Thursday, April 17, 2014

Apple #670: Easter Candy Facts

A lot of people have a lot of opinions about Easter.  I have mine, you have yours.  But one thing we can all agree on is Easter candy.  So here are your fast Easter candy facts to have at the ready as you're sitting around with friends & family this weekend, gnawing the ears off some hapless chocolate bunny.

The bunny might be hopless too, since it's chocolate. Hahahaha!

Look at the ears on those chocolate bunnies.  Just asking for it.
(Photo and chocolate bunnies from Lake Champlain Chocolates. Each year, they make a 3-pound chocolate bunny they affectionately call Mr. Goodtime Bunny.)

  • After Halloween, Easter is the biggest candy holiday of the year.  Bigger than Christmas. 
  • 120 million pounds of Easter candy are sold each year in the United States.
  • The total amount of candy manufactured in anticipation of each Easter includes:
    • 90 million chocolate bunnies
    • 91.4 billion eggs of various sorts
    • 700 million marshmallow Peeps
    • 16 million jelly beans
  • Children's favorite color of jelly bean: red. 

There's one marshmallow Peep born every 6 seconds.
(Photo from Buzznet)

  • Altogether, we Americans spend $14.7 billion with a B on Easter stuff.  Not just candy, but decorations, clothes, Easter bonnets, etc.  That's about $131 per household. 
    • $2.1 billion with a B of that is candy.
    • 70% of the $2.1 billion is chocolate.
  • 76% of chocolate bunny-eaters say they eat the ears first. 
  • According to Guinness world records, the largest chocolate Easter egg was over 34 feet tall and weighed 15,873 pounds. I'd hate to be around when that thing hatched.
  • Cadbury starts making & selling their creme eggs on New Year's Day through Easter.  So get 'em now before they vanish for the rest of the year. 

What's the creme in those Cadbury eggs made of? Sugar & water. That's it.
(Photo from Buzznet)

Hoppy Easter!
(Photo from Healthline)

Do, 11 Facts About Easter
ABC15 Arizona, Easter candy: 9 facts that may surprise you
ABCNews, 90 Million Chocolate Bunnies and Other Fun Easter Facts
Chicago News Tween US, Hunting for Easter egg trivia? Find 11 fun facts here

Monday, April 14, 2014

Apple #669: La Brea Tar Pits

I've been meaning to do an entry on the La Brea Tar Pits for quite some time.  A recent news tidbit about bee fossils from the Tar Pits reminded me, so now seems as good a time as any.

To go along with that news, here are a few facts about the tar pits:
  • Since people are always talking about fossils and natural history discoveries and things they learned about animals found in the tar pits that lived a long time ago, I always assumed the Tar Pits were out in the boonies somewhere.  

Also, this is the kind of picture I've always seen of the La Brea Tar Pits.  Enormous animals duking it out in some ancient wildnerness, teetering on the edge of the tar pits and about to fall in and become fossils for us to discover centuries later.
(Image from Wikipedia)

  • Nope.  The La Brea Tar Pits are in downtown Los Angeles.
  • The park is just off Wilshire Boulevard, which is LA's "Miracle Mile" -- its high-class main street that goes right through downtown and extends all the way to Santa Monica.

One of the many modern-day structures on Wilshire Boulevard: the LA County Museum of Art
(Photo by Luis Sinco at the LA Times)

A popular tour route of Los Angeles and Hollywood, including stops such as Paramount Studios, Melrose Avenue shopping, the Chinese Theatre, Beverly Hills -- and the La Brea Tar Pits, (down at the bottom of this map).
(Map and tour from City Discovery)

Present-day pictures of the tar pits still look rather wilderness-y, with statues of giant now-extinct animals duking it out in the tar pits.  Oh, but there's a modern-day building tucked behind those bushes.
(Photo by Roger Weller from Cochise College)

  • Long, long ago, back before the tar pits even existed, Los Angeles used to be underwater.  The marine animals and fishes that lived in the water died and their skeletons along with all the other stuff that's in water settled at the bottom.  Over time, more stuff accumulated, pressing down on those dead fishes et cetera, until they got turned into the good old fossil fuels we all know and love.
  • Eventually, the crude oil that was formed seeped up through cracks in the ground to the surface.  Wouldn't oil barons of today love that -- a pool of oil just sitting there on the ground.
  • But the "lighter components" of the oil evaporate out, and what's left behind is what we call tar.  
  • Actually, it's asphalt. The black, hot, sticky stuff that road crews onto the street.  And did I mention it's sticky?
  • To recap, we've got a pool of marine animals which died and got turned into oil, which surfaced and now that's turned into a giant pool of asphalt, which is super sticky.  Animals that blunder into it get stuck, can't pull away, and since it's a deep pool of the stuff, they sink into it and die.  Then they get turned into fossils.  This happened right around the end of the last Ice Age.  These are the fossils that people today are excavating and examining.
  • Right in the middle of downtown Los Angeles.  I still can't get over that.
  • Before the pits were turned into a natural park, people did scoop out the tar and use it.  Early Native Americans used it as caulk for their canoes and baskets.  Later people used the tar for roofing material, just as we use asphalt to make shingles today.  It was when they started drilling for oil in the 1800s that they discovered the skeletons in the pits.
  • It just so happens that asphalt makes an excellent preservative.  Bird bones, exoskeletons of insects, even the unborn larvae of bees are kept so intact, researchers have been able to understand a whole lot of things about plants & animals that don't even exist anymore.
  • The asphalt does turn the bones brown, but otherwise, everything is really well-preserved. That's how scientists are able to study such tiny and specific things as the pupae of leafcutter bees.
  • As of 1992, people studying the tar pits had unearthed more than 3.5 million individual plants and animals that belong to over 600 species.  Of course studies are ongoing, so there are more likely many more specimens in the collection; they just haven't done a census recently.
  • Some of the types of animals that have been found in the tar pits include:
    • Squirrels
    • Rabbits
    • Skunks
    • Bats
    • Herons
    • Ducks
    • Vultures
    • Hawks
    • Falcons
    • Owls
    • Pigeons
    • Roadrunners
    • Pocket gophers
    • Raccoons
    • Ground sloths
    • Saber-toothed tigers
    • Horses
    • Cattle
    • Camels (I know; camels?!)
    • Mastodons 
    • Elephants
    • Bears
    • Humans (one person, a woman)
  • Can you imagine, being a bird and being all light and feathery and flying around, and then you get some of that dastardly asphalt on your wings.  You're a stuck bird and you ain't going no place.
  • This list represents only a fraction of the plants & animals & insects that have been found and identified, from 6 pits so far.  More research is underway at a new location, and they will also be looking at "microfossils."  So who knows what else they may discover.

Skull of the saber-toothed "tiger."
(Photo from the University of California Museum of Paleontology)

  • The saber-toothed tiger (Smilodon) is the second-most common mammal fossil that has been found in the tar pits.  More than 2,000 of them have been excavated.
  • It's not actually that closely related to today's tiger.  It was about a foot shorter than our lions today and instead of a long tail, it had a bobtail.  Which suggests it didn't run after prey in which case it would need a tail to help it navigate, but rather ambushed its food.
  • Their incisors were 8 inches long.  
  • Most likely, they ate bison and sloths and camels.  Yes, camels.
  • The saber-toothed tiger went extinct about 10,000 years ago.  Which, in paleontology terms, is pretty recent. 

This is what scientists at the La Brea museum think the sabertooth tiger might have looked like. This is a life-sized puppet, created with help from Jim Henson's Creature Shop.
(Photo from the La Brea Page Museum)

Camelops skull
(Drawing from the National Park Service)

  • The species of camel that has been found in the Tar Pits -- Camelops -- is now extinct.  But camels actually originated in North America, not the Middle East.
  • Southern California and Idaho were not desert-like back in that time, but were more likely grasslands or even wetlands.  
  • Since humps are not the sort of thing to get fossilized, scientists aren't sure whether the Camelops had a hump or not. 
  • It is thought that camels did not adapt to desert conditions until after they arrived in Asia and the Middle East.  It is thought that they traveled there over land, which was possible way back then when the geography was much, much different than it is today.
  • Camelops are more closely related to today's llamas.

Artist's rendering of what the Camelops may have looked like.
(Drawing from the La Brea Page Museum)

Skeleton of Harlan's Ground Sloth
(Photo from Fossil Treasures of Florida)

  • Skeletons of Harlan's Ground Sloth (Paramylodon harlani) and other types of ground sloths, all of which are extinct, have been found in all sorts of places, from La Brea to Antarctica, Florida to Patagonia.
  • The Harlan's Ground Sloth lived all across what is now the United States, but mostly in the West.
  • These dudes liked the grasslands best, too.
  • The Harlan's Ground Sloth was probably about 9 feet tall and weighed somewhere around 2,300 pounds -- "bison-sized" as one site puts it.
  • They were probably prey for the saber-toothed tiger (Smilodon).
  • They had bony knobs the size of pebbles (osteoderms or dermal ossicles) embedded in their skin which would have acted as a kind of armor. 
  • Their closest relatives today are anteaters, armadillos, and pangolins.  Armadillos & pangolins also have osteoderms, but of a much different shape and growing closer together in complex patterns.

Artist's reconstruction of a Harlan's Ground Sloth. This one looks quite friendly.
(Drawing from the La Brea Page Museum)

For a really good pictorial overview of the history of the Tar Pits from 40,000 years ago to today, check out the La Brea Page Museum's Timeline.

Wilshire Boulevard, a Main Street that stands apart, Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2013
University of California Museum of Paleontology, La Brea Tar Pits, What Is a Sabertooth? Timeline 
Howstuffworks, How the La Brea Tar Pits Work
Los Angeles County Natural History Museum Rancho La Brea Collections
La Brea Tar Pits Page Museum Collections
National Park Service, Camelops
San Diego Zoo Library, Extinct Ground Sloth, Tardigrada
Fossil Treasures of Florida, Harlans Ground Sloth

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Apple #668: Yellow Sac Spiders, Mazda6s, and the Smell of Gas

All right, you lazy copycat reporters.  I'm calling you on your mindless repetition of other sources without doing any fact-checking of your own, right here and now.

There's a story getting repeated like mad by every major news source, minor news source, TV news page, web newsjunkie page, and car fan blog out there.  They're all saying the same thing over and over so it probably doesn't matter which source I quote, so I'll just pick one.

[EDIT: Since search engines are picking up the portion of this entry that repeats the untrue statement, I am going to amend the news article so that it is factually correct.]

The 2014 Mazda6 -- not included in the recall.  The recall only covers some 42,000 Mazda6s made in 2010-2012.  But all you reporters who are reporting repeating this story had BETTER look at things differently.
(Photo by Aaron Gold, from Cars)

Here is the story from the AP Newswire, picked up and reposted verbatim by ABCNews [and edited to be correct, by me]:
Mazda is recalling 42,000 Mazda6 cars in the U.S. because spiders can weave a web in a vent hose and cause the fuel tank to crack.

The recall involves cars from the 2010 through 2012 model years equipped with 2.5-liter engines.

The yellow sac spider, which is [NOT NECESSARILY] attracted to hydrocarbons, builds webs [SACS] that [MAY] cause pressure to build in the fuel tank. That increases the risk of fuel leaks and fire.

Mazda recalled cars in 2011 for the same problem. It put covers on the vent line, but has found spiders can get past them.

Mazda will update the cars' software for free beginning this month to ensure that the fuel tank pressure doesn't build up.

Mazda says no injuries or fires have been reported due to the issue.

SPOILER: I can find no evidence whatsoever that yellow sac spiders "are attracted to hydrocarbons" or "like the smell of gas" or any other such anthropomorphic explanation for their behavior.  So how many other elements of this story are untrue, and continuing to be repeated as if they are?

Of the innumerable sources reporting repeating this story, many have headlines such as 
    • (Some clarification: This particular model of car was recalled in 2011 for the spiders-in-the-fuel-line reason.  So there are two bouts of news stories on this topic, one batch from 2014 and another from 2011.  The fix that Mazda came up with in 2011 was insufficient to keep the spiders out.  They've figured out a different solution, so they've issued a new recall to get people to bring their cars in to get the new fix.  Both bouts of news stories did the same repetition thing, with the occasional clever headline meant to incite hilarity.) 
    • Some further clarification: It's not that the cars are infested with spiders, as some headlines suggest.  It's that sometimes a spider may build a nest in the fuel line. If that happens, damage to the fuel-related parts may result.  Mazda wants to recall the cars to put in a fix in order to prevent that damage.

    I thought, "This is interesting, a spider that likes the smell of gasoline.  I want to know more about that."  So I did some searching about the yellow sac spider.  Here are some of the basic, most salient facts:

    The yellow sac spider is very common.  You probably recognize it by its pale body and the dark tips at the end of its legs.
    (Photo from Jonesblog)

    • The yellow sac spider is very common throughout the United States.
    • It likes to hang out under leaves or in crevices or in hidden spots because it stalks and hunts its prey, usually at night.
    • Typical nesting spots include under leaves, in woodpiles, or under stones. In or around a house they may be found up in the corners, under eaves, or behind baseboards.
    • This spider is so-named because its body is yellow and it builds sacs, rather than webs.  (Let me repeat that: this spider does not build webs.)  In addition to being the spider's daily retreat, the sac is also the place where the female stores her eggs until they hatch.
    • The only reason people pay much attention to this type of spider is because its bite contains a mild venom that can be painful to people.  If you get a spider bite that hurts and maybe even swells a bit, it is probably from a yellow sac spider.
    • If you've gotten such a bite, clean it with iodine or other antiseptic and put ice on it. 

    One example of the kind of Photoshopped images showing the yellow sac spider in a gas tank. 
    (Image from Free Republic)

    None of the pages describing the yellow sac spider in & of itself said anything about the spider liking the smell of gasoline, or hydrocarbons, or hydrogen oxide.

    Let me repeat that but in a slightly different way: all of the entomology/spider/species resources I checked said NOTHING about this type of spider liking the smell of gasoline.

    Yellow sac spiders do have one unusual physical feature: they have 8 eyes, 2 more than most spiders have.
    (Photo by Joseph Berger, from Bugwood.ord, sourced from CNNMoney)

    • There are a couple types of spider that do utilize hydrocarbons: 
      • The males of certain very tiny dwarf spiders (linyphiids) emit a type of hydrocarbon that works sort of like a pheromone and tells females the male is fit and would make a suitable mate.
      • Another type of spider called corinnids mimic the ants that they live among so they can eat the ants with impunity.  These types of spiders look or walk like the ants. One species even has the mimicry down to such a science, they also emit a hydrocarbon, similar to one that the ants themselves use, which tells the ants "I am a colony-member, not an intruder."  Like the yellow sac spider, corinnids build sacs.  But corinnids are in the genus Castianeira, and yellow sac are in the Cheiracanthium genus.
    • These are the only two types of spiders I found that have anything to do with hydrocarbons.  But these are not yellow sac spiders.

    The only sources I found that said anything about the yellow sac spider in particular liking the smell of gasoline, or hydrocarbons, or hydrogen oxide, were all news articles or blog posts about the Mazda recall.

    Seemed pretty fishy to me. I wondered, did someone make a factually incorrect statement at some point, and everyone has just kept repeating that statement without checking it, for years?

    So I started looking into some of the supposedly factual statements in the news release.

    For example, you may have noticed that the AP story I quoted above (and all the others robotically following suit) says that the spiders in the Mazda gas tank are building webs and it's the webs that are causing problems.  But, as we've learned, yellow sac spiders do not build webs, they build sacs.

    Is it the news sources that are incorrectly describing what the spiders are doing?  Maybe the original information from Mazda was more specific and accurate.  So I found the recall notice.

    Diagram showing Mazda's evaporative canister and other parts of the fuel system where the spider may build its home. 
    (Diagram from

    • The text of the actual 2014 recall notice from Mazda says that a spider "may weave a web" in the evaporative canister vent line, causing a restriction.  It says that in November 2013, Mazda "found that there was a crack in the fuel tank and a spider web was present in the canister vent line," and they found 9 cases of similar situations.  Webs. 
    • In February 2014, they changed the way they wrote the software code that controls the fuel tank pressure to keep the tank from cracking "even under such a severe condition as the canister vent line is clogged by a spider web."  Again, web.

    Well, maybe Mazda are just trying to be general in their description, to use language everybody will understand, rather than to use something more specific like "spider sacs" or some such.  Or maybe the thing they were seeing in the fuel line was really a web, and not a sac.  So maybe this particular spider isn't really a yellow sac spider at all.

    This is the thing that a yellow sac spider builds: a sac.  Here, a female is tucking her eggs into it.
    (Photo from Forestry Images)

    So where did the assertion that this spider is a yellow sac spider come from?
    • According to an LA Times article published in 2011 when Mazda issued the first recall notice, it was Mazda that identified the spider as the yellow sac: 
      • "Mazda identified the culprit as the yellow sac spider, or Cheiracanthium inclusum. The pale, mildly venomous creatures lay their eggs in silk-wrapped bunches — usually in vegetation. But why they're choosing Mazdas instead of, say, Porsche Spyders, is a mystery. As is the fact that only the 4-cylinder Mazda6 cars are playing host."

    So it is definitely the yellow sac spider that is spinning its webs building its sacs inside Mazda6 cars.  I'm going to give Mazda the benefit of the doubt on this point, and say that they use the word "web" in their recall notice so as to be easily understood, when they more accurately should have said "sac."

    But we still have the question that got me started on all of this: where did this business of yellow sac spiders liking the smell of gas come from?  That, after all, is the reported reputed reason why they are building their webs sacs in the fuel lines of Mazada6s. 

    • In 2011, when the first recall notice was issued, USA Today actually talked to an entomologist -- not one, but two!  The first one said that the yellow sac spider is very common, you often see them running around in your kitchen or basement.  
    • The second entomologist said that yellow sac spiders
    "are found throughout the nation, and there is no particular reason why they would choose the inside of a car body to hang out, rather than some other crevice, says Rick Vetter, a researcher at the University of California-Riverside."
    • Nothing about liking the smell of gas.  Or hydrocarbons.  Or hydrogen oxide.  Only that inside a fuel tank is a nice, hidden little spot like any other hidden little spot that they like for sac-building.
    • This business of yellow spiders liking the smell of gas seems to come from news stories around the time of that first recall in 2011.  And the original source for that assertion seems to be here (I'm quoting from Reuters, but a whole bunch of sources picked this up and repeated this verbatim):
    "While it's very rare, this spider's distinguishing characteristic is that it likes the smell of gasoline, caused by the hydrogen oxide," said automotive journalist Mitsuhiro Kunisawa. "Once it smells the gasoline from outside, it will go inside."
    • First of all, I think the referent for the "it's very rare" is not the spider but the (supposed) preference for the smell of gasoline.  Because Kunisawa does say a few sentences later, "In the United States, it's a relatively common type of spider."
    • But what about "this spider's distinguishing characteristic is that it likes the smell of gasoline"?  Where does he get that?  He is an automotive journalist.  What does he know about particular spiders' distinguishing characteristics? 
    • Even if Kunisawa was correct about that (and he wasn't; the distinguishing characteristic of the yellow sac spider is that it has a venom which results in mild pain when people get bitten by it), why didn't any of these countless news sources check him on that?  

    Mitsuhiro Kunisawa.  A decent enough guy, I'm sure.  Loves reporting about cars.  But maybe not the most authoritative source on the habits of spiders.
    (Photo from SixStar-ism)

    • Why didn't anyone call up an entomologist and ask, hey, do yellow sac spiders like the smell of gasoline?  But they didn't.  They just quoted the automotive journalist about the reason for the behavior of a spider as if it were verified fact.

    Lazy.  Lazy, sloppy journalism. Perpetuated through an entire news cycle in 2011, and then picked up and perpetuated again in 2014.

    Now here are some actual facts:
    • The yellow sac spider may or may not like the smell of gasoline.  Probably it has no opinion one way or the other.  The reason it (does not spin its web but) builds its sac in the fuel line of Mazda6s is probably because that spot is a nice, hidden location.
    • Spiders of various species are known to occasionally build webs or nests in fuel lines of cars, regardless of make or model (See Car Talk; Hearth message board; and more Car Talk).  If you go to fill your gas tank and the nozzle shuts off after only about 1/4 of a tank for no apparent reason, and continues to do so after repeated unsuccessful attempts, it is possible a spider may have built a web in the works and that is causing fumes to accumulate and shut off the system.
    • Spiders may build a nest somewhere in your car, but a spider building a nest in the fuel line so that it causes a crack or other failure is not that common.  Only 9 cases -- or was it 20? -- were reported to Mazda since 2011.  That's out of thousands and thousands of cars.
    • Only some of the Mazda6s are being recalled -- only the ones built in the Flat Rock, Michigan plant from 2010 to 2012.
    • Why the yellow sac spiders prefer only the Mazda6s from Flat Rock, Michigan, and not Mazda6s built elsewhere, Mazda does not say. 
    • That, my friends, is probably where the real story lies: that it is only the fuel lines of cars built in Flat Rock, Michigan that are negatively affected by spiders.  Not some made-up anthropomorphic-mythological junk about spiders liking the smell of gasoline.

    The Flat Rock assembly plant is no longer owned by Mazda.  As of 2012, it now belongs to Ford. They switched to building new Mustangs and the 2013 Ford Fusion sedan.
    (Image from Mustangs Daily)

    Recall news articles - 2014
    Detroit News, Spiders prompt second Mazda recall for possible fuel tank problem, April 4, 2014
    ABCNews, Mazda Recalling Cars Due to Danger from Insect, April 4, 2014
    Reuters, Gasoline-loving spiders cause Mazda car recall for second time, April 4, 2014, Gasoline-loving spiders prompt another Mazda recall, April 5, 2014, For real? Mazda's latest recall due to a spider, man, April 4, 2014
    WPTV, Mazda6 recall: Yellow sac spider can weave webs in vent hose, causing fuel tank to crack, April 5, 2014, Mazda6 recalled for spider infestations, April 5, 2014
    CarScoops, Gasoline-Sniffing Spiders Strike Back, Mazda Recalls 42,000 Mazda6 Sedans in the U.S., April 4, 2014
    Autoblog, Mazda spiders return,42k Mazda6 sedans recalled for webby fuel tanks, April 5, 2014, 2010-'12 Mazda 6 Recalled for Fire Risk Traced to Spiders, April 4, 2014
    WebProNews, Spiders [sic] Gasoline Huffing Cause Mazda Recall, April 4, 2014

    Recall news articles - 2011
    USA Today, Experts: Spiders infesting recalled Mazdas are "common," March 4, 2011
    USA Today, Spider infestation leads to recall of 65,000 Mazdas, March 3, 2011
    Los Angeles Times, Mazda recalls 65,000 cars for spider problem, March 3, 2011
    CarScoops, A Gasoline-Addict Spider Gets 52,000 Mazda6 Cars Recalled in the US, March 4, 2011
    CNN, Spiders lead to Mazda recall, March 3, 2011
    Reuters, Gas-loving spider prompts Mazda to recall in U.S., March 4, 2011

    Yellow sac spider information
    University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County, Spider Bites? Look for a Sac Spider
    Michigan State University Diagnostic Services, Yellow sac spiders (Cheiracanthium inclusum and C. mildei)
    The Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet, Sac Spiders
    Penn State University Entomology, Agrarian Sac Spider
    Washington State University Department of Entomology, Yellow Sac Spider
    Encyclopedia of Life, Cheiracanthium inclusum / Yellow Sac Spider
    San Mateo County Mosquito and Vector Control District, Yellow Sac Spider brochure 

    Orkin, Yellow Sac Spiders
    PermaTreat, Yellow Sac Spider
    Hulett Environmental Services, Yellow (Golden) Sac Spiders

    Spiders who like hydrocarbons
    ASBMB Today, Q&A with Stefan Schulz
    Richard J. Adams, Field Guide to the Spiders of California and the Pacific Coast States

    Mazda6 recall documents
    NHTSA, Spiders may Block Fuel Tank Vent Line, Mazda North American Operations, March 11, 2014
    NHTSA Recall Acknowledgment letter, April 3, 2014
    Mazda letter to NHTSA submission of voluntary recall, March 11, 2014

    Spiders in cars or fuel lines in general
    Car Talk, Is the dealer spinning me a yarn about spiders in the fuel line?
    Car Talk forum, gas tank fueling problem, Filling the gas tank and spider eggs, October 22, 2009
    Hyundai Forum, Gas tank
    Daily and Sunday Express, Black widow spiders found in car, December 12, 2011
    Yahoo Answers, How can I repel yellow sac spiders from my car?