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Here at Ferrebeekeeper we have written a great deal about Echidna and her monstrous offspring. But what about her erstwhile spouse Typhon, the hideous flaming giant made of snakes? Today’s news from Europe reminds us that we should not forget him, for Mount Etna on Sicily is erupting again.

A Reuters photo of the January 12th 2010 Etna eruption taking place behind the Sicilian village of Milo

When Typhon challenged the Olympian gods and nearly destroyed them with his chaotic rampage, Zeus barely defeated the monster by hurling a flaming mountain onto him.  According to myth, Typhon still struggles beneath the bulk of Mount Etna.  His convulsions cause earthquakes, explosions, and eruptions of boiling rock.  Here are some pictures taken today of the volcano’s fury.

An Eruption on the Southeast Crater cone of Etna (AP)

It’s been far too long since we featured a catfish post and we definitely must revisit that subject before the year grows older! Here then is a miniature gallery of catfish stamps from around the world.  I chose these samples based on artistic merit and on the interesting features of the respective catfish portrayed. Believe me, the assortment above is just a little taste of catfish stamps.  If you wish to see a truly comprehensive online collection of catfish stamps from around the world, visit the website of this master catfish enthusiast and dedicated philatelist (From whose online collection, I borrowed most of these images).  Wow, the world is filled with governments issuing stamps (and with different catfish–but you knew that)!

Based on the ongoing “gothic” thread, it will probably not surprise you that I love gothic architecture.  However, although I naturally esteem the great stone edifices of Medieval Europe, I equally admire small houses manufactured in the nineteenth century Gothic Revival style.  As a first example of these lovely cottages, here is a stock design by Rodney Pfotenhauer, a contemporary architect (or possibly a magical being who lives in the forest).

Rodney Pfotenhauer's design for a Gothic Cottage

With its emphasis on elegant vertical lines, its charming fretwork decoration, and its noble finials, gothic revival architecture is a perfect expression of nineteenth century aesthetic values.  But I think the graceful style has a place in the future as well.  As the great recession finally begins to recede, it seems like builders will at last start picking up their tools to make some new houses.  Hopefully the burgeoning small house movement can look back towards gothic revival work for inspiration.  I’d like to see strange lovely gingerbread cottages sprouting up in place of the charmless Mcmansions which have been in vogue throughout the eighties, nineties, and ‘aughts (or whatever we are calling that crummy decade).

I am already fantasizing about parking my little robot car out front of my green gothic-revival mini house.  I can knock back a future drink (possibly into my regenerated liver) and wonder into my flower garden of glowing transgenic super roses and giant mutant aloes!  Come on already future innovators!  Don’t you guys dream about anything other than stupid PDAs?

Seriously, doesn't anyone get tired of reading about these things?

Oh well, the future will probably end up featuring underground concrete mazes or something equally dystopian (along with increasingly expensive and fragile PDAs hosted on defective AT&T networks).  In the mean time here are some other beautiful small gothic revival houses to help you while away the winter and pretend that dystopia isn’t drawing ever closer.

When I was a child I really appreciated automobiles, trucks, and other ground vehicles: such machines were stylish, powerful, and interesting—the ultimate status symbols which apparently gave the users limitless personal freedom.  I would fantasize about the exotic customs sports cars I would drive once I came of age and got rich.

My fantasy car...when I was ten

This line of thought came to a screeching halt when I reached high school and discovered that I hate driving.  Since I lack depth perception (because of a childhood eye-problem), driving is an incredibly stressful ordeal which involves lots of agonizing guesswork about where my vehicle is in relation to everything else on the road. I can do it, but it’s exhausting and I don’t like it one bit.  Since I live in Brooklyn and don’t own a car (or operate one unless I’m under great duress) I am a consummate pedestrian and I’m always shocked an appalled by the deadly oblivious arrogance of some car users who seem to actively want to kill the lesser beings on the outside of their steel bubble.  If someone ran around firing a shotgun in the air, a swat teem would come and dispatch them, whereas someone driving in a comparably dangerous way is regarded with blasé indifference—even if traffic deaths still account for 35,000 fatalities in America alone.

The EN-V, my fantasy car now that I know how to drive...

This is why I have been looking forward to robot cars—one of those promised sci-fi innovations which, like fusion power, always seem to lie 30 years in the future. With this dream always at the back of my mind, I was happy to see some robotic concept cars featured in today’s news from the consumer electronics show currently going on in Las Vegas.  General Motors’ EN-V (electric networked vehicle) was first shown in the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai and the little two-wheel cars proved a popular diversion at the CES.  The vehicles are capable of parking themselves, sensing each other, playing follow the leader, and driving automatically to a user when summoned via smart phone. They also automatically sense pedestrians via ultrasonic sensors–although reports that “in the demo, one hapless GM volunteer nearly got run over, at which point the EN-V seemed to freak out and refused to move any more.”

"Bad Robot car! We said 'don't hit the pedestrians!'"

Kudos to GM for pushing robotic cars forwards!  Futurists and automobile insiders who had a chance to watch the demonstration confidently predicted the legal, technological, and logistic wrinkles would be ironed out eventually and these cars (or vehicles like them) will actually go into production…in about 30 years.

The Zebra Mussel (Dreissena polymorpha)

Since 2011 is already shaping up rather grimly as the year of mass animal die-offs, it is time to revile the black-hearted invasive species which caused some of the the worst mass bird die-off in recent history.  I’m talking about the detested zebra mussel  an inch-long filter feeding bivalve mollusk with a pattern of brown zigzags on its shell.  The freshwater zebra mussel isn’t really that closely related to the marine mussels but shares many features with the Venus clams.

I am not too surprised if you feel ripped off that this dangerous invasive animal is a tiny shellfish.  But don’t dismiss the zebra mussel because of its diminutive size.  Zebra mussels are believed to be the source of deadly avian botulism poisoning that has killed immense numbers of birds in the Great Lakes since the late 1990s.  Additionally US powerplants and boat owners spend half a billion dollars a year scraping the creatures off water intakes for power plants and other underwater equipment.  The mollusks are also rather sharp and can injure wader’s feet–which necessitates wearing shoes in affected waterways.

Originally natives of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, Zebra mussels spread via canal to the rest of continental Europe and then stowed away in fresh-water ballast and on anchor chains of ocean going boats to travel across the ocean to Great Britain, Ireland, Canada and the United States. The Great Lakes are being hit especially hard by them.  Whenever they spread to a new location the native freshwater mollusks are gravely impacted.

Zebra mussels on a Lake Erie beach (photo from Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab).

Of course the mussels’ impact is not entirely negative.  To quote the National Atlas of the United States (which, by-the-way is an interesting geography resource):

Zebra mussels do have a positive impact on some native species. Many native fish, birds, and other animals eat young and adult zebra mussels. Migratory ducks have changed their flight patterns in response to zebra mussel colonies. Lake sturgeon feed heavily on zebra mussels, as do yellow perch, freshwater drum, catfish, and sunfish. The increase in aquatic plants due to increased water clarity provides excellent nursery areas for young fish and other animals, leading to increases in smallmouth bass populations in Lake St. Clair and the Huron River. However, these native species do not feed heavily enough on zebra mussels to keep the populations under control.

We might as well enjoy the smallmouth bass and the clear water.  Nothing people have done has halted or even impacted the spread of the zebra mussels so it looks like we’ll have to learn to live with them.

Fennec Foxes (Vulpes zerda)

The world’s smallest fox lives in the world’s largest desert, the Sahara.  The adorable fennec fox (Vulpes zerda) is actually the world’s smallest canid of any sort: they are the tiniest members of the dog family weighing in at only 1.5–3.5 lb.  Nocturnal omnivores, fennec foxes use their huge ears to listen for prey–and for predators such as the fearsome eagle owl. Additionally, since the foxes’ ears are filled with blood vessels, they provide a convenient way of cooling off in the oppressive daytime heat. Tiny pads on the foxes’ feet protect their delicate paws from hot sand and sharp rocks while muffling the noise of their movement.  They dig substantial burrows and are renowned among people of the Sahara for their cunning and cleverness.

Snuggling a fennec fox kit

The fennec fox is the one of two species of fox which can live with people as a domestic pet (the other pet fox is the domesticated silver fox, which is the end product of 60 years of crazy Soviet experimentation).  Hopefully their adorable little countenances will help you get through this extremely l…o…n…g week after the holidays.

A young fennec at a zoo (or possibly being arrested for cuteness)

It has been a while since I have done a post concerning all things gothic.  To this end, I was researching images of the magnificent ruined Melrose Abbey in Scotland when I stumbled across the following picture of a gargoyle from Melrose’s ruined walls.

A gargoyle/sculpture on Melrose Abbey

An older photo of the same sculpture

It’s a pig playing a bagpipe!  And it isn’t alone.  Apparently this was a very popular image in the medieval Celtic world.  Pigs with bagpipes show up again and again in carvings and illuminations from Ireland, Scotland, and North England–and nobody is sure why.

Another carving of a pig piper from an ancient misericord in the cathedral city of Ripon in Yorkshire

In an article concerning the history of the bagpipe, distinguished Scottish historian (and piper), Hugh Cheape, speculates about the reason:

Strong visual imagery is a consistent and important element in medieval art and sculpture, and the bagpipe is found being symbolically played by pigs and angels. There are intriguingly different ways of explaining the pig pipers of the medieval period. On the one hand, by giving the bagpipe to a pig, it emphatically lowers the status of the instrument but associates it with the animal which could provide an airtight reservoir for the pipe bag. On the other hand it was said that pigs were lovers of music and were often shown in art as musicians, especially in ‘Bestiaries’ which were a popular type of book in the medieval period describing animals in a sort of ‘natural history’ but placing them in an ‘unnatural history’ of allegorical narrative.

How delightful!  I am a big fan of pigs and I probably ought to write about the bagpipe, that strange shrieking instrument, which is believed to have an ancient history dipped in war and magic.

Oh, and I should not neglect my original purpose of showing Melrose Abbey, the epitome of Gothic architecture in Scotland.  Constructed in 1136 by Cistercian brothers, Melrose Abbey replaced an ancient monastery to Saint Aiden which had been founded in the 7th century. The new Melrose Abbey was burned by Richard II in 1385 but rebuilt. In 1544, English armies again burned the rebuilt Abbey as part of their effort to coerce the Mary, Queen of Scots to marry the child son of Henry VIII.  After this the Abbey was not rebuilt, but its beautiful ruins are a major tourist destination in their own right.

The ruins of Melrose Abbey

The H.N. Olympias

Exciting news for the summer! According to the (official website of non-profit company  “Trireme in New York City, Inc.”), plans are in place to bring the world’s only trireme to New York harbor in 2012.  The website’s homepage states:


Plans are being made to bring the Hellenic Navy vessel Olympias for its first voyage in the U.S. Scheduled for late spring through early summer of 2012, Olympias’ visit will coincide with the Tall Ships “OpSail” and July 4th events in New York Harbor. A world-class exhibition on Athenian maritime history is among the many exciting activities being organized to promote the ship’s historic visit and enhance public awareness of the significance of triremes in the development of democratic ideals.

The Olympias is a reconstruction of a 5th century Athenian trireme, the great warship of the age.  Trireme determined the outcome of the Persian wars and then cemented Athenian supremacy in the Mediterranean.  By the 4th century, triremes were being supplanted by larger faster quadriremes and quinqueremes which were the war galleys used by the Romans and Carthaginians.


Since the world has been noticeably trireme-free of late, the 170-oar Olympias currently qualifies as the fastest human-powered sailing vessel in the world.  Classical Greek galleys were originally crewed by free citizens, but, because of the danger, tedium and hardship involved in such work, citizens were soon replaced by criminals and slaves. If you are looking for the unique opportunity to row a classical warship around New York harbor, click here.  Apparently there are still plenty of openings on the Olympias’ rowing benches.

The Short-Beaked Echidna (Source: M McKelvey/P Rismiller/)

Last year featured an in-depth examination of Echidna, the terrifying “mother of monsters” from Greek mythology.  To start this year on a glorious high note, here is an essay concerning the actual echidnas (Tachyglossidae), a family of mammals from Australia and New Guinea.  The echidnas were much wronged when explorers named them after a hellish demigoddess.  Although I have never met—or even seen—a living echidna, they are one of my favorite creatures for many reasons.  Combining a gentle temperament with fascinatingly alien intelligence, the echidna is a delightful animal whose taxonomical oddity reveals the strange paths of fate which life takes over great expanses of time.

Along with the charismatic platypus, the echidna is the last of the egg-laying monotremes.  Monotremes are a very different sort of mammal than the other two major divisions of mammals, the eutheria and the metatheria.  The teeming eutheria (familiar mammals like shrews, manatees, picas, goats, and humans) nourish their fetal young by means of a placenta.  The ancient metatheria (marsupials) sustain their developing young in a special pouch.  The monotremes predate both groups and give evidence of mammals’ origins.  Genetic studies suggest that the monotremes originated from some reptile-like ancestor about 220 million years ago.  The long and tangled family history of the mammals and their antecedents will have to wait for another post–suffice to say that monotremes have been here for an extraordinarily long time.  The surviving monotremes, however, are not primitive atavists, but extraordinarily advanced descendants of those ancient progenitor mammals.  They have evolved and survived in varying fashions over the long eons.  Over those millions and millions of years, the echidna developed a very interesting brain.

Echidnas have the largest neocortex relative to bodymass of any creature.  The neocortex (which Hercule Poirot always creepily referred to as “the little grey cells”) is involved in higher brain functions such as spacial cognition, logic, and problem solving.  This special tool has taken the echidna far: like humans, and unlike almost all other creatures, echidnas live in very diverse habitats.  Actually it is the short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) which lives in different habitats—the other two extant species live in tropical New Guinea and are little known to science.  Although all three species seem to share most traits, I am really writing solely about Tachyglossus aculeatus which ranges from the hot dry desert scrub, to the tropical rainforest, to the coast, to the cold snows of the Australian Alps (where they can lower their body temperature a few degrees above freezing and hibernate).  Echidnas live on termites and ants, omnipresent social insects which are evolutionary winners in their own right.  Echidnas dig up these insects with powerful razor claws and gobble them down using a long sticky tongue which zips in and out of a toothless tube-like mouth.  Echidnas are not known to fight each other or other animals.  In the great evolutionary battle they are pacifists (provided you are not an ant or termite) and if approached aggressively they will curl into a ball and trust their sharp spine-like hairs to keep them safe.  They are also phenomenal burrowers and can quickly tunnel down through anything other than solid stone.

An orphaned puggle being handraised.

Because of their cleverness, relatively little is known about echidnas.  They are difficult to capture since they disdain baits and can figure out most traps.  Similarly, in zoos, echidnas have proven extremely gifted at escape.  Their mating habits are largely mysterious to us but seem to involve non-confrontational competition.  The female echidna is followed for an extended period of time by a train of interested males.  In response to an unknown signal, the male echidnas begin frantically digging, trying to nudge one another out of the way.  Just how the victor emerges from this competition is unknown, but one the female has chosen, the other males walk away with no obvious rancor.  After laying her egg, the female immediately rolls it into a pouch-like fold on her abdomen.  Once the puggle has hatched, the mother echidna solicitously tends it for seven months, after which it roams off free and solitary.

Echidnas have an extra sense, electoreceptivity, but for them it is much weaker than it is in their close cousins the platypuses.  It has also been noted that echidnas vibrate. Water placed near captive echidnas shows distinct ripples in the surface. Perhaps they vocalize on frequencies beneath the range of human hearing (as do elephants).  Speaking of captivity, Echidnas have survived for up to 30 years in zoos even though it is a difficult environment for the blithesome free-roaming animals.  It is believed they live twice that long in the wild—but, again, nobody really knows.

Agh! Get away from there! I though you had a large neocortex!

Likewise nobody knows the echidnas’ total population numbers or how healthy the species is.  What is known is that, sadly, even the intelligent and peaceful echidnas are running into problems in the modern world.  Like other good-hearted pedestrians, echidnas are often killed by careless drivers.  Echidnas face increasing habitat destruction from human houses, farms, and roads.  Likewise they must deal with new predators, the dingos, which have discovered that urinating on balled-up echidnas will cause the latter to uncurl for a moment in stunned disgust (giving the ruthless dogs a chance to rip into their guts).

I wonder what echidnas think of us.  They know of our traps, our radio-tracking devices, and they know how to avoid aborigine hunters.  They are becoming wise to our deadly cars and to the dirty tricks of dingos.  Still they remain curious about people and will sometimes come out of the wilderness in groups to examine our suburbs and cities before melting back into the wild.  Humankind took a long while to understand that echidnas are not dim-witted reptilian pincushions but rather clever and highly developed generalists.  Do they generously think the same of us, or do they put humankind from their mind as something foul when they head back to the ancient, open outback?

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

January 2011