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In both Hindu and Buddhist mythology a group of beautiful & ethereal female spirits inhabit the skies. These elegant beings are known as apsaras. They are lesser goddesses of water and clouds. In classical Indian literature apsaras are often portrayed dancing seductively in the courts of the gods or married to ganharvas—nature spirits who play celestial music for the gods. Both groups of entities are particularly connected with the court of Indra, the god of the skies and storm, and also king of the gods (although that title is less absolute in Hinduism than in other cosmologies).
In many myths, apsaras are cast as supporting characters. They are roughly analogous to nymphs and naiads in Greek mythology or angels in Abrahamic myths. Indra constantly felt threatened by great ascetics who amassed titanic spiritual and magical power through physical austerity. One of his favorite ways of dealing with these powerful yogis was to send apsaras to seduce them—which is why many heroes of Indian myth have a sexy apsara as a mother and a crazed hermit as a father! In addition to being masterful dancers apsaras could alter their form at will (although I can’t think of any story where they were anything other than beautiful). They also ruled over the vicissitudes of gaming and gambling.
Apsaras can be recognized because of their tiny waists and their pronounced feminine attributes. Usually they are pictured dancing gracefully, clad (or partially clad) in lovely silk skirts and bedecked with gold jewelry and precious gems. Often they are gamboling in the skies or playing in the water. Additionally apsaras tend to be crowned with gorgeous ornate headdresses.
Sculptures of apsaras are frequently a principle component of classical Indian temples and the gorgeous undulating female forms remain a mainstay of Indian art. These celestial dancers were also particularly esteemed in Southeast Asia. Classical art and architecture from Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos frequently features the lovely spirits. Recently a controversy has broken out in the Cambodian community involving contemporary paintings of apsaras which some critics deem too racy for refined tastes. Ascetics beware!
Velvet ants (Mutillidae) are not actually ants at all—the insects are classified as wasps even though female velvet ants do not have wings and appear to be tiny furry colorful ants. The Mutillidae family of wasps—which is made up of more than 3000 species– illustrates how closely wasps, bees, and ants are actually related. Male velvet ants look nothing like the females but are much larger winged creatures resembling other wasps. So great is the sexual dimorphism between the genders that it took entomologists a tremendously long time to pair the females with the males, and in many species the connection has still not been made by science. The genders do however both share a ridged structure called a stridulitrum, which can be rubbed or struck to produce chirps and squeaks for communication.
Female velvet ants are notable not just for their colorful fur but for their tremendously powerful sting which is so painful that they are nicknamed “cow killers.” Male velvet ants look like wasps but do not sting. The exoskeletons of velvet ants are tremendously hard to such an extent that some entomologists have reportedly found it difficult to drive pins through specimens. The dense hard coating helps the females invade the underground burrows of larger bees and wasps which the velvet ants sting and lay eggs on. When the velvet ant larvae hatch they feed on the paralyzed victims before metamorphosing into adult form and venturing into the world.
Velvet ants are found in warmer parts of the world particularly deserts. The majority of species are red and black but a variety of other colors are known including blue, gold, orange, and white. Unlike the social ants and termites, velvet ants are generally solitary, coming together only to reproduce with their strangely alien mates.
Regular readers know how much I esteem turkeys. Unfortunately I worry that my writings are not winning additional admirers for these astonishing birds. It is time to play a trump card and reveal one of the great bizarre strengths of turkeys. They are capable of virgin birth.
Before you spring up in alarm and start shouting, allow me to present a miniature biology lesson. Parthenogenesis is a form of asexual reproduction. Some female organisms are capable of producing an ovum which develops into a new individual without being fertilized by a male gamete. In these cases, the mother contributes her genetic material to the offspring. Although natural parthenogenesis is frequently observed in rotifers, insects, mollusks, crustaceans, and flatworms, this method of reproduction is much less common among vertebrates. However a few species of fish, amphibians, and reptiles are known to reproduce via parthenogenesis (movie-goers may recall that this happened to the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.) The turkey is very unusual in being a bird which can reproduce through this means (or at least we think it is unusual—perhaps parthenogenesis is more common among birds then we realize but we just don’t know about it except in settings like farms where it becomes obvious). Chickens can also produce self-fertilized eggs but they almost never develop beyond embryonic stages, whereas female turkeys can and frequently do produce living offspring which lack fathers.
Parthenogenesis occurs in turkeys through the doubling of haploid cells. Biologists have discovered that the rate at which this occurs can be increased by selective breeding. Poults produced by parthenogenesis are capable of growing into healthy viable toms indistinguishable from toms with more traditional parentage. You will note that I wrote “toms”—all turkeys conceived via parthenogenesis were created from doubled haploids and are are homogametic. Consequently they are all all male. (This will leave mammal enthusiasts scratching their heads–since female mammals are homogametic and have two x chromosomes. However for birds and for some reptiles, males have two Z chromosomes and thus are the homogametic sex. In such species, females have one Z and one W chromosome and are the heterogametic sex.)
Mammals do not naturally utilize parthenogenesis as a method of reproduction. Certain portions of mammalian genes consist of imprinted regions where portions of genetic data from one parent or the other are inactivated. Mammals born of parthenogenesis must therefore overcome the developmental abnormalities caused by having two sets of maternally imprinted genes. In normal circumstances this is impossible and embryos created by parthenogenesis are spontaneously rejected from the womb. Biology researchers have now found ways to surmount such obstacles and a fatherless female mouse was successfully created in Tokyo in 2004. With genetic tinkering, human parthenogenesis is also biologically feasible. Before his research was discredited and he was dismissed from his position, the South Korean (mad?) scientist Hwang Woo-Suk unknowingly created human embryos via parthenogenesis. To quote a news article by Chris Williams, “In the course of research, which culminated with false claims that stem cells had been extracted from a cloned human embryo, Hwang’s team succeeded in extracting cells from eggs that had undergone parthenogenesis… The ability to extract embryonic stem cells produced by parthenogenesis means they will be genetically identical to the egg donor. The upshot is a supply of therapeutic cells for women which won’t be rejected by their immune system, without the need for cloning.”
All of which is fascinating to biology researchers (and those who would seek greatly prolonged life via biogenetic technologies), however it seems that in nature, the turkey is the most complicated creature capable of virgin birth.