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The Barclays Center as seen from above (against the larger NY cityscape)

I hope my non-New York audience will bear with me through this post.  Even though it concerns contemporary Brooklyn (my home), it also touches on larger topics.  Today is the grand opening of the much-anticipated Barclays Center, a multi-purpose indoor sporting/concert venue, which lies at the center of a five billion dollar restoration/remake of the Vanderbilt Train Yards at Atlantic Avenue (where Ebbets Field once stood and where most of the city’s trains meet at a huge terminal).  The devilish development work which went into creating the complex took a decade or longer and required lots of high finance deals and acrimonious court cases (which, in turn, involved crushing and annexing lots of little guys via eminent domain).   The final structure involves an unholy business alliance between billionaire developer, Bruce Ratner; Russian oligarch and kleptocrat,Mikhail Prokhorov; British investment bank, Barclays PLC; hip-hop mogul, rapper, and accused stabber, Jay-Z; and, of course, New York’s hapless taxpayers who got foisted with big portions of the tab.  The stadium will be the home arena for the boringly-named Brooklyn Nets (a basketball franchise), the stage for mega concerts by the likes of Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, & Jay-Z, as well as the sight of large scale attractions like the circus, Disney-on-ice, and professional boxing.

Looking at the above paragraph, one might be somewhat inclined to disparage the project (or, indeed, to despair of humanity), but we are not here for that: instead this post is meant as aesthetic contemplation of the architecture of Barclays Center and of the changing directions of megacities at large.

The Finished Barclays Center

A timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)

The arena was designed by architectural firm Ellerbe Becket and features three bands of pre-weathered (i.e. rusted) steel plates latticed together around a futuristic glass curtain wall.  Apparently the juxtaposition of glass and rusted steel was meant to evoke Brooklyn’s famous brownstone townhouses, but the effect is more jarring than traditional.  So far critical reaction has been mixed, with local critics comparing the building to a giant coiled rattlesnake.  As the building took shape, it made me think of a science-fiction movie where the heroes crash on a supposedly deserted planet—and then discover monstrous corroded alien ruins of a shape so sinister that it foreshadows horrible events to come.  However when I walked by the finished building last night it struck me that the building actually does look like a timber rattlesnake—and I like rattlesnakes (though not in a way that makes me want to be close to them).  The sinuous curves and non-euclidean light projections gave a futuristic impression.  The employees of Modells sporting store were working overtime stripping the store’s featureless onyx mannequins naked so that they could be dressed in all-black “Nets” gear. The proud blue and white space eagle of Barclays glowed on its tri-lobed bizarro-shield. For the first time since the recession began so many years ago, I felt like Brooklyn was stepping into a prosperous (albeit authoritarian) future.

Still scene from “Bladerunner” (1982)

I have heard from concert-promoters (who were allowed early access) that the inside is stunning.  Although there are many extra boxes–and super-boxes–for the extremely well-healed, the space is said to put other similarly sized venues to shame.  The line-up of sports events and acts, though tawdry, will undoubtedly create huge business (probably surpassing that of Madison Square Garden).  Urban life is meant to be flashy, fast-paced, and busy with different people from different places who like different things.  If one loved beauty, quiet, and meaning, one would move to the country.

Gradiva’s Fourth Wall (Diana Al Hadid, 2011, steel, polymer gypsum, wood, fiberglass, paint)

Cities should be bigger than life—that is why lots of people come here.  I prefer the idea of a growing & dynamic Brooklyn to a changeless 1950s concrete jungle (which is what the railyards were) or, goodness help us, a dying city returning to wasteland, like Detroit.  Cities which are dynamic and changing require big bold risks, like the Empire State Building in the 1930s or the Centre Pompidou in the 1980s.  I am happy to see that Brooklyn is taking such chances–even if it does mean some toes get stepped on or a few giant space rattlesnakes get built.

I foresee a great shining future for the Barclays Center, although you might not see me there anytime soon.  Also be very careful crossing the street near the monstrous thing.  The one element preserved from the fifties was a disregard for the lives of people not rich enough to travel by car.

An artist’s conception of the shen creating illusions

Chinese mythology features numerous animal-spirits with magical powers.  One of the most bizarre is a shen—a giant clam/mollusk monster capable of creating illusory landscapes and cities.  Classical Chinese texts use the word “shen” to describe large bivalve mollusks such as oysters, clams, or mussels; and, indeed, such shells seem to have had an (unknown) magical usage in funerals and sacrifices.  Later texts emphasized the Shen as a mythical giant oyster/clam which was the source of huge magical pearls.  By the middle ages the shen had evolved into its current manifestation—an immense clam-like spirit creature which could blow bubbles from its tubes which gave the illusion of towering cities and fantastical fairylands.

 

The main character of the manga series “Naruto” fights a Shen (or at least I think that’s what is going on here)

I wish I could write more about the shen—where it came from, what it wants, and so forth, but there isn’t much information on the beast.  Some sources seem to suggest that it is affiliated with dragons (the protean universal mythological being of Chinese culture) or with nāgas—magical serpent people.  When gifted with magical powers of illusion these beings are imagined to hide themselves as big green clams (from which base they weave fairy-like illusions for unknown purposes).  Slightly more practical individuals have explained the illusory cities supposedly produced by the shen as the Fata Morgana, an optic illusion caused by thermal inversion which distorts ships, islands, and detritus at the edge of the offing into weird grotesque towers and blobs.  If anybody knows anything else about the mysterious shen I would love to hear it!

A distant boat distorted into a weird monolith by Fata Morgana

The Paradise Tree Snake (Chrysopelea ornata)

The paradise tree snake (Chrysopelea paradise) is a very beautiful tree snake which lives in Southeast Asia.  It ranges from the Philippines and Indonesia, up through Malaysia, Myanmar and into India.  The snake particularly enjoys climbing into the crowns of coconut palms where it feeds on arborial lizards (which it immobilizes with extremely weak venom).  The snake lives in a variety of habitats including mangrove swamps, rainforests, tree plantations, gardens, and parks.  It stands out because of its attractive pattern of yellow on black (sometimes tinted with red).

Paradise Tree Snake Flying!

What really sets the paradise tree snake apart from other pretty tropical snakes however is its impressive ability to fly—or at least to glide.  The snake holds onto its launching platform with the end of its tail and dangles the majority of its body into a j-shape.  The daring reptile then swings back and forth and launches itself through the air!  The snake sucks in its stomach and flares out its ribs so as to take the shape of a flying wing and then it slithers through the air making lateral motions with its body in order to cause air pressure underneath it to push its body up.   Smaller snakes (which are better gliders) can glide up to 100 meters (over 300 feet) and are reckoned by biomechanical locomotion specialists to be finer gliders than colugos and gliding squirrels.

A “Zombee” tattoo (by Josh Herrera of Skin Factory in Las Vegas)

More bad news for honeybees: not only do our hard-working black-and-yellow friends have to contend with blood sucking varroa mites, neonicotinoid insecticides, and giant hungry bears, but a new plague has been spreading from the west coast, claiming the life of domestic honey bees.  The Zombie fly (Apocephalus borealis) is a disgusting little hunchbacked phorid fly which has traditionally preyed on native wasps and bumblebees.  Phorid flies, coincidentally, are a successful family of over 400 species of tiny flies which tend to run very rapidly (although they are capable of flight).  The most famous phorid fly (insomuch as that’s a thing) is probably the coffin fly—although the zombie fly is working its way into the limelight too.  Charming!

The parasitic fly Apocephalus borealis on the back of a bumble bee (photo by Kimberly G. O’Harrow)

Like the horrifying parasitoid wasps, the zombie fly uses its syringe-like ovipositor to inject its eggs inside of its victims.  As the larvae hatch they attack the bee’s brain and cause it to behave in bizarre manners—such as lurching around in a random fashion or flying at night (which gets the bee away from the hive and ensures that the fly lavae are not destroyed by the bee’s concerned colleagues).  Bees so affected are mordantly known as “zombees” for obvious reasons.  Eventually the zombie fly larvae pupate into hard little cocoons which resemble grains of rice.  When they hatch they rip through the bee’s body at the juncture of the head and thorax, frequently decapitating the bee.  Sometimes it is difficult to enjoy the beauty of nature.

Adult female Apocephalus borealis fly (image from Core A, Runckel C, Ivers J, Quock C, Siapno T, et al. (2012). “A new threat to honey bees, the parasitic phorid fly Apocephalus borealis”. PLoS ONE 7 (1))

It is unclear to what extent zombie flies are contributing to the decline of honeybees at large–since the flies have not traditionally attacked domestic bees.  Perhaps the death and decline of other native bees has pushed the zombie flies into this new behavior (or maybe they were getting around to it anyway—they sound like thoroughly repulsive customers).  At any rate, beekeepers have a new problem to worry about, and are tracking confirmed instances of “zombees” online at www.zombeewatch.org.

Rainbow Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus deglupta) photo from Flickr by See Reeves

Only 15 species of Eucalyptus trees occur naturally outside of Australia and of these 15 only Eucalyptus deglupta made it to the northern hemisphere without human help.  Eucalyptus deglupta is native to the lowland rainforests of Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The tree grows rapidly to 75 meters in height (about 250 feet) which makes it one of the world’s giants.  Sometimes it becomes so large that it grows 3-4 meter tall buttresses to help it support itself.  Because of its rapid growth, large size, and medium-strength, slightly lustrous wood, these eucalyptus trees are grown commercially in huge monoculture plantations for pulping into paper.

 

Rainbow Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus deglupta) photo from Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/amelia525/303048913/) by *amelia*

The most remarkable aspect of this huge useful tree is its remarkable bark color.  The tree sheds long strips of bark throughout the year which exposes greenish yellow inner bark.  The exposed stripes of green then change color to orange, purple, red, maroon, and dark green.  Since the tree is constantly shedding narrow strips of bark its trunk becomes dazzling vertically striped rainbow of lovely colors.  In wet tropical gardens around the world the Eucalyptus deglupta is grown as an ornamental highlight both because of its beautiful color and impressive size.

Close-up of Eucalyptus deglupta

This week’s posts [concerning translucent sea slugs, wasps named for a crazy pop star, an elusive Indochinese cousin of the cow, and whole sunless ecoystems] have all been about finding new life-forms.  There is, of course, only one place such a topic can ultimately wind up—far beyond the living jungles, azure seas, and swirling clouds of our beautiful home planet, out in the immensity of space where the greatest question of all waits like a magic golden apple spinning in darkness.

Is there life elsewhere?

Unfortunately the current answer is incomplete: all known life–in all of its ineffable variety–is Earth-based…yet the universe is vast beyond comprehension.  So I’m going to mark this down as “probably.”

Chang E and the Lunarians

Many ancient societies reckoned that other worlds existed.  The Norse had their nine worlds joined together by the great ash tree Yggrdasil.  The Chinese had myths about Chang’e and the Jade rabbit on the moon. Even the stolid Christians believe in heaven & hell, which are places filled with intelligent beings that are not on earth (ergo, alien realms somewhere out there in the multiverse).  William Herschel, great astronomer of the Enlightenment, believed that life was everwhere—particularly everywhere in the solar system.

Sigh–those were simpler times…

When humankind entered space age, we used our burgeoning technology to examine the solar system for signs of Sir William’s spacefolk.  Although we did not find the Venusian space hotties we were looking for (dammit), we did discover that among our neighboring planets, there are several other possible homes for earthlike living things.  The cloud tops of Venus are inviting and could host bacteria-like life (although I hope not, since I want us to build a second home there).  For centuries, scientists and fabulists speculated about life of Mars.  We now know that the Martian magnetosphere died and the planet’s atmosphere was swept away, but perhaps there are some hardy extremophile bacteria living in the Martian rocks somewhere.  It’s a sad scenario to imagine them on their dying world—like little kids left in a bathtub going cold.  Certain moons of Jupiter & Saturn seem to be the real best bet for life in the solar system.  The Jovian moons Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto are all believed to have extensive liquid oceans beneath their crust.  Likewise the Saturn moons Titan and Enceladus are believed to have subsurface water. The discovery of life on Earth which did not directly require photosynthesis (like the cold seeps from yesterday’s post) has given scientists hope that bacterial mats—or maybe something even more advanced–exists on one of these moons.

So maybe there are some bacteria analogs or conodont-like creatures squiggling around in some cranny of the solar system.  Perhaps life takes on an unknown form and we already flew over a clever, good-hearted ammonia-based life form on Enceladus (which NASA analysts then promptly dismissed as a snowbank), but I doubt it.  The true answers to the questions about life lie out there among the stars.  Exoplanets are being discovered at a tremendous rate and everyone hopes that some of the more earthlike examples harbor life.  Unfortunately our technology is nowhere close to being able to spot the planets themselves and gauge whether life is there by means of spectrograph.  We are stuck waiting for peers who are either broadcasting radio signals or screwing around with the fundamental nature of existence in such a way that would bring them to our attention.  Indeed as humankind’s technological savvy grows, scientists are looking for more sophisticated signs of advanced life such as black holes of less than 3.5 solar masses or sophisticated particle radiation which could only be created (or detected) by civilizations of huge sophistication.  All we can say right now is that, after a hundred years of looking, we have not found a lot of radio chatter in our neck of the galaxy—which is an answer of sorts itself.

Perhaps we are among the first sentient beings in this area of space (or anywhere, for that matter).  The first generation of stars had to live and die before there were any raw materials for chemically based life. It took billions of years to get where we are, and, despite a few perilous missteps and accidents, life on Earth has been lucky.  In my opinion some of those planets we are discovering are almost certainly covered with microbial life, but not many have little green scientists in many-armed lab coats firing up their radio telescopes (or forging little suits of chain mail a few hundred years behind us).

The Arecibo message as sent 1974 from the Arecibo Observatory.

In writing about the Curiosity rover, I humorously mentioned how much it looked like the aliens from golden age science fiction. It seems we are also broadcasting retro style messages to the stars.  Above is the print-out version of the Arecibo message—one of the loudest broadcasts we have sent.  It’s like a macramé knitted by Dr. Zoidberg’s great aunt or a valentine from Atari’s space invaders! Imagine if you pointed your radio telescope at the heavens and received a message like that!  Maybe the aliens are scared of us or maybe they don’t want to talk to a species with such homespun tastes!

Some day in the future (artist’s interpretation)

So, after the whole post we are no closer to knowing if there is life in the cosmos, but what did you expect?  Did you think I would tell you some secret here before you saw it blaring out of every news station on the planet? [If you did think that, then thank you so much!]  I believe that extraterrestrial life is out there.  I even believe that intelligent extraterrestrials are out there, but the universe really is ridiculously, ridiculously vast.  It’s going to take a while to find our fellow living beings.  In the mean time have faith (which is not advice I thought I would be giving) and keep looking up at the cold distant heavens.

Life around a Cold Seep

This week Ferrebeekeeper has been concentrating on the theme of discovering new life—a search which is very much ongoing even in today’s used-up overpopulated Anthropocene world.  This concept has taken us to the mid levels of the ocean and the mountain jungles of Thailand and Vietnam to encounter species unknown (like this mystery sea slug, the tiny parasitoid wasp, and even a large hoofed mammal). However what is even more shocking is that our world features entire ecosystems rich with life that have only just been discovered.

A photograph of a pool of brine on the bottom of the ocean

A cold seep is an ecosystem on the bottom of the ocean formed around hydrocarbon-rich fluids which seep out of the earth and either “bubble up” or pool at the bottom of the ocean.  The geography of such areas is alien to our perceptions: black pools of asphalt, barite chimneys, and undersea lakes of dense brine (which traps hydrocarbons and sulfites) are surrounded by otherworldly “reefs” of tube worms and benthic mollusks.  The tube worms symbiotically partner with bacteria capable of “feeding” off the hydrocarbons while the mollusks filter feed on the archaeobacteria.   Whole communities of grazers, scavengers, and predators then form around this base.  Such communities are remarkable because they do not rely on photosynthesis as a source of energy and nutrients (much like more famous “black-smoker” ecosystems which are also chemotrophic ecosystems—but which form around hot volcanic vents).  Cold seeps themselves were only discovered in 1983! Now that oceanographers know what to look for, cold seeps are being discovered in locations where we would never have looked for large complicated webs of life.

A Map of the collapsing Larsen Ice Sheet

In 2005, an oceanographic research team studying the seas once covered by the Larsen ice shelf (a melting shelf of ice located off the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula) discovered a cold seep community thriving in a glacial trough 850 meters (2,800 feet) beneath the ocean’s surface.  The scientists found great mats of bacteria living on methane.  These bacterial mats were in turn grazed on by strange bivalve mollusks and brittle sea stars.  To quote EOS (a journal of the American Geophysics Union):

These results have implications for the discovery of life in extreme environments, including those found beneath the enormous extent of existing ice shelves and large lakes that lie beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Because of its restricted conditions, the seafloor beneath ice shelves may provide a suitable, widespread habitat for chemotrophic systems; given this, there may be many more such habitats waiting to be discovered beneath existing ice shelves….The seafloor beneath Antarctica’s floatingice shelves covers more than 1.54 million square km [Drewry, 1983], an area of the same order of magnitude as the Amazon basin of Brazil or the Sahara desert.

So science is only just beginning to apprehend the sorts of biomes which are found across huge swaths of Earth.  There are even more remote areas which are wholly unknown—like Lake Vostok, a subglacial lake wholly isolated from the rest of Earth (including the atmosphere) for 15 to 25 million years.  As continental drift and the Antarctic Circumpolar Current froze Antarctica, Lake Vostok was trapped beneath 4,000 m (13,100 ft) of ice, and it has remained so until this year (when an intriguing but sloppy Russian drilling expedition means to pierce the lake).   What scientists discover beneath the other ice dwindling shelves, and what the Russians find beneath the East Antarctic Ice Sheet will have broader implications for how we conceive of life on Earth–and beyond.

A watercolor painting by of chemotrophic life by Karen Jacobsen, an artist who has traveled to the bottom of the ocean via bathysphere to record her impressions!

It is unclear whether the subject of today’s post actually exists.  That would not be such a shocking statement if this article concerned angels, true innocence, or honest politicians, but I am not writing about such abstract concepts–instead I am writing about a large ruminant animal from the bovine family!  The saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) is closely related to other bovines such as the aurochs, the wisent, the yak, and the zebu.  The creature was discovered by taxonomists only two decades ago, in 1992, in the remote Annamite mountains, a heavily forested range which runs along the sweeping curve where Vietnam meets Laos and Cambodia.  Unfortunately the biologists did not find any live specimens of the animal, but they discovered three saola skulls in the houses of local hunters.  An exhaustive three month hunt for the living creature turned up nothing.

A Man holds a Saola skull in Bolikhamxay Province (near the Laos/Vietnam border)

And yet saolas were subsequently spotted—and even hunted—by local mountain residents after that.  In 2010 a live male was captured by villagers, but the creature expired before scientists and veterinarians could reach him.  Scientists and rangers have occasionally captured pictures of saolas by means of remote hidden cameras, but the forest animals are so furtive and remote that we only know what they look like, not how they behave (although mountain people call them “the polite animal” because they are said to be so reserved and calm).

A male Saola photographed by hidden camera in 1999 (William Robichaud)

Saolas are dark brown with a fetching black strike running diagonally along their back and white slashes on their feet and faces.  Not nearly as large as wisents and zebus, adult saolas stand only about 85 cm (3 feet) tall at the shoulder they weigh approximately 90 kg (about 200 lbs). The most noticeable feature of the rare animals are their large antelope-like horns which curve slightly backward and grow to half a meter (1.5 feet) in length.  The saolas look like they descended from a common ancestor of antelopes, bisons, and cattle (although they are more closely related to the latter two creatures than to antelopes).  Based on their small teeth, saolas are browsers who nibble on tender shoots and berries (as opposed to grazers like cows).

A female Saola captured in 1996. She was apparently very gentle and trusting but she only survived a fortnight in captivity.

The first paragraph of this post was mercifully disingenuous:  the saola almost certainly walks the green earth even as you read these lines.  However the saola population is ridiculously tiny: the world population is estimated to be between a dozen and 250 individuals.  The government of Vietnam has mounted a spirited defense for the phantasmagoric ruminant by creating wildlife refuges and trying to educate native people not to hunt the last specimens, but deforestation and accidental trapping keep taking a toll (most saolas are captured in traps meant for other creatures).  It is possible that, like the wisent, the saolas will again flourish, but more likely we discovered them only to lose them again forever.

The Sole Extant Specimen of the parasitoid wasp Aleiodes gaga

Voila, allow me to present Aleiodes gaga, a parasitoid wasp, which along with 178 other species, was discovered in the cloud rain forests of Thailand as part of a new biological survey seeking new life forms.  The drab little 5mm wasp is named after the flamboyant New York singer songwriter Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (who rose to international superstardome under the stage name of “Lady Gaga”.  The science/futurist website i09 somewhat cynically remarks, “As to why the researchers chose to “honor” Lady Gaga in this way is not entirely clear (they’re likely seeking attention — in which case the name is wholly appropriate).”

Lady Gaga

The remarkable aspect of the survey is that the new species were swiftly identified and categorized by DNA barcode rather than through traditional taxonomic means.  The team used a fragment of mitochondrial DNA to identify the various invertebrates which it discovered.  However, the new methodology has critics in the world of scholarly taxonomy, who lament that spotting arbitrary genetic differences is replacement for actually understanding a creature’s morphology, anatomy.

Scientists do not know about the habits of the gaga wasp, but they know that it is a parasitoid wasp, a class of hymenopterans which provide a useful biological check against various diseases, blights, and swarms.  When malicious insects attack certain plants, the plants release specific chemicals which attract particular species of wasps (which then prey on the offending beetle, ant, larva, or whatever).  A great many species of plants have particular wasps affiliated with them (since the wasp and the plant coevolved to meet each other’s needs).  Although such wasps provide an incalculable boon for both domestic and wild plants of all sorts, they are also the fodder for horrified screaming (since they tend to use mind control to render victims into zombies, which the wasp larvae then devour from within).

A Parasitoid Wasp injecting eggs into a paralyzed Hoverfly Larva

Most likely the wasp finds some local caterpillar, paralyzes it with a sting to the head, and lays its eggs inside the hapless victim.  When the wasp larvae awake they devour the still living caterpillar.  So to recap, this wasp 1) was discovered by means of a controversial technique; 2) was named in a naked bid for publicity; and 3) lays eggs inside its prey’s head which subsequently cause aforementioned head to explode.

Lady Gaga wearing a red gothic crown and…um…a damask table cloth I guess.

Biologists estimate that there are approximately 8.8 million species of eukaryotes (animals with complex cell structure) currently alive on Earth.  So far, humankind has only cataloged 1.9 million species and entire biomes remain largely unknown to us.

Unknown Order of Nudibranch Sea Slug swimming in the depths off Monterey (Image Credit: NOAA/Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)

To illustrate this point, here is a photograph of a completely unknown genus of nudibranch mollusk photographed 1 mile beneath the surface of the ocean near Davidson seamount (which is an extinct underwater volcano just off the coast of Monterey).  I wish I could tell you more about the strange mollusk, but this photograph, taken from a robotic deep sea submersible in 2002 is pretty much all that humankind knows about this species.  The mission photographed a huge number of other gelatinous creatures in the middle depths of the ocean, and in fact caused scientists to rethink the importance of such animals in the oceanic ecosystem. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) worked on the mission with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Their website explains the robotic study by paraphrasing Bruce Robinson, an ecologist who pioneered the use of robot submersibles:

One of the most important discoveries has been the realization that gelatinous animals are important as grazers and predators that comprise a large percentage of the open ocean animal biomass. Robison estimates that gelatinous animals make up about 40 percent of the biomass in the deep sea water column.

Nudibranch mollusks are largely thought of as colorful predators of the tropical reef, so it is a big deal if they (together with other floating mollusks, cnidarians, and siphonophores) constitute such a substantial percentage of the biomass of the largest portion of the ocean.  As an unscientific postscript I think the delicate translucent nudibranch is very beautiful with its alien and ghostlike (and, yes, gelatinous) features.

The same mollusk (Image Credit: NOAA/Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)

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