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The Common Teal

The Common Teal (Anas crecca) is a gregarious dabbling duck which is widespread throughout temperate Europe during all seasons.  Further east, great flocks of teals live in Siberia during the summer and then migrate to India and China for the colder months.  But why is this duck being mentioned on Ferrebeekeeper?  Well, as it turns out, this is a post about color–and the common teal gives its name to one of the most widespread colors, teal, a middle tone blue-green.  The male common teal has a blue-green patch of feathers around his eyes–and these feathers are what the color was named after.

Situated half-way between blue and green, teal is a handsome tone which appeals to people who like both those colors. Teal featured prominently in the Plochere Color System, a color methodology favored by interior designers since the late forties.  Additionally, teal was one of 16 original HTML web colors formulated in 1987, so if you are a web pioneer or came of age in the nineties you may also have seen quite a lot of it.  But, even if you are somehow not an aging interior designer or an old school computer geek, you have still been inundated with the color teal by a different industry.

In order to make scenes comprehensible, television and movie producers (and visual artists for that matter) need to make the people in their shots stand out from the background.  Most actors range in hue from pale to dark orange. As you can see in the color wheel which I have very helpfully included above, orange is opposite on the color wheel from teal.  The easiest way to make actors contrast with the background and thereby have shots with adequate color contrast is to portray orange actors against a teal background.  Of course gifted directors use a whole range of techniques to provide contrast to their shots—talented filmmakers utilize light and shadow, wide-ranging color contrast, and subtle visual cues to make shots comprehensible.  But terrible directors (or producers running behind schedule) can simply have the digital effects technicians make everybody look like John Boehner running around in a swimming pool.   It’s shocking how many movies (especially bad movies) do in fact look exactly like that.

Chevy Chase, is that you? You look like a pumpkin!


I have been thinking a great deal about demographics lately—or rather I have been trying to do so. Humans are not very good at thinking about large numbers of people: there is a limit to how many individuals one can maintain meaningful social relationships with, and, beyond that (tiny) number, the world is a big collection of dangerous & greedy strangers.  Nevertheless it is worthwhile to contemplate some basics about population demographics because these numbers and trends have an astonishing power over the directions which human events take. One of the foremost questions historians ask about any given place during any era is “how many people lived there?” As soon as an answer is found (or approximated—since worthwhile demographic data is scarce throughout most of history) the historian then further wants to know how old the population was, how quickly it was replacing itself, who was doing what, where they came from, and what the gender ratio was.  It is useful to sometimes jump back to these basic queries when thinking about the world today (and planning for the world of tomorrow).

A few contemporary examples will quickly illustrate what I mean. China’s growing ascendancy in economic matters comes as a result of demographics.  China’s population is currently estimated to be 1,331,460,000, whereas the population of the US is estimated to be 307,006,550.  If every Chinese person were a quarter as productive as every American person, China would still be wealthier as a whole.  Knowing a nation’s population (especially in a rapidly developing world) means knowing its future.

Percentage of Population Aged 60 years or older in Asian Nations

Metrics other than sheer population numbers are useful to know as well.  In Japan, nearly a quarter of the population is older than 65—a statistic which is casting long grey shadows over the continued viability of its welfare state (and is raising concerns about Japan’s continued economic and political viability overall).  After decades of the one child policy, China is rapidly coming to face such a problem as well.  Economists and other theorists are openly wondering whether the Chinese can get rich before they are caught in an old age trap similar to the one Japan is in.

All of this is critical because the overall population keeps growing exponentially.  Japan and Europe might be curtailing their birthrates–and thereby diminishing their future economic and national clout–but the overall population keeps trending upwards. Such numbers mean power and wealth for nations and for the rich but they also mean greater struggle for resources for all of us, and, worst of all they mean greater devastation to the environment.

Oh My Goodness....

As you are beginning to see, demographics are one of the few useful tools for meaningfully thinking about the future.  Technology changes, markets boom and bust, nations rise and fall, but the inexorable wave of births rolls on and forms the underlying context for these changes. Even forces which change the population numbers directly–migrations, wars, genocides, or plagues—become part of the larger story of demographics.

A second post on this topic will feature an overview of the different generational cohorts in the United States because, although in some ways we really live up to our motto “e pluribus unum”—out of many one–in other ways we are six (or 7) wildly different nations and the greatest divisions between us are not those of race or class or sex–but rather of age.

Albizia julibrissin leaves and blossoms

At the corner of my block there is a small lovely tropical-looking tree covered with candyfloss flowers of princess pink.  Since I live in Brooklyn (which occasionally gets very cold), I have been wondering if the tree is a hallucination or some cunning model made of plastic, but it turns out that the tree is a mimosa tree (Albizia julibrissin), aka the Persian silk tree.  Like the green parakeets which live in my neighborhood, this little tree is evidently not as tropical as it seems.

A member of the legume family, the small to medium-sized tree has a springy crown which spreads out like an irregular umbrella.  Its delicate bipinnate leaves look like fern fronds (or like Mimoseae plants, to which the Persian silk tree is not closely related).  The tree has smooth olive colored bark which becomes striped as it ages.  It produces dense clusters of down-like pink flowers all summer.  These flowers are attractive to bees and hummingbirds. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the tree 9other than the pretty flowers) is how animated it is—during the evenings or rain storms the leaves close up and the tree takes on a hunched forlorn appearance.  When it is sunny and warm it spreads out like a kid on a comfy sofa.   Because of this habit the Persians call it “shabkhosb”—the night sleeper.  Apparently its Japanese name is similar and the tree has become representative of sleepy summer evenings in Japanese literature and art.

The trees originally came from Asia and are native to a huge swath of the world from Persia to China. In the past two centuries people planted Albizia julibrissin trees everywhere as an ornamentals and, you guessed it, the species has become invasive.  It can be found growing wild in the United States from southern New York west to Missouri and south to Texas.  I wonder if my neighbors even planted their specimen or whether it just showed up like all of the trees of heaven which live around every American city.

Albizia julibrissin tree

A tea made out of this tree is used in traditional medicine to ward off confusion and dark feelings and indeed a clinical study by Korean physicians found that the methylene chloride fraction of Albizzia julibrissin extract produced an antidepressant-like effect in mice (most likely by affecting 5-HT1A receptors—a neural receptor shared by humans).

Berry's Bobtail Squid (Euprymna berryi) photo by Rokus Groeneveld

I have written before about the beautiful cuttlefish (marine mollusks of the order Sepiida). Cuttlefish are closely related to another order of mollusks, the Sepiolida, or bobtail squid, which are perhaps even more endearing.  With huge expressive eyes, tiny little tentacles, and opalescent skin, bobtail squids look like they were designed by a Sanrio artist having a strange day.  Sepiolida cephalopods appear to be all head (they are also known as dumpling squid or stubby squid because of this shape)–and their large rounded navigation fins, which stick out like Dumbo’s ears only add to the impression.   Members of the Sepiolida do not have cuttlebones but they are far more similar to cuttlefish than to other squid—perhaps their taxonomical classification will change as they are better understood.

Southern Dumpling Squid (Euprymna tasmanica) photo by David Mitchell

There are approximately 70 known species of bobtail squid living in the shallow coastal waters from the Mediterranean, to the Indian Ocean, to the Pacific.  To quote the Tree of Life Website, “Members of the Sepiolida are short (mostly 2-8 cm), broad cephalopods with a rounded posterior mantle.” The animals are gifted hunters which eat shrimp, arthropods, and other small animals which they chomp apart with a horny beak at the center of their arms. During the day, bobtail squid bury themselves in the sand with only their eyes protruding and then they hunt at night.  Certain species of bobtail squid are known to be poisonous, like the lovely Striped Pyjama Squid (Sepioloidea lineolata).  This poison is not well understood and may be contained in the slime produced by the creatures.

Striped Pyjama Squid (Sepioloidea lineolata) photo by Tony Brown

Bobtail squid are bioluminescent and they use this ability to disguise their profile when viewed from below–a helpful sort of camouflage which serves them as predators and prevents them from becoming prey.  Young bobtail squid are not born with the bioluminescent bacteria but must capture them from the water column in order to start the symbiotic colony within their own bodies.  The symbiotic relation between the bobtail squid and the bacterial colony has been much studied in the laboratory.

Bobtail Squid (photo by Adam Minu)

It was thanks to such studies that scientists first began to understand the method through which bacteria communicate with each other.  Called “quorum sensing”, such communication takes place within a group of bacteria by means of signaling molecules.  The chemical conversations allow bacteria to respond quickly and in aggregate to changes in their environment (to such a degree that a bobtail squid can tell the bacteria within its own tissues how much to fluoresce and can thereby determine its own luminosity by communicating with millions of living entities inside itself).  I have written before about how critical bacteria are to the planet and the Earth’s ecosystem.  Studying the bobtail squid provided the first understanding of the way that bacteria communicate with each other, but we are now beginning to suspect that such communication might take place on a vast—perhaps even a global—scale.

Juvenile Common Botail Squid (Sepietta oweniana)

This week has featured posts about quolls, the quincunx, quince trees, and qiviut.  For a last q-theme post, I thought about revisiting the lovely quilin, the Chinese unicorn, but I decided that that would be too easy. To round off the week properly we must undertake a grim and harrowing journey of imagination. We need to go back to the dark mansion–once more we must descend to Diyu, Chinese hell.

How do we keep ending up here?

As explicated in my previous post, Diyu was the Chinese afterlife for souls that lived less than exemplary lives (i.e. just about everyone).  The edifice was imagined as a gigantic maze with many different chambers presided over by different competing authorities.  As souls worked (or bribed) their way out of one awful torture chamber they were whisked to a new one until, eventually, their karmic slate was clean and they were ready to be reborn back into the living world.


The ruler of all hell was King Yama also known as Yen-lo-Wang (a god adapted from Yama, the Hindu death god, who merits his own post) many other potentates, gods, and spirits inhabit Diyu.  Yama was once the judge of hell as well as its ruler, but he was found to be too lenient and was replaced as magistrate by Qin-Guang-Wang a much less merciful underworld deity.  Qin-Guang-Wang presided over the first room of Hell where the magic mirror of retribution stood.  This mirror replayed every single part of a person’s life in agonizing detail.  Once Qin-Guang-Wang had watched this pitiless evidence he sent the spirit on to the proper destination.  In all eternity he has only sent a handful of souls over the golden bridge to the perfect happiness of western paradise.  A few more souls are allowed to cross the silver bridge which leads to the seedy and disreputable but still comfortable southern paradise. Everyone else is sent deeper into the dark mansion to report for centuries of disemboweling, flaying, boiling, impaling, roasting, crushing, skinning, and so forth.

Of course everyone–beast, human, god, demon, or even inanimate object—has a backstory in Chinese mythology and the ruthless Qin-Guang-Wang is no exception.  According to myth he was once King Jiang of Qinguang, a warrior and martinet whose inflexible interpretation of rules and personal cruelty were peerless.  The court of heaven noted his talents, promoted him to deity, and now he does what he loves for eternity.

An Adult Muskox (Ovibos moschatu)

It’s time to consider the mighty muskox (Ovibos moschatu) a survivor from the ice age.  Possessing powerful curved horns, which hang down like side bangs from a helmet-like skullcap, muskoxen are actually more closely related to sheep and goats than to cattle and oxen (although all of the above are members of the Bovidae family).  Adult muskoxen weigh from 180 to 400 kg (400 to 900 pounds) but they look much larger on account of their thick coats and large heads.  Once muskoxen proliferated throughout the northern hemisphere alongside wooly mammoths and aurochs, but hunting and habitat loss caused them to retreat further and further into the remotest parts of the north until the end of the nineteenth century when the animals could only be found in the unpopulated wilderness and empty islands of northern Canada and deep in the arctic fastnesses of Greenland.

In these remote locations tiny herds of one to two dozen muskoxen still subsist on grasses, willows, lichens and moss while contending with terrible arctic predators and fearsome cold. Fortunately the muskox is provisioned with fearsome horns and doughty neighbors to fend off polar bears and wolves.  The herd is capable of assembling in a ring formation with horns outward to stand off wolves and ice bears (although such a strategy works less well against humans with our projectile weapons). To fight the cold, the muskoxen have fat reserves and one of the most remarkable insulating coats in the animal world.

Go ahead, run in and bite the little muskox.

A muskox’s coat is divided into two layers: a long stringy layer of coarse outer wool and an inner layer of soft warm underwool called qiviut (this Inuit word now primarily denotes muskox wool but it was once also used to refer to similarly soft warm inner down of arctic birds).  Qiviut is one of the world’s premier luxury fibers: it is allegedly 8 times more effective at insulation than sheep’s wool and yet is softer than cashmere. Unlike sheep’s wool, it does not shrink in water at any temperature.

Raw qiviut and spinning equipment

Every season a musk ox sheds his or her down coating and qiviut can be obtained in the wild by plucking cast-off tufts from thorns and snares.  Unfortunately such qiviut is of lower quality than that obtained by combing/plucking the hides of hunted muskox—so demand for qiviut was driving down musk ox numbers. Fortunately, a gentler solution is becoming more prevalent—muskox farming.

Qiviut yarn

Last month I devoted a week to writing about the domestication of various plants and animals (the gist of those writings can be found here, in a post about a strange feral Renaissance painting).  Of course many animals have escaped the yoke of domestication, and the muskox was one such creature—until recently.  Ranchers have made use of hard-won knowledge of large animals and the muskoxen’s herd instincts to create muskox farms.  A modified bison crush is used to immobilize the live muskoxen while they are combed and plucked (I desperately wanted a photo but there was nothing online—so you’ll have to make do with the baby muskox pictures below).

Aw! The baby muskox is too cute.

Thanks to reintroduction programs, there are now muskox herds in Siberia, Sweden, Norway, and Alaska as well as in Canada and Greenland.  Farm herds are further swelling the numbers of these magnificent beasties.

Here's one playing with a rubber ball.

A Quince Tree with Ripe Quinces

The quince (Cydonia oblonga) is a flowering tree of the rose family which bears an edible golden fruit. Quinces are rare in America due to their susceptibility to fireblight disease (a bacterial infection caused by Erwinia amylovora).  Because the fruit are unusual here and because, without cooking or other treatment, they are very sour and bitter, quinces are regarded as a sort of poor relation to apples and pears (both of which are indeed very close relations within the rose family), but probably it should be the other way around.  Not only does the quince occupy an exalted place in literature and the arts, but the tree is believed to hold a treasure trove of medically useful compounds in its leaves, bark, and fruit.

Quince trees are small trees which, in spring, bear many large single blossoms of bright pink. The flowers are hermaphrodites, able to fertilize themselves.  When fertilized the blossoms develop into chartreuse-colored pubescent fruit which then further ripen into a bright golden yellow in autumn (when also the tiny fuzzy hairs fall off).  The knobbly pear-like fruit are exceptionally tart but become sweet if treated with salt, bletted (left on the tree to decompose slightly), or cooked. The quince is exceptional for baking, for making sweet wines and liquors, and for jams and sauces.  Additionally quinces have long been a feature of traditional medicine and a host of recent studiessuggest that different parts of the plant might have a number of therapeutic properties including lipid lowering effects, antidiabetic activity, and antiallergic properties among others (in addition to being a healthy nutrition and fiber source).

Detail of Eve (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1528)

The quince originated in the Caucasus region between the Caspian and the Black Sea (a region where wild quince trees can still be found). Cultivation of the little tree began in Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.  If that sounds like a familiar location, it should, for it was there that human hands created the first cities.  From the cradle of civilization, the quince spread to the Levant and the Mediterranean long before the apple or the pear.  For this reason the fruit is a favorite candidate (along with the fig) as the forbidden fruit of Genesis.  Additionally, anytime an apple appears in ancient Greek literature or myth, it can reasonably be assumed to be a quince–which means the infamous golden apple of Eriswhich caused the Trojan War was actually a golden quince.   Indeed quinces are gold colored and have been a traditional feature of classical Greek nuptial ceremonies since records exist.  The quince lingered on as a symbol of Aphrodite and is one of the trees sacred to the love goddess.  A number of fertility myths and superstitions remain attached to the quince in the Balkans and in Turkey.

Quinces and Medlars on a Table Ledge (Jan Jansz van de Velde, mid 17th Century)

Beyond the Mediterranean world, the quince has an active artistic life as well.  The knobby glowing fruits have been a source of inspiration to artists for a long time, but perhaps they are even more celebrated in literature.  Peter Quince is the rustic craftsman and playwright from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Wallace Stevens later borrowed the character to narrate Peter Quince at the Clavier, an examination of desire, music, and thought. Tennyson, Browning, and Keats all alluded to the fruit or flowers of the quince which feature frequently in Victorian poesy. In fact The golden fruits are the second fruit mentioned in the poem The Goblin Market (which must surely rank as the greatest fruit-themed poem ever written). Finally, the fruit features prominently in The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, a work of literature familiar to everyone which surely deserves mention here, involving as it does farm animals, mammals, a turkey, and the moon which was (and remains) in outer space.

‘Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

Detail of Two Quinces (Eliot Hodgkin, 1951)


A Quincunx

Continuing Q week, we come to the quincunx, a geometric pattern in which five units are arranged in an x shape.  That concept may have sounded complicated because there were too many letter-based phrases in the sentence, but the quincunx will be instantly familiar as the side of a standard six-sided playing die with five spots on it.  The quincunx takes its distinctive name from an ancient coin of the Roman Republic from the second century BC.  The little coin was worth 5/12th of an “as”–the standard bronze Republican coin of the time (which makes me glad I did not have to make change for buyers of that period).

The quincunx shape was popular with the Romans, who were inclined to numerological superstition, and subsequently, during the middle-ages, the shape found its way into many heraldic representations.

Five Fig Leaves in a Quincunx Pattern (known as "Saltire" in Heradlry)

Beyond its use in money, logos, and coats-of-arms, the quincunx shape has long been used for fruit orchards. To quote the Hegarty Webber Partnership, a website created by British garden designers with an eye for history:

Thomas Browne, in his Garden of Cyrus of 1658, claimed that the Persian King Cyrus was the first to plant trees in a quincunx. He also claimed to have discovered that it also appeared in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Seventeenth century diarist and garden guru Sir John Evelyn also thought it was the best way to lay out apple and pear trees.

The classical Persian precedent may be doubtful, but the quincunx is a wonderful way to lay out trees. As can be seen in the illustration below, such a staggered arrangement not only creates regular parallel rows (as would a normal four by four arrangement) but additionally creates regular diagonal rows.  A visitor to such an orchard would see a regular row whichever way she looked.  Such layouts create the illusion of more space (since we are used to rows which are perpendicular to each other) but they make it easy for orchard-goers to mistakenly turn down diagonal rows and become lost.

Finally, and most bafflingly, the quincunx is the underlying concept for a 2 dimensional square projection of a 3 dimensional spherical space.  Since a sphere represents an entire 3 dimensional frame of vision for a viewer in the center, such quincuncial projections show all aspects of a scene: above, below, side-to-side, in-front, and behind. An entire field of vision can thereby be distorted into a square. To better illustrate this concept, here is a quincuncial projections of the unusual octagonal (gothic!) crossing of Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, England.

Gah! A Full Field Panorama of the Octagonal Crossing at Ely Cathedral (a quincuncial projection)

A stained glass sky-light window is immediately above the viewer and thus at the center of the composition.  The floor is the grey border around the edges.  The entrance door is at the top of the composition (upside down) while the central knave stretches upward from the bottom of the picture.  The north and south trancepts stretch off to the left and right. Finally, since Ely cathedral is octagonal, there are 4 additional doors  running along the diagonals of the composition.  There! I’m glad to have cleared that up, now I’m going to go have a drink and clear my head.  If you are really ready to go on a dimension warping trip into the world of panoramic photography, here is a link to other quincuncial projections.  Good luck on the other side of the looking glass!

To borrow a page from the timeless style of Sesame Street, this week Ferrebeekeeper is brought to you by the Roman letter Q.  Each post will concern a topic which begins with that rare letter.  So quench your thirst with quinine water and wrap up in a quaint quilt. There is a reason that the letter Q is worth 10 points in scrabble but I think we can find 5 relevant topics that are not too quixotic (also I’m going to stop using extra q words for effect immediately—please don’t stop reading).

A Northern Quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus)

For the first q-themed post, we must travel to the ancient arid continent of Australia. For reasons of geology and tectonics, Australia has been a wallflower in the great continental ballet and has been isolated for the last 40 million years.  Thanks to this geographic seclusion, the animals of Australia are much different than the creatures which flourish elsewhere, and Austalia’s mammals are dominated by marsupials like the kangaroos, the wombats, the koalas, and the bandicoots.  All of those creatures are herbivores, but there are insectivorous marsupials (like the numbat) and there are marsupial carnivores which prey on the others.  Some of the larger orders of marsupial predators have died off as Australia dried out, but a major order of predators remain–the catlike quolls.

Quolls (genus Dasyurus) are solitary, nocturnal mammals which seek shelter in their burrows and dens by day and hunt birds, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals at night. They are agile all-terrain creatures capable of swiftly moving across the forest floor or through the forest canopy.  Quolls kill their prey with a bite to the neck where it joins the head.  In addition to being predators, they also scavenge for carrion and they can sometimes be found by picnic areas and rubbish dumps. There are six species of quolls which range in size from 350 grams (12 ounces) to 3.5 kilograms (8 pounds). Four species are located across the Australian mainland while one species inhabits New Zealand.  One outlier species, the Bronze Quoll (Dasyurus Spartacus) lives in the savannah of New Guinea. The animals all share a characteristic spotted fur coat and a similar lifestyle.  The closest relatives of quolls are the formidable Tasmanian devils (the largest extant marsupial carnivores) and the superficially weasel-like mulgaras.

Unfortunately, quolls are not doing well.  Feral cats, dogs, and foxes are much more deft predators and are outcompeting the quolls or eating them outright (although the quolls do get some free meals from the invasive wave of rabbits and rats which have swept Australia).  Additionally the quolls are falling victim to an even stranger invasive species.  The Cane Toad (Bufo marinus) is a toxic South American toad which was brought to Australia in order to control agricultural pests.  The toads secrete a powerful toxin which is potent enough to kill a human (some people ingest cane toad secretions in order to experience the hallucinogenic effects).  Cane toads resemble some of the natural amphibian prey species of quolls and the spotted predators eat them voraciously—only to fall sick and die.  In order to save the unlucky quolls, a project is afoot to train the predators not to eat cane toads. Wildlife researchers have been dropping small sausages made of cane toad from airplane in quoll habitats.  It is hoped that quolls will eat the sausages and become violently sick (but not fatally so).  Having had a miserable bad trip, the quolls will then presumably forbear from eating further cane toad flesh.

The Cane Toad (Bufo marinus)

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

September 2011