You are currently browsing the monthly archive for July 2012.

Agriculture is almost unknown in the natural world. Human beings are the only vertebrates known to grow crops or keep livestock (with the possible exception of damselfish which carefully tend little algae gardens).  And yet we were not the first animals to invent the concept.  Ants have farmed fungi within their tunnels for tens of millions of years.  Ants also keep aphids in captivity in order to “milk” them of sugary secretions–or to eat them outright.  It is possible that beetles, termite, or snails came up with the concept first, but most evidence points to ants as the first farmers.

An Ant Milking Aphids

Ants do not have a shabby operation either. Leaf cutter ants form the largest and most complicated animal societies known on Earth (other than our own) and a single colony can have over 8 million individuals.  Leaf cutters are an ideal example of how adept ants are at farming fungi.  Four different castes of worker ants work together to bring back leaf fragments and integrate them into huge fungal gardens. Different species of leafcutters cultivate different fungi from the Lepiotaceae family.  Certain bacteria with antifungicidal and antibacterial properties grow within the metapleural glands of the ants.  The worker ants use these bacteria to “prune and weed” dangerous or unproductive organisms out of their gardens.  Older (more expendable) worker ants carry waste products from the hive to a waste pile where they stir the hive wastes together to aid in decomposition.  The waste-management job brings the danger of fungal or bacterial contamination and contaminated ants are exiled to certain death in order to keep the gardens safe.  Additionally dead ants from within the hive are carefully placed around the waste pile so as to protect the hive from their decomposition.

Leaf Cutter Ants at the Cameron Currie Lab arrange cut-up leaves into their fungal garden.

According to geneticists who study the rates of mutation within the various fungal cultivars, ants began their farm relationship with fungi around 50 million years ago in the warm Eocene epoch (an era which saw many of the critical relationships in modern ecosystems begin).

 

Digital Cut-away of an underground leaf-cutter nest

Scientists are also beginning to understand the means by which ants herd their little flocks of aphids.  The aphids are smaller insects which feed on the saps and juices of plants (which they suck out by means of specialized mouthparts called stylets).  The ants prevent the aphids by flying away by tearing off their wings.  The feet of the ants produce chemicals which tranquilize and subdue the aphids and keep them from escaping the “pastures” near the ant colonies.  It is believed that aphids also derive certain benefits from this arrangement since the aggressive ants protect them from many of their natural predators.

An Ant with a “herd” of Aphids

For years naysayers belittled the farming achievements of ants suggesting they were little more than symbiotic arrangements.  However as entomologists study the ants more carefully they increasingly discover just how complicated and sophisticated those relationships are (involving as they do numerous symbiotic relationships with bacteria in order to produce the chemicals necessary for agricultural control).  Additionally, what are humankind’s relationships with our crops and animals if not huge harrowing examples of symbiosis?

Drawing of Wan Hu and his space vehicle

Ferrebeekeeper has looked at true space pioneers such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the father of theoretical astronautics, and Yuri Gagarin, the first person to actually visit space.  However there are apocryphal tales concerning earlier space-explorers and aerospace pioneers. One of the shortest and silliest legends concerns Wan Hu, a (most-likely-fictional) petty government official in Medieval China who was reputedly the first astronaut.  Wan Hu’s problematic story is set in 15th century China during the 19th year of the reign of the Chenghua Emperor (the 8th emperor of the Ming Dynasty who ruled from 1464 to 1487).

Wan Hu Launches Off (Illustration courtesy of US Civil Air Patrol)

Wan Hu was obsessed with the heavens and he decided to travel to outer space by means of Ming dynasty technology (or possibly he was trying to catch a cartoon roadrunner). He assembled a “spacecraft/flying machine” from 47 powerful fireworks rockets, two large kites, and an armchair.  The rockets were tiered into two stages to give the chair an added burst of power.  When he gave the word, numerous attendants darted forward with torches and simultaneously lit the fireworks.  Wan’s chair leapt into the sky and then exploded in a giant ball of flame.  When the smoke cleared Wan and his flying machine were entirely gone.  Even if he did not make it to space, he certainly succeeded in exiting this mortal plane!

Not only does the story contain implausible elements (!) but the first known version of Wan Hu’s heroic but doomed flight comes from an issue of Scientific American published in the October 2nd, 1909 issue of Scientific American (although the hero of that story was named “Wang Tu”).  Subsequent retellings of the story (first in English and then in Chinese) changed the name to Wan Hoo and then finally to Wan Hu. Despite Wan’s nonexistent nature, the Soviets named a lunar crater after him in 1966.  In 1970 the  International Astronomical Union accepted the name—so an ancient crater which measures 5km deep and 52km wide on the dark side of the moon permanently bears the name of the imaginary adventurer.  Surprisingly the Chinese have embraced Wan (choosing hopefully to admire his courage and foresight rather than his safety protocols) and there is a statue of him at Xichang Satellite Launch Centre.

Statue of Wan Hu reportedly located at Xichang Satellite Launch Centre

Statue of an Apsara Dancing(Unknown artist, Uttar Pradesh, India, Early 12th century)

In both Hindu and Buddhist mythology a group of beautiful & ethereal female spirits inhabit the skies.  These elegant beings are known as apsaras.  They are lesser goddesses of water and clouds.  In classical Indian literature apsaras are often portrayed dancing seductively in the courts of the gods or married to ganharvas—nature spirits who play celestial music for the gods. Both groups of entities are particularly connected with the court of Indra, the god of the skies and storm, and also king of the gods (although that title is less absolute in Hinduism than in other cosmologies).

Rambha Apsara (Kishan Soni, 2012, oil on canvas)

In many myths, apsaras are cast as supporting characters.  They are roughly analogous to nymphs and naiads in Greek mythology or angels in Abrahamic myths.  Indra constantly felt threatened by great ascetics who amassed titanic spiritual and magical power through physical austerity.  One of his favorite ways of dealing with these powerful yogis was to send apsaras to seduce them—which is why many heroes of Indian myth have a sexy apsara as a mother and a crazed hermit as a father!  In addition to being masterful dancers apsaras could alter their form at will (although I can’t think of any story where they were anything other than beautiful).  They also ruled over the vicissitudes of gaming and gambling.

The apsara Menaka seduces the sage Viswamitra

Apsaras can be recognized because of their tiny waists and their pronounced feminine attributes.  Usually they are pictured dancing gracefully, clad (or partially clad) in lovely silk skirts and bedecked with gold jewelry and precious gems.  Often they are gamboling in the skies or playing in the water.  Additionally apsaras tend to be crowned with gorgeous ornate headdresses.

Apsara (stone relief carving at Angkor Wat)

Sculptures of apsaras are frequently a principle component of classical Indian temples and the gorgeous undulating female forms remain a mainstay of Indian art.  These celestial dancers were also particularly esteemed in Southeast Asia. Classical art and architecture from Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos frequently features the lovely spirits.  Recently a controversy has broken out in the Cambodian community involving contemporary paintings of apsaras which some critics deem too racy for refined tastes.  Ascetics beware!

 

The London Olympics Stadium

The 2012 Olympics are starting tomorrow.  I’m looking forward to watching (and blogging about) some of the esoteric sports which only get their moment of glory every four years—especially the sailing, boating, and shooting sports which are my favorite.  Before we get to the actual Olympics though, we have to get through the opening ceremonies, which are always a huge sloppy mess.  Like costumed mascots, which fascinate and appall the viewer with a unique combination of human and inhuman elements (in fact the 2012 Summer Olympics already feature completely ludicrous mascots) there is something simultaneously evocative and revolting about such international mass spectacles. If you can tolerate the agonizing kitsch and the eye-wateringly lurid spectacle, there are always insights into the host nation and the larger zeitgeist of each era.

The Opening Ceremony of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens

Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony

The principle elements of opening ceremonies generally include pyrotechnics, has-been pop stars, dreadful dance routines, strange performance art, posturing politicians, and crazy costumes.  There is also a moral lesson or story (which is meant to be an undercurrent but which is usually fairly overt) presented in a peculiar opera-like mash of dance, cameo celebrity appearances, and moveable sets.

Like all Americans, I boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics opening

Each host nation always manages to bring its own special horrible thing to the opening ceremony–for example the Beijing opening ceremony featured mass dance routines that would put North Korea to shame.  Tens of thousands of majorettes all marched in place for hours in high heeled boots with big fake smiles that said “they have my family!”

2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony (featuring clapping marching performers)

The overarching message of the Beijing opening ceremony seems to have been that China had a very ancient and superior culture but then fell on hard times (through no fault of its own) before building a brighter & better homogenous society which is poised to take leadership of the world.  During the bombastic (but compelling) performance, the cameras kept cutting to the grandstand filled with world leaders.  Putin stared at the spectacle with icy hatred in his eyes and a hard frown.  George Bush Junior kept slumping over in his seat with disinterest as Laura plucked at his elbow.

Crazy Costumes from the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening Ceremony

At least China still envisions a future in outer space (2008 Beijing Olympics opening Ceremony).

England, of course, is not lacking in dried-up rock stars and supernumerary VIPS, but preliminary reports indicate tomorrow’s opening ceremony will also be a chronological morality tale put together by England’s foremost director. The 2012 Olympics opening ceremony was designed by Danny Boyle, the director of Bollywoodwesque Slumdog Millionaire, zombie horror film 28 Days Later, and heroin-soaked black comedy Trainspotting.  According to The Daily Mirror:

The whole ceremony is based on William Shakespeare’s brilliant play, The Tempest. The title in particular is borrowed from a stirring speech made by the native Caliban to his master Prospero. “Be not afraid,” says Caliban, “for the isle is full of noises. Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.”

In addition to the bard, Boyle apparently intends to pay homage to England’s agrarian past with a comprehensive cavalcade of live farm animals.  The second act will feature the hardships of the industrial revolution and the amorality of England’s colonial ascendancy—which is meant to provide a dark and upsetting counterpoint to the initial bucolic splendor.  Finally modern England will appear as a land of toleration and rock-and-roll!  [Of course all of this could be wrong. Boyle has been trying to keep his program secret, and this information is based on leaks and speculation.]

2010 Spirit Bear? Does anyone else remember this?

This year is already looking exciting in terms of political drama. Putin will not attend since he is angry with Great Britain (as apparently is President Obama, though nobody has yet fathomed why).  An awkward Mitt Romney will be there, trying [and failing] to fit in with actual world leaders.  But the real excitement will focus on the central performance, a train wreck of public art featuring farm animals, Elton John, industrial grime, James Bond, the Spice girls, and medieval kings.  What does that say about the zeitgeist?  Find out tomorrow!

Pagoda Trees in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn

In this part of the world, most of the truly spectacular flowering trees bloom in spring.  The redbuds, magnolias, cherry trees, and the empress trees all burst into blossom months ago. Do any trees flower in the very heart of summer?  Well, actually all sorts of trees flower now, but many of them have tiny blossoms or green flowers which are not easily seen.  The pagoda tree however (Styphnolobium japonicum) is not so modest: during the end of July and the beginning of August the trees can be found covered with bursting clusters of off-white flowers.

The Pagoda Tree or “Chinese Scholar Tree” (Styphnolobium japonicum)

Pagoda trees obtained their English name because they were planted around Buddhist temples throughout East Asia. The species name “japonicum” is a complete misnomer—the trees actually originate in China and were imported to Japan (where they first came to the attention of botanists).  In English the trees are also known as scholar trees or “Sophoras.”

Seed Pods on the The Pagoda Tree (Styphnolobium japonicum)

Pagoda trees grow slowly but they can eventually become large growing up to 10-20 m tall (30-60 ft) with the same breadth.  They are members of the sweetpea family, which becomes evident in autumn when the trees are festooned with strange long seedpods which resemble huge yellow snow peas. Like other popular ornamental city trees, the pagoda tree can tolerate high pollution and poor soil quality.

A memorial stone where the last Chongzhen Emperor hanged himself (the actual tree was uprooted and killed during the Cultural Revolution)

In China, the pagoda tree is esteemed for its beauty but it has a more sinister reputation than it does here. In 1644, a peasant army was storming the Forbidden City after conquering all Imperial resistance.  The Chongzhen Emperor, the last Ming Emperor, ordered a lavish banquet for all of the women of his family.  When the meal was finished he killed his wives, concubines, and daughters with a sword and then went outside and hanged himself on a pagoda tree.  The actual tree lived a long prosperous life but was uprooted and killed. Even the Chinese name 槐 is somewhat sinister, combining the characters for wood and demon.  This is partially because the pagoda tree does not suffer other trees to live near it in its native forests and partly because of harrowing old Chinese myths about families that died when living in houses made of pagoda tree wood.

 

Announcement of Death to the Virgin (Duccio di Buoninsegna, ca. 1310, tempera on panel)

Duccio di Buoninsegna was born in the middle of Sienna in the 13th century.  Before his death in 1319 or 1320, Duccio combined the stiff formal conventions of Byzantine and Romanesque art with newfound Italian interests in modeled forms, three dimensional architectural interiors, and naturalistic emotions.   Along with Cimabue, Giotto, and Pietro Cavallini he is regarded as one of the progenitors of Western art (and the sole father of Siennese gothic art).

Detail of “Announcement of Death to the Virgin” (Duccio di Buoninsegna, ca. 1310, tempera on panel)

Duccio’s painting Announcement of Death to the Virgin is one of only thirteen surviving works by the master.  A beautiful gothic angel has materialized before Mary as she reads from a psalter. The heavenly visitor silently presents Christ’s mother with a palm frond to symbolize the coming death of her son.  Mary gestures in resolute horror at the message.  Beyond the three-dimensional room delicate arches lead to a background of blackness.

Detail of “Announcement of Death to the Virgin” (Duccio di Buoninsegna, ca. 1310, tempera on panel)

Little is known of Duccio’s life, but we know that it was a disorganized mess.  He had seven children and thanks to an inability to manage money he was frequently in trouble with debts and fines.  Fortunately his gifts as an artist outshone his problems with organization.  By the beginning of the 14th century he was the most famous (and revolutionary) painter in Sienna and he managed to solve his financial problems by painting numerous commissions around the thriving communal republic.

Texas Coral Snake (Micrurus tener)

Many reptiles and amphibians are beautifully colored, particularly the poisonous ones. When I was growing up, I had a set of field guides of the creatures of North America.  Of all the land animals of North America, the animals which I thought were most beautifully colored were the coral snakes. Coral snakes constitute four genera of snakes within the family of elapid snakes (cobras, mambas, sea snakes, kraits, and other poisonous snakes from warm climates).  Many coral snakes live in South America and the old world (where some coral snake species are evolving into sea snakes), but I’m going to stick to writing about the gorgeous red, yellow, and black coral snakes of North America.  These snakes are brightly colored to warn potential predators that they are extremely venomous.  This strategy has failed somewhat when it comes to intimidating humans, who have a collective fascination with pretty colors.

Eastern Coral Snake (Micrurus fulvius)

There are three coral snakes which live in the United States.  The eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius) ranges from North Carolina to Texas (including Florida and the Gulf Coast swamps). The Texas coral Snake (Micrurus tener) ranges from northeast Mexico up through Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.  The Arizona coral snake (Micruroides euryxanthus) lives in the Sonoran desert through Southern New Mexico, Arizona, and Sinaloa.  All species of coral snakes in the United States can be identified by the fact that their red bands touch the yellow bands (which is in marked opposition to mimics like king snakes and milk snakes).  Coral snakes from Central/South America and from Asia do not always follow this rule: the black bands can sometimes touch the red bands, or the bands can be colors other than red, yellow, and black–or there might be no bands at all!

Arizona Coral Snake (Micruroides euryxanthus)
Photographer: Wayne Van Devender

Coral Snakes are fossorial predators which spend most of their life just beneath the leaf litter or loose topsoil where they hunt lizards, frogs, insects, and smaller snakes.  Baby snakes are 18 centimeters (7 inches long) when they hatch from their eggs. Adult snakes can grow to 0.6 meters (2 feet) in length. Coral snakes can live up to seven years in captivity.

Coral Snakes are extremely poisonous, but they are also shy and retiring. Instead of hanging around biting, they would prefer to escape as quickly as possible.  This makes sense from the snake’s perspective, since their fangs are very tiny and they have to chew directly on their prey in order to inject a fatal dose.  Since they have tiny mouths, it is not necessarily easy for them to score a direct bite on humans.  Additionally their venom acts slowly—at first there is only a mild tingling associated with the bite. Lethargy, disorientation, and nausea set in hours later.  In extreme cases, coral snake bites can cause respiratory arrest.  Fatal bites are extremely rare: most sources state that nobody has been killed by a coral snake in the US since antivenin was released in 1967 (although I also found allusions to a 2009 case where a man laughed off a bite only to die hours later).

A coral snake’s little teeth.

Coral Snake antivenin was solely manufactured by one US drug company, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals (now a wholly owned subsidy of Pfizer Inc.). In 2003 Wyeth ceased manufacturing coral snake antivenin since too few people were bitten to make the product profitable.  There is still a small supply left on hand (although the expiration date has been extended twice), but Pfizer does not seem to have any intention of pursuing a microscopic niche market when it has more profitable businesses to pursue.  Foreign pharmaceutical companies continue to produce coral snake antivenin, but they do not sell it in the United States because of prohibitive licensing and regulatory costs (hooray! the United States health care system is unsolving problems which were figured out 40 years ago!).

Actually Wyeth just doesn’t want to save this guy.*

*Don’t be this guy.

Today’s post concerns an unlikely ally—an eccentric friend you have most likely maligned (perhaps even to the point of death).  How eccentric is this unknown benefactor?  Well let’s just say our little comrade has up to 30 legs and likes to run on the ceiling—so, pretty eccentric.

No! The Italian soccer team is creepy and has many legs but it doesn’t run on the ceiling and it isn’t our friend.

I’m talking about the common house centipede (Scutigera coleoptrata), a myriapod which induces such unreasoning dislike in some people that I am going to avoid describing its extremely interesting physiology, habits, and origin, until after I have told you why you should not promptly step on it.  With its many hairy legs and its ability to swiftly scamper along smooth vertical surfaces, Scutigera has a tendency to alarm people into causing it mortal injury.  You should never do such a thing!  Scutigera is a relentless predator of bedbugs, roaches, termites, ants, silverfish, spiders, and fleas.  The house centipede is like a tiger to these truly annoying and dangerous vermin.  If you live in a large city it is entirely possible that your dwelling has been saved multiple times from horrible infestations by unloved house centipedes.

House Centipede (Scutigera coleoptrata) facing to the left of the page

Scutigera coleoptrata grows to be 25 mm (1 in) to 50 mm (2 in) in length.  They originally lived in the Mediterranean area, but they are successful and hardy and have quickly spread to all six temperate continents as humankind has moved around and built houses.  Scutigeras live up to seven years, so before you crush one, you might pause to reflect that it might have lived in your house longer than you have.

House Centipede (Scutigera coleoptrata)

You have probably seen a Scutigera running.  They move with preternatural agility and are capable of running upside down.  If you can divorce yourself from vertebrate-centric feelings of revulsion, you will see an amazing beauty to the rippling motion of their many legs.  They always remind me of little Venetian galleys or Byzantine dromons.  Like those warships, house centipedes are designed to be formidable. Perhaps we would appreciate them more if we saw the ninjalike grace with which they hunt.  They usually jump on their prey and sting it to death with modified front legs capable of delivering venom (evolutionarily unique appendages called forcipules), however they are very nimble and can also lasso smaller arthropods or whip them into submission with their many legs.  The forcipules of the house centipede are usually incapable of breaking human skin. If they do succeed in stinging a person (which they don’t undertake lightly–since we are the size of skyscrapers to them) the sting is usually no more painful than that of a bee.  Unfortunately a few people are allergic to centipede venom and can have dangerous reactions, so it is best not to handle them.

I said not to handle them!

Scutigera apprehends the world through compound eyes which can see visible light but are even better at viewing ultraviolet wavelengths.  Despite their acute vision, they tend to hunt with their long antennae which are extremely sensitive to both vibrations and smells.  Their elongated hindlegs have evolved to appear like antennae so that predators have a difficult time telling which direction a centipede will move in, but hopefully I have convinced you to leave them alone so they won’t have to run away from you. More house centipedes mean fewer bedbugs!

So, it is not easy to do what has never been done before. In October of 2010, I wrote about the National Ignition Facility, a joint scientific project run by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore California.  The National Ignition Facility aims to recreate the heat and pressure of stars and hydrogen bombs on a microscopic controlled scale.   The project is ostensibly designed as a United States defense project to model the nation’s next generation nuclear arsenal without use of (treaty-prohibited) nuclear testing, but cognoscenti have long suspected that it is a way that our country can pursue fundamental energy and physics research despite the apathy (or outright animosity) of a do-nothing congress and politically divided citizenry.

One of four banks of giant capacitors which power the laser microburst

Unfortunately the facility experienced a series of setbacks, and the massive laser array did not deliver the promised energy output.  However, this month all that changed!  On July 5th the facility briefly powered up its 192 lasers to deliver a 1.85-megajoule blast that released more than 500 trillion watts of power. Although the laser beam was only active for a miniscule fraction of a second, during that brief time it was focusing a thousand times more energy than the rest of the entire United States was actively using.  Remember Doc Brown from “Back to the Future” shouting about “1.21 gigawatts!” and desperately running his hands through his hair? Well, a gigawatt is a billion watts.  This laser beam produced a 500 terrawatt blast–500 trillion watts.  So just imagine Doc shouting “1.21 gigawatts!” four hundred thousand plus times!

The successful test firing brings the NIF within tantalizing reach of their desired ignition breakthrough—the glorious moment when scientists flip a switch and create a controlled, contained fusion reaction.  Building such a “star in a jar” is the first step on a road to titanic engineering and energy-creation achievements which could reshape humanity’s place in the universe.

The Fulvous Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna bicolor) photo by Bob Hall

Fulvous is a color which is very prevalent in the natural world.  It is a dull mixture of yellow and brown with hints of red.   The name comes from the Latin word “fulvus” which translates as “a dull yellow-brown color with a hint of red” (sometimes etymology is easy).  Since “fulvus” is a Latin word there are a shocking number of animal species which have the color incorporated in their binomial scientific name.   There are also quite a few creatures (particularly birds) known as the fulvous such-and-such in English.  Here is a little gallery of fulvous/fulvus beasties.

Cryptocephalus (Burlinius) fulvus, photographed by Josef Dvořák

 

Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva)

 

The common brown lemur (Eulemur fulvus) photo by Emmanuel Van Heygen

 

The Fulvus Roundleaf Bat (Hipposideros fulvus) painting by Gray, 1838

 

The Fulvous Owl (Strix fulvescens)

 

The Fulvous Forest Skimmer (Neurothemis fulvia)

 

Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos macei)

 

The tawny grisette (Amanita fulva)

 

The Fulvous Limpet (Iothia fulva)

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

July 2012
M T W T F S S
« Jun   Aug »
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
3031