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1300 AD: The Age of the Mongols (Thomas Lessman--Source Website

The Yuan Dynasty (1271 AD to 1368 AD) was the era during which the Mongols ruled China.  Although the dynasty lasted less than a hundred years, it was a time of substantial prosperity and innovation which witnessed the reunification of China (divided under the Song and then the Southern Song dynasties) and the movement of the capital to Dadu (now known as Beijing).  The largest city on earth during that time was Hangzhou, with a population between four hundred thousand and a million souls (it is not easy to figure out the population of ancient Chinese cities!)

Kublai Khan by Liu Kuan-Tao (Yuan Dynasty, ca. 1280 AD)

Unlike his predecessors who were primarily interested in tribute and plunder, the Mongol war chief Kublai Khan sought to govern his conquests through traditional institutions.  After defeating his brother in a civil war, Kublai Khan crushed the last great army of the Southern Song dynasty and assumed control of China.  Kublai Khan recognized that in order to rule China he needed to employ Han bureaucrats and adopt Chinese customs.  He adapted the style and manner of a Chinese emperor and initiated a dynasty during which the Mongol elites became progressively more sinicized.

A Mongol Mounted Archer as Painted by A Yuan Dynasty Artist

At least initially, the Yuan era saw a greater interconnectedness between China and the world beyond its borders.  Trade flourished across the silk routes of central Asia.  Military incursions and trade ties brought South East Asia closer to China. Chinese technologies spread out through the world (this is the era when gunpowder and the compass spread to Europe).

Plotosus lineatus

The Striped eel catfish (Plotosus lineatus) lives in the reefs of the Indo-Pacific ranging from the Red Sea to Australia up to Japan.  The Plotosus genus of catfish are notable for abandoning freshwater (where catfish evolved and where the majority of catfishes live) in favor of the oceans.  Plotosus lineatus is entirely oceanic: the species makes its home in the colorful and dangerous  world of the coral reef. Young Striped eel catfish live in schools which can be composed of hundreds of fish however older individuals lose their schooling instinct.

The catfish grub through the sand for tiny invertebrates, shrimp, and minnows. They possess electrosensory organs which allow them to sense the prey’s nervous system beneath the sand. Although they are very endearing walking along the sand on their little whiskers, you should not pick them up!  These catfish have venomous spines on both sides of their body.  The poison is acutely painful but not always lethal for adult humans.

A river of baby catfish on the reef

An immense hexagonal storm twice the diameter of earth is locked around the north pole of Saturn.  Humankind discovered the feature by means of the Voyager 1 space probe in 1980 and we continue to study it with our Cassini space probe.  So far, aside from hurricanes on Earth, this is the only eyewall atmospheric feature scientists have found in the solar system (an eyewall is a cloud formation where towering clouds swirl around an empty still center).  Each of the sides of this feature is 8,575 miles long and the eyewall towers 20 to 45 miles tall.  The eyewall clouds do not shift in longitude like the other striations in Saturn’s visible atmosphere.  The huge honeycomb shape rotates every 10 hours 39 minutes and 24 seconds–the same period of rotation as that of the planet’s radio emissions (which is therefore assumed to be equal to the period of rotation of Saturn’s icy interior).  Saturn’s south pole has no comparable feature–although there is a prominent hot spot there.

Nightime movie of the storm taken from the Cassini probe (Image credit: NASA/JPL)

Franz von Stuck: Selbstbildnis im Atelier, München, 1905

Franz von Stuck (1863-1928) was the most renowned artist of the Munich Secession, a group of German artists who proclaimed themselves independent from the overweening Munich artists’ association.  Just as the Munich Secession was overshadowed by the Vienna Secession, Franz von Stuck has been overlooked in favor of more flamboyant fin de siècle painters like Klimt, Ensor, and Munch.  His work, however, was very much in the limelight during his day.  He was feted and granted noble titles beyond any of his German art contemporaries and his lovely paintings deserve a long second look.

Fighting Fauns, 1889

Von Stuck created classical pieces in which the gods, centaurs, and heroes are tinged with an uneasy modern sensibility. The monumental figures dwell in a sumptuous twilight world of uncertainty and temptation. The heroes take on a sick greenish tinge.  Femme fatales lean forward with transmuting elixirs.  Human hybrids rebel against demigods. They all struggle and scheme beneath a dark pall of beguilement as classical virtue and reason are undone by the wilder passions.

Tilla Durieux as Circe (circa 1913)

After the First World War, von Stuck’s artworks no longer seemed relevant to a generation shell shocked by the horrors of the conflict.  Today, he is most remembered as a teacher and mentor to pupils who ripped up classical painting and took art in strange new directions.  His most famous students were Paul Klee, Hans Purrmann, Wassily Kandinsky, and Josef Albers.  Not only do I love von Stuck’s paintings for their own sulky beauty, I admire him for earnestly helping a group of pupils whose work was so alien from his own.

Hercules and the Hydra, 1915

Tenochtitlan on Lake Texcoco

Modern Mexico City, super metropolis of nine million people, was once a series of lakes.  The Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, was located there on a network of artificial islands.  In those lakes, in countless numbers, swam the axolotl, Ambystoma mexicanum, a wholly aquatic salamander.   As mentioned in the previous post, according to Aztec mythology, the underworld god Xolotl transformed himself into an axolotl to escape being murdered.  In a wide world filled with strange animals, axolotls are particularly strange: they certainly have a whiff of the underworld as well as a hint of the divine.


Axolotls are neotenic.  Unlike most other amphibians, they never transform into a terrestrial organism but maintain gills and tail fins for their entire lives.  Although it seems like the axolotl should be stunted by its failure to metamorphosize, it actually grows much larger and lives much longer than the tiger salamander (a non-neotenic salamander which it is closely related to).  Adult axolotls range from nine to twelve inches and can live for up to twenty five years (although a lifespan of ten to fifteen years is more normal).  They are freshwater carnivores, hunting worms, minnows, and aquatic insects via smell.

Xolotl was the god of misfortune and bad luck is currently dogging the wild axolotl.  The lakes of the Mexican basin have been one of the most populated areas of the western hemisphere since the fourteenth century.  Axolotl tacos were a favorite meal of the inhabitants for centuries and the creature was overfished up until the twentieth century…when the lakes were drained to prevent flooding.  Now the lakes largely exist in huge pipes deep below the city and as a series of polluted channels and small reservoirs.  Not only are these remaining canals choked with pollution, but super competitive non-native fish have been introduced, most prominently the African tilapia and the Asian carp.

Axolotls are nearly extinct in the wild, and it is uncertain whether they will survive there much longer.  The animals have, however found a dark refuge which ensures their continuing existence.  Because of their neoteny, axolotls have extraordinary abilities to heal themselves.  Not only can they completely regrow lost arms and legs back to full size and function, they can also regenerate damaged vital organs–including portions of their brains.  Axolotls do not heal by scarring, but seem to use some more fundamental ability to regenerate.  Of course these remarkable abilities can not help axolotls when they are cooked into a burrito or devoured whole by a carp, but their unusual healing has brought them to the attention of biologists and medical scientists (as has their longevity in comparison with similar salamanders).

Axolotls are available in assorted colors.

Axolotls have joined fruit flies, mice, zebrafish, and rhesus monkeys as a model animal for the laboratory.  The salamanders may individually be vivisected, dissected, and subjected to crazy organ transplants or chemical manipulations, but overall they have found an ecosystem to thrive in. Their population numbers have been growing and axolotls will not be extinct until life science is.   Indeed if the field of regenerative medicine begins to flourish, all of humankind might have reason to revere the axolotl far more than the Aztecs esteemed Xolotl.

Dear Readers,

Kindly forgive the hiatus. I have been traveling to parts unknown (well, actually Chicago–but allow me to maintain a semblance of intrigue), and I was unable to write any entries.  I am now preparing a follow up to my last piece, which concerned the chthonic Aztec god Xolotl who transformed himself into an axolotl to escape the wrath of his fellow deities.  This next post will also be about extinction and rebirth.  There will be tragedy and an unexpected escape to a new realm (as well as tantalizing hints at great breakthroughs in medical science).

Amphibian enthusiasts prepare!

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

June 2010