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There are entire species of large mammals living today on Earth which have never been seen alive by humans. Even though they can grow larger than elephants, their numbers and habits are unknown. We might not even know all extant species in the family. These mystery mammals are the beaked whales (family Ziphiidae) masters of deep ocean diving. The family is comprised of at least 21 different species, only 3 of which are well known (thanks to whale hunting in previous centuries). Beaked whales are poorly understood because they are rarely on the surface of the ocean where we can observe them. They are capable of diving more than 1,899 meters (6,230 feet) and can stay underwater for almost an hour and a half. Beaked whales live in the black–down among the underwater seamounts, canyons, and abyssal plains. We only know them from the examination of dead specimens: indeed, for some species of beaked whales that is quite literally true and they have only been seen when dead.
Beaked whales grow to sizes of 4 to 13 metres (13 to 43 ft) depending on the species. They are sexually dimorphic—the males are a different size than the females. Additionally male whales have prominent domed foreheads and a pair of fighting teeth for dueling and sexual display (these teeth do not fully develop in females). Beaked whales feed on squid, and, to a lesser extent, fishes and invertebrates which they capture from the ocean bottom by means of suction. In order to produce this suction effect, the whales have highly nimble tongues and throat grooves.
The most distinctive features of beaked whales (save perhaps from their rostral “beaks”) are the body features which allow them to dive so deeply and then hunt in the dark crushing waters. The lungs of beaked whales collapse at a certain pressure—most likely as a way to minimize the dangers of nitrogen transfer. Their livers and spleens are huge in order to deal with the dangerous metabolic bi-products of prolonged periods when they are unable to breathe. Additionally, their blood and muscle tissue is capable of capturing and storing substantially greater quantities of oxygen than the tissue of other mammals. Beaked whales can pull their pectoral flippers into grooves which run along the sides of their bodies and thus become more streamlined.
In order to find their way in the deep ocean, the whales rely on sophisticated acoustic echo-location organs. Lips behind the blowhole produce high pitched vibrations which bounce off of prey and obstacles. Echoes from these vibrations are then picked up and focused into the whales’ sensory organs by special fat deposits and bone structures. Unfortunately this method of echolocation seems to make beaked whales extremely sensitive to sonar. Resurfacing whales are unable to avoid the amplified sound waves and can suffer injuries to their sensory organs (or even to their large delicate livers). Additionally, it is theorized that Beaked whales may try to resurface too quickly to avoid sonar and therefore risk decompression sickness.
Humankind has also been fishing ever deeper waters as fish stocks crash—which involves the whales in by-catch issues. Hopefully we will learn more about this family of enigmatic divers (and become more responsible stewards of the ocean) so that the beaked whales do not vanish before we even get to know them.
It is unclear whether the subject of today’s post actually exists. That would not be such a shocking statement if this article concerned angels, true innocence, or honest politicians, but I am not writing about such abstract concepts–instead I am writing about a large ruminant animal from the bovine family! The saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) is closely related to other bovines such as the aurochs, the wisent, the yak, and the zebu. The creature was discovered by taxonomists only two decades ago, in 1992, in the remote Annamite mountains, a heavily forested range which runs along the sweeping curve where Vietnam meets Laos and Cambodia. Unfortunately the biologists did not find any live specimens of the animal, but they discovered three saola skulls in the houses of local hunters. An exhaustive three month hunt for the living creature turned up nothing.
And yet saolas were subsequently spotted—and even hunted—by local mountain residents after that. In 2010 a live male was captured by villagers, but the creature expired before scientists and veterinarians could reach him. Scientists and rangers have occasionally captured pictures of saolas by means of remote hidden cameras, but the forest animals are so furtive and remote that we only know what they look like, not how they behave (although mountain people call them “the polite animal” because they are said to be so reserved and calm).
Saolas are dark brown with a fetching black strike running diagonally along their back and white slashes on their feet and faces. Not nearly as large as wisents and zebus, adult saolas stand only about 85 cm (3 feet) tall at the shoulder they weigh approximately 90 kg (about 200 lbs). The most noticeable feature of the rare animals are their large antelope-like horns which curve slightly backward and grow to half a meter (1.5 feet) in length. The saolas look like they descended from a common ancestor of antelopes, bisons, and cattle (although they are more closely related to the latter two creatures than to antelopes). Based on their small teeth, saolas are browsers who nibble on tender shoots and berries (as opposed to grazers like cows).
The first paragraph of this post was mercifully disingenuous: the saola almost certainly walks the green earth even as you read these lines. However the saola population is ridiculously tiny: the world population is estimated to be between a dozen and 250 individuals. The government of Vietnam has mounted a spirited defense for the phantasmagoric ruminant by creating wildlife refuges and trying to educate native people not to hunt the last specimens, but deforestation and accidental trapping keep taking a toll (most saolas are captured in traps meant for other creatures). It is possible that, like the wisent, the saolas will again flourish, but more likely we discovered them only to lose them again forever.
When I think of China, I tend to imagine coastal China or the Yangtze River valley—which is to say areas of tremendous human population density where neighbor lives smashed up against neighbor and black smokestacks belch poison smoke onto the churning masses. Yet China is truly vast and parts of the nation are among the least densely populated places on Earth. The great northwest deserts of China are a land of shifting sands, xeric scrubland, and nothingness. Yet the dry wasteland is home to one of the world’s rarest and fanciest leaping rodents.
The Long-eared Jerboa, Euchoreutes naso, is an insect-eating, long-jumping, mouse-like creature which lives in the deserts of China and Mongolia. The animal’s habits are largely unknown–since it is a master of stealth and also since it lives in such an unforgiving and desolate regions where biologists are infrequent guests. The long-eared jerboa is sufficiently distinct that it is classified in its own genus and its own subfamily. It is (self-evidently) notable for its long ears which it uses to hunt insects in the desert nights and to avoid predators.
The animal is lightweight with a mass of only 24 g (0.85 oz) to 38 g (1.3 oz) and its body is small, measuring from 70 mm (2.8 in) to 90 mm (3.5 in)—although its tail is just as long as its body so the whole creature measures up to 180 mm long (7 inches) if you count the tail. Like other jerboas, this species probably excavate burrows where they rest during the day. Because they are so enigmatic and poorly understood (and also so endearing), the long-eared jerboas are a kind of symbol of truly wild creatures and the little rodent was identified as one of the top-10 “focal species” in 2007 by the Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) project.
Saint Patrick’s Day spirit is beginning to pervade the land and the mind turns to all things Hibernian. Last week, Ferrebeekeeper investigated Leprechaun tattoos and, though visually interesting, that subject quickly turned dark and scary. This week, we plunge into the green forests of ancient Celtic Ireland to pursue the roots of Ogham, the mysterious tree alphabet of the Druids. Get out your golden sickles and put on your mistletoe haloes, the nature and origin of Ogham are shadowed by primeval mystery and this whole journey could easily veer off into the fantastic realms of pre-Christian myth.
To begin with the basics, Ogham was a runic alphabet from early medieval times which was in use throughout the lands ringing the Irish Sea, but which seems to have been most prevalent in Munster (Southern Ireland). Ancient objects inscribed in Ogham are most commonly found in Kerry, Cork, and Waterford, but are also known in Wales, Scotland, the Orkney Isles, the Isle of Man, and the Devon coast. Stone monuments inscribed in Ogham are usually written in Old Irish or an unknown Brythonic tongue—probably Pictish. The alphabet seems to have been primarily used from the 4th century AD to the 8th century AD (although correct dates are a subject of contention).
There are many historical theories explaining the origin of Ogham, but none are conclusive. Some scholars hold that the script originated during the Roman conquest of Britain as a sort of non-Roman code language used between Celtic people. Others assert that the language grew up as a means for denoting Celtic sounds—which the Roman alphabet is not well suited for—and became more complex and complete only as Christian scholars set up communities in Ireland. Wilder theories involve ancient primitive peoples as diverse as Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, the lost tribes of Israel, and the mysterious Sea People who destroyed Minoan palace civilization in the Mediterranean (please, please don’t tell my Irish history professor that I let you know about any of these hare-brained ideas). My favorite mythical (as in “not-real”) story of the origin of Ogham involves the legendary Scythian king, Fenius Farsa, who invented the Gaelic language and then crafted Ogham out of scraps recovered from the fallen Tower of Babel (there’s more than a soupçon of world-famous Irish blarney in this folktale).
Whatever the actual origins of Ogham were, a large number of inscribed stones have been found in what were once Celtic lands. Most of these were territorial markers and memorials—the oldest of which come from Ireland (although it is believed there was a heritage of inscribing the lines on sticks and bark which predated stone inscriptions). Some scholars believe the Welsh, Manx, Scotish, British, and Orkadian Ogham stones date from Post-Roman Irish incursion/invasions. Ancient tradition assigns the names of trees or shrubs to each of the letters of Ogham (although such a naming convention may only date from the tenth century). A comprehensive glossary of letter names can be found here along with a translation of an ascetic Ogham joke (of sorts).
Here is an enigmatic painting by an enigmatic artist. Henri Rousseau (1844–1910) did not start painting until he was in his forties—around the time his wife Clémence Boitard died. The couple had six children but only one survived to adulthood (the rest died as infants or succumbed to childhood disease). Rousseau made his living with a dull career as a toll collector. Later, when he was working as an artist, detractors belittled him as Le Douanier “the customs officer”. He never visited the tropics or saw a jungle, but painted from illustrations, taxidermied animals, and Parisian hothouses. Initially ridiculed as childlike and flat, Rousseau’s works commanded the attention of a new generation of modern artists like Picasso, Matisse, Delaunay, and Brâncuşi, all of whom were influenced by him (as were several succeeding generations of artists). However, just as his work began to gain traction, he died.
Commissioned by Comtesse de Delaunay, Rousseau’s painting The Snake Charmer (above) was finished in 1907. The painting features strange snakes made of empty space gliding out of a fecund jungle towards a nude musician also composed of darkness. A spoonbill stares at the scene with a crazy empty smile. Behind the figures, a green river ripples under the tropical sun. Rousseau was not trying to titillate his audience with an exoticized picture of an oriental snake charmer (like the exquisitely crafted picture below by the great French salon artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose work was the pinnacle of French art a generation earlier).
Instead of Gérôme’s ethnic stereotypes and off-putting eroticism, there is a sense of true menace and mystery in Rousseau’s painting. Within the lush strangling wall of plants there are tendrils of nothingness which move in obedience to some otherworldly music. The universe is not the place we think. Rousseau painted The Snake Charmer two years after Einstein’s “year of wonders” when the Swiss physicist, then working as a lowly patent clerk, conceived several radical theories which fundamentally changed how we look at space and time. Whether, by accident or by design, The Snake Charmer captures some of the uncertainties that were winding their way through art, politics, and science in the era just before the first World War. Unlike many other paintings from that era, Rousseau’s work has stayed fresh and disturbing. Whenever we think something is certain, we start to see the alien serpents of oblivion wound up in the landscape, belying what we think we know.
Today’s post topic is located in the depths of space far far away from the bats, pumpkins, and haunted deserts I have been writing about for October. The dwarf planet Ceres is located in the midst of the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars. The only dwarf planet in the inner solar system, Ceres is only 950 km (590 miles) in diameter, but it is sufficiently large to have become spherical from its own gravity (and it is by far the largest asteroid). Named after Ceres (Demeter), the mythological goddess of growing things whose daughter was abducted by Hades and who gave the secrets of agriculture to humankind through the farmer Triptolemus, the dwarf planet was discovered in 1801 by Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, a Roman Catholic priest of the Theatine order. Ceres was the first asteroid to be discovered and it comprises a third of the asteroid belt’s total mass.
The nebular hypothesis proposes that the solar system formed as a great cloud of space dust and gas coalesced into a disk which then further coagulated into small clumps, then into planetesimals, then into moon-sized planetary embryos, and finally into planets. Ceres is one of the few (or maybe the only) planetary embryos which formed four and a half billion years ago but somehow did not get smushed together with other like bodies to form a planet or hurled off into deep space. The dwarf planet probably consists of a rocky core surrounded with an icy mantle of frozen water. Ceres is believed to contains 200 million cubic kilometers of water–more fresh water than in all the lakes, rivers, clouds, swamps, ponds (and everything else) on Earth. The Hubble telescope has photographed several mysterious surface features on Ceres including a dark spot believed to be a crater (now informally named after Piazzi) and several bright spots, the nature of which is unknown.
Astronomers are profoundly curious about Ceres and hope to better understand the history of the solar system by examining this surviving planetary embryo. Additionally, the chemical makeup of Ceres is similar to that of Earth. Scientists seeking extraterrestrial life have concentrated on Europa and Mars, but Ceres is next on their short list.
Astronomers will soon have some of their answers about Ceres. The asteroid probe Dawn is currently orbiting the asteroid Vesta–but its mission there is scheduled to end in July of 2012. At that point Dawn will power up its ion thrusters and fly to Ceres. In February of 2015 Dawn will enter permanent orbit around the little planet and we will finally have some of our answers.
Many of the stories and myths of Taoism center on the eight immortals, a group of ancient entities who mastered powerful magic to such an extent that they transcended mortality and rose to a state of near divinity. Zhang Guo Lao, the eccentric elderly potions master, is one of the eight immortals (and we have seen what an odd figure he is), but some of the others are even more peculiar. Probably the strangest member of the group is Lan Caihe, whose age and precise origin are unknown. In fact, the gender of Lan Caihe is unknown: S/he is sometimes depicted as a young girl or a cross-dressing boy or a strange genderless old person.
Lan Caihe is the patron saint of florists and minstrels (or maybe I should say “singing courtesans” since the musical lifestyle in classical China often bore some relation to the pleasure trade). His/her sacred emblem is the flower basket, a bamboo or wicker container born on a hoe-like handle filled with up with sacred flowers, herbs, and plants. Lan Caihe is also sometimes shown holding castanets, playing a flute, or riding a crane. Ambiguity and the reversal of expectations are trademarks of this immortal as is the power of unheeded prophecy. In addition to not having a fixed gender, Lan Caihe dons heavy winter clothes in summer but strips down to a flimsy barely-there shift to sleep in snowbanks in the winter. Sometime s/he is portrayed within a melting snowbank transforming into steam from quasi-divine magic.
While some of the eight immortals have lengthy or complicated creation stories (involving magic items or a lifetime of study) Lan Caihe’s apotheosis to immortality was quick and random. While playing music, drinking heavily, and otherwise entertaining at a bar, Lan Caihe got up to go to the bathroom. Suddenly, unexpectedly, he/she flew up to heaven on a crane letting a single shoe fall down (in some versions of the tale various other dubious garments joined the shoe). Despite having immense power and magic (and immortality), Lan Caihe is frequently portrayed dressed in a frayed blue dress and only one shoe, consorting with the lowest classes of society. I can think of few figures from any mythology more evocative of the socially constructed nature of identity than this gender-ambiguous immortal.
Here are three tiny paintings of seashells by the great Dutch still-life master Adriaen Coorte. I would love to tell you more about Coorte, but I am unable to do so. The date of his birth and his death are both unknown. Aside from his apprenticeship to Melchior d’Hondecoeter (which took place in Amsterdam) it is believed that Coorte spent his entire life in Middelburg, Zeeland. His signed paintings date from 1683 to 1707 and, according to records, he belonged to the Guild of Saint Luke.
Everything else we know about Coorte comes from his beautiful jewel-like paintings–which were also largely unknown until the 1950’s (when a fashionable art-historian publicised them to the world). The compositions are minimalist with dramatic lighting and exquisite object arrangement. Coorte painted on paper which he then glued to wood (an unusual technique now and even more so during the 17th century).
Along with Balthasar van der Ast and Antoine Berjon, Coorte was one of the greatest painters of seashells. He gives an emotional context to the shells while capturing their alien beauty. For example in the painting below, there is something about the spatial relationship between the spiny murex, the tiny red shell, the spiral, and the cowry which transforms the inanimate shells into actors in a tragic play. The mysterious Coorte seems to know something about the fundamental nature of things that he can only reveal through these tiny charged tableaus, but like Coorte, the message remains a mystery.
There are twenty extant species of armadillos–new world placental mammals covered with armored plates. The smallest of these armored creatures is the Pink Fairy Armadillo (Chlamyphorus truncates) which is only 9-12 centimeters in total length (about 4 or 5 inches). The diminutive creature weighs slightly more than 100 grams when mature and inhabits the central drylands of Argentina. It has multiple hard ring-like plates of delicate pink which it can close into a box form for protection (although its first defensive strategy is to dig into the ground). The animal has tiny eyes and a torpedo-like head for pushing into the sand. The portions of the Pink Fairy Armadillo not covered with plates are covered in dense white fur. Like the golden mole of Namibia, the pink fairy armadillo is a sand swimmer: the little animal agitates the fine, dry sand with its powerful claws and literally swims through the turbulence with its hard bullet shaped body. The armadillos are also like the golden mole in that they can lower their metabolism to levels unheard of among other placental mammals. However armadillos are not closely related to the golden mole—or indeed to any other placental mammals other than fellow Xenarthra (the sloths, armadillos, and anteaters). South America spent a long portion of geological time as an island and the mammals there had a long time to develop on their own. It is still not known whether Xenarthrans like the Pink Fairy Armadillo are truly Eutherians or whether they are the descendants of the ancestors of the Eutherians (sorry: the language of cladistics does not lend itself to eloquent explanations and all of the names sound like they come from a far-away planet—for example “Xenarthrans”).
I would like to tell you more about the Pink Fairy Armadillo, but I am unable to do so. Since it lives underground, the animal is rarely seen in the wild. It is even more unusual in captivity where it does not long survive the shocks and stresses of zoo living (additionally it seems unable to live on anything other than local invertebrates). This is unfortunate as it is believed that the Pink Fairy Armadillo is struggling in the wild. It is presumed to be declining in numbers–a victim to habitat loss from human activity. I used wiggle words like “believed” and “presumed” because nobody really has any idea about the actual populations of Pink Fairy Armadillos.
In the absence of real information here is a little gallery of Pink Fairy Armadillo artwork. Enjoy these pictures, it is profoundly unlikely you will ever see a real Pink Fairy Armadillo in the real world (which is sad because I find them curiously endearing). I particularly like the cartoon of the Pink Fairy Armadillo dreaming of transcendence into a mythical fairy being.