiece to get in and no photos are allowed inside. Big gaudy tourist attractions that don’t allow photography are unacceptable in my eyes. If we’re going to pay for some overpriced tourist trap, I’d better be able to document it. Otherwise, what’s the point? So we didn’t pay the admission or go inside, but we did get to pose with the 100-year old sunken Titanic gifts stacked outside, gifts that must have been recovered during the last recent Titanic artifact recovery expedition.
Titanic Presents

Oh yeah- did I mention that the museum was shaped like half-a-Titanic? Again, it must have been the front end that they pulled up during the last recovery expedition. We didn’t have to pay to take pictures of the outside of the museum.

Titanic

The real highlight of our mini-trip was our next stop in Gatlinburg, TN. The World’s Largest and World’s Only Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum.

Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum

Shaker Sign

Yes, 20,000 salt and pepper shakers! It’s owned an operated by an elderly Belgian couple. The story goes that in the mid 80s, Mrs. Ludden was on an intense search for a durable pepper mill. She and her husband started to acquire several of them, but not one of them was just right. So the less-than-perfect pepper mills started getting lined up in the window sills as the search continued. Nosy neighbors started noticing these pepper mills all over the windows and thought they must have been collecting them. SO they started bringing Mr. and Mrs. Ludden pepper mills and salt and pepper shakers. And more of them. Then their children started bringing them salt and pepper shakers. The collection grew and grew until the family started collecting in earnest searching antique stores and flea markets far and wide. When the collection grew into the thousands, they started the museum. And for $3 each, we got to see it for ourselves.

Mrs. Ludden was not in the museum this day, but Mr. Ludden was. I wondered if we were going to get a guided tour, but that turned out not to be necessary. The 20,000 shakers were meticulously categorized and labeled.

We had our vegetable-shaped shakers, subclassified as corn, celery, Mr. Peanut, etc.
Corn Shakers

We had our quaint-in-the-middle-of-the-century-but-now-embarrassingly-racist shakers:
Black Shakers

Right next door we had the Amish shakers:
Amish Shakers

And of course within the “animal” phylum of shakers, we had Linnaean sub-orders, classes, families and genera. In the rodent class of shakers, we had the Scuiridae shaker family, aka, the squirrels.
Squirrel Shakers

Being in a long, dark corridor with thousands upon thousands of carefully-arranged salt and pepper shakers finally proved to be too much for Jon.

Shakers on him

He ended up needing a breather on the park bench outside. Unfortunately, some rambling idiot out there was boring us to death.
Forrest

And that just about did it for our trip-on-the-way-to-Christmas stuff up north. Oh, except for some Jesus bears trying sell us local jams and jellies.

Jesus Bears

Another Terrible Year

We first got Giles two years ago, on New Year’s Eve. Here is what we all looked like on the day we adopted him.

Fitzfam4

When we took him to the vet for the first time and did the new patient paperwork, we had to assign him a date of birth. Given what the vet estimated about his age, he was very likely to be about two years old, but it was up to us to decide what day should be his birthday. What better day than the day we adopted him? Hence, Giles’s birthday is on December 31st. We didn’t observe his birthday last year because um, we forgot. Also, we gave him nothing for Christmas this year, and made fun of him for being such a terrible dog that he didn’t deserve any presents.

To make up for this, we decided to celebrate Giles’s birthday this year. This is done by giving him a gift and making a gross birthday cake. A terrible birthday cake for a terrible dog.

And hence, Giles Corey Dog had his very first birthday party yesterday. First was his birthday present, which Jon picked up from Fox Bros. BBQ. After he ate all the meat off it.

Gift 1

Gift 2

The highlight for Giles, of course, was his Terrible Dog Cake. I took great care preparing it.

Cake 1

Cake 2

Cake 3

Cake 4

Cake 5

Cake 6

Cake 7

And we finally wrapped up this terrible birthday party with a terrible, terrible song. Giles was surprisingly patient with us while filming.

Happy Birthday, Giles Corey Dog.