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The Atacama Desert of Chile is the driest place on Earth. The desert is bounded in the west by the Chilean Coastal Range, which blocks moisture from the Pacific. On the east of the Atacama run the mighty Andes Mountains which catch almost all the rainfall from the Amazon Basin. Thus trapped between ranges, the desert receives 4 inches of rain every thousand years. Because of the dryness, people are very sparse in the Atacama: they are found only at rare oases or as desiccated (but well preserved) mummies lying in pits.
The high altitude, dryness, and lack of nearby cities (with their lights and radio waves) make the Atacama a paradise for astronomers. On a mountaintop 8000 feet up on the Atacama side of the Andes, engineers and scientists are working to put together one of the wonders of this age.
The Giant Magellan Telescope (hereafter the “GMT”) will be a miracle of engineering. When it is completed in 2019 it will be larger than any telescope on Earth. The scope is so giant that it will be mounted in a huge open, moving building (rather than the gun-turret-like buildings observatories are traditionally housed in). No organization on Earth is capable of making a mirror large enough for the necessary purposes, so seven immense 8.4 meter mirrors are being used together to create a single optical surface with a collecting area of 24.5 meters (80 feet in diameter). The mirrors are the pinnacle of optics: if they were scaled up to the size of the continental United States, the difference between the highest and the lowest point would only be an inch.
The scope will be much more powerful than the Hubble telescope and take much clearer pictures despite being within the atmosphere of Earth. In the past decade, telescope makers have used cutting edge engineering to compensate for atmospheric distortions. To do so they fire multiple lasers grouped around the primary mirrors high into the atmosphere. These beams of light excite sodium atoms in the sky which fluoresce—creating tiny “stars” of known wavelength, which serve as points of reference for the adaptive optics. The official website of the GMT further explains the mechanism used to counteract atmospheric turbulence once these benchmarks are obtained:
The telescope’s secondary mirrors are actually flexible. Under each secondary mirror surface, there are hundreds of actuators that will constantly adjust the mirrors to counteract atmospheric turbulence. These actuators, controlled by advanced computers, will transform twinkling stars into clear steady points of light. It is in this way that the GMT will offer images that are 10 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope.
The telescope is designed to solve some of the fundamental mysteries about the universe. Scientists hope it will help them find out about the nature of dark matter and dark energy (which are thought to make up most of the mass of the universe). Astronomers also hope to find out how the first galaxies formed and (perhaps) to ascertain the ultimate fate of the universe. Most excitingly of all, the telescope should be large enough to peek at some of the exoplanets we are discovering by the thousands. If life exists anywhere near us, the GMT should provide us with compelling evidence in the next twenty years.
The National Science Foundation was initially going to contribute heavily to the telescope but, since the United States Government has become indifferent to science and knowledge, other institutions have been forced to pick up the slack. The scope is being built by a cooperative effort between The University of Chicago, The University of Texas at Austin, The Australian National University, The Carnegie Institution for Science, Harvard University, The Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, the Smithsonian Institution, Texas A&M University, & The University of Arizona (so you can probably help out by donating to any of these institutions, particularly the lovable University of Chicago).
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.
Continuing our Halloween theme of undead monsters, we visit the great northern forests of Canada and the Great Lakes. During winter, these frozen woodlands were said to be the haunt of a terrifying undead spirit of malicious appetite–the dreadful wendigo. Although the wendigo has become a mainstay of modern horror, legends of the spirit predate Europeans. The wendigo myth originated among the Algonquian people, who believed it was a manitou (powerful spirit being) associated with hunger, cold, and starvation. For these hunter-gathering people the monster was shaped out of the greatest fear in their hearts and took the form of the ultimate taboo.
The Algonquian culture consisted of hundreds of heterogeneous tribes stretching in a northern arc from New England, up through the Great Lakes to the eastern Rockies. Some of the southern tribes cultivated wild rice, pumpkins, corn, and beans, but the northern tribes were hunter gatherers. Bad hunting seasons could cause terrible winters among the northern people, and whole villages would sometimes starve to death. The wendigo myth seems to originate from such cold lean times of abject hunger when, in the extremity of desperation, starving people would resort to cannibalism.
Although different tribes had different traditions, most stories describe the primal wendigo as a gaunt humanoid giant with decayed skin and long yellow fangs. The creature’s eyes glowed in the dark and it was always hungry for human flesh. These huge monsters could be heard howling in the forest on winter nights and were said to have powerful dark magic, but wild wendigo spirits outside in the wind were only half the story. If a person broke the ultimate Algonquian taboo, and decided to prefer cannibalism to starvation, he or she would begin to turn into a Wendigo. After eating human flesh, a person’s humanity would disappear and their heart would become cold. No food could slake a wendigo’s appetite except for human meat (and even that could not be eaten in sufficient quantity to fill up). Monsters of unnatural appetite, these transformed wendigos would bring death and ruin to all other people unless they fled into the wilderness or were killed by a medicine person.
It is here that the wendigo myth is most fascinating, but most muddled. In the wilds of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and central Canada, the frontier authorities of the nineteenth century sometimes ran across wendigo murders. Most famously a Cree trapper killed and ate his family although he was not far from provisions. Another shaman was tried and executed for traveling the countryside killing people suspected of being wendigos. The anthropology community of the day was fascinated by this sort of thing and proclaimed “wendigo psychosis” to be a real thing–although the fact that the “condition” was localized to a particular time and place (and has never more been seen since) makes it seem more like a made-up mental illness for popularizing horrifying stories.
If wendigo psychosis has mercifully gone away, wendigos themselves have gone mainstream. A wendigo with the power of resurrection was the (terrifying) villain of one of Steven King’s scariest novels and the hungry winter spirits have proliferated ever since in cartoons, movies, and scary literature. What could be scarier than the empty woods in winter or an empty larder?
The Australian giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama) is the world’s largest cuttlefish. Specimens can measure up to 50 centimeters in length and weigh up to 10 kilograms (23 pounds). Like other cuttlefish, the giant cuttlefish are masters of color transformation and can use the chromatophores (special transformative muscle cells) in their skin to instantly change the hue, reflectivity, polarization, and even the shape of their skin. They use this ability for hunting, hiding from predators, and for spectacular mating displays. Indeed, the giant cuttlefish is a remarkable animal in many ways, but, above all, it is notable for its operatic sex life!
Sepia apama ranges in all coastal habitats from Brisbane on the Pacific to Shark Bay on the Indian Ocean (effectively the entire southern coast of the continent). Thanks to jet propelled speed, color-transforming ability, sharp eyesight, high intelligence, and lightning fast grab jaws (which are located on two extendable arms), these cuttlefish are terrifyingly effective hunters of fish and crustaceans. Australian giant cuttlefish from different regions of the coast do not interbreed, even though they are genetically the same species. Like humans, the giant cuttlefish seem to form different sorts of societies with different mating customs: for example the giant cuttlefish of the Spenser Gulf region are unique (apparently among all cuttlefish) in that they join together for a spawning aggregation in the waters immediately around Point Lowly.
Unlike humans, there are eleven male cuttlefish for every single female giant cuttlefish! Large dominant male cuttlefish carve out territories with aggressive posturing and insanely bright flashing color displays. Smaller males (who do not wish to be ripped apart), distract the alpha male cuttlefish by adapting the color schemes of female cuttlefish and courting him. They then abruptly change color and pay (rapid) court to the polyandrous females. The female stores sperm packets from several males and she chooses the paternity of her offspring only after she lays her eggs. Cuttlefish are semelparous—they mate only once, and then they immediately die. The whole beautiful horrifying op-art orgy in the waters around Point Lowly is of paramount importance—and is also reckoned to be one of the unrivaled diving spectacles of the world.
Unfortunately all of the Spenser Gulf cuttlefish tend to be in one place at once. Since they only reproduce one time, they are very vulnerable to fisherman, who, up until the mid nineties, descended upon the area, captured most of the cuttlefish, and chopped them into bate for snappers. When one cohort was removed, the next was seriously attenuated!
Fortunately the spawning waters of Spenser Gulf are now a protected refuge, yet hydrological changes, agricultural run-off, and industrial development could still threaten the entire population. Perhaps the other Australian Giant Cuttlefish (who conduct their romantic affairs in a more disparate manner) are on to something.
Chinese mythology features numerous animal-spirits with magical powers. One of the most bizarre is a shen—a giant clam/mollusk monster capable of creating illusory landscapes and cities. Classical Chinese texts use the word “shen” to describe large bivalve mollusks such as oysters, clams, or mussels; and, indeed, such shells seem to have had an (unknown) magical usage in funerals and sacrifices. Later texts emphasized the Shen as a mythical giant oyster/clam which was the source of huge magical pearls. By the middle ages the shen had evolved into its current manifestation—an immense clam-like spirit creature which could blow bubbles from its tubes which gave the illusion of towering cities and fantastical fairylands.
I wish I could write more about the shen—where it came from, what it wants, and so forth, but there isn’t much information on the beast. Some sources seem to suggest that it is affiliated with dragons (the protean universal mythological being of Chinese culture) or with nāgas—magical serpent people. When gifted with magical powers of illusion these beings are imagined to hide themselves as big green clams (from which base they weave fairy-like illusions for unknown purposes). Slightly more practical individuals have explained the illusory cities supposedly produced by the shen as the Fata Morgana, an optic illusion caused by thermal inversion which distorts ships, islands, and detritus at the edge of the offing into weird grotesque towers and blobs. If anybody knows anything else about the mysterious shen I would love to hear it!
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 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.
The world’s largest hornet is the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia). An individual specimen can measure up to 5 cm (2 inches) long and has a wingspan of 7.6 cm (3 inches). Giant hornets have blunt wide heads which look different from those of other wasps, hornets, and bees and they are colored yellow orange and brown.
The Asian giant hornet ranges from Siberia down across the Chinese coast into Indochina and lives as far west as India, however the hornet is most common in the rural parts of Japan where it is known as the giant sparrow bee. The sting of the Asian giant hornet is as oversized as the great insect is. Within the hornet’s venom is an enzyme, mastoparan, which is capable of dissolving human tissue. Masato Ono, an entomologist unlucky enough to be stung by the creature described the sensation a “a hot nail through my leg.” Although the sting of a normal honey bee can kill a person who is allergic to bees, the sting of an Asian giant hornet can kill a person who has no allergies–and about 70 unfortunate souls are killed by the hornets every year.
Armed with their size and their fearsome sting, Asian giant hornets are hunters of other large predatory insects like mantises and smaller (i.e. all other) hornets. The giant hornets do not digest their prey but masticate it into a sticky paste to feed to their own offspring. A particular favorite prey is honey bee larvae, and since European honey bees have no defense against the giant wasps, all efforts by Japanese beekeepers to introduce European bees have met with failure. Japanese honey bees however have evolved a mechanism (strategy?) to cope with hornet incursion. When a hive of Japanese honey bees detects the pheromones emitted by hunting hornets, a crowd of several hundred bees will form a gauntlet (carefully leaving a space for the hornet to enter). Once the hornet walks into the trap the bees rush on top of it and grasp it firmly. They then begin to vibrate their flight muscles which raises the temperature and produces carbon dioxide. Since giant hornets cannot survive the CO2 levels or high temperatures that honey bees can, the hornets put up a titanic struggle to overcome the mass of bees, killing many in the process. However honey bees have a fanaticism which would do credit to the most ardent practitioner of Bushido, and they usually kill the invaders.
A few weeks ago Ferrebeekeeper featured a post about belemnites, extinct cephalopods from the Mesozoic which teemed in immense schools through the reptile-haunted oceans of that bygone era. Yet belemnites were certainly not the only cephalopods which swam in the Mesozoic seas. Numerous shelled cephalopods—the ammonites—were widespread in every sort of marine habitat. Ammonites are personal favorites of mine so I am not going to write a comprehensive explanation/description of the subclass. Instead I wish to provide you with an idea of how big ammonites could get by providing a few pictures of large ammonite fossils which have been discovered. Imagine these monsters jetting through the water with huge tentacles and big intelligent eyes scanning for giant predatory reptiles and you will have a better idea of the Mesozoic Oceans!