Monday Mammal #7: Big Kitty, Little Kitty

Monday, May 31, 2010 at 9:25 PM Bookmark and Share
No natural history lesson today, just pure cuteness ...

... although, I do wonder if that bundle of cuteness didn't later become a snack.

Streaming Video of BP Oil Well

 at 11:05 AM Bookmark and Share
Click the image to watch the streaming video over at

The Science of Denying Science

Sunday, May 30, 2010 at 12:20 AM Bookmark and Share
Have you ever wondered how people can rationalize away a scientific claim when it conflicts with other beliefs?  Or why being anti-evolution also seems to up the odds being anti-vaccine or a climate change denialist??

Then you should go check out When Science Clashes with Beliefs? Make science impotent, by John Timmer.

[Hat Tip to PZM]

Mid-week Reptilian #20: Barbados Threadsnake

Thursday, May 27, 2010 at 9:20 PM Bookmark and Share
Work has been hectic lately, so this week's mid-week reptilian post needs to be short.  How short?  Not much more than a photo, and a few links.  Still, unless you're trying to read it on an iPhone, you could probably fill it with a more than one or two of the sub-4 inch Barbados Threadsnakes (Leptotyphlops carlae).

They're tiny!

Math Tricks!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 8:46 PM Bookmark and Share
I love math tricks, especially those that artfully illustrate any deeper meaning behind whatever rearrangement of symbols is at hand.  I'm smack in the middle of thesis work at the moment, so instead of writing this one up, I'd love to hear your explanation of what's going on in the video below!

Is there a method to this madness?

Antivaccine Rally in Chicago LIVE VIDEO ( 5pm Weds)

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Here's live feed from the antivaccine rally going on in Chicago ... right now. So far, it's what I expected to see: a steady flow of misrepresented facts, rampant conspiracy theorizing and heaping piles of bullshit. Bon appetit.

Updated:  Show's over, so I've replaced the embedded video with Andrew Wakefield's recent appearance on the Today Show with Matt Lauer.  For a comic overview of the Wakefield controversy, click here for the "Facts in the Case of Andrew Wakefield".

I think I'll go get a flu vaccine tomorrow...

[Hat tip to Elyse @ Skepchick]

Dana Carvey does Darwin

Tuesday, May 25, 2010 at 11:29 AM Bookmark and Share

[Hat tip to Tim for the link]

Monday Mammal #6: The Gorilla

Monday, May 24, 2010 at 7:57 PM Bookmark and Share
Since gorillas seem to be popular lately, (see my recent post, this one from Laelaps and here in the news) I had little choice but to feature them as this week's Monday Mammal.  Below, I'll first introduce the different gorilla species (yes, there are more than one!) then cover where they fall in the list of our closest primate relatives.

Figure 1. Adult male gorilla, Denver Zoo, 2009

Figure 2. Hand of a female gorilla, napping at the Denver Zoo.
While I doubt gorillas have ever wished they had our hairless, 
fragile bodies I'm have to be suffering with major thumb envy!

Gorillas are comprised of two species

After reading this, you should donate $5-$10 to a good cause...

Sunday, May 23, 2010 at 12:52 PM Bookmark and Share
... and here's why.

Michael Strieb, recently diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease), needs our help so he can to continue to communicate with his family and friends.

Here are more details, from Rebecca Watson via Skepchick blog:
... By the time he arrived at the Skepchick party at TAM 7 in Vegas last year, he was confined to a wheelchair and used a computer to do most of his communicating.

Now he’s no longer able to speak or type. He’s an incredibly intelligent and kind person, and the world is better off when he can communicate. Now you can help him!

For $3,200 he can afford an eye gaze system to communicate with his family and friends. Other skeptics are fundraising to help him out. We can totally hit that, seeing as about 10,000 of you are reading this right now. Send a few dollars their way and feel good about greatly improving the life of a fellow rational human.

If we all pitch in a few bucks, $5, $10, $20, whatever you can spare, Michael will be back in touch with his loved ones in no time. A small price for such an invaluable gift.  Details on how you can help can be found here.

For more details about Michael (or if you have problems with the online donation form) see the comments section of Rebecca's post, and this post by Phil Plait on Discover's Bad Astronomy blog.

Science, Innovation and the BP Oil Spill

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Bill Nye (yup, the Science Guy) critiques suggestions to clean up the ongoing BP oil spill.  Decent commentary on some challenges posed by the spill, and the fundamental importance of scientific and technological expertise the effort will require.

Amazing Story from Gorilla School

Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 2:55 PM Bookmark and Share
A brief "must watch" video of a Damian Aspinall's visit with a western lowland gorilla (G. g. gorilla) which he helped raise and reintroduce to the wild.  The video is part of the Animal Planet series Gorilla School

"Damian Aspinall's Extraordinary Gorilla Encounter on Gorilla School"

More about donating to help support gorilla conservation can be found at the Aspinall Foundation website, here or from other organizations such as the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, and the Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund.

[Hat tip to Dr. Tom]

Free Speech, Respect, and Tolerance

Thursday, May 20, 2010 at 2:21 PM Bookmark and Share
I like having the right to express myself. I like discussing controversial and taboo subjects, and at times offering up criticisms or support, as I see fit.  Though sometimes painful, I also value hearing others do the same, even when I disagree with them or find their ideas deplorable.  I also like that I live where I and others can do this without fear of being jailed, physically harmed, or worse.

Because of this, I also despise seeing those freedoms used to stir hatred or violence.  When I see such freedoms threatened or abused (see my previous post), I can't stand by idly and do nothing.

So this Thursday, in support of free speech and in support of exercising it with some decency, I'm participating in Everybody Draw Mohammad Day by sharing this post, and just for today using this background image for this website:

To be fair, since this all about freedom of speech, I've tried to include everyone in this drawing business so nobody feels like they're getting picked on: Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and yes even those with no religious beliefs (since we all have a mom) have been included. Yeah that's right -- I may have not included a deity for you, but I drew your mom!  Ha!

Oh, right, and Al Gore too... just because I can.

I've made an effort to go easy on everyone, and not be unduly disrespectful.  Still, if you find the image offensive, I hope you'll share why in the comments below, but only after first considering the following.

Islamic Extremists vs. Cartoonists: A Brief, Recent History

 at 1:38 AM Bookmark and Share
Imagery is an effective vehicle for criticism, making it a natural target for anyone wishing to censor those who speak out against them.  Sadly some religious extremists use threats of violence to try and accomplish that censorship. This, by definition is terrorism and the effectiveness of those attempts at censorship depend in large part how the whole of society responds to those threats.
"All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent."
--Thomas Jefferson
As part of Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, (which has unfortunately become for some more about just being offending Muslims, and less about protecting free speech)  I here wanted to just recap some of the events that motivated the day.

Mid-week Reptilian #19: Indian Peafowl (aka Peacock)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010 at 11:34 AM Bookmark and Share
Better known in the U.S. as the peacock, the Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) is a common domestic bird, native to India.  They're in the order Galliformes with chickens, quail, turkeys, grouse and pheasants, and are in the same family as the pheasants, partridges and turkeys: Phasianidae.

Male peafowl are known as peacocks, and the females are accordingly called peahens. If you know some Spanish, or recall reading this post around Thanksgiving last November, you'll recognize the genus name Pavo is also the spanish word for the turkey (Meleagris gallipavo).  Upon seeing turkeys brought back from the Americas to Europe, the birds' resemblance to the peafowl earned them the shared name.

Many believe that peacocks fan their tails, but those long gaudy feathers are not tail feathers!  Instead, they're modified feathers called upper tail coverts, which grow from just above the tail and cover the base of the actual tail feathers.

Don't believe me?  Just search for images of "peacock butt" on the web, and you'll see that the actual (shorter) tail feathers are right where you'd expect them to be, on the back of the fan of upper tail coverts.  For example...

Figure 1: Hind view of a displaying peacock
showing the tail feathers & bases of the modified 
upper tail coverts that form the fan. The tips
of the folded wings are also visible.  [Source]

Still, that train of iridescent feathers is quite a stunning site.  If you haven't recently seen one up close, here's a high resolution photo of a male photographed in 2009 at the Denver Zoo.  Click to enlarge...

Figure 2: The full frontal assault of the peacock. Click to zoom in.

Nature/Science Gadgets

Tuesday, May 18, 2010 at 11:20 AM Bookmark and Share
If you like fun gadgets, check out some of Adam Bowman's work available on his gadgets page.  These can be customized and are interactive.  Here are some examples...

[Thanks to David Steen @ Living Alongside Wildlife for bringing these to my attention.]

Alabama Political Ads, Take 2

Monday, May 17, 2010 at 6:40 PM Bookmark and Share
I've never even been to Alabama (though it is on my list), but after last week's posts it's apparently time for yet another awesome political ad from the 22nd state in the union.  This one has little to do with science, but is just as awesome...

Monday Mammal #5: The Venomous, Egg-laying Platypus

This week's Monday Mammal, the Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), comes from the fringes of the group. These awesome little aquatic oddities serve as a wonderful reminder of what it really means to be a mammal, and of our own shared evolutionary history with other mammals and even other vertebrates like the reptilians, amphibians, and fishes.  I mean seriously, how many other mammals can you name that have a bill, lay eggs, or are venomous!?

Figure 1: A Platypus, photographed in Eungella National Park, Queensland, Australia. [Source]

The class Mammalia is typically divided into two subclasses: the live-bearing Theria comprised of the vast majority of mammal species, and the subclass Prototheria comprised of the egg-laying Monotremes. Order Monotremata contains only two families: Ornithorhynchidae which includes only one living species (the platypus); and Tachyglosidae, which includes the three living echidna species.

Beyond their bird-like bills (which are lined with electroreceptors to aid foraging), platypus are venomous and do lay eggs, but technically you'll never see a platypus that is both egg-laying and venomous.  The reason?  Well, obviously only the females lay eggs, but it turns out only males possess venom glands and spurs on their hind legs (young females also have spurs, but no venom glands).

Like the panda's thumb (this one, not this one), the venomous spur is not a modified toe, but is anchored to a modified ankle bone. The spur is visible in this photo (Fig 2) and in this skeletal specimen (Fig 3) from the Melbourne Museum.

Figure 2: Hind leg, showing the spur. [Source]

Figure 3:  Platypus skeleton.  Note the number of hind toes and the venomous spur. [Source]

Finally, it's hard to talk about all the curious details of the platypus without touching upon the problems these organisms have historically posed for creationists.  For example, see this entry at SkeptiWiki and this slightly longer article at

Insane Clown Posse comes to Columbus, OH -- It's a Miracle!

Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 7:22 PM Bookmark and Share
The Insane Clown Posse (comprised of one Violent J and one Shaggy 2 Dope), made news a few weeks ago with their release of Miracles. A religiously motivated song with some overtly anti-science lyrics.

Today, while getting coffee on my way to help with a science education program in central Ohio, I saw the following in an issue of The Lantern about ICP's Sunday concert in Columbus, Ohio.  It was in a piece titled "No reason to be scared of these clowns." 
Most recently, the duo has been placed in the spotlight thanks to the YouTube sensation its most recent music video has become. The video, based on ICP’s single “Miracles,” features the group rapping about the things it finds to be amazing. The use of the word “miracle” has caused most of the strife the duo have received.

“I know that magnets aren’t magic,” Utsler said in reference to the song’s most beleaguered line: “F------ magnets, how do they work?” as he shrugged off online comments and a Saturday Night Live parody. “The song is about appreciating the little things in life, not that we think science is bulls---.”
The article, however, has it wrong.  The release of Miracles earned ICP some nicely executed mockery...

SNL Does ICP.  The real Miracles video and lyrics can be seen here.

...but not because they said the word "miracle" a few dozen times. It was because the song is anti-science and seems to some to be an ode to the God of the Gaps more than anything else.  Furthermore, it was the lyrics following the mention of magnets in the song that were most objectionable/ridiculous...
Fucking magnets, how do they work?
And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist
Y’all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed

I should pause to admit that I like a lot of music that other people find offensive: dramatized violence, vulgarity, insanely loud or raucous noise used as music -- I tend to like it if it's got a solid bass beat, lots of energy, and a catchy chorus. Yes, even some ICP songs. Take for example one of their more popular songs from a while back - one you'd think would be far more objectionable than Miracles...

Anyway, thanks to the Lantern article getting it wrong, I finally realized why Miracles seems to bother people more than Fuck the World -- or at least more than I would have expected.  Over a decade ago, in the late 90s, Spin magazine ran a four page cartoon mocking ICP, and apparently claimed...
"ICP is offensive not for their obscenity, but for their stupidity."
This actually makes some sense: Obscene is tolerable, but willfully ignorant?  Less tolerable.  Miracles seems embrace mystery and ignorance for the sake of mystery alone, and not out of any deeper appreciation for magnets, stars, plants, rainbows, giraffes, crows, feeding pelicans fish, etc. 

Fortunately, the article did get one important thing right: whether you like science or hate obscene music, there's certainly no reason to be scared of these clowns.

American Toads in Spring

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Why Darwin Still Matters

Thursday, May 13, 2010 at 6:00 PM Bookmark and Share
Here's a thought provoking talk on Why Darwin Still Matters, given by Warren Allmon, director of the Paleontological Research Institute & Museum of the Earth and professor at Cornell University.

More Coatis!

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I just came across this video clip on Coatis from the BBC series, Life[Amzn], and having recently featured them on this blog I just had to share. Can you identify which species appear in the documentary?  Also, check out the coat color variation on those youngsters!

Follow-up on Anti-Evolution Policital Attack Ad

Wednesday, May 12, 2010 at 8:11 PM Bookmark and Share
An update following my earlier post.  I had suspected Tim James was behind the ad, but it turns out someone else helped foot the bill...

It looks like the responsible party is the True Republican PAC which is financially backed by -- get this -- a teachers' union and affiliate of the National Education Association, the Alabama Education Association (AEA).

Yup, that's right, it appears a bunch of Alabama public school teachers (unknowingly, I presume) helped pay for an ad lambasting the Governor because "he supported the teaching of evolution" (gasp!) and because he may not believe in a literal interpretation of the bible.

Mid-week Reptilian #18: Mediterannean House Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus)

 at 6:28 AM Bookmark and Share
This week's reptilian is another squamate, and the first in this series from that diverse group of lizards in the infraorder Gekkota - the geckos and their allies.

A few weeks ago, Darren Naish over at Tetrapod Zoology began a series of posts (I, II, III, IV, ...) on the Gekkota. You should go check out his first post in that series for a nice introduction to the group, and for some evolutionary context for the particular species appearing in this post, the Mediterranean House Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus).

Earlier this spring, a good friend of mind in Austin, Texas came across the individual photographed below which had apparently taken up residence in a garbage can. Probably a nice place to snack on flies, fly larvae and other arthropods.  And yes, I know that Texas is nowhere near the Mediterannean!

This species (like our own) has been quite successful in spreading well beyond it's native range in the Mediterranean, probably by hitching rides inside cargo be transported through warmer climates.  According to the wikipedia page on these geckos, they...

... can be found in: Portugal, Spain, France, Italy (including Lampedusa island, Elba), Albania, Greece, (incl. Kalymnos, Paros, Antiparos, Despotiko, Lesbos, Chios, Limnos, Samos, Samothraki, Milos, Tinos, Crete), Malta, coastal Croatia (except western Istria), Adriatic islands, Cyprus, Turkey, northern Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Israel, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, northern Yemen (Socotra Archipelago), Somalia, Eritrea, Kenya, southern Iran, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Pakistan, India, Balearic Islands (Island Addaya Grande), Canary Islands (introduced to Gran Canaria and Tenerife), Panama, Puerto Rico, Belize, Mexico (Baja California, Chihuahua, Durango, Nuevo Leon, Yucatan; introduced), Cuba (introduced). It has also been introduced to the southern USA (Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, Arizona, Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia, Oklahoma, Virginia, Maryland, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Kansas).

Alabama Policital Attack Ad Mocks Evolution?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010 at 10:33 PM Bookmark and Share
I've been including a lot of definitions in posts lately, so here's another one inspired by this post over at Panda's Thumb.
Poe's Law
  1. The eponymous law of the internet, that "Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humour, it is impossible to create a parody of [religious] fundamentalism that someone won't mistake for the real thing."
  2. "Poe’s Law also has an inverse meaning, stating that non-fundamentalists will often mistake sincere expressions of fundamentalist beliefs for parody."[Source]
Here's an example of what I'm really hoping is a case of #1, but sadly appears to be a case of #2...

Please someone tell me this is either a joke, or that the candidate behind the attack is unlikely to ever hold the Governor's office!  Who might that be?? I'm guessing Tim James -- yes that same Tim James who wants Alabama to be English-only.

Seriously, it almost makes me want to send a campaign donation to Bradley Byrne... almost.

Click here for an update.

"Gary Null is the Kent Hovind of Alternative Medicine "

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If the embedded video above doesn't appear, try here, here or here.

D. J. Grothe on Skepticism, Humanism

Monday, May 10, 2010 at 7:15 PM Bookmark and Share
You should find time to watch, or at least listen to the talk below. It's the keynote from the recent Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS) given by the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, DJ Grothe. The talk, entitled Skepticism is a Humanism, can be viewed in full here or on vimeo.

Previously on this blog, I've talked about what skepticism is and is not, but it's worth pointing out that much of the skepticism movement is driven by humanist principles. In his talk, Grothe defined humanism as...
       A naturalistic (as opposed to a supernatural) ethics focused on human well being.
While this is really a definition of secular humanism, it gets the point across: humanism is a set of morals and ethics based primarily (or solely) on human welfare.  You can read more about humanism from the American Humanist Association (AHA), or on Wikipedia here, here, here and here.

Grothe also takes pains points out that he's not saying "Skepticism = Atheism" nor that "Skepticism = Secular Humanism". Instead, he asserts that skepticism is both a method of inquiry, and a social movement to apply that method of inquiry towards humanistic goals (more from Grothe on skepticism starting around 11:30, and around 22:30).  Good stuff, though I wish he would have gone further to draw distinctions between these and related terms like rational inquiry, which in my mind is the "method" part of skepticism separate from the social movement (although I'm not sure that is the commonly accepted meaning of the phrase).


[Hat tip to Phil Plait via Bad Astronomy]

Monday Mammal #4: Coati

 at 6:49 AM Bookmark and Share
While most folks in North American are familiar with the Common Raccoon (Procyon lotor), few ever get to know their cousins the coatis.  The name coati refers to a number of species in two genera:  Nasua (coatis; 3 species) and Nasuella (mountain coatis; 1+ species). They are members of the Racoon family Procyonidae comprised by the Raccoons (3 species), Ringtail & Cacomistle, Olingos, and the Kinkajou. Like all members of this family, the coatis are native only to the Americas.

In the U.S., you could possibly find the northern most coati (Nasua) species -- the White-Nosed Coati (Nasua narica) -- which occurs from south eastern Arizona down to northern South America.  The other two species occur on the island of Cozumel and in South America, respectively. The mountain coatis (Nasuella) occur in northern South America.

Here's a South American Coati (Nasua nasua) photographed at the Denver Zoo when I last visited there in July, 2009.  This widespread omnivorous species includes over a dozen subspecies.

For more info and pictures of Procyonids, visit the University of Michigan's Animal Diversity Web: Family Procyonidae.

Methane Hydrate Crystals Hamper Efforts to Contain BP Oil Spill

Sunday, May 9, 2010 at 12:40 PM Bookmark and Share
So what is a "methane hydrate", and how do methane and sea water mix to form the solid crystals currently growing on BP's 4-story containment dome?  The beauty of basic science is that we already know something about these crystals, and that knowledge may be the key to overcoming this setback in the ongoing efforts to manage the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Also known as methane clathrate, these crystals are a mixture of methane (CH4) and water (H2O) in which methane molecules are enclosed in a cage of water molecules (see the inset in the picture of the flaming ice on the left). Together, these complexes form the crystalline solid (see Figure 2 below) known as methane hydrate.

To understand more about how this mixture forms a solid at relatively high temperatures (Figure 3), let's first do a quick review of the physics of freezing and melting.

Raptors and Wind Farms

Saturday, May 8, 2010 at 8:03 PM Bookmark and Share
Note: I've been going through a backlog of draft posts and pulling out anything still worth posting.  This one, sharing video on the hazards posed by wind farms to resident and migrating raptors, was accidentally saved as a draft back in October 2009.

I recently saw this video when it was posted by a friend on facebook. He summed it up nicely:
[This is why] the placement of wind turbines needs to be very carefully considered.

Here's a more complete version of the story:

Unfortunately, wind farms often go up in prime airspace for locally breeders and migrating birds of prey, and can cause significant mortality from collisions like these.

Skepticism and Pseudoskepticism

Wednesday, May 5, 2010 at 1:14 AM Bookmark and Share
I spent part of my afternoon today discussing science, skepticism and rational inquiry with a few like-minded individuals, and one of the topics we touched on was the problematic association of skepticism with what I would call denialism (though I'm not sure it's the right term).  I decided to take a small break from thesis writing this evening to offer a small suggestion towards resolving this problem: call it pseudoskepticism.

Before defining the term, you might first ask what is skepticism? Most people can't precisely answer that question, so if you're like most in this regard let me offer up a few definitions.
Skepticism \ˈskep-tə-ˌsi-zəm\
  • A methodology that starts from a neutral standpoint and aims to acquire certainty though scientific or logical observation. [Wikipedia]
  • 1 : an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object
    2a: the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain  b: the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics
    3: doubt concerning basic religious principles (as immortality, providence, and revelation)
    [Merriam-Webster's Online]
  • skeptic - someone who habitually doubts accepted beliefs [
Skepticism is basically a process by which one can decide whether to adopt, reject or remain neutral on a potential belief.  To give term some context, I like this line from the brief introduction to skepticism from The Skeptical Society:
The key to skepticism is to continuously and vigorously apply the methods of science to navigate the treacherous straits between “know nothing” skepticism and “anything goes” credulity.
So what is pseudoskepticism? Consider, for example, you're favorite conspiracy theorist and ask "Are they thinking skeptically?"  Based on the above definitions, it's clear the answer to that question is No".  They aren't following the evidence. Instead, I'd say such individuals are - at best - pseudoskeptics.  Without finding any dictionary definitions of the term, here's my attempt at a definition (based on one definition of the word pseudoscience):
Pseudoskepticism \ˌsü-dō-ˈskep-tə-ˌsi-zəm\
  • a methodology, belief, or practice that is claimed to be skeptical, or that is made to appear to be skeptical, but which does not adhere to appropriate principles of rational or scientific inquiry.
Much as scientists freely caution against pseudoscience, true skeptics should use the term pseudoskeptic more vociferously to describe those who seem to be confused about what it means to be a skeptic, yet still claim to be on. While it certainly won't solve the problem completely, it's at least a step in the right direction.

Related Links on Skepticism

  1. On Pseudo-Skepticism, by Marcello Truzzi
  2. Pseudoskepticism, RationalWiki
  3. A Skeptical Manifesto, by Michael Shermer (an excerpt from this book) 
  4. Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science, by Robert L. Park

Monday Mammal #3: West Indian Manatee

Monday, May 3, 2010 at 2:11 PM Bookmark and Share
To showcase some of the wildlife impacted by gulf coast oil spill (see this post), this week's Monday Mammal is one that will likely be affected by the spill: The West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus).

An adult West Indian Manatee with calf [Source]

The West Indian Manatee is one of 3 living manatee species, and one of 4 living species in the mammalian order Sirenia, which also includes the Dugong (Dugong dugon).  These aquatic herbivores are thought to be most closely related to the elephant and hyrax, having evolved from land mammals a little over 60 million years ago.

Signs of their terrestrial ancestry include the toenails still present on their front flippers. [Source]

These large animals (known to some as "sea cows") need to eat a huge quantity of aquatic vegetation, and it appears the oil spill could harm them by damaging the seagrass beds they rely on, in addition to whatever harmful effects might occur by ingesting or becoming covered in the oil.

To make matters worse, the late cold snap in the south eastern U.S. this winter has already taken a toll on the population.  According to the Save the Manatee Club of Florida:
[The BP spill] is especially troubling since it comes on the heels of the worst manatee winter die-off ever experienced, with over 500 total manatees dead already this year.
You can read more about Manatees and Dugongs on the Sirenian International website and from the Save the Manatee Club. You can see more images of T. manatus from the wikimedia commons.