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So does everybody remember Pope Benedict XVI, the German guy who was pope until last month? While I was doing research on Papal tiaras, I happened to come across his personal coat of arms. Holy smokes! Tiaras will have to wait—check out this puppy! Not only does it feature a number of ferrebeekeeper themes–mollusks, mammals, and crowns—it is ridiculously gothic and insanely colorful to boot. The coat of arms features a moor’s head wearing a crown (and how is that an appropriate thing in the modern world?), a bear wearing a backpack (!), and a large scallop shell. The scallop shell is an allusion to pilgrimages and also an allegorical story about Saint Augustine walking on the beach and having an epiphany about divinit. The moor’s head is a traditional symbol of medieval German nobility (as an allusion to beheaded Moorish foes and to suzerainty over Africa): this particular example is apparently the “Moor of Freising” from the coat of arms of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising. The bear with the backpack is “the bear of St. Corbinian” but I have no idea what he is doing. Maybe he is going to grade school?
This papal coat of arms is unusual in that it is surmounted by a bishop’s miter instead of the traditional three-tiered papal tiera (a symbol of kingship which the papacy has been phasing out, but more about that in another post). The truly important element is there however—the fancy gothic keys of Saint Peter which (according to the Catholic Church) grant access to heaven. Now if only there were a catfish… Speaking of which, below, as a special bonus, I have included the coat of arms of the infamous Urban VIII (who poisoned the birds in the papal garden because their singing disturbed his plotting) which includes the Barberini bees, and the coat of arms of the futile and immoral Pious VI, which shows a weird boy throwing up on a lily.
Camelids are believed to have originated in North America. From there they spread down into South America (after a land bridge connected the continents) where they are represented by llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, and guanacos. Ancient camels also left North America via land bridge to Asia. The dromedary and Bactrian camels are descended from the creatures which wandered into Beringia and then into the great arid plains of Asia. Yet in their native North America, the camelids have all died out. This strikes me as a great pity because North America’s camels were amazing and diverse!
At least seven genera of camels are known to have flourished across the continent in the era between Eocene and the early Holocene (a 40 million year history). The abstract of Jessica Harrison’s excitingly titled “Giant Camels from the Cenozoic of North America” gives a rough overview of these huge extinct beasts:
Aepycamelus was the first camel to achieve giant size and is the only one not in the subfamily Camelinae. Blancocamelus and Camelops are in the tribe Lamini, and the remaining giant camels Megatylopus, Titanotylopus, Megacamelus, Gigantocamelus, and Camelus are in the tribe Camelini.
That’s a lot of camels–and some of them were pretty crazy (and it only counts the large ones—many smaller genera proliferated across different habitats). Gigantocamelus (as one might imagine) was a behemoth weighing as much as 2,485.6 kg (5,500 lb). Aepycamelus had an elongated neck like that of a giraffe and the top of its head was 3 metres (9.8 ft) from the ground. Earlier, in the Eocene, tiny delicate camels the size of rabbits lived alongside the graceful little dawn horses. This bestiary of exotic camels received a new addition this week when paleontologists working on Ellesmere Island (in Canada’s northernmost territory, Nunavut) discovered the remains of a giant arctic camel that lived 3.5 million years ago. Based on the mummified femurs which were unearthed at the dig, the polar camel was about 30 percent larger than today’s camels. The arctic region of 3.5 million years ago was a different habitat from the icy lichen-strewn wasteland of today. The newly discovered camels probably lived in boreal forests (rather in the manner of contemporary moose) where they were surrounded by ancient horses, deer, bears and even arctic frogs! Testing of collagen in the remains has revealed that the camels are closely related to the Arabian camels of today, so these arctic camels (or camels like them) were among the invaders who left the Americas for Asia.
The bones are a reminder of how different the fauna used to be in North America. When you look out over the empty, empty great plains, remember they are not as they should be. All sorts of camels should be running around. Unfortunately the ones that did not leave for Asia and South America were all killed by the grinding ice ages, the fell hand of man, or by unknown factors.
Tamandua is a genus of arborial anteaters with two species, the southern tamandua (Tamandua tetradactyla) and the northern tamandua (Tamandua mexicana). Tamanduas have prehensile tails which help them grip the trees, bushes, and scrub where they hunt for ants, termites, and bees (which they vacuum up through a tubular mouth or capture with a 40 cm long sticky tongue). The two species inhabit a large swath of the Americas—the northern tamandua ranges from Mexico down through Central America and west of the Andes through coastal Venezuela, Columbia, and Peru. The southern tamandua inhabits the entire area surrounding the Amazon basin and ranges from Trinidad, through Venezuela, the entirety of Brazil, and into northern Argentina. Tamanduas weigh up to 7 kilograms (15 pounds) and grow to lengths of about a meter (3 feet).
Tamanduas have immensely powerful arms which they use for climbing and ripping apart ant and termite colonies. If threatened they hiss and release an unpleasant scent (they can also grapple by means of their formidable arms and huge claws). The creatures spend much of their time in trees and they nest in hollow trees or abandoned burrows of other animals. Tamanduas can live up to nine years. They are widespread but comparatively scarce.
Because of humankind’s long close association with horses, horse coloration has a very specific and complex vocabulary (as any fan of wild west literature could attest). One of the most interesting horse colors is grullo a dun color characterized by gray body hair. Grullo gray can be either tan gray or mouse colored.
Grullo horses have bodies which are lighter in hue than their tails and manes. They also often have primitive markings such as stripes, spots, and stipples. Some grullo horses even have striped legs as though they were zebras or quaggas.
Grullo is of interest as an ancestral coloration of wild horses. The tarpan (Equus ferus ferus), an extinct subspecies of wild horse from Eurasia was believed to have grullo coloring. The last tarpan died in captivity in Russia in 1909, but mad attempts to recreate it through selective breeding have resulted in the primitive looking Heck horse (a breed of horse which tend to be grullo). Additionally many small harry northern horses like Norwegian Fjord horses and Welsh ponies tend to be grullo. Look at how cute they are!
One of the problems with writing about living things is that there is a lot of troubling news from the natural world. If one writes about the many sad or perplexing issues affecting worldwide ecosystems, people get depressed and stop reading, but if one willfully ignores true problems…well, what is the point of observing and thinking about the world? I remember CNN’s online newspage used to have a Science/Nature header which was so consistently filled with news of species die-offs, ecological disaster, and worldwide blight that the whole science section was canceled. Now CNN has more room for “news” about Ashton Kutcher’s all fruit diet and a tech section with reviews of “cool gear” you can buy for your Superbowl party. Sigh….
All of which is a round-about way of apologizing for today’s upsetting (but extremely important) post concerning the mass die-off of North America’s bats. Wait! Please don’t go to other site to read about “Miley” Cyrus. Bats are actually really important. They are key organisms in ecosystems across the continent. If they all die, the rest of us mammals are also going to be in serious trouble
The culprit behind the bat deaths is a fungus, Geomyces destructans, which causes WNS–white nose syndrome. Despite its cartoonish name, white nose syndrome is a horrible death sentence for most temperate bats in North America. Geomyces destructans is a low temperature fungus (like the hideous specimens you find in neglected refrigerators). As the bats hibernate, powdery white fungus builds up on their little wings and faces. The poor itchy bats are awakened from hibernation and, because of the irritation, they cannot return to a suspended state. The little animals quickly burn up their energy reserves and die—to then become macabre bat-shaped clumps of fungus.
Geomyces destructans seems to have traveled to North America from European caves, probably on the boots or specialized equipment of spelunkers (strange troubled sportspeople who worm deep into the crushing dark of caves). Now that the fungus is in North America, it appears to be spreading by means of bat to bat contact. European bats seem to have a native resistance to the fungus, but American bats are unprepared for it and they have died in legion. Ninety percent of New Jersey’s bats are believed to have already died. As the plague moves to new colonies similar mortality is expected. Although the disease started in the middle of New York State, it has quickly spread along the East coast and it is moving west. Scientists worry that the pestilence could spread from coast to coast (although bats which live in warmer climes might be less susceptible to the low temperature fungus). Bats reproduce slowly—usually at a rate of one pup (or less) per year, so bat colonies cannot replenish like sardine schools or rodent colonies. Additionally the spores linger in caves even after all the bats have been killed.
I personally love bats. I find them endearing and beautiful (and relatable, since I have my own flighty nocturnal habits). Western culture has not been so kind and often equates the flying mammals with witchcraft, Satan, demons, and all other manner of underworld fiends (the Chinese, however, see bats as lucky—in fact one of the Eight Taoist immortals began his cycle of incarnation as a bat). A surprising number of Americans cleave to the old ways and smile at the horrifying curse that jackass cave explorers have unknowingly unleashed on our little chiropteran friends.
This attitude is a big mistake.
Anecdotally, the weather on North America has been worsening. Great storms pound our coasts, droughts scorch the hinterlands, and mighty cyclones appear everywhere knocking down forests. Imagine if, to compound these woes, vast plagues of insects descended upon our homes and crops.
Well, without bats, you won’t have to imagine. Bats are a principal predator of insects—especially nighttime insects like mosquitoes (but also a surprising number of agricultural and forest pests). Humans, being diurnal, underestimate bats, but insect-eating chiropterans eat 80% to 100% of their body mass in insects per night and they live in vast colonies (especially out west). Without bats we are liable to see great swarms of insects eat our crops and we will experience a resurgence of mosquito born ills.
An article in Daily Finance outlines some of the potential fall out of the great North American bat die-off (and if cold heartless financiers are worried about the environment, we know that something is really amiss). So how can we actually help the bats? The Federal government has allocated 1.6 million dollars to study the problem, but this is not a lot of money! Various agencies and organizations are attempting to curtail cave exploration and keep people from becoming a further vector for spreading the fungus. Making people aware of the problems bats are facing is also a useful step (which is why I am writing this). Most of all we need to care for bats before they are gone. Farmers, bankers, politicians, ecologists, and scientists all need to worry about our beleaguered friends. The mass die-off of honey bees has had a horrible effect on agriculture and forestry: the effect of a bat die off could be worse. But even more importantly bats are social mammals—like us. If suddenly 90% of them are dying off, it is a terrible portent as well as a horrible loss to the planet.
The crabeater seal (Lobodon carcinophagus) is a pale-colored seal which lives on the pack ice around Antarctica. Adult crabeater seals have an average length of 2.3 meters (7 and-a-half feet) and weigh around 200 kg (440 pounds) however the largest male crabeater seals can weigh up to 300 kg (660 lb). The seals’ mass alters considerably over the course of a season as they gorge themselves in preparation for lean times (or—in the case of mothers—for nursing). Like other Antarctica seals, crabeater seals have slender bodies and long snouts. They are gifted swimmers—a talent which allows them to escape their two main predators, killer whales and leopard seals. They infrequently venture beyond the continental shelves of Antarctica (although very rarely one is spotted at New Zealand, Patagonia, or South Africa). They hunt along the pack ice and travel far inland to give birth. The seals give birth to one pup annually and they can live up to 40 years.
Crabeater seals can slither over land fairly well and they range farther onto continental Antarctica than any other indigenous mammal. Crabeater seal carcasses have been found up to 100 kilometers from the coast. So crabeater seals have whole swaths Antarctica to themselves (well aside from big weird penguins, lichens, and Norwegian explorers). Although they may theoretically eat a crab every now and then, the seals are misnamed. Their main prey is Antarctic krill, which they eat in huge quantities (as an aside, Antarctic krill is believed to have the greatest biomass of any single species on Earth). Although they do not have baleen like the great rorquals, crabeater seals have specialized krill-filtering cusps on their teeth which trap the krill and allow water to escape. When krill are not available, the seals can also feed on fish and squid.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about crabeater seals is their sheer numbers. Other than humans (and our livestock) they are the most numerous large mammals on the planet. Caribou and wildebeests exist in herds of hundreds of thousands, but the crabeater seal population numbers in the millions. The full population of crabeater seals is unknown. Estimates range from 7 million to 70 million. Since they are pale colored seals darting between the crushing pack ice of an uninhabited continent we have a population estimate which is off by a factor of ten. The fact that so few people have seen them might explain why they are still so successful.
One of my favorite living artists is not interested in the fatuous self-absorption and navel gazing which characterizes most contemporary artwork. Instead of falling in love with himself, Ray Troll fell in love with aquatic animals—and his art is a pun-filled paean to the astonishing diversity and complexity of life in Earth’s rivers, lakes, and oceans both in this epoch and in past geological ages. Although Troll’s vibrant biology themed art is humorous and fantastic, it also resonates at a deeper level. Themes of ecological devastation and the broad exploitation of the oceans are unflinchingly explored, as is the true nature of humankind. Troll (correctly) regards people as a sort of terrestrial fish descendant who still have the same aggressive territoriality, unending hunger, and crude drives that propelled our distant piscine forbears. This sounds deterministic and grim until one comprehends the high esteem which Troll holds for fish of all sorts. After looking at the beauty, grace, and power of his fish art, one feels honored to be included in the larger family (along with all the mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians which trace their roots back to fish-like tetrapod ancestors).
Troll is a favorite artist because he endeavors to understand paleontology, ecology, and biology and synthesize these extraordinary disciplines with broader human experience. The result is a whimsical and surreal mixture of creatures and concepts from different times and places rubbing elbows as though Hieronymous Bosch were having a happy daydream. Troll is a “popular” artist in that he makes a living by selling books, tee-shirts, and posters rather than swindling billionaire bankers into multi-million dollar single purchases, so you should check out his website. In keeping with the themes of Ferrebeekeeper, I have added a small gallery of his mollusk and catfish themed artwork (although such creatures are only featured in some of his paintings and drawings). Unfortunately the online sample images are rather small. If you want to see full resolution images you will have to buy his books and artwork (which is a worthwhile thing to do).
The Encante is a paradisiacal underwater realm where shapeshifting river dolphins lure humans. The aquatic creatures are able to be themselves in this realm of magic and dance. Not only does Troll’s work feature the beauty of the Amazon and the otherworldly magical river dolphins, there are also a host of amazing catfish, including several armored catfish, and a giant bottomfeeder which has apparently developed an unfortunate taste for human flesh.
Here are a handful of Troll’s pun-themed tee-shirt drawings involving amazing cephalopods. I like to imagine the populist octopus in battle with the fearsome vampire squid which is so emblematic of Goldman Sachs.
Finally, here is a naturalistic portrayal of how the ancient ammonites most likely came together to spawn on moonlit nights of the Paleozoic (such behavior is characteristic of the squids and cuttlefish alive today). The long-extinct cephalopods are portrayed with life and personality as though their quest to exist has immediate relevance to us today. Indeed–that might is Troll’s overarching artistic and philosophical point: life is a vividly complex web of relationships which knit together in the past, present, and the future.
Antonio Ligabue (1899-1965) was an outsider artist who lived and worked for most of his life in a primitive hut beside the Po River. He was born in Switzerland to Italian immigrant parents and had a childhood marked by abandonment, disease, death, mental/emotional health problems, and general misery. Perhaps the most traumatic episode from his youth involved the horrible death of his mother and three brothers from food poisoning. Exiled from Switzerland upon adulthood, Ligabue returned to Gualtieri, Italy, despite the fact that he did not know Italian (at least for many years). He lived as an alcoholic vagabond spending time in and out of mental institutions–including a particularly bad period when he was committed for self-mutilation. During the Second World War he worked as an interpreter for the German army but he was sent to a mental asylum (again) after beating a German soldier with a beer bottle. He was known in Italy as “Al Matt” (the fool) or “Al tedesch” (the German).
The subject of Ligabue’s artwork was usually animals–particularly animals crazed by fighting, mating, or hunting (or domestic animals suffering abuse at the hands of humans). His many self-portraits do not seem to stand outside of this thematic canon, as is poignantly made clear by the title of his most famous biography, “Beast in the mirror: the Life of Outsider Artist Antonio Ligabue” written by Karin Kavelin Jones . Ligabue’ s works are vividly expressionistic tableaus of wild conflict. In “Leopard Attacked by Snake” the two combatants are portrayed as a glorious & horrific battle of primal forces. The colors and patterns themselves are at war. Even the surrounding ferns and grasping branches seem to participate in the battle between the snake and the great screaming cat. The pink and red toothed maw of the leopard and its sinuous body are powerfully rendered. The jungle cat is a great engine of appetite literally squeezed into momentary suspension by the green and yellow jungle snake.
Ligabue’s work seems almost like a bizarro world mirror opposite to the paintings of Sir Edwin Landseer, who crafted extremely realistic and precise paintings of animals in emotional extremes. Ligabue’s life was the exact opposite as well. Whereas Landseer was rich and successful his entire life but ended by going insane, Ligabue was insane his entire life but, at the very end, became successful.
There are entire species of large mammals living today on Earth which have never been seen alive by humans. Even though they can grow larger than elephants, their numbers and habits are unknown. We might not even know all extant species in the family. These mystery mammals are the beaked whales (family Ziphiidae) masters of deep ocean diving. The family is comprised of at least 21 different species, only 3 of which are well known (thanks to whale hunting in previous centuries). Beaked whales are poorly understood because they are rarely on the surface of the ocean where we can observe them. They are capable of diving more than 1,899 meters (6,230 feet) and can stay underwater for almost an hour and a half. Beaked whales live in the black–down among the underwater seamounts, canyons, and abyssal plains. We only know them from the examination of dead specimens: indeed, for some species of beaked whales that is quite literally true and they have only been seen when dead.
Beaked whales grow to sizes of 4 to 13 metres (13 to 43 ft) depending on the species. They are sexually dimorphic—the males are a different size than the females. Additionally male whales have prominent domed foreheads and a pair of fighting teeth for dueling and sexual display (these teeth do not fully develop in females). Beaked whales feed on squid, and, to a lesser extent, fishes and invertebrates which they capture from the ocean bottom by means of suction. In order to produce this suction effect, the whales have highly nimble tongues and throat grooves.
The most distinctive features of beaked whales (save perhaps from their rostral “beaks”) are the body features which allow them to dive so deeply and then hunt in the dark crushing waters. The lungs of beaked whales collapse at a certain pressure—most likely as a way to minimize the dangers of nitrogen transfer. Their livers and spleens are huge in order to deal with the dangerous metabolic bi-products of prolonged periods when they are unable to breathe. Additionally, their blood and muscle tissue is capable of capturing and storing substantially greater quantities of oxygen than the tissue of other mammals. Beaked whales can pull their pectoral flippers into grooves which run along the sides of their bodies and thus become more streamlined.
In order to find their way in the deep ocean, the whales rely on sophisticated acoustic echo-location organs. Lips behind the blowhole produce high pitched vibrations which bounce off of prey and obstacles. Echoes from these vibrations are then picked up and focused into the whales’ sensory organs by special fat deposits and bone structures. Unfortunately this method of echolocation seems to make beaked whales extremely sensitive to sonar. Resurfacing whales are unable to avoid the amplified sound waves and can suffer injuries to their sensory organs (or even to their large delicate livers). Additionally, it is theorized that Beaked whales may try to resurface too quickly to avoid sonar and therefore risk decompression sickness.
Humankind has also been fishing ever deeper waters as fish stocks crash—which involves the whales in by-catch issues. Hopefully we will learn more about this family of enigmatic divers (and become more responsible stewards of the ocean) so that the beaked whales do not vanish before we even get to know them.