Thanksgiving Reading

So many fascinating economic issues, so little time to blog.

Here are some of the fun items that I would have discussed in recent days if I had infinite time:

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

We Are Not Going To Die

It’s quiet weekend, so please forgive one more item from my recent sojourn in southeast Alaska. If you are a regular watcher of nature documentaries, you know that Alaska’s humpbacks employ a unique feeding technique called bubble-netting. A group of whales will corral herring in a wall of bubbles, push them to the surface, and then engulf them.

We had the pleasure of watching a pod of whales on their morning round of bubble-netting. During one surface cruise between dives, the whales made a sudden turn and came right over to our skiff. The resulting video (ht Esther) has a certain Cloverfield / Blair Witch feel to it:

Esther also shot a video in which you can listen to the alpha female as she sings to coordinate her bubble-netting team.

More Alaska adventures here.

I Found What I Was Looking For …

Just back from eight days in southeast Alaska. I won’t torment you with too much of a travelogue (my wife and I have another blog for that; so far it covers the first day of the trip).

But I will note that we did find puffins, glaciers, and humpback whales, as wished in my last post. And what about grizzly bears? Well, we got those too, albeit with an asterisk. Turns out that the salmon-eating coastal bears are called brown bears, while their inland cousins are the grizzlies. Learn something new every day.

For bonus points, we also found salmon-eating black bears:

The Hot Tentacle

The World Cup started with vuvuzelas and ended with Paul the octopus. The world’s most famous cephalopod grabbed headlines by correctly predicting the winners of eight straight World Cup matches, including today’s victory by Spain over the Netherlands.

I’ve enjoyed Paul’s exploits, but his success got me wondering: just how many animals are out there picking World Cup winners? Could it be that, oh, 256 animals were making predictions when Paul started his run and he’s just the lucky one?

Well, after a little bit of internet snooping, I haven’t found all 256 yet, but I bet they are out there. For starters, there’s Mani the parakeet who called four quarterfinal matches correctly, but then fowled up by picking the Dutch over the Spaniards in the final.

And then there’s this article in the Christian Science Monitor, which recounts failed prognostications by a sloth, a hippo, and a monkey.

So that’s at least four. As for the other 251 failed psychics that I think are out there, my guess is that Google doesn’t know about them. And that, friends, is what’s known as survivorship bias. That bias is a big deal in financial markets. For example, the performance of existing mutual funds is much better than that of mutual funds generally because the laggards get closed and drop out of the data.

And so it is with animal psychics. The lucky ones grab headlines, while the laggards are forgotten. Which doesn’t mean that I begrudge Paul his fame. Indeed, I think his fame should spread right into finance and statistics classes when school starts in the fall.

How to Defeat the Lionfish? Use Your Knife and Fork

As regular readers know, I am intrigued by animals in weird places (voles in the Rose Garden, grey whales in the Mediterranean) and quirky discussions of property rights (guacamole, overhead bins, snow shoveling, office lunches). So imagine my delight when I opened the Food section of the Washington Post to discover an issue that brings them together: the battle against the lionfish.

The beautiful, venomous lionfish is native to the Indo-Pacific, but back in 1985 it started showing up in a weird place: the east coast of the United States. Today you can find the spiny critters along the eastern seaboard, through the Caribbean, down to Belize, and over to the Azores. That’s bad news since the lionfish often crowds out (or consumes) native species.

So what to do? According to Wikipedia, some places have offered bounties for killing them (but, one hopes, not enough to induce breeding and importing) or have established kill-on-sight policies. Another strategy, as the WaPo reports, is to move them down a notch on the food chain:

Federal officials have joined with chefs, spear fishermen and seafood distributors to launch a bold campaign: Eat lionfish until it no longer exists outside its native habitat.

The genius of this approach is that it harnesses a classic economic pathology–the tragedy of the commons–to serve a greater good. No one has any property rights to these interlopers, so all we need to do is create enough market demand for their tasty flesh. Once that reaches critical mass, we can sit back and watch fishermen and -women overfish the Atlantic lionfish into oblivion. Or so goes the theory.

I wish them good luck–and look forward to seeing Atlantic lionfish on the menu soon. I am skeptical, however, that it will actually work. But if it does, maybe the seafood alliance could then turn their attention to the new Potomac snakeheads?

The First Vole of the United States (FVOTUS)

I’ve enjoyed the hullabaloo over the rodent that upstaged President Obama during his remarks on financial reform on Thursday. As an animal aficionado, however, I’ve been disheartened by the number of people who believe the critter was a rat or mouse. As the photos show, that just isn’t so:

That, dear friends, is a vole. Indeed, I’m pretty confident it’s a meadow vole, Microtus pennsylvanicus (you can tell by the size, body shape, ears, tail length, and presence in the Rose Garden). According to the AP, the experts agree:

“The rodent is definitely a vole,” said Paul Curtis, a wildlife biologist at Cornell University. “It has small ears hidden in fur, small eyes and a short tail. Given that the length of the tail is longer than the hind foot, I’m 99 percent certain it is a meadow vole.”

You might wonder why I think I can identify meadow voles. When I was young I caught one in the backyard (in a live trap) and kept it as a pet for a couple of days. My sister and I quickly released the little guy, however, after it leapt straight up from its cage to sink its teeth in her index finger. It took Jennifer forever, it seemed, to shake the vole off. After which we promptly returned him to the backyard. Not, I should emphasize, because we were afraid of him or mad at him. No, we were still pretty fond of him, but we feared for his life if our parents ever found out. [Obligatory warning: Kids: If a wild animal bites you, don’t wait thirty years to tell your parents.]

So watch out Mr. President, make sure Sasha and Malia enjoy the FVOTUS from a safe distance.

A Gray Whale Goes Really Off Course

Gray whales usually live along the eastern and western edges of the northern Pacific. Except for the lone individual who somehow turned up on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. As reported by AFP:

The appearance of a grey whale off the coast of Israel has stunned scientists, in what was thought to be the first time the giant mammal has been seen outside the Pacific in several hundred years.

The whale, which was first sighted off Herzliya in central Israel on Saturday, is believed to have travelled thousands of miles from the north Pacific after losing its way in search of food.

“It’s an unbelievable event which has been described as one of the most important whale sightings ever,” said Dr Aviad Scheinin, chairman of the Israel Marine Mammal Research and Assistance Center which identified the creature.

To give you a sense of how far off course this whale is, consider the following map of the gray whale’s normal range (in blue) courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

I added the red dot for Israel’s new immigrant.

The red dot is a long way from home.