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George Ellory Hale was the sickly (and only) child of a wealthy Chicago elevator magnate. At an early age Hale showed an affinity for science and quickly began thinking of astronomy in much deeper terms than the mere cataloging and plotting of stars (which was the direction of the discipline when he began his career). In 1889, as he was traveling on a Chicago streetcar, Hale had an epiphany about how to build a machine to photograph and analyze the sun. He thereafter invented the spectroheliograph, which revolutionized stellar physics, and he operated the first spectroheliograph from his private observatory in his parents’ backyard. Hale was a master of studying light in order to understand the physical characteristics and chemical composition of stars, which made him one of the first (if not the first) people to be officially called an astrophysicist.
Because of his obsession with starlight, Hale was also obsessed with building telescopes. His dual ties to the world of academic astronomy (he studied at MIT) and the world of business wealth gave him a unique ability to put together observatories and institutions. Throughout the course of his life, Hale was instrumental in building four of the world’s largest telescopes (each telescope substantially outsizing the previous one).
Working as a professor and department head for the University of Chicago, he first spearheaded the creation of the Charles T. Yerkes Observatory at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin which featured a 40 inch refracting telescope (the largest refractor ever used for scientific discovery). When his plans outgrew the University of Chicago’s budgetary constraints, Hale joined forces with the Carnegie Institute to build a sixty inch reflecting telescope at Mt. Wilson Solar Observatory near Pasadena. In 1908, this telescope, the largest in the world, was operational, but Hale was already building a 100 inch reflecting scope. This larger scope became world famous when Edwin Hubble used it to demonstrate that the universe is expanding. Hale was still not done: he laid plans and institutional groundwork for the 200 inch reflector at Mount Palomar. Although Hale died before the Palomar scope was complete, the final observatory more than fulfilled his vision. The Palomar telescope was the world’s most important observatory between 1948 and 1992.
Because this is a short article I have glossed over the technical, scientific, and administrative hurdles faced by Hale in creating these telescopes, but, suffice to say the challenges were daunting. Each scope was accompanied by breakthroughs in engineering, architecture, and material science.
Hale was not content to merely create 4 of the world’s largest telescopes. He was also one of the founding trustees at California Institute of Technology. Hale’s contacts and savvy were one of the fundamental reasons that Caltech so quickly moved to International prominence (and maintained its status as one of the world’s foremost scientific institutions).
Hale was an indefatigable scientist, administrator, and thinker who accomplished a huge amount in his life. His far-sighted observatories and his pioneering work in astrophysics laid the groundwork for humankind’s most profound discoveries about the actual nature of the universe. However Hale suffered terribly from neurological and psychological problems. He was sometimes incapacitated by headaches, insomnia, and a horrible ringing noise. Throughout his adult life he consulted with an elf or demon which appeared to him when the ringing in his head reached an unbearable pitch. Psychologists and biographers have argued that this visitation was not actually a hallucination but rather a sort of allegorical figure used by Hale to personify his manic-depression. Hale’s writings (and the accounts of those around him) cast doubt upon this interpretation. He spent increasing amounts of time in sanitariums and he was fully institutionalized for the last years of his life. Many biographers add this detail as a sort of embarrassing footnote to an otherwise glorious life of innovation and discovery. Perhaps it should not be a dismissive footnote—Hale’s madness and his greatness went together. Lesser men—or saner ones—could probably not have built huge eyes with which humankind stared into the darkness of deep space.
The largest body of fresh water in China is Lake Poyang in Jianxi Province. The size of the lake fluctuates tremendously between the wet season when the lake’s surface area is 4400 square kilometers and the dry season when it shrinks down to 1000 square kilometers. So every year Lake Poyang shrinks from being the size of Utah’s Great Salk Lake into being the size of Lake Champlain. Lake Poyang is the southern wintering ground of a huge number of migratory birds. It is also the site of what was reputedly the world’s largest naval battle. The north side of the lake is treacherous to navigate and it is said that more than 100 ships have vanished there in the past hundred years. There is a temple on the northern shore of the lake named Laoye Miao (temple of the Old Fellow) and locals call the waters near the temple the “death area” and the “demon horns” because so many ships are lost in that area.
Lake Poyang did not always exist. In 400 AD it was an inhabited plain along the Gan River, however when the Yangtze River switched courses the entire plain flooded. Located halfway along the Yangtze, the lake has great strategic importance.
In the middle of the fourteenth century, the Yuan dynasty had lost control of China. Various groups of rebels fought each other to seize the throne of heaven. By summer of 1363 AD there were two main contenders for control of China, Zhu Yuanzhang, the charismatic but ugly leader of the red turbans, and Chen Youliang, the king of Duhan which controlled the most powerful fleet on the Yantze. The former had a smaller force of maneuverable ships while the latter had greater numbers of men (Chen’s navy was believed to have had more than 600,000 men) and a large number of huge tower boats—literal floating fortresses. The total number of combatants on the lake is reckoned to have numbered over 850,000 men.
Unfortunately for Chen Youliang, the battle started as the lake began to dry out. To prevent the dauntless troops of Zhu Yuanzhang from scaling the tower boats with hooks and ladders, Chen ordered his boats to hold close formation, but this turned out to be ruinous since Zhu launched fire boats into the consolidated line. Hundreds of thousands of sailors died in the horrible fiery battle, and Zhu Yuangzhang went on to found the Ming dynasty, one of China’s greatest dynasties.
Over the centuries, the lake itself kept claiming ships at an astonishing rate. Some of the stories are quite colorful. In 1945 a Japanese ship loaded with plundered treasure sank almost instantly, drowning all 200 sailors and a large treasure. A team of Japanese divers attempted to salvage the wreck but all the divers drowned except for the expedition leader who went permanently insane. After the war, several members of an American team also drowned. On just one day, August 3rd, 1985, thirteen ships foundered or sank.
Some people have tried to ascertain what makes the lake so treacherous. Some experts believe that a huge sunken sandbank tends to cause whirlpools and unexpected currents. Local legend is more inventive. According to myth, an immense capricious turtle lives beneath the lake. Although the turtle often sinks ships, he can also be benevolent. The story of how the Laoye Miao temple came to be built is that the turtle intervened in the great naval battle of 1368 by directly rescuing Zhu Yuangzhang. When Zhu took the title of Hongwu emperor he returned and built the temple to the ancient turtle.Although boats are still vanishing today, it is a less bigger problem than the vanishing of the lake itself. The migratory birds are relentlessly poached and the river fish are going extinct from overfishing and industrial waste. A more direct threat comes from the great three gorges dam upstream on the Yangtze. Because of the immense dam the lake appears to be drying out, and in January of 2012 it only had a surface area of 200 square kilometers. If the situation continues, the enigmatic and treacherous lake may go back to being a dry plain like it was in 400 AD.
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 great Southern Ocean which swirls in a clockwise circle around Antarctica is home to many of the Earth’s largest animals. Blue whales come here to gorge on vast schools of krill. Among the icebergs and the towering waves, southern elephant seals (the largest member of the order Carnivora) fight duels to build their harems, and highly intelligent killer whales hunt together in pods. There are populations of sperm whales living in the Southern ocean as well and these leviathans dive to the cold floor of the world hunting for the world’s largest mollusk, a huge cephalopod which can only be found in the Southern Ocean. In fact this bizarre creature, the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) is also the world’s largest invertebrate. Also known as the Antarctic squid or the giant cranch squid, the colossal squid lives in the abyssal depths. Unlike other squid, the colossal squid does not have tentacles–its powerful arms are studded with sharp hooks (much like the long-extinct belemnites). Some of these hooks swivel while others have three barbs in the manner of a fish spear.
The measurements of the colossal squid are staggering. Its eye alone (the largest of any known creature) measures 27 centimetres (11 in). A fully grown adult squid is estimated to be 12–15 metres (39–49ft) long. Although giant squid have longer tentacles, the colossal squid a long stout mantles and are thus much more massive. Their upper weight limits are unknown but are well over 500 kg (+1000 lbs).
The colossal squid is believed to be an ambush predator, which lurks in the depths waiting for chaetognatha, other squid, and benthic fish (such as the Patagonian toothfish) to pounce upon. It is hypothesized that they have a slow metabolism and do no need great reserves of food (unlike the energetic endothermic sperm whales which prey on them). The colossal squid are believed to be sexually dimorphic—the females become much larger than the males.
There is a reason that so much of this article is couched in ambivalent language such as “estimated”, “believed” and “probably”: colossal squid live in an environment where humankind can barely venture. The colossal squid are fast enough and clever enough to usually evade our nets, lines, and traps (although fishermen trying to catch Patagonian toothfish hooked a 450 kg (990 lb) specimen which was about 39 feet (13 m) long). Additionally our submarines and submersible robots are too slow and noticeable too stalk the squid in the abyssal depths. Other ocean creatures do not suffer from the same problem. Juvenile colossal squid are eaten by beaked whales, elephant seals, sharks, toothfish, and even albatrosses, however the adult squid are so large that only massive sleeper sharks and giant sperm whales can threaten them. Sperm whales are often covered with scars from their battles with the giants but the whales easily have the upper hand. Sperm whale stomachs have been found filled with hooks and beaks (which coincidentally were much larger than those found on the largest squid specimens recovered by humans to date).
In the summer of 1923, Kan Chuen Pao, unearthed an enormous skull from the baking Gobi desert of Mongolia. Pao was a member of a paleontology expedition led by Roy Chapman Andrews, a world famous explorer, adventurer, and naturalist who, during the course of his career, rose from being a janitor at the American Museum of Natural History to being its director. The skull they found was an enigma—the creature was a mammal with immensely powerful jaws but blunt peg-like teeth. No substantial bones were found other than the skull sans jaw (nor have any further specimens ever been discovered). The skull was discovered in sediments deposited during the late Eocene, the sweltering summer epoch when most extant mammalian orders evolved, so it is probably 36 to 40 odd million years old. Andrews was immediately of the opinion that it was a huge carnivore, but what sort of creature was it really?
The creature was named Andrewsarchus mongoliensis in honor of Adrews and his expedition. Andrewsarchus may have been the largest mammalian carnivore ever (although short faced bears might have been larger). The one skull, currently in New York, measures 83 cm (33 inches) long and 56 cm (22 inches)wide–which suggests the animal may have been 3.4 meters (11 feet) long and nearly 2 meters (6 feet) tall at the shoulders. Such a creature could weigh more than 1000 kg (2200 lb).
But Adrewsarchus may not have been a carnivore: ever since the beginning of the jazz age, Paleontologists have argued about the monster’s diet. Andrewsarchus lived along the coast of the eastern Tethys Ocean, a sea which was dried out and destroyed when the Indian subcontinent barreled into Asia during the late Eocene/Early Oligocene.
Some scientists believe the creature was a hunter who captured the giant land animals of the time. Other scientists believe the animal was a scavenger which lived on the rotting carcasses of primitive whales and beached sea turtles. Another group feels that the creature fed on huge beds of shellfish, and a final school holds that the animal was even larger than believed and was at least part-herbivore!
The taxonomy of Andrewsarchus is equally confusing. The great skull was initially classified as a giant creodont (an extinct order of alpha-predators which share an ancestor with today’s carnivore). The first scientific paper about the creature by great paleontologist and…um eugenicist Henry Fairfield Osborn states, “An outline sketch of the skull was sent in a letter to the Museum, from which Dr. W. D. Matthew immediately observed its real affinity to the primitive Creodonta of the family Mesonychidae.”
Later scientists have been less certain about lots of things than Osborn was and Andrewsarchus’ place in the mammalian family is now uncertain. A consensus is emerging that the great creature shared common ancestors with the artiodactyls (like hippos, deer, and pigs). Perhaps its heritage provides insights into the link between the artiodactyls and their close (yet oh so distant) cousins the whales.
Whatever the case is, these giant hoofed creatures with their immense powerful maws must have been amazing and terrifying to behold. Their fate seems to have been sealed as the Tethys closed and the Gobi basin dried out, but whenever I think of the harrowing deserts of Mongolia and China, I imagine their fearsome toothy spirits towering over the other strange ghosts of that haunted place.
A previous Ferrebeekeeper post described the largest living bivalve mollusk–the magnificent giant clam which is indigenous to the South Pacific. However there are other large bivalve mollusks out there which are nearly as remarkable (and possibly even stranger looking). One of these creatures, the geoduck clam (Panopea generosa), causes a unique amount of controversy, pride, consternation, and outright greed along the Northwest coast of North America where it lives
Geoducks are the largest burrowing clams in the world. Specimens weighing up to three pounds (0.5–1.5 kg) are widely known and 15 kilogram monsters are alleged to exist. Although the clams’ shells can grow quite large–sometimes exceeding 20 cm (8 inches) in length–the outstanding features of geoducks are their obscene siphons/necks which regularly reach 1 metre (3.3 ft) long (and can reputedly grow to twice that length). Thanks to these long necks, geoducks can bury themselves deep in the coastal sands while still filtering huge amounts of plankton rich water through their digestive system. . Geoduck (which is apparently pronounced “gooey duck”) is a word from the Lushootseed language, a tongue spoken by the Nisqually tribe. It means “dig deep” although the Chinese name for the clams “xiàngbábàng” (which means “elephant-trunk clams”) seems equally apt.
Geoducks of Wasshington and British Colombia do not have many natural enemies (although apparently in Alaskan waters they are preyed on by sea otters and dogfish). If left undisturbed, the bivalves can live to the fabulous age of a century-and-a-half. Lately however, the geoducks, which dwell in giant cold-water colonies beneath Puget Sound, are being gobbled up en masse by humankind. Although Anglo-Saxon settlers to the Pacific Northwest found the suggestive sight of the clams to be unbearable, the mollusks are hugely popular in China and Asia, where price can exceed US$168/lb (US$370/kg). Chinese diners believe that the geoduck’s…manly shape indicates that the unpreposessing mollusk will act as an aphrodisiac for those who consume its flesh. Price has shot upwards as China’s economy has grown.
In order to cash in on this bonanza, aquaculturists are attempting to stake out larger and larger swaths of coastline as geoduck farms. Such use of the tidelands causes consternation to real estate developers. Not only do developers object to the unaesthetic appearance of PVC pipes used as nurseries for juvenile geoducks, but the interests of both parties are entirely opposite. Coastal land development involves bulkheaded beachfronts, deforested land, and nitrogen waste from gardens and septic systems—all of which are inimical to successful geoduck beds.
As the conflict rages on, some people (figuratively!) embrace the geoduck and its strange appearance for non-financial reasons. The Evergreen State College of Olympia, Washington has adopted the remarkable burrowing clam as a mascot. Although the school’s official seal features a conifer tree, the unofficial coat of arms features a geoduck rampant d’or on a rondel azure (or however you say that in heraldry speak). Additionally the school’s teams are all named the geoducks and they actually have a guy dressed up like a giant filter feeding clam to root for them.
The largest marsupial known to science is the now extinct diprotodon. Also known as the giant wombat or the rhinoceros wombat, this mighty marsupial grazer stood nearly 2 meters (6 feet) tall and stretched 3 metres (9.8 feet) from nose to tail. The animals flourished throughout much of the Pleistocene. From 1.6 million years ago until about 40,000 years ago, herds of Diprotodonts roamed across all of Australia. These giant wombats were indeed closely related to today’s wombats and koalas: jointly such creatures make up the Vombatiforme suborder Considering how formidable the bulldozer-like living wombat is, diprotodons must have indeed been like rhinoceroses and they probably occupied a similar top spot in the Australian web of life.
Unfortunately, like a substantial portion of Australia’s mega-fauna, the giant wombats disappeared shortly after humankind reached the island continent. The creatures apparently were destroyed by some combination of climate change, human hunting, and slash-and-burn land management. Aboriginal dreamtime lore makes extensive mention of a mighty furred beast called the bunyip–which has led anthropologists and paleontologists to speculate that the diprotodon has lived on in oral tradition for tens of thousands of years.
The magnificent American Bison (Bison bison) was very nearly exterminated by hunters, soldiers, and politicians, but the bison did not come nearly as close to extinction as its closest relative, the wisent (Bison bonasus). Wisents are the largest native land animal in Europe today; an average wisent measures 1.8 to 2.2 m (6 to 7 ft) tall, and weighs up to 1000 kg (more than a ton). Although similar to American bison, the wisent is slightly smaller with larger horns and a hairier tail. Whereas bison graze grass, wisents browse the forest–and the two animals therefore have different postures and necks. Wisents once roamed Eurasia from England to far eastwards of the Volga River where they were hunted by Caspian Tigers and Asiatic Lions. The wisent herds also ranged north as far as northern Sweden and south to Italy.
In prehistoric times, wisents were a mainstay of European megafauna and beautiful cave paintings (among the first known artistic achievements of humankind) often portray the mighty creatures, but, as humanity burgeoned in Europe, the wisent declined. Starting in Gaul in the 8th century, whole populations of the shaggy giants gradually disappeared. The creature vanished from northern Sweden in the 11th century, and then from England in the 12th. Tiny herds survived in the Ardennes forest and the Vosges Mountains until Frenchmen finished off these remnants in the 15th century.
The wisents’ best friends turned out to be the kings of Poland, devoted big game hunters who proclaimed a death sentence on anyone poaching the mighty ruminants within the kingdom. Sadly though, the Polish Crown suffered…setbacks in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although the Russian tsars (who seized the Eastern forests of Poland) tried to keep the last herds of wisent alive, by the twentieth century, the animals survived only in zoos, the remote Caucasus, and in the primeval depths of Poland’s Białowieża Forest. The ancient trees of Białowieża (and the animals living under them) remained largely untouched until World War I, when the region was captured by Germans, who built a railroad and timber mills there. Within four years the remaining herd of 600 wisents was slaughtered. When the Germans left only 9 of the beasts remained and the last of this tiny herd was killed in 1919 (probably by Soviet poachers). The last wild wisent was slaughtered less than a decade later in the Western Caucasus, where a few hardy individuals had somehow managed to survive.
In the late twenties only about 50 wisents remained alive, all of which lived in various zoos. Fortunately an early pioneer of wildlife conservation stepped in to save the dying species. Heinz Heck, the director of the Munich Zoo, established the first studbook for non-domestic animals and organized a groundbreaking breeding program to bring the wisent back from the brink (Heck was a determined and far-sighted man who also tried to personally resurrect several species of extinct megafauna—but we’ll deal with that quixotic quest another time). Thanks to Heck’s ongoing efforts, captured populations of wisents started to grow and the animals were reintroduced into Białowieża in 1951. The reintroduced wisents burgeoned and the forest is now home to more than 800 European bison. Wisents have also been reintroduced to protected parks in Russia (including the western Caucasus) and herds can now be found in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Latvia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Spain. Germany and the Netherlands hope to reintroduce the animal in the near future—perhaps someday the wisent will find its way back to Scandinavia, France, and even Great Britain.
Lake Baikal in Siberia has a surface area of 12,248 sq miles (approximately equal to Belgium). For a better comparison, Lake Superior has a surface area of 31,700 square miles. However that comparison is in no way apt. Lake Baikal is prodigiously deep. It lies on one of the world’s great rift valleys. To its west lies the Eurasian plate and to its east is the Amur plate. The two plates are springing away from each other at 4 millimeters per year. In the void between lies Lake Baikal, which is an astonishing 5,380 feet deep. The 5,700 cubic miles of water contained by the lake compromises twenty percent of the world’s fresh water (not counting ice or water vapor). It could easily hold all of the water from all of the Great Lakes. Not only is the lake deep, it is ancient. Lake Baikal is more than twenty-five million years old, and may be one of the world’s oldest lakes.
Lake Baikal contains thousands of species of plants and animals, most of which live no where else on earth. There is a freshwater seal, the nerpa, which lives on golomyanka, a translucent abyssal fish famous for decomposing almost instantly to fat and bones when exposed to the sun. There are omuls, lovely small salmonids, caught and smoked by humans around the lake, and there are huge Baikal sturgeons. The lake is ringed by forested mountains which host brown bear, lynx, wolves, foxes, and wolverines (and maybe the occasional Siberian tiger). These predators live on mountain goats, reindeer, white tailed deer, elk, moose, musk deer, Siberian roe, and wild boar. The small mammals and birds are too numerous to name.
The lake’s true oddities are invertebrates which live in the depths. Far beneath the surface, forests of Lubomirskia sponges attain towering heights as they branch into strange shapes. Benthic and pelagic infusoria are endemic, as are huge predatory swimming flatworms which are covered with suckers. Shrimp and crustaceans abound. It has been estimated that the biomass of crustaceans in the lake exceeds 1,800,000 tons. Turbellarian worms, snails and amphipods are also diverse.
The Lake is the alleged site of one of the world’s greatest haunted treasures. Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak, was a tsarist hero who won the golden saber for valor at the battle of Port Arthur. After the Tsar and his family were executed by Bolsheviks, Kolchak assumed command of the imperial armies during the disastrous civil war. A substantial detachment of his troops rescued the Empire’s gold reserves (an estimated 1600 tons of gold) and were carrying them across Siberia during the brutal winter of 1919/1920 when temperatures dropped below -60 °F. Legend has it that both the gold and the troops found their way into Lake Baikal and have never emerged.