Monday, September 29, 2008

Apple #343: Underdog

There have been lots of exciting upsets this past weekend. In football, Michigan beat Wisconsin in an absolutely astonishing fourth quarter comeback, 27-25. In Formula One racing, Fernando Alonso, who started 15th out of 20 drivers, zipped up to the front of the pack and won the first night-time race at Singapore. And in baseball, the Milwaukee Brewers beat the Chicago Cubs to edge past the New York Mets for the wildcard spot in playoffs for the World Series.

So this suite of upsets has me thinking about underdogs.

Screen shot from Hoosiers, perhaps the underdog sports movie of all time.
(Photo from ESPN, which has a blow-by-blow of, what else, watching the movie. And here's the definition of Hoosier)

  • The term means "the beaten dog in a fight."
  • This definition is sort of interesting because usually, one decides that one is rooting for the underdog before the contest begins, or even as it's going on and it looks like one competitor is about to get trounced. But this definition says that the underdog is one who has already been beaten.
  • So I would amend this definition, actually. I think that the reason people root for the so-called underdog is because they hold out hope that the competitor who is currently behind and maybe even hurting could still win. They're hoping that the one who is behind will not end up being the underdog but will in the end turn out to be the top dog.
  • There's also a story that gets floated around about how people used to saw logs over a pit, using a two-person saw. One guy stood on top of the log and worked his end of the saw while another guy stood in the bottom of the pit and worked his end. Supposedly, the guy on top of the log was called the "top dog" and the guy in the pit was called the "under dog."

How the saw pit worked, where there may or may not have been a top dog and and under dog.
(Image from The Phrase Finder)

  • That's the story, but nobody can find any reference to those terms being used in conjunction with any description of that method of sawing logs. I've mentioned the story here because some sites toss that story around as if it's undisputed fact. It might actually be fact, but it's in dispute because there isn't very good evidence for it.
  • I was going to list some famous underdog sports movies, but then I realized that pretty much every sports movie except for maybe Brian's Song is an underdog story. Rocky, Hoosiers, The Karate Kid, even Slap Shot (Paul Newman, RIP).
  • Here's a bit of verse from 1859 written in honor of the under dog. Please notice that this guy says that he doesn't care which of the two competitors is right, only that he's going to pick the one who's not the favorite. Which is just as arbitrary a way to choose which competitor to support as is supporting the one everybody else thinks is going to win.
The Under Dog In The Fight
I know that the world, the great big world,
From the peasant up to the king,
Has a different tale from the tale I tell,
And a different song to sing.
But for me - and I care not a single fig
If they say I am wrong or right wrong,
I shall always go for the weaker dog,
For the under dog in the fight.
I know that the world, that the great big world,
Will never a moment stop.
To see which dog may be in the fault,
But will shout for the dog on top.
But for me I shall never pause to ask
Which dog may be in the right
For my heart will hear, while it beats at all.
For the under dog in the fight.
Perchance what I've said I had better not said,
Or 'there better I had said it incog.
But with my heart and with glass filled up to the brim
Here's health to the bottom dog.
--David Barker, 1859
  • Incog. Way to work that rhyme, Mr. Barker. Hmm, as I type this, it occurs to me that "Barker" is most likely a pseudonym. Clever incog, that is. Har!


Now I want to get literal about the "dog" part of the term. People talk a lot about the hierarchy of dog packs, so is there an underdog in a pack of dogs? Is that underdog as easy to spot as the alpha dog is?
  • In a pack of dogs, there is a pretty strong social hierarchy. They live by this hierarchy, and they are the most comfortable when everybody knows what their place is and they all stick to what they're supposed to do in their roles.
  • The leader of the pack is the alpha dog -- usually the biggest and strongest dog or the most assertive. The second-in-command is the beta dog. Depending on how many dogs are in the pack, you can name them successively for the subsequent letters of the Greek alphabet.
  • The last dog in the pack is named for the last letter of the Greek alphabet: the omega dog.
  • One site that gives advice for dog owners says that people tend to "root for the underdog" so dog owners who have several dogs may try to be extra-affectionate to the omega dog out of pity. But the alpha dog will see this and start to feel anxious about his position, and so to re-assert his dominance he will pick a fight with the omega dog to put him back in his place.
  • How can you tell which one is the omega dog?
  1. Always gives up first in a tug-of-war or other struggle.
  2. Gives attention or affection to other dogs first, especially by licking around their mouths.
  3. Looks away when other dogs or people try to make eye contact.

The little dog on its back is showing the larger dog that it is subordinate. Of the two dogs, that would be the omega dog. And actually, the guy lying on the ground is acting like a subordinate dog, too. I think Cesar Millan, who always advocates that people should be "calm, assertive pack leaders" would say that's not a good idea.
(Photo from The Fun Times Guide to Dogs)

  • In order to make sure you're not rooting for your omega dog and actually making life worse for him or her, the best thing to do is make sure your alpha dog gets everything -- food, toys, affection, etc. -- first, and the omega dog gets all that stuff last. It may not seem fair to you, but the dogs will all be much happier. Sarah Anderson at the Canine College of California has many more helpful tips on this subject.


No discussion of underdogs would be complete without mentioning Underdog, the cartoon TV show.
  • Underdog is a "humble shoeshine boy" (actually a dog) who can turn himself into a superhero, in this case, Underdog. His name when he is not Underdog is simply Shoeshine Boy.
  • The most important thing about Underdog is that he is not fancy, or extra suave or especially smart, or even especially strong. In fact, sometimes he starts to feel a little wobbly, at which point he must open his ring and take his vitamin pill for extra energy.
  • He must often fly to the rescue of his one true love, TV reporter Sweet Polly Purebred. She of course manages to get herself into all sorts of jams. When she cries out, "Oh where, oh where has my Underdog gone?" Underdog's superior canine ears hear her cries, in response to which he dashes into a nearby phone booth to transform himself into Underdog. "Have no fear, Underdog is here!"

Shoeshine Boy running to turn himself into Underdog and save Sweet Polly Purebred
(Image from Patrick Bowsley's Cartoon Art blog)

  • And -- I forgot this -- he rhymes.
  • Underdog's nemeses were a pinstripe-suit wearing mafia wolf named Riff Raff, and an evil scientist named Simon Bar Sinister, who sounds remarkably like Lionel Barrymore in his later years.
  • The best, though, is the chorus of the Underdog theme song:
Speed of lightning, roar of thunder
Fighting all who rob or plunder:
Underdog! Underdog!

If you want to see part of an episode, here's Part IV of The Forget-Me-Net

Something sort of existential is happening in this episode. The people of Washington have forgotten who Underdog is, and who they are. Once they're reminded of Underdog's identity, they remember their own.

Of course I find it highly significant that it is the alphabet that helps to break the curse.

Online Etymology Dictionary, underdog
The Phrase Finder, Top dog
Susan Daffron, Retaining Pack Harmony, Pet Tails
Canine Social Structure,
Sarah Anderson, Two or More Dogs, Canine College of California
IMDB, Underdog
Toon Tracker, Underdog
DJ Clawson's Underdog Home Page

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Apple #341: Lanugo Hair

A friend of mine had a baby recently, and we were talking about the baby's hair. What color had it been when she was born two months ago, what color it is now, what color it might come to be over the next year. Then my friend told me that babies typically have hair when they're in the uterus, except that hair covers the fetus' entire body. She said it goes away before the baby is born.

I said, "Where does it go?"

She looked at me, her eyes widening and said, "I don't know."

Then we launched into all kinds of speculation about what might have happened to that hair, but it was less than palatable, so I won't go into it. But this conversation definitely roused my curiosity.

  • Around the fifth month of pregnancy, a fetus will grow hair all over its body. But this isn't the kind of hair we born-people have. It has no pigmentation and it's ultra-fine and soft.
  • It's so soft that it feels downy. In fact the word "lanugo" is Latin for "down," like a baby duck's downy feathers.

This is a fetus at 30 weeks. You can just barely make out the lanugo on the fetus' head. Some vernix (see below) is caught in the fetus' eyebrows.
(Photo from Calgary Youth For Life
-- lots of pictures here of fetal development)

  • Nobody is completely certain of the purpose of lanugo, but there are two theories:
  1. Helps to maintain the fetus' body temperature in the womb
  2. Helps to keep the vernix in place. The vernix is a white gooey, some say cheesy fluid, which is made up of oil secreted by the fetus' oil glands (we have lots of those on our faces) and the fetus' dead skin cells. The purpose of the vernix is to help protect the fetus' skin from the amniotic fluid (think about being in a bath for 9 months and what that would do to your skin!). In fact, the word vernix comes from a Latin word which means "fragrant varnish." When the baby is born, along with the amniotic fluid and some blood and stuff, this is some of the goo that the doctor wipes off. As far as the lanugo goes, some people think that the fine hair helps to keep the vernix close to the skin. But the fact that the lanugo falls out before the baby is born seems to contradict this theory, because the baby is still going to need that vernix for another month or two.

Newborn, with goo
(Photo from Solar Navigator)

  • Around the 7th or 8th month, the lanugo hair falls out. Babies that are born prematurely may still have their lanugo. About 33% of babies that are born full-term still have it. But in almost all cases it will fall out after the first month or so.

Baby born with the lanugo hair still present.
(Photo from Hub Pages)

  • Just as nobody knows for sure the purpose of lanugo, nobody is 100% certain what happens to it after it is shed because they haven't actually seen where it goes. But scientists think that the baby ingests it -- the hair would be floating around in that amniotic fluid, after all -- because after the baby is born, that hair is part of the baby's first bowel movement.
  • That first bowel movement has a fancy name: meconium. It's made up of all the stuff that the fetus has ingested in the womb but doesn't need: skin cells, mucus, amniotic fluid, bile, water, and the lanugo hair. It has a fancy name because it's unlike any other bowel movement a human being will have in the rest of his or her life because never will we ingest such a cocktail of substances again. It's really gooey and tarry, but it also contains no bacteria so it has no odor.
  • (The origins of the word "meconium" are misleading. Aristotle thought that the first bowel movement helped keep the fetus asleep, so he named it "meconium," which means "poppy juice," which was a way of saying he thought it was an opiate. Which it is not. Aristotle did make a few mistakes.)

Hub Pages, What is Lanugo?
Babies Online, Baby, Pregnancy, and Parenting Information, Lanugo
Pregnancy, How Will My Newborn Look?, Hair Follicle Embryogenesis
Indiana University, A Moment of Science (AMOS), Lanugo Hairs, Pregnancy & Parenting, Lanugo and Vernix
NationMaster Encyclopedia, Meconium
OneLook dictionary search, lanugo, vernix, meconium

Monday, September 15, 2008

Weather delay

Ripple effects from Hurricane Ike have shut off the power in my house several times today (Sunday, that is). So, no Daily Apple today, unfortunately. But I'll have one up for you tomorrow.

Speaking of Ike, does anybody remember Ike Godsey from The Walton's? Maybe this hurricane is Ike Godsey, and he finally ran out of patience with Cora.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Apple #340: Sea Fans

I just got this book out of the library called Chasing Science at Sea: Racing Hurricanes, Stalking Sharks, and Living Undersea with Ocean Experts. It's about what it's like to be an underwater researcher and what sorts of adventures and problems people have encountered while trying to learn more about sharks or anemones or other undersea things.

The same way my dad reads non-fiction books, I turned to the pictures first. I was hoping for full-color photos and these are only black and white, but still, there are several undersea photos. Mainly they're of various underwater research vehicles and the occasional shark.

But there's one photo of a particular kind of coral that I've always thought was really cool-looking. So I'm going to find out what it is, and then I want to learn about what it does.

Sea Fan, from the Grand Cayman Islands. Fantastic, isn't it?
Photo from Florent's Guide to the Tropical Reefs, which has tons of great color photos of fishes and coral.

  • This thing is commonly called a Sea Fan. You've probably seen them in fancy fish tanks, maybe at a Chinese or Japanese restaurant, or maybe you've seen them at your local aquarium or zoo.
  • Sea fans are part of a larger family of coral called Gorgonians, which includes sea whips, sea plumes, and sea rods as well as sea fans. It's sort of confusing figuring out what's a sea fan and what's not. Apparently the family classifications have been changed a few times and not everybody is on the same page as far as what belongs in which group.
  • For our purposes, I'll show you pictures of things that are for sure Gorgonians and that are probably also sea fans, as opposed to those other types of Gorgonians. Even those Gorgonians that are considered to be sea fans can have lots of different shapes.

Various types of Red Gorgonians, some with polyps extended.
(Photo from a German site about marine zoology, with lots of photos, called Senckenbergische Naturforschende Gesellschaft)

  • All Gorgonians are types of soft corals, which means they don't calcify and fuse themselves together to become almost like rock, but instead they anchor themselves in thick beds of sand or mud, and they have a flexible, bendy skeleton made of a specific type of protein called gorgonin. This protein is very similar to the collagen in our tendons, except it is twice as strong.
  • To me, the fact that may be the strangest about these things is something that's true of all coral: they're not plants, they're animals.
  • But what's confusing is that some sea fans are photosynthetic (require light to process their food) and some are non-photosynthetic. But only plants are photosynthetic, you say, so how can sea fans be animals and also be photosynthetic? Very good question.
  • The reason some sea fans are photosynthetic is they have tiny little planties that live among them, called zooxanthellae. Those zooxanthellae are actually very tiny, single-celled algae. The Gorgonians provide the algae with a place to live that's close to the sunlight and and their waste matter also provides food for the algae. In exchange, the algae produce oxygen and nutrients that are essential for the Gorgonians to be able to grow and reproduce.

Close-up of a coral's polyps showing zooxanthellae. On this particular coral, they're the reddish-brown stuff that looks sort of like rust.
(Photo was originally from a Biology course page at U Michigan, but which has since been taken down. Sourced from Estrella Mountain Community College page on stem eukaryotes)

  • So if you've got a photosynthetic Gorgonian, that means it needs the little algae planties on it to survive, which means you've got to give your Gorgonian sunlight. If you've got a non-photosynthetic Gorgonian, you have to make sure it can get its necessary food and nutrients for itself. People who have aquariums say the non-photosynthetic varieties are harder to keep alive. Most Gorgonians are non-photosynthetic and prefer shadier, deeper waters.

The Purple Frilly Gorgonian is a photosynthetic gorgonian and favorite with people who keep home aquariums.
(Photo from Quality Marine)

  • By the way, most types of coral have a symbiotic relationship with the zooxanthellae. In fact, in most cases, it's the tiny algae growing all over the various types of coral that gives it its bright colors.
  • Whether they are photosynthetic or not (rely on mini-algae or not), they all have polyps that are fringed with tentacles. The polyps are crucial to the way the sea fans eat and grow.

Yellow Finger gorgonian with polyps closed.
(Photo from Live Aquaria, where you can purchase a Yellow Finger for $29.99)

Yellow finger gorgonian, with polyps extended.
(Posted by Nano at

Close-up of a red gorgonian and its multitudinous polyps.
(Posted by Nano at

  • At night, the sea fans extend their polyps, which have stinging tentacles on the ends of them. Any food (plankton, mostly) that floats close enough gets trapped or stung and paralyzed by the tentacles. The food is then passed to the center of the polyp, which is kind of like a mouth.
  • This video shows a few different types of sea fans. There's no sound, and the first few sea fans aren't doing much, just waving slightly in the current. But then it zooms in on one that has its tentacles extended, and you can see them close around food like a fist. It is totally cool.

Viminella, another type of Gorgonian.
(Photo from the German site Senckenbergische Naturforschende Gesellschaft)

  • Though they do have stingers, sea fans rely mainly on the current to bring plankton and other food particles to them. So if you have an aquarium and you want to raise sea fans, make sure your aquarium has a good current to swish the food around.

A Gorgonian called Acanthogorgia.
(Photo from the California Academy of Sciences Invertebrate Zoology & Geology)

  • Sea fans also rely on the current to help them reproduce. They make their sea fan offspring in one of two ways:
  1. Asexually -- a hunk of branch from the sea fan will break off, float around, and eventually land somewhere. Sometimes it lands in a favorable spot, takes root, and begins to form a new colony.
  2. Sexually -- most sea fan colonies are separated by sex; that is, the male sea fans are over there, and the female sea fans are over here. So the question is, how to get the eggs and the sperm together. Sometimes both male and female sea fans will spawn simultaneously, throwing their goods up into the water and hoping their stuff happily collides (my favorite version of coral reproduction). But more often the female sea fans will snag some floating male sea fan sperm and take care of the fertilized eggs in-house, so to speak.
  • Regardless of how the sea fan eggs and sperm get together, the larva, which is like a mini-branch of the coral, floats around for a while. At first it will stay near the surface of the water and if it doesn't get eaten by some predator, eventually it will sink back to the ocean floor until it finds a sandy or muddy spot it likes and digs in.
  • Predators of the sea fans include flamingo-tongue snails and white frilly sea slugs. I am not making this up.

A flamingo tongue snail eating a sea rod. The shell of the snail is actually a plain whitish peach color. The spots you see are a living tissue that the snail pulls over itself and that works like gills, helping the snail to breathe underwater. If you collected this snail and took it out of the water, the spotted tissue would retract and it would look like a boring old shell. Don't ask me why this snail is called flamingo tongue. That's a whole other Apple.
(Photo from Reef News)

Not to be a downer or anything, but scientists predict that unless people stop messing with the reefs and producing way too many carbon emissions, 40% of the coral reefs will be gone forever in the next three years. But it's not all doom and gloom because it's not too late to stop damaging the reefs and start protecting them.

By the way, I wrote an entry a while back about coral reefs in general. It's much less specific than this entry, and the types of coral described are hard corals rather than soft like the sea fans. But if you liked this entry, you might also like that one.

Wet Web Media, The Conscientious Marine Aquarist, Sea Fans for Marine Aquaria, the Gorgonians
Florent's Guide to the Tropical Reefs
World Database of Marine Species, Universita della Politecnica delle Marche, Sea fans, gorgonians. This site has photos of all types of Gorgonians, with polyps extended and without. A great resource.
Robert Toonen, Invertebrate Non-Column: Gorgonians, Advanced Aquarist's Online Magazine
Julian Sprung, Aquarium Invertebrates: Caribbean Gorgonians, Advanced Aquarist's Online Magazine

University of the Virgin Islands, Zooxanthellae
Coral Reef Alliance, Reef Awareness
Jane Lilley, Dead Men's Fingers and Other Soft Corals, British Marine Life Study Society

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Apple #339: Cranberries

Talking to a friend the other day, the subject of cranberry juice and harvesting cranberries came up. We both knew that the berry bushes get flooded with water so that the berries will float, but neither of us knew why. So it's time for your Apple Lady to find out.

Bowl of fresh cranberries
(Photo from the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers' Association)

  • Cranberries grow on low-lying vines, much like strawberries do.
  • The cranberry vines thrive in very acidic soil that is a mixture of peat, sand, gravel, and clay, but mainly peat with a layer of sand on top.
  • Peat, by the way, is spongy, fibrous stuff that is made up of partially decayed dead plants and other organic matter. You can grow other stuff in it, or you can dry it out and burn it.

A hunk of peat. If you wait longer and let this stuff get buried and compressed by more and more layers of peat above it, eventually it will turn into coal.
(Photo from Wyoming Coal)

  • The combination of sand, peat, gravel, and clay occurs in bowl-like wetlands that were scooped out thousands of years ago by the Ice Age glaciers.
  • Most cranberries are grown in the Northeastern US, a few northern Midwest states, and in Canada -- places where the glaciers carved out wetlands with the soil composition that cranberry vines like, and where the growing season is from April to November, which is also what the cranberries like. Some cranberries are also grown in Chile.
  • Of the 1,000+ cranberry growers in the US and Canada, 400 of them are in Massachusetts. So if you want to see a cranberry bog in action, Massachusetts is the best place to go.
  • Cranberries really like water, so growers will give them lots of water at every stage of the growing process.
  • Winter is the dormant period when the vines aren't doing much of anything. But cranberry growers will flood their cranberry bogs during the winter to keep the vines from getting damaged by cold snaps or ice storms or other harmful winter weather.
  • Growers will also clear away bushes and trees that might be growing around the perimeter of the bog. Keeping a space clear all the way around the bog helps to aerate the vines and keeps weeds and bugs and other nasties from getting to the cranberry vines.

Most cranberry bogs also have a ditch around them, which helps keep the water in, and weeds and pests out.
(Photo from the Garden Grapevine)

  • The growers might also lay down some sand on the soil before flooding the bog, if the sand layer is getting too thin. The sand helps keep out the bugs and weeds and fungus that could attack the plants.
  • In the spring, growers will pump the water out of the bogs, fertilize the plants, apply some weed-killer, etc. Sometimes in late spring, the growers might flood the bogs again to control weeds and pests.
  • Here's another way in which water actually helps protect the cranberries: in early spring, when there's still a danger of late frost, the growers will keep a little bit of moisture on the plants as a way to protect them from that possible frost. When the moisture freezes, which happens before the plants would freeze, the freezing process emits heat and keeps the plants warm.
  • So it sounds like, if you're in doubt about your cranberry vines, just give them more water.
  • In late spring, the plants begin to bloom. The blossoms are white or light pink, and the way the petals twist, they look like the head of the crane. This shape is what made Dutch and German settlers call them "crane berries," a name which was later shortened to "cranberries."

Cranberry blossoms, thought to resemble the heads of cranes.
(Photo from the Cranberry Blossom Festival page)

  • During the summer, growers will continue to fend off the weeds and the bugs. Because cranberry vines need one inch of water per week during this part of the growing season, the growers will also sprinkle the vines pretty regularly to supplement rainfall.
  • Growers will also bring in beekeepers to let loose their bees and pollinate the plants.
  • Fall is harvesting time. Cranberries can be harvested one of two ways, dry or wet. In dry harvesting, people push walk-behind harvesting machines that look like oversized, fancy wheelbarrows, which scoop the berries off the vines into boxes.

A walk-behind machine used in dry harvesting cranberries.
(Photo from the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers' Association)

  • Wet harvesting is what you see most often on TV. In fact, 85% of cranberries are harvested this way. The reason lots of cranberries are harvested in water is because the berries have a pocket of air in the fruit, which means they will float.

Cranberries cut open, revealing their magical air pockets
(Photo from medGadget, a medical technology blog)

  • In wet harvesting, the growers flood the bogs with water, and then they use machines called water reels or water beaters that knock the berries off the bushes, and the berries bob to the surface.

A guy named Dave and his water beater, which is "picking" the cranberries off the vines below the water.
(Photo from Royal Ruby Cranberries)

  • Next the growers use things that are floating rope-like tubes, called "booms," to round up the berries into closely-packed areas. From there, the berries are pumped or conveyed up a lift into a truck.

Booms being used to round up the cranberries
(Photo from The Inside Scoop on Farms: Cranberry Bogs)

How the cranberries get from the flooded bog into a truck
(Photo from
Royal Ruby Cranberries)

  • Whether the berries are harvested using wet or dry methods, they are then sorted by color and whether the berries will bounce. If you get a cranberry that doesn't bounce, you know it's spoiled or bruised or damaged.
  • The guy who first discovered this fact about cranberries, by the way, was John "Peg-Leg" Webb. He was a grower who lived in New Jersey back in the day, and because of his wooden leg, he couldn't carry his berries from the loft in his barn where he stored them. So instead of carrying them down the steps with him, he rolled them. He noticed that the fruit that bounced all the way to the bottom was better than the fruit that didn't bounce, and that in fact the fruit that stayed at the top of the steps was rotten or bruised. So that's how he sorted the good berries from the bad, and other growers started bouncing their berries, too.

A cranberry bouncer, used to this day to sort the good cranberries from the not-so-good.
(Photo by kassita on flickr)

  • Dry berries usually go to the fresh markets, meaning that if you buy fresh, bagged cranberries from the store, they've probably been dry harvested.
  • Wet harvested berries are usually turned into juices or the cranberry sauce for your Thanksgiving dinner, or they're used as ingredients in other processed foods.

Cranberry juice which, besides being tart and tasty, is especially good at dislodging bacteria and is thus useful in fighting off infections.
(Photo from

  • Cranberries are one of only three fruits native to North America. The other two are Concord grapes and blueberries -- which are a distant relative of the cranberry.

Cape Cod Cranberry Growers' Association, How Cranberries Grow
The Inside Scoop on Farms, Cranberry Bogs
Royal Ruby Cranberries, Photo Tour: How Cranberries are Grown
Ocean Spray, What's a Bog?
Winston J. Craig, "The cranberry cure," Vibrant Life, May-June 2002

Friday, September 5, 2008

Apple #338: Werewolves

Sorry for the delay in getting the next Daily Apple to you. For some reason, things have been sort of hectic since I got back from my mini-trip for the holiday, and I haven't been able to get to this.

And I've also had trouble deciding what the next entry should be about. I had a few ideas, looked into them a bit and had to discard them as too boring. So be glad I didn't take us down those paths.

Then today, on the way home from work, I heard this time-honored classic. Well, I don't know if it's either time-honored or a classic, but this song always makes me think of my brother, who thinks this is a very funny song, particularly the line, "I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vicks. His hair was perfect."

So I thought, I've covered vampires, zombies, and the Loch Ness Monster, so I think now it's time to take a look at werewolves. And while you read this entry, maybe you'd like to have the above song playing in the background for your entertainment and edification.

For those of you with little children, you might not want to read this entry aloud to your young ones.

Modern-day depiction of the werewolf
(Image from Flight of the Dragon)

  • The word werewolf is a combination of Anglo-Saxon words wer which means "man" and wolf, whose meaning I think you already know.
  • Another term which some people in the psychiatric professions actually use is Lycanthropy. This one comes from the Greek words lukos + anthropos or "wolf man." So it means the same thing as werewolf, but it sounds more erudite, apparently.
  • The first recorded mention of a werewolf was in Germany, in village called Bedburg near Cologne, in 1591.
  • Wolves were plaguing the countryside and they were either attacking people (which is actually an extremely rare thing for wolves to do) or else people were afraid that the wolves would progress from attacking their livestock to attacking people.
  • Then one day the townspeople had cornered a wolf and were going at it with sharp sticks and other implements. But this particular wolf, instead of lashing out with its teeth or running away, stood up and revealed itself to be a middle-aged man named Peter Stubbe who lived in the same village.
  • Peter Stubbe apparently had become a very bad man. He was put on the torture wheel and said that he had killed 16 people, 13 of them children. He said he had learned sorcery when he was a teenager and had made a pact with the devil, who gave him a magic belt that allowed him to take on the guise of a wolf to attack people. As a wolf, he would bite his victim's throat and suck the blood from their veins (vampire-like, no?). If his victim were a woman, he would rape her before he killed her.
  • The village decided to put Peter Stubbe to death in the most horrific way they could imagine: they pulled off his flesh with red-hot pincers, broke his arms and legs, cut off his head, and burned his corpse.
The Book of Were-Wolves from 1865 tells the story of Peter Stubbe who was executed in this gruesome manner, apparently to correspond with the gruesomeness of his crimes.
(Image from World's Strangest)

  • People equated his savagery with that of wolves, and they decided that he and anybody else who committed such horrific acts were sort of channeling the savage spirit of the wolf. So I'm thinking that the story about the wolf revealing itself to be Peter Stubbe was told after the fact, and was the town's way to try to explain how somebody could do such terrible things.

"Werewolf" by Lucas Cranach Sr., from around 1510, depicting the werewolf's carnage.
(Image from Duke University librarian Ed Babinski's blog)

  • After that, and throughout much of Europe, there were lots of stories about werewolves -- people who were transformed into part-wolves and attacking other people. One of the key features of the werewolf stories is the transformation process.
  • Some people said that you could fall asleep and the devil would take the form of a wolf and go out and do all the things that were your worst, most evil sleeping desires and kill men and beasts.
  • Other people said you could become a werewolf if a witch or a sorcerer had cursed you. Becoming a werewolf in this fashion was also an involuntary thing, and you were under the spell of someone more evil than you.
  • Of course there is the now more commonly known method of becoming a werewolf, which is by being bitten. If the saliva of a werewolf got into your bloodstream, then you also became a werewolf whether you wanted to be one or not.
The transformation from American Werewolf in London
(Screen shot from Saint Vespaluus)

  • But there were other stories about people who chose to become werewolves. One version of the voluntary werewolf was that evil people put on a wolf skin and went about doing terrible things while wearing the hide of a wolf. Sometimes the only bit of a wolf that the evil person would wear was a belt.
  • Or a person could become a werewolf by worshiping the devil. Usually there was a ritual that involved drawing a circle on the ground and rubbing an ointment into the skin (this ointment may have contained belladonna or nightshade, which are hallucinogens in small doses). Following the ritual to the devil, you would then be given the power to become wolf-like and go do your evil things.
  • There are also lots of other medical-based theories to explain the notions of werewolf-like behavior.
  • One possibility is that the were-person maybe had rabies. This one is easiest to connect with the werewolf-by-biting method because rabies is often transmitted by animal bites. However, while rabies does make people writhe around and do lots of strange things, but mainly it constricts the throat and keeps you from being able to swallow and you die from it within a few days.
  • It's also possible that people actually ingested something that altered their behavior. The Ergot fungus (today's generally-accepted explanation for all the insanity surrounding the Salem witch trials) which affects rye grasses is one of those possible somethings. Back in the day, people ate rye bread without realizing the rye grass had the fungus in it, and the fungus gave them convulsions and delusions and hallucinations and all sorts of unpleasant things. The Ergot fungus, by the way, is sometimes called Wolfzahn or wolf's tooth. But the Ergot fungus is more often poisonous before its hallucinogenic effects can occur. And there were far more people tried for being werewolves than there were actual outbreaks of the Ergot fungus.
  • Another something that people could have eaten or come in contact with is belladonna or nightshade. These are plants which, in high enough doses, can be fatal, but in small doses can be hallucinogenic. Those ointments that people rubbed on themselves during werewolf rituals seem to may have included either one of these hallucinogens, so it's possible that the influence of a small amount of this plant is what made people go berserk.
Belladonna. This is poisonous, but at low doses, drops from the plant will make your pupils dilate. But please don't eat this. It is one of the most toxic plants in the Western Hemisphere, and though it does cause hallucinations, you get those shortly before it kills you.
(Photo from Botany Photo of the Day)

  • There is also a disease which is popularly called "Wolfitis," or Hypertrichosis. Basically all that happens is you get a lot of body hair, sometimes all over the place, or sometimes localized in one or two places. But it doesn't really affect your behavior in any way.
  • Or perhaps the were-people really had Porphyria. This is actually a group of diseases caused by a rare genetic disorder that makes people extremely sensitive to light, and it also affects the red blood cells so that you become very pale, and you also happen to grow a lot of body hair. While all this physical stuff is happening, you also become afflicted with various mental disturbances ranging from depression to hysteria and delirium. Late stages of this illness include a deterioration of the skin and the teeth. That all sounds really awful. This theory has also been proposed as an explanation for vampires.
  • There is also a mental disorder called Lycanthropy. This is a severe form of psychosis in which the person believes him or herself to be a wild animal, usually a wolf. Nebuchadnezzar in the Bible, for example, is described to have such severe depression over a seven-year period that for a time he believed himself to be a wolf. The very few cases of lycanthrophy that have emerged in the last century or so have been linked to schizophrenia.
  • Those real-world substances and illnesses are all very real concerns. But it's hard to say whether all the werewolf stories actually can be traced back to real-world effects, or how many of them are the stuff of imagination. Certainly Hollywood picked up on the werewolf stories. And as we get farther and farther away from very real fears about the damages that wolves can do, the stories we tell about werewolves become less horrific and more ironic and comical.

Cover of I Was A Teenage Werewolf starring Michael Landon!
(Image from Monsterland Toys)

  • Werewolf of London (1935) -- a dapper London scientist goes to Tibet in search of a rare flower and instead gets attacked in the forest, which transforms into a werewolf. Back in London, he terrorizes the city during the full moon. Only the juice of the rare flower can save him.
  • The Wolf Man (1941) -- stars Claude Rains as the main man and Lon Chaney, Jr. as his werewolf self. Bela Lugosi is in it, too, and is the one responsible for the initial attack. Establishes the werewolf's vulnerability to silver.
  • An American Werewolf in London (1981) -- directed by the same guy who made Animal House, two backpacking college guys are in London and one of them is attacked by a werewolf and returns to tell his friend in a dream that the same thing will happen to him.
  • There are also such gems as The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! (1972), which features both man-eating rats and blood-sucking werewolves, and Werewolves on Wheels (1971) which includes biker gangs, devil monasteries, and biker chicks. Ah, the 70s.
  • The Howling (1981) -- A TV reporter has been following the story of a serial killer named Eddie who has been preying on the homeless. The story gets to her, so her boss tells her to take a vacation in the woods. Hmm, what's the dumbest place to go if you're in a werewolf movie? (This one has lots of sequels, notably The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf.)
  • Teen Wolf (1985) -- It's puberty that turns Michael J. Fox into a werewolf. He's in high school, plays basketball, wants to impress a girl, and discovers he's a werewolf. Great.
  • There's also a remake of the 1941 movie due out in 2009, called The Wolf Man, starring Benicio del Toro and Anthony Hopkins (of course).
  • So, if you find yourself in a werewolf movie, how do you disable a werewolf? It seems that the most effective remedy is to splash water on him. Whether it's holy water or tap water, rolling him in the dew, or whatever form of water, it seems that the werewolf really hates water. Maybe because he's been running around out in the forest getting good and dirty and really does not want a bath?
  • Legend also has it that you could disable him with some good old wolf's bane, a.k.a. monk's hood. This actually is a very poisonous flower and its root extract has been used to poison the tips of arrows.

Monk's hood or wolf's bane. This variety is pink. Others may be purple or yellow. But they're all very toxic, and you should wash your hands if you so much as touch this.
(Photo from Paghat)

  • If you want to kill the werewolf outright , of course there's shooting a silver bullet through his heart, but that's a relatively recent method. The method in existence for much longer than this is to decapitate him.

I think the lesson here is to stay away from those poisonous plants.

Sk. Nur-Ul-Alam, Werewolves: The Myths and the Truths, Vampires and Werewolves, 1589: Peter Stubbe, Sybil Stubbe and Katharina Trump
Tracy V. Wilson, Howstuffworks, How Werewolves Work
Werewolf Info