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Kindly accept my apologies for not writing a post yesterday. I am traveling the Great Lakes and Canada and will try to update when I am able. Today I am in Chicago. As I was looking out at Lake Michigan, I wondered whether there were any catfish native to the vast body of water– which is so large it might as well be considered a freshwater sea.
As it turns out the lake is home to channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatu), the quintessential North American siluriform. The channel catfish is a hardy omnivore which dwells in rivers, lakes, and ponds from southern Canada to northern Mexico. They eat smaller fish, arthropods, worms, seeds, and just about any other edible thing which will fit into their mouths. Channel catfish are nest breeders. If the female catfish is unable to find a promising crevasse in which to lay her eggs, the male will arrange logs and rocks into a nesting bed for her. He then guards the eggs until they hatch and even stays with the fry while they are very small (although if he is unduly disturbed he might eat the eggs and start all over again!).
While the channel catfish are hardly as flashy as some of the exotic catfish we have covered here, they are vastly successful organisms. They can also grow to be fairly large and specimens measuring up to 23 kg (50 pounds) have been caught (although such giants are quite old and rare). Although the catfish live naturally in Lake Michigan, they are also raised on farms throughout the American south (indeed they are the “Delecata” mentioned in this post about international catfish trade wars). Channel catfish have been introduced in parts of Europe, Malaysia, and Indonesia, where they are now causing havoc among native species.
But Channel catfish here in the Great lakes are facing their own invasive threats. Lake Michigan has been colonized by wave after wave of invasive animals. Some, like the omnipresent zebra mussels, are harmless to catfish (albeit infuriating to humans). Others like the sea lampreys (Petromyzon marinus) are not so benign for catfish. The jawless lampreys are vampires which attach to the bodies of catfish (and a wide variety of other native Great Lakes fish) and then rasp a hole in the hosts’ sides by means of sharpened tongue. Even more alarmingly, the leaping thriving all-devouring Asian carp has been making its way up Illinois’ rivers towards Lake Michigan. The state has been trying to prevent these dangerous fish from getting to the Lake by means of increasingly horrifying devices and stratagems such as underwater electric fences and mass poisonings. So far it has been working but there is still an underwater war raging for Lake Michigan.
In terms of taxonomical diversity the gastropods are second most diverse class of animals on Earth (outnumbered only by the teeming class Insecta of the other great invertebrate phylum Arthropoda). This means that there are some deeply strange arthropods out there. While we traditionally think of gastropods as snails and slugs there are odd subcategories of these creatures, like the subject of today’s post, sea angels (of the clade Gymnosomata).
Sea angels consist of six different families of pelagic marine opisthobranch gastropod molluscs. Gastropods are named for their famous foot (the name means “stomach-foot”–a misnomer since gastropods all have true stomachs elsewhere) however the name is even more inappropriate for sea angels. In these free-smimming predators, the gastropod foot, so familiar to us as seen on snails, has evolved into a pair of delicate wings for swimming through the water. Sea angels are very small: the largest species only reach 5 cm (2 inches) in length and most varieties are much more miniscule. They prey on other tiny creatures swimming among the plankton—particularly other smaller slower species of gelatinous mollusks.
Adult sea angels lack any sort of shell—which they discard when they metamorphose into adulthood. Their feeding apparatuses can be strangely complicated—pseudoarms and tentacles which recall their cousins the cephalopods. Sea angels are numerous in the oceans but some scientists are concerned that the acidification of the world’s oceans will cause substantial problems for the tiny translucent gastropods.
The other day I read an overview of the annoyingly smug Prince Hans-Adam II von und zu Liechtenstein and I realized that the prosperous inhabitants of that tiny mountain nation have a problem. The Prince of Liechtenstein has the power to “irreversibly veto any law, dissolve the legislature, and appoint judges in his principality.” He is an old school absolutist with complete power over his subjects (although he doesn’t particularly exercise his authority over the rich burghers and money launderers who live there). The Prince has a problem as well though—he is missing his fancy hat. It is ironic that the one European sovereign who maintains true political authority is the one without a crown.
The ducal hat of Liechtenstein was discovered to be missing in 1781 following the death of Prince Franz Joseph I. Commissioned in 1623 by Karl von Liechtenstein the hat was modeled on the Imperial Crown of Austria and featured eight jeweled acanthus leaves surrounding a red velvet cap with a big shiny button on top. The white diamonds and red rubies/spinels of the crown were alleged to have magical properties for protecting the Duke (although they don’t seem to have staved off death for Franz Joseph I, nor did they protect the hat itself from whoever walked off with it). A single gouache painting kept in the Liechtenstein Museum portrays the original crown which has vanished completely from history—well, actually I found an online account of how Bulgarian spider worshippers smuggled it into the United States to sell to Druids (but I thought that there were some issues of historical accuracy with that website).
The citizenry of Liechtenstein chipped in together and bought a replacement hat for their anachronistically powerful liege in 1976, but undoubtedly he can sense that it is not the real thing. Fortunately the lack of his actual crown has not prevented him from writing a new book The State in the Third Millennium which summarizes his philosophy about governance. The Prince apparently dreams of “the creation of numerous small principalities throughout the world, where people can live in happiness and freedom…” Each of these microstates would be controlled by a despotic Prince with absolute power. Thanks Prince Hans-Adam, I’m sure the world would work much better if everything broke apart into feuding city-states run by evil autocrats.
Horses are first known to have arrived in Australia in 1788. They came as part of an invasion fleet—the “first fleet,” which consisted of eleven British ships filled with marines, soldiers, “free” (but penniless) crown subjects, male and female convicts, horses, dogs, cats, rats, mice, bedbugs, fleas, smallpox, and a handful of King George’s officers. Some of these various life-forms quickly escaped the hungry sweltering colony on Sydney Cove and began to alter the island continent. The first rogue horses were seen around Sydney in 1804. In subsequent years other colonists and business concerns brought yet more horses. Australians imported “Capers”, robust horses from South Africa. In the North, tiny Timor Ponies (renowned for toughness and the ability to thrive in the tropics) were purchased from Indonesia. Miners brought in hard-headed ponies from Cornwall, Wales, and Dartmoor. Wealthy squatters (land barons) brought in thoroughbreds and Arabians. Farmers brought Clydesdales and Percherons. Most of these horses ended up pulling wagons, ploughing fields, or carrying rich men on their backs—they were domestic horses doing human bidding–but a few lit out for freedom in forests and deserts which had never before known the hoof.
The result of the mixture was the “brumby”, the wild horse of Australia. In a continent where the largest native grazer was the stolid wombat, horses quickly began to thrive. In a few generations, feral horses completely adapted to the harsh arid climate of Australia. Huge herds roam the wasteland (particularly in the Australian Alps).
Thanks to natural selection, brumbies quickly reverted to the appearance of wild ancestral horses. Iliveforhorses.com describes the brumby with no particular enthusiasm:
The Brumby varies in conformation but generally has a heavy head with a short neck and back, straight shoulders, sloping quarters, and strong legs. Their shape is generally poor although the occasional one has a through back to Thoroughbred ancestry and will have some quality, especially in the head region. They can be any color and their height varies but they tend to be small.
The same website is equally censorious about brumby temperament, noting that brumbies, “are, like any feral animal, extremely difficult to capture and tame, and have rebellious and willful natures.”
Brumbies might have poor shapes and willful natures, but they have proven excellent at surviving in the wild. During the 19th century, horses were in such demand that round-ups occurred and wild brumbies were “broken” back into domestication, but as mechanization increased during the 20th century, huge herds of brumbies ran roughshod over the Australian ecosystem. Environmentalists, farmers, and politicians implemented the same solution to this problem which they had first used for the rabbit infestation—the gun. Huge numbers of brumbies were shot for meat and hide (apparently there is still a thriving horsemeat market in Europe). Others were simply left for dead, whether cleanly killed or not. Animal lovers reacted with outrage to the slaughter and have demanded more humane solutions to the brumby problem (such as round-ups or mass sterilization). Implementing these solutions has, however, proven costly (and not entirely efficacious) so the fate of great herds of brumbies has become a political wrestling match between environmentalists on one side and animal lovers on the other. Whether herds are larger or smaller, there is no way to eradicate them entirely. Horses have joined kangaroos, echidnas, koalas, platypuses, numbats, and crocodiles as one of the characteristic natives of Australia.
Living during the communications revolution, it sometimes seems impossible to imagine how quickly the world has changed. Today is the 50th anniversary of an important step towards the instantly connected world of today: on July 10, 1962, a Thor-Delta rocket (launched from Cape Canaveral) carried the communication satellite Telstar 1 into orbit. The satellite was built by collaboration between AT&T, Bell Labs, NASA, the British General Post Office, and the French National Post, Telegraph, and Telecom Office. It was the first satellite ever to relay television, telephone and high-speed data communications. It was the first time that humans could beam such complicated information across an entire ocean via electromagnetic transmission.
Telstar was tiny and crude by today’s standards. The entire spacecraft weighed only 77 kg (170 lbs). The power generated by its solar panels was a mighty 14 watts (which is about what is necessary to operate a dim fluorescent nightlight). Since Telstar 1 was in non-geosynchronous orbit, its ability to transmit transatlantic signals was limited to a 20 minutes window during each 2.5 hour world orbit (and because satellite broadcasting stations only existed in England, France, and on the East Coast, the rest of the world didn’t matter) . Most contemporary telecommunications satellites are in geosynchronous orbit (and stay in place despite the solar wind thanks to thruster burns), but Telstar came in an era before all of that. The satellite’s first broadcast (on July 23rd) consisted of President John F. Kennedy talking about the dollar’s rapidly appreciating value. The initial broadcast also showed a baseball game, the American flag, Mount Rushmore, and, of course French singer Yves Montand.
Telstar 1 had a brief and memorable life broadcasting one grainy channel of black and white television and relaying perhaps a few hundred phone lines, but it has not been broadcasting since 1963. High altitude nuclear tests carried out during 1962 supercharged the Van Allen belt and overwhelmed the fragile electronics on the craft. As of May 2012 Telstar was still in orbit around Earth—presumably it is still up there, circling our planet, simultaneously a communications milestone and a cold war victim.
The ancient Romans were devotees of all sorts of gardens. As classical Mediterranean culture reached its apogee during the eras of the Roman Republic and the Roman Principate, Roman gardeners combined the best aspects of garden styles from Greece, Persia, and Egypt to create their own tranquil refuges from stress, strife, and crowds. Some of these gardens were sprawling temple gardens built to honor various deities (while also granting beauty and serenity to the worshippers), or large pleasure gardens which combined orchards with ornate terraces, but the classical Roman garden which everyone thinks of today was the peristyle garden at the center of the Roman urban household. This was designed to be one of the two centers of the Roman home. The other center, the atria was symbolic and formal—it related to ancestors, religion, and the past, but the garden was meant to be lived in and enjoyed.
A peristyle garden was located in an open courtyard of a domus and was generally surrounded by colonnades. Various ornamental plants and statues could be found in the garden. If the family was especially prosperous, there might also be fountains, pools, murals, and running water. However even humbler houses would have an opening in the ceiling and some potted herbs and flowers.
For security reasons Roman urban houses did not usually have windows facing the street, so the garden (and the formal atrium at the front of the house) became the source of fresh air as well as water. Fragrant, herbs, shrubs and flowers were carefully cultivated amidst complementary artworks. We have paintings of these gardens, and literary descriptions, but, best of all, we have examples of the gardens themselves from Pompeii. Although the actual plants from Pompeian villas emerged worse for the wear after being entombed for centuries beneath volcanic ash, the statues and decorations remained. This post contains photos of how some of these actual Roman gardens look when replanted and tended.
The old-fashioned Roman domus began to vanish in the 6th century AD as Christianity became universal, but the peristyle did not vanish. The peristyle garden evolved into the atrium of the Basillica–and then the concept became even more removed from the mundane world as it changed into the monastic cloister.
Ah Florida…sultry weather, orange groves, glistening beaches, pouting beauties, and palm trees…but also walking catfish, killer snakes, and now giant mollusks! The semi-tropical peninsula is prey to wave after wave of exotic animal invaders. The most-recent problem creatures are giant African snails, immense land snails that can grow up to 20 centimeters (8 inches) long. There are three extremely similar species of giant snails which come from West Africa: the giant African snail (Achatina fulica), the giant Ghana tiger snail (Achatina achatina), and the margies (Archachatina marginata). Each snail has a brown swirly shell and grows to be about the size of an adult’s fist.
The giant snails eat over 500 varieties of plants—including the majority of agricultural and ornamental species. They also have a taste for stucco and siding so some Floridians now awaken to discover that huge mollusks are literally devouring their houses. The snails are hermaphrodites and can lay up to 12000 eggs per year. They can survive freezing temperatures.
Authorities continue to investigate how the snails got into the country but increasingly the evidence points to…voodoo.
In the Yoruba creation myth, the entire world was once water. The god Obatala possessed a magic snail shell which contained earth. Acting on instructions from the supreme divinity Olódùmarè, Obatala cast this land upon the oceans, thus creating the continents. Obatala then molded the land into men and beasts–but he possessed an artist’s temperament and thirst. As he crafted the Earth and its inhabitants he drank so much palm wine that his mental clarity became dulled and he made big parts of existence wrong. Eventually he passed out altogether and his brother Oduduwa was left to finish the work and patch up the errors as best as he could. Unfortunately big parts of humanity were assembled incorrectly and these flaws remain in evidence everywhere…
Anyway a mainstay of Obatala worship is the sacrifice of snails (in memory of the primordial snail shell which contained the first earth). Apparently one of Obatala’s worshippers illegally brought some giant African snails into Florida for religious reasons and they escaped from him.
So, to recap, a smuggler who worships a drunken deity brought giant hermaphrodite snails in to Florida as a religious devotion to his addled god. Unfortunately the snails escaped and they are now eating people’s homes. Argh! What is wrong with us? I’m going to go drink some palm wine…
The Islamic conception of hell is similar to the Christian conception of hell: Muslim hell is called Jahannam and it is a place of fire and torture. Deceased sinners enter through one of seven gates, according to the nature of their sins, and are given clothing made of fire (which sounds like it would be hard to dry-clean). The souls are mercilessly burned until they become black like charcoal. Nineteen angels oversee the administration of fire-based torture.
But Jahannam does have a special garden feature lacking from Christian hell. In the middle of the fiery realm is a great malevolent tree named Zaqqum with roots that snake down into the raging fires beneath the world. Zaqqum has fruits which are shaped like devil’s heads. The hungry spirits trapped in hell eat these fruits, which are the only foodstuff to be had, but the fruits only intensify the suffering of the damned. The Quran directly mentions the pain caused by eating Zaqqum’s fruit:
[44.43] Indeed, the tree of zaqqum
[44.44] Is food for the sinful.
[44.45] Like murky oil, it boils within bellies
[44.46] Like the boiling of scalding water.
Other references compare eating the fruit of Zuqqum to swallowing boiling brass, or relate how consuming the fruit is so painful that it causes the eaters’ faces to fall off!
There are no known allusions to Zuqqum before Mohammed. The concept originated with his revelations. Since the writing of the Quran, a number of thorny, poisonous, or bitter trees from Muslim lands have derived their common name from Zuqqum the great misery tree of Jahannam which feeds directly on the fires of hell.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” So reads the thunderous second sentence of the Declaration of Independence–probably the finest thing Thomas Jefferson ever wrote. It is a cornerstone not just of the American spirit but of worldwide humanist thought. It is one of the most influential sentences ever written in English. National political discourse rightly concentrates on the first and second inalienable rights: life and liberty (for powerful interests conspire against both in every era). The popular imagination however seizes on the last part of the sentence: “the pursuit of happiness” is fundamental to our lives, yet even the phrasing betrays a certain elusory and unattainable quality to the concept. “Pursuit” suggests that felicity, contentment, and joy are will-of-the-wisps which can be chased but never caught. This is a sobering way of looking at happiness, but it is an important concept to explore–for the well-known roads to happiness are indeed dangerously illusory. Pleasure is a physiological goad pushing us toward survival and reproduction (and, in a world of boundless plenty, the pursuit of pleasure has become dangerously untethered from the dictates it was originally meant to serve). Accomplishment is a tread-mill which never yields the desired results—a mountain with no top. Possessions do not satisfy. Relationships are as fragile as soap bubbles. So what is happiness anyway? Is there a meaningful way to succinctly address a subject which has tormented the rich, wise, and powerful as much as the poor, the ignorant, and the oppressed. Can we summarize a quest which has baffled sybarites, monks, philosophers, kings, and saints?
A rudimentary approach to happiness is to equate happiness with physical pleasure. Such a voluptuary outlook is, after all, based on fundamental biological demands. We crave sweets and rich savory foods for a reason. When we were hunter-gatherers (which, from an evolutionary perspective, was only a short time ago) we needed such things to survive famines and shortages. Our eyes lustfully seek out beautiful human forms because of a billion year old imperative from our genes. Gambling too was a path to success. The chief who took his clan on a dangerous trip across an unknown channel might be killed, but he might also find an untouched land filled with resources. We all descend from such risk-takers. Even our troubles with intoxicants and sundry addictive substances have evolutionary underpinnings. We need an internal carrot and stick to help us diagnose what is good for us and what is not. Certain chemicals happen to touch the reward and pleasure parts of our brain (or block pain comprehension) in ways that short-circuit this diagnostic.
The basic drives that create resilient, successful hunter gatherers can be disastrous in a world filled with superabundant processed food, internet porn, online gambling, and high-tension drugs. Our genotype is at odds with the world we have created. Physical pleasure does not lead to happiness. In an agricultural and industrialized world it makes us fat, unhealthy, addicted, and jaded.
So we must walk a more intense road and pursue the disciplined calculating path of ambition. In the contemporary world this hinges on trade. Imagine a person who is the perfect epitome of free-market capitalism. Such an individual realizes that literally everything is a trade. Even romantic relationships are a market of sorts–where one wants to “buy low and sell high” thus maximizing a limited set of appealing characteristics in exchange for the most desirable mate. In fact economists call people who obsessively seek the best option in every circumstance “maximizers.” They seek the best toothpaste, cars, investments, careers, and spouses. A moment of reflection will demonstrate that Madison Avenue, Wall Street, and Hollywood are all industries which are set up to create maximizers. The idea that we must have the best of all choices is an underpinning of our culture. What a shame that social scientists have discovered that maximizers are chronically unhappy when compared with people who care less about making the perfect choice in every circumstance. The perfect car gets a dinged fender (or another richer banker buys a fancier model). The perfect investment shoots up and falls apart. The perfect relationship comes apart as both parties change.
Thanks to a multitude of choice we are stuck with a bizarre false consciousness that the perfect choice will make us happy. This thought-provoking essay explores the emotional traps inherent in a society with too much choice (it will appeal to fellow New Yorkers for making the Big Apple seem like the ultimate ambiguous trade).
Pleasure, ambition, and material goods all fail as sources of happiness (indeed they fail in a way which hints darkly as the insufficiency of romantic love). We turn toward more abstract virtues—devotion, altruism, curiosity. Here, at last we find people who seem happy—who are not caught on a cruel tread-mill where gaining a cherished objective causes them to become disillusioned with that objective. What is the commonality between the otherworldly promises of religion, the struggles of philanthropy, and the burning quest for knowledge?
The devout are directed to live a certain way by sources which they believe to be of supernatural or spiritual origin. The Anabaptist, the Sufi, the Buddhist monk, all strive for perfection of a sort which will be rewarded beyond death. Heaven and Nirvana give meaning to their everyday trials and tribulations (even if the next world might just be another illusion). It vexes me to acknowledge that happiness can be discovered in such a system, and yet I have met faithful people who have convinced me that such is the case. Additionally (unless you worship a capricious deity of death), the religious viewpoint, although apt to concentrate overmuch on imaginary/unknowable goals also inclines toward helping others.
People dedicated to helping others, sometimes feel underappreciated or abused, however, in surveys they report feeling more content with life than the hard-charging (well-recompensed) masters of international finance. The world always suffers from poverty and disease and misery. Environmental devastation is widespread. Yet even in the face of such setbacks, the altruists continue forward. They busy themselves by making something worthwhile or helping others. Like Vishnu, their purpose is to try to preserve the world from destruction. These are all powerful and noble motivations. Struggling to better the world is a struggle with no end, but it is a hero’s quest and bears its own rewards.
Finally there are those who find happiness battling ignorance. Curiosity–the virtue of the scientist and the philosopher–causes humankind to continuously play with fire and put our fingers in the light sockets of the universe. Struggling for provable answers to questions about nature is the foremost quest of life. The long quest for comprehension of the world sometimes yields stunning insights into the universe but more often it leads to more tortuous questions. It is unknown whether science has any ultimate answers, but if so they are in the distant future and more questions continue to mount up.
Each of these routes to happiness shares a common trait: anticipation. Zealots imagine the pleasures and consummate perfection of the next world. The do-gooder toils for the future betterment of humankind and finds pleasure in a child’s smile or a rescued species of butterfly. The physicist, mathematician, and natural scientist posit hypotheses which may take lifetimes to unravel—and which may indeed be proven spectacularly wrong. However anticipating a future outcome and working towards it—even if it never comes—maybe especially if it never comes–seems to incline people toward fulfillment.
The question of what happiness is and how to find it thus boils down to anticipation. Find something worth living for and fight for it, even though the way is lost and the light is occluded! The phrasing of the Declaration of Independence was not a crafty way for Thomas Jefferson to hint that we were never meant to actually capture felicity, it was an instructional hint as to how to find meaning and happiness in life. Keep up the pursuit! The search itself is the answer. Consummation is just another illusion.
The largest land animal alive today is the mighty African elephant, however even the largest adult bull elephants were dwarfed by the largest land mammal ever to exist. The giant herbivore Paraceratherium stood 5.5 metres (18 ft) tall at the shoulder. When standing upright the creature’s head (which was approximately the same size as character actor Danny Devito) was about 8 metres (26 ft) above the ground. Although debate continues about how much the beast weighed, reasonable estimates suggest it could have massed from 15 to 20 metric tons which means that the animals were as large as mid-sized sauropod dinosaurs from the previous era. Partial skeletons of Paraceratherium were discovered by different scientists at different times–which has confusingly resulted in three different names for the genus: 1) Paraceratherium which means”near horn animal” in Greek; 2) Indricotherium which was derived from a mythical Russian progenitor-monster called the Indrik-Beast; and 3) Baluchitherium which means “Baluchistan beast”, in honor of Baluchistan, an arid portion of the Iranian plateau, where a fossil specimen was unearthed. Paleontologists prefer to call the genus “Paraceratherium,” however, thanks to TV specials and museum shows the name “Indricotherium” remains popular with the public.
Paraceratheriums were perissodactyls. The giant creatures were most closely related to the living rhinoceroses (although they shared ancestors with tapirs and horses as well). Paraceratherium’s immense size allowed it to eat the branches and leaves of large trees. They ranged across what is now Central Asia across Iran, India, Pakistan, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and China. The various species of Paraceratherium had long graceful necks somewhat like that of Okapis. Additionally they possessed nimble elongated upper lips with which to strip leaves off of branches. These lips were no quite trunks but probably resembled the long grasping snout/lips of tapirs. Although Paraceratherium was closely related to rhinoceroses, they lacked the rhino’s characteristic horns—their giant size meant they did not need them. The genus originated in the Eocene and flourished during the Oligocene—a golden age of perissodatyls. However as the global cooling became more pronounced in the late Oligocene, the great creatures gradually vanished.