Strange Biology 

Cyclops Kitten 

Photo: Traci Allen AP





  About 50 people world-wide are afflicted with a medical condition, known as hypertrichosis, that makes them look like a werewolf.

Attempts to remove the excessive hair with laser treatment are futile because it just grows right back.


Scientists who studied a family that, for generations was plagued with the malady, located the genetic locus of the disorder to a component of the X-chromosome. However they still have no real understanding of what causes the disorder.                                                                     



The Hairy Family of Burma: A Four Generation Pedigree of Congenital Hypertrichosis Lanuginosa Royal Society of Medicine Journal 89:403 (1996)

Mapping of the congenital generalized hypertrichosis locus to chromosome Xq24−q27.1 Nature Genetics 10:202 (1995)





  Photo: Ananova

Records of winged cats go back to the 1890s. The ‘wings’ are usually caused as a result of a genetic skin disorder called feline cutaneous asthenia. This makes the skin across the shoulders, back, and hindquarters extremely elastic. Sometimes these 'wings' will even have a flapping motion as they may contain muscular material.      


Collagen Dysplasia (Cutaneous Asthenia) in a Cat. Veterinary Pathology 36:603 (1999)



This undated photo provided by the Center of Natural Sciences in Prato, Italy, Wednesday, June 11, 2008, shows a deer with a single horn in the center of its head. The one-year-old Roe Deer - nicknamed "Unicorn'' - was born in captivity in the research center's park in the Tuscan town of Prato, near Florence, Italy


Source and Photo: Associated Press 6/11/2008




Cornu cutaneum is the medical name for outgrowth of human ‘horns.’

They usually occur on exposed areas of skin in elderly individuals and, fortunately, can be readily removed.


Cutaneous horns: are these lesions as innocent as they seem to be? World Journal of Surgical Oncology 2:18 (2004)

Image: Cabinet Of Wonders


 # 5


Mangrove killifish (Rivulus marmoratus Poey) normally live in muddy pools. They are found in the mangrove swamps of Florida, Latin America and the Caribbean. Biologists have recently discovered a new home for mangrove killifish: inside tree trunks. When the pools of muddy water start to dry up the fish leap out of the water into the open cavities of rotten tree trunks and branches. Lined up end – to – end, they can exist in this condition for several months.


The fish that can survive in a tree. The Daily Mail (10/17/2007) 




Indonesian fisherman, Dede Koswara, is plagued with tree-like growths that are smothering his entire body. The disease, Epidermodysplasia verruciformis, which mercifully, is a very rare condition, is usually triggered by infection with the human papilloma virus – the same virus that causes warts. A defect in the immune system prevents the body from effectively containing the virus which subsequently runs rampant.


In January 2008 Mr. Koswara started to receive treatment for his rare condition. The regimen includes special anti-viral medicine found only in the United States. Doctors are hopeful that he will eventually lead a normal life.

Source:  The Daily Telegraph (8/27/2008) Image: Reuters



A variant of the human papilloma virus causes cervical cancer rather than warts. The tumor –inducing properties of some papilloma viruses was discovered by a German scientist Dr. Harald zur Hausen. For his discovery he was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2008.




A nine year old girl suffering from stomach pains was discovered to be carrying her embryonic twin.  

Doctors at the Larissa General Hospital in central Greece surgically removed an embryo, a little over 2 inches long, from the swollen right side of her belly. The embryo had a head, hair and eyes but no central nervous system since the brain and spinal cord were absent.

Doctor Andreas Markou, head of the hospital's pediatric department, said cases where one of a set of twins absorbs the other in the womb occurs in one of 500,000 live births.

The girl has made a full recovery.

Source: Associated Press (5/15/2008)






Biologists who studied over 8,000 Google Earth images that included pastures and plains worldwide in addition to deer bed impressions in snow concluded that:

whether grazing or resting, these animals (cattle and deer) face either magnetic north or south.

 Birds are known to use the Earth’s magnetic field to guide their migrations as do turtles and salmon but this is the first report that describes large mammals responding Earth’s magnetic field.

The authors suggest that humans and whales may also have an innate magnetic compass. They cited previous research showing that people who "sleep in an east-west position have far shorter rapid eye movement or REM sleep cycles... compared with north-south sleepers who got more REM sleep".



Magnetic alignment in grazing and resting cattle and deer. Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences 36: 13451 (2008)






 A once healthy and active healthy 12 year old Indian girl suddenly developed bleeding episodes between five and 20 times a day.

"I was so scared," she said. "It didn't hurt. But it was scary and messy, and my friends thought it was disgusting. My school blouse went all red.

"I used to cry nearly every time it happened. But now I just keep quiet."

She now studies at home and rarely sees other children.

Indian doctors believe her condition is an extreme version of a rare blood platelet disorder for which they cannot find a cure.

A ray of hope has been offered by a British specialist, who believes the child may have a different clotting disorder, for which treatment will be possible.

Source and Photo: The Daily Telegraph (10/02/2008)






Horned lizards indigenous to the American Southwest feast primarily on ants. When predators like kit foxes and coyotes try to feed on lizards, some of them employ an unusual defense mechanism: they squirt blood into the face and mouth of the potential predator.


Strategically positioned muscles prevent circulating blood from flowing out of the head resulting in increased blood pressure. Eventually blood vessels in the inner corner of the eye burst open, squirting blood up to four feet.

Source:  Photo:




In an unusual operation doctors in the U.K. used the tooth of a blind man’s son to restore his eyesight.

The procedure, called Osteo-Odonto Keratoprosthesis, originated by Prof Benedetto Strampelli in Italy in 1960, involves creating a support for an artificial cornea from the patient’s own tooth (or a donated one) and the surrounding bone.

After the tooth, and the surrounding bone, is removed it is then chiseled through and an artificial lens is placed in the core. In a separate operation it is placed into the recipient’s eye.

The recent U.K. operation partially restored the blind man’s vision.


Medium Term Visual and Retention Results of Modern Osteo-Odonto-Keratoprosthesis (OOKP) Surgery.  Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science 43 Abstract 2994 (2002)

Son's tooth helps man gain vision. BBC News (2/28/2008)




Luminescent fungi are found in many forests throughout the world but none are as spectacular as these which grow primarily in the forests of the island Mesameyama in Ugui in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan.

Biologists believe that the fungi emit light in order to attract insects to help spread spores in forested areas that are sheltered from wind.

Source and Photo:





Newly discovered frogs, named Hyalinobatrachium pellucidum, have skin so transparent you can see their internal organs. The critters were discovered by scientists at the Nangaritza Protected Forest in Ecuador, near the Peruvian border. They also discovered 15 new species of creatures and plants.

Photo and Source: (6/17/2009)


Doctors are baffled by the baby that won’t age. This is Brooke Greenberg; she is sixteen years old but still has her baby teeth – and the brain development of an infant. Her mother says she loves to go shopping. The doctors say that Brooke’s body is out of synchronization. She is the size of a toddler but her bones have the development of a ten year old. Doctors cannot find any genetic disorder or chromosomal abnormalities to explain the mysterious syndrome.



A case study of “disorganized development” and its possible relevance to genetic determinants of aging. Mechanisms of Ageing and Development 130:355 (2009) 

Photo: ABC News - Courtesy Greenberg Family





Twenty years ago leatherback sea turtles were on the brink of extinction. Thanks in large part to better conservation, their numbers are rising.

Weighing up to 1,600 pounds leatherbacks are the largest of the sea turtles. They are also the fastest with swimming speeds clocked at almost 10 miles per hour. Even though leatherbacks are cold blooded they can maintain their blood temperature far above the ambient temperature of the water and are able to survive in frigid waters close to the Arctic Ocean.

Leatherbacks are also the only turtles that lack a shell. What appears to be a shell is actually a thick leathery carapace. A flexible “shell” may be important since leatherbacks dive as deep as 3,000 feet. Why they dive down to over half-mile depths is unknown because they apparently feed exclusively on jellyfish which are found only on the surface. 

The bones of leatherback turtles more closely resemble those of marine mammals than other turtles. And even though they are very large creatures their brains are very small weighing only 4 grams – a typical rat brain weighs 8 grams.

The stomachs of leatherbacks contain nothing but jellyfish; which are over 95% water. Biologists marvel at how much jellyfish would have to be consumed to sustain such a large creature.


Persistent Leatherback Turtle Migrations Present Opportunities for Conservation. PLoS Biol 6(7): e171 (2008)






In their own way plants are very active. Using chemical energy derived from photosynthesis plants can synthesize an amazing variety of complex chemicals. They can use their prodigious chemical manufacturing ability to develop signaling mechanisms to warn other plants of impending danger and even engage in chemical warfare.

In Africa acacia trees send out an alarm signal when antelopes or giraffes browse on their leaves. They do this by emitting a gas called ethylene which can diffuse through the air up to 150 feet. The emitted ethylene causes trees to synthesize tannin within 5 to 10 minutes which then concentrates in the leaves. Tannin is lethal to browsing animals.

Antelopes and giraffes have learned to browse for no longer than a few minutes and not to browse downwind.  In the expansive grassy plains of Africa antelopes and giraffes can always find unwarned acacias with low levels of tannin to browse on, but on some South African game ranges, they are forced to consume leaves with lethal tannin concentrations. Too much tannin inactivates the antelopes' liver enzymes, and they die in about 10 days.  During a very dry season hundreds have been reported to perish.

Oak trees produce tannin and phenol when caterpillars attack them. Within minutes a single tree can warn an entire grove of a pending infestation.

Ethylene gas is a common hormone for many plants. Tomatoes are induced to ripen under its influence while the gas has the opposite effect on bananas. This is why people sometimes place apples together with bananas in a closed paper bag. The apples emit ethylene which slows over ripening of the bananas. 

Studies with sage brush in the American Southwest have shown that when the leaves of one plant are clipped (this mimics being eaten by grasshoppers) the surrounding plants become resistant to browsing grasshoppers by changing their chemical make up.


Antelope Activate the Acacia's Alarm System. New Scientist (9/29/1990)

Self-recognition affects plant communication and defense. Ecology Letters 12: 502 (2009) 





Twice a year many birds fly prodigious distances as they crisscross continents during migration to reach their summer nesting sites in the northern hemisphere and then head for their winter grounds in the southern hemisphere. Often times this is done at night and at high altitude. A question that biologists are still struggling to answer is how migrating birds cover such large tracts of earth without getting lost.  Arctic terns, for example, nest in the Arctic and then head for Antarctica; after spending the (northern) winter at the South Pole they then fly back to their Arctic breeding grounds.  Hence in one year they completely circumnavigate the earth flying over the ocean for days on end with no sleep. Scientists are now starting to unlock the secrets of how birds are able to navigate the planet.


Over the years intriguing evidence suggested that birds may somehow detect the inclination and declination of Earth’s magnetic field.  At Norberg, in central Sweden, a huge deposit of magnetite creates a powerful magnetic anomaly. The deposit is 6 miles long by several wide. Migrating birds that flew over the deposit at low altitude acted confused and stopped to land. After nervously parading around in circles they eventually flew away. At higher altitudes flocks would  breakup while birds erratically broke formation.


Scientists at the University of Illinois have now found cellular evidence for a very sophisticated light-mediated, radical-pair – based magnetic compass receptor that detects subtle variations in Earth’s magnetic field.


The compass is composed of light - receptor proteins called cryptochromes. Inside each cryptochrome is a pigment molecule called flavin that, when excited by light, loses an electron and forms what is called a free radical. The flavin free radical can be inactivated by another kind of free radical called superoxide (low concentrations of these oxygen radicals are found in all cells).


It turns out that radical pair chemical reactions can be influenced by magnetic fields but the magnetic fields have to be very strong. Earth’s geomagnetic field is very weak. However chemists have shown that some radical pair chemical reactions that are similar to the flavin radical- superoxide interaction can be influenced by very weak magnetic fields. Physicists at the University of California are using quantum mechanics equations called stochastic Liouville equations to investigate how very weak magnetic fields can affect these kinds of chemical reactions.


The outcome of these reactions alters cell signals in the bird’s visual circuitry so that the bird responds to changes in the magnetic field. These magnetic clues along with other input such as light polarization, position of the sun and even star signs are used as navigation tools.


Magnetic Anomaly Upsets Migrating Birds. New Scientist  (11/5/1987)

Magnetoreception through Cryptochrome May Involve Superoxide. Biophysical Journal 96:12 (2009)

Magnetic Compass of Birds Is Based on a Molecule with Optimal Directional Sensitivity. Biophysical Journal 96:8 (2009)

Chemical compass model of avian magnetoreception. Nature 453:387 DOI: 10.1038/nature06834 (2008)

Chemical Magnetoreception: Bird Cryptochrome 1a Is Excited by Blue Light and Forms Long-Lived Radical-Pairs. PLoS ONE 2(10): e1106. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0001106 (2007)

Photo: Daily Telegraph



In Report # 8 we discuss how Earth’s magnetic field influences grazing animals like cattle and deer.  




Images: Bill Duke New York Times

 Blindsight is the personification of strange and eerie phenomena. This is what happens: a person, who has been rendered totally blind by accident or a disease like stroke, is able to adroitly avoid objects when traversing an “obstacle course” even though they claim that they are totally unaware of the objects presence. In some cases they will also react to a scary image even though they cannot see the image. Magnetic resonance imaging confirms that their visual cortex is destroyed. Instead these individuals have blindsight. When the primary visual cortex is removed from monkeys’ brains some of the visionless animals also demonstrate blindsight ability.

How do blindsighted humans and monkeys detect objects of which they are not visually aware? Somehow information about the visual world appears in the brain. Scientists are now trying to learn the mechanism of subconscious processing of visual information. They are considering the role of other brain areas like the superior colliculus and the amygdala in visual perception.



Unconscious vision: New insights into the neuronal correlate of blindsight using Diffusion Tractography. Brain 129: 1822 doi:10.1093/brain/awl111 (2006)

Blindsight in Monkeys. Nature 373: 247 (1995)

Vision without Awareness. Nature 373: 195 (1995)





Do I have eyes in the back of my head? How about the back of your knees?

Many human physiological and behavioral rhythms are governed by an endogenous circadian clock. Some of the circadian rhythms can be altered by shining visible light on the skin on the backs of the knees. The findings challenge the belief that mammals are incapable of extraretinal circadian phototransduction. They have implications for the development of more effective treatments for sleep and circadian rhythm disorders though why it is advantageous for the popliteal region (i.e., behind the knee) to respond to light is a total mystery.


Extraocular Circadian Phototransduction in Humans. Science 279:396 DOI: 10.1126/science.279.5349.396 (1998)



As revealed in Report #19, the popliteal region, at the back of our knees, is strangely sensitive to light. Illumination of these regions somehow encourages our pineal glands to release melatonin. However there may be a more direct way in which light can reach the pineal gland - through our ears!

Scientists believe the pineal gland is the relic of the third eye that ancient reptilian ancestors possessed -  buried deep in our brains. Scientists now have evidence that light can reach the embedded organ through the ears by diffusing through the soft, translucent tissues that lead into our skull.


The Seeing Ear. Nature 391:541 (1998)




Red plastic mulch can improve the yields of tomato plants.  Fruit quality and resistance to pests are also improved. 

Plant leaves can detect some colors using light-sensitive pigments similar to those in the human retina. Obviously, the plants do not "see," but the pigments provide environmental information. Many plant leaves will reflect infrared light.  When a tomato plant's pigments detect a lot of infrared, the plant senses that it may be crowded out by competing vegetation and responds by growing more rapidly.

The red plastic mulch also reflects infrared light, and consequently tricks the surrounding tomato plants into accelerating their growth.



When Tomatoes See Red. Science News 152:376  (1997)



In report #17 we describe some chemical communication pathways used by plants.





Numerous insects are attracted to burnt out forests where they can take advantage of layers of burnt but nutritious wood and lay eggs in partially fire damaged trees and bushes. Sensitive organs that detect infrared radiation have been discovered in forest beetles that enable them to detect a forest fire up to 20 miles away.


Infrared Detection in a Beetle. Nature 386:773 (1997)





   Photo: AFP

An 83-year-old Indian man claims to have gone without food or water for 70 years.  In April/May 2010, he spent two weeks in a hospital in western India under constant surveillance from a team of 30 medics equipped with cameras and closed circuit television.


During this period, he neither ate nor drank and did not go to the bathroom. Doctor Sudhir Shah, a neurologist, could offer no medical explanation commenting, "As medical practitioners we cannot shut our eyes to possibilities, to a source of energy other than calories."

Source: Breitbar




Seals eat fish. Recently, scientists at the of the Marine Science Center at the University of Rostock, Germany have shown that even blindfolded seals can track fish movements over 300 feet away. It turns out that seal whiskers function as very sensitive motion detectors even 35 seconds after fin movement has ended.


Harbor Seal Whiskers Detect Fish Trails 35 Seconds Later. Journal of Experimental Biology DOI: 10.1242/jeb.047258





  [Photo: Plos One]

Leeches have a daunting reputation for feasting on blood, often from humans. Orificial hirudiniasis is a condition in which a leech enters a body orifice, most often the nasopharyngeal region, but there are many documented cases of leeches infesting the eyes, urethra, vagina, or rectum. Several leech species particularly in Africa and Asia are well-known for their propensity to afflict humans.

The creature depicted in the photograph was discovered in 2007 in the remote parts of the Upper Amazon. It was removed from the nose of a young girl who had become infected after swimming in the river. Scientists say it has a preference for dwelling in the nasal cavity of humans.


Tyrannobdella rex N. Gen. N. Sp. and the Evolutionary Origins of Mucosal Leech Infestations. Plos One DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0010057



The candiru is a small Amazon fish that detects human urine released by swimmers and follows it right to the source. They don't stop there but insert themselves right into the urethra and keep going, sometimes all the way to the bladder. Once inside the urethra they erect their spines and cannot be extracted except by surgery.





Warm blooded plants? Unlikely, since plants don’t have blood. But some plants are able to generate heat. Skunk cabbage flowers emit enough heat to melt the snow around them.  During their flowering period, philodendrons are even more remarkable since they can maintain a constant high temperature of 114 degrees over a period of several days, unlike skunk cabbage which consumes all of its stored chemical energy in a single heat liberating blast. No other plant is known to control its temperature and the mechanism that sustains it is based on fat metabolism. Fat (lipid) is the most calorie-dense form of stored energy; on a per weight basis oxidation of fat emits twice as many calories than sugar based polymers like starch and glycogen. Evidently philodendrons can metabolize fats just as efficiently as humming birds. By contrast skunk cabbage uses stored starch for its energy reservoir.



Direct Respiration of Lipids During Heat Production in the Inflorescence of Philodendron selloum. Science 220:419 (1983)




Scientists have been taking it for granted that birds evolved from warm-blooded, metabolically active dinosaurs. Recent fossils suggest that the paradigm may not be so simple. The bone structure of some of the earliest birds has revealed that it resembles that of modern cold-blooded reptiles, suggesting that the first birds were cold-blooded and that warm-bloodedness developed later.

The cross sections of the bones reveal concentric rings suggesting that bone growth occurred in spurts supposedly slowing down or stopping during cold weather. Growth rings are characteristic of cold blooded reptiles and are not found in the remains of modern birds.



What kind of evidence could be found in the fossil record (or anywhere else) that would prove whether or not some dinosaurs were warm-blooded?
Scientific American (October 21, 1999)






Obsessive-compulsive disorders, like all psychiatric disorders, are intriguing and baffling. Many psychiatric conditions have been associated with abnormal immune responses, but now scientists for the first time have evidence of a direct causal link.

Trichotillomania is an obsessive-compulsive disorder that compels people to pull their hair out. A type of cell, called microglia, that is known to protect the brain against infection could be involved in the pathogenesis of this unusual disorder.


A type of master gene, called Hoxb8, belongs to a family of genes that establish the body plan in the developing embryo and regulate the formation of organs and tissues. Surprisingly, mice that had a mutated Hoxb8 were deficient in microglia cells and they spent double the normal amount of time removing body hair, eventually leading to bald spots and deep skin wounds.


Although microglia are found only in the brain they originate in the bone marrow. Most of the animals with Hoxb8 mutations that received healthy bone marrow transplants stopped their excessive grooming. Their hair started to fill in the empty patches and their wounds began to heal. In stark contrast, a fraction of normal mice that received transplanted bone marrow from Hoxb8 mutant animals began to groom more than usual and developed hairless patches.

This is the first time that a compulsive behavior has been transplanted from one animal to another.


Hematopoietic Origin of Pathological Grooming in Hoxb8 Mutant Mice. Cell 141:175 (2010)