You are currently browsing the monthly archive for February 2012.

Happy leap day!  Every time one comes around it makes me cast my mind back to where I was on past leap days—grinding through elementary school; about to graduate high school; about to graduate college; working without meaning at a parasitic bank, and so on.  Four years is a convenient marker in human life and there is something memorable about the end of winter as life takes a breath before flinging itself into spring.  However, if you keep leaping back over the century and millennia, eventually the leap years run out.

Prior to Julius Caesar, the Roman calendar was 355 days long.  Following such a calendar for any length of time caused the months to drift out of alignment with the seasons, so the ancient Romans sporadically included a leap month named Mercedonius, or Intercalaris.  Mercedonius, when it happened, was 27 days long and followed February.

February was named for the Latin word februum, which means “purification.”  Romans did not like even numbers (they regarded odd numbers as lucky).  February was the one month of the Roman year with an even number of days and so the Romans thought of the winter month as a time of purification and cleansing.  The Romans did not care for cold dark February, so they made it shorter than all other months—28 days.  Whenever Mercedonius was declared, February became shorter still—shrinking down to 23 days (at least this is probably what happened—contemporary classicists are still arguing about the precise mechanism of the ancient Roman calendar).

The pontifex maximus, the highest Priest of ancient Rome, was responsible for deciding when to insert Mercedonius into the calendar.  Throughout most of the history of Rome this worked well, however it broke down badly at least two times.  During the second Punic War, Roman society was so badly damaged by Hannibal’s invasion that the Romans lost track of Mercedonius and literally did not know what time it was.  After the battle was won, order was restored with the reforms of the Lex Acilia in 191 BC (the nature of which are unknown—but which seem to have solved everything).

"Excuse me, but do you perhaps know today's date?"

The second breakdown occurred during the years of confusion leading up to Julius Caesar’s ascendancy as dictator for life.  The pontifex maximus was inevitably a powerful citizen who was deeply involved in Roman politics.  He could interfere with the length of time other elected officials served by shortening or lengthening the year.  As civil war enveloped Rome, the calendar became a political tool and Romans again lost track of what day it was.  The confusion was only solved when Caesar took supreme office and proclaimed himself pontifex maximus.  He reformed the addled calendar into the Julian calendar, which abolished Mercedonius, the haphazard leap month, forever.

The "Tusculum bust" of Julius Caesar, possibly the only survivng portrait from Caesar's lifetime

Still Life of Flowers, Shells, and Insects (Balthasar Van der Ast, c. 1635, oil on panel)

To compliment yesterday’s post concerning a miniature snake, here is a miniature work of art by my favorite Dutch miniature master (meaning he was a master of painting tiny still lifes—not an unusually tiny man).  Still Life of Flowers, Shells, and Insects was painted around 1635 by Balthasar Van der Ast.  Although the tiny panel is only 24 cm (9.4 in) tall by 35 cm (13.8 in) wide, it contains a world of detail. An entire spring garden’s worth of florid blossoms have been arranged in the large shell of a triton.  Spiders, caterpillars, and a quizzical grasshopper stalk among the empty shells of a cowry, a deadly cone snail, and other gastropods.  There is a palpable sense of drama among the three flying creatures in the painting: a predatory dragonfly is wreathed in darkness, staring the wrong way to see its prey animal–a painted lady butterfly.  The diagonal composition lines of the painting all point to the bottom right corner of the painting where a fearsome stinging hornet has died curled into a fetal position.

Van der Ast has dignified the small objects of a bouquet with a moral tension.  The lovely evanescent flowers, the beautiful (but dead) shells, and the circling hungry insects all point to an elusive lesson about chaos and beauty.

Like many of the great middle class miniature painters, Van der Ast lived a comfortable bourgeois life which featured little outward drama.  He moved between the quietly prosperous cities of Bergen op Zoom, Utrecht, and Delft, painting beautiful objects and teaching his craft to a number of influential artists (including his nephews).  He married and had daughters and died quietly compared to other baroque artists, yet the small dramas of his canvases seem to nobly symbolize the myriad crucial struggles—moral, emotional, and physical–of everyday life.

The Barbados threadsnake–the smallest known snake in the world

The smallest known snake in the world is the Barbados Threadsnake (Leptotyphlops carlae), a species of blind threadsnake so small they were only discovered in 2008 (despite living on a heavily populated, highly studied island).  The adult snakes measure only 10 cm, (4 inches) long.  Herpetologists believe these tiny snakes are at threshold of viable size for snakes: if they were any smaller they would not be able to hunt or reproduce.

Female Barbados threadsnakes lay a single egg which is huge relative to the size of the mother. The newly hatched snakes are already half as large as adults.  Like caecilians or other blind snakes, Barbados threadsnakes are fossorial–they live and hunt underground (which is one of the reasons it took so long to find them).  The little threadsnakes live on the larvae of ants and termites.

The island of Barbados is mostly covered with cities, houses, farms, and roads

Not only are Barbados threadsnakes miniscule.  Their remaining forest territory is tiny. Barbados is heavily developed and no original old growth forests exist.  The threadsnakes live in secondary forests which regrew from the vestiges of long-vanished woods.  Their entire habitat is thought to be no more than a square kilometer or two.

Driver Ants

One of the strangest and most alarming creatures on the planet is the driver ant.  Driver ants belong to the genus Dorylus which is comprised of about 60 species.  In the larger Dorylus species, each worker ant is only half a centimeter long.  The soldier ants which guard the hive are a mere 1.5 centimeters.  Males, which can fly, are 3 centimeters long and the queen, the largest of the ants, is from 5 to 8 centimeters long.  These are not the sort of sizes that allow one to play professional football, so what makes Dorsylus ants so fearsome?  Well, there are lots of them.  Driver ants form the largest colonies of all the social insects.  They live in hives numbering more than 20 million individuals, all born by one single queen.

When marching or foraging, these hives can overrun and overpower much larger animals and generally everything that can do so gets out of their way (including mighty elephants).

Driver ant head: close-up (Dorylus nigricans)

Driver ants are usually found in the tropical forests of West Africa (although some species range into tropical Asia). Although capable of stinging, the ants rarely do so.  They prefer to use their powerful sharpened mandibles to shear apart prey.  Not only are these mandibles powerful the pliers-like pincers lock into a death grip if the ant itself is killed (or even beheaded).

Male Driver Ant ("Sausage Fly")

Male driver ants fly away from the colony very soon after birth.  If a colony of foraging driver ants comes across a male ant they rip off his wings and take him to mate with a virgin queen (after which he dies).  The queen ant then lays 1 to 2 million eggs per month for the remainder of her life.

All driver ants are blind, but they have an acute sense of touch and smell.  Larger columns follow scent trails laid down by scouts.  The ants eat any animal life they can get their mandibles on (although the staple of their diet is apparently worms).

Close-up of the enormous queen of an army ant (Dorylus anomma nigricans) colony being protected and tended to by worker and soldier ants during migration of the colony.

When driver ants have stripped the animal life from a particular section of the forest they nomadically pull up stakes and move on en masse.  Developing larvae are carried in temporary nests made up of the living bodies of worker ants.  Foraging columns or hives on the move are dangerous.  While healthy animals can escape, injured or trapped animals can be killed by the ants which enter the mouths and nostrils of victims.  One shudders to think of the bad ends which have befallen people who were wounded, bound, or seriously drunk when driver ants were passing through.  Farmers however have a different relationship with the ants which can clear entire fields of all agricultural pests in an afternoon.

A citizen interacts with "Catfish Rodeo" (Francis Moxley Zinder, and Susan Elizabeth Breining, 2003, mixed media sculpture)

In October 2003 the city of Nashville Tennessee decided to celebrate National Catfish Month (August) by asking local artists and craftspeople to make 51 catfish sculptures which were positioned around the city.  The sculptures went on display in June and were auctioned off in October.  Sponsored by the Cumberland River Compact, Greenways for Nashville, and the Parthenon Patrons Foundation, the show was meant to raise awareness concerning water quality in the Cumberland River.

Bat Cat (Dan Goostree and Paige Easter, 2003, mixed media sculpture) photo by Jan Duke

Catfish are a major theme here at Ferrebeekeeper and I am delighted at the extent to which “Catfish out of Water” captured the amazing variety and hardiness of the Siluriformes.  The name even evokes the amazing ability of the walking catfish to survive out of water (although that formidable invasive fish has fortunately not made it to Tennessee). I have only put in photos of a tiny number of the original sculptures here in order to encourage you to visit the complete gallery of catfish sculptures lovingly photographed by Jan Duke and carefully displayed and enumerated at About.com.

Cafe Catfish (Andee Rudloff and Stacey Irvin, 2003, mixed media sculpture) photo by Jan Duke

 

Herring: A Tribute to Keith Haring (Dennis Greenwell, 2003, mixed media sculpture) photo by Jan Duke

Flying Catfish (Rosemary Lab Walters, 2003, mixed media sculpture) photo by Jan Duke

Catsup (Sensored.com, 2003, mixed media sculpture)

Hooray for catfish!  May the Cumberland River always run clean and pure (except maybe for some tasty rotting food scraps for the bewhiskered critters to snack on).

Striper (Bryan Roberson, 2003, mixed media sculpture)

Musk Deer

Continuing our series of posts about saber toothed mammals we come to a second family of living creatures.  Half way between the primitive chevrotains (mouse deer) and the familiar true deer (cervids) are the Moschidae, a family of small artiodactyls consisting of one genus with several similar species.  The musk deer are small delicate grazers which live in the forested mountains or alpine scrubland of Asia.  Musk deer weigh between 7 and 17 kilograms (15 and 37 lb) depending on gender, age, and species. Unlike true deer, the little creatures lack antlers, but male musk deer make up for this absence with a pair of elongated canine teeth which they use to fight for breeding rights.

Alpine Musk Deer (Moschus chrysogaster)

Like true deer, musk deer eat the tender shoots of trees and grasses, as well as berries, lichens, and mosses.  Females live in small territories of approximately 100 to 200 acres.  The territory of a dominant male will overlap several of the females’ territories.  Female musk deer give birth to a single fawn.  Musk deer are nocturnal or crepuscular.  They use their acute hearing and excellent sense of smell to flee from predators at the slightest hint of danger.

The skull of a male Siberian Musk Deer (Moschus moschiferus)

Male adult musk deer have a musk pouch located between their genitals and their umbilicus which they use to attract mates.  Unfortunately for the little saber toothed deer this pouch also attracts human hunters.  For centuries (or longer) musk has been a prized luxury good, so much so that, at times, prices have soared to $45,000/kg on the black market. The musk is said to have an incredibly complex aroma but the main notes are earthy, woody, and “animalic” (i.e. fecal).  Dried musk grain must be substantially tinctured with alcohol before it produces a perfume which is pleasant to humans.  The resultant substance however served as a mainstay of the perfume industry and as a cure-all nostrum in ayurvedic medicine until the creation of synthetic musk.  Poor musk deer from several species were nearly wiped out because of whatever mysterious power their sexual marking fluid has on humankind.

The Dwarf Musk Deer (Moschus berezovskii)

The Flag of Mardi Gras

Today is Mardi Gras, the hedonistic final day of the carnival season!  Tomorrow, practicing Catholics take up the austere self-privations of the Lent, but today is given over to parties and spectacle.

Every year, I vow to go down to New Orleans and look for exiguously clad replacements to the smoldering Delta flame of yesteryear, but every year I end up in some gray northern office celebrating with nothing more than an unhealthy sandwich and a stack of paperwork.  This year…well the same thing happened, but at least I can celebrate the flamboyant colors of Mardi Gras–green, gold, and purple.

The official colors of Mardi Gras go back a long way.  It has been claimed that the colors were chosen in 1872 by Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovitch Romanov, a naval officer who was on a goodwill tour of America–although it is possible that the Grand Duke, a famous bon vivant, was instead trying to describe and order a cocktail made of lemon, lime, and purple bitters (a reliable history of carnival is obscured by the mists of time and a generous fog of alcohol).  In 1892, Rex, the ceremonial king of carnival, ascribed a symbolic virtue to each color and equated them with Christian holy days. Purple represents Justice (and Lent). Gold stands for power (and Easter).  Green is symbolic of faith (and Epiphany).

Since those days the colors have become more and more pervasive and now they can be found festooned everywhere.  The beads, toys, and false coins thrown from parade floats are frequently green, gold, and purple, as are many masks, costumes, decorations, and promotional materials/goods.  The lurid colors allude obliquely to royalty and many Mardi Gras objects are additionally decorated with crowns and fleurs de lis.

Traditional King Cake

Whatever the historical or symbolic significance of the colors, I can’t help but notice their similarity to the colors of spring’s first crocuses which begin to pop up at the end of winter (especially during warm winters like this).  Like the bright Kelly green of Saint Patrick’s day, the gold, purple, and green of Mardi Gras always remind me that the seasons are changing for the better and the verdancy and fecundity of spring is right around the corner.

Contraception Experts before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform

Today I am uncharacteristically writing about a current social issue in American politics–the controversy over U.S. Health and Human Services mandate on contraceptive coverage which has erupted over the course of the last fortnight.

For anybody reading this from the remote future (which will be next week, considering our 24 hour news cycle), the dispute can be summarized as follows.  The current presidential administration attempted to compel religious (particularly Catholic) schools, hospitals, and charities in the United States to provide health insurance which covers contraception for their employees.  These institutions balked at this demand, claiming that the president was trampling on their freedom of religion (Catholics authorities indeed have a well-documented history of objecting to people being able to make health choices and moral decisions for themselves).  Since it is an election year, the president seems to have backed down.

Hi! I can still intrude in American politics!

There has been a great deal written about this from different political/moral/religious perspectives and it is already the subject of much posturing and political theater. Leaving aside the obvious boon which effective contraception provides for individuals and for society (and the fact that the vast majority of American women, whatever their religion, use some form of contraception), I don’t intend to write about the dust-up per se.  If the Catholic Church wishes to force women back to a benighted era of limited reproductive freedom, well, they can make that their (abusive and wrong-headed) position [although the Church has argued that these hospitals, charities, and schools are not solely religious whenever questions of public funding and government assistance have arisen].  There are ways around it, and it doesn’t seem like a long-term winning strategy.

I am troubled instead by the implicit assumptions about health insurance and healthcare which are revealed by this controversy.

The religious (and quasi-religious) organizations claim to be angry because they are forced to pay for a service which is against their conscience.  This implies that they are paying for the service!  Whatever employers claim, health insurance is really ultimately paid for by employees.  It is part of compensation. This is one of the reasons that wages have stagnated in the United States for such a long time. Our salaries are not rising because our health care costs are going up. There is a strong incentive not to leave a job which provides health insurance because an employee can not be guaranteed to find coverage elsewhere, particularly if that employee has a pre-existing condition or works in a field with limited employment options (which is pretty much every field).  Ideally all employees adversely affected by the Church’s paternalistic overreach would quit and move to new jobs.  Raise your hand if you think that is likely or even possible.

Health costs are rising precipitously while health outcomes are getting worse.  People are understandably afraid to leave their jobs in search of better options or to start businesses of their own.  The stagnation of job mobility is hurting the American economy and society as a whole.

The reason that people should be mad is not because health insurance allows Catholic institutions coercive control over the lives of people who work for them.  People should be angry because the structure of health care in this country gives all large employers an undue hold on the people who work for them.  Americans are becoming vassals of their employers thanks to perverse incentives of a broken healthcare system.

I have no answers but here's some bland clipart.

Ornamental Adenium Tree

The Adenium genus is made up of tiny evergreen tree from the dogbane family.  The succulent trees come from Africa where they can be found in the Sahel (the semi-arid strip running along the south of the Sahara) and similar dry scrublands down the continent to South Africa.  The most famous species is Adenium obesum, a little shrub which grows from 1 to 3 meters (3 to 9 feet) in height and bears dazzling five petaled flowers that look like glowing stars of pink, red, and white. The flowers are widely cultivated as houseplants known as the desert rose (although they are in no way closely related to true roses).  A whole group of enthusiasts hold contests to determine who can hybridize the prettiest flower or cultivate the most striking ornamental bonsai trees.

In addition to their dazzling flowers, Adenium plants are known for having bulbous interestingly-shaped caudexes.  A caudex is the woody barrel-like stem/trunk in which certain desert trees and shrubs store precious liquids. Adeniums are very lovely but their loveliness should not obscure the fact that the wild specimens survive in one of the more punishingly competitive ecosystems on Earth–where all sorts of hungry grazers are desperately looking for meals.  To survive in Africa’s scrublands, Adeniums are not only hardy plants which can live almost anywhere on very little water, they are also poisonous.  Adeniums produce a cocktail of cardiac glycosides-compounds which affect the electrophysiology of the heart. Although these molecules (and other related cardiac glycosides such as those found in the foxglove) can be therapeutic in very tiny doses for certain heart conditions, in larger doses they are poisonous and cause the heart’s rhythm to fail altogether.  Thus, a plant known to American housewives as an frou-frou ornamental houseplant is known as the source of horrifying arrow poison to many of Africa’s toughest native hunters, who use the compound to kill big game.

San hunters of the Kalahari

Odobenocetops as digitally rendered by the BBC for “Chased by Seamonsters”

This blog has featured posts concerning saber-toothed seals and saber-toothed marsupials but did you know that the oceans around South America once contained a saber-toothed whale?  Odobenocetops lived during the Pliocene era (around 2.5 to 5 million years ago).  Two similar species are known in the genus from fossils discovered in coastal Peru.  An early member of the dolphin superfamily, Odobenocetops was probably more closely related to narwhals and belgugas then to modern dolphins and killer whales.

Measuring only a little longer than 2 meters (6 feet) in length, Odobenocetops was remarkable (at least among whales) for its flexible neck–which could turn 90 degrees.  The powerful blunt snout of the endearing little whale suggests that it fed from beds of mollusks and other bottom dwelling shellfish, which it rasped from their shells with a muscular tongue.  Additionally, the  Odobenocetopsidae had echolocation abilities like modern dolphins–although probably not so amazingly precise, since the extinct whales’ echolocation melons were much smaller than those of living dolphins.

Odobenocetops feeding

Of course the most distinctive features of Odobenocetops were their long spiky teeth running parallel along their sides.  Scientists speculate that these tusks could have been used to seek food or as a sensory organ–like the narwhal’s sensitive tusk.  Perhaps male whales used their tusks to battle for females, like walruses do (although they seem awfully brittle for such battles).   Some males had uneven tusks.  The sole known skull of a male Odobenocetops leptodon features a right-hand tusk 1.2 m (4 ft.) long, while the left-hand tusk is only 25 cm (10 in.) long.  Since this is the only male O. leptodon skull currently known,  it is unclear whether such asymmetry was normal.

It is striking that the whales’ saber teeth were held next to the body and it makes one think that the whale did not execute many sharp turns.  A humorous but somewhat sad cartoon which I found unattributed on the web demonstrates the potential drawbacks of the Odobenocetops’ striking saber toothed design.

Aww…the poor whale…

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