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The Yellow-lipped Sea Krait (Laticauda colubrina)

The coral reef is a super-competitive ecosystem where every surface hides a hidden mouth, a poison dart, or a camouflaged hunter.  However the reef is also a place rich in resources where it is possible to make a good living.  It is sort of the New York City of ocean habitats.  Some animals have been part of reef-like ecosystems for a tremendously long time, but one of my favorite reef animals, the banded sea snake or yellow-lipped sea krait (Laticauda colubrina) is a latecomer.  Like the coral reef catfish (which descended from freshwater river fish ancestors but evolved into a saltwater coral reef dweller), the krait has put its land-dwelling roots behind it and moved out into the ocean—although it remains an air-breather like all snakes and it must also come ashore to drink freshwater since it has not yet evolved the super kidneys necessary for dealing with saltwater. Yellow-lipped sea kraits are widespread throughout the Indo-Pacific Ocean.  They grow up to 2.2 meters (6 and a half feet long).

Laticauda colubrina

An accomplished hunter, the banded sea snake lives on cuttlefish, squid, fish, fish eggs, and small arthropods which throng the shallow reef.  The krait’s venom is among the most poisonous on earth, but fortunately the creatures have easy going dispositions (and small fangs) and they rarely bite humans.  Their closest relatives among the land snakes are the cobras.


Yellow-lipped sea kraits shed their skin far more often than do land snakes in order to protect themselves from parasites: sometimes they change skins as often as every fortnight.  Kraits are viviparous and do not bear eggs but rather give birth to completely autonomous baby snakes which are born with their parents’ swimming and hunting ability.  The snakes are such gifted swimmers thanks not just too their sinuous bodies but also to laterally compressed tails which they use like paddles to propel themselves through the water. Another feature which the kraits possess to deal with their watery habitat is nostrils which clamp shut
The kraits are extremely beautiful: their bodies are banded with black and pale blue rings.  They have a balck head with a yellow snout. Their beauty gives them a special place in art and literature.  I like to imagine that the yellow-lipped krait was one of the mysterious beautiful “water-snakes” who caused the ancient mariners unconscious epiphany which broke the curse he labored under and marked the climax of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (a profoundly beautiful miniature epic about the importance of treating animals kindly):

Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

Banded Sea Snake (Jennifer Belote, acrylic on canvas)

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Treaty of Penn with Indians (Benjamin West, 1772, oil on canvas) shows Penn treating with the Delaware under under the great elm at Shackamaxon

Elm trees (genus Ulmus, family Ulmaceae) are deciduous and semi-deciduous trees which come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.  They first evolved 40 million years ago in central Asia, and since then they have spread around the entire northern hemisphere, even crossing the equator in the rain forests of Indonesia–and that is just the natural distribution of these trees. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century elm-loving gardeners took the plants elsewhere on the globe, particularly Australia, which is now renowned for its avenues of elms. But the pinnacle of elms was in America: the American elm is a particularly large and beautiful member of the family capable of growing 50 meters (130 feet) high and 40 meters (120 feet) wide in almost any soil.  The American elm’s tapering curve caused avenues of the trees to look like gothic vaults. Many of North America’s streets used to be huge 100 foot tall glowing green cathedrals made of living elm.

Elm-lined streets before and after Dutch Elm disease

The use of the past tense has probably warned you that there is a horror movie twist to this story. Alas, in 1928, a shipment of logs from The Netherlands destined for use as veneer in the Ohio furniture industry arrived in America.  The logs carried elm bark beetles which in turn carried ascomycete microfungi. It was the American beginning of Dutch elm disease, a blight which later wiped out millions of trees. Various different species of bark beetle are capable of transmitting closely related microfungi (namely Ophiostoma ulmi, Ophiostoma himal-ulmi, and the virulent Ophiostoma novo-ulmi).  These fungi seem to be able to hybridize with one another and form new strains…with new strengths.  The fungi apparently hail from China, but their province is unclear—at some point the trail goes cold (although Chinese species of elm seem resistant to the blight). Whatever the case, European and American elm trees were not ready for the spores.  Even with heavy use of pesticide, fungicide, and aggressive quarantines, the great elm populations of Western Europe and North America dwindled to a fraction of what they were in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Life Cycle of Ophiostoma ulmi

Dutch elm disease is its own special horror if you are a lover of trees (which I imagine you are if you are reading this blog), but there is a darker terror lurking behind the blight.  Dutch elm disease is one of the most famous blights of our era in North America so far, but it is by no means the only one.  Merriam Webster defines a blight as “(a) a disease or injury of plants marked by the formation of lesions, withering, and death of parts; or (b) an organism (as an insect or a fungus) that causes blights.” These blights are spreading and multiplying.  There is an oak blight, a bean blight, and a tomato blight. There are invasive tent caterpillars, mites, and galls. Although blights are technically defined as destroyers of plants, there are worrisome parallels in the world of animals. Frogs around the world have been dwindling from an exotic amphibian fungus. Bats in the northeast cannot hibernate thanks to a different fungus and they expire of energy loss.  And the fungi are not the only worrying players.  Everyone has followed the mass die-offs of honeybees from mites and who knows what else. The mixed-up super-fast dynamics of our human world mean that all sorts of critters, weeds, bugs, bacteria, protists, spores, and viruses end up traveling all over the place.  How long till a Dutch elm disease type plague strikes some life form we hold even more dearly?

Before I creep anyone out too much by writing in this vein, it is instructive to look back at the fossil record of elms. This is not the first great die-back for the trees.  According to pollen samples taken from ancient bogs, six thousand years ago, during the mid-Holocene period, all elm trees suddenly died back close to extinction in northwest Europe.  To a lesser extent the same thing happened again 3000 years ago.  It is possible that elm tree already establishing immunities to the current blights.  As I mentioned before, most Asian species are at least somewhat resistant to the fungus, and certain individuals and cultivars of once-common European and American Elms are gradually being discovered.  Our grandchildren might once again live on streets that are green cathedrals…

One of the delightful things about the hymenoptera—the wasps, bees, ants, and termites—is that many different species remain unknown to science.  There are times when it seems frustrating to live in a world where most life forms have been categorized and collected, however the fact that some of the hymenoptera make their homes in the most isolated tropical wilderness means that vividly distinctive (and hitherto unknown) bees, wasps, and ants are found from time to time. Last week an entomologist exploring the remote rainforests of Sulawesi discovered a new species of immense predatory wasps with jaws longer than its front legs. The predatory wasp is shiny black with evil gothic barbs running along its abdomen.  Although the wasp’s habits and behavior are still unknown, its size and its formidable jaws would seem to indicate that it is a predator.

Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, discovered the wasp as part of a biodiversity expedition to the remote forests of Sulawesi.  She plans to name the wasp after the Garuda, an eagle-like divine being from Hindu legend which is associated with speed and martial prowess (and with the constellation Aquila). The Garuda is admired and known in many different myths from Southeast Asia but it is particularly associated with Indonesia—and has become something of a national symbol

The Garuda

Sulawesi, the fourth largest island of Indonesia has long been an ecological treasure trove thanks to multiple isolated peninsulas (complicated geology has given the island has an unlikely shape), impassible mountains, and huge wet forests located only a few degrees from the equator.

Sulawesi

Crescent-shaped rudists on the floor af a Cretaceous Sea

When we think of living reefs we are likely to think of coral reefs, since the biotic reefs of today are most often composed of cnidarian corals (and coralline algae).  Such has not always been the case –convergent evolution means that other animals have sometimes jumped in and taken over the central reef building role occupied today by corals (indeed there are still oyster reefs in some parts of the ocean although human hunger for oysters has greatly reduced their size).  One of the more interesting and successful of these coral analogs was actually a modified colonial mollusk—the rudist.  Rudists were bivalve mollusks very similar to the clams you enjoy on your linguini.  Like clams, rudists had two shells (or valves) joined at a hinge. However the rudists possessed very different shapes from modern clams.  Some had horn-shaped shells which lay flat on the bottom of the ocean shore (the horns prevented currents from flipping the mollusks or washing them away).  The other major group had cone-shapes with little hinged lids on top –like a cross between a lidded beer stein and an ice-cream cone).  This latter group formed together in huge super colonies.

Rudist Types (with a modern bivalve in the top left for comparison)

Rudists evolved in the Jurassic Era and burgeoned throughout the Mesozoic, but their greatest success came during the Cretaceous when they pushed out corals and sponges to become the major reef-building organisms in the Tethys Ocean and various other warm tropical shelves around the world.  It is believed that rudists were so successful because the ocean’s temperature was so much higher during the Cretaceous (as was the salt content of the water).  It must have been amazing to see a rudist tropical reef thronged with strange colorful belemnites, ammonites, and unknown teleosts.  Huge prehistoric diving birds, mosasaurs, and super sharks would have lurked in the depths beside the reef.

A Fossilized Rudist Reef from the Cretaceous Era

Like the dinosaurs and the ammonites, the rudists were wiped out by the Chicxulub impact. Sometimes I think about the rudists as I fret about coral die-offs.  Coral quickly evolved back into the warm shallow tropical niche left open by the extinction of the rudists.  Is there some little clam with a big destiny waiting for the corals to falter in the ever-warmer, ever-more-acidic oceans of the present?

Baird's Tapir (Tapirus bairdii)

The Perissodactyls (horses, rhinos, and tapirs) were the planet’s dominant grazers for many millions of years–from the beginning of the Eocene to the end of the Miocene–but, in the most recent geological period they have been greatly outnumbered and outcompeted by the multitudinous artiodactyls (pigs, cows, deer, goats, antelopes, giraffes, and so on). The vast distance separating the Earth’s remaining tapirs illustrates how much their range has shrunk. Three species live in very different parts of South America and one live on the other side of the world in Malaysia and Indonesia.  The tapir species look different as adults but their incredible similarity as calves indicated their fundamental closeness. Such a study is also a study of insufferable cuteness since juvenile tapirs, with their waving proboscises and dappled coats are very endearing.  Although the tapirs are vanishing from the wild there are more of each of the 4 species in zoos every year.  Here are some more of the new ones for your viewing pleasure!

Brazilian Tapir, also called Lowland Tapir (Tapirus terrestris)

Malayan Tapir (Tapirus indicus)

Mountain Tapir (Tapirus pinchaque)

Hooray for little tapirs!

The Crown of Saint Wenceslas

A large number of the medieval crowns from Central Europe have gone missing over the years. These objects get snatched up and melted down by Prussians–like the crown of Bolesław–or they surreptitiously vanish from history forever like the beautiful crown of Zvonimir. Even the pieces that survive, such as the famous crown of St. Stephen, tend to go on strange adventures and end up in the hands of Jimmy Carter.

Not so the ancient crown of Saint Wenceslas, which was used in the coronation ceremonies for the kings of Bohemia.  That crown is locked up tight in a secret chamber in a secret chapel in the huge cathedral of Saint Vitus.  Seven Czech high officials possess keys—all of which must be used together.  Perhaps it is well that the crown is locked up so tightly—it is said to lie under a magic curse.

The Crown of Saint Wenceslas (a different angle)

The crown was made in 1347 for the eleventh king of Bohemia (and Holy Roman Emperor) Charles IV.  It is wrought of extremely pure gold and decorated with 19 sapphires, 44 spinels, 1 ruby, 30 emeralds and 20 pearls.  Charles dedicated the crown to Saint Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia, and it is believed the Saint cannot abide any usurper to wear the crown (Saint Wenceslas was presumed to harbor a grudge about usurpers, having been murdered for a crown by his own brother).  Allegedly the Saint will smite down any unworthy soul who dons the crown within a year after he puts it on (the usurper that is—not Saint Wenceslas).It is rumored that Reinhard Heydrich, AKA “The Hangman”, the ruthless Nazi official in charge of the annexed portions of Czechoslovakia (which included St. Vitus Cathedral) could not risk the allure of the crown and secretly placed it on his head during a conqueror’s tour of St. Wenceslas Chapel. Heydrich was a favorite of Hitler’s who was heard to remark “We will Germanize the Czech vermin.” But he didn’t have much of a chance for Germanizing anyone–he was mortally wounded by British-trained Czech commandos in the awesomely named “Operation Anthropoid” less than a year after his tour of St. Vitus—a colorful and lurid tale for a colorful and lurid treasure.

The Skull of Saint Wenceslas wearing a Premyslid Eagle Circlet--Patron Saint of Bohemia, Brewing, Fuel-giving, & Nazi-killing

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.

…they say that Bacchus discovered honey.
He was travelling from sandy Hebrus, accompanied
By Satyrs, (my tale contains a not-unpleasant jest)
And he’d come to Mount Rhodope, and flowering Pangaeus:
With the cymbals clashing in his companions’ hands.
Behold unknown winged things gather to the jangling,
Bees, that follow after the echoing bronze.
Liber gathered the swarm and shut it in a hollow tree,
And was rewarded with the prize of discovering honey.
Once the Satyrs, and old bald-headed Silenus, had tasted it,
They searched for the yellow combs in every tree.
(Excerpt from “The Fasti” by Publius Ovidius Naso, known as Ovid)

As you have probably apprehended, there is a theme to my posts this week about the ambiguous line between the wild and the domestic–a tension which forever pulses within all human thought and endeavor.  Humans are animals. We came from nature and can never ever leave it.  We continuously long for the natural world in our aesthetic and moral tastes—our very idea of paradise is a garden of plants and animals.  Yet the social and technological forms humans create often seem entirely at odds with the natural world.  Our fishing fleets destroy the life within the oceans as they provide us with the wild fish we long for.  Our cities poison and strangle the beautiful estuaries where we build them. As our hands reach toward the divine and the celestial, our feet break apart the earth we sprang from.

The Discovery of Honey bu Bacchus (Piero de Cosimo, ca. 1499, oil on panel)

I’ll write further about that point (indeed I don’t believe I have ever left off examining it), but for right now I would like to discuss The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus, a painting which symbolically explores the juxtaposition between wild and domestic. The work was created by that consummate oddball visionary, Piero de Cosimo, who disliked wielding fire and refused to clip the trees in his orchard because he felt that doing so contravened the will of nature.  Vasari relates that de Cosimo would sometimes abandon himself to the wilderness and was more beast than man (also the artist seems to have suffered from emotional illness). Yet, within this painting de Cosimo presents that moment when bees were first gathered from the wild and kept for the purpose of honey production.  It was a step away from an imagined era of wildness towards an agricultural era when sweetness and plenty became available to all.

In The Discovery of Honey, a group of satyrs have found a hive of bees swarming within a strangely human stump. Together with Silenus, a bumptious fertility god, they are beating eccentric implements to gather the swarm so it can be collected. On the right side of the painting Bacchus and his coterie stand amidst forests and ravines beneath a glowering monadnock. A satyr carries a woman away into the wild while savage beast-men tear apart a carcass and climb off into the trees. On the left side of the painting, people and fauns bearing iron and pottery march towards the stump from a surprisingly sophisticated town with an elegant campanile.  In the center the bees swarm into a knot as a human-hybrid child pops out of the yonic rift within the torso shaped stump.

The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus (Detail)

What is going on here?  This painting has remained an enigma to scholars since its creation.  Many critics have opined that the right side of the work represents wilderness and the works of the gods while the right side represents society and the works of humans.  Wilderness and civilization meet at the point where the bees are captured and honey is discovered. This interpretation is undercut by the half-human status of the characters on both sides.  Another interpretation holds that the painting represents the symbolic discovery of fertility—metaphorically represented by honey.  The painting’s composition certainly supports this concept: the nursing faun, the baby satyr in the center of the painting, and the satyr spontaneously offering onions (a fertility offering of Greco-Roman society) are all fertility symbols, as our numerous other more overt figures within the painting!

The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus (detail)

Both of those interpretations are right, but there is more to the painting than that.  The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus represents de Cosimo’s homage to the animal spirit within humankind.  Artists paint themselves–and most of the characters in this work are part animal!  Such is our dichotomy. We are animals exploiting other animals and yet we have too a touch of the divine–Bacchus and the wild Arcadian gods are taking part. The urge to capture and recreate wild organisms is part of human nature.  We may have domesticated bees (along with grains, cattle, turkeys, pistachios, and catfish) but we ourselves are not fully domesticated.  The church, the nobles, the city—they never fully civilized Piero de Cosimo, crazy Renaissance artist, who was at his best—his most divine–when living as a beast.  As you watch the diners walking through a strip mall eating honey-glazed turkey sandwiches it may be hard to recognize the same faun-like aspect to them, but look closely in a mirror and you will see another wild beast-person–undomesticated, troubled, rudely great…

Pangassius Catfish on a fish farm in Southeast Asia

I have written about pangassius catfish (tra, basa, shark catfish, and what-have-you) before in an article about the trade war caused by protectionist legislators responding to the quick growth and success of the Vietnamese catfish farming industry.  However I am doubling back to address the quickly spreading pangassius catfish itself.  The farm-raised fish are currently identical to the fish caught in the wild form, but I wonder if that will continue for much longer.  Pangasius farming has spread from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to Thailand, Nepal, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia, and, above all, China.  I have a feeling that the pangassius catfish will escape in all of these places and establish itself as a successful invader.  I also feel like the fish farmers will start pushing the captive fish into new shapes with selective breeding (although the catfish is already a near-perfect farm specimen with its ability to tolerate low Dissolve Oxygen, put on weight quickly, eat anything and survive in fishponds, concrete tanks, fish cages, or fish pens).

Vietnamese Catfish Processing Room

A Pistachio Tree Beside Ancient Ruins in Turkey (photo by cemalsepici)

Only two nuts are mentioned in the Bible.  The almond is referred to frequently, but the pistachio (Pistacia vera) is mentioned only once, in Genesis (when Joseph’s starving brothers are trying to curry favor with an Egyptian official, not knowing that they are dealing with the brother they wronged).  It is appropriate that pistachios are in the first book of the Bible, the nuts have been eaten by humankind since the depths of prehistory (and they were probably eaten by near-relatives among the hominids before our turn on the scene).   Pistachio is a desert tree which is highly tolerant of drought and saline soil.  The deciduous trees grow up to 10 meters (33 feet) tall. They are wild throughout the Middle East from Syria to the Indus valley–but their original range has been blurred by their popularity as a cultivated plant.  Since they are one of humankind’s wild foodstuffs from before the invention of agriculture, human dissemination of pistachio seeds is a “natural” vector (although the very nature of that sentence casts the meaning of some of our implicit assumptions concerning nature into question).

An Iranian Merchant with his Pistachios

The route which Pistachios took into Western Europe is reflected in the etymology of the English word.  The Online Etymology Dictionary summarizes it thus:  “pistachio: 1590s, from It. pistacchio, from L. pistacium “pistachio nut,” from Gk. pistakion, from pistake “pistachio tree,” from Pers. pista “pistachio tree.”  It seems Greeks first brought the seed westward, and its subsequent progress across Europe can actually be traced from classical history sources. At the same time, the nuts were also heading east along the Silk Road: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China are all major producers today.  Pistachios originated somewhere in Persia, and Iran remains the largest producer and exporter of the nut. Speaking of exports, pistachios can be dangerous to transport in bulk containers. Because of their high fat and low water content, large quantities of the nuts can sometimes self-combust!

Its long, long history as a human food aside, pistachios are delicious.  The clam-like seeds pop open when they are ripe (although that is a human-selected trait) and the exposed seed has a brownish pink skin–which in turn reveals a pale creamy green flesh inside. Pistachios are members of the Anacardiaceae family, which includes sumacs and poison ivy.  Like these scary relatives, pistachio plants (and seeds) can contain the oily irritant urushiol—so pistachios sometimes trigger allergies and rashes, however, dieticians assert that the seed is one of the healthier sources of protein and oils.

Dyed and Undyed Pistachios


Traditionally pistachio nuts were dyed red to hide the blemishes made by handpicking, however such false color is no longer necessary (except to placate traditional markets).  The pistachio seed  has given its name to an especially pretty pastel green with pastel yellow undertones (the same hue found inside the nut). Pistachio green is one of my favorite hues.  There is something calm, refreshing, and languorous about the green which speaks to leisurely mild summer afternoons.  I hope you will excuse me, I would like to write more but I am going to go get a pistachio gelato!

A Pistachio-colored Pistachio Gelato

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