The ringtail possum and I

Ringtail possum in Australia. Photo by Jim Newberry.

(Warning: the account below is not for the squeamish.)

“Turn it over on its back, and spread its legs.”

“OK,” I responded nonchalantly, fighting the urge to hang up the phone and flee to the nearest pub.

“Do you see testicles?”

Not on myself, I thought, ashamed that playing doctor with a dead marsupial evoked such horror inside me.

“No, I don’t; must be a female.” I squeaked.

“OK, run your finger along the belly, so you can find the pouch and see if there are joeys inside.”

It was a bit before midnight, a couple weeks ago in the backyard of the Melbourne home where I was house-sitting. I held a flashlight over the possum, which I had recently found dead in the yard (we had just had a heat wave in Melbourne and apparently possums were dropping like flies). Ignorant of the local customs for disposing of such a thing, I had contacted the not-for-profit Wildlife Victoria organization for guidance. Before discussing what to do with the dead possum though, I had to check for possum babies in the pouch (who knew? not me). I couldn’t believe it was going to get worse than turning the possum over and scrutinizing its genitals. This was not my night. But of course I certainly didn’t want to leave infants to die.

In order to avoid touching the creature bare-fingered, I used a paper towel as protection–probably irrational, but that made it seem slightly less revolting to me. I looked very closely at the belly, and couldn’t see a pouch. I ran my protected finger up and down the belly; still no sign of a pouch, even after I got my reading glasses. I explained to the patient volunteer from Victoria Wildlife that I could find neither testicles nor a pouch, despite looking very closely, and even feeling around. She asked me to take photos and text them to her, so she could hopefully determine what was going on despite my squeamish ineptitude.

I took a bunch of photos and texted them to her, but by then it was after midnight. I didn’t hear back until the next morning, when a different volunteer phoned me. I updated her: no balls, no pouch, swear to god. Time to send in a professional. She said she’d check to see if there were volunteers in my neighborhood. An hour or two later, there was a knock at the door, and I showed the two kind and friendly women from VW to the backyard. Turns out I was right after all–it was a female without a pouch.  The volunteers offered an explanation which I can’t remember–maybe this possum was too young for a pouch? I was too elated at the thought that I wasn’t responsible for dead joeys, and wasn’t paying close attention at that point.

But there was something one of the volunteers told me that I didn’t forget: apparently ringtail possum testicles are normally located above the penis. Whoa. Maybe next time I’ll get to see that.

A couple days after this episode, my friends whose house I was watching returned home, and the next night, look what we saw hanging out on the telephone wire outside the house–two ringtail possums. Sorry about your comrade guys.

Cosmic photography

The Horsehead Nebula from 'Ancient Light: a Portrait of the Universe' by David Malin
The Horsehead Nebula from 'Ancient Light: a Portrait of the Universe' by David Malin

Today’s Independent has a profile on Australian astronomical photographer David Malin. That’s right, the mind boggling image above is a photograph, not an illustration.

“Photography has been crucial to the advancement of astronomy, it transformed it completely. We were able to see bigger and more interesting things than previously imaginable. Now digital technology reveals an even more mysterious universe that is just as interesting and beautiful,” says Malin.

A selection of Malin’s work has been put together in a new book titled Ancient Light: a Portrait of the Universe. These photographs were captured using old-fashioned glass plates coated with a super-sensitive chemical emulsion. The photographs were taken in the name of science, but have been selected for their aesthetic appeal.

“The Horsehead nebula, dust and gas adrift in Orion” is an image of a cosmic dust cloud in the shape of a horse’s head. The clouds glow and an extra bright star dominates the scene. Malin points out that a dark patch at the base of the cloud is where new stars form. In scientific terms, it’s a mass of plasma, hydrogen and dust. Visually, it’s sublime.

Here’s the book; it looks incredible.

NASA image of the day

From the Nasa “Image of the Day” site

Self-portrait by Michael Fincke. Photo courtesy of NASA
Self-portrait by Michael Fincke. Photo courtesy of NASA

Expedition 18 commander Michael Fincke prepared to take a picture of his helmet visor with a digital camera during a Dec. 23, 2008, spacewalk outside the International Space Station.

Fincke, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, previously served as ISS flight engineer and NASA Space Station science officer on Expedition 9 in 2004. During Fincke’s first stay at the International Space Station, he performed four spacewalks.