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By far the most popular post on Ferrebeekeeper involves leprechauns. Because of this fact, the sporadic generic tips I receive from WordPress usually include advice like “maybe you should consider writing more about this topic.” This involves a conundrum, because leprechauns are totally made up. What else is there to be said about the little green fairy-folk without reviewing weird B movies or randomly posting leprechaun tattoos?
Fortunately today’s news has come to my aid. Apparently the world’s smallest park, Mill Ends Park, in Portland, Oregon was victimized by tree-rustlers who stole 100% of the park’s forest. This seems like grim news, but Mill Ends Park is very small indeed: the entire (perfectly circular) park measures 2 feet in diameter. Because of its dinky 452 square inch area, Mill Ends Park only contained one small tree. A drunkard might have fallen on it (the park is located on a traffic island in the midst of a busy intersection) or pranksters might have taken it away to a container garden. Maybe a German industrialist now has the little tree in some weird freaky terrarium…
Anyway, you are probably wondering why Portland has a park which is smaller than a large pizza and what exactly this has to do with imaginary fairy cobblers from Ireland. It turns out that Mill Ends Park was the literary confabulation of journalist Dick Fagan. After returning from World War II, Fagan began writing a blog (except they were called “newspaper columns” back then, and people were actually paid for them). In 1948, the city of Portland had dug a hole to install a street light on the median of SW Naito Parkway, but due to the exigencies of the world, the light never materialized. Fagan became obsessed with the pathetic little mud pit and began planting flowers in it and rhapsodizing about fantasy beings who lived there (whom only he could see). Fagan’s story of the park’s creation is a classic leprechaun tale. While Fagan was writing in his office, he saw a leprechaun, Scott O’Toole, digging the original hole (presumably to bury treasure or access a burial mound or accomplish some such leprechaun errand). Fagan ran out of the building and apprehended the little man and thus earned a wish. As mentioned, Fagan was a writer, so obviously gold was not his prime motivation. He (Fagan) asked the leprechaun (Scott O’Toole) to be granted his very own park. Since the journalist failed to specify the size of the park, the leprechaun granted him the tiny hole.
Fagan continued to write about the “park” and its resident leprechaun colony for the next two decades using it as a metaphor for various urban issues or just as a convenient frippery when he couldn’t think of anything to write about (a purpose which the park still serves for contemporary writers). In 1976, the city posthumously honored the writer by officially making the tiny space a city park. The little park frequently features in various frivolous japes such as protests by pipe-cleaner people, the delivery of a post-it sized Ferris wheel by a full-sized crane, and overblown marching band festivities out of scale with the microcosm.
True to form, the Portland Park Department was appalled at the recent deforestation and sprang into action by planting a Douglas fir sapling in Mill End Park. Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) are the second tallest conifers on Earth, and grow to a whopping 60–75 meters (200–246 ft) in height so it is unclear how this situation will play out over time, but presumably Patrick O’Toole and his extended Irish American family will be on hand to ensure that everything turns out OK.
Humankind is always fixating on the Moon and Mars as the most likely spots for the first space colonies, but there is another crazy possibility. Aside from the Sun and the Moon, Venus is the brightest object in the night sky. Earth’s closest planetary neighbor, Venus is a veritable sister planet with extremely similar mass and volume. Because of its size and position in the solar system, a great deal of early science fiction concentrated around Venus. Dreamers and fabulists posited that beneath its ominously uniform cloud cover was a lush tropical rainforest filled with lizard people and pulchritudinous scantily clad women (the fact that the planet’s Greco-Roman name is synonymous with the goddess of love and beauty seems to have influenced many generations of male space enthusiasts).
Alas, the space age quickly dispensed with mankind’s sweaty-palmed fantasies about life on Venus. In 1970 the Soviet space probe, Venera 7, was the first spacecraft to successfully land on another planet (after a long series of earlier space probes were melted or crushed by atmospheric pressure). In the 23 minute window before the probe’s instruments failed, the craft recorded hellish extremes of temperature and pressure. The temperature on Venus’ surface averages around 500 °C (932 °F), (higher than the melting point of lead) and the pressure on the ground is equal to the pressure beneath a kilometer of earth’s ocean. The planet’s surface is a gloomy desertlike shell of slabs interspersed with weird volcanic features not found elsewhere in the solar system (which have strange names like “farra”,” novae”, and “arachnoids”). Additionally the broiling surface is scarred by huge impact craters, and intersected by immense volcanic mountains (the tallest of which looms 2 kilometers above Everest). The tops of these mountains are covered with a metallic snow made of elemental tellurium or lead sulfide (probably).
The atmosphere of Venus is a hellish fug of carbon dioxide which traps the sun’s energy in a self replicating greenhouse gone wrong. Above the dense clouds of CO2, the upper atmosphere is dominated by sulfur dioxide and corrosive sulfuric acid. Once Venus may have had water oceans and more earth-like conditions, but rampant greenhouse heating caused a feedback loop which caused the planet to become superheated billions of years ago. Without an magnetosphere, solar winds stripped Venus of its molecular hydrogen (yikes!).
Thus Venus does not initially present a very appealing picture for colonization! Yet the planet’s mass is similar to Earth (and humans’ long term viability in low gravity is far from certain). The planet is closer than Mars and windows of opportunity for travel are more frequent. Fifty kilometers (30 miles) above the surface of Venus, the temperature is stable between 0 and 50 degrees Celsius (32 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit). Light crafts filled with oxygen and nitrogen would float above the dense carbon dioxide. Today’s visionaries and dreamers therefore have stopped thinking of tropical jungles and envision instead a world of Aerostats and floating cities. Although the rotation of Venus is too slow to craft a space elevator, the flying colonists of Venus probably could build some sort of skyhook with existing or near future technology. Such a hook could be used to lift raw materials from the surface to manufacturing facilities in the skies. As more aerostat habitats were built, the colony would gain manufacturing strength, safety, and a greater ability to alter the barren world below (increasingly overshadowed by flying cities and hovering countries).
Imagine then a world like that of the Jetsons where the surface was unseen and not thought about (except by scientists and industrialists). Floating forests and croplands could be assembled to mimic earth habitats and provide resources for a bourgeoning population of Venusian humans. Skyships would cruise between the flying city states dotted jewel-like in the glowing heavens. Over time these flying habitats could be used to alter the planetary temperature and shield the desolate lands below. Humankind and whatever friends and stowaways came with us would finally have a second home in easy shouting distance of Earth. How long would it be then before we took steps to take Earth life even farther into the universe?
Since 2006, beekeepers in Europe and North America have been reporting mysterious mass die-offs of honeybees. Although this has been a problem which has sometimes affected beekeepers in the past, the worldwide scale of beehive failures subsequent after 2006 was unprecedented. Worldwide bee populations crashed. Since bees are directly responsible for pollinating a huge variety of domestic crops–particularly fruits and nuts—the threat to our food supply and agricultural base extended far beyond the honey production which people associate with bees. An entire community of free-wheeling apiarists came into the limelight. For generations these mavericks would load up their trucks with hives of bees and drive to orchards in bloom. For the right…honorarium…they would release the bees to pollinate the almonds, broccoli, onions, apples, cherries, avocados, citrus, melons, etcetera etcetera which form the non-cereal base of the produce aisle (as an aside, I find it fascinating that there is a cadre of people paid to help plants reproduce by means of huge clouds of social insects—if you tried to explain all this to an extraterrestrial, they would shake their heads and mutter about what perverts earthlings are).
As bees have declined, honey has naturally become more expensive, but so too have a great many other agricultural staples. Not only has the great dying hurt farmers and food shoppers it has also affected entire ecosystems—perhaps altering them for many years to come. “Pollinator Conservation” (an article from the Renewable Resources Journal) opines that “Cross-pollination helps at least 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of our wild plants to thrive.”
Scientists have been rushing to get to the bottom of this worldwide problem, pointing fingers at varroa mites (invasive parasitic vampire mites from China), pesticides, global warming, transgenic crops, cell phone towers, habitat destruction, and goodness knows what else. The lunatic fringe has leaped into the fray with theories about super bears, aliens, and Atlantis (although I could add that sentence to virtually any topic). So far no theory has proven conclusive: exasperated entomologists have been throwing up their hands and saying maybe it’s a combination of everything.
Yesterday (March 29th, 2012) two studies released in “Science” magazine made a more explicit link between colony collapse and neonicotinoid insecticides. The first study suggested that hives exposed to imidacloprid (one of the most widely used pesticides worldwide) produced 85% fewer queen bees than the control hives. The second study tracked individual bees with radio chips (!) to discover that bees dosed with thiamethoxam were twice as likely to suffer homing failure and not return to the hive. Suspicion has focused on neonicotinoid poisons as a culprit in hive collapse disorder for years (the compounds were hastened into use in the nineties because they were so benign to vertebrates), however the rigorously reviewed & carefully controlled studies in “Science” bring an entirely new level of evidence to the problem. Unfortunately this also brings a new variety of problems to the problem, since neonicotinoids are tremendously important to agriculture in their own right (sorry Mother Earth) and since they are such handy poisons for, you know, not killing us and our pets and farm animals.
One of the strangest and most alarming creatures on the planet is the driver ant. Driver ants belong to the genus Dorylus which is comprised of about 60 species. In the larger Dorylus species, each worker ant is only half a centimeter long. The soldier ants which guard the hive are a mere 1.5 centimeters. Males, which can fly, are 3 centimeters long and the queen, the largest of the ants, is from 5 to 8 centimeters long. These are not the sort of sizes that allow one to play professional football, so what makes Dorsylus ants so fearsome? Well, there are lots of them. Driver ants form the largest colonies of all the social insects. They live in hives numbering more than 20 million individuals, all born by one single queen.
When marching or foraging, these hives can overrun and overpower much larger animals and generally everything that can do so gets out of their way (including mighty elephants).
Driver ants are usually found in the tropical forests of West Africa (although some species range into tropical Asia). Although capable of stinging, the ants rarely do so. They prefer to use their powerful sharpened mandibles to shear apart prey. Not only are these mandibles powerful the pliers-like pincers lock into a death grip if the ant itself is killed (or even beheaded).
Male driver ants fly away from the colony very soon after birth. If a colony of foraging driver ants comes across a male ant they rip off his wings and take him to mate with a virgin queen (after which he dies). The queen ant then lays 1 to 2 million eggs per month for the remainder of her life.
All driver ants are blind, but they have an acute sense of touch and smell. Larger columns follow scent trails laid down by scouts. The ants eat any animal life they can get their mandibles on (although the staple of their diet is apparently worms).
When driver ants have stripped the animal life from a particular section of the forest they nomadically pull up stakes and move on en masse. Developing larvae are carried in temporary nests made up of the living bodies of worker ants. Foraging columns or hives on the move are dangerous. While healthy animals can escape, injured or trapped animals can be killed by the ants which enter the mouths and nostrils of victims. One shudders to think of the bad ends which have befallen people who were wounded, bound, or seriously drunk when driver ants were passing through. Farmers however have a different relationship with the ants which can clear entire fields of all agricultural pests in an afternoon.
When we think of living reefs we are likely to think of coral reefs, since the biotic reefs of today are most often composed of cnidarian corals (and coralline algae). Such has not always been the case –convergent evolution means that other animals have sometimes jumped in and taken over the central reef building role occupied today by corals (indeed there are still oyster reefs in some parts of the ocean although human hunger for oysters has greatly reduced their size). One of the more interesting and successful of these coral analogs was actually a modified colonial mollusk—the rudist. Rudists were bivalve mollusks very similar to the clams you enjoy on your linguini. Like clams, rudists had two shells (or valves) joined at a hinge. However the rudists possessed very different shapes from modern clams. Some had horn-shaped shells which lay flat on the bottom of the ocean shore (the horns prevented currents from flipping the mollusks or washing them away). The other major group had cone-shapes with little hinged lids on top –like a cross between a lidded beer stein and an ice-cream cone). This latter group formed together in huge super colonies.
Rudists evolved in the Jurassic Era and burgeoned throughout the Mesozoic, but their greatest success came during the Cretaceous when they pushed out corals and sponges to become the major reef-building organisms in the Tethys Ocean and various other warm tropical shelves around the world. It is believed that rudists were so successful because the ocean’s temperature was so much higher during the Cretaceous (as was the salt content of the water). It must have been amazing to see a rudist tropical reef thronged with strange colorful belemnites, ammonites, and unknown teleosts. Huge prehistoric diving birds, mosasaurs, and super sharks would have lurked in the depths beside the reef.
Like the dinosaurs and the ammonites, the rudists were wiped out by the Chicxulub impact. Sometimes I think about the rudists as I fret about coral die-offs. Coral quickly evolved back into the warm shallow tropical niche left open by the extinction of the rudists. Is there some little clam with a big destiny waiting for the corals to falter in the ever-warmer, ever-more-acidic oceans of the present?
Try to imagine the Namib Desert, where a stormy foggy shoreline gives way quickly to endless bone-dry dunes of shifting golden sand. It is one of the starkest contrasts in the world’s geography: the fury of the cold waves is juxtaposed with the opposing starkness of the sun-pounded dunes.
The coastline where the Namib Desert runs up against the Atlantic is known as the skeleton coast both because it is a place where whalers and sealers once discarded the stripped carcasses of the marine mammals they killed in droves and because it is one of the world’s most treacherous coastlines. More than a thousand major modern wrecks dot the coast (where they mingle with countless older shipwrecks). Portuguese sailors trying to get around the horn of Africa to reach the riches of Asia called the area “the gates of hell.” A human powered craft can make its way through the pounding surf to the desolate coastline but it then becomes impossible to re-launch. Sailors shipwrecked on the Namib coast thus faced the daunting prospect of walking through a vast expanse of waterless desert. Before the modern era, most ship-wrecked souls did not escape and their skeletons soon became part of the landscape.
The desert is ancient. For more than 55 million years it has existed as a wasteland with almost no surface water. Since the end of the age of dinosaurs, the warm tropical air of the Hadley cell has intersected a cold oceanic current welling northward from Antarctica. But the region was arid long before that. West Gondwanaland shifted to its present position along the Tropic of Capricorn nearly 130 million years ago and has remained there since—a wallflower in the great dance of continents.
Namibia was a German colony during the colonial era. Unsurprisingly, the Germans made their Namibian colony the sight of the twentieth century’s first genocide when they tried to extinguish the unruly Herero and Nama peoples in 1904. The nation was seized by South Africa after the end of World War I but after many decades of gradual power shifting Namibia gained complete independence in 1990.
The Republic of Namibia is the second sparsest nation on earth with only 2.1 million people spread across a landscape roughly the size of Germany, Poland, the Czech republic, Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands combined (not that those nations should ever be combined!). It is one of the few stable multi-party democracies in Africa (maybe I should say the world). Namibia makes most of its money from mining uranium, gemstones, lead, tungsten, gold, tin, fluorspar, manganese, marble, copper and zinc. Natural gas can be found just off the coast (though it may prove challenging to drill there).
Why am I writing about this beautiful harsh anomaly of a nation? The unique and isolated geography of Namibia have made it a unique ecosystem of creatures capable of surviving the harsh desert environment (to say nothing of the creatures which team in the rich coastal waters). Desert dwelling creatures have had a long time to adapt to the hostile conditions of the world’s oldest desert. One of the most unique of all placental mammals is found in Namibia. I’ll address this bizarre fossorial hunter in my next post.
Yesterday, if you read the post concerning pikas, you probably found yourself wondering why pikas are found throughout the highlands of North America, Europe, and Asia but do not dwell in the rocky scree of Africa and the Middle East. As it turns out, another animal grazes the arid mountain lands in those areas. Although superficially this furry herbivore seems to share many features with the pika, it is a very different sort of creature with an entirely different (and rather grand) history.
I’m writing about the hyrax, a tiny tusked grazing creature with certain anachronistic features of earlier mammals (such as an unique dentition and poorly developed internal temperature regulation ). Hyraxes are the only living members of the family Procaviidae, itself the only extant family of the order Hyracoidea. Hyracoids are rare and unusual today, found only in niche ecosystems, but 40 million years ago they were among the dominant grazers in Africa. We’ll get back to the paleontological history of the hyrax family at the end of the article, but for now here’s an overview of the living hyraxes.
Found in rocky and mountainous area of the Sahara and the Middle East, hyraxes are equipped with sweat glands on the tough rubbery pads of their feet. This helps them keep cool and gives them traction on the steep cliffs where they dwell. Additionally they have sophisticated kidneys which help minimize water consumption in their arid rocky homes. Among the small mammals, Hyraxes, uniquely, possess multi-chambered stomachs capable of digesting plant materials and fibers. Their complicated digestive apparatus makes use of numerous symbiotic bacteria to absorb the nutrients out of the coarse shrubs and weeds they eat. Unlike cows and other artiodactyl ruminants, hydraxes do not chew a cud–however their aggressive tusk gnashing was mistaken for cud-chewing by biblical law-givers so um, I guess they are (incorrectly) not kosher according to Deuteronomy.
Hyraxes are small animals but they have long lives, elaborate social networks, and surprisingly capacious memories (at least according to zoologists and neurophysiologists). I have watched them at the Bronx zoo where they live in an enclosure filled with baboons and ibexes: it is intriguing to see how their miniature society copes with these large aggressive neighbors. The hyrax colony has all sorts of rules and communication protocols dealing with sentries, foragers, and communal huddling for warmth. Their elaborate social behavior (quite lacking in yesterday’s pikas and tomorrow’s groundhogs) makes sense when one looks at their relatives.
As I noted above the Hyracoids were a very diverse and widespread taxonomic order in Africa during the Eocene and Oligocene epochs (55 to 34 million years ago). To quote the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, “the early hyracoids ranged from animals as small as rabbits to ones as large as modern Sumatran rhinoceroses. The fossil skeletons of the early hyracoids indicate that some species were active runners and leapers, while others were heavy, piglike quadrupeds.” In fact these hyracoids, or their immediate ancestors, seem to have been the basal group (which is to say the progenitors) of the paenungulates. DNA sequencing and the fossil record both give compelling evidence for this relationship. This means that the long ago ancestors of the hyraxes–which looked much like today’s hyraxes–were also the grandfather species for the mighty proboscideans—the towering mammoths, the mighty gomphotheres, the mastodons, and the ingenious elephants. Not only that, the early hydracods were also ancestors to the desmostylians, the embrithopods (like the pictured Arsinoitherium), and the gentle sirenians such as dugongs and manatees. When you look at a hyrax you are not looking a tusked groundhog, but at a sophisticated social animal with some giant successful cousins.
The Siphonophorae are a group of marine animals closely related to jellyfish and corals. Like jellyfish, siphonophores are free to move around the ocean. They hunt and capture fish and crustaceans by means of stinging tentacles. However, like adult coral, siphonophores are colony animals. A single siphonophore consists of multiple living animals–some of which are quite different from each other, since they serve different functions in the overall colony. Their unusual nature makes them a focus of the scientific (and philosophical) question of what constitutes an individual organism as opposed to a group of organisms.
The best known siphonophore, the fearsome Portuguese man-of-war, possesses a gas filled bladder from which long colonies of stinging animals hang. Most siphonophores however are not found near the surface. Siphonophore colonies form delicate chains which can be quite long. Some have been recorded to be 130 feet or more in length—substantially longer than the mighty blue whale. Additionally some siphonophores are bioluminescent.
Marine biologists are beginning to think that siphonophores are more prevalent and important than initially believed. Scientists once used nets and tows to capture specimens and calculate overall biomass. These methods broke delicate siphonophores into unidentifiable pieces. Now that biologists are using unmanned submarines to study the ocean, they have been finding many more siphonophores than they expected.