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We’ll begin our week of serpents with a strange and magnificent-looking viper from the jungles and rainforests of Central Africa. Atheris hispida is also known as the rough-scaled bush viper or the spiny bush viper because of its most unusual physical characteristic—the pointed curving scales which give it a distinctive bristling “punk-rock” appearance. Atheris hispida is a member of the viper family and is thus related to rattlesnakes, adders, as well as numerous tropical vipers in Asia. The species is a strong climber and is often found basking on trees, flowers, or vines. They are among the smallest vipers: the male measures only 73 cm in length (and is longer than the female). Mostly nocturnal, they hunt the trees and rainforest brush for tree-frogs and lizards.
As far as I can tell, there are no effective anti-venoms for the furtive snakes (which range from the Congo west into Kenya and down into Uganda) so despite their hairy appearance and big anime eyes you may not want to pet them!
Here in New York the weather outside is February gray. The buildings are gray. The sky is gray. The trees are gray. The people are dressed in gray and black. Fortunately we can beguile away this monochromatic tedium by contemplating the Euglossini, also known as the orchid bees!
Despite their Latin name, the Euglossini are not uniformly eusocial. This means that most species of orchid bees live solitary lives (in marked contrast to honeybees–which live in vast hives more ordered than the strictest totalitarian state). The orchid bees live in Central and South America, apart from one species which ranges into North America. They are notable for their brilliant iridescent blue and green coloring. The females build nests out of mud and resin.
The most remarkable aspect of Euglossini behavior is the male bee’s obsession which the aromatic compounds produced by various tropical orchids. Male orchid bees have a rarified ability to sense these fragrances even in small quantities (like many heady floral/fruit scents the chemicals produced by the orchids are usually complex esters). The bees harvest the molecules with front legs specially modified to resemble little brushes (and in doing so they generally pollinate the orchids, which are wholly dependent on the bees). Astonishingly, the male bees store the chemicals in a cavity on their back leg which is sealed off and protected by waxy hairs.
The male bees appear to use these compounds when trying to attract a mate but no female attraction to the odors has been proved. On the other hand, many Stanhopeinae and Catasetinae orchids are absolutely dependent on the male bees to reproduce. Different species of these orchids rely on specific species of orchid bees to successfully pollinate far-away partners in the rainforest. Charles Darwin wrote about this pollination system after observing it in the wild and later referred to the highly specialized orchids as proof of the ways in which species adapt to their environments.
A diadem is a headband made of precious metal (frequently ornamented with jewels or designs) which betokens royal sovereignty. Diadems trace their origins deep into antiquity—the form probably originating in Mycenae and Persia. The diadem soon became associated with classical Greece culture and thus the concept survived for a long, long time. Here is a Byzantine-era diadem discovered in Kiev during an archeological excavation in 1889. It is composed of gold plaques with enamel paintings. The central three plaques show the Virgin and St. John the Baptist supplicating Christ on behalf of humankind. Around them are the archangels Michael and Gabriel as well as the apostles Peter and Paul. According to the Louvre website concerning Russian sacred art, “The presence of Cyrillic letters would seem to confirm the diadem’s attribution to a workshop in the principality of Kiev, home to both Greek and Russian goldsmiths.” Byzantine cultural and political influence reached deep into central Europe during the 12th century when this regal headdress was manufactured: it is easy to see the piece as a bridge between the Eastern Roman empire and the burgeoning Greek-Orthodox kingdoms and principalities of Russia, Kiev, and the Ukraine.
Longtime readers know my fondness for Chinese porcelain. Today’s post features an especially characteristic (and magnificent) style of ceramic art object from the Tang Dynasty–one of the golden ages of Chinese civilization. Founded by the shrewd and intelligent Li family (whom you might remember from this thrilling & violent post), the Tang dynasty lasted from 618 AD-907 AD and was one of the most powerful and prosperous imperial dynasties. At the apogee of the Tang era, China had over 80 million families and exerted near hegemonic control throughout Southeast Asia and Central Asia. Additionally, China served as a cultural model for Japan and Korea, where traditions established a thousand years ago still linger, and it controlled North Korea outright for a generation after winning a war against the Goguryeo and Baekje kingdoms (and their Japanese allies).
Alien visitors to Earth in the 9thcentury AD would have had no difficulties choosing where to land in order to talk to the most prosperous and advanced people of the time. During this period great medicinal breakthroughs were made, gunpowder was invented, and printing became commonplace. The silk-road trade, which had been created during the Western Han era, grew in importance and magnitude.
During the Northern Dynasties period (317-581AD) porcelain camels were first created as grave goods so that merchants could take some of their trade empire with them to the next world (a Buddhist innovation—since previous Chinese potentates were inhumed with actual human and animal sacrifice rather than porcelain stand-ins). The sculptures are modeled in the shape of Bactrian camels, which were the principle mode of transportation through the great southwestern deserts of China. Caravans of silk, porcelain and other luxury goods would set out through the barren wastes headed ultimately for Persia or Europe.
Tang camels are magnificently expressive works of art. Rich tricolor glazes of gold, green and brown were dribbled over the animals and then fired, giving an impression akin to abstract expressionism. Although initially stiff and geometrical, the camels become more lifelike as the Tang dynasty wore on. A new sense of realism pervaded art and the camels are portrayed bellowing to each other or striding through the desert sand. Sometimes the camels include riders like Chinese merchants or Sogdian handlers (equipped with Turkic peaked hats). Tang porcelain camels make it easy to imagine the exotic trade routes of medieval China, where the wealth of the world poured into the middle kingdom across an ocean of sand.