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Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides)

Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides)

Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) is a tiny arboreal marsupial native to the temperate rainforests of Chile and Argentina.  The name “Monito del monte” means “little monkey of the mountain” and although the tiny marsupials are not even remotely related to primates, they are clever and deft.  During the cold winter months the animals hibernate in little ball-like nests which they build out of waterproof leaves and line with moss.  Like the more familiar marsupials of Australia, the females have pouches where they nurse their litters of up to four offspring.

Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) with tree snail

Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) with tree snail

The adult animals prey on small invertebrates which live in the trees but they also supplement their diets with fruits and seeds.  A particular species of Loranthacous mistletoe (Tristerix corymbosus) has evolved in conjunction with the monito del monte and relies entirely on the animal to spread its seeds.  This is noteworthy because “scientists speculate that the coevolution of these two species could have begun 60–70 million years ago.”  The monito del monte is not some rodentlike offshoot of the marsupial line, it is a close analog (and direct descendent) of the basal line from which all marsupials spring.

Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) with human for scale

Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) with human for scale

In fact, like something out of a gothic novel, the monito del monte is the only species of the sole genus of the last family of the exceedingly ancient order Microbiotheria.    During the dawn of the dinosaurs, South America, Antarctica, and Australia were amalgamated together as a supercontinent Gondwana.  The offspring of the original marsupials spread from South America, across Antarctica, to Australia, but then the continents drifted away from each other and evolution took a different direction in each ecoysytem.  The monito del monte remained in the same sort of forest as its ancestors and changed least over the years.

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Speaking of which, the Valdivian temperate rain forests where the monito del monte lives today are themselves a remnant of the great forests of Gonwana.  The trees and plants which live there now are most closely related to the living plants of Australia, New Zealand, & New Caledonia, but they are closer still to the fossilized forests which lie beneath the glaciers of Antarctica.  The Valdivian forest is the closest thing surviving to the great forests which once covered the iced over southern continent.

Valdivian Temperate Rainforest

Valdivian Temperate Rainforest

The ancestors of the monita del monte—and of all other marsupials—originated in South America and spread through the Antarctic forests to Australia before the continents drifted apart during the Cretaceous.  When the continent broke from Australia and drifted south into the prison of the circumpolar current during the Eocene, the forests died and Antarctica became an otherworldly landscape of ice.   Yet if you wish to know what the sweeping temperate forests of Antarctica were like you can visit Chile and watch the most ancient marsupial among the tree ferns and araucaria trees of the Valdivian forest.

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A Pegasus Rocket launched from Orbital's airplane "Stargazer"

A Pegasus Rocket launched from Orbital’s airplane “Stargazer”

Tonight Orbital Sciences Corporation is launching a Pegasus rocket from Vandenberg Airforce Base in California (which is a sentimental, um, missile base for me since my grandfather was a workman there back in the ‘50s).  Orbital is one of those vaunted private companies which is reaching for space as the government defunds NASA, although, truth be told, the corporation seems to concentrate on launching satellites and building rockets for the government so it might not be too different from the classical aerospace companies which have been interwoven with the nation’s Space/Defense programs since back when grandpa was painting missile silos. The apex of Orbital’s ambition was to build a spaceplane to replace the space shuttle, but their proposal was not selected by NASA and they are winding down their efforts to build a crewed vehicle.

The IRIS solar observatory satellite (NASA)

The IRIS solar observatory satellite (NASA)

Actually the Pegasus rocket is launched from a high altitude airplane which is launched from Vandenberg.  This technology was developed during the cold war for interception (i.e. shooting down enemy spy satellites) but tonight it finds a higher calling: the rocket will be launching a small satellite named IRIS into orbit.  IRIS stands for Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph.  The satellite is a small ultraviolet solar observatory designed to study the mysterious chromosphere of the sun—the second of three layers of the sun’s atmosphere which, perplexingly, is much hotter than the region beneath it.  You can look at this old post for a proposal about why this is so–the answer probably involves solar tornadoes (IRIS will be able to tell us if this solution is correct).

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If you are turning in around 10:20- 10:30 EST you can watch the launch at this link (probably).  Go IRIS!  It’s exciting to have another robot spacecraft monitoring our star!

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When I was growing up, my family went to the feed store one spring to buy something (farm equipment? wire, grain? rakes? cowbells? I just don’t remember).  The store had a big pen filled with “Easter bunnies” for low, low prices, and thanks to their endearing cuteness, my sister and I had to have one. My long-suffering parents were deeply reluctant, but in the end they agreed, provided the bunnies stayed in hutches outside.  We went home with two adorably cute little rabbits (and a bunch of wire for building pens).  It was the beginning of a very painful lesson about the ambiguous nature of domestication. Rabbit-lovers may want to stop reading.  In fact everyone may want to stop reading.  Not all animal stories have happy endings.

French Lop Domestic Rabbit

French Lop Domestic Rabbit

European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) were raised in large walled colonies in ancient Rome (like snails!) but they were not properly domesticated for the farm until the middle ages.  Wikipedia half-heartedly quotes a date of “600” (presumably 600 AD).  Goats, pigs, and cows were domesticated about ten thousand years ago—long before the first cities rose—so the rabbit is a newcomer to farming life.  Not until the eighteenth (or maybe nineteenth) century do we have any records of rabbits as pets.

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The rabbits we obtained from the feed store were certainly not raised as pets but as stock (the fact that they were sold at the feed store was a real clue). We already had cats and dogs and birds inside, so the rabbits had to live in wire pens with little straw lined nesting boxes.  For a while the bunnies were sort of stuck in a limbo between being pets and being livestock, but, as people who have real pet rabbits can tell you, rabbits don’t really love being held and they have an ambiguous relationship with children. They are also gifted escape artists and extremely devoted to producing more rabbits.  We had some litters of baby bunnies (did you know that stressed out rabbits eat their young? You do now) and we also had some rabbits that went renegade.  We tried to catch the escapees at first and we did catch some (even domestic rabbits can run like the wind) but ultimately we resigned ourselves to the fact that a certain number of rabbits would go “Watership Down” and never return.  Eventually something must have got them: the highway, the foxes, the hawks, the coyotes, the bobcats, the owls, the weasels—who knows?

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So in the end we wound up with hutches filled with rabbits that had to be fed and watered and tended to.  In the summer they would occasionally die of unknown causes (heat, stress, disease?).  I have extremely unpleasant memories of putting on rubber gloves and carrying a stiffened decomposing rabbit covered with flies over the hill to dig a shallow grave.

You can probably see where this is all heading. On a farm filled with delightful & personable animals like dogs, cats, ponies, and turkeys, the rabbits did not cut it as pets.  The cards had been hopelessly stacked against them from the beginning.  And so eventually they became rabbits for the pot.  It turned out that slaughtering rabbits was a task which I was shamefully unequal to as a child.  Jim Bowie might have slapped me around until I toughened up and became a frontiersman but my dad just sighed heavily and did the butchering himself (sorry Dad, I’ll take care of it next time).  Thereafter we found that the Amish neighbors were happy to slaughter rabbits in exchange for a share.  Rabbit fur really is soft and warm and we had a bizarre mud room filled with tanned pelts (although I am not sure what we ever did with them).  Rabbit meat is particularly delightful (especially with creamy sauce) and we had lots of savory rabbit curries, which are even better than they sound.

rabbit stew

rabbit stew

So what is the point of this story?  I am sure it will not endure me to other animal lovers (although I beg you all to stay with me–I am an animal lover too).  Maybe it is a simple story about domestication.  I like meat, but I have not forgotten where it comes from (and I can understand the point of view of vegetarians–but it isn’t my point of view).

The Crown for the Hereditary Prince of Sweden

The Crown for the Hereditary Prince of Sweden

So, I wish I could explain this better, but here are the crowns of the princes and princesses of Sweden.  These images come from the amazing website Official and Historic Crowns of the World and Their Locations which is an amazing resource for all things crown related.  Evidently each Swedish prince and princess had their own crown made based on a standardized template.  The effect of all these nearly identical and yet subtly different crowns is rather remarkable–like a beautiful treasure-based version of one of those “spot the difference” games which one sees in the comics pages.  Yet somehow it all seems excessive:  couldn’t they just have reused one crown (is the one on the top an original?) and spent all of that sweet crown money on weapons research and mentally-ill Strindberg plays?  Hmm, now that I say that aloud it occurs to me that actually redundant pointy princely crowns might have been the right way to go…

The crown of Princess Sophia Albertina 1771

The crown of Princess Sophia Albertina 1771

 

The crown of Princess Hedvig Elisabet Charlotta 1778

The crown of Princess Hedvig Elisabet Charlotta 1778

The crown of Princess Eugenia 1860

The crown of Princess Eugenia 1860

The crown of Prince Wilhelm 1902

The crown of Prince Wilhelm 1902

The crown of Prince Oskar 1844

The crown of Prince Oskar 1844

The crown of Prince Carl 1771

The crown of Prince Carl 1771

The crown of Prince Frederick Adolf 1771

The crown of Prince Frederick Adolf 1771

Today is June 21st , which, in the northern hemisphere–where the majority of humankind lives–is the summer solstice.  This is the longest day of the year (and the shortest night).  Rejoice!  Now is the time of light and warmth.

Druid

Druids!

Of course it would hardly be the solstice if we didn’t talk about druids, but here, suddenly things get tricky, because, despite their long-standing popularity, we don’t actually know very much about druids.   There are no writings left to us from actual druids and although we have some archeological finds from Iron-age Western Europe which relate to the religions of the time, we do not have any objects which are directly connected with druids.  Some scholars question whether they ever even existed.

What is known about druids, therefore comes from Roman and Greek writers (including no less a person than Julius Caesar).  Druids were the priestly caste of polytheistic Celtic society.  Druid lore was passed down orally and it was no mean feat to become one of these elite priests:  it could take decades to master the complicated plant lore, ceremonial forms, and other esoteric druid knowledge.

Druids are associated with sacred groves and augury.  Roman writers also believed that druids practiced human sacrifice.  Julius Caesar wrote of druids placing prisoners in huge men made of wicker and then burning the victims to death.   However druid-sympathizers (which is apparently a real thing) dispute this idea and assert that Roman sources were guilty of cultural propaganda.  In fact, an even more extreme faction of scholars asserts that druids were entirely made up by Romans as a sort of fantasy of the other in order to highlight Roman superiority.  To me this seems like an unwarranted assumption: the concept of the hard headed Julius Caesar making up fantastical stories to drive home Roman superiority (which was an indisputable fact to him)  seems suspect, and there is archaeological evidence to support a tradition of human sacrifice, although it too is controversial.

"The Victim" An Illustration by AB Houghton for Tennyson's poem (engraving,1868).

“The Victim” An Illustration by AB Houghton for Tennyson’s poem (engraving,1868).

The only description of a druid ceremony comes from Book XVI of Natural History by Pliny the Elder.  This single highly colorful passage is responsible for most of the popular image of druids.  Pliny describes

“The Druids hold nothing more sacred than mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing … when it [mistletoe] is discovered it is gathered with great ceremony Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and with a golden sickle cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to god to render his gift propitious to those whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons.”

Whether he heard about it and thought it sounded neat or just made it up is anyone’s guess.

Neodruids (hahahaha)

Neodruids (hahahaha)

So wait, what does any of this have to do with the solstice?  Why are druids associated to an astronomical event in the way that Santa goes with Christmas?    Druids became greatly popular during the 18th and 19th century Celtic revival.   As romantics and neo-pagans invented rituals they looked towards the Roman sources (and certain Irish Christian sources which set up druids as being the opposite of Christian saints). Druids became associated with the great stone monoliths such as Stonehenge, and, since those ancient constructions are focused on the solar calendar,  it  was logical to assume that druids were too.

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Stilleven met tomaten (Henk Helmantel)

Stilleven met tomaten (Henk Helmantel)

Henk Helmantel is a contemporary Dutch still life painter who paints classical subjects in a traditional style realistic taken from the Dutch golden age.  He mostly paints fruit, bottles, and boxes (although occasionally he paints an animal or some snail shells).  Although Helmantel’s work is classically inspired, it does not seem to have the same allegorical underpinning that 17th century Dutch art had.  Instead the drama in the work is conveyed by the arrangement of the objects and their relationship to the space around them.  In this respect—in color, form, and context—the works are indeed modern.  The spare clean lines and delicate loveliness of plums, berries, and vessels is somehow reminiscent of abstract artists and contemporary Dutch architecture (even if the paintings are simultaneously so dissimilar from these schools).

Fles Berkemeyer en keukenattributen (Henk Helmantel, oil on panel)

Fles Berkemeyer en keukenattributen (Henk Helmantel, oil on panel)

Bronze Turkey Tom (Meleagris gallopavo)

Bronze Turkey Tom (Meleagris gallopavo)

Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus)

Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus)

A while ago, ferrebeekeeper added the new category “fowl”.  So far, entries in this category include a write-up of predatory ducks, geese the size of dinosaurs, and terrifying people in duck costumes (not to mention the yet-to-be incorporated category of turkeys)—a pretty auspicious start for the topic!  But what exactly does “fowl” mean?  Although in English, “fowl” can be used as a general term for all birds, the word has a more specific scientific meaning:  fowl denotes a combined group of two extremely important biological orders of birds, the Galliformes (game fowl) and the Anseriformes (waterfowl).  Cladists, taxonomists who classify biological organisms according to shared ancestors, have discovered that birds from these two orders share numerous physiological features and descend jointly from a common ancestor (which most likely lived in the Cretaceous or earlier).

Mandarin Duck ((Aix galericulata)

Mandarin Duck ((Aix galericulata)

Black Swan (Cygnus atratus)

Black Swan (Cygnus atratus)

The vast majority of economically/agriculturally important domesticated birds are either galliformes or waterfowl (I am omitting pet birds like canaries, parrots, emus, pigeons, and, um, gyrefalcons, and concentrating on farm birds).  Galliformes include pheasants, quail, grouse, turkeys, junglefowl, partridges, and guineafowl (among other taxa, living and extinct).   Waterfowl include geese, ducks, swans, and screamers.  Cladists (with typical lack of euphony) call the combined group the “Galloanserae”.

Buff Orpington Rooster (Gallus gallus domesticus) by Chris Mullineux

Buff Orpington Rooster (Gallus gallus domesticus) by Chris Mullineux

Palawan Peacock Pheasant (Polyplectron napoleonis) by Rene Lausberg

Palawan Peacock Pheasant (Polyplectron napoleonis) by Rene Lausberg

Although golden pheasants, black swans, and green peacocks seem extremely different (except in terms of extravagant beauty), the birds of  Galloanserae share surprising similarities.  They produce prolific clutches of eggs–which is especially unusual for large birds–and the resultant chicks are unusually precocious.  Baby ducks or turkeys can soon run after their mother and baby megapodes emerge from the incubation mound ready to fly (compare that with the passerines or raptors whose young are helpless and immobile for weeks or longer).

Southern Screamer (Chauna torquata) by Susan Roehl

Southern Screamer (Chauna torquata) by Susan Roehl

Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus)

Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus)

Additionally fowl are polygynous or polygamous.  Many other birds form close monogamous relationships (some of which last for life) but fowl tend to be rather, er, promiscuous.   Domestic chickens are notable for their harem-style sexual relations and dabbling ducks are infamous for the violent amoral chaos of their courtship.   Likewise, fowl can hybridize easily and in strange ways.  Birds which live in different genera can have courtships, produce eggs, and even conceive offspring.  In fact common mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) originated in Siberia but have interbred so frequently with American black duck (Anas rubripes), and with Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) that the species distinctions are breaking down.   Stranger and more unlikely fowl pairings are not unknown (and the resultant offspring are sometimes not infertile) but I will leave those soap opera stories for another day….

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

Lady Amethyst Pheasant (hybrid)

Lady Amethyst Pheasant (hybrid)

Acoma Pueblo, the most famous Keresan pueblo and the oldest inhabited town in the USA

Acoma Pueblo, the most famous Keresan pueblo and the oldest inhabited town in the USA

When the Spanish arrived in what is now New Mexico and Arizona they found the Pueblo people farming corn, squash, and beans on the dry land.  These native people built villages made up of interconnected multi-storied adobe buildings.  Although different Pueblo groups shared cultural affinity in terms of lifestyle, the languages of different groups and the religious beliefs–were so dissimilar that the Pueblos probably came from diverse backgrounds.

"Corn Dawn Mother" by Marti Fenton

“Corn Dawn Mother” by Marti Fenton

One group, the Keresan Puebloes, believed that all people come originally from Shipap, a realm beneath the ground ruled by the benevolent goddess Iyatiku, who is an underworld goddess, a mother goddess, and a corn goddess all at once.  People emerge from this structured underworld when they are born and they then make their way through the hard arid world.  To help her children through mortal life, Iyatiku annually rips out her own heart and tears it into four pieces which she scatters to the north, south, east, and west where the fragments grow into maize.  Despite Iyatiku’s sacrifice and her care, people do not last in this world: they are murdered or starved or broken.  They grow old and die.  When this happens, they return once more to Iyatiku’s arms in the Shipap, the realm beneath the world where they wait to someday be born again.  
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El Yunque Tropical Rain Forest in Puerto Rico

El Yunque Tropical Rain Forest in Puerto Rico

Long-time readers know that I love trees.  So you can imagine how thrilled I was this past weekend, when, for the first time, I visited a tropical rainforest–El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico.  The only tropical rainforest under the rubric of the United States Forest Department, El Yunque is a very gentle jungle:  not only does it lack poisonous snakes or spiders, but there are not even any endemic mammals other than bats (although mongooses have crept in, thanks to a misguided introduction program long ago) and no predators larger than hawks.  What it lacks in large violent animals, El Yunque makes up for with astonishing botanical diversity.   Immense tree ferns tower over volcanic boulders.  Delicate Coquís—tree frogs which are the unofficial mascot of Puerto Rico–sing beneath the umbrella-like leaves of Cecropia trees.  The mollusks, that great strange phylum, exist in proliferation which rivals a coastline or an oyster reef.  Transparent slugs with green nuclei  are virtually invisible on stones.  Snails the size of children’s hands hang in the branches.

Gaeotis flavolineata, a transparent semi-slug (image credit: exotiskadjur.ifokus.se)

Gaeotis flavolineata, a transparent semi-slug (image credit: exotiskadjur.ifokus.se)

A Tree Snail at El Yunque

A Tree Snail at El Yunque

Among the flowers, frogs, and fruitbats, there are ancient giants–just not animal ones.   The most beautiful tree I saw in the rainforest was an Ausubo (Manikara bidentata) a huge, slow-growing evergreen tree rising magnificently 10 stories above the forest floor. The wood of ausubo is coveted by builders and carpenters since it is lovely to look at, rock hard, and resistant to rot and insects (the sap can also be formed into a hard resin like gutta-percha: this material, called gutta-balatá, was used to make golf balls for professional golfers until it was replaced by modern synthetics).  Ausubo was once the most important timber tree in Puerto Rico and many of the great colonial buildings feature great halls made of mighty ausubo timbers now hundreds of years old.  Today, sadly few large, ancient trees remain.  However the forest service has planted great stands of them in El Yunque and some originals still remain like the one pictured below which a sign asserted was three to four hundred years old.  It is strange to think that the tree (which is broader at the base than a person is tall) was once a tiny seed dropped by a fruit bat or a bird. It has outlasted all of the lumberjacks and hurricanes since San Juan was little more than a fort  above a colonial village.

Ausubo (Manilkara bidentata), the titular big tree of "Big Tree" trail in El Yunque (photo by Xemenendura)

Ausubo (Manilkara bidentata), the titular big tree of “Big Tree” trail in El Yunque (photo by Xemenendura)

segue2

News of the cosmos frequently involves inconceivably large numbers or gigantic objects beyond human imagination.  This is particularly true of galaxies–gigantic systems of stars, gas clouds, black holes, and exotic unknown dark matter.  Even the tiniest dwarf galaxies have tens of millions of stars and our lovely home galaxy, the Milky Way, has approximately 300 billion star systems! However the universe is a mysterious place and it frequently refutes conventional wisdom and prior expectations. This week astronomers from Hawaii’s Keck Observatory announced that they had discovered a ridiculously little galaxy with only a thousand stars. The adorable miniature galaxy, which has been dubbed Segue 2 is not a star cluster because it is surrounded by its own halo of dark matter, but it is many orders of magnitude smaller than any known galaxy.  Astronomers are trying to determine whether it is a scrap of a larger galaxy which was ripped apart (!) or whether it is a baby galaxy which never fully coalesced.  Astronomers hope that by learning more about Segue 2 and other hypothesized tiny galaxies they can find out more about the creation of the universe and the formation of elements.

"NO!" --image editors

“NO!” –image editors

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