You are currently browsing the monthly archive for January 2013.

942707

Ferrebeekeeper has had the same group of topics for a long time, so it is time to experiment with some new ones.  Today’s topic—ancient ships—is not entirely new on this blog.  We have already written about various galleys and longships (including a Greek trireme, an ancient Egyptian reconstruction, and a Viking longboat), however today we concentrate on the greatest warship of the Byzantine navy, the mighty dromon.   The dromon was the mainstay of the Byzantine navy for seven centuries from the 5th century AD to the 12th century AD.  The galley was based on the ancient Roman liburnian, a sort of small galley used for patrols and raids by the Roman navy. Dromons were different from liburnians in that they abandoned underwater rams (which were in declining use in the Empire) for an above-the-water spur.  Additionally dromons featured a full deck, and they were rigged with lateen (triangular) sails by the age of Justinian.

A Lateen-rigged Monoreme Dromon

A Lateen-rigged Monoreme Dromon

The principal feature of the dromon, as with other ancient Mediterranean warships, were the banks of oars which propelled the ship in battle.  Earlier dromons of the sixth century were single-banked (“monoreme”) ships with 25 oars per side, however by the ninth century it seems that dromons were being built with 2 banks of oars divided by a deck.  The top bank held 25 rowers per side and the bottom could have had up to 35 which meant the ships were crewed b 120 rowing men.

An Amazing Model of a large late dromon

An Amazing Model of a large late dromon

Dromons were fearsomely outfitted with weapons.  In addition to their sharpened spike (which was used to sheer off the oars of rival boats) they had great companies of marines—armored soldiers who boarded enemy vessels to fight their crews by hand.  A grand spout on the prow was used to spray Greek fire, a sticky napalm-like flaming liquid which was extremely hard to douse (the exact nature of which has been lost to history).  Large dromons had wooden castles at fore and aft from which marksmen could fire bows, crossbows, or scorpions.

vsNAz

Dromons were the principal craft which the Byzantines used in their many wars against barbarian invaders like the Vandals and the Rus and then against successive Muslim dynasties hellbent on taking the empire.  These naval battles must have been horrifying and grand to watch.  Greek fire gave the Byzantines some advantage (although it was treacherous stuff) but eventually the ships would become entangled.  The marines would snatch up their shields from where they hung along the sides of the dromon and together with all the oarsmen (who were not slaves but fighters) would participate in brutal pitched battles.

Dromon Model

Dromon Model

A gray-tufted monkey traveled to the edge of space according to Iranian media

A gray-tufted monkey traveled to the edge of space according to Iranian media

Today’s post concerns various contemporary news items regarding outer space.  At first this list may seem like a bit of a mash-up, but it all comes together as a very specific polemical point.

This year has already featured a lot of space news, but, sadly, most of it seems like it could have come from the 1950s. Iran launched a monkey to the edge of outer space. South Korea placed its first satellite in orbit (which seems like a response to North Korea doing the same thing last year).

South Korea's rocket lifts off from its launch pad at the Naro Space Center in Goheung, South Korea

South Korea’s rocket lifts off from its launch pad at the Naro Space Center in Goheung, South Korea

In US space news, the 27th anniversary of the Challenger disaster came and went (that was an epically bad day in 6th grade–which was hardly a picnic anyway).  Additionally, America announced that its biggest space plans for the near future include landing a redundant lander on Mars which was not exactly what NASA wanted but it fit the budget and was politically expedient.  Our not-very-exciting work on our not-very-exciting next generation rockets continues slowly.

Hulk_cartoobn

Finally, in other space-related news, paleontologists discovered that a massive space event apparently bombarded the Earth with Gamma rays in the 8th century.  Astronomers speculate that two neutron stars might have collided!  Also on February 15th a 50 meter asteroid will narrowly miss the Earth (flying by closer than many of our communication satellites).

All of this paints a rather alarming picture of a turbulent and dangerous universe where catastrophic events can occur with little notice.  Meanwhile on Earth dangerous rogue nations (not you, South Korea, we like your style) are venturing into strategically important low Earth orbit.  NASA’s current large-scale projects are lackluster (although its robotic exploration of the solar system continues to be exemplary).  Are we discarding our leadership position in space because of debt, political paralysis, and complacency?  It certainly seems like it…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One of the problems with writing about living things is that there is a lot of troubling news from the natural world.  If one writes about the many sad or perplexing  issues affecting worldwide ecosystems, people get depressed and stop reading, but if one willfully ignores true problems…well, what is the point of observing and thinking about the world?  I remember CNN’s online newspage used to have a Science/Nature header which was so consistently filled with news of species die-offs, ecological disaster, and worldwide blight that the whole science section was canceled.  Now CNN has more room for “news” about Ashton Kutcher’s all fruit diet and a tech section with reviews of “cool gear” you can buy for your Superbowl party.  Sigh….

All of which is a round-about way of apologizing for today’s upsetting (but extremely important) post concerning the mass die-off of North America’s bats.  Wait! Please don’t go to other site to read about “Miley” Cyrus.  Bats are actually really important. They are key organisms in ecosystems across the continent.   If they all die, the rest of us mammals are also going to be in serious trouble

The culprit behind the bat deaths is a fungus, Geomyces destructans, which causes WNS–white nose syndrome.  Despite its cartoonish name, white nose syndrome is a horrible death sentence for most temperate bats in North America.  Geomyces destructans is a low temperature fungus (like the hideous specimens you find in neglected refrigerators).  As the bats hibernate, powdery white fungus builds up on their little wings and faces.  The poor itchy bats are awakened from hibernation and, because of the irritation, they cannot return to a suspended state.  The little animals quickly burn up their energy reserves and die—to then become macabre bat-shaped clumps of fungus.

Little_Brown_Bat_with_White_Nose_Syndrome_(Greeley_Mine,_cropped)

Geomyces destructans seems to have traveled to North America from European caves, probably on the boots or specialized equipment of spelunkers (strange troubled sportspeople who worm deep into the crushing dark of caves).  Now that the fungus is in North America, it appears to be spreading by means of bat to bat contact.  European bats seem to have a native resistance to the fungus, but American bats are unprepared for it and they have died in legion.  Ninety percent of New Jersey’s bats are believed to have already died.  As the plague moves to new colonies similar mortality is expected.  Although the disease started in the middle of New York State, it has quickly spread along the East coast and it is moving west.   Scientists worry that the pestilence could spread from coast to coast (although bats which live in warmer climes might be less susceptible to the low temperature fungus).  Bats reproduce slowly—usually at a rate of one pup (or less) per year, so bat colonies cannot replenish like sardine schools or rodent colonies.  Additionally the spores linger in caves even after all the bats have been killed.

WNS_MAP_06-15-12_300DS

I personally love bats.  I find them endearing and beautiful (and relatable, since I have my own flighty nocturnal habits).  Western culture has not been so kind and often equates the flying mammals with witchcraft, Satan, demons, and all other manner of underworld fiends (the Chinese, however, see bats as lucky—in fact one of the Eight Taoist immortals began his cycle of incarnation as a bat).  A surprising number of Americans cleave to the old ways and smile at the horrifying curse that jackass cave explorers have unknowingly unleashed on our little chiropteran friends.

This attitude is a big mistake.

Anecdotally, the weather on North America has been worsening.  Great storms pound our coasts, droughts scorch the hinterlands, and mighty cyclones appear everywhere knocking down forests.  Imagine if, to compound these woes, vast plagues of insects descended upon our homes and crops.

Well, without bats, you won’t have to imagine.   Bats are a principal predator of insects—especially nighttime insects like mosquitoes (but also a surprising number of agricultural and forest pests).   Humans, being diurnal, underestimate bats, but insect-eating chiropterans eat 80% to 100% of their body mass in insects per night and they live in vast colonies (especially out west). Without bats we are liable to see great swarms of insects eat our crops and we will experience a resurgence of mosquito born ills.

The pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus) Photography by J. Scott Altenbach

The pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus) Photography by J. Scott Altenbach

An article in Daily Finance outlines some of the potential fall out of the great North American bat die-off (and if cold heartless financiers are worried about the environment, we know that something is really amiss).  So how can we actually help the bats? The Federal government has allocated 1.6 million dollars to study the problem, but this is not a lot of money!  Various agencies and organizations are attempting to curtail cave exploration and keep people from becoming a further vector for spreading the fungus.  Making people aware of the problems bats are facing is also a useful step (which is why I am writing this).  Most of all we need to care for bats before they are gone.  Farmers, bankers, politicians, ecologists, and scientists all need to worry about our beleaguered friends. The mass die-off of honey bees has had a horrible effect on agriculture and forestry:  the effect of a bat die off could be worse.  But even more importantly bats are social mammals—like us.  If suddenly 90% of them are dying off, it is a terrible portent as well as a horrible loss to the planet.

tumblr_lrwb8iWyXH1qikgkto1_400

The Crown of Charlemagne, the coronation crown of French Kings for nearly a millenium (shown without cap)

The Crown of Charlemagne, the coronation crown of French Kings for nearly a millenium (shown without cap)

From the era of Frankish Kings until the French Revolution, the kings of France were crowned with the so-called Crown of Charlemagne, a circlet of four gold rectangles inset with jewels.  The crown was made for Charles the Bald, the Holy Roman Emperor who lived in the ninth century (who apparently needed an ornate head covering for some unknown reason).  Four large jeweled fleur-de-lis were added in the late twelfth century along with a connecting cap ornamented with gems.  A matching crown for the queen of France was melted down by the Catholic League in 1590 when Paris was besieged by the Protestant king Henry IV (before he was, you know, stabbed to death by a zealot when the royal carriage was stuck in traffic), yet the crown of Charlemagne survived France’s religious wars & was used in coronations up until 1775 when Louis XVI was crowned.  The crown vanished during the French revolution and has never been seen since.   A certain Corsican monarch crafted a replacement:  the second Crown of Charlemagne was completely different and will be the subject of a subsequent post.

The Crown of Charlemagne (In a detail from "The Mass of Saint Giles" painted in 1550

The Crown of Charlemagne (In a detail from “The Mass of Saint Giles” painted in 1550

The Snider-Pellegrini-Wegener fossil map which illustrates how scientists pieced Pangaea together

The Snider-Pellegrini-Wegener fossil map which illustrates how scientists pieced Pangaea together

During the Permian era (around 300 million years ago) the strange slow dance of Earth’s tectonic plates brought together all the world’s major landmasses into the supercontinent Pangaea.  Because of its very nature, Pangaea changed the world’s climate in bizarre ways.  Baking hot deserts were so far from the coast that they never received rain.  Landlocked seas boiled away and left great evaporitic deposits of strange minerals which we still mine and exploit.  Huge mountains rose and fell as the continents crashed together.

Pangaea lasted for approximately 100 million years, during a time of tremendous biological upheaval and diversification.  The worst mass extinction in the history of life took place during the continent’s heyday (The Permian-Triassic extinction event took place about 250 million years ago).  After the great dying, he first dinosaurs and mammals walked the super continent.  However this post is not a meditation concerning Pangaea (thankfully– since its history is extraordinarily complicated).

Triassic Pangaea by Richard Morden

Triassic Pangaea by Richard Morden

The idea which excites me is that Pangaea was only a third of the Earth.  The remainder of the globe was taken up by water.  Between Laurasia and Gondwana there was a great wedge shaped ocean called the Tethys Ocean (indeed Pangaea looked somewhat like Pacman—as you can see on the beautifully illustrated map by Australian freelance illustrator Richard Morden).  Named after a titaness who was the daughter of Uranus and Gaia, the Tethys radically changed shape as the continents separated.  Through big parts of its history, large parts of the Tethys consisted of warm shallow continental shelves (which are ideal environments for fossil deposits).  Paleontologists and Geologists thus know a great deal about the natural history of the Tethys Ocean.

panthlogo

The remainder of the globe was a single world ocean called Panthalassa (or the Panthalassic Ocean).  If you looked at Earth from outer space from a particular angle it would have been entirely blue (which is fitting for “Panthalassa” was not named after any god or goddess but from a Greek neologism meaning “universal sea”).  The Panthalassa is not so well known as the Tethys.  As Pangaea broke apart almost the entire ocean floor was subducted underneath the North American and Eurasian plates.  However Geologists sometimes find tiny distorted remnants which were one part of the gigantic world sea.

PacificOcean

Leopard nudibranch / Photo by John Williams

Leopard nudibranch / Photo by John Williams

Nudibranchs are gastropod mollusks which live in the oceans worldwide from the polar regions to the tropics.  The slugs live in virtually all depths and various species range from the shallow intertidal surf to  depths of more than over 700m.  Although the majority of nudibranchs are benthic creatures which crawl along the seafloor, some prefer other lives and float upside down under the oceans surface or swim in the water column.

Blue-tipped Nudibranch (Janolus Christus)

Blue-tipped Nudibranch (Janolus Christus)

Nudibranchs lose their vestigial shell during a larval phase.  To protect themselves they rely on toxins or unpleasant tasting chemicals which are advertised with extremely vivid colors.  In order to enliven the gray winter months, here is a little parade of lovely nudibranchs.  Enjoy!

Nudibranch by Hani Amir

Nudibranch by Hani Amir

Piggy Back Nudibranch M4 Cava.jpg (33601 bytes) Piggyback Nudibranch (Risbecia Tryoni) Photo by Laurie Cava

Piggy Back Nudibranch M4 Cava.jpg (33601 bytes)
Piggyback Nudibranch (Risbecia Tryoni) Photo by Laurie Cava

from jaysdaysaway

from jaysdaysaway

james-forte-blue-with-yellow-spots-nudibranch-or-sea-slug-phyllidia-varicosa-solomon-islands

Nudibranch (Nembrotha kubaryana)

Nudibranch (Nembrotha kubaryana)

Image: cosmicmache.blogspot.com

Image: cosmicmache.blogspot.com

"Nudibranch,

Image: cosmicmache.blogspot.com

Image: cosmicmache.blogspot.com

nudibranch

Hopkin's Rose Nudibranch (Hopkinsia rosacaea)

Hopkin’s Rose Nudibranch (Hopkinsia rosacaea)

Nudibranch by Dermal Denticles

Nudibranch by Dermal Denticles

Nembrotha cristata

Nembrotha cristata

purple_nudi_a

purple_nudibranch

A Crabeater Seal on an Iceberg (photo by Rob Wilson)

A Crabeater Seal on an Iceberg (photo by Rob Wilson)

The crabeater seal (Lobodon carcinophagus) is a pale-colored seal which lives on the pack ice around Antarctica.   Adult crabeater seals have an average length of 2.3 meters (7 and-a-half feet) and weigh around 200 kg (440 pounds) however the largest male crabeater seals can weigh up to 300 kg (660 lb).  The seals’ mass alters considerably over the course of a season as they gorge themselves in preparation for lean times (or—in the case of mothers—for nursing).  Like other Antarctica seals, crabeater seals have slender bodies and long snouts.  They are gifted swimmers—a talent which allows them to escape their two main predators, killer whales and leopard seals.  They infrequently venture beyond the continental shelves of Antarctica (although very rarely one is spotted at New Zealand, Patagonia, or South Africa).  They hunt along the pack ice and travel far inland to give birth.   The seals give birth to one pup annually and they can live up to 40 years.

A Crabeater Seal (Lobodon carcinophagus)

A Crabeater Seal (Lobodon carcinophagus)

Crabeater seals can slither over land fairly well and they range farther onto continental Antarctica than any other indigenous mammal.  Crabeater seal carcasses have been found up to 100 kilometers from the coast. So crabeater seals have whole swaths Antarctica to themselves (well aside from big weird penguins, lichens, and Norwegian explorers).   Although they may theoretically eat a crab every now and then, the seals are misnamed.  Their main prey is Antarctic krill, which they eat in huge quantities (as an aside, Antarctic krill is believed to have the greatest biomass of any single species on Earth).  Although they do not have baleen like the great rorquals, crabeater seals have specialized krill-filtering cusps on their teeth which trap the krill and allow water to escape.  When krill are not available, the seals can also feed on fish and squid.

Crabeater Seal Teeth

Crabeater Seal Teeth

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about crabeater seals is their sheer numbers.  Other than humans (and our livestock) they are the most numerous large mammals on the planet.  Caribou and wildebeests exist in herds of hundreds of thousands, but the crabeater seal population numbers in the millions.  The full population of crabeater seals is unknown.  Estimates range from 7 million to 70 million.  Since they are pale colored seals darting between the crushing pack ice of an uninhabited continent we have a population estimate which is off by a factor of ten.  The fact that so few people have seen them might explain why they are still so successful.

A Crabeater Seal enjoys sunbathing on a southern beach.

A Crabeater Seal enjoys sunbathing on a southern beach.

Ray Troll painting large amoonites for "Night of the Ammonites" exhibit at Seattle's Burke Museum

Ray Troll painting large amoonites for “Night of the Ammonites” exhibit at Seattle’s Burke Museum

One of my favorite living artists is not interested in the fatuous self-absorption and navel gazing which characterizes most contemporary artwork.  Instead of falling in love with himself, Ray Troll fell in love with aquatic animals—and his art is a pun-filled paean to the astonishing diversity and complexity of life in Earth’s rivers, lakes, and oceans both in this epoch and in past geological ages.   Although Troll’s vibrant biology themed art is humorous and fantastic, it also resonates at a deeper level.  Themes of ecological devastation and the broad exploitation of the oceans are unflinchingly explored, as is the true nature of humankind.  Troll (correctly) regards people as a sort of terrestrial fish descendant who still have the same aggressive territoriality, unending hunger, and crude drives that propelled our distant piscine forbears.  This sounds deterministic and grim until one comprehends the high esteem which Troll holds for fish of all sorts.  After looking at the beauty, grace, and power of his fish art, one feels honored to be included in the larger family (along with all the mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians which trace their roots back to fish-like tetrapod ancestors).

'Crusin' the Fossil Freeway' by Ray Troll (the artist is visible on the driver's side)

‘Crusin’ the Fossil Freeway’ by Ray Troll (the artist is visible on the driver’s side)

Troll is a favorite artist because he endeavors to understand paleontology, ecology, and biology and synthesize these extraordinary disciplines with broader human experience.  The result is a whimsical and surreal mixture of creatures and concepts from different times and places rubbing elbows as though Hieronymous Bosch were having a happy daydream.   Troll is a “popular” artist in that he makes a living by selling books, tee-shirts, and posters rather than swindling billionaire bankers into multi-million dollar single purchases, so you should check out his website.  In keeping with the themes of Ferrebeekeeper,  I have added a small gallery of his mollusk and catfish themed artwork (although such creatures are only featured in some of his paintings and drawings).  Unfortunately the online sample images are rather small.  If you want to see full resolution images you will have to buy his books and artwork (which is a worthwhile thing to do).

“The Encante”, (Ray Troll, 2004, colored pencil on paper, 11” x 30”)

“The Encante”, (Ray Troll, 2004, colored pencil on paper, 11” x 30”)

The Encante is a paradisiacal underwater realm where shapeshifting river dolphins lure humans.  The aquatic creatures are able to be themselves in this realm of magic and dance.  Not only does Troll’s work feature the beauty of the Amazon and the otherworldly magical river dolphins, there are also a host of amazing catfish, including several armored catfish, and a giant bottomfeeder which has apparently developed an unfortunate taste for human flesh.

Got Ink? (Ray Troll)

Got Ink? (Ray Troll)

raysnewPaint

Octopi Wall Street (Ray Troll)

Octopi Wall Street (Ray Troll)

Here are a handful of Troll’s pun-themed tee-shirt drawings involving amazing cephalopods.  I like to imagine the populist octopus in battle with the fearsome vampire squid which is so emblematic of Goldman Sachs.

Night of the Ammonites (Ray Troll)

Night of the Ammonites (Ray Troll)

Finally, here is a naturalistic portrayal of how the ancient ammonites most likely came together to spawn on moonlit nights of the Paleozoic (such behavior is characteristic of the squids and cuttlefish alive today).  The long-extinct cephalopods are portrayed with life and personality as though their quest to exist has immediate relevance to us today.  Indeed–that might is Troll’s overarching artistic and philosophical point: life is a vividly complex web of relationships which knit together in the past, present, and the future.

Dragon's Blood Tree (Dracaena cinnabari)

Dragon’s Blood Tree (Dracaena cinnabari)

The Socotra archipelago (Arabic: سُقُطْرَى‎ Suquṭra), is a group of four islands which lie just off the Horn of Africa in the Indian Ocean.  The islands are politically part of Yemen but their long isolation from any continental landmass has made them ecologically distinct.  Of the many species of plants and animals which are endemic only to Socotra, one species is particularly emblematic: the dragon’s blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari).  This monocot tree has an extremely unusual shape which allows it to survive on minimal amounts of soil and water.  The crown is dense with foliage to reduce evaporation (and to maximize cooling shade).

The oozing red sap of the dragon's blood tree

The oozing red sap of the dragon’s blood tree

The dragon’s blood tree takes its distinctive name from the blood red resin it produces when cut or scraped.  The dried sap was a prized commodity in the ancient world when it was used as a dye, a medicine, a magic ingredient, and an adhesive.  Even today the sap is still used in traditional medicine (it is said to be a coagulant and a stimulant but also an abortifacient) and as violin varnish!

Dragon's Blood Tree (Dracaena cinnabari)

Dragon’s Blood Tree (Dracaena cinnabari)

Diadem with Deesis (Unknown Goldsmith & artist, Kiev, 12th century AD, Gold with cloisonné enamel)

Diadem with Deesis (Unknown Goldsmith & artist, Kiev, 12th century AD, Gold with cloisonné enamel)

A diadem is a headband made of precious metal (frequently ornamented with jewels or designs) which betokens royal sovereignty.  Diadems trace their origins deep into antiquity—the form probably originating in Mycenae and Persia.  The diadem soon became associated with classical Greece culture and thus the concept survived for a long, long time.  Here is a Byzantine-era diadem discovered in Kiev during an archeological excavation in 1889.  It is composed of gold plaques with enamel paintings.  The central three plaques show the Virgin and St. John the Baptist supplicating Christ on behalf of humankind.  Around them are the archangels Michael and Gabriel as well as the apostles Peter and Paul.  According to the Louvre website concerning Russian sacred art, “The presence of Cyrillic letters would seem to confirm the diadem’s attribution to a workshop in the principality of Kiev, home to both Greek and Russian goldsmiths.”  Byzantine cultural and political influence reached deep into central Europe during the 12th century when this regal headdress was manufactured: it is easy to see the piece as a bridge between the Eastern Roman empire and the burgeoning Greek-Orthodox kingdoms and principalities of Russia, Kiev, and the Ukraine.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

January 2013
M T W T F S S
 123456
78910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031